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Anne

 

 

The Pranksters

Jemimah Day series

Disclaimer: These characters, apart from Jemimah Day, are not mine though, if they were, I would certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox do.
Scott is 27; Johnny is 22

"What are you doin', Johnny?" Jemimah's puzzled voice yelled up at the young man as he athletically swung one-handed from the tree branch then dismounted easily, bounding lightly to the ground.

He turned to her, scooping up his hat from the bench under the tree and placing it lightly on his handsome head. Swiping his overly long fringe out of his blue eyes, he grinned down at her.

"This, my dear Jemimah," he said with a chuckle. "Is payback time!"

They both turned to stare up into the topmost branches of the tree. There, bobbing gaily in the early fall breeze, was Jelly's hat. It may have been battered and could hardly have been described as the height of fashion but everyone knew how partial the crotchety old man was to that hat. He would be less than amused to find it missing, let alone flying at the top of the courtyard tree like a flag up a pole.

"What you payin' him back for?" Jemimah wondered.

Johnny turned to her again and his smile slipped a little. He looked like he was blushing. Suddenly he didn't seem able to meet her eye. He had dipped his head and was dusting an invisible speck from his pants.

"Oh, er... it's nothing for you to worry about," he prevaricated. "Jelly knows; that's all that matters."

Grinning, he gazed up at the hat again then, mussing her hair lightly as he passed, he took off across to the barn, whistling merrily.

Jemimah scowled after him and smoothed her hair down. She shrewdly gleaned that it had something to do with either the saloon, girls, gambling, girls, one of Murdoch's rules that Johnny had probably broken... or girls. Half of the reason she loved him so much was that he was still mischievous like a kid and rather enjoyed bending the occasional rule.

But she hated that he had all these stupid girls sniffing round after him! Not one of them was worth a damn but, strangely enough, Johnny never seemed to realise this. She sighed. For a clever young man like Johnny, he surely entertained some of the dumbest, most tedious females in the state! She suspected that half of them didn't even know how to read. All they seemed to think important was curling their hair and squeezing themselves into dresses so tight they looked like they had been poured into them... and half of them was still trying to spill out over the top. Ridiculous! She couldn't think what he saw in them!

Jemimah meandered inside and through to the kitchen, snatching up an apple as she went. Teresa was whisking up some batter and humming to herself. She noticed the girl walking past and called out to her.

"Hey, Jemimah, you want to lick the spoon? This is about done if you hold on."

Jemimah waved and shook her head, indicating her mouth crammed with apple. Strolling on through the kitchen, she headed for the garden and the bench which sat in the shade of the peach tree. Plopping herself wearily down, she munched slowly through her snack while pondering something.

Johnny was quite a prankster. Since she had come to live at Lancer he had played practical jokes on just about everyone in the family. No-one was safe from his mischief it seemed but they usually took it in good part and he certainly had some ingenious ideas for his little tricks.

Only last week he had crept out to the henhouse before anyone else was awake. Removing all the fresh eggs and secreting them in a pot in the pantry, he deposited half a dozen hard-boiled eggs underneath the snoozing chickens for Teresa to find. At first, she had been hugely disappointed at the feeble yield. Later, when she tried to cook breakfast with them, her startled shriek had prompted both Murdoch and Scott to dive into the kitchen to see what was the matter. Only Johnny had remained in his chair, eyes shining with glee and an enormous grin lighting his face.

And then, of course, his prank on Scott had gone down in Lancer legend. Jemimah knew it had happened before she arrived but had heard the story a few times about how Johnny had put his brother's plaid riding trousers on the ornery old white donkey for all to see. As no-one but Scott had any fondness for the trousers, it had caused huge hilarity and Scott's face had been red for quite some time.

Yes - Johnny was most definitely a great prankster!

Jemimah finished her apple and tossed the core into the swill bucket. Let the pigs have that bit! She stretched and stood up again. Time to hit the books! Tomorrow was the geometry test and she was determined to stand first again. She figured she'd settle herself at Murdoch's big desk, knowing he would not be home for at least another hour.

Strolling back through the kitchen, Jemimah passed Teresa, now reaching up to fetch down her cake pan from the shelf above the counter. The kid idly dipped her finger into the cake batter, gathering up a large dollop.

"Jemimah!"

Teresa's shout nearly made the younger girl jump out of her skin, so much so that the scoop of sweet batter ended up on the clean kitchen floor.

"Now look what you made me do!" the kid groused. "Waste of good cake mixture!"

Teresa frowned down at her, hands on hips and toe tapping the floor.

"I offered you the spoon and you said you didn't want it," she accused. "Now you go and stick your dirty finger in it!"

Jemimah looked perplexed.

"But I didn't want it... then. I had a gobful of apple. And my fingers aren't dirty; I had a wash this morning."

Teresa clicked her tongue in disgust and grabbed the girl's hand to display the grime on her fingers.

"Not dirty, hmmm?" she snapped disapprovingly. "Well, they sure don't look very clean to me."

"S'just a bit of dust off Amiga, that's all," Jemimah shrugged. "Maybe a little chalk an' stuff from school."

"Dust off Amiga?" Teresa nearly howled. "And now it's in my batter? I may as well throw that whole batch away!"

Jemimah's eyes gleamed and she reached out as if to grab the bowl.

"Oh, well, it won't kill ya' but if you don't want it anymore, I can find it a good home!"

Teresa rapped Jemimah's knuckles smartly with her wooden spoon, a satisfied smile on her face at the child's yelp and hastily withdrawn hand.

"You leave that be, missy," Teresa ordered. "And just scoot out of my kitchen!"

Jemimah's green eyes narrowed and she regarded the haughty young woman sullenly. Jemimah never had taken to being ordered about by another girl, especially one who was only four years older!

When it appeared that she would push the issue, Teresa waved the wooden spoon threateningly. After a few more seconds, Jemimah smiled slowly and, wanting to annoy Teresa some more, she raised her eyes to heaven and wandered into the great room.

"Right then, Miss Teresa," she schemed. "You asked for it."

From Murdoch's desk, where she was spreading out her books and pencils, Jemimah could see Enrique perched on the top bar of the fence, waiting for his father, Cipriano.

Jemimah grinned. Perfect! She quickly dashed out of the French windows and across to her friend. It was lucky that no-one else spotted the two youngsters as they huddled with their heads together, whispering but, when Jemimah re-entered the house a minute later, both she and Enrique were grinning from ear to ear. Jemimah made a quick trip upstairs to fetch something then silently passed it over to the boy at the windows. Enrique stifled a snigger at her wicked smile and ran off, leaving Jemimah to settle herself in Murdoch's big leather chair to pore over her homework.

When Jelly passed through a minute later, he peered over her shoulder and, flummoxed by the different complex shapes and lists of figures, he bid a hasty retreat before he could be asked any awkward questions. The kid sure was good with the books, he'd say that for her! Real smart little thing. Why, how she could cipher all them numbers an' squiggles was beyond him. Though what use it all was on a ranch, dealin' with beeves an' hosses... bafflin', purely bafflin'!

He ambled on his way, muttering to himself, "Where in tarnation is that hat?"

Jemimah smirked but did not look up from her work.

A few minutes later, Maria paid her a visit with a large glass of milk and a plate of jam tarts (Jemimah's favourites and a sweet treat that Maria, just for her, had now added to her repertoire). She patted the child on the head and praised her for being so conscientious with her school work.

Scott was equally as impressed on his arrival back home, bestowing a congratulatory smile on Jemimah when he scanned her work and found it all to be correct.

By the time Murdoch walked in, Jemimah was just finishing the final problem. He perused her efforts, admiring the neat rows of figures and the impressive diagrams.

"This is good work, sweetheart," he beamed. "You must have been at it ever since you got home?"

Jemimah smiled shyly.

"Well, I sat under the tree to eat an apple first."

Murdoch chuckled. "Well, I think we can allow that - just this once," he joked and patted her shoulder warmly. "I'm very glad you're applying yourself to your studies."

She could be such a good little girl at times, especially with her school work. Today, Murdoch chose to forget all of her other shenanigans.

"It's such a pleasant evening," Murdoch was in a good humour. "Why don't we all sit out on the veranda for a little while before dinner?"

Murmurs of agreement came from the rest of the family and so, not five minutes later, they were all seated contentedly in the shade, sipping glasses of Maria's lemonade or, in the men's case, tumblers of whisky.

Jemimah caught sight of Enrique hopping off down the lane towards his home. He winked at her and she hid her instant smile behind her glass, swinging her little bare feet and pretending to be engrossed in Scott's next move in his chess game with Johnny.

Jelly suddenly turned the corner, huffing and puffing indignantly.

"Alright, Mister Smart-Aleck!" he grouched, approaching Johnny. "You can jest monkey back up that tree and fetch down my hat afore I start cuttin' me a switch!"

Johnny sprang out of his chair and backed away, his hands up in surrender.

"Jelly, what the heck you gripin' about now?" Johnny put on an innocent look of surprise. It was masterful and Jemimah was enthralled.

"You know darn well what!" Jelly contradicted. "My hat! Up that there tree!" He pointed to the courtyard.

Johnny leaned against his father's chair and whispered, loudly enough that everyone heard.

"Murdoch, you better start hidin' that good Malt. I think Jelly's... er..." He mimed knocking back a large snifter.

Jelly's splutter of outrage caused Johnny to crack up laughing. Scott was valiantly trying not to do the same. Even Murdoch was finding it necessary to clear his throat.

"You young whippersnapper," Jelly pursued his quarry indignantly. "You jest wait; you ain't too growed up to put 'cross my knee..."

He lunged out to take a backhanded swipe at the young man's firm rear end but Johnny danced tantalisingly out of his reach, his spurs jingling as though taunting his opponent. He then hared off around the corner, his wicked laugh a testament to how much credence he gave the old man's threats. Jelly gave chase, still puffing and shouting after the rapidly retreating villain.

Murdoch and Scott were openly chuckling.

"I hope Jelly wears him out!" Murdoch smiled, knowing full-well that there was no chance of any such thing happening; Jelly was all bluff and Johnny was way too nimble! "That boy's pranks are getting out of hand."

Scott had stopped laughing and was frowning with puzzlement at something behind his father.

"Murdoch," he said. "What in the world do you make of that?"

The big man twisted in his chair to see what it was his son was pointing at. Scott stood up slowly, mesmerised. Teresa, intrigued, also rose from her chair where she had been mending yet another rip in one of Johnny's shirts. Jemimah perched quietly on the hitching rail nearby and watched the scene unfold, her green eyes gleaming.

Dewdrop, Jelly's dignified gander, was waddling towards them but this was a Dewdrop the like of which they had never seen before. He seemed misshapen and bulky. His gait was peculiar to say the least - a sort of waddle-hop, waddle-hop as he shuffled along.

It was only as the bird drew nearer that it could be seen what the odd alteration was.

Teresa gasped loudly, her hands to her mouth. "Ohhh!"

The goose was wearing a pair of white crepe de chine drawers (prettily frilled with a hint of lace and suitably beribboned) and Teresa's new bonnet - a tiny feather-festooned creation that was all the rage - tied around his neck and, at that moment, slipping down and causing the fowl to perform the ridiculous 'waddle-hop'.

"Why, Teresa," Jemimah piped up. "What you put your drawers on Dewdrop for?"

Scott turned to regard the child sharply, suspicion in his eyes, but Teresa's squeal drew all attention away from her. The older girl's face was crimson with embarrassment as they all watched the goose make its ponderous way towards Jelly's quarters by the courtyard.

Murdoch tried to put a soothing arm around the quaking girl.

"Now, Teresa, don't..."

She shrugged him off, her face scarlet with rage.

"Johnny Lancer!" she fumed. "I am gonna get you for this!"

Before Murdoch could say anything more, Teresa ran off in pursuit of the young man who now had two angry victims on his tail.

"I thought Johnny would be safe from violent retribution," Scott sighed. "Jelly's one thing but... Teresa is quite another!"

"He's been warned," was all Murdoch would say. "This had better not interfere with dinner." He pulled out his pocket watch and grunted as he checked the time. "Another, son?" Murdoch raised his glass and, at Scott's smile, collected the empty crystal tumbler on his way inside.

Left alone with Scott, Jemimah felt the first stirrings of unease, particularly when he stood at the side of the rail with her and spoke softly.

"A respect for other people's property - that's what this prankster needs to learn, don't you agree?" Scott calmly watched the child's face. She was gazing back at him, her thick black lashes framing the wide green innocence of her eyes. Hmm . "I would hate to think what Teresa will do to him to get even," he continued conversationally. "Taking her... underclothes, that wasn't nice. I'd say he deserves everything he gets, wouldn't you? I hope this joker remembers that any pranks pulled on me would result in a severe retaliation... most severe." Scott eyed her darkly.

"Here you are, son." Murdoch returned, holding out the replenished glass.

Scott took the whisky, darting a meaningful glance over his shoulder at the little girl who gulped quietly and slowly let out the breath that she had been holding. She hopped down from the rail and skipped towards the doorway.

"I'll just clear my books away and wash up before supper, Daddy!" she sang, earning a beam of approval from Murdoch and a glare of suspicion from her big 'brother'.

****

"I didn't take your frillies, Teresa!" Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes for the umpteenth time. "I already told ya'."

He helped himself to another slice of bread and slathered a generous coating of fresh butter onto it before taking a huge bite. Dios! He wished she'd just drop it now; she'd been on at him ever since he walked back into the house! He rubbed indignantly at his rear end where she'd whacked him with that damned spoon. Jeez, it had really stung! It wouldn't be so bad if he'd actually done the deed and earned it but, boy, it went against the grain to get whacked for something he didn't do!

Teresa glared across the table at her recalcitrant 'brother'. Two pranks in as many weeks! Well, she'd got him - and got him good! That whack she'd given him as he flew through the kitchen went some way towards making up for her earlier mortification but he'd better not try anything else and if he thought he was getting any of that chocolate pudding she'd made earlier he could think again!

Jemimah surveyed the whole altercation with interest and amusement. She'd never seen Johnny in this light before and it was fun! Why, he was as close to what Murdoch would describe as 'pouting' as she ever was after she'd been taken to task. His bottom lip was out in a big way! She'd bet he wouldn't be so ready to paddle her behind next time she misbehaved now that he knew what it felt like himself. She sniggered and hastily shovelled a large forkful of beef dumpling into her mouth, turning the sudden noise into a rather unladylike slurp.

"Scuse me," she blushed prettily.

Scott had been doing his own surveying during the dinner too, only his attention was fixed on the little minx sitting beside his brother. She was far too quiet and... gleeful. He knew perfectly well that Johnny's protestations of innocence were completely true and that the real culprit was, at the moment, getting away with her crime. The only thing he couldn't work out was how she'd done it; she had definitely been witnessed sitting at Murdoch's desk for a good hour before the goose made its appearance. The pages of work were proof of that. She would have had no chance to get the underwear from Teresa's room, seek out Dewdrop and dress him before Murdoch led them all out onto the veranda. Scott mused over all the evidence, determined to get to the bottom of it - and he meant 'the bottom'!

As for Johnny - he had narrowed it down to two people who had played the prank on Teresa - Scott or Jemimah. He glanced at his father; nah... he could rule out Murdoch straight away. Jelly? Nope, no way Jelly would rifle through Teresa's unmentionables and he sure wouldn't be dressing up his crazy critter in them! So... Scott? Johnny knew from past experience that, when they joined forces in rare bits of mischief or trickery, his older brother was a master of strategy who could concoct the most devious of plans. Plus which he was far too adept at feigning innocence; those grey-blue eyes teamed up with the angelic blond hair - he had such an upright demeanour that no-one could believe he was capable of downright dishonesty when needed.

Whereas, Johnny huffed, they always figured he was guilty until proven innocent. Must be the black hair or something! (Johnny failed to realise that the reason he was the usual suspect was because, most of the time, he actually did commit the 'crimes'!)

Now... Jemimah? It sure was the kind of trick she'd think to play on Teresa; Johnny knew that the older girl's bossiness often rankled with his little pal. But, like Scott, he couldn't get away from the fact that the kid hadn't shifted from her work all afternoon. She was always in plain sight; had no opportunity to snatch the drawers or dress up Dewdrop. Another thing didn't set right with Johnny - she always acted like his little champion, fighting his corner. There was no way she'd allow him to take the blame for something she'd done. After all, that whack with the spoon had hurt - Jemimah would never have allowed that! Surely?

Johnny glanced at the girl by his side. She was munching away quietly, her face a picture of wide-eyed innocence, totally without guile. He narrowed his blue eyes. Hmmm . One thing was for darn sure - if he found out she was to blame, she wouldn't be looking so calm and she sure as hell wouldn't be sitting so comfy!

Minutes later, when Teresa withheld chocolate pudding from Johnny as further punishment, the young man had taken all he could take.

Standing up, his temper barely reigned in, he ran an exasperated hand through his hair and leaned across the table towards the haughty young miss.

"Teresa!" he wagged his finger at her. "I told you and told you... I didn't do it. I'll say it one last time - I DIDN'T DO IT!" Pausing, Johnny glared down at her, his hands on his lean hips. "Now you can either choose to believe me or not but you just remember... if I'm tellin' the truth then someone else at this table is the new joker in the pack." His irritated blue gaze swept over both Scott and Jemimah. "So we all better watch out!"

With that, he strode angrily from the room (once out of sight, quickly darting off to the right in the direction of the kitchen and the remains of the chocolate pudding!) leaving the others to warily eye each other.

****

"Hey kid, hold on there!" Johnny called up the stairs after Jemimah and she paused on the landing, watching him bound up after her.

Jemimah narrowed her green eyes warily as he approached and wisely eased her bedroom door slightly open for a quick getaway should it prove necessary. He stood in front of her now, his arms folded, the lean muscles clearly defined in the green shirt. His 'school master' shirt he laughingly called it (something to do with his having worn it to teach school for a while a year or so before) and Jemimah noticed his expression was every bit as school masterly now as Mr Quinn's had been last week when he'd written a note for her to take home to Murdoch.

The kid squirmed, recalling with a most unpleasant clarity the aftermath of that little incident. Murdoch had failed to see the funny side and had taken his role as her daddy very seriously - so seriously, in fact, that she had not wanted to ride poor Amiga all weekend!

Johnny caught the kid's little squirm and smiled grimly. Good! Be afraid, Jemimah; be very afraid! He chewed his lip, studying the toe of his boot, as he decided on the best words for the occasion. Then he raised his deep blue eyes to her wary little face.

"Kid, you remember the last time you an' me had words?" Johnny's voice was soft and he watched her reaction closely.

Jemimah scowled. Did she remember? Yes, she surely did! Johnny always said, "have words" but she well knew that it was merely a euphemism for "whale the tar out of". The last time had been maybe two weeks ago, when she'd committed the heinous sin of leaving the ranch without telling anyone where she was going. Unfortunately for Jemimah, she had been wearing a dress when Johnny caught up with her (and dragged her back)instead of her usual jeans or overalls. That was when she had discovered to her cost that Johnny viewed the layers of dress and petticoats as unnecessary padding and, on the bench under the peach tree in the kitchen garden, had first swept her over his knee then the skirts up over her back, finally exposing the seat of her cotton drawers which he had proceeded to blister in no uncertain terms. Jemimah winced.

Johnny caught the wince and was satisfied that his efforts had not been in vain.

"Now, chica," he began. "I'm not goin' to come right out and ask you. I don't want to put you in the position of either comin' clean or havin' to lie." At this point he paused, a serious glint in his eyes. "All I am gonna say is this... if I find out that all this fussin' tonight was down to you an' you don't own up to Teresa... you're gonna find yourself over my knee!"

There was no mistaking the deadly promise in those eyes; Johnny had gone all 'Madrid'ish' on her and the youngster couldn't help but gulp audibly, a sudden sick swooping feeling in her stomach.

"Well, not that it was me," she countered bravely. "But that's rich coming from you! What about Jelly's hat? An' the eggs last week, eh?"

Johnny arched an eyebrow at her sass.

"Hey, I always own up; I ain't never let anyone else take the blame for something I done." He reached a hand back to gently touch the spot where Teresa's spoon had cracked him.

Jemimah smirked and he pounced on her reaction, shaking a warning finger at her.

"I mean it, kid... but I won't be using no wooden spoon but then, I ain't ever needed one before!"

Jemimah glared up at him, eyes narrowed obstinately. He was being such a... a... grown-up !

"You go on now," Johnny gestured to her door. "Get to bed."

He turned on his heel and sauntered down the landing to the stairs. Before he could go down, either on foot or by banister, the kid piped up, "I was already goin' to bed - don't think you're sending me, Johnny Lancer 'cos you're not!"

Johnny paused then, lips set firmly together, he reversed up and headed purposefully back to her. Emitting a little yelp of dismay, Jemimah grasped her doorknob, shoved the door open and fled inside. Once 'safe', she turned the little key in the lock and scooted over to her bed double-quick.

On the dark landing, Johnny suppressed a chuckle and headed back down. He could just do with a tequila... or two.

Alone in her room, now that her heart had crept back down into her chest where it belonged, instead of in her throat, Jemimah thought over all that Johnny had said. Sadly, her stubborn side got the better of her so that, instead of wisely minding his warning, she started to scheme a foolproof way of showing Mr Johnny Lancer just what he could do with his threats!

****

Johnny shucked his clothes, leaving them in a dusty heap. He stepped into the tub of steaming water, sighing blissfully as he lowered his body into the warmth and allowing it to envelop every aching muscle, right up to his chin.

"Aah, bless you, Teresa," he breathed.

This was just what he needed after a day like today. He and Walt had worked like demons to finish that last section of fence before quitting time and, muscles protesting, they had managed to do it. Johnny loathed fencing but he appreciated the satisfaction of a job well done. He knew he'd ache tomorrow though; yep, they truly had pushed themselves.

He was so glad that his 'sister' had forgiven him enough to draw the bath in readiness, even though he had actually done nothing in the first place to incur her displeasure. There was even a cake of that yellow soap she favoured, waiting on the fresh towel. Johnny closed his eyes. He figured he'd just soak for a while before scrubbing away all the dust of the day. He had about an hour before dinner so there would be no danger of being late and risking Murdoch's wrath.

He rolled his broad shoulders a little and settled back for a light snooze. Frowning, he turned his head when he felt a small draught. The old bath house was well enough in summer but, now that Autumn was drawing in, he'd perhaps start asking Teresa to set him a tub in the house instead. He dipped his shoulders under the water once more and drifted off.

****

Jemimah sat at the kitchen table, shelling peas for Maria who kept throwing appreciative little smiles over at her.

"Buena niña , es usted tan amable," Maria beamed then, realising Jemimah was frowning quizzically at her, translated, "You are so helpful today; such a good girl."

Jemimah smiled happily back. She liked shelling peas. She used to sit on the doorstep back home on a Sunday after church and shell peas into a huge old basin while Daddy tended to the dinner on the leaded range in the tiny kitchen.

"Do you want me to fetch anything from the garden for you, Maria?" the child asked when her task was done.

"Si, si," the lady remembered, fluttering her hands in agitation. "Perejil por favor... erm.. the parsley!"

Jemimah skipped out into the cool of the early evening and rapidly tore off a few clumps of the herb, stuffing it into her apron pocket. Then, quick as a flash, she darted out of sight behind the shed where she found Enrique waiting for her as arranged.

"You got them?" she whispered and grinned when her friend held up the bundle of Johnny's clothes. "Excellento!"

"No, no," Enrique grinned and corrected her attempt at Spanish. "Excelente!"

Both kids sniggered, imagining Johnny's surprise when he found all his clothes missing. Enrique had been sure to gather up both the discarded dirty items and the fresh ones left out by Teresa.

"Thanks, amigo," Jemimah had a tough time controlling her mirth. "Here's what I owe you."

She fished in her other pocket and brought out one of Murdoch's cigars. Enrique beamed and closed his fingers greedily around it.

"Gracias," he whispered. "I'd better get home now. Tell me later what happens with Señor Juanito."

"I will; it should be happening any time soon."

Enrique, crouching low, sped off towards the back lane and Jemimah silently stowed the stolen clothes in the shed where they would remain until she could retrieve them later.

Johnny took a deep cleansing breath and sat up. The water was getting a little chilly now; time to wash up and get in for supper. His taut flat stomach growled in agreement and he reached for the soap, dipping it into the tub then rubbing it in circles across his chest and down his suntanned arms.

At first, he did not notice anything unusual but, within seconds, he realised that the soap was turning to a greasy mush in his hand. Peering down at his chest, he could see that the dark springy hair was matted with the nasty yellow gloop and it was smeared stickily everywhere. An oily scum was forming on the surface of the water as the yellow mess melted.

" Dios! What the...?"

He sniffed at the remnants of the bar of 'soap' then, suspicions aroused, he gingerly touched his fingertip to his tongue.

" Butter!" Johnny's anger flared. "Teresa... you just wait 'til I get my hands on you!"

Easier said than done. Getting rid of the greasy mess was difficult; it was everywhere and the water had become almost as slimy as he was. In the end, Johnny had to use the clean towel to wipe off much of the gunk.

He ground his teeth, a glint of retribution in his steely blue gaze, as he spun around to grab his fresh clothes - only to find that they were gone!

"Madre de Dios!" Johnny bit out, having no alternative but to wrap the dirty towel around his waist and make his way across the yard to the house. He prayed that none of the hands would be around to see him. Johnny was no shy retiring violet, nor was he ashamed of his physique (quite justifiably!), but he recalled the endless ribbing Scott had endured at the hands of the other men after they had witnessed his trousers on old Reuben, the donkey. Johnny had no desire to become the butt of their jokes. Butt... hmm , he clung onto the scruffy towel, running nimbly through the kitchen garden and inside as quickly as he could.

If only it had been that simple but it was some sort of law of the universe that, if you were in an awkward predicament, things could only get worse. Instead of finding the kitchen empty, which would have been somewhat unlikely with dinner minutes away, Johnny would have accepted finding just  Maria there. But it was not to be.

When he jogged into the kitchen, wearing nothing but a grimy towel and his boots, he was confronted by Maria, Teresa, Murdoch, Jemimah and Aggie Conway who had stopped by and been persuaded to stay for dinner.

"John, what on earth...?" Murdoch was aghast at his son's appearance.

Johnny wished the ground could open up and swallow him, right then and there. His hand clutched the fastening of his towel firmly and he shivered. Holding up his other hand to forestall his father's potential rant, he shook his wet hair out of his eyes.

"Sorry, Murdoch," he apologised with a rueful little smile. "This ain't my fault."

"Oh?" Murdoch was looking far from acceptant of his boy's apology.

Johnny gritted his teeth and, blushing furiously, a dangerous fire lit his blue eyes when they settled on Teresa who, by this time, was hugging herself and giggling with glee at his come-uppance. To Johnny, her obvious delight confirmed her guilt. He lifted his hand to point at the girl then, sensing the towel begin to slip and mindful of what little dignity he still possessed (and that there were four females present, two underage), he lowered his fingers once more to grab the scrap of material.

Aggie, who had many a time witnessed a half-naked little Johnny gallivanting around the hacienda at the age of two, covered a widening smile with her kerchief. Little Johnny had been a delightful bundle of mischief; big Johnny was still pretty delightful - especially right now. Aggie may be old enough to be his mother but she was far from dead and that was one exceptional example of masculinity standing before her in all his 'glory'. Yes indeed ! Murdoch glanced at her and his own lips twitched. Jemimah let out a loud whoop then, despite Johnny's glare, fell into a chair hooting with impolite, raucous laughter.

"Teresa, when I get down again," Johnny growled. "You an' me are gonna have words!"

Jemimah's eyebrows shot up. 'Have words' ? Johnny was going to whomp Teresa? Oh boy, that would be worth seeing! What a tale she was going to have to tell Enrique as they rode to school in the morning.

****

"So S eñor ita Teresa didn't get una zurra, eh?" Enrique seemed disappointed.

"Nope," Jemimah affirmed. "He was goin' to do it but Murdoch made him let her go in the end. He said if anyone was goin' to whup Teresa it would be him, not Johnny, which I didn't think was very fair 'cos it seems like everybody gets to clobber me when they've a mind to!"

Enrique nodded in total understanding. They were both the youngest in their families and, as such, it seemed that everybody older had the right to chastise them when they transgressed. Most unfair!

"Besides, Teresa was skriking her head off..."

" Skriking ? What is this?" Enrique wrinkled up his nose at the new word.

"Eh? Oh, well, it means 'crying' and 'squealing'," she explained. "Anyway, she was making such a noise, swearing blind she hadn't done it, that I think Murdoch believed her in the end. That or he was embarrassed at Mrs Conway listening to all the fuss and just wanted them all to shut up. Oh, but you should have seen it, Enrique. Johnny was standin' there an' he had her wedged under his arm and he was just about to give her backside what for... when Murdoch interfered. Shame!" The girl relived the moment gleefully as they rode along the way to school.

Both the villains chuckled.

"So," Enrique asked. "Who is next?"

Jemimah turned a thoughtful gaze on her partner in crime. She hadn't much liked the way Scott had insisted on Teresa's probable innocence throughout the whole episode. Nor had she appreciated the way he watched her closely for the rest of the evening and had suggested she go up to bed when it was still half an hour to her usual time. A bit high-handed of him she thought, after all he wasn't her father!

"Well, let's see," she mused wickedly, an evil glint shining in her vivid green eyes and her mouth curving into a mischievous smirk. "It's an awfully long time since Scott found his trousers on old Reuben..."

"Oh si, that was mucho hilarante; very funny!" Enrique pealed with laughter at the memory.

"So, you're in then? Same fee as before?"

Enrique nodded eagerly. Murdoch's good Cuban cigars were a real rarity and, besides, his older brother, Mateo had been persuaded to take over some of his chores for one of the expensive treats.

Both grinning, the two children spat and shook hands to seal the deal.

"Right," Jemimah ran through the plan with him. "Here's what I need you to do..."

****

Jemimah checked her preparations carefully - her essay was laid neatly on Murdoch's desk with her dictionary and the novel they had been studying at school, Moby Dick . That all looked fine. Now her other 'tools' - Jemimah quickly pulled open the bottom drawer of the desk. Yep, the jar of paste and the brush were safe and sound. Good. One final thing - she reached into the foot well and retrieved a leather-bound copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It was not a new book; in fact, she flicked the pages, noticing that it said 1850. Twenty years old so she supposed, in the end, Scott wouldn't be too upset at its demise. Jemimah smirked wickedly and hid the book once more.

Hearing footsteps, she flung herself quickly into the chair and, swishing back her long dark pony-tail, grabbed Moby Dick , pretending to be engrossed.

Maria wandered over with a beaming smile. She laid a small plate of cookies and a glass of milk on the desk then, stroking the girl's hair fondly and praising her for being so conscientious, she returned to her kitchen.

Perfect! Another witness had seen her hard at work. There would be no way that suspicion could fall on her.

Hearing horses approaching the yard, Jemimah trotted quickly to the French windows and waved across to Enrique who was sitting astride the top rail of the corral fence. He nodded back at her.

Now she must be swift ! Jemimah returned to the desk, pulled out Scott's book and opened the bottom drawer to grab the glue pot. Plunking it down beside the book, she began her task - pasting the pages of tiny print together. She grinned. Scott was always poring over these dusty old tomes and urging her to listen as he quoted from them at length, saying she might learn something but, for once, she would enjoy watching him try to educate her.

****

Outside in the yard, Scott and Johnny slid down from their horses and led them towards the barn.

"Why so gloomy, brother?" Scott enquired. Johnny had been dour and quiet most of the afternoon; he clearly had something on his mind.

"Aw, I'm just tired of gettin' the blame, is all."

"I thought Teresa had decided to believe you now?"

"It ain't Teresa; now it's the ol' man!" Johnny's face showed his exasperation. "Asked me if I'd been takin' his cigars!"

"You too, eh?"

Johnny's head snapped up in surprise and he thumbed his hat back to read his older brother's expression. Scott was frowning.

"Yes, he asked me too. Something is definitely going on here, Johnny... and I, for one, intend to find out what!"

The brothers paused. Johnny tilted his head and glanced across to the house then back to Scott.

"You think someone's setting us up?"

Scott's smile was slow and sure. When Johnny saw it his own mouth responded with a lazy grin.

"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Scott breathed. "And it's high time they were heading for a fall."

"Amen to that brother!" Johnny touched the brim of his hat in a salute and they headed once more towards the barn.

However, before they could lead their mounts inside, both men turned at a shout from the far fence rail. Enrique, Cipriano's youngest son, was clambering down from the fence and trotting towards them.

"Now what?" Scott muttered.

" Señor Juanito, Señor Scott!" the boy was shouting and, they realised, he looked alarmed. "Una mofeta! Una mofeta!"

He was waving at them and gesticulating wildly to the other side of the barn, beckoning them to follow him. Johnny drew his gun and headed to the boy with Scott following, now alarmed but with no idea of what was happening.

"What's he saying?" Scott called.

Johnny turned to explain with one eloquent word, "Skunk!" Scott's face told Johnny how little he wanted to be chasing off in that direction.

"And we're chasing after it why ?"

"Gonna shoot it if I can," Johnny explained the obvious. "Don't want a critter like that makin' a home for itself on our doorstep!"

By now, they had caught up with the boy. Johnny was just about to ask him to show them exactly where he had spotted the animal when Enrique tripped and fell headlong in the dirt, winding himself. Johnny quickly squatted by his side, reaching out to ease the lad up into a sitting position.

"Y'alright, kid?" he asked softly, gently replacing the boy's hat and scuffing the dust from his pale green shirt. "You ain't hurt nothin'?"

"N, no, señor ," Enrique panted, attempting to scramble up. "I'm not hurt."

"I think that's about to change."

Johnny glanced up at his brother, squinting in the bright sunlight. He could see that Scott was holding something out to the boy... two somethings in fact.

Enrique turned his head mid-scramble and froze, his eyes wide like two saucers.

"I think you dropped these, boy," Scott said quietly, offering back the two Cuban cigars.

Enrique said nothing nor did he take the proffered items. He eyed Scott silently then turned his head a fraction to glance up at Johnny.

There were times when Scott was extremely grateful for Johnny's past experiences as a gun fighter and this was one of them. Thanks to his lightning reflexes and that uncanny knack of being able to read a man's intent in his eyes, Johnny now shot out a strong arm and grabbed hold of the boy's hair just as he made the decision to launch his escape.

He shook the kid and reeled off a furious stream of Spanish. Enrique was keeping quiet until something Johnny said made him gasp aloud and stare up at the angry man, shaking his dark head in denial.

" Ladrón ? No señor !" the boy cried desperately, shaking his head again. "I am no thief. I earned the cigars, señor . Honest!"

Scott stepped forwards. "Earned them? What do you mean?"

Enrique winced. He was in so much trouble. But he was no sneak; he didn't want to give his amiga away. He glanced over to the house without thinking then his mouth dropped open in dismay at Scott's knowing smile.

"Alright, boy, you don't need to tell us. I think we can guess who's been paying you and what you've been doing to earn your booty."

Scott and Johnny exchanged grim smiles.

"I think I'll just head over to the house. See if I can surprise someone," Scott raised an eyebrow.

Johnny grinned and held on fast to the wriggling boy.

"Think I'll just take Enrique into the barn for a spell." Johnny's smile did nothing to reassure the kid; if anything, he felt like el Diablo had just danced down his spine. Those blue eyes promised much and none of it pleasant. "You an' me need to have words, boy."

Johnny grasped a handful of Enrique's collar and marched him purposefully into the gloomy barn.

****

Jemimah was finding her task a little more messy than she had anticipated. The glue was quite runny and had glopped in sticky little puddles here and there across the surface of Murdoch's big polished desk. She only hoped it would not damage the shiny finish but she would deal with that after she had finished with Scott's book and put it back in his room. She had just about done all of it now and knew she would have plenty of time; Enrique would have Scott and Johnny skunk-hunting for probably another twenty minutes.

She glanced up at the old grandfather clock across the room and, at the same time, became aware of a shadow falling across the gummy grey pages.

"Well, well, more homework? Such diligence should be rewarded."

As her friend had done only minutes before, Jemimah froze, hardly daring to breathe. No! Not yet! It couldn't be!

Turning her head with an aching slowness, she found herself looking up at Scott Lancer. He was smiling but, if anything, this unnerved her all the more. He was also removing his gloves, methodically peeling them off each finger. He stripped off the second glove then reached behind himself to stuff them into the back pocket of his jeans.

"So, what's this you're doing?" he inquired politely. "A new project? A little messy, isn't it?"

Jemimah wasn't fooled by his conversational tone. She took a furtive step to the right, keeping some distance between them as he approached to tilt his head and look over her work. Scott whipped out a hand smartly, grasping her left wrist to halt her gradual progression. She gasped and, heart pounding guiltily, watched with horror while the tall man held on tight and perused the items spread across the desk in front of them.

She held her breath.

"David ... David Copperfield... MY David Copperfield? This is MINE ?!"

Jemimah winced at Scott's roar. She could feel her heart beating in her very skin and her stomach was doing a most unpleasant sort of swooping thing.

Maria instantly entered from the kitchen, wiping her floury hands on her gaily coloured apron and hurrying over in concern.

"Maria, make him let me go!" Jemimah whined, dancing at arm's length in her efforts to wriggle free from his firm grasp.

"What is this? What is the matter? Scott?"

Scott's eyes were ablaze with fury and disbelief. He pointed at the struggling imp but, for a moment, words failed him.

"What's goin' on?"

They all turned to see Johnny strolling in. He approached the scene with amusement, skimming his hat across the room to land neatly on the dining table then smoothing down his unruly black hair.

"What's all the excitement about?"

Scott straightened but did not release the girl's wrist. He pointed an accusing finger at her.

"This little..." he began, then controlled himself. "Jemimah has pasted all the pages of my copy of David Copperfield together!"

Maria gasped and held her flour-caked hands to her face. "Ay, ay, ay!"

Johnny was now standing by the desk. He looked at the anguish on his brother's face then flicked his blue glare over the panting kid.

"David Copperfield?" he asked softly.

Scott had gone pale and seemed to be having difficulty breathing.

"Yes. Not only is it a classic novel, it is a First Edition, printed in London in 1850!"

"Worth a lot, hmm?" Johnny knew how his Boston-educated brother felt about his book collection - something akin to how he felt about his Colt and Barranca.

"Grandfather bought it on a trip to England and then passed it on to me for my sixteenth birthday." Scott straightened. He touched the soggy pages reverently, a broken man. "It's irreplaceable."

Johnny dipped his head, studying the rug for a moment, his hands on his hips. When he looked up again his eyes were a hard steely blue. He turned their furious fire on the trembling girl who, at least, had the decency to look thoroughly ashamed of herself.

" Zúrrela! Maria commanded sharply, glaring at Jemimah. Then she turned on her heel and went back into her kitchen, muttering in terse Spanish all the way.

The girl gaped at the woman and swallowed, turning to look pleadingly at Johnny. Her command of Spanish was improving and she guessed what Maria had just advised Johnny to do.

"That's a good idea, mamacita," Johnny turned up the sleeves of his blue flowered shirt a little more.

Scott narrowed his eyes, Maria's outburst having jolted him from his misery. "What did she say?"

Johnny smiled, his eyes catching Jemimah's green gaze and holding it. "She said to spank her!"

"An excellent suggestion, Maria," Scott growled, glaring at the child in his grasp.

He lunged suddenly, snaking a strong arm around the kid's waist and lifting her off her feet. Turning, with Jemimah wedged squealing under his arm, he marched past his brother who reached out a hand to give him pause.

"You let me know when you're done," Johnny asked. "I got somethin' to 'discuss' with her too."

"What about Enrique?"

"Oh I left him in his father's capable hands." Both brothers smirked. "Seemed like Cip didn't need any help."

Scott smiled righteously. "I'll just bet he didn't."

He nodded to Johnny then, mouth set in a grimly determined line, he hefted his wriggling bundle and took off up the stairs, two at a time.

Pushing Jemimah's door open, Scott strode across the room, depositing his charge on the bed where she sat for a split-second before bounding up again and heading for the exit. Luckily, Scott's long legs enabled him to reach it before her. He pushed it shut with a loud bang, relishing the noise - it fit the mood he was in!

"Oh no, you don't, my girl," he warned ominously, shaking a finger at her. "That was a very valuable book that you just destroyed. Moreover, it was mine and you had no business to be touching it!"

Jemimah gulped, bowing her head. "I'm sorry, Scott," she whispered.

Scott nodded, chewing his lower lip. "I'm sure you are; sorry you've been caught anyway." He glanced over to the dresser by the window and spied what he was after. Crossing the room, he picked up her large polished wood hairbrush and hefted it in his hand, delighted at the way her green eyes widened in horror.

"Retribution!" he announced.

Quick as a flash, Jemimah snatched up the brass candlestick from her bedside table and rashly hurled it at the tall man opposite her. In her haste, her aim was wide and it hit the window instead, smashing two of the panes with an ear-splitting crash.

Both Jemimah and Scott gasped, frozen for a moment. Then Scott shook himself and launched a counter-attack. Jemimah gaped, seeing him take the shortest route - straight over the bed. A fraction of a second too late, she turned and fled towards the door, shrieking like a madman was on her tail. But he reached out a long arm, caught her halfway across the room and lifted her off her feet. Then he carried her back to the bed, kicking and scratching like a wildcat.

"Now, my girl," he growled as he arranged her, bottom up, across his knee. "I am going to teach you to respect other people's property."

Just like his younger brother, Scott made short work of sweeping the layers of skirts out of his way then he raised his arm. The brush made a loud whap! as he brought it down. The kid squealed and Scott had to work hard to hold her still. However, he was nothing if not determined, and he kept up the steady smacks until her energetic shrieks became subdued pitiful sobs. Eventually, he dropped the brush onto the quilt and calmed his breathing.

"Now, are you going to stop playing all these pranks?" he demanded huskily.

The kid gulped and nodded. Scott lifted her up and set her on her feet again. She immediately dropped her tousled head, staring down at her pink toes, and began the ancient dance of the freshly-spanked ... the rubbing of the rear end and the little shuffle to ease the furious sting. However, Scott had other ideas. He guided her to the chair and plonked her down on it.

"Oh no. You earned it, you wear it!"

Jemimah snivelled miserably to herself. She felt pretty low; not only had Scott whomped her well and truly but she did feel rather guilty about ruining his book. She hadn't known it was so precious - damned book ! And she'd got Enrique into trouble with his daddy too! She'd bet he wouldn't be speaking to her tomorrow - that's if they ever let her out again.

Scott had gone now she noticed so she eased herself out of the chair. Damn ! Her behind was burning like she'd sat on the stove! Bloody brush! She should've left it in bloody England! Wandering morosely over to the broken window and careful to avoid any fragments of broken glass, she peered down into the yard, gently rubbing at the vicious sting. Murdoch would be cross about the window too she guessed astutely.

"Ah-ah, stop that, kid. You earned it, you wear it!"

Jemimah whirled around when she heard Johnny's voice behind her. He regarded her solemnly then sat himself in the chair she had just vacated. Oh no! His deep blue eyes fixed on hers, Johnny leaned his tanned, firmly-muscled forearms on his knees then crooked a expectant finger to beckon her to him.

"Johnny, it ain't fair..." she wheedled, recognising the sulky whine in her own voice and hating herself for it.

"I told you, chica, an' you still didn't own up" Johnny reminded her softly. "Now come over here."

No, this wasn't fair - two lickings in one day?! Stamping her little bare foot, Jemimah narrowed her eyes and set her mouth in a thin obstinate line, her small slim frame rigidly disobeying.

Johnny's smile had vanished but his warning was still soft, spine-chillingly so.

"Don't make me come get you; you won't like it, I promise."

Hanging back a fraction of a petulant pause too long, Jemimah's reaction was nowhere near fleet enough to avoid Johnny's sudden surge towards her. So it was that, as Cipriano guided his now repentant son across the yard towards the lane which led to their cottage, they could hear anguished howls and the unmistakeable sound of a hard hand meting out a just punishment which emanated from the broken upstairs window.

****

Jemimah polished the shining surface until the dark wood gleamed with a sensuous lustre. All traces of the glue were gone and she thanked her lucky stars that no lasting damage had been done to the desk. As it was, Murdoch was going to be madder than a wet hen when he found out about the window... and Scott's book... and all the other pranks. She bit her lip.

Johnny had said that Scott would not let her be punished again for that; she had already paid her dues for the book   (boy, had she ever!) and they weren't going to tell on her for the cigars and Enrique because, in a way, Johnny and Cip had dealt with that one. Jemimah dared to hope - but wasn't hoping too hard. The window was all the excuse her father needed to get in on the act. She sighed heavily and reached back a surreptitious hand to rub...

"Jemimah!" Scott warned as he walked towards her. "You earned it..."

"You wear it, yes, I know!" she snapped sullenly.

Scott arched a single eyebrow at her tone, biting back a smile when she quickly ducked her head.

"Well, you've done a good job on Murdoch's desk," he approved, skimming his fingertips over the silky surface. "Good thing too. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes if Murdoch's shirt were to stick to it next time he sits down."

Scott placed a warm heavy hand on the miscreant's shoulder and led her through to the kitchen to put away the cloths and polish.

Sadly, even Scott had failed to notice the rather substantial puddle of gelatinous glue which had dripped onto the seat of Murdoch's black leather chair. When their father came to sit in it later that evening, it would not be his shirt which would be sticking.

But that's another story...

 

 

~ end ~
Anne Haslam
March 2013

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