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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103 last won the day on October 27 2016

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About Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

  • Birthday 03/31/1956

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    Firelands Peacemakers

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  • Gender
  • Location
    Lorain County, Ohio
  • Interests
    History, calligraphy, any game that burns powder
    BOLD 103, Center Township Combat Pistol League
    Skywarn, ham radio, and no idea what I want to do when I grow up!

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  1. Now py kolly I'll get me one if one can be found! You're right, they used to be sold here there and yonder, and haven't seen one for a very long time!
  2. MY DADDY'S SHARPS RIFLE Deputy Marshal Willamina Keller drove steadily north. The Interstate was not a novelty to her -- she'd driven the Autobahn, for Christ's sake! -- but the Interstate was a welcome change from the twisty secondary roads with their frequent speed traps. I mean small towns. She pointed her nose north and headed for a foreign territory, one she'd always regarded with a degree of angst. To hear her late Daddy tell it, the Yankee North (as he called it) was flat a file and populated with folk who were surly, disagreeable, unpleasant, and generally invested with cloven hooves, a pointed tail, and horns. So far Willamina had encountered nothing of the kind, and she was well north of the true Mason-Dixon: her Daddy taught her that when the Messrs. Mason and Dixon scribed the state boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Yankee North projected it due West, where it followed the old National Road. I just crossed Interstate 70, she thought. God help me, I'm in Yankee territory now! Daddy told me he had to be careful whenever he went to Cleveland. A friend of his was bald and he swore he'd been scalped by the Cleveland Indians. Willamina smiled, just a little, at that memory: their friend was known to pull your leg with a straight face and remarkable expertise, and Willamina would listen, all silent and solemn, when said soul held forth with a genuine line of highly entertaining bull. She navigated with care, caution and the occasional application of heavy throttle, grateful that she had a big block V8 under the hood: she'd long appreciated a powerful and responsive engine, and more times than one, proper application of the Lead Foot kept her out of a collision. She wheeled into the parking lot of the East Cleveland Gun Shop, parked, looked around before she emerged. Willamina was naturally cautious. Willamina was also a wounded soul. She'd been abducted and tortured as a sixteen year old, she'd experienced things no girl should ever endure, she'd watched and listened as her boyfriend was tortured to death beside her, as her captors planned her death, cheerfully discussing it freely as she lay helpless, chained down, unable to so much as wiggle. Willamina closed her eyes, took a long breath, blew it out. That was a long time ago. It'll never happen again. She reached down, wrapped her hand tight around the handle of her .357, and when she opened her eyes, they were a hard shade of ice pale, and she felt a snarl building inside her chest. "You're damned right it'll never happen again!" she whispered through clenched teeth and a muscle-bulged jaw. She made a final visual sweep, got out of her white Crown Vic: she turned, slowly, swept the area with hard and pale eyes, settled her uniform Sheriff's-pattern, tan Stetson on Marine-short hair. She closed and locked the car door. The rifle was heavy in her hands. It was exactly what she wanted. "Do you realize what you have here?" the gunsmith asked. Willamina looked up at him, her head tilted a little to the side, one eyebrow raised. "This," he said, "is an original." "That much I know," she nodded, "and that is about all that I know. What else can you tell me?" The gunsmith grinned. It wasn't often he got to work on one of these. "The saddle ring" -- blunt fingers pointed at the lanyard a-jingle on the side -- "means this was a Cavalry carbine. This isn't a Cavalry barrel." Willamina nodded. "Go on." "This was originally a tobacco cutter." "Not familiar." "It fired a nonmetallic cartridge. The edge of the breechblock was sharp and would shear off the back of the cartridge and expose the powder, then a percussion cap would be applied to the nipple -- here -- this is factory converted from the tobacco cutter to fixed metallic." Willamina raised an eyebrow, nodded. "I don't know what dedicated idiot ruined it," the smith continued, "but some dim bulb hogged out the chamber with a hand drill and hacksawed the original barrel off at about twelve inches. This one is 32 inches. You've a good set of sights on it now." Willamina flipped up the Vernier peep. "Tell me about this." "Adjustable from here to yonder, and with this rifle, it doesn't matter how far yonder is." Willamina smiled, just a little. "The firing pin is kind of delicate." He laid a small brown-paper envelope on the counter. "Keep those in a safe place, you'll need 'em." Willamina raised an eyebrow. "The pin -- here let me show you -- see, this is workwise in the breechblock. The hammer originally hit a percussion nipple -- here -- so this pin starts where the nipple was -- it goes down -- over -- then in -- you've got three sharp angles and they tend to break at this first one. "When you drop the breech block, cock the hammer first, otherwise it'll hold the nose of the firing pin out and it'll shear off." Willamina nodded, brought the big percussion hammer back to the half cock notch, opened the heavy breech. "Now you asked about ammunition." He set two old-looking, buff-cardboard boxes on the counter. "No charge for these. I've had 'em forever. These are the original black powder Cavalry loads, but I'll warn you now, that's a heavy bullet and it'll kick accordingly." Willamina nodded. "If it were mine" -- Willamina looked up and saw a wishful look on the man's face -- "if this were mine, I'd get a Lyman mold and cast some 350 grain Gould's Express bullets. Less weight, less recoil and you've still got 350 grains of lead." Willamina considered this, nodded, looked up at the man with a little smile on her face. "350 grains is an Express load?" she asked. He nodded. Willamina laughed. "A .44 Magnum carries 250 grains. 350 is the Express?" She laughed again. "I'm going to like this one!" Sheriff Linn Keller drew the hammer back to half cock, dropped the heavy breech block. He dropped a round the size of a young panatela into the chamber, closed the lever: his middle finger cocked the set triggers as his thumb brought the heavy hammer back to full stand. The rifle was steady as he looked through the rear peep, at the white-painted plate hanging from short chains a football field distant. Blue smoke and thunder and the plate swung and went CLANK and two pale eyed children happily chorused, "HIT!" Linn half-cocked the heavy hammer and looked at it for several long moments before he dropped the breech block. He looked at Michael. "Like to try it?" The delighted grin was all the answer needed. Later that day, as father and twin children ran successively hot water rinses coursing through the barrel, as young eyes and older eyes scrutinized fresh-cut patches pushed through the bore on a tight button jag, a father told his young the story of this rifle, how it belonged to a long dead lawman, how his daughter fulfilled her Daddy's dream of having it rebarreled and brought back into working order, how his Mama's pale eyed Daddy always wanted a genuine Buffalo Rifle, and by golly now, this rifle was good medicine if a man was going out to put Big Shaggy in the cook pot! Victoria thought to herself that would require a sizable cook pot, and opened her mouth to say so, but her Daddy's wink told her he'd thought of the same thing himself.
  3. FETCH ME MY SHARPS Victoria clapped her hands to her mouth as her Daddy was thrown violently backwards. He'd only just laid gentle fingertips on the unmoving woman's head. It was as if he'd just been hit by a minor explosion, or maybe he grabbed a live wire: he landed flat on his back, eyes wide, gasping. Michael stepped over to the man, knelt, pressed two fingers against his Pa's Adam's apple, dropped down into the carotid groove. Victoria's eyes were already wide with fear and with surprise. They managed to widen a little more as she recognized what her twin brother was looking for. He looked up. "We have a pulse," he said -- Victoria recognized her brother was responding as he'd been trained -- they were both trained in CPR, though formal certification was not given until the student was at least twelve years old. Michael bent -- he turned his head sideways, laid his ear against is father's nose and mouth, his hand flat on his Pa's flat-muscled belly. Victoria blinked, fumbled for her cell phone. "He's breathin'," Michael said, and drew back. Linn blinked, took a great, desperate gasp of air, took another, seized his son's wrist. "Attack," he managed to blurt. "We are under attack." Michael raised his tight-gripped wrist, grabbed his father's wrist with his other hand, looked into wide, pale, staring eyes. Another couple of breaths, a blink, a shudder: Linn closed his eyes hard, opened them, looked at Michael, focused. He sat up. He looked at the woman in the black skinsuit, threw his head back, breathing deep, desperately, as if coming up from too-deep a dive into a cold mountain pool. "Sir?" Michael asked. "What should we do?" Linn looked at Victoria, looked at Michael, looked at their horses. "I need some things," he gasped. "I'll stay here, with her, you two saddle up and get me" -- he looked at the unmoving woman -- he looked at his son and his daughter again. "Here's what I need." Ambassador Marnie Keller SLAMMED the ledger down on the council table. The noise was explosive in the hushed, formal chamber. It was the first time the President of the Confederacy, the first time the Council at large, had ever seen their esteemed Ambassador's eyes go dead white. That her face was the color of wheat paste and drawn suddenly tight over her cheek bones -- her lips and the dots of color on her cheeks stood out, bright, like a warning -- did nothing to diminish their surprise at this normally discreet, decorous Ambassador's startling change. "MY FAMILY IS ON EARTH," she declared loudly, "AND BY GOD ALMIGHTY!" -- she thrust an incensed finger toward the arched, painted ceiling overhead -- "IF THE CONFEDERACY IS NOT WILLING TO INTERVENE IN THIS MATTER, I WILL!" "But Madam Ambassador, the Council has decided. What can you possibly do?" "THE COUNCIL?" Marnie's voice was sharp, harsh, loud, and under perfect, very cold, control. "THE DAMNED COUNCIL CAN GO TO HELL AND BOIL IN BUFFALO FAT FOR ALL I CARE! I QUIT!" The Ambassador rose, followed Marnie out of the chamber, his back stiff with disapproval, his pearl-grey Stetson correctly held under one arm. He heard a speculative question: "She's just a woman, what can she possibly do?" He whirled, his expression as cold as Marnie's eyes had been a moment ago. "This council has just made the one worst mistake in the history of the entire Confederacy," he said, his voice tight. "If I were any member of this body, I would be looking at retirement. If I'm any judge, your careers are over." Victoria tilted her head, regarded the unmoving woman. "Daddy, is this a Valkyrie?" Linn nodded. "Yes she is. This is Gracie Daine." "What happened, Daddy?" "She ejected from her ship before it landed in the gully yonder. She knew it was coming down wheels-up and it couldn't open its lower jaw to let her out, so she punched out." "Is she hurt?" Gracie opened her eyes, blinked, sat up, looked around. "Hi, Linn," she said, then frowned. "You're older!" "Yeah, God loves you too," Linn grunted. "May I present my youngest children. This is Michael and this is Victoria." "I heard your minds," she said softly. "So did my ship." Gracie looked around at pale eyes, at pale eyes, at pale eyes, and at a huge, curly-black-furred creature that came up and stood beside Victoria, tail swinging, head cocked curiously. "Hello, Bear Killer," Gracie said in a gentle voice. A pale eyed woman was received without hesitation in the broadcast studios of Inter-System Main. Marnie Keller was a well loved figure, instantly recognized -- perhaps the one most recognizable face in the Inter-System -- and when she swept in with a grip in her hand and a fashionable little hat on her head, and she requested an immediate, system-wide broadcast, she was immediately accommodated. She was, after all, the Assistant Ambassador, the Face of the Confederacy. Holo-screens lit up throughout thirteen star systems. Marnie triggered the attention-tones that were only used in the event of a major event. She looked at the camera and smiled, just a little. "My friends," she said without preamble, "we all know our ancestors were abducted by aliens, and why. We all know our ancestors used our abductors' own technology against them and wiped them out." She took a long breath, blew it out. "You may not know that our abductors, back when, were a jealous race. They did not wish any other civilization to have technology that could potentially threaten them, which is why they warred for two centuries against another, equally-matched civilization, which was just as jealous and just as watchful." Marnie chewed on her bottom lip, looked to the side, frowned, looked back. "It seems that one or the other of these aliens -- pardon me while I spit! -- sent out successive waves of drone-ships, searching for the radiation signatures of advanced technology. "One of those drone-ships found Gunfighter and caught her by surprise. "There is no more effective attack than an ambush, and this attack was just that. "Gunfighter got away but not by much, and the drones are in pursuit. They are currently screaming around Earth. It seems Gunfighter headed for the first safe place she could think of, and that was home." Marnie paused. "She ejected and her ship bellied in on my father's ranch, and that's where the fight is going to be. "I asked the Confederate Council's help. "They turned me down." Marnie's face was pale and tight and her lips were bloodless as she glared at the camera. "I told the Council to go pound sand, I quit, and I have stolen a ship they've kept secret so far." Marnie picked up a flat, rectangular plate, laid it on the table before her: she looked down, tapped at its screen. Her image was replaced by that of a great, grey battleship, driving hard through rough seas on a saltwater ocean. "This is a battleship, back on Earth. She mounts eight gun turrets. Each gun can fire shells as big across as a man is tall, shells that weigh better than a ton apiece, and there are four guns per turret. "Any of these can be fired at a target twenty miles away. "If that target is a man with his back to the ship, the gunner can select which hip pocket to drop that shell into, and hit it with one hundred percent reliability. "If there's a serious engagement, every one of those guns can fire simultaneously and launch a charge of high explosive hell that will make someone's day very bad indeed." The image showed just such a broadside, the camera above and ahead of the ship, showing the entire ship shoved hard sideways under the collective recoil. "The battleship I commandeered makes this look like a penny firecracker." The image showed Marnie once again, gloved fingers daintily laced together on the desktop. "This ship is flown and crewed by one living mind. Just one. I've been training secretly to fly this ship against the day when it may be needed." Marnie's jaw slid out. "My friends, your Council -- your, elected, representatives" -- she emphasized the words -- "refused to rescue Gracie, refused to safeguard my family, refused to stop these attacking droneships. "Right now my father's ranch needs me and as much authority as I can bring to bear. "I would be very much obliged if you could let the Confederate Council know, in no uncertain terms, that they made a very bad choice." Marnie smiled. "I already told them to go pound sand. Now it's your turn." Ambassador Marnie Keller stood, reached down, dropped her grip on the table before her: she seized the bodice of her long-skirted dress, pulled hard. There was a sharp ripping sound as the dress pulled away. Marnie Keller reached into her grip and pulled out a metal helmet with shining white wings on either side. Beneath her dress she wore armor, in very feminine contours: she pulled two hat pins, placed them on the table, placed her dainty little hat with them: a few quick turns and she had twin braids, thick and rich, running down over each shoulder. She ran these around her neck, tucked in the ends, settled the war-helm on her head. The table was picked up and moved; the camera drew back to show the former Ambassador in shin-plated, knee-high boots, a skirt of plates, a long knife at her side, and her trademark Smith & Wesson under her right hand, in its ornately carved gunbelt and holster. "If I am able, I will deliver an after action report," she said. "Right now, goodbye, my friends, I am going to WAR!" "Gracie can't start her ship up," Linn explained. "Her Interceptor is the most lightly shielded in their fleet. There are enemy drones looking for her reactor's signature and -- how long will you have between your startup and their appearance?" "Fifteen seconds, maybe twenty," Gracie replied, grimacing. "Easy, easy," Linn said, coming in behind her, sitting to support her as she sat up. "Easy hell, they're coming." "I know they're coming. Tell me what we're up against." "Drones. Living metal. They morph into whatever weapon system will be effective." "What's their weak point?" "Living metal is soft as it's reshaping." "Can they be affected by rifle fire?" Gracie nodded. "Until they finish firming up, yes." "How long?" "The ones I saw ... they take fifteen seconds to start to go solid." Linn looked at the twins. "Victoria. You remember you put six into that tin can I threw?" Victoria nodded: she'd been shooting her .22 before her Daddy put a scope on it. "And you put four more into it at the top of its rise." Victoria nodded. "Think you can do it with my .30 Carbine?" Victoria's eyes lit up, her smile bright and broad: "Yes, Daddy!" "Victoria. Get into the bottom drawer of the gun case. I have a box of Israeli steel jacket for the .30 Carbine. Load your mags with those. Michael." "Yes, sir?" "Michael, recall we were wing shooting with the Ithaca." "Yes, sir." "You asked about hitting a tin can with a deer slug." Michael's grin was instant, but not as innocent as his sister's. "Yes, sir." "You recall I threw three cans of beans in the air and you hit each one with a slug, one-two-three." "Yes, sir." "You were asking about Uncle Pete's Garand." "Yes, sir." "Your .30-06 kicks the same as a 12 gauge slug. Think you can handle it?" "Yes sir!" "Good. When Victoria gets her steel jacket, you get the steel core for the Garand." "Yes, sir!" "And bring me," Linn said, "my buffalo rifle, and my bear loads." "Yes, sir!" A black gelding laid his ears back flat against his head and aimed his wet nose downhill. A pale eyed rider was stuck to the saddle like a burr on a blue tick hound, grinning the way boys will when they are running to what, heretofore, had been forbidden. A little girl was running beside him, her Appaloosa mare just as intent on getting from here to there. Marnie closed her eyes. She did not need them now. She could see farther and better, and far more clearly, thanks to her Ship's sensors; her ears weren't neded now, for her ship could hear frequencies insensible to human sensibilities, she had longer legs and a longer reach, and she could hit with a fist made from an exploding star, if she needed that much concentrated, utterly destructive power. A pale eyed woman in a skirt of plates and a winged helmet, lay in her pilot's couch, belted in, her living soul connected more completely to her ship than it ever connected to her husband in their most intimate moments. Reality twisted around her. She took one long-legged stride. She went from orbit at Drydock to high Earth orbit in one long stride. "Now," she snarled, "Where are you?" "There will be scout drones, in-atmosphere," Linn said as he dropped the breechblock on the Sharps. He'd wanted the Ruger Number 1, but Michael brought him the Sharps. Linn had handloads intended for bear -- never intended for the Sharps -- but it's what he had, it's what he dunked into the chamber. Victoria smacked the back of the magazine against the heel of her boot, inserted it into the .30 Carbine, smacked its bottom and gave it a tug. Michael expertly thumbed the eight round clip into the Garand, painted bullet noses declaring the steel core within their dull jackets: he lifted his hand, the action slammed shut. "Gracie," Linn said, "what are we looking for?" "When I wake up Gunfighter," Gracie said, "they'll appear. They'll start to morph right away. You'll have fifteen seconds." "How far away will they be?" "They should be close enough." "Victoria, you got enough mags?" "I've got 'em all, Daddy!" "Michael?" Michael grinned, slapped the bandolier of Garand clips slung across the chest of his flannel shirt. "Okay. Michael, when you see one, take it down. Fifty yards -- that way, that rock will give you a good 360 view." "Yes, sir." A little boy with a big rifle jogged over to his assigned firing point. "Victoria." "Yes, Daddy?" "Treat 'em like a tin can." "Okay, Daddy!" Linn had to laugh, just a little: he was assigning his children to war, and his little girl responded with an innocent voice and a happy expression. "That flat yonder. Go." Victoria turned and scampered to the indicated location. Linn looked at Gracie. "Whenever you're ready, Gracie." Gracie watched as Linn raised the tang mounted vernier sight. He turned the adjustment knob. "With these loads ... the fifty yard setting should do fine." Gracie looked at Michael, turned and looked at Victoria. "I can run a diagnostic first. I need to make sure Gunfighter repaired herself. If she has, we'll start the main reactors and that's when the drones will be able to sense her. Until she's awake, I can't tell where they are." "Are they invisible?" "No." Linn nodded. "Good. Now once the drones sense your ship, will they signal anyone?" Gracie was quiet for a long moment. "I'll have to get out of atmosphere, fast. The drones will attack me first before sending a signal, but yes, there's a mothership somewhere near." "How powerful?" Gracie looked very directly at the Sheriff. "They'll try to kill my ship. That will leave a crater a mile wide, half mile deep." Linn looked at Michael. Michael raised an arm to indicate his readiness, then set the Garand to shoulder, setting his feet and looking around, muzzle down like he was waiting for a clay pigeon to come winging from the trap. Linn looked at Victoria. Victoria raised an arm, then brought the M1 Carbine to shoulder, shifted her weight like she was waiting for her Daddy to toss another tin can up in the air. Gracie closed her eyes and smiled a little as she connected with her ship. "Diagnostics," she whispered for Linn's benefit -- words were suddenly awkward, clumsy -- "repairs nearly complete, repairs now complete." Gracie opened her eyes, looked at Linn, smiled. "Hold my beer," she murmured, and stood. Gracie Daine, a Kentucky fiddler from the Colorado mountains, extended her arm, opened her hand. Linn heard the lover's whisper in his mind: Come to me, my beloved. He watched as the Interceptor rose, silent, shining, flawless. The ship turned to face them as dirt and sand was ejected in a stream from the muzzle of her twin Gauss cannon, from the Hellbore's broad black mouth -- Something silver appeared overhead -- A lean young man raised the shining bugle to his lips. The staccato command, brassy, sudden and shocking, went shipwide; another bugler, another ship, did the same. On both ships, he bugle call was followed by "THIS IS NOT A DREEYIL, THIS IS NOT A DREEYIL. GENERAL QUARTERS, GENERAL QUARTERS, ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS!" On multiple military bases, the first command was the bugle for "To Arms," followed immediately by "Boots and Saddles" -- young men who'd been watching the Inter-System responded with a will, ran for their field gear: weapons lockers slammed open, men ran past, seized their assigned weapons, legged it at a wide open sprint for the assembly points. Troopships sang into the air, turned, assumed pickup formation, eased down onto the assembly grounds, their ramps swinging open before landing skids were touching manicured sod. The bolt on Victoria's carbine slammed rapidly, sending surplus Israeli steel-jacket through the thin mountain atmosphere and spinning empty hulls high and to the side. She had no idea how many shots it would take to stop this drone-thing, all she knew was that Gracie was One of Them and these silver things wanted to hurt her, and she, Victoria, was not going to stand for any such thing! Michael swung on another, slapped the trigger, saw liquid metal squirt out the far side of the drone. It wobbled in the air. He drove another steel-core spitzer through it, swung on a second shape just materializing above it and to its right. Linn had no time to aim. He punched the octagon barrel of his Sharps and slapped the trigger. The distance was about three feet. Alien technology or not, advanced technology or not, a handload a man put together to stop a grizzly bear with one well placed shot, was sufficient to blow the guts out of this malleable, metal-morphing machine. Linn swept the big hammer back, dropped the breechblock, dunked in another brass panetela. Gracie turned, stepped back, looking like she was stepping back into a big dangerous flying raptor's mouth. In a way, that's exactly what she did. She leaned back in the pilot's couch and she put on her speed and her fists and her legs, she strapped on her voice and her eyes and her ears. The Interceptor closed its lower jaw, lifted silently, then disappeared. Marnie saw the enemy mothership. It was starting to move. She disappeared from where-she-was and reappeared two yards from the enemy ship. At this range, there was no missing, there was no escape. Marnie's hand was tight around the control stick, her finger tightened on the red-plastic trigger. Something metallic slammed into the enemy ship's hull and Marnie's ship disappeared. A tenth of a second later, lunar sensors recorded a significant, sudden shock. Earth scientists would speculate it must have been a meteor strike of some kind. None of them had seen the seismic effects of a microminiature black hole swallowing a ship and then falling into an adjacent universe, where another black hole ripped it apart and belched out a fountain of spinning radiation. Gracie loved flying in atmosphere. Gracie was a fiddler and Gracie was a dancer. Gracie had an uncle who'd flown in the Pacific Theater, a man who truly loved to fly, and his stories of flight fired her young imagination and in the fullness of time, she experienced that same airborne joy as a US Naval Aviator. She loved running atmosphere aircraft in the simulator. Now she was doing it for real. Her ship deployed atmospheric wings, she had a stick and she had rudder pedals and she had a throttle lever, and Gracie Daine, fiddler and dancer and Valkyrie pilot, had a grin on her face you couldn't have removed with a hammer and chisel! There was a total of one dozen drones, not counting the wrecked drones she swept up and ran through her shipboard Ripper: the enemy drones were disassembled at the subatomic level, the energies released were stored in the fiery heart of her own ship. They would provide most of the power she'd need for the next calendar year. She banked hard, squeezed off a quick burst of eye-searing energy, then two more: she came level, set a course for the nearest nuclear missile silo. The drones were simple enough they always went to the nuclear missile sites first, and that's likely where she'd scoop up the rest of them. "Daddy?" Linn looked at where Victoria's arm was pointing. Linn looked at the big empty valley -- or a valley that had been empty but moments earlier. Black, boxy ships were sliding out of rectangular Portals a hundred yards off the ground, dispersing and discharging running men. Track-mounted, domed vehicles clattered down black-steel ramps, took up station at regular intervals. "Daddy," Victoria said, as she gave her Daddy an innocent look, "does this mean we'll have guests for supper?" "And now, the latest Inter-System news." Men stopped talking, turned to face the screen. "Tonight we are reporting on a dietary change for the Confederate Council-at-Large." The upper right corner of the screen went white, then a set of gloved hands set a silver platter in the white rectangle; on the platter, a large black bird, its feet in the air. "The Confederate Council has voted to dine upon crow this evening, and will issue a formal apology to Ambassador Marnie Keller, who located and crushed an Alien Droneship, but not before local efforts had to be deployed in order to stop the Dronescouts." The dead crow was replaced by a tall, skinny boy, a mountain's peak and blue sky behind him, firing a stout-looking, serviceable, shoulder-weapon of some kind, a weapon that slammed his shoulder back with every shot: the view switched to a pretty little girl with big lovely eyes, showed the action of her lighter shoulder-weapon slamming quickly forward and back, and finally, the more familiar figure of a genuine Western Sheriff, shoving the muzzle of a substantial weapon at a drone and blasting its guts out its back side. The view switched to the troop deployment in the valley below, to track-mounted defensive vehicles moving into position, then returned to the little girl who asked in an innocent voice, "Daddy, does this mean we'll have guests for supper?"
  4. Let me know when Tales of the Hardpan comes out! Delighted in your ability to tell a tale!
  5. Sometimes the introductions are quite worthwhile. I had fun with mine, which I've used multiple times. In part, it reads, "This is a work of fiction. "If you see someone you recognize in here, it's your own wild imagination. "If you see yourself in here, it's your own guilty conscience!"
  6. A TRUCKLOAD OF POST HOLES Michael sat, silent and watchful, in the passenger side of the old, faded-orange Dodge pickup. He and his pale eyed Pa just delivered a load of cedar fence posts to a neighbor. The posts were longer than the truck bed. Michael helped his Pa set the pipe rack onto the bed, he frowned with concentration as he and his Pa worked and wiggled and tapped with a dead blow mallet to get the bolt holes lined up; his young and dexterous hands reached under, slid on washers, threaded on nuts, and he held a combination wrench on the bolt's head while turning the ratchet and socket beneath. The back half of the rack, back at the tail gate, dropped into the stake pockets and just sat there. Michael and his Pa stacked long cedar posts on the headache rack, then they boomed it down to the headache rack: Linn ran chain through the welded pipe assembly, passed the log chain under the stack, wrapped the ends over -- left over right, right over left -- hooked the chain to itself, and applied a snap binder. Michael had never seen a snap binder used. His Pa talked as he worked, teaching as he went. He showed Michael how to slip the chain link sideways into the grab hook -- "Two kind of chain hooks, Michael," he said, "a grab hook and a slip hook" -- Michael originally tried to slip the point of the hook into a chain link, and his Pa laid a fatherly hand on the lad's shoulder and laughed quietly at a memory: "I did that exact thing at your age. Here's how it works" -- and Michael felt at once grateful his Pa showed him how to do it right, and felt like a dunce for not realizing the right of it before he was shown. Linn leaned his weight into the snap binder. Michael saw how the load shifted, ever so slightly, under the tightening: Linn grunted, strained, then looked at his son and said, "I need a cheater. Pass me yon chunk of two inch pipe." Michael walked over to the barn, picked up the indicated tool, brought it back, watched as his Pa slid it over the handle of the snap binder, effectively lengthening its handle. "Now this'll either tighten up real nice," Linn said, "or it'll break the chain." He heaved his weight against the handle. It snapped over center. Linn slid the pipe off the handle, cheerfully beat on the chain with the cheater. "That," he said in a satisfied voice, "is not going anywhere. Now let's boom down the back." They'd taken the load to another ranch about an hour away: he backed the truck up against an empty hay wagon, he and Michael released the chains, laid the linked steel off the sides: it was easier work getting them off the headache rack and onto the wagon. The drive back was a little faster. Michael noticed how careful his Pa had driven, taking the posts to the neighbor: he was too young to appreciate the handling characteristics of a four wheel drive truck with a high center of gravity, but he could not help but notice there was something different, and filed that question away for when next his Pa had him behind the wheel. "Sir," Michael asked, "Gammaw was a deputy back East." "She was a deputy town marshal, yes." "Sir, you said she dearly loved being Sheriff out here." Michael saw a quiet smile -- there, and gone -- on his Pa's face. "Yes, Michael. She did." "Sir ..." Michael frowned. "If she loved being Sheriff so much, how come she quit bein' a deputy marshal?" "She got done dirty, Michael. They screwed her over. She told 'em to go --" Linn bit off the salty phrase he was about to utter, frowned, reconsidered. "What she suggested they do was not only anatomically impossible, it was socially unacceptable." Michael had heard this vague suggestion before. He hadn't a true appreciation for whatever profanity this represented, but he knew if his beloved Gammaw was mad enough to use less than ladylike language, she had to have a reason. "Michael, I'll tell you the same thing your Gammaw told me." "Yes, sir?" "You know that Webster's Dictionary is stipulated to in every courtroom in the country as the courtroom definition of any word." "Yes, sir." "Well, if you look up the phrase 'Dirty Suth'n Politics' in Webster's, you'll find the black silhouette of Athens County, Ohio, right at the head of the column." "Yes, sir?" "Your Gammaw carried a two cell Mag-Light. You recall my three-cell, back at the house, the one you helped me convert to LED." "Yes, sir." "That one was hers, too. She liked that two cell really well. Council President stole it from her. Claimed he borrowed it. Then the town marshal decided he'd do her dirty and threatened to pull her commission. She showed up at Council meeting and he threatened to arrest her for wearing a gun without police credentials and tried to take it. She introduced the business end of a .45 automatic to the end of his nose, doubled him up -- I understand she had the fastest knee in town -- once she bounced his head off his own desk, right in front of every Councilman present, she showed him her credentials from another jurisdiction, said if he ever tried to lay a hand on her again she'd rip his head off and drop kick it over the nearest roof line." Michael waited. "She talked to the Prosecutor afterward and he allowed as the Marshal was armed when he tried to lay hands on her and take her sidearm, so she was rightfully defending herself, and if he wished to press charges, she had the prior claim and could charge him with aggravated specification, which would have meant he'd be facing a mandatory prison term, loss of law enforcement credentials, things like that." "Yes, sir." "Your Gammaw didn't take nothin' off nobody." Michael grinned. "I always did like her," he said softly. "She'd be pretty damned proud of you, Michael." "Thank you, sir." "I know I am." "Thank you, sir." Linn eased off the throttle, downshifted, cackled up to the stop sign. "I never did like this intersection," he muttered. "Blind rise yonder." "Yes, sir." Linn accelerated, watching his West Coast mirror more than he was looking forward: to his relief, nobody came screaming up over that blind rise behind them. "We'll make better time on the way back," Linn said after they hit the mile long straight stretch, then looked over at his son and grinned. "Better mileage, too. We're haulin' a load of post holes." Michael grinned back. "Tell you what. I've got to gas up and I've got an appetite for a large vanilla cone. How about you?" Michael was growing and Michael was trying hard to be a controlled and maturing young man, but there was no mistaking the delighted little boy in his expression as he replied, "Yes, sir!"
  7. A POOR JOB OF HIDING IT It is a curious fact that an accent disappears when the words are sung. There is a scientific reason for this, of course. Let us set those scientific reasons aside, and enjoy the show. You see, among our population here in Firelands, we have many useful skills, many marvelous talents, we have people gifted with a diverse range of abilities. The Sheriff, if you ask him nicely, can hammer out a beautifully ornate set of door hinges, for instance, and as a gift to a friend of his -- a Spanish grandee, down on the Border country -- he made a set that ran the full width of a heavy plank door: three hinges there were, top, middle and bottom, each with curled arms and fleur-de-lis panels, each pierced and ready to be riveted in place: heavy steel they were, suitable to support a door thick as a man's hand, stout enough to hold proof against assault. The family Daine, those skinny, wiry Kentucky mountaineers, made exquisite concoctions with distilled moon likker as their base, any of which went down like Mama's milk and tended to blow the socks off your feet: they were equally skilled at carpenter work, both rough work, and finish work, even to furniture and cabinet making. Music was a favored art form: Gracie Daine was a superb fiddler, whose talents were regularly requested; her relatives varied in their skills, but most -- if I had to be honest -- could play anything with strings, and most of them, could play very well indeed. There were ladies in town whose gifts included their voices. Song was part and parcel of church worship. Their church had an active choir, enlisting male and female alike: these four particularly gifted ladies sang in the choir, but they sang quietly enough to be part of the tapestry of voices: their skill was great enough they could have out-shone their fellows, and they worked hard to not do this. Once a year, and once only, would they sing together, alone, standing shoulder to shoulder in the choir, while their choir-mates sat. When they did, their voices soared with the beauty of seagulls, hovering in a shoreward breeze, with sunlight making their wings look like porcelain: they sang at Christmas, their voices interwoven in feminine harmony, flawless, beautiful, fit to make a man's heart ache for it to never stop. That pale eyed Sheriff, a hard man with calluses and scarred knuckles, a veteran of war's hell and life's griefs, would bow his head and try to hide saltwater tears that overflowed his heart when he heard this beauty from four women he'd long loved. Daisy Finnegan, Sarah McKenna, Bonnie McKenna and Esther Keller: Sarah's was a flawless soprano, Daisy's, a high alto, Bonnie and Esther shared a marvelous alto range, edging into the contralto, yet each of them a remarkable purity of tone, and with perfect, flawless control. They sang thus, together, but once a year, they four standing, with the rest of the choir seated, for if they sang thusly with the full choir, their light would have outshone the others', and so they agreed, in a quiet meeting before Christmas, that they should perform thusly, but only once a year. Sarah looked from one to another, smiled, nodded: she had, once, and once only, intimidated another singer with her raw skill, and this back in Denver, while she sang, anonymous in a glitter-mask: her fellow singer was so crushed by being out-performed, she nearly left the company, and it wasn't until Sarah emerged without a mask, took her arm and steered her to center stage, in the full glare the sun-bright lime-lights, and prompted her to sing with her, not until Sarah surprised her into a duet on stage in front of God and everybody, not until Sarah sang under her and let her fellow singer take the vocal lead, that the damage she'd caused, was undone. Sarah listened to the ladies' reasoning and nodded, tilted her head a little. "We are agreed, then?" she asked with a smile. "Please pass the bushel?" Bonnie and Esther looked at one another, puzzled: Daisy crossed her arms, tapped her foot and looked over a nonexistent set of spectacles. "So it's hidin' yer light under a bushel now, is it?" she asked sharply, her Irish accent intentionally prominent: "A'right if we're no' goin' t' sing f'r them, we'll sing f'r us!" Sarah turned, reached for the piano: her eyes were half-closed, and her fingers caressed the keys, then she played, one-handed, the introduction. Four ladies took a deep, diaphragmatic breath. In the Medieval era, when but few were literate, the common folk would gather near monastic walls and listen to the Brethren chant the Psalms. Every soul yearns to rejoin with its Creator, and the common folk in that far-off time believed these cloistered Brethren had an inside track to sanctity, and so when the Brethren chanted one of their one-hundred-fifty Psalms, those listening outside the walls would recite the Paternoster, or they would stand, and listen, their hearts open to hear this marvelous, sanctified, unity of voice. So it was, outside a little whitewashed church in a Colorado mountain town, when four ladies stood and lifted their chins and their voices, they never knew that one, then another, and soon many, stood near to their little church and listened to this worshipful beauty, this harmonized tribute to the Almighty. Esther Keller, Bonnie McKenna, Sarah McKenna and Daisy Finnegan had no way of knowing that they were doing a poor job of hiding their candle under a bushel.
  8. Standing up on my knees for Jackaroo's healing and KK's nerves! Heal up, pard, we've only got one of you!
  9. BEEG! Jackson Cooper was well known, and a fixture in Firelands. Jackson Cooper was Town Marshal. Jackson Cooper was also, in a significant and very visible way, handicapped. Jackson Cooper married their diminutive, stout-built schoolmarm, and the two of them were just as happy as if they had good sense: Emma Cooper was most pleased to be seen, in public, with her husband, and her husband treated her with a grave and unfailing courtesy. His methods were not always gentle, or genteel, but he meant well. He was seen, for instance, to sweep his wife up in his arms and pack her across the street, rather than get her skirts muddy making the crossing; he picked her up as easily as a grown man picks up a child's rag doll, in order to place her in their carriage: the man's strength was incredible, his height remarkable, and so it was that when he was treading with his usual measured, absolutely silent gait, down the street, a little boy -- whether engaged in a game of chase, or pursuing another child, or a stray dog, or perhaps just running for the hell of it, looking back over his shoulder, the way boys will -- he ran into Jackson Cooper's leg. The net effect was that of running into a burlap padded lodge pole pine. Now Jackson Cooper, like I said, was visibly handicapped. He was taller than the Sheriff -- enough so that he had to duck his head to pass through most doorways -- and the rest of him was proportional to his height, which is what made it so remarkable when he and his wife were seen together, for as tall as he was, Emma Cooper ... wasn't. When this fast moving lad of less than six years bounced off the Town Marshal's leg, he fell back, looked up for an incredible distance, and uttered the word that was remembered for some long time: "BEEG!" Jackson Cooper had a liking for children: when one got his leg stuck between two close-growing trees, Jackson Cooper had their Irish Brigade respond with good stout hemp rope: he tied these off high as he could reach, one tree, then the other; he had the Brigade pull the trees apart, and as they did, he lifted the stuck child from his entrapment, and made it look easy: thus was a boy's leg saved from injury, for the circulation was impaired and the limb was quite numb, but undamaged; the tree was spared the saw or the ax, both of which were brought and readied, and once the successful rescue was accomplished, why, nothing would do but that their Irishmen were feted in the Silver Jewel, the rescued lad fed pie, and Jackson Cooper folded his arms and leaned back against the wall and smiled a little, for he did enjoy a good outcome. When the Sheriff came packing in one or another of his young, Jackson Cooper would delight in hoisting them until they could touch the tin ceiling overhead. He one time took the Sheriff's youngest son around the waist, swung him upside down with his feet against the stamped metal ceiling tiles, and bade him "Walk On the Ceiling!" -- this at Christmas, and he rumbled that was the lad's Christmas present. The boy had only just turned two. Come Christmas the year following, Jackson Cooper came into the Silver Jewel to say hello and make sure the beer hadn't gone bad, and the Sheriff was there with his family, and a pale eyed young lad who'd just turned three looked up and exclaimed happily, "Beeg!" "He won't remember," Linn murmured to Esther. Esther gave her husband a knowing look, but said nothing: they watched as the lad ran up to the Marshal, as the Marshal went down on one knee, bent a little lower so he could hear what the wee lad had to say: even across the length of the Jewel, they could see the delighted anticipation in their son's expression, and the laughter on Jackson Cooper's face, and they watched as he took their boy around the waist, whipped him upside down and planted his little-boy brogans against the ceiling tile and boomed, "Walk On the Ceiling!" -- to the general laughter and good-natured approval of the other patrons, gathered for a sociable drink or a meal that chilly Yuletide evening. Jackson Cooper was a fair man, Jackson Cooper was a man well respected: simply because of his size, trouble tended to avoid him, and when it didn't, Jackson Cooper had one other asset that served him well. Like most truly big men, he was also incredibly fast with his hands. Jackson Cooper, on more occasions than one, seized the weapon from an opponent's grip -- quickly, inescapably, with power and with authority enough that further hostilities were ended before they began. When Shorty needed an anvil moved, one of the local wags offered Jackson Cooper sixbits to see him pick it up and set it where it was needed. Jackson Cooper smiled a little and said it would cost the man two dollars, and after exclamations of dismay and loud-voiced protests, the financial demand was met -- whereupon Jackson Cooper turned to a pair of stout lads who Shorty had already recruited to move the anvil for him: he handed them each a dollar and stepped back and allowed them to sling the anvil to a stout pole, whereupon the pair of them carried the anvil to its new home. Jackson Cooper was big, and Jackson Cooper was strong, but Jackson Cooper had a rotten sense of humor, and after the crestfallen local watched dolefully as the anvil was indeed moved by Jackson Cooper, but not in a way he'd wanted, the Marshal stood the poor fellow to a cold one in the Silver Jewel, and a good laugh was finally had by all concerned.
  10. NOT JUST VICTORIA The Sheriff was in uniform. The Sheriff was not smiling. The Sheriff stood with his back to a large sheet of cardboard a little distance behind him. He pointed to one of the students. He was not smiling. "You," he said, "are a volunteer. Step forward." He handed her a plastic paster gun, gave her a quiet-voiced instruction on its use, had her step to the side. "Ladies," he said, "please turn on your earmuffs, pull your hair back and put on your muffs." Two ranks of Firelands femininity picked up their electronic earmuffs, rolled the switch, felt the *click*: they brought their muffs up, stiff-finger swept hair out of the way, settled their muffs in place. A few snapped their fingers -- left, then right -- then lowered their hands, satisfied their muffs were allowing them to hear normally. The Sheriff picked up a double barrel shotgun. "Ladies, when someone is doing something so terrible we must absolutely stop them before we, or one of our immediate family is killed or grievously injured, we have to speak the language that is unmistakably understood." He turned, dropped an olive-green, military-surplus, 00-buck round into the left-hand barrel of his shotgun: he brought it quickly up, fired, lowered it, broke it open and shucked the empty. "Paster. Go forward and cover each hole you find." He slid the shotgun, muzzle down, into its open scabbard: the young woman he'd drafted ran forward, began applying white self adhesive pasters over each of the 00 holes. "Could you count those, please." She swiped the last two holes, frowned as she scanned the cardboard to make sure she didn't miss any: she raised a hand, counted in a whisper, then turned. "Nine," she declared. "Nine holes." "Thank you. Please return to your position." She placed the plastic paster on the bench, skipped back to the hole in the front rank where she'd started. "Show of hands," the Sheriff called. "How many think a machine gun is effective?" Nearly every hand went up. The Sheriff smiled, pulled out a very recognizable firearm. "Let me introduce you to a true assault weapon. This is the military M4 Carbine. It is a shoulder fired machine gun, this one is marked PROPERTY US GOVT, and it works like this." He stepped on a foot switch; a target stand turned from edge-on to face-on. The Sheriff plugged in a magazine, gave it a tug to make sure it was well seated; he charged the rifle, turned. By his own later description, he "John Wayne'd the target" -- he clamped the plastic buttstock under his arm, mashed the trigger, his support hand was well forward: he ripped the twenty round magazine into the silhouette, allowing the muzzle to climb a little as he did -- he changed magazines -- RRRIPPP -- a second mag hit the ground, a fresh one slammed in, RRRIPPP and the third mag dropped away, empty. The Sheriff turned, muzzle to the zenith, smoke drifting from the vented handguard. He was grinning. "I'll admit," he said, "that was fun, but I can do better like this." He picked up a dull-grey shotgun, pumped the action briskly -- he fed a round into the magazine -- the first silhouette turned, another turned to face him. The Sheriff lifted his chin. "You," he pointed with a bladed hand, recoil pad on his belt and gunmuzzle to the sky above. "You're a volunteer. Step up here." His students that day were members of the Ladies' Tea Society, the Valkyries, and a few other women of the area who'd expressed an interest in certain social subjects: it was well known that the Sheriff was an excellent teacher, it was well known the Sheriff was an advocate of the ladies' training, and this reputation was enhanced by the presence of two pale eyed daughters, both in feminine dresses and dainty heels, flanking him as he taught. The volunteer he called upon came mincing, all dainty and little-girlish, from the students' ranks. A little girl looked up at her Daddy, blinked innocently, stood there in shining slippers and a frilly little dress and said "Yes, Daddy?" in an intentionally little-girlish voice. The Sheriff handed her the shotgun, picked up the timer. "Mag dump," he said quietly. "Okay, Daddy!" The Sheriff lowered the blue-plastic box to her ear level, pressed the button. "Stand byyyy!" -- BEEEP -- Victoria Keller, ten years old, the Sheriff's youngest daughter and absolutely the darling of his eye -- Victoria Keller, who had her Daddy wound so tight around her pretty little finger he had a standing appointment with the chiropractor (well, maybe not, but it makes a good line!) -- Victoria Keller, who'd just finished fourth grade -- stepped forward with her left foot, dropped the shotgun level: she snapped the comb of the buttstock up into her armpit, clamped down hard, she drove eight fast rounds of military double-ought into the target, each one chewing a rathole through the brittle paper. Victoria raised her shotgun to its zenith, turned to face her Daddy -- turned so the ladies present could see her broad and genuine smile -- "That was fun, Daddy! Can I do it again?" "In a bit, sweetheart. Back to your position." "Okay, Daddy!" -- in her happy child's voice -- a giggling little girl scampered back to her place among the ladies of Firelands, all shining face and fluffy petticoat and French-braided hair tied with colorful ribbons at the ends. "Each of these" -- the Sheriff held up a loaded shotgun round -- "carries nine balls of .32 caliber. This" -- he held up his stainless Walther pistol -- "is also a .32. It carries eight pistol balls of the same size." He looked at the well ventilated target. "Now imagine, ladies, that someone is about to do something so absolutely terrible, that you have no choice but to stop that individual with a method that might mean ending said scoundrelly soul's earthly existence." He turned, thrust an arm toward the silhouette. The little silver pistol barked eight times; eight little holes appeared in the target's face. "Retrieve the exemplar," Linn said quietly: Angela and Dana walked back to the first big cardboard sheet, brought it forward. "Nine holes," Linn said, extending his bladed hand to the pasted sheet. "Nine holes spread that much from this short shotgun at that distance, but nine holes -- here" -- he looked at the sad ruin of the silhouette his youngest daughter just ventilated -- "well, it's kind of evident that if a little grade school girl can put 72 pistol balls into a target in the same time it took me to put eight pistol balls into a target, this" -- he laid a hand on his cruiser gun -- "just might be the right tool to use." He picked up the M4. "This is light, handy and ideally suited for ladies' use. Victoria gets bored with it, though. She likes to tape nickels to a silhouette for eyes and then shoot the eyes out, she'll hit a dinner plate sized steel dinger at a hundred yards and get bored, so she'll start shooting the two inch pipe it hangs from. That's with an AR15 that several of you already have" -- he grinned, that quick, boyish grin they often saw when he was talking about the achievements of his young -- "not with this police issue, select fire, assault rifle. "By the way" -- he rested the butt of the shorty AR on the solid-timber shooting bench -- "when I ripped three magazines into the target?" He looked from left to right, making sure he still had their attention. "Victoria put more rounds into her target, with a pump shotgun, in less time, than I put into the target, shooting a machine gun." Sheriff Linn Keller grinned again and declared happily, "It ain't no wonder us old lawmen like our shotguns!" He slid the AR into a guncase, zipped it shut. "Ladies, this concludes my long winded Man Splaining session. I hope I wasn't too much of a windbag, and I will now allow two much more capable instructors to take over." Linn looked left, at one daughter, looked right, at the other. "Ladies, the floor is yours." Later that day, Michael grimaced manfully as he raised the homemade pipe driver and slammed it down on the new pipe stake. He'd been pounding at it long enough his shoulders were giving out: Linn pulled on his gloves and said in a gentle voice, "Here, that'll wear on a man's shoulder muscles. Let me spell you off." Michael released the rebar handles, stepped back a little, watched his Pa's mighty efforts as he drove the pipe visibly into the ground. He gave it six licks, then two more -- he stepped back -- "Michael," he said, "we might have it a rock." "Yes, sir. It's not moved." "I'll give it a few more and if it hasn't moved, we'll try something else." "Yes, sir." Linn raised the driver, SLAMMED it down -- his driving cadence was slower now, he was muscling the driver, and suddenly the pipe drove in two inches. He paused: "Michael, I think we're through." "Yes, sir." Linn grinned. "I reckon you busted it apart for me, you put a hell of a lot of work into that!" Linn gave it four more, stepped back, looked. "Sir, that's good right there," Michael said. "It's down to your mark." Linn released the welded rebar handles, dropped his arms to his sides. Running that heavy pipe driver -- it was home made, it was Oil Field Grade, big and mean and hell for stout -- was indeed wearing on a good man's shoulders, and it was to Michael's credit that his young muscles endured as long as they did. "We're down to the mark, you say?" "Yes, sir, just now." "Good." Linn picked up the driver, set it down, picked up the four foot level, laid it up against the pipe. "How's she smell to you?" he asked, and Michael heard the grin in his father's face. "Smells real good, sir." "Is she plumb?" "She's plumb, sir!" "We're just awful lucky it broke through that rock when it did," Linn said ruefully. "I'd hate to drive two more of these!" "Yes, sir." Linn carried the driver and the level over to the homemade wagon on the back of their little red Farmall Cub, stacked them inside. He came back with the crossbar, set the ends down into the somewhat battered pipe ends, then hung the new, white-painted, dinnerplate-sized dinger on its two chains. "Reckon Victoria will like this one?" Linn grinned. "Yes, sir," Michael said, watching as Linn applied narrow bands of masking tape and then spray-painted the uprights white as well. Michael waited until his father was done with the long, vertical strokes, watched as he pulled the masking tape free. Michael looked closer, at two holes drilled in the thick-wall, black-painted, two-inch pipe. Linn picked up two bright-green square plates, two inches by two inches, with bolts welded on their backs: he ran them through the holes in the uprights, greased the threads, slid on broad washers and wingnuts. "Your sister likes to shoot up the pipes," Linn said. "I can replace those plates easier than driving in new pipe!" Michael grinned, and so did his father, for both of them knew that Victoria wasn't the only one who'd been shooting the uprights when hitting that big dinger at a hundred yards got old.
  11. JUST A COINCIDENCE "Victoria?" Victoria looked up from her homework. "Victoria, can you pull up the Alamo Cenotaph?" Victoria took a moment to shift her mental gears -- she'd been knee-deep in quadratic equations -- it was most unusual for her twin brother to disturb her, and this told her it was important enough to look at right away. Michael heard a rattle of keys on his sister's laptop. "What am I looking for?" Michael looked up. "Sis, you know how ... Jacob drew the letterhead for the railroad and then Pa found the original, and it was identical, only smaller and not as good." "I remember." "Old Pale Eyes had an eldest son named Jacob. So does Pa. There's Angela. There's Joseph. Lots of things then are the same as they are now." "So?" "Pa was reading to us about Jacob's sons." "O-kaay." "His youngest was William Linn." "Yeah, so?" "Look on that cenotaph." Victoria turned to her screen, scrolled for a moment, froze. "Did you find it?" She hesitated a long moment. "It's there." "I thought I remembered it." "You and your idiotic memory." "Eidetic memory." "That's what I said. Idiotic memory." Michael sighed dramatically, raised spread fingers to the ceiling, shook his head. Victoria tilted her head, regarded her twin brother skeptically. "So why the interest?" "There's no connection." "What?" "Sis, look. There are too many connections from the past to now. How does this tie in?" "When was the Alamo?" "Way too late. Morgan's Raid was 1864, so Old Pale Eyes didn't come out here until he was discharged." "Maybe it's a coincidence." "Look at the name, Sis. William Linn." Victoria turned to her keyboard. "He was a Boston man. Went south ... New Orleans Greys, went to Texas, saw action, he was Infantry when he was killed." "So where's the connection?" Victoria cleared her screen. "I'm going to finish my homework." "Lot of help you are." "Michael," Victoria sighed as she picked up her pencil, frowned at her worksheet, "you're just as flighty as our father!" "Yeah, at least I got my homework done already!" "Show-off," she muttered as she dove back into the mental pool of calculations. Two days later -- two days in which Michael set the Land Speed Record tending his chores, two days in which he parked his carcass in study hall instead of going out for recess -- two days in which Michael spent every spare minute excavating computer records, paging through books from his father's bookshelves, two days in which he barely ate, barely spoke, barely smiled -- he finally came up for air. Michael and Victoria laced their boots, set out at a steady, mile-eating run, rifle in hand and pistol on hip; they ran, they shot, they stopped and swung kettlebells and ran again with the deep energy-well of the young and healthy Mountain Born. When they came in, pink-cheeked and breathing deep, they wiped down their Winchesters with a silicone rag, stripped down, showered. When they headed for bed, just before each went into their respective room, Michael hesitated. "You were right," he said. "How's that?" Victoria asked. Michael grinned that crooked grin of his and admitted, "William Linn. There's no connection." Victoria considered this for a moment. "What's Uncle Will's middle name?" Michael froze, his eyes widening. Victoria blinked, wondering where the question she'd just uttered, came from ... she would later admit that she opened her mouth and it kind of fell out and she honestly had no idea why she asked it. "Sis," Michael said slowly, "did Uncle Will fight at the Alamo?" "He's old, Michael," Victoria scolded, "but he's not that old!"
  12. LETTERHEAD Jacob Keller pulled the outside broom off its nail. He kept a broom outside for moments like this. Jacob industriously swept grass cutting from his jeans, then broomed off his boots: running the string trimmer was a messy affair, but he didn't care: it was a job that needed done, so when he saw it was needful, he topped off the orange two cycle engine's translucent plastic tank, checked the string left in the head (plenty), and proceeded to make a systematic orbit around the house, the well, clotheseline posts and other obstructions to easy mowing. Jacob was nearly his father's height: he was over six feet tall and had a six foot swing, and like a young man his age, he pushed himself. He was tired when he was done, but he was satisfied with good work, well done: he now had a broad margin where he didn't have to mow, and that made his life easier. He carefully swept grass from his front, from his boots, he kicked his boot toes against a foundation stone to knock loose anything adhering under his instep or packed up against his boot soles, then he went inside, hooked off his boots, left them on the rubber tray by the front door. His father was sorting through bills and correspondence: he looked up, his eyes tightening at the corners. "Jacob." "Yes, sir?" "I found something I think you'll like." "Yes, sir?" Jacob came around the desk, curious. He saw his drawing under his father's curved fingers. "I do admire that," Linn said softly, and they both looked at Jacob's work. He'd scribed an arc across the top of a page, added decorative S-lines to turn the broad arc into a banner: within the banner, carefully lettered in a period copperplate hand, Z&W Railroad, Firelands, Colorado. The illustration beneath was of The Lady Esther: he'd carefully plotted his perspective, for the viewpoint was as if one were standing beside the tracks as the steam locomotive approached. Not just approached. He'd drawn The Lady Esther in a full-on charge: steam trailed rearward from the pistons, he'd drawn the exhaust BLASTING from the diamond stack and being ripped rearward: it was a picture in motion, it was power and motion and thunder and cast iron on steel rails. The drawing was both incredibly detailed, without being excessively so: elk's antlers thrust aggressively from the outsized oil light (Linn remembered Jacob asking about The Lady Esther's original light, he'd researched the archives to find when she was converted to an early carbon-arc light), he'd even captured the visual texture of lettering on the circular nose-plate on the front of the boiler. It was a drawing that looked like The Lady Esther was going to come rip-roaring off the paper and brush the viewer's sleeve as she passed. Jacob's ears reddened a little and he grinned, almost bashfully. "I thought to draw up a letterhead for the Z&W, sir," he said. "That's why I wanted to show you this," Linn said. He opened a folder, brought out a single sheet of blank paper, yellowed with age. "We found this in the roundhouse," he said. "It was nearly thrown out." Jacob blinked, leaned closer, studied the old, original letterhead. He looked at his drawing. He looked at the letterhead. "Identical," he breathed. "This was with it." Linn laid a hand written note above the two sheets of paper. Jacob's grin widened and he murmured, softly, "Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit!" Mother -- This is entirely unofficial. For your consideration -- A possible letterhead for your Railraod. Jacob Linn laid a warm, fatherly hand on his son's shoulder. "History repeats itself," he said quietly: "somehow, over the years, the letterhead changed and the illustration was lost." "Yes, sir." "I'd like to restore it to what it was." He thumped fingertips on Jacob's drawing. "I want that for our letterhead." Jacob nodded, feeling suddenly uncertain. "Your drawing is better than this original copperplate engraving. I'd like to use yours." "Thank you, sir. That's why I drew it." He thrust his hand out to his son, and his son took his father's grip. "Well done, Jacob," Linn said. "I'm proud of you!"
  13. Buddy of mine said coffee was worse than two terribles. Chief cook made it with salt water, and he refused to clean the coffee maker. A new fellow came in and got his backside chewed for starting to scour the coffee maker. Chief went on shore leave, the new guy scoured the coffee maker bright and made coffee with FRESH water. The Old Man himself came down to inquire why the coffee was suddenly so much better. Chief was ... transferred. Another instance (under the Old Chief's administration) when the Old Man came to the galley was when they had burgers. In order to make 'em faster, the heat was turned up hotter and the wire chain link endless belt they rode on, was cranked faster up as well. Burgers were burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. My buddy didn't know what the Old Man said. He did say no voices were raised, but burgers no longer wore incinerated jackets with a cold interior.
  14. NOT QUITE WHAT I PLANNED Reverend John Burnett was Chaplain of the Firelands Fire Department. He was also Chaplain for the Sheriff's Office, the Police Department, Carbon Hill's emergency services, and elsewhere as his services might be needed -- in addition to his leadership of their little whitewashed church. Reverend John Burnett was facing backwards, he was belted into the walkaway-bracketed seat on their first-out pumper: he was wearing full turnout, he snugged his helmet down, looked down to check the pressure on his self-contained breathing apparatus, tightened the shoulder straps on his walkaway air pack. Too often, as a clergyman, he wished he could do more. Now, in bunker pants and fireboots, turnout coat and Nomex hood, Firecraft gloves and a barely-dirtied helmet, he closed his eyes and had a quiet word with the Almighty. They were responding to a reported house fire. A house fire could be anything from "I smell something funny" to a conflagration roaring through the roof before they were even called. He didn't have to wonder very long. When he jumped from the cab, when he landed flat-footed, arms out a little to keep his balance, when he looked up, all wondering was gone. The second story windows blew out with a roaring gout of smoke, then flame, bright and flaring with the new inrush of air. Chaplain he was, but firefighter he was as well: he seized a Halligan tool and charged the front door, two more men behind him: he drove the curved hooks of his Halligan into the gap between the door and the door frame, threw his weight against the tool: he pulled it free, drove it again, hauled. Wood splintered. Another stab, another twist, he kicked the door hard and threw himself against it, slamming it wide open to allow the nozzle and two men free access. He heard the chrome Elkhart nozzle's vicious hiss as they hit the fire. He clapped a hand on the nearest shoulder, shouted through his mask: "Upstairs search!" Reverend John Burnett assaulted the stairs, Halligan in hand: he got to the second floor, bent nearly double as hell itself roared along the ceiling. "FIRE DEPARTMENT! CALL OUT!" he shouted: visibility was bad -- it was better than most fire structures he'd been in, he could see at least a foot -- he advanced on his belly, swung an arm under furniture, opened closet doors. He found a leg. "FIRE DEPARTMENT!" he shouted, and something small and wiry twisted like a terrified animal. He seized the scared child, rolled over, pulled the child out, bear hugged a scared, fighting kid to him: he came downstairs, half running, half on his backside. He ran through the still-open front door. Two medics in coveralls and hardhats ran toward him, took the child, and the Parson turned and ran back into the burning house. He didn't think it odd at all that the Halligan was still welded in his gloved grip. Sean pressed the talk bar on his black Motorola. "Roll second squad," he called, "and have Charlie 1 on standby." Dispatch hesitated a heartbeat longer than usual, and the Chief knew why. He'd just called for the County Coroner. Reverend John Burnett wallowed on his belly, thumping ahead of him with the Halligan, using it in the thick, poisonous smoke like a blind man uses a cane. He heard a woman's voice. "FIRE DEPARTMENT! WHERE ARE YOU?" -- his voice was hollow, unnatural as he shouted inside his air mask: he pulled it from his face, enough to be heard: "FIRE DEPARTMENT! WHERE ARE YOU?" He heard a cough, another cough, a weak "Here" -- he swung to his right -- Fitz stood in the doorway, looking up the stairs as a set of fire boots came stomping downstairs, then he saw a pair of bare legs bouncing a little with each step. For a moment it looked like a robotic monster from a 1950s science fiction horror film, carrying the fainted maiden, then he realized their Chaplain had his air mask on the woman's face and he was coughing, his eyes were watering, and black snot was just starting to roll down his face. Fitz stepped back as the man came out into the open air, as he threw a quick "Upper floor is clear!" at the Chief, as he headed for the back of the pumper where the rescue truck was coming to a stop. He held the shivering woman, waited until the ambulance cot was hauled from the rescue, until the blanket was spread, the sheet over the spread-open blanket: he bent, laid her carefully on the sheet, worked his air mask off her face as she was wrapped up, quickly and easily. Chief appeared beside him, and the Chaplain backed away. Chief needed to know whether anyone else was inside, Chief needed to know if there were oxygen bottles, propane bottles, anything hazardous in the house or the attached garage. The Chaplain needed to pull back and get some air. He sat heavily on the pumper's tailboard. Someone handed him a bottle of water. He took a drink, took another, leaned his head back, poured water over his face, drank what little remained. Fitz was everywhere, or so it seemed: he was checking with the engineer, he was on the radio, calling for a water shuttle, he coordinated setting the drop tank, flagged in the Carbon Hill tanker, saw the lines were run, directed the one-way in and one-way out traffic: the Sheriff's office set up barricades and cruisers and kept local traffic out for the duration, made sure the tankers had free passage: somehow he found time to drop his own backside beside the Chaplain, clap a gloved hand on the man's shoulder. "Everyone's accounted for," he declared in a loud voice, the voice he used for fireground command: "the Sheriff will take you back to station, or t'yer house. Go get a shower, you'll be needed at hospital." Reverend Burnett nodded, opened his mouth to ask a question: he stopped as the Chief raised his talkie, pressed the talk bar. "Firelands, Chief One. Cancel Charlie One." The Chaplain closed his mouth. The Chief answered his question before it could be asked. It was almost dawn when the Parson finally got back to the house. He came through the door, quietly, hoping not to disturb his wife. She rose as he came through the door: she smiled a little as she poured coffee for them both. He sat tiredly, savoring the smell of bacon and eggs. He smiled a little at the sound of the toaster popping up, at the sound of butter spread thick and rich over freshly toasted whole wheat. He and his wife bowed their heads as he returned thanks for their meal, then she looked across the table at him and asked, "How bad was it, dear?" He looked at her, smiled, just a little. "We did all right."
  15. A DAY ENDS, A DAY BEGINS Ambassador Marnie Keller, peacemaker and persuader, arranger of agreements and negotiator of necessities, hung her titles and her responsibilities with her McKenna gown. She'd had a long, hot bath, she'd hummed with pleasure, her head tilted back and her eyes closed, as her husband dried her, held her, nibbled her neck as he whispered how he'd missed her: they'd eaten, their son fell asleep in her lap, lying against her bosom: she and her husband sat beside their son's bed for several minutes, holding hands, watching young John sleeping. Dr. John Greenlees watched his son sleep, nearly every night, but he especially cherished those nights when they watched Young John, together. Marnie tilted her head and smiled, gently, the way a mother will, when watching her sleeping child, when she knew she was safe, when she knew all was well. Marnie knew Young John's bed was a self-contained life-support unit, that if a meteor crashed through a hundred yards of overburden and managed to crush in the ceiling of their quarters, that their son's bed would snap a protective force field into existence that could withstand the collision of a twenty ton meteor moving at a hundred miles per hour: she knew she wore a personal protection device on the back of her belt, a simple flat plate covered with material that matched her dress, a very unobtrusive device with the same lifesaving capabilities as her son's bed, and their own. She did not think of these silent devices, ready and waiting and proven capable, nor did she think of the other protections of their quarters: her thoughts were not for matters of State, for the treaty she'd just overseen, the wars she'd prevented, the trade agreements that required every bit of her skills as a persuader, as an orator, as a convincer, a persuader, a negotiator. Marnie hung all that up when she hung her McKenna gown in the laundry booth. Marnie Keller allowed herself to relax, to lean against her husband's shoulder, then his side as his arm came around her back: she'd soaked away the stresses in the hot bubble bath, and now she let what remained, flow off her and soak into the smooth stone floor and disappear. Dr. John Greenlees picked his wife up and carried her to their bed, and Ambassador Marnie Keller, Sheriff Emeritus of Mars, daughter of a pale eyed Earthside Sheriff, was content to be tucked into her bed, and to be held, and to relax, and to let down her wards, her guards, her walls. Tomorrow would be another day. Tonight ... tonight she was warm, and she was safe, and in this, she was very content. Hours later, when she woke, when she stretched, when she smelled her own bed-linens and her husband's cologne, when she smelled bacon and eggs and realized how hungry she was, she opened her eyes and just lay there for a long moment ... at least until a pair of bright eyes and a bright smile and a happy "Mommeee!" bounced up on her bed and hugged her with all the happy abandon of an innocent little child. Marnie came to the kitchen table as Little John industriously climbed into his high chair, as her husband set out warmed plates, as he slid perfectly fried eggs, fresh baked sourdough, fresh churned butter -- Marnie remembered something about Jacob sharing fresh goods from his wife's plantation -- Marnie laughed as Young John happily seized his sippy cup of orange juice and declared, "Warrior's Dwink!" in his child's voice. "John, John," Marnie murmured, "what have you been teaching him?" Young John took a pull on his orange juice, looked at his Mama with adoring eyes and asked, "Mommy sing today?" Marnie looked at John, surprised. "John, what's today?" Dr. John shook fresh ground pepper on his eggs. "Sunday." "Church today!" "Mommy sing?" Young John asked hopefully. Marnie smiled, picked up her coffee. "Yes, John," she said in a gentle voice. "We have church today." "Yaaaay!" Young John cheered, waving a strip of bacon in celebration, before introducing it to his shining young teeth.
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