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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

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Posts posted by Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

  1. Linn Keller 11-22-13

     

    Esther leaned forward and patted Edi's neck the way she used to.
    They looked down into the Jewel, hovering at ceiling height, smiling as the couples took the floor and the waltz took the moment.
    "She dances well," a voice said, and Esther jumped a little and gave a little squeak of surprise, and her niece Duzy smiled at her.
    Esther's mouth fell open and she turned without dismounting -- she didn't stop to wonder how she did it -- but she blinked and seized Duzy's hands and looked her up and looked her down and then she abandoned all propriety and hugged her, hugged her tight, and Duzy was solid and real and warm and laughing, just the way Esther remembered her.
    "How," Esther squeaked, and Duzy's eyes smiled: she leaned back and looked approvingly at Esther.
    "I love that gown," she murmured. "Turn around, let me see --"
    Esther's eyes widened, her hands went to her mouth.
    "I, oh dear, oh, no," she murmured.
    Don't worry, Edi commented dryly.
    Duzi laughed, took Esther's hand.
    "Step over to the mirror," she smiled, and Esther followed her over to a large, multi-panel mirror, the kind a woman will use when she wants to see herself in the back as well as the front.
    Esther's mouth fell open and her eyes grew large and round.
    Duzi laughed.
    "They're called wings," she giggled. "Go on. See how they look!"
    You used mine often enough, Edi grunted. It's time you tried your own.
    Esther spread her wings.
    They were twice as wide as she was tall, gracefully curved, and a bright, shining, rainbow-tinged, emerald.
    Angela looked up, her eyes widening: she'd been sitting for a little bit after being danced by Nelson Bell, and she sat with Polly and Opal against the side wall, under the stage where the fiddler was playing the dancers with his fiddle.
    Angela looked up at her Mommy, her face shining with delight as her Mommy put her finger to her lips, and folded her great, shining-green wings.
    You must not tell, not yet, Angela heard whispered in her mind, and she nodded her understanding.
    Edi looked at Angela, and spread her wings as well, and Angela laughed and Edi heard her exclaim "I was right!" and Angela felt Edi's approval.
    We women keep many secrets, Angela heard her Mommy's whisper as Esther descended into the room: Angela felt her Mommy-touch, feather-light, on her cheek.
    Remember what the Parson said last week, Angela heard. We are surrounded by a great cloud of believers.
    Angela looked around, wondering why nobody paid any attention to her Mommy, and the beautiful woman with her, the one with sunset-pink wings.
    Or the horsie with big white wings.
    They can't see us.
    "Oh," Angela said aloud, as if that satisfied everything.
    Sarah looked up, and smiled, and opened her mouth as if to say something, then she closed her mouth and gave a little wave, as if she was shyly saying hello to someone without wanting to appear conspicuous.
    Angela felt a surge of delight.
    Sarah saw her too! she thought, and hugged herself with delight.

    Jacob danced with his sister, and with his wife, and he arranged the minor distraction as Sarah and Daffyd slipped out: the party was in full gear, food was being eaten and drink was being consumed, pretty girls were being danced, and Jacob slipped away as well.
    Angela was starting to droop so I slipped out as well, and my little girl with me, and I picked her up and carried her home.
    It wasn't that far and I needed the walk.
    I stopped and looked toward the cemetery hill and I recognized Jacob in the moonlight and I knew he was going to his mother's grave.
    We went in the house and I carried Angela to the kitchen.
    I sat her in her chair and I heard the maid approach and I selected a knife that satisfied me.
    The maid baked a cake earlier and iced it and decorated it and I was not going to let it go to waste.
    "Angela," I said, "this is your Mommy's Happy Birthday cake."
    Angela nodded solemnly.
    I sliced into the cake.
    "Happy Birthday, dear heart," I whispered.

    Later that night I sat on the side of the bed.
    Our bed.
    The bed we'd shared since we were married.
    The bed where she birthed our newest child.
    The bed where she died.
    I groaned and lowered my head into my hands.
    I'd gotten Angela in her flannel nightgown and got her tucked in and kissed her forehead, then I came over here and hung up my coat and my vest and pulled off my boots and that's all the strength I had.
    I sat there and listened to the silence.
    The bedroom was empty ... utterly, completely empty.
    "How will I manage?" I whispered.
    "I don't know how to raise a little girl."
    I looked at the closed door.
    "Our son needs you ... hell, I need you!"
    I swallowed, took a long breath, and the door opened.
    Angela came in, rubbing her eyes, her rag doll locked in her elbow.
    "Daddy," she mumbled, "I can't sleep."
    "I can't either," I admitted.
    Angela climbed up on the bed beside me and leaned over against me.
    I laid down, still clothed, and Angela laid down with me.
    She rolled over and cuddled up against me and I ran my arm around her and pulled her in close.
    Alfdis would have the baby, I knew, but for now ... I knew I needed my rest, and so did Angela.
    "Happy Birthday, dear heart," I whispered.

  2. Linn Keller 11-22-13

     

    Strong but gentle hands steered me here, steered me there.
    I was in a carriage, out of a carriage, I went here, I went there.
    I was numb.
    I set down and stared at nothing.
    It took a little for things to soak in but I finally realized I was in the Silver Jewel, and it was decorated, and there was music, and a voice in my ear murmured something about dancing with the bride.
    I woke up.
    This I could do.
    I knew how to dance.
    Sarah stood before me and she was beautiful.
    Her face glowed, she smiled at me half-shyly, the way a grown-up little girl will, and she dipped her knees and bent in a proper, ladylike curtsy, and I took her hand and bowed gravely.
    A stentorian voice boomed something about the first dance with the Father of the Bride, and Sarah spun lightly on her toes, her gloved hand above her head, and I twirled her and pulled her into my arms the way I did Esther, the first time we danced there at the Jewel.
    My arm went naturally around behind her shoulder blades and hers went properly to my back; we knew the music and we knew the dance and we cleared the floor, the two of us -- or would have, were there any other dancers about.
    There should have been a great arc light shining from high rafters, showing the world Sarah and her beauty and her grace, for though I'd danced with her many times, and many's the time she showed how well and how light and how smooth she danced, I never in my life recall that she danced so well.
    We knew the music; it spun off the Daine fiddle, an old and well loved tune, and I knew that halfway through there was a pause, a few bars where the music slowed, and that's where I would stop, and surrender my little girl forever to her husband, for though she was my little girl she was now another man's wife, and this was the public surrender, the final time she would leave my arms for another's, and I did not want it to end.
    My throat seemed full and I harrumphed quietly and swallowed hard and had to do it again and finally I was able to whisper a little, and when the music slowed, we stopped, and I looked down into those amazing pale eyes and I saw into a young eternity, and I whispered, "I am very proud of you," and then Daffyd came up and I put my hand on Sarah's shoulder and my other on his, and I drew them together, and stepped back.
    I took two steps back and I watched them fall into each other's eyes, and I watched them dance, and my face felt odd.
    It took me a bit to place what I felt.
    I was smiling.

    Angela went skipping up to the table where Nelson Bell sat.
    She looked at the man sitting to his right and said "My daddy has a Drag-Boom," nodding and bouncing her curls, and the men laughed and the one she was addressing gave her an appraising look and said, "What can you tell me about the drag-boom?"
    "Daddy feeds it grains," she said, "and nickles."
    They laughed again and the Ranger opened his coat and drew out his big Dragoon revolver.
    Holding it low, so as not to alarm the assembled, he said "Now little lady, I'm kind of confused, just what are you talkin' about?"
    "Here," Angela said impatiently. "I show you."
    She pulled his coat back, reached in and thrust her hand into the leather pouch at his belt: withdrawing the powder flask, she carefully pressed the gate, tapped the spout delicately against the tablecloth and spilled a few grains of FF: nodding, she turned the flask spout-up, pressed the cutoff again to drop any powder back into the flask, replaced it.
    She reached in again, frowning, trying one leather pocket and another, until she triumphantly brought out a gleaming silvery-lead bullet between thumb and forefinger.
    She placed this base-down on the table beside the tiny pinch of powder, then with a third exploration, came out with a round ball.
    "Now," Angela said, as if lecturing a classmate, "Daddy puts sixty grains in his Drag-Boom." She brushed the powder, separating the shiny black grainules with a little pink finger, and she frowned.
    "He puts sixty of 'em in his Drag-Boom but he doesn't even use tweezers. That looks hard."
    Her expression was so studious, her expression so serious, that the Rangers hid their smiles.
    Angela put a finger on the ball.
    "That," she said, "is a pistol ball."
    The Rangers nodded in solemn agreement.
    She put her finger on the pointed projectile beside it.
    "And that," she said triumphantly, "is the nickle!"
    "Conical," Nelson Bell as he realized what she meant.
    "That's what I meant," Angela declared, planting her knuckles on her hips. "A nickle!"
    Nelson Bell threw back his head and laughed, and his Rangers laughed with him.
    "Young lady," Nelson Bell declared, "I always did like educated women! May I have this dance?"
    Angela laughed with delight as Nelson Bell stood up: one big forearm under her backside, his other hand held hers out to her arm's length, and Angela scattered delighted giggles all over the dance floor as this big, strong Texas Ranger spun her in dizzying circles.
    As if a dam crumbled, the floor filled quickly, and grief flowed away through the floorboards and was replaced with celebration.

  3. Charlie MacNeil 11-21-13

     

    Charlie stood close by, offering comfort with his presence, knowing that words would go unheard until his friend had time to come to terms with his grief. Instead, his voice joined with that of Ranger and cavalryman, lifting on the breeze, doing their part to send a beloved friend to heaven on the wings of their song. Scripture enjoins us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and though the song was one of farewell it was also a paean of joyous love for the departed.

    The song drew to a close, one last refrain echoing from hill and dale. All heads bowed as Parson Belding spoke again, his baritone felt by all and sundry. "We bid farewell to one who was a pillar of our community. But more than that, so much more than that, Esther Keller was the bedrock upon which was built so many lives. She led us, she cajoled us, she disciplined us, she set an example that all of us have ingrained in our very souls. She will be missed, yet she lives on in all whose lives she touched.

    "Jacob said that there is no prohibition against mourning in the Bible. He is right. We are allowed to mourn, but we should do our mourning with an eye not to the past, and what we are losing, but to the present and what we have gained by the presence of Esther in this place at this time. The power, the purity, of her love continues. We partook of her strength that we may be able to go on. And go on we must, though we feel as if our world has ceased to turn on its axis. Life, love, family, all go on, and we must go on with them. She would want it so. Esther Keller was never one to look back over her shoulder; instead, she was constantly looking to the future.

    "This day is a day of joy, a day of the joining of two souls in the bonds of love. Esther would want that celebration to continue. Sarah has invited you all to the Jewel to feast and to remember. Remember the best and put the worst behind us. That is my admonition to you this day: remember the best. Remember the love, the guidance and the strength of Esther Keller." The Parson folded his hands over his Bible and looked around at the solemn faces of the mourners then bowed his head. "Let us pray."

    "Heavenly Father, we commend to you this day Esther Keller, beloved wife and mother. We ask your blessings of peace, comfort and strength on those of us who were left behind, and thank you for your presence in our lives this day. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen."

  4. Linn Keller 11-21-13

     

    I watched Sarah and Daffyd.
    Each one had eyes only for the other and I think they heard the parson only from a distance.
    I know that moment.
    I remembered when Esther and I jumped the broom.
    The world shrunk to just us, and I was King of the World, and Esther, my Queen, and in that moment, nothing could be better.
    It felt good.
    I wished Esther was a-settin' beside me, but I sat with family anyway: Jacob and his young, at least one of 'em: Joseph stood with the men up front and I dandled his youngest on my leg, and Annette smiled at us from the piano bench.
    I haven't been this happy for a very long time.
    About then I felt something ... something wasn't right and I eased the young'un over on Jacob's lap and turned.
    Jeremy was coming up the aisle, trying to be quiet, and I did not like the look on his face.
    He saw me and stopped so I stood, shoving hard on the cane, worked my way careful-like through the forest of legs and into the aisle.
    I bent my head to hear what he had to say and that's when the bottom dropped out of my world.

    I don't recall much of the rest of the day.
    I looked down at Esther, laying dead and still in our bed, but it wasn't Esther.
    It was a cold and dead thing that only incidentally looked like my wife.
    My wife was warm and real and moving and laughing and her eyes were shining and her hands were kind and this dead clay was what she used to occupy.
    I remember going downstairs and setting in the swivel chair in front of my desk and just ... setting there.
    About a year later -- it could have been ten minutes or ten hours, I didn't know and didn't much care -- I looked at something I'd been staring at.
    An envelope.
    I blinked and realized it was addressed in Esther's handwriting, and it was addressed to me.
    I reached for it, or I tried to, but the hand that I saw move into view wasn't mine.
    It was a palsied claw that belonged to an old man.
    I picked up the envelope and cracked the seal, I drew out the page and I read the words.
    I swallowed hard and closed my eyes and I felt a breath of air, something gentle brushed my cheek, like the stroke of a feather, and I heard ...
    I heard what sounded like ...
    I opened my eyes and looked around.
    I'd heard that before.
    I one time surprised a golden eagle and it took out and on the first hard stroke I heard its wings in the air and that's what I heard, but there was no bird in the room.
    The door opened, cautiously, slowly, and Angela looked in: she saw me and she made a scampering beeline for me and I reached down and picked her up and set her on my lap and Angela leaned into me, rubbing her eyes and wiggling until she got comfortable.
    I don't reckon either of us said a word.
    Sometimes what's said between a Daddy and his little girl is said best with what we had, with her on my lap and my arms around her.

    Jacob directed the removal; his mother's coffin was stored below and needed only a dusting-off to be ready.
    His father was a planning man and he'd purchased his box and hers long years before, and stored them away against the fell day when they would be needed.
    Jacob led the slow march upstairs, and he led the slow march back down.
    Bonnie and Fannie and the women tended the body and got it ready, and Jacob knew Bonnie was crying over her opened Bible and a letter she held: he held his own grief in check, though he knew his grief would emerge later, whether he wished it or not: he did not wish it yet, he would grieve in his own time and in his own way.
    His mother wished to be buried before sunset, after the Jewish custom, on the day of her death: he sent word to Digger, and he knew the man would have the hole ready by the time he got there, for it would take some time to get his mother prepared.
    The parlor was cleared of most of its furniture, sawhorses set up and draped, and the coffin set on them: as was custom, the box was closed.
    The yellow roses, in a vase, were on the polished cherry-wood coffin lid.
    Jacob knew when they removed Esther's pillow, a jewel-handled dagger lay crosswise beneath her pillow, and he knew his mother had it placed there, for a blade under the pillow cuts the pain of birth-labor.
    He asked the women, when they prepared Esther for this last time, that they fold her hands and place the hilt of the dagger in them, with the blade down, and they did: he knew the dagger, it was a gift from his father, a fighting-knife which Esther could use with an efficient beauty that was a marvel to see.

    Bonnie folded the emerald material from Esther's wedding dress.
    She'd cut the back from the skirt, as Esther instructed in the letter she'd put in the front cover of her Bible: the material would become a christening gown for her newborn daughter.
    Sarah was among the women, preparing one of their own for this final honor: she bathed this woman she'd come to know and to love, she put her in the emerald gown she'd worn on the happiest day of her life, she fixed her hair, she folded Esther's hands for the last time and helped lift her into the coffin: it was Sarah who closed the coffin's lid, and it was Sarah who turned the screws in the lid, securing it in place.
    It was Sarah who held her tears until Esther was in the box, and it was Sarah who asked the ladies to step back, and it was Sarah who pressed a hidden stud and opened a slender cabinet.
    Sarah took a Schlager-bladed sword in each hand and struck their tips together, three times, before advancing on the still figure in the polished cherry-wood box.
    "Stay back," she cautioned, raising each blade before her, then snapping them down in a sword-fighter's salute.
    Sarah closed her eyes and raised the blades slowly, at arm's length, toward the high ceiling, then she began to spin them, weaving them in a deadly silver web: Damascus steel whispered a deadly promise as Sarah stepped to the side, a light, dancer's step, circling the coffin, steel gleaming half-seen and shining beside the box and above the box: Sarah circled the box sunwise, stopping where she began: she froze, blades crossed over the coffin, then she drew them slowly, rasping against one another, until the tips separated.
    Sarah stepped back, raised them in salute, forearms crossed, and bowed, deeply, from the waist.

    Someone steered me out the door.
    I think it was Jacob.
    I climbed into the carriage.
    I was numb.
    We rode in silence, we rode in slow procession, Digger's black hearse and Esther's coffin inside, my son with reins in hand and Angela and the twins in the seat behind me.
    I don't know how I knew this.
    I didn't look back.
    I didn't look around.
    I looked at that hand rubbed cherry wood box.
    I looked at my life and everything I ever loved and I looked at what had been and I sat there numb.
    We drew up at the grave and Jacob was here and Jacob was there and Jacob spoke quietly, arranging, directing; part of me saw this and approved but the rest of me stared at that polished cherry coffin.
    I felt a hand on my shoulder, I felt words against my ear.
    I recognized Charlie's voice.
    I recognized his hand.
    Another hand, on my other shoulder: Jackson Cooper, wordless, but his squeeze said what his throat could not.
    The Parson stepped up with his book in hand and he spoke the service.
    It was brief and his words were fine and well polished, of that I am sure, but I did not hear a one of them.
    Finally they hoisted the ropes and pulled out the boards and lowered my heart into that hole in the ground, that hole beside our first child, in front of the stone that already bore our names.
    Jacob stood on the other side of the hole and he held a paper in his hands and I recognized it.
    I'd written it.
    I'd written years before, in a solemn moment, what I wanted to say when this dark day arrived, words I now had no voice to frame.
    I swallowed and I stared at the smooth squared sides of that deep, cold hole and I heard Jacob speak my words.

    Jacob looked around, holding the paper by its top and by its bottom, as if he held a Medieval scroll.
    No voice spoke; there was wind in high, barren branches, the distant sound of far-off industry, but here, save a cough or a sniff as a mourner tried not to interrupt the solemn moment, there was nothing.
    "My father," Jacob began, then stopped and cleared his throat, turning his head a little to grip his feelings in an iron claw of utter control, "my father wished to speak these words.
    "I speak them for him."
    He looked at the paper and swallowed, and he read his father's careful, regular script.
    "And Solomon, King of Israel, was an old man and full of years: he went into the Sanctum as was his habit at high twelve, to offer up his devotions to the Ever Living God.
    "And Solomon, in his grief, prayed that he not grieve over what was no more, but that he may rejoice at all that had been, and that he remember these things instead.' "
    Jacob lowered the paper and looked at his father.
    He'd never seen the man look so utterly lost in all his life.
    "Mother," he said, "did not want a preachy funeral and she surely didn't get one, but there is one Scripture that bears mention."
    His father raised his head, curiosity in his expression; Sarah, still in her emerald wedding dress beneath her black cloak, held onto her husband's arm and looked sharply at her brother, intrigued.
    "We read in the Book that we are not to grieve as do the heathen," Jacob said, his voice clear, distinct in the high mountain air: "we are not to mourn as those who have no hope."
    He paused and looked around.
    "Nowhere in Scripture does it say, 'Don't Mourn.' "
    He paused to let this sink in, then continued.
    "We grieve because we have loved, and we grieve hard because we've loved deeply."
    He looked around, took a long breath of cold air.
    "It rained last night, and so will I."
    Nobody there missed his meaning with that phrase.
    He looked at the paper and swallowed hard.
    "We feast this day," he declared firmly. "My mother was full of life and she loved to laugh. We miss her and wish she was among us yet, and so we celebrate the memory of all she was and all she did."
    Sarah raised her chin and spoke.
    "On behalf of our family, we invite you all to the Silver Jewel, where a feast is laid and ready. There will be music and there will be dance, and we will celebrate that which was, and that which is, and that which has yet to be, for life is short and we rejoice whenever we can."
    Angela stepped forward and looked into the hole.
    She dropped her three yellow roses into the hole and looked around, suddenly uncertain, then she blurted uncertainly, "My Mommy loved rosies an' yellow rosies mean friendship an' my Daddy gave her yellow rosies 'cause he said he married his bestest friend!"
    Nelson Bell, standing behind the Sheriff, watched as Bonnie's daughters stepped up and dropped their yellow roses into the hole as well.
    Nelson Bell, Texas Ranger, looked to the fellow Rangers on his left and on his right, and he nodded, once, and they began to sing: men's voices, united in song, is a powerful thing, and these men gave their fellow lawman the only thing they could, and that was a salute to a woman they knew and respected.
    "There's a yellow rose in Texas
    That I am goin' to see,
    Nobody else could miss her,
    Not half as much as me!"

    Jacob smiled a little as he saw Mick signal his cavalrymen, and another rank of men's voices joined the first rank:
    She cried so when I left her,
    It like to broke my heart,
    And if I ever find her,
    We never more shall part!"

    Men's voices boomed out over the cold landscape, voices united in open rebellion over the misery of grief, voices who sang of love lost and love to be regained and of the greatest love of a man's heart.
    As the last stanza faded, Jacob whispered, "Goodbye, Mother," and Sarah saw the first silvery-wet streak run down his reddening cheek as he turned from the grave.

  5. Linn Keller 11-21-13

     

    Daffyd marched down the aisle, centered in the red-shirted Brigade: he alone wore a suit, somber black in the middle of spirited crimson, and he remarked later he felt like a man being taken to his execution ... but never did a man face a hangman's noose with such bright eyes and such a broad grin.

    Angela took careful, mincing steps, daintily sprinkling rose-petals as she went: Joseph, beside her, pretended to an air of disdain, carrying the green-satin pillow with its two rings as if he were carrying an infant, or delicate china.

    Fannie's arm gripped Charlie's; they were seated, near to the front, and Charlie grinned at the memory of Sarah whispering in his ear that she wished most sincerely that he, too, could walk her down the aisle, but -- and he chuckled silently at how her face reddened, and then she laughed -- but they'd have to saw the church down the middle and widen it out some, for with two big men escorting her, the aisle was far too narrow, and besides, with two such warriors coming down the aisle, what groom would not be intimidated?
    Fannie looked over at Charlie: they shared a look, and a look was all that was needed, for the pair were so well matched that communication was efficiently done without words, more times than either kept track of.

    The infant nursed with a good appetite, wiggling and grunting a little, and Alfdis nodded her approval.
    "A good strong child," she said briskly, covering mother and daughter both: "good lungs, she feeds well, her color is good. You've delivered the afterbirth and it looks complete, you're cleaned up and you've a fresh gown."
    Esther looked up at Alfdis, her eyes glitter-bright.
    "She's beautiful," she whispered.
    "Have you a name?"
    "Her name," Esther murmured, looking down at the child, "is Dana."

    Daffyd gasped, a quick loss of breath as if wind were sucked from his lungs, and his knees went weak for a moment.
    The Sheriff stood, tall and severe, driving the ebony cane into the floor, three distinct blows to alarm all present that the Bride had arrived.
    And what a bride she was!
    He'd seen Sarah many times and in many ways, he'd seen her as a trousered horsewoman, as a gowned maiden, he'd seen her prim and he'd seen her proper and he'd seen her with her feathers hackled up, but never -- never! -- had he seen her so ... so ...
    "She's gorgeous," he heard a voice whisper, and blinked, for the voice was his own.
    Sean laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezed.
    "Aye, lad, she is," he half-whispered. "She is indeed!"
    Daffyd noted the glowing white oval at her throat, then looked at her smile, and the world faded and retreated and he saw only his bride, his wife, this beautiful, unearthly creature, coming slowly down the aisle, to be formally given, gifted, to him.
    Daffyd swallowed hard, took a deep breath, let it out slow.
    This, he thought, is a gift such as no man has ever had.
    God let me do her justice!


    Alfdis chattered happily as she tucked the covers in, the freshly-bathed infant across her Mama's bosom.
    Alfdis was a wet-nurse and she was still with milk; it was normal in those days for a household to maintain at least one servant-maid, and generally two, and a wet-nurse was an added bonus.
    "Alfdis," Esther whispered, her face shining, "do not let me forget."
    "Yes?" Alfdis looked up. "I've bathed the wee one, she has your silver dollar on the cord and the belly-binder wrapped nice and snug, she's clean and she is perfect! Ten fingers and ten toes --"
    "The letter," Esther whispered. "For my husband. It's on his desk. Do not let me forget."
    "I will help you remember," Alfdis soothed.
    Esther relaxed.

    "Please be seated." The Parson spread his arms, palms up, the smile on his face like sunrise itself.
    "Friends, kindred and brethren," Parson Belden began, "we are gathered here for the happiest reason we can come together as family and friends, and that is to join a man and a woman as husband and wife."
    Daffyd looked at Sarah, looked almost shyly; he swallowed again, afraid to move, and he noticed the oval at her throat was not a featureless white, as he'd originally thought.
    There was a scarlet tracery of some kind -- faint, as if a drawing that was but sketched by a beginning artist.
    Dear God, he thought, I am the happiest I have ever been, and what a journey we begin today!

    Dear God, Esther thought, I am the happiest I have ever been, and what a journey I begin today!
    She smiled at the child nursing at her breast, and she looked up, puzzled, for she distinctly heard hoofbeats.
    Hoofbeats?

    "You stand on the right," Parson Belden addressed Daffyd, "as the strong right hand of the marriage. Yours is traditionally the role of protector and provider, the strong sword-arm of the union. And you" -- he turned with a gentle smile to Sarah -- "as you stand on the left, you symbolize that which is gentle and kind, for as the heart is in the left of the breast, so is the wife on the left, that seat of the tender emotions."
    Daffyd heard the man's words but they seemed to come from a very long way off.

    Esther heard Alfdis, but from a very long way off.
    She sat up and looked, puzzled, at Edi.
    Edi, she thought, what are you doing here? -- then, Why is a horse in my bedroom?

    "Every facet of the wedding service is symbolic and has an overt or a hidden meaning.
    "We meet thus together before friends and family, that none may say 'They were ashamed' or 'They sought to remain hidden' -- and in like wise, we wear the visible ring, that outward and evident symbol of our lawfully wedded state."
    "And she has a yellow rise in her bouquet," Angela added, her voice clear, carefully pronounced, and high-pitched as a little girl's voice is.
    Parson Belden always was quick on his feet; fortunately, he paused for a moment, for Angela continued, still speaking in a high and clear voice, "My Daddy got yellow roses for Mommy 'cause he married his bestest fwiend an' that's why Sarah has a yellow rosie in her bouquet 'cause she's marrying her bestest friend."
    Angela's emphatic nod, the pressing together of her lips, signaled her emphasis of what was an evident truth to this little girl.
    Parson Belden never missed a beat.
    "The Sheriff did indeed marry his best friend," he said, "and his union is strong and unshakable. This proves the man is smarter than he looks."
    The chuckles that were politely muted when Angela made her extemporaneous declaration, were released at the Parson's pronouncement: the Sheriff raised and eyebrow at his little girl, but she could see the smile in his eyes, and she knew she wasn't in too much trouble.

    Do you remember when you rode me into town, when you heard someone shot the man you were to marry?
    Esther heard Edi's voice inside her head, as clearly as if spoken, but richer, fuller, and she raised a hand -- a tentative hand -- she stroked Edi's nose and her eyes widened: "It is you!" she breathed.
    Of course it is me, Edi replied. Do you remember that ride?
    "Of course I remember. You fairly flew across --"
    Do you remember we cut across the field and beside the bridge but not over it?
    Esther blinked.
    She'd forgotten ...
    The bridge was after a curve in the road and Edi surged to the left, left the roadway, gathered herself and sailed across a broad chasm, one far too wide for a horse to jump: Esther's thoughts were ahead, on the man she knew she was to marry, and in the moment she simply accepted that they crossed, and they continued, and they arrived, and in all that followed, she'd honestly forgotten that one glorious moment of impossible flight.
    Did you ever wonder how that was possible?
    "No," Esther whispered.
    There was a sudden booming sound, the sound of wind coming into canvas gone suddenly taut: wings, snowy wings, wings wider than the bedroom, snapped open, and Esther felt the air of their opening.
    It is time you learned.
    Daffyd looked at the jade oval at his bride's throat.
    The lines were clearer now, distinct, blood-red ... they joined, flowed, formed a rose, a lifelike rose, gleaming, fresh, with drops of morning's dew gleaming on their petals.

    "Now look at one another, don't look at me," the Parson said gently. "You're marrying her, not me, and besides, she's better looking."
    Daffyd chuckled nervously and there were several appreciative grins from the congregation.
    "Daffyd Llewellyn, do you --"
    "I do!" he blurted nervously, and there was general laughter, to which he turned a scarlet that would do credit to the scrimshaw rose at his wife's throat.
    "Read the contract before you sign it," the Parson counseled, at which the entire Irish brigade laughed, Daffyd included.
    "Do you take this woman whose face you see before you and whose hands you now hold, as your lawful wedded wife: to have, and to hold, to love, honor and cherish ..."

    Mount.
    It is time.

    Esther looked back at the bed.
    Her little girl slept, fed, peaceful; she saw her body, looking tired, but contented, and she realized that she was no longer in her body.
    She turned, stroked Edi's velvety nose, rested her forehead against Duzi's horse's forehead, caressed the engraved silver roses on her bridle.
    "I'm ready," she whispered.

    The ring slid on Sarah's finger, and the Grandam's diamond after it: Daffyd barely heard the Parson's intonation as with raised palm he pronounced them man and wife.
    All he knew was that this woman, this amazing creature, this glorious gem of Creation, was now bonded to his soul.
    Carefully, delicately, he leaned forward: taking her in his arms, he placed his lips on hers.
    Neither bride nor groom heard the shouts of approval, the applause, the whistles: theirs was a moment separated from the world, best described with the heartfelt "Yahoo!" generally invoked when a swimmer leaped from a high dive and experienced a glorious, if momentary, sensation of flight.

    Edi gathered herself and launched through the bedroom wall, wings snapping out and stroking strongly against the mountain updraft, and Esther saw the world fall away from her, and she, too, gave voice to the glorious sensation of freedom, of relief from the world and all of its cares, and she too screamed, "Yahoo!"

    Alfdis came into the room.
    She looked at the still figure on the bed, the sleeping child lying across it: carefully, slowly, she bundled the child and brought it to her own breast, then drew the covers reverently over the still, darkening face.

    Jeremy grinned at the golden stallion colt, grunting and just struggling up on spindly legs: he laughed and toweled it off with burlap, rubbing it and letting Cannonball sniff it and lick it and get acquainted with it, and like any male newly arrived in a strange place, the stallion colt got its pins under it and began looking for a good meal.
    Only then did he hear the nursemaid's summoning voice from the porch.

  6. Charlie MacNeil 11-21-13

     

    The congregation stood, and all eyes were on the belle of the ball. Sarah floated, or so it seemed, the length of the aisle, her fingers resting lightly on her Papa's sleeve, her every step and gesture that of a gueen accepting the homage of her subjects. She nodded regally at those nearest the aisle, with special smiles for those several who were most dear to her heart. As she passed Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie in their places in the front row she smiled, white teeth flashing, eyes of deepest blue sparkling behind her veil. Her lips moved as she whispered, "Thank you!" to the couple then faced front once more.

    As the Wedding March ended Sarah and the Sheriff came to a gliding halt before the Parson. Daffyd Llewellen stepped forward; Linn relinquished his little girl's hand to her man and took one long step back. With a twinkle in his eye Parson Belding addressed the room in a rich baritone that carried beyond the farthest spectator in the rear ranks. "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

    "Her mother, her family and I do!" Linn boomed in reply, his face set in an expression of mixed joy and sadness. Then, more softly, "Her mother, her family and I do." With military precision he about-faced and strode, ramrod straight, to his seat in the front pew next to Charlie, who nodded and winked as his friend and blood brother lowered himself to the cushion.

     

     

     

  7. Charlie MacNeil 11-21-13

     

    The congregation stood, and all eyes were on the belle of the ball. Sarah floated, or so it seemed, the length of the aisle, her fingers resting lightly on her Papa's sleeve, her every step and gesture that of a gueen accepting the homage of her subjects. She nodded regally at those nearest the aisle, with special smiles for those several who were most dear to her heart. As she passed Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie in their places in the front row she smiled, white teeth flashing, eyes of deepest blue sparkling behind her veil. Her lips moved as she whispered, "Thank you!" to the couple then faced front once more.

    As the Wedding March ended Sarah and the Sheriff came to a gliding halt before the Parson. Daffyd Llewellen stepped forward; Linn relinquished his little girl's hand to her man and took one long step back. With a twinkle in his eye Parson Belding addressed the room in a rich baritone that carried beyond the farthest spectator in the rear ranks. "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

    "Her mother, her family and I do!" Linn boomed in reply, his face set in an expression of mixed joy and sadness. Then, more softly, "Her mother, her family and I do." With military precision he about-faced and strode, ramrod straight, to his seat in the front pew next to Charlie, who nodded and winked as his friend and blood brother lowered himself to the cushion.

  8. Linn Keller 11-21-13

     

    Sean was everywhere.
    The big Irishman in the red-wool bib-front shirt was grinning, laughing, shaking hands, slapping backs, for all the world like a politician on campaign: he came over to me and dealt me a blow to my back that like to knocked the teeth out of my mouth, and had it not been for the quick reflexes of one of the bystanders, my hat would have surely hit the dirt, so brisk was his blow.
    Little Joseph grinned up at me and declared, "Grampa, Pa tied me a Windsor knot!" and so I squatted down, a move I immediately regretted, but I did not even try to rise until I'd looked at Little Joseph, and me down to his level.
    I tilted my head and nodded at his necktie, neatly tied in a Windsor knot -- I'd shown Jacob how to tie that one, I always did like it -- and he'd puffed the tie out a little underneath, again a trick I showed him -- then I frowned at how much skinny wrist stuck out from Joseph's coat sleeves, and I looked at how much boot top was showing, and I realized the lad must've grown a good shot the night before, for that suit fit him fine the Sunday before.
    "A good hand blacked your boots," I observed. "That is a fine job."
    I suspected it had been Jacob blacking his own boots and I was right, the lad's chest swelled until I feared a button would fly off his coat like a swan shot.
    I set my teeth and put more weight on my cane than I wanted but I stood up and under my own power, and I leaned against it for a long moment: Sean rested a huge hand on my shoulder and raised an arm and his voice: "Way there! Make way f'r the second most important man here!"

    Alfdis chattered constantly, keeping up an encouraging commentary: Esther's water broke, she was laboring, she was working with the contractions: she laughed a little and said, "I'm an old hand at this now," and Alfdis laughed with her as she worked a clean sheet under Esther's backside.

    Sarah's entourage were given the Parson's parlor for the final details that are always needed before a wedding.
    Sarah stood like a beautiful statue, motionless, staring straight ahead, as her swarm of supplicants tucked, tugged, brushed, adjusted, assessed, tilted, patted, arranged and finally drew back in adoration at this vision of beauty among them.
    Angela, too, stood for her share of attention, as did the twins; Angela managed to thrust a single yellow rose into the middle of Sarah's bouquet, and nobody plucked it out, and Angela drew back with the twins, and accepted her own single flower: only one of the twins would have the rose petals, and she would walk with Little Joseph, who would carry the rings.
    Angela frowned and looked at Polly, then at Opal.
    Polly leaned over and whispered, "She was pretty when she got here," and Opal added, "She doesn't look any different," and Angela tilted her head and considered her Aunt Sarah and said "She looks very nice."
    The three children nodded their heads, once, in unison, affirming the veracity of their several observations.

    Esther's hands closed into fists; she closed her eyes, bore down.
    "You're doing fine, we have bulging, a little show, you're doing fine, keep it up ..."

    Daciana and the violinists waited.
    Parson Belden sidled into the packed church, nodding, smiling, speaking, shaking hands; he paused and spoke to the Sheriff, to the red-shirted Irishman, to the big Irish sergeant of cavalry: he looked around the packed church: every pew was filled, there were folk standing along the walls on either side: if the little whitewashed building hadn't been made of seasoned lumber, it would surely have bulged from the crowding of humanity it contained.
    Parson Belden walked briskly down the aisle, his tread quick, silent, and at his passage, the murmuring dropped to a whisper.
    Parson Belden smiled as he assumed his place at the head of the aisle, before the altar.
    Of all the official duties of the sky pilot, he loved weddings the most.

    Three violins spun their magic in unison, their pure notes spinning the familiar melody of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," further stilling the crowd.
    Bonnie, peeking through the cracked-open door, looked into the church sanctuary.
    She swallowed a dry throat and turned, her eyes big, and she nodded, once.

    "Showtime," Sean murmured, his hand warm on my shoulder, and I nodded.
    I drew my spine straight, raised the cane, drove its black-steel ferrule into the floor ... thump, thump, thump, three spaced blows.
    We paced off on the left, marched down the aisle: the Lawman, the Chieftain, and the entire Irish Brigade.
    We men flowed to our side, turned.
    I crossed my palms casually on the cane's gold head and waited, looking at the door: Bonnie opened it a little and nodded.
    I turned and shook Sean's hand, then I raised the cane.
    Three times I drove its tip into the floor, then, alone, I marched back down the aisle, back to the rear rank, where the Cavalry stood, tall, proud, military-neat.
    I stopped and raised the cane like I would a rifle, saluting Mick, and he snapped me a salute that would've done his father proud.
    The back door opened, to my left, and it's a good thing I had that cane to lean on.
    My little girl stood in the doorway, and she was beautiful.
    In that moment I saw her as she'd been the first time I'd seen her, an underfed waif in a patched dress, holding her Mama's hand one dark night in front of the Silver Jewel.
    I saw her as a child, laughing and running, and I saw her laughing and leaning over a horse's neck, driving across a mountain meadow faster than could be done without wings, and I saw her now, a beautiful young woman in a shimmering emerald dress and had I not that cane to lean on, why, like as not I would have fallen over from ... well, from realizing ... she was grown, and a woman.
    Sarah bore a box, and she opened the box, and I withdrew the white-jade oval and I put it gently about her neck, making the clasp fast at the back.
    I came around and stood beside her and Sarah laid a gentle, gloved hand on my arm, and I felt my legs quiver some and I wondered, How in the hell did this happen so fast?
    Sarah looked over at me and whispered, "Papa, I love you," and I looked at her and smiled a little and I whispered, "I don't believe we've been properly introduced, my beautiful young lady. I am the Sheriff, and I am looking for a little girl named Sarah. She's about waist high on me."
    Sarah laughed, and the violins spun out to their final note, holding it for a long moment; there was an extended silence that ran for about a year, or three heartbeats, whichever it was.
    Daciana, at the piano, began the opening notes of the Wedding March.
    Sarah and I turned our faces to the altar, raised our chins.
    I drove the black-steel ferrule into the floor three times.
    I walked on wooden legs, walked my little girl down the aisle.

    The child came with surprising speed.
    Alfdis's breasts ached as the baby squeaked its first breath: she turned it, cleaned it, drained its little airway and the dusky, wiggling little girl-baby took a breath, took another, began to cry.
    Alfdis began to cry too.
    "It's a girl," she laughed, and Esther gasped, "Oh, let me see!"

  9. Linn Keller 11-20-13

     

    Daisy commanded her small army with the efficiency of a field-marshal overseeing a major campaign.
    Kettles bubbles, frying pans sizzled, stoves threw out waves of heat; cooks stirred, spiced, chopped, tasted, frowned, nodded and did all the things master cooks do when preparing a superb feast for a large number of people.
    The Jewel was scrubbed, gleaming, set up for diners; Mr. Baxter wore a fine new apron, his hair slicked down; he would soon hang up the apron and leave the Jewel under Daisy's watchful eye, or one of her deputies: he did not intend to miss this wedding, and he was willing to bet Daisy would be there as well.
    The cavalry was in town, they'd slaked their thirst and enthusiastically sampled Daisy's wares, collaborating in an effort to perfect a few experimental dishes: they were surprisingly well behaved, for all had been threatened with worse than two terribles if they stepped out of line.
    The troop took pains top clean up after their ride, their horses were carefully attended -- just as a knight's speed and power comes from his mount, a cavalryman's speed and power comes from his own steed -- and they took the time to ensure that not only was Daisy's provender fine feed indeed, they also personally tested the quality of Mr. Baxter's beer, and pronounced it equally palatable.

    Sarah took a deep breath, a steadying breath; Bonnie, in a moment of intuition, turned a little and looked back.
    "Mama," Sarah said in a low voice, "did you bring your Bible?"
    Bonnie blinked, her lovely eyes widening: "Oh dear, no," she groaned. "Will I really need it?"
    Sarah hesitated, then said carefully, "Mama, you must look inside its front cover when you return home tonight."
    Fannie looked sharply at Sarah.
    "Mama," Sarah repeated, her voice urgent, "remember your Bible, without fail!"

    "You," Lightning said sincerely, "look good!"
    Daciana smiled, her face reddening a little; she delighted in looking good for her long, tall, skinny husband, but she delighted when her long, tall, skinny husband took pains to tell her so.
    "So do you," she said shyly.
    Lightning stuck out his elbow and Daciana took his arm.
    "You'll be standing up with Sarah," Lightning said -- a statement, not a question.
    "Yes."
    They crossed the porch, he helped her into the buggy, climbed in on his side.

  10. Linn Keller 11-20-13

     

    Esther’s expression was ecstatic.
    She took a quick breath, her hands going to her belly, and she looked down at this maternal mound, then up at the watching midwife.
    Esther’s eyes turned and she smoothed her expression and Alfdis knew she was thinking of her husband, who would soon be dressing for the wedding.
    She shot a look at Alfdis, then blinked and shook her head.
    Alfdis nodded once, solemnly.

    The Sheriff rubbed Cannonball’s neck.
    The mare was beginning to labor, he knew, and she was not happy he was near her.
    “Don’t wall those eyes at me, lady,” he muttered, then looked over at Jeremy.
    “I’ll birth her fine, Boss,” Jeremy grinned. “You go on and get that girl of yours married off!”
    The Sheriff nodded; he grasped Jeremy’s hand, grunting a little as the younger man hauled him upright.
    “Damn leg,” he muttered from between clenched teeth.
    Charlie grinned at him from the doorway.
    “Ready to run that foot race, old man?” he challenged, and the Sheriff leaned on his cane and glared in good-natured reply.
    “Yeah, God loves you too,” he grumbled.
    “Hadn’t you better get dressed?”
    “Yeah.” He turned and looked at the laboring Cannonball.
    “She’ll be fine,” Charlie grinned. “Come on, you’re short on time.”

    Sarah looked at the stranger in the mirror.
    The stranger's hair was a shining crown, the stranger's face glowed with good health, there was just a hint of color on the stranger's lips: Sarah was grown into a beautiful womanhood, for all her tender years, and she was honestly a beautiful young woman: cosmetics were almost gilding the lily, even if her Mama did insist on painting her face when she modeled the fine dresses in Denver when the McKenna Dress Works held its periodic fashion shows.
    She leaned a little closer, as if to see deeper, further.
    The image in the glass stared back, blinked when she did, drew away when she did.
    There was a discreet knock at her bedroom door, then her Mama’s voice.
    “Sarah? I have your dress.”

    Jacob carefully knotted Joseph’s tie, frowning studiously as he turned the knot into a symmetrical Windsor, puffing the tie out under it.
    “I polished my boots, Pa,” Joseph offered proudly.
    “You did a fine job of it, too,” Jacob said quietly, his eyes smiling a bit as he drew the shoulders up on Joseph’s coat.
    “Annette?” he asked. “Did this coat shrink up some, or did our son grow another foot overnight?”

    Daciana closed her eyes, stilling her unrest the way she did before a performance.
    She lay a hand against her side, willing the pain to go away: it did, finally, though she knew the relief was but temporary.
    Perhaps, she thought, if I lace my corset a bit tighter.

    “No,” Sarah said quickly.
    Bonnie blinked, looked at the white-jade oval on the golden chain.
    Polly stood back, solemn, her dress a miniature of Sarah’s: Jade, beside her, attired in like manner, waited with dark and impassive eyes, holding her woven withie basket daintily before her. The odor of rose-petals rose from its gleaming crimson cargo.
    “I made a promise,” Sarah said with a catch in her voice.
    “Oh?” Bonnie’s response sounded almost like a suspicious, I-wonder-what-you’re-trying-to-pull mother’s voice.
    Sarah squared her shoulders, drew her chin up a little.
    “I promised her my Papa would put it on me, and not until we were at the church.”
    Bonnie looked at the flawless, polished oval, replaced it in its small box.
    “I like this color,” Sarah smiled, looking into the mirror and turning a little. “I’ve never worn such a rich emerald before.”

    “You look fine,” Esther said finally, fussing with her husband’s necktie, then patting him affectionately on the chest.
    “I feel like a stuffed animal.”
    Esther gave her husband a patient look.
    The Sheriff looked disappointed.
    “You’re not going,” he said – a statement, not a question.
    “I’m too close,” she whispered. “I don’t want to run the risk –“
    The Sheriff’s face reddened and he nodded.
    “We wouldn’t,” he said slowly, “want to take away from Sarah’s day.”
    “No, dear,” Esther smiled, leaning against her husband: Linn put his arms protectively around her.
    “You handsome man,” Esther whispered, hugging him with a sudden, desperate squeeze, then leaning back from him and looking up into his light-blue eyes. “Now scoot! You don’t want to be late, for heaven’s sake!”
    Angela marched purposefully up beside Charlie.
    Her ever-present rag doll wore an emerald dress, just as she did; her hair was immaculately curled, framing her pink-cheeked face, and she reached fearlessly for Charlie’s browned, callused hand.
    “I’d listen to the lady was I you,” Charlie drawled, and Esther laughed at the smile in his voice. She took a few careful steps and hugged him as well, laughing as she did.
    “You have always been such a wonderful friend,” she choked, and Charlie shot an alarmed look at the Sheriff.
    “You must forgive me,” Esther said, dabbing at her eyes with a lacy-edged kerchief. “We women get rather sentimental when we’re pregnant.”

    The wolf pup watched from the alley beside the Sheriff’s office.
    The wolf pup’s father, The Bear Killer, patiently submitted to a ribbon and two little girls tying it around his neck.

    Sarah settled into the carriage, not hearing her mother’s nervous chatter: she felt the calm that shimmered inside Fannie, like a pool of quicksilver: steady it was, and Sarah had need of that steadiness.
    The carriage rocked as The Bear Killer vaulted into its back seat, squarely between the twins.

    Daffyd Llewellyn cocked a fist and roared, “THE NEXT ONE O’ YE LAYS A HAND ON ME I’LL KNOCK INT’ TH’ MIDDLE ‘A’ NEXT WEEK!”
    “Wednesday or Thursday?” the English Irishman sneered.
    Sean caught Daffyd’s arm as he fired the punch, then Sean seized the English Irishman’s necktie and jerked him up short.
    “Don’t,” he rumbled.
    Daffyd stepped back as the red-headed Chieftain released his arm.
    Sean looked around, meeting every eye.
    “Lads,” he said quietly, “harness up.”

    Esther sagged as Alfdis took her arm.
    “Help me to bed,” Esther whispered, “and bring towels and hot water.”
    “It’s time?”
    “It’s time.”
    Alfdis looked at the door.
    “Do you want me to catch your husband?”
    “No.” Esther shook her head, paused, leaned against the wall, her eyes closed.
    “No. He must see his daughter married. Just give me a moment.”

    Mick gave the cavalrymen a hard-eyed assessment, glaring and glowering the way he did when he could find nothing wrong, nothing to snarl about, nothing over which to raise a disapproving voice.
    Finally, wordlessly, he nodded, strode to his horse, swung into the saddle.
    Turning the chestnut gelding, he drew a great chestful of Irish and bellowed, "MOUNT!"
    The fort's small band struck up the "Garryowen" as Mick led his double colunn of trooopers through the heavy gates; they set a course for Firelands, for there was a wedding, and a wedding meant drink, and dancing, and the ladies, not necessarily in that order, and of course there would be a better grade of rations than were usually available at the fort.

    Angela clutched three yellow roses from the bouquet her Daddy gave her Mommy, the bouquet over which her Mommy shed unexpected tears, explaining in a squeaky voice that Mommies sometimes cry when they're very happy, to which Angela replied with a curious tilt of her head, "Mommy, am I supposed to cry too?" -- which resulted in Esther laughing, with tears streaking her cheeks, and hugging her curly-headed little girl.
    Angela rode in the back seat of the buggy.
    Her Daddy and her Uncle Charlie sat in the front seat.
    Angela wished she had a big warm furry Dawg to ride with her like Sarah's little sisters generally did.
    That's okay, Angela thought.
    The Bear Killer will be there, and Aunt Fannie will be there, and I can sit with Opal and Polly. They have Mommy-green dresses like mine. Maybe everyone will think we're sisters!
    I wish I had a sister.
    A little brother is okay but he's noisy and he smells funny.
    If I had a baby sister I could play with her and read to her and teach her stuff.
    Angela smiled, bent her head to sniff the triplet of yellow roses she held, then she raised her head and looked around, content to be with her big, strong Daddy and her big, strong Uncle Charlie.

     

  11. Linn Keller 11-19-13

     

    Sarah convulsed, once, coming off her bed like a scalded cat.
    She landed on her feet, blade in one hand and reaching down for the shotgun's checkered grip: she froze, pupils dilated to the point that her eyes were black, with no trace of her usual pale blue.
    Nostrils flared, mouth open, eyes searching the darkness, she smelled the hot sand, the dust, she knew there were warriors at battle, she knew there was a desperate fight, a fight to the very death ...
    Gone.
    "What in two hells just happened?" she whispered, and then her already-wide eyes widened further as the knowledge came upon her.
    "Oh dear God," she whispered, more a prayer than an exclamation.
    Sarah saw the fight.
    Sarah lived the fight.
    Sarah felt every stroke of a tempered blade, she felt hard-knuckled hands gripped about wire-wound handles, she felt callused palms gripping the lance, she felt hackles rise and her teeth bare as the ranks of Darkness formed up against the few, and she felt four hearts sing with a savage joy, the joy known only to the warrior who faces an almost certain death, death in the face of surely insurmountable odds.
    Sarah missed the shotgun's grip and closed around something slender, smooth ...
    She did not have to strike a light to know the shaft and fletching were black.

    Esther lay a gentle hand on her belly and regarded Sarah with a knowing expression.
    "You've seen something," she said.
    Sarah nodded, then quirked her eyebrows as the question came to mind: "Did you see it?"
    "No, dear," Esther said gently. "I'm sight-blind now." She looked down at her belly. "So is Dana here." She looked up at Sarah and smiled sadly.
    "That's why they never came after me."
    "Excuse me?" Sarah's surprise was genuine, and it showed.
    Esther laughed politely.
    "You carry the Sight," she explained, "and it will pass through your blood. Your children --"
    Sarah nodded.
    "I know."
    Esther felt the weight on Sarah's heart.
    "The Sight is a heavy gift."
    Sarah looked up at the older woman, grief in her eyes.
    "I'm ... learning that."
    "You've seen what Daciana carries."
    Sarah nodded miserably.
    "You can't tell her."
    "I know."
    "You've seen forward in your own life."
    Sarah nodded again.
    "The Sight ... is not easy."
    "I'm ... finding that out."
    Sarah blinked.
    "You're Sight-blind?"
    Esther smiled again, a sad little smile as she patted Sarah's hand reassuringly.
    "I gave it to you, dear."
    Sarah blinked, digesting this new realization: she knew this, somehow, but she'd not really ... realized it.
    "You will be married in six days," Esther continued, "and you will wear my white-jade necklace."
    Sarah nodded, tears stinging her eyes.
    Esther raised a finger. "None of that, dear," she murmured. "We both know what will be and we both know you need to wear something ... old ..."
    Sarah looked down at her hand, at the ancient ring on her hand, the ring Daffyd gave her.
    "Something borrowed," Esther continued.
    Sarah nodded, her bottom lip trembling.
    "Off you go, now," Esther said in a kindly voice, "and see your husband. You need to have him tell you about using the Welsh longbow."
    "But don't shoot one with him."
    "He must never know you are the Warrior."
    "Our son will be a bowman," Sarah whispered fiercely, not trusting her voice, and Esther smiled.
    "I remember."

  12. Charlie MacNeil 11-18-13

     

    "Home". How sweet rang that single syllable, that one word. Though much time had passed in the battle, yet they had returned home mere moments after their departure. Though it had carried him to the site of the combat, the buckskin mare stood hipshot, dozing in the moonlight, patiently waiting for its rider to return. Charlie slipped the reins from about the animal's neck and turned toward the barn. "Come on, horse. Let's us get you unsaddled and turned out." Fannie, the pack mules and the sorrel followed.

    "Good fight," Cat Running commented as if speaking about the weather or something else equally as mundane. Charlie turned his head to look at the old man.

    "You've been there before, ain'tcha?"

    "Yep. Many time. Kill lotsa monsters."

    "Why didn't you say somethin' before now?"

    "You di'n't need ta know. Woman knew." The old man chuckled drily. "You fight better dumb."

    Charlie just shook his head tiredly and trudged wordlessly on toward the barn. He was too beat to try to decipher the cryptic words. Maybe after twelve hours sleep and a gallon of coffee, but not now. Methodically he and the others went through the necessary motions to unpack and unsaddle the livestock, feed them and turn them out to water. Then husband and wife headed for the house as Cat Running returned to his robes, Dawg to his spot in the hay.

    Inside the house the couple left a trail of discarded boots, coats, hats and weapons from the mud room toward the bedroom, where both warriors collapsed on the bed still essentially fully dressed. They were asleep instantly...

  13. Charlie MacNeil 11-17-13

     

    The combatants were drained, physically and spiritually, yet they fought on, for the stakes were too high for anything else. The enemies still came, though their ranks had thinned appreciably. Beyond reach of sword and lance, the evil masses gathered for one last great effort to overwhelm the four who still stood and shouted their defiance. The roiling mass boiled and fumed, gathering strength for that one overwhelming attack that should overrun the mortals before them...

    "Here they come," the warrior growled, his voice rasping deep in his parched throat. "This is it. We defeat them here and now, or we go down fighting. We've fought the good fight. No one could ask more." He pulled the archer princess close and their lips met in a kiss, a sort of farewell that might or might not come to fruition in the coming minutes. She returned his kiss then stepped away to gather the arrows she had managed to retrieve while their foes were gathering for their final onslaught. He turned to the old man.

    "Old man, there's no one I would rather have than you, here, now," he said.

    "It ain't over yet," the old man replied, his obsidian eyes glinting in the orange light that was beginning to present itself from beyond the horizon, lips curled in a humorless smile. "The spirits have yet to make themselves known to those," he hitched his chin in the direction of the gathered enemy. "They don't know what they did by coming to us the way they did."

    "I hope your spirits show up pretty quick," the warrior answered. "'Cause here they come!" He hefted his sword. "Whether we're ready or not!"

    As the tumbling ebony mass gathered momentum, rumbling forward with the implacable power of an avalanche, the crash of thunder roared overhead. Lightning flashed and danced across the surface of the night, strobing across optic nerves, turning dark to light. The enemy shrank back as a single crackling trident slammed into the ground between them and the four warriors to stand in place, humming, turning the air to ozone. For a moment, an eternity, all was silent, even the wind ceasing its scream. Then with a roar the bolt split...

    White light turned red-tinged darkness to full day in an instant. Shadows surfed the luminous waves, gaining form and dimension as they came, forming a rank that faced the enemy defiantly, confidently, angrily. Wolf, bison, bear, elk, badger, all took shape on the sand. All facing the gathered enemy. All ready to mete out punishment. The wolf stepped to the fore as the sibilant voices rose.

    "HHHooowww dddaaarrreee yyyooouuu cccooommmeee hhheeerrreee?" the voices demanded. "Ttthhhiiisss iiisss nnnooottt yyyooouuurrr cccooonnnccceeerrrnnn!"

    The voice of the wolf, deep and menacing, made itself felt to all. "You overstepped your bounds!" the wolf replied. "You came to the world of these," he nodded toward the four combatants. "You broke the covenant! For that you must be punished. Never again shall you be able to do such as you have done this night! Come forward, and be destroyed!" The battle began anew...

    No bard will sing of the battle that took place, the battle for supremacy over a world that was still finding its way, still searching out its destiny in the universe. No poet will compose hymns in praise of the heroes of the combat. The carnage will never come to the attention of those on whose behalf the battle was joined. None will know of the sacrifice nor of the union of man and animal, human and spirit that formed that night. Only those who took part would ever know the truth of that night. But that night would become a turning point in the lives of all who fought...

    The last of the evil was done, scattered, never again to amass the power that gathered and was violently dispersed during those hours. When all was silent, the battle finished, the wolf turned to face the warrior, the archer princess, the old man, the hell hound. Bison, elk, badger and bear stood in a crescent behind him. "The Great Spirit has seen your strength, He knows your hearts. We were his power made flesh this night. For all of your days remember this night, and those who battled by your side, and be thankful. Waste not, and you shall have abundance. Now we must return to your world, as must you. Farewell, brothers and sister. Farewell." Blinding light flashed, and the wolf and his companions vanished...

    The warrior turned to the others. "Let's us go home, folks," he said tiredly. "Maybe now we can rest for at least a little while." He took the archer princess's softly calloused hand in his left, the old man's gnarled fingers in his right. The hell hound nosed between warrior and princess and all stepped forward, two long strides carrying them from black sand to winter-cured prairie grass. Overhead, the clouds scattered, the last waning bit of moon shone silver across the ranch yard. They were home...

  14. Charlie MacNeil 11-17-13

     

    The old man began to sing, a guttural chanting that ebbed and flowed, his voice lifting and falling, weaving its spell of light and darkness, life and death. Beside him the hellhound's own song, bayed into the wind, gave pause to the twisted forms that move to the attack.

    At the old man's other side, the warrior shouted into the wind, "YOU SHALL NOT HAVE HER! THIS IS THE FINISH! COME FORWARD AND PERISH!" His sword sang its own paean of blood and death as it clove the first of the attackers in twain to vanish as puffs of putrid black smoke. With a shrieking like that of a thousand hurricane winds, the others sprang forward...

    Beside the warrior, the archer princess struck nock to string, drew and released. Her missiles unerringly found their marks, striking down the foe singly, sometimes in pairs that ventured into the battle too closely conjoined, once a triple that vanished with a chorused scream of unearthly agony. And still they came...

    The old man's voice had faded now, no longer strong but still rising and falling, his quiver empty, his lance striking snake-swift among the ranks of the attackers. Where the lance touched, things died, their very essence blown away on the black wind. The hell hound stood raging his challenge, his ivory fangs blackened with the essence of those he had ravaged and sent to their destiny, trickles of blood matting his fur where the enemy had touched him only to be vanquished in the following instant. And still they came...

    The ranks of evil had thinned, their numbers reduced manyfold, gaps beginning to be evident in their attack, gaps that could be exploited. The warrior paused for breath, his limbs shaking with fatigue. He drew a leather bottle from his belt and swallowed a deep draft of the liquid it contained, then another. His posture straightened, his sword arm lifted, his strength returned, and again he bellowed his challenge into the face of the enemy. "COME! LET THIS BE FINISHED! COWARDS, COME TO MY BLADE!" He handed the bottle to the archer princess who stood now with short sword in one hand, poiniard in the other, her quivers empty as well. She downed her own drink, handed the bottle to the warrior then raised her weapons and shouted her own challenge.

    "YES! COME AND DIE, YOU WHO WOULD INTERFERE WITH OUR WORLD! COME AND TASTE STEEL, COWARDS!"

  15. Charlie MacNeil 11-16-13

     

    'Twas indeed a wild night, and the potential was out and about for an evil moon. Dawg raised his great ebony head from its resting place on his well-padded straw bed in the horse ranch barn to sniff the quickening breeze. Night-black ruff rose in a glossy wave on his thick-muscled neck, lips curled from the satiny ivory flash of incisors, boulder-crush rumble sounding from deep in the wide chest. He rose to his feet and padded to the open barn door to sniff deeply as the growl rumbled again.

    "You too, eh?" Cat Running's whisper slipped from the old man's own dim corner. "Bad night out." The old man slipped from his bed and slid his feet into fur-lined moccasins and stood, picking up his rifle. He shouldered into a heavy wolfhide coat, slipping the antler buttons into their slots one-handed, loathe to put down the weapon to facilitate the task. He pulled a knitted cap down over his tufted gray hair, leaving his ears bare. The old man laid a hand on Dawg's ruff. Dawg looked up. "You that way, me this," Cat Running pointed with his chin. Dawg whined softly then slipped outside into the night, followed by the old man.

    Charlie drew rein on the edge of the ranch house hollow. "Why are we stopping?" Fannie queried, senses casting out into the swirling wind. It had been a long day, but with the ranch only a few miles ahead when darkness fell, the couple had elected to continue their journey rather than make camp for the night. Now they were home, but not home.

    "Something's wrong," Charlie answered softly. "I ain't sure what, but something." He reached down and slid his rifle from the scabbard and brought it up to butt-brace on his hip. Fannie followed suit, her choice the Greener for close up work if necessary. Both believed that a pistol was the weapon of choice to fight your way to your long gun, and always chose the long gun as primary weapon when possible.

    Racing cirrus clouds gathered and shredded, herded by the wind then torn apart, making flickering shadows in the faded light of the last quarter moon. Charlie heeled his mount into motion, holding the buckskin to a slow walk as he angled away from the trail to the corral. The tired mare pushed her nose toward barn, grain and water, but her rider spoke softly and nudged the animal away from the obvious route into the hollow. Reluctantly at first, then willingly as she sensed the tension in her rider and the wrongness of the night, the mare eased forward. Ears up, nostrils flaring, mincing steps finding the best footing on the slope, the mare went forward.

    "Ssshhheee wwwiiilll bbbeee ooouuurrrssssssss," sibilant voices, barely lifting above the threshold of hearing, suddenly hissed on the wind. "Wwweee wwwiiilll dddeeessstttrrroooyyy yyyooouuu, ttthhheeennn hhhiiimmm, ttthhheeennn ssshhheee wwwiiilll bbbeee ooouuurrrsssssssss..."

    "Never!" Charlie roared into the night. He spurred his mount forward suddenly as the ranchhouse hollow shifted, twisting and changing shape and texture, the moonlight suddenly bloodred, prairie grass morphing to black sand as Charlie pulled the buckskin to a sliding halt. As he threw himself from the saddle the Winchester became a two-handed broadsword that he thrust toward the sky, the scream of an enraged warrior ringing from his throat.

    Fannie stood beside him, her right shoulder near his left, heavy longbow in hand, quivers of black-fletched arrows at shoulder and thigh. To the warrior's right stood the old man, feathered war lance in hand, short rawhide-backed horse bow at his side, war paint streaking dark skin, warrior's song bursting from his lips. Beyond the old man the hell hound roared his own song of blood and fury into the teeth of the sulfurous wind, white teeth flashing blood red in the crimson darkness. The four stood with their backs to gold-flecked black rock and sang their defiance to the forces that gathered around them. The onslaught began...

  16. Linn Keller 11-16-13

     

    I lay awake that night, flat on my back, staring at the ceiling.
    There was a wild moon out; the wind was unhappy and sobbed like a lost child in the chimney, rumbled intermittently around the corners of the house: clouds scudded across the moon, fleeing some unknown danger, tearing themselves into gossamer wisps in their haste, and I lay flat on my back in my own bed, under my own roof, staring at the ceiling, wide awake.
    Esther lay a hand on my chest and whispered, "I can't sleep either."
    "I need a drink."
    "I'm hungry."
    I reached up and laid my hand gentle on hers, turned my head and smiled a little in the dark.
    I could not see Esther's face but I knew she was looking at me, looking with those gentle eyes, those eyes that could see ten feet into a man's soul at a glance, those eyes that said so very much without her framing a word with her lips: those eyes I dreamed of, those eyes I saw before me the times my soul hovered over my carcass and debated whether to spread a new set of wings and head for loftier territories, or stick around.
    I loved the feel of Esther's hand, whether on my chest, or on my shoulder and back as we danced, whether we held hands like we usually did when we laid down for bed, when she rubbed the cords out of my neck, whether she stroked my chin as she tilted her head a little and looked long at me, assaying the nature of my spirit the way a woman will when a man comes home from a hard day's work.
    "There is bread," I said quietly, my voice surprisingly loud in the nighttime still.
    "There is fresh cornbread," Esther added, "and we have fresh honey from the Daine hives."
    "Talked me right into it." I patted her hand and she felt my belly tighten as I suppressed a chuckle. "Want me to bring it up to you?"
    "No, dear," she said patiently. "I want to sit at the table with my husband."
    And so the two of us slid out of our nice warm bunk and thrust bare feet into furry-lined moccasins, and I blessed the Great Architect of the Universe for giving my poor punkin' haid enough smarts to build our staircase a little more than double wide: I walked beside my gravid wife, my beautiful bride, this red-headed, green-eyed, very pregnant beacon that shone goodness and light over every facet of my entire existence.
    I don't think I was entirely awake.
    We got downstairs and padded silently down the hallway, our moccasins silent on the carpet runner; again I blessed the Sachem, for I'd gone over every last floor board not a month ago, and the Daine boys and I worked the squeaks out of them: I dislike a squeaky floor, I don't like anything that betrays my travel unless I want it known, and we worked on that hallway better than half a day to work three squeak-boards down solid.
    The stove was still warm; Mary, our maid, was sound asleep, bless her: Alfdis, too, was asleep, and Esther and I did our level best to be quiet, for we knew Alfdis would be hovering worriedly over Esther, and Mary would be trying to anticipate anything we might want ... the two of them were more like family and less like hired help, and they needed their good rest.
    I sliced corn bread and set out butter and Esther buttered hers thickly, eating with a good appetite: in polite society a woman, a Lady, picked at her food and publicly ate little: Esther, happily, dispensed with this convention while carrying -- and she never made excuses for it.
    I slipped out back and visited the outhouse, Esther apparently thought it a good idea too: while she was out, I poured some coffee -- we kept some in the pot on the stove overnight, just in case, as tonight, I might have late hours or be unable to sleep -- and the teakettle was warm as well, so I set some tea a-brew.
    I leaned the heels of my hand and looked out the window, studying the sky, the land, the mountains: the wind was died down when I made my trip to the backhouse, and it held off until Esther was back inside.
    "I think Macbeth would call that an evil moon," I murmured.
    Esther smiled. "No, dear, just a wild night."
    I turned and my moccasins whispered on the floor as I made my way back to my chair.
    I planted my elbows on the table, folded my hands together and leaned my stubbled chin on my knuckles.
    "I love you, Mrs. Keller," I murmured.
    "I love you too, Mr. Keller," Esther smiled, taking a hungry bite of cornbread.
    "My dear," I said, "should I suddenly fall over dead, you have the authorizations."
    "I have," she nodded, swallowing and taking a sip of tea to clear her mouth: "I have a copy in my desk, you have a copy in your desk, and should the house burn down, there is a copy in my office safe over the Jewel, and Mr. Moulton also has a copy."
    I nodded.
    In my experience, such redundancy guaranteed they would never be needed.
    "You will be well provided for, Mrs. Keller."
    "So you're saying I am going to become a rich widow?" she teased. "Is there sourdough in the bread safe?"
    I rose, padded over to the bread safe, withdrew the cloth-wrapped loaf and carried it back to the table.
    "Oh thank you, dear," she murmured as I sawed off a couple thick slabs.
    We each buttered one and ate with good appetite.
    "I fully intend," I muttered around a cud of half chewed, well buttered bread, "that you should become a wealthy widow ... but not until you're old."
    Esther's quiet laugh always did relax any anxieties I might have.
    "I don't figure to die until I'm about 94," I said, "and I wish my tombstone to read, 'Here lies Linn Keller, age 94, trompled to death in a whorehouse raid.' "
    Esther looked at me, her eyes smiling, and she murmured, "Mr. Keller, you are incorrigible!"

  17. Linn Keller 11-14-13

     

    It felt good to get out.
    I rode down the middle of the street, remembering.
    I looked up the street and saw ghosts and memories.
    I saw the recollection of my Esther, vaulting over a hitch rail with rifle in hand, advancing and firing as she walked.
    I saw the memory of the Irish Brigade at a full gallop down the street, smoke rolling out the broad, stubby stack, whistle screaming and Sean standing in the driver's seat, swinging that blacksnake whip and singing and swearing in Gaelic.
    I saw friends and I saw memories and I saw where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
    Here.
    This town.
    This county.
    These mountains.
    My house, my wife, my children ...
    My home.
    I saw Jackson Cooper.
    Now there was a memory in living flesh.
    I felt myself grin good and broad and I rode on up the street.
    I'd been laid up long enough.
    Time I got back to work.
    Jackson Cooper's eyes smiled as I rode toward him and I could see the sun high lighting his beard as it come in from behind him, high enough 'twas not a glare in my eyes.

    "Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said, her hands wrapped around Daffyd's forearm, "I wish to speak of a matter."
    "Then I wish to hear it."
    Sarah swallowed and lifted her chin resolutely.
    This was proving harder than she'd anticipated.
    "Mr. Llewellyn ... it has been determined that we should have a maid."
    "I think it is a fine idea, Miss McKenna."
    Sarah stopped dead.
    "I ... what?"
    Daffyd Llewellyn looked quietly at his wife-to-be, smiling behind his great black handlebar mustache.
    "I think it is a fine idea."
    "Oh."
    Her voice was a little surprised and she began walking again, Daffyd keeping careful pace with her.
    "I was ... afraid ..."
    Sarah's voice trailed off.
    "You sound disappointed."
    "No," Sarah said quickly. "No, no ... I ... it's just ..."
    Daffyd stopped.
    Sarah's grip shifted; she took his hands in hers and looked up into those amazing eyes, those laughing eyes, those Welsh eyes she could fall into and swim.
    Daffyd laughed a little and patted Sarah's hand.
    "You ... didn't think I would say yes?"
    Sarah looked with big, innocent eyes at the Welsh Irishman, swallowed.
    Daffyd lowered himself, slowly, to one knee, still holding Sarah's hands.
    "Dearest," he said quietly, "a maid is the very least you deserve. I've no objection."
    "But ... I was afraid ... you might ... not pay ..."
    Daffyd sighed.
    "Your mother already discussed it with me," Daffyd admitted.
    Sarah gave him a long look, then smiled a little.
    " 'Discussed?' " Sarah echoed.
    "You know your mother," Daffyd said wryly.
    "If you don't want one," Sarah whispered, "we don't ..."
    "We do," he interrupted gently. "You deserve that an' more."
    Sarah leaned her head against the Irishman's red-wool bib-front shirt.
    "Thank you," she whispered.

    Sarah walked to the Sheriff's office with Angela.
    "Sarrrah?" Angela asked.
    "Hm?" Sarah's reply was distracted; she blinked, shook her head and said "Yes, Angela?"
    "When will Jacob be coming back?"
    Sarah looked over her shoulder and smiled.
    "How would you like to learn a magic spell?"
    Angela stopped in the middle of the street and planted her knuckles on her belt.
    "Now you know," she scolded, shaking a Mommy-finger at the amused schoolmarm, "there is no such thing as magic!"
    Sarah raised her chin and marched on toward the boardwalk and Angela scampered after her.
    Sarah knocked briskly, a quick rat-tat, pushed open the door and looked around: satisfied, she waited for Angela to enter.
    Angela ran happily across the floor as the Sheriff turned in his chair and bent a little to receive her happy charge.
    Sarah clapped her hands briskly together, twice, then raised one hand to the ceiling, the other toward the floor; she turned to the left, to the right, then completely round, while chanting,
    "Fam'ly here and round about,
    Fam'ly tall and fam'ly stout,
    "Come to us and we will shout,
    JACOB!"

    The door opened again and Jacob grinned, clearly glad to get back.
    "You called?"
    Angela's eyes were the size of silver dollars.

  18. Charlie MacNeil 11-13-13

     

    "I reckon you'd best head for home before your family forgets what you look like," Charlie drawled. His left elbow was crooked atop the battered pine plank bar of the second best saloon in Cripple Creek. It was nearing sundown, the hour after most of the daytime crowd had departed for someplace with better dining options and before the evening crowd began to trickle in, and the place was nearly deserted. A remarkably cold glass of relatively drinkable beer stood sentinel near the aforementioned elbow. He grinned at Jacob, who was maintaining essentially the same posture, albeit propping his long, lean frame up with the opposite arm, some three feet away. "My advice to you is to get your carcass on the next train bound for Firelands. There's one comin' through in about an hour," he slid an envelope down the bar toward the young deputy, "and there's your ticket."

    "Are you sure we..." Jacob began, torn between his sense of duty to the Sheriff and the county and his desire to see his wife and son after too much time away, living in a seedy hotel and eating second-rate food.

    "Am I sure we've got this burg tamed? Don't think so," Charlie answered. He lifted his mug and took a deep swallow of his beer. "Do I think they're not gonna have more growing pains? Nope. But what I do think is that if we hold the police department's hands long enough, they'll never learn anything and the next time something happens here they won't be able to handle it. We've been giving them more and more responsibility every day, and it's about time the little birdie left the nest. So to speak." He tilted up and drained his mug, set it on the bar with a thump and called out, "Barkeep! A drought has set in. My beer seems to have disappeared!"

    "Well, I would like to see my family, that's for certain," Jacob said. "This is the longest I've been away since Annette and I were married. But I don't want to bail out and leave you and Miz Fannie in the lurch, either."

    Like a wraith summoned by the sound of her name, Fannie suddenly appeared beside her husband, wrapping one small, calloused hand around his wrist. "You won't be leaving us in the lurch, as you call it, Sugah," Fannie said with a smile. "The town's as quiet as a mining town ever gets, and you need to go see to your kin. So take that," she pointed at the envelope, "get your duds packed and get yourself on that train. We made sure that there's a stock car for your horse, so you can both travel in style."

    "As long as you're sure?" Jacob asked. Charlie nodded emphatically.

    "We're sure! Now get yourself outta here before you miss that train!"

    "That's right, Sugar!" Fannie added. "Now git!" Jacob got. He ticked his hat brim with one outstretched forefinger in salute, flashed the couple a smile that showed the boy that still lurked within the very capable man, and strode out into the street, batwing doors crashing against the wall as he pushed his way outside. Fannie smiled up at Charlie. "We need to think about doing the same, you know," she said softly, stepping in front of him.

    "I know, Darlin', I know, and for the same reasons that we gave him," Charlie replied. He nodded in the direction of their departing associate. "Still..."

    "Still, nothing!" Fannie declared, this time with some starch in her tone. "The police here in Cripple are as ready to take on their jobs as they're ever going to be, and nurse-maiding them any longer won't help. It's time we saddled our horses and headed for home." Her emerald gaze bored into his hazel eyes. "We've got a wedding to go to pretty shortly, and I don't intend to miss it."

    "Darlin', you talked me into it," Charlie answered with a smile. "We'll leave in the morning." He paused. "Might be a good idea to let Hizzoner and the Chief know we're goin', though, don't ya think?"

    Fannie kissed him on the cheek. "You go break the news to them, and I'll start packing," she ordered, her eyes twinkling. "I'll see you at the hotel."

    "Somehow I knew you were gonna say something like that," Charlie said resignedly. "But I reckon you're right. I'll see you in a few." Settling his hat on his head, Charlie swallowed half of the fresh beer that had arrived while he and Fannie were talking, dropped several coins on the bar, and started for the door. He stopped with his hands on the louvered batwings and said back over his shoulder, "You might order us up a bath while you're at it, Darlin'. And a big tub. I fell like celebratin'."

    "You are insufferable!" Fannie snapped, but he could hear the smile in her voice that belied the frown on her pretty features. He chuckled as he pushed his way outside. His voice drifted back inside.

    "That's why you love me, Darlin'."

  19. Linn Keller 11-13-13

     

    Sarah lowered the bell, laughing as children stopped running about outside and instead ran toward the steps, flowing like a multicolored stream around obstructions and slower students.
    She did not step aside or retreat as they rushed happily into the schoolhouse; she knew the importance of looking solid, firm, unmovable ... she was one of the limits on their world a child knew was needed.
    Sarah waited until the students were in, then she looked at Emma Cooper and smiled, nodded, and slipped out the door.
    Sarah lifted her skirt and stepped down to street level, turned to place the school bell precisely on the top step: she would be back, and before lunchtime: there was a matter that needed tending, and she knew her absence would not be harmful: Emma Cooper would have things well in hand.
    Sarah walked across the street and down, to the fine brick firehouse; she knocked before entering, closing the door behind her, smiling again at the smell of horses, fresh straw, leather and coal, of men, a faint -- just the faintest odor of gasoline.
    A familiar set of shoulders straightened up, a grinning Irish-red face looked over the wheel of the Steam Machine.
    Sarah marched purposefully over to Sean and wrapped her hands around his arm.
    "Sean," she said in a straightforward manner, "I need your good advice."

    Bonnie nodded.
    "It's settled, then," she said, holding up the half-sheet of foolscap. "This one."
    "And if she doesn't want a maid, my dear?" Levi asked carefully.
    Bonnie looked at him and smiled, and he saw the steel behind the smile.
    "My daughter," Bonnie said, "is a woman of society and the daughter of the most powerful businesswoman in the territory. She shall have a maid."
    Levi frowned, took a slow step toward his wife: thumb and forefingers in his vest pockets, he was obviously considering his words carefully.
    "Mr. Llewellyn may see it as an extravagance," he began thoughtfully.
    "Sarah's resources are more than sufficient to support them."
    "I know that, dear," Levi agreed. "Your gifts to her and her investing those gifts has put her in very good ... stead."
    Bonnie lifted her chin, challenging her husband to defy her decision: though there was steel in her spine and resolve in her expression, Levi could also see the laughter hiding in her eyes.
    "I am certain," Bonnie said crisply, seating herself at her desk once again and picking up her favorite pen, "that Mr. Llewellyn will accept the idea."
    She dipped her pen quickly in the ink-reservoir, and her pen began moving shrilly across the paper.

    Sarah and Sean seated themselves at the big kitchen table.
    "Sean," Sarah began hesitantly, "Daffyd ..."
    She looked directly at the big Irish chief.
    "Daffyd is a man to be proud of."
    Sean grinned. "And ye're just now findin' that out?" he teased.
    Sarah shook her head slowly. "He is also a proud man."
    "Aye, that he is," Sean agreed, "an' he's every right t'be. A promotion, a raise i' pay, a beautiful wife-to-be, his house is a'ready built" -- he looked closely at Sarah -- "an' I understand it's paid for as well."
    Sarah nodded, looking out across the length of the kitchen.
    "I'd be worried if he wasn't proud o' a' this," Sean nudged.
    Sarah looked back at the fire chief and he saw her brows quirk momentarily.
    "Sean," she said, "my mother insists on our having a maid."
    "An' what's wrong wi' that? Most households have a' least one."
    "I know. Papa has a maid and the midwife. She's not ... a maid so much as ..."
    "She's part o' yer family, I know," Sean grinned. "She's like that. I think she'd be welcome i' anyone's household. She's a sweet lass."
    Sarah nodded, bit her bottom lip.
    "Daffyd is also a thrifty and a very practical man."
    Sean nodded slowly, in total agreement.
    "Aye, lass, that he is."
    "I'm afraid ..." Sarah's eyes dropped and her hands worried her kerchief into an irregular ball.
    "I'm afraid he'll see a maid as an extravagance."
    Sean made so bold as to take Sarah's hand in both his, and look her squarely in the eye -- were they not long and good friends, it would be a shocking familiarity, a serious breach of protocol and good manners.
    "Lass," Sean murmured, "I ha'e i' on good authority tha' th' mon wishes t' set ye on a pedestal an' clap a glass bell o'er ye, like a collector's china doll, t' keep ye safe an' spoiled!"
    Sarah giggled. "Sounds stuffy!"
    "He thinks th' world o' ye, lass," Sean pressed. "I don't think he'll object t' a maid."
    Sarah frowned a little, laid her other hand atop Sean's.
    "Daisy is a lucky woman," Sarah said thoughtfully.
    "Oh I don't know if she'd agree wi' ye!" Sean laughed.
    Sarah looked at him, quirked up one eyebrow.
    "She's carryin' ag'in!" Sean laughed, released Sarah's hand and slapped his knee in delight. "Th' image o' th' fertility goddess she is! I can look a' her across th' room an' boom! Belly an' child, just that fast!"
    Sarah opened her mouth, closed it slowly; her face turned rather red and she felt her ears heating.
    Finally she cleared her throat and said, "I am trying to think of something enlightening, informative, educational, uplifting and at least mildly amusing ... and my mind just went blank."
    Sean put his hands on both her shoulders, turned her a little so each was squarely facing the other.
    "Lass," Sean said, his voice suddenly serious, "if I hadna' ma Daisy, an' i' Daffyd hadna' you, I'd be hard pressed t' choose t' adopt ye ... or marry ye mesel'." He squeezed gently, very gently, and continued.
    "Every man here feels th' same. Had Daffyd no' stepped up when he did, th' German Irishman would've, an' th' others in line b'hind him."
    Sarah smiled a little embarrassed smile and ducked her head.
    "If he sees a maid as an extravagance, lass, then it's th' kind of an extravagance a man wishes to have for his darlin' wife."
    Sarah nodded.
    "Do ye wish t' see him?"
    Daffyd, around the corner and listening, waited for Sean's shouted summons before stepping around the brickwork and making reply.

    Angela frowned, pouting a little, as she considered the work before her.
    Her Daddy did too feed his Walker with grains.
    He fed the Drag-Boom with grains and he fed it nickles just like the Walker.
    Angela sighed.
    She'd never convince those stuck-up know-it-all boys.
    Angela smiled grimly.
    She'd ask her Daddy to show her how he fed them.

  20. Linn Keller 11-12-13

     

    Angela frowned at the red headed son of the fire chief.
    "My Daddy feeds his Walker grains," she said solemnly. "And he doesn't even use tweezers!"
    "You don't feed a Walker with tweezers," the eldest of Sean's clan said importantly. "You feed a Walker meat!"
    "Do not!" Angela flared. "Daddy feeds his Walker grains! And nickles!"
    "What kind of a dog eats nickles?" the young Irishman jeered.
    Angela ran her bottom lip out, debating whether to cry, deciding against it: she hoisted her nose in the air and with a "Hmph!" turned and stomped toward the schoolhouse steps.
    Sarah stood on the top step trying hard not to laugh.
    She knew how the young tended to mangle the King's English and Angela had a special talent for that particular art: she made a mental note to inquire further, then swung the polished brass handbell up, then down, summoning the children to class.
    The bell had a distinctly cockeyed handle.

    The Sheriff knotted his tie, settled his Stetson on his head: I will take the carriage today, he thought, at least until he opened the front door and found Jeremy holding a saddled Outlaw just at the bottom of his porch steps.
    Grinning, the Sheriff leaned some weight on the nob-headed cane and walked a little carefully across his threshold, across the porch, and then down the steps.

    "You think the Sheriff will be back today?"
    "So the man said."
    "Good. I been thinkin' up a big lie to tell him."
    "Since when is that any different fer you?"

    Jackson Cooper squinted a little, looking down the street, grinning in the morning sunlight.
    The Sheriff just rode down the little side lane like he always did, and onto the main street, and now he was riding up past the church and the schoolhouse and directly he would be at his log office.
    Good, he thought.
    About time he was healin' up.

  21. Linn Keller 11-11-13

     

    Esther sighed contentedly as she relaxed in her chair.
    Sarah watched her closely, knowing the attractive, matronly woman still had something to say.
    "I am so tired," she whispered, "just so very tired."
    "I know," Sarah whispered back, laying a hand on Esther's; the two women clasped hands, communed in feminine silence before Esther took a longer breath and spoke again.
    "Jade symbolizes life," she whispered. "We are links in a chain, a very long chain that runs back to the dawn of creation. We are part of a long, woven cord, a golden cord that runs through all eternity.
    "Each link of the chain is hand forged, individually forged, hammered out of life's forge as each comes to its time of emergence."
    Esther paused as if for breath, closing her eyes for a long moment before continuing.
    "Each link is unique, each link is beautiful, each ... link ... connects with all that was, each ... in its turn, connects us with all that will be."
    Esther looked up at Sarah: the younger woman was shocked at how tired she looked.
    "We are all links in that chain. Each of us is the same as the previous link, but different, each of us is important, Sarah. Very important."
    Sarah's eyes were wide, unblinking; Truth walked with cold fingers down the back of Sarah's spine.
    "I give you the blessing of a mother who knows what it is to lose a daughter."
    Sarah's bottom lip quivered.
    Esther smiled gently.
    "I know, child," she whispered. "The Sight is curse and blessing both.
    "We can never tell someone when their time is to be, nor how: that is shown to us, but we must not give it voice.
    "We may see our own time, and our own means." Esther's eyes hardened.
    "That, we may fight."
    Her hand flattened on her belly and Sarah recognized a protective gesture.
    "I did not fight hard enough," she said, her voice thickening with grief, "and I lost our son."
    Sarah seized Esther's hand, gripped it desperately tight.
    "It wasn't your fault," she whispered fiercely. "You didn't --"
    Esther smiled sadly, squeezing Sarah's tight-gripped hands in return.
    "It had to be," she whispered back. "I do not know why but it had to be."
    "It," Sarah whispered, her voice barely audible through the tightness in her throat, "you were" -- she swallowed -- "not, at fault!"

    I labored across the short distance between the barn and the house.
    My man, bless him, tended to Outlaw: I don't think I could have stood long enough to get him unsaddled, grained and brushed down: Jeremy knew from my scowl that I was unhappy at not being able to tend my own duty as I saw it, but -- wisely -- he didn't say anything about it.
    I got up the three steps onto my porch, lurching like a cripple or a drunk -- or both -- I leaned against the porch post, my eyes closed, my leg quivering, my side aching, I fisted my hands and felt a fierce pride at having overcome my own weakness.
    I lifted my head, glared at my front door.
    I had not given up.
    I could have handed the badge to Jacob.
    He could have taken over and done a fine job.
    No.
    I was not ready to quit.
    I could have set in my rockin' chair and counted my gold, I could have continued making money from careful investments.
    I may be vain and I may be prideful but by God! I was not giving up.
    I took a step toward my front door and my damned leg give out and down I went.
    I landed on my injured side, teeth clenched and eyes squeezed shut, groaning back the exclamation that sought to give profane voice to the pain.
    I rolled over and pushed up on all fours.
    There was a warm breath in my ear, a warm tongue licking my under the jaw, a snarling rumble.
    I opened my eyes and that curly black Dawg-pup licked my nose.
    "Hello, Fibber," I said, rubbing his ears, and he peeled back his lips and snarled, sounding for all the world like he was going to rip my hand off up to the elbow.
    I took a long breath, blew it out, took another and came upright.
    Fibber didn't show any interest in coming inside.
    I went on in and closed the door, which sounds easy when you say it fast.
    I hate a damned cripple stick and I hate walking with one but it was time to run up the white flag and admit that -- prideful and stiff necked that I was -- I needed one to walk.
    I opened the door to my study and froze.
    Esther's sword-cane was carefully, deliberately placed on the shelf of my roll top desk.
    It took me a few minutes to get over to the desk.
    I studied the cane for a long time before I picked it up.
    She's had a fighting handle put on it, I thought.
    No.
    She modified the handle that was already there
    .
    I gripped the wire-wound handle, smiling a little: a Japanese one time told me -- he'd watched our battles, back during that damned War -- he watched our men in camp and spoke at length with us, long quiet conversations in the field, over a campfire, with a meal -- we compared blades and techniques, and the man was more than a master with a sword.
    His skill and his sword put anything I'd ever seen to absolute shame.
    He told me once that the warrior's soul flows into the weapon, that a proper weapon, meant for that warrior, need not be seen to be used: that his katana was part of his heart, that he need not look at it to know where it was in three-dimensional space.
    His words came back to me as I gripped the sword-cane's black-wrapped handle.
    It was long enough to fit my big paw comfortably.
    It now had a gold crossbar between grip and blade.
    I smiled grimly.
    I told Esther of an officer who knelt before a battle, his custom made Crusader's saber with just such a grip: he'd placed the blade tip-down into the sod and knelt in prayer, his sword and its cross grip making a Cross.
    I know, for I knelt beside him and bowed my head as well.
    It would be a while before I had enough strength in my chewed up leg to kneel without falling over, to get up without much awkwardness ... but with this ebony shafted walking stick ...
    I released the blade, drew it out, admired its shining length: I gave it a few experimental swings, grinning, then slid it back into its sheathing black ebony and placed its metal ferrule on the floor.
    I leaned on it.
    It felt good.

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