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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Everything posted by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

  1. 45. A CERTAIN MAN "I do beg your pardon," the voice said, and the voice was soft and gently phrased. Sarah Lynne McKenna turned, smiling as the man brought his Stetson off his head and held it before him, almost like a bashful schoolboy. "Forgive my being forward," he continued with a troubled expression, "I realize we have not been properly introdyuuu ..." His voice ground to a halt and his eyes widened as he realized this woman had pale eyes. Sarah blinked innocently and then reached a gloved hand out, delicately placed the pads of her fingers under the man's chin, lifted. "Close it," she smiled, "you'll catch flies." She tilted her head, studying the surprised soul. "There is a question in your eyes, sir, please, ask what you will." He swallowed, blinked twice, quickly, apparently trying to marshal his thoughts. "I knew ... a man ... with those eyes," he said faintly. "I am looking for him." Sarah turned, looked deeper into the Silver Jewel: she and the polite stranger were standing in front of Tilly's desk, and Tilly was watching the exchange with amusement: she saw Sarah turn, raise a summoning arm, then turn to smile at the stranger once more. "I think I can help." Again the nervous swallow, a nod, then a "Thank you, ma'am," and Tilly turned her head and smiled as Jacob Keller strode toward them, grinning. He thrust out a hand. "Howdy," he greeted the man with the even more startled expression. "This gentleman," Sarah said by way of introduction, "believes he may know a ... man with pale eyes." She gave Jacob a knowing look, let her gaze slide from her lean-waisted half-brother to this newcomer who was openly gawping at the man whose hand gripped his. "Dear God," came the dry whisper, "either you are living right or I address your ghost!" Jacob laughed, pumped the fellow's hand, gripped his shoulder with the other: "You must mean my father, the Sheriff. I'm his firstborn." "His son. Yes, his son. Quite right, that, yes, quite right ..." Somehow he still looked surprised, in addition to somewhat lost. "Have you eaten, stranger? I've got an appetite and Daisy's kitchen is open for business!" Now if the Witch of Endor was still around I doubt me not she might cause trouble for honest men like me. I wondered for a moment if that's what happened here. Y'see, when I went to set my boot up on the first step to ascend to the board walk in front of the Silver Jewel, somethin' came rollin' out of the barely open door, something round and brown and rollin' skinny tail over tincup and I reached down and caught it. It's a good thing I was wearin' a good pair of leather gloves, for whatever this little brown furry thing was came rollin' out like a swatted ball commenced to snarl and try and chew my hand off up to the elbow. I cupped it in both hands and kept my fingers tight together so it couldn't get a good bitin' purchase on me and then I got it by the nape of the neck and held it out away from me and damned if it wasn't a skinny, short-furred, mean little rat of a dog with a set of sharp little teeth bared and invitin' me to come within a mile of it so it could rip me to absolute shreds. I looked at this swinging, thrashing, clawing creature and wondered if maybe that Witch of Endor had come around and shrunk a saw blade and then spun it away from its sawmill and added a sprinkle of fur and a dash of ill temper just for the fun of it. I held it up to face level and said "Little fellow, you're just full of fire, ain't you?" and that skinny little short furred brown dog snarled at me and then yapped and I figured if I didn't do somethin' why it might turn back into a saw blade and then I'd be in trouble so I brought it in close against the front of my coat and held it with both hands, but not tight: it was shiverin' and I rubbed it just a little and soothed at it, and then I climbed the three steps up and The Bear Killer shoved the door open some and looked at me and he didn't look none too pleased. "You two met?" I asked, and that little short furred saw blade looked down over the edge of my hand and commenced to give The Bear Killer just all kind of hell and that struck me as funny, this little thing was about as long as my two fists set end to end and The Bear Killer was belt buckle tall on me at the shoulder and he was nowhere near done growin'. Matter of fact it struck me as really funny and I commenced to laugh and damned if that little thing didn't look up at me and make a happy yow-yow-yow with that tiny little voice and I set it down and damned if it didn't strut right up to The Bear Killer and snarl and give out one yap and The Bear Killer moved faster'n I'd ever seen. Now The Bear Killer is a mountain Mastiff, or so Charlie Macneil figured, and these were Tibetan dogs bred so one dog could defend an entire village: dog he might be but he was quick as a cat and damned if he didn't swing attair big black forepaw and catch that snarling little rat dog like a cat and bat it right out the open door. I reckon that's why it come rollin' out like a furry ball in the first place. I shook my head and looked at Tilly, smilin' at me from behind her counter the way she always did when I came across the threshold. I can see why Attorney Moulton jumped the broom with that sweet girl, she had the nicest disposition. She'd improved an awful lot since I persuaded Dirty Sam that a bag of silver was better than a knife between the ribs, when I bought the Silver Jewel through means far from fair. Tilly had been one of the working girls upstairs. Not by choice. I'd arranged it so the working girls all had a fresh start, however they damn pleased. Some went over to Carbon Hill, or to Cripple, continued their trade in horizontal refreshment, others – most, actually – threw their lot in with Bonnie. I set Bonnie up with her own shop and she outgrew it in short order, so Esther and I consulted and Esther allowed as she believed it wise to invest in Bonnie, so her brick works provided building material, our profits from the railroad and from the Silver Jewel went to equip Bonnie's new House of McKenna, and damned if she didn't start to supply fine fashion to the West Coast and beyond. Esther always did have a good head for business and it is not the first time I benefitted from listening to my beautiful bride. I looked up from Tillie and my moment's reverie, and Sarah was giving me a wise look, and I saw Jacob was lowering his hand – he'd apparently just shaken a man's hand in greeting, his off hand was still on the fellow's shoulder – and they all turned and looked at me. "Now as I live and breathe," said I, "there's a familiar face!" I listened with sympathy as my old friend told his tale. There, I knew, but for the grace of God ... might be me. "You were right," he admitted ruefully, and I gave him an understanding look, or at least tried to. "I tried to tell you," I said quietly, "it was no life for you." "I should have listened." Jacob had the grace not to look uncomfortable: when a complete stranger whips the cover off his soul and admits he was wrong, why, I've known men to shift and look away and maybe drift off to another table, for every man can see himself in someone else's confession. Sarah, now, looked just as composed and ladylike as she ever did (when she chose to be ladylike, I'd have to add!) – anyway, Ernie told us of chasing after wanted men, of finding them five minutes after they'd been caught, of being outrun, outmaneuvered and outsmarted, and the last of 'em all was the day before. "You recall that Barrows fellow." "I've known several of that tribe. Which one?" "He has a scar on the inside of his left forearm from a knife fight." I nodded. "I know the man. I put that scar on his arm." Ernie's mouth opened a little and he looked distinctly uncomfortable, but then he nodded, pressed his lips together hard enough they pooched out some. "Well ... you know me, Captain. I never was the kind to jump in and get mean with a man." I nodded: Ernie had ever been an easy going and soft spoken sort, and when he'd told me the year before he was going to try his hand at bounty hunting, why, I had my doubts and I'd said as much. "I caught up with him when he'd just lit off his fire and I set there and watched him strike flint and steel." "He let you ride in and watch him?" Ernie laughed. "Linn, I have had the devil's own luck with flint and steel. I can't strike a fire with anythin' but a Lucifer match." He shook his head. "Now this Barrows fellow, he struck his steel three times and raised his char to a mouse nest and then blew on it nice and gentle and he had a fire as fast as I could with a Lucifer." I nodded. "I've known those with that gift." Jacob looked at me and he and I both kept a poker face, for we'd raced one another many times in startin' a fire, and we'd proved any number of times that yes a man can strike a fire with a steel that fast. Not every time, and it's got to be just right, but it can be done. "He got his fire to going and I offered him some coffee and bacon and we shared the night and finally he asked me what brought me so far away from towns and civilization and I said I was looking for a man that looked much like him. "He got kind of cool about then but all he said was "That so?" and I nodded and said "The man I'm looking for has a knife scar inside his left forearm." "Well then I'm not him," said he, and he undid his shirt sleeve and rolled it up and he had a knife scar inside his right forearm. "I stared at that scar and felt right foolish so I pulled out my wanted dodger and we read it together. "I told him as he bore a resemblance to the wanted man, may be he'd want to keep that dodger about him for it described the scar on his other arm, and he thanked me kindly for that. "We finished the meal and I was troubled to have bothered him so I took his leave and gave him the rest of my coffee and it wasn't until I talked to Macfarland over in Carbon on my way in that I learned Barrows has the same knife scar on the inside of both forearms." I nodded but said nothing more. Ernie gave a long sigh. "A hundred dollars I could have gotten," he said sadly. "I could have used it, too." Ernie and I had served together back in that damned War – that's why he called me Captain, I reckon – and I staked him to a good night's rest in a clean bed, a good meal in the morning, and he and his horse went back East on the steam train. He told me when we shook hands on the depot, just before he got on the train, that he was certain he was not suited for a bounty hunter's life, so he was giving it up for a bad job, and I allowed as he was a wise man to realize this before he took a knife in the guts, or worse. I never did see him again, nor did I ever see Barrows, but Jacob ran into him and before the dust settled, Barrows lost a thumb and a good bit of blood, and his carcass ended up planted in our potters field, but that's a tale I'll let Jacob tell sometime. 'Twas his fight, not mine.
  2. 44. FRUSTRATION Sheriff Willamina Keller's head came up a little as she read. Her jaw eased out and her jaw muscles bulged, and if one were there and looking closely, one would see her eyes grow hard and cold and very pale as they tracked left to right, left to right, reading the hand written words of a man dead well more than a century. "Damn you," she hissed. "Damn you for doing this to me!" A curse she may have laid, but she never stopped reading, for the story drew her in, and she became part of the story as she read it, as she saw it, as she lived it through another set of pale eyes. I sat with the family that day, for death came with the sun's dawning, I sat with them as neighbors knocked together the rough box, as friends dug the hole, as the Parson came out to say the words that a sky pilot always says. I don't reckon they heard a single word the man said, but I know they never, ever forgot that he cared enough to come out and say them. Me, I didn't say much at all. Saw horses were brought into the parlor and a sheet laid over, and then the box was brought in: these folks didn't have much at all, but what they had was clean and tidy and in good repair. I could smell death when they brought in the box and the women lit candles and set them at the head and at the foot and that helped, whether it was the smell of bees wax or the flames ate the smell seeping out of the box, I don't know. Someone picked a bunch of flowers and tied them with a ribbon, and laid them on top of the flat plank lid and that was a proper thing, for their daughter was within, twelve years old and a pretty little thing, but I'll never remember her like that again. Fire was ever a danger in those days and she'd got her long skirt too close to the open fire place and she caught fire and I was outside and heard her scream but I was too far away to get there in time and when she come to the door she was aflame all up her front and started up her back and she must have inhaled fire for she choked off some and made a ghastly little noise and I recall she tried to cough and blood and soot come out and she fell down and I recall we dashed water on her from the water barrel and it was too late, it was long too late. A pretty young girl with brown hair and bright eyes was now burnt and horrible and I throwed my coat over what used to be her face and her bosom and I knelt beside her Pa as he collapsed to his knees and shivered as with the ague, and then her Mama came up and knelt as well and I never saw grief so harsh on a woman's face as I saw that day. We buried her at sunset, we lowered that pretty little girl child into the ground as the sun lowered itself over the rim of the world; we set that girl to her eternal sleep as the sun itself went to sleep: I stood with my hat in my hand and listened to the Parson talking about the sure and certain knowledge of a glorious resurrection and all I could think of was looking at that awful burnt face and it's a sight that haunts my nights. There are times in a man's life when things happen and not one damned thing he can do to help and this felt like one: I am the chief law enforcement officer for my county and my very word is the Law. I hold the power of death and of life and it is mine by right of Law and I do my very best to uphold that Law and I can blacksmith and make hinges and I can do many things, but restoring life is beyond me. I rode home in the dark and I rode with the bitter taste of defeat on my tongue, and I stopped in the Silver Jewel and asked Mr. Baxter for one shot of Uncle Will's Finest. Now Uncle Will's Finest is good stuff. It is smooth and it is pleasing to the tongue and it goes down like Mama's milk and generally blows the socks right off a man's feet. It tasted like dust. I learned a long time ago to take my feelin's and stuff them down in an iron kettle and screw the lid down tight and I reckon that's what I did that night. Esther knew I was powerful unhappy and she give me that knowing look a woman will but she said nothing, bless her, and I picked up each of my children and held them and most of them giggled and begged me to hoist them up so they could touch the ceiling – it was a favorite game with them – but when I picked up Angela, I hoist her only a little, for she was near to grown, and I held her at eye level and I looked long into her Kentucky-blue eyes, and then I set down, and I took her hand, I walked over to my chair and set down like I was old and tired and I took both her lovely young hands in both of mine and I said "Angela, I would ask you to promise me something." She gave me an uncertain look and Esther drifted nearer, for I reckon she suspected she was about to find out the cause of my unhappiness, that or she figured I'd learned Angela was dealing poker at the Silver Jewel and got caught cheating. "Angela," said I, "I want you to be very careful when you are near fire." She blinked, surprised, and I was surprised as well, for I'd not realized how long and lovely her lashes had become. I rubbed the back of her hands gently with my thumbs. "Angela," said I, "I just helped a family bury their daughter." "Yes, Daddy?" she asked in a small little voice. "She was about your age, darlin', and she got too close to the fireplace and her dress caught." I heard Esther's breath catch in her throat and I could see from my side-eye that her hand rose to the base of her throat. "She ... burnt to death between the fireplace and the front door." I swallowed hard and I could smell burnt flesh again and I lowered my head and bit my bottom lip and bless Angela, she did not pull from my grip. I looked up again. "Promise me," I whispered, and she nodded: "I promise, Daddy," she whispered back, and I drew her in to me and I held her and the twins clambered up on one side of the chair and the other children piled on and it's a good thing I'd had the Daine boys make that chair for it was stout, and it held the weight of the humanity that crowded in to comfort their old Pa that night. Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back, set the book down, blinked. She, too, still smelled burnt flesh, and she smelled gasoline, and she still heard the screams of what used to be a pretty girl. She'd gotten there just as one of the girls tried splashing gasoline on a trash fire and the flame roared up the careful little stream, it detonated in the can and fired out like a flamethrower and Willamina stomped the brake pedal hard, slammed the Jeep into park and reached back for the extinguisher. "All my training," she whispered into the silence, "and all my experience ... I was a paramedic and I was a nurse and there is not one damned thing I could do to keep her alive!" She looked at the hand written Journal, still open to Old Pale Eyes' last words on the subject. "I had almost put it out of my mind," she said aloud, as if addressing the man in person, "and you brought it all back." She closed the book, opened the drawer, placed the Journal carefully in its place, quietly, precisely, slid the drawer closed, her movements very controlled, very exact. She looked up at the print of the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache. It had been five years since she'd heard that twelve year old girl screaming to death as flame roared up and she sucked in a big breath of living fire and her voice squeezed down to a squeak and she coughed blood and died. Five years, and she hadn't had that nightmare for a year now, but somehow she knew she would, now. "Damn you for bringing it back!"
  3. I am almost sure I should hang my head in shame and that I should wear a (paper) grocery sack over my head when in decent company! After re-enacting as Brother William, calligrapher and scribe and Cistercian monk of the 10th century, I write out of habit in a calligraphic font. This means I could never make a living robbing banks ... a holdup note would be instantly recognized! I'm told I still have a Suth'n accent (I can't hear it but apparently these Northern Ohio Yankees can) so I can't make a living as an obscene phone caller! Went to Urgent Care last night and was told among other things to lose weight, stop smoking, stop drinking and stop wenching ... I smoked once, as a five year old I swiped one of Pappy's Marsh Wheeling stogies and a Lucifer match and disappeared around the corner of the garage ... I staggered back the color of spring grass. Only time I ever smoked. Never since. Granddad, rest his soul, was a moonshiner and a moonrunner ... and I don't drink. As far as wenching ... was I to call my wife a wench, my face would be suddenly big and round and the exact shape of her hard swung frying pan! Not only have I failed as a bank robber and as an obscene phone caller, I've failed in stopping smoking, drinking and wenching!
  4. 43. LET ME DO THIS Patricia Keller smiled a little, just a little as her husband came across the packed dirt floor. His good left hand was opening and closing and this quiet man, this gentle and soft spoken man, this man who'd not raised his voice in public in all of recorded history, strode across the floor with war written plain upon his brow. It was not many years since the Ohio territory was opened up; there was a barn dance, and people came to dances, for life was hard, lives were short, and when there was celebration to be had, people celebrated. One celebrant made it plain he wished the attentions of the brown-eyed woman with coarse, curly auburn hair, and she made it plain his attentions were not welcome: she said a word, she gave a glare, but made no other move, at least not until he reached for her wrist. That's when her tall, slender, soft spoken husband moved: he crossed the floor in long strides, and the individual who decided he wished the attention of another man's wife, changed his mind in very much of a hurry. Patricia remembered his hand sweeping her behind him, and she remembered his good left hand, no longer opening and closing. It was closed into a work-hardened fist. Patricia released the grip on her hand-forged knife, the Damascus-blade dagger with the checkered, curly-maple handles: she slipped it back into its hidden sheath, and she was content not to have to tell her husband to let her do it. One, and only one, set of eyes saw the shine of steel, knew that this woman, this wife, this mother, was more than willing to drive a length of honed steel between a man's ribs: my eyes, the pale eyes of their son, scarce belt high on a grown man. I watched in silence, and in stillness. My name is William Linn, and in the fullness of time I would wear a lawman's star. Three men stood on a plank. The plank stood on two sawed chunks, thick as a man's leg and just as long. Each man stood very still: the three stood with wrists crossed and bound behind, with a noose around each of their necks. I was a Union cavalry captain. To my shame – and I admit it to this day – I found myself assigned to that war criminal Sherman's command, and I did my level best to prevent the outrages he ordered. I glared at the three, then turned glacial eyes to sweep the scene: every man available was assembled to witness this, this execution, this murder of three men under color of my authority. "These men," I announced loudly, "brutalized a girl. I ordered that no woman, no girl, should be troubled" – my voice was hard edged, pitched to carry to the furthest rank – "and I will countenance that none such should stand among us!" I turned, raised a leg, and a girl seized my boot, pulled hard. Startled, I almost fell: a quick hop-step, I turned, regarded the red-eyed girl with honest surprise. "Let me do this," she said. "They killed my mother and they filthied me. I claim this as mine!" I opened my mouth, closed it, then nodded. The girl looked up at the three, and I watched her face as her glare went from pleading, to angry, to utter, deep hatred: I watched as her lips peeled back and she took a running step toward the plank, I watched as she pushed the plank far enough for the cylindrical, saw-cut chunks to fall, and I watched as she drew back a step, a second, a third. She stood and stared as their faces enpurpled, as they jerked, kicked in the grotesque Hanged Man's Dance: the drop was no more than a foot, not far enough to break the neck: hanging after this fashion was not fast, and she stood and watched, until three bodies stilled, until their sock feet dripped with their water, until the three bodies swayed gently and twisted, until I dismissed the assembled. I waited, and finally the girl turned and faced me squarely. "I am filthied," she said, loathing plain on her tongue: "I am used goods and no decent man will have me." I removed my cover and considered for a long moment. "I would like to thinkI said finally, "that you will be held in very high esteem." "After what they did to me?" She turned, looked at the ghastly trio, still hanging: she spat toward them, then looked at me like a lost little girl. "They murdered my parents. They burned our farm. We didn't have much. We never had slaves. Why did they do this to us?" She looked back at the three. "I had to do this," she said thoughtfully, then she turned to face the dead men. "I'M GLAD I DID THIS TO YOU!" she shouted, bending at the waist, her face reddening, her young hands tightened into fists: "I'M GLAD I DID THIS, YOU – YOU – DAMNED YANKEES!" She snatched up her skirts and turned, turned back. "Where will I go now?" she asked. "I have no family. Everyone is dead." I felt well beyond utterly lost, but she did not wait for an answer. She lifted her skirts and lifted her chin and marched resolutely down the road and through the ranks that opened for her, as if for royalty, and as she passed, men removed their hats deferentially. It might not have been the military thing to do, but it was the decent thing to do. I smiled ever so slightly as I stood on the riverboat's upper deck. "You, sir," I said, "have yourself confused with someone important." Esther Keller withdrew half a step, giving me room to work, and in the process, getting herself between myself and a spectator she did not entirely trust, someone I hadn't noticed ... but she had. "You dare insult me, sir!" "Reckon I did," I said quietly. Esther knew me and she knew me well and she knew when I stood loose and relaxed like this, that I was ready to cause a great deal of harm in a very short time, and she was right. The red-faced man in the oddly-tailored suit drew back his arm. I intercepted it, expertly turning it from a roundhouse, backhand slap, to a most painful elbow lock, bringing the man quickly to his knees with his arm up behind him at a painful and most awkward angle. "Seems like you've got an inflated sense of your worth," I said casually, and Esther withdrew a few inches of slender, honed steel from her forearm sheath: Esther told me later that her right ear twitched as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger, for she'd heard the distinct, but somewhat muffled, triple-click of a Colt's revolver coming to full stand. "Y'all might want to put that away," a Texan drawled from behind the man Esther marked as less than trustworthy, and she saw this fellow – who wore a similarly, oddly-tailored coat as the man her husband had down on his knees on the deck – slid a pepperbox back into an inside pocket. "My dear, allow me," Esther said in a loud voice, and I released the man's wrist, stepped back. "You fool, he's a Count!" the untrustworthy man protested, at least until the Texan's gun-muzzle introduced itself again to his back ribs, and the Texan's free hand seized the offender's collar and pulled back, hard. Esther waited until the absolutely florid man wallowed to his feet, then she smiled gently at me and said firmly, "Let me do this." I nodded, once. Esther Keller tilted her head just a little, turning her right shoulder toward the Count, then she unwound a spinning, backhanded slap that bloodied the blustering man's lips and bent his nose suddenly and painfully to the side – it did not break, but it began to leak, fat, slow red drops. "You, sirrah," Esther declared firmly, "are a rascal, a scoundrel and not worthy of a good man's attention. You wished to challenge my husband for calling you what you are – I take offense, and I challenge you to a duel of honor!" "You cannot do this!" the untrustworthy man blurted, to which the Texan said quietly, "Fella, either I can push this gunbarrel clear through to your front or I can toss you over the side, whichever you'd like. Or you can just shut up." "I HAFF NEFFER LOST A DUEL!" the Count roared, his face darkening with rage. "Then you may enjoy the new experience. I choose blades, I choose here, and I choose now, how say you?" "You haff not a decent set of blades," he sneered. Esther's backhanded slap was like a cobra's strike: swift, startling, completely unexpected. "Now you insult me," she said quietly, "and I will not let that pass. I have a matched set of Schlager blades. Good Solingen steel. They are in my cabin. If you are not an utter coward, you will stand fast until they are fetched, and if you are so cowardly as to move, this boat is small and I shall find you and hunt you down like the wretch you are!" I raised a hand, and the Captain, watching from the wheelhouse, nodded once, slowly, firmly: this was his boat, and it would be his authority to forbid this: on the other hand, he was a brother Mason, and he knew Esther and I were newly married, and on our honeymoon, and he knew this Count to be a braggart and an annoyance. A porter scrambled down the stairs with Esther's sword-case clutched desperately in his long, artist's fingers: he was trembling a little as he laid it on the deck at her feet. Esther's smile was bright, charming, disarming: she divested herself of her short-waisted coat and stood boldly in skirt and high-necked blouse, the ruby brooch gleaming brightly at her throat, framed as it was by four emeralds. It was the kind of thing European royalty might wear, but here in America, if a woman wished to wear such, she was perfectly free to do so – providing, of course, she could keep street Apaches or footpads from plucking it from her throat. There were two such who were missing either fingers or half a hand from the attempt, and both times, it was Esther who drew blood. Me, I just shot the third, but that's another story. Esther dipped her knees, opened the case, threw back the velvet cover, exposing the blades: she withdrew them both, held them forth. "Choose," she said, and the Count seized the wire-wound handle to his right: he stepped back, swung the blade experimentally, nodded his satisfaction. Esther took her blade by its handle, ran her hand through the sword-knot, snugged it to her satisfaction about her dainty wrist: she waited until she was satisfied the Count was not going to do the same, then she raised her blade in salute. He did not return her salute – another insult – Esther slashed her tip down, then began to circle a little to one side. I remember how easily Esther moved, how the blade spun shining circles and arcs: I am not a swordsman, though Esther taught me things about knife fighting I never knew. Nor even suspected. Was I to try and describe her performance, it would be kind of poor, because like I said I'm not a swordsman ... I do recall the Count tried to beat her down with raw strength, and that might work if a man just stood there and took it, but Esther was a dancer, and when he came swinging that blade down like he was bringing a riding-crop down on a recalcitrant servant, a time or two he roared with rage, because Esther was not there ... not only was she not there, she danced in and flicked the tip of her blade against his cheek. The first time she drew a bloody line across his cheekbone, he stopped, raised his hand unbelievingly to his cheek. Esther smiled and said "Shall it be to first blood, then?" – which was like laying a horsewhip across an angry bull. He came after her and I have never seen better ... she tagged him in the upper arm, in the thigh, she slapped him across the backside with the flat of her blade, she just plainly played him for a fool, and she made it obvious, and she made sure he knew it. Finally when she made her move she smacked the back of his hand with the flat of her blade, then brought it up firmly under his chin, under his neck, where life throbs and surges close to the surface, and she lifted her blade and obliged him to raise his chin with it. "Drop your sword," she said quietly. "Never," he snarled, and she twisted the blade to bring the edge against his neck, then drew back a bare fraction of an inch. His sword clattered to the deck. "On your knees," she said, her voice low and full of menace, and he went slowly, haltingly, to his knees. "Now." Esther dipped her knees, slowly, carefully, picked up the other blade, brought it around and gripped it: she lowered her blade from his neck, took one step back, and then wove a double-butterfly in shining silver in front of her, stopping with both tips resting against his collarbones. "You, sirrah," she announced, her voice loud and ringing, "are pompous, ignorant, offensive, you are loud and uncouth and your manners are utterly lacking, and you have absolutely no concept of the value of a bath." Her smile was sinister, her lashes long and lovely, her green-eyed glare pinning him to the deck like an insect on a cork board. "You are not fit to share the same boat, but I shall be gracious. You may remain aboard until our next regular stop, but understand, you ugly sack of second hand horse feed, should you choose to utter one syllable against either my husband or myself, I will not hesitate to divest you of your wagon load of guts and use them to feed the fishes in this river!" There was kind of a thump from behind me and I turned to see the Texan holstering his revolver. That Count's ill mannered assistant was in the process of collapsing to the deck, kind of slow, the way a man will when he's been buffaloed with a Colt. We had attair Texan to our table that night, and come to find out he was one of those expert horsemen who'd made an utter monkey out of me when I wore Union blue, and we had a good laugh over that and shook hands over the memory. I set on my big golden stallion and considered the whitewashed board fence. I knew Angela had been practicing jumping – she wasn't supposed to, but she'd learned not only did she have a strong affinity for good horse flesh, she'd shown herself as much a horsewoman as her green-eyed mother, and that's saying something: Sarah and Esther were neck and neck for saddle skills and I honestly don't know which I'd put up ag'in the other. They often rode together, laughing, delighting as the wind stripped their cares and stresses from them, and they were a woman and a horse and in love with the moment, and Angela right with them. Esther strictly forbade Angela from jumping. I knew Angela had been. Now Angela rode beside me on Godenrod, one of my stallion's get: Goldenrod was a gelding, steady, but with a love of running, and a love of jumping, and I think the first time Angela jumped was more accident than intent – it was kind of like Goldenrod saw something he could jump, and Angela screamed with delight when he did, and from there on little could stop them. Today we rode side by side, and I knew the fence ahead of me was one she'd jumped a number of times. Ancient custom holds that an angel rides one shoulder, a devil the other, and each will whisper counsel in a man's ears, and I'm not at all sure I listened to the right one on that moment. "Angela," said I, "your Mama doesn't want you jumping horses." "Yes, Daddy," Angela said, and I know she was getting some height to her and if I let myself see it I could have seen she was developing ... well, she was ... Oh hell. I didn't want to admit it but my little girl was getting womanly, and damned good looking in the process, but God as my witness, she is STILL MY LITTLE GIRL! – and I looked at my little girl and a young woman looked back at me, all blue eyes and innocent expression and I said, "Angela, think you can jump that fence?" Her big blue eyes widened a little more and I honestly pity the poor fellow she turns those eyes on, she had me wrapped so tight around her little finger likely I'll have to go see a Back Cracker to get the kinks out, but she looked at the fence and looked at me and said "Daddy, are you going to jump it?" I grinned and lifted my stallion's reins and Angela threw her head back and laughed and Goldenrod started to dance for he knew what was coming and I'll carry that moment in my heart clear into the Valley when I die, for she threw her head back and laughed "Let me do this!" and the race was on! Sunrunner had the longer stride but Goldenrod had a two jump head start – he surged and muscled up underneath me and my hat fell back on its storm strap and we come to that fence at the same moment, and Angela screamed with delight as we sailed over, and for a moment we two were flying, just as sure as if we'd had wings. Sarah Lynne McKenna kissed the Count's dying lips and whispered, "Let me do this," and he grimaced, one hand on his bloodied belly: the invader shot the old man, but not before the old man shot the invader, and now Sarah was alone in the schloss to defend against the crowd outside, the mob that always forms before a war. Sarah Lynne McKenna wore her Agent's black, and she wore her bulldog .44s: she'd slung a Winchester shotgun across her back, she had her knives, both sets, on her, and she skipped for the door, picked up her '73 rifle, stepped out on the landing just as the big double doors splintered open. Sarah Lynne McKenna stood with the rifle propped up on her thigh – a woman alone, all in black – her eyes swung to the panel that hid the secret door, the door she'd sent her maid through, carrying a small grip, a pouch of gold, and her infant daughter, with instructions to get her down the tunnel and to the river, to the waiting boat, and get her back to Colorado. Sarah Lynne McKenna faced a few guns, mostly blades, pitchforks, bludgeons: she knew she was being watched by the ancestors, painted on great portraits on the walls, she knew ghosts of Teutonic knights were judging her, would judge what she did here. She looked at the mob, pouring in from sheer momentum, and her lips peeled back from her teeth like The Bear Killer's might have peeled back from his fighting fangs. Only two lived to crawl away; one died before getting outside, the other lived long enough to gasp out a story of horror, how one black Valkyrie, a mere woman, advanced down the stairs, spitting fire and lead, screaming defiance as she waded fearlessly into ten times her number: how she laid about them with a rifle, how she blasted lanes and avenues through them with a machine cannon she carried, a hell-bore that must have carried a ten-pound ball, she laid about her with blades that seared the air with silver fire, and only the sheer numbers of those still pouring in finally overbalanced her and only thus was she killed. By then the schloss was afire, thanks to the raiders; somehow, the Count's body was retrieved, God only knows how, but the body of this Valkyrie, this warrior-goddess sent to avenge the Count's death ... her body was lost to the flames. The dying man giving this testimony shivered, for he spoke a little English, and he repeated her war-cry, screamed in defiance as she went down, bloodied blades still slashing as she fell: "Let me do this!"
  5. 41. RETURN Richard stood on the front porch and looked around, savoring the mild, pleasant day. He took a long breath and Willamina looked at him knowingly, hearing in her mind the next words he'd say. "It smells good today," he murmured, and his wife's lips followed his words: she ducked her head, smiling as well: it was good to see him back under his own roof, it was good to have him back in their bed, it was good to be able to follow his words almost before he said them. Willamina sidled up to him, laid a hand between his shoulder blades. "I'm glad you're back." He ran his arm around her, drew her close. "Me too, Willa," he whispered, and bent a little to kiss the top of her head. "Me too." "She's coming home, you know." "I know." Richard leaned on the porch rail and Willamina leaned her head against his arm. "I missed you." "I missed you too, darlin'." Willamina opened her mouth to say more, but closed it: there was no sense saying anything that would increase his guilt. The man already felt terrible that he'd been away. No sense adding to that. "Willa?" "Hm?" "Do you remember, one time, you told me about seeing a ghost?" Willamina had carefully schooled herself for years in maintaining a poker face. She'd studied body language and disciplined herself to not betray her feelings with a change in posture or muscle tone. She did not stiffen, shift, turn, look away; her eyes did not involuntarily swing to the left, or to the right, neither up, nor down: she considered for a long moment, then nodded. "I ... remember." "You said it was the shade of that pale eyed hell raiser Sarah Lynne McKenna." Again the slow, single nod. He turned, leaned his elbow on the rail, faced his wife. "What if I told you she'd come to see me?" Willamina considered her husband's gaunt, pale, slightly yellowed face. "I'd say it was a distinct possibility." He chuckled – it was that same rich, throaty Richard-chuckle that caught her ear those many years before, at Quantico, where she'd gone for training as a green law enforcement officer – then coughed, and he turned, leaning over the rail, squinting against the discomfort: his throat was raw from coughing and he was tired, so very tired, and he did not want to spend any more of his strength trying to evict the dry tickle from his throat. "I'm not drinking enough whiskey," he finally wheezed, and Willamina's eyes tightened a little at the corners, for her husband drank one beer a night, never more, and nothing else, ever. Or used to, before ... Willa laid a hand on his, her hand warm, almost hot: his knuckles were pale, cool, and she felt him flinch. "I remember," he said slowly, "in one of Old Pale Eyes' journals, he wrote of an old mountain witch who told him 'You have hot hands, a Healer's hands,' and" – he turned his head a little, smiled tiredly – "so do you." Willamina turned to face her husband squarely, laid a hand on his right ribcage, her face serious. "Would that I did," she whispered fiercely. "Would that I did, Richard!" She steered her husband inside, where he could sit down, where his shivering legs could rest a little. A young woman tapped tentatively on the door not an hour later, a young woman with a grinning, red-headed young man, carrying a little girl-baby, all pink cheeks and big yawn and ruffled bonnet and fuzzy blanket: Willamina put her finger to her lips, motioned them in, pointed to Richard, drawn and gaunt, asleep in the recliner. They cat footed to the kitchen, The Bear Killer snuffing at new legs, following with his great brush of a tail swinging slowly as he stalked after them. "Mama," the pretty young woman said uncertainly, "I ... regret ... our words." She did not have to elaborate. Their last words were harsh, accusatory: each knew how to get under the other's hide, and did: each, too prideful to admit wrong, making the situation worse: finally, late at night, Willamina lay awake as she heard her daughter leave, heard her get into someone's car, heard the car retreat. She did not have to look to know she'd left a note, coldly worded, to the effect that she was leaving. Willamina did not often fail, but she considered this a failure: her daughter, her second-born, this soon after her firstborn's death, carved a canyon across her mother's heart: she did her best not to let it show, and when asked, would say only that her daughter told her she'd found greener pastures, and left. Willamina knew she'd married the red-headed Marc Fitzgerald, son of the fire chief: she knew him to be an intelligent young man, she knew him to be as honest and full of fun as the rest of the Fitzgerald clan, but she also knew he'd had it out with his own father multiple times: a father, at least to a degree, expects his firstborn to follow in his path, but Marc wanted nothing to do with firefighting: he'd told Willamina it was nothing but hot, hard manual labor, he'd done it too many times, and he was meant to wear a shirt and tie and sit behind a desk. In the years that followed, he'd become a banker, and a good one: he'd provided his pale eyed wife a good life, and they were now blessed with a child, a smiling infant they named Marnie, a child that squealed happily when handed for the very first time to her pale eyed Grandma. Not many generations before, and not far from the solid, log-built house, a pale eyed woman spoke in anger with her red-headed son: he was twelve, stiff-necked and prideful, and he had a way of getting under his Mama's hide, and she would get under his in retaliation, until finally with words that seared the air like a hard-swung blacksnake whip, he took his grip and his hat and left for the firehouse, left for his late father's fellows, spent money he'd saved to ride the steam train back to Cincinnati, where his father had come from: it took some time but he'd finally arrived at a particular firehouse, and he walked in bold as brass and strode right up to the Captain and said "My father was Daffyd Llewellyn and I am his son Daffyd, and I'm here." Unlike Willamina's daughter, though, his return to Firelands was not until after his mother's death; the young man, regretting his harsh words, and wearing his Captain's uniform, came to make amends, only to find a tombstone in the graveyard bearing his mother's name. He wore the rose in his lapel that day, the rose he found on her stone, a fresh cut rose that did not shrivel until three days after his return to Cincinnati, and it was a matter of local legend that, at the grave of Chief Daffyd Llewellyn, a woman all in black, in an old-fashioned gown, heavily veiled, would pace slowly through the river's night-fog, and grieve quietly, kneeling on his grave, a kerosene barn lamp set beside her, and if she was interrupted, she might raise her veil, and her eyes were pale, and glowing like glacier's ice, but alive, alive. Now the daughter of Sheriff Willamina Keller came home, at her mother's summons: she brought her husband, and she brought her daughter, and they sat in the kitchen and spoke quietly, so as not to disturb the man in the recliner. Linn Keller laughed at the Paso colt, clattering industriously after his Mama, marveling at the staccato rhythm his little hoofies beat on the hard ground. "I'd like to trotsky you down a boardwalk," he laughed aloud. "You'd play a fine tune!" The mare waited patiently as her get nosed her hard: children are demanding when hungry, and this colt was no exception: Linn walked up, slowly, caressed the mare, unwrapped a peppermint: the mare's ears came up at the sound of cellophane crinkling, and he held out the spiral red-and-white disc, and the mare lipped it off, crunching happily at the favored treat. "Horse crack," Linn laughed, rubbing her ears. Horse and human both raised their heads just a shade, then Linn turned, whistled: the big black Frisian stallion, too, raised his head, dancing a little: at Linn's summoning whistle, the big horse, bred for war and for carrying knights in armor, almost danced over to him: Linn got a boot in the stirrup, thrust hard against the ground, swung into the saddle, and he heard it again. "Midnight, GO!" he yelled, and Midnight did not need to be told twice. Horse and rider aimed like a black arrow toward the distant, log-built house. Someone fired a .44 and bounced the pistol ball off the cast iron bell, and that was the signal that things had gone to hell, general quarters, this is no drill, BATTLE STATIONS! Linn leaned down, pulled his Winchester from the scabbard, leaned over Midnights' neck, his hand gripping the gleaming mane, and as he chanted to the horse, the stallion laid his ears back and stuck his nose straight into the wind, pounding in a deceptively slow cadence against the Colorado dirt, long, hard-muscled legs splitting the wind and leaving a gauzy, distressed guardian angel yelling and trying without much luck to keep up. Sarah came back into the kitchen, her Mama's pistol in hand: she laid it on the counter, took little Marnie, bounced her a little as the apple-cheeked baby made a happy little sound and cuddled against her Mama's shoulder. Willamina knelt beside Richard, gripping his hand: "I'm here," she said, her voice low, urgent. Richard opened his eyes a little, smiled. She felt for his wrist pulse, looked at Sarah, raised an eyebrow. Sarah fumbled her cell phone from a pocket and Willamina shook her head. Sarah bit her bottom lip, gave her Mama a long look, slid the phone back into its pocket. "Where's Linn?" Sarah asked, and Richard twitched, opened his eyes, smiled again, just as the back door banged open and the sound of boot heels at an urgent cadence preceded the tall, pale eyed young man with the Winchester rifle at ready port. He swept the room, lowered the hammer to half cock, came over beside his mother and laid the '94 on the floor. Sarah, too, came around, knelt with her Mama and her brother, just as Richard opened his eyes again. "Is that Marnie?" he asked slowly, and Sarah nodded. "May I?" Marnie squealed happily, waving chubby pink fists as Sarah placed her carefully in Richard's lap. He managed to hold her, he looked down at her, he looked at his daughter and whispered, "She's beautiful, like all my Keller women." Linn laid a hand gently on his Mama's shoulder: she looked at her son, shook her head, saw his eyes harden. Linn rose, went to a hidden, narrow cupboard; there was a click, and he withdrew a long, hand-rubbed wooden case: he knelt, laid it on the floor: another click and the lid swung open. Marc Fitzgerald saw the tall, slender young man rise, a slender, straight-bladed sword in each hand: "See here!" Linn turned slowly, reminding the prosperous young banker of a battleship's gun-turret coming to bear, and he gave him the full benefit of a pair of blazing, pale, ice-blue eyes. "Stand back," he said, his voice edged with authority. He stepped over to the open laptop, tapped a few keys, turned back to the grim tableau. Willamina reached up, pressed two fingers into her husband's left carotid groove. She waited, counting silently; Sarah held her breath, Linn's finger hovering over a key. Willamina bowed her head, rested her forehead on her dead husband's knee, and Linn saw her shoulders heave with silent grief. He pressed the key. Willamina rose, teeth bared, and Linn tossed her a sword: she caught it easily, and as a selected Cossack tune filled the room, Willamina and her son spun, blades spinning, orbiting the recliner and its grim occupant: Sarah and her baby withdrew, shrinking up against her red-headed husband, as widow and orphan danced a slow circle around the dead man's chair, weaving a shining silver web of honed steel: the dance was ancient, choreographed, deadly: it ended with the swords crossing, kissing above the chair, then each knelt, grounding the tip of the blade. Sarah turned to her husband. "He had pancreatic cancer," she whispered through a tight throat. "They brought him home to die." Marc had no idea what to say, or really what to do, so he did what wise men do in such moments of uncertainty. He held his wife and his little girl. The Bear Killer yawned, fighting ivories impressive in the waning light. Linn cribbed rocks carefully into place. His father had been here with him, and listened carefully as his son told him of the history of the High Lonesome. Linn knew there were bones of past Bear Killers in the rearmost recesses of this shallow but deep cave. He knew the remains of past, pale eyed lawmen rested there as well, hidden, secreted from the world. He'd crawled back into the darkness, bearing the tin can of his father's ashes: he'd worked it as far back as he could reach, this tin with a tomb stone painted on all four sides, with his father's name, dates of birth and death: he'd added "Beloved husband and father and damned good FBI!" and smiled when he did. Should his father's ashes ever be discovered in some future age, the finder would know that here was a man beloved, and esteemed. Linn dusted off his front, sat with his back to the rock wall, gazed into the distance. "I'm glad Sarah came back out," he said softly, and The Bear Killer laid his big head on Linn's thigh. "She decided to stay back East." The Bear Killer offered no comment, closing his eyes in pleasure as Linn rubbed his neck and shoulders. "She and Mama patched things up some. I reckon she'll be bringing Marnie out now and again." The Bear Killer rose, twisted, flopped down against Linn's leg, begging a belly rub: Linn laughed and massaged the great wardog's underside, working curled fingers through curly fur. "I wish Pa had lived long enough to see me graduate from the Academy," Linn said softly. "I wish he could've lived to see Mama pin that old six point star on my vest." Beside him, a pale eyed young woman in a long blue gown tilted her head, smiling a little, regarding the grieving young man with an understanding expression. "He will," she whispered, and when he turned his head to look, all he saw was a pair of dainty foot prints, as if a woman stood there a moment ago. It may or may not have been a coincidence, but at church that Sunday, the Reverend Burnett spoke of the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded, and he suggested the Celtic Christians may well be right, and this great cloud is made of our honored ancestors. Linn remembered this a year later, the day his Mama pinned his badge on him, the six point star that said DEPUTY SHERIFF, and when she did, he remembered the Parson's words. He remembered, for he smelled his father's cologne, and felt the man's hand on his shoulder.
  6. 40. IDAWANNA! It was no surprise that the Sheriff's son Linn became Sheriff in the fullness of time. It is even less a surprise that he grew a mustache and waxed it into a handlebar, though he did fret that his mustache was so thin he had to wax it stiff, instead of the thick, luxurious lip broom of his late Uncle Pete. When Linn was a child, his Mama read from the many Journals, and told her son of the Old Sheriff, Old Pale Eyes, told him tales as if she knew him personally: she told of his daughter Sarah, a beautiful young woman with an incredible skill for disguise, and she told him of the Old Sheriff's son Jacob. Of all of them, Linn was taken by the notion of Jacob: he too was the son of a pale eyed Sheriff; he too was more at home in the saddle than he was walking, in his youngest years: he, too, knew what it was to soar like a wing-spread vulture, at least for a moment, when his saddlehorse leaped the narrow gully behind his house, and Willamina was torn between a motherly gasp of dismay, and chest-busting pride as she watched her little boy, grinning and yelling encouragement, leaned over the neck of her prize mare, running a wide-open slalom between the ancient apple trees out back. The Sheriff had a daughter, as well; she married well, she had children, and Willamina's grandchildren grew tall and strong and apple cheeked, reveling in good health and green strength: her granddaughters as well as her grandsons cut hay and threw hay bales, mucked out stalls and split wood; her granddaughters were perfect ladies, and their prom dresses bore a most marked resemblance to the McKenna gowns on display in the stone-walled Firelands museum. Of course, when they went to Prom, they wore gloves, not only because they were proper young ladies, but because they wished to hide their unladylike calluses. One of her granddaughters, Marnie, was especially close to the Sheriff. She insisted – when she stayed the summer with her Gramma – that she wear a tailored blue suit dress like her Gramma, and she wanted to wear heels as well, but her pale eyed Gramma picked her up and rubbed Eskimo-noses with her and laughed that five was too young for such a thing, and would she like to ride to work on Gramma's horsie, and Marnie giggled and put a bashful little-girl finger to the corner of her mouth and nodded, her pale eyes shining, bright, a memory Willamina carried for the rest of her life. Marnie, like Willamina's children, and her other grandchildren, loved to sit on her Gramma's lap and listen to her read, and in her young imagination she saw the characters her Gramma read about, the big tall Sheriff, his pale eyed son, the smiling, ladylike Sarah – Marnie had a little difficulty with her speech, as the very young sometimes will, and it came out "Sawwah" – then she would frown, and stop, and very carefully she would exaggerate, "Sarrrrrah," and nod once, firmly, as if to say "There!" Retired Chief Deputy Barrents hid his smile behind the knuckle he chewed to keep from laughing, the first time he saw this. Of all the grandchildren, Marnie was most interested in the several descendants of Old Pale Eyes. Willamina described Sarah's gift for disguise, and how she came out of a trunk, borne by what looked like ruffians and miscreants – a chest in which she was supposed to be tied and helpless, and instead she came out, all in black, with a short, double-barrel shotgun and a brace of .44 revolvers, with which she laid waste to a crime boss's headquarters, and to the crime boss himself. Marnie heard the descriptions of Sarah, wounded and hiding under a building, of Sarah in a three-to-one street fight, settling things decisively with cold steel, of Sarah, nonchalantly drawing the sputtering fuse from a bundle of blasting powder and dropping both casually in a nearby rain barrel, while grown men shrank and shivered, expecting she (and them) to be blown to hell and breakfast ... and Marnie laughed at her Gramma's smiling description of the moments after, when the second fuse, unseen, detonated the powder, blowing barrel-staves across the street, water geysering into the air, and spinning one curved wooden stave to strike Sarah across the backside, as if to chastise her for such carelessness as to not look for the second fuse! Willamina drew a wisp of cornsilk-fine hair from her granddaughter's forehead. "You could be like Sarah, sweets," she said softly, "Idawanna," Marnie declared stoutly, shaking her head, then, giggling, shook it again, delighting in the unexpected dizziness it caused. Willamina laughed and hugged her little granddaughter to her. "Who do you want to be like, then?" she asked, kissing the top of her granddaughter's head. "Angela?" Marnie pulled away, looked up at her gently-smiling Gramma. "Marnie!" Willamina threw her head back and laughed and hugged her granddaughter again, and then rubbed her back, feeling the little girl-child giggling again. "Then Marnie it is!" she declared. "Would you like to help me back some cookies?" "Yis!" Marnie declared happily, sliding off her Gramma's lap and scampering across the floor. Richard's eyes followed the happy little girl's scampering charge across the living room floor toward the kitchen, then he looked at his wife and raised an eyebrow. "Cookies?" he smiled. "I knew I liked it when the grandbabies visit!" "Gwampa I'm not a baby!" came the protesting shout from the kitchen, and Willamina stood, laughing. "Just like her Mama," she sighed. "Come along, Bear Killer. I'll probably need help with cleanup!" Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., chief medical officer of the Second Martian District colony, loafed indolently against the door frame, arms crossed, grinning at his wife. "You're thinking of your Grandma," he said gently. Sheriff Marnie Keller looked up and laughed. "You know me so well!" Dr. Greenlees shook his head, chuckled. "Don't give me too much credit," he admitted. "You are far deeper than most folks believe!" "Deeper?" she laughed. "I'll leave it to you to pile it high and deep!" "Now who knows who?" he grinned. Marnie pushed the computer screen back, sighed. "You're right. I was remembering." "Good memories?" "The very best memories!" She came around from behind her desk, sashaying toward her husband, every joint in motion, hips a-swing, one foot very precisely in front of the other, her Olympic skinsuit leaving little to the imagination: she ran her arms around her husband's neck, raised her face and whispered, "Kiss me, you fool!" There was the sound of scampering feet behind the good Doctor and the pair separated as a laughing child, Mars-tall and apple-cheeked, ran up and grabbed her Daddy around the waist from behind. Husband and wife sighed, and with a whispered "Later, my love," released their embrace and squatted, sandwiching the giggling little Willamina between them.
  7. 39. A MAN'S HANDS "Paul?" Chief Deputy Barrents, full blood Navajo and Marine veteran, did the equivalent of a startled cat yowling and springing a startled somersault in the air: his hand twitched ever so slightly, sending a ripple across his freshly drawn coffee, black, no sugar. He placed the cup carefully on the table, turned, black eyes unreadable. "Sheriff." "Walk with me." "Yes ma'am." Willamina paced across the room and toward the front door: Barrents executed a flawless left face, paced off on the left, followed. Willamina came to the door and took a step to the side, stopped, placed her hand on his chest. "You're being formal," she said carefully. "You're having a problem." "Is it that evident?" He hauled open the inside door and they went into the foyer, then he pushed open the outer and they emerged into bright sunshine: they both looked around, Barrents to the right, the Sheriff, to the left, each swinging their gaze out of habit, near to far, looking for points of ambush, for trouble in its many forms. They started down the sidewalk. Willamina's heels were loud on the concrete, Barrents' black-rubber heels, silent: Willamina crossed her arms, frowned a little. "You know," Barrents said at length, "it felt like Gunny kicking open his door and yelling "BARRENTS! GET IN HERE!" before he sets down with me and we hash out a problem he's been working on without solution." Willamina laughed quietly. "I really am transparent, aren't I?" "Not really." "Liar." Barrents made no reply; she hadn't expected him to: in this, he too was predictable. "I said goodbye to Uncle Pete today." Barrents stopped: a pace later, so did the Sheriff. "Excuse me?" Willamina turned, looked up at her chief deputy and he saw her eyes were glistening and ready to overflow. "You know he has cancer." "Agent Orange." She nodded. "He shook my hand and said goodbye." She looked down at his immaculately-shined boots, bit her bottom lip, looked up. "He asked me if I wanted Keller Mountain upon his demise and of course I said yes, and ..." Willamina closed her eyes, hard: he saw her shiver, or try not to, and chief deputy or not, subordinate officer or not, he took a half step forward and ran strong, muscled arms around her: she leaned into him and he felt her shivering like a scared little rabbit, and he pretended not to notice as she shoved her face into his shirt front to muffle the sounds of her grief. Right here on the street, he thought. Right out in front of God and everybody. Willamina rubbed her face against his shirt to wipe off her tears, drew back: he released her embrace and she turned, fell in beside him, her hand on his arm: "Coffee," she managed, and they resumed their walk down the street, toward the fifties-themed drugstore, all mirrors and chrome and soda-fountain kitsch. They sat at one of the tables in back, in a corner, each of them with a wall to their back, each knowing which areas could be viewed with the mirrored surfaces available: Willamina pulled out her field notebook. Barrents hid a small smile as it hit the table. It used to be a steno book, before she'd had it sheared in two, longways; the field notebook is the one you made your raw notes in, wrote down dirty jokes and recipes and uncomplimentary cartoons of whoever irritated you, but the other half of the notebook was the one into which you transferred your actual field notes. That way, after an arrest, when defense issued its subpoena duces tecum, you would turn in the "clean copy" – free of coffee stains, mashed insects, dirty jokes and the like. You didn't want an attorney getting his hands on obscene doggerel about the judge. "I remember when I first came to Firelands." She looked up, almost smiling, but not quite. "Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary took me in and it was like I'd lived there all my life." "I remember." "He said I probably wouldn't see him again." Barrents nodded, remembering his own father telling him the same thing, only with out the probably. "I remember his hand," she whispered, swallowing and drawing back a little as coffee descended to the table, a shining chromed pot with a percolator lid – it was strictly for show, she knew, but it looked good – Barrents waited patiently as the Sheriff allowed the white-aproned waiter to retreat before continuing. "Over in the Sandpile," she said, her eyes distant as she touched the warm, smooth sides of the low, wide coffee cup, "I remember ..." She bit her bottom lip again, frowned, took a sip, frowned. "Good stuff. Now I remember why I keep coming back." Barrents grunted, picked his up, sampled it: she was right, it was particularly good today. "I remember ... there was this one, the kid was from Brooklyn, he was a cynical smartmouth but when he ..." "The gut shot?" She nodded. "You stayed with him." "Damned right I did. Doc did what he could and we got the dustoff in and I stayed with him until they loaded and flew him out, and I don't remember his face ..." Her expression was distant, staring into the past, seeing something through the eyes of a combat Marine, a look Barrents had seen too many times, on too many faces – "I don't remember his face, but I can still feel his hand." Barrents nodded slowly, and Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled with half her mouth. Sheriff Marnie Keller cuddled against her husband. The bed was almost comfortable. It was made of woven strapping, spun from the recyclo, strapping that made beds and chair seats and with a slight adjustment of texture, made atmosphere suits and shoes and whatever else they needed to fabricate: nothing, absolutely nothing, was wasted; it all went into the Recyclo, where it was disassembled at the subatomic level, and reassembled into whatever they needed. Marnie heard it was alien technology, she'd heard it was technology invented at the infamous Skunk Works, she'd heard it was invented by a mad genius who also made a two hundred miles per gallon carburetor and was subsequently murdered by Big Oil so they wouldn't lose money. She did not know, and she did not care: all she knew, or cared about, was that it worked, and worked well. At the moment she was not considering the Recyclo, or mad geniuses, or anything but this man with whom she was entwined. It had been one of those days. Sheriff Marnie Keller was first on scene: a warehouse accident, crushing and penetrating injuries, and she'd called for rescue and medical, and then she'd done what she could until the blueshirts arrived, and – as usual – she'd ended up working beside her husband as he treated the injuries, as he set bones and stitched flesh and she marveled yet again at her husband's hands, moving surely, swiftly, skillfully, as if they had eyes and a will of their own. She'd watched him help laboring mothers birth their young into their now-underground world, she'd watched him carefully dab tears from a frightened child's cheek, she'd watched him grip a man's shoulder in grinning congratulations and she'd seen him grip a man's shoulder in the understanding of a man who knew grief too well himself, and now, now as she lay warm and naked with her sleeping husband, she looked at his hand, warm and relaxed on the blanket that covered them, she laid hers gently on his, and marveled again at her husband's hands. When they were apart, it wasn't his face she remembered, it was his hands, and that was a comfort to her. On one planet, a pale eyed Sheriff gripped the hand of an old man, and whispered a final goodbye as he took his last breath; on another planet, another pale eyed Sheriff gripped the hand of the man she loved, and listened to him breathe as he slept.
  8. We forged out our own throwing hatchets. Made 'em with round eyes. Dear old Dad worked for the Buckeye Pipeline and they broke shovel handles literally by the bushel basket. He'd scarf up the broken shovel handles and we forged the eyes so they would just drive fit onto the swell-head end of a standard shovel handle. We set up an old porch post in the side yard -- poplar it was, you can tell, green wood -- and we splintered that sad old thing plumb to pieces. It was nothing, literally nothing, to hit a playing card every throw. We'd hang a plantain leaf and we'd chew it to pieces, we'd hang a shred of the chewed up leaf and throw at that. Once you get your distance -- the hatchet turns over once -- it's easily done. Throwing an ax, bringing it overhead with both arms ... no thank you, I'll stick with my throwing hawk!
  9. It won't thaw. You leave it out until it's dry. Water goes directly to vapor without the intermediate step of thaw/liquid, a process called sublimation. Not at all uncommon when I was growing up to hang clothes out in freezing weather. The women folk complained terribly about what cold and wet did to their arthritis and as I recall, winter was when Hannah Brothers sold most of their new fangled clothes dryers.
  10. 38. MISTRESS OF DISGUISE Two detectives conferred in quiet voices. These men were with Denver's police force. They'd long known of a criminal underworld; for reasons several and persuasive, they'd been tasked with taking down this enterprise, and they'd had a notorious lack of success, until a maverick in their trade arrived. A woman. Young, pretty, a mistress of disguise, most commonly unseen: thanks to her good efforts, the detectives were credited with several arrests, the recovery of a young fortune in stolen goods, the ruin of two separate white-slavery rings, the solution of multiple kidnappings and counterfeiting efforts. "We owe her this at least." "We owe her a hell of a lot more than just this!" "Did you see her?" A chuckle, a nod. "The last time I saw her was when she brought in that chest full of stolen Army payroll. You remember." "How could I forget! All in black, sitting on the chest with a shotgun across her lap and her hat brim bent down to hide her face ..." "Have you ever seen her face?" "Once. Only once." "Was she pretty?" He shivered. "She was disguised as a nun – one of he Veiled Sisters from down Rabbitville." "The White Nuns?" "The same!" He shivered. "God Almighty, that poor woman!" "How's that?" "She lifted her veil and she had this raw scar that ran from the corner of her eye down across her face and down her neck – at least I think it ran down her neck, you know how they wear those high neck things with their habits – her eye watered all the time from that slash and she whispered kind of husky something about she used to sing opera, and then she lowered that veil again." He shuddered as if someone stepped on his grave. "Well, I saw her, and she didn't look nothing like that!" "What!" "She was a little taller than I'd imagined, but not by much. She had fine blond hair, shined like corn silk in the summer sun and blue eyes, the bluest eyes I've ever seen ... she had a blue ribbon in her hair and a blue gown and she had a mouth a man dreams of ..." He shook his head. "I don't know how women do it. Walked up to me bold as brass and handed me this note and she said 'The Black Agent greets you,' and I about fell over, for she didn't look like the Black Agent anytime I ever saw her! – 'and asks your help,' and she handed me this note and smiled a little and then she walked away into the crowd and she was gone, just like that!" An admiring whistle. "Bright blue eyes, you say!" "Biggest, brightest, shining like she wanted to capture your heart!" Another chuckle. "It sounds like she did!" The enclosed cab shivered a little with the agonies of the sufferer. The driver was known to them, and trusted: he waited patiently in his elevated seat; the rented nag stood patiently, slashing its tail out of habit more than aught else. From within the cab, the sound of a woman, coughing: Angela skipped up to the carriage, rapped twice on the door, called "It's me!" – opened the door, regarded Sarah sadly: "I delivered the message." Sarah nodded, her cheeks flushed, sweat beaded on her face, the picture of misery. "Can I get you anything?" "Some hot tea would be wonderful," Sarah whispered hoarsely. The hotelier was less than helpful: yes, the young ladies in room 421 were gone; no, they were no trouble; no, nobody before them had any illness, nor had anyone else in their hotel: the detective knew what to look for, and he knew the hotelier was being less than forthcoming, but he couldn't be sure the man was outrightly lying. He had better luck with the physicians in the area. He and his partner canvassed the doctors' offices and hospital both, seeking anyone suffering the dreaded consumption, who had perhaps stayed at the same hotel as the Black Agent. By noon they met at a particular saloon, and over beer and sandwiches, compared notes. "That's it, then." The other nodded. "We'll send her a note via the usual messenger?" "Yes." Angela thanked the nervous boy, gave him a coin: she read the note, read it again, nodded. Ten minutes later, between spasms of hoarse, wet coughing, Sarah read it as well. "Murray," she called huskily. "Yes, ma'am." "Murray, good news, you won't have to burn the carriage!" "Yes, ma'am." Murray was one of those absolutely unflappable souls Sarah knew she could absolutely depend on: if the carriage would have to be ground to powder and blown into an industrial furnace, if the carriage had to be painted screaming red with canary yellow bands, if the carriage had to be attached to a hot-air balloon and flown over the mountains, Murray would see to it with his usual quiet efficiency: in this case, he knew a simple airing-out of the carriage would suffice, perhaps a wipe-down inside, which he did anyway: had his unnamed client, the widow-woman with the terrible cough, actually had consumption, she was prepared to pay him for the carriage and have him soak it inside with coal oil, and then fire it: as it was, the carriage would serve for some time yet. Murray didn't particularly care; he was paid to drive, and to keep his mouth shut, and he did both very well, and for this she paid him well. It was a mutually satisfactory arrangement. "Blond haired and blue eyed," the detective murmured, shaking his head. "Pretty thing. Nicely built, too, if you know what I mean." They shared a look, a knowing look between men who appreciated the female form. "All woman?" "All woman." "Damn." He blinked. "From what I'd seen of her as The Black Agent – all in black, dressed like an active young man, moving like a panther – I would never have imagined she would look like that!"
  11. I can find no fault in Chili Ron's logic! Well said indeed!
  12. Now there's something I could genuinely wear out! Delightful!
  13. Pinaud here. I have to grow mine to a greater length in order to have enough body to curl into a villainous handlebar. My father's broom is rich and thick and takes its sweep easily; my own face fur is more sparse, alas!
  14. 37. TO EXTEND THE HAND, AND SMITE AT A DISTANCE Sarah Lynne McKenna flattened herself against the wall, grimaced as wood splinters stung her face: she reached up, found one impaled just below her cheekbone, plucked it delicately and dropped it as if it were unclean. Even wounded, a half empty pistol in her hand, her move was as dainty, as ladylike as her true inner self. Her outer self resembled the inner but little: she wore black britches, the knee high, flat heeled cavalry boots she favored: she had a trickle of blood from the shivers spalled away from the corner of the building by a swarm of heavy shot that tried to find her in the dark. She broke open her bulldog .44 by habit, reloaded by feel: she well knew the human eye was geared to detect movement, she was all in black, she was unmoving, and she was in shadow. As long as I wait, as long as I stay still, she thought, sinking slowly into a squat, these city boys won't see me. Her side burned like homemade hell – one of the shotgun blasts fringed her, which did not make her happy at all – she knew her fair skin would show up, at least her face would: she wore skin-tight, thin-leather gloves, she closed the Bulldog, she willed herself not to acknowledge the pain, the taste of copper, the sweat popping out under her hat, the deep visceral, nauseating body-scream that something is very, very WRONG!! Her glove felt the wood siding behind her, then nothing – and she smiled. Sarah rolled over on her side, crawled quickly under the building, just a little, and waited. The .44 hammer eared back under her black-gloved thumb and she felt as much as heard the oiled, honed mechanism come to full stand in her grip. Silent, hidden, a wounded animal cornered, Sarah smiled with sharpened fangs glistening unseen in the dark. Angela paced left, then right: Sarah was late, very late: Angela was the oldest daughter of Old Pale Eyes, the old lawman with the iron-grey mustache who kept Firelands County safe: worried, Angela looked at the bristling, quietly growling canine looking out the back window. The Bear Killer looked over his shoulder at her – a fighting canine the size of a bear cub, a rather large cub – Angela detested ponies as much as her beloved Sarah, and shared her pale-eyed relative's loathing of the ill-tempered, chop-gaited beasts – she looked at The Bear Killer and her bottom jaw slid out a little. The moon had been out, she knew, but it was gone now, hidden beneath a thick heavy veil of rain-swollen clouds: Angela spun her blue shawl around her shoulders, walked over to the trunk, lifted it. She brought out a shotgun as long as her arm, stock and all: it had an eye screwed into the rib, between the barrels, and a length of braided line forming a loop, clipped into this balance-point: she slung the shotgun across her body, under the shawl, under her left arm, shoved two brass rounds in a hidden pocket on her left, another pair on her right: she felt for the needle dagger in her left forearm sheath, her Derringer at the small of her back: properly attired for a pretty young lady, she looked at The Bear Killer and lifted her chin. He needed no second invitation. Angela flowed like a ghost down the hallway, toward the rear of the hotel, unlocked a door with a key Sarah had given her: this was a stairway used only by staff, she knew, and she had authority enough under her shawl to discourage any challenge. Her gut told her all was not well with her beloved Sarah, and she trusted The Bear Killer to find her. The same key opened the back door, and the pair flowed silently down the outer staircase, and into the night. "Where is he?" a voice growled as the clouds fractured, and moonlight fell to earth, weak, pallid, but enough. Sarah saw a set of legs in the dimness, a shotgun barrel caught the gleam of what little moonlight there was, and she extended her arm. The .44 slug ranged up under the killer's soft ribs, through inner parts that were never intended to have holes ripped through them, and emerged just behind his left collar bone. Her second shot followed a half second later and followed the same general trajectory. Something seized her coat tail and pulled hard, yanking her under the building: it took her by surprise and she could not have resisted this sudden pull if she'd wanted, not lying on her left side, not with her attention in the alley. She felt a furred muzzle, felt the puff of breath, felt the familiar warm, wet tongue give her face a lick, then another: The Bear Killer laundered the blood from her cheek, then grunted and pulled back. Sarah followed, quickly, praying that there would not be a random shot slung under the building. Angela's light-blue dress almost glowed as a crack in the clouds let a shaft of moonlight drive down through the heavens: by random chance it illuminated the length of the alley, showed two men, one with a shotgun: Angela saw two flashes from low beside the building, felt twin concussions, saw the one man fall, his shotgun under him. Angela never sped up, nor did she slacken her pace: she saw the second man advance on the first, she saw him look where gunfire flashed from, saw him reach down and seize the shotgun barrel. Angela Keller, the pretty young blue-eyed daughter of Old Pale Eyes the Sheriff, saw the man look up at her, start to raise his shotgun. She felt her own two pipe shoot gun thrust hard against her and she felt the concussion of both barrels going off like she'd been slapped in the entire front of her whole body: she'd practiced this very move before, the gun was held where her arms could recoil, her thumb tripped the lever and she broke the action, jerked it back, tipped in two hulls at once and closed the action. She had not stopped advancing. Angela raised the gun, eared back the hammers with her left hand, a quick rearward sweep, her long-lashed, pretty blue eyes fixed on the man who'd flinched at her gun's concussion, and now looked down at himself, apparently surprised he was still alive. She saw him in jerks as lightning seared across the sky overhead, she felt her hair stir and start to float, she smelt ozone and she heard a howl, the howl of one of the warrior hounds of Hell itself, and Angela felt a deep rage, some ancient instinct that women feel when one of their own has been hurt, and Angela raised her right hand free from the stubby double's grip and she raised one finger and snapped her arm forward, like she was slinging a whip from her fingertip, and she shouted – her voice tight, sharp, carrying the sharpened edge of authority – "Bad man! Dead!" Lightning seared from the heavens, sundering the very atmosphere, blasting the second killer where he stood: the bolt was thick, blinding, twisted, an intense, blue-white blast that detonated the killer's body in a sudden steam explosion. Angela staggered back, her ears ringing, blinking the blindness from her skull, the heat-blast only just registering itself on her face: she paced forward, toward a smoking crater the size of a peck basket, toward the townie shoes, one upright, on its side, toward the ruin of smoldering clothes and smoking meat that used to be a man. "You shouldn't have raised a gun toward me," Angela said quietly – a condemning elegy over a dead man's carcass -- then turned and walked, delicate and ladylike, through the dark alley, drawing her shawl up over her head against the first, fat, very cold drops that preceded what she knew would be an absolute downpour. Angela turned right at the end of the building, whistled: a deep ROOF to her right, and she lifted her skirts, skipped ahead, slowed as something dark rose in the shadows. Sarah heard the concussions, saw the flash: it felt like the building was crowding down on her, the way that narrow, twisty tunnel did when she crawled into the mountain in search of the other half of her soul. She dug her elbows into the dirt, willing herself not to feel the pain in her ripped-open side, and having absolutely no success in the effort. She managed to crawl the entire width of the building, came out the other side, rolled over, sat up: the ground was wet, it was raining, and she was in pain. She listened, eyes busy, rain rattling off her broad-brimmed, cobweb-draped hat. Something pale, ghostlike, glided down the alley toward her: something dark, huge, beside her, and she knew the darkness, knew her Bear Killer, and from that she knew the ghost was at least friendly. Sarah rose, fell back against the building as the ghost rushed at her. "Angela," she whispered, grimacing at the effort, then: "The key?" "Here." "Let's go." Angela smelled blood but said nothing: she got Sarah's rain-wet arm around her shoulders, ran her other hand around and grabbed the belt under Sarah's thigh-long coat: the further they went, the more weight Sarah surrendered to her younger half-sister, and by the time they got to the back stairs, it was pouring straight down, soaking them both, and it was genuinely all Angela wanted, to get the steadily-weakening Sarah up the stairs. They made it up the inner stairs, The Bear Killer silent as death and close as a shadow behind them; they made it down the hall and to their room, they made it inside, but only just, before anyone else tenanted the corridor. Angela was pale, her lips pressed together as she got them both stripped down and hot water drawn: she exposed Sarah's wound, her hands steady as she cleansed, then probed Sarah's ragged wound. "It's barely into the muscle," she murmured, "but it's wide as my hand." "The Lord looks out after fools and children," Sarah gasped as Angela wiped the wound ungently with a pad soaked with carbolic. Sarah's teeth clicked together against what she wanted to say, her breath hissing in through her locked-shut jaw; she turned her head, took three more breaths before gasping, "Christ Jesus and seven saints, that hurts!" "Never heard that one before," Angela murmured. "Here, hold this while I wrap you." "Wrap it thick, I'll wear a corset over it." "You'll have to." Sarah glared at her sister but offered no further comment. The Bear Killer watched, black eyes fixed on his beloved Mistress, unmoving as carved and polished bituminous: it was not until Sarah lay down on her bed, not until Angela drew her covers up in a motherly manner, not until she checked the door's lock again, not until she checked her stubby shotgun's loads and lay it across her lap as she sat facing the door, that Angela turned her head and whispered "Bear Killer, okay," and The Bear Killer took two short hops and then soared into Sarah's bed, landing light and careful: he snuffed loudly at Sarah's injured side, then at her ear, and lay down, warm and solid and protective, covering her hurt with his living soul. Angela sat a little to one side, so if someone came through the door, she would not be squarely in front of them, nor would she be immediately seen: she knew at this distance, her eighteen inch barrels on the pistol gripped gun would spread to the size of a serving plate. Two barrels, she knew, would be enough ... enough, that is, if anyone was foolish enough to try forcing their way in. Angela remembered something Charlie Macneil told her, on one of those occasions when she was able to sit and listen to the man, one of the rare moments when he'd come to visit but he wasn't conferring with her pale eyed Papa. He'd been talking with Jacob, and they were discussing matters important to the two of them, and Angela remembered hearing him say something about the terrible responsibility that comes of being a lawman, of being entrusted with the authority of death and of life as needed, of wearing the full weight of the law on the front of his vest, of lawfully possessing that quality reserved for the gods ... the ability to point the hand, and to smite at a distance. Angela remembered when she was a little girl, and a bad man tried to hurt her Papa, and she felt the power in the clouds overhead and she raised her finger and slashed it out like a whip and yelled "Bad man! Dead!" – and lightning blasted from the rain-swollen clouds overhead, and the man died a sudden and most horrifying death. She remembered triggering both barrels of her short howitzer and apparently not hitting the man with a single shot – the distance was too great, and so was the shot spread – but she recalled the power in the clouds, and she felt that power run to obey her, and she smiled as she remembered what it was to extend the hand, and to smite. It's kind of like when I shot pistol at the county fair, she thought. I shot the stems from under five cob pipes set up on a plank, and I won a beef. She smiled as she remembered how one of the fair officials loudly derided a mere girl shooting with the men, and after she cut five pipe stems with five shots, his mouth dropped open and his freshly-lighted Marsh Wheeling stogie fell to the ground, forgotten. "How," he'd gasped, "how did you do that?" Angela remembered she waited until she reloaded the .44 Smith & Wesson, and slid it back into the holster concealed beneath her skirt, that she walked up to the man, planted her knuckles on her hips and said innocently, "My Papa taught me to shoot. You might know him. His name is Linn Keller." She recalled how his eyes widened, and how "Oh," was all he could say.
  15. 36. Ein Sheriff, mit blassen Augen Tales are told by sailors bold Of fight, across the sea: With canvas spread, a sense of dread, Hull-split waves and hearts so brave, Canvas wings – Sarah Lynne McKenna leaned back against the rock, frowning at the folded page laid against her knee: she chewed thoughtfully at the end of her pencil, imagining a swift vessel, a clipper, driving before the wind: she imagined what it must feel like, running across waves, dashing them aside, hearing them slam against good oak planks ... "Canvas wings what?" she muttered around the tooth-dented wood. She raised pale eyes and looked at her jet-black Frisian mare, grazing contentedly in this wind-sheltered cove, tail thrashing lazily against her sides, more out of habit than anything else. "Papa was right," Sarah sighed. "You write best what you know best, and what do I know about the sea?" She slipped the pencil in her dainty little writing-satchel, slipped folded paper in behind it. "I don't know straight up from go-to-hell!" She rose, looking around, dusted off her backside, walked up to Snowflake, caressed her warm, shining neck: living fur was warm under her palm, and Sarah smiled, ran her fingers through the mare's long, gleaming mane. "I could write poetry about riding horses," she speculated aloud, touching Snowflake behind the foreleg: the mare obediently folded her legs, bellied down on the ground: Sarah lifted her skirt, swung a leg over, kissed at the mare and marveled yet again at the sense of sheer power as her beloved, gleaming-jet Snowflake-mare rose with absolutely no difficulty. A pretty young girl's laughter floated on the high mountain air, like a bird winging its way between the stars. Chief of Police Will Keller leaned his palm against his Jeep fender and squinted up at the sky. "Thinking about flying again?" Willamina asked gently. "Yeah." He shaded his eyes, watched the golden eagle bank across his zenith. "Did you know," he said thoughtfully, "the Red Baron's Fokker still has the best climb of any unaltered airplane?" "I didn't know that." "Oh yeah. Twenty nine horsepower engine and it would climb like a monkey." "Twenty nine horses?" Willamina raised an eyebrow. "I've run bigger chain saws!" "There are custom jobs that will just burn a hole in the sky," Will said, either not hearing his twin sister, or choosing not to hear her: "but for a factory unaltered airplane, that three wing Fokker ..." He chuckled, lowered his palm, looked wryly at his pale eyed twin sister. "Sorry, Sis. Daydreamin' again." "I love it when you do." Willamina folded her arms and gave him a knowing smile. "You look almost like the boy I remember!" "Yeah," he sighed, then looked back up at the eagle, shading his eyes again and squinting a little. "Yeah, but can you imagine what that must feel like, to fly like that!" "I know what it is to fly on a horse," Willamina said with a quiet smile, and Will grinned again. Off in the distance they heard The Lady Esther whistling to the station as she came around the last bend. "I never knew whether I wanted to drive a steam engine or drive a fighter jet," he sighed. "I'd say you've done well with your life." "If it wasn't for these eyes I'd have been an Eagle driver!" "I know. You're not the first man I've heard lament the need for 20/20 uncorrected." "Nowadays they can grind your prescription into your flight helmet's visor." Willamina laughed, her head tilted back a little, cheeks pink in the sunlight. "I wonder if they could grind in a bifocal for me!" Will chuckled, pulled up his shirt cuff. "I know it was a signal day when I got my first set of bifocals. I looked at my wrist and realized hey presto, I can actually read my watch again!" "I remember." She tilted her head a little. "Say, I was talking with Tammy – you know, Tammy the nurse –" "Big hair, face paint?" "She used to be a beautician. I think she still has her license." "I know her. Works the nursing home." "Bingo. She was telling me about some of the things she's heard, and I just remembered ... do you recall the old German?" Will didn't have to ask which old German: there was only one Old German, and he was the man who'd held onto Joseph Keller's copper plated Colt revolvers, and the documents that came with it. "You're thinking the German we knew. This was his brother. "Oh." "Just before the brother died, there in the nursing home, he was telling her about his wartime experience." "Oh?" Will favored his pale eyed sister with his own pale eyed gaze, raising one eyebrow and dropping his shoulder just a little as he did, and Willamina laughed to see this common posture, seemingly bred into every Keller she'd ever known. "He was First War Luftwaffe." Will turned and faced his sister squarely. "Hel-lo," he said quietly. "Say on, sis!" Will leaned forward a little, both palms resting on the Jeep's hood: his expression was that of a hound on a hot track. "She said ... he said something about meeting a Valkyrie, and that she looked a lot like me." Will frowned ever so slightly and turned his head as if to bring a good ear to bear. "This," he said slowly, "is ... innnteresting!" Tammy turned the mug around in her hands, smiling a little. "I work here to keep my sanity," she said, sipping at her coffee and turning to sweep the interior of the beauty parlor with her long-lashed gaze. Will chuckled, pointed. "I like your coffee mug." "You like that?" She removed her covering hand, exposing DAMNED IF I DO, then she turned it around to show DAMNED IF I DON'T on the opposite. "Your sister said you wanted to ask about a patient." "I ... eeeee." He frowned, realizing how that sounded – ask about a patient – confidentiality, a voice whispered somewhere between his ears, and Tammy tilted her head. "Come on in back. We need to talk." He followed her back to a little office, just big enough for a desk, a filing cabinet and two chairs. Tammy placed her mug very precisely on a wicker holder on top of the grey steel cabinet, opened a drawer, frowned at the several hanging folders: he saw her mouth widen ever so slightly, as if she almost smiled, just before her hand dove into the green-cardboard dividers and came up with a manila folder. She handed it to him. Chief of Police Will Keller raised an eyebrow and Tammy laughed: "Oh, don't look so surprised!" she declared. "He told my mother someone would ask and she should tell them, so there it is!" She lowered her head, regarded him through long, curled eyelashes. "He only spoke German and my mother was the only nurse there who did, so I did an awful lot of translating for him. SheI got to carrying a tape recorder so she could review his conversations later and make sure she'd not gotten something confused. That" – she reached a lacquered, manicured nail over the top of the jacket, tapped it briskly – "is about his Valkyrie." Will opened the manila folder. Centered on the first page: "You may think me a foolish old man, telling a little girl of his wartime, but before I die I want someone to know about my Walkure." There was a picture of a grinning young man with one hand on a mottled green-and-black biplane, and under the cockpit opening, just above his hand, in that angular and ornate Old English lettering ... Walkure She was beautiful, my Walkure: she was my lover! -- she smelled like castor-oil and clouds, she smelled of the sky and of petrol, she embraced me like a lover and she flew like the angel of death herself. I was a young man – we were all young then – I could tell you much of our life on the ground, of the pranks, of the officers, the parades and the food and of grand speeches I wished to escape, but let me tell you of something I saw. The Englischers called it Bloody April, for the hunting was good, and my harvest was bountiful. I sent men and airplanes spinning to earth, some on fire and some not, and one I shot killed the pilot but his airplane continued to fly straight and level and I suppose it flew until it ran out of fuel. We were hunting, Ernst and I, and both of us in our leopard-spotted Albatros fighters – they'd just come back from a refit, the leading edge of the bottom wing had been replaced, damned shoddy work they had to do over! – we surprised three Sopwiths and the fight was on. I shot one through the engine and he began streaming oil, and then he caught fire, and I saw him put a pistol to his head rather than burn, and he went down: the second fired a short burst into Ernst's belly and then turned a hard wingover and ran for home as I came at him. I lost him in the clouds. I flew back and for a miracle Ernst was still in the air but he was slumped in the cockpit, and circling, a slow spiral down and I flew wingtip to wingtip and screamed at him – "Ernst, Ernst!" – near enough I could have hit him with a stone but too far to help him. I saw something coming toward us, fast and black and I threw my stick hard over and kicked the rudder, thinking it an incoming fighter, and I pulled up fast to get my guns on him and I froze. I have never frozen in the air but I froze that day. It was not an airplane coming toward us that I saw. It was a horse, and what a horse! – black, big as the Albatros I flew, its wings half again broader and snow white, and on the horse, mein Gott, on the horse a woman, and what a woman! I circled and flew closer, and I paced her coming in, barely ahead of the great feathered wingtips. She looked at me and I saw her clearly, and I have seen her since. "Draw near, Liebchen, for you may know her." He nodded, closed one eye confidentially. "I have seen her, and you know her." He coughed, spat into a kerchief, threw it irritably into the nearby can, waited until he could breathe more easily. "Liebchen, you know her, my Walkure, my angel, and she will come for me as well, she and her great black horse." He took a few more gasping breaths, raised a hand to his chest, turned his head back and forth the way a man will when all is not well. "She flew against Ernst's Albatros, Liebchen. She flew beside it and eased into it and she took Ernst in her arms and lifted him from the cockpit and then she banked right and described a circle and I flew with her." He breathed through an open mouth – air hunger, the veteran nurse thought, rising and looking out in the hall for the portable oxygen – the old man's hand closed on her wrist and she turned and saw his expression. Beseeching, the way a man will look when he knows his time is upon him. "I saw her lift Ernst from the cockpit, dead and broken, bloodied and beyond all help, and she drew him to her breast as a mother will her child. The great black horse banked right, away from his Albatros. I looked at his Albatros and saw he was still in the cockpit. "I looked back to the horse and the woman in the golden helmet and breastplate and Ernst was alive and unharmed in her arms and he looked at her and he looked at me and he was delighted and waved as he always did, and then the woman lifted the lance she'd had socketed in her right stirrup, and the head was silver and it burst into light as if it were a silver sun, and then the black horse she rode stroked most powerfully, and lifted away, and at full throttle my Albatros could never have kept up with them." He leaned back into his pillow, blinking. "Mein Sheriff mit blassen Augen," he whispered, and he swung his eyes to the nurse in the white cap and starched white dress. "My Sheriff," she whispered as the man's eyes swung to the right, and he smiled a little, and he raised his hand, as if to grasp a visitor's palm: "my Sheriff, with pale eyes," and he sighed out his last breath, and his old and worn body seemed to shrink a little, the way an old man's body will, when his spirit stands up straight and tall and feels the old worn self fall away like dropping away a worn and soiled cloak from the shoulders. The nurse rose and reached for the man's throat to confirm what she already knew – she was a nurse, she would check the carotid pulse, for if there is any cardiac activity at all it will be palpable there – and then she drew back, startled, for they two were no longer alone. An immense black horse filled most of the room, its white wings folded almost demurely against an ornate saddle, trimmed in gold and carved in runes: beside the bed, a slender, athletic young man with his uniform cap at a jaunty angle, his uniform crisp, pressed, holding hands with a pale eyed woman with long, thick braids and a winged golden helmet, a golden breastplate, and a silver headed lance in her other hand. The young man looked at her and she heard his laugh, but not with her ears, and she watched as they climbed on the gleaming, shiny-jet horse's back, and there was the sound of a canvas sail booming full of wind as the wings swept up, and down, and they were gone, and she was alone, with the body of an old man, still and dead in the bed before her. Will looked up at Tammy, his jaw hanging open. "That's your copy. I have another." "My Sheriff," Will said slowly, "with pale eyes." Tammy looked very directly at the Chief. She was an attractive, heavy-set woman with an ornate hairdo and perhaps too much makeup, a woman with a coffee mug and a hairdresser's smock and the expression of a woman who knew the truth of what she said. "There's more to your sister than meets the eye, Chief." Chief of Police Will Keller looked down at the last page, then back up to the veteran nurse who did beautician work to maintain her sanity, and he honestly could not think of a single thing to say.
  16. 35. APOLOGY Sheriff Willamina Keller handed her chief deputy a steaming mug of coffee. "Black as a sinner's heart," she said quietly, "and just a little sweet." She tipped milk into her own, sipped, regarded her Navajo segundo with knowing eyes. "All right, out with it." "Out with what?" Barrents' eyes were obsidian-black, polished and bright, and he did his level best to look innocent. The Sheriff knew better. Silence grew long between the two; they slowly raised their heavy ceramic mugs, took a tentative pull at their caffeinated payload, swallowed. "All right," Barrents growled, and Willamina's left eyebrow tented up just a little. Barrents set his mug down, leaned an elbow on top of the filing cabinet. "You remember my wreck last year." "I remember." "You recall when I went over the guardrail the only injury I got was when my badge came up and cut my forehead." "I remember." Willamina set her own mug down. "I remember getting there and seeing that Crown Vic wheels-up and you looking like you were ready to rip the wheels off with your bare hands!" "That's how I felt." "I figured." "So ... you had a wreck more than a year ago." He nodded, frowned, eased his bottom jaw out, considering. "My leg was giving me trouble so I went to see the chiropractor." Willamina nodded, once: he didn't have to say which chiropractor, there was only one anywhere near, a man with a good reputation, a man who'd given her late Uncle immense relief on occasion. "I never put much stock in 'em," Barrents admitted, "so I stomped up his sidewalk mutterin' about damned quacks and filled out the paper work and he had me come back and strip to the waist and we talked for a little bit, he laid me down on the table and turned me one way and then the other and then he felt my neck and said he thought he knew where the trouble was and he could fix it." "Mm-hmm." Willamina took another tilt, topped off her mug from the coffee pot, held up the glass pot. Barrents extended his mug, accepted the refill. "He had something that looked like a kid's plastic dart gun, only instead of the slide – you know those dart guns that look like a little .45 automatic? – it didn't have a slide, it had a piece of wooden dowel with a rubber ball on the end. He cocked it back, set it close to my neck and that little round ball shot forward and thumped me in the neck. He did that maybe eight or ten times and said 'All done' and I put my shirt on and paid the woman out front, I stomped out of that office muttering about a damned quack and halfway down the sidewalk" – she saw that flash of humor in his glitter-dark eyes – "I realized I didn't hurt anymore. "I turned around and stomped back inside and apologized to the man!" Willamina nodded knowingly, almost smiling, but not quite: she, too, knew what it was to be wrong, and to own up to it. "I'm glad it's fixed. I could see you were hurtin'." Barrents looked almost wounded. "I tried not to let you see it!" "I know. That's why I didn't speak up."
  17. When I had my colonoscopy they told me I'd open my eyes and say "You can start now" and it would be over. "Yeah, right," said I. "You can start now." I was in recovery. Now when I had kidney stones -- had ten of the things so far which is about two hundred too many -- I'm in ER wallowin' on attair tin bed like a worm on a fish hook. A nurse came over from another zone and said "I recognize the wriggle, kidney stone?" "Yes," I gasped. "Can I get you anything?" I looked her right in the eye and said "I've been a nurse for many years and I've never asked a favor but I'll ask now!" She gave me a sympathetic look and I reckon she figured I was going to ask for a needle full of liquid sledgehammer. "Could you send down to Central Supply and have 'em send up the biggest rubber mallet they've got!" She turns red and she's trying not to laugh and she asked "Whyyyyyyy ...?" I set bolt upright and give her my best wide eyed look and said "I want you to take in both hands and swing it like Babe Ruth, I want you to belt me between the eyes with it, just as hard as you can!" By now she's snorting and trying really hard not to laugh and her ears is so red I though her hair was goin' to ketch fahr and she managed to half-giggle, half-choke, "I'm sorry, I can't do that!" "It's like rasslin' a wildcat up in a tree!" I declared loudly. "Shoot up here amongst us, one of us gots to have some relief!" (I don't know if she ever listened to that great Suth'n comedian Jerry Clower, but it seemed appropriate at the time!)
  18. My father in law lamented how expensive parts are ... In other parts of the world, where it's common as fleas on a hound dog, it's as ubiquitous as a Chevrolet -- because the rest of the world recognizes quality, and because there are more parts available more cheaply. A dear friend is from Malaysia and he said the most common taxi is a Mercedes. A parson of my acquaintance is prior military, served in Germany, bought a Mercedes over there and Uncle Sam kindly shipped it back when he was rotated stateside. The only Diesel pump in three counties was the Shenandoah Truck Stop on I-70 near Cambridge, so he'd wheel over and fill up ... one evening a trucker was feeding his Kenworth, he came curiously between the pumps and frowned at my friend's vehicle and when the Parson shut it off and climbed out, the trucker cautioned him, "Friend, you'd best check your oil, them valves is a-rattlin' somethin' fierce!" My buddy got a good tickle out of the observation, and a lot of mileage out of the story!
  19. When they were little, it was "Gwampa Linn." When they were older it was "Grampa." Now they never call. (sigh) Sure glad I made frequent visits to my grandfolks!
  20. By golly now that's the best news I've heard for some time! Well done and absolutely delighted for you!
  21. 34. DOUBT "Do you remember when we were in football?" A chuckle, a nod, a hand raises a heavy glass mug, tilts. Beer, cold, fragrant, flavorful, sliding down a thirsty man's throat after a hard day's work. "I recall she used to run right with us." "Right with us, hell! She used to run us into the ground!" "Only once." They shared a knowing look, remembering the day one of their young, testosterone-fueled fire-eaters challenged the Sheriff to a race and she said "Sprint or distance?" and he chose distance. Four chose to run with them: two, choosing to side with the challenger; two, following, just to see what would happen. All four who ran with them, ended up dropping out, coasting to a stop, walking back: the Sheriff and the football star ran grimly, side by side, for the agreed-upon distance. The entire football team ended up following, at least as far as the four who dropped out; once gathered back into the group, they found a nearby promontory, someplace they could watch, somewhere they could see in the distance who was ahead, and who ... wasn't. "I remember they came back together." He raised a finger, and Mr. Baxter – sadly, no relation to the original Mr. Baxter who was given charge of the Silver Jewel's bar back when Old Pale Eyes straightened the place out – refilled both their mugs, polishing the stray drops, the condensation rings from the gleaming, glass-smooth mahogany bartop. "I recall that," came the soft-voiced, thoughtful reply. "I recall they came back with his arm over her shoulders, he was white faced and sick and she was half carrying and half dragging him, and she never slowed a bit from her original pace!" A chuckle, a nod. "Nah," another fellow, several years younger, interjected. "I doubt an old woman could do anything like that!" "We were there, sport," came the soft voiced answer. "We saw it happen." "You're damned right I did," a familiar voice smiled from behind them, and a hand clapped down on each of their shoulders. "Boys, how have you been?" Sheriff Linn Keller glared suspiciously at his wooden swivel chair. The four legged office chair was not impressed by his pale eyed gaze. "I need to fetch in a peach crate to set in," he muttered. "It'd be safer." He looked toward the stove, banked against the time he intended to spend elsewhere: he'd emptied the corroded coffee pot of its vile payload, rinsed it out, checked for leaks – by his own admission, he made the world's worst coffee, and he tended to rot the bottom out of a good granite pot in just a short time – seeing no leaks, weeps or drips, he hung the empty pot on a peg and called it good. I might see if Daisy has something good today, he thought: his stomach agreed with his assessment, and his boots proceeded to carry him toward the Silver Jewel. Mr. Baxter looked up with his quiet, wise expression, sauntered over to the bar. "What'll it be, Sheriff?" "What's Daisy got good today?" There was the distinct WHAP! of a wooden spoon smacking a man's shoulder, loud in the momentary lull in barroom conversation, and Daisy raised her chin and snapped "Whattaya mean what's Daisy got good today? You pale eyed hell raisin' man killin' badge packin' horse giggin' –" Linn turned, raised his palms toward the scolding Irishwoman. "Dear heart," he pleaded, "flattery will get you everywhere!" "Flattery is it!" Daisy fairly screeched, stepping up close and thrusting her belly into his, raising her hand to shake her Mommy-finger under his nose. "Flattery! And to another man's wife! You scoundrel, I'd ought to bend you over my knee and take a board to your backside! Insultin' my cookin' and now you're tryin' t' corrupt me morals!" She reached up and seized the man's face with both hands, pulled his head down and planted a kiss on his lips, then pulled away, spun around with a "Hmph!" – she raised her chin, she raised the wooden spoon like a scepter and she lifted her skirts with the free hand as she marched purposefully back to her culinary demesne down the hall. The Sheriff felt his ears redden, he felt his cheeks warm, and he had the general expression of a man who'd found himself in the middle of a Texas twister, only to be tossed away and discarded just as quickly. "Mr. Baxter," he said cautiously, "maybe I ought to start with a beer." "Hell, Sheriff," a voice chuckled, "after that show I'll stand you a beer!" The Sheriff looked his benefactor in the eye and replied, "As the old preacher said, all donations cheerfully accepted!" Moments later, Daisy – still muttering – loaded one plate after another, stacked them on a tray, picked it up and turned, almost running into the pale eyed young woman standing unexpectedly in her kitchen. "I'll take it," Sarah said, smiling: "I'm here to cause some trouble." Daisy, startled, surrendered the tray, reaching instead for the towel that lived on her off shoulder: wiping her hands, she collected her thoughts, then nodded briskly. "Right," she said decisively. "Yon pale eyed rapscallion causes enow on his own, now do ye add to it an' my blessin' upon ye!" "Daisyyyyyy," Sarah drawled warningly, giving her an amused look, "what did you do now?" Daisy blinked, her Irish-green eyes wide and innocent: "Why wha'e'er ga'e ye such an idea? Now be off wi' ye before yon gravy cools!" She made a little shooing motion and Sarah giggled, her cheeks pinking like ripe apples, and she turned carefully and slipped silently out of Daisy's kitchen and down the shadowed hallway. "Now ye're tellin' me ye ran yer fist down that dog's throat?" she heard, and she saw a fellow with a beer in one hand and a hand rolled in the other gesturing expansively: "Ye're damned right I did, an' I did it so he'd not bite me!" "Ye ran yer fist down a dog's throat," the first one chuckled, shaking his head as Sarah placed the tray on the bar, slid it just enough to touch the Sheriff's leaning elbow: he turned to see his pale eyed progeny smiling knowingly, working with the buttons on her off sleeve. "An' that holds as much water as that sweet little schoolmarm that broke a wolf's neck!" came the skeptical rejoinder. "She broke it an' made it look easy!" "I doubt that!" Sarah twisted past the Sheriff, shoved herself in between the two, held up her forearm. "Right there it is, boys," she said, reaching up with her free hand to caress the puckered scars: "it broke this bone and tore up the meat and this part of my hand" – she traced a line along her palm – "is still numb. It may never have feeling again, and it's less than convenient when I'm playing piano." "Dear God," one whispered, as the other took her hand as gently as if he were cupping delicate bone china, staring at the shiny scar tissue. "And numb, y'say?" "Not just numb," Sarah said frankly, turning her hand over. "See that dot right here? – I wanted to see just how much I couldn't feel, so I took a straightpin and heated the head red hot, and just touched it – just touched – where that little white spot is." The man's stubbled chin sagged a little at her frank description of touching glowing steel to her feminine flesh. "I could hear the sizzle of burning meat and I could smell it and I did not," she said in a near whisper, "I, did not, feel, a thing." She pulled her sleeve back down, buttoned the dainty little buttons, one at a time: she smiled, dipped her knees, whirled and flowed back down the hallway as smoothly as if she were on wheels. "Dear God," the man repeated. "She ... burnt herself, with a straightpin!" "Any doubt there?" the Sheriff asked, raising an eyebrow and regarding the pair over the rim of his mug. "No," one said, and "No" said the other, and three men raised their mugs and drank, right before the Sheriff turned and picked up his tray to carry it back to his usual table.
  22. Ya Big Tree, that sounds like the way to do it! Well done indeed!
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