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Geraldine, Lacy and Winj : Las Triados

 

 

The Trigger

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1
Trigger ~ Something that incites especially a violent response: goad , incitation , incitement , instigation , provocation , stimulus .

Murdoch looked over his steepled fingers at his two sons as they sat before him in the darkened room. There was no denying that he was sending Johnny into danger, something that gave him great unease. "We should go over this one final time," Murdoch said.

Johnny shifted in his chair. He'd had enough of talk and it was very late. All he wanted was to be on the road and on his mission. At least it was going to get him out of punching cows for a couple of days. He caught a glance from his father. The message that this was serious business came through clear as day. "I know, I know," Johnny muttered. He leaned forward and said more loudly. "I got it."

Scott felt that it was an honor to be hosts to such an important visitor. The success or failure of the visit was up to them and he planned to do his best to make the event a memorable one. "I can go over my part first, if you want." At Murdoch's nod, he began. "I make sure that everyone is prepared for our visitor, but we'll withhold his identity until the last possible moment. All of the exits in the hacienda will be made secure, the armaments will be at the ready and any of the ranch hands who are not needed will be sent out on the range for several days. We still have to finalize our choice of which men we want to keep here, Murdoch." He asked Johnny, "The ammo and guns are ready?"

"I told you I took care of it, Scott," Johnny replied. "And I told Maria to stock up on lots of food. She didn't even ask what we're up to. But when Teresa gets back tomorrow, she's gonna have lots of questions." He was glad he wasn't going to be around to deal with her curiosity.

Murdoch waved a hand. "I'll talk to her, don't worry."

Scott turned to his father. "I still think we should enlist the aid of the Cavalry unit over at Fort Diego, or at least notify them in case they're needed. I can confide in Captain Dunbarton. He's a good man and--."

"Neither your friend Captain Dunbarton," Murdoch interjected, "nor anyone of authority is to be apprised of the situation, Scott. We have our orders. We tell no-one." He gave Johnny a sharp look. "And that includes the sheriff."

Johnny raised his hands in mock surrender. "I ain't the one that wants to call the army in. As it is, too many men and it'll look like a parade and all the county will be out gawking at us as we ride by."

"And I say too few men makes us vulnerable," said Scott with concern. "There'll only be us plus five of our men to accompany our visitor and his entourage. If we get in trouble and need the support of the cavalry, they're two days away."

"Isidro and Cipriano, plus Frank. All steady men in a fight, should it come to that," Murdoch said.

"And Pedro," Johnny added. "He's good with a long gun."

"What about Hal Brewer?" Scott suggested.

"The blacksmith?" Johnny asked with raised eyebrows. "He couldn't handle a pistol if his life depended on it." Johnny liked the big man who had been at Lancer only for a short while, and Brewer was undeniably strong, but he wasn't anyone he'd choose in a fight. "No way--"

"Enough!" Murdoch slammed his hand down on his desk, putting an end to the back and forth. "Mr. Brewer's brawn more than make up for his lack of skill with a gun."

"I can ask Dunbarton to join us, just for the term of the visit," Scott added.

Johnny shook his head. "You just want to get together with your old pal," he accused.

"If you two cannot follow these directions as outlined," Murdoch said sternly, "then perhaps we should find someone else to fulfill your obligations. It's already been decided that we are only enlisting five of our best men, Scott." Johnny raised his arms over his head, stretched and yawned deeply. His father waited until he'd finished and was sitting straight again, then said, "Johnny." It sounded like a reprimand.

"I've got it, Murdoch." Johnny tapped his temple with two fingers. "Got it all stored up in here."

"Lord knows there isn't much else stored up there," Scott said in an undertone out of the side of his mouth.

Johnny kicked at his brother without even looking at him, but their father frowned at their antics. "All right, boys, let's just finish this up and get some sleep. Johnny, just humor me."

Johnny took a deep breath and said, "My instructions are to ride east." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in what he hoped was an easterly direction. "I ride Barranca over to Green River and catch the stage up to Atwater. When I arrive, I book a room at the Atwater Hotel on Maple Street. A quiet room at the back. Then I walk two blocks north to the Cattlemen's Association and knock on the side door." Johnny recited, "I knock twice, wait a beat, then two more times."

Murdoch nodded.

Johnny asked, "Is this really necessary?"

Murdoch raised an eyebrow and waited patiently for Johnny to continue.

Johnny tried not to roll his eyes at the cloak and dagger he was being forced to take part in. "All right," he said. "I'm supposed to meet a man called Mr. Fox, who'll be wearing a red cravat. I don't talk to anyone else. If anything seems out of place I'm supposed to. . ."

Scott said, "Get the hell out of there."

Johnny grinned. "Oh yeah, I almost forgot that part. Thanks for reminding me."

Murdoch stood and held onto the small of his back as he admonished his sons. "All right, that's enough. Johnny, your job is just to relay the route we have decided is the best with regards to our guest's safety. Remember that these men you're meeting have never been in this area and have no idea of the dangers they may be facing from the terrain or from any other source."

Johnny nodded. "So I give this Mr. Fox the details and the layout of the ranch. I draw out a map and tell them what the route is gonna be, all the way from the railhead to our front doorstep. When I'm sure he has memorized the map and knows the route, I burn it."

Murdoch was pleased. "If they give you any further instructions, which they might, don't write them down or accept any papers. Stay overnight, then return the same way you came, by stage. And Johnny, you only travel during daylight hours, is that clear? And do your best to keep out of trouble." He poured three whiskeys and handed a glass to each of his sons. "I know you'll both do your jobs well. Some very important men are entrusting us to act as the host to our visitor. I know that you both take the responsibility to heart, as I do."

"I thought of something. What if there ain't no matches?" Johnny asked.

Scott turned to stare at him. "What?"

"Do I have to eat the map, just to make sure it don't get in the wrong hands?" Johnny watched the corner of his brother's mouth twitch, but if Scott had been about to smile, Murdoch's next words quelled any such action.

"You will do whatever it takes, son, to ensure that our esteemed guest is not harmed either on his journey here, or during his visit. Is that clear?"

"Yes Sir."

"Johnny, you leave first thing tomorrow, and you'll be back the following day, on the eleventh. That's Wednesday. I know there isn't much time between your return and the arrival of the train at five o'clock on Friday afternoon, but we have a lot to do between now and then. This group works fast and close to the vest. The three of us are the only ones who know the route, location and time of this meeting, and the less people who know the details, the better."

As Scott and Johnny took a sip of their drinks, Murdoch added, "One more thing, you both remember the password to give to Mr. Fox?"

The brothers nodded and Johnny laughed. "Hard to forget. It's "˜trigger.'"

Murdoch nodded. "We only have a few days to prepare for this. I'll inform our vaqueros on the morning of the thirteenth, before we head out to meet the train. I'll hand pick a few of the best to go with us. A small crew will remain here, on guard. I'll only tell Teresa and Maria we are expecting an important guest when Friday comes. They don't need to know any more than that until you boys and I leave to meet our guest and his men. Arrangements have been made for a special luxury railway carriage to travel along the spur usually used for transporting the cattle to market. The train will make a pre-arranged stop at the rail head, as close to us as possible."

Scott said, "And once the train arrives, we will escort our guest, Mr. Fox, and his men back to Lancer, along the route we decided upon." He looked at Johnny, expecting his brother to relate the rest of the plan.

"Okay," Johnny said. "Once he arrives at the hacienda, we'll post guards around the perimeter. His men will join our vaqueros at the most crucial vantage points." He scratched his head and shifted uneasily in his seat.

"There's something you don't like about this plan?" asked Scott.

Johnny shrugged. "It seems like askin' for trouble, marchin' down the main road under full guard. The whole county'll come out for the parade. I thought the idea was to keep this visit quiet because of the trouble they had in the past, like with that man who took a shot at him."

Murdoch replied, "Yes, there have been several attempts on our guest's life. According to what Mr. Fox told me when I met him last month, it wasn't an isolated case. This is why, when the decision was left up to me to find a safe meeting place, I chose Lancer. I'm honored we have been entrusted to come up with a plan of action. I know it all seems a bit overdone, but it's best to follow their suggestions and take precautions."

Taking a deep breath, Johnny said, "I still think a group of strangers ridin' through are gonna attract the wrong kind of attention. Anyway, why are they traipsin' all the way out here to look at some cattle? Don't they have any back East?"

It was Murdoch's turn to shrug. "I was told he wants to be well-informed about the cattle industry before heading for Sacramento. That includes visiting a successful, established cattle ranch. I figured Lancer was the perfect candidate."

"Well, I, for one, am looking forward to this," Scott said.

"Are you gonna dress up in one of your Boston outfits to impress the visitors?" Johnny asked as he slapped at his brother's arm.

"No, brother, but maybe we can show our guests a thing or two about riding, and break some broncs before breakfast on Saturday," Scott replied with a tired smile. "Look, I'm turning in, if we're finished. I have to be up early and I have a feeling I'm going to have trouble getting to sleep."

"I know I can count on you two to do your part in this. It's very important that it all goes smoothly." Murdoch then bid good night to his sons, and they all made for bed.

***

As Scott had predicted, he was unable to sleep. The plans and all of the possible pitfalls kept circling around in his mind, much like vultures careening around a dying steer. He ended up going down to the kitchen sometime after midnight for a cup of hot milk. He'd boiled up the milk and was carrying a hot mug over to the table when Johnny stepped out of the dark, startling him. The mug slipped out of Scott's hand as he turned and it fell to the floor with a crash, breaking into small pieces when it hit the tiles.

"Whoa, sorry, Scott. I just came down for something to eat," Johnny said, looking at the broken shards and milk spread across the floor. He grabbed a towel and tossed it to his brother, then stepped around the spilled milk on his way to the pantry.

Scott grumbled a bit under his breath. He kneeled and swept the mess out of the way. "Johnny, watch out," he said when he realized his brother, who was wearing only his long-john bottoms, had bare feet. "There are some pieces over there, near your foot--."

His warning came a second too late. Johnny suddenly said, "Ow!" and hopped around on his right foot, clutching at his left.

"I told you not to step on the broken bits," Scott said. He scooped the broken shards of the mug into a bucket, tossed the wet towel in after it and turned to see how badly Johnny was hurt. His brother had made it to a chair and was inspecting the injured sole in the light of the lamp on the kitchen table. "Let me see," said Scott. He grabbed another towel but when he leaned over and reached for Johnny's foot, his brother jerked away.

"It's a small cut, nothin' at all," Johnny said. He took the cloth from his brother and dabbed at his foot.

"You mean not enough to prevent you from going on your mission?" Scott teased. He knew that even if Johnny was riddled with bullet holes, he'd still want to fulfill his obligations.

"Hell no. See, it's barely bleeding."

Scott peered at the cut. It was slight, as Johnny had said, on the bottom of his foot near his toes. Scott insisted that he clean it and found some ointment in the first aid box in the pantry, which he applied. "There, I think you'll live."

"Are there any of those biscuits left over?" Johnny asked hopefully, not leaving his chair.

Scott found some biscuits and put them in front of his brother. By the time Scott heated his milk up again and sat down to drink it, Johnny was slouched over the table, his head propped up in one hand. He looked almost asleep, but Scott knew his brother's mind was going over the plan, just as his own was.

"You think anyone will try to take this guy out when he's here?" asked Johnny.

"Not here. This place is like a fortress, especially once we have our men posted around the place."

"There are still a lot of spots between the railhead and here for a bushwhacker to take a shot. If I was going to take a potshot at someone, I'd do it along that curvy bit of road, where it corkscrews. I'd find a nice spot up along the ridge."

"He'd have to be a really good shot to hit his mark from up there."

"The trick is for us to be positioned higher than the enemy, if there is one," Johnny said. "With me and a couple of our men up high at key points with our Winchesters, we'd have control of the whole valley."

"I really don't think it's going to come down to a firefight." Scott sipped his hot drink. "First of all, nobody except us will know which route we're taking. And, until you talk to Mr. Fox and his men, you, me and Murdoch are the only ones who'll know the arrival date and time." He shook his head. "It would be hit or miss without that information, so I doubt we'll have any trouble." He smiled ruefully. "You know, in the end, he might change his mind and go straight to Sacramento and all this planning will have been for nothing."

*** *** ***

Chapter 2

Caliber 
~ the diameter of something of circular section, esp. that of the inside of a tube
~ degree of capacity or competence; ability: a mathematician of high caliber.
~ degree of merit or excellence; quality: the high moral caliber of the era.

Scott and Murdoch stood out front in the cool dawn and waited until Johnny finished tightening the girth on Barranca's saddle to have a final word with him. "We'll see you back here late tomorrow," Murdoch said.

Johnny mounted his palomino and, gathering up the reins, smiled down at his family. "Don't worry. I won't mess this up."

"Of course not, son," Murdoch replied. "You keep an eye open at all times, though."

Scott raised a hand. "See you back here tomorrow night."

Johnny touched the brim of his hat and called goodbye as he wheeled Barranca around and headed for Green River. He left his horse at the livery stable there and caught the stage for Atwater. It was on time, for a change. He sighed and settled back on the cushioned seat, thinking that whoever had come up with the cockamamie requirement that he had to take the stage should be shot. Johnny disliked stagecoaches and avoided the uncomfortable, dusty mode of travel whenever he could. While on the journey he conversed a bit with the other passengers, who came and went as they stopped at several towns along the way, but for the most part he kept to himself and tried to catch up on his sleep. The journey was uneventful, and by late afternoon the stage swept into Atwater in a cloud of dust.

Slinging his saddlebag over his shoulder, Johnny sought out the Atwater Hotel. It was on a side street, an older establishment, and from the looks of things, not a very popular one. He had no trouble getting a room at the back, as he'd been instructed to do, and after washing some of the dust off, he strolled down to the lobby. A glance at the clock on the wall over the desk confirmed it was nearing suppertime, but he was thirsty as well as hungry. Deciding Mr. Fox could wait, Johnny went into the hotel's saloon and had a beer and a couple of boiled eggs before heading out to locate the Cattlemen's Association.

***

Johnny gave two sharp raps on the side door, then two more, feeling self-conscious. After several minutes, during which time Johnny had the feeling he was being watched, the door opened cautiously to reveal a man wearing the prescribed red cravat.

The man looked Johnny over from head to toe. "I need a password," he snapped.

Johnny dutifully replied, "Trigger."

"You're late. Follow me." The man opened the door only wide enough for Johnny to slip in and said, "I'm Fox." He motioned with a hand that Johnny should follow down the dark corridor and into the dimly lit Cattlemen's Association club room.

The curtains were drawn so it was too dark to see much more than two other men standing under an ugly painting of a prize steer. The place smelled of stale beer and most of the furniture was shrouded with dust covers. There appeared to be a second room beyond, just as poorly lit, but Johnny perked up when he caught sight of a bar.

Fox turned to Johnny and asked, "Murdoch Lancer sent you instead of coming himself?"

"My father is working on the preparations." When it was obvious that Fox wasn't about to introduce him to the other men, Johnny looked at them and said, "I'm John Lancer."

One of the men was an older, gentlemanly fellow with a salt-and-pepper beard and a pleasant smile, and the second had the appearance of a mild bank teller, though Johnny didn't underestimate any of them. They shook hands with Johnny but didn't offer their names. It didn't matter. Johnny could tell that Fox was the only one with any authority in the room.

Even so, Mr. Fox's colorful neck cloth stuck out like a sore thumb and Johnny wondered if he always wore it, or if he saved it for special occasions such as this. Murdoch, who had met the man only once, when he'd been approached about the possibility of being host to their special visitor, had described him well: short, with wiry brown hair and the palest blue eyes he'd ever seen. Johnny mentally added "˜self-important bastard' to the description.

Johnny nodded politely. "Gentlemen, my father, Murdoch Lancer, considered several spreads for the visit, but after some consideration, he chose our ranch as the best location." He looked at each of the men's faces but they didn't seem particularly surprised that Murdoch had chosen his own ranch. "Lancer is a prime cattle ranch." Johnny continued. "It fits the bill and we believe we can offer the security needed."

"Sit down, Mr. Lancer, and give us the rest of the plans," Fox said bluntly. "We can't afford any mistakes." His tone of voice suggested that he fully expected Johnny to make mistakes.

The four men sat down at a round table and carefully went over the plans. On some paper provided, Johnny drew out a fairly detailed map of the route that he, Scott and Murdoch had decided was safest, and he did a quick diagram of the layout of the ranch and hacienda as well. Johnny was impressed by Fox's questions and observations, even if he didn't like his attitude. The other men occasionally interjected with a point or two of their own, but it was Mr. Fox who finally put an end to any niceties. "This road here," he said, pointing at the roughly drawn map. "Why didn't Mr. Lancer choose this way?"

Johnny was well aware that his appearance - his embroidered red shirt and vaquero pants, no jacket or tie, along with his low-slung holster - was enough to make the men question his authority, but he didn't like being treated like he was only a messenger. "My brother, me and Murdoch talked this over, Mr. Fox, and we agreed the trail was too rough and there were too many vantage points for someone with a rifle to--."

"And this one?" Fox interrupted, indicating another possible route. He squinted at Johnny with his pale eyes as if he wondered why they'd trusted the young man with such important information.

"It rained," Johnny said simply. There were raised eyebrows all around but Johnny met Fox's gaze head on. "Rivers rise. Can't cross "˜em easy."

Fox looked at Johnny as if he was purposely giving him a hard time. "Tell me more about this railhead."

"My father has made arrangements for the railway line to be clear of all trains on Friday the thirteenth and your train should arrive no later than five that evening." Johnny laid out Murdoch's plans and described everything he thought they needed to know. Fox asked questions to the point of being quarrelsome and Johnny gave answers until he had endured about enough. His stomach was growling and he was annoyed that the plans Murdoch, along with he and Scott, had worked out were being debated at every turn. Finally Johnny said, "Look, we were told to come up with a safe plan, Mr. Fox, and we have. But if you don't think we know what we're talking about, I'll just head on out and you men can figure it out for yourselves."

The older gentleman appeared dismayed. He said to Johnny, "You understand that this is of the utmost importance, son." He then turned and cast an eye towards Fox and said, "Mr. Fox, you approached Murdoch Lancer because you knew him to be an honorable man, and may I add, one with some fighting experience under his belt. I know him personally and can verify that he is a man of great personal integrity."

The fellow who resembled a teller cleared his throat and asked Fox, "If we can't trust Lancer and his sons, who can we trust?"

Fox looked Johnny up and down and said, "Excuse us for a moment." He took the two other gentlemen aside and conferred with them in low tones. Meanwhile Johnny meandered to the bar in the next room and poured himself a glass of tequila. There wasn't any lemon or salt but it didn't matter to him at that point. When he sauntered back into the meeting room, the three men appeared to have finished their discussion. Johnny stood with his hands tucked in his belt and waited.

"We concur that your ranch is the best location for this meeting," Fox said begrudgingly. "However, there is more to this situation than meets the eye." He held his hands up when Johnny made a sound of protest. "Hear me out. I'm ultimately responsible for the safety of everyone involved, and there is another factor you are not aware of. Your guest's son will accompany his father on this trip. This young man is coming from Boston, where he's presently studying at Harvard."

"Great, another greenhorn to keep an eye on," Johnny muttered.

"I agree with you," Fox said, "that being escorted by soldiers from the fort will bring too much attention to our party. We will journey on horseback rather than by carriage to your ranch, and will provide a small corps of our own highly trained and well-armed men as guards. Not so many they'd attract attention, though."

Johnny looked from Fox to the other men. He could tell they weren't telling him something and he didn't like it. "Are you expecting some kind of trouble? "˜ Cause I need to know about it, Fox. Now."

"If there was anything you needed to know, Mr. Lancer, I would tell you."

Johnny weighed Fox up and could tell he wasn't going to pry anything out of the man. He took a deep breath. "All right, I'll post men up at the highest points and have plenty of ammo at the ready - my men." Johnny could see Fox was surprised that he was taking the lead.

"Are you a fighting man, Mr. Lancer? A soldier?" the gentlemanly man asked.

Johnny took a moment to reply, but when he did, it was with a slow smile. He patted his Colt. "I guess you could call me that, Sir."

Fox nodded briskly. "Fine. And the date is agreeable to everyone? We only have a small window of opportunity here."

"Murdoch says Friday the thirteenth is best. Train needs to arrive at five."

The men conferred briefly and agreed. Fox confirmed by saying, "Friday it is. Three days from now I will arrive with President Grant, his son Ulysses, and five Secret Service bodyguards. We will all be wearing clothing suitable for the area, so we'll fit in nicely."

Johnny tried hard not to roll his eyes at the image of the large group all decked out in spanking new Western duds and oversized Stetsons. He asked, "They can all ride, can't they?"

"Just meet us with enough mounts for everyone." Fox smiled for the first time, showing a set of even, white teeth. "Don't worry, everything will run smoothly, just as planned. . .so long as you keep this to yourself."

Johnny wished he was half as confident as the secret service man. "I always worry. Keeps me healthy." Johnny picked up the map he'd drawn and held it up. "I'll be heading back. Uh, any of you men have some matches on ya?"

***

Johnny had never been so glad to get out of a meeting. He was even happy to return to the seedy hotel where he'd booked a room for the night. Hunger drove him to the hotel's saloon and he ordered a good steak dinner. As he sat at a corner table and waited for his meal to be served, he looked around at the clientele. He laid a bet with himself that bar patrons around the world looked much the same. A couple of women draped themselves around inebriated customers, and off to one side a man in shirtsleeves played a rundown piano with enthusiasm.

Just as Johnny was about to find out what was keeping his dinner, the waitress appeared from the kitchen bearing an overly laden tray. He watched as she struggled to skirt around some men at the end of the bar and he could tell she was going to drop the whole thing. As the tray began to tilt precariously, he jumped to his feet, intent on heading off the loss of his meal. At that moment a young man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and rescued the waitress. He insisted on carrying the heavy tray around the room for the overworked woman while she handed out the plates of food to her customers.

Johnny was the last one to be served. He said to the man, who looked like a ranch hand in his early twenties, "I think I owe you a drink for saving my supper."

"Well, I'll take you up on that, stranger. Turns out I can't get a stage until tomorrow so I'm stranded here in town." The man stuck out his hand and pumped Johnny's. "Name's Bradley Trader. Out of Sacramento."

After the waitress came back out with a plateful of hot food and a big smile for the young man, Bradley went up the bar and returned with a pottery jug and two glasses. "This is a favorite libation of mine and not easy to come by," he said with a broad smile as he poured out a couple of glassfuls of a dark liquid.

Johnny instantly liked the fellow, who was good looking with fair curly hair and a pleasant, weathered face. It only took one whiff of the beverage for Johnny to identify it as pulque, a fermented drink from the agave, which he hadn't tasted since he was back in Mexico. It usually gave him such a bad headache the next day he avoided it. He took a sip and refrained from pulling a face at its extremely sour taste. He coughed, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and met Bradley's eye. "Uh, real good, Brad . . .for pulque."

Bradley threw his handsome head back and burst out laughing. "My uncle down in Pecos used to brew this stuff up once a month, like clockwork, so long as there was some agave handy." He downed a gulp of his drink, backhanded his mouth and grinned. "I guess it's an acquired taste, but I had a feeling you were familiar with it." While they ate their supper, the young man told Johnny about his small spread near Sacramento, then asked what Johnny was doing in Atwater. Johnny, mindful of his mission, only said he was on ranching business. Brad talked a bit about his childhood in Texas and Johnny loosened up enough to trade tales with him. Before they knew it, the jug of pulque was empty and most of the saloon's customers had gone home, or up to their rooms.

Johnny suddenly realized he was dog-tired and told Bradley he was calling it a night. Tomorrow he'd have to get on that damned stagecoach again. Maybe he'd just hire a horse and ride back. What harm could there be in it? No, he had been told not to deviate from the plans. Darn plans. Johnny rose and took a deep breath then found he was somewhat unsteady on his feet. Pulque didn't usually have too much effect on him, but one never knew what was in home-brewed booze.

"You okay there, Johnny? How about I make sure you get up to your room?" Brad dropped some coins on the table and took Johnny's arm. On the way out he winked at the waitress and told her he wouldn't be long.

They left the saloon and headed up the creaking back stairs, and although Johnny shook off the helping hand with, "I'm fine," he held onto the banister all the way to the second floor. Bradley followed him to make sure he didn't fall down or anything.

Johnny's head felt like it weighed a ton and the corridor was titling to one side. As for his feet, he had to look at them to make sure they were still there. Pulling out his key, Johnny fumbled to get it into the lock. After Johnny made several unsuccessful attempts to unlock the door, Bradley chuckled and took the key from him. Then the door was open and the narrow hotel bed suddenly looked very inviting. "I ain't drunk," Johnny protested. His head was aching and his tongue felt like it was on fire. He knew that come morning he'd regret sharing the pulque with Bradley. Johnny said, "We had a good time, din' we?"

"Well, there sure was something in that drink that didn't agree with you, Johnny." Bradley stood over Johnny and watched him collapse onto the bed, then pulled his boots off for him. When he reached for Johnny's gunbelt, however, he was met by a sixgun in his face. Bradley stepped back hurriedly with raised hands. "Hey, I don't mean no harm! I'm just trying to be helpful, Johnny."

Barely able to focus on his new friend, Johnny's gun didn't waver. "Out."

Bradley immediately backed out of Johnny's room and pulled the door closed behind him. The minute he was gone, Johnny's hand fell to his side, still gripping his gun. He took a deep breath and gathered his strength. Rolling off the bed, he got awkwardly to his feet, holstered his revolver, stumbled to the door and locked it. He didn't have anything against this fellow Bradley Trader but, under the influence or not, he could put himself to bed, thank you very much. With that thought, Johnny collapsed on top of his bed face down, still grasping his Colt, and immediately fell asleep.

***

He was back at Lancer. In his own bed. The mattress was soft and the curtains were moving slightly in the breeze. Johnny blinked and tried to clear his blurry vision but it didn't help much. He was terribly thirsty, but that was his own damned fault for drinking that home-brewed pulque. It was painful to swallow and he tried to wet his lips but his mouth was as dry and as foul tasting as a barroom floor. He moved his head on the pillow and the pain almost cracked his skull in two. Slamming his eyes shut, Johnny raised his hands to block out the light. Dios, what had he done to deserve this?

Johnny was concentrating so hard on dealing with the spikes of pain jabbing right through his head that it took him a while to realize there was someone else in the room. He dropped his hands away from his face. His arms, suddenly too heavy to hold aloft, flopped down by his sides. Very slowly Johnny turned his head and squinted at the indistinct figure hovering near his bedside. He tried to speak but only a croak came out. After he swallowed he tried again, and managed to get out the name of Doc Jenkins, though in a raspy and barely audible voice. "Sam?"

"Take it easy, son," was the reassuring reply.

Johnny closed his eyes and whispered hoarsely, "Wha' happened?"

"Here, you need a drink."

A hand slid behind Johnny's neck and gently raised his head then a glass was guided to his lips. Once he tasted the water, Johnny drank greedily. After several gulps, he choked and spluttered. The water was taken away and his head was lowered to the pillow. Johnny rubbed at his eyes and sought the familiar face of Doc Jenkins, but he was startled to find that the man leaning over his bed was unknown to him. He immediately tried to sit up, a surge of fear urging him to get away, but no matter how strong his instinct was , the man was stronger. Johnny couldn't even summon the strength to fight the hands that kept him down on the bed. He asked wildly, "What? Who're you?"

*** *** ***

Chapter 3

Revolve ~ To ponder, to think or think about carefully and at length. To turn. To move or cause to move in circles or around an axis.

"Gently, son. You're safe. Everything will be fine. I'm Doc Weatherby."

Johnny looked at the face of the man, seeing a stranger, albeit one with a kindly expression. He looked around and saw that he was not lying in any of the bedrooms at Lancer, as he'd first thought. "Where the hell am I?" he demanded in a raspy voice. Talking caused Johnny to cough painfully but when he was offered the water glass once again, he ignored it. He glared at the man and waited for an explanation.

Doc Weatherby, who was portly and looked to be in his fifties. He adjusted his wire-rimmed eyeglasses and stroked his gray mustache, then said in a slow and even manner, "My name is Dr. Gus Weatherby and you're in my house. Just outside of Atwater. You've been a bit. . .out of sorts, and we - me and my wife Esther that is - we've been takin' care of you."

Johnny blinked. It took him some time to comprehend what the doctor had told him, but the older man patiently waited for a response. First thing Johnny did was look down at his body. It was hidden under a sheet, with his feet covered in a drawn-back blanket. Sensing that nothing was missing, and not feeling any specific pain other than an allover malaise and an aching head, it came to Johnny then that he must have fallen ill. "It was that pulque," he accused. Yes, that must have been it. His stomach hurt some, too, like a griping ache from eating too many green apples.

"I don't know about any pulque, my boy. You were brought in with a head injury." The Doc turned to the bedside table and picked up a stethoscope.

For some reason, the sight of the medical instrument, innocuous as it was, alarmed Johnny more than if some home-brewed liquor had poisoned him. "My head?" It did hurt a lot, but the pulsating pain behind his eyes wasn't quite as bad as it had been when he'd awoken. So long as he didn't look towards the light.

"I think I'd better give you a once-over. Rest easy, won't take long." Leaning over, the doctor listened to Johnny's heart and thumped with his fingers here and there on his patient's chest. Every now and then the doctor made small noises of satisfaction.

"Doc?"

The doctor held up a finger to quiet his patient while he made his examination. "Take a big breath, son."

Johnny did as he was told and inhaled deeply. Meantime, he glanced around the room, but he didn't learn much. It seemed like a farmhouse bedroom with older, simple furniture. It had a sloping ceiling and uneven walls made homey with wallpaper and a threadbare, upholstered chair near the window and a plain wood one off to one side. There was a tree outside the only window in the room, and from where Johnny laid the dusty green leaves obscured any view of the surrounding area. His eyes lit on a basin and small bottles - medicines -   on the table by his bed. The sudden sinking feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with whatever he'd drunk the night before. Johnny said, his voice gravelly, "Doc, how long've I been here?"

The doctor pulled the armless wooden chair close to the bed and sat down, compressing his lips as he put his stethoscope away. He surprised Johnny by taking hold of his hand. Not to feel his pulse, it seemed, but as an act of comfort.

"Tell me what's goin' on! What's wrong with me? Where's Murdoch? And Scott?" Suddenly Johnny remembered his mission and his heart constricted. How could he have forgotten about it? It was so important and he couldn't let anyone down. He had to get back to Lancer, to tell them everything was right on schedule. "I gotta go home," Johnny mumbled. He struggled to raise himself, but was defeated by an excruciating thrust of pain in his head.

The weakness that followed overwhelmed him and he fell back on the pillow just as the doctor said, "There was an accident, Johnny."

"Accident?" He felt dumb for repeating the doctor's words, but it was as if they carried little meaning for him.

"Yes, the stagecoach you were traveling in had an accident. It lost a wheel and crashed into a ravine."

"It crashed?" Johnny looked into the doctor's brown eyes and tried to get a grasp on what the man was saying. "I don't--."

"Don't recall the accident?" The doctor shook his head slightly, as if disappointed. "There were several badly injured folks, and me and my wife took you in. I'm retired, you see, and was able to give you the care you needed, and we were close by. You suffered quite a blow to your head."

"How bad?" Johnny was almost afraid to hear. He raised a hand to his head, feeling for the site of his injury, but couldn't fine any lump on his skull.

"It was bad enough - you've been out cold for some time, son." Before Johnny could ask how long he'd been out, once again, and wondering at the same time why he couldn't remember even stepping on the stage for home, the doctor spoke again, gently breaking the news. "You see, the accident occurred a while ago."

There was something about the way the Doc was speaking that sounded like he was about to break some terrible news. Whatever it was Johnny didn't want to hear it but he swallowed and whispered, "How long, Doc ? "

"I'm afraid you have been unconscious for four months now," Doc Weatherby said.

Staring at the doctor, but not really seeing him, Johnny lay still, his mouth slightly open with disbelief. Finally he said softly, "No." Then louder, he repeated his denial. "No, no!" He frowned and looked around, seeking anything to help him get a grip on the time he'd lost. It wasn't possible! He'd been in Atwater, in the saloon, just the night before. He knew it. He felt it. The doctor laid a hand on his arm, but Johnny jerked away. "You're lyin', just lyin'," he shouted hoarsely. "I'd know!"

But Dr. Weatherby shook his head, ever so slightly, in pity for the young man lying in the bed in his guest room. "I know this is a lot to take in, Johnny, I know. You're lucky you didn't have any serious internal injuries or even broken bones. You were unconscious when you were found and soon after the accident you were brought here. I should know. I've been taking care of your every need for the entire four months." Weatherby smiled a little and added, "Why, Esther and I thought you'd never come to your senses, but we hoped and even prayed every day for you, my boy."

There was something about the way the doctor spoke, a sincerity about him that made Johnny begin to believe what he was telling him. He didn't want to, couldn't even begin to comprehend what the loss of four whole months meant. Dios, he'd never even made it home! He'd missed the arrival of the President. Had the whole thing gone on as planned, but without him? Had there been any trouble out at the ranch? Suddenly, Johnny got his elbows under him and pushed himself into a half-sitting position. The strain on his arms made them tremble, they were so weak. In an unsteady voice, he asked, "Where's my father?"

The bedroom door opened and an older woman entered, bearing a tray. A small lady, her white hair in a bun, white apron tied over a blue calico dress, she was as neat as a pin. Apparently oblivious to Johnny's heightened emotional state, she walked lightly across the room and placed the tray on a bureau. "My, we are so glad you've finally awakened, young man. Gus and I were sure worried, though he tells me time and again to stop my fretting because it does no good. No good at all." She moved to the bedside and peered at Johnny. "You shouldn't even be trying to sit up yet, you're far too fragile after all the time you've been sleeping. I told Gus how you reminded me of our boy when he was asleep in this very bed, God rest his soul--."

"Esther," warned her husband kindly but firmly. "Enough of your chatter, my dear. Our young guest is trying to sort out his confused thoughts and he needs some quiet to process everything he's lost." Weatherby stood and put a hand under Esther's elbow. "Now you go downstairs, dear, and I'll feed the boy. You brought him some of your special soup? That's excellent."

As the doctor escorted his wife from the room, she said, "Well, as soon as he's up and ready to take visitors, we'll need to find him some garments to wear. I expect I should tidy the front parlor, too. And we need to notify those nice folks who keep asking after him." She smiled over her shoulder at Johnny then said to herself , "My, there are quite a few things to do."

Dr. Weatherby closed the door firmly behind his wife and by the time he retrieved a bowl of soup from the tray and had returned to his seat, Johnny had fallen back onto the mattress.

The older man put an extra pillow behind Johnny's head then prepared to feed him some soup, but Johnny raised a hand to indicate he wasn't interested. "Wait!" Despite intense hunger pains and a rumbling stomach, food was the last thing on Johnny's mind at that moment. "I've had visitors? My father? Scott?"

Doc Weatherby studied the bowl of soup for a minute then put it aside. His face, set in serious lines, was hangdog and his mustache drooped. "Ever since you came here to stay with us, there's been a steady parade of folks coming along to see how you're faring. Now most of them have come a fair piece, from down near Spanish Wells and thereabouts. Although some came real regular at first, like your doctor did, now we only see them once in a while."

"Sam came? Dr. Jenkins?"

Weatherby nodded. "Dr. Jenkins, he set out the course of your care, my boy, and he was here quite a bit in the beginning. But now he's left your day-to-day care to me and Esther. I've been practicing family medicine for nigh on thirty years, so he knew I'd do my best for you. Now let me see, there was a lawman, too, said he was a friend of yours--."

"Val Crawford," Johnny said, and just knowing that Sam and the sheriff had been watching over him made him feel a little less alone.

Doc Weatherby nodded. "Crawford, a good man, yes, indeedy. I'll send off a wire to him today and to Dr. Jenkins, too. I'm glad to see your memory of the past is still intact, young man. I was concerned the blow to your head and the prolonged unconscious state might have done some permanent damage. It's important you remember everything you can and get a handle on any missing events. You know what they say about talkin' your worries away."

"But Doc, you need to wire my father right away. He'll want to know I'm awake." Johnny was worried over what he had missed, but he knew once his father and brother came around they'd set his mind at ease. He figured he was a day's ride from the ranch, but Scott would probably make it in half that time once he knew his little brother was finally awake.

Johnny wondered why he hadn't been taken back to his own home, and was about to ask about that, when the Doc said, "Well, son, I want to wait until you are a little stronger and we can talk some more. If you're not going to have any soup, I'll just go downstairs and leave you to rest up a bit. I can see you're tuckered out." He picked up the bowl and slowly stirred the soup with the spoon, apparently deep in thought.

The aroma of chicken soup made Johnny salivate, and he pushed himself up a little in the bed. "I guess I can try a taste of that, Sir."

"Let's get you up a bit higher so you don't choke." Beaming, Doc Weatherby put the soup aside only long enough to prop the pillows up behind Johnny then got a firm grip under his arms and hauled him up.

Johnny hated that he had to be assisted, but he was eager for the soup so he let the doctor feed him. One good thing was the warm liquid seemed to soothe his dry throat. Between spoonfuls, he asked curiously, "How'd you get food into me when I was out cold? I'm as weak as a cat but I don't seem too bad for four months without any grub."

"Oh, I'm pretty good at keeping my patients healthy, even if they're not responsive." Weatherby chuckled. "Even an unconscious man can swallow, and you weren't insensible the entire time. There were moments when you moved your limbs, but you never opened your eyes until today. It takes a lot of care and patience to tend to an invalid long term." The Doc spooned more soup into Johnny's mouth and gave him no further opportunity to speak.

By the time Johnny was finished eating, he had to urinate, and he pictured all the personal things the doctor, and presumably his wife, had done during the time he'd been out of it. He flushed to think of strangers handling him, but then he figured that after four months they were probably pretty familiar with his body. The Doc helped him with the chamber pot then took the receptacle downstairs. Johnny listened to the receding footsteps and heard the murmuring of the Doc talking with his wife and some clanking coming from what sounded like the kitchen below.

Johnny had never felt so exhausted in his life. His head was still aching something fierce, his body was achingly weak, and he had trouble putting his thoughts into any resemblance of an orderly fashion. The Doc had said he'd tell him the rest of the news when he was stronger, but Johnny wanted to hear it all now. He'd ask the Doc when he came up again. Insist on hearing the rest. Johnny slumped down in the bed, noted with disdain he was wearing a nightshirt, and before he knew it he had dozed off.

***

When Johnny awoke again, the light was different, suggesting it was late in the afternoon. He was hot, and threw the covers off. Outside the window, the leaves on the tree rustled, but there was not another sound to be heard. Not of people downstairs, not cattle or horses out in the pasture. He lay there for some time, trying to figure out what the last thing was he remembered, but for some reason his mind kept wandering and he just watched the leaves fluttering in the breeze. Four months, the Doc had said. That made it October. It was warm for autumn, but this bedroom, with its sloping ceiling, was under the roof and by late afternoon it was as hot as an attic.

After doing a cursory check of his body, Johnny came to the conclusion someone must have kept his hair and nails trimmed. He discovered his fingernails were not only short, but they were clean "“ cleaner than he ever got them, that was for sure. He'd been lying here for a long time, dead to the world apparently, but he hadn't lost any weight that he could tell. Sighing, he relaxed. He'd be up and back to normal soon enough. All he needed was some grub and to see his family and he'd be as right as rain.

He must have fallen asleep again because he dreamed of riding Barranca. His palomino nickered with pleasure, and Johnny smiled at the joy of riding his beloved horse. When his head lolled to one side and off the pillow, Johnny awoke with a start, sweaty and thirsty as hell. He couldn't reach the glass of water from the bed, so he rolled onto his side and somehow sat up. It took so much effort he almost passed out and his head felt so heavy he almost forsook the water. He just wanted to lie back down, but he had to have something to ease his parched throat. There was still a bad taste in his mouth and his tongue felt thick, like it did after taking some medicine.

The water eased some of his discomfort. While he sat on the edge of his bed, a little woozy, Johnny realized he was doing pretty good for a fellow who'd been lying around like a dead man for four months. But then he'd always been resilient.

A long time back, when he had been riding with some rough characters, he'd been shot in the belly, but had been up and walking around within a week, which had amazed everyone. Of course he hadn't let them know over the following couple of months that he was walking around with terrible pain in his gut. He'd sucked it up and pretended he was ready for action. Compared to that, this was nothing.

Johnny knew that whatever was ailing him now was only temporary and with perseverance he'd get well enough to convince these kind folks he was fine. Then he'd borrow a horse and get back home. Home. . .he ached for home. Now where the heck was his brother? Although he was peeved that Scott wasn't right there, Johnny knew that he couldn't expect his brother to camp out by his bedside for months at a time. Of course Scott had gone back to the ranch, to get on with life. He'd be busy attending to his ranch duties, and wondering from time to time when his lazy little brother was gonna get up off his ass and come back to work. Johnny grinned to himself at the thought and lay back down to sleep peacefully.

*** *** ***

Chapter 4

Recoil
~ to draw back; start or shrink back, as in alarm, horror, or disgust.
~ to spring back, as in consequence of force of impact or the force of the discharge, as a firearm.
~ to spring or come back; react (on or upon)

"I'm glad to see you're up and feeling better," Doc Weatherby said from where he was standing in the doorway. "But we can't afford any setbacks just now, so how about you lie back down?"

Johnny was not about to admit his physical limits to anyone, even to a doctor as kind and concerned as this one, but he knew that trying to walk across the room was not a wise idea on such wobbly legs. "Doc, did you get hold of my folks?" he asked, returning to his bed.

"I sent some wires but it may take a while to get a response. My nephew, he works for me and does the heavy work, he'll be riding over from town later. He'll bring back any telegraph that comes in today. And if one comes in later, the boy in the telegraph office promised me he'd hasten right out here and deliver it." Doc Weatherby held Johnny's wrist and checked his pulse, then nodded his approval. "You'll be as good as new soon enough. Just don't press too hard. Now, have you recalled the events leading up to the accident?"

Johnny pulled the sheet up to his chest and fiddled with the edge of it a bit. "I don't know. I think I remember, but. . . you say I was on a stagecoach when it happened?"

"Oh yes, and you were lucky to survive. The driver was thrown and killed instantly, and several of the passengers were badly hurt. Apart from some bruises, your head wound - and the unconsciousness resulting from it - was the only serious damage you incurredd. You got on the morning stage out of Atwater, remember?" The Doc looked expectantly at his patient.

Johnny felt strange that he couldn't remember getting on the stage, though he knew he must have. He'd been told to return to Green River the same way he'd come, and even if he'd made light of following the instructions, he had taken the whole mission very seriously.

The doctor took a seat and suggested, "How about you tell me what you do remember, Johnny? You know, there is a connection between the physical and mental parts of what makes us human, and it's very important to fix whichever component is out of sorts. I'll bet your recovery will go all the faster if you recall those events you've lost. You were in Atwater at the Cattlemen's Association meeting, weren't you?"

"How'd you know?" Johnny asked. He was sure that nobody had seen him going into the Cattlemen's Association hall to meet Fox and his associates, but he hadn't paid much attention to who was around when he'd left.

"Oh, the deputy in town had to collect your belongings from the hotel, and he told me why you were in Atwater. Wasn't he correct?"

"Sort of. I was there to meet someone." Even if it was in the past, he had been told not to talk about it with anyone. Johnny shrugged a little. "Just ranching business."

Doc Weatherby looked at him over his spectacles, then said, "Cattle business? I've never liked the creatures, though they be all equal in the eyes of the Lord." He let out a small laugh. "My dislike can probably be traced back to my childhood, when a bull ran after me. Luckily, my mother rescued me by flapping her apron at the brute. Do you like working with cattle?"

With a grimace, Johnny admitted, "Not much."

"But you weren't always a rancher," the doctor stated.

Surprised at the Doc's assessment, Johnny was about to ask how he knew that, but before he had the chance the doctor said, "You sure were wearing a fancy gun belt. At first they had trouble identifying you and thought maybe you were some kind of trouble blowing though town."

Johnny shifted in the bed. "I used to be. Don't take the stage usually. I left my horse back in . . ." Again, he wondered what had happened to Barranca when he hadn't returned on schedule. The liveryman in Green River knew him well. He would have sent word out to the Lancer ranch and they'd have picked up Barranca, if they hadn't already done so as soon as they'd discovered he'd been hurt. "My horse--."

The Doc prompted, "He was stabled back in Green River. You were in a hurry to return there for some reason?"

Johnny interrupted, "Doc, you said there was more to tell me."

"I'm not sure you're up to hearing what I have to relate, son."

There was something about the way the doctor averted his gaze that alarmed Johnny. He sat up a bit and said, "This is as good a time as any, Doc. Get it said." His tone left no room for negotiation.

Weatherby's head turned and he gazed at his patient calculatingly. "Yes, I suppose there is no good time for you to hear this." Even though he appeared to have finally made the decision to speak up, the doctor shifted uneasily in his chair. With an abrupt move he stood and paced around the small room, touching things without really looking at them.

"C'mon, Doc," Johnny said impatiently as he watched the big man nervously stroke back his thinning hair. "Whatever it is, I can take it." He figured that Mr. Fox had brought charges against him for something like dereliction of duty or some such malarkey. Johnny snorted, "What? Did the President get assassinated or something?"

Doc Weatherby turned in alarm to face Johnny. "My God, how did you know?"

Aghast, Johnny struggled to sit up in bed, shoved the sheet aside and swung his legs over. His feet hit the floor but he must have moved too fast because the whole room tilted and he swayed.

The Doc was there in a second, his strong hands steadying his patient and easing him down until he was safely seated on the bed. "Take it easy, my boy!"

Johnny had trouble getting his next question past his lips. "Doc. . . my family? What happened?" Despite the doctor's hands still on his shoulders, Johnny tried to stand. He couldn't face whatever the Doc was going to tell him in a prone position, not even from sitting on his bed. Johnny made it to his feet, but his knees gave way and he immediately sank back down onto the mattress. He grabbed the doctor's arm. "What the hell is going on? Damn it! Just tell me!"

"They're dead! They're all gone, Johnny," the doctor blurted. "Your family, they were killed, alongside President Grant."

"My family? No . . .no, that's not. . ." Johnny shook his head adamantly. How can he say such a terrible thing? He must be wrong! No, the Doc is wrong.

With a hand on Johnny's shoulder to steady him, Weatherby repeated the dreadful pronouncement once more. "They died, Johnny. Four months ago, soon after you were brought here." Johnny kept shaking his head in disbelief, but the Doc, driving the point home, insisted, "They died trying to protect the President. They put up a valiant fight. Your father died for his country--."

Johnny jerked away from the doctor's grip and struck out at the hands that reached out to help him. He mouthed the word of denial several times before it came out as a cry torn from his lips. "No! Not my father!" Then, sure that it was impossible that anything had happened to Scott, he whispered his brother's name. "Scott. Scott. .   .?" He didn't need the doctor to say anything in response - Johnny could see it in his eyes.

"I'm so very sorry, son."

No. No! Scott can't be dead! Johnny collapsed sideways on the bed and lay with his arms wrapped around his head. The picture of his father and his brother dying, being shot down, murdered, rushed at him. It was so real he almost believed he was watching it happen before his very eyes.

The doctor picked up Johnny's legs and positioned them comfortably on the bed. A pillow was gently placed under his head, but the only thing Johnny Lancer could feel was a pain in his heart so great, an agony so devastating that he couldn't even breathe. Oh my God, Dios, Dios, what have I done?

***

It was just getting dark when the woman came in and lit a small lamp. She drew the thin curtains over the window to keep the moths out, then stood silently looking down at Johnny. He lay flat out on the bed, his face turned away from her; he just stared at nothing, numb with grief.

Esther sat on the edge of Johnny's bed and reached out to very gently stroke his hair. When she spoke her voice was so wispy it almost wasn't there. "My son, my own boy Nathaniel, he went away you know. I acted brave, oh so brave, and watched him march off to fight in that dreadful war. I kept watching and waiting for him to come down that lane, but he never came back. He gave up his life for his country; the ultimate sacrifice. He was captured and sent to a prison camp, we heard. That's where they say he died."

Esther's hand continued its gentle stroking motion and for a while she was quiet, remembering her son. She sighed and said, "I don't even know how he died. Not that there is much comfort in knowing the details about such a heart-wrenching thing. But if I don't know how my son died, then I can imagine he just went to sleep under a tree somewhere, maybe by a stream, all very peaceful. He'd feel no pain at all that way, you see. I sometimes think if I can wish a serene death on him it really could be true." Esther tenderly wiped the wetness from Johnny's face. "You have a good cry, my boy. Cry while you're still able, before the bitterness eats away at you and steals away the good memories."

Johnny moved his head just a little towards the doctor's wife and she took it as a sign to hold him. He rolled towards Esther and immediately her thin arms hugged him with motherly love. "That's right, my dear boy," she said with compassion. "Esther's here to take care of you."

He allowed her that, maybe because it was dark and he felt so all alone, maybe because he desperately needed the feeling of human contact, if only for a little while. It was all right to let her hold him while he curled up and tried to get past the terrible pain. It was only for a little while. Tomorrow he would be up and, somehow, some way, he would get back on his feet and head home to Lancer. He'd discover for himself exactly what had happened, no matter how much he was to blame.

Johnny took in a ragged breath. He turned towards the wall and wiped his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt. Esther sat next to him and rubbed his back, understanding his reluctance to reveal his emotions. Doc Weatherby came up to check on his patient, but when Johnny didn't move or respond the man guided his wife out of the room and left him alone.

***

As the clock downstairs chimed nine times, Esther Weatherby returned with a meal of stew and biscuits, a glass of lemonade and even a slice of strawberry pie. Although at first Johnny refused it, once he took a bite he realized how hungry he was. He would have preferred to be alone, but the woman stayed while he ate and she chatted, almost to herself, about people and places he didn't know. There was a kind of comfort in hearing her prattling, though.

When Johnny finished his food, he felt a little bit better. The pervasive headache had receded, but his head still felt like it was stuffed with cotton. Having a full belly made him sleepy so he lay back down and closed his eyes.

After tucking him in, Esther tidied up the room and put the dirty plates and glassware on the tray. There was a light knock on the door and the Doc came in, looking sheepish, as if he was interrupting something private. Esther cast a knowing look at her husband and carted the empty dishes down to the kitchen to leave the two men alone.

After a few moments of silence, Johnny said accusingly in a hoarse voice, "You shoulda told me right off."

Weatherby looked uncomfortable, but he said in his own defense, "You have just awoken from a comatose state, my boy, and are certainly not in any condition to hear the worst news a man could hear "“ that his family has been murdered. And in such a heinous way, too. I've been dreading this moment every day for four whole months, Johnny."

Johnny hardened himself for fear he might make a spectacle of himself in front of the man, but then a thought struck him. His mind must be a right mess because he had assumed that, apart from Grant, only the Lancer men, Murdoch and Scott, had been killed during the attack on the President. But when the Doc said "˜family', Johnny was afraid it included other people he knew. The vaqueros, the ranch hands, they were his family, too. They would have put up a hell of a fight. And what about Teresa and the womenfolk? Please God, not them, too! He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them again, the Doc was hovering.

The doctor was in his shirtsleeves, his fingers holding onto the red suspenders that supported his trousers. He reached into his pants pocket and slowly withdrew a crumpled piece of newspaper. "I wasn't going to show this to you until later, when you were stronger. It's only a section I clipped out of the Sacramento Clarion. If you want to read more than this I might be able to locate something," he said vaguely. Weatherby held out the yellowing newsprint to Johnny, but seemed reluctant to give it up.

Johnny took the rumpled paper between his fingers, propped himself up a bit higher against the pillows and started to read it. The edges were torn and although he could make out it had come from a Sacramento paper, the date wasn't readable. When his eyes swept over it he was horrified to read the headline. Even though he knew that the President had been killed, it was still a shock to see it in print. His heart beat fast as he read through the article swiftly, taking in everything he could, hoping to find some little thing that would give him an ounce of hope. Johnny sought something, anything that would prove that the doctor was wrong, that Murdoch and Scott were not really dead and gone, that it was all a terrible mistake.

But when Johnny finished reading, reality settled upon him like a dark mantle. There was no doubt. His father and brother were dead. Murdered. Then, slowly and steadily, a tide of anger rose and overcame his wretchedness, choking Johnny with its very blackness.

***

After a few minutes, Johnny read the article once again.

THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES ATTACKED BY FANATICAL FACTION
ON THE EVE OF MAJOR CATTLE BILL.

THE ENTIRE NATION HORRIFIED AND THE WHOLE CIVILIZED WORLD SHOCKED.

President Ulysses S. Grant was viciously attacked and murdered while on a visit to a California cattle ranch yesterday. Senator Beacham R. Stowe of California is quoted as saying, "It is a dark day in our country's calendar. Our chosen leader was stricken down by the foul hand of the cowardly assassin identified as Vernal Ward of Chicago.

This cowardly act upon our beloved President and these innocent citizens is deplorable. The assassins have met the bloody end they deserve for their part in this heinous attack."

The President, several members of the Secret Service, and California rancher Murdoch Lancer, and members of the President's party, were all killed outright. Scott H. Lancer, oldest son of Mr. Lancer, was gravely wounded in the gun battle that resulted in several deaths. He lingered, but succumbed to his wounds only this morning. Names of the brave men killed in the service of the President have not yet been released, but are believed to be the personal guard of our President. Among the dead were several employees of the Lancer ranch and a woman identified as Mr. Lancer's ward.

There has been an outpouring of grief from every citizen, young and old.

There was another brief news article on the same page. It was incomplete; the rest of it appeared to be continued elsewhere. He turned the paper over but there were only advertisements for tonics and household products on the reverse side along with an editorial about the rising price of feed. It didn't matter "“ the partial news story was more than enough for him to get the picture.

Scott Lancer, a War veteran, still robust with the hope of youth, has paid the ultimate sacrifice to his country and to his President by firing upon the murdering traitor Ward and his fellow conspirators during the height of the attack. Even so, Lancer's selfless act of national bravery came too late. The assassin's murderous shot pierced the heart of President Grant but the treasonous traitor was cut down in a hail of bullets from the very guns that had once served our illustrious country on the battlefield.

Rumors of conspiracy are rampant, among them the concern that the team of heartless killers who attacked the President's party were assisted by an unidentified person connected to the Lancer Ranch, near Green River, California.

The youngest son of Murdoch Lancer, John Lancer, a known pistoleer is still missing at the present time and is being sought for questioning.

When Johnny finished reading, he bowed his head and slouched down in the bed. If only he had spoken up and convinced Murdoch that he thought that all the security Fox required for Grant's visit was an indication of impending trouble. If he had not stopped in the Atwater Hotel saloon that night and shared the foul, home-brewed pulque with that fellow Brad. If he had hired a horse and simply ridden home and had never taken the ill-fated journey on the stagecoach. . .if he had been by their side to employ his skill with a gun. If. . .

There was no end to the things he could have done to alter the future - the future that was now all in the past. There was no undoing it, and regret was tearing him apart. And Scott, it said that he didn't die immediately. Oh mi Dios, how much did he suffer? Did he call out for me? He must have wondered where the hell I was, and damned me for not being there. Oh, Scott, I am so sorry. . .so sorry I wasn't there for you. Murdoch. . . and Teresa. It said she died, too. Poor, poor girl. What a terrible end to her young life.

"Johnny," Doc Weatherby began.

But Johnny couldn't face talking to anyone; he turned away from the doctor's searching, sympathetic eyes. He was being torn apart by the images of his family being cut down by the assassins' bullets. Even with his eyes closed, there was no escape from the horror.

After a couple of minutes Doc Weatherby backed out with a quiet, "Good night, son."

*** *** ***

Chapter 5

Grip
~   the act of grasping; a seizing and holding fast; firm grasp.
~   a grasp, hold, or control.
~ mental or intellectual hold: to have a good grip on a problem.
~   a handle or hilt
~   a sudden, sharp pain; spasm of pain.

Although the Doc made several attempts to talk to Johnny the next day, the young man refused to recognize his presence. The meals that Esther brought up, enticing though they may have been, were left untouched. She sighed and cajoled, but Johnny just told the pair of them to leave him alone.

Eventually Johnny slowly got out of bed and moved aimlessly around the room, his bare feet padding on the wooden floor. At some point he realized his body was recovering fast, and although he was a little weak, he could walk just fine. Johnny considered going downstairs, but he wasn't up to facing the Doc's scrutiny and his wife's small talk. He settled in the upholstered chair by the window and dozed off now and then; the small, warm bedroom under the eaves had become his sanctuary.

During the long hours he was awake, Johnny re-read the newspaper article several times, trying hard to fight the inevitable tears that welled up every time he thought about his family members dying. He went over the whole thing in his mind, again and again, wondering what he could have done to change the outcome.

It was near dark when Johnny begrudgingly agreed to speak to the doctor. When the older man came in, Johnny was standing with his elbows on the windowsill, looking vacantly out the small window. There wasn't much to see, just a lot of leaves and a bit of the stable roof below. It was all very quiet and peaceful, with no hint that there was an unfair, cruel world beyond.

The Doc appeared surprised to see his patient up and about, but he didn't scold him. Good thing, because Johnny was in a fighting mood. For starters, he wanted his own clothes to wear, not some drafty gown. But first he had questions to ask. Johnny cleared his dry throat, picked up the newspaper scrap from the bureau and held it aloft. "You know any more about this fanatical faction that attacked Grant, or this. . .this Vernal Ward they mention?"

"I read that this fellow Ward was the head conspirator. He and his people are said to have acted violently against the government on many issues. This time they wanted to stop a bill that would have driven up the cost of feed sky high and the price of beef to drop," Weatherby offered tentatively. "I don't know much about that kind of thing as I'm not a rancher."

"It says Vernal Ward was killed," Johnny said, with a nod of satisfaction. It wasn't clear who had killed the fanatic, but he hoped the fatal shot came from Murdoch or Scott's gun. It would be a small revenge, but at least the man had not gotten away with his crimes. "What about the attack itself?" Johnny looked from the scrap of newspaper to the Doc's face.

"It was a terrible time," Weatherby uttered.

The older man was downcast, and Johnny was reminded that the whole country was still mourning the loss of their leader. Johnny didn't want to think about how the President's death affected the country, not now. His only concern was about what had happened to his own family. "It doesn't say how many there were or if they were all killed out at the ranch. Did any escape?"

"The sheriff. . ."

"Crawford," Johnny prompted.

"Yes, Crawford. He said there were survivors from the gang who attacked the President. They were secured in the jailhouse, but an angry mob broke them out. Lynched them all right there in town that very night."

So the townspeople had finished them off; there was nobody left to take revenge on. That was a pity. "Didn't the Secret Service know about these men and what they were capable of?" Johnny asked angrily.

"The government must have known of their existence, don't you think? It was a large group of political fanatics, a well-trained unit, so I heard. But there have been so many theories and rumors batted about it's hard to tell which are true, Johnny. There was even mention of someone inside the Lancer ranch giving information to them--." The Doc stopped in mid-sentence when Johnny threw a warning look his way.

Johnny lit the oil lamp on the bureau, took a seat in the comfortable chair and read aloud from the newspaper. "Rumors of conspiracy are rampant, among them the concern that the team of heartless killers who attacked the Lancer homestead were assisted by an unidentified person inside the ranch." Johnny sneered at the inference that anyone at Lancer would have given up such information, voluntarily or otherwise. "Someone's sure sniffin' up the wrong tree."

"I believe it was a well-planned attack, Johnny. I'm so sorry about your family, son. The whole thing is tragic. Killing innocent folks, all to assassinate one man. . ." Doc Weatherby's voice trailed off and he pressed a handkerchief to his mouth.

Johnny wondered why Fox and his men hadn't kept a sharp eye out for Ward and his fellow fanatics. The Secret Service must have known about their intention to murder the President or else they wouldn't have insisted on such strict safeguards, such as the secrecy over the route and other travel plans. But he had asked Fox, back at the meeting, if there was any cause to expect trouble, and the reply had been. . .that Johnny did not need to know. Anger surged up but he suppressed it as best he could. He asked, "Do you know if an agent called Fox was out at Lancer during this raid? Was he killed?"

Doc Weatherby shook his head. "I don't believe I have heard that name mentioned."

"If he ain't dead, he's sure gonna wish he was," Johnny growled. "I wonder if Ward and his men followed them to the ranch," he said in a low tone, really speaking to himself. The team of assassins couldn't have know that Grant was coming in by rail or they would have intercepted the President and his party on the road, where they were the most vulnerable. Johnny rubbed his forehead then glanced up to catch the Doc looking at him intently. He probably wonders why I'm asking such questions and what I intend to do. Bet he expected me to crawl into a hole and weep.

Doc Weatherby pulled up the hard, armless chair, sat down and mopped his brow with a large handkerchief. "If I was a betting man, I'd say these fanaticals kept an eye on the railways and roads. Though that would depend on whether they had enough men to do so."

"Or the Secret Service agents let the rattler outta the bag." Johnny pointed to the article. "Says here, "˜John Lancer, a known pistoleer is still missing at the present time and is being sought for questioning.'" Johnny shook his head. He guessed they would have been looking for some scapegoat. "Did anyone come looking for me? Any of the government men?"

Weatherby thought for a minute. "The other doctor, Jenkins, he said a couple of men came around and asked him questions. But by then we had identified you and it was obvious you were out cold at the time of the attack on the President, and it was concluded that you certainly were not involved in any conspiracy." Almost as an afterthought, the Doc added, "Everyone vouches for your character, young man. Otherwise Esther and I wouldn't have taken you in and tended to you like you were our own son."

"Like your son?" Johnny prompted.

But Dr. Weatherby, unlike his wife, was not willing to talk about his son, who had died for his country, fighting and dying in a faraway prison. The older man said brusquely, "My boy died a long time ago." He leaned forward and said urgently, "I think that you need to remember what you did before the stage accident, Johnny, and to place the events in a sequence that makes sense to you. If you don't, all of this information won't have any meaning for you. It will never be real and you won't be able to process your grief."

"We all grieve in our own way, Doc."

"But I'm still concerned that you can't remember stepping on the stage and heading for home. Loss of memory can harm its victim in insidious ways. It's as serious as a physical ailment and must be cured."

Johnny tried hard to remember but he couldn't envision anything he'd done since he'd collapsed in the hotel room. Suddenly, he was overcome by weariness, and his head had started throbbing fiercely again. The bedroom was stuffy and he'd had enough of talk. Johnny moved over to his bed and plopped down on it. Turning his face away from the watchful gaze of the doctor, he said in a subdued voice, "I can't think. I need to sleep now."

"Johnny, we need to talk this over now, while it's still fresh." But after a few moments, when it was obvious there was to be no reply Weatherby said, "All right. We can talk more tomorrow. I didn't realize how late it was. Esther will bring you up some supper. Don't worry, we'll sort this all out." He left quietly.

Once he was alone, some of Johnny's emotions fought their way to surface. He felt trapped in a nightmare, one that was playing itself backwards, in which he was supposed to know what was going on. With a huge chunk of time and some of his memory missing, he was caught in a limbo where nothing seemed quite real. He was lucky the old Doc and his wife had taken him in, and he was grateful for their consideration, but it wasn't the same as having his own family around him.

At times in the past when Johnny had been wounded and lying prone in his own bed at Lancer, he'd told Murdoch or Scott he was fine and could handle it. He'd always been secretly glad that they hadn't taken him at his word. Their quiet presence had meant the world to him.

But how had he repaid that loyalty and trust? By messing up. He hadn't done what he'd said he'd do, hadn't finished the job and taken confirmation of the plans back to Lancer. Johnny swore at himself for drinking with Brad and making himself sick on pulque. He must have had one hell of a headache the next morning. Sick to his stomach, too, after drinking the pulque. If he'd been alert he might have had some warning of the impending accident. Nobody would ever convince him otherwise.

But how was he going to get past this? How was he going to face that big, empty house? And he'd be living there all alone. . .that thought scared him more than anything. What was he going to do, he wondered, squeezing back the tears that threatened to spill down his cheeks. He mouthed a prayer, for all the good it would do, and wished fervently he could turn back time, just long enough to make things right.

Esther brought up a bowl of soup and convinced Johnny to drink some of it, but he couldn't stomach much of it and pushed it away. She pursed her lips and said, "You'll do yourself no good if you go on like this. You'd best do what the doctor says. That's the only way to get better."

Johnny lay back and didn't reply, so the woman moved over to the lamp and said, "I'll turn this off or there'll be more bugs in here than we'll know what to do with." She said good night and left.

He rolled onto his side and listened to the bugs searching for the light they'd been deprived of, hitting the walls blindly. Stupid, pointless, looking for something that isn't even there. Johnny pictured going back to Lancer, stepping across the tiled verandah, opening the big front door and walking into the hacienda's great room.

He called out a greeting but the only response was the echo of his own voice. Murdoch was not sitting behind his desk doing his papers, nor was Scott reclining on the settee in front of the fire, with his nose buried in a book. They were gone. . . gone and never coming back. Johnny's heart hurt so much his hands went to his chest in a futile effort to stop the pain. Despite his best efforts, tears spilled out of his squeezed-shut eyes. Eventually he fell into an uneasy sleep.

Sometime in the night he heard voices quarreling, but they stopped before he fully awoke. Just the Doc and his nephew, Johnny thought, as he fell asleep once more.

***

In that second between sleep and wakefulness, man becomes aware of his surroundings. Imperceptible shifts in light and sound determine time and sound triggers memories. Within that excruciatingly short amount of time something shifts and man goes from being a vulnerable, mindless creature to a human with the power of thought and choice and comprehension of the world around him. But not so with Johnny Lancer. Not on that bright, warm morning. Something was so terribly out of kilter in his life - in his immediate sphere - that it set everything else askew.

***

Johnny was stiff when he first woke up, but as he moved and eventually sat upright, he felt a lot better than on the previous day. There was hardly any pain in his head, which was a big relief. Johnny marveled at the resilience of his body, and when Esther came in bearing a breakfast tray, he told her he was famished.

For some reason, the older lady looked a bit out of sorts. Her hair was straggling out of her normally neat bun, and the apron tied around her waist looked like it could do with a wash. Johnny wondered how the little woman, for she was quite slight, had managed to care for him while he was unconscious. He turned his attention to the food, flapjacks and strawberries, with bacon strips on the side, and ate so quickly he was scolded for it.

"You'll just make yourself sick," Esther said with a smile. She left but came back within minutes lugging a bucket half full of water. "Time you had a good wash, young man."

"I can do it myself, Ma'am."

"Hmm. And do you think you can shave yourself, too?" She placed a shaving kit on the table by Johnny's bed and pulled a basin out of the bottom drawer.

"Been doing it all on my own for some years now, Mrs. Weatherby," Johnny said with a slight smile. "I want to get dressed. You've got my clothes? And my gun?"

She reached over and chucked him under the chin. "It's good to see you smile, Johnny. And you call me Esther. We're like old friends by now, aren't we? We'll ask Doc if you can get dressed today."

Johnny sat on the edge of the bed and took the bar of soap and a washcloth from Esther. He needed to remove the nightshirt in order to wash properly, but hesitated to do so in front of the woman. She was moving around on the other side of the small bedroom, opening the window wide, and asking, "Is your poor head a bit better now? I could see how sensitive you were to the light at first. Comes with having your eyes closed for so many days." She turned to look at him and said, "You know, if you want to tell me how you came to be in this stagecoach accident, well, I'm known to be a good listener, even if I talk a lot, too."

Johnny hung his head and shook it slightly. " I. . .I don't want to. . .there isn't anything to tell, Ma'am." He glanced up at the woman. With the sunlight behind her, he couldn't see her face clearly, but he had the impression she was scowling at him. Then Johnny blinked and Esther was standing close by, reaching one small hand out to ruffle his hair. It was odd, like time had jerked and something important had been obliterated.

"Come on, young man, you can tell Esther about it. It'll be our secret." Her hand dropped to the back of Johnny's neck and she rubbed it gently. "My boy used to tell me things he'd never tell his father. He was scared to go off to war, you see, but I helped him understand it was his duty. I sent him off to his death," she said with a thin smile that was more of a grimace. "Isn't that a terrible burden to bear? Now you know."

Johnny sensed a deep sadness in Esther and his heart went out to her. Taking her hand in his, he said sympathetically, "I'm sorry, Esther."

"Oh, don't worry your head over me. I can live with any burden God gives me. You know, when you were sleeping like a babe for so long, I took care of you like you were my own boy. Gus and I sure miss having our son around, and if you want to stay on here for a bit, we'll be sure glad of it, Johnny."

Johnny smiled. "I appreciate that, Ma'am. I guess I was lucky that you took me in."

"What brought you to Atwater in the first place?"

She smiled down at him and Johnny was encouraged to say, "I came to Atwater to talk to some men, to confirm some plans we'd made."

"Plans?"

"We were expecting an important guest. Murdoch was really looking forward to it." Johnny hesitated for a minute then drew in a deep breath. "I had to get back to Lancer but I never made it. I should've ridden my horse instead of takin' the stage. Maybe then everything would've been different."

"Oh," she exclaimed with a hand to her mouth. "You mean President Grant, don't you? He was visiting your home? Such a pity. A terrible tragedy. Your poor family. One thing is I'm glad that you weren't there, Johnny."

There was some noise outside, and although it had been going on for several minutes, it had taken a time for Johnny to realize he was hearing the doctor talking to another man out in the yard. He sat up straight and slung his legs over the side of the bed, preparing to rise. "Who's that?" he asked eagerly. "Is that Sam Jenkins?" He suddenly needed to see his old friend, or anyone with a connection to his past.

But Esther quickly moved to the window and peered out. "No, that's just Gus down there, talking to his nephew." She turned back to Johnny and said brightly, "He does some handyman work around the place. We can't do it all ourselves any more. Gettin' too old."

More disappointed than he could say, Johnny looked dejectedly down at his bare feet. "Maybe we'll get a telegram back today," he said hopefully. "I could sure do with a visitor."

"Oh, dear boy, of course you want to see your old friends. I'll ask my husband about the telegrams and he can get onto that boy at the telegraph office to make sure the wires went through. How would that be? But you were going to meet President Grant somewhere?"

"I was gonna go home first," Johnny responded absently. He wondered if Murdoch and Scott, along with their best vaqueros, had met Grant and his party on schedule at the train. They must have made it back to Lancer safely if the assassins attacked the hacienda. Or they might have been caught on the open road and ridden like hell for the safety of the ranch. But somehow those men had breached the security and mounted an assault on the Lancer hacienda. It looked like they had made a mistake using only a small number of guards. They should have enlisted the aid of the troops at the fort, like Scott had wanted.

"Johnny?"

Johnny looked up from his reverie. "Oh, yeah. Our job was to make sure our visitor was safe." He sat dejectedly, looking at the bar of soap in his hand. "Can you leave me alone now, Ma'am, so I can get cleaned up?"

"All right, if you say so," Esther said reluctantly. "We can talk more later ."

*** *** ***

Chapter 6

Trigger Guard ~ A loop surrounding the trigger of a firearm and protecting it from accidental discharge.

Johnny shaved himself using an old shaving kit that must have belonged to the Weatherby's son. The process took him longer than usual and if he missed some stubble, he didn't much care. When he was more or less done, Johnny removed his nightshirt then washed his chest and armpits. While he dried off he thought that although Esther was a real nice lady, he really didn't want to talk about his mission, especially as he'd messed up by not completing his part. At a knock on the door he called, "Yeah?" and when the it opened, the Doc peered in.

Smiling broadly, Doc Weatherby said jovially, "Good news, my boy. Can I come in?"

Johnny pulled the nightshirt over his head again and sat on the bed. "Sure. How about finding me somethin' else to wear, Doc? You still have my clothes?"

"Of course, of course. They're in here." The Doc pulled open a drawer, withdrew Johnny's garments but laid them on top of the bureau instead of handing them to his patient. He located Johnny's boots behind the door and pulled them out.

"So what's the good news?" Any news would be good compared to what he'd read in the newspaper the Doc had saved to show him.

Rubbing his hands together, Weatherby said, "Your doctor friend, Jenkins, has sent a message that he's coming up here tomorrow."

"He is?" Johnny didn't want to appear ungrateful to Weatherby and his wife, but he yearned to see Sam, or any familiar face. It felt like it had been a very long time since he'd been with his own people. "Can I see the telegram?"

The Doc stood still for a couple of seconds, then pulled the chair over so he could sit at Johnny's bedside. "Well, he didn't wire me back. He sent a message through a mutual friend, you see."

"Your nephew?" Johnny glanced towards the window, remembering the quarrel of the previous night. He wondered what it had been about.

"My nephew? Oh, yes, word of mouth is still a good means of communication. Better than those telegrams. I'm an old-fashioned fellow at heart," Doc said with a laugh. He lightly patted Johnny on the knee. "Now you have something to look forward to, Johnny."

"You think maybe your nephew could ride over to Green River and tell Val I need to see him?"

Weatherby raised his eyebrows, leaned back and said slowly, "The sheriff, you mean? Yes, I suppose he could. I will ask him but I did send a wire. It could be that the sheriff is occupied with his duties and can't get away."

He sounded like he was rebuking Johnny for taking the sheriff away from his job. Johnny thought that Weatherby didn't understand Val Crawford at all. He was a friend like no other. "He'd come right off," Johnny insisted. He was getting anxious and wondered what was keeping Val. The sheriff should have either replied by telegram or ridden right over by now. "I can pay your nephew," Johnny suggested, but then he wondered if he still had any of the cash on him he'd had back in Atwater. He should have had plenty left over once he'd paid the hotel bill.

Johnny rose and went over to his pile of clothing on the bureau. He found his wallet on top of his folded pants, and inside was about the right amount of cash he expected. With his back to the Doc, he stood there for a minute, touching his clothing, feeling more than just the familiar cloth. Funny how something so simple took him right back home. He pulled on his pants and hiked the nightshirt in order to do them up. They were a bit loose, but felt familiar, which was just what he needed right then.

Then, without warning, the hairs on the back of Johnny's neck raised. His shoulders tensed. He was being watched, and his instinct was to pivot and go for his gun. But his holster was not on the bureau, and nowhere in sight. He peered out of the corner of his eye at the Doc then slowly turned to face him. The older man was sitting in the straight-back chair, his hands resting on his knees, a quizzical expression on his face. There was nothing there to cause alarm and Johnny felt heat rising up his neck. Whatever had come over him to feel like he was being studied? Johnny cleared his throat. "My gun and saddlebags? You got them somewhere?"

"Your gun is downstairs, safe." The Doc frowned with concern. "Are you all right? You look like you need to sit down, my boy."

After a moment Johnny returned to the bed and sat facing the doctor. "Can I ask how you've been paid for keeping me, takin' care of me, all this time?"

"Of course. There was a lawyer assigned to keep an eye on your finances, as I understand, and he sends me money to cover my fees every month. A Mr. Trumbull out of San Francisco."

"I don't know that name. A lawyer, you say?" It hit Johnny that he was the sole owner of Lancer now, and the realization had a very bitter taste to it. Just because no boss was present didn't mean everything at the Lancer spread ground to a halt. There was still stock to care for and a hundred everyday jobs to do, even if only to keep it functioning at the bare minimum. Was Cipriano alive to run things? Were any of the hands still working or had the cattle been rustled with nobody watching over them, he wondered. There was too much to think about and he didn't want to deal with any of it right now. He couldn't get the picture of his father and Scott being shot down out of his mind, even when he closed his eyes.

"Mr. Trumbull is acting as a sort of overseer of your property, but of course now all that will change, as you'll be able to handle your own affairs." After a moment, Doc Weatherby said gently, "I know it will be very hard for you to go back to your family's ranch, Johnny. I believe I should accompany you, for moral support."

Johnny bowed his head and looked at his hands. "I have to get back there as soon as I can, but I. . .I don't think I'm ready."

"Of course you're not ready, my boy. You have only been awake for a couple of days, and you haven't processed your family's tragic deaths yet. It will all take time, but as I said, you need to talk this through in order to face it."

Johnny's head came up and he sent a hard look at the doctor. "I've faced worse, Doc. I know all about death, believe me."

"But not the senseless killing of people so close to you, surely? As well as the deaths of so many people you knew, all at the same time. Men working for you have been killed as well as your father and brother, and Mr. Lancer's ward. My blood boils to think of a girl getting cut down in such a way. It's criminal, that's what it is." The Doc briefly laid a hand on Johnny's arm. "You were close to your brother." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah. We were close. Like the best of friends." Johnny raised his hand to his mouth but shook off the despair that threatened to overwhelm him. "Scott is a. . .was a good man."

"You owe it to his memory to make sure that these miscreants don't ruin your life as well, Johnny. Some men's criminal actions have longstanding repercussions. Even if they're killed, their victims suffer for many years."

"Like you still being upset over your son's death?" Johnny asked tentatively.

The Doc's face crumpled, but he rubbed a hand over his mouth and said gruffly, "My son died in the hands of strangers." He then looked sharply at the young man sitting across from him. "But you, my boy, you need to face your past if you're to move ahead."

"I just can't. . .can't seem to get myself on even ground." Johnny leaned forward, his arms wrapped around his stomach. "It's like one of those games where you're blindfolded and turned in circles, and when you're released you've got no sense of which way to go. Do you have any idea what it's like waking up and finding everything's been stolen from you? My family is gone! I lost four months, Doc. Four months! I need to get that time back."

"Then start right here, at the beginning." Doc Weatherby laid one of his big hands on top of Johnny's. "I'll work through this with you. By the time your doctor arrives tomorrow you'll be better prepared to hear whatever he has to say. And maybe you'll be well enough to leave a day or so after that."

Johnny's head came up. "Maybe go back with Sam? Yeah, I can do that." But then he thought of how he'd messed up, somehow getting caught in an accident and never making it back to Lancer. He'd intended to ride home on horseback, he was sure. So why had he traveled by stage?

Deep in thought, Johnny ran his hands slowly along his thighs and touched the familiar brass conchos on his pants. A feeling of deep remorse swept over him and cast him into such melancholy he couldn't raise his head when Doc Weatherby tried to elicit a response from him.

The Doc touched his shoulder, just to give him comfort, to let Johnny know that there was someone left in the world who cared about him. But Johnny couldn't bear the touch of another human being and he shrugged off the hand. He closed his eyes and wished the man would just go away. The Doc meant well, but his presence was suffocating.

"Johnny, you need to talk about this."

"I thought I could, but I can't. I can't," Johnny said in a quavering voice. "Go away." He lay back on the bed and refused to say anything else.

Doc Weatherby said with lightly disguised censure, "I am only trying to help you, son. I'll check on you later." He quietly left the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

***

It took Johnny all day to pull himself out of his black mood. When he rose at one point he finished dressing in his worn red shirt and cast the nightshirt aside. He didn't think that talking about anything would do him any good, but apparently the Doc thought different. Esther brought him up some lunch, which he didn't touch, but when she tentatively offered him some stew late in the afternoon, Johnny forced himself to eat it under her watchful eye.

It was about an hour after his meal that Johnny felt like he would be able to talk to Doc Weatherby. His anger and self-condemnation had eased somewhat; all the fight had gone out of him.

When Weatherby cautiously came upstairs, Johnny made a slight motion to bid him to enter. He didn't want to be a disappointment to Doc after everything he'd done for him.

"Are you feeling more agreeable?" Weatherby asked.

Johnny just felt worn out and wanted to get it over with. He gave a half-smile. "Sure."

"We can set this right, son. How about you sit over here where it's comfortable?" Doc guided Johnny over to the chair by the window and pulled his own seat over until he was facing his patient. "Now start from the beginning."

Johnny took a deep breath and began.

***

"So this Mr. Fox and the two men with him questioned me about the route," Johnny said in explanation. "The thing is , I thought that was the best way to take them in the first place, but my father and brother thought that riding the longer, more open road was safer. You have to understand that the Chamisal Pass ain't for the faint-hearted, plus it would only take half the time to get from the railhead to the hacienda. If there were a few good men posted up high, they'd have the whole trail in their sights. So when Fox said that was the way we'd be taking the President and his party, I had no quarrel with it."

"It seems as if this Mr. Fox took your hard-earned plans and simply swept them aside. He sounds like the perfect man to represent Ulysses Grant. Did you know that back in '64, when General Grant suspended the exchange of prisoners-of-war, Booth concocted a plot to kidnap him? It never came about, but it shows you what lengths some men will go to. Missed Grant again at Ford's Theatre when he assassinated our President Lincoln, though. It's common knowledge that Grant protects his own and ignores the corruption amongst his top aides. Yes, this Fox sounds like he and Grant are alike. They're men in positions of power who just plow ahead and ensure they get their own way, regardless of the cost to innocent lives. And were there other changes to your plans?"

Johnny gave a huff of breath and shook his head. "Yeah, Fox seemed like the kind of man used to getting his own way, no matter who stood in it."

Weatherby leaned back casually. "So when Grant came in by train," he prompted, "it must have caused quite a stir in town."

"It wasn't at the main station. They rigged up a special railway car for him and ran it down a side spur to the railhead. The end of the line," Johnny explained. "We use it for loading cattle to get them to market. I drew up a map for Fox and after I burned it, the meeting ended and I left." It seemed such a long time ago now. "Did they mention the railway in the newspaper reports?"

"There were very few details about how Grant came to California. They keep things like that close to their chest, especially when someone blunders and the President gets killed." Weatherby leaned back and crossed his arms. "So you left the meeting and returned to the hotel. You said you went down to the saloon?"

"Yeah, I met a young fellow, a rancher from. .   ." He pictured shaking hands with the man who had rescued his supper from the overworked waitress. The man had introduced himself. /"˜Name's Bradley Trader. Out of Sacramento.' / "He said he was from Sacramento. We ate, talked about Texas and Mexico some, and we drank a jug of pulque the bartender had on hand."

"What is this pull-kay?"

"Pool-keh," Johnny corrected. "It's fermented agave. Most folks who haven't been brought up with it don't like it. Real sour. It's called "˜milk of our Mother.' You drink it at wakes and on the Day of the Dead. It's used in ceremonies to tie the dead to the living." Johnny wondered about the significance of that. He wasn't overly superstitious but it was enough to make a man wonder.

The Doc was looking closely at him so Johnny said offhandedly, "If you believe that kinda thing, like Friday the thirteenth being an unlucky day. I don't know who brewed it, but it was bad, "˜ cause I got drunk on it and my head felt like it was this big." He held his hands out wide. "I remember Brad giving me a hand up to my room, but then. . .he left and I fell asleep." Johnny met the Doc's eyes apologetically. "That's the last thing I can remember."

"Hmmm. Often, with a blow to the head such as you had, a period of time prior to the accident is obliterated from the memory. The trick is giving your memory the jog it needs to recover it. Try picturing yourself going down to the desk the next morning to pay your bill."

Frustrated, Johnny said testily, "I don't remember goin' down. I told you I can't recall anything." It was too warm in the small bedroom and he needed a drink of water. "Look Doc--."

"Please, sit back and relax, Johnny." He waited until Johnny complied to continue. "Tell me what you think you would have done. Step by step," the Doc suggested in a slow, even tone. "It might trigger those hidden memories."

Johnny sighed and played along. "All right. I guess I would have paid up at the front desk, then walked a coupla blocks down to the stage depot. Maybe picked up some food to take on the stage "˜cause you never know when they're gonna stop." That particular stage had sure stopped unexpectedly, he thought wryly.

Weatherby prompted, "Close your eyes and let it flow over you. Relax. Picture it. You're on the stage, heading home."

Johnny closed his eyes. He imagined the stage heading down the road, taking him back towards Lancer.

The Doc asked quietly, "Just relax and think of the stage swaying back and forth, rocking gently, ever so gently. You're tired now. Your whole body is so heavy you can't move a muscle, no matter how hard you try. Just go to sleep. That's it. Now tell me, can see it happening?

Johnny felt very sleepy indeed. His arms were heavy, and his shoulders slumped as his body relaxed. It took great effort to speak, but he said in a low voice, "Yeah. Yeah, I can see it."

"And the stage's axle broke," Doc said evenly. "The stagecoach is out of control. It lurches to one side."

Johnny pictured the stagecoach barreling along, the passengers jostling elbows and hips in the uncomfortable conveyance. But the stage suddenly lurched to one side, and the passengers were thrown around when the vehicle careened off the road and into the ravine. "The stage sorta falls on its side, but it keeps going." He wanted to reach out to steady himself but he couldn't move his arms. Johnny was alarmed but there was nothing he could do.

"The driver is thrown off his seat. Everyone inside is scared. Tell me what you see, Johnny."

Johnny's heart accelerated at the thought of the out-of-control stage crashing. "It heads for the edge of the road. The people are falling all over me, screamin'. It drops down into the ravine. Crashes on its side. Someone's cryin'. My head hurts."

"That's right, Johnny. Your head hurts because you hit it when the stage crashed."

"When it crashed."

"People came and pulled you out, up to the road. They took care of you. They put you in a wagon and brought you here, to my house."

"A wagon. It was dark." Johnny swayed a little, frowning at the memory. He could see lights above him as he was carried along on a stretcher. "Carried me upstairs."

"That's what happened, Johnny. You were brought here. You have to get home, but you're hurt."

"Gotta get home." Worry coursed through Johnny but he couldn't move. "I'm gonna be late. What day is it?"

"It is Wednesday, June eleventh. There isn't much time."

"Have to get to Lancer."

"But you're hurt, Johnny. Your arms and legs are so heavy you can't possibly get home."

Johnny tried to raise his arms, but he couldn't even move his fingers. "No. . .I can't move."

"The President is coming. If you don't get home, people will be hurt . . killed . But I can take the message to them for you."

"I hafta do it myself. They're countin' on me," Johnny muttered.

"Your father and brother will be hurt, even die, if you don't tell me what to say."

"No, they can't die," he whispered. "It was all my fault."

"They haven't died yet, but there is so little time. It's urgent. Tell me and I will get the message to them. You're too weak to make it on your own. Trust me. You know you can trust me, Johnny."

Something told Johnny he had to trust the Doc. He was a good man. He'd cared for him, tended to him for four months now. He was a good man. "Tell my father. . . tell Scott. . .   I'm comin' home."

"I'll tell them. What day are they arriving?"

"Same day we planned on."

"What is the date, Johnny?" the Doc asked.

"The train's coming in at five on the thirteenth."

"The thirteenth of June?" Weatherby questioned insistently.

"Yeah. Friday the thirteenth. Meeting Grant and . . ." He stopped. He couldn't say the name. Something was shouting at him not to speak aloud, but the thought of Scott being killed overrode his last remaining vestige of caution.

"Go ahead, meeting Grant and who else?"

Johnny swallowed. His head was so heavy it dropped down so his chin was touching his chest.

Doc Weatherby questioned, "President Grant and who else?"

*** *** ***

Chapter 7

Ammunition
1.  the material fired, scattered, dropped, or detonated from any weapon, as bombs or rockets, and esp. shot, shrapnel, bullets, or shells fired by guns.
2.  the means of igniting or exploding such material, as primers, fuses, and gunpowder.
3.  any material, means, weapons, etc., used in any conflict: a crude ammunition of stones.
4.  information , advice, or supplies to help defend or attack a viewpoint, argument, or claim.

Johnny frowned but didn't open his eyes. Boy, the Doc was being persistent. He sounded excited, but sorta brusque at the same time. "He's bringing one of his sons, the Harvard kid." Johnny smiled, his eyes still closed. "Harvard, just like Scott."

Doc Weatherby's breath whistled between his teeth. "His son Ulysses? And how will Grant's men know you're who you say you are? How do you identify yourself, Johnny?"

"Gotta say the right word."

"Tell me the word to use, Johnny, or else I can't save your father and brother."

Johnny slowly shook his head from side to side. "I can't. It's a secret."

"But if you don't tell me, your brother Scott is going to die."

Johnny moaned. "No. . . "

  "You have to tell me, Johnny, or he'll be all alone, slowly dying, in so much pain. . ."

"No! Trigger," Johnny mumbled. "The word is trigger."

Doc Weatherby let out a satisfied sound. He patted Johnny on the leg. "Good boy. You rest now, and soon Esther will bring you up a drink of cool lemonade. And she'll have some medicine for you to take. Just something to make you strong so that tomorrow, when your friend comes for you, you'll be ready to go home with him. You want to go home, don't you? I want you to cooperate with Esther, all right? We don't want to hurt her feelings, do we?"

"Okay." With great effort, Johnny tried to raise his head but it lolled back on the chair. He was able to open his eyes just enough to watch the Doc leave the bedroom. The older man stood in the open doorway for a moment, just taking a long look at him, like it was for the last time, then he was gone.

Everything was quiet for some time. A fly flew around the stuffy room, repeatedly striking a windowpane and buzzing angrily. Down below in the stable a horse nickered, then the sound of men's voices drifted up. Johnny couldn't make out much of what was being said, but the tone was angry.

A man's voice suddenly asked loudly, "Did you get it?"

"Yes," said Doc. "Let's go. We're not going to make it!" His voice was deeper than the other man's and his words were clear.

The man's reply was muffled, and all Johnny could understand was, ""”take care of him? I tell you I don't trust Esther."

"It won't be done until we know the information is correct. I told Esther not to do anything rash." There was a low reply from the other man, then Doc said angrily, "I told you my way was best. Let's go. We're going to miss the rendezvous."

Within minutes, two horses had ridden out. As soon as they were out of the yard, the tempo of their hoofbeats increased then faded into the distance. Everything was quiet once again. Johnny tried to make sense of what he'd heard but in the end he succumbed to an uneasy sleep. He dreamed of sitting in the dining table at Lancer with the family. They were eating a feast and although he was trying to tell them something urgent, nobody would listen.

***

Johnny awoke suddenly. He was parched and couldn't wait any longer for Esther to bring him the lemonade, as promised. Despite telling himself to get up, his body didn't seem to want to respond. Knowing he had to rise and find something to drink, Johnny took several deep breaths and after a while the heavy feeling that anchored him to the chair melted away. When he stood and took the several steps over to water jug sitting on bedside table, he staggered, then got a grip on himself.

There was only a little water remaining in the jug, but Johnny poured it into a glass and drank it down greedily. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and leaned against the table, wondering what had come over him. There was a bitter taste on his tongue and suddenly he was suspicious. His head was like cotton wool yet Johnny knew that something wrong had been going on.

He knew the Doc had been asking him questions "“ questions whose answers were no longer secret. But even so, he had a bad feeling that he shouldn't have responded. Hell, at this point what did any of it matter, anyway? It wasn't like there were any beans to spill so long after the whole thing was over.

Johnny was still walking around in his bare feet. He found his socks tucked inside his boots and sat on the bed to put them on. When he tugged on a sock over his left foot, there was a sudden, sharp needle of pain in the sole.

He dropped the sock and pulled his left foot up to inspect it. There was a slight cut near his toes, hardly visible. For several moments, Johnny just sat there, looking at his foot. How could he get a cut when he'd been lying in bed most of the time? Well, he had been walking around barefoot and the old floorboards in the bedroom were sort of rough. Maybe he just hadn't realized he'd stepped on something. Johnny rubbed around the small wound with his finger. It looked a lot like it had started to heal. It was barely visible, but when he'd just put his weight on it, the edges must have parted a little. He shrugged it off, thinking he'd live.

Out of the blue, Johnny remembered Scott saying, "There, I think you'll live," after he'd brought over some salve for the small cut. For a split second, Johnny was taken back to the kitchen at Lancer. His brother had dropped a mug of hot milk. He'd cut his bare foot on a shard of broken pottery. But. . .but that was four months ago.

***

He must have sat there for several minutes, staring blankly at the floor before something told him to get a move on. Finally Johnny pulled on his socks, then his boots. His own clothes made him feel more like himself. Now all he needed was his gun, his hat and he'd be more than ready for the long-delayed visit of Dr. Sam Jenkins. When Johnny stood, something crunched under one boot heel. He glanced down and saw he'd stepped on a large black bug. It was one of the big suckers that had been hitting the walls the previous night after the lamp had been doused. He leaned over to look at it more closely. That's funny. No, it can't be. . .but. . .No mistake, it was a June bug.

But this was October. It was real late for a June bug to be around, but then it was uncommonly warm, Johnny reasoned. He looked up at the tree outside the window, its leaves rustling dryly in the slight breeze. There were still leaves on the tree. In October.

Things weren't adding up. Esther had fed him strawberries on his flapjacks. Strawberries weren't in season this time of year. She could have canned them, maybe. But they seemed fresh. Fresh as they'd be in mid-June.

June? No, it wasn't possible. He'd been unconscious for four long months. He'd seen the newspaper, heard about his family being cut down by the assassins who had targeted President Grant. His fingers touched the brass conchos on his pants. Doc said they'd brought his belongings from his hotel room - how was that possible when he'd been on the stage, on the road home? That couldn't be right - Doc must have been mistaken.

Johnny looked around the small bedroom. He'd been lying here for a long time and the Doc and his wife had taken care of him, like he was their own son. Sam Jenkins had come out and so had Val, back when he was unconscious. Hadn't they? Johnny ran a hand over his face. That's what Doc Weatherby had said. Doc wouldn't lie. Not about something like that. Why would he lie? No, the Doc was a good man. He had to be.

Johnny looked out the window, but he didn't see the view. His mind was racing, going over everything he remembered. The stagecoach accident. He remembered it, sure he did. It crashed in a ravine. . . there were screams. . .he'd hurt his head. Unconsciously, Johnny raised one hand to his head, then it dropped back to his side.

But Doc had shown him the newspaper. It said, right there, in black and white in the Sacramento Clarion that President Ulysses S. Grant had been murdered by a group of fanatical assassins. Murdoch and Scott, and Teresa, along with others, were killed when the Lancer ranch was attacked. Johnny grabbed the scrap of newspaper off the bureau and looked for the date.

It was torn off, but he had assumed it was published a short time after the killings on Friday the thirteenth because Doc Weatherby had told him so. Johnny skimmed over the small type again, even though he knew it by heart from repeated readings. There wasn't anything in the article itself that mentioned the date or anything specific or, more importantly, that President Grant's son was among the visitors to Lancer. Maybe the young man hadn't come with his father on the trip after all, he reasoned. Maybe. . .

Johnny took a step forward and there came a slight pain on the sole of his foot - a reminder that the old cut on his foot still felt fresh. His gaze dropped to his booted feet. When he wiggled his toes of his left foot, he could feel the sharp pain of the cut . . .the cut that was in the same location as the wound he'd suffered from stepping on that piece of broken mug, four months ago.

His heart missed a beat. It wasn't possible. It couldn't all be one big lie!

But if it was all a lie - that meant the stagecoach accident had never happened, it wasn't October now, and Grant had never been assassinated! Maybe his father and Scott weren't dead after all! Or maybe he was just stark raving mad, and the blow to his head had caused hallucinations. But he didn't think he was crazy. If there was even a chance they were still alive. . . Johnny's heart jumped at the thought that his family could be alive, but he sat down heavily in the chair when he finally accepted that he had been duped. Thoroughly duped. "Oh shit! Dios!" He'd told Doc everything. Everything!

Torn between joy that his family could still be alive and anger that Doc Weatherby had taken him for a sucker, and fear over what the Doc and his nephew were planning, Johnny shoved the newspaper scrap in his pocket and headed for the door. His hand was on the latch when he heard Esther coming slowly up the stairs.

***

When Esther entered the small bedroom under the eaves she was surprised to find Johnny dressed and standing in the middle of the room with his back to her. "I brought you some nice, cool lemonade, my dear. Gus said you and he had such a nice talk."

Johnny pivoted slowly once he was sure his face was unreadable.

Esther held out the glass and asked cautiously, "Are you upset about something, Johnny?"

Johnny looked at her for a moment without expression, but then slowly smiled. "I'm fine, Ma'am. That drink's for me?"

Relieved, she returned the smile with a small one of her own, and indicated he should be seated. Esther offered Johnny the glass in one hand, and opened her other hand to show two small white tablets nestling in her palm. "Now, you must take these. I made them special for you. They're to make you strong."

Johnny hesitated for a second, then sat in the comfortable chair and accepted both the drink and the pills. He grinned, then popped the pills into his mouth and took a drink of the lemonade. "That's good. Thanks, ma'am."

Esther peered at him for a moment, then nodded to herself and wiped her hands on her apron. "I'll just leave you for a bit. I have some things to finish up downstairs, but I'll be back to check on you shortly. Just to see how you're getting on, son."

Johnny replied, "Mmmm," and rested his head on the high back of the chair. She hovered indecisively for a few moments, but when Johnny closed his eyes the woman retreated and quietly pulled the door shut behind her.

The minute the sound of Esther's footsteps informed Johnny that she had reached the bottom of the stairs he leaned forward and spat out the pills. He took a big mouthful of the lemonade and ran it around his mouth then spat it out on the floor. He even picked up the towel and scrubbed his tongue and rinsed his mouth out again, damning Esther and Gus Weatherby with ever fiber of his being.

***

The old stairs creaked a bit but Esther was making enough noise in the kitchen that she never heard Johnny come up behind her. The older woman happened to turn just as he reached out to grab her. She jumped and gave a small scream of fright.

"Tell me what day this is," Johnny demanded as his hands clamped on her upper arms.

Esther squirmed and ordered, "Let me go, young man! This instant! How dare you--."

Johnny gripped her even tighter and scowled into her face. "Damn it, tell me what day it is!" He shook Esther roughly enough to cause her hair to come loose from its bun.

"Please, Johnny, think what you're doing, and me an old lady!" The only reaction she got out of Johnny was a tightening of his lips. Realizing she wasn't going to be able to cajole the angry man to release her, Esther cowered. "I can't! He will kill me!"

"He ain't gonna get a chance, old woman, cause I aim to do the job myself if you don't tell me what I need to know!" Johnny had such a firm hold on Esther that when she sagged with defeat, he ended up supporting most of her weight in his hands.

"It's Friday! Friday the thirteenth," she blurted.

"What month? Tell me, lady!"

"June. It's June!" She burst into tears and Johnny finally let her go.

The railhead and Lancer were half a day's hard ride to the south. It must be late afternoon, after five by now, and there wasn't much time; he'd never make it back to Lancer before midnight, even if he was able to get hold of a fast horse. When had Gus and the other man left? It must have been hours ago. Johnny swore at himself for having fallen asleep and wasted valuable time.

Esther rubbed her arms where Johnny had been gripping her. "Don't hurt me," she whimpered. "He made me do it. I never wanted to hurt you, Johnny, honest I didn't. It was the only way, he said. I had nothing to do with it!"

"You gave me those pills! What were you going to do, shoot me when I was unconscious?"

"No, no! I wouldn't harm a hair on your head, my dear. It was just a little something to make you sleep." Esther held out a shaky hand, asking for forgiveness, but it was ignored. "Gus wanted to keep you around in case he needed more information out of you. That's all. His nephew wanted to put you down yesterday, but Gus said he'd make you talk. He's good at making people tell him things. We'd never hurt you, Johnny."

So the nephew had wanted to put him down, shoot him like a rabid dog, had he? Johnny turned his head away from the sight of the cringing woman, trying to control the black anger that threatened to overcome him. Between gritted teeth, he demanded, "Do you have any idea, any idea what you people did to me? I thought--." He'd thought exactly what they had wanted him to think: that he had nobody else to turn to, that he could tell the kindly old Doc everything because it was all in the past, after all. What harm could possibly come from talking? My God!

Everything had been carefully orchestrated, and he had been a sucker, an almost willing victim. "Damn it, I trusted you people! I believed you!" Johnny knew he had to get out of the farmhouse and find his way to the nearest town, to Atwater. He'd locate the sheriff and tell him the story. But that would take time and he might not be believed. He hardly believed it himself. He'd have to send a telegraph to Val Crawford and he could ride out to Lancer to warn Murdoch that a team of assassins was on its way to kill President Grant. But what if Val wasn't in his office and didn't get the urgent wire?

Johnny ran a hand through his hair and walked up and down. "Where did the Doc go? He rode off with his nephew to rendezvous with some men?" Maybe he could intercept them if he hurried.

Esther shook her head, unwilling to co-operate any more, but when Johnny strode over to her, took hold of her arm and twisted it, she relented and squealed, "He didn't tell me!"

"Did he go to the ranch? To Lancer? Or to the railhead?"

"I don't know! I overheard him say something to Bradley about meeting the men a few miles from here and heading right to the ranch."

"Bradley? You mean. . .Bradley's his nephew?" For some reason that maddened Johnny more than almost anything else he'd discovered so far. The young man he'd befriended and had dinner and drinks with back in Atwater had been the one who'd started the whole damned mess in motion. "He put something in that pulque to knock me out, didn't he? Damn it!" Esther struggled until Johnny pinned her back against the kitchen counter. "This is your last chance to tell me the truth, lady." He demanded, "Who else is in on this? How many men are there? How do they plan to attack?"

Esther struck out at Johnny with her free hand. Her fist hit him on the nose, causing him to see stars. His eyes teared up, and the second he loosened his hold the small woman turned and came up with a revolver in her hand.

Johnny recognized the weapon as his own Colt and cautiously stepped back a pace. Where the heck did that come from? He saw Esther's large carpetbag was sitting on the kitchen counter behind her. He'd never considered she'd have a weapon, much less his own revolver.

Esther raised the gun to point at Johnny's chest. "It'll take a lot more than the likes of you to stop Bradley and my Gus," she snarled.

"It's just the two of them?" Maybe there was some hope.

"More like a dozen of the best fighting men from Bradley's old unit," she bragged. "You're a gullible fool, young man. You're nothing like the man we were told to expect - a gunhawk, tough and hard to break. Bradley has had his soldiers waiting for the right opportunity, and you've given us all the information we need." Her eyes narrowed. "I do believe you've outlived your usefulness, Johnny Lancer." Her finger tightened on the trigger.

*** *** ***

Chapter 8

Half cock ~ n . The position of the hammer of a firearm when it is raised halfway and locked by a catch so that the trigger cannot be pulled.

"If you aim to use that on me, old woman," Johnny warned with a tight smile, "you'd better cock it good because I don't keep a live one under the hammer. Only five bullets in it," he lied.

It only took a couple of seconds for the lady to glance down and pull back on the hammer, but the gun was heavy and her hands small and she had some difficulty with it.

Johnny slammed his hand down and clamped it over hers, stopping the hammer from retracting all the way. With a smooth motion he jerked his gun out of her hands and picked her up bodily. Esther screamed and caused a ruckus, but Johnny paid no attention to her cries. He dumped her unceremoniously in an empty, windowless pantry closet and shut the door on her. With a heavy kitchen chair jammed under the knob, there was no way she was going to get out on her own. Esther hammered on the door, begging for him to release her, but Johnny ignored her pleas.

He found his holster in her carpetbag and quickly strapped the gun belt around his hips, then glanced around the two downstairs rooms. Both the parlor and the bedroom looked like they hadn't even been inhabited, but he found his saddlebag and hat on the bare mattress. The whole house, Johnny now knew, had been a stage, and he and the Weatherbys, if that was their real name, were the principle players.

Wasting no more time, Johnny strode out the door and hurried to the stable at the back of the house. He threw open the big double doors, fervently hoping that the Doc and Bradley had left one horse behind, even if it was an old carriage nag. To Johnny's surprise and delight, there was a horse in the stable and it was his own palomino, his friend Barranca. "Mucho gracias, Dios," Johnny whispered. "Barranca, I never expected to see you here."   He clung to his horse's neck for a few moments and then laughed. Barranca, apparently just as happy to be reunited with his master, let out a soft nicker and stood still while Johnny quickly threw a saddle on his back. The days he'd spent in bed had taken a toll on him and his head was swimming a bit, but Johnny gritted his teeth and mounted his horse.

Within minutes he was urging his horse up the farm track and away from the house in which he'd been an unwitting prisoner for three long days. When Johnny came to the end of the lane and found a small road, he wheeled his mount around, trying to get his bearings. He didn't have any time to lose, but he had no clue which direction he had to take to get to Atwater. In the end he went by instinct and set off south at a fast pace.

They had covered only a few miles when Johnny spurred his horse up a hill to get a better view of the country. It took a while for Barranca to take him to the top, but when they finally halted at the highest point, Johnny caught his breath while he stood in the stirrups to look around. Below him was a shadowed valley with a small river meandering down its center, and way at the far end he could see the clustered buildings of a small town, its church tower rising in its center.

Johnny couldn't believe his eyes. The town down in the valley was not Atwater but Morro Coyo! Although he was positive he was right, he needed a minute to convince himself his mind wasn't playing tricks on him. The Weatherby's men must have secretly carried his unconscious body out of the Atwater Hotel, then taken him by wagon all the way to their farmhouse. They had even retrieved Barranca from the Green River livery. Johnny would have been blamed for being in cahoots with Bradley and his men, and when he disappeared the authorities would assume he'd headed for the border.

The Weatherbys and their snake of a nephew must have chosen a location close to Lancer in the hope of getting a opportunity to discover the details of the Lancers' plans for President Grant's visit. They sure had gone to a lot of trouble on the slim chance he'd give away some important information.

He'd been only a short distance from home all this time. Maybe it wasn't too late to warn his family! Hopeful for the first time in days, Johnny urged Barranca down the hill and headed in the direction of Lancer.

As he hurried along his head cleared up considerably and something Esther had said came back to him. /She said I was "˜nothing like the man we were told to expect.' That's what she said. Who told them what to expect? How did they know I'd be in Atwater to meet Fox and his cronies? Or that Murdoch was given the job of finding a ranch for President Grant to visit? Someone must have known what we were up to, or known enough to waylay me. Someone from Lancer? No, that's not possible ./

***

Something wasn't right at the Lancer hacienda. In the fading light of day it was clear that there were no ranch hands to be seen, no sign of life at all. There was no indication that Murdoch and Scott had already returned and had the President safe inside the hacienda. They would have been concerned about his absence, been cautious, taken further steps to ensure the safety of their guest. Now Johnny worried that Bradley Trader and his team of assassins had bushwhacked the President's party on the road somewhere between the railhead and the hacienda.

Johnny cautiously circled at a distance and approached the back of the house. He slowed Barranca down to a walk then reined in and tied his horse out of sight behind one of the outer buildings. Johnny edged around the side of the stucco garden wall, his eyes skimming the roofline of the house. If there were any guards posted up there, he couldn't see hide nor hair of them. If there were, he hoped they wouldn't shoot him on site.

Keeping down low, Johnny ran for the house, sticking to the deep shadows cast by the hacienda walls. The side door was not locked - that was not a good sign. After slipping in and quietly closing the door behind him, Johnny stood in the dim hall long enough for his heavy breathing to subside. Through the thick interior walls he thought he could hear the sound of voices in conversation, but when he took a few steps down the hall and poised outside the door that led to the kitchen, the house was deathly quiet.

Maybe he'd imagined hearing voices. Maybe there was nobody home because they were all dead. Maybe he'd been unconscious for those four months, just like the Doc had said and it really was October and his father and brother and Teresa were dead and buried out in the family plot. /No, you only lost three days, not four months. It was all a smokescreen. The Doc and his wife, they lied to you from the start. They lied! Just take it easy, easy! You have to warn them that Bradley and his men are planning an attack ./

Even though his common sense told him he had only been away for a short time, Johnny felt the icy fingers of uncertainty clutching at his heart. He was scared that he was about to find out that he really was alone in the world and that his family, everyone he had ever loved, were all gone forever. Johnny broke out into a cold sweat, convinced that months had indeed passed since he'd been in this house. It just felt like time had lurched forward and he was now awakening after being in limbo. What if they really were gone? Perhaps Doc Weatherby was exactly who he said he was, and the President had already been assassinated. Johnny wondered, what if he had not made it home in time to change those terrible events? The past and the future were all mixed up and he couldn't get it straight in his mind.

Johnny told himself he had to open that door in order to find out the truth. He took a deep breath, reached for the knob and slowly opened the door to the kitchen.

The kitchen was not only warm and bright, lit by the big overhead lamp, but there were signs that someone had been cooking up quite a feast. Pots and pans, pastry boards, utensils, jars of all sizes, meat and vegetables, and large china serving dishes were occupying every surface. The smell of the food was enough to make Johnny's mouth water.

He was standing in the middle of the kitchen, relieved beyond measure that the house was not empty after all, when a noise came from beyond the door that led towards the dining room. Someone was coming. Alarmed, Johnny ran to the oversized lamp that hung over the work counter and hurriedly doused it, throwing the kitchen into near darkness.

He flattened himself against the wall behind the door and drew his revolver. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he watched the door slowly open. As soon as a figure stepped into the kitchen, Johnny jumped forward and grabbed his victim around the neck. A large serving tray fell to the tile floor with a resounding clatter and it took Johnny only another second to identify the person he had in a chokehold. He immediately released the person he had been choking - Teresa - and steadied her while she recovered from the rough treatment. "Dios! I'm sorry, Teresa! Are you all right? I didn't mean to hurt you--."

With her hands to her sore throat, Teresa stared at him and gasped, "Johnny! You're back. . ." She coughed and Johnny started to apologize again, but she grasped his arm and managed to say, "Everyone's been wondering. . . where you were, Johnny? We thought the worst!"

Johnny quickly drew the girl in his arms and held on to her, his eyes closing tightly. Such an immense sense of relief washed over him that he couldn't even speak. The door swung open and Scott appeared with his gun drawn. Alarm immediately turned into astonishment. The wide-eyed look on Scott's face was enough to tell Johnny that his brother's feelings mirrored his own.

Scott asked with a grin, "Damn it, Johnny, where the hell have you been?" He glanced down at the tray that Teresa had dropped. "I can see," he said dryly, "you're begging to be shot by one of the Secret Service men."

Johnny released Teresa and smiled ruefully. "Yeah, well I'm here now. Been sorta tied up." Then he grew serious. "Murdoch, is he. . . is he all right?"

"He's fine. He's in there, with our guests." Scott laid a hand on Johnny's arm in concern. "You want to tell me what's going on?"

Johnny swallowed hard and shook his head. "No time. Grant's in danger."

At that moment Maria bustled in carrying a tray of dishes, with none other than Mr. Fox right behind her. Fox must have heard Johnny's last words because he scanned the dark kitchen and asked brusquely, "What's going on in here? Who said Grant's in danger?"

Maria greeted Johnny in Spanish and bustled over to put her dishes down. She relit the lamp, muttering under her breath and casting glances of derision in Fox's direction. Teresa moved to the older woman's side but didn't take her eyes off the trio of men.

Fox looked Johnny up and down, frowning. "Where have you been, Lancer?"

Johnny had a hard time refraining from punching Fox in the face. Instead he stood only inches from the shorter man and growled, "You forgot to tell me something, Fox. Like about the team of assassins out to get the President?"

For a few seconds, it looked as though Fox was going to deny that he knew what Johnny was talking about, but then he took a deep breath and admitted, "We have been keeping an eye on some suspicious characters, but they present no danger. Nobody knows the President is here. My men haven't seen anything amiss."

"Then their eyesight must be mighty poor." Johnny turned to his brother. "We need to alert our men. Trouble's comin'. Maybe a dozen men are heading this way." He looked at Fox coldly. "I have to talk to Grant. Is he in there?"

Fox blustered, "You just waltz in here after being missing for three days and you think I'm going to let you anywhere near the President?" He prodded Johnny's chest with two fingers to emphasize his words. "Not likely, not until you tell me where you've been, young man! What have you been up to?"

Scott warned, "My brother doesn't answer to you, Fox."

"No, it's all right, Scott." Johnny said, with deadly calm, "I'll tell you where I've been, Fox. I've been in a place where I've seen the future, and the good news is you're not in it. So how about you back off, before you lose those fingers of yours?"

The agent removed his hand without needing any further incentive.

Johnny said, "There's a gang heading this way that I didn't invite for supper." He looked over Fox's shoulder and at Scott. "We need to move. Now, brother."

Johnny pushed past the Secret Service man as if he wasn't even there, but Fox took hold of his arm and hissed between his teeth, "You are not going to go in there!" Johnny's glance down at the hand on his arm was enough to make Fox release his grip, but the agent said tersely, "I can't allow you to alarm President Grant. He'll have my head if this dinner is ruined."

Johnny narrowed his eyes. "You'd prefer him dead?"

Shifting his weight, Fox pulled at his tight collar with a couple of fingers. He looked from one Lancer brother to the other. "I'll inform my men of this possible danger," he allowed then left the kitchen.

"And we'll make sure ours are on alert," Scott added. "How about we go in and introduce you first, Johnny, and then we'll hustle Grant out of there."

Johnny asked his brother in a low tone, "How was it I got in here so easy? Nobody challenged me." He indicated the way he'd entered the kitchen.

Scott frowned. "That door was unlocked? It should have been secured. Isidro and Frank are on the roof, and our other three men are outside, guarding the south and west sides of the house. I'll go up to the roof first." He glanced back at Maria, who waited with a protective arm around Teresa. They were both wide-eyed and apprehensive. "Maria, bolt that door. Teresa, you come back into the dining room. You shouldn't be in the kitchen when we have a guest." He smiled. "It'll be fine. Take your seat until we get Grant up and to somewhere more secure in the house." He held out a hand in invitation and the girl stepped forward to take his arm.

***

Murdoch was seated at the head of the dining room table, closest to the kitchen door. He half-turned around as soon as Scott escorted Teresa in, then did a double take when Johnny slipped in right after Fox. Murdoch immediately pushed his chair back, dropped his linen napkin on his near-empty plate and stood to greet his missing son. "Johnny!"

Even though Johnny could see that Murdoch was fine, his heart was in his mouth. He knew that there were guests sitting around the sumptuously laid dining table, but he only had eyes for his father. Johnny reached out and grasped Murdoch's forearm, although he badly wanted to hug the old man.

Murdoch smiled, but he must have seen something troubling in Johnny's eyes because he asked tersely, "What's wrong?"

Johnny was suddenly conscious of the intent looks from the people at the table, and his hand dropped away from his father's. Murdoch took the cue and introduced his second son to the man seated at the head of the table. "President Grant, this is my son, Johnny Lancer."

Johnny walked past a couple of neighboring ranchers who sat at the table in their best Sunday suits, and gave them a curt nod of greeting. Hoffsteader and Rockwell both looked a bit out of their element and somewhat overwhelmed by being seated at the same table as the President of the United States.

Next to the President sat young man of about twenty who made no attempt to disguise his curiosity about Johnny. Johnny took him to be Grant's son, the Harvard-educated boy. He wore a fancy suit with a Western cut to it, but his shirt boasted frills at the neck and cuffs. Johnny almost laughed, picturing Scott's similar mode of dress when he first arrived at Lancer.

The gentlemen rose a little from their chairs until Scott settled Teresa in her place at the table. Scott remained standing behind her chair, but his eyes wandered towards the French doors as if expecting trouble. Fox had a quick word with the two Secret Service agents who were on guard, one by the French doors, the other near the front entrance. He waited until they had pulled the drapes across the big windows before he positioned himself behind the President. Grant didn't appear to notice the man hovering over him.

When Johnny strode to the end of the table and extended his hand in greeting the President gave it a firm shake and cocked his head a little to one side. He fixed his pale gray eyes on Johnny and said in a rumbling voice, "So, young man, I finally get to meet you."

Johnny shifted his weight, anxious to leave in order to check the perimeter of the hacienda, yet uncomfortably aware that all eyes were upon him. "Sorry to be late, sir. Couldn't be helped."

When the President leaned back and looked him over, Johnny returned the inspection just as boldly. Grant, although a stocky man, evoked the kind of power that came hand in hand with intelligence and confidence. His face was broad, eyes deep set, and his mouth was down-turned as if he was displeased. "Your father and brother have been talking about your many merits, Mr. Lancer," the President said, "but I was beginning to think you didn't really exist."

Johnny took in a breath at Grant's words; the man didn't know how close he was to the truth. "I'm real enough. No disrespect intended, Mr. Grant."

Grant's frown changed into a smile and his eyes twinkled. "None taken, Johnny. This is my second son, Ulysses," he said with a wave of his hand to indicate the young man sitting next to him. "He's been itching to see a demonstration of some of the fancy shooting the West is renowned for, and I have a feeling you're just the man to demonstrate for us." He looked at Johnny's gun belt and said casually, "Samuel's a fine craftsman. Yes, indeed."

Grant didn't miss much, Johnny could tell. "Yes sir, but if you don't mind me saying, this might be a good time for you to sample a cigar in my father's study." Johnny turned to Murdoch and tried to convey the sense of urgency that was gnawing at his gut. They had to get the President into a back room or somewhere safer than the exposed dining room before all hell broke loose.

*** *** ***

Chapter 9

Spike someone's guns ~ (idiom) To frustrate or prevent someone from accomplishing a plan.

Scott moved to the President's side and encouraged him and the other guests to rise and follow him. "Gentlemen, please follow me."

The young man, Ulysses Grant, Jr., jumped to his feet and asked Johnny, "Perhaps you'd allow us a demonstration with your gun, Mr. Lancer?"

Johnny looked Grant's son over. Ulysses looked to be a couple of years younger than himself , but his fresh face and eagerness made Johnny feel old. "Call me Johnny. Maybe later." He glanced at the French doors in the great room and knew they had to get the guests out of there. Even with the curtains drawn, the dining table was blazing with several large candelabras, and Grant would make an easy target should anyone get close to the hacienda. "Murdoch, maybe you can show our guests around?"

Scott quickly suggested, "How about the tower? Maybe before it gets too dark you can see the wonderful view of the whole valley."

Grant's son sought out his father. "I'd rather stay with Scott and Johnny."

The President glanced at Murdoch, who nodded, then replied, "I am sure you'll be safe with them, son. I can see our guards are anxious for us to move away from the windows. These fine gentlemen and I will be happy to accompany Mr. Lancer to his tower." He stood as if there was no urgency and pulled his waistcoat down over his fair-sized stomach before leaving the table.

Fox moved to the President's side, but when Grant gave the leader of his Secret Service team a sideways look, the man stepped back. Grant turned away as if Fox didn't exist and said with enthusiasm, "Lancer, lead the way."

Maria emerged from the kitchen with a tray of desserts but set it down when she saw the guests rising from the table. She saw the ill-disguised uneasiness on Teresa's face and was quick to put her arm around the young woman's shoulders.

Immediately Murdoch escorted President Grant and the women from the dining room, stopping only long enough to surreptitiously retrieve his gun belt from the coat tree. He buckled it on as they headed for the main staircase. From there they would have access to the big tower that rose from the center of the hacienda. Hoffsteader picked up a bottle of brandy from the dining room table and Rockwell grabbed some glasses then followed their host without question.

The moment everyone else was out of the room, Scott turned to Fox. "Put all of your men outside on alert and make sure they're all in position."

Fox responded, "My men know what their duties are and mine is to stay by the side of the President and his family."

"I'll be fine with these fellows," Ulysses said. He smiled as if he was going on an adventure.

Scott assured Fox, "He will stay right by my side. Johnny, I'll head for the roof and take Ulysses with me. Stay close," he ordered the young man. Scott headed for the gun cabinet and took out a couple of rifles.

"I'll check the perimeter," Johnny said. "Give me a box of shells."

Scott grabbed a box of shells, handing them off then, after only a slight hesitation, he offered one of the guns to Ulysses, who loaded it like he knew what he was doing. "Come on then," Scott said. He headed quickly through the kitchen and up the back stairs with the President's son on his heels.

Fox looked undecided but then scurried off in the direction that Murdoch, President Grant, and the rest of the party had gone.

***

Johnny went out the front door cautiously, then sprinted towards the side of the house where their men were supposed to be stationed. He took a shortcut across the courtyard and along a rear arcade until he came to a wooden door in the high exterior wall. Like the kitchen door, it was not bolted, as it was supposed to be.

Johnny drew his gun, then slowly opened the door and peered out. Despite the gathering dusk he had a clear view of the open, grassy area, and beyond that, a six-rail fence. A quick look around told him there was nobody lurking about, but he wondered where the Lancer guards were. A clatter from up on the roof caused Johnny to pivot on his heel, revolver raising, cocking, his finger pulling back on the trigger.

"Don't shoot!" A young man stood up on the tiled roof of a one-story section of the building and raised his hands. He held his rifle aloft and called down, "It's only me, Johnny!"

Johnny removed his finger from the trigger and eased back on the hammer of his Colt when he recognized the speaker. "Walt, what the heck are you doin' up there? You see anything?"

"Only you." Walt came to the edge of the roof and crouched down to talk to Johnny, keeping his voice low. "I thought you was a ghost or somethin'."

"If you've got that much imagination, you shouldn't be on guard," Johnny said impatiently. "No movement?"

"Nope." Walt climbed down onto the top of the wall then dropped to the ground next to Johnny. He stuck his head and shoulders out the doorway in the thick adobe wall to look around. " You expecting company?"

Johnny pulled the young ranch hand back inside the hacienda walls and firmly shut the heavy door. He jammed the bolt home and ordered, "Go on up to the tower with the others but don't let anyone else in. And keep your eyes open. Could be a dozen men coming and there will be hell to pay if they get inside the house." Johnny muttered to himself, wishing he hadn't been so set against having Scott's cavalry friends on hand to help out in case of trouble. The hacienda was far too large a building to guard with the amount of men they had on hand. "Look, if you see Scott, tell him I'm going over to get the men from the bunkhouse--."

"But they've all gone to town, Johnny. That Fox fellow gave everyone the night off. Said he didn't want them in his way."

Cursing aloud, Johnny ran his hand through his hair. He thought of the vaqueros who lived with their families in their casitas down by the Lancer gate. "The other vaqueros. . . I'll go get them."

"There's nobody here, I tell you. There's a festival down at Santa Maria tonight and they took their wives and kids along. There ain't a soul left on the ranch except us." Seeing Johnny just standing still made Walt ask, "Are you all right, Johnny ? 'Cause you don't look too good." He held his rifle awkwardly, its barrel swinging around to point at Johnny as he talked.

"What? I'm fine. And aim that rifle at the ground, Walt, or I'll take it away from you." Johnny knew the ranch hand was clumsy with firearms and wondered why the heck Murdoch or Scott had chosen him to be one of their few guards, especially when the safety of their guest was so important.

"Well you don't sound fine. More like a bear that's slept too long over the winter."

"Just get up in the tower," Johnny ordered gruffly. He watched Walt go on his way and then moved briskly through the house, checking that everything was locked up tight. There were iron grilles on most of the ground floor windows, relics left by the previous owners, the Spanish padres, so Johnny knew that most of the windows were secure. By the time he started up the back stairs, Scott was coming down.

"I sent Walt up," Johnny said. "Why'd you pick him to be on guard?"

"I didn't. Pedro was working up at Black Mesa with Walt. Walt came back and said that Pedro was sick and couldn't make it back so Murdoch got Walt to take his place. The men are all in position. Hal Brewer is out back with two of Fox's men, but once it's dark, if someone rushes the house, by the time we see them it'll be too late."

Johnny raised his Colt a little. "So we may have to do some close work. Won't be the first time." He peered beyond his brother. "You lose Ulysses?"

Scott gave a reluctant smile and started down the staircase. "He's up with Cipriano on the roof, happy to be shown how to use a Sharps . Fox is with his men guarding the back of the house. I'm going down to the great room. Are you going to join me?"

"Only if there's something left to eat. I'm starvin'." Johnny was surprised that Fox wasn't babysitting the President. But then Grant was locked up in the tower with the other guests and Murdoch, the safest place he could be.

"Come on then, brother, and meantime you can tell me what's been going on." Scott landed a slap on his brother's back and followed him to the great room. They doused the brightly burning candelabras on the dining room table and lowered the wicks of two other lamps as they passed them.

Johnny stopped long enough to grab a slab of cold steak and a piece of bread then stepped out onto the verandah. He ate hurriedly while keeping an eye out front. It was pretty dark and the bulk of the barn and the unlit bunkhouse were black. It seemed almost peaceful and he wondered if his imagination had got the better of him. Maybe nobody was coming after all. But then he thought about Pedro's unsettling absence. The man was as steady as a rock and twice as reliable. If he had to be back on a certain day, he'd be back, sick or not. Guess it was a good thing Walt came back or we'd be a man short, he thought.

Scott leaned against one of the big pillars a few feet away and scanned along the tree line on the other side of the pasture for any movement. "So? Are you going to tell me where you've been?"

After finishing up his hasty meal and wiping his hand on the seat of his pants, Johnny took a deep breath. He had to tell Scott what had gone on back in Atwater sometime, he guessed - at least some of it. "After meeting up with Fox, someone sandbagged me and kept me in a house aways from here." He shifted his weight but didn't know what else to say. He didn't want to admit he'd been suckered or that a bad feeling still hovered over him. The emotions he'd felt when he'd learned his family had been killed hadn't entirely dissipated even though now he knew everyone was alive and well. Finally Johnny added, "They tried to fool me into giving away information."

Scott didn't look at his brother but after a pause asked carefully, "Did you give away any information?"

Even though Scott's tone didn't carry even a suggestion of accusation, Johnny's head jerked up. He took a minute before responding. "Enough. I didn't. . ." Johnny stopped and began again. "See, I believed what they told me."

Scott turned his head in Johnny's direction and frowned with concern. "What did they tell you?" Johnny began to reply, but both he and Scott caught a slight movement up on the crest of the hill that brought them to attention. Johnny stepped back into the dark shadow cast by the stone pillar and his brother did the same.

One of the men on the roof signaled them with a bird call, just loud enough for the brothers to know that their men had also spotted the furtive movement of several men coming in slow. There was no doubt that whoever they were, they were up to no good. Johnny took his Colt out of his holster and checked it even though his gun was always prepped and ready. "Scott, are Murdoch and Grant safe up there?"

"They locked themselves in the tower. Hoffsteader had the foresight to take a bottle of brandy with him so they should be content and Teresa and Maria are safe with them. Walt's on guard outside the door." He smiled thinly and added, "At least if anyone gets that close, he should be able to hit his target."

Johnny pulled back the hammer on his gun to half cock. "Nobody is gonna get that close," he said firmly. Suddenly, he caught sight of a couple of men running towards the rear of the barn, keeping close to cover. They were good and if he hadn't been looking out for them, he might have missed their presence altogether. In a low voice he asked Scott, "The men on the roof won't shoot until we give the say-so, will they?"

"They know what to do," Scott said tersely. "Look! There are some more of them over there." He pointed to their left, towards the side of the house where Johnny had entered the kitchen only a short while earlier. In the darkness they saw several men snaking their way towards the back of the house, using whatever cover they could find. "I'll take care of them," Scott said in a low voice. Before Johnny could reply, Scott headed towards the far end of the verandah, staying in the darkest shadows, his revolver at the ready.

Johnny kept his eye on the barn, waiting for the enemy to attack from that direction. His every sense seemed to be heightened and his heart was beating fast. If even one of the assassins got past them there would be hell to pay.

***

They never knew who let off the first shot, but Scott thought it came from one of Fox's men at the back of the hacienda. Within seconds, lead was flying from somewhere in the direction of the barn. Just as Scott was about to run from the end of the verandah to take advantage of the cover a low wall afforded, the window behind him shattered and glass flew everywhere. He heard the roar of Johnny's gun and knew the assailants were attacking the house from all directions at once.

Even as Scott ducked he saw two men rushing towards him. He dove back towards the protection of one of the big stone pillars and got off two shots. Suddenly, he was down with a man atop him. As Scott struggled, fighting for his life, he saw the second assailant aim a gun at his head. Then, there was a loud report of gunfire and the second man fell back with a gurgling cry.

Scott grappled with the remaining man, trying to disarm him. Just as he began to fear this was a battle he was going to lose, the man's head was jerked back and a blade sliced across his throat. Blood gushed everywhere, its warmth soaking through Scott's clothing. Johnny jerked the dead man off his brother and put out a hand to help Scott to his feet. The smell of blood and death emanating from the dead man was pungent.

Scott stood with his chest heaving and looked at the weapon in Johnny's hand - not a gun, but a knife - dripping with the dead man's blood.

Johnny gave a smile that held no humor at all and said, "No time to reload. Let's get inside."

***

They had no sooner made it into the great room than the door splintered behind them in a hail of bullets. The brothers both hit the ground and rolled behind the closest pieces of furniture for cover. A lamp exploded right above Johnny's head and he heard the dull thunk of lead hitting the wall as he rapidly reloaded his revolver. He slammed the chamber shut and cocked the hammer, and felt, rather than saw, Scott rising to his feet at his side.

At that moment several men crashed blindly through the remains of the French doors and laid out a hail of lead as they stormed into the great room. Scott and Johnny fired back at their assailants with scant regard for their own safety. When the shooting finally ceased, the room was full of gunsmoke and reeked of cordite.

The heavy smoke slowly cleared to reveal that only two men remained standing.

***

Scott stood with several pistols in his hands, all taken from the four deceased men sprawled on the great room floor. One had lived for a few minutes but now they all lay still.

Johnny kicked the body closest to him to make sure the man was dead. There was nothing to mark them as assassins; they looked like ordinary men - ranchers or cowhands. Somehow Johnny had expected them to appear different, to bear something that marked them as evil men on a mission.

"Johnny," Scott urged. "C'mon, we have to make sure everything is secure upstairs."

Johnny stared at the man lying at his feet. His hat had fallen off to expose fair, curly hair. His eyes were slightly open, his mouth agape like he was surprised about something. The fellow would have looked like he was resting, except the back of his head had been clean blown off and there was an ever-expanding pool of blood around his body.

"Johnny!"

Johnny dragged his gaze away from the dead man and looked blankly at his brother with haunted eyes.

Scott looked at the mess on the carpet and swallowed. "You know this man, Johnny?"

Johnny nodded. Without thinking he repeated the way the man had introduced himself to him when they'd met in Atwater. "Name's Bradley Trader. Out of Sacramento." Johnny shook himself, then glanced at the other three dead men. He didn't recognize any of them, he thought with slight relief.

There was no longer any sound of gunfire from up on the roof, and none of their own men appeared once the firing had halted, something that concerned Johnny greatly. But there were no further assaults on the house, so maybe they'd stopped the attackers after all. There was no way of knowing how many assassins there were or if any of them were still alive, out there and ready to mount another attack. Esther had told him that there could be up to a dozen men bent on assassinating Grant, but all it would take would be one bullet to cause grave harm.

*** *** ***

Chapter 10

Half-cocked
1. a firearm at the position of half cock.
2. lacking mature consideration or enough preparation; ill-considered or ill-prepared; half-baked.
3. go off half-cocked, to act or happen prematurely. Also, go off at half cock.

Indicating the dead man lying at his feet, Johnny said without feeling, "He's the Doc's nephew. . .he's the leader. He said his name was Bradley Trader but he was probably lyin'." He wondered if Doc Weatherby was among the men who had attacked the house. Johnny hoped the Doc would just give himself up when he learned that Bradley was dead. Last thing Johnny wanted was to fire on the doctor, even after everything the old man had put him through, but he would kill him if he had to. The sound of rifle fire from the roof snapped Johnny to attention. Without another word, he turned away from the bodies and headed for the stairs. He took them two at a time with Scott at his side.

Scott grabbed Johnny's arm when they reached the landing of the second floor. There were a few lamps lit, but they provided barely enough light to navigate through the house. "Johnny," he whispered urgently. "Be careful. One of them might have slipped past the guards."

Johnny flattened himself against the wall and peered cautiously around the corner. He could see that the heavy door, the last barrier protecting the stairs to the tower, was closed. There was nobody in sight, not even Walt or the Secret Service men who should have been on guard. The house was very quiet; even the sound of gunfire from the roof had ceased.

"Cover me," Johnny ordered as he slipped across the corridor and tried the handle on the stout door. It was unlocked. He jerked his head for Scott to join him and started up the twisting staircase, his gun at the ready. The stairs made a turn every six steps and Johnny couldn't see past the next landing but there was a faint glow from above - just enough to navigate by. His spurs jangled loudly, or he felt they did, even though he ascended with caution. Scott was right behind him, on the alert for any trouble to the rear.

They reached the top without hearing anything amiss, but Johnny sensed that there was something wrong. There was another door at the top landing, and it stood slightly ajar. Johnny could picture the tower room. It was only about twenty feet across, with windows on all four sides. There was no easy access to the tiled roof that lay about ten feet below those windows, so the only way out was down the stairs they had just climbed.

Johnny risked a glance back at Scott, and a nod was all he needed to make the next move. He pushed open the door and they both stepped into the tower room.

***

The first thing they saw was Walt, right in the center of the tower room, standing so close to President Grant he appeared to be hugging him - except the ranch hand pressed his revolver's muzzle right into the President's neck. Grant stood stock still, his compressed lips and slightly trembling hands giving hint as to his fear.

The whole scene was illuminated by an overhead lantern. A sweeping glance around the room told the Lancer brothers that nobody had been seriously harmed; Murdoch was standing to one side, shielding Teresa and Maria with his body. The women huddled together, trying to make themselves small and Teresa was crying. Their father's eyes widened when he saw Scott's blood-soaked shirt, but Scott gave a small signal with his hand that he was unharmed.

The two ranchers, Hoffsteader and Rockwell were seated on the floor near each other. One was holding a handkerchief to a bleeding scalp and the other sported a bruised jaw. Scott was relieved that the President's son wasn't present and he hoped Ulysses would stay where he was safe - out on the roof with Cipriano.

Walt forced Grant to stand in front of him and act as a shield.

Johnny held his gun to one side, away from his body, in an attempt to indicate he didn't intend to use it. "Walt? Whatever you're thinking of, it ain't worth it," he said calmly. "There's only one way outta here and that's past Scott and me. I don't know how you got mixed up in this but--."

"Shut up!" Walt yelled. He was wild-eyed and sweating, his youthful face marred by a look of hatred that Scott and Johnny had never witnessed in him before.

Scott made a slight motion with his hand, only intending to make a plea for Walt to calm down, but it was enough to make the young man jerk the President back a step.

Walt backed against the far wall, dragging Grant with him. He pressed the gun barrel deeper into the President's flesh and caused the big man to grunt in pain. "Don't you try anything," Walt cried in warning.

Scott holstered his revolver and held out his empty hands. "See? No gun," he assured the nervous man. "I don't know how you got mixed up in this, but it's not too late."

"You get your brother to drop his gun!" Walt nodded his head in Johnny's direction. " Either of you make any move at all and I'll blow off Grant's head!"

Johnny never took his eyes off Walt, staring him down, and although Johnny still held his gun away from his body and his finger wasn't even on the trigger, the tension in the small tower room heightened a notch. He badly wanted to take a shot at Walt. He knew, just knew he could take him out before the ranch hand even pulled the trigger on the gun he held on the President. Johnny tensed and took a slow breath, but before he could move his father spoke up.

"Johnny, don't." Murdoch took a couple of cautious steps forward until he was at the edge of Johnny's line of vision. "Let him go."

Scott said in a low voice, "We can't let him walk out of here."

With a fast, vicious movement, Walt rapped his gun on the side of the President's head. Grant's knees buckled and he cried out, but he didn't fall. "Drop your gun now, Johnny or I'm gonna shoot him! I swear I will!"

Grant swayed a little and he closed his eyes for a few seconds, but he recovered. Johnny slowly placed his revolver on the floor and backed off a step. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the President sag in defeat, but Johnny never took his eyes off Walt.

Walt grinned in triumph that he'd disarmed Johnny. "Even I'm not gonna miss hitting a target as big as this man here, and I'll still have enough bullets to finish off your old man, too."

Scott's face reddened with anger. "Murdoch has given you more breaks than any other employer ever would, Walt, and you know it. We've treated you like family--."

Walt's expression hardened. "If it wasn't for your brother, I never would've got shot by them Strykers. My arm's never been the same since. You Lancers owe me for that!" With a twisted smile he added, "And I'll be sure to keep a bullet just for your brother, Scott. I'm gonna blow his arm clean off. What do you think of that, Johnny?"

Johnny let out a short laugh. "Hell, Walt, you don't want to shoot anyone. Do you, boy?" His eyes slid away from the ranch hand to look at his brother. "He couldn't do this on his own, Scott. He's expecting someone bigger than him to come walking in any minute to do the dirty work." Johnny turned back to Walt and smiled tightly. "But, you see, Bradley ain't coming to your rescue. You know why? Cause I shot him dead and he's lying downstairs with half his head missing. So much for his plot to take Grant hostage."

At hearing Bradley's name, Walt jerked and for a moment he forgot to keep a tight grip on President Grant. The President took the opportunity to shove an elbow in his captor's ribs, putting all of his considerable weight behind it, then got out of Walt's way as fast as he could. He stumbled across the room. Walt yowled and doubled up in pain, his revolver still gripped in his hand, but aiming at nobody in particular until Johnny made a move in his direction.

The gun came up and Johnny skidded to a halt a few feet from Walt. There wasn't any room to maneuver and lunging at the armed man was foolhardy. At least Walt hadn't started shooting. . . yet.

Murdoch took hold of Grant and pulled him back against the wall in an attempt to offer him what little protection he could afford. At the same time Scott grabbed Teresa's arm and pushed her towards the stairs. Maria, eyes wide with fear, followed the girl with a speed Scott hadn't expected of her. The sound of the women's feet clattering down the staircase gave the Lancer men a small sense of victory.

Johnny made sure he was standing between Walt and the remaining hostages. Scott moved in beside him to create a shield. The ranch hand had backed up to the far side of the tower, his eyes darting around in panic. Even if Walt's aim was poor, the room was so small that he was sure to kill someone once he started firing.

Walt pointed his gun alternately at Scott and Johnny, unsure of what to do. He was sweating and he had to hold the gun with both hands to keep it steady. Finally he found his voice. "You can't have killed all Bradley's men. . ." His words trailed off when he caught the looks on the Lancer brothers' faces. "But they're the best unit. . ."

Scott said softly, "Now how about you just put that gun down before you hurt someone."

Behind them came the sound of footsteps and a man's voice boomed, calling out, "We killed every last one of them. It's safe for the rest of you to come down now."

Scott and Johnny cringed inwardly at the sound of Fox's voice but they didn't turn away from Walt, whose eyes widened. The brothers could hear the sound of movement behind them as the rest of the hostages hurriedly made their way to the staircase. Walt did nothing to stop them. Johnny felt someone's eyes on his back. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the President still remained in the tower room, as did Murdoch.

Fox stuck his head through doorway but never left the small landing. "What is going on up here?"

Murdoch said tersely, "Grant, you go right now."

Walt cocked his gun and aimed in the direction of Murdoch and Grant. "Oh no, you don't go anywhere, Grant! Bradley wanted you--."

Both Johnny and Scott jumped Walt at the same time. Scott struck at Walt's arm, deflecting the bullet intended for the President. Johnny tackled the gunman, the gun roared and they went down in a heap. Another gunshot resounded in the tower room, glass flew everywhere and everyone dropped to the floor.

***

Very slowly, Scott raised his head, coughing in the smoke-filled room. Grant and Murdoch were helping each other up; Fox appeared at their side, confused. Two of his Secret Service men crowded past him into the room, guns drawn, but the danger appeared to be over.

Scott raised himself on one elbow and checked out the damage. Bits of glass fell out of his hair and he brushed more off his shirt but he stopped in mid-action. He was horrified to see that Johnny was lying face down with Walt on top of him, both unmoving. There was blood and broken glass everywhere.

His brother's name slipped from Scott's lips in a raspy whisper. "Johnny?" Johnny didn't move. Glass cut into Scott's palms as he scrambled on hands and knees to his brother's side, but the sharp pain was nothing compared to the fear that pierced his heart. "Johnny!" With shaking hands he shoved at Walt until he got Johnny free. Scott was overwhelmed by anger and a need to get Johnny away from the body of the man who had turned against them - their own man. He wrapped his arms around Johnny's chest and heaved until he dragged his limp brother several feet away from Walt.

Murdoch was there, helping him, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe away the blood that was streaming down Johnny's face from a cut on his scalp. Murdoch shook his son as if to awaken him from a slumber. "Son! Wake up!" The young man's eyes were closed, his face a red mask, still as death.

Someone placed a rolled-up jacket under Johnny's head and it wasn't until later that it registered in Scott's mind that it was Grant. The President never left the tower room, not even when he'd had the opportunity.

Fox and his men turned Walt over and inspected him. It was obvious that the ranch hand was dead - there was a huge hole in his chest. Fox gave a satisfied smile. "That's the last of them. My men rounded up a couple of stragglers and we have them in custody." He turned to President Grant. "You're safe now, Sir."

Grant glanced up at his Secret Service man. "What about my son?"

"He's fine, in fact my men are bringing him up now," Fox assured him. "He was never in any danger. I saw to that."

Grant's gaze slid away from Fox as if he gave the man's words no weight. He laid a hand on Murdoch's shoulder in an attempt to instill some sense of comfort even as they looked down on Johnny's unconscious body.

Scott kneeled over his brother, and cried, "Damn it, Johnny! Don't you give up now, not after everything we've been through! " Then in a quiet voice he pled, "You never told me what happened. You can't go yet."

Murdoch put a steady arm around Scott's shoulder. "Scott, it's all right."

Scott jerked out of his father's grasp and turned on him angrily. "No, it's not all right! This is wrong, all wrong! He can't --."

But Murdoch said insistently, "Scott, listen to me! He just hit his head on the floor. Look, he's coming to!"

At that moment Johnny coughed and one hand feebly lifted into the air. Scott grabbed it and laughed with relief. "You're not dead!"

Johnny opened his eyes a bit and squinted at Scott. "No. . . but Walt had better be," he mumbled in a raspy voice.

Scott didn't even glance over at Walt's body. "Believe me, he is, brother. It looks like you banged your head up when you hit the floor."

With a sideways squint at his brother, Johnny said, "He fell on top o' me."

The sound of heavy footsteps came from the stairs and a flurry of Spanish words overwhelmed Fox's lesser voice. Cipriano appeared in the doorway, his Sharps rifle in hand, his bulk making the tower room suddenly seem much smaller than it was. Right behind him was Ulysses Grant, Jr., his face creased with worry. In a second, the young man was in his father's arms and being crushed in a bear hug.

Despite the protests of both Murdoch and his brother, Johnny raised himself on one elbow. His father assisted him up the rest of the way. Johnny gingerly touched the back of his head where he had a lump, and winced. A stream of blood trickled down his forehead; he wiped it away with his palm then looked at his bloody fingers with bemusement.

Murdoch handed Johnny a wadded up handkerchief, even though it was already saturated with blood. It was all he had. He shook his head. "You're lucky you were only cut by a bit of flying glass."

Cipriano clamped a hand on Johnny's shoulder and grinned. "I would have taken the shot earlier but your big head, it got in the way." He indicated the broken tower window and shrugged. "It took me a while to find the best position."

The Lancers saw that Cipriano had taken the shot that killed Walt from the highest rooftop, and he had to clamber along a slippery tiled ridge in the dark to get to the vantage point. Murdoch met Cipriano's eyes and nodded his thanks. He owed his segundo more than he could ever repay and any words of thanks he gave would never express what he truly felt, but Cipriano knew. He knew.

The President also looked through the broken window and took in the dangerous feat that Cipriano had accomplished. He held out his hand to the big segundo and shook it with heartfelt thanks. "If you're ever in Washington, you come and stay with us," he offered. "That goes for all of you, of course," he said, including the Lancer men.

Cipriano shuffled his feet in embarrassment. "Your boy here, Ulises," he said using the Spanish version of his name, "He gave me aid, every step of the way. He is a good soldier. He is nothing like his name," he added cryptically.

Ulysses smiled with admiration at Cipriano. He told his father, "Señor Cipriano says my name means to be angry, and I was quite angry when I saw that man holding you hostage. But now it is over all I feel is relief. And gratitude."

Murdoch saw that Ulysses had blood on his sleeve. "And it appears you've received your first battle wound, young man. Someone will have sent for the doctor by now, so get downstairs and have it looked at." Murdoch watched Scott bind a handkerchief around a glass cut on his left hand, but he said nothing. His son would have it taken care of after the President's son and everyone else was tended to. There were sure to be other injuries from the firefight, and there would be the dead to be seen to as well.

Grant began to fuss over his son's injury, but Ulysses shrugged his father off, saying that it was only a graze. Johnny saw that Ulysses was proud of what appeared to be a flesh wound, and he hoped, for the boy's sake, that that was the closest he'd ever come to any kind of danger. Cipriano and the young man left the tower and headed for the kitchen to wait for the doctor to arrive.

Johnny sought his gun and saw it lying near Walt's body. He was just bending to retrieve it when Fox stepped forward and pointed at him. "None of this would have happened," he accused, "if Johnny Lancer hadn't revealed our secret plans to the enemies of the country."

*** *** ***

Chapter 11

Russian roulette
1. A stunt in which one spins the cylinder of a revolver loaded with only one bullet, aims the muzzle at one's head, and pulls the trigger.
2. An act of reckless bravado.

"None of this would have happened," Fox accused, "if Johnny Lancer hadn't revealed our plans."

Everyone in the room stopped and seemed to hold their breath. Johnny very slowly picked up his gun from the floor but he didn't holster it. Before Johnny could face the accusation, Scott moved swiftly up to Agent Fox and dealt a hard blow right to his smug face. Fox went down hard and immediately clamped his hands to his nose, moaning that it was broken. The other Secret Service men started to move forward to aid their boss, but when they were met with Johnny and Scott's angry looks, they both halted. The agents dropped their gaze and did nothing to help the injured man who was rolling on the floor in agony.

"If there's anyone to blame it's you because of the secrets you kept, Fox," Scott fumed. "You should have told us everything you knew right at the start. You've put us all in danger!"

With his hands still clamped to his bleeding nose, Fox spluttered, "He was missing for three days! Probably in league with the insurrectionists. How else would he know they were mounting an attack?"

Johnny holstered his Colt and gave a scathing look down at Fox. "Then why would I come back here and warn you that Grant's life was in danger?" He leaned forward until he was only inches from Fox's face, causing the man to cower. "Trouble with you, Fox, is you're always looking under the wrong bushel."

Johnny straightened and slung an arm over Scott's shoulder. "C'mon, brother. Let's get outta here." President Grant stepped up and offered Johnny a clean handkerchief. Johnny accepted it and dabbed at the warm blood he could feel running down his forehead. "Thanks."

Grant replied, "No, I must thank you."

Johnny let his arm drop away from around his brother's shoulder. He hung his head for a moment, but all that did was encourage the cut in his scalp to bleed faster, so with the once-white handkerchief held to his head he looked up at the President. "Sir, what he said. . .about me telling secrets. . . I didn't. . ."

But Grant would hear none of it, shaking his head and saying, "No, no, your family has been more than protective of me and my son. We should be asking you good people to forgive us. Why, just look at all the trouble we brought down upon you. I'll hear no more about this, Johnny."

"It's time we went downstairs," Murdoch said firmly.

Scott nodded in agreement. "The doctor will be here soon. Sam probably has a special alarm bell that goes off to tell him when there's trouble at Lancer."

Johnny's lips twitched. "I'll bet when his horse comes through our archway he thinks he's heading home, he's been here so many times."

President Grant insisted that the wounded go first, so Johnny and Scott walked around the still-groaning Agent Fox and headed down the tower stairs. Murdoch followed his sons without looking back.

***

Most of the Lancer ranch hands returned by the time everything was under control. They stood around wide-eyed, peering at the hacienda and waiting for a chance to catch sight of President Grant. They never got the opportunity because Grant was inside with his son, guarded by a couple of agents even though there was no immediate danger.

At Murdoch's direction the ranch hands lit all the lanterns on the verandah and stuck some torches in the ground to light up the yard. The bodies of ten dead men were laid out in a row out front, draped with tarpaulins. Three Secret Service agents stood guard over them. Murdoch was relieved that his men, as well as a couple of Fox's agents, had suffered only slight injuries. The only people killed during the siege had been the members of the gang of assassins.

The neighboring ranchers Hoffsteader and Rockwell, took their leave, and although Murdoch invited them to stay the night, they declared they'd rather go home, which he understood. They had both been roughed up when they initially encountered Walt up in the tower room, but Maria had bandaged up Hoffsteader's head and put some salve on Rockwell's bruised jaw.

"I hafta say, Murdoch," said Hoffsteader as he touched the white bandage wrapped around his forehead, "You sure put on one hell of a party. Grant has invited me and Rockwell, and our wives, of course, to go hunting at his lodge up North. I told him we would accept but we would bring our own armed cavalry unit. . .if he didn't mind." Hoffsteader chuckled, mounted his horse, and he and Rockwell set off down the drive.

In retrospect, Murdoch realized he had underestimated the danger that accompanied the President's visit. Having more men on hand certainly would have helped, but even better would have been foreknowledge of the subversives and their plans. Seeing so many men dead was shocking. Murdoch took a deep breath, acknowledging that once again his sons had barely escaped a violent death. He prayed their good luck would never run out.

News traveled fast, and before Murdoch could step back inside a couple of neighbors rode up despite the late hour. They said they had heard about the attack on the ranch and offered to help. Murdoch's patience had worn thin and he soon got rid of them. "Go on home. There's nothing to see." He knew he sounded curt but all he wanted to do was to get inside to make sure that his sons were all right and their wounds were tended to.

As the neighbors left, Brewer, the blacksmith, drove up in a flatbed wagon. He commandeered the reluctant Secret Service men to help him load the dead. Murdoch told them to put the bodies in the meat house out behind the corral until the following day when the government agents would deal with their removal.

Fox appeared, took note of the situation and escorted the wagon off to the meat house without a word to Murdoch. He'd cleaned himself up, and despite his bloodied and swollen nose, he bustled about instructing his men to prop the bodies up against the meat house wall. One of the agents assembled a camera and tripod they'd brought with them. Soon there was a brilliant flash, a great deal of smoke, and the image of Special Agent Fox standing over the gang of assassins he had killed in order to save President Grant from certain death was forever immortalized.

Turning away, Murdoch found Brewer shaking his head at the scene. Lancer thanked him and asked the blacksmith to locate Pedro, who had gone out with Walt earlier that day to Black Mesa but had never come back. Brewer and another of the Lancer men were dispatched to the line camp where Pedro supposedly had remained due to being too sick to travel. Murdoch hoped that Walt had told the truth about Pedro being sick and that nothing worse had befallen his vaquero. Once they had gone on their mission, Murdoch ordered the rest of the wranglers to the bunkhouse and had platters of the leftover food sent over to them.

When there was nothing more he could do, Murdoch went into the great room to sit with his feet up, a drink in his hand. He studiously avoided looking at the floor. Even though the bodies had been removed, the old Persian rug bore the stains of their lifeblood. For some reason a thought popped into Murdoch's head - that Catherine would be mighty displeased that her precious rug was ruined. "Getting old," he muttered.

Johnny chuckled. "Talkin' to yourself , Murdoch?" He was lying out on the big couch with a cool cloth, provided by Maria, on his forehead. She and Teresa had long since gone upstairs, overwhelmed by the evening's events.

"As soon as the doctor has finished with Ulysses and your brother," Murdoch said testily to Johnny, "you get in the kitchen and get that head of yours stitched up."

Johnny groaned. There was a large lump on the back of his head that was hurting like the dickens, and the cut on is scalp still oozing. He knew he couldn't put off getting stitched up any longer. "All right." Murdoch was gazing at him with something between assessment and curiosity, and Johnny knew it wouldn't be long before he'd have to explain his part in the whole assassination plot.

But how could he explain to them that he'd let an old man and woman snooker him so good? That they'd made him believe all his family was dead. Even now, just thinking about it, he got choked up. He swallowed convulsively and avoided his father's eyes. Closing his own, he reined in the emotions that had been threatening to burst out into the open. Now that the danger had passed, he had nothing else to keep them at bay. He felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for having let this happen. He'd let them all down, he knew.

The door to the kitchen opened and Scott joined them. He held up his hands, both neatly bandaged. "The Doc picked the glass out of my palms." In response to his father's look of concern, Scott shrugged. "It just stings. I don't know why he insisted on taking care of me before Ulysses. Anyway, Grant is in there, hovering over his son." He sighed tiredly, pushed Johnny's feet aside and sat down on the couch.

Murdoch rose, poured Scott a brandy and handed it to him before settling back into his chair. "You boys are both damned lucky. Even so, this whole thing is unsettling. I trusted Walt, thought I knew him." He shook his head. "Damn it, we all did! How could he turn against us? He's been living here, working with us, side by side, been like a member of our family. I know he never fully recovered the use of his arm after being shot, but he was. . ."

"He's dead," Johnny said bluntly, as if that was the end of the matter. He couldn't figure out how Bradley had recruited Walt, but he'd look into that later on, once he got his energy back. Maybe tomorrow, he thought, as he closed his eyes. He'd send Val out to let Esther out of the locked pantry tomorrow. She'd be as mean as a hornet by then, he thought. Better warn Val. "The traitor is dead and gone," he said sharply, thinking of Walt but meaning Bradley as well. There was something he'd forgotten. . .what was it. . .his head hurt too much to think. "He's plain dead and gone," he mumbled.

Murdoch said aloud what Johnny already knew, "It's never that clean cut, son. When a man dies, the consequences of his actions are felt for a long time. Ripples in a pond."

Scott let out a huff of breath and rested his head on the back of the couch. He gingerly held the glass in his bandaged hands. "Funny. . . "

"Funny what?" Johnny prompted when Scott didn't finish his sentence.

"Oh, it's just that. . . well, that's what the Doc said."

"What's that?" Johnny asked without much interest.

After swallowing a mouthful of brandy, Scott explained, "He was just saying that a man's criminal actions have longstanding repercussions. That the victims suffer for many years."

Johnny removed the cloth from his head and slowly sat up. He frowned at his brother. "Doc said that?"

Scott nodded and looked at him curiously, as did Murdoch.

Johnny looked towards the kitchen. "Doc Jenkins said that?"

Scott leaned back and took another sip. "No, not Sam. Fox's doctor." He shrugged. "At least I think he came with Fox. Doctor Weatherby, that's his name."

Like a shot Johnny was up and running for the kitchen, his gun drawn.

***

The situation did not look good.

There was a man lying in the middle of the kitchen floor - dead. One of the Secret Service agents.

Grant stood only a couple of feet from Ulysses, his eyes fixed on his seated son, but neither was moving a muscle. Behind Ulysses' chair stood Doc Weatherby, his hair and clothing rumpled as if he'd had a busy night out tending sick patients. One of the doctor's big, capable hands was forcing the young man's head back against his chest. His other hand held a scalpel against Ulysses' throat.

The young man, petrified, stared at Johnny. His eyes held a desperate, silent plea.

For Johnny, everything seemed to move in slow motion; all sound was muted. In the couple of moments it took for him to swing his gun around and take aim, the Doc's eyes widened in recognition. For a fraction of a second there was a glimmer of some emotion in the older man's face - something like pleasure in meeting an old friend once again.

Johnny pulled the trigger and shot Doc Weatherby in the head.

Still grasping the scalpel, the Doc's head snapped back and he fell, the weight of his arm causing the well-honed blade to slice across his young victim's neck. Ulysses' chair teetered for a moment and then, with arms flailing, he fell back along with his mortally wounded captor. They hit the floor with a resounding crash.

The President jumped forward and snatched Ulysses away from the fallen doctor. He pulled his boy to his chest and called out his son's name. In a panic he tried to staunch the flow of blood from the cut to Ulysses' neck with his hand. The boy's face was paper-white, his eyes open and staring in shock up at his father.

Johnny straddled Doc Weatherby, prepared to put more lead into him, but it was obvious the old man was never going to get to his feet again. Johnny barely noticed when Scott and Murdoch and then more men entered the kitchen, alarmed by the shooting.

Murdoch helped Grant move his frightened son to the far side of the kitchen, away from the Doc, while Scott grabbed some towels. They quickly assessed the damage to Ulysses' neck. "It isn't too deep," Murdoch assured the President. "He'll recover. Keep some pressure on it and we'll get Dr. Jenkins out here right away."

Pain and fear at the sight of so much blood gushing from his throat put Ulysses in a panic and he struggled in his father's arms. Grant held on tightly and tried to calm him, but he couldn't quell Ulysses' fear.

Cipriano came into the kitchen in a hurry with his gun drawn. He stopped by Johnny's side and looked down at the Doc. "He won't cause no more trouble, eh?"

"Nope," was all Johnny replied.

The segundo told Murdoch that the doctor, the real doctor, had been summoned and should arrive at the ranch shortly. Ulysses was wide-eyed and breathing heavily, still trying to escape from his father's arms, so Cipriano took hold of the wounded young man's shoulders in a firm grip and looked him in the eye. "You will be fine, Ulises. Look at me. Look at me! This is the time for anger, not for fear." His calm, deliberate words did a lot to help calm Ulysses. Eventually Ulysses blinked and moved his lips to indicate he understood and Cipriano nodded his approval.

Johnny didn't take his eyes off the Doc. He wasn't dead. Not yet. There was an entry wound in his cheek. It was no more than a small dark hole, but a river of blood flowed from the back of the older man's head. An ever-widening pool slowly spread across the kitchen floor.

Fox arrived, having heard the gunshot, and he and the Secret Service agents tried to remove the President from the scene. But Grant and his son hovered, watching the last of the assassins die. Although Ulysses' shirtfront was red with his own blood and his face was blanched white, he stood on his own, holding a kitchen towel to his neck wound. He had managed to swallow his fear with Cipriano's help and he wanted to stay until the end. Neither he nor his father could tear their eyes away from the scene that played out before them.

Dr. Weatherby lay dying on the tiled floor, the scalpel in his limp hand. Johnny stood over him, gun drawn. He kicked the Doc's weapon away, then suddenly sank to his knees and laid his left hand on the Doc's chest. "Why, Doc? Why'd you do all this?" He had to ask, "How could you lie like that to me? About my family bein' dead?"

Weatherby coughed, then whispered through bloody lips, "My son. . ." Johnny leaned forward to catch what the Doc was saying. His eyes closed, his breath labored, Doc Weatherby spoke his last words on Earth to the young man he'd lied to, coerced, and even planned to murder. "My son. . . prisoner. He was coming home. . . but Grant said no more exchanges. . ." Weatherby coughed again, drew in a ragged, gurgling breath and grabbed at Johnny's shirt. " Booth. . .we were supposed to kill Grant, too. Failed. All these years I've waited. . .planned."

The Doc eyes suddenly opened widely, but Johnny knew the dying man wasn't really seeing him when he cried out, "My boy!" Gus Weatherby's body grew rigid and then he collapsed, finally relinquishing his hold on Johnny.

Johnny slowly stood and holstered his weapon. Scott was by his side, reaching out with a bandaged hand, trying to draw Johnny away from the body of the dead man lying on the kitchen floor. Suddenly, Johnny felt all his strength drain out of his body. His knees started to buckle, but he leaned heavily on the kitchen table and managed to stay upright. Scott's hand was on his elbow, but Johnny shook him off. When he took a deep breath and looked around Johnny saw that everyone in the room was staring in his direction. His father, Scott, Grant and his son, several agents whose names he couldn't recall, even Cipriano - they looked at him with the blank-eyed shock of people who have survived a horrific, bloody, and senseless wartime battle.

Fox started to open his mouth to say something cutting, but the hard-faced look he got from Johnny stopped him cold. Instead the government agent simply nodded his head and said, "Good shootin'."

***

That evening when Sam Jenkins turned up at Lancer, he was faced with a scene that brought back memories of the aftermath of a long-ago battle in which he'd been a reluctant participant. The ranch hands had removed the bodies of the dead agent as well as Doc Weatherby, but the tiled floor was still wet from a quick cleanup.

Sam caught sight of Johnny as soon as he walked into the Lancer kitchen. Johnny's scalp wound had continued to bleed down his face and had colored the shoulder of his pink shirt a dark red. "Well, there's nothing like coming out to the Lancer ranch to make an old country doctor like me feel needed. Those dead folks out by the meat house all yours?"

Johnny gave a curt shake of his head. "You'd better see to him first."

Sam then saw Ulysses, who had been hidden behind the bulk of his protective father. It only took a quick assessment from the doctor to see that the boy was most in need, and one sharp look to make Grant step to one side.

Grant started to ask questions about his son's care and the doctor's credentials, but Sam brushed him aside. "Oh, don't fuss like an old woman. If you want a reference, take a gander at some of my handiwork on those two." He indicated the Lancer brothers who were standing off to the side. "I'm not sure which one of them I've stitched up more times."

Scott and Johnny immediately pointed at each other and both said, "Him," at the same time.

"Scott's been sewed up more than me."

"Johnny's had more lead dug out of him," Scott pointed out.

"I have not--."

Murdoch suppressed a grin. "Enough, boys."

"You'll want to avoid moving your head from side to side," was Dr. Jenkins' advice to Ulysses. "I have applied a liberal amount of sticky tape to the wound; you don't need stitches." He finished bandaging Ulysses' throat then cleaned and dressed the young man's wounded arm.

Sam patted Ulysses on the shoulder once he was done. "You're a trooper." The doctor's matter-of-fact, yet kind, care was just what Ulysses needed and soon he was bandaged up and sent off to bed with his father and Murdoch in attendance.

Sam, left alone with the two Lancer brothers, asked what had been going on. Scott gave the doctor as short an explanation of President Grant's visit and the attack on Lancer as he could manage. Sam made a non-committal noise then raised an eyebrow at the bandages on Scott's hands. He took hold of the young man's injured hands and briefly inspected them. "You'll live," the Doc said.

Johnny gave a choked laugh. "Seems I've heard that a time or two before."

"And let's hope," Sam reprimanded, "that you two boys hear those same words many more times."

"One thing, Doc," Johnny asked as he sat down at the kitchen table, "I was wonderin'. . ." He shifted in his chair under the doctor's scrutiny. "Was that doctorin' on Scott's hands done by a real doc, you think?"

Scott crossed his arms over his chest. "Good point. I'd really like to know if I've been tended to by an accredited doctor or just a deranged killer."

Sam went over to the sink and washed his hands. He said over his shoulder, "Even if he was deranged, Scott, it appears the man did a decent job on your hands. You'll be fine in no time at all. Try to keep them dry." Drying his hands on a towel, Sam returned to Johnny, side-stepping the dark stained patch on the floor where Gus Weatherby had died. "Now let's look at you, young man. Another fine mess." He reached out and prodded gently at the cut on Johnny's scalp. "It's above the hairline, so with any luck this won't show for a few more years. Let's see, where is my catgut?"

Johnny winced and sweated during the procedure, and felt washed out by the time it was done. There had been so much killing and he could smell nothing but blood, enough to be sickened by it. He was so tired, bodily and in his mind, too. This whole thing was so senseless. Plotting and telling so many lies it was impossible to tell who was telling the truth, who was to blame. And so many people dead. He regretted Walt's death the most - why had he turned on them like that?

But it was killing the Doc that had taken the spirit right out of Johnny. He'd known from the start it was going to be on his head and damned if he hadn't shot the old man with a deliberation that came so easily it scared him. After all those years of being around killing, you'd think a man'd get used to it. What good was it, Gus, to do something so stupid, to try to kill another man's son? It wasn't like it would bring your own, long-dead boy back.

Johnny wondered why it was so hot all of a sudden and he found he couldn't breathe. He was back in the bedroom under the eaves. There was a buzzing in his ears. He was so thirsty. . .there was Esther, bringing him some lemonade. . .just what he needed.

*** *** ***

Chapter 12

Trigger ~ To be the cause of: bring , bring about , bring on , cause , effect , effectuate , generate , induce , ingenerate , lead to , make , occasion , result in , secure , set off , stir (up), touch off .

There was a pungent aroma in Johnny's nostrils; his eyes flew open and he jerked back in his chair. "What the hell?" Johnny pushed the Doc's hand away from his face, angry. He glared up at Sam and saw the old doctor frowning at him with concern. "What?" Johnny asked in a bad temper.

"I'm not used to seeing you faint over a few stitches, Johnny."

"I didn't faint!"

"You did look pretty green," Scott observed. He tried not to smile.

"I didn't faint," Johnny protested.

Sam started to pack his medical supplies into his black bag. "Of course not. My mistake, Johnny. You know. . ." The doctor stopped his packing and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder if I should start carrying a much larger bag. It seems to me that with all of the business I get out here on the ranch I really need to be better equipped."

***

Breakfast brought the good news that Pedro had been located.

One of the men sent to locate the missing ranch hand returned at dawn to inform Murdoch that Pedro was up at the Black Mesa line camp, in pretty fair shape considering Walt had left him for dead. Pedro was banged up but was able to tell Brewer, who had discovered him lying in a shallow ravine, that Walt had run off his horse and then stampeded the herd of cattle in his direction. Pedro was puzzled and angry that the young man who had worked by his side for some years had turned on him. Nobody had an answer as to what had made Walt betray their friendship.

Later that morning, once the Secret Service agents and their wagonload of dead assassins were gone, everyone sighed with relief. Fox, his face discolored from Scott's punch, ignored both of the Lancer boys who stood nearby with arms folded over their chests, but he halted in front of Murdoch to deliver some parting words. "Those sons of yours are nothing but trouble, Lancer, and you'd do well to remember that this is not over yet. Not by a long shot."

Johnny leaned towards Scott and said in a loud voice, "His red nose matches that cravat he's wearin'."

Fox raised his hand to stab a finger at Murdoch's chest but the angry gleam in the big rancher's eye gave a warning that even Fox could understand. The agent retracted his hand and spat, "I plan to bring charges--"

President Grant's voice boomed from the doorway as he said, "You will do no such thing, Agent Fox. It has come to my attention that you had knowledge of this Bradley Trader and his men being in this area, and also knew that both he and his uncle were known spies for the Confederacy and compatriots of Ward and Booth. Yet you never informed any of us about the danger we were in." He leaned forward and added in a quieter tone, "These people are under my protection, such as it is, and you'll do well to apologize to our host and be on your way before I have charges leveled upon you. If you ever do anything to harm these folks I'll have your head. Literally." Then Grant clapped a hand on Murdoch's back and smiled broadly. "I think you need to come back inside, my friend, and continue our game of poker. We can't have it said that an old soldier like me lost a game of strategy to a cattle rancher, can we?"

Once Fox was riding down the drive and finally leaving the Lancer ranch, Murdoch turned to Grant and asked, "How did you know that Fox was aware of Trader and his unit being close by?" As far as Murdoch knew nobody had been in contact with the President since his arrival at Lancer.

Johnny and Scott watched Grant closely but apart from a smug look, the big man gave no response. Scott slowly smiled and said, "I think that my father had better be very careful when he wagers with you at the poker table, Sir."

"You're bluffing," Johnny accused the President.

Grant's smile broadened and he placed a fatherly hand on Johnny's shoulder as they entered the house. "Agent Fox has always been secretive, as befits his profession, but this time his actions were over-zealous and nearly caused mortal harm to both my son and to you gentlemen. I hope that Mr. Fox had the best of intentions." He paused to light a cigar. After a couple of puffs, Grant settled at the table set out for gambling and said to no one in particular, "I believe it would be best if Agent Fox retires from the service. I never should have appointed a Democrat. Let us have peace, as is our slogan. Yes, indeed." He tossed some chips into the center of the table. "Ante up," he ordered.

***

Grant and his son stayed on for two more days. Although both of them stayed close to the hacienda, they seemed to enjoy their time in the company of the Lancers.

After some hesitation, Ulysses let Johnny teach him a little about using a six-gun, and Scott insisted his hands were not so bad that he couldn't indulge the young man in a shooting contest with their Remington rifles. By the time the President and Ulysses left the Lancer ranch, the two families had made lifelong friends with each other and the Lancers had accepted an invitation to the White House in Washington in the near future.

***

"Prisoner's in there," Val said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the only occupied cell in his jail. "Damned if I've ever heard a woman swear like that, and I've heard a lot in my time."

Johnny could not find it in himself to respond with a smile. He hesitated, unsure if he was doing the right thing by seeing Esther Weatherby for one last time.

Val said in a low voice, "They're comin' for her shortly, so if you're gonna talk to the woman you'd better do it now--"

Johnny nodded and opened the heavy door that led back to the holding cells. Esther was located in the nearest cell. Whatever Johnny had expected to see - a broken, weeping, distraught woman, most likely - he was wrong in his expectation. The old woman, looking small and decidedly out of place, sat primly on the edge of the jailhouse cot, working on some embroidery.

She didn't look up when Johnny stepped up to the bars, but she said, "Bradley will be along soon, with my Gus, to take me home. I'm just waitin' on them."

Unsure if she even had a grip on reality, Johnny replied, "They're not coming for you, Ma'am. They're both dead."

Esther's head snapped up. Her eyes narrowed in anger. "They can't be dead. I don't believe you!" the woman spat. "My Gus is far too clever. He cooked up the scheme with Bradley. Bradley's old unit were itching for a fight and joined us right off when they heard what was cooking." She continued making neat stitches in the cloth as she spoke. "Gus and I had to set things right because of what that General Grant did to our son. My boy died in a Northern camp because that God-damned President Grant stopped the prisoner exchange! Just put an end to all hope, he did, the evil devil! We've been working against the Union ever since then, and we aim to do so until we draw our last breath."

Johnny spoke without emotion. "Gus and Bradley are gone, Esther. The whole unit was wiped out."

Esther looked up, confused. "Oh no, my boy. You've got it all wrong. Vernal Ward was the only one killed." She wagged her head and tutted. "I told Vernal the timing was all wrong when he wanted to go after Grant back in Washington. He almost ruined it for the rest of us, and he was about to mess up our plans once again. I told him not to interfere. He really should have listened to me. Gus killed Vernal the night Bradley went over to Atwater to get you. Cut his throat."

Johnny swallowed. Even though it was very hard to imagine the kindly old doctor as a murderer, after what he'd witnessed in the Lancer kitchen Johnny believed her. "Did Walt listen to you?" He hated to ask anything of Esther, but he wanted to understand why Walt had turned against them.

"Walt? Oh yes, the Lancer ranch hand that Bradley recruited. We heard he held a grudge against you for letting him take a bullet in your stead during a quarrel. Wasn't it about a horse?" She shrugged and said absently, "He was just a pawn." Esther's expression changed, and when she smiled it was as if a cloud had passed by and the sun came out. She put her handiwork aside, moved up to the bars and smiled fondly at Johnny. "You were a good boy for the most part. A good son. Listened to your mother. Told us everything we wanted to know in the end." A frown of concern creased the old woman's forehead. "Except you didn't drink my lemonade."

"No, Esther, I didn't drink it," Johnny replied. He felt pity in his heart even though he didn't want to. He had a clear picture of who Esther and Gus really were. Although Johnny's mind understood what Gus had done, and what he had intended to do, there was still a small piece of his heart that went out to the sad, frail woman who was going to hang for her part in the conspiracy.

Esther's pale, watery eyes rose to meet Johnny's. She slowly extended one blue-veined hand and touched him lightly on the cheek. With a sweet smile she reprimanded Johnny. "You're a bad boy, you know. You should have taken those pills with my lemonade. Don't tell Gus," she whispered, "because he wanted you to sleep 'til he came back. But I made up those pills myself, special because I like you. Packed with enough arsenic to kill you right quick. I know what's best for you, my son. My boy. Better than Gus returning and cutting your throat when you were no longer any use to him."

She reached out to touch Johnny's hair, but he stepped back quick, unable to say anything in response to Esther's confession. He had thought she had tried to give him something to make him sleep, to keep him still until Gus and Bradley returned from their raid on Lancer. Good thing he had spat those pills out. Suddenly Johnny felt sick to his stomach.

She smiled a bittersweet smile. "You looked like a little boy when you were asleep. You know, Gus worked real hard to convince you that so much time had gone by. He even printed up that newspaper to show you. That did the trick, didn't it? It hurt me, though, to see you in so much pain when you thought your whole family had been wiped out."

"My God, Bradley and Gus and those men were going to do it in reality, Esther," Johnny said. "They set out to kill my family! Can't you see that?"

"A small sacrifice, my boy."

The door behind him opened and Val called out, "The marshal's wagon is comin' up the street, Johnny. Time's up."

Esther tidied her hair and said, "Go and tell Gus I'm coming. I won't be a moment."

Johnny turned and rushed out of the jail, and it wasn't until he got out of the building that he was able to take in a good breath. His chest heaved as he inhaled the fresh air and thought about how close his family had come to being murdered. After a couple of minutes he wiped his mouth, relieved he wasn't going to lose his lunch after all.

The armored prison vehicle pulled up outside the jailhouse. Val stuck his head out and after a couple of seconds cautiously asked, "You gonna stick around for this, Johnny?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, Val, I am goin' home." In the time it took him to tighten the girth on Barranca's saddle and mount, two armed guards had stepped down from the van and were heading into the jail. Johnny dug his heels into his horse and headed out of town as fast as he could.

***

It was several days before Johnny told his brother what Esther and Gus Weatherby had done to him and how they had convinced him that his whole family had been wiped out. The brothers sat side by side on the top fencepost of the corral and Johnny haltingly explained how the Doc and his wife had somehow turned a few days into months. "I had no reason to doubt them," he said.

When Johnny had finished what he wanted to say, Scott asked to see the newspaper clipping. Johnny pulled it out of his pocket and passed the folded paper to his brother. While Scott inspected it, Johnny watched a couple of young colts run around the corral, kicking up their heels, full of friskiness and life.

"Pretty convincing," Scott said when he'd finished reading the account of the raid on Lancer and the assassination of President Grant. "They had no idea Grant was going to bring his son along. I'll bet they looked on Ulysses' presence as an added bonus. Not that killing any of us would achieve anything."

Johnny admitted that even now he had unreasonable moments of panic that it had all been true. "I wake up at night, sweatin'. There's no sound in the house. I'm all alone. I know, just know that you and Murdoch and Teresa. . .you're all . . ."

Scott said, "It was all a smokescreen, Johnny."

When Scott went to hand the piece of newspaper back, Johnny waved it away. He wanted no part of it. "Burn it." Eventually Johnny said, "You know, when I thought you'd all died while I'd been unconscious and. . . useless . . .I just wished I'd been here with you." He stole a glance at Scott. "It seemed all wrong. Hell, I should have known it was all a big lie."

Scott didn't say anything for a while, just studied the horses. Finally, he took in a stuttering breath. Lowering his head, he drew his brows together. "It's easy for me to say, yes, you should have known better, but Johnny, it sounds like they had a very good plan. It also sounds like they kept you drugged most of the time. Naturally, your mind was muddled. I'm sure it was hard to put a thought together. I mean they went so far as to fake a newspaper article. I'm just very glad you caught on before you ingested that arsenic."

"I think you're bein' way too nice, Scott."

Laying a hand on his brother's shoulder, Scott smiled as he took in Johnny's profile. "I'm a nice person." His smile widened but it soon faded away. "Brother, your warning saved us all. If they hadn't coerced the information from you, they still would have tried to kill Grant. They'd have found a way."

"But I liked the Doc. I told him everything."

"You can't blame yourself for needing someone to talk to when you thought your whole life had been destroyed. It's only natural."

Johnny sighed and shook his head, his heels beating a steady rhythm against the corral fence. "I guess. And I guess a lot of people came out of the war with some pretty deep scars whether they were on the battlefield or not." He glanced over and saw the grimace that flew across his brother's face. "I'm just glad you seem normal."

Scott's head came up and he looked wide-eyed at his brother. Then, a slow grin came to his lips. "It's better to seem normal than to know you're completely abnormal, like *some* people."

Johnny laughed lightly and jumped off the fence. He leaned against the railing and tapped his brother on the leg before lowering his head. "Guess now I'll have to tell Murdoch all of this, too."

"I think he has a right to know the hell his son went through and how close we came to losing you. Besides, there's always a bright side." Scott eased himself off the railing and stood beside his brother, crossing his arms.

"What would that be, pray tell?"

Scott's lips twitched. "Well, I wouldn't be surprised if our father received some sort of medal for his bravery."

Johnny's entire face brightened for the first time since he returned from his imprisonment. "Yeah? That would be great and he deserves it!"

Shaking his head, Scott wrapped an arm around his brother's shoulders and started walking them toward the house. So do you, he thought. So do you, brother.

 

 

~end~

 

Notes:
In 1864, during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant , the commanding general of all the Union's armies, suspended the exchange of prisoners-of-war . This decision cut off a badly needed source of reinforcement for the outnumbered, manpower-starved South.  John Wilkes Booth 's initial plot was to kidnap Lincoln and to hold him hostage, forcing his government to resume its earlier policy of exchanging prisoners.

Booth's plan failed so he then plotted to simultaneously kill President Lincoln, Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth believed their deaths would throw the Union government into chaos for enough time that the Confederacy could mount a resurgence . On the night in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were not in attendance at the theater as planned and narrowly missed being killed.

Vernal Ward, a former Confederate spy and cohort of the late John Wilkes Booth mounted the next known plot against President Grant. Ward and his cronies planned to kidnap Grant when the President traveled to California to learn first-hand about the thriving cattle business. While kidnapping the son of Murdoch Lancer, a rancher, Vernal Ward had a run-in with his co-conspirators, and was killed. The Weatherbys and their nephew, Bradley Trader, along with his former wartime soldiers continued with their plans, but ultimately failed.

A n investigation of the farmhouse where Johnny Lancer had been an unwitting captive revealed a freshly dug grave behind the barn. Although the body found buried there was never identified, he was believed to be Vernal Ward, a known compatriot of Booth and a suspect in the Lincoln assassination.

Esther Weatherby was scheduled to be hanged for her part in the assassination plot against Grant, but due to her age and being a female was instead given a life sentence to be served at a Federal prison. However, on the day she was to be transferred from the court jailhouse she died of natural causes. She was buried just outside Atwater next to her husband, Dr. Gus Weatherby, whose degree in medical science was found to be limited to the veterinary field. Many years later, when forensic scientists exhumed their bodies Esther Weatherby's cause of death was determined to be arsenic poisoning.

The men who were killed during the attack on the Lancer ranch were all identified as being former members of a Confederate unit called The Rousters. Bradley Trader had been the youngest member of that unit during the War Between the States. None of the deceased were claimed by their families, so all were interred in Boot Hill on the outskirts of Atwater.

Although as soon as Grant returned to Washington, he had a committee look into Fox's actions regarding the kidnapping of Johnny Lancer and the attack on the Lancer ranch and the people therein, no evidence was ever found to indicate he was involved.

Agent Fox was relieved of his duties under the Grant administration. His whereabouts over the next several years is unknown. In 1885, Fox reappeared as the personal bodyguard of the newly elected president, Grover Cleveland, a Democrat. Fox diverted an assassination attempt on the President but was mortally wounded during the fracas. Despite supposition that Fox was ducking out of the way rather than shielding Cleveland, and was hit by a stray shot, he was posthumously awarded a medal for bravery under fire.

Grant's second son, Ulysses Grant, Jr. went on after Harvard to graduate from the Law School of Columbia University in 1876. He married, worked in the field of law and finance. A partnership with a Ferdinand Ward resulted in bankruptcy and Ward spent time in jail for fraud. It is believed that Ward's father was the late Vernal Ward, though the relationship was never proven. Ulysses, Jr. remained a lifelong friend to the Lancers, moved to California with his family and opened the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego in 1910.

~~ Some of this story was taken from history and weaved into the Lancers' lives. Reality and fiction - who can tell where one ends and the other begins?

***

It is far more important to be able to hit the target than it is to haggle over who makes a weapon or who pulls a trigger.
~ Dwight D Eisenhower, 34th US President (April 17, 1958)

 

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