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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

The Sheriff's Grandson

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35. FILLET OF SOUL

Sarah's face was as scarlet as her eyes were pale.

She sat silently, very erect and proper, hands folded in her lap and feet flat on the floor, and at her insistence she sat directly across the table from the man she just tried to send back to the grave from whence she thought he'd just emerged.

Her veil was gone, as was her hat: he saw a younger woman than he expected, a young woman he thought favored his now-widowed sister-in-law, but a young woman with remarkably pale eyes.

Just like the Sheriff, who sat between Levi and she.

"I can understand your surprise," he murmured. "My brother and I looked remarkably alike."

"There are differences," Sarah said quietly, "but yes. Remarkable."

"Sarah, tell me again what you said about only steel."

Sarah turned, looked at the pale-eyed lawman with the iron-grey mustache.

"You were in the War," she said, "and you spoke of associating with Southerners. You voiced your admiration for them, you spoke of their natural courtesy and you spoke ... you spoke very well of them. Especially their cavalry."

The Sheriff's eyes were softer and a little more distant as he nodded, remembering.

"I remember you said once the Southerner often has a straight razor about his person. Do you remember telling me that?"

The Sheriff frowned a little, nodded again.

"I have had conversation with Southerners as well. Do you know their primary use for that straight razor?"

The Sheriff looked at Sarah, surprised, then looked at Levi: the detective hazarded to reply for the Sheriff with, "Shaving, I would imagine?"

Sarah shook her head.

"Mr. Rosenthal, have you any association with the shades of the departed?"

"Please, Miss McKenna. Call me Levi."

Sarah looked sharply at the detective.

"I have not earned that yet," she said, anger shading her words, and the detective knew her anger was directed at herself.

He nodded, mentally reviewed her question. "I am not sure I know what you mean by ... shades of the departed."

"Mr. Rosenthal, this world is not all that exists. There are malevolent entities which seek us harm. We read in Scripture that we war against powers and principalities, and it is a long and accurate tradition that there are evil demons of the air that listen to every word we speak." She smiled, faintly, and added, "Why do you think when we discuss having a picnic, we suddenly have red ants and thunderstorms as soon as we spread out the tablecloth on the lawn?"

Levi smiled and nodded. "Point taken."

"Shades of the departed are repelled by base metal. Three linked rings of iron are an ancient ward against such demonic folk. A sharpened edge can cut a ghost, which is why knives are not left carelessly about in the kitchen, lest some wandering shade cut itself.

"When I saw you, sir, I thought my late stepfather --" her lip curled unattractively -- "pardon me while I spit! -- returned from the grave to continue his predatory reign." Her eyes were pale and hard and she looked the detective squarely in the eyes and he saw absolutely no hesitation and absolutely no uncertainty in her expression. "I know what he did, sir, and I know what he and his associates planned for my two sisters and for myself and especially for my mother."

Sarah's voice was quiet and there was an edge to it, almost a raspiness, the echo of the whisper of steel on a whet-stone.

"I responded to a deadly threat, Mr. Rosenthal, but I was mistaken. You are not my late stepfather." She looked again at the silent, unmoving Sheriff, she saw his eyes, taking in everything, assessing words spoken and unspoken: she had the feeling he was looking through her, that he was taking a good hard close up look at her very soul, gauging the truth or falsehood of her words simply by the power of those ice-pale eyes.

"I know what those plans were, too," Levi said, and Sarah saw the anger he tried to hide. "I do not blame you one little bit, Miss McKenna, for thinking as you did. You were faced with what you believed was a deadly threat and you acted to stop that threat. Now put your hands on the table."

"What?"

Levi placed his hands on the table, turned them palm up. "Like this."

Sarah lifted her hands from her lap.

"Without the gloves, please."

Sarah's eyebrow tented and she looked at the Sheriff: the old lawman's face was impassive, and he gave her no clue as to what she should do.

Tentatively, hesitantly, Sarah plucked at the tips of the gloves' fingers, brought them off, placed them in her lap: she leaned forward a little, put her hands on the table, turned them palm-up.

Levi slid his hands under hers, but kept his hands open.

"Miss McKenna, I am looking at your hands."

"I can see that."

He glanced up at her, amused, then looked back down at her hands, pink and healthy, dainty and feminine, hands he knew that were capable of unbelievably fast movement, hands that were apparently practiced and skilled at arts he didn't expect to see used by someone so young and lovely.

"These," he said, "are not the hands of a murderess."

He looked up and looked directly into her eyes and his face hardened.

"Miss McKenna, I know you kept your mother alive by using an Army colt one one of the Boss's henchmen. I followed him for quite some time but lost him when he went to your house. I had no idea he was on that assignment, nor that he had such intent."

Sarah swallowed, her eyes distant as she remembered the moment she dropped her rag doll down level and mashed the trigger and drove that first .44 ball into the intruder's wishbone.

"You were ready to keep yourself and your mother safe and alive from another deadly threat." His hands curled very slightly, just enough to cup Sarah's hands. "Miss McKenna, you acted according to your sincere belief, and I see nothing wrong with that action." He looked over at the Sheriff and a sudden, unexpected grin erupted beneath his black handlebar.

"I will admit," he chuckled, looking over at the silent, unmoving, watchful lawman, "that the Sheriff's intervention was most welcome in the moment you decided to fillet my soul."

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36. SENTENCE

 

Jackson Cooper loomed behind the miner like a battleship hard up behind a harbor tug.

The man was big, the man was strong, the man was fast and he was unexpected: the miner felt a momentary surprise when his hat was plucked neatly off his head, then his world detonated in a constellation of red and yellow and a detonation of incredible pain.

The hat hit the floor before the miner could, partly because the big Marshal ran his arm around the man after belting him over the head with the barkeep's bung starter.

Several others who'd decided a good old-fashioned bar fight would make a fine entertainment on payday, sobered instantly if not sooner at the magical appearance of this mountain of muscled meat in flannel and denim and a worse-for-wear,saggy-brimmed hat, especially with the sound of wood on skull, the pained grunt, the sight of the big Marshal effortlessly packing the limp miner out of the Jewel, folded over his arm like a pair of trousers.

Marshal Jackson Cooper stood a full head taller than the Sheriff, and the Sheriff was not a short man by any means, being two fingers over six foot: Jackson Cooper could pick up an anvil and pack it off anytime he pleased, and it was rumored he could pick up the nose of The Lady Ester herself -- pick up the north end of a steam locomotive! -- and a few swore they'd seen him do as much.

Of course, those who so swore were known to stretch a tale.

I'm being polite here, I don't want to call such folk outright liars, because Jackson Cooper was remarkably strong, though he himself admitted to picking up one of her flanged forewheels, and the man was careful to note the wheel was dismounted from the truck when he hauled it off a man's leg where it fell and pinned the poor unfortunate against the roundhouse's stone floor.

Tonight, though, Jackson Cooper used his head as well as his war club.

He'd known many bar fights, most of them back East, where people were quicker to fight, shorter of temper, and more likely to whip out a weapon: contrary to what the pulp writers of the age printed, the East was more violent than the West, maybe because people were crowded closer together on a daily basis.

Jackson Cooper knew a bar fight generally has a core, like a boil, and like a boil, if the core is drawn, the whole thing may heal.

He identified this particular miner as a known troublemaker, he identified this troublemaker as the core of the boil.

Mr. Baxter lifted the bung starter, held it up: Jackson Cooper took a quick step to the side, extended his hand, and Mr. Baxter put his bung starter smartly in the Marshal's big paw, handle-first, like a surgeon's assistant slaps the scalpel smartly into the physician's palm.

Sure enough, as the Marshal carried out the unmoving, limp pugilist and returned his working tool to its owner, and as Mr. Baxter caught the casually tossed bung starter, the immaculately-barbered barkeep noted with relief that things were suddenly very calm.

This was a good thing.

Although Mr. Baxter had a good set of arms on him -- when he wasn't behind the bar, he was generally chopping wood, sawing wood, splitting wood, stacking wood and hauling wood, for stoves were hungry and had to be fed -- his arms were only so long, and even at full stretch, his bung starter might not be long enough to restore a peaceful atmosphere, and so he kept a cut down double gun under the bar for those moments when a powerful persuasion might be needed.

This, too, was commonly known, and it was also known the man was both fast and accurate with the shoulder howitzer.

It would be speculation to say that the Jewel was peaceful for the rest of the evening, because of that knowledge; unless one were to interview each of its occupants, one would not be able to say for certain, though speculation is of course permitted.

 

Next day, when the Sheriff returned to Firelands, court was held and the Judge listened impassively to the Marshal, the miner, to Mr. Baxter and two witnesses.

The Judge was known to scale his fines and penalties according to the offense; on this day, for this offense, His Honor considered the case carefully, then leaned back in his chair and looked at the court recorder -- the Marshal's wife, Emma Cooper, who was also their schoolmarm -- and saw she was ready to transcribe his judicial statement.

"You," he said to the miner, rubbing the tips of his fingers together meditatively, "are found guilty as charged."

He was silent for a long moment and the miner heard the schoolmarm's pencil industriously scraping across good rag paper.

"Your sentence is as follows."

The miner swallowed, trying to ignore the waning ache in his head, only part of which was due to being banged over the head the night before: most of it was the result of the cheap drink he'd consumed before coming into the Jewel, looking for a fight.

He mentally kicked himself for being too tight fisted to drink the better distillates available at that better saloon: the Jewel served both commercially and locally brewed beer, but its stouter libations were all from the Daine boys' stills, up on the mountain: theirs was a premium product, and among those who consume moon likker, the good stuff -- the middle of the run, which lacks the hangover-producing fusel oil found in the batch's firsts and lasts -- the middle run product was the Silver Jewel's premium drink.

The miner waited through the young eternity of the Judge's three second hesitation.

"You," he said, "are hereby sentenced to a good bang on the head from a bung starter, after which you will spend the night in the hoosegow, and you are further sentenced to a good morning after sour belly and headache.

"The court recognizes the principle of Double Jeopardy, and accordingly, if you have already served any or all parts of this sentence, you are then free to go your way." The Judge swung his gavel, banged the desk top briskly. "Next case!"

The miner jumped at the gavel's sudden explosion of sound.

His head pounded in painful response to both the sound and the flinch.

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37. TEXAN

He said his name was Jake.

Those close to him knew him as Achin' Jake, but none called him that to his face: once, and only once, had he given voice to the accumulated discomforts of a life in the saddle: an unsympathetic soul tagged him with the sneering moniker, and like most bad nicknames, it stuck.

Jake rode north for no particular reason.

He did that sometimes, generally he ended up hungry, but sometimes it put money in his pocket, and a man could always use coin: besides, he got tired of looking at the border country and decided to look at the world from up amongst them Shining Mountains he'd heard about.

He got kind of turned around somewhere in New Mexico, which got him into a misunderstanding with the wrong kind of folks: he ended up stretchin' a lariat across a trail at throat level, bringing two pursuers out of their saddle: he killed one with a rock, the other he kicked hard in the side of the head and then stomped the man's throat.

It wasn't a fast way to die and it was sure as hell unpleasant but it worked, and Jake didn't want gunshots to bring the rest of the scattered pursuers to him.

He managed to catch their horses and gentle them down some with a bribe-bait of grain: he took the dead men's gunbelts and rounds, he went through their saddlebags and went through their pockets kind of quick and came up with precious little, but it was more than he'd started with, and they owed him more than what they had.

He regretted leaving the saddles but he knew it would be suspicious to take saddled horses -- plus the saddles were something that could be identified, and he didn't particularly want that bunch to recognize him or anything about him.

Him and the two spare horses managed to slip off thanks to dark, thanks to terrain and probably a good chunk of luck.

Two days later he hit on a set of railroad tracks.

Now don't that beat all, he thought: what kind of a fool would spend good money to set a roadbed on gravel?

It was a legitimate question, as most rail lines laid their crossties atop the ground and called it good, which resulted in tracks being something less than straight, level or terribly safe.

He considered this puzzle for all of about six seconds, then as there was a convenient trail following the railroad tracks, him and his three horses followed off to the right, alongside those railroad tracks, and darn if he didn't come on a little town up here in these Colorado mountains.

He stopped well back, studied the place.

He could see fresh whitewash on church and schoolhouse, he saw fresh paint on what must be a saloon, but there were other buildings besides, all in good repair and at least their fronts freshly painted and bright: beside that-there saloon (which he intended to investigate, and fairly soon, for a saloon generally meant a meal, and he was right tired of hoe cake and jerk beef) -- why, that buildin' beside the saloon looked to be laid up of stone, and at least from this distance, it appeared to be a tidy and workmanlike job!

He walked the horses a little ways, followed a little run off to the side and watered them, then resumed his journey, not in any pa'ticular hurry.

He had a dead man's rifle in his hand and a dead man's revolver stuck behind his belt to back up his own pistola, but what he had so far didn't amount to much, not for a man his age.

Might be I'd ought to settle someplace, he thought, and almost chuckled.

I been sayin' that since I left home back East, he thought, and I ain't done it yet.

 

Shorty looked up as a stranger rode up to the livery.

He had the look of a man on the dodge. He was watchful and suspicious, not overtly, but his eyes never quit movin' and he was prone to turn slow-like so it wasn't obvious and look behind himself.

The Sheriff was parked on a bale of hay, cleaning his nails with a Barlow knife: he regarded the stranger with quiet eyes, watched him tend his stock, and finally, when the man passed close by, said "You ain't from Texas by any chance?"

The fellow stopped and looked quickly, suspiciously at the soft voice fellow with the iron grey mustache.

"Now why would you ask that?" he replied, realizing his indirect answer might stir suspicions, might garner him attention he really didn't want.

Too late now. I done said it.

"Some years ago," the Sheriff nodded toward the horses, "a fellow asked me if I was from Texas. He said he never saw a man care for his horses like I did less'n he was a Texan." A flash of even white teeth under the iron-grey handlebar. "Now I see why he asked."

Jake considered a moment, then stuck out his hand: it might do to make friends, he could sure use one. "Name's Jake. I'd take that fella's question fer a compliment was I you."

The Sheriff tilted his head back and gave the stranger the benefit of his pale eyes, right before he gripped the fellow's extended hand. "Name's Keller. You might know me as Old Pale Eyes."

Jake's pupils dilated and his grip tightened imperceptibly, but he otherwise offered no change of expression or body posture.

I'll bet he's got a hell of a poker face, the Sheriff thought.

"I ... heard of Old Pale Eyes," Jake said slowly. "I will be sawed off and damned. You're him."

"Well, if I ain't, I got some people fooled," the Sheriff deadpanned.

"You shoulda seen him two days ago," Shorty offered as he led a fresh mare to a stall, shut the gate behind her. "This'n's frash and the fella that owns her don't want her bred. I've got two stallions here with other ideas."

The Texan chuckled. "You'll have your hands full," he replied, then looked at the Sheriff. "What happened two days ago?"

"He was a-showin' off!" Shorty crowed. "Won hisself twenty dollars, he did!"

Jake looked at the Sheriff, politeness and curiosity clearly at odds.

"You lookin' for work?" the Sheriff asked.

"Might be."

"How good a teacher are ye?"

Jake grinned, and Jake laughed, and his cow pony took a step closer and hung his head over Jake's shoulder, clearly curious: Jake caressed the paint gelding's long nose and he admitted, "Now in all my long and fruitful life nobody never asked me how good a teacher I was! What kind of teachin'?"

The Sheriff rose and Jake heard an awful squishing crunch as the man's knees came to the straight; the Sheriff saw discomfort in the man's eyes.

"Mileage," he grunted, and Jake nodded in complete understanding.

"Well hell," he said, "I reckon I can teach what I know, but that ain't much. I never went to no you-nee-versity or nothin'."

"My gut tells me a Texan smart enough to come a distance with two relief horses is a man who knows his horses pretty well."

Jake was instantly guarded.

Lawman, he thought. He'll be a-lookin' up those horses' brands and I don't know but what these two horses is stolen.

"If you're needin' a bunk, stop in over here at the Silver Jewel. Your money's no good there. You'll need a meal and a room and if you want a bath that's yours too."

Jake's suspicion was stronger and he gave the Sheriff a long look.

"How come you're bein' this generous with a stranger?"

The Sheriff grinned.

"I need some help and you look like the man for the job." He twisted a little, grimaced, and Jake's eyes narrowed in sympathy as the lawman's back bone popped, twice. "Get yourself a good night's rest. Shorty will take care of your horses. Come on over't my office in the morning and we'll talk'er all over."

Jake stood there with his mouth open and watched the Sheriff walk toward the back of the Silver Jewel.

His knees might sound horrible and his back might pop like a hickory sapling bustin' over but the man moved easy as a panther, and Jake had the sudden impression that this was one fellow he really, really didn't want to run crossways of.

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38. THE BOSS

 

"Boss, we have a problem."

"Oh?" The Boss looked up from columns of numbers, puffed impatiently on a particularly vile example of the cheap cigar-maker's trade: his tongue was long gone numb from the harsh nature of his current tobacco, his throat was sore, and he was pleased with this, for when he had a sore throat and it tasted like the entire Russian army just marched barefoot across his tongue's papillated surface, he was at his most inflexible and therefore at his most profitable.

The underling turned his hat nervously in his hands, eyes stinging from the stratified toxins puffed into the airless room's atmosphere.

"Boss, we got someone askin' questions."

"Kill 'em," the Boss said shortly, picking up the ledger sheet.

"Boss, it's a cop. We can't just kill him. Besides, he's brought in a detective."

"A damned Pink?"

"No, Boss. It ain't a Pink."

The Boss grunted: if it was not the Pinkerton agency, with its deep pockets, wide experience and tireless nature, he was better off.

"Well, find out who it is. Buy 'em off or make 'em disappear."

"Okay, Boss."

"That cop." The Boss took the cigar from between yellowed teeth, spat a fleck of tobacco into the brass spitoon beside him, frowned at the cigar. "Who is it?"

"You ain't gonna like this one, Boss."

"He's a cop. I don't like him already."

"Boss, you remember that welsh Rosenthal you had Sloan drop the chandelier on."

"I remember. Sent a message. Welsh on your debts and it gets too expensive. Good business," the Boss snarled, his words clipped, harsh as he thrust the cigar back between his teeth.

"Rosenthal has a brother."

"Izzat so. Collect off him."

"The brother is the new Chief Detective, Boss." The underling was not sure whether to drop flat, duck to the side or press a magic jewel that would open the floor under him: lacking the latter option, he waited to see how the Boss's ill temper would run today.

The Boss seized the foul-tasting cigar, hurled it across the room at the lackey: this was not satisfying, so he picked up a glass paperweight and hurled it after the cigar.

The former did not reach the underling; he twisted, barely avoiding the second missile, turning to look at the Boss as the man slammed his fist on his desk-top and roared, "I DON'T WANT QUESTIONS! BUY HIM OFF! EVERY MAN HAS HIS PRICE! BUY HIM OR TAKE HIS DAUGHTER OR SOMETHING! GET HIM OFF MY BACK!"

"Yes, boss," the underling said, sidling toward the door.

"AND BRING ME BACK THAT PAPERWEIGHT!"

"Boss, what about Sloan?"

"WHAT ABOUT HIM? HE'S DEAD!"

"Boss, shouldn't we do somethin' about them folks who killed him?"

The Boss stopped dead in his rage, spat, sat back down.

"No," he finally said. "No. If Sloan was so stupid as to get himself killed, I'm better off without him. He wasn't that good anyway."

"Right, Boss." After a moment, "Boss?"

"Yes, what is it?" the Boss snapped, impatience visible in expression and in the way he snatched up a second sheet.

"Boss, Sloan went after Rosenthal's estate. You want I should send someone else to collect?"

The Boss stopped and considered.

"Now wait a minute," he said slowly. "Rosenthal has a brother, you say?"

"Yes, Boss."

"See if there's any other family that stand to inherit. If there are ..."

The underling saw a slow, evil smile start to cross the Boss's face.

"Wait until they are all together and then kill them. Arrange an ... accident, something no one will suspect. I'll file a false will leaving everything to a relative somebody never heard of." The Boss puffed on a fresh cigar, then frowned at the one he threw at his grinning employee. "And pick up that cigar! I don't want to burn a hole in the rug!"

"Right, Boss!"

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39. "SHE DID WHAT!"

 

Sarah gripped the Sheriff's hands tightly.

"Thank you," she whispered.

He nodded and she saw his eyes darken a little.

"Sarah ..."
Sarah's gloved hands tightened a little more.

"Please be careful," the Sheriff whispered, as if his throat were suddenly tight. "I've only got one of you."

"I will," she whispered, then impulsively, girlishly, she yanked her hands free and seized the lawman in a crushing, almost a desperate hug.

He wrapped his arms around her as well and held her for a long moment, held her until she released him, and she reached up, and dropped her black veil.

The Sheriff turned and stepped into the carriage; the young woman in widow's black turned and walked back to the hotel's broad double doors, and the closer to the doors she got, the more her young shoulders bowed, as if weighted with more weight than she should have to carry.

The doorman hauled the door open for her, touching his cap in deference; she murmured a quiet "Thank you," and pressed a coin into his palm as she passed.

The carriage traveled no more than three minutes before it stopped and another lawman stepped in.

"Levi," the Sheriff said, "you said you found something."

Levi spoke to the driver, who nodded; they trotted briskly down the street, moving with traffic, until they came to what the Sheriff recognized as ... well, a less than reputable saloon.

Levi led the way in. He was apparently known to the burly, unshaven fellow sitting at the front door, obviously a door guard of some kind: he and the Sheriff sized one another up, each one assessing whether he could take the other, then they went inside.

They picked up a beer at the bar, drifted through the sparse crowd to a table; settled themselves, trying not to make it obvious that they had their backs to a wall.

The curtains opened; four dancing girls on stage, striking a pose: they reached down as the music started, seized the hem of their skirts, hauled them to their waist and struck a long-legged pose.

The music set a brisk pace and the dancing girls tossed their skirts back and forth, disporting themselves in a most shameless manner: they threw their skirts to the side, spun and flipped 'em up to expose their backsides, spun with the music -- this was their usual routine; the girls danced well and skilfully, and the Sheriff was frankly enjoying the show, at least until Levi leaned over to him and spoke quietly, half a dozen words.

The Sheriff's eyes went pale, they snapped over to lock onto Levi's.

"She did what?" he hissed. "I'll turn her over my knee!"

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40. BLOODY DIVE

Levi climbed into the carriage.

"Sheriff's office, if you please," he said, and the grinning driver nodded: "Sure thing, fella!" he replied heartily, and the gelding stepped out, taking the carriage away from the depot and toward the little log fortress that served Old Pale Eyes as office, headquarters, hardpoint and hoosegow.

Levi knew the Judge tasked Sarah with taking down the man known as the Boss.

He'd figured out how it might be done, but what he had in mind would require someone of Sarah's build -- a tall man like himself wouldn't be a good choice, and though there were officers on Denver's police department who were small enough, Levi wanted to get this man who'd killed his brother, and he knew Sarah wanted to get him as well.

Each one wanted revenge, and Levi thought he knew how to satisfy both their needs.

First he had to find the pale-eyed Agent.

 

Half an hour later, Levi was following a steep, narrow mountain path, heading for a particular cliff known to the local schoolboys.

It had another name on the maps, but it was locally known as Dare Ya Rock, because the schoolboys would gather at its apex and dare one another to dive into the deep mountain pool below.

The pool was measured at just over twenty feet deep; it was surprisingly big -- maybe fifty yards across and sixty long -- and there were no hidden boulders beneath the cold, absolutely clear water to crack a skull or break a neck.

Levi knew Sarah was heading there, and rather than wait for her return, he decided to seek her out.

Levi, unfortunately, was not the only one seeking her.

Two men waited beside Sarah's neatly-folded clothes.

 

Sarah climbed the cliff face, naked.

Her stockings were rolled and tucked into her shoe-tops, her clothes folded and neatly placed on the cleanest rock she could find; she was in an isolated location, the local boys were in school that time of day, and it was too cold for anyone in their right mind to be swimming.

Sarah needed to know something.

She remembered as she climbed, remembered being grabbed in the dressing-room, remembered the words, the hands, and the memories roared through her like a freight train.

Sarah turned into a fighting cat -- hell, she turned into a face-painted, short-skirted demon! -- she dislocated the man's knee with one hard kick, fled into the night -- even in a silent, screaming panic, she remembered to grab her satchel -- and she ran, she ran down the alley and up another and hid in the shadows, breathing through her mouth, trembling, waiting, listening ... then she ran some more, until she was safely in her hotel room, safely behind a locked door, safely in bed, trembling, like a little girl after a nightmare.

When she woke and the Sheriff's hand, warm and strong on hers, told her that he was there and he would keep her safe, she smiled a sleepy little smile, and when he picked her up, blankets and all, and held her, she cuddled into him and tried not to cry.

She'd never, ever been held by a Daddy, never that she could remember -- never held like a Daddy holds his little girl.

She'd been held other ways, none of them good.

She closed her eyes, took a long breath, controlling her breathing as she clung to sheer rock: she dismissed the memory, returned to the present, returned to the rock.

At least it was a dry climb.

Another thirty yards to her left, where the stream came closer, spray wet the cliff-face and it was slippery with slime algae and soft mosses, but here there was none, and she reached up, found another handhold, another toehold.

She made it to the top, crawled on her belly, rolled over.

I made it, she thought, and smiled a little.

Am I afraid?

No.

Was I afraid while I climbed?

No -- and she smiled again, for she realized she'd been too busy climbing to be fearful.

Sarah took another long breath, then rolled over and came up on all fours, stood, turned.

She stepped, buck naked, to the very edge of the cliff, then she took a tiny, tiny little step so her toes hung over the edge, and she smiled.

 

Levi saw the pool; he saw the cliff.

He saw the two men.

He saw they were beside something colorful.

Clothes?

His eyes narrowed and he scanned the still pool.

I don't see her ...

Then he took another look at the two men and something cold crawled down his spine.

 

"Now look at that," one breathed. "All alone, and no clothes a'tall."

"You don't reckon she's gonna jump?"

"I wouldn't!"

"How's she gonna get down?"

"I don't care, long as she comes back." He grinned lustfully at his partner, and his partner's return grin was just as evil.

 

Sarah spread her arms, tilted her head back, looked up at the limitless sky, then down at the pool.

Am I afraid?

No.

Will I jump?

Sarah bent her knees, leaned forward, pushed off hard, arms straight out to the side like wings, then as she fell, she extended them straight ahead, tucked her head, clamped her arms over her ears and made hard fists.

She was a pale missile, driving for the rippled surface.

For a moment, for a glorious, singing moment, she felt what the birds felt, she felt what angels feel when they snap their wings out and ride the wind, and then she hit the water and drove deep, dove for the bottom, dove until friction and buoyancy slowed her: only then did she break her rigid arrow profile and gather herself, then pointing her nose up, she stroked hard, once, and scissor-kicked her way to the surface.

 

Levi's jaw sagged as he spotted her -- he was horrified at the distance she was planning to jump -- then she executed the most flawless, exquisite, perfect dive he'd ever seen in all his years on the planet.

She cut into the water like a knife and she was under long enough he began to think she'd hit something, then she broke the surface, threw her head like a spirited mare, blew out a spray of watery breath: it looked to the Denver detective like she was caressing the water, but he knew it was a swimmer's stroke, and she turned herself toward the shore and began swimming, effortlessly, easily, until she saw the two men.

"Well looky here," the one said, dangling the looped piggin string from one hand. "All alone and naked, and no one anywhere near."

The other dropped the leathern thong from his hand, holding onto its end, caressing its length as he ran it between thumb and forefinger.

Sarah stopped and stroked back, once, then she felt something dark surge in her and she felt something old and something familiar and something dangerous, and she really did not care what it was.

She swam toward the pair, swam until she got rocky footing beneath her, curled her toes into sand and gravel and flat stones.

She walked boldly out of the water, naked, running her tongue across her bottom lip: she saw the binding thongs the pair held, she saw how they stood on either side of her clothes, and she saw the intent in their eyes.

"Hello, boys," she said quietly. "Come to take me, have you?"

"You could say that, little lady," the one said, and the other chuckled and licked his own lips.

Sarah raised one arm, planted the other on her chilled hip, struck a bent-leg pose. "Like what'cha see?" she said in a husky voice.

Levi watched, appalled.

He'd expected Sarah to backwater, expected her to wait, he'd expected -- he hadn't expected --

My God, what is she?

A whore?

Levi's mouth was dry, his jaw sagged, he watched with an overwhelming sense of dread, fearful that Sarah was going to submit -- not submit, seduce! -- these to men, these strangers, these -- these --

Sarah moved.

Sarah moved faster than Levi expected, and much faster than the nearer of the two men expected.

Sarah saw he wore a long-bladed knife, and she saw the blade was long enough to keep it in its sheath even with the full handle exposed.

Sarah drove for the man with the knife, all speed and pale eyes, and the man raised his arms instinctively, expecting her to run into him and hammer at him with girlish fists.

She didn't.

Sarah ran past him, seized the knife, brought it around in a fast, silver-shining arc.

Levi's eyes widened at her speed, then at her ferocity: the knife seared through the air and then the back of the first man's knee.

Sarah did not know how sharp the edge was -- she swung the knife hard enough to cut whether it wanted to or not -- and every bit of hatred she'd learned since she was first slapped as a very young child roared into a savage bonfire.

Sarah spun, drove the knife into the man's kidneys, snatched his revolver as he twisted and began to fall: time crawled in her eyes, she was moving and the world was standing still, she drove the knife into the man's tenderloins with the full knowledge that she would transect the renal arteries and split the right kidney, she would instantly immerse the man in a hell-bath of unutterable agony, she knew his throat would seize shut with the pain she was driving into him, and she reached over left handed and pulled the gun from his holster.

The other man's eyes were big and his mouth was opening and Sarah knew he would be bellowing something and probably he would either wet himself and run or he would attack and she saw the piggin string in his fingers and she knew they intended to tie her and ravish her and she felt the revolver come to full cock under her thumb and it swung up of its own accord and she saw the front sight coming right up the middle of his vest buttons and she squeezed the trigger as the sight rose and the sear broke and the hammer began to fall and Sarah slowed its rise and she saw his front teeth disappear and then a red spray behind him and she knew she'd just driven a .44 through the bottom of the man's brain.

She continued her turn, eyes wide, feeling every bit of blood drain out of her face, hearing rage sing in her heart, she turned a little more and saw the first man as he hit the ground,

His ill luck had him falling backwards -- luck and a knee with the back tendons severed, the knife cut to the bone and into the osseous sheath, he couldn't have stood if he wanted to -- but when he fell backwards he fell on the knife she stuck in him and she watched as its bloody tip thrust out the front of his vest.

Sarah dropped the revolver, seized him by shoulder and belt, rolled him over: her teeth were bared and she was making sounds in her throat like some enraged animal -- she seized the knife, she jerked it back and forth, she stood on his back and gripped the handle with both hands and pulled it free, she jumped off and grabbed the revolver and held the bloody knife and the cocked pistol to the sky and insanity lit her eyes with an ice-blue hell-glow as she threw back her head and her wet hair slung out behind her as she spun in a circle, as she gave voice to her rage and to her bloody victory.

Levi stood.

Sarah stopped, and looked at him: she was crouched a little as she squared off at him, glaring as if she intended to charge, and for a moment it was Levi who knew the clammy touch of fear, for he was convinced in that moment that there was no way in three of Neffelheim's rings that he could possibly get his pistol into play and stop her before she reduced him, too, in a terminally, exanguinary manner.

Sarah straightened: it was if the rage slid off her bare shoulders like a discarded cloak: she closed her eyes, shivered, opened them, and she was suddenly sane and rational again.

And still naked.

"I suppose," she said casually, "that I should dry off and get dressed."

"Um," Levi said, still staring, "yes. Yes, that would be ... good."

Sarah looked at the pistol, then at the knife, then smiled a little.

"What's the matter?" she asked, her voice light. "Haven't you ever seen a woman kill two rapists before?"

 

Later that night, the Judge convened a special court to hear Levi's testimony.

Sarah spoke as well: quietly, calmly, at absolute odds from the silent fury that killed two men in ten seconds.

The Sheriff listened to the testimony, his eyes pale and hard.

When the Judge asked the Sheriff his opinion, the old lawman with the iron-grey mustache said, "They had piggin string and that means they intended to bind her. More than that I cannot speculate, but I will tell you this." He leaned forward a little and there was an edge to his voice. "If she had not killed them, I guarantee you I would have, and I know how to kill a man slow."

His Honor nodded. "I am inclined to agree," he said decisively. "Agent Sarah, this court now issues a no-bill. Your actions were justified."

"Thank you, Your Honor."

"Don't thank me," the Judge said, looking directly at the modestly dressed young woman sitting demurely before him. "Look in the mirror and thank her. She's the one who saved you."

The Judge looked at Levi. "While we're here, Detective, I believe you have a plan to take that murdering scoundrel who killed your brother."

"I have, Your Honor."

"I understand you wish to involve our Agent."

"I do, Your Honor."

"Have you discussed it with her?"

"I ... Your Honor, I came here to try and find out if she had the ... stomach ... for what I have in mind."

"Well?" The Judge leaned back in his chair.

Levi turned a little pale and his voice was kind of faint.

"From what I saw tonight, Your Honor, I think she's the man for the job."

Sarah looked at him as if she were looking over top of a pair of spectacles.

"Thanks a lot, fella," she smiled, and the Judge could not help but chuckle.

"Agent McKenna, your assignment stands, and it appears that you have managed to recruit a most able assistant in your task. Detective Rosenthal, this court thanks you for your efforts, and we remain confident that you will be instrumental in bringing this murderer to the Bar of Justice."

"Yes," Levi said. "Yes, Your Honor."

Sarah looked at Levi with an absolutely innocent expression.

"The right man for the job," she said, blinking several times.

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41. LET US PREY

 

"Sarah."

"Yes, Sheriff?"

"Change clothes."

Sarah blinked.

"Excuse me?"

They stood in the back of the nighttime courtroom. Levi and the Judge had departed; the Sheriff asked Sarah to wait while he locked up, and now the pair stepped out the door, and the old lawman with the iron-grey mustache drew the door to and turned the key.

"We're headed for a high meadow. Wear trousers and a good pair of boots and dress warm. There's something I have to show you."

The Sheriff's voice was serious, his words clipped, almost bitten off: Sarah knew this meant he was troubled by something and she had the distinct feeling she was the cause.

"I can change and be back --"

"Do it," he cut her off. "Braid your hair. Think stealth."

Sarah's family was abed by the time she reached the Rosenthal -- now once again the McKenna -- ranch: she changed quickly, pulling on black trousers and socks, a black shirt and vest.

Her knee-high, flat-heeled cavalry boots waited on the bed.

She opened a drawer, withdrew a box, slid a very sharp bladed knife into each boot top, on the inside, so it could be reached with either hand: a black gunbelt went around her girlish middle, and she looked long at the engraved, birdshead .22 caliber revolvers the Sheriff bought her.

She closed the drawer as quietly as she could and opened the next one down.

She loaded the two engraved .44-40 birdshead gripped revolvers, holstered one at her right hip, slid the other into a holster sewn into her vest: she picked up a black, wide-brimmed hat, spun a black coat about her shoulders.

She slipped downstairs in sock feet, eased her feet into boots just inside the front door, slipped out: a black shadow, a mound of inky reality, waited on the moon-shadowed porch.

She made a gesture and something huge and black and silent followed her, flowing smoothly and silently, pacing her gelding as she rode back into town.

The moon was full, washing the landscape with a silvery bleakness as the pair rode out of town: the old lawman, the young Agent: they set an easy pace and The Bear Killer kept up, flowing between the two horses, holding station near his beloved Mistress's stirrup.

They rode for a half hour or so, dismounted; the horses were ground-reined, the pair shucked Winchesters from scabbards and made their way up a trail, The Bear Killer following.

It took some time to work their way to an isolated meadow: the air was cold, the grass brittle underfoot, but they were finally in position: the Sheriff unrolled two blankets, gestured Sarah to one of them: he proned out on the other, flipped a second blanket over her.

The Bear Killer lay down between them and they were both grateful for the mountain dog's furry warmth.

The Sheriff leaned close to Sarah, cupped his hand: she leaned toward him, and he whispered, "Watch."

Just the one word.

She looked at him and nodded, serious-faced, though her expression was almost invisible under the shadowing brim of her hat.

The wind was carrying toward them, what little wind there was -- it was no more than a breeze, but it was steady, coming into their faces, carrying their scent away from the meadow.

Sarah saw them.

Wolves, a few hundred yards away, looking, and then she saw the mule deer.

There were three of them, one limping: they were watchful, restless, they knew something wasn't right but they did not know quite what: after a time, they stepped slowly, carefully out into the meadow, watchful, noses and ears busy: finally they began to graze.

Sarah reached up and laid a hand on The Bear Killer's muzzle, silencing the rumble that started deep in the war-dog's chest, catching the sound before it made it clear to the surface: she watched as the wolves circled between the mulies and the woods.

The wolves charged, swift, silent, deadly as arrows and just as true: they made for the crippled-up deer, and Sarah watched as it went down and the pack swarmed over it, ignoring the healthy deer that streaked away across the frosty, silver-washed meadow.

The Sheriff waited a few minutes, then made a little kissing sound, jerked his head: Let's go -- and the three withdrew silently, stealthily, grateful for the little depression that hid their movements as they rolled the blankets and secured them with string for travel.

They rode back into town, neither troubled by the silence between them: The Bear Killer pushed past the Sheriff as he opened the door to his office, and The Bear Killer sat down in front of the stove, sniffed at the warm metal, looked at the Sheriff.

The lawman shook down the ashes, threw in some kindling and then stovewood on top of this, shut the door.

"Have a set," he said quietly, and Sarah sat, legs spread and hands on her thighs, booted feet flat on the floor.

"What did you see tonight?"

"We saw wolves kill a crippled deer."

"What do we learn from this?"

"Don't be a cripple."

The Sheriff considered, then nodded.

"Almost," he agreed. "What you saw was yourself."

Sarah felt herself chill a little. "What?"

The Sheriff pulled over another hardbottom chair, set it in front of Sarah, planted himself in front of her. He took both her hands in both of his, frowned and considered his words carefully.

"Sarah, did the wolves see what made that deer lame?"

"Did they see what made it lame?" Sarah echoed. "I don't know."

"I glassed that deer earlier in the day and there's not a mark on it. I don't know why it was lame, only that it was.

"Wolves can smell weakness. Ill or lame, it's all the same. A blue water sailor told me sharks are the same way. If two men go into the ocean, one is sick or hurt and the other is healthy, they'll go after the weaker man.

"Sarah, when that pair come after you with you were swimmin'..."

"Yes?" she asked quietly.

"Near as I can tell, Sarah, that was random chance. They did not know you. They didn't plan to be there. They come on the place by accident and decided to take advantage."

"I do so hate it when someone tries to take advantage of me," Sarah said, her voice light.

The Sheriff's expression was anything but light.

"Sarah, you were hurt when you were very young. Two legged predators can smell that."

Sarah shifted in her seat, uncomfortable. "Go on."

"You will always be attractive to predators. You are damaged goods just like that doe and you'll be sized up as an easy meal."

Sarah nodded slowly and added in a faint voice, "I see."

"Which means you'll have to be as effective as you were today."

She nodded, her eyes distant. "I ... would imagine you are right."

"There's something else, Sarah."

She raised her chin a little, looked squarely at the Sheriff, felt his hands tighten a little on hers.

"You've been attacked on the street here and you've been attacked at the Dare Ya. My gut tells me you might have been attacked the night before I sat beside you all night."

She nodded, her eyes haunted. "I was."

"Figgered as much." She saw his hands tighten, then relax slowly, as if deliberately relaxing them.

"You were a great comfort to me that ... when you picked me up and you held me."

"I figured you needed it."

"You figured right."

The Sheriff frowned a little, steered the conversation back to where he'd strayed. "Sarah, you are attractive to the wrong kind of men. You've been able to stop them up until now. I want to train you some more."

"I would like that."

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42. WHISPERS

 

The maid fired the stove and put water on to heat, scolding mother and daughter both, but only in a whisper, for it was still dark and the rest of the household was still asleep.

She'd come awake when Sarah went upstairs, then came back down, and the maid heard hoofbeats as she disappeared: an hour or so later she wakened again, and this time she threw the bedcovers back and snatched up the cloak she kept beside her bed, whirled it around her shoulders and thrust bare feet into slippers.

She heard another pair of slippers, and smiled, for as she leaned out her doorway and looked down the hall, she saw Sarah teetering on one leg, her mother steadying her as she extracted one foot from a tall, soft-topped boot.

The two were talking, quietly, urgently, and the maid ghosted across the hall and into the kitchen and began to fire the stove.

A cast iron stove is not terribly quiet when you open the door and begin tossing in stovewood; the maid banked it out of habit, earlier that evening.

Hidden coals, disturbed by the addition of splintered flammables, soaked hungrily through their concealing ash-blanket, tasting fine-split kindling and finding the taste very much to their liking: Bonnie and Sarah came into the kitchen, a distressed expression on their faces.

"I am so sorry," Bonnie whispered, "we didn't mean to wake you -- it's all right, you don't need --"

The maid spun and planted her knuckles on her hips. "Now don't be givin' me that!" she scolded in a whisper, the sternness of her words belied by the smile she tried to hide. "Ye'll set down, the both o' ye, for I've tea t' brew" -- she stepped up to Sarah, frowning, laid gentle fingers against her red cheeks -- "Jaysus, Mary an' Joseph, ye're chilled, child! Sit ye down an' I'll have ye some tea, and there's fresh bread" -- she stopped and looked directly at Bonnie -- "an' I'm thinkin' the two o' ye have somethin' t' discuss!"

She looked at Sarah again, a frank, assessing look, and added, "If it's a weddin' ye're thinkin', I've a pair of white boots that'll go fine wi' any color gown ye choose!"

She winked as she whirled, leaving Bonnie and Sarah sharing an open-mouthed, startle-eyed expression.

It did not take long to heat water for tea; both stove and water-kettle were warm, and the maid knew how to fire the cast iron: having bustled about and fussed over her two charges, after putting sandwiches and some little tea-cakes she'd made ahead of time on a plate between them, she stopped behind the pair and squeezed their shoulders -- quickly, one hand on each woman, a quick, reassuring, your-secret-is-safe-with-me squeeze, then she was gone.

That she was out of the room didn't mean she was out of eyeshot; she could not hear their quiet-voiced words, but she saw Bonnie put a reassuring hand on Sarah's arm, and deduced this to mean Sarah was troubled and Bonnie was sympathetic, supportive and listening: they shared a long look, leaned their foreheads together, and the maid read this as meaning they'd shared some experience, some common event that touched each of their lives; Sarah reached over and put her hand on her Mama's, a sincere, almost anxious look on her face, and the maid took this to be gratitude, that her Mama would listen to a girl's fears or hopes or whatever it was happened this moonlit night.

In due time, when the time was right, the maid swept in and shooed them both off to bed: "Now get some rest, the both o' ye," she scolded, "ye're both fine ladies and attractive and late night hours cause lines i' the face an' ye're both too young an' pretty for that!"

Sarah was first up the stairs, silent in sock feet, carrying her soft, knee-high cavalry boots.

The maid laid a gentle hand on Bonnie's forearm and the two watched Sarah trudge tiredly upstairs.

The two women looked at one another.

"She's a daughter t' be proud of," the maid whispered.

"I know," Bonnie replied softly.

"Is it a young man then?" the maid asked, and Bonnie looked at her, surprised, then smiled and shook her head.

"No. No, it ... she hasn't turned her head for a man yet."

"Saints be praised," the maid breathed. "As lovely as she is I'd be keepin' a shotgun behind th' door! We're goin' t' have men from all over th' territory comin' after her hand, an' th' rest of her wi' it!"

Bonnie laughed silently, nodding. "My father used to say something very much like that!"

 

The Sheriff undressed quietly, very carefully turned back the bedcovers, slid into bed.

Esther's hand opened and grasped his, warm and gentle the way she always did.

"I love you, Mr. Keller," she whispered into the dark, and the Sheriff rolled over and raised up on an elbow and carefully, delicately, kissed his wife, then rolled back and grasped her hand again.

"I love you too, Mrs. Keller."

"Is all well, my dear?"

The Sheriff's hand tightened a little and he took a long breath, blew it out.

Esther rolled over and cuddled against her long, tall husband, laying her head on the front of his shoulder and her arm bent across his chest, her hand on his other shoulder.

"Is Angela asleep?" he whispered, and Esther nodded, and the Sheriff laid his arm over his wife and allowed himself to relax.

His last thought before he submerged into the dark lake of slumber was that the bunk felt pretty darn good.

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43. SPECIAL DELIVERY

 

The latch clicked like a steel tooth snapping the last strand of freedom and the lock chuckled to itself as the key turned, securing the lid and its cargo.

Its cargo breathed slowly, willing herself to relax, willing herself to calm.

Sarah closed her pale eyes, remembered what the circus performer taught her about controlling her breathing.

The trunk was suddenly hoisted off the floor and carried downstairs to the waiting carriage.

As the carriage started to move, Sarah smiled a little as she remembered ...

 

"AND I TELL YOU NO!" the Sheriff roared, slamming the flat of his hand down on his desk top.

Levi's eyelids closed just a little, not much, and he started to reply, but Sarah raised a hand and spoke first.

"This is not your decision to make," she said quietly, her words very carefully enunciated.

If the Sheriff were in less of an angry state of mind he would have recognized Bonnie's voice in her daughter's throat: when Bonnie McKenna spoke clearly and enunciated precisely, it generally meant you'd succeeded in irritating her, and this was not a good thing to do: Bonnie could flay the hide from a man's back with the rough side of her tongue and never have to raise her voice to do it, and Sarah McKenna cultivated what she saw as a very handy talent.

"My mother's husband," Sarah continued, rising, "was murdered by this man. He sent a thug" -- she spat the word, her lip curling with distaste as she did -- "to do MY, MOTHER, HARM." Her voice raised with those three significant words and she leaned forward a little as she spoke them, leaning forward enough to rest her gloved knuckles on the edge of the Sheriff's desk. "He was going to ravish us BOTH and SELL US AND MY LITTLE SISTERS AND NOBODY IS GOING TO DO THAT!"

"I WON'T HAVE RAISED VOICES IN MY OFFICE!" the Sheriff bellowed, the veins standing out in his neck and his face darkening: his eyes were ice-pale and glacier-hard and his ears were flaming scarlet, as bright a red as his face was corpse pale.

"THEN STOP RAISING YOUR VOICE!" Sarah shouted back.

Lawman and Agent each leaned on the desk, each of them stiff-armed, each with fisted knuckles planted on smooth pine, each glaring powerfully at the other, neither willing to give an inch.

"Look," Sarah finally said, and her voice was very quiet, which should have been a strong warning in and of itself, had the long tall lawman across from her been inclined to listen. "This is the one best way to take him. He'll come along peacefully or otherwise and I really don't care which. Denver is out of your jurisdiction and you have no say over the Court." She paused, then added, "Or its officers and Agents."

It was a telling point: the Sheriff blinked, clearly angry at being blocked.

"I will ask you one time nicely not to interfere with this."

"And if I do?"

"If you try to stop me, I will have the Judge issue a bench warrant for your arrest." Sarah knew she had to sidetrack this hard headed badge packer, so she softened her voice and asked, "Why don't you want me to do this?"

The Sheriff looked away, looked back, his expression that of a man torn between two hard decisions.

Finally he dropped his head, took a long breath, and sat heavily, planted his elbows on his knees and gripped his head between his hands.

He looked up with an expression of grief.

"I lost one daughter," he whispered hoarsely. "I don't want to lose you too!"

Levi's head turned slightly and he looked sharply at the old lawman, then at Sarah, and he saw the Sheriff look at him with the awful realization that he'd just let slip something he'd wanted to keep hidden.

Sarah straightened.

"I," she said, "have no intention of dying." Her voice was cold, almost contemptuous. "But if I do, I will stand before the Allfather's board with the hearts of my enemies smoking before me and my boot will be on the bloody neck of the last man I killed, and the Valkyries will sing my name's praises, because I will not die alone!" Her teeth were bared and she hissed the words out between her clenched incisors.

"You remind me of me," the Sheriff said almost sadly.

"Thank you," Sarah said coldly. "I choose to consider that a compliment."

"Levi? What are her chances?"

The chief detective looked at Sarah, looked at the Sheriff.

"We will have the advantage of surprise, Sheriff."

"Will it be enough?"

"From what I've seen," Levi said, regarding Sarah as if he were regarding a seasoned warrior, "yes."

 

The trunk scraped loudly as it slid a fraction of an inch, scooting the fraction as the carriage jostled through a pothole, breaking the train of Sarah's thoughts. Light came in through the series of holes drilled in the bottom edge of the wooden steamer-trunk; a flap extended over the holes to help conceal them.

The same hand that locked the trunk had bored the holes.

He didn't want the contents dead when they arrived.

That would make the Boss unhappy.

Sarah wore a watch but did not try looking at it; she held as still as possible, grateful for the two quilts folded in the bottom of the trunk, but wishing she had a like number of feather pillows to lie on instead.

The carriage stopped and her mouth went dry as she realized they must be at their destination.

 

The Sheriff paced the length of the depot platform, his boot heels loud on the painted boards.

It took all his reserve not to turn and double-time to his horse, launch into a frantic gallop for Denver, to charge down its streets with a rifle in one hand and a shotgun in the other, war in his heart and hatred in his soul, but instead he measured his pace: at the platform's edge he stopped, turned, paced slowly back.

He steeled himself against looking through the window, looking at the telegrapher to see if perhaps he was copying a message, some word from Denver.

I was a fool, I was a fool, I was a fool, the voice whispered in his head.

I should have told her, should have told her, told her, told her.

"Oh shut up," he muttered out loud.

A carriage rattled into town and he hoped most sincerely it was not Bonnie.

Bonnie -- Sarah's mother -- did not know her daughter was in Denver on business.

The Sheriff did not want to have to tell her.

Especially if things went bad.

 

The trunk tilted a little as it was carried upstairs.

Voices were muffled as the trunk was set carelessly down, picked up, carried again, set down again.

A door opened; a voice: "Boss? We got her!"

Sarah took a long, calming breath, gathered her strength: when the lid opened, she would have one chance and one chance only.

 

The Boss looked at the trunk with triumph and greed and honest lust in his expression.

It was the look he had just before he watched a man tortured to death.

He'd done as much to women before but this time he was going to enjoy himself.

Not only was this brat in the trunk a tender little morsel that he intended to enjoy before selling her to a San Frisco brothel, she'd also been snooping around and asking questions, and the Boss did not like it when people asked questions that just might compromise any of his profit making operations.

He puffed happily on his vile cigar, thrust his paunch out importantly, grasped his lapels like the Mayor himself.

"Okay, boys, open 'er up!"

 

Sarah heard the key clatter into the lock and her lips pulled back in a snarl.

 

The Boss watched the key turn; the fellow grabbed the ends of the lid, flipped it back --

Sarah surged to her knees, shoved the cut-down twelve-bore into the nearest man's throat and pulled the trigger.

Her job was to take the Boss alive and that meant avoiding gunfire if it was at all possible.

She didn't wait.

Triumph sang in her veins and sulfur detonated in the Damascus-steel breech and most of the man's cervical spine blew out the back of his neck.

Sarah raised her birdshead Colt and drove a round into the Boss's gut, turned and gave the second barrel to the man behind the trunk, reaching for the lid as if to slam it shut: she dove, somersaulting, dropped the shotgun and pulled the second Colt.

She heard a distant screaming and she fired the revolvers left-right-left-right-left-right, making each shot count, the interested audience behind her eyes fascinated by how slowly the world around her was moving, how precisely she was able to raise that front sight to exactly where she wanted Blue Whistler to go.

One man turned and dove out the closed window like a swimmer dives off a high rock and she shot him squarely in the bottom as he arched over and she knew the slug would travel the length of his body and he would likely be dead before he hit the ground, and she did not care.

She turned and saw men crouch and saw hands disappear under coats and saw fear in their eyes and she laid about with fire and with thunder and with cold, controlled precision, and of eight men present, seven were down and dead and the Boss was sagging against his desk, choking and bent over and gripping his bleeding belly with both hands.

Sarah thrust one revolver back into its smooth black belt holster; she brought the hammer to half cock on the other, flipped open the loading gate, kicked empties out into her hand, thumbed in fresh rounds, smiled a little as she heard a little girl's voice in her head, her own voice, chanting Load one, skip one, load four, cock.

She traded the revolver in her holster for the one she'd just loaded; she turned slowly, her eyes busy, knowing there might be reinforcements, there would be troops charging up the stairs, running to their Boss's aid --

The second revolver was only just loaded when the door kicked in, wood splinters turning in midair as Sarah thrust her second revolver back into its vest holster.

Levi was first man in the room, shotgun to shoulder, swinging back and forth in the sulfur smoke: he lowered the gun, yelled "Secure that man!" and thrust a pointing finger at the Boss.

He stepped over the dead and dying and grabbed Sarah by the shoulder. "ARE YOU HURT?" he yelled.

Sarah shook her head.

Levi handed the shotgun to one of the several uniformed officers crowding into the charnel-house, seized Sarah in a great, crushing hug.

Sarah's eyes widened and she heard the Sheriff's words again, words she hadn't studied on until they came unbidden to mind --

"I lost one daughter. I don't want to lose you too."

Sarah's eyes widened and she pulled away from Levi, gripped him by the forearms.

"Levi," she said quickly, "look at my eyes."

Levi blinked, surprised.

"Look at me!" Sarah hissed. "Levi, look at my eyes!"

Levi looked Sarah in the eye.

"Levi," she demanded, "how long have you known?"

A uniformed officer stepped up, touched his cap brim. "Sir? All dead but the Boss. He's being taken to hospital now."

"Go with him," Levi said quietly, and the officer nodded and disappeared.

Levi looked back at Sarah, then looked around. "I need to process the scene here," he said. "I'll need your statement."

"Levi, how long have you known?" Sarah repeated.

Levi squatted beside a man, took the pistol from his purpling hand, examined it. "Fired once," he said, then turned, frowning.

He grabbed the side of Sarah's vest, then quickly, urgently, unbuttoned it and yanked it open.

"Oh my God," he muttered, his hands suddenly clumsy as he fumbled for a kerchief.

Sarah ran her hand under her vest, felt her shirt was wet, brought out a hand bright with fresh blood.

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44. ANARCHIST

 

"This is odd," one of the police officers muttered, walking around what looked like a wooden operating table, or maybe an undertaker's slab.

Curious, a sergeant came over, squatted beside it, looked under, just as the first officer leaned on it.

The sergeant heard a distinct CLICK.

Across the room, Sarah heard it as well: she pulled away from Levi, eyes wide and pale and she felt the blood drain out of her spine as she saw the officer stiff-arming the table.

Sarah had been taking singing lessons and her instructors were impressed by her power and range, a gift of her greater lung capacity, which was the natural adaptation of living at a high altitude. She had, in fact, sung a bit part in a stage opera, portraying one of several candidates for the opera, one who had power but not control: her note spun out pure and lovely, but powerful, and it filled the opera-house: here, though, her lungs filled with a full charge of air and she sang not of beauty, but of death, and her voice filled the room because it had to.

"EVERYBODY FREEZE RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE, DO NOT MOVE AS YOU VALUE YOUR LIFE, THE TABLE IS MINED!"

Sarah knew she was taking a gamble: men will normally jump back from a threat, but the policeman, to his credit, froze right where he was, his weight still on the butchers-block slab.

Sarah clamped her left arm down against her ribs, wove quickly through bodies standing and dead: the Sergeant looked up at her and said quietly, "It's a springwork, and enough dynamite t' send us all t' hell!"

"I know," Sarah hissed, "I heard about this when Levi was arranging this meeting."

The Sergeant shot a glare at Levi; Sarah shoved him roughly aside, dropped to the floor, rolled onto her back and breathed through her open mouth, assessing the clockwork detonator.

"Okay," she murmured, "who here has a hairpin?"

She looked up at the Sergeant and laughed.

"YOU HEARD THE LADY!" the Sergeant roared. "WHICH MOTHER'S SON O'YE HAS A HAIRPIN?"

"I apprenticed to a clockmaker," one officer volunteered, raising a hand.

"THEN GE' O'ER HERE, MAN, YE'RE NEEDED! AN' GET TH' LADY A LAMP SO SHE CAN SEE WH' TH' HELL SHE'S DOIN'!"

"Sergeant," Sarah murmured, "you need a raise in pay."

"Who th' hell are ye, anyway?" the Sergeant asked, going to one knee.

"Agent Sarah McKenna, Firelands District Court, special assignment to this case."

"You're th' Agent?" the Sergeant asked, surprise evident on his beefy Celtic features. "Damme, Phillippa, th' world is full o' wonders, when I saw ye I thought ye a lad until I realized yer hair was coiled braids an' no' a fur cap --"

"Flattery will get you everywhere," Sarah muttered, accepting the lamp and frowning at the mechanism.

The Sergeant saw her teeth pull back and she swore, softly, viciously, and those near enough to hear it felt a sudden sense of doom.

"Sergeant," Sarah said, her diction suddenly very precise, "I want you to evacuate this building. I want everyone out and I want them out five minutes ago . I'll keep the clockmaker and the man holding weight on the table. No--" she sifted, smiled.

"Sergeant, grab a body and lay it on the table. Any carcass will do, that will keep weight on the table and it won't go boom when your man removes his arms."

The Sergeant bent, grabbed a man who was missing the back of his head, laid it carefully on the table.

"That's where they intended to belt me down," Sarah said absently. "They intended that I should scream to death. They wouldn't kill me, they'd abandon the building and let the first-in policeman lift me off the table, boom."

The Sergeant swore -- unlike Sarah's profanity, it was not a quiet, breathy phrase, it was a full-voiced malediction, given with all the strength and feeling of his warrior's soul -- he started pointing and giving orders: "Lads, ye heard th' Agent! Clear th' building! Top floor down, now, go, nobody stays, if they want t' argue, club 'em an' throw 'em down th' stairs! MOVE!"

Levi squatted on the opposite side of the table. "I'm staying," he said quietly.

"You're leaving," Sarah said. "I can't afford to lose you."

"What do you mean, you can't afford to lose me? You are not my superior officer --"

"His Honor the Judge might have something to say about that." Sarah reached up, felt around the coiled crown of braided auburn hair, pulled out a hairpin, handed it to the man who supined himself beside her. "There's a mechanism up there --"

"Clever," he muttered. "Have you any more of these?" He bent a hook on one end, straightened it slightly, reached very carefully up under the table, worked the hook through a clockwork's perforated brass gear.

"Here." She handed him two more. "What ever apprenticed you to a clockmaker?"

He laughed, moving his head a little to the left and then moving the lamp to cast light into a shadowed area. "Oh there you are, you naughty little striker, you!" -- he bent the hairpin between his front teeth, made a very short hook, then carefully, precisely, reached up and hooked a brass disk, drew it to the side, caught it as it fell.

He held it up between two fingers.

"Fulminate of mercury," he said, "between two brass cigarette papers." He frowned, worked a little further under the table, banged his head on the table leg.

Levi winced.

"Levi, get out of here," Sarah warned.

"Not without you."

"Mother needs you, Levi. You will be her husband and I will take your name professionally."

"I thought you didn't like the Rosenthal name."

"This isn't the military, Levi. Here we respect the man, not the rank."

"So you respect me."

"You're damned right I respect you, you long tall drink of water," Sarah snapped. "Now get the hell out of here before I have to do something drastic!"

"Like what?"

Sarah looked directly at him and he saw something in her eyes, something he hadn't expected: her eyes darkened a little, darkened to a distinct bluish shade, and the hint of a smile contoured her cheeks and curled the corners of her mouth.

"Levi Rosenthal," she said quietly, "if you don't get out of her this very instant, I shall cry!"

The clockmaker stopped, turned his head and looked at Sarah as if she had a fish sticking out of her vest pocket.

He and Levi looked at one another and both men laughed a little.

Levi rolled over onto his elbow, got up into a squat.

"Sarah," he said, "if you get yourself killed, I'll never speak to you again!"

"There," the policeman said, satisfaction in his voice. "I've spragged the mechanism, now it won't fire. Levi, I'm going to start handing you sticks of dynamite." He reached for a bundle, yanked his hand back like he'd been stung. "Umm, no I won't."

"How's that?"

"Levi, this dynamite ... this is sweating. It's ... nitroglycerin is beading out on its surface and it could go boom just any moment."

Levi's mouth went dry.

"We have one chance," the clockmaker's apprentice muttered. "We can set it afire."

"Fire? In the middle of the city?"

"Yeah. Not a good idea." The policeman looked under the table at Levi. "Send a note to your wife and tell her you love her, or get out, but do it now." He looked over at Sarah, reached over and squeezed her hand.

"You're an Agent?" he asked softly.

Sarah nodded, biting her bottom lip.

"My God," he whispered. "I'm not sure whether to adopt you or marry you."

Sarah colored a little, squeezed his hand. "I think that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in a very long time."

"Hey, you two," Levi reminded, "we're working on a problem here. If you want to go for moonlit buggy rides, this isn't the time nor the place!"

"Killjoy," Sarah retorted, and "Picky, picky, picky," intoned the supine policeman. "In for a penny, in for a pound and all that." He smiled. "Levi, if you could get me ... four, I make it four --"

"I count four," Sarah agreed.

"Levi, I need four buckets of coal oil. Half full, no more. Have them brought up here and tell the Sergeant he won't have to write that letter edged in black on my account."

Levi shot a hard look at Sarah, thrust to his feet, ran out of the room.

Sarah rolled over on her back, stared at the tin ceiling.

"Whatever took you from clockmaker to policeman?" Sarah asked absently.

The officer laughed -- he lay back, resting his arms, resting the ache in his shoulders from reaching up under strain -- "Agent, we all carry secrets."

"Tell me about it," she muttered, still holding his hand.

"I was an anarchist back in the Old Country."

She squeezed his hand a little, turned her head, smiled. "An anarchist? You?"

He laughed quietly. "I made bombs."

"Really!" Her smile was broad and genuine. "Tell me about this!"

"I made mostly iron bombs, simple things any clod could use -- light the fuse and throw -- but I made some lovely clockwork bombs as well." He looked up at the ceiling, his eyes distant as he remembered. "I made 'em with a release -- like this one, meant to arm when weight came on it and boom when the weight came off -- I made 'em to go off at a particular time ... one time I made a miniature clockwork, it was the size of a man's pocket watch, but I never got t' try it." His expression saddened. "I never thought of what I did as wrong. I made the machines. Other people used 'em. I loved making things that worked ..."

He looked over at him, his grin suddenly boyish.

"But I do so love things that go boom!"

Sarah looked up at the four bundles of Big Dan under the table and said, "I hope you get your wish. Just not here!"

 

Sarah managed to carry two of the buckets downstairs.

The ex-anarchist very carefully detached the bundles from beneath the table; he slowly, gently, immersed them in buckets of coal oil; a bucket in each hand, he cat-footed down the three flights of stairs, Sarah following at a one-story interval.

The buckets were stacked on a freight wagon, the freight wagon would be taken out of town, the buckets would then be set afire, and the dynamite would be disposed of safely by burning rather than booming.

Sarah turned to go back upstairs and Levi stopped her.

"I need to retrieve my shotgun," she muttered, swaying a little.

"Sarah," he said quietly, "you need that side taken care of."

He was surprised when Sarah squeaked, "You're right," and her eyes rolled up, and her knees buckled, and she fell bonelessly against him.

Levi awkwardly caught her, got his good arm under her knees, straightened.

The unconscious, bloody-sided woman in his arms had all the substance of a rag doll.

Like most men in a moment of surprise, Levi opened his mouth and later he kicked himself for letting something stupid fall out from between his teeth.

"Now what do I do with her?"

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45. DEBRIEF

 

A pale-eyed lawman walked his copper mare down the cleated ramp in the Denver trainyard.

He flowed easily into the saddle, looked around, walked his mare up to a railroad detective.

"Son," he said, his voice as kindly as a pile of rocks grinding their way down a flooded streambed, "which way to the main police station?"

Levi lifted his hat and whistled, a shrill, rising note, and the Sheriff looked up, raised his hand in acknowledgement.

"Never mind, son," the Sheriff said, "my reception committee just arrived."

The Sheriff knee-reined Cannonball and walked her over to the chief detective.

"Levi," he said, his voice tight.

"Sheriff."

"Report."

"She hasn't thrown anyone out her hospital window yet."

The Sheriff stopped and Levi saw a smile trying to hide behind his pale eyes and having no success at all, and Levi relaxed just a little: he knew if he could tickle Linn's funny bone he would be less likely to lay about like Samson, smiting those about him hip and thigh, and he knew that Linn used more and more formidable weapons than half an equine's mandible.

"I'd ... like a report," the Sheriff said carefully: he was in another jurisdiction, and while he would be accorded the respect of a visiting Sheriff, his authority here was nonexistent, and he knew it: diplomacy would be a more valuable tool than the fist.

"And you shall have it," Levi said. "As a matter of fact you're right on time. Follow me and we'll formally debrief the event."

The Sheriff walked Cannonball to the end of the platform; the detective climbed into a carriage, the uniformed driver flipped the reins and clucked at the gelding and they moved smoothly into Denver traffic.

As badly as the Sheriff wanted to see Sarah and to hold her, he did not want to miss the debrief.

Especially if things did not go as he hoped.

He knew Sarah was blood of his blood, the get of his loins, and he knew his temper and how he himself reacted to attempts on his life, and part of him held a secret dread that Sarah might end up on the wrong side of the jail cell door.

He hoped most sincerely that this would not happen.

 

"Well butter me butt and call me a biscuit!" the Chief exclaimed, seizing the Sheriff's extended hand. "Colonel, may the Saints strike me blind if I'm not glad t' see ye!"

The Sheriff allowed himself a quiet smile and took the Chief's hand. "It's been a long time, Captain," he said quietly, gripping the man's shoulder as he shook his hand.

The Chief tapped the Sheriff's hard, lean middle with a bent foreknuckle. "God's bones, man, ye need a guid square meal! Ye are as lean as ye were chasin' after Morgan! Let's get us some guid beef after th' meeting, eh?"

"Are you buyin'?" the Sheriff said dryly and the Chief threw back his head and laughed. He pointed at the Sheriff, looked at Levi, and declared "This man could sell ashes t' th' Devil! I seen him flim-flam a general into countermandin' an order, an' th' general was a hard-headed man!"

Levi smiled politely, quietly filing all this away in his mental Book of Useful Knowledge.

Whether his future lay with Denver or with Firelands County, the more he knew of the man he'd be under, the better he could personally maneuver.

"We're about t' go over th' shootout," the Chief bustled over to a cupboard, opened the gleaming, smooth, waxed-pine cupboard doors, revealing several cut-glass decanters and several glasses. "Will ye be havin' a touch t' cut th' dust?"

The Sheriff smiled quietly, shook his head.

"Ah, then, ye'll forgive me if I do." He dashed two fingers' worth into a damp glass, knocked it back, sighed loudly and replaced stopper, glass and decanter.

"It's f'r me arthritis, y'understand," he winked, and the Sheriff deadpanned, "Nights sleepin' on that cold ground durin' the War is hard on a man's bones."

The Chief clapped his hand companionably on the Sheriff's shoulder. "Spoken like a true soldier," he agreed. "Now let's be after th' meetin'."

 

The Sheriff, if need be, was a man of fast, uncompromising violence.

He was also a practitioner of the Masonic virtues of Silence, and Circumspection.

A born diplomat, he shook hands with Mayor, Councilmen, fire chief, petty satraps, hangers-on: he sought out the eyes that studied him and deliberately went up to them and grasped their hands as well: if these were enemies he wanted a close look at them, and he wanted them to know he was not afraid to walk right up and look directly into theirs. What he found instead were the men who were on the raid, and he wanted to see them as well.

The Chief puffed his red-faced way to the lectern. "At ease, gentlemen, be seated an' we'll get started."

The Sheriff looked at the chest on a side table, the stubby shotgun beside it: his eyes grew a little more pale as he realized Sarah must have been in that trunk, and the shotgun was in evidence.

"Here's wha' happened," the Chief declared, and the Sheriff looked around, slowly, methodically: he saw brown-suited men with immaculately-curled mustaches and Derby hats pushed back on their heads, scribbling on hand-held pads, one of whom had a larger pad and was using larger, more deliberate pencil-strokes -- an illustrator, he knew, the others were reporters -- he looked back at the Chief, who was reaching for the trunk.

"Our thanks to the Chief Detective," he declared, slapping a hand loudly on the trunk's arched lid, "for gettin' into the confidence of th' gang. He arranged f'r an unnamed Agent of th' Firelands District Court t' be smuggled int' t' trunk, an' th' trunk taken t' th' boss's headquarters.

"Th' intent was f'r th' Agent t' jump out like a Jack-in-th'-box wi' this" -- he held up the twelve gauge horse pistol -- "an' capture th' lot of 'em, but as soon as th' lid opened, th' Agent was shot, an' all bets were off."

Levi looked over at the Sheriff.

His impression was that the man had just gone very, very still, and Levi saw the tall, lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache just got a very cold, very frosty look to his eyes.

"When th' Agent was shot, 'twas evident th' situation was a threat t' this brave soul's life, and so he punched this" -- he held the broke-open, cut-down shotgun up -- "int' th' nearest man's neck an' pulled th' trigger."

The Sheriff did not miss the use of the masculine pronoun.

He.

Not she.

The Chief must be deliberately concealing her.

He would not have mistaken her for a him.

"Now th' plan was that the Agent should take th' boss, an' wi' this in his kidneys, everyone else would drop their weapons, the Agent would go to a window an' blow a police-whistle" -- the Chief laid down the shotgun, picked up his own chrome-plated brass cylinder, then dropped it, letting it dangle from its shoulder-chain attached to his epaulet -- "but when th' lads heard th' first shot they knew the fat was in th' fire, an' they kicked th' door.

"Th' Agent was surrounded by th' most vicious gang in Denver's history," the Chief declared, his voice rising dramatically, "and this one Agent, this lone soldier for the will o' the Court, this young man tasked wi' bringing t' justice th' viper's head, laid about wi' a pair o' revolvers in a desperate bid t' stay alive."

"When was this Agent first shot?" a reporter interrupted, raising a pencil-gripped hand.

"Th' Agent was shot as soon as he popped up like a jack-in-the-box," the Chief replied, thrusting a finger at the open trunk: "he jumped out an' tumbled like a circus acrobat an' came up shootin'. When our men kicked the door and ran in -- Detective, you were there, wha' did ye see?"

Levi stood, turned: his voice was calm, deliberate: the Chief was a storyteller and reveled in reeling out a good tale, but Levi spoke deliberately: he pitched his voice to carry, strode to the center aisle.

"Let's say the trunk were here" -- he laid a hand on a councilman's shoulder -- "the Agent would be about here" -- he turned, nodded to one of the Mayor's assistants -- "about ten feet from the trunk. The only door in or out was there" -- he pointed to the back of the room -- "and the room was a third of this size or maybe a little less. Center front" -- he turned, thrust a hand toward the lectern -- "the Boss's big desk. They had to assemble it once they brought it upstairs for it was too big to fit through door or window. If you put a mast on it you could sail it down the Missouri River."

There was a chuckle at that.

"And in front of the desk was what looked like an operating room table.

"It was blood stained and had obviously been used a number of times. There were straps and restraints attached and there was a smaller table nearby holding a variety of small knives, surgical implements and what I would describe as torture devices.

"As it turns out, that's exactly what they were.

"You see, the Boss dispatched a trusted lieutenant to seize the persons of a recently deceased debtor's family, with instructions to ... defile the widow and her daughter, and to sell they two and the younger daughters as well to the brothels in Frisco."

A mutter rippled through the assembled.

"The trusted lieutenant was killed in this effort."

Men's heads nodded in approval.

"The Boss was told the oldest daughter had been snooping about and asking questions, and he was told she'd been caught, tied and placed in this trunk" -- he thrust an accusing finger at the mute box -- "for his presentation.

"His intent was to strap her to the table and torture her." Levi's expression was hard and the faces he saw hardened as his words sunk in. "He intended to belt down a child of thirteen years and flay her alive, he intended to use bent wires we found in the surgical toolbox to hook behind her eye-muscles and extract her living eyeballs from their sockets. We believe he intended to murder this innocent child, slowly, but not completely."

"That sounds pretty complete to me, Detective," a reporter commented from the back of the room.

"Not quite. They intended to do all this with her mouth stuffed full of her own dress material to keep her quiet, but at the very end they intended to open a window, extract the gag and abandon the building.

"The torturer's table was mined."

"Mined!" the Mayor exclaimed: the Fire Chief leaned forward, eyes fixed hard on the Detective.

"Mined with four bundles of dynamite. Sixty per cent stuff and sweating, it was. The table had a release on it, when the victim's weight came on the table, the detonator cocked, and when someone came to her rescue an' lifted her off th' table, boom."

His enunciation of "boom" was quiet; his hands described the expanding cloud of debris.

"Of course, as our Fire Chief knows" -- Levi looked squarely at the Chief -- "an explosion is a very rapid combustion. Had four bundles of Big Dan detonated in a wooden building it would have set it afire, and a fire would spread, fast."

"How did you find the mine?" the same reporter asked.

"Sergeant Mackeldonney. He's a curious man -- Mackeldonney, are y' here?"

The Police Chief turned, searched the audience, sat.

"I don't see him," the Chief offered, "but th' man deserves a commendation!"

"So does Dogerson," Levi added, smiling. "More than anyone, Chief, Dogerson should be recognized. He rolled under the table with Sergeant Mackeldonney and saw there was both the pressure detonator and a clockwork mechanism. He removed the pressure detonator and blocked the clockwork. You've a good man there, Chief. He's the one cool headed enough to dismount four bundles of sweating dynamite and carry them out in buckets of coal oil."

"What's sweating dynamite?" the reporter called again.

"Dynamite will sweat out nitroglycerin," Levi explained, "and when it does it's as unstable as the nitroglycerin itself. A breath of air, a slammed door, the least touch and she can go boom. Dogerson knew if it were carefully immersed in coal oil it could be safely transported and then burned."

"Where did they burn it?"

"A very long way from here!" Levi almost shouted, grinning, and the audience laughed with him.

"Where is the Agent now?" the reporter asked. "Do you have a name? What is his condition?"

"The Agent," Levi interrupted, raising a flat palm toward the questioner, "is currently receiving the very best of medical care. We understand the Agent will probably live, but please remember, not only did the Agent -- after being shot -- engaged in a desperate gunfight, killed every man in the room -- which, I might add, every man Jack of the deceased was gripping a weapon of some sort -- the Boss was also shot and is in custody in hospital, and is also expected to live. I regret" -- he again held up a forestalling palm toward the interrupting reporter -- "I regret that I am not authorized to divulge the identity of the Agent, as this is a confidential matter involving the Firelands District Court I am authorized only to say that the Agent is under medical care and will be laid up for some time as he heals." He looked at the Sheriff and the lawman saw duplicity in the detective's eyes. "We hope the Agent will walk again ... someday."

The Mayor thrust to his feet. "The City of Denver is most grateful for the brave actions of these guardians of the public trust and safety," he declared in dramatic and carefully-practiced, oratorical tones: "the brave men who disarmed the murderous device will receive public commendations, as will the brave Agent who placed his life at such risk to guarantee our safety from these vile perpetrators!"

Levi wrapped up the debrief; men rose to file out of the room, several coming over to greet the Sheriff: it was several very long minutes before he was able to ask Levi where the Agent was resting.

There were too many ears for Levi to answer, but there was a trusted individual Levi prepared ahead of time, and a half hour later, the Sheriff was presented to the officer guarding a hospital room door, and given admittance.

Two nurses were in the room; the Sheriff removed his Stetson, waited patiently, as they attended Sarah's needs: the Sheriff saw she was rolled up on her side, one arm above her head: the lawman's face was impassive as he watched them drop bloodied bandages into a bucket: their moves were quick, efficient, as they applied clean bandage and wrap to the young woman: they rolled her back, wrapped what the Sheriff recognized as a corset around her, laced it tight.

All this time Sarah made no sound, staring instead at the ceiling, her jaw set.

The nursing nuns gathered their materials, walked together out of the room, did not look up at the Sheriff.

He waited until the door closed behind him.

"Chatty bunch, ain't they?"

"You should hear them when they're quiet," Sarah muttered.

The Sheriff picked up a chair, set it beside the painfully-clean hospital bed.

"What can I get you?"

"You can get me out of here." Sarah turned her head, looked at the Sheriff. "I can heal better at home. This place is full of sick people. I don't need to be exposed to all this." She rubbed her bedsheet experimentally between thumb and forefinger. "I wonder if I could use this to shinny out the window."

The Sheriff's eyes were very pale and very hard.

"You were not supposed to get shot," he whispered.

"I didn't know I was. Not until it was over." She smiled, suddenly, the big bright Sarah-smile he remembered so well. "I didn't vote for it!"

The Sheriff relaxed a little, chuckled.

"Sheriff?"

The Sheriff tilted his head a little and looked down at the pale face surrounded by a spray of auburn hair.

"Hold my hand?" she asked in a little girl's voice, and she looked almost like she was about to cry. "Please?"

The Sheriff dropped his head, closed his eyes, hard: then he opened them, swallowed, and very carefully, lifted the covers and reached under and found her hand.

She gripped his hand tightly, desperately, and whispered, "I wish I was your little girl."

The Sheriff's throat was suddenly very dry, and he opened his mouth, then closed it.

He waited until she was asleep, then gently disengaged his hand: he went to the nurse's station, asked some questions, went downstairs.

Later that night, under cover of darkness, an old woman in mourning black was helped onto the train.

She moved slowly, stiffly, like an arthritic old woman with barely enough strength to move: the porters were kindly and gentle, and they scared up a pillow for her poor old backside, for the seats were bare wood and not kind: a tall, lean lawman in a black suit lifted his hat deferentially and inquired if he might share her seat, and the silent woman turned over a black-gloved hand to indicate assent.

At journey's end the tall, lean lawman picked up the old woman in widow's black and carried her carefully, gently, out of the passenger car, cradling her veiled head against her shoulder as he did.

He carried Sarah through her own front door, and up her own stairs, he carried her into her own bedroom, and he waited outside the door while Bonnie and the maid undressed her and tucked her in.

Bonnie came out, laid a hand on the Sheriff's chest.

"Sheriff," she whispered, "we need to talk."

The Sheriff nodded, looked at the closed bedroom door, then followed Bonnie McKenna downstairs.

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46. LIGHTNING ROD

 

"Sheriff, I'm sorry," the Judge said, studying the ash on the end of his cigar as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world. "You did not deserve to be told that."

The Sheriff nodded, his ears a bright scarlet; his jaw was thrust out but the man was silent, his face carefully expressionless. "Yes I did, Your Honor. I deserved every bit of it."

"No. That was mine. It was not right that you had to stand the gaff for my decision."

"No, Your Honor. She trusted me and now her little girl lies shot in her own bed."

The Judge dropped his cigar into the cuspidor, hawked loudly, walked over to the open window and spat.

"I didn't mean for her to take a hand in affairs," he said, his voice tight.

"Bonnie, or Sarah?" the Sheriff asked mildly.

"Neither one!" the Judge snapped, then held up his hand: "I'm sorry, Sheriff, you don't need my short temper. You've had enough tonight."

"I could change my name to Lightning Rod," Linn suggested.

The Judge looked sharply at him, shaking his head. "That's just like you," he said peevishly, thrusting a thumb at the long, tall lawman. "You'd crack a joke in the face of St. Peter!"

"It helps me get along."

"I suppose it does. Drink?"

"Thank you, Your Honor, I'll take a gallon."

The Judge grunted, set out two tall glasses. "I don't have that much, but you're welcome to what I have."

"Two fingers' worth," the Sheriff said, thrusting index and middle fingers out in a horizontal V, "in a five gallon bucket."

The Judge grunted again, poured each glass about two-thirds full of California sunshine.

"How difficult was she?"

The Sheriff took the proffered brandy, took a long, appreciative sniff, then drank half of it before he came up for air.

"Your Honor," the Sheriff said, "I am used to being called a cad, a bounder, a blaggard, a scoundrel and worse. I've been accused of relations with sheep -- or worse, sheep herding -- I've been told I was second cousin to the snake that tempted Eve in the Garden, I've been called a dog and a weasel and a worm."

He looked up, his eyes haunted.

"Your Honor, I've burned a candle for that woman since the night I rode into Firelands all those years ago."

The Judge nodded; he and the Sheriff discussed such things before.

"To look into those eyes -- Your Honor, I would've tore out my beating heart and laid it at her feet ... "

He looked into the depth of his brandy glass, then tilted it up, drank the rest, strode over and refilled it from the Judge's cut-glass decanter, drank again.

"Betrayal," he said, his voice barely audible, and the Judge saw a deep pain in the man's pale eyes. "She said I betrayed her."

"I'll go speak with her," the Judge began, but the Sheriff shook his head, drank the second glass, set it silently on the tabletop.

"She needs someone to blame, Your Honor. If that's me, so be it. Let her blame me." His eyes were haunted. "She wouldn't be the first."

"You can't blame yourself for that."

"Can't I?" the Sheriff said bitterly. "I led those men into battle. I was their commanding officer. I was responsible for every last one of them."

"And the one time you were able to personally deliver the news, the mother ripped into you."

"She had every right."

"Maybe so," the Judge said. "She had to rip into someone, she'd just lost her son."

The Sheriff nodded. "Yeah." He picked up his hat.

"Sheriff ... I never meant for Sarah to ... I only ... I thought she would gather information and report back and disappear."

The Sheriff nodded. "That's what I thought too, Your Honor. She had ... other ideas."

"And it sounds like she just might be pretty good at what she does."

The Sheriff shot the Judge a hard look. "I don't want my little girl growing up to be like me, Your Honor."

"Why not?" the Judge snapped back. "It seems to me -- and I'm a pretty good judge of horse flesh, fishing rods and of men -- it seems to me that you are a decent and an honorable man, Sheriff. I see nothing wrong with your little girl becoming just as decent and just as honorable."

"Judge," the Sheriff said, incredulous, "do you even know what she did?"

"Suppose you tell me."

"She connived and conspired and swindled at least twenty men at one time or another, she wheedled and persuaded and traded on good looks and undelivered promises, she went in disguise and lied through her teeth until she arranged to have herself smuggled into the heart of the most dangerous gang in Denver.

"Your Honor, she was supposed to find out where this Boss was and who he was and how he could be found, and instead she had herself carried into his sanctum, she gut shot him and she killed seven other men. Now doesn't that sound just a bit ... precipitous? Isn't that just a little bit close to death wish insane?"
His Honor considered this for several moments.

"No," he finally said, his voice soft, distant. "No, Sheriff, I did not know that."

"She went into a hornet's nest and she killed every last man in that room. All but the Boss. She lay on her back beside a bomb making anarchist and helped him disable the clockwork and the striker that was ready to blow the top off that building."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," the Judge said, dropping an unlighted cigar and looking at the Sheriff with surprised eyes. "What's this about blowing up a building?"

The Sheriff closed his eyes and took a long breath. "Maybe you better pour us the last of that brandy."

"Yes," the Judge agreed. "Yes. I think I should."

He poured; they drank.

"Now." The Judge swirled his brandy in the tall glass. "Start again about blowing the top off that building."

The Sheriff glared at his brandy, glared with a concentrated intensity that led the Judge to wonder if the contents weren't going to freeze solid despite the alcoholic percentage.

"The Boss intended to strap her to an operating table and skin her alive."

The Judge froze as something crawled on cold fingers down his spine.

"The table was rigged with four bundles of dynamite, good high percentage nitroglycerin. Four bundles would have blown the top two floors off that building and set it afire. It was rigged with a clockwork ... it cocked when weight came off it and the clockwork would have delayed it about ten seconds before driving a striker into a fulminate wafer, which would set off the dynamite cap, which would set off the dynamite."

"He intended to skin Sarah?"

"He did, Your Honor. She'd let him hear that she was Rosenthal's daughter and she let him hear she was asking questions, so he decided he'd cut her up until she was able to do no more than scream. He'd open a window and pull out her eyeballs to bring her shreiks to an absolute peak, then they would abandon the building, and when the first-in policeman picked her up, he would get maybe ten feet away from the table when it went boom."

The Judge's mouth was dry, listening to the Sheriff's quiet voice, made all the more horrifying by the absolutely emotionless nature of his recitation.

"How much of this does Bonnie know?"

"She knows Sarah was in Denver. She thinks she was there at my behest to investigate Rosenthal's murder. She knows her daughter ended up shot and in hospital."

"That's all?"

"Isn't it enough?"

The Judge took a thoughtful pull on what was left of his brandy.

"I will speak with her, Sheriff."

"Your choice." The Sheriff set down his empty glass. "Will there be anything else, Your Honor?"

"No." The Judge closed his eyes, shook his head. "No, Sheriff. I don't ... I don't believe there will be anything else tonight."

The Sheriff rose, picked up his hat, stopped and turned to face the Judge.

"Your Honor?"

"Hm?" The Judge stopped, freshly-lit Lucifer halfway to his cigar.

"Your Honor, thank you. You've never lied to me. I appreciate that."

The Judge touched flame to tobacco, puffed the hand-rolled Cuban into fragrant life.
"Neither have you, Sheriff."

The Judge stood for several minutes after the Sheriff's departure, contemplating the tobacco smoke curling up from his cigar, thinking about their conversation.

I'll speak to her, he thought.

I don't look forward to it, but I'll speak to her.

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47. FAN YOUR BISCUITS

 

It was proving to be an unsettling day.

Bonnie McKenna felt distinctly like her insides resembled a bucket of muddy water, stirred by a restless hand.

Most unsettling was the well-dressed, immaculately-polite, soft-spoken stranger sitting across the parlor, cup and saucer balanced carefully on one knee, regarding her with eyes she knew well.

Too well.

The stranger wore her dead husband's face and he wore her dead husband's name -- his last name, at least -- and he gave his name as Levi.

Beside him was the Sheriff, and Bonnie avoided looking at the man: of all disappointments, none are so great as disappointments from people we thought well of ... even worse is a betrayal from someone you trusted, and Bonnie trusted the Sheriff, or used to.

She trusted him until he talked her little girl into the feather-headed adventure of capturing crooks and bad guys and acting out some silly girlish fantasy from a cheap penny dreadful, a stupid idea that nearly got Sarah killed!

And now the Judge, his hat in his hand, asking if he might have a word.

Bonnie was beginning to wonder if the Governor himself might not show up with an entourage.

Why not, she thought, I'm not getting anything done this morning, we might as well ruin the noontime as well!

"I am not certain," the Judge said as he eased into a chair, "quite how I should address you."

"Bonnie McKenna will do fine, thank you," Bonnie said tartly, and shot an angry glance at the doorway.

Sarah saw her look and raised her chin rebelliously: she was fully dressed, her hair was done, she looked mature and composed and normally Bonnie would have felt a surge of pride in her daughter's maturation, but at the moment her mind's eye saw Sarah with her teeth and fists clenched, with blood on the freshly-removed bandages, with the Sheriff's quiet-voiced words of the evening before searing across her soul: "... shootout ... killed several men ... dynamite ... she was remarkable ..."

"Bonnie McKenna," the Judge said, standing, "it is I and I alone who bears responsibility for this brave young soul's wounding."

Bonnie turned her violet eyes on the dignified, spade-bearded jurist as if she'd like to slice him in two with their intensity.

"It was I who recruited her, and I who swore her in as an Agent of the Court. This is a confidential agency and she was under orders to tell no one." He looked directly at her, his eyes hard and uncompromising. "Even, and especially, you."

Bonnie looked accusingly at Sarah, who walked coolly behind the row of chairs, stopping to rest one hand lightly on the seated Sheriff's shoulder.

"My intent was to use her skill at costume and the charms of an innocent young face to get men to talk." The Judge's face colored a little. "My intent was to recruit her to gather information. Apparently" -- he looked over at her, and Bonnie's stomach shriveled a little to see it -- the Judge looked over at Sarah with frank approval -- "apparently her skills are greater than merely gathering information."

He looked at Bonnie.

"Bonnie McKenna, you daughter -- this delightful, lovely, innocent-looking soul who is so near a child and so near a woman -- your Sarah not only acquired the needed information to find the one man responsible for the murderous attack on your late husband" -- the Judge paced across between Bonnie and the seated men -- "she wove herself into the tapestry of his capture."

"She was nearly killed, Your Honor," Bonnie said coldly, her chin raising a few degrees.

"Yes, she was," the Judge agreed. "She was very nearly killed by one of the men she shot. Would you like to know what happened, what actually happened, would you like to know the hornet's nest your pretty little girl kicked over?"

The Judge stopped, took Sarah's hand, held it in a fatherly (or grandfatherly) manner, and smiled just a little.

He looked at Bonnie.

"She arranged to get information to the crime boss that she, the daughter of the man he'd murdered, was asking questions. She arranged to have someone Levi here" -- he nodded to the tall detective, who was handing the teacup and saucer to the maid with a whispered thank-you -- "someone Levi paid off to betray the Boss. I think there was also some talk of forgetting a criminal charge or something of the kind?"

"Something like that," Levi agreed.

"So. Here we have two conspirators who worked in unison to capture --"

Bonnie thrust to her feet, her eyes blazing, hands closing unbidden into unladylike fists.

"You conspired to get my daughter KILLED!" Bonnie snapped.

Sarah pulled from the Judge's grandfatherly grasp, stepped in front of her mother.

"Mother," she said quietly, "do you remember that little weasel of a man who stood in the doorway and said he was going to undress you with a knife while I watched?"

Bonnie's face went white and her right arm moved a little, her hand opening.

"Don't try it, Mother," Sarah said quietly.

Bonnie's eyes changed and she swung a vicious, open-handed slap at Sarah's face.

Sarah twisted, snapped her arm around, striking Bonnie's arm just after it passed, then she drove a fast, hard punch into her mother's ribs.

"Young lady," Bonnie gasped, "don't you ever --"

Sarah belted her mother across the face, twice, then stepped back, crouched just a little, her hands open, relaxed, her eyes ice-pale, the skin on her face stretching tightly over her cheek-bones.

"I killed him, Mother," she said, her voice low but clear and very, very clearly enunciated.

"I stood in the doorway behind you and I shot that weasel with a .44 revolver and you watched me do it.

"Do you know why I killed him, Mother?"

Sarah did not wait for her mother to reply; Bonnie opened her mouth and Sarah cut her off.

"He was going to do unspeakable things to both of us and sell us and the twins as well, and you know it. He told you in so many words. Do you remember him saying it?"

Bonnie was furious: she grabbed at Sarah's hair, getting a handful, and Sarah stepped in, drove a fast left-right into her mother's belly, then slammed her elbow into Bonnie's solar plexus, hooked her heel behind her mother's ankle, shoved her over backwards.

Bonnie still had a grip on Sarah's hair and as she went over backwards the hair went with her as Sarah's wig came off.

Sarah took a step back.

Bonnie's head banged off the floor and she saw a burst of sparkling yellow lights.

Part of her mind registered disappointment that the hand-hooked rug didn't provide much padding.

Bonnie blinked, fought for air: Sarah turned to the men, all of whom were on their feet: she shook her head, gestured them back into their seats.

Sarah waited until the maid helped Bonnie back to her feet.

"Mother, please be seated," Sarah said tiredly. "I do not wish another shameful display before our distinguished guests."

Sarah seized her mother's face between her hands, thrust her own face within an inch of Bonnie's.

"I love you, Mother," Sarah said firmly. "I love you and I WILL KILL ANYONE I HAVE TO IN ORDER TO KEEP YOU ALIVE, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?"

Bonnie felt suddenly cold to see the icy, controlled, animal fury in what should be a pretty little girl's face.

"Mother" -- Sarah still had her mother's cheeks pressed between her palms -- "I found and I killed the monster that murdered your husband. Yes, your husband was a thief, your husband was a scoundrel, your husband deserved to be horse whipped and locked up but he didn't deserve to be speared with a falling chandelier and you didn't deserve to be made a widow, again!"

Sarah's voice was urgent, intense, and she released her mother's face abruptly, began pacing back and forth.

The Sheriff recognized this as a trick he'd used, something he himself used to dissipate an excess of passionate energy.

"Mother," Sarah said, "I was smuggled into the viper's nest in a locked trunk. The gang thought I'd been abducted, tied, and they were going to skin me alive." She stopped, arms folded, glared at her mother. "They had the knives ready and they had a surgeon's table with straps and restraints. They had little wire hooks, Mother. Once they removed my skin and once they revived me with buckets of cold water, they were going to open the windows and pull the cloth plug from my mouth and they were going to pull my eyeballs out of their sockets to make me scream again, only they had dynamite mines under the table.

"They planned to abandon the building and of course a policeman would have to come and see who was screaming like they were being murdered.

"When my rescuer unbuckled me and picked me up off the table, a clockwork would start and a striker would release and the entire top of the building would blow into kindling and catch fire and me with it."

She stopped pacing, turned suddenly, her skirt flaring as she did.

"That's what they planned to do to me, Mother. This same man who murdered, your, husband" -- she separated her words, hurling them like clubs at the seated, pale-faced woman with violet eyes and now-pale cheeks -- "this same man is in custody with my bullet in his guts -- yes, he's still alive -- and the men who were to help him murder me and come back out here and capture and sell you ... those men are dead, and none of them will ever, ever! hurt us again."

Sarah walked slowly back behind the row of seated men.

"Each of these men helped me keep you safe, Mother. I acted to keep you alive, you and the twins. Had I been killed, the price would have been more than worth it, could I keep you safe by my death."

"Mrs. McKenna," the Judge spoke up, rising, "it was I who recruited Sarah. The Sheriff voiced objections and his was the voice who raised cautions. In fact, he and I were -- " the Judge looked over at the pale-eyed lawman -- "our words were rather heated, I'm afraid, as he was objecting ..."

He looked directly at Bonnie, looked meaningfully at him as he completed his sentence.

"His objection was loud and rather profane, and we had words." He looked at the Sheriff with the expression of a man who greatly respected the other.

"If I did not know better, I would have thought I was being addressed by an unhappy father."

Sarah and Bonnie both looked at the Judge: Bonnie then regarded the Sheriff, and Sarah's gaze went to Levi, and both men, finding themselves under examination, looked away and swallowed uncomfortably.

"Mother." Sarah turned to Bonnie. "I believe Detective Rosenthal wishes to address you on a matter."

"That's my cue," the Sheriff muttered, rising: he and the Judge inclined their heads to Bonnie, retrieved their hats from the silent, attentive maid, and departed the room.

Sarah took Levi's arm and the pair approached Bonnie.

"Mother," Sarah said, "Detective Rosenthal was more than instrumental in ending the threat to your very life, and the lives of my sisters. He is a good man and true and I trust him." She looked up at him, then at her mother. "He is your late husband's brother. I weigh him on a scale against his brother, and I find this man is not wanting." She released his arm and smiled, just a little. "Okay, Levi, she's all yours."

Sarah walked quickly to her front door, out onto the porch.

Both the Sheriff and His Honor were waiting for her.

Sarah seized the men's hands -- the Judge with her left, the Sheriff with her right -- and she looked from one to the other.

"Thank you," she whispered, her eyes glitter-bright. "It means a great deal that you came."

The Judge nodded; the Sheriff regarded Sarah with expressionless eyes.

"You should not have done that to your mother," he said sternly. "You shamed her in front of guests."

The Sheriff saw a familiar anger in the pretty young woman's soul, an anger he knew too well ... an absolute mirror of his own passions.

"She brought it on herself," Sarah said, her voice low. "I warned her years ago that she was never to hit me. Now she knows why."

"She is your mother, Sarah. You will respect her."

"Or what?" Sarah blazed, shoving herself against the lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache.

She saw a deep, controlled ... not anger ... strength ... in the Sheriff's eyes.

"I," he said evenly, "will turn you across my knee, and I will fan your little biscuits."

Neither man was prepared for Sarah's reaction.

Her bottom lip started to quiver and the brightness in her eyes spilled over and ran wet and sparkling down her apple-red cheeks, and then she seized the Sheriff in a crushing hug, or as best she could do with a cracked rib.

The Sheriff brought his arms around her and held her in a strong, warm, reassuring Daddy-hug, and the Judge had to look away and harrumph as he heard Sarah's voice, muffled a little from being pressed into the lawman's linen shirtfront:

"That's the nicest thing you ever said to me!"

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48. TELL MY FATHER I SAID HELLO

 

Sarah turned and smiled at her mother.

"Sarah ..." Bonnie stopped and took a long, head-to-toe look at her daughter.

"Do you like it?" Sarah smiled, turned, holding her arms out a little, her palms parallel with the floor. "I think it is so fetching!"

"You ... look like a nun."

"Yes, I do, don't I?" Sarah turned and profiled herself in the mirror, nodded.

"You're ... not ... converting, are you?"

Sarah laughed, spun again, her angel-wing sleeves swinging with her quick turn.

"No, Mother, and I haven't been taking Shakespeare to heart," Sarah said impishly, her pale eyes sparkling with mischief.

"Shakespeare?" Bonnie asked, puzzled.

"Shakespeare. 'Hie thee to a nunnery,' she quoted.

"Oh. Oh, yes ... of course ..."

"Don't worry, Mother. I'll be perfectly safe. Nobody wants to harm one of the Sisters."

Bonnie blinked, shook her head. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me where you're going."

Sarah opened a drawer, reached in. "Mother, do you remember these?"

Bonnie's mouth went dry as she saw the handcuffs in Sarah's casual grip.

"These are the irons you wore when you were kidnapped, Mother. Do you remember how they felt when they went around your wrists?"

Bonnie's hand went involuntarily to her throat as she nodded.

Sarah reached into the drawer, pulled out a larger set.

"And these were on your ankles, Mother. You were walked to the train with your wrists manacled under a cape in front, and your ankles were shackled beneath your skirt. Do you remember how confining they felt, Mother?"

"I remember," she whispered.

"I've been wearing them," Sarah said, almost casually, and Bonnie thought she looked a little satisfied at the shock on her mother's face.

"Do you know why I've been wearing them?"

Bonnie shook her head, her hand cupped over her mouth, her eyes big with the memories her daughter yanked out of the grave to which Bonnie tried so hard to consign them.

"So I can escape them," Sarah hissed, slamming them back into the dresser drawer and slamming the drawer shut. "So I can get out of them when I have to, so NO ONE WILL EVER MAKE ME HELPLESS AGAIN!"

Bonnie jumped at the sudden slam, the sudden shout, at this sudden display of from-the-gut anger after a moment of amusement.

"I am not going to be helpless, Mother. I've been helpless, Mother. I know what it is to be ... wounded." She held out her arms, turned slowly around again. "Mother, do you know why I wear white?"

Bonnie swallowed and shook her head.

"It's because my soul isn't white, Mother. Your soul is white, your soul is pure and unsullied in spite of all the evil that's been done you. Do you know why, Mother?"

Bonnie's mouth was dry and she tried to swallow something sticky in her throat.

"Because when hell visited itself upon your person, you were a woman grown, and a woman is strong You are a strong woman, Mother, you've always been strong.

"I was a child.

"I wasn't a strong woman, Mother. I was just a little girl. A little girl, Mother.

"You were seventeen when you married, Mother, and you were eighteen when you were widowed, but you were a woman!" Sarah's voice was low, almost a hiss, her fists clenched again, her voice shivering a little. "I wasn't!

"I was a child!"

She stopped, unclenched her hands, lowered her arms.

"Mother, do you know what happens to a child's soul when they're hurt as I was?"

Bonnie shook her head, her eyes bright, and both of them knew she was not from tears.

"It tears itself in two, Mother. The evil in this world tries to drag it down to hell and part of it tears away and is lost and the rest of it tries to heal here in the world of light, but the two halves are always crying to be rejoined." Sarah took a long breath; Bonnie saw her shoulders rise, then lower.

"I wear white to remind myself that I will be pure again, when I am rejoined."

Silence grew long between the two, and finally Bonnie asked, "You're still going, then?"

"Of course I am," Sarah said, her face suddenly serious. "I am going back to Denver and finish what I started."

"Denver," Bonnie repeated, her stomach turning over. "Sarah ... no, you've done quite enough in Denver. You are not going to Denver."

"Do not fear for my safety," Sarah said, her voice quiet, emotionless. "I am quite capable of keeping myself alive."

"That ... is ... just what I am afraid of," Bonnie said, then straightened, her voice hardening. "Young lady, you are not leaving this house."

"You are my mother," Sarah said, "and I love you. Do you remember when the reavers tore through Firelands and you pulled two pianos away from the wall?"

Bonnie blinked, the train of her indignation suddenly switched onto an unexpected line.

Sarah pressed on without letting her mother reply: she saw the change in Bonnie's violet eyes, and that change is what she wanted, for she knew she'd successfully interrupted her mother's train of thought ... and the interruption made her listen to her daughter.

"Two pianos were delivered to the Silver Jewel. They were delivered by mistake. One was supposed to go to the church, but they ended up side by side in the saloon. You pulled them out so they were back-to-back and you pushed me between them and you put The Bear Killer like the plug in a bottle to keep me safe, and when the reaver came through the back door, you did not hesitate to use the Sheriff's Navy Colt to send him to HELL!"

Sarah's voice climbed as she spoke and she shouted the final word: Bonnie blinked and jumped a little at the sharp note in Sarah's voice: Sarah's face was hard, angry: in a nun's white habit, with her pale eyes and her pallid face, the color standing out like scarlet islands over her cheekbones, she looked like Death incarnate.

"You killed to save me, Mother. You killed that man to keep me alive, and to keep you alive, and you did it without hesitation!"

"Yes," Bonnie nodded. "Yes, I did."

"I am doing the same thing, Mother. They are hanging that man. I will be there and mine will be the very last face he sees and he will go to hell knowing he failed!"

Bonnie saw the cold fires in her daughter's eyes, she saw Sarah's hands clench, trembling, into white-knuckled fists.

"You are going anyway."

"You may wish to come with me, Mother. We can face him together."

"No." Bonnie crossed her arms, shook her head, looked away. "No. I can't." She gave Sarah a pleading look. "Please, Sarah ... please don't do this."

Sarah removed her wimple, laid it across the foot of her bed: her hair was brushed out and drawn back into a ponytail, doubled back up into itself: she picked up a white silk scarf from the dresser, drew the headband over her head, concealing her face, then she picked up the wimple: a twist, a flip, and it was back in place, her ponytail hidden by the wimple's drape.

She turned, her hands thrust into her sleeves.

"Excuse me, Mother," she said quietly, "I have a train to catch, and the carriage just pulled up outside."

Bonnie turned a little as Sarah slipped out the room.

 

The hanging was at noon.

As was not uncommon, the condemned had visitors the night before.

The visitors were carefully searched, for it was not uncommon to slip a weapon, or perhaps a suicide dose of prussic acid to the condemned.

The only individual who was not searched was the white nun.

She was known to the detectives; they knew she had a horrible scar across her face, they knew one eyelid was healed badly, scarred and twisted, and they knew the nun's eye watered constantly and because she could not effectively blink, the eye would in all likelihood go blind.

They admitted the silent figure to the condemned man's chamber; she stood without the bars, and when the jailer advanced toward the barred door with key in hand, she held up a finger and shook her head slightly.

The jailer stopped, shrugged, stepped back.

The prisoner was bare to the waist, a bandage on his belly, the wrapping circling his paunch and around his back: he stood a little crookedly, one hand on the bandage, and he hobbled to the front of the cell.

"Come to pray for me, have you?" he blustered, knowing the jailer would be listening. "It won't do any good, Sister. I never feared a man in my life and I'm not going to fear whatever's after!"

The nun turned a little so she was quartering away from the watching jailer.

She raised her veiling silk scarf.

The boss's eyes grew big and his mouth fell open, his voice squeaking to a halt: finally, after his jaw cranked itself shut and dropped open again, he finally gasped one word:

"You!"

"Yes, me," Sarah said quietly. "You failed.

"My mother is alive and she breathes free air. My sisters are untroubled and my home is not plundered and as you can see" -- her smile was cynical, a little crooked, at odds with her natural beauty -- "I can come and go as I please."

He seized the barred door, shaking it with a wordless, indignant roar.

The jailer started to advance, but Sarah didn't even look his way -- she held out a hand, one finger upraised, which effectively stopped the hustling flatfoot in his tracks.

"I will leave you to your good rest," Sarah said quietly, dropping the veiling scarf over her features, "but before I do, you should know what you're going to face tomorrow." She knelt gracefully, raised her heavy silver crucifix, held it up before her concealed eyes.

Her voice was quiet enough the jailer knew she was speaking, but he could not distinguish her words; when she knelt, he deferentially removed his uniform cap, bowed his head, believing her to be in prayer.

"You will be taken from this place, you will be wearing a pullover shirt of white linen and drawers and carpet slippers. Your wrists will be manacled behind your back and you will be shackled in leg irons, and you will hear the happy laughter of your shackling chains as you take the last steps on this earth in irons.

"You will be taken up thirteen steps. Thirteen, remember that. Thirteen."

"Thirteen," he whispered through a dry throat, his eyes widening as her quiet words penetrated his facade.

"You will be stood in front of a noontime crowd. The charges will be read and your sentence pronounced, and a sky pilot will offer up a prayer for your corroded soul, and I will be there on the platform with you."

He shook his head. "No," he blurted. "No, no, not you, no --"

"Yes, me. With my mother in the crowd and my sisters with her, and we will watch the executioner put the hood over your face and the noose around your neck.

"He will turn the coiled knot so it's just behind your left shoulder, and that's so when the trap falls open and you drop, the knot will slap you behind the ear and give you one final smack in the head before you come to the end of the stretched rope and it breaks your miserable neck. You'll be paralyzed from the neck down but you'll feel your lungs scream for air and you'll feel the blood screaming in your head as the noose tightens and crushes your wind pipe. You'll hear the neck bone snap and you'll hear the windpipe crush and you'll feel it crush and you'll taste your own blood and then you'll see sparkling yellow lights.

"Very soon thereafter you'll see dirty yellow fire.

"Fire," she whispered. "Sulfur and coal afire and you'll know where you are."

Sarah lowered the cross, rose to her feet, turned and walked away.

She ignored the enraged screaming from the cell behind her.

 

Next day, as the big clock in the town square struck twelve, the condemned was brought out of the courthouse in irons.

Two bailiffs, one on either side, held his arm securely as they escorted him less than gently to the gallows steps.

The condemned looked at the ground as he walked, but at the foot of the gallows he looked up and whispered, "Thirteen."

He looked fearfully to his right, at the crowd, and shuddered.

"Upstairs," one of the baiiffs, growled, and they pushed him forward.

His steps were slow up the thirteen bare wood planks and he stopped at the edge of the platform, looking down the row of trap doors, at four nooses -- three still draped over the high crossbeam, the last one dangling, drawn open, waiting.

Beside it, a nun, all in white, her face hidden by a white-silk scarf.

The man shuffled numbly the last few feet to his final appointment.

They centered his shackled feet on the trap.

A priest raised his hand, said something -- presumably a prayer -- that he didn't hear, and when the priest withdrew, they asked if he had any last words, he shook his head.

The nun stepped in front of the man: the bailiffs steadied him, kept him from turning away, kept him from collapsing.

The nun's voice was quiet.

"Look at me," she said, her voice gentle, and she lifted her veil.

The bailiffs could not help but look as the veil lifted; they saw a horrifying scar that curved across the otherwise-pretty young woman's face, a scar that betrayed a long, deep slash, that betrayed the stitches that closed the wound: one eyelid was scarred and twisted and the eye leaked a steady stream of tears.

"Take a good look," the woman hissed, as if through a scarred throat, then she dropped her veil, stepped back and nodded.

The black hood was flipped over the man's head, the noose dropped into place, snugged up.

"I used to sing opera," the woman said in a pitifully raspy voice, "but you did this to me." She turned away, bent over, her hands under her veil, then after a few moments of wiping her face, she straightened, took a long breath, stood in front of the dead man again.

"Poor thing," someone murmured in the crowd.

"Sister, you may want to step back," the bailiff said as the other one withdrew.

She shook her head.

"Suit yourself, Sister," he shrugged.

The white nun snatched the hood from the man's face, yanked her veil up, thrust her face into his.

The face was without scar or blemish; it was Sarah's face, without the made-up scar, the twisted-down eyelid: the man's eyes widened and he shrieked in utter, absolute terror.

She dropped her veil, yanked the hood back down.

"When you get to hell," she hissed, "tell my father I said hello!"

The trap dropped out from under his feet; the rope snapped taut, the trap banged and squeaked, once, as it dropped back down against the vibrating rope.

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49. SUNLIT PORCELAIN

 

The white nun paused beside the organist.

She laid a gentle hand on the old man's shoulder; he turned and smiled sadly at the veiled figure beside him, and she turned the pages of his sheet music quickly, with a practiced hand, stopped, and tapped the page with a neatly-trimmed forefingernail.

He looked at the title and nodded.

"It is my favorite," he said softly. "My mother sang it for me when I was a child."

The white nun tapped it again, then turned quickly, her hands thrust back into her angel-wing sleeves: she descended the six curving steps, flowed quickly to the floor before the altar, turned, bowed: she waited until the pipe organ began to hum, deep in its brazen heart, then she straightened, spread her arms wide, filled her lungs, and sang.

The old man's fingers caressed the pipe organ as a man caresses a lover, coaxing feelings from its throat that neither knew were there, and the nun's voice soared, high and pure, filling the vaulting cathedral from ceiling to floor, nave to narthex, soaring like a porcelain seagull on a sunlight beach: she sang the Ave with a purity the old man remembered, she sang it with the gentleness his aging heart ached to hear again, she sang it with the power it deserved, and she sang it with the reverence every heart in the spacious Catholic church held for Our Lady: the white nun with the veiled face sang the Ave, she sang to the Mother, and the old man heard his mother's voice again, and almost -- almost! -- he could smell her like she smelled when he was a little boy, smelled of lilac-water and soap and sunshine.

There is magic in song and there was magic here, and as her final note held, and then died, she lowered her arms and slipped her hands in her sleeves, and bowed, and the old man's head bowed as well, and he nodded, for he'd remembered his mother's voice once more, and the memory was good.

A set of strong, sun-browned hands gripped her shoulders gently, sqeezed, the way she remembered, though she kept her face carefully expressionless -- she was veiled, but old habit prevented her from showing what she felt -- and she turned a little to face the approaching Mother.

Mother Margaret's eyes were sparkling as she addressed this stranger with the glorious voice: "My dear, forgive me, we did not know you were coming!" -- then she peered through her pince-nez spectacles and added quietly, "... but who are you?"

Brother William squeezed Sarah's shoulders again and replied for her.

"Mother Margaret, this is Sister Mercurius. She is assigned the Rabbitville monastery and I'm sorry, but she is under a vow of silence, save only to sing."

Mother Margaret dabbed at her eyes with an unadorned kerchief. "Our Lady rejoices to hear our voices raised in song." She pulled her spectacles free, rubbed them with the kerchief, replaced them: "and it would be a sin to silence a voice such as yours! Will you be with us long?" she added hopefully, looking to Brother William for an answer.

"I'm sorry, Reverend Mother, but no," Brother William replied in his gentle voice. "We must depart within the hour. Time, tide and the railroad wait for no man." He smiled a little. "Or woman."

Sarah bowed again and the Reverend Mother signed the Cross over her: "Go, my daughter, and God and Our Lady bless your travels!"

Brother William bowed as well, and the pair withdrew.

As they left, two more white nuns flowed silently up the aisle, toward the altar, their faces veiled.

One's veil showed a wet trail down its left side, roughly where her left eye should be.

and Sarah saw the two detectives seated in a pew, next to the aisle: though her head was bowed, she saw them through her concealing silk veil, and her quick ear heard one mutter, "No, that's not her, the veil isn't wet," and she allowed herself a smile.

Brother William's decoy of two more white nuns, one with a wet streak down her concealing veil, came through like a champ.

Once on the street, Sarah spoke up: "Thank you. I hadn't expected such quick results."

Brother William chuckled. "It was not difficult, especially when I told them it meant the safety of one of their own."

They walked for a few minutes more, then:

"Where are we going?"

"I took the liberty of having your luggage removed to the train."

"I see."

"You are now Sister Mercurius of the Rabbitville Monastery. We are beginning a nunnery. You have the voice we need, you have the sewing skills we need, and" -- he chuckled -- "you have other skills that are very much needed. You'll be with us two days, then you will return to Firelands, where I will inform your mother you have been giving singing lessons."

"Thank you," Sarah said quietly. "We ... she did not want me to come."

"You had to come."

"I know."

"She could have."

"I wish she had."

"She should have, Sarah. She should have."

Sarah stopped, and the tall, tanned monk in Cistercian white stopped with her.

"Brother William, I have need of the confessional."

"We can arrange that as well."

They resumed walking.

"I've killed seven men this week."

"I know."

"Eight, if you count today's hanging."

"I know."

"I killed the weasel that man sent to ... take ... us."

"I heard. Very nicely done, I might add."

Sarah hesitated in her step; Brother William knew from this, his reply took her by surprise.

"I served with your father in the War."

Sarah stopped dead, which surprised the tonsured monk.

"My father," she said.

He turned, blinked. "You didn't know? We were in the cavalry together, chasing after Morgan." He grinned, a quick, boyish grin. "We may as well have chased a handful of smoke."

Sarah began walking again, slowly, her head bowed.

"You served with my father," she echoed, then:

"Brother William, I'm sorry. I don't know who my father is."

"I think you might."

"I know who I really wish was my father."

His quick ear heard something in her voice ... a wistfulness, the voice of a sad little girl who wished for something just out of reach.

"I wish the Sheriff were my father. Brother William, I wish it was the Sheriff."

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50. HOW DID I GET IN THE MIDDLE OF ALL THIS?

 

The Sheriff rose as the fashionably dressed woman entered his office: to her credit, she did knock first, though she swept in without receiving his let-be.

Bonnie McKenna's violet eyes glared at the Sheriff and her chin was raised at a disapproving angle, as if she were looking down her nose at the man: still, she did manage a civil tone of voice as she spoke her piece.

"Sheriff," she said, "I owe you an apology."

The pale-eyed lawman considered this, nodded slowly, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It didn't so much drop as belt him across the forehead.

"Sheriff, I apologize for not asking your wife to be present when I spoke with you as I did. It is not proper for a woman to be alone with a man, not her husband. I realize that I am violating that custom yet again, and for that as well I am truly sorry."

The Sheriff's eyebrow raised a little and he tasted copper, which surprised him: he usually didn't taste copper unless he was looking at another man's deadly intent, generally with a deadly weapon ready to employ therefor.

"I shall address you again, Sheriff, but not until I have discussed the matter with your wife, and with her present."

"I see," the Sheriff said quietly.

Bonnie McKenna whirled, yanked the door shut behind her as she swept out, leaving the Sheriff feeling very much as if a minor cyclone just came into his office, spun everything into a whirling confusion, and left.

He did not have long to wait.

As he stepped out the door of his solid, squared-log office, he had the distinct feeling he was a schoolboy being summoned before the schoolmaster for some real or imagined offense.

 

Sister Mercurius -- who a week before had been Sarah McKenna -- skipped happily with the children, holding a tiny pair of hands as she danced with them in a circle in the dusty courtyard: childrens' voices singsonged "Ashes, ashes, all fall down," and the entire ring stopped and squatted, laughing.

Sister Mercurius stood and clapped her happiness, her face hidden by the white-silk veil.

The children accepted her, for children are accepting: she was the only woman in the monastery, and mute: the Brethren bowed deferentially to her, and she in return, unfailingly, and the orphaned children noticed this: her voice was heard only during worship, only when raised in song, when it soared like a peaceful dove over the gathering, filling the room with sweetness and devotion.

She did not even give voice to happy laughter, with the children: her happiness was expressed when she clapped her hands, or when she squeezed a hand, gently, carefully.

The Brethren were amused, though, to see how well she communicated with the children.

Their admiration came to a sharp focus on her third day there, when a villager came running through the sally-port screaming, "Ayudame, Ayudame," and their white nun ran for the woman: the villager spilled out a panicked, choking stream of frantic Spanish.

They saw their Sister stiffen, then whirl, snatch up her skirts and run like a scared deer across the courtyard: she drove between two of the Brethren, shooting between them like a streamlined cannonball, leaving confusion and raised voices in her wake: she disappeared into a workshop, emerged with a hatchet in one hand and a crosscut saw in the other, sprinted back across the courtyard: at her approach, the panting woman turned, led the charge out the heavy wooden portal, followed by the running nun with a veiled face and both hands full of cutting tools, and pursued by at least three Cistercian monks -- all at a full-out charge.

The fast-moving parade streamed down a street, around behind an adobe shed, down a small arroyo, to where two boys were desperately holding up a third.

Blood ran down their elbows, stained their ragged knee pants; the third whimpered a little, his thigh impaled on a vertical stub where a branch used to be.

Sarah sized up the situation: she shoved the hand-wringing mother aside, grabbed the first of the Brethren, shoved him under the impaled child.

He seized the lad, pushed: he pushed too hard, lifting the leg a half-inch up the impaling stub, and the faceless Sister seized his wrist, stopping his lift: she grabbed another, seized his hand, then pointed to where she wanted it: the third worked in between the two and the Little Faceless One reached up, hooked the hatchet over a convenient branch, scrambled up the tree.

She was not particularly graceful, but she did manage to get to the branch that held the lad.

She studied the branch, then placed the crosscut saw, stopped.

She stroked the scared, crying little boy's cheek with the backs of her fingers, then squeezed his shoulder and nodded, once.

He sniveled a little -- what boy wouldn't, after falling on a branch twice as thick as a man's thumb, driving through his thigh, with its almost-sharp tip stuck out the top of his leg?

Sarah set the saw, looked at the Brethren, nodded again: the freshly-sharpened saw bit into the standing dead branch, cutting it with quick, sure strokes of the well-set crosscut: she attacked the branch like it was a personal enemy, cutting quickly, efficiently through the seasoned deadwood: she heard the fibers begin to crackle under the saw and she knew she was less than three strokes from the branch releasing its grip on its parent treetrunk.

The Brethren had the lad's weight.

When the branch parted and the saw came free of the saw-cut, Sister Mercurius grabbed another branch, swung one-handed, landed easily on the ground: she bent her knees, deep, taking up the shock of her flat-footed landing, then thrust up, seized the hatchet : unhooking it, she turned to face the Brethren, all of whom were watching her.

She thrust an arm, pointed to the monastery, then made a fist, pumped it twice.

The Brethren did not have to be told twice.

It was more efficient for one man to carry the lad at a run, and the short, stout Brother Stephen held the scared, shivering, black-eyed lad hard against his chest as he made for the open sally-port at a dead run.

Sarah thrust the hatchet under her arm, held the saw in her left hand, seized the mother's wrist, pulled: like the Brethren, the brown-faced Mexican villager didn't need to be told twice.

 

"Sheriff," Bonnie said, "I am not going to speak with you as I did yesterday."

The Sheriff stood at a military parade rest, as if he were being addressed by a superior officer: his pale eyes were steady on Bonnie's violet eyes, his face carefully expressionless.

"As a matter of fact, I am relieved."

Esther saw a flicker of surprise in her husband's eyes: a stranger would never have seen it, and as subtle as it was, Esther saw it only because she was looking for it.

"It seems" -- Bonnie unfolded a paper -- "that my daughter was wrong."

She paused, retrieved a pair of pince-nez spectacles from her reticule, arranged them on her nose and regarded the single sheet she held.

"Sarah was apparently intending to travel in disguise" -- she shot a look at the Sheriff -- "which she wouldn't have to do if she --"

Bonnie looked at Esther, bit off the rest of what she was going to say.

"Sarah said she was not converting to Catholicism. She was wearing a nun's habit she'd made herself. I don't ..."

Esther regarded her old and dear friend patiently, waited with understanding while Bonnie arranged her thoughts again.

"She said she wasn't ... she quoted Shakespeare ..."

" 'He thee to a nunnery,' " the Sheriff finished for her. "Hamlet, act three, scene one."

Bonnie looked at the tall, lean lawman with surprised eyes, blinked.

"Yes. Yes, the very one." She waved the folded sheet. "It seems that she has ... she did he herself to a nunnery."

"May I?" the Sheriff asked courteously, and she handed him the sheet.

He almost smiled as he recognized the hand in which the missive was written: it was his old friend Brother William, a man with whom he'd served in that damned War, a native Southerner who attached himself to Linn's regiment as their only priest, where he served their spiritual needs, tended the wounded, shared rations and whiskey and the same hard ground for a mattress as the rest of the regiment, and earned their respect for the doing of it.

The Sheriff read the words, re-read them, then handed the sheet back to Bonnie.

He looked at Esther.

"Sarah," he said, "has been taken to the Rabbitville monastery. She is needed."

"And you approve?" Bonnie snapped. "She's just a young girl, the only girl in a mud fort full of men! She'll -- she's just -- I don't want --"

"Bonnie," the Sheriff interrupted, "if you have that little faith in Sarah, why don't you throw her out? Do you know what'll happen if any of them put an unwanted hand on her?" He leaned down a little, his pale eyes hard. "Whoever is that unutterably STUPID will draw back a bloody STUB where a hand used to be, she'll kick them north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to oil, she'll skin them alive with a dull SPOON, and then she'll get MEAN with them!"

"My dear," Esther remonstrated gently. "Bonnie is our guest."

"She's not bashful to rip into me," the Sheriff snapped.

"Dearest," Esther sighed, "would you please sit down?"

 

Sister Mercurius slapped her hand twice on the table: Brother Stephen eased the child down on the working surface.

Brother William laid a hand on the veiled nun's shoulder. "Sister Mercurius," he said quietly, "I release you from your vow of silence."

"Agua," she said, her voice low, urgent. "Agua, caliente, y jabón."

Soap and hot water appeared almost instantly.

"Mi caso del cirujano," she whispered to Brother William, who nodded: he was gone less than a minute, and returned with the black-leather surgeon's valise she required.

She turned, pointed to a cupboard. "La botella marrón."

The brown bottle was brought forth from the cupboard.

"Un tazón pequeño, y el tercer frasco de hierbas secas."

A small bowl, and the third jar of dried herbs, completed her list.

She uncorked the bottle, poured a tablespoonful into the bowl, shook dried herbs from the jar into her palm: she ground them carefully with her finger tips, then dusted them into the bowl, stirrred them with a careful finger, added another drizzle of something water clear from the brown-glass bottle, picked up the bowl, sniffed.

It smelled vaguely of flowers ... clover blossoms, perhaps.

She held it to the shivering lad's lips and whispered Bebe ,mi valiente guerrero, and the hurt, scared little boy -- far from the brave warrior she called him -- drank.

 

Bonnie lowered her face into her hands and groaned.

"You don't want her to grow up," the Sheriff said quietly.

"No," Bonnie moaned into her gloved palms.

"You want her to stay young and beautiful and unsullied forever."

Bonnie nodded.

"I want the same thing," the Sheriff said quietly, looking over at his wife. "I want to put her on a high shelf and put a glass bell jar over her like some rare and precious doll. I want to keep the world from her and keep her hidden and safe and protected from hurt." He reached down and slid his hands under hers: surprised, she lifted her face from her hands and he took her hands in his, took them firmly, gripped them tightly. "Bonnie, if I did that, she would suffocate. She is not meant for a sheltered life. She is made to seize life with both hands and kick it into shape. She was created to grab life by the tail and snap it like a horsewhip and to beat it into submission if she has to. She's been hurt and that's made her something different. Not bad and not worse, in several ways much better."

"Better?" Bonnie blurted. "Do you call jumping out of a tower better? Or jumping naked from a cliff? Naked? " Her laugh was a harsh bark. "How is my little girl being naked a good thing?"

"She doesn't fear it," the Sheriff said, his voice low and urgent. "She was grabbed out here on the street. Do you know what she did?"

"She screamed for help --"

"She knifed the three of them, Bonnie! She sliced their arms to the bone, she put steel into their guts, she crippled them and she made them bleed for daring to TOUCH her!" His voice was hard, harsh, his face pale now, and Bonnie saw a depth in the man she hadn't realized before, something she didn't realize.

She'd seen him as the protector, the lawman, the strong one who made things right, but she'd never seen him as the man who cared for someone.

"Sarah is your daughter, yes," the Sheriff continued, releasing her hands.

"Is she your daughter, Sheriff?" Bonnie asked bitterly. "Is she yours? Because she certainly isn't mine!"

"Almighty God," the Sheriff exclaimed, raising spread-finger hands to the stamped-tin ceiling, "if You ever give me an understanding of the female, please have Your hands on me because I will fall over dead from surprise!" He lowered his hands, lowered his gaze to hers. "Bonnie McKenna, Sarah has been your little girl since before I first laid eyes on the pair of you! The night I saw you I saw the TWO of you!"

"She takes after you, Sheriff," Bonnie blurted. "She shot that bank robber --"

"She had Angela with her and the holdup shot at them. She kept my little girl safe for the doing of it."

"She's an Agent and I don't want her to be," Bonnie quavered. "You gave her that rifle!"

"No, Bonnie, your husband gave her that rifle. He thought a .32-20 was more suitable for a girl than a .44. He also thought a pony and a painted wagon were better suited for her."

Bonnie snorted, trying not to laugh at the memory of Sarah riding up on an Appaloosa mare, regarding the wagon and the ill-tempered little pony with disdain: when Mr. Rosenthal said they were for her, she thanked him for his thoughtful gift, then she whirled the mare, galloped the length of the yard, soared the mare over the whitewashed board fence, and didn't come back until sunset.

"You taught her how to knife someone," Bonnie accused again.

"No, dear," Esther interjected, her voice gentle. "I taught her, not my husband. I taught Sarah the very same lessons I taught you."

"She does seem to have taken the lessons very much to heart," Bonnie sighed.

 

The posset ensured the lad would not remember what they did, and it almost kept him from feeling what they did.

The branch was twisted out; the wound was cleansed, a cloth soaked in another herbal decoction was passed through the wound, loose shreds of flesh were carefully trimmed: the wound was swabbed out one last time, examined carefully: Brother Steven picked the lad up and carried him to the window, and Sister Mercurius examined it carefully, reaching into its depth with a hooked probe to pick out the last pieces of debris they hadn't gotten out otherwise.

"Traer a su madre de una comida," she murmured absently: Brother William turned, nodded, and very shortly thereafter a tray appeared, with a meal, and the mother was gently seated at a small table.

"Va a dormir toda la noche," Sarah whispered, gripping the mother's hand: "Me quedaré con él."

The mother left, reluctantly, knowing she had a family that needed her, and knowing the faceless nun with the skillful hands would stay with him: he would sleep until morning with the herbal she'd given him, and so she kissed the nun's hand, whispering her thanks, and slipped out the door.

"Sister," Brother Stephen asked, "can we get you some salt water?"

Sister Mercurius looked down at her white habit, then looked up at the Brethren's once-white habits.

"I will change," she said softly, "if you will stay with him. Have we salt enough to soak the blood out of all our habits?"

 

Bonnie wondered in the darkness of her nighttime bedroom about her daughter, sleeping under the same roof as a monastery full of lonely men.

The Sheriff wondered in the darkness of his own nighttime bedroom how he'd gotten in the middle of all this.

And Sarah McKenna slept not at all, not until the sun rose, not until the lad's fever grew, then broke, not until the sun was descending again and the bandages were free of any infected drainage.

Only then did she sleep.

She slept alone, without even dreams to interrupt her exhaustion.

Perhaps sleep isn't the right word.

It is quite possible one could have fired off a cannon in the courtyard and not wakened her.

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51. A LEGEND BEGINS

 

"It is our most sacred relic."

"She is named after the Saint, she should be aware --"

"None may touch the Spear without the Bishop's express order --"

"Perhaps if we left it --"

They stopped talking as if at a signal, turned with almost-guilty expressions.

A little boy regarded them solemnly, big liquid eyes looking past them to the ornate cupboard behind the altar.

He raised his finger and pointed; his other hand held the White Nun's hand.

Sister Mercurius stepped forward; the Brethren drew back at her approach: her tread was silent, her step was sure: she walked straight to the cupboard and pressed the three hidden latches in sequence: three, then one, then two; there was a triple-click of some hidden mechanism, and she stepped back and waited as the door swung open.

"I think," Brother William said quietly, his deep, rich voice filling the sanctuary's hush, "we should give her a hand."

 

The mother was devoted to the Saint of the Two Swords, a military man who'd been given a sword by the Archangel Himself, and fought with one in each hand: the Sword of Strength, and the Sword of Righteousness.

After the Saint's death, it was said, he was seen marching with a silver-headed spear over his shoulder, headed for a distant battle, and the pagan ruler who persecuted the Christians of the era was killed by a common soldier, a soldier with a spear, and when the Saint's beheaded body was dug up -- Saint Mercurius appeared to a man in a vision, the man obeyed and found the Saint's body, smelling of perfume and incorrupt -- a bloodied spear was found with it.

This was reputed to be the Spear of St. Mercurius; it was a soldier's lance, serviceable, strong, unadorned: the spear-head bore the hammer-strokes of hand-forging, but it glowed silver, unlike cold iron, and as the Brethren opened the ornately chip-carved casket, the sudden glow from the spear-head shot through the darkened sanctuary, rays of pure, liquid light that touched hand-panted murals, that shattered brightly off gold altar-furniture.

The Brethren knelt and crossed themselves as Sister Mercurius gripped the spear and drew it forth.

She handled the smooth, straight-grained shaft as if handling an old and familiar friend; turning, she held out a hand to the boy, who limped slowly to her.

Sister Mercurius reached down with her free hand, carefully untied the bandage, let it fall.

She caressed the lad's cheek.

His mother knelt in the aisle, her hands clasped tightly; she trembled a little, for her prayer was being answered, her prayer for a healing for her son, for her Raimunditio, her Little Raymond: she tried hard not to weep, but grief tore her apart inside, grief for the loss of her husband and his brother and the old Grandfather, leaving her alone to raise three boys, and now -- now she knew a deep penetrating wound meant infection, and suppuration, meant fever and raving insanity and to save his life his leg must be cut off, and how was a poor woman to support two sons and a cripple?

She closed her eyes hard, willing herself not to cry; she opened them and her breath caught as the Little Faceless One leaned the Spear back against her shoulder, its bright, shining head pointed to the arched adobe overhead, her arms raised, the bell sleeves like an angel's wings in the pure, silvery light, and her voice, that voice! -- surely the angels sang with her --

"Hijo mio," the mother heard, and the words were whispered, but clear and distinct, as if whispered into her very ear -- "hijo, ¿tú crees?

The mother's breath caught in her throat.

She dared not breathe.

She dared not believe.

Her mother's heart cried Yes, believe! for she knew He Who Came To Earth asked the same question, and they who said yes, were healed, and her son must have a healing.

Por favor, Dios , a sanar !

 

Years later, when an old man told his young sons of the day his leg was healed, he spoke of their household saint, a woman not recognized by the Holy See, but a Saint nonetheless: cousin to the Madonna herself, she rode a great black horse with wings of purest white, and she carried a spear that blazed like the noonday sun, she sang instead of spoke, and beneath her veil, a horribly scarred face was restored by El Senor Dios to a beauty that would make a man's heart ache to see it, and so she kept her restored beauty hidden, that she might not lead men into temptation for coveting of her beauty.

This would not be the last time the Little Faceless One had need of this powerful relic, and this little boy who slipped while climbing a tree and impaled his leg on a broken branch stub would not be the only soul who was healed of a grievous injury by the White Nun, but for today, for this day when a mother's whispered prayers were answered and a little boy who limped into the church walked out with no trace of a hitch in his gait, for this day when the Brethren knelt and bowed their heads and asked forgiveness for their sefishness in not wanting to reveal their sacred Relic ... for this day, it was enough, and the Spear slept again in the hush and the darkness of the chip-carved casket.

 

Perhaps an hour later, one of the black-eyed Spanish girls crept fearfully into the Little Faceless One's bedchamber.

No one had seen her since she took to her bed, exhausted from the days and nights of watching over the injured boy.

Her bed was undisturbed, the sheets tight, unwrinkled; there was no trace she'd ever been there.

 

Sarah McKenna shook out the wimple, folded it, placed it carefully in her dresser drawer.

She turned and smiled as she took off the white nun's habit.

"Hello, Mother. It's good to be home."

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52. LAW AND ORDER HARRY MACFARLAND

 

Liquid gurgled, water-clear, into the short, squatty glass: two fingers' worth and a little more, for the Sheriff was not inclined to parsimony.

He poured one for himself as well, eased the cork back into the bottle's neck, replaced it carefully in his bottom drawer.

"Good for what ails ye," he deadpanned, handing one glass to the Carbon Hill marshal, and hoisting one himself.

The two men drank.

It might be speculated that "The two men incinerated their throats" might be the more correct, as what they drank was water clear and not over 30 days old: actually, as Harry confided some time after, "It went down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off my feet," but for the moment, both men enjoyed the feeling of being internally slugged with a good tilt of Two Hit John.

Harry handed the Sheriff a wanted dodger: the lean lawman with the iron grey mustache smoothed its folded surface out on the sanded top of his pine desk, read it, considered the engraved visage between the "WANTED" and "ROBBERY."

"Harry," he said, "this really don't look much like him."

He looked at the town marshal, who raised an eyebrow.

"I reckon I know right where he is. You claimin' his reward?"

The barest trace of a smile tightened the flesh at the corners of the town marshal's eyes.

The Sheriff nodded. "You go on ahead an' claim that reward, Harry. I don't need it." He straightened, slid the dodger across the desk.

Harry raised a hand, then placed the empty glass on the corner of the desk; the Sheriff turned to the gunrack, pulled down a double gun and a rifle.

"You want one or you got your own?"

Harry smiled a little and shook his head maybe a quarter of an inch.

The Sheriff draped a bandolier of brass shotgun shells across his arm. "Let us be went."

They went.

 

Jay Pollock reached down and picked up the black barn cat.

The cat gave a quiet, raspy miaow as Jay fetched it up and set it on his lap.

The man's fingers caressed the cat's ears and the cat arched with pleasure, its eyes closed as skilled, practiced fingers massaged its silk-furred spine.

Carlos leaned back against the rock, soaking up the morning sun, grateful for the heat: he'd got chilled through the night, and he was hungry, he'd ought to be headin' out, but he honestly didn't know which way to go.

Jay was royally, unbelievably, absolutely and beyond all salvation, lost.

He closed his eyes and took a long breath, taking a moment to enjoy this moment, listening to the cat's drumming purr, feeling warmth and softness in his hands.

He allowed himself this rare pleasure.

It felt good to relax. He'd been on the dodge for some time, his guts were usually tight as a fiddle string, but here -- he didn't know a soul and nobody knew him and maybe if he kept running he would outrun what he'd done --

Exhaustion caught up with him.

They kitty cat was warm on his lap and the sun was warm on his arms and chest and belly, and he leaned back against the rock and his eyes closed again, and his breathing slowed a little as sleep claimed him for its own.

 

Macfarland studied the tracks, raised his eyes to the ridge ahead.

The Sheriff knew the territory, the Sheriff knew where a man might lay ambush, or hide, or double back: Macfarland knew the Sheriff was his equal at tracking, though neither were anything near as good as the legendary Charlie Macneil, that territorial marshal that could track an ant across a bare rock and make it look easy.

The wind shifted again and carried toward them.

Neither the Sheriff nor Marshal Macfarland smoked, so their sniffers worked pretty well; neither man smelled anything out of the ordinary, but their horses did.

The Sheriff brought up his double gun, a sweep of his thumb rolling both hammers to full stand: Macfarland's gelding froze, its ears swinging forward, and the marshal felt his mount tremble a little.

They dismounted, carefully, not wanting a saddle-squeak to betray their approach.

Macfarland froze when the Sheriff froze; he moved when the Sheriff moved; both men scanned the ground, and the terrain ahead, and the ground again, reading the tracks, reading where the pursued man dismounted, where he walked his horse off to the side and tethered it in a sheltered cup in the rock the size of four kitchen tables -- there was grass there, and the horse stood with its forehooves on sod and its back hooves on rock, happily grazing.

The Sheriff stopped, backed up, backed another step, squatted.

He looked at Macfarland, made a quick series of abbreviated hand gestures: the Marshal nodded, catfooted to the side, circled.

The Sheriff waited until the Marshal was in position before he moved again.

 

The kitty cat rumbled deep in its chest, purring fit to satisfy a mountain painter; skilled hands caressed under its jaw, and it rolled over on its side, then onto its back, relaxing as gentle fingers massaged its furry belly.

Pollock wiggled his nose, snorted, sighed: he looked down at the purring puddy tat and smiled gently.

The Sheriff saw him blink as it registered that the hand rubbing the puddy's belly ... wasn't attached to him.

He looked up into a set of pale blue eyes.

Pollock swallowed, blinked again: as rational thought woke up and he realized he wasn't alone, the six pointed star on the lawman's vest registered, and he put this together with those pale eyes, and the Sheriff saw his shoulders sag a little.

Macfarland watched as the two spoke quietly, then the Sheriff gripped the man by the arm and helped him stand, the black puddy jumping easily to the ground, then jumping up on a little rock shelf and industriously washing paws and face as if nothing were happening.

 

Pollock went along without a fuss.

He seemed relieved he'd been caught, and later, as the Sheriff staked lawman and prisoner both to a good meal from the Silver Jewel, Pollock admitted he was relieved he'd been caught.

The Sheriff nodded as he mopped up gravy with good sourdough biscuits: "I've slept on the ground," he said, "and never did find it to my likin'."

Pollock smiled sadly. "Yeah," he agreed.

Once they were squared away, the Sheriff shook hands with Marshal Macfarland: "Safe trip, Harry. Need anythin', let me know."

Macfarland frowned a little and finally spoke for the first time since his arrival.

"You heard anythin' about a big black horse?"

The Sheriff frowned. "No, can't say as I have, why?"

"I hear tell there's a big mean critter some rancher bought and he ain't able to do squat with it. The damn thing run off three times and they had the devil's own time a-catchin' it. I heard tell if he can't train it he'll just kill it."

The Sheriff nodded. "Whereabouts is this beast? I'd kind of like to take a look at it."

"Whattaya want with a plow horse you can drag the Rocky Mountains flat with? This thing's huge!"

The Sheriff smiled a little.

Old Harry didn't often speak and then only as few a words as he could manage, but this -- why, Harry must think that horse was a rompin' stompin' rip snorter, else he'd never have put that much effort into words!

"Just curious, Harry, now where can I lay eyes on this thing?"

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53. HORSE

 

The blade gleamed in the late morning sun.

"Again," Esther said quietly.

Sarah advanced, the blade spinning in her hand: she described a circle with a quick flip of her wrist, starting and ending the move with a grip on the wire-wrapped handle.

"Yes, just like that," Esther nodded. "Again."

Sarah stopped, looked, and Esther with her: both women smiled, the matron and the maiden, as the Sheriff cantered up on his gleaming, bright-copper mare.

"I've got a job for you," he said to Sarah with absolutely no preamble.

She turned the blade in her hand, slid it into the lacquered wooden sheath at her waist.

"How quickly can you saddle up?"

Sarah's eyes snapped to the house, then back to the Sheriff, and he saw her eyes darken a little.

Her eyes never darkened except for pleasure, and the Sheriff was of the notion that she was about to go against her Mama's wishes.

Esther spun her jacket around her shoulders: the Sheriff was never quite sure how she did it, but she'd tailored the jacket so her lacquered sheaths -- she carried a pair of blades, and she was equally as deadly with left as with right -- her jacket fit neatly over the sheaths, without looking like the material was split to drape a-straddle of them.

"My dear," Esther said gently, and the Sheriff's eyes darkened a little to hear her voice, "are you certain this is a wise move?"

"She needs tamed down," the Sheriff said shortly, then looked at his red-haired, green-eyed, milk-pale wife.

"She the horse, or she Sarah?"

The Sheriff looked back at the receding figure behind the drifting dust, and he wondered if perhaps he shouldn't have gone with her.

"Both, I reckon." He twisted a little, feeling something go *pop* in his low back, and something hurt so good for a bright moment.

"Reckon I'd best go square it with her Mama."

 

Sarah rode as one to the saddle born.

There'd been a German count in town, some fellow with a name about seven foot long, considerably longer than he was tall -- Sarah never was able to remember the man's full name, there was a Heinrich and a Von and something else in it, but all he needed was Count, and that's all anyone really called him, and all he really was remembered as.

She'd come riding back into town with her Uncle, a hard-faced man who'd been Territorial Marshal and was about done with that line of work -- he'd had a falling-out with the seven carbon bottom polishers that were more and more prevalent in the command ranks -- he'd had her out after elk, but not in the usual way.

The Sheriff's son Jacob had her out after elk, and he taught her how to track and how to stalk, and she was more than an apt student: her Uncle showed her how to select a spearshaft, and how to knapp out a spearhead from native obsidian, he taught her how to bind it to the spearshaft with wet rawhide, and he taught her how to select her hiding place.

Luck rode with her on that day, the wind held steady away from the elk and toward her and she surged up with all the strength in her young arms and her back and she drove that spear in between its ribs, holding it vertical to cut between the ribs and not bridge off across them.

She learned first hand how to bone out and skin out and pack out the meat: Marshal Macneil reached up, selected a small twig with a good spray of evergreen and clipped it off with a quick slice of his heavy bladed fighting knife: he slid this carefully into her hatband, then dipped two fingers in the elk's blood, drew two scarlet lines across her cheek, then the other cheek, nodded.

"Waddsmanheil," he murmured: like most truly strong men he saw little need to raise his voice.

When they rode into town, the Count -- who was a huntsman himself -- marveled at the rack, for the head was attached to the rack and caped out -- he inquired as to the rifle they used, and Macneil looked at Sarah, and then at the spear, lashed across the hide-wrapped bundle, and the Count's eyes grew wide.

"Your vork?" he asked, and Macneil's eyes went to Sarah, who dropped her eyes and blushed furiously.

The Count took in the sprig in her hatband, the streaks on her cheeks, removed his hat, clicked his heels together and gave her a formal bow.

"Vaddsmanheil, Waulkure," he murmured, respect in his voice and admiration in his expression.

It would not be the first time Sarah would be called a Valkyrie.

Today she rode through Firelands, rode at an easy pace, suitable for town, but as soon as she was beyond the rebuilt library, she urged her Appaloosa to a greater speed.

The rancher had a horse, the Sheriff said, and she was to buy it and gentle it, for if she did not buy it and within the hour, the rancher was going to skin it out and tan its pelt and boil its hooves for glue.

Sarah didn't have any idea what kind of horse this was, only that the Sheriff said she should buy it.

 

Bonnie McKenna considered the Sheriff's words, then rose.

"Sheriff," she said stiffly, "isn't it bad enough that you incite my daughter to become some kind of a road agent --"

"And agent of the Court," the Sheriff corrected gently, "and --"

"A road agent," Bonnie snapped. "She killed seven men, Sheriff -- my God, she killed those men!"

"Men who intended to come out here and kill you and your daughters," the Sheriff riposted, an edge to his voice.

"Someone else could have done that! Why my daughter? Why MY daughter?"

The Sheriff opened his mouth to reply, closed it.

"You said you'd sent her to buy a horse."

"Yes." He gave up on tasting the fragrant, citrus-spiced tea and set it on a sidetable.

"A horse."

"Yes."

"Sheriff --" Bonnie stopped, glared daggers at the lawman -- "my daughter should be learning womanly arts, not wearing pants and trying to be a horse trainer!"

"Have you ever seen her fighting for her life?" the Sheriff snapped, surging to his feet. "I have! Have you seen her with death in her eyes? I have! Bonnie, with what she's known, she has damn little regard for human life --"

"Don't you dare swear in my house, Sheriff!"

"Dammit, woman, I didn't swear!"

Bonnie swung around, shoved herself against the Sheriff, arms stiff at her sides and her delicate, artist's fingers clutched into fists: "The hell you didn't!"

The Sheriff's head was tilted down, his pale eyes glaring at the angry woman; Bonnie's head was tilted back, her violet eyes blazing into his.

"Bonnie," he said very quietly, "I need to give her something she is going to have to work at, something she'll play hell trying to tame down, something she's going to want really, really bad because it'll be hard for her, something alive --"

"She has her family!" Bonnie interrupted.

"That's why she killed those seven men!" the Sheriff interrupted right back.

Bonnie looked at Esther, looked at the older woman's patient expression.

"Well?" Bonnie demanded. "Aren't you going to say something?"

"What would you have me say, my dear?" Esther asked almost sadly.

The Sheriff turned strode out of the room, snagging his Stetson off the peg as he went.

Bonnie's fists tightened and trembled a little as she glared after the man and gave an aggravated, "Oooooohhh! Men!"

 

Sarah drew up, stopping her gelding between the rancher and the corral.

He was advancing toward the gate; it did not take a genius to realize his new limp, dirt all down one side and down his back, an irritated expression and a Winchester rifle did not bode well for the absolutely huge black horse in the middle of the corral with a lariat around its neck and the tag end trailing in the dirt.

"I'd like to buy that horse," Sarah said, and the rancher reached for the Appaloosa's bridle.

"Get outta my way!" he snapped, and Sarah's blade sang through the air: she swung it, hard, and hit the back of the rancher's right hand with the unsharpened spine of the curved blade.

Sarah swung up a leg and dropped out of the saddle, landing easily on her feet.

She pulled the bag of coin from her coat pocket, thrust it hard into the man's chest. "That's more than a fair price!" she snapped.

"I''m gonna kill that black --" the rancher roared, but whatever he was going to profane the horse with, cut off kind of quick when Sarah introduced the underside of the man's jaw to the tip of her blade.

"Don't move," Sarah whispered, her face tight and her eyes dead pale. "Don't breathe and don't blink. I haven't killed a man for two or three days and it's bothering me."

His hand realized the weight of the leather poke and the hard mass of currency within.

"I just bought that horse. You can fix me up with a bill of sale or not, I don't care, but you are not going to kill it. It belongs to me now and unless you back off and calm down I will kill you. Do we understand each other?"

The rancher's hired man watched, shocked, as this little girl backed down his big, hard-muscled boss: the hired man considered that his boss might not like the thought of someone seeing him backed down by a little girl, so the hired man catfooted away, his step quick, light and silent.

Sarah withdrew the blade and the rancher hefted the coin, calculated what he'd been given, realized it was four to five times what he'd paid for this useless nag.

"She's yours," he muttered.

"Thank you." Sarah spun the blade, thrust it quickly, viciously into the lacquered scabbard. "That saddle."

"The one on the fence? Yeah, that goes too, it's way the hell too big for a regular horse."

Sarah turned, opened the corral-gate, closed and latched it behind her.

The rancher walked up to the corral, propped a booted foot up on the bottom rail, rubbed the underside of his chin, examined his fingers.

No blood, he thought, surprised, then he looked at Sarah, walking slowly up on the huge, black, monster of a Frisian mare.

This, he thought, will be her comeuppance.

I wonder if she'll mind if I kill that horse once it's bit her arm off and stomped her guts.

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54. HOSPITALITY

 

Brother William made his choice and gave the matter no further thought.

A horseman would wear a boot with a tapered toe, the better to find a stirrup under difficult conditions, with a distinct heel to keep the foot from slipping through the stirrup and becoming trapped (generally with painful and unpleasant results!)

A townie would wear townie shoes, made more for fashion than for function; a miner or a farmer would wear work boots suited to their task.

Brother William wore the unbleached wool robe of a Cistercian monk.

When in cloister he wore the same bullhide sandals as his tonsured Brethren, but this day he wore thick wool socks and Army brogans.

He walked great distances in the course of his duties and his duties carried him to Firelands, and he walked between the pillars that once held an ornate iron archway, an arch that boldly stamped ROSENTHAL against the Colorado sky and the mountains behind.

His steady tread carried him to the front porch, past chickens and one of the ranch dogs who came bouncing out, tail whipping in greeting; Brother William stopped and played with the energetic dog, then paced around the house to the well in back.

As was his custom, he drew a bucket of water, refilled the wash basin, washed hands and face and dried them on the towel pinned to a ring: he threw out the used water, refilled the wash basin again, picked up the dipper and took a drink out of the bucket.

Thus fortified, and knowing this delay would guarantee he was observed, he walked back around to the front porch.

The maid opened the door and dropped a curtsy. "Brother William!" she greeted him. "Please, come in! We've a bit o' summat i' th' kitchen for ye!"

Brother William inclined his head solemnly, acknowledging her greeting, raised his hand and intoned a quick blessing on the household before he crossed the threshold: the maid crossed herself, dropped a hand in her apron pocket, gave her green-glass Rosary a quick squeeze, then took Brother William's dark-green cloak, folded it over her arm, turned and headed for the kitchen.

"If I may?" Brother William called gently, and Bonnie's voice came from the parlor: "Mary, show Brother William in," and Brother William smiled at the flustered young serving-girl.

Brother William stepped over to Bonnie McKenna, took her offered hand, raised it to his lips in an courtly, Old Worldly hand-kiss.

"The altitude agrees with your complexion," he murmured, leaning on his carved locust staff.

Bonnie sighed. "Brother William," she said tiredly, "you are the one unchanging rock in my entire stirred-up universe!"

Brother William frowned a little, turned as if to bring a good ear to bear. "Eh?"

Bonnie shook her head slowly. "It's Sarah ... and the Sheriff, and running the dress works, and everything" -- she stopped, blinked.

"I'm sorry, Brother William. You didn't come to hear my complaints."

"You are not aware, then."

"Aware of what?"

"My other name."

Bonnie's violet eyes were puzzled as she regarded the tall, tonsured monk. "Your ... other name?"

He nodded solemnly.

"You are familiar with the Catholic custom of the confessional."

"Ye - eesss," Bonnie said slowly.

Brother William smiled, just a little. "Many people, both of the Faith and ... otherwise ... tug on my listening ear." She saw merriment in his eyes as he continued, "At times -- "

"Please," Bonnie said, gesturing to a chair: Brother William parked his staff against a convenient trim-strip, hitched his robe up, settled into it; he closed his eyes, allowed himself a moment of sheer pleasure, for the chair was comfortable and he was tired.

"My apologies," he finally said. "My other name ... enough people bend my ear, and the only time they do is when the world is falling in under their feet ... my other name, in those moments, is Lightning Rod."

He smiled as Bonnie laughed. "Somehow," she chuckled, "I can believe that!"

"Now what troubles your lovely world?" Brother William asked, his voice deepening a little: he spoke softly, reassuringly, and Bonnie relaxed just a bit in spite of herself.

"Sarah," she said, as if retrieving a dropped train of thought. "Sarah was ... recruited. By the Sheriff. The judge. I don't know. Maybe both. She's a road agent, Brother William, she went to Denver and she was shot and then I found out she'd killed seven men and shot another and he was hanged and --"

She looked up at the attentive friar: he was leaned forward a little, elbows on his knees, his head turned just a little, reminding her of a hunting dog listening for its prey.

"I see," he said quietly.

"Then last week I found her wearing a nun's habit and she said she was ... she was gone about a week and she came back exhausted and happier than I've seen her in quite some time, and now the Sheriff sent her off to buy a horse --"

Brother William nodded, waited for the woman to gather up her breath and her thoughts.

"Brother William, I am a woman of means. I am making the very best life I can for my children and myself. You heard about my late husband's demise?"
Brother William nodded solemnly.

"I don't ... part of me knows ... Sarah said she killed those men to keep them from coming here and killing me."

"Do you believe her?"

"The Sheriff said that's what she did. The Judge confirmed the Sheriff." She looked up, her eyes full of misery. "Brother William, she ... I want her to be a proper young lady, not a road agent!"

"I see." Brother William tapped his upper lip with a thoughtful forefinger. "Actually I was hoping to find Sarah home. Where is she now?"

"I don't know." Bonnie rubbed her forehead, straightened as the serving girl brought in a tray. "Would you care for some tea, Brother William?"

"Please."

The maid placed the tray on a side-table, unfolded two folding tables, set one conveniently beside both Bonnie and her guest: she dispensed saucers, cups, tea, a small porcelain cup with sugar and a dainty little spoon with a ring handle: small sandwiches stacked on delicate china plates settled silently into position, the maid took one final look around: satisfied, she nodded briskly, picked up the teapot and empty tray, slipped silently out of the room.

Bonnie waited until Brother William inclined his head and murmured a few words before tasting her tea: she closed her eyes, savoring the citrus-flavored oolong.

"I have missed this," Brother William said quietly, then smiled across his coffee cup at his hostess.

"Let me tell you what Sarah was up to."

Bonnie's cup clattered a little as she replaced it on its matching saucer.

"Sarah ... was able to calm a mother."

"Oh?"

Brother William saw her left eyebrow twitch upward momentarily: her defenses were up and he knew she would be listening, not just closely, but critically.

"The mother came into the monastery at the top of her lungs."

"Oh, dear," Bonnie said faintly: the thought of someone shouting their way into the tranquil interior of her own house would be most unsettling, and she knew a monastery was a haven of tranquility.

"Sarah listened to the woman, ran into our carpenter's hut and came out with a hatchet in one hand and a crosscut saw in the other."

Bonnie's hand rose unbidden, rested at the base of her throat, her eyes wide with alarm: Brother William saw her rich red lips part a little and he heard the words rasp their way from her suddenly-dry throat: "How many did she kill?"

Brother William laughed quietly. "Far from it," he said reassuringly. "And quite the opposite. Your daughter -- your intelligent, quick-thinking and very capable daughter -- organized three of the Brethren to help her rescue the woman's son."

"Was he down a well?" Bonnie gasped, her eyes widening, and Brother William knew this suddenly spoken fear must be from a memory.

"No," he replied. "The woman's young son was climbing a tree. The tree had a dead branch with a sharp stub sticking up" -- his hands pantomimed tree trunk, branch and a suddenly upthrust thumb, the impaling spike -- "he fell on the stub and it pierced his thigh, bottom to top."

Bonnie's mouth formed a little O of distress.

"Your Sarah was able to coordinate the Brethren's support of the lad as she swarmed up the tree and cut off the branch.

"She took over his medical care.

"You know that a deep penetrating injury -- especially to something as meaty as the thigh -- almost always infects terribly."

Bonnie was a little pale now: she nodded, listening intently, her tea forgotten at her elbow.

"Sarah had certain herbs and she formulated a decoction, first to relax the child, and then to cleanse around and then through the wound." His words were calm, quiet. "She waited until the lad was nearly unconscious before running a swab through the wound like you would swab out a gun barrel."

"Oh, dear," Bonnie whispered faintly.

The maid took Bonnie's hand, pressed her teacup into it, brought her other hand up as well: Bonnie raised the fragile china vessel clumsily, two-handed, took a drink, took another.

Brother William's quick eye did not miss the maid's fortifying her mistress's tea with a small flask of something water clear, just before handing her the teacup.

"There now," Brother William said, his voice quiet, "is that better?"

Bonnie nodded and slugged back the rest of her fortified drink in less than a ladylike manner: shivering, she pressed her blouse sleeve to her mouth, then looked up.

"Sarah stayed with him for three days with no sleep. She tended his every need, she kept the wound clean, she used damp cloths to bring down what little fever he had. She held his hand, she sang to him. A few days later, he walked with his mother to his own hacienda. He'll have a scar but he'll not lose his leg."

He waited a moment, then added significantly, "All this, thanks to your Sarah."

 

Brother William's visit lasted a little more than an hour; two, if you include his hostess insisting he share a meal with them.

Fed, rested, refreshed, Brother William hand-kissed Bonnie at her front door, thanked her for her hospitality, and thanked the maid standing discreetly behind her mistress: Brother William took his leave, and set his brogans on a course for Firelands.

He was less than halfway there when a truly huge, absolutely black Frisian mare came cantering toward him, a curly-furred dog the size of a grown pony happily loping along beside: Sarah drew up her new mare and looked down from an impossible altitude, laughing.

"Brother William!" she declared happily. "This is my new horse! Her name is Snowflake!"

Brother William reached into his traveler's pouch, brought out a twist of molasses cured plug tobacco, and with a small, very sharp knife, shaved off a few generous slices and offered them to the mare.

Snowflake snuffed loudly at his hand, delicately lipped the tobacco from the laughing friar's palm.

"She's big," he said admiringly, patting the mare's neck. "How does she ride?"

Sarah laughed again. "She's like straddling the dining room table, but she rides well!"

Brother William waved and took his leave of the delighted young woman: after ruffling The Bear Killer's ears, he resumed his journey into Firelands.

He had need to see his old commanding officer again, now the Sheriff and his good friend.

He remembered Sarah's words, and laughed aloud, shaking his head.

"It's like straddling the dining room table," he chuckled. "From the size of that barrel, I believe it!"

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55. JUST ONE SECRET

"I don't understand," the newspaperman confessed, sliding his natty Derby hat back and scratching his curly brown hair.

Jacob leaned casually against the porch post in front of the Sheriff's office, chewing thoughtfully on the tag end of a convenient weed he'd pulled from a stray growth.

"How's that?" Jacob grunted.

"All this." The reporter gestured, his arm describing a broad arc.

Jacob turned his head casually, regarded the Easterner with a carefully neutral expression.

"This ... you have, what, the whole county?"

"Yep," Jacob said quietly.

"Just one of you?"

Jacob shifted the weed stem to the other side of his mouth, considered the pattern in the stone on the opposite building's front.

"You ever hear of the Texas Rangers?"

The Easterner blinked. "Of course."

"You recall a riot, when they asked the Rangers to come in and put it down?"

The reporter looked over at Jacob, at his calm, pale eyes, his even white teeth, shook his head.

Jacob grunted, looked back across the street.

"They waited at the depot -- the city fathers -- they were expecting a squadron of troops, I reckon, and one Ranger stepped off the train.

"They said 'Are you all they sent?' and he said "Ain't but one riot, is there?'"

Jacob paused, then added, "One riot, one Ranger."

"But ... one man ... that doesn't seem enough!"

"You ever fight a Ranger?"

The reporter shook his head.

"I've seen a Ranger at work." Jacob pulled the weed from between his teeth, tossed it into the dirt. "You don't want to run cross ways of a Ranger." He looked hard at the reporter, spoke in just as soft and kindly a voice. "People know that. They know it and they don't want anything to do with 'em."

The reporter shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry. I'm used to thinking of an entire police department."

Jacob laughed. "You mean with a chief and captains, lieutenants and sergeants, detectives and jailers?"

"Yes, exactly."

Jacob laughed. "May God Almighty keep me from cities, especially back east!" He looked around, seeing beyond the single main street, the simple buildings, the few people: his mind's eye saw to the edges of his county, and beyond.

"I will tell you a secret," he said quietly, "if you keep it to yourself."

The reporter was instantly attentive.

"My Pa -- the Sheriff -- has a reputation."

"A reputation?"

Jacob's smile was tight, humorless.

"My father is known as Old Pale Eyes." He shifted his weight, took a long breath, blew it out. "He's a bad man."

"A ... bad man? Why is a bad man, Sheriff?"

Jacob laughed.

"Bad man means something different out here."

The reporter knew enough to keep quiet and let Jacob continue in his own time; sure enough, the chief deputy did, after a lengthy pause.

"A bad man out here can be either lawful or lawless. Either way, a bad man is a bad man to tangle with. My Pa has brought in men who didn't put up a fight because they knew he was the one after 'em. Territorial Marshal Charlie Macneil is another of the kind. Nobody wants to face up to a man who can kill you fast, easy and absolutely without hesitation." He smiled and his smile was less than rich and welcoming, and when he looked at the reporter again, the Easterner looked into the deputy's pale eyes and was ready to swear he was looking at the grinning face of the Reaper himself.

Maybe, the man thought, regarding the tall, lean deputy, maybe the Sheriff isn't the only bad man behind a badge.

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56. HERE SHE COMES

 

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, have you seen Sarah's horse?"

I turned, looked at my long tall son, my firstborn, my chief deputy, remembering when I saw him for the first time, remembering the night back in Kansas --

No.

I knew if I got to thinking about Kansas I would remember too much.

I blinked, listened again to Jacob's words, softly spoken, still in my ears.

"No, Jacob. I sent her to get it but I have seen neither her nor the horse."

Jacob nodded, his eyes busy: his mind was never still, he never stopped looking, listening, he never did let his guard down.

Life had not been kind to him, least not until Agent Sopris steered him to me, and I bless that good man's name for the kindness he did both Jacob and myself.

I didn't know Jacob even existed, not for -- well, hell, look at Jacob and you see me: same eyes, same mustache, same slouch, only he don't slouch except when he leans against something, then he can look like a professional loafer.

"It's ... quite a horse, sir."

I nodded, twisting my lower back until something went *pop* and I almost flinched, and Jacob did flinch to hear it: he gave me that look of his, that look that said "That hurts just to hear it" but he never offered a word.

"I'd ought to slip out and take a look," I said thoughtfully.

Actually I wasn't so much thoughtful as I was feeling guilty.

I know Sarah is too grown-up and no help for it, not after the hell she's lived through.

I know Sarah is a fine woman's child, she is a child of wealth and privilege and she ought to grow up to be a well-to-do young woman and wear fine dresses and live in a fine house and marry a fine man.

Not break horses.

I know she's her mother's daughter and I know the steel in Bonnie's spine and I know Sarah is as fast and deadly as any woman I know, but she's more dangerous because she looks so young and pretty and nobody expects a tall girl to kill them and not hesitate to part their soul from their earthly carcass.

I felt guilty because I just sent her on a fool's errand.

Bonnie is a fine woman.

She grabbed herself by the nape of the neck and fetched herself up out of a whorehouse crib and made herself into a respectable businesswoman.

Yes I bought the Silver Jewel and yes I shut down the whorehouse and yes I sent Sam, that thievin' scoundrel that used to own the Silver Jewel, off to prison and yes I give Bonnie a grub stake and she used it to start that dress-works, and yes I know she could not have set all that up without my money backing her, but she did the work and she paid me back and she insisted on paying me with interest.

I fussed at her about it and she said I could take the money or she could stuff it down my throat, and I laughed and said if she was going to be so hard headed and contrary about it I'd take it, and she threw the money at me and stormed out of the Sheriff's office, and I set there with Yankee greenbacks floating in the air like so much verdant snow, feeling somewhere between a damned fool and ... well, I just plainly felt a damned fool.

Bonnie is a prideful woman and I am a prideful man and it's very likely a good thing Esther had the good sense to marry me, because if I'd paid court to Bonnie and managed to swindle her into becoming my wife, we'd likely fight like the Kilkenney cats.

We would love one another fiercely and likely we'd have a few hundred young'uns, but after seeing how fast and deadly both Jacob and Sarah were, I don't reckon the world was ready for any more get of my pale-eyed loins.

My thoughts were wandering far and fast and Jacob looked at me curiously when I shook my head and laughed, for about the time I thought it a good thing there were no more young of my blood, I remembered Esther laying a gentle hand on my freshly-shaved cheek that morning, and she whispered, "Darling," and then she placed her hand on her belly and looked down, then back up at me, and I couldn't help it.

I could not help myself a'tall.

I grabbed my green-eyed bride under the arms and I fetched her up off the floor and I danced us around in a circle, and Esther threw her head back and laughed, and Angela looked at us with big-eyed surprise, and the maid -- I reckon she must've already known -- she squatted down and hugged Angela and whispered something in her ear, and I recall as I was just a-settin' Esther's feet back down onto the floor, Angela began bouncing on her toes and clapping her little hands and I knelt before my bride and kissed her belly, her slender belly, her lean belly that held a hidden life, new life, a belly that would grow until she looked like an olive on a toothpick --

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, there is something going on behind your eyes."

I blinked, rearranged my thoughts.

"Just thinkin', Jacob."

He shifted his slouch against the porch post, nodded.

"Yes, sir."

I hawked, spat, frowned.

"Jacob, tell me about that horse again."

"I don't have to, sir," Jacob said quietly, but I could hear an ornery smile in his voice. "Here she comes now."

I like to think it's hard to surprise me, but I will admit I was genuinely surprised that fine morning.

I'd heard that hard headed horse that rancher was going to either tame down or kill was big but I never expected to see a horse so DAMNED tall I could not look over its back, and I am counted a tall man.

Sarah was a-ridin' it and I laughed to see it.

She was wearing a fashionable and flawlessly tailored riding dress, she was wearing a matching little hat set off a little to the side of her head, she was wearing lace gloves with a parasol over her shoulder, she wore a woolen cloak over this ... and she looked like a little girl playing dress-up and riding the back of a circus elephant.

Dear God, I thought, what have I done?

Sarah rode like she was the Queen on a golden throne; she surveyed the world round about with a haughty, almost disdainful expression, as if she were Royalty, and separated from the vulgar earth by royal privilege and birthright.

She didn't so much ride as flow that big black horse -- my Cannonball mare is butter-smooth in her gait and a sick child would not be jostled on her shining red back -- but this big black mountain of horseflesh flowed like water, and I leaned forward a little and just plainly stared.

The Bear Killer paced right along beside her, his bright-pink tongue happily hanging out -- he was grinning just plain as day -- now as dogs go,The Bear Killer is nothing short of absolutely huge.

I have, in all honesty, seen ponies smaller than The Bear Killer.

Beside that God-awful big black mare, The Bear Killer looked ... normal.

Jacob wasn't slouching any more: he'd shoved his Stetson back on his head and he was grinning like a kid seeing a locomotive for the first time.

I was so plainly Flabber Gasted taking in this sight that I only just realized ... Sarah was riding with that parasol in one hand, and her other hand on her thigh, and she wan't using her reins.

I blinked again, and realized that the monstrous black horse wore a bridle.

No reins.

That meant no bit.

They stopped right in front of us, and Sarah spun her parasol as she brought it off her shoulder, folded it, threw up her port-side leg and batted her eyelashes at me and said, "I am going to dismount now. Are you going to catch me?"

Jacob was faster than me, he was off the board walk and underneath of her and caught her just as neat as if they'd been practicing the move for their lifetimes.

I stepped up to take a closer look at this big black pile of gleaming horse flesh, and that big black horse head swung around and took a good close look at me.

I reckon we were both a little bit surprised and three or four fellas over in front of the Silver Jewel were grinning at us, watching the show.

That big monster horse set her head against my front side and grunted and I rubbed her ears and her jaw, and she lifted her head a little and sniffed loudly at my middle.

I laughed.

"I know what you want, you bum," I muttered, reaching into a coat pocket for the twist of molasses cured tobacker I keep for Cannonball: the mare's ears flipped and then swung ahead as I shaved off a few long curls off that plug twist and held 'em out for her.

I reckon she could have bit my hand off up to my elbow had she been so inclined, but she lipped that molasses cured off my palm just as delicate as anything.

Sarah came smiling up at me, dropping the tip of her parasol to the ground and holding the knob end, the very image of a stylish young woman.

"Well?" she asked, and I saw mischief in her eyes. "What do you think?"

"I think," I said, "you'll play hell getting back in the saddle."

"Oh ye of little faith," she smiled, and I saw that imp of mischief in her eyes again.

I could not help but think the men folk of the world were in big trouble.

You're not fourteen yet and you're this saucy? I thought, and my stomach shrank a little.

Sarah turned and I don't know what she did, she reached for something and wherever she touched the horse, it grunted and folded its legs and bellied down just nice as you please.

Sarah fetched the slack up in her skirt, swung a leg over the saddle, tapped the big black mare with her parasol, and the horse came back up to full stand.

"Do you like my cute little horsie?" Sarah smiled, patting the mare's neck. "Her name is Snowflake."

No reins, no bit ... I knee train all my saddle stock, but Sarah ... dear God ...

"Sarah," I said, "you knee trained her?"

Sarah gave me a pitying look and I regretted the question, it was probably one of the stupidest things I'd ever said. Someone, obviously, knee trained this horse, and trained it to kneel to allow her to mount.

Horses don't just do this on their own.

Sarah smiled down at Joseph, on her right, then at me, on her left, and with a voice of the lady born she said, "Good morning, Sheriff," and I never saw her move -- I was looking to see it but didn't see a thing -- she never moved a muscle and that Snowflake-mare stepped out, stepped out easy and absolutely silent, and they flowed on up the street toward the Mercantile.

The mare swapped ends, Sarah lowered herself in the saddle, snapped her parasol shut and tucked it under her arm like a knight's lance, she started screaming like a Cherokee and that big black horse laid its ears back and dug at the ground and I'm ready to swear she yanked the street out from under herself more than she ran atop it: The Bear Killer howled like a hell-demon and they went streaking a-past us like a runaway freight on a down grade.

Jacob and I stared after them, as did the hangers-on in front of the Jewel and two or three others, and finally my son and I looked at one another.

"Jacob?"

"Yes, sir?"

"I ought to turn her over my knee and swat her bottom."

Jacob turned, looked at the dust hanging where they'd been a moment before, then turned back and looked at me.

"Good luck catchin' her, sir."

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57. SWITCH

 

Town Marshal Jackson Cooper hung his hat on its peg.

The peg was a foot higher than his wife's head, but then the Marshal was near to a foot and a half taller than Emma Cooper, the schoolmarm.

Jackson Cooper was not just tall: he was broad, he was hard-muscled, he filled a doorway (and had to duck more often than not when he went through one), and he was a walking contradiction.

For a man of such size and such hard-muscled bulk, he was phenomenally quick, especially with his hands.

Like most truly big or truly strong men, he was soft spoken.

And when he touched his wife, he was as gentle as a saint handling a baby chick.

Jackson Cooper turned from hanging his mangled looking Stetson on the thumb-thick peg, turned, closed his eyes and took a long, appreciative breath, savoring the smells that spoke of his wife's labors.

Emma Cooper's eyes were bright, merry-bright behind her round-lenses spectacles, her hair drawn up atop her head in its perpetual bun, a lead pencil thrust through it: she wore her hair so, even on the Sabbath, when everyone wore their best to church: when asked by the town's busybody why she didn't at least take out that ghastly pencil, she smiled with her perpetual good humor and replied, "God might decide to speak to me, and if He does, I want to write it down so I don't forget a word of it!"

Tonight, she turned from the open oven door, a pan of biscuits in her towel-padded grip, smiling a little as she flipped the biscuits delicately onto a waiting plate; she set the pan on the counter, turned and fetched out another pan of golden-crested breads: these, too, went onto the waiting plate, stacking into a fragrant haystack.

Two quick steps, the second pan atop the other, then back: she moved as easily as a conductor directing an orchestra, and Jackson Cooper watched his diminutive schoolteacher wife make the complex task of fixing supper, look easy.

He knew it wasn't easy.

He also knew his culinary skills were limited to boiling water, frying meat and sitting down to someone else's cooking.

He was a man who'd spent years enough alone, much of it alone in rough country, to appreciate what he had.

He never once took for granted what his hard working wife did for him, and he never failed to let her know.

He stood there like a bashful schoolboy, waiting, and finally Emma tasted the bubbling stew she dipped up in a wooden spoon, hummed with approval, then turned to look squarely at her big, red-knuckled husband.

"Oh, Jackson," she said, blinking, "how lovely!" She skipped over to him and took the rose he held: he bent down and kissed her upturned face, carefully, delicately, the way he always did.

"Wherever did you find a rose!" she exclaimed, closing her eyes and smelling the posie, savoring its scent, then looking up adoringly at her huge, red-faced husband.

"I, um," he said hesitantly, "Gary Garrison, um, he, upstairs --"

Jackson Cooper feared no man.

He'd personally faced up to and faced down any number of large and angry folk armed with a variety of weapons.

The tale was told how how he seized and snatched a drawn pistol in a belt-buckle-to-belt-buckle fight in the Silver Jewel, how he'd grabbed the revolver before it came to bear on him, ripped it free of the owner's hand, drove his fist hard into the man's gut, knocked all the fight out of the fellow in an instant.

He'd spun when a rancher came at his unprotected kidneys with a pitchfork, seizing the fork's handle and yanking hard, pulling its owner off his feet and throwing him (by accident, truth be told) face first into the waiting horse trough.

Jackson Cooper could speak with any man, for few men awed him; he could speak with an equal ease, an equal soft-voiced courtesy, to a schoolboy, a blacksmith, a cowhand or a Congressman, and had: he routinely addressed His Honor the Judge and a variety of brother lawmen, and his speech was correct, straightforward and decorous. It was only when he was addressing one of the fair sex that a stutter revealed itself, only when he spoke with an attractive woman that he became red-eared and hesitant, and when he was with his diminutive and beloved wife, when only they two were present, he was as bashful as a dirt-kicking schoolboy.

"That's right," Emma whispered, smelling the rose again. "He raises roses in that upstairs room, doesn't he?" She looked up, her eyes bright, tilting her head a little. "And you got one just for me."

Jackson Cooper swallowed something sticky down a suddenly-tight throat. He wanted to say that Gary was culling the plants, he'd snipped this one and brought it down, gave it to the Marshal rather than throw it away, and the Marshal went straight home with his unexpected prize.

He wanted to say this, but all he managed was to nod, his ears positively flaming-hot and red.

Emma Cooper turned, her step light and quick, and she stretched up on her tiptoes to flip open a cupboard door.

"Jackson, dear," she said, "I can't reach that vase, could you help me, please?"

Reaching for the vase was a simple matter; he held its fluted neck delicately between thumb and forefinger, lowered it gently to the counter top.

Emma smiled gently and gripped his big, meaty hand, and Jackson Cooper drew her into him, carefully, as if she was delicate, soap-bubble china: she closed her eyes, leaned back against her big, strong, protective husband, her hand on his, pressing it more firmly into her, then lowered her head and kissed the base of his thumb.

As content as Jackson Cooper was to be married to this woman, Emma Cooper was equally content to be married to this strong and gentle man, and she closed her eyes to shut out the entire world, and to immerse herself completely in this moment, and no other.

 

Sarah turned, frowning at her reflection: her pale eyes were hard, frank and assessing, and finally she nodded.

"Sawwah," Polly asked, her bright eyes innocent and curious, "how come why for you wear-a dat dwess?"

Sarah seated herself, picked up a hairbrush, looked at her reflection, turning her head a little to the left, a little to the right.

"I," she said, "am going to be a schoolmarm."

Polly's eyes opened wide. "Weealy?" she squeaked, delighted.

"Of course weally," Sarah giggled: it was impossible to remain serious when her little sister was so bubbly.

Polly's expression was suddenly troubled. "But whaddabowt Mrs. Emma?" she asked sadly. "I like Mrs. Emma!"

"And Mrs. Emma likes you." Sarah took a thick twist of hair, gave it a twist, a turn, a tuck: suddenly her rich auburn hair was coiled in a shining crown on top of her head: she held it in place with three fingers, pooched out her cheeks, her lips fish-puckered, and she crossed her eyes.

Polly giggled, he hands spread open-fingered over her mouth.

Sarah drew open a drawer, withdrew two bare-wood pencils: she thrust one, then the other, through her bun, fixing it into place.

"There," she said. "Only one thing left to do."

Polly blinked, watched with the single-minded, bright-eyed focus of an adoring little sister as Sarah reached once more into the drawer.

A quick move and a pair of round-lensed spectacles appeared like magic on Sarah's pretty face.

"There," she said, standing, turning and looking severely at Polly: "Now class," she said in a nasal voice, "today we are going to recite the Magna Carta. Johnny, did you do your lessons? We're going to read together from the Decameron." Her tone was severe, her eyes merry, and finally she could maintain a severe mien no longer: Sarah bent over, laughing, her hands on her thighs, and Polly laughed with her.

"Well?" Sarah asked, smiling. "Do I look like a schoolteacher?"

Polly jumped up to hug Sarah, and Sarah knelt to hug her giggling little sister.

"I think you look like Sawwah," Polly giggled, and Sarah smiled, hugging her a little tighter.

"I'll take that," she whispered.

 

"Sarah?" Jackson Cooper blurted.

Emma Cooper blinked happily, picking up her china teacup. "Yes, isn't it wonderful?"

"Sarah?" Jackson said faintly.

Emma Cooper blinked, surprised. "Why, dear, whatever is wrong?"

"I, um, it's ... just that ... Sarah?"

Emma gave her husband a patient look as she buttered her soft, fragrant biscuit. "Of course, darling. I graduated her early. She's met all the requirements and she's a very good teacher. She even has her teaching certificate." She blinked innocently. "She has been graduated from eighth grade, darling, she is perfectly qualified to teach school!"

Jackson Cooper thought of the screaming she-warrior, bent over that big black horse, her monstrous black war-dog baying death and ruin as he ran beside.

"Sarah McKenna Sarah. Bonnie Rosenthal's little girl." He hesitated, then added, "Shotgun Sarah."

Emma Cooper placed her buttered biscuit on the side of her plate, very carefully placed her butter knife on the other side of her plate, her eyes suddenly serious.

"Jackson Cooper," she said quietly, her voice gentle, "this world is a dangerous place. You should know that better than any."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Don't you ma'am me, young man," Emma said, shaking her schoolteacher's finger at him, her expression severe: she held her expression as long as she could and then laughed, and Jackson Cooper laughed with her, for it was a joke between the two of them, the yes-ma'am and the don't-you-ma'am-me-young-man.

"Now, Jackson," she said, "Sarah is very good at teaching my more difficult students."

"That's not all she's good at," Jackson Cooper muttered.

"Now, Jackson," Emma murmured. "Do you remember when those awful men rode into town and intended to burn it down and do all those truly awful things?"
Jackson Cooper nodded, his eyes hardening.

"Jackson, if they came into town while I had a schoolhouse full of children, what am I going to do? Hit them over the head with a handbell?"

Jackson Cooper's big hands closed, crushing the biscuit he'd just torn open.

"Jackson, I need Sarah. She is naturally gifted at teaching. I know she ... has ... done some things --"

"Emma," Jackson interrupted in almost a whisper, "she's killed men. She walked into the middle of a city gang and she --"

Emma's quiet look silenced her husband.

"Jackson," she said gently, "I know Sarah has done some things, and that is exactly why I want her to teach."

"Emma, what would happen if one of the boys jumped up and yelled in her face? Or took a swing at her?"

"Then, Jackson," Emma blinked, her expression innocent, "I believe she would turn them over my desk and address their backside with a willow switch."

Jackson Cooper looked at his diminutive, bespectacled wife with the expression of a man beholding a fish sticking out of her matronly bosom.

"She ... would ... bend them ..." Jackson Cooper repeated slowly.

"Over my desk," Emma Cooper smiled. "With a willow switch."

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58. BELLRINGER

 

Sarah smiled a little as she handed Jacob the handcuffs.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "I appreciate your help."

Jacob accepted the irons, nodded; he opened his father's desk drawer, replaced them, closed the drawer, then looked at the quietly smiling Agent.

"I hear you're going to teach school."

Sarah giggled like a little girl, smiling a little more at the puzzlement she saw wrinkle up between the lean deputy's eyebrows.

Jacob dropped his narrow backside on the desk, looked squarely at Sarah.

"I don't have you figured out," he said slowly.

"Good." She clasped her hands in front of her and turned one way, then the other, like a little girl.

"You tear into a mountain painter and drive it a good one with a sawed off cannon at three foot."

She gave him her best, big-eyed-innocent look and replied, "He was only three feet from me, Jacob. I had to do something!"

"Yeeeeeaaahhhh," Jacob agreed slowly, shivering a little. "Then you went into a gunfight with a whole roomful of men!"

"I didn't expect to have to take on that many," she said, her face serious. "I got dropped in the middle of a hornet nest and I didn't think there were that many hornets!"

Jacob's eyes were steady on hers and he said, "If I did not know better, Sarah, I would say you were my father's daughter."

He was surprised to see the sadness that flowed across her face: she closed her eyes, bowed her head and whispered, "I wish he were."

She looked so lost, so forlorn in that moment, that Jacob could not help himself.

He slid his cocked leg off the desk, stepped over to Sarah and hugged her into him.

Sarah hugged him back, and the pair enjoyed a long moment together, neither one realizing until some time later just how right that felt.

"If you were my father's daughter," he murmured, "that would make you my little sis."

She hugged him a little tighter, nodded, her face laid against his collar bone.

"If you were my little sis, I would be pretty damned proud of you!"

Sarah squeezed her eyes tight shut, hugged Jacob a little tighter, then relaxed.

He looked down at her and said very quietly, "You're teaching school now."

She nodded.

"Emma Cooper speaks very well of you."

"I speak very well of Miz Emma." She smiled, drew back a little, still holding both his hands. "I have to go. She'll be expecting me."

Jacob nodded. "You look good as a schoolmarm."

Sarah laughed, spread her arms, turned: "I wanted to look like a little mousy-grey thing that nobody would take a second look at. After all" -- her eyes were merry with mischief behind her round-lensed, window-glass spectacles -- "a schoolmarm is supposed to be an unmarriageable old maid that nobody wanted!"

A few minutes later, Jacob heard the cl-clang, cl-clang, cl-clang of the school's handbell, and he knew Sarah was standing on the top step of the little whitewashed, one-room schoolhouse, calling the young to their lessons.

He shook his head, turned back to the desk, remembering her smile as she handed him the small handcuffs that had confined her mother, when Bonnie was kidnapped and taken away to be murdered.

"Shotgun Sarah, the schoolmarm," he muttered, shaking his head. "Wonders that don't stop!"

 

Emma Cooper smiled up at Sarah as the younger woman placed the handbell back on its shelf.

"Thank you for firing the stoves, Sarah," she said. "How was your night?"

Sarah laughed. "I spent part of it chained up in the back room," she said brightly.

"That's a little out of the ordinary, isn't it?" Emma blinked.

"I'm picking the handcuffs much faster than I did the first time," Sarah whispered confidentially. "I have several more sets on order. I need to learn all the different lock systems."

Emma Cooper squeezed Sarah's hand between her own.

"Sarah," she said urgently, "please be careful. I only have one of you."

Sarah squeezed her hands in return. "That's why I'm practicing," she whispered, her eyes suddenly serious. "I want to be around for a while!"

There was the sound of running feet charging up the schoolhouse steps and the two parted hands, Sarah turning to face the sudden inrush of apple-cheeked youth, arriving for their day's lessons.

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59. SHOTGUN SARAH

"I understand you boys are lookin' for someone."

Jacob's voice was a soft drawl, just loud enough for the pair to hear.

He recognized the kind: cowhands the weren't, ranchers they weren't: their boots were too clean, not worn enough; their suits were well tailored, their eyes took full advantage of the big mirror behind the bar, and they pegged him for a lawman the moment he came through the frosted-glass-decorated doors.

"I don't recall as we said," the taller of the two replied.

"Might be I can help you fellas."

The two looked at one another, then looked back at Jacob.

"Let me buy you fellas a beer and let's talk it over."

"It'll take more'n a beer," the shorter one growled.

Jacob smiled patiently. "I'm not much of a beer drinker myself," he admitted, "but right about now I could chew on the north end of a south bound mule. You fellas been smellin' Daisy's cookin' since you got here. How about you try the best dish in the house, I'm buyin'?"

The three drifted back to the Lawman's Corner: all three were seated in the corner, each had their back to the wall, and Daisy's girl shortly had backstrap with gravy, mashed taters drowned in real butter, light rolls hot and smellin' good, and plenty of 'em.

Jacob was relaxed as he usually was, watching the pair from half-lidded eyes; they were suspicious, but the more they ate the less suspicious they acted, which is what Jacob intended.

About halfway through the second plate of meat and potatoes, conversation started up again, and Jacob started it.

"I understand you two are lookin' for that trouble makin' Agent."

The two exchanged a look but made no reply.

"Might be I could help you find this character."

Suspicion was plain on their faces as the one asked "Now why would a lawman be givin' away another?"

"The Agent is no lawman," Jacob said, his expression hard. "That-there Agent is the Judge's wild notion and I don't pa'tickelar care for it."

He saw the light change in their eyes as the idea sank in and took root: he could almost hear the gears turning between their ears.

"You might be helpin' me as a matter of fact," Jacob dangled more bait, and they took it.

"We'd be helpin' you if we got rid of this-here Agent."

"Yep." Jacob's reply was short, clipped, just what they expected from a disgruntled lawman who was jealous of an outsider's success where he might've failed.

"What's in it for us?" the shorter one asked.

Jacob's smile was tight. "You're already bein' paid."

Silence grew between them.

"There is one thing you would gain," Jacob finally added.

He saw greed in their expression and the slightest of nods from them both.

"You would have a lawman on your side." He leaned confidentially toward them both. "You would have an ... advantage."

The two looked at one another kind of sidelong, the shifty look of shifty men on a shifty mission.

"Where might we find this ... Agent?"

Jacob chuckled. "How about I take you to this Agent?"

"When?"
"When I've told you a little more what you're facin'." His voice was hard again, pitched low so only they could hear him.

"That-there Agent was said to be a boy wearin' a brown fur cap, come up out of that trunk with a cut down double gun, a horse pistol."

"Yeah, that's the one."

"What if I was to tell you his name?"

"That would help!"

Jacob nodded. "Come with me."

The three stood; Jacob raised a finger to summon Daisy's girl, murmured something in her ear and she giggled, blushed and squeaked, "Sure thing, Sugar!" and caressed his cheek, and the pair looked at each other and smiled evilly.

Yes, their smile said, we have found a crooked lawman. We've struck gold.

Jacob led the way between the poker tables in front out the door.

They descended the three wooden steps, walked in the street, headed down hill.

"The Agent," Jacob said, "is not a young man."

"Well, how old is he?"

"He's a surprisin' sort, I'll grant ye," Jacob said. "Mean as a snake and just as fast, this-here Agent can kill you fast, hard and nasty and you'll be deader'n a politician's promise before you know the first shot's been fired."

"Where is this Agent?"

Jacob smiled tightly. "Right in here." He stepped up two of the three steps of the whitewashed, one-room schoolhouse, stopped, turned.

"Fellas, this Agent is not a man. Her name is Sarah. Shotgun Sarah." His eyes were hard, pale and hard and his expression was carved from seasoned white oak. "She's as fast as I am, I'm faster than my old man and he's faster than any man in the territory."

"He's a she?" the taller of the two blinked. "Now hold on -- you're funnin' us!"

"How do you think it feels to have the Judge pick a girl instead of me to do his dirty work?" Jacob hissed, thrusting his face into the speaker's: "a girl, over me!"

His voice was little more than a hiss, the dry hiss of snake scales on desert rock.

"You want her? She's in here!"

The two watched as Jacob pulled the door open, stepped inside.

Sarah was waiting, her hands folded primly before her.

"Right there she is, fellas," Jacob said, thrusting an accusing finger at her. "Shotgun Sarah!"

The pair stared openly at the sweet-looking, young, pretty ... schoolmarm.

A schoolmarm who glared at them over top of her round spectacles.

"Jacob Keller," she declared, advancing a step, "are you telling these poor men that old joke again? Again? Shotgun Sarah? Really?" She poked a stiff finger into Jacob's shirt front, glaring at him, the very image of a disapproving schoolmarm. "Shotgun Sarah? Really?"

She turned and glared at the pair, who were looking at the roomful of young faces turned toward them; they looked back at Sarah, at Jacob, who was grinning and trying not to laugh.

"Shotgun Sarah?" she said, louder now. "Shotgun Sarah? You still think that's funny? Let me tell you" -- she stabbed the other hand's stiff forefinger at the pair -- "what really happened!"

She gathered her indignation around herself like a cloak and surged ahead with her narrative, folded her arms, began tapping her foot, for all the world like a disapproving schoolmarm.

"He thought it would be funny to hand me a shotgun and tell me to shoot a can off a fencepost! I'd never fired a gun in my life! I didn't know how to hold the thing and it knocked me on my" -- she stopped, lips pressed together with white-rimmed disapproval -- "it knocked me on my backside, and all he did was LAUGH!"

She glared hard at the red-faced, sniggering deputy, her eyes narrowing, her face reddening: suddenly she drew back an arm, swung an awkward roundhouse at the now-laughing deputy, who stiff-armed her forehead -- he held her at arm's length and abandoned himself to mirth, and the more he laughed, the madder she got, the harder she swung with both arms now, the pair staring open-mouthed as Sarah snarled, swinging awkwardly as Jacob held her at arm's length.

The taller of the pair looked at the shorter, each jerked his head to the outside and they retreated: behind them, as the door swung shut, they could hear "Jacob Keller, I am NEVER going to forgive you!"

They went back to their room in the Jewel, where the pair mutually agreed that they'd just been had, that they'd just become the butt of a longstanding joke between what was probably brother and sister, and since the law just played the pair of them for fools, they'd get nowhere in this town: reluctantly, they packed their satchels and left.

Meanwhile, back at the schoolhouse ...

Jacob and Sarah watched from the very edge of two different windows as Emma Cooper, in front, held her finger to her lips, keeping her young charges silent: finally, when the criminal pair disappeared into the Silver Jewel, Jacob grinned at Sarah, and Sarah grinned at Jacob, and they ran to the middle of the schoolroom and seized one another in a happy hug, both of them laughing and red-faced.

When they were breathing normally again, Sarah blew her nose loudly and indelicately as Jacob declared, "Sarah, you were wonderful!"

"You had them hook line and sinker," Sarah giggled, lifting her spectacles and wiping her eyes: "what in the hell were you doing, anyway?"

"Outside," Jacob grinned, and with a quick look outside to make sure the pair was out of sight, they joined hands and ran outside like a pair of guilty children.

Outside, away from young eyes and from young ears, Jacob explained -- as they hid behind the schoolhouse, keeping it between them and the main street --

"Sarah, those two were looking for the Agent."

"Oh, they were, were they?" Sarah asked saucily, hands on her hips and deviltry shining bright in her pale eyes.

"I figured if you tell a big enough lie they'll believe it, so I spun a whopper!" Jacob bragged. "I told 'em the Agent was really a girl, her name was Shotgun Sarah, and she was deadly as a rattlesnake full of bald face hornets --"

"You bald face liar," Sarah murmured admiringly.

"And when I brought 'em in, you played right along with it!" Jacob laughed again, hugged Sarah to him. "You were perfect!"

He dropped one arm to her waist, took her other hand, waltzed a few steps, Sarah waltzing easily with him.

"You know why I was able to play along," Sarah smiled as they danced.

"Why's that?" he asked, stopping, but still holding her hand.

"You're easy to follow," she said softly, leaning her cheek against his chest, her arm around his middle. "It worked, Jacob."
His arm was warm, reassuring around her shoulders. "Yes. It worked."

"There will be others, you know."

"I know. That's why I spun 'em a lie. Now nobody will ever believe the Agent is a girl."

Sarah looked up at the pale-eyed deputy.

"Thank you, Jacob."

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60. DEEDS,DONE IN KINDNESS

 

I stood two brass ten-gauge hulls up on the gun rack and admired them.

I kept an extra shotgun or two in the rack and two extra rifles, but one of the extra shotguns I kept racked up, was a double ten-bore with a custom made stock about an inch and a half longer than the usual.

Jackson Cooper, bless the man, favored a ten bore, and when I had this one custom made for him, he tried it on and grinned fit to light up sunrise itself and allowed as finally God Almighty growed him a proper gunstock on the gunstock tree, and I had another one made of the fanciest walnut I could find, and I give it to him -- it was the best grade of gun I could get my hands on, and the man handled that big ten-bore like a man handles a newborn, and finally he throwed it up to his shoulder and took a couple practice swings, and I allowed as that one was his personal gun, and he give me a long look and we set down and he finally started to talk.

Now getting Jackson Cooper to talk sometimes is like pushing a heavy loaded freight wagon on a stone floor.

A man can do it but you got to put considerable effort into the start of it, but once it starts you can keep it goin' with considerable less effort.

He opened the action and looked down the bores, he studied the dolls-head and the lever and the vining I had engraved around the britch end of the barls, he turned it over and looked at the ivy vine engraved into the trigger works tang running back toward the toe of the stock, he set the muzzles on his boot toe and took a long look at the butt and how there was a steel skeleton plate with the wood on the shoulder end all finished up and checkered, and I do not recall ever seein' that man so just plain happy since the day I stood with him when him and Emma Cooper joined hands and jumped the broom.

He nodded and looked at me and said "Thank you," and I grinned back at him, for it was evident I could not have tickled the man any more with a hundred dollars cash money and a hound dog pup.

"I have wanted something for a very long time," he added, and I give him a look to let him know I was listening closely, but I did not want to start talkin' for fear he would hush up -- he was like that, y'see, for all that he is a strong man and town Marshal and pretty damned good at what he did, if you started talkin' he would quit -- sure enough he added to it.

"I been wantin' to hunt birds," he said, "an' bring Emma home a brace of grouse." He grinned real gentle-like for the sayin' of it, then he looked at me and turned a little red in the ears. "I want to bring home more'n that," he admitted, "'cause two birds won't be that much meat, but that sounds just awful classy when you say it. A brace of grouse." He looked off into the distance and nodded.

"This time of year ... I can have Jacob put you wise to where they're coveyed up, if you like."

Jackson Cooper grinned. "I'm a step ahead of ye, Sheriff. Jacob and I were talkin' about that yesterday."

I nodded, set out two boxes of light shot and two boxes of heavy shot.

Jackson Cooper looked like a man who'd just been set down in front of a banquet by a generous host.

His mouth opened and I reckon he run out of his quotient of words for the day.

I rose, laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezed.

"I missed your birthday last year," I grinned. "Happy birthday, my friend!"

 

I blinked and come back to the here-and-now, standing in front of the gun rack there in the Sheriff's office.

I looked at that long stocked ten bore again and it felt kind of good remembering I'd done that for my old friend.

I kept this one here because time and again he's backed my play and when he can walk in and grab a workin' tool that fits his long tall frame, why, I'm a-gonna keep it here for him.

I must have been of a mood that morning, for I started to day-dream again, for I recalled the earlier conversation Jacob and I had.

Now I can make coffee, but that would be the same as me sayin' I can play a fiddle.

I can play a fiddle, but I play it very, very badly, and was I to put bow to string it might be truthfully said that I more torture the fiddle rather than play it.

Some men have magic of the gods in their hands: one can pick up a pocket knife and whittle out a flawless carving of a squirrel, lifelike enough it looks ready to run up the nearest tree. Other men can spin a lariat and it takes life and becomes a spinning cobra, precise and graceful. Me, I have absolutely none of that magic when it comes to fiddles or coffee pots either one.

I can make coffee, but it ain't fit to drink, matter of fact I rotted the bottom out of two good blue-granite coffee pots so far and I just plain give up on the idea.

The Silver Jewel is across the way kind of on the diagonal, Daisy makes a-way better coffee than me, so I don't even try anymore.

Jacob and I went over and set down and fired our boilers that fine and chilly morning with Daisy's good coffee and we got to talking, and I knew he had somethin' on his mind that brought a turn-up to the corners of his mouth and the look about him of a man just a-bustin' to tell someone a good one, and he did.

It seems he'd caught wind of two fellows out to get that Agent that raised such tall hell over in Denver.

Rather than brace the pair of 'em and lay 'em out in gunfire and in violence, he used another weapon.

He used deceit.

Now Brother William and I have talked long into the night, at times, we shared a camp fire out in the mountains one time -- he was a-comin' and I was a-goin', we met by accident but it was a good place to set up overnight, I had a coffee pot and he brought some tea so we didn't burn our bellies out from the inside -- he got to talkin' about the Catholic Pope, and one thing he said that night stuck with me, 'cause it might come in handy.

I'd spoke to Jacob of it later, that part that stuck, that part about it not bein' a sin to lie to an enemy.

I think he said that come from the Crusades or some-such.

Anyway we set there in the Jewel and Jacob told me about arrangin' with one of Daisy's girls to make all over him if he said somethin' to her like he was a-whisperin' it, and he allowed as he'd stood these two to a meal so he could relax 'em a bit and get 'em to listen to his swindle, and he told me how he marched them down to the school house just a-buildin' up this tale of thunder and violence and how this-here Agent they were after was smart and fast, sneaky as the Original Sin and twice as deadly, and he throwed open the door and said there stands Shotgun Sarah.

Jacob turned real red in the face and I thought his ears was a-gonna ketch fahr they turned so hot a color and he told me about what he said and what she said in return and finally he couldn't stand it no longer and he commenced to laugh and I leaned back and laughed with him for it was a good tale well told and it was honestly funny, the thought of Sarah all ruffled up like a Banty hen, comin' at him a-pokin' him in the chest with a stiff finger and a-lookin' over her spectacles at him with her knuckles on her belt and then especially her gettin' mad enough to start swingin' and him with his hand on her forehead, holdin' her back and laughin' at her, makin' her madder.

When we both quit laughin' we blowed our noses and wiped our eyes and looked at one another and got our wind back and I allowed as Jacob did the right thing and he did it well, the best battle you fight is the one you keep from happenin', and he'd sent back an infection with that pair -- a lie is an infection and it spreads -- and God willing that lie would keep Sarah safe for a long time to come.

We h'isted our heavy coffee mugs to the notion and drank to it.

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61. RIDE TO WAR

 

Sarah was beyond infuriated.

Sarah was as hot as a pot of melted lead.

She looked at the tracks, followed them across the meadow, her hands closing into fists, a terrible black fury enveloping her living soul like the tendrils of a strangler fig around a tropical tree.

Calm, calm, she thought, deep breath, breathe --

Sarah closed her eyes, took a deep breath, blew it out through pursed lips, opened her eyes.

She seized the black fury wrapping itself around her soul and ripped it free, threw it aside.

She had neither need nor desire for hot anger.

What she wanted, what she had, was cold, cold and hard as her eyes, hard as the diamonds blown out of a volcano's throat, pure as water running in a mountain stream, deadly as the honed edge of the blades in her dress sleeves.

Her Uncle Charlie had spoken with her the day before -- no, not spoken, exactly ... the man did not raise his voice, he did not use any profane or improper terms, but his quiet words seared her pride as much as if he'd laid a horsewhip to her back.

He spoke of her addressing a rancher with her blade under his chin, comparing the worth of a man's life with the worth of a horse's life; he told her, quietly, that she was beyond absolute, utter wrongness in that action, and she felt shame -- shame for allowing her want-to, to override her good sense.

The rancher hadn't made an issue of it, God alone knew why, and Sarah came away with what was supposed to be an untrainable horse, a horse with a mean reputation, a horse bigger than any seen in these parts before -- a horse she had no trouble a'tall with, a horse knee-trained and eager to please -- and now that horse, her Snowflake, was gone, stolen.

Sarah turned and ran across the barn lot, leaped at the board fence, slapped her palms hard on the top board, swung her legs to the side and vaulted easily over the top, landing on the balls of her feet -- her weight was too far forward and she felt herself overbalanced -- she tucked, somersaulted, came up on her feet, still running.

She was a third of the way up the stairs by the time the door swung shut; she set a world's record changing clothes, and when she came back downstairs, she was absolutely the antithesis of the Little Faceless One.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, Agent of the Court and daughter of privilege, was in a black shirt and vest, black britches and boots, a black gunbelt with a pair of birdshead Colt revolvers, a black Stetson, and her face and her eyes were all the more pale for the black that she wore.

Sarah's reasoning was beyond simple.

Horse theft was a hanging offense.

Vengeance might be the Lord's, but Sarah was a subcontractor, and she took this subcontract with a hard, emotionless heart.

The perfect killing machine saddled up an Appaloosa gelding and galloped across the frosty meadow, rifle in its scabbard, the handle of a double barrel horse pistol sticking up over one shoulder, the wire-wrapped handle of a short sword jutting above the other.

 

"Shurf?" a slender young man called, and the Sheriff rose: he slipped a bill under his plate, picked up Stetson and rifle, and advanced toward the ranch hand.

"Shurf, Pa said there's gypsies on our back forty."

The Sheriff swore.

He was familiar with the Romany tribes -- they were an ancient people who lived by their own lights, and he could respect that, but too often their lights included relieving folks of their property, and that often included horses, and that tended to cause misunderstandings.

"I will be right out," he said after a moment. "Take stock of your horses, batten down your house, put all the men you've got in saddle leather and make it evident your property is protected and even then expect to end up missing some stock."

The ranch hand's jaw set hard, his eyes narrowing.

The Sheriff stopped, laid a hard hand on the tall boy's shoulder.

"Tell your Pa I've got something that'll work." He turned, looked at Jacob, then turned and strode out of the Silver Jewel.

They walked briskly across the dirt street to the Sheriff's office: at the door, the Sheriff stopped, then addressed his son.

"Get ready for a young war," he said, "fetch Cannonball and your toughest horse."

"Yes, sir."

"Bring an extra. I'd say the grulla."

"Daciana?"

"Damn right."

 

Sarah stopped, looked across the arroyo toward Firelands.

Daciana, she thought, I wish you were here, I might need you!

Daciana was one of Sarah's dearest friends.

Until very recently, Daciana had been a circus acrobat, and she was in the habit of scandalizing the gossips by galloping down the main street, doing handstands on her trick saddle, atop her trick pony, Buttercup.

She was also an accomplished herbalist, and though there were whispers that she was a witch of some sort, she was recognized as a healer of surprising skill, so much so that the Navajo physician, Dr. George Flint, consulted with her on matters of herbalism.

It was a mutually beneficial effort, as she had herbs with which the Navajo was unfamiliar, and the black-eyed, square-shouldered physician had a native's knowledge of native healing and native plants.

Each learned from the other, and as each learned more about the other, each would tell tales of their people, and they talked long into the night, learning that they were far more alike than they were unlike.

Daciana was Romanian -- a Romany, of royal blood, her mother told her once, and she'd grown up in the circus, and she had a knowing way about her.

It came as no surprise to the Sheriff that she stepped out her front door in a brightly-embroidered dress, wearing a forest-green cloak with an ornate, triple-leaf cloak pin, carrying a cloth-covered, woven-reed basket.

"I knew you were coming," she said, her accented words at once intriguing and foreign. "Sarah needs us, ve must hurry."

 

Snowflake was not shod.

Frisians are normally barefoot; unless they are worked on rocky terrain, they are best left unshod, and Sarah never saw fit to shoe her beloved black mare.

Snowflake's tracks were not only big, they were distinctly different from the shod horse's -- a mare, by the way it urinated -- then she saw where they stopped and she saw how small the rider's tracks were.

A woman?

Possibly a small man --

She looked ahead.

There was a clearing, and just a trace of dissipated wood smoke.

Sarah's spirit expanded around her, detonating in a sphere, until she felt them, until she knew where they were.

She lowered her head, her eyes very pale, her lips peeled back, baring her teeth.

Her soul was cold and hard, her heart was faceted diamond, she was Death incarnate --

What the hell am I doing?

She gasped, sucked in a long, desperate breath, as if she'd just come up from a deep, cold mountain pool.

She looked around, eyes wide, frightened as she realized what she'd been ready to do.

I was going to go in and slaughter everyone there --

Sarah tasted copper, and she knew with no doubt whatsoever that she was capable of doing just that.

She had the ability.

She had the skill.

She had the resolve.

She had the tools.

Until a few heartbeats before she had the full intent of doing just that.

No.

She closed her eyes, took a long breath.

I will ride in and claim what is mine.

I will not kill unless there is no other choice, and I will not provoke the choice.

She knew she was not yet seen, and so she made one final preparation.

Perhaps it was a reminder to herself.

She drew a white silk veil from her pocket, lifted her broad brimmed Stetson.

She slipped the headband over her braided hair, replaced the hat.

Now, her features completely hidden, she patted the blowing Appaloosa's neck, dismounted.

Turning the gelding, she swatted its backside, sent it back along their back trail, and the spotty horse was only too happy to turn its nose back toward home.

Sarah turned and began walking.

 

"Whereabouts on your back forty?" the Sheriff asked, knowing the "back forty" was more like a hundred and forty at least: the rancher described where he'd seen the brightly-painted caravans, and the Sheriff nodded.

"Jacob?"

"I know the place."

"They might be moved on."

"Likely so, sir."

"Daciana?"

Daciana closed her eyes, took a long breath: stillness flowed off her like fog running downhill, and he and his ranch hands looked at each other uncomfortably.

Wild fire and blizzard snow, wolves and mountain cats, grizzly bear and outlaw, widowmaker branches falling off a standing dead tree and green-broke horses they understood and accepted, but a woman -- one of them-there foreign women, some kind of a witch, some folks said -- this was something these hard men were not comfortable with.

Daciana opened her eyes, lowered her head a little, looking at something a few miles on the other side of the ranch house's tight-chinked log wall.

"Sarah," she said, "is there."

She looked at the Sheriff, certainty in her eyes.

"I can smell blood."

 

Sarah walked into the middle of the encampment, curled her lip, whistled.

A man began to swear; there was the sharp pop of a rope snapping, a yell of pain, and Snowflake trotted up to Sarah, trailing a rope: they'd put a crude hackamore on her and she was not happy with it: she stopped in front of Sarah, lowered her head, pawed at the rope.

Sarah reached down, sliced through the offending cordage, pulled it free and threw it aside as if it were contaminated.

She stood, waited.

Men advanced, slowly, some with weapons, some without, but all with glittering-black eyes fixed on her.

Snowflake grunted, rubbed her head against Sarah, and Sarah caressed the huge black mare, touched her behind the foreleg: Snowflake dropped, belly-down, and Sarah swung a leg over.

About then a woman shouted -- something in a foreign tongue, something Sarah did not recognize, but the encircling men did.

Sarah looked at the woman and the long knife she held and Sarah dismounted.

Sarah slipped her hand under Snowflake's jaw, bringing the mare to her feet: Sarah stroked her gleaming neck, waited for the woman to get a little closer, a little closer.

A challenge, Sarah thought: she is pointing at me, at Snowflake, at her.

She wants to fight me for my horse.

Sarah smiled tightly behind her white veil.

She reached over her shoulder, gripped her blade's wire-wound handle.

A knife came spinning through the air, barely missing her hat-brim: her other hand swept up, down, and the horse pistol coughed deep in its Damascus throat as an ounce of Curtis & Harvey single-F caught fire and rammed an equal volume of heavy lead shot in a deadly, expanding cone.

She let the short howitzer's recoil whip her hand into the air, brought it down, pulled the back trigger.

 

The Sheriff and his chief deputy examined the appaloosa gelding, the saddle: there were no signs of blood, no bullet burns, just a horse heading steadily home.

Jacob pulled her rifle, sniffed the muzzle, wiped his little finger into the bore.
"Not fired," he muttered, thrust it back into its scabbard.

"Send him home."

They turned it loose with a swat across its backside and turned their horses' noses toward where they both knew a clearing lay.

Daciana walked her tough little horse ahead, pointed.

"It has begun," she said, and about then the deep boom, boom of Sarah's horse pistol told them the fat was in the fire.

Both men shucked their Winchesters, heeled their mounts and rode full-bore into what they expected to be a flat-out war.

They rode joyfully with war in their hearts, they rode with that singing unity that men feel when they are going into a bloody fight because one of their own needs them.

Daciana hissed her breath in between her teeth and heeled the grulla into a gallop, her cloak floating in the wind of her passing.

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62. HAIL TO THE QUEEN

Sarah dropped the empty horse pistol and turned to face the woman.

She wore the flowing silks and the silver-coin headband of the Gypsy, her eyes were black and bright, she moved with the grace of a knife fighter, the step of a dancer.

Snowflake moved behind her, there was the meaty crunch of a hoof hitting man-flesh, oaths in a strange language.

Sarah's attention was on the woman.

She walked casually toward her, the polished, curved blade of her short sword gleaming and thirsty.

"Who stole my horse?" Sarah challenged.

The woman spat. "My horse!"

"Horse theft is a hanging offense," Sarah said, her voice quiet, reasonable. "I don't have to kill all of you, but I will kill whoever I have to until I find the thief."

The woman's eyes flicked to the side -- it was the direction Sarah gave both barrels -- and she said "He should not have done that."

"You mean tried to knife me?" Sarah laughed. "He paid for his crime."

"And you will pay for yours!"

"I have committed no crime," Sarah said, stopping, weight on the balls of her feet.

Two horses streaked between brightly-painted gypsy caravans, skidded to a halt, and a black shadow arrowed between them: two pale-eyed men with rifles at the ready scanned the encircling, exotic-looking group.

"NOBODY MOVES!" the Sheriff shouted, his thumb heavy on the '73 rifle's hammer spur. "WEAPONS DOWN OR I PUT YOU DOWN!"

The Bear Killer shot under Snowflake, emerged between her and three men moving in on her, one with a lariat: at the size of a monster hound the size of a pony, mouth wide and baying an invitation to the Hellmouth, they stopped their advance, then backed slowly away.

The woman looked at The Bear Killer, then at Sarah: she raised her off hand and made a quick sign, the Sign of Warding, usually done to ward off the Evil Eye.

Daciana walked her horse into the circle, her mien that of the Queen herself: haughtily, coldly, she swept the gypsy encampment with her eyes, then slipped gracefully from the saddle: she walked over to the woman with the knife, stopped before her, regarding the woman with cold contempt.

Sarah saw something she hadn't expected in her knife-bearing opponent.

She saw fear in the woman's Romany eyes.

She knelt quickly, head bowed, murmured something Sarah didn't quite catch.

Daciana turned, glided over to Sarah, slipped behind her.

Daciana released her cloak's clasp, spun it about Sarah's shoulders, made fast the clasp, raised a hand, called loudly in the Romany language.

The Sheriff was wound up like an eight day clock and Jacob was tight as a fiddle string,

They relaxed a little as they saw every knee bend, every head bow, every blade's tip grounded.

Daciana turned to the woman, spoke sharply: trembling, she advanced, knelt.

If we were conversant in their language, we might have heard their exchange:

"I, your Queen, command your answer.

"I will answer, my Queen!

"You will give me those who stole the mount of the Princess."

"They are dead, O Queen, for she has killed them already."

"Was any other involved?"

"Only I, my Queen."

"Rise, thief, and behold your punishment."

Jacob and the Sheriff watched as the woman rose.

"What did she say, sir?" Jacob whispered.

"Damned if I know," the Sheriff admitted.

"The Princess is a Woman of such Power that she must veil her face.

"Let me show you why."

Daciana raised Sarah's white-silk veil.

The Gypsy woman swallowed hard, beheld the face behind the veil as the silk was lifted.

Hot-blooded Romany eyes looked into the ice-pale eyes of this creature of legend.

She could not have looked away if she had to.

She felt something cold drive in through her eyes, in through her eyes and into her brain and spread like Death's fingers down her neck and into her soul, and Daciana lowered the veil.

"Let me show you what you took," Daciana whispered, dipping her hand into the purse at her belt.

She walked around the far side of the immense black horse, stopping to caress The Bear Killer's huge head: withdrawing her hand from the purse, she looked at the gypsy woman, whose eyes were wide and fearful.

They were fearful because Daciana's hand dripped something blue and silvery, something that burned with a cold light.

Daciana smiled and reached up and smeared a living silvery-blue streak down Snowflake's flank, a streak that grew and flowed and filled out something unseen, and Daciana stepped back, her hand normal-looking now.

She raised her arms and shouted a single word.

Snowflake spread a pair of pure-white wings, wings twice as long as she: the big black Frisian walked into the middle of the circle, stroked her wings experimentally, danced a little.

Daciana whispered something to Sarah, who nodded: she walked up to Snowflake, touched her behind the foreleg and the Frisian knelt.

Sarah swung aboard, Daciana tossed her the horse pistol: Sarah reloaded the double gun, lifted the neck of the cloak and sheathed the stubby hand howitzer, then her curved fighting blade, nodded.

Sarah leaned forward a little and Snowflake trotted out of the circle.

Nobody moved.

They watched while they could, listening to hoofbeats recede in the distance.

Daciana turned to the gypsy woman.

"Behold, thief, the last thing you will ever see."

Horrified, the woman saw the Princess, her royal cloak streaming behind her, mounted on an impossibly huge horse, a horse with wings, climbing into the sky beyond, and the woman fell to her knees, screaming.

For the rest of her life, the woman would be blind.

 

Once they got back to Firelands, the Sheriff riding on Daciana's left, Jacob on her right, the two men held their counsel until they reached town.

"Daciana," the Sheriff finally asked, "what in the hell happened back there?"

Daciana smiled. "Sarah got her horse, she killed a man who threw a knife at her, and they will not be back."

In the years that followed, she never saw fit to tell the man otherwise, and he was wise enough not to press the matter.

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63. BUSINESS AS USUAL

It had been a week since the rancher reported his missing stock returned, and he brought in a tobacco poke with about two dozen pieces of colored glass -- broken chunks he found at his corral gate -- he gave this to the Sheriff, with his report that the gypsy caravan disappeared and hadn't been seen, his stock was back, he didn't know what Old Pale Eyes did, but he was grateful.

In the intervening week, Jacob fed his stock, loved his wife, taught his son important matters that boys need to know (so far that included whittling box elder whistles and pop guns, how to fish a mountain stream and how to whistle), he mended a couple fences and helped the Daine boys slaughter a couple hogs.

The Sheriff, for his part during that week, had no warrants to serve, no official complaints, no crimes to investigate; he and Jackson Cooper tore down the big Marshal's Remington revolvers, painstakingly examined the component parts, carefully oiled and reassembled and test-cycled them: neither man spoke of the lull in demand for their particular talents, nor did they jinx their good fortune by uttering the dread word "Quiet" ... a term they'd come to associate with a sudden onset of activity they really didn't want to occur.

Angela delighted in the week, for her Daddy spent more time at home, she got more of his attention, as did his green-eyed bride Esther.

Mr. Baxter served a steady stream of customers in the Silver Jewel, Daisy's girls were busy serving the restaurant trade, Tilly took care of the hotel clientele, WJ Garrison and his wife did a steady business in the Mercantile, and Digger looked mournfully out his funeral parlor window, waiting for his undertaker's wagon to be summoned.

For that week, at least, life was uneventful.

To quote the pale-eyed Sheriff, "Jackson Cooper, I've had excitement enough to last ten men their lifetimes. I've come to appreciate uneventful and boring. Matter of fact I like it reeeeeal well!"

Jackson Cooper nodded solemnly and quietly allowed as he did too.

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64. DRUMS

I saw myself as if I were standing outside my long tall carcass.

I stood a little ways from the bed, seeing as clearly in the night as I would in the day.

It was so natural that I did not question why I could see so well in the nighttime bedroom, just as I did not question why I stood at once beside the door, and looked at myself lying in bed with my wife cuddled up against me.

I could feel my soul twisting in pain, and then I heard it.

Drums, those damned drums, the drums that haunt my dreams, and then I saw them again.

Faces.

Pale faces, all of them looking at me.

Patient and understanding faces, not a one of them accusing or angry, but so many, so many ...

Every one I saw, I knew, and I'd called by name.

Faces of fine young men who answered the Union call and went off to that damned war, men who followed me and trusted me and they died under my command.

I saw my body twitch a little and I saw the sheen of sweat on my own forehead and I knew I was trying to scream and my throat was silent but I gathered myself and curled up with my fists balled and I tried to scream loud and hard as I could --

And my nighttime carcass, my body, lay in my own bed under my own roof and it didn't move, it just lay there asleep, breathing.

The drums were clear now, distinct, compelling, and I heard men marching again, I heard their brogans treading in unison, I felt my breathing quicken and I fell back into my body --

Esther's hand was light and gentle on my chest and my eyes snapped open and I took a sudden, deep, gasping breath.

My good right hand, unbidden, leaped from beside me and slapped down hard on top of Esther's, pressing her hand into my breast bone.

I lay rigid, shivering, breathing hard like I'd just run a race and I knew she was looking at me, I knew those gentle green eyes were seeing the reflection of what little light there was off the wet arc of my wide-open eyeballs, and gradually the shivering slowed and I calmed myself and I swallowed, then I took a long, shuddering breath, blew it out.

"It was only a dream," I whispered, then I threw back the covers and slid out from under her gentle hand.

I didn't bother thrusting bare feet into waiting moccasins.

I ran down the stairs with a desperate speed and twisted as I sprinted around the corners and slammed open the back door as I ran barefoot out the back and across the porch and I almost made it to the outhouse when I had to stop and bend over and heave up my guts.

I drew a bucket of water and took a drink and washed out my mouth and spit and coughed and drank again before I went into the kaibo.

I set there a good long while on that cold board, bent over, elbows on my knees and knots in my guts, and when I went back into the house I stood close to the kitchen stove for a time, shivering again and willing myself to thaw out before I crawled back into bed.

Drums, it was always those damned drums in the dark, the drums, and those faces of the men I led, the men who trusted me and they died in that damned War.

They died, and it was my fault.

I led them, I was their commanding officer, I was responsible and they were my men and it was my fault, my fault their wives were widows and their children were orphans and it was my fault --

 

Jacob Keller, the Sheriff's firstborn son, slept as well, holding hands as he'd done every night of his married life: he and Annette went to sleep holding hands and they woke up holding hands, and Jacob confided once that he wished for his wife and himself to live to a ripe old age, to know sons and grandsons and great-grandsons, and to die in the fullness of time sitting in a double rocking chair on their own front porch, still holding hands, and he wished to be buried in a double coffin with her, still holding hands.

Annette smiled a little as he admitted this, admitted in whispered words in the warm and quiet of their marital bed, and she whispered back, "I hope so too, Jacob. I hope so too," and they went to sleep holding hands as they always did.

Jacob Keller had known responsibility since a young age; he'd taken lives as had his father, but Jacob's first blood was when he drew his drunken father's pistol from its holster and introduced its muzzle to the sleeping man's left ear and pulled the trigger.

The man wasn't his sire, he was the man who married his mother, the man who horse whipped Jacob's mother to death and then whipped Jacob, scarring his back from neck to buttcrack, and Jacob waited until the man got good and drunk like he did when he whipped his Mama and him, and then Jacob cocked the hammer on a percussion revolver and sent the murdering son of perdition to the hell he'd richly earned.

Jacob, too, slept that night, slept with his beloved bride, but unlike his father, Jacob was not haunted by the faces of the dead.

Every man he'd killed, needed killin'.

He knew that, and he knew his conscience was clean.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna did not sleep that night.

Sarah slept earlier, but she was restless, as if something were yet undone.

She did not know what it was but she knew she was needed, somewhere, for something, and so she rose and she smiled in the darkness and then she drew the white nun's habit from her closet.

Near to sunrise, an immense black horse paced quietly through the little village hard up against the rock-and-adobe-walled Rabbitville monastery.

An immense dog, long of fur and big as a full grown pony, ghosted along beside this impossibly tall mare, and atop the mare, glowing in the chilly moonlight, a nun, her race veiled, bearing a silver-headed lance.

The nun looked like a little girl, riding on such an immense mount, and she rode like a living statue: she rode with but a saddle, with neither bridle nor bit to control the horse: this glowing, white, living statue was utterly motionless as the mare wove through the narrow dirt street and stopped in front of an undistinguished adobe hovel.

The horse knelt, the nun slid out of her polished black-leather saddle: there were watchers that night, black-eyed and tanned, marveling as they gazed through cracks in their doors, or through curtains drawn back from shuttered windows, peeping through the loopholes, and these watchers would later say that when she dismounted, the door to the hovel opened without a human hand touching it.

They would say the spear's head glowed a bluish-silver, and trailed liquid fire through the air as she carried it, before she spun it in a quick circle around her -- once, twice, thrice -- drawing a coldfire ring, a Sacred Circle, before she went inside.

She was within no more than a minute.

She emerged, swung a black-stockinged leg over her black horse's saddle, couched the spear like a knight's lance in a socket in the right stirrup: the immense black mare stood, the shaggy shadow beside it standing as well: silently, with no sound of hoof upon hard ground, they rode off, back to the heavy wooden valves of the Monastery's hardwood gate.

None within the Monastery noted her entry, none saw her go into the Sanctuary: those on vigil were startled as a figure in white came silently in, and genuflected before the Altar and the Host, and then slipped behind the tall, ornate altar: they heard a click, saw her emerge with what they knew to be the Lance of St. Mercurius -- but they could not move -- and not long after, she returned, and again saluted as she had before, and replaced their sacred relic.

They saw her disappear behind the High Altar, the Lance held upright as if drawing a pennant through the air: they heard the click as the hidden door closed, but she never came out from behind the Altar.

It took them an hour to screw up courage enough to go around and take a look.

It was not possible for her to leave without being seen, but she was ... gone.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna got home in time for an hour's rest before sunrise woke the rest of the household, and she rose as well, smiling and satisfied, as if she'd done a good thing when nobody was looking, and in an adobe hut a ways south of there, a little boy woke and swung out of bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning and standing as if his leg had never been impaled on the weathered-sharp end of a broke-off tree branch.

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65. EDUCATION

"Mr. Rousey."

The restless young man looked suspiciously at the pretty young schoolmarm in the mousy-grey dress.

"Yes, Miz Sarah."

"Mr. Rousey, stand up, please."

The Rousey boy stood slowly, perhaps because he'd come to associate such a request with a switch briskly applied to his backside.

"Mr. Rousey, I shall require your assistance," Miz Sarah said tartly, her pale-blue eyes bright behind her round-lenses schoolteacher spectacles.

"Ma'am?" he asked, turning his head slightly.

Miz Sarah walked briskly down the aisle, seized young Mr. Rousey by the wrist, pulled hard: he had no choice but to come with her, convinced all the more he was going to be bent over the teacher's desk and welted for some real or imagined offense.

"Mr. Rousey, we are going to build a house."

 

"Sir?"

I grunted, looked crossly at my son Jacob.

"Sir, you don't look so good."

I grunted again, rubbed my forehead: truth be told, I didn't feel my best, but that was just one more thing a man had to put up with, and I generally just put my head down and bulled through it, whether it was fever, aches or chills. I didn't get to feelin' poorly very often but I was kind of puny this mornin'.

I must have looked pretty bad for Jacob to speak up.

"Sir, why'nt you go stretch out," Jacob suggested. "I'll run things here."

Between a night filled with dead men's faces and feelin' as energetic as a wrung out dish rag, I considered it, then rejected it, at least until Jackson Cooper come up and took a look at me and rumbled, "Good God, Kels, you look like somethin' that crawled out of a coffin that shouldn't have!"

Jackson Cooper never, ever called me Kels unless he was surprised by somethin' and if I was that somethin' maybe it was time I quit bein' stubborn and listened.

I nodded, laid a grateful hand on Jacob's shoulder and squeezed, then I stood up and kept a-holt of Jacob's shoulder for a minute, least until the board walk there in front of the Sheriff's office quit its slow rotation.

 

Jacob and Jackson Cooper watched the Sheriff ride slowly away, grateful he was riding that shining red mare with the butter-soft gait.

"He's fevered, Jackson Cooper," Jacob said quietly, and the big town marshal heard the tension in the younger man's voice.

Jackson Cooper took off his mauled Stetson that had long since lost its original shape: he began twisting it in his big hands, and Jacob looked at the resultant felt sausage, and he looked down the street where his Pa had rid not a minute ago, and he had this awful feeling that the man wasn't feelin' good a'tall, because Jackson Cooper never got to worryin' his hat like that unless the man himself was right worried.

 

Miz Sarah sat young Mr. Rousey beside her, withdrew a brand-new notebook, four pencils, a small ruler: she handed Mr. Rousey the pencils.

"Sharpen these, please," she said quietly, "we shall need them."

Young Mr. Rousey, uncertain, red-eared from sitting in front of the schoolhouse beside the teacher, looked nervously at his fellow students, all of whom were pretending not to look at him.

Opening his worn Barlow, he carefully ringed the pencil near its end, then using this ring as a guide, carefully, precisely whittled the wood away, and into the can set behind her desk.

"I shall want your work to be clearly legible," Miz Sarah said, her voice businesslike, "for we shall be referring to your work often." She tapped the closed note book, a bound book about eight inches tall and four wide, or thereabouts. "Building a house takes planning, and we shall lay out the plans before we drive the first nail."

 

"Why'nt you follow Kels," Jackson Cooper rumbled, unwinding the twisted sausage in his hands and working it back into some semblance of a head cover.

Jacob stood, nodded. "Be a good idea."

 

Mr. Baxter polished a shot glass, examining it critically before replacing it with its fellows, neatly ranked and gleaming on their designated shelf.

A tidy man, Mr. Baxter ruled his bar with order and symmetry, a ready grin and a joke, and his good nature and good-fellowship were part of the Silver Jewel's excellent reputation.

He was also known to apply a bung starter to rowdy heads when necessary, and it was known that he kept a double gun under the bar; he also had a good looking girl in a good looking dress who helped out, and if a man can satisfy an appetite for something cold and wet while titillating his appetite for a pretty girl at the same time, why, that was good business, and Mr. Baxter was a businessman.

At the moment he was weighing out gold dust for a customer.

Unlike other barkeeps he'd known, Mr. Baxter did not handle the gold dust excessively, and when possible, not with his fingers: he kept a polished silver spoon for that purpose, as he was not going to be accused of running his hand through pomaded hair, handling the gold dust, then running his hands through his hair again to trap gold in the pomade: unscrupulous barkeeps did that, washing their hair behind the bar at the end of the work day, making a tidy profit from the gold they'd stolen.

Mr. Baxter had an honest reputation and he kept that reputation, and at the moment, as he had the owner upend the leather poke and tap out the last of the shining flecks onto the scales' pan, he added weights to the opposite pan with a set of tweezers until the swinging needle steadied and settled within a few notches of dead center.

Several sets of eyes added up the numbers stamped atop the weights; Mr. Baxter added the numbers aloud, looked around, stated his sum and asked if that was what they got as well: the heads nodded, murmured assent.

A quick calculation, the dust was worth a stated sum: again, the assent of multiple watchers.

Mr. Baxter carefully transferred the gold dust to his own poke, then he counted out good gold coin and change: trade was made and deed was given, hands shaken to seal the deal, and Mr. Baxter set the scales carefully back on their shelf, locked the poke in his strongbox under the bar, slapped both hands on the polished mahogany: "Now, boys, what'll it be?"

 

It took almost the last of my strength to tend Cannonball.

My hired man's face showed worry when he looked at me, but he didn't say a word.

I managed to make it to the front porch.

Those few steps up from ground to porch were some harder.

I recall Esther's worried green eyes and her hands firm on my arm and I heard my little girl's voice as if from very far away, "Daddy? What's wrong with Daddy?" and I recall Esther's hands pulling at my shirt and the world turned around slowly and her hand was on my shoulder and pushed and someone had my ankle and lifted and I got laid down in a pile of hay, a pile of sweet smelling hay, and that Kansas woman's voice said "Rest now," and I smelled Esther's lilac water and wondered what she was doing in Kansas and it wasn't that long since I rode out of the Ohio country on my big Sam-horse and then my head hit that pillow and that's when I quit rememberin'.

 

"Boards, Mr. Rousey. We shall want boards of several sizes."

"Won't we just cut 'em, Miz Sarah?"

"From what, Mr. Rousey? We have to know what size boards first. Corner posts, sill plates, siding, studs, trim -- it all has to be accounted for, Mr. Rousey, a house costs money and we have to plan for that. Now first, how big will the house be? Are you married, Mr. Rousey?"

Young Mr. Rousey, all of nine years old, laughed. "No, Miz Sarah."

"Stand up, Mr. Rousey."

Young Rousey stood.

Sarah examined the young man critically, looking him very frankly from crown to boot and back.

"Mr. Rousey," she said, "you are a well made young man, your father has the reputation of a hard working man and thrifty with a dollar. You are cut of the same cloth, and I believe you will be married to a fine young woman and you will very likely raise many fine, tall sons." Her eyes were bright and almost mischievous behind her round-lensed spectacles. "But I don't think that will happen quite yet."

"No, ma'am," he mumbled, his ears turning a remarkable shade of red.

"Please be seated, Mr. Rousey, let's start with what we know. You will want a house that can be expanded."

"Expanded?" he asked curiously, blinking.

"A house that is sufficient for husband and wife alone will be too small for a child, two children, several children. You'll want to lay it out such that you can build on more rooms, or perhaps allow for a larger kitchen. Which reminds me" -- she tapped her pencil meditatively against the tip of her nose -- "which kitchen stove will you want, and how much will it cost?"

Young Rousey's mouth opened, his brows furrowing with puzzlement.

"I think we can find out," Miz Sarah said quietly, her pale eyes sharing a secret with the young man. "On the shelf behind you is a new Sears & Sawbuck Catalog. Could you bring it here, please."

 

Mr. Baxter kept an unobtrusive eye on how the celebration was progressing.

These were young men, strong men, good men and true, marked by hard work, clean living, and laughter: they were also inexperienced, and the barkeep was satisfied from the volume they were imbibing, their experience in the morning would not be entirely pleasant.

In the meantime, as long as they were good natured, the drinks continued.

He looked over at Tom Landers, past Sheriff and a good friend, and nodded; Tom Landers, employed by the Silver Jewel as a peacekeeper, nodded gravely in return.

 

Miz Sarah worked only half the school day with young Mr. Rousey; she laid a gentle hand on his wrist and said quietly, "We have done good work together, and thank you for your help. I shall return you to your lessons, and we will continue tomorrow."

His quick grin told her she'd reached the young man, and she felt the satisfaction every teacher feels when she reaches a struggling student.

 

The fight in the Silver Jewel was like touching match to spilled powder.

It spread quickly, spectacularly; its hot focus was two fellows who, for reasons known only to themselves, decided it was of great importance to pound each other into the ground like a fence post.

Mr. Baxter and Tom Landers managed to get the yelling, punching bunch outside, and like pulling the core from a boil, when the main troublemakers were ejected, the mass flowed out with them, and the healing began, at least within the saloon.

Miz Sarah planned to ride out to the Rousey ranch and have a quick word with the lad's father, explaining what she was doing, when she looked up and saw one, then another of the students looking out the window.

Sarah drifted over to the window, looked: this was the signal for a general exodus from school-benches and lessons, and the windows were suddenly crowded with noses and splayed fingers pressed against wavy window-glass.

Sarah's eyes went pale and her lips pressed together: she turned quickly from the window, walked briskly to Emma Cooper's desk, snatched up the turned-brass handbell: she whirled, her eyes very pale, then raising her chin and holding the bell before her like a scepter, she walked purposefully to the school's double doors, her hard heels loud on the clean-scrubbed boards.

Emma Cooper rose, joining her students at the window as Sarah's heels descended the whitewashed schoolhouse's broad wooden steps.

 

"Angela, we mustn't disturb Daddy. He is not feeling well."

"Okay, Mommy."

Angela regarded Esther with big and solemn eyes, her ever-present and much-beloved rag doll locked in the bend of her left elbow.

Angela waited until her Mommy descended the broad stairs before reaching for the doorknob, turning it.

She slipped sideways through the opening, closed the door behind her, skipped on tiptoes across the room and around the room to her Mommy's side of the bed.

Angela climbed awkwardly up onto the bed, rolled over, giggling, and curled up beside her unmoving Daddy.

She cuddled up against his warmth, wiggling with pleasure as his big, hard-muscled arm struggled out from under the bedcovers and drew his little girl close up against him.

 

Jacob swore -- quietly, powerfully, bitterly -- as he saw the yelling, punching men cascade out of the Silver Jewel's double doors.

Jacob was looking down on the scene from the roof of Digger's funeral parlor.

He watched as Tom Landers threw the last of the pugilists from the Silver Jewel's doorway, pitching him into the crowd of men: there was a collision, an awkward display of arms and legs, which did not discourage the central conflict at all.

Given room to expand, the men drew back far enough that the general melee petered out, and they went from participants to spectators, circled about the central conflict, yelling encouragement, pounding one another on the back and loudly laying bets.

Jacob's eye caught movement to the left and he swore again, his jaw swinging free for a moment with astonishment.

Miz Sarah, the schoolmarm, one hand daintily h'isting up her skirts, the other holding that polished brass schoolbell before her like an insignia of office, marched purposefully into the crowd of men.

The crowd was fluid enough she penetrated the outer rings easily; the lightest touch of her bell and others drew aside, until the was alone in the clearing surrounding the two bleeding, punching men.

Sarah's eyes were as warm and welcoming as the heart of a mountain glacier as she drew back the heavy, turned-brass handbell and belted the nearest of the two across the back of the head: he fell like a head-shot beef, and the other looked up, surprised, just in time to catch the bell over his right ear.

Both men hit the ground and just laid there.

Miz Sarah, the schoolmarm, turned slowly, glaring, the bell held before her: it was a little crooked now, for the force of her blow bent the bolt that went through the wooden handle and screwed into the bell.

Miz Sarah did not say a single word.

She did not have to.

Men's eyes dropped, embarrassed: feet shuffled awkwardly, and finally she hoisted both her skirt and her nose with a "Hmpf!" and stomped back to the schoolhouse, the very image of a prim and offended schoolmarm.

Sarah marched back into the silent, staring schoolhouse, placed the bell precisely, carefully on the schoolmarm's desk: she quietly excused herself for the rest of the day, finding solace on the back of her beloved Snowflake-horse, with the huge canine bulk of The Bear Killer loping happily alongside.

 

The angel's wings were white and she settled down beside me graceful as any bird.

She had a silver star in the middle of her forehead and her hair was flaxen yellow, shining in the sun, her robe was blue gauzy something and the faces blew and scattered like dead leaves on a November wind.

I could not hear her voice with my ears; it was silent, not even the whisper of great white pinions beating the air as she landed, but her voice was a whisper, gentle, soft in my mind.

The faces will not return, the voice caressed my corroded soul.

You are long ago forgiven.

Now you will forgive yourself.

How can I? I asked, paralyzed, for I could feel my throat and it did not vibrate with the spoken word, yet I spoke, for I could hear my own voice.

I will give you a sign, the angel smiled: she reached down and her fingers were like the lightest brush of a bird's wing as she closed my eyes, and as she did, I felt something come up against my side, and I knew it was supposed to be there, and I reached out and drew it into me.

There was a swirl of air, as from the sudden stroke of broad, white wings, and then I was asleep.

 

Sarah slid out of the saddle, feeling that delicious tickle in her belly that came from falling through space: Mr. Rousey's hands were broad and strong and he caught her: her hands were on his shoulder and they both laughed, for they'd known one another for several years now.

Mrs. Rousey came out of the ranch house, rubbing her hands in her apron, a white streak of flour on her cheek. "Sarah!" she exclaimed happily. "I heard you were teaching!"

"I am!" Sarah declared, "and that's why I'm here!" Her eyes were bright and her voice almost excited; her smile was contagious, and the normally good-natured rancher and his charming wife felt a little relieved, for the schoolmarm didn't usually pay a visit unless there was some difficulty.

"Mr. Rousey," Sarah said, taking his arm and steering him toward his wife, "your son is probably going to speak of his lessons today."

The elder Rousey -- a tall, strong man who smelled of Indian tobacco and horse sweat, a man dirty from working and a little self-conscious that a pretty young schoolmarm laid claim to his arm -- looked at his wife, then down at Miz Sarah's tight walnut on top of her head.

She's such a little bitty thing, he thought, and when word reached him about Miz Sarah laying out the Philistines with a brazen jawbone, he would remember that stray thought -- but he listened as Sarah reached out and took his wife's hand, smiling.

"We've had ... difficulty ... getting your son to take his lessons seriously," Sarah began, "but I found out how to do it, and it's working!" She bounced a little on her toes, her enthusiasm contagious. "It's working and your son may speak of it, and I wanted you to know how I am doing it so you would not think I'd gone daft!"

"Won't you come in?" Mr. Rousey invited, and Sarah laughed, caressed the ranch wife's cheek with the back of her finger, drew it away white with flour.

"You're baking," she smiled, "and I'm interrupting, but here's what I've found." She looked up at the rancher, then reached out and slapped the front of the solid-built ranch house. "We're building a house."

Rousey laughed, puzzled. "You're what?"

Sarah folded her hands in front of her, looking brightly from one to the other. "Construction takes planning. Planning takes forethought. We're planning out the construction. Every board foot, every nail, every window. Where to quarry the foundation stones, how to freight it, how much does it cost per man hour, will we use a steam crane to hoist it from the quarry-- there's cost per machine hour -- or do we shape fieldstone, or bring one out of the side of the mountain. How many board feet total for the framing, how many floor joists and what size. How many nails, spaced how far apart. We will never saw the first board nor drive the first nail, Mr. Rousey, but your son is very much like you." She blinked, her expression serious. "Your son has no use for lessons unless he can see their value.

When I left, he was into the Sears Roebuck catalog and I was having him pick out a kitchen stove. This means he will want to read. He will add the costs and he will see the value of doing sums, and he will then want to do those sums, because there is a purpose to it."

She laid a gentle hand on his arm again, looking the man directly in his hazel eyes, and he saw a young woman fired with a purpose.

Her enthusiasm was contagious; he could not help but smile as Sarah added, "I think this is going to work!"

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66. CHILL BLAINS

 

I remember wakin' up and wonderin' how did I end up in my own bunk.

It was a puzzle, for not only was I underneath of my own bed linens, there was another woman in the room.

I blinked a couple times and started to move and felt somethin' ag'in my arm and I looked down.

Sarah laughed and I reckon she laughed both at the look on my face, and the fact that I was holding up Angela's rag doll.

I looked at that pale eyed girl and I looked at that rag doll and I brought my other arm out from under the covers and scratched my head.

"Esther," I said, "either you are some younger or you've got an awful lot smaller," and Sarah laughed gently, sounding much like her Mama, and I smiled a little too, for a woman's laugh is a good thing to hear.

"I think Angela might have left that," Sarah suggested.

"When was she in here?" I asked, then coughed, hawked, coughed again.

Sarah's hand was cool and firm on my forehead. "You're still fevered," she murmured. "Just relax. I made you some soup."

The door opened -- Esther came in, and the maid, and Angela skipping behind them, which brought a smile to my heart if not my face, for Angela generally didn't just walk, she skipped, hopped, frolicked, spun and laughed, not necessarily in that order.

"Sarah was kind enough to make you soup," Esther smiled, "and it does smell so very good. How are you feeling, dear?"

The maid orbited around the bed, twitching at the bedcovers with a disapproving expression and sure, strong hands: she glared at me as if cross that I dared rumple the bed she'd made up not long before, or maybe it was long before -- I'd lost track of time and honestly had no idea how long I'd been here.

I looked toward the window.

Near dusk, I thought. I got to get back and see how Jacob --

I started to set up and the bed commenced to spin underneath of me.

I froze hard, clutching the sheet underneath me, gripping the tick with the desperation of a man trying to stop the earth's rotation with the sheer force of his muscles.

"Lie still," Sarah said firmly. "You're fevered and you've no business trying to get up."

"Jacob," I gasped, then choked as Sarah dumped a big spoonful of something hot, salty and soupy down my yap.

I managed to swallow the most of it and coughed the rest of it up and swallowed that too.

"Now don't you dare waste that," Sarah scolded, and Angela shook her little Mommy-finger at me and said "Yeah, Daddy, don't you dare waste that!" and I couldn't help it, I laughed, and Sarah touched my bottom lip with the spoon and I quit laughing and opened up.

Esther and the maid withdrew -- knowing Esther, she would have had a patient, longsuffering look about her, but one of quiet amusement -- that woman is complicated and I been married to her a lot of years now and still don't have her figured out.

Sarah sat down on the edge of the bed as Angela rolled up onto Esther's side and rolled over into me, giggling.

She snatched her rag doll from my relaxed grip and stuffed it into the bend of my right elbow as Sarah dumped another big spoonful of what I finally figured out was some kind of chicken soup, only it had more spices in it than I recognized.

"Jacob --" I started to say, and Sarah took the opportunity to stuff a light roll between my teeth.

Angela giggled again and Sarah handed her a light roll too.

"Daddy, you look silly," Angela piped.

I didn't bite the roll Sarah shoved into my gob but I did bite it enough to hold it in place: I turned my head (the bed didn't sway too much) and looked at Sarah, then I crossed my eyes.

Angela laughed that delighted little-girl laugh of hers, rolling over on her back, and her giggling squeals escalated as I slowly raised my right eyebrow, then wiggled it two or three times, all with that light roll sticking out of my face.

Finally I bit off that light roll and chawed it up and swallowed it down, and Sarah primed me with another big spoonful of that spiced up chicken soup.

"Sarah," I said gentle as I could, "really, darlin', I can feed myself, y'know!"

"Shush," Sarah whispered -- I knew she was a-schoolmarmin' with Emma Cooper, and she'd learned fast the art of scolding in a whisper -- "shush now," and in went another spoonful, and with every wash of hot broth came chunks of cut-up meat and good garden vegetables.

I wondered where Sarah pulled those from, for it was past the middle of November and frost had long since killed off any garden truck.

I wondered, for I am a wondering man, comes natural bein' a law dawg I reckon, but I realized it didn't matter much.

Sarah cared enough to make it and if it tasted like roofin' tar I would have et it, just because she made it for me.

"Doctor Greenlees wanted to give you something truly vile," she said, stirring the bowl she held with a folded towel between the bowl and her cupping hand, "and Doctor Flint and I discussed your case" -- I looked at her and raised my left eyebrow just a little

-- "and we decided to try the herbs first and if they don't work, Dr. Greenlees will prescribe that awful stuff he peddles."

"Yeah, Daddy," Angela nodded solemnly. "It's awful stuff!"

I chewed up that first bite of light roll, swallowed.

"Jacob?"

"Fine as frog hair, Sheriff," Sarah said quietly.

Another bite of light roll and more soup.

"What day is it?"

"You've been abed just over a day."

"No wonder my back aches."

"Your back aches anyway."

"The Pope is Catholic," I growled, "what else is new?"

"He wears red socks," Sarah replied with a straight face.

"Yeah, Daddy," Angela nodded.

"You have chilblains, you're worn out, you've been pushing yourself too hard, you've been having nightmares."

"Why does that bring a beautiful young woman into my bedchamber?" I looked up at her, trying to sound and look stern.

I don't think I managed either.

Sarah smiled tolerantly.

"Because I asked first and your wife said yes, and because you're the only one of you we have, and because if you don't stop talking this soup will get cold. Now open up."

I did.

 

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67. SOUP, AND CONFESSION

 

Sarah managed to get nearly all that soup down me before I hit full.

She thriftily drank the rest of it herself and I felt guilty -- maybe I should have asked her to eat with me -- but there I go beatin' on myself for not bein' perfect.

Bad habit of mine.

Sarah set that Japan porcelain bowl on a folded towel on the side table, then she smacked my leg and said "Scoot over."

That time I did look stern.

She planted her thirteen year old knuckles on her thirteen year old belt and glared at me with those hundred year old eyes that looked just mine.

I sighed and scooted over.

Sarah sat heavily on the side of the bed and grabbed my hand and I reckon it was her turn to try and look stern.

"Stop punishing yourself," she whispered.

I looked at her, didn't nod, didn't change expression.

"Oh, stop it," she snapped. "You're just like I am, you know that? Do you know --"

She stopped, pressed her lips together.

"Let me guess," I said quietly. "You strip to the waist and flog your naked back with a cat-o-nine-tails."

"And you don't?"

I considered for a long moment before I replied.

"Might be I'd feel better if I did," I admitted.

"It doesn't help."

I looked hard at her and she looked ... she looked like a hurt little girl.

"Should I ask, Sarah?"

"No."

I figured it was time to change the subject.

"You made that chicken soup your own self."

"I did," she said, turning her hair to give her hair a swing and a flip behind her. "Killed the chicken, gutted it, dressed it, soaked it in salt water, cut it up and baked it myself."

"Baked?" I raised an eyebrow.

"Baked it. Then I cut it up fine and made soup and it came out rather well."

"You did something with the light rolls."

"I made sweet rolls. A little sugar."

I nodded. "I do like those."

I saw the pleasure in her eyes and she almost smiled.

"I could have had the maid do all the work," she said slowly, almost sadly. "I could ... sit back and be a spoiled rich girl." She looked at me -- she looked rebellious, she challenged me with that look -- "I could, you know."

"You never have."

"I've seen how fast things can ... fall apart." Her expression -- her whole expression, the way she carried her head, her shoulders, her hands -- everything drooped and she looked at the floor, looking absolutely, utterly lost.

"Why do I do it, Sheriff?" she whispered, and I looked hard at her face -- the profile was that of a beautiful child-woman, her skin flawless, healthy, a single gleaming crystal drop rolling down the curve of her cheek bone and falling to the floor.

"What is it you do?" I asked carefully.

She looked at me, her expression crumpling.

"Why do I keep living?" she whispered. "Why do I keep trying?"

"Same reason I do," I said, my voice harder than I wanted it. "I have to. My work's not done."

She nodded, squeezed her eyes shut, dabbed at them with a lacy kerchief.

"There's somethin' else," I said -- a statement, not a question.

She nodded, sniffed, threw her head back, took a fast, deep breath through her open mouth.

Sarah looked square at me and there was no challenge in her expression.

"If I have to keep living," she hesitated, "I need ... Sheriff, you're the only one I can ask this."

"Why me?"

"Look at yourself," she hissed, anger in her voice, her eyes suddenly, frighteningly pale, and in that moment I saw why men grew fearful when they saw the temper in my eyes. "Look at yourself! We have the same eyes, you have a snakish temper, your temper is mercurial and murderous! You've killed men fast and mercilessly and so do I!"

Her voice was a whispering hiss, her hands clutched into fists, her teeth bared; I saw her hands were shaking just a little, and I saw how close to the very rim edge of control she was riding.

It cost her greatly to speak those words, to lay bare her soul, and I knew I had to tread carefully.

She was trusting me.

She was trusting me.

I'd better not mess this up, I thought.

"I'm afraid of my temper," she finally said. "I ... my ... rage." She looked at me again, her expression somewhere between lost and a challenge.

I nodded, for I knew exactly what she was talking about.

"Sarah," I said slowly, "I still have to fight that dragon."

She turned her head slightly and I knew she was listening with more than her ears.

"A fellow tried to bush whack me -- there were two of 'em and you know the place, I pointed it out."

"Where you had a boulder for cover, near the tracks where the road bends."

"The same," I nodded. "The one fellow tried to shoot me and I went after him. I went up over that boulder like a lizard runs up a tree trunk and I swung that cavalry saber and drove his head right off his neck. One swing."

My right hand closed of its own accord and I shivered a little.

"Sarah, there's an angel rides one shoulder and whispers wise counsel, and there's a dark angel on the other shoulder that whispers all those things we hadn't ought to do, only it was makin' a peach crate speech." I grinned crookedly at the memory. "I grabbed that fella's head by the hair and I swung around, my bloodied saber in one hand and that head a-swingin' from its greasy hair and I danced me a jig in a circle, laughing like a damned maniac."

Her eyes were serious; she hung on my every word.

"Hell, I reckon I was a maniac. A sane and rational man don't go dancin' with an enemy's head in his grip.

"Then two weeks ago, I don't reckon I told you. Didn't tell nobody, Charlie is the only other one who knows -- a fellow come in the office and allowed as he was going to kill Jacob for lockin' up his boy.

"I didn't give him a chance."

My voice was low and hoarse and my eyes stared through the wall at the memory on the other side of the Divide.

"I took him by the throat and pinned him to the wall and I drove my knife into his gut. I drove him hard and high and up under his wish bone and I run that-there knife in like a sewin' machine and I meant for the tip to come out the top of his head I was a-drivin' it in so far and so hard."

I stopped, swallowed.

"Nobody tries to kill my boy," I whispered, then I looked sharply at her.

"And nobody tries to kill my little girl, neither."

I saw a hesitation in Sarah's eyes, as if she was considering she just might be the get of my loins, or else I was referring to the time she and Angela run across that holdup artist on the dodge out by the rim rock and he took a shot at them with a Sharps -- Sarah told me and Angela told me as well, it sounded like an angry bumblebee whistling between them, and Sarah fetched up that .32-20 rifle of hers and drove three into the man's chest just below where his neck bolts down to the collar bone.

I shivered.

"Sarah, I've always had a hell of a temper. One time when I was a boy, they was another boy from up town grabbed me and rubbed a hand full of catty-nine-tail fuzz in my face and I couldn't breathe. Once I twisted out of his grip I grabbed my cane pole and I broke it over my knee and I did my level best to run that sharp broke off end through his guts like a spear, only he out run me.

"I laid wait with a shotgun that night but he stayed away otherwise I would have sent him to hell for sure.

"He come up to me at church and apologized and said he was wrong, and he said it in front of witnesses and I come just awful close to drivin' his nose out the back of his head anyway but I stayed my fist and didn't punch him.

"He never did cross me ag'in."

"Can't imagine why," Sarah murmured innocently.

I considered before I spoke.

Sarah saw there was somethin' turnin' the gears behind my eyes and waited.

"Sarah, you worked cases in Denver."

She nodded.

"I've worked cases here, there and yonder and I'm a-workin' on one right now. I'd ought to be able to present my findings to the Judge in about a month."

"I see," she said hesitantly.

"You are involved."

Now she got to looking uncomfortable, but to her credit she never jumped up and started to pace.

"I hope to be able to report ... I will have you there when ... you'll both ..."
I shook my head.

"Oh, hell," I growled. "Sarah, you've done nothing wrong" -- I could see the relief wash off her like water off oilcloth -- "and I hope what I find is good news, or at least news you won't dislike."

"I ... see."

"Now I'll have to ask your pardon." I grinned again. "I reckon I got a day's worth of coffee that's tellin' me it's long over due."

Sarah's face flushed a furious pink and she blurted, "I'm so sorry --" then she snatched up the empty bowl and almost ran out of the room, just as Esther was coming in.

Esther looked after the retreating lass, then looked at me, trying not to laugh.

"How are you feeling, dear?" she asked, and I flipped back quilt and bedsheet and hunted for my fur lined moccasins.

"My back teeth are floatin'," I groaned, and I staggered as I stood, but stand I did.

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68. "TELL SOAPY"

 

Doctor George Flint, MD, regarded the Sheriff with expressionless black eyes.

The Sheriff was too busy making a face like a Moorish idol, squinting his eyes and sticking his tongue out like a little boy given a vile tasting medicine, which in fact is what the physician just did.

"Now this," Doctor Flint said, handing the Sheriff a tin cup of something steaming.

The Sheriff was barely able to open his squinted eyes to see and then accept the cup; still making a terrible face, he took a tentative sip, then -- realizing if it was turpentine or coal oil either one it would taste better than whatever that stuff was Doc just gave him -- he drank.

To his credit he drank it all down, then he looked at the physician in his immaculately-tailored suit and said, "That was just ... water?"

"Warm water," the doctor confirmed, nodding once. "It helps the herbs work."

Docgtor Flint knew he didn't have to mix the potion so it tasted all that bad, but he also knew that, in the patient's mind, the worse it tasted, the better it worked.

He formulated the posset so in the Sheriff's mind it would cure earthquakes, thunderstorms and buffalo stampedes.

The Sheriff handed the tin cup back. "Now what?"

"Now you sit in your easy chair and hold your little girl," Doctor Flint said. "She is worried about you."

"Hmp."

The Sheriff's grunt was not quite skeptical.

He'd seen the square-shouldered Navajo work some pretty good cures, and besides, whatever herbal he'd been given tasted truly awful, so it had to be potent, right?

 

Jacob casually picked his teeth with a slender, very sharp blade he normally kept in his boot top.

His pale eyes missed little as he leaned against the porch post in front of the Sheriff's office, looking around, sleepy in the midmorning sun, sleepy as a cat in a windowsill that could go from dead still to launching claws and teeth at a venturing mouse in a tenth of a second or less.

One of the hangers-on from the Jewel -- Jacob knew the man, he'd been around as long as the deputy and probably longer -- slouched companionably against the other side of the porch post.

Neither spoke, though both had been there several minutes.

Jacob reached down, sheathed his slender, silver toothpick, straightened, leaned again.

Finally the hanger-on spoke.

"Yer Pa off gallivantin'?" he asked quietly.

Jacob smiled inwardly, remembering right after he'd met his Pa and not knowing the pale eyed Sheriff was his sire, amazed as the lean lawman seized the hanger-on by the shirt front and hauled him off the ground and held him there for a minute or so.

It gets a man's attention when you hoist his feet off the ground, and the Sheriff got this fellow's attention and no doubt about it.

Jacob considered his reply.

"Pa, offf gallivantin'?" he smiled. "Nah. Drinkin' and chasin' women. He don't gallivant none, he just goes and raises hell in one spot."

"Drinkin' and chasin' women," the hanger-on chuckled. "That'll be the day!"

"He ain't really," Jacob continued. "He's havin' a big poker tournament. Last I heard he won all of Californy and half of Mexico and he's workin' on two or three foreign countries."

The hanger-on laughed.

"You ain't gonna say, are ye?" he asked.

Jacob made no reply.

"You tell ol' Soapy t' be keerful," the man finally said, and sauntered back across the street toward the Silver Jewel.

Jacob watched his casual pace, then looked around, slow, planned, the way he always did.

I'll tell him, he thought.

I'll tell him.

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69. TO HELL

 

It was just shy of one week before anyone saw Sarah again.

Her Mama knew something but she wasn't tellin', not even me.

Emma Cooper was worried, her students were concerned, Jacob was three kinds of unhappy and I ... I reckon I haven't been keen on the notion either, but Bonnie told us she would turn up and she was on assignment.

I think that might have been part revenge, telling us Sarah was on assignment.

Bonnie wasn't none too happy a'tall that we'd recruited Sarah as an Agent of the Court, and now she turned the tables on us.

I reckon that was only fair.

I didn't know Sarah was back yet when Jacob and I stood behind the Sheriff's office discussing the matter.

I'd built a little stable behind the jail section, big enough for one horse, if I wanted Cannonball close by I didn't want her hitched to the rail all day with nothin' to eat or drink and out in the sun, so I built her a tight little stall out back, and Jacob and I got into the habit off discussing matters out back.

Reckon I wanted to keep an eye out for cowans and eavesdroppers and the like.

Jacob asked, "Sir?" the way he always did and I replied "Yes, Jacob?" the way I always did, and Jacob asked, "Sir, do you recall how Sarah jumped out of the firehouse's hose tower to test out their new life net?" and I nodded and said "I recall."

"Sir," Jacob hazarded, "what is makin' Sarah take these chances?"

I knew exactly what was causing it.

I looked up at Jacob, looked at those quiet, light-blue eyes that could go as hard and cold as my own in a heartbeat or less, and I said "Jacob, do you recall the feelin' a man gets in his guts when he squares off with a fella who genuinely needs beat, and you know in your heart of hearts you are gonna beat him into the ground?"

Jacob nodded slowly, his eyes veiling themselves so as not to give anything away.

"I recall, sir."

"Do you recall how it feels to top off a good horse on a frosty mornin', when it's a draw whether you're going to top him off or you're gonna reach up and just tickle the under side of the crescent moon?"

Jacob laughed at that one. "Yes, sir, I do recall."

I smiled a little too, for many's the time I found out there are horses that don't want to be rode, and times when even your good horse don't want to be troubled, and more times than one I could've reached up and grabbed holt of the south horn of the crescent moon and hung there one-handed after gettin' bucked off a saddle bronc.

"I reckon," I said, "she feels alive at times like that."

"You're right," Sarah declared, and I about come out of my hide, and Jacob -- Jacob has nerves of lead, he just don't startle a'tall, and he jumped too -- Sarah looked from one to the other of us with that knowing smile of hers.

"That's exactly right," she continued. "The only time I really feel alive is when I'm skating with the Reaper on rotten ice, knowing it's about to collapse under me, but pushing for another second, another yard, another stroke of my skates." She folded her hands in her skirt and managed to look anything but innocent.

"I jumped out of that hose tower because that's how it feels. For a moment, for one glorious moment, my fate is in my own hands and I am falling through space, and then wham! Into the life net and all I have is the memory." She blinked, her voice softer, her eyes gentle with remembering.

"When I dove off that cliff into the mountain pool, I knew I could dive too deep and break my neck and likely drown. I knew that and I dove anyway. I rappelled down a lariat and got that Blaze boy off a rock ledge and it felt the same, we could have gone over the edge and better than a thousand foot later I'm afraid we would have found out that Terra Firma is quite a bit too firma for our taste!" Her eyes smiled at the joke, and Jacob's did too, so I reckon mine must've as well.

Sarah tilted her head and gave me a warm look of interest. "I rather think you are the same," she said frankly. "After surviving that damned War, after surviving all you have ... everyday life must be pretty tame."

It was my turn to veil my eyes.

"I've come to appreciate quiet and boring," I said, my voice carefully neutral. "I've come to like it reeeeal well, matter of fact."

"I'm trying to," Sarah said frankly. "Brother William is helping. He's arranged my stay at the Rabbitville monastery. So far I'm afraid all I've done has been to scare the Brethren." Her smile was impish, the smile of a mischievous little girl. "When I went from dead still to full gallop and drove in between two of the Brethren, when I ran into the carpenter shop and came out with a hatchet and a crosscut saw, when I grabbed men well bigger than me and shoved them into position and had them prop up branch and boy until I could get the branch cut off ..."

Her voice trailed off and I saw the haunted look in her eyes as she relived the moment.

Jacob didn't know that's what was happening: "I would've paid admission to've seen that," he murmured, his jaw snapping shut when he saw my hard glare and my quick, abbreviated shake of the head.

"I felt alive," she whispered, her expression changing ... she sounded lost, and she looked lost. "I felt alive."

She looked at me, looked sadly at me, blinked a few times.

"Is that all there is?" she whispered. "Is that it? To feel alive for a moment and then ... nothing?"

I shook my head, took a long breath.

"No, Sarah." I studied the rocks at my feet, trying to come up with something that wouldn't sound absolutely stupid.

"I come back from that damned War ... I lost everything I had. My wife and my little girl, dead. I became a lawman. I felt dead inside and sometimes I still do."

"You?" Jacob and Sarah said with one voice, surprise on both their faces.

I nodded.

"I pray to God Almighty neither of you ever see war, nor anything close to it. I never ... God help me, I never felt whole until my life hung in Death's balance."

"What changed?" Jacob asked quietly.

I felt my smile, it was a little crooked, the way it always is.

"Esther," I said firmly, nodding a little. "Esther. She ... is the reason."

Jacob and Sarah looked at one another and I saw Jacob blink, and his eyes changed and I figure he was thinking of himself and his wife, and their little boy.

We were quiet for some time after, least until The Lady Esther blew her echoing whistle all over the mountainside as she came to the whistle post outside of town.

"I'd wondered where you got off to," I finally said. "Your Mama said you were on assignment."

Sarah laughed -- a good easy laugh it was, too, the laugh of a relieved girl who bent over a little and put her hands on her knees while her cheeks got red.

"On assignment?" she asked, and laughed again, and finally shook her head, cupped her hands over nose and mouth, laughed again and shook her head.

"No. No, I was not ... assigned." She frowned a little. "Actually ... yes I was ... just not by His Honor the Judge."

Jacob and I looked at one another, then back to a suddenly-serious Sarah.

"I crawled into a hole in a cliff that's not there anymore, I go stuck in a tunnel and wiggled myself loose, I fell about ten feet onto a sandbar and looked around.

"I could almost see ... the light was not quite red.

"I ..." Her voice petered out and her eyes grew distant as she looked again at where she'd been.

"I went to hell," she said faintly, "to find the other half of my soul."

My eyebrow climbed halfway to my scalp.

Jacob took it better than I did.

"Did you find it?"

Sarah looked at him with eyes that seemed red for a moment, then just as quickly were their normal light blue.

"I did," she said firmly. "I most certainly did, and I brought it home with me."

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