The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Anne

 

 

To Be Your Lawful Wedded Husband
Jemimah Day series.
Disclaimer: These characters (i.e. the Lancers) are not mine though I certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox.
Scott is just 32; Johnny is 26, almost 27

She was reclining in the tub so that only her chest and her knees remained above the surface. Her head was tipped back, eyes closed and her thick lashes meshed together, wet and spiky. Her face was flushed from the drowsy heat.

The soapy water rippled slightly from the gentle rise and fall of her chest. From across the room and still hidden in the shadows, Johnny released a slow breath. Before him, dipping in and out of the foamy surface and glistening in the firelight, were two excellent reasons for not going straight to sleep as his father had advised.

Keeping his eyes on her, he moved stealthily to her side, crouching down without a sound. He stretched out a hand to tenderly stroke the softness of her shoulder, thrilling at the warm silkiness of her wet skin.

Her eyes flew open, vivid green and momentarily confused. Slowly, she focused on him, studying him as he studied her. Because of what she could read in those blue eyes, she lifted a hand out of the water and reached for him.

His lips were soft, warm and his mouth tasted of chocolate... and something else...

"Brandy?" She wrinkled her nose in distaste, making him laugh.

"Yeah, Murdoch insisted it'd warm me up after being out in that snow all day."

"Well, next time ask for whisky if you're intent on comin' home an' kissin' me!" She wiped her tongue on the back of her hand and shuddered anew at the taste of the soap.

"Oh, I'm intendin' more than just kissin' you!"

Paying no heed to the water as it sloshed up over the front of his dry shirt, or to her somewhat half-hearted protests, Johnny leaned towards her, taking her in his arms and pressing her nakedness to his chest. He revelled in the softness of her curves; inhaled the scent of the lily soap that she favoured, his fingers twining themselves through the damp mop of her dark hair which was pinned on top of her head.

"Johnny, you're soaking wet!"

"So are you," he grinned and stripped his green shirt off over his head, flinging it aside and reaching for her once more.

When, at last, the kiss broke, he moved back to search her face. There was an eager sparkle now in those eyes as they travelled unashamedly over the dark springy hair on his chest, following as it spread in a fraying line down over his taut stomach and onwards beneath his fancy silver belt. Johnny smiled knowingly. He could read her like a book and knew she was aroused. Her enthusiasm for love-making was one of the many things he adored about his little wife. Right now, her breasts, shiny from the water, were tempting him as they dipped in and out of the creamy foam.

Johnny let his hungry gaze feast upon her until she pulled him impatiently to her, breathing in the delicious man-smell of him. Her fingertips ran lightly over the hard muscle of his arms and shoulders as they enfolded her.

"Johnny," she whispered urgently. "Let's go upstairs."

He eased back, shaking his head. "In a while. I want to watch you."

Jemimah felt the heat suffuse her cheeks, realising his meaning. She closed her eyes and leaned back, resting her head on the rim of the tub.

Johnny settled comfortably by her side, his right hand meandering slowly down from the tantalising peak of her breast to her milky smooth stomach. His palm rested there a moment, heavy and warm, before continuing its slow descent, dipping gradually beneath the suds.

Jemimah gasped. The fine hairs on her forearms stood up, her skin goose pimpled and her nipples hardened into twin dark buds. She released a long rapturous sigh and he smiled.

The firelight flickered over them and nothing could be heard but the gentle patter of snowflakes against the windows. Occasionally, she moved a limb or swayed a little in the water and the sound of its gentle splashing made him smile. Her breathing, slow at first, gradually became shorter, faster.

Johnny flicked a glance at her face. Darn, she was doing it again . "Don't bite your lip," he admonished her gently for what must have been the hundredth time.

"Shush!" she gasped. "You just... keep... doin' what you're doin'."

Johnny chuckled and his fingertips gently caressed her beneath the bubbles when, suddenly, her hips rose to meet his insistent touch with an abrupt urgency.

It took all his strength not to rip off the rest of his clothing and join with her in that fragrant water. But he wanted to give her this moment first; to witness the wild abandon followed by the eventual calming and relaxing of her body.

Her head tipped back, hands gripping the sides of the tub. Johnny felt her whole body stiffen and she arched so that she rose from the warmth, the soapy bubbles cascading from her. With a tiny cry, her entire body tensed and froze. Her eyes were shut tight and her ragged breathing at last started to even out again. He felt her limbs seem to melt, becoming loose and pliant, slipping down into the warmth once more. She looked for all the world as though she was drifting asleep but he knew with absolute certainty that she was wide awake.

He withdrew his hand from the warmth of the water and rested against the side of the tub, smoothing the damp hair from her brow and leaning in to kiss her.

"Now we can go upstairs," he murmured before reaching into the bathtub and lifting her up into his arms.

"Johnny, are you crazy?" she squealed. "There's water everywhere!"

"So, we'll mop it up in the morning." He hefted her across his body and, carrying her effortlessly as though she were a child still, headed from the warmth of the sitting room to the stairs. When the sudden cold air of the hallway hit her wet bare skin she shivered and tightened her hold on him.

"But... your pants are drenched!"

He flashed her a wicked smile, blue eyes glinting with devilment. "Don't matter. They're comin' off in a minute too!"

They were already halfway up the stairs, Johnny taking them two at a time.

Jemimah giggled. "But I have to put my hair in rags for tomorrow."

His only response was to throw her a disbelieving look of disgust and to push the door to their bedroom open with his boot.

"No, I've got to," she insisted. "I can't put it up proper if I don't roll it in rags overnight. Do you want me to look like a ragamuffin at the wedding? I'm the Matron of Honour!"

Johnny deposited her on their big cherub bed and instantly began to tug off his boots, his gaze fixed keenly on her body. He shook his head decisively.

"Nope, that'd take way too long and you're a kind-hearted woman. So kind-hearted, you wouldn't make a hungry man wait, would you honey?

Jemimah smiled up at him as he stood to unbuckle his belt. She scrambled up onto her knees, itching to have that warm firmly-muscled body against hers again. "Well, if you're that hungry, I wouldn't dream of it." Her green gaze fixed on his hands as they  hastily freed the belt and shucked his pants down over his lean hips. Her eyes widened and she smiled slowly. "My, my Mr. Lancer, you are hungry!"

"Starving!"

Johnny joined her on the soft quilt, lying her back and covering her with the length of his hard body. Those strong hands which could be so gentle now cupped her bottom and lifted her legs so that they wrapped around his back to hold him closely to her. Looking deep into her eyes, he heard her sharp intake of breath and the slow rocking movements began.

****

"Su pelo es imposible de rizarse! (Your hair is impossible to curl!)"

Maria  plunked the hot iron down in despair and exasperation. She pursed her lips and glared hard at Jemimah in the mirror. The girl shrugged.

"It's not my fault!" she protested, ignoring Pony's unladylike snort of laughter. "I was goin' to roll it in rags but Johnny..."

"Juanito? You asked Juanito to dress your hair in rags?" Maria pulled an incredulous face. "Child, you are not Barranca! Juanito can braid a horse's mane but..."

Jemimah fought to control her laughter but it was very difficult when Pony was now rolling on the bed and cackling helplessly.

"No, no, I don't mean I asked Johnny to do it. I was goin' to do it myself but... well..."

"Si?"

"I was... erm... in the bath when he got home and... he... and I..." Jemimah sniggered and tossed a balled-up stocking at Pony who fielded it effortlessly, still chortling. "Maria, we got a bit distracted."

The little Mexican housekeeper schooled her expression into one of disapproval but both girls could see the amused twinkle in her eye as she removed the hot iron and exited the room.

"Distracted?" Pony sniggered. "In the tub? Can't imagine what you was up to!"

Jemimah adjusted her bustle and eyed her friend. "I'm sure you can - same thing you're goin' to be up to tonight... after the wedding."

Pony's merry grin slipped and wobbled a little as she rose to help Jemimah into her dress.

"Aw, don't!" she whispered. "I'm nervous enough already."

"What on earth for?" Jemimah turned her back, lifting her long hair so that Pony could fasten the row of buttons which ran all the way up her spine. "It's Enrique you're marryin'; not the bogey man!"

Pony huffed out a shaky breath which fluffed up the soft fronds of her silvery blonde hair. "I know, it's just... I don't know what to expect."

She caught Jemimah's eye in the mirror and blushed.

"Oh sure, we've kissed aplenty an' we've cuddled..."

"Cuddled?" It was Jemimah's turn to snort. "That all?"

Pony's face was now bright red and Jemimah was reminded of how easy it was to catch her out in any deception. Pony's blushes had been a dead giveaway in many of their Christmas pranks and occasionally the reason they had both eaten their dinner standing up.

"We'ell, I let him put his hand in my shirt," she confessed.

"And?"

"And... it was real nice."

"No, I meant - what else?"

"Oh! He... he's stroked my leg... above my garters. Here."

She patted her inner thigh a few inches above her knee and fastened the last button of Jemimah's gown with a flourish. "There! Y'all done!"

"Stroked your leg?"

"Well, what more should he have done? I couldn't do nothing else, could I? A man don't buy the cow if'n he can get the milk for free!"

"Charming! You're no cow, Pony. Take a look in the mirror."

They both studied her reflection in the full-length glass.

Though still clad in only her underwear, Pony was stunning. She seemed to be lit from within. Jemimah moved closer, admiring and envying her friends loveliness in equal measure.

Her blonde locks were pinned up in an intricate mass of coils and ringlets, held in place by tiny blue flowers. Maria and Zee had worked hard and the effect was beautiful. The blue of her eyes sparkled with excitement. Jemimah adjusted one of the pins at the back of her hair.

"I always thought you had the most lovely hair," she said wistfully. "Wished I was blonde... and tall like you."

Pony kissed her affectionately, slinging a slender arm around her shoulders. "I don't think Johnny cares about you being small; I think he likes you just the way you are." She grinned. "You're easier to catch an' carry off to the woodshed!"

Jemimah gave her a little shove. "Nah, that's you you're thinkin' of! I pity my poor friend Enrique; he's goin' to be plum wore out keepin' up with you!"

They laughed until Pony flopped down onto the bed, her hands pressed over her stomach.

"What's up? Got the collywobbles?"

"Ooh, I got something alright!" Pony grimaced and swallowed hard. "It's the dreads - can't help thinkin' about... later."

Jemimah passed her the first petticoat to slip into. "You mean the chapel?"

Pony shook her head, the shiny coils of hair swinging about her smooth shoulders. "Nah... later!"

"Oh." Jemimah tilted her head on one side, watching Pony ease the second petticoat carefully over her head without upsetting the cascading curls. "Listen then, I'll tell you a few things but we've got to be quick before Maria comes back. If she hears me talkin' about this stuff to an innocent..."

"Who's innocent?" Pony glared from under the swathes of frilly white petticoat.

"Well, you are!"

"Don't you act so superior, Jemimah Day! I'm just as..."

"Oh shut up, you ninny! There ain't time to argue. D'you want to know about it or not?"

Pony eyed her friend then nodded.

"Right! You keep getting dressed an' I'll tell you."

She passed the little cushiony bustle and, as Pony tied it in place, reached for the pink satin corset.

"Well, first of all..."

****

As Maria bustled back into the room with Pony's boots and the buttoner, she nodded with approval to see that the bride was at last in her gown and that Jemimah was laboriously lacing up the back for her. Maria's satisfied smile disappeared, however, when she caught sight of Pony's face. The girl looked dazed and pale.

"Is the corset too tight, child?" She hurried over in concern.

"No, it's fine," Pony assured her. "Just... just gettin' nervous I guess."

Maria patted her arm with a pudgy motherly hand, clicking her tongue in sympathy.

"I will bring you a cup of my tea to soothe you. No te preocupes, mi querida. (Don't worry, my dear.)"

Maria hastened for the door again, her skirts rustling. As she left, she called back over her shoulder.

"Jemimah, Zee will fix your hair so you must hurry down to the apartment now. Ser rápido!"

Pony turned to her friend with wide eyes but Jemimah hushed her.

"Shush now! She'll be back any minute an' I don't relish the idea of gettin' clobbered with that bloody spoon of hers if she hears what we've been talkin' about!" She tugged hard on the laces and nearly yanked poor Pony off her feet. "An' don't stand there gaping like a landed halibut. Maria will think you need a dose of castor oil or somethin'! Buck up, eh?"

Pony flopped down onto the end of the bed so that Jemimah could kneel to button up her boots.

"Jem... does Johnny really do that?" Her voice was awed.

Jemimah shrugged and smiled. "Of course. All men do... I think."

Pony pressed her. "An'... he likes it?"

Jemimah couldn't help laughing at the girl's amazement. "Well, yeah! 'Course he does! Wouldn't do it if he didn't, would he?"

"Guess not."

"Anyway..." Jemimah's smile was wicked. "I sure like it so I ain't complainin'."

Pony laid a hand on Jemimah's shoulder. "An' d'you reckon Enrique will do that too? Will he know he's meant to do it?"

"He will if you're lucky!" she giggled. "He's got older brothers, ain't he? Enrique will know more stuff than you think." Jemimah straightened. "Boy, are you in for a treat!"

She laughed and skipped away from Pony's swipe.

"I gotta go down to Zee now. You want me to fetch you a nip of whisky or somethin'?"

Pony managed a shaky grin. "Nah." She whacked Jemimah with her pillow and shoved her towards the door. Then, a new thought striking her, she called her back. "Jem, if he... does do that, will he want me to... do it back?"

"Sure!" Jemimah hooted at the stunned expression on Pony's face. "Give over - it's alright. You'll like it!"

Pony swallowed hard, too preoccupied to chase down her friend as she skipped down the stairs, cackling wickedly all the way.

****

Jemimah paused in the doorway to Scott and Zee's sitting room.

Johnny stood with his brother by the fireside. They were chatting amicably, both smiling and clearly ready for the wedding festivities to come. Jemimah smiled too when she glimpsed the two empty whisky tumblers on the mantel. The brothers had obviously already begun toasting the happy couple.

She admired her husband from across the room. He was wearing the same black suit that he had worn for their own wedding, the silver conchos glinting down the legs of his trousers. Today he had chosen his new pale lilac shirt - an early birthday present from Teresa. Jemimah thought she had never seen him look so handsome. Pony would be proud to walk down the aisle with him.

At that moment, he turned and spotted her there.

"Well, don't you look pretty!" he exclaimed, striding over to her, hands outstretched.

"I was just goin' to say the same thing," she grinned.

"Me?" Johnny laughed. "I'm not sure I like bein' called pretty."

"Oh, but you are, brother. You are!" Scott smirked over at him.

Johnny's blue eyes narrowed and he pointed a stern finger at his brother, feigning annoyance. Jemimah leapt in quickly, twirling before them both and asking whether they liked her new dress and what was their opinion of the leg o' mutton sleeves - they were all the rage.

"You look simply beautiful," Scott duly admired her. "And now I think I'll investigate my own wife's progress. I never knew anyone could take so long to don a few simple items of clothing."

Johnny chuckled. "I think there's more to it than that, Scott." Then he took Jemimah in his arms. "I always like you in pink; you look good enough to eat." He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and Jemimah felt the heat rising in her cheeks, remembering her recent chat with the bride-to-be. "But honey, how could you be so mean to me?"

"Mean? What you on about?"

Johnny ran his fingers up her back, causing her to wriggle. "These here buttons all down your back! How long do you think it's goin' to take for me to wrestle you out of this tonight?"

She slapped his hand away. "Johnny! You shouldn't talk about such things! Anyone could hear you."

He smiled and eyed her knowingly. "That right? I heard you laughin' up there with Pony an' I've got a pretty good idea what about, hmm?"

She flushed instantly and he nodded, tilting his head to peer beneath her long bangs. "Yep, just as I thought. I know you too well, my little chica. Don't you be scaring Pony with your stories."

Jemimah smiled winsomely and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. Her reward was his palm landing smartly on her rear end. She hopped and emitted a little yelp, knowing it was expected of her, but it hadn't hurt at all. They both knew she was wearing far too many layers to really feel anything.

"Aw no, you don't get around me that way either," Johnny chided though his eyes twinkled. "I sure hope you weren't tellin' her anything private about us?"

Jemimah's mouth dropped open in an indignant  'o'. "As if I would!"

"Well, watch that you don't!" He gently tweaked her nose and planted a kiss on it. "Let Pony find out for herself. She hasn't long to wait."

Jemimah's arms twined around her husband's waist and she snuggled her bosom into his lilac shirt front. Johnny wondered exactly how many buttons there were on the back of her dress.

"Johnny Lancer," she admonished. "Pony is my friend an' all I did was tell her that there's nowt to be frit over. That's all, honest! I didn't tell her any stories about anything!"

Johnny landed another pat on her skirted rear and laughed at the way her eyes flamed. "Yeah right... this is me you're talkin' to an' I know you too well. You just behave yourself."

At that point, Scott came back in from the bedroom. He was carrying Zee's hairbrush and a small pot of hairpins.

"Jemimah up to mischief again, Johnny?" he frowned playfully. "You need this?" Grinning, he proffered the brush to his brother.

Johnny released Jemimah to smooth down his crumpled shirt. "Not right now but you keep it to hand, Scott. With the 'dreadful duo' back together again, it might come in mighty handy before the day is out."

Zee swished in, resplendent in burgundy velvet, her dark hair piled high and topped with a tiny chic bonnet. She whisked the brush from Scott's hand and then reached for the pins.

"It's goin' to be mighty handy right now. Come on, Jemimah. I have an idea of what we can do with your hair."

Johnny smiled at his wife and gave her a little wave as she was led away and he wandered back through the house, heading for the kitchen.

Maria was preparing a cup of her herbal tea and had put out a small plate of sugar cookies.

"That for Pony?" Johnny gestured to the tray.

"Si. You be a good boy, Juanito; take this up for me, eh?"

Johnny looked unsure. "Well, is she decent?"

"Si, si, all finished, all dressed."

Dutifully, he collected the tray, sneakily popping a whole cookie into his mouth on his way out.

In the great room, Murdoch and Florida were sitting by the fire. They looked up from their conversation as Johnny walked in.

"Herbal tea, Johnny?" Murdoch asked. "You feeling nervous about giving the bride away?"

"S'not for me," Johnny mumbled through his mouthful of cookie. "S'for Pony."

"Is she alright?" Florida started to rise from the sofa but sank back when Johnny waved her away.

"She's fine. Maria's just fussin' like usual. I'll go see her now."

He headed for the hall, leaving Florida staring after him.

"Strange how everything changes so sudden," she mused.

"Well, children do grow up." Murdoch smiled. He understood that Florida may be feeling anxious. She was losing Alice today and would be alone again. It was bound to be a huge wrench. She had been a second mother to the girl since her uncle had passed away. It would be hard for her to think of Alice so far away.

"Yes... but that's not all of it. Six months ago, I was worrying what I'd do once Alice had married and moved over here. Now..."

Murdoch watched her. There was something different about her and it wasn't just the excitement of the pending celebrations. "Now?"

"I... I've met someone - a man."

"Oh. I see."

Murdoch was not at all sure he did see but he wasn't certain of what he should say.

"He's the new owner of the livery - Dan Benson. We..." Murdoch was amazed to see she was blushing. "Well, we knew each other years ago - just as friends. And I could scarce believe it when he turned out to be my new neighbour." She shrugged, smiling. "Danny Benson! Haven't seen him since I was... why, it must be..." She shook her head. "Let's just say it's too many years for me to want to count them!"

Murdoch chuckled. "A friend of your girlhood, eh?"

"Actually, yes! He and I used to be real good friends. Folks round town... well... they called him my sweetheart." She laughed. "Oh, we never amounted to anything but we were always partial to each other."

"And now?" Murdoch asked again.

"It's early days yet but he's asked if he can call on me. I know I'm no girl anymore..."

"Florida, you're a fine-looking woman... you've a good heart and you're a wonderful cook into the bargain. Any right-headed man would think himself lucky to have you."

"Why, thank you, Murdoch." She patted her hair self-consciously. "I thought about bringing him to the wedding but..."

"You should have. I know we'd all like to meet him."

"And you will but today is all about Alice... and Enrique. There'll be plenty of time to get to know Dan. If we... if things... work out."

Murdoch lifted his coffee cup. "Then, here's to 'things working out'."

She laughed and joined in his toast.

"And you, Murdoch? Any things to work out for you?"

He paused with his cup halfway to his lips, startled at her probing question. She was watching him speculatively and, sensing an unaccustomed flush creeping up his neck, he gruffly cleared his throat.

"Well, I..."

Florida laughed again. Murdoch Lancer tongue-tied? That was an unusual sight.

****

"Maria asked me to bring you some tea," Johnny was saying as he balanced the tray precariously in one hand and endeavored to open the door with the other. He virtually backed into the room. "Now, if I were you, I'd ditch the tea into the flower pot and just wade into the cookies. That's what I usually..."

He straightened, his jovial words dying on his lips, and gaped.

Pony - his little Pony Alice - stood before him. And he barely recognised her. Pony had always been pretty to his way of thinking but this was an absolute vision of loveliness. Johnny blew out a stunned breath that came out more like a low whistle.

"Boy, you look..." He put the tray down, shaking his head. "You're so..." Again words failed him. He shrugged, swallowed... and grinned. "Pony honey, you're beautiful."

She smiled and bobbed a curtsey. "Why, thanks!"

It was true; she looked a picture.

Her gown was of the palest blue, very tight at the waist to emphasise her slim figure, and high-necked, showing off her elegant throat at which was pinned a delicate cameo brooch - a gift, he knew, from Murdoch. She clutched a small bunch of white Christmas roses and variegated ivy, bound with white lace and blue ribbon. Tall, slender, pale and ethereal; Johnny was lost for words. It was almost like looking at a stranger... until she launched herself at him and hugged him exuberantly, squealing with excitement and giggling.

"Oh Johnny, I can't hardly believe it! I'm goin' to be a bride!" she exclaimed as she practically bounced on the spot. "All these years, I've been comin' here for Christmas an', this time, I'm leavin' as Mrs. Enrique Cipriano!"

He joined in her laughter. Suddenly, she grabbed up a sugar cookie and crammed it into her mouth, chomping away - back to being Pony once more.

"You about ready? The others are leavin' for Morro Coyo now."

She nodded, licking  sugar from her fingers and scooping up her cape. "Here, what d'you think of this, Johnny?" she asked as she donned it. "Real rabbit fur! Enrique's mama and sisters made it for me."

She snuggled into the white fur, crinkling up her nose when it tickled her. Johnny couldn't help thinking of her as the same smart-mouthed little girl he had encountered seven years before. It hardly seemed possible that he was about to hand her to some man in marriage. And not just 'some man' but the boy who had been playmate to Alice and his own wife. Johnny sighed and wondered where the time had gone.

Pony suddenly clutched her stomach and grimaced. "Lawdy, I'm so nervous, I think I might faint dead away!"

Johnny took her arm, leading her out of Jemimah's old room and onto the landing. "You do..." he said as they descended the stairs. "And I'll carry you out over my shoulder an' dump you in the water trough! There's a good thick layer of ice on it so that should bring you round!"

****

Jemimah was standing outside the chapel in Morro Coyo and beamed in relief at Pony as Johnny handed her down from the buggy, carefully lifting her over a particularly icy patch on the path. Jemimah was fairly hopping though this was not entirely due to the excitement; it was extremely cold and, even though there had been no fresh snowfall since breakfast, her feet felt like icicles without her thick woollen socks. She drew her shawl more closely about her, teeth chattering behind her smile.

"Pony, you look wonderful - like a princess!"

Pony tottered precariously on the slippery ice and grinned. "Thanks!" Then, she paused, studying her friend in dismay. "Lawdy, what you done to your hair?"

Jemimah scowled.

"It was Zee! She said it's the latest fashion in Europe."

Pony curled her lip. "Really? Well, it should keep your ears warm; looks like a pair of them ear-muff things."

"She said Scott brought her a French magazine an' it was full of pictures of ladies with hair done just like this." Jemimah's voice was accusing. She was obviously unimpressed with her sister-in-law's handiwork.

Johnny approached, having slipped a few coins to the three delighted little boys who were still sweeping the snow from the front of the chapel. He performed a startled double-take when he caught sight of Jemimah.

"What the hell...? Honey, what happened to your hair?"

She self-consciously patted at it and her bottom lip began to wobble. "You don't like it."

Johnny felt trapped. He certainly didn't like it. It resembled two fat bird's nests over each ear, parted in the centre and combed down flat over the crown of her head. If anything, it managed to make her look dowdy and somehow even smaller than she was. Pony, in comparison, was elegant, stylish. But the last thing he wanted to do was upset her.

"There ain't time now to do owt about it," she suddenly huffed. "But I'll sort it after the ceremony. Nobody's goin' to be lookin' at me anyway, thank goodness!"

Johnny breathed a sigh of relief and took Pony's arm, noticing Murdoch and Cip beckoning them from the door.

"Go on then, you first, Jem," Pony urged.

Jemimah clamped her lips together and lifted her chin. She passed her shawl to her father as she met him at the door.

"Er... Jemimah darling?"

"Yes."

"What did you do... I mean, that's an interesting hairstyle."

Murdoch decided he would say no more. His daughter looked ready to explode. She huffed out a sharp breath, fluffing up her smooth bangs, and clutched her posy of flowers as though it were a shield. Throwing him a warning look, she marched inside.

"This is it." Johnny smiled down at Pony.

"Thanks for doing this for me, Johnny."

He shook his head. "No thanks needed. It's an honour."

He made to move off but she pulled him back. His face was questioning. She seemed suddenly shy, awkward - not like Pony at all.

"I never really thanked you for all you done for me over the years."

Johnny saw that her blue eyes were moist. Dios! She was on the verge of tears and he didn't want that. He smiled, giving her hand a little pat.

"Paddlin' your rear end all those times, y'mean?"

His joking had the desired effect. Pony smiled.

"Nah... an' you only done that once as you well know!"

"Must've worked then."

"Be serious, Johnny," she chided softly and he realised she had something to say. It was evidently important to her and he sobered. "You know what I mean. I ain't much for flowery words. Jemimah can quote all them poets an' stuff. She's had a lot more book-learnin' than me. I guess, in the end though, poetical speeches wouldn't seem right comin' from my mouth. All I can say is what's in here." She placed her gloved hand over her heart and looked up into his eyes. "After Ma an' Pa went an' then Uncle Wilf... well, you've been like daddy an' brother an' friend all rolled into one to me, Johnny. An' I know you didn't have to do it. There's those that would've just forgot..."

"I couldn't do that."

"That's just it. Even when I was home in Witness Tree, I knew you were at Lancer, not that far away, an' that you'd be there if I needed you. You've always looked out for me."

Johnny gently took her hand again.

"I always will, Pony. I hope you know that."

Pony blushed, nodding, and suddenly took to studying her flowers like they were the most interesting blooms she had ever seen.

"Knight in shining armour, like outta one of them stories," she mumbled. "S'what you are to me."

Johnny's brows lifted in surprise. He had been called many things in his time but he'd never imagined himself to be anyone's knight in armour. Well, what did you say to that? He chuckled self-consciously.

"Aw, go on."

She looked up at his bashful smile. "No. You are," she insisted and softly kissed his cheek. "Now, Sir Knight, please get me in there before I freeze to death!"

****

 

Cipriano, the proud father of the groom, danced past with Florida. Johnny had earlier glimpsed the happy young couple waltzing in the centre of the throng. Even Murdoch had just spun past them, a proud smile on his face and Aggie Conway in his arms.

He helped himself to another glass of wine and draped his arm casually over Scott's shoulder.

"Good wedding!"

Scott grinned. "Yes, there's a lot to be said for good friends, family, fine food..."

Johnny raised his glass. "Don't forget the wine."

"But of course; never forget the wine," Scott quipped.

He looked around them. His family was there, all the Ciprianos obviously, Pony and Florida, Maria and her brood; just about everyone from the Mexican community and all the Lancer vaqueros with their ladies. Animated faces chattered and laughed all around them. Even those who were not dancing were tapping their feet as they talked and drank. The children skipped by, giggling and snitching the tasty sugary treats spread out on the long beribboned tables. All was well. Pony and Enrique were so blissfully happy that their joy had infected everyone. Scott contemplated the simple but enthusiastic  celebration, comparing it with the many lavish but infinitely tedious society functions he had attended back in Boston.

He chortled at the sight of Jelly rampaging past with Cip's wife, both laughing and jigging wildly to the music.

"I know you don't like your fun organised, Johnny but..." he began.

"Nah," Johnny shook his head and grinned. "This is different. These folks know how to celebrate."

The brothers laughed together.

"Although, it appears Hector and his good lady haven't been affected by all this bonhomie," Scott pointed out, his smile disappearing.

Johnny looked across to where Scott had pointed.

It was true; Hector Alvarez and his wife Cecilia sat alone at a small shadowy table far removed from the crowd.

"Hey, you seen Sofia anywhere?" Johnny felt unaccountably alarmed. Sofia was close to both Jemimah and Pony and yet - he tried to remember - had he even seen her during the wedding at all? Here it was, well into the evening and the feast almost over, and Sofia was nowhere in sight. Had she gone home early? Perhaps not feeling too well?

Johnny could well understand the girl wanting to hide away from all this merry-making. Her own wedding to a distant cousin, the aloof Luis Fernando Ramirez de Ayala, was fast approaching but it would not be the happy blessed occasion they had all witnessed today. He could hardly blame Sofia for slinking off; the poor girl.

Scott must have been thinking along the same lines as he cleared his throat and watched Hector Alvarez with deep sympathy. "All this laughter and happiness - you can't blame Sofia for comparing her own situation. It's hard to believe that, in this day and age, such arranged marriages can take place. That she should be forced..."

"Scott!" Johnny silenced him with a curt word. "We've been through all this and this ain't the place to discuss it again."

Scott sighed heavily and sipped at his wine. He felt Johnny's arm slip away from his shoulders and knew that, despite the opposing viewpoint, his brother didn't like the situation any more than he did.

 "No, you're right. Now is not the time. I can well understand her making excuses to leave though. I certainly don't blame her and..." He watched as Pony trotted past, arm linked through Jemimah's. "I know those two won't either. It's a sad business, Johnny; a sad business."

****

"Overalls? You're wearin' overalls?" Jemimah gaped as Pony quickly got into the faded blue garment. "Ooh, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when Maria sees!"

Pony tossed her head stubbornly. "Maria can say what she likes. Florida knows an' she agreed that they're more practical for the drive up to the cabin. It's nigh on three hours away an' I don't intend to spend my weddin' night thawin' out in front of the stove 'cos I ain't been dressed warm for the journey."

Under her denims, she wore a thick plaid shirt and was now reaching for a woollen muffler and cap.

"I only meant it ain't exactly romantic."

"Romantic?" Pony curled her lip. "Neither is Enrique snugglin' up to an icicle! This way, I mightn't look very much like a bride but I'll be warm enough to behave like one."

Jemimah sniggered. "So, you're not worried about tonight anymore then?"

Pony shrugged. "I reckon not," she muttered. "He loves me. He won't hurt me."

"No, 'course he won't! Johnny made every moment wonderful for me... an' he still does," Jemimah smiled reassuringly at her friend. "It'll be the same for you."

Pony twirled the cap in her fingers and flopped down onto the end of the bed. She eyed Jemimah. "Your hair looks a damn sight better now. You shoulda' done it yourself in the first place!"

"I know."

They were silent a moment, both thinking back to all the nights they had spent in this room together, the laughter, the mischief, the shenanigans and the trouble they had been in. Good times.

"Y'know, there was a time I thought Enrique was in love with you - when I first met you," Pony admitted shyly.

Jemimah grinned, wisely refraining from mentioning the kissing practice sessions she and Enrique had once dabbled in. " I thought that too but it was just the silly babyish kind of love that kids get for each other when they're starting to think about romance an' all that stuff. I was the only one around who was the same age an' we spent a lot of time together. Used to tell each other everything - we even used to compare whuppings when we got into trouble!"

"Which was all the time an' it was always your fault!" Pony laughed.

"But Enrique must've felt the real thing almost the moment he met you, Pony. I knew it and I was real glad for him."

They smiled at each other then Pony's face became troubled.

"I only wish..."

"What?"

"Sofia."

"Oh. Yes."

The contented smiles were gone and now the two girls sat in a silence of a different kind.

"I can't hardly believe they're really goin' to make her do it," Pony's voice was angry.

"I know. I've argued 'til I'm fair blue in the face but there's no way around it an' Johnny just gets mad an' tells me I don't understand how it is for Mexican families." Jemimah shook her head in exasperation, her sleek chignon brushing her shoulders. "He says it's all about honour an' that Señor Alvarez has given his word so Sofia can't go back on it or she'll bring shame to her family."

Pony made some sort of explosive noise to show her disgust.

"Well, you know Sofia; there ain't no way she'd ever shame her folks."

Pony looked pained. "Duty, honour... it's all very well but she can't marry... that pig! Ugh, just the sight of him sets my teeth on edge. Lookin' down his bony nose at me an' callin' me an orphan."

"Well... you are."

"I know that but he ain't got no right to call me that! Jem, you know what he's like..."

"I know, I know... he always makes me feel the same. Only met him twice an' that was twice too often. Don't know what it is about him exactly; he just ain't right somehow. How can she marry someone she hardly even knows? I told her she should run away. She won't though."

"Yeh, visitin' every six months or so ain't the same as proper courtin'."

"Hell, she's been trekkin' over there to his big snooty house since she were a little 'un but she still don't know the slimy sod proper like. Think you could spend a year with that one an' still not know or like him. One helluva cold fish."

Pony gave a deep heartfelt sigh. "She wasn't here today at all. Can't say I blame her but... I'd have liked her to be here on my weddin' day."

"You understand though, don't you?"

Pony nodded her blonde head sadly and reached for her coat.

"There couldn't be two more different weddings," Jemimah sighed as she stood up. "Yours all happy and lovin', everyone you know all around you..."

"An' Sofia like she's bein' dragged to the gallows."

Pony linked her arm through Jemimah's and, together, they silently went downstairs.

****

As Pony and Enrique drove off under a shower of rice and flower petals, heading for Mannock Ridge and the cabin where they would spend their first week as husband and wife, Jemimah sought out the comforting arms of her own husband.

"Y'alright, honey?" he asked when she snuggled into him. "Feelin' blue now it's all over?"

"Sort of." She smiled when she felt him kiss the crown of her shiny hair. "I was just... thinkin' about Sofia."

Johnny sighed. She wasn't the only one.

****

Back home at Randall House, Jemimah wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and ran out to milk Jessamie.

Johnny passed her as she trotted thankfully into the warmth of the barn.

"The horses are settled. I'm going to make some coffee before we go on up."

"Well, don't fall asleep, Johnny."

"I wasn't plannin' on it," he smiled and the look in his blue eyes made her stomach swoop. "Why?"

"I can't unfasten all these bloody buttons on my own!"

He laughed and slipped his hand underneath the chignon to caress her neck and pull her closer for a soft kiss. "I'll be ready," he whispered. "Been lookin' forward to it all day."

She grinned and pushed him coquettishly away. His boots crunched on the crisp snow as he headed back to the house.

Shivering, her breath hanging like smoke in the frosty air, Jemimah carried the pail to the far end of the barn where the Jersey cow waited calmly, chewing at the fresh hay and watching with her big soulful brown eyes.

"Who's a beautiful girl then?" Jemimah crooned and the cow shifted in her stall when she pushed past her, reaching for the tiny milking stool.

Mindful of her dress, Jemimah lifted her skirts above her knees as she sat down and began to rearrange the swathes of fabric and shawl so that she could reach beneath Jessamie.

Suddenly, she paused.

What was that? She could swear she heard her name.

Jemimah craned back, peering around the cow's hindquarters. Not a soul in sight. Wrinkling her nose in puzzlement, she again reached for the cow's udder.

"Jem."

There it was again - and louder this time! Jemimah felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. She froze in place. Each tremulous breath clouded the air before her.

"Jem."

Instantly, she was on her feet, dropping her skirts and not even noticing how the hem trailed into the muck. She stepped out of the stall then stayed perfectly still, straining to hear.

"Jem."

"Who is it? Who's there? Show yourself!"

"Jem." This time the name was followed by a tiny sob.

Jemimah looked up to the hayloft. A few bits of straw fell to the ground. Someone was up there.

Heart in her mouth, Jemimah crept towards the ladder.

"I w, warn you - I got a bucket here an' I ain't afraid to use it!" Even though she was trembling, she felt a crazy swell of laughter rise inside as she heard how ridiculous she sounded. Hysteria; that was what it was called. She knew the laughter was a side-effect of her fear. Then again, the voice knew her name; it couldn't be anyone out to hurt her.

"Jem, it's me."

"Me?" At last, Jemimah peered over the top of the ladder and blinked into the shadows. She felt her fingers tremble where they held onto the rungs and she swallowed hard. "Me who?"

The straw rustled in the far corner. Jemimah held her breath, squinting, heart pounding.

A hand moved into the dim light, followed by a slim arm, a shoulder and finally a face.

Jemimah gasped.

"Sofia!" she cried. "God Almighty, what's happened to you?"

She was over the top of the ladder and by her friend's side in a single bound.

"Sofia, oh Sofia! Let me see... dear God!"

The girl was weeping now and well she might. Jemimah moved to carefully hold her as she slumped in the straw but even her gentle touch brought forth a moan of pain from the injured girl. Jemimah cupped her face as softly as she could, her own cheeks wet with angry tears.

"Who did this to you?" Her voice shuddered with anguish and disbelief.

Sofia's left eye was completely swollen shut, a hectic shade of dark purple mottled with splotches of red, puffed out unnaturally from the side of her once pretty face. Her mouth was cut and bloated so much that she could hardly speak. As she wept, the half-formed scabs split so that a fresh thread of bloody saliva drooped from the corner of her mouth. Mercifully, her nose was not broken but the blood from it had now dried in a thick black crust, caked across her cheek where she had smeared it.

"Oh Sofia."

Jemimah felt useless and a violent impotent rage surged within her breast at the state of her friend.

"I'll get Johnny!"

"No!" Sofia's hand clawed desperately at the soiled sleeve of Jemimah's pink dress. She was trying to speak, shaking her head, tears dripping from her chin. "No, he will... make me go back."

Jemimah was horrified. "He won't! Johnny will look after you. He'd never..."

Sofia clutched at her, panic giving her strength. "He will! He must!"

Jemimah shook her head in mute denial.

"Please Jem. Please no. You help me. Just you."

The desperation in Sofia's one good eye made Jemimah want to weep. Who had done this to her? And, heaven knows, the beating was bad enough but... what more might they have done? She chewed at her own lip. How in God's name could she hope to keep this a secret from Johnny?

Sofia continued to tug at her sleeve, the effort making her wheeze painfully. "Please."

At last, Jemimah nodded and Sofia, utterly drained, sank thankfully back into the straw. Jemimah covered her with the thick shawl.

"I'll bring blankets and water... maybe some fresh warm milk."

She realised she had yet to milk the cow. If she did not hurry, Johnny would be out looking for her. She darted for the ladder and swished her skirts aside to climb down.

"I don't know how long it'll be but I'll be back as soon as I can, Sofia. And I won't tell, I promise."

 

Jemimah had never milked a cow so fast in her life. She then raced across the yard, doing her level best to remain upright on the slippery stones and not to slosh the milk out of the pail. As usual, Jessamie had produced a good bucketful.

In the kitchen, Johnny was nowhere to be seen and she breathed a sigh of relief. It would be easier to gather together what she would need without fear of him asking awkward questions. She hurtled around the room, mentally compiling a list and collecting everything in a clean blanket from the chest in the hall. She poured some of the milk into a jug then set the rest, still in the bucket, on the meat slab in the larder. All this she did as stealthily as possible lest Johnny hear her and come down to investigate. Then, she made her way upstairs.

Johnny was already in the big bed, the quilt drawn up to his waist and his bare chest dark against the crisp white sheets. Jemimah guessed that he was naked beneath the quilt and she experienced a momentary pang of regret that she had missed seeing him undress. It was something she always enjoyed.

He sat up.

"I was about to come looking for you, honey."

She smiled and bent to untie her boots. When she straightened, she noticed he had been studying her cleavage down the gaping neck of her bodice.

"You were goin' to trek outside like that?" she grinned, unbuttoning her cuffs. "It's a mite chilly to wander about buck naked, ain't it?" She hoped that Sofia wasn't cold; she had only left her that shawl.

Johnny returned her grin. "You could've warmed me up in all that soft straw." He tilted his head on one side and suddenly seemed to notice the state she was in. "Lord girl, what have you done to your dress?"

"Why? What?"

"It's covered in dirt."

She shrugged. "Oh, I'll put it to soak. It'll be right." She thought back to the thin calico dress that Sofia had been wearing.

Johnny's eyes narrowed and he watched her carefully. It wasn't like her to act so casually about a new dress, especially one she had helped to make. She seemed suddenly distracted; almost edgy.

He knelt up, the quilt slipping so that it just covered his lean hips. He reached for her and gently sat her down between his knees so that he could make a start on the line of buttons. He sighed, his tongue poking out between his lips in concentration.

"Glad you changed your hair. This looks much better."

"Yeh, Zee made a right pig's ear of it before."

Johnny frowned, her brisk remark puzzling him. She would normally have made some joke or wheedled another compliment out of him. Yes, she was definitely distracted.

"Was everything alright in the barn?" he asked.

"Yes. Fine. I put the milk in the larder." Jemimah bit her lip, thinking about the jug of milk she had set aside for Sofia. It would be cooling down and she had wanted to take it to her while it was still warm.

"That's fine, honey. Y'know, I could have done it if you..."

"No, you did the horses. It wouldn't be fair. Besides, Jessamie always gives more milk for me."

He laughed at this. "It's that gentle touch you have. I don't blame her. There, you're all done!"

She seemed to wake up. "Eh?"

"The buttons," he explained. "All done."

He eased his hands under the soft fabric at the shoulders of her gown and the bodice slipped slowly down to gather in a pool of pink around her slender waist. Johnny's lips were now trailing soft butterfly kisses along her neck, moving slowly to her ear.

"Stand up," he whispered.

Though her mind was definitely elsewhere, Jemimah obeyed, surprised to discover that she was trembling with anticipation. How could she be so selfish? Her friend lay in the barn, grievously hurt, depending on her - how could she think of... at a time like this? Then again, it would certainly make Johnny suspicious if she made excuses; she never had before and he knew well enough that it was not that time.

He was deftly untying the strings of her petticoats now. One by one, they puddled at her feet.

"It's later than I thought," she remarked. "Are you tired, Johnny?"

"No."

He turned her to unlace the front of her camisole. Jemimah looked at him. The quilt had slipped a little more and she could see for herself how wide awake he was. She found she was breathing hard.

His hands had efficiently removed her camisole before she even realised and she dragged her eyes back up to his face. He was watching her, a soft smile playing about his mouth and those blue eyes warm, sparkly, loving.

She tried again though she knew it was pointless. "You sure you're not too tired?" What a daft question; it was blatantly obvious that he wasn't tired!

"No. Are you?"

She had meant to say yes but suddenly heard her own voice denying it.

She heard him chuckle as he bent to slide her drawers down her legs. She stepped out of them and they were whisked away.

Oh well, I've got to wait for him to fall asleep before I can get back out there. An' if he isn't tired...

She reached for her garter so that she could roll off her stocking but he caught her hand.

"No. Leave them. C'mere."

He was lying back onto the pillows, pulling her towards him. His strong hands softly cupped her derriere, lifting her and easing her down again, astride his lap. Arching, Jemimah emitted a tiny gasp and Johnny, blue eyes smiling up at her, released a deep shuddering sigh. His arms curved gently around her, drawing her in as his lips found hers.

****

When she was sure he was properly asleep, Jemimah carefully eased out from under his arm and rolled silently from the bed. Johnny stirred, sighing and muttering something, then he turned over and his breathing evened out again.

Slipping her nightgown over her head and gathering her coat from the stand at the bottom of the stairs, Jemimah slid her feet into her boots and collected all her things from the kitchen. Then, a lamp in her hand, she stole out to the barn.

****

Sofia winced and emitted a sharp hiss of pain as Jemimah gently padded at her blood-caked cheek with the soft damp rag.

"I'm so sorry, Sofia," Jemimah whispered. "I'm bein' as careful as I can. We need Maria here; she'd be better at this than me."

Sofia simply shook her head. She was breathing too hard to reply, clearly at the end of her tether. Even this delicate attention was almost more than she could bear.

Jemimah wrung out the rag in her dish of warm water then she tried again to carefully tend her friend's many cuts and bruises. But, when she attempted to ease Sofia out of her ragged bodice, the pain was too much for the poor girl. With an anguished cry, she used what little strength she had left to push Jemimah away.

"No, I cannot... it is too much.

Jemimah bit her lip in helpless frustration. "Sofia, I know you don't want me to but I've got to tell Johnny!" she exclaimed.

"Tell me what?"

Jemimah whirled around at the soft voice behind her.

Johnny was at the top of the ladder, puzzled curiosity written all over his face. "What's goin' on here? Why are you out...?"

Jemimah's sudden sideways movement had revealed the injured Mexican girl who lay limply in the straw. Johnny's expression turned to one of shock and horror. He was instantly at his wife's side.

"Dios mío, qué diablos está pasando?" (My god, what the hell is going on?)

Johnny leaned forward to the girl, his gentle hands already reaching out to offer comfort but, with a wild sob, Sofia turned away, shrinking back in her desperation to hide.

"No, por favor señor, no me mires! No me lleves! No me iré!" (No, please sir, do not look at me! Do not take me back! I won't go!) Sofia curled into a shivering ball, averting her face in shame and whimpering pitifully.

"Johnny, she's afraid you'll make her go back."

"Yeah, I got that."

With infinite care, he reached to the young girl and gently lifted her into his arms. She hid her poor beaten face in his neck, still weeping.

"Señor, no! No puedo volver... a él!" (Sir, no! I can't go back... to him!)

"Ssh! You're going into the house, that's all," Johnny soothed her. "We'll take care of you."

"You won't... make me go back?" There was a note of hope in her voice.

Johnny shook his head and moved towards the ladder. Lord only knew how he was going to get her down without hurting her but she needed proper care and urgently. Jemimah should have woken him earlier. He sat at the top of the ladder and swung both legs over, fixing his wife with a look. She read the rebuke in his eyes and shook her head.

"She made me promise, Johnny. She begged me."

He sighed. This wasn't the time to argue over her decision. "Get the lantern," he said. "Hold it over the ladder so's I can see. I don't want to drop her."

It was far from easy but Johnny somehow managed to get Sofia into the house. He laid her gently on their bed and moved back to allow Jemimah in by her side. Sofia had at last stopped weeping, seeming to believe that she was not to be returned to her home, at least for now.

Johnny took one more look at the girl. The sight of her injuries made him sick with anger at whoever had beaten her so ruthlessly.

"Sofia? Listen to me," he crouched at her side and waited until she turned her face to him. "I'm going to Lancer. We need Maria."

"No Señor, no..."

He took her hand. "I must," his voice was soft but firm. "She'll be able to help ease your pain. Don't worry; she won't say anything. You're safe here, I promise you."

Sofia sighed then gave a feeble nod, her one good eye closing in weary acceptance. Johnny stood and stroked his fingers tenderly down his wife's cheek. She leaned into him for a moment in silent gratitude then began to once more tend Sofia's wounds.

He paused by the door.

"Sofia, I want to know. Who did this to you?" Johnny suspected he already knew the answer but had to be certain. "Was it Ramirez?"

Sofia swallowed painfully. The seconds ticked by in the silent room.

"Si. Mi marido-a-ser," she spat. (Yes. My husband-to-be.)

****

Maria worked on the girl with an efficiency borne of long years tending Lancer's sick and wounded. Naturally, she felt compassion for the niña; what this man had done was unforgivable, but there was no time to weep or lament over her sorry state. Briskly, but with great care, Maria unfastened her dress and eased it from her body. Sofia whimpered and turned her face away as Maria and Jemimah both gasped.

Her whole torso was a map of bruises, welts and cuts. There were even teeth marks on her upper arms and breasts  as though she had been attacked by an animal and not a man. Her back, when Maria carefully turned her, was striped with angry welts; it was obvious she had been savagely whipped. Here and there, were marks of a belt buckle which had bitten deeply into her soft skin.

"Luis did this?" Jemimah's voice shook and she felt weak with fury, so much so that she was completely oblivious of the hot tears spilling from her eyes. "He really did this?"

Maria pressed a restraining hand to her shoulder. "Hush," she said gently. Then she turned to Sofia again. "Niña, you must tell me... this man who beat you. Did he... is there more I should know?"

Her brown eyes searched Sofia's face.

"No, he tried but I... I fought him, Señora Maria. I fought him with all I had. When he let me go, he laughed."

"Laughed?" Jemimah raged.

"Si. He said he had but a week to wait... then he would take what was his." She gulped as though speaking of it was turning her stomach. "He said I could fight if I wished but, if I did, he would have his servants hold me down. Then he said he... would prefer it that way."

Jemimah shuddered and saw Maria cross herself as she muttered something under her breath.

"Always, I knew he was a man who liked to drink and he takes many women. I thought I could go through with it... for my father... but I know now it is not enough that I do not love him; I cannot ever hope that love will grow with such a... monster."

****

"I could hardly believe it," Jemimah said and she gulped back another mouthful of the strong coffee. "Johnny, he's not a man; he's an animal. I always thought it was because she didn't want to marry a distant cousin that she barely knew - what girl would want that? But... she can't marry him. He'll kill her... and take pleasure in it." She tugged her shawl more closely about her shoulders and realised she still wore only her thin cotton nightgown which was stained with Sofia's blood.

Johnny sighed and ran his hand slowly through his untidy black hair before moving over to join her by the warmth of the stove. She passed him her mug so that he could finish the rest of the coffee, smoothing her hand down his hair as he crouched beside her chair, the simple touch bringing them both comfort.

"This betrothal is..." He shook his head. "I've told you, honey. It's different for Mexican families, especially old families like Sofia's." He sensed her stiffen and start to move away from him and he hurried on, trying to make her understand. "Old Emidio Ramirez took on Hector's debt and the betrothal was arranged to pay that debt."

"Sofia was only a baby then. She shouldn't be made to keep to some promise made by two old men when she was just an infant!"

"Maybe not but Sofia knows to go against her family's word will bring great dishonour to her father and to herself. In their tradition, she'd be labelled a..."

"A whore, I know! You've told me before!"

Johnny laid his hand gently on her sleeve, sighing when she immediately snatched it away.

"Honey, whatever Sofia plans to do now, we can't hide her here..."

Jemimah sprang from the chair, her shawl spilling from her shoulders to land in a heap of blue on the floor. "You can't mean it?" Her voice was incredulous. "Johnny, I gave my word she could stay here!"

"Then you'll have to un-give it."

"I bloody well won't!"

Johnny firmed his lips in exasperation at her temper. "Listen to me, will you?"

"No, I don't want to hear it!"

"Well, you've got to!" He gripped her arms when she would have flounced away. "Listen! If we're going to help that girl, you need to simmer down."

He softened his hold on her and was pleased to see her become still.

"Sofia knows that running away is a disgrace on her father's good name and will ruin her reputation as well. I can't be the one to help her openly; it would be like I was personally insulting both her father and the Ramirez family."

Jemimah was disappointed. She had expected to hear of some plan; of some way out for her friend. Her green eyes glinted with anger. "So... you would rather Sofia married a man she didn't love?"

"No..."

"A man who is unfaithful - a drunk, a known womaniser... a sneering, pompous bully who beats her like a savage... who tried to rape her?"

Johnny was silent for a moment then he took her hand. "C'mon."

"Where?"

"To talk to Sofia. She's had enough old men makin' plans for her; I ain't goin' to be another one. This has to be her decision too and I need to know a few things."

He headed for the stairs, towing Jemimah behind him. When they reached the landing, she quickly reached up to plant a swift kiss on his cheek.

"You're not an old man, Johnny. I knew you'd help her, I knew it."

The bedroom was lit by a single oil lamp. Maria sat in the chair by the bed and, at first, it seemed that Sofia slept. But, as they drew closer, she slowly turned her head.

The blood had been wiped away and she wore one of Johnny's old shirts, Jemimah's nightgowns being too small for her. The bruises and swelling to her gentle features were such that it was hard to tell but Johnny thought he saw her blushing. Her next words explained her embarrassment.

She touched the collar of the old beige shirt she wore and tried to smile. "Señor, I thank you for the loan of your shirt. It is not seemly but..."

He smiled. "De nada."

Johnny let Jemimah sit down next to her friend while he took Maria aside to talk to her, asking for an account of the extent of her injuries.

"It is as if a wild creature attacked her, Juanito," Maria sighed. "Bitten, cut... you have seen some of her bruises but there are more. All over her body." She shook her head in disgust. "This man is no man; he is a..."

Johnny was surprised to hear her mutter a vehement oath and grimace in distaste.

"Her ribs are bruised but I don't think broken."

Johnny searched Maria's motherly face with an unspoken question. Her eyes were dark when she replied.

"No, he did not but he tried, he tried very hard. La pobre niña."

Johnny moved back to the bed, a gentle hand of thanks touching Maria's plump arm.

"Sofia, why do you think Luis did this?" Jemimah was asking.

"You do not know him like I do, Jem," the girl whispered. "You are the daughter of Murdoch Lancer; you are the wife of his son. He treats you with the respect your position demands."

"But you're going to be his wife!"

Sofia gave a humourless laugh filled with bitterness. "Wife? No, I am to be his property, groomed all my life to be such. I am payment for my father's mistake. He trusted old Ramirez who could not know he had sired such a..." She released a shaky breath. "Luis has beaten me every time we have met over the years, always in secret, the first time when I was only four years old."

Jemimah gaped. "But he'd only be..."

"Eleven," Johnny supplied, listening intently.

"Always before, he has hit where the marks did not show, like you would whip a child." Sofia paused and hung her head in shame, mortified that she must explain. "After some visits to his home, I could not sit; could scarcely walk for days. My mother was told I had fallen or slipped from a horse."

 "But why?" Jemimah reached for her hand. This girl, so softly spoken and respectful, was anything but troublesome or willful. Luis could not wish for a more compliant soul to take as a wife.

She shrugged. "There was no reason - Luis enjoys giving pain so he would invent a reason. I knew he found pleasure in hearing me cry as he beat me." Sofia looked down at the pattern of the quilt, unable to look her friend in the eye. "He became... excited at these times; I could tell. This time, he lost his temper because I asked him to come to Pony's wedding with me. I should not have pressed him."

"What?"

"He said I was his dog and he my master. He would go to no wedding with filthy peasants, even if the great Lancers deigned to attend."

Johnny shifted but said nothing.

"Our wedding only days away, he now felt he had the right to beat me thoroughly as he had wanted to do many times before. He... became more... aroused this time. He wanted to..."

Johnny narrowed his eyes in utter contempt and rage. "This changes everything."

"Then you'll help? You'll think of something?" Jemimah turned hopefully to him.

"By god I will!"

Sofia's grateful weeping could be heard as they moved out onto the landing.

"I knew you would. We can hide her here..." Jemimah embraced him.

"No, Sofia can't stay here, honey. I told you that."

"What? But you said..."

"It'd be the first place they'd look. You know that. And the trouble it would cause for us and Lancer... especially when I have to shoot that mangy son of a..."

"But Johnny, we can't send her back to her father, that's as bad as sending her to him! He'd likely find her an' kill her just to spite her family!"

He stroked her hair as she clung to him. "We're not going to. Get Sofia ready."

They went back into the dimly lit room and he edged in next to Maria who was comforting the weeping girl.

"Crees que se puede montar en un carro?, cariña?" (Do you think you can ride in the wagon, honey?)

Sofia blinked her uninjured eye and nodded eagerly. "If it meant I could be free of my promise, I would walk to San Francisco barefoot!"

It was the first sign of defiance and spirit Jemimah had seen since she had discovered her friend hiding in the hayloft and she grinned encouragingly.

"I'll leave you to get ready while I hitch up the team. Don't be long." Johnny strode across to the door.

Jemimah waylaid him on the landing and kissed him thankfully. "I knew you'd understand, Johnny. I couldn't let her be tied to that... swine."

"No more could I. Come on, it'll be light soon. We need to get moving."

****

Carmelita beckoned her mistress, Agatha Conway out to where Jemimah waited. One quick glance at the shivering Mexican girl, hidden in blankets in the back of the wagon and Aggie was instantly issuing instructions to her staff. Calmly and efficiently, she soon had Sofia ensconced in one of the guest rooms, tucked into a bed with crisp clean sheets and a soft patchwork comforter.

"Yes Johnny," Aggie was saying quietly. "You know you don't even need to ask; she can stay here. None of my people will say anything to anyone. She'll be safe." She ushered Johnny out, seeing Maria and Carmelita soothing the girl and easing her into a proper nightgown. Carmelita was clucking over Sofia's bruises and shaking her head sorrowfully at the whole sad tale.

At last, the plump matronly Carmelita exited the room, muttering some foul curse on the wicked soul who could inflict such harm on an innocent child. She bustled off to the kitchen to whip up some broth for the poor girl and Aggie waved Jemimah out, saying she should probably leave with Johnny; the last thing they wanted was for Sofia's family to follow them and find her hiding there. They should go home.

Jemimah found Johnny in the sitting room. Now that Sofia was safe and well attended, his anger had resurfaced and he was pacing the room like a caged tiger.

"She alright?" he asked as she walked in. Then he shook his head. "Fool question. How could she be alright?" He ran his fingers angrily through his hair and slapped his hat against his thigh. "I swear I oughtta rip him apart. He ever tries to come near her again and I will!"

Jemimah put her arms around him and leaned into his warm body, relaxing at last after what had seemed an interminable night.

The insipid watery light of the winter sun was just filtering through the drapes; a cold light that did nothing to warm them. She shivered and snuggled into him when he pulled her closer and rested his chin on the crown of her head.

Running his hands up and down her arms to warm her, he spoke at last.

"Come on, honey. We'll go to Lancer. Murdoch and Scott will be up by the time we get there and I need to talk to them."

****

"Yes, I remember it well," Murdoch said grimly as he held out his cup for a refill.

Scott poured more of the strong black coffee into their father's cup and listened patiently to the story.

"I realise it may seem antiquated to you, Scott and, as you rightly say, such practices ought to be dropped in this day and age but, with Hector's family, it was a debt of honour."

Murdoch inclined his head to his younger son. "Johnny is quite right; Hector could no more welch on the agreement than fly to the moon. His name would be dragged through the mire in the Mexican community and his daughter, however young and innocent, would be... sullied, her reputation in tatters."

"I understand tradition and honour, sir," Scott argued. "But what honour has Ramirez shown? A man who would viciously beat a young girl like..."

"It makes no difference," Johnny stated. He didn't like this fact but that made it no less the truth. "In their world, Luis Fernando Ramirez de Ayala owns Sofia."

"Owns her?" Jemimah snapped. "She ain't no dog or horse!"

"But, as his wife, she is his property as is anything she may own; any money she may inherit," Murdoch explained gently. "It all passes from her father's control and to her husband once she is married. In this, the Mexican way differs very little from our own laws."

"Bloody laws! Made by men for men!" Jemimah spat in disgust.

Johnny patted her hand gently and she sighed, rubbing her weary eyes.

"Old Emidio was ready to forget the debt. I think he would have been willing to let Sofia out of the betrothal but... by the time Luis was seventeen , Emidio was very ill - a mere shell of his former self; had no control over his son who took over the estancia, the business, everything. When Emidio died, Hector lost any hope of his daughter being released from the promise he had made; the promise he now regretted, suspecting what kind of a man Luis had become... ruthless, crooked, debauched." Murdoch drained his cup and morosely studied the dregs in the bottom. "And now, if Hector were to discover what had happened, he would have no choice."

"What do you mean?" Jemimah had paled.

"What father could allow a man to treat his only daughter so and just stand idly by?"

"You mean... you think Señor Alvarez would try to kill Luis?" Jemimah whispered, eyes wide.

Murdoch looked up at her white little face. "I would."

"But he'd hang."

Her father chewed at the inside of his lip and again studied his cup, nodding grimly.

"And, if Sofia backs out?" Scott asked.

"Then Ramirez calls in the note," Murdoch stated. "Hector could never pay. He'd end up in jail or starving on the streets... or so Ramirez believes."

"Couldn't we lend...?" Jemimah began hopefully.

Johnny shook his head. "He wouldn't take it. Pride. He'd sooner starve on the streets than take a handout."

Jemimah rose suddenly from her chair, marching over to the window where she stared out blindly, her shoulders rigid with anger. "Men! You have such ridiculous rules and pride and it's the women who suffer for it!"

"Honey..." Johnny's voice was soft.

"It's madness! Well, I won't let Sofia suffer for her father's stupid pride or for that bastard's sick..."

Johnny was by her side in a few strides, turning her into his embrace, his strong arms holding her close as she cried. His voice softly crooned to her as he had always done when she was upset or hurt.

"I won't let her suffer, querida. I promise you."

"None of us will," Scott added. "I think we need to speak to Cip."

Murdoch caught his blue-grey eyes and nodded. "What do you boys always say... Lancer takes care of its own?"

****

Cipriano and Isidro, as Segundo and senior vaquero, were duly sent for. Maria's presence was also requested and all three spent more than an hour in the great room with Murdoch and his sons. Jemimah, complaining bitterly, was ushered from the room after her first outburst where she called Ramirez a few choice names and openly questioned his parentage, shocking the three Mexicans and halting the proceedings for a time.

Johnny saw her into the kitchen, promising he would tell her everything later and winking at Zee who took the hint and whisked the disgruntled girl off for a much-needed ride. They steered clear of the Conway ranch, not wishing to arouse any suspicions, and headed for the south line shack - Jemimah's favourite trail.

By the time they returned, Murdoch, Johnny and Scott were seated around the fire in the great room. Jemimah noticed that they each had a glass of liquor and hoped they were celebrating the successful formulation of a clever plan and not commiserating with each other.

She stood in front of the fire and tried to rub some heat into her frozen rump.

"Well?" she asked impatiently. "What was decided? Were Cip and Isidro any help?"

"Some," Johnny hedged.

Jemimah's face fell. "What? Some? Aren't they goin' to help her?"

Johnny glanced edgily across at Scott who was passing a coffee to Zee. Murdoch leaned forwards to speak.

"Darling, you have to understand... there is good deal of honour and dignity at stake here. No-one wishes to offend Hector Alvarez and..."

"Oh horseshit!"

"Jemimah!" Murdoch's voice was a disapproving growl which was threatening enough to give her pause. "Hold your tongue and listen for once."

Jemimah shuffled sulkily but remained silent. Satisfied that he now had her attention, Murdoch went on.

"Cip thinks, and I agree with him, that the best way to help Sofia is to stand back and let her handle Ramirez herself..."

Jemimah's face darkened and she turned on them all.

"Are you out of your minds? Stand back? You expect a girl like Sofia to deal with that bastard all on her own? What the hell are you..."

Johnny had risen from the sofa and was leading her bodily to the armchair and pressing her down into it.

"Honey," he began gently. "Just shut up."

She gaped up at him. He was smiling as he plucked off her hat and gently cuffed her round the head with it. Then he kissed the end of her nose.

"Keep your mouth closed an' your ears open and just listen to Murdoch, will you?"

Jemimah clamped her lips firmly together and turned her green eyes, glinting with anger, on her father.

"Alright. Isidro has gone to Aggie's to speak with Sofia. It all will depend on what she has to say but this is what we're hoping for..."

****

Later that same day, Jemimah pushed open the door to the kitchen at Randall House but halted in surprise.

Johnny was talking to someone by the open screen door and, as she peered through the crack, she realised it was Isidro. Jemimah strained to hear what was being said but, to her great irritation, their voices were very low and she could catch only the odd word.

"She what?" Johnny was asking. "You think she can?"

Jemimah clicked her tongue in exasperation at being unable to make out Isidro's reply.

All she could hear was, "... her own idea... determined... once and for all... can handle it well... feast."

Jemimah screwed up her nose in puzzlement. Damn it, why the heck didn't they speak up? Sofia had an idea of her own, she was determined about it, could handle it and something about the feast? She was just shifting to press her ear closer to the door jamb when she heard a louder noise - the screen door smacking shut and the kitchen door being closed. Then footsteps - Johnny and he was coming her way!

Jemimah hitched up her nightgown and, woollen slippers skidding on the polished floor, skedaddled through to the sitting room as fast as she could. When Johnny came in, she was sprawled untidily (having just thrown herself from the doorway in a desperate leap) in the armchair, clasping a book in front of her nose.

"You ready for bed now, honey?" Johnny was smiling down at her and unbuttoning the cuffs of his blue shirt.

Jemimah faked a yawn. "I will be in a minute. I just want to finish this chapter."

She felt him crouch down at her side and could sense that he was sniggering to himself.

"Uh honey..."

She lowered the book so that she could peer at him from over the top.

"Don't you think you might finish your chapter a mite quicker if you read the book the right way up?"

"Eh?"

Jemimah looked more closely at the print and was startled to realise she was holding it upside-down.

"Oh... er... yes, that would be better," she mumbled, a rosy blush staining her cheeks.

Johnny's blue eyes twinkled and he shook a chiding finger, moving in on her.

"Were you eavesdropping by any chance?"

She put aside the book, her ruse having been well and truly seen through. "Well, I may have overheard..."

"Uh-huh," He was edging closer now, a hand on either side of her chair. "Remind me, what did Murdoch used to do if he caught you listenin' at keyholes?"

Jemimah grimaced and shrank back into the cushions. "Wait Johnny, I don't think..."

He was now hovering over her and rolling up his sleeves in a most disconcerting manner. The only thing that prevented her from becoming seriously alarmed was the way those eyes of his crinkled as he smiled. He was teasing... wasn't he?

"What did he do?" he pressed with a grin.

"Well, I couldn't help overhearing!"

He laughed. "Not with your ear plugged up against the door, no. I just bet you couldn't." He flexed the fingers of his right hand and paused theatrically to study his palm. Then, menacingly, his eyes met hers. "Well, Murdoch isn't here so I guess it's down to me. I think I'd better..."

Jemimah gave a wild squeak and bounded past him, hurtling for the hallway and galloping up the stairs. She was both squealing and laughing when she reached the top and burst into their bedroom. Johnny, laughing too, was hot on her heels so that, as she arrived at the side of the bed, he scooped her up and tossed her onto it. Immediately, he was beside her, rolling so that he covered her body with his. They gradually quieted, studying each other, then she twined her arms around him.

Johnny lowered his lips to hers in a sweet kiss and, when he pulled away at last, she dimpled up at him.

"You're not really going to..."

He grinned and gently shook his head. "Changed my mind. Got something else in store for you, young lady."

As he bent his head to kiss her again, his right hand skimmed down her side until it arrived at the hem of her nightgown which had ridden up to her thigh. Johnny gathered the cotton in his hand and inched it upwards, smiling against her mouth when she lifted her body to make his task easier.

****

It was almost a week later that a visitor arrived at Lancer, rapping haughtily at the door with the silver tip of a walking cane. When Maria answered it, Luis Fernando Ramirez de Alaya did not even deign to give his name or explain the purpose of his visit. Instead, he pushed rudely past her, paying her no more heed than he might have a piece of furniture, and strode peremptorily into the great room.

Murdoch was at his desk on the far side of the room and had barely enough time to rise from his seat before the man was virtually upon him, Maria dogging his heels and looking most indignant.

" Señor Lancer I believe," Luis began.

Murdoch bestowed a calm and gracious smile on the man who, used to being given universal respect, failed to notice the steely glint in those blue-grey eyes. "It's alright, Maria. If you would bring some coffee, please. Am I right in thinking you would be Señor Ramirez de Alaya?" Murdoch held out his hand, faltering only slightly at the limp cold handshake he received. "We have never met before, señor. May I ask to what we owe this unexpected pleasure?"

Luis chuckled sarcastically, smoothing down his fine moustache with a manicured nail. "Oh come now, Señor Lancer, I think you know very well why I am here."

Murdoch gestured to the nearest blue chair and, when the younger man was seated, moved back to his own. "Oh? Well, I'm not too sure. Perhaps you should enlighten me."

Luis rolled his eyes in a bored fashion, his hand resting on the silver tip of his cane. "Come now, let us be frank with each other."

"Yes, that would be preferable."

"My... fiancée...  has disappeared..."

"Disappeared?" Murdoch frowned. "You mean Señorita Alvarez?"

"Precisely." Ramirez's mouth tightened so that his little sharp goatee twitched in annoyance. "It seems the child has had... let us call it an attack of nerves..."

Murdoch's eyes fixed him with a dark glare. "Yes, by all means, let us call it that," he said softly.

Luis hesitated then carried on. "The child has run away from home. Her parents are quite obviously distraught."

"Obviously. And you too, of course."

"Naturally. The sweet girl. I long to see her, to reassure her." Luis did not like the way the old gringo's eyes fixed him with such contempt. "It is but two days until the joyous day of our union. I would have her safe at my home until then."

Murdoch's scrutiny never wavered and he had the eventual satisfaction of seeing the young popinjay start to sweat. "And would she be?"

"I am sorry. Would she be what?" Luis asked impatiently.

"Safe. With you."

Their eyes locked in silent battle. Luis was the first to look away, shuffling uneasily in the chair and tapping the end of the cane edgily on the carpet.

"I can see my young bride-to-be has been regaling you with her tales. I was right; she is here, yes?"

Murdoch made no reply, merely continued to watch Luis.

"You must realise, señor, Sofia is a headstrong girl, prone to wild excuses for her willful behaviour."

Murdoch's eyes narrowed and, at that moment, Scott and Jemimah came in through the French windows.

They were both somewhat grimy, having come straight from the creek where Scott had been overseeing the team who were clearing the inevitable undergrowth and fallen tree branches. Jemimah had insisted on helping until she had fallen against Archie and managed to knock him sideways into the slimy mud. With much hilarity, Scott and Walt had yanked her free and they had headed back, leaving the men to carry on unhindered.

Seeing their visitor, Scott stepped forward, apologising for his appearance.

"I'm sorry to burst in on you like this, Murdoch. We must be a sight. We'll go and get cleaned up. My apologies, sir."

"No, no," Murdoch smiled and beckoned them in. "Please, I'd like to introduce Señor Ramirez de Alaya. He is Sofia's intended as you know."

Scott paused, eyes narrowing, then swiftly removed his glove to offer his hand. "Ah yes. Señor Ramirez."

Luis shook hands but there was no mistaking the disgust on his face.

Murdoch was still talking. "And this, Señor, is my daughter Jemimah."

Luis cast her a sneering glance but settled once more into his chair - an obvious slight to a lady. "Of course. We have met before."

"Indeed?" Murdoch's brow rose in surprise.

"Yes, some time ago. I was returning Sofia to her home and your daughter threw a handful of mud at me. I presumed she was just another urchin until Señor Alvarez explained."

"I didn't intend to hit you with the mudpie, señor," Jemimah offered. "It was just a lucky shot!"

Luis bristled, his lips curling and Jemimah grinned, resting her dusty rump on the edge of her father's desk. If looks could have killed, she would have been dead on the spot but it didn't seem to faze her in the slightest. Scott watched her cheeky little face and tamped down his own smile.

"Your... daughter...  could perhaps benefit from a lesson in manners, señor," Luis offered smoothly, his calm voice belying the simmering anger in his dark eyes.

"Is that what you gave Sofia?" Jemimah snapped. "A lesson?"

Luis shook his head and smiled as though humouring a boisterous child. "As I was explaining to your father, Sofia can be willful. To my great sadness, there have been times over the years that I have had cause to reprimand her."

"Is that right?" Jemimah wanted to spit in his eye.

"I am afraid so. Why, only last week, I discovered her flirting with the vaqueros in the barn. I had no choice but to... chastise her. Such outrageous behaviour. Her dear parents, my uncle and aunt, would have been ashamed." He spread his hands and shook his head sorrowfully.

"You bloody liar! Sofia would never..."

Jemimah was up from her perch in an instant and would have hurled herself bodily at the man had Scott not caught hold of her, gently keeping her pinned to him.

"Jemimah, calm down."

Luis was smiling now, delighted to have goaded such a reaction from the girl. She was another one it would give him great pleasure to tame. Yes indeed, that would be most entertaining.

"Such spirit, señor! See how she flies at me like a little wildcat!" He gave an amused chuckle."Chica, you must provide hours of entertainment for Señor Madrid, no?"

Luis was further amused when Scott pushed Jemimah behind him and stepped forward, his hands balled into fists.

"If you were a man, I'd..."

"Scott! No!" Murdoch had risen from his seat and had already grasped Jemimah by the wrist to keep her still. "We will not rise to his jibes."

Luis seemed to realise the futility of further pretence. As Maria swished in with a tray of coffee, he rose and sauntered casually, seemingly in full command of himself, over to the sideboard. He carefully fingered the large model sailing ship which resided there. Never taking his eyes from it, he addressed Murdoch.

"Sofia obviously hides here to escape my anger. Bring her to me immediately."

He ignored Maria who offered a cup of coffee to him, turning instead and looking at the three Lancers.

"I am afraid I must insist. Sofia will leave with me today."

"Is that right?"

Everyone turned at the soft voice from the doorway.

Johnny stood there with Sofia by his side, his hand reassuringly on her arm.

After nearly a week, Sofia's bruises were starting to heal. Her eye was now open and the dark bruise was receding, leaving behind a sickly yellow with blotches of violet. Her lip sported a black scab but was no longer puffed up to twice its normal size. She wore a simple white blouse and a gaily patterned peasant skirt. Her hair, pulled back into a long braid, made her eyes more noticeable - the dark soulful eyes that now watched Ramirez as a mouse watches a cat.

"So, Señor Madrid, I was right; Sofia has been here all the time."

Johnny chose to ignore the man's use of the name 'Madrid' - a deliberate taunt.

"Nah, I reckon you ain't been right about much, Ramirez," he smiled, his blue eyes suddenly cold. "Señorita Alvarez just arrived."

"The... the Lancers were not hiding me, Luis. I have been..." Sofia stammered, her voice pleading, frightened.

He silenced her with a smart rap of his cane on the floor, dark eyes shining with satisfaction when she became instantly still, her head hanging and hands clenched in front of her in an attitude of submission.

"Sofia, you will fetch your things and come back to Lago Azul with me. Ser rápido! (Be quick!)"

He licked his lips, already thinking of how he might punish her for running away and causing him all this bother.

"Well now, just a minute." Murdoch held up a hand to waylay Sofia who was already shuffling to do Ramirez's bidding. "Do you think that is entirely proper, señor?"

Luis curled his lip. "Proper?"

"Yes indeed," Scott was smiling. "You are not yet married to Sofia. It would be most unseemly for her to reside with you at your estancia until the wedding."

"Most unseemly," Johnny reiterated with a smirk.

"Señorita Alvarez would, of course, have her own suite of rooms. I was not suggesting that..."

"And her own key for her door?" Jemimah pressed.

"I feel sure that her father would prefer her to remain at their home on Lancer until after the ceremony," Murdoch said.

"Her father?" Luis gave a derisive snort. "Hector Alvarez will do as I..."

"And, as her Patron and protector, I would also wish her to remain here." Murdoch smiled politely but his eyes were as hard as granite. "And, of course, there is the feast to consider."

"Feast?" Luis was now scowling.

"Naturally, you will be attending the feast? It's a tradition in these parts. A feast is given, hosted by the bride's father, to celebrate the union of his daughter and her groom."

Luis watched Murdoch, his snake-like eyes hard. "And Hector Alvarez is to hold such a feast?" He clearly did not believe it.

"The Lancers are proud to hold it in Sofia's and her parents' honour. They have worked here for many years and are well respected members of our community," Scott stepped in.

"Respected. Yes, of course." Luis bared his teeth in what was more of a sneer than a smile. "Then, naturally, I would be honoured to attend this feast. Most generous for little Sofia."

He flicked a cold look at the quaking girl.

"Until tomorrow then, Perrita."

Johnny bristled at the derisive term, the muscles in his jaw clenched.

Ramirez swept past him, pausing only to chuck Sofia under the chin. She shrank back against Johnny whose arms came around her protectively. Luis chuckled and strode to the door.

When he had gone, Johnny led Sofia to an empty chair, lowering her into it. Jemimah rushed to her side.

"Johnny, what did he call her?"

Her husband swallowed his disgust, shaking his head.

"Perrita," Sofia replied quietly. "Little dog. It is his name for me since I was a child."

Scott had moved quickly to the kitchen and was calling through to someone. Cipriano and Maria came in.

"Did you hear?" Murdoch asked.

"Si Patron."

"Everything ready?" Johnny turned to the big Mexican.

"Si Juanito, Sofia has played her part well. Ramirez will not expect what we have planned..."

"No."

The others turned. Sofia was now standing.

"This is my task alone," she said and her voice was steady, sure. "I told Isidro and it is what I wish."

Cipriano and Maria glanced at each other.

"You do not think I can do it?" Sofia was trembling.

"It ain't that, honey." Johnny moved to her. "Bringing down a man, even a snake like Ramirez... it's not as easy as you think. Tears at something inside you. You'd never be the same again."

"I do not want to be the same."

"It's like losing part of your soul, honey." Johnny's eyes were bleak, just for a second. "Don't wish for it."

Sofia studied him, swallowing. Then she turned to Cipriano. "I understand what you are trying to do for me and I thank you. I do. But... I will have my wish." She looked back at Johnny, pleading for his understanding. "I want no-one else to be tainted by this man."

Johnny sighed deeply, studying his boot. Then, folding his arms, he nodded.

****

"Johnny, I don't think I ever saw this many people at a party before," Jemimah stared around them as they approached the long tables, adorned with their crisp white cloths and gaily coloured ribbons. She deposited her offering - a plate of jam tarts and apple pastries - and pulled her thick shawl more closely about her, feeling edgy.

Johnny looked somewhat edgy himself. His eyes were never still, roving over the faces of the people gathered around in huddles, warming themselves by the braziers. He spotted Jelly over by the barn. The old man waved a cheery hand then turned his attention back to basting the whole hog that was roasting steadily on its spit.

"Ain't just Lancer hands here tonight, honey," Johnny was murmuring. "There's everyone from Aggie's place, the Johnson's, Cupitt Creek... Cip even brought over his friends from Redemption and Witness Tree."

"All for Sofia?" Jemimah eyes were moist.

"If needs be."

The Mexican band were playing a lively melody and a few of the younger guests joined hands and began to dance in a small clearing. But the adults remained watchful, talking together in low voices. Their smiles, Jemimah could tell, were forced.

She meandered over to stand with Scott and Zee.

"Johnny!" She beckoned her husband but he had spotted someone else and was moving away from her.

A slender figure, dressed gaily in a scarlet peasant blouse and patterned skirts, approached him. Her costume was entirely at odds with the look on her face.

"Sofia, you don't have to do this."

She lifted her dark eyes to his. "No señor, you are quite wrong. I am the only one who can do this."

"You know that I'll..." Johnny wanted to spare her more pain if he could. She was an innocent; she had no idea of the price she would have to pay.

"I know you would help me; take it all on your own shoulders," she spoke softly, lifting her fingers to his face then, perhaps feeling she had been too bold, dropping them hastily. "But I cannot ask it. Already, you have done more than you know."

He shook his head. "I haven't done anything."

"You have," she insisted. "You all have but you perhaps most of all. You have given me the chance to make myself free. You are..." She paused to brush away a lone tear which snaked down her cheek. "Señor Juanito, you are mi ángel."

"Sofia, listen..."

Johnny halted abruptly, seeing Murdoch and Cipriano striding towards him through the darkness. They had someone with them.

Ramirez.

Johnny took her hand and led her to the others in the yard then he moved away, melting into the crowd. He could tell without looking that Ramirez was getting closer. One by one, the gathered people hushed and the musicians ceased playing. The torches dotted around the yard were being extinguished so that the shadows seemed to reach their malevolent fingers out to envelop them all. Only the light from the half a dozen braziers and the fire for the hog roast penetrated the inky night, casting a weird dancing orange glow over the stark faces which stared as one at the man who entered their midst.

"Ah my dear," Luis smiled wolfishly, his eyes darting around him. "Here you are at last. Come, I would embrace you."

Sofia had turned. She remained silent, unmoving. Luis felt the smile slip from his face. This disobedience would earn her something she would not like. His nostrils flared at her deliberate defiance but he shrugged as though it meant nothing to him. She clearly was encouraged by the presence of these peasants. Dios, but there were hoards of them! Luis looked around him.

The yard was walled with people, that strange eerie light hitting their unsmiling faces. They were everywhere; along the fence of the corral, clustered near the door to the barn, in a row which ran the length of the bunkhouse. Everywhere. And no-one moved. Their eyes were trained upon the two figures in the centre of the yard.

Stocky, leering Luis Ramirez and frail little Sofia.

But she somehow did not look frail any more. And there was no trembling, no cringing. Not this time. She stood erect, fearless, proud; her chin up and her dark eyes pinning Luis to the spot. This Sofia was different and unsettling. This Sofia made him nervous and he did not like it.

"So Perrita, you are going to run to your papa or these peasants to defend you this time?"

She shook her head slowly, her gaze never wavering.

Luis felt the burning acid of unaccustomed fear coat the back of his throat. What the hell had got into the little bitch?

"I expect you've planned for Johnny Madrid to turn up later - will he try to scare me away?"

"Oh, this is nothing to do with me, Ramirez," Johnny's soft drawl came from over by the barn and Luis spun around to scowl at him leaning there, that interfering brat that he had married tucked in at his side. "Sofia's got it all in hand."

Luis swallowed and wiped his oily face with the back of his hand. A hand that trembled. What was she doing now? Backing away from him? Yes, this was more like it. He grinned. This was more familiar. He was already planning how he would make her pay for this reckless defiance; first he would redden that soft backside with his hand as he had done so many times then perhaps a belt for her back again? He had enjoyed that. The memory of her agonised cries caused a thrill to run up his spine. Yes, that would do to begin with. He licked his thick lips. Deliciosa!

The group of women, clustered near the barn, shuffled aside. Over the door handle, hung a stock whip. Sofia backed away from Luis, never taking her eyes off him, until she was level with the whip. Then, she took it in her hands and flicked it out so that it snaked along the ground between them - six feet of tough braided leather.

"I do not need my Papa nor Señor Lancer," her voice was steady, possessed of a new strength and determination which made Luis curl his lip uncertainly. "This is between us alone. It is all there will ever be between us... and I am going to finish it. Now."

"Oh yes?" He smiled though he had never felt less like smiling in his life. "Have you forgotten your father's debt? You think I have?"

"You soon will." Her voice was utterly calm and sure. "I will make you forget."

Luis laughed and planted his hands on his stocky hips, contriving to gulp down an unpleasant rising nausea and flash her a pitying look. "Is that right? And how do you think you will do that?"

"Watch and learn."

Sofia twitched her brightly patterned skirts aside, moving towards him. Then, with a firm sideways stroke, she sent the length of the whip streaking out to wrap around his calves and she yanked sharply back on it. Taken totally by surprise, Luis lost his balance and fell backwards to the dirt, his captured legs flailing in mid-air. The back of his head smacked into the ground and he grunted loudly in pain, momentarily unable to see straight.

Sofia was approaching, her brown eyes no longer soft and soulful. They were angry, livid and her fury gave her strength for what she knew she must do. Luis lay groaning in the dirt but she felt no pity and could show him no mercy. If she were to be free, she had to do this terrible thing. She had to be strong. She would fight here for her very existence.

She had watched her father and the other vaqueros all her life. She knew how to wield a whip. Her first lash ripped open his shirt across his back as he rolled stupidly before her. The fresh weal bloomed bright red across his thick torso from his left shoulder to the right side of his waist. He howled with pain and anger, clumsily bringing up his knees in an effort to struggle to his feet. Before he could stand, the second lash caught him at his neck and seared his flesh all the way down his spine, knocking him back onto his knees. This time, he screamed - a high-pitched panicked sound. The third lash wrapped around the back of his knees, efficiently splitting the tender flesh there so that fat ruby droplets of his blood flecked the earth.

Now writhing on his belly, Luis tried to crawl away from the pain she was inflicting but, once more, the relentless whip coiled around his arm and yanked it out from under him. His chest slammed into the ground hard, his chin with its ridiculous tuft of beard grazed on the sharp stones. He bit his tongue and cried out, spitting muck and blood from his gaping mouth.

Sofia pressed him, lashing at him again and again. He writhed on the ground, smeared with blood and dirt, his clothing hanging in gory tatters around his punished body. And she followed him on and on, across the yard.

Clinging to what she knew she must do, she set aside all pity, whipping him relentlessly until his soft skin was covered in welts as though a dozen fat scarlet serpents slithered across him. But she did not stop. His anger had become fear and now he lay sobbing and begging her for mercy. Still she could not stop.

Finally, he lay quivering and moaning, his voice a weak travesty of his usual proud sneer. His blood lay spattered in the dry dusty earth.

All was silent save the snuffling grunts and sobs coming from the man who lay before her.

Sofia returned the whip to the handle of the barn door, turning her back on Luis for the first time. The gathered Mexicans and vaqueros, still watching silently, faced her as one. Sofia met their eyes and, fortified by the respect she found there, squared her shoulders and tried to squash down the nausea which rose to the back of her throat. She looked to the men she knew she could trust.

" José , Mateo, Walt, Archie." By some miracle, her voice was strong and steady. "Take Señor Ramirez to his buggy and see that he leaves Lancer... please."

Walt flicked a questioning glance at Johnny who motioned with his eyes. Then the four men dragged Luis to his feet.

Sofia was now standing by Cipriano and his wife. The big Mexican laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and, feeling her trembling, he nodded to her. She had done what she needed to do; what her father should have done years ago. This slip of a girl had taken on a powerful man and, by doing so, had stepped out of his shadow forever.

"Nina..."

"Hey!" Walt's voice rang out suddenly.

There was the sound of scuffling boots; of grunts and gasps of pain, blows being exchanged then a woman screamed.

Cipriano looked up.

Ramirez was lurching around violently. As though in a dream, Cip saw the blood-smeared face, eyes wild and teeth bared like an animal, as it sought out the young girl in front of him. The man seemed almost frenzied. He ducked the grabbing hands of Mateo and Archie and threw himself forwards, his right arm lifting. Cip, too late, saw that his hand clutched a gun. But how? He had not been armed. Cipriano gathered Sofia to him but knew, beyond a doubt, that it was too late. He could not save her.

A single shot rang out and Sofia fell into Cipriano's arms, screaming with the other women around her.

"No!" Cip could believe his eyes.

Ramirez seemed to crumple before him and, at the same time, he lurched backwards, arching impossibly, his arms in their ragged sleeves flailing like a ragdoll thrown by a petulant child. His head and shoulders hit the ground first with a sickening crunch, the impact jarring his neck and knocking all air from his shattered lungs. In the fiery glow of the flames, a scarlet plume of blood glistened as it spewed in an arc from the bullet hole in his chest.

All were still, frozen. Even Walt, whose gun was now skidding from Ramirez's lifeless fingers, crouched in shock. It had all happened so fast. Only one man moved.

Slowly, Johnny straightened from his crouch and returned his Colt to its holster. He walked steadily to the four men who surrounded the body of Ramirez.

"Better get your gun, Walt," he said quietly.

Jemimah was suddenly by Sofia's side, her arms around her. Johnny came too, watching the young Mexican girl. She may be on her feet now but he wouldn't be surprised if the ordeal, now it was over, would be too much for her yet.

"Oh Sofia, Johnny," was all Jemimah could say.

Johnny looked at her, blue eyes locking onto brown. "You handled it. You had your wish. I just had to finish it."

Sofia was shaking now, tears brimming but her voice was steady when she answered him. "We had to, Senor. You see that, you of all of us, I know you do."

Johnny watched her a moment longer, shrewdly realising that she needed his spoken approval for what had been done. He nodded. "Yes."

He turned away to go after the men who were already taking the body away. He knew Murdoch would arrange for him to be taken back to Lago Azul. Then it would truly be over. After this night, she would not need to worry again. A few yards away, Johnny turned and looked back at Sofia as she stood with Jemimah and Cip's wife, now surrounded by the other women.

"What happened here," his voice was soft. "It had to be done and somebody should've done it a long time ago. Ramirez can't hurt you again. You're free."

He smiled at the incredulous wonder and joy which gradually seemed to light her from within.

Sofia watched him walk away, tears now spilling down her cheeks.

"Oh Jem, he's right. I am free, aren't I? I really am free."

****

Jemimah pulled back the sheets on the big cherub bed and slid between them. They were cool on her skin, the pillows soft beneath her head and she sighed. It hardly seemed possible that it was only a week since Pony and Enrique's wedding. They would be coming back from Mannock Ridge in the morning, expecting Sofia's own wedding to be taking place. So much had happened, it was hard to take it all in.

Above everything, to know that Sofia was home with her elderly parents and would not have to think of Luis Ramirez again... No. Jemimah knew that was not true. Sofia would think of him over the years but, now, it could be without fear. The pain would dim and she now could find happiness with someone worthy of her.

She wondered if Johnny would ever think on him. She prayed not. He had done what had to be done; he always did. But her heart was uneasy for him. She knew it was never a simple thing for Johnny to kill a man, even one who deserved to die as she believed Ramirez had. Johnny rarely saw it that way.

The door opened and he came in, already shucking his shirt, his dark hair falling forwards over his eyes as he slid out of the sleeves.

"Y'alright?"

"Honey, I'm fine. You don't have to keep askin' me." He smiled but she thought there was a hint of sadness in his blue eyes.

He was stashing his gun belt and Colt on the chair by his side of the bed as usual but tonight it seemed more poignant than before.

Jemimah lay back, green eyes fixed on him as he undressed. "You tired, Johnny?"

He didn't look at her. "A little. Been a long day."

He leaned to stow his boots under the edge of the bureau and she studied the firm curve of his buttocks, the palest part of him. As he straightened, he caught her eye and smirked.

"You lookin' at my behind?"

"I was," she admitted with a grin. "Now I'm lookin' at something else."

"Get on with you." He lifted the sheets and returned the favour, smiling broadly to discover that she had foregone the usual full-length nightgown and was already naked. He slid in beside her and she curved into his embrace with a sigh of contentment.

She expected a kiss or for his gentle hands to roam over her but he was still, deep in thought.

At last, he spoke, his lips soft against her hair.

"Boy, I've been called some things over the last few days."

"Like what?"

He fidgeted and ran a finger self-consciously over his eyebrow.

Jemimah turned so that she could see his face. "Tell me... please."

"Well... Pony said I was a knight in shining armour." He smiled awkwardly, obviously embarrassed." And Sofia called me her angel..."

Jemimah was dismayed to see that sorrow back in his eyes. She had to drive it away or he would let it fester until the whole family had to do something about it.

"Angel?" she snorted. "Yeh, I can just see you in a white frilly dress and feathery wings... and a halo! Angel Johnny flitting about the ranch! Would you still wear your gun over your nightie? Heehee!" She rolled so that he had to release her, watching her with a growing grin on his handsome face. "Ooh an' you'd have to start wearin' drawers or that could be a mite embarrassin'!" She whooped with laughter and Johnny smiled indulgently, enjoying the way the sheets had slipped to reveal her breasts as she chortled.

She sat up and prodded him naughtily.

"You be careful, chica. You ain't too old to wind up over my knee, y'know."

Jemimah sobered with difficulty.

Johnny sat up too, punching the pillows to a pleasing shape for his back. "'Course, what that bastard had to say about me wasn't nearly so complimentary."

They were both silent then, thinking back over all that had happened. Jemimah reached for his hand.

"I'm glad he's gone. I'm glad you an' Sofia..."

He squeezed her fingers and hurried on, not really wanting to dwell on what they had done. Johnny knew there had been no choice but, like always, that empty ache had come back and he knew it would take a while for it to depart.

"Scott said tonight... he said I was a man of true honour..."

She shrugged and nodded. "You are. Surely, you know that? What was Murdoch saying in the study? I couldn't hear."

"Were you eavesdropping again?" Johnny threw her a mock scowl.

"Of course!"

He pulled her closer and patted her bare rump with a gentle hand. "I'll tell Murdoch he needs to spank your behind!"

"Well? What did he say?"

"Said he was proud of me. Said I'd done what had to be done... and that he knew I could always be relied on to act in defense of others."

Jemimah nodded. "He's right. You want to know what I say; what you are to me?"

He shrugged, looking into her eyes.

"I thought you already knew!"

Johnny grinned his beautiful disarming white-tooth grin. "Say it anyway. Does a man good to hear his wife tell him she loves him now an' again."

Jemimah sat back so that she could study him as he watched her. The sheets and quilt had slipped from her body altogether now and she knew his blue eyes kept roving over her. "You're everything... " she whispered, her own green eyes shining in the lamplight. "You're my reason to be, my heart, my life... and the father of my child."

There was a moment of stunned silence then Johnny scrambled to his knees, looking incredulously from her smiling face to her flat stomach and back again. He reached out to gingerly touch her belly.

"What? You are? Really... you're pregnant?" His soft voice was tinged with awe.

She nodded eagerly and he threw his arms around her, clutching her to him in an exuberant embrace. Then, suddenly remembering the baby, he set her back from him with exaggerated care.

"It's alright, you goose," Jemimah laughed. "I won't break."

"When?"

"Sometime in September I reckon," Jemimah smirked smugly, feeling inordinately proud of herself and very pleased to have so thoroughly banished that empty lost look from his blue eyes.

"Oh honey, I can't tell you... That is just the best news I ever..." He could hardly get the words out but his smile beamed.

"I think we oughtta celebrate, Johnny. I picked out a star especially for the occasion so I hope you ain't too tired after all."

 Johnny face became dubious at the way her hand slipped beneath the quilt and sneaked up his thigh.

"Well, is it still alright to... do that now with the baby on the way?"

Jemimah's hand was forging ahead and Johnny realised his little wife was determined. Her insistent touch was rapidly convincing him too!

"I bloody hope so!" she giggled, a mischievous glint in her eyes to match the naughty path her fingers were taking. "We've been carrying on as normal all these weeks so, if it were harmful, the poor little bugger's already done for!"

Johnny looked momentarily alarmed but she laughed and moved over, rolling on top of him and releasing a deep sigh as she slid into position.

"It's perfectly safe and you'd better do your husbandly duty, Mr. Lancer; I got at least a couple hundred more stars lined up before this baby makes an appearance!"

Laughing, Johnny took her in his arms, a soft warm hand skimming down her back and his lips hungrily upon hers.

"Whatever you say, Mrs. Lancer."

 

 

 

~ end ~

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