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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Everything posted by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

  1. 613. A LITTLE CHILD A pair of wide, wondering eyes regarded the brightly painted, five point star on the front of the engine's boiler. The Lady Esther breathed as she waited, fire in her belly, steam in her heart, memories laying thick about her like a cloak about a noblewoman: Joseph Keller considered the letters, relief cast in a circle around the star -- he knew it said something about Baldwin, but he was not that good at reading yet. Joseph strutted across the hand-laid, gravel-bedded railroad tie, stepped over the shining steel rail, turned, looked up again: he climbed back up on the heavy gravel ballast, until he was nearly touching the brightly-painted, hand-polished engine: he looked up at her diamond stack, black and powerful against the blue sky above: Joseph felt the heat radiating from her riveted belly, looked down, considered how tall the cast iron wheels were -- it's not that the spoked, pinstriped wheels were that tall, it's that the lad ... wasn't. Joseph Keller had yet to start school, but that did not prevent his education: every night he would cuddle on his Daddy's lap, content to feel the Grand Old Man's chest rumble, warm and solid behind him, knowing nowhere in the entire world was safer than his Daddy's lap. Sometimes his Daddy would work with him with his letters, showing him how they appear at intervals on a newspaper headline, for instance; he would have Joseph point out all the E's or all the A's or all the L's in a headline -- in time, he would be teaching his son fractions, with the assistance of a set of combination wrenches, a tape measure and other hands-on, practical applications of everyday learning. For today, though, Joseph was learning by observation: the engine's sand pipes were polished, brass, gracefully curved; his sister Marnie one time drew the engine, and Joseph remembered how beautifully she'd curved those sander lines, how she'd flawlessly reproduced the squat teakettle shape of the sand dome, how patient she'd been as she explained this was a steam dome, this was a sand dome -- Joseph looked waaay up and grinned, for he knew which was which! Sheriff Linn Keller was watching his son, perhaps remembering what it was to be a wee child, marveling at the world and seeing it with new eyes, and perhaps he too had some distant memory of marveling, childlike, at the steam engine that carried its namesake's portrait on the side of its brightly-painted cab. The pale eyed Sheriff wondered how many young had gazed with that look of wondering marvel he saw in his son's expression. A pretty young woman in an immaculately fitted gown paced slowly down the depot platform. She wore a fashionable little hat, she had a matching, lacy parasol over her shoulder; she had a patient, kindly expression, and she smiled a little at the sight of two little boys standing in the middle of the tracks, gazing with rapt wonder at the five pointed star on the nose of The Lady Esther's boiler. One lad was a townie, by his clothes; the other Sarah recognized as one of Sean's several young: his boys were mostly red headed and blue eyed, with the milk-fair skin and freckles that bespoke the dermatological legacy of father and mother both: though the boys had different backgrounds, they were united in a sense of rapt wonder, for to their young sensibilities, this cast iron Baldwin engine was alive -- alive! -- they could hear her breathe, they felt the animal warmth radiating from her metallic hide -- they knew she labored, patiently, powerfully, like the dumb oxen that hauled freight wagons and the occasional covered wagon that passed infrequently through Firelands. Two little boys drifted down beside the engine, studying her with the rapt attention of the young who'd found something truly fascinating. It was not a rare thing to see the ladies of the Tea Society, dressed in the fashion of a century agone: if they had a tour group, the Ladies would often act as guides, as docents, and so the pale eyed Linn Keller did not take it at all amiss to see a young woman in a lovely gown, mostly silhouetted in the depot's shadowed overhang. She did look somewhat familiar, yes, but he was Sheriff, and at one time or another he'd laid eyes on every living soul in his county. She stood in shadow; the sun was bright on the side of the building behind her, and so he could not see the quiet smile as she looked knowingly -- approvingly -- at him. He looked down, allowed himself the slightest of smiles as his Joseph turned toward him with a little-boy grin of absolute delight, then turned and ran for his Da -- Linn squatted to meet the youthful charge, and just before little Joseph ran happily into his Daddy's embrace, Linn looked up and felt a little pang of disappointment, for the woman he'd seen in silhouette, was gone -- and then Joseph, all grin and giggle and happy little boy, filled the lean waisted lawman's arms, and all thought of the feminine shadow disappeared.
  2. 612. ANOTHER DADDY, ANOTHER GIRL Four skulls bleached in the dry Colorado air. Four skulls were impaled on sharpened stakes, belt high on a tall man: the four showed the ill effects of weathering: one was missing its lower jaw, the wayward mandible having fallen, or been pulled off by some scavening animal; another had the characteristic wedge shaped opening that told the viewing eye, that an ax had cloven fatally deep into the skull. A third skull, a little coal-black hair clinging to one side, had a hole where the ear would have been; the other side of the skull was mostly gone. The fourth, if you cared to bend over a little and stare into the haunting, dark, vacant socket, had a slit in the back, the legacy of a knife blade driven through the eye and deep into the brain. Four eyeless skulls rotted in the thin Colorado mountain air; insects landed, laid their eggs; larvae, bacteria and weather served to strip flesh from bone. The location was obviously carefully chosen. The skulls were exposed to sunlight, from sunup on the Eastern horizon, to sundown on the Western; exposed bone was bleaching out already, eyeless sockets staring into eternity. John Greenlees Jr was an honor student. John Greenlees Jr was taking advanced placement classes. John Greenlees Jr was pinned against the brick wall of the Firelands High School hallway by a swarthy hand gripping his throat. John's thought process had been absolutely shattered: one moment he was mentally reviewing what he would need to present in the next class, the next -- the next, something hit his windpipe, he was slammed against the brick wall hard enough to see stars, it was hard to breathe -- Students stood back, shocked: here and there, a phone was raised, pictures hastily taken -- one phone was snatched by one of the attacker's lieutenants, two other cameras captured this seizure -- as well as the look of surprise on the attacker's face as one of his lieutenants suddenly went over backwards. John's vision cleared as his captor looked away: he reached up, quickly, not thinking, reacting as he'd been taught: he seized both the attacker's thumbs and twisted out and back, fast, hard, with all the sudden strength he could muster. John Greenlees Jr was the son of a respected physician in town. John Greenlees spent his time in the advanced studies he would need for medical school. John Greenlees practiced suturing, he frowned as he listened through a better quality stethoscope than most used in their local hospital, listened to simulated lung sounds: his attention was into a microscope, considering the pathology of slides provided by like minded folk in said hospital. In short, John Greenlees Jr was not a fighter: his intent was to become a healer and not a reaver, but when lawless hands are about one's throat, one has little choice but to respond. He did. Marnie Keller kicked a knee from behind, seized one of the attacker's lieutenants by the throat and introduced the back of his head to the floor tiles, hard: her hand still on his throat, she spun, almost like a Cossack dancer, drove the edge of her boot high up on the back of another's calf: this one, too, went down, across the first one: multiple screams shivered the hallway, one because of a pair of dislocated thumbs, another due to a dislocated knee: a knife snapped from a dirty-knuckled fist, drove forward into the Algebra text Marnie was carrying: she powered into her block, stopped the blade and drove the heel of her hand up and under the knifer's nose, grabbed his wrist, spun. Bone splintered, cartilage surrendered to sudden overwhelming stress with the sound of a twisted stalk of celery, and the fight was over. The conference between the principal and the Sheriff was tense. As Landers felt it necessary to have legal representation present for their talk, the Sheriff brought the county prosecutor: Dr. John Greenlees was present as well, with his attorney, and Principal Landers found himself wishing most sincerely he'd called in the Superintendent as well. Outside, Shelly stood on Marnie's left, a uniformed deputy on her right: two more deputies stood at correct, military parade-rest outside the open office door: many of the students knew them by name, greeted them cautiously; the deputies nodded courteously, gravely, but did not move from their station. Word traveled fast -- as did the threats. The Sheriff consulted with the county prosecutor; it was evident, Linn said, that John Greenlees' life was in imminent peril, it was evident from video that the three backing the attacker were all armed, and from testimony of other students -- who hadn't been comfortable coming forward, not until they were sure they would not be assaulted by these four, who'd done it before, and not a few times -- with this additional witness testimony, charges were brought against all four. There remained the question of charges against the Sheriff's daughter. The Sheriff conducted a number of interviews, but did not speak of the matter with Marnie, nor would he: her interrogation would be by another agency. The school's attorney insisted that they would interrogate Marnie and would prefer charges of expulsion for fighting; a quiet conversation with the county prosecutor persuaded him otherwise, perhaps having something to do with the school's consistent failure to prevent known trouble makers from violence. Marnie took a page from her father's book, the same page she found in her Uncle Will's book: she had street sources, she cultivated informants, she placed herself in the middle of a web, feeling for vibrations at its periphery, knowing that she was a target, she was marked, she had shamed a gang and they would be out for bloody revenge, and the fact that she was a girl, would be of no help when they made their move. The Sheriff had his sources; he heard the same threats; it was a matter of personal discomfiture that, when the offending parties were released from hospital into the care of the authorities, after trial and sentencing, that no move was made against his daughter. Principal Landers had additional surveillance cameras mounted in the student parking area; John Greenlees chose to be driven to school, and picked up after school, rather than risk leaving his personal vehicle to be damaged or destroyed: his car, and his parents' vehicles, were kept in a locked garage, with additional measures to safeguard home, hearth and vehicles: there were false reports of threats being made by Marnie or John, allegations easily disproven: in fact, it was possible to track two of the threats to two of the aforementioned gangsta lieutenants, who -- when brought in for questioning, having been sentenced to probation rather than prison, denied everything and promptly disappeared. An attempt at shooting the Sheriff's horses was made, at least until Jacob reared up on the passenger side of the vehicle, drove the muzzle of his shotgun through the rolled up glass and shucked the riot gun's pump action before the fully-automatic AK could be triggered: this time there would be no probation, at least not for this pair of strangers. The Sheriff went to pick up the other three for questioning. They, too, disappeared, and their families did not seem terribly concerned with their having left without warning. The Firelands County Sheriff's Office put out a BOLO on the missing gang members. They never turned up. Many years later, the pale eyed Sheriff was handed an envelope by a courier, a trusted young woman with GUNFIGHTER stenciled across the front of her flight helmet. The Sheriff read the outside of the envelope, frowned: he reached in, pulled out the first sheet. It was a hand drawn map. He frowned as he studied the map. The location was very remote; it was high up, he knew the area, and he knew nobody lived within several miles of the place. He laid the map aside, sat down, pulled out several sheets in his daughter's handwriting. Daddy, you deserve to know what happened. The map will show where I poled their skulls. Their bodies are long since burned, ground and scattered. You may remember when we thought a gang was going to sneak up and murder John and I. I was not going to let anything happen to the man I intended to marry. When they threatened to cut his eyes out, cut off his fingers and become otherwise offensive, I knew it was up to me to keep him safe, and there was only one way I could do that. Marnie swung the ax. She'd split wood since earliest childhood, to her Mama's protests: it was not ladylike, she declared, for a girl to have muscles, for a girl to have calluses. Out of respect for her Mama's wishes, Marnie wore gloves to spit wood, to stack wood, but it did not stop her strict, demanding regimen of sit-ups, push-ups, chin-ups and swinging kettlebells, throwing bales of hay and bench pressing an impressive amount of cast iron stacked on the barbell's shaft. Marnie called a number, pitched her voice a little lower than her normal register: her singing was first rate, she'd taken vocal training, and though she never displayed it in public, she could successfully pitch her voice to sound quite, different, and did, when it suited her. She placed a phone call. When the accented voice spoke, she said that Greenlees kid was talking smack and wanted to meet you, and she named a place, and then she disconnected and disassembled her burner phone. She pressed a button on a little black box. Immediately a signal was sent: this triggered a second signal, which activated multiple devices surrounding the recipient of her phone call, absoutely scrambling any cell phone signals. Marnie picked up her ax, waited. She knew the troublemaker would not come alone; she planned for that: when he came into the abandoned shack, coming from full daylight into mostly shadowed dark with no windows behind, something moved in front of him, and the last thing to pass through his mind was the sharpened bit of an ax. Marnie was all in black and invisible to his daylight-bleached retinas. She stepped quickly to the side, picked up a Winchester rifle, thumbed back the hammer: the second one came in. Part of Marnie's mind was amazed at the concussion; another part was delighted that her electronic earplugs worked as well as they did. John Greenlees stepped back, his face grim. "Nice sutures," Marnie murmured. John nodded. The beeves were infected and had to be put down: he and Marnie gutted them, hauled the offal some distance and left them, a treat for the scavengers: the two bodies were crudely cut up, all but their heads; the parts were stuffed into the dead beeves' cavities, sewn in place. The local vet had a mobile crematory; that would take care of these two. The first two skulls were poled, on a lonesome promontory, while young John Greenlees placed a call on another burner phone. Linn looked up from his daughter's account, his expression guarded. He blinked, considered: a slice of pie was slid in front of him, two big scoops of ice cream placed atop the broad wedge. Linn slipped the page behind its fellows, bringing more of the story to view. I met the third one coming in, he read. I held the knife like a punch dagger and drove it as deep as I could, through his left eye. He fell, convulsing. The fourth ran until my lariat dropped over his neck. I hauled back hard, brought him off his feet. I dallied my line around the saddlehorn and kicked Lightfoot into a run and I drag hanged the last of them. He suffered. I wanted him to suffer before he died, and he did. I cut off their heads and I poled their skulls and I burnt their bodies and I ground their bones. I never told anyone what I did. John knew, and said nothing. I was officially asked if I knew anything about their disappearance. Daddy, I make no apology for having looked you in the eye and lied. I told you and anyone else who asked, if I knew what happened to them. I knew The System would not keep me safe. I kept me safe, Daddy. I would do the same thing again. You deserve to know the truth, so here it is. I will trust you to give this account back to our trusted messenger and say nothing of it. Sheriff Linn Keller considered what he'd just read. He carefully, precisely, stacked the pages, tapped them into alignment, slid them back into the envelope. The Gunfighter was happily seated beside him, working on her apple pie and marble fudge ice cream. Linn thought for a moment, then withdrew the sheaf of papers: he considered the last page, clicked the ballpoint pen out into working position, wrote a few lines, his firm, regular script distinctly different from his daughter's more feminine hand. He contained this superscripted bundle back into its envelope, handed it off to Gunfighter, picked up his fork. "How's the pie?" he asked. "Oh Gawd this is good," she mumbled happily through a mouthful. Linn nodded. "I was afraid if it was bad, I might have to eat it all so nobody else would get sick." Sheriff Marnie Keller withdrew the bundle from the envelope, placed it face down on her desk, turned over the last page. Dr. John Greenlees saw his wife read the page, saw her finger go to her lips, saw her even, white teeth bite down on her finger as she re-read the words: she closed her eyes, whispered, "Thank you, Daddy." Beneath her account, her father's regular, masculine handwriting: Your fictional account of an event which never occurred, is both interesting and good reading. You'll make a fine author. Keep it up! PS, the skulls are still there, and you beat me to them. I was arranging to do something very similar. You acted to protect your own. Your Old Pale Eyed Daddy
  3. The only Rick O'Shay comic I ever read was in the colored Sunday funnies. We found it when we were remodeling the old home place. Tore up linoleum in what was my bedroom and found the home's builder used colored Sunday funnies as linoleum underlaiment. All three of us -- little brother, myself, dear old Dad -- immediately stopped all work, dropped to our hands and knees, and read WWII era colored funnies with an absolute, fascinated delight! There was no way to salvage that fragile old paper, long since welded to varnished wood beneath, but I remember Rick O'Shay was bare to the waist and firing genuine US Army Issue, dynamite arrows, into a German convoy, to great cartoonish effect!
  4. The fire captain who mentored me (still miss you, Hoss!) once laughted about the time he was running a pumper with hydraulic brakes ... he came down on the brake pedal and he quoted ol' CW, with a laugh, "Felt like I was steppin' on a plum!" (He manged to steer the pumper into an empty playground and got it stopped, with the help of a gentle grade and much profanity ... the Captain riding beside him was the color of a sheet of paper, but the man was game and bought beer when shift was over!)
  5. My best friend (rest his soul!) was an absolute artist with the scatter gun. Me, I can't hit the barn uness I step inside and shut the door, and there's a 75% chance I still can't hit the daggone thing! If I can handle a shotgun like a rifle I'm all right, but sling something in the air, scamper it across the ground ... ... nope ...
  6. By golly now there's a welcome face! Bottles, I'll have water clear and not over 30 days old!
  7. A Master Chief once told me, "The Navy runs on coffee." So do I!
  8. 611. DADDY'S GIRL Dana Keller was the Sheriff's little girl. Oh, there were others; her big sister Angela was to be married off very soon now, and Dana was hiding around the corner as her Daddy talked in his gentle Daddy-voice, as he told Angela that even though she was about to become a wife, and in time she would become a mother and a matron and the Woman of her Household, as long as he drew breath, she would always, always! be Daddy's Little Girl. Girls are generally smarter than menfolk would give them credit; Angela was smart enough to realize her Daddy -- her big strong Daddy, her rough and tough Daddy, her Daddy-the-Sheriff, her Daddy-the-Man-Who-Keeps-Things-Peaceful, her Daddy she'd watched pick up a man and slam him down into a horse trough, and hold him underwater for a while until he decided to quit fighting, her Daddy who laughed that big strong Daddy-laugh and gathered his young to him of an evening and one time strode into a burning house to seize two scared kids around their middles and haul them out, then go back in to pack out as much as he could (to the detriment of his coat, his hat and some scarring he carried for the rest of his life!) -- her Daddy, a giant in a land of giants, had a heart bigger than he was, and Angela knew with this preternatural knowledge that there was room enough in that man sized chest of his for every daughter he'd ever sired, plus his wife, several horses and a particular curly furred Bear Killer of a mountain Mastiff. Dana Keller did not resent Angela, especially on this, her wedding day: the younger, fair-haired Dana patiently endured Bonnie McKenna's ministrations and the fussing attentions of several of the ladies who worked at the House of McKenna: when they were done, Dana knew she and her several sisters were beautiful, but she also knew the Ladies McKenna were artists in the finest sense of the word, and lovely as she and her sisters were become, the bride was the showpiece, and not one of the daughters Keller was more beautiful than her big sister Angela. At least this is what Dana told herself. She smiled, she nodded, she played the set-piece that was her lot that day; there were celebrants from wide and from far, filling their little whitewashed church and admiring the well dressed and solemn-faced young men and the beautiful Daughters of the Sheriff on their arm, marching in slow pace down the aisle as mountain fiddles spun magic in the hushed atmosphere: afterward, the Silver Jewel was well tenanted with the wedding reception, and Dana took advantage of the milling post-wedding confusion to slip down the back hallway, past the fragrant, steaming and overly warm kitchen, to slip out the back door, to snatch up her skirts, and to run down the packed dirt alleyway to the livery. There was music within the Jewel, there was laughter, the Silver Jewel Saloon rang to happy shouts and toasts and Gaelic oaths, to prayers in three languages and happiness enough to roll out every door like a flood, and none within heard the quick tattoo of a tough-mouthed, short-coupled little mare galloping away from the celebration, none within noted the beautiful girl in a bridesmaid's gown, riding shamelessly astride, with her gown immodestly pulled up to accommodate. There were, however, those who watched, those who saw ... there were those, who followed. Dana drew up behind her house: she tethered the rented mare to a handy hitch, ran inside: her sharp little heels were loud as she ran down the hallway, pounded up the stairs: somehow she managed to free herself from the gown which had been carefully, immaculately, precisely tailored to fit her slender, girlish figure -- she silently cursed the clever seamstress that sewed it shut at strategic points, rather than rely on more conventional fasteners -- Dana honestly threw her feminine attire from her as if it were unclean: when she came downstairs, it was with a Marlin rifle in hand, a Stetson on her head, it was in a flannel shirt and a riding skirt and a leather vest and her old comfortable riding boots: as rapidly as she'd run northward in the downstairs hallway, she ran just as swiftly to the south: for a miracle, the back door did not lose its window-glass as it banged open, nor did she shiver the well-made door from its hinges as she slammed it shut, though the rented mare was startled by both her abrupt emergence, and by her running down the back porch stairs. Dana untied the mare, led it to their horse lot, tied it off again: two fingers to her lips and she whistled, a high, pure note, somehow sweeter for singing from feminine lips than a man's whistle might be: she heard the quick pace of an unusually tall Appaloosa mare -- Dana had her choice of any in her Daddy's herd, and normally she would have chosen one of the soft-gaited Pasos, but she wanted something tough, something with endurance, and Dancer was the pick of the herd for both speed, endurance, and sheer, hard-headed toughness. Dancer was also patient, which factored into Dana's choice as well. Directly after, a pretty girl with a rifle under her leg, a revolver on her belt and a rented mare being towed behind, set a quick pace for Firelands, for she had to return the rented nag before she departed. Field glasses followed the beautiful daughter of the pale eyed Sheriff as she left the livery; one, then another, set out to follow, but not too closely, and riders who followed took pains to not let themselves be seen by the lovely young quarry they pursued. Dana rode eastward, out of town, until she came across the trail she sought: this was an old Indian trail and it curled up the mountain, doubled back, doubled back again: while it would have been most improper back East for a daughter of society to ride horses, to explore the high and wild country, to disappear into the mountains with a rifle and a knife and little else, Dana reveled in this freedom she learned very young, learned from her pale-eyed Papa, from his closest friends, from her several brothers: high and higher yet she climbed, until she came to a hanging meadow she knew of, until she came to two boulders near a line shack, a remote, isolated structure that once served as a wedding night bower for her older sister Sarah. The two boulders were each taller than two men, probably a single massive rock at one time; they appeared to have been cloven by a giant's ax, parted like a man will split a saw-chunk for kindling: it was wide enough for her to ride, if she rode carefully, between them: the cleft was lined up perfectly, so that on Midsummer's Day, the rising sun shone into the gap, and her pale eyed big sister Sarah told her once that a descendant of theirs would give birth in this cleft, just as the sun rose, and the first long red rays shot into the gap between these towering, stony sentinels. Dana rode through the gap at a walk; the Appaloosa mare turned, walked back, stopped. Dana regarded what had been Sarah's wedding bower. It was long since stripped of curtains and comforts, it was returned to its status as a line shack -- though it was now proof against any intruding wind, the stove was replaced with a better example, wood stood stacked and ready, and there was water nearby. Dana had drunk that water, and found it good. she walked the Appaloosa over to the spring, picked up the tin cup that lived upside-down on a stake beside it: she and Dancer drank gratefully, drank with honest pleasure, for both were dry from their ride. Dana slung the last drops from the tin cup, returned it to its stake,upside-down to keep from collecting wind-blown dirt or weed-chaff: she returned to the line shack, stood and studied it, Dancer following, stopping just beside and behind her a little. Dana stood, remembering, as she studied the simple, weathered structure: she knew there was a bunk within, a table and two chairs, maybe some canned goods, if any had been brought up since winter's freeze retreated northward. Dana swung down, withdrew the compact Marlin rifle, watched her mare's ears. The Appaloosa was relaxed, more interested in graze than much else. A few hundred yards distant, two sets of eyes regarded the pretty, blue-eyed daughter of that long tall Sheriff: the watchers held their position, content -- at least for now -- content merely to watch. Sheriff Linn Keller was a noted dancer, and a favorite among the ladies: he'd long maintained that women were creatures of grace and beauty, and that women were naturally good dancers: just as a man of mediocre skill could appear to be a marvelously good dancer when paired with his late daughter, Sarah, or with his late wife Esther, so could a woman of less than stellar skill suddenly become light and graceful and admirably talented when paired with the Sheriff. The music ended, there was applause, the Sheriff raised a rancher's wife's knuckles to his lips, kissed her hand in a most gentlemanly manner: as the woman blushed and dropped both her eyes and a perfect curtsy, a young man stepped up beside the Sheriff, murmured something in his ear: the pale eyed Sheriff looked at the messenger, his expression serious, and nodded, once. Emma Cooper, the stout, matronly wife of the town marshal, bustled up to the Sheriff, her expression hopeful: the music started again, the Sheriff took her hand, ran his other hand around her waist, and whirled her quickly into an absolutely flawless waltz. Dana leaned against one of the sentinel boulders, one boot up behind her against the rock; her eyes were busy, she was listening with more than her ears, and she was watching her mare. The Appaloosa was closer to a wild creature than most horses; if any intruded, especially if any men came near, Dana would know it. The rifle she had propped up on her thigh was engraved around the muzzle, just like her Daddy's '73 rifle, though hers was a shorter, lighter rifle, with a much more slender, round barrel: still, it had the double band, inlaid with gold, with vine-work between the bands, and near the receiver, engraved vines slithered up the breech and under the rear sight, vines with roses hand chased into blued steel: gold, the engraving was, golden vines, with the roses inlaid with a distinctly reddish gold: Dana was never happy with the dark-gold roses, and often threatened to use a fine tipped brush, or perhaps a darning needle to insinuate crimson paint into the roses' engraving: she theatened, but never did, as the engravure was most skilled, and she did not wish to detract from the excellent work of the metalsmith that carved an otherwise realistic likeness into Marlin steel. It was quiet, here on the mountain, which suited her. No doubt, had she remained down below, she would be entreated to dance, and she would have to endure the torments of having her toes trod by celebrating men who meant her no ill will, but who danced with no great skill: no, far better she absent herself from such a crowded and noisy proceeding. Part of her wondered what it would be like, to have men look at her while she was so well dressed, but the rest of her was content with solitude and flannel. This, she knew, would change, but not now. Not yet. Not while she remained maidenly, not before womanliness forced itself upon her. Now, this moment, she was content to let her thoughts sort themselves out, while she leaned against this prophesied boulder. It was not until the sun was well near the horizon that Dana leaned away from the boulder's solid, sun-warmed comfort, that she thrust rifle into scabbard, boot into stirrup, not until the evening was beginning to chill, just a little, that she turned her mare's nose back down the mountain. Dana rode the Appaloosa mare through a passage known to very few, a passage known only to her family, so far as she knew -- searching eyes saw her disappear, others caught her sight as she emerged above what had been the Llewellyn household, a haunted stone construction that now stood empty: the watchers advanced cautiously, maintaining their surveillance, ready to ride forward and strike if the need should arise, but otherwise, content to remain unseen. Later that night, after Dana carefully draped the discarded gown over the foot of her bed, neatly laid as if she'd placed it there deliberately instead of having heaved it into the corner -- after Dana came downstairs, attired as an important man's daughter ought to be -- after Dana smiled and laughed and agreed with her sisters that it was a most pleasant day withal, after she carefully deflected their questions -- the blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, apple-cheeked Dana Keller presented herself for the evening meal. The Sheriff looked at his little girl, a smile in his eyes, and a look of satisfaction, for the young men he'd recruited had kept a faithful watch on his little girl: men of the frontier, men he trusted, men who stayed out of sight, and yet maintained an armed watch, seeing to it that a brother lawman's daughter would remain untroubled, unmolested, in a time when her pale eyed Daddy figured she might have need of some time to herself.
  9. 610. "NO, THAT WAS GOOD HONEST REVENGE!" "Sir?" Linn looked up. They were both seated at the kitchen table, which served as meal service, confenence chamber, homework platform, the occasional mechanical rebuild -- which tended to cause misunderstandings, when something was in a state of disassembly and it was mealtime, and generally engendered mild feminine exasperation -- "Shouldn't you be doing that on a workbench somewhere?" Today it was a combination of homework and relaxed reading. The meal was completed, chores were done, dishes washed and put away; the television was silent, computers were off, and Jacob leaned back from the borrowed library book, rubbed his forehead, frowned. "Sir?" "Yes, Jacob?" Linn looked up from his copy of McGivern's Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting, slipped a bookmark between the pages, closed the volume. "Sir, there seems to be a strong sense of history in the area." Linn blinked slowly, like a sleepy cat, nodded. "I'd say so, yes." "You were named after a particular ancestor." Linn nodded again, slowly. "I believe I was also." "Me too!" young Joseph piped up with a quick and eager grin, for he wished to be included in the conversation. "Jacob, yes you were, but you, Joseph" -- the Sheriff turned his head, regarded his younger son with a solemn expression -- "you, young man, were named out of a sense of good honest revenge." Joseph wasn't sure whether to look startled, crestallen or button-bustin' proud, and so he replied with all the considered intelligence of his few years: "Huh?" Linn leaned his elbows on the table, steepled his fingers: Shelly gave him an assessing look -- Linn felt her gaze, met her eyes, nodded once, and Shelly turned to the cupboard and proceeded to set out several bowls. "This," Linn said, "takes some explaining. Joseph, you remember going to the cemetery with us." Shelly opened the freezer, withdrew a half gallon of chocolate marbled ice cream, set it on the counter. "Yes, sir?" "Joseph, do you remember in the old section -- the double stone, with my name on it." Joseph frowned, confused. "The big one?" Linn nodded. "You asked me about the oval portrait we had laser engraved in it. You couldn't figure out why my portrait was on that old stone, and a pretty woman's beside it that wasn't your Mama." "You said it was you when you were older," little Joseph said, his voice that of a little boy who didn't completely grasp the situation. "That's the stone. Now close your eyes and stand in front of the stone." Little Joseph Keller's swinging legs stilled as he flattened both pink-scrubbed hands on the kitchen table, his head upright, eyes closed: mentally he stood before the ancient grave marker. "Now. You are standing in front of the tomb stone. Look to the right." Joseph's mental camera panned right. "Do you see the small stone just to the right of the double stone?" "The one with the lamb on top?" "That's the one." "I see it." "Look under the lamb. What name do you see?" Young Joseph's eyes snapped open, startled, just as his Mama was lowering a bowl of ice cream to the place mat in front of him. "What is the name on that lamb marker?" "Joseph," he whispered, his eyes suddenly wide. Linn nodded. "Joseph, do you know what happened to that Joseph?" "He died," Joseph whispered. Linn nodded. "Yes, he did. Do you know how?" Young Joseph shook his head, the chilled treat before him forgotten. Shelly reached around him, shook crushed nuts over the confection with one hand, drizzled chocolate sauce from the warmed bottle with the other: she handed off nuts and bottle to Jacob, then picked up the can of whipped cream, shook it. "Can I do it, Mama?" Shelly handed the can to Joseph, who proceeded to coil a young mountain of whipped cream to a dangerous height: Shelly carefully dropped one shining-red cherry and a drizzle of cherry juice over the white prominence, went on around the table, and by the time she got to Linn, the can of whipped cream was depleted enough he got about a tablespoon of the white stuff on his ice cream before the can sighed and went empty. "Joseph," Linn said, "your namesake, died a crib death. You were named Joseph out of a sense of revenge. I was damned if outrageous fate and fickle fortune would keep us from a fine young man bearing an honorable name." "How come there's no Angela?" Joseph demanded. "You remember your history," Linn nodded -- Jacob did not miss that Linn and his Mama shared a glance -- and Linn said slowly, "Joseph, there's a good reason for that." Linn drizzled chocolate sauce over his ice cream, shook on some nuts thanked his wife quietly as she dropped a cherry on her husband's portion. "Y'see, Joseph, Angela Keller was a pretty little girl. She wasn't Old Pale Eyes' only daughter, but she was his ... well, actually, she was his second daughter, and she was flat forevermore beautiful." "Is Marnie beautiful?" Jacob asked, big-eyed and innocent, and Linn looked up as Marnie skipped down the stairs in her sock feet, her hair bouncing behind her: she'd finished her homework in her room and came down at the sputtering blucker of whipped cream, which meant ice cream, which meant she'd better get downstairs before it was all gone. "Yours is on the counter," Shelly murmured: Marnie picked up her bowl -- it was already anointed and garnished -- and settled at her place at the table. Linn looked at his daughter: Shelly laid a hand on her husband's shoulder, and Linn reached up, patted his wife's hand. "Yes, Joseph," he said honestly. "Marnie is beautiful." Joseph looked at his sister, frowned, looked back at his long tall Pa. "She looks like Marnie," he complained. "Yes," Linn agreed, and his smile was relaxed and genuine as he looked at his pale eyed daughter. "Yes, Joseph, she does." "How come we don't have a sister named Angela?" "Marnie came to us already named, and I don't like changing a girl's name," Linn explained: he thrust his spoon into the ice cream, left it to stand upright as he planted his elbows and steepled his fingers -- "it's very bad luck to rename a boat, or to rename a girl. Besides" -- he smiled again to see the color rising in Marnie's cheeks -- "if I'd named her Angela, she'd probably blow up the outhouse." Joseph, Jacob and Marnie all three stopped, lowered their spoons and quite honestly stared at their pale eyed Pa. Three children's voices chorused the same interrogative. "Sir?" Linn laughed quietly, leaned his head back, looked up at his wife, then he spread his hands and said in a truly awful, very nasal, New York accent -- "Well, youse guys, it was like this." Angela Keller frowned. Angela Keller wanted to use the outhouse, but she didn't want to go in. Angela's big brother Jacob told her the Slimy Monster from the Sulfur Crick lived under the outhouse and it liked to reach up and grab children and pull 'em down in the muck and mire. Angela's eyes had grown huge and she turned and ran, ran to escape the monster, ran to escape the mental picture, ran to escape her brother's words. Angela ran, ducked behind a shed, leaned heavily against the back of the shed, breathing heavily, her mind screaming, spinning, scrambling for an answer! Daddy wouldn't let no mean old monster live under there! Daddy wouldn't let no mean old monster grab his little girl! Daddy would've shot it -- guns must not do any good -- what else would kill that slimy old monster from the Sulfur Crick? Angela's breathing was still labored, but it steadied as the answer came to her. She peeked quickly around the shed. Jacob was nowhere to be seen. Angela knew her Daddy got some blasting powder and he said he hadn't used all those waxy paper sticks of the stuff and he'd said it was out in the shed and she lifted the latch and opened the door and she saw the open crate and Angela reached in and grabbed a stick of blasting powder and looked at it. It already had a fuse in it. You mean old monster! she thought, then, my Daddy will be proud of me! Angela Keller looked around, smiled. She reached up, took down a glass jar, loosed the lid -- she reached in, pulled out two Lucifer matches, capped the jar and set it back. A stick of blasting powder in one hand, two Lucifer matches in the other, Angela ran back toward the outhouse. She peeked around the corner of the house. Her big brother Jacob was just going into the house. Good. Angela took a deep breath, regarded the outhouse as if it were a personal enemy -- her expression was about three-fourths fearful, one-fourth determined. Angela Keller went running to the outhouse. She seized the turn-peg, turned it to release the door -- She yanked open the door, stepped boldly inside -- Angela Keller slapped the stick of blasting powder down on the seat, she stuck her face over the hole and yelled, "YOU MEAN OLD MONT-STER, I'M GONNA GET YOU!" -- she scraped one Lucifer match against another, held the two flaring heads together, under the end of the fuse -- Jacob heard his little sister's angry yell, came back out on the back porch, saw Angela lift a stick of blasting powder, its fuse sputtering in the shadowed outhouse -- Jacob vaulted over the back porch railing as Angela's little arm drove that stick of blasting powder, throwing it into the depths of their outhouse as hard as she could -- "YOU MEAN OLD MONST-STER, TAKE THAT!" -- Jacob seized his little sister from behind -- Startled, Angela screamed, felt as if she'd just been snatched by a witch brooming by at some phenomenal speed -- Jacob clutched his little sis to him, ran backward out of the outhouse, turning to sprint toward the house -- Jacob stumbled -- Can't recover -- Don't crush Angela -- Keep her safe -- Jacob twisted, landed on his back, hard, Angela atop him, just as the powder went off with its characteristic, deep-toned, low-frequency BOOOOM -- Jacob Keller, the wind knocked out of him, rolled over and covered Angela with his body as the splintered outhouse was sundered by the blast, blown up off its foundation; the boards did not splinter, they just sort of separated, and what had been a solid and well built outhouse, descended to earth as a loose collection of somewhat worse for wear, mostly split apart, planks. Jacob was half-curled, Angela under him: he heard things hitting the ground around him -- Nothing hit him -- Linn came running out onto the back porch, vaulted the rail, landed on all fours: one leap and he was spider-standing protectively overtop his children -- He stood, slowly, and Jacob rolled over. Angela sat up and discovered she was sitting on Jacob's belly. She stood up too. Linn reached down, Jacob reached up, father and son grasped forearms and Jacob came to his feet as well. Linn looked at the expanding, drifting blue cloud and the pile of ruin. "What just happened?" he asked, and Jacob opened his mouth to reply, but Angela cut him off. "Jacob told me the Slimy Mont-ster from the Sulfur Crick was gonna reach up an' grab me an' drag me down the hole an' I don't 'low no mont-ster to do that!" -- she hoisted her little nose in the air with a distinct hmpf! -- she seized her short skirts, hoisted then like she'd seen her Mama do, and she marched off toward the steps, up onto the back porch and into the house, her chin in the air and her spine stiff with disapproval. Linn looked at Jacob and Jacob looked at his father, and they both looked at what used to be an outhouse. Linn's arm went companionably around his son's shoulders. "Jacob," he said softly, "never underestimate the power of a woman!" Linn reached down, loosened the spoon in his ice cream. "You see," he said, "just as I will not countenance Joseph's death, I will not countenance having my outhouse blown up. Having a son named Joseph, slapping Fate in the face with that historic affront, is risk enough." Linn savored his first bite of ice cream. "Joseph, if I were to have a little girl named Angela, who knows what she'd blow to hell!" Shelly squeezed Linn's shoulders and Marnie saw a funny look on her Mama's face. "Um, honey," Shelly said hesitantly, "there's something I need to tell you." Shelly stepped back, laid a maternal hand on her belly, gave her husband a knowing look. Three children stopped and stared as their pale eyed Pa powered out of his seat, seized their Mama under the arms, hoisted her off the floor and spun her around: her head was back and she was laughing like a little girl, and their expressions were of absolute delight.
  10. Reckon they're going for max sales highest demand. Never mind that I am an old ex-lawman with a great fondness for six beans in the wheel!
  11. I accept the correction! (You must understand I suffer a terrible condition, it's called Hoof in Mouth Disease, and it plagues me at the worst times!)
  12. 609. "HEY, SOAPY!" Word travels fast in a small town. Word travels faster in a small frontier town. Word travels especially fast if the Sheriff's pretty little girl scratches a Lucifer match and touches flame to the fuse of a stick of blasting powder and blows her Daddy's outhouse to splinters and a mucky mess. Word travels really fast, and the pale eyed Sheriff knew he would be asked about it: sure enough, one of the loafers about town hailed him cheefully: "Hey, Soapy," he called, "I hear your daughter has gone into the outhouse business!" Linn stopped, looked very directly at his tormentor, the hint of a smile peeking out from around the perpetual chill in his gaze: he laid a companionable hand on the man's shoulder, patted it gently. "You know," he said, "my wife has an excellent business head on her shoulders, and I reckon my little girl allowed as she might start up a business." "Do tell! By blowin' up outhouses?" "By rebuilding damaged structures," the Sheriff corrected. "Only she didn't have any damaged structures to practice on, she she decided to start at home." The loafer frowned, not quite sure how to respond: his attempt at chaffing the pale eyed Sheriff had been effectively derailed with quiet voiced humor, and Linn went on up the board walk, ready to deflect the questions that would undoubtedly follow. In the course of the morning, he'd explained that his daughter discovered the presence of a ravening monster that only hid in outhouses, and she acted to protect herself and her family: he cited the example of the infamous Hatchet Hound, which devours hatchet-handles, and the Hidebehind, which is a creature that spies on the unwary, but has such phenomenally quick reflexes that it hides behind any cover or concealment to keep from being seen. In the course of the morning, before he greeted the Parson inside the Mercantile, by his own count he'd told no less than fifteen absolute whopper sized lies, and he felt the need to ask the good Parson Belden's opinion on the state of his corroded soul, having stained said side of himself with said sheer slanders: the Parson frowned gravely as WJ Garrrison unobtrusively inclined an ear to what was to follow, for it was the general store's owner and proprietor's experience that when this pair got together, things generally got deep, and were more often than not, entertaining. He was not disappointed. In the course of conversation and confession, Linn related how he'd described his little girl as fiercely protective, as having a youthful bent to business, how she'd contracted with Black Diamond Powder to test their product in a difficult environment, and by the time he recounted the other several absolute fabrications and outright lies, the good Parson was having a hard time maintaining a straight face: his face was red, the corners of his eyes were crinkled up, and WJ Garrison was having no trouble at all -- at least, not after he'd bunched up his apron, pressed it to his face and stepped around the corner before giving muffled vent to his mirth and merriment generated by a certain pale eyed Sheriff, confessing his several sins to the black suited Parson. WJ Garrison came back around the corner, his own face flushed; he wiped tears from his eyes, he controlled his breathing with an effort: it was, indeed, for naught: Parson Belden gave the Sheriff a patient look and said, "Sheriff, if you were struck by lightning in this very moment, I doubt me that your soul would ride the Hell Bound Train. Saint Peter would have to have an account of your recent ... answers ... and I'm afraid the Gatekeeper himself would be leaned back in his chair, roaring with laughter!" The Sheriff nodded. "I've been told," he said slowly, "that I'm as full of it as a sack full of politicians" -- here the shopkeeper turned away, returning the muffling face full of crumpled apron to his visage -- "but if a man of your considered experience tells me my eternal soul is not quite in the jeopardy I'd imagined, why, that puts my mind considerably at ease!" The two men shook hands. The Sheriff turned to the red-faced Mercantile proprietor, placed his hands on the edge of the heavy-glass-topped counter, eased the bend out of his lower back. "Mr. Garrison," he said gently, "if you could do a lawman a kindness?" "Certainly, Sheriff," WJ Garrison nodded, his cheeks red, shining like a couple polished apples: his ears were flaming scarlet with his recent spell of suppressed sniggers -- even his balding scalp shone a healthy pink -- "Mr. Garrison, if my little girl Angela should come in and ask to buy some blasting powder, please don't sell it to her." Mr. W. J. Garrison didn't bother with the apron this time; he ended up sinking into his chair, his chin pointed to the far corner up by the ceiling, giving full voiced relief to the mirthful torments given by this straight faced, pale eyed, iron grey mustached old lawman.
  13. Back a very long time ago, when I was in EMT training, the hospital had only just gotten digital thermometers. An 8 year old came into ER, I was tasked with getting his vitals; he was as impatient and fidgety as kids always are, so when I inserted the plastic sheathed probe under his tongue, I turned the thermometer around and had him hold it, so he could see the display. He was delighted -- a high, child's voice smiling from one end of the hall to the other -- "Wow! Pac-Man!"
  14. 608. "THAT'S FOR MY DADDY!" A sheriff's deputy watched through binoculars as a woman emerged from a yellow Jeep. She was a good looking woman, an older lady, short hair and she walked like her leg was hurt: she walked carefully, slowly, purposefully, a determined look on her face and a dark blue gym bag in her hand. The deputy had stopped to eat his sack lunch; idle curiosity prompted him to lift his binoculars and glass this visitor to Maplewood Cemetery. The woman did not look at him -- she probably did not know he was anywhere near, though he took no pains to conceal his freshly waxed, black Suburban with the big yellow five point star on the door. She cast back and forth -- getting her bearings, he thought -- then she lifted her chin a fraction and described a straight course toward a familiar tombstone. The deputy had visited the grave she stopped at. Interested, he watched as she unzipped the gym bag, pulled out a big towel, folded it in fourths, laid it on the ground: she knelt, her back to him. She reached into the gym bag, pulled out a shining silver core sampler. The deputy lowered his glasses, pulled the idling Chevy into gear. He pulled up behind her yellow Jeep, called in that he was out with this plate at Maplewood Cemetery, stepped out. He got to the grave as the woman placed a dirt-and-sod core into a short, fat, amber plastic, pill botttle. He squatted -- he could have touched her, he was that close, there is no way she couldn't know he was there -- and then something cold ran willy worms down his spine. She held up a bullet, between thumb and forefinger. A single, plain lead, round nosed bullet. She held it up, raised it so it was directly between her ice pale eyes and his dark hazel eyes: she paused for a moment, guaranteeing that he did indeed see, and recognize, what she held, and then she dropped 146 grains of lead into the hole she'd just cored out. She picked up a second pill bottle, smacked it against her palm to extract a second core: this went into the hole, atop the bullet. He watched, silent, as she capped the pill bottle with the freshly extracted core, as she placed it in the gym bag, as she brought out an empty hand, as she raised the hand to her lapel and turned it over. The pale eyed woman in the tailored blue suit dress turned over her lapel to show the six point star. "Sheriff Willamina Keller, Firelands, Colorado," she said. She thrust a chin at the tomb stone. "That is my Daddy." "Willamina?" he asked, a slow grin spreading over most of his face. "Lord help me, I haven't seen you since you were --" She sat very straight, knees pressed into the folded towel, backside on the heels of her ugly but supremely comfortable Marine Corps issue shoes: she tilted her head a little, looked at his name tag, nodded, looked at him and smiled a little, but only just a little. "You've improved," she nodded. "I remember you as dreadfully skinny." He laughed. "Yes, that was me, all right," he sighed, "back when dirt was young and so was I!" He looked at the gym bag, curiosity plain to see on his face. "I'm taking that back home," she explained, "and it'll go in a hole in what will be my grave. That" -- she thrust her chin at the plug she'd just replaced on her Daddy's grave -- "is from my grave. I didn't want him to sleep alone." "What happened to his wife?" "My mother?" Willamina's tone was noticeably colder. "She came out to Colorao so her daughter could take care of her in her last days. She's buried face down in Potter's Field so she can see where she's going." "I recall she was ... less than pleasant." Willamina nodded, looked back to the grave. "Daddy only got one shot off," she said. "I dropped in one bullet in memory of his making an accurate shot under the worst stress of his life." The deputy looked over at the tomb stone. "You've already seen those." Willamina nodded. "There are eight of them," she said. "Each one was left by a lawman in memory of that one last shot." "Yes ma'am." "Yours is among them." "No." Willamina's eyebrow rose a little. The Athens County deputy slipped thumb and forefinger into his uniform blouse pocket, fished a little, came out with a single bullet. "But it will be." Willamina nodded again. "Daddy would be pleased that you remembered." She waited until the deputy rose from his squat, placed his single bullet on the rough, flat top of the lawman's stone, waited until he saluted, stepped back. "Vincent," she said, "could you help a poor decrepit old woman up?" Vince laughed, bent down, took both her hands in his and lifted, steadily, carefully. "I'm still healing up," Willamina admitted, "I've been out of the walking boot three weeks now but I've some muscle building to recover!" She bent, snatched up the towel, rolled it, placed it with the sod topped core in the gym bag. "And now if you will excuse me, I have a plane to catch." Linn saw the Lear streak across the sky, circle once, line up with what was sometimes called Firelands International Airport, and sometimes the Firelands Memorial Crash Patch: each term was generally used with tongue firmly in cheek. Linn smiled a little. His mother was nothing if not prompt. He waited, waited beside shining steel mine rails placed on the range, waited beside the wheel-mounted, motor-driven wooden windshield frame, with a head sized quarter-inch steel plate on the simulated driver's side. Linn loafed against the side of his cruiser, cleaning his nails with his pocket knife, and directly his mother came driving up, pulled up beside him, climbed out. Linn could tell from the look on his Mama's face she was ready to reach down someone's throat, grab them by the seat of the pants and yank them inside out, and then proceed to get mean with them. Willamina stood between the mine rails, pressed a button. The contraption came toward Willamina. Fast. It stopped as the plate was slammed back by the impact of a full-house .357. Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller, in her tailored suit dress and ugly Marine Corps women's uniform shoes, stood with a double handful of blued steel Smith and Wesson persuasion. The impact plate reset as the contraption withdrew on the tracks, and Linn, his ears protected by a set of electronic muffs, hear his mother's warrior-voiced shout: "THAT'S FOR MY DADDY!"
  15. 607. FOR YOU, MA'AM, ANYTHING! Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled a little. She'd met all the goals Physical Therapy set for her; she'd exercised with the therapist holding elastic bands around an ankle, holding resistance; she'd walked toe-heel forward, then toe-heel backward; she'd stood on one leg, the other leg, she'd performed the tasks assigned to her, and as she left the hospital's side door -- the one marked PHYSICAL THERAPY -- it was with her cane snapped up under her arm like a swagger stick. She was not up to running with her beloved Warriors, though that was certainly in her plans; she'd been cautioned against trying too much, too fast, to which Willamina -- with an utterly innocent expression -- blinked and said, "Who, me?" -- at which point both she and the physical therapist laughed, for they'd known one another for many years. She'd been secretly working her legs, mercilessly stretching herself -- years of uncompromising calesthentics, ranch work, tackling fleeing felons, the occasional knock-down drag-out barfight, loading, stacking, and when possible, throwing bales of hay, riding horses that sometimes did not want ridden -- all had kept the pale eyed Willamina in phenomenally good shape, and she'd chafed at wearing the walking boot; it was necessary, she knew, for she'd sustained multiple microtears in both Achilles tendons: the right healed in fine shape, but the left decided to inflame, to calcify and to even grow a bone spur -- "damned inconsiderate," Willamina snarled in a private moment -- and she was determined to regain her strength and stamina, lost during the enforced idleness of wearing what she politely called Das Boot. She'd also used her cane to her advantage. Not only did it make a fine pointer, she'd used it for takedowns and comealongs, using it like the baton with which she was very well practiced; she most recently used it like a Vaudeville dancer, high-stepping and spinning her cripple stick like a majorette's baton: she'd used it as a pointer, a comealong, winding a prisoner's arm up behind his back when he was less than cooperative when arrested, and she'd even used it as an improvised steady rest when taking a long distance shot with her carry Glock. (It was off duty, the quarry was a discarded beer can in the distance, and she can be forgiven for taking three shots to spang the can in the air, for the distance was just over two hundred yards) Willamina parked her Jeep in front of the Sheriff's Office: she pulled the cane out as she stepped out, but instead of leaning on it, she snapped it under her arm like a swagger stick and fairly strutted into the Sheriff's Office. Willamina rolled the cane from under her arm, raised it in front of her face in salute as a voice called "Tayinn-HUT!" -- Willamina held the saluted cane before her for a moment, then snapped it down and under her arm, letting it stick up behind her: "As you were!" she called, then grinned. "Did they kick you loose, boss?" "Pity the fool who EVER kicks the Sheriff!" "You're just in time, Boss, fresh doughnuts!" "I know," Willamina laughed. "I ordered 'em!" Willamina genuinely swaggered across the floor, unable to contain her grin. "Did they kick you loose, Boss?" "They would not DARE kick her!" "Anyone hear anything about Physical Therapy launching through the roof into low Earth orbit?" "Fellas, fellas," Willamina laughed, waving them down, "you're making me sound like Mabel the Monster!" The Sheriff's door opened and something big and black and curly furred came bouncing between the deputies, ran a tight orbit around Willamina, snuffing her loudly and then sitting down, polishing the floor with that great black brush of a tail and looking immensely pleased with himself. Linn grinned at his Mama, stepped out of the Sheriff's inner sanctum, closed the door. "Bear Killer, I though you wanted to go out!" The Bear Killer raised his muzzle and woo-woo-woo'd, then laid his big head against Willamina's thigh, grinning a pink-tongued doggy grin as Willamina rubbed his ears. "Guess not." Linn grinned at his Mama. "Is all well, ma'am?" Wllamina raised her cripple stick in salute, swung it back up under her arm, carefully avoiding the big black Mountain Mastiff leaning warm and companionably against her denim covered leg. "All is well, Sheriff," she replied briskly. "In that case, I'm hungry, how's the state of your appetite?" Willamina laughed as The Bear Killer looked hopefully at her and chopped his jaws, pink tongue flipping up over his nose in anticipation: his vocabulary of human words very definitely included anything food related, and he very obviously recognized the subject under discussion. "I need to work this leg a little," Willamina admitted. "It's been in the boot for a while and I need to bring it back to working order. Mind if we walk?" Almost everyone in the Sheriff's office laughed, for the Silver Jewel was diagonally across the street, less than a block away: had they both ridden one horsepower horses into town, they would have ridden across the street, strictly as a matter of form, but as today's horsepower happened to be under a Jeep's hood, ambulation -- especially therapeutic ambulation -- was the order of the day. "For you, ma'am," Linn said, coming up beside his Mama and offering his arm, "anything!"
  16. A stark and solemn reminder to ME to visually check my charge before moving to the bullet seating phase! I do check them -- faithfully, religiously -- but after seeing this ... ... I will continue!
  17. 608. MOTHER MARNIE Marnie Keller stirred sizzling sausage and diced onions. She wore a housedress instead of her usual flannel shirt and denim skirt, she wore anklets and saddle shoes instead of her usual red, fancy-stitched cowboy boots, she wore her hair in a ribbon-tied ponytail: her cheeks were pink, she wore a little smile, and when the ingredients were browned to her satisfaction, she picked up a bowl and poured the freshly-spun-and-frothy eggs-milk-and-soy-sauce mixture into the sizzling skillet. Marnie had her timing down perfect. She turned, nodded approvingly at the kitchen table -- plates were set, forks, silverware; she had juice at every plate, she had coffee cups set and ready, a half gallon of milk sweating on a saucer: she'd just buttered the freshly-popped-up final four slices of toast, stacked them on their fellows in the middle of the table, she knew she had time enough on the eggs, so she skipped over to the stairs, pulled a duck call from her apron pocket, raised it to her lips ... WAAAAKKK ... Marnie sneered up the corner of her lip, and in a genuinely awful Jimmy Cagney imitation, she called, "AWRIGHT YOUSE GUYS! ROCKY SEZ BREAKAST IS READY, NYAAA, NYAAA! MUGGSY, YOU GET DOWN HEAH AN' YOUSE BRING DAT PARTNER OF YOURS, AN' NO FUNNY BUSINESS, SEE, NYAA!" Later that day, after she shooed her brothers out (they had their chores and she didn't want them underfoot while she tended hers), Marnie ran the dust mop, dusted windowsills and lampshades, made beds, cleaned the bathroom -- she made a mental note to thank her brothers for their consideration, for they'd toweled the floor of any post-shower puddles, they'd wiped down the mirror, they'd shown their respect for their Mama by keeping their latrine clean -- Marnie stopped at midmorning, looked around, regarded the kitchen and the living room with a critical eye, nodded her satisfaction. Jacob Keller took the old work rags, tossed them in a bucket. Uncle Will had the barn set up as a workshop; there was a heavy I-beam overhead, a trolley mounted chain hoist, he had a South Bend lathe purchased from a mining company that went out of business -- Jacob wished he'd known Uncle Will, for a man who could mount an electric motor, belt it through an MG transmision and calculate the sheave size for the driving belt to get the RPMs he wanted, was a man he'd love to have known better! -- like his pale eyed Pa, Jacob took pains to keep the workshop swept and clean, wiped down and in order. Chisels were ranked in a row, in ascending order for size, left to right: a row of screwdrivers on the peg board also ranked to size, straight-blade on top, Phillips beneath, with the hex-pointed specialty driver bits in a drawer in the shining red toolbox. Machine work meant oil, meant grease, meant parts had to be cleaned; cleaning meant cleaning rags, oily rags were a spontaneous-combustion hazard, and Jacob -- like his long tall Pa -- packed out what few rags there were, carried them to the burning pile, set them afire. Jacob knew the day was still; there was no wind, and likely to be none, or very little; the area surrounding the burn pile was barren for twenty five yards, and he left the burn to continue his tending of necessary details. Joseph, on the other hand, regarded the small pile and the small fire with a considering eye. My Pa is a big man, he thought. My big brother is a big man. A big man deserves a bigger fire. I can help! Joseph turned, ran silently into the barn -- boys of his few years generally had two speeds, wide open and dead stop, and Joseph was one such -- he searched, saw a beer bottle in the trash barrel. I need that. Joseph carefully extracted the brown glass longneck, looked to see if Jacob was anywhere near. He walked silently over to the five gallon gas can. Carefully, delicately, he screwed the flexible steel snout on the big metal can, tilted it, coaxing the trickle of flammable into the beer bottle; as careful as he was, a little splashed, cold on the backs of his fingers. Joseph unscrewed the snout, hung it back on its two nails tapped into an upright: he screwed the time-dented cap back on the metal can, carried the brown longneck half full of Devil's Breath to the fire. This stuff burns really fast, he thought. I'll stand waaaay up on tiptoe so I don't get burnt. Joseph hoist himself just as tall as he could, tilted the bottle, two-handed -- The world flared into a burning column in front of him -- Joseph let go of the bottle, turned, ran! Linn and Shelly sat in separate auditoriums. Sheriff Linn Keller was enduring yet another looong booorrring presentation better suited for a prosecutor or a defense attorney; he forced himself to pay attention, knowing there would be some nuggets of information, if he could stay awake to winnow these kernels from the pile of second hand horse feed that enclosed them. Linn smiled a little as he leaned back, crossed his arms, regarded the speaker with a skeptical expression, and he considered his Mama was right when -- at a similarly uninteresting presentation -- Willamina leaned over to him and murmured, "The mind absorbs only until the backside grows numb." Linn smiled a little at the memory. He shifted in his seat and realized his hip pockets were about asleep. Shelly, in another building on campus, was leaned forward with rapt interest: the presentation was by a trauma surgeon of her acquaintance, a man who knew how to make his presentation interesting: a half hour after the doctor began, someone in the third row went into convulsions and fell down between the seats, and instantly, three rows of paramedics emptied out of their seats and dogpiled on the sufferer, while the doctor roared, "GET BACK IN YOUR SEATS! IT'S ONLY ONE PATIENT, HE GETS ONE PARAMEDIC, EVERYONE ELSE SIT, DOWN!" Shelly rubbed one palm absently over the backs of the other hands' fingers, tilted her head, listened closely as the surgeon discussed extrication of a patient, impaled on a fence post when the out of control vehicle ran into a fallen-over locust post that drove through windshield, patient and the back of the car's seat. Marnie looked around, frowning, feeling like she'd forgotten something. She considered the table -- she'd changed the tablecloth the night before, this one was unmarked, unstained (she checked the boys' places to make sure!) -- she'd dust mopped the floor, dishes were done and put away, she'd wiped out the frying pan, set it back on the back burner to await its next use -- I need to wipe down the stove, she thought. I was frying sausage and I might have splattered some grease out. Marnie smiled as she lifted the enameled spiders off the burners, wiped down the stovetop, replaced the parts. There. Joseph ran. All he knew was he HURT, he was on FIRE, in that moment he was no longer a child of civilization and reason, he was a hurt animal and he knew only to try and outrun the PAIN!!! Fire trailed from his upraised, spread fingers: he looked with terror at his hands and ran all the faster. Part of his brain still worked. His eyes saw he was running toward the spring out back; he ran for the coolwater spring, dove hands-first into the cold mountain springwater, drove his hands more than wrist deep into its sandy bottom: he was elbow deep in cold water and he knelt there, shivering, silent, almost in shock -- not from the pain of the burn, but from the sudden, coldwater RELIEF! Jacob backed the 8N Ford up to the blade. The driveway needed graded some; gravel tended to hump up in the middle and throw out to the sides. His Pa paid good money for that gravel, and unless it was in the tracks, it wasn't doing him a bit of good. Jacob dismounted, gripped cold metal, thrust red-painted steel into grey-painted ears, drove the pin through, smacked it home with the heel of his fist: he thrust the hairpin viciously through the end, shook it -- unnecessary, just shook it on general principles -- stepped back and nodded. The redbottom Ford chuckled patiently through its silver painted muffler. Jacob picked up the faded cushion -- where it came from, he had no idea, only that it was well older than he -- he tossed it on the red painted, shining tractor seat, dropped his backside on it, stomped the clutch. Marnie frowned, lifted her head. Wiping her hands on her apron, she hung the dishtowel on the oven door handle, walked on the balls of her feet to the back door. Joseph heard running feet, heard the screen door slam open. He looked up into a young woman's pale eyes. Marnie saw her little brother's expression and she knew instantly he was scared and he was hurt: her hands were on his shoulders as she turned him to face her squarely. "How bad?" she asked, almost whispered. Joseph raised trembling, bluish hands. "I got burnt," he admitted. Marnie did what she did best. She thought on her feet. "Keep your fingers spread," she said: she seized Joseph under the arms, picked him up, ran for the barn: she stood him against the wall, said "Don't move," she seized saddle blanket and saddle and curled her lip, whistled. Her Daddy's Apple-horse came trotting over, blowing and slashing his tail. A fourteen year old girl in a ponytail and saddle shoes streaked across the pasture on her Daddy's stallion, her little brother clutched in her arms, his arms around her and his fingers splayed in the cold wind of their passing: stallion, sister and little brother sailed through the chilly air, soaring over the whitewashed fence. Marnie stood in the stirrups, her knees bent a little, one arm locked around Joseph's middle: her expression was grim, her throat tight as the stallion punched his nose into the wind, laid his ears back flat against his head and ran! Jacob, for his part, lowered the shining blade and carefully, precisely, graded gravel back into the tire tracks: he was slow, he was methodical, he was entirely unaware of anything but a pleasant morning, with sun on his face and the satisfaction of doing something useful for his Pa. His folks would be home that evening, and his Pa would approve of his efforts. Shelly saw Linn's eyes smile a little as they turned off the roadway, started up the drive. "Looks like we got a load of gravel," he said, then as they got to the halfway mark, his smile spread to the rest of his face. "Jacob graded it," he said softly, and Shelly heard approval in her husband's voice. They pulled up to the house, turned around, backed in closer to the front porch -- "not that I'm lazy or anything," Linn admitted, "but I'm lazy. The less distance I have to pack things, the better!" Shelly gave her husband a patient look and said nothing. Jacob emerged from the barn, wiping his hands and grinning. Shelly and Linn came into their house to the smell of fresh brewed coffee and fresh baked bread and the smell of supper almost ready. Shelly saw the table was set, her kitchen was immaculate, as were the floors; Jacob helped them pack in their luggage -- Linn could have managed, he and Shelly traveled light, but it was a mark of honor that Jacob made the offer -- Linn looked around and asked, "Where's Joseph?" Marnie took her Mama and her pale eyed Daddy by the arm, steered them into the kitchen. Jacob stood back. He'd been shocked when he found Joseph got burnt, he'd felt instantly guilty: he was the Older Brother, he was responsible, they'd trusted him, and he'd failed. He'd gone back to the scene of the crime, saw the beer bottle, smoke fouled and broken, likely from the heat -- he went to the gas can, smelled gasoline but saw nothing out of place -- "Joseph is afraid you will be mad at him," Marnie said quietly. "He did not burn the place down, he did not blow up the outhouse, but he did burn his fingers." Linn's eyes were suddenly serious; it was evident he was listening closely, he was leaving the medical end to his wife. "How bad?" Shelly asked, her voice tightening. Marnie held out her own hands, fingers splayed, palms down: "Here," she said, tracing a finger across the backs of her fingers, just behind the fingernails, "and here" -- the same, on the other hand. "He was gasoline burned. I'll let him tell you how. He ran to the spring and drove his burns into the water. I don't know how long he was there, only that his hands were cold and blue. I ran him in to ER and Doc Greenlees said he'll be fine, leave them open to air and keep them dry. I don't know why they didn't blister, it wasn't deep enough for third degree but Doc said they would scar." "Where is he now?" "I'm here," they heard a little voice say, and they turned. Joseph shifted his weight uncertainly from one foot to another; his bottom lip was down to about his belly button, his eyes downcast. "Supper is almost ready," Marnie said quietly. "Chicken and dressing, sourdough bread and I fed the starter, green beans and there is a cake." She went to one knee beside her little brother, ran a protective arm around him. "And Joseph" -- she looked very directly at her parents --"will be just fine."
  18. 607. READ TO ME, JOHN Sheriff Linn Keller sat at the head of the table, as was his habit: the circular, freshly-blacked, cast iron stove had the room pleasantly warm, his family was seated as well: he looked to the far end of the table, where his red headed bride sat, smiling at him, his children -- pink cheeks and hands scrubbed clean, still in their Sunday go to meetin's -- looked expectantly at him. Sheriff Linn Keller looked around, bowed his head. Every head at the table bowed. In a voice full of confidence, the quiet voice of a man who seldom had need to raise it, the Sheriff took a long breath -- Hungry children regarded steam rising from mashed potatoes, from steaming-hot gravy, young bellies complained that they were not partaking of the bounty before them -- Sheriff Linn Keller said, in a clear and confident voice, "Hello, plate." He raised his head. Shocked expressions greeted his wide and innocent eyes. "My Pappy told me one time," he said by way of explanation, "about a man who talked to his plate before he ate, and I thought it wise to emulate his fine example." Esther Keller, the green-eyed, red-headed bride of Old Pale Eyes -- Esther Keller, wife, mother, business icon, owner of the Z&W Railroad, equestrienne of considerable skill -- Esther Keller the patient, the understanding, the longsuffering -- Esther Keller picked up a sweet roll and slung it the length of the table, bounced it off her her husband's forehead. Linn gave her his very best Look of Wounded Pride and Absolute Innocence -- which of course did not work -- and exclaimed, "Well, he did!" -- to which Esther shook her Mommy-finger at him and snarled, "Linn Keller, you say a proper blessing or so help me --" Linn raised a forestalling palm. "My sons," he said, looking around, "behold your mother. She has not raised her voice, and she has committed any action that less than absolutely ladylike, and she has very clearly made her feelings known." He paused. "My daughters, behold your mother: she has sway over the most powerful man in the county, and without raising her voice, nor has she uttered any threat." He smiled a little, looked very directly at his wife. "I would not have her any other way." Esther's face reddened a little; her eyes dropped uncertainly, and Linn raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Lord, forgive me my tomfoolery," Linn said, "but laughter is sometimes hard to come by, and I wished to show a lesson when it presented itself." He looked down, looked around. "Now, Lord, about this meal." Linn Keller sat at the head of his table, looked around: Shelly saw the smile hiding behind her husband's pale eyes. "Darlin'," he said gently, looking very directly at his wife, "thank you." "Thank all of you," Shelly sighed. "Everyone helped me get things ready yesterday." Linn laughed a little. "This tells us how useful Marnie made herself," he said softly. "It took one of her to do all this, and now that she's there instead of here, it takes all of us!" Jacob and Joseph looked a little surprised -- they looked at one another, then at their Mama, and back to their Pa. "Lord," Linn said, "we thank You for this meal, and I miss Marnie. Take care of her, and bless these several hands that prepared this meal." He stopped, bit his bottom lip: Jacob saw his Pa's ears turn red, and somehow he knew that even if the man had more to say, he could likely not get it past the rock that shoved sudden-like up into his throat. Marnie tilted her head a little, looked at her husband. Dr. John Greenlees was forever reading; his medical texts were on computer -- he had an incredible library, well backed up, he received new material from Earth on a regular basis -- but one he consulted without fail -- after supper, every night, a gift from the Confederate ambassador -- was a black, soft covered, book -- a genuine, turn-the-pages book, bound in black leather "My father used to read that book," Marnie said softly as she rocked the youngest, pale eyed Keller baby. "He used to read it out loud, every night, after supper's dishes were done." Linn Keller took his turn drying dishes and setting them away in the cupboard: this, too, was part of their family ritual, so far as was possible: the table would be cleared, leftovers refrigerated, dishes washed, dried, put away: after this, as a matter of habit, they would go in the living room. Linn would sit down in his easy chair, reach up behind him and turn on his reading light: he would pick up a book on his sidetable, a book with a soft black cover -- it used to be far less soft, but many years of regular use softened it up considerably. Shelly sat in her chair, on his right; their youngest, freshly changed, fed and droiwsy, on her lap, their young sitting cross legged on the floor in a semicircle, facing their seated parents. Old Pale Eyes sat in his easy chair, a child on each lap, his arms around both: it was difficult, but he managed two children and a book, a book he read aloud each night after supper: bound in black leather, it was soft from long years of use. His voice was gentle as he read, a voice pitched to be kind, to be reassuring, a voice his children loved to hear, as did his wife, who had young on her own lap as well. "John," Marnie said, "read to me." He looked up, surprised. "My Daddy used to read aloud after supper," Marnie admitted, "and ... I miss it." Her expression was almost childlike, almost pleading. "Read it, John. Please." Men's hands held their copy of the Geneva Bible, men's eyes rested on the regular black print: it was something that became their collective ritual, to read aloud from the Book, with their families, every night after supper, if it was at all possible. "To all things there is an appointed time, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." John hesitated, looked up at his wife. "This has been of great comfort," he admitted. "It's ... I was warned that being doctor for people I know was the most difficult." He looked at Marnie, and the physician's wife saw a depth of grief in the man's eyes he usually managed to keep hidden. "Everyone we've lost ..." Dr. John Greenlees paused, swallowed, blinked. "I knew every last one of 'em, and ... prounouncing our children ..." "I know," Marnie whispered, and her husband saw a set of shutters slam shut behind her eyes as she mercilessly hid her own feelings. "This, and the book of Job." Marnie nodded, looked at the apple cheeked infant relaxed against her bosom, sound asleep. "Read to me, John." Esther Keller closed her eyes and relaxed, hearing her husband's gentle voice framing the familiar words. Shelly Keller closed her eyes and relaxed, hearing her husband's gentle voice framing the familiar words. Marnie Keller closed her eyes and relaxed, hearing her husvand's gentle voice framing the familiar words.
  19. 606. HARPER'S WEEKLY Sheriff Marnie Keller rubbed her eyes, stretched. It had been a long day. In spite of the glowing reports that went back Earthside, in spite of the propaganda they sent back home, Marnie learned very early that the old saw, "people were people wherever you go," was just as true here on Mars as it was on Earth. Her Gammaw's namesake Willamina, attacked shortly upon arrival; murder done with explosive-tipped lances, with clubs, shanks, explosive decompression -- the airlocks were supposed to be tamper-proof, and weren't, and two were killed using an airlock as a murder weapon -- Marnie arrived and took over and made it known in short order that pale eyes meant a short temper, and she used sudden, overwhelming violence to make the lawless, peaceful. She didn't really like working that way. She much preferred her long tall Daddy's method of a quiet talk, but sometimes the only language the lawless understands is a war club across the side of the head. Marnie established in very short order that her word was LAW and she would brook no foolishness, and as soon as she made this unmistakably clear, the incidence of trouble dropped precipitously. Mars colony had been a going concern long enough that it was old hat Earthside; back home, attention turned as it always did to whatever distraction was dangled in front of news cameras. This suited the Mars colony fine. Colony Two, known locally as Firelands, was like a family: they might scrap and argue and raise hell within their own ranks, but let an outsider come in and cause trouble and everyone turned on the outsider. Especially if it was an Earther. News from Earth was eagerly received, winnowed, the big headlines were bypassed in favor of news from home: local news, familiar faces, were always favored over the screaming-urgent propaganda headlines that perpetually sought to distract the unwary from whatever dirty deals were being dealt by various governments, by the shadowy puppetmasters manipulating from behind the scenes. The colonists regarded these news broadcasts much as North and South both regarded Harper's Weekly. Harper's was cherished as Gospel by the Yankee North because it was propaganda, they knew it was propaganda, but it was their propaganda, and if it slandered the South, so what, they were the enemy! The South received it eagerly, they read it with full knowlede and appreciation that it was nothing but propaganda, and damned Yankee propaganda at that, but knowing it for what it was, they could winnow some grains of truth from its load of second hand horse feed. Marnie forwarded the local news from the Firelands back home, and this was always well received, and the sight of the entire Firelands football team forming a protective screen between a genuine Texas longhorn and the home folks on the sidelines was regarded with a fierce pride -- to the Colonists, the Firelands football team was "Our Boys," that pale eyed Sheriff on a prancing, rearing stallion was Our Sheriff There (as opposed to Marnie, who was Our Sheriff Here), and there was a generally understanding laughter at the interview with the captain and coach of the opposing football team when they very frankly admitted that they knew they were overmatched when the Firelands team charged this longhorn bull and used it for their own personal vaulting horse. The ladies of the Firelands colony went so far as to most earnestly petition Marnie to establish their own Tea Society: several years into the colony's existence, thanks to reverse engineered alien technology found on Mars, and the assistance of the Confederacy, they were able to produce the correct gowns, wigs, gloves and other feminine attire required for a proper Tea Society meeting, such as they'd seen in the holovids; the men studied with the Confederate teams who came to train them in defensive tactics against the aliens they'd faced already, against those the Confederates defeated a century before, when their ancestors were abducted from various points during Lincoln's War as a disposable mercenary force; although they became proficient with alien weaponry, they were most pleased to find the firearms with which many were already familiar, were more than adequate against such opponents, and so shooting once again became a very popular activity, especially with use of the Confederate skinfield suits, allowing them to wear their everyday clothes out into the thin Martian atmosphere -- and the skinfield could be adjusted to attenuate gunfire, though this was almost unnecessary, owing again to the lack of air to conduct sound. All of this was very carefully not mentioned in reports back to Earth. As far as anyone on Earth knew, the Martian colony still existed, they'd had calamities and lost personnel but they were hanging on with ingenuity and luck, and so it was that Earth sent Mars their version of Harper's Weekly, and Mars sent Earth their own version of that biased propaganda broadsheet. Sheriff Linn Keller opened the door, stepped back. A young woman with short hair and a flight helmet under her left arm stepped inside. "Is your ship hidden?" Linn asked quietly. "I came in cloaked," she nodded, "and parked above your barn." Linn's eyebrow raised a little. "Any visual distortion seen by satellite will be disguised by planes and contours of your barn's peaked roof," she explained, "and corrugated tin helps as well." "I see." Gunfighter handed Linn a slim tablet. "Marnie sends her greetings," she smiled, "and she said to give you this." The slender young woman in the dark blue skinsuit came up on her toes, kissed Linn on the cheek, hugged him quickly, impulsively, like a little girl: Linn's arm went around her, he laid the tablet on the table and ran his other arm around her and hugged. "Mmmm," Gunfighter hummed, "I can see why Marnie think so much of you!" "How's that?" Linn asked, and the Gunfighter saw his eyes darken, ever so slightly, and knew that when this lean old lawman with an iron grey mustache suddenly had light blue eyes, it meant his guard was down. The Gunfighter patted him on the chest, then dropped her eyes and looked away. "Marnie," she said, "has you so far up on a pedestal it's a wonder you don't get nosebleed." Linn blinked rapidly, looked away, his bottom jaw sliding out a little: he was clearly troubled, but with a deep breath, a lift of his chin, he dismissed the feeling. Gunfighter stepped back, thrust her chin at the tablet. "You'll want to play that," she said: she reached, touched the surface, keyed in a code, turned. "Is Shelly home?" "She's upstairs, sewing." He watched as the Martian pilot skipped across the floor, completely unimpeded by the greater gravity, and wondered if this wasn't some more of that Confederate technology he'd heard about. He looked at the tablet, smiled at the red circle on the screen, touched it. Marnie's face appeared, a smaller one under it, and Dr. John Greenlees beside her: Marnie bounced the chubby cheeked bundle of squeal and laugh and looked into the camera. "Hello, Daddy," she began, and Linn sat down, picked up the tablet, looked into his little girl's face and marveled at the perfection of a healthy little grandchild on Mama's lap. This, at least, was anything but Harper's Weekly.
  20. Tex Jones said it right. I could see your grin in your words. This is an old and trusted friend. Hang right onto it!
  21. Miz Sue, I've long known women were creatures of grace, skill and ability. Your experience -- startling though it was -- proves yet again that you are truly a remarkable soul! Well done indeed!
  22. 605. "UNCLE WILL, WAS THAT A BIG BULLY?" Young Joseph Keller must be viewed with understanding. His father was Sheriff. His Mama was a working firefighter/paramedic. His big sister Marnie was Sheriff on Mars. His big brother Jacob was a deputy. He remembered his Gammaw, and he missed her, and sometimes he looked at her picture and whispered to her. Somehow he was not surprised that he never heard a whisper back, never heard the rustle of a woman's skirts, never smelled her cologne. Joseph Keller felt a little freer, a little more relaxed, when he was with his Uncle Will. Uncle Will was old -- he was old, he was skinny, but he always had a laugh and he always had time for the boy, and tonight, Joseph stood beside his Uncle as his Uncle and every adult in the bleachers stood and removed their hats. Joseph watched as the Firelands Football Team ran from their benches, ran down the side line, following the black swallowtail pennant with the yellow skull hand stitched in shining thread: he watched as they stopped, each raised his arm and shuffled a little until his outstretched fingertips just touched the next fellow's shoulder blade -- a shouted command, they turned briskly, precisely, facing the field. The Firelands Marching Band, all shining brass and braided shoulder trim, marched out to a single muffled drum: they shifted, and when viewed from the announcer's box, went from a rectangle to a five pointed star: a whistle, a spin of the drum majorette's baton, and they faced the flagpole. Uniformed men brought chromed parade rifles up to stiff attention: Joseph's chin liffted and his Stetsson automatically covered his shirt pocket as the Firelands High School Marching Band's opening notes of the Star Spangled Banner prompted the Colors to hoist briskly up the silver painted flagpole. It was Homecoming; the stands were crowded; both teams were ready for the game: the local paper was represented, as was the local cable TV channel: Sheriff, chief deputy and local police all stood at correct attention, rendering the correct hand salute. Hands lowered smartly as the final note ceased, right before several throats vibrated with a muted, surprised exclamation. Sheriff and Chief Deputy turned and leaned into a full-on sprint. Uncle Will's knees flexed a little, his feet coming out to shoulder width: Joseph felt his Uncle tense, took a quick step to the side, dropped back one step, looked left and right to find a good place to get out of the way if it should be necessary. Jacob sprinted for the passenger side of the cruiser. He unlocked the door, hauled it open, reached down, seized the wrist of the scoped M14: he pulled it free, seized the bandolier, threw it over his head: he turned, driving the magazine home, slamming it with the heel of his hand, yanking to make sure it was latched: he looked up just as something tan, white and brown streaked past the corner of the hood: his father was astride Apple-horse, and headed for the field. Jacob twisted, shouldering people aside: he ran out onto the field, seized the charging handle, hauled back and ran a shining brass round of Winchester .308 into the blued-steel chamber. Jacob watched as the entire Firelands football team brought their helmets from under their off arm, dunked the brain buckets down over fresh haircuts, fast up the strap: the Totenkopf raised, a voice shouted, "WARRIORS! FORWARD, MARCH!" Linn brought Apple-horse about: the stallion's blood was up, he was ready for a young war: the Appaloosa's ears were back, he was dancing, throwing his head as he faced the longhorn bull. Jacob's eyes were busy, calculating angles of fire, background, swearing silently but most passionately at the realization that -- if he did have to lace into that big set of powder horns on the hoof -- there was no safe angle, no solid backstop behind -- Sometimes the target itself is the backstop, he heard his father's voice commenting. Don't miss! Jacob held the M14 at high port: he paced off on the left, strode down the field, his eyes welded on an absolute mountain of beef. Jacob's head came up -- there was a sustained yell, not much less than a scream -- Jacob saw the team captain in a flat-out screaming sprint, straight toward the longhorn -- The marching band's hollow, five point star reformed into a long rectangle, drew back to the edge of the field -- Retired Chief of Police Will Keller's fists clenched as he cursed himself for his complacency: all he had to go to war with, was a two-inch .38, the same backup revolver he'd carried for three decades and more, and that was sure as hell not what he wanted if he was going up against a Texas Longhorn. Apple-horse reared, screamed a challenge, windmilling his hooves: the Sheriff was welded to the saddle, sticking like a cocklebur in a bird dog's tail plume: the longhorn bull, startled, whipped end-for-end to face whatever was coming up from behind at the top of its lungs. The Sheriff pulled his lariat loose, shook the loop out in his good right hand, kneed Apple-horse into a trot, just as the Firelands Football Team charged the bull. In single file. The team captain launched as the bull came at him, head down. Had Linn not been watching, had he not seen it, he would not have believed it. He'd read about Sarah Lynne McKenna vaulting a bull -- he knew her inspiration was the copper-plate engraving in a textbook, an engraving of a Grecian urn with naked Cretan youths seizing the incoming bull's horns and somersaulting over its back -- but he'd honestly never thought his pale eyed ancestress actually did that -- The team captain caught the horns and jumped, the bull's head came up -- There was a collective gasp as the football player tucked, tumbled, soared over the bull's back, uncoiled as he fell, landed on his feet -- The bull had just enough time to lower his head again when the second set of hands seized his horns near the boss -- Then the third -- By the time the sixth football player charged the bull, and launched over its back with what looked for all the world like practiced ease, Jacob was standing upright instead of half-crouched, ready to drop into a kneeling firing position, and the Sheriff sat his restless stallion and coiled his lariat as the football team, clearing this obstacle one at a time, lined up in front of him. Every last one of Willamina's Warriors, every muscled young man in a polished purple and white helmet and freshly laundered uniforms, charged this intruder to their home field. When they were done, Linn kneed his Apple-horse forward: the Warriors parted to let him through, and Linn rode up to the longhorn ... slowly, ready to turn and run if need be. Linn dismounted, turning his stallion so he dismounted on the bull's side. The Sheriff walked up to the bull, tilted his head and regarded the big beef with a solemn expression. The longhorn blinked, muttered something, and Linn reached slowly down to rub the beef's nose, then reached over and rubbed his neck. "Well, fella," he said, "what say we find out where you belong." Sheriff Marnie Keller's eyes widened and her head lowered a little as she watched the news report. The account she was reading was a little over a day and a half old; it was both the newspaper article, the live-action recording from the local TV cable channel as filmed from the roof of the announcer's crow's-nest, and followed with a roving series of interviews of football players, the Sheriff, the opposing team, bystanders: Marnie laughed a little at the opposing team captain's frank admission that they knew they were outmatched when the entire Firelands football team went head to head with a Texas longhorn and used it for their personal vaulting horse, and she planted her chin on her knuckles and smiled quietly as her brother Jacob -- with the scoped '14 at sling arms -- expressed his gratitude that he didn't have to gut out a beef on the fifty yard line -- "I didn't bring my good skinning knife with me," he'd deadpanned, "but I reckon someone in the stands could loan me a good Barlow once my pocket knife got dull." Dr. John Greenlees smiled as he watched his wife's expression soften, and he came around to see what was touching her. He recognized her youngest brother Joseph, standing beside his Uncle Will: the lad looked up at the retired Chief of Police, pointed at the beef being loaded into a stock trailer just backed up toward the field, and asked in an innocent, little-boy's voice, "Uncle Will, is that a big bully?"
  23. It's like many artifacts I've held ... I really, really wish I could get it to talk!
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