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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

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Posts posted by Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

  1. And that, loyal readers, is the original story of the town and people of Firelands as told by a variety of folks over a long space of time both modern and old. I hope that you have enjoyed our small efforts in presenting a town and a group of people who have been, and continue to be, near and dear to our hearts. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

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  2. Linn Keller 1-25-14


    The Sheriff's son waited patiently as his father's pen moved methodically across good rag paper.
    A newspaper, folded and forgotten, lay on a chair against the front wall; bold headlines screamed of war, the date was 1914, but neither man had any care for the state of the world.
    The ache each man felt was too fresh.
    Final entries had to be made before the book was closed, he knew; work was yet to be done, the young deputy knew, and he was standing ready to do the work, but he ached ... a deep, a bone-deep ache, far worse than any physical exertion.
    The Sheriff's face was wooden as he wrote the final lines and let them dry, then he stood and closed the book, gently, almost reverently: his finger tips caressed the book's cover, then he took a black silk ribbon, wrapped around it longways, then crossways, tied it in a slip knot at the precise middle of the front cover: he opened the top right hand drawer and put it precisely where it always went, wiped the pen's leaf-shaped nib and set it away, then the bottle of good India ink, and closed the drawer easily, gently ...
    He closed the drawer with respect.
    Sheriff Jacob Keller looked at his tall, slender son, waiting at his side, his eyes quiet, tired-looking as a young man's eyes will be when the young man is in grief and trying to bear up under its crushing weight.
    Like his father, Joseph would grieve in his own way, and at his own time: for now, there was work to be done, and like his father, and his grandfather before him, he shoved his feelings down into a long-neck bottle and stoved the cork down hard after it.
    It took them some time to empty the Sheriff's office of its contents.
    The tornado and the fire had damaged much of the structure's outside; the contents were mostly undamaged, and Jacob intended they should remain so.
    He and Joseph knew of a mineshaft that underlay the town, a branch of the same shaft that collapsed under the boarding house some time ago: that branch was sealed off, but this one remained, and it was dry.
    It took them some labor but they got the Sheriff's desk and office chair, their contents, even the pot belly stove, packed into that mineshaft: they'd brought in sheets of lead and some tools, they carefully crated, then sheathed, these memorabilia of his father's administration here, underground, safe in an inert, sealed container: his revolvers, his rifle, even his double gun: both Jacob and Joseph held Linn's ivory-handled Colts, one last time, remembering the man who'd worn them.
    Father and son each pretended not to notice the other's face was wet.
    Before they closed up the wooden crate, Jacob opened the bottom right hand desk drawer one last time, withdrew two heavy bottom glasses and the bottle of whiskey, handed them to Joseph; only then did the pair crate up and seal the desk, they set these last tokens aside, and they finished their task in silence: finally they withdrew from this dead end, carrying their tools and the bottle and the glasses, and at the first bend, they began work again, erecting a wooden wall, here where the ceiling was low enough they had to duck a little: they built it stout and wedged the corners tight, and by the light of their two kerosene lanterns, Jacob painted "DEAD END" and under that, "PLAYED OUT" -- the common means used in that mine to let future miners know that the gold strata ran elsewhere.
    They were more than a mile underground; it took them a bit to walk out, and when they neared the mouth of the mine, Joseph asked, "Pa, what of the office?"
    "I have another desk," Jacob replied, "and a chair. What's left we'll tear down and rebuild, but I want to rebuild in stone."
    They stopped and looked around before emerging into daylight; they puffed out the flames, set the lanterns where they'd found them, in a little niche, whistled to their mounts.
    Joseph hesitated before mounting, running gloved fingers over his gelding's brand. He rode a good looking Macneil cross, a short-coupled, tough-as-nails cross between an Appaloosa and a Mexican-blooded copper mare that hated men and outran anything this side of the Rio.
    "I miss him, sir," Joseph said, his voice thickening.
    Jacob nodded.
    The two rode back into town, father and son, Sheriff and deputy: they rode in silence together, listening to the wind, to the distant scream of the ore train's whistle, they rode around town and in behind it and finally they made their way into the town's graveyard, and around a curving little roadway, and stopped at the raw earth of a fresh grave.
    They dismounted, ground-reined their mounts.
    The stone was broad and heavy and said KELLER in bold letters.
    On one side, a carved triplet of roses, and over these, ESTHER, and in more delicate characters, "Beloved Wife."
    On the other side, a Masonic arc-and-compasses, and the name LINN, and under that, "Beloved Husband."
    There were fresh roses, four on each grave; the Sheriff and his son knew that Sarah and the girls had been there earlier that day.
    Jacob uncorked the whiskey bottle.
    Joseph held out two glasses.
    Water-clear gurgled into the heavy-glass tumblers, two fingers' worth: Jacob turned and said in a loud voice, "Sir, we'd be pleased if you'd take a touch with us," and he poured a generous gurgle onto his father's grave.
    The two men tilted up their glasses and drank.

  3. Linn Keller 1-4-14


    The mare glowed a bright copper in the long rays of the early Colorado dawn.
    It was cold and the mare's breath steamed out in great gusting plumes; her hooves whispered as they crushed frost-brittle grasses, the cold saddle leather squeaked a little as it always did; her black bridle and the hand-chased roses graven into the bridle's silver furniture were perfect accents to the dancing mare's healthy pelt.
    She'd bucked herself out, giving the Sheriff a good wringing-out -- along with her spine -- and now, after shaking herself, she stepped out with a smooth and lively pace, pleased as punch and feeling good, the way a saddlehorse will on a chilly mountain morning.
    The Sheriff looked to the horizon with pale blue eyes, leaning forward a little: a hand that, in its time, grasped weapons of various kinds, or tools, a hand that knew how to caress a lover or seize a malefactor, how to guide a child's hand in forming its first wobbly letters on paper, or how to double into a tight fist and do violence to someone who deserved it, now patted the mare's neck with affection.
    The throat and lips that had screamed in full-voiced battle-rage, guiding troops in time of war, now whispered "Good girl" in soothing sibilants, puffing out on the Sheriff's orange-tinted breath-vapor.
    The long red rays of the sun set treetops on fire, trees heavily furred with frost, even painted the breath-vapor of horse and rider: the Sheriff always did love the morning, and when possible would get out for a morning ride, unless duty or unforeseen circumstance dictated otherwise.
    The Sheriff re-read a journal's page that morning, reading the words written in grief, speaking of the barkeep, an old and dear friend, who'd just crossed over into the Valley: though the Sheriff had been there and knew what it was like, he still wrote with the grief of a man bereft of someone he knew and trusted and befriended, for he was a man who did not give or take friendship lightly.
    The Sheriff looked back at the solid house, built for a long tall lawman and his red-headed bride, a house that knew laughter and grief, joy and sorrow, in which children had been born, and in which souls had departed: the house knew children and grandchildren, gain and loss, a house that stood as solid as the mountains surrounding.
    "Home," the Sheriff whispered into the morning stillness.
    The Sheriff rode Cannonball in a slow circle, then with a nudge of knees, a shift of weight -- for the Sheriff rode without using a bit or reins -- they set a cross-country course, as near a straight line as they could, for the graveyard.
    Cannonball leaned into an easy trot until she hit the downgrade, the the Sheriff leaned forward and pressed flat hands against the mare's neck.
    "Go, girl!"
    Cannonball didn't need to be told twice.
    She gathered herself and launched herself down grade, toward the creek that split the little hollow: there was a still, soaring moment, a moment where they rode the wind, then with a hammer of hooves up the other side, a clatter of steel-shod across the hard roadbed, the Sheriff rode into the graveyard.
    The Sheriff's six-point star gleamed in the morning sun, the Sheriff's engraved, yellowed-ivory handles glowed as only aged ivory can; the Sheriff rode back and forth a little, in the oldest section of the cemetery, until at last they stopped before a double stone.
    It bore one name, across the top; on the left, beneath a triplet of carved roses, it said ESTHER, and beneath, "Beloved Wife."
    On the right, LINN, and "Loving Husband."
    The Sheriff smiled at the memory of comments entered into the journal, something to the effect that he'd had a discussion with his son Jacob on the matter: how he thought the stone ought to say "Old Geezer" or "Long Winded Storyteller" or something of the kind.
    "It's odd, seeing your own name on a stone," the Sheriff whispered, staring at the deep-graven KELLER across the top of the stone.
    There were other stones nearby: one, a tiny one, a lamb carved on top: time and weather reduced the lamb to an almost unrecognizable blob.
    "I'll have that re-done," the Sheriff said aloud. "Maybe coat it with something so it won't melt."
    The Sheriff stared with pale blue eyes at the stone, then considered a multiple of stones surrounding, reading the names and remembering.
    "A lot of history here."
    Cannonball blew and shook her head.
    The Sheriff looked up at the sound of a train whistle in the distance, grinning and turning Cannonball with a knee.
    "Come on, girl, she's back!"
    Sheriff Willamina Keller looked down at her great-great-granddad's stone.
    "I got your steam engine back," she shouted, delight in her voice and a grin on her face. "She's back from South America, I had her rebuilt and she's going to pull a tourist train!"
    Sheriff Willamina Keller, wearing her Great-Granddad's six-pointed star and her Great-Granddad's twin Colts with the Masonic square-and-compasses graven into the antique ivory handles, shouted "YAAA! COME ON, GIRL, WE'VE GOT A TRAIN TO CATCH!"
    Cannonball didn't need to be told twice.
    The red mare, like her ancestress, born of fiery Mexican blood and crossed with the smooth-gaited Paso Fino of the conquistadores, launched herself like a ball from a field gun.
    A white wolf, sitting beside a stone, watched the pair disappear before it, too, disappeared, dissolving into mist in the morning sun.

  4. Linn Keller 1-1-14


    Given enough snow, the stage could be slowed or stopped; it took considerably more snow to stop the Iron Horse, unless it built up and began to avalanche.
    The Lady Esther was having little if any difficulty getting through the drifts; she came huffing easily into station, blowing pure-white clouds of condensation into the cold winter air.
    It is an unfortunate reality that bad men as well as good avail themselves of transportation, and so it was today: two men with ill intent, knowing the train's schedule, disembarked and made their way to the Silver Jewel.
    Jackson Cooper nodded pleasantly to the pair on his way out.
    The two watched after him as the big town marshal made his way out the ornate double doors, then they each slid a coin to the smiling girl behind the bar and accepted a beer apiece.
    They knew the ore train would be through in one hour; they knew the ore train usually drew a boxcar after the ore cars; they knew the ore train, heavily laden, would be moving slowly, until it made the break-over point a mile out of town.
    They looked at the Regulator clock, they looked at their beers, and they looked to the front door.
    "Just enough time," the one said quietly, and the other nodded.
    They drained their heavy glass mugs and headed for the front door.
    It wasn't until they were down the steps from the boardwalk that they saw the Sheriff.
    His back was to the pair.

    Angela looked at her Daddy with big and innocent eyes.
    "But I like him!" she protested, distress in her voice and grief in her expression, and the Sheriff leaned his gold headed cane against the side of the building and bent over a little, the heels of his hands on his knees as he spoke quietly to his daughter: "He's a wild thing, Angela. He's a wolf, not a pet."
    Angela ran her bottom lip out, then thought better of it and said in a small voice, "Okay, Daddy."
    She turned a little, as if to speak to the wolf pup.
    The wolf pup suddenly bristled and snarled, fangs bared: it went from cautious to attack in a tenth of a second or less.
    The Sheriff spun, his good right hand full of Colt revolver.
    He remembered seeing the blued steel finger of the revolver's barrel pointing toward the man on the right, he recalled seeing the front sight slicing up the man's body, he recalled the little dark spot that appeared on the man's coat, right before the black streak shot like a furry arrow past his arm.
    There was another gunshot and the man on the left fell back screaming as the wolf pup grabbed his exposed wrist, right behind his nickle plated pistol, and the two went over backwards.
    The first holdup coughed and dropped his revolver, alarm in his eyes and blood on his lips, and the Sheriff cocked his pistol and brought it back down level.
    He needn't have bothered.
    The first holdup sagged to his knees and then fell onto his face, unmoving.
    The second fellow, on the other hand, was not just moving: he was rolling, he was screaming, he scrambled backwards until he ran the small of his back into the wooden boardwalk steps; he fell over, his voice shrill, as something black and fast moving shook his broken arm back and forth like a terrier worries a rat.
    The Sheriff lowered his pistol's hammer and thrust it hard into its holster: he strode up to the wolf pup, ran one hand under its chest and the other seized the nape of its neck.
    "OFF!" he barked.
    Angela came scampering up and laid her hand on the pup's muzzle.
    "LEGGO!" she shouted, and the wolf pup released, wiggling and snarling, making it plain he wanted to do nothing more than to grab hold of this enemy and rip into him again: he sounded like he was the size of a grown pony, and he looked like a furred-up, mad-as-hell black wolf, a red-eyed, bloody-jawed emissary of death.
    Angela laid her hand fearlessly on the wolf pup's muzzle.
    "Bad Wolf," she scolded. "Now stop that!"
    "You got him?" the Sheriff asked.
    "I got him, Daddy."
    The Sheriff let the wolf pup go and Angela had her arm around the front of its chest, the other laid between its flattened-back ears.
    "Come on now, Bad Wolf," she wheedled. "Come on now. Come on."

    Jackson Cooper frowned as he looked at the dead man.
    "This one's Chris Rock," he said. "The other ... Rock usually runs with a fellow they called Eph."
    "Short for Ephesus. He hated the name."
    "Once the doc figures out whether he'll have to saw that hand off or not I reckon we can talk to him."
    The Sheriff frowned, trying to resurrect the memory that was evading capture.
    "Chris Rock," he said thoughtfully, then realization dawned in his eyes.
    "They like to hit a bank at closin' time or near to it ... they ride in on the train ..."
    "That's why we didn't see any horses."
    "Townies," the Sheriff snorted. "You can tell by lookin' at 'em. I don't reckon they're Western men a'tall."
    Jackson Cooper considered this.
    "How do you reckon they figured to leave?"
    The Sheriff lifted his head, listening.
    "Ore train," he murmured. "Could they have caught ..."
    "They have a box car on the end of the ore cars."
    "Damned fools."
    "Hey?" Jackson Cooper frowned, leaning forward a little.
    "This high up," the Sheriff said, "an Easterner or a lowlander can't breathe so good."
    "Ah," Jackson Cooper said as he realized what the Sheriff was driving at.
    "The train slows a mile from here."
    "And they would never make a mile in time."
    "Mmm. Especially not with a couple sacks of loot to pack."

    Angela was squatted by the back steps of the Silver Jewel.
    She made no attempt to reach under, which was probably a good thing.
    The wolf pup glared at her as it gobbled biscuits and gravy, then polished the plate rather thoroughly.
    Angela sighed.
    "You're not much of a doggie," she complained.
    The wolf pup lifted its lips and growled.
    "You have very bad manners," Angela scolded, shaking her finger at the curly black lupine.
    The pup looked at her with gleaming black eyes, then came out from under the steps, and snuffed at her hand, then it thrust its head across her lap and growled.
    Angela laid a hand gently on the ruff of its neck.
    "Good puppy," she said quietly.

  5. Linn Keller 1-1-14


    Jacob looked across the table at his bride and said, "Dear heart, I am so glad for your cookin'!"
    Annette was finally set down; she had an infant under her shawl, slung and nursing, and was finally able to turn her attention to her eggs: she looked up at Jacob and admitted, "I don't know whether to thank you or throw my plate at you."
    Jacob laughed.
    His wife had an armful of fussy infant; rather than set down and expect his woman to wait on him, he and Joseph fired the stove, laid the table, sliced up bacon, fried the eggs, even warmed sliced bread before throwing groceries on warmed plates.
    "It is an awful lot more work than meets the eye," Jacob continued.
    Annette nodded, looking down at their little one: a chubby pink arm escaped the enveloping shawl and waved happily about.
    Joseph's head came up and his young eyes went to the window: he shot a delighted grin at his Pa and bolted from the table.
    Annette looked up at the sound of sleigh-bells; Jacob rose, curious, and grinned as he heard his son's delighed "Hi, Aunt Sarah!" just before their front door slammed shut behind his departing backside.
    Jacob went outside, shrugging into his coat, clapped Joseph's hat on his head before assuming his own broad brimmed skypiece.
    "Well don't just stand there," Sarah said, mock-glaring at her brother, "help me down!"
    "I can't reach," Joseph protested. "I'm too short!"
    Sarah laughed, standing and turning: Jacob reached up and took her hand, steadying her as she stepped down: Joseph offered his own hand as soon as Sarah was in reach, and she took his hand as well.
    "Thank you, gentlemen," she said with mock gravity, though neither missed the sparkle of delight in her light-blue eyes: "I have a basket to bring in," and Jacob reached over and swung the woven wicker out and down to his grinning son.
    "I'll tend the sleigh," Jacob said quietly, and Sarah seized him in a quick, crushing hug, then held him at arm's length and looked long into his eyes, a half-smile, a secret, knowing smile on her face: then she turned, plucked up her skirts and swung like a brigantine under sail toward the front door.
    Jacob chuckled and took the horse by the cheek-strap.
    "Come on now," he murmured. "Let's get you inside," and drew horse and sleigh to the barn.
    Annette smiled to see her visitor. "Oh, Sarah, do come in!" she exclaimed, then looked in distress at the half eaten breakfast: "Let me get you something," and Sarah swept around the table and pressed gloved hands gently around her sister in law's shoulders.
    "You will do no such thing," she said quietly. "Sit you still. These men don't know a thing about fixing a meal."
    "We do too!" Joseph protested.
    "You," Sarah said, pointing a gloved finger at the distressed lad, "are a volunteer. Roll up your sleeves now."
    Puzzled, Joseph did; he slid his red under-sleeves uncerimoniously up to his elbows as well.
    "Now sit and finish your breakfast." Sarah plucked at her fingers, removing her gloves and slipping them daintily into her reticule. "Do you have enough to eat?"
    Joseph managed to get a slippery forkful of fried egg into his mouth before nodding.
    "Good. Clean your plate and you're helping me. Your father's plate?"
    Joseph nodded.
    Sarah picked it up, set it on the stove. "We'll just keep it warm," she murmured. "I hate cold eggs."
    "We fried up bacon," Joseph offered.
    "Good. Bacon puts hair on your chest."
    Joseph stopped, drew the neck of his shirt out, tried to peek down at his breastbone.
    Sarah came around behind him, pulled the shirt out, took a look.
    "You need some more," she murmured, "but it'll come, just like your father."
    "Pa said Grampa's coffee will put hair on your chest."
    Annette shot a warning look at her son; Joseph's eyes were for his Aunt Sarah, who smiled and nodded and agreed, "Your Grampa's coffee will grow hair on a bald rock!" -- and Joseph resolved to sneak the coffee pot out of the Sheriff's office sometime and anoint one of the rocks at the edge of the board walk, for he'd never seen a rock grow hair.
    Jacob kicked the snow off his boots and slapped the snow off his hat brim.
    "Still coming down," he announced. "I'm glad you're here, Little Sis. This is sizin' up to be a good snowfall."
    Sarah released Joseph's shoulders and stomped up to Jacob: shoving herself aggressively against him, she poked a stiff forefinger in his chest and snarled, "Who you callin' "little," little brother?"
    Pale eyes glared into pale eyes; Jacob frowned, and so did Sarah; Jacob's jaw thrust forward, and so did Sarah; each slowly cocked a fist, turned their head a little, one eyebrow raised aggressively, until neither could keep a straight face any longer: they abandoned themselves to laughter and a hug.
    "Sit down and eat," Sarah said finally. "Your plate's still warm."

  6. Linn Keller 12-31-13


    Jacob stood bareheaded at the grave.
    It was night; it was dark; snow was thick underfoot and coming down hard, as was common this time of year.
    He looked around, nodded.
    "Snowing cross legged," he murmured. "Going to snow deep."
    He looked down at his mother's grave.
    "You taught me that."
    He swallowed hard, breathing against the tightness in his chest.
    "You taught me much," he whispered. "I miss you, Mother."
    Jacob blinked against the sting in his eyes, harrumphed and wiped his hand impatiently through his thick hair.
    "I'll take your leave now, if I may," he said, his voice still quiet; he turned, settled his hat on his head.
    Apple-horse waited patiently for him; Jacob swept the snow from his saddle with his coat sleeve, swung easily into the kak.
    He froze as Apple shifted his weight in preparation for that first step.
    A white wolf looked at him from across his mother's grave ... a white wolf, staring quietly at him, blinking slowly ... a white wolf that did not turn or stand or trot into the thickening snowfall ... the wolf dissolved into a mist and was gone, just that fast.

    Jacob paused at his front door, picked up the brush he kept there and brushed the snow from his sleeves and shoulders and the front of his coat, removed his hat and swatted it against his leg, brushed it as well.
    Annette opened the door, smiling, a little one bundled on her hip: she took the brush from him, made a little twirl-around motion with it, and Jacob turned to allow her to brush the snow from his back.
    He followed his wife inside, hugged her carefully, kissed her delicately, then he held her again for several long moments.
    "Come," she whispered. "I kept supper for you."
    Jacob did not release his wife: he laid his cheek against hers and whispered, "You are the sweetest thing I know."
    Annette knew something happened, to cause her husband's sudden and serious mien: she did not know what happened, only that it was something, and wise woman that she was, as her husband held her, so did she hold him, standing near the warmth of their cast iron kitchen stove, under their own roof, with family safe and warm within, their stock secure in barn and in pasture and their cupboards and wood boxes and stocks and stores proof against what might come.
    "It's the last night of the year," Annette whispered, and Jacob released her, kissed her on top of the head and drew her out a chair.
    He sat himself, sat slowly, as if wore plumb out.
    "New year tomorrow."
    "Yes," Annette nodded.
    Jacob sliced into elk back strap, stopping to savor its odor: eyes closed, he held the moment, willing it into his memory.
    "I'm done with this year," he said, his voice quiet, rich in the kitchen's hush.
    "Tomorrow starts a brand new one," Annette replied. "Shining, unsullied, new, we can make it as we please."
    Jacob chuckled humorlessly.
    "Nothing tarnishes quite so quickly as a new year," he muttered cynically. "I would like to be proven wrong, but ... nothing tarnishes quite as quickly."

  7. Linn Keller 12-29-13


    The twelve-string guitar filled the room with a rich melody; it was a larger-bodied guitar and sang a deeper note, a richer harmony; the guitar's player was skilled and had a good repertoire.
    An attractively dressed young woman sat in the back of the room, in the corner, beside a tall, well-dressed man with an iron-grey mustache: they were obviously a couple, though there was no overt sign of affection between them.
    The man drank coffee, in volumes enough to keep the Daisy's girl coming back with a steaming coffeepot to keep his mug filled; the younger woman beside him sipped delicately from her teacup.
    The Daisy's girl carried a note and a coin to the guitar player; he played for his supper as he traveled, sometimes making enough for a meal, if he was really lucky he could earn the price of a room as well: he didn't realize until late that night, when he picked up his inverted hat and took inventory of his take, that he'd inherited a double eagle ... more money than he'd seen in a very long time.
    So surprised was he that he forgot the feminine hand that wrote the note:
    Please continue playing, it read.

    In one of the intermissions, when the guitar player rested between songs, when he took a pull on his beer or accepted the sandwich that an appreciative patron paid for, the Sheriff conversed quietly with his daughter.
    "I wonder," he murmured, "if I will be chaffed again for being seen with a younger woman."
    Sarah sighed, squeezed her Papa's hand.
    "I'm an ungrateful slut anyway," she muttered. "I'm not parading tears and widow's weeds and that makes me a loose woman."
    "That was the old bat you belted outside church?"
    "One of them."
    "You belted more than one?"
    "I should have."
    She felt her Papa's suppressed laughter shaking his rib cage: he patted her hand and leaned her lips close to her ear: "I'm proud of you," he whispered.

  8. Linn Keller 12-29-13


    Bonnie smiled as she read the hand-written note:
    If it is not inconvenient, I will call today at one o'clock.
    I have need of your advice.

    There was no need to make a reply; it would indeed be convenient, or at least, not inconvenient.
    Bonnie considered her day's tasks, rearranged her mental schedule: it would be rather pleasant to have her daughter visit.

    Brother William broke the seal on his own note: he recognized the handwriting, smiling as he remembered the night not long ago when their great pipe organ sang with a power and a majesty he'd not often heard.
    He read Sarah's words, nodding, then folded the letter and tucked it carefully in a pigeonhole in his desk.
    He would consider his reply before touching pen to paper.

    It was Sunday; church had been that morning; Sarah was there, subdued in her manner, if not her attire: she absolutely eschewed any shade of mourning, save only for the white-jade oval given her on her wedding day, that necklace Bonnie could have sworn was as vivid a red rose as had ever blossomed under the summer sun, but was now a rose scrimshawed in India ink, shades of black, lines of India ink inlaid into the polished stone.
    She knew there were those who expressed scandal at Sarah's refusal to grieve publicly, to parade her grief for their entertainment -- as a matter of fact, Sarah confronted three of her most vocal critics, surprising them by thrusting herself in their face and addressing them quite frankly, informing them in words cold enough to freeze water that she did not intend to parade her grief for their entertainment, and she would grieve in her own way and in her own time, and she was not subject to their judgement, and they would kindly keep her good name off their forked tongues.
    Bonnie did not see it but she heard the sharp SMACK of a backhand slap, and she smiled to hear it, for obviously one of the gossips did not heed Sarah's warning words.

    The Sheriff sat in Sean's parlor with one boot on his foot and the other on his hand.
    He frowned at his boot, turning it slowly, inspecting it closely.
    Sean Michael regarded the Sheriff's actions, turned his own boot in like manner.
    The Sheriff was demonstrating for the young Irishman the fine art of blacking one's boots, and the young Irishman was an enthusiastic student: though he paid close attention to his Da's teachings, he subscribed wholeheartedly to anything the Sheriff said, or did, and so when the Sheriff replied to the lad's question, "How do you keep your boots looking so good?" -- why, it turned into a lesson, and the red-headed son of the fire chief applied himself with the enthusiasm of the most dedicated of students.

  9. Linn Keller 12-26-13


    It seems almost ... like a wild vacation, Sarah thought, staring up at the ceiling.
    A wild vacation.
    Something temporary.
    Glorious, happy ... and gone.

    She lay still in her bed, the woman of the house, the matron, the widow, Queen of her domain: she smelled breakfast, she heard the domestic sounds of her maid, she waited one moment more, then threw back her covers and sat up.
    I need to write to Brother William.

    "Sean," the Sheriff grinned, shaking the big Chieftain's hand, "how many young'uns do you have now?"
    Sean looked at the half-dozen swarming around him and laughed, bending down to take a young Irishman in each arm before standing again.
    "He's lost count, Sheriff," Daisy declared, coffee pot in one hand and an infant on the opposite hip. "I dona' recall mesel'."
    The Sheriff looked down at a big-eyed little boy and grinned.
    "Did you come to help?" he asked gently and the young Irishman reddened and got a bad case of the bashfuls and scampered around behind his Ma and peeked at the grinning lawman from around Daisy's skirts.
    "Have ye given any more thought to our idea?" the Sheriff asked.
    "Th' horses? Aye," Sean laughed. "'Tis profitable t' sell our fire horses t' back East, Sheriff, but if I start raisin' an' sellin' wholesale, why, I'll glut th' market! Nah, better t' sell a few an' make a profit than t' cut th' head off th' golden goose!"
    The Sheriff nodded, regarded the long-legged, red-headed little boy resting his head sleepily on Sean's shoulder.
    "I'll trust your judgement," Linn murmured.
    "Aye, an' well ye should!" Sean laughed. "I've been ever'where, I've done ever'thing, an' if ye believe that I'll sell ye the Crown Jewels!"
    They laughed at this, it was an old joke between them, and the Sheriff nodded.
    "What about yersel', ye long tall lawman?" Sean boomed. "Ye're gettin' a brood o' yer own!"
    The Sheriff nodded. "I've got a few."
    "I thought ye were gon' t' quit an' raise 'em."
    "Yeah, I thought so too."
    "Now wha' kind o' feyther --" Sean shook his head, grinning. "Nah. Ne'er mind. Ye're doin' a foin job, I can see that, but --"
    He looked out the door.
    Angela was riding up on her Rosebud-horse, wearing a sky-blue riding dress, holding a dainty, ruffled parasol, an absolutely beatific look on her face.
    "Sheriff, who is tha' long-legged lovely an' wha' ha'e ye done wil' Angela? Good God, man, she cuid stand flat footed an' si'down on a wagon's gate!"

    Jacob stepped up to the bar.
    He'd come in as he always did, holding station with his back to the wall for several moments, sizing the place up: he nodded solemnly to Tillie the way he always did, then ghosted the few paces over to the end of the bar, eyes busy, tread silent; he smiled at the girl behind the mahogany bar and winked.
    She nodded, looked down the hall: a silent signal was passed, and Jacob had a hot, steaming mug of freshly ground and brewed coffee.
    Jacob glanced up at the black crape draped over the bar, he considered the apron hung on the hook where Mr. Baxter always placed it.
    Daisy's girl laid a hand on his shoulder, then ran her arm around the long, tall deputy and laid her head on his shoulder.
    "I miss him," she whispered, and Jacob ran his arm around her slender waist and pulled her close, leaning his cheek over on top of her head.
    "I miss him too."
    It may have been improper, in this age of complex manners and elaborate etiquette, for a married man to hold another woman in such a way, but Jacob was not a man to be bound by proprieties, especially when he felt the girl shivering with suppressed grief.
    He felt pretty much the same himself.
    He was just better at containing it.

  10. Linn Keller 12-25-13


    Sarah adjusted her hat and nodded at herself in the mirror.
    She and her maid drove to their whitewashed church and joined the community for Christmas Day service.
    Sarah wore her emerald wedding gown; she had holly, bright green and festive, on her shoulder and on her hat -- a jarring note to those prudish souls who believed it proper to remain in mourning black for a full year.
    Sarah, quite frankly, did not give a good damn for their opinion.
    She spoke pleasantly to every one of those she knew to be nay-sayers, she went out of her way to speak kindly to every waspish soul she knew would gossip behind her back.
    She smiled as her father and brother approached her, and turned to see Charlie bearing down on her, Fannie on his arm and a grin on his face.
    Sarah laughed and ran her arm around her Papa's waist on the right, and around Charlie's middle with her left: looking from one to the other, she took a long breath and nodded.
    "Thank you both," she murmured. "Merry Christmas!"
    Charlie grinned, removed his immaculate, Sunday-go-to-meetin' hat and inclined his head, for Sarah was still considerably shorter than either the Sheriff or himself: "Merry Christmas, darlin'," he rumbled, and Sarah giggled and put a hand up to steady her hat.
    They formed a laughing knot: her brother and his wife, Charlie and his wife, a variety of children coming in for their share of hugs and laughter; Emma Cooper, easily insinuating through the crowd, Jackson Cooper slowly flowing through the assembled like a great ship through a sargassum ocean.
    Parson Belden, normally at the top of the stairs, worked his way down to them and found himself seized and squeezed around the low ribs, his hand wrung and his shoulder pounded: enthusiasm, it seems, rippled around Sarah like wavelets in a pool of shining water.
    "My dear Mrs. Llewellyn," Parson Belden gasped happily, "you are lovely this day! Green is very much your color!"
    "I refuse to be buried in grief, Parson," Sarah declared. "I could lie prone on my husband's grave and wail, but what good would it do? He is far beyond our poor powers to hurt or to help" -- she looked sharply at the sky pilot -- "and both of us know where he is now, is far better than this earth here below!"
    The Parson nodded, suddenly sober: he'd seen war and he'd seen slaughter, and he himself knew what it was to set foot in the Valley. So surprised was the man that he didn't think to ask how she knew, for he'd never spoken of these experiences to anyone.
    Sarah reached up and patted the man's chest.
    "I choose to live, Parson," Sarah continued. "I believe in revenge and I'm going to practice it every day."
    "Revenge is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord," the Parson murmured warningly.
    Sarah's smile was dazzling as Fannie came up behind her and laid her hands protectively on the younger woman's shoulders.
    "The Lord subcontracts, Parson," Sarah smiled, "and I am a subcontractor. Attend:
    "Death took my husband from me.
    "I avenge myself by living and by laughing, by seeing the glory of a sunrise and the beauty in the sunset. I smell flowers and eat good food and hug my Papa and I teach the young." Her eyes flashed defiance as she spoke.
    "I do good in this world, Parson. I teach. I laugh. I ... appreciate."
    She looked the man directly in the eye.
    "Vengeance is mine too, Parson."
    "I think I could make a good sermon from that," the Parson said thoughtfully.
    "Help yourself, Parson," Sarah smiled, raised up and kissed the man on the cheek. "Merry Christmas!"
    Sarah turned and grabbed Charlie's hand as he turned, looked at Fannie, who was studying her with those deep, glowing eyes.
    "Charlie, Fannie -- and you too, Papa" -- Sarah leaned a little, snatched at her Papa's hand.
    The four formed a closed circle and Sarah's face was suddenly serious.
    "I think I am going to need all of your help," she said, and three agents of the Law attended closely to the words of the fourth.
    Sarah's hand tightened on the men's calluses and she looked slowly from one set of eyes to another to another.
    She hesitated, suddenly uncertain: she swallowed, then pushed forward, knowing that of all the souls in the world, these were the ones upon whom she could always, most unreservedly, depend.
    "You two," she said, looking at Charlie and her Papa, "are brothers born of battle. If ever there were brothers not born of the same womb, you two are." She took a long breath, suddenly uncomfortable.
    "You two fought on the Red Plane for my soul."
    She was a little pale, her breath coming more quickly: Jacob slipped up behind her, concerned: he quietly assumed his station, knowing he might well be needed.
    "And Fannie" -- Sarah was a bit more pallid, her lips standing out brightly against the increasing whiteness of her expression -- "you sent me into the mountain ... and I thank you for helping me ... rejoin."
    Fannie's eyes spoke far more than words could have.
    "Here's why ... I wanted you to know ..."
    Sarah wobbled a little and Jacob thrust his bent leg under her backside, grabbed her upper arms, brought her back so her weight was on his thigh.
    Sarah swallowed, took a moment to steady herself.
    "I have no husband," she whispered. "I'm going to need some good men to help me raise our son." Her hand was flat on her belly.
    Jacob shifted his grip, spun her about, thrust his face into hers: his hard hands around her ribs, under her arms, were all that kept her upright.
    "What?" he whsipered, grinning.
    Sarah nodded, biting her bottom lip.
    Jacob hauled her off the ground, thrusting he up to arm's length, laughing: "YAHOO!" he yelled, his treble yelp echoing off the building-fronts opposite: he spun Sarah around, twice, then brought her down and hugged her, clearly delighted.
    "Sis," he said quietly, "come on up to our place, we've got your Happy Birthday cake and everything!"
    Sarah found herself enveloped by manly and maternal arms.
    This is turning out to be a pretty good Christmas birthday, she thought, as she was chivvied inside, for services were about to start.

  11. Linn Keller 12-23-13


    "They're all asleep," the maid whispered, smiling to see Sarah with her father.
    "Good," Linn whispered back, hanging his hat on its peg and relieving Sarah of his coat, wrapped around her shoulders. He'd made do with the blanket for the ride home.
    "Anything left from supper?"
    The maid laid her knuckles gently on Sarah's reddened cheek and then patted her hand reassuringly.
    "Sheriff," she scolded gently, "the poor thing's freezing! If there wasn't something hot I would certainly make something!"
    "Oh, bless you," Sarah said in a small voice.
    As the Sheriff drew Sarah's chair out for her, then scooted her in, Sarah leaned her elbows on the tabletop and her forehead against the heels of her hands.
    "Chilled?" Linn asked, his hands big and warm and strong and comforting on her shoulders.
    She nodded.
    She nodded again.
    "You can bunk here. You know that."
    Sarah nodded again.
    Mary lifted the lid on a kettle; fragrant steam billowed out as she stirred the rich, thick stew.
    "You'll like this," she said in a motherly voice, ladling one, then another bowl full. "I thought stew might be good on a chilly night."
    Fresh bread was brought and the Sheriff sawed through the golden crust with the serrated bread knife.
    Sarah smiled to hear how hollow it sounded, almost like a crosscut saw.
    The Sheriff smiled to see her amusement and pantomined a sawing motion in empty air: "Hee haw, hee haw," he said quietly, and Sarah smiled and nodded, for her Papa was being silly again, and she like it when he was silly.

    When Linn finally laid down for the night, it was with an odd feeling of contentment.
    He remembered their conversation, before they went to their separate bedrooms: he for his, and her for the guest room.
    He knew Sarah learned that good comes even of grief; her tears, hidden by the white veil, were prayers when she had no words to pray: her grief, her tears, sung through the great pipe organ, drew in another in grief, another soul who needed her help.
    "Life goes on," he said to her, holding both her hands in both of his: "we can choose to wall ourselves away from life or we can decide to live."
    "What do you choose, Papa?"
    The Sheriff smiled and his smile was as warm and welcoming as the bared fangs of the wolf pup he'd fed before they came into the house.
    "I choose revenge," he said quietly.
    Sarah blinked, unsure whether she'd heard him arightly.
    "I ... don't ... understand," she said slowly. "Revenge?"
    The Sheriff nodded, his eyes hard.
    "My wife was taken from me," he said slowly, "and I intend to avenge myself against death by LIVING."
    "I see," Sarah said uncertainly.
    "You made the same decision."
    "I did?"
    Linn nodded.
    "Your riding outfit. Rich, royal, dark purple. Hardly mourning black."
    Sarah nodded, still not sure of her father's intended meaning.
    "You may not have decided to avenge yourself against death by living, but you have chosen to live."
    His hands tightened very slightly on hers.
    "You chose to help a girl who needed help in a bad way.
    "You told me you took her in and fed her and got her a hot bath and clean clothes. You told me you got her to a place of safety. You told me she will be taken care of and kept safe and provided for."
    Sarah nodded.
    "You did these things," the Sheriff said, his voice barely above a whisper. "You."
    Sarah nodded slowly. "I did those things, Papa," she affirmed.
    "And will you go back to teaching school?"
    "Yes, Papa. I plan to."
    The Sheriff lay in the dark, remembering how warm, how real Sarah's small hands were in his big, callused paws.
    He remembered how slowly she walked, how she stopped in the bedroom doorway, how she turned and looked at him with the eyes of a hopeful little girl, how she whispered "Thank you, Papa," and then she withdrew and quietly closed the bedroom door.
    "Esther," the Sheriff whispered, "I wish you were here," and as he always did, he reached a little to his right, to where Esther's hand had been for all the years of their marriage, and he remembered how their last words to one another were always a whispered "I love you," and they would fall asleep holding hands.
    "I love you," he whispered into the bedroom's silence, and he closed his eyes.

  12. Linn Keller 12-21-13


    The Sheriff waited beside a rock.
    He sat on a folded blanket, another around him; he wore a coat, he was out of the wind, nothing could come at him from behind, and he waited.
    "I could kill you," the voice said, quietly but distinctly, and he smiled.
    "If you wanted me dead I would be already."
    Sarah laughed.
    "Be a dear and help me down."
    The Sheriff smiled, stood; he let the blanket fall, reached up and caught Sarah as she jumped.
    She'd stood immediately above him: had she wanted, a head-sized rock, dropped straight down, could have crushed his skull or at the least given him a size twelve headache.
    The Sheriff grunted, catching Sarah under the arms, his hands spread wide, wrapping around her ribs: he broke her fall but let her legs take the shock of her landing, more steadying than stopping her.
    Sarah laughed, then looked sadly at her father.
    "Dear Papa," she said softly. "I learned something about grief last night."
    The Sheriff's eyes smiled quietly; he indicated the thick, folded blanket, and the two sat: he worked the blanket around them both, and Sarah leaned against the reassuring warmth of her father.
    "I should have worn my cloak," she whispered.
    He unbuttoned his coat, carefully working out of it and slipped it around Sarah's shoulders.
    "Won't you get cold?"
    "Not as long as I'm under here."
    Sarah leaned against her Papa and sighed as he put a strong, Daddy-arm around her shoulders.
    "Tell me what you learned," he said quietly, and she giggled to hear his words rumble in his chest.
    "I miss him, Daddy," Sarah said, her voice hollow.
    "I know. I miss him too."
    "He was ... my husband."
    "He was."
    "He was a good man."
    "Yes, he was."
    "Papa ..."
    Linn waited.
    "Papa, I felt ... I wanted ..."
    Sarah's voice trailed off and she turned her head, rubbed her face into his shoulder.
    "I wanted to seize the piano and put it through the opposite wall last night."
    Linn nodded, slowly, patiently.
    "It didn't ... have the voice I wanted."
    Linn looked over at Sarah, puzzled. "The voice?"
    "I ... wanted ... something loud."
    "Not loud, not really."
    Sarah paused, considering.
    "I wanted something angry."
    "Powerful. Something beyond a piano."
    "Did you find it?"
    "I did, Papa."
    "Tell me about it."
    Sarah shivered a little in spite of being warm.
    "Papa ... do you remember the ... pipe organ ... in Rabbitville?"
    "The pipe organ," the Sheriff said quietly, and Sarah heard the smile in his voice. "Yes. I do remember it."
    "I played the pipe organ, Papa. I ... sang ... with its throat ... I played, Papa, I played better than I have ever played in my life. I sang in octaves and in chords and I sobbed so deeply the floor vibrated.
    "I grieved, Papa. I cried and I cried hard."
    "And nobody saw you? Nobody was there for Perpetual Adoration?"
    Sarah took a shivering breath, pressed a kerchief to her nose.
    "I was the White Nun, Papa. I wore the white veil over my face. Nobody could see me and I ... the organ ..."
    "Nobody could hear you either."
    Sarah shook her head.
    "Go on."
    "I ... played ... until I was cried out."
    "There ..."
    Linn waited patiently.
    "Papa, there was a girl ... she ..."
    "The girl in trouble."
    Sarah drew her head back, her eyes wide, surprised, almost frightened.
    "How did you know?" she whispered.
    "I'm a lawman," Linn deadpanned. "I find things out."
    Sarah relaxed against him again, as much for reassurance as for warmth.
    "I went there to scream and to cry and to lash out," Sarah said thoughtfully, "and she ... came in because she heard my playing."
    "Is she safe now?"
    Sarah nodded.
    "The nunnery?"
    Sarah blinked, puzzling her brows a little as her Papa chuckled.
    "Isn't that what they usually say in the stories? 'Hie thee to a nunnery'?"
    Sarah laughed quietly, then stiffened.
    Linn felt her move slowly, heard the muffled clickity-click of a revolver coming to full cock.
    A shadow moved, just at the edge of visual range, and they heard a threatening snarl.
    "It's all right," the Sheriff whispered. "It's just my wolf pup."

  13. Linn Keller 12-19-13


    The young woman -- barely that, more a girl -- trembled in the back of the sanctuary, trying to hide in the rearmost pew.
    She'd never been in a Catholic church in her life, but she was cold and scared and hungry, and she'd heard the music compelling, powerful, sorrowing and joyful at the same time: the doors, thank God, were not locked, and she slipped in out of the cold, collapsing on the polished wood bench.
    She crossed her forearms on the pew in front of her and leaned her forehead against her thin-sleeved arms, her own grief dampening her sleeves; she was nearly exhausted, and so did not hear the quiet approach of a small set of feet.
    She felt the warmed blanket drape gently over her; she wrapped it gratefully around herself.
    "Thank you," she whispered.
    A nun, all in white, even with her face veiled with a white silk drape, stood beside her, still, unmoving.
    "I'm sorry," the girl whispered. "I'm ... cold ..."
    The nun reached out a gentle hand, stroked the girl's chilled, reddened cheek with the backs of her fingers: her hand closed about the girl's wrist and pulled with a surprising strength.
    The girl rose, hung her head: she was sure she was going to be thrown out, just like she'd been thrown out of her parents' house, thrown out the front door, hands hard and harsh on her wrist, her arm, the woody SLAM of the heavy door a harsh exclamation point to her disgrace.
    She dared a scared glance at the silent nun's veiled face and her brows twitched a little with surprise, for it looked as if ...
    Damp, she thought.
    Damp ... has she been crying?
    The nun raised a finger, brought it to her face as if to invisible lips beneath the white-silk veil: she led the girl across the back of the sanctuary, their tread silent: in front, those sitting in Perpetual Adoration neither saw them, nor heard their quiet passage: they were still remembering the glory of their prized organ, its soaring, powerful notes filling the empty church, adding its voice to theirs, its prayer in music, theirs in words.
    The silent nun led the girl through a door, down a hall, into another door, across a room: she stopped suddenly, lay a gentle hand on the girl's cheek, tilted her featureless white head, then lowered her hand and placed her palm flat on the girl's lower belly.
    "Yes," she whispered, sobbing as she did: the girl sank to her knees, crying quietly: "my family threw me out. Disgraced, my father said. He called me --"
    She choked on her words.
    The nun knelt with her; the girl felt the nun press a cloth to her grieving face and the girl gratefully buried her face in it.
    The two leaned into one another, the little nun's arms warm and strong around her shoulders; the girl clung to the nun like a drowning man might clutch a buoy: they remained in the dark, thus, alone, save for the nearby stove: neither knew how much time passed, but finally the girl sniveled and blew her nose and drew back, eyes swollen and heavy with sorrow.
    "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I ... don't have anyone ... I don't ... my family threw me out."
    The girl lay a hand on her belly, looked down.
    "He swore he'd marry me," her voice a choking whisper, "then he left, and I heard him bragging as he got on the train. He didn't know I was there."
    The little nun listened patiently; finally she raised a finger, rose, and the girl rose with her.
    The nun's hand was about her wrist again, and she drew her into the next room: there was a bathtub, towels, soap; she plucked at the girl's shoulder, then indicated pegs on the wall, and the tub, raised a finger as if to say, Remain, I will return: not long after, the girl was soaking in a deliciously warm tub of water: the strain of the past week, a week of hunger and of rejection, a week of fear and of running and sleeping in sheds and avoiding everyone's eye until she was utterly at her very end, until she either found relief from some earthly agency, or relief from stepping in front of the express train that came through town at a precise hour --
    A knock; the door opened, the veiled nun came in with folded clothes in hand: she placed them on a chair with a hairbrush, withdrew.
    When the girl was finished and dressed, her hair brushed out, she hesitantly opened the door.
    The little nun stood patiently beside a small table, motioned her forward, laid a hand on a chair, drawn out and waiting.
    The simple meal, humble though cold meat and bread and cheese may be, was the very best meal she'd ever had.
    A tall, slender man in a white robe stepped into the single candle's light.
    "I am Brother William," he said in a kind and gentle voice: "It is our honor to have you as our guest."
    After a week of rejection, curses and slaps, after her own family threw her out, called her slut and whore and screamed at her to never come back, to never say she was of their blood and never to speak their name again, after learning the city treats its refuse as trash, the girl's reserves were utterly spent; she had neither strength nor resistance, and sank to her knees, the tears coming again, but the freshet washed the dirt and the grief from her heart, and when she rose, when Brother William steadied her with one lean arm around her shoulders, holding the soft cloth to her nose and whispering, "Blow," and she drew a breath and honked into the kerchief for all the world like a sorrowing child blowing her nose for her Daddy, she realized that maybe the world hadn't ended, and she would not have to step in front of that freight train after all.

  14. Linn Keller 12-18-13


    I dreamed of horses last night.
    The words gleamed, black and wet, on the journal's page.
    I dreamed I rode Cannonball and she flew across a gully wider'n ought to be.
    I dreamed she snapped out a set of wings right after she gathered and jumped and I dreamed I rode her and thought not a thing unusual of it.
    I woke then, and the room was still, then I heard the sound of wings and something brushed my cheek.

    The Sheriff considered the words he'd written, remembering, and his eyes stung again, and this time he did not try to stop them.
    Water ran down his cheeks as his pen continued writing, pulling his hand along with it across the good rag paper.
    I heard tell horses lend us our wings until we can get our own.
    Reckon now Esther has hers.
    I do believe that's what I heard, and what I felt.

    He did not blot the page; he set the pen carefully aside, leaned back in his chair, blinking: he did not often admit grief, but grief will not be denied, and grief visited itself upon him that night, in the stillness of his study, with his words gleaming in good India ink on the smooth page.

    Sarah, too, felt grief gripping her heart: she sat at the piano, her fingers gently coaxing a melody from the ivory keys.
    She stopped, began the melody again, but more sharply: the notes came more closely together, the time quicker: Sarah stopped, threw her head back, took a long breath and then leaned forward a little and carefully drew the hinged key-cover down over the polished ivory-and-ebony keyboard.
    She stood slowly, carefully, which is exactly what she did not want to do.
    She wanted to thrust herself upright and dump the piano bench over, she wanted to kick it across the room and grab the piano and dump it over as well: she stood still for a long moment, then delicately, carefully, daintily, she picked up her skirts and walked with small, mincing, ladylike steps toward the stone staircase.
    She walked with a cold self-control up the gleaming, polished stairsteps, coming to the landing and looking at the bedroom door, remembering her wedding night, that night of discovery and heat and a little fear, that night when she found that her young heart could indeed love and her young body could indeed respond and she could give all of her heart to a man, and she did, she did, fully and unreservedly.
    Sarah opened the bedroom door, stepped inside.
    The maid saw her go upstairs.
    She did not see her descend.

    The night air was cold.
    Sarah welcomed the cold.
    She'd been denied a last goodbye, kept from seeing what was left of her husband: she knew this was probably a blessing, for her last memory of Daffyd was of a handsome man, healthy, full of life, laughing.
    It was a memory she cherished.
    Sarah rode through the darkness on a nondescript dun gelding, on a worn, common saddle, bought from a fellow down on his luck: Sarah rode the gelding to Shorty's livery, left it tethered to the common rail out front with a little blue-velvet sack hanging from the saddlehorn.
    Shorty would hear her quick knock, and he'd find the horse, and he'd take it in and take payment from the blue-velvet poke, the way he always did.
    Sarah thrust her hands in her sleeves and walked quickly through the shadows.

    The diminutive white nun with the white-veiled face slipped into the nave, walked quickly to the altar, crossed herself, knelt: she stayed still, very still for several minutes, then rose.
    Brother William's head came up as the pipe organ began to sing: a single, commanding note, quickly cascading down the scale, and up: again, in a minor: the organist played powerfully, bringing brass and hand-pumped air to life.
    Sarah played with strength, with power, her head thrown back as her slender fingers commanded the triple keyboard: she reached for the pedals, bringing soaring life to the darkened sanctuary.
    Sarah could not satisfy the ache in her heart with her piano, no matter how hard she hammered the keys: the pipe organ, on the other hand, sang with the authority her grieving heart craved.
    Brother William remained on his knees, listening as Sarah grieved through her fingers, as she mourned with her music, sobbed through twice two dozen brazen throats: darkness hid the wet-streaks soaking through Sarah's face-veil, her grief singing in the sanctuary, grieving for what was lost, what would never be, but rejoicing at what had been.

  15. Linn Keller 12-18-13


    "I am obliged to you for that elk meat," Linn said quietly.
    Supper was livened by Angela; in an age where children were seen and not heard, she was both: although excited by the company of her favorite uncle, she was not obnoxious, and after her initial rushing flood of enthusiastic greeting, she listened -- surprisingly well -- and listened closely, frowning on occasion and looking at her Daddy with unspoken questions, which -- again, surprisingly -- she held.
    "I reckon you can use it."
    "Yep," Linn nodded, smiling slowly, his eyes looking at Angela and then beyond her ... well beyond her, and Charlie knew the man's mind was not nearly as tranquil as his careful facade would indicate.
    "I hear tell Sarah's husband got himself killed."
    Linn nodded slowly, his mouth twisting a little, almost in distaste.
    "He died a hero," he said slowly.
    Charlie nodded, hearing the conflict in the man's voice, and waited, knowing that old lawman's trick to be as effective off duty as on duty.
    "Him and Sean went in and got people out," Linn said, pausing for a long breath. "I understand ..."
    He frowned a little and Charlie listened closely, weaving a mental net to catch any unexpected information that fell from innocent-seeming words.
    "Sean said Daffyd tossed a child across the floor to him just before the floor caved in and took the Welshman down with it."
    Charlie looked at Angela, raised an eyebrow.
    "Is that what happened?" he asked quietly.
    Linn considered his answer, staring at the gravy boat: finally he took another breath and replied, "If it ain't, it'll do as well as any."
    Charlie understood.
    Whether Daffyd actually died a hero's death, throwing a child free as the floor collapsed beneath him -- or whether it was a fiction, told to spare the reputation of a man who may've made one fatal mistake -- whichever one was fact, was immaterial; the dead man went to his grave a hero, and that was a blessing for the widow, if nothing else.
    "How's Sarah taking all this?"
    "Well enough, given the circumstances."
    "Is that good?"
    Linn snorted and Charlie planted his elbows on either side of his gravy-streaked plate.
    "I know that look," he said quietly. "Out with it, mister!"
    Linn laughed and Angela blinked, looking from one man to the other.
    "Uncle Charlie," Angela said quietly, pointing to her Daddy, "is that Daddy's Innocent Expression?"
    Charlie leaned back and laughed, nodding.
    "Yes, Punkin, it is," he chuckled as the maid slipped in, leaned down and whispered something to Angela: Angela slipped from her chair and curtsied, then withdrew with the maid -- for a special treat, no doubt, the maid used that as a useful bait to give the men some time together.
    "Now what's this I hear about you retirin'?" Charlie asked, his voice low.
    Linn looked at his old friend and smiled tiredly.
    "Charlie," he said, "I went to the grave yard today."
    "That's not what I asked."
    Linn continued as if he'd not heard.
    "I've buried blood in that ground, Charlie. I've got kin folk planted up there.
    "You know what I saw when I got there?"
    Charlie frowned a little, looking closely at his friend's face.
    "Stones and snow on the ground."
    Charlie frowned a little, considering.
    "The place is empty, Charlie. I buried our son and I buried my wife, I've planted friends, kindred and neighbors in that place and it's empty."
    Charlie frowned a little, listening.
    "There is no place colder than a grave yard in December," Linn continued thoughtfully. "Our son Joseph's grave has a kneeling lamb carved on its top. That lamb did not blink nor stand nor move around.
    "I don't know if I expected Esther to fly up and land on a tomb stone and blink like a hoot owl but that didn't happen either.
    "The soul is all there is, Charlie, and when that's flown ... we plant a shell and think it's them and it's not."
    Charlie nodded: this was nothing he hadn't heard before, and he knew his friend was working his way to the answer, just by a roundabout route.
    "I did retire from Sheriff."
    Charlie never said a word, just looked steadily across the table.
    "Jacob is younger and smarter and better lookin' than me. He's not got the aches and pains I do, it's time to let the younger man take over."
    "Younger, smarter and better lookin'," Charlie drawled.
    "Well, younger and smarter anyway."
    "Just what," Charlie asked, an edge to his voice, "do you plan on doin'?"
    "Other than drink beer and chase women?" Linn grinned, then his grin faded.
    "I reckon," he said slowly, "I will raise my young and watch my apple trees grow."
    "That's all?"
    "For now."
    "For now," Charlie echoed.
    Linn's expression was bleak.
    "Haven't I done enough?" he whispered. "Haven't I given enough?"
    "What did you give?"
    Linn closed his eyes and thought for several moments.
    "Esther and I ... the railroad, the Z&W. Both lines, passenger/freight and the ore hauling line. Esther's brick works. The gas works, gas lights, gas stoves in the school house. The Irish Brigade -- hell, the engine and building I bought myself, I brought the Irishmen to run the damned thing and they stayed beyond the contract. I set up the trust fund that pays their wages and keeps them a going concern, I set up funding to rebuild the Mercantile -- twice -- the Silver Jewel --"
    Charlie raised a hand, stopping his friend's troubled rush of words.
    "So you're tellin' me we oughta change the name to Linnville."
    Linn stopped, and blinked, and then he laughed and sagged a little in his chair, and finally he looked his old friend in the eye and nodded.
    "One thing I can count on," he said thoughtfully. "If ever I get too big an opinion of myself, you always poke a hole in my windbag and let the hot air out."
    "Happy to help."
    "Like the time you told me if I know so damned much, why didn't I hang out a shingle and make a million dollars."
    Charlie laughed and so did Linn; they both remembered the moment, back when Linn didn't have two nickles to rub together, when he was holding forth at length with an expert's assurance, to the point that Charlie was honestly irritated with listening to it, and he expertly poked a goose feather into his old friend's self-important soliloquy -- to their mutual laughter.
    Linn shifted in his chair.
    "I'm tired, Charlie," he finally said. "I'm tired of carryin' the weight. I'm tired of bein' responsible. I'm tired of mediatin' between ranchers or the Mayor and Council or between two saloon keepers. I'm tired of ridin' out with a warrant and endin' up chasin' wild goose feathers or havin' some fellow try and put holes in my carcass. I'm tired of putting a noose around a man's neck and dropping his soul into Eternity, never mind they deserve worse.
    "Charlie, I just ... I want to raise my young and take care of mine and let that be it."
    "So that's it," Charlie said softly. "You're quittin'."
    "Already done it."
    "You want to raise up your young."
    "Don't you reckon Jacob wants to raise his?"
    The question hung on the still air.
    "You get waxed or he gets waxed, each is a tragedy. It's bad enough he's your deputy and in the line of fire every day, but now your son" -- he paused to let the words sik in --"is the only one there."

    Next day, on the stone steps in front of the City Hall building, Jacob held his Sheriff's star to his ear, in his cupped hand, listening intently and frowning a little.
    He passed the engraved, six pointed insignia to the Mayor, who cupped it in his hand and held it to his ear: after several moments, he nodded and looked at the elder Keller.
    "Jacob and I agree," he said. "This badge is happier hanging on your shirt and it just told us both as much."
    "Mister Mayor," the Sheriff said, "if that badge is talkin' to the both of you I don't reckon I'd ought to argue with it."
    "No, don't argue with the badge," the Mayor said, pinning the six point star on Linn's coat lapel.
    Jacob grinned.
    "It looks better on you than it does on me, sir," he said.
    "Yeah," Linn said quietly. "Reckon so."

  16. Charlie MacNeil 12-17-13


    An almost full moon, a high overcast and snow on the ground can be almost as good as daylight for lighting a weary traveler's way. Full dark, such as it was, had descended some time since, but Charlie decided to push on into town. He figured that putting the horses up in Shorty's barn, and himself in a comfortable bed in a room at the Silver Jewel was much preferable to bedding down in a snowbank and pasturing his horses on grain and spruce needles. But before any of them could settle in for the night he had a stop or two to make.

    As usual, the prairie telegraph had brought him the news of Daffyd Llewellyn's demise and the Sheriff's retirement. The first he believed and he'd said his prayers for the Welshman's soul and his widow's life and future. The second he'd believe when he heard it from the old warhorse's mouth, so to speak. Consequently, when he drew rein and stepped stiffly down from his saddle, it was in front of his friend's house rather than Shorty's livery.

    "You're gettin' too old for this kinda crap, my friend," he muttered under his breath as he stepped up onto the porch. He raised his hand to knock, but paused when he heard snow squeak under a boot sole.

    "Who are you and what do you want?" Linn's voice challenged from the darkness beyond the house corner.

    "An apostle with epistle!" Charlie replied cheerfully. "And a side of venison to boot!" He turned toward the spot the voice had come from. "Got coffee made?"

    "Charlie?" Linn questioned as he stepped out into the open, lowering the double gun's muzzles to point at the frozen crust underfoot.

    "Who else?" Charlie answered.

    "What in the name of Heaven are you doing here at this hour of the day?"

    "I'm gettin' too old to sleep in a snow cave, and I had an extra elk carcass that needed to be eaten, so here I am."

    "Extra elk carcass, my Aunt Kate," Linn answered drily, feeling a deep warmth for the man standing grinning at him in the diffuse moonlight. Before Charlie could come up with an appropriate reply the door burst open and Angela flew out into the cold night with a squeal.

    "Uncle Charlie!" the girl squeaked as she threw herself into Charlie's arms. Her words came out in a torrent. "Where did you come from? What'd ya brung? Where's Aunt Fannie? Whatcha doin' here? Supper's ready! Come in an' eat!"

    "Hold on a minute there, girl!" Charlie laughed as he hoisted her up into his arms. Hers went around his neck in a hug then she pushed back and looked into his face. The words started again, but slightly slower this time.

    "You're cold. You come in an' get warm. We're havin' shepherd's pie for supper! Mary maked it, an' it's yummy! An' she made biscuits! I know you like biscuits!"

    Charlie stepped forward to set Angela down inside the doorway. "I'll be in as soon as I take care of my horses, girl. You'd best get back inside and shut the door, you're lettin' the heat out."

    Angela shook her finger at him as she said, "You hurry with the horsies, Uncle Charlie, 'cause it's suppertime." She stepped back and shut the door. Charlie looked over at his friend, a bemused smile on his face.

    "Whew! Just listenin' to her is a job of work, ain't it?"

    "And one I wouldn't miss for the world, my friend," Linn answered quietly.

    "And I don't blame you," Charlie replied in words equally as soft. His gaze went far beyond his friend, back into the past. "That's something I do miss about my life," he muttered. "No kids of my own." He shook himself and looked at his friend. "We'd best get this meat unloaded and the horsies taken care of, I reckon. I done got my orders, and it's suppertime."

  17. Charlie MacNeil 12-14-13


    Breath steaming in the predawn air, the horse herd cantered into the feed ground, capering with pent-up energy brought on by the singing of their blood and their strength. The strength of the young, the strength the mineral-rich prairie hay imparted to young and old alike. Charlie had already forked the day's rations out onto the hoof-packed snow of the feed yard before he opened the gate, and he stood now, elbows crossed on a gate post, smiling a little at the sight.

    Charlie reached down for the bucket of rolled oats at his feet, the papery discs rustling against the galvanized surface. With his left hand he picked up the pair of bosal nose bands and the horsehair mecates and stepped into the feed pen. Almost as if they could sense his selection, the two geldings he planned to halter and saddle sidled into the middle of the group, eyes rolling in mock fright. "You boys are plumb whack," Charlie muttered softly. He stepped nonchalantly into the middle of the herd, pushing aside the questing noses of some of the mares, letting others grab a small bite of grain as he worked his way closer to his targets.

    The first gelding tucked its nose into the bucket that now hung in the curve of Charlie's elbow. He slipped the braided rawhide noseband over the horse's muzzle, the headband behind the ears, slipped the mecate through the bosal and looped it around the neck, tying it in a bowline knot at the jaw corner. The second gelding was haltered accordingly a minute or two later, and Charlie turned to lead the pair toward the gate where Cat Running waited.

    The old man and Charlie each padded and crossbucked one of the geldings, then Charlie led the packhorses to the shed where the elk quarters, well-frozen, hung. He and Cat Running loaded a pair of hindquarters on one horse, a pair of front quarters on the other, and a backstrap atop each load. They tarped and diamond-hitched the loads then led the animals back to the barn, where the saddled buckskin waited patiently. Charlie swung into the saddle and half-hitched the pack horses' mecate ropes to his saddle horn.

    "Don't wait up, old man," Charlie told Cat Running. "I'll more than likely stay in town tonight. You'll see that the horses get fed?"

    The old man snorted. "Yah, horse'll get fed, no worry. You be careful. Don't want your woman bein' a widow, eh?"

    "I'm always careful, you know me," Charlie retorted with a smile.

    "Yes, we do know you," Fannie drawled from behind him. "That's why he's telling you to be careful." She stepped up alongside the buckskin.

    Charlie grinned at her and leaned down to plant a kiss on her sweet lips. He straightened in the saddle. "Like I said, Darlin', I'm always careful. It's them other fellers who usually ain't, and then they get me in trouble. I'll see ya in a couple of days." He heeled the buckskin into motion toward the trail to Firelands.

  18. Linn Keller 12-14-13


    Sarah dropped the black veil to her shoulders.
    It hung from the brim of her black mourning-hat, and matched her black mourning-gown: her jewelry, what little she wore, was gleaming, polished jet, all but her cameo, which she wore in the hollow of her throat: it was a bright, startling white, an oval of flawless jade, scrimshaw engraved with a black rose, gleaming dully through the concealing veil.
    Her few words, her quiet manner, were attributed to her grief; she was a young widow, married no more than a week, suddenly bereaved and alone in the world.
    In truth, Sarah was quiet -- not out of grief, though grief still weighed her heart -- but out of rage.
    A stranger walked into her house.
    Her house!
    The damned cheek of the man!
    Sarah's black-gloved hands fisted, slowly, tightly: she stood behind a stack of canned goods in the Mercantile and closed her eyes, taking a long breath and a long moment to collect herself.
    She remembered the satisfying feeling of beating the stuffing out of the arrogant scoundrel, out of using leverage and what the Daine boys called "slights" to turn his attack into his defeat: she used joint-locks, she used throws, she used momentum, she used several very effective, very unpleasant, very painful tricks of dirty fighting to cause a great deal of immense, intense pain to the sneering intruder -- such things as a rolling hip-throw, or the simple expedient of meeting his charge by pulling him into her -- and of course the fact that her leg was stuck out and he tripped over it, was ... well, let's just say that when she introduced his face into the polished granite fireplace, she really didn't care how she did it, just that she did it.
    Sarah opened her eyes slowly, turned, walked with an exaggerated slowness toward the front counter.
    One of the ranchers was looking at a half-dozen knives, laid out on a towel on the glass display case's flat, burnished top.
    "I don't know," he muttered, and Sarah came up beside him, laid gentle fingertips on his water-beaded coat sleeve.
    "It's snowing again," she murmured. "What is your question?"
    The rancher frowned at the knives, then looked at Sarah, blinked.
    "Mrs. Llewellyn," he murmured, taking off his hat. "My condolences, ma'am."
    "Mr. Mace, you have ever been a gentleman," Sarah said quietly. "Which knife puzzled you?"
    He turned, tapped the stacked-leather handle of a curve-blade skinner.
    Sarah picked it up, read the stamp at the blade's base, just forward of the small guard.
    "Good steel," she murmured, hefting it: "a little awkward. I don't like it."
    She lay it down, tilted her head, picked up a Green River skinner.
    "This," she said, satisfaction in her voice.
    "Ma'am ... that one?"
    "Experience, Mr. Mace," Sarah said patiently. "The Green River Knife Works have skinned out more game than any other maker. The steel is soft enough to sharpen on a common rock, it's tough enough to take a good edge and hold it, and it's balanced well."
    Sarah turned, drew her hand back over her shoulder, the knife spun three times and drove blade-first into the closed storeroom door.
    "As I said, Mr. Mace," Sarah said quietly.
    "Well balanced."

  19. Linn Keller 12-13-13


    Jacob rose as Sarah paused just inside the door.
    "Mrs. Llewellyn," he said formally.
    "Sheriff," Sarah replied stiffly. "May I come in?"
    Sarah's carriage was stiff and disapproving, her spine was straight and there was no trace of welcome or kindness in her pale eyes.
    Jacob gestured to a seat; Sarah smoothed her skirt, lowered herself into the visitor's chair with the regal hauteur of a crowned head of state.
    A very disapproving crowned head of state.
    Jacob sat behind the desk, leaned forward a little and frowned.
    "I do not feel ... comfortable," he said slowly, "calling you Sis. Not since you're a married woman." He paused, considering. "And especially now that you are a widow."
    Sarah's eyes were hard as she glared at him.
    "I am not here on a social call," she said quietly.
    Jacob straightened, put his finger tips together, regarded his sister steadily.
    "Say on."
    Sarah opened her reticule, took out a thick coil of heavy leather.
    She tossed the coil on his desk.
    Jacob frowned, looked from the uncoiling leather to the slim, diminutive woman in mourning black.
    "A razor strop?" he puzzled.
    "A persuader," Sarah said, her mouth curling at the corners as if she spoke words with a bad taste. "Something to make a woman ... compliant."
    Jacob's eyes went suddenly pale and Sarah saw his jaw harden.
    "I have done your work for you," Sarah said, almost in a monotone, and Jacob turned his head a little as if to bring his good ear to bear.
    Just like his father, Sarah thought, then corrected herself:
    Our father.
    "I found him standing in my parlor just as big as you please. Bold as brass and twice as unpleasant."
    Sarah looked like she wanted to spit.
    "He introduced himself as my next husband."
    Jacob clamped an iron claw over his feelings and squeezed them down, hard.
    "He's out in the wagon."
    "He's here?"
    Sarah nodded.
    "Not Digger's?"
    Sarah shook her head.
    Jacob stood, his good right hand closing slowly into a fist.
    "The strop?"
    "He told me it was to make sure bad little girls became obedient good little girls, because a married man likes an obedient wife."
    "And ...?"
    "I brought him here instead of Digger's."
    Jacob considered this, setting aside filial rage for the cold reasoning of the designated lawman.
    "What all did he do to you?"
    Sarah's smile was as cold as her eyes.
    "He did no more than seize my arm."
    Jacob stopped, remembering, then turned to face Sarah squarely.
    "He seized your arm."
    Sarah nodded.
    "Like I do when we practice."
    Sarah nodded again.
    "Like I did right before you threw me against the wall of the barn one time, and over a fence rail the next time, and into a horse trough the third."
    Sarah nodded yet again, and this time Jacob could just see the deep, almost hidden laughter peeking through his sister's eyes.
    "And once you ran him face first into a mountainside ...?"
    "The fireplace, actually," Sarah murmured, and Jacob remembered the polished granite fireplace and repeated himself.
    "You ran him face first into a mountainside."
    "You could say that."
    "What then?"
    "I took a broom to him."
    "You ... what?"
    Sarah's expression softened and he saw her smile tease at the corners of her mouth.
    "I worked him over with a broom. I beat all the broom straws loose and used the broom handle on him. I beat him from one end to the other and went back to make sure I didn't miss anything."
    Jacob's eyebrows hoisted an amazing distance as he looked at the door separating their tranquil office from the world outside.
    "I wonder," he said, "if I really want to go look at this fellow!"
    "You may thank me at your leisure," Sarah said, standing: "but for now please secure your prisoner, I do wish to press charges, and I wish to return home, for it has been a tiring morning."
    Sarah waited until the prisoner was secured in a cell, and Jacob returned outside, before climbing back into the wagon.
    Sarah unwound the reins, eased off the brake as the Sheriff with the dark-red mustache looked curiously up at his sister.
    "You don't have to call me Mrs. Llewellyn."

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