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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Everything posted by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

  1. 679. RUNNING A BLUFF Gracie Maxwell smiled, just a little, and that was not necessarily a good thing. Gracie Maxwell was alone -- that is, if you ignored the ship several hundred miles from her, closing steadily on her position. Gracie Maxwell felt the same delicious tickle in her belly she used to get right before she tore into one of her brothers and just plainly knocked the dog snot out of him for deviling her: she felt the launch mechanism chuckle beneath and behind her, she knew that a pair of ultra-dense, spitzer-pointed, hardened projectiles were loading into the twin Gauss guns, and she knew if there was atmosphere to hear with, the capacitors would be singing as they sucked up unholy megajoules of power from her screaming reactors -- she knew they were screaming, though the only thing she really heard was the steady hiss of air into her helmet. It hadn't been a year ago that she'd shaved her head. The clippers buzzed her scalp free of hair; she'd washed and lathered her scalp and carefully shaved it free of stubble, she'd laughed at the reflection in the mirror -- "I look like a light bulb!" -- and then she'd taken the flight helmet, molded and formed and engineered for her and her alone, she'd pulled it onto her shining, pale scalp, felt it connect with her flight suit and mold itself to her bare naked head. She did not feel the microneedles that injected themselves into the contact points, but she felt the result. Gracie Maxwell was the colony's fiddler. She was also a transport pilot. When the Valkyries approached her for a new kind of ship, she'd protested -- their Interceptors were sports cars, she was used to flying a truck -- but they'd insisted her particular skills made her more suited to fly this new ship, this mindship, this ship controlled by the pilot's brain instead of with stick-and-rudder controls. She'd tried the simulator, she'd run it again, she'd flown a thousand times in the computer: the mindship was bigger than the Interceptors, far more powerful, capable of slipping between layers of reality like a pet dog will torpedo under the covers on a cold winter's night: she learned the knack of slipping between universes, she practiced coming out far distant from her Martian home. She'd made mistakes. She came out too close to a star's surface -- the simulator was not kind in that moment -- she'd run it again, adjusting for the unexpected strength of this particular star's gravity well, and came out in its photosphere -- then she'd slipped back between realities and emerged in the welcome coolness of a distant star system. Through all this, she still knew exactly where she was: she did not understand the technology, only that it worked, and it worked very well. The simulator populated her universe with every type of ship known to the Confederacy, with vessels from every enemy they'd faced up to and faced down over their time among the stars, and when the warning buoys alerted their flight commander of a hostile vessel's approach, Gracie Maxwell -- diminutive little Gracie, bald headed, skinny, no bigger than a cake of soap -- climbed the ladder into her cockpit, pulled on her helmet and her communication, her speed and her power and her weapons: her body relaxed back into the contoured flight couch, she leaned back, closed her eyes, and with her eyes closed, she saw the launch cavern in startling detail, seeing around her and behind her as clearly as if she were looking forward at the control panel. Gracie Maxwell, daughter of the Colorado mountains, fiddler and champion shotgunner, watched the heavy lid slide sideways, exposing her launch cradle. Unnecessary, she thought. I'm not going to blast out of here, all fire and smoke and thunder and roar. The Valkyries will launch with reaction engines. The Valkyries watched as Gracie's craft simply ... disappeared. Gracie saw the enemy vessel through eyes millions of miles from her. She emerged one mile from the vessel and directly in its path. She was gone as the bolt from its primary cannon seared through the space she'd just occupied. Gracie reappeared on the other side of a convenient star. She felt both her Gauss guns roll a projectile into battery, waited until she could taste power -- when the capacitors were fully charged, she swore she could taste copper -- then her ship disappeared again, reappeared a hundred yards from the enemy vessel, directly above it. She knew her thoughts would be translated into what passed for words in the unseen enemy's language -- Intruder into our star system, identify and state intentions. The big warship turned, coaxial energy-cannon seeking her: she was gone before they could come to bear on her. She reappeared again, directly in front of them, fired: she was inside their protective barrier-field as she did, too close to evade, too close to escape. She drove two case hardened, ultra dense projectiles the length of telephone poles, right down the main discharge channel of their twin energy-cannon, shattering them for their entire, ship-long lengths. She disappeared again, reappeared directly under them. I can continue longer than you, she challenged. Unless you want me to invade your computer system and drink deeply of your information, I suggest you stand down and stop. She knew it would be most of an hour before her system could actually invade theirs: once it did, she would be privy to their communication system, but the sheer volume of information would be overwhelming. No, better to run a bluff and turn them around. This star system is already ours, she challenged. Unless you want me to visit a collapsed star upon your homeworlds, I suggest you reverse course. This time the enemy vessel responded -- the message was not entirely clear, but she figured out the reply was less than polite and included a great doubt as to whether she could actually manage to move a singularity. Gracie smiled. She allowed her ship to emerge the width of a finger from the enemy vessel's hull: a shift in reactor frequency and her ship slammed into theirs, stuck like two magnets, and she knew the gravity field she was generating would play hell with whoever was inside that ship, for its entire depth, and would throw critical stresses on their hull: a second field, projected around their propulsion system, prevented their bubble universe from forming. The enemy ship was dead in space, with something very unpleasant on their hull. Gracie knew from looking with eyes far more powerful than her own, that there were no weapons other than the coaxial mounted, immense and immensely powerful energy cannon, the cannon that extended the length of the ship, the cannon she'd wrecked: there had been minimal loss of atmosphere, so they had the ability to establish energy fields to keep air in, despite the damage she'd caused. She flexed her mind, her ship slid between realities again ; she was now aft and to the side by a hundred miles or so. This star system is taken. Go home. There is nothing but your destruction here. Or shall I summon the Void and have you sucked into my own personal singularity? Gracie did not wait for a reply. She was suddenly attached to their hull again, only this time she enveloped the enemy ship with her own field. They emerged into normal space a few hundred light-years along the enemy ship's back trail. Gracie released, disappeared: the enemy ship clawed impotently at space with its sensors, trying to find this devil-machine that slung them backwards such a great distance. Gracie let herself be seen, but she was seen as a dozen ships, all surrounding the enemy vessel. She sensed their explosion a few moments before it happened. She was long gone before the damaged ship detonated. Neither Gracie nor the phantoms she'd projected were harmed by the suicidal flare of the enemy ship's self destruction, a futile attempt to immolate the vessel that promised to stop them, and did. Gracie's body was still, unmoving, relaxed; she looked, she listened, she saw nothing of significance. For the first time since climbing into the cockpit, Gracie spoke, barely a whisper: "Time to go home." The Valkyries felt air displacement, turned, looked at Gracie's launch cradle: a second ago, it was empty;now it stood full, her ship was now here, arriving in silence, without the usual klaxon, without evacuating the chamber, without sliding the overhead shield aside. "She's back," someone said unnecessarily, and they watched as Gracie stood up, turned, climbed back down the ladder. A half-dozen young women in flight coveralls regarded their mountain fiddler expectantly; behind them, Commander Hake lifted his chin, waited. The Valkyries crowded around their newest member, all talking at once, at least until Gracie lifted her chin and took a breath. She looked around, unsure of what to say, until she remembered the movie they'd all watched together the night before. "I have to debrief," she pleaded, then hesitated, smiled. "I splashed a Zero!" The Valkyries dogpile hugged their newest member, jumping up and down and screaming like a bunch of cheerleaders as the winning basket cinched the tournament.
  2. That looks like one of those college fraternities my buddy told me about. Either I Tappa Kegg, or I Bitea Pie.
  3. 678. A QUIET VOICE Sheriff Linn Keller eased his long, tall carcass down onto the Deacon's bench in front of the Sheriff's office. Why it was called a Deacon's bench was beyond him: he wasn't sure the Deacon ever set there -- ever -- and the Deacon generally set with his wife, in the pews, during church: no, he reckoned it was just called that, and that was good enough. Linn set down on clean, smooth, sanded and varnished wood; he wiped it down every morning, before parking his backside, because the smooth surface tended to gather dust, and he had no wish to have white dust marks across his back and across his hinder. Behind and above him, two wanted dodgers, neither for any great amount of money; the descriptions were vague enough, the reward small enough, the engravings that printed the wanted man's face, were of such poor quality he doubted they would ever be matched up against the actual criminal. Linn pulled out a Barlow knife and a whet stone. It was not out of the ordinary for men to whittle and spit here, to tell outrageous lies with carefully straight faces; Linn could whittle with the best of them, but try as he might, he just could not make a working set of pliers out of a single piece of wood: he'd probably reduced half a cord of wood to shavings, over the years, for he was a hard headed man, contrary enough to keep trying until it worked, but try as he might, the trick escaped him. He spit on the stone and began to work on the Barlow's edge. A man Linn knew was coming up the board walk, a man who walked as if he was worn out, done up, ready to quit: he walked as if each step was approaching his very limit, and yet he kept on coming, steadily, one slow pace after another. Linn never looked up from his sharpening. "Might as well have a set," he suggested quietly. "You look done up, friend." The man stopped, sagged: he turned, set down on the other end of the bench, leaned his head back against the logs, heedless of accumulated dust: in truth, his hat was in such sad shape, a coat of dust might have improved it. His rough, shoulder-frayed coat was not much better, nor were his scraped, scuffed, heel-worn boots. Two men sat in companionable silence. Linn tried the Barlow's edge on the back of his arm: he raised the blade, puffed his breath over it, and arm hairs, freshly shaved from the back of the lawman's left wrist, floated out into the still air. "Damn." The man shook his head. "I cain't put an edge on a knife to save me." Linn folded the Barlow, stuck it back in his pocket. "Let's have it," he said. "I'll edge it for you." A clasp knife was handed over, nearly new; Linn tried the edge, nodded. "I could ride this one from here to Buffalo and not get cut." The man nodded, his hat falling to the side: he ignored it rather than go to the effort of picking it up. Linn looked over at him. "You look like you been drug backwards over some bad road." The man stared sadly across the street, his gaze apparently looking at something several miles past the opposite structures. Steel whispered secrets to shaped stone; silence grew, then: "You et?" "Naw." "I ain't neither." The Sheriff did not usually sound quite so unlettered; he tended to tailor his speech for his audience. "Reckon the Silver Jewel's got somethin' ain't been et yet." The man closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the logs again. "When's the last time you got a good night's sleep?" "Don't recall." Linn pulled out another stone, a coarser one; it was going to take some work to set an edge on this old slay, he knew, and the best start was with his harsher sharpening stone. "Say, Sheriff?" Linn looked sidelong over at him, looked back to his work. "How's a man get his name off a wanted dodger?" Linn considered the knife's edge, set down the coarse stone: it hadn't taken as much effort as he'd expected. "A man could go back to wherever sent out them dodgers in the first place and either square up what's wrong, or tell 'em they got the wrong man." A grunt. "Fat lot of good that'll do." "How do the particulars stack up?" "How do you mean?" "Well, a man could ride the territory and tear down every dodger for that pa'tickelar outlaw, but that's a lot of ridin'." Another grunt. "A man could take a close look at the pa'tickelars and see what don't fit." Linn could feel the unspoken surprise -- illiteracy was not at all uncommon, and it was possible this fellow was unable to read, and either determined for himself he was the one on the wanted dodger, or someone was lying to him about it. Linn stood, turned. "Take that one rattair," he said. "That's a poor likeness to start with. I'd sure as hell not arrest on that man's picture. That engravin' looks like it was cyarved in a copper plate with a dull crick gravel and then printed." The other fellow stood, his breath hissing from between yellowed, clenched teeth. "This'un says sometin' about a scar on one wrist and a pa'tickelar finger, and one at the belt line left side where he'd healed up from an infection." Linn tested the edge, nodded, handed the blade back. "Try that one, an' don't let me catch you scrapin' rust off anvils with that!" "Damn, Sheriff," the fellow said admiringly, "I could shave with this!" "I've shaved with mine," Linn nodded, "but it's not so uncomfortable with soap and hot water and some shavin' cream spun up." The man reached out, knocked one of the dodgers with his knuckles. "You don't reckon this one is talkin' about me?" Linn looked at the dodger, looked at his guest. "You got them same scars?" The man bared his wrists -- like most men thereabouts, he was tanned where his hide stuck out of his shirt sleeves, but the shadowed flesh was pale, if unwashed. "I don't see none." "How 'bout that finger?" The digit was presented: "Nope." "Then you ain't him." The Sheriff's voice was pitched for reassurance: he was no stranger to troubled men coming to him for advice. "You ever been mistaken for someone else, Sheriff?" Linn laughed -- a good easy laugh, a flash of even white teeth -- "Last I was in Denver, some fellow come up and just wrung my hand and Judge this and Your Honor that, come to find out he was a new lawyer in town and I patted him on the shoulder and said I looked forward to hearin' his presentation in court and he went just a-struttin' down the street like he'd met the King himself." Linn thrust his chin toward the Silver Jewel. "Right now I'm hungry and I hate to eat alone. 'Twould be a blessin' on me if you'd join me, I'm buyin'." He clapped a hand on the man's shoulder, ignoring the minor cloud of dust that rose with the effort. "Then there's the time I went back East and got mistaken for a Presbyterian preacher. Damn near performed a weddin' on a riverbank, until the real sky pilot showed up and rescued me!" Two men laughed and went inside, one intent on assuaging his hunger, the other's soul considerably less troubled, thanks to the words of a pale eyed man with a quiet voice.
  4. 677. "I TOLD MY BROTHER ON YOU!" Angela Keller was a pretty little girl. Angela Keller had finger-curls that framed her apple-cheeked face, her teeth were white and even, her Mama dressed her in properly modest, frilly, little-girl dresses as befit her age; she wore high topped shoes and black stockings and she almost always wore an expression of either interest, or of delight: her eyes shone, her complexion glowed, she was the image of clean-scrubbed, well-fed childhood. Angela Keller was also Daddy's Little Girl, and Daddy was in the middle of the street with a singletree in one hand, a knife in the other, and he was laying about like Samson among the Philistines, only Samson only used one hand with the jaw bone of a jack mule, while her Daddy was using both hands, and he had a singletree and a knife. Angela didn't bother to consider this. Angela was too busy hooking her ankles under Daddy's stirrup-straps, gripping a double handful of shining copper mane, yelling "GO, HORSIE!" -- and when Daddy's little girl wanted something, Daddy's little girl generally got what she wanted, and what she wanted was AWAY FROM THERE! Her Daddy had seized her about the waist, swung her into his big slick Daddy-saddle and said quietly, with an edge to his voice that told Angela her Daddy was going to be very cross, very soon, "Angela, get back to the livery!" -- and Angela slapped her hands flat on the mare's neck and said urgently, "Go, horsie!" -- at which point, the pale eyed Sheriff began to address some very ill mannered men in a very understandable manner. One grabbed at the mare's bitless bridle: Cannonball reared, Angela rearing with her, and this made Angela very angry: her face darkened with a little girl's juvenile temper and she shouted, in that high-pitched, little-girl's voice -- "Horsie, beat 'im!" The Sheriff was a man who planned ahead. The Sheriff was a man who considered possibilities. The Sheriff knew that, just like armored knights of an earlier era, a man's horse was his fighting-platform: a horse was speed and power and a horse was a weapon, and a good one, especially when properly trained. The Sheriff trained his saddle-stock accordingly. Angela trained with her Daddy, because it was fun! -- and she got to do things her pretty and ladylike Mommy would never let her -- her Mommy didn't want her jumping fences, for instance, but jumping fences was fun! -- and she and her Daddy would sail over fences and gullies like their horsies had wings! Angela Keller, the lovely little blue-eyed girl beloved of the pale-eyed Sheriff, did not need reins or bit to guide her Daddy's mare: each was very used to the other, and the little girl's wishes were efficiently and silently communicated to the little girl's mount. Except for her high-voiced shout, "YOU MEAN OLD MAN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE! HORSIE, GIT 'IM!" -- and a trained war-horse, with a very young warrior-maiden astride, drove a steel-shod hoof into the middle of the attacker's chest, spun and kicked at another, barely missing his left ear and persuading the second assailant that his course of action was perhaps less than wise. Cannonball danced to the side and Angela glared with all the fierceness of a pretty little girl in finger-curls and a frock, and she shook her Mommy-finger at them and shouted "I'LL TELL MY BROTHER ON YOU!" -- the mare reared a little, bunched her hind quarters, came down hard enough on paving-stones to throw sparks from steel-shod hooves, and ran! A pretty little girl on a shining copper mare pounded down the Denver street at a wide-open gallop, something that was simply never done! -- men in suits, ladies with parasols, boys in knee pants and flat caps stopped and stared at the approach of galloping hoofbeats, and then a shining, healthy, copper-red mare running flat-out, her neck stuck out, her ears laid back, and on her back, laid down over the mare's neck and clinging like a tick on a hound dog, a pretty little girl, all curls and petticoats and healthy pink cheeks and a big, delighted grin! Sheriff Linn Keller seized the first weapons he came to. He was no stranger to street brawls, few seasoned lawmen are; the quarters were close, the need was great, and so when his hand closed about the steel-banded end of a singletree, he whipped this familiar working-tool through the air and broke the arm driving at him, an arm that held a genuine Arkansas toothpick. The moment seasoned white oak drove into the descending arm, time slowed to a molasses crawl: he heard the bone break, he clearly saw the precise weave of the garment sleeving the assaulting arm; he saw the shocked-open hand as it slowly surrendered the knife, releasing it to the air, and the Sheriff's off hand seared through the air, seized the wrapped handle: it has been said that when a warrior grasped the right blade, his soul flowed into the blade and honed steel became part of him, and he did not have to look to know exactly where stone-kissed edge and tapered point were, in three-dimensional space: we will set aside any metaphysical speculation and say simply that the Sheriff well knew how to use a knife, and this was a well-balanced knife that fit his hand very, very nicely. Desperate fights tend to be very brief, very violent. The Sheriff had been set upon by the footpads and skulkers that infest every city in every age; a well-dressed man, holding his little girl's hand, a man who looked down at his angelic child with obvious affection, was seen as an easy mark, and so three converged with intent to part the man from his proud-ofs, while three more watched, ready to join in. Later years would characterize their action as a poor victim selection process. The man and his daughter were just come to the man's horse; the attack was swift, silent: the man kicked one in the gut, caught another's fist coming in, seized the arm by the wrist, drove the heel of his hand into the offender's elbow, bending it the wrong way -- the sound of its splintering fracture was lost in the man's pained scream -- the man with the iron grey mustache seized his little girl about the waist, swung her into the saddle and jerked the reins free: he tossed them over the mare's head and shouted, "LIVERY, GO!" and turned as his daughter spun the mare and launched down the street like a ball from a field-gun! Jacob Keller's head came up and he raised a palm to the Denver patrolman, cutting off their laughing conversation. The surprised patrolman stopped talking; he heard the sound of a galloping horse, raised his chin -- this was an offense, horses were never to be taken at more than a walk within the City -- "JAAAACOOOOBBBB!" Jacob seized his Apple-horse's reins, jerked them free: to the patrolman, it was as if the black-suited deputy crouched ever so slightly, seized the saddlehorn and soared off the ground and into the saddle, and then he too was gone: brother and sister converged at speed, both mounts skidded on the pavers as they came to a fast stop: Jacob twisted, reached, pulled a double twelve-bore from under his right leg, brought the muzzles up and set the hand checkered, steel skeleton butt end against his right thigh. Angela's cheeks were pink and she was between delighted and angry. "Bad mens jumped Daddy an' he's ver-ry angry," Angela blurted, and she saw her Big Strong Brother's pale eyes go dead glacier-white: she felt her Daddy's Cannonball-mare gather herself again: Angela screamed with delight as the copper mare spun, as she launched after Jacob and Apple-horse, as they streamed in a bright, living waterfall of shining-coated horseflesh and blued, gunbarrel steel, as the hard hand of the Law rode swiftly to one of its own. Sheriff Linn Keller stood in the middle of the street, turning slowly: teeth bared, skin pale and tight-stretched over high cheekbones: his hat was missing, he was breathing deeply, steadily, blanched knuckles mutely testifying to the strength of his grip around steel-banded white oak, and the wrapped handle of a hand forged fighting knife. He circled slowly, snarling a little, every vestige of civilization fallen from him: he was a warrior, pure and simple: he had laid about the Philistines who sought his goods and perhaps his very life, considering they'd approached with weapons in hand: two lay on the ground, bloodied and unmoving; a third was trying to crawl away. "ANYBODY ELSE?" Three others considered what they'd just seen, faded back, disappearing into shadow, into an alleyway, completly unwilling to engage a man who'd just put down three of their best skull-splitters. His full-voiced roar echoed off the buildings, shivered down the artificial canyon of the city street. "ANYBODY ELSE?" His pale face purpled a little, the cords of his neck standing out with the strength of his rage: there was no doubt at all to any who saw this man, this warrior, all bared teeth and bent knees and circling to meet any attack, that here was a man who'd just stopped three armed attackers: his coat opened enough to show he wore a revolver, two revolvers, neither of which he'd drawn. Two horses slowed, quickly, rearing: Jacob was out of the saddle and running: he came up beside his father, shotgun in hand, hammers cocked: the two faced opposite directions, father and son, pale eyes hard and unforgiving. Angela walked her Daddy's shining copper mare over to where two of the men sat, bloodied, unable to rise, where a third lay groaning, able to crawl no further. Angela shook her Mommy finger at them and declared loudly, "You mean old man! I told my brother on you!"
  5. Have I ever shot a bear? No. Have I ever intended to shoot a bear? Yes. Was it a wise choice? Let me put it this way. Me dear pappy built me a .36 caliber flint rifle, still have it: fine squirrel rifle, exquisitely accurate, carries a patched round ball the same size as a Navy Colt fires. I was maybe fifteen when I struck a bear track on the ridge above our house. A thin tracking snow was on the ground. I thought, "Bear is shaped like a big groundhog. I've skinned out groundhogs. Mama could use a nice bear skin rug to keep her feet off that cold floor in wintertime." De Lawd lukes out atter fules an' chilluns, and I qualified as both in that moment. Armed with a single shot, flint lock, muzzle loading rifle with a ball the size of a sweet pea over about 40 grains of DuPont FFF, I began tracking that b'ar with full intent to fetch Mama home a tootsie tickling pelt. The Almighty took pity upon me and sent sun enough to melt the tracking snow on the south ridge faces; I lost the tracks, and a good thing. Had I put a .36 ball anywhere but down the ear canal or into an eye socket, the b'ar would likely have become very unhappy with me, and that's not good, for at that age I was crunchy and would taste good with ketchup.
  6. 676. AN ILL TEMPER A pale eyed lawman looked around the dirty little saloon, silence cascading off him like powdery snow cascading off a steep slope. He wore an irritated expression and a black suit, his stillness was soul-deep and contagious: he'd come in the door, he'd taken a fast step to the side to get a wall to his back, he stood, relaxed as a panther and just as dangerous, his ice-pale eyes the only things moving. He waited until he was satisfied, then he paced slowly forward, bootheels muffled by the thick layer of sawdust on the floor. The barkeep shifted the matchstick between yellowed teeth, lifted his chin. "What'll ya have?" The Sheriff slid a coin across the bar. "Beer," he said quietly, his eyes running down the brief menu chalked on a plank: "Where's good to eat?" "Got a hash house down the street. Good place, too," the barkeep said helpfully -- perhaps too helpfully, the Sheriff knew; a lawman was not generally a welcome guest, unless he was needed. He was after a man. This was apparently known. The noise level in the place was dropped significantly; no one looked at him, save only sidelong: Linn had the feeling this was not a healthy place to be, and he'd learned long ago to listen to his gut, and part of him was not at all surprised when he turned his back to the bar and leaned back, casually, that a poker player looked at him with sudden surprise. Linn's hand released the mug and spun, shooting out and up, caught the descending wrist, which was good. The wrist was attached to a hand, and the hand held a bung starter, and the bung starter was coming down at a respectable velocity: the Sheriff's move kept his head from being driven so far down between his shoulders he'd have had to unbutton his shirt to blow his nose, which would be inconvenient, not to mention fatal: the wrist came down hard on the bar and the Sheriff's free hand seized the barkeep's greasy throat: dragging a man across a bar by the windpipe and the wrist is generally not a good thing, especially since the bar was little more than planks over barrels. Once the pale eyed lawman with the iron grey mustache started moving, he didn't stop: barkeep, planks, barrels and beer, all cascaded over, fell in a clattering splash: a boot heel in the gut discouraged the would be murderer from further hostilities, the coat tails were thrust back, and Old Pale Eyes looked around, clearly irritated. He looked down, studied the barkeep's mottled face: purple splotches stood out against an increasingly pallid background as the realization that he was looking up at Death itself sank into his soul. Linn reached down, seized the man by his shirt front: his hand was big, hard callused, used to hard work, and when he grabbed a good handful of filthy linen shirt front and twisted, he had more than enough purchase to haul the man off the floor, one handed. He brought him off the deck with apparent ease, held him up so the man's feet were off the floor. Linn knew that if you fetch a man's feet off the floor, you're sending a very understandable message. "Mister," he said, quietly, his voice rumbling like great stones grinding against one another at the bottom of a deep, hand dug well, "your bar just fell apart." He considered throwing the man back across what used to be his bar, then decided to just open his hand and let him drop. Linn stepped over him, his icy glare clearing a path as effectively as a team of skullbreakers with war clubs: he opened the door, looked left, looked right, nodded at the constable running up, nightstick swinging: when the hireling looked up at the pale-eyed Sheriff, he froze, mouth open. Linn stepped down from the boardwalk, stepped up to the out-of-breath constable. "Jaysus, Sheriff, I came soon as I heard you were here," he blurted. "Wha' ha'e ye done?" "Education," Linn grunted. "Barkeep tried to belt me with a bung starter." The constable wilted visibly. "I'll call f'r th' dead wagon." Linn turned, regarded the saloon's still swinging batwings with distaste. "Didn't even get t' taste m' beer." A widow woman opened a combination boarding house and restaurant; she'd had success enough she divided the business, put her daughter in charge of the restaurant, and the two of them didn't exactly prosper, but they improved their businesses steadily, making enough to get by, setting back a little. They both saw a tall man in a black suit, a man on a shining-gold Palomino that walked with a fast, clattering gait, a man that dismounted and walked over to the wash pan. They saw through the wavy glass window as the man swirled the wash pan, slung its contents, pumped clean water, swirled and tossed again: he washed his hands carefully, dried them on the sun-bleached towel, removed his cover as he crossed the threshold. The widow recognized the kind: watchful, silent, either a hired killer or a lawman, the kind that would not cause trouble unless it was given him, and then Katy bar the door, if it happened, she might have a serious loss, for she'd seen a place utterly destroyed when such a quiet man let his badger loose. The widow and her daughter exchanged a look; the younger woman glided across the floor, and the lawman, only just seated, rose at her approach. Over her approaching shoulder, he saw a look of approval from what appeared to be a mother, or maybe an aunt. "What'll you have?" she asked cheerfully. "What's good today?" he replied in a deep and gentle voice, the kind of a voice she remembered from her own dear Papa, dead and gone these ten years now. "We've good beef and beans, sourdough and cheese, and coffee." "Ma'am," he replied with almost a sad expression, "that sounds like just what I'm lookin' for." Linn watched as she departed, lowered a hand to the back of his chair; he stopped as the older woman came over, steering directly for him: he tucked his cover correctly under his arm, lifted his chin. "Ma'am," he greeted her. "You've the cut of a military man," the widow-woman said briskly. "My husband was Cavalry." "You have the right of it, ma'am," Linn replied gently. "Will you be staying?" She was surprised to see the soft spoken stranger smile, just a little ... kind of sadly, she thought. "No ma'am. Not long." "I run the boarding house, in back and upstairs." "Yes, ma'am." She stopped, feeling suddenly awkward: her face reddened and she started to turn. "Ma'am?" She froze, turned slowly back. "That would be your ... daughter?" "She is." "She does favor you." The widow tilted her head a little. "Do I know you?" "No ma'am," he said, and again she was struck by the feeling of sadness from this pale eyed stranger with the iron grey mustache. "I don't believe so." The Sheriff rose from his seat yet again, after the widow's departure, at the younger woman's approach: it was obviously an old and easy habit with him, not the forced affectation of someone trying to impress. He ate with a good appetite; he ate steadily, savoring his meal: when pie arrived, he received the unexpected treat with a relaxed and genuine smile, and she found a couple bills under the plate after he'd squared up his bill. She'd taken this unexpected bounty to her mother, for the amount he left was ten times the cost of the meal: the widow nodded, sighed, and said softly she'd wished he'd stayed, and this was the only time her daughter ever heard her Mama admit that she'd taken a fancy to a man since the death of her dear husband. A day and a night later, Linn came back into Firelands, alone. Town Marshal Jackson Cooper was an impressive man, even at a distance, and Linn could not help but grin when he saw the man from a mile away: Linn was not short by any means -- two fingers over six foot, remarkably tall for the day, but a full head shorter than his old and dear friend the town Marshal -- Linn was counted a strong man, but Jackson Cooper could put him to shame any day of the week and make it look easy, and Linn laughed aloud to remember the times he'd done just that. He rode into town at an easy pace, drew up, regarded the Marshal, who regarded him back. "Any luck, Sheriff?" Linn shook his head. "Good and bad, same as always." "How's that?" Jackson Cooper squinted one eye, turned his head a little, curious. "Well, I had pretty good luck stayin' alive," Linn said, "and found me a boardin' house with pretty good cookin'. 'Gainst I'm out that way again, I'll take pains to eat there. As far as findin' the fellow I'm after, no, didn't find him a'tall." Jackson Cooper nodded. "Sounds like good luck all around. What's the bad?" "Well, I just plainly ruined a saloon keeper's bar." Jackson Cooper frowned. "You ain't settin' right. What else is a-goin' on?" Linn shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. "I got to go see Doc." Jackson Cooper's face darkened and he frowned a little: he was a strong man, he was a lawman, but he was a man of deep feelings, and Linn kept him alive back East: their friendship was deep and strong, and it troubled the man that something might be serious. "I got to be careful how I sit," Linn said ruefully; Jackson's face showed alarm, for last time he'd heard a man say that, a man died a year later of a cancer that plainly et him up from the inside. Linn's face started to redden before he made that admission, and grew even more distinctly scarlet as he continued, "If you hear some hollerin' from Doc's place, pay it no mind." The big man in the fringed shirt looked puzzled: "Why's that?" Linn leaned over and admitted, red-faced and low-voiced: "Got me a boil." He straightened, considered. "Might be that's why I was in such an ill temper."
  7. 675. HEARING AID Sheriff Willamina Keller stood with her legs crossed, one wrist-bend hand on her waist, the other raised to her face, tapping a finger thoughtfully against her cheekbone. She was a good looking woman -- she dressed "Office Professional" as a matter of habit, reflecting her status as an administrator, as an executive; she wore a tailored suit dress and heels, she stood with elegance and confidence, her legs were sculpted and athletic, her smile gentle, and her eyes ... Sheriff Willamina Keller's eyes were fading from amused blue to icy pale, and that was not a very good sign. Sheriff Willamina Keller did not quail, shrink or whimper at the sight of a gun muzzle shoved at her. She knew the stupid soul holding the gun was already scared, nervous at this breach of civil conduct. He'd been screaming defiance, he'd been shouting threats to shoot everyone, and when the police outside drew back, and the door opened, and a women in a dress and heels walked in -- instead of the armed and armored warriors he was expecting -- he really was not entirely sure what to think. Willamina came close, came closer, walking through the layers of threats he screamed into the fear-hushed atmosphere: she stopped just out of arm's reach of the gunmuzzle, crossed her legs, intentionally striking a pose. "I can't hear you," she said pleasantly. "You're shouting too loud." The unshaven, shaking holdup screamed "WHAT?" and suddenly the pleasantly smiling woman with the ice pale eyes wasn't there. All of a sudden he was blind with pain as the gun twisted out of his hand, as his finger broke, as something seized his greasy and unwashed hair and introduced his face to the counter at a respectable velocity: the floor twisted and leaped up at him, and something like a dump truck slammed down on his back. Shocked, wind knocked out, his nerves blasted with the pain of a shattered nose, a broken finger, a sprained wrist and two feminine knees driving his kidneys against his front ribs, he could but gasp. Stainless steel snarled, the door slammed open, there was the sound of running feet, and hard hands seized the cuffed prisoner, hauled him upright, frogmarched him outside, leaving a trail of blood drops from a nose that now covered a surprising acreage of his face. Willamina shook her hands as if to shake off something unclean. "Mind if I wash up?" she asked casually to the staring soda jerk behind what used to be an immaculately-clean counter. Sheriff Willamina Keller, in a tailored suit dress and heels, skipped on the balls of her feet -- light, like a dancer, more floating with a feminine grace than advancing on the wanted felon -- she'd borrowed an old-fashioned, three-cell, heavy-aluminum flashlight from the Chief's cruiser, and as she flowed, all high heels and hemline and sculpted, stockinged legs: the watchers expected her to bash the three cell war club over the miscreant's head and put an end to the threats he uttered -- and his grip on a screaming, struggling woman's throat -- with a simple application of force. She didn't. She stopped, she dipped her knees: her hand disappeared between his legs -- she turned the flashlight sideways, she hoisted, she brought him off his feet. Startled, he let go of his victim's throat -- his feet, freed from their friction grip on the floor, flew straight back -- as the floor came up to meet him at a startling speed. He, too, was reduced to pained possession, but not before the two of them rather vigorously rearranged the furniture and put runs in both the Sheriff's stockings. Rumors to the effect that she used his head to open the door on her exit, are to be discounted as exaggeration. She actually swung him up and body slammed him into the door to open it. Sheriff Willamina Keller curled her lip and whistled -- sudden, sharp, commanding. A man with a knife turned, startled, his expression gone from snarling anger -- he was in control! -- to utter, unmitigated surprise, as the quiet click, click of a double hammer twelve spoke a quiet, distinct, metallic message, backed by the sight of twin Damascus barrels looking at his soul with wide and hungry eyes. The Sheriff's voice was pleasant, musical: there was no need to shout, for the shocked silence was most profound. "Drop the knife," the Sheriff said, "or I drop you." The knife hit the floor. Sheriff Willamina Keller pressed a button on her control; the classroom's lights came up and the screen hummed quietly back into its home in the ceiling. "Each of these instances, obviously, were captured by surveillance," she said to the blinking sea of lawmen's faces: recruits, trainees, men and women who'd chosen to put their lives behind a lawman's badge. "Some were captured by multiple cameras. This is not an evidentiary video, but an educational video: it's obvious there were shots from different angles, there has been enhancement for educational clarity." Her voice was clear, it carried well; she was dressed as she was in each of the videos -- her trademark tailored suit dress and heels, her hair Marine-short but feminine: she was a daughter of the mountains, her complexion clear, flawless; if she had a vanity, perhaps her only vanity was a refusal to wear makeup. She didn't need it, anyway. The pale eyed Sheriff raised a teaching finger. "My father was a wise man," she declared. "He taught me at a very young age, 'When in doubt, cheat.' " She smiled; there were more puzzled looks in return than there were smiles. "I'm not talking about doing that which is illegal, immoral or fattening, not necessarily in that order." She shifted her weight; she stood erect, she had the air of someone who was absolutely in charge, and knew it, and yet she was every inch a woman, and an attractive woman at that -- and those with actual street experience felt a little uncomfortable to see it, for this told them she was far more dangerous than she looked. "Cheating, in our context, means taking every last legal advantage. Whether it's mental judo, whether it's misdirection, whether it's using a flashlight to rudely hoist a suspect off his feet" -- she stopped, she smiled, she saw a few men cringe, a look of enlightenment on most of the women's faces -- "a baton to the side of the knee, or a shotgun slamming into battery to get their attention, you want to take every advantage. Especially" -- she smiled, and the smile was warm and undertanding -- "especially the shotgun. Whether it's the quiet click, click of that hammer twelve coming to full cock, or the slam-bang of a pump gun running into battery, using a hearing aid is a good way to encourage their compliance." She stopped, turned slowly, meeting every eye, then finished the class with their understanding chuckle as she concluded, "Personally, I am very fond of hearing aids!"
  8. 674. A WOMAN'S TEARS Linn's left arm shot out and around the child's waist, snapping her over his forearm, folding her like a pair of jeans with the speed and strength of his seizure. His right arm ran around the child's mother's tenderloins as his chest drove into the mother's front, her arm clamping the screaming infant to her: he hit her hard, he powered her ten feet, straightened: the urgency of the moment gave him strength he didn't know he had, he stood, pale eyes hard and focused, and he took a mental snapshot of the departing license plate -- back straight, arms tight, mother's feet three feet off the ground and the little girl's sneakers a like distance as well. He bent quickly at the knees -- he stopped a moment, waited until the ladies got their feet under them -- he released mother and child, stood, gripped the mother's shoulders: "Deep breath, ma'am" -- he plucked the shoulder mic from his epaulet, spoke quietly, his voice tight. There was no mistaking the subject vehicle's plate. Adrenaline sharpens the vision. He could have drawn a diagram of that plate, with every gravel chip and mud splatter clearly and accurately indicated. Linn gripped the blanket-wrapped infant, turned, laid it on the hood of the car: he unwrapped the unhappy little fellow, all wiggle and scream and fists clenched and waving: he was satisfied he hadn't crushed the child between himself and the mother, but he wanted to look and be sure. After a quick examination, after working the child's kicking legs and carefully assessing chest, breathing, symmetry and degree of expansion, he nodded, wrapped the child again. The mother was trying to be strong; she was pale, she was trembling, her little girl was holding her Mama's hand and looking uncertainly at the tall deputy with the mustache going to grey. Linn winked at the child, smiled at the mother, handed over the protesting infant. "Just stand there and get your wind back," he said gently, then turned, looked toward the roadway, and casually sauntered back around to where he'd just gotten the last lug nut loose on her driver's front tire. It was the work of a very few minutes to change the young mother's tire: he'd kept the daughter from being clipped, at best, and from being outright killed, at worst: the mother was moving toward her child, probably to draw her back from the roadway, when the idiot driver nearly sideswiped the cruiser, cut in tight and Linn was prepared to swear he thought the back bumper's edge almost caught the decorative stripe down his trouser leg. He snugged up the last lug nut, straightened, twisted a little, settling his vertebrae back in place: like his pale eyed predecessor with the iron grey mustache, he'd been born with a sway back, and sometimes he had to assume what he called "Undignified Positions," to get a displaced disc back where it belonged. Linn knew from his radioed report that every uniform in the county would be looking for that particular vehicle that nearly caused death and injury. The little girl, bright-eyed and curious, tilted her head and pointed: "What's dat?" she asked, then giggled, one pink finger going to the corner of her mouth. Puzzled, Linn looked down, his fingers finding the source of her curiosity. The heavy stripe down his trouser leg was torn loose along the side of his left thigh. It was frayed some, and dirty. The corner of that back bumper did catch him after all, but only just. Linn blinked, swallowed. He hadn't even noticed, so focused was he on getting mother and child the HELL out of the WAY! "That," he replied to a curious eight-year-old's question, "is a repair job." His head came up: a vehicle came over the rise behind them. Linn raised a commanding palm, stepping out into the roadway: the beat-up old Chevy pickup slowed quickly, the passenger rolled down the window, shoved a grinning head out: "Howdy, Linn, what'd we do this time?" "Go to hell and eat a doughnut," Linn called back, laughing: it was an old joke between them, involving a box of fresh pastries and his old friend's first day on the job. "I need your tail gate, pull over." The pickup pulled over, backed up; driver and passenger bailed out, ran around, dropped the tailgate, just in time for Linn to spread a blanket from the back of his cruiser, relieve the trembling young mother of her infant, snatch up the diaper bag and drop it to the tailgate beside the red-faced, crying child. The recent arrivals looked at one another with an expression of distaste as Linn pulled on a pair of exam gloves, pulled the child's diaper tape free; he excavated the diaper bag, brought out what he'd need, laid it out in a neat row, and with quick, practiced hands, proceeded to change the diaper of a crying, wiggling, pink, less than happy infant, who was busy telling the world at large, and the mustached deputy in particular, of his loud-voiced, absolute and distinct displeasure! His old friends watched solemnly, offering no comment until the infant was clean, powdered, diapered, wrapped, handed back: only then did Mortimer turn to his brother and deadpan, "I was one of those?" Emmett Maxwell's eyes were quiet as he considered the mother and daughter who crossed his threshold. She was nervous -- he could tell something must have happened, but she had a lid on things, women are like that -- she was hesitant, indecisive, but finally thrust a folded paper at him and said "A Sheriff told me to give you this." Emmett smiled a little as she did, as he gently took it from between her slightly trembling fingers. "Tall fellow, pale eyes, curled mustache?" "Yeah," the eight-year-old declared happily, bouncing on her toes, "an' he's got a repair job!" Emmett smiled, laughed quietly. "I know him," he nodded. "Make yourselves to home." The note was tri-folded, half a sheet of note paper; it was sealed with red wax, a stamp he recognized. "Ma'am," he said, "what did the Sheriff say to do?" "He said if I came up the road another half mile and looked right, I would see the big old fashioned gas pumps out front, and I should stop and give you this." He nodded, smiled a little. "Why'nt you two have a set. I've got coffee made an' he'p yourself, ladies' room is yonder" -- he turned, pointed with a bladed hand -- "an' it's clean, m' wife gives me hell if it ain't!" She smiled at his chuckle; mother and daughter disappeared into the indicated refuge. Emmett smiled, opened the register, slipped the folded note under the cash drawer, looked over at a teen-age boy, all big hands and long legs, waiting in a shadowed corner. "Let's see what she needs," Emmett said quietly. "Sharon," Linn said into his cell phone as he settled back behind the cruiser's wheel, "is the Ladies' Tea Society meeting today?" "Yes they are," Sharon smiled -- he could hear it in her voice -- "I saw them coming up the sidewalk across the street." "Could you do me a large flavor," Linn drawled, "and call over there." "O-kaaaay," Sharon said, drawling the word out suspiciously. "And tell them ...?" "Angelicus." There was a long silence, and Linn could hear Sharon pull the phone away from her ear and look at it like it suddenly turned into a fuzzy puppy in her hand. "Angelicus? Just that?" "Yep." He heard her patient sigh. "Linn, I don't know why I put up with you!" The lean waisted deputy laughed. "It's because you're younger, smarter and better lookin' than me," he declared, "not necessarily in that order!" "I still don't know why I put up with you," Sharon teased. "It's because I'm bringing doughnuts!" Linn crowed, laughing, looking in his side mirror before planting a well polished Wellington on the brake and pulling the shifter into gear. A young mother stood in a new-smellng apartment's kitchen, with her infant child drowsing against her chest. Her face was wet; she sat very still and watched through the doorway as her daughter strutted happily across the room, patted the newly made bed, looked up with an expression of delight. "Mine?" "Yours," the pretty lady in the old fashioned dress nodded. An eight year old pair of legs ran the rest of her across the room, hugged her wordless thanks as the laughing woman in the big hat and burgundy gown dipped her knees quickly to receive the juvenile charge. Another of the several women in long dresses steered the young mother to a chair. Tea appeared, hot and steaming; ladies settled around the table, elegant and quiet-voiced, the infant was passed from one gloved pair of hands to another: there were ooh's and aah's, experienced and motherly hands held, bounced, cuddled and caressed the smiling, drowsy litttle boy-child: a spit-rag was quickly draped, the child was laid over a shoulder, patted, face-wiped to get rid of the spit-up. Linn eased the cruiser to a stop, got out, walked into Emmett's station, poured himself a coffee. He drizzled a little milk from a sweat-beaded carton, took a noisy slurp, looked up at his uncle. "Yes, they were here," he said without being asked. Linn nodded: he slurped again, set the cup down and knuckled tan droplies from his lip broom, reached for a hip pocket. "Four tires, a tank of gas, oil change and grease job. Didn't give it too long a study but all the lights work. Friend of yours?" Emmett turned the slip to show the total; Linn counted out a stack of bills, smiled, shook his head. "My favorite credit system," he murmured, "one hundred percent down and no monthly payments. No, Uncle, never saw 'em before." A young mother had gotten as far as she could before her tire gave out. She'd been nearly out of gas. She was out of money, at the end of her rope, lost. Ill fortune and disasters stripped her of what little savings she'd had; her husband's death took her anchor, her protector, her provider: she was alone in the world, not even family, and no friends to speak of. Now she sat on a chair in a kitchen, her child asleep against her bosom; part of her listened as one of the ladies listed the child-care supplies in the young mother's bedroom, as another ran over a list of what was in the filled refrigerator. Her eyes turned to the doorway and she remembered the look of absolute delight on her daughter's face when she patted the hand-stitched quilt on the newly-made bed and asked, with the wide eyes and innocent voice of a little child, "Mine?" The absolute last straw was where she looked at her gas gauge and realized she didn't have gas enough to make the next down, and then her tire blew. She'd gotten the car to the shoulder, she'd laid her forehead against the back of her wheel-gripping hand, she closed her eyes and wished most powerfully that she could change things. Out of gas, out of money, out of hope, blown tire, not just lost, but lost in the middle of nowhere -- She'd jumped a little at a quiet little rat-tat on her sideglass. She'd opened her eyes, turned her head: the window hummed down -- at least that still works! -- she saw a uniform and thought, "Oh, great, really bad just got worse." A quiet, confident voice said, "Ma'am, if you'll pop your trunk release, I'll get that tire changed." Now she had four new tires, a full tank of gas, an oil change and grease job; she had a place to stay, she had food in her refrigerator, her daughter had her own bed and her own bedroom, and a gloved hand gripped her hand, gowned ladies sat on either side of her and told her they'd be back tomorrow after she got settled in, and they would go clothes shopping for her and her daughter. That's when everything caught up with her. It's been said tears are the prayers we offer when we have no words. In that moment, when tears ran freely down her face, when warm hands rested on her shoulders, on the backs of her knuckles, when womanly touch spoke the words she needed to hear, the words she herself could not speak, were clearly understood. "Thank You."
  9. Had one. Carried it for a duty sidearm. Never let me down, not even once. A friend wanted it in the worst way. Sold it to him.
  10. 673. SKULKERS, AND LITTLE BOYS Sheriff Linn Keller knew he was watched. He knew every time he appeared in public, eyes were on him: he knew his words were heard, weighed, judged; he knew his very appearance inspired confidence -- which was one reason his professional attire was a black suit and a necktie -- he knew his voice set the tone for any conversation, he knew the attention he paid to a speaker was a message, a comment on whoever was speaking: he knew also that, even when he was not in public and performing in his official capacity, that he was probably going to be watched. He knew, for instance, that his grandsons' eyes were more often than not, on him as he labored: when this was obvious, he would call the young watcher to him, and immediately involve the young in whatever he was doing -- whether it was brushing his hat, whetting a knife blade, splitting wood, mending fence, or checking his horse's hooves. He knew he was watched when he went to practice with his pistols. He counted on this. He'd taken boards unfit for much else -- boards weathered, warped, unwanted and unloved, and set them side by side, lashed them to a rude frame; the center board was missing -- he then added two short boards, so he had a rude, scrap-plank rectangle, with a hole in the middle, a hole, little bigger than a number two tin can. He knew that eyes were upon him as he took whitewash and anointed the warpy boards, as he turned it from weathered grey to pristine white: it took multiple coats, for whitewash tends to be kind of thin, but the boards were thirsty and the sun was strong, and after several applications of the fuzzy, wore-out brush, he had a white rectangle that he knew would fade and turn greyish in less than a week -- more, if it rained. Another string, a few moments of labor, and a number two tin can hung in the hole in the middle. He poked it experimentally with a stiff forefinger, swung it back and forth; he nodded his satisfaction, dusted his hands briskly together, turned around, paced away from the planks. He casually removed a deck of cards from his coat pocket, sifted them from one hand to another, stuck the deck back in his pocket: he turned suddenly, his coat flaring, and his left-hand Colt drove forward and spoke. The tin can swung briskly on its corded tether. Sheriff Linn Keller nodded as the smoke cloud drifted off to his left: he flipped open the loading gate, staring at the swinging can, his fingers busy: an empty hull hit bare dirt at his boot toe, he lowered the muzzle and dunked in a fresh round, clicked the cylinder around a few times, shut the gate and lowered the hammer. The engraved Colt's revolver disappeared under his coat. A few more steps, a turn: this time he turned to his right, his right hand Colt drove forward and spat death and fire and the can swung again, another hole ripping through its tinned side: again, the Sheriff turned, casually looking around instead of at the target; the quiet, metallic click-click-click of his labors plainly heard both by those who would gauge a lawman's skill, and by those who watched with bright and admiring young eyes. Linn turned, turned again; he walked at his usual pace across in front of the target, at some random moment, drawing the revolver nearest, sending another hole whistling through space and into the metal; a casual reload, a turn, walk the other way -- again, crossing in front of the target -- BANG and the can, by now seriously the worse for his attentions, flinched and wobbled on its fraying tether. Linn reached into the coat pocket, wordlessly withdrew a playing card: he walked over to this planks, selected a likely crack, stuck the card in it, edge-on to him. A whispered voice: "He ain't!" -- then, "He cain't!" -- Linn paced back, straight back from the target: he drew his left hand Colt, eared the hammer back -- BANG! -- two halves of a playing card fluttered to the ground -- Three cards replaced the one, each spaced a foot or so apart: admiring little boys and increasingly uncomfortable outlaws watched as the pale eyed lawman with iron grey mustache raised his engraved Colt revolvers, left, then right, and two of the three flew, cut neatly at the belt line. The third card had a little bow to it: it didn't fly in two, but it did bend over: the bullet caught it across the small of the back, so to speak, leaving only two thin webs of pasteboard: the card bent slowly at its waist, dramatically surrendering to the effects of a .44 caliber pistol bullet cutting through most of its mass. Linn knew he was watched, both by the lawful, and by the lawless: he took another can, one he'd scrounged from the dump, he'd filled it with water, laid its lid back over and dribbled wax enough on it to seal: he gripped it in his good right hand, dipped his knees as he swung his arm back, then pitched it hard, under handed, straight up. The can wobbled into the clear Colorado sky, at least until it detonated in an impressive spray, the waxed-on lid blowing clear off and sailing off to who-knows-where. Linn only got a little bit wet on that one, for he'd tossed it near to straight up as he could. Two grinning little boys waited until he was gone, then they ran forward and picked up the cards he'd shot in two, the cards he carefully "forgot" to pick up when he picked up after himself. Chief of Police Will Keller held the can of chicken soup in his left hand, the blued-steel Smith in his right: he swung the can and the revolver both back, slung the can hard up, raised the pistol in a matching arc: the full-house, hard-cast .357 turned a spinning can of soup into a most impressive geyser, and Will was grateful he'd worn his cover: he opened the cylinder, replaced the one fired round, holstered, then removed his eight point milkman hat and laughed. He flipped a wet noodle off the cover with a flick of his finger. Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled as she read the hand written letter. The sender was from far to their west; the name was one she knew, from her research of the several ancestries associated with Firelands. It described an old man, with his very little girl on his lap, showing her precious artifacts of their family, and describing how his Daddy was a little boy when a pale eyed Sheriff shot cans full of water and blew great sprays of canned water over most of the sky with one shot, how the man shot playing cards edgewise, how his Daddy -- as a big-eyed, admiring little boy -- gathered the several halves of the bisected pasteboards, and kept them as precious artifacts of his childhood, and how these managed to be handed down through the family. Willamina opened the smaller envelope that came in the big one, and she smiled as she poured four fragments of old-fashioned playing cards into her hand: she laid them on her desk, arranged them so the cut edges were together, matched them up, leaving a .44-caliber gap between the lead-tinted, slightly-ragged edges, then she leaned back and looked at a row of framed portraits hung on the wall beside her rolltop desk. Her granddaughter Marnie, in her cheerleader's uniform and her issue Sheriff's gunbelt and holster, holding her Uncle's spare .357, and two halves of a playing card, and the halves in the framed, matted picture -- testimony to her accuracy. Her son Linn, in flannel shirt and blue jeans, holding a single action .44, and two halves of the Four of Diamonds, and in the frame with the pictures, the two halves. Willamina, in her suit dress and heels, holding a stainless Government .45 and two halves of the Ace of Diamonds. Her twin brother Will, holding two halves of the Ace of Spades ... with those two halves in the picture frame with the portrait. Willamina looked at the portrait of Old Pale Eyes, re-framed and carefully matted. She looked at the bisected cards, looked at her ancestor's pale eyed portrait, and decided that there was room at the corners of the matting for the four fragments of the cards, those carefully harvested treasures, courtesy an admiring little boy. "That," Willamina said aloud, smiling just a little, "will be proper!"
  11. Absolutely right it's not just a number! It's the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything! Now where did I put my towel ...?
  12. The wise man said, "Gold is where you find it." So is wisdom. Here be! Birdgun, thank you for sharing this one, you may have saved me a great deal of grief! 40 days and a wake-up!
  13. 672. AND THE SHERIFF SLEPT Sheriff Marnie Keller very carefully, very precisely, changed her infant son's diaper, wondering aloud for the ten millionth time how soon she could housebreak this squealing, wiggling little ordure factory. The soiled diaper went in the recyclo, a fresh one dispensed: life was far easier with the Confederate recyclers, for waste could be ripped apart at the subatomic level and reassembled into any compound desired, any element or combination of elements. She'd listened to her pale eyed Gammaw talk about washing dirty cotton diapers and how much handier disposables were, and part of her wished her Gammaw could see how much more convenient the recyclers were ... but she was well beyond exhausted, and muscle memory alone got her little boy-child clean and powdered and diapered up, wrapped in a blanket and held across her as she leaned back and closed her eyes. Dr. John Greenlees came in less than a half hour later, saw his wife, holding their child, her face lined with stress, dark under the eyes from a lack of sleep, sound asleep from good honest fatigue: he carefully draped a hand stitched quilt (a gift from Confederate ladies, family of those she'd saved when the Confederate transport took a meteor strike and the Sheriff kept some of the crew alive) -- he draped his wife and child, and then he stretched out beside them, laid his arm over them, and honestly passed out. It had been a really bad day. Decompression, and structural collapse both: their disaster procedures kept the colony from utter destruction, their training saved lives, their engineering and technology automatically sealed sections, preserving atmosphere from catastrophic escape, but there'd been casualties. Marnie was out on an investigation when it happened: as usual, she wore her skinsuit; when the atmosphere first dropped, her faceplace automatically deployed and sealed, and when the first alarm went off, she shoved two people aside to get to the nearest comm-station, punched in her Sheriff's override code, looked with hard and pale eyes at the sections affected. Dr. John Greenlees honestly hadn't had many patients. Catastrophic decompression is a fast way to die, and those who died, died fast -- some from the loss of atmosphere, others crushed: it was a freak, a fluke, a cascade of structural failures in the strata overhead: the jury was still out as to whether it was a heavy meteor strike that caused the initial collapse. Dr. John Greenlees did not know, and he honestly did not care. All he knew was, he'd been up just shy of 20 hours, and his wife had been up for 26, and from what he'd seen, every waking moment she'd been on task -- assembling rescue teams, directing excavations, treating the injured. She'd fallen back on her experience of many years ago, when her pale eyed Daddy was too close to an explosion: two of the first casualties to be carried into the surgical bay bore tags on their chest, in his wife's handwriting, and both said the same thing: SHOCK LUNG NEEDLE THOR LEFT. Sure enough, Dr. John Greenlees found each to have the finger of a rubber glove tied over the base of an IV needle, the needle punched between the ribs somewhere below the armpit; the end of the cut-off glove was barely snipped, and acted as a one-way valve, allowing extraneous air from around a collapsing lung to escape, and not re-enter: the lungs were pumping themselves back up, because of her quick action, and the lean, long-fingered physician and surgeon knew this was not something he'd taught her. It was not the first time, he knew, her lifetime in Firelands taught her lessons she brought with her, to the benefit of their Martian colony. Shelly sat hunched over beside her husband, elbows on her knees, staring at the screen. Dr. Greenlees was describing Marnie's actions during their catastrophe: he referred to official reports, news bulletins and other intel that may or may not be released to the general public. Linn and Shelly knew that politics rule all things, especially something as Ungodly expensive as the space program; Martian news had been carefully edited -- ("read censored," he'd cynically commented to his nodding-in-agreement wife) to present the best face to the taxpaying public. Their son-in-law's report came over a secure channel, courtesy the Confederacy, via a method of communication which which Earth was unfamiliar: not only was it clearer than traditional channels, it was also real-time, avoiding the twelve to fourteen minute delay getting a signal from here to there, or vice versa. John carried the little camera over to where Marnie and their child lay sleeping: he walked quietly, not wanting to wake his wife, but wanting his parents-in-law to see their daughter, alive, well, sleeping, getting some rest. Marnie opened her eyes, smiled drowsily. "Is that Mom and Dad?" she asked quietly, and Dr. Greenlees nodded. "Mama," she said to the hand-held sphere with the little round glass eye, "I used what you taught me and it worked." She closed her eyes and smiled gently, then opened her light-blue eyes once more. "Daddy, I still need to kick your backside for scaring me like that!" Dr. Greenlees turned the volume down quickly, and a good thing. Linn's laughter at that shared memory was most heartfelt.
  14. 671. THE SHERIFF'S GRANDDAUGHTER Chief of Police Will Keller looked up at the shadow on the other side of his frosted glass window, stood. "IN!" he barked, placing his pen very precisely along the right margin of his report sheet. His visitor did not insert a tentative, fearful head. No, the door swung well open, revealing a tall man with broad shoulders and a well tailored uniform. "Chief," he said, "you should see this." Will rose, extended his hand: his visitor stepped in, drew the door shut, held out a spiral bound notebook. Will sat, placed it on his desk, opened the front cover: he frowned, riffled quickly through the pages, from back to front. "Consecutively numbered," he murmured, "handwriting is precise for the numbering ... consistent, clear, no sign of fatigue." He read the last pages, then scanned through it. His visitor waited, standing at an easy parade rest. "Captain," Will murmured, "you know you can sit down." He sat, offering no comment. He looked up, removed his half-glasses. "Your people have already analyzed this." "They have." "Your conclusion?" "Increasing paranoia, but by distinct leaps. We think this corresponds with increased drug use." "That would be my conclusion. Does it say" -- he tapped the handwritten page with a neatly-trimmed fingernail -- "where he got the explosive?" "It lists multiple possible sources, but in the last pages he's very particular as to type, source, amount, detonator and intended targets, with primary strike, secondary and tertiary, with suicide detonation as a last resort if caught." The Captain paused, then: "Sheriff, how is Deptuy Keller?" The Chief looked up, his pale eyes hard, cold. He ignored the Captain's slip and growled, "He's healing." The Captain nodded. "The device was very simple, very powerful." Will nodded, turned a page, turned another. "Lone wolf attacker, no known associates. He intended to hit multiple targets himself. Straightforward ripcord detonator. If your nephew hadn't stopped him, from what we've learned from surveillance video, he would've bolted." "Does your intel show where he would have gone?" "Page sixty-two." Will turned to the indicated page. The Captain saw him not just freeze, but petrify: after the space of several breaths, he saw the Chief's good right hand close, slowly, tightly, until his knuckles were blanched, his fist trembling slightly. The Captain heard one, then another of Will's knuckles pop with the strength of his clench. Chief Will Keller closed his eyes, took a slow, deep breath, let it out, looked up. "His daughter," she said slowly, "indicated she was going to kick my nephew's backside up between his shoulder blades." "I seem to remember," the Captain said slowly, "hearing something about that." "From what you're telling me ... he doesn't need a boot print on his hip pockets." "No." "Do we know what drugs the sub was taking?" "We do now." Will raised an eyebrow. "Is it what we thought?" "It is. Continued use causes increasing paranoia. From what we're reading in that" -- he thrust his chin toward the spiral-bound, open on her green desk blotter -- "it was having that exact effect." "Why a mass casualty event?" he whispered, shaking his head. "Even in paranoia ... I can see him coming after an oppressor ... but why ...?" "Why a group of innocents?" The Captain shook his head. "We scoured his notes. Nothing pertaining to victimology was found, not here in this notebook, nowhere else. There were no other notes, no journals, nothing. He had no personal library, his computer showed little but porn. I was expecting to find some confused reference to taking a multitude of souls with him so they could serve as personal slaves in the Afterlife, but ..." The Captain shook his head, slowly. "We didn't find anything. Zip, nothing." "I'll need a copy of this." "We'll have one in your hands in six hours." "Appreciate that. Anything else for me?" "No." He rose. "Actually, yes there is." Chief of Police Keller rose with him. "The deputy's daughter." "My niece. Keller, Marnie L, thirteen years old. Pale eyes, red cowboy boots." "And a Winchester rifle." "I gave it to her." The Captain leaned forward, rested his knuckles on the edge of the desk. "I'm not used to being ordered around by a little girl." "Get used to it," Will growled. "She is her grandmother's granddaughter, and she is no respecter of persons." The Captain straightened, tried not to smile. "Willamina's granddaughter," the Captain said softly. "I should have known." Two ranking officers looked at one another, solemnity falling from their faces as they shared a quiet laugh together.
  15. 670. MAMA, CAN I KICK HIM NOW? Women are mysterious creatures that I've studied all my life, and if you took everything I know for a fact about the female of the species, you could tamp it down into a sewing thimble and have room enough to pour in a quart of whiskey on top. I recall I was in conversation with the State Police and the coroner, we were discussing sending tissue samples for further testing and I felt Shelly grab my arm, and of a sudden this-here tin folding chair run up and drove itself into my backside. Hard. I'm settin' there with two or three sets of hands on my shoulders and I'll swear I was the only thing keeping all them people from falling over. I was doing fine, they were wobbling and wobbling bad, so I reached down and grabbed the slant legs on that-there folding tin chair and held on tight, for the whole damned floor felt like it was assuming a distinct list to starboard. I say that women are marvelous and mysterious creatures, for one moment 'twas three State Troops, the coroner and myself, and then I felt my wife's grip and heard her voice, and I got laid back and picked up, chair and all, and I had me a death grip on that chair and I had to close my eyes to stop that room from pitching down at the bow and rolling up like we were head-on into a heavy sea. I recall someone said somethin' about bein' blue and they set me down, it was a little cooler so likely we were out in the lobby, it was always cooler out there than 'twas in the squad room, I felt Shelly's fingers dance down my front and my God she's undressing me right here in public! -- I got leaned forward and Shelly's murmur in my ear to let go of the chair and I let go and it felt like I was going to float up ag'in the ceiling. I recall the sound of velcro ripping free and 'twas not until they shed my vest off me that I realized -- -- that 's my armor they were stripping off -- I heard the clatter of hard wheels, wheels on the polished quartz floor, I was picked up and laid out on a narrow bed and Shelly's face kind of floated up in front of me and I could see she was talkin' and damned if I could hear a thing and then my arms got yanked up above my head, I felt cold places on my chest and then I flinched and something sharp cut into me and I had not enough get up and go in me to say ouch. "Chest tube is in." "Nice insertion. Secure it, hang the drainage bag." "Got that IV?" "Tubing's bled and ready." "I'm in, plug me in, turn me on." Practiced fingers opened the valve, practiced eyes gauged the flow through the drip chamber. "Tape." A sting, a burn: why are they needling my arm? Nothing wrong with me, I got work to do. Something green and cold and funny smelling on my face. Why are they running oxygen on me? Sunlight, blasting my retinas: I tried to squeeze my eyes shut and barely got them mostly closed. Floating, floating, darkness, blessed shadow: it was cooler now, cooler ... I can relax now. Shelly seized the bottom bar of the ambulance cot, looked across at Big John, dropped her backside. "On three, my count," she said, her voice low, musical, as it always was when she was ready to hoist the cot: "One, two, three." Lawmen tried to reach in to help hoist, but it was awkward for them: the two medics took up the best hoist room, the squad's broad back doors prevented getting any closer, and the Coroner knew if he seized the foot of the cot and helped lift, it would tilt the head down and prevent the ambulance cot's wheels from rolling onto the linoleum deck. The cot rolled foward, Big John slammed the spring-loaded cot hook open with the heel of his hand, Shelly steered it into engagement. She dropped back on one foot, launched herself into the back, Big John right behind her: the Captain was behind the wheel in the next moment. Just before the back doors swung to and latched, the Coroner looked at the drainage bag swinging from the side of the cot ... the drainage bag and the looped tubing, bright with the contained blood draining from the deputy's collapsed left lung. Violette Lingle was Marnie's classmate Twinkle's big sister. Violette Lingle favored the Big Hair of a generation ago, out of honest rebellion: she did not identify with her peer group, she set herself apart from her peers by dressing in fashions of the 70s, and she drove much too fast every chance she got. Marnie looked up from the steaming pot of hand cut noodles, noodles she'd rolled out, sliced into ribbons with a very sharp knife, noodles she'd introduced to the boiling broth, noodles she intended to serve for supper. Her ear pulled a little, as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger, and she smiled as she plied the ancient wooden spoon in the fragrant, carefully spiced pot: she recognized the car's swift approach, she heard it power around two curves, then she heard tires protest on pavement, she heard gravel as the speeder whipped off the paved roadway and into their driveway -- She's coming too fast, Marnie thought: is that even Violette? Marnie twisted the knob, shut off the fire: she wiped her hands quickly on her apron, opened a tall, narrow cupboard door and pulled out a Winchester rifle: she skipped for the front door, opened it. Violette almost fell out of the car. She scrambled toward the porch, her mouth open, not making a sound until she leaped from the ground over the steps, grabbed Marnie's shoulders, pinned her against the door. Startled, Marnie shoved the rifle's action into her attacker's belly. Hard. Violette released the younger teen's shoulders. "It's your Dad," she blurted. "They just took him by squad." Marnie's face went pale and her eyes went dead white. "Noodles on the stove," Marnie said, her voice tight. "Stay with the kids. Give the noodles two more minutes, no heat." Marnie twisted around Violette, leaped from the porch, sprinted for the barn: Violette's hands were across her belly as she reminded herself to breathe. She was going to offer to drive Marnie and her younger siblings to the hospital, and bring them back, but as she recovered her composure, as she took slower, deeper breaths, as she turned to reach for the doorknob, she heard the sound of hooves, their cadence fast, desperate, from behind the barn. It was not the first time a woman rode thusly. It was not the first time a woman rode with a long gun across her saddlebow, with war in her heart, with her hair floating in the slipstream. It was not the first time a woman rode with a single minded determination, rode on behalf of a pale eyed lawman who'd been hurt. The path she took was not the one ridden by the famous green-eyed Carolina Belle, Esther Keller, when it was her Linn Keller who lay with blood coming from his chest. No, this was a pale eyed woman, she was considerably younger than her honored ancestress, and she rode a copper colored stallion instead of a paint mare. Marnie Keller stood up in the stirrups, her hands welded to the Winchester, screaming defiance into the wind, and the stallion laid his ears back and thrust his head forward and punched a hole in the air with his nose. Marnie came into the hospital from behind, came into the ambulance bay. The stallion dropped his haunches, slowed fast, turned: Marnie kicked free, thrust her off palm hard against the saddlehorn, turned in mid-air: she came down on the balls of her feet, turned. The sliding glass doors were open as the ambulance crew came back out, solemn-faced: Marnie snarled as she powered into a sprint, turning the momentum of her jump into a determined run. Lawmen were being politely shooed out of the ER by the charge nurse; Marnie stopped in the doorway, blocking their path. One man, taller than the rest, had rank on his shoulder, his uniform cover under his arm. Marnie fixed him with a pale eyed glare, walked up to him, looked up at him. "Captain," she said, "hold this." She shoved the Winchester into his hands. "What do you plan to do, Miss?" he asked. Marnie looked past him, at the several lawmen, an X-ray tech and other scrub-suited staff, all staring at her. She looked back up at the State Police Captain. "Sir, have you ever gone hand-to-hand with my father?" "Your father?" "I'm the Sheriff's daughter." She took a long breath, looked back up at the Captain. "I need you to hold that because it'll take both hands to kick my father's BACKSIDE up between his SHOULDER BLADES!" Marnie twisted around the man, stomped up the row of ER alcoves: she slipped in behind a woman carrying a tray of blood tubes, behind Dr. Greenlees, reached in , gripped her father's hand. Shelly Keller, wife of the pale eyed deputy and mother to the surprising young woman who had the sand to give orders to to a State Police Captain, slipped between lawmen she knew and lawmen she didn't, following her daughter. "Linn Keller," she heard her daughter declare, "do NOT die on me, I will NOT COUNTENANCE it!" Linn opened his eyes a little, looked at the intense face of a pale eyed girl standing beside his ER cart, a young woman, all flannel shirt and big pale eyes and braids. Shelly nudged Dr. Greenlees, who removed his stethoscope's eartips from his ears and backed up a step to let the woman in. "Linn Keller," Shelly said firmly, "I would listen to her if I were you!" Linn reached up, his left hand shivering a little as he pulled the mask from his face a fraction of an inch. Marnie heard oxygen hissing in the mask, she heard her father's voice, weak and hollow-sounding under the molded, green-plastic rebreather. Linn gathered what little strength he still had, and just before his left arm gave out and dropped the mask and fell limp across his chest, he managed to reply to the most important ladies in his life. It took all the strength he had left, but he managed to mumble "Yes ma'am," and then Dr. Greenlees shooed mother, daughter, lawmen and medics out so the injured deputy could be wheeled down to Radiology for a CT scan. Marnie and Shelly stood, their arms around each other's waist, watching husband and father disappear behind the steel-sheathed hardwood doors. "Mama?" Marnie asked quietly. "Yes?" "Can I kick him in the shins?" Shelly bit her bottom lip: she raised a shaking hand, wiped the wet from her cheekbones. "Not yet," she whispered. It was not until the next day, not until he was well enough to receive visitors, that his little girl rode to the hospital, ground-reined her Daddy's red stallion out back, walked in like she owned the place: Shelly was already in the patient's room, holding his hand. Linn looked up as Marnie came in, silent in her trademark red boots and uncharacteristically in blue jeans. Marnie went around to the other side of the bed, took her Daddy's other hand in both of hers. Linn looked from one to the other, squeezed their hands, just a little. "Ladies," he whispered. "You had us worried," Shelly said softly. "My apologies," Linn said, his voice weak. "Find my clothes, I've got to get back to work!" Two ladies' hands rested flat on the injured lawman's upper chest: mother and daughter said with one voice, "No." "But I wanna," Linn whined in a petulant little-boy voice, and then laughed, just a little. Marnie looked at her Mama, shook her head. "Mama, can I kick him now?"
  16. 659. WE WILL NEVER KNOW The concussion was enough to shiver most of the windows for a three block radius into a blast of silica knives. Editor Jones was on one knee in the doorway of The Firelands Gazette, her camera focused on the lone lawman standing in the middle of the street, a double barrel shotgun in his white-knuckled grip: she'd just pressed the shutter, heard the camera's mechanism searing electronic images into its memory chip, when the concussion hit her like she'd been slapped by an angry giant. She felt the side of her knee scrape something sharp and thought Dammit, the one day I wear nylons! -- and then she realized she was looking straight up, at the underside of the roof's overhang, considering that whoever painted it last did a fine job. "Firelands P6, Firelands." A familiar voice, rich, warm, confident, flowed smoothly from the dispatcher's speaker. "P6, go." "Firelands P6, have a report of a man with a bomb. Current location West Main, Sierra 4 and 5 enroute, your location?" "The All-Night." Chief of Police Will Keller took a fast gulp of coffee, dropped the rest in the trash can, flipped a single at the girl behind the register as he strode out, talkie in hand. "P6, Sierra Four and Five, come in from your end and we'll come in from opposite." "Roger." Four hundred sixty rompin' stompin' cubic inches of four-barrel Ford go-power woke up with a quiet, confident rumble of exhaust: Chief of Police Will Keller pulled the shifter gently into gear, looked around, eased out of the All-Night. He waited until he was out of the lot before he came down on the go pedal. I was in my Mama's office when the call came in. I reached up and grabbed the ancient double gun that hung above her padded office chair, I seized the bandolier of brass hull, swan shot from the gunrack, slung it across me: I didn't have to look to know the shotgun was loaded. Mama was elsewhere, I wasn't sure where and it didn't matter. I strode across the marble floor, looked at Sharon, who was just hanging up the phone. "Phone tree," she said, "Mercantile just locked its doors, they're calling everyone on their side of the street, I'm calling the Jewel now." "Bless you," I threw over my shoulder as I shoved through the first set of heavy glass doors. I saw the figure in the middle of the street, turning, wild-eyed, a backpack clutched to his chest. I wiped both hammers back to full stand, brought the double gun my many times great Granddad used as a lawman, firmly to shoulder. I advanced, deliberately, one step at a time. "Set it down," I called, my voice loud, commanding, echoing off the fronts of the buildings. It was morning yet. I saw with my peripheral people were coming out, looking, pointing. "GET INSIDE!" I honestly roared. "INSIDE AND LOCK THE DOORS!" I have to kill them I have to kill them I have to kill them -- Panic ran a human heart faster and harder than it was ever supposed to run -- panic, and something else. One thought, and one thought alone, filled the brain: one focus, one screaming drive, like an insane tornado -- I have to kill them I have to kill them I have to kill them -- Will came in from the other side, behind this Jack Doe with wild eyes and a blue nylon backpack clutched to his chest like something precious. I saw him brake hard, turn the passenger side of his restored Crown Vic toward us, back up a little, blocking the street. Will got out, carbine in hand: he raised a hand, waved, I lifted my chin in acknowledgement. The report that came in to Sharon, our dispatcher, was something about a bomb, about some John Doe talking to himself and pleading that he had to kill them, all of them, but he wouldn't say who "them" was. I walked steadily closer. I didn't know who "them" was, but I knew if he had a bomb, he could kill many people, fast. If he tried to run, I was going to drop him, I figured to give him both barrels without hesitation. I advanced while he looked around, whispering something -- I saw his lips move -- then he looked at me and let out just a God awful scream of nothing short of sheer, undadulterated terror. "ALL OF YOU, GET AWAY FROM ME!" -- his voice was little short of a woman's scream, high, shrill, the sound of someone in utter torment, in agony beyond description -- "GET BACK OR I'LL KILL YOU! ALL OF YOU!" "It's just you and me, friend," I called back, pitching my voice to carry, to carry clearly but not with overt threat: "we're alone here, suppose you set that down so we can talk." A pale eyed schoolteacher stood in the street, a '76 Winchester in hand: she cycled the action, fed the long, shining brass cartridge into the breech. Beside her, another woman with pale eyes: she wore the brief tunic of a Grecian warrior-maiden, her curly black hair was held out of the way atop her head with a golden band, one shoulder was bare, her sandals wrapped to her knees: she smiled, ever so slightly, as she held a nocked arrow with just a slight tension on her bowstring. Beside her, a pale eyed woman in a white skinsuit, with a blued steel .357, the gold inlaid Thunder Bird adding a touch of barbaric splendor to her chosen warmaker. Other women, other weapons: a woman in a long dress, drawing the flint-jawed striker of a Brown Bess musket back to full stand; another yet, with an engraved model of 1873 One of One Thousand, inlaid with a six point star on the port side of the breech. Pale-eyed Death filled the street, full width, and pale-eyed Death advanced on silent feet, following the pale eyed lawman with the ancient, Damascus barrel, double gun. "I'LL KILL YOU ALL!" His voice was panicked, insane, and I knew he was not far from some stupid action. I saw him grip a handle -- it looked like a lawn mower's pull handle -- he seized it like he was going to pull it -- No more time, take him out! The front bead was already just below his chin, he was maybe thirty feet from me, I slapped the front trigger -- Chief of Police Will Keller saw the man's right shoudler drop, saw the empty street behind his nephew, knew Linn would have a precise aim with his shotgun, knew the shot swarm would not spread beyond the subject's body -- The shoulder dropped -- Will's finger tightened on the carbine's smooth, curved trigger -- Panicked eyes, panicked voice, a last shivering scream of loss and despair as he saw all those pale eyed warrior women lean forward into a flat-out charge -- I came to laying flat on my back, looking up at my Uncle, feeling his fingers pressing down beside my Adam's apple. I swallowed, or tried to. I did manage to blink. Will leaned back on his haunches, looked up at the approaching squad, looked back down at me. It sounded like the squad was responding from the other end of the county, I could barely hear it for the red ringing in my ears, and it felt like I'd been slapped in the face, clear down to my kneecaps. I reached up and grabbed Will's hand. I saw his lips move, I knew he said something but damned if I could hear a thing: I wasn't sure I could move much of anything else, but I did, I turned my head enough to see Bruce Jones's daughter lowering her camera, and damned if she didn't put my picture on the front page, a-layin' there in the middle of the street, Uncle Will down on one knee beside me, and us grippin' hands the way men will when they just dodged the noon freight. Uncle Will called in the State boys to help with the investigation, since he'd put lead into the back of that fella's head -- Will cussed about that when we debriefed, after I'd got some hearing back, he allowed as he should have shot two seconds sooner, maybe he'd have kept it from going boom. I do know they played hell scraping up enough blown-apart tissue to analyze. The coroner told me later they wanted to know what that fella took that drove him to blow himself up, that drove him wild eyed insane and mumblin' to himself and then screamin' for "Them" to get back, whoever "Them" was. "We analyzed what we could," the coroner told us,"but what he took to drive him insane?" He shook his head. "There are several compounds that will do it, but realistically?" He shrugged. "We will never know."
  17. 658. AND THE SHERIFF TURNED RED Sheriff Willamina Keller's eyes were pale as she listened to the ER nurse's quiet voiced report. They stood together, two women, their heads inclined to one another, speaking in the confidential manner one woman will to another: they were not Sheriff and nurse, they were two old friends, and when Willamina gripped Susan's hand, quickly, delicately, it was the feminine gesture of one friend to another. Willamina's Marine-short hair did not conceal the fact that her ears were considerably redder than her noticeably-pink face. As a matter of fact, Sheriff Willamina Keller's ears were an absolutely, flaming, blazing shade of scarlet. One of her deputies, Paul Barrents, son of her long-time segundo JW Barrents, waited impassively against one wall, his uniform Stetson correctly under one arm, standing at an easy, informal parade-rest: as the Sheriff turned and came toward him, he lifted his chin, came to correct military attention. "Ma'am." Sheriff Willamina Keller patted Paul on the chest, her expression gentle. "Paul," she said in a motherly voice, "tell me what happened." Barrents was a little uncertain. He was used to seeing the Sheriff during debrief. He was acccustomed to seeing a cold-faced, white-eyed professional, speaking in clipped, efficient, precise terms, interested in nothing but facts. "Ma'am, we ... ummm ..." Willamina gave him a wide eyed, innocent look. This didn't help. "Ma'am, we ... ahhh ..." Paul shut his eyes, took a long breath, swallowed. "Ma'am, we got called on a domestic, and it was. As soon as we got there we could hear hell being raised in the house." "Hell being raised." "Yes, ma'am. We heard the sound of dishes or ceramicware being broken." "Ceramicware." "Yes, ma'am, and a woman's voice." "It sounded like ...?" she prompted. "Whoever it was, ma'am, she was quite unhappy." "Unhappy." "Yes, ma'am, she was screaming at someone." "Screaming." "Yes, ma'am. Most of it I could not make out." "And your actions ...?" "Ma'am, as soon as we heard broken dishes, we each grabbed a riot shield and went in." "A riot shield." "Yes, ma'am." Barrents nodded. "You recall those brand new riot shields we've never used?" Willamia nodded. "Ma'am, I am pleased to report they will stop a hard thrown coffee cup, two cans of soup and a jar of honey." "A jar of honey." "Yes, ma'am, that's why we're here." Willamina's eyebrow raised. "Oh?" "Ma'am, once Linn got up --" "Got up?" "Yes, ma'am, honey is slick and he went down." "And?" "He got up and we rushed the woman, we got her pinned in the corner. I held her and Linn parked his shield and got his cuffs out, we grabbed her and put her on the floor and the fight was on." "That explains this." Willamina's fingers were gentle as they stroked beside an angry looking scratch across Barrents' left jawline. He raised a hand to his face. "Yes, ma'am, I ... she got through my guard." "You got her on the floor." "Yes, ma'am, and it was like ridin' a wildcat." "You finally got her in irons." "We did, ma'am, but it was just all the two of us wanted. I don't know what she was on, but she genuinely threw us north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to oil!" "Go on." "I grabbed that greasy-slick riot shield and shoved it down on her and Linn and I dog piled on top of it and once we got her pinned, why, we just laid there and got our breath, we let her kick and scream but she was pinned down and she was not going anywhere." "I see." Willamina regarded Barrents' shirt front. "Yes, ma'am, that's some of the honey she broke that jar on us with." "That should wash out with no problem. Are you hurt anywhere else?" "No, ma'am, but Linn got cut." "I know they're sewing him up, but I need to know how it happened." "Well, ma'am, he come down on broken glass when he slipped on that honey, and he ... umm, he's ..." Barrents hesitated, considered. "Ma'am, I've got to go soak the cruiser's seat in salt water." "Paullll ...." Willamina said in a motherly tone, and Deputy Paul Barrents shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Ma'am, he got cut and they're sewin' on him right now." Willamina's hand was firm on his shoulder and she was looking him very directly in the eye, and he took a little bit of comfort in the fact that her eyes were not that hard shade of glacial ice that meant she was ready to rip throats. "Paul," she said softly, "check yourself very carefully for injuries. Sometimes we don't realize we're hurt." She pattted his shirt front again. "We only have one of you and I for one want to keep you around for a while!" "Yes, ma'am." Willamina considered. "I think I'll slip back and see what progress they're making." "Yes, ma'am." Paul Barrents watched as his Sheriff tapped briskly across the room, shoving through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE as if she owned the place. The waiting room was silent; those few present, eyed the worse-for-wear deputy warily. Paul heard the doors open again, saw the Sheriff come out, saw her walking at her usual brisk, high-heeled pace, straight toward him. This time she did not lay a motherly hand on his chest. This time she put both hands on his shoulders, she leaned her forehead against his chest, her shoulders working: Paul's heart fell about two miles, until it hit his boot tops, he placed uncertain hands on the Sheriff's shoulders: "Ma'am?" he asked softly, and Willamina raised her face -- Paul Barrents' heart shrank a few sizes as he saw her face was wet -- Then he realized ... She's laughing, he thought, and his surprised expression shattered what little reserve Sheriff Willamina Keller had left. Willamina pulled a kerchief from her sleeve, wiped her face, turned away and blew her nose with a most unladylike honk! -- wiped her eyes again -- looked back at Paul, then stood beside him, leaned her head back against the wall, smiled, sighed. "Paul?" "Yes, ma'am?" "They've sewed up the glass cuts." "Good." "There were three of them and there was a little glass in the wounds, they got that all out." "Yes, ma'am." She turned her head, looked at him, smiled gently. "He's laying there on his belly with his backside draped, all but where they're stitching" -- her face reddened again -- "his arms were crosssed under his chin and he looked up at me and said" -- Sheriff Willamina Keller chewed on her knuckle, closed her eyes: she snorted, she choked, she slapped her hands hard against the front of her thighs, took a deep breath, looked at Paul and whispered: "He looked at me like a sad little boy and said 'Maw, I broke my butt!' " Sheriff and Deputy can be forgiven a moment's lack of protocol if they embraced one another and shared a laugh together, right there in front of God and everybody, and perhaps this is not a bad thing, for laughter is a rare visitor to an emergency department's waiting room.
  18. 657. A CLASSIC MANEUVER Deputy Linn Keller shifted in the passenger side seat, blinking. "Paul," he said, "did you see ...?" "Those two boys in Gillicuddy's field?" Deputy Sheriff Paul Barrents, son of the newly-retired JW Barrents and long-time boon companion, best friend and fellow shooter Linn Keller, gave "One of Those Looks" as one of his two replies. His other reply was an immediate and judicious application of throttle. "You know what they're going to do." "I know." Linn looked down and to the side, seeing two boys with 2x4s not much longer than themselves, swaggering into the fenced pasture, boards over their shoulders -- young warriors going to pick a fight. A fight they could not possibly win. Linn shook his head. "I," he said slowly, "have done some stupid things in my young life." He pulled out his pen, clicked it, opened his field notebook. "But never anything like that!" Paul eased the wheel over, eased back, dodging what was less a pothole and more a crater: Linn noted the location in his half a steno book, adding to the miscellaneous information he would transfer to the other half of the steno book: both had FIELD NOTEBOOK in black marker on the narrow cover, the original steno book had been sheared down its middle on an industrial paper shear: one half was for raw notes, punch lines to dirty jokes, recipes, unflattering cartoons, in addition to field contact information, notes taken at a crime scene -- the useful, law enforcement related information would be transferred to the only field notebook he would admit to, the one that could be subpoenaed into court during a major case. It would not do to explain, under oath and on the stand, why a dirty limerick about seafaring ladies of loose morals, appeared between pages dedicated to investigation of crime scenes. The location of the pothole would be both transferred to the "official field notebook," in addition to this intelligence being passed on to the county's highway department. Linn looked in the mirror again; he shook his head, clicked the pen and slid it into his uniform blouse pocket. "Do you reckon," he said thoughtfully, "that will be the only stupid thing we'll see today?" Barrents laughed, black eyes shining: "Buddy Joe," he declared, "there is no way in two hells that's the only stupid thing we'll see today!" He gave Linn a quick and knowing glance and added, "Never tempt Fate, my friend, she lo-o-oves a challenge!" They turned off the county road onto another paved county road, climbed Basset Ridge road, slowed as they came past a tidy row of new cottages. "Uh-oh," Linn said, and Barrents hit the brakes, slowing them significantly. They both looked to the right, they studied the scene, the looked at one another: Barrents looked ahead, hit the throttle, and the Suburban's big block engine responded with a will: the shining, waxed, polished, slightly dusty Suburban shot ahead, rapidly putting distance from what was going to be a very unpleasant situation. "I," Linn said as they crested the ridge and came out on the level, "do NOT want to be anywhere near when it hits!" "Buddy Joe," Paul Barrents agreed, "that makes two of us!" Linn made some quick notes, enough to refresh his memory: they were keeping an unofficial record of Truly Stupid Things They See In a Day's Time, and this was the second one of the day; as it would turn out, it was perhaps not stupid, but certainly the most distressing. As far as stupid, they both agreed, over fresh, hot coffee back at the Sheriff's office at end of shift, two boys going into Gilicuddy's field had to be absolutely, positively the utterly, absolutely, most brainless thing they'd seen, not just all shift, but all week. They knew the boys. They knew what they intended to do with four foot lengths of 2x4. Gillicuddy had a bull, and the boys had a game: they'd done this before, just never here: one would whack a bull, hard as he could, across the backside. Never mind the bull would be relaxed, never mind the bull was inoffensively, peacefully grazing, intent only on filling his belly: when the first lad whacked him across the backside, the bull's head would come up in surprise, his indiginant bellow cut short by the second two-by-four coming hard down between his horns, hard as young arms could swing it: the boys would scream, drop their war clubs and run hard as they could, for the fence. Until today, they made it. Next day, after taking a beat-up drunk in to ER, Linn and Barrents learned from the ER staff that they treated a little boy the evening before. The dirty, chastened lad had a sprained wrist and several scrapes and bruises -- including an impressive bruise on the back of one thigh, where a bovine horn helped boost the fleeing fellow over the fence. Airmail, you might say. But the most distressing moment of the day's shift, they agreed, after finishing their end of shift reports, as Linn transcribed in neat block print the scribbled notes he'd taken in the moving vehicle ... the worst was when they passed that row of new cottages. They'd been built on slabs. A new owner wanted a basement. The contractor was excavating judiciously from under the cottage, the contractor was neatly placing the excavated, muddy, wet, mostly-clay material in a mound in the front yard, a tidy pile he could easily load into a truck and haul off before landscaping the yard afterward. What Linn and his partner saw, when they decided the climate was healthier elsewhere, was the sight of a little girl. A pretty little girl, judging from the frilly, lacy, girly nature of the pinafore she wore, the pure-white, ruffly petticoat peeking from under her hemline, the ruffly top anklets and shining patent-leather slippers, the ribbon in her curly hair. At least that's what they could see from her backside. You see, this pretty little girl was belly crawling up the pile of still-wet clay and mud. Two passing deputies could only imagine what the pretty little girl's front side looked like, and just before Barrents's boot came down on the go pedal, they saw a mother come out of the front door, dressed for a wedding or some other significant event, and in that shivered sliver of a second, they saw the mother's eyes widen and her mouth drop open, and two brave men of the Firelands County Sheriff's Office committed that ancient, honorable and classic military maneuver knowin as Getting the Hell Out of There!
  19. 656. WHAT DID SHE MEAN BY THAT? Of a sudden I felt old. Marnie ran her arm around my middle and pulled herself into me, her hip hard against mine: she tilted her head a little so it leaned against my arm, and I felt her take a long breath. "Papa," she murmured, "tell me about them." I closed my eyes. We stood before the family row in the Garden of Stone, stood before polished quartz with names incised, carved, sandblasted, laser etched: I came here sometimes, I'd come here and stand, or set if the ground wasn't wet, and I'd stare at the three markers, and remember. I didn't set today. It rained not long before and I'd no wish to muddy up my backside. I stood there with my little girl holding me, her head leaned into my arm, her arm across my tenderloins, and I shifted a little. I looked down into my little girl's pale eyes and I saw a sorrow, a deeper sorrow than I realized, and I kicked myself for that: of course she knows grief, she lost her birth-Mama and everyone she'd known back East, and she'd come out here with her dying Mama, and she did her best to look happy here, and -- I bit my bottom lip, chewed on it some, and Marnie waited. "Darlin'," I said slowly, "you're ... what ... ten now?" Marnie nodded, blinking. "What time's it gettin' to be?" "It's nearly noon, Daddy." My ear twitched a little. She'd called me Papa before, and she never called me Papa, and I hadn't realized it until now. I filed that in my mind the way a lawman will when he's interrogatin' someone and they slip up and let something out they hadn't intended to. "Dear heart," said I, "if I recall right, the Silver Jewel has bacon cheeseburgers that ain't never been et yet." "Daddy?" Marnie blinked innocently and I squatted down, held her little hands in my big ones, nodded a go-ahead. "Daddy, if you insist on sounding like a poor dumb hillbilly, someone might think you are." Now this took me absolutely by surprise, and I laughed a little, and that helped. I nodded. "Another tool in my toolbox," I admitted. "If I sound that-a-way, someone will think I am and they'll be incautious. They'll think me thick as clay and they'll be more likely to slip up." "I don't think you're thick, Daddy." Marnie tilted her head a little to the side, the way I'd seen Shelly do when she was sizing up whether I was shoveling her with a load of malarkey. "Daddy, you could use a good square meal. Mr. Baxter said if you turned sideways in the noonday sun, you wouldn't throw a decent shadow." I chuckled a little, nodded. "I reckon so, darlin'. Saddle up and I'll tell you about Connie and the twins over a meal." Father and daughter, lawman and child, rode at a brisk walk from Cemetery Hill down into Firelands. It was an era of modern transportation, of paved roads, instant communication, and yet the sound of hooves, loud and rhythmic and echoing off buildings facing the paved street, seemed not at all out of place here. The Silver Jewel, tavern, saloon, hotel and restaurant, sought to keep the flavor of its earlier days; it still had the stamped-tin ceilings, the original, heavy, burnished-mahogany bar; the hotel counter, in like wise, was age-dark, immaculately maintained, staffed by an attractive young woman with both hairdo and attire of the mid-1800s, and behind the bar, a jolly fellow with pomaded hair combed and slick, parted down the middle: his mustache was genuine, its color was not, nor was a waxed handlebar curl its natural posture: here, though, behind the ancient bar, in the company of old, framed drawings of some original residents, backed by a large, heavy-glass mirror, the man in the long white apron would have been at home when the prevailing transportation was the then-ubiquitous, one-horsepower, Oatsmobile. Outside this carefully-maintained, immaculately-painted, carefully-trimmed fixture of the town, a tall, lean waisted lawman rode up, dismounted, threw his Palomino's reins carelessly over the hitch-rail: he patted the stallion's flank, kept his hand on warm, living fur as he walked behind: he had no fear of being kicked, for he and his stallion had an arrangement: as long as horse knew rider was back there, horse was fine with the idea, but woe betide the careless soul who came up unannounced! The lawman with pale eyes and a curled mustache, reached up with both hands, and his little girl laughed and leaned into him, trusting her weight into his hands, and Linn swung Marnie down from her gelding's back, and together they walked around the hitch-rail and up the hand-made, solid-built steps, onto the boardwalk: Linn seized the shining brass door handle and hauled open the ornate, frosted-glass-decorated door for his pale-eyed daughter. It seems like everyone knows everyone else in a small town, and so it was here: the Sheriff's eyes were busy, as they always were; he satisfied himself there were no threats before he and his daughter came on in, and when they entered, it was with a smile, with greetings -- he said hello to Tilly behind the bar, to Mr. Baxter, whose companionable grin and a nod told of no known threats this day; men rose, hands extended, and the Sheriff shook their hands and spoke their names and asked after their wives, after a new baby, after their son, who'd scored the winning goal at Homecoming, who'd made the Honor Roll, who'd just joined the Service: it took some little time to make their way back to the Lawman's Corner, and by the time they got there, so had the gum-popping hash slinger, who smiled at Marnie and gave the Sheriff a look through her curled lashes that she reserved for very few men. "Coffee" -- the waitress didn't ask it as a question, she declared it as a statement -- "and Coke?" "Milk, please," Marnie said innocently as menus half-spun to the tabletop. Linn frowned at his, looked up at the waitress. "Have you those real good bacon cheeseburgers?" he asked hopefully, and the waitress laid a hand on his shoulder and hipshot dramatically: "Why of course, handsome!" "Are those the ones they make out of dead cows?" Linn continued, giving her his very best Innocent Expression, at which point she swatted him on the shoulder with her note pad: "Fries, cole slaw, cottage cheese, floor sweepin's?" "Cottage cheese, darlin', and make that two platters." The waitress looked at Marnie, who looked back with absolute, wide-eyed innocence and nodded. Linn waited until the waitress was departed before leaning forward a little. "I don't think she liked what I said about dead cows." Marnie giggled and they leaned back: coffee arrived, as did a tall, sweating-cold glass of milk, and fresh rolls and butter. They were halfway through their platters when Marnie spoke up. "Daddy, is something wrong with the salt?" Linn blinked, surprised. "No, darlin', not a thing, why?" "You peppered your cottage cheese." Linn grinned. "I did, darlin'." Marnie gave him that Innocent Expression and Linn grinned back. "Darlin', I found out salt releases calcium into the kidneys." Marnie frowned, not understanding. "Calcium turns into kidney stones, and I don't need any more of those damned things!" "Oh," Marnie said, comprehension flooding her face: she'd seen men with kidney stones before, she'd read up on the phenomenon, she'd spoken with nurses at the Firelands hospital who confided that they'd had both kidney stones and children, and of the two, kidney stones hurt worse. Linn spooned up another bite of cottage cheese, took a noisy slurp of coffee, dashed the excess off his mustache with a bent foreknuckle. "You wanted to know about Connie and the twins." Cheeseburgers arrived right about then; Linn spooned up the last of his cottage cheese, leaned back to allow the empty dish and spoon's removal. Linn picked up his burger, turned it upside down -- "things don't fall out this way," he explained, and Marnie nodded, picked her own sandwich up, carefully inverted it like her Daddy just did. "Connie was my first wife," Linn said slowly, taking another sip of coffee -- silently this time -- "and Emil and Gottleib were our boys. They were twins." "What happened to 'em?" Linn's eyes veiled themselves and Marnie felt him withdraw -- the man did not move, but it felt like he'd pulled back three feet and pulled a curtain across in front of him, or maybe that's just how his eyes looked, like he pulled a curtain across behind them. "They were killed by a drunk driver," Linn said slowly. Marnie took a bite, chewed carefully, listened. "I was first on scene," Linn said, his voice quieter; he looked a little to the side, pale eyes seeing through the polished, spotless tabletop. "Not one damn thing I could do but watch ... I tried, Marnie." He looked at her, his expression haunted. "I ran up with that two-and-a-half pound extinguisher and I might as well have spit on that fire. Didn't matter, they were killed instantly -- or so the coroner said, no soot in their lungs, they were dead before the car caught fire." Marnie's eyes dropped, as if she, too, were looking through the tabletop, looking at her Daddy's burn-scarred legs. "Is that why you walked through fire to get Mommy out of her wreck?" Linn lowered his cheeseburger, his appetite gone: he set it back on its saucer, misery in his eyes. "I was not going to lose my wife again," he said quietly, then he looked at Marnie. "I will not lose my wife again, and I will not lose another child." Something told ten year old Marnie Keller that her Daddy meant exactly what he said, and he meant it to the core of his living soul. That night, after she'd gotten ready for bed, Marnie uncharacteristically came flowing down the broad, stout-built staircase, a barefoot ghost in a white flannel nightgown: she knew this was her Mommy and Daddy's time, but she felt this was something she had to do. Linn looked up as his little girl approached: he leaned forward and she seized him in a youthful hug, then she pulled back, went and hugged her Mama. Linn heard something whispered, a return whisper, then Marnie turned and flowed back upstairs, as barefoot silent as when she'd descended. Linn and Shelly looked at one another, surprised: Linn raised a curious eyebrow and his wife smiled, leaned toward him, and Linn leaned toward her. "She said I am very safe," Shelly said, puzzled. "What do you suppose she meant by that?"
  20. Ruger Mark 1 with the long bull barrel, bought when I turned 21. One of the very first things I did was pull the sharp holster ripping hooked front sight and replace it with a ramp front from a Single-Six. My best friend could shoot it better than I, and I was pretty darn good ... but if he had his Hi-Standard Supermatic Citation Trophy in hand, he could make me feel like I should trade a pistol for a handful of rocks!
  21. There are many subjects -- this is one of them -- where you could take the sum total of all my knowledge on the subject under discussion, and tamp it down into a sewing thimble, you'd still have room enough to pour in a quart of whiskey on top! Never knew, for instance, any nickname other than the crummy, and never knew why it was called that. Many thanks!
  22. P51 MUSTANG! (pant drool pant howl pant gimme gimme gimme!) *ahem* ... ... I mean ... nice airplane ... (sorry, did the best I could, they lack an emoticon for pure unadulterated lust!)
  23. 655. NO PARTICULAR REASON It started out innocently enough. A casual comment, an idle idea, spoken aloud: it was heard, and overheard; more joined the conversation, there was laughter and agreement, and so was born the conspiracy. It was necessary to recruit the Distaff in order to advance the plot: wives and daughters, maids and maidens and most of Fireland's ladies responded with patient tolerance, with grudging acceptance, with approving delight, and some few with a degree of resentment, for just as a women getting an idea costs men work, men getting an idea cost women work: in spite of these, at the appointed time, and in the appointed place, men set up barrels and saw-horses and planks, right next to their tidy little Church, next to the roses growing alongside: women threw tablecloths over these, those within opened the windows a bit, and the smell of good cookin' came into their little whitewashed church. Parson Belden led the congregation in their usual hymn, the passing of the plate and the prayer, he spoke such news as was proper to present from the pulpit -- a birth, a death, a relative distant from here was succeeding in business, another's health in a distant place was failing, and the conspirators watched closely as the Parson's eyes drifted toward that side of the Church from whence the good smells silently invaded the partly open windows. Parson Belden smiled from behind the pulpit and declared, "As considerable effort has been made to provide the repast without," he said, "today's sermon shall be on the joy of charity, and we will live that sermon by adjourning for the remainder of the service. Before we go" -- his upraised hands and inflected voice stopped those eager souls who began to rise -- "let us return grace, elsewise if the repast without tastes as good as the smells within, I might stuff my mouth and be unable to speak!" He smiled gently; there were a few chuckles, heads bowed. "O Lord," the Parson intoned, "bless us and the food of which we are about to partake, and spare use the curse of the long winded preacher, AMEN!" The ladies, wives, daughters, maids and maidens of the Congregation did themselves proud that day; it was a feast for no particular reason, it was a celebration for the sake of celebrating: the community came together and partook of each other's good cookin', women exchanged recipes, men ate with a good appetite and lied outrageously to each other as they did, a stray dog skulked on the outskirts, hoping to scavenge something (and was rewarded with tossed chunks, courtesy little boys who delight in such things), and the Parson listened, and ate, and considered that his experiment was a success: he'd planted the idea, half a week earlier, that perhaps the community could shorten up that long winded preacher by having a feed after the service. A hand on his shoulder, a familiar voice: "I'd have to say this is one of your better sermons, Parson!" Parson Belden, his mouth full, could but nod in agreement.
  24. Pardon the interruption to this honorable thread (which I'm enjoying greatly, by the way! ) This is my parting gift to the plant ... we maintain a logbook, and years ago I put necessary information on the inside front cover, I've prepped every new logbook for the past fifteen years ... I refrained from drawing a helmet with a pair of boots sticking out from under ... (insert innocent expression here!) We now return you to your regularly scheduled countdown!
  25. Brother Beymer, rest his soul, worked in a local gunshop. He bought a Hi-Standard Supermatic Citation and he could outshoot me seven ways from Sunday with that fine pistola! Didn't matter what I shot, I could never shoot as well with ANYTHING as he could with that Supermatic Citation!
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