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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

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Posts posted by Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

  1. Linn Keller 9-10-13


    Sarah wet her lips uncertainly and looked at the well dressed young man waiting at her front door.
    "Daffyd," she said hesitantly, "might I beg a favor of you?"
    "Indeed ye may, m'dear," he said without hesitating: he looked past Sarah, to Bonnie, and nodded. "Wi' your permission, ma'am?"
    "Mr. Llewellyn," Bonnie smiled. "Do come in. We have ..."
    Bonnie looked at Sarah and nodded for her to continue.
    Sarah looked from her Mama to her betrothed.
    "Might I ... that is, I received ... oh, this is awkward," she said, blinking rapidly, raising her hands and pressing them to her cheeks: she breathed quickly, leaned back against the wall.
    Daffyd's hands were firm and warm on her upper arms; she blinked rapidly and tried to smile.
    "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't know what's come over me."
    Bonnie thought I think I know, but offered no word of comment.
    "Daffyd ... I am invited to the Sheriff's for supper ... it wouldn't ... I need ..."
    She looked at Daffyd, her expression hopeful.
    "What wouldn't be proper?" a familar voice declared from outside, and the Sheriff stepped to the door, grinning.
    "I don't know, sir," Daffyd admitted.
    Sarah swallowed, raised her chin; Daffyd released her arms, offered his own.
    Saran very properly placed a hand on his sleeve and turned to her Papa.
    "I thank you for your kind invitation," she said in a very cultured voice.
    "I was about to ask Mr. Llewellyn for his assistance in traveling to your gracious board."
    "And you were afraid it would be improper for him to show up for supper," the Sheriff grinned. "Bonnie, do I recall hearing you state your approval of this young man?"
    It was Bonnie's turn to raise her chin and speak in a most cultured voice.
    "Yes, Sheriff," she replied. "You did."
    "And I myself approve of this young man."
    The Sheriff looked at Sarah, then at Daffyd, and his smile spread over his face like sunrise over a morning horizon.
    "Sarah, I reckon you'll be keeping company with this fine young man for years to come. I welcome him under my roof, anytime, as I do you already."
    Sarah opened her mouth to speak, then closed it and nodded.
    "Mama," she said, "might I borrow --"
    Bonnie draped the shawl over Sarah's shoulders.
    "How did you know?" Sarah asked softly.
    "I'm a mother," Bonnie replied. "Mothers know."
    Sarah looked at the Sheriff.
    "How did you get here so quitely?" she asked. "I heard nothing."
    "I'm a lawman," the Sheriff replied, his eyes merry: "we do things like that."

  2. Linn Keller 9-10-13


    "Sarah needs some good red meat," Angela declared with an emphatic nod.
    The Sheriff looked down at her, amused.
    Angela was getting big, she was learning the womanly skills of sewing and cooking, and apparently she'd already learned the feminine art of speaking her mind when she felt there was something important to be said.
    The Sheriff looked at his green-eyed bride and saw something in her eyes, and he knew Angela was probably echoing something Esther mentioned.
    He looked back over the gelding's ears and nodded.
    "Angela," he said, "I have profited at times from listening to those who were younger, smarter and better looking than me." He looked down at her and she saw his light-blue eyes twinkle, that Daddy-twinkle that told her she was still Daddy's girl. "What do you reckon we ought to do about it?"
    "Feed her?" Angela suggested hopefully.
    "I reckon she feeds regularly," the Sheriff murmured.
    "Dad-dee!" Angela protested, thrusting her knuckles into her hips and her elbows out: "Sarah isn't an old mare with a feed bag!"
    The mental image of Sarah in a fine McKenna gown, with a dusty feed bag on her face, was enough to bring laughter to the man's heart, and it bubbled freely out his lips, and even Esther smiled a little.
    "Mrs. Keller?" the Sheriff said gently.
    "Yes, Mr. Keller?"
    "Mrs. Keller, do you reckon we could host Sarah one of these nights?"
    "Yes, Mr. Keller, I believe we could."
    The Sheriff nodded and Angela bounced a little on her seat, clapping her hands and giving a quiet, little-girl "Yaaay!"

    Angela's tongue stuck out the side of her mouth as she concentrated.
    She very carefully drew her letters, strung them together into words: her Daddy's presence was warm and reassuring, and even though she knew she was a Big Girl Now, it still felt good to sit on Daddy's lap when she wrote the invitation, using Daddy's pen and Daddy's ink and Daddy's paper, writing on Daddy's desk.
    "That's right, dear heart," the Sheriff nodded. "We'll blot this dry now --"
    "Let me, Daddy!"
    Angela very carefully settled the blotting-paper on wet ink, then ran the glazed-ceramic rocker over it, waited a moment, then snapped the blotting paper free.
    "There!" she announced triumphantly.
    "Well done," the Sheriff murmured, hugging his darlin' daughter, and Angela giggled, putting her hands on his, wrapped around and overlapped on her belly.
    The Sheriff bent and kissed the top of her head.
    "Now let's fold it and seal it."
    "Can I press the seal, Daddy?"
    "Of course, darlin'."

    Sarah received the envelope and smiled a little.
    The handwriting was familiar: her father's, she knew, and she read it again, slowly, savoring the precise, flowing penmanship:
    Miss Sarah McKenna
    The favour of a reply is requested

    Sarah smiled, broke the seal, withdrew the folded, sealed quarter-sheet within.
    Bonnie watched as Sarah read it, then re-read it, smiling.
    She looked up at her Mama.
    "I have been invited to supper tonight," she said, her eyes shining.
    "Mr. Llewellyn?" Bonnie asked, walking over to her daughter, tilting her head a little to look at the invitation.
    Sarah showed her the front of the envelope, with its careful, artistic hand, then opened the creased sheet to display letters that wobbled, leaned and threatened to clatter into one another:
    Sarah, it read,
    Mama said you need some good read meat.
    Come have supper with us.

    Bonnie laughed quietly, rested her hands on Sarah's shoulders.
    "I think it would be a fine idea, dear," she whispered.

    Little Joseph held the hide as his Pa worked it free.
    Jacob liked to use his knife as little as possible; holes in the hide were not a good idea if a man needed the entire piece, and he had plans for this particular cowhide.
    It was cool enough to slaughter this barren beef and he and Joseph systematically disassembled the creature into its component parts.
    They, too, were going to have good red meat for supper, and Little Joseph grinned as his Pa coached him on how to slice free the back strap.
    Little Joseph liked back strap, just like his Grampa.

  3. Linn Keller 9-9-13


    In an era where a smile was regarded a sign of weakness and displays of affection between man and wife were frowned on in public, several couples held hands in church; convention of back East was tried in the fires of a harder life in the West, the unnecessary and frivolous generally got skimmed off as dross and discarded: several couples held hands in church, generally from affection, occasionally from possessiveness, and in Sarah and Daffyd's case, because -- a little -- from fear.
    Sarah stood, and sat, and stood again, at the appropriate times; she breathed through her nose, she paid attention to the announcements, the message, the requests; she joined in the collective prayer, she sang less powerfully than was her wont, and after the plate was passed, normally she sang the Doxology.
    Sarah received the Parson's nod, and stood, gathering herself.
    She lifted her chin and began to sing and almost right away felt a tingling in her fingers, a weakness in her legs: her pure A faltered and she clutched the front of the pew in front of her as her head became suddenly too hard to hold up.
    Another voice came in, pitched perfectly with hers, catching the note, saving the word, continuting Old Hundred so precisely it was as if Sarah had but stumbled in one note: Sarah blinked, lifted her head, willed the haze from her vision.
    Daciana stood beside her piano -- beside it, not in front of it -- on the side away from the congregation, mostly hidden from them by the spray of flowers and a stack of hymnals carelessly piled atop the upright -- Daciana stood with her hands clasped against her high stomach, the way she did when she sang, and Sarah nodded, closing her mouth against the air hunger she felt, settling slowly back into her seat as the final note faded.
    Daciana remained behind her piano for a moment, then reappeared, straightening as if she'd picked up something; her deception complete, she settled back onto her piano bench, hands folded in her lap, waiting patiently because she knew she would have to rise for the prayer to follow.
    Daffyd held Sarah's suddenly cooler hand; he looked at her nails, assessed their color, wished powerfully for better light, for he could not tell if her nails were merely shadowed, or less pink than they should be: he looked over at her and saw her mouth was open a little, and her breathing was quicker than it should be.
    She felt his gaze and looked over at him.
    "Don't let me fall over," she whispered through stiff lips, and he nodded and squeezed her hand both to show that he'd heard, and understood.
    Sarah and Daffyd remained seated while the church emptied, and the Parson was still at the door when the two of them finally came down the aisle, the very last ones to leave.
    Daciana was waiting with Lightning at the foot of the steps.
    Sarah was walking slowly, leaning more heavily on Daffyd's arm than she wanted, but not able to manage without: he stopped and she gathered herself and took a breath, and felt a hand on her free arm.
    She looked up at Parson Belden's concerned eyes.
    "I'm sorry, Parson," she whispered hoarsely. "I ... gave out."
    The Parson looked at her, his expression stern over non-existent glasses.
    "You gave all you had," he said quietly. "You nearly passed out on us but you did not quit. You went just as far as you could. You gave us your widow's mite."
    It wasn't until Sarah was seated for Sunday dinner that the Parson's kind words came back to her and she understood what he'd said, and she had to excuse herself, for she did not want womanly tears to spoil dinner with Daciana and Lightning and her intended.
    Daciana gave Lightning a look and slipped out behind Sarah, taking her by the shoulders and pinning her against the wall, out of sight of the men.
    Daciana assessed Sarah with quick and knowing eyes, snatching up her hand and looking closely at her nails, then dropping the cool hand, tugging at the side of Sarah's lips, pulling down the lower eyelid.
    Finally she placed a hand under Sarah's arm, flat against her ribs.
    "Inbreathen," she said quietly, and Sarah did, and flinched.
    "Out now ... undt in, deeply, fast."
    Sarah exhaled through pursed lips, then opened her mouth, took a fast, gasping breath, deep, deep, held it with her diaphragm, her throat still open.
    "Undt oudt, slow."
    Daciana nodded.
    "Vunce more, inbreathen, deeper." The terminal "r" flipped off her tongue like an acrobat off a springboard.
    Sarah threw her head back, mouth open, took in a great breath.
    "Undt breathe normal now."
    Daciana put two fingers against Sarah's ribs, thumped them with two fingers of the other hand. "Puttenzie hand on der vall, zo."
    Daciana tapped Sarah's ribs in several places, head tilted, listening.
    "Hokay. Der lunk ist invlated now. You zdill zink goot." Daciana's bright eyes burned into Sarah's as she took her dear friend by the shoulders.
    "Schoolteachen you can do, ja?"
    Sarah blinked, considered, then nodded.
    "Ja," she replied.
    "I vorry aboudt you, Zarah. You only Zarah I got!"
    "There will be more," Sarah whispered, her head clearing as oxygen roared into her bloodstream.
    "Not in zis lifetime," Daciana grunted.
    Sarah took another long breath, nodded. "That's better," she whispered.
    "How you zink mit one lunk I dunno," Daciana muttered, shaking her head. "You hardt headedt contrary, like der Sheriff. Knew better I did not, I zay you vere --"
    Daciana peered at Sarah, as if suddenly realizing something that's been in front of her all along.
    "You ... hiss daughter," she said, stating a fact, not asking a question.
    Sarah nodded.
    "Mein Gott," Daciana whispered. "Zat vhy he look at you like he does! I thought him old letch! I ready to keel heem!"
    Sarah laughed a little. "Please don't," she wheezed.
    "Komm. Dinner ve must eat. You need goot red meat. Komm."
    The two women returned to Sunday dinner with their men, in the little private room in the back of the Jewel.

  4. Linn Keller 9-8-13


    Sarah settled herself gracefully at the breakfast table.
    The twins, as usual, moved in unison -- Sarah suspected they planned it ahead of time -- each reached for a glass, or a fork, with the same hand, and at the same moment; each wore an identical dress to the other, the ribbon in their hair was the same, though Opal's hair was straight, jet black and gleaming, while Polly's was a dark honey and curly: Opal's complexion spoke of her Oriental ancestry, complete to the epicanthic fold at the corners of her eyes, a feature of which Polly was mildly jealous, and Polly's skin was not only fair, it was Celtic fair, and Sarah smiled to see Polly's belly was blue-veined with the fine, tracery map of those the Spanish called "Blue Bloods," for only those with skin so fair as to show that network of veining, were considered fit material for the nobility.
    Sarah was certain Polly would never be a ruling Lady of a great Spanish house, but she was satisfied she was her mother's daughter, and would achieve great things ... peacefully, or otherwise.
    Bonnie's misgivings were evident as she looked at her daughter across a platter of eggs and toast. She held her tongue, though, waiting until Sarah began to eat -- Bonnie wanted to make sure she did eat something, for she was still healing from grievous injury, and good nutrition and good rest were essential for healing -- Bonnie's expression was quietly concerned as she said gently, "Sarah, dear, are you sure you're ready for church?"
    Sarah smiled up at her mother, swallowed: "Yes, Mother," she said quietly.
    Bonnie was neither a physician, a nurse, nor medically trained, but she had a mother's eye and she was no stranger to injury: she considered her daughter's general appearance, then nodded, and began her delicate foray into the morning's fried eggs.
    The twins raised their glasses, sipped in unison, placed their glasses on the table.
    Sarah shot them a warning look, and the twins pressed their lips quickly together, stifling the belch they'd planned: they both looked at Sarah with surprise, a how-did-she-know expression, then Sarah winked and the twins giggled, and Bonnie looked up, realizing she'd just missed something.

    The Sheriff knotted his necktie, not thinking of anything in particular, at least until he heard Angela's stiff rustle beside him.
    His eyes tightened a little at the corners, his smile peeking through his impassive expression: she'd come in absolutely silent, and he was satisfied she'd intentionally rustled her petticoats so he would know she was there.
    "Have you eaten, Princess?" he asked, reaching for his coat on the nearby hook: it flared a little as he put it on, shrugging his shoulders a little to settle it in place.
    Angela shook her head, her curls swinging.
    The Sheriff frowned, squatted: he crooked his finger at her and at her approach, put gentle backs of his fingers against her belly, tilted her head as if listening.
    "Mmm," he said, pursing his lips and nodding.
    Angela suppressed a giggle.
    "I hear your belly," Linn said, raising one eyebrow and looking at his little girl with mock seriousness.
    Angela raised both eyebrows and batted her eyes at him.
    "I'ts saying 'Rowrowrowr,'" Linn said with a straight face, "and that's belly talk for we need to feed you!"
    Angela nodded solemnly, but her eyes were bright with understanding.
    She was her Daddy's girl.

    "Yes, Joseph?"
    "Pa, what if bad men rob the bank today?"
    "We'll stop 'em."
    The wind was gentle and in their faces, a little cool, for fall was headed their way: trees were just beginning to color up, and Joseph heard elks bugle for the past couple days, and knew this meant his Pa would be taking to the field with rifle in hand.
    "Yes, Joseph?"
    "Pa, what if the bad men come into church first?"
    "Then we'll read to 'em from the Book."
    Joseph frowned and considered this.
    Joseph looked up at Annette, who was cradling the wrapped bundle of second-born.
    "Yes, Joseph?"
    "Ma, was I ever one of those?" Joseph thrust a stiff forefinger at his little brother.
    "Yes, Joseph," she laughed. "Yes, you were."
    Joseph wrinkled his nose. "Oh."
    The gelding paced easily down the little grade, Jacob easing on the brake to help the horse hold the load.
    "Yes, Joseph?"
    "Pa, you mind that picture book you showed me last night?"
    "The one with the Pilgrims?"
    "Yes, sir."
    "I mind."
    "Pa, they stacked their rifles outside before they went in church."
    Jacob considered this.
    "Pa, why'd they do that?"
    Jacob smiled a little.
    "Joseph, the fellow who drew that picture didn't know what he was drawing."
    Joseph looked curiously up at his Pa.
    "The Pilgrims didn't carry those brass barrel, bell mouth flint locks they showed in that picture."
    "No, sir."
    "They carried match locks."
    Joseph knew match locks; his Pa was well schooled in weaponscraft and knowledge naturally passes from father to son, especially when the son is perpetually underfoot and listening.
    "If they'd taken those match locks into the church, they would have the slow match smoldering and smoking up the place, plus they'd have to put a gun rack across the whole back of the church, for every last man there was in church -- everybody went, every day, nobody stayed home -- they were kind of crowded up so they left the long guns outside."
    Joseph considered this.
    "Yes, Joseph?"
    "Pa, we have a gunrack inside our church."
    "Yes we do, Joseph."
    Jacob eased off the brake and the gelding leaned into an easy trot, for they were on the flat now, and would soon cross the rail road tracks and on out to the main road.
    "I'm glad we don't have matchlocks," Joseph said after a bit, then looked up at his Pa. "They stink."
    Jacob nodded solemnly.
    "I'm glad the church gunrack is inside, Pa."
    "As am I, Joseph."
    "Your rifle won't get dusty nor rained on inside."
    Jacob nodded.

    Jesse knotted her one-armed husband's necktie with ease.
    "How," he murmured as she drew it up, wiggled it a little to settle it into place and tugged at his collar, then nodded, "how do you make that look so easy?"
    Jesse smiled, caressed her husband's cheek.
    "Practice," she laughed. "My late husband could not knot his necktie if he had to." Her fingers trailed down his shoulder, slipped under his suspenders on either side, ran over and back to make sure any twist was out of them; she stepped behind him, looked with her fingers at the shirt to make sure it wasn't wrinkled under the galluses, then reached to her right and picked up his vest.
    "You," she said, "are a fine looking man, sir."
    He slipped his arm through the hole, raised his chin as she buttoned him up.
    "And you, my dear," he said softly, "are the most beautiful woman in the world."

    Sarah sat on the parlor chair and tended the last minute adjustments that were always necessary when getting her little sisters presentable.
    She sat very straight, grateful that they were taller now, for if she bent over it was harder to breathe, and she was very conscious of her breathing.
    Her lung collapsed again in the night and she'd been obliged to throw her arms wide and then overhead and take several deep breaths to get it re-inflated.
    Doctor Greenlees said this might happen, and it had, and it worried her; she'd heard of an Army sergeant, shot with a .45 in a barfight, whose lung would collapse nightly and he'd step out of his tent and take several deep breaths to get it re-inflated.
    Sarah had no wish to imitate the old Sergeant's example.
    "Sawwah?" Polly asked, her eyes big and liquid and lovely, and Sarah blinked and looked into her little sister's deep and lovely eyes.
    "Sawwah, I was afwaid you would die."
    Opal nodded solemnly, her black eyes big and shining.
    "It wasn't my time," Sarah whispered, leaning her head against her sister's forehead as if sharing a secret: she reached for Opal, drew her close.
    "'For all things there is a season, a time and a purpose for everything under the heavens,'" she quoted. "It wasn't my time. When my works is done, then I will be allowed to go to my Heavenly Home." She smiled, kissed her sisters on the cheek, one, then the other. "Until then, we're here, and it's time to go to church."
    The twins scampered for the front door.
    Sarah stood, breathing carefully, then raised her chin, stepped to the mirror, settled her hat on her head and nodded to the lovely young woman in the oval gilt frame.

    "Mr. Llewellyn."
    Daffyd Llewellyn drew himself up tall, raised his chin: Sarah's hand was on his arm and he stood proudly beside her. "Mrs. Rosenthal."
    "Mr. Llewellyn, you are a gentleman, and I am most pleased that you will be coming a member of our family."
    "As am I meself, ma'am." He gave a proper half-bow.
    Sarah's hand was a little heavier on his arm than usual, and she was beginning to lean on him a little.
    "Mother," Sarah said, "I think I should go within."
    "With your permission, ma'am," Daffyd Llewellyn said gallantly to Bonnie and Levi, which translated to "Please excuse us, we're leaving," and they paced slowly, with a deliberate dignity, up the scrubbed-clean steps and through the parting humanity and into the sanctuary's echoing emptiness.
    They weren't the first ones seated, but they were of the less than a half dozen who'd done so: Sunday church was a social event and it was common to come well early, to shake hands and talk, to catch up on the distant neighbors' well-being and events, and socialize in a country where people were spread out and the land but lightly populated.
    Sarah leaned her head back a little, breathing through her mouth, eyes closed.
    "Sarah?" Daffyd whispered.
    Sarah patted his arm with her free hand and nodded. "It's all right," she whispered back. "I'm fine."
    Daffyd regarded her with a worried look.
    "If I'm to be your husband," he replied, "ye must no' lie to me."
    Sarah looked at him and smiled. "But my dear," she blinked, "isn't that what I'm supposed to do? I am a woman, you know."
    Daffyd sighed. "Ye are a woman, t' be sure, and glad I am for it, but I want ye around for the rest of me life, don't ye know." He looked at her with mock seriousness. "Wha' was i' th' Sheriff said? If ye die I'll ne'er speak to ye again?"
    Sarah caressed Daffyd's cheek with gloved fingers, her own eyes suddenly as serious as his own.
    "I'll not die on you, Daffyd," she whispered fiercely. "I'll not die on you!"
    Sarah looked at Daffyd's ancestress's diamond, which she wore as an engagement ring, and she looked back on all she'd seen and all she'd done, and she looked up at her betrothed.
    "Yes," she nodded. "I promise."

  5. Linn Keller 9-7-13


    Sarah slipped out the back door of the municipal building.
    Her black Agent's attire was hidden within, in a satchel, locked in a cabinet: it would be retrieved later.
    She opened the back door soundlessly, slipped out the rear portal, closed the door behind her and walked slowly down the steps and into the alley.
    She stopped and closed her eyes, willing herself to calm.
    Her chest hurt abominably, her healing rib was calling her unkind names, and her strength was about gone.
    She reached out a hand, intending to find the stone side of the building, and encountered a warm, masculine palm instead.
    She opened her eyes just in time to see the front of a firefighting Irishman's shirt coming at her face at a startling velocity.
    Sean chuckled at Daffyd's expression: part alarm, part surprise, part delight: he stood in the alley with his dearest love limp in his arms.
    "Well don't just stand there, lad," Sean said quietly, "we'll take her in the back door here an' set her down at a table in th' back room, an' she'll wake an' we'll pretend nothin' happened!"
    Sean held the door open and Daffyd carried Sarah in the back door of the Jewel, and Sean opened the concealed door beside the back stairway that led into the more private of the two back rooms.
    Daffyd carried Sarah to a chair, swung her a little to get her properly oriented, eased her down into the padded seat and carefully worked his arm from under her thighs.
    "I'll get the case," Sean whispered, his hand light on Daffyd's shoulder: a moment later the man was gone, and Daffyd was alone with his intended.
    Sarah's lips parted and her breathing speeded up a little.
    Daffyd placed gentle hands on her cheeks and whispered, "Sarah me dear?"
    Sarah opened her eyes, blinked, wet her lips.
    Daffyd could not help himself.
    He wet his lips in response, then kissed Sarah, once, delicately.
    Sarah's eyes closed again and she whispered, "Don't stop."
    Daffyd's arms went around her and he kissed her again, still carefully: he felt the ancient hunger within him, he wanted to devour her with his kiss, he wanted to claim and to take her with his mouth, crushing her to him with manly arms, but he held himself in check.
    Sarah opened her eyes again and whispered, "Is this what it's like?"
    "Is what like?" Daffyd whispered back.
    "Waking up with you."
    Daffyd eased himself down on both knees: he was looking up at her now, now that he was sure she was awake enough not to fall off the chair: he held her hand with his left, his right was on her shoulder: "No, dearest, it's not," he whispered, shaking his head. "I'll no' ha'e ma wife sleepin' in a chair when there's a perfectly good bed t' be had!"
    Sarah laughed quietly, grimaced, raised her free hand to what she would refer to in years to come as her "old war wound."
    "I think," she rasped, then cleared her throat and tried again.
    "I think, Mr. Llewellyn," she said carefully, for her chest still hurt, "that I am going to enjoy being Mrs. Llewellyn."
    "Aye, lass," he nodded, grinning. "I intend that y'should."

    Matson needed no encouragement to return to the Sheriff's office.
    He was surprised the Judge did not strip him of every last centavo and set him adrift, afoot, a stranger in a strange land: the fine was more than fair, he knew, and he was damned lucky he didn't spend a stretch longer in their Crossbar Hotel.
    That his nose was healing was inconsequential; he'd had worse, in his brief time in the prizefighting ring, and the nose was actually going to heal better than before it'd been re-broken, thanks to that cold-handed doctor that came in and told him to hold still before working his magic on the broken beak.
    The Sheriff accompanied him to the depot, saw to the ticket; the conductor was calling for boarding and the Sheriff shook the fight promoter's hand.
    "You should have good profit in Cripple," the Sheriff said. "The gold in a mining town is what someone else brings in. Picks, shovels, eggs, entertainment -- that's the real gold, Mr. Matson, and they'll pay you plenty for what you can sell them."
    Matson nodded his thanks, regarding the Sheriff with an odd look, for though he was no stranger to lawmen, he wasn't used to being treated decently ... especially after he found out the woman he'd handled was the Sheriff's daughter.

  6. Linn Keller 9-6-13


    Court was the next day, bright and early, and as usual, as many of the townsfolk attended: it was theater, it was entertainment, it was the visible Hand of Justice and Civilization, showing the world that they were not part of a howling wilderness, ruled by the law of might alone, as was often alleged in Eastern newspapers and penny dreadfuls and paperback books.
    The Sheriff discreetly opened the carefully repaired door about an inch, so when a black booted foot kicked it open, it didn't shatter lock and door frame again: the Bailiff had just finished his ceremonial "All persons with business to come before this honorable Court, draw near and attend, the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler presiding! God Save this Honorable Court!" -- BANG! and the door slammed open.
    A figure in black stood in the doorway, a figure in a broad-brimmed, low-drawn hat, a long black coat and black cavalry boots, a figure that stood, hands fisted in black-leather gloves, arms stiff at the sides: the figure paced across the threshold and into the silent courtroom, the low, broad boot heels loud and heavy on the spotless boards.
    The short, slight built figure carried itself with authority and with a tightly controlled power, the energies of the tiger itself, and none doubted that this dark and mysterious figure could not just explode, but positively detonate, given the right circumstances.
    The figure steered a straight course for the right hand side of the Judge's table, between the witness stand and the dignified, spade-bearded jurist: stopping, one black-gloved hand raised, one stiff finger pushed the hat back from a pale face with a red whip-scar blazing across otherwise flawless, procelain cheeks.
    "Your Honor," Agent Lynne Rosenthal said hoarsely, "I understand I owe you an apology."
    She took one step closer to the desk, took the Judge's wrist in one hand, opened his hand with the other, turned it over, examined it closely, nodded.
    She looked at the desk, ran a forefinger over the knife-scar in the shining, waxed wood.
    "I understand," she continued, pausing to catch a breath, "that I nearly speared your hand to the desk top."
    His Honor looked his Agent fearlessly in the eye. "Yes," he said, his voice hard, "you very nearly did."
    "I was in the wrong, Your Honor," Agent Rosenthal said. "My apologies, sir, and I stand ready to bear the penalty of my actions."
    His Honor nodded thoughtfully, considering.
    "Agent Rosenthal," he said, "I sentence you to be shot for your crime, I sentence you to having to gunfight your way through four assassins and I sentence you to making your way down two flights of stairs and a hard ride to safety. I further sentence you to a collapsed lung, a stay in hospital and several doses of truly terrible tasting medicine.
    "If, however, these have been fulfilled, then you are reinstated in the eyes of the law, and are strictly enjoined to continue healing, for in spite of ..."
    The Judge's eyes were bright, almost mischevious, as he looked steadily at his black-clad Agent's face -- "in spite of the developments you described, we are convinced of your usefulness to this Court."
    "Thank you, Your Honor."
    "Please take a seat, Agent Rosenthal."
    "Yes, Your Honor."
    The Judge looked to the bailiff, who was watching Sarah suspiciously as she made her way with an absolutely silent tread, back across the courtroom, to seat herself beside the Sheriff.
    "Are you up for this?" he whispered.
    She took several moments to catch her breath. "I have to be," she whispered back.
    "Let us have the first case, Bailiff."
    "Victor Matston," the Bailiff read, "accused of assault and propositioning."
    "Bring forth the accused."
    Matston stood, jerking his arm from the Sheriff's grip: the Sheriff was on his left and he didn't notice the diminutive, black-garbed Agent slip behind him: not until a pencil was thrust between his middle and ring fingers of his free hand, his hand cranked painfully back, his fingers crushed together and his arm cranked quickly and viciously up behind his back did he realize anyone was there.
    The Agent took a fast step up onto the chair recently vacated by the defendant in order to get as complete a leverage as she wanted -- which elicited a loud and pained "OWWW!" which positively echoed in the courtroom.
    The Sheriff stepped in front of Matston, seized him by the throat, squeezed and lifted his head.
    "Do you behave yourself," he asked mildly, his voice disarmingly gentle, "or do we tear your throat out and stuff your ripped-free arm down it?"
    His Honor's gavel rapped once. "Order in the court," he called.
    "Which will it be, Matston? Will you behave?"
    Matston nodded and the aching, viselike claw of the Sheriff's grip relaxed a little.
    Agent Rosenthal released the man's arm and stepped down, a quick, long-legged move that got her just out of arm's reach.
    Nobody missed the fact that her coat was loose and she would have no trouble reaching under it for tools of un-gentle persuasion if need be.
    Matston was escorted to the witness stand, where the Sheriff left him to be oathed and seated, before the Sheriff returned to his own seat and eased himself down beside the hatted Agent.
    Nobody commented on Agent Rosenthal's continued wearing of her broad brimmed, black cover: men removed their cover when entering a fixture, but women commonly wore a head covering, and so it was not offending to the Court for Agent Rosenthal to continue wearing a hat.
    "Be seated."
    Matston turned and sat.
    The Bailiff read the formal charges, during which Matston shifted restlessly, impatiently: he obviously considered such matters beneath him, and of a petty nature, but having been seriously chastened in his stay here, he was, perhaps, learning the wisdom of not stating his impatience.
    "The charges are assault, assault with a deadly weapon, carrying a weapon with intent to harm, firing shots in town and propositioning.
    How plead you?"
    "To which one?"
    His Honor looked at the defendant. "Do you wish to plead to each charge separately?"
    "I was attacked!" Matston shouted. "Some guy grabbed me and started to beat me, I thought he was going to kill me! I had to keep myself alive!"
    His Honor raised a patient hand. "Let's slow down here," he said mildly. "Could you tell the court, from the beginning, what happened?"
    "Where's that shady lady?" Matston replied belligerently. "She started it!"
    "Your Honor, if I may?" Agent Rosenthal said, rising.
    "Agent Rosenthal?"
    "With the Court's permission, I will stand in her stead. I investigated the case, sir, and have the offended party's statement."
    "Why is the offended party not here?" His Honor asked, his voice neutral.
    "Sir, my sister is taken to her bed with the lung-fever. You may have heard she had the misfortune to have run into the projecting end of a tree branch while out riding."
    A murmur rippled through the courtroom; there had been talk, yes, but this was the first corroboration from any official source -- and it injected a serious volume of doubt in the minds of those who'd assumed that Agent Rosenthal and their beloved schoolmarm, Miss Sarah, were the same person.
    "Yes, I heard that," the Judge said, nodding. He considered a moment, then nodded again. "I'll allow it."
    "Mister Matston," Agent Rosenthal said, pacing across the room, "what were you saying about my sister, the schoolteacher?"
    Matston looked around the courtroom, clearly shaken: he knew the schoolmarm in a Western community was generally a chaste and beloved creature, often a maiden lady of some years, and inviolate in the eyes of her people. -- still, he was a fight promoter, and he was himself a fighter, and he knew the value of a good offense.
    Matston decided to become offensive.
    "I saw a dolled-up broad on the shady side of the street, trolling her wares," he snarled. "What was I supposed to think? I'm a stranger here, I don't know who's what --"
    "So you just assumed," Agent Rosenthal interrupted.
    "If she was a decent woman, she wouldn't be on the shady side of the street!" Matston shouted.
    "Mr. Matston," Agent Rosenthal replied patiently, "my sister Sarah recently survived a broken branch crushing through her high ribs -- here" -- she brought a black-gloved thumb up, indicating her own collarbone area. "It collapsed her lung and she has been quite weak. The day you saw her was the first day she's been out of the house. She was not supposed to be out of bed, but she was restless.
    "I don't know how she found strength enough to walk across the street but she did. Her intent was to stop and rest on most of the several benches between the barber shop and the Sheriff's office.
    "Of course you changed that when you seized her arm and made your filthy proposition."
    "Look, I didn't know, she was on the shady --"
    "She didn't have strength enough to climb the steps to the board walk on the other side!" Agent Rosenthal interrupted, the red slash across her face prominent now, her eyes growing pale. "She was doing the best she could on one lung and hard-headedness!"
    "One lung?" one of the spectators exclaimed.
    Agent Rosenthal whirled, faced the anonymous voice, her coat flaring open a little.
    "Yes. One lung. She's lucky to have that, both her lungs collapsed and it was all the good Doctors could to to re-inflate them. One lung collapsed in her sleep and she was trying to re-inflate it herself with that little walk."
    The Judge tapped his gavel delicately. "Order," he said, "order. Mr. Matson, you took our schoolteacher's arm and propositioned her. What was her reply?"
    "She didn't say nothin'," Matson growled.
    "Her reply," Agent Rosenthal contradicted, "was to say, 'Unhand me, sirrah,' to which the defendant tried to twist her arm and stated his intent to teach her some manners." The Agent's eyes were as cold as her voice. "His language was most ... objectionable."
    "Mr. Matson, is that correct?"
    Matson sighed, shook his head. "I suppose. I don't remember what I said."
    "What happened then?"
    Matson's head came up. "Then some fella jumped me! I never saw him before and I never did anything to him, he grabbed me and threw me out in the street, I thought he was gonna kill me --"
    "Are you referring to the schoolteacher's fiancee?" Agent Rosenthal's voice sliced across Matson's words like an iced blade.
    "His fiancee," she continued, walking slowly toward the man. "Her betrothed. The man she will marry. The man who saw a stranger lay unwanted hands on his wife!"
    "Is this true, Mr. Matson?" the Judge asked coldly.
    "I DIDN'T KNOW!" Matson bellowed.
    "I see," Agent Rosenthal said coldly, turning and walking slowly away.
    "It would appear," the Judge said thoughtfully, "that you came where you weren't wanted, you committed acts you shouldn't have, and you received what was coming to you. Would you say that is a fair statement, Mr. Matson?"
    Matson glared at the Judge, then looked away.
    "Yes, Your Honor," he said sourly.
    "Do you confess to having fired shots in town?"
    The Judge leaned back in his chair, considered.
    "Mr. Matson, what is your business in town?"
    "I'm a fight promoter. I was sizing up business."
    "And have you enough interest to warrant a prize fight here?"
    Matson's mouth twisted wryly. "No," he admitted. "Over Cripple way, maybe, but not here."
    "Then, Mr. Matson," the Judge sentenced, "the Sheriff will return you to the place whence you came, invest you with your belongings and see you on the train with a one-way ticket to Cripple. You are fined the cost of your room, board, meals and the train ticket, and I enjoin you from accosting women on the street. It can be a most unprofitable avocation." The gavel descended sharply on the tabletop. "Next case!"

  7. Linn Keller 9-4-13


    Esther's gown was carefully chosen, cunningly styled, or perhaps engineered would be the better word: flowing material and careful construction almost disguised the fact that she was in a family way.
    She was, after all, three months from term; she was healthy, she was strong, she was ...
    She was looking in a mirror, carefully arranging hair and hat, muttering to herself.
    "I am tired," she nearly whispered, "of sitting around being delicate."
    She turned her head slightly, turned a curl of hair under, smiled thinly.
    She'd scheduled an inspection of the roundhouse and she very much looked forward to the outing.
    Angela was wearing a little girl's short-skirted dress of matching material and a matching hat -- even her ever-present rag doll had a matching dress -- and Esther noticed that Angela was unusually ... quiet.
    In fact it wasn't until Esther drew her carriage to a halt at the depot, and she and Angela climbed the steps into the brightly-painted inspection car with the three stem-crossed roses painted fore and aft, that Angela offered any comment.
    "Mommy," she said with a serious expression, "I'm still mad at Daddy."

    Jacob was bathing with his usual discretion and delicacy and so was little Joseph.
    Jacob hauled a few buckets of hot water outside, diluted them with spring water until they were still just a little too warm -- he knew they'd cool by the time he got to them -- and one at a time, he used them to wet himself and his son, then they lathered well and Jacob hoisted the first bucket overhead, rinsing off the suds, before doing the same for Joseph.
    A few judicious applications of the washcloth to areas little boys have trouble getting clean -- the pinky edge of the hand, behind the ears, the back of the neck -- and the job was done, all but shaving, and Jacob had no intent of applying the honed blade to his cheek, for he'd shaved the day before and saw no need to go to excess on the matter.
    Towels and moccasins, a little labor in the cooling of evening's air and the two were headed back inside, where clean duds and supper awaited.
    The potatoes were lumpy, the meat a little over done, the gravy was thin and had floaters of flour, and the bread was heavy and not well raised, but none at the table complained; Jacob's hand was turned to supper that night, and this meal was actually an improvement over the previous night's effort.
    Joseph was rather less indiscreet than his cousin Angela when he observed sotto voce to his Ma, "I like your cookin' better but I ain't tellin' Pa!" and she smiled and brushed the hair out of his eyes by way of agreement.
    Even Jacob appreciated the improvement of the atmosphere without the smell of burnt biscuits to spoil the appetite.
    All three looked up at the sound of hooves outside; Jacob rose and went to the door, arriving just before the summoning knock, and returned grinning to the kitchen with his own father, who bore a round basket they recognized.
    "Pies!" Joseph exclaimed with delight, and after supper, once Jacob and his Pa rolled up their sleeves and scrubbed supper's dishes and the pots and pans clean, little Joseph tugged hopefully at his Grampa's vest tail.
    When the Sheriff went to one knee, regarding his grandson with bright and amused eyes, Little Joseph cupped his hands around his grandsire's tanned ear and whispered "Can you bring us supper tomorrow? Pa's not too good at it," and the Sheriff cupped his hand around Joseph's pink ear and whispered, "You bet I can," to which Little Joseph cupped his hands again and replied, "Good!" in a breathy rush.
    The Sheriff winked at Joseph and Joseph laughed, and the Sheriff picked up his grandson as Jacob led the way into the parlor.
    It was his custom of an evening to read aloud from the Bible, and little Joseph's favorite place was on his Pa's lap when he read anything, even the Sears and Sawbuck Catalog, as he called it, and he wasn't going to miss his favorite seat tonight.
    Unless, of course, he ended up on his Grampa's lap instead, which he did.
    Annette smiled as the lad's head rested back against Grampa's belly five minutes after Jacob began speaking about a time to plant and a time to reap, and it wasn't until Grampa packed the lad off to bed and got him tucked in, that he came back out and was properly introduced to his newest grandson.
    As Linn held the little fellow and marveled at how small and how perfect he was, Jacob wished most powerfully that he was gifted in the painting of portraits, for the delight in his father's face was what he would surely paint for his master's piece.

  8. Linn Keller 9-3-13


    There was little mystery in that day as to birthing and babies, at least in rural and Western societies; back East, fact was often veiled in innuendo or in myth, but where people spoke plainly, lessons of everyday were equally plainly stated.
    Little Joseph, for instance, had little trouble grasping the concept of a calf at its mother's teat, and his little brother at his mother's breast: the parallel was immediate and understandable, and though the glimpse was once and once only, and totally by accident, he understood its principle, and so asked no questions when Annette modestly fed his little brother, discreetly in a shawl or otherwise concealed.
    Angela was somewhat less discreet in her understanding of the world.
    She was curious, one fine day, as to why her Mommy's belly was so big, and why did it move when she laid a curious, splay-fingered hand on it, and Esther explained carefully that she carried a little baby inside her, and Angela equated this with Cannonball, who was in like wise, great with foal.
    As a matter of fact, the Sheriff, trying to be helpful, made that specific reference.
    Angela put her hands on her hips and frowned.
    "Dad-dee!" she exclaimed. "Mommy is having a baby, not a foal!"
    "Well, I can't argue with that," the Sheriff grinned, nodding.
    "Mommy," Angela said, turning to Esther, "how did the baby get in there?"
    Esther's eyes widened and she looked uncertainly at her husband, and her husband turned a remarkable shade of red.
    "Do you remember," he said slowly, "when the stallion covered Cannonball?"
    Angela nodded, then it was her eyes that widened with a realization and she looked accusingly at her Daddy.
    "Daddy," she said, shaking her little finger at him, "did you stallion Mommy?"
    Esther and Linn looked at one another, utterly nonplussed, until Esther cleared her throat delicately and said, "Dear ... you did make the comparison."

  9. Linn Keller 9-3-13


    The pup looked out from under the back steps of the Silver Jewel.
    It was getting dark, it was getting quiet and a little cool, and the pup was getting worried.
    He'd never been without the warmth and comfort of his littermates and he missed the maternal scent of his dam, even if he'd weaned already.
    His great, midnight sire was gone, trotted off in some mysterious direction, and the pup turned into a furry black ball, unmoving in the shadow, hidden from the common eye.
    He tried to sleep, but sleep would not come, and at one point he whimpered a little, then snarled, then whimpered again.
    Finally he got up, stretched, looked out from under the steps: he scented the wind, put his nose to the ground and began trailing.

    The Sheriff heard a scratching at his door.
    Puzzled, he looked up: he rose, taking pistol in hand, and cat footed for the front door.
    There it was again, a scratching, three ... three rakes with ... fingernails?
    The Sheriff opened the door cautiously, expecting to see a prone figure, injured or ill, and instead saw a fuzzy black and very miniature version of The Bear Killer looking at him rather hopefully.
    The Sheriff squatted slowly, speaking softly to the pup, reaching out with the back of his hand: the pup snuffed his hand, then licked the finger he'd bitten earlier that day and looked up at the Sheriff with a querelous little sound.
    "Come on, fella," the Sheriff said, rising and stepping back, and the pup followed him in.
    The Sheriff closed the door, fastened it: he led the way down the hall toward the kitchen, the pup's claws tik-tik-tikking along behind him: he turned, smiling a little, watching the pup's nose puzzling along the floor.
    The Sheriff struck a Lucifer on the kitchen stovetop, lit a lamp.
    "Let's see what we can scare up, eh?" he said, and the pup backed away from him a little, at least until the scent of something edible reached out and grabbed his shining black nose.
    He took meat and he took meat-sop bread both from the Sheriff's hand, he ate from a plate, his tail swinging happily as he ate: the Sheriff made a sandwich -- there was fresh sourdough, which Esther frowned on as "poor folks bread" but he personally liked, and it was fresh: one sandwich this late was all he wanted, and the pup ate until he too was sated.
    The Sheriff slowly, gently reached out and caressed the pup, murmuring to it, getting it used to being touched, handled: he picked the warm furball up, held him in his lap, at least until the pup started to get restless, then the Sheriff set him on the floor and said "Out, let's go out side, out," and opened the back door: he led the way, the pup followed, and the Sheriff went out into the side yard.
    His timing was perfect.
    The pup was grunting now, anxious, casting about urgently with nose to the ground: of a sudden he stopped and humped up and tended the business that follows every little pup's meal, and an impressive business it was for such a small fellow.
    The Sheriff bragged him up and fooled with him and called him a good boy and the pup wiggled with pleasure, black eyes shining and tongue panting in and out.
    "I reckon it's bed time for us both," the Sheriff said. "Let's get you situated, hey?"

  10. Linn Keller 9-1-13


    That little black pup didn't much like town, but it liked less being left alone, and so it bristled up and trotted after The Bear Killer.
    It hid under the back steps and snarled unhappily while The Bear Killer went inside, and the pup stayed there until The Bear Killer came out, licking his chops and looking very satisfied with himself.
    I reckon the little fellow smelled biscuits and gravy on his sire and allowed as he'd made a bad choice, as he licked The Bear Killer around the chin as if his sire were less than tidy as he made a meal within.
    I stood back and watched, smiling a little as the pup looked at the door The Bear Killer came out of, and then stretched his neck, sniffing the air.
    I chuckled a little and reckoned the little fellow would learn about biscuits and gravy soon enough.
    I swung back up in the saddle and walked around the corner and down the alley, and saw Jackson Cooper packing some fellow toward the jail.
    I wondered what happened this time.
    Jackson Cooper turned at my hail, he waited patiently while I dismounted and got the door open for him, we got the fellow settled in a cell and the key turned in the lock before Jackson Cooper told me what he knew.
    When he told me 'twas Daffyd Llewellyn pounded this fellow's nose flat, along with other miscellaneous damage, I knew the matter was serious, for Daffyd was a patient and even tempered sort, and not given to fisticuffs, even if provoked.
    Turns out Jackson Cooper was hedging his bets.
    It wasn't until after this fellow we'd locked up, woke up, that I found out what really happened.
    Once I found out, I wasn't terribly happy.
    From the stiff and sore way he warn't moving, he warn't none too happy neither.

  11. Linn Keller 9-1-13


    Jackson Cooper tilted his hat back and said, "Well, now!"
    He brought his hand down and hooked his thumb behind his belt buckle about the time a fellow went backwards off the board walk in front of the barber shop.
    He frowned when the fellow pulled a small pistol; he took a long stride when the little pistol spat at the red-shirted fireman, and he stretched his pace as the fireman launched off the boardwalk and proceeded to give the impertinent fellow a good old-fashioned Irish beating.
    The barbershop poured out onto the boardwalk, one fellow bearded in white lather with the apron around his neck; the barber beside him, shaving cup in one hand and foamy brush in the other, both of them yelling encouragement: two other men, businessmen by the look of them, stood at the edge of the boardwalk, enthusiastically punching the air and gesturing vigorously.
    Jackson Cooper's good right fist doubled up tight as he made a steady three knots downstream.
    Like most fights, this one did not last terribly long, which did not surprise the big town marshal.
    In his experience, it was prime folly to pick a fight with an Irishman, for the Irish are a race bred to excellence, whether in engineering, bricklaying, song, dance, drinking, humor or fighting.
    The worst beating Jackson Cooper ever had in his life came from one of the Irish, and if he cared to stop and remember it, he would still see clearly the face of the incensed Irish lass who'd mistaken him for somebody else, and did her level best to punch him back to the Emerald Isle for the misdeeds of whoever she'd thought he was.
    If he stopped to consider the memory, he would've remembered how embarrassed -- how crushed -- the poor girl was afterward, especially when he took her hand gently in both his and said softly, "Whoever this fellow was must've deserved it," just before he passed out, for among other things she'd broken his nose with a skinny fist and bounced a frying pan off his head.
    Now, though, he admired the swiftness, the ferocity, the cold, scientific efficiency with which this Irishman put fists, elbows and knees into the man in the now-dirty suit.
    Jackson Cooper's peripheral picked up color and movement to his left.
    For a big man he moved very quickly, which in the past was the saving of his life: part of his mind commented analytically that a man focused on a threat, or on a fight, often develops tunnel vision, and can be easily ambushed from the side: another facet of thought remembered how he'd picked up on just such an ambuscade, and avoided an untimely death by his own quick, accurate return fire.
    Now, though, with his hand suddenly around the grip of his Remington, he took a quick side-step, found and locked onto the movement, and powered into three long, fast strides, just in time to catch Sarah as she slumped against the building and began to collapse.

    Sarah came to with a ring of anxious faces all around her.
    She was lying on something padded, she felt coolness on her neck and her wrists, and a strong, tingling aftertaste on her lips: a small glass was being withdrawn from her lips, someone's hand was around the back of her neck and she swallowed.
    "She ran into a tree branch," a voice said. "It nearly killed her."
    "A tree branch? Did she hit her head?"
    "Good God, no! She ran end-on, it drove into her chest like a spear --"
    "A spear! It's a wonder it didn't kill her!"
    "It nearly did. I heard she died."
    "Well, she's alive now. Here, stand aside, there's tonic!"
    A glass touched her lips, liquid authority was poured carefully into her mouth.
    Whatever she swallowed was potent and strong-smelling, familiar in a way.
    "Bay rum," the barber said, his hand warm and comforting and cupping her nape. "I take a touch myself."
    Sarah blinked and coughed delicately, her left hand coming up and pressing flat against her chest wound: she looked at the ceiling, her mouth open a little, breathing carefully, took an experimental, deeper breath, blinked, wet her lips.
    "What happened?" she squeaked.
    Daffyd blew across cracked knuckles, shook his hand, frowning: through the open door, Sarah saw Jackson Cooper pick a fellow up by the back of his belt, pick him up like a piece of luggage: he looked into the open door, squinted a little to see into the darker interior, then lifted his hat and smiled before going up the street with the dangling passenger hanging from his good left hand.
    "Yon scoundrel," Daffyd began, and every man there eagerly and simultaneously made reply, and eager and confusing babble of masculine voices: that stranger, that fight promoter from back East, not a gentleman, said he saw a likely doxy, a shady lady, he bragged he was going to pleasure himself in some Western meat -- beggin' your pardon, Miss Sarah, his words, not mine -- he was at the door before we could stop him -- Llewellyn here shot across like a streak -- you should have seen him -- yanked off his feet -- punched harder than I've seen --
    Sarah's face was distressed and she spoke barely above a whisper.
    The men went silent, looked at one another and Sarah repeated, "Daffyd?"
    Daffyd appeared at the foot of the barber chair where Sarah lay.
    Sarah appeared almost ready to cry. "Daffyd, are you hurt?"
    "Nah," he said, hiding his skinned and aching knuckles behind him. "He ne'er laid a glove on me."
    "Fast and deadly he was!" the barber declared. "I saw him pick the man up and throw him --"
    Every man began talking again, each giving his account of the fight, with due exaggeration -- for they were telling a Lady Born of the chivalrous defense mounted by her intended, and every man there was firmly of the opinion that a woman should believe she was married to c-- or about to be married to -- a Galahad who only incidentally left his shining armor at the blacksmith's to be polished, and didn't have it with him when the Black Knight came calling.
    "-- and then the Marshal carried you in here," the barber said, "and Daffyd at your side --"
    "Here, make way, men, let him through."
    Daffyd nodded his thanks as the men fell back, allowing him to approach the side of the barber chair: he took Sarah's hand in his, anxious eyes gauging the pallor of Sarah's face.
    "How's your breathin'?" he asked gently as the world fell away, and they were alone, for the moment, alone in each other's eyes.
    Sarah blinked, her lips still parted a little.
    She nodded, took a slightly deeper breath, then another, nodded again.
    "I feel so foolish," she admitted, coloring a bit, and looked around.
    "Thank you, gentlemen," she said, and every man's face colored in response ... as every man there puffed out his chest a little, and stood just a bit taller,for what man worthy of the name doesn't wish to come to the aid of a lovely lady in distress?
    "I think," Sarah said tentatively, "that I should home now ..."
    Her voice trailed off and her hand tightened on Daffyd's.
    "Daffyd," she whispered, "take me home."

  12. Linn Keller 8-31-13


    The Sheriff jerked his hand from inside his coat, glaring incredulously at his bloody finger.
    Keeping one arm snug against his belly, he dismounted, went to his knees: The Bear Killer snuffed at his wounded digit, cleaned it with a few careful applications of pink, cool tongue, then shoved his big nose into the Sheriff's coat, sniffing loudly.
    There was a tiny, cub-sized snarl from within, and The Bear Killer thrust his head further in, shoved hard, withdrew the cub: his jaws were clamped on the scruff of its neck and he shook it, growling, then set the cub down and released it, glaring at it.
    The cub drew back its teeth and snarled at its sire.
    The Bear Killer seized it again, a driving strike faster than a rattlesnake, or so it looked to the Sheriff, kneeling in half an arm's length of the two: The Bear Killer gave the cub another good shaking, snarling fiercely, then set the cub down.
    The cub wobbled a little, then whined and reached up and licked the underside of The Bear Killer's jaw.
    The Bear Killer allowed the respect, then gave the decidedly chastened-looking cub a good bath.

    Daffyd saw Sarah and Daciana come out of the church, walk slowly down the steps: they conferred for a moment, then Sarah began walking slowly across the street.
    She stopped to catch her breath before stepping under the shadowed overhang of the barber shop and up the board walk.
    Daffyd was yet half a hundred yards distant when he saw a man come out of the barbershop and begin to follow Sarah.
    Daciana had already turned her carriage and taken it down an alley, back toward the livery; Daffyd was too far away to do anything as the man reached for Sarah's arm.

    The one-armed proprietor watched with admiration and respect.
    His wife stacking cans of fruit.
    She'd made two neat pyramids so far, withdrawing the cans from their wooden shipping crate, placing them in precise, diminishing and ascending rows: one peach, one blackberry, and room for a third, yet to be brought from the back room.
    There was a steady demand for canned goods, despite the families' self-reliant agriculture: miners had neither land nor time to cultivate their own comestibles, and the Jewel used more than could be locally provided, and Jesse knew the sales value of an attractive display, and so she persuaded her husband to let her take advantage of an empty display table.
    He watched her as she arranged the cans, her eyes half-shut, as if a little drowsy.
    Earlier in the day she'd held off stacking cans as she heard a child's pained complaint: it was mail day and children often wheedled a penny candy from those lucky enough to get mail, and sure enough, one had, a little boy who almost immediately cried out in pain when he bit on a peppermint stick.
    Jesse dusted her hands on his apron and turned toward him, calling him over.
    She heard his approach, opened her hands, and he came to her, trusting as children are: she asked gently what hurt, and he said his tooth hurt, and she heard his voice distort as he ran a finger in his mouth, pulling his cheek aside to indicate the particular point of pain.
    Jesse felt his cheek, detected a swelling, felt the heat -- a subtle change, one a normally sighted person would never pick up on.
    She brushed the hair back from his forehead -- she didn't need eyes to know little boys forever have hair in their eyes -- and she said quietly, "I think I can help, but it will work only for a short time."
    She rose, turned to her left: beside the counter, on the right hand side of the gap where she and her husband went behind the counter, was shelving from floor to ceiling: she raised a hand, counted up, then felt the bottles, counted from left to right, took one.
    "Now," she said, "come with me," and with one hand on the boy's shoulder, she walked confidently to the open front door.
    "Outside, to the edge of the walk," she said, and uncorked the bottle, gave it a sniff.
    "I want you," she said, dispensing about a double teaspoonful into the hollow glass stopper, "to take this in your mouth and then let it lay on that tooth. Do not swallow it, don't swish it around, just let it lay on that tooth until I tell you to spit it out, do you understand?"
    "Yes, ma'am," the lad replied in the reluctant voice of a lad who knew the unpleasant taste of castor oil, and regarded all medicines as awful tasting and a form of torture.
    She handed him the cap and he tilted it up, swished it around the suddenly-painful tooth, let the fiery liquid pool around it.
    His gum started to go a little numb and the pain crept away.
    The woman waited patiently, counting slowly to thirty, then she said, "Now spit into the street."
    He did, ejecting the liquid with vigor and enthusiasm.
    "Yuck," he declared.
    She nodded. "Dr. Brickle's Bitters are worse," she murmured, "but this isn't quite as bad." She reached for the stopper, knowing he would automatically guide it into her questing hand.
    She stoppered the bottle, handed it to him.
    "Take this," she said, "and about every two hours, use it as you just did, unless your tooth hurts again. That will hold until you can see a dentist."
    "Thank you, ma'am," he said, and she heard the quick scuff of bare feet as he scampered down the board walk and down the street.
    She turned and went inside, extending her elbow a little to brush the edge of the door, guaranteeing she was where her feet told her she should be.

    Sarah turned at the hard hand on her arm.
    "Well, now," an oily voice said, "ain't you sweet."
    Sarah raised her chin an inch. "I do not believe," she said coldly, "we have been properly introduced."
    Daffyd strode a few long-legged paces, then began running, his Welsh blood heating quickly at the sight of another man taking liberties with his wife-to-be.
    "Properly introduced," the neatly barbered stranger sneered. "Now aren't you just the uppity wench. Nicely dressed but on the shady side of the street."
    "You will unhand me, sirrah," Sarah said quietly, her eyes turning pale and her voice absolutely cold.
    His hand was tight, painfully tight, and he jerked her toward him. "I'll tame you," he snarled, just as a Welsh hand seized his shoulder and yanked.
    Sarah stomped hard on the stranger's polished townie shoe, aiming to drive her heel clear through his high arch; this double assault loosened his grip and Sarah fell back a step as Daffyd Llewellyn, fireman and veteran of bare knuckle Cincinnati brawls, shoved the man out into the dirt street and stepped off the boardwalk after him.
    Daffyd spit on his palms, dry-washed his hands and brought up two sets of knuckles.
    The stranger rolled and came up with a Derringer in his hand.
    Daffyd's fist flashed out, spreading the stranger's nose over an impressive acreage: his other hand seized the Derringer, twisted.
    The little rimfire hideout spat loudly, the hollow based bullet driving less than a third of its length into the seasoned, dry porch post holding up the shading roof.
    Sarah's hand was inside her gown's pocket, her grip tight around the handle of her bulldog pistol: at this distance, she knew, she could put five shots through the heart of the Ace of Spades, and hand done so on a number of occasions, the most recent, the day before she left on her last assignment.
    Now she watched as her fiancee stripped the shining pistol from the man's fist, then drove a left into his wind.
    The pistol dropped to the ground and Daffyd dedicated both hands to the work before him, and Sarah could but admire the speed and efficiency with which he honestly beat the stuffing out of this stranger.
    Part of her stood aside, thinking absently that -- heretofore -- she would have taken a savage joy in tearing down this man's meathouse, all by herself.
    Part of her considered her damaged lungs, and the fact that she'd stressed them enough by singing, and taken a risk by walking the little distance she had: the rest of her watched, big-eyed, her hands moving slowly to her high stomach, where she stared, fascinated, as her big strong man defended the honor of his wife in a manner universally understood and absolutely incapable of misunderstanding.
    Sarah considered this moment several times over the next few months, and each time she felt a delicious sense of feminine delight, for this was the first time she'd realized that men were willing to fight over her.

  13. Linn Keller 8-31-13


    Shorty blinked chaff out of his eyes, wiped his forehead viciously with a damp bandanna: he glared around him, satisfied, for his loft was finally clean.
    He cleaned out the hay loft this time of year, getting all the old hay out, checking the roof, looking things over: sometimes he found abandoned goods, a saddlebag or a sack with a change of smallclothes, or a clasp knife, never anything of any great value: transients sometimes slipped into his loft for a night's rest, departing before dawn: Shorty was never comfortable with the idea, for he was deathly afraid of fire, but it was the way things were.
    Just like the sweat that plastered his shirt to his back and galded the inside of his thighs.
    He glared about him, satsified that he'd removed any possible source of mouse nests or mold, limped slowly across the coarse, warped board floor.
    He waited at the head of the ladder, waited for no particular reason, letting his thoughts wander for a moment as his scarred carcass reminded him yet again that he was no longer a smooth stripling, capable of working from can-see to can't-see in perfect comfort.
    He wiped his face again, wondering why in hell he was sweating so much, then he grinned and looked around the echoing-empty hay loft.
    You've been working yourself like a rented mule, he thought, and laughed a little.
    The hell with this.
    I'm dry enough to sneeze and blow dust
    In his imagination, Shorty heard the squeak of a pump handle calling his name, and his dry throat swallowed involuntarily at the thought of some nice, cool water.

    The pup whined a little, then made a little querulous sound.
    The Bear Killer looked back at his offspring and gave a quiet "whuff!"
    The Sheriff watched, then walked his horse again, riding back along his former path.
    The Bear Killer trotted happily after the Sheriff and the tired cub walked slowly after them.
    The Sheriff dismounted, walked back to the pup.
    He'd come back to it four times so far and each time the pup was a-bristle and a-snarl, but each successive visit was less hostile: on the third trip, with the pup's tongue hanging out and panting, the Sheriff was able to extend the back of his bare hand for a tentative sniff, just before baring its little white fangs again.
    This last time, the fourth time, the pup was almost glassy-eyed with fatigue: he offered no protest as the Sheriff picked him up.
    The Bear Killer, interested, watched closely as the Sheriff offered the pup for his inspection: The Bear Killer gave the pup's ears a sniff and a laving, then the Sheriff mounted again, slipping the pup inside his coat: he rode with one arm across his belly, supporting the warm, furry little cub, and the pup, exhausted, warm, decided maybe this stranger wasn't so bad, and closed his bright, black eyes and slept.

    Sarah's fingers were firm around the delicate stem of her wineglass; she turned it slowly, thoughtfully, watching the purple liquid ripple slightly with the move.
    She was obviously thinking hard on something and both her mother and her friend were wise enough to let her think, knowing she would speak when the time was right.
    The time was sooner than they expected.
    "I have lived, and I have, died," Sarah began, speaking slowly, as if still arranging her thoughts.
    "I know what, the Valley, is like." She looked up, at Daciana, then at her mother. "I have been there. I was sent back, because my work is, not yet done." She dropped her eyes to the wineglass again, her shoulders sagging a little.
    "I have no idea, what that work is."
    "Undt if you didt?" Daciana probed.
    Sarah's eyes flashed, some of her old fire visible for a moment: "I would bust my, backside, to get it done, so I could go, back!" she said in a panting rush, or as much of a rush as her short wind would allow.
    "It was ... it was ..."
    She hesitated, took a small sip of her wine, set the glass back down.
    "There was, no pain," she said in a wondering voice. "No stress. No ... expectations." She looked up again, her eyes troubled. "No expectations. No ... no weight, on my shoulders."
    Bonnie's eyes were a little wider and she felt her chest tighten, for she'd heard almost those exact words before, and she remembered the Sheriff speaking them, in a moment when they two were sharing a meal and a quiet moment, years ago, in the Jewel's back room.
    Sarah took a deeper breath and Daciana noticed she turned her head very slightly to the right.
    Her right side vass hurt, she thought, she thinks to protect idt.
    Sarah took a deeper breath, raised her chin, her eyes wandering on the far wall.
    "What good, am I now?" she whispered. "What good? I can't sing. I can't speak, forcefully. I can't ride, or pick up, a baby --"
    "Not until you heal," Bonnie said reasonably.
    Sarah shook her head.
    "He killed me," she said wonderingly. "He killed me, and I died. Anyone can, kill me." She wet her lips, looked at the wineglass, released her delicate grip on its fragile stem.
    "Anyone can kill anyone else at any time," Bonnie replied.
    Sarah smiled sadly, nodded.
    "I remember ..." Sarah began, then stopped.
    "I tell you zumtink you know," Daciana said abruptly, almost harshly: she looked sternly at her friend, her forehead tight with a near-frown.
    "You zaid zumtink aboutdt beink link in chain. Your bloodt must condinue."
    Sarah nodded, smiled humorlessly. "I am a brood sow," she said, "but I can't even do that until I'm healed."
    Daciana rose, leaned over the table, her lips peeled back and her face tight: "Broodt zow you are not!" she hissed. "If you vere not hurt I vouldt zlap you!"
    Daciana glared at her dearest friend, sat down abruptly, picked up her wineglass and took a deliberate swallow.
    "I tink you needt your backside kicked!" she continued quietly.
    Bonnie held her tongue: she knew there was something going on between friends, words and meanings that could not come from a mother.
    "I komm hier a zdranger!" Daciana said, her voice quiet and pleasant now, "undt you became mine vriendt. No vun else. You. Zen becuss you, others." She nodded. "Broodt zow couldt not do zis.
    "You climb rope mit me. You clean oudt Buddercup stall vhen I zick. You fidt me mit gowns undt ve talk undt I like!"
    Daciana took another, smaller sip.
    "Zdandt," she said, rising abruptly: Sarah looked up at her, surprised.
    Daciana took Sarah's arm, pulled hard. "Zdandt!"
    Sarah stood.
    Daciana opened the Stradivarius case again, tucked the violin under her chin, spun a single note into the kitchen's still air.
    "I vant you zink," she said, her accent thicker now: "zink zis note," and the bow coaxed the A again, hovering like a golden butterfly over the parlor table.
    Sarah wet her lips nervously.
    "NO, NOT LIKE ZAT!" Daciana barked, smacking Sarah viciously across the backside with her bow: she placed the bow under Sarah's chin. "Zdandt zdraight! Chin up! Mit der belly sing!"
    Sarah swallowed, sweat-beads gleaming on her forehead.
    "Intaken mit der breath!" Daciana barked, tapping Sarah's flat belly. "Zink!"
    Daciana spun the note, casting its spell over Sarah, and Sarah took a breath, a deeper breath than she'd taken since being hurt, and opened her mouth, and sang the note.
    "Gut!" Daciana barked with a brisk nod. "Again!"
    She spun a higher note, a C, and Sarah sang the note, pure, flawless, matching the violin's voice precisely.
    Daciana lifted her bow, nodded. "Now you vill zink harmony note!"
    Daciana spun the note and Sarah sang a note a little lower, but perfectly pitched, the harmony blending as smoothly as sugar in hot tea.
    Daciana lifted her bow, nodded, stepped squarely in front of Sarah, tapped her shoulder with the bow, then she glared at her dear friend, stepped close and leaned her forehead against Sarah's.
    Daciana saw Sarah's light-blue eyes merge into one blurry orb, and Sarah saw Daciana's hazel eyes blur into one out of focus sphere, and Daciana said, "No broodt zow zinks so gut!" and Sarah giggled.
    Daciana smiled and then laughed.
    "Lunks heal fast," she said. "Ze mountains gut for ze health. You vant zink? Komm." Daciana turned abruptly, very precisely, very carefully placed the Stradivarius back in its case, closed the lid.
    "Komm." She took Sarah's arm in a firm grip, the violin case in the other, and marched the frightened-looking young woman down the hallway and to the front door.
    Levi opened his study door and looked out, puzzled.
    "I zdealink your daughter!" Daciana shouted, jerking open the front door. "Komm!" -- and she and Sarah stepped out onto the front porch, and Levi watched the door shut, as Bonnie came up and took his arm.
    "Did I miss something?" he asked.
    "Yes," Bonnie said, leaning her head on the reassurance of her husband's big, strong shoulder.
    Sarah took a few breaths, gripped the handle, then climbed uncertainly into the carriage.
    Daciana released the brake, clucked to the grey; they drove quickly, smoothly into town, Daciana steering the grey to one side or to the other, to stay on the smoothest part of the crushed-gravel road.
    The buggy-seat was well sprung, well upholstered and comfortable, but Sarah was still apprehensive, clutching the side of the seat, breathing quickly, a fearful look in her eyes.
    "To not vorry," Daciana admonished her. "All vell vill be. I drusted you, you drust me."
    Sarah looked at Daciana, swallowed, and nodded.
    The drew up in front of the church.
    Daciana jumped from the buggy, a gracefully acrobatic hop, then came around the buggy as Sarah timidly, tentatively stepped onto the mounting-block.
    "Komm," Daciana commanded, snatching the violin-case from the buggy. "In."
    Daciana hauled open the little whitewashed church's right-hand door, and Sarah stepped inside.
    Once within, Daciana took Sarah's arm and marched her to the altar rail: she placed her violin case on a pew, withdrew the Stradivarius, laid it on the pew: she took Sarah by both shoulders and looked her square in her light-blue eyes.
    "I busted mine lunks," she said. "Doo yearss before I komm hier." Her accent was very prominent, her R's flipped from her tongue like divers off a high board.
    Daciana clapped her hands together, stuck her tongue out and made a rude noise: "Mine lunks busted. I fall. Landt on back." She jabbed a thumb into the side of her ribcage, one side, then the other. "Doctor cut -- hier, hier -- he gets air oudt undt lunks up again."
    Daciana laid a gentle hand on Sarah's cheek.
    "Zarah, you are mine vriendt. I dell you zis becuss you mine vriendt. I giff you your lunks.
    Drust me!"
    Sarah swallowed nervously, nodded.
    Daciana picked up her Stradivarius, spun a chord into the hushed atmosphere, then began playing slowly, half-notes now, the one song she knew Sarah loved and could sing, sing like Angelus herself: she drew the Jesu from her violin.
    Sarah stood there, her eyes glitter-bright, but silent.
    Daciana kicked Sarah in the shin.
    "Zink!" she barked, and began again.
    Sarah sang, following the violin's stately, paced notes, disciplining her diaphragm as she did when signing, taking quick, deep breaths, inflating her lungs to their greatest depths: her belly was firm, not too tight, and as she sang, she relaxed: a runner will experience an endorphin rush, a fencer will enter a subconscious state of relaxation where everything falls into coordinated smoothness, and a singer, when the singer is absolutely in love with what she is singing, will lose herself in the music.
    Daciana let Sarah's voice soar, layering a countermelody beneath the high, simple melody: as voice soared like a great hawk, strong and graceful on the mountain wind, Daciana wove the colorful counterpoint, supporting and boosting Sarah's over-arching soprano.
    Time was lost; reality stretched, warped itself around the beauty they shared.
    Sarah's voice faltered; she tried again, but her throat closed, and her chin dropped to her chest: Daciana continued playing, softer now, as Sarah began to cry, then sank slowly to her knees, sobbing.
    The Stradivarius continued to sing, softer now, slower, and finally Daciana drew out the final note, letting it fade gently into stillness.
    Sarah looked up at her friend, her face wet; her nose was red and she pressed a kerchief to it, closed her eyes and sobbed again.
    Daciana waited, silent, letting her friend cry herself out, and finally Sarah rose, slowly, pressed the crumpled, damp kerchief to one eye, then the other.
    She took a long, slow breath, felt the air sigh into her lungs, sigh out of her lungs, and she swallowed a thick lump in her throat.
    "Thank you," she whispered, and Daciana nodded.
    "You neededt to know," Daciana said softly, "you needed to know you vould livf." She smiled sadly. "Vhat good iss life midoudt muzick, eh?"
    Sarah laughed a little and reached for Daciana, and Daciana embraced her one-armed, the Stradivarius held out of harm's way with the other.

  14. Linn Keller 8-30-13


    "She vill see me," Daciana said, the smile in her eyes giving the lie to the firmness in her voice: she handed Bonnie a basket, cloth covered and ribbon tied, and looked up the stairs.
    "Her room ist up dere?" she asked.
    Bonnie and Daciana looked up the stairs together as they heard a door open.
    Daciana's face was carefully impassive as the two women listened to Sarah's slow, pained descent.
    They waited, unmoving, silent, as Sarah came into view, turned at the landing and sagged against the wall, closing her eyes.
    Bonnie's eyes widened with alarm and she started to take a step.
    Daciana's hand closed firmly on Bonnie's wrist and Bonnie, startled, looked into the younger woman's bright hazel eyes.
    Daciana shook her head, then released Bonnie's wrist.
    It took Sarah another full minute to make her final descent, but when she did, she took both Daciana's hands in hers and whispered, "I'm glad you're here."
    "I will have tea made," Bonnie said, and Daciana and Sarah looked at her and said with one voice, "Thank you."
    The twins were decorously behind their Mama, staying out of the way, but watching with bright and curious eyes as this stranger raised questioning fingertips to Sarah's cheek, drawing her bottom eyelid down, then turning her head to look at Sarah's ear: satisfied, this stranger then turned to look squarely at Sarah's little sisters.
    "Undt you must be der tvins," she said, squatting: Bonnie opened her mouth to introduce them, but the twins, recognizing an opening when they saw it, took a few hesitant steps toward Daciana.
    Daciana rolled her wrist, opened her palm: there were two red-and-white-striped peppermint candies in her palm, each the size of a walnut.
    The twins' eyes widened and they chorused "Thank you," before looking at their Mama and waiting for her nod of permission ... then, like happy children of any era, they snatched the sweet treat from the proffered palm and scampered happily away.
    Daciana stood, extended an admonishing finger toward Sarah.
    "You brother," she said. "Tall. Skinny. Handsome. Needs a goot meal."
    Sarah smiled and Bonnie turned a little red as she tried to suppress a laugh.
    "Oh, you've not seen him eat," Sarah said quietly, and Daciana noted the look of genuine affection in Sarah's eyes.
    "He has goot vife," Daciana added, her encompassing hands indicating a severely gravid belly.
    "Baby shoodt haff been here. Poor girl big."
    "I told her," Bonnie sighed, "but she said the child would come when it was time."
    "Ist not goot to vait," Daciana frowned, shaking her head, then turned as they heard the hammer of approaching hooves.
    Sarah closed her eyes, concentrating on her breathing, then slipped her hand into her gown's hidden pocket as eager feet charged up the front steps.
    Anxious knuckles drummed a brisk tattoo on the front door; the vague silhouette of a man stood without, and they could just make out that he reached up and swept off his Stetson the moment before the maid opened the door.
    "Mary!" Jacob exclaimed, grinning, and kissed the maid: astonished, she drew back, a hand on her cheek, mouth open as Jacob swarmed past her, his eyes fixed on Sarah.
    He seized her in a brotherly embrace, laughing, then held her shoulders and thrust her out to arm's length: "I don't know whether to swat your bottom or kiss you, Little Sis," he exclaimed, a grin on his face as broad as a Texas township: "you hadn't oughta run into branches like that but you're on your feet and by God! I have news!"
    "What happened?" Sarah asked faintly.
    "What happened? Good Lord, Sis, I'm surprised you couldn't hear me yahoo at this distance!" He spun, seized Bonnie's free hand as she handed the basket to the glaring, red-faced maid.
    "Bonnie, I'm sorry, forgive me for not speaking, but IT'S A BOY!"
    Bonnie's eyes shone and her mouth dropped open, then she seized Jacob and he hugged her back, laughing.
    Levi stepped into the hallway, grinning. "Is this a private party or can anyone pass out cigars?" he called, and Jacob released Bonnie and strode toward the grinning Rosenthal: wringing the man's hand, he clapped his other hand on Levi's shoulder and affected a sorrowful expression: "Levi, old man, there is some sad news with all this!" he said, and Levi, with a knowing glance toward his wife, favored Jacob with a grin and said, "Oh?"
    "Oh, it's terrible," Jacob sad, shaking his head in mock sorrow: "he doesn't look a thing like me." He hesitated before adding, "No mustache!"
    "Well, if he doesn't look a thing like you," Sarah challenged in a careful voice, "this shows God's mercy and you should be grateful!"
    "Daciana, thank you for those herbs," Jacob nodded his acknowledgement to the acrobatic young woman: "you were right, it did stop the bleeding!"
    Daciana inclined her head in acknowledgement, then took Sarah by the arm.
    "Komm," she said to Bonnie. "Ve must talk."
    Daffyd Llewellyn leaned in the open front door. "May I come in?" he asked tentatively, and Levi motioned him in: "The ladies just uttered that poisoned phrase that they must talk," Levi intoned solemnly, "and that means that we men must withdraw and hold our own council. Gentlemen, this way, please!"
    Polly and Opal, concerned, looked at one another.
    "What about us?" Polly said in a little lost voice.
    "I think there's some pie," Opal replied.
    "There is," the maid whispered as she leaned over the pair, a hand on each, as she shepherded them to the safety of the kitchen: "I must brew the tea, but we shall have pie!"

    The Bear Killer watched indulgently as the Sheriff bribed Cub with selections from his sandwich.
    Cub would not take the meat-offerings from from the man's fingers, but he would sniff at the meat if the Sheriff laid it on the ground, and after the hand withdrew, Cub would snarl and pounce on the good beef, chewing and gulping as if afraid it would be snatched from him.
    "You need to teach him some manners," the Sheriff said in a gentle voice as he shared with The Bear Killer as well.
    The Bear Killer's great plume of a tail indicated his pleasure at sharing food and companionship both.

    "I questioned him closely," Sarah said, stopping after every fourth word to breathe, "as to what I, was allowed to do, and how soon I, could do more."
    Daciana listened closely to Sarah's words, looking for what she was not saying as much as what she was.
    Bonnie, too, paid very close attention to her daughter: she was still alarmed that this strong young woman, this resilient, tough, deadly and capable soul, was now a ... was now by all appearances, a frightened girl.
    "I asked him if, I could shoot a, rifle or shotgun from, the shoulder."
    Her expression was one of near-sorrow as she recounted the conversation.
    "Not until my lungs, are both healed up, and he is satisfied, they are strong again."
    Daciana turned her head slightly, asking a question without using words.
    Bonnie was not so subtle.
    "And when did he say that might be, sweets?" she asked carefully.
    Sarah could not raise her eyes from her teacup.
    "Perhaps," she said slowly, "perhaps never."
    "Undt vhat aboutdt ridink mit der horse?" Daciana asked, subtlety thrown to the wind.
    Sarah bit her bottom lip, blinking.
    "Not until I heal."
    "Undt vhat about singink?"
    "I want to sing," Sarah whispered. "I dreamed last night ... I dreamed I sang, the Ave and the, Te Deum, I dreamed I sang, Jesu Joy of, Man's Desiring, and I sang it, powerfully, and strongly, and ..."
    "Singink ist goot for der lunks," Daciana said firmly. "Sink you vill. Here vait."
    Daciana rose suddenly, walked quickly down the hall and out the door: moments later she came back in, a black leather case in one hand, a ribbon tied box in the other: she handed the box to Bonnie and said, "Open."
    She placed the leather case on the sideboard and opened it, withdrawing a violin -- smooth, glowing, beautifully figured; she withdrew the bow, drew it delicately across the rosin block, tapped it twice against the edge of the violin case.
    Tossing her head to settle her hair out of the way, she tucked the violin under her chin and looked at a far corner as if listening, then drew the bow across the strings.
    Bonnie's breath caught in her throat.
    Daciana spun the hymn as if spinning gold on a magic wheel: Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring , slowly and in dignified quarter-notes.
    She saw the longing in Sarah's eyes, she knew from Sarah's breathing she wanted so very badly to sing, and Daciana knew Sarah's range and power and control, and Daciana knew she was throwing kerosene on the fire when she did it ... she played as it was written, a leisurely, dignified piece, then she tapped her foot four times and played it again ... twice as fast.
    She lifted the bow from the strings.
    The magic she'd spun in the tea-scented kitchen atmosphere vibrated for several heartbeats after the music stopped.
    "Vhen healedt you are," Daciana said quietly, "sing you vill." She turned and placed the Stradivarius in its case, tucking it in as if tending a beloved infant.
    Closing its lid, she looked at Bonnie and smiled.
    "Open mit der box," she said. "Glasses ve need."
    And while the ladies enjoyed a truly excellent wine, the men sipped bourbon.

  15. Linn Keller 8-29-13


    Bonnie looked up at Polly's shining, sorrowful eyes.
    "Yes, sweets?"
    "Mama, Sawwah won't weed to us."
    Opal nodded solemnly in agreement, her rag doll locked in her elbow.
    "Oh, dear," Bonnie said, plucking the pince-nez from the bridge of her nose and setting her sewing aside.
    Folding her hands between her knees, she leaned forward and looked at the twins, one, then the other, and she said, "Is she in her room still?"
    The twins nodded in unison.
    Bonnie blinked, considering, then nodded.
    "I will go have a talk with her," she said, and the twins looked at one another, barely suppressing a delighted expression, then turned back to their mother and intoned in chorus, "Thank you, Mama."
    Bonnie stood and flowed from the room, the twins marching resolutely behind her.
    Bonnie climbed the stairs, hesitated at Sarah's closed door.
    Knocking delicately with the back of one foreknuckle, she called, "Sarah?"
    She turned her head a little, listening.
    There was a slight sound from within, then silence.
    Bonnie raised the back of her hand to the door, prepared to tap again at the wooden panel, when the knob turned and the door opened wide.
    "Sarah, dear," Bonnie began, not entirely sure what to say.
    Sarah, on the other hand, had something she wanted very much to say, and she said it as precipitously and as eloquently as she could.
    She wrapped her arms around her Mama's neck and buried her face in her Mama's shoulder and shivered a little, her breathing quick, shallow.
    Polly waited impatiently for the two to conclude their embrace; she looked at Opal, who reached up and tugged impatiently at her Mama's skirt.

    The black wolf-cub swung its backside around so it faced the intruder squarely: hair a-bristle and lips peeled back to show its fierce white milk teeth, it took its cue from The Bear Killer and made no sound.
    The pup scented the wind, for the wind came from this strange creature, tall and four-legged and two-headed: it did not smell right, it smelled ... odd, a combination of scents that should not be, and yet were.
    The odd creature stopped and its upper half leaned down a little and pushed part of its head back, or up: the cub wasn't sure which, and did not really care, it knew only that it was tense, its hind quarters were wound spring-tight, ready to run, rush or flee: its muzzle was wrinkled, its ears laid back and flat.
    "Hello, Bear Killer," the Sheriff greeted the massive, curly-furred sojourner: "what have you there beside you?"
    The Sheriff swung down from the saddle, taking a moment to swing his backside around, working the kink out of his poor old back.
    The cub fell back a step, its jaws opening a fraction, a tiny, cub-sized growl escaping its strictured throat.
    The Sheriff laughed and bent at the waist, accepting a happy face washing from The Bear Killer: he rubbed the big dawg's ears and shoulders, and The Bear Killer swung his tail happily, giving a little ow-wow-wow of utter pleasure.
    The cub took this as his cue to release the fierce he'd held in his little chest: he gave a puppy-sized snarl, lips pulled obscenely back, inviting this strange-smelling two-legs to come in reach so he, Cub, could deliver him the delights of shining fangs and a fighting spirit.
    The Bear Killer looked down his muzzle at the war-singing squirt, planted a paw to pin it down and proceeded to give it a good bath.

    Sarah walked slowly around her neatly-made bed, settled herself in the chair she'd drawn up in front of the window.
    The twins waited for their Mama to seat herself on the side of the bed before climbing up beside her and bouncing a little.
    Sarah breathed ... carefully.
    She finally raised her head, looked out the window.
    "Doctor Greenlees came out to see me," she began, "and I ... dare not ... I must not cough or sneeze, I must not fall, bounce or jump, and riding a horse is simply out of the question."
    She stopped and breathed a little faster, as if trying to catch up with herself.
    Bonnie's eyes showed the concern she tried to hide, for never had she seen her daughter breathe like this save only when she'd been hurt.
    "Mother," Sarah finally said, her voice strained, "did ... Daffyd tell you ... what happened?"
    "No, dear, the Doctor said your lung collapsed and that you should rest."
    Sarah closed her eyes, nodded.
    "I am sorry," she whispered. "I'm so tired."
    "Ladies," Bonnie said, standing, and the twins slid off the bed, stood looking up at their lovely Mama.
    "Let us retire," Bonnie said in her I'm-the-mommy voice, "and Sarah will get some rest."
    "Yes, Mama," the twins chorused, and followed her like ducklings swimming after a mama duck in a still pond.

  16. Linn Keller 8-28-13


    The pup managed to slip far enough away that the others, seeing the escape, tried to follow.
    The she-wolf was busy rounding up her scattered young and for whatever reason -- whether it was another predator coming into the area, whether it was weather, hunger, anger -- the biggest pup, the black one, was gone, following after its sire.
    The pup trailed the big, curly-furred meat provider, moving swiftly, almost silently across the landscape: it moved steadily and with no particular stealth, and when finally it came in sight of the great Dawg, the younger was tired, hungry, and missing its pack.
    It gave a raspy yap.
    The Bear Killer's ears came up as if pulled by threads from an overhead hand: he spun, looking, and saw the pup, sitting up, panting, ears up and looking at him.
    The Bear Killer turned, paced back to the pup and did what any good father-figure would do when finding its progeny so far from the den.
    The Bear Killer gave it a good face-washing.

    Levi and Daffyd sat and talked over coffee long into the evening.
    The twins made their obligatory appearance, long enough for the obligatory (and unnecessary) introductions; they curtsied and withdrew, as proper young ladies were obliged to do, but it was an expected social interaction, and Daffyd noted the girls' resemblance to their mother -- though it appeared, from the velocity with which they were growing, that they were going to take their height from their father.
    They talked of the stone house being built, of the garden Sarah sketched with her words, when last they drove out to view progress: Levi smiled at Daffyd's puzzled description of Sarah's refusal to go within: "I will not set foot in that house," she said, "until I am its mistress, and I am in your arms" -- this, he said, despite Sarah having the greatest hand in its design, its dimensions and its materials.
    Levi looked curiously at Daffyd, drawing the man out, for he too was a lawman and curious, and he came away pleased that Daffyd -- who was not at all unintelligent -- recognized Sarah's design and materials choices not only reasonable, but quite sensible -- was wise enough to go with her mandates on these matters -- "especially," Daffyd admitted ruefully, "when 'twas me she consulted on t' start with, before I knew what she had in mind!"
    The two chuckled over this, sharing a moment when men realize their ladies have picked their brains and then presented them with the profitable result of their consultation.

    Upstairs, Bonnie held Sarah's cool hand in her own, talking quietly with her daughter.
    She had to bite her tongue -- twice -- to keep from chastising Sarah in the matter of having been shot: Bonnie was not terribly happy that Sarah continued to serve as an Agent of the Court, but she knew her daughter was headstrong and might rebel, and conflicted though she was, she was honestly fearful of Sarah's leaving her.
    Bonnie knew what it was to lose somebody, and the last memory she had of them, was harsh words and argument and words that burned like red-hot iron in her memory.
    She did not want that again, especially with her own daughter.
    "I understand your Daffyd was tempted by another woman," Bonnie said quietly, taking another tack entirely.
    Sarah whispered, "Yes," but made no other reply.
    "He could have ... fallen, sweets. He had the opportunity."
    "Yes." Sarah's whisper was barely audible, her lips barely moved: Bonnie might have thought her asleep, or nearly so, but Sarah's eyes were open, and she was looking at her.
    "Mother," she whispered.
    "Yes, sweets, I'm here," Bonnie said softly, wrapping Sarah's cool hand in both hers.
    "Your hands are warm," Sarah said, as if the effort of speaking was almost beyond her strength, then, blinking, she opened her eyes and said a little more firmly, "You sent that woman to tempt him."
    Bonnie's eyes snapped wide and she blinked, her mouth falling open.
    "You brought her in from Carbon and paid her fifteen dollars to tempt him. She went in with full intent to bring him down. You didn't think I would find out." The whip-scar on Sarah's face was darkening, a harsh slash across pallid cheeks, and she lifted her head from the pillows, looking directly at her mother, then she relaxed, as if the effort of speaking and that little movement, utterly drained her.
    Bonnie's mouth was open, her eyes distressed; she did not know how Sarah found out and she had the sudden terrible feeling that her daughter was learning the meaning of the word betrayal, and in the most terrible manner.
    Sarah took a breath, then smiled a little, and Bonnie felt Sarah's hand tighten ever so slightly on her own.
    "Thank you, Mother," Sarah whispered, and she opened her eyes again.
    "He did not fall." The corners of Sarah's mouth pulled up a little, then dropped again, as if that effort were exhausting. "He did not fall. I had to know, Mother. I had to know ..."
    Bonnie studied her daughter's face, squeezing her hand again, and brought it up, rested her lips on Sarah's knuckles.
    "Mother," Sarah whispered.
    "Yes, sweets." Bonnie's reply, too, was whispered.
    "Thank you." Sarah opened her eyes a little, just a little, and she tried to smile again. "I'm cold."
    Bonnie rose suddenly. "I'll get you another blanket."

    The cub tilted its head, regarding the prairie dog carcass curiously: he looked up at his sire, then pounced on the meal, snarling and tearing at fresh bloody meat.
    The Bear Killer watched indulgently and waited until his whelp was finished consuming the kill before washing the pup again.
    The two continued on their journey -- the smaller Dawg having no idea where they were going, only that he was with this great and powerful leader, his belly was full, and the sun was warm on his curly black fur.
    The pup cuddled close to his sire, blinking sleepily, tasting the wind.
    The Bear Killer lifted his ears, sniffing the wind as well, and his great thick brush of a tail stirred with recognition as a horseman came over the ridgeline.

  17. Linn Keller 8-27-13


    Cannonball was getting big with foal and I did not wish to strain her.
    Packing me around was bad enough, let alone refitting the saddle girth to fit her.
    No, I thought, let her have that fine little filly or whatever she's sprouting, without me troubling her.
    She came over to the fence anyway, bumming, and I fed her tobacker and rubbed her ears and called her a bum, and she muttered with pleasure as I rubbed her and fooled with her and called her a good girl.
    Angela's Rosebud was big enough for me to ride -- I'd ridden her enough to knee train her, and taught Angela to knee-rein instead of using reins and bit, I even laid out a course and made a small shield and a wooden sword, and we rode side by side -- I had her raise her shield when I shouted "Arrows!" and then she would swing her wooden "sword" at a melon on a post.
    I made it a game, and she laughed and she loved it, and I grinned to look over at Rosebud, and remember the happy laughter of a delighted child.
    Outlaw was soon saddled and we rode toward town, then crossed the tracks and took a particular path I knew of.
    Half a day's ride and I dismounted, ground-reined Outlaw -- I pretty much had to bridle and bit him so he would know he was actually working instead of loafing, though the reins I almost always left slack, talking to him with knees and seat instead -- then I cat footed up a rocky path I knew of, to a hidden place I knew of.
    Me, and some fellows I knew, and sure enough they'd stopped not long before.
    A small fire, no bigger than a teacup, made with dead, dry wood, almost smokeless; branches overhead to help dissipate the smoke, a hidden draw that was easy to ride on past and not realize it.
    I cat footed my way toward them, taking note of the only man on lookout, then I tossed a cloth wrapped ball of something soft toward the fire.
    It landed beside the coffee pot with a soft noise.
    Three men at the fire, froze, then one chuckled.
    "That's got to be you, Keller," he called. "Get your under fed self in here and tell me a big lie!"
    I stood up, grinning, and Mustache Pete turned, sticking out his hand.
    "You scoundrel," I laughed, "how in the hell have you been?"
    "Tired, hungry, cold and you know how it is," he shrugged. "Outlawin' is harder work than the dime novels say."
    He picked up a blue granite cup, filled it from the coffee pot. "You still drink this stuff?"
    "Only if I'm not the one that makes it."
    "Wise man," he grunted. "I've drunk your coffee and it damn neart killed me. Peg, Jules, this here is Sheriff Keller from Firelands. He's a damned bloodhound, he's hell itself with a knife and I never seen a finer shot in my life!"
    "Flattery," I grunted, flinching back from the coffee cup, spilling a little. "DamNATION, Pete, that's hot!"
    Pete laughed. "It don't take ye long to look at a horse shoe, does it?" he crowed.
    "Boss," Peg said, "wotinell we doin' with that Sheriff here?"
    I looked squarely at Peg.
    "You've got to get yourself a decent job," I said to the man. "Your reward is only two hundred dollars. Damn shame for a man of your skills to end up dead for only two hundred. Pete here" -- I thrust a chin at the named individual -- "Pete's worth five hundred and that's a little better, hey, Pete?"
    Pete scowled, poured coffee back and forth between two more tin cups to drive off the scald.
    "Now lookit there," I said. "Pourin' off the excess heat. Just shows he's younger, smarter and better lookin' than me!"
    In spite of their doubts, the others chuckled.
    "Well," I amended, "younger and smarter, maybe!" -- and I struck such a ridiculously prideful pose they could not help but laugh.
    "You ain't here after us now are ye, Shurf?" Jules asked doubtfully.
    "Yes and no," I said, then thrust my chin at the bundle I'd arced toward the fire. "Coffee there, good double handful too. Ground it up this mornin'."
    "Wa'l now God's blessin' on ye," Pete drawled. "To what do we owe the favor of your gracious visit?"
    I stopped and let my face go serious: I blew on that scalding coffee and took another sip.
    "Fellas," I said, "the man that's on the dodge is the man that's on the lookout. Anyone comes by he'll see, anyone walks nearby he'll hear." I looked around, meeting each man's eyes. "I'm looking for someone and this is personal."
    "What's in it for us?" Peg asked, his voice rough, and Pete glared at him for the affront.
    I tossed Peg a double eagle, flipped one to Jules and handed two to Pete.
    "That's for your time right now," I said flatly.
    "I need to know what you saw.
    "You might have heard about the fun and games in our courtroom yesterday."
    The three exchanged a look and I knew they'd heard something. I did not see them in the courtroom, they must've gotten their information from hearsay, which is what I was hoping for.
    It was time to plant seeds of misinformation.
    "Fellas," I said, "a lot of years ago -- right after that damned War -- I was young and full of vinegar and I sired me a pair of woods colts and didn't even know it." I looked from one to the other, including each by my gaze, and continued. "Two girls. One was a sweet little thing that took to ribbons and dolls and girly things, and the other took after hell raisin' and she ain't quit.
    "You might have heard of her."
    "Ragdoll?" Peg hazarded.
    I nodded. "The same," I grunted.
    "Now that sweet girl, Sarah, she's schoolmarm and she was out a-ridin' with that good lookin' fiancee of hers, that fireman fella --"
    Three heads nodded; gossip was as common among outlaws as it was among townsfolk, and such matters became common knowledge over a surprising area, for news was scarce and hard to come by, and such items were seized upon as something new and interesting.
    "They were a-ridin' in the woods and she run square into a dead, broke-off branch." I poked a stiff middle finger at my upper chest, below the left collar bone.
    "Punched a hole in her lung and she damn neart died.
    "Now her half-sister, the Ragdoll, heard about it and she thought she'd have a good laugh. You recall Judge Hostetler."
    "Oh, yeah," Pete murmured, and the other two nodded, looking from Pete to me.
    "He allowed as Ragdoll would make a good agent so he deputized her for the Court and she thought it would be funny to scare hell out of the old feller.
    "She come in walkin' stiff and walkin' hard, she jumped up and drove a knife into his table top" -- I spread my hand out over my squatted-down thigh, run a stiff middle finger down close to the web of my hand -- "made like she was a-gonna spike his hand to the desk, then she bit the inside of her cheek and bent over and coughed blood acrost his desk.
    "Here we-all thought she'd been shot or somethin' and she was a-dyin' and she was no more hurt than I am here!" I let a little disgust into my voice and the three grinned to hear that someone fooled the old lawman.
    "I'm tryin' to catch up with her."
    "You gonna spank her bottom?" Peg grinned.
    "No," I glared. "I'm gonna yank down her drawers and belt her backside raw, then I'm takin' her back to the Judge and let him do the same!"
    There was a prolonged silence as the three considered this.
    "All I have to do," I said, "is find her. She headed this-a-way on the hot foot."
    The three looked at each other, then looked at me, and slowly all three shook their heads.
    "I don't reckon I seen her a'tall, Sheriff," Jules said slowly.
    I glared at them as if I doubted their word, then sighed and rubbed my face with my free hand.
    "Any you fellas got a girl, a little girl at home?"
    I knew darn good and well none of them did but it was a rhetorical question anyway.
    "Boys is way the hell easier to raise than girls," I said. "That schoolmarm, now, I didn't hardly have to do nothin' to raise her once I found out she belonged to me, but that other girl ..."
    I let my voice trail off and I stared into my coffee cup's black depths.
    "Ah, hell," I finally muttered. "I don't know nothin'."
    I stood, drained my coffee, handed the cup back to Mustache Pete.
    "Obliged," I said. "You fellas ain't figurin' to hit Firelands no time soon now are you?"
    The three laughed.
    "With you around?" Pete snorted. "Shurf, I would rather stir hornets barehand than ride into your town and raise hell!"
    I nodded. "In that case, fellas," I said, "thank'ee for the coffee, and I didn't see a one of you."
    "Sheriff?" Jules called after me.
    I turned.
    "Which way do you reckon she was headed?"
    "Nagodoches, I reckon," I said.
    He nodded.
    "We see her, we'll let you know."
    "Thank'ee kindly."

    Sarah made it down one flight of stairs before she ran clear out of steam.
    The Bear Killer crowded up against her, half propping her against the wall, and Sarah's hand closed on a handful of fur and hide.
    It hurt to breathe, it hurt to stand, it hurt to move and it hurt to not move, and she knew she would not be able to spend the rest of her life on a stairway landing.
    She took a step, took another, The Bear Killer moving with her: she came to the first step, took two measured breaths, lowered her forward foot one step down.
    The Bear Killer's ears lifted a little at the involuntary sound of pain she made.
    There were voices from below, voices Sarah ignored; her world was shrunk to the stairway, the wall opposite, the warm, black, curly handful of balance that kept her from falling.
    She took another slow step, trying to ignore the hurt that seared through most of her carcass.
    There was the sound of footsteps, a hurried approach, a familiar voice: "Dear God, Sarah, wha' are ye tryin' t' do? -- here, le' me --"
    She felt strong arms around behind her, behind her legs.
    "Let's ge' ye back upstairs --"
    "No," Sarah gasped, releasing The Bear Killer's nape.
    Sarah lifted her head, opened pain-clenched eyelids, looked at Daffyd's Celtic-blue eyes, only inches from hers.
    "I have to use," she said slowly, her words measured, and she had to stop to breathe a little before continuing: "the back house."
    Bonnie came hurrying up the stairs, skirts lifted and face worried, the maid behind her: "Sarah, dear, there's the chamber pot, you can --"
    "It's too low," Sarah interrupted her. "I can't get down and I can't get back up. Please, Mother, I must do this."
    "Wi' yer permission, ma'am," Daffyd half-whispered.
    Bonnie stood, lips pressed together, thin and pale, before coming to a decision.
    "The maid will go with you," she said briskly.
    "Yes, ma'am," Daffyd nodded.
    Sarah's breathing was quicker; she was a little more pale, evidently in some pain: several minutes passed before Bonnie heard the kitchen door open, the tread of a burdened man came down the hall, and Daffyd rounded the bottom of the stairs, looked up.
    "Everythin' came out a'right," he said, then stopped, realizing what words he'd just used: he groaned, hanging his head, and muttered something in Welsh.
    Sarah looked up as Bonnie put the back of her hand to her mouth, then both hands, and finally turned away, her shoulders quivering, and Sarah knew her Mama was trying very hard not to laugh.

  18. Linn Keller 8-27-13


    Sarah sat up in bed.
    This took less effort than one might imagine, as she had pillows mountained up behind her and she'd slept sitting up.
    She opened her eyes and blinked, closed her eyes and relaxed again.
    She was at home, in her own bedroom, under her own roof.

    The wolf pup was getting longer, taller, less clumsy: he'd gone from a tumbling ball of snarl and bite, worrying his littermates as they chewed and pounced him him and each other, to the biggest of the litter, dominating his siblings, following after his dam as often as he could, at least until she turned and glared at him: a rumble, a snap, a cuff with her forepaw, and he learned that The Look meant to stay in the den, which he did, though not with any great amount of pleasure.
    He lay in the mouth of the den, watching the bright world without, smelling the wind, when his wet, black nose twitched: he smelled him again, and lips peeled back from shining-white teeth, and he felt a deep, rumbling snarl in his chest, stifled and hidden more by instinct than by choice.
    A shadow fell over the den's opening and The Bear Killer dropped a carcass with a quiet "Whuff," and the black wolf-pup's nose twitched again, then he shot forward and seized the carcass, growling and tearing at fresh, hot, bloody meat.
    The Bear Killer watched the pup, then looked across the clearing as the dam trotted toward him, a kill in her jaws as well.
    The pack would feed well tonight.

    Sarah opened her eyes again, reached across with her right hand, grasped her covers.
    She hissed between clenched teeth at the pain it caused.
    She relaxed, eyes closed, mouth open, breathing carefully, assessing the ache in her chest.
    Then she remembered, and her eyes snapped wide open.

    "Go to her, lad," Sean said quietly, his voice seriouis: "there is only one o' yer dear Sarah in th' world an' ye need t' be wi' her as much as ye can."
    Daffyd nodded, started to turn, then stopped, faced the tall, broad-shouldered Chieftain squarely.
    "Wha' about my place here?" he said. "I'll no' abandon ma post!"
    "It's ta'en care of, lad," Sean replied, his voice still quiet. "Ye'll no' be losin' yer position wi' us." His grin was quick and genuine. "I'd play hell findin' someone t' replace ye. Ye are th' worst poker player we've ever had!"
    Daffyd laughed with his Chieftain -- his friend -- and nodded, then he turned, and once again turned back.
    "Sean --"
    "Aye, lad?"
    "I'm goin' to see her," he said, then looked down at his red-wool uniform shirt with the gold Maltese cross in the center of the breast. "Should I wear --"
    "It's you she'll be seein', lad, not what ye're wearin'," Sean chuckled. "Go now, as ye are, an' God's blessin' ride yer shoulders!"
    Daffyd grinned, turned, and was out the door in a heartbeat's space.
    The German Irishman laid a hand on Sean's shoulder and observed, "I don't think he slept a wink last night."
    "He slept like a bloody rock," Sean growled.
    "Aye, a rock in a cement mixer!"
    Sean laughed and turned, running his arm around the German Irishman's shoulders.
    "Aye, lad!" he boomed. "What's fer breakfast?"

    The Sheriff was uncharacteristically quiet at breakfast.
    "I understand," Esther said carefully, "that Sarah is indisposed."
    The Sheriff raised an eyebrow but made no reply.
    Esther carefully, precisely, buttered a slice of toast, handed it off to Angela.
    "There was some talk," she continued, and the Sheriff's left ear twitched, for Esther never used that particular phrase unless she knew it would be of interest to her badge totin' husband.
    "It seems," she continued, buttering another slice, "that the black Agent recruited by the Judge, died of her injuries."
    The Sheriff accepted the slice of toast, folded it in half and took a bite.
    "Word has it," Esther continued, picking up her teacup, "it was the Ragdoll."
    The Sheriff stopped in mid-chew.
    "Nobody is of the opinion that this ... agent ... is our own dear Sarah," she continued. "The Agent walks like a man, swears like a sailor, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, tosses grown men over the top rail of a fence, takes scalps and lives like a miser picks up dropped coins on the street; the Ragdoll is unwashed, uncultivated, unprincipled and utterly without kindness or mercy."
    She looked up at her husband, who resumed chewing his toast, but chewing very slowly.
    "That performance in court was shocking." She sipped her tea, lowered the delicate china to its saucer. "It was so utterly unlike anyone we know, that it could not have possibly been anyone we know."
    An idea bloomed in the Sheriff's brain, and Esther smiled to see his bottom lip run out slightly as he nodded.
    He picked up his coffee, drained it, stood quickly.
    "My dear," he said, "please excuse me."
    Angela watched, big-eyed, as her Daddy strode purposefully for the front door, shrugging into his coat and picking up his hat on the fly.
    Angela chewed her bacon, then looked with big and innocent eyes at her Mommy.
    "Daddy didn't eat his breakfast," she said.
    "No, dear, he didn't."
    "Yes, sweets?"
    "You told me to eat my breakfast so I would grow up big and strong."
    "Yes, sweets, I did."
    Angela looked at the now-closed front door at the end of the hallway.
    "Mommy, doesn't Daddy want to grow up big and strong?"

  19. Linn Keller 8-26-13


    Why did I run?
    I stood away from myself and looked on my actions with a harsh and judgmental eye.
    She is my daughter.
    I should have stayed.

    I'd switched horses twice so far and was nearly home.
    It was a common enough trick, taking three horses or more: you rode one until it was tired, then you switched your saddle to a fresh horse and the one you'd ridden went to the tail end of the string; a steady pace was the most efficient, and I kept the pace steady, not at all excessive: no one horse was excessively fatigued, and in this case mine was a three-horse journey, but both horses and rider were glad for the sight of the town's lights when I came over the final rise and beheld Firelands.
    I'd ridden with an increasing apprehension and over a particular stretch of road I got the most God-awful feeling that something was wrong.
    It passed in about an hour.
    I don't know if someone was murdered on that road and I felt their restless shade, or if someone I knew was hurt bad or dying, or maybe it was just the imagination of a man alone, but whatever it was, it passed.
    I came into town at a walk, and my little string and I drew up at the hospital.
    I could not go on home until I stopped to check on Sarah.
    It was late -- it was well beyond late -- and I didn't really want to disturb anyone ... but my gut told me to stop, and I did.
    I learned a very long time ago, when in doubt, son, follow your gut.
    I saw a cot set up in the waiting area and a pair of boots.
    I recognized the boots.
    I would expect him to be here, I thought, and regarded the thrown-back blankets, mostly on the floor.
    Boots, and an unmade bed.
    Nature's call must have been urgent.

    I looked to the closed surgery door and something cold walked bony fingers down the middle of my back.
    I remembered how bright that bloody foam had been on Sarah's chest, and I remember Doc fishing that wire thing through the bullet hole, and how dead pale Sarah had been last I saw her.
    I hadn't thought of these things since I left, I intentionally kept them away from my mind, but here, where I saw them ...
    I gripped the door knob, turned it, pushed.
    Dr. John Greenlees wore his customary near-frown as he listened to Sarah's chest; she was asleep, still very pale, but her lips and cheek bones were a little better color than I'd seen them: the slender physician was bent over her a little with that stick-in-your-ears listen-thing them doctors use.
    They've got a fancy name for it.
    I know it's generally cold when they stick it on you to listen.
    Daffyd was in a chair beside the table, a blanket over his shoulders: he had an arm laid on the edge of the bed and his forehead on his arm, and his other hand went under the sheet, and the poor fellow appeared to be sound asleep.
    Doc looked up as I came in the room.
    He was in his sock feet and silent as he crossed over to me, took my arm, steered me back into the waiting area.
    He closed the door very quietly, struck another lamp, motioned me to a chair, then shook his head, gestured for me to follow and we went back in.
    He looked with a guilty expression at Sarah and Daffyd, hesitated, then opened another door and we went down a short hall and into his office.
    Doc opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of shining amber liquid and two glasses.
    I accepted two fingers of traveling mercy and Doc knocked his back in a gulp -- something I had never, ever seen the man do.
    He sat heavily in his chair, turned the glass in his long, artist's fingers, staring at its facets as if to wring some great secret from their shining depths.
    "It's not possible," he said quietly.
    I sipped at my pipe cleaner and waited.
    "In my young life," Doc continued, "I have seen people shot, stabbed, cut, run into, run over, blown up, thrown down, crushed, clubbed ... I have seen disease, corruption, contagion, complications, childbirths, cholera, tuberculosis, the bloody flux, bad teeth, bad eyes, bad ideas and bad judgement."
    He turned the glass in his fingers, still staring at it, staring down his nose at the gleaming crystal.
    "Sheriff, there are certain constants, certain unchanging realities that are the corner stones of medicine.
    "Air goes in and out.
    "Blood goes round and round.
    "If either doesn't ... "
    Doc looked at the bottle, decided against a refill, set his glass down.
    "Blood will leak out only so long." His smile was almost ghastly. "All bleeding stops eventually.
    "Sheriff" -- Doc looked at his office door -- "Sarah was dead."
    I leaned forward, turning my head a little.
    "I know death a little too well," he continued, his voice quiet. "She ... her lung collapsed, the one that was shot."
    I nodded, listening carefully.
    "The lungs are very rich in blood vessels. Extremely vascular. A lung will collapse and it will bleed and it will crowd the midline organs" -- he indicated a line down his breastbone with an open hand -- "it will crowd them over into the good lung and progressively collapse it as well." His flat hand illustrated a pushing motion.
    "I ... the incision to relieve the pressure was successful, but she ..."
    Doc's hands closed, opened.
    "Sheriff, she is alive now and I cannot explain it. She was without ..."
    His voice faded and he blinked, blinked like a man trying to make sense of a confusing dream.
    "Sheriff, she died in my hands. I was holding her when she died.
    "Sheriff, she was dead for just under an hour!"
    I stared at the man, my belly tightening around a lead weight I must have swallowed back on the trail somewhere.
    "Nurse Susan was ..."
    Dr. Greenlees' expression softened.
    "The dear darling always did like Sarah and she ... I've never seen her grieve that hard, not over a patient." His eyes were hollow, haunted, and I knew Susan wasn't the only one who grieved in that dark moment.
    "I did not know her fiancee waited without, and it took Susan two hours to gather herself enough to let him know."
    Doc looked sick.
    In all the years I've known him, in all the tough choices he's had and all the bad hands he'd been dealt, I've never known him as anything but capable and professional.
    I knew now I was seeing John Greenlees, the man.
    "She went out to tell him.
    "He did not take it well."
    Doc fell silent, and I let the silence grow. It's a lawman's trick, to remain silent, for the speaker will generally resume speaking to fill the silence if nothing else.
    "Sheriff, her heart was stopped." His hand chopped viciously against his thigh. "There was no pulse" -- chop, and the meaty sound of another blow to his leg -- she was cyanotic -- again the hand striking the leg --
    "You saw me auscultate her chest. Her lungs are both up. They're both fully inflated. I can percuss the chest and there is no hyperresonance." His hands absently tapped the ribs of a nonexistent patient, and I kept a neutral expression: had it been a less solemn discussion I would have smiled, for I can't talk without my hands either.
    "I ... rejoice ... Sheriff, she's alive..."
    I nodded.
    Doc shook his head, ran long fingers through his dark hair.
    "I don't understand it," he said, dropping his hands into his lap and throwing his head back. "
    "We lost her, then suddenly we had her back again. Her flesh was cold, there was no breath in her lungs, her heart had ceased to pump, yet..." His words halted there, his look that of a man who had seen something beyond his ability to comprehend. "It was a miracle. That's the only way that I know to describe it..."

  20. Linn Keller 8-25-13


    Daffyd Llewellyn groaned in his sleep.
    Sean set the cot up for him in the hospital's waiting room, Sean brought him supper, and Sean sat with him while he waited, pacing like a caged tiger, boot heels loud on the painfully clean floor.
    After every fourth trip back and forth Daffyd stopped, staring at the surgery door; only once did he approach, once, with his hand upraised, as if to knock, but he drew his bent knuckles back, and instead touched the door with his finger tips, as if listening with more than hearing at what may be going on within.
    Sean finally snapped the blankets to and told Daffyd not unkindly to pull off his boots and get some sleep -- "if ye don't, lad, then neither will I, an' Daisymedear will cloud up an' rain all o'er me!"
    Daffyd smiled a little and nodded, and Sean waited until the man was laid down before he drew the blankets over the Welsh Irishman.
    He paused and laid a hard, callused hand on the man's shoulder with a surprising gentleness.
    "She's in th' best hands there are," he said quietly. "Here on earth she's in the best surgeon's this side o' the Mississippi, an' her soul is cradled wi' th' Almighty."
    Daffyd pretended to sleep; he closed his eyes, waiting until the door shut behind the big Irish chieftain, then he lay staring at the ceiling until sleep crept up on little cat's feet and cast an irresistible spell over him.
    He groaned as dreams, tortured dreams, played their evil on his restless mind, and when Nurse Susan laid a hand on his shoulder he jumped like a scalded cat.
    He looked up at the nurse's face; she held a lamp, and in the lamplight he saw the wet running down her cheeks and his heart contracted hard.
    "Sarah?" he gasped, fighting to sit up, shoving hard against the cot, fighting the cobwebs that impeded his waking brain: he rubbed his face hard, looked at the trembling nurse and asked again, "Sarah?"
    Nurse Susan opened her mouth, then she closed it and shook her head.
    Daffyd Llewellyn sank to his knees, then bent double, slowly, and rested his head on the floor, clutching his hair and gritting his teeth against unmanly grief shivering in his throat.
    He put his hands flat on the floor and pushed himself up, stood, swaying, gasping, sick: he looked toward the bright wedge of light as the surgery door opened.
    Dr. Greenlees' lean form was silhouetted against the surgery's lamplight, and behind him, a still form, still and pale and unmoving.
    Daffyd Llewellyn staggered toward the doctor, pushed him aside, tottered across the mile wide chasm that separated him from his beloved.
    Daffyd Llewellyn, grandson of warriors, descended of Welsh bowmen, lay gentle hands on Sarah's cold cheeks: choking now, his face graven with the grief a man feels when the dearest thing his heart ever knew is gone, bent down and kissed her still, pallid lips once, gently, then he straightened, threw his head back and from the depths of his warrior's soul he roared a challenge to Death itself, a battle-roar to every creature of darkness that would seek to swallow a soul, an invitation to robed Thanatos himself and the scythe he carried: it was a challenge to single combat that would never be answered, for she was gone, she was dead, her spirit fled from this earth and its light, only her cold, unmoving shell remaining, and so instead this battle challenge served to warn the Afterlife that a warrior was coming.
    Outside, somewhere near, the howl of a great wolf-creature, the dark throat of a creature of the wild who chose to companion with these interesting few two-legs, sang of a warrior's passing, carrying the Welshman's grief to the stars overhead.
    Daffyd sank to his knees, rested his head against the side of the operating table.
    His hand, as if piloted by its own volition, rose slowly and slid under the sheet and found Sarah's: his warm, strong hand closed around her still, cold hand, and he held hers, his breath ragged, his chest aching.
    "No," he groaned. "Nnooo."
    Nurse Susan moved as if to approach the grief-racked fireman: Dr. Greenlees raised a palm, gave a brief shake of his head, and Nurse Susan stopped, backed away.
    "Give him his grief," Dr. Greenlees whispered, and Nurse Susan dropped her eyes and nodded, then pressed a crumpled kerchief to her own cheeks.
    They left the surgery and gave the man his privacy; each knew what it was to lose somebody, and it was not the first time Daffyd Llewellyn had lost someone he loved, but it was the first time he'd ever lost someone he loved more than he'd ever realized.
    He whispered to her, there in the empty room, whispered his grief and his love, he spoke in halting sibilants of their house and the children they'd planned, he spoke of coming home and putting his arms around her waist and feeling her warm and alive, and he fell silent again.
    Llewellyn lost track of all time when he raised his head, startled.
    Imagination, he thought: imagination, I want to feel her alive, I didn't really feel her hand --
    Sarah's hand twitched again, then squeezed his -- not much, but a little, and Daffyd came to his feet as if jerked by a giant's hand on his collar.
    "Doctor," he quavered, eyes wide as he looked at Sarah's waxy-pale, unmoving face.
    "Doctor?" he called a little louder, his hand still holding Sarah's, and as she squeezed again, he screamed, "DOCTORRRRRR!"
    Dr. Greenlees came in, frowning, Nurse Susan with him, and he was apparently replying to her question: "No, I can't find the Sheriff, but I'll tell him myself, this is not the kind of news he should find out from saloon gossip --"
    Daffyd was standing, eyes wide, his mouth working, and finally he pulled Sarah's hand up -- she was holding his, now -- "Doctor, she's alive!"
    Dr. Greenlees took two long steps to the surgery table, practiced fingers felt her parted lips, her throat, her wrist.
    Nurse Susan waited, scarcely breathing.
    The poor man, she thought, he wants so much for Sarah to be alive that he's imagined --
    Sarah's eyes snapped open and she opened her mouth wide and took a deep, gasping breath, the sound of air rushing into her throat loud and harsh in the nighttime surgery.
    Doctor John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, jerked his hand back as if burned.
    He looked up at Nurse Susan, wide-eyed and grinning.
    Nurse Susan's hand rose, stopped just before her own gaping mouth.
    "Doctor," she gasped, "what happened?"
    "Sarah," Daffyd laughed, running his arm under her shoulders and hugged her, and Sarah let out a little sound of pain, but she ran an arm around Daffyd and hugged him back.
    They were still holding hands.
    Sarah breathed -- she breathed hard, but she was breathing -- Dr. Greenlees snatched a stethoscope off its peg, thrust the tips into its ears, ripped the sheet off Sarah's chest, placed the cold, tapered bell on her chest -- here, here, here again, then lower -- "Sarah, take a breath for me ... hold, hold, now let it out, take another ... that's it ... breathe normally now."
    The Doctor put two fingers on her bared chest below her collar bone, tapped the two fingers with two fingers of his opposite hand, then the same under the other collarbone: a little lower, one side, then the other.
    "I don't understand it," he muttered, shaking his head. "This is not possible."
    Sarah looked up at Daffyd, her eyes big, imploring.
    "I'm cold," she whispered. "Hold me."
    Dr. Flint came in -- fully dressed, his tie knotted, brushed coat immaculate, looking as if he'd just stepped away from his breakfast -- he looked from Sarah to the astonished physician and back.
    Dr. Greenlees turned to his colleague and shook his head, his mouth open.
    "It's not possible," he repeated. "Not possible!"
    The two physicians discussed terms like bilateral pneumothoraces and mediastinal shift, subcutaneous emphysema -- Dr. Greenlees' eyes widened and he whirled, snatched the sheet away, ran trembling fingers along the exposed flesh above Sarah's breasts, blinking.
    "Nothing," he gasped. "This was rough as pebbles in a creekbed with air under the skin and there's nothing!"
    Daffyd Llewellyn drew the sheet back up, covering Sarah's modesty.
    "Nurse Susan," he asked, "might we ha'e a blanket? Ma fiancee's a chill."
    Doctor John Greenlees walked slowly out of the surgery, shaking his head.
    "It's not possible," Daffyd heard him repeating. "Both lungs collapsed, the midline organs were shoved over, she was subcutaneous emphysema from neck to legs. It's, not, possible!"
    Dr. George Flint patted his old friend on the back and said something quiet, and the two men closed the door behind them as they left the room.
    Nurse Susan unfolded a blanket, covering Sarah with one, then another.
    "Don't leave me," Sarah begged Daffyd. "Please. Don't leave me!"
    "I'll not leave ye," he said firmly, "but forgive me if I drag me up a chair!"

  21. Charlie MacNeil 8-25-13


    She was cold, so cold, and it was so dark, and the pain was deep, flowing through her very core. She despaired of ever seeing light, feeling warm. She thought she could hear the dip and swish of oars in deep, black water, the creak of oarlocks. Yet somewhere, out there, beyond her, she could feel, well, the presence of something, or Someone...

    "Sarah." The voice seemed to come from everywhere, and from nowhere. It reverberated softly, melodic echoes that set her aching flesh and bone atingle, tiny ripples of being that soothed her pain and warmed her cold body. She listened, and was comforted...

    "Sarah." She felt as much as heard her name repeated, felt the drawing, felt the comfort spread through her, felt that now would be a good time to let herself go, loose the bonds of earthly flesh and go beyond, go where she need never again know pain, or cold, or blackness, never know uncertainty. She prepared to step away from self...

    "We may be losing her!" Doc Greenlees exclaimed, somewhere in a distant land that she found herself glad to escape...

    "Sarah, your journey is not yet finished," the voice told her. "There is much that is yet undone." A soft blaze of light enveloped her as she protested...

    "No, please!" She pleaded. "I am so tired. Please just let me go!"

    "You are indeed tired, yet you must stay," she heard. "Too much depends on you. Your destiny is before you."


    Even as she said the word, she knew that resistance was futile. Scenes unfolded on the blank wall of her mind, scenes of happiness, scenes of war, scenes of peace, scenes of strife and dissent. Children were born, some to live and do great things, some to never have the chance. Through it all, a common thread of silver that led through her, past to present, present to future...

    "She's not breathing!"

    Then suddenly she was, a great indrawn gasp that made her ribs creak as her heart resumed its rhythm, her blood flowed once more through droughted vessels, and her flesh slowly warmed...

    "I don't understand it," the good doctor was to tell the Sheriff upon that worthy's return to Firelands. "We had lost her, then suddenly we had her back again. Her flesh was cold, there was no breath in her lungs, her heart had ceased to pump, yet..." His words halted there, his look that of a man who had seen something beyond his ability to comprehend. "It was a miracle. That's the only way that I know to describe it..."

  22. Linn Keller 8-25-13


    I rode my black Outlaw-horse with a two-horse string behind.
    We traveled fast and we traveled steady.
    I wanted to whip a mount into a gallop and keep it there but that's a grand way to kill a horse and damned if I'm going to kill a good horse if there's not a really, really damned good reason, and a steady gait was what Doc called "treatment of choice."
    I swore in the darkness.
    Even out here, riding toward that distant town, alone but for horse flesh and my own roiling thoughts, Doc's words were still audible.
    I thought back to the hospital's waiting room.
    Once I allowed myself five minutes to just set there all numb, why, I got up and I shook myself like a dog climbing out of a creek and I went back inside and I looked at Sarah, laying dead still and near to dead pale, just some color over her cheek bones.
    Doc was working steady on that bullet hole, he'd opened it some and retched in with a long wire looking something and I looked away.
    Nurse Susan, bless her, bustled over -- that's the right word, bustled, she was kind of stout built and in a previous life I'm willin' to bet she was a tow boat on a river -- she latched onto my arm and threw steam pressure to her her paddle wheels and thrashed us across the room as strong and unstoppable as a Mississippi packet.
    I let her get me a few feet away before I turned my pale eyed glare on her and she let up on her throttle some and we coasted to a stop.
    I recall how my good right fist tightened up when she said "We need to talk," I've heard women say that before and it never, ever boded well, so I looked at her again and said "Talk, then," and I listened carefully as she talked about Sarah, she tried to soft pedal what she had to say but I looked at my daughter and I looked at the nurse and my bottom jaw shoved out and Doc looked up at Dr. Flint and said something quiet to him.
    He stepped away from the operating table and come over, wiping his hands on a clean cloth.
    His words were measured, quiet, professional, and I listened to him about as well as I listened to Nurse Susan.
    I stepped back away from the two and looked at Sarah laying just dead still and almost waxy pale in the harsh, focused light of that acetylene operating room lamp, and I turned and looked at Doc and the nurse and Doc started talking again and I turned away from them both and went out the door.
    I had to go find out what happened.
    Now I was ahorse and heading into that damned little city toward that damned little hotel where that damned little man tried to kill my little girl, and I was damned well going to find out what happened.

    The town Marshal rose as I came through his door.
    "We've been expecting you, Sheriff," he said congenially, his teeth white beneath an impressively thick handlebar mustache: he thrust out a hand and I took it, for I knew the man, and we both wore the Square and Compasses.
    "You know my chief deputy, Samuelson" -- another handshake -- "this is Mitchell, and Perkins here" -- he thrust his chin at a small, slender man in an immaculate suit and paper collar, and a Derby hat -- "Perkins is a detective and saw the whole thing happen."
    "Mr. Perkins." I swung to face him squarely and my hand closed on his like a trap on a small animal. "I believe I wish to speak with you, sir."
    Perkins' eyes were bright, black, his chin smooth, clean-shaven, he had the look of a man of uncertain years -- not a youth but not aged, one of those skinny fellows who seems to age all of a sudden when he turns eighty or so, but until then he's thin as a whip and tough as plaited rawhide. His grip, too, was of surprising strength, and he smiled tightly as his eyes fell on my Arc-and-Compasses stickpin.
    "Hello, Hiram," he said quietly. "I have your daughter's things over here."
    I raised an eyebrow.
    Few people outside my inner circle in Firelands knew Sarah was of my get.
    "Have a seat, Sheriff. We've cleaned out the room and the proprietor cleaned it up, I believe it's rented out already."
    "You have my undivided," I said carefully. "Have you sketches?"
    "I have, sir," he replied, turning to a table brought in for the purpose.
    Samuelson and Mitchell brought over freshly-trimmed oil lamps -- the chimneys were gleaming, spotless, apparently cleaned from the night before and not lit since -- they quietly set them where they light could overlap and illuminate the detective's pencil sketches of the crime scene.
    "I watched events unfold, Sheriff, I had a peephole vantage at the end of the room, and I took notes.
    "Here" -- he lay a sheet on the table before me, and I took it under two fingers, slid it to square it in front of me -- "is the room as it was prior to their arrival. Door here, closet, bed, one window. Coat tree here. The bed is a metal four-square, barely enough bedpost to hang a wide gunbelt.
    "Here" -- he lay a second sheet atop the first -- "this shows position of bodies afterward.
    "Here, here" -- his finger thumped lightly on the penciled ovals - "here, and here. These four were dead in the doorway, one gunshot apiece."
    He looked up at me, his eyes hard.
    "Four head shots."
    I nodded.
    "Body here, on the bed. He's over at the funeral parlor if you want to look at him. There's a reward, too, it's your daughter's. I understand you can collect on her behalf."
    I nodded again, my jaw thrusting slowly forward again.
    "Now this fellow in the bed" -- he looked up at me -- "Sheriff, he had a pistol in hand with one chamber discharged. He apparently made a bad trade."
    I looked sharply at the man.
    "He gave one shot and got six in return."
    "Did it hurt him?" I deadpanned.
    "A little," he replied, his face straight. "It looks like whoever punched him full of holes walked their shots up his ribs with the last two going in his left eye."
    I nodded.
    "Witness statements?"
    Another two sheets were laid before me.
    "You'll find this one interesting," he said, holding a third page. "I have it separate from the others."
    "I see."
    "These two" -- he tapped the two on the table before me with a curved finger -- "relate how the deceased, and a really good looking young woman, went upstairs. Good looking, they said, and a better woman than he's been seen with before. The witnesses both say the same thing. Footsteps in the hall, they looked out to see two men kick the door in and they and two more go in shooting until they fall back out, dead. A woman's voice screaming something, these two witnesses couldn't tell what she was screaming." He smiled thinly. "Civilians are like that. When they see a man's brains splatter on the opposite wall they kind of fade mentally."
    I nodded; I'd both experienced the phenomenon myself, and seen it happen in the years that followed.
    "This one" -- he waved the page -- "a woman heard her screaming something like 'Come and get it, the store's open and I'm sellin', then there were more gunshots.
    "She says here she stepped out and looked in the doorway and ..."
    Detective Perkins looked at the paper, then handed it to me, sliding his finger down the paragraphs until he came to the section to which he was alluding.
    I read:
    Then I beheld a woman with long, flaming-red hair and a silver helmet with raven's wings, holding a shining sword in one hand and a bladed club in the other. She wore a silver armored vest and scaled stockings with steel boots, and he eyes were red, as if she were made of flame with a thin coating of flesh.
    The detective's smile was almost a smirk.
    "Sometimes those working girls drink a bit," he suggested, "or maybe she uses opium.
    "The hotel proprietor did not see anyone leave by the front and no witnesses saw her depart from the rear but nobody admits to looking in that direction after the gunshots were heard. There was no blood leaving the room, nobody saw your daughter get on the train, but the conductor did say a small fellow with a long black coat and a black hat pulled low was coughing some, and we found small blood spatters on a window, perhaps a tubercular coughed up blood while traveling."
    I looked up at the man and my face was tight as I remembered Sarah coughing blood across the Judge's desk.
    "You said you were at a peephole."
    Perkins nodded.
    "Tell me what you saw."
    Perkins looked away, uncomfortable.
    "My daughter,"I said, "is a special agent with the Firelands District Court. She was assigned to bring the subject in, alive, and to use her ... charms ... to do it."
    Perkins nodded, as if a final puzzle piece dropped into place.
    "Sheriff, she did not undress at all.
    "She did not say one word that should not come out of a lady's mouth.
    "She still managed ..."
    He looked down, considering, looked up.
    "Sheriff, I think that girl could seduce a stone statue and never move from her footprints to do it."
    I nodded.
    "Women have that gift," I admitted. "What followed?"
    "She set down on the bed. He was already down to his red woolies, and she -- your -- the Agent," he cleared his throat uncomfortably, "was talking him into the benefits of a bath, and ... implied that she would ... help him with it."
    I laughed.
    "Perkins," I said quietly, "no law says we can't lie to a criminal. They lie to us all the time. Turn about is fair play."
    Perkins looked frankly at me.
    "Sheriff," he said, "she plays a deep game. She's ... very convincing."
    "A good agent is."
    "I jumped when the door kicked in. Two men came in and ran over in front of my vantage, they were at the foot of the bed, and shouted that they were here to kill him.
    "She rolled off the bed.
    "Apparently they expected her to lay on the floor or hide under the bed, for they both shot at our wanted man and missed.
    "I didn't notice when your -- when your Agent went over the side -- he'd hung his gun belt on her side of the bed and she must have drawn his pistols when she went over.
    "She came up in a crouch firing both pistols.
    "They shot at her and missed.
    "She didn't miss." He shook his head wonderingly. "She fired four times, Sheriff, and four men died." His eyes were steady on my own. "I am no stranger to conflict, Sheriff, but never have I ever seen such ... control.
    "I cannot call it coolness under fire, sir.
    "I must call it absolute... coldness."
    "What happened them?"
    "The man she came after," he said slowly, "produced a small pistol from somewhere. As carefully as I watched, Sheriff, I don't know where he had it secreted, nor where he plucked it from.
    "I remember how shocked he looked as he looked at her.
    "She stood in a half-crouch with a cocked pistol in each hand and I remember she screamed about the store being open, whoever was outside could come and get it or words to that effect, then she looked at him.
    "He said ..."
    The detective hesitated.
    "He said 'My God! Ragdoll!" and shot her."
    "You saw the shot?"
    The detective nodded.
    "She returned the favor, and he fired no more."
    I looked over at the Marshal.
    "This case," I said slowly, "is hereby assigned to the Firelands District Court. If you need further paper work I can have it served by the Territorial Marshal."
    "No need," he said, regarding me curiously, "your word is good enough."
    I waited.
    The man had the look of someone chewing on a question.
    "Sheriff," he said finally, "every man Jack of us here is under the Square."
    I nodded.
    "One thing we've not put in any of those reports you hold, and in none of mine here."
    I nodded again.
    "Right before that last six shots."
    I looked steadily at the man, turning my head a little to bring my good ear to bear.
    "When the man spoke a name."
    I waited.
    I nodded again.
    "I thought she was ... a legend, a tall tale."
    I considered carefully.
    Once the feline is out of the burlap there's no returning it, but these men were all brother Masons, oathed to keep the secret of a Master Mason when received by them as such.
    We all knew this was one such.
    "Brethren," I said, "the Ragdoll is my daughter. She is as deadly as legend would have it. As far as tall tale, she's not all that tall." I held a hand up about chin level. "I can wrap my arms around her and rest my chin sqauarely on top of her head."
    "Has she turned up yet?" Perkins asked carefully.
    I nodded.
    "She was shot," I said, "and she collapsed across the Judge's desk after she reported to him."

  23. Linn Keller 8-24-13


    His Honor the Judge and I talked things over for a while and I could tell the fine old man was troubled.
    He'd been a good officer in that damned War but he worried so about his men, he never did get the proper officer's mindset that men were a commodity, just like musket balls, mess kits and hats ... objects, things, items that could be replaced, bought wholesale and freighted in on rail cars.
    God bless him for never becoming that hard.
    I have and my soul suffered for it.
    Maybe it's because I died and I saw how little life really matters, how unimportant the world and all things in it really are.
    Hell, I don't know.
    I'm just an old man with an iron grey mustache and too many scars, aches and pains and nightmares when I sleep.
    What the hell do I know???

    I underlined the last six words with a quick, vicious slash of my steel pen, almost tearing into the paper: I threw my pen down on the desk, leaned back, wiped my face with my hands.
    I'd gone home and kissed my wife and hoisted my little girl up overhead, spilling happy giggles all over the parlor floor, I picked up my fine little son and bounced him on my knee, and he laughed and gummed at me with his little toothless mouth, chewing happily on my knuckle, and when I handed him back to the wet-nurse, my leg was wet.
    I laughed, for such is the legacy of the father of a little boy.
    Little boy-babies are like puppies, they are happy creatures that leak, and my son was true to both tenets.
    I changed trousers and went back downstairs and wrote in my journal, at least until I threw my pen down and stood with a quiet squishing sound from my knees, and stalked over to the window.
    By now Sarah and the widow Ricketts were well on their journey; they would have passed the first stage stop and would be making a steady headway.
    I knew the man the Judge sent her after and I was honestly afraid.
    The Judge is a good judge of character and he was right when he told me if we sent the official forces after this character it would lead to blood, and I knew in my own heart that good lawmen would be killed.
    I also knew it was our job to put ourselves in harm's way for the good of the public.
    I was satisfied I could bring him back, peacefully or otherwise, and personally I did not much care which.
    Otherwise would be less work and I was not above putting a .44 through his gourd to pacify him for the trip, but for whatever reason, the Judge wanted him to answer for his crimes before the Bar of Justice.
    I sighed, shaking my head, remembering how Sarah and I sparred the day before, with wooden "knives" with chalked edges.
    She "killed" me faster and easier than Esther ever did.
    I recalled how we sparred with revolvers, I pulled the cylinder out and we practiced disarming -- with a gun barrel stuck in our gut, stuck in our back, to our temple, the back of our head, under our chin: Sarah was damned fast and she was strong and there was a fire in her that didn't let her give up.
    I told her before we began that she wasn't under any circumstance to put her finger in the trigger guard, and she didn't.
    I didn't either.
    The first time she ripped the castrated revolver out of my grip and "shot" me with it, I was damned grateful, for even when practicing she played for keeps.
    I looked out the night-dark window, grateful that she wouldn't be on the job, so to speak, for another two days.
    It would take that long for the widow Ricketts to get to her destination.
    I didn't realize quite how wrong I was until Sarah got back.
    I'd best let her tell the story.

    "The court calls Agent Rosenthal."
    The bailiff's voice echoed a little in the courtroom.
    Heads turned a little; nobody rose.
    "Agent Rosenthal!"
    There was the sound of a small explosion as the door was kicked open: pieces of door lock and splinters of wood flew across the floor and the door banged wide open, revealing a figure in a black, floor length coat, a black hat pulled low, and a lowering leg in knee-high black cavalry boots.
    The figure stood for a moment, then paced off on the left, marching slowly, purposefully across the floor, heels loud on the smooth, clean boards, as if carrying a much heavier weight than the traveler's build would indicate.
    "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
    Agent S. Lynne Rosenthal tilted her broad-brimmed black hat slowly back, pushing up with one fingertip, her pale eyes blazing and the red whip-scar bright against her pallid cheeks.
    "Do you want me to throw you through the nearest window?" she hissed.
    "Please be seated," the bailiff replied, unperturbed.
    "Please state your name for the record."
    Sarah turned her head to glare at the Judge, and there was no trace of warmth or seduction in her hard eyes.
    "Agent Lynne Rosenthal, Firelands District Court."
    "Agent Rosenthal," the Judge said sternly, "the court will entertain no further --"
    Sarah leaped to her feet, took the two steps to the Judge's desk and jerked a large knife from beneath her coat.
    She drove it hard into the desktop, the blade passing between the Judge's thumb and forefinger, missing living flesh by no more than five-eights of an inch.
    "This," she said quietly, "is the knife that killed the detective you told me about."
    She reached under her coat with both hands, pulled out a pair of worse-for-wear pistols, a rusted Remington and a Smith & Wesson that looked like it'd been drug behind a stagecoach for a week or so. She slammed them down on his desk, the noise of steel on hardwood loud in the shocked silence.
    "These were his," she said. "I emptied them both into him.
    "He's dead," she said quietly: there was no need to raise her voice, for the courtroom was absolutely, deathly silent.
    "I went there just as you told me to," she said.
    "I did what you told me to do and about the time he decided I was a likely filly and he felt like a stallion, two men broke down the hotel room door and came in armed and said they intended to kill him.
    "I rolled away and grabbed his pistols where he'd hung them on the bedpost and I shot the both of them and the two that followed. They were all armed and they got off a couple shots, trying to hit him until I cut loose.
    "I fired four shots and I put down four men and I stood there crouched down with two cocked pistols in my fists, screaming for whoever else was out there to come and get some, the store was open and I was a-sellin' goods, and nobody came in.
    I looked over at him and he had a nickle plated Owl Head in his hand and his eyes were the size of tea saucers and he said 'My God, you're the Ragdoll!'
    "Do you want me to show you what he did to me, Your Honor?" Sarah screamed, the veins suddenly sticking out in her neck. "Do you want me to strip down so you can see where he shot me?"
    Sarah's voice was opera-pitched, her words shockingly loud in the courtroom's dignified hush.
    She took a breath, another, began again at a full-voiced shout.
    "I put his soul on the hell bound train and I'd do it again and if you don't like it I don't give a good damn!"
    Sarah grasped the edge of the Judge's desk, swaying a little, her pale eyes fixed on his, her teeth bared, her face dead pale save for the blazing red scar diagonal across her face.
    She tried to say something else but coughed instead, coughed and bright blood spatters sprayed across his desk.
    Sarah raised the back of her hand to her lips, wiped away the blood and looked at bright crimson on her wrist, her knuckles.
    The Judge caught her as she collapsed.

    I don't remember rising from my seat.
    I remember the Judge's face was the color of putty.
    I dipped my knees and said " 'Scuse me," and I scooped her up and it's funny she referred to the Ragdoll for that's how she felt, my daughter, my little girl, limp as a rag doll in my arms, boneless with arms and legs and her head all a-dangle and I don't remember takin' out a-runnin' across the courtroom but I sure as hell remember running for the hospital, running with a desperation I haven't felt in many years, running with the air burning in my chest and my arms rolling her up into me and my heart screaming wordlessly the way a man's heart will scream when he has no words to pray, and I grabbed the bell pull outside the hospital's front door and I yanked hard enough I broke something inside and I didn't care, I got Sarah inside and many hands took Sarah from me and I fell back against the wall in the surgery as they stripped her overcoat off and threw it to the floor and Doc seized her shirt and ripped it open and I remember red foamy bubbles on her chest, bright and gleaming against her fair skin, and I remember my knees sagged and I slid to the floor and stood there on my knees as they got her undressed and someone came in and tugged at my arm and I got up, slow, slow, my legs wouldn't hardly work, and I tottered like an old man out into the waiting room and a chair come up to meet my backside and I set there staring vacantly at the far wall and my jaw was a-hangin' slack and all I could see was the bubbling foam as she exhaled and I knew she was lung shot.
    I lowered my face into my hands and groaned and someone laid a gentle hand on my shoulder and set down beside me and I just set there.

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