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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

The Sheriff's Grandson

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70. PUPPET MISTRESS

 

The Sheriff had seen many things in his lifetime.

He'd died -- twice -- he knew what it was to lay on his back, on the ceiling, looking down at his long tall skinny carcass a-bleedin' on the floor and think "That poor fellow needs a good square meal," and only then realize ... that's his long tall skinny carcass, a-bleedin' on the floor.

The Sheriff, in his time, saw at least one ghost, the shade of a fine man, grandfather of his best friend back East: it was a momentary sighting, the old man was sitting on the deacon's bench ag'inst the old home place, and the Sheriff thought, "Now that's nice, Granddad stayed up to make sure they got home" -- then as his best friend and his mother walked up the hand laid flag stones to the two story farmhouse's back door, the Sheriff did a double-take --

Wait a minute, we buried him a week ago today! -- and he was gone.

Now, listening to Sarah's quietly but firmly stated words, that she'd crawled like a worm through a mountain's rocky bowels, she'd dropped into Hell and brought back the other half of her soul, he considered that she was either lying, or delusional, that she'd been into any of a number of illicit compounds available through the common market, or maybe ... just maybe, she was telling the truth.

He decided to pursue an earlier path.

"Sarah," he said, "you feel alive when you take risks."

Sarah shifted her mental gears easily, switching the train of her thoughts onto the track the Sheriff was indicating.

"Yes," she admitted, a little shyly now. "Yes, I do."

"I understand you make a fine dance-hall girl."

Jacob looked at Sarah, his eyes big, surprise plain on his face.

Sarah laughed at his expression. "If I do say so myself," she laughed, "yes I do! And I'm a pretty good dancer!"

"I know you dance well," Jacob admitted, "but ... a dance hall girl?"

Sarah gave him a wicked, smoldering look. "Why, Jacob, if I didn't know better I'd think you'd like to see me in a short skirt and stockings!"

Jacob planted his knuckles on his gunbelt, elbows stuck out like skinny wings.

"Yes," he challenged. "Matter of fact I would!"

Sarah grabbed her skirts with both hands, tossed them back and forth, kicking to the limits of the material: "Would you like to see the can-can? I wear sparkly red drawers!" -- she dropped the shirts, put her left hand on her hip and raised the other skyward, rolling her wrist in an altogether feminine manner -- "or maybe a high-kick" -- her leg flashed for a moment, visible then gone, scandalous in and of itself -- "or is it just the idea of a pretty young girl wearing not much at all, displaying herself on stage like so much meat for sale?"

Sarah laughed, swinging her hips as she walked up to the young lawman: she caressed his cheek with a fingertip, her eyes burning into his. "Aren't you happy with the wife of thy youth?" she whispered, running her tongue across her bottom lip.

Shocked, Jacob backed up a step, his face pale. "No -- I mean yes -- I mean --"

"Jacob," the Sheriff said quietly, "we see here the ability of the female to manipulate the male." He looked at Sarah, understanding in his eyes. "In this moment she's feeling that thrill we just talked about. She's also teaching you something I want you to remember." The Sheriff's hand rested on his son's shoulder and he gave a gentle squeeze. "She just played your feelings like a puppet. Remember that. Remember that she can do that, and remember that she's not the only woman who can."

"Yes, sir," Jacob said faintly, regarding the lovely young Sarah McKenna with apple cheeks and pale eyes as if she were a three-eyed freak that somehow frightened him just by her appearance.

"Mother wants me to model her dresses again," Sarah said wickedly. "I shall be in corsets and face paint again, and I shall look like someone else entirely as I model for the House of McKenna. Why don't you come to Denver, there's a little place I know of where you can have a beer and ogle the painted ladies on stage."

Sarah turned quickly, ran down the alley toward the main street, her laughter floating behind her.

Sheriff and son looked after the pretty young schoolmarm in the McKenna gown, looked for several long moments, and finally Jacob spoke.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, do you recall saying you might have to turn her over your knee and swat her bottom?"

"I recall."

Jacob turned and regarded his father, his face very serious.

"Sir, I think it's too late."

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71. FREIGHT TRAIN FROM NOWHERE

Jacob's eyes worked the crowd as he slouched against the bar.

Like his Pa, he wore a suit to Denver: he looked good -- his wife saw to that -- she'd brushed both suit and hat, knowing he was going to the City, he'd blacked his boots and buffed them to a high shine, his trousers showed no sign of a crease.

In short, he looked sharp, he looked confident, and at the moment, he looked dangerous.

Slouched backward against the bar, one boot up on the brass rail, an elbow leaning on the burnished mahogany and a beer in his off hand: he saw gamblers and slickers, card sharpers trying to cheat one another out of their eye teeth, so clumsy at their trade he was surprised the bouncer didn't toss them out for gross incompetence if nothing else.

The Sheriff stood beside him, his posture almost identical, and beside him, Levi, in townie shoes and a Derby hat, looking at the Sheriff and wondering why he suddenly felt shabby beside the lean waisted lawman with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache.

There was a whistle, several voices raised in happy salute, a piano fanfare: the boy scampered out from beside the stage, running along in front of the curtain with the board in his sweaty, pink-fingered grip, and he heaved it up on the waiting tripod at the opposite end of the stage.

Jacob read the sign, and his stomach shrank a little at the words:

"The CAN-CAN!"

The boy disappeared behind the tripod and seized the endless white ropes that ran over pulleys and across the stage; hauling briskly, hand-over-hand, he chuckled the curtains apart, revealing four dancing girls in half-masks and feathered headpieces, wearing their excessively-voluminous skirts: a violin accompanied the piano for the number, and the ladies pranced forward on the stage, their red dancing shoes, garters and drawers sparkling as they kicked, tossed their skirts back and forth in time with the music, turned and displayed their uncovered backsides momentarily to the whistling, yelling, cheering crowd.

Jacob swallowed hard, his throat suddenly tight.

He looked at the beer in his grip, turned and set it on the bar.

Of a sudden he didn't have any appetite a'tall.

He glanced over at his father.

The Sheriff's eyes were very pale and his jaw was set, and Jacob caught the slight movement of the man's hand closing into a fist, and he knew the fat was about to hit the fire.

Father and son moved as one, shoving hard through the crowd, Levi flowing behind them in the wake of their passage: a hard-muscled bouncer made a grab for the Sheriff and Jacob kicked him hard in the gut, the Sheriff drove an elbow down into the back of the man's descending head: father and son each decked another who tried to block their passage and they swarmed up a handy chair and onto the stage.

The Sheriff's hand shot out like a striking viper and seized the shortest dancer's upper arm: she pulled, with the net effect of a roped field mouse trying to pull away from a plow horse -- and the Sheriff shoved the piano player off the bench, stomped his boot up onto the abandoned seat, turned the shreiking young lady over his knee and pulled her skirt up, drew his hand back and drove the flat of his callused hand on her upturned bottom.

Pandemonium and laughter: Jacob stood, a two-fisted stalwart, knocking men back down off the stage as they tried to come to the girl's rescue, Levi holding back, looking a little to the side and shouting something, but in the general uproar, his voice went unheard.

The Sheriff drew his arm back for the third smack when something that resembled the north end of the southbound freight caught him over the cheekbone.

Hard arms shoved him back, grabbed the girl: the lean lawman rolled backwards off the piano bench and laid there, watching in astonishment as a coarsely-dressed fellow seized the screeching girl's red glitter mask and feathered headdress and stripped them off her, then he threw her over his own knee and took up where the Sheriff was obliged to leave off.

The Sheriff staggered a little, bent down and snatched up his hat.

Jacob stood ready, waiting for the next challenger to charge the stage; he glanced over his shoulder just as the Sheriff shouted, "I thought she was my daughter!"

"Ya, not your daughter," the farmer shouted back, pausing in his application of the punishing palm to the dancer's derriere. "Mine daughter!"

Someone pulled hard on the Sheriff's coat sleeve and he staggered back, his head still ringing -- good Lord, that man can hit! he thought -- and Sarah shouted in his ear, "LET'S GET OUT OF HERE!"

Sarah, Jacob, a slightly unsteady Sheriff, and the Chief Detective made good their escape out the back door just as the constabulary came boiling into the front door, applying turned-hickory nightsticks and police-whistles in equal amounts

 

Later, in a hotel room, Bonnie McKenna frowned as she pressed the raw beef steak to the Sheriff's swollen and discolored cheek bone.

Sarah sat beside her, makeup scrubbed off, her fine McKenna gown changed for her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress, doing her very best to look as innocent as she possibly could.

"Sheriff," Bonnie said softly, her voice somewhere between pleased and sad, "did you really think that was Sarah on that stage?"

The Sheriff glared in reply.

"Oh, don't give me that look," Bonnie snapped. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"Yeah," the Sheriff grunted. "My pride."

"I should hope so!" Bonnie sniffed. "My Sarah? A dancing girl? The very idea!" She looked over at Sarah, who looked back, eyes wide and guileless.

"Now you should keep that on for at least --" Bonnie began, but the man's pale-eyed stare stopped her from finishing her sentence.

"Be that way then," she snapped, standing abruptly. "Men! Did you even apologize to that poor girl you humiliated? The very idea! In public no less --"

She looked over at Levi.

"I suppose you didn't have a thing to do with this," she challenged.

"Not one damn thing," the Sheriff snarled, rising. "This was my idea and he didn't even know about it, so don't blame him. This is all mine."

Bonnie whirled on the lawman, shoved her face into his, her violet eyes blazing.

Violet eyes stared into ice-pale eyes, and finally Bonnie laid a gentle hand on the Sheriff's knuckles, the hand he was using to hold the beefsteak to his bruised cheekbone.

"Thank you," she whispered, then she turned, stepped over to Levi and took the man's arm.

"I believe we have an appointment for dinner," she said formally, then in a mother's voice that brooked no argument, "Come along, Sarah."

"Yes, Mama," Sarah said, sounding very much like an obedient little schoolgirl.

Sarah hung back as Bonnie swept out the door.

Leaning toward Jacob, she whispered so only he could hear.

"I was in the first act," and then she was gone.

The Sheriff saw but didn't hear; he watched as Jacob's jaw dropped and his eyes went big and round, and he pointed across his belly at the open door, and then he closed his mouth and blinked and shook his head.

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72. WOMEN!

The Sheriff settled his Stetson carefully on his head, then took it back off, lowered his hand and looked at the raw meat he was holding.

Jacob paced over to the window, raised it, stood back.

The Sheriff leaned back and heaved the offending beefsteak out the open portal.

Jacob watched it whirl and flip over a few times before it hit the street -- as luck would have it, a foot from a stray dog.

Jacob smiled a little as the dog startled, then sniffed, snatched up the bounty and disappeared down an alley.

Something good came of it, he thought as he pulled the casement down.

He turned as the Sheriff set the water pitcher down, waited until his father finished washing his face.

The Sheriff wasn't saying a thing.

This was generally not a good sign.

He saw his son looking at him and he saw his son's concerned expression and he grinned -- carefully, for it hurt to work the wounded side of his face -- and admitted, "That fellow can hit!"

"Yes, sir," Jacob admitted carefully.

"Now that I've made an ass of myself," the Sheriff muttered, "we're invited to Bonnie's fashion show."

"Yes, sir."

"I'd ruther take a beatin' than go sit with a bunch of feather merchants."

"Yes, sir."

The Sheriff stopped, reached for his Stetson again, considered.

He looked at Jacob and his son could see amusement in his father's expression.

"Come to think of it, Jacob," he nodded, "I already had my beatin'."

"Yes, sir."

 

Bonnie and Sarah were chattering happily behind the stage, laughing as mother and daughter often did when out of the public eye.

"You didn't!" Bonnie whispered, delight in her expression and one hand to her throat.

"I did!" Sarah laughed. "I danced the first act. We wore the half-masks and I looked right at Levi, and he looked like he was enjoying the show!"

Bonnie smiled "I've wanted to dance like that," she admitted, blushing.

"You could," Sarah said, tilting her head and regarding her mother frankly. "You have the figure for it."

"I do not!" Bonnie's blush was a furious red now, and she dropped her eyes, but Sarah could see the woman was pleased to hear it.

"All those men," Sarah said quietly, laying her hand gently on her Mama's arm, "all of them looking at you like a side of beef. You might not like that part."

Sarah saw a shadow cross her mother's face and she knew Bonnie was remembering what it was like to be meat on a slab, sold for men's pleasure.

"Manipulating them -- safe on the stage, out of their reach, making them respond and you are in control" -- Sarah giggled -- "Mama, that is so much fun!"

"Until someone comes on stage and spanks you!" Bonnie reminded.

Sarah laughed, delight in her expression: "Why do you think I was behind the curtains waiting? Mama, the Sheriff is predictable, and when I saw he and Jacob start for the stage I knew what he was going to do!" Sarah's eyes were shining, her breath coming a little more quickly. "I knew he was coming up on stage and I knew he was probably going to take his hand to a girl's bottom. Only" -- Sarah giggled again -- "I didn't expect that big Swede to knock him down and take over!"

"The only time in the history of man anyone ever slugged the Sheriff and lived to tell the tale!" Bonnie tittered, covering nose and mouth with lace-gloved hands: she had to control her breathing, for the audience was assembling, the buyers of fashion apparel, wholesalers and retailers who preferred to get their latest fashions from the House of McKenna, a week before the fashion houses in Frisco received them from clipper ships or express trains.

The maid stepped closer, cleared her throat. "We've your dresses ready, Miss Sarah," she said in her Irish lilt, and Sarah rose, smiling.

"Showtime!"

 

Jacob and the Sheriff sat in the back row.

The auditorium was not large; Bonnie's voice carried well, her narrative concise as she explained that current fashions were for every woman, which meant their sales would increase: the Sheriff read approval in the audience's reactions, and he recognized most present as business folk, and the business of business is profit.

More women meant more sales, which meant more profit, which meant they listened all the more closely to the attractive, violet-eyed matron on the small stage ahead of them.

"Even a mousy little schoolmarm" -- Sarah turned slowly, arms out, wrists bent delicately upward, displaying her severe attire at her Mama's words -- "can be made more attractive in a McKenna gown."

Sarah stepped behind a screen; it was not physically possible for her to change dresses as quickly as she did, which was part of the show: Bonnie enjoyed taking advantage of her daughter's skill as a quick-change artist, and two experienced dressers helping her were instrumental in the magic -- Sarah stepped out from behind the screen as her hat was just settling on her head, the image of a young woman of society, in the very latest Paris fashion.

Bonnie narrated, Sarah turned, preened, paraded, smiled, slipped back behind the screen and did it again: about halfway through the show, she stepped out in a scandalously-short, red-satin dance-hall-girl's outfit, glittered ribbons at her stocking-tops and glitter-red shoes sparkling in the calcium glare of genuine lime lights arranged in front of the stage.

Sarah shot a smoldering look at the men in the audience, pirouetted, did a quick little dance step and a high-kick, spun back behind the screen as Bonnie addressed the needs of other customers who may need custom-made attire for (here she hesitated and smiled knowingly) "special purposes."

There was polite laughter, and not a man there but didn't appreciate the sight of a pretty girl in an abbreviated costume.

Bonnie did not know the Sheriff was in the back row, and it didn't matter; she was a businesswoman, and the business of business is profit, and if dance halls had a demand for dresses, the House of McKenna would be ready to meet that customer demand, and the vendors in her audience made their plans to pitch this new idea to the potential customer base.

 

The Sheriff and Jacob excused themselves, leaving Levi, Sarah and Bonnie to their dinner: the two lawmen stepped out of the hotel, glad to be in the open air again, and looking forward to getting back to Firelands, away from this close press of humanity.

A big fellow with an auburn beard stopped across the street from them, his hand like a vise around a young woman's wrist: she was modestly dressed, the hood thrown up on her cloak: he dragged her across the street like the tail of a kite, heading straight for the Sheriff.

Jacob took a step to the side, his coat unbuttoned; the Sheriff's coat was already unbuttoned, and both men made a final pale-eyed sweep to the side.

"I t'ank you help find mit mine dotter," the coarsely-dressed farmer blurted without preamble. "Ve go home now."

He still held the young woman by the wrist, but he let his arm raise as she brought her trapped arm up and laid her off hand on his soil-creased knuckles.

"We will be going home now," she said quietly. "I ran away to see the city."

"What do you think of the city?" Jacob asked.

She made a face. "It's too exciting." She patted the old farmer's knuckles. "Papa needs me at home. I'll be safe there." She looked up at the big Swede, leaned her head against his muscle-bulged shoulder.

The Sheriff extended his hand and the farmer took it, each man measuring the other's grip.

"You findt your dotter?" the farmer asked, grinning.

The Sheriff nodded. "I did."

"Goot." He looked down at his own child, blond-haired and lovely, and the pair turned away and walked up the street.

Jacob looked at his father, his gut tightening at the change in the older lawman's expression.

"Sir?" he asked, an edge to his voice: unconsciously, his hand opened, spread over his belt, ready to sweep under his coat and grip the ivory-handled Colt waiting in its smooth black holster.

"We have to go," the Sheriff said, his voice tight, and he looked at his son.

"Jacob, I just had an awful feeling. Something ..."

He shook his head. "When does the train leave for Firelands?"

Jacob checked his watch. "A half hour."

"Station is five minutes away."

Jacob looked at the hand-painted miniature inside the hunter cover of his pocket watch. It was quite a good likeness of his Annette, his wife.

"Yes, sir," he replied, thrusting the watch back into his vest pocket.

Father and son paced off on the left, their step regular and measured, each man hard-reining the impulse to lean forward and break into a full-on sprint.

The Sheriff's belly was winding itself into knots and a thousand voices in his head began their chant --

Something Awful, Something Awful, Something Awful!

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73. A SINGLE RED ROSE

 

Jacob knew from his father's silence, from the man's absolute stillness, that something was very wrong.

Jacob felt it as well, but not to the same degree -- maybe, he thought, he was just responding to his father -- the longer he thought about it, the more he felt that had to be the case.

The Sheriff's hat brim was low and his eyes were very pale, he sat very straight, looking like a man who could cheerfully bite he horn off an anvil and spit tenpenny nails.

The Sheriff waited until they were approaching the mountain hump, just before the final down grade into Firelands before speaking.

"Jacob."

"Yes, sir?"

"Jacob, I am going to saddle Cannonball. I want you saddled and ready."

"Yes, sir."

"We're going to slow down and when we hit the flat I'm going to jump Cannonball out."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll head for home. You go on into the depot and check with Lightning first off, unless Jackson Cooper is waiting for you on the platform."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll catch up with you if home is all right. You catch up with me if nothing is going on."

"Yes, sir."

"Come around the way we talked about. If there's something going on they'll be watching the road."

"Yes, sir."

The Sheriff stood, his movements tight, controlled, and Jacob rose with him: the two lawmen moved silently to the back of the car, stepped out onto the platform, made a little jump onto the stock car, opened the man door on the end and swung in.

It smelled of horse manure and hay, of leather and horse sweat and grain and molasses.

The Sheriff walked over to Cannonball, went to her head and rubbed her nose.

The golden-copper mare turned her head to look at the man, muttering something only he could understand, and Jacob knew her hot Mexican blood was more than ready to carry the man into battle.

She would have made a hell of a cavalry horse, he thought, coaxing his Apple-horse with slivers of molasses twist tobacker.

"You bum," he murmured, rubbing Apple's ears, "you bribe as well as any politician."

Jacob picked up his saddle blanket, paused to watch his father saddle the mare: the man's moves were precise, economical, the moves of a man tightly controlling his feelings.

Jacob almost mirrored his father's movements, right down to fetching his rifle out of its scabbard and dropping the lever just far enough to reveal cartridge brass in the chamber.

Jacob made sure the rifle was on half cock, slid it back into the carved leather scabbard, watched as his father broke open the double gun, considered the brass hulls looking out of the chambers at him, and closed the gun.

The Sheriff hung the shotgun off his saddle horn, draped a bandoleer of brass shotshells over the horn as well, then he turned and hauled open the side door.

The train was about as slow as it was going to go, not much faster than a man walking; the Sheriff mounted wordlessly, turned Cannonball, and together they leaped easily from the moving train onto the grassy flat.

Jacob raised a hand in salute, his father did the same, then the Sheriff allowed his feelings, and his horse, their head.

 

The Irishman laughed and turned from the mirror.

"Now I'd not be believin' of it," he said, "had I not seen it meself!"

"I knew you were in there," Bonnie smiled, "we just had to find you!"

Twenty-four hours later he'd been wearing a suit out at the knees, frayed at the elbows, he'd been unshaven, he smelled bad and his stomach was ready to swear that his throat had been cut three days before: the only bright spot in his entire universe was his double-strung mandolin, and he sat on an upturned nail keg, having nothing better to do and no funds to do anythin' with, and he began playing his Granda's favorite, the Gypsy Rover.

Two women coming down the walk -- fine ladies they were, the kind that draw their skirts away and hoist their noses in the air -- stopped, regarding him with bright, lovely eyes -- mother and daughter, most likely, for they looked at one another, and it was the same look each gave the other, and they smiled together, and it was the same smile, and then they began to sing, two fine ladies with fine voices in flawless harmony, and this hungry, ragged Irishman, so very far from his green island and without a friend or a franc to his name, relaxed just a little, relaxed the way a man will when his soul flows into the instrument he plays, and it sang for the joy he'd found again in his wandering heart.

Twenty-four hours earlier the ladies reached down and took him by the arms, twenty-four hours earlier they escorted him into a hotel and gave instructions for a bath and for a room, and they'd both given him a very frank appraisal before looking at one another and nodding, once.

The Irishman accepted their kindness: in his younger days he might've pridefully refused this unexpected and unasked charity, but misfortune and hunger conspired to beat the pride out of him, and so he submitted patiently to a clean shirt and smallclothes, to clean trousers and then -- after he was at least partially clothed, though he blushed an amazing shade of red as the ladies plied him with measuring tapes and quiet-voiced comments -- he was given a tray piled well high with the food a hungry man dreams of.

He sat and ate, amazed even more, and not until his belly was filled and his hide was clean, not until he wore clean drawers and a clean shirt for the first time in a very long time, not until the knock came on his door and they came back in with a fine suit and shoes and God be praised, clean socks! -- not until then did he wonder what the pair of them might want from him.

 

The Sheriff ho'd quietly and Cannonball ho'd, blowing like she always did after a run, kneeing her gently into some brush.

He studied his fine log home, hard and pale eyes examining shadow and line, fence and laundry, chickens and the hired man dollying a wheelbarrow of stall scrapin's around the barn.

It looked normal.

The Sheriff's knuckles were white as he gripped his Winchester.

His guts told him there was tragedy in the wind and he'd learned long ago to listen to his gut.

It had taken him time enough to get to his overwatch position, that he knew Jacob would be at the depot.

Good old Jacob, he thought, I trained him well.

He'll head for me or I'll go to him, but we'll find out what's wrong --

The front door banged open and Angela ran out the front door, ran so hard she cleared the steps, landed wrong and tumbled: the Sheriff's eyes widened and his nostrils flared as he watched to see who, or what, was pursuing his little girl.

War sang in his veins and death nodded its approval as the pale eyed lawman prepared to launch Cannonball into a flat-out gallop, to propel him into whatever hornet's nest had visited itself upon his family, his home --

The Bear Killer charged out the front door, trailing soap suds and water, gathered himself and soared off the porch and over Angela and landed, still running, and the Sheriff saw Angela rise up and he could see her laughter, though he couldn't hear it, and he saw the huge mountain dog gallop in a big circle around her, romping and very obviously playing.

The Sheriff took a long, steadying breath, his mind busy.

We look okay here.

I'll head down and be sure.

There's plenty that can go wrong -- Esther should be coming home just any time --

The maid came out on the porch, a dripping string mop in one hand, shaking an admonishing finger at The Bear Killer, who was still occupied with orbiting the laughing Angela.

The Sheriff's knees tightened a little and Cannonball leaned into an easy trot.

There didn't appear to be any need for haste.

 

"I've never had a proper suit before," FitzHugh murmured, turning and admiring himself in the mirror.

The hotel sent up a barber; he was shaved, he was trimmed, he was once again the handsome young man he'd been when he left the Old Sod.

The two women, mother and daughter, had carefully tailored the suit they'd made him, made from bolts of cloth they spun off fairy looms -- surely they didn't sew these of mere textiles! -- and he turned to look at these two who'd made all this happen.

"To what do I owe this great good fortune?" he asked, and the ladies smiled to hear his words, for he still spoke with his native accent.

Sarah nodded to the double-strung mandolin.

"When you played, and we sang," she said.

"That's ... all? Just that?"

Bonnie nodded. "Yes. Just that."

She picked up a Derby hat and handed it to him. "Now you're presentable. Now you can ... you can present yourself."

"Present myself," he said thoughtfully.

"You might try the gold mining community of Cripple Creek," Sarah said, sounding very much like a schoolteacher: "there are men with money in their pockets, and a successful miner or a man on payday is often generous."

"If you'd gone there looking as ragamuffin as the meanest miner," Bonnie smiled, "nobody would give you the time of day, but if you present yourself as a Master of the Mandolin, or however you wish to call yourself ... a man in a suit is respected more than a rascal in rags."

He nodded.

"I thank ye, ladies," he said softly. "It's been ... fortune has not been kind to this son of the sod."

" 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord,' " Sarah said softly. "We are ... subcontractors. Consider this our revenge against the slings and arrows of outrageous fate."

Sarah turned and looked at her mother and Bonnie's stomach shrank as she saw Sarah's face change.

"Sarah?" Bonnie said, and the Irishman heard her voice change.

"Something awful just happened," Sarah whispered, her face suddenly pale. "Mama, we must get home!"

Sarah looked at the Irishman with wide and frightened eyes, and FitzHugh felt his bones chill as he saw how pale the pretty young woman's eyes suddenly were.

"Mama, we have to get home five minutes ago!"

 

Jacob rode Apple down the stock ramp.

He rode out of the stock car with his rifle across the saddle, his eyes hard beneath his hat brim.

He looked around, listening, smelling, expecting gunfire, mayhem, explosions, screams, panic --

Nothing.

He rode Apple around the depot building, looking, listening, then swung out of the saddle and up the few steps to the telegrapher's office.

He knocked at the door, swung it open; Lightning turned in his swivel chair, a half eaten apple in one hand.

"I'd offer ye a bite," he smiled, "but this is too good to share!"

"Is all well, Lightning?" Jacob asked.

Lightning nodded, swallowed. "Right as rain an' twice as dry. Miz Ellen is with child, Sam Spears got stepped on when he tried stealin' some cows. Why? Are we expectin' a fight?"

Jacob shook his head.

"Just wanted to make sure, thank'ee kindly."

Lightning nodded, took another noisy bite of apple, and Jacob turned, scratching his head.

Nothing here.

I'll head out to Pa's place.

God willing, it's nothing!

Somehow, though, he just could not dare to believe it was ... nothing.

 

Esther smiled at the reflection in the mirror.

She settled her little hat at a jaunty angle, skewered it in place with a hatpin the length of a dagger-blade, then she lay a gentle hand on her belly.

Not yet, she thought, not yet ... but her name will be Dana, and she will have blue eyes.

Esther closed her Irish-green eyes, and dimly, distantly, she could hear a baby's faint cry, and she smiled again, the way a woman will when the knowing is upon her, and she turned away from the mirror.

it is well that she did, for the reflection in the mirror was not that of her retreating backside.

The reflection was that of a coffin, with a single red rose atop the closed lid.

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74. NOTHING FOUND

 

"Nothing?"

"No, sir. Nothing."

The Sheriff considered his son's report.

"Did you see Jackson Cooper?"

"No, sir."

Jacob had not seen his father this upset in quite a long time: another might think the man was merely quiet, or simply considering information he'd kept to himself, but Jacob could read the subtle signs: the pale eyes, the half-lidded, haunted expression ...

 

Sarah and her mother Bonnie were two cars from the Sheriff and his son on the train ride back to Firelands.

Bonnie sighed as she watched her daughter pace the length of the private car, turn; she paced back, the length again, turned: Bonnie sat, silent, her hands folded in her lap, for several minutes.

"Sarah," she said gently, "I do wish you would sit down."

Sarah stopped, glared at her mother, then closed her eyes: she stood, fists clenched at her sides, took a long breath, blew it out, hard.

"Mother," she snapped, "I do not know what is going on, and I am so very sorry, but if I do not pace, I shall explode!"

Bonnie gave her daughter a patient, understanding look.

"Wouldn't that make a terrible mess?" she asked, her voice as gentle as her expression, and Sarah's eyes opened -- wide, with surprise -- then Bonnie saw laughter flow into her daughter's expression, and finally Sarah surrendered herself to quiet laughter.

She turned, swept her skirt with one hand, sat, laughed again.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "I ...," and her voice trailed off as she shook her head.

"I know, dear. Believe me ... I know."

They felt the air hit the cylinders under their feet, they felt the cars shiver as the slack banged out of the brand-new safety couplers, and The Lady Esther whistled triumph as she came in sight of the station.

Sarah was out of the private car before it stopped, her skirts jerked up out of the way: she hit the ground running, swore loudly as she saw Jacob ride down the stock ramp: she whistled, waved her arm, but he was intent on getting somewhere, and all Sarah could do was stomp one foot, fist her hands stiff-armed beside her and snarl, "OOOOOH!"

She ran between the stopping train and the edge of the depot, jumped one foot up on the stock ramp, slipped: she dove off the other side, desperately trying to control her fall: she tucked, rolled, came up on her feet, stepped on her hem and went sprawling face-first in the snowy dirt.

Bonnie descended from the private car, taking the hand of the uniformed porter as she did: she lifted her skirts, walked with a dignified gait toward the stock ramp, which was being dismounted and stowed: she serenely crossed the intervening space, looked down at her daughter.

Sarah rolled over.

Her entire front was snowy and most of it was dirty; she looked like ... well, she looked like she'd just gone facefirst into the snowy dirt.

"My," Bonnie said innocently, her violet eyes big and round: "I am surprised the snow isn't boiling off you!"

If Sarah could have reached her, she'd have kicked her mother right in the shin.

 

Esther regarded her husband with a concerned expression.

"My dear," she murmured, "is all well?"

"My question exactly." Linn looked around, as prickly as a porcupine after a gallon of Arbuckles. "The children, accounted for?"

"Of course, my dear," Esther replied, puzzled.

Linn turned, took his wife's face between his hands, kissed her quickly, impulsively, then seized her in a crushing grip, kissed her again.

He laid his cheek against her cheek bone, shivered a little as he sighed out a long-held breath.

"Something's wrong," he whispered. "I don't know what, but something ..."

He held her at arm's length.

"I thought ... I thought it was you."

Esther smiled quietly, patiently, the way a wife will when her husband has obviously misunderstood something a woman could understand without difficulty.

The Sheriff's head snapped up and he pulled his wife away from the window.

"Hoofbeats," he whispered, his eyes going pale.

"It's only Sarah," Esther said, and the Sheriff's ears told him she was right: Sarah's Snowflake-horse was not just a big horse, Snowflake was nothing short of huge, and she had a unique, slower cadence than the other mounts common to the county.

He heard the quick tattoo of feet up the front steps, across the porch, into the parlor.

"Sheriff!" Sarah called. "Sheriff!"

"Here," he called, and Sarah charged down the hall, rifle held across her, eyes pale: the Sheriff opened an arm, turned toward her, and she lowered her rifle's muzzle and ran into him, running her free arm around him.

Esther, too, reached around the shivering girl, blinking quietly as Sarah blurted, "Are you okay? Are you okay?

I was so scared --"

"I was, too, Sarah," the Sheriff murmured, his voice deep and reassuring, and more feet ran down the hallway toward them, small feet pattering rapidly, happily, and Angela ran into the room, seized Sarah from behind, chattering happily:

"Sawwah! Da Bear Killer jumped outta da baffie and made an awful mess an' he ran around outside an' he got his pitty paws all dirty an' we gotta give him anudder baffie an' we're outtada hot watter --"

Pale-eyed Sarah looked up at the pale-eyed Sheriff, and they both looked at Esther, and the three of them laughed.

Angela let go of Sarah and backed up a couple steps, planting her tiny knuckles on her non-existent hips and shoving her bottom lip out in a size-ten pout.

"I don't think it's funny!" she declared, shaking her little finger at them, then she turned with a "Hmph!" and stomped off down the hall.

The adults laughed all the harder.

 

"Thank you, sir, "Jacob said politely, "but I have to find out whatever is going on."

Jackson Cooper, puzzled, scratched his thatch and pondered the young deputy's upset.

"Have a set," he said, "let's think about this."

Jacob was as agreeable to set down as a cat would be to stay in the middle of a coyote convention, but he did anyway, and Emma Cooper set a plate down in front of him: "Pork loin tonight, Jacob," she smiled, "please tell me what you think of the recipe!"

Jacob could see he wasn't going to get anything out of the big Marshal unless he accepted the man's hospitality.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said quietly as she poured hot, steaming Arbuckles into his heavy ceramic mug.

 

"I know it was real, Mama," Sarah said, staring at the secrets swimming in the bottom of her teacup.

"There had to be something, sweets," Bonnie agreed, "but I am so sorry that I don't know what it could possibly be!"

"I felt death, Mama," Sarah whispered, her eyes pale and frightened as she looked up at her mother. "I felt death."

Bonnie shivered, closed her eyes, willed herself to calm.

Her grandmother was a Healer, a woman with the Second Sight, and she heard the same note in her daughter's voice as she'd heard in her grandmother's when the knowing was upon her.

 

Jacob hunched over his coffee mug, elbows heavy on his father's kitchen table.

"I don't know, sir," he said faintly, staring sightlessly into the ebony depths of his coffee mug. "I talked to Shorty and Mr. Baxter, I talked to Digger and WJ Garrisson, Beatrice said the bank was just fine and absolutely nobody knew straight up from go-to-hell."

The Sheriff nodded, staring at the middle of the empty table.

"I know it was something," he whispered.

Esther glided into the room, gripping Jacob's shoulders, squeezing. "You have your father's shoulders," she laughed.

"Thank you, ma'am," Jacob grinned, leaning back and laying his right hand over his mother's left.

Esther looked at her husband. "It's late, dear. We should let Jacob get home."

The Sheriff nodded, frowned.

"Jacob, I'm afraid I've run us both a-chasin' the wild goose."

"No, sir," Jacob said firmly. "There was somethin' to it."

Father and son rose, walked slowly toward the front door, Esther watching as they paced slowly from the kitchen.

"They won't happen for a few years," she whispered. "Not for a few years."

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75. THE FLYING ANVIL

 

Young Mr. Rousey chewed on his tongue as he frowned at the column of figures.

His skills with numbers were not the best, but he was improving, and Miz Sarah kept working with him, encouraging him, checking his sums and laying an understanding hand on the middle of his back when she bent over him to look at his work.

The Rousey boy liked Miz Sarah.

She was how his Ma was, patient and kindly when he wasn't just as quick as he'd like to be, and she smelled good.

She'd gone over his work that morning and set down beside him, she drew the pencil gently from his uncertain grip, and she pulled off her schoolmarm spectacles and parked them a-top her head the way she did when she wanted to make a point.

"Mr. Rousey," she said in that quiet voice of hers -- she never called him Ronald, she always called him Mr. Rousey, which made him feel kind of important, his Pa was Mister Rousey and if his Grampa lived, why, he'd be Mr. Rousey as well, and that, he felt, was a mark of maturity -- "Mr. Rousey, I am seeing a steady improvement in your skills."

She turned back a page in the note book they were using to build -- or at least make every detailed plan for building -- a house, and she turned the pencil in her fingers and ran a neatly-trimmed nail down a ruler-scribed column.

"Here -- last month -- you were working on adding up the cost of timber."

She tapped a group of numbers.

"Take a look at how these characters are formed, how they are arranged."

"Yes, ma'am," he said a little uncertainly.

She turned back to the page he was working on this morning.

"Now take a look at these figures."

Her finger traveled down a stack of numbers: they were considerably better -- both in the quality of the letterforms, but in their arrangement.

The numbers didn't wobble as if to fall clattering to the bottom of the page; they were neatly placed one atop the other in a vertical row, and could be added without confusing them with the adjacent column.

"This is the kind of work I am looking for," Miz Sarah said in that quiet voice of hers, and she looked at the restless nine-year-old with those sparkling, light-blue eyes of hers, and she gave him a quiet smile, a secret smile, a smile she held just for him, and she whispered, "This is the kind of work I am looking for!"

Somehow -- somehow, when she whispered those same words instead of speaking them -- well, that she whispered so only he could hear ... why, his nine year old heart pounded in his chest and he would've tore into a grizzly barehand if she'd asked him to!

 

Sean Finnegan, the barrel chested, blacksmith shouldered, red-headed Irish fire chief, blinked in surprise and then peered closely at the colorful character of the Sheriff's cheek bone.

"Jaysus, Mary an' Joseph," he breathed, "did ye try yer hand at blacksmithin' wi' yer face instead o' th' hammer?"

The Sheriff grinned crookedly -- that part of his face was stiff now -- he laid a hand on his old friend's shoulder and laughed quietly.

"Sean, let me buy you a beer."

"Aye," Sean grinned, for this meant the Sheriff was going to spin him a tale, and generally he'd spin a whopper, an' well enough he could persuade a man to believe the sky was green and steam locomotives fired wi' rock candy an' the like.

They each accepted a beer from Mr. Baxter and slouched sociably against the heavy mahogany bar-top.

The Sheriff took a noisy slurp, his eyes wandering out over the Jewel's morning crowd.

"I made a mistake," he said without preamble, swiping at the foam clinging to his iron-grey mustache.

Sean leaned back against the bar, looked at the lean lawman, frowning.

The Sheriff looked over at the red-shirted Irish chieftain, and the Chief made no secret of studying the lawman's colorful cheekbone.

"An' wha' mistake would tha' be?" he asked, sampling the beer and finding it to his liking.

The Sheriff looked out across the room and smiled quietly, then looked back at the fire chief.

"I was too slow," he said, "and I didn't act on what I knew."

The chief's reply was mild and did not reflect the surprise the Irishman felt: he knew the Sheriff as swift and decisive, and to hear the man admit otherwise was surprising, and to a degree ... distressing.

"Sean, walk with me."

The men took a long drink, then set their mugs down and paced back the long hallway toward the kitchen and the back door.

They stopped most of the way to the door, the Sheriff leaning back against the wall, grimacing; Sean held the wall up with his shoulder.

"Sean," the Sheriff said softly, "I was not just a fool, I was a damned fool, and no two ways about it!"

Sean nodded, patted the Sheriff's shoulder companionably. "Ah, ye're in good company then," he murmured, and the Sheriff gave him a wry grin.

"First off, Sean, I knew some months ago -- I found out, ruther -- I found out I'd sired a daughter an' didn't know it."

Sean's eyes crinkled with approval, his broad Irish-red expression splitting into a broad grin, for it was a fine thing when a man sired young, and even better when he found family after an absence.

The Sheriff took a long breath, shoved out his bottom jaw, frowned, then looked at the big Irishman.

"I should have laid claim to her on that moment."

"Why didn't ye?"

"She was bein' raised by a good family, she has a good mother, I didn't want t' tear her family apart. Wouldn't be right."

"Aye," Sean nodded his understanding. "Tha' wuid make sense."

"I should have," the Sheriff whispered, staring through the wall. "But I didn't."

"Who is th' lass?"

"Sarah."

Sean nodded. "Aye," he said slowly, "tha' wuid explain it."

The Sheriff looked at his old friend, a raised eyebrow asking as clearly as his voice could have.

"Her eyes," Sean chuckled. "Her temper. She's fearless, man, I've seen th' same thing in you --"

"Yeah, but I wouldn't jump out that hose tower," the Sheriff muttered.

"Ah, now there, y'see, she's still young, an' th' young think they'll live f'rever."

The Sheriff grunted.

"I'd figured she was related," Sean said lightly. "Those eyes are rare. Tha' alone, but when ye consider --"

Daisy swung out of her kitchen, a pan of steaming rolls in one hand, a buttered sweet roll in the other: as the Sheriff opened his mouth to make reply, she thrust the sweet roll into the gap between his teeth, stuffed another in her husband's mouth, then stepped back, one hand on her hip, the other holding up that flat steel pan with golden-domed rolls peeking over the edge.

"I knew it right along," she declared. "Ye act like it's somethin' new. Hmph! Men! Saw it right away!" She stepped up to the Sheriff, who was happily chewing on the warm, fragrant light roll. "An' why did ye n' a' least tell th' lass? Gi'e her some notion o' who her sire be? Eh? 'Tis no' a good thing, not knowin' yer kin! Now tha' ye've let th' cat out o' th' burlap, ye'll have t' tell her! When'll tha' be? An' now tha' she's old enough t' marry, do y' intend t' wait'll her wedding night an' break her young heart?" She turned on her heel, humphed "Men!" and stomped back into the kitchen.

The Sheriff chewed the last of the sweet roll, swallowed.

"I'd run acrost her Mama's Bible when I was a-goin' through old Sam's goods," the Sheriff said quietly. "I took a close look at the family tree and saw Sarah was born ... and where, and I realized when I stopped at that farm in Kansas ..."

His voice softened and trailed off and he was quiet for a long moment, and Sean left him to his silence, waiting patiently until the Sheriff blinked and continued.

"I'd figured to give her that Bible come Christmas. It's her birthday then, and ..."

He frowned, looked down at his hands.

"Ah hell, what do I know!"

"So how'd ye come about beatin' yer face on an anvil?" Sean reminded.

The Sheriff glanced over at him, grinning with half his face, nodded.

"Had I told Sarah early on and taken her into my household she might not be quite so wild."

"She's wild?" Sean asked innocently, and from the kitchen they heard Daisy's laugh, quickly stifled.

The Sheriff's ears were red as he continued his admitting confession.

"Sean, she's ... there is no hold-back to her. She's fearless and that scares me." He closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall.

"She ..." the Sheriff started, then decided against telling the red-headed Irish chieftain about Sarah popping out of a trunk and killing seven men.

"She told me she was going to dance the Can-Can and I don't doubt as she has."

Sean grinned in spite of himself.

He'd seen painted ladies dancing that scandalous step and he personally liked it: generally it started out well, then each dancer added her personal variation which most often involved exposing a lot of leg, a great deal of flared skirt, and he personally favored such shocking shows.

Of course he never said as much to his darlin' Daisy, whose dancing was confined to a dignified waltz, a lively Virginia reel, or a fast-spinning square dance, at which she and he both excelled.

"So she's danced th' stage?" Sean prompted.

The Sheriff grunted, continued.

"I'd heard she was a-dancin' at a particular place in Denver. She'd gone over with he Mama to model dresses."

"An' right an' proper that is," Sean declared. "A girl should help wi' th' family business."

"Have you seen her when she goes?" the Sheriff said, his quiet voice tight. "Good God, man, she's corsetted and painted up -- when she was ten, she was proposed to, right here in the Jewel!"

"Aye, I remember," Sean chuckled. "Th' puir lad was crushed when he found out she was but a child!"

"She looks like a woman grown over there," the Sheriff said faintly. "Her Mama tailors the dresses to make her look really, really good ..."

"But she doesna' wear her Mama's fine gowns t' dance."

The Sheriff blinked, shook his head. "No. No, she must sew her own dance costumes."

"Does she look good in 'em?"

The Sheriff glared at his old friend.

"She's done things that I would never let my daughter do and I'd said I'd take her over my knee and fan her biscuits if she did anything like --"

His jaw snapped shut and he took a long breath.

"Sean, I was foolish. I did something I have not done in a very long time."

"Oh?"

Linn nodded. "I let my battleship mouth run right over my tadpole backside."

"No!"

"No ..." Linn agreed. "No, not quite."

"Well out wi' it, man, tell me 'r turn me loose!" Sean declared.

"I went into that dance hall where she was supposed to be doin' the Can-Can and I allowed as no daughter of mine was going to show herself on stage like that, so I clumb up on th' stage and I grabbed her and turned her over my knee and swatted her bottom right there in front of God and everybody!"

Sean's eyes sparkled, his expression delighted. "No!"

"Oh ya," the Sheriff grunted. "I set my boot up on the piano stool and slung her right acrost my leg, I threw up that fancy skirt and began to swat her bottom, and I was just gettin' warmed up when a blacksmith hit me with his anvil and down I went!"

Sean's eyes sparkled and his cheeks were merry balls of apple-red as he regarded his old friend with obvious delight: he thumped the Sheriff on the shoulder and crowed, "Man, I'm proud o' ye!"

"It gets worse," the Sheriff snarled. "The dancers were wearing feathers and half masks and ..."

Sean's eyes widened with the realization and this was confirmed by the man's next words.

"It wasn't Sarah."

Sean's bright, sparkling blue eyes danced like a boxer, the man relishing this tale he saw played out on the stage of his imagination.

"This big Swede was a-standin' over me with HIS foot up on the piano stool and that same girl over HIS leg and HE was a-swattin' her bottom and he stopped and looked down at me and allowed, "Not Your Dotter, Mine Dotter!" -- and went back to the work at hand!"

Sean threw back his head and laughed, giving full vent to the merriment he felt, his hand thumping heavily on the Sheriff's shoulder: Daisy swung out of her kitchen, thrust her face into the Sheriff's, her flour-dusted hand caressing his cheek: she kissed him once, quickly, lightly, and whispered, "Ye're a good man, Sheriff," and then she spun back into her kitchen.

When Sean recovered from his mirth, he wiped his eyes and finally got wind enough to ask, "Linn, when someone asks me wha' happened to yer cheek, what'll I tell 'em?"

"Hell, tell 'em the truth. I earned this," Linn said ruefully.

Sean shook his head, grinning. "Nah," he chuckled. "I'll tell 'em some fella hit ye wi' an anvil. They'll believe that!"

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71. TERROR

It was our honeymoon.

I'd booked passage for us, the new Mr. and Mrs. Linn Keller, on the finest riverboat money ever built.

Esther never looked better.

Her eyes shone, her cheeks were healthy and she had the contented look of a woman with all the world at her feet.

When she left our cabin, she was on my arm, when she dined, she was the Queen in court, and men low and high fawned over her, recognizing a woman of significance, a woman of means.

I could not have been prouder.

We stood on the fantail, looking out over the evening river behind us, looking at cross hatches cut in the water by the slow-turning paddle wheel. A little bit of light mist caressed our cheeks, cool, like fairy fingers on the evening air, and Esther and I held hands and marveled, for rivers are not plentiful in the Colorado high country, and certainly not as broad and powerful as the Father of Waters we navigated.

A performer in gaudy circus tights did handstands and writhed sinuously above us before settling down to the keyboard, and the steam calliope cleared its throat with a brazen fanfare, then began singing a happy, bouncy circus tune.

The riverboat was the finest ever built, but not all the passengers were of the same quality.

In the dream I was obliged to go forward, Esther caressing my cheek, and I taking her gloved hand and kissing her knuckles, promising to be back immediately if not sooner.

I gave a hard look to the men I saw, a clear warning.

I saw myself walking forward, and I saw Esther turn, and I saw the men look at the emerald-ivory-and-diamond brooch, a gift from my son Jacob, that she wore at the hollow of her throat.

Esther turned to face the two who approached, her hands demurely clasped before her.

I heard the chop-chop-chop of paddle wheels in the muddy water and the hiss of steel hull pushing the water aside, I heard steam hiss and sigh through the exhaust and I heard the acrobat's fingers on the key-valves, and I heard one man say "Now what's a lovely lady like you need with all that jul'ry?"

I saw blood spray as Esther's sleeve-knife opened his hand and his arm to the elbow, and I saw her step back.

In the dream I saw myself turn, pale-eyed, swatting my coat tail back, and I saw myself sprint through cold, clear honey as I powered back to the fantail.

The other man was surging toward Esther as her heel caught and she fell back against the railing and a dirty hand reached for the brooch and my Colt cleared leather and I punched it at the man on the right and drove a blue whistler at the back of his head and I never looked to see it hit and my second Colt came up and the man on Esther's right grabbed his arm and pulled back and blood shot at an angle in front of him and I charged and I drove the barrel hard over top of his head and he went down and I saw Esther fall, slowly, I saw the soles of her shoes as she stiff-armed away from the boat and I saw the waters part like a hungry wet maw to swallow the only good and decent thing in this earth --

Esther laid a hand on her husband's breast bone.

She knew to press hard, sudden, not a slap but firmly enough her touch would penetrate the nightmare that gripped him, that held him paralyzed, terrified.

She could see the flare of his nostrils, the beads of sweat on his forehead, and she knew she had to pull him back from whatever hell tortured his sleep.

The Sheriff's hand tore from under the covers and slapped down hard on Esther's, pressing it desperately into his breastbone.

His eyes and his mouth opened wide and he gasped, desperately, like a man coming up from a deep dive.

Terror showed in the reflection of his death-pale eyes and she felt him tremble, quivering like a dying rabbit in its burrow: he took three fast breaths, closed his eyes and took a long one, then he rolled over and seized his wife, desperately, the double-arm bear-hug of a man who'd just emerged from utter, inescapable, implacable terror.

"It was a dream," he whispered, his voice quivering.

"It was just a dream. I am under my own roof. You are alive. Just a dream --"

He released her, pushed her back, came up in the bed, up to his knees, his eyes wide and terror-filled as his fingers sought her throat, trembling finger-tips seeking the groove beside her windpipe, pressing, exploring: his face in the moonlight was ghastly, pale, flesh pulled tight over his cheekbones, his other hand squeezing her hand, tightly, almost painfully.

He froze for several heartbeats until he felt -- he confirmed -- he finally allowed himself to believe --

"You're alive," he choked, then he fell back on his own side of the bed, shivering like a man a-fever.

Esther laid her hand on his breastbone again.

He rolled over, took her more gently in his arms, rolled over, pulling her over on top of him, pulling the covers up over her.

"Don't leave me, Esther," he whispered like a terrified little boy. "My God, Esther, don't die on me!"

 

The dream was the same, the dream was always the same.

I could see her sink in the dark waters, I could see her as if she fell through flawless crystal, her skirts flaring as she descended, and in the waters' depths, I could see her eyes, open, curious, looking around.

I knew she could hear it, too, and she was trying to find it.

A baby, crying.

Our baby.

The dream always ended there, the dream always left me sweat soaked and exhausted, the dream tortured me like a cackling hell-demon dangling a lost soul over the flames.

It never continued the way it happened, how I jumped in the rowboat with a lariat, and how we found Esther when she broke water, and how I hauled her in hand-over-hand.

It never showed that big Boston seaman hauling her out with one mighty pull, and breaking her over his forearm like a shotgun until she threw up ten gallon of Mississippi river water, it never showed us rowing her back to the river boat nor me carrying her to our cabin and undressing her and getting her thawed out in a tub of hot water the porters produced with a speed explainable only by magic itself.

The dream always took me to terror and ended at the worst point, the worst point, the worst point --

It always ended when the river opened up and swallowed my beautiful bride, and not one damned thing I could do to stop it!

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72. REBELLION

 

"But it would look so pwittie!"

Sarah gave her little sister a patient look.

"I know it would, Polly," she agreed, "but it's early yet. We shall surely have one, just ... not yet."

"When?" Opal asked, managing to look innocent and impatient at the same time.

"Soon," Sarah said, and blinked, her hand going to her mouth.

She took a little staggering step back and giggled, feeling for support, seized the back of a chair to steady herself.

It's happening, she thought, wide-eyed as she looked at the corner of the parlor where the Christmas tree would go.

It happened.

I'm ...

Sarah swallowed and shivered a little, then she giggled.

I opened my mouth, and my Mama's voice fell out!

 

Brother William nodded, his face serious.

"I suspected as much," he said, "but I felt it ... discreet ... to say nothing."

The Sheriff watched as the tonsured friar's weathered fingers traced lightly across the neat lines of handwritten script in the worn Bible.

"You felt it discreet," the Sheriff echoed, then raised his spread-fingered hands and shook them at the ceiling.

"Does the entire world know?" he almost shouted, and his old friend the traveling monk smiled and shook his head.

"Not the entire world," he said reassuringly. "I am quite sure His Holiness the Pope knows nothing at all about it."

The Sheriff lowered his hands, made as if to thrust a finger at his old friend and former fellow soldier, then closed his mouth and thought better of it.

"Your father?" Brother William asked, and it was enough to break the Sheriff's irritation.

Both men laughed.

"How did you know?" Linn asked, hauling open the bottom desk drawer and withdrawing a bottle of something water clear and not over 30 days old, and two glasses.

"Two fingers' worth," Brother William said solemnly, spreading his two fingers wide apart: it was an old joke between them, one they began back during that damned War, when a drink together might be their last and they made it a good one, every time.

"Here's to you and here's to me," the Sheriff intoned as liquid detonation gurgled into two cut-glass tumblers.

"And may we never disagree," Brother William added, then each man hoist his glass to the other.

"But if we do, to hell with you, and here's to me!"

They drank.

 

"I like the pwittie bubs," Polly said to Opal.

"I like making poppy-corn strings," Opal replied, skipping a little as Sarah herded them down the hall toward the kitchen where the maid was setting out their plates.

"Cin-mannon rolls!" the twins chorused delightedly as Sarah gave the maid a quick hug and a whispered thank-you.

 

"So you are now the proud father of one of the finest voices that ever sang in praise."

"Yep." The Sheriff eased the cork back into the bottle, replace it and the glasses in the bottom drawer.

"Did you suspect?"

"Of course I suspected," Linn snapped. "With those eyes? And when her temper started to show, and when she took to knife fighting when Esther offered to teach her ..."

"Let me tell you what she's learned," Brother William said, his voice serious: he sat in the cane-bottom chair directly in front of the Sheriff's desk, leaned forward a little, draping angel-wing sleeves and forearms over the edge of the smooth pine-topped furniture.

The Sheriff leaned against his side of the desk top, listening carefully to the tall, tonsured monk.

"She knows Spanish. No. Not Spanish," Brother William corrected himself with a rueful smile and a quick, short shake of his head. "She speaks Mexican, and that is fast becoming another language altogether.

"She has a skill with the healing arts. She knew just how to formulate a posset to put a boy nearly unconscious while she ran a cleaning swab through a hole in his leg."

"She didn't shoot him, did she?"

Brother William lifted his head a little and laughed, an easy, genuine laugh the Sheriff remembered that laugh from campfires at night, when the two of them spoke not as officer and subordinate, but rather as two men far from home, seeking what companionship could be got in an uncertain time.

"No, no, far from it." He looked at the Sheriff, his expression amused. "Her mother asked the same question."

"Can't imagine why," the Sheriff muttered.

"She's not all that bad, Linn. A boy fell on a sharp stub of a branch. Landed on the stub and drove it through his leg. She ... directed the ... rescue operation, she sawed off the parent branch, she took over his medical care. She sat up a day and a night and a day again, tending the lad, cleaning the wound, priming him with whatever herbs she'd mixed in with" -- he thrust his chin generally at the south end of the desk -- "with your favorite tipple."

"Good for what ails ye," the Sheriff muttered.

"Apparently so. He felt no pain, he slept without dreams, his leg continues to heal without infection."

"Yep, that's the Daine boys' product. It'll do that for ye."

"She sings, Sheriff. She has the voice of the angels." Brother William's voice was softer and he leaned back in the chair, smiling, his eyes seeking the joint between wall and ceiling, following it slowly from left to right. "You should hear her ... she sang in chorus with the Brethren, and she was able to weave her contralto with theirs, harmonizing flawlessly with the men's voices ... she can shift flawlessly to the soprano, and did, in Denver ... she sang with the nuns, and again ..."

The man's eyes were distant, dreamy, as he heard her voice again, heard the harmonies she wove and more that she inspired, warm and encompassing in the cathedral's nave.

"Sheriff," Brother William almost whispered, "there is no more glorious sound than standing in the center of a half dozen trained throats, or of twice a dozen not twenty feet from you." Brother William closed his eyes, bowed his head, took a long breath.

"Sarah told me about that once," the Sheriff said, his voice almost hoarse.

Brother William raised his head, opened his eyes, quirked an eyebrow.

"She'd managed to slip into a thicket near a wolf pack."

Brother William's expression changed a little and he turned his head slightly, blinking as he processed the conflicting mental image of the veiled, white-cowled Sister, in the midst of a mountain wolf-pack.

"She spoke of it when we sat on a frosty log, upon yun mountainside," the Sheriff continued, pointing to a peak invisible through the log walls: "she whispered as she told me about it.

"She called it ..." the Sheriff frowned and he leaned back in his chair a little as he sought the memory of her words.

"Le Chant des Loups," he said in surprisingly good French. "She spoke of how they would throw their heads back, how sometimes their voice would squeak, and she was surprised that they did not change expression when a good healthy howl started with a squeak." He smiled, just a little, as he too remembered a cherished moment.

"She spoke of their harmony, and how it felt to be surrounded by a whole pack, an entire chorus in song.

"She said the wind must have shifted, for they went silent and disappeared, and she waited an hour before moving, but none were anywhere near, so she came on home."

Brother William nodded. "I would give much to hear that, as she did," he agreed, tilting back in his chair: he tilted back just a little too far, tried to hook his brogans under the edge of the Sheriff's desk, missed, threw his arms wide as he went over backwards.

The Sheriff didn't see it happen.

His own chair chose that moment to engage in active, outright rebellion; he, too, went over backwards, and each man slammed flat on his back at the same moment.

Western boots and marching brogans thrust up from opposite sides of the desk, and the thunderous crash of two men falling over backwards left an immense, overwhelming silence in its wake.

Finally the Sheriff spoke.

"You okay over there?"

"I'm okay. How about you?"

The Sheriff lowered his legs, as did Brother William, and each man rolled over on his side and came up on all fours.

"One of these days," the Sheriff growled, "I am going to feed this damned chair to that-there stove!"

Brother William laughed, gripped the edge of the lawman's desk, hauled himself upright.

"I," he declared, "will be most pleased to help!"

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73. THE IRISH BRIGADE

Men are men in any age.

Men enjoy the company of good looking women in any era.

When one of the women present is the Fire Chief's wife, the men are more circumspect, but when the big red-headed Irish chieftain is hugging his wife with his head thrown back, laughing in delight, the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, especially when there are children present, the Chieftain's young, and another young woman.

The Chief's wife Daisy, she with the Irish-red hair and green eyes, a perpetual streak of flour along her cheekbone (except when she was scrubbed up and clean for church) and a laugh like a running mountain stream, rejoiced in her towering, broad-shouldered husband's strength, and the other woman present considered (from the size of their family) that she rejoiced in certain other attributes the man possessed.

Discreetly, the other woman kept her thoughts to herself.

 

A century and more had yet to pass, but in some facet of space and time, in the same brick-floored firehouse another pair of women stood, with children of the Irish fire chief: his name was Finnegan, not FitzGerald, his eyes were hazel-blue instead of pure, flawless blue, and his hair was sandy instead of Irish red, but again the men grinned and looked at one another as husband and wife embraced, and the Chief laughed, just as the tones blared from speakers set in the brick walls.

 

"ALL HANDS ON DECK, NO IRISH NEED APPLY! TURN TO, LADS, OR I'LL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS!"

Someone outside was hammering on the steel plate hung from a short length of scrap chain, striking fast and desperately with the wagon bolt normally thrust through a convenient hole in the improvised alarm-gong: from the speed and strength of the blows, they knew this was an alarm and genuine, and the men ran for rubber coats and pressed-leather Philadelphia helmets, leather gloves and heavy boots, and the matched team of three white mares danced in their stalls, waiting for harness to be dropped down from the ceiling onto their backs and buckled quickly, securely.

The mares loved to run, and run they would, and they heard the harness begin to drop, and froze from their dance, their slashing tails betraying their quivering excitement.

 

Men sprinted for turnout coats and bunker gear, kicked off their Wellington boots and thrust sock feet into fireboots, jerked up the silvered fire pants and hooked the red suspenders over shoulders: Nomex hoods were snatched from coat pockets and thrust over heads, then coats shrugged on, helmets clapped on their heads and the men swarmed into the waiting, open-door American-LaFrance pumper as the women chivvied the wide-eyed children back and to the side, and out the front door.

 

"Outside!" Sarah shouted, "outside now! We'll watch them come out!" -- and seizing two of the childrens' hands, she hurried for the door, hitting it with her shoulder as the Welsh Irishman swung the heavy wooden valves open, the big double door yawning open, allowing the Colorado cold and sunshine to roll into the warm brick firehouse interior.

 

A pale-eyed woman hit the red button with the heel of her hand and the overhead door began chuckling open.

"Outside!" she shouted, her voice at battle-pitch to cut through the confusion and all the distraction filling the childrens' senses: "Outside now! We'll watch them from the street!"

 

The men made a fast check: the warm-banked boiler was primed with a quick splash of devils-breath and two scuts of coal, a quick, strong shake of the ladder wagon, booted feet launched black-coated men aboard and the German Irishman yelled "GO!"

Sean swung his blacksnake whip in a circle, snapped a hole in the air three feet above the mares' heads.

"ST. FLORIAN AND ST. CHRISTOPHER, LADIES, RUN!"

 

"Firelands Dispatch, Firelands Engine One, enroute."

"Roger, Engine One, advise your arrival."

"Roger."

The crimson-red pumper snarled angrily in its Diesel heart and blasted an angry cloud of smoke out its broad, chromed exhaust: the engine eased out of the bay door, roof bar and strobes snapping at the cold Colorado morning air as the engineer reached for the siren box, turned the pointed switch knob past WAIL to YELP and stomped hard on the siren button on the floor.

Schoolchildren held their ears and shrieked with delight and jumped up and down as the big, shining, red American-LaFrance crew-cab engine, all sound and fury, lumbered like an awakened, dangerous animal out of its brick cave and began its assault of the upgrade.

 

Two women with pale eyes held schoolchildrens' hands, feeling their excitement at the sight of this assault on a feared enemy, these brave and laughing men riding their engines of war to do battle on their behalf.

Neither of the women said what they saw on that cold Colorado morning, but neither would forget the vision they beheld.

Each of the women saw an Irishman standing, laughing, roaring an obscene Celtic war-chant as he swung a blacksnake whip with one hand, the reins of three lunging mares in the other, as smoke rolled from the blunt stack of the burnished, gleaming steam boiler of the Ahrens steam engine: right behind it, a gleaming red pumper, huge and square and just as brightly, lovingly polished, also piloted by an Irishman, whose war-song was screamed from the chromed Federal siren in its nose and the speakers bolted to the broad front bumper, instead of from a war-chieftain's throat.

Two women, a century apart, two women with a sight beyond that of one world, and each kept the secret of what she saw as she stood on the street one cold Colorado morning, holding the hands of excited, bouncing, waving children.

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74. ONLY ONE LISTENED

 

Jacob Keller was tall.

Jacob Keller was slender.

Jacob Keller had his father's pale eyes and his father's quick hands, his father's broad shoulders and ready grin, and like his father, his moustache was carefully curled into a waxed handlebar.

Unlike his father's, his moustache was a darker shade, a distinct brown; his would not assume the iron-grey shading of his sire for many years to come.

The easy manner, the ready grin, the quick laugh, all were absent as he faced a man who really didn't want to be faced.

"I don't care," Jacob said gently. "You can drop that gun or I can drop you."

Only then did he smile, a gentle, easy smile, as if he hadn't a care in the world.

"I ain't goin' back to no --" he began, but Jacob was not listening to the man's words.

When he saw the gun's muzzle start to swing his way, he moved.

Jacob powered to his left, drawing and firing his left hand Colt, then he spun, pulling the blued-steel revolver back in close to his body: he turned, scanning a full circle, saw movement at the barn's doorway.

Jacob kissed at his Apple-horse and his stallion sauntered casually over to him, hoping for a shaving of molasses cured tobacker.

Jacob reloaded the spent round, then loaded the sixth, and holstered on half-cock.

Eyes busy, he shucked the .40-60 from its carved scabbard, then ran lightly, silent on the balls of his feet, ran toward the corner of the barn.

 

A fire in town was almost a great civic event.

Firelands was just pretty damned lucky that it even had a fire department: luckier still, that they had a good one, staffed by veteran firemen from Porkopolis, the great Ohio River port where their Ahrens engine was built: the Sheriff himself reached into his gold poke and bought not only the fire engine, but also helmets, rubber coats, the heavy leather gloves, hose, nozzles, pike poles, ladders and ladder wagon, and he even bought the services of the firemen.

The Irish Brigade -- their nickname arrived with them, and it was a natural label -- started with Sean FitzGerald, the red-headed, hard-muscled Irishman with the fiercely-curled moustache; the German Irishman, the Welsh Irishman (with an absolutely angelic voice), the English Irishman (God would forgive him for that), and the New York Irishman: since that time, on a one-year rotation, one at a time, new firemen came out and the high-country veterans went back, with the horses, which Sean sold for a fine profit: horses used to the thin air at high altitude, were stronger than lowland horses, they had greater endurance, and they commanded a good price.

These fine horses and these experienced firemen were finishing overhaul on what used to be a barn: their main concern was preventing the fire's spread, and for a brief time it looked as if it may be a fair contest, but fortunately two cisterns donated their contents to the saving of the town.

Ladies from the Silver Jewel, with baskets of sandwiches and pitchers of hot coffee, circulated among the available firemen (the German Irishman, their engineer, ate well indeed as he operated the hissing, chuffing "Steam Masheen," ate very well indeed!) -- and the pale-eyed Sheriff, knowing he could do nothing really helpful, stood back and watched the show.

He looked to his left, movement catching his eye, and saw Jacob leading two horses.

One had a man, obviously wrist-bound to the saddlehorn; the second man was draped over the horse, apparently dead.

Jacob stopped as he came abreast of his father.

"I see you got 'em," the pale-eyed old lawman drawled.

"Yes, sir," Jacob confirmed.

The Sheriff looked pointedly at the carcass.

"Looks like one had a bad case of stupidity."

"Yes, sir, you could say that."

"What about this other feller?"

Jacob grinned, that quick grin the Sheriff knew so well.

"He tried hidin' in the barn, sir."

"How'd you get 'im out?"

Jacob's grin widened.

"Sir, I allowed as he could come out so I could see who he is, or I could come in and see who he was."

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75. NIGHTTIME

The Sheriff one time looked long into his shaving mirror and contemplated the wrinkles he saw, the lines on his face, the iron grey shade of his curled handlebar.

He studied the reflection before him, his mind relaxed and flowing like water, seeking some peaceful elevation; the mind was never still, and no matter what he was doing, even when he was thinking about nothing, he thought about something.

This day he considered that old age had visited itself upon his face, and he looked like an old grandfather, and he hoped most sincerely that he'd become as wise as he looked old.

He surely didn't feel like it.

That night he dipped his steel-nib pen into good India ink and wiped the excess off on the inside of the bottle's neck and hesitated before committing his thoughts to good rag paper.

His left arm was around his daughter.

She'd been restless, and when he sat down at his roll top desk in his study, she came padding barefoot across the hook rug, rubbing her eyes with her ever present rag doll locked in the bend of her left elbow.

She'd climbed into his lap and he'd helped her up, and she snuggled into him; there is a magic to cuddling with a warm strong Daddy when you can't sleep at night, and Angela was almost instantly asleep.

Rather than stand up and pack her upstairs to bed, then return and start over, the Sheriff laid his cheek against his daughter's hair and closed his eyes.

He gave himself a long moment.

He smelled her soap, felt her weight and her warmth, and though his face didn't change expression, his eyes tightened ever so slightly at the corners: the man was pleased.

He considered, he picked up his pen, he began to write.

 

Most crime is simple and straight forward.

Two men dispute, one slugs the other.

One man steals cattle, another pursues, they disagree, one ends up dead.

Sometimes it's a woman that's taken.

Women and cattle are property in most men's minds.

Sadly, the law holds too often that a woman is property and belongs to her husband.

The Sheriff stared at that last line, gleaming wetly in the Aladdin's illumination, but it was written and committed indelibly to paper, and no recalling it.

He considered whether to add a comment about fighting in that damned War, or offering an opinion about ownership of a human being, and decided against both.

He continued entering his thoughts into his personal journal.

It was easier in the days before I came West.

Men did not shoot one another.

Men killed one another, yes, but it took a war to show men that they could shoot one another.

Women shot men because the woman is the weaker vessel, and it was accepted for a woman to shoot a man if the need arose, but until that damned War, one man shooting another was the mark of a coward and was not tolerated.

Once again the lean lawman's eyes tightened a little at the corners, for as he contemplated that "weaker vessel" phrase, he could not help but consider the women he knew, and how every last one of them was pretty damned strong.

He looked down at the flannel nightgown and the warm, breathing life that wore it, and dipped his pen again.

It was the War that showed men how to kill one another with a ball instead of with fists and feet and a club or a rock like Cain.

I began talking about crime and how it was most often simple.

Crime in the city tends to be more complex.

Men have leisure time to consider their actions.

The Devil takes advantage of these idle minds.

This allows the criminal to weave a complex crime, sometimes engineered from the ground up to deceive.

He paused again.

I cannot but consider how sad that we must have detectives to professionally unravel a crime's intricacies.

He paused again and smiled, just a little, for one of those city detectives was leaving the city for good.

On the morrow I shall welcome one such to our community.

I write this with my daughter Angela on my lap, warm and trusting and sound asleep.

When I finish these few lines, I shall carry her to her bed and tuck her in, I shall then to my own bunk, and come sunup she will wear a fine gown and I, my good suit, and I will stand witness to the wedding of Levi Rosenthal and Bonnie McKenna.

Levi is done with Denver and plans to retire to the life of a gentleman rancher.

He knows nothing of ranching but he is intelligent enough to know this, and he is not too prideful to admit it.

Clark and her brother will continue to run the place and run it well as they always have, and he told me he plans to let them do just that, without his interference.

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," he confided as we shared a drink today: "I know just enough about ranching to get into a great deal of trouble."

He and Bonnie do make a fine looking pair, and she told me she is satisfied she is investing her happiness wisely in this union-to-be.

The pair surprised me.

Bonnie does not give her trust lightly.

I was genuinely surprised how she came to trust Levi so easily, especially given that she'd been married to his late brother ... the man I trusted, the man who betrayed Bonnie and bankrupted them and --

The Sheriff frowned.

The sentence followed its own lead and grew awkward.

He considered drawing a single firm line through it, decided against it.

The scoundrel fooled me and I don't fool easily.

He took Bonnie in hook line and sinker.

He died as result of his sins, and now Bonnie will wed his brother, who is a good man and true.

Just like I thought his brother to be.

If Levi, too, turns out a scoundrel, I will likely kill him myself.

Unless Sarah beats me to it, which is more than likely the case.

The Sheriff very carefully picked up a cloth, transferred it to his off hand -- his arm still around the sleeping Angela -- he carefully wiped the pen's nib and he laid it in the open journal, stoppered the ink-bottle; slowly, carefully, he pushed the wheeled office chair back, then stood, cradling his little girl, extinguished the Aladdin.

Six foot two of long tall lawman trod with careful silence, packed his sound-asleep, blue-eyed little girl upstairs, holding her against him, marveling at this young miracle of laughter and delight, and he slid her feet first into her own bunk, drew the covers up around her chin

Angela never woke.

She rolled over on her side, the way she always did, nodded a little as she cuddled her cheek into the familiar feather pillow.

The Sheriff leaned down and silently kissed his sleeping little girl above her little pink ear.

He paused at her doorway and turned to look back into the dimly moonlit bedroom, before crossing the threshold into the hallway and drawing the door closed.

He smiled a little in the stillness.

I always did like nighttime.

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76. “DO YOU SING OPERA?”

 

His Honor Judge Donald Hostetler regarded the unseen visage of the white nun with less than his usual equanimity.

As a matter of fact, as he struck the Lucifer and puffed his hand-rolled Cuban back to life, he noted a distinct tremor to his hands.

He knew the Sisters of St. Mercurius were a newly established Order, and he knew there was more than one faceless nun, as they were called: the Sisters not only wore the habits, which hid their bodies from the eyes of man, lest any man be tempted: he knew they wore the wimples, to hide their hair, that men be not tempted by the crowning glory of womanhood: he knew that the Sisters were veiled, hiding their faces from the world, that they may be completely separated from its temptations, its distractions, that they may be simple and humble servants of the Faith.

He did not expect to see one of the Sisters in his private car, and he sure as hell didn’t expect her to expose herself to him.

 

The boy’s knuckles were brisk, harsh on the glass of the Judge’s private car’s back door.

His Honor rose, his hand automatically caressing the smooth walnut handle of his banker’s pistol: he wore the revolver as regularly as he wore his trousers, and a time or three he’d had more need for the hardware than the drawers.

Shrugging into his coat, he trailed a swirling cloud of tobacco smoke as he approached the door, his eyes narrowing a little in amusement at the rawboned boy standing without, hat in his hand and uncertainty in his expression.

“Come in, son,” the Judge said in a kindly voice, and the lad took a half-step back, swayed as he thrust an arm toward the wagon drawn up beside the Judge’s railcar.

“She, um, told me you’d need to,” the boy stammered, stopped, swallowed, continued.

“You’d need to see this, sir.”

His Honor quirked his shaggy brows in puzzlement, then looked at the wagon and frowned.

It contained a rough box, a crude coffin, knocked together from unfinished boards that still bore coarse saw-marks.

The Judge reached up without looking, plucked his brushed, pearl-grey hat from its peg, settled it on his fine, snow-white hair and stepped out onto the railcar’s rear platform.

He looked at the wagon, at the coffin, then turned and frowned at the white nun sitting motionless on the wagon’s seat.

“Hmp,” he grunted. “Sister?”

“She don’t talk, sir,” the boy said, thrusting a folded paper at the Judge. “I was to give you this and bring her an’ this – him – here.” He indicated the coffin with a jerk of his knuckled fist. “I’d like t’ get this … him … it … off m’ wagon, sir, where do you want I should take, um, deliver …?”

“Digger will handle the arrangements,” the Judge mumbled around his cigar. “You do know where our funeral parlor is, don’t you, son?”

“No, no, sir,” the lad replied – the Judge thought him less than twelve years old, and he was right – “I, um, never been here before.”

“I see.” The Judge extracted the Cuban from between stained teeth, plucked a fragment of tobacco leaf from his lip, spat over the side. “Where you from, son?”

“About ten mile back that-a-way, sir.”

“And you’ve never been to Firelands.”

“No, sir.”

“Can you read?”

“Yes, sir, some. I can cipher some an’ sign my name proper. Ma taught me that as best she could.”

The Judge grunted again, pointed.

“Son, if you drive that wagon of yours down track about, oh, you see that water tower?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Swing your mare to the right and you’ll come to the main street.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Swing her right again and you’ll bear uphill. You’re looking for the Sheriff’s office on the right. It’s beside the Sheriff’s office. Beat on the door and have Digger take it from there.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy swallowed hard, nodding. “Thank you, sir.” He hesitated. “Sir?”

“Yes, son?”

“Sir, she said you’d need to see it, sir.”

The Judge sighed. “Very well, son, show me what I have to see.”

The two descended from the private car onto coarse railway ballast – the boy jumping easily, the Judge turning to descend backward, slowly lowering a leg until his exploring toe touched before allowing his weight to come off the railcar.

He turned and started, dropped his cigar.

The faceless white nun was less than a foot from him, utterly still, absolutely silent, and the Judge had no idea how she got off that wagon unnoticed.

He turned his head and spat again, considered the ruined cigar smoldering on the gravel at his feet.

“Sister,” he growled, looking from the stogie to the veiled woman, “either my chaw caught fire or my cigar is nearly drowned out.”

He waited for some response to his humorous thrust.

The woman remained silent, unmoving.

“I understand you wanted me to see this.”

She made no move, no response.

“Are you going to tell me what this is about, or are you just going to stand there?”

The nun neither moved, nor did she speak: she may as well have been a veiled carving.

The Judge swore, pressed his lips together. “Dammit,” he snapped, then stomped around to the back of the wagon, slammed down the tail gate, grabbed the rough box lid, flipped it up.

He looked long at the dead man within, saw deep rope marks around his neck, stared at the face.

“Boy,” he said quietly, “go in my car and fetch me out that lantern beside the front door.”

“Yes, sir.”

The boy swarmed back up the cast-iron steps and into the private car; the Judge heard the lad’s worn boots, swift and imperative as he almost ran the length of the car, snatched up the lantern, brought it out.

The Judge fished for a Lucifer, found one: he scratched it into life, levered up the globe and touched match to the trimmed wick, adjusted the flame: holding it by its bail and tilting it a little to cast its light down, he studied the corpse’s face.

The boy saw him lift his gaze from the dead and silent, to the veiled and silent: handing the lantern to the lad, the Judge replaced the coffin lid, closed and made fast the tail gate, took the lantern.

“Thank you, son,” he said quietly. “You can take it now.”

“Yes, sir.” The lad wasted no time a’tall in scrambling into the wagon, spinning the reins free of the brake handle.

The Judge watched the lad leave, took a long breath, shook his head.

“I wanted him alive,” the Judge snapped, turning to look at the still, white figure –

Gone?

How did she –

He looked up and saw the nun, standing motionless inside his private car.

He tilted his hat back, scratched his scalp and wondered aloud, “How in the hell did you do that?”

 

MacTavish straightened up, rubbing his eyes and shoving the ledger book back a little.

His wife watched as he thrust a shirtsleeved arm straight up, pencil still in his grip, as he twisted a little to ease his back, the way he always did.

She did not need to ask how their accounts were.

Her husband was a thrifty man and careful with his shillings, a legacy of growing up poor in the Scottish lowlands: here, though, he was a man of substance, with a strong young wife, two fine sons, cattle and horses and a ranch.

If the accounts were balancing poorly, if they were close to arrears, his expression would be sour, his brows close-knit and his forehead wrinkled: as he finished his accounting, his expression was much less tense than it had been.

“Do ye think,” he finally said, and smiled a little as he said it, “do ye think the Sisters bring luck wi’ ‘em?”

His wife smiled, for one of the White Nuns guested with them again that day.

The last time one of the Sisters passed through, she’d set a man’s broken leg and splinted it well, she’d brewed boneset tea and left the healing herbs with the ranch wife, with whispered instructions for their uses, and two days later they found a half-dozen tin cans on their front porch, half-filled with dirt and each with two small plants – more of the herbs, but not dried and crumbled in a pouch, but alive, ready to transplant into her kitchen garden.

This day one of the Sisters asked to borrow a wagon and mare, and his youngest son; she did not say why, and husband and wife looked at one another as they heard the wagon come into the barn lot.

MacTavish went out to help his son unhitch, and his wife turned back to the kitchen, back to the note she’d been reading, a note the nun had written for her.

It was a letter to her sister back East.

The goodwife MacTavish could not see well enough anymore to write a clear letter, and her though her son could write, he wrote slowly: when she voiced her dilemma to the nun, as the two simmered herbs and kneaded bread dough together, the nun laid gentle fingertips on the back of the woman’s hand, raised a finger: a moment later she went to her traveler’s pouch and cloak, parked by the door, reached into her pouch and withdrew a small box.

She sat up to the painfully-clean table, laid out paper and a ruler, a pencil, three small vials and three fine-tipped pens, and Mrs. MacTavish watched as the nun quickly scribed four lines with the pencil, lightly bordering the page: she leaned close and watched, marveling, as the nun dipped one pen, then another, tracing along the penciled line, the pen’s wandering in lazy S-curves suddenly becoming a green vine, then leaves, then colored berries in clumps, hanging from the vine.

She placed this sheet aside, took a second sheet, circumscribed this one with straight, unadorned black lines from another pot of ink; she wrote, quickly, her script neat, flowing, and Mrs. Mactavish wished most sincerely she could see better, that she may appreciate what must be absolutely beautiful handwriting: she wasn’t sure how she did it, but the nun produced a magnifying glass, pressed it into the housewife’s hand, leaned back.

Mrs. Mactavish breathed a little “Ahh” of appreciation as she read the first line of script – “To the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler” – then she shifted the glass to the first page, delighted to see the precise rendering of a springtime creeper winding around an invisible support and spreading leaves and berries to the sun.

The housewife dictated, the veiled nun wrote: it was a simple letter to her sister, letting her know the oldest son’s fracture from early spring was healed and he was well, that they were making a success of the ranch, and that her husband wished that they guest here in America at their earliest opportunity.

The nun folded the finished letter carefully, folded another sheet into an envelope: she addressed it according to the housewife’s words, sealed it with wax and a stamp, and the housewife placed the missive carefully out of harm’s way, that she may have it sent by trusted messenger into town, and dispatched to Scotland from there … and so she could look at the envelope again, with the precious glass the nun pressed into her hand, and indicated she was to keep.

 

Her son went with the nun to Carbon Hill – it was closer than Firelands, though much smaller, far less prosperous, and truth be told, it was a wonder the place didn’t just collapse from neglect – the boy watched the nun ascend the scaffold, whisper to the condemned man – she always whispered, someone said close to him, as he stood in the small crowd watching – she always whispered because someone tried to kill her and they cut her throat and she couldn’t speak normally ever after.

A pity, that, someone else said, I saw that scar and it’s awful.

Worse, another voice added, she used to sing opera.

The trap banged open, the condemned criminal dropped; within the hour, they were driving back past the ranch, and from there, to Firelands, and at the silent, veiled nun’s hoarsely-whispered instruction, along the railroad tracks and up beside what was obviously a private railcar.

 

His Honor the Judge read the account the lad gave him, an account written in a familiar hand, and signed “McKenna, Agent,” and he frowned.

“I am not particularly happy with you,” he snapped, glaring at the unmoving nun, faceless and anonymous behind the veil: a trickle of moisture stained one side, as if an eye watered constantly.

He ignored this sign and stepped menacingly closer.

“I told you to go find me information and you bring me a corpse!” he snapped. “I imagine you were instrumental in his death!” He turned, paced away, turned, came back, accusing finger thrusting at her white-silk-draped face.

His Honor raised his voice, allowing anger to power his words.

“Is that why you can’t even show me your face?”

The nun shrank back a step, then raised her hands: slowly, reluctantly, she grasped the hem of the veil, then raised it, slowly, turning her head a little to bring the lamp light to bear on her exposed flesh.

Eyes closed, she raised it diagonally, barely exposing the side of her face, just enough – but only just enough – to reveal a horrible scar-line running from the corner of her eye down to where the puckered, reddish-brown weal crossed her throat and dove into the high collar of her habit: he had a glimpse of the closed, ruined eye, the scar-pulled eyelid, dependent and wet, red and raw-looking: a glimpse she gave him, but no more, and she lowered her veil, bowed her head, her face in her hands.

“Dear God,” the Judge whispered, shocked, his mouth suddenly dry with the realization that he’d just made an awful mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake.

He thought he was raising hell with his Agent.

His Honor knelt, slowly, hands on his thighs, and he too bowed his head.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered hoarsely, his mouth dry. “I am so sorry, Sister. I thought –“

He shook his head.

The nun knelt as well, her hands gentle as she touched him delicately under the chin with a curved finger.

“You thought,” she too whispered, “that I was another.”

He looked away, ashamed.

“I used to sing opera,” the nun whispered, her tortured voice deteriorating into a squeak; she coughed, bowed her head, then rose: the Judge could not raise his eyes from the floor, not until he heard the door shut, felt the car move ever so slightly as the nun left the bottom step and was gone into the darkening night.

 

“You got my note?” Sarah asked without preamble.

The Judge tried to conceal his startle: the room was not yet filling with the inevitable spectators as well as jury, bailiff, counsels, the Sheriff, the Marshal and whoever else chose to wander in, and so the Judge didn’t show his surprise to any but his pale-eyed Agent.

He looked long at Sarah, then answered, “Yes. Yes, I did.”

“I was not able to interrogate the prisoner,” Sarah said, her voice flat, unemotional. “He was on his way to the scaffold by the time I got there.”

The Judge blinked, nodded. “I understand.”

Sarah turned her head slightly, gave the Judge a long look, frowning a little.

“Your Honor, is something wrong?” she asked quietly.

“No,” the Judge said firmly. “No. Nothing’s wrong.” He picked up a sheet of paper, frowned at it, tossed it aside. “Don’t you have something to do?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” Sarah said neutrally, choosing to let his peevish tone slide. “I’ll be teaching school today.”

His Honor nodded impatiently. “Right. You do that.”

“Will there be anything else, Your Honor?”

His Honor considered the question for a long moment.

“No, Agent McKenna. No, there will not. I made a serious error last night, and I have yet to make amends.”

“I see.”

“No you don’t see,” the Judge snapped. “I made an absolute –“

He snapped his jaw shut, biting off his choice of personal pejoratives.

“Let’s just say I made a mistake.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“I may have something for you later in the week.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

Sarah turned, then froze as the Judge suddenly changed his mind.

“No,” the jurist said sharply. “No. There is something.”

Sarah turned, blinked light-blue eyes, her hands folded demurely in her apron.

“Sarah,” the Judge asked, his voice low, urgent – “Sarah, do you sing opera?”

Sarah spread her arms, leaned her head back and opened her mouth, and a flawless, pure, pitch-perfect high-C launched out of her soul and danced, shimmering and lovely, in the courtroom’s still air.

She held the note for five seconds, then looked at the Judge, dropped a flawless curtsy, turned and snatched up her skirts: she skipped from the courtroom, looking less like the mousy-grey schoolmarm and more like a happy schoolgirl.

His Honor the Judge sighed tiredly.

“If I were twenty years younger,” he muttered, “I would have her for my wife!”

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77. CONFIRMATION

 

Blood squirted left and right as Sean's hard-knuckled fist flattened the newcomer's nose.

The stranger staggered back, blinking pain from his eyes, then focused on the red-headed fire chief, dropped his left shoulder.

Sean twisted, bending a little to the side, allowing the punch to whistle past, hooked a fast, hard punch into the stranger's kidneys as his opponent -- expecting the punch to stop at the Irishman's soft ribs -- staggered forward just far enough to inherit a bone-and-muscle sledgehammer to the tenderloins.

Linn's eyes were busy, scanning quickly, efficiently, watching the crowd instead of the pugilists.

To his left, Jacob, too, watched: Jackson Cooper was the third point of the triangle, and together they watched for any trouble, anyone wanting their own private bout with a neighbor, or anyone who wanted to cause either fighter any difficulties.

 

Sarah looked around the empty Sheriff's office, turned and looked across to the Silver Jewel: she'd heard a stranger was coming to challenge their fire chief to a bare-knuckle bout, she knew the men would be gathered round watching the show (and enriching Mr. Baxter's coffers).

She knew the Sheriff would be among them, and she was taking advantage of the moment.

Her steps were quick, silent; she wore soft-soled shoes for the occasion, she'd planned this since learning the fight was scheduled.

Sarah was not a veteran investigator but she was quick-minded and she listened, and she remembered what she heard: there were enough small bits of information, sentences half-spoken, looks when people (the Sheriff in particular) didn't think she was watching.

Sarah had a strong suspicion and she intended to see what she could find out.

The Sheriff's desk would be the first place to look.

She looked once more at the closed door, then slid the drawer open, studied the contents.

His journal, she thought, another ... two more ... pens and ink and a stack of paper ...

She drew out another, slimmer book, opened it, cupped her hand over her mouth, smiling.

She paged quickly through a half-dozen childish drawings, flowers and stick figures, and the scrawled, straggly signature:

Sarah.

"You kept them," she whispered into her cupped palm, adding these to her suspicions.

She very carefully fitted the slim book back into the drawer: she had to open the drawer just a bit more, stooped, looked to the back section.

Now what is that? she thought, slid her hands in, worked her fingers under a fairly thick book.

She drew it out.

The cover was worn, the pages soft with much use, and her eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat.

No.

No ... it can't be ... it can't ...

She opened the front cover, turned the first, then the second page, read the neat lines of script.

No.

Her mother's name ... her birth-mother ... and her name, and she traced her finger up, stopped.

She read her father's name, and she nodded.

I thought so.

Numb, she closed the cover, replaced the Bible in the desk drawer.

She closed her pale eyes -- ice-pale blue they were, the identical shade to the Sheriff's eyes -- and she took a long breath, opened her eyes.

She seized her feelings with an iron claw, crushed them down into an iron kettle and screwed the lid down tight: she was suddenly cold, focused, and she looked at the drawer, comparing what she saw with the mental picture of what it had been when she first came into the Sheriff's office.

It looks untouched, she thought, satisfied it would pass muster: she slid it quietly shut, looked at the closed door.

I can't risk any longer, she thought, not if I don't want him to know.

She almost ran to the heavy door, ran on the balls of her feet, her soft-soled slippers silent on the tight-fitted boards.

She put her eye to a convenient crack, let her head drift to the left, then to the right, scanning the street.

Empty.

I'd better go, now!

 

The Sheriff chuckled as he came into his office, Jacob right behind him.

Jacob was in a particularly good mood: he'd hustled two strangers to the tune of a twenty dollar gold piece each, slickered them into betting against Sean: Jacob had boxed the big Irishman and he knew firsthand just how fast their fire chief was, and he learned the hard way just how hard the man could hit.

To his credit, he brought some serious aches to Sean, and he and the big Irishman repaired to the Silver Jewel afterward and each bought the other a beer, but Jacob silently told himself he would make it a personal mission not to trade knuckles with his father's Irish friend.

He might've been slightly less chastened if he knew how hard-pressed Sean had been to keep ahead of the younger man's hard-driven punches.

The Sheriff, too, came out winners in the inevitable betting, but he'd spent his meager winnings on buying beer for the men who'd lost to him: now they came grinning into the Sheriff's office, congratulating themselves on having the intelligence to enjoy an entertainment when it was offered.

Jacob stopped, sniffed, took a longer breath, nostrils flaring as he filled his lungs.

Linn stopped, turned, regarded his firstborn curiously.

"Something?" he asked quietly, and Jacob's eyes were serious as he nodded.

"Smells like Bonnie was here."

The Sheriff frowned and both men turned to look at the closed door.

Jacob was closer, faster: he hauled the door open, both men stepped out on the boardwalk, looking up the street toward the Mercantile.

Nothing there.

They turned, looked in the opposite direction.

They saw Sarah in the gleaming, lacquered McKenna carriage, apparently headed back to her place.

The Sheriff strode quickly over to his desk, pulled open the top right hand drawer, frowned at the contents.

Jacob came back in, closed the door, regarded his father with a curious expression.

"Sir?" he asked.

Linn frowned at the drawer, eased it shut.

"Nothing," he said, shaking his head.

"Is anything out of place, sir?"

The Sheriff smiled. "No. No, nothing is disturbed."

 

Bonnie looked up, surprised to find her daughter at the dress works.

She unhooked her spectacles from behind her ears, folded them and slipped them in their red-silk envelope, placed them in a pigeonhole in her roll top desk.

Sarah waited until her Mama blinked a few times and rubbed the bridge of her nose, where the spectacles had ridden, before speaking.

"Mama," she said quietly, "I think we should talk."

 

I will tell her on Christmas, the Sheriff thought.

I will give her the Bible ... her Mama's Bible, with her family tree on in the front, and I will tell her --

I will tell her it is her birthday.

She will be fourteen, and fourteen is a woman grown.

She will be old enough. I can tell her then.

Jacob saw his father smile quietly, as if he were thinking of something very pleasant, something he was anticipating.

I can tell her on her birthday.

Heavy boots, several pair, on the boardwalk outside, heavy palms beat on the door; the door swung open and the Irish Brigade swarmed into the Sheriff's office, laughing and triumphant: Sean was wearing his handmade red-wool bib-front shirt with the gold Maltese cross embroidered on the front.

The Welsh Irishman had a jug, and a grin on his face, and Sean took the jug from Llewellyn and tilted it up, took a good swig.

"Aaaahhh!" he roared after swallowing a charge of Old Stump Blower, "now that'll make a man o' ye! Ha'e a drink, Sheriff, 'tis my lucky day!"

The Sheriff accepted the jug, turned it with a quick, practiced toss, ran his finger through the ring and hoist it across his elbow: lifting his arm like a chicken wing, and the jug with it, he took a good tilt, sharing in the red-headed Irishman's triumph: he lowered his elbow, spun the jug around, thrust it at Jacob, who treated the treasure in like manner, then thrust it into the German Irishman's waiting grasp.

"Ye could'a taken 'im, Jacob," Sean declared, "but I'm glad ye didna' try!"

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78. I NEED YOUR ADVICE

 

His Honor the Judge waited awkwardly in the back of the schoolhouse.

It was not unknown to have visitors, but it always caused an interruption to the flow of lessons: still, a visitor as distinguished as the Judge was not to be turned away, and so Emma Cooper greeted him with a smile and an invitation to address the students.

"Thank you no," the Judge said with grave courtesy and a degree of discomfort: "if I might have a moment of Miss Sarah's time."

"Of course," Sarah and Emma Cooper chorused, looking at one another and blinking: Sarah carefully unhooked her spectacles from behind her ears, placed them on the desk she shared with Miz Emma, raised her chin and walked, smiling, down the center aisle.

The students' shining, scrubbed-clean faces turned like searchlights to follow her progress.

The Judge offered Sarah his arm, and she took it: they stepped outside together, closed the door behind them.

His Honor cleared his throat but made no move to place his hat back on his head.

"I ... need your advice," he said, and Sarah's face showed concern as she noted the hesitation in his voice.

"Of course," she said gently, placing her free hand on the Judge's.

He almost started: her hand was still on his arm, for it was a day, an age, where a woman, a Lady, did not leave the room unless she was on a gentleman's arm: he knew this, and yet it was almost as if he'd forgotten ... forgotten she was ...

Buck up, man, he thought bitterly. You brought this on yourself.

"I have done a grave disservice," the Judge said quietly, and Sarah heard and saw his distaste as he spoke the words.

"I'm sure ... it was inadvertent?" Sarah hazarded.

"No." The Judge shook his head, looked off up the street, then back at Sarah. "Perhaps if we sat somewhere."

Sarah gestures to the bench not far from the shoolhouse and the pair descended the stairs.

His Honor looked around, his bottom lip thrust up against his upper, crowding his mustache out: he waited until Sarah was seated before settling his old bones down beside her, placing his hat carefully in his lap.

"I need," he said abruptly, "to make an apology."

"Yes, Your Honor?"

The Judge glared at something unseen in the distance.

"I made an aaa ..." -- he stopped, looked at the attractive younger woman, and she saw his ears steadily reddening, then his face.

"I ... addressed someone rather harshly."

"I see."

"It wasn't ... who I thought it was."

"Oh?"

His Honor closed his eyes, took a long breath, blew it out.

"This is harder than I thought," he admitted.

Sarah patted his arm encouragingly. "Try plain language, Your Honor."

His Honor grimaced, thrust out his bottom jaw.

"I ... thought a messenger ... was you."

"Messenger?" Sarah asked, her voice puzzled.

"The other night. That fellow I sent you to interrogate showed up in a coffin."

"Oh, yes. I'm sorry, I arrived too late --"

"My fault." His Honor cut her off with his interrupting words and a quick wave of his wrinkled-back hand. "I wasn't ... I should have sent you earlier. That was my fault, not yours."

Sarah nodded but said nothing in reply.

"A boy drove the coffin and a message. I sent him to Digger's and he took care of the Potter's Field detail."

Sarah nodded again.

"The boy also brought a messenger." The Judge turned his head, looked at Sarah. "I thought it was you."

Sarah's expression was curious as she replied, "Me?
The Judge looked down, viciously laced his fingers together, almost as if he wished he was seizing someone by the throat.

"It was one of the White Nuns. I thought ..."
Sarah's hand was warm through the sleeve of his coat as she squeezed his arm gently.

"She was veiled, and you thought it was me?" Sarah whispered.

The Judge nodded miserably, his eyes closed.

"Was her veil ... was it wet?"

He nodded again.

It was Sarah's turn to nod: she squeezed his arm gently, again, and then put her arm around his shoulders.

"Your Honor," she said quietly, "I read a man describe a politician as he imagined him to be: big around as a church and tall as a shot tower."

Judge Hostetler grunted.

"That's what your conscience is like," Sarah whispered. "You are a good man, Your Honor. You are a man who is doing a difficult job and doing it as very best he can." Sarah released her arm, ran her hand across his back. "Now hold still, I'm looking for something."

The Judge was silent as Sarah ran her fingernails lightly across at shoulder blade level.

"Um-hmm," she hummed briskly, then in her schoolteacher's voice she said, "Just as I suspected."

The Judge frowned, looked at her. "What?"

Sarah gave him a patient look.

"Your Honor, I was looking to see if you had vertical slits in your coat, right about shoulder blade level."

"Slits?" he asked skeptically.

Sarah nodded, brought up her thumb and forefinger. "About a half inch wide," she said, "and maybe ten inches to a foot long." She smiled and her voice was gentle as she added, "I was looking to see if you have a set of angel wings sticking out of your coat."

"Angel wings?" the Judge asked, confused.

Sarah nodded.

"Your Honor, you are a man. You are a just and upright man and you do the very best you can with what you have, but sometimes even the very best men will make mistakes. You don't have those angel wings yet, and that tells me you are human, just like everyone else." She took his hands in both of hers, squeezed, looked him in the eye, her expression very sincere, her eyes very blue. "Your Honor, thank you for your words and bless you for caring enough to speak them. I can let the Sister know of your apology."

"I should tell her myself," the Judge muttered sourly.

Sarah laid her hand gently on his whiskered cheek, the gesture of an understanding schoolteacher comforting a miserable schoolboy who imagined the world was going to crumble and fall apart because he'd bruised a little girl's feelings.

"I will let her know," Sarah whispered, "and I will report back to you."

"Thank you," the Judge said quietly, squeezing Sarah's hands gently as he did. "I appreciate that kindness."

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79. AN IRISH NOSE

Men talk.

Men talk freely when they drink.

Men talk more freely when they drink in a man's establishment.

The Silver Jewel had elk's antlers over the bar, spitoons set around handy, poker tables and a roulette wheel, drink to dampen the throat, food to fill the belly; it had a piano, a variety of piano players of various skill levels, and it had a few ladies who disported themselves most shamelessly on the small stage, to the general approval of all present.

The saloon was the center of the intelligence community.

Lawman or lawless, curious or gossip, anyone who wanted to know anything about anyone generally started at the saloon, for most times, if it was to be known, it would be known there, and sometimes information came to the interested without their pursuit.

A perpetual subject of discussion among men is women, especially the local product; conversations sometimes take a turn for the improper, and the Sheriff was drawn into one such.

On this particular day he came in, looking around as he always did; he ordered a sandwich and coffee, and started to drift back toward his usual seat in the back, the table in the corner -- the Lawman's Corner, it was called, for that's where he generally parked his carcass, so he had a wall to his back and a view of the place -- but for some reason he hesitated at another table, and seated himself, and shortly his sour mood was dissipated with the good natured conversation of several residents of his county.

They began by discussing the physical attributes of the current dancer on stage, and their general consensus was that her lack of skill was more than made up by her, um, proportions; particulars were discussed, and in some detail, and the Sheriff leaned back and murmured to the cute little waitress, and she patted his shoulder and whispered in his ear, "Sure thing, honey, do you want me to bring it here or back there?"

After she sashayed back toward the kitchen with the Sheriff's order in hand, the fellows chuckled and teased the Sheriff about his skill at attracting lovely young women: they then began discussing their wives, as men sometimes will, when they are comfortable and their tongues (and sensibilities) loosened up.

The Sheriff held his own counsel as the conversation turned uncomfortably to the intimate, with the men discussing rather ... improper ... attributes of their wives: it was mostly in the form of bragging, each declaring his wife more skilled than the other fellow's, and the Sheriff was about ready to shift his weight and stand up and extract himself from this increasingly-uncomfortable conversation when a rancher on his left clapped a hard hand on the lawman's forearm and boomed, "What about your wife, Sheriff? Tell us about her!"

The Sheriff regarded the man quietly through half-lidded eyes.

On the one hand he had no wish to cast a wet blanket upon the party.

On the other hand he was not about to soil his bride's reputation, nor give anyone a mental image of how she looked in the bedroom when any of them looked at her next.

He smiled ... a quiet, secretive smile, and leaned forward, his forearms pressed into the edge of the table, and he looked around.

"Fellas," he said in a low and confidential voice, "some of you have a pet name for your wife, and so do I."

He looked around again and they leaned in, as if to partake of a shared secret.

With a perfectly straight face, the Sheriff said, "I call my wife Big Red."

There were lecherous smiles and chuckles, elbows dug into neighbors, minds dove quickly into the gutter searching for the true meaning of this revelation.

"Y'see, fellas, my wife is six foot two, two hundred pound, mean as a snake and twice as fast -- matter of fact, for her morning exercise, she'll run barefoot down a bobwarr fence, swinging' a bobcat by the tail out of each hand, just a-darin' 'em to growl!"

He leaned back, pantomining the two-hand spin and grinning, and the fellows at the table blinked and laughed and realized they'd just been taken in hook line and sinker: the waitress came around the corner and the Sheriff stood, winked at the guys, then walked with the waitress back to his corner table.

Good-natured laughter followed them and the waitress gave the Sheriff a curious smile.

"What were you tellin' 'em, Sheriff?" she asked quietly, so only he could hear.

The Sheriff grinned -- a quick, just-between-you-and-me grin -- and he replied, "I wasn't about to talk about Esther like they wanted, so I figured them politicians is right -- if you tell a big enough lie they'll believe it, so I told 'em a whopper!"

The waitress giggled, her eyes shining. "What did you tell 'em, Sheriff?"

The Sheriff repeated his yarn and the Waitress laughed quietly, patted the lawman on the shoulder.

"I'm proud of you," she giggled, and the Sheriff watched as she sashayed back across the floor -- I never did see that girl walk normal, he thought. Maybe she just walks when she's outside.

He took a bite of his sandwich, leaned back, chewed happily.

 

Up at the bar, Sean and two of his men were sharing a sociable beer, booted feet up on the polished foot rail; beside him, a fellow was discussing, what else, the local female population.

"Now you take that schoolmarm," he said in a puzzled voice. "Usually they're old maids. Nobody marries 'em by the time they're eighteen so all they have left is teachin' other men's young." He took a swallow of beer, frowned. "That one they've got here, she's too young. I think she's a little girl pretending to be a teacher. Maybe she's addled in the head and they're just bein' nice to her?"

"Well, what about that other schoolmarm, the older one?"

"Ah, yeah, she must be an old maid. Kind of homely, too."

"Lad," Sean rumbled, "have a care now."

"Why?" the fellow challenged, turning toward the big Irishman and thrusting himself forward aggressively. "Whattaya gonna do about it?"

A big and very strong hand slapped hard against the man's chest, grabbed a good handful of coat and vest and shirt, and twisted up the material into a knot.

The fellow found himself hauled off his feet and pulled to the side, and he was nose to nose with something that might not have been the very worst of all worlds, but it surely was not very good.

It was a town marshal, a head and a half taller than he, with an unhappy expression.

"That ugly old schoolmarm," Marshal Jackson Cooper rumbled with a voice that started somewhere south-southwest of his belt buckle, "is my wife. Would you care to say anything else about her?"

Jackson Cooper did not wait for an answer.

He thrust the man up, at arm's length, raised him to elbow lock and stopped.

"Tell me when you are tired, little man."

The man's eyes were wide, his face was red, his mouth opened and closed a few times, and he finally managed to gasp, "I, I, I ... okay," and Jackson Cooper lowered him, but not all the way.

He held him at his own eye level, looked at the big Irish fire chief.

"Sean," he rumbled -- it would have been difficult for him to say anything in less than a rumble, popular belief had him born crying in a basso profundo -- "Sean, what was it you told me about the Irishman's nose?"

Sean set down his beer, turned.

"Lad," he said conversationally, "ye've been speakin' o' this man's wife, an' that's no' a healthy thing t' do. I've seen him pick up an anvil an' toss it up on his shoulder an' carry it wherever he pleased. He's pinched men's heads off" -- he raised his hand, closing his fist as if squeezing a neck, then with a little jerk -- "an' their heads just sort of popped off." He looked at the big town marshal and grinned, an easy, personable grin, his teeth white beneath his curled black handlebar.

"Me pappy taught me at a tender age t' take care o' me good looks." He chuckled.

"He taught me what I'm teachin' you now." He leaned closer, raised an eyebrow and said confidentially, "It's many an Irish nose has gotten itself broke by th' Irishman's tongue beneath!"

 

Later that day, the Sheriff had occasion to stop and talk with Jackson Cooper, and each shared a laugh at the other's escapade: the Sheriff expressing his approval that Jackson Cooper bought the offending fellow a beer before throwing him bodily out of the saloon, and Jackson Cooper laughing with admiration at the Sheriff's fanciful descritption of the dignified, green-eyed, red-haired, matronly Esther Keller, running barefoot down a bobwarr fence.

Personally, the Marshal thought she might run down a tightrope, and he doubted not that she could sling two bobcats at once, but he kept these reservations to himself.

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80. "DO YOU HAVE 'EM BY THE DOZEN?"

The sledge hammer broke.

More correctly, the handle broke right up against the head.

The New York Irishman swore, loudly and most sincerely, drew back and flung the hammer handle just as far as he could sling it.

Glaring at the hammer head as it rolled one final time, then lay still, he decided against kicking the pipe stake he was trying to drive into the ground.

The English Irishman snorted, walked over and picked up the broke-off head.

"I'll re-haft this," he sneered, "an' show ye how it's done."

"You do that!" the New York Irishman snapped. "You just do that!"

 

The Sheriff's hands could move faster than a man's eyes could follow.

He could produce a Colt revolver, or a fighting knife, with a speed that bordered on legerdemain.

He was known to seize a wrongdoer by the shirt front and press the offender like a weight, stiff arm overhead, just to make a point.

He was also known to seize a scoundrel by the back of the shirt and by the belt, and whip him around in a fast circle and through the nearest window, but in fairness he never did that in his own town, for he knew how hard good window glass was to get, and how much it cost.

No, in Firelands County, if he had occasion to bodily throw a man, he took care either to pitch him out an open door (if he felt charitable) or into the nearest solid wall (which was more often the case).

Jacob watched his father's hands and marveled.

Parson Belden watched as well, but held his counsel as the old warrior with the iron-grey mustache was concentrating on his work.

The cat the Sheriff was holding didn't seem to mind, though.

The Sheriff had the cat upside down and was gently, carefully giving the puddy tat a belly rub, to which the cat responded with a resounding, sustained purr.

 

Levi Rosenthal stepped off the steam train, resolve in his heart and a lump in his throat.

Today was a day he was at once anticipating, and almost dreading.

Levi, a veteran detective, was no stranger to going into situations that most would flee; this, he reflected, was most certainly one of those.

He pressed his palm against his coat for the two hundred seventy fifth time since leaving Denver -- leaving, with his worldly goods packed and aboard the train -- leaving, for the last time, God willing, save maybe for a visit to the theater, or maybe the dentist if absolutely necessary.

He walked over to the waiting carriage, flipped a coin to the boy at the horse's head, climbed aboard.

He knew where he was going.

He'd be back for his luggage.

Right now he had something to do, and as he flipped the reins and clucked to the gelding, he realized he was grinning, grinning like a damned fool.

 

"There now," the German Irishman said as he brushed wood shavings off the foot powered drill press, "all clean for ye. Once ye wedge that new handle ye can soak it in a bucket o' water --"

"I've replaced these before," the English Irishman interrupted.

"Ah, well, then, ye'll no' be needin' my help." The German Irishman was unperturbed by his fellow fireman's peevishness.

He was English, after all, an' a gentleman had to make allowances.

 

Mrs. Parson, as she was known -- Mrs. Parson, not Mrs. Belden -- was a motherly, matronly woman with a perpetually cheerful expression and a firm opinion that every man she met was chronically underfed: at the moment she was busy forcing another slice of pie on each of her guests, though in fairness neither father nor son objected to her good berry pies.

Especially when they were still warm from the oven.

The Parson's normally hostile housecat must have been mollified by the Sheriff's unexpected but most welcome ministrations, for it padded over to the stove and curled up on the floor beneath, where the warm floor below and the warm stove above could radiate comfortably upon the feline's form.

"Now Parson," the Sheriff mumbled through a mouthful of pie, "does your piano need tuned anytime soon?"

The Parson thanked his wife and picked up his fork. He'd given a quick blessing already so there was no need to delay his own appreciation of his goodwife's presentation: he cocked his head a little, calculated where his first thrust would impale the flaky crust.

"It does need tuned, Sheriff," he replied, and made the first cut into what he knew would be an absolutely delicious first bite.

 

Levi Rosenthal drove at a deliberate, but unhurried, pace.

He was a kindly sort at heart and he well knew the abuses a rented hack endured: the gelding responded well enough to a gentle hand on the reins, and Levi soon passed beneath the cast iron arch that used to say ROSENTHAL, and might again.

He drew up in front of the ranch house, set the brake; the hired man came and took the gelding's bridle and Levi released the brake and thanked the man.

Bonnie McKenna stood in the doorway as Levi jumped from the carriage: he bent his knees to take the shock of landing, straightened, slowly removed his immaculately-brushed Derby.

He opened his mouth to greet her and his throat was suddenly very, very dry.

His hand pressed against his coat front, pressed the little box in his inner pocket against his ribs.

His feet felt like lead as he raised one foot, placed it on the first step.

 

"Now," the English Irishman said, spitting on his palm and clapping his hands briskly together, "I'll show ye how it's done!"

He set the hammer's face on the slightly battered end of the one-inch pipe, drew the hammerhead off, swung it in a mighty circle and aimed such a blow at the pipe as to drive its full length into the ground with one mighty swing.

He'd judged his distance just a little off and the end of the pipe was hit, all right, but not by the smooth face of the wrought iron sledge hammer.

He hit it with that brand new handle.

The head broke off and the English Irishman, startled, let go of the hammer handle, shaking his hands to dissipate the sudden sting.

The New York Irishman, arms folded across his red-wool, bib-front shirt, said nothing.

He didn't have to.

 

"I thought it wise," the Sheriff said as he lowered the half empty coffee cup, "to inquire about your piano, since we're having the one in the Jewel tuned."

"Two for the price of one, then?" Parson Belden asked, eyes merry as he took a sip of good hot coffee.

"Not quite," the Sheriff smiled. "I'll pay for both, but while he's here, might as well get 'em both done."

Parson Belden nodded. "That's very kind, Sheriff. Yes, thank you, please have him tune ours as well."

The Sheriff nodded, reached into an inner pocket, withdrew an envelope. "I wonder if you'd do me a favor, Parson."

He must know what it is, Jacob thought, for the Parson nodded and smiled just a little as the Sheriff handed him an envelope.

 

"Please come in," Bonnie McKenna smiled, and Levi suddenly felt like an awkward, rawboned schoolboy.

He took a long breath, took Bonnie's hand and went to one knee.

"I have a question," he said, and with his free hand, he reached into that inner pocket and withdrew the small box he'd brought from a jeweler of his acquaintance in San Frisco.

He had to release Bonnie's hand to draw the box open, and he realized his fingers were trembling just a little as he fumbled, then dropped, the lid.

No matter.

He still had the ring.

Levi looked up at Bonnie's eyes, and at her smile, and he swallowed and then asked her the question he'd been repeating silently to himself all the way from Denver, the question he heard in the steam engine's rhythmic chant, the question he was trying hard not to blurt out.

 

Parson Belden opened the envelope, fingered the contents, then laid it down beside his crumb-dusted plate.

"And this is for ...?"

"I'd like to give a friend of mine a wedding present," the Sheriff grinned. "I believe you have the date."

"I have," the Parson nodded. "And you're paying for the wedding."

The Sheriff nodded a little and he and Jacob looked at one another, then back at the Parson.

"Yes, sir, I am."

Bonnie gave a little squeak, her hand cupped over her mouth, and she bounced twice on her toes like an excited schoolgirl as Levi rose.

Bonnie seized Levi and drew his mouth down to hers, and his arms went around her, gently at first, then more strongly.

It took a little while for them to come up for air, but when they did, her answer was yes.

 

"That's it," the German Irishman said. "You've broken the last hammer handle, an' I thought I had plenty laid in." He shook his head sadly, then worked the treadle again, drilled out the splintered ends of the broken stub.

It was his turn to go to the general store for supplies, and he asked WJ Garrison, the proprietor, if he had handles for the standard, twelve pound Ames sledge hammer.

WJ allowed as he did, how many would you like?

The German Irishman never cracked a smile as he said, "Do ye have 'em by the dozen?"

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81. "LET ME LIVE UNTIL CHRISTMAS"

 

Our table was plumb full. Not just with good cookin' but with family.

The maid plainly outdid herself, she and Esther brought in two of Daisy's girls to help with the cookin' and the serving and I set at the head of my own table and looked around and by golly now it felt good.

I had my firstborn son, and his wife and their sons, I had Bonnie and Levi and their twins and Sarah, I had Esther and our twins, and it felt right good.

We bowed our heads and I gave thanks -- I was never one for a long winded blessing and this was no exception, but the Almighty knows my heart, and He knew in that moment just how grateful I really was.

Earlier that day I rode up to the cemetery and Jacob was already there.

He was standing in front of Miriam's grave with his hat in his hand and he looked lost, he looked utterly lost and alone, and I knew he was remembering the first girl he fell for, and I remembered the feeling too ... I don't think they did anything but sit beside one another on that extra wide piano bench as Miriam played the piano, and Jacob marveled, for Miriam was blind and Jacob had always been gifted with eagle's eyes.

Miriam was also dying.

Jacob was there when she screamed herself to death, I don't know rightly what it was, Doc said what it was but I wasn't listening, for there are few things that will shatter my thoughts any faster than a woman screaming in agony and she did.

Jacob was with her to the last, holding her hand, his jaw set, looking from Miriam to Miriam's mama, and bless him, he handled it better than I did.

We rode away from that cemetery together, he and I, and both of us real quiet, and we rode a big circle around town and finally stopped where we could see a good distance and had a cliff behind us.

Jacob spoke first.

"Sir," he said, and I could tell he was considering something seriously, for I could hear the gears chuckling as they turned behind his eyes, "I reckon you are right."

I nodded, waited for him to continue.

He didn't look at me -- like me, his eyes were busy, studying the terrain before him, quartering it, sweeping each quadrant from near to far, lingering in those places a man might hide -- his voice continued, "You told me once not to hold too hard onto the past, lest we neglect the present."

I nodded, for I remembered the saying of it.

Jacob looked at me, a penetrating look, and I felt some pride for a man's son is always his son and I remembered his younger years, but here he was doing a man's job and making a man's choices and he actually listened to me.

It means something to the Grand Old Man when the son listens, and the Old Man finally realizes it.

"You were right, sir." His voice was distant, but decisive. "You were absolutely right."

I nodded, knowing he would see the tilt of my hat brim from the side of his eye.

We watched the carriage coming off the mountain to our right, following the road down, knowing Jacob's wife Annette and his young would follow it beside the Z&W's tracks for a ways, then it would fork off over a little rise and then down hill into town.

It still amazed me how clear the air was out here, so much more than my native Perry County hill country back in the Ohio territory.

"The only thing left in that graveyard," Jacob finally continued, "is the memories we leave on each stone." His lips twisted into a half-grin. "Miriam is long gone and what we planted was just a carcass."

I nodded.

It was a hard lesson, I knew, but one he'd learned on his own, a lesson I'd learned on my own.

Like me, he was a deep one, his feelings ran like an underground river most times, or like a deep, still pool.

We set there for several more minutes.

"By the time we get down there," I said, "Annette ought to be inside and them girls will be gossipin' somethin' fierce."

Jacob grinned, that quick flash of a grin I knew so well, and he said "Yes, sir," and we turned our horses back toward home, back toward gettin' together the way I'd wanted to do for some time.

Meals in that day and age were usually an almost silent affair.

Not at our house.

We laughed, we talked, when Levi said "Please pass the rolls" I picked up one and tossed at him, and of course everyone had to try tossing rolls at one another, at least until Sarah spoke up with that ornery look of hers and said "Please pass the mashed potatoes," and Levi and I both barked, "DON'T YOU DARE!" -- to the general laughter of the women, and the wide-eyed surprise of the children, for Levi and I were two men who very, very rarely raised our voices.

Bonnie and Esther were discussing women's fashions and the McKenna Dress Works, Jacob was telling Levi how some thirty head of McKenna cattle ended up on his place before his evil twin's demise, and Jacob kept them, had them all fattened up, and he could drive them back down the mountain whenever Levi wished; Sarah looked over at me and said, "I believe Brother William wishes to discuss a theft with you," and I leaned a little closer to hear her the more clearly: finally I shook my head, gestured with a bent finger, and she and I slipped out of the dining room and into my study.

I opened my humidor, picked up a hand-rolled Cuban. "Cigar?" I offered, giving her what I hoped was my best Innocent Look, but I'll admit that I've been practicing that Innocent Expression for near to a half century and it hasn't worked yet.

Sarah laughed and shook her head. "I never took up the habit," she smiled, "but I will take a brandy."

"You will do no such thing, young lady," I mock-scolded her. "You are far too young and pretty to take to strong drink!"

Sarah lowered her lashes and gave me a smoldering look and all of a sudden she wasn't my little girl anymore ... she was a woman, and a woman with worldly knowledge, and I felt a chill run down my back bone as she took a slow step toward me and I thought, My God, she's trying to seduce me! -- Sarah must have seen the shock on my face, she laughed again, and the sensual, worldly woman fell from her like a dropped lace curtain and in its place was the young, lovely, girlish Sarah I was used to seeing.

She turned, seated herself with the grace of a crowned royal settling into a velvet throne, placed her hands very properly in her lap and gave me a look of utter innocence -- her attempt was as successful as my attempt was not -- and she said, "Brother William wishes to discuss the theft of the Lance of St. Mercurius."

I frowned. "That's New Mexico," I said. "That's out of my jurisdiction."

"You're also a man that he trusts."

"There is that."

"I don't think it was stolen at all."

I folded my long tall frame down into a chair and leaned forward a little, my forearms on my knees: I needed to take the bend out of my lower back. "How's that?"

"I'll let him fill you in, but I don't think it was stolen."

"What do you believe happened?"

"I believe," Sarah said carefully, "he has received conflicting information."

I raised an eyebrow. "You sound evasive."

"I am a suspect."

"Mmm. Motive?"

Sarah spread her hands. "The Lance is a holy relic. It is said to have healing powers. Maybe it was taken to heal someone."

"But wouldn't that be in line with the Church's mission?"

Sarah dropped her hands back into her lap. "I can't say. Brother William will be here in the morning to discuss it with you."

"Where is he now?"

"Halfway down the mountain, I would imagine."

"He's walking?" I heard the surprise in my voice and mentally kicked myself for the slip.

Sarah nodded. "He usually walks. Sometimes people give him a ride. I bought him train tickets once, he used one and sold the other so he could feed a poor family."

I nodded. "Sounds just like him."

"You knew him during the War."

I nodded, smiling a little, for we'd ridden together with the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. Matter of fact I taught him to ride, in an age where nobody rode back East -- everyone drove -- drove carriages, drove wagons, drove buggies ... men didn't know how to ride and horses didn't know how to be ridden, and I taught my friend William and he taught the men under him.

I shook my head, dismissing the memories.

"Is that the only theft?"

Sarah nodded.

"And you are a suspect."

She nodded again.

"Are you confessing to a crime?"

Sarah smiled a little. "No."

"Good." I stood. "I wouldn't want to bring you the dessert course in jail."

Sarah stood as well. "The atmosphere is much more congenial here," she agreed, taking my arm.

I stopped, turned to face her squarely, looked at her with a serious expression, put my hands firmly on her shoulders.

"There's something you want to tell me," Sarah whispered, her hands on my upper arms.

I nodded.

"It's something about me."

I nodded again.

"And ... you are waiting for just the right time."

I swallowed something sticky that was welded in the back of my throat.

"I'll wait," she whispered, her eyes darting from my left eye to my right and back again. "When the time is right, tell me then."

I closed my eyes, turned my head away, then I pulled her into me, held her for a long moment, feeling her alive and warm in my arms, thinking This is my little girl, my little girl, my little girl, and I damned myself for siring a woman and not giving a thought that the seed I planted might actually have proven fertile.

"I'm sorry," I whispered to my own surprise.

"I know," Sarah whispered back, her voice almost inaudible against my coat. "It's all right. Whenever you're ready."

We returned to the table, to happy conversation and the smells of good cookin' and the feeling that this was right, that this was good, and I addressed myself to the Almighty and asked Him to let me live until Christmas, when I would tell Sarah what I needed to tell her, when I would give her what I needed to give her, when I would ask her forgiveness.

All I could think of in that moment, as I looked around at my family, there under my own roof, with my ranch around me, my herds and my fields and hay cut and stacked in for the winter, with grain stored against the cold weather, with sons and grandsons and a beautiful wife, all I could think of was the rich man who sat back and said "I have it all" and the Lord said "Thou fool, this day will I require thy soul!"

Let me last until Sarah's birthday, I pleaded.

Let me live until Christmas.

Until Christmas.

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82. METAL IN THE FORGE

The Sheriff and Sarah both rose at the brisk double knock on the study door.

The Sheriff crossed the floor with long-legged, absolutely silent strides, drew it open; Sarah's hand was in a fold of her dress, a half-smile on her pretty young face, her hand tight around the checkered walnut handle of her bulldog .44.

A tall figure in a hooded cloak bowed his thanks to the maid, threw back the hood, snow-melt glittering bright and wet on the woolen cowl.

"Permission to come aboard," Brother William said quietly, his eyes going to Sarah, then to the Sheriff.

"Granted, and welcome," the Sheriff grinned, gripping his old friend's shoulder and drawing him into the study's warmth. "We were speaking of your travels."

"I know," Brother William said ruefully. "My ears burned first with cold, then with your words."

He leaned his carved locust staff into a convenient corner, drew the cloak pin apart, allowing the maid to take his heavy, melt-damp garment to be hung in front of a friendly stove. "I see you have a guest."

"I understand there is a question." The Sheriff motioned to a chair, made a quick sweeping motion with his hand: Brother William did not need to be told twice: he'd enjoyed his old friend's hospitality before, and slid the chair up close to the stove, where he removed melt-heavy brogans and wet wool socks and gratefully thawed his cold, wet feet before the stove's mica windows.

"Sarah was telling me of a theft."

Brother William leaned his head back, rolled it back and forth, eliciting a muted snap from his neck bones.

"What can you tell me about it?"

Brother William took a long breath, sighed it out.

"There was no theft."

The Sheriff poured a brandy, extended it: Brother William reached for it without opening his eyes, took it, drank.

"If there was no theft, what happened?"

Brother William savored the distilled wine's vapors, tasting California sunshine and apricot groves, green beneath cloudless blue skies: in his imagination he could hear honeybees exploring the fragrant blossoms, and between the pleasant warmth spreading from his insides, and the welcome warmth on his chilly feet, it took an effort of will to reluctantly dismiss the moment and turn his mind to the Sheriff's question.

"It seems the Lance of St. Mercurius was in its rightful place after all." He opened his eyes, looked at Sarah. "And it seems that I owe you an apology."

"Yes you do," Sarah said tartly. "I was hardly the only one with access to the item, I was hardly the only one with means, motive or opportunity. Unless you accused all who fit that bill --"

Brother William raised a hand. "I was wrong," he said gently. "I was hasty and I spoke without forethought. I will confess this to the Abbott, and will do penance."

Sarah raised her chin, stood abruptly. "Brother William," she said, her voice stern, "stand up."

The Sheriff's eyes were hard, he nearly spoke to admonish Sarah: she looked at him, shook her head -- a quick left-right, no more than a half-inch, and he blinked, held his tongue, mentally reserving the right to speak sternly to Sarah if her words were less than proper.

Sarah walked up to the tall ecclesiastic, seized him by the upper arm, turned him slightly as she pressed her hand firmly against his back, running her hand along his shoulder blade.

"Mm-hmm," she grunted, then took a step, ran the flat of her hand across the other shoulder blade.

"Just as I thought." She turned, returned to her seat, sat.

"You may sit now."

Brother William raised an eyebrow. "Thank you," he said neutrally.

"Brother William, I do not find any trace of angel wings sticking out of the back of your robe."

"Angel wings?"

"In other words, sir, you are as human as the rest of us." Sarah leaned forward suddenly, her hands gripping her knees, her expression intense. "Please believe me, Brother William, when I tell you I have spoken far more harshly, acted far more rashly, and yet I am forgiven these harsh and rash acts. I would be remiss indeed if I refused you apology!"

"Oh." Brother William blinked, genuinely surprised, and the Sheriff relaxed, his face carefully impassive.

"Now Brother William," Sarah said, "I have a question."

"Ask."

"Why do you walk everywhere, even in such inclement weather?"

Brother William opened his mouth to reply, and Sarah stopped him with an upraised palm. "Let me guess. You are punishing yourself."

The Sheriff looked sharply at Sarah.

"And you," Sarah addressed the lawman, "punish yourself in your own way."

It was the Sheriff's turn to raise an eyebrow; he was annoyed, and didn't bother to mask that from his face.

"Now tell me, gentlemen," Sarah said quietly, "where do either of you get off punishing yourselves, when you are already forgiven your trespasses?"

"It's," both men said, then stopped: Brother William looked at the Sheriff, and the Sheriff nodded: Go ahead.

"It's ... complicated," Brother William began.

"I suppose you're not going to tell me you are both punishing yourselves for that damned War." Sarah looked from one to the other. "I suppose you are not going to admit that you still have nightmares, that you try to work yourself to exhaustion so you'll sleep without dreaming, that you walk because when you ride it reminds you of the Cavalry and that raises the nightmares again." She looked at the Sheriff. "And you punish yourself by remembering everyone that's died under your command, including the wife and little girl that died of the smallpox when you were not yet returned, so you keep that bottle of the Daine boys' liquid fire to scald your throat."

The Sheriff closed his mouth, looked uncomfortably at the tonsured friar.

"Let me tell you something," Sarah said, her voice low and urgent. "You are both good men. You are both decent and honorable men and you are both men doing what is necessary in this place at this time, and you are doing it in the only way open to either of you." Sarah stood, walked behind Brother William, laid a hand on his shoulder, looked at the Sheriff.

"You are both doing the very best that you can."

Her voice was tight, urgent.

"Now would the both of you kindly quit beating up on yourselves and get on with living? I'd like to keep you both around for a while!"

"Even if I'm wrong?" Brother William asked wryly.

Sarah whirled, straddled his long legs, took his cold cheeks between her hands, thrust her face into his, her pale eyes burning into his startled brown orbs.

"Yes," she whispered. "Especially when you're wrong!"

She looked at the Sheriff, straightened.

"You were both tried as metal in the forge," she said, hoisting her leg and pulling back from her undignified interposition between the chilled cleric and the stove: "you both speak the same language, you both knew the same privations, you shared a common hell and yet you both survived and you are still good men!"

There was a knock at the door, the maid drew it open: the smell of fresh, hot coffee preceded her, and she and one of Daisy's girls brought in two trays, set up a small table and placed it at Brother William's elbow.

"Ye're still too skinny," Mary declared in a worried voice: "ye need a guid woman t' take care 'a' ye, an' don' gi'e me tha' guff about celibacy! God Almighty created man an' woman an' he meant for us t' pair off!"

"Are you applying for the job?" Brother William asked innocently, and the maid swatted him with the towel she kept perpetually draped over her off shoulder.

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83. "MONSTERS, PA!"

Jacob closed his eyes and relaxed.

It had been a long day, he'd worked hard, but he'd got the barn shingles repaired and to his satisfaction, he'd rebuilt most of a line shack, which sounds easier than it was -- he had to wagon in timber enough for the job, every cut was with a hand saw or a hatchet, but he'd measured carefully and planned ahead, and the scrap he brought back from the job wouldn't fill a peck basket.

Annette rocked with him, her head laid over on his shoulder, her knitting forgotten and set aside: she'd worked hard as well, like all women of the frontier; she had a maid, like any woman of substance, but she still worked herself harder than her hired help -- but now, with little Joseph tucked in, with the fire banked, the day put to bed with their son, the two settled into the double wide rocking chair and let the day's tensions run off them like water off a windowpane.

Jacob's ear twitched as he caught the whisper of covers thrown back, then the thump! -- pitty patter, pitty patter of bare feet in a hurry.

Annette drew back as she felt her husband tense, and Jacob leaned forward, opened his arms as he opened his eyes, seizing his son as the lad ran all a-panic for the safety of his big strong Pa.

Jacob leaned back, drew the lad into the rocker with him, reached down beside him and grabbed the corner of a blanket Annette kept folded near to hand, and tossed it over the three of them.

"Now fancy meetin' you in a place like this," Jacob said conversationally. "What brings you out of a nice warm bunk?"

Joseph was trembling, hugging his Pa with the desperation of a terrified child: he drew his head back, enough to see the reassurance of his father's face.

"Monsters, Pa!" he whispered, then cowered down against Joseph's breast.

Joseph ran his arm across his son's nightshirted back, held him firmly.

"Monsters," he echoed, his voice hardening. "Monsters come into my house and frightened my son?"

Joseph nodded, hearing the crackle of his hair scooting between the side of his head and his Pa's collar bone.

Jacob eased the blanked off his son and himself, stood: he bounced Joseph a little, enough to run his arm down under his boy's bottom, then gripped the lad's shoulder with his free hand, drew him away enough so he could see his son's face.

"Joseph," he whispered, "I don't allow no monsters in my house!"

Joseph looked at his Pa, half-fearful, half-hopeful.

"First off we got to run that scoundrel outta here, then we gotta figure out how'd he get in, and plug the hole!"

Jacob strode purposefully into the next room, opened the gun cabinet.

"Now let's see," he said thoughtfully, "what's good for monsters ..."

He picked up a fighting knife, turned it, regarded the shining, sharp-edged steel.

"Ohhh, yesssss," he hissed. "Monsters don't like steel, do they?"

He looked into his boy's bright-blue eyes. "Do they, son?"

Joseph shook his head emphatically.

"Now what do you reckon that monster will do if I go in there with a knife?"

Joseph cowered into his Pa, shivering again.

"It's a big monster, Pa," he whispered.

"And where'd you see that scoundrel last?"

"It was under my bed, Pa. I had to jump out so it wouldn't grab me an' drag me under!"

Jacob's eyes were pale and hard as his voice.

"I," he said coldly, "do NOT let no monsters grab my boy!"

Joseph shivered again, shivered for fear, and not for fear of the monster that burst into his dreams, shattering his sleep and sending him in panic into his Pa's arms: no, he shivered for fear, the fear of being this close to a strong man with that much anger in his soul.

They walked over to Joseph's bedroom doorway.

The door was open; the bedroom was dark.

"Joseph," Jacob said, squatting and setting his son's bare feet on a crocheted rug, "is there any other way out of that room?"

"No, sir," Joseph said faintly.

"We won't stay here in the doorway then," Jacob said thoughtfully. "If it feels trapped it might get mean an' then I'd have to get mean with it." He held up the knife, his eyes pale. "'Course, I'd kinda like that. Get even for scarin' my boy."

"Yes, sir," Joseph said uncertainly.

"Come on, Joseph," Jacob said cheerfully, "let's go find it!"

Gripping his son's wrist and leading with the knife, Jacob strode boldly into the bedroom.

 

Sarah tried to scream.

She felt her own blood, wet and sticky, she felt the burn of rivening claws as they tore her flesh open, ripped her cheek and shoulder and down her side as she turned and drove the Solingen schlager deep into alien flesh.

The creature was fast but she was faster: she drove the yard of hand-forged steel to the hilt, twisted it, yanked it hard, ripping the monster's insides as she swung the main-gauche to block the lashing tail and its half-dozen spikes.

Red eyes gleamed from the surrounding rocks, the black sands highlighted by the dull red glow that was the only light in this place.

Some instinct woke Bonnie: she slipped from her bed, reached for the robe as she thrust bare feet into fur lined slippers: she didn't know what was wrong, only that something was wrong, and she needed to find out what disturbed her spirit.

The twins were sound asleep, angelic and pale in the moonlight; Bonnie eased back out of their room, drawing the door silently shut, then turned to Sarah's bedroom door.

She hesitated, knowing her oldest daughter slept on a hair trigger, and she didn't want to inherit a hard-swung fist -- or worse -- but her mother's gut told her more strongly that she was needed, something was wrong, that her child needed her, and she gripped the door knob, turned, pushed the door open.

 

Jacob bellied down beside the bed, looked under, looked back at Joseph.

"Joseph," he said, "how big is that monster?"

"It's big, Pa," Joseph said, nodding solemnly as he replied.

Jacob looked under the bed again.

"What does it look like?"

Joseph opened his mouth, his eyes widening as he faced the memory of his fear.

 

The monster seized Sarah's bare ankle, its claws interlocking.

Sarah was in full warrior.

Instead of yanking away from the monster's cold, clenching grip, she surged as close as she could, drove steel into its joint, slashed the basket-hilted dagger's edge down the scaly forearm, laying open flesh and spraying green ichor and avulsing scales, flesh and tendons with the ferocity of her repeated attacks.

The monster screamed, its claws suddenly powerless, and Sarah charged --

 

Bonnie bent over her trembling daughter, illuminated like a tortured ivory simulacrum in the moonlight's pale shaft.

Sarah shivered and made a little whimpering noise, struggled as if against invisible bonds, then her eyes snapped open and they were white and glowing as if fired from within, and she started to sit up, stopped: Sarah blinked, focused, opened her mouth, gasped in a great lungful of air as if she'd been underwater, as if she'd just come up from a long, deep dive, and she twisted her arms out from under the covers and she seized Bonnie and whispered, "It was only a dream! It was just a dream!" and Bonnie sat slowly on the side of Sarah's bed as her daughter struggled upright, her arms strong and trembling as she gasped yet again, "It was just a dream!"

Sarah twisted her hips just a little, and the tip of the main-gauche disappeared into the bedcovers.

Sarah made a mental note to trade out her bed linens before the maid found them, and she held her mother and closed her eyes and whispered a silent prayer of thanks that she hadn't driven that fourteen inch length of tempered steel into her Mama's guts when the woman touched her shoulder and Sarah came alive.

 

Jacob sat beside the bed and motioned Joseph over to him.

"This," he said, "is a monster that only you can see."

Joseph's eyes widened with fear.

"You are the only one who can get rid of it."

Joseph swallowed hard, nodded.

"Here." Jacob placed the fighting knife in his son's hand, closed the soft pink fingers around the wire-wound handle.

"Now you'll have to go under and get that monster but I will be right beside you."

Joseph nodded again and the two bellied down beside the bed.

"Let's go."

 

"It's been a while since you had those nightmares, sweets," Bonnie whispered.

"I know, Mama," Sarah whispered back, sitting up in bed and hugging her knees.

Bonnie saw Sarah look at her -- with the moonlight behind her, Sarah's face was hard to see, but Bonnie could tell Sarah was looking at her -- "Mama, was I screaming?"

Bonnie laughed quietly, shook her head. "No, sweets," she whispered. "You did not make a sound."

"But you knew I was having a nightmare."

"A mother knows."

Mother's hands squeezed daughter's hands.

"Thank you, Mama."

Bonnie gathered Sarah into her like she used to do when Sarah was still a little girl, and stroked her hair, and Sarah allowed herself to relax, as she managed to get her thigh atop the left-hand dagger.

 

Annette came into Joseph's bedroom with a lamp.

Two sets of legs stuck out from under -- or rather, one set of legs and one pair of little bare feet, and she squatted, lowering the lamp, letting the yellowish light push aside the shadows under the bed.

"It's gone," she heard Joseph say, and she saw her husband's hand float over and rest on his son's back.

"You got rid of it," he replied, his voice hollow-sounding under the bunk.

Father and son wiggled backwards out from under the bed.

"Come on, Joseph," his Pa said, winking at Annette. "Let's put that slicer away, and if I recall right, your Ma had some pie left over. I think there was somethin' wrong with it so you and me oughta eat it all so your Ma don't get sick."

Joseph grinned, that enthusiastic, flash-of-a-happy-boy grin, and he gave a quick, enthusiastic, but quiet-voiced "Yeah! -- I mean yes, sir."

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84. FRENCHY

There was a quick tap at the door, a worried rat-tat, the rapid cadence of a concerned female.

Sarah shoved the holed bed linens into the corner, hid them as best she could; she'd replaced the bedsheets and the comforter, as she did not want her mother to know she'd almost gutted her the night before when Bonnie woke Sarah from a nightmare, and Sarah came within an ace of driving a foot of Solingen steel through the covers and into what a moment before had been a scaled, clawed, ravening hell-monster.

She'd stopped the hard-thrust blade but not until it protruded, unseen, a good two inches, its tip just tickling her Mama's white flannel nightgown.

Sarah straightened, glanced quickly at the newly-made bed -- made it! she thought, then composed herself and called, "Come in."

The maid thrust a folded note at her: Sarah turned it over, blinked, turned it a little to get the window's full light on the red-wax seal.

Brother William, she thought.

This can't be good.

 

The Frenchman shivered, wide-eyed, gripped in a waking nightmare.

He'd seen something that blasted his sensibilities, he'd experienced something that drove reason from his mind -- or maybe it was the result of cold, of exposure, of hunger or drink or maybe even the opium that was readily available.

Brother William took the man's cold, quivering hand, spread the fingers, turned it palm-up: there was no resistance to his move, and Brother William drew gentle fingertips along the hand at the base of the fingers, reading the calluses, frowning.

He's not a miner, he thought, and those aren't timber-cutter's hands ... he doesn't have a roper's grip, so he's not a cowhand ...

"We sent for Sister Mercurius," Brother Sebastian said quietly, his hands thrust into his robe's sleeves. "Of all the healers, she is the most skilled."

Brother William nodded, considering the drunken excuse for a physician that lived without the Rabbitville monastery's walls: the man was a menace, he was known among the local women as absolutely not to be called when a woman was in labor, and truth be told most of the time he was too far into the sauce to come if he were called: Brother William fully expected the man to die at any time, but he'd been a pot-bellied, red-nosed, stumbling drunk for a year now, and hadn't had the courtesy to die yet.

"Thank you, Brother Sebastian." he said. "If you could remain with our guest."

"Of course, Brother William."

The Frenchman's breathing was labored, but slower; his eyes closed, then opened again, his mouth working, trying to give voice to whatever he'd seen.

Brother William sandwiched the man's still-cold hand between his own warm palms: he pressed gently, leaned down, whispered, "What did you see?"

The Frenchman shivered hard -- almost convulsed -- and gasped, "S'il vous plaît, Madonne! S'il vous plaît"

Please, Madonna? Brother William thought, his eyes widening with alarm. Father God, did this man have a vision?

Brother William and Brother Sebastian looked at one another.

"Madonna?" Brother Sebastian breathed, crossing himself. "Brother William, men of the wild country are often of a more ... pure ... spirit than men of cities."

They looked at their shivering guest, then at one another again.

"Brother William, did this man ... did Our Lady visit this man?"

"La lance d'argent," the man groaned, reaching up with his free hand, as if to grasp what he saw with what inner vision tormented him, then his arm fell, and he closed his eyes.

"He rests," Brother William said after several moments, satisfying himself their visitor was finally asleep, warmed enough to relax; he was breathing normally now, and the tall, weather tanned friar drew the heavy quilt up around the man's chin.

"Remain with him, Brother Sebastian. When he wakes, tend his needs, and get some good stout broth into him."

"I shall, Brother William." Brother Sebastian hesitated, then: "Brother William?"

The taller friar turned, regarded his curious Brother.

"La lance d'argent," Brother Sebastian quoted, rolling the unfamiliar words over his tongue, puzzling his brows together. "I don't ... is that French?"

Brother William nodded. "It is," he replied, but to himself he was thinking that he probably knew just what -- and who -- the man meant.

He turned his thoughts to the Sanctuary, and their Relic.

I had better see if it's still there!

 

Sarah boarded the train with her beloved Snowflake, ascending the stock car ramp with the massive, unshod Frisian: she preferred to run Snowflake barefoot, knowing that unless she rode rocky terrain, there was no need for horse shoes on this great war-bread mount.

The Bear Killer padded silently after them, looking less like a dog and more like an Oriental lion, or perhaps a half grown bear: while they waited on the train, Sarah watched impassively as two local children came running at her fanged, blooded, fast and deadly guardian: they fearlessly mauled the thick-furred canine, climbing happily onto his back, hugging him around the neck, chattering happily as if to a dear friend: The Bear Killer was descended from the great Tibetan mountain dogs, bred to protect an entire village, and capable of doing just that -- and Sarah's Bear Killer earned his name the hard way, by locking his jaws onto a wounded grizzly's throat, and almost dying in the process.

The Bear Killer snuffed loudly at his youthful tormentors, his great brush of a tail swinging dangerously (he'd been known to knock children off their feet with a swing of that massively plumed tail), and when the younger one's attentions -- consisting of trying to pull his left ear from his skull -- well, all creatures have their limits, and it was to the general amusement of everyone at the depot that day, that The Bear Killer nosed his attacker to the ground, seized the lad by the crossed overall straps, and packed him like a howling, kicking luggage, back up the depot steps and deposited him at his Pa's boots.

It didn't help the little boy's red-faced temper that his Pa was laughing like a damned fool at the sight, for he'd seen the lads charge The Bear Killer, and he waited patiently for them to learn the hard way not to fool with someone else's dog.

He just didn't expect it to work out quite like this.

Sarah dumped a bait of grain in the trough, which instantly had Snowflake's undivided; she slashed her tail happily in the stock car's chilly air as the ramp was removed, the door slid shut: not long after, The Lady Esther's whistle pierced the winter air and the engineer opened the sanders to get traction for steel wheels on steel rails as she shouldered into her load.

 

Brother William pressed the hidden releases in sequence, then opened the cleverly-disguised panel, withdrew the long wooden casket.

It was as wide and as deep as his hand could span, but it was nearly as long as he was tall: it held a lance, hafted of close-grained wood, a haft that had seen use, and hard use at times, judging from sword-cuts and what had to be teeth impressions in the wood.

Brother William had been a warrior; he knew how hard you had to swing hardwood to put tooth marks into it.

The butt end was steel-shod, a circlet wide as his palm was shrunk around the butt of the spear by a long-dead smith: this, too, saw use, bore the scars and wear-marks of having been used in combat, of being carried in the stirrup-socket of a mounted fighter's war-horse.

He'd seen such lance-sockets in his lifetime.

As a matter of fact he'd seen one not a month ago, and as his long, spatulate fingers caressed the chip-carved lid, he remembered the veiled nun whose horse bore just such a socketed-stirrup saddle.

As a matter of fact, one such saddle was at that moment stopping in front of the Monastery's Sanctuary, and while the saddle had been ridden by a fashionable young woman in a fashionable riding dress when she boarded the train, when the great horse descended the ramp at the Rabbitville depot, the mare was ridden by a white nun, a veiled White Sister.

The door of the sanctuary opened, flooding the quiet interior with bright, midmorning sunlight: he could not see the figure in the doorway for the glare, but as the door closed, he recognized the white nun advancing down the center aisle toward him.

The nun stopped, crossed herself before the Altar and the Host, then turned and stood patiently on the other side of the closed casket.

Brother William lifted the catches, opened the lid.

Sister Mercurius dipped her hands, palms-up, into the velvet-lined container, gripped the Lance of St. Mercurius, slowly lifted the silver-headed spear from its resting place: holding it above her, she knelt, head bowed, for a long moment, then rose.

She rose quickly, easily: it was as if she were changed: no longer a silent, gentle nun, she spun the lance quickly, effortlessly, as if it were an old friend once again in her hands: her voice was strong, rich, commanding as she spoke, driving the iron-shod butt into the floor, hard, to emphasize her order.

"Come," she said, her voice filling the sanctuary. "We have work to do."

 

"Chanteur," the man said, his voice almost normal.

Brother Sebastian's head snapped up, his fingers freezing on the third decade bead of his green-glass Rosary.

"Le chanteuse ..."

His head rolled left, rolled right: Brother Sebastian took the man's hand, squeezed it between his own.

"I am here, my son," he said quietly. "You are safe. You are in --"

The Frenchman's grip tightened suddenly, painfully, and his eyes opened wide, locked onto Brother Sebastian's, and he almost shouted, "Le chanteur de loups!"

Brother Sebastian shot a beseeching look at the opening door, relief plain on his face as Brother William and -- thank God! Sister Mercurius! -- crossed the threshold.

Sister Mercurius stepped quickly to the far side of the bed, laid a hand on the Frenchman's breast, then quickly moved her touch to his throat, his cheek, his forehead.

"How long has he been here?" she asked, her voice urgent, and Brother Sebastian opened his mouth to reply when she interrupted.

"It doesn't matter. Two dishpans of hot water, four towels, a tureen of soup and the left-hand medicinal jug." She leaned the Lance of St. Mercurius in the corner, The Bear Killer sitting beside her, his head level with the supine man's shoulder.

Sarah -- or, rather, The Little Faceless One, different somehow in the white habit and silk face veil -- laid a caressing palm on the man's cheek.

"Look at me," she whispered, then, "Regarde moi."

He opened unnaturally-bright eyes.

"Madonne," he whispered, raising a trembling hand.

Sarah took the hand, held it: light seared into the room again, and four white-gowned, silk-veiled nuns came in, two with dishpans of steaming-hot water, two with towels.

"We must warm him," Sarah instructed, "and get some soup into him."
Brother Sebastian shouldered the door open, carefully balancing his tray and its precious cargo: the odor of good, rich soup filled the room, and Sarah nodded approval.

"Help me sit him up," she said, "and strip him down ... good, he's already." She dipped a towel in a basin of hot water, wrung it as dry as she could, wrapped his hands and forearms in the steaming-hot towel. "His feet as well, one at a time, and keep the rest of him covered. We have to warm him up from the outside and the in." She picked up the jug, worked the corn cob stopper free, poured a splash into the warmed bowl, added soup: lifting her veil, she tasted the therapeutic admixture, nodded.

The silent, veiled nuns moved quickly, efficiently: soup was spooned into his increasingly-responsive carcass, his extremities were warmed, and the man was given a quick, efficient bed bath: clean clothes were obtained from trunks maintained for that purpose, folded on a nearby chair: his own homespun and skins were filthy, beyond salvation, and had been given an honorable disposal in the trash fire.

Brother Sebastian proved his skill as a barber: after the man's hair and beard were washed, they were duly trimmed, shaped: the Frenchman started to protest, but stopped as he realized the silent, veiled nun standing at the foot of his bed held the Spear, the Lance, that she was the one he'd seen riding out of the sun just as his soul was rising from his body, and she'd taken the iron-shod butt of the Saint's spear and shoved him hard back into his own carcass.

"Votre travail est pas encore fait" she'd said -- your work is not yet done -- then he remembered someone bending over him, strong hands gripping him, lifting him up, and he knew no more until he swum through nightmares and horrors and realized he was safe, he was warm, he was in a comfortable bed, and She was holding him down with the power of her gaze.

"Madonne," he whispered again, accepted another spoonful of soup: he raised his hands and the bowl was placed in unsteady fingers: carefully, as if accepting a Sacrament, he sipped from the bowl, then drank, good beef broth and finely chopped meat, and vegetables he hadn't had in a very long time, cascading across his tongue and down his throat.

He returned his hands to the welcome warmth of freshly renewed hot, moist towels, leaned back, closed his eyes.

Brother William touched Sarah's elbow, nodded to another, inner doorway.

The Sisters remained with the Frenchman; Brother William, Brother Sebastian and Sister Mercurius withdrew to the next room, to confer in whispers.

"What was he saying to you?" Brother William asked.

Sarah smiled behind her concealing veil. "You are from New Orleans," she whispered back, "I think you know."

Brother William looked significantly at Brother Sebastian, and Sarah nodded.

"He called me Madonna," Sarah explained, "and he was talking about the wolf singer."

"Wolf singer?"

"His words," Sarah, or rather Sister Mercurius, shrugged. "Perhaps he will describe what he saw."

 

Sarah remained another day, long enough for the Frenchman to join them in the Sanctuary for Mass: the White Nuns sang, and their voices rose in flawless, four part harmony, and the Frenchman bowed his head and wept for joy, for the beauty of hearing voices as he remembered them, especially the lead soprano, the one who bore the Lance, the one on a great black horse with porcelain-white wings, the veiled Lady with the silver-headed Lance, the Lady who shoved his soul back into his body when he was ready to die of hunger and of exposure and of fatigue there in the mountains.

The White Lady, who sang with the wolves encircling him as he lay in the snow.

He remembered the purity of her voice as she harmonized her voice with theirs, and he remembered the great, black lion of a dog that sang beside her, his blunt, wide muzzle thrust into the cold wind as he, too, rejoiced with his wild brethren.

The Lady who forbade him to leave this world, for his work was not yet done, this Lady who forbade the wild to harm him.

He'd realized she was not the Madonna, after all, but surely she was one of Her handmaidens, and in this, then,he was content.

The Frenchman would return to the mountains, and would die in not many years, as men did in these wild places, but he never forgot the wild beauty of the wolves who sang around him, and he never forgot the Wolf Singer.

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85. THE JUMPER TREE

Joseph strutted along in his Pa's tracks.

Joseph carried the double gun.

His Pa had an ax and a saw, his Pa was breaking trail through snow deeper than was comfortable for someone built as close to the ground as his boy, and Joseph took a fierce pride in the fact that his Pa trusted him with a genuine Man's Gun.

They were heading for a particular stand of trees his Pa had in mind.

Joseph grinned behind the knit muffler his Ma wrapped around his neck and his face, because he remembered how the Christmas tree looked last year, and he looked forward to having another one this year.

 

Sarah wisely held her tongue when her Mama's new husband Levi asked Clark and her brother to fetch in a proper tree for their parlor.

The Sheriff tended that detail for them in years past, save for the year her Mama had the misfortune to be married to that thieving Rosenthal, and he cut a pitifully spindly tree that looked like it should be pitied more than decorated.

Clark and her brother were recommended by the Sheriff; they were known to him -- Sara wasn't sure quite how, but she knew he had full faith and confidence in them both, and his opinion carried a great deal of weight: as soon as Levi's twin brother was dead, Clark and her brother immediately demonstrated their expertise in turning the ranch into a profitable operation -- it had been before, but the profits were siphoned steadily from the family exchequer to the gambling-table.

Sarah's sisters were excited and chattering, they had red and green ribbons in their pigtails, they stared hopefully at their Mama's tissue-lined box of Christmas bulbs -- delicate, hand-blown, hand-tinted, fragile as a soap bubble, or so they seemed -- they'd spent an entire evening stringing popcorn ropes, alternating between intense concentration and happy chatter.

The Bear Killer approved of their efforts, because Polly and Opal both -- and to a greater degree, Sarah -- cheerfully tossed the great black canine popped kernels, which he caught easily, masticating them with obvious delight.

Sarah and her Mama moved furniture, rearranged rugs, delicately tapped small wire nails into holes used for that purpose in years past: Sarah tied waxed linen string around the nails, hung the string in anticipation of securing the tree in the bay window.

That morning the twins were recruited for decorating the tree in the Silver Jewel, to the amusement and approval of the saloon patrons: now and then a big, hard-muscled outdoorsman would hoist a gleaming blown-glass bulb, or sometimes a giggling little girl holding such a bulb, elevating the decoration to an altitude greater than the child's height.

Daisy had to bite her knuckle to keep from laughing as she watched Polly making faces in a smooth, reflective bulb, and a grizzled, bearded miner doing the same in another bulb, and both of them laughing at their efforts, and Daisy slipped off to her own house, for she needed to get her own parlor ready for their tree.

 

Joseph considered the tree's height, frowning as he compared it to his mental image of their parlor.

"It looks kinda tall, Pa," he said hesitantly.

Jacob nodded. "It do for a fact," he admitted. "Well, first order of business, let's bring 'er down."

"Yes, sir."

"Hand me that double gun."

Joseph carefully offered the two pipe shoot gun, as the old hunky called it, and his Pa said "Stand back now," and drove two charges of heavy shot at the tree's trunk.

Joseph's eyes widened and he skipped backward into the heavier snow as the tree jumped straight up in the air, then fell, twisted a little, and toppled.

His Pa broke open the gun, withdrew two fired hulls, dropped them in his left coat pocket and fished two fresh rounds from his right hand pocket, dunked them in the smoking chambers.

"Now Joseph," he said, "do y'see what a shotgun will do to a tree?"

Joseph's eyes were wide as he nodded. "Yes, sir," he said in a small voice.

"Wouldn't do to do that to your brother's belly, now, would it?"

"No, sir."

"My Pa showed me that same thing," Jacob said thoughtfully. "I never forgot it."

"No, sir."

"Joseph" -- Jacob reached back into his right hand coat pocket -- "here, take this end of this measurin' string and walk it out to the top of this-here tree."

Joseph took the string and waded manfully through the crotch deep snow, stopping when he was even with the tree's top.

Jacob considered knots in the string and the tree's overall length, nodded, raised his chin: "Come on back now and hold this gun."

"Yes, sir."

"We're going to cut this off right about here" -- he pointed with a bladed hand, gloved fingers straight -- "we'll need a good square cut. Reckon you can cut 'er off good and square?"

"Yes, sir."

"Tell you what, it's kind of hard to run that saw and hold a gun at the same time. You hang onto that-there shoot gun and I'll saw. Sound good?"

Jacob grinned again, that tickled-little-boy flash of delight, and his Pa's eyes tightened at the corners to see it.

"Yes, sir!"

Two spaced shots rippled through the mountains and Jacob stopped, looked at his son, who looked back, his eyes wide again.

"Sir?" Joseph asked. "Was that Grampa?"

"I reckon it was," Jacob nodded. "Do you know what kind of tree we use for Christmas?"

"Yes, sir," Joseph said with an emphatic nod, remembering the tree's reaction to a double charge of heavy shot. "A jumper tree!"

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86. THE GIFT

 

"You wanted to see me."

I rose.

Sarah's cheeks were bright with cold, her eyes were just as bright, and she looked like exactly what I'd hoped she would be, a beautiful young woman ... she wore a tailored riding dress and a matching hat, she had a capelet around her shoulders and matching gloves, and she tilted her head a little, giving me the frank appraisal of a woman who knew men, and suddenly I wished she wasn't so much of a young woman.

For a long moment I wished she was that little girl again she'd been the night I first came to Firelands, that little waif holding Bonnie's hand, that wee child ...

I blinked, shook my head, passed my hand over my eyes.

Sarah crossed the floor, her gloved hand gripping my forearm. "Are you all right?" she whispered, and I nodded, cleared my throat.

"Sarah," I said, "I have something for you." My breath caught in my throat and I leaned against the desk. "A couple somethings, as a matter of fact."

Sarah gave me "That Look" -- the look her Mama has given me in the past, and I almost felt lost to see it, for the little girl I'd known was gone, gone forever, and here was someone ... here was someone else, someone young and lovely -- lovely, hell, she's beautiful, I thought -- and I hesitated, then opened the desk drawer.

"Close your eyes."

Sarah blinked, smiled a little, then closed her eyes.

I opened the drawer.

She'd asked me for something, not long before, and I'd found what she asked for, and I carefully lifted the prepared item out of the desk drawer, moved a little to the side.

I snapped the handcuff quickly around her wrist, bent her over, yanked her other arm behind her back and captured her other wrist with the other cuff.

It was done in a moment: I ran my hand into the drawer and snatched the other half of the present, and with a rattle of chain I hauled out a set of shackles, and in a moment I had her ankles confined as well.

Sarah's eyes were wide with surprise: she wet her lips nervously, and admitted in a small voice, "I ... didn't expect that."

I drew the chair around, brought it up behind her; I raised her cuffed wrists, pulled her down into the seat, her cuffed arms behind the back of the chair: a length of chain and a padlock, and she was confined around her waist, the chain run under and through her shackles' chain and back to the padlock.

"You," I said quietly, "are now secured." I sat down and looked at her. "You said you wanted to be ... surprised ... so you could see how long it would take you to escape."

Sarah smiled.

"Yes," she said quietly. "Yes, I did."

"You weren't expecting this."

"No. I was expecting ... something different."

"I will tell you what I had in mind," I said conversationally. "Jacob said you're quite good at getting out of irons. He said you had him lock you up in your back room and then time how long it takes you to get out of them." I smiled, remembering Jacob's description of the event. "You impressed him, Sarah."

My eyes shifted to the hallway that led down the row of steel-barred jail cells.

I thought to drag you, chair and all, back to the rearmost cell and lock you in.

"I would then hang the key just outside the door and leave you to your devices, and you could let yourself out when you'd gotten free."

Sarah's eyes smiled. "Sounds like something I'd like to try."

Her reply honestly surprised me.

"Another time, perhaps," I said. "The irons are yours. You wanted a set of women's irons and these are made to fit the feminine offender's wrist."

"They're snug," Sarah nodded. "These fit me well." She tilted her head a little and smiled. "I wondered if perhaps you were going to get a set of child sized slave irons."

I was quiet for a long moment, and Sarah's eyes were serious when I finally looked at them.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice husky. "I shouldn't have reminded you."

I shook my head. "My ghosts are my own," I said, standing: I went to one knee and released her ankles, then went behind her to free her wrists and open the padlock. "I have to live with them, Sarah, I have to live with every memory of my entire life."

She stood, turned, gripped my hands: I pulled them free, placed the hardware on my desk, then turned back to her, let her take my hands again.

"Sheriff," she whispered fiercely, her eyes bright and hard as she came up on her toes to get her face as close to mine as she could, "you are a good man."

She squeezed my hands, squeezed them hard, then she threw her arms around me, hugged me fiercely, almost desperately, and then she looked up at me again.

"You are a good man, Sheriff," she repeated. "Don't forget that."

"You might not think so after tonight."

"Oh?"

I opened the drawer further and withdrew a cloth wrapped package, tied with a ribbon, then I extended my elbow. "If you would do me the honor," I said gravely, "of accompanying me to your parlor?"

Sarah took my arm, looked impishly at the pile of steel on the corner of my desk. "I could wear those, I suppose," she teased.

I laughed, shook my head.

"I'll get a poke to put 'em in."

 

His Honor the Judge was already at the Rosenthal ranch when we got there.

Sarah drove like her Mama -- her posture was flawless, she handled the reins almost delicately, as if she knew exactly what the bit in her gelding's mouth felt like when she lifted the black-leather strapping -- I rode beside, Cannonball pacing the gleaming, polished carriage.

Bonnie and Levi were waiting on the front porch, the twins were with them, as was His Honor: our horses were received and we mounted the steps, I shook Levi's hand and raised Bonnie's knuckles to my lips.

"I see you're consorting with younger women," Bonnie teased.

I looked at Sarah and laughed. "I had to chain her down to make her listen to me."

Levi looked at Sarah, looked at me, and back to the innocent-looking Sarah, her gloved hand still very properly draped over my forearm.

"You chained her down, and you're still alive to tell the tale?"

"I was gentle with him," Sarah said, and she and her Mama traded a look -- I'm not sure what it was, but then it was a look between two females, and women are one creature I've long had difficulty reading.

We went on inside.

The maid took our coats and hats but I kept the cloth wrapped package tucked under my arm.

His Honor waited until everyone was seated.

"The Sheriff asked me to start tonight's festivities," he said, frowning, "and I'll be honest, I don't know if I'm the right man for the job."

He looked at me, smiled a little, then he looked at Sarah: he looked at the floor, raised his hand as if to bring a cigar to his mouth, realized he hadn't a Cuban in his grip, pressed his lips together, annoyed.

"The Sheriff has something to give you," His Honor said shortly, and sat down.

I rose.

My mouth was dry of a sudden.

I looked at Sarah and I looked at Bonnie and I remembered those neat lines of scrip on the fly leaf of the book I held, and I opened my mouth and nothing came out.

Sarah rose.

She came to the center of the floor, between her family and the Christmas tree, and she looked at me and tilted her head and smiled a little.

"Is there something you wish to say before you hand it over?" she said, her voice gently teasing, and I swallowed hard.

This shouldn't be so hard, I thought.

I've led men into battle and I didn't feel this scared.

I looked at Levi, and how he and Bonnie held hands as they sat side by side.

Am I going to tear their family apart?

Will this cause harm?

Damn me for a fool, I should have talked this over with them first --

I threw my head back and gasped in a big breath, closed my eyes, shook my head.

"Sometimes," I said, "I say the wrong thing."

Bonnie's expression was curious, Levi's, puzzled: Sarah looked at me -- wisely, I thought, as if she had some knowledge I lacked.

"And sometimes I do the wrong thing, but sometimes" -- I walked over to Sarah, extended the calico-wrapped rectangle -- "sometimes I have to do something even if it's wrong."

Sarah took the package, froze: she bowed her head and I knew she was biting her bottom lip.

I know she was, thought I could not see it, but I could see her Mama, and Bonnie was biting hers.

Sarah turned the package a little, considering the bow carefully, then she took the tag end, gave it a pull and the bow pulled through and the ribbon fell away.

"What is it, Sawwah?" Polly asked, and I looked at her, all innocent, bright-eyed and curious.

Sarah unwrapped it and her hands were shaking a little.

His Honor quietly slipped up behind Sarah with a chair: she must have felt it against the back of her legs, for she sat, plucked at the calico, and awkwardly unwrapped it.

I went to one knee beside her.

Sarah's finger tips caressed the scarred, worse for wear leather cover, and she carefully, slowly opened it, turned over the fly leaf, began to read.

Her eyes were bright and pale and she read, and she read it again, and her hand came up and cupped her mouth, and she blinked quickly, then looked at me.

Her finger was on the one line I knew she would see, and she looked at me, and a tear rolled out of one eye and down her cheek.

Bonnie was beside her and Bonnie picked up the Bible and Sarah almost fell out of the chair to get to me.

She grabbed me around the neck and I grabbed hold of her and I stood up on my prayer bones and I held my little girl, held her tight, the way I'd wanted to hold her ever since I read the words written in her long-dead birth-Mama's family Bible, the words that told her I was her sire.

"I knew it," I remember her whispering. "I knew you were my Papa!"

 

That night I lay awake a long time, staring sightlessly at the nighttime ceiling of our bedroom.

Esther and I held hands the way we always did, we fell asleep holding hands and more often than not we woke up holding hands, and of the entire night, of all the things we talked about, of Sarah and her Mama telling me they'd known for some time now and Sarah allowed as Bonnie was her Mama and she'd just as soon keep it that way ... of the entire evening, I kept seeing one thing, and hearing one thing, and I will never, ever forget that night.

Never.

Sarah finally let go of my neck and she thanked me for the "Professional Goods" I'd gotten for her, but there was one thing, she said, one thing she would really, really like.

I had to swallow hard before I could reply, "Name it."

Sarah McKenna, Agent of the Court, pale-eyed daughter and beautiful young woman, whispered, "Could I sit on your lap and be your little girl, just this once?"

I whispered back, "You can be my little girl any time you want, Sarah," and I parked my carcass in that velvet upholstered chair and she climbed into my lap and I held my little girl, right there in front of God and everybody.

I don't know about her but that was one of the best Christmas presents anyone ever gave me.

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87. MIRROR, MIRROR

Sarah collapsed slowly onto the chair in front of her vanity, trembling, lowering her face into her hands.

I did it.

I played him like a string puppet.

She shivered, clenched her jaw hard shut to keep her teeth from rattling together.

Get up.

Move.

Sarah surged across the room, bare feet silent, seized her nightgown and savagely yanked it over her head, covering her nakedness: where a moment before she'd stood preening in her feminine glory before the full-length mirror, now she sank to the floor, knees drawn up, hugging her shins and burying her face in her drawn-up knees.

I just played the hardest, meanest lawman in the territory like a fool.

I manipulated him.

I got him to clap me in irons one minute and hold me like his little girl the next.

Sarah groaned, giving soft voice to the self-accusing misery in her soul.

I saw Mama play men like that, she thought, back when ... back before ... when she was still ...

She raised her face, mouth open, breathing quickly, her cheeks wet, then -- almost panicked -- she shot upright, snatched viciously at the nightgown, yanked it free and threw it into the corner.

Sarah was a quick-change artist, a talent perfected from modeling for her Mama's fashion shows, and she put every bit of that talent to work now, for it took less than three minutes for her to yank open her bedroom door and run, fully dressed for a ride, stockingfoot and silent down the stairs, boots in hand, eyes wide and face pale, and nearly knock over her Mama and the maid at the foot of the stairs.

 

The Sheriff shook Sean's big Irish mitt, a grin on the man's face as broad as two Texas townships.

"So ye told he!" Sean beamed, his voice deferentially lowered, for they were on the front steps of the whitewashed church: "An' how'd the lass take th' news? Did she kick ye i' the shins an' call ye a scoundrel?"

The Sheriff laughed again, shook his head. "No," he admitted, and his eyes were darker, a distinct blue with the memory. "No, Sean, she piled up in my lap and asked me if she could be my little girl."

Sean looked long at the Sheriff, then his hand rose and rested gently on the lawman's shoulder and he nodded understanding.

When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet, gentle, but most heart felt.

"Ye are a lucky man, Sheriff," he said, looking at his Daisy, who held his arm with one hand and cradled an infant in the other.

"I know," the lean-waisted lawman with the iron-grey mustache almost whispered, as he looked away and swallowed hard. "I know."

 

Bonnie watched Sarah descend the stairs a second time: now, instead of an impulsive, almost panicky girl running out of the house for who-knows-why, she was a self-possessed, properly-attired young woman, joining her family for Christmas services at the local church.

"Now that's a fine sight," the maid sighed, smiling. "She'll break hearts, she will."

"That," Bonnie admitted, "is what I'm afraid of."

"Don't worry, Mother," Sarah smiled, her earlier feelings safely hidden in a dark compartment of her soul: "the man I marry hasn't arrived yet." She gave her mother a secretive smile. "He'll be here within the year."

"Oh, now, I suppose ye've ordered yerse' a husband from th' Sears an' Roebuck catalog now, have ye," the maid scolded. "Ye ran yer finger down th' page an' looked at th' illustrations an' ordered ye up a custom made man! I should try that!" She thrust a dismissive hand in the air as if tossing a handful of confetti as she turned. "Maybe I'd find me a guid man f'r a change! Here I've been doin' it all wrong" -- she muttered and shook her head back down the hall and into the kitchen, were she returned to her duties, anticipating good progress with the family out from underfoot and gone to church.

"Do you like it?" Sarah smiled, turning a little: "I did sew it myself, you know!"

 

The Sheriff waited outside, as did his wife and family, until the Rosenthal family arrived: Christmas greetings were exchanged, the usual pleasantries, then the Sheriff turned to Sarah and took both her hands.

"I have a problem," he said.

"I have an answer," she replied with no hesitation.

"I don't know whether to pick you up and hug you like a little girl, or whether to kiss your knuckles like the young lady you've become!"

"Where are we now?"

The Sheriff's brows quirked at the unexpected question and he turned his head just a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"Eh?"

"Where are we?"

"We're ... here, are we not?"

Sarah laughed, and men smiled to hear it, for the easy, genuine laugh of a pretty young woman is a thing to bring delight to a man's heart.

"We're at church," Sarah explained patiently, "and at church we think of church things, do we not?"

The Sheriff considered this, never taking his eyes off hers. "Yes ... normally, we do."

"Unless you are like us," Sarah smiled, " a lawman and a detective, then our minds are never still are they?"

"No," the Sheriff admitted. "No. Never."

Sarah squeezed his hands, pulled a little and came up on her tiptoes to kiss the pale-eyed lawman quickly on the cheek. "We're at church, Papa Sheriff," she said mischievously, almost whispering the honorific, "and we think in church terms." She smiled, almost laughed. "You said you had a problem, and I have an answer."

"Yes. We did."

"You don't know whether to treat me like the Queen herself, or your little girl."

"I did."

"Think church," she whispered, patting his chest and looking up at him with sincere, innocent eyes. "For all things there is a season, a time for every purpose under the heavens. Treat me like a pretty young woman here, and if I am scared or hurt, hold me like a little girl, for there is no safer place in all the world than in my Papa's arms."

Sarah blinked.

Her own words surprised her.

They weren't what she intended to say, but she knew they'd run out of her heart and into her throat and escaped her lips, because they were ... the truth.

The Sheriff nodded, brought her gloved hand to his lips, and very courtly, very properly, hand-kissed his beautiful daughter.

He released her hand; Levi gave him an understanding wink and a silent "Thank you" the Sheriff nodded in reply.

Esther took the Sheriff's arms and steered him into the procession entering the church.

"That was lovely, my dear," she murmured. "You are ever the gentleman."

The Sheriff rested his callused, weathered hand on his wife's emerald-green-gloved hand.

"I am a gentleman because you are a lady," he said. "In your influence, how can I ever be any less?"

 

Forgive me, Sarah thought as she looked at the altar.

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

I have used womanly wiles to play men for fools, and it scares me.

Forgive me for being scared.

Sarah looked around, slowly, wishing it were possible to sit elsewhere; she was never comfortable with her back to the door.

Jacob's wife Annette was seated at the piano, and Sarah knew Jacob's wife was observant, and if anything were untoward, it would show in her face, and Sarah could turn to look.

I would rather sit at the piano.

Cover from hostile fire, observation point, good position to give orders, elevated to place shots to the back of the church if need be.

We could play duet, or perhaps sing, and I would sit there as well ...

Sarah looked again at the altar, remembering her frank appraisal of herself in front of the mirror that morning.

Thank you.

Thank you for showing me what I did.

Thank you for showing me how well I can manipulate men.

Please don't let me abuse that!

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88. "WE TRY, SHERIFF"

"You'll be staying at our usual hotel."

"Yes, Mama."

"You'll be able to model for our regularly scheduled fashion show."

"Of course, Mama."

Bonnie gave the shoulder of her daughter's coat an unnecessary twitch, brushed away an imaginary flake of lint, tilted her head a little and looked almost sadly at her oldest daughter.

"You won't be consorting with strange men, or going to disreputable establishments?"

"Of course I will, Mama," Sarah smiled, the open, engaging smile of a happy child. "That's why I'm going."

Bonnie sighed, hugged her daughter quickly, almost desperately, then she pressed her palms, cool and soft, against Sarah's cheeks.

"Be careful, Sweets," she whispered.

"I will, Mama." Sarah kissed her Mama quickly on the cheek, dropped to a squat and took the twins in a big two-arm hug.

"Boaaard!" the conductor bawled from a few cars down-track. "All aboooooard!"

Sarah caressed The Bear Killer's big, thick-furred head.

"Protect," she said, her voice low, her eyes suddenly pale and hard, and The Bear Killer whuffed, his great tail swinging left, then right.

Sarah turned, smiled at the porter, took his hand: the porters delighted in seeing any of the Family McKenna -- now the family Rosenthal -- for they were invariably courteous, and received the porters' attentions with a smile.

The Lady Esther's whistle pierced the cold air with a white plume of short-lived steam; steel wheels slipped momentarily on steel rails, then she got her feet under her and put her steam-powered shoulder to the load behind.

"Mama?" Polly asked again for at least the fortieth time that morning. "How come Sawwah has to go to school again?"

Opal, in turn, and for the fortieth time that morning, echoed, "What's de-teck-tive school, Mama?"

"Come, ladies," Bonnie said briskly, raising her chin: "we have marketing this morning."

"Yes, Mama," the twins chorused, falling in behind their mother, and the Ladies Rosenthal marched purposefully toward one end of the depot platform, The Bear Killer dutifully following, while the train departed in the opposite direction.

 

"You what?"

His Honor the Judge reached for his cigar with a deliberate slowness: he released his dentures' grip on the hand-rolled Cuban, took the cigar and lowered it slowly to the scarred ashtray on his desk.

"I've sent Sarah to detective school."

His Honor knew the Sheriff's voice, and part of him was honestly afraid.

The two had been in the War together, the Judge was the Sheriff's superior; each man had a deep and profound respect for the other, each had earned that respect the hard way, and to a degree they were friends, but friendship has its limits.

Especially when the man in front of his desk, just the night before, formally acknowledged a lovely young woman as the get of his loins.

"You," the Sheriff said slowly, lowering himself into a chair, "sent ... Sarah ..." He looked up at the Judge, his eyes puzzled. "To detective school?"

"I didn't invite you to sit down, Sheriff."

"Go to hell, Judge. Detective school?" The Sheriff's eyes were less angry than they were ... betrayed.

His Honor sighed, knowing that intimidating the hard man before him was a lost cause.

"Yes. Professor T. Joseph Hunt's School of Detection, in Denver."

"I knew Joe Hunt. Alaska man, wasn't he?"

"In his younger days, yes."

The Sheriff nodded. "Good man." He looked sharply at the Judge. "He was mayor after he was town marshal, back East, did you know that?"

His Honor the Judge bit down on his cigar again. "No. No, I didn't."

The Sheriff nodded. "He was Marshal and then moved a county over and was elected mayor. Made some improvements." The Sheriff turned his hat thoughtfully, his voice a little softer as he remembered. "He went in on a bank robbery and shot himself right through the foot."

"No!" His Honor exclaimed. "What happened?"

The Sheriff nodded. "He got there before the town marshal, he grabbed the gun in his coat pocket, he said it got caught in the material and boom. Right through the top of his boot."

"What happened to the bank?"

"Bank was okay. His second shot took the holdup right through the belt buckle and the other one give up. Good thing, too." The Sheriff's voice was distant, his eyes thoughtful. "Damn near lost that foot."

He looked up at the Judge. "You sent her to detective school."

"I did."

"Who is paying for this?"

"I am."

"You?"

His Honor leaned back, spread his hands. "Sheriff, I recruited her as an Agent. She is good at what she does. She finds things out."

"I know," the Sheriff admitted ruefully.

"There are certain professional skills she lacks. The Professor will --"

The Sheriff came to his feet, suddenly, unexpectedly.

"Will there be anything else, Your Honor?"

"No." The Judge leaned back in his chair, puffed his cigar into malodorous life. "No, Sheriff, that's all I have."

"Thank you for telling me, sir."

"You're not happy."

The Sheriff took two steps forward, leaned forward, his palms on the desk top, his eyes cold.

"Your Honor," he said, "I just told her last night she was my little girl. Do you know what she told me? She said all she wanted for Christmas was to sit in my lap and have me hold her and tell her Daddy would keep her safe. That's my memory of last night, Your Honor. I held my little girl" -- he hissed the words with a pale-eyed intensity, somehow managing to underline the words, using only his voice -- "I held her and I let her be the little girl she never was."

The lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache straightened.

"Now she's gone to Denver. By herself. Gone to Professor Hunt's detective school."

The Sheriff shook his head.

"To answer your question, Your Honor, no I am not happy, but I don't have to be. Children grow up. I'd like to take Sarah and put her on a high shelf like a fine china doll and set a bell jar down over her to keep the world away from her, to keep her young and pretty forever, to keep her as my little girl --"

He closed his jaw with a snap, shook his head.

"That's what I want, Your Honor, but I can't do that."

His Honor nodded slowly.

"You know what really makes me unhappy, Judge?"

The Sheriff's voice was rough now, and the Judge knew the man was working against a good head of anger, an anger he knew how to control, but an explosive force nonetheless.

"What's that, Sheriff?" The Judge puffed on his cigar, blew out a liquid stream of Cuban smoke.

The Sheriff's smile was crooked, ironic.

"I can't save everyone, Your Honor. I can't save everyone and that just plainly chaps my butt."

He turned and clapped his Stetson on his head, opened the door, stepped out into the cold December air, drew the door quietly shut.

"We try, Sheriff," the Judge murmured to the emptiness in his private car. "We try."

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89. BOOM!

They were not twins, they were cousins, but they might as well have been shucked from the same dam: few in town could tell them apart, fewer knew their given Christian names, they were known as "The Blaze Boys" and were generally referred to as "Right Blaze" and "Left Blaze" -- though even this kept them from being correctly identified, as the "right" and "left" were inconsistently applied, no one knowing really if the speaker meant "Right side as I look at him" or "His right side."

They'd gotten that prominent identifier from a mutual moment of merriment.

It seems that one knew where his Pa hid some sky rockets.

Boys and fireworks have a mutual attraction, probably having to do with the allure of the verboten: they knocked two planks together to form a V-trough, propped this up against a handy nail high on the corner post of an open sided shed, set a sky rocket in the trough, scratched a Lucifer into sulfurous life, and lit the fuse.

The skyrocket shot like a wizard's temper into the lowering skies, penetrated the heavy, hovering, lead-colored cover, detonated with a flash, and a flare and the pair laughed with delight as a double handful of falling fireballs arced out of the cloud's base.

Unfortunately the cloud was pregnant with more than just rainwater.

Immediately after the skyrocket tickled the giant's belly, a lighting bolt seared down its smoke trail and blew a hole in the ground between the two troublemakers: one was thrown to starboard and the other to port, and when they came to, the second skyrocket was rolled off to the side into a water puddle, soaked up and wet and ruined: the Lucifer matches, inside the jar, were untouched, but neither of the pair could hear anything but a red ringing for several hours.

Besides being wet and muddy where they'd been slammed to the ground, each noted a remarkable change in the other.

They each had a white blaze in their hair where they'd been gently caressed by the lightning's forked stroke.

Each carried that pure-white blaze to his grave, but that is not the reason we discuss the matter: no, we offer this as background and explanation, for the Blaze Boys had been in Dutch before, and they continued to get themselves into situations, whether it was to climb the railroad's water tank and get caught swimming buck naked by one of the railroad's firemen (they would not have gotten caught if they'd secured their clothes with some hay string, but a gust of wind dropped their drawers in a fluttering cascade from the water tank's ladder-top platform just as The Lady Esther came whistling into station, which roused the suspicions of the observing adults), or whether it was to purloin useful objects from unguarded locations and put these stolen goods to mischief.

Today they were happily hooky from school, running up a hidden path, one with a sledge hammer surreptitiously borrowed from somewhere, the other with a length of pipe he'd been watching for about a week: the pair covered a little more than a mile before stopping, as each exerted himself to the point that "I got more wind than I can blow!"

The two flopped down on a dry patch of ground, panted until they recovered, then laughed and slapped each other happily on the shoulder, searched out a likely stump, laid one end of the pipe up on the stump, and by taking turns with the sledge, finally got the end battered flat, bent over, flattened again.

They stopped, retrieved edible goods stolen from home, ate: nearby creekwater, tooth-achingly cold, sufficed to assuage their thirst.

Now the fun part began.

One hunted around a little, kicked a pile of brush aside, reached into the accumulated twigs and leaves and pulled out a small wooden cask.

They grinned like the happy boys they were as they propped the pipe up on the stump again, the battered-shut end down hill, and carefully, patiently, dumped blasting powder into the pipe, pausing at odd moments to stand the ten feet of steel tubing vertical, smacked it a few times with the heel of their hand to settle the powder, then resumed their patient fill.

 

Dearest Papa, the Sheriff read, and he stopped.

He was in the privacy of his office.

Two prisoners were back in lockup, but neither required any attention at the moment: uninterrupted, he'd broken the red-wax seal, unfolded the note with the familiar handwriting, and read.

He closed his eyes for a long moment, took a deep breath, puffed out his cheeks as he blew it out, then began reading again.

Dearest Papa.

Mein Gott, he thought, I still remember how she sounded when she called me that.

I remember how she felt, sitting on my lap --

My little girl --

The Sheriff seized the train of thought with an iron claw, crushed it, shoved it viciously into his mental cauldron, screwed the lid down tight.

He often did this when faced with emotion.

Hard-faced, he continued reading.

I am for Denver, and will be staying in our usual hotel.

Please feel free to visit if you have business in town.

It is entirely proper for a young woman, unaccompanied, to receive gentleman visitors, if said visitors happen to be her father and her brother.

The Sheriff looked up, a half-smile tugging at one side of his mouth.

I can see that innocent look of hers, he thought, as I read these words.

He read on.

I anticipate I will be less than accepted by the men of my class.

I may be the butt of their jokes, and I anticipate they will try me.

The Sheriff looked up, looked at the opposite wall.

"Try her?" he chuckled aloud. "I pity the fools!"

I will try not to kill them, Papa, but please set aside funds in case you are informed I am jailed for assault or for throwing someone out a window.

I will be in close contact with the Detective Bureau, as I have proven of value to them, and they have some personal knowledge of the Pinkerton detective Kate Warne, and of her proven usefulness. I believe one of the detectives may be related to detective Warne.

Dearest Papa, I anticipate asking your help with my lessons.

You taught me to shoot and we did well when we went against that mountain cat.

You and Jacob taught me tricks and slights of throwing an opponent, of fighting barehand, of how to hit and where to hit, and you and I sparred with chalked wooden knives.

I have no intent to cross steel with any man, but the lessons I learned quickened my reflexes and taught my eyes what to see.

Dear Papa, thank you for those lessons, and thank you for believing in me, and thank you for that day on the stage when you thought you were swatting my bottom.

Until that moment I did not fully realize you loved me as your own.

The Sheriff smiled ruefully, unconsciously raising a hand to the cheek bone that bore the blow that big Swede gave him.

And now, Papa, I shall close and seal this letter, for my luggage awaits and The Lady Esther will be on time.

Know that I do love you, and I am most proud of you, and most proud to be your daughter.

Always,

Your Sarah

 

The Sheriff's fingers were numb and clumsy as he dropped the letter to his desk top.

He stared sightlessly at the neat, regular script, then he stood and pushed his chair back against the wall, and sank slowly to his knees, crossing his arms on the edge of the desk and resting his forehead on it.

He stared at the floor boards and whispered, "God, take care of my little girl," and his voice caught.

"She's near to growed up now, God.

"She's fourteen. She's a woman grown.

"I want to stay beside her and keep her safe and I can't --"

He swallowed hard, took a long breath, remembered a tomb stone back East, a tomb stone that bore two names, that of a wife and that of a daughter, and he remembered digging out his wife's grave that predawn and then lowering a tiny little coffin down on top of his wife's box, and looking down at the last good and decent thing in a world gone man, the beacon and lighthouse that kept him sane through all the long years of that damned War, and he remembered how the fresh dug dirt smelled, and how the good Ames-steel spade sounded as it whispered into the excavated earth, and how hollow it drummed on the two boxes as he filled the hole again.

I lost one little girl, he thought, and I lost a good wife, and I still miss them, twenty years and more agone.

Now Sarah is taking out on her own.

I didn't feel this lost when Jacob r'ared up on his hind legs and made noises like a man.

He clenched his fists, clenched his jaw.

God, I can't be with her on this.

You'll have to handle this one!

 

"She's close to full."

"Here, let me look. You got the fuse?"

A youthful hand dipped into a pocket, came out with a coil: "Right here."

"Shove 'er in."

They worked the fuse down the pipe, tilted and rolled and shook it until half a foot of fuse was immersed in coarse black blasting powder.

"Okay, now beat this end shut."

They placed the pipe back on the stump and carefully, almost delicately, hammered it shut, guiding the fuse into the biggest gap in the crimped steel: they knew they would not have to batter it shut as well as the other end in order to make a grand boom, and indeed, as they grinned and chuckled and hoisted the finished product to shoulder, they felt a sense of wicked, delicious delight.

They'd just made a ten foot long firecracker.

They knew just where to place it, on a shelf overlooking town, they had enough fuse on it they'd be most of the way down the mountain before it went off, and when it did ...

It ought to rattle the townies out of their house slippers!

 

The Sheriff folded the note, carefully, staring at the wax seal as its broken edges mated perfectly together.

He opened the top right hand desk drawer, withdrew his personal journal and inserted the note in the back cover.

It was something he wanted to keep for a long time.

His fingers brushed against smooth glass.

He considered the clear glass bottle of clear, potent liquid.

He stared at it for most of a full minute, then he shook his head and slid the drawer shut.

"Work to do," he said, and the drawer stopped with a solid, woody thump.

 

The Lucifer sizzed, tasted the exposed end of the waterproof fuse: fire went from a searing hiss on the matchhead to a steady hiss in the fuse jacket, and the Blaze Boys took out at a dead run.

The firecracker pipe was laid over a log overlooking town.

By coincidence it was squarely above the Sheriff's Office.

Breathless and laughing, the pair ran down-mountain, sprinting down grades too steep to walk easily, their upper bodies falling, their legs running to keep up, much like shooting the rapids in a canoe and maintaining control by paddling the craft faster than the water's flow: they made it down, down, just short of the railroad tracks --

The fuse hissed, smoked, burned at a steady, calibrated rate, and indeed was accurate to within just over a second and a half for the length they'd used.

Fire disappeared into the battered end of the purloined pipe; a trickle of smoke escaped, and nothing happened for a long moment.

The felonious pair stopped, turned.

"It oughta go now," one said, and the other nodded, breathing quickly, deeply through a wide-open mouth.

High on the mountain above, the powder ignited.

By sheer random chance, the pair swaged the tail end of their bomb into a functional rocket nozzle, and the pipe shot off the mountain with a hiss, trailing smoke and sparks.

 

The Sheriff stood, walked slowly toward the door, debating whether to socialize over at the Silver Jewel: it might be a good idea, he thought, if anything is in the wind, I'll hear it there first.

He stepped out of the Sheriff's Office just as a silent, smoking needle sailed overhead, passing from behind him to beyond the Silver Jewel.

As the man's hat brim blocked his view of anything above the Silver Jewel's ornate, glass-windowed door, he never saw the missile in flight.

 

Blasting powder is coarse, blasting powder burns so fast it explodes, but an explosion is no more than very, very fast combustion: the pipe flew on a pure ballistic arc over town, its smoky exhaust ending when the powder was consumed, and so before it reached the apex of its arc, its propellant burned out, and the battered pipe continued solely from momentum.

The Blaze Boys ran now, ran in blind panic, convinced that their firecracker was now a deadly missile, set to drive through an honest burgher's roof and probably impale some sad soul, spearing them to the floor of their own home.

They lost sight of the streaking needle.

 

The Sheriff was laughing with a passing gambler, flush with success and winnings, trading yarns about misadventures on a Mississippi riverboat.

"Yep, there I was, peacefully minding my own business and writing in my journal and this good looking gal sits down beside me and gets to talkin'."

"Women will do that," the gambler nodded wisely. "How much did she gull you for?"

The Sheriff laughed. "You are a man of the world, my friend," he chuckled, "and she tried, at least until that fella sat down with us and allowed as I could hand over my purse or he could fillet me like a fish."

"Sounds impolite," the gambler said slowly, sudden serious.

"Cigar?" the Sheriff offered, and the gambler accepted the charity.

"So what did you do?" the gambler asked after he puffed the stogie into fragrant life.

The Sheriff grinned. "I had that steel nib pen in hand so I drove it through the back of his hand. Nailed him to the table top, or tried to, but by the time he got the tears out of his eyes I had him by the back of the coat and he ended up gettin' his Saturday night bath a few days early."

The gambler took the cigar from between his teeth, looking at the lean lawman with a mixure of surprise and delight. "That was you?"
"That was me."

"Dear God, man!" he exclaimed, seizing the Sheriff's callused paw and pumping it enthusiastically. "You're the one! I was there that night!"

The Sheriff quickly compared the smiling card sharper's visage to a mental file of men he'd known and came up empty.

"I was a cabin boy," he explained, "and you looked like you'd been rode hard and put away wet!" He gave the Sheriff a long look, nodded again. "If I'd been closer I would have seen those eyes. I've only seen one other soul on this earth with your eyes."

"Ooo-kaaay," the Sheriff said slowly.

"A black rider here a couple months back." The gambler puffed thoughtfully on his cigar. "Young man by the look of him, on a huge black horse. He wore a badge of some kind -- I never saw one like it, kind of shield shaped."

"Did he say anything?"

"No. No, it was night, he was riding past the hotel where I was staying, but he looked at me ... "

The gambler's voice faded as he remembered, his eyes stared vacantly past the Sheriff's right shoulder, then he focused on the lawman again.

"You know the look a lawman will give someone when they're looking for somebody? That. That was the look he gave me and I'll never forget those pale eyes."

His voice lowered and the Sheriff saw him shiver, as if someone just stepped on his grave.

"Was I a drinking man, Sheriff, I would have thought him the Angel of Death come to harvest a soul."

 

The Blaze Boys laid low and quiet for about a week.

They were absolutely convinced that they would hear of someone murdered in their own house by a steely javelin hurled through their roof, a murderous bolt from an angry angel: they were convinced for the first hour that they were murderers, in the second hour that they were roof-killers, and in the third hour, after a frantic (though as surreptitious as two panicked boys can be) search, they found no damage to roofs or walls, and no screaming announcements of a murder most foul.

It took them a week to find their powder powered pipe.

They found it behind town, drove into the creek bed for half its length.

They felt all the relief of a condemned man on the scaffold, noose around his neck, when at the last moment a messenger arrives to say that he was innocent, the noose was to be removed from his neck and he was free to go.

They felt the relief, they nearly collapsed as fear and guilt sluiced off them like a bucket of water poured over their heads.

Although they felt this relief, the memory of their distress disappeared like smoke on a spring breeze, and they continued with their mischief.

But not until at least one full day had passed.

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90. REDHEAD

The Saloon had fallen very, very still.

The Sheriff knew from the man's clothes, from his red forehead, from his words, that he was not in a mood to stop talking.

He looked over at Tom Landers; Tom, the prior Sheriff, was watching the Saloon: he bent over, whispered something in a gambler's ear, the gambler turned, smiled a little, leaned forward and gestured to his fellows. Pasteboards were turned face-down, there was an earnest, low-voiced conversation, with glances toward the bar: money was placed in neat piles on the table, and the Sheriff knew they were laying bets on how long it would take for him to knock this interloper into the middle of next week.

From his accent, the man was British; from his arrogance, he was either of its aristocracy, or pretended to be: the Sheriff had known low-born men who pretended to higher status, for such men exist in all societies, at all levels: several had been in the Union army, he'd run across many such, and on occasion brought them either before a tribunal, or to the ground with his knuckle-prints in their face, and once he ended up beating the living snot out of a particular troublemaker who wasn't willing to admit he'd lied, and insisted on threatening the then-Captain with a general court-martial for daring to lay hands on one of the General's top aides.

Turns out he was an aide, and it was to a general officer, and when the General found out what his aide had been doing, the lies he told, the favors he'd tried to strongarm by riding on the General's name, the General immediately stripped his aide down to private, promoted Captain to a brevet-Colonelcy, and informed the new Colonel that if he wished, he could continue his education of this pretender.

The last thing the pretender saw, before hard hands were laid on him and he was briskly introduced to the deepest pool of a nearby stream, was the sight of the General walking away.

The Sheriff pulled quietly on his beer, getting madder by the minute: the girl behind the bar polished a glass, a worried look to her face, and when she glanced at the Sheriff, she stopped polishing.

The man's eyes were hard and cold and his face was tight drawn across his cheek bones.

"And another thing," the Brit sneered. "as you ruddy colonists have no concept of law here --"

The Sheriff set his beer down, quietly, gently, and took a few long, silent breaths, then he set his Stetson on the bar.

The Brit's eye registered movement.

He turned with the general sensation of his belly dropping down a mineshaft as he found himself facing a tall, lean man in a fitted suit, a man with pale eyes and a stony expression.

"Mister," the Sheriff said quietly, "you have two choices. You can admit you are a liar and you can leave, or I can throw you out."

"I say!" the Brit exclaimed. "The constable will have something to say about that, you low-born lout! I'll have you --"

He never saw the haymaker that drove up under his ribs and he only dimly realized he'd been hit hard enough to bring his boots off the floor.

As a matter of fact he didn't even register quite how fast the floor was coming up to meet his face until he tasted sawdust and copper and remembered the sudden concussion of his face bouncing off the brass foot rail.

He gasped as the floor fell away from him.

The Sheriff had him by the back of his coat, had him left handed, his arm raised, elbow locked, which put the Brit at about eye level.

"You," the Sheriff grated, "are a liar and you are not welcome in my saloon."

The Brit tried to bring his knee up, tried to drive it into the lawman's chest.

The Sheriff turned a little, then threw the Brit along the front of the bar, men shrinking close to the bar to keep from being hit by this British missile.

The Sheriff strode across the floor, boot heels loud and heavy as he marched: his tread was normally silent, but now, anything but: he grabbed the Brit by his coat front, picked him up, drove him into the wall, hard: the man's head snapped back, bounced off the boards.

"OPEN THE DOOR!" the Sheriff yelled.

Tillie swung out from behind her hotel counter, grabbed the door, pulled it open, pressed herself hard against the wall as the Sheriff changed his grip: he took the Brit by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants, hefted him a few times, gauging his weight, then swung him back.

From inside the Jewel, men surged to their feet, crowded ahead to see this marvelous sight, and as the Brit swung back, they roared with happy accord, "ONE!"

The Sheriff swung the man forward, toward the open portal, swung him back.

"TWO!"

"No -- no -- please, I -- no--"

"THREE!"

The Sheriff launched the bigmouth miscreant out into the street, heaving him an amazing distance, watching him convulse in midair, land rolling : the Sheriff descended the steps, walked over to him, grabbed him by the shirt front and hauled him off the ground.

Men crowded windows and the open doorway -- no longer silent, they yelled encouragement to the Sheriff, shouted at one another, made bets and bets again, dizzying sums wagered on the lawman's next move, whether he would cold cock the troublemaker with one punch or two -- the Sheriff swung the gasping troublemaker off his feet again, half-choking him with a tight-fisted grip of collar and shirt front, then seizing him by the crotch, hauled him overhead and threw him violently down into the horse trough.

The trough was ice-glazed and the shock of impact and then sudden cold served to bring a very diminished shreik from the suddenly-sober miscreant -- ice and water flew through the air, and the Sheriff ignored his own frigid baptism -- then he grabbed the man by the back of the collar, yanked him out, threw him to the ground and stood beside him with an expression that might have been carved into the face of a South Seas stone idol.

Pale eyes pinned the bigmouth to the ground as effectively as a boot placed on his breast bone, and the lawman glared at the interloper for almost a full minute, while the latter shivered, and chattered his teeth, and realized that he'd been poking a much larger, meaner bear than he ever realized existed.

Esther Keller took her husband's wet coat sleeve with a gloved hand, looked down at the bloodied, groaning, gasping man supine and soaking wet on the frozen ground.

"Is this the man who has such contempt for red hair?" she asked quietly.

The Sheriff laid a hard and reassuring hand on his wife's fingers. "Yes, my dear," he replied in a voice that sounded like gravel cascading down his throat. "This is the fellow who imagines anyone with red hair is the illegitimate spawn of Irish whores." His pale eyes never left the grounded miscreant. "May I introduce my wife. This is Esther Keller. She owns the Z&W Railroad, and she is one of our most prominent businesswomen."

Esther's smile was tight. "And may I introduce my husband, Sheriff Linn Keller. He is the chief law enforcement officer for the county, and his authority outranks that of the Governor himself. You no doubt recognized Judge Donald Hostetler inside, he is father and grandfather to red-headed children." She looked up. "Oh, look. Here comes our Fire Department. We call them the Irish Brigade." She looked down at the miserable, freezing fellow. "The Fire Chief is red headed, as is his wife and almost all their children. I'm quite sure they would all be fascinated to hear your opinions. Would you care to state them again?"

Her voice was pleasantly modulated, clearly enunciated; the man closed his eyes, shook his head.

"Then let me show you just how uncivilized and inconsiderate we are here." She tilted her head a little, regarded him as if he were a bug pinned to a cork board in an entomology class.

"As owner of the railroad, I will grant you a free passage, at no cost to you. I will provide your paid-for transportation to the East Coast. From there you may take the vessel of your choice back to the Britain that spat you out." She squatted, gracefully, beside him, her voice still pleasant. "I suggest you take my offer, because if you do not, I may have to kill you myself." Her smile was dazzling, genuine, brilliant.

"I've killed men before, you know. Here, on this very street, and they were armed men, killers. You" -- she rose -- "will not be a challenge."

Two of the hangers-on, standing in the Jewel's open doorway, crowded close by their fellows, looked at one another.

"What did that fella do anyhow?" one asked.

The other grinned. "I reckon he said somethin' about Soapy's wife yonder." He chuckled, shook his head. "'Nother case of his battleship mouth overridin' his tadpole butt!"

The crowd drew back respectfully as the Sheriff, with his red-headed bride on his arm, came back into the Jewel, followed by a thoroughly cowed, obviously stiff-and-sore Brit, who slunk shamefacedly upstairs to change into something clean and dry.

The Sheriff raised a finger to summon Daisy's girl, who was waiting in the hallway, her expression somewhere between youthful excitement and maidenly adoration.

"Tea for my wife," the Sheriff said, "and coffee for me. I want to thaw out a little."

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91. BISCUITS AND GRAVY

 

When something black, curly furred and silent ghosts through a busy saloon, folks generally take notice.

When it's The Bear Killer, tall as a young bear, licking his chops and looking around with that wet black nose snuffing audibly here there and yonder, folks pay attention.

And when the Sheriff stands up and squares off at the dog and the dog starts to growl, folks generally stop whatever it is they're doin' and outrightly stare.

Even the piano player quit thumpin' a tune on the 88 and turned to watch.

The Bear Killer began that slow, low, deep-in-his-chest rumble and I give him a hard look.

He begin to lift his lips off his fangs and I lifted a fist and shook it at him.

The fur begun to stand up -- crossways over his shoulders and a ridge down his back bone -- and I took a wider stance, bent a little at the waist, and bared my own teeth, cocking my good right fist back about my right ear.

Now I've drove a punch from high up like that and what I hit, I intended to hit hard enough to drive it inside out and I'll tell you about it sometime, but today that big black bear killin' dog just plainly looked like he wanted to eat me for breakfast and I just plainly looked like I was gonna reach down his neck, grab his tail and yank him inside out, and then we both moved.

I run for him and he run for me and he near to knocked me over.

It was a game we played, a game he learned when he was a pup, a game that began before he locked those ivory fangs on a wounded grizzly's wind pipe: I would bend over and challenge him and he'd challenge at me right back, and he'd end up like he did today, running into me and he'd throw those big black-clawed paws over my shoulders and he'd give me a good face warshin' (I'm from Perry County. "Wash" is pronounced with an "r") -- he'd warsh my face and I'd stand there and laugh like a damn fool.

Those that knew me, those that knew The Bear Killer, knew it was going to happen, but it's still a sight when something that big and that shiny-black-curly-furred, something that fanged and fast and fierce, walks into a civilized establishment and begins that deep-in-the-guts death song.

The Bear Killer kept Sarah safe when she was younger.

One time a holdup tried his hand at our bank and come out in second place.

Sarah was just a wee thing, she warn't much taller than my belt, she was still a-holdin' her Mama's hand and she pointed that little pink finger of hers and yelled "Bear Killer! Bad man!" and The Bear Killer let out a bay like all the hounds of Hell swarmin' out of one red-rimmed throat, and that holdup ended up flat on the ground with a canine's dentures clamped ever so gently on the crotch of his drawers.

The Bear Killer didn't clamp down, Sarah trained him to a gentle mouth (though he could bite when he wanted, and had), but that-there holdup let it be known to his fellow prisoners, after His Honor sentenced him to the state pen, that Firelands was a good place to fight shy of, they've got dogs a-guardin' their bank the size of ponies with fangs about two foot long and a taste for a man's more valued parts.

Consequently we didn't have many tries to rob the bank.

Now I did not set out to discourage folks in quite this manner, but I am smarter than I look, and when the Almighty dumps a gift in my lap, why, I'll lift my hat and look to the heavens and say "Thank You" and I did with The Bear Killer.

I saw Daisy's girl watching from the end of the hall at the corner of the bar.

She had a plate of biscuits and gravy in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other and she tapped the rim of the plate. "Bear Killer!" she called, and with a final companionable lick to my jaw, The Bear Killer lifted off my shoulders and turned as light as any ballerina, happily tik-tik-tikked across the clean-swept wooden floor, and followed the girl down the hall, licking his chops in happy anticipation.

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92. RELIEF TRAIN

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland feared neither man nor devil.

Old Harry earned every one of the wrinkles on his face, every grey hair on his head, the hard way.

He one time said if he could sell his experience for what it cost him, he'd be a wealthy man, and more head than one nodded at the hearing of the man's words on the subject.

Harry was considering what wisdom might be found in the bottom of the water bucket when the floor shivered underfoot and ripples circled and danced in the bucket he was about to dip out of.

Harry's mouth went dry and he tasted copper and he remembered what it was to be nearby a sizable explosion back in that damned War, and his hand reflexively released the blue-granite coffee pot and came up in front of him as he turned, and he was halfway to the door before the walls shivered and he heard a deep-toned BOOOOOOOMMMMM and the sound of broken glass.

 

The woman across the table from the well-dressed man wore a fashionable gown and matching gloves and hat; her maid stood behind her, silent, disapproving and restless: the woman wore dark spectacles, and from the caution of her movements and the opacity of her eyeglasses, was quite blind.

"I understand, sir," she said, "you are a detective."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, his voice a little puzzled. "How did you find me?"

"I made inquiries," she said, "and I understand Professor Joseph Hunt operates an academy. Your name was mentioned as one of his best students."

The man's eyebrow raised a little.

He flattered himself a detective, yes, but his experience could honestly be measured in days -- hours, really -- and by virtue of a glib tongue and family connections, he'd gotten his Chief of Police to send him to Professor Hunt's School of Detection: if his name was mentioned as one of the Professor's best students even before setting foot in the classroom, perhaps he was better than he thought!

The sight of a stack of gold coins in the woman's gloved fingers didn't hurt either.

She shuffled the coins like a deck of cards, sightless eyes bleached and fishbelly pale when he could see them, which was only momentarily, when she sat and her head was tilted down a little: his eyes caressed the gelt, for he was a man who liked money, and if he could gull his Chief into sending him to school, at the Department's expense, perhaps he could profit from this mere woman.

"And how may I be of service?" he asked, looking up at the dour maid.

"Tell me first how you would size up an opponent at the poker table," she said, burnished-gold coins chuckling quietly as she shuffled them again.

 

Cannonball just plainly came unglued as the pale-eyed lawman stepped into the saddle.

He grunted and got his boot in the stirrup more out of luck than skill, and when she came down stiff-legged his skull slammed down on to of his spinal column and he heard a sharp click as his jaw snapped shut, and the fight was on.

Angela's breath drew sharply in and her eyes were wide as she watched the shining copper mare sunfish, spin, leap, kick, shimmy and swap ends, and she laughed to see her big strong Daddy atop the mare, reins in his off hand and Stetson swatting at the air, until finally the dance ended, the mare shook herself as if to shiver off an annoying insect, and she stepped out with her usual butter-smooth gait just as nice as you please, the Sheriff settling his Stetson on his head as if nothing in the world was out of the ordinary.

He was in sight of the depot when he saw the end door, the door into the telegraph office, swing open and Lightning stepped out onto the painted, swept, painfully-neat platform and look around.

Cannonball leaned into a long-legged trot as she felt the Sheriff's mood shift, then when his knees tightened and he leaned forward, Cannonball laid her ears back and began driving hard at the cold ground under her hooves.

The Sheriff's copper mare love to run, and run she did, and a good thing.

Lightning, the telegrapher, was holding up a telegram flimsy in one hand and waving his cap with the other, and he never, ever waved his cap unless something was very, very wrong.

 

The woman in the barbershop massaged the man's temples as the steaming-hot towel softened his beard.

"You're tense," she said quietly. "Relax. A good shave and a haircut and you'll be a new man."

"Ohhhhh, God, that feels so good," he half-groaned, half-sighed.

"You're new in town," she said, her voice pleasant, soothing. "What would a good looking man like you be doing in an uncivilized Western town like Denver?"

The barber looked over at her and smiled; she'd proven a useful assistant, and word was getting around that he had a good looking helper: men like to look good, and they like it when an attractive woman tells them that they look good, and he knew such men were not only likely to be repeat customers, they talked about their experience, and ... well, she worked cheap, she gave a decent shave, and he anticipated the pittance he paid her would more than profit his pockets.

She smiled back, her pale eyes gentle, as the man described his profession.

"I'm a detective," he said, his voice muffled by the towel, "at Professor Hunt's academy."

 

Marshal Macfarland was not the only man to swear, he was not the first to swear and he would not be the last, not at the sight of a second squirting cloud of dust and smoke blasting out of the drift.

Carbon Hill had a coal mine, and Carbon Hill had little else, and as Harry looked around at mine wives and mine children wide-eyed with shock at the sight of the mine's detonation, his heart fell to about his boot tops, for he knew that look from the War, knew it from towns besieged, from hard working townspeople and farmers alike when Lincoln's war visited itself upon their homes.

Part of him wanted to run into that smoke and the fire he knew would follow, and part of him knew better than to try, and he did what he could in that moment:

He turned around and sprinted for their depot, for the telegrapher, for the pad of cheap paper on which to scribble a message to the nearest community he thought could do them any good.

When he seized the pencil stub and the telegraph form it took all his self control to stop and take one long breath before slowly, deliberately printing his message.

He knew if he did not act with absolute, iron banded self control, right now, his message would be a quick, illegible scrawl.

TO KELLER SHERIFF FIRELANDS

COAL MINE EXPLOSION CARBON HILL

SEND ALL YOU GOT

MACFARLAND

He shoved the form through the window and the telegrapher languidly laid fingertips on the slip, drew it leisurely toward him, adjusted his spectacles and regarded the form with diffidence.

Only the fact that the window had a barred grille kept Macfarland from reaching through it and grabbing the fellow by the collar so he could punch him in the face.

He needn't have worried.

The telegrapher's eyes snapped wide open and his jaw dropped and he reached for the key without looking.

His hand ran by itself as he looked at the Marshal, then back at the form, and the Marshal saw the color drain out of the man's face like red ink out of an eyedropper.

He waited until Firelands acknowledged receipt, then he looked up at the hard-faced lawman.

Harry saw the man swallow hard before he spoke.

"Marshal," he said, "is my son alive?"

 

Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth, the Sheriff thought as he saw the crowd of red-shirted men and the brand-new steam engine in front of their fine brick firehouse.

When the Sheriff first came to town, he'd personally bankrolled their first fire engine, and men to run it.

Since then he and the Chief quietly, steadily upgraded their Fire Department, almost entirely at the expense of the Sheriff's purse: this was without fanfare, without any proclamations, speeches, plaques, presentations: the Sheriff sought to do good in the world, and this was one way he did, and now more of that good work stood before them, shining brass gleaming in the sun, new firemen looking around, taking it all in.

Sean greeted the Sheriff with a fine selection of Gaelic oaths and waved an expansive arm at the brand-new fire engine and the brand-new three-horse hitch they'd just harnessed up, the new rotation of firemen fresh from Cincinnati, ready to take over as their current crop of wild Irishmen returned to the civilized East.

"What d'ye think, Sheriff?" Sean roared happily, the way he did when he was more than pleased: "The very latest! Ahrens workmanship at its best! Best fire machine in the world!"

The Sheriff's eyes were pale and hard and the red-headed Irish fire chief knew the Sheriff hadn't come riding over just to admire their new staff and new equipment.

"Carbon Hill coal mine just exploded," he said. "Half your men and one machine here to cover, the other half and the other machine ready to move out in fifteen minutes."

He spoke as Sheriff, but his voice was that of the Colonel he'd been, and Sean responded to orders: turning, he bellowed, "ALL HANDS ON DECK! NO IRISH NEED APPLY! TURN TO, DAMN YE, OR I'LL HAVE YER GUTS FOR GARTERS! WE'RE HEADED TO CARBON HILL! OLD MACHINE STAND FAST, NEW MACHINE READY TO MOVE OUT! MY IRISH BRIGADE ON THE NEW MACHINE! YOU! ENGINEER!"

"Merckel, sir!" the new German Irishman snapped, saluting smartly as he cracked Teutonic boot heels together.

"Ye're wi' th' new machine! New men here, you" -- he thrust a finger at his old engineer -- "you an' what's-his-name, Llewellyn, you're here wi' th' new men! I canna' leave th' town uncovered!"
"Sir!" Merckel barked, still heel locked at attention. "We're only just arrived, we're still packed, we're ready t' move out, sir!"

Ron Llewellyn, the resident Welsh Irishman, grabbed his brother Daffyd's hand and his shoulder, giving each a quick squeeze: "He's loud and he's profane but he's a damn good fireman," he said quickly. "I'd follow him into Hell with a bucket of water if he said to go!"

Sean pulled out his pocket watch, snapped open the lid. "THIRTEEN MINUTES, LADS! SHERIFF, ARE WE TAKIN' YER TRAIN?"

The Sheriff nodded. "We've a special at the depot right now!"

"FAUGH A BALLAGH!" Sean roared as something red-headed and calico-skirted sprinted toward him: he turned just as his wife drove into him as hard as she could run.

He grabbed her reflexively, looking down with surprised eyes at his wife's milk-pale, lightly-freckled complexion.

Daisy hauled off and hit him in the chest. "YA DOZY IRISHMAN, YA COME HOME T'ME ALIVE THIS TIME!" she shouted, beating him with her little birdlike fists, and he wrapped his hard-muscled arms around her and hugged her tight and picked her easily off the ground, crushing her to him and laying his red-cheeked face down into her flaming hair.

"Daisymedear," he murmured as the Irish Brigade readied itself for forced march: "I always come home t'ye alive."

"Ye didn't that one time, damn ye," she wheezed, for his embrace didn't leave her much room to take a breath: "ye nearly drowned an' I thought ye dead, an' if ye get yersel' killed I'll ne'er speak to ye again!"

Sean threw his head back and laughed, taking Daisy under the arms, thrusting her overhead and spinning around, then bringing her back down and embracing her again a little less strongly.

"I've bad habits t' teach th' lads yet," he whispered in her ear, and she twisted in his arms as his curled black handlebar tickled her ear: "why, I've yet t' teach them o' the Shee, an' how t' box properly, an' th' legend of Boadicea --"

Daisy rubbed her hands flat across his chest, looked up at him.

"I've seen mines explode before," she whispered, her voice tight, "an' I helped prepare th' dead from't." She poked a stiff finger into her husband's flannel-shirted chest. "Don't you dare be one of 'em!"

Sean kissed her soundly, set her down, swatted her bottom. "Back to th' bairns, woman!" he shouted, "an' I'll be home anon!"

Daisy gave him a glare -- half-threat, half-promise -- then snatched up her skirts and ran back toward their tidy little house with the white picket fence.

Sean strode over to the brand-new steam machine, swung into the driver's seat.

"ENGINEER! WI' ME!" he roared. "LADS, ARE YE ON BOARD?"

"AYE, SIR!"

The Sheriff turned his mare, led the way: the red-headed Irish Chieftain stood, the new German dropped into the tuck-and-roll upholstered seat beside the Chief: the big, red-headed, fiercely-mustached, big-muscled Irishman swung the blacksnake whip in a vicious circle, snapped a hole in the air three feet above the new mares' heads: "ST. FLORIAN AND ST. CHRISTOPHER, LADIES, GO!"

 

"Of course you can buy me a drink," the performer purred, caressing the smooth-shaven young man's cheek.

She raised a finger to the barkeep, who dispensed something amber into a short glass: the dancer took the glass with her left hand, turned and took the young man's arm with her right.

"Let's find a table," she said, "I'd like to sit down."

"Over here, then."

It was not at all unusual for patrons to buy the dancers drinks. Most of the dancers also offered other ... services ... and a woman who showed quite a lot of stockinged leg, and who painted her face, and who accepted drinks from strangers, was probably one of "those kind of women."

The young man was different from the others, she knew: he was quiet, and he was polite, and he didn't try to caress her in an ungentlemanly way.

"You're new here," she said, crossing her legs and giving her a frank appraisal.

He wasn't surprised: women of her profession, he knew, had to be hard, had to be able to read men, and respond to them.

"You're right," he said. "I need information."

She leaned forward, one elbow on the table, her wrist bent in a feminine manner, her chin lightly on the back of her wrist. She batted long, lovely lashes at him and smiled.

"Why me? I'm just a dancing girl."

His gaze into her pale eyes was just as direct.

"My uncle told me if I was in a strange town and I was broke, I should go to the local whorehouse."

"Oh?" she blinked innocently.

He nodded, took a drink of beer, wiped the foam off his mustache. "He said if I was broke but looking for work, they would feed me and give me a place to sleep but they wouldn't bed me until I was making money."

"I see," she said, sipping delicately at the amber in her glass. "So I'm a whore?"

"There's a good chance of it, yes."

Her smile did not diminish. "So why ask a whore anything?"

"You see a lot of men here," he replied, his gaze direct. "You may not bed every man who comes through the door but when you look, you see. You sized me up when you first looked at me."

She raised an eyebrow, amused.

"I'll bet what you're drinking is just tea."

"You'd win the bet."

He nodded again, slid a coin across the table. "I'm not asking for free information."

"You might have information I need, too," she smiled, passing a hand over the coin; it disappeared.

"An exchange, then."

"Fair enough."

"I'm looking for a man with a scar under his right eye, two vertical lines about a quarter of an inch long, with a black mole at the corner of the same eye."

"Hawkeye."

"The same."

"I know where he is."

The young man held up another coin.

"Exchange," she said. "Why are you in town?"

He smiled. "You have me there," he admitted. "I'll be attending Professor Hunt's School of Detection."

"Even though you are already a detective."

"Most of the men going to his academy are detectives. Some are good, most aren't."

"Which are you?"

She assessed his face and his hands as he replied. His face was that of a young man, intelligent, but not yet tried in the fires of life's forge.

"I don't know enough," he admitted. "Before I hang out a shingle, I need to be able to do the work."

"Why Hawkeye?"

"He killed my father."

"Dig two graves."

He blinked. "What?"

"The man who rides for revenge should start by digging two graves."

"And if I don't kill him, if I bring him in and let the law deal with him?"

"You take a chance. If he killed your father, he deserves to be killed. The law may or may not do that. You may or may not bring him alive to trial. There's many a slip betwixt the Cup and the lip."

He nodded. "That is true."

"Let's say you do bring him in -- dead or alive, however it falls -- what then? What comes after?"

"I've actually thought of that," he said slowly, thoughtfully. "I'll need a trade, a profession. That's why I'm going to the Professor's Academy."

The dancing girl blinked her pale eyes and nodded approval.

 

Dr. John Greenlees stacked his black bag beside the second trunk.

Four minutes before, the boy arrived with the Sheriff's note, informing of the Carbon Hill mine explosion.

He'd feared this would happen, whether the coal mine at Carbon or the gold mine over at Cripple, and he'd prepared for it a year ago.

Dr. Flint helped him load the carriage with two trunks of medical supplies -- one trunk was dedicated solely to field surgery -- the two moved wordlessly, with the economy of men who knew their profession was most desperately needed.

By mutual agreement, Dr. Flint would stay with the Firelands hospital; Dr. Greenlees and Nurse Susan would proceed to the scene, wherever it might be; each could draft as necessary from the Unorganized Militia, and had in the past, when need arose.

 

The Silver Jewel and the Mercantile each maintained a good stock of necessaries against just such a disaster.

Willing hands stacked crates and boxes onto freight wagons; wagons clattered with a poorly suppressed urgency to the depot, their contents transferred into the waiting Side Door Pullman; men and shovels, willing hands and wheelbarrows, pick axes, miner's lamps, canteens and mess kits swung aboard.

The Lady Esther whistled into the cold air and the first relief train pulled away from the Firelands depot.

 

Carbon Hill was not terribly populous, but the entire population converged on the mine's main drift.

Two teams of miners went in by another portal, hoping to begin excavation of the collapse from the back side.

Of those gathered and hauling out rubble and dirt, Marshal Harry Macfarland was just another laboring, swearing, dusty figure.

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93. THE SHEE

 

The second relief train was a thing to be stared at.

The Daine Boys brought down a freight wagon of what looked like planks, but planks of uniform size, bundled and tied with hay string.

Planks, cut to a particular size and taper, planks that would be assembled into coffins.

These were wordlessly loaded and stacked, followed by carpenters' tools and the grim-faced carpenters themselves.

Digger, too, went with them, with the tools of his own trade.

He knew few if any would wish their dead to be embalmed; should any be so prosperous, should any wish a preserved body to be returned to family some distance away, he was prepared to offer his services, but he knew the number of customers would very likely be low.

Digger knew coal country and he knew coal miners of the age were generally half a step from being broke ... still, there might be some business.

He had his tent and he had his preparation table, he had the tools and the chemicals, and he brought a selection of coffins suitable for the long distance trade.

The embalmer settled himself into the passenger car, balanced his black top hat on his lap and wished he'd thought to pick up a traveler's meal at the Jewel.

 

Daisy's instructions to Jesse were few and to the point.

"Jesse, I canna' go, I've too many here t' care for," she said, genuine distress in her eyes and an infant asleep in her arms, "do ye now take howe'er many ye need an' set up th' kitchen. Let me know wha' else ye need once ye're there an' I'll ha'e i' on th' nex' train."

Jesse Ricketts, plump and matronly, caressed the sleeping redhead's shining hair, then winked at the Irish-pale mother.

"We'll take care of 'em," she whispered. "I've already arranged for the field stoves to be loaded. We've wood and we've food for the first day but we'll need more."

"Ye'll have it! An' tables, benches, shelter?"

"The Sheriff arranged a canvas, he said he'll have a hall built for us or he'll tear down a building and build us one. He's got those Kentucky carpenters and all the nails Mr. Garrison had in his warehouse."

Daisy nodded, looked down at the wee Irishman in her arms screwed up his darkening face and began to whimper.

"St. Florian bless us," she murmured, "he's gettin' ready t' cloud up an' rain all o'er us!"

Something warm, strong and furry shoved against the side of her thigh, a large, moist and very black nose thrust up against her elbow.

"Here," Daisy said, squatting and placing the whimpering infant in the picnic basket she carried him in: "Take care o' th' lad," and she rubbed The Bear Killer's massive head.

Sean Fitzgerald's youngest addition to his personal Irish Brigade wrinkled his face up like a peevish old man and whimpered twice, opened his wee toothless mouth just as The Bear Killer shoved his nose into the infant's blankets and sniffed loudly, then began to wash the child's wee, pink hands and his surprised, Irish-red face.

Surprised, the child's bright-blue eyes snapped open, all thoughts of voicing his peevish temper suddenly forgotten.

 

"Good morning, gentlemen," a distinguished older man began, one foot up on a small wooden platform, his left palm on the lectern: "I am Professor Joseph Hunt, and welcome to the Academy of Detection." He looked over the room, assessing each man there. "All of our students are not yet arrived but we will begin.

"Most if not all of you are detectives already. I understand varying levels of experience are represented here. Fear not, gentlemen, if you are good I will make you better, and if you know nothing, I will teach you properly." He spoke confidently, but there was something in his eyes, a quiet humor that revealed itself in his next words.

"As a matter of fact, I know everything, I've been everywhere, I am never wrong, and if you believe that, I am selling shares in a bridge in New York."

There was quiet, polite laughter; a few pens were already wet with ink, ready to note down the man's learned pronouncements.

"The term detective obviously means one who detects. We are finders, gentlemen, we are finders of fact. Our tasks may be to locate those who are guilty of some crime, to apprehend and retrieve them for the law's judgement, or we may be called on to find the facts of an event.

"Let's say a company wants to know why a railroad trestle collapsed. We might study the trestle's remains and search for evidence of missing nuts from the bolts holding key braces in place. We may search for timbers sawed partially or completely in two. There might be damage from explosives, or we may find rot from poor materials. By comparing engineers' plans and counting the number of timbers of a particular length, we may find the builders sought to cheapen the construction and increase their profit by using less than the specified number of struts in building the span.

"Our job as detectives, therefore, is to detect. Isn't that so, Agent McKenna?"

The cupboard to the Professor's right opened and a smiling young woman in a mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress, with her hair pulled up on top of her head in a severe schoolmarm's walnut, stepped out, patting a ruler in the palm of her hand. "It certainly is, Professor," she said primly, looking at the class with a comprehensive sweep of her round schoolmarm's glasses.

"Gentlemen," she said, "each of you has experience to one degree or another, and your experience is something no dollar can buy. You gained it by your own labors and your own efforts. You, sir" -- she pointed the ruler at a frowning individual in the front row -- couldn't play poker if your life depended on it. You" -- she indicated the man behind him, an individual slowly turning the steel-nib pen between thumb and forefinger -- "will find the man you're looking for, currently in the state prison, he was sent there courtesy the Firelands District Court a year ago. You" -- she stopped before another black-suited student's desk, tilted her head, regarded him closely, nodded.

"Nice haircut."

She turned, marched to the front of the room.

"Gentlemen, the key to getting information is either letting your mark know you want what they know, or by not letting your mark know you have any interest at all in what they know. You have to read your mark, your target, the subject of interest, read them like a book" -- she looked hard at one of the men -- "you have to size them up like you're playing poker."

A stack of gold coins appeared from nowhere in her hands, clinking loudly as she shuffled them like a deck of cards.

"It helps if you look harmless, unless you would be better served by looking like a figure of authority." She lifted her left hand displayed a square leather wallet with a bronze shield gleaming dully against the black-tanned case. "Agent Sarah McKenna, Firelands District Court. The game, gentlemen, is not chess, the game is poker." She lowered her hand, brought her palms together, resumed her slow, rhythmic caressing of a stack of more money than most of the men made in a year. "We don't have time to play chess. Chess is for international politics. We need answers and we need them yesterday, and in our line of work, anything is fair. Anything." She drew her hands back behind her a little, then thrust them forward, as if to throw a double handful of gold coins at the men: they flinched as she snapped her arms forward, then laughed as a double handful of rose petals fluttered through the air.

"We can lie, gentlemen. The people we're looking for will lie to us. We can disguise ourselves to gather information. We can use another's feelings against them -- we can make them mad to elicit a spontaneous utterance, we can work our way into their confidence, seem to be their friend, lull them and gull them into believing we can be trusted, and get them to confess, or to tell us where we can find someone we're looking for." She looked at the class, her eyes pale and hard.

"Women can be used, gentlemen. Men talk and women listen, and if you can get a woman on your side, you can often get all the information you want on someone." She smiled at the Professor. "Excuse me."

Agent McKenna raised her chin, marched across the room, ruler slapping the palm of her hand in time with her hard-heeled stride: she crossed before the Professor's podium with all the hauteur of an icy schoolmarm, executed a flawless column-left, exited the open door.

The class looked round at each other, at the Professor, not quite what to make of this first class: the Professor observed his charges, quietly noting their responses, and he'd just raised a hand for their attention when a dancing girl strutted into the room, all long legs and high heels, plumed headdress and sparkling half-mask: she stopped, struck a pose, left hand on her hip, the other overhead, her hand writhing at the end of her wrist, then she advanced slowly, sinuously on the Professor, not so much walking as flowing: she moved on ball bearings, her arms were nests of temptation, her bosom thrusting proudly against the corset's confinement: she molded herself to the dignified old man, curled a stockinged leg around him while caressing his bearded cheek, and she laid her head over on his shoulder and purred, "I do so love a big strong man," then with a caress of his cheek and his neck, she pirouetted, danced a few steps, stopped directly in front of the Professor's podium and whipped off the half-mask and headdress with a flourish: she waved it across her middle and bowed like a performer, and the class burst into spontaneous applause.

The Professor raised his hands for silence, smiling quietly: he didn't know the Agent would put on such a performance, but it dovetailed nicely with his opening lecture, and even he had to laugh when Agent Sarah McKenna held up his wallet in one hand and her mask-and-headdress in the other.

"And if you can get into their confidence," she declared, returning the Professor's wallet, "you can gain valuable information." She smiled. "And wallets."

She skipped out of the room; the Professor allowed the class to chuckle and comment to one another, then he frowned and withdrew the wallet.

The class laughed again as Professor Hunt examined his wallet's contents, and looked up with an expression of distress.

The mousy-grey schoolmarm marched back into the room, bearing her ruler before her like a scepter. "Oh, Professor," she said, holding up a sheaf of bills, "are you looking for this?" She handed him his money, then turned and held up a slip of paper between thumb and forefinger. "Always inspect a subject's wallet. He'll have information there he wants to keep, which means it is important to him. If it's important to him, it's important to us -- it's information."

She turned and handed the note to the Professor.

Puzzled, he accepted it: unfolding it, he read:

Forgive my theatrics, Professor, I just couldn't resist.

Sarah.

The Professor frowned, harrumphed, glowered at the pretty young schoolmarm just settling herself into a chair behind the long table to his right.

"What does the note say, Professor?" a voice called.

He frowned at the questioner. "That, sir," he said sharply, "is my concern and not yours!"

"Agent McKenna?"

Faces turned to the schoolmarm: she sat very straight in her chair, ruler and pen precisely placed before her: she stood, hands folded before her, as if this were her class, and she were about to lecture.

"Gentlemen," she said, "with great authority comes great responsibility. We are detectives, but we will encounter a great deal of information that may cause harm if it is divulged. We may be investigating a robbery and find that a suspect, though innocent of robbery, may have indiscreetly dallied with a doxy. This is information which may have no bearing on the case and is therefore not to be divulged. In the Professor's case" -- she turned, smiled at the stern-looking, grey-bearded Professor,her eyes bright and innocent behind round-lensed spectacles -- "we have discovered a laundry receipt for two shirts, starched. Hardly a matter of consequence."

 

"Harry!"

The Sheriff gripped the tired-looking Marshal's hand.

"We've a field kitchen on the way, I've brought the Irish Brigade -- they'll find their own quarters -- did anyone survive?"

Harry's expression sagged, the look of a tired man who was about at the limit of his strength.

He shook his head.

"I won't give up hope," he rasped, then coughed, spat. "They're digging in from the back side."

The Sheriff looked at men rolling mine cars of dirt and rocks out by hand, looked back at the dusty, exhausted Marshal.

"How are you set for mine timbers?"

"Timbers?" a rough voice rasped from behind the Sheriff.

"This is Murphy. Mine foreman. He was off shift when she blew," Macfarland introduced.

Sheriff and foreman shook hands, the contrast between the clean, fresh Sheriff and the filthy, bone-tired foreman plain to see.

"Timbers," Murphy repeated. "We need 'em bad."

"What size and length," the Sheriff snapped. "We'll get 'em."

 

"You! Boy! Over here!"

The lad shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered defiantly over to the shining-new fire engine.

Sean jumped easily to the ground, sized the lad up.

"Ma name's Sean, I'm fire chief an' I need yer help," he said without preamble.

"Ralph, sir," the boy said, eyeing the shining brass pressure dome. "What kind of help?"

"You've got somethin' I need," Sean said, squatting, "an' I'll make i' worth yer while."

"Yeah?" the lad asked with a sneer.

"I need yer water. Wells, cisterns, anythin' it'll take t' feed me engine."

"That's all?" the boy asked, surprised.

"Is tha' all?" Sean roared, straightening. "Why lad, water is life itself! Give a fire its head an it'll eat th' world, an' it's only a guid Irishman wi' a hose stream t' stop it!"

"Water," the lad said, nodding. "Sure. There's a cistern here, under this board walk, and a well back of here --"

Daffyd Llewellyn, the Welsh Irishman, strode up with a measuring tape and a plumb line. "Take me to 'em," he said. "I'll get their gauge."

Sean nodded, turned to the engineer. "Now we'll find quarters an' set up shop."

 

Digger's tent was not big enough for the Daine boys' operation, so they held off knocking together more than a half-dozen coffins until they knew how many would be needed: they used bow drills to pilot the holes, then screwed the planks together, stacked the boxes against one wall, out of general view.

Digger set up his preparation table, had a hole dug for waste fluids, set up his embalming rig, laid out scalpels, elevators and trochars, hung his black-rubber apron from a tent pole, then with the rest of the general population, went to the site of the disaster to see what was going on.

 

A runner arrived at the mortuary tent, blurted out a request, and two minutes later, a coffin was carried into the mine opening.

It was brought out by grim-faced men; the women crowded close, their faces drawn and anxious, and the Sheriff closed his eyes and turned away as he saw a woman collapse to her knees, her palms pressed against the wooden box, and he tried to close his ears to her first wails of anguish and of loss.

It wasn't the only box to bring out a man's mangled remains, and she wasn't the only throat stripped raw with a widow's keening.

 

Young Ralph's head came up and he half-turned.

"What's that?" he whispered, eyes wide, and Sean laid a strong, gentle hand on the lad's shoulder.

"That," he said, his voice rough with memories, "is the Shee herself, grieving at th' stream for her lost children."

"The what?"

"The banshee, boy. 'Tis said when a widow first screams her grief, 'tis not her throat, but that of the Shee." He squeezed Ralph's shoulder gently. "I've heard it b'fore, boy, an' it still runs me blood cold t' hear it." He looked down at the lad. "Have ye anyone in that mine?"

He nodded. "My brother," he whispered through wooden lips.

 

A heavy fist hit the telegrapher's door, three hard knocks.

The telegrapher was suddenly very, very old.

He rose slowly from his swivel chair, dread weighting his steps.

He walked like a man condemned walks to his waiting gallows.

His fingers were almost numb as he grasped the door's knob, turned it, pulled.

The mine foreman sagged wearily against the door casing.

The man's eyes were red-rimmed, exhaustion engraved his filthy face, and the telegrapher was struck by how white the man's teeth were against the grime and dirt saturating the man's mustache and caking his sweat-streaked face.

The foreman was ready to collapse from exhaustion, but he had this one last duty to perform before he let himself relax.

He gripped the telegrapher's shoulder, his hand leaving a dirty print on the man's immaculate vest.

"He's alive."

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94. ENTER THE DUTCHMAN

 

The policeman swung his turned-hickory nightstick in a quick, vicious arc, as if swinging a short sabre: the stick was not sharp on any corner, but it was hard, and when it slashed across the intended recipient's skull, it split the scalp, bounced briskly off underlying bone, caused a visible explosion of several brightly-colored starbursts, and staggered the fellow who'd had a serious lack of wisdom.

Not sixteen seconds earlier his heart was light and merry, the warmth in his belly feeding the heat in his loins; he'd spotted a likely looking lass, seized her arm and her ... anatomy ... in a way that was far less than gentlemanly, but was very distinctively ... suggestive.

The lass, for her part, snapped her arm out of his grip, her move quick, unexpected: she broke out of his grip through the thumb, countered with a stiff-arm left, driving the heel of her gloved hand into his cheek bone, just as the Denver police officer raised his baton.

The officer seized the back of the fellow's coat-collar, locking his own gloved left mitt shut on the thick expanse of broadcloth, and dropped the nightstick, letting it dangle from his wrist by its leather loop: he hooked his thumb around a shining chain attached to his epaulet and disappearing into a little pocket beside his badge, pulled.

Sarah covered her ears and squinted as the officer gave a lusty blast on the British bobby's whistle.

Sarah lowered her hands and blinked innocently as the red-faced beat cop looked at her and winked: "Don't ye worry now, lass," he said reassuringly, "we'll need yer statement, an' me cobber will be here t' take it down. Though" -- his eyes twinkled as he smiled broadly beneath his neatly curled mustache -- "I'd like t' be th' lucky sod who had th' pleasure of interrogatin' ye!"

Sarah blinked again, doing her best to look like a bashful schoolgirl, in spite of the tailored McKenna gown and hat she wore, which only increased the policeman's already-broad smile.

"I'm sure my Daddy would tell me to cooperate," she said softly.

"And who is your Daddy, me child?" the officer asked silkily.

Sarah had turned away, saw the approaching officer, closed her eyes: when she turned and looked at the arresting officer, her eyes were ice-pale and granite-hard.

"My father is Sheriff Linn Keller, Firelands County. Perhaps you have heard of him?"

Shock replaced libido in the man's expression: he looked at Sarah as if she were less a delectable lass and more a bundle of sweating dynamite.

"Yer father's ..."

"Yes, and my uncle is Past Territorial Marshal Charlie Macneil. You may have heard of him as well." Sarah stepped up to the shocked officer and laid a hand on his forearm. "And I am very certain they will be most pleased that an Officer of the Law was on hand to rescue me. Why, there is no telling what this cad may have done had you not intervened!"

Sarah turned, smiling, as another officer came jogging toward them. He almost skidded to a stop, staring slack jawed at the pretty young woman resting a gloved hand on his fellow officer's coat-sleeve.

He swept off his cap, astonishment plain on his features. "Miss McKenna!" he exclaimed. "I'd no idea you were back!"

"I'm only just arrived," Sarah said, "and I understand you are to depose me on the unpleasant moment your brother officer just prevented!"

"However I can be of service," the man almost stammered, looking at the arresting officer as if the man had a fish sticking out of his coat pocket.

 

Sarah's father, the Sheriff, was handing a glass of good California brandy to the Dutchman.

His name was Robert Holland, but everyone knew him as the Dutchman: big, bluff, genial and one-eyed, he'd worn an eye patch to cover what he'd lost in that damned War: his hands were soft and utterly without calluses, for his trade was that of a townie: he'd opened a barbershop, thanks in part to the Sheriff's investment, and business was good, or at least good enough: Dutch had a big booming laugh, he had a thousand stories, and he was constantly priming his clientele with openings to whip a good joke on him, which he shamelessly added to his own sizable repertoire.

The Dutchman brought his boy with him, an active, restless lad of Angela's age, and when Dutch suggested that Little Dutch play with Angela, the lad gave the Sheriff's little girl a sidelong look, as if she had leprosy, the plague and measles, not necessarily in that order: still, as Angela happily skipped toward the kitchen, Little Dutch followed obediently.

Linn and Dutch settled themselves into the comfortable chairs in the Sheriff's study, each happily allowing himself to relax after a productive day's work.

They sampled the libation, tasting sunshine and peaches, savoring the distilled wine, allowing the essence to soak into their souls, for few things feel quite as good as sharing a quiet drink with an old friend.

"Dutch," Linn said, "your business is doin' all right?"

Dutch nodded slowly, sipped his brandy again. "All right," he nodded, then laughed.

Linn raised an eyebrow. "I know that laugh," he grinned. "What happened?"

Dutch leaned back and laughed. "I nearly ended my business yesterday."

Linn raised a tented eyebrow, leaned forward a little. "How's that?"

Dutch shook his head, chuckling.

"Do you know the very first thing a barber learns?"

"Hot wet towels and plenty of lather?" Linn hazarded. "Or maybe how to strop the razor."

Dutch shook his head.

"If you drop the razor," he said quietly, "don't try to catch it!"

Linn's eyes widened a little and he opened his mouth. "You didn't --"

Dutch held up his hands, wiggled ten fingers and laughed that big booming laugh of his.

"No, but I just almost made a grab for it --"

The door slammed open and Little Dutch ran, yelling, through the study, arms wrapped protectively over his head as Angela chased him, smacking him with a blackened stick that Linn recognized as having been her little toy broom he'd gotten her.

The pair streaked through the study at the top of their lungs, Little Dutch's protests consistently of pained noises and an occasional "Ow!" and Angela screaming something in what Linn figured must be French -- the pair slammed out the other door and they heard blows, screeches and nasal exclamations scamper out the front door, across the front door and out into the yard.

Linn looked from the near door, just now swinging shut after its youthful assault, over to Dutch.

Dutch was leaned back in his chair, the brandy snifter carefully held out at arm's length before him, as he laughed that great booming laugh of his.

The maid came through the far door, shaking her head and muttering, and Linn looked up at her -- "Mary, what in the cotton pickin' happened?"

"Twas no pickin' yer cotton about it!" Mary snapped, stopping and folding disapproving arms across in front of her: scowling, she looked briefly at the guffawing Dutchman, then glared at the Sheriff.

"Yon scamp wouldna have anythin' t' do wi' Angela's tea an' she picked up her broom and said he'd have t' sweep out th' kitchen!"

The Sheriff looked at the red-faced Dutchman, who by now was sliding out of his seat with mirth and merriment, the precious snifter carefully balanced in one big paw, as the other palm planted itself on the floor and he sank the rest of the way to the deck, sitting upright and leaning back against the chair, eyes squinted happily shut as he made strangled noises that kind of resembled a hen at work.

"So ... did he ...?"

"No, th' scamp! He took th' broom an' shoved it i' th' stove, an' Angela seized it an' laid about him, head an' shoulders she did, an' off they went!" She turned to the Dutchman, who was trying unsuccessfully to sip from the snifter.

"An' laugh why don't ye!" she scolded, shaking her Mommy-finger at the helplessly sniggering Dutch: "now I've all that black stuff t' clean up, an' th' lad'll need a bath, an' God help us we'll need t' take tha' child t' Confession! Sheriff" -- she turned suddenly to the innocent-looking lawman -- "now don't ye gi'me that innocent look! It doesna fool me a'tall! Ye should be ashamed o' yersel' lettin' that' wee child learn such language!"

"What language?" the Sheriff protested.

"She's th' language of a Cajun sailor, she does!" the maid declared, planting her knuckles on her hips and sticking her elbows out like white-sleeved wings. "I've ne'er heard such language outside o' th' docks! Hmph! An' ye thought i' cute t' teach her language no one'd know! Well Mister Sheriff Sir I'll ha'e ye know ye can't fool yer Mary!"

And so declaring, she hoisted nose and chin in the air with an indiginant "Hmph!", spun on her heel, and marched out of the room, disapproval stiffening her spine and fairly dripping from her as she walked.

The Dutchman gave up trying to drink, talk or even breathe, for that matter: he was snorting now, almost gasping for breath, and he carefully, gently set the snifter on the floor, leaned his head back against the seat cushion and gasped for breath, tears dampening the corners of his happily-wrinkled eyes.

The maid was departed by maybe a full minute before Dutch got enough wind to snigger and giggle and finally gasp; propping himself up with his left palm planted on the hook rug, he pointed at the far door and tried to say something.

The Sheriff was staring at the door the maid just used, blinking in confusion.

"I ..." he said, shaking his head. "Dutch, I didn't teach her that!"

The Dutchman pointed to the Sheriff, hyperventilating for several moments, then positively shrieked, "You didn't --" and the merry hysterics seized him again, and he surrendered himself to helpless laughter once more.

 

One rock, one shovel full, one mine car at a time: men rotated in teams, relieving one another at regular intervals: progress was steady but frustratingly slow: the telegrapher's son was found, alive -- his leg was broke, but a man can heal up from a broke leg, he can't heal up from dead -- there was a cheer when he was brought out, but a somber pall descended as another box was brought up, then brought out: more boxes, more dead men, more graves marked for digging in the town's cemetery.

The Irish Brigade was everywhere, helping pack out a coffin, or support a sagging miner, ready to collapse from exhaustion: they encouraged men to the mess tent, carried trays, washed plates and utensils and hauled water and stoked fires, they set up cots on which weary men collapsed, fully dressed, they brought lanterns, trimmed wicks, filled miners' lamps.

On their Chieftain's order, they absolutely positively did not go into the mine shafts -- "leave that f'r the miners, lads, they know their trade an' we don't."

Daisy's girls labored steadily, throwing out feed for the laboring men: somehow they managed to look clean and fresh, in contrast to dirty, exhausted men sitting down at their board tables, some falling asleep partway through their meal.

 

The Sheriff clapped his hand on the Dutchman's shoulder.

"By golly now," he said, "I'm glad ye came over!"

"I appreciate your having me." Dutch looked at his old friend, his eyes crinkling again with his ever present merriment.

"How's your daughter doing over in Denver? Has she caught a husband yet?"

The Sheriff smiled tiredly, shaking his head.

"She knows who she's marrying," he said, "but she won't tell me quite yet."

 

"So you're Llewellyn's brother," the German Irishman said, shoving out his hand. "If ye're as good a fireman as yer brother, th' town's in good hands."

"Are there any good lookin' girls hereabouts?" Daffyd Llewellyn asked hopefully.

The German Irishman gave him an odd look.

"Now that you mention it," he said slowly, "there is one ... she's from a good family, a rich woman's daughter, an' a good catch she is." He grinned, a quick, almost bashful admission: "Was I not sweet on mein Fraulein, I'd make a play for her meself!"

"How might I arrange an introduction?" Daffyd asked.

"Let me introduce ye to her mother. She'll be in town t'day or t'morrow. She'll wish t' look ye o'er ... but tell ye what, if ye've as grand a singing voice as your brother, just show up at church. A good voice is appreciated!"

"What might this girl's name be?"

"Oh, there's no mistakin' her," the German Irishman laughed. "She's a good lookin' gal wi' pale eyes. Her name is Sarah. Sarah McKenna."

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95. A MODEL DETECTIVE

 

Professor Hunt was at the fashion show.

So was the biggest part of the detective academy's current class.

All were attired in a gentlemanly manner; all sat in the back, and all admitted later to a profound boredom with the idea of sitting through a sales pitch for women's attire ... but none felt bored when the House of McKenna's first gown walked out onto the stage, turned, preened, took a few more steps, stopped, smiled, turned again.

Heads nodded almost imperceptibly.

Yes, this was their classmate, their fellow student, this was indeed Agent S. L. Rosenthal of the Firelands District Court.

Nearly every man there considered that she was also a remarkably good looking young woman, and not a few were aware that it was mother and daughter on stage: everyone privy to this information was convinced that the daughter got her good looks from the woman behind the podium, discussing material, drape, comfort, flow, freedom of movement -- at which moment, the model turned, thrust her gloved arm out level and kicked her fashionably-shod foot with obvious ease against her extended, gloved palm: the model recovered, smiled demurely over her shoulder at her classmates.

The rest of the audience, of course, the buyers, the dealers, the retailers, all thought she was performing for them.

The House of McKenna hosted a tea after every fashion show, and teas often had their own entertainment: a string quartet, for instance, or a gifted pianist, playing softly in the background: Sarah, looking very grown-up in foundations and face paint, in a tailored gown that downplayed her youth and gave her instead the appearance of a woman a half dozen years her senior, circulated among the buyers, her gift of faces and names serving her very well indeed in this social aspect of salesmanship.

A matron (known to be of somewhat a waspish temper) sniffed that she couldn't see how women of quality could possibly move with any freedom in such poorly designed garments, at which point Sarah backhanded the woman across the face and snapped, "Do not presume to judge our products by the poor quality standards of your coarse-woven trash!" -- which raised the ire of the red-nosed gentleman with her; he presumed to cock a fist, which Sarah seized, fell back, drove her hard little heels into his gut as he passed immediately above her, and threw him an impressive distance, landing him flat on his back.

Sarah was up like a cat, eyes pale and her face pale, taut and almost cadaverous under what was now a ghastly layer of face paint: teeth bared, she came up, half-crouched, one hand open at eye level, the other at her waist, almost cupped, and palm-up.

The man groaned, rolled over, came up on all fours.

Sarah charged as he rose, driving her shoulder into his middle and knocking him down again: she somersaulted off him, came to her feet, nostrils flaring with each breath, and she circled him slowly, ready for another attack.

A man's pride is a painful thing and this man's pride (and the drink he'd been steadily soaking in during the stage presentation) goaded him into a yell and a charge, and Sarah spun, kicking him in the side of the face as he went by.

This time he stayed down.

Sarah smoothed her skirt, walked up to the groaning figure, planted a foot triumphantly on his backside and declared, "As you can see, the gowns of the House of McKenna are not only comfortable and durable, they allow a good freedom of movement which adds to their practicality as well as their comfort!"

The buyers, the retailers, the fashionable community, rather surprised at such a demonstration, nevertheless expressed their delight at this demonstration with a polite patter of applause, after which the Professor quietly instructed his students to carry the worse-for-wear individual into the next room.

Sarah smiled warmly as she stepped up to the wasp.

"Thank you for providing us with the perfect demonstration of our garments," she said in a pleasant voice. "We very much appreciate the assistance you've provided us. Oh, and in case you are thinking about pressing charges" -- she raised her hand, dropped open the leather wallet, exposing the shield -- "you will find a charge of assault on a law enforcement officer waiting on you."

Sarah's smile was dazzling as she lowered her hand, turned, flowed through the crowd, shaking hands and smiling, greeting people by name, for all the world like a politician at election time.

 

A half-hour later Sarah's mouth dropped open, her eyes wide with dismay.

She blinked, looked at her Mama, re-read the letter.

"How ... when did he write this?" she squeaked.

"The Sheriff wrote that the night before my departure," Bonnie said carefully, her long-lashed, violet eyes betraying the sadness she felt at seeing her daughter's distress.

"Carbon Hill ... Mama, they didn't ... they don't ... there's not ..."

Sarah looked at her Mama, looking less like the young woman she showed to the world, and more like the vulnerable little girl Bonnie remembered so well.

"Mama ... I feel so helpless ..."

"I know, sweets," Bonnie said, her throat tight. "The Sheriff is seeing that the naked are clothed, the hungry are fed, the dead are buried and the injured are treated. He arranged for two field kitchens. Daisy is providing staff. You know Daisy" -- Sarah heard her Mama's voice smile a little -- "she's drafting like the Union army to keep water in buckets and wood boxes filled!"

Sarah nodded, a little less distress in her face.

"The Sheriff is an excellent administrator," Bonnie continued. "He's making things happen but he's not putting himself in the lime light."

" 'Let not thy right hand know,' " Sarah quoted.

"Exactly," Bonnie nodded.

"He loves you, Mama."

Bonnie's eyes went wide with surprise, and she looked away, then she looked back, pressed a kerchief to her upper lip, blinking.

"I know," she finally said. "I have always known."

"I heard him say -- he didn't know I was listening -- when he saw us for the first time -- you remember the night, Mama, the night he rode into town on that big plow horse and decked Slade, the attorney?"

Bonnie smiled, her eyes distant. "I remember," she whispered, rich red lips curling into a gentle smile.

"He said he would have torn the beating heart from his breast and laid it at your feet."

Bonnie nodded, her eyes almost sad.

"Why didn't ... Mama, why didn't you and he ...?" Sarah let the question dangle.

Bonnie swallowed, looked down, wet her lips nervously.

"I ... didn't think," she whispered, her voice a tortured gasp, "I didn't think a decent man would ever look at me. Not after what I'd been." She closed her eyes, took a long breath, then looked at Sarah. "Then ... afterward .... I wasn't about to come between he and Esther."

"I understand," Sarah said sympathetically.

Bonnie reached over, grasped Sarah's hand -- quickly, impulsively -- "I can just imagine what the society columns will say after tonight's little demonstration!"

The two giggled like a pair of schoolgirls.

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96. PRICE OF ADMISSION

The Sheriff considered the ledger-book, frowning a little as he compared his neat entries to the papers he'd accumulated on his desk.

He'd calculated cost per man-hour, cost per machine hour, the cost of supplies for feeding the community, rental on the several tents, folding cots, stoves; he checked his sums, his multiplications where he'd figured interest rates, and finally, satisfied his figures were correct, looked at his bottom line and smiled.

It was easy to turn a profit when he had a hand in so many businesses.

Because he owned a share of every involved business, he got a cut of every business's profit: this was not the underhanded profit filching common in other communities: no, the Sheriff's investments were just that -- genuine investments -- and though he'd provided the bankroll to get several of them up and running, he continued to enjoy the benefit of his choices.

In a way, he owned the stoves that were rented to the relief effort, and the tents, and the cots; his wife's railroad charged per freight-mile for hauling supplies, food, slaughter beef, canned goods, cloth goods; disasters, he reflected, were good for business ... the coal mine would be reimbursing him for necessary expenses, and he knew they would not repay his full expenditure, but then that's why his bookkeeping was immaculate.

If anyone doubted the veracity of his figures, his books were open for inspection.

Satisfied that he'd accounted for every expenditure, he pushed the ledger away, and his thoughts of business with it: he picked up an envelope, bent it a little to break the red wax seal, and smiled a little as he unfolded it to reveal the regular lines of symmetrical handwriting.

Truth be told, he looked forward to Sarah's letters, and he'd held off cracking the seal on this one til he was caught up with his have-to's.

Dearest Father, he read, and his eyes darkened a little, the way they did when he looked at an infant, or a fuzzy wag-tail puppy, or his wife.

I would rather address you as Dearest Papa, but neither of us have earned the familial familiarity necessary for such an address.

Rather than pursue philosophy, I will instead thank you for your particular lesson, and address various difficulties that presented themselves.

First, you will recall you and Jacob taught me to break a grip, especially a grip about the wrist.

Men do indeed seek to control a woman by seizing her wrist, and I must thank you for our many and frequent lessons.

I reacted without thinking when i was grabbed, in front of a saloon: I snapped my wrist from a strong man's grasp and I am satisfied your observation was valid, for I well remember your comment that sudden and unexpected action was an ally when escaping a seizure.

You also spoke against striking an opponent with a closed fist, and you offered the experiences of some Firelands townspeople of our mutual acquaintance.

I well remember Dr. Greenlees speaking of a "boxer's fracture" of the hand, gained when one punched another in the head or face.

My riposte when I snapped my wrist free, was a heel-strike with my back-bent palm: I drove the heel of my hand into the man's cheek bone, just as you taught me, but dear Papa, please don't be cross with me.

I was aiming for his nose, and missed.

The Sheriff laughed aloud, for as he he read, he heard the words in his daughter's voice, and when she admitted to missing the mark's eagle beak, he laughed quietly, for in his imagination she sounded almost like a chastised little girl.

I regret to report that you were also correct when you opined that my classmates would not well receive a woman in their midst.

The Professor presented yesterday on handcuffs and handcuffing and my classmates manacled me securely to my chair, then blindfolded me and stuffed a kerchief in my mouth, bade me a boring hour while they lunched, and with gibes and sneers, laughed their way out of the classroom -- but not until after the Professor's departure.

(Professor Hunt would not countenance any such outrage!)

You will remember Jacob was kind enough to chain me up in our back room on several occasions.

I am very obliged to him for these experiences.

I was able to slip my slender hands from the hand irons, but I found myself obliged to pick the remaining locks, which I did with either picklocks, shims, or master keys secreted about my person, and then I determined to make them pay.

I have several friends in various strata of society, and as the class was headed for a particular saloon of my acquaintance, I hailed a cab and was soon at this establishment's back door.

A dancer greeted me and I was soon changed into costume and half-mask, and by virtue of certain wiles of the feminine persuasion, we had my fellows in the class plied with beer empowered with the Daine boys' product -- a little at first, but the more they drank, the less they realized how much "Water Clear and Not Over Thirty Days Old" was added to their beer mugs: this, and other efforts, and they were persuaded to quarrel among the other patrons, and in short order the constabulary responded.

If one were to examine the police records, one might find a hastily-scrawled note delivered by a dirty-faced street urchin, begging the police to relieve the saloon of certain disruptive elements.

My fellow dancer and I made a hasty exit through the selfsame back door as I entered earlier; we leaped into the cab I bade wait, and made a swift and clattering return to the classroom, while I explained the nature of my request to my fellow performer.

With the addition of a few coins to her palm, she was cooperative.

I dressed her in my gown while we sped through the Denver streets, we ran laughing up the stairs to our classroom, and I soon had her secured in irons, in blindfold and gag, and with several touches to her hair, made my prisoner a passing fine imitation of the helpless soul my classmates seized, secured and abandoned.

Upon their return to the three-story brick building, the home of the Professor's Academy, they stormed up the stairs, stumbled into the room, fell into their chairs, laughing, congratulating themselves upon their prowess and upon their escape.

Their "prisoner" remained still and unmoving, and it was several minutes before a voice said "Hey, what about that uppity agent girl?"

I was waiting for that.

I'd changed clothes in the generous cupboard in the corner, a cupboard which I'd arranged for my convenience: it was normally locked, and mine the only key, and in its generous enclosure I parted company from a dancer's brief costume and spangles and assumed my familiar black attire, boots and britches, vest and coat, and broad-brimmed hat: I watched through a peep hole bored earlier in the day, and when two of them rose and fumbled for keys, I kicked the cupboard door open, stepped out and cranked a round into my '76 rifle.

"NOBODY MOVE!" I shouted, and I bless the singing lessons with which Mama inflicted me from an early age, for they helped me to pitch my voice in an absolutely commanding manner: "KEEP YOUR HANDS IN PLAIN VIEW, MAKE NO MOVE UNLESS I TELL YOU, OR YOU WILL BE SHOT!"

Every man Jack among them, froze.

"Kidnap is a capital crime," I continued. "A capital crime means you can be hanged for its commission."

"Who the hell are you?" one of the rapidly sobering men blurted, and I whipped off my hat.

"Agent Sarah L. Rosenthal, Firelands District Court," I barked.

Jaws dropped and heads turned from the unmoving prisoner to me and back again: fingers pointed to one, then the other, and a confusion of questions, mostly "But, but, that's you -- we left you --"

"Release her," I commanded. "And understand that she may very well wish to press charges against each of you individually, and all of you severally."

Of course she did no such thing, and my classmates were at an absolute loss to explain the change.

I must close if I am to make the mail-sack to Firelands.

Forgive my haste, dear Father, and I remain

Always,

Your Sarah

 

The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, a faraway look in his eyes as he considered his pale-eyed daughter's action, as played out from her written words onto the staged theater behind his eyes.

He grinned quietly, nodding, then spoke quietly into the stout log office's silence.

"I would have paid admission to have seen that!"

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97. DAFFYD LLEWELLYN

 

The man's hair was brushed, his mustache waxed and curled, he'd spent good money at Dutch's barbershop to get a good straight razor shave.

His boots were polished to a high shine, his suit was absolutely free of any trace of lint or dust, and as he walked across the winter-hard street toward the whitewashed church, he suddenly had the mad impulse to turn and hot foot it to the Silver Jewel for a beer.

If I sneezed right now, he thought, I would blow dust!

He stopped in mid-street, looked uphill, to his right, toward the Jewel: he thrust out his jaw, shook his head, closed and opened his hands, and started once again for the church.

Daffyd was a stranger in town.

His brother, Ron Llewellyn, was an established and accepted member of the town's beloved Irish Brigade, their red-shirted, black-mustached firemen, those brave fellows who ran boldly into buildings from which sane and rational people were fleeing as hard as they could run, those good and hardy yeomen who charged the Devil himself with a squirtgun and a laugh. Little boys admired them, women sighed after them, Daffyd was replacing his brother, and at the moment he felt as uncertain as he did as a rookie facing his first genuine conflagration.

Ye've nothing to fear, boyo, he thought, the words in his head sounding much like Sean's quiet voice: ye've not seen the lass, ye're but going to church, ye're going to raise that grand voice o' yours in praise.

That's all.

There's more, he argued with himself. I wish to meet her parents. I wish to make a good impression with them. I am laying the foundation, I wish to have heir approval before I even meet their daughter --

Daffyd stopped again, having made it clear to the edge of the street.

He was suddenly cold, and he knew it wasn't from the December air.

I've never seen this Sarah McKenna. I know the Brigade think highly of her. I know Sean loves her like a daughter. I might not like her at all.

He looked up, his eyes following the steeple skyward; he blinked, frowned a little, studied the ceiling of the bell tower.

Bullet gouges? he thought.

Who would shoot a church?

He blinked again, turned, looked up the street.

Those came at a long angle, maybe from the Mercantile.

A drunken cowboy wouldn't go that far to shoot the church up -- likely he'd come drunk and staggering from the saloon and cut loose --

Daffyd shoved his Derby hat forward, scratched his thatch, resettled the skypiece and turned again to face the church.

He'd have to ask one of the few people he knew for an introduction.

Even if he didn't know this Sarah McKenna, it would do to cultivate good relations with the natives.

That's what I'll do.

I'll make their acquaintance.

That's all I need do.

 

Sarah McKenna descended the stairs of her home with the grace of a royal born.

Her Mama looked at her turning at the bottom of the stairs with the approving eyes of a Southern belle, watching another coming into her grace and beauty, and Sarah saw the look on her face, and was pleased.

 

The Sheriff shook Daffyd's hand and began to introduce him -- much of the town was already present -- he tried to remember the names, the faces, but only the remarkable ones stuck in his nervous memory -- WJ Garrison, who ran the Mercantile, easy to remember, he has one arm -- his wife, a gentle and motherly soul, worn-looking and thin-faced, reminding him much of his old landlady back in Cambridge -- a host of others -- he turned, the Sheriff's hand on his shoulder, and he heard the name that turned his knees to water.

"McKenna," he remembered hearing, and he turned to face a tall man in an immaculate suit and an attractive, violet-eyed woman on his arm, and a gloved hand seized his and suddenly all he could see was a pair of pale-blue eyes framed by an absolutely beautiful, apple-cheeked image of the angel Gabriel's younger sister.

He automatically lifted the gloved knuckles to his lips and the Sheriff's voice echoed and echoed again in the suddenly-vacant cavern of his skull like a voice shouted in a great empty cave:

"Sarah McKenna, Sarah McKenna, Sarah McKenna, Sarah McKenna!"

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98. SONG AND DANCE

 

Professor Hunt considered the coffee pot, imagining the slope of the black liquid within as the waiter tilted it, decanting the fragrant brew into the police chief's dainty porcelain cup.

The Professor detested the dainty little coffee cups the hotel provided; he much preferred the mug he used at home -- big, heavy, it held the heat and let him ease the arthritic ache in his fingers of a morning as he wrapped both hands around it and communed silently with its rising vapors.

"You realize, Professor," the Chief said conversationally as he dropped a sugar cube into his coffee, "that your girl puts our detective force to shame."

"Oh?" the Professor replied noncommittally, debating whether to lift two strips of bacon or three from the heaping platter between them.

"Oh, yes," the Chief grunted, stirring his coffee briskly and seizing a slice of buttered toast from the stack the waiter placed two seconds before. "She disappears into the streets, and I mean she disappears!" -- he bit down on toasted bread, savored the freshly-scorched, buttered bread as the Professor dribbled half a teaspoon of cold milk into his coffee.

"Disappears," the Professor prompted, carefully threading his fork under four strips of bacon and getting three to his plate.

"Do you usually dunk your bacon in your coffee?" the Chief mumbled through his mouthful: the Professor plucked the fallen strip of crispy-fried pork from his coffee, leaned back as the attentive waiter whisked away his cup and saucer and a second uniformed lackey placed a new one, poured it nearly full.

"She disappears into the streets," the Professor repeated peevishly, frowning at his fried eggs and picking up his fork, left-handed.

"Oh, yes," the Chief grunted again. "You should see her at work, Professor. I've watched her become a barbershop girl, a dancing girl, she's popped out of a trunk like a Jack-in-the-box with a double-barrel shotgun --"

The Professor's fork clattered to the porcelain as his fingers suddenly went nerveless.

"She did ... she's the one ... her?" the Professor said haltingly.

The Chief nodded. "She is." He looked closely at the suddenly-uncomfortable instructor. "You didn't know she was the --"

"I thought it was an active boy, or a young man," the Professor admitted, picking up his coffee with two trembling hands.

"We persuaded the newspapers to print that," the Chief said quietly, leaning confidentially toward the dignified older man with the spade-cut beard. "We didn't want the world to know how effective a girl can be. It makes my men look bad when a mere girl achieves what we've only dreamed of!"

The Professor frowned, leaned back, his eggs still untouched.

"You do know, Chief," he said thoughtfully, "that the Pinkertons began using women as detectives more than a quarter century ago!"

"No," the Chief admitted. "No, I didn't, but if they're as good as your girl is, I can see why!"

"Tell me again what my student has been doing," the Professor said as he picked up a strip of bacon, abandoning for for thumb and forefinger.

 

Carbon Hill saw no arrests for three days.

Raised voices, angry shouts, picks or shovels were thrown, yes, but these were the actions of men working themselves to exhaustion, the desperate actions of desperate people: time advanced, hope faded, and still men pushed empty mine cars into the shaft and rolled full cars of spoil out, mine posts were carried in, and people just outside the drift's opening could hear the hollow sound of the square-sawed posts being sledgehammered in place under the heavy crossbeams.

Between the team digging from one end, and the team digging from the other, the collapse was finally cleared, at least long enough to get the last of the bodies out: by mutual agreement, the miners pushed the loaded cars out as hard as they could run, and behind them, the mountain trickled a few rocks into the dug-out tunnel, then a few more rocks, then with a sudden, soft thump -- more felt as displaced air than by the sound of uncountable tons of mountain collapsing in on itself -- the hungry mineshaft closed its jaws impotently on empty air, managing only to imprison a few hundred yards of iron mine rail.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland slipped away from the mine opening, made a weary walk to his own tenement: he fired his stove and heated stew, heated water and took a badly needed bath, laid out clean clothes and crawled between his sheets, asleep before his ear sank into what was left of a feather pillow.

For a miracle, no one came beating on his door until he'd slept the clock around.

 

Daffyd Llewellyn found himself hoping the next hymn they sang had at least four stanzas.

He'd been seized by one arm by this amazing, pale-eyed angel with Saint Cecilia's own voice, and by the other arm by her violet-eyed mother, followed by the twin girls in matching gowns, and trailed by an amused-looking husband and father: he ended up between mother and daughter in the church pew, and there was magic that followed, whenever they opened a hymnal and stood.

Sarah's voice naturally harmonized with his; he sang cautiously, avoiding the improvised descant he enjoyed improvising back home: twice he could have spun a counter-melody, supporting the melody with a powerful, low-tenor buttressing, but so enchanted was this newly arrived fireman by this striking young woman's voice that he trod unwaveringly the path marked by bars and clefs, sharps and flats.

Twenty-four hours later, when the other half of the Irish Brigade returned from Carbon Hill, when the new engine was wiped down, refueled, the water topped off, the ladder wagon wiped off and its brightwork polished, when boots were brushed free of dirt and polished to a high shine and helmets cleaned and hung in their places, when veteran and newcomer alike trooped into the Silver Jewel for a sendoff supper, they were joined by an unexpected entertainment.

Two black-eyed Mexicans, vaqueros by their appearance, one with a double-strung, six-string guitar, the other with a bigger, double-strung, six-string guitar, flanked the little stage: brown fingers caressed the guitars' necks, swept gently over the exposed, wound-steel strings, and as the Brigade sat down to Daisy's kitchen's finest, Old Mexico sang in the guitars' bellies and threw a magical serape over the smoke-strata and red-shirted manhood populating the tables.

The rhythm picked up, stirring the men in spite of themselves, and the curtains snapped briskly back: two senioritas in tailed flamenco skirts and tall mantillas, their faces demurely hidden behind almost-transparent silk half-veils, stood like statues, one arm upraised, one leg exposed: men turned their chairs at their fellows' behest, and the gorgeous, utterly-feminine pair on the stage.

They moved together, the black-chestnut castanuelas clattering in time with the guitars' rhythm: two women, as lithe as willows, as sinuous as mountain cats, mesmerized the men as they moved in perfect, flawless symmetry, hard heels and castanets a sharp counterpoint to the guitars' deep harmony.

Well into the night, the Irish Brigade, fortified with good food, plenty of beer and a few shots of what Sean called "The Old Sod" (never mind the water clear distillate was extracted from Kentucky copper coils less than a month before), staggered happily, unsteadily and not at all quietly, for their fine brick firehouse.

In a three-story ranch house just outside town, a ranch house at the end of a driveway that began under an iron arch that said ROSENTHAL in a great overhead curve, a young woman smiled as she replaced the tailed flamenco gown in her closet, tucked the black-chestnut castanets in their case, and arranged the gleaming-black mantilla against her dresser's heavy, beveled mirror.

 

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99. A BOY AND A GIRL, OUT FOR A WALK

 

Professor Hunt considered the single dossier before him.

The classroom was empty, the students all given an assignment and two days to complete it.

He'd chosen names at random, names of people in Denver, and the students were to locate these individuals, report on their location, their appearance, any known associates, and report back to him.

It was the second day and only one student's completed work rested on his desk.

He'd gone through the dossier and nodded as he read the neat script, studied sketches of the subject's residence and work place, the floor plans, locations of windows, even an indication of which windows would open and which were painted shut -- the student's account included the names, addresses and associates of the household's maid and cook, and mentioned the cook's preference for a particular brand of alcohol, which was obtained by the pint bottle and kept behind the flour tin in an empty flour sack.

The student's account, in short, gave a comprehensive description of the named individual, a physical description sufficient to particularly identify this person to a lawman who'd never seen him; the individual's personal armament was detailed, where and how carried, and the subject's experience with personal and professional combat.

The student placed the dossier on the Professor's desk, curtsied and said "I am going to investigate another subject, I'll be back in three days," and was gone, leaving her scent and the memory of those merry, ice-pale eyes to haunt the dignified older man.

It was fully half a day before the next student arrived with his dossier and a long face, an admission of utter failure and an air of defeat, and by the end of the second day, the rest of the class brought in their varying degrees of success -- none complete, most unable to so much as locate their mark, and of those who did, half of this small number were discovered and confronted.

Professor Hunt shook his head and sighed.

"I suppose," he said aloud, "this means I shall have to review the curriculum," and as he looked half with sadness, half with disapproval at the class assembled, few there could meet his eye.

None, however, noted the absence of their only female student.

 

Sarah shook hands enthusiastically with the sad-faced, sallow-cheeked embalmer.

"A pleasure, Miss McKenna," Digger intoned mournfully. "As always, a pleasure." He turned, extended a hand to the red-shirted fireman. "Do I know you, sir?"

"Digger, this is Daffyd Llewellyn," Sarah introduced. "Daffyd, this is Digger, our mortician. He is very good at what he does and he has been of immense service to my father."

A slight flush touched the embalmer's hollow cheeks at this praise: he and the Sheriff were old acquaintances, though Digger would not extend their relationship to the "friend" level: still, they had worked together numerous times, and to hear his efforts publicly appreciated was at least a little gratifying.

"We have indeed," he said mournfully, "and unless either of you healthy-looking young people plan to die very soon, how many I be of service?"

Sarah laughed, hugged the man quickly, impulsively, the move of a happy girl rather than a dignified young woman: "Digger, Daffyd is replacing his brother, and he wants to learn the buildings so he can fight fire more effectively." She clasped one of his cold, waxy hands between both of hers. "Tell me about embalming fluid."

"I thought you a fireman," Digger nodded, looking at the tall Welshman, then at the lovely young woman just taking his wool-covered forearm. "Our building is wood, young man, and wood dries out quickly here in the mountains. I keep my premises maintained -- no customer wants a shoddy looking mortuary, do they? If the mortician can't keep the front painted, what kind of work will he do to their loved ones?"

Daffyd nodded, looking more at Sarah than the mortician.

"You asked about embalming fluid." The mortician picked up his tailed, black-silk topper. "Come with me."

The preparation room was without any current clients; Digger went to a glass container -- it was marked with graduation lines on its side, there were rubber hoses, large needles, tools that might be more at home beside a surgical table, tools that made Llewellyn swallow uncomfortably -- and Digger dispensed a pinkish solution into a squat glass jar.

"This," he said, "is embalming fluid. Please don't drink it. It will burn and it will burn hot. It contains formaldehyde and alcohol and various other ingredients, but yes it will burn."

"How much is here?" Llewellyn asked, suddenly all business.

"I don't require much, usually, just a keg or two, but in case we have a disaster -- Miss Rosenthal, were you at Carbon Hill?"

"No, I'm sorry, I had business in Denver and could not attend."

"So sad, so sad," Digger murmured, wagging his head as Daffyd sniffed the embalming solution, then handed it back. "So many fine young men gone."

He placed the jar on the side table, considering.

"I keep two extra kegs of solution in the event of a calamity such as Carbon Hill."

"Digger, may we go upstairs? If we have to fight a fire, I would like Daffyd to know the layout, what's where."

"Of course, of course. This way."

 

Several miles from Firelands, three men tightened their belts another notch against the hunger that wrapped their stomachs around their spines.

"A bank," one said thoughtfully.

"Banks have money," a second offered.

"Money means we can set down and pay for a meal," the third one said.

They looked at one another.

"Firelands is closest."

The other two immediately shook their heads.

"Don't you remember what that dummy back in the pen told us? They got dogs the size of circus elephants around that bank!"

"Ain't no dog that big."

"He said they was."

"Yeah, he said they had a little girl rode a big black plow horse too."

"That could happen."

"He said that plow horse had big white wings."

They chuckled.

One, then the second, and finally the third, lifted his reins.

The road they were on led to Firelands, and they did not leave the road.

 

Beatrice Dean was a big, motherly woman with a ready smile and a quick laugh, an ear that was quick to listen and a gift for making money.

She'd started the Firelands bank, she'd kept it going, she'd made it profitable, and she'd just had their safe overhauled.

Beatrice was a Rubenesque woman who took advantage of her generous curves: she delighted in the McKenna gowns that were custom fitted to her generous curves, and when she saw two men come nervously into her bank, her hand slipped in under her bodice and grasped an old friend that usually rode there, hidden but ready, and when he pulled a pistol from his coat pocket, she dipped her knees and bent over a little and rested the bulldog .44 over the counter and fired.

 

Sarah and Daffyd were just crossing the street from Digger's emporium when she saw one man standing outside, holding three horses.

Her hand tightened on Daffyd's arm, she pulled him quickly around, reached up and ran her hand around the back of his head, pulled his face down into hers.

Placing her cheek against his, she whispered urgently, "Go into the Sheriff's office and tell my father the bank is being robbed!" and then she pulled back, her hands to her face, her eyes wide, and Daffyd, confused, turned and walked quickly away, toward the Sheriff's office.

Sarah snatched up her skirts, ran toward the man holding the horses, her face contorted with apparent sorrow.

 

The robber holding the horses saw that pretty young woman reach up and haul that fellow's face down into hers, and he looked away, trying not to smile.

She must have quite the feelin's for him, he reflected, kissing him out in public like that, then of a sudden she came running at him and that fellow was a-hotfootin' it away across the street, and the girl's face was all screwed up like she was about to cry.

She ran right up to him, tears filling her pretty eyes, and she grabbed him like she was drowning and he was a life-ring, she buried her face in his coat and let out a muffled wail of girlish sorrow and distress.

Confused, surprised, the robber gathered the horses' reins into one hand and ran his other arm protectively around her shoulders, pulling her into him, just as the first shot was fired.

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