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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

The Sheriff's Grandson

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2. THE IRISH BRIGADE

Sean Finnegan laughed with delight as they unfolded the life-net.

It was Philadelphia made, as were their leather helmets, just uncrated and distributed: the Sheriff insisted they have the very latest equipment, whether boots or rubberized coats, wool uniform shirts, the newest Ahrens steam firefighting engine (their beloved “Steam Masheen”) – and their old one not a year old yet, not properly broken in! – yet on the Sheriff’s insistence, and he was the man with the money, a new one was freighted out, and their old one sold to another department, Sean thought to a group of San Francisco volunteers, who paid more for the used Masheen than the Sheriff gave for the very latest Cincinnati water-slinger.

The German Irishman, the American Irishman and the English Irishman stood equidistant from one another, with Sean as the fourth point of their compass. “Now,” Sean declared, “we need a volunteer to help us try this out!”

“Now who’s gon’ ta be fool enough t’ try that?” the German Irishman declared, sounding more Hibernian and less Teutonic than his name implied.

“Good morning, Chief!” Sarah called, waving as she drew her beloved Butter-mare to a stop: “what is thaaa … why that’s a life-net, isn’t it!”

Before Sean could make a reply, Sarah set the brake, dallied the reins around the brake-handle and jumped girlishly from the shining Rosenthal carriage.

“I read about these in the newspaper,” she chattered, running up to them and ducking under it, slapping its taut fabric surface from beneath with a flat hand: “It does seem firm enough!”

“Aye, lass, but we’ve yet t’ try it,” the German Irishman laughed.

Sarah slipped out from under it, straightened, laid a hand on the German Irishman’s forearm: “Why didn’t you say so!” she exclaimed, eyes big and innocent: “Where should I climb?”

“Lass, no, now, it wouldn’t –“ Sean said shaking his head, and Sarah turned, looked at their hose-drying tower, rising like a smooth-sided steeple from the side of the fine brick firehouse.

“There!” she exclaimed. “That’ll do! Two stories it is, there’s a window at the top and you can get in position below!”

“Now lass, don’t ye even –“ the New York Irishman shouted, and “Sarah, please, don’t do this –“ interrupted the German Irishman, and the Welsh Irishman, a fellow named Llewellyn, groaned, a despairing sound that managed to say without words more than his fellows with their staccato exclamations combined.

“Set up, lads,” Sean said, his voice calm, firm, the way it was when supervising at a fire scene. “I know the lass and she’ll come out o’ the window. Wi’ Rosenthal’s money we’d damn well better catch his darlin’ daughter!”

“It’s not Rosenthal I’m worried about,” the New York firefighter replied as they marched over to the bottom of the drying tower. “I recall th’ night her Mama stood in the Silver Jewel and shot that fellow who came in th’ back door after ‘em. If Sarah is hurt it’s me f’r the shining mountains an’ she’ll still catch up wi’ me!”

The four looked up at the window, two stories above: it was a double door, big enough to accommodate a grown man with arms spread wide.

The doors swung open and Sarah crouched, looking down, a smile on her face.

“You ready down there?” she called.

“Don’t jump out, lass,” Sean called, “just step away a wee bit an’ come straight down, like!”

As usual, Sarah did not listen.

She straightened, stood in the doorway, steadying herself with fingertips against the lintel overhead, then she leaned forward, executed a perfect, flawless somersault, streaking toward the ground at an unholy velocity – and landing flat on her back, feet straight in the air, and the Irish Brigade grunted in unison as Sarah landed squarely in the center of the red bulls-eye painted dead center of the white canvas life-net.

Sarah lay there for a breathless moment, giggling, looking up at the flawless blue sky with a single golden eagle carving curlicues out of the azure overhead, then she exclaimed, “That was fun! Let’s do it again!”

“NO!” the entire Irish Brigade roared, and Sarah grabbed the edge of the life-net neatly somersaulted off, landed on her feet, then released one hand and raised it overhead like a circus acrobat: she skipped over to Sean, raised up on tiptoes and kissed him lightly on the stubbled cheek, then gathered her skirts and ran laughing back to her carriage, where her old dapple Butter-mare drowsed in the traces.

“God help us,” the Welsh Irishman – a fellow named Llewellyn – muttered, shaking his head. “May my tribe be spared such as she!”

“They won’t lad,” Sean rumbled sadly. “Ha’e she no’ told you? She’s set t’ marry your brother.”

“Daffyd?” The Welsh Irishman turned to look at the lovely lass’s retreating backside as she drove up the main street of Firelands. “How’d she know I had … did she know?”

Sean shook his head. “I don’t know, lad,” he said his voice deep and quiet. “I don’t know about that, but yon lass” – he thrust a chin at the buggy, now well up the street – “yon lass is cousin to the Shee, an’ she wi’ the second sight, or so says my Daisy.”

The New York Irishman looked sharply at the fire chief. His own mother had the Second Sight, and if Daisy – who was pure Irish, with the green eyes, red hair and temper to match – said Sarah had the Sight, why, that meant she was likely a Woman of Power and not to be trifled with.

“Was I Catholic,” he admitted, “I’d be sayin’ of a rosary right about now.”

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3. TADPOLE

McAndrews was a coward and he hid it with bold talk and rank.

McAndrews had been a Naval officer in the War, or so he claimed; he claimed the title of Chief, though chief what he never said, and when he was addressed as Tadpole or as Minnow or as Tree Frog he nursed his grudges but never dared confront those who were bolder than he. He preferred to bully those who could be bullied and cower from those who bullied him.

Bonnie was in town to see Beatrice, the banker – nobody called her Mrs. Dean, they generally called her Bee, or Miz Beatrice, depending which orbit of her private circles they occupied – and Mr. Moulton, the attorney, but like anyone else on the street, she found herself watching Mr. McAndrews bullying one of the local boys.

He’d shouted the lad down the three steps leading up on to the boardwalk at the Silver Jewel’s ornate double doors; he’d descended the steps after the lad, finger thrusting menacingly with accusing words, and not until a sharp whistle and a cheerful “Yoo-hoo, Tadpole!” did he stop and look up, his face turning a shade of scarlet not far from a purple.

His ill-tempered diatribe stopped at the sight of a pair of white-stockinged legs flashing toward him, a set of legs set off by the direct sunlight on them, the absolute blackness of the shoes beneath, the speed with which they were scissoring toward him, and the fact that the young woman running toward him, across the street with her skirts snatched up, at a truly marvelous velocity, was honestly beautiful – well, McAndrews the bully, McAndrews the coward, McAndrews the loud, became none of those things, and became instead, McAndrews the Staring.

Sarah scampered across the street, leaped into the man’s absolutely astonished grasp: she seized him about the neck, he reflexively closed his arms around her and his eyes grew wide and surprised when she kissed him quickly on the cheek, reaching up and snatching off his Stetson.

“I dreamed this last night, you know,” she declared.

McAndrews bent a little and set her carefully on the ground.

“You … dreamed this?” he asked, blinking.

Sarah nodded, cupping his chin in her hand and tilting his head up just a little.

“Yes I did,” she assured him with a solemn nod.

“Did your … dream … tell you why a beautiful young woman would run across the street and kiss a stranger right in front of God and everybody?”

Sarah’s smile was bright and dazzling and she tilted her head a little as she looked deep into McAndrews’ eyes.

“It was important that I do this,” she said, “so the Sheriff could teach you some manners.”

Right about then the pale-eyed Sheriff of Firelands County, one Linn Keller, a long tall skinny fellow with an iron-grey mustache and eyes the color of a glacier’s heart, belted McAndrews over the head with a revolver taken from a would-be tough two nights before.

McAndrews sagged as two galaxies and a comet seared across his vision, followed closely by a bright, sizzling meteor shower.

He never felt his face hit the ground.

The Sheriff nodded once to Sarah, and Sarah lifted her skirts and dropped a flawless curtsy.

As the Sheriff turned to summon some help in moving the unconscious man from the street to the calabozo, Sarah tilted her head a little and said, “Sheriff, may I tell you something?”

“Sarah,” the Sheriff said gently, lowering his summoning arm, “you may tell me anything you wish.”

Sarah looked long at the lawman, considering, then she nodded as if coming to a conclusion.

“I wish you were my father,” she said, and there was absolute certainty in her voice.

The Sheriff was silent for a long moment and Sarah’s stomach shrank a little as she considered that perhaps she should not have been quite so frank in quite so sudden a manner.

“Sarah,” the Sheriff said slowly, “if you were my little girl, I would be pretty damned proud of you!”

Bonnie McKenna was not close enough to hear the words that were said, but she knew something important had just transpired between the pair.

I’ll find out later, she thought.

I’m a mother.

I find things out.

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4. DAISY

Mrs. Sean Finnegan, generally known simply as Daisy, was as much a walking contradiction as any woman; in her case, even moreso, for she was now a woman of means, she was a businesswoman and she could be independent if she wished, but she had no such desire: no, Daisy was fiercely proud to be the wife of the Firelands Fire Department’s red-headed chieftain, and she was even more fiercely proud of what she’d made herself – the wife and mother of a tribe of wild Irishmen, only part of whom were born of her womb.

Daisy was the only woman who’d worked in the Silver Jewel, back when it was a dirty saloon and whorehouse, who wasn’t one of the “Working Girls.”

Old Sam, who ran the place, tried to make her such, at least until she introduced his face to the bottom of a fast-moving frying pan, knocking him off his feet and laying him out cold on the sawdust-covered floor.

Daisy waited a few minutes before sloshing a bucket of cold, freshly-pumped well water over him and with the rope-handled bucket swinging from her left hand and the frying pan in her right, “Ye lay yer filthy hands on me once more an’ I’ll feed ‘em to ye wi’ fried onions, ye sot! I’ll cook for ye but I’ll no’ whore for ye!”

It took a second session, this one involving the pointed end of a rolling pin driven into his gut before she belted him across the back of the head with the smooth, rock-maple flattener, before he understood that when Daisy spoke, Daisy expected to be heard. From that day forth, Daisy ran the kitchen in the Silver Jewel and made a reputation, one meal at a time, for culinary excellence.

Sam began to realize there was money to be made with food: men would always need drink, and the saloon would always be there, but a restaurant – a place where people could get something besides beef and beans and maybe stale cornbread – why, when word got out that there was a woman baking fresh pies and making coffee that wouldn’t rot a man’s gut out from the inside, Sam began making a comfortable profit from the red-headed Irishwoman’s labors.

Daisy went upstairs and hauled girls down to help her, insisting they be clean and they dress respectably: she picked the youngest, at first, or those least able to physically handle the demands of rutting season. These became known as Daisy’s Girls, and when Sam tried to run them back upstairs to tend to horizontal refreshment, Daisy came swarming out of her kitchen with rolling pin in hand, Billingsgate on her tongue and fire in her eyes: it was a source of local entertainment when she ran the rogue around the dining room, screeching at him alternately in Gaelic and in language she’d learned on the Cincinnati waterfront, especially those phrases involving field-expedient surgical removal of the more valued parts of his anatomy, with the edge of a dull spoon, slowly.

The pale-eyed Sheriff took over from Tom Landers, but kept Tom on as peacekeeper in the Silver Jewel: the new Sheriff shut down the whorehouse, jailed Sam and the crooked banker who’d swindled Bonnie McKenna and her husband out of their ranch and all their earnings, and had her husband murdered, Bonnie drugged and shackled by one ankle to a crib upstairs, until her spirit was broken and she was just another whore, peering sadly through cracked and dirty windows at the clean, cold mountains in the distance.

When Old Pale Eyes took over, he walked slowly back to her kitchen -- Daisy knew his tread, the measured way he walked, and she knew when his footsteps stopped that he was at the doorway to her kitchen, her domain, her kingdom.

He didn’t come in.

Daisy was rolling out pie dough with sure, strong strokes of her rock maple rolling pin.

“I know ye’re there, Sheriff,” she said without looking: “ye’re the one man who’s ne’er tried t’ get int’ me skirt, nor ha’e ye tried t’ cadge a meal wi’out payin’.”

“May I come in?” he asked, and Daisy turned, and the Sheriff was standing just outside her doorway with his hat held in both hands.

“Now Saint Joseph behold this,” Daisy said softly. “Yon’s a gentleman.” She flipped up a hand. “C’mon in, then, an’ le’s hear it. Menfolk don’t come in unless they want somethin’.”

“I do want something,” the Sheriff said, his voice quiet, full, the voice of a man who knew his authority.

“I knew it,” Daisy said, her voice bitter, disappointment in his eyes.

The Sheriff unfolded a single sheet of paper and laid it on her table.

Daisy glared at the paper, glared at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff placed a small tin ink pot, not much bigger than a sewing thimble, beside the paper, and a steel nib pen.

“I would like your signature.”

“NOW SURE AN’ THAT FILTHY SAM TRIED T’ PUT HIS HANDS ALL O’ER ME AN’ HERE YE COME T’ THROW ME OUT ‘A’ ME OWN KITCHEN! I’LL NO’ STAND FOR IT, D’YE HEAR ME! I OWN THIS KITCHEN, IT IS MINE AND –“

The Sheriff held up a hand, his expression carefully neutral, and Daisy ground to a halt, crossing her arms and thrusting her jaw out defiantly.

“This is, indeed, your kitchen,” the Sheriff continued, his voice still quiet. “You have more than earned it and you have single handedly turned the Silver Jewel’s reputation from just a saloon and a dirty whorehouse into a place where there is actually good food to be had.”

Daisy waited, glaring, green eyes bright and snapping with anger.

“Daisy, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’ve shut down the whorehouse. The girls are getting other work. Bonnie McKenna started a business and she’s approached the ladies upstairs. Most of them can sew. She’s making –“

“I know what she’s making,” Daisy snapped, interrupting the man’s patient words. “She’s making dresses an’ she’s havin’ a foine brick building built an’ I know wha’ i’ costs t’ ha’e bricks freighted in, an’ ye’re footin’ th’ bill! What’s yer cut i’ all this? Wha’s yer percentage, ye thayvin’ scoundrel?”

“Why don’t you ask her,” the Sheriff said, stepping back and nodding to someone out in the hall. “Bonnie?”

Bonnie, Daisy thought. Not Mrs. Rosenthal.

She turned her head a little, eyes fixed on her friend and former co-worker from upstairs.

“Sheriff, could you excuse us?” Bonnie asked gently, and the Sheriff nodded.

Bonnie heard the measured tread of his boot heels as he retreated down the hall.

The Sheriff paced down the now-clean-scrubbed boards to the mahogany bar top, scarred and nicked from years of abuse.

I’ll have this replaced, he thought, unless the Daine boys think they can smooth it down.

The Sheriff smiled at the thought of those tall, skinny Kentucky mountaineers: they disdained the new generation of cartridge firing repeaters, favoring the long, octagon barrel flint rifles they’d used since God Almighty laid the foundations of the earth with Rocky Mountain granite. They were master carpenters, and when the Sheriff found they were also master moonshiners, he knew he’d met the right people to settle the high country.

He slouched against the bar, one boot up on the now-polished foot rail, easing the old ache in his back, and thanked the girl behind the bar as she placed the heavy ceramic mug in front of him. He knew the coffee was ground fresh that morning, he’d heard the hand cranked grinder at its labors, and knew the fragrance of a good brew would draw men, and if it drew them for coffee, they would smell breakfast frying, and men with hunger in their belly and coin in their pocket often were willing to empty the latter to fill the former.

The Sheriff owned the Silver Jewel now: he had plans for it, and his plans were profitable, but he believed in investing wisely, and he was making an investment, even as he sipped his coffee and waited.

Bonnie came down the hall, handed the Sheriff his paper back, and placed the little tin ink-pot and pen on the bar top.

The Sheriff unfolded the paper, looked at the signature, nodded.

“Thank you, Bonnie,” he whispered.

Bonnie laid a hand on his arm, looked him in the eye.

“Sheriff,” she said, “I don’t have you figured out.”

The Sheriff nodded, drained his coffee mug, placed it carefully, soundlessly over a knife-gouge.

He took Bonnie’s gloved hand, raised it to his lips, kissed her knuckles: picking his Stetson up from the bar, he stepped around her and paced back down the hallway.

Daisy was looking around, an eager expression on her face; she turned as the Sheriff knocked at the door frame, her expression turning to one of suspicion.

“Ye’ve deeded me th’ kitchen,” Daisy said, “an’ th’ restaurant business.”

“Yes.”

“It’s mine.”

“All yours.”

“An’ you get that small rent.”

“Yes.”

Daisy walked slowly over to him, never taking her eyes off him.

“An’ d’ ye expect me t’ be grateful?”

“I expect you to cry.”

Daisy’s eyes were hard. “I’ve no tears left, Sheriff. Ye’ll wait’ll hell freezes an’ th’ devil l’arns t’ figure skate b’fore y’ see me tears!”

“Sean Finnegan.”

The color drained out of Daisy’s face like red ink from an eyedropper.

“He’s alive.”

The Sheriff's voice was deep, resonant, powerful: with two quiet words he yanked the entire world out from under the Irishwoman's feet.

Daisy’s mouth dropped open and her hand went to her belly like she’d been gut-punched.

“You knew him back in Cincinnati.”

Daisy nodded, eyes wide, frightened; the Sheriff could see the whites completely surrounding her Irish-green irises.

“He was slugged on a riverboat and fell overboard. He’s hard headed, Daisy, and the blow didn’t kill him and he didn’t drown. He washed up down river but with no memory. It finally recovered, and so did he.”

Daisy was white to her lips, grasped the edge of the table to keep from collapsing. She felt the Sheriff’s hands, strong and firm under her arms, and then the world turned a sparkly white, and her head fell back, and the Sheriff stood there with the limp, unconscious woman in his arms, and the Sheriff looked around with a lost expression and said aloud, “Now what’ll I do with her?”

Daisy came to in a clean room with clean windows, with new wallpaper and fresh, sun-dried linens under her: she was still dressed, as far as she could tell she was not injured: the Sheriff sat patiently in a hard-backed chair to her left, cleaning his nails with a small, very sharp knife, and Bonnie sat beside her, stroking her curled red bangs back from her forehead.

“Sean?” Daisy squeaked.

Bonnie nodded, squeezing Daisy’s hand.

“I’m no’ gonna cry,” Daisy hissed through clenched teeth. “I want t’ see him! I’ve got t’ see th’ mon –“

“Daisy,” the Sheriff said, standing smoothly as a mountain cat rising from its rest, “I will bring him to you. I want you to rest for a minute more –“

“Rest?” Daisy laughed. “REST? Sheriff, are ye daft? We were t’ be married! I’ve got t’ see him – I want t’ lay hands on th’ Irish scoundrel an’ grip his arms again an’ make sure he’s no’ a ghost –“

The Sheriff nodded and opened the door.

Sean Finnegan, broad shouldered and red headed, holding a small bunch of fresh picked mountain flowers, stood in the doorway, looking for all the world like a bashful schoolboy.

“Daisymedear,” he breathed, and Daisy fairly levitated off the bed, soaring through the air with one rushing launch, and Sean staggered back a step as a red-headed missile drove into his chest and a pair of Irish arms wrapped around him and a little tiny Irish voice squeaked out a wordless sob and he dropped the flowers and wrapped his arms around his betrothed and held her as she pressed her face into his chest and let go of the grief she’d kept hidden behind a hard, barbed wall for two years and a day.

Neither Daisy nor Sean knew when the Sheriff and Bonnie slipped out of the room.

Neither Daisy nor Sean cared.

They were married not long after, united in holy wedlock in the little whitewashed church.

Parson Belden performed the service, Bonnie McKenna – now Bonnie Rosenthal – stood as her matron of honor, and Sarah beside her; Sean had the entire red-shirted, curl-mustached, broadly-grinning Irish Brigade at his side, and the packed church was hard pressed to say who was the more delighted, the broadly grinning, red-headed fire chief or every one of his broadly-grinning, delighted firefighters beside him.

The Sheriff sat in the pews with his own bride, holding Esther’s gloved hand in his own (the Sheriff, for all that he was a hard man and a feared lawman, was an incurable romantic, and held his wife’s hand in church), and though he did not smile, he had a look of quiet satisfaction on his face.

Not all investments are intended to put coin in a man’s pocket, he knew, and this investment he’d just made – bringing Daisy and Sean back together – well, he knew this was an investment whose dividends would not appear on a ledger-book, but rather in the improvement of their frontier town.

And he was right.

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5. YOU CAN’T SAVE ‘EM ALL

 

Dr. Greenlees opened the door to the waiting room.

The Sheriff and Sarah rose.

Dr. Greenlees shook his head, blinked a few times, his gaze falling to the floor: he had to look away, for Sarah’s expression was one he knew too well.

He’d seen it in the mirror, too many times.

 

Sarah had been riding back from the Kolascinski homestead.

She’d gone out with two burlap sacks of goods, one on each side of the saddle behind her: canned goods and flour, coffee and a small sack of hard candies, for she remembered how very good the infrequent treats were for young children.

Sarah knew she had to ride the path again, she had to ride that self-same trail where the escaped lunatic tried to snare her.

She knew she had to ride it now, today, or she would never be able to ride it again.

Like falling off a horse, she thought: I have to get back up right away.

She did, however, change clothes: she went into her house as Sarah McKenna, schoolgirl; she emerged all in black, a long black coat, a black broad brimmed hat, black shirt and vest and knee-high cavalry boots, feeling very much like her darker self, and yet she needed an excuse, she needed to justify her ride.

She’d knocked on the Kolascinski door and asked for the help of the first lad she saw: the two of them got the well stuffed bags off Butter’s back and into the house, and Inge’s eyes grew large and round at the sound of canned goods shifting when they sat them down.

“I can’t take these canned goods home,” Sarah said, “it’s too cold out and they’ll freeze and be ruined. I can’t take just this sack of flour, for it would be off balance and wouldn’t stay on the horse, it would fall off and burst and be ruined.” She looked at Inge with her best innocent expression and said, “My Mama taught me waste is a sin and I don’t want to be sinful … so could you take these, please?”

Inge nearly cried at the bounty: their winter supplies, though adequate, were Spartan and lacking in variety: the burlap was unceremoniously upended and cans spilled and clattered and rolled around, and laughing children squatted and crawled under the table and retrieved peaches and pears and potatoes, vegetables and yams and dainties of several sorts.

When Sarah bought the sack of flour, she chose a pretty print flour sack, knowing it would be turned very quickly into a shirt or a skirt or a dress for the youngest; Inge peeked in the sack that held the hard candy and gave a little squeak of delight: she smelled peppermint and cinnamon, and loved both, and then she found the tin box of spices.

Sarah slipped out while they were still exclaiming their delight, and kneed Butter to get away quickly: she believed in helping people out, but she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the effusive thanks she sensed would be forthcoming.

Butter’s return trip was less strenuous than the trip out, for trail was already broken, making her walk far less difficult: Sarah made it to the halfway point in a remarkably short time.

Some sense, some gut feeling, told her something was wrong, something was very wrong

Her stomach tightened.

She felt nothing before she was attacked by that wild eyed madman, and kicked herself multiple times on the ride out for her lack of perception: now she was alert, her paranoia distinctly heightened, and it was telling her things were about to get bad, fast.

She leaned down and drew the .40-60 from its scabbard, laid her thumb over the hammer spur, listening with more than her ears.

It wasn’t a quarter of a mile shy of where she’d nearly been taken when an eddy of wind brought the smell of blood, hot and fresh, and she drew the hammer back: the click of the full cock notch was quiet, precise, metallic in the still air.

She cracked her ears, working her jaw a little, listened, watching Butter’s ears.

Butter’s head came up and her ears both swung forward.

The snow was not terribly deep here, less than knee deep on the big horse, and Sarah’s weight was on the balls of her feet, not quite standing in the stirrups, but ready to make a quick turn, a snap shot –

Look around first, Charlie’s voice whispered in her ear, and Sarah made a deliberate, comprehensive scan: front to back on her right, front to back on her left, then dismounted, kicking free of the stirrups and sliding off the starboard side into the snow.

She was low now, half squatted, rifle half-mounted: nostrils flared, she smelled blood now, strong and fresh, and then the figure half-rose in the snow and she froze.

She saw where he’d struggled down hill, and she swung the rifle’s muzzle up hill: advancing to the gasping figure, she realized it was the next-to-oldest Kolascinski boy – Nathan? – and he’d lost blood, too much blood.

Nothing uphill, she thought.

Tend the wounded.

Sarah looked at his leg.

A single cut, a stab wound most likely, through the inside of the thigh.

Nathan was holding it, but his grip was failing.

Sarah stumbled and tried to run back to Butter: an unseen stick caught her instep and she went face-first into the snow, came up, wiped viciously at the white stuff clinging to the octagon barrel: she eased the hammer to half-cock, thrust the rifle angrily into its scabbard and fumbled with nerveless fingers at the right side saddlebag’s buckles.

Nathan’s face was the color of wheat paste and his bloodied hands were weak: blood still flowed and he was in a circle of red snow, and Sarah yanked out a handful of rags and ran back through the snow to him.

She pulled her boot knife, split the trouser open to see the wound: Nathan fell back, limp, and blood flowed anew, not quite an arterial spurt but not the slow flow of a venous incision.

Sarah packed material against it, coldly controlling her feelings: she swore at the tremor in her hands, she yanked viciously at the cloth as she circled his thigh, laying a stick on the back side where the cloth crisscrossed, drawing it up over the wound again and tying it tight, tight: she loosened the knot, worked more material under it, worked the slack out of the tails and put her knee against his thigh to draw it tighter, to press the knot of wadded fabric into the wound itself.

Sarah’s eyes were ice-pale as she threw an overhand in the cloth and yanked it tight, sawed it back and forth a little, pulling every last bit of slack out, then coldly, precisely, deliberately, tied the other half of the knot, making absolutely sure it was a square knot and not a granny.

Nathan’s pants leg was soaked with blood; he lay back, shivering a little, eyes vacant, staring up through the tree branches.

Sarah knelt beside him, thrust an arm under his knees, another under his shoulder blades.

Sarah McKenna, young lady of fashion, heir to the resurrected McKenna fortune, daughter of one of the most successful businesswomen in the State, bent double as she walked her knees a fraction closer to Nathan’s form: then, tucking her backside, she rocked back a little and stood, groaning with the effort.

Sarah knew Nathan and had worked with him, in her persona as Miss Sarah, the schoolmarm: she remembered his quick grin, his delight at learning, especially working with numbers.

She remembered the bright, delighted look in his eyes when he made a new discovery.

Nathan’s eyes were rolled back in his head, nothing but white showing.

Nathan was her age, solid muscle, not a bit of fat on him: he was a head taller than she, and seemed even longer as she staggered back toward Butter.

The big horse walled her eyes and shied a little as Sarah approached with her bloody burden.

“Don’t you dare,” Sarah commanded, her voice as icy as her eyes: Butter walled her eyes again and threw her head, but stood still, clearly not liking this one little bit.

Sarah bounced Nathan higher in her arms, wondering how in the world she was going to get up into the saddle, and nearly fell on another snow covered obstruction.

She stomped around and found it was a log.

Kissing at Butter, she said “Come here, girl,” and Butter sidled toward her, not at all happy about it, but with one foot in the stirrup and the other hopped up on the snow-slick log, with one reaching hand grasping the saddle horn, Sarah drew a deep breath, pushed hard with her right leg and managed to make the saddle.

It was neither efficient, comfortable nor pretty, but she got herself mounted, and Nathan in front of her.

She knew he would never remain upright and she didn’t have leverage enough to get his leg over so he too was a-straddle, so she did the only thing she could: she wallowed him around and bent him over the saddle: she got a good handful of his coat with one hand, drew the reins up and looped them over the limp boy’s back and held Nathan’s belt with the other hand.

“Thank you, Uncle Linn,” she breathed, for ever since he’d shown her how he knee-reined every one of his horses, Sarah worked tirelessly with hers: partly because her Uncle Linn was a wonderful man who she loved dearly, and partly because she wasn’t going to let him get one up on her.

Now, though, now that she had to dedicate both hands to holding the lad in place, she steered Butter efficiently back to the trail, and back to Firelands.

 

Sarah sat, numb and staring, alone in the waiting room.

Her Uncle Linn came in, finally, her folded cloak draped over his forearm, and sat down beside her.

“Report,” he said in his official, Sheriff’s voice, and Sarah – slouched over with her elbows on her knees, boots flat on the floor and feet well apart, and her head hung half in exhaustion, half in dread – straightened and took a long breath.

She described how she’d taken supplies to the Kolascinski family, and how she’d come back to find Nathan bleeding from what looked to be a stab wound to the inside of his thigh: she told him of the bandage and how she’d cinched it good and tight, knowing it would put pressure where it was most needed, how she’d gotten him back to Firelands – “it was closer than getting him back home,” she said, her voice thick, slow – and how she’d staggered under his weight as she carried him the few steps from Butter’s back to the hospital’s front door.

The Sheriff nodded, put his arm around her shoulders.

“You did a good thing,” he whispered in the waiting room’s oppressive hush. “I’m proud of you, dear heart.”

Then Dr. Greenlees opened the door.

 

The Sheriff said he would deliver the news, and Sarah said no, she would do it, and the Sheriff said he would have to look at the scene, backtrack Nathan, read the story in the snow before it blew or drifted or melted.

The two of them rode back in time to find Nathan’s Pa and his oldest son, just arriving at the bloodied scene of Sarah’s desperate work.

The Sheriff shucked his Winchester and told them to stand fast, he didn’t want anyone messing up the tracks, and climbed the hillside, staying to the side of Nathan’s bloodied half-crawl, half-slide to the trail below.

Sarah’s mouth was dry : she kept licking her lips and she cleared her throat several times, but she was able to tell the father how she’d found his son, and how he was bleeding; she described how she considered the distance back to the cabin, the shorter distance to the hospital, and how she’d taken him the shorter distance to help.

The Sheriff came back downhill, slipping a little: there at the last, his feet shot out from under him and he made the final twenty feet mostly on his backside, landing with a grunt on the trail, Winchester in one hand and a knife in the other.

He struggled to his feet and muttered, “I’m getting’ too old for that,” before straightening with a grimace and holding the knife up by the crossguard: “Recognize this?”

The father turned a sick color and nodded.

“His?”

“I gave it to him.”

The Sheriff nodded uphill. “Looks like he slipped and fell. Tracks were normal up to that point. After that, he was on his butt and bleeding. No attack and no foul play.”

Sarah had yet to deliver the fell news: she was just steeling herself for that dread task when the Sheriff said, “Let’s head back to your place,” and the father’s eyes changed, for the knowing was upon him.

If his boy was alive, they would have told him already, and he knew it.

 

Sarah was quiet for the ride back to Firelands.

It was not until they came to the broadening of the trail, where it came into the dirt road that became the main street, that she said, “Uncle Linn?”

The Sheriff looked at her, nodded once.

“I did everything right,” Sarah said, her voice strained. “I put pressure on it. I got it good and tight. I did like I’ve been taught.”

The Sheriff nodded again.

Sarah’s eyes glittered with unshed tears and they rode through the ornate, cast-iron gateway arch that said ROSENTHAL across the top.

Clark came out and greeted the Sheriff; Linn returned the greeting, then nodded to Sarah: the two of them dismounted, Sam taking their reins, and both Sarah and the Sheriff said, “Thank you.”

The two of them walked up on the porch.

Sarah turned abruptly, hands fisted at her sides.

“It was supposed to work!” she whispered fiercely, for she did not trust her voice: tears spilled down her cheeks, scalding and freezing as they went.

The Sheriff went to one knee, pulled off his gloves, dropped them: he took Sarah’s fisted hands in his own and said, “Sarah, I am very proud of you.”

“But I couldn’t save him,” she choked.

“You did everything right,” the greying old lawman said quietly, his light-blue eyes gentle in the fading light. “You did well, Sarah. You gave him the only chance he had. No one, not even Dr. Flint himself, could have done better.”

“But it didn’t work,” Sarah squeaked, falling into her Uncle’s arms, shivering. “I couldn’t save him, Uncle Linn! I was supposed to save him and I couldn’t!”

He held her for a long moment, then picked her up and sat on the rocking chair, ignoring its chill as he drew Sarah across his lap and hugged her as if she were a little girl.

“We can’t save everyone, Sarah,” he said, rocking slowly, gently, his arms strong and warm around her slender figure: “We do the best we can, we try as hard as we can, but we can’t save ‘em all.”

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6. MIGUEL VASQUEZ VEGA Y VEGA

Winter did not come early that year, but it did come quickly: one day it was a chilly fall day, the next, the world was coated with a pristine white blanket, a forgiving coat of purity that lovingly concealed dirt, clutter and ruts in the road. A little heat through the day, just enough to soften the snow, and a wet snow atop that, then an overnight freeze, and Sarah McKenna laughed as she flipped the reins and set her steel-shod Brindle-mule into an easy trot across the hard-crusted snow.

The Rosenthal sleigh was the very best money could buy, the firstfruits of their cattle business: Sarah thought they should have made significantly more money, faster, and she’d expressed her misgivings to her Uncle the Sheriff, in whom she confided, but Sarah also knew she was but a Young Girl in her stepfather’s eyes, and a troublesome child at that, so she kept her thoughts from him – and from anyone else who might convey them to him, including her Mama.

This morning, though, Sarah’s young heart rejoiced as she drove into Firelands: the runners were freshly waxed, the snow was perfect for a sleigh, her cheeks glowed with health and cold weather, and more than one man’s head turned at the sight of the pretty girl in the shining, pinstriped sleigh as they came into town.

WJ’s widow smiled at her as she came into the Mercantile, and Sarah smiled back: it was warm in the Mercantile and it smelled of fresh-ground coffee and new cloth, of peppermint from the hard candy in the jar on the counter.

Sarah looked at the bolts of cloth in their cubbies, then at Mrs. Garrison, and the widow nodded: “Yes, Sarah, they came in this morning.”

Sarah thanked her and tugged her purse open: Mrs. Garrison was always happy when Bonnie or her daughter came to shop, for they paid cash, in full, and if they ran a credit, they paid it in full within the month.

Like the Sheriff, they sometimes helped out with other folks’ bills, without telling them; each was secretive enough, neither knew of the other’s charity, and Mrs. Garrison never let on, either to the assisted creditors, nor to these two benefactors: she suspected Sarah was the Sheriff’s get, for not only did she have those eyes, those pale, cold eyes, those eyes that could go from pleasant and light-blue to ice-hard and ice-pale in half a heartbeat, but also phrases they used, not just the words, but the way they pronounced them: “Don’t tell, Mrs. Garrison,” each of them told her, and on the same day, an hour apart: “this is a blessing on me,” and then each laughed and added, “I need all the help I can get!”

“Would you like to look at the bolts?”

“Oh, yes, thank you!” Sarah beamed, and Mrs. Garrison drew a bolt from the bundle and laid it on the scratched, heavy-glass counter top.

Sarah unfolded the cloth a little, felt it between thumb and the palm of her hand, the way her Mama did: she nodded a little, turned the cloth over, turned it back, and Mrs. Garrison could see the gears turning behind those pretty eyes.

“You’re helping teach now, aren’t you?” Mrs. Garrison asked.

“Yes I am,” Sarah confirmed, nodding a little, the striped pheasant-feather in her hat bobbing as she did: “Mrs. Cooper asked my help …”

Her voice trailed off as her thoughts chased off in some other direction; Mrs. Garrison looked across the Mercantile at one of the boys, raised a summoning hand.

“Put these in her carriage for Miss Rosenthal,” she said quietly.

“Oh thank you, that’s very kind,” Sarah said, blinking, returning to the here-and-now.

“I put together the things you asked for,” Mrs. Garrison said, turning to a cloth sack. “The Kolascinski family?”

“Yes,” Sarah nodded. “The children are growing so, and shoes are hard to come by.”

Mrs. Garrison leaned her elbows on the counter, crossing her arms and smiling, the way a woman will when she’s about to discuss a confidence.

“I understand the youngest boy threw a stereoptical fit when his Mama told him he would have to wear a hand-me-down pair of his sister’s shoes!”

Sarah colored a little, nodding: “Inge said shoes don’t grow on trees, and he’ll have to go barefoot if he doesn’t wear them!”

“Sooo …?” Mrs. Garrison’s eyes were bright with the shared mischief of her understanding.

“So I am going to tie this sack to a tree branch and tell the lad where they are.” She patted the sack, feeling the lumpy cargo beneath her palm.

“They are proud people,” Mrs. Garrison warned. “They may not want to be considered a charity case.”

“I’ll find a way.” Sarah’s voice was confident. “I always do.”

“Sarah …” Mrs. Garrison frowned a little, uncertain, then plunging ahead: “Sarah, where do you get your money?”

“Not from Mr. Rosenthal, if that’s what you’re asking,” Sarah admitted, turning to face the shopkeeper directly. “I’m concerned about the way he’s …”
Sarah stopped, bit her lower lip.

“It’s all right, ducks,” Mrs. Garrison assured her. “I hear plenty of secrets.”

Sarah blinked, considering.

“I made some investments, Mrs. Garrison. They are steady and I don’t tell Mr. Rosenthal about them, otherwise he would demand them the way he did Mama’s –“

She stopped, bit her bottom lip again.

"Besides” – she hefted the sack of shoes – “I am laying up treasures in Heaven, and Mr. Rosenthal can’t get those!”

Mrs. Garrison could not miss the change in Sarah’s voice, nor how she referred to her stepfather so formally, as if naming a stranger.

There’s trouble ahead, she thought, and wondered whether she should be wary of running an account for Mr. Rosenthal.

Sarah took the sack by its drawn-and-tied neck, stopped, tilted her head a little as she looked at the widow-woman.

“Mrs. Garrison,” she said, “thank you. You’ve been a good friend.” She laid a gloved hand on the shopkeeper’s arthritic knuckles. “And I am so looking forward to making myself a properly mousy schoolmarm dress!”

 

Minutes later, Sarah was driving through the snow, Brindle-mule breathing easily in the thin mountain air: Sarah knew her Brindle was well acclimated to the altitude, but she took pains not to push the mule too hard.

They made good progress to the Kolascinski household.

Sarah drew Brindle to a walk, then steered her hard left, along the clearing, walking quietly, the snow barely squeaking under runners and steel-shod hooves: Sarah stood and tied the sack to a tree branch, squarely in front of the cabin door, then eased back down into the upholstered front seat and kissed at Brindle.

Brindle flicked her long ears and leaned into her collar and Sarah steered them in a big turn in the clearing, until they were pointed back toward the road, then she put two fingers to her lips and gave a shrill, rising whistle: Brindle laid back her ears and brayed a raucous HAAAWWW! and took off on a brisk trot, and they were around the turn and out of sight before the cabin door opened.

Sarah was a mile down the narrow road before she saw the first grey shadow pacing her.

Brindle was not troubled; her gait was unchanged, one ear up, the other laid over as if asleep.

Sarah reached under the sleigh’s tuck-and-roll seat and drew out a beautifully finished, cherry wood box, laid it on the seat beside her.

It was customary to hold an impromptu shooting match after church, and her Papa bought an After-The-Meetin’ gun, in a presentation box: it was a 45-caliber, saw-handle pistol, muzzle loading, with a detachable shoulder stock.

Sarah picked it up, seized the flask: grimly, she dispensed what she knew was a target load, about 20 grains of black powder, dumped this down the barrel, then another: she ran 40 grains out of her percussion Army revolver and she did not want any less if she had to come up against a wolf.

She looked around and did not see anything, and this worried her more than if she’d seen the grey-furred canids.

She centered a grease patch over the bore, thumbed a round ball hard into the barrel, picked up the block headed ramrod and drove the ball down hard against the powder charge.

She laid the pistol down, twisted the tin percussion cap box open, intentionally spilling it into the green-felt-lined box: she picked one up, cocked the percussion hammer, pressed the cap down on the nipple, reached for the shoulder stock, looked around again.

Three of them were pacing after her sleigh.

She looked ahead, looked at the bank above her.

A wolf was in slow motion, rearing up on its hind legs, snow falling from its forepaws as it launched itself into space above her.

Sarah saw the go-to-meetin’ gun raise and she felt the figured cherry saw-handle grip, hard and cold in her hand, and she saw the German-silver front sight settle into the rear notch and she swung the bright spark of light up under the wolf’s chin and the gun fired and she wondered Who just fired my gun? and then she jerked it from her shoulder and dumped more powder down its bore and slapped on a patch and a ball and drove the ball down the bore and managed to get another cap on the nipple as the first wolf came over the back of the sleigh and she thrust the gun straight out in front of her and the second wolf fell back, blood spraying behind it, and she brought the gun down and grabbed the flask –

There was a whistle, a yell, and Sarah’s head snapped around to see a streak of yellow and red and a gaudy sombrero charge past her and Miguel Vasquez Vega y Vega made a throwing motion with his good right hand and his engraved, silver-plated Colt revolver spoke, and another wolf fell: the rest of the pack turned and ran, and Miguel threw back his head and laughed, and Sarah’s heart contracted, hard, as his flawlessly-white teeth flashed in the winter sun, contrasted with the golden-tanned Mexican face.

Miguel leaned over the edge of the drop-off, saw the wolf on a ledge below, the top of its head missing: he turned his mestena, regarded the second wolf, shot through its open mouth and now very dead in the snow.

Por Dios,” he breathed, drawing up beside Sarah as she finished reloading the single-shot, muzzle-loading buggy gun, “this you did, with such a gun as that?

He skinned out the wolves, rolled and tied their hides behind his silver-mounted saddle (to his mustang’s displeasure), then rode back into town with her, where he wasted no time in describing her heroic defense against a wolf pack that numbered more than the US Cavalry: his description and his enthusiasm were well received in the Silver Jewel, for every man there enjoyed a good tale well told, and Miguel Vasquez Vega y Vega could tell a tell well indeed, but it was not until he unrolled two fresh wolf pelts and showed them where the pistol balls made their exit, that men actually believed their prim Miss Sarah, the dainty Miss Sarah, the ladylike Miss Sarah, their schoolteacher, this pretty little rich man's daughter, this child they'd watched grow ... not until they looked at these pelts, not until they picked them up and thrust callused fingers through the bullet holes, did they truly realize pretty little Miss Sarah had the makings of a warrior in her young soul.

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7. HIS HONOR THE JUDGE

The Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler frowned and removed the hand-rolled Cuban from between his teeth.

"You're sure about that, Sheriff?" he asked, leaning forward and tapping the ash from his cigar on the rolled-brass neck of the goboon at his feet.

The Sheriff nodded. "Yes, Your Honor," he said, the fingers of his good left hand resting lightly on the closed Bible.

"Let me hear your proofs."

The Sheriff opened the Bible's cover, turned the first page, exposed several lines of a woman's precise script.

"When I bought the Silver Jewel, I bought everything Sam had. Books, women, booze, and this."

"Sam didn't seem to be ... inclined ... to partake of Scripture," His Honor said carefully.

"He didn't. This isn't his."

His Honor frowned. "I don't follow."

"Your Honor, do you remember ... no, you wouldn't, it never came before you."

"What never came before me?"

The Sheriff's pale eyes were expressionless.

"Your Honor will remember Sarah's father was ... disgraceful."

His Honor raised one eyebrow. "Yes, you could say that."

"His nature got him killed."

"Oh, really?"

"He went to smack the wrong woman. She punched a Derringer in under his wish bone and sent him to hell."

His Honor chuckled. "Sheriff," he said, drawing on his Havana, "if I didn't know better, I would think you approved of this vigilantism."

"Your Honor would be correct," the Sheriff nodded. "Planted the fella face down. I wanted him to see where he was going."

"You didn't!"

"I sure did." His words were flat, emotionless.

The Judge leaned back in his chair, puffed a fragrant cloud toward the ceiling. "So you have a Bible and a dead man. What else can you offer me?"

"The deceased beat his wife to death."

His Honor stopped in mid-draw, then blew out the stream of greying smoke and leaned forward a little, his brow drawing together a bit. Of all the things the Judge despised, a man who beat women was quite high on his list.

"What else?"

"He traded this Bible for a drink."

"Which proves?"

"It's his late wife's Bible."

"You have it open to what I presume is her handwriting."

"I have."

"And what has she written there?"

"The one thing that stands out, Your Honor, is the birth of her female child."

"Is there a name?"

"There is, Your Honor. Sarah."

His Honor's eyes smiled a little, for he knew the lovely Miss Sarah, and had a particular fondness for this delightful child, so very much like his own daughter had been.

"Our Sarah."

"Yes, Your Honor."

The Judge caught something in the Sheriff's voice.

"Your Honor, there is another name here. Her mother's name."

"I take it you know that name."

"I knew the woman, Your Honor," the Sheriff said, then hesitated and shifted uncomfortably in his caster chair.

"Your Honor, I knew the woman."

"You knew her."

"I knew her in the Biblical sense."

His Honor the Judge was quiet for several long moments.

Outside, a horse's hooves were loud on the frozen street; distant voices murmured, laughed; within, the Regulator clock bit off seconds with sharp clicks of its machined gear-teeth, slung the sectioned seconds with swings of its gleaming pendulum.

"She has your eyes."

"She has my temper."

"Dear God," the Judge breathed, a woman with your temper!"

The Sheriff grinned suddenly. "Scary, ain't it?"

"Sheriff, I remember when you were the Captain and I was the Colonel, and I remember the mayhem you turned loose on the ranks of the enemy!"

The Sheriff's eyes were bleak as he, too, remembered, though his memory did not have the quiet smile the Judge's memory wore.

"Does she know?"

"No, sir."

"Rosenthal? Or her mother?"

"No."

"When do you plan to tell them?"

"I wanted to ask your advice on that."

The Judge thoughtfully tapped the fluffy white ash from his cigar, watched the shattered fluff roll down the curved lip of the polished brass spitoon the Sheriff placed as his personal ashtray.

"Sheriff," the Judge said, "I have been mulling an idea and I think you've just answered my conundrum."

"Sir?"

"Sheriff, I need an agent. I need someone who can get men to talk. I need a woman, someone young and pretty, someone who can be somebody else."

The Sheriff turned his head very slightly, his eyes narrowing. "You aren't thinking ..."

The Honorable Donald Hostetler nodded, slowly, slowly.

The Sheriff opened his mouth to protest, but stopped as the Judge raised a finger.

"Hear me out. She changes clothes when she models her Mama's gowns for the buyers in Denver. Face paint and foundations and she looks a grown woman -- diminutive, yes, but she looks grown --"

The Sheriff nodded, swallowing. "She does, Your Honor."

"Now if she were to costume ... if she were to gull her way into a man's confidence and get him to confess, let's say he was under investigation for -- oh, I don't know, but a pretty girl can get a man to talk when the best skills of the law will seal his lips!"

"It's a dangerous game she'll be playing," the Sheriff warned. "I just found my daughter, Your Honor. I don't want to put her at risk."

"Then teach her some things," the Judge said flippantly, rising. "She's already shown she can handle a gun, look at those two hundred wolves she murdered when they swarmed over her sleigh."

"Your Honor, there is one serious problem to your proposition."

"And what would that be, Sheriff?"

"Your Honor, you know she is my daughter. I know she is my daughter. But neither she nor her mother know she is my daughter. Her father may have some objection to make on the matter."

His Honor nodded. "That is as may be, Sheriff," he said thoughtfully. "When do you propose we inform her?"

"I would suggest just before Christmas, Your Honor." He tapped the open Bible with his fingertips again. "Her mother wrote that she was born on Christmas ... I reckon we can tell her then." He grinned, suddenly, a quick flash of teeth beneath his iron-grey mustache. "When do you want to recruit her?"

"After you, Sheriff."

The Sheriff considered this, then rose as His Honor stood.

"Sheriff," he said, extending his hand, "I look forward to recruiting your darlin' daughter."

The Sheriff waited until the Judge was departed, then he went to his desk, pulled out two sheets of note paper, his pen and a small bottle of good India ink.

He dipped his pen, wiped it carefully against the inside of the bottle's neck to remove the excess, and began to write.

I wish to order two of your Peacemaker revolvers.

Please ship them with the bird's head handles in black ebony wood, four inch barrels, and in .22 rim fire caliber.

I will need two more Peacemakers, otherwise identical, in your standard 44 caliber.

Please engrave these around the muzzle with scroll work, vining around the cylinder and up the back strap.

I enclose payment in full.

Very truly yours,

Sheriff Linn Keller

Firelands, Colorado

 

The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, looked at the calendar, nodded.

"I have work to do," he said aloud, then looked at the Bible, trailed his fingertips across the neat handwriting, remembering the woman who wrote the words, the Kansas farm where he stopped to stay the night, and stayed for a week.

He leaned back in his chair, stared sightlessly at the ceiling.

"I remember," he whispered.

"I remember you, Beth."

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8. PIPER

 

Deputy Jacob Keller walked his Appaloosa down the ramp, grateful for his tight-weave coat as he left the shelter of the stock car and stepped into the wind.

He approached an anxious-looking young man with a star on his vest, ran out his hand.

"Mark, how ye be," he said quietly, and the deputy returned his firm handclasp.

Deputy Mark Adkins grimaced. "I been better," he admitted.

Jacob nodded. "I was sorry to hear about your brother."

"Thank you." He cleared his throat. "You didn't have to come."

"Yes I did."

Mark nodded, a lost expression in his dark brown eyes. "Thank you," he half-whispered.

"When's the service?"

"A couple of hours yet. You hungry?"

Jacob grinned. "We got time?"

"Ma ..." Mark frowned, reconsidering.

"She's got enough to worry about right now," Jacob said quietly. "You still got that little hash house?"

"Yeah."

"Is it better than it was?"

Mark couldn't help but laugh a little. "Thank God, yes!"

"You really feel like eatin'?"

"No." Mark's eyes were bleak, as was his voice.

"Me neither. Let's go see your Ma."

 

The German Irishman frowned at the assorted brass parts lined up on his work bench.

He'd installed the spare pump on their steam machine, test-ran it, satisfied himself that it was as it should be, then he tore down the original to find out what ailed it.

"This isn't a year old," he complained to the Chief. "She ought to run like a swiss watch. She's an Ahrens --"

"I know, lad," Sean rumbled, resting his big Irish mitt on the German Irishman's shoulder: "do you now find what happened and we'll send it back. I doubt me not we'll --"

He stopped as he saw the German Irishman's forehead wrinkle.

He picked up the pump casing, half-walked and half-waddled over to the window: the casing was a cast piece and heavy, and it took some care to rotate it without dropping it.

"Found it," he announced, turning and carrying the heavy iron casting back to his bench.

"We'll need t' send it back," he said tiredly. "Th' casting is bad."

"What about this one?" Sean asked, gesturing toward the gleaming, polished steam firefighting engine in the middle of the brick apparatus floor.

"She's no' shown any signs."

"Should ye pull this one t' see if it's --"

"No," the German Irishman said quickly. "No, she runs smooth. This one acted up early. I'd know it if this one was bad too." He looked sharply at the red-headed fire chief. "B'sides, I've no wish t' have our only water slinger tore down an' we'll likely need it right when she's in pieces!"

 

"Now that was some fancy knife," the Sheriff said admiringly.

Esther smiled, nodding. "Miguel said it was a thank-you to Charlie Macneil."

"He'll like it," the Sheriff said thoughtfully. "Did he say it was thank you for what?"

"For saving his life." Esther laid a gentle hand on the Sheriff's forearm. "Do you remember the evening when Sarah came to the dance and she hadn't changed clothes?"

The Sheriff laughed, opening the heavy, frosted-glass-design front door of the Silver Jewel: as the doors came open, Tilly looked up from behind the counter, smiling.

"I remember that," he said as they made their way through the Jewel, to the Sheriff's reserved table. "She'd been modeling her Mama's dresses in Denver, and she was still painted up and fancy."

"She did look older," Esther admitted, waiting for the Sheriff to draw out her chair before sitting.

"She looked old enough Miguel was sizing her up for wife material," the Sheriff said thoughtfully. "As I recall, she did look marriageable."

"She has a gift for that," Esther said frankly. "When she dresses like a woman, she becomes that woman. When she dresses like a schoolgirl, she becomes that schoolgirl. I saw her try on a dancing girl's outfit" -- she gave her husband a warning look as she saw the concern in his eyes -- "now, dear, it was only a try-on, and don't you dare tell her mother! -- but she became that dancing girl."

Esther tilted her head, gave her husband an assessing look.

"Did you know, my dear," she said, hesitating as the waitress bustled up, placed a steaming cup of Earl Grey and an equally fragrant mug of coffee, smiled and left with a swirl of skirts -- "did you know the Judge wants to use her as an agent?"

"I heard something about that," the Sheriff said cautiously.

Esther unfolded her linen napkin, placed it on her lap, looked directly at her husband.

"My dear, I think she will be remarkably effective."

 

The service was in their church; Jacob sat with the family, paying little attention to the sermon: he, too, knew the deceased, but he'd seen death too many times to allow the loss any nearer than arm's length.

This did not prevent him from slipping a handkerchief to the mother.

The interment was harder.

He stood beside the mother, her hand on his arm; her other hand was on her younger son's arm -- her younger son, the deputy that met Jacob at the depot -- like most women of the era, she was strong for her family and hid her tears behind a black veil, at least until the coffin was brought from the hearse and hoisted to the shoulders of his brother troopers.

"I hope they don't play a dirge," the mother whispered, and Jacob laid his hand very gently on her fingers, feeling how cold hers were, even through her thin black gloves: he felt her tremble with stifled sobs as a lone piper, a Canadian by the look of him, began to play.

The troopers' step was precise as they carried their comrade to the graveside; their pace was funeral-slow, but exact, and their half-time pace was in time with the Garryowen.

The piper played the tune as it was meant -- briskly, brightly, vigorously, and the regimental band joined after the first stanza.

The mother raised her chin, released the strong young men's arms: the coffin was placed on the ground beside the square-cornered hole, placed on the heavy ropes that would be used to lower the box, and she walked up to the box, the troopers parting deferentially at her approach.

She bent and laid her hand on the coffin lid, held it for a long moment, hearing the Garryowen as from a great distance: she finally straightened, turned to the parson, nodded.

Jacob thought about that Canadian piper on the train ride back to Firelands.

He'd heard about bagpipes, but he'd never heard them before.

I wouldn't mind hearing those again, he thought.

Under different circumstances.

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9. QUIET MORNING

 

The cast iron stove cracked loudly as it warmed, the way it always did; wood hissed in its pot belly, and the Sheriff set the coffee pot on its top. He'd just filled it, water droplets clung to the bottom edge, hissing as they touched the hot stove's top.

Jacob was due back that morning and he would recruit his son to make coffee.

The Sheriff had many gifts, and one he could have done without was the ability to make the world's absolute worst coffee.

He'd rottted the bottom out of a good blue-granite pot and he didn't want to destroy another, and he couldn't help but stare sadly at the first example and consider if his vile brew did this to a porcelain lining, what was it doing to the lining of his own growlin' gut.

He could, however, heat water.

He could do that safely enough.

The Sheriff turned and considered the closed door, frowned a little.

I'll leave a note for Jacob on my desk, he thought. He can meet me over at the Jewel.

 

Deputy Jacob Keller drew up just as his father came out the door.

Father and son shared a quick grin, then each assumed the carefully-neutral expression each cultivated.

Jacob dallied the reins around the hitch rail, shook his father's hand.

"Glad you're back," the Sheriff said quietly, raising his chin toward the Silver Jewel. "It's chilly this mornin'."

"Yes, sir," Jacob replied.

"The funeral went well?"

"Yes, sir."

"His mother?"

"She took it hard, sir."

The Sheriff nodded. "A mother would," he whispered, and Jacob could see the ghosts that haunted his father's eyes.

"Have we business, sir?" Jacob asked, and his father blinked, returned to the here-and-now.

"Yes, Jacob," he said. "I have not made coffee today, but I understand Daisy's girls did."

Jacob grinned, flexing his fingers a few times. "I could use some, sir."

 

It was a morning like many others: men rose and began the day's work, women rose and began their work: schoolchildren filed into the town's whitewashed school building, Mrs. Garrison opened up the Mercantile, Shorty swore and forked manure out of stalls and spread fresh straw in the Livery, his scarred and dented Derby shoved well back on his head, the ever present rag dangling from the back of his belt: periodically he would snatch it, wipe his forehead, thrust it back into place.

On one of the back alleys, two lads skulked between a house and a shed, their stolen booty clenched in sweaty hands.

The two could have been twins, though they were not even remotely related: they looked so much alike they were regularly mistaken for brothers, and had taken pains to dress alike, and came to be known as the Barney Boys -- Barney was one's father -- and their chief occupation seemed to be getting in trouble, which, truth be told, would be routine for boys of their age, living in town, and without the many responsibilities of a ranch upbringing.

Today they had a clutch of stolen skyrockets, liberated from Barney's trunk, and some Lucifer matches: they knew they could not launch their stolen booty this soon after the theft, they would have to wait, and so they stashed their swag in the shed, hiding Chinese rockets and matches-in-a-jar behind some loose boards: grinning, they swept the dirt floor to remove any track, trace or sign, and agreed to meet again in a week to assess launch conditions.

Their stealth, however, did not preclude their tying sacks on an alley cat's feet, nor did it prevent them from dropping a lit cannon cracker in a nearby rain barrel.

Over in the Silver Jewel, father and son wrapped their hands gratefully around heavy-ceramic coffee mugs, sharing a quiet morning seated in the Lawman's Corner, the table unofficially reserved for the Sheriff and his guests: the pale-eyed lawman's engraved '73 rifle leaned casually in the corner, the Sheriff's pearl-grey Stetson hung on its peg, Jacob's darker-grey felt hung beside it: conversation was subdued, consisting mostly of the mutter of poker players up near the bar.

"You spoke of British bagpipes," Jacob continued, pouring a drizzle of fresh cream in his coffee.

The Old Sheriff nodded, leaning back a little as Daisy's girl refilled his nearly-empty mug.

"I finally heard one."

The Old Sheriff's left eyebrow rose a little.

"It sounded good, sir. He played the Garryowen, then their regimental band followed into the second stanza."

The Old Sheriff nodded. "I have heard them do that," he said quietly. "It does sound good."

"Was it the Canadian?"

"It was, sir."

The Old Sheriff nodded. "Sergeant Mick has a regular trade across the border. I would reckon he arranged it."

"Yes, sir."

"It was good of him to come down," the Old Sheriff said softly. "He was a good trooper."

Jacob's ear pulled back a little, the way it did when he heard something hiding behind the spoken words. He knew his father almost said, "He was a good boy."

"He was, sir," Jacob agreed, his own voice quiet.

"You knew him."

"Yes, sir."

"Did his mother try to feed you?"

Jacob laughed. "I'm satisfied she would have tried, sir," he replied, "had I stayed. We et in the church meeting hall and the women wouldn't let her do more than set down and eat her own self."

"Good," the Sheriff grunted. "She had family there?"

"Yes, sir. Family right with her."

"Good." The Sheriff closed his eyes, lowered his forehead onto the heel of his hand, took a long breath.

Jacob knew he was dealing with a memory and he let his father have the moment.

Jacob carried ghosts of his own, and he knew what it was to have to stop and look at a past moment.

Daisy's girl set a place of fresh sliced sourdough between the two lawmen, another plate with a lump of butter, two spreading knives: Jacob looked up and thanked her, and she winked at the handsome young deputy, turned with a flare of her skirts and a swing of her hips, knowing that a good looking man was watching as she walked the length of the saloon, back toward the kitchen hallway.

Jacob reached for a slice, picked up a spreading knife as the smell of good fresh baked bread penetrated the Old Sheriff's reverie.

"Still warm," Jacob said, and the Sheriff heard the smile in his son's voice.

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10. MISSOURI

 

I set there with Jacob, remembering.

I remembered him when he was younger, just coming into his growth, and it was a good memory.

I watched him butter a slab of still-warm sourdough and I saw those same hands ... my hands, cutting up meat for a man with one arm, and then I remembered why I came to Firelands.

It was because that man died.

I blinked, and I stared through the far wall, and I remembered ...

The man with pale eyes reached over and grabbed the other man’s plate.

He pulled it away, slid his in its place, quickly, as if it were something to be ashamed of, and the one-armed man looked up, surprised.

“What’s the matter, Colonel?” he demanded. “Don’t ye think I kin cut up my own meat?”

The pale-eyed man busily cut up the tenderloin, not looking up.

“Johnny,” he replied, “I’ve et so many field rations I’m not sure I can cut up meat in polite company anymore. I’m gettin’ in as much practice as I can.”

The one-armed man leaned over and said quietly, “You kin call me Curt, y’know.”

The pale-eyed man leaned toward him and replied, “You can call me Linn.”

Curt nodded. “I like that better.”

The two men were not alone in the riverboat’s saloon; they were, however, the only ones at their round table.

Potatoes and gravy, green beans and fresh-baked bread, coffee – plenty of coffee, and good it was, not the water-weak stuff brewed in the field, nor the rot-your-guts-out brew sometimes made by over-eager troops: the men ate with a good appetite, ate like two men who thoroughly appreciated the quality of the fare they were given.

They did full justice to two plates apiece, and after talk and more coffee, they leaned back to allow the white-coated porter to set warm, fresh-baked pie before them.

Curt looked at the pie as if someone just set a nugget the size of his fist on his plate.

Linn picked up his fork and delicately plucked a flake of crust, his expression very much like a man in love.

“I reckon we could just look at ‘em for a while,” Curt said.

Linn speared off a bite with his fork, shoveled it in his mouth, chewed, his eyes closing with pleasure.

“Oh, hell,” Curt said, cutting off a chunk and following the pale eyed ex-Colonel’s example.

The two men had more coffee and leaned back, satisfied; the porter appeared, inquired quietly if the men would care for more; he smiled at the two men’s polite refusal.

The two talked quietly, well into the night, talked like two men far from home, like two men who’d been tried in the same fire, rendered in the same damned War. It did not matter that one wore blue and the other butternut; it did not matter that one held rank and the other never rose above private: they were two men, alone in the world, connected for a moment by friendship.

“You know,” Curt admitted at length, “I’d not mind takin’ a couple loaves o’ that bread with me.”

“You too?” Linn chuckled. “I keep a good bait of jerky and a loaf in my saddlebags even yet.”

Curt nodded, his eyes haunted.

“You don’t know how many times I’d give my right arm for a bait of jerky.”

Linn looked at the man’s empty sleeve but said nothing.

Curt smiled crookedly. “Yeah, it was the war,” he admitted, “but you Yanks didn’t do it.”

Linn saw a deep sadness in the man’s eyes.

“I fell off a horse an’ broke m’arm just b’low th’ shoulder.” He shifted in his seat, uncomfortable in the memory. “It festered up.”

“Gangrene?”

He nodded, taking a long breath.

“Yeah. Gangrene. They took th’ arm t’ save m’ life.”

Linn set his teeth, shook his head. “Damn,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Curt agreed.

“Oh hell,” Linn said, shaking his head as if to dismiss a bad memory, “I’m for bed.”

“Yeah, me too, soon’s I get rid of some ‘a’ this coffee.”

“Yep.”

The two men rose, slid their chairs back under the table: the porter watched from the shadows as they walked out the nearest door, onto the deck, watched the double doors close behind them.

The porter smiled a little as he cleaned off the table, picked up the coin the pale eyed man left under his plate.

Good folks, he thought.

Out on the deck, the two men watched the dark and oily water roll away from the riverboat; the night was cool, quiet, and the steamboat sounded like a great water-creature, breathing steadily as it pushed through the night-dark river.

A movement out of Curt’s periphery drew his attention; Linn felt the one-armed ex-soldier stiffen, turn a little, turned to look.

A little girl in a white flannel nightgown padded down the deck toward them, her eyes closed – sleepwalking, both men thought – Curt started to turn and the girl stepped on a kindling stick, fallen from the woodpile stacked on the deck.

She woke suddenly, confused and frightened: her sleep-fogged mind turned her to the right and she hit the railing, grabbed it, teetered.

Curt launched into a sprint, feeling like he was running in cold, clear honey, Linn right behind him, but too late: the child, confused, twisted and fell slow, slow, her white nightgown glowing in the moonlight.

Curt ran to the rail, jerked savagely at his coat: he threw it free, jumped over the rail, went into the water feet first.

Linn sprinted up the stairs, yanked open the door to the pilothouse.

“STOP THE BOAT!” he yelled. “TWO OVERBOARD!”

The pilot, startled, did not argue: he yanked a lanyard, hard, three times, tolling the great bell on the foredeck, and the riverboat shuddered as steam-valves reversed, thrashing the red-painted paddlewheel in reverse.

The pilot took a bearing on the shore, brought the riverboat around, signaled the engine-room to hold station: three stories below, the engineer slid open a rectangular porthole, took a reference on the shore, picked a landmark.

“She’ll not move a yard,” he muttered. “I’ll hold ‘er steady, Captain!”

The pale-eyed man clattered back down the stairs, looked aft, heard shouted voices below: a moment later, a boat, arrow-swift, shooting aft.

“Whither away?” a voice called, just as something broke water: it was white, it came up and threw an arm with a spray of water: the oarsmen pulled hard, brought the boat close enough one leaned down and seized the child, hauled her aboard.

The current pulled the boat away from the one-armed man.

“Curt!” Linn yelled, his grip tight on the rail.

“Martha!” a woman’s voice screamed to his right. “Martha! My baby!”

Clouds parted from the heavens like a veil from a woman’s face: Linn could see the child, bent over a man’s forearm, throwing up an incredible amount of the muddy Missouri, and he saw an arm raised as if in salute, that slid beneath the dark and oily surface only moments before the boat fought back to his position.

He heard the boatman’s oaths as he bent over the gunwale, grasping futilely at the water: he watched as the oarsmen finally brought the child back to the boat, watched as they handed the sobbing child to her taut-faced mother.

Linn returned to the saloon, his pace slow, a familiar ache in his belly, the old and too-familiar feeling that he’d just lost another friend.

The porter brought him a long-stemmed glass, delicate and fluted like a flower’s petals; Linn stared at it for several long moments, then he picked it up by the stem, breathed in the brandy’s bouquet, his eyes closed: he bowed his head, then he took a small sip.

The porter’s eyes were expressionless as he watched the pale-eyed man.

 

Later that night, not long before sunrise, the Captain offered the pale-eyed man a cigar.

Linn smiled. “Thank you, Captain, but I never acquired the habit.”

The riverboat captain nodded, lit his own hand-rolled Cuban.

“I see you’ve traveled,” he said through a blue cloud of tobacco smoke.

Linn smiled, caressed the arc-and-compasses stickpin he wore. “I have, sir, are you a travelin’ man?”

The Captain chuckled, withdrew a watch: the Square and Compasses were engraved on the watch’s cover, and he pressed the stem, flipping open the cover. A hand painted likeness of a young woman looked out at the Sheriff.

“My daughter,” he said.

“You are fortunate, sir,” Linn said.

“She’s married now,” the Captain grunted. “I’m a grandfather now.”

“Well done, sir,” Linn congratulated him, thrusting out his hand: the Captain gripped the ex-Colonel’s hand, and the two exchanged a Fraternal grip.

“My condolences on the loss of your friend,” the Captain said.

“I barely knew him,” Linn admitted.

“I have his effects. Will you be returning them to his family?”

The Captain gestured toward a small sack on the side table.

Linn considered for a moment, then nodded.

“Yes, Captain,” he said. “Yes, I will.”

"Do you know where his family is?"

Linn frowned at the man's goods, picked up a hand-folded envelope, turned it over, read.

He looked up at the riverboat captain.

"It looks like I'm bound for the Colorado," he said slowly, then extracted the single sheet, unfolded it.

The Captain waited patiently, his eyes scanning the lightening waters surrounding.

"He has a farmstead near Firelands ... "

The tall ex-colonel's voice trailed off and his eyes were distant as he considered what very little he knew about the high country.

 

"Sir?"

Jacob's quiet inquiry startled his father: the Sheriff blinked, looked around.

"I'm sorry, what was the question again?"

"Is all well, sir?" Jacob asked carefully, formally, knowing the question was at once discreet, and covered a lot of ground.

Linn rubbed his eyes, rested his forehead on a callused palm for a long moment.

"Memories," he muttered.

"Yes, sir," Jacob replied, regarding his father with concerned eyes.

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11. RESTLESS

 

There was work I needed to do, there in the office, but I was restless and a saddle is the best cure for a restless man.

That, or cutting hay, splitting wood, dragging rocks out of the ground and rolling them onto a stone boat to haul off to the rock pile.

Cannonball danced a little as I swung aboard and I didn't get my leg clear over before she cut loose, driving the saddle up into my backside and nearly throwing me clear off: I'm not sure how I stayed off the ground, but one way or another I got my butt onto leather, my legs around her barrel, my boot found the stirrup like it had eyes, and she treated me to a frosty-morning war dance that yanked the kinks out of my spine, knocked cob webs out of my skull and a couple times clicked my teeth together as she and me both came down hard -- I'm surprised she didn't drive holes in the frozen ground with those sharp little hooves -- and when she was done, why, she shook herself, blew loudly and paced off like nothing ever happened and she was stepping out on a quiet Sunday morning, smooth as butter and just as prim.

A man feels pretty good on a frosty morning when his horse bucks out under him, leastways he does if he doesn't find out -- again -- that Terra Firma is just a bit more firma than a man generally enjoys.

I try my best not to re-learn that pa'tickalar lesson.

Cannonball pointed her nose toward the rising sun and the rest of her followed and I was right along with her, and we rode to a high point and looked back over Firelands like I've often done. It's a good place to look out over a right smart of country. Off one way, Charlie Macneil was raisin' horses -- I wish the man would retire, he's put in a lifetime, he's still Territorial Marshal and he's home now but that poor fellow has more than paid his dues, he needs to hand it to someone younger, smarter and better lookin' --

I laughed out loud at that one.

Charlie is one of the most intelligent men I've ever known, he is a handsome man, but he's like me ... experienced ... and he and I have muttered "I'm gettin' too old for this" now and again, and from the edge in his voice I know his long tall carcass was a-telln' him the same unkind things my own long, tall carcass tells me.

Jacob would raise fine tall sons, I was satisfied, and he'd shown me where he intended to build a fine stone house: he was a shade young to be chief deputy but I trusted him, he was quiet and soft spoken and hit like a mule, though he seldom hit with a fist: I'd taught him other ways, ways that would spare a man's hands, for a bad punch could break a knuckle or a hand bone.

Boxer's fracture, Doc Greenlees called it, and I'd known me who'd broke their hand a-punchin' someone in a bar fight or some such, and it give 'em trouble for years after.

Cannonball shifted under me and I tightened my knees just a little, and she settled.

We were half backed into a little thicket, enough to break up our outline, the rising sun was behind us -- it was a little chilly here in the shadow, but we had the mountain behind us, and the sun behind that, and long as we held still, why, we'd just be another shadow on the mountain, and I like being just another shadow.

Macneil one time complimented me on my ability to turn invisible.

I let my eyes wander and in the distance I saw a curl of smoke.

I felt my face tighten a little, as if a smile was hintin' that it wanted to show itself.

I know the farm house that smoke come from.

I'd been there any number of times.

Matter of fact I was there before I come to Firelands.

I recalled the two who lived there, brother and sister, children of an ex-Confederate soldier who lost his arm. Frazee, their name, and a hard working pair: I set down at their table and the girl was not as old as Sarah but she fed me and set out the best they had for a stranger, and they spoke politely if shyly with the stranger at their table, and finally when the slim meal was finished and the girl had the table cleared, I fetched out their Pa's effects and laid them out on the table.

I've had to write death notices as a commanding officer, I've had to tell men that someone they ate with and shared a tent with and laughed and drank and swore and gambled and fought and cried with, would sit up and speak to them no more, and though I got good at it I was never comfortable with it: I give a fast please-help-me to the Almighty as two sets of young eyes wide-open-stared into mine as I told them their Pa rode with me on the stern wheeler, that he was a-lookin' forward to gettin' home, and when he saw a little girl in a nightgown fall off that boat into the dark water, he did not hesitate one bit to jump in and drag her up off the muddy river bottom.

I told them how he twisted some to thrust that soaky-wet little flannel nightgown bundle into the reaching arms extended from the rowboat, and how he went under and didn't come back up.

The girl was silent.

I took a long look at her.

She was a pretty girl, she was younger than Sarah, she was carryin' a woman's load and her not yet a woman; it was the way of the territory, I knew, and other girls her age had the same burden, but that did not make it any easier.

May God forgive me, I became a liar that day.

The boy's bottom lip quivered a little, least until he bit down on it: I could tell from the change in his voice his throat was of a sudden dry, and why not? I saw no sign of a woman, like as not Curt was a widower and his children were orphans now.

I talked with them, quietly, asking their plans; it seems their Pa went to buy cattle and seed, and he took what cash they had, and now they had neither livestock nor crop nor funds, and the bank would be after their property.

Of a sudden they looked much younger than they were, and they looked utterly, absolutely lost.

I finally coaxed out of them how much they owed, and at what bank, and I frowned and dug around in my war bag and come out with a leather poke the size of my fist that thumped heavily on the table when I set it down.

I'd come by that gold in a dry river bed, I found a pocket men dream of, I'd filled a long leather sausage with a fortune and felt little joy in it: there was enough I sewed up two more pokes, each the size of my fist, and this was one.

I weighed it in my hand before I set it down on the table, and I lied through my teeth.

"This," I said, "was also your Pa's."

I unfast the string and opened the poke and showed them the contents.

"Gold dust," said I. "Your Pa was a wise man and he knew how to invest what he had. I won't say how this come about" -- I pulled the long neck shut, twisted it, laid it over and tied it good, trapping its bounty securely within -- "but I reckon this will be enough to pay off that-there bank and get what you need for next crop."

I saw to it in the years that followed, that they had help plowin', with the non stop chores that go with a spread -- they had a few cattle, enough they could tend themselves; I got them some saddle stock and Curt's boy grew another foot, and his sister did too --

I looked away from that curl of chimney smoke.

I recall how that Frazee girl told me that evening after supper that Firelands was a town in need of a father.

I come to Firelands to tell a family their husband and father would never be coming home.

I ended up Sheriff.

Not quite what I'd planned.

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12. MOTHER'S GOOD LITTLE GIRLS

The twins sat quietly in the rear seat of the carriage.

Bonnie not infrequently brought her daughters to town; as a woman of means, she dressed her daughters as children of means, and the twins – Polly, the get of her own womb, and Jade, the daughter of her late brother, sat in the upholstered back seat of the fine carriage.

The twins weren’t exactly twins, but close enough, in spite of Jade’s straight, so-black-it’s-almost-blue hair, the epicanthic fold at the corners of her eyes betraying her birth-mother’s Oriental blood, her bone structure the clear heritage of her Caucasian father: Polly was of an identical size and build, but with dark-honey-blond curls and dark blue eyes with a hint of green in the sunlight, just like her Mama.

The twins sat in the back seat of the fine carriage, looking around now that they were stopped, regarding the world with the wide, innocent eyes of children ripe for adventure but not wanting to show it.

Their Mama had gone into the Mercantile; she needed some notions, she needed a few other things, she needed something for which the hired girl or Sarah or one of the hands wasn’t suitable, or maybe she just wanted to go to the Mercantile.

The twins did not know, nor did they particularly care.

They were in town with their Mama, and they were content.

The twins wore matching little hooded cloaks and matching little gowns and matching little button shoes and matching expressions of big-eyed wonder: their habit was ever to observe something together, then look at one another, as if communing in a secret, unheard language, achieving a deeper understanding of a thing for seeing it through four eyes instead of two.

Or perhaps it was just the way of little girls: the female of the species seems gifted with an innate ability to charm the male, and perhaps this wordless communion is but one of the inborn gifts of the female child.

Bonnie had drawn up in front of the Mercantile and set the hand brake: she dismounted, availing herself of the stone in front of the boardwalk, then walked around the carriage and picked up the cast iron anchor: attaching its short line to her horse’s bridle, she went back to the twins and said, “I’ll just be a moment. Will you two be all right out here?”

The twins nodded solemnly.

Bonnie smiled, touched them quickly, gently; she turned, mounted the steps, and disappeared into the Mercantile.

The twins looked around.

A freight wagon was halted in front of the Silver Jewel, diagonally across and a little down from the Mercantile.

The twins looked at one another and giggled, then swarmed over the back of the upholstered front seat: where the moment before they were two dignified little ladies, now they were happy, active children, tumbling over the back of the seat and clambering over the side of the buggy, dropping to the dismount block and then to the dirt street.

They scampered around the front of their carriage horse and, without looking, without a care for their surroundings, pelted across the street and to the freight wagon, just as the drover emerged with the swaggering gait of a man very happy to have a good amount of distilled pleasure behind his belt buckle.

Polly looked waaaaay up at the draft horse’s big head, while Jade bent and examined the dish pan sized hooves with their feathery, furry natural spats.

“Verbeeg,” Polly said, her head craned well back, and “Verbeeg,” Jade agreed, stroking the feathery foot.

The drover stopped and wobbled a little as Two Hit John began hitting him: he squinted at the twins, then with the comical dignity of the intoxicated, he swept off his dirty, worse-for-wear hat, stained with too many workdays and rainstorms, and said “Good day t’youuuu, ladieeeeeees, an’ she’s ver’beeg, all right.” He patted the spotted grey affectionately. “She’s probably the ver’beegest horse ever did I drive!”

“Fevverfoot!” Jade exclaimed happily, straightening.

The drover bent, squinted a little to focus on the grey’s fur-fountained hoof.

“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, straightening and taking a sudden steadying grip on the grey’s mane to keep the grey from falling over: horse and wagon seemed to have taken a distinct list, and he seized the horse to keep it from landing on its starboard beam. He turned, took a high step, another, found the foothold: he swung his leg up into the wagon and the twins drew back, giggling, as the drover called, “Yup, Featherfoot!”

“Fevverfoot!” Jade exclaimed happily, and as the wagon creaked and rumbled away from them, the twins looked around and spied a kitten in the mouth of the alley.

Polly spotted a broom leaning against the Silver Jewel’s door frame and climbed the steps to the boardwalk: she bent and broke off a broom straw, bore it triumphantly down to her sister: the two little girls put their hands to their mouths and giggled, then ran to the mouth of the alley.

The kitten was not old enough to be weaned; its eyes were still the indistinct, metallic blue of a too-young kitten, but it was still a feline, an apex predator from a long line of carnivores, and its instinct was to hunt.

When the broom straw was dragged along in an arc, the kitten cocked its tail sideways, hobby-horsed toward the straw and patted at it with a clumsy mitten-paw, then fell over.

A scarred mama cat with one ear growled out from under the boardwalk and seized her kitten by its nape; the kitten obediently tucked its legs and tail up, giving a rounded bottom profile in case it was inadvertently bumped into the terra firma during transport: the mama cat bore her young back into the darkness under the boards, and the twins giggled, dropped the broom straw and looked back out across the street.

A little boy was walking a plank he’d propped between two barrels.

Polly and Jade were off like a shot, scampering across the dirt street, heedless of any traffic that may be navigating the roadway (in truth, if one were to have fired a cannon down the main street, one might stand a chance of hitting the freight wagon aforementioned: as the wagon was empty, and in poor repair, its loss would be minor, though the horse and driver might disagree with you on that point) … but the freight wagon and a mangy stray dog were the only other tenants of the thoroughfare, and so Polly and Jade’s safety was not jeopardized.

The twins stopped, watching solemn-eyed as the little boy walked the plank like a circus performer on a balance beam : arms out, waving a little, suddenly tentative now that he was an incredible distance above ground.

“Bet you can’t do this!” he challenged, tottering triumphantly to the end of his plank: he looked haughtily down at the two well-dressed little girls and stepped off the end of the plank … right into the open rain barrel.

The twins waited, silent, as bright-pink fingers thrust up over the edge of the staves and a sopping, bedraggled little boy’s head emerged slowly from the freezing cold barrel.

A little shard of ice cold-welded itself to the hair over his left ear, adding to the appearance of abject, frigid misery: a sudden, shocking change from the arrogance and bravado of only a moment before.

The twins looked at one another, then turned and walked out to the street.

Jackson Cooper stopped and lifted his hat.

“Ladies,” he said gently, and the twins each lifted an arm, pointing down the alley.

“He’s vewwy wet,” they said with one voice, and Jackson Cooper looked down the alley, then took three long, very quick strides toward the rain barrel.

There was the sound of a little boy being hoist quickly out of the water.

Polly and Jade skipped down the boardwalk, giggling, and stopped in front of the Mercantile.

Brother William, a Cistercian monk, or rather friar – he’d been detached from the Rabbitville monastery’s cloistered life to minister to the community -- was just emerging, a cloth package in hand: he stopped and smiled gently at the twins.

“Bruvver Woom!” they chorused. “Whatcha got?”

Brother William laughed, hoisting the bundle.

“I have coffee,” he said, “freshly ground.” He raised it to his nose, took an appreciative sniff. “One of my only vices. Smell?”

He offered the package at the twins’ level and they both took a noisy sniff.

They looked at one another, then at the cleric.

“Woom Coffee,” they said, and pointed to their carriage.

“Help in?”

Brother William laughed. “Ladies, I have been called many things in my young life,” he said, chuckling, “but William Coffee … I think that’s good.”

“Woom Coffee,” they said together, giving a united, emphatic nod.

Brother William took Polly under the arms, then Jade, swinging them each into the back seat of the McKenna carriage.

The girls’ legs swung up and they giggled quietly, delightedly.

“Tink you,” they chorused, and Brother William picked up his bundle of coffee.

Something white and feathery drifted past their view.

Polly and Jade looked up and laughed.

The sky overhead was heavy, grey, and the sudden snow was cascading down toward them, spinning and drifting in the still air.

The twins looked around, bright-eyed, and smiled as the Mercantile’s doors opened and their Mama came out.

Bonnie looked around at the first light coating of snow on the mare, the carriage, and on her little girls’ cloak-hoods.

“There my good girls are!” Bonnie cooed, carefully placing her basket in the carriage: “why, you look the perfect young ladies! So patient, waiting for your Mama like that!” Bonnie tilted her head, smiling proudly.

“What good little girls you are!”

Polly and Jade giggled and looked up into the descending precipitation, threw their arms wide, and said with one voice, “Tssno!”

Bonnie laughed, drew her hood up and stepped into the carriage: she arranged her skirts and her cloak, unwound the reins and released the brake.

“Yup, Jelly,” she called to the mare, and the twins giggled as snowflakes the size of silver dollars caressed their pink cheeks with feathery fingers.

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13. CAIN

 

Parson Belden set down on the log beside me.

I handed him my canteen and he took a long pull, drank about half of it, handed it back and I drank the other half.

There was a spring nearby and I would refill it here directly, but for now I was satisfied and so was he.

He set there with me for a little longer, neither of us said a word for a long time.

It was not an uncomfortable silence.

The Parson spoke first, I reckoned he would.

"You," he said quietly, "have the look of a thinking man."

I nodded, slowly, my eyes busy studying the distant terrain.

"You're still carrying ghosts."

I nodded again.

"You can't pack all those memories around, Sheriff."

I took a long breath, turned and looked at the sky pilot.

The Bear Killer leaned, warm and solid, against my leg, laid his chin on my thigh: I reached down, scratched him behind the ears, saw his eyes close with pleasure.

"Parson," I asked, "what was the Mark of Cain?"

Parson Belden blinked, surprised: I was a little surprised, too, for the man was really good at thinking on his feet and briskly discussing matters of Scripture.

"I heard it was a horn," I continued, "sproutin' out his forehead. I heard it was the Ace of Spades, black as your hat, right in the middle of his forehead. I heard it was a big black dog like The Bear Killer here."

The Bear Killer, hearing his name, lifted his ears and opened his eyes and groaned.

He didn't want me to quit rubbing him.

"The Mark of Cain," the Parson said slowly.

"Yeah. First man you kill, happy birthday, it's yours." My voice was flat, a little strained.

"Do you wear the Mark of Cain, Sheriff?" the Parson asked.

I laughed, looked at him again.

"Good God, Parson," I declared, "I went through that damned war and killed more men than small pox! I killed my first wife's brother and glad I did for he was takin' a knife after me, and more since then!"

"Mmm," the Parson hummed, laying a meditative forefinger across his upper lip. "I'm not sure that qualifies."

"Oh, I have it, Parson. I can see it in folks' eyes. They know I've killed. They look at me and these pale eyes and they wonder if I'm considering how to kill them." My eyes narrowed. "I see it, Parson. Women have chivvied their children across the street from me, I've seen grown men look away and look uncomfortable -- not guilty, Parson. I know a man's eyes when he's guilty of something."

The Parson considered this a little more.

"Sheriff," he said, "when you were in war, you were under orders."

"I was."

"And you carried out your orders."

"Not always."

The Parson raised an eyebrow.

"That damned little man -- William Tecumseh Sherman" -- I sneered the name, then spat to get the taste out of my mouth -- "ordered me to have my men brutalize women and murder men and boys."

"Oh?"

"I ordered my men the same way General John Hunt Morgan ordered his."

"Morgan? Wasn't he --"

"South, yes. Kentucky."

"I don't understand."

"He ordered his men that no woman shall be troubled, no Masonic lodge shall be touched, and no one would be shot unless they were fired upon, no building fired unless hostile fire came from it."
"I see."

"Cump didn't like me countermanding his orders."

"And ...?"

"I shot two of my men I caught in the act. The girl wasn't violated but she was terrified. I hanged three more of my own men who were complicit. Cump ordered me hanged -- he said they were his men, not mine."

My voice was quiet; my eyes were trailing along the horizon as I remembered.

I remembered the smell of the stone cell they had me in.

I remembered the jailer who slipped me a Navy revolver -- the Yankees were short handed to staff a jail, so the Southern jailer was kept on -- I slid that revolving pistol in the back of my waist band, in the middle of my back, and if that little red headed dictator intended to stretch my neck, I would take at least six with me when I went.

"Your neck doesn't look any longer than it should."

I grinned, a quick boyish grin, and I remembered how Cump -- his classmates at West Point knew he hated his middle name of Tecumseh, so they called him Cump just to devil him -- "Once you get above Captain, it's all politics. The tattle tales that ran to Cump to tell him I hanged my own men, ran just as fast to the telegraph office to tell Washington Cump was going to hang me to prevent renegades under my command from despoiling a maiden." I remembered how that disagreeable little man's face turned nearly purple and he hammered impotent fists into the air, gathering his energies to scream at me again.

"Lincoln himself dispatched the telegram that countermanded Cump's order."

The Parson raised a finger. "You were under orders during the War."

"I was."

"You killed those renegades because they were going to --"

"You're damned right I did," I snapped.

"Justified again. So far I see no murder. What next?"

"Butcher Knife Joe."

"Who?"

"Back in Ohio. I was town marshal in ... oh, a little coal mining town. Zinc mine too. Big pile of zinc ore just north of town. Someone used it to illustrate picture postcards and marked it 'A Million Dollars In Zinc.'"

"Butcher Knife."

"Yeah. I was in Council meeting and they were belly aching the way they always do. Politicians are the same, big or small, they're all just as petty and back biting and I was relieved when the boy came through the door, all out of breath.

" 'Marshal,' he said, 'Butcher Knife Joe just killed a man down at the Cozy!'

"How'd he kill 'em?"

"Mattock handle," the boy blurted.

"I picked up my hat and left the council meeting.

"I figured he'd want to kill me and I was right. I walked right down the middle of the street and he was coming up the street at me. I could hear men on each side betting on who would kill who, then they allowed as would I shoot him or would he knife me, then they saw him pull a pistol and they faded back from the street some 'cause old Joe was drunk.

"I did not care.

"I fell into the familiar military pace and on my left and on my right, ranks of bluecoats kept pace with me, and behind me, shoulder to shoulder, ranks and ranks again and I marched in the front rank.

"The front rank fell back and I was out front, the way I always was, leading men into battle, and Joe fetched up that revolver and fired and I heard the Minie balls snarl past and I heard rifle balls hit men's flesh and I kept my pace, closing the distance and he fired and something tugged at my hat-brim and he fired again and a pistol ball whipped through my coat tail and his eyes got big and he shot three times fast and I grabbed that empty pistol and shoved it up and drove the muzzle of my Navy Colt into his belly and I drove him hard enough I meant to drive that gun barrel out the middle of his back and then I pulled the trigger and I sent him to hell on a .36 ball."

I remembered the look in Joe's eyes when the gun went off and I remembered how it sounded, muffled with the muzzle drove hard into his belly, I remember how his hand felt with mine wrapped around it shoving his empty pistol skyward and I shoved into him and I smelt his breath and the blood on his breath and the light went out of his eyes as his knees buckled and I stepped back and stripped the gun from his dead grip.

"I executed a correct military about-face, holstered my revolver, marched back to the village hall.

"Village Council stood and shook my hand and said they'd promoted me to Constable, and I told them damned if I'd be called Constable, I quit, and I left that night."

Parson Belden was quiet for several minutes.

"Sheriff," he said, "so far I don't hear murder."

I grunted, considered the empty canteen.

"The mark of Cain is given for murder."

I considered this.

"Scripture doesn't say thou shalt not kill," the Parson continued quietly. "It says thou shalt not do murder. Just as we are told not to grieve as do the heathen, not to mourn as those who have no hope." He reached over, squeezed my shoulder. "Nowhere does it say, 'Don't grieve.'"

"Sounds like you're splittin' hairs, Parson."

"Sounds like you are trying to hold onto your guilt."

"Sounds like you might be right."

"Well?"

The Bear Killer laid down at my feet and sighed contentedly.

I rubbed my forehead.

"I don't feel no horn stickin' out."

"And I don't see the Ace of Spades."

I laughed.

"Parson, I might not be cured, but you've give me somethin' to think about."

Parson Belden nodded, rose; his knees made a terrible crunching, squishing sound and I flinched to hear it.

"Mileage," he muttered, and I nodded my understanding.

"Sheriff," the Parson said, the way a man will when he is considering something, "I heard you give a young fellow some really good advice one time."

"Oh?"

"You told him not to go a-borrowin' trouble, most folks have enough without taking on more."

I nodded, remembering the moment. "Yes, sir, I did say that."

"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." He looked squarely at me. "Don't go holding onto what you don't have to, Sheriff. Don't hold onto the past and let it smother the present."

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14. ANGELA

 

Angela threw her head back and laughed.

Of all the things she did, this was her favorite: riding with her Daddy, unless it was her Daddy walking and holding her hand, or maybe it was her Daddy tossing her up in the air and catching her.

Angela rode standing up behind her big strong Daddy, she stood on the saddle's carved skirting and grabbed up enough slack in her Daddy's coat to roll into her little fists, and her laughter trailed behind them on the cold air.

Angela rode fearlessly, regarding the world with bright-blue eyes, the legacy of her dead mother: she'd been born in Kentucky, the child of plain and hard working farmers, and when her Kentucky Daddy said they had to leave their tenant farm, her Mama set her jaw the way she did she absolutely refused to cry, and quietly set about getting them all ready to leave.

Her Kentucky Daddy sold what they had, what little there was of it, and they bought tickets on the steam train and headed West.

Angela didn't know where West was, only that it was a long way away, but she was with her Mommy and Daddy and that made it all right.

They'd made it as far as Colorado.

Railroads in the mid-1880s used iron rails, and iron tends to be brittle, especially cast iron, and cast iron rails had a very nasty habit of snapping and whipping up as the locomotive passed over, spearing through the belly of the trailing cars and almost always inflicting horrendous casualties.

Angela was sitting beside her Mommy, leaning against her Mommy's arm, listening to steel wheels on steel rails and drowsing the way a little girl will, when there was a sound like an explosion and Angela felt herself flying and then something hit her hard and she didn't remember anything until she woke up.

 

The Sheriff leaned his weight forward a little in the saddle, the weight-shift and his knees sufficient to communicate to his copper-colored Cannonball mare that she should lean into her nice easy gait, and she did: she was the get of a famous racehorse from the Border country, Rey del Sol, descended from the Paso Fino brought over by Spanish Conquistadores: Cannonball inherited all her ancestor's fire and all his speed and all his endurance, and best of all, she inherited that butter-smooth Paso Fino gait.

Sheriff Linn Keller grinned to hear his little girl's delighted laugh, and he knew what she would say next, and both he and Cannonball were ready for her words:

"Faster, Daddy!"

Cannonball loved to run, and run she did: she'd spent the biggest part of her life in the high country, and her blood was richer for it, her lungs were bigger and better developed, and she breathed easy this chilly Colorado morning, with the Sheriff and his little girl on her back. The Sheriff didn't have to squeeze his heels against her ribs for her to know it was time to run.

Cannonball stretched out and speared frozen ground with steel-shod hooves, thrusting cold and surly earth back and away from her, stretching her neck out and her nose straight into the wind and her tail straight out behind her.

by God! the Sheriff thought, and his solemn face split into a broad grin as he did, if a man was to fly this has to be what it feels like!

The Sheriff was a man who firmly believed in a Supreme Creator, and in moments like this, with a heart filled with joy, he not uncommonly uttered a prayer, and a prayer he said in this moment: the Almighty, he knew, was fluent in all languages, and the one language that carries best to the Eternal is the language of thanksgiving, of joy.

It was not a lengthy communication, but it was powerful, for it was most sincere.

Thank You!

The Sheriff swallowed hard as he remembered how he'd come to have another daughter.

 

The little girl lay as still and as bonelessly limp as the rag doll locked in the bend of her left elbow.

Little could be seen of her, for the wreckage was scattered around her and one wall of the wrecked and derailed passenger car covered her almost completely, all but one little foot. The edge of the wall pressed painfully down against her ankle for a time, but now it was numb, and she was not entirely conscious.

She was hidden under splintered, torn wood, but she could see through it, see her Mama floating above her.

She could see her Mama, as beautiful as she always was, with honey colored hair and those Kentucky-blue eyes and her gentle smile, but now instead of a homespun gown, she wore a white gown, purest white and gauzy and she was almost fading as Angela watched.

“I have to go now, Angela,” she said, and her voice was a whisper inside the little girl’s head. “I have another job to do, but I am sending you a man with pale eyes who will be your Daddy. He will be Daddy to you, and a woman with red hair and green eyes will be your Mommy.”

But I want you for my Mommy, Angela protested silently, willing her lips to work, her throat to vibrate, but she could not move, could not make a sound.

She felt her Mommy’s fingertips caress her cheek, she smelled her Mommy – lilac water and soap and sunshine, the way she always smelled – and then she was gone.

 

The Sheriff felt his chest tighten as he saw the absolute destruction done to the last cars of the train.

Dear God, he thought, could anyone live through this?

His eyes narrowed as he read the tragedy like a city man might read a newspaper: he’d ridden up the tracks, he’d seen the iron rail, bent now, and he knew it tore loose of the roadbed and flipped up, gutting the passenger car and the freight car and the caboose, and he knew that blunt iron knife would cut a man in two and not even know it, and he’d known such things to kill twenty people and more.

There were bodies, and parts of bodies, scattered along the roadbed: he swung down from his red mare, letting her graze, knowing she would stay close to him: the Sheriff knee-trained his mounts and seldom used reins, almost never used a bit on his own horses: Cannonball snuffed loudly and began pulling at the sparse grass, interested in the basic drive to fill her stomach, and not at all disturbed by the metallic scent of hot, fresh, blood.

The Sheriff lifted debris, kicked chunks of wooden bench seats out of the way, swept through the abattoir with little more than a clenched jaw to show his distress: he’d survived Lincoln’s war, he’d seen men killed in too many ways and too many times, and the smell of blood was like the smell of gunpowder: familiar, not terribly pleasant, but familiar.

Then he saw a tiny foot sticking out from under what used to be the side wall of a passenger car.

For a moment he was much younger.

For a moment he was sitting in his cabin, their cabin, the cabin he and Connie built beside the inland ocean the native Erie called the Sweet Sea: for a moment he held his two year old daughter, held his beloved little Dana, held her and rocked her and whispered to her, and now and again he rose to chunk more wood on the fire, or stir the fire, but he never set his little girl down, he held her with the grip of a man who’d already lost his wife, and whose child was dying as he held her.

His wife, Connie – dear Connie! – she with snapping brown eyes and die-straight hair, she with a slim waist and a quick smile, she who could plant her knuckles on her hips and glare and her very hair would crackle with disapproval, and in the next moment she could mold herself to him and raise his passion with the lightest of kisses – Connie, his lighthouse, his beacon, the only glimmer of sanity in a world gone insane – Connie, dead two weeks to the day before he arrived at his own Northern Ohio farm, dead of the small pox, the same pox that fevered his little Dana on her second birthday, the same small pox that took her from him an hour before the sun shouldered aside the purpling clouds and stretched its long red fingers over the horizon.

The Sheriff stopped, shook his head, blinked.

The tiny little foot was still there, unmoving.

His mouth was dry now and he shivered and then he felt a terrible, deep anger, and he looked up at the flawless blue dome overhead, his eyes pale, ice-pale and hard, the way they got when he was ready for a young war.

“Not this one,” he whispered hoarsely. “Not this one, Lord. Please.”

He bent, seized the wall with leather-gloved hands, set his teeth: he stood a-straddle of the tiny little foot and he squatted, tucked his butt, took two puffing breaths and groaned aloud, teeth clenched as he muscled the wall up: he stood, his quiet groan ripping his throat raw, and he shoved it quickly, hard, thrusting it up and away and it overbalanced and fell away from him, loud in the hushed mountain air.

The Sheriff bit the middle finger of his glove between white, even teeth, pulled: he bit the ring finger, then the index, seized the glove with his off hand and tore it savagely from him: he squatted again, brushing aside the silk-fine, honey-colored wisps that curled up over her scratched, bloodied forehead.

Practiced fingers sought the pulse, the life-beat that lived in the throat; gentle fingertips explored the groove beside her windpipe, pressed, and he turned his head a little as if listening, listening with his fingertips, listening with his very soul.

Please God, not this one, not this one, not again, don’t make me lose her again –

He felt life, warm and strong, push against his fingertips, and he looked down at the little girl as her eyelids quivered and then she opened her eyes and blinked.

The Sheriff’s eyes tightened a little at the corners.

Thank You, he thought, and he knew he would kneel in the little whitewashed church that night and offer his devotions for this miracle.

He saw the young throat move a little as the little girl swallowed, and she blinked again, and then she raised her right arm toward him, her left arm locked around a dirty, frayed rag doll.

The Sheriff did what any Daddy does when a little girl raises her arms for a hug.

He knelt beside her and he slid his arms under her and he picked her up, and she ran her arm around his neck, and he whistled, softly, for his mare.

Cannonball came walking up to him, snuffed curiously at the bundle he held: satisfied, the mare held still as the Sheriff pulled the piggin strings loose on his blanket roll, and wrapped the child against the mountain cold.

She clung to him and it was not in him to pull her grip away, so he wrapped her as best he could, then he mounted the red mare and looked up at the pale eyed lad who’d just cantered in on his Appaloosa stallion.

“Jacob,” the Sheriff said, “take charge. I’ve found one.”

“Yes, sir,” Jacob nodded. “Doc is on his way and the hospital is gettin’ ready for business.”

The Sheriff shook his head. “From the look of things,” he said sadly, “this is about it.”

“We’ll keep a-lookin’, sir.”

The Sheriff nodded, then looked down-track as a whistle shivered the thin air.

“Work train,” Jacob speculated, “or maybe a relief train.”

“If it’s a relief train we can get her in where it’s warm,” the Sheriff said softly, his arms snug around the child who was starting to shiver as she warmed up.

“Yes, sir,” Jacob agreed, then looked past his father and grinned.

“I reckon that’s the help we been lookin’ for,” he affirmed.

The Sheriff kneed his mare into a walk, headed for the warmth of the passenger car.

Doc Greenlees scowled as he always did as he watched the Sheriff’s approach: he opened the door of the passenger car, gestured to the first of the bench seats.

Nurse Susan lifted a dishpan of steaming-warm water off the top of the cast-iron stove, turned slowly, carefully, then turned back, replaced the water onto the stove’s flat top.

 

The Sheriff laid Angela down as if she were delicate glassware, afraid she would break: she did not want to let go of him, but he whispered, “I will be nearby. This is Doctor Greenlees and that is Nurse Susan. They need to make sure you’re not hurt.”

Angela looked at them with big, worried eyes, then looked at the Sheriff and nodded wordlessly.

“I will be nearby but I have to help look for survivors,” he said. “I will be back.”

Angela nodded again.

“Has she spoken at all?” Nurse Susan asked.

The Sheriff looked at her and closed his eyes, then shook his head slowly.

“I’ve got some tools,” Doc Greenlees said, “but once we get everyone loaded we’re headed back in town to the hospital. I have everything there I’ll need.”

He looked down at Angela, took her hand in his, felt it gently, making sure the joints all bent in the right direction.

“Does anything hurt?” he asked, and Angela nodded, then lifted her right leg: Doc Greenlees cupped her foot in his palm and Angela flinched.

“Hm,” Doc Greenlees grunted.

“Here, let me,” Nurse Susan murmured, and Doc Greenlees was content to let the Rubenesque nurse’s dexterous fingers remove the little girl’s shoe, and whatever else would be necessary.

 

A half-dozen men worked the scene, separating body parts from debris, assembling as best they could: the Sheriff found a woman, or what was left of her; the head was found an hour later, halfway down the mountain, caught by its hair and hanging over a half a thousand feet of sheer drop-off: from the color of the woman’s hair, and from a letter he found in a wallet, slid into a clever pocket in her corset, he determined the dead woman was the little girl’s mother.

There was nothing recognizable of her father.

The rail must have nailed him square-on when it ripped up through the floor of the passenger car.

The Sheriff remembered how the child clung to him, and how he clung to her, remembering how his little girl felt that dark night when her last breath sighed out against the side of his neck.

The relief train was long gone by the time the Sheriff and the others were satisfied they’d recovered as much as could be done: Digger showed up with the dead wagon and a half-dozen boxes, and when he left, each box held at least two occupants, separated by blanketing them into individual bundles.

One man stayed behind to guard the other bodies: Digger would be back, and in the meantime, the Sheriff did not want the mountain’s scavengers to discover man-flesh was good to eat.

When the Sheriff stepped into the hospital room, the little girl raised her right arm, holding it out toward him, and the Sheriff did not hesitate.

He drew up a chair, and he picked her up, and the bedcovers with her: he wrapped her and held her and she laid her head against his chest and he felt her relax, and when Nurse Susan came in, she smiled, for the child had not even begun to relax, despite being tucked into a bed and covered with a warm, thick quilt: the child’s expression was one of relief, as if she finally felt safe, and Nurse Susan wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Sheriff’s expression.

It took her a moment there was a single gleaming tear, hanging from the bottom of his iron-grey mustache.

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15. CIVILIITY

 

A nice, hot bath is a mark of civilization, of culture, of breeding.

In some societies it was a perk of royalty.

At the moment Sarah was considering what looked like a crowned representative of a powerful state.

For his part, The Bear Killer was enjoying the moment, relaxing in a nice hot steaming tub of scented water, patiently enduring the industrious pink fingers of his beloved Mistress as she soaped his thick black fur, rinsed him gently with a tin dipper, and now -- with a tuft of soap suds playfully peaked between his relaxed, dripping ears -- he looked like an exotic ruler of a canine country, taking his due in the bath, enjoying the attentions of a lovely attendant.

The Bear Killer closed his eyes as Sarah said "Last one," and carefully poured the dipper of warm water over him, sluicing the sudsy crown off his brow; she methodically worked the soap from his curly fur, then stepped back, pointed to the blanket spread on the floor and said "Out," and The Bear Killer flowed easily out of the tub and onto the blanket, where he waited for Sarah to hold up another blanket and say "Shake" before he slung water all over the little room.

Sarah toweled her beloved Bear Killer dry and the massive, muscled canine closed his eyes and ran out a laughing tongue, luxuriating in the attention.

The Bear Killer was the get of the famous Dawg, canine companion of the renowned Territorial Marshal Charlie Macneil: when it looked like Macneil was leaving the territory, Sarah was still a little girl, and she'd developed a fast bond with The Bear Killer's equally-massive, equally-muscled sire: the tears of a little girl are known to melt even a stone statue's heart, and the Sheriff was not terribly surprised when his dear friend reached into a voluminous coat pocket and scooped out a black, curly-furred, bright-black-eyed ball of wiggle-and-lick and gave to Sarah.

Macneil told her this fine little fellow was the get of her beloved Dawg, but he neglected to mention Dawg sired on a Tibetan mountain dog.

The pleased-looking canine Sarah was busy toweling dry was the size of a minor breed of pony, and hadn't yet reached his full growth: he'd been half this size when occasion demanded a grizzly bear be killed, and The Bear Killer earned his name by streaking between the men and seizing the wounded ursine by the throat.

It was not a particularly bright thing to do and it nearly got the young dog killed, but it secured his reputation in local legend; when The Bear Killer accompanied the lovely Miss Sarah in her travels, she was slightly more secure than if she were surrounded by a regiment of cavalry.

At the moment, though, this fierce warrior, this muscled and hard-jawed guardian, rolled over on his back and waved his paws in the air, wiggling a little and making a very un-warrior-like yow-wow-wow as Sarah applied a fresh towel to his forelegs and chest.

 

When Linn Keller came to Firelands, he had a few surprises he kept to himself.

One was the tube of gold dust he'd sewed from elk hide, a tube long as his forearm and just as big around.

He had Masonic contacts in the area and he entrusted half the gold dust to a brother Mason, a banker who traded him for coin: he sent back home and purchased a railroad he knew of, the Zanesville & Wheeling in southeast Ohio, a railroad doing a land office business hauling coal, hauling black bituminous gold out of the Appalachian ridges and hollows: he bought in just in time, and stock in the railroad increased in value; there were several offers to buy, and when the price was right, he sold and make quite a handsome profit.

He took half those profits and bought the railroad running through Firelands.

He was a man who listened, a man who remembered, and he knew the gold mine in Cripple was considering how to cut its costs.

He'd married his red-headed Carolina bride, Esther Wales, a Suth'n belle who came out West to make sure her niece was doing well: she came West and met Linn and decided she would stay, and for a wedding present, he gave her what he'd nostalgically renamed the Z&W Railroad.

When he was asked what Z&W stood for, he laughed, "Zig Zag and Wobble!" -- the nickname given the original line back in Athens County -- this was generally enough of an answer; when it wasn't, he would lean closer, raise an eyebrow and say in a low and confidential tone, "Don't tell anyone, but" -- he looked around as if ensuring none could hear them -- "it really stands for Zanesville and Wheeling!" -- and he'd wink again, a confident, this-is-our-secret wink, and this was invariably greeted with laughter, and generally a nod and an affirming clasp of his shoulder, a good joke between fellows.

Whatever its name, the railroad increased immediately, at first because the Sheriff knew the Cripple Creek Gold Mining and Dry Works Consortium wanted to cut costs, and they wished to divest themselves of their ore-hauling rail stock: the Sheriff went into negotiation with them, then his wife Esther swept into the board meeting, a breath of jasmine-scented Southern breeze in the stuffy, cigar-choked boardroom, and she proceeded to charm, sweet-talk and persuade the Board of Directors they would be money ahead to contract with the Z&W for their ore-hauling needs.

Esther began an immediate and vigorous program of overhauling the newly-expanded Z&W: her first executive decision, which drained most of the company's funds, was to replace iron rails with steel, to lay them on a heavy gravel ballast instead of on log ties laid atop the ground: capital was not easy to come by, but the mountains are made of granite, and crushed stone could be manufactured locally: once the Z&W installed the new Westinghouse air brakes and switched to safety couplers -- one of the very first railroads in the country to do so -- injuries dropped to negligible levels, derailments were a thing of the past, her use of good men in key positions ensured the operation ran smoothly and on time, and the Z&W began turning a steady (and rather respectable) profit.

If one were to pull open the heavy, black-walnut saloon doors with the thick, frosted-glass-design panels, one would first see the cherry-wood counter and Tilly seated behind, tending the necessaries of the rooms above, for like many well-placed saloons, the Silver Jewel was also the local hotel; turn right, and tables, chairs and customers would come into view: the place was clean, immaculate, something the Sheriff insisted on -- and he could insist, for he owned the place: paint was bright and fresh, window curtains were draped and clean, Mr. Baxter to your left was industriously burnishing the recently planed and refinished ebony bar-top -- he'd seen it before the work was done, and rejoiced in the glassy-smooth surface the Daine boys coaxed out of the knife-scarred and abused bar that had been -- the hallway on your left, going down past the bar, runs down to the back stairs, the stage entrance and dressing room, and at the end on the left, Daisy's kitchen, the source of many good smells and better food.

If you were to look to your right, you would see a table in the far corner, on your right; wooden pegs above, and a pearl-grey Stetson hanging from it.

Under the hat was the hat's owner, the Sheriff, lightening hair thinning the way it will when a man thinks hard for too many years, or so his father told him: an iron-grey mustache, curled into a handlebar, his back to the wall and a rifle in the corner: this was the Lawman's Corner, and local tradition reserved the table for the jurisdictional law dawg and his guests.

Today his guests were ladies, and lovely they were: one was red-haired and green-eyed, and wore an emerald-green McKenna gown, of the very latest fashion; the other, much younger, bright-blue-eyed and curly-blond-haired, dressed in a little girl's version of the same gown: they even wore matching cameos at the hollow of their throats, though Esther's cameo wore four small emeralds, a gift from the Sheriff's son Jacob, on the occasion of her wedding his pale-eyed father.

If one were to approach this table, one might see something .... well, not rare, but less than common, for it was an era where men did not smile for portraits, for fear it was a sign of weakness: one would see not just a smile, but a broad grin, as the Sheriff spoke with his beautiful bride and their darling daughter, as they waited for their noon meal, as the Sheriff listened closely to his wife's discussion of the railroad's operation, as he reported with quiet pride on the progress their little girl was making with her piano lessons.

And if one were as observant as the Sheriff, one might notice an individual at the bar, an individual who really looked little different from the others partaking of beer and free lunch, an individual who was using the big mirror behind the bar to take a long, assessing look at the lawman with the iron-grey mustache seated against the back wall.

An individual whose fists closed slowly, tightly, as he looked at the reflection, then, with an effort, relaxed.

He didn't want to call attention to himself.

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16. TAN DEATH

 

The Sheriff regarded the bloodied saddle, the raking claw marks in the horse's hinders, how the horse's eyes were walling with every movement, every sound, how it was ready to jerk away and bolt again.

It was near to wind broke from blind panicked flight, God alone knew how far it came and where a bloody deed happened, but the Sheriff knew he had to find out.

He'd managed to slow the exhausted horse enough to grab its dragging reins as it wheezed as hard as it could -- a struggling, shaky trot was its best speed -- and with voice and gentle hands he managed to get it to stand, to allow him to examine the red story told in blood.

The Sheriff's eyes were busy; his hands explored the saddle bags, his brows knitted together at the lack of information: he finally kissed at the shivering gelding, led it down past the Mercantile, walked it down the middle of the street.

"Hey Soapy!" one of the perennial hangers-on called, "why don'cha ride! Too lively for ye?" -- and then the gelding's blood-wet saddle came out of shadow and into sunlight, and the raffing voice choked down to a muted "Oh my God!" -- then, "Soapy, what happened?"

The Sheriff stopped, pale eyes fixed the chaffer like a butterly with a pin: "You reckonize the brand?" he challenged, his voice as cold and hard as his eyes, and both the speaker and two other fellows regarded the brand, dark against grey fur, made all the more prominent by parallel claw-marks ripping down behind it, leaving their own trails of blood.

"Nah," each muttered in turn, shaking their heads and looking away.

Every man there knew the only thing that could cause damage like that was a panther, and for a panther to shed that much blood, it must have been a fight, and no man wants to get into a close-and-personal fight with one of the mountain cats.

The gelding almost made it to the livery before its heart give out altogether -- run to death, likely, or died of fear -- it give kind of a groan and stopped and then collapsed, landing on its side.

Shorty came limping out, his mouth falling open as he read the story on the horse's back: he looked up at the lawman and said "What happened?"

"Don't know, Shorty," Linn said, his voice tight, "but I reckon to find out."

He looked at the livery's open door.

"Be right back."

The Sheriff went into the livery's shadowed interior.

He usually enjoyed the smell of hay and of horse manure, of grain and horse flesh, of wood smoke from Shorty's stove and the ever present whiff of whiskey from the libation Shorty treated himself to periodically, but today he regarded none of those things: he went to Shorty's desk, wrote a brief note, folded it and raised a summoning hand at the stable boy.

Six minutes later Sarah McKenna's eyes went dead pale and she laid a hand on The Bear Killer's shoulder.

"He wants us," she whispered.

 

The Sheriff looked up as Sarah cantered toward him.

"No," he said, then looked back to his preparations. He'd slid a day's rations into a saddle bag, a box of .44-40s, he had his rifle in its scabbard and his double gun in the other scabbard and had a bandolier of swan shot slung over his saddle horn.

The Bear Killer paced up to him, grinning -- a display of fighting ivory that could be easily mistaken for aggression -- the Sheriff took the massive canine's head in both hands and he said quietly, "Should I thump you?"

The Bear Killer's fur stood up on his neck and he growled, a deep, warning rumble from somewhere three foot below his forepads.

The Sheriff raised a fist and shook it at The Bear Killer. "I oughta put knots on your head," he said, and The Bear Killer raise his own head, fangs fully bared and lips peeled back, a ridge of black hair rippling down his spine and across his shoulders.

The Sheriff squared off at the war-dog and The Bear Killer lowered his head a little, then surged, his forepaws dropping neatly over the tall man's shoulders and his busy pink tongue enthusiastically laundering the Sheriff's clean-shaven jaw and ears.

The Sheriff rubbed the canine's ribs and whispered, "You don't believe a word of it, do you?" and The Bear Killer's huge tail swung slowly left and right and left again.

Sarah waited patiently, saddled on an Appaloosa yearling, one of Jacob's Apple-horse's get: the Sheriff looked up at her, his eyes hard.

"No," he said.

Her eyes were just as hard and she said "My dog, I go. Package deal."

The Sheriff's jaw was set and he frowned a little. "You provisioned?"

"I am."

The Sheriff looked at the birds-head Colt revolvers on her belt, at the rifle in her scabbard.

"I don't want you dead," he whispered hoarsely. "I lost too many family to lose you too."

"Życie jest Kopek," Sarah replied, her voice as quiet and as hard as his. "Life is a kopek. I'll spend mine how I please."

"Your mother" -- the Sheriff walked over to the girl, assessed her attire: all black, shirt and vest and coat, britches and boots and broad brimmed hat, even her wild rag -- all black, all businesslike ... and all showing some wear.

She's used to wearing this, he thought, then shelved the notion for later examination and continued.

"Your mother will castrate me if you come to any harm at all."

He was intentionally harsh in his choice of words: he wanted to offend, to shock, to discourage her.

"Wear tin drawers," she said in reply. "We're burning daylight. Who are we after?"

"Not who, what." The Sheriff's jaw thrust out. "You'll need a shotgun."

Sarah reached behind her and pulled out a double twelve-bore, cut down to a foot and a half and sawed along the curve of the pistol grip. "I'm ready."

"My God, girl," the Sheriff whispered, "whose child are you?"

"Never mind that," Sarah snapped. "Bear Killer, come."

The Bear Killer swung around and took up station beside his mounted Mistress.

"All right," the Sheriff said. "You're in."

Sarah slid her howitzer back into its stubby scabbard, waited as the Sheriff flowed into the saddle.

Part of her admired how the man moved -- he was so completely at home on the back of his gleaming red mare that he did not mount, he did not swing into the saddle, he flowed ... smoothly, naturally, and when his backside welded to the kak, they were not a horse and rider.

They were one magical creature, and they rode the wind itself.

Sarah blinked, shook her head, a quick half-inch left-right, disabusing herself of any girlish fancies.

The Sheriff would not want The Bear Killer unless it was a killin' affair, and a dark part of the pretty girl on the good looking Appaloosa gelding wanted in on a killin'.

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I didn't particular want Sarah along on this one.

I took a hard look at myself because I suspected I wasn't being honest with myself and I was right.

I knew her to be my daughter.

I looked over at her, riding beside me, her ... my God, I ache to look at her, she looks some like I recall her Ma lookin' ...

Her face was flawless, clear, red-cheeked from the cold air, long black eyelashes and all the beauty that a girl will have as she is coming into womanhood ...

Sarah's cold eyes were on the road ahead of us and she was reading the hoof-cuts like a city man reads a newspaper.

She must've felt my eyes on her because she looked over at me, suspicion in her expression.

Her eyes were pale and hard and I've been told mine get like that, and I know why hers were.

She was expectin' me to take that cut down shotgun from her and send her home like a chastened little girl.

It's what I would expect, was I in her saddle.

I know His Honor the Judge wanted to recruit her as an Agent, and I know what happens when someone -- even a pretty girl -- starts pokin' around in someone's business, and that someone doesn't want it poked into ...

I knew Sarah would need to be harder, faster, deadlier than a man in the same position.

That decided it.

She was along on this one.

This much thought took about a heartbeat and a half, just long enough for Sarah to ask, "Well?"

"Your shotgun," I said, and saw her back stiffen, then limber again: she was ready for a fight.

"Who did the work?"

She blinked.

I got a little satisfaction that I surprised her. She didn't expect that question.

"Black Smith," she said.

"You sold him your Brindle mule."

"He fancied him."

"I recall." I frowned a little, thinking of other double guns I'd seen abbreviated. "How did he treat the rib?"

Sarah drew it out, took it by the barrel and handed it to me, handle first.

"Hammerless," I said, brushing a hand over the breech, as if to wipe back the nonexistent hammers. "Good choice."

"Nothing to snag," Sarah said, her voice flat, tense.

I nodded, turned it so I could study the muzzle.

"Whoever cut this knew what he was doing," I murmured, thinking out loud. "He's filled in the rib and between the barrels."

I looked at the handle.

He'd even cut checkering clear around it, and did a nice job of it.

I've never cut checkering on a gun stock but I've watched it done, and it's an exacting task.

I looked more closely, ran a finger nail in one of the checker-cuts, ran it clear around the pistol grip's circumference.

Each line ran clear around, unbroken, connecting perfectly.

I raised an eyebrow, nodded: it was my turn to take it by the barrels and hand it over, handle-first.

Sarah managed to hide her surprise.

Putting myself in her place, I would expect it to be thrown away instead of handed back.

She eased it back down into the short holster behind her saddle, behind her right hip bone.

"You made a good choice to cut down," I said. "Fluid steel."

"I know," she said, looking back to the ground ahead, drew up. "Look."

I turned and looked to the ground and read the story printed in dirt.

"There," Sarah said, her voice tight, and she shucked out that stubby little shotgun.

I reached down and fetched mine out too.

If we were facing what I figured we were, a shotgun was what I wanted in my hands.

"Dear God," I whispered, and Sarah's Appaloosa shied, turning sideways in front of us, blocking Cannonball.

"Ho, boy, ho now," Sarah soothed, her eyes pale and hard, and she looked at me and I felt my heart shrink in my breast.

I saw something I hoped I would never, ever see in a pretty girl's face.

I saw good honest open undadulterated lust, and I know it wasn't romance she was lusting for.

It was blood.

I looked ahead, where she'd looked, and I saw why.

I saw a pile of bloody rags with a leg sticking out at an awkward angle, a leg with a wore out high top shoe.

It was what was left of a woman.

I heard something go click, click, and part of me realized my thumb had a life of its own and it just fetched that double twelve-bore's hammers back to full stand.

Right about then every hair on the back of my neck stood straight up, right before a cold gob of half clotted blood dropped on my bare wrist between glove and coat sleeve.

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The Sheriff looked up, raising his double gun and kneeing his mare to the side: he looked around the heavy branches overhead, turning the mare in a quick, tight circle, then looked down at Sarah, opening his mouth to tell her to get some distance, fast.

He never got the chance.

Sarah hit the ground, her scabbarded double gun slung across her back, the handle behind her right shoulder: she landed light, on the balls of her feet, just as the Sheriff yelled "SARAH DON'T DISMOUNT" --

The mountain painter was on the Appaloosa in less than a moment: like all of its kind, the cat's instinct was to bite for the back of the head -- its claws were dug deep into the Appaloosa's hide, and its long ivory canines bit easily through the back of the gelding's skull.

Sarah's shotgun spun out of its scabbard and she fired it like she was throwing a whip: she chopped down and triggered both barrels as her horse started to collapse, just as the Sheriff fired one, then the other of his own heavy shot charges.

The recoil of both barrels going off simultaneously threw Sarah's arm nearly to the vertical: she didn't try to reholster, she dropped her cannon and drew her left-hand birdshead Colt, punching it toward the cat's head.

The distance was maybe three foot when the little rimfire cartridge sneezed, sounding awful puny after two double guns spoke: had she missed altogether, it would not have mattered: there wasn't much holding the big cat's front to its rear.

Sarah pulled the pistol in close to her body, turned, her face dead pale, the skin taut: gone were the beautiful apple cheeks, gone was the gentle beauty of a blossoming young woman: now she was distilled death in boot leather, turning, searching for the next attacker.

The Sheriff broke his double gun open, flicked out the hulls and let them drop, crammed two more into the chambers: he watched Sarah shake her right hand like it stung -- likely it did -- and she very precisely, very methodically, punched out her one fired hull from the Colt, and reloaded it, and holstered.

Then she bent over and picked up her street howitzer, broke it open and reloaded it as well.

She reached over her left shoulder, pulled on the leather strap, brought the gun up over her right shoulder, eased it down into its scabbard, then she looked at the Sheriff, doing her level best to keep her temper in hand.

"You," she declared, resisting the urge to thrust an accusing finger at the man, "said not to dismount."

The Sheriff swung down from the saddle, rubbed Cannonball's neck reassuringly, whispered to her, calmed her down: the sight of the big mountain cat, the sudden gunfire, the smell of hot fresh blood -- all served to discomfit the mare, but under the Sheriff's reassuring caress, with his quiet words, she grunted and started snuffing for grass to eat.

The Sheriff looked overhead and Sarah followed his gaze.

They looked at one another.

"Sarah," the Sheriff said, "sometimes I genuinely hate my job, and today is one of those times."

Sarah looked again at what used to be a child, hung in the fork of a tree.

The cat apparently intended to return to this meal at a later time.

They both looked at the litter-covered ruin of what must have been a woman at one time.

"Sarah," the Sheriff said, "I was wrong."

She looked away from the stockinged leg and its high top shoe, sticking out from under a calico skirt and party covered with leaves.

"If you'd stayed aboard that cat would have killed you."

Sarah walked around her horse, bent to examine the punctures in the back of its skull.

"I've read about this," she said in almost a detached way. "Tigers in India do much the same thing. Man-eaters." She straightened. "Natives fashion masks and wear them on the backs of their heads. The tigers won't attack from the front and they think the natives are looking at them."

"Think you can coon up that tree and get this one down?"

Sarah looked at the tree, looked at the overhanging branch.

"Boost me up. If I can get that first branch I can make the rest of it."

"You got gloves?"

"I got gloves."

 

Jacob stared as his father came down the street.

He knew Sarah was astride that yearling Appaloosa -- at least she useta was -- but now she was riding double, and they were dragging a travois.

He took a couple steps up the board walk, saw Sarah's saddle on the travois, frowned.

Now what in blue hell did she do to that horse? If she --

The Sheriff drew up in front of Digger's place, raised a summoning hand: Jacob advanced at the summons.

"Need your help," the Sheriff said, his voice a little tight, and rough.

Jacob nodded as Sarah slid down, then the Sheriff dismounted.

Jacob took a second look at what must be a cut down shotgun Sarah wore in a back scabbard, and he wondered what she thought she was doing -- dressing like that, and why was she carrying that thing anyway --

"Grab those two corners," the Sheriff said, "and help me pack these in."

Jacob was considerably subdued when he and his father came out of Digger's funeral parlor.

Sarah waited patiently for them; when Jacob looked at the saddle, then looked at Sarah, she reached up and touched the stubby shotgun's pistol grip with delicate fingers.

"You're wondering why I have this," she said -- a statement, not a question.

He nodded.

Sarah reached down, flipped the blanket back.

Jacob's mouth opened, then closed, and, pale-eyed, he made a professional assessment of the damage done to the dead mountain cat on the travois.

He looked at Sarah as if he was seeing a stranger.

"Whose daughter are you?" he whispered.

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The mountain lion's carcass was regarded by townie and rancher alike, by miners and railroaders and by noon, very nearly the entire population of Firelands came by the Sheriff's office to regard the shredded but still huge carcass of the mankilling cat.

The Sheriff nearly had to suspend operations and just set out on his deacon's bench to keep people from coming into his office to ask questions, and at one point only half-joked to Digger next door that he'd ought to set up a tent and charge a nickle a peek, or maybe hire a sign painter to set up a plank with the common questions and answers folks were asking.

The big Irish fire chief eased his muscled carcass down beside the Sheriff.

He'd taken his turn gawping at the sight, he'd taken one of the paws and pressed it to unsheath those terrible killing claws, he'd pulled back a cheek to stare at the gleaming canines, those long ivory sabers that could -- and did -- penetrate both horse and human skulls, to deadly and fatal result: Shorty rattled back into town with the knacker wagon and Sarah's dead Appaloosa on board, it it stood for some study, at least until Shorty hauled it off to be skinned out and cut apart: nothing was wasted, even with this misfortune, and the Sheriff knew Shorty would get good use out of the horse carcass's component parts.

Sean was quiet for a few minutes and the two men regarded the gawking onlookers with quiet eyes.

"I watched when ye dragged that thing in," Sean said, his voice little more than a whisper.

His peripheral vision saw the Sheriff's hat brim tilt a little as the man replied with a shallow nod.

"That lad wi' ye ... th' one all in black ... I've seen him before."

The Sheriff's brim angled oddly and Sean turned his head to find the Sheriff was looking at him with an utterly expressionless visage.

"Twas th' lad tha' killed this beast?"

The Sheriff nodded.

"Jaysus, Joseph an' Mary," Sean breathed, "wha' did th' boy use, a howitzer? Tha' great beast is nearly cut in two!"

The Sheriff considered for a long moment, then tilted his head: an invitation -- follow me -- he rose, paced with deliberate slowness to the door, knocked, then opened it.

Sean's brows quirked together momentarily -- why does th' man knock a' his own door? -- and as he stepped inside, he found out why.

Sarah looked up from fastening her shoe.

She was as Sean always saw her, a lovely young lady, her hair a shining crown, coiled and piled atop her head with a lovely narrow cascade swinging down her back bone; she wore her usual McKenna gown, and Sean looked away, his ears reddening, for Sarah had her foot up on a chair and he had just the barest glimpse -- avert yer eyes, lad! -- of a well-turned ankle: shocking in a woman, but forgivable in a girl, in an age where girls generally wore short frocks, "short" being defined as "barely above the ankle."

Sarah lowered her foot to the floor, her hemline following; she put her hands on her hips and said, "Well? Do I look proper?"

The Sheriff looked long at this bright-eyed, smiling stack of contradiction: finally he paced off on the left, stepped up to her and took her hand, raised it to his lips and said quietly, "Sarah, you are a soul to be proud of!"

He turned.

"Sean," he said, "you are a good and trusted friend, and I need" -- he bit off the words, turned and looked at Sarah, who nodded, and he looked back at Sean.

"We need your help."

Sean's curiosity was evident on his ruddy Irish face: he frowned and turned his head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear and he said, "Eh?"

Sarah flowed across the room -- she didn't walk, her gait was smooth, as if she had wheels, a trick she learned from her Aunt Esther, who'd been taught the proper, smooth, flowing Suth'n belle gait before she was out of short frocks -- she stopped at a pile of neatly-folded black clothes, picked up a black-leather holster on a sling, tossed it over her head: it dropped neatly in place, and Sean saw a handle sticking up over her right shoulder.

"Sean, you served with the Irish Brigade."

"Aye, that I did," Sean said slowly, "an' you were wi' Ohio's volunteer cavalry."

"Sean, the military uses a layered principle of defense."

"Aye," Sean replied slowly, studying the pale-eyed man's face.

"I am going to let you into that first layer."

"Oh?"

"Do you remember the lad that killed the cat outside?"

"Aye ...."

"Do you remember the lad wore all black?"

"Aye, he did."

"Sarah?"

Sarah turned to the folded clothes: she picked up the black, broad-brimmed hat, spun it onto a handy hat-peg, then picked up the vest and shirt and held them up.

Sean was a hard man to surprise.

Sean had fought fire back in Porkopolis, the Queen City, he'd brawled in saloons and street fights, he'd drank and wenched and roared deliciously obscene songs with his fellows, and like the Sheriff, he'd fought in that damned War: he'd been over the mountain and seen the varmint, but this -- this --

Sarah draped the vest over the back of the chair, held the shirt up in front of her, held the sleeve out as if she were draping a dress over her front to see how it fit.

"No," Sean breathed, swallowing: he looked at the Sheriff, looked at Sarah. "No, you --"

He blinked, turned to look at the log wall, as if to look through it to the mountain cat outside, then looked back at Sarah.

"You -- how --?"

Saran reached over her shoulder, drew the double barrel howitzer, held it horizontally in front of her, muzzles to her left: she paced slowly forward, hard heels deliberately loud on the clean-scrubbed, tight-fitted boards.

"This," she said, "was my opening argument."

Sean winched his sagging jaw back into place.

"Sarah?" he squeaked, blinking, and Sarah thought she saw disappointment in the man's eyes. "You ..." -- he looked at the wall again, looked at the pretty young woman in front of him, holding the abbreviated persuader and wearing an utterly guileless expression -- you?"

"Sean." The Sheriff touched the Irishman's arm, and the red-headed fire chief flinched.

The Sheriff walked over to his desk, hauled open the bottom drawer, pulled out a bottle and three glasses: he uncorked something water clear and not over thirty days old and poured two fingers into each glass.

He handed one to Sean and one to Sarah, and hoisted one himself.

"Sean," he said, "His Honor the Judge wants to recruit Sarah here as an Agent of the Court."

"An Agent?" Sean's voice was a little tight, as if suddenly his world had been grabbed and turned over a couple times, which in a way it was: suddenly these fixed points in his universe were much less fixed than he'd thought.

He looked at his glass of Two Hit John and decided now was the right time, and he knocked back the double charge of liquid detonation like it was water.

"He knows her skill at quick change and he is satisfied she can get information that no man could."

The Sheriff tilted his libation up and swallowed it, peeled his lips back with satisfaction as it hit bottom with a fiery explosion somewhere aft of his belt buckle.

"Quick change," Sean muttered, looking at the black shirt as Sarah set her glass on the Sheriff's desk and tossed the shirt carelessly onto the chair.

"I needed to make sure she could handle ... a situation."

"Is that wha' ye call it then!" Sean demanded. "Ye take a puir girl like this an' dress her like that an' throw her in wi' a beast tha' can kill wi' a" swipe" -- his clawed hand slashed through the air -- man, are ye daft?"

He flinched as Sarah laid a gentle hand on his forearm.

"Sean," she said quietly, giving him those lovely, Kentucky-blue, long-lashed eyes, "do you remember when you spread out that life net and I jumped from the hose tower onto it?"

Sean saw the Sheriff give her a hard-eyed look.

He didn't know about that!

Sean nodded. "Aye, lass, I remember!"

"Would any of the Irish Brigade have made that jump?"

"No' willingly, lass," Sean admitted. "No' unless they had to!"

"But I did," Sarah said, "and you heard me laugh when I did."

The Sheriff's expression was that of a man who would like to turn this lovely child over his knee for a good old fashioned spanking.

"Sean, I may need your help, but you have to understand -- if I do, it will be on short notice and I will very likely be in a great deal of trouble, perhaps hiding from someone who wants to kill me."

Sean's face darkened and Sarah saw the first wrinkles of a thunder cloud start to knot up on the man's forehead, and she hid he satisfaction: she knew the man had a strong sense of protection, she knew his warrior's blood would run hot at the thought of someone harming a woman, a child, someone weaker, and she was playing on this.

Sarah was manipulating a man: not for the first time and it surely would not be the last, but it was the first time the Sheriff saw it in action.

Sean waited until Sarah brought her stubby thunder gun over her shoulder and slid it into the back-scabbard, then he took he hand in both of his, carefully, as if it were a flower-blossom, as if he were afraid of crushing something delicate.

Sarah felt both his hand envelop hers and she marveled again at their strength and their heat, and she felt a surge of something she'd tried to keep contained: she knew it for what it was, and she'd felt it when she admired the manly warrior who swung a leg over the saddle when he mounted his Cannonball mare.

Sarah realized she was feeling rather womanly.

Sean released her hand.

"I am wi' ye both," he said quietly, and both the Sheriff and the Agent-to-be knew that his word, so given, was a bond he would not break.

"You must never tell anyone -- anyone at all!-- about this," she breathed. "Promise me, Sean, my life hangs on your word!"

Sean thrust his empty glass at the Sheriff, and the lean old lawman with the iron-grey mustache refilled the short, heavy-bottom, wide-mouth tumbler, then refilled his own.

Sean held his glass up, Sarah picked up hers, and the Sheriff, his.

"Sarah me dear, wha'e'er ye are called," he said solemnly, "I gi'e ye my word!"

Three glasses tilted up and three throats drank.

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17. THE JUDGE

 

His Honor the Judge glared at the half-dozen before him.

Sarah was looking at him with big innocent eyes.

The Sheriff was looking carefully drowsy, which fooled the Judge not at all.

Sean was looking from the Judge to the Sheriff, to Sarah, and Jacob was quietly cleaning his nails on a short-bladed, very sharp knife.

Jackson Cooper had his hat in his big hands, twisting it into a felt sausage, which he tended to do when in the presence of due authority, or a pretty woman.

The Bear Killer yawned, hugely, widely, then laid down, resting his black chin on black paws and closing his eyes.

If the Judge wore spectacles, he would likely be glaring over top of them; as it was, he puffed out a few more clouds of fragrant, hand-rolled Cuban cigar smoke and muttered, "Does the entire world know about this?"

"No, Your Honor," Sarah and the Sheriff said together. "Just we here. No more."

"Jacob!"

"Yes, Your Honor." Jacob wiped his blade on his shirt sleeve, thrust it back into the sleeve-scabbard, looked at the Judge with an expression that was surprisingly similar to Sarah's.

His Honor the Judge shook his head, frowning. "If I did not know better," he said in a low, almost a menacing voice, "I would swear you were all related, all of you!"

Jackson Cooper looked at the Judge with big, surprised eyes: the Judge thrust his finger at the towering town marshal and barked, "You would be the uncle nobody claimed!"

"Yes, Your Honor," Jackson Cooper mumbled, his ears turning red and his hat suffering between his huge, callused paws.

"Stand up straight, man, you're not on trail!" the Judge said, a little more kindly: "you've done nothing wrong that I know of."

Somehow the town marshal was not particularly reassured by the addendum.

"Miss Sarah."

He looked directly at Sarah, thrust the cigar back between his teeth.

"Yes, Your Honor." She wore her very best, I Am Innocent And I Know It expression, which did not fool the Judge a bit more than the Sheriff's drowsy eyelids.

"Sarah, you are proven to be a quick-change artist when modeling your mother's fashions in Denver."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Do you think you can do that in other circumstances?"

A ghost of a smile tugged at Sarah's face and the Judge saw deviltry and merriment in her pale eyes.

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Sheriff."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Sheriff, how good is she at wrapping a man around that dainty little finger of hers?"

"Just foine, Your Honor," Sean interrupted. "She had me cranked so tight around't I had to go see the chropractor in Denver!"

"Oh, is that so?" the Judge replied quietly, whitening eyebrows raising as he tapped the ash off his cigar into the gutta-percha ashtray on his desk. "I thank you, Sheriff, for your professional estimation."

Sean's ears flamed as red as his Irish cheeks.

The Judge glared at the Sheriff.

"Well?" he demanded.

"She'll do," he said shortly.

"Good enough." The Judge puffed briskly on the Cuban. "Sarah Rosenthal, step forward."

Sarah took three ceremonially-short steps toward the Judge, stopping half a foot from the front of his desk.

"Sarah, I am going to ask you to do something for me. I want you to think it over carefully and well, but do not discuss it with anyone --"

"You want me as an Agent of the Court. You want me in particular because I can appear to be someone else, I can look like whoever I must be in order to get information you are looking for."

The Judge reached up and removed the cigar from his mouth, irritated: he didn't like to be interrupted, and Sarah knew it, which is exactly why she did.

"You want to know if I can get information from a man, Your Honor. I've been doing that. You'll need someone with steady nerve and who is not afraid to take a risk. Ask Sean about my jumping out of the hose-drying tower onto his life-net."

"I already heard about that," he muttered.

"Then you already heard about that mountain cat we brought in."

"Yes, I heard about that," the Judge shouted, "and if you were my little girl I'd have you across my knee and fan your backside!"

"Your'e welcome to try, Your Honor," Sarah said, her voice hardening and her eyes growing pale, "but I'll guarantee you'll come out in second place."

The Judge's eyes narrowed. "You," he said slowly, "dare ... threaten, me? HERE?"

Sarah did not back down an inch.

"It was you who threatened me, Your Honor. Now if you think you can turn me over your knee and swat my backside, jump right on." Her voice was quiet, almost a whisper, and her ice-pale eyes burned into his. "But kiss your wife goodbye and have your insurance paid because you will never live to tell the tale!"

If it was possible for silence itself to shiver, it did, and His Honor Judge Donald Hostetler glared at the thirteen year old girl in front of him.

"Sheriff?" he said, never taking his eyes off her.

"She was three feet from that mountain cat when she put both barrels of her shotgun into its ribs," the Sheriff said. "Took out the shoulder so it couldn't claw her into its mouth and cleaned out the heart and both lungs with one shot. She dropped the shotgun, took one step back and put a pistol ball through its ear, and this before I could get off a shot, and me with my shotgun coming to shoulder."

"It'll take more than that," the Judge snarled.

"You're the one who wanted me, Your Honor," Sarah said, her voice quiet but very distinct in the room's heavy hush. "You must have seen something in me you thought useful. If you can use me, swear me in."

"Or?"

"Or stop wasting my time."

Jackson Cooper's belly sank slowly to the approximate level of his trouser cuffs.

In all his years of knowing His Honor the Judge, no one -- criminal, lawman or politician, banker, lawyer or mine owner -- nobody! -- had EVER spoken to the man in such a way!

He waited, as a man will wait for the lightning bolt that will blast a sinner from the face of the earth.

His Honor the Judge's eyes narrowed and he leaned his elbows on the desk, blew out a liquid stream of cigar smoke, laid the stogie in the cigar-holder, stood.

"Miss Sarah."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"You have stood before me and you have not bent one inch."

"Yes, Your Honor."

He leaned forward, extended his hand.

"Congratulations, Agent Sarah Rosenthal."
Sarah took the offered hand, gave a deferential half-nod.

His Honor released his grip, opened a desk drawer, took out a polished wood box: he stepped around the desk, opened the box to display a bronze shield, dull in color, with smooth metallic banners across the front: FIRELANDS DISTRICT COURT, the first banner read, in an arc, with folded pennant-ends and beneath it the word AGENT, and centered, the number 1.

"This is your insignia and with it, your authority. You now have leave to operate within the full jurisdiction of this Court's authority, and if necessary beyond it, when under orders."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"You have full powers of arrest, search and seizure, and you may bear arms in the commission of your duties."

"Yes, Your Honor."

He looked long into the lovely lass's pale eyes, then he reached up and rested his finger tips gently on her shoulders.

"Sarah," he said, his voice surprisingly gentle, almost fatherlike, "we only have one of you. As much as I plan to use your womanly talents to gather information, and that is the primary need I have for you, I want you to remember something."

He removed his hands, and placed a gentle fingertip in the middle of her forehead.

"This" -- he tapped her once -- "this is your greatest weapon. Use it first, last and always. Your job is to slip in, to be invisible, to absorb like a sponge and flee like a shadow." He returned his hands to her shoulders, grasped her firmly this time.

"Sarah, we only have one of you. I for one would like to have you around for a very long time to come."

"Your Honor," Sarah said with a perfectly straight face, "I shall take your sound advice, for getting myself killed would just ruin my vacation plans." She tilted her head with a disarming little smile and planted her knuckles on her hips and continued:

"As a matter of fact, if I end up getting killed, I'll never speak to you again!"

At this, both Agent, Judge, Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff, Marshal and Fire Chief relaxed a little, and shared a good laugh together.

"Congratulations, Agent," the Judge said quietly, taking her hand again, and the others crowded around her, adding their good wishes and congratulations to the private little moment.

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18. THE SISTER

Sarah's gloved hand was warm on Jacob's forearm as they walked slowly down the alley between the Sheriff's office and the funeral parlor.

Their pace was slow; they had no particular destination.

Jacob ordered his thoughts before he spoke -- a habit he'd acquired from his pale-eyed father -- and he considered the effect his words would have before he spoke them.

"Sarah," he said quietly, "I have feelings for you."

Sarah stopped, her hand suddenly hard on his forearm: she pulled and he turned and she looked full into his eyes.

Her eyes were wide and unblinking.

His were filled with sorrow.

"Sarah, you know I am married."

"You are married to Annette and she is with child."

Jacob nodded.

"Sarah, I have loved you since I first saw you." He swallowed hard. "I wanted you for my sister."

Sarah's curved fingers gently caressed the troubled young man's cheek.

"And now?"

Jacob looked a little embarrassed and a lot sick.

"I still do."

"Is that all?"

Jacob's eyes changed and his hands seized her shoulders, hard, almost painfully.

"No," he said, his voice tight. "Sarah, I looked at that painter you and Pa brought in and I took a long look at that woman and the child that cat killed and all I could see was you a-layin' dead with claw marks all over and your guts a-hangin' out! Sarah, you have money, you have a good family, please don't do things like that!" His voice descended to a raspy whisper, almost as if his throat was closing up on him.

He bit his lip, then whispered, "There won't always be someone to get you out of trouble!"

Sarah blinked, genuinely surprised: she brought her arms up fast, vigorously, breaking his grip and throwing his hands off her shoulders: she stared for a long moment, then she seized the long, tall deputy, wrapped her arms around him and hugged him just as hard as she could, clung like she was drowning and he was a driftwood on a stormy sea, and he felt her trembling a little.

He wrapped his own arms around her and hugged her back, tight, tight.

They held one another for a long, long moment, then finally:

"Jacob?"

"Yes?"

"I can't breathe."

Jacob let go suddenly and so did she and she backed up a step, her face red, and she took a breath, took another: she was half bent over, and she looked up and started to laugh.

Jacob still looked miserable, all the more because he'd just caused this lovely young woman distress, and a little puzzled, for she was laughing and he felt about as low as he'd felt in a very long time.

"Jacob," Sarah said, "I do believe that is the sweetest thing anyone has said to me in my life!"

"What?" he blurted. "About your guts hangin' out?"

Sarah took his face between her palms, brought her face in close until all he could see was one merged, pale-blue eye.

Sarah kissed him, once, delicately, and whispered, "Jacob, thank you for caring about me!"

She pulled away, quickly, ran down the alley, almost skipping: he watched her retreating backside and reached up, shoved his hat back and scratched his scalp.

It took him a half hour to realize she'd just derailed his entire lecture he'd planned on her being careful because him or his Pa might not be there the next time she gets in trouble.

He was right.

They weren't, and she did.

 

Hard hands and a hard voice seized her from behind, grabbed her around the middle and picked her up.

She felt a man's thigh under her backside and knew her attacker was using it for leverage.

"Looky what I got," a voice chuckled behind her right ear. "I got me a panther killer! She don't look so nasty, now does she?"

Two others came around, grinning: all three were a bit the worse for drink, none of them had bathed in a few days, and Sarah knew they expected her to kick and squeal.

She lowered her head, looked at the other two through long, dark lashes, and smiled a little.

If they knew her better they would know it was a wicked smile, but all they saw was a pretty young woman,and she belonged to them now.

Sarah caressed the hands overlapped across her belly and purred, "Say, big boy, what can you show me today?"

Raucous laughter, one slapped another across the chest and they looked at each other, then at their captive.

"What can we show you?" the one guffawed.

"Not you, Curly," Sarah sneered. "This real man behind me, the only one who cares enough to show me some sugar!"

Her captor dropped his leg and released his grip and Saran turned, then jumped, wrapping her arms around his neck.

He was ugly and unshaven and his breath smelled, and Sarah's angelic smile was reflected with a curled-lip sneer.

"Well, are we going to dance in public, or shall we take this somewhere more ... private?"

He bent a little and set her down and her knee drove right into his unexpecteds: she seized the wire-wrapped handle of a sleeve knife and stabbed, backwards, blindly, felt steel drive into flesh and heard a bawl of surprise: she swung her fist, the needle-sharp blade slashing across her attacker's face: he thought she was punching for him, but honed steel sticking out the bottom of her grip meant she didn't want to drive her knuckles into his stubble, and he too fell back, his hands going suddenly to the laid-open cheekbone.

Sarah snatched out the other sleeve-knife, turned: her eyes were ice-pale, the flesh stretched tight over her cheekbones: gone was the pretty young woman with apple cheeks and a flawless complexion, and in its place, a spinning, whirling, skull-faced dervish dispensing blood and lots of it, and none of it hers.

Three men fell back, all badly cut, two of the three stabbed through the forearms and all three slashed across their face: Sarah backed out into the street, then she drew a double lungful of wind and cut loose with the most God-awful, I-am-being-tore-apart-and-murdered scream she'd ever heard, much less expelled: the scream of a woman, on the main street in town, was a thing to galvanize men into action, for the Western man was a man of chivalry, and a woman in distress was guaranteed to kindle the protective instincts of the basest soul: the trio found themselves seized, bandages pressed against freely-bleeding wounds, then several sets of eyes turned toward the pale-faced, trembling young woman with a knife in each hand and a look of horror on her face.

"That one," she quavered, raising a palsied hand and thrusting a trembling, bloody-gloved finger at the first one, "grabbed me and said he was going to -- going to --"

Jacob ran up, pale-eyed, and Sarah dropped the knives, reached toward him, swayed --

Jacob caught her as she went limp: he had one arm around behind her shoulder blades, he bent and caught her up behind the knees, he stood there with a double armful of unconscious woman, his expression changed in an instant from anger to surprise, and he blurted, "Now what do I do with her?"

His father's hand rested gently on his shoulder.

"Pack her into the Jewel, son," he said. "When she comes around, get her statement."

"Hey Soapy!" a familiar voice yelled. "I seen it all!"

The Sheriff turned and regarded the speaker solemnly.

"Anyone else see what happened?"

Mr. Baxter shoved open the Jewel's ornate door, his hands busy polishing a glass with a bar towel.

"I was looking out the window, Sheriff," he said. "They grabbed her and she fought back."

"We was just funnin'," one fellow whined, "we didn't mean nothin' by it --"

The Sheriff strode over to him and seized him by the throat, slammed him back against the funeral parlor's clapboard wall, squeezed.

He heard Jacob's boot heels on the board walk behind him.

"Sir," Jacob said quietly, "you'll never get a statement from him if you kill him now. Let Doc fix him up, then we can give him a fair trial and hang him."

The Sheriff turned and looked at the man holding a cloth to his laid-open cheek. He definitely looked sick, he was bent over and one hand was spread protectively over his lower belly; his knees were together and he didn't look good at all.

"You want to tell me what happened?" the Sheriff asked, and the man with bad teeth and more pain than he'd had in a very long time felt those pale eyes drive in through his and run cold water right down the middle of his back bone.

"Get Sarah inside," the Sheriff said, his voice rough. "You-all, bring these three to Doc's place, and don't none of you three try anything. I ain't killed a man for two days and I'm gettin' restless."

From the set of his jaw and the look of his eyes, none of the three doubted the man one little bit.

 

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

Jacob was sitting beside Sarah, holding her hand.

Sarah was lying on Doc's table; Nurse Susan managed to divest her of her bloodied gown and gloves, then drew a sheet and a quilt over her, tucked up around her chin: Jacob pulled them up just far enough to get to Sarah's damp hand, freshly washed, thanks to Nurse Susan's careful ministrations: he sat there for he didn't know how long, and he really didn't care, and half the time he was bent over with his forehead on the back of her hand, miserable.

His Pa came in and drew a chair up beside Jacob, and he sat there with his hand on his son's shoulder, and together they watched Sarah sleep.

She was breathing slow and easy and the Sheriff correctly surmised Doc gave her something potent to help her relax, and both father and son shared a moment, each one a fierce protector, and both men giving comfort to another.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, I love her."

The Sheriff was quiet for a long moment.

"I do too, Jacob."

"Sir --" Jacob straightened, looked miserably at his father. "Sir, I ... love her!"

"And you're troubled because you are a married man."

"Sir, am I wrong?" Jacob whispered.

The Sheriff turned, looked around, then leaned close to Jacob: the son felt the father's breath on his ear as the older man whispered.

Jacob's eyes widened and he looked at Sarah, and suddenly it made sense, and his gut felt like it split open and dumped out about twenty ton of rocks.

"She's my --"

The Sheriff held up a forestalling finger and Jacob's throat locked shut around the word.

"It is no wonder you love her," the Sheriff whispered, and Jacob saw amusement in the older man's eyes. "Matter of fact I consider that a right good thing."

"Yes, sir," Jacob whispered back, then he looked at Sarah, then back at the Sheriff.

"Sir ... she's thirteen ... that would make her my little sis?"

"Yes, Jacob."

Jacob grinned, wide, broad and genuine, and he squeezed her hand, very gently, and felt her squeeze back.

"I always wanted a little sis," he whispered.

"We're not telling her until her birthday."

"When is that, sir?"

"She'll turn fourteen on Christmas Day."

Jacob nodded, and the Sheriff saw delight fade from his son's eyes, and trouble replace it.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, she -- from what they said --"

The Sheriff waited.

"Sir, her knives are over there," Jacob nodded toward the sideboard. "She has sleeve scabbards." His expression was puzzled. "Sir, who taught her to fight like that?"

The Sheriff laughed silently, his ears reddening.

"You, sir?"

"Oh, no, Jacob. I'm good but I'm not that good." He took a long breath, stood. "It was Esther. Your mother."

The Sheriff seldom saw his son honestly nonplussed, but he saw it now.

Jacob looked at his sleeping sister.

Mother taught her?

Jacob thought to the knife-fighting lessons she'd given him, and he nodded, slowly, the look in his eyes very, very far away.

Suddenly ... suddenly it made sense.

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19. STRANGER

 

Sarah sat her carriage seat as regally as the Queen, her throne.

The Sheriff, beside her, rode easy, not entirely relaxed, but not rigidly: even in his formal Sunday-go-to-meetins, the man had the flexibility of the horseman, and when on foot, he was as lithe as one of the great cats.

Word travels fast in a small town, especially when it's a story worth tellin', and by the time eager lips whispered eager secrets to eager ears and out even-more-eager lips to the next set of ears, and so on, and so on, why, by the time it reached Bonnie Rosenthal's cultured ears, the story was magnified to where dainty little Sarah singlehandedly slaughtered a stampede, stomped every cowboy pursuing the stampede into the ground, collected fresh-sliced ears for trophies and danced naked in their blood, not necessarily in that order.

Mr. Rosenthal was waiting on the porch, concluding some business with a rat-faced individual in an expensive suit -- an individual who looked at the Sheriff, then quickly away, quarter-turning as if to try not to be obvious that he didn't want his face seen.

Sarah turned only her eyes and assessed the look on the Sheriff's face, and the tightening in her gut agreed with what her eyes told her: not only was her mother's husband unhappy, the stranger was trouble, and she was about to step into the middle of it.

Jacob flanked out a little.

He'd been riding behind the carriage; between the carriage in front, and rising land behind, his visual signature was broken; visible, not obvious, he became suddenly obvious as he swung out and rode up beside his father.

Jacob knew impressions counted; he wanted this stranger -- and, if need be, Rosenthal -- to understand that two lawmen, father and son, both tall and lean and with a carefully cultivated mustache and a six point star on their lapel -- two lawmen stood, or rode, shoulder to shoulder and if they intended to buck the law, they would definitely come out in second place.

Neither lawman realized that both their eyes were a pale, glacier's-heart blue.

Jacob drew up as his father ho'd the rented nag to a stop in front of the wide front porch.

The rat-faced man lost no time in descending the three steps and walking quickly with a hitching gait toward his own carriage -- also one of Shorty's rentals -- and neither he nor Rosenthal missed Jacob, turning his horse to keep himself aimed like a searchlight at the stranger.

He wanted it very obvious he was studying this man.

"Gidyap!" the stranger hissed, slashing at the nag with his buggy-whip; Jacob turned away, turned his Appaloosa with knees only until he faced Rosenthal.

"Well, young lady," Rosenthal almost shouted from the porch, "I understand you made quite a spectacle of yourself today!"

Bonnie shot a look at the man -- the Sheriff saw the anger in her features, quickly hidden -- but before she could speak, the Sheriff stepped out of the carriage and strode over to the porch.

He slid in between husband and wife, standing so close his belt buckle almost touched Rosenthal's overhanging gut, and his voice was barely above a whisper.

"You," he said quietly, "are my friend. We have done business, we have shared a drink and we have shared confidences, so I am going to give you some advice." His smile was tight and it was most certainly not showing in his hard, pale eyes.

"This young lady conducted herself as a lady. She was set upon by toughs and footpads who had larceny and worse in their hearts. They lie bleeding in my jail and the doctor is sewing them up right now because the Righteous set upon the three who set upon this child."

He leaned a little closer as he spoke.

Rosenthal backed up half a step and the Sheriff crowded right back in on him. He had the advantage, he knew, and he was damn well going to press it.

"She wasn't doing anything wrong. They came up behind her and grabbed her and the would have dragged her back in the alley. I have wanted dodgers on two of the three and my gut tells me the third is wanted as well. Now she's your daughter, Rosenthal, and you are my friend, but by GOD!" -- the Sheriff's eyes widened, his teeth were bared and he seized Rosenthal's arms and pinned him against the clapboards of his fine, big house -- "you will treat that poor little girl with consideration, because she -- did -- nothing -- wrong!"

Rosenthal swallowed, his throat suddenly gone dry, the fire extinguished in his belly: Bonnie laid a gentle hand on the Sheriff's forearm, and in a gentle, faintly Southern-accented voice, said "Sheriff, perhaps if we could talk for a moment?"

The Sheriff released his grip on Rosenthal's upper arms and he stepped back, his face hard: he waited a long moment before turning to face Bonnie.

Removing his cover, he extended his arm: Bonnie laid a gentle hand upon his sleeve, and they paced together to the opposite end of the long porch.

Jacob's Appaloosa, like most of its breed, had the gift of silence when it so chose, and Jacob trained his mount to a silent tread when possible: the stallion ghosted around behind the carriage and Jacob dismounted, offering his hand, and Sarah took it.

Jacob felt a fierce wave of protectiveness as he saw her silently mouth the words Thank you! just before she stepped down.

Rosenthal glared poison at his daughter as she glided up the steps and across the porch: her eyes were downcast, her mien subdued; Jacob opened the door for her, waited until she was within before closing the door and turning.

He stepped up to Rosenthal, extended his hand.

"Mr. Rosenthal," he said quietly, almost smiling, "may I congratulate you, sir."

Rosenthal's grip lacked strength; it was the grip of a man whose guts had long since slithered down his pants legs and burrowed into the ground, never to be seen again.

"Eh?" Rosenthal wore the expression of a man who just discovered a fish sticking out of his shirt pocket.

"Mr. Rosenthal, you have a wife any man would envy, you have a daughter who is coming into beautiful womanhood, a daughter who will doubtless have many suitors. As a matter of fact" -- Jacob's smile dissolved and Rosenthal saw the Old Sheriff's eyes in the son's skull, boring into his own -- "as a matter of fact, Mr. Rosenthal, I consider Sarah my sister, and I would be very much obliged if you would bear that in mind."

Rosenthal did not think to close his sagging jaw until after Jacob dismounted the porch.

 

A disagreeable-looking little man in an expensive suit printed his message on the telegraph form.

Lightning did not trust the man at all and half expected him to try and weasel out of paying for the telegram, but he did not.

Coin and printed form exchanged hands and Lightning turned to his telegraph key, tapped out the identifying header, then sent the message to Denver, a message that would cost a man his life, and soon.

 

"Mother," Sarah said, her hands folded properly in her lap, "I want you to leave that man."

Bonnie didn't have to ask who "that man" was, it was a request Sarah had made before.

"Sarah, please, we've discussed this --"

"Mother, we have a prospering cattle ranch but where are the profits? Where is you inheritance?"

Bonnie blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it.

"Mother, he is bleeding you dry, he is bleeding us dry. He intends to send me to boarding school, he intends to send Polly and Jade as well, and I fancy he'll get rid of you as well. Do you know the man he was speaking with before we arrived?"

"Sarah, what happened in town?" Bonnie hoped to derail this unwanted line of conversation.

"What happened? The Sheriff already told you what happened. I was the victim, Mother. I did nothing wrong."

"Sarah, please, don't lie to me --"

Sarah stood, her eyes blazing.

"Mother," she said, her voice tight, "you are already given the answer to your question and I will discuss it no further. Neither will I be sent to boarding school, and if he has you killed, I will gut him slowly with a dull spoon!"

"Sarah, don't --"

"You don't want to end up chained to a crib in a dirty saloon again," Sarah hissed, standing and advancing on her mother, her fists clenched, "and that is the very best outcome if you stay with him!"

"We will discuss this later, when you are --"

"When I am what, Mother? What's wrong? Does the truth hurt?"

Sarah's forearm blocked her mother's open-handed slap.

"Don't try it," Sarah hissed, her eyes dead pale, and Bonnie's violet eyes widened, shocked, as her daughter's face went dead pale, tight-stretched over her facial bones, and Bonnie felt something cold clamp around her heart.

She backed up, shivering.

"I don't know you," she whispered. "I don't know you!"

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20. SINGER

Bonnie Rosenthal was wife and mother, but she was also owner and operator of the House of McKenna.

She'd been a McKenna before she met the Rosenthal; she kept that name for business purposes, and also as a rebellion: a black-sheep kinsman intended to murder her and inherit her holdings, and very nearly succeeded: she ended up in a private railcar, gagged into silence, shackled into helpessness, her wrists cuffed overhead to a heavy eye-bolt in the ceiling, her shackled ankles held to the floor by another heavy eye-bolt: she watched through the end door as the Sheriff made a flying dismount onto the adjacent flatcar, came boiling through the private car's back door by virtue of a briskly applied boot sole, and when her would-be abductor tried to hide behind her to avoid being shot, she used what little slack she had in her chain to lift one foot and drive her sharp little heel as hard as she could onto the arch of his foot, crushing the porous bone and toppling the screaming man sideways, where he inherited a .44-40 round from the Sheriff's Winchester.

This, of course, did the scoundrel's health no good at all.

Bonnie blinked, shook her head: she delicately pressed her spectacles back up the bridge of her nose with a middle finger and focused on the bolt of cloth loosely draped over her sewing bench.

It was many years since her abduction, it was many years since she'd been drugged and smuggled out of town, it was many years since she listened to her own blood discuss coldly how he planned to murder her and toss her body into a particularly deep ravine ... naked, so no flutter of cloth would attract a casual eye, so no unusual color would draw attention: he laughed when he spoke of how she would rot down, what of her wasn't eaten.

Bonnie's hands fisted hard, crushing the cloth into damp knots in her trembling grip.

Many years, and still the terror was so real.

She closed her eyes, took a long breath, raised her head, looked through the window at the working floor.

Several women were busy, working treadle machines, cutting cloth, fitting a mannequin with a half-finished gown, all but Sarah, who was altering a nearly-finished gown, using one of the ladies as a living mannequin ...

Bonnie blinked, stared.

Sarah?

She watched, violet eyes wide, as her daughter very competently tucked here, pinned there, stepped back, nodded: Bonnie knew Sarah worked with the women on the floor, but she had no idea she was making gowns ...

Sarah?

Sarah stopped, turned a little, looked at Bonnie: she smiled a quiet little smile, a knowing smile, and turned back to her work.

Bonnie looked away, feeling almost ... guilty? ... then she looked at the clock, folded one arm across her slim waist and bit the other hand's foreknuckle, shifting back and forth the way an undecided soul will, before finally surging toward her office door and marching briskly across the floor.

"Sarah?" she said gently.

"Yes, Mother?" Sarah said from between the pins between her lips.

"Sarah, Mr. Rosenthal and I will be going to Denver tomorrow, to the theater."

"Yes, Mother, I know. I will take care of the children. Please have the very best time you possibly can. Do you think this skirt drapes properly?"

 

"Well?" The big man behind the heavy desk snarled the question around a cigar clamped between yellowed teeth. His nose was a little crooked, the legacy of a long-forgotten street brawl that didn't go as well as he'd intended.

"You were right, Boss. He gimme excuses."

"No money."

"No money, Boss."

The Boss's eyes tightened a little and the rat-faced man in the expensive suit knew this meant ill for the debtor.

"He owes you big, Boss. You know that."

The Boss's eyes fixed momentarily on the rat-faced man.

"You can't let him set a bad example, Boss. Nobody will want to pay up if you don't make an example of him."

"You sound like you want to cause some trouble, Sloan."

The rat-faced man smiled quietly.

He liked causing trouble.

"I know he's coming to Denver tomorrow, Boss."

"Oh, really," the Boss said offhandedly, leaning back in his big stuffed chair, as if the information was only marginally interesting, which of course made Rat-faced Sloan all the more eager.

"I know which theater him and that pretty wife of his will be attending."

"The theater, eh?" the Boss said through a cloud of cheap cigar smoke: despite his ill-gotten wealth, the man could not divest himself of smoking the cheapest cigars he could find.

"Yeah, Boss, it belongs to --" Sloan smiled slyly -- "a competitor, shall we say? -- he owes you too, Boss, we can make an example of Rosenthal in dis guy's theater an' ... encourage him to pay up. Before we lowers the boom on him too."

"And just what boom do you propose to lower, Sloan?"

Sloan's eyes narrowed and he showed narrow teeth in a feral grin.

"I knows who to pay off, Boss. I got him and his wife special seats, I did."

"It sounds like you've got it all worked out."

"Oh, yes, Boss," Sloan chuckled dryly. "Oh, yes. Oh, yes."

"Good." The Boss stood abruptly. "Take care of it."

"Right, Boss!"

 

Sarah's voice was gentle as she read to the twins.

Polly and Opal wore matching flannel nightgowns (which Sarah made for them) and nightcaps (which Sarah also made) and drew their quilts (which Sarah pieced together especially for them) up under their chins.

"And the Princess had milk to wash in and wine to drink, but the girl from the poor family had water to wash in and water to drink."

"Ick," Polly said. "Wine!"

"Milk to wash in! Ick!" Opal echoed.

"I know," Sarah agreed, smiling gently at her younger sisters. "I wouldn't want to wash in milk!"

A shadow drifted up from the floor: The Bear Killer stood, resting his head on Sarah's book, and she rubbed his ears affectionately.
"Bear Killer," she asked, "would you want to wash in milk?"

The Bear Killer shook his head, his short ears flapping loudly: "There," Sarah said, "we have an expert opinion!"

Polly yawned, and so did Opal: Sarah waited less than four minutes, and the twins were asleep.

Sarah stood, The Bear Killer looking up at her: she put her finger to her lips, slipped the book back into its gap in the bookshelf, then cat-footed out of the twins' bedroom, The Bear Killer ghosting along with her.

She eased their bedroom door almost shut -- she left it open the breadth of a man's finger, no more -- she slipped into her bedroom, looked into the crib.

She was watching a ranch wife's child while the wife tended sick children of her own: Sarah arranged for a wet nurse to tend the child, but she was delayed, and Sarah knew she would have only a short time before the infant got hungry.

She reached into the crib, picked up the warm, blanket-wrapped bundle, carried the child downstairs, The Bear Killer following, curious: he reached up with his moist, black nose, sniffing loudly at this curious package as Sarah plucked the bottle from the pan of hot water on the stove.

"Too warm," she whispered. "Let's go outside."

The Bear Killer trotted happily to the door: he knew "outside" meant fun things happened, and he was eager to go out with his beloved Mistress.

Sarah turned the kitchen lamp low -- until only a tiny flame clung to the woven wick -- she opened the door a little, then a little more, her eyes busy.

She pressed her hand to her side, felt the reassuring solidity of the bulldog .44 she'd taken to carrying.

The Bear Killer snuffed loudly at the cool air cascading in, and Sarah opened the door, slipped out, drew the door to.

The baby felt the cool air and screwed his face up and began to fuss the way a child will when it's about to cloud up and storm all over the place.

"Come on, Bear Killer," Sarah whispered urgently, grabbed her skirt with her free hand and skipped quickly toward the barn.

She hauled open the heavy door, spun in, made sure The Bear Killer was with her, then drew the door shut.

The nighttime barn smelled of horses and saddle leather, manure and hay and straw: Sarah could not see, but she knew the barn more than intimately: she took a few steps, reached sidewise with one foot, smiled: she turned and sat confidently on a bale of hay, pulled the bottle from her apron pocket.

The little boy-baby finally found his voice.

The Bear Killer shoved his muzzle into the wrapped bundle, snuffing loudly, muttering deep in his chest.

Sarah checked the milk against her wrist as the little fellow let go with an unhappy wail.

The Bear Killer growled beside her, laid the soft fur of his bottom jaw against the back of her hand, and gave a quiet, subdued "Rrooooooooo," a sustained, almost musical note.

Surprised, the baby wiggled in his swaddle, then giggled, hiccuped and whimpered.

Sarah could see in her mind's eye how the little fellow's face was screwing up and wrinkling and getting all red as he got ready to cut loose with another caterwaul, and sure enough, he did.

The Bear Killer sang with him, softly, as if knowing a full-on Bear Killer sized howl would not only terrify the child, it would scare the horses drowsing hip-shot in their stalls.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Rosenthal settled themselves into the reserved theater-seats.

Rosenthal was pleased to get a good price for these excellent seats: he expected to have to pay three times the price, and when the girl obviously made a major mistake on pricing, why, if she was foolish enough to offer, he was canny enough to accept.

Overhead, watching through a recently drilled peephole, a nervous tongue wet whiskey-damp lips and narrow teeth exposed themselves in a feral smile.

His quarry was directly beneath the heavy chandelier.

No one was within three seats of the victims-to-be: it would be a clean kill, and a terrible accident: nobody would be at fault, it would just happen, pipe connections loosen with time and the chandelier just fell ... awful, just awful.

Tsk, tsk.

Of course, it would be made known to certain parties that this man owed the Boss a goodly amount of money, and when one does not pay one's gambling debts, one will come to terrible misfortune.

All of which could be avoided by simply paying one's debts.

The rat-faced man moved the candle, which was his sole light, and adjusted the pipe wrench to fit the pipe union.

This, he thought, will be fun.

 

In a darkened barn near Firelands, an immense black dog sang softly of wild mountains and deep forests, of swift running prey and relentless pursuit, he sang of full moon a-gleam in a midnight sky and he sang of stars like handsful of gleaming silver coins cast carelessly across the velvet firmament, and the child, rocked in feminine arms and serenaded by a wild heart, chewed happily on the rubber nipple and drank the warmed milk.

In Denver, a woman in a rich gown stood in the center of a stage, her soprano voice filling the hall, and overhead, a rat-faced man loosened the pipe union, paying no attention to the hiss of escaping natural gas.

 

 

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21. SINISTER

Sarah sat in the darkness, rocking the child, one hand buried in The Bear Killer's thick, curly fur.

Sarah remembered what it was to be helpless, to be a child, to be tortured, to be hurt as no child should ever be hurt.

Sarah remembered what it was to tear herself away from the evil that wanted to devour her, and how she rent her very soul asunder in her desperate attempt to escape.

Part of her living soul went into the Undermountain, and escaped the evil that lived there, befriending a blind boatman on a black river, hiding from the shadows in the red darkness, the shadows that wanted to devour her, but could not, because the part torn away and taken below still contained innocence, still contained purity.

The part that remained the world above, the world of light and of men and of sky and stars and wind, was equally vareigated with light and with dark, and in the shadowed barn's nighttime interior, the darkness in her soul twisted and rejoiced.

Sarah taught herself to write left-handed, because she knew what she planned was sinister, and she knew left-handedness in another language was known by that very word, and what she planned was sinister indeed.

Sarah knew her mother's husband -- he'd never been her father, despite his attempts to appear so to the public eye -- was bleeding them dry, draining their funds, to feed his gambling habit: he might have made good on his debts, but Sarah managed to slip from her mother's fashion show, managed to place bets in the man's name, managed to run up his indebiture to the point where he could never dig his way out.

She knew to whom he owed the money, she knew the man's reputation, and she was betting his reputation would not stand the insult of someone claiming to know nothing of the size of the debt owed.

Sarah rocked the child, smelled hay and horses and saddle leather, and listened to The Bear Killer's great sigh as he lay down beside her: there were little rustling sounds as mice explored for seeds and for grain, restless hooves stamped, once, never more than once, and she heard the swish as horse's tails slashed against the sides of the rough-plank stalls.

 

The pipe wrench took one final bite on the union's eight-sided collar; the weight of the chandelier hung entirely from this threaded connection.

One more pull and it would drop free.

 

Bonnie glared at her husband.

"I am sending that smart mouthed brat of yours to boarding school," he gloated, his voice oily and his face ugly: "she has back-sassed me for the last time, and her sisters are going as well. I won't have them underfoot any longer --"

"No daughter of mine is going back East to school," Bonnie said, her angry voice low, almost a whisper.

"You are my wife," Rosenthal shrugged, taking out a cigar. "You will do as I say. I own all your property, remember."

For a moment -- for one mad moment -- Bonnie considered reaching up and seizing the cigar, tearing it apart in front of him, but she resisted the urge to make a public spectacle.

She stood abruptly, struggled to the end of the row, almost ran up the aisle, half-blind with anger and half-frozen with fear.

She got halfway to the back of the theater when the chandelier crushed into the seats and a fireball detonated overhead.

 

I don't want to kill him myself, Sarah thought, smiling a little.

It would be satisfying.

Very, very satisfying.

No, he intends my Mama harm, and he intends to send us away.

Better let someone else do my dirty work for me.

Sarah slipped the empty bottle in her apron pocket, stood.

She walked slowly towards the barn door, slid it open just enough to slip through sideways, The Bear Killer following; she closed the door, slowly, carefully, and the little boy baby swaddled in the bend of her arm yawned a great, drowsy yawn.

I will change his bottom, Sarah thought, and he should sleep until morning.

She looked to the horizon, looked in the general direction of Denver, a quiet, satisfied smile on her lovely young face.

 

Bonnie whirled as the crystal chandelier, the gaslight chandelier, all steel and glass and ruin, settled and tilted a little.

Her mouth dropped open and she ran back down the aisle, fighting her way through panicked theater-goers like a salmon fighting up a swift river.

She got to the chandelier, grabbed an iron circle, pulled hard, looked.

What was left of her husband was pinned to his red-velvet theater seat like a butterfly to a cork board -- that is, if the pin was made of gas pipe, and it drove in just under his chin and extended through him and through the padded theater seat and into the wood floor.

Bonnie tasted copper and the world turned silvery-sparkly.

 

Strong arms thrust under the unconscious woman; strong voices commanded the crowd; Bonnie came to on the sidewalk, blinking her eyes and looking up at an anxious face roughly bisected by an enormous, villainously-curled mustache.

"Are ye awake then?" an Irish voice declared. "No, now, stay ye down, my lady, we've a physician here someplace!"

"My husband," Bonnie gasped. "I have to --"

"No, no, now, ye're the one ye need to worry about," the man soothed, and Bonnie lay back, then looked to her left.

Across the street, the entire upper floor of the theater was afire: two hoselines sent streams of water arcing through shattered windows.

"We'll get tha' under control, ne'er fear," the mustache assured her, then looked up. "Ah, here's th' doctor now."

He released his gentle grip on her gloved hand, thrust to his feet, and was gone.

Bonnie Rosenthal looked up at the physician,distinguished in a spade-trimmed beard and top hat, his opera-coat flawless and tailored.

"My husband," Bonnie whispered hoarsely. "Mr. Rosenthal. He's dead."

 

Sarah's pale eyes were luminous in the lamp light and she looked up, and her smile was not kind.

Good.

He's dead.

We're not safe yet, but we're safer than we were.

She picked up her pen, dipped it in good India ink, and began to write.

She'd retained the services of an auditor the week before -- requested in Mr. Rosenthal's name, of course, forging his hand flawlessly, with his pen on his stationery -- and now, left-handed, she wrote out a request that the auditor immediately examine the accounts of their ranch and determine where certain missing funds had gone.

She dated it for the day before yesterday.

Sarah wrote left-handed, and when she was done, she folded an envelope, inserted the folded half-sheet, sealed the flap with red wax, and used the Rosenthal seal on the red blob of hot, fresh sealing wax.

There.

Done.

I will post that in the morning.

Standing, she puffed out the lamp, her hand cupped above the chimney to direct her quick breath: she turned, walked barefoot across her bedroom floor, slipped into her turned-down bed.

Beside her bed, an indistinct pile of darkness, The Bear Killer curled up on the hook rug.

Neither had any trouble at all falling asleep.

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22. CONDEMNED?

 

"Sawwah?" Polly asked, carefully placing her fork beside her plate.

Sarah lowered her own fork and looked directly at her little sister.

"Sawwah, we gonna have another baby?"

Sarah laughed, her eyes darkening with pleasure, turning a distinct, light blue color: her complexion was flawless, enhanced by the red curtains filtering the light and casting a complimentary glow on the ladies' faces.

"Why would you think we are having another baby?"

Polly frowned, regarded her half eaten pancake: she debated whether to eat or talk, and decided on both.

"I like having a baby around," she said decisively, carefully cutting a wedge from her buttered flapjack. "He smelled nice and he didn't cry much!"

"You know why he didn't cry, don't you?" Sarah asked, hiding her smile behind her teacup.

Polly shook her head a little, just enough to set her curls swinging.

"It's because you two took turns holding him and rocking him."

"Oh," Polly said, as if that simple answer solved all the world's problems.

"When is Mamma coming home?" Opal asked, her birth-mother's dark eyes and epicanthic folds adding to the beauty of her father's Celtic ancestry, distilled into this little girl seated at the big table.

Sarah smiled a quiet little smile before making reply.

They never ask about Rosenthal, she thought, then delicately brought her napkin up, touched it carefully to her lips.

"I'm sure she will be home soon," Sarah said, enunciating her words carefully, as if she were helping Miz Emma again, teaching in their little whitewashed schoolhouse.

Their maid looked up, looked at Sarah; wiping her hands on a towel, she flipped the towel expertly over one shoulder, draping it flawlessly as she bustled briskly down the hallway.

Sarah swallowed her tea, surprised that her throat was suddenly so very dry: she watched the twins, saw their eyes as the maid came back down the hall, and from the change in Opal's expression especially, Sarah knew the maid's expression told a tale.

She could have laid money on what that tale was.

"Miss Sarah," the maid said, her voice tight, and Sarah rose, turned: the maid looked half-sick and Sarah stepped quickly to her, taking her by the arms.

"Here," she whispered, "sit here," and hooked the leg of her chair, pulling it out; she steered the maid into it, and the hired girl with milk-pale skin and freckles sank into it as if her strength just drained out her flare-bottomed heels.

There was a quiet step in the hallway, the measured tread of a lawman on a solemn duty, and Sarah turned, one hand on the maid's shoulder, her stomach tightening as the Sheriff, pale-eyed and silent, stepped into the dining room, stopped, then turned and looked squarely as Sarah.

"Walk with me," he said, his voice quiet, and Sarah suddenly felt very cold.

 

A man with no eyebrows, little mustache, a man with an aching head and little memory of how he got there, rolled over at the bottom of a narrow staircase.

Strong hands hauled him upright, strong voices questioned him; he blinked, shook his head a little, trying to dismiss the ringing in his ears, the ache that threatened to pound his head apart from inside.

He was helped upstairs -- half-carried most of the distance -- and out a back door, a door used by few but performers: the air was cool, it smelled good, what little got past the malodorously singed ruin of what used to be a mustache.

A hand grasped the side of his face, a thumb pulled down his eyelid, a dignified man in a spade-cut beard peered at the rat-faced man's eye, one, then the other: he nodded, said something to the men who'd brought him out, and he was set aside and the men went back in.

His balance was not what it should be, he knew, and his head ached abominably --

What just happened?

He remembered --

The wrench touched the pipe union, he gave it a final eighth of a turn and the threads parted and half the union fell with the chandelier.

Gas came whistling out of the pipe and the rat-faced man jumped back, his eyes snapping over to his lighted candle --

Fool, fool! he thought, just as the billowing cloud of gas roared into liquid conflagration and he could have sworn he saw the burning face of a Beelzebub roiling into joyful, incendiary life, just before the burning gas jet squirted straight down and hit the floor and spread out like a living, incandescent flood.

He ran, he fell, he tumbled, he realized somewhere in the pain-filled cascade of his uncontrolled descent that he was rolling over and over and over again down a narrow set of stairs.

He had no idea how long he'd lain in the darkness.

He blinked, dismissed the memory, wobbled to his feet.

"Who's that?" someone asked, and "Some actor, I guess," came the reply.

The singed man with narrow teeth tottered into the darkness of an alley and was gone.

 

"I am sorry to have to tell you this, Sarah," the Sheriff said, his voice emotionless, official: she expected him to produce a set of child sized handcuffs and require her to surrender her wrists to him.

I caused his death, she thought, her eyes widening and her breath catching in her throat. He needed to be killed and I made it happen.

I killed him before he could cause us harm!

"Sarah, your mother will be home later today."

The Sheriff saw Sarah go pale; she swallowed, looked up at him, her eyes big, her expression vulnerable.

"He's dead, isn't he?" she said huskily, and the Sheriff nodded.

"Mother ... is Mother hurt?"

Sarah's stomach dropped about a half mile as it dawned on her.

She'd just caused the murder of her evil stepfather.

She had no control over the method of the murder.

Her mother could have been killed --

She seized the Sheriff's forearm, her breath quick, shallow.

"Please, Mother! Please -- is she --"

"She's fine," the Sheriff said, "she's probably shook up. All I got was a telegram. I haven't seen her. It didn't say anything about her being hurt."

"Where is she now? I've got to see her --"

The Sheriff lowered his head a little, his gaze a palpable force.

"You need to stand fast," he said, his voice hard, inarguable: "you have two little sisters and right now you are the woman of the ranch. I need you here, Sarah, I need you taking care of this place until your mother is returned."

"Yes, sir," she whispered, uncertain whether she was feeling her face and neck flush, or whether her tissues were surrendering the last of the blood from their tiniest vessels.

I did it, he's dead, I did it, he's dead, I did it, he's dead --

She blinked, focused on the Sheriff, nodded.

"Can do, sir," she whispered: it was something she'd heard Jacob say, and she wanted the Sheriff to understand that she would do exactly as he said, because she had plans for her new Agent's credentials, and she needed the Sheriff very firmly in her pocket.

"I am terribly sorry for your loss," he said, his hand gently taking both of hers and holding them, his hands big, strong, warm, protective.

Sarah looked up at the man, her bottom lip trembling, and she blinked twice, then said "Sheriff?"

"Yes, Sarah?"

"Sheriff, may I ask you something?"

He nodded, slowly. "Yes, Sarah, you may."

"Am I going to hell?"

The Sheriff blinked, turned his head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"Eh?"

"Sheriff, I wished the man dead a thousand times over. He was an evil man, he was a brutal man, he was a hateful man and I loathed him with the very blackest places in my soul, and now he's dead." She took a couple quick breaths. "The Parson said if we wish murder on someone it's the same as committing the murder ourselves."

The Sheriff considered this, then very gently, patted Sarah's hands, frowned a little, turned them over so they were palm-up.

"These," he said, "are not the hands of a murderer." He squatted, looked up a little at her. "I'll tell you honest, Sarah, if a man could be shot for his thoughts I'd be dead long years ago!"

Sarah managed a faint smile, thrust her bottom jaw out, considering.

"While I'm confessing, Sheriff, there is another matter."

"I am listening."

"I confess to the sin of jealousy."

The Sheriff's left eyebrow rose a little, but he offered no other comment.

"Sheriff, I am very jealous of Angela. I wish I were your little girl."

Sarah noticed this took the man back a step.

He knows something, she thought, looking into his pale-blue eyes, those eyes that could go pale in a heartbeat, eyes that could be warm and loving or as hard and obdurate as the frozen heart of a winter mountain --

It's like looking into my own eyes.

He knows something.

In a sudden intuitive moment, Sarah looked at the Sheriff, and her breath caught in her throat, then she dismissed a girlish fancy as the unlikely wish it most probably was.

It did not help her fancy's dismissal as the Sheriff squeezed her hands, just a little, and whispered, "If you were my daughter, Sarah, I would be pretty damned proud of you!"

Sarah threw her arms around the man's neck and she felt his arms around her and she held the lean, hard-muscled lawman for a long, long moment, at least until she heard the door open and the quick patter of the twins' patent-leather slippers on the porch boards and Polly asked, "Can we have a hug too?"

 

Back in Denver, a man sat behind a large desk, blowing smoke rings toward the stamped-tin ceiling.

He'd succeeded in making an example of a welsh, a coward, a man who owed him money and gave him excuses.

He'd shown his other creditors it was very wise to pay what they owed.

Now it was time to seize the man's estate and turn what he had into cash.

Especially his women.

Women were a commodity, he knew, and if you knew where to peddle flesh, women could be sold quickly, and at quite a good profit, and he knew where, and how, to make such sales.

He smiled a little as he remembered how Rosenthal talked when he drank.

He'd talked indiscreetly about his wife, about her previous life of providing horizontal refreshment.

His wife shouldn't object to being sold again, he thought.

She's been sold before.

The youngest daughters ... too young

He has one daughter who should be just right.

The Boss smiled, and it was not a pleasant smile.

I should make a fine profit off this deal.

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23. INVESTIGATION

Sarah smiled a little as she left her mother's bedroom.

Sarah knew something of herbs, and of certain pharmaceuticals: she knew her mother's bitters would be just the thing to disguise a particularly potent potion, and she had every confidence that her mother would not waken were one to set up a battery of field-guns in the side yard, and have artillery practice.

Her sisters were in town with the maid, on a contrived errand: Sarah quickly dressed, as she did when modeling her mother's fashions in Denver: she knew the value of appearances, and so she appeared to be older, mature, her hair rather severely pulled atop her head and twisted into a disapproving walnut: a pair of window-glass, round-lensed spectacles completed her disguise, and when the auditor knocked on the front door, Sarah opened it and viewed the bookkeeper disdainfully.

"Please come in," she said, "you are expected."

The auditor removed his hat, stepped across the threshold. "Mrs. Rosenthal?" he said hesitantly.

"This way, please." Sarah turned briskly, walked quickly down the hall, took a key from around her neck and unlocked the late Mr. Rosenthal's office study.

She smiled as she did: he kept it locked, he forbade any to enter, save only the maid, to clean or haul in wood, or haul out ashes: he had no idea Sarah had a key, nor did he know -- she smiled again as she selected another key -- that she also had a key to his locked-shut roll-top desk.

Sarah opened a drawer, extracted another keyring, flipped quickly through the short, blunt-nosed collection, opened a panel that looked like another small drawer -- she thrust the key into the now-exposed keyhole, turned it left, back, left, back again, then right: with her other hand, she reached around the side of the desk, pressed with delicate fingertips: she felt a tiny click, released the panel, which swung open with a hidden spring, on hidden hinges.

Sarah reached in and withdrew three books, handed them to the auditor.

"You will find these are duplicate books," she said briskly as a pale-eyed young man stepped through the door. "We have reason to believe the late Mr. Rosenthal was extracting funds from the ranch's profits, and we understand he stole and squandered his wife's entire inheritance, which you will find documented here" -- she tapped the middle of the three books -- "at the red bookmark."

She turned, extended her hand; Jacob stepped forward, sizing up the stranger, then Sarah.

Jacob well knew the Masonic admonition of silence, and circumspection: this stood him in very good stead as a lawman, and he was being very circumspect, taking in everything around him, listening to his sister for the clues he was sure she would feed him.

"May I present Chief Deputy Jacob Keller," Sarah said. "You are also addressing a special investigative Agent of the Court."

Jacob's right ear pulled back at this: Sarah hadn't lied, not exactly, but she'd just misled the auditor by giving him the impression that he, Jacob, was the Agent.

As a lawman, an investigator, he appreciated her subterfuge.

"Will you require anything else?"

"Ah, yes, ma'am, if I could have access to the bank records."

Sarah smiled thinly, reached into the desk, withdrew a large, thick envelope.

"This was delivered from the bank this morning," she said quietly, placing it in his hands. "We felt having the bank's report, directly from the bank, would be more reliable than anything that might be obtained here."

"I would like to compare what's here with what's" -- he hefted the envelope -- "here."

"Of course."

Sarah reached into the desk, withdrew a slightly smaller book. "This should cover it."

"And where may I work ...?"

"This desk is yours for as long as you shall require it, or I can have a table brought in."

"If I could have the table, please."

Sarah smiled thinly, turned and glided out of the room.

 

Mr. Baxter polished the gleaming mahogany bar top, frowning as he did so.

The Sheriff took a long, grateful drink of his beer, lowered the heavy glass mug, squeegeed foam from his handlebar with thumb and forefinger.

Mr. Baxter worked his way over to the lawman.

The Sheriff saw a question in the barkeep's eyes.

"I hear a great deal," he said quietly, his bar towel describing precise circles: "it's hard to know what to believe."

The Sheriff placed his beer mug carefully on the bar's spotless surface.

"Rosenthal?"

Mr. Baxter nodded, his face grave.

"It was murder."

Mr. Baxter nodded again, his bar towel ceasing its circumnambulations: he leaned the heels of his hand on the slick mahogany and leaned forward a little.

"Someone unscrewed the pipe union that held the gaslight chandelier up."

"Unscrewed the union?"

"Directly above Rosenthal's reserved seats."

Mr. Baxter's eyebrows rose.

"That took some thought."

The Sheriff nodded. "The Denver police department thinks it has an idea who."

"Hm." Mr. Baxter grunted skeptically; he had his own opinion of city police departments of the era.

He picked up the bar towel, stopped.

"Didn't Bonnie go with him?"

The Sheriff picked up his beer, drained it, set the empty back down, his eyes pale ... very, very pale.

"She was," he said.

Mr. Baxter's eyes widened a little, a look of dismay dropping over his normally genial features.

"She said they had a disagreement and she got up to keep from punching him in the face. She was three rows up the aisle when it fell."

 

Sarah studied the timetable.

The train from Firelands into Denver was the simplest leg of her journey.

Once she got into town, the trolley lines -- which ran on their own timetables -- would be her key to mobility.

She intended to go in disguise, and the disguise she chose would use the local traction service.

She looked at the carpet bag, open on her bed, and smiled.

She was looking forward to her next disguise.

For the trip in and the general inquiries, she would look as she did at this moment -- like a stern, disapproving young woman.

Her escape from the city had to be in a very different persona.

She looked at the nun's habit hanging from her closet hook and her eyes narrowed a little, narrowed with a deliciously naughty feeling.

This, she thought, is going to be fun!

 

The widow Rosenthal slept a night and a day; she woke, uncomfortable, and after tending certain urgent necessities, sat back down on the side of her bed, bending over to place the white-porcelain lid back on the chamber pot.

She looked up, saw a glass on her bedside table; in it, a clear amber liquid, and beside it a folded card, tented up so she could read it:

Drink me.

Bonnie picked up the glass, sniffed, realized she was really quite thirsty, and drank.

It tasted vaguely of tea, it had an after-odor of ... clover blossoms? ... she was not sure, but she was pleased with the taste.

In less than five minutes her head was clearing and she suddenly felt very rested, very refreshed.

There was a tap at her door: it opened the width of three fingers and she heard Sarah's hesitant, "Mother?"

"In here, dear," Bonnie replied.

Sarah opened the door a little more.

"Your bath is drawn, it's nice and hot and we have a light supper waiting on you."

"Supper?" Bonnie asked, surprised as her stomach reminded her it was ready to turn around and start chewing on her spine.

"You were ... unwell," Sarah said carefully. "It was thought best that you sleep."

"I have arrangements to make," Bonnie said, standing: "the funeral, there will be the will --"

"They're taken care of," Sarah said soothingly. "Services will be at your convenience. The will is filed with the court and the auditor is finding some very interesting withdrawals."

"Auditor?" Bonnie echoed, puzzled.

"Oh, yes. There were suspicions of financial improprieties and now we have proof."

Bonnie lowered her forehead into her hands, slumped over, groaned.

"How bad is it?"

"We're broke," Sarah said simply. "He spent every last sou. Not one red cent left anywhere."

"How will we pay our help?" Bonnie whispered.

Sarah smiled. "It's taken care of, Mother."

 

A rat-faced man sat in front of the Boss's desk.

His smile was feral, unpleasant; he liked his job very well ... very well indeed, especially when he got to sample the wares before taking possession of them ... and he was in the habit of sampling new goods very thoroughly before submitting them for auction.

He would leave it to the Boss to file a legal claim against the property; that would be through the courts, and the courts were something the henchman preferred to avoid if at all possible.

Procuring goods, now, marketable commodities ... he could do that.

As a matter of fact, Rosenthal bragged about certain documents in a certain roll top desk, documents like deeds and water rights and mineral rights ... documents that, like the women he intended to seize, just might provide him with a personal profit.

The Boss didn't have to know how many of the documents he found, after all.

As he left the Boss's office, his eyes narrowed, and he was momentarily annoyed: his forehead felt tight, and he knew he looked like he'd gotten a sunburn: he tugged his Derby hat low to hide his missing eyebrows.

He would take a perverse delight in taking out his pique on the mother and daughter.

After, of course, he was done with the younger two.

The rat-faced man liked his job very well.

Very, very well.

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24. SCANDAL

It was accepted custom in the Victorian era, that great time of American Westward expansion, for mourning to extend a full year or more when immediate family died: some women wore widow's weeds for the rest of their lives, and a widow was not referred to by any title but The Widow So-and-so.

It was a matter of some consternation, and indeed scandal, when neither the Widow Rosenthal, nor any of her daughters, appeared in public in any but their customary, colorful, fashionable attire.

It generated comment and gossip that the Widow Rosenthal was suddenly spending time with the Sheriff -- never mind it was generally at his office, and never mind he was never seen snatching her up in his arms or throwing her over his shoulder, to pound lustfully up the stairs of the Silver Jewel for indelicacies best not even imagined -- and of course, the gossip mill fueled itself on rumors that the Rosenthal ranch was bankrupt and would have to be sold.

The Sheriff leaned back in his office chair and considered what he knew so far.

The auditor who said he'd been summoned by Rosenthal himself, uncovered the man's corruption: the deceased had indeed been taking all the ranch revenues, he'd stolen his wife's entire inheritance (which used to amount to a tidy sum indeed!) and from the Sheriff's own inquiries in Denver, gambled it away: the Sheriff rubbed his eyebrows and sighed, for he'd known a number of men, good men, who'd gone bad wrong with drink or with gambling.

He personally suspected it may be a disease, but that was just his opinion ... still, men would spiral down into that obsessive drinking, or obsessive gambling, and they would justify their actions, and hide their actions, and lie for their actions, in the very same manner.

And, he thought, not just men.

It was a week since Rosenthal was buried, a week since Bonnie glared, dry-eyed, at the varnished casket, her little girls on either side of her, and Sarah standing a little away from them: none wore anything at all black, even their shoes were white, as if to show the world they refused to mourn, they refused to grieve for this scoundrel, this thief, this destroyer of their home.

The Sheriff asked Bonnie to come to his office, and he slid a paper across the desk toward her.

She read it and she looked at him with those lovely violet eyes, she hesitated for a long moment, then she snatched up the pen, thrust it viciously into the inkwell, scrawled her signature on the paper, threw the pen down on the desk and stormed out.

The Sheriff waited until she was gone, then he very carefully blotted her signature, looked long at the paper.

Mr. Moulton, the town's attorney, rose from his chair in the corner: he witnessed the signature, applied his official seal, very carefully placed the freshly signed document in his leather case and returned to his office.

The Sheriff now owned Bonnie's ranch and everything on it ... every building, every beef, every chicken, even the clothes that they wore.

His, now.

He felt no triumph, no sudden gloat of acquisition: he felt tired, he felt the weariness of a man who tried for so very many years to save as many souls as he could, a man who knew what it was to fail these people who depended on him.

His wife.

His daughter.

Dead, and he couldn't save them.

His men, during that damned War.

Dead.

He led them and they died, and their souls still clung to his guts.

He opened the top right hand drawer of his desk, opened it as far as it would go without its falling out.

He looked in, reached in, laid his hand on a Bible with a worn cover.

He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

There is at least one decent thing in this world, he thought, and on Sarah's birthday I will give her Mama's bible to her, and I will tell her the truth.

 

"Oh isn't it awful!" the gossip clacked, leaning conspiratorially over her teacup and glaring happily over her spectacles. "The Sheriff spoke to them right there on the church steps!"

"Really?"

"Oh yes, and I was there!" she nodded, vigorously enough she had to set down her teacup to keep from spilling: "he called the oldest girl's name and he called her loudly so everyone could hear! 'Sarah!' he called, and she stopped and you could tell from the look on her face" -- she shook an admonishing finger -- "that she'd done something and the Sheriff found her out!"

"Oh," the Mercantile owner's wife said uncertainly, shifting in her seat: "what happened them?"

The gossip sipped noisily at her tea, swatted as if at a fly. "Nothing," she said bitterly.

"Nothing? What did he say?"

"He said 'Sarah, I doubted what you told me. I was wrong. You were absolutely right. I will not doubt you again.'"
"That must be a good thing?"

"Why would -- oh, no, he had to be hiding something!" The gossip peered happily through gleaming spectacles. "I'm going to find out what it is! I'll bet that girl is misbehaving!"

"I really doubt that a schoolteacher would be misbehaving," Mrs. Garrison said mildly.

 

One week to the day later, Shorty took the dead wagon out to Bonnie's ranch.

Bonnie had come into the Sheriff's office, pale, shaking, white to the lips: the Sheriff rose, alarmed, grabbed her arm and steered her into a chair.

He hauled open his bottom right hand desk drawer, pulled out a short, wide mouth glass, poured in three fingers of Two Hit John and pressed it into Bonnie's trembling grip.

She tilted up the distilled rock buster and drank it like water; her eyes widened and she handed it back.

"More," she gasped, and the Sheriff poured her three more fingers of Water Clear, Not Over Thirty Days Old.

The Sheriff waited until she'd downed the second charge of Old Group Tightener, then he relieved her of the glass, set it and the bottle on the desk behind him and to his left: he slid another chair in front of hers, sat with his knees just touching hers, and he took her gloved hands in his.

"Bonnie," he said, his voice husky, "what happened?"

Bonnie looked up, her eyes wide, frightened.

"Sheriff," she whispered, "Sarah killed the man who was going to kill me."

The Sheriff's eyes went dead pale and his hands tightened very slightly on hers.

"He came in and he had a straight razor and he was between me and the desk where I keep my pistol and he described how he was going to use us and mark us and sell us and when we were burned out whores he would buy us again and cut us up slowly in the desert where no one could hear us scream --"

The last of the color drained from Bonnie's face and she opened her mouth and closed it and opened it again, and the Sheriff waited, his hands warm and strong holding her delicate, cool hands, and Bonnie yanked one hand free and covered her face and shook her head.

The Sheriff took her under the arms, stood, raised her to her feet -- actually he brought her off her feet -- he wrapped his arms around her, tight, and she clung to him, shivering, a woman who'd just about reached the very limit of what she could take.

"You're safe here, Bonnie," he whispered, his lips an inch from her ear. "You're safe here. No one will harm you. I will not let anyone harm you. You are safe here."

Bonnie nodded, her face buried in his shoulder, the act of a scared little girl desperately seeking comfort from her big strong Daddy.

She finally nodded and whispered, "I'm all right," and pulled away a little.

The Sheriff released her, held her hand as she sank back into the chair.

"No you're not," he said quietly. "You are as bad a liar as I am. Now some fellow came out and said he was going to do ... what?"

"He was going," Bonnie said, taking a deep breath and nodding once for emphasis, "he was going to ... chain me to a crib like I used to .. a whore ... and Sarah too, he was -- sell -- sell us in Frisco --"

"Deep breath," the Sheriff said reassuringly, "that's it, now blow it out, breathe in, you're doing fine, Bonnie." He laid a warm, reassuring hand on her cheek. "Is the man dead?"

"Oh my God yes!" Bonnie blurted, her eyes going big and round and the color roaring back into her face and she swayed a little: she grabbed the edge of her seat, closed her eyes. "Oh God, he's dead, and on my parlor floor!"

"Are the girls safe?"

"They're upstairs with Esther."

"Good!" the Sheriff said quietly, patting her hand. "Good thought. You brought the twins and Sarah to the Jewel?"

Bonnie nodded, biting her bottom lip.

"And your maid?"

"She's with them."

"Nobody in the house then."

"Just ... him."

 

The twins played quietly on the other side of the room.

Esther had a large office, with a bed behind a curtain suspended from the tin ceiling; there were chairs, a table, there was her desk, in front of the window overlooking the street: she could walk between her desk and the window, if she wished, and admire the view of the clean, snow-mantle mountains beyond if she wished, and she often did.

Native to the Carolinas and familiar with the Appalachian Mountains, she'd never lost her marvel at these great granite giants.

The maid was dispatched downstairs for tea and for finger-cakes.

Sarah held what was left of a rag doll.

It used to have a head.

The muzzle of an Army Colt stuck out its neck, the revolver's handle visible below the doll's skirt.

Sarah's eyes were distant and her voice was a quiet monotone.

Perhaps most remarkable was Sarah's attire.

Her hair was tied in two bundles, on either side of her head, and tied with ribbons, like a little girl.

She wore a little girl style short frock and white stockings and a little girl's patent slippers.

"I heard him," she said, her voice a monotone.

"I heard him tell Mother how he was going to chain us naked into a slave-coffle and lead us away in irons.

"He told her how he was going to ... use us, he said the ... he was ... going to do to us ..."
Sarah began to shiver again and Esther leaned forward, laid a motherly hand on Sarah's arm.

"He was going to take us and sell us and torture us," Sarah squeaked, her face screwed up and tears spilling down her cheeks: misery engraved lines of horror on her shocked face, lines that should never appear on someone so pretty and young: "I knew I had to stop him but I had to surprise him so he couldn't ... he said he had a gun, I saw he had a straight razor ... so I changed clothes and I ripped the seam out of my rag doll and hid my pistol in it and I came skipping downstairs holding the doll in my arms like this" -- she clasped the doll to her bosom, grotesque now with a gun muzzle where the head ought to be -- "he called me a pretty little girl and told me to get over beside my slave mother."

"What did you do?"

Esther saw the change come over Sarah.

Something dark, something very deep and angry ... her eyes went from miserable to killing-angry in a tenth of a second or less; even her voice ... her voice was no longer that of a scared girl, it was stronger, harder...

...determined!

"I looked at him as innocently as I could and said, 'What are you going to do to us?' and he turned and reached for me.

"I lowered the doll's head and pointed it at him.

"The pistol was already cocked and I pulled the trigger, Aunt Esther. I drove him through the wish bone with a .44 ball."

Sarah giggled, then hiccuped.

"He looked kind of surprised.

"I stripped the doll off he pistol and I shot him again, Aunt Esther, and I heard someone screaming and I though it was Mama screaming and I looked up and she was holding her hand over her mouth and I watched my hand cock the pistol and shoot him again and I heard the screaming again and I shot him again and I realized that was me screaming, Aunt Esther, and I shot until the gun was empty and then I ran out on the front porch and I bent over the front porch rail and I threw up. A lot!"

Sarah's eyes were wide now, unseeing, and she'd become the scared girl again, alone and shivering.

 

I recognized him when he drove up, Sarah thought.

I'd placed bets with him when I was all gussied up for the fashion show.

I changed into a little girl so he would not recognize me and it let me get close to him so I could not miss.

Esther gripped Sarah's tight-laced fingers reassuringly.

She heard her office door open, heard the maid's light step, smelled the tea she brought, hot and seaming, on the big tray.

"You did no murder," she whispered. "You kept your mother alive, you kept all of you alive. You did the right thing!"

 

The Sheriff rode out to the scene, his pale-eyed son with him.

"Jacob," the Sheriff said, "once we're done here, I'll go to the livery and see what Shorty knows about this. You check with Mr. Baxter, see if he stopped there, who he talked to, then go to the Mercantile, see if he went there, and go to the depot, get the particulars from Lightning. We want to back track this fellow's travels from the moment he stepped off that train."

"Yes, sir."

"Let's go inside and see what kind of a mess Sarah made for us today."

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25. CONFIRMATION

The kitchen smelled of sulfur and blood and bowels, the slaughterhouse smell of a battlefield.

The Sheriff knew that smell.

Jacob knew his father knew the smell and he saw ghosts haunting the man's eyes, and he saw how his father seized the ghosts and shoved them from him so he could concentrate on his work.

They read the story on the parlor floor, they read it in doll-batting and blood.

Only two of the pistol balls exited the man's body; one was buried in the floor boards, the other -- it must be the one that drove through his open mouth and out the back of his neck -- went through the back door glass and was gone to who-knew-where.

They'd taken a mental snapshot of the body's position before Digger arrived with the dead wagon; with the carcass out of the way, they studied the scene -- careful to avoid stepping in blood, neither wanted to track blood any more than it already was -- step by step, they sounded out Bonnie's story, testing each link of the chain she'd given them, and finding each link of her story coherent, sound, interconnected.

The Sheriff examined the scene carefully, he and Jacob discussing particulars in subdued voices, and each mutually considered the situation exactly as Bonnie described it.

The Sheriff did not tell Jacob he was suspicious of anything that happened this close to the Rosenthal murder.

He didn't have to.

Jacob already suspected as much when he first heard there'd been a killin' under the shingles of the Rosenthal roof.

The only thing the Sheriff removed from the scene was the pistol ball he whittled out of the floor boards, and the knife -- a sharp-bladed clasp knife, which he folded up in a cloth and stuck in his pocket.

He quietly told Jacob to head into town and follow up on this fellow's comings and goings, and Jacob nodded, once, and headed out.

The Sheriff was not long behind him.

Instead of heading directly for Shorty's livery, he drew up before the Silver Jewel and took the stairs two at a time, ascending the stairs to his wife's office.

He wanted to confirm a few things with Sarah.

 

Polly and Opal stared at the closed door, listened to the Sheriff's boot heels, imagined how their big sister must feel with the big man with great authority commanding her presence.

They looked at their Mama, dark Oriental eyes and bright-blue eyes, each demonstrating the same solemn concern.

"Is Sawwah in twubble?" they asked with one voice.

"No, sweets," Bonnie said, trying to smile. "No. She is not in trouble. The Sheriff needs help figuring something out, that's all."

The twins looked at one another and nodded, as if confirming a suspicion, then they turned and looked at their Mama and their Aunt Esther.

"Sawwah is vewwy smart," Polly said.

"Vewwy vewwy smart," Opal echoed, and they nodded in unison, once, as if confirming a fact.

 

The Sheriff opened the door and Sarah entered the lawman's sanctum, her eyes going to the hallway, knowing the jail cells waited for any they might devour.

She felt her chest tighten a little as she imagined the heavy slam of a steel door, her hands gripping the bars, peering through them at something that used to be freedom.

The Sheriff drew out a chair, gestured; Sarah settled into it, folded her hands and raised her chin.

The Sheriff picked up the bottle and the glass and replaced them in the bottom right hand drawer of the desk.

"Did I miss a celebration?" Sarah asked, trying for a funny and failing.

The Sheriff gave her a long look, then drew open the top right hand drawer, reached in, barely caressed Sarah's Mama's Bible with his fingertips: he frowned, closed the drawer, sat.

"Sarah, first of all, I am confident the court will issue a no-bill."

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

"A no-bill means you will not be indicted for any criminal action."

Sarah nodded, swallowing.

"I need you to tell me what happened."

Sarah's mouth suddenly went dry and her stomach wrapped itself into a bowline.

"I saw the man before," she said, and if the Sheriff had been a cat, his ears would have swung forward and locked onto her words.

"Go on."

"When I ... when Mama had me ..."

Sarah swallowed. "I could use some water."

The Sheriff nodded, stepped over to the stove, pulled a dipper off its nail: he dipped up some water from the bucket, knowing it was pumped not an hour ago, and was still good and cold.

Sarah took the dipper, drank gratefully, ignored the dribble that ran down her chin and spotted her little-girl frock.

"Where did you see this man before?" the Sheriff prompted, walking across to the bucket again, dipped up another volume: he held it up and Sarah shook her head, looking away.

The Sheriff drank, drank a second dipper full, then hung it back on the nail, wiping his clean-shaven chin with his coat sleeve.

"I model for my mother," Sarah said, plunging ahead. "We were in Denver and he ... that man ... looked at me."

She looked up at the Sheriff with almost a guilty expression.

"He looked at me, Sheriff," she said, putting an emphasis on the word that spoke more eloquently of the way he looked at her than if she'd spent a half hour in descriptive oratory.

"So he undressed you with his eyes."

"And pawed me."

"No wonder you remembered him."

"He was a disagreeable little man," Sarah shivered, crossing her arms and looking away, an expression of distaste claiming her mouth.

"You saw him before. When did you first see him today?"

"I looked out my bedroom window and saw him driving up toward the house."

"You're sure it's the same man."

She nodded, her hand going to her mouth as she turned her head.

The Sheriff was on his feet again; there was an empty bucket beside the door and he snatched it up, brought it over. "If you're going to be sick, use this."

"Thank you," Sarah whispered, seizing the bucket and dropping it into her lap.

The bottom's dirty, the Sheriff thought, a half-second before it hit her lap: that'll leave a dirt ring ... too late now.

"He came in the house?"

"He did."

"What did he say?"

Sarah's stomach rolled over, untying the bowline.

She blinked and took a deep breath, then she gave a word for word recitation of the man's statements.

She quoted him exactly, emotionlessly, she then quoted her mother's exact words in response.

She described how she knew she was the only one who could stop this individual from committing his outrage upon her sisters and her mother and herself, she was the only one who could prevent him from ripping their collective virtue from them and then selling them as used goods on the slave-market.

Her eyes were distant, wide, unblinking as she spoke through wooden lips, described how she knew she had to get close to him to be absolutely certain that she did not miss.

Part of the Sheriff's mind was taking careful note of her recitation.

Another part of his mind compared her actions to those of the confident little she-warrior who whipped a stubby twelve gauge horse pistol from a back-scabbard and blew a known man-killer to hell at three feet, without hesitation and without flinching.

"... I cocked the pistol before I left my room and I skipped downstairs like a little girl, and when he reached for me I dropped my arm and lowered the doll and I pulled the trigger."

She spoke the words as if she was saying she placed a teacup on a saucer.

"I saw the ball punch into the middle of his chest.

"I let the pistol come up in recoil and I cocked it and brought it down and he opened his mouth to say something and I put the front sight on his open mouth and I pulled the trigger again and --"

Her words were run together, tumbling over one another; she stopped, cupped her hand over her mouth, looked at the wall behind the Sheriff with big, lost eyes.

The Sheriff rose, walked silently across the close-fitted, well-sanded boards, knelt: one knee down, the other up, he took Sarah's hand from her mouth, held it between both his.

"How many times did you fire, Sarah?" he asked, his voice soft.

"Six," she said. "Six times. I shot him to the floor and I kept shooting him. If the gun held twenty I would have shot twenty."

The Sheriff nodded.

"I would say," he almost whispered, "if this fellow intended to ravish you and your sisters and sell you and them and your Mama into a brothel, he needed killin'."

Her eyes changed and she nodded, looking away.

"Yes," she husked, "he did."

"Sarah," the Sheriff said gently, reaching gentle finger tips in under her chin and ever so carefully turning her head, turning her face toward him.

"Sometimes we who are stronger have to do terrible things to protect those who are not as strong. We have to act in a tenth of a second and then the world will spend ten years discussing it at their leisure."

She nodded again.

"Still feel sick?"

Sarah shook her head.

"Your'e as bad a liar as your mother." He took the bucket, took her hands, pulled. "Stand up."

Sarah stood.

"We're going outside. You could use some air."

"That would help," she said faintly.

She looked at the hallway, at the shadowed jail cells down that dreadful hall, and shivered, then she turned and followed the Sheriff into the daylight and the open air.

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26. DISAGREEMENT

 

The Sheriff's demeanor was decidedly guarded.

He was not often formally requested to attend the Judge, in the Judge's private railcar.

"Please, have a seat," the Judge mumbled around his cigar as he frowned his way quickly through a handful of official-looking papers.

"Damned politicians," he mumbled, "trying to turn us into New York City or something! Don't they realize --"

He stopped, tossed the papers carelessly on the pulled-out table of his opened, roll-top desk: he shoved his off hand in his pocket, waved the cigar like a conductor's baton and asked, "Sheriff, am I making a mistake with the beautiful young Miss Rosenthal?"

The Sheriff hadn't seated himself; he preferred to think on his feet, he preferred to discuss important matters on his feet, and so he remained on his feet, one hand at his belt buckle, the other hanging casually at his side.

"Yes, Your Honor," he said frankly. "I think you are making a big mistake."

"Sit down, man, you're making me tired looking at you." The Judge dropped into his upholstered chair, picked a fleck of tobacco from the tip of his tongue.

"Cigar, Sheriff?"

"No, thank you, Your Honor. Never took up the habit."

His Honor grunted, puffed the near-dormant stogie back into red-tipped life.

"A mistake, eh?" His Honor looked closely at the Sheriff as the man folded his long tall carcass into a comfortably upholstered, velvet covered chair.

"Yes, Your Honor."

"And why is that? Too young, do you think?"

"Frankly, Your Honor, yes."

"And is there anything else?"

The Sheriff opened his mouth to reply; the Judge cut him off.

"Is it because of that short frock she wore today? Because she looked like a little girl? Because you felt protective of her?"

The Sheriff's eyebrow rose and the Judge knew he'd just scored a hit.

"I would inquire of Your Honor's reasoning ... in recruiting her."

"Very sound, I assure you," the Judge said, and the Sheriff felt irritation at the Judge's cheerful voice. "First of all, Sheriff, she is female."

"Obviously," the Sheriff said in a dry voice, "but I fail to see --"

"Sheriff, the female of the species has certain innate gifts," the Judge interrupted again. "Ever since Eve swindled Adam into the Original Sin, women have been gulling men, slickering them into dirty deals and convincing the men it was all their idea. Women can get men to talk, women can flim-flam men out of their eye teeth and make them like it, and I need that, Sheriff!" The Judge thrust his cigar at the lawman like a weapon as he made his point, trailing a smoky zig-zag in the air as he did. "I need that in an investigator!"

The Sheriff shook his head, unconvinced.

"But why her, Your Honor? She's --"

"She's not a girl, Sheriff," the Judge snapped. "You of all men should know that. She's not been a girl since she watched her mother beaten to death, since she was hideously brutalized as a child, since she watched her father beat the girls upstairs when the Jewel was a house of ill repute! She's watched that and worse and had worse done to her and all before her years were counted in double digits!"

HIs voice climbed steadily to an infuriated shout as he recounted what the Sheriff already knew, and the Sheriff nodded slowly at the man's words, a lost expression in his eyes.

The Judge's face was dark with anger and he slammed his fist onto the tabletop, upsetting the ashtray and crushing the cigar forgotten beween two fingers.

"If I don't give her a lens to focus the hate in that young soul," the Judge hissed, his voice quiet now -- dangerously so -- "if I don't do this, Sheriff, she'll shell herself off behind a bitter wall and she'll become hard and hateful and very likely she'll be hanged for it, and I don't want that to happen!" His voice raised to a shout again, the words ringing in the smoke-layered air of the private railcar.

"Sheriff, she has all the guile of the female. Have you ever been to Denver when she models her mother's fashions?"

The Sheriff shook his head.

"I'm surprised," the Judge admitted. "You've been burning a candle for Bonnie McKenna since the first day you set foot in this town."

"Am I that transparent?" the Sheriff grated.

"At times."

"Wonderful."

"Sheriff, if you'd gone to Denver and watched the beautiful young woman my Agent is becoming, you would be amazed. Foundations and fashions, face-paint and coiffure and that frightened little girl you saw today becomes a desirable and mature young woman. Her mother uses her innocent beauty to make sales, Sheriff, and it works. You were in the Jewel the night Vega y Vega asked your permission to pay court to her, with intent to matrimony."

The Sheriff nodded.

"That was a few years ago, when she was ten. Ten, Sheriff, and she passed for marriageable!"

"She's too young!" the Sheriff almost shouted. "She's a child!"

"She hasn't been a child since --"

The Sheriff surged to his feet, his face pale, his hands fisted at his sides. "Don't say it," he husked.

The Judge assessed the lawman coolly, puffing on his cigar.

"I seem," he said, "to have struck a nerve. Sit down, Sheriff."

The Sheriff took a long breath, sat slowly.

"Sheriff, when she came to you today, she was a frightened child."

The Sheriff nodded.

"She looked like a scared little girl, she acted like a scared little girl and she sounded like a scared little girl."

The Sheriff nodded again.

"I'd like to show you something."

His Honor stood and went to a closet, opened it, took out a scandalously-brief, scarlet-and-black dance-hall girl's dress.

"I had her come with me over to Cripple. She wore this."

The Sheriff's face darkened with anger.

"She danced on stage, Sheriff. She disported herself most shamelessly in a public house, and do you know" -- the Judge hung the doxy's garment back with the others, closed the door -- "do you know, Sheriff, she was most convincing. She looked like a dancing girl and she danced like a doxy and she disported herself most scandalously."

"Why," the Sheriff grated, "are you telling me this?"

"For the same reason I am reminding you of her appearance two days ago in our schoolhouse. When she wore her hair in a walnut on top of her head. When she wore a mousy-grey schoolmarm dress and she wore round window-glass spectacles. She became Miss Sarah, a schoolmarm, and she was not only good at it, she was most convincing."

"I presume Your Honor has a point in all this."

"You're damned right I do, Sheriff," the Judge said, sweeping tobacco crumbs and the ruined remains of his fist-crushed cigar into his other palm, tipping the remains into the flared brass mouth of the waiting goboon.

"Sheriff, when she dressed like that little girl today, she became that little girl. When she dressed like that schoolmarm, she became that schoolmarm. When she danced like that dance-hall girl, she became that dance-hall girl. That is a rare gift, Sheriff, and I need that gift in my employ. She can slicker herself into a man's confidence and weasel information or a confession from him, she can get in, get it and get out -- and if she goes into a town as a schoolmarm and comes out in widow's weeds, if she goes in as a plainly dressed rancher's wife and comes out as a society matron, disguise alone will help keep her safe!"

"You're using her," the Sheriff said harshly.

"No, Sheriff," the Judge corrected. "I am using her gifts so I can save her from herself."

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27. BLESS ME, FATHER

 

"Yes, what is it?" the Judge asked, irritation plain in his voice: he looked up, frowning, the cigar jutting at an aggressive angle from the corner of his mouth.

The bailiff, refusing to be put off by the jurist's gruffness, said "The Sheriff to see you, sir."

"Send him in, send him in," the Judge muttered, thrusting the page aside and leaning back, his head half-wreathed in cigar smoke.

The Sheriff's hat was in the crook of his elbow; the man paced in, his military heritage evident in his carriage.

He stopped before the Judge's desk.

"Your Honor," he said, "you are a good judge of men and of character. I disagreed with you last night, sir, but I trust you."

"Hmp." The Judge grunted, pulled the cigar from his mouth, glared at the Sheriff.

"I neither need your trust, Sheriff, nor is it necessary," he said bluntly. "But, frankly, I am glad to have it."

His Honor extended his hand.

The Sheriff paced off on the left, stepped up to the desk, and the two men clasped hands.

 

A woman in widow's black rose unsteadily as the train stopped.

She hadn't moved since the others boarded; she sat, her shoulders rounded, as if weighted with grief; her head was bowed, as if too heavy to lift from the sorrows it contained: she spoke not a word to anyone, nor did she even look out the window.

She was in full mourning.

Dress and gloves, hat and veil, even her jewelry, all of the same unrelieved shade: it was as if her attire were extracted from a bottle of lampblack, or of India ink.

The porters deferentially touched their cap-brims as she came past them; she waited on the platform until her luggage -- what little there was -- arrived.

The porter carried her single satchel to a waiting carriage.

The woman walked slowly and he respectfully matched his stride to hers.

He offered his hand and she took it, he helped her aboard the carriage, and she clung to his hand a moment longer than was necessary: to an onlooker, it might appear as if the wordless woman was thanking the man in the only way she could, with a desperate clasp of black-gloved hands: only he felt the coin she surreptitiously pressed into his palm as she did so.

The widow reached into her small purse, extracted a slip of paper, handed it to the driver.

 

Chief Detective Simpson cracked the familiar seal, unfolded the paper, read the few words inscribed over the Judge's signature.

He'd worked with the Judge before, and the few investigators he'd sent in the past were all competent.

This new Agent would make himself known to the detective in the usual manner, he read.

There was a series of letters and numbers across the bottom of the page: he read them, read them again, leaned back and considered the clock, then stood and reached for his hat.

 

The hotel porter bowed and withdrew, his hand gripping the generosity -- the unexpected bounty! -- given him by the widow-woman.

She waited until he was gone, then she slipped a wedge under the door, tapped it in place, turned the key in the lock.

She turned to the trunk that was waiting on her when she arrived; smiling, she delicately undid two jet-black buttons on her bodice, reached in, withdrew a key: she unlocked the trunk, opened the heavy lid, extracted a small, square case: five minutes later she sat down before the mirror and began to work.

Dipping a narrow brush in a malodorous bottle, she painted a line down her cheek, beginning at the corner of her eye, then with a narrower brush, painted crossbars on this long, curved line.

As the ether dried, the nonflexible collodion contracted, puckering her skin into a horrible scar.

She turned down her lower eyelid, fixed it with a slip of sticking-plaster, then she carefully drew a white silk scarf over her entire face and fixed the nun's wimple over her head.

Adjusting the silver cross around her neck, she shook out the black habit, turned before the mirror.

She could see through the white silk veil, as it was very close to her eyes, but none could see through from the outside: her left eye, with the lid turned down, began to water.

She knew tears would trickle down and dampen the veil, and that was an effect she wanted.

 

The detective walked into the open, spacious, ornate church, knelt, genuflected: he rose, walked slowly up the center aisle, bowed to the Host, then nodded to the priest.

He turned, walked over to the row of confessional booths.

One had a red cloth sticking out of its closed door.

He opened the penitent's door, seated himself within, closed the door.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he said to the wooden latticework.

The latticework slid aside and he found himself facing a veiled nun.

"I am sent by our mutual friend," she said, and handed him a rose, then she reached up and unfastened her veil.

The detective's eyes widened as he saw the red, watering eye, the scar searing across the woman's otherwise-flawless complexion.

"Please forgive the veil," she whispered hoarsely. "I was ... careless."

"Your voice," he said. "Does the scar ...?"

"Down to my breasts, yes. It nearly ... he nearly cut my throat."

"Dear God," Simpson whispered. "And you're still working?"

"I haven't caught him yet."

"Is that why you're here?"

"No. He is fled to New York. My counterpart will find him."

Her voice was little more than a whisper, but coarsened.

"You must have had a lovely voice," he hazarded.

"I sang opera, " she replied simply.

"I'm so sorry."

"We need your help."

"Name it."

"Rosenthal."

Simpson sucked in a breath, hissed it out between set teeth. "Ah, yes," he murmured. "We found out who dropped the chandelier."

"Do you have him?"

"No," the detective said in a disappointed voice. "No, he was sent out on assignment. We don't know where he is."

"Describe him."

"Hm." The detective reached into an inside pocket, pulled out a top-bound notebook, flipped through several pages. "Mmm, yes, I thought he was the one. Teeth ... narrow teeth, narrow face, almost a hatchet face."

"Ratlike."

"Yes, very ratlike." He looked sharply at the nun with the ruined eye. "How did you know?"

"He was killed in Firelands two days ago."

"Killed!"

"He was trying to collect from the dead man's estate."

The detective chuckled. "Who killed him? Rosenthal's brother Levi?"

"Rosenthal has a brother?" The nun had only just replaced the veil, was in the process of raising her wimple: she stopped in mid-raise, and the detective thought how unusual it was to look at a nun with her headpiece removed.

"Yes. Levi is an investigator, and a good one -- we've known about the late Rosenthal for some time now. Levi is his brother and he is as decent a man as his brother was crooked."

"The late Rosenthal was thought to be a good man."

"He was good at fooling people, I'll grant you."

"With the henchman killed ... do we know who sent him?"

"Yes I do," the detective nodded. "Is there a reward?"

"None to my knowledge. His unsavory reputation alienated him from nearly everyone. Even his widow refuses to wear black."

The detective shook his head slowly. "May God save me from that bad a reputation!"

"I ask you again, who sent him?"

The detective smiled slowly. "Someone I've wanted to get my hands on for a very long time."

"Then let's get him."

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28. AMBUSH

 

Old Pale Eyes ducked and rock spalls rattled off his hat brim.

A trickle of blood stained his cheek where a sharp shard just grazed his cheek.

He controlled his breathing, his hands were tight on his engraved '73 rifle, and he waited.

He was in a little depression under a rock overhang and he was silently but most devoutly profaning the buttons on his coat for holding him too far off the ground.

He knew the attacker -- or attackers -- would work to flank him, would try to come in from one end or the other.

He also knew if they came in from his left, from his feet end, he would have the most trouble bringing effective fire on them.

Trust me to get in trouble, he thought: Law and Order Harry Macfarland asked him to come and help him serve some warrants and they'd not got to the first one before the ambush.

The Sheriff rode with his Winchester in hand, he'd just had this feelin', and he put down two attackers before things got too hot to stand and deliver, but at least Harry got away: he drove his magazine full at the bad guys and yelled "HARRY GET OUTTA HERE!" and Harry did not need to be told twice.

Another bullet spalled into the rock above, spattering him with dust and fragments.

This, he thought, is not what I had planned!

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29. COURT'S IN SESSION!

 

His Honor the Judge spat out the open window of his private car.

He was traveling now, traveling over to Carbon Hill, taking his skills where there would be business.

The Sheriff sent a note -- he would be helping the town marshal with some warrants, a couple of which were expected to be less than peacefully served -- and after their service, the summoned would be brought before the bar of justice.

The Judge debated whether to treat himself to a brandy, or to a cigar, and decided on neither: he had an appetite, and there was cold beef and bread in the tiny kitchen he maintained, and that, he believed, would suit him just fine.

 

"Maybe we got him."

"Maybe you'll flap your arms and fly to the moon. That's Pale Eyes and if he ain't dead we will be!"

"Pale Eyes? You idjut, why'nt ya tell me?"

"How was I to know that was him til after you took a shot at him!"

Silence for several long moments.

They were close, the Sheriff knew ... too close, and they would be ready for him.

His lips peeled back in a feral grin.

So they will be ready? he thought.

I already am!

The Sheriff felt a savage joy, knowing he was going to pit one man with one rifle against at least two men with rifles, and he knew chances were right fair he was going to inherit more lead than he would really like.

He didn't care.

He felt his face tighten and his blood ran cold and he rolled over on his back, sat up, threw his rifle's muzzle straight out --

Gone?

He dropped his off hand, thrust to his feet, scanning left and right, breathing through his open mouth, searching --

Movement! There!

The shining gold bead rose and stopped and he hesitated, puzzled.

They're both running!

I won't back shoot them ... I ought to but I won't.

 

Macfarland watched through his spyglass as the pair retreated.

He knew where they were likely to go.

They were like that: raise hell, then go to the saloon and get drunk.

He lowered his spyglass, then raised it and studied the countryside intervening very carefully, making sure no one else was in sight before raising up and collapsing the brass telescope.

He brought a small mirror out of his pocket and shot a quick flash at the Sheriff, then put the mirror away.

 

If one were back in Carbon Hill, one might see two young men, one in his teens and one barely older, excited and boastful, bragging to each other how they'd made that famous lawman scream in fear and beg them not to shoot him, how they'd made him grovel on hands and knees and snivel and cry before they allowed him to crawl away in search of the guns they took off him and threw into the rocks.

As a matter of fact, by the time they got to the saloon, they'd cultivated their tale to the point that they'd just taken on a double handful of Texas Rangers, Arizona Rangers, US Marshals and the whole of the US Cavalry, and made every man Jack of all of 'em sit up like a puppy dog and beg for mercy.

They tied off their (stolen) horses and went into the town's only saloon, (stolen) money burning their pockets and a vague fear gnawing at their guts, a fear they planned to drown like they usually did.

 

Carbon Hill was Law and Order Harry Macfarland's jurisdiction.

Harry didn't much care for such as this pair, though he tolerated them if they didn't cause trouble.

They didn't usually cause trouble, mostly because he'd personally knocked the dog stuffing out of each of them at one time or another, and like the cowards they were, they didn't want to cross a man who'd bested them once.

Harry and the Sheriff rode into town by a back trail; they glassed the main street, studied the sweating horses, made their plan, just as the train whistle announced the arrival of The Lady Esther, and the Judge.

The Sheriff smiled again, and it was not a particularly pleasant smile, and Law and Order Harry Macfarland shivered a little and gave a quiet thanks to his Creator that the smile he saw, was not meant for him.

The Sheriff studied the street, then dispatched Harry direct to the depot: "I will tend business here," he whispered, and his slowly spoken sibilants reminded Harry of the sound a rattlesnake's belly makes when it crosses over sun-dried rock.

Harry turned his gelding and went round back of the half-fell-in building that used to be their Mercantile; the row of warped, colorless, false-fronted buildings were enough to hide his travel from any watcher from the saloon.

The Sheriff opened the bolt of his Winchester just enough to see cartridge brass, then he drew each revolver in turn, clicking slowly, methodically, through the chambers: he did not load a sixth round, but he did pull out his boot knife, and experimentally draw its edge along his arm, as if he were shaving, and then he puffed his breath across the blade, and the severed arm hairs floated on the chilly evening air.

He slid the boot knife back into place, rose, thrust his boot into the doghouse stirrup and flowed onto Cannonball's back.

 

"You shoulda heard him squeal!"

The barkeep regarded the pair with bored eyes; he'd heard them before, and never cared for it, and he cared even less for their bragging tonight: if they had indeed tried to bushwhack Old Pale Eyes, he hoped most sincerely the lawman would catch up with them someplace else.

He'd dreamed he'd died looking at those pale eyes and he did not wish it to come true, not here, not noplace.

"Gimme another drink!" one of the pair demanded, and the barkeep poured him another, then set the bottle on the bar and walked away from them.

A shadow moved in the hallway beside the bar, a hand, pale and swift, seized the near outlaw's britches seat and pulled, hard: the other hand grabbed the back of his head and shoved, hard: with his bottom coming up and his head going down, he didn't have time to yell before the bar came up at a remarkable velocity and drove into his forehead, hard enough to detonate a suball of bright agony through his entire head and neck.

His companion froze, his eyes widening, then he dropped the shot glass and his hand began to curve down toward his holstered Colt and the Sheriff grabbed his wrist and a beer mug and pulled the wrist and swung the mug and beer and glass and blood sprayed in a broad wet fan and the barkeep dropped and grabbed for the cut down twelve gauge under the bar and he brought the twin muzzles up and fetched back the hammers and the Sheriff's hand snapped out like he was flipping a silver dollar from between two fingers but the streak of shining silver that drove from his hand into the barkeep's throat was coin of a most deadly variety.

The dead man jerked both triggers.

The piano suffered most of the first charge of heavy shot; he fell back and the second barrel gouged several grooves in the low plank ceiling.

The Sheriff stood, looking like death itself in a Stetson hat: his face was ghost white and tight stretched over his cheek bones, his lips were pulled back and he turned slowly, meeting every eye.

He finally reached up, flipped over his lapel, exposed a six point star with the hand chased word SHERIFF across its middle.

"Name's Keller," he said quietly, for there was no need to raise his voice in the shocked silence that followed the shotgun's twin concussions: "Sheriff. Firelands County. I ain't killed but two men today and I ain't nowhere near done. Anybody here got anythin' to say?"

There was the sound of breaking glass, that peculiar sound caused when a full whiskey bottle is hard-swung against the back of someone's head.

His Honor the Judge hefted the broke off neck of the whiskey bottle and watched the man with the half-drawn gun slump to the floor and lay unmoving.

"Court's in session," he announced cheerfully.

"Hell of a gavel you got there," the Sheriff grinned.

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30. PLAY WITH FIRE

It took little to convince the right man to let her perform.

A smile, a flash of leg, the implied promise she had no intention of keeping ... she'd seen it done so many times, when she watched the working girls, she'd seen it done as she grew up, in everyday life; she did it now, and did it easily, naturally, and as the fellow's eyes smoldered with lust, she gave him a lingering stare through long lashes and slipped through the stage door.

The other dancers were used to newcomers; none had been there more than a week, most of them, far less; they were going to open with a lively can-can number, and there were going to be three of them, and between performances, one dancer would perform solo, keeping the audience of slightly, mostly or thoroughly intoxicated men interested.

It profited the saloon to have girls: if it had girls, it had more business, and when it had girls, the business stayed longer and spent more money.

They could afford to pay the girls. Men with lust in their hearts and gold in their pockets would often spend the latter to satiate the former, and as most of the dancers also provided (ahem!) Horizontal Refreshment as well (*cough*) ... a solo performer to keep the collective interest was seen as money well spent.

The can-can was accompanied, as it always was, by the moderately well played piano, though the piano player's skills were only just adequate: Sarah thought to herself that she could do a better job, and considered whether she would rather dance, or play piano.

The piano was on stage, and thus out of reach; smiling wickedly, she slipped up behind the piano player, whispered in his ear.

As he'd partaken of more beer than was his wont, he had need to dispose of its inevitable by-product, and so gladly surrendered his seat: Sarah, in her short-skirted outfit, turned her backside to the interested audience and bent unnecessarily far over, to display her gaudy, absolutely screaming scarlet, sequined underthings: there was satisfaction in her eyes and wickedness in the curve of her lips as she listened to the whistles, cat calls, obscene propositions and the like, which only heightened with a mischevious wiggle.

It's a good thing I don't have a Daddy here to spank my naughty little bottom, she thought, turning with a flourish and holding the red-velvet, gold-tasseled pillow in front of her: with a wiggle and a simper, she settled the pillow on the bench, settled herself onto the pillow, gave the audience a wink, raised her hands theatrically --

She stopped, looked with innocent eyes at the expectant men watching her: "Shall I play Brahms?" she asked, lowering her hands: her fingers caressed the keys like a mother caresses an infant, and Brahm's Lullaby floated into the surprised hush.

Boos, gestures: the saloon crowd behaved just as Sarah intended they should: she stood, knocking the piano bench down with the violence of her ascent: planting her right-hand knuckles on her belt, she shook her Mommy-finger at them and scolded, "You boys are too big for your britches, you know that!"

A hiss from the opposite side of the stage, the dancers were looking at her with dismay. "Hey sister! Whattaya doin'? We gotta dance!"

Sarah spread her arms. "So whattaya here for?" she yelled. "Girls?"

"YEAH!" came the enthusiastic roar.

"You want Dancing Girls?"

"YEAH!"

"You want good lookin', long-legged, come-and-get-me dancin' girls?"

"YEAH!!!!!"

"WELL, HERE THEY ARE!" Sarah yelled, playing a bright fanfare, immediately bouncing into the classical Can-Can, but far better played than the young fellow in the cheap suit and the full bladder that occupied her seat not two minutes earlier.

The girls came prancing out on stage, and they were pretty good: Sarah's hands had eyes, she could hear a tune and play it without referring to the sheet music in front of her, and while her hands danced over the keys, her eyes followed the girls, and she knew she could dance as well as they.

She'd taken dance lessons, she'd taken piano lessons, she'd had acting lessons, but her heart's delight was learning new skills, and she'd proven a quick student when she haunted the theater, while in Denver, modeling for her mother: stage makeup, she knew, could lead to disguise, and she studied -- and practiced -- the art thoroughly enough to turn it to her advantage.

As she played the lively, bouncy music, she wore a lustful expression, cultivated while studying her own expressions in the mirror: she knew the looks that gave men the vapors, she'd seen them often enough, seen them used frequently and effectively, and as she looked out into the audience, she ran her tongue slowly across her bottom lip.

She was playing with fire, and she liked it.

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland looked at the Sheriff, shaking his head.

"I would never have thought it," he said almost mournfully, his expression as cheerful as an undertaker at a gathering of immortals. "I would never have thought it."

"If you don't like it, we could turn 'em loose," the Sheriff suggested, the Judge hiding a smile behind the hand holding a freshly-lighted cigar.

"No, now, don't you dare!" Macfarland exclaimed. "Just you get yourself over here for the trial an' the hangin's!"

"Oh, I'll do that," the Sheriff said quietly.

The Sheriff looked at the Judge.

"He seems surprised that those folks we had warrants on, just walked in and surrendered."

"He does indeed," the Judge agreed solemly, drawing on his Cuban.

"You don't reckon he's never played poker, now, do you?"

"Why, I wouldn't know."

"You'd think if a man heard a tornado with a tin star just kicked twenty mens' backsides up between their shoulder blades and punched their heads so far down between their shoulders they had to take off their boots just to blow their nose --"

"You did no such thing!" Macfarland protested.

The Sheriff gave him an innocent look.

"Harry, old friend," the Sheriff said with a perfectly straight face, "when the Almighty hands you an opportunity you take it. I knew word would travel fast but I did not know it would run that fast, but when them fellers heard about our little disagreement in attair saloon o' yours --"

"It ain't my saloon and you know it!" Harry protested. "You're the one with the saloon an' I wisht I had somethin' that nice!"

"Ya gotta admit 'twas easier just to let them fellas walk into the calaboose ruther'n go hunt 'em down with a warrant."

"Yeah, I gotta admit that, yeah," Harry sighed, shaking his head. "I never woulda believed it, though, but I seen it myself!"

Later that night, on the way back to Firelands, the Judge and the Sheriff shared a small meal in the Judge's private railcar.

"Sheriff?" the Judge finally said as he flipped the bail over on a bottle of beer.

"Hm?" Linn looked up, bit down on the last of his beef.

"You don't suppose we'll hear from our Agent anytime soon?"

"I reckon she'll report when she has something," the Sheriff said quietly, and the Judge saw uncertainty on the man's face. "I just hope she don't get in over her head."

 

Sarah shouldered the back door open, ran into the alley, turned and sprinted three blocks, then turned right, stopped, listened.

She knew the way to her hotel.

She'd just kicked a man under the kneecap, hard, with the side of her foot -- the full strength of her young leg behind the kick -- his knee dislocated and he went down screaming, another man tried to grab her and she thrust back against him, more by accident that by skill throwing him over her shoulder.

She was able to grab her small satchel and escape the dressing room, but only just.

She took three long, deep breaths, looked left, looked right, ran again.

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32. VISITOR

 

"Light blue, you say?" The man leaned forward a little, clearly interested.

The detective blinked. "Yes, that's correct. I don't know the woman, I only spoke with her ..."

"Remarkable," the physician murmured. "Truly remarkable. I only knew of one man with ... you don't suppose ... how old is she?"

The detective looked at the Captain, raised an eyebrow; the Captain nodded -- it's okay, he's one of us -- and the detective remembered the nun with the ruined face she hid behind a white silk veil.

"I suppose she's in her early twenties, no more."

The doctor leaned back, stared at the Captain's ceiling, thinking hard.

"It's just possible," he whispered. "It's ..."

"What's just possible, Doctor?"

The Doctor shook his head. "Nothing," he said, "just ... someone I knew. So!" He clapped his hands together, rubbed them briskly. "Can you arrange an introduction?"

"I suppose I could," the detective said slowly. "I'm not certain she will be receptive, owing to the nature of her work."

"Her work?"

The Captain leaned forward, his muscled fore arms pressing into the desk's top as he shifted his weight: he hated his chair, and the chair hated him, and he took the opportunity to ease the weight off his backside.

I'll turn the damned thing into kindling tomorrow, he thought, as he'd thought every day since his promotion two years ago.

"Yes, sir, her work."

The detective stopped just short of speaking of the woman's association with the Firelands District Court, and said instead, "She's a nun."

The Captain leaned back abruply, his face reddening; the doctor looked surprised, and the detective, embarrassed.

"A nun," the doctor chuckled. "I was expecting a dance-hall floozy."

"No, sir, that was last week's case," the detective said with a straight face.

"She might've come back, lad," the Captain said, shuffling through a stack of papers: "it seems a new floozy at the Nonpareil kicked a man's leg so hard the doctor had to use a winch to get his knee put back into place."

The physician winced at the Captain's words; he'd reduced dislocations himself, and he knew an injury so severe as to require a block and tackle meant the man nearly lost his leg, and still might.

"I'll get right on that," the detective said.

 

Sarah ran down the carpeted hall, silent, running on the balls of her feet: she stopped at her door, closed her eyes, took a long breath, grasped the big, cast-brass key in both hands to keep it from shaking, and eased it into the keyhole.

She turned the lock, pushed open the door.

She was shaking so hard she neglected to look for the two hairs she'd spit-glued to door and frame.

They were fallen off and gone.

Sarah swung the small satchel onto a chair, closed the door as quietly as she could, thrust the wedge under the door and pushed it with her toe, locked it from the inside, leaned against it as the strength ran out of her like water running out of a knifed canvas desert bag.

"Have I come at a bad time?" the Sheriff asked, and Sarah's eyes snapped wide open and she felt every bit of blood drain from her face, just before a silvery sparkly curtain sizzled down across her field of vision and the deck underfoot took a sudden, hard list to starboard.

 

The Sheriff sat beside the Agent's bed.

A wet washcloth, soap and blood-warm water and a father-gentle hand, and her face was relieved of its cosmetics: hands that had quickly, skilfully, lustfully undressed his wife, now twitched the covers up over the unconscious young woman's still-dressed body, tucked the blanket in around her chin: he'd made so bold as to remove her shoes, but had divested her of little else.

He placed the velvet-upholstered chair beside the bed, facing her, and he reached under the blanket, took her soft, cool hand between both his, and he sat there in the dark and watched her breathe.

He sat there most of the night, holding her hand, listening to the noises of the city outside, sounds of footsteps in the hall: there were distant sounds of a saloon, fading as the moon dragged its shining anchor across the heavens, and somewhere short of sunrise, the Agent woke.

The Sheriff heard her breathing change, felt her hand twitch.

Her eyes opened.

"Good morning, Princess," the Sheriff whispered, unconsciously using the affectionate name he frequently gave his little daughter Angela.

Sarah swallowed, wiggled experimentally.

I'm still dressed, she thought.

She squeezed the Sheriff's strong, warm, protective Daddy-hand, and he squeezed back.

"How do you feel?" he asked, still whispering.

"Hungry," Sarah whispered back.

"Sarah" -- he paused -- "Sarah, are you doing okay?"

She looked at the lawman's shadowed eyes and felt an emptiness, an ache.

"I wish you were my Daddy," she whispered.

The Sheriff dropped his head, then released her hand and withdrew his: he grabbed her shoulder, rolled her toward him, then away, cocooning her in the blanket: he picked her up off the bed, set himself back down and set her on his lap, all wrapped up in her body-warmed blankets, and held her like he would hold a little girl.

"I wish ..." he started, then smiled, hugged her tighter and kissed her on the forehead.

Sarah lay her head over on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

For the first time since she left Firelands, she felt safe.

 

The Sheriff shook the detective's hand, grinning.

"Of a sudden I feel better," he chuckled. "I kind of hoped you'd be somewhere on the case."

"I didn't know you'd recommended her," the detective said, admiration in his eyes. "Doctor Harris, this is Sheriff Keller --"

"The Doctor and I are old friends," the Sheriff interrupted. "Harry, you card sharper, to you still use that shiner ring?"

Dr. Harris laughed, raised his hands, spread his fingers. "Not since that Mississippi gambler shot me!" he declared. "He claimed I was card-shining and put a Derringer through my pants leg!"

"Did he bring blood?" the Sheriff asked, his eyes smiling, and the doctor chuckled.
"He brought blood and ruined my trousers, so I kicked the table over on him and ran!"

"Sounds wise to me," the Sheriff nodded. "Detective, the Doctor here took care of me during that damned War."

"The detective was telling me about --"

The detective coughed, looking around, smacked the doctor's arm with a bent elbow: the doctor blinked, then stammered, "Ah, yes, right, of course, so sorry, silly me ... is there somewhere that we can talk?"

"Right about now I'm ready to eat the first meal that comes along," the Sheriff deadpanned, "and if it's movin' yet it better be fast!"

There was a step behind him; he turned, extended his bent arm, and a black glove came up under it, took possession as naturally as any Lady born.

"Gentlemen, may I introduce the Widow --"

Sarah released the Sheriff's arm, held out a limp-wristed hand. "Enchantre, Dittore," she murmured, mixing her languages and making it sound natural: the physician took her hand, raised it to his lips, kissed her glove knuckles.

"My name is McKenna," she said from behind her concealing veil, "and though I wear mourning, my stomach thinks my throat is cut a week ago, and breakfast is being served in the dining room. Sheriff, I believe you are buying?"

Over bacon and eggs, toast and sausage, steak and potatoes, gravy and whatever else could be brought -- the hotel apparently thought highly of one of those present, and the others were enjoying the cachet of being seen with the august personage -- neither the detective nor the doctor were quite certain, but they were fairly sure this must be the Sheriff, considering how the waiter bowed and scraped when addressing the soft-spoken, immaculately-polite lawman -- over a table that bore provender for twice their number at least, the physician mentioned that he'd heard of a remarkable woman of the detective's acquaintance.

The Sheriff glanced at Sarah, not knowing how deep her disguise or her subterfuge extended, as the physician expounded on his specialty, which was the human eye, and how in his experience those with darker irises had the fewest problems later in life, especially at these high altitudes where sunlight was filtered by less air, and seared the skin more easily, along with the tender tissues of the eye.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "it is my observation that those with blue eyes -- the lighter the color, the more pronounced the effect -- such folk have a greater incidence of cataract blindness. When the detective spoke of a nun he met, a woman with very pale eyes, I was naturally interested. He described her as in her early twenties. I would venture to say she will be quite blind in a decade."

The Sheriff took a drink of coffee, considering this information: he looked over at Sarah, whose veil was raised, draped back over her hat, but still covering half her face.

She ate delicately, managing to appear altogether feminine, dainty and graceful, but the old lawman with the iron grey mustache also noticed she was putting away the groceries in fine shape.

"I would like very much to meet this nun," the doctor said, "even at her young age, the beginnings of a cataract might still be seen."

The young woman in widow's black showed no trace of tremor or discomfiture, listening to the doctor's words, but the Sheriff was satisfied he could hear a buzzing or chuckling sound as the gears between her ears turned industriously, processing what she was hearing.

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33. "YOU'RE NOT THE ONLY ONE WITH SECRETS"

 

The Sheriff declined the doctor's kind offer of an examination, partly because the physician lacked a Denver office, and the lawman was not willing to be seen in the dining room, undergoing the physician's tender ministrations, benign though the intent: the men rose politely as the physician excused himself and departed to tend other business, and when they sat again, the detective gave the mourning-black widow a cautious look and said, "Sheriff, might we .. discuss matters?"

"We may do so freely here," the Sheriff said, nodding as the waiter dumped another stack of bacon on the central serving plate.

Both men partook; the detective frowned a little and said, "Sheriff, I'm frankly surprised to see you here. I haven't even met the court's Agent and you're checking up on me already?"

The Sheriff buttered a thick slab of still-warm sourdough, apparently unconcerned.

"Sheriff, is there something else? Has the Agent been delayed, or perhaps come to some ... misfortune?"

The Sheriff's expression was quiet; he chewed the flavorful bread as if savoring something rare: a swallow of coffee, a clearing of the throat, and he smiled a very little as he said, "Detective, do I remember rightly that you had a beer or two last night to cut the street dust from your throat?"

The detective blinked, surprised, for those were the exact words he'd used in conversation as he left the station house.

"Why yes," he said.

"The Agent was there."

The detective blinked several times, puzzlement wrinkling his young forehead.

"I didn't ... he didn't introduce ..."

"As a matter of fact," the Sheriff continued, "the Agent has been in your presence three times so far and you still haven't made the connection."

"Sheriff -- now see here, I will not be toyed with --"

The Sheriff raised a forestalling palm.

"It is not necessary that you know the Agent. You will be revealed in good time, when it is the right moment in the investigation. Until then please continue to do your job, which so far has been quite competent."

"Is it the nun?" he asked, crestfallen: "if it is, she had me fooled --"

"Couriers and messengers take many forms," the Sheriff improvised quickly, shooting a glance at the silent woman in black seated on his left. "It is not uncommon to recruit a trusted individual to deliver a message."

The detective leaned back, scratched his thatch, then took a long swallow of coffee. A waiter magically appeared at his elbow, refilled the fine-china cup and disappeared, as a good waiter in a good restaurant will do.

"Why all the secrecy? Why not just send the Agent? Or are you going to let me do all the work and the Agent walks in, picks up my report and marches off in triumph?"

All this time the detective forgot the quiet woman on his right; his anxiety got the better of his judgement and he spoke as if she were not there.

"You will get full credit for the case. The court has no interest in glory for its agents."

"Agents, plural?"

The Sheriff looked approvingly at the young man. "You've a good ear. Yes. Agents. Plural."

"How many did you send?"

"I sent none," the Sheriff said, and the detective saw the smile at the corners of his eyes: "His Honor the Judge sends who and how many he pleases."

The detective puffed out his cheeks and blew out a long breath.

"In this case, His Honor sent only one."

"Well, that's a relief," the detective muttered.

The Sheriff stood. "Detective, my business here is not with you, though I've enjoyed your company this morning. Please feel free to eat as much as you'd like, it's paid for. Madam, if you would do me the honor?"

The woman pressed a napkin delicately to her lips, dropped her black-lace veil, rose as the Sheriff stepped behind her and drew out her chair: she extended her hand to the detective, who'd risen with the Sheriff, and he kissed her knuckles a little awkwardly.

Sarah took the Sheriff's arm and they walked through the bright, well-tended dining room and down the hall, across the lobby, and out the front doors.

"I would prefer somewhere a little more private," Sarah murmured.

"Nobody will hear us on the street," the Sheriff replied.

"How can I help you, Sheriff?"

The Sheriff stopped, turned to face her squarely, his pale eyes concerned, searching through her veil.

"I got worried," he admitted. "I wanted to make sure you were not in over your head."

"This is why I wish we were in private," she admitted. "I did. Last night. Do you remember showing Jacob how to kick a man under the kneecap to cripple his leg?"

The Sheriff turned his head slightly, never taking his eyes off her concealing veil and where he estimated her eyes were. "Yesssss," he said slowly.

"I used it last night. I had to. And the over the shoulder throw you showed Jacob. I backed into another man hard and then bent over and nearly to my knees but he went over and landed flat on his back."

"What did you do then?"

"I ran."

"Did you get away?"

"That's why I was in such a state when you saw me. Yes, I got away, I got up the side stairs, I got into the outer door with a key I pickpocketed from a porter."

"You what?"

"I have unappreciated skills."

"Sara, where did you learn --" the Sheriff's jaw snapped shut and he looked around, clearly uncomfortable. "My God, Sarah, what are you?"

"I am an Agent and I am investigating a case."

"What could you possibly investigate in a dance hall?"

"You saw me there?"

"I have ways of finding out."

"Spoken like a true father." He did not miss the cynical note in her comment.

"I suppose so."

"Did your informant tell you what I was doing there?"

"No she didn't."

"She?" Sarah stopped dead, her grip tightening on the lawman's forearm.

He gave her a long look.

"You, my dear," he said, "are not the only one with secrets." He smiled. "By the way, I saw the hairs you had on the door to see if anyone went in while you were out. Well done. I've pulled that dodge myself."

Sarah smiled beneath the concealing veil.

"Where," she chuckled, "do you think I got the idea?"

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34. DEAD MAN WALKING

"Yes, Captain? You wanted to see me?"

"Sit down, lad," the red-faced Captain replied, and the detective's heart sank to his shoe tops.

"Ye're off the case, lad." The Captain shuffled one stack of papers to another pile, more to keep his hands busy while he tended this distasteful task. "It's nothin' ye did."

The detective looked over at a more senior man, who looked steadily back.

"I'm taking over the case," Levi Rosenthal said.

"I'm already on it."

"I've read your reports. You've done well and I thank you for that." He paused, then asked, "Is the widow with whom you breakfasted, still in town?"

The detective blinked. "I did not ask her travel plans," he said stiffly.

"You do know who she is?"

"She gave her name as ..." He frowned, his eyes tracking across the floor. "She said McKenna."

Rosenthal nodded. "Do you know who she used to be?"

The detective shook his head.

Levi smiled ... a little sadly, perhaps.

"Her late husband was my brother."

"Your brother ... she said her name was McKenna."

"She was so ashamed of my brother's disgrace --" it was impossible to miss the obvious distaste in the man's words, nor the curl of his lip as he spoke -- "she divested herself of his name before he was cold."

Unspoken was his opinion that he blamed her not at all.

"And I wish to see her."

"Will she see you?"

"I am not my brother."

"Will she know that?"

He straightened, squared his shoulders.

"It is my responsibility."

 

Agent Sarah L. McKenna stopped dead in the middle of the hotel lobby.

The Sheriff was as good a dancer as he was a lawman; he stopped the moment Sarah did, without making it appear awkward.

He felt her hand tighten on his arm and he brought his other hand across, lay it warm and strong and reassuring and fatherly across her gloved grip.

"Hello, Levi," he said, patting Sarah's hand reassuringly, then extending his own toward the solemn-faced senior detective.

Sarah released her grip on the Sheriff's arm, drifted a little to the side: her eyes were wide, her nostrils flared and hatred sang in her veins.

The Sheriff grabbed her under the arms and yanked, hard, and even then he almost missed her.

Levi jerked his hand back at the silent rush of the black-clad widow -- not because the woman rushed him, nor even that the Sheriff snatched her off her feet, but because she was leading with two knives, two long, thin blades she brought out of nowhere, because he felt a rush of cold air he recognized as the breath of Death itself.

Had it not been for his pale-eyed old friend, he knew, he would likely be enjoying the general sensation of losing his life's blood at a very, very rapid rate.

Sarah did not struggle: she knew when her feet flew up in front of her that she would make no further progress in her attack: she stopped, she stood, the Sheriff released her.

"You," she said, her voice trembling, "are dead. If you are returned from death, you are a ghoul, a shade, and only steel can kill you!"

The Sheriff's hand on her shoulder dissuaded her from another charging attack.

Levi swallowed hard, tucked his Derby hat under his arm and spoke quietly.

"Bonnie," he said, "my name is Levi. I am your late husband's brother."

"Oh, my, God," Sarah squeaked.

The Sheriff seized her by the upper arms as she fell into him.

He looked at the wide-eyed detective and did his best to look innocent as he said, "I think she likes you, Levi!"

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