Clandestine Houseguest (by Star)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7500


It was a hot June day and the Los Angeles bound train hadn’t moved for hours.  The conductor had spent the afternoon countering the complaints of aggravated passengers with assurance that the rockslide enshrouding the tracks ahead would soon be cleared.  Uncomfortable, but secure inside his private railcar, Ulysses S. Grant peered out his window at the baked, barren landscape.  He had come out west for a retreat to a little place in the hills located near Cloverdale, California and was now heading to spend a week in one of the state’s leading seaports before returning to Washington.   This was the month the president had set aside for his annual furlough ever since he had taken office in 1869.  The year was now 1876 and Grant was three years into his second term of office.  The second term was proving to be an especially rocky one for the president.  There were the Indian problems to contend with while the south was still in the process of reconstruction, not to mention the whiskey tax being imposed and corruption within his very own cabinet.

The bearded man stretched and glanced over at his wife Julia who was napping peacefully in one of the lounges.  The vacation had been relaxing so far, but he still was feeling a bit restless.  They had spent some time on the coast and then traveled inland a ways and now were going to conclude things in the City of Angels before resuming the troubles that awaited them at the White House.  Julia would spend the week shopping and visiting with friends while Ulysses met with some of the local politicians.  Somehow the thought wasn’t overly appealing to him.

His mind wandered from thought to thought.  He certainly hadn’t planned on spending his leave on a stationary train.  His meditations led him to some old friends he had known when he was stationed in Humbolt back in 1852.  He was just a 30 year old captain at the time and had only been married for a couple of years.  Leaving Julia back East, he served two years at the remote California outpost.  The time spent there had been the two longest, loneliest years that Grant had ever imagined.  The commanding officer was a stern martinet, placing many demands on those in his charge.  It was then that Ulysses had turned to the bottle as a means to dull the heartache he felt inside.  A smile turned his lips.  He might have become a full fledged alcoholic and been given a dishonorable discharge if it hadn’t been for the companionship of a young couple who befriended him during this time of solitude.

Tom and Victoria Barkley had some interest in a mining operation in Humbolt during this time frame, and the three had become close friends.  They had kept in touch for many years after that, but when the war between the states broke out, their communications became less and less frequent.  He had caught wind of some of Tom’s activities and entanglements over the years, but hadn’t had a direct line of communication for several years now.  He knew that the family were prominent landowners in the San Juaquin Valley, and that they had an enormous spread near the town of Stockton.  A young man’s voice interrupted his reflections.

“Mr. President, Sir, it’s going to be early morning before they get the tracks cleared.  Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yes please.  That would very kind of you, John.”

The president looked up at his aide of ten years and offered him a warm smile.  The wheels in his head were turning, and he added,

“John, while you’re up, would you please see if you can find me a map of the immediate area, and maybe information on our exact location.”

The aide nodded and departed the presidential car.  Ulysses relaxed back into his seat, silently stroking his whiskers.  He would detrain at Stockton and leave Julia to resume the trip to Los Angeles in the care of his trusted aide.  Meanwhile, he would travel by horseback to the Barkley ranch.  He wanted to get reacquainted with his old friends, meet their children and just relax in their home as a friend and guest.  Even if it was just for a few days, he wanted to put aside his title as President Ulysses S. Grant, and take some time to just be himself, pure and simple.

The morning sun rose like a bright ball over the horizon.  It was going to be another scorcher.  Ulysses set down the razor and after blotting the pink skin with a towel, viewed himself in the hand-held mirror.  Who was that bare faced man looking back at him?  Sometimes he felt as if he didn’t really know.  All of a sudden the train lurched forward.  He had heard it said that time and trains wait for no man, but this train had tarried nearly eighteen hours while men worked with picks and shovels.  He pulled his valise out from under the seat and selected an appropriate change of clothes.  He wouldn’t be traveling as the nation’s president, but just as another sojourner passing through.  John entered the railcar.

“Good morning Sir.  I had the conductor send a messenger on to Stockton.  There will be a horse waiting for you there at the station, as well as directions to the Barkley ranch.”

“Thank you, Son.  You do good work.”

The aide shook his head.  He had tried all last night to talk this head strong man out of this crazy venture.

“Sir, maybe I should go and find out if’n Mrs. Grant could change your mind.”

“No, John.  We’ve all been over it a hundred times.  My mind’s made up and I’m going.”

“But Mr. President, these old friends of yours may not live there anymore.”  The young man was passionate in his plea.

“Believe me, John, when you own a ranch as big as the Barkley’s, you never leave.”

The door to the railcar opened and the first lady made her way to her husband’s side.

“Darling, did you forget anything?”

“No, Dear, I have all that I need right here in these saddle bags.”

The couple embraced as Ulysses tenderly kissed his wife on the forehead.  Soon the train was slowing down for it’s scheduled stop.  Just as he had requested, a stable boy was waiting at the small station with a saddled mount.  John and Julia escorted the president down the side steps of the rail car and he took the reins from the patient lad.  The president put his left foot in the stirrup and mounted.  He was not like some of the senators he had gone riding with before, some of whom could hardly sit a horse when it was standing still.  Ulysses looked around at the vast space that lay before him.  Just the fresh smell of a summer’s morning was enough to make a man feel young again.  He looked down at John and Julia who stood by to wish him ‘Bon voyage’ .

“Don’t worry about me.  I’ll meet up with you in Los Angeles at the end of the week.  That will give me about six days to travel and visit.”

With that, the president turned the horse’s head east and gave it his heels.  With a bolt, the equine took off like a shot.  Ulysses felt the wind racing hard through his hair.  It had been a long time.  John and Julia were sworn to secrecy.  No one knew who was galloping along the road on a rented mount.

Yes, it had been a long time since he had had the freedom of riding off alone to parts unknown.  A lot had happened since the war between the states.  His long time friend, Mr. Lincoln, had died trying to save the nation, and now the same position was taking it’s toll on Ulysses.  The weight of this presidency was great.  Some whom he thought were his friends and colleagues, eager to help, were merely capitalists, only interested in helping themselves.  Grant had made a lot of enemies since accepting the nomination, but that didn’t bother him.  The man was fearless!  Hell, he had proven that time and time again.  During the war he had amazed and worried his aides when he routinely sat on his horse in the midst of heavy fire, while bullets whizzed past his ears.  He would never so much as bat an eye lash or show any consternation of danger.  Cross legged, he would sit on the ground, working out his strategies while shots and shells exploded nearby.

If he had ever been afraid of anything, maybe it was now.  Now that he was president, he had the responsibility of pulling a great nation back together again.  Reconstruction was still in process, the Negros were being treated with contempt, as were the American Natives.  He had a lot of burden and obligation to bear.  He didn’t want to disappoint the people of this glorious land, yet he knew that by pleasing some, there would be plenty of others that would feel disgruntled.  But for now, six short days, he would put all those worries behind him.

The distance from Stockton to the Barkley ranch was about ten miles.  He had been riding for almost an hour and would  soon be arriving at the home of his old friends.  He rounded a bend in the road and the ranch burst into view.  Such splendor!  The stables, barn and corrals were all maintained with fresh paint.  Then there was the house with it’s pillared steps leading up to the intricately carved front door.  It was almost as big as the one back in Washington.  Nobody was around outside when he arrived.  He rode up to the front porch of the house and dismounted.  Knocking loudly on the large front door, he was  greeted by a elderly black servant.

“Good day to you, Sir.  Are you looking for one of the Barkleys?”

“Yes, I’m looking for Tom or Victoria.  Would you please tell them that ‘Sam’ is here.”

“Please come in and have a seat.  Mrs. Barkley will be right with you.”

Silas showed Ulysses to a chair.  He looked around the large parlor.  The high ceilings, the crystal chandelier, the carpeted steps leading to the upper portion of the home.  Tom’s business ventures must have truly been successful.  Movement caught his eye and Victoria elegantly made her way down the stairs with the billowing folds of her skirt flowing behind her.  As she reached the bottom, Ulysses stood to his feet and their eyes met.  She put her hand to her lips to stifle a gasp and then rushed over to him with outstretched arms.

“Sam!  I don’t believe it!  I barely recognized you!”

“Victoria!  So good to see you!  Where’s Tom?”

Victoria loosened her embrace on her friend and tightened her lips.

“I’m sorry, Sam, but Tom’s been deceased for six years now.”

“Tom’s dead?”   It took a minute for the words to register.  “How?  Where?”

Victoria put her hand out to her old friend and led him into the sitting area.

“Come in here, Sam.  We have a lot of catching up to do.”

The two sat and exchanged lore for the remainder of the afternoon.  Victoria explained to him Tom’s role in his fight with the railroad.  She told him what strong men her boys had grown to be and of her beautiful daughter.  Ulysses shared about his family as well.  He also had three sons and a daughter.  He briefly talked about his past seven years in the presidency and what a tremendous load it was to shoulder.  Finally, as they began to exhaust the questions they had for one another, Victoria asked,

“So Sam, what brings you here today?”

“Well, frankly Victoria, I just felt like I needed to get away for a little while.  I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind taking in a house guest for a couple of days.”

“Of course I don’t mind, and the family will be so surprised when they find out who’s staying here with us.”

“Please, Victoria, that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid.  I would prefer if you didn’t make my true identity known.  I don’t want to be treated with ‘kid gloves’, so to speak.  I just want your family to accept me as they would any other visitor.”

Victoria smiled and reached out to pat him on the hand.

“You have my word, Sam.  As far as I’m concerned you are simply ‘Sam’ and we will leave it at that.”

Victoria and Tom had always referred to Ulysses by the nickname he had picked up while attending West Point.  Victoria stood to her feet,

“Now, Sam, why don’t you take a few minutes to rest before dinner.  The family will begin to arrive before much longer.  I’ll have Silas show you to your room.”

Sam followed the family’s servant to his accommodations.  He had the strange sense of coming home after a long absence.  Silas opened the door of the guest room and ushered him in.  There was wash water in a porcelain pitcher, a basin and fresh towels.  The window was open, giving the room an airy feeling.

“You have a nice rest, Mr. Sam, and I’ll knock on your door when dinner’s ready.”

“Thank you….Silas, is it?”

“Yes Sir.”

Ulysses closed the door and sat down on the bed.  As he stretched out into a relaxed position, he could hear the faint chatter of voices mingling up the stairs as Victoria’s children began to assemble in the parlor for their pre-dinner drinks.  He thought of his own children back home.

He drifted off into a pleasant dreamland until a knock at the door summoned him to dinner.  Victoria was on the other side waiting to escort him down to the table.  He held out his arm as she delicately laced her fingers across the crook in his elbow.  Together they made their way into the parlor where the rest of the family was gathered.  Victoria graciously introduced the guest to her four children.

“This is Jarrod, my oldest, then there is Nick, Heath and Audra.  This is an old friend of your father’s and of mine.  This is Sam.  He will be staying with us for a few days.”

Ulysses shook each hand individually as the recipient greeted him in return.  Then, walking two by two, the family filed into the dining area.

“Sam, would you do us the honor of saying grace, please?”

The matriarch nodded at her guest and they all joined hands and bowed their heads.  After grace was said, the food was passed and the family set about making their visitor feel at home.

“So Sam, what kind of work do you do?”  Victoria could always count on her oldest son to get the ball rolling.

“I’ve done a variety of jobs.  Everything from farming to real estate to working as a tanner and I served in the army during the war between the states.”

Realizing where the conversation could lead, Victoria was quick to change the subject.

“Is there anything special you would like to do while you’re here visiting, Sam?  Anything is particular that you want to see?”

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, I think I would enjoy just helping around the ranch.  Do you have any cattle to brand or fences to mend?”

“I’m sure these two fine gentleman can find an odd job around here for you,” Jarrod politely offered.

“Boy Howdy, ain’t that the truth.”  Heath was more than glad to help this visitor feel like a member of the family.

“Heath and me were plannin’ to work all day on the North Range tomorrow and spend the night in the line shack.  You’re welcome to join us if you like.”  The tall, dark haired Nick was zealous in his efforts to make ‘Sam’ welcome.

“That would suit me just fine.  What time do you plan to pull out in the morning?”

“We’ll be mounted and headin’ out the gate by six o’clock sharp.”

“Well then, I guess I had better plan on getting a good night’s sleep.  If you all would excuse me I think I’ll turn in.”

The family said their ‘goodnights’ and Ulysses retired to his room.  This is what he was needing.  A day putting in some good old fashioned, sweat-of-the-brow labor.  He sighed contentedly and drifted off into a tranquil slumber.

At six o’clock the following morning, three riders were disappearing out of the corral gate, just as Nick had promised.  Victoria had roused early to see her friend off, and stood in her silk robe, waving goodbye.  Her oldest son was up as well, dressed and ready to start his day.  The two walked arm in arm back inside the spacious home.

“You know, Mother, your friend Sam seems vaguely familiar to me.  I wonder where I’ve seen him before,” the attorney commented as they sat to share a morning cup of coffee.  “Did you ever tell me his last name?”

“No, I guess I didn’t,” answered his mother with a mysterious smile.

The lawyer raised a questioning eyebrow as he added a another spoonful of sugar to his coffee.

The three men rode through Barkley land for a couple of hours.  Ulysses could hardly fathom the vastness of the family’s ranch.  For the first few hours, the men worked on rounding up strays that had wandered away from the herd.  Both cowboys were impressed with Sam’s skill as a horseman.

“The way you handle that horse of yours, Sam, I would have had you pegged for a rancher rather than a farmer,” Nick commented.

“Well, actually I did my fair share of riding back in my army days.”

“You rode a horse into battle?”, questioned the older Barkley, “you must’ve been a higher ranking officer.”

“I guess I wouldn’t be too boastful in saying that I was given a little bit of authority.”

“You must’ve seen quite a bit of action then.  I was a first Lieutenant under General Alderson, and later under General Wallet.   We were at Shiloh and several other major battles.  Who did you serve under and where all did you fight?”

“Well Son, let’s just say I’ve seen the elephant and leave it at that.”

Nick sensed that whatever it was about Sam’s service during the war, he had no desire to be discussing it now.

“Hey!  Over there, Sam.  Head off that stray!”

Ulysses spurred his mount towards the fleeing cow and directed it back to the herd.

After a brief break for the sandwiches Silas had packed in their saddle bags, the three men were off to the line shack to pick up some supplies.  They would spend the rest of the day mending fence lines, and maybe even take a dip in the pond.

Later that evening, after a hearty meal of beans and a game of cards, Ulysses stepped outside to look at the stars.  It had been many years since he had slept on a hard bed or eaten beans out of a can.  The night air felt cool and refreshing compared to the heat of that day.  He noticed how bright the stars appeared.  Not like in Washington where the gas street lamps made them seem dim.  He thought of Julia and wondered how she was faring with her friends in San Francisco.

The next morning it was up and at ’em by the crack of dawn.  As they finished the fence mending, Sam noticed that his horse had been favoring his right front hoof.  The general reached down and slowly lifted the animals foot for inspection.

“Lordy, who put these shoes on you, fella?”

“What’s the matter here, Sam?”, asked Heath riding up next to the older man.

“This mount of mine seems to be about ready to throw a shoe.  Whoever made this one didn’t do a very good job.  It’s a little thin here at the toe.  How far is it to the nearest town?”

“Lodi is just north of us a few miles.  With a lame horse, it will probably take a couple of hours to get there, though.  Guess it doesn’t matter.  We can drop your horse off at the smithy there in town and then go get us a drink.  I’ll send a wire to the family and tell them not to wait dinner on us.”

The three walked their horses slowly into town.  A nice breeze was blowing from behind.  Ulysses could smell the scent of wildflowers mixed with pine.  These were things that he had taken for granted before his term in the White House.  Now it smelled heavenly.  Lodi was a fairly small town.  Grant told the man at the livery to check all four hooves.  He still had to ride the animal back to Stockton, and didn’t want to get marooned out in the middle of nowhere.

The three men headed for the Saloon.  Nick and Heath had been there before on several occasions and knew some of the locals.  It wasn’t a big place, but was always crowded in the evenings.  In a small town like Lodi, there wasn’t much else to do for fun besides drink and play poker.  At the long wooden counter, Ulysses ordered a couple of beers for his two comrades and a whiskey for himself.  For a split second he contemplated asking the bartender to leave the bottle, but then thought better of it.  Nick and Heath spotted Adam, a farmer who lived nearby.  The two brothers  strode over to their friend’s table to chew the fat for a while.  Ulysses was comfortable enough leaning on his elbows at the bar.

Alone he stood, propped against the wooden counter, imagining himself going back to Washington with his resignation in hand.  He wondered what it would be like to return to the nation’s capital and tell all those politicians exactly where they could go.   “How would it be to just get back to the basic’s of life,” he thought.  “A few cows, a few pigs, maybe some chickens for atmosphere.”

His mind wandered back to his wife Julia.  As appealing as that might sound to him, he certainly couldn’t ask her to leave the comforts of the city to live out here.  He thought of a young general that he knew.  Custer had done that with his new wife.  She had followed that fool clean out to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory.  Right there in the midst of the Indian nations, where the red man held high resentment for these white usurpers.  The bartender came by and filled Grant’s empty glass that sat on the counter in front of him.  The president brought the glass to his lips and swallowed hard.  Grant knew that his administration had lied and stole land from the Indians time and time again, but yet there was the need to expand westward.  The Sioux had long since lost their patience with the pale faced congressmen and their broken promises.  The president was sure that the situation in the plains would get worse before it got better.

Grant looked at the bartender and motioned for another refill to is glass.  This time, Red, the man working the bar, brought the bottle over and left it sitting beside Grant.  He was talking with some men at the end of the counter and didn’t want another interruption.  The men weren’t talking about anything in particular, just complaining about the weather, their wives, or the government.  They thought that it was their duty as citizens to express how they felt the country was being ruined.  Grant half listened to their conversation.  He had heard a lot of what they were saying many times before. Some of the comments he even agreed with.

The president emptied another glass and was feeling pretty good.  He decided that he would go down to the end of the bar and join in on the friendly little discussion the men were having.  As he was heading down, one of the men pulled out a harmonica and started playing a catchy little tune.  Ulysses was quite familiar with ‘Gary Owens’,  the theme that George Custer had picked out for his troops to rally behind.  The tune had caught on fast and soon it seemed as though every saloon in the country was playing it.

“Isn’t that ‘Gary Owens’ you’re playing?”,  Ulysses inquired.  The harmonica player was a bit rusty and had missed several of the notes.

“Yes sirree,” the man with the harp responded, “and you know what else I think?  I think they should put ol’ General Custer up there in that White House and send Grant back to the front lines.”

“Custer!  Now why would you want a dim wit like that in Washington?  If he doesn’t get himself killed in those Indian wars, he’ll at least get a lot of others killed off, and that’s a fact.”

The four men who had been happily chattering, stepped away from the bar and stood silently glaring at Ulysses.

“Are you sayin’ that General Custer ain’t no hero, mister?  Are you sayin’ that old man Grant was a better soldier?”

The four hombres stood facing Grant, awaiting his response.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, and I would surely appreciate you not playing that blowhard’s tune while I’m around to have to listen to it.”

The men took a few more steps back and no one said a word.  Grant placed his glass down on the polished wooden counter and stood in front of the nearest man.  A hush fell over the room.  No one moved, and it seemed as though no one even breathed.  Suddenly, the man who had been playing the harmonica swung his right fist in the direction of the President.  Grant ducked, but came up swinging, hitting the man whom he had been facing squarely in the jaw.  Soon Grant was trading punches with all four men.  A voice boomed up behind him,

“Now hold on a minute here.  What’s this all about?”

Nick Barkely’s question was never answered, at least not in so many words.  A quick left hook caught Nick up under his chin and sent him sprawling.  With a wicked smile on his face, he was up in a flash, lunging into his opponent with a full body slam.  Heath was soon to follow.  He grabbed one of Sam’s attackers by his collar and was banging his head on the counter, when a chair from a nearby poker game splintered across his back.  Heath was knocked senseless for a moment, but quickly recovered and was back on his feet.  It didn’t take long for the entire saloon to get involved.  There was furniture being hurled through the air and the sound of bottles being broken.  Glass shattered, as one of the patrons was catapulted through the large front window.  Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of a pistol shot rang through the noisy chaos and the fighting came to an abrupt halt.

“What the hell is going on in here?”, yelled the town’s sheriff, “it ain’t even Saturday night yet.”

“They started it sheriff,” Red gasped as he pointed towards the three strangers from Stockton, “the old man threw the first punch at Bill, here.”

Looking around the room, the sheriff could see that there was lots of damage.  The room was strewn with broken glass and bottles.  Furniture was scattered everywhere.  Men lay about the floor and across table tops.

“You’re from the valley, ain’t ya?”, he asked Nick who was sitting on the floor in front of the bar.

“Sheriff, I can explain.”

“Save it for the Judge, partner.  Now who all’s with you?”

Nick pointed at Sam who had managed to stay standing and Heath who was lying face down on the floor.  Someone had hit him on the back of the noggin with a pool stick, dropping him in his tracks.

“Okay buddy, on your feet,” the sheriff ordered, nudging Heath with the toe of his boot.  “I don’t want no more trouble, so y’all will be coming with me until the circuit judge comes around to get this all cleared up.”

“How long will that be?”, inquired Nick, “I want to send a telegram.”

“It will be a couple more days.  I’ll have my deputy send a wire for you.  That’s your right here in Lodi.”

“Thanks Sheriff,” the bartender offered, “I’ll come by your office later and let you know what the damages are.”

“That won’t be necessary, Red.  You can tell me from your jail cell.”

“What?”

“I’ve known you for ten years, Red.  I know that you’re not near as innocent as you would like to make me believe.”

Soon the sheriff and his deputy were herding twelve men over to the jail.  He wasn’t planning on asking any questions.  He would be saving that for the circuit judge.

It was early evening, and Jarrod still hadn’t shown up to post bail for the three amigos.  Sam, Nick and Heath were locked up together in one cell and some of the other men involved in the fight were locked in the other cells.

“Hey you guys,” called the stocky man with the receding hair line.  He was the one who had helped Grant fight off the harmonica player.   “Were you all in the war?”

“We sure were, mister,” answered Heath.

“I was at Shiloh myself,” the stout man bragged.  “Me and Ulysses S. Grant, we were like two peas in a pod back then.  Heck, he never made a move without consultin’ with me first.”

“Is that a fact?”,  piped in Sam.  He was looking at this person from head to toe wondering if maybe he had forgotten something.

“Sure,” lied the stocky braggart. “Hell, one afternoon I took a bullet for Old Iron Britches.  Saved his life, I did.  A sniper had him pegged, and I stepped right in front of the General.  It’s because of me that he’s alive and in office today.”

“Well, heck son,” smiled Grant, “when I get out of here, I’m going to buy you a drink.”

“Just doing my part, old man, just like a lot of the others back then.  I only wish that he was still doin’ a good job, just like he used to do.”

Grant dropped his head silently.  He had heard this before and sometimes he wished he was back in the army instead of in the White House.  Back then you could tell who your friends were just by the color of their uniform.  Now it was almost impossible to tell who was friend and who was foe.

The sun peeked in through the barred windows of the Lodi jail.  Three men lay sacked out snoring on cots.  Each had a colorful display of split lips, cuts and contusions.  A sudden rattling of jailhouse keys, brought the sleeping guests back into the land of the living.  Jarrod stood behind the deputy with his hat pushed back and his arms folded across his chest.  Nick and Heath felt his evil eye boring through each of them as he glanced back and forth between the two.

“Well what do we have here?  Looks like I have my work cut out for me today?”

“Oh Jarrod,” grunted Nick sleepily, “did you post my bail?”

“That I did brother Nick, and I expect to be paid back.  In full.”

Heath and Sam rose from their cots and slowly sauntered out into the main office.  The sheriff had unlocked a drawer in his desk and was retrieving Heath and Nick’s gunbelts.   As Nick was buckling on his holster, Jarrod came over and in a hushed whisper, gave his younger brother a reprimand.

“Well Nick, you certainly know how to show a guest a good time, don’t you.”

“You don’t hear him complaining, do you?”  Nick was looking over at Sam and could tell that he didn’t seem the least little bit upset over having spent the night in jail.

“Well what about Mother?  She was worried sick when you guys didn’t show up for dinner.  Stayed up half the night.”

Nick gave his lawyer brother a questioning eyebrow.

“So what’s your point Jarrod?  It’s not the first time we’ve missed a meal, and it’s not the first time we’ve been thrown in jail for a fight.  Probably won’t be the last time, either.”

Heath and Sam were already outside on the boardwalk waiting for the two brothers.  Sam reached over and put his hand on Heath’s shoulder.

“Son, that was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.   I want to thank you for not treating me like an old fogy.”

The blonde cowboy gave him a crooked smile.

“Sometimes there’s nothin’ like a good fight to clear your head,”  he said gingerly touching the back of his own aching skull.

Ulysses thought to himself,

“I sure wish Tom were here to see what fine men these boys of his turned out to be.  I know he would be proud of them – I sure am.”

When the four riders approached the house, Victoria was there to meet them.  First she looked at Nick and Heath,

“You two certainly should know better,”  and then over at the president, “and you, Sam, you of all people.”

Grant blushed and looked down at his feet like a school boy caught stealing apples.

“Yes maam.”

The two Barkley cowboys looked at each other and grinned as they headed for the front porch.  Their mother called after them,

“You boys go upstairs and get cleaned up.  I’ll be up to have my discussion with you shortly – with my bottle of liniments.”  Then she turned to Ulysses.  “Sam, you come with me into the kitchen.  I’ll tend your cuts now.”

The president followed the feisty little silver haired woman into the kitchen and took a seat at the table.

“How did you do it, Victoria?  Raising four young ones all by yourself?”

“To tell you the truth, Sam, I’m not sure who is raising whom around here.  They take care of me better than I could have ever dreamed.  I’ve been blessed – that’s for sure.”

Sam looked at Victoria and said,

“You should be proud.  I know I would be if they were mine.”

Victoria gave Sam’s face the final finishing touches, and using the back stairs, the two ascended to the upper part of the house.  Ulysses retreated into his room to get changed for dinner as the matron sought out her two youngest sons.  Heath’s door was ajar, but the room was empty.  She walked down the hall to Nick’s room and found the two men engaged in some boyish banter.

“All right, who’s first?”, she asked setting the bottle of Godfrey’s liniment and rags down on a table.

“How ’bout Heath,” Nick volunteered as he gestured toward his younger brother seated in an easy chair.

The blonde cowboy grimaced as his mother began dabbing at his various cuts and bruises.

“Now, Nicholas, I would like to know exactly what you were thinking yesterday.  I entrusted a very dear friend of mine to your care – yours and Heath’s.  You were suppose to be showing him a ‘typical day’ on a working ranch.  Next thing I know, I’m receiving a telegram that the three of you are locked up in the Lodi jail.”

Victoria’s tone did not sound pleased.  She knew her middle son all too well.  He had a rather impulsive nature and had initiated rabble on more than one occasion.

“I’m not sure, Mother, I guess I don’t know exactly how it got started.  Me and Heath were over at a table swapping tales, and the next thing I knew, Sam was taking on four men.”

“That’s right, Mother,” Heath supported his brother’s statement of innocence, “we hadn’t hardly left Sam alone but a few minutes and before we knew it, all hell had broke loose.”

“And the two of you were just innocent bystanders.”

Victoria gave Nick a look that he hadn’t seen since he had been sent home from school for dipping Tammy Taylor’s pigtails in the ink well.

The two brothers exchanged defeated looks as Nick started to protest,

“Well, I, ahh……..”

“That’s what I thought,” declared Victoria giving Nick the quick once over with her Godfrey’s.  “Now we’ll just drop the subject right here, but I sincerely hope that the two of you have learned something.”

With her final statement, the tiny woman turned and marched out of the room.  Heath turned to give Nick a quick wink,

“Yup,” he smirked, “Sure did.  I learned that you never turn your back on a pool-cue-packin’ man.”

Down in the living room, Victoria joined her oldest for a glass of sherry.  Jarrod had already poured her a glass by the time she reached the bottom step, and now stood with the drink extended out to her.

“Well, how was the visit to the woodshed?”, he asked with an amused smile.

“Oh Jarrod, if you only knew how serious this could have been.”  Victoria’s voice reflected the concern she felt for her friend and the possible scandal that could develop if word ever got out.

“You mean the President’s reputation being out on the line?”

Victoria jerked her head around with a start.

“Jarrod!  You’ve known all along!”

“Well I must say that your friend looked suspiciously familiar.  I was able to dig up some old records when I was in town yesterday and put two and two together.  But tell me…how is it that you and father came to be acquainted with the President, and why is it that you don’t want anyone to know his true identity?”

“I gave him my word, Jarrod.  Sam has been a friend since long before his involvement in politics, and now he just wants a place to escape for a few days.  I trust that you will help me keep his secret.”

“Don’t you worry about a thing, Mother.  Your secret is safe with me.  As far as Sam’s reputation, well, I covered all the fines and damages incurred from the fight, so there won’t be any need for the incident to go before a judge.”

“Thank you Jarrod.  I’m so glad that one of you boys decided to practice law.”

“Well, with brothers like Nick and Heath, the word ‘practice’ takes on an entirely new meaning.”

Dinner was pleasant and the conversation was light.  Afterwards the group assembled in the billiard room for some coffee and cake that Silas had baked that afternoon.  It was a nice change.  The way the day had gone, nobody was really in the mood for any more liquor.  Victoria escorted Sam to a large, high backed chair.

“This was Tom’s favorite chair when he came in here to relax.”

Smiling, Ulysses sank back into the plush cushions with a sigh.

“Sam, how ’bout a game of pool!”, Nick exclaimed, “If you don’t play, I’ll show you how!”

Sam stood up from his chair and walked over to the cue holder which hung on the wall.  Looking over the sticks, he gave each one a careful inspection.

“This one will do just fine, I think.  Rack them up, Nick.”

Nick lay the rack on the green felt, adjusted the crowding of the balls and lifted the rack like he was handling nitro.

“It’s a tight group,” he stated matter-of-factly.

The two played several games, all of which Sam won.

“Sam, you run the table like a pro!”, Nick complimented the house guest.

“I’ve been playing a lot longer than you, son,” Sam winked in Victoria’s direction.  “Heath, why don’t you and your brother have a couple of go ’rounds, maybe his luck will change.  Me, I need a breather.”

The general handed Heath the pool stick and walking back to his chair, pulled out a stogie.  Jarrod and Victoria were seated on the opposite side of the room.  Jarrod leaned over and whispered in his mother’s ear,

“I can just imagine their faces when Sam leaves and they find out who he really is.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

As the night grew late, Jarrod, Victoria and Audra excused themselves for bed.  Heath and Nick were still battling it out at the pool table.  Finishing up another round Nick said,

“That’s six games to five, little brother.  You want a chance to even the score?”

“Guess my game is a little off.  Shoulder still hurts.  Guess I’ll give in this time.”

Nick slapped his brother on the back.  After eleven games, both boys were plenty tired.

“Well somebody’s gonna haft to get up early tomorrow morning, so I guess I might as well say good night, too.  You coming up, Sam?”

“No, I think I’ll stay up for a while longer yet.”

“Good night, Sam.”

Heath followed Nick out of the room leaving Ulysses to smoke his last cigar for the evening in total solitude.  A cool breeze was coming in through the open window.  The big house seemed so very quiet at night.  He could hear the walls and ceiling utter their occasional creaks and groans.  He had just extinguished his stogie and was easing himself out of the chair, when he heard a knock at the front door.  Silas had long since gone to bed, so Ulysses walked over and opened the large wooden door.  Standing out on the porch was a uniformed officer of the United States Cavalry.  At first the young lieutenant didn’t recognize the clean shaven president, but as their eyes met, he stood at full attention and saluted his superior.

“Mr. President, Sir,” the soldier said, “you must come with me immediately.”

Grant stood looking at this phantom of the late hour.

“Maybe you had better tell me what this is all about, Lieutenant.”

“There’s been some trouble in the Black Hills, Sir.  Custer’s gone.  His whole regiment has been wiped out.”

Grant stared at the bearer of bad tidings in disbelief.  He had never liked Custer, but to hear that a fellow officer had fallen put a rancidity in the pit of his stomach.  Looking out into the night, Grant could see that the young man had not come alone.  It seemed as if half the cavalry was there waiting to escort their commander-in-chief back to headquarters.

“Return to your squad and prepare to ride in half an hour,” the president ordered.  “Who is going to brief me?”

“Major Hansen is waiting in town, Sir.  We are to bring you there tonight.”

“Half an hour, son.”

Grant shut the door and mounted the stairs to pack his things.  This was really bad.  With Custer dead, the general population would be screaming for revenge.  War was sure to break out again.  This time it would be in the plains, and with a people who were merely defending their land and homes.  With his saddle bags packed, the general turned the knob on the door and entered into the hallway.

“Sam, what is it?  The front yard is full of troops!”

Victoria had been awakened by the commotion and now clad in her robe, stood in the hallway to confront her friend.

“I can’t say right now, Victoria, but it’s bad.  Real bad.  I’m going to have to leave immediately.  Would you please say good-bye to everyone for me?”

Victoria watched her friend put on his coat, and then with the look of a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, made his way down the stairs.

From his bedroom, Nick heard the sound of horses and the command to “mount and ride”.  What was the army doing here…and at this hour?  He could hear the pattering of footsteps as his mother made her way down the hall.  Grabbing his pants off the bedpost, he opened the door to his room and stuck his head out.

“Mother!  What’s going on?”

“Sam had to go, dear.  He was needed somewhere else.  You know what they used to say, ‘Grant always rides to the sound of guns’.”

Nick’s jaw dropped.  The familiar face now had a name.  Ulysses S. Grant!  Here in their home!  As a house guest!

“Mother, the President here?  Why?”

“It’s late Nick, and I’m tired.  How about if we discuss it in the morning?”

Entering her room, Victoria closed the door behind her.  Tomorrow she would fill them all in on this clandestine house guest.  Like her Tom, Grant was a man of strength and honor.  He was faithful, fair, honest, and a true patriot.

***The End***

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