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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Everything posted by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

  1. 451. A RUTHLESS MAN As usual, Linn's golden stallion very nearly stepped on the man's foot. As usual, Linn pulled his foot six inches and avoided calamity. As usual, he swung the saddle over his stallion's back. As usual, the near stirrup fell off the saddle horn and smacked the engraved hammer spur of his right hand Colt revolver. As usual, he blessed the man who taught him the chant, "Load one, skip one, load four, cock." Jacob watched his father dress the stallion for the day's work. Jacob, the Sheriff's oldest son, held his counsel as he saw his father tending this routine morning detail. Jacob knew what it was to be shot, to be hurt; he had a minor collection of scars, of aches and pains that come of horse handling, of ranching, of encountering men who wished him harm, but he had nowhere near the injuries his father survived. Jacob's ear twitched a little -- almost as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-finger -- as the distant echo of The Lady Esther's whistle shivered through the cold, thin morning air. They could see their breath this morning: summer was in retreat, they knew, and Jacob and hired men had been busy with harvest -- cutting and shocking wheat, corn, putting up hay; his father worked as best he could, and truth be told, the pale eyed old man worked himself too long and too hard: no one dared counsel the Grand Old Man to take it easier; he drove himself harder and with less mercy than he would have driven a healthy man, and when he finally set down his scythe and nearly collapsed, out of sight of the others, and in the shade of a friendly tree, Jacob brought him a canteen, a woven basket, and a concerned look. Linn wiped his face with a sweat stained bandanna that used to be a tablecloth, before it got stained and torn and was disassembled into other useful elements. Jacob hunkered beside his Pa, his face carefully impassive, and his pale father looked back at him. "I know," Linn said, his voice almost steady. Jacob nodded: words were not needed: he rose and rejoined the men, as Linn reached into the basket, withdrew a small canning jar, unscrewed the lid, took a long sip of good California brandy. Not until he'd downed a good swig of Old Soul Saver did he refer to the canteen, and then to a cloth wrapped sandwich. The ground did not make a terribly comfortable seat, but he'd had worse; he ate slowly, savoring the small meal, deliberately refusing to feel guilty that good men and true were still laboring in the sun, still cutting hay and crops and sweating: he'd long ago learned that sometimes men labor and sometimes they rest, and he knew he was still hurting from being shot. He'd learned other lessons, just as long ago: pain was to be ignored, for it was a constant in a man's life. As the brandy relaxed his muscles and relaxed his mind, he recalled the stranger he and Jacob ate with, there in the Silver Jewel. It was not at all uncommon for travelers to stop for a drink, for a meal; the Silver Jewel had a well deserved reputation for hospitality, for excellent food, for straight games: a drummer came through, an Easterner with a sallow face and a melancholy disposition, and the Sheriff -- again, as was not at all uncommon -- the Sheriff asked him to share a table, and the two men shared a meal, for the Sheriff learned long ago that many men are like a water pump. Prime them, and they can produce a surprising volume. And so he'd primed this stranger, primed him with words and with a meal, and again, as was not at all uncommon, the fellow carried a burden, and felt the need to talk. Linn had gained much information from just such moments, and so he let the man talk: if there was nothing to be gained directly for the Sheriff's peacekeeping concerns, sometimes there was background information that might come in handy, but as the Sheriff told Jacob years before, "It's interesting to look at the world through someone else's eyes." And so this drummer, this Easterner, unburdened himself, helped with refills on his plate, his beer mug, the coffee mug: the man was a recent widower, he'd decided to take a look to the West and see if that was more to his taste, and he'd found it wasn't: the West, he said, was for a harder man than he -- he admitted that perhaps that was because he'd so recently lost his beloved wife, Ruth -- the Sheriff listened patiently as he described the woman in the gentle words of a man who genuinely loved a kind and generous soul, and now felt so empty without her. They discussed the area, the drummer used phrases like "sales potential" and other fancy terms the Sheriff understood instantly, but hadn't heard before; the man knew retail, it was plain, but he was not comfortable this far from towns, from crowds, and he expressed an uncertainty as to his fitness for life this far from civilization. The Sheriff listened much and said little -- this, he'd found, was the secret to gathering information, especially from a stranger -- when finally the cute little waitress set pie down in front of both men, when she refilled the Sheriff's coffee and the drummer declined another beer -- after their conversation ranged wider than the drummer's profession -- the Sheriff nodded gravely as the man concluded that perhaps his lot should indeed be cast back East. The Sheriff agreed quietly that there were more people there with coin in their purse, and a man had ought to be where he's most comfortable; the men rose and shook hands, and the drummer thanked the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache for a most enlightening conversation. Never mind that in better than an hour and a half of conversation, the Sheriff hadn't spoken more than two minutes' worth. The drummer watched as the hash slinger swung her hips and sashayed bac to another table, and the Sheriff saw a sadness cross the man's face as the drummer almost whispered, "I miss my Ruth," and then he turned and walked out of the Silver Jewel. Sheriff Linn Keller opened his eyes, realizing the sun had moved a surprising distance; his son was only just walking up to him, hunkered down beside him. "Is all well, sir?" the son asked the father, and the father smiled ever so slightly and said, "I was remembering a Ruthless man."
  2. 45. MAKING A POINT The dandy placed his hat carefully on an unusually clean peg beside the door. "You understand," he said frankly, "normally when I admit a woman to my room, my purpose is rather base." "I find that men who accomplish difficult tasks, are men who understand certain natural uses." He turned, considered the woman as she set her grip down on the floor. "I didn't get your name." "I didn't give it." "No," he said speculatively. "No, you didn't." He regarded her coolly. "Ordinarily I would not be discussing my price with a woman." "Usually the woman would be discussing hers with you." She tossed him a leather poke; he caught it by reflex, surprise momentarily visible on his face, but quickly concealed. "I want to make sure I have the right man for the job," Sarah said coldly, "and these are my bona fides." He weighed the poke in his hand, tossed it to the bed without examining the contents: he was familiar enough with coin to know its sound, and he knew these were neither slugs nor steelies: no, this was legal tender, and a more than respectable amount. "How, then," he asked, looking from the bed to his guest, "may I prove my bona fides?" "Tell me how you killed that pale eyed Sheriff." He chuckled, wagged a finger. "Oh, no," he smiled. "No, no, I didn't do anything of the kind." "You're not who I'm looking for, then." She took a step forward, as if to reclaim her gold. "Now, little lady," he cautioned, "I didn't kill him myself." She stopped, raised an eyebrow: "Oh?" He smiled, clipped the end off a cigar, turned and dropped the snipped tip into a convenient cuspidor. "I sent four men to do it." "Four? You couldn't find one man who was competent?" "Frankly, no," he admitted, and somehow she knew his admission was absolutely honest. "I sent four men I knew could not do it -- if each went up against him alone, none of them would have stood a chance, and two were pretty good. I sent all four in a bunch and told them all to back shoot him, all at the same time, as close as they could get." "I see." "Now let me ask you something." "You may ask," she said coolly. "Why do you want this whoever-it-is, killed?" Sarah glared at him with one good eye, then she looked away: he saw her bosom lift as she took a breath, and he knew she was coming to a decision of some kind. She reached up, seized the tail of the bow-knot that held her hat: she yanked at the carefully tied slip knot under her chin, ripped the hat from her head, cast it to the floor: she reached up, found the tag ends of the bow-knot on the cloth tapes holding the veil, pulled viciously. He saw a woman with color rising in her face, as if embarrassed, or inwardly humiliated: she was looking quickly away, exposing half her face the way other women would blush with shame at exposing the length of a stockinged leg. He saw a woman with what appeared to be a vicious slash the length of her face, a cut that must have taken her eye as well. "This," Sarah hissed, her face continuing to color, "is the reason I want a man killed." "I see," he said seriously. "Please ... resume your ..." Sarah hung the half-veil over her disfigurement, tied it quickly, tightly: she bent, snatched up her hat, placed it a little more carefully over her head: the broad ribbon with which it was tied down, served to hold the veil in place for its draping length. "How do you wish him killed?" he asked casually, reaching down and picking up the leather poke. "I want him gut shot," Sarah said, "the way you had the Sheriff killed." "I wasn't sure he was dead." "Oh, yes, he's dead," Sarah said, her smile tight. "Your men missed their first volley and he shot two of them and then ran. They ran as well. He pursued them with a shotgun and killed one, but he was shot -- here -- low on the right side. Busted the big gut and there was no salvation. He killed his murderers, and then he died slowly." She looked very directly at him. "He died screaming in pain. You could hear him for a little less than a mile, and not even the doctor's damned poppy juice eased his pain." Sarah could not miss the look of satisfaction her words gave him. He nodded, slowly: he almost spoke, but reconsidered. "You know why I want a man killed. Why did you want the Sheriff killed?" "I have my reasons." He looked down at the poke, turned, placed it on the dresser, began to worry at the knot with thumb-and finger-nails. He frowned a little, worked at the knot, his attention on the contrary knot: by the time he realized there was movement in the mirror in front of him, he had time to raise his head for a better look and that was absolutely all. He never felt the dagger that drove into his spine, just barely below the base of the skull. The Black Agent made a study of such matters; she knew an injury there was instantly fatal, and silent: she'd come to apprehend the individual who tried to kill her pale-eyed Papa, and very nearly succeeded: she stepped back as he collapsed -- his collapse was instantaneous, boneless, as if he were a sack full of ground sausage meat -- she reached down, set the sole of her shoe on the back of his skull and worked the dagger free. She wiped it on his immaculate coat, sloshed it a bit in the pitcher of water, wiped it again, returned it to its sleeve sheath. Sarah opened her grip, removed a small bottle of solvent, wiped the artificial scars from her skin: she scrubbed her entire face, giving her complexion an overall, healthy glow; she removed her plain-looking dress, slipped into another, from her grip, a dress of light purple and a deep, richer purple; she folded the hat, rolled it mercilessly, folded and rolled the dress she'd been wearing, packed them away in her grip. She picked up the poke of gold, slipped it into the grip as well: she went through the dead man's pockets, removed his watch, a ring, but left a well-stuffed wallet: the watch and the ring she would give to the Sheriff. He might recognize them. She opened his coat, found a pocket, some papers: one was a letter, another, a receipt, with the same name on both. These went into her bodice as well. Sarah opened the door just a little, looked, listened; she slipped into the shadowed, stuffy hallway, walked quickly, quietly to the back of the building. As she suspected, the back stairs were well used and solid, without squeak or groan underfoot, and the back door's hinges were well oiled and silent. Sarah made her way unhurriedly to the Depot: the porter smiled and touched his shining cap-brim as she boarded the passenger car. She presented her ticket to the conductor as they got underway; she rose after a few minutes, picked up her grip, walked slowly to the rear of the car -- she walked uncertainly, as if she were unused to walking in a moving rail-car. Sarah smiled as they were suddenly in darkness. She leaped, as she'd practiced a thousand times, leaping gracefully from the rear of the passenger car onto the narrow deck of the private car; she slipped inside, quickly stripped out of her purple dress, hid it and her grip in what used to be a jail cell, and resumed the fine McKenna gown with which she'd begun the journey. The tunnel was not a long one, and another followed soon after. Sarah opened the door to the private car, leaned out into the tunnel's smoke-fouled dark, and screamed, as loud as she possibly could, then she clapped a hand over her own mouth to cut it off; she ducked back, shut the door, felt her way around the Judge's desk and sat in the padded chair. They came once again into daylight. Sarah picked up a book, opened it, thrust in a finger and closed it, as if to mark her place: she rose as men came out of the passenger car, looking around: the conductor came out, alarm on his face: he looked through the window at Sarah, and Sarah rose, swept around the desk with the ease and grace of a bluewater sailor on a gently rocking ship's deck. She opened the door, looked curiously at the distressed committee crowding the passenger car's back railing. "I heard a scream," she said, "whatever happened?" "A passenger fell," the conductor said uncertainly. "Or she jumped," one of the assembled hazarded. Sarah pressed the back of her fingers to her lips, eyes wide: "Oh, no," she murmured. "Did ye see anything, ma'am?" Sarah shook her head. "No, I ... I was ready to light a lamp when we went into the first tunnel and then decided against it ... oh, how horrible!" She turned her head quickly, pressing the back of her bent wrist to her lips: she backed into the private car, closed the door, the very image of feminine distress.
  3. Concealed carry licenseholders are the one most law abiding group in the country, over and above the judiciary, law enforcement, the clergy and physicians. Least likely to break any law. Least likely. Any law. If a business considers itself in a location that is so very dangerous, that it must legally disarm this most law abiding section of the population, then it's far to dangerous for me!
  4. I one time asked for the Senior Discount and the little girl behind the counter gave me a sad look and said that she was sorry, they didn't have those here. I never missed a beat. I leaned one hand on the counter, winked at her and said confidentally, "Wa'l now, if decrepit old age won't do it, how about ravishing good looks?" She really didn't have to laugh THAT hard ...
  5. 449. A WOMAN ALONE A woman walked slowly along the boardwalk, pretending not to see the stares as people regarded the sight of a woman with the right half of her face covered. She knew there would be speculation as to why an attractive woman would hide half her visage: there would be guesses, rumors, the usual happy speculation given people who had idle time in which to speculate, and she knew that, sooner or later, there would be an accidental sighting of the face beneath the half veil. She carried a book, up under the swell of her bosom, a small, leather-bound volume with some writing impressed on its cover: in her other gloved hand, she carried a small grip: she stopped frequently, looking around, as if searching for something. She knew there were those who watched, those who observed, those who had purpose beyond idle curiosity: she knew when she stopped and looked very directly at a particular establishment, and then crossed the street with a determined step, with her chin lifted purposefully, that her abrupt change would be noted. She intended that it should be. The barkeep looked up as a woman came into the saloon. It was -- as were most saloons in that part of the country -- generally considered a man's establishment, and it was a rare and intrusive thing for a woman to enter. Especially when the woman seemed to consider herself perfectly at home. She dropped her grip, looked at the bartender. "Maderia, if you have it," she said, her voice pleasant, though tired-sounding: the saloonkeeper frowned, mentally reviewing his inventory. "I ... don't think we have any," he admitted. "Wine, of any variety?" she asked hopefully, slding a coin across the bar. "And some advice." The barkeep frowned, chewing on the inside of his bottom lip, raised a finger, nodded: a moment later, he was back with a delicate wineglass (the last one he had) and a bottle: he worked the cork out, poured something with a visible sediment, something that was halfway between purple and brown, something the woman sipped carefully: she drew her half-veil aside, just a little, and the barkeep saw a horrible-looking scar running down her face. Good God, he thought, managing to hold his tongue, but unable to keep the dismay from his expression: what happened to this poor woman? He excused himself politely, refilled a couple beers, polished his way back to the woman, who slid another coin to him. The barkeep's hand passed over the offering; the coin disappeared as if by magic. "Where can I find a man," she said quietly, eyes lowered -- then she raised her good eye and looked at him sharply -- "who can ... make ... things ... happen?" "What kind of things?" the barkeep asked suspiciously. The woman frowned, looked down into the shimmering liquid in her glass. "I wish to have someone ... disappear." She looked up again. "I understand such men can be had here." The barkeep considered the wealth she'd slid across the polished bar top, looked at two fellows who raised an eyebrow, looking speculatively at the woman: the barkeep shook his head, ever so slightly, and the two relaxed: no, this was not a woman of easy virtue, this was business. "Let me see what I can find out," he said cautiously, decanting more wine into her glass. The woman watched the mirror behind the bar. It was nowhere as big as the one in the Silver Jewel -- by comparison, it was much smaller -- she'd positioned herself to her best advantage, to where she could see the most likely avenue of approach. Nobody did. She drank alone; she could not help but notice conversation muted when she entered, and remained subdued: only the sharp patter of cards being shuffled punctuated the smoke-layered atmosphere. The barkeep was back in not many minutes; Sarah saw in the mirror that two men were behind her now, two men who were watching her. "I think I know someone," the barkeep said quietly, polishing a heavy beer glass with an exaggerated casualness. "I'm listening." "He's to your right. White hat, flat crown, red necktie, looks like a dandy." "You have been most kind." Another coin whispered across the bar. Physician and patient shared a mutual silence. Doctor John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, examined the wound: he'd made no attempt at closing it, he'd not tried to approximate the shredded wound's edges, nor to lay in any stitches: he knew the shattered bone had to mend, and he wanted to make sure it was going to mend without infection. He'd cleansed the wound as best he could; today, when he removed the bloodied bandages, he carefully wiped the open injury, frowned, waited until the Sheriff thrust a leather roll between his teeth and nodded before addressing the matter further. Linn's hands seized a great double handful of the ticking he lay on, sweat stood out on his forehead, beading up in shining response to the carbolic with which Doc wiped the open wound: strong white teeth bit down on rolled rawhide, cutting through most of it: Linn closed his eyes, willing himself to breathe slowly, steadily, to not make a sound. Dr. Greenlees knew the nerve endings were screaming, and he genuinely regretted the pain he caused his old and dear friend, but he knew the work was necessary: he'd seen infected bone before, and he knew if Linn's pelvis infected, there would be no salvation. He dropped the carbolic-wet wad of boiled and dried cloth into a waiting dishpan; he withdrew a shining set of tweezers, frowned, reached into the wound, gripped something: a wiggle, a pull, a repeat, and he dropped two more fragments of splintered bone into the dishpan beside the brown and bloodied cloth. "You," Dr. John Greenlees murmured absently, "are the one hardest headed man I know." Linn glared at a single point on the opposite wall, focusing all his upset on mentally blasting a hole in the wallpaper, through the lath-and-horsehair-plaster, and out into the open air: had his thoughts been a cannon, the should would have blown a sizable hole through the wall and traveled at least a mile and a half before landing. "There." Doc packed the wound again, had Linn roll one way, then the other, wrapped the binding-cloth around the man's lean middle to hold the fresh bandaging in place. He reached up, gently tugged at the rawhide: Linn opened his jaw, and Doc was obliged to wiggle it a little to free it from his impaling teeth. He turned the rawhide, considering it closely, raised an eyebrow, but offered no comment. Linn released his death grip on the ticking, slowly gripped a handful of bedsheet, raised the bed linen to his forehead, wiped away the beaded sweat. "How soon can I get up?" he asked hoarsely. "You can get up any time you're able. I don't want you walking any distance, not until we're satisfied there are no unhealed cracks in your pelvis." "Damned lucky it hit the point of the bone and skinned out instead of in," Linn almost whispered, and Doc nodded. "If it had gone in you'd be dead by now. It went out and gave you enough grief." "Esther told me I simply must consort with a better class of criminal." Doc nodded, washing his hands carefully, thoroughly: he'd learned early and well the need for sterile supplies and scrupulous, meticulous handwashing. "Your wife is right." Linn closed his eyes, breathing through his nose, controlling himself as rigidly as he'd done back in that damned War. "Your little girl brought up some brandy." "Help yourself." "You?" Linn closed his eyes, nodded. "Yeah." The man in the fine suit rose, walked slowly over to the woman drinking wine at the bar. "I understand you need some work done." "Is there somewhere we can talk business?" She did not look at the man. "Upstairs, in my room." The woman carefully placed her wineglass on the gleaming bar: outside, the sounds of the city: horses and carriages, wagons and men's voices, here a shout, there a laugh: within, the piano had resumed, men's voices were beginning to murmur once again. The woman lifted her chin, regarded the man with her one good eye. "Business, sir," she said. "I am not a bargaining chip." "I would not dream of it." She took his arm, lifted her chin; together, the two turned and went up the stairs, and men's eyes followed them as they left. Angela came in, carrying a steaming dish of hot water on a small tray: she'd loaded the tray herself -- she had her Daddy's shaving brush and cup of shaving soap, she had the strop and a towel over her shoulder, the straight razor was on the tray as well. She pushed the door open with her foot and walked carefully over to her Daddy, who relieved her of the tray, placed it on the table. He was naked to the waist; he'd tended his ablutions; he looked down at his daughter as Angela frowned and regarded the clean bandages bunched on his right side, the surcingle holding it in place. She looked up at her Daddy and said, "Does it hurt?" Linn considered for a moment, then sat on the side of the bed, smiled gently and took his little girl's hands in his. "Yes, Princess," he admitted quietly. "It hurts." "I'm sowwy!" Linn leaned down, hugged his little girl, who hugged him back. "You've done nothing wrong, Princess," he whispered, holding her several moments longer than were necessary. A little girl will draw strength from her big strong Daddy, but sometimes a Daddy will draw more than that from the embrace of a little child. They released their mutual embrace; Linn spun up a lather in the cup, Angela watching, fascinated. Linn lathered his face quickly, with the ease of much practice: he sloshed out the brush in his washwater, set it aside, hooked the strop on the bedpost and began running good German steel up and down the leather, polishing the edge for the day's work. For the actual shave, he referred to a mirror: Angela giggled at the faces he made, pursing his lips and throwing them to the right, then to the left, lifting his chin, opening his mouth in a comical O to tension his cheeks; Linn frowned at the reflection, turned his face left, then right, saw his little girl watching his reflection. "Angela," he said, "I need your help." Angela took the few steps over to him. He wiped the soap from his face. "Run your fingertips over my jaw here. Make sure I didn't miss anything." Angela frowned -- her Daddy asked her to help, and that was serious work -- she touched the rear angle of his jaw on either side, then ran her fingertips up and down, finally putting her entire palms on his face, working slowly forward: she caressed under his chin and down to his Adam's apple, and finally she said, with a straight faced not, "I don't find any missies, Daddy." Linn nodded. "Thank you, darlin'. I wanted to make sure I presented a proper face." Angela planted her knuckles on her belt, tilted her head a little, frowning. "Dad-dee!" she protested. "I like your face!"
  6. 448. LITTLER SIS Angela was a lovely child. Angela was a Daddy's girl, when she wasn't being Mommy's girl: she delighted in riding with her Daddy, and she delighted in riding with her big brother Jacob, and thanks to her green-eyed Mama's careful admonitions, Angela was careful never to make a nuisance of herself when she wanted attention from the men in her life. Most of the time, she listened to her Mama. Angela and the maid carried their trays upstairs, to her pale-eyed Papa's bedroom: the maid had a maid-sized tray, well loaded, and a small folding table under one arm; Angela had an Angela-sized tray, loaded with very little, which irritated her; she was satisfied she could carry as much as the maid, but she knew better than to argue the matter. Her big strong Daddy was in bed 'cause bad men tried to shooted him and Angela thought that was very impolite of them, and she understood her Aunt Sarah was going to bring justice to the Philistines. Angela knew about Philistines 'cause the Parson talked about Philistines and laying about them with the jaw bone of a jack mule. That's what her Daddy called it anyway and Angela's Daddy was always right and that meant the Parson didn't read it right. The maid set up the little table and placed her tray, and she relieved Angela of her little tray and Angela marched purposefully around the foot of the bed and looked solemnly at her Daddy, setting up with pillows under him, and she frowned a little and considered climbing in bed with him. Linn looked at his little girl and smiled, just a little. "Darlin'," he asked quietly, "has Doc Greenlees come out yet?" Angela shook her head, her curls swinging as she did. "Would you bring him up when he does arrive?" Linn asked gently. Angela nodded, her curls bouncing. "Daddy?" "Yes, Princess?" "Daddy, would you like some brrr -- brrrrr -- brrrrrandy!" Angela frowned with the effort of forming her Rs; she was trying hard to break herself of the little-girl-sounding "bwandy" -- even if it brought that quick Daddy-look that made her all warm inside. "Dear heart," Linn said seriously, "if you were to fetch up my brandy and two glasses, I could offer Doc some when he gets here." "Okay!" Angela's face lit up like sunlight on quartz, she charged around the foot of the bed, scampered across behind the maid, pattered noisily down the stairs -- Linn looked at the maid as she arranged the table in easy reach: "And would ye wish to sit up, sor?" she asked, and Linn grimaced, nodded. He managed to work his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up, frowning, his jaw set: the maid knew the man was in pain, likely from being stiff and sore -- pain he might have felt, but he never uttered word one of his discomfort, which concerned her. It did not surprise her. It was the maid's experience that when a man was not badly hurt, but hurt only a little, he would complain to high heaven, but the worse a truly strong man was hurt, the less fuss he made, and the Sheriff was truly a strong man. Linn heard the front door open, he heard a happy little girl's voice, he heard the clink of glass on glass: a light set of footsteps ascended the stairs, their happy rhythm counterpointed by the heavier, measured tread of the good physician. Angela scampered into the room, her forearm wrapped around the cut-glass brandy snifter, holding it firmly into her little belly, a heavy, short, broad glass in each hand. The maid turned and caught the bottle as it slipped from Angela's efforts; Angela reached up, placed the two glasses on her Daddy's table, and she backed up, blinking innocently. "I brought the brrrrrrandy, Daddy. And two glasses!" Linn winked at his little girl. "Darlin'," he said, "I do appreciate that!" Angela whirled around, skipped happily out of the room and bounced down the stairs: she hadn't closed the front door, and Linn heard her happy "Jacob!" and the sound of young feet, running across the front porch, and he didn't need to look to know Angela was launching herself off the painted planks and into her big brother's arms, and sure enough, he heard both their laughter rippling up the stairs. What he didn't hear was Angela's happy chatter as Jacob caught her, as he swung her up in the air and caught her, as she laughed and then ran her arms around Jacob's neck and looked very seriously at him and asked, "Jacob, Sarrrrrrrrah is gonna gets the bad guys, can I be your little sis while she's gone?" and Jacob laughed, leaned closer and rubbed noses with her, which brought even more giggles from the happy little girl. "Wa'l now," Jacob drawled, "Little Sis sounds better than Littler Sis, so yes you can!" He looked his littler sis in the eyes and then looked up, as if peering through planks and timbers to the bedroom upstairs. "Little Sis, how is he today?"
  7. 447. TIME, WISELY USED Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled a little as she stirred her tea. She preferred a touch of honey, just a touch; the amber liquid rippled around her dainty silver spoon, and continued to shimmer even after she'd laid the implement on her saucer. She sipped her tea, her pale eyes raising to look out the windows of the private car. An observer might think her a young woman of fashion, of style, daughter of prosperity, or perhaps its wife, and indeed that would not be far from the truth: but the full truth was hidden, concealed behind pale eyes and a gentle smile, behind a genteel voice and fashionable, modest attire. Sarah Lynne McKenna, Agent of the Firelands District Court, traveled in a private car belonging to the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler, a private car that had belonged to a relative of Sarah's family, a relative who coveted the McKenna wealth, a relative who abducted her mother, Bonnie Lynne McKenna, chained her in that very car, with intent to murder her and throw her dead body into a deep ravine, and thus lay survivor's claim to her estate. A certain pale-eyed Sheriff exercised his extralegal authority in the matter, putting a solid gold bullet from a .44 Winchester rifle through the criminal's head as Bonnie made the only resistance she could: her wrists were manacled overhead to a ceiling-chain, her ankles shackled, but she was still able to raise her foot, to drive her sharp little heel down into her abductor's arch, crushing it and causing him to fall sideways -- he'd been hiding behind her, threatening the intruding Sheriff with her death, at least until he fell sideways and inherited a .44-caliber headache for his troubles. The Judge discovered later the man had nefarious tastes, and that Bonnie was not the first victim he'd taken, and that there was a hidden jail cell in the car, along with some truly barbarous implements of torture: the cell was still there, the Judge used it as a closet, but Sarah intended to use it for its original purpose. If her quarry cooperated. If he did not ... well, his would not be the only soul she'd sent to Hell in her young life, and she was more than willing to give her father's would-be murderer, a first-class ticket on the Hell-Bound Train. Another Sarah walked with another pale-eyed Sheriff, thousands of miles away and well more than a century later: this Sarah wore the wings-and-spear insignia of a Valkyrie, of an Interceptor pilot; this Sheriff wore the six-point star on the left breast, but this Sheriff, like ancestors before, had pale eyes and a short, violent temper, most generally kept under good control. Unlike her ancestors, though, this Sheriff wore a white Olympic skinsuit instead of a severe black suit; her tread was silent on thick, padded, puncture-proof soles, and only one of her forebears had the same feminine curves as she displayed. The two women talked, laughing occasionally, with no real destination: they wandered into one of the farming caverns, where artificial light, courtesy their underground generators, grew a marvelous array of vegetables: they'd found it profitable to run back to Earth in what they now called "a Runaway" instead of a shuttle: the engines showed a serious flaw at first, which was analyzed and harnessed, and now they could make the year-long trip in minutes, and did: theirs was a technology not known to Earth, and it was generally agreed that it should not be revealed: they brought back things that could only be wished for, back when technology depended on orbital slingshotting, on chemical rockets, when an ounce of payload cost literally millions of dollars to get from Earth to Mars. They'd brought back seeds, fertile seed that would produce fertile seed -- heirloom, they called them -- and this was one of several caverns dedicated to growing what they needed to survive. The two talked in quiet voices as they walked. Sarah, daughter of a Luftwaffe pilot father and a US Navy Super Stallion pilot mother, wanted the Sheriff's wise counsel. Sarah Lynne McKenna consulted the clock on the opposite wall. She was traveling alone, as was her preference: she rose, she undressed, placing her fashionable attire carefully in a closet; she stripped down as far as was necessary, and resumed clothing more appropriate to her intended task. A fashionable young woman, looking like wealth and privilege, would draw the wrong kind of attention: all women drew attention, but Sarah became a plainly dressed woman, looking like a young wife, unremarkable other than for her femininity. She was masterful at disguise; she fashioned a veil of the same material as her dress, a veil that draped half her face: a brush, a bottle of non-flexible collodion, and she painted a wet stripe the length of her right jawline, a second down her forehead over her right eye, then from the lower lid, down the cheek to the drying, puckering line she'd just applied. Sarah picked up a fan, snapped it open, waved the ether fumes from her as the lines dried, as they puckered into horrifying, very realistic looking scars: lastly, she picked up a pair of wire rimmed glasses, slipped them on, hooked them behind her ears, then draped the veil over the right half of her face, settled the hat atop her hair and tied it in place under her chin. Under the veil, the right hand lens was dark; the left lens was window glass: her disguise complete, she consulted the clock and rose. She left the private car, stepped easily across to the passenger car, slipped in the back door; a minute later, the train eased to a stop, and an unremarkable woman with a veil over half her face descended from the passenger car, mingled for a few moments with the other passengers, then descended the steps carefully, head bowed, concentrating on not falling down the stairs.
  8. When they were young, they would baroo instead of bark. Salty barked occasionally, but rarely. Sailor, on the other hand, would baroo in his first year only; once he got size enough, once his voice box changed, he would howl, but not baroo, and now barks. If the phone rings, he sings with it, and if he wants something, he'll snuff -- sneeze -- at us. He's also a bum, and his eyes have their own voice: "Is that a sammitch? I too likes sammitches!" -- or anything at all I happen to be eating, doesn't matter what it is, if I'm eating it, he wants it, and those dark eyes speak volumes!
  9. Here's Sailor, he's still with us: better than sixty pounds of happiness, with Bat Wing Ears. Same as littermate Salty: half Basenji, quarter Beagle, quarter Australian Shepherd, he's beside me on the couch as I write this, his backside warm against my thigh. Treats are the fastest way into their confidence. He and the late Salty would have done well in politics. They bribe as well as any politician!
  10. Salty-dog, eleven years old: half Basenji, quarter Beagle, quarter Australian Shepherd. I think that particular admixture is called "Fence Jumper." She and her littermate Sailor gave us more laughter, more genuine delight, than we'd ever had. Salty swam the river under the Rainbow Bridge one day before my wife's birthday.
  11. I grew up in the family oilfield, using hereditary technology that was state of the art when that pale eyed old lawman with the ice-pale eyes still rode the mountains in Firelands County. Lengthy lecture and multiple photographs omitted (see how much time I saved us both?) -- but at the wellhead, a Pulling Pole was erected. Limbed off tree trunk, tall and straight, guyed off in six to eight directions with 3/8" galvanized wire line; these Pulling Poles have steps nailed on them. I used to coon up the pole with a snatch block in hand and a chain over my shoulder, wrap the chain around the apex and hang the crown pulley; we'd use a single shiv block at top and bottom, with a farm tractor to pull with, to pull rods from the thousand foot deep Berea strata well: we'd use the crown pulley to hoist a two-shiv block, with a two-shiv chained to the bottom, for pulling the two inch tubing. Further lecture omitted for reasons stated above. I thought nothing of climbing that pole, one handed, on 2x4 or 2x6 steps nailed at the center, the apex was 25 to 30 feet off the ground. Now? Now, like the good Subdeacon, I'm more than content to let "Them Young Fellers" handle roof work. And climbing oilfield poles.
  12. I'm seeing a large number of correct answers! Daggonnit, now I've got to go rat me up some pie!
  13. 446. TWO POUND OF SALT Esther Keller sighed patiently and stirred the big, steaming kettle. Her maid stoked the cast iron cookstove, carefully shook down the ashes, cautiously ran the narrow, black, stamped-steel ash lifter through the open ash-door, extracted as much as she could, very slowly, very carefully lowering her ash-shovel to let the hot, whitish residue slip into the ash-bucket: she did not want to raise dust, if nothing else, because she would have to clean up any dust she caused, but more because she did not want to stain her employer's fine gown with the discoloring ash. Esther lowered her husband's blooded coat and trousers into the hot saltwater. She'd dumped an entire pound of salt into the washboiler, stirred the hot water until it was all dissolved; his shirt, his smallclothes, even his sock, went into the solution, and now she fed his trousers and coat into the steaming batch. She and the maid lifted the heavy container off the stove. It was just warm enough to steam, only just; any hotter and she might actually cook the blood into the material, and she wanted to soak it loose, not set it in: they took careful, shuffling, tiny little steps, Esther backing, the maid waddling forward, Angela, big-eyed and silent, quickly opening the door to the back porch. The ladies set the washboiler on the back porch; Esther picked up a wooden paddle, slowly, carefully stirred the clothes a little: she tapped the excess saltwater off the paddle against the porch rail and said quietly, "There, now. We'll just let those repent of their sins for a while." "Yes, ma'am," the maid said uncertainly. Angela reached up and took Esther's hand, her young face upturned, worried. "Mama?" she asked in a tiny voice, "when is Papa coming home?" Esther squatted, taking Angela's little hands in her own: Esther's green eyes were luminous, gentle, the eyes of a mother: she smiled, just a little, and said softly, "He'll be along, sweets. He wasn't hurt too badly." Angela's eyes went to the clothes soaking in saltwater, then she looked at her Mama. "Yes he was," she said: she blinked uncertainly and added, "Mama, I don't like it when Papa gets hurt!" Esther's eyebrows raised, and she laughed a little, glancing up at the maid, who turned away, slipped back into the house, perhaps to hide her own reaction to the sad little girl's reaction. "Angela," Esther said after several long moments, "I don't like it either." She frowned, caressed Angela's soft pink cheek with delicate fingertips. "I do wish he would consort with a better class of criminal!" Sheriff Linn Keller glared at the stamped tin ceiling in the treatment room. His clothes had already been bundled up and whisked away -- he suspected Esther's hand in this, she was always efficient at getting blood out of his clothes -- his jaw was set and he silently damned himself for putting that fine woman through the grief she'd endured, simply because she was the wife of the county Sheriff. Dr. John Greenlees looked over at his old friend. "Don't set the ceiling afire," he said. Linn's expression never changed, but his mood did. "It ain't got to a red heat yet, Doc. As long as she's not glowin' hot you're safe." Dr. Greenlees grunted. Another man might have engaged in a lengthy repartee, but Linn knew his old friend, and he appreciated that Doc said more with that taciturn grunt than most men could with a half hour's oratory. "How soon can I get out of here?" "How soon can you mend bone?" Linn's jaw clenched; Nurse Susan saw his jaw muscles bulge, and she came to his bedside, took his wrist in a dainty grip, then sandwiched his callused hand between her own. "Are you in pain?" she asked. Linn's pale eyes swung from the ceiling to the nurse. "I am in a bad mood," Linn growled. "I'm layin' here buck nekked, I don't know who those fellows were that tried to kill me, right about now my wife is soakin' my duds in salt water to get the blood out and that won't make her happy a'tall." He resumed his upward directed glower. "I've put that woman through too much already!" There was a knock at the door, Linn felt the door open: Nurse Susan felt his hands loosen, just a little, and she knew his reflex was to lower his hands to his sides, where a pair of engraved Colt's revolvers normally lived. Nurse Susan knew very well that Old Pale Eyes did not like being defenseless. Nurse Susan knew that his son, Jacob, was without the inner door, and if not Jacob, then another trusted adjutant: the necessities of the Sheriff's office would be tended, she knew, and the injured Sheriff's personal safety guaranteed, but she also knew this was a man who was used to keeping himself safe, no matter what happened. "Sheriff," she almost whispered, "if you're in pain, I can get you something." Linn blinked, his other hand swam under the covering sheet and blanket, emerged to pat Susan's hand gently -- a fatherly gesture, a gentlemanly move. "Darlin'," he said, his voice not as hard, not as harsh as it had just been, "forgive me. You did not deserve my ill temper." Susan blinked, her surprise both evident, and genuine. "You haven't been ill-tempered with me," she protested. "I spoke harshly," Linn insisted. "When I came in here I said some very unpleasant things." "You mean when you came hobbling in here with your arm over your son's shoulders, when you were bleeding into your boot and white as a ghost, right before we began cleaning bone splinters out of your bloodied hide?" Nurse Susan laughed a little, and she saw the Sheriff's eyes relax a little at the corners, for the sound of a woman's laughter can ease the knots in a man's gut. "Sheriff, you'd just been shot. Most men would be on the ground crying like a lost child or wallowing like a worm on a fishhook. You came in here looking like Storm Cloud Number Nine and calling yourself a damned fool for being surprised as you were, and then you asked me to belt you between the eyes with a setting-maul, but I don't remember anything really unpleasant!" Linn nodded, closed his eyes. He felt, more than heard, the Doctor come up on the opposite side of the bed. Doc's hand was firm, reassuring on his shoulder. "I do remember," Doc said, and Linn heard a smile in his voice, "right after you asked Susan to cold cock you I started working on you." Linn raised an eyebrow, looked up at Doc's solemn expression. "For the entire time I was getting you taken care of, you did give absolutely the most profane silence I've ever heard!" Linn chuckled a little, grimaced. "Trust me to cause trouble!" The airlock door rumbled open. Sarah Lynne McKenna stepped briskly through it, handed her helmet off to a waiting flight-mate, took two running steps, slammed into the uniformed figure directly ahead of her. Sarah Lynne Hake's arms wrapped around her big strong Daddy, and her Daddy was bent a little as she did: his arms were firm, strong, and he straightened, lifting his little girl off the deck. Sarah needed the reassurance of her Daddy's arms, and her Daddy needed the visceral, soul-deep confirmation that his little girl was alive, and the two stood there for a full minute, silent, not moving. "Daddy?" Sarah finally asked, almost whispered, for her mouth was near enough his ear that she did not need to speak loudly. Hans set his little girl's feet down -- she was nearly tall as he -- in the lesser Mars gravity, the new generation raised here grew taller than their parents, and Sarah was not done growing -- he held her hands in his, looked very directly into her eyes, blinking, remembering how he'd done this very thing with Sarah's mother, years before, on Earth. "Daddy, you remember when the reactor engine in the shuttle went runaway and Mama and the Sheriff made Earth in three minutes?" Hans frowned. "You're not supposed to know about that." "I find things out. They also shot back through time, which the brightboys have figured out how to keep that from happening again. They've also got the flight computers ready for that new engine." She looked -- she bored her soul -- into her Daddy's hazel eyes and said, "I want one of those reactor engines in my interceptor." Hans' jaw dropped a little. "I want a Runaway engine in my Interceptor, Daddy." "You're not supposed to know --" Sarah closed her eyes, raised a forestalling palm. "Spare me, I know already. This" -- she hooked her thumb over her shoulder -- "is a reaction engine with a finite chemical fuel supply. Yes, the atomics make it unbelievably efficient, yes I'm getting unheard of velocities for a reaction engine, but it's limited and I don't like limits!" Her voice was a hiss, lowered so only he could hear. "Look, I'm the best pilot you've got. You yourself said if you mounted a scalpel on the nose of my Interceptor, you'd let me take out your appendix, I'm that good." Her hands gripped his again, quick, strong, sincere. "Daddy, I can do more work, longer, better, with a Runaway kicking me!" "They don't runaway anymore, darlin'," Hans said in a cautioning voice. "I know. Ever since that one did, the name stuck, but they've improved --" Sarah hesitated, shook her head. "I know, I know, I'm not supposed to know that either." Hans was quiet for several long moments. "Walk with me." Sarah shot a look at her flightmate, nodded her thanks: her helmet was back in her locker. The pair walked down the hall, through three airtight doors, came out in the mess hall. Hans waited while his daughter slipped away, headed for the ladies' room -- he always marveled at her reserve, when he'd flown combat missions he could not wait to get to the latrine, for stress has a certain effect on the body -- she returned, her face damp and shining in the harsh artificial light, and he knew she'd washed her hands and face, the way her mother used to. He smiled a little at the memory, remembering his wife's scent, the way she molded herself into him. He hadn't seen her for two days; she was running a cargo flight to the other side of the planet, taking supplies out and bringing back some high value rare-earth minerals, but even that short loss ached his heart, for he was a man very much in love with his wife, their bond stronger for this common adventure they still lived. He and his daughter picked up their trays, sat. Sarah looked at her Daddy, saw how dark he was under the eyes. "You haven't slept," she said -- a statement, not a question. "No." He addressed what was advertised as ground steak -- it tasted quite real, and it had been grilled with locally grown onions, which he loved. "You were still out there." "I was a day and a half getting in." "I slept like a feline." "You catnapped." "That is the word." He looked up, smiled, and Sarah smiled as well, for a trace of his German accent still slipped through -- to a native Earther's ears, he usually had a distinct Germanic accent, but she'd grown up hearing it, and only when it grew quite distinct did she pick up on it. "Daddy, that's sweet," Sarah said sadly, "but I slept on the way home." "I know." "Daddy." She dropped her stamped-steel fork to the injection-molded tray, reached across, laid a hand on his, tilted her head a little to the side, and Hans realized just how beautiful his daughter really was. "Thank you," she whispered. Sarah Lynne McKenna laid a gloved hand on the Sheriff's sleep-relaxed hand. He did not open his eyes, but he did speak, and Sarah could hear the smile in his words. "Didn't anyone tell you," he half-wheezed, "it's improper for a young lady to walk into a married man's bedroom?" Sarah bent over, kissed her Papa's forehead. "Dear Papa," she whispered. "I heard there had been misfortune." "Did you speak with Jacob?" "I have, Papa, and I shall be leaving within the hour." "I'm missing something." "We found out who tried to have you killed, Papa. I am going to harvest his soul." Linn opened one eye. "Darlin'," he said quietly, "you are an Agent of the Court. You are not its assassin." Sarah Lynne McKenna, a fashionably dressed young lady of the era, tilted her head and smiled -- a charming, disarming smile -- and replied, "Papa, a man tried to murder my father. That's family and I am not in a forgiving mood." "Learn," Linn growled. "We need him brought back here in irons. We need to drag him through the streets so the world can look upon him and know that he used to be a man of influence and now he is a chained animal, disgraced and convicted and sentenced to a prisoner's stripes and cage." Sarah was quiet for a long minute, and Linn saw her bite her bottom lip as she frowned, thinking hard. She finally blinked, looked very directly at her pale eyed Papa. "If it is at all possible, Papa," she said, "I will bring him home. In irons, in a prison wagon, so all may look through the bars and see him for what he is." Sarah rose. "You will understand, Papa, that I said if it is at all possible. Not if it is convenient." Linn nodded carefully. "Then I will count it done." Sarah saw her father grimace: alarmed, she seized his hand, bent her face over his: "Papa?" "You be careful, Sarah," Linn whispered fiercely. "I'd rather have you alive and well than him!" Sarah unbuttoned the glove at the wrist, peeled it off, laid the backs of her fingers against her Papa's cheek, his forehead. She reached up for the dangling strip of embroidered fabric, tugged twice. Her Papa was beginning to fever, and she'd just summoned the nurse. "Who was at the door, Mary?" The maid came back down the hall, carrying a string-tied, paper-wrapped package. She placed it on the table, pulled the tag end of the bow knot. "It was the boy from the Mercantile, ma'am," the maid replied, unwrapping the delivery. "It's the coffee you asked for" -- she raised the cloth bundle to her nose, closed her eyes, inhaled, appreciating the aroma of the freshly ground, very recently roasted coffee beans -- she lowered it, laid the wrapping paper flat open on the tabletop. "And it looks like we have two pound of salt as well."
  14. 445. SARAH LYNNE'S TRIGGER The Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners. His thumb reached up, laid across both hammers, brought them back to full stand. His fingers loosened, tightened again on the checkered wrist of the double barrel Greener. Three down. One to go. Hans Lukas Hake -- or, rather, Hautpmann Hake, commanding officer of the Mars Defense Fleet -- lifted the material of the newest pilot's tunic, shoved the pin through the material, slipped the retainer on the back. His best pilots were all female, and for whatever perverse reason, the Interceptor squadron acquired the nickname of the Valkyries: if that was their popularly used name, their commander decided to go with it: their squadron insignia was of an armored woman with a shining curiasse, armor-shin boots, a skirt of plates and a shining helmet with back-swept white wings, and an upraised lance with a silver starburst at its point: their pins were of the wings, with the single upraised spear-and-starburst. He stepped back, saluted the newest pilot: she returned the salute, then father and daughter stepped into one another and seized each other in a delighted, rib creaking hug. Hauptmann Hake kissed his daughter on top of the head, released her, took one pace back. He swept the little squadron from left to right, lifted his chin. "VALKYRIES!" he roared, "FLY!" A half-dozen young women spun, sprinted for their lockers, for their flight suits. They were not yet zipped up and pressurized when the general alarm sounded. Six silver arrows launched from their tubes, six ships of war curved away from the red surface into the starry dark. They'd come after him in a rush. Linn wasn't hit in the first volley, which came from behind, an attack which took him absolutely, completely by surprise: by rights he should have inherited at least four slugs in the general neighborhood of his shoulder blades, but the only casualties were timber and dirt: Linn spun, gone from a civilized man to a pale eyed warrior in a tenth of a second or just under, and each hand blossomed in red flame and blue smoke. Something slammed his belt, something felt like a giant's fishhook drove into his pelvis bone and whipped him halfway around: both his revolvers fired again and he thrust sideways, bounced off the closed door of his Sheriff's office. Linn holstered his left revolver, raised his right to eye level, fired once, seizing the door's latch: he thrust through the now-open door, slammed it: the bar fell into its iron hooks and Linn spun to the right, getting solid logs behind him. Empty hulls hit the floor, fresh rounds dropped into smoking chambers. Five for carry, six for war, he thought, and carefully, precisely, placed the hammers' noses between shining brass rims, then he stepped over to the gun rack and lifted out his favorite Jawbone of a Jack Mule. He opened the Greener, made sure the brass hulls had good primers -- he'd one time brought up a shotgun, pulled one trigger, then the other, and realized in that moment someone had fired it and not reloaded it -- fortunately the fellow he'd leveled on, passed out in a cold faint -- Linn expected lead to come blasting through the heavy plank door -- he took a quick peek through the shuttered window's spy-hole, saw nothing. He thrust up the timber bar, yanked the door open, swung the gunmuzzle across the opening -- left, then right -- Nothing. Something hot and wet trickled down his leg, something hurt like homemade hell just below his belt line on the side. Linn didn't care. Someone tried to kill him and he didn't take kindly to that. "Valkyrie Squadron, inbound eight, read vectors." Their screens lit up as their engines screamed behind them, shoving them deeper into their couches, as the reactors powered their Hellbore cannon: they felt the loading mechanism chuckle as the blunt nosed, cylindrical projectiles were rolled into the breech and the cannon came into battery. Their ships were built like a famous war-plane from old Earth, described as a Vulcan cannon that only incidentally had wings and an engine: their ships were far faster, far deadlier than anything old Earth ever saw, and right now their targeting computers were feeding speed and trajectory data to their plots. The easiest way to hit an incoming asteroid was to head straight for it, just as hard as their Interceptor would run, then fire the Hellbore when their course and the asteroid's were aligned: so powerful was the recoil that they would be thrown to nearly a full stop, but this guaranteed the hardened, tempered, unbelievably dense alloy would have the greatest possible velocity. Mars still had surface structures they couldn't afford to lose; their net of detector buoys gave barely enough time to respond, and sometimes not enough, but it was the best they had. The Commander's daughter flew number six position; there were six Interceptors, and eight asteroids, and she saw her chance to even the odds: the asteroid was a projected image on her screen, the gunsight swung beside it, and as she corrected her course, just a little, just a delicate thrust to the side, the target slid into the circle-and-crosshairs. Sarah Lynne Hake's lips peeled back as her finger tightened on the red plastic trigger and the Hellbore fired the depleted-uranium-core, tungsten-steel-coated, five-hundred-pound projectile at twice the speed of the incoming asteroid. The recoil slammed her forward in her harness; only the helmet restraint kept her chin from driving down into her chest. Linn took a long step, off the boardwalk and onto the street. Across from him, a truant schoolboy backed quickly into the alley opposite; he waved at the Sheriff, pointed. Linn nodded, once, ran, his thumbs laid over the hammers. He slowed, took a quick look down the next alley. Nothing. He turned, powered into a sprint, turned. The double gun came up in front of him, thrust forward in both hands like he was driving a bayonet into an enemy's guts. The twelve-bore slammed back in his hands as the right hand barrel spoke justice and one of the lawless felt the full force of the law. Linn dropped into a crouch, shouldered, the shotgun's rib pointing toward the next man's wishbone. He yanked the back trigger, hard. Sarah checked her fuel gauge. She checked her screen. The mechanism behind her chuckled and the Commander heard an animal snarl from the speakers. He could see her telemetry; he could see she was borderline on fuel; he could hear he quiet "Got you now," he saw the power drop as the rail gun fired a quarter of a ton of hardened, super-dense payload -- The shotgun drove back into his shoulder, the would-be back-shooter fell back, flopping like a cut-loose marionette puppet. Linn laid the shotgun down, drew his right hand revolver, charged. Sarah's finger tightened. She imagined she could hear the rail gun sizzle under her as it threw her hard into her straps again. She'd be bruised and she'd be sore in the morning, she knew, but she was not going to let any damned anonymous rock cause her colony damage. She'd lost friends to asteroid strikes -- decompression does very ugly things to the human body, and the asteroids blasted holes in the atmosphere domes before they got their detection net in place -- and she was not going to lose any more. Not one. She turned the ship, fired a light burn, felt the ship push against her as she came to a stop, as she started back toward home. She read her gauges and realized she might be in trouble. The laws of physics were immutable, she knew, and if she had insufficient fuel to get home, there was no way she could stick out an oar and row, and she sure as hell couldn't walk back. Sarah closed her eyes, took a slow breath. "Valkyrie Six." She opened her eyes. "Six, go." "Valkyrie Six, we're showing another inbound, can you handle?" Sarah's hand lifted, tapped the touch screen: she frowned, then her eyes tightened at the corners and she smiled, just a little. "Valkyrie Six targeting," she said. "This one is mine!" She might not have fuel to get home, but she had plenty for the maneuvering thrusters, and she could maneuver her ship like a surgeon maneuvers his scalpel. She rotated, floating in space, turned to face the incoming threat. Sarah Lynne Hake's finger tightened on the red-plastic trigger. This one is small, she thought. I won't have the velocity of a full speed launch but it'll be enough to bust this rock. The Hellbore fired another quarter of a ton of projectile, the recoil throwing Sarah mercilessly against her harness yet again: she winced, but then she consulted her flight computer. The recoil gave her enough momentum for her to cross the threshold. Between recoil, and remaining fuel, she could get home. She consulted her targeting display. The projected yellow image rotating slowly in the circle-and-crosshairs, shattered and disappeared. "Firelands Base, Valkyrie Six," she called. "Mission accomplished, enroute home." Hans lifted his head, looked at the speaker, listened to his daughter's voice coming through the green-plastic grille. "I'll be a little late getting home, Daddy, I'm moving kind of slow today." Commander Hans L. Hake ran a fast computation. "Valkyrie Flight, well done," he transmitted. "Six, at your own best speed."
  15. You remember correctly, Marshal. His formal protest of the scoring was the reason they now use a moving paper roll behind each target: it unrolls above, rolls up below, and shows whether or not the grouping was as tight as Patton's.
  16. I am given to understand that, in Lousiana, it's a yearly tradition to paint your waterfowl guns. The paint is never stripped: as it wears, another coat is applied; the appearance of wear showing many layers, I'm told, evokes memories of past years and past hunts. Chickasaw Bill's idea of a coat of paint might not be amiss at all! (Besides, I'm fond of John Deere green!)
  17. 444. A SECRET PLACE There is a mountain very near Firelands, one of the many that make up that rugged territory: solid, brooding, aloof, a study in grey and green and white and a thousand shades in between, at least until it is painted on one side by morning's sun, and on the other, by the evening. Its terrain is rough, in places solid, in places crumbling: there are fans of loose debris that are treacherous to walk, there are paths along solid rock that were there when the earth was young and so far show little if any wear: there are draws, gullys, places a man (or an animal) can shelter from wind, overhangs to protect against rain -- most of these are smoke blackened from innumerable fires, and if one were to dig in the debris of these overhangs' floors, one might come up with bones, or shards of broken pottery, or perhaps a broken knapped tool of some kind. There are other places, some hidden in plain sight, which were used by the shamans, the Seers, those with gifts of which they knew, used by others with gifts of which they knew nothing. One of these places was known to a pale eyed lawman, and to his direct descendants: it was difficult to get to, and once there it was but a shelf, narrow, then broad, and facing the evening sun. Old Pale Eyes would go there when he wished to be alone. Some men will bring a book to such places; some men will write, or paint, or perhaps bring a mouth organ: this lean lawman with the iron grey mustache never did, preferring to place a folded saddle blanket on a handy rock, and park his bony backside on a convenient slab of granite. He called the place High Lonesome. There was a cave, there against the cliff, narrow -- a man would have to belly down and slither in, and for that reason, Old Pale Eyes never explored it -- his son Jacob did, and found it deep, and found it was bigger inside: great cats had littered there and raised these litters, wolves on occasion had birthed there young within as well; the bones of an ancient and honorable line rested within this hidden shelter, wrapped in a handmade quilt: Jacob bore the body of his beloved Bear Killer there, and honorably interred his friend and confidante, wrapping the grey-muzzled Mastiff in the quilt from Jacob's own bed: he cribbed the body up in a natural alcove, working by the light of a miner's carbide light: in this secret place, in the fullness of time, others would be placed for their final rest. Jacob, too, became Sheriff, and a man grown: his son came to this cliffside shelf on occasion, knowing only that his Pa came here to be alone, to think, to let his mind relax. Old Pale Eyes knew this shelf was special. He didn't know how he knew, only that he did, and perhaps that's because his Mama had been a Wise Woman, and he may have inherited something of her Second Sight. He didn't really know, and he didn't particularly care. He knew that he carried his past with him -- every horrible moment, every bloody sight -- the weight of men he'd led into battle, men he'd sent out who never came back, the weight of every tombstone he'd ever created, crushed down on him every moment of every day. Most of the time he handled it. Most of the time. There were moments when the rage and horror within him came screaming to the fore, moments where he would charge an enemy with a face that looked like it was carved from an Egyptian mummy, or stolen from an ancient tomb-carving: he'd ridden against men who tried to kill him from ambush, going in a tenth of a second from a quiet-eyed, watchful lawman, to a bared-teeth ice warrior, screaming into a full charge at absolutely the very to of his lungs, he'd killed men with his old Cavalry sabre and with his hand forged Daine knife and with his bare hands, he'd laid amongst the Philistines with the jaw bone of a jack mule -- on one occasion, it was a broad ax, snatched up from a handy woodpile -- so fast, so violent, so LOUD was his assault on those who surrounded him, that he laid all but one on the ground, bloody and dead, all but the one who ran, the one who spent the rest of his days locked in an insane asylum, wide eyed and silent at the horror of seeing a man with ice for eyes morph into spinning death with a red-bladed ax. There were times when the pale eyed old lawman had to get away from everyone and from everything, and when he did, he went to the granite shelf he called High Lonesome. The Bear Killer paced easily along the narrow path. Unlike humans, his mind was not given to fancy: he did not regard the drop to his left, the sheer cliff face that promised a most unpleasant death, should one's foot stray from the narrow path. He padded steadily, stealthily, up the curving path, to the shelf where a man with pale eyes leaned his head back against the rock, his pale eyes drifting along the horizon. The Bear Killer regarded the white furred lupine at the opposite end of the shelf. Each recognized the other as a kindred spirit, and perhaps spirit is the right word to use here, for , when The Bear Killer came to High Lonesome, he was greeted by a yellow eyed, white furred wolf sitting at the far end of the High Lonesome, looking quiet and ancient and very, very wise. The Bear Killer padded up beside the pale eyed man, turned, sat beside him, leaned companionably into him. The Sheriff's hand came up, rested on The Bear Killer's shoulder. The two of them sat long in this place, each content with the other's silent company, until finally the Sheriff rose and picked up the folded blanket. "Reckon we'd ought to get back," he said gently, not whispering but not speaking loudly at all. The Bear Killer blinked sleepily, thumped his tail on the bare rock. "Well, c'mon then, let's see about some supper." The Bear Killer's pink tongue ran out and flicked his moist, shining-black nose.
  18. 444. BIG SHAGGY There is a mountain very near Firelands, one of the many that make up that rugged territory: solid, brooding, aloof, a study in grey and green and white and a thousand shades in between, at least until it is painted on one side by morning's sun, and on the other, by the evening. Its terrain is rough, in places solid, in places crumbling: there are fans of loose debris that are treacherous to walk, there are paths along solid rock that were there when the earth was young and so far show little if any wear: there are draws, gullys, places a man (or an animal) can shelter from wind, overhangs to protect against rain -- most of these are smoke blackened from innumerable fires, and if one were to dig in the debris of these overhangs' floors, one might come up with bones, or shards of broken pottery, or perhaps a broken knapped tool of some kind. There are other places, some hidden in plain sight, which were used by the shamans, the Seers, those with gifts of which they knew, used by others with gifts of which they knew nothing. One of these places was known to a pale eyed lawman, and to his direct descendants: it was difficult to get to, and once there it was but a shelf, narrow, then broad, and facing the evening sun. Old Pale Eyes would go there when he wished to be alone. Some men will bring a book to such places; some men will write, or paint, or perhaps bring a mouth organ: this lean lawman with the iron grey mustache never did, preferring to place a folded saddle blanket on a handy rock, and park his bony backside on a convenient slab of granite. He called the place High Lonesome. There was a cave, there against the cliff, narrow -- a man would have to belly down and slither in, and for that reason, Old Pale Eyes never explored it -- his son Jacob did, and found it deep, and found it was bigger inside: great cats had littered there and raised these litters, wolves on occasion had birthed there young within as well; the bones of an ancient and honorable line rested within this hidden shelter, wrapped in a handmade quilt: Jacob bore the body of his beloved Bear Killer there, and honorably interred his friend and confidante, wrapping the grey-muzzled Mastiff in the quilt from Jacob's own bed: he cribbed the body up in a natural alcove, working by the light of a miner's carbide light: in this secret place, in the fullness of time, others would be placed for their final rest. Jacob, too, became Sheriff, and a man grown: his son came to this cliffside shelf on occasion, knowing only that his Pa came here to be alone, to think, to let his mind relax. Old Pale Eyes knew this shelf was special. He didn't know how he knew, only that he did, and perhaps that's because his Mama had been a Wise Woman, and he may have inherited something of her Second Sight. He didn't really know, and he didn't particularly care. He knew that he carried his past with him -- every horrible moment, every bloody sight -- the weight of men he'd led into battle, men he'd sent out who never came back, the weight of every tombstone he'd ever created, crushed down on him every moment of every day. Most of the time he handled it. Most of the time. There were moments when the rage and horror within him came screaming to the fore, moments where he would charge an enemy with a face that looked like it was carved from an Egyptian mummy, or stolen from an ancient tomb-carving: he'd ridden against men who tried to kill him from ambush, going in a tenth of a second from a quiet-eyed, watchful lawman, to a bared-teeth ice warrior, screaming into a full charge at absolutely the very to of his lungs, he'd killed men with his old Cavalry sabre and with his hand forged Daine knife and with his bare hands, he'd laid amongst the Philistines with the jaw bone of a jack mule -- on one occasion, it was a broad ax, snatched up from a handy woodpile -- so fast, so violent, so LOUD was his assault on those who surrounded him, that he laid all but one on the ground, bloody and dead, all but the one who ran, the one who spent the rest of his days locked in an insane asylum, wide eyed and silent at the horror of seeing a man with ice for eyes morph into spinning death with a red-bladed ax. There were times when the pale eyed old lawman had to get away from everyone and from everything, and when he did, he went to the granite shelf he called High Lonesome. The Bear Killer paced easily along the narrow path. Unlike humans, his mind was not given to fancy: he did not regard the drop to his left, the sheer cliff face that promised a most unpleasant death, should one's foot stray from the narrow path. He padded steadily, stealthily, up the curving path, to the shelf where a man with pale eyes leaned his head back against the rock, his pale eyes drifting along the horizon. The Bear Killer regarded the white furred lupine at the opposite end of the shelf. Each recognized the other as a kindred spirit, and perhaps spirit is the right word to use here, for , when The Bear Killer came to High Lonesome, he was greeted by a yellow eyed, white furred wolf sitting at the far end of the High Lonesome, looking quiet and ancient and very, very wise. The Bear Killer padded up beside the pale eyed man, turned, sat beside him, leaned companionably into him. The Sheriff's hand came up, rested on The Bear Killer's shoulder. The two of them sat long in this place, each content with the other's silent company, until finally the Sheriff rose and picked up the folded blanket. "Reckon we'd ought to get back," he said gently, not whispering but not speaking loudly at all. The Bear Killer blinked sleepily, thumped his tail on the bare rock. "Well, c'mon then, let's see about some supper." The Bear Killer's pink tongue ran out and flicked his moist, shining-black nose.
  19. Thy counsel is wise, O suffering one: other details omitted out of a general sense of brevity. And politeness. EDIT TO ADD: Rye, I've been getting spam myself, these are "Order Confirmation" from otherwise reputable brands with very believable logos, including a color coordinated button that cheerfully instructs me to "Click Here!" Ummm ... delete, delete, delete!
  20. 443. YEP, GOT THAT TOO Linn Keller was what you'd politely call a long tall lawman. The lad he was regarding was ... well, he was nowhere near tall. Matter of fact Linn had to bend his head down some to see the lad, and the boy had to crank his head way back to look up at the lawman, and the both of them could not help but grin. "Howdy." "Hi." "Can you give me a hand?" "Yis!" Linn nodded and went to the back of the cruiser. He opened the Suburban's back hatch and lowered the tail gate: the curious little boy craned to see what was in this fascinating mystery of the Sheriff's car. Linn reached in and set out one, then a second, white-plastic, five-gallon buckets: he handed the bail of one bucket to the boy and said "If you could carry that for me," and Linn reached in and pulled out two thick, folded towels, dropped them in the second bucket, closed up the cruiser. Inside the Sheriff's office, Sheriff Willamina Keller was working on the perpetual bane of an administrator's existence, paperwork; she'd suffered through a conference that seemed populated with speakers who either had themselves confused with someone important, or those who proved without any doubt at all, that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing -- and proved that they knew just enough to get themselves in trouble. Willamina listened politely to their presentations, held her counsel, and came home convinced that she'd just been bathed in an ocean of amateurs, all intent on telling professionals how to do their work, and the form she was filling out seemed corollary and directly derived from that dismal waste of her time. Willamina looked up at a monitor and saw her son and a little boy carrying a five gallon bucket apiece, toward the front of the Sheriff's office. She watched as they turned the buckets over, each placed a thick, folded towel on the upended bucket, and each sat: the camera's position caught the little boy's delighted expression as he sat, squinted up at the deputy sitting beside him, and she could hear in her mind's ear, Linn's quiet voiced remark about having a genuine bucket seat. Yes, we have a public relations officer, she thought, ticked a box on the form in front of her, looked back up at the monitor. The phone rang. Sharon was gone for the day -- there'd been a problem at home, Willamina told her to go, she'd handle things here, she picked up the phone: "Sheriff's Office," and frowned a little at the agitated stammer in her ear. "Now slow down, Mrs. Lingal," she said reassuringly. "Say that again a little more slowly." Her yellow-plastic, mechanical pencil hovered over the yellow pad, then the words lost child flowed from the tip. Age seven, male Not runaway Last seen main street near drugstore Willamina looked back up at the monitor, saw her son with his knife out, whittling, saw the little boy leaning toward him, fascinated. "Mrs. Lingal, was he wearing blue sneakers, blue shorts and a green hoodie?" Willamina smiled. "He's found and he's fine, Mrs. Lingal. Where are you now?" The Sheriff smiled. "I think if you come out of the drugstore and turn right, you'll be able to see him. He's with my Chief Deputy, just outside our front door here at the Sheriff's office." Willamina nodded. "Anytme, Mrs. Lingal." Willamina looked up at the monitor and watched Linn and the little boy talking, laughing; Linn worked the blade carefully against the piece he was working on, folded the knife, held up a serviceable pair of small wooden pliers, opened and closed the jaws, handed it to the grinning little boy. Willamina remembered the summer before, during a parade. Half a dozen boys on bicycles were riding in and out of the parade, being a nuisance. Willamina was considering how to handle this when Linn stepped out into a gap between the marching units, whistled: he gestured the boys toward him, pulled back in front of the library, hunkered. She remembered how he hadn't given them hell. Likely the lads expected to be scolded. Linn told them they had too much talent to be wasted whipping through a parade like that. "You" -- he pointed to one -- "can turn a bicycle faster than I ever could, you can turn tighter and you are under perfect control. You" -- he pointed at another -- "can ride on the hind wheel longer than anyone I've seen. You" -- he indicated a third -- "can ride beside another and you can exactly mirror everything the other guy does, exactly!" He had their attention -- if only for curiosity's sake, for though they were grateful not to be getting their hind pockets chewed off their blue jeans, they were curious to see what this pale eyed lawman was getting at. "Now look at your bikes," Linn continued. "You have good high quality bikes, they're short coupled and that means they're maneuverable. Ever see trick riders in a parade?" Young eyes widened, young faces lit up with the realization of what this long tall lawman was getting at. "Look. You all have the reflexes, you have the talent. Organize, fellas. Become a regular performing unit. You won't be riding through a parade getting yelled at, you'll be asked to participate in parades, because you can ride figure-8s, you can ride formations -- you've got the talent, you've got the equipment, you have the skill -- I've seen it. What do you think?" Willamina smiled at the memory, looked at the form on her desk, looked up at the monitor. She saw a woman coming up the sidewalk with the quick, anxious step of a distressed young mother, she saw her son rise and remove his Stetson, saw his easy, reassuring smile as he reached down and gripped the lad's shoulder quickly, the way a man will when he's acknowledging some deed done by a boy, and Willamina could not help but wonder exactly what kind of a line of good old fashioned Irish blarney he was laying on with a trowel. She watched the monitor, nodding approval, reading body language, reading their lips; the boy turned to leave with his Mama, he turned and raised a free hand, waving, and Willamina could see the whittled pliers between his fingers. She looked back at the form, the pencil scratched another check box. Yes, Willamina thought. We have a PR officer.
  21. Good Father, if that be your next acquisition, I would say with candor and with honesty: Well chosen indeed!
  22. Mr. Pettifogger, I reckon Wallaby's hook, like and sinker reference, comes from this page though I'm not sure which chapter. I think it's 440 or so, titled "The Speech", that made his screen blur. Sadly, that one also drew from personal experience.
  23. ... trust me to cause trouble ... It's been said you write best what you know best. That bein' said I have no first hand experience being a female, but as a lifelong girlwatcher -- hak-kaff! Har-rumh! I mean as a researcher (insert innocent expression here!) I do try to put such experience as I'm able, into those tales. Things like Marnie, as a wee child, staring in awe at that quietly breathing cast iron creature standing up on its shining rails, that magnificent metallic animal that moves and breathes and she can feel the heat radiating off it like she can feel the animal warmth of The Bear Killer or of her big strong Daddy, strong and reassuring beside her ... when I refer to little boys who pop the back off a pocket watch and stare and marvel at the moving parts inside, or the little girl who watches in wonder and amazement at all the moving parts when The Lady Esther leans into her load and whistles at the mountains... well, I have been that child, and I have done those things. I know what it is to walk in amongst the gas pumps at the All-Night, not expecting anything to happen, and end up with a handful of single action revolver because it's what I had handy when things went bad, I know what it is to rotate the black-plastic, explosion proof switch mounted on the side of the driver's seat base on the emergency squad, I know what it is to stop that arterial bleed in the passenger side of a rolled over sedan and to be yanked out by its intoxicated driver screaming "GET AWAY FROM HER!" (right before my partner gut punched him with the short end of a PR-24 baton!) Ghosts you think are buried deep and buried well, have a way of phltering up through rocks and dirt and saying hello at unexpected times, and Old Pale Eyes isn't the only man to have hard memories that plague him for years after. Sometimes the only way I can lay sorrows back in their grave is to tell their stories. Sometimes that's what happens here. More times than one my wife will look across the room -- she on her couch, me on mine -- she'll see me writing furiously, with tears rolling down both cheeks, and she'll not trouble me, for she knows I'm wrestling something I've survived, fighting it until I can shove it through the keyboard, hoping it will sleep now and quit haunting me.
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