Jump to content
SASS Wire Forum

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

The Sheriff's Grandson

Recommended Posts

The usual disclaimers apply:

1) I am long winded and often post more than one in a day's time.

2) I retain all copy rights to my work.

3) This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to someone you recognize, it's your imagination, and any resemblance to yourself, it's your guilty conscience.

Except for Charlie Macneil. He and I have swung swords together in a previous lifetime.

 

 

THE SHERIFF'S GRANDSON

 

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.”

 

“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.”

 

"They're yours."

“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.”

Joseph’s fingertips caressed the India-black Masonic square-and-compasses, hand engraved in the ivory handles.

The broad-shouldered older man squeezed his grandson’s shoulder.

“Call it an investment in your future,” he said quietly.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re still going to Europe?”

“Yes, sir.”

Grampa Keller looked at the ground ahead of him, seeing grass and rocks and a solitary ant climbing the dizzying height of a weed stem, seeing them as if he’d never seen them before.

“I went off to war,” he said, and Joseph heard his grandfather’s voice change: like most young men, he stiffened, at least inside, expecting a lecture, expecting wise words of the elder “for your own good.”

His Grampa didn’t.

“Joseph,” he said, and there was a new hardness in his voice, “you can ride like an Apache, shoot better than your Pa and you are the fastest, deadliest knife fighter I ever squared off against.”

Joseph blinked, surprised.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re going to need every one of those skills when you get over there.”

“Yes, sir.”

The old man looked at his grandson: his eyes were pale, ice-pale and hard as a glacier’s frozen heart.

“You take good care over there, Joseph. I want to have my picture taken holding your firstborn.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Those revolvers are yours. Brown leather will go with your uniform. Once you get back we’ll see about adding your name to the Lodge roll.”

Joseph grinned. “Yes, sir.”

Linn stood, and Joseph stood with him.

He's tall as I am, the retired lawman thought -- half surprised and half pleased.

“I reckon we’d ought to head back. Supper does better when it’s frash and hot.”

“Sir?”

Grampa Linn stopped, turned.

“Thank you, sir.”

The two clasped hands, then the old man pulled his grandson into a tight, sudden bear hug, and they held one another for a long minute.

Joseph could not see, and he never knew about, the tears that spilled out of his Grampa’s hard, cold eyes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Very good :-)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

More....that is great....Thanks Linn.....a whole family of good writers....Jim

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I reckon I should install the usual disclaimers.

This is a solo effort, it is a work of fiction, and I will do my best not to waste your time or mine.

Linn

 

The old woman slid the hand-rubbed walnut box across the Sheriff's desk.

"My grandfather," she said, then cleared her throat and tried again, "... my grandfather told me he wanted to give you this many years ago."

The Sheriff looked at the old woman, her eyes ice-pale, hard.

"Why didn't he?" she asked, her voice carefully neutral.

"I think," the old woman smiled gently as she remembered her grandfather, "I ... think he couldn't bear to part with it."

She reached in her purse and drew out a folded sheet of paper, closed with a red wax seal.

"This goes with it."

She reached in again and drew out a fatter envelope, containing several folded sheets.

"So does this."

Sheriff Willamina Keller accepted both envelopes; she cracked the seal, unfolded the paper, read the exquisite handwriting, read it again.

"This is dated ..." She looked up, surprised. "This is dated 1919."

The old woman nodded. "That's right."

Sheriff Willamina Keller picked up the fat envelope.

It was not sealed.

The Sheriff's eyes widened, then fixed on the European-walnut box, and her face turned a little pale.

She resumed reading -- she was so absorbed that she never noticed the old woman rise, and turn away, and slip out the door.

 

An old man gripped a pencil, willing his hand not to shake.

Death stood in the room with him, he knew, and unlike the Dore engravings he’d studied as a child, his death wore the creased, tailored uniform of a German offizier.

Death was tall and ramrod-straight, Death was young and handsome with an absolutely black, immaculately barbered, tightly curled schnurrbart, Death was himself, complete to the mustache of which he’d been so immensely proud, before he shaved it to become one of the military elite.

Yes, Death looked like himself when he was young, and strong, when he led his men into battle, and when he himself was nearly killed, save for the actions of one of the enemy.

His chest was tighter and his breath was labored, but his print was exact, precise, uniform, as befitted an offizer and a gentleman.

His last act on this earth was to give final instructions for a box.

It was time the box was delivered.

His great-granddaughter found him dead, still seated at his desk, the box before him: an old, yellowed, wax-sealed envelope on the box, and the old man’s hand still clutching the pencil, its tip less than a half inch from where he’d signed his name for the very last time.

She did not see her great-grandfather as he turned and looked back at her, his elderly, white mustache now thick, rich and black, and the kyphotic bend of an old man’s back now gone straight.

He executed a crisp military about-face, and paced off on the left, and Death left the room, never to return.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've never seen a copper plated revolver. Was it something that was done back then and I've just never run into it?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Springfield Slim -- yes, it was done, reference Sixguns by Keith, he illustrates with photographs of same.

Good looking, too; holster wear points polish bright, the rest is a normal tarnish: dark, almost black.

It was done for the same reason British army officers used nickle plated pistolas, as did various saltwater navies: corrosion resistance.

We now return to our regularly scheduled story ...

 

Willamina read the account, entrusted to good rag paper a century and more ago: the account of a First World War German army officer, and his encounter with a wild American cowboy.

Willamina read, open-mouthed, then stopped and swallowed hard.

"Granddad," she said aloud, "I hope you're seeing this" -- she reached for the lovingly-burnished, furniture-grade walnut box, hesitated, then turned the latch, raised the lid.

The hinges were waxed and opened silently.

She laid the lid wide open, drew the box to her, saw a second lid -- heavy glass, with beveled edges.

She stared for several long moments through the glass, then she turned a little and opened the top right hand desk drawer, plunged in and grasped a familiar, well-thumbed book, one of her Great-Great-Granddad's Journals.

She riffled quickly through the pages, frowned, slammed it shut, reached in, withdrew another.

"Come on," she muttered through clenched teeth. "You're here, I read it .. where are you ..."

 

Joseph Keller watched as the engraver brushed the last curl of cut steel from the frame.

The second revolver now wore the totem he'd required, incised into the copper plated Colt: money was paid, the revolver was holstered, and the lean young man walked out of the engraver's shop with the last of his preparations complete.

 

Grampa Keller -- no longer Sheriff Keller, and content with that change -- walked slowly, his daughter's hand on his arm: he rested his free hand on her gloved fingers and murmured, "It always does an old man good to be seen with a pretty young woman."

Sarah laughed, and the sound was good; men's heads turned and men smiled to hear it, for it was an easy, natural laugh.

Sarah Llewellyn was a woman grown, with a child the same age as the Sheriff's grandson Joseph, though Joseph was the taller of the two: her son Daffyd was the get of the late Daffyd Llewellyn, a Firelands fireman who died saving an infant from the second story of a burning boarding-house, longer ago than her child was old.

"Sarah, I need to know something."

Sarah's spine stiffened.

Sarah had been an investigator, and an Agent with the Firelands District Court: she'd served as a detective, she'd been an autonomous branch of law enforcement, answerable to the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler, and to herself.

Her investigator's ear caught the change in her father's voice.

"Yes?" she said, and the lean grandfather with the iron-grey mustache heard the change in her voice as well.

"Sarah, you have the Second Sight."

Sarah waited.

"Sarah ... you trained Joseph since he was a little rudder billy."

Again Sarah waited.

The old ex-lawman stopped, turned: Sarah turned as well, and he grasped her upper arms, gently, but she could feel the urgency in his grip.

"Sarah, what will happen to Joseph?"

Sarah looked long into her father's pale eyes: she, too, had those same pale-blue, ice-pale eyes, and she, too, could look at someone and they would see the softness of a mountain glacier, when she was of a temper.

The elder Keller's eyes were pale, but not hard: Sarah's eyes were pale, and troubled.

Sarah blinked, took a long breath, considered.

She turned again, grasping her father's arm and encouraging his turn as well: they resumed their slow pace up the board walk, their heels loud and hollow-sounding on the dusty, dry-warped boards.
"I have seen my own death," Sarah said.

The elder Keller looked sharply at her.

"Oh, don't give me those big sad eyes," Sarah chided with a faint smile. "It won't be for some years yet. You'll be long gone."

"So you've seen mine."

"Of course."

"And you won't tell me about it."

"No."

"So I won't know whether I'll die an old man in bed or if I'll be run over by a freight wagon two minutes from now."

"You may find out elsewise, but not from me."

"I could ask Daciana."

"You know what she'll say."

The elder Keller laughed and nodded. Daciana was a former trick rider with the circus; she'd turned out to be not just Sarah's best friend, but an herbalist and a healer of no small skill -- so much so that their physicians, the Doctors Flint and Greenlees, consulted her on a variety of cases.

Daciana was rumored by some to be a witch, as is not uncommon when a woman has such a skill; a witch she was not, but Grampa Keller was of the notion that she had an insight not of this world, and truth be told, he was right.

"She will not tell me either," he chuckled. "She would offer me some tea and steer me off talking about horses and mining and suchlike."

"So you've tried her already."

He sighed, a great, long, deep indraw of breath, and an equally long exhalation. "Yep."

Sarah stopped again, took his face gently between her gloved palms.

"Dear Papa," she whispered, and he saw sorrow in her eyes, "I know so much and I can say so little" -- she bit her bottom lip and looked away, and the greying old ex-lawman felt his heart contract painfully, for he'd loved her mother, Bonnie, for years, and never once spoke of it, and Bonnie would bite her bottom lip in just this manner -- her mouth opened, and then closed, and she leaned into her Papa's embrace, and he ran his arms around her, feeling her shiver like a frightened child.

He reached up and removed his Stetson, then ran his arms around her, his hat at the middle of her back, and his arms were warm and strong surrounding her, and for a moment, for a long moment, he wished she were a little girl again, and could sit on his lap, like she did once when a sudden thunderstorm frightened her and she jumped up into his lap and trembled, and he held her and soothed her like a man will a frightened little child.

 

Doctor George Flint nodded slowly, obsidian eyes glittering in the operating room's harsh light. He'd lit the acetylene lights and their focused beams were bright on the table, bright on the two copper plated revolvers.

Doctor George Flint was pure blood Navajo, a graduate of the Harvard School of Medicine, and a skilled surgeon.

He was also a man with the knowledge of his own people, and it was he who advised Joseph on the engraving on these most personal of his weapons.

Joseph drew out his knife as well -- watered steel it was, good German steel, with a wire-wound handle to provide a solid grip even when wet with blood -- on this, too, the good physician saw the engraved sigil, and he grunted with approval.

The Thunder Bird was the most powerful totem he knew of, and he knew Joseph intended to go into harm's way: Dr. Flint had walked the warrior's path, and he knew that sometimes a warrior must go to the fight and keep that fight from his home, and he knew young Joseph Keller, son of Jacob, grandson of Linn, was of the same mind: his path led from this land, across the Great Salt Water, to the older lands of Europe, and the war fomenting there.

"It is well," he said quietly, then turned and opened a drawer.

He withdrew three elkskin pouches, of a size easily concealed about a man's person.

"Each of these contain the herbs we spoke of," he said quietly, his voice serious: "remember to wet them before you apply them."

Joseph nodded as the physician laid the three pouches beneath the revolvers and the knife.

He looked up at the big Navajo.

"I feel like I should ask a blessing," he said, his throat suddenly tight.

Doctor George Flint gripped the tall young man's shoulders firmly. "You are as deep as your father," he rumbled, "and he is as deep as his father, and that is a good thing. You have their strength and" -- he released his grip, placed a gentle thumb in the middle of Joseph's forehead -- "you have the intelligence of your mother, and of her mother, and of your brother's sister."

Joseph swallowed, his mouth dry.

"Doctor Flint," he finally said, "I don't reckon I'll be back."

"A warrior must know that before he begins."

Joseph nodded.

"There will be a return, and your people will rejoice."

 

Sarah McKenna looked down the dusty Colorado street, her hand tightening a little on her father's arm.

"You're right," she said at last, "I have trained him from his earliest childhood."

"You saw something even then."

She gave him a long look, then realized he was staring at something down the street, roughly in front of the quartz-faced hospital.

She turned, looked, blinked.

"I could have sworn" -- she looked at her father -- "I thought ..."

A wisp of fog curled into the ground and was gone.

Grampa Keller looked at his daughter, and they said together, "A white wolf?"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up as her door opened: for a moment she felt disoriented, for she'd been in her father's journal, in the late 1800s, then in the German officer's account, just after the turn of the century, and now, with her Navajo chief deputy shoving his head through the opening, she was yanked unceremoniously back into the here-and-now.

"Boss, you wanted to see me?"

Willamina nodded, gesturing him in, then looked up again as the door opened wider.

A wisp of fog twisted into the floor, and was gone.

She pointed, her mouth open. "Barrents, did you see --"

"The white wolf? Yeah, isn't that your new dog? I was surprised it didn't have a vest -- Boss, are you all right?"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Lady Esther's whistle grieved to the mountains, mournfully howling her presence on the down grade toward Firelands.

The Easterner in the immaculate suit and the brushed Derby hat flipped through his notebook, frowning: he thrust it into one of the several pockets inside his coat, reached into a side pocket and withdrew a penny dreadful -- Lies, Damned Lies and Tall Tales of Firelands County, Colorado -- and riffled through its pages, pausing to read notes he'd penciled in its margins, trailing his eyes across underlined passages.

He was a newspaperman and his newser's nose told him there was more truth than lie in the stories in the popular paperback.

He felt the air more than heard it, and marveled again that a little backwater railroad could have the Westinghouse brakes that the main lines wished they had.

Esther Keller owned this line, he thought, and she instituted steel rails and air brakes the moment they were on the market.

Remarkable.

He waited until the train slowed, until the conductor sang "Fiahlands, Fiahlands," in the accent of a Connecticut Yankee, before looking at his carpet bag on the floor beside his elastic sided townie shoe.

 

Sarah crossed the street at a brisk pace, headed for the Mercantile: she needed a few sewing notions, and if her son Daffyd came home with elk on the pack horse, she would be more than pleased: his father was a bowyer, back in Wales, back before he'd sailed to Americana and become a fireman in the great Eastern river port of Cincinnati: she smiled as she thought of the young man he must've been, accompanying the factory-new Ahrens steam fire engine on the train ride into the great howling wilderness of Colorado's Shining Mountains.

Her father, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado, bought the steam engine and the services of what became known as the Irish Brigade: there was the Welsh Irishman, the English Irishman (who, she was assured, God would forgive for being English!) -- the German Irishman, and the New York Irishman. She'd married the Welsh Irishman shortly after her fifteenth birthday and was widowed not two months after, but she tried not to think of that: she tried her best to remember the laughing, strong, good-natured man with the fine singing voice, the man with whom duets were easy and natural, the man with whom she held hands when they sat in church together.

Sarah blinked, shook her head: lifting her skirts, she stepped daintily onto rough-cut plank steps, and up to the boardwalk, and into the Mercantile.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back in her office chair.

"Take a look," she said, her voice clipped.

Barrents leaned his sun-browned, callused palms on the Sheriff's desk, leaned over, looked straight down through the heavy glass.

He looked back up at the Sheriff, his eyes suddenly black and unreadable.

"That's right," Willamina said. "The thunder bird."

Barrents straightened slowly.

"Where," he said carefully, "did you get these?"

"From Germany," Willamina said. "From a German army officer who had them recovered from a dead American. He had them cleaned, buffed, waxed, had this blue-velvet-lined box made for them, and gave orders that they be taken back and given to the Firelands Masonic Lodge."

Sheriff Willamina Keller held up a finger, as if lecturing a class.

"Notice he did not have them sent. He ordered them brought."

Barrents' eyes narrowed as he considered this.

"When was this again?"

"The owner was killed in the First World War."

"About 1914, then."

Willamina nodded.

"So whose are they?"

"Mine."

"Yours?"

Willamina nodded, stood.

She walked around her desk, over to a row of framed prints made from glass-plate photographs discovered by their friendly local newspaper editor.

She used her ballpoint as a pointer. "You remember this one."

"Sure. That's the Old Sheriff himself."

"And here beside him."

"That's his son Jacob, and if that's not you standing beside Jacob's stallion I'll be switched!"

The Sheriff laughed. "Drop your drawers and bend over, big boy, you know that's Sarah!"

"Yeah, I know," he chuckled, "but damned if you two couldn't be twins!"

"I know, I know," the Sheriff sighed. "The one missing from this photo is the one I need to find."

Barrents' eyes went to the copper plated Colts.

"They have Masonic grips," he said, "one square-and-compasses, one arc-and-compasses. I take it the owner -- the former owner -- was a Past Master?"

"The owner was fifteen years old."

Barrents blinked. "What?"

"Send out for doughnuts and have Sharon fix a pot of coffee. I've got a story to read you."

 

The Easterner looked around, walked slowly up the street.

His expression was almost one of disappointment: he'd imagined Western towns to be small, dirty, unpainted, warped, fleabitten firetraps with desperadoes skulking on every street corner and slatterns leaning from every railing.

Firelands was tidy, well-tended, far cleaner than he expected; the buildings were, for the most part, painted, and almost all in remarkably good condition -- certainly not what he'd expected.

He'd heard the Silver Jewel was a decent hotel, and he'd heard on the train the have honest games.

He'd considered the last to be a lie, but looking around, he began to think that maybe -- just maybe -- the fellow he'd spoken with was telling the truth.

If the beds were clean and he could get a decent drink, he thought, maybe he could actually enjoy this trip.

A woman came out of the mercantile: the two almost collided, and the newspaperman stepped back awkwardly, lifting his derby.

"Your pardon, ma'am," he stammered, and Sarah Llewellyn smiled.

"The fault is mine," she said graciously, extending a hand.

The newspaperman wasn't sure whether to shake it or kiss it; he decided on the latter -- awkwardly, but if he must err, he reasoned, let him err on the side of caution.

"You're new here," Sarah said -- a statement, not a question.

"Yes, ma'am, I am."

"If you're lacking supplies, I can recommend the Mercantile here. The Silver Jewel" -- she indicated the neatly-trimmed saloon with a feminine turn of the wrist -- "is clean and the food is good." She cocked her head, giving him a warm look of interest.

"You don't look like a miner, you have no calluses, you wear a properly tailored suit," she said. "Your hat and your hand tell me you are a newspaperman."

"Um, yes, ma'am," he blinked in surprise, "but how could you tell?"

Sarah laughed, her hand at arm's length beside her: the newspaperman saw it lift to the horizontal, and was surprised to see the head of a curly-furred black dog thrust up against her horizontal palm.

"Oh, don't mind the Bear Killer," she purred. "He's not into his growth yet."

The newspaperman considered the size of the dog's paws and made a quick mental calculation. "Just how big will he become?"

Sarah tilted her head and smiled. "His sire was the size of a young bear, and I expect his get here will be every bit as big."

"The Bear Killer," the newspaperman said slowly, turning this over in his mind. "You ... must be ... Sarah ... McKenna?"

"I was," she laughed, "when I was a girl." She tilted her head again. "You have the advantage of me, sir."

"Bruce, Bruce Cornelius Jones," he stammered. "I, I, yes ma'am I am a newspaperman."

"Will you be setting up shop here in town, Mr. Bruce-Bruce?"

Jones blinked, then laughed. "No, ma'am. No, I'm ... I'm looking into some stories I've heard about, about Firelands."

He pulled the penny dreadful from his coat pocket.

"Oh, that," Sarah said with a wave of her hand. "I wrote that. Stuff and nonsense. Moonshine and misty-fog."

Jones gave her a long look and Sarah had the feeling he thought otherwise.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Folks, I do beg your pardon for this commercial interruption.

I'll try to be brief.

(Try not to laugh -- me, brief? -- especially you, Charlie Macneil, you know me so well!)

I am not perfect nor close to it, but I do make an effort to be factual.

Westinghouse air brakes, for instance, were available long before they became common, steel rails the same; I wrote in the Firelands thread on the late Belle Alley, that Esther Keller, upon receiving the Z&W Railroad as a wedding gift, wasted no time at all in safety couplers, air brakes and steel rails.

The one thing I got wrong was the firebox door on the flagship locomotive, The Lady Esther.

I wrote of stepping on the foot switch to open them with air power and that was a much later development.

Jacob's copper plated Colts drew interest, and I'd like to have a set myself: Elmer Keith (a blessing on his name!) wrote of them in his excellent work Sixguns by Keith, and had a photograph of same.

I've always tried to bear in mind a quote from Richard Bach: he spoke of "the artificial chatter of the man who wishes he knew what he was talking about."

My readers might not know the difference between, say, a Colt 1911 and a 1911A1, but a reader can smell bullsh .. bullsh ... baloney a mile away.

One more item, with my apologies: I started a separate comments thread.

I should have done so when I posted this thread, and that's my fault.

Please put comments, questions, insults, innuendo, slander, maledictions and the like there; compliments are also welcome, and any cash donations may be mailed or hand delivered to my house.

Like the old preacher said, all donations cheerfully accepted.

We now return to our regularly scheduled story.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller scanned the documents into her computer.

They scanned cleanly and very legibly, and she saved them into multiple files on multiple machines.

She wanted to take absolutely no chance of this treasure's loss.

She finished about the time Barrents returned.

He carried in the white-cardboard box and a fragrant cloud of fresh-brewed coffee smell followed him in.

Sharon kicked the door for admission, and Barrents pulled the conference door open: the dispatcher waddled in, the industrial-sized, stainless-steel coffee pot swinging in her two-handed grip.

"Here, take this," she groaned, and Barrents managed to slip his fingers in between hers; they eased the coffee pot to the floor, and Barrents hoisted it to the tabletop.

"You'll bust a gut," the Sheriff warned.

Sharon shook her hands, grimacing as she slung the pain from her fingers like she was slinging off water after washing her hands. "Yeah, now you tell me," she muttered. "You'll need coffee cups. You want milk?"

"Is the Pope Catholic?" Willamina replied distantly, frowning at the pages she'd just scanned.

"How do you put up with this?" Sharon demanded of the Navajo deputy.

Barrents grinned and shook his head.

Willamina went quickly through the first dozen or so pages, making sure they were still in order.

"Beautiful handwriting," she murmured. "I wish mine were this nice."

 

A year before the pages were written, another Sheriff, a tall, lean man with an iron-grey mustache, turned his office over to his firstborn son, and retired to the rocking chair, or so he claimed.

Sometime after this moment, he sat at his rolltop desk, scribing in a journal with a steel-nib dip pen, his expression serious, as it always was when he wrote in his journal.

His ear picked up a step outside his study door: there was a delicate tap at the wood panel, the door opened, and he heard his daughter's light step as she entered his sanctum.

"Daddy?" she asked, and Grampa Keller smiled, for her voice was light and there was that undefinable something in her voice that bespoke a universal truth.

He turned, and he froze, and his jaw dropped to the approximate altitude of his belt buckle.

Angela, his little girl -- Angela, his darlin' daughter -- Angela, who he first saw as a four-year-old waif, half-buried under the debris of a train wreck and orphaned by the rail catastrophe -- Angela stood before him, a beautiful young woman with big, dark-blue eyes, her hair immaculately arranged, wearing an absolutely beautiful white gown.

A wedding gown.

Linn sank to his chair, slowly, then stood again: Angela watched her Daddy with big, soft eyes, as her father's grin grew to the approximate width of the legendary Mississippi itself.

He took her white-gloved hand and raised it to his lips, then he said quietly, "I do beg your pardon, young woman, but I don't believe we've been introduced. I was expecting my daughter Angela, she's a little girl --"

He held his hand out at a little more than belt height, then looked back at his daughter.

Angela covered her mouth with both hands, stifling her giggles: "Oh, Daddy!" she exclaimed, and then she seized her Daddy around his neck, and he wrapped his arms around her and hoist her from the floor and spun her around like he used to when she was a little girl, his little girl, and she threw her head back and laughed like she did as a little girl, and for a magic moment she scattered giggles all over the floor.

Her twin sisters stood in the doorway, watching, big-eyed, as Linn set his daughter down, and caressed her cheek, and whispered, "My God, Angela, you are beautiful!"

 

Sarah Llewellyn gestured to her carriage.

The Bear Killer, this youngest Bear Killer, flowed easily from the boardwalk into the back of the carriage.

Sarah daintily mounted the stone block and stepped into her carriage; she unwound the reins, released the brake and clucked to the gelding. "Yup, Greyback," she called, and the gelding stepped smartly into a brisk, easy pace.

She controlled her thoughts, and with them, her feelings: she kept a rigid hand on them, far harsher than the gentle grip she used with her reins.

She remembered Joseph as the boy he was.

She remembered his laugh and his enthusiasm and his energy.

She remembered teaching him how to use a knife, she remembered the diagrams she drew, the dummies she made, the many hours they spent at practice.

She remembered how awkwardly he threw a knife at first, and how he improved with time, and she remembered their last practice session, one week before.

Joseph Keller, son of Jacob Keller, son of Linn Keller, rifleman, pisolero, knife fighter, was now one of the deadliest, dirtiest, most effective close-in or long-distance fighters she'd ever trained.

She remembered all this, and she came back to Joseph as a little boy with a big grin, shoving his hands in his pockets, whistling.

She raised a gloved hand to her cheek and wiped away something damp, and she realized she didn't have quite so tight a grip on her feelings as she'd believed.

 

The newspaperman turned and went into the Silver Jewel, walked up to the hotel desk.

"I'd like a room, please."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked around.

Her chief deputy, two road deputies, her twin brother and her dispatcher looked back at her.

"Before we start," Willamina said, "you should know how I got these."

She pressed a catch, lifted the heavy, bevel-glass lid, then reached in and withdrew one, then another, of the copper-plated Colts.

"An old man made a promise," she began, looking from one revolver to the other. "His family is keeping that promise. They held onto this after his death but finally decided to follow his wishes, and I am glad they did."

"The thunderbird," Barrents said slowly, "is uniquely ... ours. Navajo. It is the most powerful totem we have." He looked at the Sheriff.

"Whose were these?"

Willamina raised her chin and folded her hands very properly in her lap.

“These Colt Peacemaker revolvers,” she said, as if rehearsed, “were taken to war by the grandson of my great-great-grandfather, Sheriff Linn Keller. His name was Joseph Keller, he was firstborn son of Jacob Keller, the Sheriff’s firstborn, and he died as he was born, screaming and covered in someone else’s blood.”

She replaced the revolvers in the case and opened the single sheet that had been red-wax-sealed.

"Listen to this."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Private Joseph Keller surveyed the splintered countryside with pale eyes.


His gut told him they were in trouble, but he saw nothing to corroborate the feeling, which only made the feeling stronger.


“Lieutenant,” he said quietly, “I smell an ambush.”


“Nonsense!” the lieutenant ejaculated. “The damned Bosche are nowhere near here! Probably in some ruined farmhouse enjoying a bottle of wine and a farm girl, if I’m any judge!” He turned to look at the Sergeant – at least until Jacob’s hand gripped his upper arm.


“Sir,” Joseph said warningly, his eyes a little more pale, “let me scout it first.”


The lieutenant jerked his arm from Joseph’s grip. “And take off those silly cowboy guns, they’re not regulation. Sergeant! Form the men up, we’re going to march for that line of trees.”


Joseph’s hands rested casually on the ivory-handled, copper-plated Peacemakers, his thumbs momentarily caressing the engraving on the backstraps. He’d had them copper plated before shipping out, and he’d had a conversation with Dr. George Flint at the Firelands hospital, and consulted with the black-haired Navajo physician on a number of subjects – wound care, herbals, shock – and finally he asked what the most potent totem would be for a man going to war.


He’d had the Thunder Bird engraved on the frame, on either side: like his grandfather’s pistols, these had the Masonic square-and-compasses scrimshawed into the grips. He was too young to be made a Mason but he sure as hell would be, once he got back home from this damned war.


The Sergeant waved at the men, made a quick sign: Joseph looked at the Lieutenant, staring at the distant treeline, turned back and tapped the Sergeant on the shoulder: he shook his head, spread his hands as if stretching a length of yarn: Spread out, it said.


He turned back to the daydreaming Lieutenant. “Sir,” he said, “you might ought want to pull back, sir, you’re a target –“


The Lieutenant collapsed like a marionette with its strings cut: limp, nerveless, a bloody spray misting over the nearest men.


Joseph leaped to the side, rolled, rolled again: his Enfield rifle was hard in his white-knuckled grip and he waited while the first volley died.


One volley, he thought. How many did they get with one volley?


He eased a little to one side, peeked around a mossy rock.


The Lieutenant was down and good riddance – the Sergeant was down as well, and Joseph cursed silently. The Sergeant was as good a soldier as the Lieutenant had been a poor one, and the loss would hurt them.


Badly.


He looked among the others, crawled forward, knowing he was in a depression and he could probably check the half-dozen men.


It did not take long to find every man Jack of them was dead.


He alone remained.


He crawled back a little, watching, listening.


“Americans!” a voice called, and Joseph’s ear twitched to hear the odd accent. He was well used to the Spanish and how they trilled their R’s, and this was very nearly that, but the accent was different: French or German, he was not sure.


He was very sure that he wanted to make no reply.


His thumb turned the rifle’s safety off.


Quite against the Lieutenant’s orders, he carried his rifle chamber-loaded, with a full magazine besides: experience taught him thatone extra shot just might make a difference.


There was a distant mutter of artillery; he listened, waiting, putting himself in the enemy commander’s place.


I would wait, Joseph thought, and then I would send in a scouting party.


Joseph’s thumb eased the safety back into engagement.


He drew his right hand Colt, flipped open the loading gate and turned the cylinder until the empty chamber came available, and he loaded the sixth bean in the wheel, something he never, ever did unless he was going into a gunfight.


He eased the hammer nose down between cartridge rims and holstered his right hand Colt.


Breathing through his mouth, he waited, then quickly loaded the sixth round in his left hand revolver, set the hammer nose down, holstered.


If I were a scout, he thought, I would come in from that direction there


Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Okay, folks, stop.


Don't read this yet.


Back up a few.


I posted three entries tonight!



“This was dictated by a German count,” Willamina said slowly, turning the yellowed paper, “and taken down in evidence during a truce …”


She turned another couple of papers, reading the neat, almost ornate handwriting as easily as a typewritten page.


“The count was present when Joseph … impressed them.” She continued through the paper, her mouth open, her expression intent: “Look here” – she turned a little, Barrents coming over at her summons – “they called a truce so they could bring the body back to Allied lines.”


Barrents nodded.


“I know among pilots … pilots were officers and gentlemen and were treated accordingly. They … the Germans were according Joseph high honors by returning him with … with an honor guard.”


Barrents took a drink of coffee, nodded.


“Now that’s proper,” he murmured.


The Sheriff dove back into the story, swam to her last landmark.



I wish I had my shotgun, Joseph thought as the lead soldier stepped into the clearing.


Joseph didn’t see him as the fair-skinned, blue-eyed young man beneath the uniform.


Joseph saw him as a rifle with legs, a rifle with a bayonet on its end, a rifle that raised, blade-down, to skewer the body of a supine, unmoving enemy to guarantee the enemy’s death.


Joseph shot the lead soldier through the hips, breaking down his structure and shattering at least one major artery: the soldier was out of the fight now, Joseph knew, with no hope of getting back into action: he worked the rifle’s bolt, rolled, just as three steel-jacketed Mauser bullets seared through the little brush screen he’d enjoyed.


Joseph surged to his knees, snapped a shot: another German down, screaming in pain: Joseph dropped again, slithered some twenty feet, fired from around a rock.


A fusillade of fire came through the low brush, hummed overhead, something plucked at Joseph’s collar and he damned the buttons on his uniform jacket for holding him so far from the ground.


He waited, breathing through his mouth, listening.


Three men in, three men down, he thought, found a hole in the brush, took a peek.


Nothing.


I think there was a fourth.


Likely he ran.


I would.


Joseph did a quick calculation, topped off his rifle’s magazine, eased the bolt shut.


They’ve fixed bayonets, he thought.


Makes a rifle longer, clumsier.


I won’t fix mine until I have to.


He smiled grimly and thought of his Smith knife, the knife Sarah had made for him, the knife she gave him: his hand slipped down and gripped the wire-wrapped hilt, then returned to his rifle.


“Americans!” the voice shouted again.


Americans, Jacob thought.


Not American.


They don’t know there’s just one of me.


He slithered another three feet, paused.


“You are surrounded!” the voice called. “You haff no hope of victory!”


Jacob’s eyes narrowed with pleasure as he saw the stock of Rebel’s shotgun.


Rebel was a Southerner, about his own age, quiet and watchful and very, very fond of his Winchester trench broom.


Jacob looked around, waiting, watching; finally he eased ahead a little more, reached for the shotgun, dragged it toward him, slowly.


There was a snap, an incautious foot on a twig: Joseph grabbed the twelve gauge, rolled up, his thumb rolling the hammer back: he drove a charge of military 00 buck through a German’s belly at six feet, jacked the slide and fired again, boom boom boom, then he threw himself down, grabbing for Rebel’s warbag.


It took a moment to work the dark canvas bag from around the dead man’s shoulders, but Joseph managed: he rose, saw a pickelhaub, brought the rifle to shoulder and snapped a shot six inches below the helmet spike.


There was the gleam of German steel as the rifle and bayonet thrust momentarily up into view.


Joseph knew he’d scored a brain shot.


He knew the Enfield round caused one final, massive convulsion, and he also knew he had to get the hell out of Dodge, and fast.


Slinging the rifle across his back, he thrust brass cartridges into the shotgun’s magazine, then flipped the canvas strap over his neck, bent double and ran.


Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sarah Llewellyn stared long at the contents of her closet.

She riffled slowly through the various items hung in the fragrant cedar enclosure, her fingers caressing the various outfits, remembering.

There was the saloon doxy, the dance-hall girl, there was the nun's habit, the mousy-grey schoolmarm dress ... she'd worn each one, and each in its turn disguised her for a particular mission; she was a consummate actress -- His Honor the Judge suspected she would be good at gulling secrets out of unsuspecting men, but little had he suspected she would become different people to bring the lawless to justice! -- she almost lifted out a flamenco dress, then smiled again and decided against it.

No, they were the tools of a time past, of someone she used to be.

She was a married woman now, she was a mother now, she had her own responsibilities.

Her fingers lingered on the scandalously brief dance-hall girl's dress and she smiled again, remembering ...

The piano player was good.

He was also somewhat less than entirely sane, but that didn't stop him from playing piano like a man inspired.

She and Dolly, another dancer, were atop a saloon table, thrashing their voluminous skirts back and forth as their stockinged legs high-kicked into the smoky air, their heels punishing the tabletop as the barfight raged about them: it was as if they were surrounded by a tempestuous sea of fists and oaths and numberless men happily engaged in the ancient art of the Good Old Fashioned Knock Down Drag Out Bar Fight, and their little table was an island of safety in the raging fist-storm.

In a way, it was actually that.

Denver's Fire Brigade surrounded them, broad-shouldered and hard-knuckled, pugnacious Irishmen shoulder-to-shoulder and surrounding the table, and they and their own hard knuckles kept the brawling mass from the two girls, dancing flawlessly in time to the ivory-hammering piano player's laughing insanity.

Sarah blinked, shook her head, breaking the spell.

That was a long time ago, that was before she was married, that was before Daffyd's death ...

Her fingers closed on the black mourning-dress and she felt the world lurch underfoot.

It was hot, hot and dry and the wrapped child was heavy in her arms.

No.

Not her arms.

Daffyd's arms.

She was seeing him die.

The boarding-house was afire, he and the fire chief fought upstairs to the second, then the third floors: the wood was dry, the fire was ravenous, and the floor, weakened, groaned and sagged and collapsed, and hell's breath sighed through this new chimney roaring up and mushrooming out in a bright, ravening waterfall against the roof above.

Daffyd dropped his head, shading his face with the brim of his leather Philadelphia helmet.

The stairs, he thought, and looked, just as fire rolled up the stairway, looking for him.

He clamped his teeth together, looking around --

A shout --

Sean, the great, broad-shouldered Irishman, Chief of their fire department, stood opposite.

"SEAN!" Daffyd roared, and the Irishman looked up, his face fierce with a Celt's battle-lust.

Daffyd had a little room to move, and move he did.

"SEAN! CATCH!"

Sean's arms uncoiled and the blanket-wrapped child sailed across the yawning gulf of Hell itself, and Daffyd saw bright ripples of flame sear away the fuzzy lint on the blanket's surface, and Sean caught the package, neatly, easily, and drew the child in against him.

Daffyd backed up one step, two, all he had, then with a quick prayer, he launched himself across the searing shaft separating himself from his Irish Chieftain.

Sarah jerked her hand back, leaned against the door casing, trembling.

She felt her husband's death, felt him fall into the furnace, felt him hit bottom: she'd methodically changed into that black mourning gown, then drove into town, drove up to the fire scene just as the Irish Brigade carried out the long box containing what was left of her husband.

The crowd parted as she walked up to what used to be a boarding-house: men removed their hats, women held kerchiefs to their faces: the Brigade, their faces hard, carried the rough-box at shoulder height.

They brought it out of the fire structure, into the street: their tread measured, their voices silent, they slid it into Digger's wagon.

Sarah walked up between the two lines of men, raised a black-gloved hand, laid it on the box.

Sean's great mitts clenched into fists and his teeth ground impotently as Sarah stood for a long moment, head bowed, then she lifted her hand and turned, and the crowd was silent as she walked back to her carriage.

Sarah Llewellyn took a long breath, stepped back, closed her closet door.

"Too many memories," she said aloud, then turned to her long dressing-mirror, spoke to the attractive woman framed in the heavy glass.

"I carry too many ghosts."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There were two Bear Killers.

The Bear Killer, get of the justly famous Dawg, drowsed in the sun, baking his old bones: moist black nose twitched as he tasted the wind, his ears raised, then drooped a little. Chickens gossiped and scratched and in the pasture adjacent, a dappled Frisian colt paced across the distance, mane and tail flowing as he followed his glossy-black dam.

If one had a set of binoculars, one might make out the figure of a horseman in the distance; with a particularly powerful glass, one might even distinguish the iron-grey mustache on the rider's lined face.

The younger Bear Killer loped happily after the man who'd been Sheriff: he was coming into his growth, but not yet half the mass of his sire: he had all the protective instincts of the Tibetan Mastiff, all their loyalty, he had their strength, and thanks to Sarah's patient attention, the younger Bear Killer learned first to tolerate, and then to enjoy, a nice warm bath.

At the moment there were neither soap suds nor ribbons in sight: the Sheriff rode a mile and a half of mountain trail before coming to a ranch, small and neat and well-tended.

He drew up in front of the ranch house, crossing his palms on the saddle horn and pushing: he raised his weight, let his back bone stretch out until it popped twice, then he sank back with a contented sigh.

He looked around with approval.

He knew the Widow Harrison, and he knew her son, and her son is the main reason he rode out this fine and sunny day, and he knew her son was the main reason their ranch was well-tended: the lad worked from can-see to can't-see, he had a talent with livestock and with men alike, and his natural skills of persuasion made him an excellent foreman: somehow, he managed to persuade their hired hands that work needing done was actually their idea, not his, and he never once failed to praise good work, well done.

The ranch house door opened as he drew up, and the Widow Harrison stepped out, shading her eyes with a hand, smiling as she saw who it was.

Linn removed his hat, grinning. "Permission to come aboard!" he declared.

"Granted!" she called back, then leaned back and called, "Bruce? Bruce, Mr. Keller is here."

Linn dismounted, draped reins over the hitch, turned as the young Mr. Harrison stepped out.

The two shook hands.

"Might I counsel with you?" Linn asked formally, and he looked at the Widow Harrison and added, "And if I may, I would speak with you as well."

"Of course," Mrs. Harrison said, blinking.

"Bruce, could you walk with me?"

Bruce Harrison blinked, looked at his mother, then back to Linn.

"Yes, sir."

"We'll be near by," Linn said to the mother, turned.

The two walked slowly together across the bare ground, The Bear Killer sniffing at Bruce's calves, then looking up at Linn and falling in beside.

"You asked not long ago if you might pay court to Angela."

"Yes, sir."

Linn looked into the distance, considering.

"You showed me due respect when you asked me that."

"Yes, sir."

"You showed respect to Angela as well."

"Yes, sir."

"You recall you then asked if you might have her hand in marriage."

"Yes, sir."

"You recall my answer."

"I do, sir," Bruce replied, his mouth dry: he hesitated, then continued, "You said you would consider my request, and make reply in due time."

"That is correct."

They began walking again, slower now.

"There is something you should know."

"Yes, sir?"

Linn stopped again, pale eyes scanning the far horizon.

"No matter how old a man's daughter becomes, she will always, always be his little girl."

"Yes, sir," Bruce said uncertainly.

"Now let me talk about you."

"Yes, sir."

Linn stopped and turned to face the young man squarely; he turned as well, looked the older man square in the eye.

"Bruce, you are a hard worker and more than that, you are a craftsman." Linn looked up and to the side, pointed with his bladed hand. "You manage your father's farm in fine shape. You manage livestock well and you have a good eye for the market demand." Linn grinned. "Come over here."

They walked over to the hipshot Appaloosa drowsing at the hitch rail.

Linn opened the off saddlebag, drew out an elkskin poke.

"Here."

Bruce automatically raised his hand to receive the descending poke; its contents were hard, angular ... and jingled.

Bruce looked at Linn, his eyes wide, surprised.

"Sir?"

"Open it."

Bruce's hands shook a little as he opened the poke.

"I ... sir ... it's ..."

"I know. It's more money than you've seen in your life."

Bruce looked at Linn, his expression stricken.

"Sir, we've already sold the ranch."

"I know."

"I, um ... sir?"

Linn laughed. "Let's go talk to your mother."

"Yes, sir."

Bruce raised the poke as if to offer it back.

"That's yours. Hang right onto it."

 

Sarah looked from the mirror to the closet door.

Her eyes darkened a little and she smiled, almost a wicked smile, the smile of a woman who knows she's about to cause trouble, and she likes the idea.

Her hand floated through the air, closed about the shoulder of the flamenco dress.

The dress floated through the air and onto the bed, followed by a pair of shoes, a set of castanets ... and half an hour later, her husband, Ron Llewellyn, the Welsh Irishman, took a long drink of his beer and sat down for a friendly hand of cards.

​He was fairly close to the Silver Jewel's curtained stage, and there was entertainment, a black-eyed Mexican with a deep-toned, double-strung guitar: a guitar generally meant a pretty girl, and a Mexican guitar generally meant a black-eyed senorita, and, well ... men are men, and Ron Llewellyn appreciated a pretty girl as much as the next man.

The curtains were disturbed from within; the guitarist turned, stood, inclined his ear to the pale, feminine hand that extended between the curtains: he smiled, nodded, white teeth flashing beneath an absolutely-black mustache.

He seized a table, brought it up against the stage, slid its chair just ahead of the table, turned to the side: he drew back a pace, smiled as he put strong, browned fingertips on the strings, closed his good right hand and opened it.

A wise man once said of his Stradivarius, "There's all the music in the world in that fiddle, all I have to do is find it," and so it was with this Mexican and his guitar: when his hand opened, his fingers had eyes of their own: he began a rolling rhythm, played on the bass strings, setting the rhythm: from behind the curtain, a half-time accompaniment, precisely executed on castanets by an experienced pair of feminine hands.

He struck a sudden chord, began a lively Mexican tune, and the curtains parted.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

“The procession approached our lines with two white flags attached to the wagon,” Willamina read aloud. “They were preceded by a German band, drums draped with black crepe, their instruments carried for march: the drums were slow and solemn, setting a stately pace for what was very obviously a funeral procession.

“The lead soldier marched stiffly, very much the proper Teutonic, and his uniform was clean, his boots polished and gleaming, as were uniform and boots among the bandsmen.

“The lead soldier carried a white flag as well, holding it before him as if it were a field-marshal’s baton, and we could see as he approached that he wore the insignia of a lieutenant.

“After a hurried conference, our Captain Harris stepped forward and saluted the soldier, who halted and gravely returned the salute.

“Executing a flawless about-face, he thrust his flag straight up at arm’s length, then back down, turned again, and the band raised their instruments.

“A Sergeant among us bawled, “Fall in and form ranks!” and we did.

“The band began to play – it was the Death March, and never have I heard it executed more beautifully, or more heartbreakingly.

“The wagon contained a coffin.

“I have no idea where they obtained the coffin, for it was ornate, polished, altogether lovely, obviously quite expensive: it was open, and the still form within was covered with a white gauze, a customary measure to keep off flies, which were exploring the woven surface in a desultory fashion.

“We formed ranks and the procession drew past.

“I could not help but be impressed by the stoic, stolid, soldierly appearance of these Germans, these enemy, these who had thought so much of one of our soldiers that they sent a runner under a flag of truce to beg whether they might return his body and see it with honors interred. Even the white German

Shepherd dog that accompanied the coffin, pacing beside it, moved with a precision, yet a stealthy, almost otherworldly, grace.

“I learned later that the note contained an insignia, which our Colonel recognized, and he returned a note which contained a similar device. Both are appended to this account.”

Willamina bit her bottom lip and turned her head away, took a long breath and cleared her throat, then turned back and resumed reading, her voice steady, clear.

“The Captain fell in beside the flag-bearer, and they slow-marched in procession to the little graveyard we’d established, the big white wolflike dog a little to one side, but moving with them.

“The hole was prepared and the Colonel himself was waiting, with our Chaplain: the Colonel was in his dress uniform, and I was surprised to see he wore white gloves and an unadorned, square, white apron about his waist, and a jewel about his neck, which I recognized as a Masonic arc-and-compasses.”

Willamina found herself obliged to stop and wipe her eyes.

“The Colonel viewed the body, and recognized it as that of Joseph Keller, a young soldier of our command, who was the last man remaining of his rifle squad. I did not know it until later, but Private Keller was wearing a white apron as well – a lambskin apron.

“The German Lieutenant gave testimony that he’d fought long, hard and well, that he’d brought their wounded Hauptmann back to the German field-hospital, and had in all ways acquitted himself in an honorable manner – so much so that they felt compelled to return his remains, with honors, that he might be honorably interred.

“The Colonel spoke quietly to the Lieutenant, and they exchanged a grip, which was apparently of some significance: an adjutant stepped up with a folded white cloth, which when unfolded, became an apron identical to that worn by the Colonel.

“The Lieutenant placed it against his front and the Colonel went behind the German officer and tied the strings.

“The body’s identification and presentation of his dog tags being completed, the coffin was raised to shoulder height with three Germans on one side, and three Americans on the other, and that white German dog before them, as if he belonged there. At least one on each side wore a white apron after the fashion of the Colonel and the German Lieutenant.

“We were then witness to the Masonic funeral service.

“The Masonic service is brief; it addresses significant points in a man’s life, and the symbolism of a variety of insigniae I had seen all my life, but never really knew their full import.

“Through all this, the white German shepherd sat as if guarding the coffin, regarding us with yellow, wolflike eyes, an expression that spoke of a deeper knowledge even in this canine creature.

“At its conclusion, Germans and Americans stood shoulder to shoulder and fired a volley over the grave; all stood stiffly at attention as the Taps were played, and as the last sad notes lingered over the sunset field, the white German dog moved to the head of the grave.

“I will never forget, for the rest of my days on this earth, the sound of the dog: he threw his head back and we could see his throat working, his jaws half open, and he howled … there is no more unearthly sound than a dog, keening for the dead, and I am not ashamed to admit that my every hair stood on end to hear this mournful bay, a wild counterpoint to the dignified, brassy notes of the sorrowful bugle.

“The Lieutenant and the Colonel spoke for another few minutes; I was not made privy to their conversation, but the Lieutenant gave the Colonel an envelope, and I later learned it was addressed to the late Joseph Keller’s family.”

Barrents scanned the material from the thick envelope, picked up a sealed envelope, an envelope with a red wax seal and a coat-of-arms thereon.

It was addressed to, Sheriff Linn Keller

Grandfather of Joseph Keller

Past Master

Firelands Masonic Lodge

Firelands, Colorado, USA

Past Sheriff Linn Keller removed his hat as he stepped across the threshold.

The widow was waiting for them; she was pleasant, as she always was, and gracious, as she always was, and she gestured toward the table, as she always did.

"Mrs. Harrison," Linn said, "may I speak frankly?"

The Widow Harrison stopped, and folded her hands, regarding the man with the assessing eyes of a woman who knew something of importance was about to follow.

"Ma'am, your son has asked my permission to pay court to my daughter, and he has subsequently asked her hand in marriage. I give my consent with a glad heart, for several reasons."

An expression passed over his face -- something momentary, a look almost of pain -- then he continued.

"Ma'am, I understand you are selling your ranch. I believe this is a wise move for you. Your son is getting top dollar and no one could have done better.

"I wish to invest you" -- he gestured to the poke which Bruce held, the poke he held as if it were hot, or covered with nettles -- "with this, and with one more thing. Bruce?"

Bruce stepped to the table and opened the poke, poured its contents out on the clean, smooth tablecloth.

Gold coin rattled, loud and harsh, cascading clear to the sugar bowl.

The Widow Harrison's mouth opened and her eyes grew huge and round.

Linn faced her squarely, his voice serious.

"Mrs. Harrison, forgive me if I am forward, but you are still a handsome woman and you would be a fine catch for any man. You deserve someone who will make you happy, someone who will treat you like a queen, and no I am not applying for the job, but if I were in the market yours is the first door I would knock."

He turned his head a little, uncomfortable: closing his eyes, he took a moment.

"Mr. Keller," she began, "I don't know what to say --"

He looked at her, his eyes pale.

"Don't say a thing, ma'am. When you find that man, remember men are hard headed and stupid and they may not have the good sense to know you are the right one. Brain him with a coal shovel if you have to. It took me bein' shot and Esther ridin' into town like a Valkyrie on the warpath, but she got it through my thick skull that she was the right one."

He turned and strode out, closing the door quietly behind him.

Mother and son stared at the closed door, then at the gold on the table.

Neither of them knew the giver was slumped against their wall outside, barely able to stand.

Ron Llewellyn took a thoughtful pull on his beer as the Flamenco dancer's arms described an arc overhead: she wore a dress no decent woman would wear -- it showed her ankles, for shame! -- but for a dancer, this was perfectly acceptable: he relaxed and let the Mexican guitar flow thorough him as the lovely lass on stage built her own melody, punctuated with hard heels, hands, with moves smooth and graceful: she knew her trade, and he found himself stirred as a man will be when he sees a pretty girl, and he knows there is nothing to check his desire.

What he did not expect was for her to come to the edge of the stage and jump.

The rest of the Brigade had seen this before, and they were ready: they formed a quick line, and as she spread her arms and leaped into space, they formed a line of strong Irish arms: had she been leaping into a deep mountain pool, she would have described a flawless swan dive: as it was, she landed safely in the good care of grinning, red-shirted firemen, who very neatly arrested her fall and dropped her feet to the floor.

No longer confined to the stage, the dancer spun, her skirt flaring: she went from one man to another, black-rimmed eyes bright above her concealing veil: she was lithe, she was boneless, she flirted shamelessly with one, then another, and as the guitarist brought his rhythm to a slower tempo, she spun three times and stopped beside Ron Llewellyn.

He scooted his chair back just a little and the dancer bent backward, draping herself over his lap, disporting herself most sensually, then she sat up, or rather floated up to a sitting position, her arms like the cobras of a temptress, wrapping gently around Llewellyn.

Ron's eyes were big and he swallowed hard and he cleared his throat nervously and whispered, "I'm sorry, miss, I'm a married man!"

The dancer whipped upright, half-lidded eyes snapping with anger: her castanets snarled with contempt, her heels telegraphed an angry rhythm: hips swaying, every lithe movement conveying a contempt for the rejection, she made her graceful, sinuous way back to the stage: she did not climb as much as she flowed, again, onto the chair, the table, the stage, where she spun -- once, twice, thrice -- her skirt flared, her head snapped about with each revolution, with each turn locking with a hard-eyed glare on the Welsh Irishman who'd spurned her -- then the curtains snapped shut like the entrapping jaws of a hungry beast, the guitar stopped suddenly, and there was a momentary, sudden, almost shocked silence as the performance ended.

But only momentary.

Callused hands pounded table tops, boots stomped, fingers went between lips and whistled shrilly: men's voices rose in an enthusiastic shout, and Llewellyn came to his feet, shoved through his fellows and snatched the stage curtain open --

Gone.

Llewellyn's shoulders sagged, and his own thoughts surprised him.

I've hurt her feelin's and now I can't even apologize to the poor lass!

Llewellyn was off shift; he walked home, as he usually did, though he did not usually feel this troubled.

​The woman of mystery was as dancing girls always are: pretty, skillful, very good at what she did; it was not every day when a lovely lass draped herself over a man's lap like that, and were he younger -- and single -- he surely might have sampled the delights she offered.

He was so preoccupied that his home appeared before him almost as a surprise.

He opened his front door, hung up his hat, closed the door behind him.

There was a snarl of castanets, a whirl of red flamenco dress: perfumed arms enveloped him and a very feminine, very desirable body pressed itself again him.

Shocked, he got his arms free, pushed her away: "Have done, woman!" he exclaimed, "I'm a married man! Sarah! SARAH!"

The dancing-girl reached up, seized her silken veil, pulled: the single thread holding the cloth tapes around her head broke, and the veil floated sinuously, sensually to the floor, and Sarah's eyes smoldered as she flowed across the floor to her husband, heels loud, castanets purring seductively.

She spun, slower this time, and draped her arms around his neck, then she pressed her mouth against his.

This time there was no reason for Llewellyn not to partake of this flower's nectar.

When they came up for air, Sarah said huskily, "Now what's that about being a married man?"

If one were listening, one might have heard a man's heavy tread as he ascended the stairs ... the tread of a man burdened, as if he carried another: were one to listen further, one might hear the sharp sound of a dropped castanet, then another, on the bedroom floor.

Of course, being a gentleman, one would then slip quietly away, and would listen no further.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Joseph knew he was done for when the first bullet burned his ribs.


He was outnumbered and he was alone, and he was an enemy who'd just killed several German soldiers, and he knew they would not be inclined to take prisoners.


His face was pale, his teeth bared, his eyes grew pale and hard and he felt rage, the rage known only to a warrior on his deathday, the rage of a man who was going to sell his life as dearly as possible because it was the one thing he could still do.


“HOKA HEY!” he shouted, “IT IS A GOOD DAY TO DIE!” – and threw back his head and every German in their squad froze as an unseen hand poured a dipper of mountain-cold water down their spine, for they had never before heard a Cherokee war-scream, that chopping ki-yi-yi-yip-yip-ki-yi-yo! that could freeze a warrior’s heart for fear, the hell-for-leather, I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-I-die, go-to-hell scream his grandfather had used.


He'd only heard his grandfather's warrior-voice once -- just once -- but he remembered the Grand Old Man's face was pale and tight as parchment over a skull and he reckoned his was too, and he did not care.


Joseph knew where the riflemen had to be, and he knew they fully intended to shoot him through the guts, and he knew he was a dead man, and by God! he knew was going to take as many of them with him as he possibly could!



Willamina’s voice faded and she swallowed hard, tears running down her face free and unashamed.


She could not read aloud but she kept reading, and in her mind’s eye, she saw the final action of Joseph Keller, grandson of Sheriff Linn Keller, and his last battle on a sunny August day in France, 1914, through the words and the eyes of the man whose life he’d saved.


Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sarah knows more than she's saying.

I rubbed the bees wax cake along the bow saw's blade, frowning a little as I did.

I'd just filed and set the teeth and now I was going to cut some stove wood, just like I did every day.

I could've had my hired man do it but I think when I saw wood and I wanted to think.

Joseph ...

I drew the blade back to start my notch and began sawing, not in any hurry a'tall, enjoying the smell of fresh sawdust and the bite of steel into the wood, enjoying the resistance and how my muscles warmed with the work, and I almost smiled as I thought of those poor pale Easterners, spendin' good money on a Gymnasium, and throwing Medicine Balls and Medicine Clubs and running around tracks inside a building and hoisting weights.

Weights!

Hell, if a man can't pick up and pack off his own weight to start with, what good is he?

My chest started to tighten again and I knew it would start to hurt so I stopped and turned to where I'd hung my coat on the fence.

I pulled out a little poke and got some pinched up between my fingers and rubbed it into my hide on the inside of my left arm.

My head was going to hurt like hell, I knew, but it helped my breathin' and it eased my chest.

Sure enough, about the time my breathin' eased and that claw quit squeezin' behind my breast bone, my head started to pound and I pulled a flask out of the other coat pocket and took a long drink of Two Hit John.

I can take the Daine boys' squeezin's but damned if I'm going to use Doc's poppy juice.

I heard the maid come out and I heard her come towards me and I took a long breath, blew it out, for I knew she was a-gonna speak to me about what she saw, and I was right.

I didn't expect one of the twins would be with her.

Mary put her knuckles on her hips and said "I'm worried about ye, sor. I've seen men rub their chest like that an' it ne'er come t' no good!"

I held up a forestalling hand.

"Sor --"

"Mary." My voiced was gentle -- at least I intended it should be gentle -- I saw surprise in her eyes and I was surprised some myself when I heard the edge of pain in my voice. "Mary, I need to show you something. You two, come with us."

The twins looked at one another, then followed -- they hadn't changed out of their school clothes yet, I required them to stay in them until their homework was done -- and I walked slowly toward the barn.

I stopped before the closed door.

"Mary," I said, "slide this door open."

She looked at me with big, uncertain eyes, and I could about figure what she was thinking -- that I was ever the gentleman, opening doors for her when it was her place to do so, and now I was requiring her to open something as big and heavy as the barn door? -- but she lifted the latch, and rolled it to the side, and it rolled easy for I kept the bearings oiled, and she thrust the door fully open.

"Now come on inside, both of you."

Mary and my youngest stepped uncertainly into the fresh straw floor.

I know it was fresh, I'd cleaned it myself the day before, my hired man was off feeding livestock and I'd worked til it hurt to breathe -- "now Mary, and you too, take a look in that first stall."

"It's a wagon?" my twelve-year-old daughter asked, and I smiled.

"Yes, an emergency wagon."

Two sets of eyes turned on me.

"Mary, grab that "T" handle and roll it outside."

Mary gave me a suspicious look, grabbed the polished round crossbar on the end of the wagon's tongue, and pulled it out of the stall and outside. It rolled easily, smoothly; I had steel bearings in it, and I'd oiled them the day before, not that they needed it, but because I wanted it ready.

"Now swing it so the tongue points toward town."

She did.

"Open the lid."

Out in the daylight, the wagon was made of closely fitted pine boards, painted red -- it was the only paint I had, it would have been green or purple or black if that's the shade I'd had available -- she lifted the hinged lid, like lifting the lid on an upright piano.

"Look inside."

I bent over, palms on my knees ... I was so tired, so very tired, must've over done it cuttin' wood ...

I didn't cut all that much.

I took a long breath and straightened.

Mary was honestly frightened now, as was my little girl, and I winked at them.

"Look inside and tell me what you see."

Mary looked in; my daughter peeked in beside her.

"Skyrockets!" she exclaimed.

"Do you see the glass jar?"

"Yes, sor."

"Mary, do you see the jar?"

"I do, sor."

"What is in the jar?"

"Lucifers, sor."

"That's right." I took a long breath, shivered.

Cold ... why am I cold? ... I need coffee ...

"Mary, run your finger along the edge ... there, that dark strip. Feel that?"

Mary nodded, trailing her fingers along the sandpaper I'd glued there.

"If something happens" -- I raised an eyebrow and inclined my head a little, fixing her with a direct look -- "if anything happens and you absolutely positively and really need help from town, you haul that door open and bring this wagon out. Point the tongue toward town like it is now, you open that jar, you scratch a Lucifer and you light the fuses."

"What fuses?" my daughter asked, her voice high and curious.

I reached in, caressed the four fuses bundled together and tied with waxed linen string.

"Light these, right here, and step back, but don't do it unless the fat's in the fire."

Mary took my arm and glad I am she did, and I am not ashamed to say I leaned on her as we made our way into the house.

 

"Pa?"

Jacob looked up, looked at his second-oldest son.

"Pa, can I go join the army too?"

Jacob slid his knife back into its sheath, ran his arm around his son's shoulder, began walking slowly toward their barn.

"You are how old now, Adam?"

"I am twelve, sir."

"Twelve."

"Yes, sir."

Jacob nodded solemnly, looking at his barn, seeing hay to be cut, corn to be shucked, hogs slaughtered, repairs yet to be done, the thousand and one jobs necessary to running a ranch, even one as small as his.

Winter was coming and there was work to be done.

"Adam, do you miss Joseph?"

"I do, sir."

"I miss him too. Your Mama misses him fiercely, and she's afeared."

Adam stopped, looked at his Pa with wide and alarmed eyes.

Jacob's eyes were steady as he looked at his son, realizing just how tall his second oldest boy had gotten.

"Afeared, sir?" Adam asked in a small voice.

Jacob nodded.

"She's ripe for havin' that baby," he said, and Adam nodded -- it was not new information, Annette's gravid belly was something a blind man couldn't miss, but Adam knew his Pa was building to something important -- "and a woman that's ready to foal has her fears."
"Ma don't have fears, sir."

Jacob gestured toward a cut sandstone and Adam parked his backside, his Pa settling down beside him.

The stone was left over from construction of their fine stone house, the one with the Square and Compasses incised into the lintel over the door: it was a stone Jacob asked to be placed where it was, for he knew he'd need a good sittin' rock, and it was in just the right place to catch the long red rays of the evening sun, just before the mountains got cold.

"When a woman ..." Jacob began, then frowned and tried again. "Adam, a woman wants to make a nest and raise little ones. That's always in the back of their mind, and they're always afeared of birthin' a child. They're always afraid and that's natural, they all ... they're all afraid when that happens and sometimes they ... sometimes they try to tell themselves" -- he grinned, a quick, conspiratorial grin -- "and us" -- Adam grinned in reply, delighted to be included -- "they'll tell us they're afeared of somethin' else. Storms or hail or bad guys a-hellin' up the owlhoot. Somethin'."

"Joseph ... is gonna be home soon, ain't he, Pa?"

Jacob's eyes were haunted as he searched the far horizon.

He looked at his son for a long moment.

"Adam, my Pa never lied to me, not even once, and I'm not a-gonna lie to you."

Adam sat very still as his stomach sank to the approximate altitude of his boot tops.

"He's gone off to war and men get killed in war, and God willin' he won't be killed, but he might."

It was Adam's turn to wear a haunted expression.

"I pray every day for his safe return, Adam. God willing he'll be comin' home."

 

Private Joseph Keller breathed through his open mouth, slipped silently between the two Germans.

They were clearly looking for him; he froze between a rock and a bush, knowing if he held absolutely still, with the shadow across him as it was, they just might miss seeing him.

He waited a long minute, and another after that, before he moved, and when he moved, it was with all the fuss and clatter of a passing cloud.

He slipped deeper into enemy territory, toward a swale he'd spotted from a small elevation.

He intended to double back, to get back to his own lines.

The Germans had been at war for some time; they were seasoned, they were fast, they were quick to respond to an attack; they were many, he was one, and he knew the climate would be healthier once he was returned to his own lines.

He thought of the German canteen he'd drained, the German sausage he'd eaten, the half a loaf of bread in his canvas warbag, and he was glad he'd seized the rations when he did.

It was getting on toward evening. He'd stand a better chance of making it back after dark.

What I would not give for Ma's mashed taters and gravy!

 

That evening, Jacob and Annette, their children and their hired girl, bowed their heads and asked a blessing on their meal, and Jacob looked long at the empty chair with the plate and the mug and the silverware beside.

Taters and gravy smelled really good but suddenly he had no appetite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Grampa Keller knotted his necktie nd looked at the reflection knotting its tie in the mirror.

He saw the smile in the pale-blue eyes and he grinned to see it.

The world was well this day, for his little girl was a girl no more.

He could hear voices and murmuring and giggles and the fuss and bother women make when they're fixin' to marry off and he was grateful he'd arranged everything ahead of time.

Angela would, of course, be married in their little whitewashed church.

Weddings were not uncommonly in the parlor of the home, but their church had seen his wedding and Jacob's, it had seen Sean, the broad-shouldered Irish chieftain swear the ancient vows with his sweetheart Daisy; it had seen christenings and funerals, and Angela decided before he'd broached the subject that her wedding would be there as well.

Reception would be at the Silver Jewel, the food was bought, Daisy recruited the necessary hands, and Linn knew he'd planned well there.

He drew out his watch, pressed the stem, looked long at the hand-painted portrait inside the hunter case.

It was quite a good likeness of his Esther, his flame-haired Valkyrie, the wife he'd lost years ago, when she birthed his youngest girl-child, his Dana.

Now Dana's damn neart grown, he whispered aloud, closing the watch. Esther, I wish you were here.

He blinked -- curious, his nostrils flared as he sniffed --

Roses?

He blinked, frowned at the mirror, turned suddenly.

A single red rose, fresh-cut and fragrant, was lying on his bedside table.

It hadn't been there a moment before.

Linn's bottom lip tightened and he nodded.

Ever since Esther's death, a rose mysteriously appeared when a woman went into labor, or just before a death, and today ...

Linn bit his bottom lip, pressed the stem on his watch and looked long at the portrait.

Esther was there, all right.

 

Hunger gnawed at Joseph's belly.

He moved easily, silently, at least until he nearly ran into the sentry.

The surprised German yelled, jerked his rifle to shoulder.

Joseph ducked to the side and snapped a shot with the trench broom and the sentry, minus a fist sized chunk of head, convulsed and fell back, and the fight was on.

Joseph ran to the side, scuttled bent over, taking advantage of a small fold in the ground, hoping against hope he could get around the enemy, that they weren't too numerous --

His mouth went dry and he tasted copper as a half dozen of them ran in his general direction.

They were twenty-five yards away and closing fast and Joseph knew he had to do something even if it was wrong.

He slung the 97 from his off shoulder and brought the Enfield up, dropped to one knee: he was between a clump of dirt and a rock and he sighted on the fellow in front, the one who was yelling and pointing.

Leaders like to point, his Grampa taught him one time when he talked about going after a gang, take out the leader and you cut the head off the snake.

The Enfield spoke and the man in front pointed no more.

 

Jacob knotted Adam's tie, frowning a little as he did, as he always did when he tied his son's necktie: Adam knew this meant his Pa was thinking backwards, for he was used to knotting his own tie, and he had to think backwards to tie it on somebody else.

"Jacob?" Annette called, and Adam saw the change in his Pa's eyes.

Ma hadn't been down for breakfast and Adam knew his Ma was like that sometimes, this deep in her pregnancy, but Adam had a good ear and he heard something in his Mama's voice that tugged his ear back like a dog hearing a distant whistle and swinging its ears around to catch it better.

Jacob nodded, laid his hands on his son's shoulders.

"Fine figure of a man," he declared heartily, as he always did when he knotted his boy's tie, then he turned and strode for the stairs.

When he opened their bedroom door, Jacob smelled roses, fresh and strong, and a fresh-cut rose lay on his wife's bedside table.

"Jacob," Annette said faintly, her eyes big and her cheeks flushed, "it's time."

 

"AND I SAY IT AIN'T DECENT!" Sean roared.

Daisy planed the knuckles of her off hand on her hip and shook her finger fearlessly in her husband's Irish-red face.

"AND I SAY I'M A-GOIN' TO THE WEDDIN' AN' THAT'S FINAL!"

"BUT DAISY IT AIN'T DECENT FOR A WOMAN IN YOUR CONDITION!"

Daisy spun, wobbled, reached for her husband to steady herself: Sean seized her by the elbows, drew her in to him, and her great gravid belly pressed against his flat, manly belly.

"Daisymedear," he whispered, "there's a rose on yer stand."

He felt Daisy stiffen, then she pushed away from him, glaring up at him with Irish-blue eyes, her red hair a-crackle.

"Sure an' it's likely f'r Jacob's wife, she's ready t'pop a week ago!" Daisy snapped. "It's the Sheriff's daughter gettin' married, an' I'll be there, th' puir child hasn't a mither an' she needs me there!"

Sean raised his hands to the ceiling, sighed loudly.

"A'right woman," he groaned, "ha'e it yer way, but damned if I want our bairn born on a church pew!"

"An' wha's wrong wi' Holy Ground?" Daisy demanded, shoving herself against her husband again, poking him in the chest with a stiff forefinger.

Sean laughed and picked his wife up, kissed her soundly on the forehead as she struggled and pushed against him.

"Daisymedear," he whispered as he hugged her into him, then he set her down. "A'right. I'll no' object t' yer goin'."

 

Joseph thumbed the last of his Enfield rounds into the action, rammed the bolt shut, breathing through his open mouth.

He waited another few seconds, then he picked up rifle and shotgun and ran to his left, doubled over, moving fast.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Jacob froze at the crackling whistle.

He knew what it meant and he flattened himself, praying the shell hit far enough away to miss him --

 

Angela's eyes were big and blue as she tended her hair.

Her mouth was dry and her belly was full of butterflies and her hands trembled a little, but the face in the mirror smiled, just a little, and she lowered her arms and rested her hands in her lap and thought, It's really happening.

I'm really getting married.

Today.

 

Linn buckled his carved-leather gunbelt, drew his engraved right-hand revolver, clicked the cylinder around, one chamber at a time, then turned it --

Load one, skip one, load four, cock.

His eyes tightened a little at the corners, a smile that didn't spread to the rest of his face, as he remembered his grandson using the same mnemonic.

He eased the hammer nose down on the empty chamber, slid the Colt back into its background-dyed, floral-carved holster ... slowly, thoughtfully, thinking again of his grandson.

He looked in the mirror and he saw his eyes were pale again, and hard.

Joseph ...

God Almighty, keep my grandson safe!

 

The artillery barrage was mostly behind him, mostly where he'd been.

The nearest shell was close enough to smack his ears with a giant's palms and rain dirt on him, which wasn't a bad thing, because another squad of German soldiers ran behind the barrage -- ran almost over top of the prone American.

Joseph waited until they were past, waited another minute, cautiously raised, looked around.

He came up fast, launched, streaked across the punished landscape, running like a scared rabbit.

He ran for just short of a mile before he found himself obliged to stop.

It was not his idea and he didn't stop voluntarily.

 

I'd run across Crazy Hermey about a mile from his cabin.

I knew he was making nitroglycerin for the mines and it had been some time since I'd seen him.

He's not the first nitro maker I've known, but he was in the worst shape.

Most of 'em lost their nerve and Hermey was well on his way to doing just that.

I wasn't breathin' too good the day I run into him, and he wasn't neither, but he looked at me and asked me if my chest was a-troublin' me and I admitted it was.

He pulled out a little leather poke and said "Here's some dynamite. Rub a big pinch into your hide and it'll ease up that chest and you'll breathe better." He raised a flask and his hand shook like a streetwalker at a tent revival: the flask was nearly empty so I pulled out mine and handed it to him.

He gratefully pulled the cork and took a big tilt, he swallowed, his eyes bulged and he wheezed, "Dag-gone, Sheriff, what is this stuff?"

He handed me his and I took a small sip: I handed it back. "That's awful sweet," I said, and he looked hopefully at mine and said, "This mine?"

"Yours."

He poured as much of mine as would fit in his, then he tilted up the rest and guzzled it down: grimacing, he handed me the empty and gasped, "That is not for the young!"

"What are you doin' down here anyway?"

"I'm washin' out a batch of nitro," he mumbled, his hands steadying a little as Two Hit John surged into his shaky carcass.

"Eh?"

"Ya gotta wash out the acid. It ... that's snowmelt," he mumbled, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "Nitro is way less touchy when it's cold. Ya can't blow ice with nitro."

"I never knew that."

Hermey nodded, a jerky double-dip. "We ain't close enough to ketch harm if it blows."

Now I sat on the edge of my bed, looking at that little poke of dynamite.

I might need that, I thought.

It causes one hell of a dynamite headache.

Damned if I want to pull on that flask to ease up a headache.

I'll just live with it.

 

Joseph came over the little rise and ran squarely into the lead soldier of a ten-man squad.

He ducked and drove his shoulder into the man's gut, turned a little and hit the second soldier with his other shoulder, caromed off at an angle and he never slowed from a flat-out sprint doing it.

He was twenty-five yards away and he'd just dropped below a slight rise before the first shot whistled overhead.

He knew he could keep running.

He knew he would probably inherit German steel-jacketed through his back.

A horse wouldn't help him here, he knew.

He shoved the Enfield into an opening -- under a log, beside a rock, and he could see the Germans turning and heading toward him.

He didn't have time to wish he was somewhere else.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"Adam," Jacob said quietly, "saddle up and get Daciana."

Adam took a long moment to consider his Mama's face, then he nodded, once, and turned.

Jacob heard his son's boot heels cadencing down the stairs.

"Dearest," Jacob said, his throat tight, "what do you need?"

"Daciana," Annette whispered, raising a gentle hand to trail feminine fingertips across his face.

"I don't reckon we'll be going to Angela's wedding."

"You go," Annette whispered.

"Nothin' doin'," Jacob grinned, taking her hand between both of his. "I've got several sisters but I've only got one of you!"

"That's sweet," Annette whispered, and a contraction tightened her voice and her hand tightened on Jacob's.

"Will there be time for Daciana?"

Annette's eyes were big. "No," she squeaked.

Jacob stood, shucked out of his coat, snapped the covers off his wife.

"Raise your bottom," he said, his voice hard. "I've got to see what I'm doing."

 

Joseph thought fast.

I've got what's in the rifle, he thought, and what's in the shotgun.

I've got a few hulls in the warbag and then it's revolvers.

Unless I can grab a Mauser.

His finger tightened on the Enfield's curved trigger, then froze as he and the Germans heard it at the same time.

They turned, looked up, and scattered like a covey of quail.

The man running right toward him was an officer.

Cut the head off the snake, he thought, but the man was moving too fast and Joseph had but little room to move, and the officer dove over the edge of Joseph's cover just as the shell burst.

It took Joseph a moment to recover, it took the officer a little longer.

Jacob looked around; they two were alone now ... no telling where the others were, he knew, and likely they would not be back, not to the spot where they probably figured their comrades were all blown to bloody chunks.

The officer coughed and Jacob frowned, then he went over and opened the man's coat, and swore.

He peeled the coat clear off the man, looking for the exit wound: he pulled his wire-handled knife, slit the shirt, front and back, looked around.

A dead German was awkwardly draped over what used to be a tree.

Joseph looked around again, surged to his feet, tore the canteen free: he came back to the German officer, peeled off his own coat and blouse: he dug his hand into one of the bags Dr. Flint gave him, came up with a handful of crushed herbs, added water and kneaded it: he smeared a greenish line across his own bullet-burn, then mixed up a little more.

The German officer took a chunk of something that shouldn't be there, through the low back and out the front -- low lung shot, Joseph thought -- he pressed the gummy mixture to the back wound, working it into the bloody-lipped puncture.

He held the officer in a semi-seated position, steadying the man as he worked.

He was working the herbal compound into the exit wound, in front, when the German wheezed, and coughed, and asked, "Vass ist?"

"An old Indian remedy," Joseph said quietly.

"Und vhere you got zis?"

"From an old Indian. Doctor Flint."

"Herr Doktor ... George Flint?" the German asked, surprised.

Jacob raised an eyebrow. "Yes, sir. Firelands hospital, he's in practice with Dr. John Greenlees. You know him?"

The German tried to chuckle, coughed painfully. "Ve vere in class together. Harvardt."

"Small world. Don't move. I need to bandage over that."

The officer offered neither objection nor resistance to Jacob's ministrations.

"Here. You might want your coat back on. We'll bring your blouse but I'd like to get to that wound if you get to bleedin'."

The German grimaced, shifted, and Jacob saw blood under him.

"I am afraid," the German said, "I am your prisoner ... but my leg ... "

"I see that."

Jacob frowned and looked closer at the officer's coat, just as the officer focused on the handle of Jacob's right-hand revolver.

"An American cowboy," he said, "undt a Mason."

"My father," Jacob said carefully, "is past Master of Firelands Lodge. So is my grandfather. He gave me these."

Joseph split the man's trouser up the side seam, laid the leg bare.

"I don't reckon it hit bone and it's not arterial. Hold still while I bandage that. You've lost too much blood already."

Jacob applied the herbal, snugged up the bandage; he looked around, considered the angle of the sun.

"You need better care than I can give you. My lines are that-a-way, I reckon." He considered. "Your field hospital is likely closer."

The officer nodded, eyes closed against the pain.

"Show me where. Give me a landmark."

"Ist not far, maybe two miles ... but I cannot valk."

Jacob squatted in front of the man, picked up his pistol belt, handed it to him. "Put this on, and don't worry about walking."

The German's surprise was genuine.

"You cannot carry me ...?"

"The hell I can't," Jacob snarled. "I will not leave a Mason to die and with that lung shot you need it taken care of just as soon as I can get you to a hospital."

 

Angela shivered, her eyes big, and she grasped her Daddy's big, strong Daddy-arm, the way she used to when she was a little girl, and afraid.

Linn drew the warmblood to an easy halt.

They were just at the edge of town and Angela could see the church plainly.

"Do you want to call it off?" Linn whispered.

Bonnie and Sarah looked at one another, alarmed, at lest until Angela shook her head.

"No, Daddy, it's ..."

They saw her swallow, and she looked up at her Daddy with all the innocence of the little girl she used to be.

"Daddy, I've never gotten married before!"

 

Willamina bit savagely into the chocolate iced doughnut, chewed; she took a noisy slurp of scaling coffee: she neither tasted the pastry nor felt the hair singe off her tongue, so focused was she on the paper before her.

"He carried the German -- the man who wrote this -- back to German lines," she said, admiration in her voice.

She looked up at her twin brother.

"My God, Will, he was only fifteen years old!"

Will laughed and looked at Barrents.

"JW, how much could you pick up and pack off at fifteen?" Will laughed. "Sis, do you remember football practice, or even karate practice? Fifteen-year-olds pack one another around all the time!"

"Over broken terrain, in enemy territory, for ... how far was it?" She glared at the paper, frowned at her finger, snatched up a napkin and wiped away the chocolate icing.

"So he picked up the Kraut and packed him off. What happened then?" Will asked impatiently. "And pass me another cream filled stick with chocolate icing!"

Willamina took a long breath, stood on the edge of the 21st-century Colorado diving board, then leaped back into the paper, back into 1914 France.

Barrents saw her eyes change and he knew it was not good.

 

Jacob carried the German, and he carried the shotgun.

He'd worn a pair of revolvers of one sort or another since he was big enough to wear long pants, or so it felt, and his engraved, copper plated Colts rode patiently in their smooth-brown gunrig as he made a steady, long-legged pace across the broken ground.

He stumbled a few times; the German was across his back, he had an elbow hooked around back of a knee and he held the man's opposite hand, leaving his off arm free to pack the shotgun.

They were almost back to German lines when they were spotted.

 

"He writes here," Willamina continued, "that Jacob was hit ... he doesn't say where ..."

Pale eyes scanned the paper, urgently, quickly, then she frowned and continued.

"He put the German down against the trunk of a chewed up tree and that's when they started throwing grenades."

 

The German officer's teeth clicked together as Jacob eased him down against the tree.

"You are hurt," he gasped.

"No I ain't," Jacob muttered, his own jaw locked against the pain.

He was hit hard and he knew it.

A man shot through the guts doesn't last long, he knew.

"Let me help," the German gasped, gripping Jacob's wrist, then gathered his strength and shouted weakly, "Ich bin Kapitän Manfred Merckle! Ich bin verwundet!"

"SIE LIEGEN!" came the snarling reply, then, "GRANATEN!"

"He says ve lie. They vill throw grenades now," the German officer said faintly. "They may move in a Maschinengewehr, a ... maschine gun."

Jacob saw the first potato masher spin toward them.

The German officer saw the American's eyes turn ice-pale and his lips peeled back from even, white teeth, and he watched, fascinated ...

Jacob stood beside his Grampa and watched the older man's arm drop, then sling upward, and he watched the galvanized cylinder wobble in a high arc and his Colt was part of his arm and it came up of its own volition and he watched as the revolver shoved against his hand and the can wobbled and a hole appeared in its side ...

Jacob saw the grenade in slow motion.

He looked at the wooden handle and he knew the handle could not hurt him and he looked at the explosive head and he saw a tin can and he dropped the shotgun and his Colt came up smoothly and easily and it shoved against his hand and the grenade spun backwards suddenly and powder and ball bearings slung out in a fuzzy arc and another grenade spun upward and Joseph's other Colt came out of its holster and the second grenade started shedding its contents and a third one came on a higher arc and it stopped suddenly and dropped almost straight down and a fourth one came on a lower angle and when the gun cracked so did the grenade and Joseph felt a half dozen steel balls slam into him and he went to one knee and then he stood again and his Grampa tossed a tin can into the air and he raised his revolver and drove a hole in it and another grenade came into silhouette against the evening sky and Joseph felt his Colt shove against him but he could not hear it and then a half dozen men were running toward him, yelling, rifles at belt level and bayonets pointed at his belt buckle and he fired his Colts, left-right-left-right-and as he fired, the Germans fell, until only one was left and Jacob eared the hammer back and pulled the trigger and the revolver went CLICK and near to a yard of Krupp steel lanced through Jacob's left chest and the running soldier drove it in clear to the Mauser's muzzle and Jacob grabbed the rifle with one hand and shoved hard and he stopped the man and his hand dropped to the wire wound knife's handle, the knife his Aunt Sarah gave him, the knife she'd trained him with time and time and time again and he saw a white wolf watching him from a little to the side and suddenly he knew why Sarah taught him with a dummy, and a stick against the dummy's belt buckle and against his, and drilled him time and time and time again to throw the knife at this distance, and Jacob's arm flashed down and the knife drove into the soldier's eye socket and penetrated the back of his head and the soldier collapsed and Joseph pulled back, and then grabbed the rifle with both hands and pulled, and he coughed, and retched, and pulled again, and the Mauser fell free and he wobbled and went to his knees and his hands closed around the rifle and he brought it up, opened the bolt, shoved the bolt forward and fed a steel jacketed round into the chamber and he saw the white wolf looking at him and he remembered seeing it from his bedroom window one night, one night when someone died, and he heard Sarah call his name, and he felt her hand on his shoulder, and he fell, he fell backwards, and he felt light, and cold, and Sarah bent over him with her hands on her knees and she said, "Come with me," and took his hand.

Joseph stood up and of a sudden he wasn't sick and he could breathe without difficulty and he felt ... light, as if ...

He looked down.

He saw a young man, bloodied, pale and very still, and he realized with considerable surprise that he was looking at ...

...himself ...

 

Annette's fists clenched, her teeth snapped together; her hair was matted with sweat, she arched her back and drove the back of her head into the pillow.

Jacob changed the sheet under her not three minutes earlier, the sheet she'd soaked when her water broke, and now he watched as the baby's head crowded once, twice, and he reached uncertainly for where it was going to emerge and he was surprised to suddenly have a handful of head, and the head turned, and he lifted a little like he'd done before and one shoulder came out and he lowered it a little and another shoulder and then all of a sudden there was a rush of escaping child and he had a double handful of ugly, wet, mottled, discolored newborn, and he automatically turned it over and patted its back and let the lungs drain out, and he felt it move, and he heard a little squeak, and Annette looked up, tears running from the corners of her eyes, and she gasped, "Let me see my baby!" and Jacob felt strong hands on his shoulders and heard Daciana's accented, "Congratulations, Father, you haff a son," and Daciana reached in and shoved him aside with her hip, admonishing gently, "Go vash your handts undt ve need hot vatter brought up, I must make her a tea to close the vooomb."

 

I stood beside my little girl and I reckon I wondered like fathers have done since time began ...

She was my little girl, and I remembered how little she was when I first saw here, mostly buried in debris at the train wreck, and I remembered hoisting her high into the air and spinning her around and how she would laugh and scatter giggles all over the floor when I did, and I looked beside me and my God she is beautiful and I can see why that young fellow would be in love with her, but how did this happen so fast? She was my little girl just a minute ago.

Parson Belden's words reached over and knocked on top of my head like a set of knuckles.

"Who giveth this woman in marriage?"

My throat was dry all of a sudden, and I looked at Angela, and I leaned down a little, and for the last time -- for the very last time -- I kissed my little girl on the forehead, and I run my arms around her, and I hugged her to me, and then I drew back and I turned her around, gentle-like, so she faced the young man she deserved.
"Her mother and I," I said, and I was surprised my voice was strong and confident and resonant.

I surely did not feel that-a-way.

Parson Belden smiled an understanding smile, and he nodded, and I turned and set myself down in the only vacant spot on the front pew.

"Friends, kindred and brethren, we are gathered here this day for one of the most joyful purposes for which family and friends can assemble, and that is to join two very good friends, as husband and wife."

 

Jacob backed up, stared as Daciana tied the cord, then brought out a shining little sickle and sliced through the purplish umbilical.

He stepped around her, bent over and kissed Annette on the forehead.

"You are beautiful," he whispered.

He managed to make it outside, he even managed to close the door behind him, before he cut loose with a heartfelt,

"YEEAAAHOOOOOO!!!"

 

Joseph looked at Sarah, blinked.

She'd been wearing her mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress, but now she wore shining armor of some kind that left her arms bare, and she wore a shining gold helmet with a broad set of raven's wings.

His Aunt Sarah laughed. "Haven't you ever heard of the Valkyrie?"

Jacob blinked and she was his Aunt Sarah again, but this time she was in a riding outfit.

He heard hooves pacing toward them, and his Apple-horse came bobbing up to him, nudging his belly the way he'd always done, bumming for a shaving of molasses-cured tobacker.

"We've a journey to make," Sarah said, and her enormous, coal-black Snowflake came up beside her.

Joseph shook his head.

"Wait a minute," he muttered. "Apple isn't alive and I know Snowflake died --"

Sarah gave him a patient look.

"Saddle up," she said quietly, and he did, and it was the same old Apple-horse under him, his beloved Appaloosa stallion.

He looked back at German soldiers surrounding the injured Captain, and he knew he was giving them a weak-voiced dressing-down, and instructing them not to loot the American's body, and he looked back at Sarah.

Sarah smiled gently and then looked forward, and Jacob followed her gaze, and he saw a white wolf regarding them with those yellow eyes he remembered.

Snowflake eased into a trot, and Apple-horse paced the gleaming black mare, and then they leaned into a gallop.

Somehow Joseph wasn't surprised when both horses snapped out a set of wings and they soared away from the earth.

 

Two days later, Jacob and Adam were in the Sheriff's office when they heard the first explosion.

 

The maid knew something was wrong when Linn had to stop halfway up the stairs to catch his wind.

She heard one boot hit the floor, then the other, and she knew he never, ever went back to bed at midmorning.

She abandoned the bread dough she'd been working and she ran up the stairs, her mouth dry, and she saw him lay back in his bed and relax.

He relaxed more than a man ought to normally relax, and her eyes grew big.

She didn't see his right hand reach over a little, as if to grasp someone else's hand, and she didn't notice that beside him on the bed, the bedsheet was pressed down a little, as if someone lay beside him.

A fresh-cut rose lay on the bedside table.

Mary stood there, hand over her mouth, her breath coming fast, and she knew, she just knew, that this was very wrong, something was very wrong, and she knew she had to get help, and fast!

She snatched her skirts and ran down the stairs, her feet loud and urgent.

The hired man was just coming up the porch steps when she slammed against him, ran across the barn lot, seized the sliding door and rolled it open.

Mary grabbed the T-handle on the cart and hauled it out into the yard and turned it so the handle pointed toward Firelands.

She slammed the lid back and the hired man heard her half-gasping, half-crying as she fumbled with something, then he saw a wisp of smoke and she stepped back.

The first skyrocket arced skyward, aiming toward Fireland, describing a sparkling wizard's trail against the cloudless sky.

 

That was the day Firelands had the world's briefest bank robbery attempt.

 

Jacob strode across the board floor, saw his son pointing: he looked, saw the puff of smoke floating on the wind where one rocket had detonated: he saw two more arc skyward, and his heart shriveled in his chest, for he knew what it meant.

"Boots and saddles," he said ,his voice tight, and Adam responded as he'd been trained.

Adam ran inside, yanked the release on the gunrack, pulled down his Pa's '76 rifle and then hoisted out his favorite, a double ten-bore, and threw the cloth warbag over his off shoulder, broke the action and dunked in two brass hulls.

His Pa reached up to a clockwork mechanism they'd installed not a week before, a device not to be used for any but an emergency, and today qualified.

Electricity was a new thing to Firelands, and they'd run wires to the hospital.

He pulled a switch and a clockwork mechanism unwound and fed a paper tape through a telegraph and it sent pulses of electricity through the twin wires, to the Firelands hospital.

In the hospital, a receiver began to clatter.

The paper tape it printed out engaged a series of studs, which pulled two contacts together, and a large, round, bronze gong on the wall began to hammer slowly, about once every half-second.

A man worked there, a man hired when they installed this alarm, and he was an old Navy man, and he too responded as he'd been trained.

He opened a cabinet and pulled out a bugle, drew in a great lungful of air, pointed the polished bell down the hallway and played a brisk series of notes: of all the souls in house that day, he was the only one who knew the "General Quarters" bugle call, but when he set down the bugle and hauled out the megaphone, there was no mistaking what followed, and all hands turned to as they had been trained:

"GENERAL QUARTERS, GENERAL QUARTERS, ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! RATS TO YOUR LINES, GUN CREW TO YOUR GUNS, GENERAL QUARTERS, THIS IS NOT A DRILL!"

 

Jacob and Adam powered into their saddles just as the first outlaw stepped into the Firelands bank.

Jacob and Adam spun their mounts and yelled "YAAH!" and the lookout yelled something as he saw the pair, both armed, heading toward them on a dead run.

The others looked, and ran for their horses, and spurred the hell out of town, running their mounts into the ground from utter raw fear.

They knew Old Pale Eyes' reputation, and they wanted no part of a lawman who bore down on them ready for a young war!

 

Jacob and Adam approached Grampa's place in a pincers.

Neither saw anything hostile.

They rode up to the porch.

Jacob was running before his feet hit the ground.

He stopped and gripped Mary's elbows.

She was crying too hard to say a word, but she turned and pointed up the stairs and Jacob assaulted the stairs, fear locking his throat shut.

He slammed the bedroom door open, Adam at his heels, and he took one step into the room, and stopped.

Jacob handed his rifle to his son, and stepped to the bedside, and took his father's hand in both his.

"Sir?" he asked quietly.

Linn's eyes were closed, and Jacob did not see any movement.

He squeezed his father's callused hand: "Sir!" he said, a little louder, and Adam, watching fearfully from just inside the door, realized he was too numb to move.

Several endless moments passed before they saw the bedsheet rise as the old man with the iron-grey mustache take a breath.

"Jacob," he whispered, and Jacob felt the man's hand tighten a little.

"Here, sir." Jacob bent a little at the waist, eyes locked on his father's face.

Linn took another breath, smiled gently.

"Jacob. You have a son."
"Yes, sir," Jacob replied. "Annette had a fine little boy. Ten fingers and ten toes and he doesn't look a thing like me."

"No mustache," his father whispered, and Jacob laughed, for it was an old joke between them.

"Jacob," Linn said, "You are a good father and you are a good Sheriff."

Jacob felt his father's hand tighten a little more.

Jacob heard the doctor's surrey outside, and he remembered Dr. Greenlees' hands, warm and strong on his shoulders, but the only thing he really heard, the only thing that sunk in that day, were the last words his father spoke.

"I am very proud of you."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller picked up the copy of her great-great-grandfather's first journal -- at least, the first one she'd found -- she turned to the very last pages, skimmed quickly through them, nodded.

"I thought so," she muttered.

"Sis," her twin brother Will said, "let me get this straight. Jacob saved the Captain's life but he was killed in the process."

"Yes."

"The Germans saturated the area with artillery fire because of this American squad."

"Yes."

"Joseph was the squad that caused all the trouble."

"Yes."

"And they were going to kill their own Captain to get him."

"They didn't know the Captain was there. They thought it was a trick and they expected an entire brigade of howling Americans to come up like a steel cyclone and spit them over a fire."

"And it was just one man."

Willamina was silent for several long moments.

"This journal, and Jacob's," she said, then looked up.

"Jacob was the Sheriff's firstborn. He delivered his own son and next day his father died, and the day they buried the Old Sheriff, he got word that his son Joseph was killed."

"Dear God," Sharon murmured.

"He's still buried over there?"

Willamina looked up and brother William saw an expression he knew a little too well.

"You're planning to go over and find his grave."

"I've already found it."

"You're bringing him back?"

Willamina smiled.

"Do you remember what Dr. George Flint told Joseph? That there would be a return, and his family would rejoice?"

Will nodded.

Willamina tapped the heavy, bevel-glass lid with a forefingernail.

"This," she said, "is the return, and we will celebrate with a feast!"

 

Willamina sat up late with her husband, Richard, a retired FBI agent, and spoke of her day.

He voiced his heartfelt approval of her having a feast to celebrate the return of this remarkable young man's artifacts.

When Willamina went to bed that night, she found a rose on her bedside table, and she dreamed of horses with wings.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

THE SHERIFF'S GHOST

"Sheriff's Office."

It wasn't often that Willamina answered phones. Sharon was her dispatcher and Sharon generally handled incoming calls, but coffee has a certain effect on the system and Sharon had to step away from her desk in response to that effect, so when the phone rang, the Sheriff picked it up and answered.

Caller ID said it was from the Z&W Railroad's roundhouse.

"Sheriff, this is Bill," a man's voice said, and Willamina could hear the stress in his words: "I just shot a man."

"Bill, are you hurt?"
"No, ma'am."

"Is anyone else injured?"

"No, ma'am, but that fella I just shot --"

Willamina waited, her hand floating toward the control that would alert the Firelands Fire Department and Emergency Squad.

"Ma'am, he ain't here."

"Where is he?"

"I don't know, ma'am. He reached like he was going for his gun and I shot and he just ... disappeared."

Willamina blinked. "Come again?"

"He didn't run, he didn't duck, he didn't go nowhere, ma'am, he just disappeared like you turned off a light!"

"Where are you now?"

"I'm in the boss's office."

"Stay put. I'm on my way."

The front door swung open and Willamina looked up.

Her twin brother William came grinning through the heavy glass doors.

Willamina hung up, her eyes hard.

"We're heading for the roundhouse, you're driving!"

 

William Keller, Firelands Police Department, and his twin sister, the Sheriff, rolled out of the cruiser, flanking to either side, eyes busy: all was quiet, all was uneventful: there was no blood on the ground, no signs of a strange vehicle, nothing at all out of the ordinary.

They made entry as they'd practiced a thousand times, spun in, each with a handful of machined-steel persuasion: Willamina's was a double twelve-bore, her brother's was a Remington pump: they worked their way to the boss's office.

Bill was inside, on his feet when he heard the cruiser roll up and the outer door open: Willamina crooked a finger through the glass and he came out to meet them.

"He ain't here, Sheriff," Bill said nervously. "I've been watching -- these windows will let me see the whole inside -- he was right over here" -- he pointed, and he followed his pointing finger, and they followed him, over to the steam locomotive, the gleaming, polished, restored and functional The Lady Esther, purchased from a South American concern, freighted back and restored, and put to work on what was now a tourist line -- "he was standing right here, Sheriff. I yelled at him, I asked who he was and what he was doin' here, it's Saturday and nobody should be here but me --"

Willamina's eyes were busy.

"No blood," she murmured, "no tracks. Clean floor would show any hemorrhage. Will, you see anything?"

Will was walking slowly around The Lady Esther's gloss-red-painted cowcatcher, scanning ahead, then down, then ahead again.

"Not a thing, Sis."

"Bill."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Show me where this fellow was."

"He was right here. Right between the wheels."

Willamina looked at the lead splatter on the cast-iron connecting rod. "Here's where you hit."

"Yes ma'am."

"You fired how many times?"

"Once, ma'am."

"You were where?"

He pointed, started to speak, and Willamina grabbed his upper arm.

"Show me."

They paced back a distance, turned.

"What did you shoot him with?"

Bill reached a trembling thumb and forefinger into his overalls' bib and drew out the handle of a J-frame Smith.

"Did you reload?"

"No, ma'am."

"What happened when the gun cracked?"

"He just disappeared."

Willamina looked back, looked up at the skylights.

"Good light," she murmured. "No cover. Nothing to duck behind." She looked at Bill, sizing the man up with a glare that pierced his carcass and assessed the color of his very spine. "Bill, tell me again what happened when you fired. Everything."

"He reached like he was goin' for his belt gun and I raised up and shot" -- his hand extended, pantomining the one-handed shot -- "he disappeared. He didn't drop, he didn't roll, he didn't duck nor duck walk nor run, he just plainly vanished!"

Willamina looked long at her chief engineer, finally laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

"Bill," she whispered, "look at me. Look at me, Bill!"

Bill looked at the Sheriff. He was still kind of pale.

"Bill, I believe you when you tell me this. You are not a drinkin' man and you are as sane as anyone I know. I don't have any idea what happened, but you made a good shoot and you were justified."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, and she could still hear tension's edge in his voice.

"You keep hold of Short Stuff" -- she patted the bulge in his bib pocket -- "but reload that fired chamber, you always want to reload after a firefight" -- she winked -- "now why don't you go to my office and wait for me. I'll be along directly. Will?"

"Yeah, Sis?"

"Take Bill out in the car and wait for me. I'll be right there. You're both going to the Silver Jewel with me."

"Right, Sis!" Will's voice echoed cheerfully in the cavernous interior of the Z&W's shop.

Willamina waited until bright mountain sunlight flooded the interior, then faded as the door shut behind the two.

She faced the locomotive, her good right hand tight on the checkered English grip of her double gun.

Willamina's other hand tightened into a fist and she raised her voice.

"YOU LONG TALL SKINNY DRINK OF WATER, STEP OUT HERE SO I CAN SEE YOU!"

And he did.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Willamina reached across both hammers of the abbreviated shotgun, brought them both to full stand.

Willamina studied the quiet, chilly interior, smelling oil and metal and coal; she sidestepped a little, reached to her side: a brisk plastic click, another, a third, and banks of lights came on overhead.

“I know who you are,” she called into the echoing interior. “I saw you when I was on my back. Step out so I can see you on my feet.”

Willamina began to pace forward, her shotgun at waist level.

She moved gracefully, almost daintily, looking absolutely at home gripping the double-barrel shotgun in both hands.

She paced toward the silent steam engine waiting patiently on its railed siding, looking considerably larger indoors than it did outside.

The rails were set into the cement floor; she was able to move easily, silently across them, until she had a visual down the starboard side of the diamond-stacker.

Willamina raised the shotgun’s muzzle, eased the hammers down to half cock, then she stood with the gun across her arm, tilted her head back, eyes closed, listening with more than her ears.

She began to dance.

Willamina moved slowly, gracefully; there was no one to see her, and she danced like a woman in a lover’s arms, she danced with the grace of a woman who loved what she did: she swayed, she stepped, she spun, she turned, she opened her eyes.

The man stood before her.

He reached up and turned over the lapel of his black suit coat.

Willamina reached up and turned over her own green-velvet lapel.

Two stars gleamed in the fluorescent light, both six pointed, both with the hand-chased word SHERIFF across the front.

Each laid their lapel back down.

The man’s voice was gentle, a little rough edged as if not used in a long time.
“No one shoots my little girl,” he said, and Willamina swallowed hard, remembering.
She’d been a Marine, separated from her outfit; her rifle took a round through the receiver and she’d finished breaking it in two by butt-stroking a bearded Afghan who came at her with an AK.
She kicked him in the gut and stripped the Kalashnikov from his groaning grip, head-shot him, stripped off his magazine harness and slung it off her off shoulder: she ran from shadow to shadow in the darkness, fighting desperately, making each round count: twice, waves of Afghani fighters charged her and she took them like she remembered the story of Alvin York, shooting the hindmost, then the next, then the next, so they would not stop and fire a volley.
The last one she shot at less than six feet.
The magazine harness had one partial magazine; she fired the rifle dry, tossed it muzzle-first down a nice friendly well and drew her Beretta.
She remembered the taste of dust and the smell of burnt explosives, and she ran through the night, firing as she ran, until something detonated beside and behind her and she fell through space and darkness and landed in a shell crater.
A grinning, dirty fighter in a ragged shirt and torn pants came to the edge of the crater, raised his rifle.
Willamina swung the Beretta at him, pulled the trigger, swore.
Slide lock.
Empty.
She threw the pistol aside, yanked out her Ka-Bar and screamed defiance:
“COME AND GET ME, DAMN YOU!”
There was an oily, booming concussion and a big blue smoke ring rolled like a wobbling doughnut through the air.
Something hit the soldier in the belly and folded him up, shoving him back, and Willamina looked up and behind her.
The man she saw before her now was standing on the rim of the crater.
He broke the double gun open, extracted two empty hulls, dunked in two fresh rounds.
He had pale eyes, cold eyes, eyes the color of a glacier’s heart, and he had an iron-grey mustache, curled into a precise handlebar.
“Nobody,” he said coldly, “nobody shoots my little girl!”
She remembered she could see the night sky stars through the brim of his hat, and he faded into invisibility just as a voice shouted, “Over here! Colonel! We’re coming!”
Willamina blinked, returned to the here-and-now, looked into the ice-pale eyes of her Great-Great-Grandfather.
My Great-Great-Grandfather … or his shade?
“Sarah,” he said, his voice and his smile gentle, and she saw his eyes darken a little, darken to a discernible blue.
She shook her head. “Willamina,” she said. “I’m your great-great-granddaughter.”

 

The Old Sheriff nodded, slowly. “You are beautiful,” he whispered.
"My husband thinks so."
She saw approval in his eyes as she spoke the words.
“What are you doing here?” Willamina asked.

The Sheriff looked longingly at the locomotive.

“I named it for my wife,” he said quietly.

“You miss her.”

He smiled, shook his head.

“We are together now. No, I was … remembering.” He chuckled, his voice quiet in the silent roundhouse. “An old man does that.”

“Why here, why now? A message?”

He looked sharply at Willamina.

“You are curious,” he said, “just like Sarah.” He nodded. “Good. You should be curious. You want to learn more about … me, about my time.”

“Yes. Yes, I do, what can you tell me?”

The Sheriff raised an arm, pointed. “I used that inspection car yonder,” he said, then looked back at the pair. “A mile and a half due west on the main track and you will find where an old spur was. Inside that spur you will learn more about me.”

“Inspection car?” Willamina echoed, glancing toward the restored, steam powered inspection car, then looked back.

The Old Sheriff was gone.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Roses

 

“Bill?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I understand the inspection car is restored.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I understand it is… completely… restored.”

“It is, ma’am.”

“Is anyone else using our railroad line today?”

“No ma’am, not in the off season.”

“Is the line clear of snow?”

“It is, ma’am.”

“I am conducting an inspection, Bill. I want detail maps of our line to five miles west of here. I want the old maps, I want to see what used to be as well as what is, and I want steam up in the inspection car.”

Bill grinned. “Yes, ma’am! We haven’t had steam up since the boiler was certified last fall but she’ll do fine!”

The Sheriff climbed into the inspection car, looked around, came back out on the front platform.

“Oh, Bill?” she called across the roundhouse.

Bill stopped, turned. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Bill, has anyone been in the inspection car?”

“No ma’am, not that I know of. Why? What happened?”

The Sheriff looked to the side, looked back at Bill.

“Oh, nothing. I’ll need those maps.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He turned, clumped down the two ornate, open-work iron steps.

Sheriff Willamina Keller stared at a single, fresh, bright-red rose, laying on the little sidetable, laying on a lace-edged doily.

Willamina picked it up, put it to her nose, took a long, slow, appreciative breath, savoring the scent of a fresh bloom.

“I wonder how that got there,” she said slowly, then smiled.

“I,” the Sheriff said with an equal slowness, “think I just might know.”

 

The sidetable was not big enough for the map, so the map was unrolled on the floor, Willamina on her hands and knees, studying the detailed drawing.

She tapped the mapmaker’s signature in the lower corner, grinned.

It was her Great-Great-Grandfather’s signature.

“I know I read accounts of his skill at mapmaking,” Willamina admitted aloud, “but I did not realize this one was his!

“He said how far … west?”

Her words were murmured aloud, thoughtfully, as she sometimes did, holding a conference with herself.

“A mile and a half." Her finger traced the tracks and her eyes narrowed as her neatly-trimmed fingernail stopped. "There. There was an old spur.”

“Spur?” Bill asked as he entered the car. “I know right where it is. A spur went into the mountain, I think it went into the mine works.”

“I need to cross-reference with the Cripple Creek mine maps. I know Firelands is undermined rather extensively. Two of them are close enough to the surface a boarding house fell in when the tunnel came too close to surface.”

“Clapp Street.”

“What?” Willamina looked with surprise at the engineer.

“Clapp Street,” he repeated. “Short for Collapsed Street.”

Willamina closed her mouth, raised her eyebrows, considering.

“I suppose that’s a good descriptive name,” she nodded.

Bill turned, tapped the round, glass-faced pressure gauge ; the heat in the windowed, enclosed inspection car was most welcome.

“Ma’am?” Bill asked. "You ready?"

Willamina nodded, straightened, came to her feet: she settled herself in a velvet upholstered chair, arranged her skirt as regally as the Queen herself.

“That was one of Esther Keller’s chairs,” Bill said, smiling sadly. “I understand she loved to sit there and watch the countryside.”

“She also had two rifles, two shotguns, a telegraph set and a built in toilet.”

Bill grinned at the Sheriff’s quiet, knowing words: he stepped across the car, lifted the padded, hinged top of the bench, exposing what for all the world looked like an outhouse seat, only finely sanded and finished.

“There was a curtain you could draw,” he said, pointing to the semicircular track directly above, “and of course it was open to the air underneath. No environmental laws then, just out on the tracks with it.”

Willamina laughed.

Bill eased open the throttle and the inspection car chuffed quietly, easily toward the open double doors.

“Hold here, Bill,” Willamina spoke up, coming to her feet: she stepped quickly to the door, stepped out onto the platform, waved.

“Yoo-hoo, Mr. Jones!” she called. “Would you join us, please?”

Bruce Jones, editor of the Firelands Chronicle, grinned and jogged over to the gleaming, ornate, brightly-painted inspection car with the spray of roses painted on the side, just above the gold-leaf, black-shadow-lettered Z&W RR.

“Mr. Jones,” Willamina smiled as she gestured the editor inside, followed and pulled the door to behind them: “Mr. Jones, this is Bill, our engineer.” Her eyes were bright as she looked down at the map.

“Mr. Jones, we are hunting a ghost!”

“A ghost.”

“A rather convincing ghost, I might add, who addressed me as Sarah.”

Jones blinked, considering.

“The Old Sheriff?”

Willamina nodded, once.

“Well!” Jones exclaimed, happily dry-washing his hands. “Do fill me in, dear friends! And why the hand-drawn map?”

“The map the Old Sheriff drew,” Willamina pointed out, “and this rose here on the side table –“

She turned, frowned.

The rose was gone.

 

Persuasion of the Board

 

 

It was unique enough for the Sheriff to visit the Board of Directors meeting.

It was more unique by her appearance in an emerald-green McKenna gown, with a proper hat and gloves, a brace of copper-plated Colt revolvers, and an attorney.

“As you’ve heard, gentlemen,” Willamina said, a quiet smile on her face and gentleness in her voice, “what we propose can be written off your taxes – we’ve given you chapter and verse as to your charitable donation to a forensic excavation into a 19th century crime scene and how 100% of its expenses can be written off your taxes.” She looked steadily from one set of skeptical eyes to another, until she’d circled the table like a gun turret scans a battlefield.

“Wages, equipment, fuel, insurance, clothing, feeding the troops, medical expenses and insurance, any expense that is donated to this archaeological dig is 100% money back in your own pocket.”

“It’s not in our pocket,” one man protested, “it’s spent on wages and fuel and food –“

“And the damned government doesn’t get it,” another growled. “I’m for it.”

“We’re in business to mine, gentlemen,” came the retort. “Not to raid the Lost Ark.”

“You have the machinery,” Willamina interjected. “You have the manpower and you have the experience. We of the University have none of those things. We’d like to open that drift, which by the way goes into your mines. We have reason to believe the tracks are still inside and they are very likely in very good shape. Rails in those days were iron and not steel, the drift is up-grade which runs water away from the rails and crossties –“

“Why would it matter, iron or steel? It all rusts.”

“The use of steel rails,” Willamina explained patiently, “was pioneered by the Z&W, as well as air brakes and safety couplers, when they were first available and long before the main lines adopted them. My ancestress, Esther Keller, owned the railroad and she personally saw the results of brittle iron rails breaking and thrusting up through the belly of a passenger car, at speed. The mines, however, used iron exclusively, because steel rusts fast and iron rusts very slowly.”

“Well, how long has whatever you’re looking for been underground?”

“Better than a century,” Willamina admitted.

“A century.”

Willamina made no reply.

“After a century, what could possibly be left?” The speaker shook his head and spread his hands. “Gentlemen, I don’t think so.”

“As you please, gentlemen,” Willamina smiled. “I’ll approach another firm and they will be credited with one of the more interesting archaeological finds in the area.” She stood. “You should be aware of the good publicity that comes of affiliating with a major university’s dig.”

Willamina turned, flaring her long skirt dramatically as she turned.

“Sheriff?”

“Yes?” Willamina turned, fixed pale-blue eyes on the questioner.

“Sheriff … why did you come here dressed like … this?”

Willamina smiled, lowered her head a fraction, her eyes very pale.

“I am very interested in history,” she said frankly. “I personally resurrected the Z&W Railroad, which featured largely in your own mining history. And if I remember correctly, sir, you personally augured against my action.” She fixed the man with ice-pale eyes, her voice quiet in the hushed boardroom. “You tried to prevent me, as a matter of fact, by bribing certain Bolivian officials to either lose the steam engine, or to destroy it.”

“I did no such thing!” the man blustered.

“I have the sworn affidavits, I have the diplomatic cables, and I have statements from the people you tried to bribe.” The Sheriff’s voice was cold, her words hard and clipped.

“Is that true, Smith?” the President of the Board asked, glaring at the offender.

“I may have expressed some doubts as to whether a mere Sheriff had the wherewithal to purchase a steam locomotive –“

“ ’Mere’?” the Sheriff asked, contempt dripping liberally from the single word.

“I meant no offense.”

“I am offended, sirrah. I am also worth about twice what you are, and I own a majority share of this mine’s total stock.”

“Gentlemen,” the vice-president interjected hastily, “might I suggest we go into executive session?”

“Ever the voice of reason, eh, Samuel?” the President said thoughtfully. “Sheriff, may I get back with you on your interesting proposal?”

“You may,” the Sheriff said quietly, picking up her parasol, managing to look like she was handling a weapon while looking completely ladylike in the process.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Crystal looked at her husband, lowered her fork, mashed potatoes and gravy untasted.

“Will?” she said quietly.

Will blinked, looked at his wife, his children, back to his wife. “I’m sorry, dear, what was the question again?”

“Will, you’re miles away. What’s wrong?”

Will turned his head, running out his lower jaw, bit his bottom lip, looked back.

“I need your advice,” he said frankly.

“My advice?” Crystal blinked, laughing a little.

Will nodded, looked at his supper as if he’d never seen it before.

He picked up his fork, sliced off a bite of meat.

“I saw something today,” he muttered.

“Whatcha see, Daddy?” his son Joseph asked, blue eyes wide and innocent.

Will laughed, chewed his forkful, swallowed. “Did I ever tell you I love your pot roast?”

“I knew it,” Crystal sighed. “You married me for my cooking.”

“Among other things.” Will gave her a look that sent a delicious shiver through her belly. “Among other things, dear heart.”

Her look in response was positively smoldering, and Will’s quiet smile as he took another bite of her pot roast promised their evening together would be mutually … satisfying.

“What’cha see, Daddy?” Joseph asked again, taking a careful bite of mashed potatoes and gravy.

“I,” Will said solemnly, “saw a ghost.”

“Ooo,” Joseph replied, wide eyes widening a little more. “Was it a scary ghost, Daddy? Did you beat the ghost? Did you shoot it?”

“Somebody else shot it.”

“Did they kill it?”

Will laughed. “No, the ghost is okay.”

“Oh.” Joseph blinked, considering. “Where is it?”

Will laughed, salting his mashed potatoes. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Ghosts don’t hang around like we do.”

“Oh.”

 

Willamina turned a little, looked down the gleaming boardroom table, tapped her folded fan in a lace-gloved hand.

“Well?” Her eyes were blue, warm, and she wore the reproduction McKenna gown as if it were her most natural and most comfortable attire. “What say you, gentlemen?”

An hour and a half later, her husband held her at arm’s length, the memory of her kiss lingering on his lips.

“Well?” he asked, smiling wickedly. “What did they say?”

Sheriff Willamina Keller, hands on her hips and her head tilted a little, smiled saucily and then laughed. “They said yes.”

“Good.”

“Damned right good!” she whispered, reaching for his belt and pulling them together again. “Kiss me again!”

 

An unexpected peek

The Sheriff looked up.

The door hadn’t opened, but he was standing here anyway -- in her office, in front of her desk.

She took a long breath and consciously, deliberately, controlled her temper.

She placed her pen to the side of the desk blotter, aligned very precisely with its edge, and one pen’s-diameter away from the green felt paper.

She looked up.

The Old Sheriff – her great-great-grandfather, or at least his ghost – was looking at the rifle and shotgun on the wall above the Sheriff’s head.

“I remember when Esther gave me that rifle,” he murmured.

“I didn’t hear you come in.”

There was an edge to Sheriff Willamina Keller’s voice.

Ghost or not, ancestor or not, politeness required asking and receiving permission before entering her sanctum.

He looked at her, his eyes pale, but a little amused.

“You are curious about my time,” he said with a smile, even white teeth shining suddenly beneath his carefully-curled, iron-grey mustache.

“I have to husband my time,” Sheriff Willamina said quietly, steel in her voice. “This is how I make my living and it must come first.”

The Old Sheriff nodded. “I understand.”

Willamina leaned back in her high-backed, armless office chair.

“Would you have shown yourself if I hadn’t restored The Lady Esther and brought her back to life here?” she asked, accepting without question that the shade of her honored ancestor looked surprisingly solid.

“Yes,” he said, “but you were bound to do it anyway.”

Willamina raised her left eyebrow – a sign of irritation – she did not like being predictable, and here, the departed spirit of a man a century dead, managed to predict her action?

He held up a forestalling hand. “I can see your anger,” he said, “and I can feel it, for it is much like my own.” He turned and looked at the Regulator clock. “Note the time, then come with me.”

He held out his hand.

They both felt the change come over Willamina.

She was suddenly very much on guard; she mentally reviewed the weapons available to her, and she considered her training and experience in hand-to-hand before taking the man’s hand in her own.

His hand was warm, real, firm, callused.

“Not what you expected?” he asked softly.

“No,” Willamina admitted, blinking: she reached up and stroked his mustache with the back of a bent forefinger, then laid her hand gently on his shoulder, squeezed.

“You’re a ghost,” she said skeptically. “How can I feel you as solid?”

“I am … a spirit.”

“And the difference is …?”

“Allow me to open the door, and walk with me.”

Willamina raised an eyebrow, released the warm, solid reality of her Great-Great-Grandfather’s ghost’s hand, grasped the doorknob.

She turned the knob, drew the door open.

She looked through the open door, then back to the now-grinning ghost, and back again.

She stepped from the polished marble floor of her sanctum onto the carefully sanded, tightly fitted boards that comprised the floor of the Firelands Sheriff’s Office and jail, in the year of our Lord, 1885.

“Welcome to my time,” Sheriff Linn Keller whispered.

Sheriff Willamina was between a row of cells, none occupied, all slightly ajar: she paced ahead, slowly, her three-inch-heels loud on the smooth plank floor: the air was cooler here, but somehow … newer? – or is that my imagination?

“There is someone I’d like you to meet.”

Sheriff Willamina turned, looked at the old lawman, turned and stopped abruptly.

She was looking at herself.

Herself, that is, in an electric-blue gown, with matching gloves and hat, herself … with the same ice-pale eyes, and the same facial structure, the same height.

“Sheriff Willamina Keller,” the Old Sheriff said formally, “may I present your ancestress, Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna-Llewellyn, of the Firelands District Court.”

“Nice outfit,” Willamina said matter-of-factly, extending her hand.

The hand that gripped it was the same size and – surprisingly – the same strength as her own.

“You're thinking we are identical,” Sarah said, laughter in her eyes and a gentle smile on her lips, “we’re not identical. Your scar –“ Sarah took the Sheriff by the shoulder, turned her a little and placed her gloved fingertips very precisely on an old war wound on the Sheriff’s posterior flank – “that is yours. And this” – she unbuttoned her right sleeve, worked the sleeve back to show an ugly scar halfway up her right forearm – “this one is mine. I was fourteen and a wolf got me.”

Willamina’s mouth went dry as she remembered reading the Old Sheriff’s account of the wolf attack.

“If I remember the account,” Willamina said through a suddenly-parched throat, “you broke its neck.”

“Yes,” Sarah affirmed, her gaze as straightforward as her words. “I did.”

She turned at the sound of the cadenced tik-tik-tik of dog claws on the board floor.

Tank slid easily past the Old Sheriff, thrust a cold nose into Willamina’s palm, looked at Sarah and then at the Old Sheriff, his brown-and-black plume of a tail wagging slowly in greeting: he leaned against Willamina’s stockinged leg and looked up at her.

“This is Tank,” Willamina said, leaning down a little to rub the Shepherd dog behind the ear. “He’s our K9 officer.”

“Such formality,” Sarah said, irony in her voice: she leaned over a little and said “Hello, Tank.”

Tank looked at her and wagged his tail.

“Tank can see us,” the Old Sheriff explained.

Willamina straightened, considering that she was in a strange place, that she was in the presence of two formidable fighters, and she just might be outmatched if things went badly. Part of her mind realized that ghosts were not solid but frauds were, and she just might be in the presence of two bunco artists … which could end very, very badly.

Sheriff Willamina looked at Tank, at the lighter spots of fur above his eyes.

“You are thinking angel eyes,” Sarah said. “You’re right. A dog with angel eyes can see ghosts.”

“I thought that was just … legend.”

“Oh, no,” the Old Sheriff laughed. “No, Tank can see us and feel us, can’t you, fella?” He fearlessly rubbed Tank’s neck and shoulder.

Tank’s fur bristled and he rumbled a little and the Old Sheriff nodded approval.

“Good lad. You’re protective. You should be.” The Old Sheriff straightened and looked the Sheriff in the eye. “Especially after what you two went through together.”

“You know about that.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I was there. Do you remember the shell crater?”

Willamina’s blood ran cold for a moment and she recalled the man with the iron grey mustache at the rim of the crater, the man who drove two charges of twelve gauge shot into the terrorist’s belly and then declared, “Nobody shoots my little girl!”

“He used my gun,” a woman’s voice said, and Willamina turned, her mouth falling open a little.

Esther Keller, wife of Sheriff Linn Keller, woman of business and influence and owner of the Z&W Railroad, looked at Sheriff Willamina Keller with the frank assessment of a woman who was accustomed to making judgments and decisions based on those judgments. “You need a new dress.”

“This will do just fine,” Willamina replied stiffly.

“Not here it won’t,” the Sheriff corrected her. “Remember, you’re in our world now.”

“I think I’ll go back to my own.”

The older man nodded. “As you wish.”

Sarah reached out and caught the Willamina’s arm.

Sheriff Willamina turned, her eyes pale, and looked into eyes that were equally as ice-pale as her own.

“My gowns should fit you,” Sarah whispered. “You are welcome to return.”

The Sheriff made no move to pull free of Sarah’s lace-gloved grip.

“Thank you,” she said after a moment. “That’s very kind.”

The Sheriff turned and froze, blinking.

She was standing beside her own desk.

The Old Sheriff grinned at her, one hand on Tank’s neck; the Shepherd dog’s eyes were half-closed, the way they were when he was getting some loving, and his brown-and-black brush of a tail polished the gleaming marble floor.

“You will have more questions,” the Old Sheriff said, his voice gentle. “When you are ready, let me know.”

“How? It’s not like I can pick up the telephone and call.”

“Just tell me you’re ready. Sarah can loan you a gown or you can wear something suitable.”

Sheriff Willamina opened her mouth to say something, but the old man was gone, and she looked up at the Regulator clock.

It was exactly the same time as when she left.

Tank looked up at her and wagged his tail.

Willamina’s phone rang.

“Sheriff?” a familiar voice greeted her. “We have the go-ahead for the dig.”

It took an effort for her to shift mental gears, to return to the here-and-now, to return to business she'd started.

When she replied, her voice was brisk, businesslike.

“When do we start?”

“First thing in the morning.”

“The Z&W Railroad is in.”

“We’ll need the old spur re-laid.”

“I’ll get the crew together.”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Z&W Scenic Railway had quietly accumulated the hardware it would need for track maintenance and laying new track: their equipment was not new, but it was well cared for, and because they were a non-profit, they didn’t have the full tax burden of a profit-making corporation, which means they could actually afford to keep their equipment.

Consequently, when Caterpillar steel bit into dirt and peeled years of eroded soil away from the original roadbed, when heavy gravel ballast was cascaded onto raw earth and power-vibrator tamped into place, when ties were laid and rails placed and spiked under power, the work was done by men familiar with the work, men who’d done it before, and God willing would do it again.

The spur was not long, but it had to be laid out carefully; they were grateful for the planning of men long dead, a century and more ago, who calculated the curve necessary, and new rails followed the curve established long before: the mine brought in equipment, rail-mounted borers and shovels and roofers, and Diesel exhaust blasted from heat-stained exhausts into the clear Colorado air, punctuating the mechanical sounds of steel extensions to skilled men’s hands.

The excavation came to a fast halt when the first original iron rails were exposed.

Backhoes reached steel claws into collapsed rock and earth; expert’s eyes assessed the burden they brought out, engineers considered the overhead, bracing was brought in – heavy I-beams, cut, welded and curved to fit, arching their steel backs against the mountain, allowing crews to dig a little further, then place another arch, and dig some more.

“I think we can mate our old rails with these,” one man observed.

“Do it.”

More debris was removed; the backhoe bucket reached, dragged back another few yards of rock –

The foreman pulled an air horn from his belt, blew a Freon-powered blast, bringing the entire job to a fast stop.

Professor Hunt came running up, agile in spite of insulated workboots and Carhartt coveralls.

He stopped, panting, looked at the foreman, then looked where the foreman was staring.

Professor Hunt turned to his assistant, accepted the powerful, wet-cell spotlight, turned it on.

The beam lanced into the dust-dancing darkness, illuminated the end of a railroad passenger car.

“It’s here,” he whispered.

The beam drifted to the side, stopped, and the Professor’s mouth went dry.

“Call the Sheriff,” the foreman snapped.

 

The inspection car made better time than a good saddlehorse would have: still, the Sheriff chafed at the delay: she’d not expected progress quite this fast: putting in the rail spur took about as long as she expected, but opening the old shaft took far less.

“Anxious?” a familiar voice asked.

She looked up at her Great-Great-Grandfather, then at the engineer.

“He can’t see me,” the Old Sheriff smiled. “Nor hear me.”

The Sheriff rose. She was in jeans and boots and a flannel shirt, a Carhartt coat and the Old Sheriff’s engraved, ivory-handled revolvers.

The Old Sheriff looked pointedly at the Colts belted around her lean hips, ran his thumb meditatively along the white-ivory grip of his own engraved, ivory-handled, right-hand Colt.

He looked around, smiling a little.

“I always did like this little car,” he said thoughtfully. “Esther did too.”

Willamina looked ahead.

“You’re wondering what you’ll find.” The old Sheriff squatted, balancing on the balls of his feet, then lowering his right knee until it just touched the floor. “Do you remember the account you read?”

Willamina opened her mouth to reply, then looked at the engineer again. The man was looking ahead on the track, his hand on the throttle.

“I’m sorry,” the Old Sheriff said, a pained look crossing his face. “You don’t want to appear to be talking to yourself.”

She nodded.

“The account you read was from the newspaper, if I remember correctly.”

She nodded again.

“It was taken from Sarah’s statement, and Jacob’s.”

She nodded again.

The Old Sheriff stood, removed his coat, unbuttoned his vest.

“I am about to be very indecent,” he said. “Removing my vest … a man who wears only a shirt is wearing his underwear in public.” He smiled wryly. “You have seen more than that.”

Willamina’s eyes widened with alarm.

The Old Sheriff’s white-linen shirt was stained with blood.

Bright, crimson, gleaming wet; there was a tiny hole, an entrance wound –

“It was a .32,” he explained, “and it hurt.”

Willamina’s hands moved of their own accord: she seized his shoulder, yanked the bandanna from her own hip pocket, pressed it hard against his chest –

He smiled gently, laid his hand over hers, drew her hand back.

The shirt was spotless, undamaged.

“I lived,” he explained. “I lived for many years afterward.”

“What will we find in there?” Sheriff Willamina asked, her voice tight.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” the engineer replied, reducing the throttle and reaching up to the whistle’s chain lanyard, “but we’re almost there.”

“You will find the car I rode,” the Old Sheriff said.

“You rode … the car?”

The Old Sheriff’s smile was tight, his eyes very pale.

“I killed the men who tried to kill me.”

“And …?”

“And I cut the car loose and rode it downhill, we switched it into the drift and pushed it in with this very observation car. I set the powder and blew the drift shut, then the Z&W pulled up the rails.”

Sheriff Willamina Keller blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it.

The Old Sheriff was gone.

The engineer gave a quick double-pull on the lanyard, then a longer note.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked forward, saw the equipment on the track; the inspection car was slowing, and the engineer turned, a grin on his face.

“I don’t know what they found, ma’am,” he grinned, “but they look excited!”

 

Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna turned slowly, nodding at the reflection in the full-length mirror.

She was trying on one of Sheriff Willamina's tailored suit dresses, and she liked what she saw.

Her pale eyes smoldered wickedly as she spun on her toes, laughing: she reached up, lifted her gleaming hair, let it fall in loose, shining cascades over her shoulders, then put her hands on her hips and walked slowly, sensually, wickedly, toward the mirror, one high-heeled foot in front of the other, her hips swiveling as if on ball bearings, slowly wetting her bottom lip as smoldering eyes bored into her reflection.

"I could get used to this," she whispered, and then her eyes shifted toward the closed bedroom door.

The Sheriff's husband was downstairs.

She looked at the reflection again, and smiled.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

MULTIPLES

The TV news cameras showed the Z&W inspection car, with its spray of roses insignia centered under the front window, chuff slowly out of the newly-opened mine shaft, drawing with it a private car in surprisingly good shape.

The mine works were elevated enough to prevent water accumulation; there had been little moisture to rot the organic material, and as the inspection car blew a triumphant shriek into the cold Colorado mountain air, the carload of death saw daylight for the first time in over a century.

The state police forensics team watched as the car eased out of its hidden alcove; they’d processed the scene as best they could, and now they needed the car removed: fortunately, the car was its own crime scene, and could be kept discrete, allowing them to finish processing the inside of the now-revealed mineshaft.

The news camera was the very latest in technology: digital, compact, auto-focus, it relayed the image instantaneously to a portable satellite relay; the image of a 19th-century railcar being drawn from the darkness by the same steam engine that put it there, seared through the atmosphere, processed itself through a satellite, appeared on news feeds and TV screens nearby and at distance, almost instantaneously.

They captured the sound of the steam engine laboring up grade, the intent expression of the engineer, the broad grin of the Z&W track crew.

They did not catch the look on Sheriff Willamina Keller’s face as she looked at the roof of the car, the leading end of the car nearest the inspection car.

Nor did the camera’s ground-glass eye see what the Sheriff saw.

She saw a pale-eyed man with an iron-grey mustache standing on the roof, fists clenched, teeth bared against the pain, and the white-linen shirt he wore was bright-wet and crimson with blood.

 

“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” the Sheriff yelled, running toward the car, angling to intercept the camera crew.

She grabbed the cameraman by the shoulders, turned him quickly, getting him off balance: he fell back against the car, pinned as much by the Sheriff’s ice-pale eyes as her steel-hard grip on his bilateral trapezii.

“This,” she hissed, “is a crime scene. I would not let you take video of bloody bodies, I will not let you take video of the bodies in this car. Once we have the scene cleaned up, once human remains are removed, once the crime scene is processed, I will give you exclusive coverage.”

She waited a moment to let her words sink in.

The cameraman nodded; Willamina released her grip on his shoulder muscles, patted his shoulder, winked.

Willamina looked up toward the car’s roof.

It took all her reserve not to jump when a familiar hand touched her elbow.

“I’m down here,” the Old Sheriff said quietly.

“Sheriff, how many bodies are in there?” the reporter asked, uncomfortable in a mackinaw and steel-toed workboots.

“I don’t know,” Willamina admitted. “We should know shortly.”

“How did they get there?”

Sheriff Willamina looked directly at the TV camera.

“It is the height of stupidity to try to kill a lawman,” she said flatly. “Back in the 1880s – I believe it was 1885 – some criminals banded together and decided they would rob Firelands, and then do some other unpleasant things.

“One of them tried to kill my Great-Great-Grandfather, the second Sheriff of Firelands County.

“He killed the man that shot him, then he killed every one of the associates. They were all in this private car, they were bound for Firelands.

“The main line runs on an upgrade here – you can see it slopes uphill – his son and chief deputy Jacob, and his daughter Sarah, were on the train.

“He gave them orders and in spite of his injury – he was shot here, in the high chest, his white-linen shirt was soaked with his life’s-blood – he had Jacob dismount the slow-moving train and throw the switch.

“The Sheriff cut loose the private car and rode it downhill, and his daughter Sarah wrote of how he looked, standing like a warrior-god, bloody and terrible, as the car coasted backwards, downgrade, and thanks to the switch, sailed halfway into the mine drift.” She smiled at the reporter. “A drift is an opening, a working opening, men in, gold ore out, that sort of thing.”

He nodded his understanding.

“Jacob ran ahead and climbed back onto the slow-moving train, and with his sister Sarah, had the inspection car brought out from the Firelands roundhouse. They used it to push the carload of dead men into the drift, then the three of them set explosive charges, uncoupled from the private car, and as the inspection car eased slowly out of the tunnel, they lit the fuses as they passed. The explosion, as they intended, collapsed the tunnel.

“We are conducting a forensic excavation to determine the particulars, as best we can.”

“And how soon can we expect results, Sheriff?” the reporter asked.

Sheriff Willamina Keller laughed, her eyes turning a distinct blue. “My father,” she said candidly, “tried to teach me at a tender age that ‘Hurry up is brother to mess it up.’ “ She smiled, tilting her head a little at the memory. “Funny how many times I’ve proven the man right.” She looked up at the camera, smiling as if sharing a secret: “You know, the older I get, the smarter the old man becomes!”

There were chuckles at this, and several looks were exchanged; every man there knew the phenomenon all too well as they themselves aged.

“I do not know when results will be available – my apologies, but I left my crystal ball back at the office.” Her smile took any jab out of her words. “I will be sure to let you know, just as soon as we ourselves know.”

 

Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna stood beside her pale-eyed father.

"Do you think we should show her what happened in there?" she whispered.

The Old Sheriff smiled.

"She wants to know," he whispered back. "The best way to show her will be to include her." He turned a little, looked at Sarah.

"Do you still have that cute little dancing-girl outfit?"

Sarah raised an eyebrow, the corners of her mouth turning up a little.

"It should fit her just fine."

Sarah nodded, smiling again.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A GRAVE SHOOTOUT

Willamina drifted along the comfortable boundary between sleep and wake, knowing at some level the warm solid comfort along her side was her faithful Shepherd dog, and knowing the breathing she heard on the other side was her husband, and knowing the hand that held hers loosely was also her husband’s.

She smelled roses, and inwardly she smiled; she did not move her face, she dared not, for as long as she held still she did not hurt and she did not want to hurt.

Not yet.

She relaxed again, enjoying the scent of roses, then she felt a warm breeze on her face, and she realized she was not in her bed –

Curious, she opened her eyes.

The hand holding hers changed, became harder, but just as warm: she blinked, looking around at rows of tombstones in a small graveyard.

Startled, she looked to her left, then up into the smiling eyes of her Great-Great-Grandfather.

“I used to come here,” he said quietly, “to punish myself.”

Willamina blinked, then followed the Old Sheriff’s gaze to the stone before them.

“Your wife,” she whispered.

He nodded.

Willamina knew the stone; she’d stood where she stood now, but a century in the future.

A small stone beside, with a lamb, clean-cut, distinct: Joseph, she thought.

“Yes, Joseph,” the tall, slender man with the iron-grey mustache nodded.

“He was shot.”

“His coffin was shot, yes, but he kept his sister safe.”

Willamina released the masculine hand, turned to face him, her eyes pale.

“Report,” she said, her voice clipped.

“He died in his sleep. I … he almost died once before and I grabbed him up out of his crib and held him in front of my face and I screamed his name.”

The Old Sheriff’s voice was rough as he remembered, and Willamina saw the remembering in his eyes.

“I intended to reach across the Divide and drag his soul back with my bare hands if I had to.” His voice tightened a little, and Willamina laid a hand on his arm and felt him tremble, and she realized this was the genuine grief of a father who was losing a child.

“He come back. He come back to me, Willamina. I near to cried when he did. But he died, not long later, and he was here in his box and we were about to plant him when it happened.”

The Old Sheriff turned, pointed. “Yonder, not far, was another burial."

She turned, looked: another family was assembled around another long box.

She shivered as winter's wind caressed her through her coat, through the long dress she wore, snowflakes tapped against her chilled cheeks and fell away, spinning.

A man full of hate … his son was thrown from a horse, broke his neck. Killed him. The man was a stockholder with the Z&W and Esther was raising hell at the board meeting. She could do that” – he looked at Willamina, his expression amused – “she was a senior stockholder and majority owner, and she was also in the right.

“The fellow she was raising hell with didn’t much like it because she’d caught him with his fingers in the till.

“Of a sudden she stopped and looked into the distance, then she blinked and said he should go home, he was needed. Not a minute later a messenger arrived with a note and he left.

“He blamed Esther for his son’s death. Called her a witch.

“I found out later he brooded beside his dead son’s coffin until everyone went to bed, then he stuck a shotgun in the coffin and replaced the lid screws with wooden pegs. When they got the body to their graveside, we were here, assembled to bury Joseph.

“The man yanked his son's coffin lid open, brought out the shotgun and cut loose at us.

“I was hit, a few gravestones were hit, Angela got pushed out of the way – she fell behind Joseph’s box – some shot hit the box and Angela was safe.”

“You shot him.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Left handed. He’d hit me on the right. Jacob and Charlie Macneil nailed him too.”

Willamina’s eyes dropped to his right chest, her expression was somewhere between alarm and concern: she raised a hand, laid it gently on the front of his coat. “I worry about you,” she whispered.

“I’ve told him that very thing, I don’t know how many times,” a motherly voice said, and Willamina turned, startled, as Esther tilted her head and gave her a gentle look. “It doesn’t do much good, my dear. He is a peacekeeper and he keeps the peace.”

Esther Keller’s green eyes were merry as she added with a quiet little laugh, “Peacefully, or otherwise, and I don’t think he cares which!”

Esther took a step toward Willamina, a bouquet of fresh-cut roses in her hands, the smell was fragrant and pleasant and Willamina blinked and she was looking at the ceiling of her bedroom.

She blinked again, confused.

Tank groaned happily, twitching an ear; Richard, flat on his back beside her, took a long breath, which Willamina knew meant he was waking up. His hand tightened a little around hers and she smiled, this time allowing the smile to spread to her face.

She turned her head to the left and smiled again.

A bouquet of roses, fresh-cut and fragrant, stood on the sidetable.

Willamina remembered the green-eyed woman who took a step toward her, remembered how the light played on the emerald dress she wore, frowned a little and wondered.

Dream?

Had to be a dream.

I’m here in bed.

I couldn’t have been at the graveyard.

Couldn’t have.

She caught movement from the corner of her eye and her mouth opened a little as she realized Esther Keller, in her trademark emerald-green gown, was standing beside her bed, rubbing Tank’s ears, and the Shepherd’s eyes were closed with pleasure, his happy tail thumping the covers as the Old Sheriff’s wife massaged the Sheriff’s K9 officer with expert fingers.

Was it a dream?” Esther asked quietly, smiling a knowing smile.

Willamina’s hand tightened on her husband’s. “Richard?” she said, an edge to her voice.

She looked over at her stretching husband.

“Richard –“

She looked back, and Esther was gone.

 

The Old Sheriff watched, interested, as the forensics team worked the private car.

He watched as they set up equipment he’d never seen, equipment that shot bright-red threads of light in multiple directions: the device stood where he stood and fired, a century before, the device was moved to another location, where he’d moved and fired again: he wasn’t sure how they deduced where he’d stood, but they were exactly right.

He considered what he heard them say, and a moment later he was in a sterile room in the basement of the Firelands hospital, a room of stainless steel and glaring lights, a room with the desiccated, mostly rotted down carcasses laid out on the gleaming, stainless-steel tables.

He watched patiently as the bodies were weighed, measured, photographed, then disassembled; he smiled a little as they brought out the spent bullets, placed them in little brown-paper envelopes.

The Old Sheriff held very still as the coroner turned, frowning a little as he looked around: he knew the expression, and he knew the coroner knew something was out of the ordinary, and that something was the shade of the Old Sheriff.

No sense making him uncomfortable, the lean waisted lawman with the iron-grey mustache thought, and a moment later he was standing in front of his and Esther’s tombstone.

There is nothing to forgive.

I know there is nothing to forgive.

She died birthing our little girl.

Women die in childbirth.

He remembered his wife, remembered how she felt, warm and real and so very alive, he remembered how she smelled, he remembered how they celebrated each others' bodies, and the night he planted a good seed, planted it deep, he remembered how she glowed as her belly swelled with new life, how they laughed and the quiet, satisfied look she had when she laid a gentle hand on her great belly.

The Old Sheriff tilted his head back: hat in his hand, he searched the sky with pale eyes.

Esther forgave me, he thought, shook his head.

She said there was nothing for her to forgive.

His hands tightened to white-knuckled fists, twisting up his hat brim as he stood before the snow-speckled grave.

Why can’t I forgive myself?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

ROSES AND BULLETS

The Sheriff looked in the full-length mirror, turned carefully: the pale-eyed woman in the electric-blue McKenna gown looked back at her, critical, appraising: finally she nodded, satisfied.

She'd been approached by a cadre of solemn-faced lawmen; she knew their mission, for little transpired that she didn't find out about ahead of time, but she let them think their quiet-voiced summons to their Society that night was news.

She'd smiled afterward, almost a wicked smile, for it would be the ideal opportunity to present them with some surprises of her own.

Apparently they thought she was about to discover something she didn't know about her Great-Great-Grandfather; apparently they considered her worthy of this conclave ... and so she decided it would be proper to dress the part.

Picking up the matching parasol, she looked at her husband, a quiet, almost grim smile on her face.

“Well, my dear?” she asked, “what do you think?”

Richard had watched his wife’s preparations without comment: he nodded, his own smile soft, genuine. “I think,” he said slowly, “you should get dressed up more often.”

Willamina’s special delivery materials were already transferred to their Jeep; Tank sprawled on the unmade bed, grinning, red tongue hanging out at a happy angle.

“I am curious, dear heart,” Richard admitted.

“Curious?” The Sheriff slid a lace-gloved hand into a concealed opening, making sure she could grip the holstered revolver; satisfied, she checked a few other items in a few other locations: satisfied, she turned, looked at her husband.

Richard’s suit was unremarkable.

Unremarkable, that is, if you were from the year 1885.

Like Willamina, he wore attire that would pass muster in the days of the Old Sheriff.

He’d insisted on wearing the proper suit when Willamina told him she was going to wear a proper gown; her had no idea why she intended that particular style, but he didn’t want to wear a modern suit with his wife looking really, really good in the fashion of a previous century.

He reached for the Derby hat, settled it on his head, chuckling. “You realize this means I have to grow a mustache now.”

Willamina glided up to him, took his hand, tilted her head back to look up at him.

“I think you’d look fine with a mustache.”

Richard tilted his head down, ran his arm carefully around his wife and drew her in to him: his embrace was delicate, for he knew the only thing keeping Willamina from absolute agony was the corset she wore – a dodge she’d used in the past, only the last time a rib was actually broken, instead of being dislocated as had happened this time, and she was well served with a shorter foundation: he considered as he kissed her that she wore the period gown because she wore a period corset, one that supported not only her ribs, but her back as well, and frankly took her good looking figure and made it (in his eyes) that much better.

They held for a long moment thus, until Willamina whispered, “My public awaits,” and Richard nodded.

“They’ll probably be lining the hall,” Willamina muttered, and Richard wished he could see his wife’s ears, for though her face didn’t betray it, he knew her ears were turning pink at the thought of the hallway lined with lawmen, all waiting to murmur greetings as she entered the Firelands Masonic Lodge hall.

He opened the door for Willamina, Tank happily bounding off their bed and following.

It was but a short drive to the Lodge; Tank stood on the back seat, watching, jaws open, happily anticipating whatever it was his beloved Mistress was about to do.

Richard parked the Jeep not far from the Lodge building, went around the blocky car, opened the door for his beautiful bride.

Willamina’s gloved hand curled around Richard’s arm as she stood.

Willamina chuckled quietly, carefully, and Richard paced carefully beside her, matching his speed to hers.

At the end of the Lodge's entrance hallway, he turned to the right.

Willamina was a dancer, and a good one: though the move surprised her – she’d expected to go straight, toward the front of the Lodge building – she moved with him.

They stopped before a set of heavy oak doors with a brass plate on each that said AUDITORIUM.

“We’ll go in here,” he said, opening a door: Willamina swept in, Tank at her side, and Richard escorted her onto the stage.

A microphone waited at center stage, behind the closed curtains, and Willamina’s quick ear picked up men’s murmured voices.

Willamina’s gloved hand was firm on Richard’s arm as they stopped, and he tapped on the mike: two gentle thumps, producing amplified concussions that silenced the murmurs.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said quietly into the chrome grille, “I give you Sheriff Willamina Keller.”

The curtain hissed open and Willamina swallowed hard as she looked out at an absolute sea of uniformed law enforcement officers.

She blinked as applause hit her, applause punctuated by whistles and a few shouts, the appreciative release of an extended family worried that one of their own had been hurt.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, in a period gown, with a styled wig and hat, her parasol daintily held in one gloved hand like an ornate, ribboned cane, tilted her head a little, managing to look at once utterly feminine, totally embarrassed, and very pleased at the attention: she waited until the applause started to fade, then she frowned at the microphone, pulled it down a little closer to her height.

“My husband,” she said, looking over at Richard, who had drawn to the side of the stage, to allow his wife the audience attention – “my husband is a tall man, and the microphone is set for his height.” She frowned, leaned the parasol against her hip, applied both hands to the adjustment collar and telescoped the stand half a foot.

“That’s better,” she nodded, looking around and smiling – an easy, genuine smile. “Fellas, what do you think of the new uniform?”

Applause again, and laughter, as the Sheriff spread her arms and turned, giving the assembled a full-around view of her attire.

She laughed and raised gloved hands for silence; the new round of applause died again.

“I wanted to address you here,” she said, “because I am about to admit something I don’t want the general public to know.”

Silence descended.

“I busted a lung when I fell. If I lived in the lowlands or back East I would still be on IV antibiotics. I’ll have to take it easy until I finish healing. Until that time I am using a secret weapon, and I find I have to ask a favor of you.”

“Name it!” an anonymous voice shouted from a back row, followed by nods and voices rippling assent.

Willamina opened her mouth to speak again, and the mutters ceased instantly.

“Normally I would find myself hugged by many strong arms. Please allow me the luxury of thanking you for that thought, but please do not hug me. I would hate to punch you for your kindness.”

Laughter.

“You see, when I reached up and grabbed Tank – he was running away from a skunk and I needed to get him below cover before the woods kitty sprayed – I fell back and he was on top of me and I landed on a rock the size of your fist.” She closed a velvet-gloved hand, turned the fist, contemplated it, then looked back out at her fellow badge packers, looked down at the black-and-brown shepherd.

Tank was sprawled beside her, snoring quietly.

“I landed on a fist-sized rock. Not my fist. The size of your fist.

“When I landed on that rock, I dislocated a rib in back, and that also dislocated it in front. The doc had to put the heel of his hand over it and push down hard, kind of like CPR only different. It hurt then and it hurts now, and I am wearing a corset to support the healing process.” She spread her hands, palms up and wrists bent, an absolutely feminine, utterly appealing gesture. “It also gives me an excuse to wear a gown that would be perfectly authentic to the mid-1880s.

“Thank you – each and every one of you – for thinking of me.” She swung her gaze slowly, meeting every set of eyes that looked at her. “You took your off time to be here tonight.”

Heads nodded; again, laughter; another voice: "It gave us an excuse to eat at the Silver Jewel again!"

"Was it good?" Willamina smiled.

“Hell, I picked up ten pounds!”

“I know a good tailor, if you need your uniform let out,” Willamina riposted, her smile taking any sting from the words, smiling as she waited for the chuckles to die down again before finishing. “You are giving me time you could have spent with your family or getting some sleep, and I appreciate that.

“I will ask one more favor, if I may, and that is please don’t hug me. I know I said it already, but Old Ironsides here” – she patted her belly – “will not protect against a good old fashioned, big-brother-bear-hugging-his-little-sister embrace.”

“A handshake instead of a kiss?” a voice called, and Willamina laughed, and they laughed with her.

“Sorry, fella, I’m a married woman,” Willamina laughed.

Richard paced silently up to the microphone. “My friends, thank you again, and if the Rose team could meet as arranged, we will debrief afterward to bring Willamina back to speed on the investigation.” He waved with his Derby, settled it on his head and offered Willamina his arm.

He backed one step; Tank stood, shook and yawned, then sat and licked his chops, watching Richard and Willamina make their way across the stage before rising and tik-tik-tikking across the polished hardwood after them.

 

Ten minutes later, Richard opened the heavy, old-fashioned door of the second-floor Masonic Lodge.

“Why here?” Willamina asked, looking up the stairs at the retreating backsides of some dozen uniformed lawmen.

“You are summoned.”

“Oh?” Willamina raised one eyebrow and gave her husband a long look, trying hard to pretend she didn't know what it was all about.

“I think you will find the proceedings … appropriate.”

“Appropriate.”

“Unless you don’t feel worthy …”

Richard left the rest of the sentence dangle.

Willamina raised her chin, plucked up her skirt and stepped boldly forward, ascending the stairs with a regal grace, preceded and followed by lawmen of several agencies.

Willamina paused as she came into the anteroom, looking around; she smelled coffee and deli meats, and knew that the Lodge kitchen was busy preparing refreshments for after-the-meeting – though she was quite sure this was not a Masonic lodge meeting. She’d been a guest in this very Masonic lodge, when she presented her great-great-grandfather’s Masonic memorabilia in a special session.

I believe the Master said they went from labor to refreshment, she thought. I know it was not within the regular meeting.

Willamina took Richard’s arm again: men filed into the Lodge room, and Willamina and Richard followed.

Willamina looked around, smiling, perfectly at ease in a gown from the mid-1880s, a woman in a sea of men: she saw many faces she knew – though the Lodge room was well filled, there were very few strangers present: if she could not put a name to a face, she could at least recall where she’d seen it.

In swinging her gaze across the Lodge room, Willamina looked up at the ceiling.

If an observer were watching her face closely, and several were, they would have seen her expression was suddenly one of intense interest.

Willamina nodded a little, then looked forward again as Richard escorted her the length of the carpeted room, to the desk that bore a black-velvet-covered box of some type.

The ceiling is painted to resemble the night sky, she thought, and there is a rose hanging over the altar.

What is this significance?

A memory niggled at the back of her mind, maddening and yet out of reach.

A State Trooper sat in what Willamina knew to the East, raised three steps above the Lodge floor – significance? Willamina wondered, and made a mental note to find out. She’d noted it on her last visit to this Lodge, but was never sufficiently curious to discover its meaning.

There … in the West, elevated by two steps … against the south wall, one step. Officer’s stations of some nature.

“I can see you are looking at the officer’s stations,” a quiet voice murmured at her elbow.

Willamina raised her chin a fraction, but she did not reply to her great-great-grandfather’s ghost.

“I take it you did see the rose over the altar,” the lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache continued.

Willamina’s left eyebrow twitched slightly; it was her only reply.

There was a sharp rap as the trooper in the East brought the gavel down on the laminated cherry sounding block.

“The Society of the Rose is in session,” the trooper said formally. “We have business.”

The gavel rapped again.

“Sheriff Willamina Keller.”

Willamina released her husband’s arm and turned a little, facing the trooper.

“Sheriff Willamina Keller. You are the great-great-granddaughter of one of the first members of our Society to be inducted from Firelands County. Our roots are ancient and honorable.” He stood, picked up a wooden pointer, thrust it at the altar in the middle of the floor. “Like the Freemasons, we place the Great Light – the Holy Bible – in the center, that all may benefit from the Light of Knowledge.”

Willamina nodded, once, gravely.

“Overhead” – he raised the pointer – “you will note the starry-decked firmament.”

Willamina tilted her head a little, looked up, looked back at the trooper.

“And above the Altar but below the heavens, you will see a rose.”

“Yes,” Willamina said. “I see these significant landmarks.”

“Can you speak to us of their significance?”

Willamina heard her great-great-grandfather’s whispered voice at her side, following the trooper’s syllables flawlessly.

Great-Granddad, you’ve been holding out on me, she thought, then she took a breath and made reply.

“I recognize these are landmarks and I recognize that they are significant, but until they be explained to me, I cannot offer intellectual comment.”

Well spoken, her Great-Great-Grandfather’s shade whispered.

“We here are guardians of the public good. In years past Star Courts served to act where the regular courts could not. Like this group, they had stars painted on the overhead to signify that only Heaven itself was above them.”

“We are a Star Court,” Willamina said neutrally.

“We meet beneath the rose. All that transpires here, remains secret, and is not mentioned to anyone outside these walls. You may remember the Latin phrase, sub rosa. This” – he thrust the pointer at the flower hanging from a near-invisible thread – “is the origin of that phrase. ‘Under the rose’ is synonymous with a closely guarded secret.”

Willamina stepped forward, three paces, then turned, slowly, deliberately, looking around her with a serious expression: she made a point of meeting every pair of eyes in the room, and finally came around to her husband, to the pale-eyed ghost she hadn’t expected to be present, then up the three step high platform and gazing steadily at the state trooper presiding.

“I know nearly everyone here. Of those I do know, I would trust every last one of them with my life. If you here are representative of the Society of the Rose, then I am content.”

“Will you be one of us?”

Willamina’s smile was wolflike, her eyes pale and hard.

“I have been for a very long time.”

“We know.”

The Denver police detective rose from behind the secretary’s desk, the velvet covered box in his hands. He stepped out in front of the pale-eyed woman in the electric-blue gown, gripped the velvet drape with thumb and forefinger, then with almost a magician’s gesture, he snatched the drape from the box.

Willamina looked across the room, at four men filing into the lodge room through a back door. Each held what looked like a photo album.

The lid on the polished mesquite box creaked a little as it opened.

“Sheriff Willamina Keller,” the trooper said formally, reaching into the box, “we share a common insignia, which you have seen already.”

He brought out a gold coin the size of a silver dollar, held it up by its edges.

“On one side we have the Seal of Solomon, an ancient and powerful glyph in and of itself – but with the superimposition of the Christian cross. On its reverse” – he turned the coin – “we find the insignia of our Order, the rose.

“Each member of this Order is invested with such a coin.

“As we are all Agents of the Order, and each of us empowered as necessary as a Star Court, we are also invested with … this.”

He reached into the box again, and brought out a cartridge.

“Look familiar?” the Old Sheriff’s shade grinned.

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

“.44-40 Winchester,” she said, her voice clear and distinct in the hushed room. “As a matter of fact” – she reached into a hidden pocket – “I believe these may look familiar.”

She opened her gloved hand.

Three identical, loaded .44-40 rounds gleamed in her dark-blue-satin palm.

The bullets, like the bullet in the round the trooper held, were gold.

The trooper froze, suspicion and surprise sharing equal time in his expression.

“May I ask,” he said slowly, “where and how you … acquired … these?”

“I believe those are photo albums,” the Sheriff said, nodding to the men behind him. “Please open them to the earliest entries.”

One man stepped forward, opened the cover.

Willamina looked at the first three plates, nodded.

“This man” – she tapped the first picture, taken from a glass-plate negative, copied on good acid-free paper – “is my great-great-grandfather, Sheriff Linn Keller. He was second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado, but he was not the first of the Society.”

Her finger shifted to the figure beside the slender lawman with the iron-grey mustache.

“This is his best friend, Charlie Macneil. Macneil was a territorial Marshal, a horse breeder and a good man.”

Willamina turned the page.

An attractive young woman in a McKenna gown was formally posed for a portrait, a rose held in both hands, the hand-tinted blossom under her chin.

Willamina looked at her honored ancestor’s shade, extended her hand, accepted the rose he held, drew it close and held it in both hands, its blossom directly below her chin.

“Please attend this portrait,” she said, then turned to face the trooper squarely.

The trooper looked at the portrait, then at the pale-eyed Sheriff, and he paled visibly as he realized portrait and life appeared … identical.

“This is also an ancestress,” the Sheriff smiled. “This is Sarah Lynne McKenna, known as Agent L. Rosenthal. She was an Agent of the Court and she was as fast and deadly as the Old Sheriff himself.” She smiled as she returned the gold bullet .44s to their hidden pocket. “As far as where and how I acquired your trademark rounds … let’s just say that I’ve been introduced to the concept by a past master.”

The trooper regarded the Sheriff as if seeing her for the first time.

“Have you any more surprises for us tonight, Sheriff?” the trooper asked, an almost-amused expression on his face.

“Would two more of those coins count?” she smiled, managing to look at once innocent, and mischievous: “if you look in that display case, you’ll find my Great-Great-Grandfather’s coin, along with various Masonic insignia he wore.”

She slipped her fingers into the hidden pocket again and brought out a coin.

“This,” she said, “was under a badge. The badge was in a box, and the box had an engraved presentation plate that read, ‘To Agent S. L. McKenna, from Judge D. Hostetler.”

 

In the years that followed, the Sheriff told a select few, a very few, carefully chosen – all members of the Order – about shooting a would-be assassin with a Star Court gold bullet.

She never, ever explained to any of them, just how she came by the gold bullet rounds, nor where the rose she held that night, really came from.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

THE DEAD SPEAK

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat behind her desk, glaring at a half-dozen folders awaiting her inspection, analysis and administrative action.

Part of her knew no work would get done as long as she sat glaring at them, but still she did, concentrating her hatred, her frustration, into a sustained, pale-eyed glare.

Large and armed individuals had quailed before that pale-eyed glare.

She’d backed down mean drunks, wife beaters, convicted murderers and once – but once only – a Foreign Legionnaire who’d just beaten the stuffing out of four good lawmen.

The six stacks of collated paper remained singularly unimpressed by her silent ire.

“If you stare at ‘em any longer,” the ghost of her Great-Great-Grandfather observed quietly, “they’ll catch fire.”

“I told you to knock,” the Sheriff said coldly, not lifting her eyes.

“You lied.”

“You’re damned right I lied,” she snapped, “and I’ll do it again when I have to!”

The Old Sheriff set his booted foot up on a chair and turned his own ice-pale glare on his descendant.

“You,” he said slowly, “need turned over a good man’s lap and your bottom spanked!”

Willamina stood slowly, relaxed as a cat and just as deadly, her hands closing and opening as she brought her weight forward, nose-over-toes.

“Jump right on, you pale-eyed drink of water,” she hissed, the absolute conviction that She Is In The Right, and She Can Kick Your Butt! roaring like a young furnace in her stomach.

The Old Sheriff lowered his foot, raised a forestalling hand.

“Wait,” he said softly.

“You come into my office after I tell you to knock first. This is not your office, it’s mine!” she hissed. “You are dead, this is my time, I am Sheriff, not you!”

“I know,” he nodded, his voice mild, his eyes quiet. “I am not trying to replace you.”

“Tell me again why you’re here.”

“You want me to be.”

“Says who.”

“Says you.” He smiled just a little, at the corners of his eyes, then shook his head. “God Almighty, you are so much like Sarah!”

“No she’s not,” Sarah said, and Willamina turned, one hand up to block, twisting into a short, vicious punch.

She was surprised and gratified to find her knuckles hit something solid – something like a woman’s midriff under a corset.

Sarah punched back and the Sheriff felt a sunball of agony detonate in her chest.

The beast slipped its leash entirely and the Sheriff became a white-eyed killing machine: she drove a lethal combination of punches into the solid ghost of her own ancestress – a slashing chop across the voice box alone would have killed a living creature – Sarah disappeared, momentarily turning to mist, then into nothingness, and Sheriff Willamina turned, teeth bared, ready to take on the Old Sheriff himself.

He was gone as well.

There was a knock – it wasn’t at the door, it was from the solid wall behind her – and the Old Sheriff stepped through the pine paneling.

“Better?” he asked, stopping just short of a smirk.

Sheriff Willamina clamped her arm down hard against her ribs, leaned painfully against the side of her desk, her face gone pasty-white.

The Old Sheriff grabbed Willamina by her upper arms, steered her into a chair. “Sit still, now,” he said gently, “you’ve hurt yourself –“

“I’m not hurt,” Willamina gasped through clenched teeth.

The Old Sheriff’s eyes were gentle, a little darker, and he caressed her cheek with a callused hand.

Willamina was surprised to see the old man’s eyes glittered with unshed tears.

“Don’t be hard like I was,” he whispered. “Of all my regrets, I regret being … hard … “

She raised her free hand, pressed it against the back of the masculine hand still touching her face.

“I miss my Daddy,” she whispered, and the Old Sheriff heard a hurt little girl in Willamina’s sibilant syllables.

“He looks like you,” the Old Sheriff whispered back, and Willamina smiled.

“Liar.”

The Old Sheriff nodded. “He actually looks like your Uncle Pete, and like William. More like William, I think.”

“That’s his pistol up there,” Willamina gasped, thrusting her chin at it and instantly regretting the move.

“I think maybe you’d better get back into that corset and go to bed,” the Old Sheriff suggested, withdrawing his hand and sitting down in the available chair.

“Why do you big strong men always tell us weak women we should go to bed?” Willamina husked, slashing viciously at an unbidden tear. “God damn, I hurt!”

You hurt?” a voice asked, and she looked at Agent Lynne Rosenthal, her ancestress, who stood beside the Old Sheriff with gloved knuckles planted on shapely hips. “Sister, you should feel your own punch!”

There was another knock – at the door this time – followed by her twin brother’s head. “Sis,” he called, “you okay? … no you’re not.”

Willamina bit her bottom lip, breathing very carefully.

“Sis, how can I help?” he asked, taking a step in, closing the door behind him. “Do you need to be seen?”

She shook her head.

“Rib wrap?”

She nodded.

“I’ve got a wide wrap out in the car. I can wrap right over your blouse and with your coat over it nobody will see it.”

She nodded again.

“Stand fast, I’ll be right back.”

Willamina looked a the half-dozen folders on her desk.

The Old Sheriff stood, sorted quickly through them, placed one at the edge of the desk.

“Take that one with you,” he said. “It’s the preliminary report on the car you pulled out of the mineshaft.”

 

Willamina was not willing to let herself be seen as anything short of fully capable.

It was not unusual for men to hold doors for women in Firelands: manners still existed in the hinterlands, and especially in the West; that her twin brother opened the heavy glass doors for her, especially with her carrying a thick folder,

did not appear at all out of the ordinary: that he opened the door to her Jeep for her, in like wise, was nothing unusual.

Willamina managed to say nothing until after she’d climbed in and the door was shut, and even then what she said was little more than a strangled squeak.

She managed to drive the short distance home without incident; she let herself in, dropped the folder on her kitchen table, gritted her teeth before she picked up the tea kettle.

There was a knock and the Old Sheriff stepped through the closed refrigerator door.

“I knocked first,” he said before Willamina could offer comment.

She nodded, placed – or rather dropped – the filled teakettle on the stove’s burner.

“Can I at least get you a drink?” the Old Sheriff offered, his eyes concerned.

Willamina shook her head, making a conscious decision not to bite her bottom lip again.

The Old Sheriff shook his head in reply. “You,” he said, “are as hard headed and contrary as I ever was.” He fixed her with a sharp look. “Sit.”

Willamina sat, more because if she didn’t sit, she would collapse.

She closed her eyes, willing herself to stillness, willing the pain away.

She was almost successful.

The Old Sheriff turned the folder, opened it, began sorting slowly through the papers, read the report.

He frowned; dipping a steel-nib pen in the inkwell, he wrote a quick correction, added two arrows, a circle: another page, he nodded, set it aside: he was through most of the folder by the time the teakettle started to hiss.

Willamina opened her eyes, realizing she was smelling the citrus fragrance of Earl Grey tea, and opened her eyes.

The folder still lay before her, but open now.

She hadn't made the tea, but here it was, and she knew it had to be her Great-Great-Grandfather's ghost that made her tea.

She frankly did not care.

She picked up the heavy ceramic mug with both hands and took an appreciative sip, closing her eyes, savoring the taste and the rich odor as she swallowed.

Willamina picked up the first page, began to read.

Part of her mind recognized that she’d just been served by a ghost, and accepted it as something perfectly natural.

The rest of her hurt too badly to debate the point.

Willamina heard the front door open, recognized her husband’s approaching tread.

“Willa?” he called. “Honey, are you okay?”

“No,” she said, a little sharply.

“I saw your Jeep and … you came home early.” His voice was concerned, his hands strong, gentle on her shoulders.

Willamina looked up, looked around, half-expecting to see that old lawman with the lean belly and the beautifully curled, iron-grey mustache.

“I,” she said slowly, closing her eyes against the grating pain in her chest, “need a drink.”

Something gurgled a little as it poured into her tea.

“What’s in the folder?” Richard asked, squeaking the cork back into the bottle.

“Forensic analysis of the railcar,” Willamina almost groaned, raising the mug in both hands. She took a long drink, came up for air, drained the mug.

“You’re in pain,” Richard said, his voice concerned.

“The Pope is catholic,” Willamina groaned, pressing her forearms against the edge of the table: “tell me something I don’t know!”

“Have you gone through the report?”

“No.”

“May I?”

“Go.”

Richard knew from the increased brevity of his wife’s responses that she was concentrating on controlling the pain. She’d done it before; she’d endured a fine pair of kidney stones, one in her left renal calyx was the diameter of a .32-caliber pistol ball, the one in the right renal calyx was the size of a .38 – and in the emergency room, the nurses could not understand why her blood pressure wasn’t spiking with the pain.

Richard understood; there were certain mental disciplines used by warriors down through time, disciplines that would reduce the perceived pain levels. He’d used them himself, though not to the degree of success his wife achieved.

He knew that her shorter answers and longer silences meant the pain was enough to put a strong man on the floor crying like a little girl.

Richard picked up the first page, the next, scanned them, frowning a little: he rubbed his upper lip with a stiff forefinger, the way he did when he was concentrating on something, turned to the third page, noting the hand-written corrections – First shot here, he read, fired here first – an arrow to a circle – fired here next

Richard nodded.

Shoot, scoot and communicate, he thought. Nobody to communicate with, so shoot and move.

Richard had done that, too.

He looked up at his wife.

“Dearest,” he said gently, laying the page down, “how can I help?”

“Corset,” Willamina said shortly. “And call me off for two days.”

Richard stood, moved behind his wife’s chair, drew it out carefully.

“I’m afraid to … how can I help?” he whispered, his hands light on her shoulders.

“Nothing will be painless,” she whispered.

“Ready when you are.”

Willamina took a slow, careful breath, took another, nodded.

Her husband slid his hands under her arms, murmured, “Hoist on three.”

Willamina gasped out her breath, took another, nodded again, and bit her bottom lip hard as her husband hoisted her out of her chair.

Richard bent a little and ran his arm under her backside and she collapsed a little as he picked her up.

Richard’s jaw clamped shut as he heard his pale-eyed wife squeak a little, her only voiced concession to the pain she felt, but the man could not miss the sweat-beads popping out on her forehead.

Neither of them saw the ghost who watched, which was perhaps to their loss, for the ghost wore an expression of approval.

“I remember when you carried me up those stairs for the first time,” Esther said quietly, her hand warm and firm in his.

The lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache looked down at his red-headed, green-eyed bride and smiled.

“I remember.”

The two ghosts, man and wife, faded back into the past from whence they came.

 

Willamina welcomed the solid warmth of her husband beside her.

She damned the pain that gnawed at her, made it impossible to sleep.

She knew that when her husband slept, he slept hard, he slept soundly, he slept well enough she could probably fire off a field piece in the front yard and he would never stir.

She also knew that – with her luck – if she started to cry, he would wake and he would be distressed and she most certainly did not want that, either.

She thought of the pain pills she’d been given.

They were in the drawer in the bedside table; her water glass and a pitcher of water were on the table, waiting.

I don’t want to move, she thought, closing her eyes and opening them slowly, looking at the night-dark ceiling, knowing it was up there somewhere.

I could ask Great-Granddad’s ghost to get them.

It was an irrational thought and she pushed it from her, but it came back, causing her to close her eyes again, irritated.

It wouldn’t do much good.

PO meds take a half hour before they start working.

Medications PO … per osa … per mouth …

A strong, callused hand slipped into hers, squeezed gently, and she squeezed in return.

The hand pulled and she sat up, light, strong, painless.

“Come with me,” the Old Sheriff whispered. “Give your body time to rest.”

Willamina pulled away, fell back into her body, gasping with pain: her eyes were wide, her teeth bared, ready to fight for her very life.

“You’re not taking me, damn you!” she hissed.

The Old Sheriff’s face was solemn.

“I won’t take you if you don’t want to go,” he said, his voice soft.

Willamina thought of the shotgun beside her bed and wished for a knife – gunfire has little effect against a shade, she knew, but there was evidence a blade could cut a ghost, and she wished sincerely for a weapon.

“Here,” the Old Sheriff said, reaching down into his boot top and pulling out a slim, sharp blade. “Use mine.”

He handed it to her handle-first, the wire-wound handle solid and real in her grip.

“I am not going to die, damn you!” Her voice was a throat-tightened whisper.

The Old Sheriff sighed, shook his head.

“He doesn’t want to kill you,” a feminine voice said in an unmistakably irritated tone. “He wants to give your carcass some rest.”

Agent Sarah L. Rosenthal, dressed all in black – the Sheriff wondered momentarily how she could see the young woman, in black, in a night-dark room, as clearly as if it were daylight – stepped around from behind the Old Sheriff.

“You,” she said, unbuttoning her shirt cuff, “should try being bitten by a wolf.” She pulled up her sleeve to show a raw, bloody wound, turning it slowly to give Willamina the full benefit of the gory injury.

Willamina studied the injury, looked back into the black-clad Agent’s pale eyes.

“Or” – she shifted an inch to the left, and was suddenly a young child, maybe nine years old, in a long dress – “if after you’re thrown from a wagon and your arm is run over.” Her arm was suddenly … ugly … bending in a place where it should never bend.

She shifted again, an inch to the right, and was the adult Sarah again, in black hat and vest, coat and boots and britches, with the bronze Agent's shield a dull blotch on her lapel.

“I know what pain is, sister. He” – she nodded to the Old Sheriff – “wants to take you to our time. You’ll be like we are, your body can rest – without you in it, your body won’t feel the pain and it can heal more easily.”

“How long will I be gone?”

“Not long. You don’t want your husband unable to wake you.”

“Will that be enough to heal that rib?”

“No … but your body will be rested.”

Willamina glared at her great-great-grandfather.

“Verdad?” she asked.

“Verdad.”

“Okay.” She turned the knife handle-first toward him. “Let’s go.”

She gasped and blinked and she was standing in the Old Sheriff’s office, holding the knife handle-first toward the lean old lawman with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache.

“You,” he said quietly, accepting the knife and slipping it back into its boot-top sheath, “are as hard headed as I am.” He straightened, tugged his coat down straight. “And I thought I had a corner on the market.”

She didn’t miss the slight tightening of his eyes, that slight, quiet sign of his inward amusement.

“Do you want to know what really happened in that railcar?” the Old Sheriff asked, and Willamina could hear an edge to his voice.

“You’re damned right I do,” she said, her voice tight.

He nodded.

“You’re not dressed for the occasion.”

“I can take care of that.”

A hand grabbed her upper arm, pulled.

Willamina turned, eyes dead pale, fist cocked, just in time to run into a hard-knuckled fist that caught her under the eye.

She swung her leg, a quick, hooking sweep, shoved blindly, felt her attacker go down: she slashed viciously across her injured cheek, crouched with bladed hands up, eyes focused on the pale-eyed Agent coming off the floor like a tiger.

“HOLD!” the Old Sheriff roared, and both women froze.

“IF YOU TWO KEEP THIS UP I’M GOING TO SPANK BOTH OF YOU!”

“YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?” Willamina flared; “TRY IT!” Sarah challenged, one fist up, the other hand open, ready to grapple or block.

The Old Sheriff managed to look annoyed.

“Ladies,” he said, speaking quietly, “I will not tolerate such indecorous behavior. Sheriff” – he looked directly at Willamina – “you are my guest here. Please conduct yourself as such. And Agent” – he turned his pale glare to his daughter – “please conduct yourself as a lady in the presence of our guest.”

Sarah resembled nothing more than a lioness, or perhaps a leopardess – the turn of her head, the set of her shoulders, how she dropped her eyelids to half-mast, managing to look absolutely unconcerned, and utterly deadly, at the same time.

“You mentioned the railcar,” Willamina said.

The Old Sheriff nodded. “You’ll need a change of clothes. Sarah?”

“I think the blue will suit her well.”

The Old Sheriff’s eyebrow rose. “Sarrahhhh,” he said in a warning voice, like a father warning a child against some suspected mischief.

Sarah opened her eyes wide, looking utterly guileless. “Who, me?”

Willamina looked from one to the other.

“What am I missing here?” she asked quietly.

“You’re missing nothing, honey. How closely do you want to see the railcar?”

“Why … do I feel like I’m …”

Willamina blinked, took a quick step to the side to keep her balance.

A hard hand seized her arm, a rough voice snarled “Careful, honey, wouldn’t want you to fall on top of old Tom there!”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Willamina’s arm came up quickly, wrapped around the man’s shoulder, pulled him tightly to her: “Oh, thank you,” she said breathily, “I nearly fell!”

Willamina didn't waste time wondering how she got here.

Sarah's shade stood just out of arm's reach, smirking.

Willamina wanted nothing more than to backhand the smirk off her flawless complexion.

It didn't help any when Sarah said "You look really good in that dancing girl dress. Or is it a doxy dress?" She wiggled limp-wristed fingers and simpered, "Toodles!" and disappeared.

The well-dressed outlaw's arm tightened around her middle a little more and his eyes bulged as he leered down the low neck of her abbreviated costume: Willamina felt the car moving, slowly, from the sides of her eyes she saw it was moving but not fast at all, the tilt of the floor told her they were on an upgrade, and she knew where she was -- both geographically, and ...

... historically ...

“I know you did, honey,” the fellow leered, his breath smelling of tobacco and cheap whiskey. “Lucky for me, too! Hey, Tom?”

Tom leaned back, sorting through the cards in his hand, threw two toward the dealer. “I’ll take two, you ugly slicker, and from the top of the deck this time!”

“Ah you claimin’, suh, that Ah would cheat?” the dealer drawled, carelessly spinning two cards toward the player.

“You’d cheat your dead grandmother out of her drawers and you’d steal the pennies off her eyes and you know it!”

“Ah could take offense,” the dealer suggested.

“You could flap yer arms and fly around in circles.” He shoved his stack of coin and bills to the center of the table. “Bet it all!”

Two others threw down their hands, disgusted. “Too rich for me!” one muttered, the other shaking his head sorrowfully.

Willamina’s arm was still around the halitotic man’s shoulders. She realized she was not wearing a McKenna gown – she was in a short-skirted dance-hall-girl’s outfit, scandalous for the era, but still modest by 21st-century standards. “Is this thing usually so wobbly?” Willamina whispered in the man’s ear, coming up on tiptoe so he could feel the warmth of her breath, the brush of her lips on his ear.

He leered again, lust plain on his face, as he wrapped his arm around her middle again and jerked her tight up against him. “Oh now don’t you worry none,” he grinned, “if I got you pinned down on the floor you ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

Agent McKenna, the Sheriff thought, I am going to kick your pretty little backside up between your shoulder blades!

“Oh don’t you worry none, you good lookin’ thing you,” he rumbled as Willamina thrust caressing hands under his coat, her lips parted a little, breathing huskily as she quickly, efficiently divined the shoulder rig he carried, while seeming to be focused on seduction. “Once we kill attair pale eyed Sheriff, we been told the wimmen folks is ours, and you are first on my dance card!”

The dealer gathered the cards, riffled them together with careless ease, tapped them twice on the green-felt-covered table, smiled.

“If y’all would kahndly peel that good lookin’ filly off yo’ filthy cahcass,” he drawled in what Willamina recognized as an affected accent (and not a very good one), “Ah would ask the lady to bring luck to th’ deck with th’ cut!”

Willamina looked up into the dark and lustful eyes of the malodorous man she was cultivating: “Darling, may I?” she giggled. “I’ve never cut a riverboat gambler before!”

Simpering, she drew away, pirouetting on her toes: lightly, with a dancer’s step, she turned to the dealer, laid gentle, feminine hands on his shoulders, massaged gently. “Now, you handsome hunk ‘a’ man, what is it you want me to do to you?”

The dealer froze and she felt his shoulders tense, then relax as her skilled fingers plied taut, ropy muscles: she began working the back of his neck and he clamped the ugly black cigarillo between stained teeth and groaned, “My God, woman, I’ll give you a week to stop that!”

“Is that all you want to do?” Willamina murmured wickedly. “If you have me for a week, I’m sure something else will … come up.”

“C’mon, Tom,” someone yelled from the other end of the car, “she’s the only doxy on here! You cain’t keep her all to yourself!”

Willamina knew the train was slowing; unlike the TV westerns she’d watched as a child, the terrain outside the window was mountainous and forested and the car was actually going much slower than she’d expected – not much faster than a man could walk.

She saw a flash of red fur.

Cannonball!

The Old Sheriff’s horse!

Damn you, Agent McKenna, I wanted to see what happened, not be part of it!

We need a distraction! she thought. Quick, distract them!

Willamina turned quickly, paced down the aisle a few steps, her heels loud on the bare, dusty floor: she planted her knuckles on her hips, then, legs together, thrust her pelvis to one side and shook her Mommy-finger at the speaker in the back of the car.

“You worm,” she scolded, “I’ve got a man up here, I don’t need you!”

“Worm!” he laughed. “You like worms, honey? I’ve got one you’ll like!”

Willamina hoisted her nose in the air and with a distinct “Hmph!” turned back for the front of the car.

She got three paces when a hard hand grabbed her arm. “You slut,” the voice hissed, “I’ll show you –“

The speaker grunted as he hit the floor, uncertain just how the railcar suddenly spun end-over-end in under him: Willamina expected the grab, and Willamina reacted to the grab: Willamina twisted and brought him over her shoulder, dropping him flat on his back: she backed up a step, waving raised fists in a comical imitation of a boxer. “You’ll show me what, Wormy?”

There was laughter and there were calls of “Ride ‘em cowboy!” and “Get up and show her who’s boss!” and “What’s the matter, Peggy, can’t you handle your wimmen?”

Willamina saw the Old Sheriff swarm up the steps at the end of the car and she knew she had to keep the distraction going.

Fortunately someone decided to help her; she found herself seized about the waist and hoist off the floor, and stubbled whiskers ground into her cheek as a coarse voice chuckled, “Why lookee what I got here!”

Another fellow advanced, hands open for what was obviously going to be a grab-and-feel, and Willamina drove her heels into his chest, hard, knocking him back and across a table and toppling both her and her captor over backwards: a sunball of pain detonated when her captor's kidneys realized they’d just been hit.

He released his grip on Willamina.

She spun, brought her knee up to her chest and drove the flared heel of her dancing pump into the man’s gut, just below the belt buckle: turning, she drove the heel of her hand into another man’s nose, hard. Blood squirted in both directions and the man jerked as the Old Sheriff’s first shot slammed into the first outlaw's high ribs.

Willamina twisted away, flattened herself against the side of the railcar, watching: the Old Sheriff came in with his engraved ’73 rifle punching .44-caliber holes in the smoky atmosphere and men’s bodies alike: Willamina automatically counted, at least until the first return shots interrupted her count: she never thought to put her hands over her ears, for the shots seemed faint and far away and not loud at all. She’d experienced the same phenomenon before, when she’d been obliged to shoot someone inside an Afghan classroom.

The dealer escaped the Old Sheriff’s attention, somehow: he’d fallen flat on his back, but came up on his knees, thrusting a nickel plated Owl Head toward the pale-eyed lawman: as the Old Sheriff lay the empty rifle on the abandoned table and drew his left-hand Colt, the dealer closed his eyes and with teeth bared and a palsied hand, he triggered the .32 pistol.

Willamina saw the little puff of dark on the Sheriff’s vest and she saw his hard eyes bore into the dealer’s eyes and she saw death in that gaze, and the engraved Colt revolver swung toward the man on the floor and there was a distant concussion and the gambler fell back, a hole between his eyes the size of Willamina’s thumb, and the Old Sheriff raised the Colt and began walking slowly down the railcar’s length, shooting everyone his pale eyes could find: standing, sitting or on the deck, every outlaw got an insurance round through the skull.

Willamina remained flattened against the side of the car.

She held very, very still, watching as Death incarnate waded wholesale through the gambling-car full of hired murderers.

Every man there had been bought and brought in for one express purpose, and that was to murder that pale-eyed Sheriff, and as reward, could then despoil the town, its inhabitants and its goods, however they saw fit.

The Old Sheriff reloaded calmly, letting his empties hit the floor, bounce off his boot toe, ring as they bounced off travel-dusted wood decking.

He reloaded methodically, satisfied he’d killed his opponents; ten rounds from the rifle, six from one revolver, six from the other –

Six beans in the wheel, Willamina thought. He loaded the sixth round in each pistol because he knew he was going in harm’s way.

“That’s right,” the Old Sheriff murmured. “Now to finish the job.”

He holstered his revolvers with a quick, sudden thrust, took off his coat and draped it over his rifle, took off his vest.

His white shirt was soaking red with blood where the .32 punched his chest.

“I’m going to cut the car loose,” he said quietly. “It’s nearly level here. Jacob and Sarah are in the end car and they’ll have heard the gunfire.”

He turned, seized the door frame with a hard hand: Willamina saw him sag, and she ran forward, thrust a knee under his backside, seized him around the gunbelt, pulled.

The Old Sheriff stiffened, released his grip, turned.

“What,” he asked, honest puzzlement on his face, “are you doing?”

Willamina’s eyes were pale, but not pale and hard.

“If you collapse,” she said slowly, “I can’t hold your weight. Not with your height. But if you come down on my leg I can let the bones of the lower leg hold your weight and all I have to do is steady you. It’s a nurse’s trick.”

 

“Nurse,” the Sheriff said, then his eyes narrowed, closed.

“What do you need me to do?” Willamina asked, her voice tight, and she felt a tick of fear as she looked at the bubbling wound high in his chest.

“Plug that hole,” he husked, collapsing slowly: Willamina kicked a chair under him, looked around, snatched a clean kerchief from a fallen man’s laid-open coat.

She pressed the folded silk over the hole, mopped a little blood with it and pressed it in place again, sealing the wound with clotting blood.

The door thrust open and a tall, slender young man with ice-pale eyes surged in, freezing as he saw Willamina pressing the folded silk to his father’s chest.

“Jacob,” the Old Sheriff said, his voice hoarse.

“Yes, sir.”

“Jacob, I killed the men sent to kill me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t want them to be found.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I will cut this car loose when we hit the level and the strain is off the coupling.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will offload Apple at the same time and go downhill from us.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will throw the switch and this car will gravity back into the mine drift.”

“Sir, that drift runs up-slope –“

“I know.”

Jacob waited; his father coughed blood, spat.

“Bring the inspection car, Jacob. We’ll use it to shove the car into the drift. Bring … bring powder and we’ll blow the drift shut.”

“Yes, sir.”

“This part, of the mine, is played, out.” The Old Sheriff’s breathing was deteriorating steadily.

“Deep breath,” she said, then placed her hand over her Great-Great-Grandfather’s mouth and nose.

“Now breathe out.”

 

She lifted the bloodied silk kerchief and let air blucker out the bullet hole, placed the kerchief back in place, removed her hand from the lawman's pallid face.

“Breathe in again.”

The Old Lawman breathed in, slowly.

“Better?”

He nodded.

Jacob looked at Willamina, studying her closely: his eyes widened as Willamina looked directly at him, and ice-pale eyes met ice-pale eyes.

“Who … are you?” he asked, his own eyes narrowing a little and his head turning slightly to the left as he asked, and Willamina was reminded very powerfully of her own twin brother, William.

“Never mind,” she snapped. “Do as he says. We need you to throw that switch.”

“Sir?” Jacob’s voice had an edge to it; Willamina knew he was torn between obeying his father’s orders, and staying with the wounded man.

The Old Sheriff opened his eyes, looked calmly at his son.

“Go, now, in accordance with my orders,” he said formally.

“Yes, sir.”

Jacob turned and Willamina watched with genuine admiration as the lithe young man swarmed back out the door and down the steps, watched him run alongside the coarse-gravel ballast.

“I am proud of him,” the Old Sheriff husked.

“Have you told him that?” Willamina snapped, her eyes hard now as she glared at her honored ancestor.

The Old Sheriff’s expression showed a sorrow he generally kept hidden.

“No,” he whispered.

“He needs to hear you say it,” Willamina muttered. “Can you stand?”

“I can waltz if I have to.”

“I know that, you long tall drink of water, but can you stand?

The Old Sheriff nodded, lurched to his feet.

“It’s hard to breathe,” he choked, coughed, then added, “in here.”

“Then let’s get you outside.”

The Old Sheriff lurched for the open door.

“I need … uncouple …”

“I’ll get that,” Willamina snapped.

“Wait … level ahead … take the strain …”

Willamina looked down at the coupler, nodded.

“I’ll wait until the strain comes off. I’ve uncoupled this one before.”

The Old Sheriff looked at Willamina, tenting an eyebrow, a question spoken without words.

“I uncoupled this car from the inspection car when we hauled it out of the drift a hundred years from now.”

The Old Sheriff nodded.

Willamina climbed over the edge of the platform, stood, then squatted on the coupler, held the bottom rail with one hand and reached down with the other.

She was low enough she did not see Sarah McKenna -- not Sarah's ghost, but Sarah herself -- look back at her father climbing the iron rungs to the car’s roof.

Willamina pulled on the release, pulled again: she took two quick breaths, clenched her teeth, pulled hard.

 

The car released, coasted for about a foot, stopped, as the rest of the train continued ahead, and the barking chant of The Lady Esther on a hard pull echoed from the granite mountainside.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Willamina straightened, blinked.

“And I watched my father standing on top of the gambling car,” Sarah said, her voice toneless as she saw the memory again, “and I remember how bright the blood on his shirt was, how wet, and how fierce he looked as we pulled away uphill and he coasted the other way.”

Willamina looked around the interior of the Old Sheriff’s office.

“He’s not here,” Sarah said.

“Where is he?”

“He’s waiting on you.”

“Where?”

Willamina opened her eyes, blinked.

She was in her own bed, in her own bedroom.

She tried moving a little, winced; she closed her eyes, took a long, careful breath, turned to look at the clock on the bedside table.

Time to get up.

Wait a minute.

I’m called off for a few days.

Willamina relaxed for a moment.

I wonder when Great-Great-Granddad will show up again.

She needn’t have worried.

 

A FAMILY TRADITION

 

 

Willamina’s convalescence lasted about two hours.

She’d gotten up after Richard left; a shower was well more than three times longer than it usually took, and far more painful, but she managed.

Damned if I am going to hurt, she thought.

She laid her newest corset on her bed, glared at it because it was in front of her – she would have glared at the dresser if she’d been facing that way – and finally worked bare feet into fur-lined moccasins and grimaced her way into a clean flannel nightgown.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, blooded warrior and chief law enforcement officer of Firelands County, Colorado, gasped and hobbled her way down the stairs to make breakfast.

She had strength enough to pour herself a mug of coffee.

 

Crystal, the Sheriff’s sister in law, was just finishing her breakfast dishes when the phone rang.

“Crystal?”

Willmina’s voice was a little hoarse, a little … off.

“I need… help… getting dressed.”

Crystal’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped a little, then she blinked and stammered, “I’m, I’m on my way!”

 

Chief Deputy JW Barrents frowned as he looked over the stack of papers in front of him.

He picked up the page sticking out halfway down the stack.

It was the transcript of his telephone conversation with the Sheriff’s husband, Richard.

Barrents’ thick finger rested under his nose like a fleshy mustache as he re-read the familiar words, letting his mind wander as he read, the way he did when he was casting a wide net for information.

The Sheriff has no Facebook account, he thought.

She hates e-mail but uses it.

No Twitter account. No Pinterest. Not much of an Internet footprint.

The phone buzzed; an outside call, routed to his desk by the dispatcher.

He picked up the receiver. “Barrents.”

“Gelato,” came the reply. “Get out here.”

“Why?”

“She’s here.”

Barrents didn’t need to hear another word.

 

He knew exactly who she was, and he reckoned he knew why she was there.

 

The door swung open, flooding the darkened interior of the Spring Inn with harsh daylight.

Hostile eyes turned toward the unwanted illumination, voices drew breath to shout obscenely at the interloper, only to hold and then sigh out silently as they collectively puzzled at the figures in the doorway.

Conversation ended abruptly.

The jukebox shut off with a sharp click.

Silence.

They stared at the figures silhouetted in the glare, two figures in boots and Stetsons that stepped through the doorway, the heavy door swinging shut behind them.

The Sheriff they recognized.

She’d been there enough times there was no mistaking her, and she’d been there in jeans and with a rifle in hand, always after she’d been obliged to kill someone richly deserving of the fate.

The man with her was a stranger.

The Sheriff’s step was silent, as it generally was; she moved on the balls of her feet, light, sure, moving like a dancer, like one of the great cats that haunted the mountains, like a mountain painter that screamed like a woman in the night when spring sheep began to birth their young and hungry cats prowled for fresh meat.

The man beside her moved with the same smooth economy, but his step was intentionally … deliberate.

He was tall, he was slender, he had an iron grey mustache and a flawless black suit and he carried an engraved '73 rifle in his left hand.

“Hey,” Gelato – or Jelly, as the Sheriff called him – challenged, “I don’t like guns in my place.”

The man stopped, held very still for a long moment, then he turned, slowly, dangerously, and Gelato’s blood cooled several degrees as a set of ice-pale eyes burned into his.

Gelato realized he could not move.

He was mesmerized like a small bird just before being wrapped in a snake’s constricting coils as the black-suited man’s hand floated up and rested very lightly on his shoulder.

“Mister,” the pale-eyed man with the iron-grey mustache grated, his voice sounding like boulders grinding together at the bottom of a very deep well, “I don’t give a good damn what you like.”

He nodded toward the shelves behind the barkeep. “Gimme a bottle of the good stuff, not that watered swill you sell cowhands.”

He lowered his hand.

“Better gimme a glass for the lady.”

Sheriff Willamina Keller managed to move like the dancer she was, in spite of the corset, in spite of her rib: she stepped around the last table in the very back, laid her father’s Winchester 94 across the table in front of her, a rifle she’d used the year before to punch the ticket of a man who’d killed a cop and earned himself passage on the hell-bound train.

She’d come into this same beer joint afterward, just as she did today, and for the same reason: she laid the rifle in front of her and she accepted the glass, and she watched with pale, hard eyes as amber liquid gurgled into the glass, filling it nearly full.

She sat and looked at it for several long moments, remembering a man who blew himself to hell as she watched, a man in another land, on another continent, who tried to shoot her from ambush, a man who laid the explosive-loaded motorbike in her path.

An old fury, a familiar fury, a rage boiled in her and she stood, quickly, snatching up the glass, her jaw set and hard.

She looked around the shocked-silent beer joint.

“I SENT ANOTHER ONE TO HELL,” she said loudly, her voice edged with the deep and abiding anger she felt, then she tilted the glass up and drank.

It was a water glass and of good capacity and she drank its distilled payload on one breath, slammed it down empty onto the scarred tabletop.

She looked around with eyes as hard and as cold as the frozen heart of a mountain glacier, and she picked up her rifle with one hand and the bottle with the other: she kicked the table, hard, shoving it away from her and then she strode for the bar.

The heavy glass fell on its side, wobbled, but did not roll off.

Willamina's pace was deliberate, but still silent.

Teeth bared, Willamina set the heavy-glass bottle down hard on the worse-for-wear bar top.

Gelato blinked, surprised the bottle didn't shatter with the force of the drive.

Gelato was rumored to be retired Mafia, he was said to have been an enforcer, he was reputed a man who did not scare.

Period.

Gelato looked, pale-faced, at the cold-eyed Sheriff.

“Who is that big hell raiser?” he squeaked, shivering a little as he did.

Willamina’s eyes were pale, the way they always were, but a little softer around the edges.

“Jelly,” she whispered, “do you remember how the cold water trickled right down the middle of your spine when he laid his hand on your shoulder?”

Jelly nodded, a quick double-jerk, his eyes showing white clear around the black irises.
“You, my friend,” she whispered, “now know the touch of Death.”

The Sheriff fished a five dollar bill out of her vest pocket, tossed it on the bar: she turned and left, lithe and graceful as a pacing panther, and every man’s eyes followed her out the door, watched the door shut behind her.

They looked back toward her table, looking for the tall, slender man with the iron-grey mustache, and saw only the empty glass on the empty table.

Chief Deputy Barrents was waiting for her outside, and the Sheriff climbed into the passenger side of the Suburban.

Neither of them heard the question from within the bar.

“Where’s that big hell-raiser that come in with her?”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That big hell-raiser watched sympathetically as Willamina bent over and heaved up two weeks’ worth of lunches.

I used to do that same thing, he thought, remembering the times he’d stood up in the Silver Jewel after drinking an impossible volume of distilled lightning – standing up, rifle in hand, roaring “I SENT ANOTHER ONE TO HELL TODAY!” and then striding out, his step strong and confident, getting out of the public eye before the payload of Two Hit John took effect.

He himself had pumped water into a tin cup, drank and drank and drank again, then stuck two fingers down his throat until he heaved this up, and he repeated the process until he’d purged himself thoroughly of his alcoholic penance, and he blinked and returned to watching his great-great-granddaughter’s private agonies as she, too, drank and drank and heaved in turn.

He watched that big Navajo deputy of hers, his thigh braced against her hip and his strong, blunt hands on her shoulders, and he could see the man genuinely cared for his pale-eyed boss.

The Old Sheriff could see there was something deeper than just a boss and an employee, and he made a mental note to ask his Great-Great-Granddaughter about this.

After she recovered.

Which really did not take terribly long.

 

Chief Deputy JW Barrents looked up, wary, nostrils flaring, for all the world as wild as a wolf scenting something unfamiliar, something that may be a threat.

Something, he thought, something

He remembered his grandfather the shaman and how he spoke of spirits, those messengers who moved invisible between worlds, kachinas, and how they appeared to a select few, and he closed his eyes and concentrated, then slowly, slowly opened his obsidian orbs, willing himself to see into the next world.

“I see you, my grandfather,” he said automatically.

“I see you, my grandson,” came the quiet-voiced reply.

Willamina coughed, straightened, wiped her mouth on her flannel shirtsleeve.

She looked at her Great-Great-Grandfather, turned and looked at Barrents.

“Thank you,” the slender old man with the iron-grey mustache murmured, and Barrents’ hands tightened ever so slightly on Willamina’s shoulders.

“It is my honor,” Barrents said carefully.

Willamina reached up and laid a hand on her chief deputy’s fingers.

“He’s a Marine,” she said, as if that explained everything, and the Old Sheriff’s head tilted a little and he frowned ever so slightly as he looked at his Great-Great-Granddaughter.

“There was a battle," he said, frowning a little, turning his head as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"You were both there."

"You both believed you were going to die."

Willamina nodded, thrusting her bottom jaw out.

"You were surrounded,” the Old Sheriff continued, speaking slowly, his eyes narrowing as if he, too, were seeing their memories.

Willamina nodded. “We were surrounded and we had to break out, fast.”

The Old Sheriff's pale eyes flicked up to Barrents, impassive and protective, more beside than behind Willamina.

“He wanted to take the lead instead of you.”

"He wanted," she nodded.

"She wouldn't let me," Barrents interjected quietly.

“It was my turn to lead.”

“You were in charge.”

“I take my turn the same as anyone else.”

“You were nearly killed.”

She nodded, her eyes distant as she remembered –

Colonel Willamina Keller stepped out of her Humvee and held out a canteen, held it at arm’s length so the entire column behind her could see. She stepped a little to the side so everyone could see her plainly.

She watched as every vehicle sprouted an arm holding a canteen.

She unscrewed the black-plastic lid, took a long drink, then she held the canteen at arm’s length and poured the rest of the water on the ground.

Her unit was the only one where the men carried a canteen in addition to the backpack-like Camelback hydration unit.

They carried it because they knew they might be killed, and they carried it because one night the Colonel sat with them around a fire and recited the cavalryman’s poem.

Fiddler’s Green.

She stared into the distant dark as she chanted the poem, reciting,

“The road to Hell, the poet said, is a wide and easy street,

“Its cobbled pavement echoes to the tread of marching feet.

“Of all who tread that dreadful way, of Army and Marines,

“None but Cavalry may stop and rest at Fiddler’s Green.

 

“The tree is broad, the shade is cool, the water clear and sweet,

“The Mounted Cavalry they stop and leave that hell-bound street.

“So if you’re deadly set upon, just empty your canteen,

“And put your pistol to your head and join at Fiddler’s Green.”

 

An anonymous voice growled, “By God now, we’re mounted” – he hooked a thumb toward the shadows of their vehicles, dark and shadowed behind them, and the Colonel nodded, her hand resting on the tan, full-flap holster on her belt.

“The enemy won’t take me alive,” she said quietly. “If we get into a bad one, fellas, and you see me dump out my canteen, you’ll know it’s about to go to bad big time. When that happens it’ll be balls to the wall, root hog or die, and kill as many of them as you can with whatever weapon you have or can get.”

The next morning, when Colonel Willamina Keller stood at the head of her column and dumped out her canteen, it was with the full knowledge that she was probably going to die leading her men to safety.

She picked up the microphone and gave the radio command she used when going into a fight.

“Engineering, this is the Captain, stand by maximum warp on my mark. Shield up, deflectors ahead full, arm photon torpedoes and stand by phasers.”

Above her, the fifty-gunner charged his Ma Deuce, feeding a half-inch-diameter round into the chamber. Up and down the column, weapons werechecked and checked again and bellies tightened and men swallowed with a dry throat and the world held its breath, waiting, waiting –

 

Willamina blinked, took a long, shivering breath.

“I was … the tip of the spear as we punched through the enemy.

“We caught them by surprise and they didn’t have time to set the ambush.”

“They tried.” The old man’s eyes were wise, knowing, quiet, a grandfather’s eyes as he listened to the much-younger Sheriff’s voice, a soldier's voice, tight with remembering.

Chief Deputy Barrents had not released his grip on the Sheriff’s shoulders, even though she’d straightened: he, too, remembered, for he was following when the Colonel rammed her Humvee into three Afghans who ran out in front of her, two with AKs and one with an RPG, and she hit them with the mailed fist of her front bumper, her tan desert boot hard down on the throttle, screaming defiance as she used the weapon she held in both hands, just before the IED shoved deep in a culvert detonated and threw her vehicle over on its side.

“You were with her,” the Sheriff asked. ... it was more a statement than a question, but quiet-voiced, a grandfather's question, the question of a man who already knew the answer.

Barrents shook his head. “No. No, we were right behind. I helped pull her out of the Hummer and get her into the Slick.” He hesitated. “The Medevac.”

The Old Sheriff had been a soldier himself, in war a century and more before; he didn’t recognize the terms but he understood the meaning.

“The field ambulance.”

“You could call it that.”

The Old Sheriff nodded slowly.

Barrents' eyes were hard and unreadable and the Old Sheriff remembered another warrior, in another time, with those same eyes ... a physician, a quiet man with a Healer's hands, a man who was also a very effective warrior when the need arose.

“My hitch with the Corps was up and I came back to my old job, here.”

He nodded toward the Sheriff. “She …”

“I had to heal up,” Willamina muttered.

“You lost a child.” The Old Sheriff’s voice was deep, kindly, a grandfatherly voice, an understanding voice.

Willamina’s eyes were hard. “So I was told.”

“Would you like to see him?”

Barrents felt the Sheriff stiffen under his hands.

“Him?” she asked, turning her head a very little bit, the way she did when she was asking a critical question in an investigation.

A tall, slender young man with pale eyes stepped out of nowhere and Willamina’s heart stopped.

My God, he looks like his father! she thought as the young man smiled a little.

“Mother,” he said, his voice gentle, and the Sheriff’s stomach dropped, just before she put up her barriers.

He even sounds like his father!

Willamina shook her head a little. “I’m sorry,” she said carefully. “I … don’t know you.”

Guard, she thought. Suspect. Protect. Look for the catch, what's the swindle ...

“You loved me enough to carry me, for as long as you could.”

“I’m sorry,” Willamina repeated uncertainly. “I don’t …”

Barrents released her shoulders and took a half-step back.

Willamina reached up, caressed the young man’s cheek with the backs of her fingers.

“Oh God,” she groaned, tears in her voice, “you look like –“

She closed her eyes and dropped her head, remembering the last time she saw her first husband, remembered how they fought as she was getting ready to leave for her call-up.

She remembered accusations and harsh words and how she spat “Damn you, you know I’m a Marine!” just before she turned and stomped toward the boarding gate, remembered how the General met her after she touched down in Afghanistan and he quietly, as gently as he could, told her she was now a widow, how her husband was killed in a wreck as he left the airport, and did she want to fly back home.

She felt her son’s arms around her and she started to sob, finally – finally! – after all these years, allowed herself to grieve, to grieve for hateful words and regrets, to grieve for too many years of walling it off.

She cried herself out and then drew back, she blew her nose on a worn red bandana and stuffed it back in her hip pocket and sniffed and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” he whispered back, her late husband’s smile showing through on his face. “I’m not sorry. You loved my father and you loved me.”

His hands were warm as he laid his palm softly against her cheek.

“Wait a minute,” Willamina muttered, drawing back and shaking her head and pressing hard fingers into her temples. “I am a sane and rational woman. I am rational and logical and reasonable.”

She took a long breath, closed her eyes.

“Ghosts. You can’t see ghosts. You can’t touch ghosts. My child was too small to be identified.”

She opened her eyes and her son’s form was still there, as was the Old Sheriff.

She turned to look at Barrents.

Chief Deputy JW Barrents, a Marine and full-blood Navajo, stepped forward and extended his hand to the quiet-eyed young man.

“I’m Barrents,” he said, and Willamina’s son grasped the Navajo’s hand and grinned.

“I’m her son.”

“I know.”

Barrents turned a little and extended his hand to the Old Sheriff.

The lean old pale-eyed lawman with the iron grey mustache returned the grip, each man assessing the other’s strength and character through the contact of their calluses.

“You look familiar.”

The Old Sheriff’s eyes smiled a little, though the rest of his face was impassive.

“I am…”

He looked at Willamina, who was worrying her bandana again.

“She is my great-great-granddaughter.”

Barrents nodded.

“I thought you were.” He grinned, suddenly, teeth flashing brightly against his weather-tanned face. “Your portrait still hangs in the Silver Jewel.”

“Thank you for watching out for her,” the Old Sheriff said.

Barrents nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Willamina took a quick, deep breath, opened her mouth to ask a question, looked around –

Gone, she thought, and felt a sudden sense of loss.

She sagged a little, and Barrents gripped her upper arms – lightly, letting her knew he was there, if she needed to sag he could hold her up –

“Barrents?” she said in a weak voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I need to set down.”

“Ma’am, have you eaten?”

Willamina turned, chuckled, patted her chief deputy on the middle of his chest.

“JW, you are younger, smarter and better looking than me.”

“If you say so, ma’am.”

Willamina grunted a little as her pained rib reminded her that she’d been too active, in spite of the corset’s protective support.

“Boss, you okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Willamina gasped, grabbing Barrents’ forearm to steady herself. “Let’s go eat.”

 

 

“I’LL SEE YOU IN THE VALLEY”

“Boss?”

Willamina blinked, looked at her chief deputy, raised an eyebrow.

“Boss, would you like some gear grease with that back strap?”

Willamina blinked and shook her head a little as if to dismiss the clinging cobwebs of an errant thought.

“I’m sorry …” She reached for the butter. “Here you go.”

Barrents gave her a sympathetic look. “Boss, you were somewhere, but you surely weren’t here!”

“Didn’t you ask for the gut grease?”

Barrents leaned back and laughed quietly. “No ma’am, I asked if you’d like some gear grease.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Boss, you are thinking so hard I can hear the gears turning, and if you don’t grease ‘em here directly, they’ll burn up from friction!”

Willamina nodded. “Ah, yes, of course.” She looked down at her untouched meal, frowned. “Did you receive the forensics reports?”

“Yes, ma’am, they’re at the office on my desk.”

“Have you gone over them?”

“I looked through them, yes ma’am.”

“Are they complete?”

“There are some DNA tests yet, but yes ma’am, they are otherwise complete.”

“Anything from ballistics?”

“Quite a bit, ma’am. A few bullets recovered from bodies, some from the sidewalls, and they established probable lanes of fire based on fired casings and location of the bodies.”

“Did you give them the exemplars from Great-Great-Granddad’s rifle and revolvers?”

“Yes, ma’am, and they matched.”

She nodded. “Good.” She picked up her fork, cut off a bite of meat, ran it delicately through the gravy pooled in her mashed potatoes.

Barrents waited.

Willamina looked the length of the Silver Jewel, looked at the burnished mahogany bar, the gleaming bottles ranked behind it, the spotless mirror, the framed, hand-drawn portraits that meant so much to her.

A set of elk antlers hung centered above the bottles.

I wonder where those came from, she thought.

“Barrents,” she said, cutting another bite of the tender, flavorful backstrap, “am I going nuts?”

“Ma’am?”

She chewed, swallowed, staring a hole in the opposite wall, then looked at her chief deputy, her expression uncertain.

“JW, I’ve been talking to a ghost.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“He’s been solid at times.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ghosts aren’t real.”

Barrents’ left eyebrow quirked up a little and the hint of a smile pulled at the left side of his mouth.

“Ummm … ma’am?”

Willamina set her fork down, looked squarely at her chief deputy.

“Barrents, am I losing my mind?” Her voice was a harsh, tight, tortured whisper, and he could see the fear in her eyes.

JW Barrents considered his reply carefully, for he knew how much the Sheriff depended on a sane, rational, reasonable, logical approach, how she eschewed feeling and emotion – even if she felt deeply and was passionately emotional, especially when she was unhappy.

Or angry.

Barrents leaned his forearms on the table, hunched his shoulders forward, thrust his head toward the Sheriff, for all the world like a glowering old bear.

“Boss,” he said his voice quiet, “you know I am Navajo.”

She nodded, once.

“Navajo don’t look at the world the same as the white man.”

She nodded again.

“Ma’am, you have died. You know what the Valley looks like. You’ve been there and you were sent back because your work wasn’t done.”

The Sheriff’s eyes were hard now, and she nodded, once more, slowly.

“Ma’am, in your Christian faith, you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses."

"Hebrews," she whispered.

Barrents nodded. "Hebrews, twelfth chapter." He raised a finger as if for attention. "Ma'am, there are ghosts and there are ancestors. Ancestors can return if they choose. Kachinas are real. I have seen them. They appear when they choose and they take the form they choose.”

He took a long breath.

“Ma’am, your Great-Great-Grandfather was a real man. Yes he died. All men die. He chose to come back. Why is for you to know, not me, but he chose to recognize me as well.”

He held up his hand, turned it slowly, fingers spread.

“He chose to be solid, he chose to … shake my hand.” His Navajo-black eyes burned into the Sheriff’s ice-pale orbs. “That is an honor. That is a magnificent honor.

“So what’s your question, Boss? Are you going off the deep end? I doubt it. You are the most sane and rational person I know, most of the time. Yes you saw a man who’s been dead for a century and more. Yes you touched him. Yes you felt him as solid. Yes, that was real. No you are not nuts.” He smiled a little, chuckled. “You’re not fugazi, boss, so don’t worry about it.”

Willamina took a long breath, winced.

“I want to go over those forensics reports when we finish here.”

“It can wait until tomorrow, Boss –“

The Sheriff glared at him.

“Tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Willamina shifted in her seat, worked a railroad watch out of her vest pocket, pressed the stem.

The cover dropped open and she looked at the time, carefully not looking at the hand-painted miniature inside the front cover.

“Ma’am, is tomorrow when we bury the dead?”

Willamina closed the cover, slowly, carefully, slipped the pocket watch back in her vest.

“Tomorrow,” she nodded, pushing her plate away from her.

 

Not long after dawn, the Sheriff lifted her skirts and stepped slowly up the rough-lumber stairway, the flared heels of her high-button shoes loud and hollow-sounding on the elevated deck.

The Sheriff looked around, eyes quiet and thoughtful, as the people gathered, as the curious assembled: students swung camera phones, holding them at arm’s length and narrating their own video; Bruce Jones, editor of the county newspaper, lifted his hat in greeting, and the Sheriff smiled and nodded slowly.

The year previous, the Sheriff bought up this plot of ground and fenced it off.

Cast concrete pillars were erected at its corners and at intervals surrounding, with two larger pillars and a cast-iron gate: old-fashioned iron fencing surrounded the plot.

The Sheriff stood on the platform and addressed the assembled, the high meadow wind whipping the McKenna gown she wore, tugging at her hat and swinging the curls of her auburn wig.

“Friends, kindred and brethren,” she said, her voice clear and pitched to carry to the farthest row, “we are gathered in Potters Field, that cemetery established for criminals, miscreants, for the hanged, and for those whose lives were lived such that my ancestors, our ancestors, the founders of Firelands, did not want their carcasses to stink up our good cemetery on the other side of town.”

Men in miner’s overalls and ranchers Carhartt coats slid nine plain pine boxes from the horsedrawn wagon.

“Within this fenced enclosure are those who were hanged for their crimes, shot for their stupidity, expired without a state of grace. I will not presume to speculate on where they ultimately ended up, but one grave we did identify contains the remains of one of the only two women ever hanged in Firelands. Her name was Clara and she was buried face-down so she could see where she was going.”

The Sheriff’s expression was grim.

“This is not me being funny, this is the account of those who hanged her and buried her. These who we inter today” – she gestured toward the several long boxes being offloaded and placed beside the neatly-dug, rectangular holes – “are being buried much better than anyone else was buried here.

“These nine dishonored dead were hired to kill the Sheriff, better than a hundred years ago. They came with marked cards and poker chips in hand and murder in their hearts, they drank and smoked and wenched as they rode in a gambling car, and my Great-Great-Grandfather, Sheriff Linn Keller, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, stepped into that car and laid every one of them low – with surprise and with utter ferocity, with a Winchester rifle and two Colt revolvers and a complete and absolute lack of compassion for those who sought to take his life.

“Evil came to town, and evil was given to understand it came to the wrong town, and that understanding was spoken in the only language that evil understands.”

The interment had been advertised; news cameras watched, foam-wrapped microphones listened, old men turned their best ear toward the speaker, and lawmen from across the state and beyond nodded their agreement with the Sheriff’s words.

“There will be a forensic presentation of the gunfight at a later date, but today we commit the remains of those criminals to a more permanent grave than they’ve had up until now.” She looked at three men in miner’s helmets – modern-day miners, with Wheat lights on their hardhats and wet-cell batteries weighting their belts – “It is my sincere hope that there are no more reports of restless spirits in the easternmost galleries of the gold mine.”

Sheriff Willamina Keller turned and nodded to the tonsured monk, sitting quietly, head bowed in his white robe, Rosary draped over his hand.

“You have a designated sky pilot for your spiritual edification, and to speak the words over the dead.”

Willamina rubbed the .44-40 round in her gloved hand, rubbed it between thumb and forefinger, looking for a moment at the yellow gleam of the pure-gold bullet.

“I’ve said my piece with words. My Great-Great-Grandfather said his piece with … his actions.”

“Brother Steven,” she said to the tonsured monk, “it’s all yours.”

 

The Coroner sorted through the several pages of his report.

He looked over at the row of small, sealed plastic bags.

Each bag held a single, deformed, pure-gold 44-caliber bullet.

“I wonder,” he said out loud, “what the Sheriff knows about this.”

The Coroner rose, picked up the bagged bullets, set them in a plastic dishpan and carried them over to his safe.

He hadn’t told anyone about this one finding, about bullets of pure gold, and he’d intentionally omitted it from his report.

Something told him the Sheriff would understand.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Sheriff sat on the folding wooden chair, lowering herself slowly, trying not to grimace as her weight came on her backside and the changing pressure echoed painfully through her injured ribs. She didn’t bite her bottom lip, but she did close her eyes for a long moment, turning her vision inward, disciplining herself against the pain as warriors have done since time immemorial.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” a familiar voice said quietly.

She felt the warmth as the lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache sat down beside her; his shoulder brushed hers as he eased into the chair, and she heard it squeak a little as his weight settled into it.

“Friends, kindred and brethren,” Brother Steven began, his voice strong and confident, “we are gathered here to honorably inter the bodies of these who passed from our world a century ago.”

“Passed my Aunt Fannie's billy goat,” the Old Sheriff muttered. “I kicked ‘em off personally. Sent ‘em to hell on a .44 caliber freight train.”

“The hell-bound train?” Willamina whispered, barely moving her lips. She reached into her left sleeve with her gloved right thumb and forefinger, drew out a kerchief, pressed it carefully to one eye, then the other.

“You should wear a veil,” the shade of her Great-Great Granddad said quietly, amusement in his voice. “I’m a distraction. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“The barn,” Willamina whispered. “Cannonball.”

The Old Sheriff hesitated, then rose: Brother Steven was speaking, but the Old Sheriff’s voice was plainly audible to the current Sheriff.

“Until then,” he said, and Willamina did not have to open her eyes to know that her ancestor was gone.

In the audience, a shutter tripped, and the next day's newspaper had a black-and-white photograph of a woman in Victorian attire, pressing a handkerchief to her closed eyes, as the tonsured monk addressed the assembled from a rough-lumber platform: beside it, another photograph, almost identical, but taken from a glass-plate Ambrotype the editor found under a stairs of the old photography studio.

The newspaper's caption, of course, did not give the names as Brother William and Sarah McKenna, but other than this, they were identical.

Later that morning, shortly before noon, Cannonball ruckled with pleasure as the Sheriff’s experienced hands curried her down, hands gentle and familiar and strong, and it wasn’t until her fetlocks were groomed, her tail brushed out and her mane brushed and even her forelock laid in a curl between her ears that Sheriff Willamina came out to the barn.

The Old Sheriff grinned at her as he set the curry brush back on the shelf. Cannonball looked at him and muttered as if to say, “Don’t quit now.”

He produced a plug of tobacco and a short, sharp knife; whittling off some molasses cured twist, he held it out and Cannonball lipped it delicately from his hand.

“I miss that,” he whispered, then Willamina’s gaze followed his as he looked over at Cannonballs’ halter.

“You found it,” he said, nodding his approval. “Sergeant Mick gave me that. Had it made by an Ohio Amishman, he had the roses hand-chased – that’s pure silver, by the way.”

“I know,” Willamina smiled. “I had an Ohio Amishman rebuild it. He recognized the original work.”

The Old Sheriff chuckled. “You’ve knee trained her.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes I did. I read where you knee trained your Cannonball, and so …” -- she shrugged – “I did too.”

“Have you hunted coyotes with her?”

Willamina threw her head back and laughed. “Yes I have,” she smiled. “Uncle Pete loved watching …”

Her smile faded and her voice died as she remembered Uncle Pete’s funeral, with he and Aunt Mary in a double casket, as they’d wished.

Willamina found them on their front porch, sitting in the porch swing, holding hands … dead.

Natural causes, the coroner said; they went the way they would want to go, he said.

Willamina didn’t realize, until her Great-Great-Grandfather curled a finger under her chin and pressed his wild rag gently against her damp cheeks, that she’d started to cry: his arms were strong and reassuring and fatherly and she pressed her face into his chest and somehow she was a girl again and it was okay to cry for the father’s arms taken too early from her, for her Uncle Pete’s arms, taken from her a year ago, for her first husband’s arms, which she walked away from him at the airport for the last time, when she was recalled to military service.

“There, now,” the Old Sheriff rumbled softly, stroking her hair, “that’s all right, honey. You go right on ahead and cry. Does a body good to get it out.”

Willamina shook her head, willing herself not to cry, willing herself to be hard and to be strong and capable and The Sheriff, and she ended up crying all the harder, grieving for every Marine she’d lost in her command, grieving for the

husband who’d been killed after their last words were harsh and angry, grieving for her Uncle and her Aunt who’d taken her in when she was a sixteen-year-old runaway, walking up on his porch and setting down her suitcase and saying “Uncle Pete, I’m your niece Willamina, and I need your help,” and she grieved for herself.

The Old Sheriff waited patiently until her thunder storm was spent, then he pinched his wild rag over her nose and whispered “Blow,” and she blew, and he wiped her nose like he’d wipe a little girl’s nose, and she sniffed and looked up at him and squeaked, “You must think me awful.”

“I think you’re my little girl,” the Old Sheriff said, “and I think we need to set and talk.”

Willamina took a long, shivering breath and looked around.

“Pull up a hay bale and have a set,” she said, sweeping a hand toward a square bale: the Old Sheriff flipped a saddle blanket over it and waited until Willamina was seated, before he sat beside her.

She seized his hand, squeezing it between both hers.

“How come I see you as solid?” she asked frankly.

The Old Sheriff’s eyes were amused as he studied the opposite wall.

“You’re like my Sarah,” he said, and she heard the smile in his voice. “She was just as direct. Always did like that about her.” He looked down at her. “How come you can feel my hand?” He slipped a hand from between hers, leaned back and caressed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Same way I can feel you and see you.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“No it doesn’t,” he agreed. “Reckon I’ve got more questions than answers m’self. Do you remember” – he leaned back, looked up at the floor of the mow overhead – “you remember readin’ my Journal, where I described a-layin’ on my back on the ceiling in the Sheriff’s Office, lookin’ down on my own long tall skinny carcass?”

Willamina nodded.

“You remember what that’s like.”

Willamina shivered, nodded.

“Yes.”

“Esther come a-runnin’. I think it was Daisy that run out t’ where she an’ Duzy an’ Duzy’s aunt Esther and Sarah’s mama Bonnie was stayin’. Sarah was just a little thing and Duzy killed her Pa and good riddance to him.”

“Wait, wait,” Willamina interrupted, shaking her head. “Wait a minute. How many Esthers are there?”

“Just the one. Esther come out from the Carolinas to make sure Duzy was a-doin’ all right. Duzy come out to set up a newspaper an’ she an’ Sarah did just that, least until two drunked-up miners burnt it down thinkin’ it was the Carbon Hill Times.” He shook his head. “Dumb sorts. Burnt up our library, too.”

Willamina nodded slowly.

“Esther,” she prompted. “Daisy.”

“Esther,” he nodded. “Daisy run out an’ told her I’d been shot. Esther she taken up the double gun from behint the door and saddled up Edi – Duzy’s paint mare, she was a good horse, I liked her – Esther come into town like the Valkyrie herself. She was in a ridin’ dress a whole lot like the one you’re wearin’ right now.”

Willamina smiled a little, smiled like a girl pleased at her Papa’s complement.

“She didn’t bother to braid up her hair and it run in the wind behint her and her skirts were a-flowin’ just the same and she rode like a Comanche a-comin’ in for war.

“She come off that horse before Edi quit skiddin’ an’ she tossed that two pipe shoot gun at Charlie –“

“Macneil?” Willamina interrupted.

Her Great-Great-Grandfather’s grin was quick, broad, genuine, and was gone just as fast, amusement lingering in his eyes: “Yes ma’am, Charlie Macneil, livin’ proof not all brothers are born of the same dam.”

“Esther,” Willamina prompted.

“She come in an’ she went down on her Prayer Bones beside me, and I’m here t’ tell you, I was on the far side of crossin’ over, least until she reached down and laid a hand on me and allowed as I was NOT goin’ to die, SHE would not countenance it – that’s just how she said it, ‘I will not countenance it!’” – he tilted his head back, remembering, his eyes soft with the memory – “and damned if she didn’t drag my corroded soul back across that dark river!”

“I remember that river,” Willamina whispered, her eyes haunted.

“Yes you do,” the Old Sheriff nodded, “and I do too.”

“I remember the Valley.” She looked at her Great-Great-Grandfather, her eyes glitter-bright. “It smelled of spring, it smelled of a thousand green growing things –“

“There was grass underfoot and fiddlehead ferns –“

“And a spring of living water, running out of a rock.”

“You were dead.” His voice was flat, factual, expressionless. “You died and so did I. We both stood in the Valley and we were both sent back.

“We got sent back for the same reason, Sheriff.”

His eyes were pale and hard, and very sad-looking, all of a sudden.

“There is work we had to finish. Our tasks on this earth were not done so we got sent back to finish ‘em. I didn’t know what mine was.”

“Me neither,” Willamina said faintly, then she looked at the Old Sheriff with the expression of an uncertain little girl, looking to her Daddy for strength, for guidance.

“Maybe that’s a good thing. That we didn’t know.” She looked away, dropped her forehead onto the heels of her hands, her elbows on her knees.

“If I’d known … if I’d known what it was I was supposed to do … I would have busted my backside to get it done so I could go back!”

“I know,” the Old Sheriff rumbled, his hand gentle on her back, then he ran his arm around her shoulders and drew her close to him, holding him like a father holds his daughter. “I had the same thought.”

Willamina pulled back, looked at her Great-Great Granddad, surprised.

“Really?”

He smiled a little, his iron-grey handlebar curving up a little as he did.

He stood suddenly.

“Willamina, was you my little girl I would be pretty damned proud of you,” the Old Sheriff said emphatically. “I got to leave now. Sarah needs to talk to you, but I will see you in the Valley.”

“Wait,” Willamina quavered, coming to her feet, reaching for him. “Wait, I need to know about that shootout –“

He turned, took her hand, patted it gently.

“Oh I ain’t leavin’ for good,” he grinned. “Even if I did, I’d see you in the Valley.” He winked. “Now you go on ahead an’ talk to them other lawmen. You’ll want to set up the car the way it was when I come through the door.” He grinned again. “You might want your brother to fetch up that ’73 rifle and punch them dummies you like to use.”

“How did you know --?”

“About them dummies?” He laughed. “Dear heart, when you set ‘em up at …” He stopped, thought for a moment, looking for the term. “Crime scene, is that what you call it?”

She nodded. “We re-enact the crime. Ballistic dummies –“

“Ballistic dummies,” the Old Sheriff nodded. “You’ll want nine of ‘em. Now whether you’re in the car when he cuts loose is up to you, but maybe I’d put in a girl dummy.” His eyes were bright, mischevious. "In a blue dancin' girl dress."

Willamina blushed furiously, nodded.

“We could use multiple cameras,” Willamina said thoughtfully. “We could show it from multiple viewpoints –“

The Old Sheriff nodded. “I reckon you can set that up without my help,” he rumbled.

Willamina blinked, blinked again.

Just that quick, he was gone.

“So you remember the Valley,” Sarah said, and Willamina stood suddenly, jaw clenching against the pain of a unwise, sudden move.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Silver Thread

“Sit back down,” Sarah said, dropping heavily onto the hay bale where the Old Sheriff had been. “I know what it is to hurt.”

She looked appraisingly at Sarah.

“You’re a tough one,” she nodded. “I think you need to know where you come from.”

Willamina’s laugh was a harsh bark. “I’m from Ohio.”

“No you’re not,” Sarah said. “You’re from …”

She plucked at the fingertips of her gloves. “You are from the same place as I am.”

“Where might that be?”

“Hell.”

Willamina’s eyes were hard and her left eyebrow tented up.

Sarah’s bare hand shot out, seized the Sheriff by the back of her neck –

She wore gold-trimmed sandals and a Grecian shift, a gold clip held the loose garment at the top of her left shoulder, and she held three arrows in her left hand, her bow hand, and her quiver hung at her right hip, filled with the finest arrows their fletcher could make.

She stood with three ranks of young women, tanned and beautiful under the Grecian sun, and she drew the arrow to anchor against the corner of her jaw.

The Mother Priestess raised her hand in blessing.

“Maidens!” she called. “Our finest warriors are defeated and the enemy approaches. Remember our Oath, that we remain pure! Let the approaching enemy know they will not despoil our Temple!”

There was the space of a breath and a half and the Mother Priestess sang, “Loose!”

Bowstrings twanged like plucked harps and white-fletched arrows arced through the sea air and drove into warriors’ armored chests.

The Maidens were practiced and deadly archers; they fired three arrows in the span of fifteen seconds, drew three more and nocked.

The enemy charged, yelling, bronze blades flashing in the hot sun: the Maidens fired and fired and fired again, until the warriors were among them, and even then they fought, stabbing with arrows and using the gifts and skills bequeathed them by good men and true: they killed blooded warriors with their own weapons, twisted from their hands, they fought, screaming like panthers, until only one lived, wounded, limping, twisting, teeth bared, pale eyes hard and cold and swinging the bronze sword taken from the slain enemy.

They surrounded her, they formed a tight circle, and she circled, slowly, ready to guarantee the price for her life would be very high indeed.

One warrior, a little taller than the rest, stepped from between his fellows.

He looked long at the bloodied Maiden, then he removed his bronze helm.

The maiden saw he wore a circlet, the jewel at its center resting on his forehead, gleaming bright gold against his Mediterranean-black hair.

Grecian-black eyes stared into glacier-pale eyes.

“You are injured,” he challenged.

“Come closer,” she hissed, “and I will teach you the meaning of the word!”

The men laughed to hear this Maiden, challenging their King.

“I could beat you easily,” the King frowned.

“Come and try,” the Maiden snarled, raising the sword, coming up on the balls of her feet: were she a cat, every hair would be standing on end, her ears flattened.

The King stared long at the Maiden.

 

He drew his sword, hesitated.

“Maiden,” he said, “your sisters all fought. None ran. Not even your warriors stood without some running.”

The Maiden slashed at the air with her sword, came back into guard.

“You have some skill,” he said approvingly, then went to one knee and grounded the point of his sword.

“Be my Queen,” he said. “Rule with me. You are the only one I have found who is worthy of my seed. Bear me sons and rule at my side.”

The Maiden spat. “I will spill your blood and grind my heel in your poison seed!” she screamed.

He rose with a sigh.

“It is a shame,” he said, “to kill someone so young and pretty –“

The Maiden attacked.

To the King’s surprise, it actually took him three minutes to kill her, and he carried scars to his grave that she gave him that day, including the vicious scar behind his right knee that caused him to limp for the rest of his life.

Sarah’s hand came away from the Sheriff’s neck.

The connection broken, the Sheriff threw her head back, gasping in a great breath like a swimmer coming up from a long, deep dive.

Sarah seized the back of the Sheriff’s neck again.

She raised the Brown Bess musket, sighted at the officer’s face, dropped the muzzle and yanked the trigger.

 

Flint scraped fire from steel, dropped it into the pan: the musket shoved hard against the pale-eyed woman’s shoulder, and an eye-blink later, the officer fell back in his saddle.

The woman spun around the corner, ran ducked around another corner: she reloaded quickly, biting the paper from the cartridge, priming the pan and flipping the battery-piece closed, then dumping the rest of the charge down the smooth bore barrel and ramming it down with the steel ramrod.

She knew she would be pursued, and she knew three more muskets lay in wait for the pursuers: she saw blue smoke squirt from around the corner, heard three muskets fire in response, and the pursuing Redcoats ran past her, running toward the three that fired at them.

She waited, then took a quick sight on the man carrying what looked like a spear, fired.

The round ball drove in under the British sergeant's arm, dropping him in three running paces, but for the pale-eyed woman, it was too late: a soldierturned, fired, and it felt like she’d been punched by a blacksmith, punched deep and hard and she knew she was dying before she hit the ground --

Sarah’s hand came away again and the Sheriff returned to the here-and-now.

“You are one of many,” Sarah said. “We are warriors and we fight when we must.

“We have been and we shall be again, and we do what must be done when we do it.”

Willamina took several steadying breaths.

“You have been all of my selves and I am you,” Sarah continued. “We are an unbroken line that runs deep into the past, and reaches like a silver thread into the far future.”

“She’s right,” another voice said, and Willamina looked up, alarmed.

A pale-eyed woman in a puffy white suit stood before her, a glass-visored helmet under her arm and a streamlined plastic-looking pistol of some kind in her gloved hand.

Willamina’s eyes locked onto the insignia embossed into her left breast.

It was a silver, six-pointed star, a star with little balls at the tips of the points, and the single word SHERIFF across its middle.

"Sheriff Marnie Keller, Mars Sector Five." She tilted her head, smiling a little.

"So you're Willamina."

Willamina stood, stuck out her hand, the woman from the future placing her pistol against her hip – it stuck there – magnetic? Velcro? Willamina wondered – and her gloved hand grasped the gloved hand of her descendant-to-be.

“I’ve studied your works,” Sheriff Marnie Keller said, her eyes frank and appraising – the eyes of a lawdog, the Sheriff thought – well, she is Sheriff of District Five, whatever that is! – “and we excerpted them for the Academy.”

“Thank you, I think,” Willamina said uncertainly.

“Oh, don’t be modest,” her descendant-to-be laughed. “Your –“

“Ah-ah, don’t let the feline out of the burlap,” Sarah cautioned.

“Oh, that’s right, you haven’t ….”

“I haven’t what?” Willamina snapped, her eyes going a little more pale.

 

“Shards and shells,” Sheriff Marnie Keller of Fifth District, Mars, breathed. “Your eyes do go pale!”

“And yours don’t?”

“I can’t see mine.”

“There is that.” Willamina considered the unsettling revelations she’d been given, turned to Sarah.

“Sooo … I’ve gone from ancient Greece –“

“Vesuvius, actually.”

“Vesuvius. Pre-explosion, I take it.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Ancient Vesuvius, to Mars in the far future” – she gestured to Sheriff Marnie, standing observantly in her white environmental suit, helmet correctly under her off arm – “and every point in between.”

“Not every point.”

“Most of them.”

“Most of them.”

“And I’ve done something remarkable …?”

“Some you have already. You’ll write about the others.”

“What others?”

“Can’t tell you that,” Marnie said, giving Sarah a knowing look.

“Oh bloody hell!” Willamina flared. “Quit teasing me!”

Marnie seized her shoulders, the descendant shoving her face within an inch of her ancestress’s.

“I need your help,” she said, her voice low, urgent. “Things are not good – where I come from – and I need to know how you survived!”

“What do you mean, how I survived?”

“I mean what we had in the Academy was excerpted. It was incomplete. It had facts, it had quotes, but I need what you have here!” She slapped Willamina’s belly with a white-gloved hand, prompting Willamina’s lashing left-right, Sheriff Willamina driving pain-launched fists hard into her descendant’s belly.

Each woman drew back with a gasp of pain.

“STOP IT, BOTH OF YOU!” Sarah shouted, her operatically-trained voice soaring to battle pitch. “She’s healing from a broken rib, damn you! Touch her again and I’ll kill you myself!

Two guns swung up and death hung in the air: a sleek, streamlined, white-plastic impulse pistol faced a .44 Bulldog revolver, two sets of ice-pale eyes target locked onto her opponent’s face, and only Willamina’s gloved intervention kept a confusing situation from becoming very confused indeed.

She shoved plastic blaster and machined-steel cannon out of line and snapped, “I am Sheriff here, not either of you! MY word is law here and I say STAND DOWN!”

Sarah put her Bulldog back into its holster in the hidden pocket of her skirt, and Marnie clicked her pistol back onto her hip.

Magnetic, Willamina thought.

“I need to know what you know,” Marnie hissed, “and how you did it, and I need to know about your great-great-grandfather, and I need to know about your father.” Her voice was a whisper, an urgent whisper.

“I know the stories but I need the facts. You survived Afghanistan and you were hit by an insurgent rocket barrage. You lost an arm and it was reattached, your liver was replaced and your heart sewn back together while your segundo’s finger plugged a hole the size of a dime.”

“Oh really?” Willamina asked, blinking. “My … recollection … is a little different.”

“Then write that book,” Marnie said, her voice tight. “Write it and put it …”

She looked at Sarah.

“How did you get the documents the Old Sheriff left for you?”

Willamina looked at Sarah, her mouth falling open.

Willamina thought fast, winching her jaw shut.

“I ... can ... put it in a safety deposit box with instructions that it be opened in a certain number of years and delivered to the directed heirs and assigns –““Yes,” Sarah nodded, her eyes widening. “Yes, if you choose a bank that will survive –“

“Firelands has a bank,” Sheriff Marnie said, her eyes tracking left, then right, as she tried to recall ancient history, recall what she’d pulled up on her personal tablet the day before. “They were bought out … bought out …”

Marnie frowned at the floor and Willamina supplied, “Cripple Creek. Mountain State Bank bought … we became a branch of the Cripple branch.”

“That’s it,” Marnie nodded. “Cripple Creek still exists. It’s a tourist stop –“

Sarah cleared her throat.

“So I can put it in our bank here in town and it’ll be opened when I specify, and be delivered to you.”

Sheriff Marnie’s mouth dropped open and she thrust thumb and forefinger into an invisible slit just below her collarbone. She pulled out a rectangular tablet, touched its screen, flicked her finger twice along its gleaming surface, tapped again, looked up at Sheriff Willamina.

“It just arrived,” she said. “Write that book. Even if it’s only one copy, write that book!” Her breathing was quicker now, her eyes wide, not quite pleading.

“What should I write?”

“How you survived. Childhood. Your struggles, your mental development through your traumas. Your service with the United Marine Corps –“

“The what?”

“They weren’t …?”

“I am a Marine. United States Marine Corps. What’s this united stuff?”

Sheriff Marine raised her palms. “Never mind. I was mistaken.”

“Future history sounds kind of skewed, doesn’t it?”

“Scrubbed and sanitized,” Sheriff Marnie sneered, then turned and spat.

Willamina nodded.

“I’ll write you that book,” she said. “You’ll have a signed original, even if it’s the only one that exists.”

“Sheriff” – Marnie hesitated – “survival is more mental than physical. Any fool can be taught to use a tool. It’s the mind that’s the weapon, and the mind is incredibly complex. I am facing” – she looked at Sarah, who shook her head.

Sheriff Marnie Keller pressed her lips together, frustrated.

Willamina turned, seized Sarah’s wrist, pulled hard: surprised, Sarah stumbled toward her, and Willamina seized Sheriff Marnie’s wrist.

There was a sizzling sound and Willamina felt a faint warmth.

Sheriff Marnie’s eyes were wide, alarmed.

“That should have killed you,” she said slowly.

“Yeah, well, it didn’t. Maybe we’re not phased into the same dimension or something. I don’t know all that science stuff so let’s just all three of us go to your place and kick some outlaw butt, shall we?”

“What?”

“TAKE US WITH YOU, YOU FOOL!” Willamina screamed, shoving her face into Marnie’s. They were nearly the same height; her build was hard to tell under that puffy suit, but Willamina knew eyes, and she bored hers into her descendant’s.

“Take us with you,” she growled, “and by GOD! between the three of us we’ll straighten things out!”

Marnie laughed, then shook her head and laughed again: Willamina released the white-coated wrist and Marnie laid her imperviously-gloved hand on Willamina’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she said after she quit laughing and came up for air, “I’m sorry … that would … throw a knot in the time-stream …”

“So you’re a time traveler and not a future ghost.”

“It’s … complex …”

“Yeah, what isn’t? Kick someone’s hinder hard enough they get real simple real fast!”

A familiar, man's voice said, "No."

“No?”

Three sets of ice-pale eyes turned to regard a fourth.

“Sheriff Marnie Keller,” the Old Sheriff said, touching his hat-brim. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”

Willamina laid a hand on Marnie’s shoulder. “Sheriff Marnie Keller,” she said formally, “may I present my great-great-grandfather, Sheriff Linn Keller, second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado.”

A callused, weather-tanned hand reached forth and grasped the extended, white-gloved hand: automatically, the old lawman’s fingerprints and DNA were recorded, and Marnie heard the computer’s frustration at its inability to instantly identify the man whose hand she grasped.

No wonder, she thought, he’s been dead three centuries!

“Now what do you mean, no?” Willamina asked, bringing them all back to the subject at hand.

“You cannot go forward to her era.”

“You’re forward into mine and she’s backward into mine. Why the hell can’t I go forward – and Sarah as well?”

“No.”

“Damn you,” Willamina flared, shoving Sarah forward and thrusting her front against the Old Sheriff’s flat belly. “A lawman is in trouble and by GOD! I am NOT going to turn my back on her!”

“This is her fight,” the Old Sheriff said gently. “You will have yours yet. I had mine. Sarah had hers. Now Marnie will have … her tasks to perform.”

“I have to go.”

Willamina turned, dismayed.

Marnie flickered a little. “Write the book,” she said, her voice choppy, as if it too were flickering, and she raised her helmet, slid it over her head, gave it a quarter turn.

Willamina heard a distinct click as the helmet sealed.

“Write that book,” she said, her voice a little tinny as it came out the center-chest speaker. “Safety deposit box, open in one century. Address it to your heirs and assigns with the Martian Planetary Peacemakers.”

She hesitated, then said quickly, as if in a rush to get her words out before she disappeared:

“Tell me about your father and how you came by his revolver, and tell me what you did with his revolver!”

Willamina opened her mouth, but her white-suited descendant was gone.

“Jee-zus Katy Kee-rist on a crutch,” she swore, “how in the hell am I supposed to hold a conversation when people keep disappearing!

“You could write a book,” Sarah sneered.

If Willamina could have reached her, she would have backhanded her.

Hard.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sarah took a step forward. “I have to go too,” she said. “It will be … interesting … to watch your presentation.”

The Old Sheriff moved in behind Sarah, grasped her shoulders and squeezed gently as Sarah leaned back into him, her gloved hands coming up to rest on his.

Sheriff Willamina was suddenly alone in the barn.

She turned, then walked over to her red Cannonball mare.

“At least you’re still here,” she whispered.

 

“HELP ME, WILL”

 

Willamina stood before the auditorium full of lawmen, investigators, agents, reporters, and a surprising percentage of the Firelands community.

She stood beside the podium, looking professional and confident in her trademark tailored suit blue suit dress and heels.

Nearly every man there studied her, and not just because she was a good looking woman: every man there knew she carried at least one sidearm, and not a one of them could determine the telltale contour of her clothing that betrayed the presence of any sidearm, which is precisely why she had her suits tailored.

Willamina reached for the podium, picked up a small, turned-cherry gavel, smacked it briskly, once.

Every man’s faced turned toward her and every voice stilled.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “and ladies” – she winked at her engineer and added, "You, too, Bill," and the man worried his hickory-stripe cap between hard and callused hands, blushing to a furious degree – “you are here to see what happened a century ago, when the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado, kept the peace as best he could.

“Let me set the stage for you, and this information is based on the forensic study of a gambling car we pulled out of a mineshaft not a mile from where I stand. Many of you assisted in the investigation, in one fashion or another, so before we begin, I thank all of you for your invaluable help.

“We have members of the Cripple Creek Mining Consortium, and of the University archaeology department present, and they of the University’s several departments were kind enough to assist us in our presentation. We will be using holographic representations, and these will be rather lifelike. I will warn you ahead of time” – she smiled, spreading her hands palms-down -- “the realism is surprising. Do not be surprised if you jump, there will be sudden and violent action and gunfire, so please do not put any holes in the wall. It’s that good.

“My twin brother William did a very foolish thing,” she smiled. “When I said, ‘Help me, Will,’ he said, ‘Sure, Little Sis, whattaya got in mind?’ – and of course we got into an argument over whether he was my Little Brother or I was his Little Sis.” She laughed a little and flipped her hair with a casual backhand. “Of course I won.”

There was general laughter, and Chief Taylor patted Will’s shoulder sympathetically; he knew what it was to grow up in a household of girls.

“Will agreed to portray our great-great-grandfather, Sheriff Linn Keller. Our Great-Great-Granddad was the second Sheriff of Firelands County. Tom Landers was first Sheriff, and his great-great-grandson is principal of our local high school, and is with us today.” She nodded to the Principal, who waved back, smiling.

Willamina began to pace, and a mist machine began filling the stage behind her with a barely-visible, smokelike haze of water-mist, necessary for the holographic projections to be seen.

“Gentlemen, you are riding in the gambling car on the Z&W Railroad.

“You have the perspective of nine hired murderers, nine whose reputations were long made as bad men.” She smiled, turned, flaring her knee-length skirt a little as she did. “A bad man in the West could be what we would call a very good man, or could be the worst of the worst. A bad man was a bad man to tangle with, wherever he stood in respect to the law.

“Nine made men, nine men who’d long made their bones, nine hired killers with one common mission, and that was to kill that long, tall, pale-eyed drink of water that packed a six pointed star over in Firelands.”

Hidden speakers began to rumble; the mist had filled not just the stage, but most of the auditorium, and there was a murmur as men looked around, seeing scenery passing the square, velvet-curtained windows of the gambling-car: green-felt-covered tables appeared, ghostly at first, then appearing more solid, and citizen and lawman alike laughed a little at this surprising manifestation of another reality.

“The train was drawn by the locomotive that sits in our roundhouse even now. The Lady Esther is a single-stage Baldwin – we would call her a low-pressure engine, because the next generation of engines were compounds, using true high-pressure steam, and had multiple driving pistons on each side“ – behind her, an engine, running on level ground, appearing – and sounding – absolutely solid, absolutely real. “The high-pressure compounds had small-diameter pistons for high-pressure steam, and their exhaust then powered the larger-diameter, lower-pressure pistons, generally just under them.”

The hologram morphed into a WWII-era Baldwin compound, thrusting powerfully against steel rails, its heavy chant somehow more savage than the delicate, almost animal breathing of the earlier diamond-stacker.

The scene melted and shifted again, and now The Lady Esther was coming straight toward the audience, fire visible under her belly and glowing coals caught in the basket atop her diamond stack: her chant was more powerful now, steam cracking from her stack as she hauled the train up a grade, shouldering against gravity’s inexorable pull. The train rounded a curve, drew past them, between Willamina and the first row of seated lawmen.

“Because she was pulling a grade, she was pulling hard and slowing down.”

A horseman astride a gleaming, copper mare galloped through the assembled, hooves hushed as she ran beside the railroad ballast: men flinched from the running horse as she passed between them, catching easily with the slow-moving railcar.

The black-coated lawman vaulted from the saddle, landing easily, rifle in one hand, crouching for a moment before he ran directly for the retreating railcar.

“Now remember,” Willamina said, “you are gambling, you are laughing, you are ogling a solitary dancing-girl who came along for eye candy, and as a reward after the black deed is done.”

A slender woman in a dancing girl’s brief skirts swirled, showing a brief flash of red-silk foundation: a woman’s laughter floated, silvery and light, above the rattle of pasteboards: hands appeared over the green-felt tables, dealing cards, caressing stacks of chips, tapping ash from cigars into heavy glass ashtrays, or onto the floor.

“And while you are relaxing, while you are drinking, while you are grabbing a quick feel,” Willamina continued, “the man you are sent to kill is coming to kill you.”

Will Keller, twin brother to the Sheriff and patrolman with the Firelands police department, knew what was coming.

It would be his pale eyes they would see in the hologram, it would be his boot that kicked the door open, his hands gripping the engraved Model of 1873 rifle –

The Old Sheriff occupied a seat, just one more face in the audience, and the Old Sheriff watched, remembering, nodding a little at the accuracy of the presentation.

He watched as a pale-eyed lawman with a dark mustache kicked the door and began firing as soon as the door slammed open.

He remembered the moment.

He felt the impact of his own boot with the door, he remembered how the wood splintered and he remembered one long triangular splinter that spun slowly, slowly, as he raised the rifle and pointed its barrel like he would point his finger and he drove a solid gold bullet through the first man’s face, his fingers rigid as he snapped the lever down and back and drove the second round after the first, catching the man directly behind; he moved, shooting, pale eyes hard, lips drawn back from even white teeth, his skin was taut across his cheekbones and he was pale as he swung the rifle’s barrel in short precise arcs.

Death itself swarmed through the gambling car, harvesting souls with a scythe made of solid gold.

Something punched the Sheriff hard in the upper right chest.

He didn’t care.

The rifle was empty, he lay it down on a table and drew his Colts and began shooting the dead men, starting with the one that shot him.

The assassin fired his hideout .32 again, but too late: the .44 caliber return freight drove through the bridge of his nose, carrying most of his brains out the back of his skull.

The Sheriff strode through the car, shooting each man again in the head or the face, depending in whether he was seated or laying down: he looked around, eyes winter-pale, eyes as hard and as unforgiving as a glacier’s heart.

Sarah lay a hand on her father's forearm and she felt his muscles taut, rigid, and she knew he was remembering everything ... everything, and perhaps remembering a little too well.

One hardened Colorado State Trooper came half-out of his chair when the Sheriff’s image kicked the door, and begin firing.

The University’s sound department’s speakers made the floor shiver underfoot: the trooper relaxed, embarrassed, and looked around, somewhat relieved that he wasn’t the only one to automatically grip for his own sidearm.

Will’s holographic image looked over the rifle’s barrel with eyes as hard as mountain ice; the .44-40 spat loudly, empty cartridge brass cartwheeling above the rifle’s receiver as he cranked the lever, moving, shooting, never stopping: he flinched, swung the rifle again, fired a final shot and laid the rifle down on a green-felt-topped table.

Will drew the engraved Colt revolvers with the Arc-and-Compasses scrimshawed into its ivory grips and began again, shooting dead men, whether they were breathing or not, putting an insurance shot through faces and heads, and he stopped at the back of the car and calmly, methodically, reloaded the Colt revolvers.

He picked up a glass of bourbon, downed it; his Adam’s apple bobbed as he drank, and the sound of the glass slamming hard onto the tabletop was loud in the sudden echoing silence.

Gunsmoke swirled with tobacco smoke in the car and Will turned to the shrinking dancing-girl regarding him with big and frightened eyes.

He reached out and took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed her knuckles in a surprisingly courtly gesture: wordlessly, he strode the length of the death car again, boot heels echoing on the polished, fitted floor boards: he picked up his rifle, thrust the magazine full, cranked a round into the chamber and eased the hammer back to half-cock.

He shrugged out of coat and vest, then he turned, and there was a collective intake of breath as they saw his white linen shirt front was soaking wet and bright red with blood.

He stepped out on the platform. “Jacob!” Will called, and a voice answered.

“Jacob, when I get on top, cut me loose and let ‘er coast, then take Cannonball down to the switch. We’ll coast into the mine shaft and then blow it shut!”

“Yes sir!” a voice called, and Will’s holographic image labored up the gleaming-black, cast-iron rungs bolted to the red-painted side of the gambling car, pulled himself onto the roof, stood on the narrow walkway the brakemen navigated like sailors on a storm-tossed ship’s deck.

A voice began speaking, a younger man’s voice now, a voice-over narrating as the iron-mustached warrior navigated to the top of the death car.

“My name is Jacob Keller and the Sheriff is my father.

“Sarah and I cut the car loose and the last she saw her father was with him standing like a bloody warrior-god, riding that hell-bound car as it coasted downhill into the mine shaft.

“We rode the train on into Firelands and brought back the inspection car and blasting powder.”

The assembled watched, apparently from the point of view of the retreating train, as the smoke-filled gambling car coasted downhill, the bloody-shirted Sheriff standing on its roof, riding the abandoned car as it rolled to its resting place.

“We pushed the car into the mineshaft and set charges and then we sealed it shut. We blew the drift and buried the dead and may they rot in hell!

The quiet fellow sitting beside the jumpy Colorado State Trooper nodded slowly, nodded with understanding.

“That’s just how it was,” he whispered. “That is exactly how I did it!”

The trooper had been sitting beside the man since the lights dimmed; the old gent with the iron grey mustache hadn’t moved, hadn’t spoken, not until now, and the Trooper’s neck hairs stood straight up to hear it.

He turned to look at the man and a cold hand claimed his heart.

The man’s chair was empty, and when the trooper slapped his palm on the seat to check it for warmth, it was cold.

 

“Lights!” Willamina called, and the lights came up; fans hummed into life, clearing the mist, and Willamina looked around, hands on her beltline.

“That is how it was handled, my friends,” the Sheriff said, her quiet voice perfectly modulated for the lapel mike she wore. “The Old Sheriff was prior military. He was Horse Cavalry during the War of Northern Aggression, he carried a Colonel’s brevet, and he knew the value of an ambush. He found these nine were coming for him and he took care of the problem – personally and very effectively.

“Most of us here are prior military. We know what it is to fight for our very lives. He did, and he won, because he took the fight to the enemy and he had absolutely no mercy for those who sought his destruction.

“I offer this re-enactment, this forensic re-creation, without comment – save only that in his position I might do the very same thing.”

A hand went up. “Sheriff?”

“Chief Taylor.”

“Sheriff, are there copies of this available?”

The Sheriff’s smile was dazzling.

“I think about everyone here had something to do that helped our investigation. We have copies of this presentation on CD. I regret it is not formatted for holographic presentation, but it should play well on your laptop. I recommend a big-screen TV and a good set of speakers. But yes, and we have a copy for everyone here.”

Another of the Firelands police officers raised a hand. “Hey, who was that dancing girl?” he called.

“Will, you want to answer that?” the Sheriff said, gesturing with a bladed hand toward her twin brother.

Will stood, tucked his uniform cap under his arm, turned with a grin.

“Fellas,” he said, raising his voice as he had not the advantage of a lapel mike, “that was my beautiful bride Crystal. There’s no way in hell I could get away with kissing a dancing girl, even if it was for a re-enactment!”

He laughed with his fellows as he turned and sat.

He looked off to his left, thinking that something was missing.

Not something, he thought.

Someone.

I thought I saw someone sitting beside that trooper.

He frowned a little, blinked, shook his head.

Nah, he thought. Must not have been.

 

Agent S. L. McKenna watched from a corner of the auditorium, arms crossed, hat brim low enough to shade her pale eyes.

She wore the high black cavalry boots she preferred, the black britches, black vest and long black coat, and under the coat she carried a variety of tools useful to her trade.

I wondered how that all happened, she thought, a faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, her eyes narrowing with approval. I wonder how they made it look so real!

“Daddy, I am so proud of you!” she whispered.

Beside her, a lean lawman with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache closed his hand gently in hers.

They stood for a moment.

“I reckon we’ll go,” the Old Sheriff murmured.

“Work to do,” Sarah agreed.

Sarah squeezed her father’s hand, and they were gone.

 

THE SILVER THREAD

 

Willamina sat on the mounting block in front of their house.

It had been too long since she’d set out here, in front of her house, but it had taken some time for her rib to heal enough to let her run again.

She’d done calisthenics, as well as she’d been able, she’d gripped two cast-iron octagonal dumbbells and used them for handles as she did her usual number of push-ups.

She was pale, sweating, shaking and in pain when she was done, but by God! she’d done them! – and now she sat, aching, parked on the cut and dressed stone used by her Great-Great-Grandmother Esther … and her ancestress Sarah, and probably the Old Sheriff’s daughters, to more easily mount a horse or climb into a buggy or a carriage.

Willamina placed the butt of her rifle on the ground and leaned on it a little, closed her eyes and took a long, steadying breath.

A warm, sympathetic hand settled on her back, rubbed it a little.

“I know it hurts,” a woman’s voice said, and Willamina nodded a little in reply.

“You’re so very much like him,” the voice said quietly, soothingly – a mother’s voice, perhaps a grandmother’s.

Willamina opened her eyes, turned her head, smiled a little.

“Hello,” she said as she looked into a pair of startling-green eyes, framed by curly red hair and an absolutely flawless complexion.

“You should really do something about your wardrobe, you know,” Esther Keller smiled, and the gentleness of her expression took any sting out of her words.

“I know,” Willamina sighed. “Desert tan doesn’t do a thing for my complexion.”

Esther tilted her head a little, studying her great-great-granddaughter.

“You look like him, you know,” she murmured.

“You look better than your portrait.”

Esther laughed gently – gentleness must be her characteristic, Willamina thought, or maybe that’s a Southern lady’s upbringing?

“There are some things you should know,” Esther said, folding her hands primly in her lap and looking out across the meadow. “Sarah didn’t think she was the best one to explain them.”

“I’m listening.”

“My husband … your great-great-grandfather, Linn – was … a mistake.”

“I … what?

“He was supposed to be the seventh firstborn female in seven consecutive generations. He would have been a Woman of Power, and …”

“And?” Willamina prompted.

Esther blinked, looked sadly into the distance.

“It must not have been the right time for a Woman of Power. His mother miscarried very early in her pregnancy. The spirit went into the next child she carried, and that was my husband.” She blinked, looked at Willamina.

“He could stop blood with the Word, and he could blow fire. Do you know what those are?”

Willamina nodded. “I read … he wrote of it in his Journal.”

She smiled. “Of course. I had forgotten, I’m sorry. Of course he did.”

“He wrote of taking Duzy’s hand … he placed a knife in her hand and then pressed hand and knife against Jacob’s bullet wound, and spoke the Words to stop the bleeding.”

Esther nodded, her eyes haunted, and Sheriff Willamina knew the Old Sheriff’s wife was remembering the night the raiders were themselves attacked, how they were trapped there in town, and how Jacob accounted for several from the little whitewashed church’s bell tower until he himself was hit.

“He saw Duzy’s potential,” Esther whispered, tears glittering brightly against her dark lashes, and Willamina wondered Do ghosts cry? – shoving the thought viciously from her as Esther withdrew a lace-edged kerchief from her sleeve and pressed it against one closed eye, then the other.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice husky, “I’m just a sentimental old woman.”

Willamina gripped Esther’s hand, gently, carefully, drew her hand down, looked her steadily in the eye.

“I think you are a wonderful and sensitive soul,” she whispered urgently, and Esther’s eyes overflowed, cascading liquid crystal down her cheeks.

“Linn used to say that to me,” she whispered.

“Well, he should!” Willamina declared. “He should tell you –“

Esther pressed a delicate, gloved finger against Willamina’s lips.

“Does your husband say those things to you?” she asked, and Willamina smiled a little and nodded.

“Good.” Esther smiled, this time as if she was sharing a secret. “You deserve it, you know!”

“There’s something you came to tell me,” Willamina prompted.

“Yes, I did,” Esther agreed, clearing her throat and dabbing at her eyes again. “My dear, you are not a link in a chain, so forget any such thing you may have heard. We women are not a chain, we are a thread, and as you come through your father – I’m sorry, my husband – you are a silver thread that spirals through time.”

“Spirals?” Willamina asked, turning her head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear.

“Your … Linn … was not the only one of his line. Through time, branches have converged, strengthening our blood, relatives converged when it was necessary to strengthen our line.

Esther paused, considering. “The silver thread disappears into the far past. You saw two moments, in ancient Greece and again when our country was very young.”

Willamina nodded.

“We are more ancient than the Grecian temple you saw, and our lines runs into the future as well. I believe you met a descendant.”

“Sheriff Marnie Keller,” Willamina breathed.

“The same,” Esther confirmed. “She faces a difficult time.” Esther looked hard at Willamina. “You must help her, you know. Our line cannot end with her.”

Willamina gripped her rifle, making a fast mental inventory of what she wore. “I’m ready right now,” she said. “Send me!”

“It’s not that simple, my dear,” Esther said apologetically. “What you send her must be … as we have always done.”

Willamina dismissed her lingering pain, the ache that throbbed through her chest: it was gone, and in its place was the smoldering anger that fired her life too many times.

“Send me,” she hissed, her eyes pale. “My Great-Great-Grandfather came forward and saved my sorry butt when I was about to be killed, why can’t I go forward and help her!”

“You haven’t fought your own battle yet,” a familiar voice said.

Willamina turned her head, glared at her Great-Great-Grandfather. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she swore, “how many battles do I have to fight? Do you even keep track of what-all I’ve done in this lifetime?”

“No,” the Old Sheriff admitted.

“Let me enlighten you,” Willamina hissed, rising slowly to her feet, bringing her shorty AR into a two-hand grip, her eyes as hard and cold as the wintry heart of a high mountain glacier. “When I was fourteen I shot a man with my Daddy’s revolver. I survived the monsters that raped me and threw me in a quarry to drown and I tracked down the last survivor so I could cut his black heart out and show it to him as he lay dying!” Willamina’s voice rose to an angry shout and her eyes blazed with a cold fire and she stepped to within inches of the Old Sheriff.

“I have killed men who needed killed and I have kept the peace and I have paid my dues! I watched insurgents take a schoolgirl’s hand and cut her fingers off with one cleave of a hatchet just because she was going to school and I killed him with a knife, AND I LIKED IT!”

The Old Sheriff nodded. “I know you liked it,” he said with a surprising gentleness. "You have been tried as metal in the forge but you must be tried again, and soon.”

Willamina closed her eyes and took a long breath, calming herself.

"Sheriff," she said, her voice steady, "is this all there is? I am born, I fight, I die, I'm born again and do it all over again?"

Sheriff Linn Keller blinked, surprised, then placed gentle fingertips under his Great-Great-Granddaughter's chin.

She glared at her ancestor and his eyes darkened a little, and wrinkled at the corners, and then she saw his teeth.

Linn chuckled, then he laughed, and he wrapped his arms carefully around his little girl -- carefully, for he knew her rib was still healing.

He kissed the top of her head, then leaned back a little and rested his hands on her shoulders.

"No, dear heart," he whispered. "No, those you saw are not you."

Willamina raised a hand, palm out, flat towards him. "Now hold it," she said, her voice hard. "Every one of them looks exactly like me. Exactly like me! We could be identical twins to look at us!"

"I should have explained that," the Old Sheriff murmured, frowning a little. "Y'see, Sarah --"

"My dear," Esther said softly, "perhaps if I explained it?"

The Old Sheriff nodded gratefully to his wife, and Willamina turned, slinging her carbine muzzle-down from her off shoulder, as she preferred.

Esther frowned a little as she ordered her thoughts, then plunged ahead as best she could.

"My dear," she said, "you are not Sarah, and you are not a maiden from ancient Greece, you are not from the far future. You are from here, and from now. The others you saw -- your other selves -- are not you."

Willamina gave her ancestress her undivided.

"You exist here as a creature of both flesh and spirit. We are here solely as creatures of spirit. You saw our portraits in the Silver Jewel and you have a good idea how we must have looked."

Willamina nodded cautiously, suspiciously.

"Sarah did indeed look almost exactly like you. That was an accident. Your other selves ..."

Esther frowned a little, considering.

"You didn't know what they looked like, but you knew their souls, and you saw them as ... yourself."

"So it's not me being born over and over and over again."

"No, my dear."

"That's why each of us has to fight our own battle."

"While we are each in our own physical world, yes."

Willamina's hands closed into fists -- tight, tight, as her anger surged through her.

"Then how can I help Sheriff Marnie Keller?"

"The same way I helped you," the Old Sheriff said, his hands gripping her shoulders firmly now: "the very same way I helped you."

Willamina felt his hands release and she turned.

Gone ...

 

Later that night, Willamina sipped a steaming mug of Earl Grey tea, adjusted her Great-Great-Grandfather’s Aladdin lamp on top of herGreat-Great-Grandfather’s roll top desk, and dipped her Great-Great-Grandfather’s steel nib pen in a fresh bottle of India ink.

I address myself to a descendant yet unborn, she began, in hopes that you will come to know me better, and how I became who I am.

We are part of a silver thread, you and I, and the thread runs far into the past and far into both our futures. It is carried in our blood and in our souls and in our will, and it makes us who we will become.

Here is how I became me.

She laid a hand on her belly and felt a little tick of fear.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, veteran Marine and survivor of desperate combat and personal attack, a blooded warrior who took lives and made no apology for it, knew well how to be hard and how to be merciless and how to survive when every man’s hand was against her. She could dance with a sword in each hand and weave a web of shining steel about her, creating grace and beauty in time to hard-driving Circassican rhythms, and she could take a good rifle and put a bullet into a man target at a thousand yards, ten times out of ten: she could take a brace of Colt revolvers well older than she and use either of them to split a playing card edgewise at twenty feet, and had, many times.

Sheriff Willamina Keller knew how to be a Marine and how to be the Sheriff.

She looked on top of the roll top desk and saw a rose, a fresh-cut rose, fragrant and sparkling as if cut in morning’s dew.

“Richard,” she called, “could you come in here, please?”

I’ll have to retire now, she thought.

Barrents … Barrents will be my choice for replacement. He can finish my term of office, and I’ll help campaign for his re-election.

She took the gleaming-wet pen and wrote in a careful, precise hand, re-dipping the pen after every few letters, forming and ordering her thoughts before investing them to paper in shining curves and lines.

I write this with the knowledge that I must now add to the silver thread.

A fresh rose sits on the desk at eye level.

Through some local custom, new mothers are given their new status by the mysterious appearance of a fresh-cut rose, and now mine has arrived.

You, my descendant, will be blood of my blood, a kindred soul, and part of our eternity-long silver thread, a thread with many facets, and in each facet, a story.

Here is mine.

Willamina leaned back, rubbed her eyes.

I know how to be a soldier, she thought.

I know how to be a Marine.

I know how to lead men and I know how to be the Sheriff.

Now I will learn how to be a mother.

She smiled grimly and picked up her pen again.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I will have the only little girl in three states who can handle a sword, a knife and a carbine before she reaches her sixth birthday. She will know how to set charges and kill a man with piano wire before she is ten, and she will –

My God!

What am I thinking?

She laid a hand on her belly, shivered a little.

I’ll write a second book.

She smiled again, thinking of a tall, lean man with eyes like hers, with an iron-grey mustache and a voice that rumbled like great stones rumbling together at the bottom of a deep, empty well.

The Life and Times of Old Pale Eyes.

No.

How about The Sheriff’s Ghost?

“Dearest?” Richard asked, his hands firm and warm as he squeezed her shoulders. It was a signal they had: he would put his hands on her shoulders and squeeze, very gently, and it was his way of saying in a public place, I love you and I find you desirable!

“Richard,” she said, “do you remember when we were talking about starting a family?”

 

THE SHERIFF’S BOOK

Sheriff Marnie Keller leaned back in her alloy-framed chair and closed her eyes.

She’d just sent her report for the latest killing, the latest attempt on her life.

It was an ambush like most had been; this was a little more sophisticated – the attacker used an explosive charge on a hand-thrown lance – an explosive used for punching holes in Martian granite, shaped into a cone the size of a shot glass.

As a matter of fact, she thought, they probably used a shot glass to shape it.

Shot glass.

She snorted.

One unit of measure, unchanged since before the days of the American West.

My Greats would love that one!

She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, let her thoughts rewind …

The impulse pistol had been a comforting weight as she catfooted around the rock.

Her mouth was open, her breathing silent, though her atmosphere suit and helmet would have prevented any noise; her personal transponder was off – too many times, she knew, the wrong people had portable trackers, and she didn’t want to warn the murderer she was nearby.

She needn’t have worried.

The murderer had played cat-and-mouse with her before, and she with him, and finally it was the two of them, and she’d been careless, and she was trapped.

Her deputy was murdered, a good lawman killed when the explosive lance drove him between the shoulder blades, punching a burning hole the size of a man’s fist through his spine and his chest and out his breastbone.

The man-down alarm automatically activated, and a tenth of a second later, the sudden-death alarm, which activated both the medical team, and her office.

She arrived half a minute before the medical skimmer, just in time to take another lance, this one through her sled's canopy: she automatically ran helmeted, and a good thing.

She’d felt her suit inflate suddenly as her sled's atmosphere screamed out the fist-sized hole.

She kicked the mag-lev cruiser-sled into a fast, tightly-banked turn around the rock when the second explosive charge hit her and the sled dropped, skidded a moment until red sand built up like a wave against the white-enamel sidewall and it rolled.

The Sheriff crossed her arms across her chest, ducked her head: usually the canopy would blow off, and then the ejection seat, but this time the sled landed flat, stopped.

She looked down at the control panel and swore.

Dead!

She looked up, eyes pale and hard as the frozen heart of the Martian icecap, looked up to see movement, to see a man in a grey miner’s suit running awkwardly toward the twisted face of a Martian cliff.

The Sheriff grabbed the canopy-eject lever, pulled viciously, felt the concussion as the charges detonated, one-two-three-four, and curved, polished clearplex sailed high and to the side.

She hit the belt release and leaped from the dead mag-lev, landing flat-footed, looking around, teeth bared: she felt the skin tighten across her cheekbones and she knew she was pale, deathly pale, and that suited her.

Her force-pistol was in her hand and she raised it, the holo-sight square and the red pipper dead on the running man.

You flot, she thought, you killed Malachai and you tried to kill me.

Now it’s my turn!

Unlike her suit, her gloves were like second skins; she could feel the firing switch under her finger, she willed the shot –

The force-bolt curled high and to the right, describing a clearly curvilinear line, following an invisible line of force from deep within the planet.

The one place on the whole flotting planet with enough magnetic field to skew my shot!

She knew her pulse-pistol would be useless except at belt buckle to belt buckle range.

She didn’t care.

I’ll get you, she thought, and I’ll varkle when I do!

She ran easily, lightly, and unlike the miner, she was unimpeded by her suit: she’d bought it herself, preferring the custom-made, tailored skinsuit, the suit designed for hand-to-hand combat and for Olympic sport racing, to the less efficient, thicker, heavier, issue suit.

She skidded to a stop, controlling her breathing by sheer will, listening to the light hiss as her suit released oxygen to supplement the scrubbers contoured below her shoulder blades.

He could be just around this rock, she thought, and for a moment she envisioned the grey-suited miner with the mirrored visor waiting with a lance in both hands, ready for a close-range thrust.

Lances come in one, two and three meter lengths, she thought.

The one that killed Malachai was a two-meter.

Creature of habit.

She took a breath, drew back a step, backed another, turned --

She was face-to-face with the miner, the murderer, the cop-killer, holding the lance over his shoulder for an overhand throw.

She saw his arm back and ready and she saw the explosive lance start to descend as he began his throw and she saw her deputy’s star, hacked from Malachai’s suit and now bonded onto the miner’s suit, a trophy --

A movement on her right –

And I’m dead and hallucinating both, the Sheriff thought, as a pale-eyed woman in an emerald-green riding dress, a woman with pale eyes, cold eyes, a woman with a double-barrel shotgun, drove two charges of heavy shot into the miner.

Marnie saw the miner’s suit cave in under the twin shot-swarms and saw him fall back, the lance falling harmlessly from his hand, and she saw the billowing volumes of smoke expand and disappear almost instantly in the thin, thin atmosphere, and the woman broke open the double gun and extracted the empties, let them fall.

She looked at Marnie and smiled, and Marnie could see the star on the woman’s lapel, a dull-silver, six-pointed star, with the single, hand-chased word engraved across its equator –

SHERIFF

“No one kills my little girl!” the woman shouted, her voice loud and angry as she dunked two fresh rounds into her shotgun, and then she was gone.

Marnie blinked, returned to the here-and-now.

She was seated at her workstation again, seated in her alloy chair with the diplomatic case open in front of her, with the souvenirs she picked up at the scene sealed in evidence bags.

She looked at the two shotgun shells, sealed in the stasis-envelope, she pressed a key on her pad and scrolled through the photographs, the photos of the woman’s footprints in the fine, red Martian sand … clearly defined, with the sun’s low angle … slender, dainty, an old-Earth boot, not the broad, bear-paw print of an atmosphere suit.

The woman and the shotgun, fired hulls and her footprints, did not appear in Marnie’s report.

The package she just opened, though, explained it in full.

It was a diplomatic pouch, delivered that morning, containing three books and a silver, six-point star with the single word SHERIFF hand-chased across its equator.

It contained a very old but very well kept Smith & Wesson revolver, a box of shells, and a smaller box containing six loaded rounds, six rounds with gold bullets.

There was a coin with a hand-engraved rose on one side, and a Seal of Solomon with superimposed Christian cross on the other.

Marnie opened the first book and read the flyleaf, then she smiled and looked at the photograph and read it again.

She smiled a little as the image of a pale-eyed woman standing beside a red mare, a woman wearing an emerald-green riding dress and carrying a double-barrel shotgun, looked at her across a century of time and a million miles of space.

She read.

This book will sleep in a safety deposit box until you are ready for it.

It will be delivered to you, on my order: to my surviving descendant who is Sheriff, to be placed in your hands a century hence.

It is important that you know how I became who I am.

I cannot tell you how I know this, but by the time you read this, you will know how that came to be, and you will know why you must understand you ancestress with pale eyes and a mercurial temper.

My father was killed by a fleeing felon, run down in the middle of the street on a rainy night as Daddy put six rounds of .38 Special into the windshield. Three of them penetrated, and these three killed the man that killed my Daddy.

One year later, to the day, I used that same revolver to kill a man who wanted to kill me.

I was thirteen years old.

Three years later I was drugged, kidnapped, raped and made to watch my date scream to death as the kidnappers tortured him with a torch-heated serving fork and a knife.

They tried to drown me in a quarry, but I’d palmed a knife and cut myself free from the cast iron manhole cover they used as a weight.

I walked home naked that night, my hands still zip tied behind my back.

My mother tiried to take a razor strop to me because the police threatened to take me from her.

I took the strop from my mother and I beat her with it until she could not move, then I shoved a bottle in her hands and told her to crawl inside it and never come out.

Mama was a drunk, damn her, and I took enough money from her account to make my way to Uncle Pete and Aunt Martha’s in Colorado, near a little town called Firelands.

They took me in like I was their own daughter.

I healed there and finished school, I joined the Marines and then I went to war.

Marnie looked up, looked at the opposite wall; she switched screens on her pad, scrolled slowly through this diplomatic case's travels, then the book's, before it became Starflight cargo.

The book was written, stored under orders in a safety deposit box, with two other books, two Journals: transferred to a second bank, then a third, as mergers occurred, as banks were sold and re-sold; the book was moved and its orders of disposition with it, until at last it was delivered at great cost into the hands of a woman with pale eyes, a woman who wore a white atmosphere suit, a streamlined impulse gun on her hip and a six-pointed star embossed below the collarbone seam of her white suit, a dull-silver, six-pointed star that said SHERIFF across its front.

The woman regarded the book with ice-pale eyes and smiled a little as she read the flyleaf, the hand-written flyleaf, the words written with the enclosed dip quill pen by the light of an Aladdin lamp, written on the desk belonging to the pale-eyed author’s pale-eyed Great-Great-Grandfather.

Sheriff Marnie Keller of the Fifth Martian District traced her fingertips delicately down the page her ancestress had touched, and her lips framed the words entrusted to the page long before she herself was born.

Her voice was a whisper as she spoke the words aloud.

“This is how I became me.”

Her lips curled a little at the corners and her pale eyes darkened, became a slight, distinct blue as she riffled ahead in the book.

I should have died that night, she read.

I should have died.

I was out of ammo, I took an enemy rifle and shot it dry and found a magazine and ran it dry as well, then I drew my pistol and I went hunting.

I hunted men that night.

Any man would be an enemy, for I was separated from my unit, lost in an Afghan village, hunted and sought by those who hated me, hated my kind.

They came at me in three waves and I killed every last one of the towel headed terrs, and then a mortar went off and threw me into a shell crater.

I landed on my back.

It hurt too much to move, at least until that bearded enemy soldier in baggy pants stepped to the rim of the crater and grinned at me.

I raised my Beretta and put the front sight on his chin and pulled the trigger and nothing happened and I saw the slide was locked back and it was empty and I had nothing left so I did the only thing I could.

I drew my knife and invited him to come and get me.

I screamed as hard as I could, “COME AND GET IT, DAMN YOU!” and he leered at me and he started to raise his AK.

I saw his eyes change when the shot charge hit him and I saw him start to fold when the second one hit and someone just put two rounds of shotgun into his guts but it didn’t sound right and then this blue cloud of black-powder smoke rolled over me and I looked up and my Great-Great-Grandfather stood there.

The Old Sheriff himself, holding a double barrel shotgun, wearing his six point star and a Stetson and an irritated expression, and he opened the gun and dropped the empty hulls and dunked in two fresh rounds, then he closed the gun and looked at me and shouted, “NOBODY SHOOTS MY LITTLE GIRL!”

Then he disappeared and I lay there in the bottom of the shell crater wondering what in the hell just happened, and it hurt too much to move, and someone yelled “WE FOUND HER! COLONEL, HANG ON, WE’RE COMING!” and my men got me out of there.

Sheriff Marnie Keller – Sheriff of the Fifth Mars District, chief law enforcement officer of a frontier territory, saw with surprise her hands were shaking a little.

She re-read the pages, then read them a third time.

She looked at the images on her screen, the pictures of a woman’s boot prints, and she remembered hearing the heavy BOOOOOM, BOOOOOM, of something that shouldn’t be possible, something she should not have been able to hear, for the Martian atmosphere was too thin to carry sound –

My God, she thought, did I just see a …

Did I just

She looked up.

A pale-eyed woman wearing a tailored blue suit dress stood in front of her work station, a metallic-looking pistol under her left arm in a black-leather shoulder holster, another at her right hip – a woman with a dull-silver, six-pointed star on her lapel, a woman with ice-pale eyes and an amused smile just curling the corners of her mouth.

Sheriff Marnie Keller stood suddenly and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

 

“Don’t you ever knock?”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sarah Lynne McKenna is her father's daughter.

She has his pale eyes, she has his mercurial temper, she has his skill at dispensing mayhem on very short notice.

Maybe that's why this next tale is called ...

 

TROUBLEMAKER

Bonnie McKenna regarded her thirteen-year-old daughter with worried eyes.

Sarah had come into her life while Bonnie was enslaved in a whorehouse.

Bonnie and the working girls had little in their lives save hard use and misery, and little Sarah was the daughter of a regular (and regularly abusive) customer, who brought the little girl with him and threatened her with a belt if she made so much as one sound while was busy.

The working girls hated the customer, but they loved little Sarah, for she was a bright-eyed child on whom they could give their motherly attentions.

Sarah, in turn, was delighted to get motherly attention, as her father beat her birth-mother to death while Sarah watched, after which he turned his brutish attentions on the child.

Bonnie did not know the full extent of what he did to his little girl, a child of less than four years, she knew only that when he came in one afternoon,
Sarah was terribly injured: the town doctor was barely able to sew her up and keep her from bleeding to death, the child’s petticoats were stained crimson, and the doctor was white-faced and furious, and then a woman reporter from back East put a Derringer just under the murdering monster’s breast bone and sent him to hell on a hollow based, .41-caliber conical ball, pushed by just enough powder to punch a hole through his descending aorta.

For all the unmitigated horror Sarah survived, she’d turned out a sweet child, if strong-minded: little caused her fear, and Bonnie well remembered the morning she could not find Sarah – but the hired man’s frightened shout brought her outside, and Sarah, giggling, was dangling six feet above the hired man’s outstretched hands, hanging by her fingertips from her window sill.

Bonnie ran in the house and seized a quilt off the sofa, ran out and the two of them stretched it into an improvised life-net, drawn taut six seconds before Sarah’s grip failed her and she fell laughing – laughing! – onto the quilt’s safe embrace.

Bonnie swatted her bottom for it, too, and Sarah’s face reddened but she did not cry: she set her six-year-old jaw and glared, her eyes pale, hard and icy pale, and she said in precise words that should not have been framed by such a young throat, “Mother, I saw you catch me. I saw it last night and I knew it would be all right, and if you ever hit me again I will kill you like I am going to kill the murdering scoundrel who will come to kill us both.” Then she jerked from Bonnie’s astonished grip and stomped around the house, leaving Bonnie and the hired man to look at one another in slack-jawed astonishment.

Bonnie watched Sarah buckle the strap across her foot.

She was already wearing one shoe, a shining black pump with an instep strap and more heel than Bonnie thought proper for one of Sarah’s few years.

It was a subject they’d discussed, but discussed in a civilized and almost a detached manner, for Bonnie, after her liberation from the whorehouse by that pale-eyed Sheriff, had been staked to a new start: she began a business, she re-established something she knew and loved, and she was now proprietress, chief seamstress and sole owner of the House of McKenna Dress Works.

She was becoming a Lady again, and she conducted herself as such, especially when discussing womanly matters with her daughter.

The Sheriff also owned the railroad, and used his Freemason’s contacts with other railroads to establish a special delivery at regular intervals: the great fashion houses of Europe made exemplars of their latest styles, fashioned these very latest examples of haute couture into doll’s clothes, attired fine, French-china dolls in them, and sent them by clipper ship to the Atlantic and the Pacific seaports. While the clippers were fighting their way around Cape Horn, the American railroads were screaming across the Great American Desert which later became known as the Great Plains, and delivered these exemplars to Firelands, Colorado, and into the hands of Bonnie McKenna, where they were scaled up and sold, for women in the West wished to be properly, fashionably, and femininely attired.

Sarah, since age ten, had been Bonnie’s chief model, and as such, had worn the very latest Parisian fashions on stage in Denver, modeling for the buyers; she became expert at quick-change, and with cosmetics, a quick touch to her hair, at age ten she successfully passed for a young woman of marriageable age.

In the American West in the 1880s, this would be thirteen to fourteen.

We may be shocked by this today, for a girl in these modern times would be in – what? Junior high, or middle school as it’s sometimes called? Seventh or eighth grade? And yet in our pioneering past, marriage at eleven was not unknown, childbirth at twelve and thirteen, though not preferred, was not unknown either: children, as soon as they could walk, were expected to work: boys were apprenticed to their fathers, and daughters, to their mothers, all learning an adult’s responsibilities and expected to carry them out.

At eight a girl could fix a full course of a meal and prepare the table, at then she could fix a full meal and at twelve could handle all the feminine duties of the household – imagine a girl of twelve years today, handling all the sewing, repairing, all the patching of skinned knees, all the dish washing, cooking, cleanup – and cooking meant killing, dressing, plucking and preparing the chicken, it meant canning, it meant picking corn, shucking corn, it meant planting, hoeing, picking, snapping the beans – all of this was expected of a girl by her eleventh or twelfth birthday, and by virtue of these skills, she was marriageable. A girl of fifteen who was unmarried was viewed askance, and if she were single yet at eighteen, she was deemed an Old Maid, unfit for a man’s company, and suitable only to teach other peoples’ children.

Bonnie watched her daughter buckle the strap on her other shoe, and she had to admit they looked very good on Sarah, in spite of the heel – and Bonnie sighed a little, for at her age she wore shoes just like that, and her mother encouraged it, for at thirteen Bonnie had multiple beaux, back on the plantation, fine young men of good families.

Sarah straightened, shook her skirts down and smiled at her mother.

“I am going to cause some trouble today,” she said cheerfully, as if telling her mother she was going to the library; she skipped across the room and took Bonnie’s hands, and Bonnie marveled yet again at how warm her daughter’s hands were.

Just like the Sheriff’s, she thought, and she thought of the Sheriff’s ice-pale eyes, and she wondered for a fleeting moment, the pushed it from her –

Could my Sarah be his daughter?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.