“Gentlemen, and ladies…” Professor Myers, head of the English Literature Department at Harvard University, nodded toward the only two women in his classroom of forty. “You have one month before class resumes. That should give you all ample time to finish your last assignment of this semester.”
“I hope it isn’t another analysis of Shakespeare’s works.” Rachael Richards leaned over to hiss in Maggie Stewart’s ear. “One more night with Brutus and I will…”
“You will what, Miss Richards?”
Rachael turned three shades of red as she sat back in her chair. “Sorry, Professor.”
Professor Myers cleared his throat and looked pointedly at the two women. “I will be honest with you, ladies, I was against having you in my class. Women do not belong in a classroom, they belong at home caring for their husbands and rearing their children. But times are changing and I am loath to admit that I cannot stop the inevitable. I have given you both all the latitude I could throughout this semester. However for this last assignment, you will be graded just as judiciously as the men.”
Maggie Stewart arched an eyebrow. Professor Myers had constantly graded their papers harsher than any of the male students. But she held her tongue. There would be time enough after the course was finished for her to post her complaints to the dean.
“As you know…” the professor continued, now talking to the entire classroom. “Up until now, your assignments have been to dissect the writings of others. This time it will be your writings that we will be dissecting. Your assignment: Devise the perfect murder.” There was a shuffling of feet and an expectancy in the room. “Your story will consist of three parts. Firstly, you will plan a murder. Nothing as unimaginative as a shooting or a knifing, please. Your plan must be cunning, done so even the victim doesn’t know he…” Myers nodded toward Rachel and Maggie again, “or she…is dying. Secondly, you will study the victim; see how he or she reacts. How he or she interacts with family and friends. Lastly, you will describe his or her death in detail. I want to feel the anguish, the fear and the desperation of the victim. I want to know what it feels like to grab onto that last moment of conscious life, knowing it will be your last. I will grade heavily on creativity. And please, no poison, I have had my fill of Shakespeare myself.
I suggest that you find a victim. Make all your plans. Carry them out in your mind to the last detail. I don’t expect you to actually kill someone,” he added flippantly, and there was a murmur of laugher from the class. “But the best writing comes from something we know, have intimate knowledge of from personal experience or study. You are dismissed. See you all in a month.”
A low rumble grew as excited voices began discussing their assignment.
“My God,” Rachael whispered. “This is a horrible assignment. I haven’t the faintest idea of how to plan a murder. He’s doing this just so he can fail us.”
“Actually, ladies…” Byron Cole leaned forward. He had sat behind Rachael and Maggie the entire semester, never saying a word until now. “Professor Myers gives this assignment every year. I’m told there have been some terribly grizzly murders concocted by his students. Thank heavens it’s only a story.”
“I still think it is a ghastly assignment. One that will surely put us at the back of the class.”
Maggie smiled, gathering up her books and writing paper. “I have no intention of going to the back of the class, Rachael. I have the inklings of a plan already. I will see you all in one month.”
“Where are you going?” Rachel called as Maggie rushed down the stairs of the auditorium. “To Morro Coyo, remember? My Uncle Sam is expecting me.”
Chapter One –
“I’ve never seen Doc so fidgety.” Johnny grinned, pulling Barranca to a stop in front of the stage depot. “I mean look at him, you’d think that he was walking on hot coals.”
“He does look a little nervous,” Murdoch agreed. “This will be the first time he’s met his niece. He’s talked about her for years. She’s about your age, Johnny.”
“And smart,” Scott added. “One of only two women in English Lit at Harvard. That’s saying something.”
Johnny snorted. “She probably looks like Hannah Gallagher, that librarian over in Stockton. Ya know, tiny little mouth, long spindly nose, and them beady little eyes looking out from them horn rimmed glasses.” Johnny shuddered at the thought.
“I seem to remember that she thought you were just about the prettiest thing she ever did see in a pair of pants, little brother.”
Johnny eyed Scott coldly and Scott turned his face away, not able to wipe the grin off his face.
“You boys behave, you hear me?” Murdoch warned, as they took their place behind Sam in front of the depot. He had to laugh at his old friend Sam Jenkins, as he paced nervously back and forth. He truly was in a panic over meeting his niece for the first time. “Sam’s expecting you two to escort his niece around while he’s on his rounds. You two are the closest thing he has to family here, and he looks upon you both as the sons he never had. I expect you both to show her a nice..safe…time while she’s with us.”
“Why does she have to stay with us, Murdoch? Sam’s got a back room at the clinic, or the hotel’s got vacancies.”
“We’ve already discussed this, Johnny. We have the room and Sam will feel much safer knowing that she is being taken care of. Besides, she is only a couple years older than Teresa and Teresa could use the company.”
“I have to agree with Johnny, Sir. We will be walking around on eggshells for the next three weeks. One wrong word…”
“The decision is made, so make the best of it. I believe that’s the stage now.”
The three PM stage pulled in right on schedule according to the grizzly old driver…twenty minutes late according to Maggie Stewart’s watch. Time, she decided, was not an important commodity here in the west. This was not Connecticut.
The train ride from the station outside of Harvard had been an experience she would never forget. She knew she was bucking tradition… a young women traveling alone was not a common sight. And she had more than one middle aged woman reprimanding her, and several overly helpful gentlemen offer their help. All in all it was a pleasant and interesting trip. Until the stagecoach.
The man sitting beside her smelled of old cigars and constantly belched stale whiskey. The old woman sitting ram rod straight in the seat in front of her, dressed in a faded black dress that spoke of years of hard work, made it known that she thought it inappropriate for a young woman to be riding the stage alone, even though she herself was unaccompanied.
The only thing that made the trip endurable was her writing. She had written an outline for her story. She even had the method by which she was going to kill her victim. Now she just needed to pick the victim. She would, of course, anonymously tell her uncle what she had done in time to save his life. After all she was not a murderer…she was a writer documenting an event.
Stiff from the long journey, she allowed the other two passengers to get out first. They were greeted by friends and disappeared inside the depot. She assumed the four men left standing in front of the stage depot’s door were her uncle and the Lancer’s. Uncle Sam had written about them often in his letters to her. He seemed very close to them. As she looked out the stage window she studied each man and applied names to the faces. Uncle Sam was easy to spot, he was the spitting image of her Aunt Harriet. The taller of the men standing behind Uncle Sam was obviously Murdoch Lancer. Uncle Sam had said that he was a bear of a man. And he was. He towered over everyone around him. To his left was the second tallest man. He was blonde and held his shoulders erect…military training stayed with a man for a lifetime. That had to be Scott Lancer. Which left the slightly shorter, dark haired man to his left; Johnny Lancer. She had somehow expected a harsher looking man. Brutal even, given his past lifestyle. She would have to get to know these two men before she passed judgment. Because she knew now, that she had her victim in sight. It was just now a matter of blonde or brunette.
Smoothing the wrinkles out of her dress, she wondered what they would think of her. At times she wished she was pretty like Rachael Richards. Rachael always wore the newest styles, had her blonde hair piled high on her head, little ringlets hanging down by her ears. Maggie on the other hand had no time for such nonsense. She wore a plain dark brown skirt and white high collared blouse. The cameo hung around her neck was her only attempt at fashion. Her hair was a mousy brown, and she kept it secured in a tight bun at the back of her neck. She was short and thin and lacked any of the feminine curves Rachael so blatantly tried to display. The horn rimmed glasses she wore were a result of too many hours reading fine print in bad lighting. The glasses magnified her startling light blue eyes, so light that they were nearly colorless. She found most people found it hard to look at her without staring at her eyes.
She took a deep breath as Uncle Sam reached a hand in to help her out.
Scott heard a suppressed guffaw from Johnny as he slipped behind Scott’s back. Scott poked Johnny hard in the ribs with his elbow and was satisfied to hear a muffled grunt.
He watched Sam help the young woman from the stage and embrace her gently.
“Gentlemen,” Sam beamed with pride, directing her to the three waiting Lancers. “Allow me to introduce my niece Maggie Stewart.”
Maggie curtsied slightly then offered her hand to Murdoch. “It is so nice to meet you all at last, she said, squeezing his hand firmly. “Uncle Sam has written about you frequently.”
“And he speaks of you often.” Murdoch smiled.
“You must be Scott Lancer.” She moved on to Scott offering her hand. “I understand you are a Harvard graduate. We have a lot to talk about.”
“Indeed we do.” Scott smiled, trying to keep his composure. She could have been Hannah Gallagher’s twin sister.
“Which makes you Johnny Lancer.”
“I guess it does,” Johnny answered. There was a twinkle in his eyes which both annoyed and intrigued Maggie. It appeared that Johnny Lancer wasn’t anything like she envisioned.
“And Teresa?” She looked around but did not see a young woman standing near. She had hoped to meet her right away. She knew she would learn everything she needed to know about the Lancer brothers through her. The sooner she made up her mind the sooner she could begin her plan.
“She stayed home to ready the house for you and to see over dinner.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you are opening your home to me, Mr. Lancer. When Uncle Sam first suggested I spend spring break with him here in Morro Coyo I was ready to politely refuse his offer. With him on rounds and my staying in a strange hotel…”
“Well you don’t have to worry about a thing now,” Sam grinned. “We will be at the Lancer’s in an hour or so. In fact here is my buggy now.” Nate, the livery boy drove Sam’s buggy to the stage depot and nodded his head in eager appreciation as Murdoch flipped him a dollar gold piece. “Thanks, Mr. Lancer.”
Five minutes later the buggy was loaded with her luggage and they were off. Maggie smiled brightly. There was already a plethora of information for her story. It was just too bad that one of these nice young men was going to have to suffer for her. But she would not be left at the back of the class.
The ride to the Lancer ranch was longer than Maggie expected. She was tired and hungry and in desperate need of a bath. A real bath. She had not seen a decent bathroom since leaving Connecticut. When they stopped at the top of the hill to look down in the valley where the Lancer house stood she barely noticed it. She was anxious for that bath and also some privacy so she could jot down the notes that were swirling in her head. Uncle Sam had been a treasure trove of knowledge. And with every new detail she learned she was that much closer to picking her victim.
It was nearly five in the afternoon, and the sky was beginning to cloud over. April rains were as true here as they were back east. But she could only imagine the mess a rain would bring to all this dirt. She had not seen a cement sidewalk since leaving Harvard. Granted it was a new invention…but is was so wonderful to walk on something beside uneven boardwalks or dirt and mud. It was going to be a long three weeks.
Teresa heard the horses enter the courtyard and she hurriedly slipped off her apron. She didn’t want her guest to see that she had worked so hard to get the house sparkling clean. Sam’s niece must have been used to houses so much finer than this. But she was proud of Lancer. It was her birthplace, and it was an extension of herself. If Maggie Stewart didn’t like the house then how could she like the girl who ran it?
She opened the door and saw Sam pull his buggy to a stop.
Teresa was not sure what she had expected her guest to look like, but it wasn’t the thin shrewish woman who Sam helped out of his carriage. Teresa felt immediately more comfortable. She was sure Miss Stewart would arrive in the finest fashions from back east. She unconsciously straightened her dark beige skirt and green blouse. Perhaps tomorrow she could go back to wearing her more comfortable clothes.
“Teresa, my dear.” Sam held out his hand to her, his love and respect for her written all over his face. Teresa had worked side by side with him many times over the past three years. No one in his estimation came close to her courage or her nursing skills. “I have waited a long time to introduce you two ladies. Teresa, my niece Maggie Stewart.”
Maggie smiled and took Teresa’s hand. Her eyes were so light Teresa found herself unable to look away. “We’re so happy to have you staying with us Miss Stewart.”
“Call me Maggie. And I am so happy to be here. I’ve read so much about the – quote wild west – that I’m ashamed to admit I feel like a school girl on a great adventure. I know the next three weeks are going to fly by.”
“You look tired,” Teresa observed. “Let me show you your room then I’ll take you over to the bathhouse.”
Maggie looked suddenly dejected. “You don’t have a bath here in the house?”
Teresa blushed. “I’m afraid not. We sometimes bring a bath up to the room if one of the men are hurt. But most of the time we just bathe in the bathhouse. It is connected to the kitchen so you don’t have to walk far.”
“I could have Jelly bring a tub to your room,” Murdoch offered.
“Nonsense. I don’t want to be any extra trouble. The bathhouse will be fine. I’ll unpack and bring down a fresh set of clothes.”
“The guest rooms are on this floor,” Teresa gently led Maggie down the hallway. “I’m sure you will be comfortable here. Just call when you are ready and I will show you the way. And by the way…dinner is at six. Murdoch doesn’t tolerate anyone being late to the supper table.”
Maggie heard the door close behind her and collapsed on the bed. She was exhausted, but there was so much more to do. She was determined to pick her victim before she closed her eyes tonight. Tomorrow the first of her plan would have to go into effect. She would begin assembling everything she needed. Then she would begin to check out the house. She would need to know the house, inside and out, like the back of her hand. She had very little time to orchestrate the perfect murder.
“Dinner was superb,” Maggie sat back in her chair, not a morsel left on her plate. Sam sat beside her, his plate equally empty. When she had seen the table piled high with roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and biscuits, she had thought the food, though plentiful, would be like everything else she tasted out west, bland and unimaginative. It was anything but. “I can’t believe I ate so much. My compliments to the chief.”
“That would be Teresa and Maria. You will meet Maria tomorrow, she had to leave early today. It is well known that we have the two best cooks in all of the San Joaquin Valley,” Murdoch said with pride.
“I can see no way you could top this.”
“Oh I think you will find tomorrow’s dinner very interesting.” Scott grinned. “Maria reserves one day a week to prepare Johnny his favorite Mexican foods.”
“Si.” Johnny grinned, his eyes twinkling with merriment. “It took Scott here a few tries to learn to like ‘em. Now he eats almost everything. Tamale soup, enchiladas, molcajete, chile relleno, chimichangas, flautas, tortillas, tamales…”
“But I still stay away from the habaneras. Once was enough.”
“Habaneras?” Maggie asked.
“Hot peppers,” Teresa explained. “They are so hot that Maria uses gloves when she cuts a lot of them.”
“Well, maybe I will have to give them a tiny taste.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it, Maggie.” Murdoch laughed.
“Listen to his advice, Maggie,” Sam chuckled. “Believe me, I know.”
Everyone laughed and Scott refilled everyone’s wine glass. “I know you’re tired tonight, Maggie, but I am looking forward to hearing how things are going at Harvard. It’s been several years since I attended.”
“I’m sure it hasn’t changed much. What did you major in, Scott?”
“History with a minor in Accounting. And you?”
“I minored in Medicine, but dropped out. Sorry, Uncle Sam, but it wasn’t for me. I’m afraid I fainted at the sight of blood.”
“No apology necessary.” Sam patted her hand fondly. “I’m sure you will be a great authoress someday.”
“That is the plan. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I will turn in for the night. It has been a long day.”
“Of course.” Teresa jumped up. “If you need anything during the night just call.”
“I’ll be fine. I’m sure I will be asleep before my head hits the pillow. Goodnight everyone.”
A chorus of goodnights followed and she made her way down the hallway to her room. This room was larger than the small attic room she rented from the Spencer’s a mile off campus. The mattress was firm and a fresh wash basin of water and towels awaited her. She almost felt sorry for what she was about to do. But she had a goal, and nothing would get in the way of it. She would graduate with top honors from Harvard. Professor Myers would be forced to give her a score of one hundred percent on her assignment. She would not be content with just a passing grade. That is why simply conjuring up thoughts of what it would be like for her victim was not enough. She had to see the entire ordeal played out in front of her.
She laid her head on the soft pillow and sighed with contentment. Tomorrow would be a full day. She had supplies to buy and she had to stop by Uncle Sam’s office when he was out on a call for a few things. She knew her plan would work now. And she knew which one of the brothers would be her victim. It was too bad that he would have to suffer.
Sunrise came a lot earlier in California than it did in Connecticut. Maggie forced one eye open and looked at the dim light that shone in through her bedroom window. The sun was barely up and already there were men outside laughing and joking. The sounds of horses clomping by, the heavy rumble of wooden wagon wheels made it impossible for her to go back to sleep. With a heavy sigh she got up and freshened up before donning another one of her dark skirts and white high collared blouses. There was no need to alter her regimen. After all, this was a working vacation.
She glanced at her journal sitting on the small desk and opened it, drawing a long thin finger down the page, organizing her day. If all went well, she could set her plan into motion tomorrow night.
Timing was crucial. She had to execute her plan carefully, carrying it out to the last moment, before saving her victim with an anonymous note. Then she could make her apologies for her shortened stay and get back to her tiny attic room outside Harvard to write her story.
She closed the journal slowly and hid it beneath her clothes in the second drawer of her bureau. To have someone inadvertently read it now would ruin everything.
Satisfied, she closed the bedroom door behind her and headed for the kitchen.
Maggie found everyone half finished with their breakfast as she entered the great room. Breakfast, Uncle Sam had written, was normally served in the kitchen, and she felt a sense of pride that they had decided to eat at the dinning table for her benefit.
“Maggie.” Teresa grinned. “We thought we’d let you sleep this morning since you had such a long trip yesterday. Sit down. I hope you like scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits.”
“Sounds wonderful. I’m starving. But I don’t know how after the meal I ate last night.”
“It’s the fresh air,” Scott said. “I was the same way when I first got here.”
“Now he eats like he’s feeding two,” Johnny laughed.
“No more than you, little brother,” Scott scoffed, reaching over to pat Johnny’s belly before Johnny slapped his hand away. Scott knew there wasn’t an ounce of fat on his brother’s muscled frame.
“Settle down you two,” Murdoch warned, but there was no anger in his voice. He turned his attention to Maggie. “Well my dear, how did you sleep last night?”
“Fine I guess. I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow and I didn’t wake up until I heard the commotion outside.”
“I’m sorry about that. But this is a working ranch. Life here starts at the crack of dawn.”
“Earlier for some of us,” Teresa piped in.
“And we’re all grateful, Querida,” Johnny grinned, lifting his plate. “You got seconds back there?”
Maggie settled in, feeling the comfort and camaraderie of the Lancer family. She felt a pang of regret for what she was about to do. But she would let not anyone or anything stand in her way now.
“Who is your professor, Maggie?” Scott asked, chuckling at the second heaping plate Teresa handed Johnny.
“I met the man a few times. Fair but tough.”
“Tough is right. Fair I’m not sure about.”
Scott raised an eyebrow.
“He doesn’t think women belong in the classroom and has come right out and said so. He deliberately grades our papers lower than the rest of the class.”
“I think that’s terrible,” Teresa said, sitting down at the table. “A woman is just as smart as a man. Don’t you think so, Scott?”
Scott nodded. “With the same education opportunities, yes I agree.”
“A woman can do anything a man can do.” Teresa nodded her head triumphantly.
“I wouldn’t go that far, chica.” Johnny pointed his fork at her. “I ain’t never seen a woman break a bronc or wrestle a steer to the ground.”
“Maybe because you never give us a chance,” Teresa shot back.
“Maybe we know you’d break your pretty little necks trying.” Johnny grinned.
“Johnny, Teresa…that’s enough, we have company,” Murdoch warned good- naturedly.
“Well, I’m willing to try anytime whenever you’re willing to show me how, Johnny Lancer,” Teresa shot back as she started to clear the table.
“Fine. I’m roundin’ up a string of horses today. The first one will be yours tomorrow morning.”
“Fine. I’ll be ready.”
“It’s a date.” Johnny smiled, walking around the table to stand behind Teresa and peck her on the cheek. “I’ll be waiting.” He grabbed the last biscuit from the plate and juggled it in his hand as he headed for the door. “See ya. And…” He grinned back at Maggie. “You can join us too if ya like.”
Maggie sat back in her chair and just drank in the feeling of family. She missed her family back east in New York. She hadn’t seen them since she started Harvard. When she graduated with honors at the end of this school year she would visit them for a few weeks. They would be so proud.
Murdoch watched Johnny close the French door behind him. “I thought Johnny and you were going to escort Maggie around town today.” He raised an eyebrow at Scott.
“That was the plan, Sir. But Joe said he saw a herd of strays running by Timberlake. We thought if you didn’t mind, Maggie, that Teresa and I would show you around.”
Murdoch nodded before Maggie could say a thing. “Good idea. Now.” Murdoch set his napkin down on the table. “I have work to do too. Maggie, I will leave you in the capable hands of my son and my ward.” He winked. “And I’ll see you for lunch if you’re back in time.”
“I don’t want to be any bother.”
“No bother, my dear. Scott will use any excuse to get out of work. And Teresa needs supplies in town. So I believe everyone will be happy.”
“And Johnny? He still has to work? It seems unfair.”
“Believe me…” Scott smiled. “Johnny is happiest when he’s out on the range.”
The trip into town was a pleasant one. Scott drove the buckboard as Teresa and Maggie giggled most of the way. Maggie didn’t have many friends. She had no time for the frivolous pursuits that some of the women at school found more important than homework. And few men looked at her more than once. Why should they, she thought, with her sterile looks, hair pulled back tightly and glasses emphasizing her overly- light blue eyes, they had no reason. So it was good to have Teresa to talk to. And she also gleamed more important information about her intended victim and his brother.
Her first stop was at Uncle Sam’s office. She had spent twenty minutes with him before he was called out on an emergency. Her uncle reluctantly left, promising that either Teresa or Scott would be back to escort her around town in no time. She happily sent him off, reassuring him that she would be fine. Inwardly she was ecstatic. This was her chance to gather the supplies she needed from her uncle’s medicine cabinet.
To her surprise she found it unlocked. She gathered several packets of sleeping powders and a reserved bottle of Chloral Hydrate. Rummaging through drawers she finally found everything she had come for. From talking to Teresa she knew the young woman had the rest of the medicines she would be needing in her pantry. She found a wooden box where he kept his extra syringes…two only, they were hard to come by outside of a hospital. But he had an extra supply of needles and she picked the longest one she could find. She was happy that she had taken a semester of medicine at Harvard. Even though it wasn’t for her, it gave her a rudimentary knowledge of the human body. Without it she would never have been able to pull off the perfect murder.
Putting all her supplies into her handbag, she sat down to wait for Teresa or Scott, confident that her plan would work.
Teresa arrived first, apologetic that Maggie had to wait alone after Sam left. Maggie convinced her that she had spent almost no time alone at all and they both sat down to wait for Scott.
“Tell me about Johnny and Scott,” Maggie said. “Uncle Sam told me bits and pieces, but I never got a full picture of them. I have to say that I am surprised that Johnny is so young and…”
“Nothing like a gunfighter,” Teresa finished for her. “I know. He never wanted to be one, you know. Circumstances made him a gun for hire…but he was never a killer.”
“When I came here, I thought I would be afraid of him.”
“You have nothing to be afraid of from Johnny Lancer. But, if you ever cause Johnny Madrid to appear…I’ve only seen him as Madrid once, but when I did I couldn’t believe it was the same man. I hope you never have to see him.”
“I don’t intend to. What about Scott…they seem so different. How do they get along so well?”
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Teresa remembered a shadow coming over her face. “After Johnny was shot both Murdoch and Scott spent a lot of time in his bedroom nursing him. Then when he could get around he was suspicious of everyone and everything at first. I think Johnny really wanted to be part of a family, he just didn’t know how. And Scott, he wanted to prove to Johnny that he could trust him, that he could trust all of us. Slowly Scott and Johnny began to form a friendship, then trust. Now they are inseparable.”
“What about Murdoch?”
“Scott and Murdoch get along just fine. But Johnny and Murdoch, that’s another story. They still have fights…oh do they ever have fights…but Johnny always comes back. I think Johnny knows he will never have anything as good as he has at Lancer.”
“Last question…Are you going to take Johnny up on that horse breaking tomorrow morning?”
Teresa looked at her in astonishment. “Heavens no! I wouldn’t get near one of those wild horses. That is just Johnny’s way of teasing me. He wouldn’t let me near one either. And I think Scott would have both our heads if we tried.”
Teresa laughed. “He would banish all three of us to hard labor.”
“It sounds like you all love each other very much.”
“We do. I don’t know what I would do if something happened to one of them.”
Maggie felt the medical supplies she had hidden in her bag and she knew she should feel guilty for what she was about to do…but she would not go to the back of the class.
Dinner was a success with Maggie only downing two glasses of milk. The second one, to everyone’s horror, was because she insisted on trying the habaneras. Red faced and panting, her glasses were soon off and she was wiping away the tears.
“Never,” she said through gasps, “will I ever not believe someone when they say something is hot. Great heavens above, those peppers are pure fire.”
Johnny was nearly under the table, he was laughing so hard. Scott had profound sympathy for her since he had been in the same place not too long ago.
Sam sat next to Maggie and soaked up the love he felt around the table. He was a happy man. All his fears of having his niece join him were put to rest. She was a perfect match for the Lancer family…his family.
Dessert arrived and then they all adjourned to the great room. Murdoch poured the men his best scotch and gave the ladies a small glass of port. Maggie took a couple of sips then set it down. She had planning to do tonight. She couldn’t afford to be tipsy from a glass of port.
It was soon time to say goodbye to Sam, who felt it best for his patients if he went back to town, and the family headed to their bedrooms.
The days around Lancer started early and ended early. Maggie lit the lantern on the small writing desk in her room and took out her journal. Things were going just as she had planned. It seemed that lady luck was looking down at her with open arms. Everywhere she turned, opportunity awaited her. When Teresa told her that she had to go to a neighboring ranch to help with the canning she gladly saw her off, feigning tiredness. Left alone, she slowly walked through each room, carefully diagramming the furniture. She needed to walk from her room, in the dark, up the stairs to his room, without the assistance of any light. She counted the stairs, and ran back down to recount them again. She counted the doors to his room. She carefully surveyed his room. She noted where the bed was and the dresser. The nightstand next to the bed with the oil lamp. A box of matches sat next to the lamp. Only after he was sound asleep could she chance lighting the lamp. She would have to ask, casually of course, if he was neat and folded his clothes carefully or if they were strewn across the floor as he fell into bed. She didn’t want to trip over an errant boot. It could make the difference between her plan working and not working.
And she had time to visit Teresa’s pantry. She took only what she needed, and remembered to take two cups for her to mix the Chloral Hydrate and the willow bark tea.
She carefully wrapped everything she needed in several towels and slipped them under her clothes in her valise. She was all set for tomorrow night.
Tomorrow she would go over the house once more. Ask the questions that still needed answers and take a nap in the afternoon so she would be fresh for the night ahead.
It was almost time. Soon he would be her victim and the perfect murder would begin.
Maggie heard a frantic pounding on her door and she scrambled from bed, forgetting her glasses and nearly tripping over the long hem of her nightgown.
“What is it?” she called through the closed door, her heart pounding.
“Come quick,” Teresa called back. “Johnny is going to start gentling the horses, you don’t want to miss this.”
Maggie collapsed against her door. A million things had passed through her mind. What if one of the brothers were hurt? Or Killed. Her whole career, her whole life depended on her story and she needed them healthy. Their fate had to rest in her hands.
“I’ll be right there.” She walked over to the small wash table and patted the sleep from her eyes. Her hair still hung down her back. She quickly pulled it back. She would wind it up into a bun later. She did want to see Johnny gentle the horses. And she wanted to talk to both brothers today. One was as important as the other. Part of her story revolved around reactions of her victim’s sibling.
She found a dozen or more ranch hands sitting on the corral fence. They all sat motionless and silent. She spotted Teresa sitting on the fence, Scott by her side and Murdoch standing behind her, his hand resting against her back, the casual protective act of a loving father.
She was nearly to the corral before she saw what had captured everyone’s attention.
Johnny stood in the center of the corral, his hands hanging loosely at his sides. He had his back turned to the most magnificent black horse she had ever seen. The horse pranced around the corral until his curiosity got the better of him and he slowed to a stop. Then Maggie heard Johnny begin to talk. His voice was feather light. She couldn’t understand what he said, he spoke in Spanish, but his tone was so lyrical that she felt herself falling under its spell.
“What’s he saying?” she whispered.
“Nothing really. It’s not the words…it’s his voice the horse is listening to,” Scott whispered back. “Watch.”
The horse stepped a little closer and Johnny slowly lifted his right hand and gently glided his fingers down the silky muzzle. The horse shied away and Johnny lowered his arm again, his voice still soft and lyrical. The horse came back as if drawn to Johnny like the mystical call of a siren.
A half hour later Joe carried a saddle out to the center of the corral and Johnny carefully cinched the saddle tight. It seemed as if the entire crowd around the corral took a collective breath as Johnny stepped into the stirrup and swung his leg over the saddle.
The horse stood docile for a moment then exploded into a raging tornado. The once quiet crowd was now hooting and hollering…Maggie couldn’t help but join in. Then Johnny went sailing through the air. Dead silence filled the corral until Johnny got up with a sheepish grin and jumped back in the saddle.
When all was said and done, it took Johnny a little over four hours to gentle the wild horse.
“That was wonderful!” Maggie cried as Johnny limped over to the fence. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” He grinned. “You wanna take a try?”
Maggie found herself blushing. “You do that with every horse?”
“We get top dollar for the horses Johnny gentles. In fact we’ve had buyers come all the way from back east to buy one of Johnny’s horses,” Murdoch said with pride. “It may take a bit longer…and Johnny’s backside may take a beating sometimes…but there is no one better.”
Scott leaned over and pointed to a second corral. “Those horses will be broken by the other hands, under Johnny’s supervision. We wouldn’t stay in the horse business if we only broke two horses a day. But we make three times the money on one of Johnny’s horses. He hand picks them from the herd.”
“There is so much to know about ranching,” Maggie said. “I want to learn all I can while I’m here”
“That’s wonderful,” Teresa cried. “And the first thing we need to do is get you out that skirt.”
Teresa giggled at the look of horror that came over Maggie’s face. “I should have a pair of pants that will fit you, then we can go riding. Tomorrow sound good?”
Maggie looked at the Lancer brothers and nodded. “Tomorrow sounds wonderful.” She felt bad that their lives were about to change. But…she would not go to the back of the class.
Maggie forced herself to lie still, listening as the house settled down for the night. She couldn’t remember ever being so excited, or so scared. One by one she counted the bedroom doors closing. The sound of Uncle Sam moving around in the room next to hers finally quieted and she sighed in relief. She had not expected him to spend the night …of all nights. But it would not change her plans.
Timing was crucial. She had to wait until she was sure everyone in the household was fast asleep, but also give herself enough time to finish before Teresa arose before dawn.
Everything rode on this night.
The grandfather clock in the great room chimed twelve midnight. Everyone had retired two hours ago…one brother even earlier than that. It was risky, she knew, to put the sleeping powders in his glass as they sat around the fireplace in the great room talking about the day’s events. But she needed him asleep for her plan to work. What’s more, she had doubled the dose, shaking in two packets into the glass. Her hope was that he would retire as soon as he felt sleepy. And he did. She watched as his heavy eyes began to droop and his head dipped once before he stood up and excused himself.
“It’s been a long day,” he said. “See you in the morning.”
“Good night, Son,” Murdoch had called after him.
Now the house was silent. Only the sound of the crickets and the soft hooting of a barn owl broke the silence.
Slowly she climbed out of bed. She still wore the jeans Teresa had lent her. They were so much easier to get around in, far less dangerous than her skirt brushing against something and knocking it over. She closed the heavy curtains used to keep the sun out of the room during the hot summer days, and lit the lantern on the writing desk.
Carefully, she wrapped everything she needed in a small satchel and blew out the lantern. Taking a deep breath, she opened her door. The sound of the latch turning echoed loudly in her ears and she waited. Nothing stirred. It seemed that the beating of her heart in her throat would wake more people than the opening and closing of her door.
She waited for a long moment for Uncle Sam to open his door and peek out. Nothing. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves.
With the diagram she had drawn of the house fresh in her mind’s eye, she began to tip-toe down the hallway in bare feet.
The moon had not yet risen and the great room loomed huge and black before her. If not for the diagram she would never have made out the slightly darker images of the furniture that stood ready to trip her in the obstacle course to her victim’s room.
Slowly she made her way across the room. Time was of the essence…but to hurry was risky, so she took her time.
Finally she reached the stairs. There were sixteen steeps. The third from the top had a loose board and squeaked. She began to take each step one at a time, holding onto the banister with her left hand and clutching the satchel, filled with her tools for murder, close to her breast with her right.
She stopped at the thirteenth step and waited. Her heart was racing far too fast. The air felt so much warmer up here. She felt a sheen of sweat on her face. Carefully she stepped over the fourteenth step with a silent grunt and made it to the top landing. The dark hall looked like an endless tunnel before her.
As she passed the first door on her right, Maggie heard loud snores coming from within, and knew Murdoch was fast asleep. Teresa’s room was the next on the left and she heard only silence from inside. The next two rooms belonged to the brothers.
It had been a hard decision on which one to choose. Maggie had grown fond of both of the Lancer brothers faster than she expected. They were both kind, gentle men, who paid her more attention than a dozen men in a half dozen years. But she couldn’t think of it that way. She couldn’t allow them to become personal. They were a means to an end…a way for her to write the perfect murder in every exacting detail.
She passed the first door up, listening for any sound from within. This time there was a softer snore, even and rhythmic. She wondered if he slept in a nightshirt or in the raw? Where had she heard a term like that? She felt herself blushing in the darkness.
Then she was there. In front of his door. Her heart pounding. Everything from this moment on would change. Maggie Stewart would never be the same again. Innocence would be lost and blood would be on her hands. Was she willing to sacrifice so much just for one grade on one paper in one class? Had any of Professor Myer’s other students gone this far? Were there other victims out there, sacrificed for the pleasure of a masochistic teacher?
Taking a deep breath she pushed the thoughts aside. She had made her decision and she would carry it through.
The latch sounded louder here than her latch downstairs and she froze, waiting for one of the doors to open. But all remained quiet. She slipped into his room and closed the door carefully, sagging against it.
She waited, drinking in the smells, the sound of him. The aroma of leather and strong soap permeated the air. The sound of his breathing, even and deep, told her that the sleeping powders had drawn him down into a deep, drugged slumber.
She moved cautiously. A faint light from the half moon on the rise caught the shimmering sheer curtains in the light breeze. She closed the drapes and reached for the matches she hoped were on the nightstand. They were just where she had remembered them. She lit the lamp and raised the wick just enough so she could see him lying on the bed, his arms flung to his sides, his knees hanging over the edge of the bed. He had barely made it to the mattress before the sleeping powders took full affect.
With a faint smile, Maggie lifted his legs and swung them onto the mattress. He didn’t even have time to take off his boots.
“I’m sorry, Johnny, that you have to be the one…” she said softy, brushing the dark hair from his eyes. “But your struggle to survive when others would have failed makes you the one I need. I had picked Scott…but then I saw you get back on that horse after being thrown…I know you will fight this until the very end. But don’t worry, I’ll tell Sam…before it’s too late. I promise.”
She kissed him lightly on the cheek and pulled the pillow from beneath his head, tilting his chin toward the ceiling.
“I’m going to tell you everything I’m going to do so you won’t be scared,” she whispered, opening her journal and leafing to a blank page.
She looked back at him and noted in her journal that he slept peacefully…the lines of fatigue gone from his brow, his closed eyelids like dark crescent moons.
“I gave you some sleeping powders in your drink, but I’m afraid you might still wake up so I’m going to give you something a bit stronger…make sure that you stay asleep,” she continued to whisper. “We can’t have you waking up and alerting the house, or worse, remembering I was here.”
From the satchel she drew a long black tube. “This is a feeding tube,” she explained, knowing that he could not hear her, but comforted by her own voice. “You may have a sore throat tomorrow morning, but nothing more. This is the only way I can administer the Chloral Hydrate. It will keep you in a sound sleep.”
Slowly she pushed the tube down his throat. When he began to gag she gently caressed his cheek. “The worst is almost over,” she whispered. He quieted down and her stomach squeezed at the knowledge that her touch and her voice could calm him so easily.
“This,” she said, as she carefully poured a small amount of the Chloral Hydrate mixed in water into a small funnel at the end of the tube, “will keep you in a deep sleep. And this,” she said as she infused a second solution into the tube, “is willow bark tea. It will help with the pain and it is also a blood thinner.”
She carefully pulled the tube out and wrapped it in a small towel before returning it to the satchel.
“My assignment,” she spoke softly as she unbuttoned his shirt and pulled his limp arms free of the sleeves. “is to create the perfect murder. One that even the victim is unaware of. My semester of medical school gave me this idea.” She rolled him onto his side, his back to the light from the lantern. She could see some deep bruising and scrapes on his shoulder blades and back from the fall from the horse. Everywhere she turned, things just seemed to be falling into place for her. She picked up the long thin needle, wishing she could have sterilized it, but the smell of the carbolic acid would linger in the room far too long.
“You won’t feel much pain in the morning,” she promised, moving his arm out in front of him and positioning the needle above his ribcage and below his armpit. “I am going to insert this needle…” she pushed the needle, feeling the resistance of the tough outer layer of skin before it easily sank to the hilt, his body bucking as the needle hit its target, “and put a small puncture in your liver. It will begin to bleed slowly. You probably won’t even be aware of it until sometime tomorrow.” She pulled the needle out and pressed a towel against his side to stop the small amount of bleeding. “It is the perfect murder, you know. There is no reason anyone would ever suspect something like this. And if my Uncle Sam becomes too suspicious…well we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. There now.” She lifted the towel and a small puncture wound was all that was visible. With the tip of the needle she scratched his skin around the puncture to make it look like the other scrapes on his back. “Now we wait.”
Gently she rolled him onto his back again and made sure there was no more blood seeping from the puncture wound. Satisfied, she threaded his limp arms through the sleeves of his shirt again and replaced the pillow.
“I hope you can forgive me someday, Johnny.” She leaned down and kissed him softly on the lips. The warm smell of his breath made her heart leap. But there was no sacrifice too great to prove to Professor Myers and the rest of the world that she was as good as…no, better…than all the men in her class. She would not be denied. “But this will be the best paper ever written. I will of course change your names before I hand it in to the professor. And it will be so good he will be forced to publish it. Someday,” she brushed his hair back from his face, the lantern light dancing softly on his dark skin, “everyone will read your story.”
She stood up slowly. It was done. She repacked her satchel and turned down the wick in the lantern. There was still much to do tonight. Everything she did and felt must be noted in exacting detail while it was still fresh in her mind.
Maggie sat at the breakfast table, trying hard to calm her nerves. She looked across at Johnny’s seat, conspicuously empty. Did something happen after she left his room? She had been so careful. But maybe the puncture was too big or too deep…maybe he bled too quickly, went into shock.
She looked around the table. No one looked too concerned. If anything, Murdoch looked annoyed at his son’s late arrival. Uncle Sam sat next to her, lost in conversation with Scott. Teresa busied herself with the array of dishes on the table.
Then he was there, slipping into his chair in front of her with an embarrassed grin.
“Sorry,” he said. “I over slept.”
Teresa handed him a bowl of scrambled eggs, concern written on her face. “Are you feeling alight, Johnny? You look a little tired.”
And he did. Maggie noted that his eyelids drooped slightly and there was the hint of dark shadows beneath his eyes. She had hoped the effects of the sleeping powders would have dissipated by now. Would Uncle Sam recognize the systems? Was this her first mistake?
“I’m fine. I’m just dead tired this morning for some reason.”
‘Dead Tired…’ The innocent phrase startled Maggie and she coughed discreetly to hide her sudden gasp. Dead tired… such a simple phrase. She lowered her eyes to her plate. Johnny couldn’t know how right he was.
“You feel up to handling those horses today?” Murdoch asked. There was no real concern in his voce, just a question pertaining to the running of the ranch.
Johnny nodded. “I hope to get two more done this morning. Joe’s got the men working on the others. I figure we’ll come in on schedule, if not ahead.”
Maggie watched Johnny take a bite of the scrambled eggs and grimace.
“Johnny?” Teresa was studying him intently. “Your throat sore? I just saw you flinch when you swallowed.”
“A little,” Johnny admitted. “But it’s nothing.”
“Sore throat, oversleeping…” Teresa was on her feet and pressing the back of her hand to Johnny’s forehead. “You don’t have a fever.”
“That’s because I’m not sick.” Johnny looked over at Maggie and she felt her face blush. “You’d think I was dying or something the way she carries on.”
“You know Teresa,” Scott teased, “the eternal nurse. I think she’s happiest when she’s got someone tucked in bed hovering over them with a cup of that God awful willow bark tea.”
“That’s not true, Scott Lancer.” Teresa huffed. But her eyes sparkled.
“You should be happy you have such a good nurse around here, as accident prone as you two Lancers are. If it weren’t for her I’d probably have to close my business and open an office here.” Sam chuckled.
“Well maybe Sam should have a look at you,” Teresa suggested.
“Sam ain’t here for doctoring.” Johnny shoved his plate aside, untouched after the first taste. “He’s here to visit Maggie. Now I’ve got ta get going if I’m gonna get any work done.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Teresa said, putting her hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “Why don’t we all go for a picnic down by the lake today? Call it a holiday. We’ll name it Maggie Day.”
Maggie found herself blushing and speechless.
“I like that.” Scott laughed. “Maggie Day. How about it brother? You said we were ahead of schedule”
“And that’s just where we want to stay,” Murdoch said. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, but let’s do it this afternoon. Johnny can get his work done, and you two…” he nodded toward Teresa and Scott reproachfully, “can get your work done today too. What about you, Sam, can you join us?”
“I’d love to.” He squeezed Maggie’s hand. “But I’ve got to head on over to the Preston place. I promised Millie that I would take a look at Danny. I can’t tell her anything she doesn’t already know, or do anything to stop the inevitable. Danny Preston was born with a weak heart,” Sam explained. “He’s hung on longer than I expected. Eight years now. But I’m afraid the end is near.”
Maggie felt her heart jump. Uncle Sam was supposed to be here at the end to save Johnny. She had made him a promise last night. This was not part of her plan.
“Nothing sadder than a child leaving this earth before his parents.” She heard Murdoch say softly. “It’s not the way it should be.”
‘No, it’s not the way it should be.’ She reflected sadly. ‘It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.’
“But it’s the way of things. There is only so much a doctor can do. Just be thankful that you have two healthy sons.”
“Oh I am, Sam, I am. So how long do you expect to be gone?”
“A day or two. I’m sorry Maggie.”
A day or two… Maggie glanced at Johnny. A day or two was too long. But there was nothing she could do.
Maggie nodded. “Hurry home as fast as you can. I’ll miss you.”
Sam squeezed her hand again. “How was I so lucky to get a niece like you, my dear?”
“Come on Sam,” Johnny said. “I’ll walk you to your buggy on my way out.”
Sam nodded, patting Maggie’s shoulder. “You boys take good care of my Maggie, you hear?”
“Only the best for your niece,” Scott laughed.
Maggie watched them disappear out the door. She felt sickened for a moment, but she couldn’t tell her uncle what she had done, and by the time he got back it would be too late. Her story would now be non-fiction.
“Come on in!” Teresa called. “The water is wonderful.”
Maggie sat on the riverbank. Everyone else but Murdoch was in the water.
She watched the antics of the two brothers, acting more like little kids than adult men. She had to laugh when Johnny dove down beneath Scott and came up, lifting the startled blonde into the air and dumping him unceremoniously back into the water. Scott came back up spitting and sputtering water, with revenge in his eyes.
“Are they always like this?” Maggie laughed.
“I’m afraid so.”
She saw Teresa giggle and Scott turned on her “You think it’s funny little girl?” he growled, and began splashing her until she could barely breathe she was laughing so hard. Then Johnny was behind her, lifting her gently into the air and dropping her back in the water.
Was this what a real family was like? Not the cold, austere correctness of New York Society. This kind of frivolous behavior would never be condoned by her parents. Laughter was a rare commodity in the Stewart household. Love was a word without meaning. But not for the Lancers. The love they shared was genuine.
Scott, not to be outdone by his younger brother, disappeared beneath the surface a moment before Johnny suddenly yelled, his arms flailing in the air as he lost his balance and did a belly flop.
“Come on you three,” Murdoch called, “get out of there so we can eat. I’m starving.”
Teresa disappeared behind some bushes to change but Johnny and Scott just flopped down on the blanket, still dripping wet.
Scott pulled on a shirt but left it unbuttoned, but Johnny had no desire to cover up, he enjoyed the hot sun on his chest. If he knew the effect it was having on Maggie he didn’t let on. He simply stretched out on the blanket and closed his eyes.
She nearly succumbed to the feelings of contentment. Then Johnny shifted and she saw the tell tale puncture mark…she felt a cold shiver run down her spine. What had she done?
No. She fought back the niggling feelings of guilt. She could not allow feelings to tarnish her objectivity. This was not personal and she couldn’t allow it to get personal. She needed a victim and she picked the best one. The pain she would cause Johnny and his family was needed to write her paper, to give it the emotion it needed. She had to remain strong. She would not go to the back of the class.
She sat back and ate, pretending to enjoy the camaraderie. But in truth she was watching and listening. It wouldn’t be long now, before Johnny began to exhibit the first symptoms…perhaps only a few hours.
She smiled inwardly. The first two parts of her assignment had worked out flawlessly. The planning and the execution had been brilliant. Now she only needed to watch as the final part of her assignment played out before her.
Maggie held onto the side of the buckboard with white knuckles. The terrain was littered with rocks and deep potholes, but no one seemed to take notice as they made their way back from the lake. Scott sat with his back against the opposite side of the wagon, his chin resting on his chest, his legs outstretched before him, ankles crossed, his body swaying lazily with each bump, the epitome of relaxation.
Everyone had talked excitedly when they first left the lake, their spirits high. Then they fell into a companionable silence…all except Johnny. He had been quiet since they left the water. She watched him closely, noting the slightest wobble of his legs as he climbed to his feet after lying on the blanket. No one else had noticed…but she did. And now she was noticing more and more signs that her midnight visit to his room had been a success. She felt a moment of guilt but pushed it aside. She could not undo what she had started without implicating herself in attempted murder. And then it would be for nothing. The only one who could help him was a day’s ride away. How could anyone have foreseen Uncle Sam’s visit to the Prestons.
So she would do what she came here to do. Write the perfect paper.
They rode beneath the Lancer arch and Murdoch pulled the team to a stop in front of the hacienda.
Scott climbed out of the wagon and held his hands up to Maggie and easily swung her down to the ground. He looked back to see Johnny curled up on his left side on the bed of the wagon, sound asleep.
“Hey, brother.” He laughed, slapping Johnny’s leg. “You plan on sleeping there all afternoon?”
Maggie felt a moment of panic when Johnny didn’t move.
“Hey, Johnny.” Scott slapped his foot again. “Are you all right?”
Johnny mumbled something in Spanish and sat up, his hair sticking out in every direction as it dried in the sun, his eyes heavy with sleep.
“Didn’t you get any sleep last night, boy?” Scott grinned.
“Yes.” Johnny scooted across the wagon bed until his legs were dangling over the edge. “But I worked this morning, remember? What did you do this mornin’?” he drawled.
Scott squared his shoulders. “I was working too.”
“You call riding over to ‘ole man Pembroke’s place and collecting the money for them steers work? I think you need to get thrown on your backside a few times, Boston. Now that’s work.” Johnny smiled and jumped down from the wagon and walked toward the barn.
Maggie saw him stagger, just for a split second. Did anyone else? Then he disappeared inside the barn.
“Isn’t he coming into the house?” she asked Scott.
“He will as soon as he checks on Barranca.”
“He gives that horse a lot of attention, doesn’t he?”
Scott looked toward the barn, and smiled. “Barranca is the only thing that has truly been his. Those two are inseparable. I’m not sure if one could exist without the other.”
Maggie felt a tightening in her throat. She hadn’t thought about the consequences of one man’s death on everyone and everything around him. She suddenly realized that this was her true assignment. Not creating the perfect murder…that was the mechanism by which to get to this point…but the chronicle of a man’s passing and the impact it had on others.
“Are you all right…?” Scott’s hand was on her shoulder, his concerned face looking down at her.
“Yes…yes of course.” She looked toward the barn. “Do you think Johnny would mind if I joined him in there?”
“I don’t see why not. Just don’t sneak up on him…it’s not healthy.”
Scott walked toward the house, a bemused look on his face. She felt sorry for him. His life was about to change. Everyone’s life was about to change.
Maggie rapped lightly on the open barn door until she saw Johnny turn and nod for her to enter. The smells of hay and oats mixed with leather and horses assaulted her nose.
“He’s a beautiful horse. I have to admit, I’ve never been very fond of them. My father had a stable, but we were never allowed to go near it. Only our brother, he got to do everything. We were expected to act like young ladies at all times.”
“You have brothers and sisters?” Johnny asked. Maggie watched him brush Barranca’s coat. Each swipe of the brush was smooth and assured. Barranca swung his head around and nuzzled Johnny’s neck, then snorted in pleasure as Johnny continued stroking his shoulders with the brush.
“One of each. They are both older. My sister, Corrine, married a wealthy businessman from Baltimore and my brother, he is vice president of a bank in Westchester New York.” Maggie pushed her glasses back up her nose, a nervous habit that infuriated her father. “I’m afraid I have been quite the disappointment to my family.”
Johnny stopped brushing Barranca and turned to look down at her. His eyes were a dark blue, nothing like her pale, near white irises. And when he smiled the small crinkles around his eyes deepened, bringing them to life. “You couldn’t be a disappointment…not to anyone. Scott tells me that not many women get into Harvard, I bet your parents are proud. You just don’t know it.”
Maggie shook her head. “My parents are embarrassed. But I am going to change that. Very soon. When I graduate at the head of my class.”
“There you see.” Johnny grinned and his gentle laugh washed across Maggie, making her knees weak. “You’ll show them all. And I bet that sister in Baltimore and that brother in Westchester are gonna be mighty jealous of their little sister.”
She turned away, not able to look into his eyes anymore. She spotted a brightly woven rope draped over the stall. “I…ah…I hope you don’t mind, but I was watching you again this morning while you were working with the horses. It’s quite remarkable. I guess I never thought that horses here were not bred in the stables like ours are back east. My father had a stable of Norfolk Trotters that he always bragged about. I think he was only proud because they cost so much. Was Barranca wild like the ones you worked with this morning?”
Johnny smiled, rubbing his hand along the palomino’s nose. “He was the wildest. No one could get close to him.”
“But you did?”
“Barranca and me, we were meant for each other. He saved my life, ya know.”
Maggie couldn’t help but look up into those incredibly expressive eyes. “He did?”
Johnny nodded. “I never would have stayed here if it weren’t for Barranca. I didn’t know Scott from Adam…and Murdoch and me didn’t hit it off very good at first…but Barranca here…he gave me something to fight for.”
“I guess it wasn’t easy at first. Uncle Sam told me a little bit about you and Murdoch. But I don’t see that now. You seem to get along just fine.”
Johnny snorted. “For now. Until the next argument. We’ll be fighting over one thing or another until we take our final breath. It’s just the way it is.”
Suddenly Johnny swayed and grabbed onto Barranca’s mane. The palomino stood still, bearing the weight, as if he knew his owner needed him.
“Johnny!” Maggie gasped. “Are you all right?”
“Yea.” Johnny grinned lopsided…but there was a hint of confusion in his blue eyes. “Just got dizzy for a second,” he said, his face drained of color. He pushed himself back from the horse on unsteady legs. “I must be more tired than I thought.”
“Do you want me to help you into the house?”
“No…no, I’ll be fine. You go on ahead. I’m gonna finish up with Barranca then be in.”
“I said I was all right,” Johnny snapped, instant regret in his eyes.
“Do you want me to send Scott out to help you?”
“No.” Johnny reached for her hand and she stiffened at the cool clamminess of it. He read her reaction wrong and snapped his hand back. “You better get inside before they miss you.”
“And don’t say anything about what just happened…ya know, the dizziness. I had a sore throat this morning and now, I kinda feel all wiped out. I think I’m coming down with something, and I hate to be fussed over.”
“They fuss because they care.”
“I know. But I still don’t like it. Promise? Not a word.”
Maggie backed up slowly until she felt the warmth of the sun on her back. But it did nothing to warm the cold reality that was creeping into every pore of her body. Johnny was dying…and she killed him. The assignment was no longer a game…and the game was no longer fun.
She turned and walked toward the house. She had notes to put in her journal.
The scratch of her quill on paper was the only sound Maggie heard as she jotted down everything she could remember in her journal. She knew detail was what she needed. The littlest nuance could speak volumes. She had tried to pay attention to everything, distance herself so she could be the detached observer she knew she had to be. But that was becoming more and more difficult as she grew to know the Lancers. Everything Uncle Sam had told her about them was true. But he hadn’t said enough.
She let her pen slip from her hand and she watched in fascination as the black ink spread over the white paper, her mind it turning red as drop by drop dripped from the edge of the quill. Was that what was happening inside Johnny? No…she couldn’t allow herself to think like that. There was too much at stake. She had to prove herself to everyone…her parents, Professor Myers…the other students. They all expected her to fail. A woman in a man’s world was doomed to failure.
Her big mistake, she realized now, was picking a person she knew, even as remotely as she knew the Lancers. It should have been a stranger. Someone she had no ties with. And she knew now, that the man she held dearest to her, Uncle Sam, was going to be hurt too.
It would all be over soon. She took a deep breath and closed her journal. She had to remain strong or Johnny’s sacrifice would be for nothing.
The heat of the afternoon, dissipated by an ever growing layer of thick rain clouds, darkened the great room prematurely. The wind had picked up and Maggie could hear it whistling forlornly outside.
Teresa looked up from her darning and stared out the huge picture window. “I think we’re in for a big one. It’s a good thing we got our swimming in this afternoon.”
“I think we’re in for an early winter,” Scott said, setting his book down in his lap. “But we can use the rain.”
Murdoch nodded. “It’s been a dry year. That means a lot of the creeks are going to need cleaning and that bridge near the south boundary line will need to be shored up.” He looked to Maggie and apologized with his eyes. “I’m sorry dear, but the boys won’t have time to show you around the next couple of days.”
Maggie sipped at her tea. Her regrets of a little while ago in the barn with Johnny forgotten for now. She had a mission and she would carry it out. “I understand completely. I have some writing to catch up on anyway.”
“Sam should be back tomorrow,” Teresa offered, “if the rain doesn’t delay him. At least you’ll be able to spend some time with him.”
Maggie chuckled lightly. “I’ve been reading his letters for most of my life, and he is everything I thought he would be. But I wondered why he never seemed to feel lonely out here, all alone. Now I see that he is not alone. He has all of you. I thank you for that.”
“We are the ones who are thankful to him. He’s pulled all of us out of a nasty spot or two…And he’s been a good friend. I hope you have time to really get to know him while you’re here.”
“I intend to do just that. He is so different from my family. He is the antithesis of my father.”
Teresa looked up at Scott and he smiled. “It means the exact opposite.”
“Uncle Sam is kind and…”
Suddenly the front door burst open and she jumped, nearly spilling her tea into her lap. A moment of dread sickened her stomach as she saw Jelly and Johnny framed in the doorway against the gray light outside.
“Johnny!” Murdoch jumped to his feet, and she saw the stunned look at the sight of Johnny hanging onto Jelly, his legs barely supporting him.
“What happened?” Scott demanded. He was only a step behind his father as they raced to the door.
“Don’t rightly know,” Jelly sputtered, letting Murdoch and Scott take Johnny’s weight. “I found him hanging onto Barranca fer dear life. Nearly had ta break his fingers to get him to let go of that dern horse’s mane. He said he just got a little dizzy. A little? Why, his face was whiter than Teresa’s best bed sheets hanging on the line come wash day.”
“Johnny…?” Murdoch lifted Johnny’s face. “What’s wrong son?”
Johnny made a feeble attempt to push Murdoch and Scott away, but his legs buckled and he sagged deeper into their arms. This is it…Maggie thought. The beginning. Twenty-four…forty-eight hours at the most. She watched Murdoch and Scott gently guide Johnny to the sofa and ease him down onto a pillow Teresa hurriedly placed on the couch.
“Tell me what’s wrong, John,” Murdoch asked anxiously. “Are you hurt?”
Johnny shook his head. His face was pale and sweaty. Teresa sat down beside him and took his wrist. He tried to pull it away but she held firmly until he simply stopped fighting.
“His pulse is too fast,” she said as she counted the beats, her lips moving silently as she counted. “Do you hurt anywhere, Johnny?”
“No,” he answered softly. “Just dizzy and…”
“And what…” Scott urged, leaning down to feel Johnny’s forehead.
“Tired. Like all my strength is just spilling out of me. I know the feeling, but it don’t make sense.”
“How does it feel?” Murdoch asked.
“Like I’ve been gun shot and I’m bleeding out,” Johnny answered.
Maggie stood to the side and watched. He was showing the first signs of shock…but it was too early. She thought she’d have more time to study him.
“Jelly.” Murdoch stood up slowly and turned to the handyman. “Tell Cipriano to send a man to Prestons’ place and bring Sam back right away. Take one of our horses with him, Sam’s nag will take too long to get here.”
“Right away, Boss.” Jelly leaned over and patted Johnny on the shoulder reassuringly. “You take it easy, you hear, boy? I’ll have Sam here lickety split.”
“There ain’t no need for all the fussing,” Johnny growled. “I just got a cold or something coming on.”
“You let us fuss if we want to,” Teresa scolded him. “I’m going to turn down your bed. Murdoch and Scott can bring you upstairs in a few minutes.”
“I don’t want to go upstairs,” Johnny said belligerently. “I just want to close my eyes for few minutes here, then I’ll be fine. You’re all acting like I’m on death’s door.”
Maggie felt her knees shake. She hadn’t realized that she was not ready for this. All her planning…the medical text books she read…the cold emotionless words on a page describing the symptoms of a ruptured liver. The slow painful onset of death…The thought of it had been exciting and mysterious. She had calculated everything so precisely. Had thought of everything… except the pain of watching it happen, and the knowledge that she was the cause. Her hands began to shake and she quickly hid them in the folds of her skirt.
Taking a deep breath she stilled herself for the task at hand. She could not change what she had started, but she could make sure Johnny did not die in vain. She would honor his passing by writing the best paper possible.
She started taking mental notes of everything she saw, everything she heard. It was all important. Every moment that Johnny had left she would chronicle: The look on Murdoch’s face. Deep concern, but not panic…not yet. Scott’s fingers drumming on his thigh. Teresa’s determined look as she rushed for the stairs. She had done this before…cared for Johnny and Scott. But they had always recovered. What would she do when she couldn’t save Johnny this time?
The clouds darkened the room and the wind howled louder, as though they were a harbinger of death. God…what had she done?
Maggie followed them as slowly, one step after the other, Murdoch and Scott helped Johnny climb the stairs. She watched everything. The way Johnny’s body sagged deeper between the two men, his arms wrapped around their shoulders. His feet as they dragged up each step until a terrible sigh of resignation parted his lips. “I can’t…” he groaned.
Murdoch snatched him up in his arms like a child…his child…and the procession continued up the stairs.
Teresa was waiting by his bed, the fresh white sheets turned down. Her face blanched when she saw Murdoch carrying Johnny.
“He couldn’t make it up the stairs,” Murdoch said through teeth clenched with worry.
“Help me get his clothes off,” Teresa ordered, and Maggie watched as Johnny was stripped down to his cut-off long johns in seconds.
Murdoch looked back at her, huddling next to the back wall, and grimaced. “She doesn’t belong here,” he snapped.
“I want to help…please,” Maggie said.
Murdoch nodded and Maggie felt the flush of guilt on her face as his eyes thanked her.
“Nightshirt in top drawer and an extra blanket in the bottom drawer, get them,” Teresa ordered, never taking her eyes off Johnny.
Maggie yanked the top drawer open, her hand clasped around a clean folded nightshirt when she noticed a small silver picture frame with a picture of a Spanish woman smiling up at her. The woman had dark eyes, but her expression, the high cheek bones and strong chin left no doubt that Maggie was looking at Johnny’s mother, Maria. The woman who had taken him from the warmth and security of this house to a life that was bereft of everything…including love. Uncle Sam had told her some of it…but not all of it, she knew. Maggie traced the face in the picture with her finger. Did she mean that little to him, that he kept her picture hidden in his bureau…or did she mean that much to him that he could not part with her?
“Maggie, hurry with that blanket.” Teresa’s voice broke Maggie’s reverie. She grabbed the blanket from the bottom drawer and turned to see Murdoch drawing Johnny up into a sitting position for Teresa to look at his back. He held his son gently, letting Johnny’s head rest on his shoulder. Johnny’s eyes met hers for a moment before they slid closed, and her stomach sank. He had looked so confused…
“There’s some light bruising here,” Teresa said, as her fingers gently explored Johnny’s dark tanned back. “And a few scrapes, but I’m sure he got that when he was thrown yesterday. I don’t see how that fall could have caused this, he didn’t fall that hard.”
Maggie froze when Teresa stopped, her fingers feeling around the small scratches on his side. Would she notice the tiny needle hole?
“I don’t feel any swelling anywhere. Lay him back down.”
There was a knock at the door and everyone looked to see Jelly standing in the doorway. “Can I talk to ya, boss?” he asked, his voice unsteady.
“Can’t it wait, Jelly?” Murdoch snapped.
“No, it cain’t. Come out in the hall…you too, Scott.”
Both men looked at each other then down at Johnny. Maggie could see the hesitation in their faces. They didn’t want to leave Johnny but Jelly was insistent.
Maggie shuffled closer to the door, Jelly’s worried voice reaching her ears. “Clay jest got back from town…That storm’s that’s a getting ready to blow outside…it already hit up north. If Sam didn’t leave early this mornin’, then we ain’t gonna see hide nor hair of ‘em until two maybe three days. Combination of the heavy rains and run off from the high country and Frazer Lake overflowed its banks.”
“Damn…” She heard Murdoch swear.
“How’s the boy?” Jelly asked.
“I wish I knew, Jelly. He doesn’t have a fever, no obvious injuries…but he’s so weak. Pray that Sam gets here soon.”
“Maggie, help me get this nightshirt on,” Teresa called, and Maggie reluctantly pulled herself away from the conversation in the hallway. “We have to keep him warm,” she whispered. “He has all the signs of going into shock, but I don’t know why.”
Maggie was surprised at how easily the young woman handled Johnny, threading her arm behind his back and lifting him to a sitting position. Maggie slipped the nightshirt over Johnny’s head and noticed that he was awake again, watching her through half open eyes, and she saw the embarrassment in those deep blue eyes. She tried to ignore the look as she pulled his arms through the sleeves, his muscles lax and rubbery.
“There now,” Teresa lowered Johnny’s head back down on the pillow after making sure he took several long sips of water from the glass she helped him hold. “Feel a little better?”
He nodded. “Si. Thanks, querida. I don’t know what happened.”
“Well.” She patted him on the shoulder. “You stay right here until we figure it out. Sam should be here soon and you’ll be as good as new.”
Johnny nodded again. “I’ll just rest for a few minutes. I gotta still finish brushing down Barranca.”
“Don’t worry about Barranca, little brother,” Scott smiled as he walked back into the room, Murdoch and Jelly close on his heels. “I’ll take care of him. You just get some rest like Teresa said.”
“…’k…” Johnny sighed as he eyes slid closed.
Maggie watched Scott gently pushed away an errant lock of hair brushing the top of Johnny’s left eye. “You go on,” he told everyone in general. “I’ll sit with him for awhile. He shouldn’t be left alone…that means taking shifts during the night.”
“We’ll take three hour shifts.” Murdoch decreed. “That way no one gets too tired. Scott, call us if there is any change.”
“I will, Sir.”
Maggie felt Murdoch’s hand on her shoulder as he steered both her and Teresa from the room. “Scott will take good care of him. He needs rest, and so do the both of you.”
“I’m going to fix a light dinner and make some soup for Johnny first.”
“Would you mind if I retire to my room for a short while?” Maggie asked Teresa. “It has been a rather tiring day.”
“Of course not.”
“And Murdoch,” Maggie called at Murdoch’s retreating back. “I would like to sit with Johnny tonight. I feel a little responsible.”
Murdoch stopped and turned to face her, arching an eyebrow.
“While I was in the barn with him…he became dizzy for a moment. He made me promise not to say anything to anyone about it. Said he hated to be fussed over.”
Murdoch smiled. “That he does. Don’t worry about it my dear, you did nothing wrong. I’m sure he will be feeling fine in a day or two.”
Maggie felt like there was a hole growing in the pit of her stomach. She made her way back to her room, her feet moving faster as she got closer to the sanctuary of her journal. It gave her purpose, a reason for all this to happen. There was no way of changing what was meant to be…God, if only she had not picked this family.
Three hours passed before Maggie closed her journal. A light rap at her door and Teresa’s call that dinner was ready had startled her. She had been so engrossed in her task of painstakingly jotting down everything she could remember, duly noting the smallest detail, that she had lost all track of time. She sat back in her chair with a heavy sigh and massaged her aching hand. She was proud of what she had accomplished so far. Despite the cost, she knew it would be worth while when she saw Professor Myer’s reaction to her paper.
She ran her finger along the soft leather cover of her journal. It had been a present from Uncle Sam. He was the only one who understood that she was capable of being more than just a wife and mother. That she had something to offer the world that had meaning. Hers would be a name that touched people’s lips when they spoke of great writers.
Slowly she stood up, brushing a wisp of hair dangling in her face back into its tight bun and ironing her skirt with her hands. As she stepped away from her desk she felt a longing for her journal. ‘I’ll be back, my friend,’ she whispered.
Dinner had been a quiet affair. No one spoke as the sound of utensils, scrapping across plates still filled with food, echoed in the corner of the great room. Murdoch had sat down for just a few minutes, looked at his food then excused himself to stand next to the large picture window and look out into the blackness of night. He had aged in the few short hours since he had carried Johnny up the stairs. There was no light in his eyes, only sadness and worry. And his large shoulders, that seemed able to hold the world up this morning, now sagged beneath the weight of Johnny’s illness.
Maggie made a mental note of all this. It astounded her… this profound sense of loss she felt permeating the entire house. Would her father mourn her passing like Murdoch was mourning Johnny’s? Would her brother or sister even shed a tear? Would anyone’s life be altered if she were to pass on? Uncle Sam would care…but no one else.
“Maggie…? Are you all right?” Teresa’s hand was gently squeezing her hand and Maggie looked across the table at Teresa, the young woman’s face filled with concern. Maggie felt her world spin for a moment. How…why would Teresa care about her when she was filled with so much pain and worry herself? “He’s going to be all right, you know.” And Maggie saw the terrible knowledge in Teresa’s eyes that she knew everything was not going to be all right.
“How is he?” Maggie heard her voice quiver.
“About the same. Maybe a little weaker. Damn it, Maggie,” Teresa jumped to her feet, her outburst catching Murdoch’s attention for only a moment before he went back to looking out the window. “I feel so helpless. I don’t know what to do for him. I don’t understand what is wrong. Johnny is the strongest, healthiest man I know…but he is just slipping away from us.”
Maggie walked around the table, hesitantly pulling Teresa into an embrace. “He is a lucky man to have so many people love him the way they do.”
“Lucky?” Teresa’s shoulders trembled. “We’re the lucky ones for having him in our lives. You’ll see.” Teresa pushed herself away from Maggie’s embrace and began clearing the dinner table. “When Johnny is back on his feet you’ll see.” The young woman disappeared into the kitchen and Maggie collapsed into a chair. Her plan had been so perfect. The execution of it flawless…but on paper everything was so clinical. And now…she was facing raw emotions that she had never seen, never felt. She wanted to run back to her journal and lose herself in it again. But Murdoch was standing behind her now, his huge hands on her shoulders. “I’m sorry you had to be here when this happened. But I’m glad you’re here for Teresa.”
“I will do anything I can to help,” she said.
“I know.” She saw him look toward the stairs. “Would you mind sitting with Johnny while I talk to Scott?”
“Of course. Would you like me to send Scott down here?”
The storm finally reached the house. The wind howled and whistled, sending curtains and drapes dancing fitfully even though the doors and windows were closed. The heavy rains pelted the stucco and drummed on the roof in an ear splitting crescendo.
Maggie made her way up the stairs, the lantern in her hand illuminating each step, the memories of her clandestine trip up these same stairs just two nights ago fresh in her mind. She had counted each step so carefully, and when she came to that fourteenth step, the one that squeaked, she could not help but step over it.
A crack of thunder exploded overhead and the house was lit up like daytime for an instant, blinding Maggie and nearly sending her tumbling backwards down the stairs.
She stood there and waited…her hand clasping the banister, her heart in her throat…then her sight came back and she rushed up the last two steps.
She knew this hallway so well…first Murdoch’s room then Teresa’s. Scott’s and Johnny’s stood side by side… as if the house was built with the two brothers in mind. She stopped and laid her hand against Scott’s door. What if she had picked him as she had first decided? Would there have been a difference? And she knew there would not be. The house would still be captured in a world of hurt and sadness.
She walked on and her hand was on the doorknob of Johnny’s room before she realized it.
The room was brightly lit as if the flickering lights from the candelabra and the oil lamp could keep them safe from the storm outside and the storm within.
“How is he?” she whispered, her eyes locked on the still form lying beneath the mound of covers.
“About the same,” Scott answered dolefully from the chair shoved up close to the bed.
“Your father wants to see you downstairs. He sent me to take your place for awhile. You should eat something while you’re down there too. It won’t do any good for you to get sick yourself because you haven’t eaten.”
Scott stood up slowly, like an invisible weight was weighing him down. He checked Johnny before walking toward the door, squeezing her shoulder gently. “Thank you. See if you can get him to drink some water if he wakes up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Take your time,” she said as she took Scott’s seat, still warm from his body heat, and watched him slowly close the door.
A huge bolt of lightning hit somewhere close just as Maggie turned back to look at Johnny and she saw his incredibly deep blue eyes staring at her. A clap of thunder followed immediately and she jumped but he seemed unfazed by it.
“Hi,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Hi,” Johnny answered, his voice weak and breathy.
“Would you like some water?”
Johnny nodded and Maggie lifted his head up for him to take a couple of sips of cool water from the glass.
“Would you like anything else?” she asked after straightening the sheet and blankets over his shoulders.
“Turn down the lights,” he said.
Maggie walked around the room and blew most of the candles out except for the ones closest to the bed, filling the room with the scent of smoke curling up from the extinguished candles. “Is that better? The storm doesn’t bother you?”
Johnny shook his head. “I like storms. It’s Scott who hates ‘em.”
“Why is that do you suppose?”
“Reminds him of bad times. What about you? The storm doesn’t bother you?” Johnny’s voice sounded weak to her. The last question falling away into a faint whisper.
“I like storms too. When I was a little girl my father would get mad at me when I’d sit by the window and watch the lighting strike across the sky. He said it was a waste of time. I thought it was beautiful.”
“It can be beautiful, and dangerous and cruel.”
“Like life?” she asked.
Johnny turned his head slowly to look up at the ceiling. She followed his gaze and saw the patterns of shadows playing on the ceiling. He seemed mesmerized by the dance…
“You are nothing like what I expected,” she suddenly blurted out.
Johnny turned his head to look back at her and she felt his eyes bore right through her. “Most people ain’t,” he said softly.
Her breath caught in her throat. Did he know? How could he? Her plan had been pure perfection…except for Uncle Sam not being here. He could never have known about her visit to him in his room.
Suddenly she yearned for her journal where she could hide from reality within its pages. Where the act of murder was justified. Where the hurt and guilt she felt for Johnny Lancer was nullified…and cold analytical facts replaced the pain. The thought of the journal brought her new confidence and she knew she had a job to do.
Hesitantly she asked, “Do you ever regret the men you killed?” And watched a sadness wash over his face.
“Every last one of them,” he said softly.
She saw his eyes unfocus as he drifted back to another time and another place. She wondered if it were a happy time.
“A little bit of yourself dies each time…” he reflected, his voice hauntlingly sad. Was she losing a little piece of herself as she watched him die?
“I’m cold,” Johnny suddenly said.
Maggie tucked the blankets around him tighter.
He found her eyes and she saw the fear in them. “I don’t feel good,” he whispered. “Get Murdoch.”
Maggie felt panic sweep over her. This is what she had wanted…this was her plan working just as it should…but now…
“It’s all right,” she lifted his head and he sipped at a glass of water. “I’ll get them for you.”
His complexion turned a ghastly green. “I’m gonna be sick,” he moaned.
Her panic escalated. She was never around the sick. She never saw the pain of illness or injury. She ran to the door and shouted down the hall. “Help me! I need help!”
It was not supposed to be like this, she cried. It was not supposed to hurt.
“Help me turn him on his side,” Teresa ordered as she ran past Maggie, grabbing the water basin from the nightstand.
Maggie’s cries for help had barely left her lips when Teresa swung into the room, her face instantly registering alarm as the young woman realized what was happening. Teresa flung the covers back and grabbed Johnny’s arm. “Get behind him and roll him toward me,” she ordered. “If he throws up on his back he could choke on his own vomit.”
Johnny seemed to weigh nothing at all as Maggie rolled him toward Teresa then felt his body convulse as he threw up the meager contents of his stomach. She rubbed his back in small circles as dry heaves began to wrack his body. She heard snippets of Teresa’s soft voice trying to calm him, but the fury of the storm drowned out her words.
It seemed like an eternity before Johnny’s body quieted. Murdoch and Scott were standing behind Teresa now, their faces ashen white from fear.
“Get me fresh towels,” Teresa said, her emotional energy spent. “And more pillows.”
Carefully Maggie helped Teresa roll Johnny onto his back, his breaths coming in jarring pants.
“Put that pillow beneath his legs,” she ordered Scott. “I remember Sam telling me that if a patient went into shock the most important thing was to elevate his legs to keep the blood up around the heart and keep him warm.”
Maggie slid off the bed and watched as Scott lifted Johnny’s legs while Murdoch placed a pillow beneath his knees. She was fascinated by their gentleness. These two big men who handled Johnny like he would break at the lightest touch. Never would she have thought that the death of one person could be felt so profoundly by so many. They were dying a little bit themselves right along with Johnny.
She reeled backwards. Why didn’t she know this? Why had she been denied this depth of feeling? Death had always meant a funeral and a few words of concern for the bereaved. Cold and impersonal. Not this exquisite pain that she saw this family endure.
Maggie felt the walls closing in around her as she watched. She wanted to close her eyes, to shut out the pain…
Johnny was settled and at last the blankets were pulled up around his shoulders and Teresa leaned in to give him a gentle kiss. “You rest,” she whispered.
Johnny’s eyes closed, and to Maggie, he seemed to sink deeper into the mattress. Teresa turned to the waiting arms of Murdoch standing behind her. Her shoulders shook as she wept against his chest.
Scott silently sat down in the chair next to the bed and watched. A vigil that would only bring him more pain, Maggie knew.
Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. She had to get down to her room. She needed to write everything down in her journal, make what was happening in this room make sense. She bolted for the hall, Johnny’s family barely noticing her escape.
She ran down the stairs, the storm outside seemingly feeding off her fear as it exploded around the house. The lightening blinded her and the thunder deafened her. She raced across the great room, the memory of her making her way through the darkness to Johnny’s room taunting her. She passed the massive oak door, rattling from the wind’s fury and ran down the hallway. She stopped in front of Uncle Sam’s door and pounded on it. He was supposed to be here. That was the plan. He was supposed to save her victim. Her plan was too perfect for anything to go wrong….
Tears blinding, her she groped her way to the next door…her door. She flung it open and slammed it closed, leaning against it trying to drag air into her lungs. Why did this have to happen to her?
Maggie made her way across the room and found the small vase filled with matches. She nearly turned it over her hands were shaking so badly. She turned the wick up on the lantern and yanked the dresser drawer open and pulled out her precious journal, holding it to her bosom…feeling its comfort. She set it on the desk, opening it to the first blank page. Dipping her quill in the ink jar she began to write. A comforting sense of purpose enveloped her. This is what truly mattered. It was sad that Johnny had to die…it was just as sad that his family had to suffer. But it could not be helped. It wasn’t her fault, after all, that a little boy needed Uncle Sam’s help. It wasn’t her fault that a storm raged outside keeping everyone away. It wasn’t her fault…
She meticulously wrote down everything she remembered. She pushed away her own feelings, this was not about her…this was a study of one man, one family and how death affected them. She wrote until her hand was numb. First she described everything that had happened in the room. Every detail scrupulously noted. Then she began on each individual. Johnny, on how he looked and sounded. The fear she saw in his eyes…the look of inevitability. Had Johnny Madrid Lancer faced death so many times in his young life that he could tell when it was beckoning him…or did everyone know when that final fight was about to end? Teresa, divorcing herself from the pain just long enough to do what needed to be done to save her ‘brother’, then collapsing into her father’s waiting arms when Johnny had surrendered to sleep. Murdoch, a mountain of a man, helpless to do anything but watch his young ward fight for his son’s life. And Scott…he seemed to feel the pain the most. Could one man’s death destroy another? Would Scott ever recover from a loss so profound?
Maggie continued to write…her eyes growing heavy as she laid her head on the desk. This would be a paper worthy of publication. At last, her family could find something to be proud of.
Slowly she closed her journal and returned it to its hiding place, then slipped under the covers of her comfortable bed. She would rest for a few minutes and then return to Johnny’s room. Perhaps if he awoke again before the end came she could ask him what death meant to him.
The sound of an anvil striking iron awoke her. She opened her eyes to see a shaft of light drawn across the ceiling.
She bolted up. It was daylight. She had slept through the rest of the night. How late in the morning was it? In a panic she brushed her hair back and grabbed her glasses before whipping the door open and running down the hallway.
Was she too late? If Johnny had died while she slept than it would have all been for nothing. All the pain she had gone through would be wasted. Of course she could still write her paper…but with an ending only her imagination could conjure up. She wanted to witness every detail. Would he struggle to hold on to the very last second, or simply close his eyes and drift off, death taking him quietly. Why did she have to fall asleep now, of all times?
She found Johnny’s door standing open. Her heart began to beat faster. She stepped into the room, afraid of what she would see. A soft sigh of relief escaped her lips as she saw Teresa leaning over Johnny, gently wiping his forehead and whispering gentle words.
“How is he?” Maggie whispered, and Scott looked up from the chair he sat in next to the bed. He looked so haggard. His face was drawn, his eyes heavy with dark circles beneath them. It was more than lack of sleep that ravaged him. And Maggie had yet one more detail to add to her journal.
“He’s still the same. But we just got word from your Uncle, he’ll be here shortly.”
“That’s wonderful!” Maggie walked over to the bed noting that Murdoch was standing at the window looking out toward the Lancer arch. “I’m sure he’ll know what to do.”
Scott nodded. “If anyone can get Johnny through this, he can. I’ve seen him perform near miracles. He has the ability to see what no one else can see. He’ll take one look at Johnny…”
Maggie’s heart skipped a beat. She realized she may have found the fatal flaw in her plan. Sam Jenkins.
What would Uncle Sam see when he looked at Johnny? His complexion so pale it looked gray? His breaths came in short, tiny gasps. His skin clammy and sweating profusely. If he was as knowledgeable as Scott said, his first thought would be internal bleeding. If he did a through exam, would he spot the needle puncture mark? Of course he would. Her fear ratcheted one notch tighter.
She had assumed that Uncle Sam was a simple country doctor, setting broken bones and stitching torn skin. That he would never have the skill or the knowledge to figure out what she had done. But what if he did? What if he saw the puncture mark…what if he found the needle and bottle of Chloral Hydrate missing from his office? The only thing that would keep him from putting two and two together was if there was no reason to examine Johnny. If Johnny were dead when Uncle Sam arrived, he would simply fill out the death certificate as cause of death unknown.
God, how could she have been so stupid? And if everything had gone as planned, and she left the anonymous letter for Uncle Sam to read and save Johnny at the last minute…she would have been found out. All of this would have been for nothing. And she would have been languishing in a prison cell.
She had to make sure Uncle Sam had no reason to examine Johnny.
The softest of moans turned her attention back to Johnny and she was surprised to see his eyes flutter open, glazed and confused. He grimaced in pain and moaned again.
“Johnny…? Teresa hovered over him, moving his head slightly so she could make eye contact.
“…Hurts…” he sighed, his voice just a whisper.
“Where, Johnny? Where does it hurt?”
“…Stomach…” was all Johnny could say.
Scott jumped to his feet and whipped the covers off. With no regard for modesty, he pulled Johnny’s nightshirt up to look at his stomach. There was a definite swelling on his right side near his rib cage.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Maggie saw her chance. “Whatever it is, it is causing him a lot of pain.”
Teresa nodded. She looked so lost, so helpless to help him.
Murdoch was at their side now. “Do you think he got that when the horse threw him?”
“I can’t see how,” Scott said. “He didn’t land hard enough.”
“You never can tell,” Maggie offered. “Sometimes the smallest of injuries can be serious.”
“Thank God Sam will be here soon,” Scott said, his voice shaking.
“He seems to be in a lot of pain.” Maggie touched Johnny’s swollen side and she jumped back when he hissed in pain. “Perhaps some willow bark tea will ease the pain a bit.”
Teresa nodded. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll go make some.”
“No…” Maggie reached over the bed and squeezed Teresa’s arm. “I’ll make it. Johnny needs to hear your voice.”
Teresa smiled gratefully. “It’s in the pantry in the kitchen.”
“I’ll find it. Now don’t you worry. Uncle Sam will be here soon and figure out exactly what’s wrong with him
Teresa squeezed Maggie’s arm in return. “Thank you for all you have done.”
Maggie nodded and left as Scott pulled Johnny’s nightshirt back down and pulled the blankets back over him, talking softly as he did so. As she walked down the stairs, heading for the kitchen, she realized that she was given a chance to make everything right again.
The irony was not lost on her. If she had not taken that medical class she would not have known that willow bark tea, besides being a satisfactory pain reliever, was also a blood thinner. If she made the tea strong enough, Johnny would bleed to death internally in a matter of minutes. She felt a small pang of guilt…but pushed it aside. It was a small price to pay for her assignment. Nothing would stop her from writing the perfect paper.
A watched pot never boils never proved more true than this morning. Maggie watched the tea kettle on the stove, willing it to start whistling. It was taking much, too much time to make the tea. Uncle Sam would be here before she had a chance to get it to Johnny.
She didn’t bother to look for the tea in the pantry, she simply got it from her bag hidden in her room, then put three times the tea leaves needed into a ceramic pot with a lid and waited. If she was right, it would only take a matter of minutes for the tea to circulate through Johnny’s system and his blood would thin. She wondered if there would be any pain involved. It bothered her that she was deviating from her original plan. She would, of course, leave this part out of her journal. The perfect murder did not have snags like this.
The teapot seemed to do a little dance before its shrill whistle announced that the water inside was boiling. She poured the boiling water into the ceramic pot and replaced the lid, then sat down to wait for the tea to brew.
She sat back and removed her glasses, rubbing her eyes. It was almost over. After Uncle Sam signed Johnny’s death certificate she would offer her heart felt condolences and return to Harvard. The thought crossed her mind to stay for the funeral, but decided against it. She didn’t need that for her paper. The end of Johnny’s life would be the end of the story.
With a heavy sigh she poured some of the tea into a cup so it would cool faster and headed up to Johnny’s room. Maybe she wouldn’t need the tea. Maybe he had expired on his own. The perfect murder was decidedly turning into the imperfect murder. But it would still fill her needs.
Maggie found Johnny’s family in almost the same pose as when she left. The tea felt warm in her hand, but a cold shiver went down her spine. Somehow, it was so much easier to do what she had to do in the darkness of night. Now she felt exposed. Would someone notice her hand trembling? Would they notice that the color of the tea was too dark?
Teresa looked up at her and a tired smile played across her lips. “He’s in a lot of pain,” she said. But her voice sounded hollow to Maggie. Why had Johnny hung so tenaciously to life? She heard him moan again. The pain was increasing. The tea sloshed over the rim of the cup and burned her hand. She nearly dropped the cup. The dark stain spread across the floor. Would they notice it was too dark?
“Here, my dear.” Murdoch was at her side, taking the cup from her trembling hands. “This is difficult on all of us.”
Maggie felt as if the world was shriveling up around her…the room closed in around her, too warm…suddenly the only thing that existed was Johnny and that cup of tea. Her heart began to beat in her throat. He would be gone in a few minutes…She saw Murdoch hand the cup to Teresa. She watched Teresa blow on it to cool it down. Scott moved behind Teresa and gently lifted Johnny’s head as Teresa put the cup to his lips.
“What are you doing there?”
Maggie spun toward the door to see Uncle Sam rushing into the room. He looked disheveled, with his coat hanging open and his hair uncombed.
“Dear God, Sam,” Murdoch sighed. “Are we glad to see you.”
“What are you giving him?” Sam asked, moving in close to the bed.
“Willow bark tea,” Teresa answered. “He was complaining of pain in his stomach, we thought…”
“How much did you give him?”
“He only had a couple sips.” Teresa handed the cup to Murdoch, confused.
“Let’s hold off on the tea until I’ve had a chance to examine him. I don’t suppose Maria is back yet.”
“She’s still with her daughter…her first grandchild.”
Maggie watched her uncle; he seemed lost in thought as he simply stood by the bed studying Johnny. What was he seeing?
“How long has he been like this?”
“All night,” Scott answered. “He said he felt tired when we got back from swimming yesterday afternoon and then he couldn’t even make it up the stairs.”
“Fever?” Sam felt Johnny’s forehead and pulled his hand out from beneath the covers to take his pulse. He examined Johnny’s fingernails and pinched the skin on the back of his hand.
“No fever, but his pulse has been fast and weak,” Teresa reported. “And his skin has been cold and sweaty. We’ve been trying to get him to drink some water, but he just threw everything up. We elevated his legs like you said we should if a patient was going into shock.”
Sam nodded. “Did he take a fall, hit his head?”
“He was bucked off a horse he was breaking, but he landed easy enough,” Murdoch said. “What do you think it is, Sam?”
“I won’t know until I’ve had a chance to examine him. Open those drapes as wide as you can, and open that window a crack, we need fresh air in.”
Maggie watched as Murdoch nearly yanked the drapes off the rod in his haste to open them. She couldn’t believe how different he looked now, his face drawn and pale, the look of worry and fear in his eyes. She saw it in all their eyes.
“Alright…” Sam opened his bag and turned to Maggie. “Since Maria is not here to help, would you mind?”
“Of course not. I will do everything I can.”
“Good. Now you two know what to do.” Sam turned to Murdoch and Scott.
“We’re not leaving,” Murdoch barked.
“And I won’t examine him with you two here. Now you know my rules.”
Maggie felt the tension rise in the room. The fear and anger was almost palpable. Uncle Sam stood his ground, his gaze not wavering from Murdoch’s. “I don’t allow family members to be present when I examine a patient, they only get in the way. The only reason I let Teresa remain is because she is the best damn nurse I have ever had. Now you are wasting precious time.”
“It’s…all…right…” Johnny’s weak voice startled them all. “Teresa…an…Maggie…take…good care…me…”
“At last, the voice of reason.” Sam smiled, leaning down close to Johnny’s face. “How do you feel, son?”
Maggie saw Johnny fight to stay awake, his eyes barely open. “Tired…so tired. Stomach…hurts.”
Sam patted his shoulder gently. “We’ll see what we can do about that.”
Murdoch and Scott edged in closer to the bed. “Sam here is kicking us out, but we’ll be right downstairs.” Maggie heard the strain in Murdoch’s voice, the lightheartedness so forced. Everything about him seemed so much older…this was not the same man who greeted her just a few days ago. How death changed people.
“….. k….” Johnny’s eyes slid shut and he seemed to sink deeper into the mattress.
As the door clicked closed behind them, Sam pulled the blanket off Johnny. “Let’s get this nightshirt off him, then I’ll need…”
Teresa had already pulled the stethoscope from his medical bag and Maggie wondered how often she worked with her Uncle to anticipate his needs so easily.
“His heart rate is up,” Sam reported. Maggie watched her uncle gently begin to run his hands along Johnny’s legs, his fingers feeling for any abnormalities. “Let’s elevate his legs a little higher,” he ordered. Teresa lifted Johnny’s legs while Maggie placed a second pillow beneath his knees, surprised at how limp his legs felt.
When he reached Johnny’s stomach he applied a small amount of pressure as he walked his fingers across his midsection and Johnny suddenly gasped when Sam reached his right side. Maggie could see the slight swelling just above his diaphragm.
“What’s this?” Sam asked, and Maggie’s blood ran cold. Had Uncle Sam spotted the needle mark? “Help me turn him on his right side so I can have a better look.”
‘Don’t panic’ Maggie told herself, as she helped Teresa roll Johnny onto his left side. There was still bruising on his side and back from his fall from the horse.
Uncle Sam’s fingers gently palpitated the swollen area. “I may have to drain this…” he said more to himself than the two ladies. He didn’t seem to notice the small puncture mark, not yet at least, and Maggie inwardly sighed in relief. “All right.” He pulled the covers back over his patient and turned to Teresa. “Would you go down and tell Murdoch and Scott that they can come back up.”
“Sam…?” Maggie heard Teresa’s voice falter.
Sam squeezed her shoulders gently. “I’ll tell all of you together. Now go on.”
Maggie watched Teresa run from the room and turned to see her uncle staring down at Johnny. She expected to see him saddened by the death of a patient…a friend…but what she saw in his eyes was a sorrow so deep that it nearly crushed him.
Uncle Sam sighed deeply. “I wish I knew more,” he said dejectedly. “I can only guess. If I’d gotten here sooner, if Teresa had not given him the willow bark tea…”
“She only did what she thought was right.”
“I know. How could she know that the tea would thin his blood...? If I only knew more I could be more certain about my diagnosis.”
“Will he die?” Maggie asked.
Uncle Sam looked at her and she saw the pain in his eyes. The answer was there in his silence. He walked around the bed and pulled her into his arms. “I’m sorry you have to be here like this, see this kind of suffering.
Maggie laid her head against his chest and felt his heart racing. This was supposed to be so easy. She had everything planned so perfectly. But she never considered the depth of emotion she witnessed. She knew there would be sadness at the prospect of Johnny’s passing…and even when she realized that he would truly have to die in order for her work to be done, she still didn’t expect this magnitude of grief. Was this the normal reaction to the death of a loved one? Would anyone in her family grieve over her passing like this?
“I brought this boy into the world, and I watched him grow for two wonderful years. Even at that age he was in my office more than any other child. Cuts and scrapes, his middle name was trouble. Then Maria took off with him and a little bit of me died. I missed that little whirlwind. But the worst was watching Murdoch’s world collapse around him. Then three years ago this place was suddenly happy again, both sons had returned. Now Murdoch may lose Johnny again…this time forever.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Sam,” Maggie whispered, her cheek still pressed against his chest. “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
Sam kissed the top of her head. “Just having you here beside me is all the help I need.”
Maggie felt her uncle pull away as she heard the rushed footsteps of Johnny’s family, their faces mirroring their fear as they filed into the room.
“Sam…?” Murdoch asked huskily.
There was a hushed silence that enveloped the room for an impossibly long minute.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Uncle Sam said softly.
Maggie saw Murdoch’s knees visibly dip as if they could no longer hold him up. At his side, Teresa gasped and the tears that had welled in her eyes finally overflowed. Scott stood stoically silent, his eyes glued to his brother lying in the bed.
“I think there is a perforation to his liver and he is bleeding internally.” Uncle Sam’s voice sounded so crushed…Maggie felt a twinge of guilt that she had done this to her own uncle.
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” Teresa asked, her voice trembling.
Uncle Sam shook his head. “Even if I could repair the damage to his liver, he would never survive an operation. He’s just lost too much blood. If I had gotten to him earlier, if I had given him fluids… The liver is a remarkable organ, it can regenerate itself with time. But Johnny simply doesn’t have that time. We can keep him comfortable and…”
“No!” Scott brushed past Murdoch, nearly knocking him over. He stood before Uncle Sam and Maggie saw the desperation in his eyes. And something else. Anger. But why anger? “You just can’t give up on him like this. There has to be something. What about a transfusion? You did it when Johnny was shot last year. You know that Murdoch’s blood is a match.”
“The blood loss is too great. Scott there is nothing I can do. His body is shutting down. Even infusing water through a nasal tube would not rehydrate him enough. He needs….”
“He needs what, Sam?” Scott coaxed. “You know Johnny is a fighter, if you give him half a chance.”
“There is a new procedure…I learned about it at the last medical conference I attended in San Francisco…but it’s had more failures than successes. It’s a new way of introducing saline and glucose directly into the veins. It won’t replace the blood loss, but it gives the patient’s body time to rebuild its own blood supply. But there are complications that could be far reaching. ”
“What are Johnny’s chances without it?” Murdoch asked flatly.
The absence of an answer spoke volumes.
“Sam.” Maggie watched Murdoch walk over to the bed, his huge calloused hand gently brushing the hair back from Johnny’s forehead. “I can’t lose him again. Not after all these years. Do whatever you can.”
Uncle Sam nodded and Maggie felt a twinge of fear. The more he worked on Johnny the more likely he was going to spot the needle mark. If only she could have gotten a little more willow bark tea into him…
“I will need some things from my office and Senor Baldomero’s. I’ll make a list. I will also need Jelly to build a stand.”
“What kind of stand?” asked Scott.
“I’ll draw him a diagram. Maggie if you would start the list…. Scott, I think it best if you went into town.”
Maggie saw Scott blanch at the suggestion. “I want to stay here with Johnny.”
“You can’t do anything here at the moment but get in the way. But you can make sure that I have all the supplies I need. Maggie are you ready to write this down?”
Maggie felt her heartbeat increase. What would he ask for?
“I will need all the tubing you can find. You’ll find it in the bottom drawer below the medical cabinet.”
No…Maggie’s hand froze. Some of that tubing still rested inside her satchel in her room.
“I hope I have enough. I will also need more Chloral Hydrate and morphine. The things I will need from Senor Baldomero’s…” Maggie heard her uncle list the items he needed, and she dutifully wrote them down, but she barely heard what he said. What would her uncle do when he found the tubing and Chloral Hydrate missing? She took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm. He would never suspect her, there was no direct connection…
Scott snatched the list from Maggie’s hand. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He took one last look at Johnny and said softly. “Hang in there brother.” And he was gone.
“All right,” Uncle Sam said, pulling his jacket off. “If we are going to give this boy half a chance, we had better get started. Teresa, I will need water boiled and I will tell you how to make the saline and glucose…the measurements must be exact or it could do more harm than good. And also strain some chicken broth as fine as you can, I’ll insert a nasal tube and we can give him some nourishment. Murdoch, have a cot brought in here. It should be the same height as the bed. Be ready to spend most of your time there. I will take as much blood as I can from you, but that means you mast remain flat on your back. I will take as much as I can, as often as I can without jeopardizing your life.”
“Take it all, Sam, if it will save my son,” Murdoch said.
Maggie’s head shot up and she looked at Murdoch. She could tell by the look on his face that he was serious. He would sacrifice his own life to save his son’s. She had not expected that. What was she to do now? The outline she made for her paper was very precise. The planning of the murder, the execution of the murder and the study of the victim and family as the victim died. But now she was watching a struggle to survive. Should she alter her outline? No, if she did that then she would not be fulfilling her primary assignment. What she would do, she decided, was to recount everything in her journal for another book. After all, this one was sure to be a great success. The next one could be about the struggle to survive. Meantime, she had to do something to stop Uncle Sam from seeing that puncture mark. The missing tubing and Chloral Hydrate could be incriminating if they were added up.
“I’ll take only what is necessary,” Uncle Sam told Murdoch gently. “Now get that cot and send Jelly up so I can have him make that stand. Maggie, if you could assist me with the nasal tube. And I will have to drain that hematoma on his side. The accumulation of blood around his lungs will make it increasingly harder for him to breath.”
Maggie felt the change, the taste of hope in the air. Teresa’s tears had dried and there was a look of determination on Murdoch’s face. She looked down at Johnny, his complexion gray now, his breathing shallow and rapid, and wondered if he was aware of anything going on around him. If he knew the fight that was being waged to save his life.
Maggie stood back, her hands shaking. It had been an ordeal inserting the nasal tube, much harder than the tube she had put down Johnny’s throat to give him the Chloral Hydrate the other night. The irony was not lost on her; the same medication was being used…one to help take his life and the other to help save it. The tube to drain the blood from his chest was much worse. Maggie had held her breath as Uncle Sam made the initial cut on his side to insert the tube. She waited for him to notice the puncture mark. If he had, he did not say anything about it. Did he just not notice, or was he storing it in his mind to put two and two together later?
“Maggie…” Maggie was pulled from her reverie by Uncle Sam’s voice. “…would you mind staying with Johnny for a few minutes? I want to see how Teresa is doing with the saline and glucose.”
“Of course not.”
As the door closed she was left alone with Johnny.
“You are a remarkable man,” she said as she leaned over the bed. “You have so many people trying so hard to save you. But, I can’t let that happen.”
She filled a syringe Uncle Sam had used to infuse water into the nasal tube with the willow bark tea that had been set aside.
“I would love to recount your recovery, but it means that I could be caught. I can’t let that happen. It would break Uncle Sam’s heart.” Carefully she pushed the plunger until all the willow bark tea was in the tube, repeating the procedure three times. “I don’t think you will feel any more pain. You will just bleed a little faster and a little longer.” She gently stroked his cheek. “I wish I had picked someone else. This was harder for me than I expected.”
She stood up and hoped that Uncle Sam would return quickly. She needed to get back to her room to write everything in her journal. Once they were committed to paper then Johnny’s sacrifice would be justified.
Maggie stood beside Teresa, the young woman’s hand clinging to hers like a lifeline, the room screaming with silence as she remembered the frenzy of just an half hour ago.
Everything had happened so fast at first. A cot was brought up and Murdoch laid down, his shirt sleeve raised and ready to give his son all the blood Uncle Sam felt he could give. Maggie had no doubt that what Murdoch had said was the truth; the he would give it all to save his son. What made a person love someone so much that they would forfeit their own life? Would she ever find someone that she could feel so passionately for?
“This is only a stop gap measure,” Uncle Sam had said as he inserted the needle into Johnny’s arm and Murdoch’s blood began flowing into his son’s veins. “Johnny has lost too much blood and…” her uncle’s eyes shifted to the tube draining the blood from Johnny’s side - it had increased soon after they returned to the room. “He appears to be bleeding more, not less. The only thing we can do for him now is try to get as much fluids into him as we can and hope that the bleeding stops on its own.”
Scott had returned with the supplies and Maggie had held her breath as Scott handed Uncle Sam the tubing. “Is this all?” he had asked, and Scott had said yes. “And there was not another bottle of Chloral Hydrate in the medicine cabinet?” Uncle Sam had looked perplexed then dismissed it…but for how long?
Jelly entered the room next, carrying what looked like a hat stand, and he was directed to place it by the end of the bed. “What I propose to do,” Uncle Sam had explained, “is to replace fluids directly into Johnny’s bloodstream. It’s called an intravenous drip. Like I said before, it is very new. And there are complications.”
Maggie could hear the uncertainty in his voice. And she saw him look at each of the Lancers, his face filled with worry. “Do what you can, Sam,” Murdoch uttered weakly from his cot. “We all made the decision.”
Uncle Sam nodded, looking at Johnny’s pale face before hanging two clear bottles upside down from the stand, each filled to the top with clear liquids. Each bottle was marked off with fluid measurements down the sides and a long length of tubing was held in place by a spigot at the mouth of the bottle and attached by another spigot to a hypodermic needle.
With one last glance at everyone in the room he slapped Johnny’s foot until he found a vein he liked and inserted the needle in place, securing it with a sticking plaster to his skin.
“The danger is that the needle sites will most likely become infected and even more worrisome is the vein could break down and the fluid will seep into the tissue. If that happens we will have to find a new vein and tightly wrap the injured area with a rubber bandage. It will be very painful and can take time to heal. But at this point we really don’t have any other choice.”
Now in the silence they all watched and waited. Johnny lay still as death beneath the covers, the saline bottle nearly empty as it dripped into his vein. A new vein would be found and the glucose would begin. Uncle Sam had said it could take time before they knew if the procedure would work. For now, they would medicate him through the nasal tube and nourish him with thin chicken broth.
Maggie left Teresa’s side and went to stand next to her Uncle. “Uncle Sam, you look exhausted. You need to rest. You said yourself it would take time. Why don’t you lie down for…”
“Thank you, Maggie, but I have to be here in case a vein collapses. But I could use a strong cup of coffee. And the rest of you.” Uncle Sam looked around at the ragged faces. “Maggie is right. It will take time and you should get some rest while you can.”
“No one is leaving him, Sam,” Scott said softly.
And they didn’t. Not for hours. Maggie took a seat and studied each face, wondering what was going through their minds. One by one she saw their eyelids grow heavy and exhaustion overpower them.
Quietly she walked around the bed to look Johnny over. The ashen color had turned to a pale white and his breathing seemed to be evening out. Uncle Sam’s unorthodox treatment was working, and she could not have that. She was committed to seeing her research played out to the end. She glanced over at Uncle Sam and even he had lost the fight to stay awake. Cautiously she filled the syringe with more willow bark tea and infused it into the nasal tube. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” she whispered. “But this is the only way.”
“What are you doing?”
Maggie froze, syringe in hand. She turned to see Murdoch staring at her from his cot.
“I…” She placed the syringe in the cup of chicken broth and drew the liquid up. “I was just giving him some broth,” she said, infusing the broth down the tube.
Murdoch nodded. “How is he doing?”
Maggie brushed a lock of hair from Johnny’s forehead, noting the first signs of fever. Uncle Sam’s fear of the needle sites becoming infected was now a reality. He had already had to find a new vein twice, wrapping Johnny’s feet tightly with rubber bandages to try to reduce the swelling from the escaped fluids. “He seems to be doing better. His complexion looks better.”
“Good,” Murdoch sighed. The loss of blood from the transfusion had left him weak and lethargic. His eyes slid closed again.
When she looked back she was surprised to see Johnny’s eyes half open, staring at her.
“Hi,” she whispered, leaning down close to his face. “How do you feel?”
He didn’t answer, just stared at her. She shifted a little and his eyes followed her. So he was alert…at least enough to know that she was there.
“Everyone fell asleep. You had them all worried. Why don’t we let them sleep a little longer?”
He still didn’t even attempt to speak, the effort beyond him.
“You’re a lucky man,” she whispered. “I had no idea my uncle was so up to date with the new advances in the medical world. He surprised me.”
“Your uncle is full of surprises…” Maggie nearly yelped at the sound of Scott’s voice behind her. “Why didn’t you tell us he was awake?”
“He just woke up,” she answered. She heard everyone stirring in the room.
Scott pushed past her to lean over Johnny. Maggie watched him gently brush the hair from his brother’s forehead. “Hey, little brother, how are you feeling?” he whispered.
Johnny still said nothing.
“We’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”
“What’s that I hear?” Uncle Sam quickly slipped in between the bed and Scott. “Is my patient awake?”
“He sure is, Sam.” Scott grinned.
Uncle Sam quickly took Johnny’s pulse, then leaned down close to Johnny face. “I know you don’t feel much like talking,” he said. “But I have to ask you a few questions. If you understand me blink once.”
Everyone waited, for an eternity it seemed, until Johnny slowly blinked once.
“Excellent.” Uncle Sam smiled.
Maggie glanced at the tube in his chest and noticed there was a little more blood draining, but not enough. If Murdoch had not caught her she could have given him enough of the willow bark tea to end it here and now. Instead she would have to wait for another opportunity.
She felt Teresa at her side again, tears wetting her cheeks. “He’s going to be ok, I can just feel it,” Teresa whispered. “I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Maggie felt a moment of regret. Teresa was a nice girl. She liked her. She liked all the Lancers in fact. It was too bad that they had to say good bye to one of their own. But maybe someday, when she was a famous author, they would understand why Johnny’s sacrifice was necessary.
“Johnny.” Uncle Sam’s voice seemed overly loud as he spoke to Johnny, enunciating each word slowly, his face still close to the young man’s face. “You have been very sick. But we’re going to make you better. The only thing you must do is stay very quiet. Do you understand?”
The room itself seemed to hold its breath as they all waited, and finally Johnny blinked slowly.
“That’s my boy. Now, your father already gave you some of his blood…don’t worry, he’s got plenty to spare. In fact he’ll be ready to give you some more tomorrow. Are you in pain, Johnny?”
Maggie watched Johnny stare into Uncle Sam’s eyes, the questions seemingly wandering around inside his mind until he finally understood the question, and he blinked.
“Where, Johnny? Your chest?”
They waited, and Johnny blinked.
And he blinked.
Johnny’s eyes widened for a moment and then he blinked.
“I’m sorry about that, Johnny. But it is necessary. I’ll give you something to make the pain a little easier. Then I want you to get some rest. Understand?”
Johnny looked at him, his lips parting just a bit. He seemed to be working hard to say something.
“Don’t try to talk, son,” Uncle Sam admonished gently.
But Johnny continued to work until he whispered one word. “…Die…?”
Maggie felt a cloud descend over the room. Murdoch sat up on the cot, his hands shaking from blood loss and fear. Teresa’s hand found Maggie’s and she squeezed so tight Maggie thought her hand would break. Scott…she saw Scott’s knees dip.
Uncle Sam cleared his throat. Maggie saw the pain in her uncle’s eyes and heard the tremble in his words. “I won’t lie to you, John. You are very sick. I’m doing everything I know to do. As long as you keep fighting I’ll do my damnedest to keep you here with us. But ultimately it is between you and God.
Johnny seemed to think about it for a long time then slowly blinked before closing his eyes.
Maggie sat in her room and looked at her closed door. The ordeal was taking its toll on her. It appeared that Johnny was rallying. Despite her intervention with the willow bark tea he seemed to be responding to Uncle Sam’s new medical procedure. Who would have thought that a country doctor in the middle of this God forsaken land would know about modern techniques?
Well it was time for her to make a decision. Either she would leave now and hope that her Uncle would not linger on the question of the missing tubing and Chloral hydrate, or try again to finish what she had started. The latter, although much preferable for her research, held too many pitfalls. One slip of the tongue by her at an inopportune moment could uncover her entire plan. No, she would tell the Lancers and Uncle Sam that she would leave in the morning. They would understand how difficult these last few days were on her. She would ask Jelly to drive her into town early on the pretense of some extra shopping before getting on the stage. That would give her time to replace the tubing and Chloral hydrate in Uncle Sam’s office. She would put it somewhere where it would appear that Scott simply missed it in his state of anxiety.
Pulling her journal from its hiding place, she opened it to the first empty page and began writing. This was only for her now…not for Professor Myers’ assignment. She wanted to record her last account of Johnny Lancer. For her, he was no longer important. He had served his purpose. Maybe someday she would return and meet him under better circumstances. Too bad though. It had been the perfect recipe for the perfect murder. If not for Uncle Sam.
Twenty minutes later she had finished her final entry in her journal. It had been a good friend, and it would serve her every need when she began to write her story upon returning to Harvard.
As she picked it up to put it away in its hiding place, her hand brushed the ink stand and in an automatic reaction to try to right the ink before it spilled over the desk and onto the floor, she lost her grip on the journal and it fell to the floor. The spine ripped and the book flew open, pages flying in every direction on the floor.
The sound of her scream of horror as she saw her work spread across the floor brought a frantic knocking to her door and Teresa rushed in, her face panicked.
“Are you alright?” she gasped.
Maggie looked from the pages of her carefully written account of the murder of Johnny Lancer to Teresa and her heart nearly stopped.
“It’s nothing,” she laughed, embarrassed. “I just dropped an old journal I was leafing through.”
“Here, let me help,” Teresa offered, stepping into the room and bending to pick up the stray pages before Maggie could stop her.
“No, no, it’s all right. I’ll get them. I’m sure Johnny needs you.”
“Johnny is doing fine with your Uncle. I was just on my way to the kitchen to start another pot of soup. Sam says we may be able to give him some soup to sip on. He’s doing so much better. I think…” Tears rose in her eyes and Maggie saw her turn away. Now what were these tears for? She seemed to be happy, not sad. “I think he is going to make it.”
“I know he will,” Maggie said. With her hands on Teresa’s shoulders she turned her toward the door. “Now, you make that soup for Johnny. I’m sure he will love it.”
Teresa nodded. “Oh,” she said, leaning down to pick up a stray page that had skirted all the way to the door, “don’t forget this one it’s…”
“Teresa!” Murdoch’s voice suddenly rocked the house. “Sam needs you.”
Teresa’s face turned white as she stuffed the forgotten piece of paper in her skirt pocket and raced out of the room.
Maggie stood stunned. Teresa had a page of her journal.
Maggie raced up the stairs behind Teresa, her heart in her throat. She could not let the woman out of her sight. Damn it. How could fate be so cruel to her? She was almost finished here. In another twenty four hours she would have been on a stage headed for the train and home.
Now she had to get that page back. And she didn’t even know what page it was. It could be an all out incriminating testament to what she had done to Johnny Lancer, or a heart felt analysis of a family drowning in the sadness of losing a loved one. It was all there in black and white.
Teresa pulled away from her in her mad dash up the stairs, disappearing into Johnny’s partially opened door. When Maggie finally stood in the doorway she found controlled chaos.
Johnny was struggling to wrestle his arms and legs free of Uncle Sam, Murdoch and Scott as the trio tried to hold him down. Scott shouted at him, trying to get him to listen, but Johnny thrashed violently, sputtering words in Spanish, lost in some kind of fever induced nightmare…his eyes open, fever bright and unfocused. He stared at something on the ceiling, trying to escape from the terror only he could see.
“Get the chloroform,” Uncle Sam ordered and Teresa grabbed a bottle and a cloth mask from Uncle Sam’s medical bag without hesitation. “I’ve run out of Chloral hydrate and I can’t give him any more morphine…it’s too soon.”
Teresa opened the stopper, her head jerking back at the smell.
“Be careful,” Uncle Sam warned, “don’t breathe any of it or you’ll be on the floor. Now, give him just enough to calm him.”
Teresa kneeled on the bed next to Johnny’s head and held the mask over his nose and mouth, struggling to keep it in place as Johnny thrashed his head back and forth. Slowly he began to relax, his arms and legs going limp.
“That’s enough for now,” Uncle Sam panted, his face white from exhaustion. Teresa removed the mask and set it on the nightstand next to Johnny’s bed and gently began to wipe his face with a cool damp cloth. Johnny’s eyes remained open but he didn’t seem to be aware.
“If he begins to fret again we can give him some more. Not too much, he may get sick, but we can’t have him thrashing around like this.”
“Do you think he did any damage?” Scott asked.
“We won’t know right away.” There was a strange far off quality to his voice. “I think I got enough saline and glucose into him. That and another transfusion from you tomorrow, Murdoch, should give him a good fighting chance.”
Suddenly Uncle Sam staggered and Murdoch reached out for him, easing him into the chair that had been pulled up to the side of the bed.
“Uncle Sam!” Maggie was at his side immediately. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine sweetheart,” he sighed. “I’m just a little tired.”
“You’re exhausted,” Murdoch admonished. “You need to get some rest.”
“I can’t…not now. Johnny needs…”
“Johnny needs you coherent,” Maggie said. “You won’t help him if you drive yourself to a stroke or a heart attack. Now you need to rest.”
“Maggie’s right, you need rest,” Scott stressed. “Teresa’s the best nurse you’ve ever had…haven’t you said that a hundred times? Then just tell her what to do.”
Uncle Sam looked at his patient. Maggie could see the fatigue win over and he nodded. “The intravenous needle needs to be removed. Wrap his arm with a rubber bandage like I did his feet until I can look at the puncture site later. Continue giving him the soup and the tincture of cone flower through the nasal tube every half hour. After we have stopped the intravenous drips you will have to begin infusing water into the tube every twenty minutes. If he becomes restless again you can give him more chloroform. But just enough to calm him. If he starts vomiting again we could be right back where we started.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him.” Murdoch assured him. “You get some rest. And Sam…thank you.”
Uncle Sam smiled. “No need for thanks. I’d do anything for that boy.”
Maggie watched Scott escort her Uncle from the room. Now only Murdoch remained with Teresa. She had to get her alone, had to somehow get to that page in her skirt pocket. Then an idea came to her and she realized how truly brilliant she was. The page would be hers soon, and then she would be on her way home. First she had to get Murdoch out of the room somehow.
“Murdoch, you look almost as bad as my uncle, why don’t you get some rest too?” She walked over to the bed, lifting Johnny’s hand into hers and rubbing it gently. “We can watch him in for awhile. Then Teresa can get some rest. You are all just a step away from collapsing.”
“Thank you, Maggie, but I can’t leave him now.”
“At least get a cup of coffee then. Teresa could probably use some too.”
“Yes I could.” Teresa took Maggie’s lead. “And maybe some of those cookies I made before Johnny got sick. No one’s eaten anything in ages.”
Murdoch finally nodded. “I’ll be back as fast as I can.”
“No need to rush. It’ll be at least another half hour before that bottle of saline is empty, then we can take the needle out. Oh Murdoch, I know he is going to make it. He looks so much stronger than he did yesterday.”
Murdoch pulled her into a gently embrace. “I know he will sweetheart,” he whispered and kissed her lightly on the top of her head. “I know he will. Now, I had better get that coffee. Maggie…” Murdoch held his hand out and Maggie took it, surprised to find herself in the same gentle embrace as Teresa. “I don’t know what we would have done without your help.”
Maggie felt the light touch of his lips on her hair and she felt her legs go weak. Is this how a father treated a daughter? Is this the kindness that families shared? Her father had never embraced her, had hardly ever touched her…it was improper for casual contact once she was old enough to walk on her own. Why couldn’t her father have shown her just a little of the love she felt here? Pulling away from his embrace she ironed her skirt with her hands, not knowing what to do, what to say. But Murdoch seemed unaware of her inner turmoil. How could he know how much she craved the kind of affection this family shared with each other? Maggie suddenly had an overwhelming need to return to her room and her journal. She needed to sort these feelings out. But first she had to get that page from Teresa.
“I’ll get that coffee,” Murdoch said and after taking one last look at Johnny he left the room.
“He loves you very much,” Maggie observed. “You are very lucky.”
“I know. I guess I really didn’t realize it until Johnny came home. He didn’t have anyone almost all his life. He didn’t know how to accept affection…even a kind word was suspect to him.” Teresa sat down in the chair facing Johnny and took his hand in hers. “At times I thought it would never work out. He was so angry and hurt by life.”
Maggie drowned out the words as Teresa spoke, she didn’t want them to get in the way of what she had to do next. That paper in Teresa’s pocket was still the most important thing. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by kind actions and even kinder words. As Teresa spoke Maggie walked behind her picking up the bottle of chloroform and wetting the mask. She hoped Teresa wouldn’t notice the cloying odor. Stepping behind her she quickly smothered the girls face with the mask. Teresa bucked, startled, her hands reaching up to pry the mask away from her nose and mouth but the chloroform acted too quickly and she went limp. Maggie let Teresa’s head sag forward then rescued the precious page from Teresa’s pocket.
It felt so good to have that piece of paper back in her hands. She quickly stuffed the page in her own pocket and gently eased Teresa from the chair to the floor. She put the chloroform saturated mask in the woman’s limp hand and stood up to see two incredibly blue eyes staring at her. Panic washed over her. He was conscious and alert.
She heard footsteps ascending the stairs. They were too light for Murdoch’s. It had to be Scott. And Johnny was staring at her. She could feel his eyes boring into her, knowing what she had just done. She had to do something. The footsteps reached the landing. She grabbed the bottle of chloroform and pulled the stopper and dropped the bottle on the pillow next to Johnny’s head. The liquid spilled out, saturating the pillow, filling the room with the noxious fumes. She felt her head begin to spin and her legs buckle. She never felt herself hit the floor, her am flung out, her hand touching the chloroform mask in Teresa’s hand
Maggie felt sick. She couldn’t remember feeling sicker. Someone was holding her shoulders while she threw up, again and again. She moaned as she was eased back down into the nest of blankets and pillows and realized for the first time that she was back in her room downstairs. She opened her eyes a slit and she thought her head would explode with pain.
“It’s all right, just try to relax.”
She recognized that voice, but she couldn’t quite…Scott…Scott Lancer… and now she remembered everything. Her hand went to her skirt pocket but she was naked beneath the blanket that covered her. Her eyes must have gone wide and Scott misinterpreted her shocked reaction. “We had no choice,” he said, embarrassed. “Your clothes were reeking with the smell of chloroform.”
“My dress?” she asked. She couldn’t care less where her dress was; it was the page from her journal that was important.
“We gave it to Lucida to wash along with Teresa’s. What happened in there?” he suddenly demanded.
She looked away from Scott’s probing eyes.
“Tell me,” he demanded again.
Scott sighed deeply. “We don’t know. He inhaled enough chloroform to put an army to sleep. Sam doesn’t know if he’ll ever come out of it.”
“I’m so sorry.” She lowered her voice, her lips trembling. “It was an accident. She didn’t mean…”
“Mean…mean what? What didn’t she mean?”
“Johnny began to thrash around again. Teresa was pouring the chloroform into the mask when his hand hit hers. The bottle fell on the pillow. She tried to grab it but she was overcome immediately. I tried too…but…”
Scott’s shoulders sagged. The hope she had seen in his eyes earlier was gone. “When is this nightmare going to end? You get some rest.”
“My dress?” Maggie grabbed Scott’s wrist.
“I told you, we gave it to Lucida to wash. She’ll have it back to you later today.
“No! I mean…” Maggie bit her lower lip, she couldn’t over react. She would have to get to that dress before Lucida, or what ever her name was, found the page. “I mean…I don’t know what I mean. I’m sorry. This is just all so sad. He was making such good progress. I wish I could have gotten to that bottle before I collapsed. It just all happened so fast.”
“You did everything you could. It was just an accident. No need to blame yourself.”
Maggie watched the door close behind Scott and she slowly sat up, her head reeling. What was she going to do now? First thing to do was find out which page was missing. She could be panicking over nothing. She eased herself out of bed, her legs still wobbly, and drew her journal out of its hiding place and returned to bed to sort out the pages. Soon she would know.
Maggie walked up the stairs slowly, her heart in her throat, her mind screaming why. Why was she being punished like this? The one time in her life when she could have made a difference…when people would have noticed her…appreciated her talents…looked upon her as something more than just a woman trying to make it in a man’s world…why did things have to go so wrong?
She remembered her hand beginning to tremble as she realized which page was missing from her journal. The most incriminating page of all. The page she had written with such passion, with such attention to detail. She could remember vividly how she felt as she wrote down those words. How she remembered the act, her hand gripping the pen harder as she relived the moment, how she felt as she drove the needle into Johnny’s side, felt the needle pass through the touch outer layer of shin, then muscle and the jerk Johnny’s body gave as the needle reached its destination and punctured his liver. It was all written down, every thought she had. The fear of being caught, the moment’s hesitation as guilt kissed her mind then floated away, replaced by the excitement knowing her plan was coming to fruition. She had even used his name. God…how stupid. She was going to change it when she wrote her story, but she couldn’t resist the extra thrill it gave her using his name as she wrote those words…If only Uncle Sam could have been the country hick doctor she thought he was…if only Johnny had not fought so hard to stay alive. If only she had not dropped that damn journal just as Teresa passed by.
She would have to leave today. No matter how bad she felt, she would have one of the hands drive her into town and she would get the next stage headed for Stockton and the train home. If she had to, she could pay passage on the next boat headed for England. She could make a fresh start there. Write her book under a penname and still have the glory she sought so desperately.
Now that she had a plan she felt confident again. She rapped lightly on Johnny’s door and entered. She found the bed empty. The intravenous bottles were shoved up against the wall, the tubes dangling to the floor. Blankets and pillows were tossed haphazardly across the carpeting.
“We’re over here.”
Maggie turned and saw Scott standing in the doorway to his room.
“We moved him. The smell of chloroform soaked into everything.”
Maggie stepped into Scott’s room and felt the tension. Uncle Sam was leaning over Johnny listening to his chest with his stethoscope. Murdoch was standing at the foot of the bed, his arms crossed over his chest, watching in silence. Teresa sat in a chair in the corner, her eyes swollen and red.
“How is he?” Maggie asked softly.
Uncle Sam stood up slowly. “His heart is strong. His pulse is still too rapid, but that’s to be expected. The bleeding appears to have stopped. There’s nothing more we can do now but wait. There’s no way of knowing exactly how much of the chloroform he inhaled, so there’s no way of knowing how long he will sleep.”
Maggie looked over at Teresa. She had her hands cupped over her face to hide the tears but her shoulders shook as she sobbed silently. Scott pulled her up and held her tightly in his arms. “I’m going to take her to her room and let her rest,” he said, and led her out the door.
Clearing her throat, Maggie ironed the soft blue fabric of her dress with her hands as she stuttered a couple of times before she could get her words out. “I…I think I would like to go home now. If someone could drive me into town I can catch the next stage out tomorrow morning.”
Uncle Sam looked back at her and shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry this has been such a rough time for you. I will try to make it up to you somehow, someday.”
“There is no need,” Maggie insisted. “It was no one’s fault that Johnny got sick. I just think that you all need to be alone as a family now. I’m sure Johnny will begin to recover very soon and he will need your complete attention.”
Murdoch nodded. “I understand. But I can’t spare a man today to take you to town. I’ll have someone take you in the morning.”
“I’ll see to it,” Scott said as he walked back into the room. “But before you go I think Teresa could use some company. She is tearing herself apart with guilt.”
“But it was an accident,” Maggie said.
“She knows that, but she loves Johnny. It’s just painful for her to realize that she caused him more pain. And the worst part of it is she doesn’t remember doing it. She doesn’t…”
Johnny moaned softly and Murdoch was by his side as he slowly opened his eyes. Maggie wanted to run from the room but Uncle Sam was calling her over, asking for assistance as Johnny suddenly became violently ill.
She tried to get away but there was always something Uncle Sam wanted her to do. When Johnny finally settled down she was exhausted.
Johnny laid quietly as Uncle Sam examined him, his eyes heavy but open.
Uncle Sam checked the drainage tube in Johnny’s side and nodded, satisfied. “We appear to be in luck, young man,” he said as he felt Johnny’s forehead for fever. “And your fever has come down a bit. I think that dose of stubborn Murdoch blood did the trick. How do you feel, son?”
“…Thirsty…” Johnny breathed.
“Good…very good. We’ll get you a bit of water.”
Both Murdoch and Scott tried to reach for the pitcher of water at the same time and a smile came to Johnny’s lips. That was until he spotted Maggie standing by the door.
“…Her…” he breathed.
“What?” Uncle Sam looked toward the door and saw Maggie.
“It’s Maggie, remember? She’s my niece. When you’ve had some more rest you’ll remember things more clearly.
“What is he saying?” Maggie asked defensively.
“He’s not completely coherent yet.” Sam explained with a smile. “Give him time.”
Maggie nodded. She had to get out of this room. If Johnny…
The sound of feet running up the stairs startled Maggie. A young Mexican woman ran past her into the room, gasping for air as she handed Murdoch something.
Dread and disbelief hit Maggie like a punch in the stomach. She audibly gasped when she saw her paper in the young woman’s hand.
“Senor, I am sorry for disturbing you here with Juanito…but…” She looked back at Maggie and snarled, “Punta!”
“Lucida!” Teresa stood in the doorway, awakened by Lucida’s mad dash down the hallway.
“I found this paper in the…her…skirt when I went to wash it. I opened it… I know I should not have…and I see Juanito’s name and…I do not read the English well…but I know what that says.”
Murdoch slowly unfolded the sheet of paper and his hands began to shake.
Slowly he looked up and faced Maggie…and she prayed the ground would just open up and swallow her.
Maggie watched Murdoch’s lips tighten into a thin line of outrage, his face growing darker as he read each word, so carefully written only a few days ago. His hand shook ever so slightly, but he said nothing. He glanced up at her, his eyes piercing through her like daggers. Then he turned his head slowly to look at Johnny lying so still beneath the white sheets, but Johnny was not staring at his father. Johnny’s eyes were fixed on her...smoldering with hatred and accusation.
Maggie felt light headed…this was a nightmare…this couldn’t…shouldn’t be happening. She had planned so carefully - worked so hard on her research. In hind sight, she never should have picked the Lancer’s. But who could have known that Uncle Sam would be called away that morning. If she had known…if he had mentioned his intentions the day before she would have waited…but there was no turning back once that needle hit Johnny’s liver. She was committed. She could only stand back and watch from that point on.
It was so unfair.
She saw Murdoch’s hand fall limply to his side, the page still pinched tightly between his trembling fingers. Scott stepped up behind him and eased the page from his hands. She watched Scott’s face go pale as he began reading. Stunned, he looked up at her; anger, fear and disgust all mirrored in his eyes.
She took an involuntary step backwards. She felt physically assaulted by those eyes…It was not her fault…how would she ever convince them of that? Uncle Sam…Uncle Sam would…he knew that there were sacrifices that had to be made. Being a doctor he would have had to make decisions…yes, he would understand.
Uncle Sam looked from her to Scott, a disquieting anxiety in his eyes. She watched and waited, the tension building in the room as Scott lowered the paper and looked at her once more… If looks could kill she would be dead this very moment. Then he was walking toward Uncle Sam, paper in hand. She prayed that he wouldn’t be that cruel, that he would spare her uncle…but it was in his hand now…
“No…” Came Uncle Sam’s shocked whisper, as his eyes followed the words; their meaning cutting through him like a sharp knife. Slowly he looked up at her…the pain in his eyes taking her breath away.
There was no air left in the room. She had to think. She had to calm down. Breathe evenly, don’t let them see your panic. They are just words. She could explain…there was no proof that she was anything other than a writer taking notes.
“Why…?” Murdoch growled. The question seemed to echo off the walls, demanding an answer. All eyes were on her, weighing her down. She had only one chance…
“What…?” She asked, feigning complete ignorance.
Not getting an answer she slipped the page from Uncle Sam’s numb fingers and read it. She looked up at everyone in the room, an incredulous smile playing at her lips.
“You don’t think…you couldn’t possibly believe…” She looked from face to face. Only Teresa had not read the page. “My God…do you think I am some kind of monster?”
Tears of indignation filled her eyes. “This was a writing assignment,” she said, balling the page up in her hand and throwing it on the floor. “I hadn’t planned on writing while I was here…but when Johnny got sick…the idea just came to me. I wrote down notes…combined them with fiction…my God…Uncle Sam…you can’t believe…”
Maggie saw Teresa staring at the piece of crumbled paper on the floor willing her not to reach for it. But she did, and every eye watched her as she hesitantly straightened it out and began to read. A myriad of emotions crossed the young woman’s face, ending in shock then disbelief.
Maggie began to pace, the words tumbling out of her mouth. The sincerity of her words surprising even her. “It was the last assignment of the semester. We were to devise “The Perfect Murder”. Plan it, execute it and explore all the feelings of the victim and his family and friends.”
She looked at the faces watching her, and she saw revulsion in Teresa’s eyes. “I’m so sorry, I never meant to intrude.” She walked over to the young woman, reaching out for her hand but Teresa snatched it out of her reach. “I never meant to hurt anyone,” Maggie pleaded. “I just wanted to write the best paper in the class. It…it was wrong of me to use your misfortunes for my gain. I realize that now.”
She moved over to Scott, his face an imponderable mask. “When Johnny got sick…I only intended to write a few notes to take back with me to Harvard. You know the kind of pressure you are under if you want to stay at the top of your class. I was one of only two women there. We were constantly being ridiculed by the professor, by the other students. I had to write the best paper, I had to be better than anyone else. Please Scott…you have to understand. I didn’t mean any harm.”
Scott’s eyes flashed with anger.
“You have to understand. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I was learning things I never knew existed. I realized I had never felt the emotions I felt here, watching you take care of Johnny.”
She turned to Uncle Sam, his face so very pale. “You know my family, Uncle Sam, you know they are cold and heartless…I didn’t know a family could grieve like this…I didn’t know a doctor could feel so much pain for a patient. Please, I never meant to hurt you. I wanted you to be proud of me.”
Tears were spilling over her cheeks now. She had to make them believe her. She waited, standing in the middle of the room. She turned slowly, trying to gage each face, read what was in their minds. Uncle Sam seemed to be wavering, was it shame he felt for believing for just a moment that his own niece was capable of such a monstrous thing?
Then she was looking at Johnny. His blue eyes glassy from fever, but he didn’t believe her, she could tell. There was contempt and hatred in those eyes.
“Johnny, please believe me.” She dashed between Uncle Sam and Scott before they could stop her. “Please…” she pulled his hand up into hers, still overly warm with fever. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I did nothing but write down what I saw…I grieved right along with your family when we didn’t think you were going to make it. I stood by you every minute. I helped care for you. Johnny, I need you to understand, I need you to forgive me.”
Johnny weakly pulled his had away. “…hurt…Teresa…” he managed to say. “…Not…her….fault…”
“It was an accident…I know. She didn’t mean to drop the bottle of chloroform.”
“No!” Johnny tried to sit up. There was an explosion of movement in the room as everyone leaped toward the bed.
Pain registered on his face and he labored to get his breath. Murdoch gently pushed Johnny back down into the mound of pillows. Uncle Sam lifted his wrist to take his pulse. “Johnny, you have to stay calm. Do you understand me? You have to stay calm.”
“Maggie…” Johnny tried to push Murdoch’s hands aside. “I…saw…” but there was no strength in his arms and he could only moan in frustration as Scott steadied his right arm as Sam injected morphine into his vein.
Maggie fought back the panic. She knew he could sway them to his side. They were vacillating now…unsure of her guilt. Johnny could ruin it all.
“Johnny…” She tried to reach for him again but Scott grabbed her arm yanking her back.
“Stay away from him,” he ordered. “What you did was reprehensible. Johnny was fighting for his life and you were devising murder schemes. You exploited our emotions for your own gain. I want you out of this house now. Pack your things and get out.”
Maggie swung back to look at Uncle Sam. “Uncle…I didn’t mean…”
“I’m sorry, Maggie…I can’t blame Scott. I’m ashamed that I brought you here…these are my friends… You used my long standing friendship with them to bolster your school career.”
“You don’t understand,” she sobbed. “I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone…”
“You did, none the less.” Uncle Sam turned back to examine Johnny. She turned to run from the room, sobbing uncontrollably …but inwardly she clung to a ray of hope. They believed her. For now. She had to get rid of the bottle of choral hydrate, the syringe and the rubber tubing, they could still incriminate her. But there was still Johnny. Somehow, she had to take care of that last problem. Tomorrow she would be on a stage to Stockton then home. She would have her story, one that would send her to the head of the class.
Maggie hurriedly began packing her things. The journal, though she would rather they not see it, was far less incriminating then the syringe and bottle of chloral hydrate she had hidden in her satchel. Would they search her things? Johnny’s suspicions of her might lead them to do just that. Somehow she had to hide the evidence…but where?
And there was Johnny to consider. Even after she left, he could persuade them to his way of thinking. If he pushed them, made them think and wonder. Damn him! He could still ruin it all. She turned to her dresser to retrieve her precious journal and suddenly realized it was her salvation and her damnation. She needed it to write her story…without it she would have nothing…but if Johnny persuaded them to scrutinize it, they would see it was far more than just a fabled account of what had happened to him…it was an outright indictment of her actions. She could spend the rest of her life in jail.
No, she had to make certain that Johnny could not change their minds. But like the evidence…there was the how if it. She sat down and thought. Somehow she had to stay here one more night.
She heard a light tapping at her bedroom door and knew it was Teresa, making sure she was packing. There was only one way she could think of to stay…
Sprawling to the floor next to her bed, she felt Teresa cautiously enter her room and stand above her.
“Maggie…Maggie are you all right?”
Maggie remained as still as she could. She felt Teresa bend down close to her and gently shake her shoulder.
With no answer, Teresa ran from the room and Maggie could hear her footsteps fade away as she ran down the hallway.
Maggie counted nearly five minutes before she heard the hustle of footsteps in the hall then the commotion of several people entering her room.
“I found her like this.” Maggie heard Teresa say.
She felt strong arms, Murdoch’s arms, pick her up and lay her on the bed. Uncle Sam was at her side now, lifting her wrist to feel for a pulse, checking her forehead for fever, running his hands across her head feeling for signs of head trauma.
“Well.” She heard him sigh. “I can’t find anything wrong with her. I think she is emotionally over wrought. Let her sleep for awhile. It would probably be best if she doesn’t have to travel to town tonight.”
“I want her out of here tonight.” She heard Murdoch snap.
“And as a doctor I think she should remain here.”
“One more night can’t hurt,” Teresa offered.
There was a long silence. Maggie had a hard time not opening her eyes to see their expressions. Teresa was already drifting toward her side. With Johnny out of the way she was sure Murdoch and Scott would follow.
“Let her stay here, but just for the night,” Murdoch declared. “But she is not to get anywhere near Johnny.”
“Teresa.” Uncle Sam’s voice sounded so worn, so old. His spirit had been sorely tested today. “Please remove her dress and make her comfortable. When she wakes up I want her to have a little soup and a glass of wine if she likes. I want to get back upstairs to Johnny.”
There was a shuffling of feet and the room was silent again. Maggie knew Teresa was standing over the bed watching her. She decided she would remain ‘unconscious’ for a little while longer and remained motionless as Teresa began to remove her dress.
Maggie listened to the old grandfather clock in the great room strike one A.M... Teresa had been in twice in the early part of the evening, but had not been back in hours. As she listened she knew the house had settled down for the night.
Carefully she found the lantern in the dark, striking a match and raising the wick just enough to give the room a little light. Quietly, she removed the satchel from its hiding place beneath the bed and pulled out the incriminating evidence. She rolled the bottle of choral hydrate and the rubber tubing in a small towel and tied it securely against her left outer thigh. The syringe and packets of sleeping powder she would still need. She slipped those into the waistband of her skirt. The journal she would leave in plain site. To destroy that would be a testimony to her guilt.
Carefully she opened the door and moved ever so slowly down the dark hallway toward the great room. Her plan was to burn the bottle and tubing and later when she was done with the syringe, she would burn that also.
She knew the fire would be just smoldering ash by now, no one had tended to the fire much since Johnny took ill. She hoped no one would become too curious in the morning when they found that the fire had been restarted during the night, but if they did she could just say that she had become cold during the night and lit a fire. Nothing suspect about that.
After lighting the fire she decided to wait until the logs were fully engulfed before throwing her evidence into the flames. Satisfied her plan was working well so far, she made her way cautiously into the kitchen. Just as she thought, a pot of coffee was sitting on the top of the stove, keeping hot for whoever was watching over Johnny tonight. Pulling the three packets of sleeping powders she still had from her waistband she poured them into the pot of coffee and hoped it would not be long before someone came down and poured themselves a cup. If she was right about her timing, it wouldn’t be long. They were watching Johnny in four hour shifts, and whoever was watching him with bring a hot cup of coffee with them to insure that they stayed awake.
Maggie sat in the corner of the kitchen, nudged in the deepest shadows and waited. To her surprise it was only fifteen minutes before Scott appeared to get his coffee. He looked so much older, so tired now. Johnny’s illness had been an ordeal for the whole family. But it would all be over soon. A quick funeral, which she would not be welcomed, thank God, and the family would begin to put their lives back in order again…and soon forget about her. She had panicked earlier for nothing.
Giving Scott a half an hour, she quietly left the kitchen and started up the stairs. She thought about cremating the bottle and tubing she had tied to her leg before going upstairs, but decided she had better take care of Johnny first. If those sleeping powders wore off quicker then she thought, Scott could wake up right at the worst moment.
Her heart beat in her throat as she walked up stairs. If someone caught her now it would all be over. Every stair reminded her of the first time she had made her way up here under the cover of darkness…so many things had changed since she first began her assignment. No one was to die…not in reality, only in her story…but Uncle Sam had changed that, and it was too late to turn back. When she published her book she would dedicate it to Johnny…posthumously, of course, using only the letter M for Madrid.
Approaching Johnny’s partially opened door she listened for voices. She only heard the soft snore of a man sleeping. As she opened the door wider she saw Scott slumped in his chair, chin resting on his chest, deeply asleep. There was no one else was in the room, except Johnny.
Crossing over to his bed she noticed his eyes opening. He had gained a little strength…she could tell by the easy rise and fall of his chest, he no longer had to labor for each breath.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, his voice still pathetically weak.
“I just wanted to see how you were doing.” She whispered. “I really have been concerned about you, whether you want to believe it or not.”
“I saw you knock Teresa out…”
“I know,” she sighed. “And I’m sorry you did. You know, it’s not my fault that you have to die. If Uncle Sam had done what he was supposed to do in the beginning…”
She saw Johnny’s eyes widen and he slowly turned his head toward Scott who slept so deeply in his chair.
“He can’t help you. I gave him something to help him get a good night sleep. He really has been running himself down taking care of you. Everyone has. And you know your recuperation could take months. Uncle Sam already told your family that they would have to find a way of keeping you quiet in bed for the next six weeks. I’m sure you would prove to be a very difficult patient for that long.”
“Scott!” Johnny’s voice was louder than she thought possible. Quickly she grabbed a small towel from the table beside his bed and stuffed the cloth into his mouth. With the nasal tube still in place he could only breathe from one side of his nose.
“Don’t make this more difficult on yourself, Johnny.” She pulled the syringe from the waistband of her skirt and held it up for him to see. She saw his eyes widen. He was having trouble breathing now, his chest gasping for air. The harder he struggled, the more pressure he put on his liver. He wouldn’t survive even a small amount of blood loss.
“You won’t feel a thing,” she promised as she pulled the plunger of the syringe toward her filling it with air. “I don’t know why, but just a small amount of air left in a syringe when it is injected into a vein will stop the heart. It’s the first thing they teach you in medical school. Uncle Sam will simply think that your heart gave out.”
She steadied his arm against the mattress. He tried to pull away from her but he didn’t have the strength. “Just a little pin prick…”
“What are you doing?”
Uncle Sam’s voice thundered through the room.
Maggie smiled and pushed the plunger home.
Uncle Sam was across the room quicker than Maggie thought possible. He grabbed her arm and swung her away from the bed. She hit the wall hard. Murdoch was there too, pulling the syringe from her hand and shoving her to the floor beneath the window.
She watched, detached, as Uncle Sam quickly pulled the cloth from Johnny's mouth and urged him to breath normally again. He looked back at her. "What did you give him?" he demanded.
"Nothing," she answered truthfully.
Murdoch looked at the empty syringe. "It looks dry, Sam," he said, confused.
"Damn!" She watched Uncle Sam hurriedly look at Johnny's arm examining the injection site. He stood up slowly and turned to look down at her; the depth of his hatred scared her. "You should have stayed in medical school a little longer. A syringe full of air isn't enough to kill a grown man."
"No!" Maggie tried to climb to her feet.
"Sam?" Murdoch hovered over Johnny, trying to soothe him, coaxing him to breathe easier.
"She injected a bubble of air into his vein." He quickly held his hand up, assuaging Murdoch's worries. "He'll be all right. It's a fallacy that an amount as small as a syringe can stop the heart." He turned to look down at Maggie, and she saw the disgust on his face. "If an air embolism had reached his heart or lungs we would know it by now. Why?" he asked.
"You tried to kill Johnny?" Teresa was standing in the doorway, drawn by the noise in the room. Maggie saw her brown eyes turn black with rage and before anyone could move the young woman was on top of Maggie beating her with her fists, clawing her with her nails.
"I trusted you," Teresa screamed. "I trusted you!"
"No…" Maggie cried. "You don't understand."
Then Teresa's hand brushed Maggie's leg and she felt the odd lump there. Before Maggie could stop her, Teresa had whipped Maggie's skirt back revealing the cloth covered package tied to her leg.
Maggie tried to scramble away but Teresa was all over her, tearing the cloth off. Stunned silence filled the room as the bottle of chloral hydrate and tubing fell to the floor, the bottle rolling to a stop next to Murdoch's foot.
Maggie felt nothing after Teresa's fist connected solidly with her chin.
Maggie sat stoically at the defendant's table. The straight-backed chair was uncomfortably hard and the room was insufferably hot. Her wrists sweated beneath the heavy cuffs encircling her wrists. The hum of hushed, excited voices filled the air like bees droning on a hot summer day as the second morning of the trial began.
It had been two long months since she awoke, wedged on the floor in the corner of Johnny's room, to see Val Crawford hovering over her, a set of handcuffs dangling from his filthy hand and a look that could freeze the infernos of Hell. She remembered the feeling of disbelief as Murdoch and Scott pulled her roughly to her feet and Sheriff Crawford ordered her to hold out her hands.
It was a nightmare, one she could not awaken from. Her mind drifted back to that night, as it did almost every day, to the moment of Uncle Sam's ultimate betrayal. Above all else, she had thought she could trust him to help her no matter what…but he did nothing as she stood before Val Crawford as he locked the cuffs in place.
She could still remember the metallic taste of blood in her mouth where Teresa's fist had split her lip open. She tried to cry for help, but the sheriff hissed at her to shut up. His hand squeezed her arm painfully tight and she sobbed back her uncle's name. Uncle Sam has his back turned to her, hovering over Johnny, whispering calming words to his patient. Didn't he know that she was hurt and in pain? Didn't he care? Didn't anyone?
She wanted to scream at him, tell him to turn around and pay attention to her. She needed his help too. But all eyes were on Johnny, his face too pale, his breathing too labored…but his eyes…those riveting blue eyes bored right through her. Even when they were glassy from fever and pain, she could feel the hate emanating from them. Uncle Sam and Murdoch had raised him up, piling pillows behind his back to make it easier for him to breathe…Scott, still groggy from the sleeping powders wiped at the sweat glistening on his face, but no one looked at her…anyone but Johnny.
Damn them. All of them. The only thing they could think about was Johnny. Narrow minded, Neanderthals. They were too primitive to understand that sacrifices had to be made in the pursuit of knowledge. When people read her book, they would understand the depth of human sorrow when a loved one died. It would become required reading for every medical student. People would thank her for her efforts. Harvard would proudly herald her as its greatest sister, Professor Meyers would give her the "A" she so richly deserved. And everyone would admit that Johnny Lancer's sacrifice was sad, but necessary.
The buzz of the courtroom filtered back and she found herself watching Johnny. He sat at the prosecutor's table. His face was still too gaunt, though there was color back in his face…but not the same as the first time she had seen him, snickering behind Scott's back as they got their first look at her as she arrived on the stage. It seemed a lifetime ago now. That first introduction riled her. But she had soon warmed up to him, unable to resist his riveting blue eyes and mischievous smile. She should have picked someone else. She would not be here if she had thought it out better in the beginning.
His right leg was propped up on a stool and a cane leaned against the table. District Attorney Arnold Merrick sat next to him, head bent close to his ear as they whispered.
Maggie had been given weekly updates on Johnny's condition by the man who sat beside her, Maurice Boswell. Hardly older than herself, he was a fledgling attorney, appointed by the courts to defend her. But he wanted a name…he wanted respect like herself and she knew he would go to any lengths to get it. At first the reports were not good. Johnny had taken a turn for the worse, and for a week and a half there was a real possibility that she would be charged with murder, instead of attempted murder. But he had rallied once again, and now he sat in this courtroom, damning her with his eyes.
The voices in the courtroom rose then faded as the judge entered and sat down.
At first Maggie was happy that the trial would be held in Green River. Without a local newspaper the notoriety would be minimal, if at all, and what juror in this town would convict a woman…especially a young innocent looking woman. But two months was long enough for the story to spread and as the trial grew closer, more and more people made their way to Green River for the trial of the decade. She wondered idly if they were selling tickets.
She turned to look behind her. Every seat was taken in the makeshift courthouse. She almost laughed at the perverseness of it. The only building in town large enough to accommodate both the principles and the spectators was the local saloon. The bar was roped off but still the stench of whiskey and smoke lingered in the room. Every seat was taken, with men and woman alike standing in the back, shoulder to shoulder in the sweltering heat. They didn't seem to care…this was the most excitement they had seen in years.
Then her eyes shifted to the row of seats behind Johnny. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa sat there, their faces grim. Beside them Uncle Sam sat…glancing at her, then turning away, his eyes filled with sorrow and… was that hate? Did he know how alone she felt?
She had sent a telegram to her family and received a quick reply from her father. The family had plans to leave for Europe in a fort night and could not possible make it to California at this time. No good luck, no I love you...nothing.
She looked over at Murdoch who leaned forward, his hands resting gently on Johnny's shoulders…whatever he said drew a smile to Johnny lips. She envied their closeness. She knew that no matter where Johnny was…even clear across the world…Murdoch would have found a way to get to him and stand at his side.
Her attention was drawn to the back of the saloon where Judge Knutson sat at a saloon table set on a small stage and banged his gavel. "Is the prosecution ready to proceed, Mr. Merrick?"
"Yes, Your Honor." Arnold Merrick was tall, well over six feet and strongly built. Maggie thought he looked more like one of the Lancer's cowhands dressed up for a church social than a lawyer. But he was a good attorney and that worried her a bit. He had already questioned Murdoch and Scott and elicited strong testimony. "We would like to call Professor Theodore Myers to the stand."
Maggie thought her heart would stop beating. What was he doing here? She glanced at Johnny, but his eyes were glued to the professor as he took the stand.
"Why didn't you tell me he was going to testify?" she hissed.
"Because he just got into town last night," Boswell hissed back. "I just found out myself. I'll ask for a recess before I cross-examine him. Now just relax. Whatever you do, don't look guilty."
Maggie thought that was a strange thing to say. Because, the facts were clear…she was not guilty.
"Please state you name and occupation for the court," DA Merrick requested.
"Theodore Myers, Professor of Literature at Harvard University."
"And how long have you been teaching there?"
Maggie knew it was seventeen years…but she kept quiet, it would not do her any good to antagonize anyone.
"Was Miss Stewart a student of yours?"
Professor Myers nodded. "She was. In fact she was one of two women in my class…I warned the Dean that it was a mistake to allow women into the hallowed halls of Harvard."
"Objection." Boswell jumped to his feet. "The witness should be directed to answer only the questions and not give personal opinions."
"Stick to the facts, professor," the judge admonished.
"What kind of student was she?" Merrick asked.
"Average, I'd say."
"Only because he graded our papers lower than all the men," Maggie hissed in Boswell's ear.
"Would she have passed the class, professor, if she had returned after the semester?"
"Perhaps, if she had done an outstanding job on her assignment, she could have pulled her grade up to a passing mark."
"That's not true," Maggie hissed again. "He's lying…make him stop."
Boswell squeezed her hand. "We'll call him on it in cross- examination. Now, be quiet."
Maggie nodded, glancing over at Johnny. He was beginning to shift about on the chair, obviously in some discomfort. She had no sympathy for him. She was here because of him.
"Tell us about the assignment you gave Miss Stewart."
The professor nodded. "I instructed the class to devise the perfect murder. One even the victim would not be aware of until it was too late." His eyes drifted over to Johnny and his face paled. "I'm sorry Mr. Lancer, I never thought one of my students would be insane enough to actually carry it out."
"Objection!" Boswell was on his feet, pounding the table. "The jury must be instructed to ignore that statement. Further more, I will demand a mistrial if the professor continues his character assassination of my client."
The judge pounded his gavel to restore order to the court. "Professor, you will answer only the questions asked. I will hold you in contempt of court if I have to caution you again. As for you, Mr. Boswell…I will be the one who will decide if there is to be a mistrial. Now continue with your examination, Mr. Merrick, but make it quick…Mr. Lancer looks like he could use a rest."
Maggie's head swung around to see the surprised but grateful look on Johnny's face. He had paled as the morning went on. With any luck, he would not be able to testify.
"Professor," Merrick continued, "have any of your students ever taken this assignment to be more than an exercise in creative writing?"
"Will you ever give this assignment again? You're not afraid that someone else will take your instructions to this extreme again?"
"Do you regret giving the assignment?"
Maggie saw the professor turn towards her. "I only regret that Mr. Lancer was harmed by Miss Stewart here. It is a flaw in her character…not my teaching methods."
"Objection! Judge…the professor…"
"That will cost you five dollars, Professor. Stick to the facts."
"I'm sorry your honor."
There was a spattering of laughter in the room and the judge struck his gavel once on his makeshift bench.
Merrick returned to his seat, leaning in to whisper to Johnny. "That is all I have for this witness at this time, your honor. I would request a recess so Mr. Lancer can rest. Perhaps an hour?"
The judge banged his gavel. "Make it two hours. You can cross-examine when we return, Mr. Boswell."
Maggie felt Sheriff Crawford leading her from the courtroom, but not before she saw Murdoch and Scott grab Johnny before he collapsed to the floor. Maybe he wouldn't be able to attend the rest of the trial. Without him there for the jurors to see, her case became stronger.
Court reconvened two hours later, and to Maggie's dismay, Johnny was helped into the courtroom. He looked tired and fragile. Nothing like the man she remembered or the man she read about. She had been doing her homework as she bided her time in Sheriff Crawford's smelly jail. She had learned everything she could about Johnny Lancer alias Johnny Madrid. She had even discussed using it as part of her defense, but Boswell had rejected the idea. Her defense was that it had never happened. All the evidence was circumstantial. To imply it was not as heinous a crime because Johnny was an ex-gunfighter would be an admission of guilt. No, they would leave Johnny's past in the past.
Professor Myers took the stand for the cross-examination. Maggie saw him glance over at her, the faintest of sneers on his lips. She would show him. When her book became a best seller she would rub his face in it.
"Professor," Boswell began. "You said Miss Stewart was just an average student. But didn't she constantly turn in above average work?"
"Grading creative writing is subjective. There is more to it than just getting the answers right or wrong. Yes, more often than not Miss Stewart's test scores were above average. But her writing wasn't. Creative writing requires imagination…Miss Stewart's work was bland. There was no life to it."
"Did you read her journal?"
"And what did you think of that, professor?"
"I admit it was the best work she has ever done…but at what price?"
"Stick to the facts, professor," Judge Knutson warned.
"Professor, as abhorrent as you may think Miss Stewart's actions were, did she not follow your assignment to the letter? She devised the perfect murder, and obviously she did not carry it out since Mr. Lancer is sitting right here in the courtroom with us…and she chronicled the effects the victim's dying had on him and his family. Tell me, professor, if the Lancers and Dr. Jenkins had not brought up these ridiculous charges what kind of grade would you have given Miss Stewart?"
Professor Myers cleared his throat. "I would have given her an A."
Maggie could not keep the smile off her face. Even Professor Myers realized how brilliant she was.
"But she nearly killed Lancer doing it!" the professor lashed out.
"That will be a fifty dollar fine, professor," Judge Knutson roared. "One more incident and I will throw you in jail, do I make myself clear?"
Professor Myers nodded.
"I have no further questions for this witness." Boswell returned to the defendant's table, barely suppressing a look of triumph.
The next witness brought a gasp to Maggie's lips. As Uncle Sam took the stand she could not believe he was testifying. He glanced at her and she knew he saw the look of betrayal on her face. Maggie took a deep breath and listened.
"State your name and occupation, please," Merrick directed.
"Samuel Jenkins. I have been the one and only doctor in these parts for over thirty years."
"And you know the Lancers well. In fact you have on more than one occasion stated that since you didn't have any children of your own you wouldn't mind calling Johnny and Scott your sons."
Sam smiled. "And there are times I thank the good Lord that Murdoch is their father and he has to deal with them. Yes. If you are asking if we are close, the answer is yes"
"So when your niece came to visit it was only natural for them to invite Miss Stewart into their home."
"I was worried that she would be alone while I was on rounds. I can be gone for several days at a time depending on how far away my patients are. When Murdoch offered I gladly accepted. Besides, Teresa is just about Maggie's age and I thought they would both enjoy each other's company."
"All seemed to be going smoothly?"
Uncle Sam nodded. "Everyone was getting along very nicely."
"Then you had to leave for a couple of days."
"I had a patient I had to see."
"And when you got back?"
"I found that Johnny had taken gravely ill."
"What was wrong with him?"
Maggie surreptitiously looked over at Johnny. She could tell that the recount of his illness was not something he wanted the whole town to hear…and it appeared neither did Murdoch or Scott. But they were the ones who wanted this trial…they could stop it if they wanted.
"He was extremely weak…he had all the symptoms of shock due to acute blood loss."
"And your diagnosis?"
"He had a small tear to his liver. A large one and he would have bled out and died within hours."
"How could he get such an injury?"
"It is rare. Usually blunt force trauma. But it would have to be a severe blow to his chest."
"Did he have any such injury to his chest?"
"He was thrown while breaking a horse the day before, but it didn't seem likely that it was the cause."
"Have you since determined what caused the injury?"
Uncle Sam looked straight at Maggie and she felt his eyes bore through her. She took another deep breath and waited.
"I believe it was caused by a surgical needle," Uncle Sam's voice quivered. "deliberately driven deep enough to puncture his liver."
"That is a serious allegation, Dr. Jenkins. What you are saying is that someone tried to murder Johnny Lancer."
Uncle Sam nodded.
"And who do you think that is?"
There was absolute quiet in the room…Uncle Sam looked over toward Maggie and she willed him to say nothing. But the words came out of his mouth.
"May God help me…my niece Maggie Stewart."
The courtroom erupted. Everyone knew what he was about to say, but actually hearing it spoken from his lips ignited the crowd.
"Order. Order in the court!" the judge bellowed. "If I don't hear complete silence in one minute I will have this room emptied of all spectators."
Maggie saw Uncle Sam's shoulders sag. He seemed to be aging in front of her.
"Doctor Jenkins…how is Johnny Lancer now?"
Uncle Sam cleared his throat. "He is still weak. He will have to take it easy for at least four months, no riding, no strenuous work of any kind to insure that the tear has healed and will not open again. And if you know Johnny at all, you know that is a daunting task. In fact, I was totally against him riding to town in the back of a wagon for this trial but he insisted."
"I noticed he is using a cane…"
"A complication from a new procedure I used. Without it he would have died that night. It will take time, but he should make a full recovery."
"We have already heard Murdoch and Scott Lancer's testimony of what happened the night Miss Stewart was arrested. Do you think she was trying to do harm to Johnny Lancer with that syringe?"
Boswell stood up. "That calls for speculation on the doctor's part. He could not know what Miss Stewart's intentions were."
"I'll allow it. But Mr. Merrick, careful how you tread."
"Thank you judge. You can answer the question, doctor."
Uncle Sam nodded. "I think she thought that there was enough air in that syringe to cause a bubble of air large enough to stop Johnny's heart. Many first semester medical students think the same way, it is a way of teaching them to always be careful when they administer an injection."
"Looking back, are you suspicious of any other incidents while Johnny Lancer was in your niece's care?"
Boswell jumped to his feet. "Objection. That would call for speculation, again, your honor."
"He is a doctor, let him speculate. That's what doctoring is, right Dr. Jenkins."
Sam nodded. "More often than you think."
"Then continue. You can answer the question Dr. Jenkins."
"Maggie and Teresa were administering Willow Bark Tea to Johnny when I arrived. Willow Bark Tea is known to be a blood thinner…any first semester medical student would know that. And Teresa had already read the symptoms of shock due to blood loss. Maggie would have surely known that administering the tea would kill him."
"Objection. He only assumes she would know. He does not know that for a fact."
"Objection sustained. The jury will disregard that last statement. Continue Mr. Boswell."
"Anything else, doctor?"
"One evening when Maggie was watching over Johnny alone he took a turn for the worse, began bleeding again. I couldn't understand why, but now it is obvious that Maggie gave him more tea."
"Objection! That is more than speculation," Boswell yelled. "I would expect this kind of rumor mongering among a bunch of old ladies at a sewing bee…not from a practicing physician. I want the jury to disregard everything Dr. Jenkins just said."
"I agree," Judge Knutson said. "The jury will disregard that part of Dr. Jenkins testimony. Dr. Jenkins, keep your speculations to your diagnoses, and your patient's recovery, nothing else."
"Anything else you can recall, doctor?" Merrick asked.
Sam shook his head, his eyes falling on Johnny. Maggie could see in his eyes that he felt he had failed him. What about her? He had failed her.
"Thank you doctor. I know this has been very difficult for you."
"Redirect, Mr. Boswell?" the judge called.
"Yes, your honor, just a few questions. Dr. Jenkins…" Maggie saw Boswell approach Uncle Sam. "Was there any evidence that a syringe had caused the trauma to Mr. Lancer's liver?"
"I wasn't looking for a puncture mark at the time."
"Wasn't there considerable bruising around Mr. Lancer's side and back from the fall from the horse the day before?"
"Can you be absolutely sure that his liver was not damaged by that fall?"
"Can you be absolutely sure that his liver was not damaged by that fall? Answer the question yes or no, Doctor."
There was a long pause and finally Uncle Sam shook his head. "No."
"And can you be certain that Miss Stewart was trying to inject an air embolism into Mr. Lancer's vein?"
"There was no other explanation."
"She says she saw that Johnny was in a great deal of pain. She was getting ready to inject morphine, she had just not filled the syringe yet."
Uncle Sam looked over at Maggie. "What about the gag in his mouth?"
"She was afraid he would go into convulsions…"
"I object!" Merrick leapt to his feet. "There has been no evidence presented before this court about morphine and possible convolutions. Is the defense going to be allowed to make up stories as he goes along? Anything that sounds good at the moment?"
The judge pounded the gavel. "Mr. Boswell…Mr. Merrick has a point. Why was this evidence not brought up before?"
"Evidence is evidence…no matter when it is introduced, Your Honor."
"Don't try my patience, Mr. Boswell. You may continue…but watch yourself."
"She was afraid he would swallow his tongue," Boswell continued.
Merrick was on his feet again. "Is consul now testifying for the defendant?"
Boswell ignored Merrick's outburst and continued before the judge could reprimand him. "Is it not a practice to put something into a patient's mouth to keep them from gagging on their own tongue? He had already had a near convulsion the day before. Could she not have panicked and did all the wrong things for the right reasons?"
"She knew what she was doing."
"Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? We are talking about a murder charge against your niece, Dr. Jenkins. Are you willing to take the chance that you are wrong? Do you think that it is just possible that after reading that page from her journal you had already convicted her in your mind? Think about it, Doctor. Everything hinges on that journal. A work of fiction. And yet you are willing to convict your own niece on speculation and circumstantial evidence."
Sam said nothing.
"Now, getting back to the tea. Dr. Jenkins, hasn't Miss O'Brien customarily given the Lancers and their ranch hands Willow Bark Tea to reduce pain? Haven't you administered it yourself?"
"So it would appear that it was Miss O'Brien that gave Johnny Lancer the tea, not Miss Stewart."
"She should have known better."
"Should she? How much do you know she absorbed while she was a medical student? She obviously decided it was not the field she wanted to go into after the first semester. How do you know that she knew about the affects of Willow Bark Tea?"
Sam looked down at his hands and didn't answer.
"And the morning after Miss Stewart sat with Johnny, you said the bleeding had increased. Could that have been just a coincidence? Dr. Jenkins, isn't it true that Johnny Lancer was forced to lay still for one month after Miss Stewart was arrested? You were afraid that any kind of movement might start the bleeding again. Even now, he has to be careful what he does. And yet when he was at his sickest, you blame her for his increased bleeding. I think you read that journal doctor and made some wild assumptions."
Maggie watched Boswell make a slow circle…looking at the jury then Johnny. His eyes met hers and she saw confidence in them. He turned back to Uncle Sam.
Sam could only nod his head.
"Mr. Merrick, would you like to redirect?" Judge Knutson asked.
"Yes your Honor."
"Dr. Jenkins, remain in your seat for a few more minutes. Mr. Merrick, the floor is yours."
"Doctor, would you put a gag in a patient's mouth during a convulsion?"
"No. Especially when his breathing is already compromised by a nasal tube."
"And was Johnny experiencing enough pain to need the morphine?"
"Yes. But, he had just received an injection an hour before. He should not have been in that much distress."
"Thank you doctor."
"One more question, if you please…" Boswell stood up.
"Doctor, all your answers were those of a practicing physician. Would you expect Miss Stewart to know all this after only one semester in medical school? Is it possible that she panicked?"
Maggie saw Uncle Sam shake his head…but he said softly…"Yes."
"Doctor Jenkins you may step down. Mr. Merrick, your next witness?"
Merrick walked over to Johnny and leaned down close. Maggie saw Johnny nod his head empathically. "Your Honor, I would like to call John Lancer to the stand."
There was a hush as everyone waited for Johnny to move from the plaintiff's table to the witness chair. Maggie watched and worried that everyone would feel sorry for him. Most of the people knew him. The ones who did not, the ones who had come only for the spectacle of the trial could still see that he had been a vibrant young man at one time…not this one hobbled by pain and illness.
"Mr. Lancer, are you sure you're up to this?" the judge asked.
"I'm sure," Johnny answered curtly.
"Very well, but if you need to take a break, say so."
Johnny nodded. "I will."
After swearing him in Merrick began his questioning. "Do you remember much of what happened to you Mr. Lancer?"
"Not really. I only know I felt sick one minute then wished I was dead the next."
"Do you remember speaking to Miss Stewart?"
"Kinda. I wasn't much for conversation."
There was a low rumble of laugher throughout the room.
"Can you tell us what you remember of the night you saw Miss Stewart accost Miss O'Brien?"
Johnny cleared his throat and looked over at Maggie. Maggie felt those blue eyes penetrating her.
"I remember it was the first time in a long time that I could make heads or tails of what was happening around me. Teresa was sitting next to the bed. I think she was sleeping. Then I saw Maggie standing behind her, a cloth in her hand. She put it over Teresa's face until Teresa passed out. Then she dropped something on the pillow next to my face and I don't know what happened."
"You are sure of what you saw?"
"And what about the night Miss Stewart was arrested?"
"Maggie was standing over me. I could tell something was wrong, then she stuffed somethin' in my mouth. I couldn't breathe."
"Did she say anything to you, Johnny?"
"Just that I shouldn't make it hard on myself and I wouldn't feel a thing."
"Then what happened?"
A smile twitched at his lips. "Sam pushed her away and Teresa punched her…but good."
"Do you remember anything else?"
Johnny shook his head. "Not until Scott told me Maggie was put in jail for trying to kill me."
"Thank you, Johnny. I know this has not been easy for you. I won't keep you any longer. No further questions for this witness."
"Very well," the judge said. "Mr. Boswell, cross-examine?"
Maggie felt Boswell squeeze her hand before he approached Johnny in the witness chair.
"Mr. Lancer, how are you feeling now?"
"You don't look ok. In fact you look like you are very uncomfortable. Is your leg paining you?"
"Nothing I can't handle."
"Do you need some laudanum?"
Johnny shook his head, confused by the question.
"You did take a dose before you came back in court, didn't you?"
"In fact you have been taking it since you took ill, haven't you?"
"When I need it. Not much anymore."
"But you were taking a lot of it when you were so sick."
"Do you think you can think with a clear head when you've got laudanum and who knows what else in you?"
"There's nothing wrong with my thinking."
Maggie saw the confusion and suspicion in Johnny's eyes.
"Those are some strong allegations you have made against Miss Stewart. Are you sure about what you saw?"
"Do you remember Miss Stewart caring for you? Taking shifts, keeping you cool, keeping you clean, changing your soiled sheets?"
"Go to hell," Johnny hissed.
"Your honor!" Merrick was on his feet. "This is unnecessary. Mr. Boswell is trying to embarrass Mr. Lancer."
"I agree. Careful where you tread, Mr. Boswell, you are trying my patience."
"Sorry, your honor. Mr. Lancer, do you know how many days you were ill?"
"Do you remember being delirious?"
"Do you remember crying out, caught in a nightmare brought on by the drugs and your fever?"
"Are you sure you saw Miss Stewart place that cloth over Miss O'Brien's face? Are you sure it was not just another dream…another nightmare?"
"Sure enough to convict a young woman of attempted murder? So sure that you would send her to jail for the rest of her life…or worse…hung by the neck until dead? Are you that sure, Mr. Lancer?"
Maggie saw Johnny hesitate.
"You say that Miss Stewart put that rag in your mouth…Do you remember you were beginning to convulse?"
"Are you sure? Were you sure of anything? You were sick…in pain…you were confused. How much do you really remember, Mr. Lancer? Did your brother and father tell you what happened, Johnny? Did they tell you what they thought happened? How much of your testimony comes from your addled, drugged mind and how much of it comes from the mouths of your father and brother?"
Maggie felt her heart quickening. Johnny was faltering. He looked confused.
"Did you read Miss Stewart's journal?"
"How did it affect you?"
"What do you mean?"
"How did it feel to read an account of your own premeditated murder? Did it make you feel sick? Did it make you feel angry? Did it make you want revenge for what she had written?"
"She had no right."
"No she didn't. We can both agree on that. She made a mistake. She did something morally unacceptable. But is she guilty of anything more than incredibly bad judgment?"
"She tried to kill me just to see what a dying man looked like."
"No, Johnny…she wrote about a very ill young man, one who may have died if she was not there to help. One last question, and then I'll let you rest. I know you're tired. At this very moment, would you be able trip the gallows and hang Maggie Stewart with a clear conscious?"
Maggie saw Johnny's eyes meet hers…Silence filled the courtroom. Long minutes seem to pass and Johnny slowly bowed his head.
Boswell turned to the jury and said softly. "I believe we have our answer."
Silence filled the courtroom. Maggie surreptitiously glanced over at the jury. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Boswell's cross-examination of Johnny had been a resounding success. If Johnny Lancer, the victim could not be sure of her guilt, how could they be?
She saw the dejected look on Merrick's face, as he watched his star witness flounder on the stand. She also noticed that the jury took note. Boswell had them just where he wanted them. Now it was her turn to hammer the final nail into the prosecution's coffin.
"Re-direct, Mr. Merrick?" the judge asked, and Merrick shook his head.
"The prosecution rests, your Honor."
"Very well. Mr. Lancer, you may return to your seat."
Maggie watched Johnny make his way slowly back to the prosecutor's table and ease himself down into a chair, both physically and emotionally drained. Uncle Sam leaned over to ask him a few questions then sat back down. He was obviously concerned, and she hoped the jury didn't notice.
"Are you ready to proceed, Mr. Boswell?"
"Yes, Your Honor. The Defense calls its only witness…Miss Maggie Stewart."
The judge's gavel pounded on his desk until the room settled down again.
Maggie made her way up to the witness stand. She felt all eyes on her back and wondered if she was making the impression she and Boswell had worked so hard at perfecting. He had bought her a light blue dress, stylish, but hinting at youth and innocence. He suggested she wear her hair down and pulled back with a matching blue ribbon. With her eyes magnified just slightly by her glasses, she looked young and scared and utterly incapable of the things she was accused of.
As she took the stand the chain between her handcuffs rattled and the sound reverberated throughout the courtroom. She clumsily tried to gather up the chain to silence it, knowing the action made her look so much more vulnerable.
"State you name please," Boswell ordered gently.
"Margaret Stewart," Maggie answered, her voice trembling just slightly.
"But everyone calls you Maggie, right?"
"Then if it's all right with you, I will call you Maggie."
Maggie nodded again.
"How old are you, Maggie?"
"This must be a terrible experience for you. Two months in Sheriff Crawford's jail..."
On cue, one small tear ran down Maggie's cheek.
Boswell drew a handkerchief from his vest pocket and handed it to her and waited for her to dab at her eyes.
"Nineteen, and you are already attending Harvard, I am impressed. Not may women attend college, do they?"
"No, sir. But that will change. There is no reason women can't be a man's intellectual equal."
Boswell flashed a warning sign with his eyes. She was supposed to be young and overwhelmed…not a fighter for women's emancipation.
"You were one of only two women in your class, correct? That must have been difficult."
"It was. Our professor constantly graded our papers lower than the rest of the class."
"So you felt that this last assignment he gave you was very important."
"Yes. It had to be an exceptional paper."
"Tell me, Miss Stewart, I'm sorry, Maggie…Tell me, this exceptional paper, is it worth a man's life?"
"No! Never. I don't know how anyone could think that I could, would, hurt Johnny like that." She looked toward Johnny. "You have to believe me," she pleaded.
Merrick stood up slowly. "Your Honor…"
The judge nodded. "Miss Stewart, please keep your responses to counsel only."
Maggie lowered her head. "I'm sorry, Your Honor."
Maggie knew Boswell was pleased. They had rehearsed that scene in her cell.
"Maggie, tell us what you thought when you first saw the assignment Professor Myers' handed out."
"I was appalled. It was a terrible assignment. To have to think about ways to murder another human being."
"You had no idea what to write, correct?"
"What did you do?"
"Nothing. I needed time to think. I remembered that Uncle Sam had invited me to visit him in California and left as soon as my Uncle sent word that I could come."
"You knew you would be staying with the Lancers?"
"Yes. We had discussed that before. And I thought it was a wonderful idea. He had written about them for so long that I felt as if I knew them."
"And you got along well with all of them?"
She smiled wistfully. "They welcomed me with open arms. They even declared one afternoon Maggie Day for an excuse to take off work and go to the lake for a picnic."
"Johnny went too?"
"Yes. He and Scott spent most of the afternoon in the lake. If I didn't know better, I would have thought both of them were ten years old."
"Nothing like you own family."
"Nothing. My family was cold…Father felt that a show of affection was degrading. Everyone was expected to act properly at all times. I envied the Lancer's their freedom and their love for each other."
"I don't see your father here. Is he ill and not able to come?"
"No." The tears that formed in her eyes were not an act. "I have been an embarrassment to him since I first left home for Harvard. This…" she lifted her shackled hands… "he took the family to Europe for vacation."
Boswell waited while Maggie composed herself, letting the jury absorb her fragile emotions. He felt certain if he ended his examination now Maggie would be acquitted. But they still had Merrick's cross-examination to face. He had to make her case as strong as possible before the prosecution had its turn.
"Something happened when you returned to the ranch. Right?"
She nodded. "I feel so bad looking back on it now. If I had said something…"
"Tell us what happened," Boswell urged.
"I noticed Johnny had grown very tired on the way home from the lake, and when I went to talk to him in the barn he nearly collapsed. He had to hold on to his horse to keep from falling. He made me promise not to say anything to his family. I agreed against my better judgment.
"And a little while later Scott and Jelly…"
"Yes…Scott and Jelly nearly had to carry Johnny into the house. He collapsed on the way upstairs to his bedroom."
"Did anyone know what was wrong with him?"
"No. It came on so suddenly. By midnight we thought we were going to lose him."
"And no one had any idea of what was wrong with him?"
"No. He had no fever…nothing but some bruising on his side from the fall he had taken from the horse that morning. Teresa said he showed all the symptoms of someone bleeding to death, but he wasn't bleeding."
"At this point, were you thinking about your book?"
"Heavens no. The only thing on my mind was Johnny and how long it would take my uncle to return from seeing another patient. But we were afraid he would not make it in time. There was a terrible storm, the roads were washed out."
"So you were on your own. No one had any medical experience, except you…you had a semester in medical school, right?"
Maggie nodded her head. "But I found out I couldn't stand all the blood and the pain. I changed my major to Literature"
"So Johnny was without medical care?"
"Teresa, she knew what to do for him…enough to keep him comfortable. But he needed my uncle."
Boswell walked back to his desk and held up Maggie's journal. "When did you start writing this?"
Maggie cleared her throat. "After Uncle Sam gave us a diagnosis."
"And that diagnosis was?"
"Johnny had a small tear in his liver and he was bleeding to death internally."
"That's when you came up with the idea of the needle puncturing his liver."
"Yes. I don't know why I thought of it. But I just began to write down ideas. I watched everyone…wrote down what they said and how they looked. I asked questions. Then I…I started writing the journal as if I were the murderer. That's what the professor wanted."
"Do you think you were right in doing this?"
Maggie lowered her head, staring at the handcuffs in her lap. "No. It was a terrible thing to do. But I just didn't think at the time."
"Do you regret it?"
Maggie sought out Johnny's eyes and nodded. "With all my heart."
Again Boswell waited, watched the jury as they watched Maggie.
"Now Maggie, I know this is difficult, but please take us through what happened the night you were arrested."
Maggie took a deep breath and closed her eyes, thinking back on that night. "I was getting ready to leave. I thought Johnny was beginning to take a turn for the better and I didn't want to be in the way anymore. I was getting my journal together when I dropped it on the floor. One of the pages slid across the floor just as Teresa walked in. She picked up it up without thinking and put it in her pocket and walked away."
"Not just any page, correct?"
"No. It was the page where I described how I used the needle to stab Johnny's liver." She looked toward Johnny. "Johnny, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean…"
"Your Honor, please direct to defendant not to talk to my client. She has nothing he wants to hear."
Maggie saw a flicker of a smile cross Boswell's lips. Merrick was only making her look more vulnerable.
"Somehow the page made its way into Murdoch Lancer's hands and he thought you had actually tried to kill his son."
Maggie nodded. The tears were beginning to flow again. "I couldn't believe any of them could have thought I was capable of those terrible things."
"Did you explain what really had happened?"
"Yes. And they told me to go to my room and be ready to leave first thing in the morning. Even Uncle Sam was mad. I couldn't really blame him. It was a terrible thing I did. But it was only a story."
"What happened latter that night?"
"I had to see Johnny just one more time. Try to explain what had happened. I couldn't let him think that I would do such a terrible thing to him."
"Scott was asleep?"
Maggie nodded. "He was exhausted. Everyone was.
"I was going to talk to Johnny but he suddenly cried out in pain. I knew he had to stay quiet…any movement could start the bleeding again. I started to prepare a syringe of morphine when he went into convulsions. I knew I had to keep him from swallowing his tongue so I stuffed a piece of cloth between his teeth then I guess I forgot that I hadn't filled the syringe…When Uncle Sam came in I…I was so scared…I did the best I could. I thought he was going to choke to death."
"You were trying to save Johnny, not kill him."
"Yes. I can't believe they thought I was capable of killing someone." She began to sob…dabbing at her eyes, trying to keep her composure. "I can't believe they made me stay in that awful jail for two months. I…I just want to go home…"
Maggie took a quick glance at the jury. She read the sympathy in their eyes.
Boswell waited a few minutes then asked. "Do you think you can go on, Maggie?"
Maggie nodded, sniffling back the tears.
"Then there is just one last thing that we have to clear up. Why did you tape the bottle of Choral Hydrate and the tubing to you leg?"
"If they saw it they would think I was guilty. I panicked. I know it was stupid…but I was so scared."
"It was a foolish thing to do." Boswell said as he turned to the jury. "But we all do foolish things in our lives. A young nineteen year old girl facing the wrath…"
Merrick jumped to his feet. "I object. This is not the time for Mr. Boswell to make his closing remarks."
The judge nodded. "Keep your remarks until your closing, Mr. Boswell."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Do you have any more questions for this witness?"
"One more, Your Honor." Turning back to Maggie he asked. "What will you do with your journal when you go home?"
Maggie looked at the journal sitting on Boswell's desk. "It has caused too much pain already. I'll destroy it."
"Thank you Maggie, that is all the questions I have for you." To the judge he said, "Defense rests, your Honor."
"Very well. Mr. Merrick would you like to begin your cross-examination?"
Merrick stood up slowly, making a show of patting Johnny on the shoulder.
As he approached Maggie, she saw no sympathy in his eyes and she steeled herself for the questions she knew were coming. She just had to stick to what she had said. The jury was on her side now. Only a few more questions and she would walk away from here, a free woman.
"Maggie…may I call you Maggie?"
"You have told a very compelling story. In fact I think I have seen more than one tear in the audience. I can't blame them. It's hard to believe a young woman like yourself could be capable of such a deliberate, heinous crime."
Merrick took a step to his right, closer to the jurors, giving them a better look at her face as she looked at him.
"Maggie do you know what a timeline is?"
"It's one of the first things Professor Myers taught you, right?"
Maggie nodded again.
"Could you explain it to the jury?"
Maggie turned to the jury. Not one of them was under forty. Each one could see his daughter there on the stand. "It means that things that happen in a story go in order."
"Like if Billy left Morro Coyo at 10 am and rode for one hour he would not arrive at Green River at 9 am. Something like that?"
"Good. We'll get back to that timeline question a little later. First…you said you tied the bottle of Chloral hydrate and the tubing to your leg because the Lancer's and your uncle would think you were guilty. Tell me Maggie, how did you get a hold of the Chloral Hydrate and tubing in the first place? Did you take it out of your uncle's medical bag?"
Maggie shook her head.
"I dare say it's not something you carry in your own bag just in case you might need it."
There was a snicker from the audience and the judge struck his gavel once.
Merrick walked back to his desk and picked up the bottle of Choral Hydrate and the tubing. "Where did they come from, Maggie?"
Maggie looked toward Boswell but his face was impassive.
"I…ah…I got it from Uncle Sam's office."
"His medical office?"
"You stole them from your Uncle's office?"
"I didn't steal, exactly. I just borrowed them."
Maggie shifted slightly in her chair. "I wanted to see if I could. To see if what I wrote in my journal could be done."
"So you `borrowed' them and hid them in your room."
"Isn't it true that your Uncle sent Scott to his office to bring back additional supplies and part of those supplies was another bottle of Choral hydrate and tubing?"
Maggie nodded. Again she looked toward Boswell.
"Maggie, Mr. Boswell can't help you answer these questions." Merrick picked up a file. "This is the medical records of John Lancer. It seems that your uncle likes to keep notes on his patients. Kind of like your journal."
Boswell rose to his feet. "Your Honor, consul need not be so flippant with this witness. She is just a child."
"A child who is on trial for attempted murder," Merrick shot back.
"We are aware of the charges, Mr. Merrick. And you Mr. Boswell, sit down, counsel was not badgering the witness. You may continue, Mr. Merrick."
"Thank you, Your Honor. Maggie, I want you to think back to July 16th…that would have been a Wednesday night. According to Dr. Jenkins notes." Merrick leafed through the file and looked back up at Maggie. "Johnny had a very difficult time that night, he was in a great deal of pain and began thrashing around. Your uncle had run out of Chorale Hydrate and needed more, but there wasn't any because you had borrowed it. Right?"
Maggie looked toward her lap.
"Your uncle had to give Johnny chloroform instead. A dangerous procedure, but one that was necessary since he didn't have the medication he needed. And yet that very bottle of Choral Hydrate was sitting downstairs in your room. Why didn't you give it to him? Johnny could have died that night."
"I was afraid."
"So you were willing to see Johnny die that night because you were afraid of being caught."
"I didn't know what to do. I told you, I was afraid."
"Yes, I guess you were."
Boswell was on his feet. "Your Honor…"
"Be seated, Mr. Boswell. Mr. Merrick, easy does it."
"Yes, Your Honor." Merrick turned back to Maggie. "By the way, exactly what was the purpose of your `borrowing' the tubing?"
"I don't remember. It may have just been in the way of the Choral Hydrate."
Merrick thought about it for a minute then walked back to the defendant's table and picked up Maggie's journal. "That's interesting, because here on the evening of the fifteenth, you described how you used the tubing to deliver a dose of Choral Hydrate to your victim…" Merrick raised his hand toward Boswell who was about to stand up and object…"Sorry counsel, alleged victim…by inserting the tube down Johnny's throat and into his stomach. Coincidentally, both Murdoch and Scott Lancer testified that when Johnny came to breakfast on the morning of the seventeenth, he complained of a sore throat. Interesting, isn't it? Oh, and while we are on the subject of coincidences…did you know that your uncle found an extra syringe in Johnny's room after you were taken into custody?"
"I object!" Boswell was on his feet. "There was never anything said about an extra syringe…"
Merrick chuckled. "And there was never anything said about Johnny convulsing until now."
"Your Honor, I object, Mr. Merrick…"
"Sit down, Mr. Boswell…I don't want anymore surprises from either off you…understood?"
Both consuls agreed and Boswell sat down, fuming.
"You know, Maggie one of my great passions is reading. Especially good mystery novels."
"I object," Boswell laughed. "The court isn't interested in Mr. Merrick's reading habits."
"Your Honor, if you bear with me for just a moment…"
"Very well, counsel…but just for a moment."
"Thank you, Your Honor.'
Maggie looked toward Boswell, confused. Boswell looked as confused as she felt. She glanced over at the prosecution's table and noticed that Johnny was sitting a little taller. Murdoch and Scott looked more animated. Was the tide turning in Johnny's favor?
"One of the things I enjoy about a good mystery is how the writer remembers the little details, the things that don't seem to be of much importance until later. And we mustn't forget about the timeline. You remember we discussed the timeline briefly before?"
Merrick placed the journal he had been holding in his hand in Maggie's lap. "There are several bookmarks I have inserted. Would you turn to the first one and read the underlined passage."
With trembling fingers Maggie opened the journal to the first bookmark, her cuffs jingling in her lap.
Maggie blanched at the passage.
"Read it out loud, Maggie."
Boswell was on his feet. "Is this necessary, Your Honor? The journal has already been brought into evidence. Mr. Merrick is trying to humiliate my client…"
"Overruled, Mr. Boswell, I want to hear this. Miss Stewart, please read the underlined section."
Maggie beseeched Boswell to stop this but he only looked down at the table. With a trembling voice she began to read, so softly even the judge couldn't hear her. "She rolled him onto his side…"
"Speak louder, Miss Stewart," the judge ordered.
Maggie raised her voice. "She rolled him over onto his side, his back to the light from the lantern. She could see some deep bruising and scrapes on his shoulder blades and back from the fall from the horse." She hesitated, looking toward Boswell again.
"Continue, Miss Stewart," the judged ordered.
"Everywhere she turned, things just seemed to be falling into place for her. She picked up the long thin needle, wishing she could have sterilized it, but the smell of the carbolic acid would linger in the room far too long."
"There's more," Merrick prompted.
Maggie shook her head…"I was just writing notes for my assignment."
"So you have said. Continue, please."
She cleared her throat, but the words would not come.
"Allow me," Merrick offered. He took the journal and began to read. "My assignment," she spoke softly as she unbuttoned his shirt and pulled his arms free of the sleeves. "is to create the perfect murder. One that even the victim is unaware of. My semester of medical school gave me this idea."
Maggie looked toward the jury. They were hanging on his every word. Did they believe what they were hearing, or just mesmerized by her writing? She wanted him to stop. She wanted to scream at him…She wanted Boswell to stop him…But he kept on talking…
"You won't feel much pain in the morning," she promised, moving his arm out in front of him and positioning the needle above his ribcage and below his armpit. "I am going to insert this needle…" she pushed the needle, feeling the resistance of the tough outer layer of skin before it easily sank to the hilt, "and put a small puncture in your liver. It will begin to bleed slowly. You probably won't even be aware of it until sometime tomorrow."
Merrick finished the underlined section and waited. There wasn't a sound in the courtroom.
"You have a vivid imagination, Maggie," Merrick finally broke the silence.
Maggie felt the courtroom closing in on her…she had to take a deep breath. "I'm a good writer," she countered.
"Yes…very good. But remember what I said about those mystery novels I like to read? Timelines…and here's another word for you...continuity. Would you care to explain that to the jury?"
Maggie looked at him confused.
"Let me help you." Merrick walked back to his desk and picked up a large book. "This is the most up to date dictionary I could find here in Green River…probably not as good as the one you use at Harvard, but it will do for this purpose." He flipped through the pages until he came to the page he wanted. "Continuity…he recited, "an uninterrupted connection, succession, or union."
Maggie shifted in her seat again, the chains clinking in her lap.
"You see Maggie, your timeline and continuity are a puzzle to me." He held up her journal. "Tell me when did you decide to use Johnny's illness as a basis for your story? After your uncle gave his diagnosis?"
"Hmmm….Interesting. Because according to your journal here, you…I mean the fictitious murderer…snuck into Johnny's room and drove that needle into his liver the night before the good doctor left to visit his patient…the night before Johnny complained of a sore throat, two days before your uncle returned and made his diagnosis."
"Here's another interesting paragraph. Would you like to read it, or would you prefer that I read it to the jury?"
Maggie looked toward Boswell…."Mr. Boswell…?"
"Mr. Boswell can't help you now, Miss Stewart," the judge said, his voice not so kind and understanding anymore. "Answer the question, please."
Maggie shook her head.
"I take that as a yes." Merrick opened another bookmarked section of the journal. "This seems to be just a random thought, you probably didn't even realize that you had written it down…" Merrick began to read from the journal again. "It is hard watching Johnny get weaker and weaker. He is so near death. I didn't think it would be so hard to watch someone die. Perhaps I should have picked someone else. Someone who meant nothing to me."
There was dead silence. Maggie looked at Johnny, his face flushed with anger. His gaze, confused and despondent just an hour ago, was now blazing with hatred. She had to turn away from those eyes…but the jury was looking at her now…gone was the overt sympathy…now she saw confusion and suspicion.
Merrick was asking questions again, and Maggie just wanted him to stop. Why wasn't Boswell stopping him? He was ruining everything.
"Maggie, when did you say you `borrowed' the Choral Hydrate and tubing from your uncle's office?"
"I don't remember."
"Well, it had to be before Johnny took sick, right? Because you never left the ranch after that. And when Johnny became ill the items were already missing…right? Scott couldn't find them because they were hidden in your room, right? Tell me, Maggie, tell the jury why you `borrowed' the Choral Hydrate before Johnny got sick, before your uncle gave his diagnosis."
"You are turning all the facts around," Maggie cried.
"They are your facts, Maggie. Your journal."
"You don't understand!"
"No I don't. Why don't you explain it to us, Maggie."
"I object!" Boswell leaped to his feet. "Mr. Merrick is badgering the witness…"
"Sit down, Mr. Boswell. Answer Mr. Merrick, Miss Stewart," the judge ordered.
"Please, Your Honor." Tears began rolling down her cheeks. "I am so tired, can we continue this tomorrow?"
"No. You will answer Mr. Merrick's question."
"Maggie," Merrick held up the journal. "These are your words, your thoughts. How do you explain the discrepancies in the timeline?"
"I never wrote them down in order…"
"Explain to me how and why you `borrowed' the Choral Hydrate and tubing…what purpose was it for if not to murder Johnny Lancer?"
"I object! Your Honor…"
"Overruled. Answer the question, Miss Stewart."
"I didn't plan to murder anyone…"
"What was your plan?"
Maggie shook her head.
"Let me see if I can put this all together…you stop me if I'm wrong. You knew you needed an excellent paper to turn into Professor Myers if you expected to pass his class. Whether it was because he was biased against women or you were just not as good a writer as you thought, you found yourself in need of a special paper. And when you found out what the assignment was, you panicked. There was no way you could devise a murder and then imagine what the victim and family and friends would react. You had no background in strong human emotion. You had to create the situation so you could study it. How am I doing so far, Maggie?"
There was a hushed excitement in the room. Maggie could see that everyone was hanging on Merrick's every word…but she couldn't stop him.
"I submit to you, Miss Stewart, that you already devised a plan before you ever stepped foot on the train to California. You had decided it would be one of the Lancers. Convenient…since you were staying at their house. How did you pick Johnny? Why not Scott or Teresa or even Murdoch? Why Johnny?"
"I never intended to kill him."
"No? What were your intentions? Didn't you think that driving a needle into Johnny's side and piercing his liver would kill him?"
"I was going to leave as soon as he got sick and I saw the family's reactions then send an anonymous letter to my uncle telling him what had been done."
Merrick looked at her incredulously. "You had to have done research. You had to have known that the odds of recovering from an injury like that are not good. And if the patient did survive the recovery itself would be long and difficult."
"I didn't think about that."
"You thought about everything else. Tell me, why didn't you tell your uncle before he left to visit his patient, the one you knew would take him away from the Lancer ranch for at least two days?"
"Because," she said softly, "it was already done. I couldn't take it back and if I said something then he would know…"
"Instead you said nothing. You went with the family and watched Johnny swim all afternoon knowing any exertion would increase the bleeding. He was dying and he didn't know it."
"I couldn't stop what was happening."
"You watched Johnny become sicker and sicker. You watched your uncle agonize over his diagnosis, not knowing if it was the right one. You held the bottle of Choral Hydrate in your room while your uncle fought desperately to save Johnny's life and yet you said nothing."
"At what point did you decide that Johnny had to die? When it looked like he was going to survive? When you started thinking about all the times you had been alone with him, talking to him…what had you said then…thinking that he would never be able to utter another word? Then he rallied. Who would have thought an old country doctor would follow the newest medical procedures coming out of the east? When did you decide to shoot that bubble of air into Johnny's vein thinking that it would stop his heart?"
"I didn't. I tried to give him morphine…"
"You had no intention of giving him morphine…Johnny didn't go into convulsions…you decided he had to die!"
"No! You don't understand," she cried. The room was closing in on her. Johnny was leaning forward, Murdoch's strong arm around his chest keeping him from jumping from his seat. They didn't understand. No one understood. "I didn't mean for any of it to happen. If Professor Myers…"
"You blame the Professor for all this? And I guess you blame Johnny for staying alive."
"You don't understand…I had to do it."
"Why? To prove to the Professor that you were as a good a writer as any man in your class? Prove to your father that you were worthy of his attention?"
Maggie sank back in her chair…all her strength gone. She looked toward the jury. Surely they could see there was no other way.
"One last question, Maggie. If Johnny had died. If you had gotten your `A', if your journal had been published…do you think all that would have been worth Johnny Lancer's life?"
Maggie sat up slowly, talking a deep breath, you answered honestly. "Sometimes sacrifices have to be made."
Maggie slowly returned to her seat. She knew she had sealed her own fate with that last statement, but Merrick had forced her into it. Now she could only hope that the men of the jury would take pity on a poor young woman who had risked everything to attain her goal. Surely some of those men had done things in their past that they were not proud of in their pursuit of their own goals.
As she sat down she whispered in Boswell’s ear and he nodded.
It had taken time for the courtroom to quiet down. Judge Knutson had pounded his gavel and threatened to have the spectators removed if they did not settle down. Now there was an eerie silence. Maggie leaned over the desk slightly to see past Boswell to get a better view of Johnny. Both Murdoch and Scott sat behind him, whispering to him as Uncle Sam readjusted the stool Johnny’s leg was propped up on. Johnny had spontaneously reacted to her last words and bolted from his chair before his family could stop him. Only the bailiff stood between him and Maggie. Now he was in obvious discomfort. Maggie hoped that this little display of concern from his family didn’t further alienate her from the jury.
“Mr. Merrick, are you ready for your closing arguments?” the judge asked.
“Yes, Your Honor.” Arnold Merrick stood up slowly and looked at Maggie for a long moment before turning to the jurors.
Maggie felt all eyes shift from her to the district attorney and she prayed that Boswell would be able to undo the damage Merrick was about to levy against her.
“Gentlemen of the jury,” he began, “this has been a long and emotional trial, and you have listened to a lot of testimony. It is now my job to try to put that testimony in order, to refresh your memory and convince you that Maggie Stewart is guilty of the following two charges – Assault with intent to murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Both are felonies of the second degree.” Merrick stepped aside so the jury had an unobstructed view of Maggie. “Take a look at the defendant, gentlemen…no one can deny that she is young and bright and looks wholly incapable of doing what she has been accused of. But make no mistake, she did willfully and with presence of forethought plan the murder of John Lancer. Not out of passion or love or even jealousy…but out of greed.
Nothing meant more to Maggie Stewart than getting an ‘A’ in Professor Myers’ English Literature class. She knew she needed an exceptional paper. Whether it was the professor’s bias against women or her own lack of writing skills, she found herself in danger of not passing the class. And now she was faced with an assignment that was sorely above her abilities.
So what does she do? Remembering the professor’s remark that some of the best writing comes from personal experience, she devises the Perfect Murder and then proceeds to carry it out. That, gentlemen, is assault with intent to murder.
She remembers she has a standing invitation to visit her uncle, Dr. Sam Jenkins, in California and that his good friends, the Lancers, insisted she stay with them.
She accepts their invitation and spends the next five days on the train fine-tuning her plan for the Perfect Murder. When she arrives, the Lancers open their arms and their home to her and treat her like family.
And how does she repay their kindness? First she ‘borrows’ a bottle of Choral Hydrate, a length of tubing and a hypodermic syringe from her uncle’s medical office and secrets them in her room at Lancer. Then in the middle of the night she takes these ‘borrowed’ items up to Johnny Lancer’s bedroom and carries out her plan for the Perfect Murder.”
Maggie watched Merrick walk slowly toward the evidence table next to the judge’s bench and a cold sweat broke out on her forehead as he picked up a hypodermic needle, carefully examining it. “After guiding the length of tubing down Johnny’s throat and infusing a dose of Choral Hydrate to ensure that he wouldn’t wake up, she plunged a needle, just like this one, into his side until she felt his body jerk as she hit her target, his liver. Then she quietly returned to her room to write everything she saw and felt into her journal.
That gentlemen, is cold-blooded, calculated, premeditated murder. The only reason Johnny Lancer is sitting here in this courtroom today is because she underestimated her Uncle Sam’s medical knowledge. John Lancer should have died, Gentlemen, and he would have…in fact he came within a hair’s breath of succumbing to Maggie’s ‘Perfect Murder’, if Sam Jenkins had not been abreast of a new technique called an intravenous drip.”
Maggie leaned over to Boswell, whispering frantically in his ear. “You’ve got to make him stop.”
The judge’s gavel rang loud and clear throughout the quiet courtroom. “The defendant will hold her tongue,” he ordered.
Maggie sat back, glancing toward the jury. Every man was enwrapped in Merrick’s every word. Their faces, once kind and sympathetic, were now hardened. She had to make them understand that sacrifices sometimes had to be made for the betterment of everyone. Her book one day would help people. But Merrick kept on talking, digging her grave deeper with each word.
“Please stop,” she prayed silently. “Please stop.”
But Merrick continued. He picked up the journal next, hefting it as if he were judging its weight. “Is this worth a man’s life? Are a few words worth the pain and suffering Johnny Lancer had to endure? Were these words worth the anguish his family went through as he spiraled ever closer to death? I don’t think so. But Maggie Stewart did. For the next three days and three nights she waited and watched as Johnny bled internally. She sat with his father and his brother and grieved with them. She helped feed him and medicate him, and yes, even bathe him, all the while writing her notes in her journal.
Maggie testified that she never intended to carry out her Perfect Murder to the ultimate end. That she never intended to ‘kill’ Johnny Lancer. But what does she do? The very morning after her clandestine visit to Johnny’s room, the night she plunged that needle into his side, she sits at the breakfast table, elbow to elbow with her uncle, Dr. Jenkins, and makes plans for an outing to the lake, knowing that Johnny is bleeding internally, knowing that any excessive exercise would increase the bleeding.
Now Maggie would like you to think that she was a poor, confused child at the time…caught with her hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. If she told her uncle what she had done, even if he did not turn her over to the authorities, he would hate her for the rest of his life. And she couldn’t stand that. He was the only one in her family who had ever showed her kindness and love. If that were the case, gentlemen, I believe Maggie Stewart would have been on the very next train back to Harvard…scared and filled with remorse.
But that is not what happened. Instead she stayed at the breakfast table and made plans for the afternoon. She bid a fond farewell to her uncle knowing that he was the only doctor for miles around and the only one who could save Johnny, who was by now beginning to feel the effects of her Perfect Murder, even though he didn’t realize it at the time. It takes a stalwart soul or a very cold heart to face the man you have ‘killed’ and watch him die a little bit each minute.”
Maggie watched Merrick walk back to the prosecutor’s table and stand before Johnny. She couldn’t help but stare at her victim. His face was paler…he gripped the arms of the chair with white knuckles. Murdoch still had a hand on his shoulder. Someday she would explain what she did to him. Someday he would understand. But not now; now he was too filled with rage.
“Gentleman, I ask you, for just a moment, to put yourselves in Murdoch Lancer’s shoes. Think about how he feels right now, listening to this testimony. Thinking about how he was duped by his best friend’s niece.
He invited her into his home, made her a part of his family, and all the while she was plotting and carrying out the murder of his youngest son. Think about how he feels knowing that he had left her alone with Johnny, the very person who had put him in that bed in the first place. Think about how violated he feels knowing that his every word to her was summarily written down in her journal. Murdoch Lancer is a private man, all the Lancer’s are, and yet their every thought, their every word was written down, all in the name of that perfect ‘A’. And ultimately, if she had succeeded, published for the world to read.
And I ask you to put yourselves in Scott Lancer’s shoes. How would you feel, sitting by your brother’s bed watching him slip away from you? Think of his anguish, knowing he could do nothing to save Johnny. Now think of the betrayal when he found out that Maggie was the one who did this to him. And all for the want of an ‘A’.
Think of Teresa O’Brien. I know you only saw her for a short time. I want you to remember her as she sat behind Johnny, so overcome by emotion that she had to be carried out of the courtroom. Another casualty of Maggie’s literature assignment. She is now staying with friends in Stockton.
Now, I ask you to put yourselves in Johnny Lancer’s shoes. In the blink of an eye his life has changed. He can no longer do the things that make him most happy, working on the ranch, riding his palomino, spending Saturday night in the saloon, and sometimes Sunday morning in Val’s jail.”
There was a spattering of laughter, and Maggie saw Johnny cringe. He hated being the center of attention. Well, he could have remedied that and dropped the charges two months ago. It was his fault that they were all here.
“Dr. Jenkins assures us that in time Johnny will regain his strength, that his leg will heal and he can resume his life as it was before Maggie came along. But can he? Can anyone?”
Maggie reached out to grab Boswell’s hand for support, but snatched it away immediately. It felt cold and sweaty…he knew they were losing.
Merrick tapped his fingers on the journal as it sat in front of Maggie. “She almost won, you know. Even after a page of this journal was discovered, she had talked her way out of it. She was free to go. She only needed to wait out the night and leave in the morning.
But she was scared. Johnny had rallied when he wasn’t supposed to. Against all odds he was taking a turn for the better. Who would have thought that a country doctor like Sam Jenkins would attend a medical conference in San Francisco and learn about a new procedure? Maggie certainly didn’t. And when this new procedure worked, Maggie panicked. What had she said to Johnny as he lay dying? What, if anything, did he hear or remember? She couldn’t take the chance that she had said too much. So she had to devise a new plan, because her Perfect Murder was now imperfect.
She spiked Scott’s coffee with sleeping powders to make sure he slept through her visit to Johnny’s room. When Johnny tried to cry out for help she stuffed a rag in his mouth to silence him. He was not having a convulsion…she was gagging him. And when she stuck that needle in his arm, the cylinder filled with nothing but air, she fully thought that there was enough air in that syringe to stop his heart. She had no intentions to fill that syringe with morphine for pain he was not experiencing…remember, Sam had just given him an injection for the pain an hour before.
Gentlemen, I submit to you, that from the moment Maggie Stewart received her assignment from Professor Myers to the moment she stuck that air filled syringe into Johnny Lancer’s arm, she had only one thing in mind…Murder. Calculated, premeditated Murder.
Throughout this trial she has shown no true remorse or guilt. She is a cold-blooded killer. Justice can only be served if you find her guilty. It will not lessen the hurt or the pain she has caused the Lancers and her uncle. It will not make Johnny Lancer recover any quicker…but it will provide closure to a family that has been put through hell at her hands.
To not find her guilty would be an effrontery to you, to me, to Johnny, to the Lancers, to Dr. Jenkins, to every man and woman sitting in this courtroom. She is GUILTY. She must pay for her crime. Find her guilty, gentlemen, punish her for what she has done.
And one last thing…remember her last statement on the stand, and I quote…“Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.” Don’t let Johnny Lancer be that sacrifice.
The Prosecution rests, Your Honor.”
A low hum filled the courtroom as Merrick sat down. All eyes shifted from Johnny, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed, the ordeal of listening to Merrick’s summation draining his stamina, to Boswell as he sat motionless at the defense table.
“Mr. Boswell…do you have something to say?” the judged asked.
Boswell slowly stood up. He looked down at Maggie, the look on his face making her heart sink. He turned to the jury, a defeated man. “Gentlemen…” he picked up a series of notes he had taken during Merrick’s summation…He cleared his throat nervously. “Gentlemen…”
The hum grew louder and Boswell’s nerves heightened. “Gentlemen, I could waste your time and mine by trying to discredit everything Mr. Merrick said, but in the end…in the end you would come to the same conclusion. Maggie Stewart is guilty. But,” he held up his hand, “not of the charges levied against her. She is guilty of a horrendous lack of good judgment. Mr. Merrick asked you to put yourself in Murdoch and Scott’s shoes. He even asked you to put yourself in Johnny Lancer’s shoes. I am now asking you to put yourself in Maggie Stewart’s shoes. She was brought up in a home bereft of love and affection. When she asked for her father’s love she was told to sit in the corner while the grown ups talked. She craved attention and she thought that attention would come when she excelled at Harvard. And what happens, she sees her father in the form of Professor Myers. At that point she broke. No longer was she thinking rationally.
Did she make a terrible mistake? Yes. Is she sorry? Unbelievably. Should she be punished? She has already spent two long months in a six by six foot cell. What I ask of you is to open your hearts…understand what led to this unfortunate incident. Find her not guilty by diminished capacity.
Thank you for your time.”
Maggie couldn’t believe that Boswell had let her down. He hadn’t fought for her. Damn him. Again someone had turned their back on her and walked away. She hung her head, hoping they jury would take pity on her.
Surreptitiously she glanced over at Johnny. He sat stoically now, eyes straight ahead. His family looked on worriedly. What did they have to worry about? He was going to be fine. He was not facing a sentence of who knew how long. Life had never been fair to her. It was the Johnny Lancer’s of the world who got everything.
The judge turned to the jury. “Gentlemen, Miss Stewart has been charged with two separate counts, Assault with a deadly weapon, and Assault with intent to murder. You can find the defendant guilty of one or both of these crimes, or you can find her innocent of one or both of these crimes. May I remind you that you must all agree on the verdict. Court will recess while you make your deliberations. You may take as long as you need…”
“It won’t take long if they’ve got a lick of sense in them.” Someone yelled out and the court erupted in chaos as the twelve men filled out of the room.
Fifteen minutes later court was reconvened and Judge Knudson was once again trying to bring order to the bedlam.
“Order in the court!” Knudson yelled. “Order in the court! I will have this room cleared in three minutes if I don’t hear complete silence.”
A nervous silence descended over the room.
“Have you come to a unanimous decision, gentlemen?” the judge asked.
“Yes, your honor. We’re all in agreement.”
“Very well. Miss Stewart would you rise, please.”
Maggie’s knees trembled as she stood, Boswell’s arm holding her steady. The chains dangling from her wrists clinked loudly in the hushed quiet. She saw Johnny lean forward, waiting. Uncle Sam turned away, channeling all his attention into caring for Johnny. Didn’t he know that she needed him so desperately right now?
“On the count of Assault with a deadly weapon, how does the jury find?”
There was no hesitation in the foreman’s answer. “Guilty, your honor.”
The room seemed to swell with excitement. Everyone was on the edge of their seats waiting for the second verdict.
Maggie’s legs nearly gave way. She prayed that this was all a dream. A terrible nightmare. She longed to wake up in her small apartment at Harvard.
“On the count of Assault with intent to murder, how does the jury find?”
All eyes fell on Maggie as the foreman spoke. “Guilty, your honor.”
A roar of approval rose up in the make shift courtroom and died beneath the banging of Knutson’s gavel.
“One more outburst like that and I will fine all of you for contempt.”
An awkward silence filled the courtroom. Hot tears stung Maggie’s eyes. She looked around, searching for a sympathetic face. She only saw hatred and disgust. Someone had to understand why she did it. That is was not her fault. That she had already been punished enough. Two months in a jail cell in Morro Coyo was like a lifetime.
She looked toward Johnny, pleading for forgiveness, for understanding…in her mind’s eye she saw him stand up and face the judge…she heard him say, “I drop the charges, your honor…”
“Miss Stewart…Miss Stewart!” The gavel hitting the judge’s desk brought her out of her reverie…Johnny sat stone still, his eyes filled with hate. He wasn’t going to forgive her. She hated him at that moment like she had never hated another human being in her life. He was why she was standing there. He was why she was being humiliated and scorned.
“Miss Stewart.” The judge’s voice demanded that she look at him. She felt the room closing in on her, darkness creeping in like a heavy fog and there was only her and Knutson and Johnny. “I have been a judge for many years. I have seen the dregs of society stand before me. I thought I had seen the worst that humanity could offer. But I have never seen such a wanton display of cruelty. You planned and carried out a most heinous crime. You callously picked Johnny Lancer as your victim then watched him come within a hair’s breath of dying, all for nothing but a grade on a piece of paper.. You stood at his family’s side and grieved with them as you compiled your notes in your journal. If I could, I would sentence you to hang by the neck until you were dead…but the law does not allow me to hand down a punishment like that for attempted murder.
Instead, Miss Maggie Stewart, I sentence you to San Quentin Prison for no less than one year and no more than ten years for each count, to be served consecutively.”
The spectators roared in disbelief. A woman yelled, “Hang the bitch!” and the crowd roared again in approval.
“Order in the court!” Knutson demanded, slamming his gavel against the desk.
“No!” Maggie cried. She’d already spent two months in jail. She couldn’t take another minute of it. She had paid for her mistake.
“I will also direct the warden to place you in solitary confinement for the first three months.”
“No, you can’t do that!” Maggie felt Sheriff Crawford grab her arm tightly.
“After that, you will have limited privileges. No reading materials or writing materials will be allowed in your cell or anywhere within your reach.”
“You can’t do this to me.!” Maggie screamed.
“Miss Stewart, you are lucky the penal code was just changed in ’72, or else you would be hanging from a rope come sunup. Val, remove her from my sight.”
Ever so slowly, she saw Johnny stand up and walk toward the door, flanked by Murdoch and Scott, the sound of his cane echoing in the still room. Uncle Sam nodded to the jury and slowly followed Johnny, never looking back.
Stunned, Maggie felt Sheriff Crawford yank on her arm and she was being escorted through the crowd, all eyes glued to her. She prayed that God in his mercy would take her now…but even God did not understand.
Maggie paced inside her small cell. The past two months confined to this small space had been hell. How could she stand twenty years? Each step she took undermined her resolve to stay strong. She couldn’t believe the jurors had found her guilty. Above all she could not believe the sanctimonious sermon Judge Knutson had bestowed upon her. The thought that anyone could think of her as a cold blooded killer was asinine…outrageous. Hadn’t anyone heard of research in this pitiful imitation of a town? Humanity would be nowhere if not for the courageous people who were brave enough to explore the unknown. Scientists, doctors and yes, authors, who were brave enough to write about subjects that offended or scared people were the backbone of this country.
Professor Myers had said her journal was an excellent piece of work. And she knew the professor could never pass up a chance to show what a good teacher he was. Her journal would make the rounds of the great colleges…Myers would make sure that everyone knew Maggie Stewart had scarified all to write that journal. Her name would reside next to the great writers of her time.
She sat down on her cot and wondered what her cell would be like at San Quentin. It couldn’t be much worse than this smelly little hellhole.
Twenty years…Maggie looked down at her hands sitting in her lap. They were long, thin, elegant hands. What would they look like in twenty years? Damn Johnny Lancer. He should have died! He had no right to be walking around a free man. Twenty years…twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, twelve months a year, twenty years…hot tears stung her eyes.
Somehow she would make Johnny Lancer pay. Somehow she would make them all pay.
Tomorrow two guards would arrive from San Quentin to escort her to her new home. She would go with dignity. She would serve her time…making her plans. And there was hope. Boswell said she could be out in eleven years on good behavior.
She heard a commotion in the outer office and the door leading to the two cells opened. She didn’t have to guess who was coming through the door, she could hear him. The tap, tap of his cane, the shuffle of his painful leg…if Uncle Sam had not tried that new procedure on him he would not be suffering now.
She caught her breath; she couldn’t help it as Johnny walked in. The pain she knew he was feeling was masked by the hatred she saw on his face. Behind him, Scott watched his brother, ready to steady him if he needed help. Maggie noticed that Scott carried her satchel, and her curiosity piqued.
“Come to say good bye?” she asked. “I’m surprised Uncle Sam let you out of bed.”
“He’s not too happy about it,” Scott said.
“I’m sure he’s not. You still have a long recovery ahead of you. Johnny, I’m sorry I…”
“Don’t,” Johnny snapped. “You’re not sorry about my long recovery, you’re just sorry your plan didn’t work out.”
“It would have if not for Uncle Sam. I underestimated him. I underestimated you. But I’ll be out soon. Mr. Boswell tells me I could be out in eleven years with good behavior. By then Professor Myers will have turned my journal into a book…introduced by him of course. But I will be famous.” She stood up and walked over to the cell bar, wrapping her long fingers around them. “Even though I won’t be able to write down my thoughts…doesn’t mean I can’t create my newest book. You have not stopped me, Johnny, you have just slowed me down.”
“My, my brother,” Scott chuckled, “it looks like little miss innocent here is a veritable tiger. You just discovered this side of yourself, Maggie, or have you been like this all along?”
“I know what I want, and I know how to get it.” Maggie smiled.
“Is that a threat?” Scott asked, “because that could get you more time you know.”
“I haven’t said anything. Now, are you through gawking at the prisoner?”
Johnny smiled, but there was no warmth in that smile. “I just thought I’d get one last look at ya. You know, you won’t look like this after, what did you say, eleven years in San Quentin?”
“Especially not after three months in solitary confinement,” Scott added.
“Get out!” Maggie shouted. “Sheriff Crawford!”
“Val took a walk. He wanted to stretch his legs.” Johnny reached his hand back and Scott handed him the satchel.
“We’ll be gone soon enough. We came to give you what is rightfully yours.” Johnny held up the satchel just outside the bars from Maggie. “You know all those great plans of yours…Professor Myers and your new book and all…?”
Maggie’s heart pounded in her chest as Johnny shoved the satchel through the bars. The only thing it could be was her journal. She would have it for one more night. Slowly she opened it up and looked inside.
“No!” she screamed, pulling a hand full of charred paper from the bag.
“Johnny got a little ticked off last night,” Scott grinned. “But we thought you would want it anyway.”
“No…” Maggie stumbled back and collapsed onto the cot, her hand sifting through the tiny blackened pieces of her journal. “How could you be so cruel?” She sobbed.
“Easy,” Johnny hissed, “I just have to look out my bedroom window at the things I can’t do right now, and won’t be able to do for months. But that’s not the half of it. You nearly destroyed a man I love like a father. You hurt Sam, and for that I will never forgive you. And when you come up for parole in eleven years I will be right there telling them to throw away the key and let you rot.”
Maggie could barely breathe. She watched Scott hand Johnny his cane and help him to slowly walk into the outer office.
“No,” she cried, her tears making the charred pieces of paper stick to her hands….”Why me…?”