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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

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  1. Linn Keller 9-9-11 Matilda went berserk. The elephant announced by the new ringmaster’s stentorian throat as “Zanzibar” curled her trunk and screamed the war-trumpet of an enraged pachyderm: her mahout, panicking, seized the mallet and short spear elephant drivers kept at hand to hammer through the back of their mount’s skull in such moments as this. Lightning surged out of his silk-cushioned and draped howdah and scrambled for the mahout: seizing the man by his loincloth and the back of his neck, he picked him up and heaved him off the sceaming elephant: slipping into the seat and thrusting his feet behind her ears, he roared “Matilda, GET ‘EM!” Matilda needed little encouragement. The ground shivered underfoot as she charged, and the crowd gasped at the speed with which the shuffling, grey-coated elephant crossed the arena. Lightning had never worn anything elegant in his life. His closet was modest and sparse: his clothes were cotton or linen or woolen, his shirts were white, his vests and trousers and elastic-sided shoes were black. When he looked at himself in the ringmaster’s wagon and beheld himself in the turban and silks, the sash and sword and curl-toed slippers of a Maharaja, he didn’t know whether to stare, gasp or laugh: the jewels he wore, so far as he knew, were fake, though cleverly made to look genuine; the yard-long yathaghan at his waist he presumed was a costume prop. He was helped into the howdah atop Matilda’s broad back, and told to stay there until it was time to descend, and he would know the time: in the meanwhile, they instructed him, he was to sit cross legged on silk pillows and look bored, as if he were the greatest monarch in the world, astride the greatest elephant ever seen. It was the world’s tiniest Overland stage, drawn by tiny, perfectly matched ponies, driven by a tiny little man with a tiny little shotgun guard who carried a tiny little double barrel: as they circled the arena, the driver swung his whip in a tiny little circle and snapped it over the ponies’ heads, and the shotgun driver discharged two blank rounds into the air, to the crowd’s delight. The stage drew to a stop with a shout and a flourish, and disgorged an impossible number of capering, tumbling clowns: the clowns swatted at one another’s backsides with clap boards, jumped, yelped, threw buckets of water at each other (which missed, though the lower rows of the audience got wet), which illustrated a major principle of magic: misdirection. While the eyes of the audience were otherwise engaged, the good Parson Belden slipped into the off side of the coach, and as one clown stuffed a stick of firecrackers into another’s sacky drawers and the victim began to pop and crackle at the top of his lungs, jumping like a Dacoit as the audience roared, the Parson stepped out: black-clad, formal and dignified, he made a proper contrast to the gaily-caparisoned buffoons. The circus band struck up a familiar air, “Here Come the Clowns,” and the clowns drew back, juggling balls and honking horns at one another, and the gaudy-uniformed circus band segued smoothly into … of all things … “Here Comes the Bride.” Daciana’s mouth was dry and she leaned forward, petting her trick pony’s neck. She tried to speak, and her throat was tight: she could not manage more than a hoarse whisper. She shot a desperate glance at the Snake Lady. The Snake Lady’s yellow eyes glowed in the diffused sunlight: she made a quick sign and kissed her thumbnail – Daciana recognized it as a ward against the Evil Eye – and then she handed Daciana a small bouquet. Daciana was surprised to see a trickle of moisture falling from the Snake Lady’s eye. “Had I a daughter,” she hissed, “I would want her jussst like you,” and then gestured, for the band had just changed its tune. “Here Comes the Bride,” when played on a pipe organ in a grand cathedral, is stately and almost a hymn: the bride paces with a ceremonial slowness, with tiny steps, on the arm of father, brother, uncle or grandfather: the audience had seen such, many times, but not one of them had ever heard “Here Comes the Bride” delivered in such a brisk, bright, circus-band manner: the bride came into the arena at a gallop, veil streaming straight out behind her: head back, arm arched overhead, her smile was bright and genuine. Daciana orbited the arena once, then began her performance: as her pearl-colored pony with ribbons and gilt hooves kept perfect time with the band’s music, Daciana draped herself bonelessly over the saddle, back over the pony’s hind quarters: she flowed upright, hand-standing on her saddle, legs spread, then together, pointing to the heavens: she bent double, backwards, and stood, standing upright on the galloping little pony: she dropped to the side, holding the saddle at horn and cantle and striking the soles of her feet on the ground, flipping herself up, high above her pony’s back, and over the other side: strike again, and back over her pony: she struck her feet once more on the ground, rose and dropped neatly into the saddle. Daciana cantered to a stop before the good Parson Belden, swung a leg over, at once saucy and demure, and slid to the ground: she curtsied before the sky pilot, and her gleaming, pearl-bright pony knelt and dropped its head behind her. The Overland Stage jingled away, and Lightning saw the surreptitious signal from the shotgun rider, and stood. Right about then things got kind of busy. “Let’s get us some doxy,” the one cowhand said, fueled by good old fashioned lust and cheap whiskey: his partner allowed as he could do that, and so the two of them made a quick and ill-considered plot, to sweep in and abduct the sweet little trick rider. She was, after all, a performer, and performers in that day were nothing but … well, cheap. And so it was, as the tiny little Overland Stage, drawn by tiny little ponies wearing tiny little bells, jingled away, this pair galloped in, swinging their loops and yelling, and neatly snared a lariat about Daciana, pinning her arms to her side and dragging her briefly until they could hoist her ahorse. “NOOO!” Lightning yelled, snatching up the engraved, gold-inlaid double gun in the ivory hooks attached to the inside of the howdah: Lightning was not a fighter, neither was he a blooded warrior, but he saw his wife being taken, and he was not about to stand for that. Matilda spun, agile as a cutting horse, for Daciana screamed as she was taken. Lightning brought the double four-bore to shoulder, wiping both hammers to full cock, and took a sight on the lead rider, the one with his wife across the saddle in front of him. Matilda had other ideas. Curling her trunk to her forehead and trumpeting, she stunned the assembled, for an elephant’s war-scream is not quiet, especially when confined to the tented arena: Lightning, not expecting his gun-platform to move at a shambling trot, fell back and dropped the double gun: it tumbled to the ground and lay shining in the dust. Lightning thought fast, as was his habit. He saw Matilda was closing the distance to the abductor and counted this a good thing. He saw the mahout raise the short spear and mallet and he knew the mahout was about to kill Matilda rather than let her run rampant in a crowd. Lightning knew this was the wrong thing to do and so he did the right thing. Lightning seized the mahout and pitched him overboard. “MATILDA!” he yelled, “GET THEM!” The tent had been closed and secured as Daciana rode in. The abductors realized they suddenly had no escape. Turning, they saw a grey mountain of screaming death bearing down on them, and on top, a Maharaja screaming as well, uttering obscure curses in obscene Oriental tongues: Matilda’s grey trunk lashed out like a vengeful snake, knocking one man from the saddle, sending him across the arena with a broken back and caved in ribs: he skidded to the sawdust, rolled once and lay still. The kidnapper, with Daciana roped across his saddle, spun his cow-pony and sought to escape as well: he tried to ride to the side, and Matilda spun, her trunk humming dangerously close as she sought to snare him from the saddle: Daciana was screaming, struggling to get away: the cow pony’s eyes walled up white and it reared. Lightning patted Matilda’s head. He never took classes in elephant riding, he never read accounts of mahouts guiding the great creatures on tiger-hunts, but he followed his instinct: he patted her head and shouted, “Matilda, down!” Matilda stopped, knelt, about the time the cow-pony dumped its rider and unwilling cargo. Lightning seized the curved, wire-wrapped handle of the yathaghan and drew a yard of crescent steel: screaming, he sliced the air and charged the cowboy. The audience was wild: cheers, yells, applause: they’d come for a performance and never in their lives had they seen such a hum-dinger! Comedy, adventure, surprise, spectacle, all the elements of a circus! The waxed-canvas tent shivered with the accolades of half a thousand throats, the bleachers shuddered with the approval of stomping feet – townie brogans and riding boots alike punished the pine planks! The only ones who knew this was not a performance were the circus folk, and with the exception of the mahout, who had just made it to his feet, they were shocked into motionlessness. Only one in the bleachers divined what was actually happening. “Mommy?” Angela half-screamed, standing now and clutching her Mommy's skirt, and Esther shouted “Stand still, honey,” and extended her arm. Lighting swung a figure-eight in the air before him, running now, his curl-toed slippers somewhere behind him: he did not care. He felt sawdust under his bare feet, and he did not care. All he saw was his beloved, his Daciana, the braided leather lariat about her, rolling in the sawdust, and her attacker just coming upright. He saw Daciana’s eyes: fear-filled and vulnerable, beseeching. Lightning’s father had been in the War: his father had been tempered in the forge of battle, seasoned in the crucible of combat: his father had been a warrior, fighting for the man beside him, fighting for himself, as do all soldiers in all wars: Lightning had no such seasoning, no such tempering: what he had was, perhaps, even more potent. Lightning had the love of a helpless young woman who was depending on him to keep her safe. Lightning raised the yathagan overhead and was less than three paces from delivering a stroke intended to cleave the criminal from crown to crotch. Esther Keller’s thumb slipped off the Smith & Wesson’s hammer and she had the perfect sight on the felon. The kidnapper dropped his hand for his revolver. Esther saw how wide the man’s eyes were, just before her muzzle rose in recoil. Angela’s hands were over her ears, not so much to prevent the sound of the gunshot, but because the crowd was on its feet and at the top of its lungs, stomping, cheering, whistling, yelling – The kidnaper’s revolver fell from nerveless fingers. Lightning’s cut was given with all the strength in his young body. Watered steel sliced through an impressive percentage of the kidnaper’s thorax a tenth of a second after a .44 slug punched a thumb sized hole through the man’s liver, two fingers from the side wall of his heart. The gunshot was the thunderclap that silenced the crowd. Everything froze. Esther Keller stood, arm extended, the Smith’s barrel rising slowly in recoil, the rolling blue doughnut of black powder smoke wobbling out into the air before her: the shining arc of Lightning’s hard-swung steel lingered for half a heartbeat before it, too, sparkled out of existence. The kidnapper swayed for a long moment and Lightning raised a leg, kicked hard against the kidnapper’s middle, pulling the blade free, and the carcass fell over backwards and hit the ground. Lightning stood there, breathing hard, the sword in his hand suddenly heavy, very heavy. He looked around. Matilda shuffled up beside him, explored Daciana with a delicacy that had to be seen to be appreciated. Lightning tossed the sword aside and approached his intended. He seized the lariat, worked it loose, drew it free and dropped it: taking his diminutive, slender little bride-to-be in his arms, he stood: holding her close into him, he bore her across the arena, the little trick pony stepping daintily through the sawdust on his left and Matilda, ponderously pacing them on his right, until they came to the good Parson Belden. To the topmost row, silence. Every soul there could hear Matilda’s every padding footfall, Lightning’s breathing, the trick pony’s light and delicate gait. Lightning raised his head, took a deep breath. “I believe we’re here for a wedding,” he said, his voice ringing with clarity and with purpose. The crowd erupted once more.
  2. Linn Keller 9-8-11 Dr. George Flint, M.D., graduate of the Harvard School of Medicine: husband, surgeon, colleague, friend: the blocky Navajo took a long step over a mountain stream with his knee-high, concho-trimmed moccasins. He did not step in the stream. To do so would not respect the spirit of the water. He’d known his help would be needed, and he had prepared what he would need: his traveling pack was light, yet well stocked, and he knew he would arrive well before dark, as would the other actors in the little play he knew was forthcoming. Sarah McKenna let the line-back dun pick its own way through the brush. She’d slipped out of the house in britches and chaps, a flannel shirt and denim jacket: she carried Jacob’s rifle and wore her revolver, her hair was in a single, thick braid and she wore one of Jacob’s old hats. Sam whistled up the remuda and floated a loop out into the herd, drawing the dun from the horses she kept: Sam ran the cattle operation on the McKenna ranch, and profitably so: so much so that Bonnie McKenna, Sarah’s mother, gave Sam and Clark a free hand in their operation, and in their expenses. It was a trust neither abused. The horses were not extravagance, but necessity: when it came to rounding up cattle, when it came to cutting and culling, a good mount was needed, and it was necessary to have fresh horses. Sarah thanked Sam, and Sam nodded and gave her a thin smile: it wasn’t unusual for Sarah to go riding, but generally it was in a riding skirt, and on her late father’s race-blooded gelding. Sam took silent note of the rifle and the revolver, but kept her own counsel. Sarah thrust the .40-60 into the scabbard and mounted: touching her hat brim, she turned the dun and gave it her knees. Dust puffed up in little clouds as the dun’s hooves punished the meadow. The Sheriff lifted his nose and sniffed, tasting the wind. It was cooler now, fall was approaching: some few leaves were turning already and he knew the mountains would turn gold as aspen leaves colored up and got ready to fall. He gave his knees to his black Outlaw-horse. “Come on, fella,” he said softly. “Work to be done.” The gelding blew and shook its head, then stepped out on a long-legged pace, a pace he could maintain all day if need be, and had a time or two. The Sheriff’s ear twitched a little. In the distance he heard the long, mournful song of a wolf, lamenting to the dark-blue sky overhead. The slender lawman’s eyes narrowed, then he gave a mental shrug: it was early in the day to hear wolf song … but, well, sometimes it happens. The circus train was moving again, and right on schedule. The Lady Esther was breathing easily, hauling the brightly-painted cars up grade and down, past vistas and drop-offs, waterfalls and forest. Between The Lady Esther’s tender full of water and coal, and the first gilt-trimmed and pinstriped circus car, though, was an extra, an elegant passenger car, a private coach reserved for the owner of the Z&W Railroad, and two regular passenger cars. Much of Firelands declared holiday. The circus was coming to Cripple Creek and Firelands as a whole wanted to see the elephant … and that cute little girl that rode her trick pony almost as well as Angela, along with clowns, jugglers, fire breathers, slickers, scoundrels, two headed giants and whatever wonders might appear. The private car rocked a little and the rhythmic clickity-clack of wheels on rail-joints proved soporific for a little girl, cuddled up against her Mommy’s side: Angela rubbed her eyes and gave a great yawn, and she felt her Mommy’s arm light against her, holding her close. “Mommy?” she murmured, her voice thick with the slumber rapidly overtaking her small frame. “Yes, Sweets?” Esther murmured, leaning down to kiss the top of her little girl’s head. “Will I get to see da Mildew Elly Fat?” Angela asked, and was just as quickly asleep. Esther smiled, rubbing Angela’s shoulder gently with a gloved hand. “Yes, Sweets,” she whispered. “We’ll see Mildred the Elephant.”
  3. Charlie MacNeil 9-7-11 “What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Startled by the sudden voice in the otherwise quiet barn, Charlie nearly dropped his saddle into the hay- and straw-littered sand at the roan’s feet. When he had regained his composure, he turned nonchalantly, or as nonchalantly as he was capable of with his heart still beating its flurried tattoo in his chest, to face his wife’s wrathful glare. Fannie stood with her hands on her hips, silhouetted against the morning sunlight streaming into the building. “Well, I was saddlin’ my horse, until you stopped my heart just now.” “And who told you that you’re healed enough to saddle a horse?” Her tart tone left no doubt that she very severely disapproved of his behavior. “I did.” Two syllables, four letters, delivered in a flat tone of cast iron that stilled all sound. Charlie’s features went rigid, lines etched deeply in forehead and cheeks, for a long, breathless moment before his lips relaxed into the barest hint of a smile. His voice was soft as he went on. “I’ve been layin’ in yonder on my duff for long enough, Darlin’. It’s past time I was out and about. Fall’s comin’ and there’s a lot to get done before winter sets in.” Fannie stepped forward to lay her soft, yet work-calloused hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry, but I worry about you. That cat tore you up something awful.” Covering her hand with his own, Charlie answered, “I know you worry, and I’m thankful that there’s somebody left in the world to do that. But I’m healed. Trust me.” “Right,” she snorted. “Trust you. You’re from the government and you’re here to help, is that it?” “Nope, not any more. I'm retired, remember?” he grinned then turned his head and kissed her palm lightly. “I’m headed for the north pasture. You comin’?” “I suppose I’d better go along and keep you out of trouble. Let me get my horse saddled.” “Already done.” “Someday…”
  4. Linn Keller 9-7-11 Sarah leaned back against the log front of the Sheriff’s Office. She realized she was shivering. Sarah’s hand was steady as a rock on the handle of her revolver, but she felt light headed and half sick. This is not good, a voice whispered, and she knew the voice was inside her, perhaps her own voice: Sarah watched the smoke from Jacob’s double gun curl up against the underside of the overhanging boardwalk roof, slow, lazy on the still air. Sarah took a long, steadying breath. This is not right, she thought: this is not right! Sarah heard the metallic click as Jacob’s double gun fell open, she saw the empty hulls drop slowly, slowly to the dusty, warped boardwalk. She saw the men from the Jewel running toward them in slow motion, as if in a dream, as if through invisible molasses. Why do I feel like this? she thought, dismayed. I have seen worse – You have done worse, the voice whispered. Sarah felt sick and her breath was quick, shallow. Don’t let them see me, she thought, don’t let them see me like this! Sarah reached down and crushed a handful of skirt in her fist, lifted: she turned, stepped daintily down the two steps to street level, turned and skipped back into the alley, out of sight. She stopped at a rain barrel, gathered a double handful of water, splashed her face, careless of water-spots on her bodice: she blew, snorted, shivered again. Away. She turned, eyes wide, hands up as if to block an attack. I must get away! Iron control raised a knuckled claw and clamped down over her surging emotions. Sarah had been hurt, deeply and badly hurt as a very young child: she was scarred, hardened by this very early trauma: like Jacob, it had made her … not unfeeling, but she could turn her feelings off when the need arose. Most of the time, at least, she could turn them off. Now, though, it took the iron claw of self-control to clamp down over those feelings and keep them in check. Sarah raised her head, took a long, deep breath. You are a Lady, she thought. You are your mother’s daughter, you are a McKenna of the Clan McKenna, and a Highland Scot – I’m just a girl! a juvenile voice sobbed silently within her. I’m only twelve! I’m just a girl! She had a vision of herself, a schoolgirl like the others, no different: a girl’s clothes, a girl’s hairstyle, a girl’s feelings: childish, immature, but growing, growing in her own good time: whispering secrets behind cupped hands, giggling over some imagined heart-crushing romance, too much of a child to understand the lust-fires that would consume her soul in years to come; a child, skipping home from school, into her Mama’s embrace, playing with dolls and tea-sets – Sarah’s forearm automatically rested against the edge of her revolver’s grip, a protective move, second nature to her: Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie and Uncle Linn had all remarked on her ability to make the sidearm disappear, by the simple drape of her arm; each had coached her in how to keep someone from snatching the revolver in an unguarded moment; she, and they, had practiced and drilled and practiced again, with endless repetitions, until muscle memory made a smooth, broad highway for her nervous impulses to follow: she was satisfied that, should any seek to withdraw her pistol from its leathern home without her express permission, they would sustain at the very least a broken arm, elbow, knee, the arch of the nearest foot, and probably nose, jaw and maybe a collarbone as well. Unless she could reach her knife, in which case they would be even worse off. Sarah thought of the sleeve knife she wore, and she remembered long hours of practice with her Aunt Esther, just the two of them, then with Uncle Linn or Jacob helping, generally as a practice dummy: all agreed that her reflexes were phenomenally good, and the men mutually surmised that, should she ever take live steel to them, they would most certainly come out in second place. Sarah looked down the alley, toward the street. She knew who she had to see. She had to see Dr. Flint. He could help her sort this all out.
  5. Linn Keller 8-14-11 The Sheriff examined the document the girl in the winged fairy's riding outfit produced from a hidden compartment in the gaily-painted circus wagon. It was the bill of ownership for Buttercup, her trick pony, and it looked legitimate. The wagon was on a flatcar, the flatcar was one of several brightly painted cars in the circus train: the Sheriff waited discreetly outside, for it was the girl's personal carriage: it had originally been hers and her parents', but their untimely death meant she was its sole tenant now. The Sheriff's jaw muscles bulged and few there missed his left hand closing slowly into a knotted, knuckled fist at the sounds of distress from within; the carriage had been ransacked, and the Sheriff's pale-eyed inquiries revealed it was the circus master who'd done the deed. A circus is made up of tough and capable folk, generally hardened by life's adversities: none were strangers to petty satraps, greedy officials, crooked cops with their hand out, expecting a payoff for the privlege of ... well, of anything: these were circus folk, after all, performers and not fit for decent people's company! There was something different about this one, though, they realized: he addressed them with courtesy, listened-- actually listened! -- when they spoke, and at no time did he forbid their presence in his town. Clown and acrobat, juggler and roustabout, fire-eater and fortuneteller alike smiled when a small boy ran up to the Sheriff: barefoot, panting, his overalls stained at the knees and his hat in his hand, he plucked anxiously at the tall, slender lawman's sleeve and announced with his little-boy voice, "Sheriffph?" -- his enunciation somewhat handicapped by two missing front teeth -- "Mithz Ezthther thezzth therethh thhum good alfiealfie hay dey kin wanssa hafff --" The Sheriff smiled and accepted the note the lad held out: unfolding the folded half-sheet, he smiled at the wrinkles, for the lad had apparently clutched it very firmly between thumb and bent forefinger as he ran to deliver it. He looked up. "With your circus master under arrest," he said quietly, his voice carrying surprisingly well, "who's in charge --" To his credit he didn't jump, nor did he visibly startle at the unexpected sound, though in that moment his heart did jump up and occupy the space normally filled by the base of his tongue, there in his lower jaw. If you were to take The Lady Esther's steam boiler and fire it until the pop-off let go and blew a pristine finger of white into the high Colorado air, and duct this high-pressure jet through a brass trumpet, you would closely approximate the sound coming from the othe side of the circus wagon. The circus wagon was boomed down on a flat car; there were boxcars fore and aft; all were painted bright reds and oranges, greens and yellows, pin striped and curlicued and gilded to catch the eye. Something like a snake, but a snake thick as a man's thigh, swung into view. The Sheriff's long, slender fingers folded the note and slid it into his left hand vest pocket. Jacob swallowed hard, wishing for his rifle. A massive grey head with broad, swinging ears thrust out from behind the carriage, something resembling a young mountain on four stumpy legs, something with little black eyes and wrinkles that curled that snake-nose up and blasted forth the steam-trumpet again. The Sheriff climbed the three steps onto the flatcar, walked across its width and stopped, tilting his head a little, regarding the circus elephant curiously. "Matilda?" he asked. "Matilda, is that you?" The clown looked behind him and down at the barefoot little boy who'd brought the Sheriff the note. The lad's eyes were the size of tea saucers and his mouth was open. The clown watched as the elephant uncoiled her trunk and sniffed the Sheriff delicately, then prodded the man's middle until he handed over an apple secreted in a coat pocket. The clown smiled and suppressed his chuckle as the barefoot lad said "Ooooo," watching the elephant very delicately pluck the apple from the Sheriff's hand, and introduce it daintily into its mouth. The fairy-rider came out of her carriage, skipped down the yellow-painted steps and took the Sheriff's left arm. "Her name is Zambia," she said happily. The Sheriff laughed as the elephant wrapped her trunk around the fairy-rider and carefully placed her on the back of the pachyderm's broad, muscled neck. "When I met her, she was called Matilda," the Sheriff smiled. "My wife sent me a note. It seems we have a load of good hay -- half alfalfa and half clover -- it was shipped to us by accident, and it would cost more for the owner to pay for its return than it's worth. Yours if you want it." The fairy-rider shot a beseeching look at an unassuming man who'd been doing his best to remain invisible. The Sheriff turned, following her gaze. "You the man in charge?" The fellow nodded, spat. "You'll need to feed her," the Sheriff said, gesturing toward Matilda. "I reckon she's kind of empty by now." The fellow hooked his thumbs under his galluses and challenged, "And how much do I owe you for this most magnanimous gesture?" "I missed your birthday last year," the Sheriff said. "Take that for your birthday present." "Yeah?" Suspicion ran deep; most officials they'd encountered were anything but generous, and it was natural to look for the catch, the hook. The Sheriff rubbed Matilda between the eyes, the gentle affection of a man who knew creatures, and it was evident from the caressing manner in which her trunk enveloped him that she felt a similar affection. "What do you think, Matilda?" he asked. "You hungry?" Matilda wrapped her trunk around the Sheriff's chest, picked him up; she set him down, plucked the hat from his head and waved it in the air, to the general laughter of all present. The man in charge nodded, stepped out of the boxcar's shadow. "You know Matilda," he said, a statement and not a question. Matilda replaced the Sheriff's Stetson rather crookedly on his head. The Sheriff reached up, straightened the hat; Matilda draped her trunk over his shoulder, and he stroked it, petting it with an easy familiarity. The new circus master squinted at the grey-mustached Sheriff, looked up at the fairy-rider, looked over at clown and roustabout and juggler: finally he spat a brown stream of tobacco juice and demanded, "Daggone it now, do you know everybody?"
  6. Linn Keller 8-13-13 "No ye don't! Keep your nose off my table!" Daisy's girl made a swipe at the Bear Killer with her ever-present towel, and the Bear Killer gave her a sad look: dejected, forlorn, head down and tail sagging, he made a mournful noise and slunk under the table, then out the other side and to the door, stopping to look sorrowfully over his shoulder. "Oh, you," she said, squatting briefly and rubbing the Bear Killer's ears and under his chin. "You're just a typical man, now, aren't you? Comin' in here wantin' attention an' yer belly filled an' now you're just goin' ta leave me!" The Bear Killer's head came up and his tail came to life, and he gave her a happy lick: satsified, he strutted out the door and down the hall, and nosed the back door open. Stopping to scent the air, the Bear Killer decided it was a fine day for a walk, so he walked leisurely toward the generously broad alley separating the Jewel from the fine stone Municipal Building. The Bear Killer stopped and sniffed a tree, debating whether to salute it as he usually did, when there was the sudden sound of conflict, a shot, shouts, the sound of a screaming horse. The Bear Killer's reflexes, honed by combat and sharpened by adversity, prompted him to action. He blinked sleepily and laid down in the warm grass. His belly was full and he figured it was a good place for a nap.
  7. Linn Keller 8-11-11 The Bear Killer had blooded himself as a warrior quite some time ago. The Bear Killer was not as big as his venerable and honored sire: where Dawg had been mistaken for a young bear, Bear Killer (once Twain Dawg, until he earned his adult name ... the hard way) was at times mistaken for a sizable cub. Bear Killer had teeth of polished, flawless, gleaming ivory and jaws strong enough to crush a man's thigh bone, reflexes fit to seize a rattlesnake behind the head in mid-strike, strength enough to pick up a grown man and pack him off. Bear Killer had inherited his sire's quiet, menacing grin, an expression of deadly promise, a visage that told the wicked that judgment was upon them, that told the guilty conscience that justice was within striking distance. Bear Killer the deadly, Bear Killer the fierce, Bear Killer the implacable, was laying on his back moaning with pleasure, his great black brush of a tail burnishing a vigorous arc on Daisy's immaculately scrubbed kitchen floor. Daisy herself was at home with her young: she seldom came and cooked, choosing instead to delegate this duty to the capable young women she'd carefully selected: they were collectively known as "Daisy's girls" and often just "Daisy" -- and so if one were to relate to Daisy having preparted an excellent meal over at the Jewel, why, Daisy herself might have been hanging laundry, feeding her red-headed Irishmen, laughing with her own hired girl (who had become more of a family friend and indeed part of the family than actual hired help) and not herself in the Silver Jewel's justly-famed kitchen. Daisy's girls all knew that both Dawg and his blocky offspring were welcome at any time, and their favorite meal, sire and son, was biscuits and gravy, and so after the Bear Killer had done proper justice to his cracked bowl of the fragrant, tasty stuff, he'd patiently endured the ministrations of a wet wash cloth as his muzzle was delicately bathed. The Bear Killer, fierce guardian of his beloved young Mistress, faithful companion and watchful protector, happily pawed the air and gave a quiet little yow-wow-wow as skilled hands massaged his exposed underside, for few things in the world felt quite as good as a belly rub. Jacob ran his off hand well forward of the splinter fore-end, gripping the ten-bore's Damascus barrels tightly: he thrust it forward, jaw set, pale eyes blazing, gripping it fore and aft like a man about to spear-thrust a hated enemy. The circus owner let out an agonized yell as strong, yellow teeth seized his arm just above the wrist. He reflexively jerked away from Rose o' the Mornin's vice-like grip, lashing at her with his black patent-leather crop. Rose o' the Mornin', descended from the war horses that carried armored knights into battle, get of blooded mounts trained to combat as warriors in their own right, twisted her head and reared, forehooves coming in a vicious arc over the sudden void where the little circus pony had been. The roustabout, with his cigar stub clamped in the corner of his mouth and his Derby hat shoved aggressively forward, stepped up and seized the barrel of Jacob's double gun, pulling hard and to the side. A voice shouted "Colonel!" -- the sound of a horse coming quickly from a gallop to a skidding stop -- a loop floated gleaming and golden against the azure Colorado sky, suspended for an eternity -- The girl in the gauzy, fairy-winged costume ducked, reaching for her beloved Buttercup, now on her knees and slithering almost like a snake under the hitch-rail and flowing up onto the boardwalk to get to her rider. Lightning stood back, eyes huge, watching the sudden confusion explode into violent life in the picture-frame of the doorway: Sarah swung past him, thrusting through the door, pistol in hand, and disappeared as if jerked away. Lightning did not even see her. The Sheriff had gone from his long-legged stride to a sprint in two steps: as the circus pony ducked under the hitch rail and the circus owner was hauled into the air above it, the Sheriff planted his left hand on the rail and vaulted over it, landing with feet wide and fist cocked. The circus owner had just reached the apogee of his ballistic flight and was descending to earth on a somewhat unplanned trajectory: his line of travel may have been unplanned by his lights, but was predictable to the Sheriff, who cocked his good right fist and prepared to launch a punch that he calculated was starting just about two fingers north of his boot tops. He planned to drive his knuckled fist through this fellow's rib cage and out the other side. The explosion of confused action was punctuated by an explosion of another nature. The circus strongman, the fellow who would amaze rubes and hicks by bending horse shoes and fireplace pokers, who would lift black-painted weights with exaggerated poundages painted prominently on them in contrasting white -- the circus strongman had seized the double barrels of the lawman's shotgun, and pulled. Jacob, feeling the sudden, unexpected pull, did as his father had taught him. He pushed, hard. The strongman, not expecting this lack of resistance, had not even time to register surprise when Jacob's fingers tightened on both triggers. The twin payload erupted from Damascus steel and tore a path of destruction through the man's rib cage and out the other side, carrying blood-spray and tissue to the middle of the street: three of the heavy shot struck the Jewel, high up near the roof line. The Sheriff's fist was an iron maul on the end of an obdurate shaft, justice encapsulated in flesh and bony knuckles, and the lawman's punch sizzled through the cool morning air and drove, hard, into the circus owner's brocaded vest. The Sheriff's punch didn't quite make it through the other side. As a matter of fact it didn't penetrate at all. It didn't have to. Between a crushed and broken forearm and being kicked in the ribs by a Missouri mule, the circus owner's sensibilities had been more than overloaded. His eyes rolled up and he fell over backwards just as the descending noose settled about his neck and Starr spun his lariat around his saddle horn, backing his cow-pony up a few steps, dragging the portly man a-chokin' into the hard packed dirt street. Behind the strongman, the clown had just had time enough to raise white-gloved hands to carmine-painted lips before the fight was over. If a man were timing the event, it would have been no more than six seconds, from beginning to end. The crowd from the Jewel had barely enough time to stop and goggle at the sight. The roustabout strongman's carcass was only just landed, supine, on the reddening street. Rose o' the Mornin' reared again, screaming and windmilling her hooves, challenging anyone who dared to come and get all they wanted. Sarah slid her revolver back into its holster, eyes busy, feeling the tension in her jaw muscles: she turned, like her Uncle Linn and Charlie and Fannie had all three taught her, and consciously looked around, behind left, behind right. She looked ahead and realized neither the ribboned circus pony nor the fairy-costumed circus rider were anyplace to be seen. Lightning laid a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder, unsure quite what to do. The little circus pony was inside the Sheriff's office, its neck laid over against its beloved mistress, and the girl's arms were around the pony's neck, her face buried in its braided, beribboned mane, crying like a lost child. At his touch she turned and ran her other arm around his waist, and Lightning, now completely at sea as to what he should do, ran an arm over the little pony's saddle and his other arm around the girl, under the fairy wings sprouting from her costume, and pulled her into him.
  8. Linn Keller 8-10-11 Elbows pressed into ribs, beer mugs and chins were used to indicate the direction of discussion. Boot heels were loud on the clean-swept floor and men crowded to the front window, looking over the curtain at the spectacle marching toward the Sheriff's office. "Looks like Soapy's got trouble come to visit." "Why do tell!" "Yeah, look at the arms on that fella! He could likely bend a stove poker!" "Bend it over your head, you windbag, he ain't nothin'!" "Attair's the fella I tol' you was wearin' them funny lookin' py-jammers!" "Attair has gotta be the world's teeniest little umbrella. You don't reckon he figgers it's gonna rain, now do ya?" "'Nuff paint on his face to whitewash a board fence." "Yeah, if he figgers on it rainin' he must think it'll only be a drop or two!" "Whattaya reckon they're after?" "Looks like they're stealin' attair little girl's horse!" "Oh, Soapy ain't gonna like that!" "Here, git outta my way, I'm goin' outside! I wanta see this!" There was a general jostling rush for the front door. Sarah's gut told her things were going to get unpleasant. She smelled trouble -- well, maybe not smelled, but she knew it was there, sure as manure draws flies. Sarah remembered an afternoon with Fannie, one of the several times she'd gone out after her several weeks of intensive training. She and Fannie and Charlie had discussed something Sarah was worried about, and that was making the right decision. Charlie had laughed, that good easy relaxed laugh of his -- Sarah blinked at the memory, for it was like his strong arms around her, warm and strong and protecting, the kind a girl wants to have for the rest of her life -- and he looked at his beautiful bride and said "Sarah, we make the best choice we can. It ain't always right and if it ain't right we can stand up and say "I was wrong," and no shame in it." He'd shifted his posture a little like an old ache was troubling him but he smiled that quiet, confident smile she hadn't seen until she came out as a live-in student, and he said "Remember this, and your Uncle Linn will say the same thing." Sarah blinked twice, her eyes fixed on the veteran lawman. "You will be leading others, Sarah, whether you want to or not and whether you know it or not. You will be setting the example and showing the world what you stand for and people notice this. "A leader can be wrong." He looked over at Fannie, and Fannie nodded, once, slowly, for she knew the truth of what her husband was saying. "A leader can be wrong, but he can never be in doubt." Fannie picked up smoothly on her husband's cue. "You will have fights, honey, your own, your family's, a brother lawman, sometimes you won't have a dog in the fight at all, and you've got to decide -- and sometimes you must choose, very quickly -- whether you want to get in that fight, or leave it to someone else." Sarah didn't know this girl in the fairy costume, and she'd learned caution and suspicion, but her gut told her -- when in doubt, follow your gut, and she smiled at Fannie's whispered admonition, almost audible in the momentary stillness of the Sheriff's office. Her gut told her this girl was genuine, and her help was needed. Sarah tasted copper and she knew she was in on this fight too. Memory surged in like a Texas tornado and she shifted her weight a little, preparing to move. "You want to stand like this, honey ... that's right, with your strong side a little back, maybe far enough they can't see your holster." Sarah remembered Fannie's voice, patient, animated, and how she moved, easily, naturally, showing Sarah what she meant. Sarah's right boot retreated a half-step, rotating outward a little, and Sarah automatically bent her knees a little, balancing easily, ready to move in any direction, or receive an attack from any direction, without being easily toppled. "Just like that." Fannie pulled out the kindling-wood "knife." "Now if I slash --" Fannie's slash was dead-slow but with a deadly efficiency, and even though this was a practice session and the "knife" was smooth and rounded, Sarah could see practice and experience in both the red-headed woman's words and in every line of her coordinated move. Sarah's own hand came up, open, fingers together and slightly bent, automatically parrying the stroke. "Good. Now the counter-strike." Sarah stepped into the strike while Fannie's lunge hesitated, deflected, making her head and shoulder vulnerable. They practiced there in the grassy field for some hours, Fannie never hurrying, never moving faster than her studied illustrative moves: she knew Sarah had to pattern her responses, had to lay down habits, had to run the engine of purpose over these identical tracks time and time and time again, until her reflex became memory, not in her mind but in her muscle. At one point, both of them sweating a little, they sat on a log in the shade of one of the only two trees in the pasture. Fannie offered the canteen to Sarah; Sarah smiled and shook her head. "You first," she said, and she saw the approval in Fannie's eyes. Fannie drank long of the evaporation-cooled spring water. "Courtesy is never wasted," she said quietly, and Sarah could hear a hundred accents, a thousand inflections in her words, traces of all the trails the woman had ridden, echoes of every voice she'd ever heard: Fannie had the gift of languages, Sarah had heard her Uncle Linn say once: the two of them had stood and listened to Fannie talking with a group of travelers, as completely at ease with a Texas cowhand as she was with a Prussian count and a French viscountess: that afternoon she'd conversed with folks passing through on the stage, and Uncle Linn had murmured into Sarah's close ear that Fannie spoke with that fellow from Atlanta in a flawless Georgian voice; that she had exchanged greetings and given directions to a young Maine lobsterman in a Maine twang, and she'd fended off the thinly veiled proposition of a New York businessman in the accents of his native metropolis. Sarah remembered all these things in the time it took for Jacob to cross the room and pick the double ten-bore off the rack.
  9. Linn Keller 8-9-11 Lightning's mind was logical and orderly, precise and structured: he thought quickly, in flashes of insight, he could receive and process information quickly and accurately: in snow or in sun, in storm or in calm, he could be counted on for his quick ear and his flawless memory. Lightning stood and stretched, stepping back from his telegrapher's chair and allowing Fred Jerome to assume the seat: rubbing his eyes, he twisted, bent, worked the stiffness out of his back: it was ever their habit to spell one another on the key every two hours, which is one reason they were both fresh and alert when the need arose. Lightning opened the door and stepped out onto the roof-shadowed platform, looking down the tracks, pulled out his watch: he didn't really need to know the time, it was just a habit. The inside cover of his watch was gleaming, flawless silver. Men of the era normally carried a miniature in their watch, generally of their wife. Some carried a token, a memento, of someone they once knew, discreetly hidden from a living wife; these generally went in the back cover of the watch, with the wife's portrait in the front cover. Lightning's watch remained unadorned. His quick ear twitched as he heard the rattle of an approaching buggy. He looked up and saw Sarah McKenna driving toward him. "Striker," the girl said, her hand light on the roustabout's arm, "I'm not going back." Striker blinked. He looked over at Raleigh the Clown, who was currently opening what had to be the world's tiniest parasol and holding it delicately over his scarlet derby, as if to hold off the world's tiniest rainstorm. The trick rider petted her trick pony and swallowed hard. "My Papa gave his life to the circus and Mama died on the circus train after she fell from the trapeze." She looked at the burly, muscled man with the cigar-stub clenched in the corner of his mouth and saw his jaw muscles bulge. His partner had gone to dispose of some second hand beer, and was only just returning as the roustabout removed the cigar stub and spat out a fleck of tobacco leaf. "The boss won't like that," he said quietly. The girl quailed under his gaze, her heart shriveling. "What about Buttercup?" The girl's eyes widened and she looked at the trick pony. They had been inseparable since she'd been orphaned; there was a clear and distinct bond between them. "I --" -- she hesitated. "I haven't enough to buy her." "The boss won't let you take her." "I know a way," the girl said suddenly. "I know a way!" She backed up quickly, suddenly, and was on Buttercup's back and turned before the roustabout could move. "Hey!" he shouted after her, his voice hoarse. Angela was riding down the street on her Rosebud when the pretty circus girl came riding up to her, riding hard, and stopped: Buttercup reared as she'd been trained, windmilling her gilded hooves: the girl spoke to her and Buttercup dropped to all fours and stood, switching her tail and blinking in the sunlight. Angela tilted her head a little to the side. "Hello," she said in her little-girl voice. "I need your help," the circus rider blurted. "I need to make some money fast, who do I talk to?" Angela's eyes widened. She'd never been Asked An Adult Question before, and although she knew making money was important, she had little idea how it was done: young though she was, she knew that wisdom wasn't always having the answer on one's tongue-tip, but rather wisdom was knowing where to find out. "I know!" she exclaimed. "C'mon!" The circus rider turned her ribboned pony and followed Angela and her mare to the Sheriff's Office. "You realize folks might think we're courtin'," Lightning kidded Sarah gently. Sarah laughed, even white teeth gleaming, and her head tilted back a little: her hat matched her gown, and in spite of its impressive surface area and a slight headwind, it remained secure on her head. I love her laugh, Lightning thought, and realized this was the first time he'd ever allowed himself to genuinely like some unique facet of any female creature. He was silent for some time after, considering, for this was something foreign to his orderly and logical experience. Sarah drew up in front of the Sheriff's office, smiling a little as she saw Angela's mare, and almost laughing as she saw the ribboned, gilded, gleaming, gaudy circus pony and its flashy tack and saddle. The only pony Sarah had known was a mean, vicious, disagreeable little beast that deserved nothing more than to be disassembled, canned and used to feed someone's mongrel dog in a far off part of the country. It struck her as amusing that anyone would go to the trouble to decorate such a creature ... yet here it was, tied to the hitch rail for God and everybody else to see. Lightning touched the brim of his cap. "Thank you, Miz Sarah," he said, and swung his long legs out. Sarah set the brake and dismounted as well. "She WHAT?" the boss roared, taking the freshly-lighted cheroot from between stained teeth. Even indoors, he wore his top hat: he felt it made him a more imposing figure ... more than that, though, it covered his balding scalp. The roustabout had his cap in his hand and shuffled it uncomfortably in front of him. "She said she was leavin' and she'd raise the money to buy Buttercup." The circus master snatched up his patent-leather riding crop, puffing out vile clouds of bitter smoke: "I own her and I own that pony and by God! if I have to chain BOTH of them in the stock car I WILL!" He thrust past the roustabout, seized the door knob and yanked the door open. He turned. "Where is she now?" "She went into town, Boss." He nodded toward an ornately-curtained window. "This burg ain't big. We can find her." "You're damned right we will!" he snarled. "Come on!" Jacob and the Sheriff both rose as Sarah, Angela and the circus rider came in the door together. "Ladies," the Sheriff greeted them, his smile broadening under his grey handlebar. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" "Sheriff, I need your help --" "Daddy, she needs to waise --" Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but closed it instead, fading back a half step and doing her best to turn invisible. Jacob and the Sheriff noted her move and approved. The Sheriff raised his hand as both young ladies stopped talking, looked at one another and giggled. The circus rider took a quick breath and blinked, then raised her chin and looked directly at the Sheriff. The Sheriff saw a slender girl who could not have seen her twelfth birthday -- he automatically used Sarah, on one side, and Angela, on the other, to interpolate and estimate based on height, build and development -- he saw an elaborate but very secure hair style, ribboned and pinned, pretty but solid -- he saw a gauzy costume that made her look more fairy-creature, or perhaps angel, than an earthly being; he saw big blue eyes and a painted face, he saw the signs of a young woman in distress ... Jacob saw his father turn his head very slightly to the right without taking his eyes off her, and he knew his father was looking beyond the surface, looking into the girl's soul. The Sheriff saw fear, but he also saw hope. "Sheriff, my name is Emilee Carpentiere," she began, giving her name the French pronunciation. Angela followed the name soundlessly with her lips, tasting the French deep-throated "r" sound: she was satisfied she could pronounce the name correctly, for she had been speaking French with her Mommy and with the maid, and with the very few Francophones she'd had occasion to meet in her young life. "I am orphaned," she continued, bringing her hands together and clasping them over her high stomach: "my father was killed in a circus act and my mother died after falling from the trapeze later that night." She took a breath, another, then swallowed and continued. "I wish to leave the circus, but I fear its owner will not let me." The delicate French accent lent a music to her words, a music that could mesmerize the vulnerable ear of a romantic young man, and those ears had just stepped through the door behind the ladies: the ears which were accustomed to listening quickly and accurately to a telegraph's uncertain chatter now seized upon the voice of a young lady in distress. Lightning slipped in the door, closed it quietly, very quietly behind him. Sarah's eyes were on the door from the moment it began to open and neither the Sheriff nor Jacob missed the subtle movement of her arm toward the engraved Colt belted around her wasp waisted middle. "I wish to leave them, Sheriff, and I wish to keep my pony, but I fear the owner will try to claim it and will try to make me pay for what is mine." Her voice was steady but her eyes were beseeching. "Sheriff, I need to raise enough money to purchase Buttercup." Jacob's head came up: he leaned back, looked through a crack in the shutters. He looked at his father, and his father knew that look. The Sheriff nodded toward the gunrack, then returned his pale-eyed gaze to the young lady. "I think we can help."
  10. Linn Keller 8-7-11 I had him by the scruff of the neck. He wasn't getting away and he knew it. I shot a look to Mr. Baxter and he nodded, once. I hauled him back to my corner table and let go of my good hand full of cloth goods. "Set," I said, and he set. I drug out my own chair and set myself down as well. Mr. Baxter followed us at a discreet distance, a mug of beer in each hand: he set them down, gave me an inquiring look, raised one eyebrow. I gave him the briefest of nods, hung my hat on the peg overhead. "Well, give an account of yourself, lad," I said in a fatherly tone: "I have not seen you for a coon's age!" He nodded, looking a little embarrassed, then he grinned that broad, boyish grin I remembered so well. "You were right, Colonel," he said, his voice a little raspy: I saw the scar on his throat, where a saber-slash had nearly sliced open his swaller pipe: I'd heard he survived the injury and someone told me years later he survived the war, but that bright morning when I carried him in my arms, running hard as I could for the surgeon's tent, with him clinging to my coat-sleeve with one hand and holding his head up to keep it from falling back and gaping open his throat wound with the other, I would not have give two second hand cigar stubs for his chances. "Kind of glad I was," I said, "but it's been long enough ago I forget what was I right about?" Starr grinned. He'd been a likeable young soldier with a ready grin and an easy manner; like any young man in that damned war, he learned early on to take the hard with the easy and get by as best he could: he never shirked an assignment, he had a soft voice and he was one of the only men I ever knew that never, ever swore. "When you laid me down on the surgeon's table," he said. "You laid a hand on my forehead and said you wanted to hear that I'd lived and gone home and raised a passel of kids with a good lookin' wife and raised enough corn to sink a Lake Erie freighter." He laughed a little, looking into the mystery hidden in the mug of rising amber bubbles. He looked up. "I did just that, Colonel." I nodded. "I married my Violette an' we had three girls and four boys." "Good Lord, man," I smiled, "are you raisin' your own regiment?" Starr laughed again, and the sound was pleasant on my ear. "Wellsir," he grinned, "they eat like it!" I nodded, grinning my own self: my Jacob could eat a man out of house and home -- for that matter so could I, when I was hayin' or thrashin' ... a skinny man can eat more than a body would expect, and if Starr's boys took after their Pa, why, they'd likely disappear if they turned sideways in the full sun. "All y'all back East yet?" I looked up and grinned as Daisy's girl set a plate down, another: Starr looked a little uncomfortable and I raised a cautioning palm. "Your money's no good here," I said, and he relaxed a little. "I, ah," he said hesitantly: "Colonel, when I got home, m'family like to fainted. "They'd just had m'funeral two days before. "I had to take Pa by his shoulders an' hug Ma before they'd believe I wasn't a ghost." "Did anyone think you was you?" I asked softly. Starr laughed. "Hell, Colonel, you couldn't'a' kep' ma dog away from me with two teams and a club!" he laughed, "an' Violette come downstairs t'see what the fuss an' bother was about -- she'd been livin' with m'folks, bein' betrothed an' all an' me gone t' the War an' her folks dyin' an' all -- why, she come b'ilin' down them stairs an' run up t' me and laid a kiss on me that like t' took m' breath away!" I nodded, remembering a similar moment with my Connie, when I was home after being wounded. "Y'know, Colonel," Starr said softly, "it felt kind'a' funny." "How's that?" He looked up at me, sadness in his eyes. "Violette took me out to the family plot an' showed me my tomb stone." We each picked up our forks and looked at our plates. "Starr?" Starr tilted his head a little, planning the assault on his pile of fluffy white taters with its lake of steaming, fragrant gravy: "Yes, sir?" "I'm just awful glad you was able to look at that stone instead of lay underneath of it." Starr was silent for several long moments. "I am too, sir," he said finally, and then we proceeded to work on our meal.
  11. Linn Keller 8-6-11 "Now who's that feller in them red an' yeller striped pajammers?" The two ranch hands slouched comfortably against the front of the Jewel, ignoring the light film of dust that covered the clap boards. "Attair is Hoo Doo." "Yeah?" the one replied skeptically. "Now sints when does the like o' you keep good company with th' likes o' them?" His outthrust chin indicated the muscled roustabouts with their worn Derbies thrust aggressively forward. "Now that shows how much yer learnin' has been neglected." "Oh now horse feathers, Clarence! I got as much educatin' as you!" "You ain't bin past fourth grade! An' don't call me Clarence!" "I bin past fourth grade, you rock skull!" "You ain't neither! You was in my brother's class an' you run off b'fore you got there!" "Now that ain't so an' you know it!" The two glared good naturedly at one another and then looked back to the trio as they finished putting up the last poster. "Hoo Doo, y'say?" "Yep." He spat a brown stream into the dirt street, just missing the hitch rail. "Attair is a witch doctor." "Witch doctor, hey?" He eyed the gaudy fellow with screaming orange hair and the little bitty yellow derby hat skeptically. "Don't look like no witch doctor I ever seen!" "Maybe that's 'cause yew ain't never seen one afore!" "Ah, the hell with it. I want some beer." With that wise pronouncement, the educated pair turned and hauled open the ornate double doors to the Silver Jewel.
  12. Linn Keller 8-4-11 The main street of Firelands was not terribly long. It was at once transport, freight conduit, livestock transfer and stage. Firelands itself was considered too small for the circus to stage a performance, but it was sufficient to warrant colorful broadside posters, put up by three-man teams of two roustabouts and one colorfully-dressed and grease-painted clown. Two posters had gone up when a rider came galloping slowly through the street. The diminutive horse had gilded hooves, scarlet saddle and bridle, ribbons in its mane and hair; the rider was ... well, the rider could have been a fairy, or an angel: the rider was diminutive, feminine, and standing upright in her saddle. She rode the length of the main street, knowing her first trip through would be but lightly attended; the second trip, she knew, would have a few curious faces, and by her third trip, the populace would be out in force, and she could shout gaily that the circus was passing through, and would be in Cripple Creek for the week's performance, come one, come all! She was followed at a distance of perhaps forty feet by another diminutive female rider, one well known to the residents, though not known to most as a rider of any great accomplishment: whether the natives were more startled by a fairy creature a-horse, or the Sheriff's little girl riding her Rosebud while standing barefoot in the saddle, could be a matter of conjecture. The circus rider turned a couple hundred yards past the fine brick firehouse, smiling a little as the red-shirted Irishmen swung their double doors open, and came out to view the sight: the fact that the face-painted equestrienne suddenly had a riding partner, however, was ... surprising. Especially when the equestrienne's partner was as upright in the saddle as she. Angela gave her a bright, innocent smile and a cheerful "Hello!" -- startled, the circus performer blurted "Hello!" -- and then she bent forward, grasping the front edge of her saddle with delicate fingers, bending well over and extending her right leg above and behind, her other hand grasping her ankle, and galloped back up the street. Not to be outdone, Angela balanced on one foot, bent over and seized the saddle horn with her off hand: she bent over in the identical manner and hooked her flattened fingers around the front of her shin, and Rosebud paced after the circus rider, faithfully following at a set distance. The Irish Brigade whistled and cheered, calling Angela's name. Angela had a death grip on the saddle horn and it was the very limit of her ability to keep her place on her saddle, but she managed, and she and the circus performer paused at the end of the street. By now they had an audience, which is what the circus performer wanted. This time she grasped the bars cleverly built into the saddle-skirt and did a hand stand: perfectly upright, she rode down the main street with her legs and pointed toes precisely aligned at the blue zenith above. Angela dropped into a conventional seat, and followed at her former twenty yards, until she was in front of the Jewel ... then she stopped Rosebud and looked over at the crowd on the boardwalk. Pointing after the retreating, costumed circus rider, she announced with a child's honesty, "I can't do that!" -- and on the still morning air, her words carried even to the Irish Brigade. There was laughter, and applause; the Brigade started at a brisk pace up the street as the circus rider cantered up the hard packed throughway, announcing the week's performance. Angela found herself surrounded by a native crowd: hands pounded her thighs and her back, hands grasped hers; her name was shouted, hats tossed in the air, and finally she was plucked out of the saddle and carried on men's shoulders, and borne triumphantly into the Jewel. A tall, slender young man gathered Rosebud's reins, and walked down the middle of the street to the costumed performer, suddenly alone save for the roustabouts brushing posters up on walls. The young man stopped and touched his hat brim deferentially. "Miss," he said politely, "that was some excellent riding." "Thank you," she said, and her voice was that of someone no longer a girl but not yet a woman, whose face was painted where perhaps natural beauty would have served better, and whose revealing costume was appropriate for the circus but nowhere else. She looked long after the crowd that bore the laughing girl into the Jewel, and the tall, slender young man waited, knowing her thoughts would be audible, and he was right. "I don't know who she is," she said sadly, "but I would give all that I have for that."
  13. Linn Keller 8-2-11 "YE COME BACK HERE, YE SLIPPERY LITTLE-- *oof!*" Daisy leaned back a little, just far enough to see her husband sprawled full length on the floor. "He's fast, isn't he?" she called impishly as Little Sean squealed and scampered, barefoot, into the next room. Perhaps "barefoot" isn't quite the right term. The rest of him was just as bare as his little pink feet. Sean fairly bounced off the floor, reminding Daisy of an indiginant cat hit with a sudden splash of very cold water, and he took two powerful strides toward the doorway when there was the THUMP of a hard Irish head hitting something, followed by the youthful howl of a little boy who'd gone from laughing flight to distressed collision. Sean disappeared around the corner, towel over one arm, and came back at a considerably lesser velocity, holding the red-faced, howling little red-headed lad, rubbing the towel gently around him and murmuring fatherly reassurances that were absolutely, totally overpowered by the pained squalling of his red-faced, head-rubbing progeny. "Come, now, let's have a look," Daisy said briskly, advancing impatiently toward Sean's funereal tread: she took Little Sean's chin in one hand, turning his head, and with the other hand, pushed his hand aside and explored the curly red hair with experienced fingers. "Hmp," she said. "Ye're a typical hard-headed Irishman, y'are," she said as Little Sean regarded her with brimming eyes: finding no sudden outpouring of maternal comfort, his face screwed up all over again and the howling storm began again, until Daisy seized the dangling corner of the towel, wiped the lad's face and brought her nose down even with his. "Ye'll no' die, ye wee lad," she said, the gentleness in her voice belying the unmsympathetic words: "nex' time now ye remember no' runnin' i' th' house!" Little Sean rubbed his head, his bottom lip shoved out until it hung down to about his belly button, and Big Sean bounced him once on his muscled arm. "Come now, lad," he rumbled, "let's get some clothes on ye. Ye'll ha'e the women chasin' after ye next, buck naked tha' y' are!" Daisy swatted at her husband, a mischevious expression on her face: "Don't go givin' th' lad ideas, now!" she scolded. "I r'member ye were quite th' ladies' mon i' yer younger days!" "Ma younger days?" Sean declared with mock indignation. "Wha's this about ma younger days?" Daisy gave him a look that promised much, and Sean's grin grew, slowly, and his expression was bordering on openly lecherous. "Later, m'love," Daisy whispered as she laid a caressing hand on her husband's lightly stubbled cheek, and Sean gave her a smoldering look. "Daisy," he said, his voice thick, "had I no' an armful --" Daisy placed her finger over his lips. "I know," she whispered, her eyes bright. Sean kissed her finger, humming a deep, musical note deep in his chest. Little Sean squealed and wiggled out of his Pa's distracted grasp: he hit the floor running, and scampered into the next room. "Ye scamp!" Sean roared. "I'm a-comin' after ye!" -- and so saying, gave noisy pursuit, and Daisy heard the delighted laugh of both of her men as Sean snatched his son off the floor and swung him upside down, and Little Sean happily walked on the ceiling, secure and safe in his Pa's strong hands.
  14. Linn Keller 7-30-11 Angela put her hands on her hips and looked at her big brother rather crossly. Jacob had piled hay on a flat wagon and had intended to have Angela practice jumping from her saddle to the wagon bed, with her Rosebud standing still. Once she could do this reliably, he thought, he would harness a team to the wagon and pull it along at a walk, and have her jump from the saddle while her mare walked beside the wagon: again, with practice, pick up the pace slightly, then a little more. Jacob had instructed Angela to jump into the stationary wagon. Angela looked at the wagon, looked at the hay, and had declared her opinion of the entire operation. "Jacob," she said, frowning, "you're silly!" Jacob looked at his little sis with a mixture of patience and exasperation. "Sis," he said, "trust me." "Jacobdatdon'tlooklikenowailwoadcar!" Angela slurred her syllables together, removing her hands from her waist and crossing her arms with a sudden "Hmph!" Jacob rubbed Rosebud's nose, fed her a tobacco shaving. "Sis, see here," he said. "You want to learn how to jump on the railroad car." Angela's head nodded briskly, finger-curls bouncing vigorously on either side of her apple-cheeked complexion. "I'm going to show you the trick to it but you've got to trust me!" Angela's expression was openly skeptical. "Jumping onto the car is simple," he said. "But what about afterward? What do you do? Ride the train until it stops?" "Oh." Angela's face dropped its rebellion and her brows wrinkled a little. "If you want to jump on the rail car, that's simple." Angela nodded again, slowly this time. "Getting you off the car isn't quite so easy." Angela's expression was a little troubled. "Now let's try the jumping on first." "But how do I get off?" Angela wailed. "Idon'wannawidedatwain!" Jacob blinked. "Do you think maybe it's a bad idea and we ought to forget it?" Angela nodded, holding her arms out. Jacob reached up and Angela flowed out of the saddle into her big brother's lean, strong arms. Jacob held his little sis and she held him, and he thought Maybe all she wanted was to be held, at least until she squirmed and pushed away from him far enough to look into his face and declare, "I'm hungwy!"
  15. Linn Keller 7-29-11 The Sheriff offered no comment. He was behind his desk, hat brim pulled down a little: before him, his open journal -- the larger one, the official record of his office's goings-on -- a couple wanted posters, an ink-pot and a worse-for-wear slip of blotting paper: he was leaned back in his chair, hands across his trim belly, fingers interlaced. The agitated young lady before him noticed almost none of this. If a corn husk dummy was behind the desk instead of the living, breathing Sheriff, chances are fair she would not have noticed: so wrapped up in her own problems was she, that her vision was for her own difficulties, and not for the world around her. She'd ridden in on the stage, having said not three words to the four other passengers: she'd kept a kerchief pressed to her nose most of the way, not out of affectation but rather because her eyes were red, watering, grief-filled: on impulse, she'd nearly leaped from the stage when it stopped: she ran into the middle of the street, looked around wildly, snatched her skirts and ran toward the Sheriff's office. She paused to ask a local if the Sheriff was in. "Yes, ma'am, Soapy's in," the local drawled, hat in his hand: for all that he was a loafer and a man lacking in industry, he was at heart a gentleman, and when a young lady approached it was ever his habit to remove his hat and speak gently to her -- a habit reinforced rather ungenty in the Sheriff's first days in office. "Thank you," she whispered, not trusting her voice: her gloved hand rested momentarily on his breast, then she was gone: loafer or not, in that moment, having felt the touch of a lovely young lady in distress, he would have braved a dragon and slew a Gorgon, with her image shining in his eyes. Jacob, annoyed at the top hinge's perpetual squeak, had oiled it that morning, and worked it a little: satisfied at its silence, he'd gone his way, for he had business in the south of the county that day, and would likely be back after sunset: the young woman's entrance was marked by a rush of silence. "Sheriff, I'm sorry to just burst in on you like this," she said in her habitually-soft voice, "but my Papa told me if I were ever in a strange town and I needed good sound advice, I should look up the local Sheriff." She averted her eyes, wrung the kerchief in her hands. "I suppose I am being a foolish girl." She pressed her kerchief to her nose. "A young man asked me to marry him and I said yes." She paced a little as she talked, her step light, her heels almost inaudible on the smooth plank floor. "I didn't ask Papa first, I just ..." Twin streams cascaded down her cheeks. "I should have asked," she whispered, then continued. "Papa told me he was a fine young man and he had already asked Papa for my hand. I didn't know this. I was all giddy and --" she almost giggled -- "I danced all the way home. It felt like I was floating. I ..." The young woman bowed her head, blotted the tears from her pretty young face. "I got scared, Sheriff. I ran. "I ran and the stage was ready to leave, and I bought passage and ..." She swallowed. She hadn't the courage to look at the dignified man behind the desk, the silent, patient, fatherly figure who was listening with the wisdom of someone who knew what it was to be a girl's Papa. "I was so foolish," she whispered. "He's a fine young man, and Papa approves of him, and ..." She sobbed once, then she took a long breath and straightened her spine, raised her head. "Sheriff, thank you. I suppose I needed someone to ... someone who would actually listen to me." She turned and drew the heavy door open, closed it quietly behind her. A minute or two later, the stage jingled out of town with its usual clatter. The Sheriff, unmoving, his hat tilted down a little, with his office journal open before him, with a ink-pot and blotting paper and a couple wanted dodgers on his desk, began to snore gently, his lips puffing out under his sweeping grey mustache.
  16. Linn Keller 7-27-11 Sarah's back was straight, her shoulders back; her expression was one of quiet concentration, almost an absent expression: black notes on white paper flowed in through her eyes and out her fingers, and Bonnie, approaching the house, stopped and listened. The parlor window was open and the grand piano's voice carried on the afternoon air: Sarah had a taste for waltzes, difficult though they were, and she took pains to practice when Bonnie was in her dressmaking works and away from the house, for Sarah did not want her Mama to hear how badly she'd started these beautiful works. Badly, that is, in her own ears: to the maid, to her mother, Sarah's playing was beautiful. Perhaps it was well that they could not hear Sarah's thoughts, or feel her anger, when she hit an off note, or her timing was not quite what she thought it should be: there were times when she attacked the keyboard like a personal enemy, driving her will through her fingertips and into the ivories; other times, like this afternoon, she was in an altered state. It has been said that listening to music, fencing and lovemaking are all best done from the subconscious: so it was when playing the piano: when Sarah disconnected her conscious, thinking, rational mind and played from her soul, the music flowed from within her, through the interfacing keys and out the window as a minor river of audible beauty. Sarah's eyes drifted from the printed page: she had hit her stride and she was loath to take her hands from the keyboard to turn the page, and so she played from memory, she played for the love of playing. Bonnie slipped into the house, crept across the foyer, cautiously peeked into their parlor. Bonnie's expression softened as she saw her little girl, not very little anymore; Bonnie bit her bottom lip as she realized her Sarah was growing up, that Sarah was looking quite lovely in her McKenna gown, with her hair carefully styled. Bonnie's eyes were those of a loving mother in a moment of deep affection. Bonnie's eyes missed a minor detail of Sarah's attire. Sarah was wearing a belt with her gown, a belt mostly hidden by an accidental drape of the fabric: Sarah's left side was to her mother's view: had Bonnie seen her daughter from the opposite side of the room, she would have probably considered how Sarah's taste in fashion might differ from her own. Sarah, you see, had been out across the back field and in a little draw earlier: she'd taken a few boxes of .22 shorts and the engraved revolver her Uncle Linn had gifted her, and she took a box of marble sized, dried-clay spheres she'd rolled and sun-dried. Sarah took a marble in her left hand and cocked the engraved .22 in her right: she brought both up together, she found the flying marble, and she turned it into red powder, drifting on the still air. The gullied draw was accidentally perfect to direct sound away from the house and the dress-works, and Sarah was using shorts, which had less of a bark: she was not yet ready to try shooting left handed again, especially when her forearm began to feel ... well, it was just shy of an ache, which told her she'd had enough fun for one day. Sarah was not going to let her arm get away with that. She rode her late Papa's racer back to the barn and turned him into the side pasture: she hung up saddle and bridle and went into the house, washed up and changed clothes, pausing before the mirror as she styled her hair up. She flexed her left hand, made a fist, opened her hand and glared at her scarred forearm. "You are going to work," she whispered. "Peacefully, or otherwise, and I do not care which!" So saying, she lifted her skirts and strode purposefully into the parlor, sorted through the sheet music until she found what she was looking for, seated herself and spread her hands over the keyboard. Bonnie did not know any of this. She drew back from the doorway and stood for a long time, listening, a faraway look on her face as she remembered an earlier age when she was that lovely girl playing the piano, and her Mama looked in on her with an expression of pride ...
  17. Linn Keller 7-26-11 Charlie gave me kind of a hard look, somewhere between skeptical and figuring me to be impolite at the very least. "You went up there?" "Yep." Charlie's bottom jaw run out and he and I turned our attention to the provender on our plates. We et for another few minutes and Miz Fannie filled our coffee cups while we did full justice to the good back strap she'd fixed: I'd long since inhaled my taters and gravy and the greens she'd b'iled up for us. I could feel Miz Fannie's eyes on me. Miz Fannie was a deep woman, and complicated. She could be patient and listen and piece something together from the conversation -- both its spoken, and its unspoken components -- but she had an impatient streak in her too, just like every law dawg I've ever known: so far she had a good holt on the impatient reins but it was taking her an effort to keep it held back. I took a long breath and reached for my ceramic coffee mug, hesitated, then added a long drizzle of good cream. Bless you, Miz Fannie, I thought, for coffee is much more to my taste when I can lighten it with cow squeezin's. "I rode right up to the foot of Sopris Mountain, just bold as brass," I said finally, and Charlie's knife hesitated for a moment -- but a very brief moment -- and he began cutting again, slower this time, and I looked up at Miz Fannie. Had I been a butterfly, those eyes would have run an impaling pin through my carcass and nailed me to a board just sure as you're born. "I know the way to his cabin, and the trail was still there. "It had been some long time since a wagon had cut tracks. "I rode slow, knowin' at some point he would know I was there." Charlie grunted, glaring at me from under shaggy eyebrows. He remembered -- as did I -- that Agent Sopris, or the Reverend Sopris, or however he was titled now that he'd told the world to go climb a tree -- had allowed as he was going to leave the world alone and they could darn well leave him alone, and if he wanted company he'd ride out and find some. I respected that. "I rode far as Duzy's grave," I said slowly, remembering the ride, remembering how it smelled, remembering sunlight dappling through the trees, remembering the grave itself ... a little clearing, a bench, and there it was, neat, tended ... "I recall thinking to myself, She would like this place, and I just set there for a long while and looked at that stone." I looked away, blinked: my eyes started to sting and I did not want Charlie to see it, nor Miz Fannie for that matter. I reached for a slice of bread, picked up the cut glass butter dish lid. My hand was shaking a little. I willed it to steadiness. Didn't help. I buttered the bread anyhow and set the knife carefully back on the lip of the butter dish, replaced the domed cap. "I'd put that watch and a letter in a tin box," I said distantly. "I figure he could see me from his place, or wherever he might be hidin'. "I didn't make no effort to look around for him. "I set down on that-there bench and looked at Duzy's grave for a long time and finally I stood up and set that tin box on the bench. "I had my hat in my hand yet and I spoke in no particular direction. " 'Some fella come into town and said this belonged to you,'" I said. "'I figured this was the best way to fetch it to ya." I set my skypiece back on my scalp and reached for Rose's reins. "You know how you watch your horse." Charlie nodded, once. "I saw she was a-lookin' at somethin' and her ears come forward like she was curious. "I got swung up into the saddle and turned my back to that-there bench and started back down the trail. "I reined up after maybe twenty foot and turned around. "The box was gone." Miz Fannie set a pie down on the table, picked up a worn knife: its wooden handle, once square, was now almost round; the rivets stuck out some from the side, corners and edges were worn smooth, the edge of the blade bellied in from years of sharpening. She sliced the pie in half, turned it, sliced it in half again: setting the knife aside, she slid a broad ... well, it looked like a shrunk down brick mason's trowel, underneath a fourth of the pie, lifted it out and set it on a plate: she handed it to me, dished one out for Charlie, and one for her. Charlie stabbed the flaky, sugar-dusted crust with his fork, clinking the tines loudly into the plate beneath. "Did you see him?" I hesitated in my own four-tined assault on Miz Fannie's fragrant dessert. "I didn't see the man, I never heard him, I didn't even smell him." Charlie nodded. "Didn't surprise me," I added. "He said he wanted left alone so I figured to do just that." Charlie was silent for another good long while. Finally he gave his pronouncement on the situation. "Now that's good pie," he said. I figured that would be the last word. I figured wrong. When I finally took my leave -- after a good long visit, for I missed Charlie's company -- I found a rolled up note tied to my saddle horn with a single horse hair. I froze when I saw it and cold water trickled right down my back bone. I drew the roleau out of its clove-hitch home and unrolled it. The handwriting was familiar, the message lengthy: Thank you. The signature was a drawing of a rose.
  18. Linn Keller 7-24-11 "Howdy, Parson!" I didn't have to draw the reins to bring Rose-horse to a stop: she read my shift in the saddle and maybe she just knew that when I run acrost someone I would likely stop and Jaw Bone for a bit. I'm predictable that-a-way. Parson Belden drew his nag to a halt and fetched back on the brake to hold her there. He had the quiet, pleased look of a man who'd just done some good work, and as we were right near Charlie's place, why, my curiosity was up. "If you're lookin' to fork up some hay, Sheriff," he replied with a smile, "you're either late or just in time, depending on your lazy nature!" "O-kaay," I hazarded, "that tells me either he's got a whole field of the stuff to shock and stack, or it's done and over with!" The Parson laughed, the good healthy laugh of a man at peace with the world. "It's cut, raked, shocked, forked, up in his barn and stuffed in just as much as we could get in there!" he declared. "The man is hard headed and contrary as any I have ever met! I told him we could get more in there and he said damned if he'd have some machine mash his good hay all into a brick!" It was my turn to laugh, for I knew Charlie, and hard headed he was, but then so was I. "He did as much work as he could," the Parson added, "but Fannie rode herd on him and a good thing. I think he was close to tearin' some o' those half healed cuts o' his by the look of his face." I nodded. Charlie was not the kind to sit by while someone else labored: he'd as soon jump in elbow deep and work harder than any man there. I know, I've worked beside the man and he just plain worked my skinny butt right into the ground. Matter of fact one fine day he worked me to a frazzle, we went out and danced all night and come back and did it again the next day! That's when we were both younger, of course ... I think it was a year and a half ago or thereabouts. He danced with Fannie and I with Esther except when we were dancing with about every other married and unmarried gal there. The ladies considered Charlie and I safe, y'see. I'm not sure I'm really comfortable with that. Every man likes to think he's a randy old goat deep inside, at least a little bit, but after Esther got her lunch hooks into me I honestly never give another woman a serious look-at. Maybe that's why they trust us. Hell, I dunno. I can read men like a book but I look at a woman and I might as well look off to the far snowy peaks, for women are a mystery and I have the hardest time reading them, except when they're clouded up and rainin' all over me. Parson Belden took a look at the baskets I had hung over my saddle bags. "You feedin' the man too?" he asked, and I saw two wicker baskets in the back of his buggy. "Yeah," I replied. "Didn't figger it would be polite to head out and expect him to feed me." Parson Belden leaned back and laughed again. "If good food helps heal, the man ought to be well enough by sunup," he said. "Once we got his hay up, why, he et enough for two men and so did I, and there was some left over!" I nodded. "Well, if he can't clean his plate, this'll keep. Little there to spoil." "Sheriff, did I see your little Angela riding the other day?" There was something in his voice -- curiosity, and something else, I wasn't sure quite what. "She's been a-ridin' near every day, Parson. She'll look at me with them big eyes and ask if we can go ride, and either Esther or I will take the time to ride with her." Parson Belden nodded and I saw a sadness cross his face; he blinked twice, dismissing it. "Sheriff," he said, "cherish the time you have with her, and spend all the time you can with her. Those are memories that will last her a lifetime." I nodded. I wasn't sure if the Parson knew about my little girl back East or not, but I knew he had lost a child as well, and at a tender age. "You were askin' if she was a-ridin' ... by herself, or with one of us?" Parson Belden returned to the here-and-now and nodded. "No, by herself." He frowned at his dash board and seemed to come to some decision. "Sheriff, if I'd not seen it I would not have believed it." I leaned forward a little. It wasn't often the Parson said anything of the kind, and I wished to hear his words, for he had my curiosity up. "Your Angela was riding barefoot, with her stockings in one hand and her shoes in the other." He hesitated, and I imagined Angela laughing, holding her arms out, wind in her hair and laughter in her heart. "She was standing in the saddle, Sheriff, and that little Rosebud of hers was running at a fair gallop, and Angela had her arms out like she was flying!" I blinked. This wasn't quite what I expected to hear. The Parson raised his hand in salute, and I mine: he clucked to his mare, and I lifted Rose's reins, and he headed back for town; and I, out to Charlie's.
  19. Linn Keller 7-22-11 Tom Landers slurped his vanilla coffee quietly, brushed the moisture from his well groomed handlebar. "I expected you were a card sharper," he said. "I was," the fellow said, and raised his beer mug for a slow swallow. Tom Landers considered this. "I never seen a man pick a pocket that easy." The aging lawman looked at the dandy in his tan, tailored suit and matching top hat and frowned. "I been around the horn an' over the mountain an' I never saw it done that easy!" The dandy nodded, smiled sadly. "I am good at it," he admitted. "How come you didn't sit down to a game o' poker an' just clean house?" The dandy considered some secret half-glimpsed at the bottom of his beer mug and considered his answer. "I had a religious experience," he admitted as if half-ashamed of the fact. "Do tell," Tom Landers said skeptically. The stranger took another drink of beer, sighed. "It's hard to get a good cool beer out here," he murmured. "This is good." Tom Landers made no reply. The stranger sighed. "I cheated games all up and down the Mississippi and most of the Ohio," he said, "I skinned players out of their eye teeth in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. I've cheated high stakes game up and down the East Coast and I was good at it." He looked sharply at Tom Landers. "I was very good." Tom Landers grunted. "I have picked pockets and lifted wallets, plucked watches and purses and treasures from pockets and waistbands and made it look easy." "Now that, I believe." Tom Landers nodded his thanks to the waitress who topped off his coffee cup. The dandy sniffed appreciatively. "You don't get real coffee too often out here, either." "We do okay." A cowhand came up and looked at the top-hatted dandy quizzically. "Now just how in the hail," he asked, "did you do that?" "Do what?" the man blinked, and Landers felt more than saw a subtle change come over the stranger. "When you took Sandy's watch yonder!" the 'poke exclaimed, turning a little and gesturing toward his fellow, who was holding his watch by the chain, contemplating the timepiece curiously, as if he half blamed the device for its own theft. "Why, I don't believe --" the fellow said, making a quick move with his right hand, pointing to the same man as the cowpoke, causing the cowhand to pull his head back a little, surprised -- "I don't believe there was anything to it. By the way," he continued, handing the cowhand a watch on a braided-hair chain, "I beleive this is yours." The cowhand's eyes widened. "I'll be damned," he breathed. "How'd you --" "My good man, you must be wealthy indeed," the dandy said in the oily tones of a confidence man: his hand brushed the cattleman's ear and came away with a silver dollar: "A man who keeps money with his hat band is rich indeed!" "He -- I -- how?" Tom Landers' smile never made it past the corners of his eyes: the old lawman knew the usefulness of a poker face in more venues than when jousting over pasteboards. "Actually, this one is mine," the confidence man said, slipping the silver dollar in a vest pocket, then withdrew a dirty cloth poke from his coat pocket. "This, however, is yours." The cowhand's chin sagged as the swindler handed him back his own small purse, which by the way contained the balance of his worldly wealth. "Now I'll be sawed off and dipped in swill," he swore quietly. "I have seen everything." The cowhand went away, shaking his head and muttering, and Mr. Baxter managed to remain invisible behind the gleaming mahogany as he burnished its mirrored surface: word traveled fast in a small town and business had picked up as the curious came to see this marvel of larceny, this showman of swindlers, this professional pickpocket who'd passed his hat three times and come away with enough coin for a meal, a bath and a room each time. Tom Landers was a curious man, but patient: patience, though, has its limits, and he finally inquired, "What was that religious experience you talked about?" "Oh! yes, that!" The confidence man turned, facing the aging law dawg, leaned his left elbow on the bar. "I was judiciously cheating a game near Sacramento," he said quietly, his forehead wrinkling slightly at the memory. "Miners, mostly, a few ranchers, some businessmen, a couple fellows I couldn't quite place. "One was ... I didn't know what he was." He looked at Landers through lowered eyebrows. "That should have been my warning. "I cheated each of them in turn, carefully but slowly increasing my winnings. At times I cheated them all to get a man to stay in the game, turning the winnings his way, because I knew if he was winning he would stay in and I could milk him all the more. "When the game was over, this fellow I couldn't place spoke up and announced that every man at that table had been cheated and by a master of the art. "He allowed as he would visit divine retribution on the cheater unless things were squared up. "When we left the table every man had every cent he started with, but I will never, ever forget just how hard and unforgiving those eyes were." "Is that all he used, those eyes?" "No." The dandy tilted his head back and drained the rest of his beer: so far did he haul his noggin rearward with the effort, that he had to reach up to hold his fine tan top hat in place. "No. Not just his eyes." He coughed a little, let the mug dangle from long, spatulate fingers. "I heard his pistol come to full cock under the table." He looked directly at Landers. "It sounded like the voice of God, speaking to a sinner." "Hm," Tom Landers grunted skeptically. "One thing has bothered me ever since," the man admitted. "How's that?" He opened his coat, slipped long fingers into an inner pocket and fished about a bit. "This." He pulled out a watch. It was nothing fancy: silver and unadorned, without engraving or insignia; a plain chain with no fob. "This was his." He held it up to eye level, watched as it turned slowly, catching the light. "I've never found him to give it back." His voice was distant, his voice thoughtful. "If he hadn't given me that religious experience, someone better at cheating than I would have called me on it and shot me long ago." "What do you figger on doin'?" "I understand your Sheriff has pale eyes." Landers stiffened. "He knows the man this belongs to." "Oh?" The confidence man turned and lowered the watch into Tom Landers' mechanically-extended hand. "The Sheriff knows the owner." Landers looked at the watch, looked at the confidence man. "It belongs to a man named Sopris."
  20. Linn Keller 7-21-11 "But Daddy, I wanna twyit!" The Sheriff looked over at his little girl and smiled. "Angela," he said in a patient Daddy-voice, "I really don't --" "But I can jump an' Mommy said not to jump an' Wozie-bud jumped over da fence wail an' I didden fall off!" Angela protested, one run-on sentence without taking a breath. The Sheriff considered his little girl, realizing on the one hand that she would have less mass to move than he, that she had rubber bones and he didn't, that she was a natural horsewoman: on the other hand, he thought, she is but a wee child, she has not the strength in her legs for what he'd done -- They both turned their mounts, looking toward the source of approaching hoofbeats. Jacob rode up, looking at once tall, slender, young and handsome. The Sheriff smiled quietly, taking pride in his firstborn son: Angela, however, had no such reserve. "Jacob!" she squealed, bouncing a little in her saddle and throwing her arms wide. Jacob rode up alongside her and leaned over in his saddle, taking her under the arms and pulling her into him: he gave her a big, arm-wrapping, big-brother hug, then he grabbed her ankles and turned her upside down, spilling a big pile of giggles out of the red-faced little girl and drawing a laugh from their grinning father. Jacob got his sister back upright and kissed her on the forehead. "Now what are you doing clear out here?" he asked, and Angela's smile flashed momentarily before she remembered she was supposed to be pouting: still held by Jacob's big, strong hands, she crossed her arms and ran her bottom lip out, giving her Daddy a sidelong glance: unable to hold the pout, she laughed again. "I wannada jump ontada twain like Daddy did!" she declared, "an' he don' wanna lemme!" "Slow down now, slow down," Jacob said, picking her up and setting her back down in front of him, crosswise, her legs sticking to port. Rosebud was a creature of habit: with no rider in the saddle and the reins a-dangle, she decided it was a good time to graze. "You wanted to do what?" Jacob asked, blinking. "I wanna wide up besideada twain an' jumponnit!" "While it's moving?" Angela nodded briskly, eyes big and sincere, curls bouncing around her face. Jacob looked over at his father and the Sheriff sighed. "Let's try just jumping first," Jacob suggested. "I know the very place!" "Okay!" Angela clapped her little hands. "You'll have to get back on Rosebud first." Angela squirmed and thrust her foot out toward the saddle: Jacob still had a good grip on her and so leaned over and helped her back into the seat. Jacob could see the curiosity in his father's eyes. "Sir?" Jacob asked. "With your permission?" The Sheriff extended a hand, palm up: Go ahead, the gesture said, and Jacob grinned and turned his Apple-horse. Angela fell in beside him and the Sheriff followed, curious as to what his son had in mind. Esther was able to tidy the affairs of her office rather early: Shorty was surprised when the dignified, red-haired matron presented herself at his livery to collect her mount: she was riding her husband's Sun-Witch that day, and so far the Witch had nipped at Shorty some half a dozen times, plucked the bandana from his pocket half that many times, and begged a petting twice that number: though the bent-backed hostler respected her bite, he also knew the horse to have a generally good nature, and as long as he avoided those even, yellow teeth, why, she was a good enough nag. Shorty fetched the Witch out, politely ignoring his bandanna dangling like a trophy flag from the mare's mouth: he spun the saddle blanket over her back, twitched it straight, ignoring the waving cloth, even when the Sun-Witch turned her head to look at him. It wasn't until he'd gotten Esther's saddle to his satisfaction that he reached for the bridle, looked at the Witch's head, and declared, "Now look-a there! She took my bandana! Ag'in! Don't that beat all!" -- and Esther smiled quietly as Shorty took the bandana, and rubbed the mare's ears, and whispered to her a little. He stuffed the bandana back in his hip pocket, carelessly thrusting it back in place, and fed her the bit: he hummed and muttered the way he always did when working with horses, and between the gentling voice and the strong but gentle hands, the Sun-Witch stood for her bridling, and even let him rub her nose a little and tell her she was a good girl. Shorty turned, reins in hand, and walked Bruja del Sol over to Esther, and it wasn't until she'd mounted and hesitated that he realized the Sun-Witch had picked his hind pocket again.
  21. Linn Keller 7-20-11 "Fred!" Lightning's voice was tight as he leaned out the door, shouted across the railroad platform. Fred Jerome stuck his head out of the doorway at the end of the platform, his big ears stuck out curiously from the side of his head. "Fred, run get the Sheriff, get the Marshal, get whoever's there! Cripple just had a holdup and they're on the train headin' this way!" Fred jerked back and out of sight, there was the sound of something heavy and wooden falling over: Lightning drew back into his office, his quick ear taking in the clatter of the telegraph sounder and automatically translating it into coherent language. Parson Belden knew the two men were trouble. He also knew they were scared. A man can smell fear and he could smell it on these two: they were looking furtively around, as if afraid someone, or something, was going to jump through the walls of the moving passenger car and seize them. The car was but lightly populated: this was the morning run from Cripple, and Firelands was the first stop for water, as the grade favored their travel: heading the opposite direction, they had to water about halfway between the two points, for the engine labored strongly to pull the grade, uphill to the mining town that never slept. Parson Beldon stood, casually, a hand to the small of his back: he worked his hips a little, the move of an older man, stiff with travel, and he walked to the end of the car, walked back, taking his time: he passed his own seat, paused opposite the nervous pair. His quick ear picked up a few stray words; his eye saw a money bag, almost hidden under a saddle bag's flap: he saw tension, he saw white around their mouths, and concluded with an intuitive leap they'd held up a bank. Parson Belden grunted as if coming to a decision, sat down with his legs out in the aisle. "You fellas feelin' all right?" he asked quietly. "What's it to ya!" one challenged: the other, the nearer of the two, raised a cautioining hand. "Jist a little peekid, is all." Parson Belden nodded wisely. "I'm Parson hereabouts," he said quietly, sticking out his hand: "Belden's the name. Firelands parish." "Firelands," the two said, and the Parson saw the near man's eyes change. Whether it was at the strength of the Parson's grip, or the realization that the sky pilot had the calluses of a working man, Belden was not sure, and really it did not matter. "You fellas don't figure to stop and visit once we get home, by any chance?" the Parson asked innocently. "Yeah," the one said, and "No" the other: the looked at each other, there was a quick, vicious hand gesture, and the first turned. "Well now we hadn't quite made up our minds," he said. "You invitin' us t' evenin' services, are ye?" The Parson smiled. "I just got back from buryin' a couple fellas," he said tiredly. "Two men foolish enough to try and hold up our bank." "Bank?" The two spoke with one voice; the near one drew back a little, the tag on his Bull Durham pouch swinging a little with the sudden move. Paron Belden nodded. "Oh, yes. Poor misguided souls they were." He shook his head in mock sorrow. "Why, they went into the bank, one ahead of the other, and of a sudden the both of 'em just fell over backwards, deader'n a hammer." "Sho'!" the robber nearer the window declared. "What happened?" Parson Belden sighed. "One of our schoolchildren was making a deposit and objected to their robbing the place." The two looked at the Parson like he was either a liar, or simple in the head. The Parson waited, blinking like a sleepy cat, knowing their curiosity would lead them to ask, and ask they did. "Well?" the near fellow blurted. "Well what?" the Parson replied innocently, as if coming out of a my-mind-was-elsewhere reverie. "Well what about that-there school child?" "Oh! oh, yes, yes! Of course!" Parson Belden grimaced and twisted his lower back a little. "Old war wound. Now where was I?" "The bank," the one said, and "The schoolchild," blurted the other. "Oh, yes! Yes! Sad story, that." He shook his head, tut-tutting a little. "This child shot the first one in the belly and broke his spine. "Before he hit the ground, everyone in the bank turned around and let go a volley, and the two of them fell instantly." "No!" The robber against the window almost gasped. "Oh, yes." The Parson nodded sagely. "It's not the first time it's happened, either. Why, one of our schoolgirls killed two robbers singlehandedly not two months ago, and before that, the bank manager came out with a bung starter and beat the holdup plumb to death with it." The two looked at one another uncomfortably. "Say, you wouldn't be funnin' me now, would you?" the nearer of the two asked. The Parson's expression was positively doleful. "People don't realize it's not wise to cause trouble, especially" -- he looked around, then leaned confidentially toward the two, and they leaned toward him -- "especially not with that pale-eyed sheriff!" He winked to emphasize his words. The air hissed under their feet and the few cars banged together as the train slowed. "Firelands," the conductor called cheerfully, the sound surging in around him as he came through the door at the end of the car. "Firelands! All out for Firelands!" "Firelands," the one hissed, and the other swallowed hard. "Well, this is my stop," the Parson said, and stood slowly, with a pained expression. "You fellas --" "Don't try it," a cold voice said, and there was a single, quiet click as something dropped into its full cock notch. The scene froze for a long moment. The first robber had thought to take a hostage, and had a pistol in one hand, and was reaching for the Parson's coat with the other. He looked at the half inch bore of the pale eyed deputy's rifle. Jacob had boarded the train as it slowed for Firelands, and timed his entry with the conductor's, while the pair was obviously distracted by the Parson. "I'd listen to the man, son," the Parson said in a fatherly tone, and the robber looked down as the Parson's .44 bulldog clickity-clicked and stopped at full cock.
  22. Linn Keller 7-18-11 "My dear," the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler said gently, raising Esther's knuckles to his lips, "thank you. An excellent meal, and made all the better with your lovely company." Esther dropped a flawless curtsy and her complexion pinked like a schoolgirl's. Angela sat quite still, blinking, taking it all in: she had noted her father's ability to turn invisible, or at least unnoticeable, and she was practicing the art now. She remained seated, her head tilted a little to the side, her curiosity obvious but unstated: she watched as her Daddy and the Judge retired to her Daddy's study. Their hired girl moved with a quick and almost noiseless efficiency, managing to mute the sound of stacked dishes and the clatter of silverware stacked up for transport to the kitchen: again, Angela held very still, for she had once -- and that one time only -- managed to get herself underfoot, and tripped the maid, at the expense of most of the china she carried, a pained exclamation from the aproned girl, and that look from her Mommy -- a look that was as effective as a session with the switch, and almost as painful. Esther must have noticed the question marks prickling from her little girl's curly hair, and she followed the child's gaze to the closed double doors, and Esther flowed into a chair beside Angela, a maternal arm around the silent child's shoulders. "You're wondering what the men are doing in there," she said quietly, almost whispering. Angela looked at her, bright-eyed and solemn, nodding. Esther smiled tolerantly. "They are men, sweets," she said, "and men must always think themselves important, and they must convince themselves that what they do is important, and so they close themselves in a smoky room and drink spirits and talk much man's talk, and they go away satisfied that they have done great things for mankind." Angela blinked, then frowned and looked at the doors again. "What's so important?" she asked with a child's undiplomatic frankness. Esther laughed a little Mommy-laughed, hugged her little girl. "I'll find out later tonight," she whispered. "If it's really important, your Daddy will ask my opinion on the matter." His Honor the Judge accepted a light and happily polluted the atmosphere with the first fragrant clouds from the hand-rolled Cuban. Swirling the brandy in its delicate crystal balloon, he tilted his head back and puffed out a grey cloud of exhalate, conmingling it with the distinct blue smoke from the cigar itself. "A man has his vices," the Judge chuckled, "and mine are few: the company of good friends, a good cigar, good brandy." He seated himself, worked his back a little and took a tentative sip of the fragrant distillate. "Mmp!" he grunted by way of approval. The Sheriff did not smoke, but gladly tolerated those who did: it was a near-universal habit in the day that he himself had never acquired: as a child he begged a draw from his own father's stogie, then another, and after a prolonged period of choking and coughing he staggered over against the woodpile, where he happened to disturb a timber rattler: the spiteful little snake had gathered itself for a strike when the lad's stomach emptied itself all over the scaled serpent, and the totality of circumstances convinced the child that smoking was bad, and the serpent that the climate was perhaps less unpleasant elsewhere. The men enjoyed a lengthy silence: the night was warm and the stove unneeded; the Sheriff raised a window, lowered the upper pane a bit, to stir a draft, and eased his long tall frame into a comfortably upholstered chair, where the incoming breeze carried fragrantly over him. "Sheriff," the Judge said at length, "I will admit that Firelands is not my busiest stop, but it is certainly the most interesting." The Sheriff nodded, his eyes wandering over his desk: half his mind was listening to the Judge, the other half was listing work that needed done yet, and in what order. "My docket in Cripple is generally quite filled." The Judge blew a slow stream of cigar smoke into the air, aiming for the far corner of the ceiling; the cloud eddied, rolled, expanded and ultimately joined the stratification that was building over the dignified old man. "Fights, assaults, murders, thefts." He flicked an ash into the conveniently-placed cuspidor. "Claims and counter-claims, complaints and affidavits, but nothing really..." He inspected the smoldering end of the Cuban. "Nothing really interesting." He looked up at the Sheriff and smiled a little crookedly, the old scar on one cheek wrinkling like it always did. "Now when I come here," he chuckled, "I don't know what I'll have, but I know it won't be ordinary." He coughed, took another quick draw on the Cuban. "Little girls who kill outlaws and outshoot bank robbers," he said, "severed heads produced from gunny sacks, buildings that collapse unexpectedly, men blown to atoms with a directed lightning strike" -- he raised a palm as the Sheriff opened his mouth -- "yes, yes, I know, she's not a witch and it was sheer and fantastic coincidence -- yes, thank you," he nodded as the Sheriff added another two fingers' worth to the brandy balloon -- "now where was I? -- oh, yes." He took a long, slow swallow of the brandy, closed his eyes with pleasure and leaned back in his chair. "And a peaceful monk who kills two highwaymen with his walking stick." The Judge clamped the cigar between slightly yellowed teeth. "Sheriff, life here is nothing if not interesting." The Sheriff nodded, adding another splash of brandy to his own goblet. His Honor sighed and the Sheriff could tell there was something further on the jurist's mind. "Colonel," he said, and the Sheriff's left ear twitched a little, hearing the title he'd not been called in some long time -- "Colonel, do you still hear bugles at night?" The Sheriff blinked slowly, swirling his brandy, smelling its fragrance: he smelled ripe peaches in summer, the heat of its distillation: he took a meditative sip and shook his head. "No, sir," he said at length, "it's not bugles I hear." "What do you hear?" The Judge's quiet-voiced syllables were punctuated with little puffs of smoke, then a slow jet of the grey ejectate. The Sheriff looked up at the Judge and his eyes were pale, very pale. "I hear a quiet squishing sound," he said. Judge Hostetler's eyebrows quirked, then his forehead wrinkled into a frown as he puzzled over this unexpected answer. "Not what you expected?" "Frankly, no." The Judge knew the value of silence in eliciting a more complete answer, and had used it numerous times in his career as an attorney, to get the answer he wanted from a reluctant witness under oath: the Sheriff knew it too, and did not rush to fill what some might regard an uncomfortably prolonged silence. Eventually the Judge asked "What is that sound, Colonel?" "You might remember the first time we met," the Sheriff said quietly, his words measured, his voice far away. "Suppose you refresh my poor failing memory." The Sheriff smiled, that slow smile the Judge remembered so well: a contagious smile infected his own face and the two chuckled. "Poor failing memory my Aunt Sadie's billie goat," the Sheriff said, swirling his brandy again. "You were riding into what had been one of the hardest engagements we'd fought." The Sheriff's eyes looked through the here-and-now and saw what had been, far away, a lifetime ago. "The smoke was thick in what had been an orchard, and flowed like slow waters through what had been a hayfield. I remember ... I remember the air was dead still and it ... it was smooth, flawless, and flowed down hill a little, like water but so very slow." His voice was quiet, but plainly audible in the still room. "You rode in from the north end of the orchard and you looked down as you rode. "Dead hands were thrust up through the flowing battle-smoke, clawed as if reaching for your living heart and not quite reaching it, hands that wanted to drag you to hell with all of them." His voice was a little rough now, almost hoarse as the moment cleared in his recollection. "The breeze brushed the smoke aside and I reached up and took hold of your bridle." "I remember," the Judge said faintly, cigar forgotten in his off hand, and he took a quick gulp from his snifter. "I remember their eyes ... wide, staring, seeing what we could not." The Sheriff set his own snifter aside and shivered. "I walked with you and we crossed the field and crossed it again, and every step I took, blood squelched up around my boot soles." He pierced the Judge with his ice-hued gaze. "Do you remember the smell?" His Honor nodded. "I remember," he whispered, his voice tortured. "You were sick with the seeing of it." Judge Hostetler clamped his jaw hard against the memory. "You dismounted and I tied off your horse to what used to be a tree and we staggered over to a creek. It sparkled as it splashed over a couple rocks and we dipped our hands in and drank." Judge Hostetler nodded, his own eyes distant. "Wasn't until we'd both downed a good amount that we realized it tasted off ..." "Metallic," Judge Hostetler whispered hoarsely. The Sheriff nodded, reached for his snifter, took a gulp and sloshed it around his mouth before swallowing. "You took up a handful and looked at it and you said it looked like sassafrass tea." His Honor took his brandy balloon in both hands: trembling a little, he drained it, set it down very carefully, as if fearful his control might fail and the fragile glass might tumble to the floor and be shattered like so many young lives had been shattered that grisly day. "I don't hear bugles, sir," the Sheriff husked. "I hear that little squelchy sound as I walk across that butcher's yard."
  23. Linn Keller 7-16-11 "Jaysus, Joseph an' Mary," Sean breathed, "an' ye were where when i' hit?" "Right over there, Mister Chief!" "Right o'er ... i' yon shed, now, were ye?" Sean's blue eyes were at once amused and concerned as he regarded the solemn faced little boy. The lad nodded. "An' ye saw i' hit?" Again the hollow-eyed nod. Sean's hand was gentle as he caressed the lad's curly hair, traced the bare-seared scalp. "An' how'd this happen?" he asked quietly. "It was like this when we woke up." "I see." Sean shoved his bottom jaw out, considering: then he asked, "Lad, are ye Catholic?" The lad shook his head. "Ah, now, tha's no matter." Sean's hands were firm on the lad's shoulders. "I believe one o' the Saints was watchin' o'er ye." "Which one?" the lad asked, blinking. Sean considered. "Well, now, 'tis the good St. Florian that watches o'er firemen," he said, "an' St. Christopher as well, guardian o' warriors an' policemen alike." He frowned a little, stirring around in his memory, finding a gem in its confusion and lifting it into the light. "St. Christopher is th' patron saint against sudden death," he said, "an' I'd say he's likely th' one that' reached out an' turned th' lightning away from you." Sean's strong fingers were surprisingly gentle as they traced the seared path across the lad's scalp. "Ye've felt an angel's touch, lad," he rumbled. "Ye've been marked wi' a warrior angel's blessing. Ne'er forget that." Not a mile away, another saint's name was invoked: Brother William spun his staff in a vicious arc, hooking the first highwayman behind the knee and bringing the other end up in a short, brutal arc, belting the robber hard behind the left ear as he was going over backwards. The second thief was momentarily frozen by the violent explosion of what they thought would be a peaceful, sheeplike victim: they knew Brother William was carrying a sizable donation, given freely by the Catholic community for the relief of two families in need, and the pair of low grade thieves had decided the money would be better spent on their relief from sobriety. Brother William moved in a deadly dance: he spun his traveler's staff, thrust it hard, catching the second footpad under the jaw: he knew that in this one brief moment he was the actor, and action was his: his assailants were therefore the reactors, and would have to react to his assault -- the exact opposite of their intentions. The first robber was only just laid out on the ground when Brother William's staff thrust inadvertently but most lethally into the standing robber's larynx, breaking the trachea free of its moorings, crushing the voice box and seizing the vocal cords shut in an involuntary and most painful spasm: blood and mucus and crushed cartilage cascaded down on the locked bands of muscle, sealing the airway shut as the robber's rifle fell from shocked-open hands. William's thrust , withdrawn, moved fluidly into another spinning hook; the lashing backstroke broke the bridge of the nose and one cheek bone, and the white-robed monastic took two quick steps back, spinning the staff into a guard position, turning, alert for any further attackers. Brother William turned, slowly, making slow circles in the middle of the road: finally, satisfied that he was alone with the wounded and the dying, he drove the end of his staff into the packed dirt and glared at the pair. Shaking his head, he went to the attacker who was trying to gasp and having no success: seizing the man's hand, he asked quietly, "Do you now confess your sins, known and unknown, spoken and unspoken, and do you now most earnestly repent of them, and ask God's forgiveness?" Desperate, bulging eyes turned to the balding monk: the hand squeezed, once, and there was the barest of nods. Brother William made the sign of the Cross and murmured, "Now go, my son, knowing you have confessed your sins and been forgiven by One who is far greater than I. Go to your reward, secure in His Mercy ..." Brother William watched the light fade in the man's eyes. He bowed his head, swallowed: though he knew there was no sin in repelling an attack, and though he knew that death was the just reward of the sinner, and that the righteous man, in smiting the criminal, was blameless if the criminal die: he took neither pride nor satisfaction in the taking of a life, no matter how justified. He folded the dead man's hands across the still breast, stood: he leaned on his staff and felt old, old and tired, at least until he heard the sound of approaching hooves. William looked at the Marlin laying on the ground and considered. I can be behind cover in three jumps, he thought, and then he saw the rider. He raised his staff overhead. Jacob raised his hand in reply.
  24. Linn Keller 7-11-11 Angela was a genuine trouper. She was also a little girl. We set on what was left of the stack of fence posts, and looked back at the string of posts we'd put in so far. I'd dug the holes -- Angela asked to try the post hole digger and to her credit she managed to cut a little dirt loose, but she wasn't used to bringing a heavy tool straight up, then drive it straight down, and she wore out fast -- but she was priceless when it came to being a step-and-fetch-it, when it came to running the measuring string back to the last post, when it came to helping me get them lined up, and it delighted her that I picked her up so she could hold the plumb line at the top of the fence post and look waaaaay down at the bronze bob at the bottom, and see that we'd gotten another one "Just Right!" Now we set on the fence posts that awaited holes and positioning, sharing a canteen, and Angela was troubled. On the one hand Daddies figure they can fix anything that goes wrong in the family. On the other hand, when something comes along that the Daddy doesn't have any idea how to fix, well, it's not a terribly comfortable feeling. Me, I shoved those not-comfortable feelings aside and did my best. I had to do something even if it was wrong. Ever since we had that lightning storm, ever since Angela had rode up and stopped that horse thief from making off with my black gelding, ever since she'd whipped her hand out at the fleeing horse thief and that bolt of lightning blew him to ... well, to his reward ... why, Angela had been quite subdued, and she wanted to be really close to Esther or I ... but especially to me. I needed to set fence posts out back so I told Angela to come along, I needed her help and she give me that bright, sunrise-in-the-morning smile and piped "Okay, Daddy!" You might remember the date, as a matter of fact: there would have been a distinct crunching sound in the distance. That was the sound of my spine as my little girl was winding me around her little finger. We set there in the sun, and the mare stood head drooped and hip shot in the traces, and Angela reached down and stirred around in the grass and pulled a stem like she'd seen me do, and put the tag end delicately between her front teeth, then she hunched over with her elbows on her knees, her feet spread. Esther would never approve of such an un-ladylike posture, I thought, but I had to smile, for I was in exactly the same position. "Daddy?" she finally asked. "Yes, Princess?" "Daddy, what's it like to be a boy?" I blinked. Of the questions I was expecting, of the questions for which I was preparing a mental list of answers, this wasn't one of them. "Well," I said, "boys are loud and get in fights, boys get dirty and cut their fingers on pocket knives and trade frogs behind the school building --" "Yuck!" Angela said, the grass falling from between her pearly whites: I had to look away from her nose-wrinkled expression of distaste quickly, because I felt a laugh building up, and now wasn't the time for her to hear me laugh. "Boys have to wear boring clothes and belch when they eat, boys spit and wrestle and dip little girls' pig tails in ink wells and put frogs in their lunch basket when they're not looking. "Yuck!" Angela's face resembled a Moorish idol, and I couldn't help myself. This time I did laugh. Angela's expression of distaste dissolved in laughter of her own. "Then boys have to work really hard, like we're working today." Angela blinked, looked back at the row of fence posts, looked at the post hole diggers leaning against the side of the wagon. "How hard do they have to work?" she asked in a small voice. I gestured her closer and she jumped up and snuggled up against me. I picked her up and set her on my lap, marveling at how big she was getting, how long she was and how far her head came up toward my nose now ... as she straightened her head crested above my nose and my arms wrapped around her and I thought good God! how did this happen so fast! -- and my thought was less an exclamation of surprise as it was a question for the Almighty, to the only One Who would know the answer to that mystery! This was one of those moments when I realized just how fast little children grow, and for a mad moment I had a mental image of little Joseph, Jacob's son ... little Joseph, my grandson, astride my golden mare, laughing and galloping across the meadow, a laughing little child wearing an angelic expression and a sagging diaper ... I blinked, rocked Angela a little. "Boys have to do a man's work," I said. "You can see how much work we have done today." Angela's head rubbed against my cheek as she nodded. "Now imagine if you were a boy, you would have to work as hard as I did, and just as fast, and just as well." Angela drew away from me a little, regarded me with big and almost frightened eyes. "But I'm just a little girl," she said in a small voice, distress in her expression and dismay in her words, and I threw my head back and laughed, a good healthy Daddy-laugh, and I hugged her again, and stood, and raised her up and kissed her on the forehead. "Angela," I said, "I've had about enough post settin' for one day. How about you?" Angela nodded with that sunrise smile again. I swung her up into the wagon, swung her waaay down and back until her shoe-soles just grazed the grass, then I swung her up and around and set her down easy-like so the backs of her legs were just touching the edge of the seat, and her "Wheee!" sang out across the waving-grass meadow. I set the post hole diggers and plumb line, measuring string and canteens back into the wagon, then I climbed in and unwound the reins. I ran an arm around Angela and pulled her into my side and clucked up the mare, and the wagon began rattling around in a big gentle circle. "Daddy?" Angela asked softly. "Yes, Princess?" It would take us a while to get back, the mare was moving at a walk and I was in no hurry. "Daddy, did I do something bad?" "How's that?" Angela shivered a little and put her hand against my belly: not quite a seize-me-in-terror clutch, but more of a little girl, reassuring herself that her Daddy was there, and strong, and very real. "Daddy, I told Black-horsie dead and he deaded." I gave her a gentle little squeeze. "We practiced that, Princess, and you did it just right." "But Daddy," she protested, looking up at me, and I looked down into her big, guileless, sincere eyes, "I told that bad man "Dead!" and he deaded for real!" I blinked, considered. "He's dead, all right," I affirmed. "Daddy, he called me a witch." "Whoa there," I spoke to the mare, and the mare whoa'd. I reached over and hauled back on the brake, dropped the set over it to hold it. I picked Angela up and set her on my lap and I looked her square in the eye. "Say that again, honey," I said quietly, as gently as I could. Those big liquid eyes started to sparkle and I knew my little girl was not far from tears. "He said I was a witch!" I pulled out a silk neck rag and folded it carefully. "Angela," I said, "did you ever see this?" I reached into the folded silk and pulled out a rose. Her expression went from distress to delight in a tenth of a second or less. "And why do you hide money in your ear?" I asked, and she felt my fingers brush her ear and then draw back to display a silver dollar. "Now," I said, "does that make me a witch?" Angela blinked rapidly, partly confused but starting to see what I was driving at. "Angela, how many people can tell a horsie to dead and it will dead?" Angela blinked rapidly and her forehead wrinkled. "You are the only one in the whole world I know of that can tell a horse to dead and he'll fall down like Black-horse does," I continued, my Daddy-voice pitched to be quiet, strong, reassuring. "Now why does Black-horse dead when we tell him to?" "We taught him!" Angela said, and I saw the surprise of a newly-discovered truth in her eyes, a truth she realized had always been there, but she only now saw it. "That's right. Now he's never seen that before, so he's going to think it's genuinely magic." I held up the coin. "Like this." Angela giggled. She'd seen me pull coins out of schoolboys' ears before and she knew it was a sleight of hand and not magic at all. "You told Black-horse to dead and he did as he was trained." I put a slight emphasis, a very slight edge, to my words, and Angela blinked and then nodded, but then she frowned, she drew back a little and she crossed her arms with a girlish flounce. "But, Daddy," she said, "what about that bad man? I said 'Bad man! Dead!' and lightning killed him." I nodded, and very delicately touched the tip of her nose with a very careful forefinger. "The lightning killed him," I said. "You didn't. That's called a coincidence." "Co-win-sid-dence," Angela repeated carefully. I nodded, smiling a little, and Angela gave me that beatific smile again, and threw her arms wide. "Coincidence!" she declared, and it was as if a quarter of a ton had been fetched off her pretty little shoulders. I hugged my little girl and she hugged me, and we released the brake and clucked up the mare and headed back to the house. I was hungry and so was my little girl, and my stomach told me it was time to eat.
  25. Linn Keller 7-10-11 I got our mounts tended: it took me a while and I took my time about it. Frankly I was leery of going outside the barn. I considered that fellow I knew was up to no good, back there at the Livery, and figured I'd ketch up with him sometime, and if I didn't, well, that's the way things went sometimes. I remembered seeing that blinding-white finger of doom turn a running out law into a cloud of steam and a few chunks of cooked meat, and I shivered. I didn't figure to go outside for a little. I am no less brave than any man, but there is a clear difference between duty, bravery and utter stupidity. I was going to stay inside for a little. Times like this I was grateful I'd had those nice big friendly lightning rods put up: I took some ribbing with four of 'em stickin' up from the peak of the roof, and some on the house besides, but I'd seen a good white oak tree blown to splinters by a direct strike back in my youthful days and I'd seen houses and barns burnt down from a strike and I figured them-there lightnin' rods was way cheaper than a rebuild. We stood inside that nice tight barn and looked out at the rain and listened to thunder rumbling like dyspepsia in a fat man's guts: Esther's hand sought mine, and Angela's ... well, I ended up drawing a few bales of hay together and tossing a blanket over them and there we set, our little girl on my lap and holdin' onto me shiverin', and Esther sitting beside me, as proper as the Queen on her throne, and I let go of her hand and run my arm around her shoulders. She leaned into me and the three of us just set there for a while. Angela must have drowsed a little; she ended up leaned into my front and my arm around her, and Esther and I talked in whispers, not wanting to trouble her. The horses were restless; I spoke to them, soothing them with my voice, and they calmed: I don't know if they figured I'd run off and left them or what. Esther had remarked on my ability with animals. She'd been watching from her office window over top the Silver Jewel when I come cat footin' down the alley one evening. I'd been lookin' ahead, expecting to find a particular fellow who allowed as he would part my hair with a broad ax before he went back to prison. Esther could just see in the gathering dusk that some fellow's dog was tied in a little wide place in the alley. She could not see it was just wide enough to hide the dog as it was half under the building, in just the right place for me not to see it. For a big man I move quiet, and I moved quiet: it was not until I come to that little wide place that the dog and me saw one another. The dog bared its ivories and laid its ears back and give a good deep chest snarl and I knew with absolutely no doubt a'tall that he wasn't happy to see me. Now I considered: I could have sent that-there dog across the Great Divide with a charge of heavy shot out of that double gun, but I hate the thought of shooting another man's dog unless there's no way around it. I took my hand off the wrist of that double gun and put my fingers to my lips and I said "Shhh." The dog's ears came up and its head came up and it looked at me kind of surprised, but it shh'd and it didn't want to take a chunk out of my shin bone no more. Esther saw all that and allowed afterward as I was second cousin to St. Francis of Assissi. I made the mistake of mentioning this in the Jewel the next night, as one of the fellows allowed as he heard me say I was second cousin to a sissy, at least until he turned and saw me lookin' at him. For some odd reason he looked kind of uncomfortable and he buried his confusion in his beer real quick-like. All of that run through my head while we set there, listening to rain on the roof and a-settin' together like we were. Esther must have felt me chuckle: she lifted her head and looked at me with those bright, sparkling green eyes, and there was a question in the way her eyebrow quirked just a little. "Long story," I whispered, and she smiled, and laid her head over on my shoulder again.
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