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Calico Mary

Dreams of the Golden Aspen Ranch

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It wasn't terrible far back to my place.

Mary met us on the front porch, holding a wooden spoon before her like a queen's scepter, shaking her head in mock disapproval.

I think it was mock disapproval, but it might not have been ... bringing company with no warning meant more work for her, and fast.

Murphy was on hand like he always was, he took the horses, all but the one with the blanket wrapped carcass on it -- that one Cheyenne tethered off to the hitch rail in front of the house -- but at the moment I had urgent need to thaw out my shiverin' carcass and get into some dry duds, pronto.

It is no light thing to get bone-chill wet first thing in the morning.

I saw Cheyenne and Calico exchange another one of those looks, the kind husband and wife will share when they both know something to be true, and neither has to put it into words, and I reckoned it was because Mary was not the least bit bashful about giving me what for, right there in front of company, God and everybody.

"Now look at ye!" she scolded, seizing my coat and squeezing it to assess its water content the moment I came in reach. "Soaked t' th' skin ye are, an' blue i' th' lips! Men! Di' ye' e'er see the like!"

She shot a look at Calico, and Calico looked quick-like at Cheyenne and back, and Mary never missed a beat: she pointed toward the open door like a scolding schoolmarm to a naughty schoolboy and declared, "Now do ye get i' there an' strip down, I'll get ye th' hot water drawn an' we'll get ye thawed out!"

Cheyenne's hand found Calico's and they stood there a-grinnin' and the maid turned her glare to them next: "Well don't just stand there, ge' i' here b'fore ye think th' Sheriff is a poor host! We've bacon an' we've eggs an' there's fresh baked bread, and th' Sheriff didn't make th' coffee!"

"Yes, ma'am," Cheyenne said quietly, lifting his hat deferentially: Calico took his arm and they followed me into the house just like they owned the place.

Me, I headed on upstairs and shucked out of my soaking-wets, my jaw clamped shut ag'in the ague that threatened to rattle my bones loose, and bless Mary, she got our company set down in the kitchen and she was a-fussing over them like a settin' hen a clutch of chicks, throwin' bread and pie and edibles of three or four kinds on the kitchen table in front of them and refusing to listen to any protestations that they'd already had breakfast.

Once she started 'em on whatever it was hot and good she slung off the stove and onto their plates, she swung into where I'd cat footed down in my night shirt and she opened the valve to run hot water out of the stove reservoir and into the tub, then she gusted out the back door and come in just that quick with a fresh pumped bucket of water in each hand.

I have no idea how she got so much done so fast, and made it look easy, but by golly now she did, and guilty I felt about her doin' all that work, but I durst not turn a hand toward helping her with it, not even when she had to add four buckets to the stove reservoir -- I'd had a big one put in, broad and shallow to heat the water fast, custom made by a traveling blacksmith -- I'm a right fair hand on the anvil but when it comes to welding corners, especially long corners to form a waterproof seam, I learned the hard way there are men with the gift of iron in their blood and it's best to leave such work to such men.

Mary splashed her hand in the water and nodded her satisfaction, then she looked up at me and snapped, "Well don' just stand there, man, ye're halfway t'pneumonia an' if ye die yer daughters'll ne'er speak to ye again!" -- then she was gone, a little dust devil spinning where she'd been a moment before, gone back to the kitchen to prime our company with as much as she could load on their plates, pour in their coffee cups and otherwise convince that she would not be happy unless they ate a full meal and half again more at this one settin'.

It took me longer than I expected to get thawed out.

Reckon I'm gettin' old, but just as soon as I was able, I reached for the bottle Mary had set near to hand and poured a good long tilt of Kentucky Drain Opener down my gullet.

Between that tub of hot water thawin' me from the outside, and the Daine boys' distilled grain lightin' a fire inside of me, why, I warmed up right quick and got into a dry set of duds, and none too soon, neither.

Had I dallied any longer, I reckon Mary would have brought up that long handled wooden spoon and spanked my backside right smart down those stairs to tend to our guests.

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The hired man rode over to Digger's place and delivered the brief message: bring the dead wagon, he had a customer.

Digger knew when I summoned him, it was a guaranteed pay: the county's expenses were good, we'd taken pains never to cheat the man, even if he wasn't any more honest than he absolutely had to be.

He and I had an understanding.

If the dead had something of value he would turn it over to me.

If he did not, I would find out, and I would tie him in knots and hang him off the railroad yardarm buck naked.

He only tried me once.

I nearly broke the man's wrist.

I never raised my voice, I didn't have to: a Japanese fellow showed me some interesting tricks back when I still wore Union blue, and what he called a "wrist lock" was one of them: it's a simple hold, it's painful and it doesn't take much pressure to rip a man's wrist bones apart.

I'd done it, matter of fact, and right glad I was to absolutely destroy the opponent's wrist joint, because he was doin' a right fair job of tryin' to beat me plumb to death and that one lucky grab is all I had to work with, and -- well, that's another story altogether.

Digger came a-rattlin' out and we were still at breakfast: Calico was a fetching woman and I reckon she would cut quite the figure in one of Bonnie McKenna's gowns, but she was like many frontier women -- tough and capable and utterly charming and don't you dare make her mad.

She was also trying hard not to eat like a thrasher.

Cheyenne, now, had no such compunctions: Mary had that stove full, a-fryin' meat in one skillet, eggs in a second and flap jacks in a third: watching her run that cook stove was like watching a conductor direct an orchestra, for there was no wasted move, she was smooth as silk and made it look easy, and I realized if I'd try anything of the kind I'd scorch two out of three and ruin the third for good measure.

Cheyenne, now, he set to being the polite guest and managed to shovel away as many groceries as landed on his plate, and I reckon he hit his full mark while I was outside with Digger, for when I come back in, Mary was cleanin' up and shooing us all out of her kitchen and promising to bring us coffee, now get out from underfoot.

We went into my office and set down for a powwow.

"Digger will take that feller in and get him cleaned up," I said, "and laid out nice and proper in a box for us. Once he's presentable I'll take a look at him."

I looked from one to the other of them and nodded.

"I am just awful glad you two tied the knot."

Calico colored ever so delicately and Cheyenne shifted in his seat, harrumphed and his ears went a definite scarlet, so I offered him a cigar and gestured toward the cut-glass brandy decanter.

"Too early in the mornin' for a belt of Old Soul Saver? For medicinal purposes only," I said, and somehow I managed to keep a straight face when I said it.

Calico would have looked at me over top her spectacles if she'd been wearin' a pair.

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"Now don't ye be draggin' him away too long," Mary scolded her way into the study as she backed through the double doors, tray in both hands before her, coffee steaming and fragrant in the ceramic pot: "he's a birthday t' attend, y'know, his darlin' daughter an' her th' youngest. We'll have cake an' ye're invited, now how d'ye take yer coffee?"

Cheyenne blinked at the rapid fire admonishment from the fast-moving maid: he considered a reply, then thought better of it: Mary dealt saucers like cards, settled cups on them like hot-air balloons lighting gracefully from a great height, poured coffee with one smooth, sweeping tilt of the pot, and never got so much as one stray drop out of place.

"There's cold milk i' th' pitcher, sugar i' the bowl an' if ye want annythin' else I'll be in the kitchen!" she snapped, then bent to whisper in Cheyenne's ear, her starched cap brushing both Calico's hair and Cheyenne's: "I'm glad ye two are here. 'Tis his wife's deathday, an' she passed birthin' the littlest girl. He still grieves her" -- then she was gone, a brisk tap of heels and a rustle of petticoats, leaving the general feeling that a minor tornado had just swept the room.

 

Sarah's eyes were half-lidded as she stared across the high meadow.

The line shack was a quarter mile from her, invisible in predawn's shadow.

She'd spent her wedding night in that little shack, a shack transformed from a rude but clean shelter for wintering-over cowboys, into a honeymoon bower: part of her mind recalled Swarovski crystal goblets and a wine of ancient and fine vintage, she remembered Daffyd Llewellyn, her husband, she remembered his hands, how they trembled a little and so did she, and then the pain gripped her again.

Sarah's teeth were set gently together; she lowered her head, took a breath, took another, allowing the contraction to build.

Mountain wind rumbled among the peaks, but in her sheltered nest between three boulders, it barely moved: it was chlil, but she was not cold at all: ancient labor, the powerful strivings of a woman being delivered of the new life she carried, warmed her as a furnace.

A small fire before her warmed her as well, reflecting off the stones on either side and behind, and on the fire, a small iron kettle, the kind used for years in the Old Country, a kind used for heating water and for cooking, and for other purposes women tended in the darkness.

Daciana rubbed her palms together over the small cauldron, grinding three dried leaves into powder, philtering them carefully into the warming water.

Sarah gasped and raised her head, panting a little: she raised from her squat, stood, easing the strain on her knees, her thighs.

Daciana poured something into a shot glass: it was honey colored, it poured like water, and Sarah caught the odor of something vaguely familiar.

She handed the stubby, brimming glass to her and whispered, "Drink."

Sarah took it with thumb and forefinger, raised her pinky and drank: she made a face, wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out between her teeth.

"Ick!" she declared. "That's awful!"

"Tea vill be better," Daciana murmured, tilting her head a little, then laying the backs of cool fingers against Sarah's cheek.

Sarah's breath caught and she squatted again, instinctively pulling up her skirt.

Daciana offered no comment as Sarah's water broke; she guided Sarah back, back until she half-sat, half-lay on a natural, reclining seat.

Daciana began to sing, softly, in a tongue Sarah did not recognize, and as she sang, Sarah gathered the strength of her line, the strength that sang eternally in her blood, and her many selves that lived before and would live after gathered invisibly around her, as they had with every birth, and would with every birth to come.

 

The Sheriff excused himself to go back upstairs, and when he went into his bedroom, a single red rose lay on the bedside table.

Esther, he thought.

He froze, cold water trickling down his spine, and he smelled roses, strong and fresh, far more than a single flower could generate.

His eyes went to the bed he'd shared with his red-headed wife, his beloved Valkyrie, the woman that rode to war when she heard the Sheriff had been shot: he remembered how she bent over him, not a tear to be seen, just a terrible determination that she would not, would NOT, let his soul be rent from this earth ...

He looked at the bed that they shared for long and happy years, years too short now, and he saw the impress his body left from sleeping on his left side, as he always did, and he saw the impress beside it, as if another had lain there.

He looked at this impress, and he looked at the rose, and he bit his bottom lip hard.

 

Sarah took a long breath, closed her eyes, willed herself to silence.

Her lean, youthful body labored from darkness into light, and when the sun came over the horizon, she opened her eyes: sweat beaded her forehead and a smiling woman in an emerald gown, a red-headed woman with green eyes, bent over her and handed her a single red rose.

"Esther," Sarah gasped, and then her teeth clicked together, she hissed in one great breath and drove her chin into her chest and closed her hands into hard-bunched fists and with all of her soul and all of her strength and all of her power she contracted all of her self, and Daciana's hands were strong and sure and deft and she guided the little head and turned it and lifted a little and one shoulder came clear and the other shoulder and Daciana had a double handful of hot, wet, slippery, wiggling little Welshman, an ugly misshapen thing that frowned and wiggled and Sarah gasped and opened her eyes and she saw the lightening sky overhead and a shaft of red light shot between the rocks and shone upon the mother and the child and the midwife, and Sarah choked and took another long breath and she heard a little mouse-squeak and then a tiny little breath and then she heard new life start to cry and she smelled roses and felt a mother's caress on her cheek, warm and real and then gone, and Sarah looked down as Daciana poured warm, herb-infused water over the child, carefully washing it and wrapping it and tying the cord: she whispered an incantation as she used a crescent-bladed knife to cut the cord, then she stood and she placed the child in her mother's arms, and Sarah laughed and cried and opened her top, for the lad was hungry and rooting and determined to get a meal, and Sarah thought that was just like a man, and she heard a whisper, Yes, it is, and Daciana was busy at the fire again and Sarah knew it was not Daciana who whispered the words.

 

Angela recited her lesson before the class as she always did, looking out the wavy-glass windows instead of looking at her classmates.

The Sheriff's little girl was bashful and she turned the most amazing shade of red if she looked at her classmates when reciting her memorizations, but she found if she looked out the window, she could picture herself talking to a little bird on a tree branch, or to a stray cat beside the hitch rail, and she was comfortable talking to little birdies or fuzzy kitties.

It would have amused the Sheriff to hear his little girl dutifully chanting the ancient syllables from the book of Ecclesiastes, with her own unique addition, for it would have struck him as amusing to hear his little girl's voice as she recited "A time to sow and a time to pluck up that which is sown, Daddee!" -- for in that moment she looked out the window and saw her long tall Daddy ride up to the Sheriff's office, just up the street.

 

Daciana drove.

The trail was barely wagon-wide, but she'd driven up it, and she drove back down it, the blind mare sure-footed and patient, if slow.

Daciana used the brake quite a bit, to keep from overtaxing the mare on the grades; Sarah, beside her, resisted the urge to bend double.

She felt like she'd just been pulled inside out and badly stuffed back into place.

Daciana's tea helped; she'd bled, aye, but not badly, and with the herbal decoction, her uterus contracted and shut itself off from bleeding further: the afterbirth came out whole, Daciana seemed satisfied, and Sarah was content to rely on her dear friend's expertise in such matters.

Young Daffyd Llewellyn, son of Daffyd Llewellyn, slept contentedly against the warm softness of his Mama's bosom.

 

Later that day, the Sheriff was sorting through a stack of wanted dodgers, frowning as he did: they'd come into town and taken a good look at the dead man's face, they'd considered the envelope and discussed the possibilities and now he was going through the stack of wanted posters again, for the name niggled at his mind, the name was familiar, he should know that name and he was damned if he was going to stop until he remembered where he knew the name from, and in the meantime he wanted to identify this dead man.

Hard heels -- several of them -- sounded on the boardwalk outside, a heavy fist pounded on the door of the Sheriff's office, the door swung inward: so abrupt was this progress that Cheyenne was in a half-crouch, hand cleared for a draw, Calico beside him with a handful of walnut revolver handle, blued steel halfway out of the leather: when the room filled quickly with grinning, red-shirted men, the lead fireman bearing a jug, they realized this was not an invasion, but a celebration.

The Sheriff laid down the poster and considered the grinning Welshman.

"Mr. Llewellyn," he said, straight-faced, "please explain this sudden intrusion of my official sanctum."

Ron Llewellyn happily twisted the cork from the jug, then leaned over with the heels of his hands on the desk: his eyes were shining, he looked like a man about to confide an important matter, then he straightened, ran a finger through the jug's ring, laid the jug over his bent elbow and tilted it up and took a good snort.

He lowered, the jug, spun it around and thrust it at the Sheriff.

"I HAVE A SON!" he shouted, and the Sheriff solemnly took the jug, laid it over his own elbow and took a good tilt.

"Cheyenne," he said, spinning the jug around and offering it ring-side-to.

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He'd heard the Sheriff was fast.

He'd heard the Sheriff could bore into a man's very soul with those ice-pale eyes, drill a cold burn-hole clear into a man's spine and look around for the least trace f yella.

He'd heard the Sheriff could shoot the tail feathers off a Mississippi gnat at a hundred yards, off hand, in a stiff cross wind, at night, while standing up in the saddle of a galloping horse.

He'd also been told a man could dig enough gold in a day to last a lifetime and that hadn't proved true either.

He was known as Craig -- just Craig -- whether that was his first name or his last didn't matter: if you said Craig, people know who you meant.

One man called him by his given Christian name.

One man, and no one around to hear it, and Craig gave him two doses of lead and nine inches of honed steel besides, and the secret died with the speaker: he had no family anymore, he had no friends, and the only man alive who knew him from before was dead now, dead and rotted away in some hollow back East.

He used to dream of the sneering face, the curled lip as he drawled out Craig's first name.

"Beeyouuulah," he'd sneered. "Now what kind of a daisy goes by Beeyouuulah?"

His nose wrinkled, his tongue protruded as if the name left an unpleasant taste on the tongue, and Beulah Craig drove two .44s into his gut, then he grabbed the suddenly silent sneermeister by the throat and drove his knife up under his wish bone, hard.

Craig leaned on the bar, there in the Silver Jewel, considering how best to call out that long tall Sheriff.

If he could beat this lawman, he'd be a made man, he'd be famous, he could walk with hard heels and everyone, everyone! would fear him.

He liked that.

Fear me, he thought, the words a whisper in his brain.

Fear me.

He smiled a little, turning the shot glass between thumb and forefinger, admiring how the light reflected from within its half-dozen facets.

He moved no more than his eyes as the ornately frosted doors were hauled open and the laughing, shouting Irish Brigade surged in, jostling, joking, shoving, a living red tide with black handlebar mustaches and red-wool, bib-front shirts with a gold Maltese cross embroidered on center.

There was another with them, he could see, and he raised his head to take a look: someone didn't belong, and he didn't like things that didn't belong.

He turned his head just in time to inherit the callused heel of the Sheriff's hand, right square in the nose, hard enough to snap his neck back and bring his boots off the floor.

The Brigade seized any mug or glass within reach and hoisted it in noisy salute, shouting their delight, for not only were they celebrating the birth of their comrade and brother's son, now they would have a floor show with their celebratory libation!

Craig's world detonated in a sunball of pain as the Sheriff followed his first strike with another, hitting not with his knuckles, but with the heel of his hand: first the nose, the next into the man's low ribs, just as hard as he could drive him, and he felt as much as heard the dull *pop* of broken cartilage, followed by Craig's pained grunt.

The Sheriff stomped Craig, hard, driving his weight through the lens of his bootheel, focusing the strongest muscles in his body in one penetrating blow, and Craig lost all interest in a gunfight, in conflict of any kind, and indeed of remaining within the world of the here and now: pain and shock claimed him, at least until the second boot caught him hard inside the thigh and he rolled to escape what he knew was an attack on the tenderest territory of a man's anatomy.

The Sheriff seized him by the back of his shoulders, hauled him upright: yelling, he ran down the hall, Craig's boot toes barely dragging the boards: Daisy's girl spun out of her kitchen, grabbed the back door's knob, twisted and thrust against it with her shoulder, whirling out the door and leaping behind it as Craig's body flew in a low ballistic arc, propelled by the long, tall, lean-waisted lawman's two-handed toss.

 

Sarah rocked, and as she rocked, she hummed a little, and the bright-eyed boy-child rubbed his eyes with uncertain knuckles, his fat little arms moving in short, jerky arcs: he clearly preferred cuddling with his Mama's bosom, but offered no protest when she gently broke his suction and brought him down for inspection, or for cleanup, or just to hold him a little from her and marvel at this tiny, wiggling, squinting, absolutely perfect little son of a Welsh warrior.

Daciana and the maid orbited Sarah, the maid closer and more vocal, Daciana watchful; hers were the hands that assessed whether Sarah's belly was still echoing with labor, hers were the eyes that gauged Sarah's color, hers were the whispers that told Sarah that all was well with her son, and with herself.

"And when will yer husband be here?" the maid blurted. "Shouldn't he be here with you, mum?"

Sarah looked up at her through long, curled lashes, and smiled, almost laughed.

"And do what? Boil water? Who did all the work here anyway!"

She raised her little boy's tiny head and kissed him gently on the soft spot.

"Not yet," she whispered. "Not yet. Give us time, Mary. He'll have time enough with our son."

Mary turned and went back to the kitchen.

 

Craig opened his eyes and immediately regretted it.

Doc Greenlees frowned a little -- the man seemed to have a permanent frown, even when he was pleased -- he lowered his head and said quietly, "Don't move, mister, you're pretty broken up."

Craig felt the pain pounding his belly like waves punishing a distant shoreline: his face felt puffy and he knew he wore plaster across his nose.

"You'll live," Doc continued, "you're not leaking brain fluid out the nose -- why not, God only knows. You've got more broken bones in your face than I've got fingers."

Craig shifted his jaw, his eyebrows twitching at the pain it caused, and he decided against an answer.

A face came into view above him: it was black-mustached, it floated above a red shirt with a gold Maltese cross on its breast, and the man spoke with an odd accent ... German, Craig knew, but something else, something east coast.

He closed his eyes against the pain.

"I'll get you some laudanum," Doc murmured. "Don't go anywhere."

The German Irishman watched Doc pace over to a cupboard, looked down at Craig.

"Ye're Craig," he said, barely trilling the Rs, after the European fashion: it was more like he flipped them off the end of his tongue.

"Ye're fortunate."

Craig's eyebrows quirked, then frowned a little: I don't think so.

The German Irishman nodded. "Oh, aye," he nodded. "The man was half lit. If he'd been sober he'd'a killed ye f'r sure."

Doc came back with something milky in a glass.

"Here, help me sit him up. You'll need to drink this. It'll help you sleep."

Craig drank, with difficulty; he lacked strength to gag, and when they laid him back down, he closed his eyes against the red agonies of his broken ribs and his pounded, punished belly.

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Jacob leaned back against the wall of the Sheriff's office.

His father frowned at a wanted dodger, his finger crossways under his nose as he pondered: he leaned his mustache into the finger, his elbow on the desk, he nodded.

"That's got to be him," he muttered. "It's got to."

"Which one, sir?"

The Sheriff didn't answer.

He glared at the wanted poster and Jacob saw the man's hand close slowly into a tight fist.

"Sir," Jacob offered, "if you stare any harder, that dodger will ketch fahr."

Jacob intentionally drawled his words, seeking to bring his father back to the here-and-now, for it was clear that the old man was powerfully unhappy about some one, or some thing.

The Sheriff used his fingernail to pick up one, another, finally a half-dozen dodgers, until the sheet he wanted exposed itself: he drew it out, turned it around.

"Look familiar?" he said, his voice tight.

Jacob frowned a little. He had an excellent memory, a memory made even better by being a lawman, and the Sheriff saw recognition in his son's eyes.

"Yes, sir," he said at length.

The Sheriff nodded.

He'd had one of the Daine boys sketch out the dead man's face, the dead man Digger cleaned up, the dead man that rode back across the mountain trail wrapped in a blanket and bent over a horse's back.

The dead man currently planted in their potter's field.

A sketch wouldn't spoil, nor would it rot, and it could be referred to long after its model was reduced to its raw components.

Jacob looked up and met his father's eyes.

"I thought Albert Fraser was in prison."

"He's been out less than a year."

"Last known location?"

"Denver."

"Why Denver?"

The Sheriff's smile was more a grimace.

"That's why I'm going to the hospital."

"Sir?"

The Sheriff stood.

"Craig came to town to kill me. He knows Albert, or used to."

 

Ron Llewellyn stopped at the threshold.

Sarah rocked a little, smiling quietly, looking down at a blanket wrapped bundle held up against her bosom.

Ron saw Sarah's long and dark lashes, curled against her still flawless complexion, he saw the bloom of red health in her cheeks, the shine of her hair, and like many men in a moment of surprise, he opened his mouth and his hidden thoughts fell out and hit the floor.

"My God," he breathed, "you're beautiful!"

Sarah McKenna Llewellyn looked up, the smile in her eyes matching the smile on her red, wet lips, and her husband strode quickly over to her, and went to one knee, and placed a gentle hand on hers, not wanting to disturb her grip on her son -- their son!

The maid bit her knuckle, tears stinging her eyes: she watched from the shadow of the doorway, and she could have kissed the man, for the one thing she knew Sarah desperately needed to hear, was that she was still beautiful in her husband's eyes.

 

The Sheriff spoke quietly with Doctor John Greenlees, looking occasionally over at the bruised, puffy faced, bandaged man lying on the narrow hospital bed.

"No, Sheriff, you won't get anything out of him for a while," Doc Greenlees frowned. "I gave him a good dose to get him to sleep." He frowned a little more and peered directly into his old friend's cold and pale eyes. "Sheriff, did you really have to beat him so thoroughly? Wouldn't a good poke in the nose be enough?"

The Sheriff's expression never changed.

"I could have just shot him," he offered.

"You'd have hurt him less," Doc Greenlees muttered. "His face will take the longest to mend. Cheek bone is broken, he's lucky you didn't blow out his orbit, his nose is ... well, I did my best and he'll be able to breathe, at least most of the time."

"What about his guts?"

"I'll have to wait and see. You could have burst his intestines, the way you jumped up and down on his belly. Or did you stand there and Mexican hat dance him?"

The Sheriff's eyes were cold and hard.

"Doc, you ever hear of Craig?"

"Which one?"

"Just one."

"No, can't say as I have."

"He's a small time gunslinger. He wants to make a name for himself. He got run out of a couple towns and now he figures if he comes out here and braces me, he kills me and suddenly he's the Hot Walker."

Doc Greenlees grunted. "He doesn't know you very well, does he?"

"Word has it he's fast," the Sheriff said quietly. "He's supposed to be good."

"Then how'd he get run out of town?"

"When you're facing a half dozen shotguns, another part of the country suddenly looks pretty good."

Doc Greenlees nodded.

The Sheriff looked at Craig again.

"Once he's able to be moved, I want him brought out to my place."

If Doc Greenlees wore spectacles, he would have looked at the Sheriff over top his lenses.

"To your place," he repeated.

"My place."

"Might I ask why?" Doc managed to sound polite. "Do you intend to chain him to a stump or something?"

The Sheriff looked past the physician, shook his head.

"He'll stay with me til he's able to travel."

"And then?"

"Then we'll find out who's faster."

Doc looked harder at the Sheriff, shook his head.

"That's not like you, Linn," he said slowly. "What's really going on?"

"I buried his twin brother yesterday. Now I have to back track him, and this fellow just might have some information I can use."

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Sarah's house was full of women.

Sarah's parlor was full of women-talk and women-purpose, and Sarah's women were filled with advice for the new mother, and her table was stacked with gifts for the new mother and infant: young Daffyd yawned prodigiously and cuddled with whoever held him, for he was fed, changed, burped, clean and dry and wrapped in flannel: when the maid opened the door and the Sheriff stepped across the threshold, he had no more than given his Stetson over to the maid than the child was thrust into his arms.

The ladies laughed as the tall, slender, pale-eyed lawman's expression softened, and he regarded this sleepy lad's face: he frowned a little, then looked at Sarah.

"He does not look a thing like his father," he said flatly, and silence seized the assembled: the ladies looked at one another, aghast that the man may make a suggestion that would bring scandal upon the house.

The Sheriff held little Daffyd up, turned him so the lad's pink-cheeked face could be seen.

"No mustache."

Sarah laughed and the ladies relaxed, and a set of strong, feminine hands relieved the Sheriff of the diminutive burden: Bonnie McKenna, Sarah's mother, held the child with the ease of much experience and pretended to glare at the Sheriff.

"You may beat me at your leisure," the Sheriff said quietly, "but at the moment I must borrow your daughter."

Bonnie's mouth fell open and she began to protest, but the Sheriff was already crossing the room: Sarah rose to meet him, and her Papa gravely took her extended hand and drew her knuckles to his lips.

"I need your help," he said quietly.

Sarah's eyes were pale, the legacy of her Papa's genes, and pale eyes looked steadily into pale eyes as she replied, "Name it."

Twenty minutes later, with a half dozen delicate little tea sandwiches and two sizable mugs of coffee behind his belt buckle, the Sheriff rode back toward Firelands, Sarah's letter in his pocket.

Halfway home he stopped and swore and turned Cannonball around.

"I didn't forget about Sarah's gift," he said aloud, and Cannonball's ears swung around to hear his voice. "I didn't forget it ... I just now remembered it."

Cannonball picked up her pace, hooves loud on the packed earth.

 

"Jacob."

"Yes, sir."

"Jacob, take this letter to Denver and give it into the hands of the detective."

Jacob looked at the envelope, turned it over, nodded at the wax seal, turned it back and read the name.

"Yes, sir."

"That letter is from Sarah. She knows the Detective and he owes her. She broke two important cases for them while she worked as an agent of the Court."

"I remember, sir. She saved the City a scandal and I believe she saved the Detective's life."

"Saved it twice, if I recall rightly."

"Yes, sir."

"That envelope contains one of the Daine boy's sketches, a letter from Sarah, and a letter from me. Find out what he knows about Craig and Frasier both."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll send inquiries to Virginia. Something is going on and I don't like it."

"Yes, sir."

"Jacob?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Annette. She is well?"

"She is, sir." The Sheriff's son grinned at the memory. "When I left, she was holding one child and herding the others."

"Have you replaced your maid?"

"No, sir, not yet."

"Talk to Daisy. She'll know who to recommend."

"Thank you, sir. Annette can certainly use the help."

The Sheriff waited until his son, the chief deputy, departed before he sat down and ran strong, slender fingers through his iron-grey hair.

He was a man who did not like mysteries, a man who had no use for surprises, but accepted both as facets of his profession.

He accepted them, he worked with them, but he didn't have to like them.

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Cannonball grazed a few yards from me.

I stood with my hat in my hand, looking at the single red rose on Esther's grave.

I do not know how, but she'd left a rose beside my bed, and I saw the single red rose in the long neck vase beside Sarah, and I knew she'd left one there too.

I do not pretend to know how these things happen.

I stood and stared at Esther's stone, our stone, the polished quartz with both our names on it, I stood with my hat in my hands and I stood while snow fell, light feathery flakes that settled on my shoulders and on my hair and on Cannonball and on the empty saddle.

I felt more than heard Angela come up beside me.

She had my gift of stealth -- how, I don't know, I pulled her out of the train wreck years ago, an orphan and alone in the world, and took her as my daughter: we looked a little alike, I reckon, at least we both have two eyes and two arms and two legs, but beyond that she's a sight prettier than I ever was.

She inherited Esther's wisdom.

I knew this when she finally took my hand, her little hand warm in mine, and she said softly, "Daddy, she's not there."

She looked up at me and I looked down at her and I went down to her level, slowly, until I knelt in the snow, holding both her hands.

I could see tears in her eyes as she said, "Daddy, she's not there. She left a long time ago."

I nodded, but could not speak: I remembered the fell morning when we buried her, a morning like this, with snow and with cold and feeling utterly, completely, absolutely alone, more alone than I'd ever been.

A tear ran down her cheek, chased by another, and her bottom lip quivered.

"I miss her too, Daddy," she whispered, "but she gave me something."

Angela pulled open her coat a little and brought out a single red rose, perfect, flawless, fragrant.

I knelt in the snow and crushed my little girl to me and she hugged me with the desperation of a lost child and she whispered "I miss her, Daddy," and her voice choked a little, and I did not trust my voice so I whispered too, and I felt my own tears cascade out of my tight-shut eyes.

"I miss her too, Princess. I miss her too."

My hat lay in the snow, forgotten; cold, feathery fingers caressed the back of my neck, and I did not care.

Angela squirmed a little and pulled away, just enough to look at me.

"Daddy," she whispered, "what was it like when you died?"

I blinked, surprised, then I swallowed hard and looked over at the gravestone.

Snow lay on the stone, but not a single flake on the rose.

I looked back.

"I'd been shot," I said. "I was dying.

"Jacob was screaming. I could hear him but his voice was distant, faint ..."
I closed my eyes, seeing myself laying on the dirt street, eyes open, my head thrown back, Jacob hauling me onto the edge of the boardwalk with his left hand, firing his Army Colt one-handed.

I saw Charlie Macneil step out of the door with a buffalo rifle and drive Sharps justice at the man who shot me, I saw Charlie reach down and grab my shirt collar, his hard-knuckled fist beside Jacob's, and they hauled me up over the edge and across the board walk and into the Sheriff's office.

"Your Mama ... Esther ..."

I hesitated.

"She and Daisy and Bonnie lived not far away. Someone ran to them and told Esther and she came riding in on Edi."

"I remember Edi," Angela said, nodding once, emphatically, the way she used to when she was just a little girl, and was pronouncing something correct.

"She rode in with a shotgun across her saddle and ready for war because she knew I was hurt."

"Did you look down and see yourself, Daddy?"

I nodded.

"Yes, Princess. I did."

"I saw myself too," Angela said quietly, her hand slipping out of mine and rising to caress my cheek.

"I saw you throw boards out of the way and I saw you pick up a bench and throw it off me, Daddy."

She took my face in both her hands and her young hazel eyes stared into my own.

"I saw you pick me up, Daddy, and I saw you throw back your head and you yelled 'NOOOOO!' just as loud as you could."

I nodded, hugging her to me again.

"I saw you take me away from there, Daddy, and my Mama touched me and said I must go back into myself and I would be your little girl."

I nodded, knowing that, again, there were mysteries in this world I might not understand, but I had to accept.

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I never sheltered my children from the realities of this life.

Angela helped me kill and butcher, she hunted with me and she was quite a good shot.

On the one hand she could shiver a little with excitement when we made a stalk and lay in a thicket, side by side, hidden by brush and by stillness as a pregnant cow elk grazed not twenty feet from us, and I looked over, moving only my eyes, to see the delight and fascination on my little girl's face a she watched new life in the elk's belly thump and push from the inside.

Angela was with me when we pulled calves and when our mares foaled, and Angela bit her lip and clutched her hands together to keep from screaming and jumping up and down with excitement when a new, wet, slimy colt made its first wobbly tries to stand upright.

Angela helped me slaughter chickens for the table and she helped me pick corn and she learned the tasks that a girl-child must learn, some of them with Bonnie, for I am a man without a wife, and daughters need a woman's guidance: she learned from Mary, the maid, but Bonnie was a seamstress, and Angela had a gift for working with cloth, and I remember when she came charging in the room and thrust a shirt at me, a shirt she'd made, and made for me.

Propriety be damned, on that day I stripped down to my belt and shrugged into that shirt and I'll be sawed off and damned if it didn't fit me, and fit me right.

For that reason, when we left the cemetery together, we went to my office: Angela sat down opposite my desk, looking very composed and very ladylike, for all that she was about nine years old, and I set down at my desk and studied those wanted dodgers again.

"Angela," I said out loud, "help me think."

Angela nodded, her eyes big and solemn.

"I've got a fellow who just got married. He went to Virginia with his new wife and they just buried a relative -- an uncle, I believe."

Angela nodded again.

"Not long afterward, a bank was robbed and when the robbers were caught, we found an envelope addressed to a criminal of my acquaintance."

Angela nodded again.

"The envelope came from the fellow who went to Virginia."

"Oh," Angela said in a small voice.

I leaned back in my chair, looked at the ceiling.

"I have to consider," I said slowly, "what the connection might be ... I have to think of every last reason Junior might have sent that letter, and then cross off all of 'em that don't fit."

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"What did the letter say?"

I smiled gently. "There was no letter, Princess. Just the envelope."

"Oh," Angela said, then her brows puzzled together. "Weeelllll ..."

Her little-girl voice trailed off and I could see her eyes following invisible trails on the floor.

She stood suddenly. "Daddy, if we don't know what the letter said, how do we know Mister Junior ... I mean he might not be a bad guy, maybe he knew the other guy and he was happy because he was married and he just wanted to tell him how happy he was maybe!"

Angela's words tumbled over one another and she bounced a little on her toes as she spoke; her anxious expression showed she was trying hard to come up with The Right Answer.

I nodded slowly.

"Yes, that is possible," I admitted. "Junior might have had nothing to do with it. Still ..." I smiled gently at her. "I need to find out."

"How, Daddy?" Angela's head tilted a little to the side, curious.

"I sent a telegram not long ago. If he does not reply I will be more inclined to think he is guilty of something."

"Oh." Angela considered this.

"Now if Junior and his bride were to come a-wheelin' in here and we could ask him," I said, stacking the wanted posters and placing them on the far edge of my desk, "why, we could find out some more."

Angela nodded solemnly.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, is Mister Junior a bad guy?"

I looked directly at my little girl.

"I don't know, Princess," I admitted. "I really hope he is not, but I have to find out."

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, why do you have to find out?"

I must have given her a puzzled look because she continued: "Daddy, you're here."

I thought about that, then nodded. "Yes, Princess, I am here ...?"

"Daddy, you said Mister Junior is in Virginia."

I nodded slowly. "I believe he is."

"Then can't the Virginia sheriff ask him?"

"That would be an idea," I admitted, "but I'd have to send an awful long telegram to let the Virginia sheriff know what was going on, so he'd know what questions to ask."

"And telegrrrams are expensive," Angela said thoughtfully, frowning a little, then she spread her hands.

"I dunno, Daddy. I'm just a little girl." Her expression was distressed, and I laughed, and I picked her up and hugged her into me and laughed some more.

"You," I whispered into her ear, and she giggled as my handlebar tickled her ear, "are my very own Princess, and I am very pleased with that!"

Angela giggled and hugged me back.

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We didn’t expect to find Sheriff Keller in the middle of a stream not far from Firelands, but at least we knew we had found the right place. After helping him out of the water, we went with him to his house. His maid didn’t take long to invite us in and feed us breakfast, one of the best meals I’d had in a long time. Whatever he was paying the woman, it was not enough. She sure had that household under control, no doubt about that! I did feel rather guilty when she whispered to me and Cheyenne that it was his youngest daughter’s birthday, as well as the anniversary of his wife’s death. I felt we were intruding, but then again we hadn’t had any idea that this day was significant, and we did have good reason to be there.

 

All the same, it didn’t feel right to take up any more of his time that day than necessary. After we couldn’t possibly eat any more, we accompanied the Sheriff to his office to go through some of the wanted posters he had. We had hardly started looking at them when the office door banged open and the office was filled with grinning, slightly inebriated men, one of whom thrust a jug of whatever they had been drinking towards the sheriff. “I have a son!” he exclaimed, and Sheriff Keller then introduced him to us as Sarah’s husband. I knew Sarah had been pregnant when she helped rescue our children, but I’d lost track of when she was due. We didn’t hesitate to join in the celebration, but when the men decided to move to a nearby saloon to continue, Cheyenne and I excused ourselves.

 

At my request we found the town’s telegraph station, and I quickly sent a message back to the ranch. I had a small stash of baby quilts that I had made, and I requested that Laura arrange to have one of my favorites sent to Firelands immediately as a gift to Sarah’s new son. That was the least I could do after all she had done for us. I thought about paying her a visit, but we had been invited to dinner at the Sheriff’s house to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, and I thought I would wait and see if Sarah felt up to attending as well. If she did, then we could see the baby then, no sense disturbing her until then, she probably needed to rest anyway. In the meantime, Cheyenne suggested taking a ride so we could talk some more about Junior and what trouble he could possibly have gotten into this time.

 

We rode until we came to a beautiful meadow, with a little stream running through it. There was one spot in the stream that seemed a little deeper than the rest, and of course Cheyenne’s first thought was of taking a dip. I almost had to laugh at the disappointed look on his face when I shook my head no, but he had to be crazy….it had started snowing and I wasn’t about to get into that cold water in this weather! No, we’d have to wait until we could find a nice warm tub somewhere, but first things first….we needed to think about Junior. We hadn’t heard from him or Velvet since they left, and that didn’t help matters, we didn’t even know if they were still in Virginia. We hadn’t heard from Biblepuncher and Cora either, and that was disappointing, we could sure use the preacher’s advice now.

 

Cheyenne started saying something, but he sounded so far away that I couldn’t understand a word. That was strange considering he was right beside me, but my mind was somewhere else. I knew my body was still in that meadow, but all my eyes could see was the Virginia countryside, how I knew that was a mystery as I had never been there, but I knew in my heart that that’s what I was seeing. I was looking down from a considerable height, seeing Junior walking through a wooded area, and he seemed to be looking for something. Just what I had no idea, but I could tell he was carrying a piece of paper that he kept referring to, and a shovel. What was he up to THIS time? Before I could figure it out, I felt Cheyenne’s hand on my arm, kind of shaking me.

 

“Hey, did you even hear what I said? You don’t seem to be paying attention. Are you ok?” he asked, but I wasn’t sure what to tell him. How could I possibly have any idea what Junior was doing if he was clear the other side of the country? I didn’t want to say anything for fear Cheyenne would think I was out of my mind, but I had to admit that I hadn’t heard him, and needed him to repeat it. “I said, I was thinking of going to Virginia to look for Junior, but first I want to try and get ahold of Biblepuncher. I think I might know where he and Cora could be, I’ll send a couple of telegrams and see if I can track him down. I was also hoping to convince either Sheriff Keller or his son to go with me if one of them is willing. As much as I hate being away from you, if you aren’t feeling well maybe you should go back to the ranch……the babies need you anyway.”

 

I could feel my eyes flashing, there was nothing wrong with me!! How could he even suggest me staying behind….or was that not such a bad idea? I did miss the twins and Ruth terribly, as well as the older kids, but all the same I didn’t like the idea of him going to Virginia without me. I told him I had to think about it, but maybe…just maybe, there was still a chance we could all go….

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His Honor looked up from a stack of papers.

He had an open record book on his right, a couple extra pens on his left and a cigar between his teeth: his eyes tightened at the corners as he saw the Sheriff come into his courtroom.

He set the cigar aside, spit at the goboon and frowned at the result.

The Sheriff waited until the man wiped his bottom lip and tucked his linen kerchief back into his sleeve.

"Well, Granddad," His Honor teased, merriment in his dark eyes, "how does it feel to have yet another of your get drawing breath?"

The Sheriff laughed, looking down and turning a little red in the ears.

"Sheriff, do you remember when Jacob called you Grampa for the first time?"

The Sheriff looked up and laughed. "Yes, Your Honor," he chuckled. "I do for a fact."

"So do I!" the Judge declared. "You said 'I ain't no Grampa!' but soon as he put that little one in your arms you looked up and said 'Okay, I'm Grampa.'"

The Sheriff laughed again. "I recall, Your Honor."

"Don't feel bad, Sheriff, I did much the same thing myself." He took a thoughtfull draw on his hand rolled Cuban, regarding the lean waisted lawman with a critical eye.

Silence grew long in the empty courtroom.

"Well," His Honor finally said, "out with it, man. You're not here just to watch me incinerate another cigar."

The Sheriff's expression never changed, but something did: his eyes, perhaps.

Whatever the change, the man was no longer soft or thoughtful.

"Your Honor," he said, "I need authorization to operate outside the county."

His Honor nodded.

"I could petition the Governor for Marshal's credentials but that will take time, and time I don't have."

His Honor thought of a bronze badge in his carpet bag, not three feet from his elastic sided townie shoe.

"Whither away, Captain?"

"Not me," the Sheriff said quietly. "Jacob."

HIs Honor raised an eyebrow, nodded.

"I do not know where-all, Your Honor. An initial destination leads to a second, and a third. I do not know how far his services will be needed."

"I see."

His Honor reached down, hooked the carpet bag in a hard hand, swung it up to his desk top. It was not buckled; he jerked it wide open, frowned into its shadowed interior, reached in and drew out a sheaf of papers.

"Hmm," he grunted, riffling through the stack: another grunt, rather questioning, then a satisfied "Mm-hmm!" and he reached for his pen.

He dipped the pen in the open inkwell, wiped off the excess, wrote a few words, moved the paper, wrote a few more.

"I learned long ago," he said absently, "if I have routine correspondence, it saves me a great deal of time if I have the usual information printed ahead of time."

The Sheriff offered no comment: he, too, had a dislike of paper work, something he learned to detest during his time as a cavalry officer.

"There now." His Honor floated a blotting paper over the form, picked up the rocker, rolled it briskly, once, over the paper; carefully, expertly, he peeled it free, moved it, rocked it firmly again.

"Here you go, Sheriff. He'll need this as well."

His Honor pulled out a polished, walnut box, about as big across as a man's palm is wide.

The Sheriff accepted both the form and the box.

He ran an assessing eye over the commission, freshly signed by His Honor, declaring Jacob to be an Agent of the Firelands District Court, and so granting him authorization as a lawman wherever he may need to travel on Court business.

They both knew that any violation of the law could fall under the Court's purview, in one form or another: authority was elastic, and this was not entirely legal, but it was close enough to satisfy the old jurist, and it was enough for the Sheriff.

The Sheriff opened the walnut box, looked inside, nodded, closed the box.

"That's one of the only two I ever had made," His Honor said quietly.

The Sheriff nodded. "Thank you, Your Honor," he said quietly, and turned to leave.

"Sheriff?"

The long tall lawman stopped, turned.

"Tell him to be careful," His Honor said quietly. "I prefer a universe with him in it."

"Yes, Your Honor."

 

The Bear Killer lay on his side in Sarah's bedroom.

The Tibetan mountain dog snored quietly, paws twitching at random moments.

The blanket wrapped bundle was against his belly; one great foreleg was over it, protectively, and one little pink arm was worked out of the blanket and clutched into the thick, curly fur.

Sarah thought it wise to acquaint the two early, and The Bear Killer immediately gave little Daffyd a sniff and a lick, and Daffyd squealed with delight and reached an uncertain wide-spread hand for the great dog's black, cold, wet nose: Sarah had the feeling The Bear Killer would be a watchful guardian and protector, and it turns out she was right -- but that is a tale for another time.

Sarah walked slowly out her front door, taking a long, savoring breath, paced across the way to the barn and the white-board-fenced corral.

Snowflake clumped over to greet her, and Sarah fed her a twist of molasses-cured tobacker, the way she always did, and then she froze, her eyes wide, as a miniature version of her Frisian mare peered around from behind the protective bulk of its shining-black dam.

Sarah gave a little squeak of delight.

All thoughts of propriety were cast aside, she disregarded entirely that she was a wife, a mother, a matron: suddenly she was a little girl again, climbing the board fence and swinging down the other side, almost falling as she landed, laughing as the long-legged Frisian colt shied from her and hobby-horsed awkwardly away from her, stopping to look back, half-fearful and half-curious.

Snowflake stopped, snuffing loudly at Sarah's arm, and Sarah caressed the great mare's long nose: she leaned her head against Snowflake's neck, tears stinging her eyes.

"He's lovely, Snowflake," she whispered. "He's beautiful!"

The little stallion colt snorted, ears swinging back, then forward again, as he puzzled at this strange creature to which his mother showed no fear at all.

 

High on the mountain, deep in a cave, four wolf cubs nursed, happily grunting and pushing at their dam's swollen dugs.

One of the three was as flawless a white as she who bore it.

It had been the first out, it was the biggest and the strongest of the four, but its mother showed no favorites when it came to keeping them clean and tended.

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Craig opened his eyes.

He did not see the stamped tin ceiling he saw last ... where?

He blinked, remembering.

He'd been in ... a hospital?

He remembered that stern looking sawbones bent over him, helping him drink something vile, something that hit him like high powered corn squeezins only worse.

"Good morning," he heard a voice say, and if he'd been standing, his heart would have let go and kind of slid down his belly and down leg right into his boot.

Craig turned his eyes, then cautiously, very carefully, turned his head.

The Sheriff sat on a chair, knife in one hand, apple in the other.

"Hungry?"

Craig worked his face a little, testing whether his teeth were still anchored.

He heard the knife whisper through the apple's firm flesh.

"Try a slice. Might be easier than a bite."

Craig decided he could move, at least a little, and not fall apart.

He slid an arm out from under the covers, reached for the slice the Sheriff held out.

It tasted of fall, of sweet sunny days and clover blossoms, of lying under a tree barefoot when he was a boy.

He chewed slowly, savoring the taste, swallowed.

"You're wondering why you're here," the Sheriff said quietly, "and not in the hoosegow."

Craig looked at the man as if his host had a third eye, or maybe a fish sticking out of his vest pocket.

"Reckon so," he finally said, filling the long silence with his own voice.

"You came to town lookin' for me."

The Sheriff handed him another slice of apple.

Cautiously, slowly, Craig took it, brought it to his mouth, bit off half, listening.

"I found you first."

Craig chewed, thought.

"Where am I?"

The Sheriff sliced off more apple, thrust the slice into his own mouth.

"You're in my house." The Sheriff's cheek pouched out a little, reminding Craig of a slightly lopsided chipmunk, at least for a moment.

"Your house," he said, not trying to disguise the surprise in his voice. "Why?"

"You wanted to see which of us is faster."

"I got no gun."

"It's hangin' on the bed post."

Craig's eyes widened; he grimaced as he worked his way up onto his elbows, tilted his head and cranked it around far enough to see his gunbelt was indeed hanging on the end of the head board.

"It's loaded, if that's what you're wonderin'."

He handed Craig another slice of apple.

"You've been dosed up with Doc's juice long enough to let your bones start to knit," the Sheriff said, his voice still quiet. "I would not try anything vigorous for a while. Don't even blow your nose hard."

Craig put cautious fingers to his proboscis, flinched away from his own touch.

"Yeah," he agreed.

There was a knock on the door, a squeak as it opened: Angela whirled in, all curls and ruffles and flaring skirt, and the Sheriff spun the knife in his fingers, laying the blade back along his forearm, out of harm's way: Angela looked with honest surprise at the stranger, then at her Daddy, then she looked at Craig again and said "Hello, I'm Angela!"

The Sheriff chuckled and put his arm around his daughter's waist. "This is my little girl," he agreed, and Craig saw the man's face soften, the ice-pale eyes darken a shade, and he rightly suspected few men got to see that.

"Pleasure," he blurted, nodding once.

Angela tilted her head a little, curious, and offered, "I killed a bad man once," and the Sheriff spoke up and said "Princess, would you go see when Mary would like us ready for supper?"

Angela smiled, for all the world sunrise caught under a head of curly brown hair, and replied, "Okay, Daddy!" -- then to the stranger, "Bye!" and she skipped back out the door.

Craig looked at the door as it shut, then asked, "She killed a bad man once?"

The Sheriff laughed, nodded.

"We were out back -- there's a long meadow back there, good pasture -- some fellow decided he wanted to take a shot at me and I didn't much like the idea, but my horse was givin' me trouble and I couldn't bring a gun to bear.

"Angela was with us and she raised back her arm" -- he brought his own back, illustrating as he described -- "she slung it forward with her finger stuck out like she was launching a rock out of her fingertip, and damn if lightning didn't come down and nail him! Blowed him to pieces!" He chuckled, shaking his head. "Sometimes a thing'll happen that looks for all the world like it was planned. 'Twas fixin' to storm and the clouds were low and dark, but when lightning hit that feller and the concussion hit us, Angela stood there with her eyes big as boiled eggs an' she said in that scared little girl's voice, 'Did I do that?'" -- Craig could not help but smile at the Sheriff's imitation of a child's small voice -- "ever since, she's been afraid to try it again, for fear she'll kill someone else."

Craig nodded again, accepted the last slice of apple.

"Craig, you're my guest. Reckon I could hang you for attempted murder, just comin' out here like you did, but I'd like to know who's faster my own self."

He wiped the blade on his pants leg, eased it back into its belt sheath, behind his left hand Colt.

"You get healed up and we'll find out, what say?"

The brisk patter of feet on the stairs and a quick tattoo of little-girl knuckles on the door interrupted any reply, and lawman and outlaw both smiled a little as Angela called through the closed door, "Mary says if you don't get down there and start eatin' she's going to throw it to the hogs!" -- the Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners, the way they did when something amused him, and Craig saw the man's teeth grin under his iron grey mustache as the Sheriff's little girl added, "Daddy, we gonna get some hoggies?"

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Jacob was no stranger to traveling far, fast and light.

His wants were few; he traveled with the contents of his saddlebags and his blanket roll, a brace of pistols and a rifle and his knives.

The bronze shield that identified him as an Agent of the Firelands District Court rode in a small pocket inside his belt, out of sight.

His Apple-horse scented the wind and picked up his steady pace, and Jacob steered their course for his father's house.

Very likely Mary would try to fill them to capacity with her excellent provender before their departure.

Jacob hoped so.

Annette, his wife, was an excellent cook, but Mary was just a shade better, and Jacob rejoiced that he was wise enough never, ever to say as much, or even imply as much, to his lovely bride.

 

Sarah rocked slowly, gently, and the maid carefully tucked the blanket around her.

She knew the demands of a young mother deprived her mistress of a good night's rest since little Daffyd came into the world, for all that he was born outdoors -- shocking! she thought, birthing like a savage, outdoors -- like a pagan, at sunrise! -- but carefully kept the thought from her expression, for she had a good position, and she wished to do nothing to jeopardize it.

"Not a pagan," Sarah murmured drowsily, not opening her eyes, and the maid froze, the color draining from her face.

"All things are an omen, and prophecy can be heard in the wind."

The maid's eyes were wide, frightened, and she backed up a few steps until her calves collided with the edge of a chair and she fell heavily to keep from going over backwards, landing seated, still staring at her drowsing employer.

 

Craig stared at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff was not troubled by the study: he was too busy doing full justice to an excellent breakfast.

Angela looked around, as she usually did, her eyes wide and wondering, and she regarded Craig with an innocent expression as she chewed pancakes and drank milk.

Craig jumped, startled, as the maid slid two pairs of fried eggs onto his warmed plate: he hadn't seen her approach -- a potentially deadly lapse, at least for a man who wanted to be known as a gunslinger.

Most of a dozen slices of bacon followed the eggs and the maid said, "There's more if ye want it, an' from th' look o'ye, ye'll need it!" -- at which point she grabbed Craig's upper arm and squeezed it, as if she were sizing up a beef cow for meat content.

The Sheriff tore his bread in half, dabbed it in egg yolk. "Best listen to her, Craig," he advised, taking a bite.

Angela forked another square of flapjack into her mouth, but offered no comment.

Craig nodded, reached for his coffee, left handed.

He did not miss the Sheriff's nod of approval.

Angela swallowed, her face brightening into a delighted smile, right before she joyfully squealed, "Jacob!" and bailed off her chair, half-falling as she landed, scrambling a few steps before regaining her balance and launching down the hallway like a curly haired missile.

Jacob squatted quickly, arms wide, and the impact of Angela's young body against his lean frame was plainly audible, as was his grunt, followed by the sound of his falling backward with a grunt.

"Angela," the Sheriff called, "quit beatin' up on your older brother!"

He looked at Craig, raised an eyebrow.

"Kids," he grunted, shaking his head and picking up his coffee cup.

"And it's about time!" the maid declared sharply, leaning a little to look down the hall. "And when ye're done maulin' yer helpless little sister, ye'll get in here an' have somethin' t' eat! Ye're entirely too skinny, just like yer father!"

Jacob stood, Angela clinging to him like a tick, and Jacob ran an arm under her backside so she would not have to keep a death grip around his neck.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, and carried Angela back to her chair.

"Might as well have a set," the Sheriff invited, nodding to one of the empty chairs. "Likely Cheyenne'll be along right here directly."

"Yes, sir," Jacob replied.

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Craig choked and coughed, snatching up a linen napkin to keep from scattering fragments across the table.

The maid swatted him briskly between the shoulder blades with the flat of her hand.

Eyes watering, Craig coughed again, harrumphed, swallowed.

"Here," the maid snapped, picking up his coffee cup and handing it to him. "Take a drink, 'twill calm ye down."

Craig took a hesitant sip, swallowed, took another, then set the mug down, harrumphing again and blinking back tears.

Two sets of pale eyes regarded him as he looked sidelong at the Sheriff and asked, "Cheyenne?"

The Sheriff nodded.

"Cheyenne ... Culpepper?"

Again the slow, stone faced nod.

Craig's eyes widened and he grew just a shade pale.

Slowly, like a man in a dream, he reached for a strip of bacon, stopped as he picked it up, studied the strip with interest.

The strip of bacon shook like a streetwalker at a tent revival, and he realized the bacon wasn't the only thing quaking.

He set it down untasted and swallowed a dry throat.

"Culpepper," he whispered.

"Who were you expecting?" Jacob asked, his voice dry and sounding remarkably like his father.

Craig looked at him with wide and fearful eyes.

"Macneil," he whispered.

Jacob and the Sheriff looked at one another; each man raised a tented eyebrow, then they both looked at Craig.

Jacob spoke first.

"Craig, I presume."

"He is," the Sheriff replied.

"Kind of surprised to see him here."

"Thought you might be."

"Wonder what he's got on Culpepper."

"I reckon it's what Culpepper's got on him."

Jacob nodded, then spoke to Craig.

"If you'd like to meet Macneil," he said conversationally, "I can arrange it easy enough."

Craig choked on his breakfast a second time.

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"Somethin' don't agree with ye?" Jacob asked, his eyes half-lidded, drowsy.

Angela chewed on another bite of flapjack, watching with wide, interested eyes.

She knew that when her big brother Jacob looked sleepy like a cat, he was ready to be very, very quick, and when he drawled like an uneducated illiterate, he was not terribly happy.

Craig shivered as if struck with a sudden chill.

"I think you didn't realize there were two of us," Jacob continued. "Two Pale Eyes. You thought there was only one."

Craig looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

"Now suppose you tell us why Culpepper makes you a little less than perfectly comfortable."

Craig looked not just uncomfortable, but half sick.

"Might that have somethin' to do with Junior?" Jacob pressed, an edge to his voice.

Craig shot a sharp look at the slender young lawman, then looked away, guilt plain on his face.

"Sir, why is he even here?" Jacob asked quietly. "I could give his neck a good stretchin' just on general principles."

"Not yet," the Sheriff said easily, shaking his head and reaching for his coffee. "I brought him here on a ..."

The Sheriff smiled a little, looked at Jacob, and Jacob saw something in his father's eyes he didn't often see.

"Jacob, Craig here came to town to see who was faster, me or him. I brought him out here to heal up so we can find out."

"You healed yet?" Jacob asked, hostility in his voice.

"Give him time, Jacob," the Sheriff smiled. "He is my guest. We will discover in due time which of us is faster."

"Yes, sir." Jacob accepted the wrapped bundle from the maid, thanked her politely, then returned his attention to his father.

"I am packed up and ready, sir. I have His Honor's commission and I have the shield."

Craig's eyes bulged and his jaw dropped as Jacob turned over his lapel to display the bronze shield.

"No," Craig whispered hoarsely.

"Oh, yes," Jacob smiled, reminding Angela of a big mean doggie with nasty long teeth and his furries marching in a ridge right down his backbone.

"No, no, no," Craig muttered, shaking his head. "No --"

"You saw one of these before," Jacob said. "You saw it on the other Agent."

Craig swallowed hard, looked away again.

"You were not expecting Culpepper, you were not expecting two Pale Eyes, you were not expecting to see another one of these." Jacob shook his head briefly, just a twitch to the side: "You met the Black Agent."

"That one," Craig whispered hoarsely. "I seen him, I did." He looked back at Jacob, his eyes haunted. "I seen him knife two men quick as a snake, left-right, just walkin' down the street he was, an' them two was a-lookin' for him an' didn't see him come right up on 'em!"

Jacob nodded solemnly.

"That black agent is the devil, I tell you! The devil! Them two didn't see him a-walkin' down the boardwalk just plain as day, they didn't see 'im til he had his knife in 'em --"

"Really?" Jacob's tone was skeptical, which was just the right thing to keep Craig talking.

"They was a-lookin' for that black agent, they knowed he was after them both an' they was ready to kill 'im and --"

He shivered again and his voice ground to a halt.

"You will be pleased to know," Jacob drawled, "the Black Agent is alive and well, and teaching my little boy how to throw a knife."

"Oh dear God!" Craig whispered.

"Now what's this about your finding out who is faster?"

Craig sagged in his chair, weighted by the sudden feeling that he was sliding downhill toward utter disaster, and not one thing he could do about it.

"Now just out of curiosity," Jacob pressed, leaning forward, glaring, "what can you tell me about Junior?"

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Sarah purred as her husband massaged her shoulders.

Ron Llewellyn's strong fingers knew just how to caress and knead the deep muscle tissue, hidden beneath her fashionable gown's fabric, and Sarah groaned with pleasure as she lay face-down across the bed and her Welsh husband's fingers worked their magic down her back ribs.

"Ohhh," she mumbled into the quilt, "you have no idea how good that feels!"

"I know how good it feels when you rub my back," Ron whispered, spreading his hands wide and working his thumbs methodically, slowly, up her spine.

Sarah raised her head and gave a quiet "Aaahhh!" of satisfaction.

Ron looked up and smiled at the crib, and the pink-cheeked lad swaddled therein: little Daffyd Llewellyn, their son, fed and changed, warm and dry and clean, slept with pink fists drawn up to ear level, his head turned to one side, a Botticelli in white flannel.

"Mrs. Llewellyn," Daffyd whispered, "have I told you lately that you are a beautiful woman?"

Sarah rolled over, her hair falling across her face: Daffyd brushed it gently aside and she smiled, "Tell me again."

 

His Honor worried the end of his freshly-ignited Havana, puffing fragrant blue clouds into the private car's atmosphere.

He'd just granted Deputy Keller a jurisdiction very little less than a US Marshal's.

He considered the last Agent to whom he'd granted such jurisdiction, and he smiled a little, just a little ...

The Black Agent, he thought.

Well, she wore black, anyway: drawers and boots, vest and hat, and she lived in shadows and mist.

Until she chose to wear something else.

He'd originally recruited Sarah McKenna -- she was not yet married when she raised her right hand and swore, and the Judge presented her with the polished hardwood box with blue velvet lining, and in a carved recess, a bronze shield, the first one he ever commissioned.

Sarah McKenna, as a girl, modeled her Mama's couture gowns, the now-famous McKenna gowns, for buyers in Denver: she became a quick-change artist, expert in changing her appearance with foundations and face paint, wigs and styles, to make herself appear very convincingly older, or equally convincingly, much younger.

As a ten-year-old she'd successfully passed as a grown woman, to the point that the son of a Spanish grandee went down on one knee and proposed to her -- only the timely intervention of the US Marshal warned the smitten young man off -- in another venue, Sarah successfully appeared to be much younger, and so managed to weasel a confession from a murderer, fortunately in earshot of her father, the Sheriff, who was hidden behind a curtain.

The Judge envisioned her role as that of ... well, as a spy, of someone young and intelligent, able to change her appearance as necessary, someone who could be invisible if need be, or look utterly harmless.

Well indeed did His Honor know that men like to talk, and they like to talk to a pretty girl, and men will say more than they intend to when the girl is young and pretty and giving her undivided, rapt attention.

He'd envisioned her role as that of a charmer, a listener, who found things out and discreetly informed law enforcement of her findings, then disappeared as the Powers of Good and Light descended, bringing Justice to the lawless.

His Honor had no way of knowing that young Sarah McKenna was hard and scarred inside, that she was already fast and deadly and a blooded warrior, that she carried a darkness and a wound from horrors that should never, ever be visited on the very young.

As a result, the pale eyed Sarah McKenna's methods were often as direct, as brutal, as effective, as those of her pale-eyed father, the Sheriff.

Now, though ... now, Sarah was married, and a mother, a respected young woman with a family ...

A child, His Honor marveled. My little Agent has a child! --- the dignified jurist shook his head and regretfully considered that his prize and marvelously effective Agent, she who dressed all in black and cracked safes, she who costumed as a dancing girl to gull her way into a murderer's confidence and then belt him unconscious with a shot-filled leather sap, she who was straight as a die and honest as the day is long, who discovered the hidden and found the lost, would very likely never again labor in the field of the Court's justice.

"Damn shame," he muttered, taking the cigar from between tobacco-stained teeth and spitting a fragment of tobacco leaf into the gleaming brass gobboon.

"Damn shame. She was useful."

He puffed the neglected cigar back into fuming life.

"She was useful, and she was damned effective!"

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"I know that look, sir."

The Sheriff looked at his son and smiled a little, trying to look innocent and having little if any success.

"You know something."

The Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners and Jacob saw the corners of his iron-grey handlebar lift a few tenths of an inch.

"Jacob, when did Junior leave on his honeymoon?"

Jacob blinked, surprised, his eyes going to the calendar.

"August, I believe, sir. August it was."

"He went where?"

"Virginia, sir."

"His purpose?"

"He was to bury a relative -- his uncle, I believe -- and it was his honeymoon."

"What is the month now?"

"December, sir."

"He isn't back yet."

"Not yet, sir."

"August until December. That's kind of a long honeymoon, wouldn't you think?"

"I would think so, sir."

Jacob considered his father's lengthy silence.

"He's on his way back, sir." It was a statement, not a question, and based entirely on the Sheriff's leading questions.

Craig was listening to the pair, trying to keep up, his discomfort was poorly cloaked: he tried a sip of coffee, another bite of buttered sourdough, but failed to hide his discomfiture.

The Sheriff looked squarely at Craig.

"It will take a while for those ribs to mend," he said conversationally, "and in the meantime I don't want you to strain them. Believe me, I know what busted ribs are like. We'll take our time about seeing who's faster."

"Thanks," Craig muttered.

"In the meantime, I wonder."

Craig's shoulders were hunched a little as he held the coffee cup in both hands, as if trying to hide behind it.

"I wonder what Junior will say about you when he gets here."

The Sheriff picked up his coffee, slurped it noisily, dashed the fragrant droplets from his handlebar, then wiped his foreknuckle on his pants leg. "Jacob, what time does the train come into station today?"

Jacob pulled out his pocket watch, pressed the knob, flipping the cover open: his wife's miniature portrait smiled at him from inside the cover, and the Sheriff saw Jacob's expression soften a little to see it.

"I believe the train arrives at 12:10 today, sir."

The Sheriff nodded. "We'll see if Mr. and Mrs. are on board. I believe I'd like to talk to them."

The Sheriff smiled quietly at Craig.

"How well do you know Junior?"

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I'd pressured Craig enough.

Lean on him, then back away and let him stew, I thought.

It's a trick I'd used before to good effect and I had every confidence it would work again.

I honestly had no idea when Junior and his bride would return, or if they would return, but the train's timetable is not a secret matter at all.

Sarah told me of a trick she saw one of those Denver detectives use.

He'd taken a sheet of card board and folded it in two, he had a stamp of some kind he loaded up with red ink and stamped EVIDENCE on the outside, then he grabbed a handful of papers -- didn't matter what kind -- stuffed 'em in that folded over sheet of cardboard and left it a-layin' on the table where they brought in a criminal to interrogate.

They would not let the bad guy look into the folder, they just left it where he could see it, and sometimes they would even leave the room, all the time this crook is staring at that big red EVIDENCE on the folder and wondering what was in there.

Many an otherwise close-mouthed man cracked under its implication, confessing to crimes where the constabulary actually had little evidence, or none at all.

I've never been above running a bluff and it's worked any number of times, both at the poker table and at the higher stakes game of getting the guilty to confess.

Jacob showed me a trick -- I'd never tried it, but it had my curiosity up, so I unloaded my left hand Colt and holstered the empty revolver.

I took one of Angela's little red balls, about the size of a hen's egg, and set it on the back of my left hand.

I held my hand level, then drew the left hand Colt and the ball hit the barrel on the draw and bounced across the room.

I retrieved the ball and tried again.

Barely caught it with the muzzle.

Third time I tried, I took a long breath and closed my eyes, picturing the draw, pictured clearing leather and dropping the ball into the empty holster.

This time when the hammer fell on the empty chamber, I looked into the holster and sure enough, there was Angela's red rubber ball.

I poked it up with a pencil from the muzzle end, far enough to reach in with two fingers and grab it, and did it a half dozen times more just to make sure the first try was no accident.

I banged it with the gun barrel twice but the other four times the ball dropped in the holster.

I switched to my right hand and made six out of six, first try.

I felt my eyes tighten at the corners, tighten with satisfaction as I nodded.

I'd have to think of some other tasks, just in case Craig was fast enough for this.

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I knew someone was watching.

I thought it was Angela.

It wasn't.

I'd just fished Angela's ball out of my left hand holster again and turned to offer it to her and saw Craig was leaning against a fence post, one arm up on the rail.

I stuck Angela's ball in my vest pocket and loaded my left hand Colt.

Craig never offered a word as I holstered and then loaded the right hand revolver.

He watched, chewing on his cheek, as I hunted around and found a fist sized clod.

I tossed the clod left handed, high and hard, drew my left hand Colt and the clod disappeared in a dusty cloud.

I reloaded the fired round, hunted around, found another clod and blew it to dust with the right hand Colt.

I replaced that fired round and walked over to the wood pile, picked up the ax and set a chunk on the splitting stump.

Craig was clearly troubled as he walked, slowly, thoughtfully, maybe painfully -- I know what busted ribs hurt like -- but he never said a word as I split the chunk up for kindling.

Once I was to the point that I set the ax aside and taken up the hatchet to splinter the wood down fine, he started to gather up the fines I split off.

He was moving slow and careful but he was making himself useful, as best he could.

We both looked up as a young fellow came up the road, his horse at a fast walk; he had the look of someone who's been in the saddle a good while, but his horse was in good shape as was his gear.

"Well now," I said, straightening and driving the hatchet into a handy chunk, "what have we here?" I looked at Craig and smiled a little. "Friend of yours?"

"Never saw him before," he admitted.

The young feller saw us and came over our way.

"Light and set," I greeted him. "How's your appetite?"

His face was young and cheerful, or had been; he looked tired, he looked like a man with something on his mind, and he dismounted gratefully, leading his horse over to the water trough.

Craig and I sauntered over to him as Mary came out on the back porch, Angela beside her: she looked around the corner, extended a hand, palm-up -- should I fix another plate? -- and I nodded, and she raised her hand, palm toward me, with a quick nod: she pulled back, and Angela leaned on the porch rail, arms crossed, laying her head down on her crossed arms, watching us.

I waited until our visitor watered his horse, loosened the cinch, checked his hooves, went over the tan gelding with hands and eyes and a gentle voice.

"You wouldn't be from Texas, now, would you?" I asked, and he turned his head, looked at me with a quick grin.

"No, sir," he replied courteously.

"I never saw a man take care of his horse that-a-way except a Texan."

"I'll take that as a complement, sir," he said, turning and thrusting out his hand. "Ralph Boll."

"Linn Keller, this here is Craig, he's staying with us for a bit. What brings you out this-a-way?"

"Wellsir," he said, shoving his head back and scratching at his curly brown scalp, "I could use some real good advice and someone in town said you're the man to ask."

I nodded solemnly. "I been everywhere, I know everything and I never made a mistake in my life," I deadpanned, "and if you believe that I'll tell you another one!"

The young man laughed and tension seemed to slip off his young shoulders. "You sound like my Pa," he chuckled, then sobered.

"Sir, I'm lookin' for a man --"

I held up a forestalling hand.

"I am a superstitious man," I said gently. "I think it's bad luck to discuss business on an empty stomach. What say we grab us a bite and then we'll talk."

"I'll take you up on that," he replied, "and thank you for it."

I tilted my head and pointedly regarded my visitor's slender waistline.

"You could use a good square meal," I nodded. "Was you to turn sideways in the full sun, why, you'd not throw a decent shadow!"

Ralph laughed again, shaking his head.

"Now if that don't beat all," he said softly. "My Mama used to tell me that!"

It was my turn to laugh. "My Mama did too," I admitted.

It wasn't long before Ralph was doing full justice to a full meal: Mary, bless her, can throw out a sizable spread with no advance notice, and she surely did: I think poor Ralph must have had two hollow legs.

Once he finally got his fill and Mary tempted him (successfully, I might add) with a good slab of chocolate cake and more coffee, we retired to my office and we all had a good comfortable set and a shot of brandy.

I offered him a cigar and he shook his head, smiling -- "My Pa used to smoke 'em, but I never took it up" -- then we proceeded to business.

"You said you were sent here," I began. "How can I help?"

Ralph rubbed his palms together slowly, meditatively, leaning his elbows on his knees as he hunched forward, frowning.

"Sir," he began, "I am out to kill a man."

Now that's not something you usually tell the Sheriff, I thought, as Craig looked at me, surprise on his face.

"Do tell," I said gently. "You must dislike him."

"I never met him," Ralph admitted.

"Ever kill anyone?"

"No, sir."

"Might I ... inquire ... why you intend to kill this fellow?"

Ralph straightened up, placed his hands on his knees, his feet flat on the floor, and looked directly at me.

"He killed my Pa," he said flatly, "and I figure to kill him."

I nodded. "How did it happen?"

"My Pa caught him a-cheat. He had a shiner ring and he was bottom dealin' and my Pa called him on it."

"What followed?"

"The cheat had a sleeve gun. He extended his arm and the Derringer run out into his grip and he shot Pa in the throat." He looked half sick as he described it. "It took Pa a week and a half to die. Doc said the bullet hit his spine and infected and that's what killed him."

"He died slow, then."

"Yes, sir."

"You watched your Pa die."

"Yes, sir."

"I reckon I'd ride the war path too," I admitted, "was someone to do that to my Pa."

"Yes, sir."

"How will you know this fellow?"
"He's a dandy, sir. Dresses real sharp, he has a red satin hat band and a red satin lined vest."

"A man can change clothes."

"He looked just like that fellow there."

Craig turned a little pale.

"You're sure."

The young man nodded.

"Craig?"

Craig opened his mouth, shook his head as he spread his hands, palms up.

I stood, reached into the roll top and withdrew a deck of cards.

I had a little table off to one side. I picked it up, carried it over to Craig, slapped that deck down on the table and rolled my office chair up to the table.

"Fetch up your chair, Mr. Boll," I said. "Craig, you deal. Five cards apiece. Shuffle and I will cut."

"Mr. Boll," I said, "when did this all happen?"

"My Pa died two days ago," he said. "I was told that gamblin' dandy was busy out this way."

Craig's hands were trembling as he tried to shuffle: he divided the deck, managed to spray half of it clear off the table and onto the floor.

"Craig, put your hands on the table," I said. "Turn 'em over. Palms up."

Craig did, pressing the backs of his hands down and arching his fingers back to touch the table top.

I leaned forward, looked closely at his hands.

"That gambler," I said, "was he right handed or left handed?"

"I ... don't know, sir."

"He wore a shiner ring."

"Yes, sir."

"Craig, you ever wear a ring?"

Craig swallowed something dry and sticky that was lumped up in his throat: he shook his head, unable to speak.

"I don't see any smooth place where a ring used to live," I said quietly. "Craig, what about your twin brother?"

"What twin brother?" Boll demanded.

"A man we buried last week. I'll show you what he looked like."

I walked over to my roll top desk, reached into a pigeon hole, pulled out a rolled up sheet of paper.

I walked back, sliding the ribbon tie off it, swiped the rest of the cards to the floor and unrolled the sheet on the table top.

I'd had one of the Daine boys sketch the dead man before we buried him, and my notations on the bottom of the sheet drew Boll's attention.

Smooth band right ring finger, I'd written, no ring on hand.

"I have his effects back at the office," I said. "If I recall rightly, there was a shiner ring."

Ralph Boll looked at me with mixed skepticism and suspicion. "Your office?"

I turned over my lapel to show the six point star I'd pinned under it.

"Sheriff Linn Keller, Firelands County, Colorado," I said formally. "Are you willing to swear this man is your father's murderer?"

Boll took a long breath, puffed out his cheeks as he blew out his breath.

"Revenge is never satisfying," I said quietly. "A Chinaman one time told me that a man who rides out for revenge should dig two graves before he leaves. I have avenged myself and it's hollow, it's empty. You never fill your loss with the death of the criminal. Take from a tired old lawman, son, there is no satisfaction at the end of the vengeance trail, just ... emptiness."

Boll sagged some in his chair, I reckon the tension, the stress of his intent to kill another man was weighing pretty seriously on his young shoulders.

"What'll I do," he said slowly, quietly, "now that I don't have to kill him?"

"Is your Mama still with us?"

He shook his head slowly.

"Do you still have ... where do you come from, son?"

"We've got a farm, back East."

"Good ground?"

"Yes, sir, good black river bottom. Grow a hell of a corn crop."

"If you would take some advice from an old man," I offered, "was I you, I would raise a tall crop of corn and fine tall sons with it."

Ralph Boll looked at me, then cleared his throat.

"I think," he said, "I will take your advice, sir." He chuckled, looked away, looked back. "It's just as well, sir, I didn't dig those two graves before I left home."

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When we got back to town we went straight to Sheriff Keller’s house. He was there with a “houseguest” named Craig, who the Sheriff told us might know something about Junior. The man looked a little familiar, but it was still strange to see the fear in his eyes when he saw Cheyenne, especially since I didn’t think we had ever met him. Keller led us into his study where he told us that he had a plan to see if he could get any information out of Craig. In the meantime we were welcome to stay with him or he would arrange for us to stay in the best suite at the Firelands Hotel.

 

“Appreciate the offer of your hospitality Sheriff, but I think for tonight it might be better for us to stay at the hotel. I intend for us to be on the road before dawn tomorrow morning, and I don’t want you or Mary to feel like you have to be up early to give us a proper send off. I’ll be in touch with you and Jacob soon regarding Junior, but it’s almost Christmas, and if we’re going to make it back to our ranch in time to spend the day with our children we better head home in the morning,” Cheyenne told him.

 

Keller nodded, the man certainly understood the concept of family. We could hear the laughter of his younger daughters coming from elsewhere in the house, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth when he heard the sound. Scribbling a quick note for us to give to the hotel manager, he sent us on our way with a sincere “Safe travels, I’ll be in touch.” We spent a quiet but rather sleepless night in the best rooms the hotel had to offer, Cheyenne hadn’t been in the mood to go right to sleep, plus I was back to having disturbing dreams that I didn’t understand. This time the dreams were of a blinding snowstorm, with dark shapes moving through it. I couldn’t tell who or even what the shapes were, but I awoke with an overwhelming feeling that the shapes had been us. There had been more than two though, just who were the others?

 

We were about 10 miles from Firelands when the sun rose over the foothills to the east of us. We wouldn’t be able to make it all the way home in one day, so we headed north towards a place Cheyenne said would make a good place to spend the night. He was more familiar with the mountains around here than I was, so I just followed his lead. The hotel manager had arranged for a package to be prepared for us with enough food for the trip, so we didn’t have to worry about finding something to hunt. We made good time, but later in the day clouds started moving in to the west and Cheyenne insisted that we increase our pace if we were going to make it to the cave he was heading for before the storm hit. I didn’t argue with him, I was getting tired and so was Rascal, the trail through the mountains wasn’t easy on either of us.

 

The temperature was dropping quickly when we finally drew close to the cave that Cheyenne had planned for us to stay in overnight. Next thing I knew Cheyenne had raised his hand to signal me to stop….someone else had beat us to it. There was a small fire burning right outside the mouth of the cave, under a small overhang above the opening. Two horses were tied to a nearby tree, the animals standing between some trees and the rock wall beyond them to stay out of the ever increasing wind. At first I worried that we would have to find somewhere else to stop, then I noticed that Cheyenne was staring intently at the horses. I took a closer look and relaxed, I recognized those horses now too. “Lone Wolf…Eddie….it’s Cheyenne and Calico….we’re coming in,” Cheyenne called out. Lone Wolf appeared in the opening and waved at us, I think he was as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

 

We put our horses with the others, and ducked inside the cave opening. Eddie was sitting cross-legged against the back wall, and barely looked up when we approached. Lone Wolf didn’t seem to notice, and started telling us that they were heading back to the ranch, that he’d convinced Eddie not to stay away from his young wife any longer. It wasn’t until we were done eating that Eddie finally spoke up, “We’ll be lucky to make it, that storm is going to make it rough going.” That’s all he said, then he went back to his meditating. Cheyenne, Lone Wolf, and I just looked at each other, then Cheyenne shrugged. “We have no choice, we have to make it back to the ranch in time for Christmas.” I agreed, I missed my kids so much it almost hurt, no measly snow storm was going to stop me from getting home!

 

By mid morning the next day I was wishing I hadn’t been so cocky. The storm had barely produced any snow overnight, just wind and cold, but today it was more than making up for it. My fears that we had been the figures moving through the snow had been confirmed, we were riding our horses pretty much nose to tail and still could barely see each other. Cheyenne and Lone Wolf were in the lead, with Eddie and me following closely behind. The howling wind made it almost impossible to communicate, which seemed to suit Eddie just fine, he still hadn’t said much to us. I trusted Cheyenne to know where he was going, but even so I was beginning to get worried. I couldn’t understand how in the world he had any idea of which direction we were even headed!

 

Looking over at Eddie, between gusts of wind it looked to me like he was praying as we rode, and I soon silently joined him. It couldn’t hurt, and maybe, just maybe, with this being Christmas Eve my prayers of a safe return home would be answered. It was seeming to take forever though, and I was starting to worry that we had in fact gotten lost. We should have been at the ranch by midafternoon, but it seemed like more time had passed than that. Finally I realized it was starting to get dark, so I spurred my stallion up next to Cheyenne’s and got his attention. I practically had to scream at him before he heard me, but finally I got through to him that I was concerned about where we were. “Almost there,” he yelled back at me, “We are on Culpepper land now, we just have to make it to the ranch house, but I can’t push the horses any faster, not in this snow!”

 

I had no idea if he was right or not, but I dropped back next to Eddie and crossed my fingers. The horses were exhausted, they couldn’t go much farther but we couldn’t just stop in the middle of nowhere with no shelter. I started praying again, but I was losing faith quickly that those prayers would be answered. All of a sudden the snow seemed to lighten up, and I saw up ahead that there was a break in the clouds above us. I couldn’t see much, but there was one star shining through brightly enough for us to see it, and Cheyenne seemed to be heading on a path that would take us straight under it. Was this the sign I was hoping for that our prayers were being answered?

 

Cheyenne didn’t waver at all, he kept us all heading straight for that star, but with the snow I couldn’t recognize any landmarks. It seemed like we kept going for quite a while, but eventually I started seeing more lights up ahead, but these weren’t up in the sky like the star, they had to be from some sort of buildings. We kept getting closer, but then Rascal started stumbling and I knew he couldn’t go much farther. Eddie reined his horse to a stop and motioned to me to do the same. He dismounted and came over to me, shouting up at me, “Take my gelding instead, I’ll go the rest of the way on foot!” Before I could stop him, he had raced around Cheyenne and Lone Wolf and had taken off running towards the lights. There was nothing that the rest of us could do except follow, I just hoped he knew what he was doing.

 

Just when I thought that the horses couldn’t go any farther, I glanced up ahead and realized that we were just riding into the outer edges of the Culpepper ranch compound. We had made it!! Cheyenne turned around and grinned at me, pointing up. Following his hand with my eyes I realized that the bright star we had been following seemed to be directly over the ranch. It had to be my imagination I thought, or maybe it just seemed like that star was extra bright because most of the other stars usually in the sky were hidden by clouds. But then again it was Christmas Eve night….

 

Ike and Karl were waiting for us right outside the biggest barn, and they helped us get the tired horses inside, unsaddled, and fed. Eddie had obviously made it home before us and sent them out to help, Ike told me Eddie was in the house warming up and talking to Little Flower. Warming up sounded good to me, and Karl must have noticed because it wasn’t long before he took over caring for Rascal for me and told me to head inside, that the rest of them wouldn’t be far behind. I didn’t argue with him, just took off for the house as quickly as I could through the knee deep snow.

 

The very second I made it through the front door Hop and Lu Sing were right there to help me shed my outer clothes, I couldn’t get them off fast enough. Then I headed straight for the parlor, as soon as I was in the door the twins were throwing themselves at me, with Rose and Tommy not far behind. Sally was sitting on the couch holding Ruth, and when she stood up to hand me my youngest daughter I could see that she was starting to show. She gave me a hug, and so did Laura, who then insisted I take her chair by the fire so I could warm up a bit. I sat down with Ruth on my lap, the twins holding on to my legs like they wouldn’t let go, and Rose and Tommy standing one on either side of me. I glanced over to the corner of the room to see Eddie and Little Flower standing there with their arms around each other, and it seemed like Little Flower had a soft glow about her. Laura leaned over and whispered to me, “Turns out Sally isn’t the only one expecting, she was a little shocked and scared at first but now that Eddie is home she seems to be changing her mind about the whole thing…and Eddie is thrilled!”

 

What a wonderful Christmas present that was! I was happy for the young couple, and overjoyed to finally be back with my family. We still needed to figure out what Junior was up to, but that would have to wait until after the holiday. I heard the front door open again, and in no time Cheyenne and the others had joined us, and to my surprise they had Biblepuncher and Cora with them. They had ridden up to the barn just after I had left it, since I had been heading towards the house I hadn’t seen them but Karl and Ike had helped with their horses as well so that they could get inside faster. Ike had told Cheyenne and Lone Wolf the good news about Little Flower, and Cheyenne didn’t hesitate to head straight for her and Eddie to congratulate them. As he did I noticed that Cora’s stomach seemed to be bigger than I remembered it, and Biblepuncher’s smile when he realized I had noticed confirmed my suspicions, they would be parents before too much longer as well. That meant Cora, Sally, and Little Flower would all be having their babies within a few months of each other, and for a brief moment I thought silently to myself that maybe I ought to think about making it a quartet…at least until Doc leaned over and told me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you dare! I told you to wait and for once you are gonna listen to me!” Just how in the world did that man know what I was thinking?

 

Cheyenne laughed so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself, it took a few minutes before he could even speak. “I wouldn’t be placing any bets on that if I were you, Doc!” he said, shaking his head. I glared at him, if I did get pregnant again it would be as much his fault as mine, but I couldn’t stay mad at him for long, not on this night. Hop Sing served dinner in the parlor, and we spent a few wonderful hours playing with the kids until it was time for them to go to bed. After saying good night to the older ones and seeing the younger ones settled in their rooms, Cheyenne gathered me into his arms outside our bedroom door and suggested that we go practice for when Doc finally gave his permission for another child, when we were startled by the sound of the front door opening again. We peaked over the railing to the hallway below, and to our surprise there stood Junior and Velvet…

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“Sille Nicht,

“Hellige Nicht …”

Brother William sang with his eyes closed, as he often did; he slouched easily against the altar rail, one foot up and under him on the bottom of the rail, the other flat and bearing his weight: he played a double-strung, Mexican guitar, and he sang a song written by a German sky pilot who found the hungry mice in his church developed a sudden appetite for the leather bellows in their pump organ.

It was not unusual for Brother William to appear in town, and not at all out of the ordinary to find him in their little whitewashed church: the Firelands church was, simply, “The Church,” and it was never really the Methodist church, or the Presbyterian church, or the Baptist church: it had seen visiting parsons of many kinds, and indeed Brother William conducted Mass and held Confession there as occasion demanded – “the Lord knows our hearts,” he said, “and I don’t reckon He cares what colors the shingles on the roof are.”

Nor was it at all unusual for Brother William to bring guests, whether wide-eyed little Mexican boys, or shy, smiling Mexican girls, orphans from the Rabbitville monastery’s community: one Sunday the entire service, or near to it, was conducted in Mexican – song, sermon and bent-knee prayer.

It was long and long again since the Little Faceless One appeared and sang, and many there that Christmas eve looked hopefully back down the aisle, and to the side door, wishing for the diminutive nun in white, the nun whose face was never seen, the nun who wore a white silk veil to hide her from the world … the Little Faceless One, who sang with the voice of an angel, who could take a song and turn it loose and let it fly like a seagull on a sunny day with wings gleaming like translucent porcelain.

Daciana rose, as did Sarah, and with them, Annette: they came to their feet two bars before Brother William’s ending chord; they stood erect, hands clasped under their bosoms, composing themselves, and at his nod, the three drew a good deep diaphragm of air and sang the second verse: they had not practiced, but the song was well and truly known to them, a song they’d sung since childhood long forgotten: a nod of Brother William’s head, a slight dip of the guitar’s fretted neck, and three voices flowed in harmony, weaving their magical ribbon across the sanctuary, words that Brother Gruber would not have immediately recognized, but the music was his: from an impoverished little German church, sung by candle light in predawn’s hush, now sung on Christmas night, commemorating another infant in a land even further than Germany, and longer ago by centuries.

Daciana alone was without child: she stood beside her husband, Annette stood beside Jacob, and Jacob held their youngest, and their other progeny sat still and wide-wonder-eyed beside him, and Sarah’s child slept, cuddled up against his firefighting Papa’s solid, muscled breast.

The Sheriff sat with his young, the twins and Angela, and the maid on the far end, all wearing their Sunday best, and all holding very still, being very polite, for this was Church and it was Sunday and they were on their Best Behavior, and Angela did not even giggle as she remembered the maid describing to someone the sight of the Sheriff laying on his back with his head under the Christmas tree, his long legs stuck way out into the living room, with all of his young under the tree in like manner: she said she never saw so many legs in one place in all her life, and Angela smiled a secret little smile as she remembered how her Papa showed her how to make faces in the shining round Christmas bulb, and how funny his face and hers looked in its gleaming convexity.

Parson Belden waited until the second verse was almost complete before coming to his feet, and the entire congregation rose with him, and this time, the third verse, every throat sang and every heart rejoiced, for this day came only once in the calendar, and for this one day, conflict was set aside and discord was forgotten: as one, they sang, some strongly, those holding their young sang more gently, but all sang that song first written in German, and composed for a guitar, the only instrument Franz Gruber had left that would play, composed to do honor to the Christ Child on a winter’s night in a poor church in Germany.

They stood, and they sang Silent Night.

The Sheriff closed his eyes, listening to the voices united, remembering a night during that damned War when he'd gotten gloriously, unbelievably lost, and a solitary bright star punched through the clouds, providing him the only compass he had: he'd followed it, and he made it back to his headquarters tent, and he listened to the soldiers' voices raised in song.

They, too, sang Silent Night on Christmas.

The Sheriff thought of Cheyenne and Calico, and he looked over at Craig beside him, looking like a man half sick.

Guilty conscience? the Sheriff wondered, then he thought of the storm that descended not long after Cheyenne and Calico left his bailiwick.

Get 'em home, Lord, he thought.

Get 'em home, Lord, send 'em a star if need be, but get 'em home!

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Mary hummed a little as she turned the narrow paddle in the mixing bowl full of snow.

She'd added vanilla and a little sugar and a little cream, skimmed off what we had in the spring house.

Angela watched, silent, big-eyed, knowing that Mary was making something called Ice Cream.

It was a wintertime treat and one she particularly enjoyed.

The twins, too, waited, silent, watchful: the twins held hands as they often did, communing somehow without words, the way twins will.

Me, I stared at Esther's portrait and tried to ignore the old ache a man feels when his wife isn't there and the knowledge comes back and drives into his heart like the front end of the noon freight.

It's been a year and more since she died birthing Dana.

A man doesn't get over grief like that.

It never stops hurting.

With time the cares of everyday life overlay the memories, like sticks and leaves on the forest floor, building with time, but a wind can come along -- or a smell -- and there it is again, the memory, the recollection of how she moved, how she looked at me, of how she felt, molding herself into me, warm and real and solid in my arms.

I looked up and saw Mary was studyin' at me and I reckon she divined what I was thinking -- women have a gift that way, I've found -- but she held her counsel; she carefully scraped the stirring paddle against the rim of the heavy crock bowl, then she snatched it up, spun a complete circle and lowered it grandly down on the kitchen table, put two fingers to her lips and gave a short, sharp whistle.

At this magical summons, the children snatched their decorum with pink-knuckled hands and slung it as far from them as possible, happily charging the table: chairs were seized and hauled out and young legs scrambled to climb into the adult sized seats, and I picked up one, then another, to get them happily situated.

Mary doled out a good bowl full for each one, then she gave me a thoughtful look and made me one too, but she pulled a flat bottle from her apron pocket and drizzled brandy onto mine before handing it to me.

She didn't say a word, she just looked at me, and I reckoned she was going to speak her piece here directly.

It kind of surprised me when she swung around and threw her hips to sling her skirt out the way she did when she wanted to emphasize that she was on a mission: she went out the back door and came back with that big crock bowl heaped up full and darn if she didn't get to mixing up another big batch, divided into two bowls.

I found out why when young knuckles rattled on our front door and young voices laughed on my front porch.

Mary gave me a long look as she toweled her hands dry, then she marched for the front door, her wooden spoon held like a scepter, and I heard familiar voices.

It was Bonnie and Levi and their young, and shortly everyone was sitting down to a bowl of snow ice cream: Bonnie, bless her, exclaimed with delight, for she'd rarely had it; her daughters discussed the recipe, and I figured they would be making more when they got home.

Levi appreciated his, drizzled as was mine, with good peach brandy, and we all visited there in the kitchen the way we used to when Esther still ran the house.

I appreciated Bonnie and Levi coming over, especially Bonnie, for she was a guiding hand for my little girls.

I don't reckon a girl that can ride, rope, shoot, swear, trim calves, brand steers and pitch hay is exactly what men look for when they want a marryin' woman.

Girls are supposed to be dainty and feminine and delicate and charming and soft spoken and if I raised my daughters they would likely be straightforward, likely they'd wear a gunbelt as naturally as a sunbonnet and leather gloves for roping instead of lacy gloves for tea and gossip.

Turns out Bonnie and Mary were connivin'.

Levi and I retired to my study, as much to leave the women time to talk as to share man talk: his ranch was prospering, far better than it ever had under his brother; Bonnie's dress works was a steady success, and the House of McKenna continued to produce the latest fashion for the ladies far and wide, mostly through retail houses in Denver and the like. Bonnie was quite a good business woman and I don't know where-all she was shipping her goods, but she had a steady clientele and she'd made herself into quite a successful businesswoman.

We discussed the usual pleasantries, the weather, the water, crops and cattle, and finally Levi came to the subject he'd been circling like a wary wolf eyeing a bait.

"Linn," he said, leaning back and savoring the first rich draws of his hand-rolled Cuban, "you ought to get married."

Something turned cold inside of me.

I did not look at Levi for fear of seeing what I felt.

When I turn that cold, I get hard and my eyes show it: I've seen myself, reflected in window glass or a mirror, and my eyes go dead pale and hard as polished marble, and I did not want to turn that hard glare on my good friend and fellow lawman, retired though he was.

"You've mourned Esther for better than a year. There'd be nothing wrong ..."

Levi's voice was gentle, reasonable; he waited to see how I would respond, then pushed on again.

"A man needs a good woman."

"I had a good woman," I said quietly, trying my best not to sound as cold as I felt inside.

"A woman who knew what it was to love and be loved."

"Yes," I nodded, "she did."

"She would not object to your taking a wife. Matter of fact she might suggest it. It is not good for a man to run in single harness."

I closed my eyes, swallowed.

A light hand rested on my shoulder and I smelled lilac water and I knew Bonnie slipped in, the way she did, absolutely silent: she said quietly, "He's right, Linn. You have daughters who need a mother and you have a heart that needs a partner."

I laid my hand on hers and took a long breath, my eyes going to our portrait, the one the elder Daine drew the day we got married: it was rare in that era for people to smile for a tintype, but we were both ... I don't think you could have got my smile off with a hammer and chisel, and I always did like it when Esther smiled, and ... well, in that day it was a sign of weakness to smile and I didn't care, I'd smile or grin or laugh whenever I damn well pleased, and the few who thought me weak found out otherwise in a size twelve hurry.

"I loved a woman, once," I said quietly, "before I met Esther."

Bonnie waited, coming around a little to where she could see me better, and I could see her.

"I saw her in front of the Silver Jewel, she and a little girl I took to be her daughter, and I wanted nothing more than to marry the woman and adopt the child."

Bonnie's eyes widened as she remembered the night, for she was the woman, Sarah the wee child: not a minute later, though, the town's only attorney, a man named Slade, laid hands on her and spoke in a manner to which I took exception.

I drove him on the point of the jaw with the heel of my hand hard enough to break a couple teeth and knock him colder'n a foundered flounder.

He hit the board walk like a cut down oak and I turned and lifted my hat to Bonnie as I laid my beating heart on the boards at her feet, and then I went across the street to the Sheriff's office and talked to a man named Landers, who hired me as deputy and then promoted me to Sheriff when he retired a week later.

Bonnie blinked those lovely violet eyes of hers, lowered her head a little, then she reached down and took my callused paw in both hers: squeezing firmly, she whispered, "You shouldn't be alone."

I looked at her and I reckon my eyes were as miserable as the rest of me felt.

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I shook Craig's shoulder.

He opened his eyes, looked at me, blinked.

"Get up."

My voice was as cold as the weather outside.

I saw a realization come into his eyes.

"We're going to finish this before the clock strikes. Get up and get dressed. Meet me on the front porch."

I did not wait for his reply.

I turned and walked out of the bedroom where I'd put Craig up, went down stairs, down the hall and picked up my hat and my coat.

Jacob was waiting on the porch.

"He's coming?" he asked quietly, his .40-60 balanced in his gloved left hand.

"He is," I replied. "I don't reckon he likes the idea, though."

Jacob's smile was thin. "He called it."

"He did."

We heard Craig's boot heels -- reluctant, slow, almost the walk of a man who knows the gallows awaits.

Craig opened the front door, hesitated.

"Button up," I said, my voice quiet. "Don't want you ketchin' pneumonia."

Craig worked his jaw like he was turning words over in his mind, then he came on out and shut the door behind him.

"You come out here to see who's faster," I said flatly. "We find out tonight."

"No."

I raised an eyebrow.

"No?"

Craig looked away, looked back at me.

"I already found out, Sheriff. I watched you praticin'. There is no way in two hells I could beat you."

I chuckled dryly. "You think I'm fast? Try Macneil. Or Jacob here. They put me to shame, the both of 'em."

Craig looked at Jacob, discomfort fading to fear as he remembered what he'd seen when I was practicing.

Craig shook his head again. "I already found out, and I ain't it."

I nodded.

"Glad to hear it. I'd hate to pay Digger to plant your carcass."

"County money, sir," Jacob offered. "It wouldn't be out of your pocket."

"That's true," I agreed, nodding. "Craig, if you're not going to try me, what are your plans?"

Craig looked out across the fresh snowfall, blew a long breath into the still, cold air.

"I don't know," he said softly. "I reckon I been a damn fool, thinkin' I could come out here and beat you."

I waited; his words sounded like a man thinking out loud, realizing something he probably knew for some long time.

"Sheriff, I seen what ... I seen the look on your face when you picked up that boy of yours an' swung him around and you an' him both laughed.

"I recall my Pa picked me up like that ... it ain't much of a memory an' I reckon I lost it til I saw you a-doin' it." He swallowed, cleared his throat.

"I'd ... I'd like to do that."

I nodded.

"Where do you figure to head?"

He looked up, toward a sky so full of stars it looked like a careless giant cast a great handful of fine white sand on a black velvet rug.

"South," he said. "South. Where it's warm. I hear tell there's land down towards Mexico."

"There's good land down there," I affirmed. "Good people, too."

The hired man walked up, leading Craig's horse.

"I had your saddle bags packed. You've a week's worth of beef, beans and coffee. I rolled up an extra shirt, drawers and smallclothes in your soogan. Your rifle is fixed, it's clean and you've got a box of ca'tridges in that left hand saddle bag."

Craig looked long at me, half suspicious and half afraid, I reckon.

"I don't deserve this," he whispered, shaking his head a little.

"No you don't," I agreed. "You deserve me forcin' your hand and puttin' a .44 through each eye. You deserve me draggin' you down to the Golden Aspen and lettin' you face up to Culpepper all by your lonesome. That's what you deserve." I set my jaw, looked into the distant dark. "But you ain't gettin' what you deserve. You're gettin' what I decided."

Craig thought for another minute, then nodded.

"I thought to slip out," he admitted, "just leave you a note a-thankin' you for your hospitality, then I figured ... you been decent to me an' I'd oughta be decent enough to look you in the eye and speak my piece." He took a step toward me, stuck out his hand.

I took it.

His grip was firm and he looked me square in the eye and said "Thank you."

I pumped his hand, once, nodded, then reached into my coat pocket with my other hand and pulled out a pair of fur lined gloves.

"Here," I said. "Keep your hands warm."

We watched him ride into the dark.

Jacob waited until he was well gone, then asked, quietly, "Sir, shouldn't we have taken him to Culpepper? He knows something about Junior."

"No need," I said, my voice just as quiet, for it was near silent this late at night. "No need a'tall. Junior and his bride come in on the train a few days ago. They're down to the Golden Aspen by now and I reckon him and Cheyenne can straighten things out between 'em. Straight from the horse's mouth, as they say."

Jacob chuckled. "Yes, sir," he replied, "but I don't reckon Cheyenne will be callin' him by that end of the horse."

"I reckon," I agreed with a grin, "you are right."

We waited another minute, ignoring the chill, enjoying each other's company: there is a wonderful freedom between father and son, and between old friends; silence can grow long between the two, and that long silence is just as comfortable as conversation.

"I reckon I'll head on home," Jacob grinned. "Annette said something about mulled cider."

"You're welcome to stay, you know that."

"I know."

I laid a gentle hand on my son's shoulder.

"You've got a good woman, Jacob. You've chosen well."

"Yes, sir, I did." He looked at me, gratitude in his eyes. "Thank you, sir."

He turned, looked into the dark, made a kissing sound, and his Appaloosa stallion waded through the snow, tail switching.

Jacob swung easily aboard, raised a hand, and I did as well, and he turned the stallion's nose toward his own home and hearth.

I stood alone on the porch for several minutes after, listening to the night, then I turned and went on inside my own solid built home.

Mary was waiting inside the door when I stepped across my own threshold.

She'd warmed the brandy, spiced it a little, added some honey: I swirled it in the warmed brandy balloon, stuck my nose into the fragrant opening, took a long, appreciative sniff, then tilted it up and drank.

"Happy New Year, sor," she said in that lovely Irish accent of hers as she took my hat and hung it on its peg, then lifted my coat off my shoulders; I dropped my arms back to allow the heavy garment to slip off easily.

"Happy New Year, Mary," I replied.

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She screamed.

She screamed as loud as as hard and as powerfully as she could.

She screamed as she fell like a meteor in petticoats through the black night air, as the wind of her falling roared in her ears, as black death beneath reached up for her with granite teeth.

She screamed from the depths of her young gut, and she screamed so hard the diamond stars themselves shivered in their night-black settings.

Her scream was an expression of raw passion, of absolute and utter joy, for she knew that all was well, and as the warm, black-furred horse soared up beneath her and caught her neatly across its shoulders, just ahead of its broad black wings, she threw her head back and laughed.

She leaned forward, wind whipping the mare's long mane in her face, the wind stripping tears from her eyes and running them cold along her face and into her ears, the wind streaming her hair back behind her, and she pressed little pink hands splayed and flat against the black horsie's neck and yelled "Go, horsie!"

The flying black mare was solid and real and the child felt great muscles surge beneath her clamped-tight legs and she bent her knees and locked her heels into warm black ribs and she heard the massive, feathered wings surge and beat against the night sky, and they banked together and side-slipped between two peaks and came level over a high meadow.

The child marveled as frosted grass skidded past beneath them, and she felt the mare's legs unfold and extend and she felt the light patter of unshod hooves on the frozen ground: wings still spread, the mare galloped, then trotted, then slowed to a walk, and finally, folding the broad wings warmly over the little girl's knee-tucked calves, walked, head a-bob, up to a figure all in white.

It was a white onion with a white silk veil over her face and the little girl could hear her words in her head, and she felt the fuzzy foot black horsie's amusement at her delight.

She knew that flight was routine for the big fuzzy foot flying horsie, but she knew the horsie felt her delight, and she laughed again, patting the horsie's furry warm neck.

"I promised you a ride."

The Onion's voice smiled as she heard it, wordlessly, in her head, and she felt the horsie's smile 'cause she heard it too.

The Sheriff stood unmoving in his daughter's bedroom doorway.

His expression did not change as she laughed in her sleep.

If there was light enough to see, a watcher might have noticed his eyes darken a little with pleasure, darken to a definite blue, but of course there was not light enough, nor was anyone there to see it.

He turned, then stopped: he heard his little girl laugh in her sleep: he waited, then continued on to his own bedroom.

That's the way to start a New Year, he thought.

A child's laughter.

He nodded, and allowed himself a slight smile.

He'd been talking with the maid and so would not have heard the sound of wings, even a great set of very powerful wings; he might not even have heard hoofbeats on frozen ground.

A little distance away, Jacob was already in his own bunk, approaching his own relaxed state; he would not remember in the morning, but part of his mind thought he heard the delighted scream of a child, faint in the distance.

And beside Mr. and Mrs. Llewellyn's fine stone house, a great black mare with fuzzy feet drowsed in her stall.

If any were awake to hear it, they might have noticed the mare making a contented sound, the way horses will when they've done something worthwhile, but of course no one was awake to hear anything of the kind.

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"Woom Coffee!"

Shining faces turned, eager legs thrust energetic children from their benches and the tall, cloaked cleric found himself charged by most of the student body of the Firelands schoolhouse.

He did what any reasonable man would do, finding himself the recipient of an infantry charge: he prepared to meet it.

Brother William leaned his staff into the back corner, dropped to his knees and spread his arms, his cloak hanging onto his elbows: laughing, he took their rushing embrace and gave an embrace of his own, and Emma Cooper, the schoolmarm, sighed with a quiet smile: this was not the lesson she'd planned, but she was flexible, and could turn almost any situation into a learning experience.

"Slow down," Brother William said gently, "one at a time, please! There's only one of me!"

He sorted through the Wherejacomefroms and the Whatchadoinheres and the Howlongyagonnastays, looking from one set of bright eyes to another, and finally he drew his arms in, raised one finger, and they grew quiet.

"Where did I come from?" he repeated, looking at the questioner: "I came up from Rabbitville, I've ridden the train, I visited over at the mines and did a little work there. What am I doing here? Well, there's a little work I need to take care of. How long will I stay? Until the Abbott recalls me or I get my work done, whichever comes first." He looked around, the corners of his eyes wrinkled and happy. "Now shouldn't you be in your seats and tending your lessons?"
"Aaw," came the juvenile protest from at least three throats, and they turned and trudged dejectedly back to their assigned parking spots.

Brother William stood, plucked the staff from its accustomed place: "Miz Emma," he greeted, "permission to come aboard!"

"Furl your sails and stow your gear, a man with saltwater in his blood is welcome anytime!" Emma Cooper declared stoutly.

Brother William laughed again. "Now how would you know I have saltwater in my blood?"

Emma's eyes were bright and merry as she looked at him over her round schoolmarm spectacles.

"I've seen the knots you throw, Brother William," she said quietly, "and you showed me how to tie a one-hand bowline and made it look easy. You've the rolling gait or a man at home on the deck of a clipper, and I remember the calluses on your hands that only handling lines can cause!"

Brother William nodded, his ears reddening like a younger man caught flirting. "Right you are!" he declared. "She was the Susan S., out of Boston, and she was as pretty a clipper as ever wore canvas!"

"What happened to her, Brother William?" one of Sean's numerous tribe asked, his Irish-blue eyes wide and sparkling.

Brother William walked up to the lad's row, planted his staff and leaned on it: Emma recognized the posture of a man whose back ached, and was relieved by the lean.

"She lost her mains'l in a blow, lad," Brother William said solemnly, "and it carried away the mainmast wi' it. We threw out the sea anchor and it tore away just before we went a-reef on an uncharted, and 'twas only the will o' God that spared my life!"

The young Irishman regarded the tonsured cleric with eyes large and as solemn as the monk's voice.

"Did you see Davy Jones?" he asked in a little boy's voice, half-hoping, half-fearful.

"Aye, lad, that I did," Brother William nodded. "'Twas ol' Davy himself that kept me from drownin'."

"How'd he do that?" a red-headed girl of similar vintage asked from the other side of the room.

"You're in for it now, Brother William," Emma Cooper laughed. "Up here with you and out with the tale or they'll never be satisfied!"

Brother William nodded, pushed himself up straighter, walked silently to the front of the room, where he leaned again on his staff.

"We were runnin' wi' the wind an' 'twas a fair day," he said frowning a little at the floor as he remembered: "but the weather closed in faster'n rheumatism hits an old man on a damp day an' we found oursel's beset with a hurricane.

"We ran before it as best we could, the old man tried every trick he had t' spare our sails, but th' reefin' let go an' th' wind grabbed the canvas in her teeth --"

A little hand shot up, fingers splayed: "What's a reefin'?"

Brother William's smile was gentle, despite the taste of salt water spray when he opened his mouth to take a breath.

It was almost silent in the whitewashed schoolhouse, built strong and tight by men skilled in their craft; gas heaters hissed in the quiet, warming young and old alike, and outside the wavy-glass windows, snowflakes fell silently, and yet Brother William could hear a hurricane screaming like the banshee in the rigging, tearing at men's skin with cold and wet fingers as they sailed into the mouth of a watery hell.

"We took in th' sail, lad," he explained, "and as it's lower'd, we gather in great armsful an' tie 'em, y'see, a great bundle they make ... but th' storm was fierce and the winds seized our furled canvas and ripped it free afore we could lash it down." His eyes were haunted as he heard men's screams as they were lost in the blow, flung from their perches by the sundering canvas.

"But what about Davy Jones?" a young voice prompted.

"Ah, Davy," Brother William sighed. "He's a hard man, is Davy Jones, but he knows a good man when he sees one.

"He saw me fight m'way out o' m' officer's coat an' drag a man to a floatin' spar, an' lash him to it -- he hadna' strength t' hold onto't, y'see -- an' I found another an' got him afloat as well, an' I was pretty tuckered out, I was, a-fightin' spray and sea and wind, an' Davy, he was a-riding' a sea horse.

"Did ye e'er see a sea horse, lad?" he asked, straightening suddenly.

Several little heads with big ears wagged back and forth: "Noooo," their voices chorused.

Brother William walked painfully to the slate board, picked up the lump of chalk: he labored several moments, until he'd sketched the form of a seahorse-fish.

"Now there are two forms o' seahorse," he said, as if teaching a lesson. "This is one. They're only about this tall" -- he held thumb and forefinger apart, a vertical separation of about three inches -- "an' they don't move fast a'tall.

"Now Davy Jones rides the Grand Seahorse, an' a great creature he is!" Brother William nodded emphatically. "Do you recall that great black horse your Miss Sarah rides?"
"Snowflake!" a dozen young voices declared.

"The very one!" Brother William nodded, thrusting his finger toward the ceiling in happy affirmation. "Now, instead o' a black horse, th' one Davy Jones rides is seafoam green, wi' white foam at th' fetlocks, like. He has forehooves like a horse an' a tail like a great fish, an' he can gallop i' water an' wave an' he rides th' storms lookin' for poor mariners like meself!"

"What did he do, Brother William?"

"What did he do! Why, no less than t' grab me by th' scruff o' the neck an' throw me across his saddlehorn, an' take me to the bottom, he did!"

"Ooooo," the child of the red-headed fire chief said wonderingly.

"He took me below an' showed me grand treasures, trunks o' gold and chests o' jewels, an' he said I could live wi' him there, in his well stocked locker, or I could return t' the world o' men wi' only m' hide.

"I thought it over long an' hard, and I remembered the look a girl gave me one time at sunrise, before I sailed, and I told her I'd fetch her a blue gem from across the waters, an' Davy Jones reached into his treasure chest and pulled out a gold necklace wi' a blue gem. Square-cut it was, as long as the end o' my thumb, an' he said 'So be it,' an' a great smooth fish come a-swimmin' up at his whistle, wearin' a saddle, an' he slid under me legs as nice as ye please an' we made for th' surface.

"Twas a dolphin, it was, some call 'em porpoise, but I call 'em blessed, for this one took me t' surface an' I was in swimmin' distance of me port of Boston!"

"Did you give her the necklace, Brother William?" one of the older girls asked, her eyes gleaming with romance at his tale.

"Nay, lass," Brother William said sadly. "She'd taken another's hand, an' so I took m' broken heart an' made for th' seminary, and there I stayed until the War."

Brother William was quiet for a long moment, remembering, then he blinked and said briskly, "But that's a tale for another time!"

"Brother William?" one of the youngest asked, her hand thrust suddenly toward the whitewashed ceiling. "Did you bring the onion?"

"Did I ... eh?" Brother William asked, puzzled.

"The onion," she persisted. "The one with the veil."

Brother William's mouth opened as his brows puzzled, then he smiled, comprehension unfurling his knitted brows.

"Ye're meanin' a nun," he said.

The little girl nodded, setting her finger curls a-bounce. "An onion!" she affirmed.

"No, lass, I didna' travel wi' any but mesel'," he said softly, not wanting to disappoint the child.

He turned to Emma Cooper. "I'm afraid I've knocked your day into a cocked hat," he said by way of apology. "I meant to come and say hello, and give you this."

He handed her an envelope and winked; she opened it, her mouth fell open, she looked up --

Surprised students looked at surprised teacher: both instructress and student body said the same thing at the same time, "Where did he go?"

Outside, alone on the street, Brother William placed a hand to his chest and smiled.

It was still there, and safe.

He had a little ways to go before he came to his destination, but he had a gift for someone, and a story to go with it.

Sarah Lynne McKenna-Rosenthal would look very good, he thought, with this square-cut, blue stone from across the waters, worn as a necklace with her blue-satin gown.

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Young Daffyd Llewellyn expressed his opinion on the whole situation.

Eyes closed, mouth wide in a prodigious yawn, he relaxed, little pink fingers opening and then closing, warm and content under flannel and quilt.

Sarah withdrew quietly.

Lifting her skirts with a delicate pluck of thumbs and forefingers, she flowed down the stairs, slippers silent on polished wood: she smiled at the tall, tonsured cleric, dropped a flawless curtsy, then laughed and swept up to the grinning monk, taking both his hands in both hers: "Brother William, you are most welcome! How long have you been starving yourself?"

The maid discreetly withdrew, smiling a little herself: she knew the man would eat with a good appetite, and busied herself with fixing him a proper meal. She and her Mistress were in agreement in that the man was entirely too skinny, and the two of them conspired to put some meat on his bones.

"I have a story," Brother William said, "and I have its subject."

Sarah raised an eyebrow, planted her knuckles on her hips.

"Well out with it, man!" she scolded, a laugh tugging up the corners of her mouth: "and have a seat, I'd hate to see these perfectly good chairs die of disuse!"

Brother William bowed, gratefully selecting a richly-upholstered velvet chair and easing himself down into it.

Sarah nodded, sat, assessing the man with a sharp eye: "Your back is still giving you grief." It was a statement, not a question.

Brother William sighed, nodded, then he looked at her and she saw the orneriness behind the look.

"If I didn't have something to complain about," he said quietly, "I wouldn't be happy!"

Sarah sat very straight, very properly, feet flat on the floor, hands in her lap.

"Now, Brother William, unless I miss my guess, the maid is about to appear with tea. I take it hot oolong is still to your taste?"

Brother William opened his mouth to reply, just as the maid appeared at his elbow: she settled a tray on the table at his elbow, poured steaming, fragrant, burgamo-spiced chai into eggshell china cups.

Outside, Ron Llewellyn, Sarah's husband, hefted the cloth-wrapped package, marveling again at its origin.

A necklace, hanging from the brake handle on his carriage, and a rolled note: "From a Welshman to the most beautiful woman in the world," and when he looked up from the curling note, Brother William was standing before him, a quiet and knowing smile on his face.

"Do you think she will like it?" he asked, and Ron raised the square-cut, faceted gem and looked at the mesmerizing glitters and colors in its crystalline heart.

"I do," he said, then looked at the priest. "But I don't understand. Are you givin' another man's wife a gift?"

Brother William took a step closer, and Ron Llewellyn, one of the Irish Brigade, a red-shirted fireman and accepted member of the community, saw something in this traveling cleric's eyes he hadn't expected to see.

He saw a deep and abiding sorrow.

Brother William leaned on the staff in his left hand, rested his callused, scar-crossed right hand on the padded arm of the carriage-seat.

"It's little good I can do these days," he said slowly, his eyes gazing into the distance, as if looking long into the past: "it's little wealth I have on this earth, and that is the very last of the fortune I made."

He looked up at the bib-front-shirted fireman with the gold Maltese cross embroidered in its center.

"Give that to her," he said, "and give her that note, or tell her the words, either one. A woman's heart is not won by baubles, but by the strength of your character, but a woman loves to be reminded that she is the dearest thing in your eye."

Ron held up the necklace, tented his left eyebrow, whistled.

"If I'm any judge," he said quietly, "this thing is worth a year's salary."

"A year and a half, and you judge it rightly," Brother William nodded. "She must not know its origin, so do you wait until I am within and have spoken with her before you come in."

The two drove to the Llewellyn spread, and true to his word, Mr. Llewellyn waited until Brother William went in, and gave him a bit more than the five minutes he'd requested.

"Many years ago," Brother William said, "a young man considered that paper money can burn or rot, but gemstones will hold their beauty and their worth for well more than ten men's lifetimes."

Sarah took a delicate sip of her tea, pale-blue eyes fixed on the white-robed monk.

"If a gem could talk, it might speak of its ancient origins. Perhaps it was found on a creekbank in Cathay, cut and polished, sold and stolen and sold again, passed through half a hundred hands and hung about the throat of as many beautiful women."

Sarah made no move; she listened, considering the man's words, for she knew he and her father did nothing without purpose.

"Now let us say this gem made a sea voyage, was lost at sea and found again, raised from five fathoms in a chest of jewels and stolen again by pirates, sent to the Governor when the pirates were caught and hanged, and given as a favor to a loyal servant.

"Now let us say" -- the front door opened, and Brother William's hand turned over, directing Sarah's intent gaze to her husband's figure, silhouetted in the doorway -- "now let us say that by some means we won't explore, a good man acquired this gem, and determined that it has only one proper destination."

Sarah blinked, for the light surrounding her husband was quite bright: it was not until he closed the door and handed his coat and hat off to the maid, that she saw the cloth-wrapped bundle in his hand.

"And let us say the man who found this gem knew its value, and chose to ... invest ... in the one most important thing in his life."

Ron recognized his cue: advancing, he unwrapped the bundle in his hand: he lifted the last corner, exposing the ancient blue gem, its gold chain spilling down to the left and to the right.

Sarah rose, her mouth falling open ... for once in her young life, speechless.

"From a Welshman," Ron Llewellyn said to his astonished wife, "to the most beautiful woman in the world,"

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The Sheriff's pale eyes missed little, and he did not miss his son's quiet discomfiture.

The Sheriff was a patient man; he was satisfied his son would speak of what troubled him, and he did.

Jacob frowned a little as he worked the buckskin gloves off his callused, weather-browned hands.

"Sir," he said, "I may have need to speak with Brother William."

The Sheriff nodded, held up the coffee pot.

"No, thank you, sir," Jacob replied cautiously, half expecting the bottom to rot out the bottom of the percolator even as the Sheriff held it up.

The Sheriff poured himself a tin cup full of the scalding brew, poured in a little cold cream he'd gotten over at the Silver Jewel earlier that morning, took a cautious, noisy slurp.

"Not bad," he murmured, which in any other man's language would have been more like gag, choke, toss cup, pot and maybe even the pot belly stove out into the street.

He looked up at Jacob, and Jacob looked back.

"Brother William," the Sheriff prompted.

"Yes, sir," Jacob affirmed, his expression clearly troubled. "I may have need for ... confession."

The Sheriff frowned a little, thrust his chin at a chair.

Jacob sat slowly, waited for his father to circle back behind his pine topped desk and get himself set down and comfortable.

 

Sarah bounced the papoose wrap a little, getting used to her infant son's weight on her back.

The Bear Killer looked up at her, his black eyes button-bright as Sarah threw a leg over Snowflake's saddle.

Her colt nickered and nuzzled at The Bear Killer, and the great black hound swung his tail briskly and licked the colt's muzzle.

Sarah's knee communicated as well as reins: Snowflake turned, pacing easily across the high meadow, her colt trotting to keep up.

Sarah leaned forward a little, pressed her hands flat on Snowflake's powerful neck and whispered, "Go, girl," and Snowflake laid her ears back and thrust her nose straight out and her neck and her spine were a straight line, as straight as a Welsh arrow, and Sarah's legs were locked into the barrel of the big black Frisian as Snowflake shot across the meadow, hooves driving hard against the frozen ground, not as instant a launch as Sarah experienced riding her father's copper Cannonball, but once Snowflake got her speed up, she was equally as fast, and a lifetime in the high country built her blood until she had the wind and the endurance of a lowland horse down below.

The colt, distressed, tried running after its dam, but gave up when he realized how futile his efforts were: he made a little distressed sound, and The Bear Killer snarled deep in his ebony chest, sympathy and not menace: the two coasted to a stop and watched as Snowflake turned in a gradual arc, circling back toward the two.

The Bear Killer started to bristle, and then stepped in front of the gleaming-black colt, lips drawing back from ivory fighting fangs, the wild ancestry of a thousand generations of Tibetan mountain dogs blazing under his tight-curled coat.

The colt laid his ears back and whinnied, rearing up and windmilling his shiny little hooves, screaming a high, shrill defiance at the sight of an absolute mountain of horse flesh bearing down on them like an equine version of a Baldwin steam locomotive.

The Bear Killer bayed a mad, fighting challenge, standing fiercely before the colt, interposing a canine hellfighter between the oncoming danger and the colt he guarded.

Sarah, astride her beloved mount, leaned ever so slightly, one knee pressing more than the other, one heel more than the other: Snowflake turned, gracefully, leaning a little, hooves punishing the ground as she pounded the frozen earth, keeping herself suspended in low-level flight more than running like a mere earthbound creature.

For his part, young Daffyd Llewellyn, inheritor of the blood of Welsh bowmen, of wild Celtic and fierce Germanic warriors and even a trickle of hot Greek blood, blood that knew what it was to charge naked into battle, screaming an insane battle-charge on the Peloponnesian plains ... young Daffyd Llewellyn, son of a Welsh bowman and great-grandson of a Welsh warrior-princess, slept, peaceful, contented, warm in his swaddled backpack, drowsed by the rhythm of hoofbeats and undisturbed by The Bear Killer's sentry-rage.

 

"Sir," Jacob said, his bottom jaw thrust out a little, "I beat the living snot out of a man."

The Sheriff looked levelly at his son.

Jacob surged to his feet, paced back and forth a little, flexing his good right hand into a gloved fist, straightened his fingers, still frowning.

"Sir, I fought as you taught me."

The Sheriff's eyes were quiet, giving away nothing: he waited, knowing that once you open a boil, it will drain of its own accord until the pressure is off; only then do you need to pry to get the rest out.

"He deserved it," Jacob said slowly. "I gave him his chance and he allowed as he was going to whip my lyin' backside."

"He called you a liar."

"He did, sir."

"What else did he say?"

"He said I was a boy, that I had no business wearing such big guns, and he'd take 'em away from me like he'd take a Barlow knife away from a schoolboy."

"Did he know you were my deputy?"

"He did, sir."

"Your reply?"

"I shot the man beside him, sir. He'd planned to distract me."

"He baited you into focusing in on him while someone else executed you."

"Yes, sir."

"Well done. We practiced that."

"Yes, sir, and grateful I am that we did."

"What followed?"

"I stretched my arm out and eared my gunhammer back and I set that front sight right between his eyes and I invited him to so much as cough."

"I take it the other fellow was plenty dead."

"I hit him between the eyes, sir."

The Sheriff nodded. "Good."

Jacob took a long breath.

"I allowed as anyone who wanted to do anything but what I said would be fitted with a pine box for an overcoat.

"The local horse trough was fairly well armed by the time I was done, an' the lot of 'em was just as unhappy with me as that-there trough was well fed."

The Sheriff nodded, once, slowly, his eyes sleepy.

"Then I allowed as that fella that called me a liar could step up and prove himself.

"He said he wasn't fightin' me as long as I wore guns, so I stepped up and made as if to cock a fist.

"He was a fighter, he was, but he figured I was young and inexperienced. Was he squared off against you, sir, he might have suspected you'd kick him right in the Ohmigod, but he didn't see it until I lifted his boot heels off the ground."

The Sheriff flinched. He'd taken such blows himself, and he'd given such: a wise man once observed that there are no rules when it comes to a good knock down drag out fight, and the Sheriff disagreed but little: his own rule was that he intended to win.

"After that, sir -- you recall how you said you hit that crooked lawyer Slade" -- Jacob drove the heel of his hand into the air, a quick, vicious move -- "and caught him right on the chin?"

"I recall," the Sheriff said mildly.

"I did that, sir, and I hit him just as hard as I could."

"I see."

"Then I drove the side of my foot into his gut, and when he doubled over I grabbed his head and drove my knee into his chin."

The Sheriff folded his hands meditatively across his lean belly. "So far," he said slowly, "I don't see a problem."

Jacob stopped, his eyes serious as he looked directly at his father.

"Sir," he said, "I enjoyed it."

"Would you have enjoyed having your guts stomped into the ground?"

"No, sir."

"Would you have enjoyed having your jaw broke, or maybe your neck?"

"No, sir."

"There is no shame in a warrior feeling satisfaction in victory over the unrighteous."

"Yes, sir."

"What happened with the fellow?"

"He's gone back to prison, sir. The town marshal didn't have the stones to take him and ship him back, but after I'd softened the big so-and-so up, why, he was willing enough."

"Mmm." The Sheriff considered this for a moment. "Damn shame that wasn't in our county."

"Yes, sir."

"I can't abide by a cowardly lawman, nor one that'll let somebody else do his job for him. If he couldn't take this big fella by surprise, he doesn't deserve his job."

"No, sir."

"But that's not my county."

"No, sir."

 

Sarah turned and slid off Snowflake, falling about a mile before her feet hit the ground.

The Bear Killer ran up, happily hobby-horsing and swinging his tail in a great, vigorous arc, and gave her a delighted face-washing.

The stallion colt, for his part, happily received his Mama's approving sniff, and then went back to look for a meal.

Sarah looked at the happily rooting colt and laughed.

"You men are all alike," she smiled.

 

Jacob held his counsel, or at least his tongue, but he thought to himself that he'd not give a plugged nickle for that chicken-yella marshal's tenure, even if he wasn't in Firelands County.

He stopped at the door, turned to look back at his father.

"Sir," he said, curiosity in his voice, "did we ever find out what Junior Culpepper was up to?"

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Carbon Hill wasn't quite a boom town, unless you counted a coal mine explosion, which was a sizable boom.

Ten men killed, twice that many injured, gas build-up they called it.

It did not stop coal mining in Colorado. There was demand, and where there was demand, there would be production, and so they produced coal, the lighter color Western coal, not as good as the good black anthracite out of New Straitsville back East, but it was available and a hell of a lot cheaper to ship locally, rather than freight it across two-thirds of a continent.

Carbon Hill was named after the enthusiastic idea of a miner who thought he would find good black bituminous like he'd dug out of Ohio's hill country.

When he found there was no good black bituminous to be hand, he joked that he should have called it Brownhelm or something of the kind, at which point some stranger shook his hand and allowed as he was from Brownhelm Township back in Ohio and he'd stand the man a drink, for it was good to meet someone from back home, and the two went into business together.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland, the town marshal, knew all this, just as he knew the local ranchers, their wives, their young ... hell, he thought, leaning against the awning post in front of his office and peering into the distance, he knew their dogs.

And their dogs knew him.

He thought back to the conversation he'd had earlier in the day, when that long tall pale eyed Sheriff rode over from Firelands with news of a mutual acquaintance.

Old Pale Eyes could have sent a letter, Harry knew, had it left at the depot for him, but it was less than a day's ride, and sometimes a man just wants to go and talk.

Harry belched, his stomach full and happy, for the lean lawman was good for a meal and beer, and the two ate, and talked, and ate, and laughed, and ate.

The local hash house benefited when that visiting Sheriff with the iron grey mustache visited, for he could eat like he was still eighteen, and generally did; he paid well, too, cash money, and whenever he showed up, everyone from cook to that cute little hash slinger with the scar under her lip profited.

The Sheriff had rode up and stood down, looked squarely at the town marshal and nodded once: "Harry."

"Linn."

The Sheriff arranged himself on the opposite side of Macfarland's leaning post, and silence grew long between the two.

A stray dog skulked along under the boardwalk opposite, slid out from under and trotted down the alley toward a scrap pile, hoping to scare up a meal.

"Heard about old man Street?" the Sheriff drawled.

Macfarland thought for a while, watched a buzzard circle in the cloudless sky.

"Ain't he the one broke his leg a month ago?"

"Was."

Macfarland considered his friend's laconic answer.

"Was" could mean either the leg was healed, or the man was dead.

The cur dog snuffed through the trash pile, picked out something, chewed it like it was distasteful, then went to a puddle and drank noisily.

"Planted him yesterday," the Sheriff continued, completing the thought and answering the unspoken question.

"Ah."

Another lengthy silence; miners trudged wearily toward their saloon, clothes wrinkled and muddy, soft caps with brass lamps above the bill cocked a little to one side: most of them squinted in the light, having worked an entire shift underground, with the only light coming from what amounted to a pre-Medieval oil lamp.

The Sheriff knew the general store here in town stocked tins of "Miner's Sunshine" but most of the miners used butter, as it was cheaper and worked just as well, for all that it smelled worse.

"Gangrene?" Macfarland finally asked.

The Sheriff hawked, spat.

"Yep."

Two fellows shoved one another out of the saloon, snarling; there was a brief windmill of fists, then a grunt as they clinched, one bear hugging the other and the other hooking the first man's leg with his own: they went down in the street, rolled, pounding at one another: finally, they rolled apart, stood up and went back in the saloon with their arms around each other's shoulders.

"Family?" Macfarland inquired.

"Son."

"Stayin'?"

"Yep."

There was another protracted silence, then:

"Hungry?"

The two lawmen leaned away from the post and sauntered up the board walk toward the hash house.

Macfarland knew they would eat their fill and then some, then they'd sojourn over to the saloon, where very likely the two street brawlers would be buying one another's drinks, or sharing a short beer, depending on the state of their personal fortunes: this deep into the month, he knew, the latter was the more likely.

The Sheriff ate in silence, as did Macfarland; neither man was truculent, nor out of sorts, it's just that old friends can be silent with each other and be perfectly comfortable with the silence, and these two were.

It wasn't until each was halfway through their first beer, across the street in the rough, sawdust-floored saloon, that Macfarland actually put together a full sentence.

"Heard tell Jacob had to speak the language they understood," he offered.

The Sheriff's eyes were quiet.

"Yep."

"You teachin' him?"

The Sheriff's eyes were busy, there in the Saloon, looking around, watching, listening: he took a short sip, wiped foam off his mustache.

"Yep."

Macfarland nodded, leaned his elbows on the table.

"Word's got around on that one."

"Yep."

"Been hearin' that pale eyed depitty is a good man to fight shy of."

The Sheriff nodded. "Reckon."

"Yer just awful talky t'day, y'know that?"

The Sheriff nodded again.

Macfarland looked closely at his old friend.

"You give any thought to retirin'?"

Linn looked at Harry, a long, thoughtful look, not a glare, not a challenge, just a steady, firm gaze.

"You could r'tire, y'know. You've done more'n yer share. Hell, you paid for ... you paid for the whole damned Irish Brigade, steam machine, building, horses an' hats! You funded the hospital --"

Linn's expression sharpened and Harry corrected, "Okay, you arranged for the money t' build it."

Linn blinked, a slow, sleepy blink, like a cat drowsing in a sunny window.

"Dammit, man, you're not no younger! At least Macneil knew when to quit!"

The Sheriff nodded slowly, the trace of a smile crossing his face like a cloud crossing the sun.

"You'd ought t' ride the rockin' chair, old hoss. Wish I could. Hell, I'm a-gonna work til I fall over dead!"

"Reckon you want me t' git married too."

It was the most words the Sheriff had strung together since he got there.

Macfarland stuck out an admonishing finger. "You'd oughta do that," he affirmed. "You'd oughta do just that! Find yourself a good woman, set in that rockin' chair with yer children on yer lap --"

Macfarland saw the Sheriff's eyes shift.

The hash slinger from across the street hesitated in the doorway, looking around: she saw the Sheriff, took a breath like a swimmer about to dive, and thrust herself into the tobacco-fouled atmosphere.

The Sheriff rose, removed his hat, as did Macfarland.

"Sheriff," the woman blurted with no preamble, "you may not remember me -- I'm Anna Mae Hill -- you ..."
Her hand raised hesitantly, her fingers shook just a little as she touched the scar between her bottom lip and her chin.

"You ... I ..."

The Sheriff nodded, for he remembered: she'd spurned a drunken miner, he pulled a knife and slashed at her, and the Sheriff's kick knocked the man back against the wall; the sight of one of Colonel Colt's revolving pistols taking a seriously steady look at the miner's left eye was enough to persuade the swain against any further unpleasantness.

The Sheriff tended the woman's wound, cleaning it quickly with the coldest water he could find, approximating the wound margins as best he could, then applying a moist tobacco paper to hold it: it healed cleanly, with minimal scarring, but scarring she saw every time she looked in the mirror.

"Sheriff, you were right," Anna Mae continued. "You told me I was still beautiful, and I was still desirable --"

She hesitated and looked at Macfarland, who was elaborately pretending to study the window opposite as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.

The young hash slinger began wringing a kerchief in her hands. "I ... didn't ... until you told me, I didn't ... "

"Who is the young man?" the Sheriff interrupted, his voice gentle.

Anna Mae's eyes widened with surprise, then softened with gratitude: "His name is Charles Ferguson," she said, blushing, dropping her eyes and smiling gently, "and he is a perfect gentleman."

"And?"

"And we are to be married in a week."

The Sheriff seized her by the wrist, his grip strong, unbreakable: he looked at Macfarland.

"Good to see you again" -- then to the young woman, "You're coming with me."

Surprised, pulled along by an iron grip on her wrist, the woman had no choice but to accompany the Sheriff.

As luck would have it, a certain Mr. Charles Ferguson was a little distance away, but owing to good eyesight and clarity of the air, he could see his intended being pulled mercilessly toward the depot by a lawman of some sort.

The Sheriff stopped a man, reached into a vest pocket, pulled out good gold coin, handed it to the surprised merchant: "I'm borrowin' your waitress. Have her back tonight" -- then resumed his forceful journey to the depot, the young woman helplessly in tow.

The Sheriff rapped at the ticket agent's windowsill with hard knuckles.

"Yes, sir, Sheriff," the buck toothed young man goggled, staring at the pale, frightened young woman held in the lawman's grip: "what'll it be?"

"Three for Firelands, what's your best car?"

The ticket agent laughed, added up the cost, quoted the price, then apologized, "Sheriff, I'm sorry, we only have one grade of passenger car."

The Sheriff accepted the three tickets as boot heels advanced at a near-running pace on the depot platform.

The Sheriff turned, thrust a ticket at the distressed young man: he nearly skidded as he stopped, took the ticket, looked at it, looked at the Sheriff, at his fiancee.

"You're coming with us," the Sheriff said in a voice that brooked no dissent.

Back in the saloon, Macfarland wondered just what stories would be told about the Sheriff now, and he hadn't long to wait.

The happy couple returned by special train that night.

The bride to be wore a fine new McKenna gown, her hair was done up, she wore a necklace -- the first one she'd ever owned -- the groom was in a new suit, complete to townie hat and elastic sided shoes; the next day, Parson Belden drove into town, and the wedding of an orphaned young woman with an orphaned young man, was moved up by a sevenday.

Macfarland sat in the back of their church, his hat in his lap, and considered that his old friend was a hard man, and a man not be trifled with, but he was also a man who got things done ... and as the Parson pronounced the couple husband and wife, Macfarland smiled a little, for sometimes a hard man that gets things done is exactly what's needed, and for reasons not always obvious.

He spoke briefly with Parson Belden, after the wedding, and confided in the sky pilot the content of his conversation with the Sheriff, or at least the part where he recommended the man retire.

"He'd oughta do like that Culpepper fella I been hearin' about," Macfarland said thoughtfully. "Quit this badge packin' and run a ranch. Let the man plant trees and raise young 'uns." He looked sharply at the Parson. "You know the man, Parson. He needs to find himself a good woman and get married!"

Parson Belden agreed, quietly, for he'd thought much the same thing, and more than once.

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My dear Mrs. Culpepper,

Thank you for your most thoughtful gift.

Our son sleeps in the quilt you sent us, warm and snug as I write this note.

Thank you especially for your note: I appreciate the words of a wife and mother, given to one less experienced.

Sarah looked up from her page, her eyes wandering along the wall, then over to her sleeping son, and she dipped her pen again, wiped the excess off against the inside of the inkwell's tapered neck.

Sincerely yours,

Sarah

 

Sarah carefully blotted her script, re-read it twice, nodded her satisfaction: the note was folded, wax-sealed, the outside of the sheet addressed.

Her husband would take it in the morning, where it would be given over to the depot; from there, by train, and then by trusted messenger, until it was given into the hand of a woman her father spoke of with great respect.

Sarah placed the folded, addressed, red-wax-sealed missive on the corner of the desk, her fingertips light on good rag paper.

"I don't know you, Mrs. Culpepper," she whispered, "but any woman who impresses the Sheriff is a woman to reckon with!"

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An army marches on its stomach, or so they taught me when I still wore Union blue.

I heard a Navy man say the Navy runs on coffee.

I know I do.

I glared at the bottom of my coffee mug, then rubbed my eyes, set the mug down and leaned back in the chair.

I'd parked my rifle in the corner like I usually do and hung my hat on the peg above, and out of habit looked around again for the hundredth or so time.

The Silver Jewel sounded like it always did, smelled like it always did, looked like it always has, or has since I took it over years back.

I was restless and it's not a good thing for a man to be restless, for a restless man sometimes acts without thinking.

A young fellow came in the front door, followed by what could have been his twin: they both wore the rough clothes of working men, they each had their hat in their hand and they each had a white blaze of hair on the side of their heads.

I knew them to be cousins; I knew their given Christian names, but I thought of them the same way they did, and the community at large: this pair was The Blaze Boys, and they came back to my table a little hesitantly, for ever since they were little fellows, they stood in awe of me.

"Set," I said without preamble, my voice rough, but not unkind.

They sat.

Daisy's girl came back, which one she was I'm not sure, Daisy hired several and they took turns running the kitchen and tending customers -- this one had black eyes and straight black hair and that indefinable air that told me she was of Spanish blood, and though there was a smile hiding behind her eyes, a man would be right foolish to try anything improper.

She refilled my coffee without asking, looked at the Blaze Boys, looked at me.

"Pie, if you would, please," I said, my voice quiet, and she nodded, once, before turning and heading back for the kitchen.

The Blaze Boys grinned at one another, for pie at the Silver Jewel was a thing to be wished for; they were a hard working pair, but they tended to sock their money away and not spend it on frivolities.

Like pie.

"I need some work done," I said, my voice a little less hoarse.

"Sure thing, Sheriff," one said. "What do ye need?"

I looked up as another of Daisy's girls looked at me, raised her chin.

"I want you boys to go with Daisy's girl yonder," I said, indicating direction with a tilt of my knuckle. "She's got a delivery I need made. You two are to take a crate of food goods out to the Culpepper ranch."

"Yes, sir, we can do that."

"I've got a wagon should be pullin' up just any time. Take it to the depot. Once you get to the right stop, there will be a wagon a-waitin' on you. Drive it out to the ranch and ask to talk to Cookie. A good lookin' woman will come out with a rollin' pin in her hand and fire in her eyes and she'll tell you nobody by that name works there, and you'll hand her this."

I slid an envelope across the table.

"Then you'll drop the tail gate on that-there wagon and haul the goods out and set 'em wherever she tells you."

The pair looked at one another, back at me.

"That's all?" they asked in unison.

I reached in my vest pocket, pulled out good silver, slid it across the table. "That much again once you get back."

That black-eyed senorita came gliding back with a tray.

"You two go let Daisy's girl you're here for the goods, then get yourselves back here." I picked up my fork as three big healthy slices of warm-from-the-oven pie set down in front of each of us. "I don't want this goin' to waste."

"Yes, sir!" they grinned: they hopped up and made a bee line for the front, one going out front for the wagon, the other following Daisy's girl back toward the kitchen.

I'd gathered Cheyenne might be making a pilgrimage to the Virginia territory.

If that was the case, they might want some provisions -- I knew his ranch would be well supplied, but when someone sends them fresh baked goods and a note wishing them safe travels and swift return, why, it means something.

I didn't wait for the Blaze boys to get loaded up.

I stabbed into that pie and took me a bite.

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the years seemed to fly by as Calico and I watched the kids grow and take on responsibilities on the ranch.. The west was maturing now, towns were spreading, rails crisscrossing the plains.

 

Calico were able to spend more time together, time we enjoyed as we had more time now.

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The past 5 or 6 years had gone by quickly. Our family was now even bigger, Rebecca Abigail had been born when Ruth was 3, followed by Karl Cheyenne two years later. Ike and Sally had two sons and two daughters, and Eddie and Little Flower had given us three more grandsons. Unfortunately Cora had lost the child she had been carrying, and suffered two additional miscarriages before she and Biblepuncher decided to follow our example and adopt.

 

We had finally gotten our idea of having the orphans from Denver come to the ranch for visits off the ground, and our preacher and his wife had gone on to adopt 5 of the children least likely to find homes. All had some sort of physical or health problem, but the love those two gave those children was just as great as we had given ours. The other orphans always seemed to enjoy their visits, and we had helped over a dozen of them find permanent loving homes as well.

 

Having so many children around, it had been necessary to expand our schoolhouse, and Laura was our only choice to assist Schoolmarm. Schoolmarm continued to teach the older children, while Laura took over the responsibility of instructing the younger ones. Laura was still insistent that she had no interest in marriage, but Lone Wolf didn’t seem to mind. Everyone thought of them as a couple, and they did spend almost all of their free time together, so as far as we were concerned he had become part of the family as well.

 

Tommy wasn’t showing much interest in following in his older brother’s footsteps and learning the ranching business. He enjoyed riding and was developing into quite a good marksman with both rifle and pistols, but he had his heart set on studying engineering. We had been in contact with a good preparatory school connected to the University of Colorado in Boulder, and plans had been made to send Tommy there in the fall for some additional schooling he would need before he could apply to the college, classes that were simply beyond Schoolmarm’s ability to teach him. While we weren’t looking forward to him leaving, at least he wouldn’t be that far away and would still be able to come home on holidays and school breaks.

 

Stands Alone had passed away in his sleep one spring, and Running Bear and Two Birds had agreed to let us lay him to rest in the Culpepper family burial plot. Padre and Two Birds had finally given in and let us build them a cabin, and Two Birds’ three children now attended school with the rest of the youngsters. Running Bear still insisted on sleeping in his tipi unless the weather was really bad, we had convinced him he was welcome to stay in the bunkhouse during the worst of the winter storms. Most of our neighbors had finally accepted the fact that our Cheyenne relatives were as much a part of our family and our ranch as any of us, and with only a few exceptions problems due to their race had become few.

 

Eddie and Ike, assisted by Lone Wolf, were now responsible for pretty much all the day to day running of the ranch. Cheyenne and Karl still helped out here and there, but Karl was also enjoying his semi-retirement. Cheyenne took care of more of the business side of things now, but I had recently seen a look of boredom in his eyes. Better than anyone I knew that my husband being bored was not a good thing, and I began to have premonitions that things were about to start getting interesting soon….

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“Cheyenne.”

The lawman spoke quietly. There was no reason to raise his voice: first, it would be impolite, and second, he knew the folly of surprising a scarred old he-coon of a warrior.

“I heard you already,” Cheyenne growled as he hung up the bridle and turned. “How in two hells have you been?”

The pale-eyed Sheriff paced forward and shook the man’s hand. “Fine as frog hair, young feller,” he grinned.

“Young,” Cheyenne muttered. “When I was young you wasn’t even around!”

Sheriff Jacob Keller laughed and nodded. “Trust me to cause trouble!”

“Speakin’ of trouble, where’s that long tall Pa of yours?”

Jacob’s eyes still smiled. “He’s retired, sir. He said he was intendin’ to put some miles on his rockin’ chair.”

“Rockin’ chair my Aunt Sadie’s billy goat,” Cheyenne muttered. “Say, where’s that boy ‘ yours? When your Pa come around you was closer to him than his shadow!”

Jacob laughed again. “He’s stuck to Pa’s shadow these days.”

 

Past Sheriff Linn Keller nodded as the sulfurous cloud passed in front of him.

“Again,” he said, tossing the worse-for-wear tin can high in the air.

Joseph Keller, his firstborn son’s spittin’ image, drew his left hand Colt – easily, smoothly, his eyes on the can: the copper plated revolver coughed deep in its machined-steel throat and another 44-caliber freight train rammed into and through the can, spinning it higher into the cloudless Colorado sky.

Grampa Keller, as he was now, watched approvingly as his grandson kicked out the empty hull, replaced it, counted the chambers as he rotated the cylinder, cocked the hammer and eased it down on the empty: he saw the boy’s lips move as he chanted silently the ancient mnemonic, “Load one, skip one, load four, cock.”

The lean old man with the iron-grey mustache laid his hand on his grandson’s shoulder: pale eyes met pale eyes, and the young man saw approval in his elder’s expression.

“How do you like those new revolvers?” Grampa Keller asked quietly.

Joseph grinned as broad as a Texas township.

“I like ‘em fine, sir.”

 

“Now what brings you this fur out of your bailiwick?” Cheyenne asked as he and Jacob sat down to pie and coffee.

“I come to say thank you.”

Cheyenne raised an eyebrow as Jacob picked up his fork and planned his initial assault on the fresh baked slab of goodness on the plate before him.

“Thank me?”

Jacob’s fork hesitated in mid-air, then the young lawman laid it down very carefully beside his plate.

“Sir,” he said, turning to look Cheyenne square in the eye, “Ma has been dead and gone long years now.” He considered a minute, his jaw thrust out while he thought – God Almighty, he looks so much like his old man! Cheyenne thought – “you sent him a note here about a week ago and it was …”

Jacob considered again, then picked up his fork.

“It was needed.”

He pressed the fork’s tines slowly into the flaky crust, stopped.

“Pa is mighty deep, sir. He give all of himself to Ma, and he still misses her … sometimes he misses her fiercely.”

Cheyenne nodded slowly. He knew what it was to lose someone he loved dearly.

“He was havin’ … he was troubled, sir, and when your note arrived … it was a comfort to him that you cared enough to write and say howdy.”

 

“Mine, sir?” Joseph swallowed, his eyes big and round as he regarded the newly-cleaned, freshly-oiled, consecutive-serial-numbered Colt revolvers in their smooth-brown double gunrig.

“Yours.”

 

Jacob and Cheyenne shook hands.

"Appreciate your hospitality."

"Any time." Cheyenne looked closely at the younger man. "I ain't seen much of either you or your Pa for some time."

Jacob laughed. "I don't reckon you will either, sir," he smiled. "Since you set up out this-a-way, why, things have been right peaceful!"

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