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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

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  1. Linn Keller 12-16-07 "Ooooo, pretty," Sarah murmured, marveling at the size and beauty of the great golden stallion with the black-and-silver-and-blue-stones saddle. Twain Dawg sat his square bottom down on the cold ground and ran his tongue out, laughing. The Sheriff -- Uncle Linn, as Sarah knew him -- had just run back into the livery. There had been a commotion, a horse was very unhappy within and sounded like it was trying to kick a stall apart. "Stay," the woman in the flat-crowned black hat had said as she and her companion with the funny hat followed Uncle Linn, and the stallion stood, blinking patiently, golden tail swishing slowly, breath steaming in the cold. Sarah walked fearlessly up to the horse, cocked her head a little to the side. "Hello," she said. The stallion blinked, lowering his great head to sniff a greeting. Twain Dawg reached up and licked the stallion's nose, his great brush of a tail sweeping dust up in little puffy clouds. Sarah reached up and stroked the stallion's velvety nose. "You're pretty," she said wistfully. "Wish I could ride you." As if understanding her words, or at least her meaning, the stallion grunted, lowering himself to the ground, as plain an invitation as Sarah had ever seen. "Thank you," Sarah said, dropping a perfect curtsy. She scampered back to the saddle and, seizing the fancy saddle horn in her little hands, swung herself with a little effort astride the polished leather. Twain Dawg's scalp wrinkled up between his ears and his own head cocked sideways as the stallion levered himself back up. Sarah's laughter was clear and delighted on the cold air. "Giddyup!" she exclaimed. Hijo del Sol looked back at his young passenger and, turning up the street, began to pace, gently, as if he knew her seat was not terribly secure. Twain Dawg coasted along beside them, an inky shadow flowing across the dusty, uneven ground of the town's main street.
  2. Linn Keller 12-16-07 "He looks a great deal like your Rey del Sol," I said quietly. "He is one of el Rey's sons," la Senora Firecracker smiled. "We raced them, Eduardo on one and Santos on the other, and it was a dead heat." "Though the two stallions wanted to kill one another," Eduardo muttered. La Senora Firecracker laughed. "We raced them over a quarter of a mile, and neither was willing to concede defeat, so they raced again, five miles this time, and Hijo del Sol here won." She stroked the great stallion's neck gently. "By perhaps a nose, if that." She looked at Eduardo. "This time they were too tired to fight." "Five miles?" I shook my head in admiration. "That's some long race!" "A horse must run forever if need be, Jefe," Eduardo observed. "If a man is lucky, he will ride his horse into Paradise, for no man should travel the Valley alone." I looked sharply at him. "You know of the Valley?" Eduardo veiled his eyes. "I have seen it, Jefe." "As have I." Eduardo's head came up and his look was sharp and direct. "We will speak of this, Jefe," he said. La Senora Firecracker untied the stallion and backed him out of the stall. "Let's walk," she said, removing the bridle and leaving it hanging on a peg in the stall. I raised an eyebrow but offered no comment. If this stallion could race five miles, and if it decided to run tonight, we would play hell catching it, I thought. Jake's Appaloosa is the only one with a hope in hell of catching up with it, and even then I don't know if he's up for that kind of a run! "I don't need a bridle or reins," la Senora Firecracker said. "Eduardo, fetch my saddle, would you, please?" "Si, Senora," Eduardo said with a flash of even, white teeth. For all his muttering and growling, Eduardo admired the great horse as much as she, and he was anxious to show off their good work. Eduardo spun la Senora Firecracker's black saddle with the great silver-and-torquoise conchos onto the stallion's back. I blinked as the saddle blanket settled just before the saddle, wondering how in the hell he'd done that sleight-of-hand. La Senora Firecracker saw my surprise and laughed. It must have been intended, I realized, and my expression was the applause they sought.
  3. Linn Keller 12-16-07 Twain Dawg wove his way quickly through the forest of legs and dresses, following the mysterious instinct posessed by the great hounds, and he found that for which he sought, and shoved her little hand with his nose. "Twain Dawg!" Sarah exclaimed, delighted, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Where have you been? I've missed you!" Twain Dawg groaned and ran his tongue out an amazing distance, panting happily at her attentions. Sarah looked up at the rocking horse on the stage, gleaming in the lamp light. "Twain Dawg, I want to ride a horse," Sarah declared. Twain Dawg laid down beside her, then rose suddenly as a passing foot stepped on his great brush of a tail: he was a little surprised, as all it did was pull his hair, but he took this as an omen, and crowded up against Sarah. "Twain Dawg, where is Uncle Linn?" Sarah demanded, winding her little fist into the thick fur between his shoulders. Twain Dawg looked back at her, eyes bright, grinning with delight. Twain Dawg knew where Uncle Linn was, and he knew how to get there, and he knew this would make Sarah happy, and that would make Twain Dawg very happy. They began winding their way through the crowd, unnoticed as the Virginia Reel commanded the attention of all in the room.
  4. Mr. Box 12-15-07 The momentum of the celebration was building from within itself. There is no telling how far this night will go. You couldn't find more gayity in some grand palace in Paris than we have right here! So many people have grand events to celebrate right here right now. All the fellas in the Irish fire brigade want to buy me rounds of drinks for heling them out so much with their charades. They won't take no for an answer. This is going to be a night to remember. I only hope I can!
  5. Linn Keller 12-15-07 "Can you come with us?" Firecracker Mel asked, raising her voice almost to a shout just to be heard. I nodded, and the three of us worked our way to the front door. Santos remained, greeting Jake and Duzy effusively. It was as quiet outside as it was noisy inside. Our breath steamed in the still air as we walked toward the livery. "La Senora Firecracker is a married woman now," Eduardo smiled, hooking a thumb at his red-headed companion. "She does not stay at home like a good wife, tending home and hearth and making babies, no! -- she has to be in the saddle, and breaking horses, and putting the vaqueros to shame!" "Eduardo!" Mel said, feigning shock and dismay. "How you do go on!" "But it is the truth," Eduardo protested. "She insisted on bringing this one herself. A stallion, Jefe, she said the mares were not suitable." "They didn't have the lines I wanted," Mel interrupted. "Lineas!" Eduardo raised his hands to the heavens. "May the Virgin have mercy upon my corroded soul, what have los lineas to do with a horse's blood? The mares were steady and reliable and easy to train, but no! la Senora Firecracker must have a stallion!" "A blooded stallion," Mel said with a toss of her mane. "Yes, with the blood of a thousand Arab suns in its veins!" Eduardo declared with a shake of his head. "A stallion that will take a man's fingers off up to the elbow!" "He's gentle as a kitten!" la senora Firecracker protested. "A kitten with great fangs and claws," Eduardo muttered. "He is descended from the best Arab stallions we have, from horses ridden by the conquistadores, who were descended from Arab champions." Eduardo opened the livery door and we went inside. It was warm inside, and quiet, just the sound of horses crunching contentedly on corn, the swish of tails, the stamp of a restless hoof. "Here he is," Mel said, slipping into a stall and rubbing a golden stallion's nose afffectionately. " 'A neck arched like the crescent moon, and a nose that will fit into a teacup,' " she quoted. I whistled quietly, running my eyes over the great stallion. "I have never seen a finer looking mount," I admitted. "Nor have I, jefe," Eduardo said quietly. "He broke to saddle as if born to it," la Senora Firecracker said, almost sadly. "The very best gift is the one you wish to keep for your own." She looked at me and smiled. "My father's gift to you is the horse. That he is trained, is mine. The silver mounted saddle and bridle are from Santos and Eduardo." I about went through the floor. "Thank you," I said when my voice came back to my throat. "I offered gold for the horse ... please don't think I'm ungrateful, but I ..." She held up a forestalling hand. "Your hospitality was most gracious, Sheriff, and you gave us the respect we would have received in our own home. We would be remiss indeed if we did not help you celebrate your wedding with a proper gift for the bride." She smiled, and merry fires of mischief danced in her blue eyes. "Besides, what finer thing can you give a woman who already has her own railroad, and even has a locomotive named after her?" I had to admit she was right.
  6. Linn Keller 12-15-07 The Irish gold had lit a fire in my belly, and I was warming nicely, when I saw two familiar hats, very much out of place in this north country, and a third, flat-crowned hat, with fiery red hair underneath. I downed the last of the Irish and set the glass on the bar, then swam as best I could through the crowd. "Santos!" I exclaimed, and the wiry Mexican wrung my hand with delight and a broad flash of absolutely white teeth. "Senora Mel! Welcome! Will you have something?" Eduardo pulled a quart bottle from beneath his elaborately trimmed Mexican coat. "We brought tequila, jefe, in case you had nothing civilized in this cold Yanqui territory!" I laughed. "You can thank Miz Duzy, my friend, we have tequila, and plenty of it!" "Then you are civilized indeed!" Eduardo declared, laughing. "But what shall I do with this, eh? It is the very best Tequila in half of Mexico and all of Tejas!" "That is obvious, you son of a goat," Santos laughed, poking his brother with a stiff finger, "we should invite la Senora Duzy to have some genuine Mexican teqila, brewed with the sun in its belly!" We looked across the young sea of heads and shoulders, and I saw Jake, with Duzy on his arm. I waved him over with a grin, and Duzy came with him.
  7. Linn Keller 12-15-07 We held back a little, Twain Dawg and I, as I knew the Irish Brigade would likely have their ambush laid, and I didn't want to be in the way, depending on how they wanted to spring it. Twain Dawg went happily trotting on the heels of the big Irishman, until I made a kissing noise; he happily bounced back to me, tongue run out and laughing, the furry picture of a happy puppy. A puppy half the size of a young bear, I thought. How much does this fellow eat, anyway? Twain Dawg and I went on in. I was afraid we'd delayed a moment too long, as Sean couldn't be seen, then the crowd parted a little: Sean was on his knees, laughing, one arm around the neck of an absolutely lovely, exquisitely carved, beautifully detailed, rocking horse. He had a glass of Irish gold in the other hand. Daisy was on the other side of the rocking horse, hands to her face and bouncing on her toes, her eyes as big as I've ever seen them. Daisy was clearly delighted. I'll swear the big Irishman was ready to cry. The Irish Brigade was laughing and pounding one another on the back, and Fiddler Daine struck up a lively tune; enthusiasm and celebration ran high, and the vigor of the dance that followed, taxed the timbers that underlaid the floor. I made a mental note to have the floor strengthened. The rocking horse was hoisted to a place of honor on the stage, and I could see Sarah with her hands on her hips and her bottom lip run out: she clearly wanted to try it on for size, and though Bonnie was bent over, speaking to her, it was evident Sara was still disappointed that she couldn't play on this delightful, pretty new toy. I had to surmise all this, of course, as the sounds of merriment and celebration made converastion hard enough, and overhearing a mother's quiet words from twenty feet was utterly impossible. A shot glass of something amber was pressed into my hand by an anonymous celebrant. I caught Sean's eye and hoisted my glass with a grin. He hoisted his own, and we downed our fiery extract of Eire, and I winked at Mr. Baxter, and he had a broad grin and a wink in return, for the conspiracy had just gone off far better than any of us had hoped. It's hard to keep anything quiet in a small town, but by golly we managed, I thought. Maude came over from the general store, attracted to the sounds of laughter like a moth to a flame. Death was a fact of life on the frontier; Maude was a widow, and wore her widow's weeds, but she wore them well: dignified and smiling, she accepted a sarsparilla, and would have seated herself inconspicuously on the sidelines, at least until willing hands snatched her into the Virginia reel.
  8. Linn Keller 12-14-07 I hailed Sean and a couple of the lads as they came up the street toward me. Twain Dawg dropped his square bottom on the ground and looked terribly pleased with himself. I saw Twain Dawg look off to the right, and I followed his gaze, and saw the rest of the Irish Brigade slipping past the far end of an alley, carrying something bulky, covered with a blanket. So it's tonight, I thought, and snapped my fingers. Twain Dawg looked up at me, black eyes bright and shining. "Sean, how's Daisy carryin' these days?" I asked, reaching down to ruffle Twain Dawg's ears. Sean grinned broadly and reached down to minister unto the attention hound himself. "She's fine, Sheriff. A few more times she's had with th' false labor, but she tells me it's her body's way of gettin' ready for the grand work ahead." Twain Dawg's eyes were closed and his expression was one of utter, pure, unadulterated pleasure. His groan sounded so absolutely mournful, and we both laughed. Twain Dawg opened his eyes and laughed with us. "She glows, Sean," I said quietly. "I have never seen a lovelier woman than your Daisy." "Sheriff," Sean said quietly, and in the confidential tone of a man who is about to give a cherished secret, "your Miz Esther is the loveliest I've seen." He looked around quickly, put his fingers to his lips. "But don't ye let my Daisy hear me say anythin' of the kind aboot another woman!" I laughed. "I'll not breathe a word! Besides" -- I gave him a conspiratorial wink -- "we're old, we're not dead!" Sean threw his great head back and his laughter soared to the stars. "Aye, ye're right, Sheriff! If th' guid Lord didn't want us t' look at th' ladies, He'd not ha' made 'em so guid lookin', eh?" Twain Dawg barked happily, his exclamation partway between the sharp yap of a puppy and the deeper, businesslike tone of a grown buck dog. "Aye, ye see, even th' Lord's creature agrees wi' us! An' when two such as oursel's agree, wi' the Lord on our side, who's t' disagree, eh?" A voice called Sean's name. I turned, and we looked back up toward the Jewel, and his fellows were beckoning him from the doorway. "Well, I'm done for the night," I said. "What say we go see Mr. Baxter? I'll stand ye a round!" I said. Sean smacked me between the shoulder blades in hearty good-fellowship. I have been kicked gentler by a draft mule than he belted me in that moment, and my hat flew for a considerable distance down the adjacent board walk. "If ye're buyin', Sheriff," Sean roared happily, "I'll no' delay the process! Onward, lads!" I retrieved my wayward hat and together we trooped back up to the Jewel.
  9. Mr. Box 12-13-07 Things were starting to liven up slowly at the Silver Jewel. There was a sense of celebration in the air. The pace quickened as the Irish brigade began drifting in. One of the men slipped over near the bar and asked, "Could you be keepin' Sean busy a few minutes?" I gave him a nod. Only half of the brigade was there. Sean came over to the bar and ordered some of the Irish Whiskey. I started fumbling around for the bottle as I also struck up some conversation with him. I was more intent on the conversation than finding the bottle. He was getting a little fidgety and started looking as if he might come around the bar and help me find it, so I convienietly found it, and dusted off the bottle. I'd glance at the door once in a while and keep on chattering with Sean. Then I started looking for a glass. I hunted aroud for the right type and picked one up, held it up to the light, and hummed and hawed about some imaginary spots on it. Tried to wipe them off to no avail. Tried another, then another. Then I pick one that looks better to me. I hold it up to the light and buff it out good. I hear a slight shuffle outside the door and Sean begins to turn around to look, so I pick the bottle up and clink it against the glass as I begin to pour. Sean spins around with his full attention on me again! The rest of the brigade slip painstakingly quiet thru the door carrying something heavy and bulky with a blanket over it. They are bringing it right up behind Sean and setting it down silently. I got about a half a shot poured when I jerked back suddenly and exclaimed, "There's a fly in it!" I turned and poured it down the sink. Sean nearly fainted across the bar! I doubled the speed and nonsense of the conversation. "Good Lord, Mr. Baxter, you haven't spoken to me this much since I got to town!" "Well then Sean, it's about time we were getting aquainted. Fred is the name." I quickly produced a fresh bottle of Irish Whiskey and seven glasses and began filling them. When I finished, the whole brigade stepped up to the bar and everyone picked up a glass, including me. One of them handed him a string that was attatched to the blanket and we all raised our glasses and said, "To the new father!" Sean turned and pulled the string. The blanket slipped off a shining brand new hand made rocking horse. Sean fell to his knees and wrapped his huge arm around it's neck and yelled, "That's what ya been doin' all this time!" He stood back up and hoisted his glass and with a slight waver in his voice said, "To me Ladds!" We all downed that shot and I filled all the glasses again.
  10. Linn Keller 12-11-07 Jake was just coming in as I was going out. "All well, Jake?" I asked my deputy, and he grinned. "Fine as frog hair, Sheriff!" I tilted my head toward the celebrants. "Have yourself a shot and a dance. If I'm any judge there will be celebration this night!" Jake's eyes were bright, his grin was broad, and I knew he'd spotted Duzy in the crowd. I patted his shoulder. "Go on, Jake, she's waitin' for ye." He went on in, and I went on out. Wasn't much moon and there wasn't much warmth, and I stepped off the board walk into the dirt street where I could walk without much noise. I looked at the church steeple, tall and strong against the night sky, and remembered Jacob standing tall and scared as hell itself roared into town like a ravening flood. I looked down at Doc's office, where we'd ground our teeth in frustration at things we couldn't change, and rejoiced at things that did. I looked across the street at the porch post where Firecracker Mel and her vaqueros had laughed and raced their Spanish ponies down the street, laughing and shouting. I remembered the Irish Brigade screaming up the street, all fire and flashing hooves, polished brass boiler belching its own personal belly-full of coal fired hell as the three white horses and an insane Irishman with a plaited leather whip and a defiant mustache split the raiders' ranks and reduced them to rearing, milling confusion. I looked back at the hardware, and saw a single light, and knew WJ's widow would be going over the books, and the orders, and I knew her right foot would be tapping impatiently on the oiled boards as she frowned through her mail-order spectacles at the neat columns of figures in the gray-cloth-covered ledger book. I looked to the Jewel. Esther's upstairs window was dark. Of course it's dark, I thought. She's downstairs. Bonnie came to mind, unbidden, and I shivered. I saw the softness in her eyes, and how the bloom of motherhood painted her cheeks with a healthy glow. I had never seen her looking more alive than now, with a young life growing under her heart. Esther. What if we ... what if you? I tried to imagine Esther, great with child. I smiled in spite of myself. Women have been having children since before men started to record time, I thought. If we are blessed with children, why, Esther is a fine, strong woman, and I doubt me not she can acquit herself as handily in the nursery as she does in the boardroom. Twain Dawg, having set his broad, square bottom down beside me, decided it was a good a time as any to take a nap. His mouth opened an incredible distance and he yawned, wrinkling his scalp up and drawing his ears nearly together with the effort, and he plopped down on his belly, resting his chin on his forepaws. I heard the ring of a sledge tapping a wedge into a block of wood, then the heavier sound of the sledge, hard-swung, driving the wedge through the block. Jacob has had his fill of crowds, I thought. I knew the wood bin to be full; Jacob had snaked another couple logs down and bucked them into splitting size chunks. Shorty set him up a saw set, and every hour or so he came out with a file, and together they touched up the blade, and checked the set, and Jacob went to work with a renewed vigor, his saw kept sharp and his young muscles kept warm by the work. Half the time he labored shirtless, despite the chill. Now he was splitting wood. I don't blame him. Never liked crowds myself. When I was younger I too would find some excuse to excuse myself from such a press. I continued down the street. A woman's voice hailed me. I turned, swept off my hat. "Mrs. Parson!" I greeted her. "You're out late!" She smiled and hefted a covered basket. "Headed for the general store. Being a widow is a terribly lonely thing, and I just thought she might want some company. And supper. I know how the appetite suffers in such a time." "That's kindly of you, ma'am." "You're out late, too, Sheriff." The Parson's wife looked up the street, and down the street, and smiled. "I don't suppose you're out here on business?" "No, ma'am," I admitted. "Well, yes, ma'am, any time I am out it is on business, but I ..." "You're thinking about Esther, I know," she smiled. I could barely see her face in the dark, but her teeth flashed gleaming white, and I could hear the smile in her voice. "Yes, ma'am." "You're wondering if you're doing the right thing." "Yes, ma'am." "You're wondering about having children." "Ma'am, you are a marvel!" Mrs. Belden sighed. "No, Sheriff, just old and experienced at this kind of thing. Why, the Parson marched up and down every street of the town the night before we were married, I don't believe the poor man got more than an hour's rest all night! Even at that, I don't believe he rested but part of that hour!" Twain Dawg, comfortable beside my right boot, snored gently. "I was married once, ma'am," I said quietly. "I have been thinking on that." "Was it the War that took her, then?" "No, ma'am, it was the small pox. It took her, and two weeks later it took our little girl." "How old was she?" "She was just two, ma'am." Mrs. Belden's hand was comforting as she reached up and rubbed my cheek. "You poor man, no wonder you're worried!" "I think it was Sir Francis Drake who said, 'He who takes a wife and children, gives hostages to fortune.' I'm afraid he was right." I looked at the ground, then back up at Mrs. Belden. "Ma'am, if that basket has anything warm, I'd best not hold you up any longer." "Sheriff, I'm sure everything will be all right." "Thank you, ma'am. Good night." Mrs. Parson went on up the street, toward the general store, and I headed on down the street. I would stop in and say howdy to the Irish brigade, and see if they wanted to join the festive gathering at the Jewel. Nothing like a bunch of Irishmen to liven a party, I thought. Twain Dawg walked silently beside me, his great brush of a tail swinging gently with his gait.
  11. Linn Keller 12-11-07 I looked at Sarah, so young, so perfect, her mother's beauty evident in her features, and her father's height: already she was tall for her age, and was I any judge, would be closer to her father's full six feet than to her mother's less lofty stature. I looked at Bonnie's eyes, soft and very much in love with the big, laughing man holding their daughter. A niggling voice in the back of my mind kicked me and said "Sarah is adopted, you clod! She's not of her blood!" and I squashed the voice like I would a bug. I don't care what anyone says, I thought, Sarah looks like Bonnie! But then maybe I was prejudiced. I'd lost my own little girl, and my own beautiful wife, and every child I saw was lovely. Matter of fact I'd seen some mud-ugly babies, and the only two people in the world who thought the child lovely were the child's mother and myself. I'm just an old softy when it comes to such things. Esther was swimming among the guests like a fish in water, clasping a hand here, giving a hug there, tilting her head with her quiet smile, inclining an ear to some urgent matter: she was everywhere, it seemed, and everyone felt as if they'd received her undivided attention. I smiled, and retrieved my hat from where Mr. Baxter had kindly picked it up; he was quite busy, there behind the bar, but he was not too busy to do me that kindness, and I made a mental note to thank him for it later. I felt uncomfortable. Twain Dawg looked up at me and whined. He must've woke up from his belly rub. "Let's go outside, fella," I said, and Twain Dawg's tongue ran out as he laughed, and his great plume of a tail began its dangerous and powerful sweeps. Yes, let's get out of here, I thought. As happy as his tail is getting he's likely to break someone's leg!
  12. Linn Keller 12-11-07 Tillie looked up and smiled at me from behind the counter, just before something with blue eyes and ringlet curls and a frilly dress came streaking out of somewhere and caught me just south of the belt buckle. I landed flat on my back, laughing, Sarah on top of me exclaiming "Uncle Linn! Uncle Linn!" I wrapped my arms around her, laughing, and her little arms went around my neck, and something warm and wet began scouring my left ear, to the accompaniment of this loud snuffy sound. There was general laughter, and Sarah was lifted off me by a friendly set of hands, and I rolled up to my feet and took the good right hand that was thrust at me. "Merry Christmas, Sheriff," Caleb greeted me, "and congratulations on your upcoming nuptials!" Sarah's arm was around her Papa's neck, and she was looking around behind him at Bonnie, and back at me. "Mama's gonna have a baby! I'm gonna have a little brother!" I cocked my head sideways. Something pawed my leg and I looked down at the young bear grinning up at me. "Set her down a minute," I said, dropping to one knee and greeting Twain Dawg. He closed his eyes and groaned as I worked my fingers in his thick fur around behind his ears and down his back. Sarah's feet hit the floor and I looked her up and looked her down and I put my left hand on my hip and frowned. "Now who are you, young lady, and what have you done with Sarah?" I said in a mock-stern voice. Sarah put her left hand on her hip and shook her Mommy-finger at me. "I'm Sarah and you know it!" I looked down at Twain Dawg, who was melting under my ministrations. "Twain Dawg, is that so? Is that really Sarah?" Twain Dawg laid down and rolled over, groaning louder as I rubbed his belly. His hind hooves began kicking in utter ecstasy. "Well, I suppose you are Sarah. Twain Dawg said so, and he doesn't lie." I frowned again. "Has anybody told you lately how much you've grown?" "Everyone!" she exclaimed, bounding a little and clapping her hands. "Auntie Duzy told me I was nearly grown up! I'm going to ride her horse!" "We're right in peoples' way, honey," Caleb said gently, "why don't we let the Sheriff come on in and we'll let him say hello to the ladies." "I'm a lady!" Sarah protested. Bonnie laughed and swept around her. I stood, carefully planting my feet on either side of Twain Dawg. I think I'd put him to sleep and didn't want him stepped on. I took Bonnie's hands, shook my head, looking her down and looking her up. "Bonnie," I said in honest amazement, "you are absolutely lovely!" "I think so," Caleb said quietly, and Bonnie looked over at him, the look of a woman in love. I took another look at her middle. She was beginning to show, a little. "May I?" I asked, and laid a gentle hand on her middle. The sun was hot, hot on bare shoulders, and the ground was dry underfoot. Running. I was running, chasing a barrel hoop with a stick, the stick singing against the steel hoop as I kept it rolling, rolling down the brick street ... I pulled my hand back as if stung, and took her hands in mine. Bonnie closed her eyes in pleasure. "Your hands are so warm," she murmured. I knew my hands were warm. Years before, in the South, when I wore Union blue and rode herd on the wild and lawless soldiers who saw war as their chance to plunder, I'd kept a squad of irregulars from burning out an old woman. She'd given shelter and a meal to some fellow she didn't know and was summarily accused of giving aid and comfort to a deserter. After I'd run off the irregulars she thanked me for my kindness. I'd shaken her hand and she seized my other hand, turned them over to look at the palms, then held them both again. "You have hot hands, a Healer's hands," she muttered. "You are the first, firstborn male in seven generations of firstborn females." She looked sharply at me. "Can you stop blood with the Word?" "Ma'am?" "You've heard of it!" I nodded. "My mother could." She turned quickly. "Come," she commanded, and, curious, I followed. She wrote down a passage, and folded the paper, and slipped it in my pocket. "I may never utter the words to teach a man, lest I lose my powers," she hissed, "nor can I hand any blade or scissors to any, lest I pass my power with the blade." She reached back into my pocket and pulled the folded quarter-sheet back out, began writing on its reverse. "Memorize this, Captain, and you can blow fire. Now go." She turned and went back into her cabin. I posted pickets for the night and made sure she was undisturbed. They found her dead the next day. Died in her sleep. You have hot hands, , the mountain witch had said. Hot hands, a Healer's hands. She didn't say I would be able to see things, or know things. I'm going to have a little brother, Sarah had said. Duzy probably saw it, and told her. She has a way of knowing things, too. I smiled. I had seen the boy Bonnie would have, and I'd felt the bricks, hot and dusty, under his bare feet.
  13. Linn Keller 12-11-07 I waved at Parson Belden through the window of his study. He looked up and smiled, waving me in. I kicked the dust off my boots and went to his side door. The Parson asked me into his study. The laundry stove was doing good work keeping his sparse quarters cozy; smaller than a regular pot belly, it was ideal for the small area he occupied. He stoked in another few chunks of wood and dusted his hands off, the expression of a happy and satisfied man. "Sheriff, you two ready to get hitched up?" "Well, I am," I nodded, hat in my hand, "and unless Esther has changed her mind, I reckon she is too." The parson waved to a chair. I settled in his rocking chair instead. Its tall straight back and the woven seat agreed with me. The Parson chuckled. "My favorite seat too," he said. I rose quickly. "I'll not take a man's seat," I said, and the Parson waved me back down. "I'm already settled here, Sheriff. Settle yourself down and soak up some heat, it's chilly out." "Well, not that cold," I muttered, reaching up and behind me to hang my hat on the projecting back of the rocking chair. "You two comfortable with the vows?" Parson Belden asked. "Anything you want changed about 'em?" My expression betrayed the puzzlement I felt. "Aaah, don't reckon I would change much," I said carefully. "Esther's all right with them? Women sometimes don't like that 'obey' part." I smiled. "Esther is very much a lady, and very much of the Suth'n school of propriety. I reckon she would insist upon it." I looked the man squarely in the eye. "Make no mistake, Parson, was I to give her an order she would obey it, immediately and without question." He nodded solemnly, managing to keep a straight face, for he knew me, and knew that I was probably going to pull his leg. "Was I to go ordering Esther around as a matter of course, though, she would probably try three or four frying pans to see which one fit my head the best!" Parson Belden's cheeks turned red as he nodded, chuckling. He looked up. I've seldom seen the man's eyes that happy. "You've got the ring?" "I have." I reached into my vest pocket and pulled out a little box, handed it to him. He opened it. A simple gold band, a little less than a quarter inch wide, gleamed in the fading daylight. The Parson nodded. "Single ring ceremony, then." I frowned, a little, realizing I'd missed something. I never thought to discuss it with Esther. The Parson saw my dismay and smiled. "Don't worry, Sheriff. Esther took care of it already." He reached into his own vest pocket and pulled out a matching small box. "Try this one on and make sure it fits." I leaned over to accept the ring. It was identical to the one I'd gotten for Esther. Curious, I turned it in the light, catching the reflection on the inside of its band, and read the engraving: You are my greatest love, forever. I blinked, hard. I'd had that engraved inside her band also. I slipped it on my own ring finger. "Fits just right." "Thought it would. Esther doesn't seem to miss much." "No she don't," I agreed, handing it back to him. "You've your best man selected?" I leaned back in the chair and began to rock. "Parson, was I to ask any one man to be my best man, I reckon there would be a knock down drag out fight to see who it would be!" Parson Belden raised an eyebrow and looked at me over top a set of non-existent spectacles. "Just how many best men are you going to have up there with you?" "Oh, no more than a dozen, I don't reckon," I assured him solemnly, and we both struggled to hold a straight face, until we both gave up and laughed. "I reckon Jacob," I said finally. The Parson nodded. "A good choice. Jacob is a fine lad." "He is that. We're thinking of sending him to school in Denver." "Oh, he won't like that!" the Parson exclaimed. "He'll not fit in with the townies, Sheriff!" I frowned. "He's too intelligent not to have him educated, Parson. I want him to have all he needs to succeed. Business is changed from what it was and so has the world. A man's going to need the best education he can get so he can make a decent life." The Parson shook his head. "Don't be in a hurry, Sheriff. Let him get his basics set down good and solid first, and he can do that here just fine. Better, in most cases." I was surprised at the strength of the Parson's words. "Hurry up is brother to mess it up," I admitted. "We'll not hurry." The Parson stood and extended his hand. "I'll get the most of the dirt swept out before the wedding," he said, the laughter in his eyes belying his intentionally dour expression. I stood and took his hand and we both laughed again.
  14. Linn Keller 12-11-07 It didn't take me terribly long to make my rounds. Shorty was in good spirits, and offered me a libation: "Gittin' close to Christmas, Sheriff. A man oughta celebrate!" I accepted the flat glass bottle and admired the amber liquid therein. "Shorty, I am a happy man, and I have much to celebrate. Your health!" I hoisted the bottle to him, tilted it back and took a touch: about a shot, enough to set my tongue on fire, enough to be sociable, but not enough to glutton his supply. I did not know how much Shorty had on hand, but if he was decent enough to offer me a touch, I was not going to piggishly swill down half the bottle. Not that I could. When I swallowed, the effect was kind of like imbibing a lighted kerosene lamp, or the liquid version of a round file. "Like it?" Shorty chuckled, seating the cork with a slap of his palm. "I'm trying to get rid of it. Some drummer sold me that two years ago." I coughed out a little cloud of something as my innards smoldered. Wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, I gasped a little and held in a belch: I was afraid to let go with a good healthy BURRRP as I feared it would catch fire soon as it hit the atmosphere, and I'm a superstitious man: I believe it's very bad luck to set a livery on fire. "Not quite what the Daine boys make," I wheezed. "Nah, no. Got some o' that here." He offered me a stone jug and I twisted the cork out. I handed it back to him with a satisfied noise. "Now that's sippin' likker," I nodded. "Thought you'd approve." I handed him back the cork and he slapped it affectionately into place. "Well, now that I'm sure I won't die of the cold, I'll head out on my rounds. Thank'ee kindly for your hospitality." "Anytime, Sheriff." He opened the bottom right hand door on his desk and swung the jug into its cubby. "Winter's comin'. You get chilled when you're out, don't be bashful t' help yerself." I nodded, filing that one away in the book of useful knowledge. "Seen anything out of the ordinary, Shorty?" I inquired casually. Shorty grinned. It was the one question I always asked, every time. "Naw, Sheriff, for a wonder, nothin' a man oughta worry about. Lots of folks comin' into the Jewel, can't imagine why." He managed to look very innocent as he said it. I shook my head. "Hard to say, Shorty. Maybe they like the cookin'." Shorty patted his belly and winked. "Could be, Sheriff! Could be!"
  15. Linn Keller 12-11-07 Rustling had dropped off significantly since I had that last set-to with folks that liked to walk off with others' four hooved property. I'd ridden out to talk with the ranchers in the area, and had been all day in the saddle, and I reckon Rose o' the Mornin' was glad to see Firelands again in the distance. I know I was. I stood up in the stirrups, working my backside a little, and settled back down, working my hinder some until it felt right. "Ridin' all day was easier when I was younger," I observed to Rose. She turned her ears politely back to hear me, then swung forward again, toward the distant livery, grain and the company of others like her. She eased into that mile eating pace of hers, and I was grateful for it, as it was also her smoothest gait and I was getting kind of stiff. Hope I'm not comin' down with somethin', I thought. "Old age, maybe," I answered myself, and laughed. Rose o' the Mornin' flicked an ear at me and never broke pace. We were shortly walking down the main street. Automatically I was looking, watching, listening, smelling; it was unconscious, it was routine, it was habit: I scanned the rooflines, the upper story windows, the alleys, not so much for an enemy -- though that had long become part of my mindset, to look for those that could cause me harm -- but also watchful of a greater enemy. Heat rises, and so does smoke. I was watching for fire. I was also smiling. I could hear piano and fiddle from the Jewel, louder every time the door swung open. I looked up at Esther's window and smiled. She's likely working her books, I thought, or looking over plans for the freight line. Under her careful management the railroad had doubled in business and more than tripled its profits. Investors had dropped away, one by one by one, before I acquired it, and most of them told me I was losing my shirt. I knew better. The railroad had done well enough while I had it, I reflected, but the smartest thing I ever did in my life was hand it to Esther. I saw a figure in her window, and the figure smiled, and waved. I lifted my hat, and Rose o' the Mornin' came about and reared, dancing on hind hooves, pawing the air with her forehooves. Esther's head tilted back a little. I could not hear her laugh, not with my ears, but I knew that laugh and knew it well. Rose o' the Mornin' came back to earth and we swung down the alley toward the livery. "Okay, girl, so giving her the railroad wasn't my brightest move," I chuckled. "Proposing to her has to be the very best thing!" Rose o' the Mornin' didn't answer. She was focused on that nice warm livery and a bait of corn.
  16. Duzy Wales 12-10-07 “Auntie Duzy, did you know Mama is having a baby?” Sarah asked with her blues eyes shining. Duzy looked at Bonnie and smiled, “Sarah, your Mama and I have been so busy giving hugs to everyone, we haven’t had a chance to talk about that, but are you happy about a new baby? “Oh yes, I am going to teach her everything I know and Twain Dawg will take good care of her too, just like he watches me all the time and we will have so much fun together!” “It sounds like you want a baby sister, what if you have a little baby brother?” “Uggg, I am not so sure about that! Mama, is that possible?” Duzy had already dreamed of Bonnie holding a baby boy and she looked up at Bonnie and winked. Bonnie looked surprised, then delighted and then flustered. “Yes, Sarah, it is possible that it could be a baby brother.” “Hmmm, well that would be okay, I would have to change my plans a little, but I suppose a brother would be just fine!” At that moment, Sarah saw Linn coming in from his daily rounds and ran to his waiting arms. "I saw a little boy in my dream Bonnie, but you know I could be mistaken, I am just thrilled for you, whichever it is!"
  17. Mr. Box 12-9-07 Things really started jumping when the crowd got to the Silver Jewel. It was instantly like old times. They hadn't really been gone that long, but it was great to have them back. There was a whole pack of them together just chattering as fast as the could. Nobody could get a word in edgewise, nor did the have time to put a glass to their lips. A big furry beast wandered away from the pack and over behind the bar. "Is that you, Twain Dog? I'll bet you could use a bowl of sasparilla after that long ride." His tail wagged fast and furious as he lapped it up. "Those folks are going to be a while, Boy. You might as well curl up in the corner for a while." He mozied over and picked a spot, turned around a couple of times, and let out a groan as he flopped down and settled in. He wasn't going to be a problem at all. A freight cart pulled up with the trunks and valises along with a stack of hat boxes. I had some time on my hands so I helped Jacob haul them in.
  18. Linn Keller 12-9-07 Fiddler Daine's eyesight was legendary, even among the keen-eyed Kentucky hill folk; his eyes, bright in the cold afternoon sun, sparkled as he watched the eager faces gathered on the depot, and around it, and his fingers twitched, as if anxious to bow his fiddle, or to grasp a pencil. He was there for the latter purpose. A board lay across his lap, sheets of paper on the board; two pencils stuck out his bib overalls, and a few scattered shavings about his feet showed he'd sharpened them both, and recently. He smiled that quiet, patient smile of his, and waited, shifting his seat on top of the upturned barrel, on the far end of the depot platform.
  19. Lady Leigh 12-9-07 "CALEB? IS IT JUST ME, OR DO YOU GET THE FEELING OUR TIMING HERE IS NOT GOING TO BE A SURPRISE?" BONNIE AND CALEB WERE LOOKING OUT THE TRAINS WINDOWS AS THE TRAIN WAS PULLING INTO FIRELANDS.'' "OH?" CALEB RESPONDED WITH A CHUCKLE IN HIS VOICE, "COULD IT BE BECAUSE THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE WAITING, FOR WHAT LOOKS TO BE ... FOR US?" "IT'S ALL DUZY'S DOING, CALEB .... SHE'S STANDING FRONT AND CENTER. HOW DOES SHE KNOW THESE TIMELY THINGS? I TRY NOT TO QUESTION IT, CALEB, BUT SHE ALWAYS KNOWS DETAILS THAT PEOPLE JUST DON'T ... KNOW" The train came to a stop as the conductor was pointing to the doors at each end of the cars for people to depart. Sarah jumped out of her seat, and looked to Caleb to see if she should exit with them, and as he nodded his head for to her to go ahead, she, and Twain Dawg practically ran. Out the door she went, and down the stairs she flew ... right into the arms of Bill and Mac. Hugging them both, then running over to Duzy, and practically jumping into her waiting arms.
  20. Duzy Wales 12-9-07 Except for the sad but determined look in Maude’s eyes, as she ran the mercantile, Firelands was a place of celebration. Weddings were being prepared; Daisy’s baby would be arriving sometime close to Christmas or the New Year! Gifts were being made to surprise Aunt Esther and Daisy, and the cool air was full of excitement. The first flakes of snow had begun to fall and special care was taken to keep the tracks safe for the train, all hoping that the wedding would be over the and guests safely home before the winter hit full force. Duzy had dreamed there was another baby, but she would have to wait to see Bonnie to know if was true. Duzy, Mildred and Esther awaited each train to see if they were arriving with the other friends and family that had been invited for Esther’s and Linn’s wedding. The Silver Jewel was almost to capacity, Jacob had cut a beautiful tree for the lobby and it was strung with berries and homemade decorations to celebrate the birth of Christ. Parson Belding had taught the children the story of the birth of Jesus and Emma was directing a play to be held at the church. Outfits were being made for the play, with one of the angel outfits made especially for Sarah when she came. Somehow, in their hearts, they knew Bonnie, Sarah and Caleb would be there! Duzy and Jake were secretly making plans for their wedding to be held soon after Esther’s and Linn’s and Duzy wouldn’t even think of looking for a dress. She knew Bonnie would have that with her, as she had dreamed of herself in it. Of late, all of Duzy’s dreams had been good and happy dreams and it seemed as if all was right with the world. Lee had corresponded with some of the most famous newspaper moguls of the time and had ordered everything that Duzy would need for her new venture. Lee had found that Duzy’s list had been thorough but had added a few items that were being tested for a better quality of print. Lee and Mildred were planning on the shipment to arrive as a wedding gift for Duzy and Jake. Although they loved being close to their daughter, they were looking forward to going home and Mildred had been the first to suggest that they wed while all the guests were already in town. Duzy stopped by to see Doctor Flint and had run into Miss Messman. The ladies had talked briefly about whether she would be interested in a position as editor at the newspaper. Miss Messman had seemed delighted at the offer and Duzy couldn’t help but notice the looks that were passed back and forth between Miss Messman and Doctor Flint, even if they weren’t aware of it themselves. Duzy heard the train whistle in the distance and went to meet the ladies, knowing they would be there too! Would Bonnie be on it? Duzy had even noticed that Bill and Mac and had been watching the train lately and knew they were watching for Sarah. Soon, Jake was standing with Duzy, his arms holding her tightly, as they awaited the train…
  21. Linn Keller 12-6-07 My knock was gentle, but in the evening's quiet it sounded like a pistol shot. My approach had not been stealthy; Esther knew I was coming, and so did not startle. She looked at me with those ornery green eyes and smiled. I felt my ears turn red. "Well, how did you like it?" she asked, approaching me with deviltry in her eyes and a swing in her hips. My ears were near to smoldering. Esther's arms were around my neck and she kissed me. My arms were around her and I felt the fires light in my boiler and God Almighty, I never felt such a fire in my belly as that woman built with one kiss! "I like yours better," I murmured. "Really?" Esther teased, kissing the base of my throat, just above my wild rag. "Maybe I should take a second opinion," I murmured, kissing her below the ear, where the flesh is soft, and fragrant, just behind the angle of the jaw. Esther melted in my arms, molding herself to me. We stepped into her room. I took Esther's hands and raised them to my lips: kissing the back of her knuckles, left, then right, I closed my eyes and shivered a little. "Should I close the door?" Esther whispered. I could feel her breath. I wrapped her up in my arms again and held her. I crushed her into me and buried my face in her hair and I smelled her perfume, and felt her warmth, and her arms held me just as hard and just as tight, and of a sudden I let go of her with my left arm and bent over and swept her up. I held Esther Wales in my arms, like I was ready to carry her across the threshold, and she laughed and threw her head back and ran her arms around my neck. I hooked the door with my boot and swung it shut, pushing it to with my backside. Esther's eyes were darker now, and deep, pools of living ocean, mysterious as the sea I had seen but thrice in my young life: pools of wisdom and wonder and right now, of a bright fire that had ignited my very soul. I was very aware of Esther's femaleness. I carried her over to her bed, my eyes on hers. Her lips were parted, a little, ripe and red and inviting, and her bosom raised a little with each breath, and I wanted her, I wanted her ... I swung her a little to the right, and eased her down on the bed, coming down right to left, my knee on the bed, settling her gently onto the neatly-laid quilt, drawing my right arm out from under her thighs. Esther's tongue caressed her lower lip. I bent over and caressed it some myself. It was a hard thing to do to straighten up. Esther's eyes were nearly closed, and her breath was a little quicker, and my mustache tickled her under her chin as I kissed her soft, white neck. "I must take your leave," I whispered, not wanting to spoil this gentle moment with my voice. Esther's hands were warm on mine. "Stay," she whispered. I wanted to -- I wanted to! -- but it was not in me to dishonor this woman, this love, this Godess in ivory and emerald. "I have held you in my arms," I whispered, "and I have tasted your lips. I will do this again, my dear, and this time, when I carry you, I will carry my bride." I stood. "You are the most beautiful woman in the world," I whispered, and turned quickly, not trusting myself to stay another moment. Stay, she had whispered. I drew the door shut behind me, and settled my hat on my head, and walked downstairs. I had need of the cold night air.
  22. Mr. Box 12-5-07 Miss Tilly and Sheriff Keller were sitting over in the corner having coffee with a couple of the other ladies gathering around. When Miss Tilly stood up and kissed Linn, the whole place seemed to just stop in it's tracks. You could have heard a pin drop. I keep a brand new railroad spike behind the bar for the purpose of testing that theory. It's also handy for chipping ice when I've got a block around. Ice is easy to come by this time of year, but in mid summer, it's a rare commodity. I wouldn't be surprised to see them figure out a way to bring it in on the train someday. It turns out Miss Tilly was just paying her respects for the upcoming wedding and the loss of a very eligible bachlor. "Good day, Miss Tilly." as she passed the bar.
  23. Linn Keller 12-5-07 Tilly suggested it, and it struck me as a good idea. Jacob offered no objection. Fact is, he seemed pleased with the idea. I know they kept him busy, there at the Jewel, not only with keeping them in wood -- which was nearly a full time job in and of itself -- but he was their step-and-fetch-it and their make-it-happen. If it was a squeaking door, or a sticking door knob, if it was cold air leaking in around a window or a board come loose, they called for Jacob, and he took care of it. Tilly caught me coming into the Jewel, and took my arm and walked with me back to my table. She patted my hand and congratulated me on our upcoming nuptials, and said that Mr. Moulton was so very happy for us, and she handed me an envelope. I turned it over, ran my thumb over the wax seal. Tilly's hand was warm as it pressed on mine. "Not yet, Sheriff," she said. "That's for your wedding. I just wanted to ... talk." I nodded. Coffee appeared, and a dainty little pitcher of cream; between Tilly and I, we emptied that delicate little porcelain piece in one round. "Sheriff, you're going to be a married man in ... what? Three days?" "Three days," I nodded. "You're going to be living in your new house." I smiled. "We are." Tilly smiled quietly, veiling her eyes. "I like the sound of that." "Beg pardon?" I took a sip of coffee. "You said we," she replied. "We are." It was my turn to smile. "It does sound good," I agreed. "Sheriff, you've always been an honest man." Tilly was choosing her words carefully, as if unsure how to say what was on her mind. I nodded. "You treated me decent from the day you met me." I nodded again. "Most men then were looking at me like I was meat on a slab, and the women ... well, I was dirt under their feet." I nodded, my eyes on hers. She had my full attention, and I wanted her to know it. "Sheriff, you ... we have you to thank." Her voice started to falter, and she took a sip of coffee to fortify herself. "Sheriff, you ..." She sat up very straight and folded her hands formally in her lap. "Sheriff, you could have had any of us, at any time, you know that." I about fell through my chair. Of all the things she could have said, this was what I least expected. "Sheriff, every one of us -- every one of us -- is absolutely delighted you're marrying Esther. She is a fine woman, she is nearer your age than we, and you'll make a fine couple." Her hands were no longer folded; one clutched the other. Tilly looked at me, and I have never seen a greater depth in anyone's eyes, save only Duzy's, there in the moonlight. "Sheriff, had you asked any of us, we would have married you in a moment. There's not a one of us that hasn't imagined what it would have been to stand with you, up on that stage, the night you went to one knee and proposed to Esther the way you did." I nodded. "Stand up, Sheriff." I did, and so did she. Tilly grabbed my hands and kissed me -- once, firmly, her eyes closed -- she stood there for a moment, shivering, then sat down again. "That's from all of us, Bonnie included." I bit my bottom lip. Tilly pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. "My God," she murmured, "what have I done?" I reached over and took her hand. "You have given me the greatest honor anyone could," I said quietly. "You have given me a greater gift than I have ever received, and I will wear it proudly for the rest of my entire life." Tilly was about ready to cry. To her credit, she drew up her courage and sat there a while longer, instead of running off like a scared schoolgirl. Esther told me later she was ready to run like a scared deer, until I reached over and touched her hand. "Sheriff, you're going to carry Esther across the threshold of your new place." "I do plan to." "What about Jacob?" I blinked. "Why, I reckon he'll be living with us," I said, not realizing until after the words fell out of my mouth how unintelligent they sounded. Tilly shook her head. "Sheriff, I've talked to Jacob, and with Esther. Why don't we have him stay here, with us, at least for a little while? You and Esther can have some time to yourselves, you know, to ... get acquainted ..." She let the words trail off, and turned a lovely shade of pink. "He's so handy here," she continued in a rush, "we don't know what we'd do without him, if anything goes wrong anytime of the day or night he's right there to take care of it, and it would be so empty around here if all of you were gone, and I just thought..." I chuckled. "Tilly, thank you. That's not a bad idea. Do you suppose he would behave himself?" Tilly gave me a gentle look. "Sheriff, he takes after you in so many ways. He is very much the soft-spoken gentleman. Yes, I believe he would behave." She giggled. "You're still thinking of him as a boy." I sighed. "He was so when I first met him, but Tilly, he's grown so fast!" "I know." She smoothed her skirt. "I should get back to the desk." I rose as she stood. "Thank you, Tilly," I said quietly. Tilly curtsied, and turned, and floated across the floor with the peculiar smoothness of a Southern lady. She learned that from Esther, I thought, and smiled. Her kiss was still warm on my lips. I'll be damned, I thought. I never realized.
  24. Linn Keller 12-3-07 It was quiet on the street. I turned my collar up and Rose o' the Mornin' walked almost silently, the saddle squeaking a little as it always did with her gait; my eyes were busy, as they always were, divining the depth of this shadow, the content of that alley's mouth; light spilled from the Jewel, and I could hear a piano, a fiddle, laughter: a good sound, a warm and welcome sound. Esther's light was on. She was working late, bless her; I wondered about the wisdom of giving her the railroad, but then realized it required more time than I could give it. Better to hand it to someone competent, someone who would take care of it, rather than let it wither on the vine, or be carried away piecemeal, because I couldn't tend it properly. I'd been out chasing rustlers, exchanged shots with one. He missed. I didn't. I'd chased him to the county line and as luck would have it, the neighboring sheriff was near enough to hear the gunshots. He, too, was looking into the rustling, and as the unlucky scoundrel's carcass fell on the other lawman's side of the county line, he got to handle the arrangements. Likely I would have to go testify, he said, he would let me know. The other rustler, faced with a pair of tin stars, was more than happy to cooperate, and was likely making himself comfortable in their hoosegow. Me, I was tired, and wanted little more than a bath, a meal and a warm bunk. There was someplace I had to go first. The half moon gave me light enough to see by. Rose o' the Mornin' picked her way down the little gully by the Tree of Truth, and I dismounted and tied her to the cemetery gate. She blinked and swished her tail and gave no sign at all of restless ghosts wandering about, which suited me, because whether shades do exist or they don't, if they spooked my horse I would be unhappy. Jacob was waiting for me. In season he still brought flowers to a grave, the blind girl's grave; her people had not been back for some long time and likely never would. Jacob kept her grave cleared of leaves and trash weeds, and he tried planting some prairie flowers, but they didn't take. Likely they would, with a little water, maybe come spring they would bloom, but frost had killed most everything. Matter of fact it felt pretty close to frost as we stood there. I looked around, remembering. There were several lifetimes' worth of memories buried here, I thought. In time I planned to be planted here as well, myself and Esther, side by side. I'd already bought the plot and set the stone: plain and unadorned it was. Some folks liked to have their name and birth on the stone, wanting only a death date to be complete; me, I don't see the sense in hurrying these things. I'd paid Digger ahead of time for the funerals, and for the chisel work. "Sir?" "Yes, Jacob?" "Sir, do you reckon she can see us?" I considered my answer carefully. "Jacob, if she can see us a'tall, she can see with the eyes of youth: strong, clear, able to read a newspaper at a mile and a half." Jacob considered this. "Sir?" "Yes, Jacob?" "Sir, I'd been reading Scripture some." Jacob was turning over what he wanted to say in his mind, not quite sure how to phrase it. He turned his hat round in his hands a couple of times as he thought -- an unconscious move -- surprised, I realized it was something I did when thinking. "Sir, I read where we are surrounded by a great cloud of believers." "I've read the passage too, Jacob." "Sir, would that mean that she is among the believers, and she is with us in that cloud?" I looked over at Rose o' the Mornin'. Rose looked back at me. "Jacob, I honestly don't know," I admitted. "I recall what it was like when I died, but I don't know if she experienced the same thing or not." Jacob nodded. "Then it's possible, sir?" "It's quite possible, Jacob. It is quite possible." Jacob considered this for some time. He looked over at the frost-sparkle on WJ's settling grave. "Sir?" "Yes, Jacob?" "Sir, if we're surrounded by that great cloud of believers, can we talk to them?" I turned my own hat round in my hands, slowly. "Jacob, when I was in the War, we used to discuss that very thing." "Yes, sir?" "I had the pleasure to have learned men and theologians on staff who delighted in such discussion." "Yes, sir?" "One was a Catholic priest. He was firmly of the opinion that the dead are closer to God than we, and therefore can intercede with God on our behalf." Jacob frowned. "Yes, sir," he said, his bottom jaw thrusting out. "There was an Episcopalian, a college man, who allowed as that may or may not be the case," I continued. "He allowed as Christ is our only intercessor." "I see, sir." Jacob's eyes cast slowly back and forth on the shadowed ground. "Sir?" "Yes, Jacob?" "Sir, what do you believe?" Lord, if ever I need Solomon's wisdom, it's when talking with this tall boy, I thought, the enormity of my influence on him finally settling in like a mass on my shoulders. "Jacob, I believe ... I believe we're put on this earth to train us, to teach us things we need to know for the next life." "Yes, sir?" There was a note in his voice that caught my ear: I'd noticed it when he was listening closely to something that interested him greatly. "I believe that when we die, it's like shedding an old and worn-out cloak; it's like a long dive into a deep, cold pond, it's like stepping into a Valley that smells of springtime." I spoke from my own experience, what I'd felt and seen and smelled when I myself died, but I realized I was delaying the answer to his question. "Jacob, I don't honestly know if our honored dead do surround us, and I don't honestly know whether they intercede for us. The priest allowed as they do, and they can, and I raised the objection that our prayers should be reserved for the Almighty -- otherwise it looks an awful lot like ancestor worship." I took a long breath; my exhaled breath steamed a great plume in the moonlit air. "The priest allowed as our prayers are indeed reserved for the Almighty, that what we do is not to pray to saints or ancestors, but rather to ask them as a friend to pray for us." Jacob frowned, pursing his lips, and nodded. "He allowed as there is no sin in asking a friend to pray for us, and so there is no harm in asking a friend who happens to be dead, to pray for us." "I see, sir." "There's an awful lot I don't know, Jacob, but this I do know, and a wiser man than I said it: God plays fair if He plays a'tall." "I would reckon so, sir." Jacob was still chewing on an idea, and I knew from the look on his face he was about to speak it, and I was right. "Sir?" "Yes, Jacob?" "Sir, those men I killed, the night they tried to burn the town..." "Yes, Jacob?" "Sir, did I do the right thing?" I stepped up to him and laid my hands on his shoulders. He turned to face me. "Jacob, you were a tool, as was I myself. Their deaths are not on your hands nor on your head. They caused their own deaths. You would not blame the cliff if a man jumped off it to his death. They made choices that got them killed. They made that decision. We were the cliff. They chose to jump." "Yes, sir," Jacob said quietly, nodding slowly. "That does make sense, sir." I looked around. "You hungry?" "Yes, sir." "Me too. Let's get us a bite." Jacob grinned. "Yes, sir!"
  25. Mr. Box 11-30-07 The incident with the coal was exciting, but the repairs and improvements are well underway. I've been around bigger towns that weren't nearly so remote and if something like this happened it would shut things down for weeks. Supplies and equipment and tradesmen were slow to show up. The people here are a very unique group of people. Having the railroad headquarters here gives us a lot of pull. The trains go out and bring things to us rather than us being out at the end of a line that seldom gets any service. They can add another car to bring us special orders instead of not having room and leaving goods at a depot two or three states away. I'm sure we'll be seeing more new stoves that are safe to use the hard coal. The Silver Jewel is stocked up good now and the firehouse has a good supply laid in. The depot was getting a supply for themselves and some spare in case the tender ever ran low. It wasn't going to be long before that carload was gone. It would be coming back full again in just a short while. I expect the coal car will be used for some other towns down the line, too.
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