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Anne

 

 

Growing Pains

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 29; Johnny is 24.

Johnny lounged in the shade of the peach tree and watched the kid cutting an apron full of herbs for Maria. He caught her eye as she straightened and gave her a wink. His reward was a brief smile before she sighed heavily and took the requested chives, oregano and basil into the kitchen. He watched her pick her way daintily through the herb clumps, her rose-coloured skirt swaying with each precisely-placed step of her neat little laced-up boots. Johnny frowned thoughtfully. Her skirts were longer he noticed; reaching low on her shin. And, he realised now he thought about it, all her dresses had trim little nipped-in waists nowadays instead of that shapeless little girl smock style. When had that happened? Johnny was no connoisseur of girls' fashions but he knew enough to notice the change and realise it meant something.

It was hot. Johnny leaned his dark head back against the gnarled bark of the tree, unfastening another button on his blue shirt, his St. Christopher medal glinting in the muted light. He squinted through the leaves and thought about Jemimah.

It was only a few weeks to her birthday; incredible to think that the scrawny little tyke he'd collected from the stage that day was nearly fifteen now. Two years! Johnny quirked an eyebrow and grinned. Boy, she'd sure been a handful in those days! As ornery as any boy and twice as tricky. Her language at times had been enough to make even the roughest cowpoke blush and the schemes she came up with! He chuckled to himself to recall the many and varied tricks she'd played on them all... the firecrackers that set the widow's store alight; Scott's book that she glued together and, of course, his best pair of boots that she'd destroyed with silver polish; the girl she'd hoodwinked into crossing the skinny bridge that day (what was her name again?) only to end up wallowing in the pungent mud; the pat of butter she'd smuggled into the bath house in place of the soap; the skinny-dipping incident at the waterhole... Johnny frowned up into the leaves over his head, the sunlight dappling down onto him. He had never quite reconciled himself to that particular transgression.

Johnny swigged down the last of the lemonade from his glass and stretched luxuriantly, idly hooking his ankle over his knee. Thinking on Jemimah, he grinned. He'd had that kid over his knee a few times too. And he wasn't the only one! Johnny chuckled to himself. There were times that the ol' man had despaired, thinking she was never going to grow up.

But... it seemed the tide had turned. When was the last time anyone had to...? Johnny searched his memory and sniggered again. Oh yes... the leaving party for Helen Farmer. That was... Johnny wrinkled up his nose, trying to puzzle it out... last March which meant it was going on four months since Scott had taken the girl to task for spiking the punch and getting the ladies drunk. Johnny's leanly muscled torso shook gently as he laughed at the memory of Helen and Teresa capering about the great room and eventually subsiding in a most undignified heap of petticoats and frilly drawers. Jemimah had claimed the hilarious spectacle was worth the chastisement Scott had felt it his duty to dish out once all the guests had left. But, since then, she appeared to have settled down - no tricks or shenanigans, no broken rules. Teresa had remarked recently that it was nice to have another woman in the house and, while Johnny didn't think he could go that far, he had to acknowledge that the kid was acting more grown up and responsible these days.

He was sure that Cipriano was thankful for this too; Jemimah invariably dragged his youngest son, Enrique along with her on her forays into mischief and Cip claimed to have worn the youth out far more than any of his other six children - all thanks to her! Of course, Enrique had been working on the ranch ever since he turned fifteen; he had far less time to be persuaded to join in any nonsense with the girl.

Johnny straightened. She'd seemed kinda down of late. It was probably all due to missing her compadre; he hardly ever saw them together any more. He slowly rose to his feet and stretched once more, reaching his arms above his head and indulging in a satisfying groan. She was maybe a little lonely. He smiled softly. Poor kid ... he'd see if she'd finished her chores and ask her if she'd like to go out for a ride. It was a while since they'd gone off for the afternoon, just the two of them, and, if he was honest, he'd missed it. Today would be perfect; it was his turn for a Saturday off and he sure didn't have anything pressing to do.

Heading for the kitchen, Johnny's smile was wide with anticipation. He was pretty sure he could persuade Maria to pack up a little picnic for them too!

On entering the kitchen, Johnny grinned to see the little Mexican housekeeper bustling about as usual. She was pounding a slab of dough with great ferocity and did not notice her Juanito until his strong arms circled saucily around her waist and squeezed, lifting her off her feet. The woman yelped in surprise and turned, berating him instantly in Spanish and reaching for a handy wooden spoon. Johnny hopped nimbly out of the way so that the swipe she aimed at his firm rear-end missed by mere inches. Feigning disapproval, Maria wagged the spoon at 'her boy' and returned to the dough, her floury hands manipulating it expertly.

" Dónde está Jemimah, mamacita?" Johnny chuckled, snitching a fragment of green pepper from her collection of supper ingredients.

The little woman ran the back of her hand across her brow and smiled warmly at the young man before her. Ay ay ay, he was handsome as the devil and far too mischievous for his own good !  In reply, she smiled and inclined her head towards the door to the great room.

"Gracias," Johnny headed for the door, dropping a fond kiss to the little woman's still-ebony hair. "Pensé que me gustaría tener su caballo." (I think I might take her out for a ride.)

"Si, ha sido una niña muy buena!" (Yes, she has been a very good girl!) Maria nodded her approval but, just as Johnny passed behind her, she reached out and gave his behind a smart slap. The young man jumped and whirled around in amazement to see her sternly wagging finger and twinkling brown eyes. He grinned and dipped his head ruefully; he should know better than to try to get past Maria! Chuckling and now sporting a white floury handprint on his left buttock, he strolled into the great room.

His father was seated in the big leather chair at his desk and was poring over some ledgers. Instantly, Johnny reined back at the sight of the paperwork; he had no desire to become embroiled in any of that today. This was his first Saturday off in weeks and, though he may have nothing specific planned, the very idea of wasting such a beautiful day stuck inside with columns of tedious figures for company made his heart sink.

Quietly, so that he would not disturb the ol' man, Johnny changed direction, making for the front door. He had just about reached it when Murdoch's rich baritone rang out across the room.

"Can I help you, son?"

Johnny darted a nervous glance over his shoulder. No, no, no... there was no way he was getting stuck with any book work, not today! Murdoch was still bowed over the ledgers and did not look up. Even so, Johnny thought he could make out a slight smile hovering about his father's mouth. Backing steadily to the door, Johnny smiled.

"Nope. I'm fine, Murdoch," he waved away any thought he may have of detaining him. "I've got to... just got something... important..." Johnny knew he was waffling and reached back blindly for the handle to open the door and scoot - quick!

"If you're looking for Jemimah, I believe she went out to the corral."

"Thanks, Murdoch," Johnny grinned and groped for the door. He was almost free when, once more, his father called to him. Johnny slumped in the doorway. So near and yet so far ! A dejected expression on his face and all the spring gone from his step, he turned back. "Yeah?" he intoned stonily, knowing he was trapped.

Murdoch looked up at last. Taking in the defeated slouch of his son's body and the look of dread, it was all he could do not to grin. He removed his spectacles and thoughtfully rubbed his chin, wondering how long he could keep it up before his laughter got the better of him. At last, taking pity on his boy, he smiled knowingly. "Enjoy your day off, son."

Dark brows quirking up in surprise, Johnny grinned and ran quickly through the door. His ol' man could be tricky! Something else that had changed over the last two years... Murdoch was a damn good father, Johnny knew. And he'd never have suspected that the big Scot had such a sense of humour. Troublesome as she could surely be, Jemimah had brought out a softer, more playful side of him and Johnny was the first to admit she had brought the family together - if only in that they had to be united against all her shenanigans!

Grinning, the young man hopped down the front steps and, tapping out the rhythm on his silver conchos of the tune he now whistled merrily, he set off in search of the girl.

****

"So, when was the last letter you wrote to Pony?" Jemimah asked as she scuffed the straw into a thick pile with her boot.

"About three weeks ago," Enrique grinned. Thinking of 'his' Pony always brought a wide beam to his face. "I replied to her letter, told her about maybe having the chance to come over with Papa when he goes through Witness Tree on the way to Redemption next month. I can't wait to see her!" The youth wafted the blanket to unfold it properly and then laid it carefully on the straw that Jemimah had gathered into a thick heap. Patting it down so that it was smooth, he sprawled back and shifted across so that there was enough room for his amiga to join him.

"And you can impress her with your very skilful kissing!"

Enrique blushed and ginned. "You think she will be impressed?"

"I know it!" the girl nodded vehemently. "You have it just about right now; the right blend of firm, dry lips and strong but gentle embrace... just enough pressure of the mouth so that she'll know you mean it but not so hard that you'll frighten her off." She kneeled on the blanket beside him and hesitated.

"What is it?" he noticed her uncertainty. "What am I not doing right?"

"Oh, it's not that!" Jemimah hastened to reassure her friend. "You do it beautifully, Enrique! It's just..." Again, she paused, worrying her lower lip.

The boy sat up, concerned. "What? Tell me!" He swept a flustered hand across his brow, scuffing the thick black hair out of his brown eyes.

Jemimah winced, unsure how to broach her idea. It had taken some pretty clever persuasion to convince Enrique to practice kissing with her in the first place. But now that they had tried it a few times, she was content to know they would both be able to acquit themselves competently when the time came. That was... with a normal kiss. But what about the more... passionate stuff?

"It's just... what if Pony wants more?" Jemimah hinted.

Enrique's brows shot up. " More? What do you mean? Pony's not like that - she wouldn't..."

Jemimah rushed to calm him. "No, no, I didn't mean that!" she gabbled, a soothing hand on his arm. "What I mean is... we both know the type of kiss we've been practising is alright for the first time but... what about when it all gets a bit more... shall we say... 'steamy'?" She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and a wicked green glint lit her eyes.

Enrique swallowed. " Steamy?" he parroted.

Her nod was grave. "Yes. Steamy . You've seen Mateo and José kissing their girls; you know what else they do... with their tongues!" Jemimah could barely look at him, she was blushing furiously. A quick glance told her that he too was equally as embarrassed. Suddenly, she was angry with herself. Damn it! They needed to know this stuff and it wasn't going to be covered in school! When the time came for her to have her first lovers' kiss, she wanted to know she was going to thrill her man, not send him into fits of laughter at her childish innocence! With the particular man she had in mind, Jemimah knew her lack of experience could be her undoing; he was far more knowledgeable about such things and she had to get it right! "Look! We have to try this!" she firmed her backbone and lifted her chin with determination. "I want to get it right come the time and so do you with Pony!" Jemimah saw him open his mouth to argue and rushed on. "Enrique, I'm not suggesting that anything improper take place between you an' Pony but you gotta admit, if she wants a little more... adventure , wouldn't you like to know you can lead her so's she knows you... are a man of the world?"

Enrique seemed far from convinced. In truth, he had lingered alone after their last two practice sessions, unable to leave the barn until his 'excitement' had died down. This added intimacy, he feared, might just be his undoing!

"Come on," Jemimah spoke in a very business-like manner. "We'll try it with the tongues an' see how it goes."

With that, she lay back at his side and waited patiently until he took her in his arms as they had done before. Tentatively, he lowered his lips to hers and, as before, gave her a chaste kiss. Jemimah closed her eyes, imagining her mouth pressed against her dream man's lips. Within seconds, she had allowed her lips to part and the tip of her tongue flicked out to run across his. She felt him stiffen in her arms but, undeterred, tried again, this time with more pressure so that her little pink tongue probed his soft lips and tasted his warm mouth.

****

"Hey, Scott!" Johnny shaded his eyes with his arm held up against the bright glare of the sun. He squinted at his brother as he rode in on his sorrel. "Didn't expect you back yet."

"Mr Mercer was back from lunch early and his clerk had already prepared the papers. Got them signed and recorded so I headed back." Scott smiled, pleased to have finished his business in town sooner than he thought. "I didn't expect you to be here either, Johnny. I thought you'd have taken the opportunity to get off on that fancy horse of yours!"

Johnny smiled. "Well, I would've done," he shrugged. "Thought I'd take the kid out for a ride but I been lookin' for her since lunch; can't seem to track her down anywhere!"

Scott dismounted and started to lead his horse towards the barn, slapping his little brother on the shoulder as he passed. "Just let me settle Charlie and I'll help you find her," he offered.

Johnny beamed and followed Scott.

****

This was easy... and so much better ! Jemimah revelled in the sensation of Enrique's eager tongue, exploring her mouth. With her eyes shut tight, she could imagine she was lying there with...

Her stomach swooped, a strange fluttering sensation low down inside, and she broke away briefly. Enrique watched her. His pupils had dilated so that his eyes appeared to be two huge black pools. He searched her face then began to lower his lips to hers again. Feeling his warm breath on her mouth, Jemimah pressed a hand on his shoulder.

"What? What is it?" he whispered. "You want to stop?"

The girl shook her head. That wasn't what she had in mind at all. This was working; this was what they needed to know. In fact... Jemimah hesitated. Should she? She was fifteen... nearly. She was no prim, sheltered little miss and knew very well what happened between a man and his true love - why, she'd seen some of the younger cowboys with their girls on a Saturday night. She was well aware that Murdoch didn't know she'd seen them but she had! Hesitating only a second more, Jemimah made a decision.

"Don't worry. Everything's fine," she whispered back, efficiently unbuttoning the front of her blouse, releasing the bow which secured her camisole and taking hold of Enrique's hand.

As expected, the youth jerked back and tried to pull away. "What are you doing?"

Jemimah smiled soothingly and gripped the hand, guiding it carefully into the opening of her sprigged shirt. The boy was watching in horrified fascination, hesitant to follow her lead but utterly unable to pull away. When his warm palm touched the soft swell of her breast, he came to his senses and darted back, sitting up and glaring at her in shock.

"No, this is not right!" he hissed. "We... you... you're my friend - this is just practice you said!"

Jemimah sighed impatiently. "It is practice, dummy!"

Enrique shook his head. "I don't need to practice... that! I intend to court Pony; treat her like a lady!"

"Of course you're going to treat her like a lady," Jemimah soothed, gratified that he was having difficulty tearing his eyes away from the gap in her clothing despite his protestations. "But don't you at least want an idea of what to do once you're engaged... or married?" She tilted her head innocently. "I'm not suggesting we do anything more. Goodness me, no! But shouldn't you really know how to touch a girl so's she likes it and you don't hurt her?" She smiled and spread her hands eloquently as if to say that it was all common sense. "After all, we're not made of India rubber!"

When Jemimah lay back on the blanket and held out her hand to him, Enrique found himself joining her. He couldn't seem to prevent it; all his arguments and worries had gone clean out of his head! And when she once again placed his hand inside her camisole, Enrique found himself practising like the most diligent student in the state of California! Wild horses could not have dragged him away!

****

"Johnny, hold it!"

Scott held up a hand and stood, silent and still.

Both brothers listened carefully. There it was again! A rustling noise coming from the far end of the hay loft. Scott grinned.

"I think we found her," he mouthed, pointing upwards.

Johnny smiled widely and slapped Scott on the arm. "Hey, you reckon she's asleep? Maria said she'd been workin' hard at her chores all day," he whispered. He looked up at the loft above them. The faint rustling could still be heard. "I'll check. If she's sleepin' I guess I'll leave her a while longer. We can go ridin' tomorrow."

"Don't make a noise!" Scott admonished.

Johnny glanced back pityingly as he began to climb the ladder. He gestured to his boots which were mounting each rung silently. "No spurs!" he mouthed. Four, five, six... he ascended the wooden ladder as silent as a cat, not wishing to surprise the kid should he find her slumbering. However, as Johnny reached the top, he was the one to be surprised! His sapphire eyes grew wide with incredulous anger and his hands gripped the ladder tightly or he felt sure he would have stumbled off.

Jemimah was lying back on a blanket in the sweet hay, completely oblivious to his presence and that boy was... almost on top of her; one leg draped across hers so that they were almost joined at the hips. Her skirt had ridden up so that her slim be-stockinged legs were displayed up to the knee. The boy had his hand...   Dios! And as for that little devil ... she was kissing him like a... a two dollar whore on payday!

" Madre de Dios!" Johnny roared and leaped upon the boy, wrenching him up and grasping him by his shirt front. He shook him hard, moving all the time away from the girl who was now scrambling up and frantically reaching out to calm the furious man before her. "Poco carbon, qué crees que haces?" Johnny growled. (Little bastard, what do you think you're doing?)

Enrique was gasping, trying to find a foothold in the mound of straw but his feet hardly touched the ground. Johnny's eyes were wild; livid flames of blue fire. The boy was gabbling - a stream of Spanish apologies and excuses, hardly knowing what he was saying but sure that it would make no difference. He clutched feebly at the strong forearms that held him, ineffectually trying to pry the fingers from his shirt. He had never seen Johnny this angry. He was going to kill him, he knew it!

" Voy a azotarle, chico!" (I'm goin' to thrash you, boy!) Johnny bit out, lips pressed into a firm line, eyes filled with promise. Enrique gulped.

"What in god's name...?" Scott appeared at the top of the ladder just as Enrique made a desperate bid for freedom. Pushing back against Johnny, he managed to find some purchase with the tip of his boot and it was enough to unbalance his irate captor. Enrique twisted in mid-air as he fell unharmed to the hay pile below.

"You hold it right there, boy!" Johnny yelled, fixing the youth with a warning glare. "Don't even think about it!" Fuming, he turned to Jemimah who cowered back somewhat at his anger. "And as for you... cover yourself up!"

Jemimah flushed a brilliant red and hurriedly buttoned up her blouse. "It's not what you think!" she gasped.

"You don't want to know what I think!" Johnny retorted, his voice low.

Jemimah flinched at his obvious distaste and disapproval.

Scott was still on the ladder so Johnny swung himself off the edge of the hay loft, grabbing hold of the pulley rope with one hand, and dropping lightly to the straw beneath. Scott had taken in the whole scene. He let out a deep sigh and beckoned the girl to follow him down the ladder. Jemimah was momentarily tempted to argue but the warning in the tall man's eye persuaded her to obey.

Scott was just in time to step between his brother and the obviously frightened boy. "Alright, hold it!" he ground out, both hands held up to fend off Johnny's advance. "This isn't going to solve anything!"

"Solve? Solve what? You saw him, Scott... you saw what the little..." Johnny took a deep breath and tried to get himself under control. Hands curled into fists at his sides, he scowled at the trembling boy who lurked partially behind Scott's protective shoulder. "He was all over her!"

"No, he wasn't!"

Johnny whirled around to see Jemimah. She had paused halfway down the ladder and was now glaring accusingly down at him. Johnny felt his temper flare again. That little varmint! There was no way she was goin' to wriggle out of this one! He'd seen her plain as plain. Johnny swallowed, his throat feeling suddenly dry. He sure as hell wished he hadn't seen! He fixed her with a quelling glare and anger coursed through him when she defiantly lifted her chin and flung back an answering glare of her own! When he spoke, his voice was calmer but she heard the angry tremor. "You get down here. Right now."

Jemimah ignored his instruction, deliberately riling him, then descended the rest of the way as slowly as she dared in protest, her wary green eyes never leaving Johnny's face. She knew how mad he was but her own temper was bubbling close to the surface, making her reckless.

Scott, keen to diffuse the situation and prevent his brother from knocking the stuffing out of the boy, spoke sternly. "Johnny, take her back to the house." He saw him open his mouth to argue and continued quickly. "I'm going to talk to Enrique..."

" Talk to him?"

"Yes, talk to him," Scott reiterated. "I want to hear what he has to say for himself." Scott could see that Johnny was far from happy with his solution. He reached back and gripped the boy firmly by the arm. "Then I'm going to deliver him to his father; see what he has to say about all of this!"

Enrique bowed his head. He knew perfectly well what his father would say and it would not be pretty. However, even the anger and disapproval of his papa paled beside the fury of the man in front of him now.

Johnny ran a trembling hand through his hair, sweeping the black fronds out of his eyes. He blew out a sharp breath and seemed to study his boots. At length, he looked up and took in Scott's calm expression. Nodding, he turned to the girl and took her hand. "Alright, you talk to the boy; I'll talk to her!"

Jemimah squeaked then as he turned on his heel and yanked her after him, marching her out of the barn and across the yard. She had to trot to keep up, brushing at stray strands of straw which had stuck to her pink skirt and long pony tail. "We weren't doing anything!" she protested loudly. Johnny merely glanced at her disbelievingly. "We weren't; it's not what you think!" she repeated. They were nearly halfway across the yard now and Jemimah wanted to shout at him. He was showing her up - everyone within a hundred yards had stopped to stare with amusement at them. She could only imagine what they were thinking! She tried to pull back on Johnny's firm hand. "I didn't do anything wrong!"

"I got eyes, chica!" Johnny spoke at last but didn't slow down. "I know exactly what you were doin'!"

"No, you don't! You think you do but you don't!" Jemimah hauled back and dug her heels in, refusing to be dragged another step.

Johnny halted so suddenly that she almost landed on her rump. Looking down at her, he struggled to stay calm but he couldn't remember when he'd been so angry with her. It was more than that though; he somehow felt bereft, like he'd lost something he had treasured. The more he allowed himself to ponder on it, the more he realised he felt cheated, let down - she had let him down. He'd even go so far as to admit a sense of betrayal. Johnny couldn't begin to explain these feelings to himself and didn't care to delve too deeply into them. Right now, he would settle on being madder than hell with her. Once he'd deposited her in her room, maybe he'd think on it some more.

He grasped her hand again and turned back to the house, tugging her along in his wake.

Jemimah had taken as much as she was going to take! She was fed up of being treated like a child. They wouldn't dare to treat Teresa this way! Why, he wasn't even listening to her! The distant laughter of a couple of the hands made her face flame and, without thinking twice, she recklessly landed a sharp kick at Johnny's leg.

"Alright! That's it!" Johnny seethed, ducking down and swiftly upending her over his shoulder . If the little varmint wouldn't walk over to the house then he would carry her! The kid was squealing and cussing at him now. Johnny firmed his lips into a thin line and easily hoisted his wriggling bundle into place, a restraining arm clamped over her legs.

Hanging upside-down over his shoulder, Jemimah could not fail to notice the white floury handprint on Johnny's pert backside. Usually drawn to this portion of his anatomy for entirely different reasons, the mark put a notion into her mind and, somewhat foolishly given her predicament, she aimed a flat-handed smack at the target. She felt him jolt and suck in a sharp breath but he didn't stop. Gritting her teeth, Jemimah smacked again, on the other side this time. This second ineffectual slap was followed by a third, fourth, fifth...

The few hands who were around stopped to watch and cheer him on, shouting out their advice, but Johnny was in no mood for joking. All he really wanted to do was give the kid what for! However, he remembered in a final bid to hold on to his fraying temper, it was well over four months since he'd last warmed her britches for her and he had no intention of losing it now; he was going to keep his cool and explain to her what she had done wrong. Maybe she didn't understand; maybe, once he explained it, she would be sorry and realise her mistake and they would all carry on... calmly. And then he'd get a hold of that boy an' take a layer of hide off've him!

Johnny grunted at another sharp slap to his rear-end. Calm? Damn it... how was he meant to stay calm when she... He carted her into the house, straight up the stairs (two at a time) and into her room. Dropping her onto her bed like a sack of feed, he stood over her, hands planted firmly on his hips. He was about to start lecturing her when she rolled over to face him.

"Get out of here!" she yelled in fury.

Whoa! Hold it - where did she get off coming back all mad at him? She was in the wrong here and he was the one who'd just had his backside lambasted all the way across the yard! Johnny took a deep breath.

"You're not even trying to understand or listen or nothing!" the kid hurled at him. "I thought you were different but you're not! You're just like every other grown-up - always right! So... there's no point talkin' to you! GET OUT!" With that, Jemimah threw herself face-down on her quilt and proceeded to bawl stormily.

The young man was suddenly uncertain. She sure was crying! And he'd not done anything at all. He felt highly uncomfortable; this smacked of female stuff or, worse yet, teenaged stuff and Johnny was beginning to think talking to the girl was more a job for Maria... or Teresa... or even the ol' man! He moved over to the window, breathing deeply to calm himself down then, sighing with regret, he turned to look at her again. He hadn't meant to show his temper but, damn it, she needed to understand - she just couldn't behave that way... nice girls didn't behave that way. Jemimah could be a trial at times but he'd always thought she knew that and had some morals.

Johnny softened and wandered back over to her. He reached out a hand to gently stroke her long dark hair but Jemimah smacked him away without even raising her head. His shoulders slumped and, sighing, he again wrapped his arms around himself in the pose he usually adopted in moments of uncertainty, his fingers busily picking at the seams of his blue shirt

"Look, honey," he began gently. "How can I explain this to you?" He paused, searching for the right words to make her understand. "What you did... for a girl to do that... well, you just can't act that way." He smiled at the strident sniff which came from the bed. "Right or wrong, a man expects a girl to be... innocent... an' pure when they come to wed them."

"You're not married yet an' I know you're not innocent," came the muffled protest. "An' I bet you weren't innocent when you were my age either!"

The silence hung between them as Johnny worried over his response. He studied the ornate flowery pattern of the rug while he thought on it, chewing his lower lip. The kid was right, of course. If he thought back to the time when he was fifteen, Johnny could recall several occasions when an obliging rancher's daughter had coyly offered exactly what he had just witnessed Enrique enjoying in the hay loft. If he were honest, Johnny knew he had enjoyed a lot more besides and, other than taking steps to ensure no irate papa with a shotgun showed up unexpectedly, he had never had the remotest twinge of guilt about it. The girls had all been willing - some downright insistent! Somehow, knowing she had astutely guessed this irked him even more.

"We ain't talkin' about me!" he ground out, instantly disappointed in himself for the retort. Jemimah deserved better than that and he knew it.

He eased himself down on the bed at her side, feeling suddenly very tired and unsure of himself. If this was what it was like to be a papa, he was heartily glad the job belonged to Murdoch! He bit his lip and tried again. This time, when his gentle hand stroked the length of her ruffled hair, she did not rebuff him. He petted her soothingly, his fingers smoothing down the chocolate silkiness.

"Listen, miel, I know it don't seem fair," his voice was tender and, had she turned to see it, the smile had come back into his blue eyes. "But there ain't no way around it; a man wants to believe he is the first one to..." Johnny sought for the right word. "... caress his wife when he marries her. He wants to know that she's waited just for him and that he's the only one to have ever touched her heart enough for her to... allow him to touch her body. D'you see?"

Jemimah rolled slowly onto her side and gazed up at him with eyes like limpid green pools. Calmer now herself, she quipped back, "Well, I've got no chance then!"

Johnny sucked in a sharp breath. "You mean... you and Enrique... you've already...?"

Jemimah was aghast. "No! No, we haven't! Honest!" she cried and clutched for his hand. "I only meant that you've touched me plenty of times where only a husband is meant to touch his wife!" At Johnny's incredulous expression of shock, she patted her rear end to illustrate what she meant "You and Scott!"

Blessed relief washed over Johnny so that he felt almost giddy and was thankful he was sitting down. He dipped his head and smiled softly at her cheeky grin. "Spanking your rear-end don't count, kid." Suddenly serious again, he toyed with her slender fingers, so smooth and slight against his darker work-worn hand. "You have it in these little hands to grant a true gift to the man you choose to marry - the gift of your innocence and trust. To offer that to the man you choose is a... a great thing, honey; something he will be proud and honoured to receive." Johnny stroked her cheek with a gentle finger, his blue eyes warm. The breath caught in his throat as he looked into her emerald gaze, the long sooty-black lashes; she sure was growin' up pretty. "You're so very special," he whispered. "Don't toss a gift that precious away until you're sure it's to the right man."

In the quiet of the room, Johnny could hear the soft whinny of a horse down in the corral. The air was still but cooler here in the shadows and a gentle breeze whispered against the creamy lace of the curtains. Jemimah twined her slim fingers around his and sat up on the quilt, curling her legs beneath her in that double-jointed fashion unique to a female. He watched her face. She was biting her lip and he tensed, sensing she was about to tell him something important.

"Johnny," her voice was hushed so that he leaned closer, listening intently. "Enrique and I... we're not in love. He loves Pony. All we've been doing is practising so that, come the day he gets to be... with her an' I get to be with... my true love, we'll know what to do." Johnny stared at her. She was blushing a little but actually grinned up at him as she went on. "It all started off with just kissing but then... it seemed like a good idea to find out what felt good and what didn't, y'know - so's we'd know come the time?" The kid cocked her head jauntily on one side, watching him expectantly and waiting for his understanding and acceptance.

She would have a good long wait! Johnny clamped his teeth together so hard his jaw ached. A steely glint to his blue gaze, his eyes mirrored his displeasure. He heard her swallow hard and she shuffled a little.

"You mean to tell me that he don't even love you an' he's got his hand... in the cookie jar?" he growled out, his voice getting louder. "And does the young devil think Pony is going to allow that kind of thing?" Johnny sucked in a sharp breath, balling his hands into fists at the thought of that boy. He conveniently put aside any memories of his own youthful fumblings with all those young ladies and the times he had ridden away afterwards with hardly more than a backwards glance.

Jemimah rushed to explain. "But, don't you see, it was my idea to... to... take it further and Enrique didn't even really want to! But I made him see the sense in it an' I knew, once we started, he wouldn't be objectin'. I mean... what boy would?! It was just a bit of an experiment, y'see." She knew she had said the wrong thing the minute she looked at his face.

 Johnny gripped her upper arms and stared down at her, shocked and angry. "You wanted this?" he snapped. "It was your idea? And you're not in love with that boy?"

Johnny blinked in surprise when Jemimah snorted with derisive laughter, grimaced and shuddered.

" Shit! In love? With Enrique? Are you barmy? Of course I'm not in love with him; we're just friends!" she giggled . "Jesus, Johnny, use your loaf! I thought everybody knew that!" Jemimah gleaned immediately that she had made things worse when Johnny scuffed up his sleeves, rose from the bed and turned to face her with a wild glint in his eye.

He couldn't begin to express how far in the wrong she was; all he knew was that he was boiling mad that she had scared him like this - that, on top of the fact that she had clearly been behaving like some little trollop for weeks... and all with a boy she wasn't even mildly in love with! Well, he was glad of that at least (though why it made him happy he was not entirely sure... probably just that he reckoned she deserved better than some vaquero; yes, that was it!) but she wasn't going to get away with it! She was going to learn to be more ladylike and chaste in future... and that included curbing her language too. Hang it all... the four month drought was over!

Johnny turned to her and, quailing at the dark gleam in the look he shot at her, she began to scramble frantically over the bed. With a speed that was alarming, especially for Jemimah, he snagged hold of her ankle and hauled her back. In mad panic, she lashed out with a wild kick, landing him a solid thump in the thigh - close to his groin. Johnny stopped, momentarily shocked. Jemimah froze too, hand to her open mouth, equally shocked and squeaking, "Sorry, sorry!"

Now he was really determined. Enough was enough! Lifting and flipping her over his knee in a trice, Johnny set about sweeping her skirt and petticoats up over her back so that they were almost over her head. He scowled, brushing the hampering layers out of his way. Boy - there sure seemed to be a lot more frilly ruffled stuff than he remembered! When, at last, he had the satisfaction of arriving unhindered at the final layer, he blinked and paused in surprise... her drawers were shorter than before and trimmed with inches of lace. Above her black stocking tops was now exposed a glimpse of firm creamy thigh that, for a moment, had him mesmerised.

Jemimah twisted and strained to look back over her shoulder, wincing to see him firm his lips together and raise his arm. Following her beseeching look, he too glanced at his hand, blowing out a sharp breath. Jemimah hoped for a second that he had changed his mind. That hope dwindled rapidly, however, when he shook his head at her 'puppy dog' look.

"Uh-uh, that never works on me, kid!" Johnny frowned. She had known there was no chance really; he was madder than hell with her. There was a diamond brightness in his eyes that she had only seen on one other occasion.

"Johnny..." she began but he focused on the target area and brought the hand down in a hard smack, sternly delivering his lecture as he scorched her behind.

"You are a nice girl; a good girl, y'hear me?" he ground out. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't care very much ; you mean a hell of a lot to me - to all of us, and if this is what you need to make you start caring about yourself , then, honey, this is what you'll get!"

"I do care, I do... but... Johnny, I believe you!" she shrieked. "You don't have to do this to show me that you care! In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if you cared a little bit less ... yoww!"

This had not happened for weeks and weeks! Not with anyone. They had both almost come to the conclusion that it never would again. Jemimah had been in no trouble at all... not since that party in March and everyone had started to feel that she was more or less grown-up. The girl cringed and tried to wriggle forwards out of Johnny's grasp, scrabbling desperately at the rug with her fingertips. She kicked out and heard herself squeal. It was diabolical to find herself in this familiar position again, forcibly reminding her that he certainly didn't see her as anywhere near grown-up! Jemimah well remembered the feeling of being pressed over Johnny's knee and she didn't relish being back there one little bit - the feel of his rock-solid thighs beneath her, his left arm pinning her in place so effortlessly and that horrible right hand...

"Bastard! I'll tell Murdoch on you!" Jemimah yelled as his solid palm connected again and she squirmed madly to get free. She knew it was an empty threat and that Johnny knew it too. In desperation, she reached down to twist free some of the conchos on the lower leg of his pants. Hands trembling, she groped for his shin above his boot and grabbed a fist full of short dark hair, pulling it like mad.

Johnny yelped in surprise. "Damn it, kid! You just quit it before I unfasten your pants!" he instructed, hanging on to the lace-trimmed frills of her wiggling behind. "An' stop wrigglin! Hold still!"

"I'm not wearing pants!" Jemimah shrilled then gasped in shock. "You wouldn't dare!"

 Johnny swiped his hand across his moist brow before bringing it down on her squirming little rump. "Oh, wouldn't I? Boy, I thought you knew me better than that!"

Jemimah gasped, feeling as though she couldn't breathe. This was the polar opposite of what she had so recently imagined herself to be doing with her dearest Johnny. Dearest? Huh, he was trying to take the skin off her! "You better not, Johnny Lancer!" she warned. "You're not my father!!"

"Then you just simmer down an' behave yourself!" he instructed severely. "Hold still an' take your medicine! An' don't you be pullin' the hair off've a man's leg!"

 "Then don't you be whackin' a lady's derriere!"

 "It's 'cos I want you to be a lady that I am whackin' it!" Johnny argued back.

 Sadly for Jemimah, Johnny had never felt it more necessary to make his point. She was worth far more than he could possibly express and it was damn well time she realised it! Behaving like some little... well, he just wasn't having that! Firming his resolve, Johnny ceased lecturing and kept spanking, tuning out the howls and hanging on grimly to his wriggling little bundle.

 He had just landed a particularly wicked slap to that delicate region between bottom and thigh (the squeal she emitted almost made his ears pop) and, unable to stop herself, Jemimah jerked out a hand and, once more, grasped the short hair on his leg, tugging hard.

Johnny bellowed like a wounded bull and shot to his feet so violently that she was bucked off. The kid sprawled on the rug while he hopped about, rubbing at his shin but, almost at the same instant that she scrambled for the door, he seized her by the wrist and sat down, heaving her back into place again.

Thwarted in her bid for freedom, Jemimah almost sobbed with dismay. Instead, she vented her frustration. "Fuck you, Johnny Lancer!"

 "Right! That's it!"

 

The front door opened and Scott wandered wearily in, thumbing back his hat to mop at his brow with his bandana. A distant yell from the landing above gave him pause and, dropping his jacket on the stand, he leaned on the newel post to listen. He winced at a particularly ear-piercing shriek. Jemimah had never endured a hiding stoically but the protest she was making was emphatic, even for her! It sounded like his little brother was bound and determined to get his point across! Scott quirked an eloquent eyebrow and reached into the open neck of his white shirt with the bandana. It certainly was hot; he didn't envy Johnny his task and was hugely grateful to Cipriano for being so obliging and taking care of Enrique for him. It was fortunate the Segundo had still been at the homestead; he had been able to deliver the boy into his father's more than capable hands.

Footsteps made Scott turn his head. Murdoch was approaching along the corridor. He held a couple of ripe golden peaches in his hand and Scott guessed he had been out in the kitchen garden, sitting in the shade of the old tree there. Murdoch also stopped at the foot of the stairs, cocking his head on one side as he listened gravely.

"Damn it, kid!" Johnny's voice came from the room upstairs. "I told you, don't do that!"

Murdoch turned questioning blue eyes on his eldest who was torn between laughter at his brother's yelp and sympathy at the sound of his retribution. The girl would be lucky to sit down again before her birthday!

"Sounds like Johnny has it all... in hand , shall we say?" Scott smiled.

Murdoch, however, released a weary sigh. "He certainly sounds put-out. Is it something I should know about?"

Scott hesitated. Then, his hand on his father's shoulder, he suggested, "Why don't we go and sit down?"

Worried, Murdoch stiffened. "That bad, huh?"

Scott paused, considering. "Maybe we should pour a nice stiff drink too."

Wisely, Murdoch said no more. Allowing his son to steer him into the great room, he was thinking about the girl . It had been a pretty good dry spell - over four months. She had done well to last this long.

****

Jemimah shook her long loose hair from her face and twisted in front of the mirror. Her green eyes grew wide and she sucked in a painful breath as her right hand hesitantly traced a path across her burning skin. There was an almost complete handprint there... and the shape of his fingers there... and there...

"Ow, ow, ow," she gasped in a whisper. Jeez! It looked as bad as it felt! She pouted and gave a plaintive sniff. She knew she'd been out of line and that she'd pushed him; it was her own fault but, dang, she'd kind of figured that getting her tail end beat was something she'd grown out of.

Jemimah crossed the room and threw herself face-down on the bed. Burying her face in her arms, she wondered how Enrique was doing. She had a fairly good idea that he would be just as miserable as she was right now.

And Johnny? The girl sighed. She was beginning to think that he would never see her as anything but a little girl. He would never treat a grown woman like that. But then, she supposed, maybe he would if said grown woman tried to yank half the hair off his leg!

Jemimah indulged in a miniature tantrum, hurling her pillow across the room and kicking her bare feet repeatedly into the comforter. However, the jerky movements caused her behind such a spasm of hurt that she desisted instantly.

The sunlight still streamed in through the window, the gentle breeze wafting the curtains. It would be suppertime in a couple of hours but he had said she would stay up here in her room. Just as well really; there was no way she could sit at the dining table anyhow. Jemimah wondered who would come up with her tray. She worried her lower lip and prayed it would not be Murdoch.

****

A light tapping at her door awoke Jemimah from her doze. Still lying on her stomach, she raised her head and swallowed. This was it! But... it couldn't be Murdoch because she doubted he'd be calm enough to knock an' it wasn't Maria because she would bustle straight in, probably in the middle of a full-blown Spanish tirade! 

"Come in!"

Jemimah watched warily and sighed with relief when Teresa's head peeked around the door. The girl came in and deposited the supper tray on the dresser, bending to retrieve the pillow Jemimah had flung across the room. "How are you feeling, sweetie?" she asked, dark eyes filled with sympathy.

"Like I sat on the stove," Jemimah groused.

"You think if you used this, you could sit up to eat your dinner?" Teresa proffered the discarded pillow.

The younger girl wrinkled her nose in disbelief. Was she joking? "Teresa, can I ask you something?" she said. Teresa nodded. "Has Johnny ever had words with you?"

Teresa's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "No, of course not!" she exclaimed as though the idea were preposterous.

"I guessed as much when you asked me such a downright silly question!" Jemimah huffed.

"Is it really that bad?"

"See for yourself!" Jemimah winced. "My bum looks like Scott's back did that time he fell asleep in the sun at the picnic!"

Teresa winced. Scott's sunburn that day had been atrocious, his usually fair skin a brilliant red. Maria had spread a liberal coating of some cactus-based concoction all over him which had considerably eased the pain. She edged closer. "Really? What on earth did you do? Scott and Murdoch have been talking about you but every time I go in they go quiet." She gently lifted the hem of Jemimah's nightgown and peeked underneath.

Jemimah heard her soft whistling breath and huffily propped her chin on her arms. "I didn't do anythin'... really," she hedged.

Another tap at the open door made Jemimah lift her head in surprise and Teresa dropped the nightgown rapidly.

Standing on the shadowy landing, Johnny  was peering round the door. His mouth wasn't smiling but Jemimah could see his blue eyes were twinkling. She had the horrible feeling that he'd seen Teresa's hasty replacement of the nightie. Jemimah pouted. Oh, what did it matter now anyway? Why didn't she just sell tickets and hang her backside out of the window for the whole ranch to see!!

"Well, your supper's on the dresser when you're ready," Teresa smiled gently down at the younger girl and headed for the door. "Try to eat something, sweetie." She frowned up at Johnny who had stepped aside for her to exit the room. As she passed him, she clucked her tongue in disapproval and contrived to dig him in the ribs with her elbow. "Oops! Sorry, Johnny!"

Rubbing his middle and wincing, Johnny moved hesitantly into the room. Jemimah noticed he had bathed and changed for dinner; his hair was still damp and curling against the collar of his white shirt. She liked that shirt. It always made his hair seem darker and his eyes more blue. Remembering suddenly that she was mad at him, she buried her face in her arms and pretended he wasn't there.

Quietly, Johnny crouched by the foot of her bed so they would be eyeball to eyeball. "Jemimah." His voice was soft. "Jemimah, look at me."

She didn't lift her face. "What for?" her petulant voice was muffled. "You goin' to yell at me some more?"

Johnny sighed. "No, honey," he soothed, gently stroking the soft dark locks. "I said all I had to say an' I ain't mad at you anymore... am worried about you though."

"Don't be!" she huffed. "I'll live I s'pose. Won't be ridin' anytime soon though!"

It was clear from her sulky tone that her accusation was meant to make him feel guilty. Johnny smiled, scuffing his long fringe out of his eyes as he leaned over her. "Well, you brought that one on y'self. It wasn't your... bottom I was worryin' about!" He dipped his head and planted a gentle kiss on her hair.

Very slowly, Jemimah raised her head but kept her gaze fixed on the floral pattern of the quilt.

Johnny's eyes twinkled with warmth. She looked very forlorn. "You know I love you, don't you?" his quiet serious voice made her finally look at him.

"Do you?"

He chuckled. "Yep. 'Fraid so. Even when your nose is all red... an' your eyes are all red..."

"Huh!" she moped, dropping her chin onto her arms. "Just about all of me's red right now!"

He dipped his head again, suddenly very interested in the button on his shirt front. Jemimah swore he was blushing! "Yeah, I guess so," he muttered. "My leg's pretty sore too." Looking at her from under his fringe, he was smiling almost shyly.

Jemimah swallowed. "I'm sorry, Johnny." She raised herself up to rest on her elbows and waited. He was nodding, accepting her apology. The girl tilted her head on one side. "Aren't you goin' to say sorry to me too?"

"For what exactly?"

"For... whomping me!"

Johnny grinned. "Nope!"

"So... you're not sorry?"

He shook his head, amused at her expression of astonishment. "I'm sorry I had cause to do it but I ain't sorry I did. I'm like... a big brother; it's part of my job to set you right when you need it!" The words were out there - 'big brother' but, even to Johnny, they had a hollow ring to them. Now he thought on it, he didn't feel like her brother somehow. And he also knew he was sorry; he had lost his temper well and truly and that was something he had only done once before with Jemimah.

She rolled to sit up but gave a sharp hiss and thought better of it, flopping back down onto her belly. "Why don't you ever whomp Teresa then?" she scowled. "You're like her big brother too!"

It was Johnny's turn to be astounded. "Where'd you come up with that one?"

"It's just... you treat her like she's the same as you but she's lots younger, five years younger . You treat me like a baby - all of you do! S'about time you all saw that I'm more or less growed up!"

Johnny sighed and ran his fingers through his damp hair. Jemimah was annoyed with herself for thinking how handsome he looked. "There's a lot more to being grown up than just how many birthdays you've had, honey," he explained. "It's how you act, how you treat others..." his earnest blue gaze pinned her and he smiled to see her blush. "... an' how you treat yourself." Tears were brimming in her green eyes now, clinging precariously to her thick black lashes. Johnny felt his heart squeeze. "Teresa gets treated like a lady because she acts like one... most of the time," he said, catching one fat teardrop on the back of a gentle finger. "It's like I said - you won't get respect from anyone until you start respectin' yourself. I promised I wouldn't lecture you, an' I won't, but you can't expect any of us to stop thinkin' of you as a child... until you stop behavin' like one. It's all in your hands, chica."

The girl buried her face in her arms again and Johnny came to perch on the bed beside her. Hearing a sad little sob, he sighed and, lifting her very gently, he sat her on his lap... thoughtfully positioning her so that most of her weight was on her hip. His lips quirked into a soft smile. She was so small for her age; it made it all the easier to keep thinking of her as a little girl.

"We're here to help you; to guide you. You know that," he leaned his chin against the crown of her hair. "That's what a family does, ain't it? We'll love you when you're good an'..."

"An' skin me raw when I'm bad!" she sniffled.

The corners of Johnny's mouth lifted into a wide smile. The kid was something - she never took herself too seriously; could always find the funny side of a situation... even now when her backside had to be hurting like a sonofabitch! Johnny knew he'd really given her what for. But then... she'd asked for it! "You ain't the first, kid; we've all been there. Had me a coupla' step-fathers used to whomp me."

She looked at him in surprise. The great Johnny Madrid? "They did?"

"Sure... teach me some manners." Johnny laughed. "I was a downright ornery little cuss... went outta my way to rile 'em an' I didn't speak no English... kinda like you!" He chuckled at her face.

"I speak English," she argued. "An' I'm not an ornery cuss!"

They were squabbling and teasing each other when Scott's voice shouted from downstairs. It was suppertime. Johnny hefted her onto the bed and stood up, tucking in his shirt and smiling down at her. "I gotta go. If I'm late, Murdoch might send me to my room with a tray!" He grinned at her snigger and strolled to the door. There, he turned back, a thoughtful look on his face. "Kid, don't aim to be too much like Teresa, huh? I'd miss my little chica if she disappeared altogether."

Jemimah stared at the place where he had stood for quite some time after she had heard his boots walk along the landing and the familiar slithering sound of him sliding down the banister, the soft thump as he landed neatly in the hall.

"But I want to be more than your 'little chica', Johnny," she breathed.

****

Jemimah chomped steadily through a large mouthful of eggs, listening to the tromp of boots coming down the back stairs. As Scott and Johnny, still deep in conversation, headed across the kitchen, the girl niftily flounced her dress out across the chair, ensuring the cushion she sat upon was hidden from view. Smirking craftily to herself, she scooped up another helping of eggs and shovelled them in.

"Morning, Jemimah. Morning Maria," Scott smiled at the little housekeeper as she bustled busily around the table, depositing plates of bacon and eggs in front of both men.

Maria beamed but Jemimah merely threw a wary glance at her big brother and kept on chewing. Scott's eyes narrowed as he watched the girl suspiciously. She was up to something, that much was certain. He looked at Johnny who was smiling.

Head still down and eyes riveted to the food on her plate, Jemimah spoke. "Pass the butter please, Johnny."

Blue eyes twinkling, Johnny picked up the butter dish and held it out to the girl but, as she moved to take it, he grinned and kept it from her reach.

"Hey! What...?"

"Cushion," was all he replied but fixed her with a look.

Jemimah tried valiantly to feign ignorance and was even shrugging. However, when she looked into his eyes, she knew the game was up. Sighing, she raised up from her seat just enough to allow Johnny to swipe the cushion from under her. Once in possession of the forbidden item, he grinned and plonked the butter dish down at the side of her plate. Then, he tucked the cushion beneath his own firm behind and shuffled down on it.

"Where's Murdoch?" Johnny asked, grabbing a biscuit from the plate and reaching his knife across Jemimah for a helping of butter.

"Well, it was his weekly supper with Aggie last night and he said they were going over to the Rodgers' place," Scott smiled. "I daresay they made quite a night of it; you know how it is when old friends get together. Looks like Murdoch was invited to stay over."

Johnny raised his eyebrows suggestively. "At Aggie's? Hoo-whee," he chuckled. "I wish I could'a been a fly on the wall last night! Or do I?"

Scott glanced across at Jemimah and, though he smiled too, he cast a meaningful look in her direction. "Johnny, little pitchers have big ears."

Jemimah carried on primly buttering her biscuit without looking up. "If, by that comment, you mean me, then I know all about Murdoch's relationship with Aggie."

"Oh, you do, do you?" Scott enquired.

Jemimah crammed the biscuit into her mouth and grinned. "Yep."

"That's Mrs Conway to you... and, as to their relationship, she is an old friend of Murdoch's."

"Old friend!" Jemimah snorted sarcastically. "An' how come she's called Mrs Conway when she was married to that Mr Addison?"

"They was never actually married," Johnny said. "Buck Addison was shot dead just a month before the wedding. Couldn't have happened to a nicer fella." He added the last part softly under his breath but Scott frowned.

"Now, Johnny, he and Murdoch settled their differences."

"From what Teresa told me, Murdoch nearly flattened the crooked old..." Jemimah gleefully piped up but Scott's frown deepened disapprovingly.

"Eat your breakfast, my girl," he instructed firmly. "I think you ought to be more worried that Murdoch doesn't flatten you when he gets home."

Jemimah's cheeky grin slipped and she shifted uneasily on her chair. "Did he say that? Is he mad at me?"

"He means to have a talk with you, I believe," Scott confirmed.

Jemimah sighed and pushed away her plate. "I don't feel hungry anymore."

She rose from the table to take her plate to the sink where she pumped some water into the big kettle and set it to boil, all the while chewing her lip apprehensively.

Scott and Johnny grinned at each other and ploughed into their breakfasts.

****

It was mid-morning by the time Murdoch rode into the yard and passed over his big bay horse to Mateo who was waiting near the barn.

Jemimah was on her last chore of the day (sweeping the porch) and, at the sound of footsteps approaching, she looked up from her work. Immediately spotting the grim way her father was striding over, she flushed guiltily and concentrated hard on the small mound of dirt and twigs that she was shifting along with the broom. She knew without having to look that the big man was now standing behind her; the hair was standing up on the back of her neck and her ears were burning. Jemimah could usually come up with a disarming quip or could muster a sassy grin. However, the stern presence of Murdoch Lancer had her befuddled enough that her mind was blank and her stomach was flipping over uncomfortably.

"Jemimah."

She swallowed, ceased her ministrations with the broom and turned. "Yes Daddy?"

Employing her 'puppy dog' expression, she turned the full effect of her wide innocent green gaze on him and even batted her thick sooty-black eyelashes. Murdoch seemed totally unimpressed by this display and, gulping nervously, she dipped her head. Murdoch hoped his voice betrayed none of the amusement he felt.

"In my study please, young lady. I think you and I need to have a talk."

Jemimah walked ahead of him, her knees trembling. The study!

She had only been in there on two other occasions. She blanched. Neither visit had ended well and she quailed inwardly at the prospect of a repetition of those events. Murdoch generally used his big desk in the great room for day to day paperwork. He only ever used the study when he was battling with a particularly irksome business problem and required the extra quiet it afforded him or when he felt the need to deliver a darn good ear-blistering lecture... or...

Jemimah's butterflies had butterflies! She quickly raised her eyes to heaven and silently offered up a hasty prayer.

"Please God, help me talk my way out of this. Please! I promise I'll never kiss Enrique ever again!"

The study was quiet... too quiet. As Murdoch closed the solid door and strode past her to stand behind the huge polished oak desk, Jemimah swore she could hear her own heartbeat. He sat down and eyed her beadily. Even though there was a chair on her side of the desk, she wisely remained standing.

Murdoch brought the tips of his steepled fingers to lightly touch lips which were firmed into a disapproving line.

"So... what do you have to say for yourself?"

Jemimah remained silent.

"Come on, I've heard all about it from Scott and Johnny, young lady. Now suppose you explain to me why you were... found in the hayloft and why you were kissing a boy that you proclaim to be 'just a friend'." He chewed on his lower lip, his anger mounting as she said nothing. "Well? You must have something to say."

"Can I ask something?"

"Of course."

"Are you going to..." Jemimah's voice faltered. "It's just, if you've already made up your mind to wallop me then it hardly seems to make any difference what my reasons are, does it?" Jemimah recognised the vein starting to pulse at Murdoch's temple and hurried on. "I'm not meaning to be cheeky but, well... if you're going to keep treating me like a child then we may as well get it over with. But if, as everyone keeps sayin', I'll get treated like a grown-up when I behave like a grown-up, then I'll try to explain to you... if'n you're willing to listen?"

Murdoch raised his chin off his fingers and gave her an appraising look. "Alright. I'm listening."

"And does that mean I'm not going to get walloped?"

"As to that, young lady... I'll reserve judgement until I've heard what you have to say. Fair?"

Hmm. It was the best she was going to get it seemed . "Alright."

He gestured to the chair, inviting her to sit down and gamely hiding his amusement at her stifled hiss as she did so.

"Murdoch, I've learned many things since I started school, both here and back in England. I can read, write, add and subtract, I know quite a lot of history, both European and American. I can speak a little Spanish. Johnny taught me to ride quite well and Scott's passed on some of the finer points of literature. My grandma taught me to knit and now Teresa and Maria are teaching me to cook and sew and keep house. In short, apart from learning to shoot a gun (at her father's impatient frown, she hurried on) ... an' I know you said not 'til I'm sixteen an' only rifles, I know just about everything I'll ever need to know to equip me for my life as a rancher's wife... sorta like Mrs Conway, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes, I..."

"WRONG!" Murdoch's brows shot up as she slammed her little hand down on the surface of the desk. "I know nothing about love between a man and a woman. I mean how to love a man! Oh yes, I've read about love. Shakespeare goes on and on about it. Keats an' Shelley an' Wordsworth... they all bleat on about it and I can quote you great massive chunks of it. All of the romantic, lovey-dovey stuff; the hearts an' flowers bullsh... er... nonsense. But... I don't know how to love a man; what he wants when I'm in his arms; how to... please him and keep him an'... make him love me too. I've no idea what a man likes an' what he'll expect me to ... do!"

Her little speech had been delivered with an honest vehemence that, Murdoch realised, was no act.

"That's what I was doing in the hayloft, Murdoch. I need to know so he ... won't laugh at me an' think I'm stupid an' worthless. No-one's goin' to teach me that stuff an' I haven't had a mother to tell me anything at all; I had to find out for myself."

Her head dipped and she fiddled with the ribbon threaded around the top of her pocket. For some reason, she felt close to tears and it wasn't because she was afraid he might punish her; she dreaded him thinking her foolish and, at that moment, that would have been a thousand times more mortifying than any licking.

Murdoch leaned forwards and folded his beefy arms across the polished oak surface. His eyes softened and, when he spoke, his voice was gentle.

"Jemimah, there is a vast world of difference between love and... sex."

The girl's head jerked up and she stared incredulously at him, hardly able to credit that he had just said that word.

"What you and Enrique were doing... that was sex!"

"We never!" She was outraged that he could think it.

Murdoch shook his head, holding up a hand to forestall her indignant protests. "No... I know what you're going to say; it was just a kiss and..." He cleared his throat. "But acts of such an intimate nature with someone you don't love..."

She scowled and narrowed her green eyes defiantly at him. "You're tryin' to say I acted like a tart!"

"No, that is not what I'm trying to say at all." Murdoch's denial was emphatic.

"It's what you're thinking though!"

"Jemimah! Hold your tongue and just listen to me." When she had subsided into a surly silence, he began again. "Kissing and... embracing the man you love - that is what all the poets write about. When the time comes, lovemaking with the man who has captured your heart will be an experience worth waiting for."

Murdoch watched as her sullen little face softened and her expression became... hopeful.

"Don't you see, darling," he went on gently. "Having relations with a man you don't love robs the moment of all meaning; of any true feeling, any real beauty. And, believe me, no man is going to find a woman's innocence and purity something to laugh at - not if he truly loves her. Worthless? No-one could possibly think that. It's a gift beyond words that you can only bestow once. It's up to you to ensure you entrust it to the right man."

She sat quietly for a moment. "That's what Johnny said too."

Murdoch sat back in his soft leather chair and smiled. "Johnny can be very wise. He was right. Was that before or after you... injured his leg?"

The girl worried her lip and tried to shrink down into her seat. "Before."

Murdoch successfully hid a smirk, producing a suitably disapproving grunt.

"An' I said I was sorry for that!" she piped up.

"I should hope so. Now, we still haven't discussed Enrique..."

"I don't love him!" Jemimah stated.

"I think we've established that. And that is why you will be staying away from him for a while... unless someone else, an adult, is present." Murdoch watched her face fall but was stern. "You may have no regard for your reputation, young lady but, as your father, I assure you I do!"

"But... we're friends," she argued.

Murdoch sat up and she was at once impressed by the man's sheer size as he glowered down at her. "Cipriano and I believe the pair of you need to be supervised until we are satisfied that you can behave appropriately, as friends , and not sneak off to go kissing like..."

Jemimah interrupted, "Can I ask something else, Daddy?"

Taking a deep cleansing breath and endeavouring to remain calm, Murdoch nodded.

"Is Mrs Conway your friend?"

At the mention of Aggie, Murdoch looked sharply at the child but her face was a picture of innocence. "She is one of my oldest friends, yes," he responded warily, uneasy with the direction the conversation had just taken.

Jemimah nodded sagely. "Yes, that's what Scott said." She paused as though deep in thought and Murdoch watched the wheels turning over in her mind. "Have you ever kissed her?"

Immediately, he felt his face colour up and, decidedly uncomfortable, he gasped, grappling with what he should say. He had no intention of admitting the truth! "We are not talking about me!" he rumbled.

He was not at all happy with the smirk that had suddenly appeared on her mutinous little face.

"An' that's what Johnny said when I bet him he wasn't still innocent at my age! That's what all adults say when they don't want to admit you're right but they know you got 'em over a barrel!"

No wonder Johnny had whomped the child! Murdoch was beginning to think he should have started this whole interview with a sound spanking of his own. "Jemimah!"

The girl began to realise she may have pushed him unwisely. "I'm not meaning to sass you, Daddy!" she deliberately used the endearment to soothe him. "Honest I'm not! I just don't understand why I'm supposed to follow all these endless rules an' I get into strife when I don't yet everyone else doesn't have to stick to 'em at all! It don't seem very fair an' equitable to me. Does it to you?"

Murdoch clamped his lips together and rose abruptly from his chair, turning away to look out of the window at the yard. Scott and Johnny were just riding in and sliding down from their horses. Murdoch thrust his hands into his trouser pockets, his exasperation morphing into amusement. At length, he turned to her, gratified to see that she held his gaze bravely.

"Y'know, I'm beginning to think you are growing up after all. You sure can argue the hind leg off a mule and if that isn't the mark of a woman, I don't know what is!"

Jemimah grinned and was greatly relieved to see him grin back at her.

"Alright," he inclined his head towards the door. "Go on with you."

Jemimah leaped up, keen to escape before he changed his mind.

"But... you mind me now - no more shenanigans in the hayloft or anywhere else. You think on what I've said and remember this..." His huge hand on her shoulder, Murdoch turned her so that she faced away from him and gave her behind a monumental whack as he steered her towards the door. "... that will seem like a mere pat at the side of what you'll get if I catch you disobeying me on this. Understand? Grown-up or not, what Johnny did will be nothing compared to the licking I will give you!"

As they reached the door, Murdoch gazed down into her face, his big hand soft again as it stroked her dark shining hair. He opened the door and ushered her out into the hall where, furiously rubbing her seat and grimacing, she was just in time to bump into Scott and Johnny as they came in through the front door.

At Johnny's pointed grin, she stopped rubbing and scowled, flouncing off towards the kitchen with her nose in the air and an annoying blush staining her cheeks.

Scott stepped forwards and held up a bundle of letters. "Hey Murdoch, we picked up the mail while we were in town." He passed them to his father and gave him a look of concern, his hand resting on the big man's arm. "You alright?"

Murdoch was already scanning the envelopes with interest. "Hmm? What?" He realised Scott was asking about his 'talk' with the girl and smiled reassuringly. "Oh... yes, just discussing things with Jemimah."

Johnny joined them, draping an arm around his brother's shoulders and grinning as he thumbed back his hat. "How's your leg?"

Murdoch looked puzzled. "My leg?"

"Yeah, you just had a talk with the kid, right?" he removed his hat and tapped Murdoch playfully in the stomach with it. "She didn't try to rip the hair off'a your leg too, did she?"

Murdoch chuckled, finally getting the joke. "No, Johnny. Actually we had a very calm and adult conversation." Both brothers raised their eyebrows in comic surprise. "In fact, I think I understand her a little better now and, of course, I gave her a few of my own insights."

Johnny sniggered. "Yeah, I saw her rubbing away your insights just now!" Scott and Murdoch joined in his laughter. "'Scuse me fellas, I think I smell Maria's churros!" And, with that, Johnny made a bee-line for the kitchen.

"Anything interesting?" Scott asked, indicating the wad of letters.

"Oh, I don't know yet," Murdoch replied. "Think I'll just go and sift through them. Er... save me some of those churros, will you Scott? That's if Johnny hasn't already worked his way through them," he called after his eldest as he watched the young man follow Johnny towards the kitchen.

****

Scott was valiantly attempting to wrest the fourth churro from Johnny's sugary fingers when Murdoch, his expression grim, appeared at the kitchen door and beckoned them. He gripped a letter in his hand.

"Boys," he ground out. "I'd like a word with you." He did not wait for their response but strode back towards the great room, letting the door swing closed behind him.

Scott and Johnny glanced at each other questioningly. Scott hastily wiped the sugar from his fingers with a dishcloth while Johnny smeared his own sticky hands down the legs of his pants, licking the residue away as though unwilling to waste it. Both young men headed immediately for the door, leaving Maria and Jemimah staring curiously after them. As he passed, Johnny dabbed a finger on the end of the kid's pert little nose, grinning at the white powdery mark he left there.

"What do you suppose that's about, eh?" Jemimah addressed no-one in particular. She scurried over to the door, pressing her ear to the wooden surface. However, before she had the chance to begin eavesdropping, Maria's deft fingers pinched the exposed ear and, protesting loudly, she was led away and firmly positioned at the sink in front of a pile of dirty breakfast dishes.

****

As they entered the great room, they found their father standing by the huge window and staring out at the land beyond the hacienda. His back, ram-rod straight, was rigid with a smouldering fury and they both racked their brains, trying to remember anything they may have done to land them in his bad books. Both felt an unaccountable guilt and unease.

Murdoch turned at last and thrust the document he still held out to them. Whatever it contained was clearly the source of his ire and Scott took it. Johnny leaned at his side so that they could both read it together, their curiosity piqued. As the minutes ticked by, the big Scot had once again returned to his solitary vigil by the window and the only sound in the room was the sonorous ticking of the old grandfather clock.

At last, both boys looked up aghast.

"Can they do this?" Johnny was incredulous.

Murdoch finally turned around, his face bleak. "It's done! You've read it."

"Well, yeah Murdoch but..."

"Then you know as well as I do what this means," his father interrupted. "To us... to Lancer. We depend on that water; it feeds the entire northern section. Without it, we may as well forget about raising cattle and... start growing daisies!" He angrily smacked his hand onto the polished top of the desk and, in his agitation, strode across to the French windows.

"Daisies?!" Johnny took a few tentative steps towards his father.

"Alright," Scott attempted to return the discussion to some level of common sense. "So what can we do? Who is this..." He scanned the document again. "... Mrs McElvenney anyway? Have you ever heard of her?"

"McElvenney?" Johnny wrinkled up his nose at the unfamiliar name.

Murdoch wearily trudged back across the room to them, swiping a hand through his silver hair. "No, I don't know her but that deed looks authentic so it's pretty well cut and dried - she owns Mannock Ridge and has the water rights. If she chooses to fence off her land and dam it up then our streams will be dry within the week and she has the law on her side. I only wish I knew why she was doing this."

Johnny again leaned in close to his brother to read the paper and Scott, watching the worry etched on his father's face, let him take it.

"You think she's deliberately creating trouble for us?" he asked. "This is... some kind of plan to force us off our land?"

"What else could it be?" Murdoch growled. "It wouldn't be the first time, you know that."

"Well, this woman sounds Scottish to me," Johnny moved to stand by Scott, a half-smile on his face. "You should be able to talk her language." Faced with blank stares from both Murdoch and Scott, Johnny explained further. "I mean, you should go see her; try to straighten this out. Maybe all it needs is a little sweet-talking from the old country?" Johnny's smile slipped a little when his idea failed to produce any enthusiasm. "What harm can it do?"

Silence ensued while Murdoch scowled down at his youngest. Then, giving his son a single pat to the shoulder, he nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, you're right, Johnny. I will pay a call on Mrs McElvenney (he pronounced it Maccle-venney)."

Johnny frowned and again pored over the letter. "Maccle...? It says here..."

"Trust me, John," Murdoch smiled for the first time. "It's pronounced that way." He turned and marched quickly over to the stand in the hallway, strapping on his gun belt and collecting his hat. "I'm going to ride up there right now."

"Now, Murdoch?" Scott had followed. "You'll be hard-pressed to make it back before supper."

"Yes, now ," Murdoch repeated firmly. "And, in the meantime, I want you two boys to go into town to see Henry Mercer. Ask him to look into getting an injunction. Mrs McElvenney may own the water but we need the right to access it if we're to stay alive here. If she's prepared to be neighbourly there's no reason she could be resistant to that! If not... well, then she's going to have a fight on her hands!" Murdoch regarded his sons for a moment then turned to the door. "Wish me luck!"

****

"So... is this like Buck Addison all over again?"

Jemimah's green eyes narrowed fiercely and she attacked the meat on her plate as though it were Mrs McElvenney herself. Murdoch was not yet returned and, of course, the conversation at the kitchen table where they sat for supper had revolved entirely around the problem.

"I sure hope not," Teresa sighed. "Although, Murdoch did manage to turn that all around so..."

"Murdoch didn't sort it; Aggie did!" Jemimah turned on Teresa scornfully. "Even I know that an' I weren't even here then!" She shovelled in a mouthful of beef dumpling and washed it down with a gulp of milk from her glass. "It was Aggie who laid the law down to ol' Buck an' he had ter do what she said if he expected to get any..."

Scott hastily cleared his throat as Johnny grinned and wiped his mouth with his napkin to stifle a chuckle.

" Mrs Conway did indeed have a lot to do with helping Mr Addison to see the light," Scott pointedly corrected the girl. "It's a great pity that Murdoch doesn't have her sway in this situation. I hope Mrs McElvenney turns out to be reasonable."

"Only room for one bear to a mountain," Johnny mused. "Buck Addison learned that the hard way. Folks don't take kindly to bein' pushed around. Murdoch's no different. If he can't bring this woman round to his way of thinkin'... well, I reckon she'll find she's picked on the wrong bear!"

"And he'll bite her in the arse!" Jemimah hooted.

Teresa immediately scolded the child for her outrageous speech while Johnny laughed out loud and even Scott had difficulty keeping a straight face. When at last they calmed and the meal resumed, Jemimah's expression became subdued. Johnny, noticing her, gave her a friendly little nudge.

"What's worrying ya', honey?"

Jemimah picked at her dinner. "What if... what if there's nothing he can do? What if he loses the fight?" She lifted her little face and gazed plaintively up at them all. "Will we have to leave Lancer?"

Johnny glanced across the table at Scott then put his arm around the child, snuggling her to his side. "Now, don't you fret none," he said softly. "Another thing ol' Buck once said was that Murdoch was a good loser." He smiled down into her anxious eyes. "But you know an' I know he was way wrong there. Murdoch Lancer is no kind of loser at all. He'll handle this an' we'll all help."

When Johnny eased back and they all carried on eating, Jemimah was thoughtful. They would all help, eh? What could she do to play her part?

****

The clock struck nine and Scott stared pointedly at Jemimah who was doing her best to avoid his eye.

"Jemimah," he pressed. "I said nine o' clock, no later. Bed!"

The girl looked pained. "Aww, come on, Scott! I wanted to wait an' see what Murdoch has to say." She had been sitting on the floor between Johnny's knees, her back resting against the sofa. Johnny had been idly fiddling with the long strands of silky hair; braiding and un-braiding them in one of their frequent nightly rituals and, in truth, she had found herself nodding off a couple of times but she so wanted to stay and be part of the adults' conversation. It was tiresome to be packed off to bed when everyone else got to hear his news.

"No, I said nine and that's what I meant," Scott was adamant. "I'll carry you upstairs myself if need be - I've done it before!"

Jemimah rose haughtily and, nose in the air, crossed to the hall. "There will be no need for that, Scott Lancer," she huffed primly. "I am perfectly capable of making my own way up the stairs, thank you. You're clearly labouring under the misapprehension that I am still a child!"

Johnny sniggered and Scott had the grace to smile. "My apologies, Jemimah. I was indeed think..."

"Oh, please! Just ten more minutes? Go on, pleeeease!" Jemimah begged, back to her usual self.

"Bed, my girl!" Though grinning now, Scott pointed a stern finger at the doorway and, slumping in defeat, she trudged moodily away.

Still chuckling, Johnny rose to pour a drink for them all. Even Teresa accepted a small glass of sherry. Johnny was about to replace the stopper in the Stuart crystal decanter when a noise in the hall made them all look up.

The door opened and Murdoch stepped wearily in from the dusk. He removed his hat and nodded once at Johnny's gesture to the whisky. All three were silent, waiting for him to settle in his armchair and take the first sip of the smoky liquor.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Murdoch," Teresa said and rose hastily from her chair. "You must be starving. I kept some supper for you. I can warm it up in no time."

"No, darling. Thank you but I already ate. I stopped by Will Rodgers' place and they invited me to stay to dinner."

Teresa sank into her chair once more and, again, three pairs of eyes studied the big man.

"Well, I expect you're all champing at the bit to know what happened?"

Johnny leaned forward, his tanned forearms resting on his knees. He smiled hesitantly. "Well, Murdoch, we're kinda hopin' you worked the famous Lancer charm on the lady."

" Lady?" Murdoch rose to his feet and knocked back the rest of his whisky. Crossing angrily to the sideboard, he helped himself to another generous measure. "There are many terms I might use to describe Gertrude McElvenney but lady , I assure you, is not among them!"

Scott leaned on the mantelpiece and distractedly straightened the candlestick on the right. "I take it that negotiations didn't go too well?"

"You could say that," Murdoch wryly arched a bushy eyebrow.

"And Mrs McElvenney's objections?"

"Her objections," Murdoch strutted back to his chair. "were against having a man set foot on her property! It seems the woman has an unnatural mistrust for the male of our species."

"And the water?" Johnny asked.

"We never got as far as discussing the water!" Murdoch growled. "That irrational, pig-headed... I didn't even get down from the saddle. Mrs McElvenney informed me, her shotgun pointed at my head I might add, that my unwelcome presence was not desired at Mannock Ridge and I could just 'remove my carcass' forthwith! Only she wasn't anywhere near as polite as that." He took another sip of his drink, his eyes smouldering. " Lady she is not!"

Teresa blushed and fidgeted with her glass.

Scott came to sit beside his brother on the sofa. "So you never even discussed...?"

"Discuss?" Murdoch exclaimed. "I'd like to meet the person who could ever get that cantankerous old... to discuss something as banal as the weather , let alone the subject of water rights crucial to maintaining a herd the size of ours. Suffice to say, I left before she could fill my hide with buckshot. No, this will be a legal battle but Gertrude McElvenney can get ready. I'm not giving up everything we've built here for some bitter old harridan fresh off the boat from Aberdeen!"

"Aberdeen?" Teresa enquired. "If you didn't talk, how do you know...?"

"Amy Rodgers called on their new neighbour with a small welcome basket." They all smirked knowing full well that Mrs Rodgers' motive was not welcome but the chance to wheedle some information from the new face with which to regale the ladies of the sewing circle. Amy was a notorious gossip. "And, while she wasn't exactly greeted with a shotgun - that must be reserved for the men folk - she was given a very curt reception and only learned a little of the newcomer."

"That ain't like Miz Rodgers," Johnny smirked, glancing up at his father through his eyelashes. "She's been known to jaw the day away."

"Sounds like Mrs Mac isn't what you would call the 'neighbourly' type," Scott smiled.

"That is putting it mildly." Murdoch sighed heavily and leaned back against the cushion in his armchair.

"So... does that mean we'll have to leave?"

Everyone turned sharply at the little voice from the hallway. Jemimah stood, in her long white nightgown, peeking timidly around the door jamb. Scott instantly was on his feet, his hands on his hips and a stern frown directed at the girl.

"I thought I told you..."

But his father turned and, holding out his hand to her, beckoned her into the room. When she padded across the carpet to him, her bare feet making no sound, he gathered her to him. "Leave? That'll be the day! No, sweetheart, this is our land, our home and we fight for what is ours." Murdoch hugged her to his side as she perched on the arm of his chair. After gazing fondly up at the girl, he turned and addressed the whole family. "We'll do this legally. No-one is going to force us off our own land. There must be a way and, by god, we'll find it!"

He held up his glass in a silent toast and the others raised theirs in reply.

"Now, Teresa, how about some hot coffee?" Murdoch smiled. "And I think, just this once, we can allow this little one a small cup?"

Jemimah grinned and allowed Johnny to reach out and pull her onto his knee in a playful bear-hug.

"I did discover one thing about this woman though," Murdoch said. "She has some of the finest horseflesh in her corral that I've ever laid eyes on. She obviously prefers horses to men!"

Johnny stopped tussling with Jemimah and listened. While the conversation continued around her, Jemimah sipped thoughtfully at her half-cup of coffee, a vague idea forming. Johnny had said they should all help and she felt duty-bound to do her bit!

****

Johnny watched Jemimah out of the corner of his eye. He thoughtfully chewed on long strand of dry grass, his deep blue eyes following her every movement from under the brim of his hat. A little smile curved the corners of his mouth and he absently scratched at his ear lobe.

Something was up. The kid was being way too obedient and eager to please. She had already done all her usual chores and was now hanging out the laundry for Teresa. Johnny watched her stretching on her tiptoes, reaching up to the line to peg out a snowy white pillow sham. He couldn't stop the grin which lit his face. She was still such an itty-bitty little thing; the crown of her head only came up to his collar and she was slender as a reed. Johnny's head tilted to one side as he considered the girl who was now bending to pick the next item out of the laundry basket. In her faded boys' jeans, she looked far from feminine but there was no denying there was a real womanly curve to her hips. More often than not, she would still rather be found wearing jeans or overalls than dresses but there was no way he could now mistake her for a boy as he had at their first meeting

Johnny smirked and picked at a non-existent fleck of lint on his red shirt front. She might still be a kid but he'd have to be blind not to have noticed that she'd filled out a lot. That was for sure! He blushed to recall how he had noticed exactly that while she was wriggling around across his knee and, not for the first time, he berated himself for losing his temper and spanking her. He was now wishing he hadn't gone that far, after all, she was right about one thing - he wasn't her papa and he surely didn't want to be! What's more - she was no longer the little kid whose rear-end he'd whacked from time to time when she misbehaved; he hadn't really noticed it before but he had realised with alarm that he was grappling with a young woman and he couldn't help but feel downright discomfited at the memory. Johnny straightened and eased his collar away from the back of his neck. Boy, it sure was going to be a hot one today!

He watched Jemimah flick her long pony tail over her shoulder and bend again to retrieve the now empty basket.

"Scott!" Johnny was suddenly feeling more than a mite irritated at having to stand about waiting for his brother. "What's keepin' you? Come on!"

Scott duly arrived, hurriedly buckling on his gun belt as they stood together on the sunny porch. "Alright, alright, I'm here! What's your hurry? Mercer won't be there yet and he'll have to rouse Mr Dobbs if we want that injunction counter-signed today." Scott followed Johnny's eye-line and grinned. "Why didn't you help Jemimah while you were waiting... or was it more entertaining to watch her jumping up to reach the line?"

Scott had meant to make his brother smile but somehow the remark rubbed Johnny up the wrong way. "She didn't need no help. Besides, I only just noticed she was there. Come on, let's get goin'! If I stand here much longer I'm gonna grow roots!"

He strode off to the hitching post where Barranca and Charlie waited patiently. Scott glanced again at the young girl as she disappeared around the corner then he studied Johnny. He bit back a smile and, putting on his hat, strolled over to his horse.

****

Jemimah bit her lip and fumbled to tighten the girth of her saddle. What was the old saying? Less haste, more speed? She had watched Scott and Johnny head out to Green River and knew that Jelly was chatting with his pigs and Teresa and Maria were busy in the kitchen roasting a huge ham for supper. The last she had seen of Murdoch he was in the great room, poring over an enormous map and scribbling notes on a jotter.

It was a good three hour ride up to Mannock Ridge. There was an old empty cabin not far from the bridge where she knew she would turn to go up to the north line shack. This cabin, she knew, was where the lady was staying. She shivered a little despite the oppressive heat of the day. The last time she had been up there she had fallen off the cliff and broken her arm. She still could vividly recall the drama and worry of that day and knew full well that Murdoch would not like her riding out that far without his say-so. Which was exactly why she would not be bothering him. Jemimah was certain he would be far from pleased to discover she had gone up there to see the Scottish lady but the rule was that she should never leave the homestead without letting someone know where she had gone; there was no actual definite rule about obtaining permission to go in the first place.

Ollie, Jemimah's faithful mongrel, trotted perkily by her feet, constantly in danger of being stepped on. As she hopped up into the saddle, she spied Arnie, one of the hands, lugging a hay bale towards the barn. She manoeuvred Amiga craftily around the side of the building where she would be hidden from the great room windows and hailed Arnie. He straightened and squinted across at her, swiping the back of his hand across his sweaty face.

"Hey, Arnie," she grinned at him. "I'm going to take a ride out towards the north line shack; give Amiga some exercise."

"That's quite a ways, Miss Jemimah," Arnie drawled. "You alright to go alone?"

Jemimah pointed towards the dog which pranced eagerly by her side. "Not alone, Ollie's goin' too an' I'm meetin' Scott an' Johnny on the way. They've already set off." Jemimah prayed that Arnie did not notice that she had crossed her fingers. "I didn't want to disturb Murdoch - he's busy so if anyone asks just tell 'em I've headed out, will you?" She fervently hoped her smile was convincing and that nobody did ask where she was, not for a while anyway. And maybe, by the time she returned for supper, she would have some good news to impart.

Arnie must have swallowed her story because he simply waved and shouted that he'd see her later.

Urging her pony into a trot and keen to get away before Murdoch spotted her, Jemimah headed out across the pasture. She had only ridden about half a mile when another rider approached. Her heart skipped a beat and fresh excuses were just formulating in her mind when she realised it was only Tadeo, the twelve year old grandson of Isidro - one of their lead hands. She rolled her eyes; this was all she needed!

Tadeo had recently taken to following her like a little shadow and it was beginning to get on her nerves. The kid was alright but she didn't need him trailing after her today of all days. As he drew nearer, Jemimah folded her arms and scowled at him.

"Tadeo, go home!" she ordered. "I've got important business to attend to an' I don't need a kid tagging along."

"I will help," the boy wheedled. "I can be..." he scrunched up his face as he sought for the right word. At last, he shrugged and continued in Spanish. "Su protector... como un caballero! (your protector... like a knight!)"

Jemimah chortled scornfully. "You? A knight? Who are you gonna fight - wolves, bears, mountain lions? And, even if we saw any, what use would a skinny little tyke like you be?"

"Yo soy mas grande que usted! (I'm bigger than you!)" the boy pointed out with a smirk.

Jemimah narrowed her green eyes fiercely, her lips pressed into a thin line. Her height (or lack therein) was a real thorn in her side and, she was positive, the main reason that no-one around Lancer ever took her seriously. Needing a curt enough put-down, she decided to use Johnny's words from the other day - but this time with a slight twist. "It's not how big you are, kid; it's how many birthdays you've had! I'm older an' wiser than you an' I can handle myself just fine. I got my rifle and my dog; I sure don't need some wet-behind-the-ears kid traipsing along when I got grown-up responsibilities to see to." She pointed back towards the hacienda. "Get back home before your Grandad misses you!"

Tadeo glanced back at the ranch house. It was true - his abuelo would be keeping an eye out for him. Still, he'd rather go with the senorita; there was always something exciting to be done when she was around. And he'd be able to boast to the others that he had been out riding with Jemimah. There was a good deal of rivalry between the younger boys who vied for her attention.

"Go home!" Jemimah ground out, directing the full force of her scowl at the boy through narrowed green eyes.

Tadeo clicked his tongue and pouted as he turned his pony back towards the ranch. Jemimah watched him ride away for a few minutes. She wouldn't put it past him to follow her when he thought she wasn't looking - just like a kid! Even the children around here didn't treat her with respect. Well, they'd all be whistling a different tune if she settled the dispute with that ornery Mrs Mac an' they got to use the water again; they'd all have to see what a valuable asset she really was and, what's more, a proper adult who could do something even Murdoch couldn't!

****

Approaching the cabin, Jemimah could see smoke rising in a tall plume from the chimney and there was a line full of laundry waving gaily in the strong breeze. The girl grinned at a pair of frilly long drawers jigging manically. She scanned the yard, taking in the tarp-covered wagon and then her eye was caught by a movement at the side of the squat little building. She slid down from Amiga and quickly tied the reins to a rather wizened apple tree.

Thumbing back her hat so that her swishing pony tail could easily be seen (knowing how Mrs Mac took against boys, Jemimah had no wish to be mistaken for one!), the girl warily rounded the corner and exclaimed with delight.

Three of the most beautiful horses she had ever seen meandered peacefully in the tiny corral. As she drew near, one in particular paid attention; crossing to the rail and nodding his elegant head in greeting. Jemimah reached out to him and smoothed her hand gently down the long white blaze on his otherwise ebony nose. The horse whickered softly but made no attempt to avoid her touch.

"By 'eck, wouldn't Johnny love to meet you!" Jemimah breathed. "You're a handsome boy too, ain't you? What's your name, fella?"

The black horse nudged his velvety nose into her hand. Jemimah grinned.

A loud snap made both girl and horse jump and turn. Standing not fifteen feet away was the oddest-looking woman Jemimah had ever seen.

She was as short and squat as the little log cabin itself. As wide as she was tall, she wore shabby men's pants, held up with grey braces. A somewhat grubby faded undershirt could be glimpsed beneath  a huge swathe of plaid woollen material that was draped and wrapped around the ample bosom. Her white hair was scraped back in a no-nonsense bun and, atop her small head, at a jaunty angle, was a rather large Tam O' Shanter of a different tartan. The hat resembled a gaily patterned serving platter and the tomato-sized red bobble on the very pinnacle wobbled in the wind.

Jemimah would have followed the sudden urge to laugh were it not for the fact that Mrs McElvenney (for so she was) spat a stream of brown tobacco juice from the corner of her mouth and raised a heavy shotgun, settling it comfortably into her shoulder as though it were an extension of her beefy arm.

"That there's Torcall - it means 'thunder'. And who might you be?"

Jemimah swallowed and subconsciously rubbed at the residual soreness of her backside, made worse by the lengthy ride. To be honest, she was afraid she might shame herself and wet her pants; she had never looked down the barrel of a shotgun before! As ever, when cornered, Jemimah refused to be cowed.

"If you don't mind, I'll thank you to put that gun down, missus!" she scowled though her voice quavered a little. "I'm Jemimah Day an' I've come especially to see you. T'ain't very polite to receive guests with a gun pointed at 'em or didn't nobody never teach you no manners?!"

Mrs Mac's thin lips curved into a smile almost as wide as her squashy little face and she emitted a wheezing sound which Jemimah assumed must be laughter. Her beady eyes disappeared completely into the rosy cheeks. The gun was lowered.

"Long ride?"  the woman asked.

"Fair," Jemimah nodded. "I've come from the Lancer ranch near Morro Coyo."

"Guessed as much." Mrs Mac inclined her head and looked keenly at the way Jemimah was rubbing her rear-end. "You saddle sore?"

"Eh?"

"Seen you soothing your backside, child," the little woman pointed out, crossing to join Jemimah at the rail where she then leaned the shotgun.

Jemimah grinned. "Oh. No, it's not..."

"Can only be one other thing then. You been whipped!" It was a statement, not a question.

Jemimah wasn't sure she liked the way the conversation was going. Surely it was considered rude to talk about such mortifying subjects with a new acquaintance? This lady was old - an adult; she ought to know better. She frowned. "Well, not exactly... but... yeah, kind of," she mumbled.

"That big silver-haired bully do it?" Mrs Mac snapped. "Good-for-nothing man," she muttered and spat another long spurt of the gleaming brown juice into the scrubby grass as if to illustrate her contempt.

Jemimah was fascinated. She had never seen a woman spit like that. "Murdoch? No... it was Johnny. He's his younger son. He's really nice mostly but you just don't want to rile him none. When he's mad at you, he's a proper fury an' no mistake!"

The little woman leaned against the fence, resting her scuffed old boot on the bottom rail. She eyed Jemimah speculatively. "And you made him mad. What did you do?"

Bloody hell, she's like a dog with a bone! Jemimah blushed and looked away, concentrating gamely on the three horses again. "I kissed a boy."

That same wheezing sounded and the generous bosom beneath the plaid wool jiggled with mirth. " Just a kiss?" It was obvious that Mrs Mac knew there had been more to the child's 'crime'.

Jemimah flushed redder still.

"You dinna want to allow a man into your heart, child - no matter how tempting he may be. Men are pure trouble and you're wearing the proof of that right now!" She cocked her head on one side, resembling a fat red hen. "Did this Johnny use a switch?" She fumbled beneath the shawl and drew out a crumpled twist of paper. Unravelling it, she offered the contents to Jemimah who realised they were peppermints.

"No, just his hand but that were bad enough!" she admitted ruefully, popping a mint into her mouth. "Johnny ain't mean; he wouldn't use a switch on me an' I reckon I did ask for the spankin' after all."

Mrs Mac drew in a sharp breath, causing her chest to expand alarmingly. Her expression was militant. "Huh! I'd like to meet the man that'd ever be bold enough to spank me!"

Jemimah stared at her. There was no way on god's green earth that she could imagine any man contemplating such a ludicrous thing. But then, Mrs Mac was not a child and hadn't been one for many a year. And she didn't live with folks who insisted on making lots of hard-to-abide-by rules like Murdoch, Scott and Johnny!

Another brown stream splattered into the grass and the old lady turned away abruptly, heading for the cabin. Jemimah dithered by the fence, unsure of what to do or say. Halfway to the door, Mrs Mac swung around.

"Och, get along in, child," she flapped. "Rain's coming and I have a good broth on the stove for my dinner... if ye're interested?"

Jemimah grinned in reply and followed her . Being invited in for a bite to eat- that was more than Murdoch had managed! She squinted up at the cloudless blue sky and shook her head. Rain! The old woman was obviously a bit barmy... but she sort of liked her even so.

****

The humble exterior of the tiny cabin hid a veritable Aladdin's cave. Jemimah was expecting a pot-bellied stove, a few sticks of simple furniture and maybe the occasional pegged rug strewn on the rough board floor. What greeted her, as she stepped in from the bright sunny day, could not have been more different.

Up against one wall was the biggest bed Jemimah had ever seen. The headboard, sumptuously carved with fat naked cherubs, was festooned with drapes of rich fuchsia-coloured silk and crimson tassels. The bedspread, a plump embroidered affair of burnished gold, sat almost sinfully atop the high be-cushioned mattress. Jemimah gaped. If that weren't a tart's bed, she didn't know what was!

At the side of the bed, stood an enormous globe, resting on three barley-twist mahogany legs. The girl trailed her fingertips across it's cool smooth surface as she wandered past.

Mrs Mac was over at the stove, delving into a large kettle from which a delicious aroma was drifting. Jemimah's mouth watered.

"Set ye down, child."

Jemimah lowered herself into one of the two richly tapestried armchairs, still gazing about her at the amazing eclectic furnishings.

A vast gilt mirror hung over the grey stone mantel - so incongruous in the simple setting. But the most astonishing of all was an oil painting on the wall opposite. Jemimah stared at it, unable to look away. It was at once the most shocking and the most riveting picture she had ever seen. It was of a young woman. She was lying back upon a rumpled bed, her left arm carelessly draped on the pillow above her head. Her vivid red hair was loose, cascading in tumbling curls across the silks. The fact that her voluptuous body was entirely naked did not appear to worry the woman unduly; in fact, there was a decidedly wicked gleam in her green eyes.

Jemimah started suddenly when her hostess passed a dish of hearty soup to her, urging the girl to also help herself to warm crusty bread.

"Like it?"

"Oh. I've not tried it yet but it smells wonderful," Jemimah replied.

A fresh bout of wheezing sounded and Mrs Mac's plentiful bosom rocked. "No child," she chortled. "Not the broth! The picture ."

Jemimah could feel her colour rising. "I... er... I've never seen owt like it!" she admitted.

"Aye, I was a handsome woman in ma prime."

Jemimah swallowed the soup so suddenly that she almost choked. "That's you??" she gasped.

Another bout of wheezing and rocking began. "Have a care now, child - you'll be hurting my pride!"

Realising she had been quite rude, Jemimah began to stutter an apology but the little fat woman waved it aside. "Och, away with ya! I'm only teasing. Aye, but I had my day. The men flocked around me like ants to sugar."

Jemimah, staring again at the painting of the young woman with the come-hither smile, could well believe it! "How old were you there?"

"Twenty-four," Mrs Mac mumbled through a mouthful of soupy bread. "T'was painted in Paris at my hotel."

"You have a hotel?"

"Bless ye, child. Not now, I don't. I sold the Oiseau Bleu many moons ago before I went to Italy with the artist who painted that. He said I was his muse and he would never paint any other but me!" She then sniffed derisively. "Bloody liar, of course! I came back one day to find another naked girl in our bed and he was'na using a brush if you get my meaning! I took that painting and cleared out the same afternoon!" She grunted with disgust. "Just like a man - never know when they're well off!"

Jemimah didn't know what to say but she was enjoying herself immensely. No-one at home ever talked so candidly in front of her. "Where else have you been?" she asked.

"Och, a hundred different places in my time!" Mrs Mac waved a pudgy hand through the air.

"Tell me about them. Please," Jemimah begged.

Again, Mrs Mac cocked her little head on one side and her beady little eyes glinted with amusement. "Aye, if it pleases you," she agreed. "But first, I want to hear a little of your own history. You're English, that I can tell and... a Yorkshire lass, if I'm not mistaken?"

"That's right. How did you...?"

"Och, there's no mistaking that accent. I know it well. I once... was friendly with a farmer from Roxby..."

"Ooh! That's near me!" Jemimah squealed, gleeful at the familiar name. "I mean, near where I'm from - Robin Hood's Bay."

"I know it - the steep little path that winds down through the village?" Mrs Mac grinned at Jemimah's vigorous nod. "Ah, 'tis a bonny wee place!" She smiled fondly at the girl. "Come, eat your dinner and we'll have a dram and set a while."

And so Jemimah recounted her story, pausing only to take a sip now and then at the generous measure of whisky that her new friend plonked down beside her. The little lady made all the right noises - giggling at tales of Jemimah's antics and scrapes; clucking like a mother hen at her father's sudden illness and death and gasping at the child's bravery as she told of travelling alone halfway across the world to her new home at Lancer. After finishing her tale, Jemimah eyed the woman cautiously.

"Well, out with it! You've got something important to say, child," Mrs Mac said as she removed the fine bone china dishes and set them aside. "You did'na ride all the way out here just for a bowl of my broth, tasty as it may be."

Jemimah remained silent for a moment, weighing up what she should say next. She had to use her loaf; be a grown-up and negotiate. It would be no good just ploughing in and accusing Mrs Mac of trying to ruin Lancer - even if she was doing exactly that!

"Yes," she began hesitantly. "You're right. I've come to ask you something and I hope you'll hear me out an' not interrupt 'til I'm done."

The woman raised a curious eyebrow but remained silent. Then her little visitor, with frequent nips at her whisky glass, explained about Lancer needing access to the water on Mannock Ridge; that it was vital for the survival of the herd and therefore of the whole ranch and that Murdoch was attempting to get an injunction against her to prevent her from fencing them off.

Suddenly, the woman darted from her chair and paced indignantly across the thick rug to the globe. She released a catch on its side and swung the top half of the sphere back, revealing at least a dozen different bottles of liquor within. She uncapped one and refilled her glass, then replacing the bottle and globe lid, she marched back. Her expression was so ferocious that Jemimah was a little afraid.

"Who said that Lancer could'na carry on as always, using the water for the beasts?"

"I think... I mean... Murdoch had a letter," Jemimah stammered. "Some fancy-pants eastern lawyer said that you owned the land and, now you were occupying it, you couldn't have cattle tramping all over. Said you were going to put up fences to stop him!"

Mrs Mac made an explosive snorting sound. "Child, do I look like I'm capable of stringing fence line across this wilderness? And for why? I've owned this land for the last thirty years and it's coped perfectly well without any fences from me. I'm not about to start... Is that why the big man came here - the water?"

"Yes. An' if you'd let him talk an' not pointed a gun at his head, you'd have known that!" the girl admonished.

Mrs Mac shuffled a little and had the grace to colour up though she stubbornly stuck out her bottom lip. "Perhaps! But then, I'd never have met you, would I?" she argued. "Besides, the great lummox never mentioned water or any letter. Typical man - could'na get to the point if he backed his arse into it!" She took a healthy swig of her whisky and rocked back and forth on her heels, reminding Jemimah of a smaller, squatter, female version of the very man she was deriding.

She grinned and drained her own glass, feeling suddenly euphoric and wanting, for some inexplicable reason, to giggle. "So Lancer can still graze the herd over here an' use the water?"

"Lancer can have all the water it pleases as long as the men stay away from me!"

"Why'd you hate men so much?" Jemimah hiccupped.

Mrs Mac shook her head in puzzlement. "Hate 'em? I would'na waste such a powerful emotion on a man. You listen to me, child - the only good man is a dead man, take my word. You can trust a horse and maybe a good dog but... a man..."

Jemimah shook her head and found that her brains felt as though they were floating in her skull. "I don't believe that," she disagreed. "My daddy was a good man..."

"Of course he was; all daddies are good men," Mrs Mac solemnly concurred.

"And so is Murdoch and Scott," Jemimah continued. "An' Johnny... Johnny's the very best man I've ever known!"

"The same Johnny who warms your britches, is that right?"

"Yep, the very same... he doesn't do that very often and I can be a right brat; everyone is always tellin' me that... so... it's me own fault."

"Aye, I see in your eyes this Johnny is special to ye." Mrs Mac paused then sat down again in her fancy armchair. She swilled the amber liquor around her glass and watched it thoughtfully. "Does he know you're in love with him?"

Jemimah's eyes widened in shock and she would have tried to deny it but Mrs Mac was smiling softly. "Och, it's as plain as the nose on your face, girl! Hmm, have a care... don't be expecting too much from him. I expect he's handsome as the devil - they always are - but he's still only a man!" She rose suddenly and crossed to a large heavy oak chest at the foot of the outrageous bed. Delving inside, she called back over her shoulder. "I'll dig out some blankets and you make up a bed by the fire. I'd ask you to sleep with me but I'll be up a few times during the night - the penalty of reaching this grand old age, y'know!"

Jemimah shot to her feet and felt the floor lurch up to meet her. Swaying, she steadied herself against the mantelpiece. " Bed? But I can't stay. I have to get back for supper!"

"Talk sense, child," Mrs Mac gave a loud wheezy laugh. "You canna ride all that way in this rain!"

Jemimah weaved unsteadily to the door and peeped out. It was indeed raining; coming down in torrents. How had she not heard it hammering on the roof? She stepped back as Mrs Mac thrust an armful of blankets at her and, scooping the heavy plaid up over her head, pushed through the door. "Make up the bed," she called back, already striding around the corner. "I'll put the horses in the stable."

Jemimah stumbled back to the hearth on wobbling legs which felt like they belonged to someone else. She dropped the blankets and knelt down to spread them out on the rug. For the first time since she arrived, she felt a stirring of alarm. Not only had she sneaked out all this way, knowing full well that Murdoch would not approve, she was now trapped by the sudden change in the weather and would be out all night it seemed. Everyone back at home would be worrying about her. She fervently hoped that they wouldn't set out to search for her or, once she was safely home again tomorrow, Murdoch would hit the roof! "Aw, shite!" she cursed aloud.

A soggy ball of grey matted fur bounded abruptly across to her, licking her face and shaking cold water all over the blankets. "Olly, for god's sake!"

"The wee doggy was missing you. I said he could come inside for the night as long as he stays off my furniture." Mrs Mac made kissing noises at the excited little animal as she shed the sodden shawl and tam o' shanter. "Why so gloomy, child?"

Jemimah's stricken expression betrayed her anguish. "Murdoch's gonna kill me!" she blurted. "Here I was - all set to show 'em all that I'm as growed up as the rest of 'em and now... aw hell! He's gonna tan the arse off've me!"

"He'll do nothing of the kind!" The little woman was pouring a generous glass of whisky and a much smaller one. "It canna be helped. He'd be more vexed at you if you tried to set off in this downpour so you just settle yourself down." Easing her ample girth into her chair, Mrs Mac passed the small dram to Jemimah who took it morosely.

"Wish I knew how to send smoke signals," she grumped as she sipped at the liquor. Finding her lips had become puzzlingly numb, she couldn't help but dribble most of it down the front of her blouse.

The little woman wheezed merrily. "Pshaw! I tell you what - I'll tell you my story now. 'Tis only fair when you've told me yours." She snuggled her broad behind into the plump cushions like a fat old hen settling onto her nest. "We'll be snug and dry here and you can set off for home first thing in the morning." Seeing the girl slop another mouthful of whisky down herself, the old lady reached over to remove the glass. Then she poured her a cup of hot coffee instead. Jemimah was just as happy with it and grinned foolishly back at her. Mrs Mac shook her head and smiled.

"Well, where to begin... you'll never believe it but I left home at the age of twelve to work in the grand laird's house. Even then, I was considered something of a beauty; an early developer I was. Ah, but my looks were to be my downfall at that place I tell you. Here, listen..."

Within a few minutes, Jemimah was rapt. The saga with which Gertrude McElvenney regaled her could have been the plot of an epic novel. Her adventures had taken her across the length and breadth of Great Britain before she sailed over to Europe. She had been many different things in her time: the owner of a notorious 'hotel' in Paris (though Jemimah suspected it had actually been a bordello and Trudy the Madam) which she won in a poker game; an artist's model (and lover) in Italy; working for a high class jeweller in Holland (and hinting that she robbed him blind after at last permitting him to share her bed!); the close personal 'friend' of a count in Austria... the tale painted a picture of an audacious young woman with an exuberant zest for life. It was also clear that, although Trudy had scant regard for the male sex, she had certainly worked her way through a staggeringly substantial number of them. Jemimah suspected that Trudy had at one time been some kind of courtesan but she didn't say so.

The final part of the story dealt with the man who had actually claimed Trudy's heart - or at least enough of it to persuade her to marry him. He was a Scotsman called Douglas McElvenney. A bit of a chancer, he had brought them both over to America for the gold rush of '49. Douglas did indeed strike it rich... but not by panning for gold. Ever the shrewd businessman, he bought out the claims of the disheartened miners and either sold them on for a profit or ultimately erected cheap shacks which he then rented out for an exorbitant fee. One particularly unlucky miner who could not pay his rent had instead given Douglas the deed to his mine which unexpectedly struck it rich - not with gold but with silver.

The pair had moved back east to New York where they had lived very happily among the cream of society until Douglas had passed away a year ago. Trudy had decided to come out to California for a spot of sunshine. "Though I can see the rain has followed me!" she sighed comically.

Jemimah smiled sleepily, Olly snoring by her side.

"Time to hit the hay, girlie! Come on, sup that coffee and to bed with you!" Trudy rose wearily, slapping the girl lightly on the leg.

Jemimah knocked back the coffee which was now cold, quickly removed her jeans and snuggled into the soft, warm blankets. Trudy cleared away the pots, all the while humming a soft tune to herself. When she meandered over to her bed, unfastening the buttons on her baggy pants, she glanced across at the child. She was already fast asleep.

"Och, my wee lady, don't you worry your pretty head about the men; Trudy will take care of you."

****

The next day dawned soon enough and Jemimah, with a woolly head and her tongue pasted to the roof of her mouth, crept gingerly from the blankets. At first she didn't spot Trudy until a cheery voice hailed her from the doorway. The little woman breezed in carting a large armful of wood for the stove. Though the brilliant sunshine streamed around her, she was still shrouded in the ever-present swathe of thick plaid.

"Good morning to ye!" she sang. "How do you feel this fine day?"

"Er... I'm not sure. Not very well I don't think," Jemimah croaked.

Shaking her head, Trudy clucked her tongue in reproof (a little unfairly, Jemimah thought, seeing as she was the one who'd plied her with whisky!) "Set ye down, child. I'll soon sort that!"

Trudy set about clinking the various bottles in the globe cabinet and finally added a good slosh of hot coffee to the mug which she presented to the unhappy girl. Jemimah eyed the dark mixture. "Drink it down - all of it. You'll soon be yourself again!"

Jemimah sniffed it suspiciously. "Actually, I'd better get going..."

Trudy stood over her, hands on her well-padded hips. "Drink it!" she ordered. "What kind of a friend would I be to send you home feeling poorly? Besides, you hav'na had any breakfast!"

At the very thought of breakfast, Jemimah's stomach roiled alarmingly. "Oh, I don't think..."

"Nonsense! Drink my remedy and I'll make the pancakes!"

So, while Trudy clattered around, humming to herself all the while, Jemimah sipped steadily at the mug of hot remedy, surprised to find that it tasted quite pleasant. She was further amazed to discover that, once the plate of jammy pancakes was set before her, she could actually do justice to them.

****

When Jemimah finally left the cabin, she was weighed down with a burlap sack full of goodies which Trudy had insisted she take back with her. While the girl saddled Amiga, Olly ran around the stable and yard like something demented, sniffing at everything in sight and pausing frequently to cock his leg and mark his new territory.

"Och, the wee doggy is making himself to home!" Trudy seemed wistful. "Now, you have the jam safely packed and the jar of pickle? And what about the tin of shortbread? Good, good!"

She fussed around Jemimah and only when the girl was safely mounted on her pony at last did the old lady pause for breath. There was an awkward silence and it became apparent to them both that they were loath to part. It had been a wonderful visit and a new friendship had been forged.

"Now, you must give this letter to the big man," Trudy passed up a cream coloured envelope of a heavy quality paper. "It'll explain everything. And put a smile on your face, child - there'll be no skelping, that I promise ye!"

Jemimah was far from reassured but she took the letter and slipped it inside her blouse. Trudy reached up to clasp the girl's hand firmly and bade her a safe journey home. "I'll be seeing you soon, I think," she nodded.

Jemimah was in no way convinced of that; she had a strong suspicion that she wouldn't be permitted to set foot off the ranch for a good while but she smiled and waved as she headed off across the undulating green hills, Olly trotting merrily at her side.

****

"Oh bugger!"

Jemimah chewed her lip. The two figures riding towards her were unmistakable. A deep blue shirt and a pale pink one. She slowed Amiga to a walk and dipped her head, glancing up at their steady approach from under the brim of her hat. They had seen her; indeed, they could not fail to spot her, out in the open as she was. Though they were still a way off and not exactly rushing to reach her, she could sense the disapproval emanating from them in waves.

"This is it, Olly," she breathed. She reached forwards to fondle Amiga's silky ear, needing the comfort. "Well, I might be walking from here, girl," she moped. "If Scott an' Johnny are feeling all big brotherly today!"

If Jemimah could have done anything to avoid the encounter, she would have gladly leaped at the chance. As it was, she straightened in the saddle and, taking a fortifying breath of sweet summer air, put on her perkiest smile. So it was that, when Scott and Johnny finally reached the little miscreant who had so worried the entire Lancer community, they found the child perched atop her pony with a grin on her face like it was all one huge adventure! Johnny's eyes twinkled but his brother, finding little amusement in the situation and relief making him edgy, smouldered down at her.

Johnny rushed in before Scott could give her a piece of his mind. "Howdy, glad to find you're alright," he smiled gently, sensing Scott on the verge of erupting beside him.

"I'm fine," she beamed, trying to waylay any scolding with a display of confidence.

"I presume you stayed at the line shack last night?" Scott's voice was calm but Jemimah watched him warily. His blue-grey eyes were far from friendly.

"Nope!"

Scott grit his teeth, his palm itching to reach out and smack her silly.

"Then where'd you stay? You found shelter, didn't you?" Johnny again jumped in, realising the kid was inches from suffering his older brother's wrath.

"I stayed at Trudy's!" At their blank expressions, she smirked - now they would see how grown-up and valuable she could be. "Mrs Mac, you know!"

From the sceptical expressions, Jemimah could see that neither man believed her. She twisted around in her saddle to indicate the hoard of goodies then fished into her shirt for the letter. "I did! Honest!" She waved the letter under Scott's disbelieving nose. "She's great! We're friends now an' she says it's all a mistake about the fences; there's not going to be any an' we can use the land an' the water just like always!"

During the whole of this little announcement, Scott and Johnny had been glancing at each other with increasing astonishment. She grinned again and allowed herself a righteous little toss of her dark shining mane. Her preening instantly stoked Scott's anger again.

"So what do you reckon Murdoch will think of that?" she challenged.

Scott bit his lower lip and endeavoured to remain calm. Glowering down at the girl, he growled, "Maybe you should be worrying about the spanking he's thinking of giving you when we get you back!"

Though this was hardly news to her, Jemimah's face fell. "Eh? He's not, is he? But why?" she asked and could have kicked herself at the whine in her voice.

"Honey, you gotta understand - we've all been worried sick about you," Johnny explained. "You can't just take off..."

Jemimah gasped indignantly and narrowed her green eyes, ready to do battle. "Hang on! You knew where I'd gone! I let someone know this time so you can't accuse me of..."

But Scott interrupted with a sternly wagging finger. "You may have left word with one of the hands ..." Jemimah flushed and pouted mutinously. "... but you did not ask permission to set off on such a long ride!"

"That's not bloody fair! You can't just make up new rules an' not tell me! Nobody ever said anything about having to ask for permission to go..."

" And you lied about meeting us over here!" Scott added, his voice taking on the same tone as an angry Murdoch.

Jemimah hunched down into her saddle and scowled at them both. "Well, alright, but if I'd asked Murdoch he would've just said no an' then we'd still not have found out it's all a big mistake and Murdoch would still be paying good money for an injunction that he doesn't really need! So, y'see - that little white lie has all been for a good cause in the end!" she wheedled, glancing up at Scott from under her thick sooty eyelashes and giving him a tentative smile.

Johnny watched with amusement. The kid used them puppy dog eyes to good effect but he didn't think they'd get her very far with the ol' man. He wheeled Barranca around to move in alongside her. "I sure hope Murdoch sees it that way but I wouldn't count on it." He leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Anyway, I'm glad you're safe, kid an'... Hoowhee! " Johnny whooped and reeled back. "Girl, you smell like a saloon on a Saturday night!"

"I know," Jemimah scuffed at her shirt front. "I spilled my whisky last night an'..."

"Your what?" Scott's eyes almost popped out of his head.

"Oh, it were just... for medicinal purposes!" she gabbled. "I got wet in the rain an' Trudy gave me a little sip an'..." Jemimah had the very uneasy feeling that neither man was swallowing her lie.

Johnny was grinning now and shaking his head. "Come on, no good puttin' it off any longer. We better get you home. You can tell us the rest on the way. Just one thing though..."

Jemimah looked at him. Johnny was trying hard not to smile but his blue eyes sparkled with laughter. "Promise me I can be there when you explain it all to the ol' man. Boy, this is gonna be good!"

****

Johnny lifted his arms, rightly thinking that Jemimah's legs would by now be wobbling with nerves and that she would welcome the reassurance of a quick hug. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent whiff of stale whisky which wafted from her as she slid down into his waiting embrace. When he would have let go, the girl clung on tightly and he could feel her slender body was trembling despite the heat of the day. He let her snuggle into him.

Her trembling was not all he could feel; there was a soft roundness pressed against his ribs from which he was suddenly reluctant to move. She nuzzled her head into his shoulder and he found she fitted there perfectly. Johnny was perplexed at how good she felt in his arms and he quickly jerked back, holding her away from him and flashing her a lop-sided smile.

Jemimah's little elfin face was worried. "You think Murdoch's really planning to tan me, Johnny?"

He shrugged though he actually had little doubt that the big Scot would indeed express his displeasure on the girl's rear-end.

"Trudy says you're not to treat me like a child anymore."

"Maybe I won't," his voice was soft and, when Jemimah looked to see if he was teasing, she found a tenderness that confused her.

"Hey, come on!" Scott called.

Johnny and Jemimah turned. As they started towards the house, Jemimah slipped her hand in his and was comforted that he held it tight.

****

One glance at Murdoch told Jemimah she was in for the high jump. As she followed Scott into the great room, the big man rose swiftly from the chair behind the desk and strode over, peering around his tall son to clearly see the youngster who, until a second ago, he had ached to embrace once again. Now, however, what he most wanted was to listen to the sweet satisfying music of her anguished howls as he wore the little devil out!

Seeing the murderous gleam in his eye, Jemimah's initial reaction was to hang her head and try to appear suitably ashamed of herself. His mouth was set in a firm line, his blue eyes glinting and, for one very nasty moment, he seemed to be about to grab her by the scruff and march her off to her doom.

Jemimah felt Johnny's hand rest lightly on her shoulder, the brief touch giving her courage. No... she would not cower like a whipped pup; she would face the music with dignity like a responsible adult. The young girl straightened, head held high and her clear green eyes fixed on her father's. Both were still but something in Murdoch's irate gaze softened and suddenly his strong arms reached out, enfolding her in their warmth and clutching her to him. Jemimah could feel his heart beating and, though she still worried what would happen when he let go, she relaxed into him. At last, he released her and took a single step back. Now once again the subject of his piercing glare, Jemimah summoned all her strength.

"Well, young lady..." Murdoch rumbled but he got no further.

"Daddy, I'm so sorry I worried you all," Jemimah began in a clear steady voice. "I certainly never meant to stop out all night but I know it would've been right daft of me to try riding back in that rain last night. So I stopped at the cabin with Mrs Mac."

Murdoch's face registered his surprise; like the boys, he had thought the girl would have made for the line shack.

Jemimah hurried on, intent on delivering her carefully thought-out apology. "I've got lots to tell you about it an' I've got a letter from Trudy for you." She rapidly unbuttoned her shirt and groped for the letter. Murdoch and Scott both diplomatically averted their eyes. Jemimah saw this and wondered why they bothered; why become so flustered at the sight of a lady's camisole? She knew that Scott had seen the girls at the saloon in far less and suspected that Murdoch was no stranger to semi-clad women, even now at his advanced age. Finally, she retrieved the letter and hastily refastened her shirt. "As to me riding out there, I did leave word where I was going but Scott has explained to me that p'raps it would've been sensible of me to first ask permission. I must confess I hadn't thought of that an' I know I worried everyone with my cavalier attitude ..."

Murdoch glanced sharply at his oldest who was suddenly studying the carpet and running his hand across his mouth. Johnny, still standing back near the French windows, appeared to have been overcome by a fit of coughing.

"... so if you feel it really necessary to give me a licking to remind me of my responsibilities in future, then... well, I'll try to understand. I hope though that you'll see that it was all down to the weather an', try as I might, I can't do nothing about that an' really, at last, I was behaving like an adult."

Pretty speech over, Jemimah stood demurely waiting for her sentence. Murdoch chewed at the inside of his lip, his eyes fixed on the girl and rather enjoying the uncomfortable squirm his unwavering gaze was producing. Good - let the wee limmer suffer for a minute or two ! Finally, when the silence in the room had stretched to breaking point, Murdoch took a deep breath.

"Thank you for your very mature attitude," he intoned gravely. "Now, if you boys will excuse us... my study please, young lady!"

With that, he strode past her and left the room.

Jemimah gasped. The death knell had sounded. She swung around to the boys and anxiously wrung her hands. " The study? What's he want me in there for?"

Scott was openly grinning. "Perhaps to deliver the licking that you've been so understanding about."

Jemimah was dismayed. "But I only said that so's I wouldn't get a licking; I didn't expect him to take me serious!"

Scott smiled grimly and, ushering her out, said, "You still have a lot to learn, my girl."

As she passed Johnny, he gave her a soft smile and an encouraging pat on the elbow. The girl sighed heavily and slowly made her way to the study. Placing her hand on the doorknob, she could feel her heart pounding louder than the old grandfather clock. She would not have been at all surprised to hear herself ticking and chiming the hour!

Murdoch was standing by the window, staring out at the yard and barn. His broad shoulders filled the frame and it was all Jemimah could do to make her feet take her inside the room. At the click of the closing door, he turned and placed the opened letter on the big oak desk. Then he moved to sit down behind it and pointed to the empty chair opposite. "Sit down, Jemimah."

The girl did as he bade, hopefully thinking that this was a good sign; if he meant to whomp her, she would already be nose to carpet!

"It seems I owe you my thanks."

Her eyes widened incredulously but she held her tongue, her nervous fingers fiddling with her belt buckle and her boots swinging to and fro.

"Your surreptitious and ill-advised expedition to Mannock Ridge has borne fruit of an unexpected nature for us here at Lancer." He again picked up the letter. "Mrs McElvenney states here that she had no intention of fencing off the land or damming the water. Her lawyer back east has apparently been somewhat over-zealous on his client's behalf."

"Yes, Trudy said so," Jemimah agreed solemnly. "She said she's going to write to him and set him straight. So, Lancer's going to be alright? It was a false alarm then?"

"It appears so."

"An' we can have as much water as we need for the herd?" she beamed.

Murdoch hesitated, scanning the copperplate script. "Ah, as to that, it would seem Mrs McElvenney..."

"Trudy," Jemimah corrected him.

"... has two conditions." Murdoch eyed his daughter stonily. "The first is that no-one, and she is most explicit here, should skelp you for your misguided decision to ride out to see her." The girl's green eyes lit up but she wisely refrained from smiling. "The second is that you be allowed to visit her soon and frequently. She wants you to take Johnny with you. She has heard that he is good with horses and has a horse she'd like him to work with. It says here that she is willing to pay him for his time... and quite handsomely."

"Yeh, she's not short of a bob or two! So, Johnny's going to make some money an' you don't have to pay for that injunction so... I've saved you a fair bit, haven't I, Daddy?"

Murdoch bit back a smile. The child was positively glowing. "Don't look so pleased with yourself, young lady. You've escaped by the skin of your teeth. I had intended to give you a spanking you wouldn't forget in a hurry and confine you to the ranch for a month..."

Jemimah sat up, most indignant. "Murdoch! I'm nearly fifteen; I'm just about grown!"

"Not quite yet, you're not!" he corrected. "So, just smooth those feathers down!" He eyed her beadily and was gratified when she squirmed in the chair, her lower lip protruding in a decidedly truculent pout.

"Teresa was..."

"Teresa was older than you the last time I took her in hand so you just mind that! Besides, as we all know only too well, you are not Teresa! Until you have a husband to take over the responsibility, it is my job to keep you safe and that, young lady, means persuading you to toe the line! " Murdoch watched the girl stick out her bottom lip in a sullen pout. He thought she looked adorable and so much like her mother, Rose but he went on. "Now, don't begin to tell me that you thought I would have approved of you riding out alone to Mannock Ridge." At Jemimah's awkward shuffle, he continued. "Hmm, I thought as much. Alright, new rule - as well as leaving word with one of the household where you are going, from now on you will ask for our approval before you hare off across the country. I expect this rule to be obeyed or there will be consequences... most severe consequences. Is that clear?"

Murdoch's voice, though low, was dreadful and his jaw was set like granite. Jemimah nodded. She did not dare speak for fear she may say something to make him change his mind about not punishing her.

He rose from his chair. "I will have a word with Johnny about Mrs McElvenney's..."

"Trudy," she corrected again.

Murdoch grit his teeth in exasperation. "... request. Now, you have chores waiting for you, I believe?"

Jemimah jumped up and, contriving to keep her rear-end as far from her father's heavy hand as possible, scooted out of the door. She skipped to the kitchen where Scott and Johnny were waiting with Teresa and Maria. As she entered, everyone looked up.

"Well?" Johnny smiled.

Her reply was a toothy grin and he laughed. "C'mere kid!"

She hopped over and shrieked with glee as he scooped her up and twirled her around in his arms. Laughing, he set her on her feet but linked his arm through hers, jogging her across the kitchen in a mad hoe-down. By now, even Scott and Maria were laughing and clapping along. The relief at Lancer being no longer under the cloud of a legal battle was infectious and soon Johnny had enticed Teresa to join in their merry jig.

Along the corridor, Murdoch was just leaving the hacienda to indulge in a quiet smoke of his pipe. Hearing the laughter of his family, he smiled and allowed himself a chuckle.

****

Jemimah had been champing at the bit to return to Mannock Ridge, especially seeing as Johnny was set to go with her. She could hardly wait to introduce him to her new friend. Murdoch, however, had other ideas. Johnny, he said, was needed on the ranch for the next few days and he had some jobs lined up for the little wanderer too! The girl alternated between whining, sulking, pleading and bargaining but Murdoch was immovable - no amount of wheedling on her part was going to get her back to see Trudy until he was good and ready! Eventually, Jemimah decided to bear it with fortitude; practising her new-found maturity and, for once, showing some patience but, dang, it was hard. Sometimes, being a grown-up was more tiresome that she had ever thought it could be.

At last, on the Tuesday of the following week, Murdoch announced at dinner that he thought the ranch could manage without Johnny for a couple of days. Jemimah flew from her chair and threw her arms around her father's neck. With a wink to Scott, Johnny pouted and claimed to be a mite put-out that Murdoch was getting all the thanks but he was the one who would be doing all the work . His truculent expression soon disappeared under Jemimah's instant and effusive hugs!

****

Trudy was waiting by the corral as they rode to the top of the Ridge. Though the July sun blazed down, she was still wrapped in the heavy plaid, the tam o' shanter atop her snowy hair. They had barely had chance to slide down from the saddle before she began giving orders.

"I thought ye might be here today, child. Come ye inside. The coffee is brewed and you'll find cups and a braw cake on the dresser." As Jemimah skipped inside, Trudy's eyes raked over Johnny from head to toe. Her tone was cool as though she had still to make a final decision about him. "You'll be John, I'm thinking."

Johnny respectfully removed his hat and smiled down at the little woman. "Yes, ma'am. Johnny."

She sniffed. "Aye, you're a handsome one just as she said." Johnny grinned and went somewhat red. "But I hav'na asked you here to admire your pretty face, laddie. I'll leave all that to yon girl!" Johnny was heartily glad that Jemimah was already in the cabin; he knew she would have been mortified at the old lady's blunt speech - he was feeling kind of warm himself!

"I, er... I believe you'd like me to take a look at one of your horses, ma'am," he changed the subject. "Wouldn't be the black with the white blaze, would it? Saw him as we rode in. He's sure a beauty."

"Torcall, aye. But there's something we need to be settling afore we get to that," Trudy snapped. She beckoned him into the cabin with a curt tip of her head. "There's coffee and cake."

Shuffling his hat in his hands, Johnny sighed and followed her inside, pausing on the threshold at the astonishing sight of the vast bed with its vivid draperies and carved cavorting cherubs. He grinned.

"Cake, Johnny." Jemimah thrust a plate into his hand then whispered, "Close your mouth, will you? I told you what it were like an' try not to stare at the picture an' all. She'll think you've never seen a nekkid lady before!"

Johnny chewed the inside of his lip, sorely tempted to laugh at being so scolded by the kid. He obediently averted his gaze from the sumptuous bed and, instead, sat down to eat his cake. He had barely taken a bite though when it was his misfortune to glance up and be presented with the sight of a buxom red-head, naked as the day she was born and with a decidedly naughty glint in her eye. Johnny almost choked in surprise and Jemimah slapped him none-too-gently on the back.

Trudy was either ignorant of what had caused Johnny's consternation or she didn't care. She sat, her back straight with disapproval, until his coughing subsided then she eyed him beadily. "I want it understood, lad," she began. "I've little patience for men and all their nonsense but this here girl has vouched for ye and so 'tis on her word that you're here. Do you understand?"

Johnny glanced over at Jemimah then, smiling gently, he looked back at the old lady and nodded.

"The child says you can get any horse to love you. What do you say?"

Johnny shrugged. "Well, ma'am, I ain't bad, I guess," he drawled softly.

"I dinna hold with false modesty," Trudy snapped. "It's akin to lying in my book! So, be honest - is it true you're good with horses?"

Johnny studied the plate of cake on his lap then directed his blue eyes directly at the woman's piercing gaze. She reminded him of a feisty little terrier. "Yeah, it's true."

She narrowed her eyes, studying him, and, all the while, Johnny smiled but he never looked away. Suddenly, she reached forward and slapped his knee. With a broad grin splitting her squashy round face, she wheezed, "Och, I see now why the child's so fond of ye! You're no afraid of me, are you, laddie?"

Scratching self-consciously at his ear, Johnny grinned. "Oh, I don't know about that, ma'am. Maybe a little."

Wheezing in a fresh bout of laughter, Trudy rocked in her chair like a squat round gnome. "Good, good! I quite like a young man to be scared; keeps him on his toes! Now, you rest easy; I'll no tease ye anymore!" She waved to Jemimah. "Pass the man some coffee, child afore he dies of thirst! Eat your cake - it's fresh baked today. That's right... now you can pretend you're not studying my picture while you take your ease!"

Johnny's brows shot up into his long black fringe and his cheeks blazed as Trudy and Jemimah both guffawed at his surprise. Such was the old lady's glee that he could not help joining in. "Well, ma'am," he smirked. "She's a real beauty; ain't no hardship for a man to look at her!"

Another playful slap to his knee. "Och, don't you be so coy with me," Trudy chortled. "Ye ken just fine that the girl is me! T'was in my glory days, my prime! Oh lad, but I could tell you things that would make you sit up and take notice!"

Johnny took in the mischievous grin; the lascivious wink. Those green eyes still had a naughty glint to them. Sit up and take notice? Yes, he just bet he knew exactly what she was implying. Hanged if she wasn't flirting with him! He grinned back at her, blue eyes twinkling. "I don't doubt that, ma'am," he said softly. "No, I don't doubt that at all."

****

For the rest of the day, Johnny worked steadily with the horse, leaving the small corral only to wolf down the lunch Jemimah fetched for him. As he coaxed and crooned softly to the animal, soothing away its nervousness until it followed him like an obedient puppy around the perimeter of the fence, Johnny was aware of the little woman watching him keenly. He knew she was weighing him up and he smiled as her sharp eyes followed him as eagerly as the stately black horse now did.

Torcall was behaving himself, showing his manners, and was now accepting the blanket on his back. However, the introduction of the saddle into the corral had him prancing skittishly and dancing fearfully away from the peculiar object. Johnny continued to murmur soothingly to him in Spanish, then stood still and turned away from the worried creature until Torcall could stand it no longer - the man was ignoring him and this was intolerable! Johnny grinned when the horse meandered across and nudged his shoulder; insisting once more on having his attention. Torcall was hooked. The old woman smiled across at the scene from the stable doorway. Aye, even the horse couldn't resist the lad's charm! She could hardly blame him. Johnny Lancer was bonny; if she were forty years younger. .. Trudy patted a wisp of stray hair back into place and gave a short wheezy chuckle as she headed back into the cabin.

"Want me to run across and get the blanket for you again, Johnny?" Jemimah called from her perch on the fence.

Johnny turned, his expression dark, and held up a warning hand. "You stay put," he ordered. "In fact, jump down from there. I don't like you balancing on that rail like that!"

The girl subsided and made a disgruntled face. "Was only trying to help!" she muttered.

Johnny wandered to the far side of the corral to retrieve the blanket himself then, folding it, he came over to the fence where Jemimah stubbornly sat. His face was stern. "Remember what happened last time you took it into your head to go into a corral with a wild horse?"

Jemimah scowled, embarrassed to have the unpleasant recollection foisted on her. "Torcall ain't wild..." she began to argue.

Johnny wagged an admonishing finger, looking up into her stubborn face. "No, he ain't," he agreed. "But I will be if you don't do like I tell you!" Watching her sulkily fold her arms, Johnny felt a chuckle rise unexpectedly. She looked so funny and cute! He smiled and rested a hand placatingly on her knee. "Jemimah, can't you just mind for once? Honey, I got a lot of work to do here an' I don't have the time or the strength to waste chasin' you, y'hear?" He watched her green eyes flick to his then dart away again to concentrate on a thread she was pulling on her jeans. "Now, if that's what you want me to do, just wait 'til I'm done workin' here today an' maybe, before supper, I'll oblige you!" He grinned up at her, resting his forearm on her leg. Seeing the way her eyes lit up and the smile she was trying hard to control, he knew he'd guessed right. That girl! Sometimes, she went out of her way to create mischief just so's he'd go chasin' after her! Mind, depending on the mischief, she didn't always enjoy his consequences!

Jemimah straightened, tossing her head to flick her dark fringe out of her eyes. "An' what you goin' to do if you catch me?" she smiled, a teasing glint in her green gaze and her thick black lashes lowered coquettishly.

Johnny quirked an eyebrow. " If?"

She shrugged. "Well, I suppose I might let you."

"Oh, you might, eh?" Johnny's blue eyes narrowed. If he didn't know better, he'd swear she was flirting with him too! He hopped quickly up onto the second rail so that he could kiss her pert little nose. "Well, I dunno yet. You'll have to wait an' see! Meantime, stay away from the horse, let me do my work an' go make yourself useful to Mrs Mac. Hmm?" He lightly jumped back down.

Jemimah feigned a petulant pout but he could see her eyes were dancing. As she turned to drop down from the fence, he gave her behind a light smack to send her on her way. Jemimah scooped up a handful of grass and, giggling, threw it at him, missing by a good yard and trotting quickly over to the cabin lest he make good on his threat to chase after her.

Laughing, Johnny would have turned back to resume working with the horse but, at that point, Mrs Mac waddled over with a glass of cold lemonade. She passed it through the fence to him and, wiping the back of his hand across his brow, he accepted it thankfully. It was another hot day; how the little woman could bear to be wrapped in that thick shawl was beyond him. Already his blue shirt was open almost to his stomach and dark patches of sweat showed how long he had toiled under the blazing sun.

She was crooking a finger to beckon him near. Johnny dutifully complied.

"Don't you be teasing the child while I'm here," Trudy admonished him. "Dinna forget, I'm old enough to be your grandmother and I won't hesitate to leather you if needs be!" She spat a stream of brown tobacco juice emphatically into the scrubby grass.

Johnny dipped his head, seemingly studying his boots though his blue eyes smiled up at the little woman through his black lashes. Aye, that young Mr Lancer was a charmer, that was for sure! Trudy couldn't help but grin at the young man and reached a pudgy hand out to gently cuff him around the ear when he saucily returned the grin. Johnny ducked smartly and laughed, slugging back the lemonade and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I wouldn't dream of it, ma'am."

"And enough of this ma'am nonsense," she frowned. "The name's Trudy, just you remember that."

Johnny smiled shyly. "Yes ma'am... Trudy!"

She gave a short wheezy chortle, throwing her thick shawl back around her shoulders where it had started to slip down. "Go on with you, lad! That there horse won't break himself."

****

That evening, after a solid meal of roast chicken, buttered potatoes and fresh peas (Johnny had slid most of his peas quickly onto Jemimah's plate while Trudy's back was turned, holding a beseeching finger to his lips), Trudy announced that she had made up a bed for him in the stable.

"The straw is fresh and there are two good blankets and a feather pillow for ye. You'll be fine."

"It's more than I've had many a night on the trail, ma'... Trudy . Thank you."

Jemimah piped up from her station drying dishes in the corner. "There's no need for that. Johnny can bunk here on the rug with me!" Her green eyes were dancing with a sly light.

Johnny turned to her then grinned in surprise when the little woman reached out and deftly landed a disapproving slap on the girl's rump, almost causing her to drop the fine bone china plate in her hands. "There'll be none of that, my lass," she scolded, immune to Jemimah's wounded pout of reproof. "You've been raised respectable and you'll behave respectable while you're under this roof!"

"I wasn't suggestin' owt un respectable," she protested. "Only that we share the rug! Jeez!"

Johnny sniggered. "You might not fancy sharing a bunk with me, kid; Scott says I talk in my sleep more than I do when I'm awake. The stable will be fine with me, Trudy - I wouldn't want to go tarnishin' a young lady's reputation!"

"Hmm, I should think not!" Trudy waddled off to the globe cabinet to pour drinks.

Johnny glanced across and grinned at Jemimah's scowl.

"Dunno what you find so amusin'," she grumped.

Johnny sat back against the fine tapestry of the armchair, his arms raised so that he could clasp his hands behind his dark head. Jemimah found it very hard not to stare at the leanly muscled torso beneath the fabric of his fresh green shirt. "Oh nuthin'," he smiled softly, his sapphire eyes dancing with merriment. "Just Trudy saved me havin' to chase you like I promised."

"Huh," the girl turned back to her chore and grumbled. "Well, if that's all I was gonna get, then I'm glad you didn't bother."

Suddenly, he was there at her side, gently taking the plate from her hands. She looked up. Johnny was smiling down at her as he leaned his hip casually against the stone sink. She licked her lips. All of a sudden, his nearness was overpowering. If she looked up, Jemimah's eyes were just about level with the vee of dark hair showing at the open neck of his shirt and, just for a moment, she felt heat diffuse her cheeks. Somewhat flustered, she glanced up. His even white teeth showed in his handsome smile and his eyes, blue as a summer sea and crinkled at the corners, seemed to pull her in closer until she thought she might drown in them.

"So, when I'd caught you..." he began to tease.

" If you caught me..." she quipped cheekily.

" When I caught you..." Johnny insisted. "What were you hopin' I'd do?"

Jemimah flushed hotly, suddenly wrong-footed and so embarrassed that she did not know what to say. She swallowed. "I... er... why, I didn't... I mean..." She saw that he was chuckling now and watching the blush staining her face. Suddenly whacking his middle with the dish towel, she pointed to the chair and, rather in the manner of Teresa or Maria, ordered him to take himself off and sit down. Laughing, Johnny obeyed.

Trudy ambled over and handed Johnny a generous measure of whisky. As Jemimah finished drying her hands, she was about to hand her one too. "Here child, come set yourself down."

Jemimah reached for the proffered glass but Johnny's hand intercepted it. "I'll take that for Jemimah," he insisted. "Just thinkin' about your reputation, honey... don't want such a genteel and well-brought-up young lady getting drunk!"

"Johnny! I can handle one glass of whisky without getting intoxicated, I'll have you know!"

"That right?" he probed. "Does Murdoch know that too?"

Jemimah flushed, firming her lips together in frustration, emerald eyes flashing. "I'm having some coffee then!" she snapped, turning to the stove to pour herself a mug. She flounced down onto the rug, her shoulder nudging against Johnny's knee.

The young man grinned to himself. There was still plenty of the little girl to be found in Jemimah, no matter how much she liked to pretend she was grown. He lightly ran his fingers down the length of her thick braid, stifling a chuckle when she snootily tugged her head away. As his persistent fingers loosened the ribbon and started to gently unravel the long rope of dark shining hair, a strange stillness crept over her and she deigned to permit his ministrations.

Trudy watched from the other armchair, feeling oddly like an intruder upon their moment. It was such an innocent scene but, at the same time, infused with the most intimate sensuality that the old lady was entranced. How like Torcall the girl was behaving; pretending affront at the man's touch but quivering with pleasure and bereft the moment he stilled or moved away. And the man? Though his touch was at first teasing, he soon was engrossed; smoothing his fingers through the waving length of her rich chocolate tresses, his hands caressing the silken mass. It was clear the two were momentarily wrapped in their own world and Trudy realised they no longer recognised that she was there. And so she watched them in silence, in the warm flickering glow of the candlelight. And never had she felt so moved. These two young people were such kindred spirits; so close, so at ease with each other , despite the difference in their ages. Trudy had seen many things in her life but the simple loving scene caused tears to spring to her eyes. To her, it could not have been plainer - this young girl and this man shared love; an honest love which, given the chance to grow and be acknowledged, could face any test and still endure. The girl felt it; that much was obvious. Like most females, she was able to sense the depth of their connection with a maturity which belied her youth. Convincing the man... ah, therein lay the trouble, Trudy was sure. Something told her that, even with his greater experience (or maybe because of it?), he was not ready to see the child as anything other than that. Whatever was between them was something that still had some growing to do and maybe, even then, it would not manage to come of age.

****

When Johnny and Jemimah set out for home after lunch the next day, they took Torcall with them. Though reluctant to part with him for even a short time, Trudy realised the sense in having Johnny able to continue the work he had begun. He promised they would return for supper on the Friday and then spend most of the weekend at the cabin. Johnny fervently hoped Scott could be persuaded to swap his Saturday off so that he could keep his word and return the animal. He also wanted to have the horse at least accepting the saddle by then.

Johnny was in luck and Scott was prevailed upon to change his Saturday though the older Lancer's constant teasing about little brother spending so much time with his two 'girlfriends' had started to wear thin by the Friday morning.  Even Jemimah, fearful that Scott's persistent digs might push Johnny away and potentially ruin everything, snapped during breakfast.

Keen to kill two birds with one stone - make Johnny laugh and shut Scott up - she loaded her spoon with a dollop of porridge and twanged it smartly across the table whereupon it smacked the usually composed young man slap-bang in the eye! The result was indeed that Johnny laughed - uproariously until his sides ached. Scott, however, did not shut up; he yelled like an Indian on the warpath and mopped at his face with his napkin before launching himself around the kitchen table and snatching hold of her flying skirts in an effort to snaffle the little varmint as she made her escape. Murdoch had intervened just in time and made Scott put her down (she had been tucked neatly under his arm by then). Jemimah was rescued from the dire punishment Scott was promising and, instead, found herself ensconced at the big desk in the great room, copying out a seemingly endless chapter on table manners from The Ladies' Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness (borrowed from Teresa). Jemimah had never known such a long, tedious morning and prayed that, once she finally realised her dream of getting Johnny to fall madly in love with her, he would appreciate all she had suffered in their cause!

He must indeed have felt sorry for her. By her elbow, there appeared a vibrant orange Zinnia flower atop a freshly baked honey cookie as he passed on his way out to work. The girl picked up the flower carefully and slipped it into the side of her hair, a little smile quirking her lips as she bent to resume her task.

****

Friday evening at last arrived. Johnny and Jemimah rode along together with Torcall being led behind. The July sun, still blazing down on them, had not yet learned that its daily toil was almost over and Johnny swiped at his brow. She glanced across at him.

There were dark patches of sweat under the arms of his blue shirt and down his spine. Scruffy from his work out on the ranch, he had decided to wait and clean up at the cabin. To his thinking, there was no point washing up and donning a clean shirt only to get all dusty and hot again on the three hour ride to the Ridge. He wanted to get them there safely and settle the horses before dusk and while there was still time to share supper with Trudy as planned.

Jemimah bet he was starving. Sure, he had managed to grab a chunk of bread and ham before they set off but a man needed more than that after a hard day's work. She fished in her saddle bags behind her and retrieved the napkin stuffed with churros which she had helped to bake that afternoon.

"Here Johnny," she held out the little bundle.

Johnny unwrapped her gift and his eyes lit up. "Churros! You make these?" At her enthusiastic nod, he teased, "Are they safe?" The girl laughed, assuring him that Maria had given her approval. "Well, thank you, honey." He was touched by her thoughtfulness.

"I got to look after you, haven't I?"

He grinned. "That right? Well now, you be careful - you do too good a job an' I could get used to it. You might end up stuck with me!"

Jemimah said nothing but her smile reached from ear to ear.

"Just one thing though," Johnny added, suddenly serious. He waited for her inquiring look. "If you're thinkin' of serving me up any of that oatmeal stuff... can I eat mine with a spoon like regular folks an' not have you swat it at me from across the table?"

Jemimah joined in his wicked laughter and munched happily into the pastry that he passed over to her.

****

As they crested the ridge and the cabin appeared on the horizon, Jemimah hugged herself. A whole weekend with Johnny! And he was in such a good mood! Of course, he was; he would be working with the horse and she knew well how much he loved that. She was looking forward to watching him... oh, and it would be such fun to be with Trudy again. There was something very particular she meant to ask the old lady. Jemimah glanced almost shyly across at the man beside her.

Johnny's keen eyes were looking ahead, scanning the distant yard for the familiar little figure in her customary plaid shawl. He was smiling, anticipating a couple of days of hard but satisfying toil, good food and lively company - not to mention some damn fine whisky! His eyes flicked over to the girl beside him. She was looking like all her birthdays had come at once. They shared a comradely grin.

"Blimey! He's so beautiful!" Jemimah thought, watching Johnny's smile as he again searched beyond the trees for any sign of Mrs Mac.

But suddenly his smile was gone. Her stomach lurched. Johnny was digging his heels into Barranca's flanks, urging him into a wild gallop and streaking ahead.

Heart in her mouth, Jemimah egged Amiga on and raced after him. "What's wrong? Johnny, wait! What's wrong?"

As she tore into the yard and leaped down from her pony, she could see Johnny by the edge of the corral. He was on his knees, leaning over something. Jemimah ran breathlessly over to him.

"Trudy!"

The woman lay sprawled in an untidy tartan heap on the dusty ground. Her head was bare, the silver-white hair fluttering feebly across her pale face. She did not stir.

Jemimah threw herself to her knees beside them. "Johnny," she gasped. "What's up with her? She's not...?"

He was slipping a hand underneath the old lady's shoulders and, despite her ample girth, scooped her easily into his strong arms. "Tie the horses, Jemimah!" he called over his shoulder as he made for the cabin. "Then bring her some water!"

"Is she...?" Jemimah had not yet moved.

"I think she's just fainted," Johnny yelled back. "Now do like I tell you! Move!" With that, he disappeared inside. Jemimah scrabbled to her feet and ran obediently to take care of the three horses. Then she tore towards the cabin.

She ran past the huge bed where Johnny was trying to make the old girl comfortable. Jemimah gasped with relief to see how Trudy was limply trying to shoo him away and starting to curse about the fuss they were making. Jemimah pumped a large pot full of cool water and brought it to Johnny, slopping much of it on the rug.

"Well, should I try to drink out of that or perhaps ye're intending I take a swim?" the old lady attempted to joke. Her voice was weak.

"A cup would be good, kid." Johnny rolled his eyes and slipped another cushion beneath Trudy's head while the girl returned to the sink.

"How did I know what the bloody water was for?" Jemimah argued, feeling rather foolish. "Thought maybe it was to cool her down."

"Och, I'm cool enough!" Trudy was regaining her strength, flapping away Johnny's helping hand but he calmly insisted she stay put for a while longer. "So, I have to mind a young whippersnapper like you now, do I? I told you, lad - I'm old enough to be your grandmother!"

Johnny sat back on his heels and smiled. "Fine. An' when I see some colour come back into those cheeks, you can start bossin' me around again. 'Til then, you just stay put, young lady! I have any trouble out of you... an' I'll fetch the ol' man - he'll set you straight! " He smirked at her pout and enjoyed the mischievous gleam in her green eyes. "Here, drink this. Just a few sips, take it easy!"

Johnny carefully held the cup to Trudy's lips. Her green eyes were raised to his and something within their depths made him falter. He hesitated, then, never breaking eye-contact with the old lady, he spoke.

"Can you go out an' see to Amiga, honey?" he asked Jemimah. "Get her unsaddled and make sure she's settled. Put Torcall in the corral."

"But what about...?"

"Trudy's gonna be safe with me; I'll stay with her an' then I'll tend to Barranca when you get back. Go on now, Trudy will be fine."

Reluctantly, Jemimah slid down from the bed and moved outside. Johnny read the gratitude in Trudy's eyes before she closed them with a deep shuddering sigh. He sat back on his heels, lowering the cup and watching the woman, concern etched across his face.

"You're not gonna be fine, are you?" Johnny's voice was soft but insistent.

The look Trudy threw him was sheepish as if she had been caught out in a lie.

"So... how long?"

She shrugged and darted back a humourless smile. "Oh, not long now I reckon. Long enough to get to ride my horse, I'm hoping." She frowned with something of the old fierce Trudy once again. "That's if you ever get to work today instead of perching here on my bed, John Lancer!" Then she grinned. "Not that I'm complaining, mind ye! 'Tis a good while since I've had such a fine-looking lad in my bed. If I was'na so damn tired, I'd be taking advantage... of that you can be sure!"

Johnny continued to watch her, smiling softly but waiting. At last, her saucy smile wavered and she could keep up the facade no longer.

"Alright, lad," she sighed. "Ye ken I'm dying and you may as well hear it all. It's my lungs. The doctors... well, they've done all they can - which was a fat lot of nothing! They could'na make me well but they said I might feel more comfortable in a warmer climate."

Johnny nodded. "So you come out here?"

"Aye. I've owned this little spot for years and I suddenly had a hankering to see this bit of California." Trudy noticed Johnny's eyes. "Oh, I've no illusions, lad; the sun might be hot here but it's not going to grant me a miracle. No, it's my time and there's no escaping that." Trudy reached out to clasp the hand that Johnny was suddenly studying. "I don't mind; this is a bonny place and I like it fine. I think I'll like resting here for eternity. Aye." Her voice trailed away. Johnny looked up sharply and saw that she was looking off into the distance, as though imagining herself somewhere far away. He remained silent, his own thoughts troubled for one he knew would not take this news well. As though in tune with him, Trudy focused again on the young man at her side. "Aye, the lassie... she's my one regret. I shouldn't have let her... for me to take to her so, now, when I have to be leavin' her... ah, I shouldn't have, I know it! ... but I could'na help myself! Do you see?" Her fingers tightened urgently on his hand as though imploring him to forgive the hurt she knew she would inflict. "She's... a fine girl, so... " Again, the old lady gave a shuddering sigh. "I see myself in her I suppose and I wanted to... Pshaw! I'm just a sentimental old fool! But, aye, it'll be hard to leave her."

A plaintive sniff from the shadows by the doorway made Johnny and Trudy both turn sharply.

Jemimah stood in silence by the door. She stood as though mesmerised though her entire body appeared to quiver. Her trembling lips were parted as if she intended to speak yet she made no sound. The only real movement was the glossy stream of tears which traced a meandering path down her cheeks and dripped steadily from her chin.

Johnny took in the defeated slump of her slender shoulders and he briefly closed his eyes against the raw pain of her heartbreak. Jemimah had lost enough already in her young life; he knew what it was like to cope with the blows life dealt you, child or not, and he ached for her; if he could have turned back the clock to shield her from this new hurt, he would. When he opened his eyes, Jemimah was shaking her head slowly in utter disbelief.

"Oh, lassie..." Trudy choked, her throat rough with unshed tears.

The girl was opening her mouth as if to speak but it seemed she could find no words. She was breathing hard as though winded.

"Come here, child." Trudy's voice, stronger now, commanded.

But Jemimah did not move; she could not make her feet obey her.

Trudy patted Johnny's arm. "Johnny, get her before she swoons. Go on, lad!"

Johnny was at her side in an instant, his arms circling around her, steadying her and lending their strength. He led her carefully to the bed and eased her down. Jemimah gulped a breath, pushing their anxious hands away.

"I'm alright, I am really. I'm alright." She swiped roughly at her wet face then spoke more fiercely. "I'm not a baby. Don't shelter me. You should've told me outright. It's just the shock... hearing it like a kid listenin' at the keyhole. You could've told me too." She turned accusing eyes on the old lady. "You should have told me!" Then, the tears defeated her once more. Bowing her head, her shoulders shook and all the while she muttered, "I'm not a baby. I'll be alright."

Trudy's pudgy hand reached out to softly stroke the dark bowed head. Johnny stood by in anguish, feeling powerless to do anything of any worth. At last, he angrily turned and, mumbling mostly to himself, said that he was going out to see to Barranca. Trudy watched him stride out and knew his impatience was with himself and the wretched impotence which chafed at him. She already understood him quite well and sensed that his inability to solve the situation would be a torment to him.

"Now, you listen to me, child," Trudy steadied the girl, raising her chin with a firm hand. "You can be sad today but then that's it. No more tears." Green eyes held green eyes. Jemimah sniffed and gave a shaky nod. "I have a little time left to me and I've no intention of spending it weeping and wailing. They hav'na put me in my shroud yet, y'hear?" Trudy smiled, crinkling up her eyes so that they almost disappeared into the squashy round face like raisins in a rosy pudding. "That's better!" She nodded encouragingly. "Child, everyone has their time and there's no use grievin' when that time comes. Death is as natural and certain as birth; it's what you do with the time in between that counts. I've had a good, long life. I've seen and done many things - some, lord, I'll never tell! And I've known a good man - and there's precious few of them, believe me! I'll not weep now my time is nigh." The old lady patted Jemimah's soft cheek and her keen eyes softened mistily. "Aye, but I will be sorry to leave you, my wee girlie. Always remember, the most painful tears are not the ones which fall from your eyes and cover your face; they're the ones that fall from your heart and cover your soul. Dinna let your thoughts of me cause you that kind of pain. I wouldna' wish it." Trudy paused to gently wipe away the tear which was tracing its way down Jemimah's cheek. "Now, fetch me that Lancer boy while you go on outside to talk to Torcall. And you might think on washing your face under the pump. Go on now."

By the time Johnny came in, to his great relief, Trudy was sitting up properly, her feet on the floor and some colour returning to her little face. She tucked a loose wisp of snowy hair back into place and gestured to the stool at the side of the bed.

"Come set ye down, lad. I want to have words with you."

Johnny quirked a dark eyebrow and grinned. "Am I in trouble?"

"Not yet." Trudy gave him an appraising glance and, when he had settled on the stool, she reached across and patted his hand. "Now, 'tis the girl I need to talk to you about."

Johnny sat up straighter, self-consciously wrapping his arms around himself and dipping his head almost shyly. He was listening but seemed to be studying his knees. Trudy pursed her lips in faint annoyance and gave his thigh a sharp tap. Johnny's head jerked up and he smiled at being so admonished by the little woman.

"I said you weren't in trouble, lad but you will be if you don't pay me some mind!" she snipped. "I reckon I've enough left in me to warm your behind and..."

"No need for that, Trudy," Johnny smiled, his hands raised in mock-surrender. "I'm listenin'." He grinned then and rolled his eyes. "Boy, you can be as big a scold as..."

"You say I'm like your daddy and I will skelp you!" the little woman grinned, wagging a stern finger.

Johnny chuckled.

"Now then, that girl... "

At this, Johnny looked up seriously. "She alright now? She seemed..."

Trudy nodded. "She'll be fine. T'was the shock and that's mostly my fault but that's not what I wanted to say so be still." She sighed and scratched her head. "She's a good girl, I'm sure you know that well?" When Johnny agreed, she continued. "You could do a lot worse, lad. You just have to treat her kindly, gentle her some and be patient 'til she's grown enough for you. I've watched you with the horse; I know you have that softness in your soul. You can bide your time, be patient with her and, when she's ready, she'll make you a fine..."

"Whoa! Hold on there!" Johnny was up and striding across to the mantel, his fingers nervously picking at his conchos. He was shaking his head, chewing distractedly at the inside of his lip. For a long moment he said nothing then, frowning, he turned to face the old lady. "Trudy, I don't know what you think is goin' on here but..."

"Pshaw!" She too was up from her perch on the bed and moving agitatedly towards him. "I know well that nothing is going on, lad!" Johnny's earnest blue gaze searched her face and he sighed. "But, given time..."

"No! Wait a minute!" Johnny was incredulous and not prepared to entertain any more of the old girl's wild ideas. "Jemimah is Murdoch's goddaughter; my father has adopted her but... that's it! There's no more to it than that, y'understand? She is just... a kid and Scott an' me... well... we're like..."

She waved away his protests. "Och, dinna say you feel like a brother to her?"

Johnny scowled, trying to keep a lid on his temper. It didn't help that this little woman had picked up on the very thing he'd thought himself only days ago; he sure didn't feel like Jemimah's brother somehow, even though he reckoned he should. That was how Scott acted towards the kid. Johnny was as angry with himself as he was with Trudy. He sure didn't appreciate the old girl putting him in this position; he didn't want to be rude to a lady but she was pushing him closer to it with every word . How did he feel about the kid? Not as her brother, no but then, he sure didn't feel the way that the old girl seemed to think he did either! He didn't like the way this talk was going - hell, it made him downright uneasy and he resented the old lady's interference and perception. She seemed to look right through him as though his very thoughts were written across his face.

"No, I did'na think so," she smiled smugly.

"Ma'am, my step-father taught me not to argue with a lady but... Jemimah is just a little girl an' what you're suggestin'..."

"Little girl!" she scoffed. "That little girl is near enough fifteen! By that time, I had taken my first steps into womanhood and was sharing my..." Trudy faltered and Johnny was staggered to see her blush. "She is no child. But maybe I was wrong... about you! Seems you're as blind and dense as every other man - wouldn't know a good thing if it waltzed up and bit you on the ass!" She finished her little rant and was breathing deeply, obviously miffed.

Johnny knew he had better cut the argument short; the last thing he wanted was the old girl keeling over on him again. He tried to smile as he passed her. "Well, maybe you're right about that anyhow but you ain't right about her, Trudy. She's just a kid. I would never..." He breathed out sharply then paused by the door. Looking back over his shoulder, his deep blue eyes serious and his voice soft, he said, "I couldn't ever - not with her. An' I'd be obliged, ma'am, if you didn't bring this up again."

There was silence then while they stared at each other. "I gotta get cleaned up for supper," Johnny muttered and he went out.

Trudy lowered her rump onto the bed with an air of utter defeat. "Gertrude Morag McElvenney," she mocked herself. "You go all your life without bairns and now you decide you're going to be a mother? Och, you gawkie old fool!"

 

As Johnny stalked to the corral, he realised Jemimah was once again seated on the top rail of the fence there, watching the black horse strut around the perimeter. He felt somewhat leery of being near to her now, ever since Trudy had voiced her outrageous notions, and that in itself made him angry. He enjoyed his time with the kid and, up until now, they had always been perfectly easy in each other's company. Was that all spoiled? Johnny kept his head down but, out of the corner of his eye, spotted her jumping guiltily down from the rail.

"Sorry, Johnny," she said as he drew near.

"What for?" he answered brusquely, keeping his eyes fixed on the horse.

Jemimah gestured to the fence. "I was sitting up there again." At his steadfast refusal to meet her gaze, she tried to explain. "I know you don't like me climbing on the fence when Torcall's in there so... I'm sorry. I won't do it no more."

He merely nodded vaguely and blew out a sharp breath.

"Johnny?"

He turned, almost angrily, and snapped, "What?"

The girl hesitated, suddenly uncertain; he was being so strange. She swallowed. He was acting like he was mad at her. "Have I done summat wrong?" When all she received was a blank stare, Jemimah took a step back, her expression closing in a frown. "It don't matter. I know I ain't done nowt!" She turned to leave him.

Johnny watched her striding away and sighed heavily, realising he was acting crazily. "Honey..."

"S'alright, I'll leave you be. Sorry to bother you!" she snipped over her shoulder.

Johnny was by her side in an instant, his hand on her arm. "Now, just hold on there. You ain't botherin' me. Come here." He pulled her to him, trying to enfold her in a hug. Still irked and upset by the whole horrible day, she resisted his embrace. Johnny found he was grinning at her haughtiness. "Come here I said!" His arms were insistent and, eventually, she allowed him to hold her. Resting his chin on the top of her silky head, Johnny murmured, "Are you alright? I'm sorry. I guess all this has hit me pretty hard too. It ain't easy to make a new friend and then discover they're gonna be leavin', is it? 'Specially one like Trudy."

Johnny felt the slim little body in his arms lose the last traces of stiffness. She melted into him, his warmth fortifying her. When she spoke, her voice was soft, searching for his reassurance.

"No, but we'll see her again one day... in heaven. Won't we, Johnny?"

When he paused, she lifted her earnest little face to his. He smiled tenderly down at her. "Sure we will."

Suddenly, the soft warmth of her lips touched his own in the briefest of kisses and then his arms were empty. He watched her run back to the cabin, a strange loneliness - the like of which he had not felt since the days before he had come to Lancer - taking his breath away.

****

Jemimah and Trudy sat on a blanket on the banks of the stream and watched Johnny settling Torcall once more.

He had been working with the stately black horse since sun up and had finally announced his intention to lead the animal to the water. Torcall had responded well to all of Johnny's schooling but the flighty creature did not take kindly to his new friend's attempts to actually ride him. Torcall had, in fact, been most indignant and his wild rolling and arching had managed to unseat Johnny every time. There was no better way, Johnny knew, to hamper the stallion's fussing, than in the water.

Jemimah watched Johnny now - knee-deep in the stream, securing the girth of the saddle. He was shirtless and the sun's bright rays shimmered on the water droplets across the muscles of his back as he moved; the myriad tiny glinting lights making his tanned body glisten.

Jemimah's mouth was dry and she felt an odd swooping sensation low-down inside her. The fine hairs on her forearms were standing up and her heart was pounding in her very skin.

This would be his third attempt to stay on the horse's back. Each time, it was obvious the animal was tiring; it took longer to rid itself of its unwelcome burden. The water sucked at the horse's powerful legs, making its frenzied attempts to kick out and twist so much more impossible. Torcall did not like this at all.

As for Johnny, he was determined. He knew the horse was tiring and the water broke his fall each time he was finally bucked off. This was an ornery wilful creature but it had met its match in Johnny Lancer!

He gathered the reins in one hand and, crooning softly, slipped his boot into the stirrup. With a tiny neat hop, he rose and was smoothly into the saddle again. Instantly, the horse's calm acceptance was gone. Torcall reared and cavorted stormily upstream in his attempts to flick off this pesky irritation which so rudely intruded upon his dignity. Johnny held fast, moving with the violent spasms of the animal.

Trudy and Jemimah gripped one another in excitement, shouting their encouragement as Johnny sailed past atop the panting stallion. He was staying on longer each time and this looked like it could be the one. Torcall's contortions were more half-hearted and they could see Johnny mastering the horse's increasingly laboured efforts.

As abruptly as the bucking had begun, it ceased. Coated with sweat and grunting at its exertion, the horse finally subsided, admitting defeat. Johnny nudged it into a much more sedate walk, turning back along the stream towards the old lady and the girl who now stood applauding. Johnny too was breathing heavily. He grinned and sent a diamond-like spray of water droplets arcing through the sunlight as he shook his dripping fringe out of his eyes. Now minding his manners once again, Torcall allowed Johnny to steer him this way and that, finally subdued.

"I need to ask you something." Jemimah's voice held a note of urgency as though she had struggled with a difficult problem and had now come to a decision.

"Indeed? Then do so, child."

The girl hesitated then cast her earnest green gaze on the old lady. "It's a bit personal-like."

Trudy smiled. "Aye... from the way you're colouring up I would say so." They both paused to watch Johnny ride past. Trudy's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "It wouldna' have anything to do with that fine specimen of manhood that just rode by, would it?"

If it were possible, Jemimah blushed even redder but she took a deep breath and looked the old lady in the eye. "In a way, yes. There's no-one I can ask at home and my mother's been gone since I were a baby as you know."

"Aye."

"An' then I met you. An' I know that you know all this stuff right well enough."

"Stuff?" The woman raised a quizzical brow.

"I want you to teach me how to... make love to a man." There! She had said it outright. Would Trudy be angry or upset with her? Jemimah waited.

"Do you indeed?" Trudy was no fool; she knew well enough that the child had guessed how she had once made her living. "And are you of a prudish nature, girl?"

"No," Jemimah solemnly replied.

"I didna' think so." Trudy eyed her beadily. She wondered what the big silver-haired man would say if he knew his daughter was about to be given a lesson in how to pleasure a man. She refrained from chuckling aloud.

"I'm no wet-behind-the-ears kid," Jemimah was saying. "I know how men and women join together and where babies come from. I've lived around farming all my life an' I could hardly fail to notice animals together and bein' born. Everyone always avoids answerin' me or gets cross if I ask 'em owt and yet they keep expectin' me to act grown-up and tell me to stop bein' like a kid. I just wish they'd make up their minds!"

Trudy nodded but said nothing.

"I don't want to know the 'ins and outs' of it," Jemimah said.

Trudy chortled at her choice of words.

"You know what I mean," the girl blushed. "I don't need the medical doctorin' book version of how it's all accomplished - I know all that! I want to know the stuff I need to do for the man and..." She swallowed hard. "... and what he'll want to do to me."

Trudy held her gaze but Jemimah did not waver. She remained serious. "Very well," the old lady decided. "I'll tell you what you ask but the first time you cover your ears or any giggling and it's over!"

"As if I would!" Jemimah was affronted at the implication.

"Alright. Come, we'll walk back to the cabin." The old lady waved to Johnny who was still walking the black horse through the water. "Johnny, we're heading back to start supper."

Johnny waved back and called across to them. "I'm goin' to take him round a few more times then I'll see how he feels on dry land."

Trudy raised a hand in acknowledgement then, resting her arm around Jemimah's slender shoulders, they made for the cabin.

****

"So, I've told you all you need. Any more than that, you and your man will work out for yourselves."

Jemimah nodded. She had been very quiet throughout Trudy's talk though her green eyes had widened on several occasions.

"But, as I said, there's nothing will arouse a man more than if he knows how much you're yearning for him. And remember, that innocence you're so anxious to lose is the very thing that will attract a man. He can get any girl from a whorehouse for all the rest!" She leaned in closer to Jemimah, her green eyes keen. "There's nothing a man finds more satisfying than being the first to deflower a maid, especially one as much in love as you are. Your Johnny will be a proud and happy man!"

Jemimah smiled vaguely.

Trudy chewed the inside of her lip. "Did I tell too much? You're not a-feared, are you, child? You did ask!"

Jemimah shook her head emphatically. "No, no. It's not that... though some of the stuff you said... I've never even imagined... I mean... I'd no idea..." The girl straightened. "I just don't know if I'll ever get the chance - with him. He's still determined to treat me as the kid I was when I first come here. An' I know some of that's my own fault; I do behave a bit bratty now and again... and I sometimes play tricks an' things. But, I'm really tryin' to be the lady they all expect. It's just..."

"It isn't easy?"

Jemimah shook her head morosely and Trudy reached out to pat her hand. "Come, girl, let's start that supper before we have a hungry man descend upon us."

Jemimah peeled and chopped the potatoes while Trudy squatted by the stove, tending the pot of aromatic stew.

"So lass, if you're hankering for Johnny Lancer to look upon you as a woman, why do you push him so?" At Jemimah's glance, the woman nodded her snowy head wisely. "Oh yes, I have eyes; I've seen you. Now, surely you dinna' enjoy having your britches dusted? I have known a few in my time who found pleasure in that but..."

Jemimah dropped the potato she was peeling and swung round incredulously. "Eh? You're joking! What sane girl enjoys gettin' walloped? They must be barmy!"

Trudy's distinctive wheeze of a laugh rasped out from the other side of the cabin and she wiped her eyes on the end of her plaid shawl. "Take my word - there are those that do; women and men both. Those that like to dish it out and those that'd rather be on the receiving end. Never found any pleasure in it myself and I didna' think you were one such..."

"I should bloody well say not! Bloody cracked!" Jemimah resumed her peeling.

"So," Trudy chortled. "I'll ask my question again - you push him, rile him. For why?"

Jemimah hesitated then answered, her voice low. "I don't do it a-purpose, not all the time, but sometimes... well, how else can I get him to notice me?"

"Ah, I see."

"I mean, look at me. I ain't got much in the way of feminine charms like Teresa has. I can't in no way be allurin' to a man like Johnny. Sometimes all I can think to do is give him a bit of sass or play some naughty trick. At least that gets his attention."

Trudy rolled her eyes and concentrated on seasoning the pot of stew. "Pshaw! Lass, you're going to end up walking with a limp from all the hidings your mischief earns you. Don't you know there's far better ways to make a man notice you?"

Jemimah drooped. "Notice me? Yeah, right."

"You listen to me!" Trudy rose and shook her wooden spoon. "It's the soft line of a smooth throat as you sweep your long silky hair behind your ear..." She mimed this, scooping imaginary locks from her face with a pudgy hand. Jemimah grinned. "It's the gentle sway of your skirts as you walk..." The little fat woman sashayed across the rug to the globe cabinet where she bent to pick out a bottle. "The curve of your hip as you tend to his supper..." She stuck her ample rear-end out provocatively, causing Jemimah to giggle. "All these things can intoxicate a man as surely as a good malt whisky!" Trudy poured herself a dram and sipped it, smacking her lips and grinning. She then sashayed back to the stove, winking at the chuckling girl.

"Can't hardly credit any of that would beckon to Johnny if I were to do it. If'n I walked like that, he'd probably figure I were desperate for a trip to the outhouse! I ain't got those womanly curves an' I know all men like 'em more than any amount of wiggle-walking." Jemimah tucked her chin onto her chest to survey her own curves. "What about all that stuff they like? I once heard Johnny teasing Scott about how he likes ladies with tiny waists and plenty up top. Scott went right red but he didn't deny it! An' I know Johnny ain't exactly averse to females with plentiful bosoms." She sighed. "My chest isn't very big; hardly got owt at all!"

Trudy's familiar wheezing laugh sounded. "Aw, that'll come in time. Ye're obviously still growing but you should take a good honest look in the glass; that's already a trim little figure. Aye, there's real promise there; I should know. And young Lancer will see it by and by if he has eyes and half a mind."

****

This time, when Johnny and Jemimah packed up to return to Lancer, Torcall remained with his mistress. Johnny had made the little old lady promise not to ride the horse until they visited again. He wanted to be present to be sure the spirited stallion remembered all he had been taught. Their next visit was to be on Wednesday. They were going to ride over for supper that day and stay until the following evening.

As Jemimah saddled Amiga, Trudy ambled to her side and drew the girl into her embrace. Initially surprised, Jemimah nestled into the motherly arms but her heart fluttered with alarm. Trudy had never hugged her goodbye like that before. An uneasy feeling crept over the girl; a nameless fear that she was reluctant to acknowledge.

Johnny took his leave of the jaunty little woman with a kiss to her apple cheek. She patted his arm. "Och, go on with you, you charming rogue!" Johnny grinned and hopped up onto his big palomino. However, before he could turn away, Trudy clutched at his calf and hissed urgently, "Lad!"

Johnny leaned down to her when she beckoned. "What is it, Trudy? You missin' me already?"

She fixed him with her sharp green gaze and whispered low, her words meant only for him. "Look after your girl!" She flicked her glance over to Jemimah who was mounting up.

Johnny smiled. "I will."

"Always!" she pressed him.

"Always."

"Promise me, lad!"

"Trudy, I promise. I'll always take care of her." The young man regarded her for a moment, his blue eyes clouded with worry. "Y'know, maybe I should hitch up the wagon. You could come back with us."

But she was already backing away. "Pshaw! No need for that!"

Johnny's face mirrored his concern. "I don't feel easy leavin' you up here..."

The little woman waved him away. "I prefer my own company and I'll bide fine 'til I see you next."

Johnny still hesitated, sensing that he should push her but knowing she would only dig her heels in. "Wednesday," was all he finally said.

"Aye, Wednesday it is. I'll see you then."

****

Johnny and Jemimah rode home in companionable silence for most of the way, both engrossed in their own thoughts.

****

When Johnny rode in an hour before suppertime the next day, his face lit up at the sight of the ranch kids playing around the yard and the barn. The boys had some kind of boisterous ball game going and in the middle of the throng, Jemimah, her long hair loose and flying behind her as she raced around, laughed and waved to him. Immediately, his spirits lifted and he grinned. As always, she was surrounded by the younger boys; Tadeo contriving to be as close to her as possible. Johnny was pleased to see that Enrique was nowhere in sight.

The children were divided into two teams, their game appeared to involve hitting an old ball with a stick then haring as quickly as possible around the perimeter of the yard before being tagged by one of the others. Jemimah had just successfully completed the circuit (her team were cheering and dancing around and there was much tongue-putting-out at the opposition!)and leaned over, resting her hands on her knees, panting for breath. As Johnny slid down from Barranca, he noticed that she was barefoot and her skirts had ruffled up to show her long slender legs beneath the lace trimmed edge of her drawers. He chuckled to himself.

"Hey, Johnny, come join us!" she invited. Her plea was instantly taken up by the others; even a few of the littlest girls drew nearer, smiling shyly at the young man they adored.

Johnny swiped the back of his hand across his brow, feeling grimy and hot. "Ain't much time left before supper, honey and I need to take a bath," he apologised. "If I show up looking like this, Murdoch will have me on bread and water!"

A chorus of groans and boos met this announcement. A sly gleam lit Jemimah's green eyes and she peeped up at him through her thick black lashes. "You're only sayin' that 'cos you can't catch!" she accused with a saucy smile. "I've heard that even Jelly can catch better than you. Are you 'yitten', Johnny?"

Johnny threw her a mock-scowl. He knew full well that 'yitten' was a slang term from her part of the world which meant 'chicken'. He quirked a sardonic eyebrow, his hands on his lean hips as he regarded the girl. She stared back at him, green eyes gleaming with challenge. Her long, long hair was ruffled from the game. She did not often wear it loose but it swung about her in a rippling chocolate mass. Her face was flushed and there was a dewy sheen to the skin showing at the open neck of her blouse. She was getting tanned in all the summer sunshine; Teresa berated her constantly about not wearing a hat and keeping her sleeves down to cover her skin. Jemimah's response was a roll of her eyes heavenwards and, if Murdoch and Scott were not looking, a twirling of her index finger near her head to rudely indicate that the older girl was sadly deranged. Johnny smiled down at her.

"So, I can't catch, huh?" He narrowed his blue eyes and smiled, accepting the challenge. "You just throw it, chica - I'll show you if I can catch it or not!"

Turning to retrieve the ball from little Ramon, she winked at the others. Faces alight with glee, they all stood rapt; something good was going to happen - it always did when Jemimah got that glint in her eye!

"Alright, Johnny, you ready?"

He gave her a single nod and crouched in readiness. But Jemimah clicked her tongue and shook her dark head. "No, you're too close. Even little Paloma could catch it that close!"

Johnny glanced across at tiny four year old Paloma who stood to one side sucking her thumb. The boys laughed and jeered. Grinning, Johnny paced backwards a few steps. "This any better?" he called.

But Jemimah was not satisfied. "No way!" she sneered. "Jelly caught it the other day from way back over there. Keep going... two more steps... another one... one more..." She waved him back repeatedly and Johnny played along, taking another backwards step and then another until, finally, she held up her hand for him to stop. "That should do it!" she called.

Johnny hoped so. He was not at all sure he would be able to catch the ball now. Sighing, he beckoned for Jemimah to make her throw.

With a wicked grin, she did so, aiming purposely high so that Johnny had to stretch upwards, squinting at the brilliant blue of the sky. The ball seemed to hang as though suspended in the air and the children held their collective breath. Then it started to drop and looked as if it would sail over his head. Johnny leaped for it, craning backwards... and fell right into the water trough behind him with a terrific splash!

The children all shrieked with laughter, watching their amigo rise spluttering from the trough, water streaming from him and blinking in surprise. They clapped their hands at their playmate's daring; delighted at the display but all equally glad they had not been the one to pull the prank. None of them fancied facing Señor Juanito's wrath and, at that moment, it wasn't clear how he would react. Sure, he was usually a lot of fun but he was, after all, an adult and they were a law unto themselves.

Jemimah did not seem in the least concerned. She danced with delight, hooting gleefully. Johnny, meanwhile, sat in the trough, gripping the sides and grinning at the prancing girl. A wolfish gleam lit his sapphire gaze.

"I shoulda' seen that one comin'," he gasped.

"Well... " Jemimah could barely speak for laughing. "You did say you needed a bath, Johnny!"

The group of children all howled with laughter again, clutching each other in their helpless mirth. Johnny couldn't help chuckling too. Then he eyed Jemimah. "And, boy, do you need a spankin'!" He began to lift himself out of the trough, water streaming from his sodden clothes and his blue shirt sticking to him. Jemimah shrieked and, still laughing, ran off to the barn just as he made to grab her. "Yeah, you better run!" he shouted after her. He shook each leg, feeling the water sloshing inside his boots, and grimaced as he hiked up his pants. Then, swiping his dripping hair out of his eyes, he took off after her. "You just wait, Jemimah Rose! I'm gonna show you how good I can catch!"

By the time Johnny reached the barn, Jemimah was already hightailing it up the ladder to the hayloft.

"Oh no, you don't, kid!" Johnny squelched over to the ladder, shielding his head when she began to pelt him with handfuls of straw. Her frantic aim was not good, however, and he was quickly at the top, laughing at her mad scramble across the hay bales.

Her escape attempt was futile; Johnny was far too quick for her. Snatching hold of one slim bare ankle, he hauled her back and pinned her in the mound of soft hay. By now, both were helpless and weak with laughter. Jemimah wrinkled up her nose at the water which dripped from him onto her face. Breathlessly, she looked up at Johnny. He had straddled her legs and his strong hands pinned her wrists either side of her head. Jemimah's heart thudded in her chest and that hot swooping feeling inside was making her tremble like a leaf on a tree.

"See... caught ya! So, chica," he smiled, a dangerous twinkle in his eye. "You're breaking Murdoch's rule, huh? I hate to think what he'd do to you if he knew you were galloping about the yard barefoot!"

"Well, I won't tell him if you..."

" And... you got me all wet!" they both giggled as several fat drops of water dripped from his hair and onto her nose. Johnny sighed and shook his head in reproof. "I don't know... a man does a hard day's work... comes home to his loving family... an' some little varmint pushes him in the water trough!"

"I did not push..."

With an evil glint in his eye, he grinned back down at the girl. "Now... revenge!"

"S'not fair, you're bigger'n me!" she squeaked as Johnny rolled her over and tucked her in against his knees, pretending to raise his hand as if to paddle her. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" she gasped, half-laughing and half-afraid he really meant it.

"You are? Real sorry?" It was easy to hear the laughter in Johnny's voice and she giggled, nodding.

He released her then and they both collapsed back into the hay. She grinned when he looked across at her and wagged his finger in mock-severity.

Covered in straw, she began to straighten her skirts to conceal her drawers and bare legs, smoothing down her ruffled petticoats. The skin behind her knees was smooth, flawless. Johnny was soaking wet but realised his mouth felt suddenly dry. Sometimes, and he didn't know why it was, this kid simply drew him in and he found that he could hardly take his eyes off her. She sure had something magical, alright - like she was lit from within. He thought back to something Scott had said the other day about his friend Zee... she was... bewitching! Yes, that was it - bewitching .

 

Johnny and Jemimah were still laughing and picking bits of straw off each other when they burst into the house and promptly collided with Murdoch who was just leaving the study.

"Whoa there! Johnny, what happened to you?" Murdoch greeted them with a mixture of horror and amusement.

Like two naughty children, the pair shuffled before the big man and Johnny smiled down at her stricken expression, easily reading the silent plea she sent his way. Murdoch, however, was a pretty good father and could astutely interpret the look too.

"Or do I not want to know?" he guessed.

Johnny dipped his head and scratched his nose, playing for time. Finally, he looked up at his father with a cheeky smile. "Well, I needed to take a bath before dinner..."

Murdoch chuckled. His younger son was more than a wee bit dishevelled with his scruffy shirt soaking and plastered to him, his calzoneras dripping still and his black hair sticking up at all angles with more than a little straw embedded in it. For all that, his smile still warmed his father's heart. "Would the bath house not be a better idea, son?"

Johnny's smile became a fully-fledged grin. "Y'know, I'd kinda come to that conclusion myself, Murdoch. Guess I'll... go an'... take a bath." He glanced down at Jemimah, urging her with his eyes to make herself scarce.

"Think I'd better go change!" Jemimah made a dash for the stairs and even got as far as the third step before the big Scot halted her.

"Just a minute, young lady!"

The girl froze, her heart sinking, then turned as Murdoch came to the foot of the stairs. He addressed Johnny but never took his beady eyes off Jemimah. "Johnny, if you want a bath, you're running out of time."

"Yeh, me too!" Again, she tried to escape but Murdoch called her back.

"You have enough time to explain to me what you were doing outside without your boots on." He pointed to the great room. "This way, young lady. March!"

Heaving a sigh and throwing a look of defeat over her shoulder at Johnny, the girl trudged in front of Murdoch into the great room like a convict going to the gallows.

****

It was a good dinner. Everyone had praised Maria's roast and conversation flowed. Jemimah had recovered from Murdoch's latest ear-blistering lecture though she was still wondering how the man was able to yell so loudly one minute and calmly tuck in to beef and potatoes the next without getting indigestion.

Scott was just telling her a funny story about a play he had seen in Boston where the leading man had been so drunk that he had wandered into the theatre well after the curtain had gone up and sat in the first row to watch his own performance. Jemimah was giggling so, scooping her long hair back over her shoulders, when Murdoch suddenly clunked down his cutlery and stared at her.

The laughter dwindled and, one by one, the others all became silent, puzzled as to what had happened now.

"Is something wrong, sir?" Scott at last ventured.

"Jemimah Rose Day," Murdoch growled. "Tell me I'm seeing things."

Jemimah looked flummoxed. Everyone turned to her but she shook her head, unable to enlighten them.

"Young lady, what have you done?" Murdoch pressed, his voice ominously low.

"Me? What? I haven't..." She froze, eyes wide in sudden realisation. A scarlet blush crept steadily up her throat and she stared fixedly down at her plate, glancing surreptitiously up at her father through her thick black lashes.

Murdoch's lips were firmed into a thin furious line and his face was darkening with every passing second. Scott, Johnny and Teresa stared from one to the other in confusion.

"What's goin' on?" Johnny asked.

"Would someone care to fill the rest of us in?" Scott laid down his knife and fork.

"I don't think I'm imagining things, am I?" Murdoch rumbled to his daughter.

Jemimah shook her head but still did not look up.

"Show me," Murdoch insisted.

The others watched in astonishment as she slowly swept aside the curtain of dark hair to reveal small gold hoops in her ears.

"You pierced your ears?" Teresa gasped. "When?"

Jemimah remained silent, her face crimson and loathing being the centre of attention for once.

"Well?" Everyone at the table jumped when Murdoch barked across at her.

When she answered, her voice was very small. "This morning."

"While I was in Spanish Wells, I presume?" Jemimah's nod had Murdoch gritting his teeth. "Who did it?" He waited but she said nothing. "Tell me now, my girl."

For the first time, Jemimah looked up and, though clearly mortified and anxious, raised her chin defiantly. "Daddy, I can't!"

"You mean you won't!"

She shrugged insolently. "Alright then, I won't!"

Murdoch looked like he was about to erupt and Scott, on his left, leapt in hurriedly. "It hardly seems to matter now, sir; it's done." He turned to Jemimah. "Are you alright?"

She nodded her head, grateful for the chance to perhaps divert Murdoch from throttling her. "Yes, it didn't hurt much. We held some ice against my ears so they'd be frozen to dull the pain. Hardly bled at all."

"Jemimah!" Teresa winced at the very thought.

The younger girl smiled, warming to her story. "What? It were nowt. You ought to..."

"Did I or did I not expressly forbid you..."

"They're my ears!" Jemimah snapped crossly and with as much sass as she dared. Then, in a quieter voice, she wheedled, "You're always tellin' me you want me to be a lady an' all the ladies are piercing their ears nowadays. Even Queen Victoria an' all the princesses have done it; it's not just tarts an' dance hall girls like you seem to think!"

But Murdoch was not to be swayed with this argument; he had heard her use it too many times. "And if it were the fashion to be tattooed all over, I suppose you'd want to do that too?" he bit out.

"No," she denied. "Only where it didn't show!" she added with a smirk.

Murdoch seemed to expand and he leaned towards Jemimah, wagging a peremptory finger. "I'll give you something where it doesn't show if you don't watch yourself, young lady!"

Johnny, on his father's right, covered his chuckle with a hasty hand. Scott too was suddenly biting his lip and studying his wine glass. Even when she was teetering on the brink of disaster, the little minx could be so funny.

Murdoch finally eased back in his chair though he still regarded his daughter flintily. "You will learn that defying the rules and sneaking about behind my back earns unpleasant consequences." Everyone had stilled, waiting to hear what the Lancer patriarch would decree. "You are confined to the house for the rest of the week!"

"But what about... ?"

"You will forego the visit to Mannock Ridge. Johnny will go alone."

"But that's..."

"I will not have you flouting the rules and disrespecting..." Murdoch's voice was growing louder.

"But I have to go! You know I do! Trudy will... "

"You will NOT go!"

"I've GOT to!" In her anger, Jemimah threw down her knife and fork with a loud clatter, upsetting the dish of peas which overturned, the green vegetables careering across the tablecloth. She jumped to her feet and glared at her father, her lower lip trembling.

Scott reached for her hand and gently but firmly drew her back down into her seat by his side. It seemed that everyone was holding their breath.

When Murdoch spoke again, his voice was quieter but, if anything, all the more dreadful. "Then, I will give you a choice - you obey me and forego the visit or... you can go upstairs right this minute, fetch down your hairbrush and wait for me in the study until we've finished supper. It's up to you."

Jemimah's mouth dropped open. Scott glanced at Johnny. Teresa watched the scene in horrified fascination. Jemimah caught Johnny's tiny head shake and, pouting, dropped her angry gaze to the table again.

"I'll miss the visit," she mumbled.

"I'll check on Trudy when I go over, honey. You know I will." Johnny knew very well why she so wanted to go.

"Where are the earrings from, Jemimah?" Scott was asking.

She did not look up. "Dunno. Why?"

"Well, it's just that the skin could become infected if the metal isn't real gold or if it's not clean. Are they gold, do you know?" he asked kindly.

She frowned, slightly concerned now. "Doubt it. She..."

Murdoch looked sharply at her. "She who?" he pressed.

Mutinously, the girl clamped her lips tightly together and scowled at him. Murdoch ground his teeth, thinking he might well dish out a bottom warming after all if she didn't change her attitude - and quickly! "Very well," he decided. "First thing tomorrow, you and I will take a trip to Green River to see Sam. He can check for any infection."

Jemimah would have argued but Murdoch held up a large hand to hush her. "This is not open to negotiation. Now, eat your dinner!"

****

Murdoch was particularly stern all the way in to Green River; so much so that, by the time he drew the buckboard up outside Sam's office, Jemimah had slid down on the seat beside him and would have disappeared underneath it if she had been able. The offending earrings were blatantly on display as he had insisted her mane of hair be scraped back into a single braid in readiness for Sam's examination. Jemimah felt as though everyone they passed was staring at her ears and judging her. If she heard one more word about flouting Murdoch's rules and infinite edicts she thought she might well explode!

Trooping sullenly behind her father and resolutely keeping her head down so as to avoid having to wish anyone a 'good morning', she went into Sam's surgery.

Sam Jenkins was there, drying his hands on a length of white towel. He looked up as the door opened and greeted his long-term friend and the young girl warmly. "Well now, this is a pleasant surprise!" he beamed. "I've not had such a pretty young lady in my surgery for some time; not since you hammered that thumb nail. How is it now?"

Jemimah proffered the thumb in question for him to see. "S'alright now, Doc," she mumbled.

If Sam noticed her subdued demeanour, he wisely said nothing. "So, is this a social call or business?" he asked. "A problem I need to look at?"

Murdoch cleared his throat and stepped forwards. "A problem, Sam," he said. "Or rather two problems to be exact!" He frowned grimly at the girl who was avoiding his eye. "Jemimah has taken it upon herself to pierce her ears and, as she won't let on who did it, or where and with what, I would appreciate it if you were to take a look - make sure there's no infection."

"I see." Sam ushered Jemimah to his table. "Sit on here, young lady... if you can."

Jemimah knew exactly what Sam was implying and blushed right up to the roots of her hair. He began to check her ear lobes carefully. "Pretty neat job," Sam announced. "Who did it? I can tell you didn't do it yourself."

Jemimah said nothing but glanced over at Murdoch who appeared to be gnashing his teeth.

"She won't tell me. Says she doesn't want to get whoever it was into trouble."

Sam chuckled and straightened. "Murdoch, you can stop worrying. They look fine. How do they feel, dear?"

Jemimah brightened. "Fine. There was hardly any blood at all when we did it."

Murdoch grunted.

"You know these hoops aren't gold. There's a chance the wounds could react to the metal and become infected later," Sam said. "Of course, we could always take them out and let the holes heal up."

Murdoch's own ears pricked up at this. "Wouldn't there be a scar, a mark?"

Sam took in the girl's stricken glance; she surely didn't want him to remove the hoops. "Nothing to speak of, no. It'd be like they'd never been pierced in the first place. But it might be harder for Jemimah to have them done properly if she decided to do it again... when she is of an age to make that decision herself. There'd be some thickening of the flesh, a little scar tissue but, no, not a mark as such."

"Hmm." Murdoch looked down, considering his young daughter. He could not fail to take in her sad face. As for Jemimah, she already knew Murdoch was going to make her remove the rings and leave them to heal. She had plucked up the gumption and gone through all that palaver for nothing. Her green eyes sparkled with sudden tears which she could not blink away. Murdoch and Sam exchanged a glance and the big man chewed thoughtfully at his lower lip. Then he began to fish in his vest pocket.

"Sam, do you think you could take those rings out..." Jemimah hung her head and tried hard not to cry. "And put these in instead?"

He handed Sam a pair of tiny gold rings. Each had an exquisite tiny garnet bead threaded through it.

"Very pretty," Sam held them in the palm of his hand.

Jemimah's whole body became still. She looked from the earrings to Murdoch, tears glistening on her lashes but an expression of rapture on her elfin face. "Oh... they're beautiful," she whispered. "Oh, Murdoch... Daddy... thank you. Thank you so much." She sniffed in a most unladylike way then flung herself at Murdoch, hugging him tightly around his middle. "I thought you were going to make me take them out an' here you give me the most wonderful..." Her voice cracked and she had to swallow hard to push away the lump in her throat. "I just... I love you so!"

Murdoch's huge hand stroked tenderly over her dark shining head and he smiled softly down at her. "Well... shall we see how they look? Sam?"

As Sam removed the cheap hoops and fiddled with the delicate gold and garnet rings, he and Murdoch chatted about the rest of the family. When they came to Johnny, Murdoch mentioned what a good job he had done with Mrs McElevenney's horse.

"Ah yes," Sam nodded sadly. "Gertrude McElvenney - a character if ever there was. Had her in here yesterday. Poor soul."

"Poor soul?" Jemimah perked up. "Why's she a 'poor soul'? She's rich as Croesus, ain't she? Her ol' man had a silver mine an' she used to run a high class bordello in Paris!"

It was apparent, from the shock on their faces, that neither man had any previous knowledge of this.

"Paris, France?" Sam asked. "Well, at least it sounds like she's had a lively existence. She need never regret missing out on her share of excitement when her time comes."

"When will that be, Doc?" Jemimah asked softly. As Sam hesitated, she explained. "It's alright. I know about her lungs. The doctors in New York all said there was no hope so she come out here to California to the bit of land that she owned. Said she allus wanted to see it."

Sam had finished replacing the earrings and now crossed to the basin to wash his hands again.

"How long does she have, Sam?" Murdoch asked. "Oh, I know you have to be confidential but Trudy has already told Jemimah and Johnny all about it. I can't help feeling we could do more - fetch her down to stay at Lancer with us for however long she has left."

Murdoch looked down as Jemimah slipped her hand into his and leaned into him.

"Well, it's hard to say exactly," Sam frowned. "Like I told her yesterday, it could be two months, it could be as much as six."

Jemimah dipped her head and Murdoch laid his arm gently across her shoulders.

"She said the strangest thing to me though." Sam cocked his head on one side, recalling the little woman's words. "She said, 'Oh no, doctor, it won't be that long'."

There was silence in the little office.

"What did she mean, Murdoch?" Jemimah's voice trembled.

The big man gave a heavy sigh and hugged her in to his side. "I don't know, sweetheart, I don't know."

****

All Wednesday the cloud had reached over the horizon, like fingers of a mammoth hand and, with it, came the low rumble of thunder - growling and cursing with menace. If Johnny were more superstitious, he would have listened to Maria when she warned him not to ride out that evening. Now the cloud stretched across the heavens, lit with the hues of the approaching sunset and crackling with a distant malevolent lightning. The very air Johnny breathed seemed to have altered and was now charged with a cloying static that made his skin itch. The summer heat had become heavy, sucking the breeze away and the thunder clouds galloped across the ridge ahead of him, kicking their powerful grey hooves.

Johnny felt smothered. As he rode Barranca steadily towards Mannock Ridge, the spit of a drizzling rain flecked his bare forearms and face. Though light, it was cold after the intense heat of the day - so cold that a rash of goose-bumps sprang up on his arms and he shivered and smiled. This would clear the air, thank god! Johnny usually enjoyed watching the sunset but today it set him on edge; the sky was so garishly stark that it reminded him of the scenery in a play Scott had once dragged the family to.

Halfway across Cedar Canyon, in the dip of land before the hills rose to the Ridge, Johnny's keen eyes caught a sudden movement off to his left. He peered into the strange rose-tinted dusk. A dark shape loomed from the shadows and hurtled towards him. Torcall! Johnny spurred Barranca towards the black horse which was skittishly prancing down the hillside. Reaching the animal, Johnny crooned soothingly to it and caught hold of the reins which trailed loose. The horse was saddled but its rider was nowhere to be seen.

"Trudy."

The old woman must have been riding the horse. Johnny firmed his lips together grimly, muttering about fool women who won't listen to reason. "Too damn stubborn for their own good!" he ground out but his anger was tinged with worry and he wished Scott were there with him.

Heading towards the trees in the direction he had first spotted Torcall, Johnny scanned the grass and undergrowth desperately, his anxiety mounting. The black stallion was a flighty creature; if he had thrown Trudy...

At last, when he was almost giving up hope of ever finding her in the gathering gloom, Johnny saw a heap of clothing lying at the edge of the tree line. It had to be her. He raced over and leaped down from his horse, speedily tethering both animals to the dripping bushes and rushing to her side.

She was so still that, as he sank to his knees and lifted her carefully so that she was cradled against him, he was sure he was too late. At his touch, however, the old lady stirred feebly.

"Johnny," she rasped, "Is the lassie here?"

Johnny smoothed the damp snowy hair from her eyes. "No, ma'am. It's just me."

Trudy managed a painful smile. "Good, good," she wheezed. "Dinna want her to see me like this."

Johnny gathered her thick tartan shawl more closely about her and drew her into his body, trying desperately to warm her. She felt so cold and he wondered how long she had been lying there. Damn it! What a fool thing to do! "What did you think you were doing?" he admonished, his soft voice hoarse with worry. "I thought you were gonna wait for me before you rode that horse. Didn't I say he could be a handful?"

Trudy flashed him a weak smile, her eyes fluttering open to look into his face. "Never was... very good at... taking orders," she smirked, a hint of the old mischief creeping back to tease him.

The young man released an exasperated sigh and thought about lying her down again so that he could fetch his jacket from his saddle to wrap it around her. But, as he stirred to rise, her icy hand clutched at his arm. He subsided once more onto the damp grass, shaking his head. The jacket would make no difference; he knew she was too far gone to benefit from it. "No, you an' Jemimah - you're both alike there," he pretended to scold. "She can't seem to mind either!" Trudy grinned, her breaths coming in short painful gasps. "You oughtta be thrashed," Johnny's voice was gentle and anything but angry.

Trudy started to give one of her short wheezy laughs but, this time, it ended in a hacking cough. Her hand gripped his arm until the pain ebbed away. When she could at last speak again, she looked up into his troubled face. "Och, no man has ever whipped me, John Lancer. Do you aim to be the first?"

Johnny smiled ruefully, his hand stroking softly over her bedraggled hair. "I wouldn't dare, ma'am."

"What's all this 'ma'am' nonsense, lad? I thought I told you to call me Trudy."

Her smile abruptly disappeared as a fresh bout of violent coughing seized her. Johnny held her tightly until it was over.

"Trudy, we have to get you back to the cabin and out of this rain," he urged. "You're freezing. I need to..."

But she was shaking her head. "No, lad. Stay," she croaked.

Johnny's blue eyes searched the lined pale face as she clasped his arm.

"I can... see the sky and... smell the grass." Trudy closed her eyes and was silent for so long that Johnny leaned closer and whispered her name. "And what better way to go... than in the arms... of a bonny young man?"

Despite her saucy grin, it was obvious the end was near.

"Aw, Trudy."

She weakly patted his hand, her eyes closed again in exhaustion. "Hush, lad. Let me listen to the rain."

And so, he held her in silence until, at last, her pudgy little hand slipped limply from his arm to rest on the sodden plaid shawl. The young man bent close, smoothing her snowy hair from her brow and dropping a gentle kiss to her weathered cheek.

The two horses grazed peacefully nearby as the rain fell.

****

Knowing how upset Jemimah had been to discover Trudy's condition, everyone at Lancer expected and feared that the girl would dissolve at the news of the old lady's passing. They worried needlessly.

Though tearful at first, Jemimah's grief was quiet and dignified. There were no hysterical outbursts; no denials or stormy crying fits. Instead, she grieved with a calm acceptance and a mature gratitude for the friendship she had shared with Mrs Mac. The family all stayed close over the next week, waiting for and dreading the tempest which never came. Jemimah behaved impeccably throughout the days leading up to the funeral and, at the actual service, impressed all there with her serene decorum.

Gertrude Morag McElvenney was laid to rest in a simple grave not far from the cabin she had occupied in her final days. Both Jemimah and Johnny had thought she would like to spend eternity, on the top of that ridge, looking down over the valley beyond.

Johnny had never known the young girl to be so quiet, so subdued and was worried by this new Jemimah but, as he watched her shed silent tears at the graveside while standing straight and proud, he was moved by her grace and strength. Her time with Trudy had changed her somehow; there was no denying that. She suddenly possessed a newfound strength yet  there was a softness to her that none of them had ever seen before.

The sight of her tiny figure as she took Murdoch's arm and placed a single red rose on the grave would remain forever in the memories of all who were there that day.

****

It was suppertime and both Scott and Johnny had been dispatched to seek out Jemimah and fetch her inside. At first, it seemed they would have quite a search on their hands; she was in none of her usual haunts. Almost when they were beginning to feel the first stirrings of alarm, Scott nudged Johnny's shoulder and pointedly glanced up at the hayloft. A slight rustling could be heard and the two young men approached the bottom of the ladder. They hesitated briefly, both casting back to that day they had discovered her with Enrique; mere weeks ago though it felt like a lifetime. So much had happened since then and it was virtually impossible to equate the new thoughtful introspective Jemimah with that boisterous bundle of mischief. In truth, both Johnny and Scott would have given a lot to see the old Jemimah back again.

 They steadily clambered up the ladder, Johnny taking the lead, and saw the girl sitting silently by the open hatch. She seemed far away and, at first, they hung back, reluctant to disturb her musings.

"Is it suppertime already?" she asked softly, never turning her head.

Johnny and Scott exchanged a look. Scott, for one, had never imagined he would miss her pranks and wild antics.

"Y'alright, honey?" Johnny crouched beside her but she stared fixedly at the trees in the distance.

"Jemimah," Scott pressed, his voice soft but insistent.

Finally, she turned her head and gazed seriously up at him. "Scott, you know a lot of stuff; maybe you can answer me summat I been thinkin' on."

Scott smiled gently. "Can it wait until after supper, honey? We only have a few minutes before Murdoch will be after us all."

She continued to watch him, refusing to be swayed. "Murdoch won't mind."

Scott glanced at Johnny and they both sat down in the straw. She was quite right; Murdoch would not mind. He was as concerned about her as they were.

Once they were settled, Scott indicated that she should go ahead with her question. "I only hope I can help," he smiled.

They watched intently as she fiddled with a straw strand, as though unsure of how to phrase her query. Then, eventually, she raised her head, her green gaze serious and quizzical. "Well, I was just wonderin'," she began. "Why do we get born at all if all we're goin' to do is die? What's it all for?"

Scott glanced at his brother and raised a brow. "That's a big question, honey," he sighed. "The meaning of life... you couldn't ask anything more difficult to answer; it's something that philosophers have tried in vain to pinpoint for centuries." He spread his hands and shook his head. "I don't pretend to know the reason. In fact, I think it's something each of us has to conclude for ourselves - why we're here; what is our place in the universe and the great mystery of it all."

At Jemimah's expression of disappointment, he reached over and gently stroked her cheek, holding her earnest gaze with an honest open frankness.

"For myself," he tried to explain, "I can't help but feel that we're put here to play our part; to do our utmost to make life better for the next generation to follow. In that way, we have eased the journey for our own children and, in turn, they will do the same for theirs." He smiled down at her, hoping he could soothe the troubled frown. "What could be more satisfying than to know that, come the time for you to pass on, you have made the world better, even if only in a minute way, for those who will follow; for your children? I assume you want to have children one day, Jemimah?"

She nodded gravely, her eyes flitting momentarily to Johnny by her side. Scott caught the tiny glance and paused, smiling.

"Wouldn't you be happy to feel that you'd made life better for them just by being here?"

Jemimah studied the straw in her fingers. "You sayin' Trudy made life better before she died?"

"Well, didn't she?" Scott pressed gently. "Didn't she enrich your life; teach you something?"

"Yes, she taught me a lot."

"Then, we shouldn't be sad that she's gone now," Johnny spoke up. "We oughtta be glad we had chance to get to know her, don't you think?"

Jemimah turned to once more look out at the evening. "I am. I am glad. I was just wonderin' is all."

Scott rose to his feet. "I'll go in and tell Murdoch you're on your way. He'll be worrying. Don't be long now."

Stroking a hand over her dark head, he crossed to the ladder then was gone.

"Johnny, can I ask you something?"

"Sure, honey."

"Do you think you might want children some day?"

"I reckon I'd like to be a papa... one day," he faltered.

Jemimah turned to face him. "What kind would you like?"

Johnny chuckled at the peculiar way she had phrased her question. "I guess I always imagined the human kind with two arms, two legs and a head would be best!"

She grinned and gave him a shove, sticking her tongue out when he tried to retaliate but missed her as she dodged. Johnny's heart jolted - this was the most animated he had seen her in days.

"Nah, I suppose I never gave it much thought," he considered. "I know a man's meant to hanker after a son or so they always say... but I reckon a little girl, all sweet with ribbons and curls... that I could sit on my knee, that'd be real fine too." He trailed his fingers through the soft dark tresses of her hair and smiled. "Long hair, all soft... "

Jemimah watched him. "Like me?"

"Maybe," Johnny smirked. "Only not as much trouble as you! I don't want to end up grey an' wore out like Murdoch."

She huffed at his teasing. "He was already grey from livin' with you an' Scott. Besides, I ain't no trouble. If'n you ever took the time to look, you might notice I'm growing up!"

Chuckling, Johnny scrambled to his feet and held out a hand to help her up. Then, serious once more, he lifted her chin with a gentle finger so that he could look into her eyes. Jemimah's breath caught in her throat.

"If a daughter of mine is anythin' like as true an' lovin' as you," he said softly, "I reckon I'll count myself a lucky man." With that, he bent to drop a tender kiss on her silky hair. Then he took her hand and led her to the ladder. "Come on now, they're all waitin' on us."

****

The day after Jemimah's fifteenth birthday, when the family was gathered around the fireplace after supper, Murdoch produced a letter which had arrived that morning. He said that, though it was addressed to him, it contained information relevant to both Johnny and Jemimah. Their interest piqued, the family settled back to listen. Murdoch slipped on his spectacles and unfolded the heavy ivory paper.

"This is from Mrs Mac's lawyers in New York and I'm happy to say contains better news than their last letter," he said as he began to scan the document for the important section. "It appears that Trudy has mentioned both of you in her will."

Johnny and Jemimah looked at each other in surprise. Neither had expected such consideration.

"Well, what does it say?" Teresa pressed.

"Just a moment..." Murdoch was peering at the letter, holding it up to the lamp at his side. "Ah, yes."

Jemimah swallowed hard and her hand found Johnny's. She was not entirely sure what to make of this news; she certainly didn't feel it would be right to profit from the loss of her friend and was hoping that Trudy hadn't decided to bequeath her any of her fortune. Johnny, thinking along the same lines, curled his fingers gently around her hand.

Murdoch, having found the appropriate paragraph, looked up with a smile. "You ready?"

"Let 'er buck," Johnny nodded.

"Right... Johnny, in thanks for all the effort you put into breaking the horse, Trudy has given you the stallion known as Torcall." Johnny's eyebrows lifted in surprise and he smiled with genuine pleasure. "She also leaves you her other two horses, Samson and Delilah."

Johnny blew out a shaky breath. He couldn't have been more pleased.

"They're fine animals, Johnny," Scott congratulated his brother. "You could make a start on that horse breeding idea of yours with animals like that in your stable." He gave Johnny a wink.

Murdoch peered over the rim of his spectacles, his blue eyes twinkling. "I had a feeling that might crop up."

Johnny smirked and twiddled self-consciously with the conchos on his pants. "Well, that's me; what about Jemimah?"

Murdoch smiled and returned to the letter. "Yes, Jemimah..."

The girl was very still, listening closely.

"Trudy has been most generous, it seems."

Jemimah could hardly breathe. Please don't give me the money. Please don't give me the money.

"She would like you to have the cabin at Mannock Ridge and all the furnishings therein."

Everyone turned to Jemimah who was not sure how to feel. "I'm... well, I'm right glad about the furniture. I want to keep the big bed an' the globe cabinet an' the portrait..." She glanced at Johnny who grinned at the mention of the portrait. "But I don't want the cabin."

"You sure, honey?" Johnny asked.

"You might want to reconsider that..." Murdoch began.

"No, I won't, Murdoch. It was never a happy home, was it? I mean, Trudy came there... to die, didn't she? And I know I'd always be reminded of it being her final resting place an' that'd only make me sad." Johnny's hand squeezed hers. "I'm not meaning I don't think we should keep it but can we use it for one of the married hands to live in or something like that? Y'know - use it for Lancer?"

Murdoch regarded her thoughtfully. "If that's your decision, yes."

"That's very generous, Jemimah," Scott smiled and the child shrugged uneasily.

"However, there's more," Murdoch went on. "In addition to the cabin, you have been left Mannock Ridge itself."

Jemimah gaped.

"Why, that's wonderful," Teresa breathed.

Suddenly, everyone seemed to be talking at once, congratulating Jemimah on her good fortune, assuring her that she should feel blessed. The girl sat in confused silence and tried to conjure up a spark of excitement... but none would come.

"I don't want it."

The animated chatter died away as, one by one, the family realised what she had said.

"I don't want it," she repeated.

Scott rose and moved towards the sofa where she sat. "Jemimah, this is a marvellous gift. You know the value of that land..."

"Yes, I do know," she answered calmly. "And that's why I want you to have it." She looked to her father. "If you have it, then Lancer has all the water rights an' nobody can ever threaten us again, ain't that right?"

Murdoch removed his glasses. "Yes, that's right."

"Then you should have it."

"No," he shook his head. "You should never be too keen to toss away land..." When it looked like she would argue, he continued. "Remember, Trudy wanted you to have this; you owe it to her to at least think about what it could mean to you, to your future."

Jemimah lowered her gaze and chewed thoughtfully at her lip. At last, she raised her head. "Alright, if you won't let me give it to you for Lancer, can I loan it to you so that you can use the water rights and graze the herd there?"

Murdoch grinned. "Why, that's a brilliant solution, Jemimah. Thank you. I'd be happy to 'borrow' the land from you. Perhaps, we should come up with some sort of an annual payment for allowing us to have access to the ridge?"

"You mean, like a rent?" she asked, green eyes beginning to twinkle. "Hey, does that mean I'm sort of a partner to you three?"

Scott and Johnny chuckled.

"Sort of," Scott smiled. "And a very important one too!"

"Then, that's fine," she beamed. "Trudy was a pretty keen businesswoman; I reckon she meant for me to be the same!"

"Then, here's to an amicable - and profitable - business relationship!" Scott raised his brandy glass in a toast, his eyes shining at her pleased grin.

Everyone raised their glasses too. As Murdoch folded up the letter and slipped it into his vest pocket, he watched his little girl proudly clink her lemonade tumbler with Scott and Johnny's glasses. He would keep the rest of the letter to himself, as requested, until Jemimah married.

****

Grinning, Jemimah wrapped the blanket around the portrait and passed it to Johnny. He took it from her with a wink and carried it out of the cabin to the wagon. It was the final item that she had wanted to save for herself; everything else was to stay. The ornately-carved bed, the two tapestried armchairs and the globe cabinet on its barley twist legs were already stored in the attic back at the hacienda. Jemimah had opted to keep Trudy's fine bone china too and it had been packed carefully into a chest. Johnny now stored the painting by its side in the wagon.

"I still think we should hang this up in the great room," he laughed. "Boy, I'd pay a month's wages to see Murdoch's face when he found Trudy, lyin' there in all her glory an' givin' him the eye!"

"I'd pay even more to watch him wallop your arse if you did it!" Jemimah sniggered.

Johnny turned. "Oh, you would, would you?"

He gave chase and, Jemimah, long bare legs flying beneath her skirts and lacy petticoats, ran away across the yard, shrieking with glee.

 

Some time later, Johnny sat on the grass in the golden afternoon sunshine, watching Jemimah place a small bunch of wild flowers on the simple grave. Still barefoot, she had removed her boots and stockings the instant she had returned from church and they had set out in the wagon.

Johnny considered her.

He was thankful that some of the old Jemimah had returned. Even Scott had remarked that, as much as they had all longed for the day she might grow out of her impish ways, Jemimah without mischief was like a summer without any sun. But still, she had changed somehow; she was different and he couldn't exactly put his finger on what it was.

One thing was sure... she was looking real pretty in that white dress though Teresa despaired over how brown her face and arms were becoming. Johnny smiled. Her long dark hair was loose and draped softly over her shoulders, cascading down her back and lifting slightly in the lilting breeze. At that moment, her expression was far away; green eyes fixed on the distant horizon and there was something which flitted across her face - at first Johnny thought it was fear but then it morphed into a strange certainty, a confident glow.

Her slim hand delicately scooped back a thick lock of hair and tucked it neatly behind her small perfect ear. He watched her profile against the startling azure blue of the sky. Her mouth, full and sweet, displayed a slight smile as though she were contemplating a secret delight. Her eyes were bright and her skin, kissed by the California sun, was a honeyed gold. She walked a little way across the grass on her neat little bare feet. There was a womanly sway to her hips, he realised; it was subtle but he saw it with surprise. As he watched, she stooped to pick a small wild flower and the neck of her white dress fell open for a fleeting moment.

Johnny had a brief glimpse of soft white skin which never saw the sun, the curve of a full young breast with its delicate rose tip. He remained very still; he could not have moved even if he had wished to. For what felt like an eternity, he did not even dare to breathe. Everything that he was yearned to reach out and touch her.

She turned, her green eyes appraising him frankly and Johnny found himself blushing. Guiltily, he looked away, using the horses' sudden movement as an excuse to avoid her gaze. If he had looked back at her, Jemimah was smiling indulgently as a mother smiles at her child when he takes his first faltering steps.

"I suppose we'd better get goin'," she huffed and plopped down onto the grass to put her black stockings back on.

Johnny turned back to her. There was a graze on her knee and the tip of her tongue was peeping through her mouth in concentration as she rolled up her stocking. He smiled. She was a kid again; all knees and elbows like a gawky foal.

 

"I hope whoever comes to live here will be happy," she mused as she looked back over her shoulder at the cabin. She watched until the top of the ridge hid it from view and then she twisted back around on the wagon seat.

"You been mighty generous with your inheritance. I hope you don't ever regret it."

"Nah, I were doin' alright before I got it," she stated. "I don't need it to make me happy." She leaned against Johnny, who smiled softly and put his arm around her shoulders. "Got all I need at Lancer already."

Johnny glanced sideways at her. He didn't think he had ever seen hair quite like hers and, just for a moment, he had an inexplicable urge to touch the silky softness.

"What's up with you?" she blurted, her little nose wrinkled as she squinted up at him.

Johnny laughed and shook his head. "Nuthin', what's up with you?"

He waited for her response; this was a game she liked to play.

"Sky!" she quipped in delight that he had fed her the correct line. "Birds... umbrellas when it's rainin'!"

Johnny gave her a comradely shove and she, in turn, elbowed him in the ribs and, laughing at their nonsense, they rode back down the valley.




~end~
January 2014

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