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The Sheriff's Grandson


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135. "I WILL RIP YOUR THROAT OUT!"

Now I don't hold with hittin' a woman.

I just don't.

This time, though ... this time I could let it go.

Jacob hauled back that good right hand of his and drove a whole fist full of knuckles into that gal's belly and drove her hard enough to fetch her feet off the floor and the fight was over, or most of it was anyway.

I looked down at that knife a-quiver, stuck in the floor boards, and Sarah's hair floating down and draping over it, and I looked at Jacob and nodded, once.

Sarah grabbed the woman's wrist and cranked her arm up behind her back, ran an arm around her throat, shoved her knee in the small of the back and bent her backwards like a drawn bow, then she run her forward and drove her gut-first into the edge of Mr. Baxter's immaculately-burnished bar, which kept her attacker from breathing a little longer. Matter of fact about ten seconds later she went limp, I reckoned she run plumb out of air or died and to be real honest, I did not care which.

You see, Sarah come into the Jewel on Jacob's arm and she was looking as young and lovely as a pretty girl could ...

Girl.

Pardon me while I shake my head on that one.

She hasn't been a girl for years, for all that she's fourteen and marriageable and I believe she's got her cap set for that Llewellyn fireman.

She come in on Jacob's arm and he was greeted by a rancher who wanted to discuss some beef he had with a neighbor, and Sarah withdrew her grip from his forearm so he could talk -- Jacob is like me, he talks with his hands as much as with language, if you held his arms behind his back he couldn't say a thing -- Sarah looked around, smiling that quiet smile of hers that just plainly warms a man's heart, and the door opened behind her and a strange woman came in.

I give her a hard lookin'-at for my gut told me she was what them fancy fellers call a "Woman of Easy Virtue" -- I figured she was going to look for work, this bein' a saloon and all -- but that didn't appear to be the case.

She took a look at Sarah and I seen absolute raw utter hate in her eyes, the kind you only see between two women.

Men can hate with a deep and undying passion but if you want good old fashioned pure distilled utter to-the-guts hatred in its most absolute form, look for the black hatred in a woman's heart, for there is nothing as passionate, as deep or as utterly poisonous.

It's worse than them barrels of nicotine Sherman dumped on Southern farm fields to poison them forever, damn him.

I took a tilt on my beer to try and get the taste out of my mouth and watched as Sarah threw that woman to the floor, then reached down, snatched the leaf-bladed dagger out of the floor boards, and I saw that curl of hair the woman managed to slice off drift through the air again.

Sarah's hand went to her hair and I saw her eyes pale again, and if that woman hadn't been out like a foundered flounder, I reckon Sarah would have choked her.

Sarah looked over at me, held up the knife.

I nodded to let her know I saw it, dropped my eyes to the floor where that lock of hair was kind of scattered out now, and Sarah looked down, back at me and laid the knife on the bar, then Jacob bent and got the woman's wrist, hauled her up and across his back.

"Come on, Little Sis," he grunted, and Sarah snapped "Who you callin' little, Little Brother?" -- and the two of them headed for the front door.

Mr. Baxter looked at the knife, looked at me.

"Aren't you going with them?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"Nope," I replied. "They've got it handled. I'm gonna finish my beer."

 

Jacob bent and laid the woman out on the jail cell cot.

He and Sarah made a thorough and efficient search, relieving the woman of a variety of items that a prisoner really should not have.

She recovered about the time they were finished; she blinked, realized she'd been feeling hands where hands didn't have any business being and she came up off he cot like a cork out of water, least until Jacob grabbed her belt and the back of her low cut dress and introduced her face first to the plank wall.

He wasn't gentle about it.

To her credit, the woman ducked her head so the impact caught her just inside the hairline, instead of spreading her nose over most of her face.

Jacob spun her around, grabbed her under the arms, hauled her off the floor and slammed her into the wall again, bouncing her head off the planks.

"Look at me," he said, his voice low, tight. "Look at my eyes."

She did, but not until after she'd blinked and shook her head and got some sense back in her aching, ringing gourd.

"You are under arrest," Jacob said, not raising his voice. "You are charged with attempting to murder a law enforcement officer. That's a hangin' offense and we've hung women before so if you've got anything to say you'd best say it now!"

She looked around, saw Sarah.

"You!" she hissed. "Damn you, you took my man!"

Sarah gave her an odd look. "What?"

"You know what you did, you homewrecker!" the woman snapped.

"Wait," Sarah said, raising a palm: "who do you think I am?"

"YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE, YOU WITCH! YOU TOOK MY HUSBAND AND RUINED MY LIFE AND I'LL GET YOU FOR THAT!"

"When?" Sarah asked, and Jacob set the woman down.

"Two years ago, you witch! -- you came in with that gamblin' man and cheated him out of his pay and then you took him upstairs and he couldn't see anything but you after that!"

"Where was this, exactly?" Sarah asked quietly, her voice carefully neutral.

"IT WAS KANSAS CITY, YOU CHEAP DOXY! IT WAS KANSAS CITY TWO YEARS AGO!"

"Look at me," Sarah said quietly, taking another step closer, her eyes wide, her eyes dead pale. "Look at my eyes. Who am I?"

The woman blinked, blinked again.

"I have never been to Kansas City in my life," Sarah said quietly. "Two years ago I was a twelve years old schoolgirl in a short frock. I don't know you and I don't know your husband. Now please tell me why you attacked a complete stranger with a knife." She raised a palm, displayed the burnished bronze shield in its leather frame. "Please tell me why you attacked an Agent of the Firelands District Court in the presence of the Sheriff's Chief Deputy."

Jacob watched the anger drain from the woman like a punctured water bag.

She looked less like the cheap whore she was and more like a girl who'd just been caught behind the barn with someone her parents didn't approve of.

"Tell you what," Jacob said, his voice still taut. "Why don't you take life easy and get some rest. You'll be here a while, the Judge isn't due in town for just under a week."

"Kendra," the woman breathed, raising her hands and pressing them to the sides of her now-pale face. "Your name is Kendra."

"Afraid not," Jacob replied.

"How would you know!" the cheap woman snapped.

"Look at her eyes and look at mine," Jacob said reasonably. "She's my little sister, and her name has never been Kendra."

"You are Kendra Hicks," the woman hissed, the color returning to her face. "You're the witch that stole my husband! I'LL KILL YOU!"

Jacob grabbed her by the throat, threw her back onto the chain-slung cot.

"You ever try it," he said quietly, his voice dry, "I will rip your throat out."

 

It was evening before I went back to the strange woman's cell.

I brought her supper and fresh water and took her slop bucket, traded it out for a clean bucket.

She wouldn't even look up at me.

I swung a chair around and set it in the middle of the open doorway, parked my carcass.

"You might as well eat," I said. "Same supper as I just had."

"I'm not hungry."

"Suit yourself," I shrugged. "Might I inquire as to your name?"

She folded her arms and glared at me.

"It would be polite to address you as something besides hey you."

My voice was quiet and I let a little smile soften my face, and I saw her eyes change.

"Effie Luddington," she said softly.

"Where you from, Effie?"

"Illinois."

"My chief deputy tells me you mistook his sister for someone else."

Her shoulders sagged.

"She was wearing the same dress. I ...." She shook her head.

"Tell you what," I said, standing and drawing the chair back. "Why don't you have a bite while it's still hot. Mashed taters aren't nearly as good cold, and I put a salt cellar on your tray." I allowed a little bit of a smile, as if I was sharing a quiet kindness I didn't want anyone to know about. "Taters always take salt."

"Thank you," she whispered.

I shut the cell door gently, turned the key in the lock.

"Your deputy ... he said he would tear my throat out if I ever tried that again."

I waited.

She looked up at me, half-sideways, half-fearful.

"I think he would."

I nodded.

"You tried to kill his sister."

She looked at me and I saw her eyes change again.

"Your eyes ..."

I waited.

"They're just like ... his ..."

"He is my son."

The color run out of her face like red ink out of an eye dropper.

"And she is my daughter."

If she hadn't been settin' down she would have collapsed.

"Get some rest," I said quietly. "I'll fetch you back a quilt here directly."

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136. WOMEN!

She'd said it to me before and it didn't feel good then.

It felt less so now.

"Sheriff," Bonnie Rosenthal said, "we need to talk."

I laid down the pen I'd been using, thought better of it, wiped the steel nib off and capped the ink well.

Something told me this was going to take longer than dryin' time.

I opened the desk drawer, carefully placed the ledger sized book in the front part, set the ink well and pen in their proper places, slid the drawer shut.

I'd come to my feet when Bonnie knocked and opened the door, and now I come around the desk, drew up a chair for her.

Bonnie had the loveliest, deep-violet eyes of any woman I've known, she hadn't gone to stout around the waist like most successful matrons -- I don't know if she was competing with her daughter Sarah or not -- and when she sat, she settled herself in that chair with the grace and authority of the Queen herself.

I went back around, pulled my chair up nearer and sat down carefully.

This was a new chair and so far it hadn't throwed me like the others did, and this was definitely not the time I wanted to end up flat on my back with my legs in the air.

I sat, I studied my guest, I nodded, once, my complete attention on her.

Bonnie clutched a kerchief in both hands, then took it entirely in her left hand.

She's right handed, I thought, why did she clear her right hand?

"Sheriff," Bonnie said, "do you remember your first ... arrival ... here in Firelands?"

I nodded, once.

"I remember it as well," Bonnie said carefully. "I remember I had Sarah by the hand and that scalawag" -- she spat the word -- with her Suth'n blood, I thought, she just laid a curse upon his memory, using that word --

Bonnie stopped, turned her head a little, took a long breath through her nose, took another, her eyes closed.

"Sheriff," she said, "this is not easy for me to say."

"Go on."

"Sheriff, you were a stranger in town. You looked like a man whose soul had run through a meat grinder and survived. I remember your attire was as tidy as a long-riding man's can be, but you were weary to your very core."

"You could say that," I admitted.

"Slade" -- her lip curled as if at something distasteful -- "accosted me.

"I remember how Sarah's hand tightened on mine. She was afraid, Sheriff" -- Bonnie turned her head, looked directly at me, almost a challenge -- "she was afraid.

"Then you stepped out of the darkness and said 'Mr. Slade?' and I remember how gentle your voice was."

I nodded, remembering ... she was wearing a fine looking gown, one that fit her just right, one that showed she was all woman and all modest at the same time, and I recall seeing Sarah ... little Sarah, a little girl in a short frock, with that rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow, and I recall how she looked at me, almost pleading with those light-blue eyes of hers, and I remembered my little girl Dana ... little blue-eyed Dana, who died of the small pox back along the shore of Lake Erie, a lifetime ago.

Bonnie dropped her eyes -- almost bashfully now -- and giggled, and this took me by surprise.

The giggle didn't fit.

"I think you started your punch at your boot top," she smiled, "and when Slade turned you caught him on the chin and his Derby hat flew straight in the air and he went down like a tree."

I nodded.

I'd hit him with the heel of my hand, a trick an old gunfighter taught me, as I did not want to break my good right hand on the bony jaw, no matter how badly the scoundrel deserved it.

He'd called Bonnie a whore, and I was not going to let that stand, he'd told her she should be on the shady side of the street and I didn't want to think this worn, tired-looking but utterly beautiful mother was anything but a Madonna, and so I drove him hard enough right on the point of the jaw I felt the impact down to my belt, but I hit him with full intent to drive his teeth out the top of his head.

"And I remember you lifted your hat and in the gentlest voice you asked if there was anything else I could do for you ladies." Bonnie pulled the kerchief out of her fist, dabbed at her eyes. "Ladies. You called us you ladies."

I nodded again, slowly.

"Damn you," Bonnie hissed, leaning forward suddenly, "why did you have to do that?"

"Did you expect me to call you Chiricauha, or Presbyterians?" I riposted, puzzling as to her sudden change. "You were then and are now a lady, Bonnie --"

"Did you know I fell for you that night?" Bonnie blurted. "Did you know I would have done anything -- anything, if you'd have asked me to?"

Now that took me by surprise.

As I recall, I was ready to tear the beating heart out of my breast and lay it at her feet.

"I've been drinking, Sheriff," Bonnie admitted. "I was afraid to come and say these things."

"So you drank a little courage," I said gently.

She shook her head. "No, Sheriff. I drank cowardice. I drank fear. I couldn't ... I thought it would make me braver ..." She shook her head. "I had to sober up to get the sand to come and talk with you."

"I see."

"No you don't see!" she shouted, tears brimming and threatening to spill down her lovely, clear complexion. "You don't see how you were one of the only men who looked at me and didn't see a whore! You staked me to a business and you funded me when the money wasn't coming in and now I'm a respected businesswoman and nobody sees me as that anymore!"

I took a long breath. This was heading into swampy ground.

I'd trod a dangerous path before but entering into affairs of a woman's heart was a sure and certain path to destruction and I knew it.

"Oh, don't worry," Bonnie scolded gently, smiling a little. "I'm not here to seduce you." I saw her eyes fill with sadness and she said very quietly, "You could seduce me, you know." She looked directly at me. "I would let you."

I knew what I said would either destroy every good thing between us, or it would throw her into my arms, or it could spin us both into a wild unpredictable orbit of events that I really didn't want to explore, so I considered before I spoke.

"Bonnie," I said slowly, "everything you have, you've earned. Your business is yours because you made it work. Your daughters are yours because you made that work as well. You have a wonderful husband and you're making that work."

"I know," she quavered, her bottom lip shivering a little. "He's a good man."

"Does he make you happy?"

She nodded, pressed the balled-up, damp kerchief to her nose, sniffed.

"Bonnie," I said, my voice quiet, reassuring, "a man would have to be a marble statue not to want you. You are intelligent, you are beautiful, you are talented and skilled and you are absolutely a credit to yourself. Your business, your family, your daughters, your marriage ... none of them would exist without an awful lot of hard work on your part. Levi speaks of you and when he speaks, it is with a smile and that faraway look a man gets when he's speaking of someone with whom he is absolutely, tee-totally in love."

"Really?" Bonnie squeaked, blinking.

"Yes," I said firmly. "Really."

"If we were single ..."

"If we were single we would be free to jump the broom. We're not, so we're not. You are happily married and so am I. Matter of fact I think as far as marriage, we're both just as happy as if we had good sense."

I was relieved to see Bonnie smile a little at that.

I leaned forward, squeezed her hands.

"Bonnie," I whispered, "you are one of the dearest and sweetest souls I have ever known. You have shown me an immense trust in speaking as you have. You have taken a terrible chance and that's a trust I don't take lightly --"

Bonnie raised her hand, caressed my cheek.

"This has been a long time coming," she whispered. "I love you, Linn Keller, and damn you for not seeing it earlier."

Then she hauled off and belted me across the face with her open hand, stood up and stormed out.

I leaned back in that new office chair, raised a hand to my stinging cheek, blinking at the sudden and unexpected slap, and shook my head.

"Women!" I muttered, and as if to agree with Bonnie, that brand new office chair went out from under me.

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137. "AGENT, I NEED YOUR HELP"

The first BANG was a sharp, woody sound.

Heads turned, curious eyes looked for the source, and it wasn't hard to find.

The Sheriff was just inside the office door, picking up the chair from the floor -- the chair he'd just tried unsuccessfully to throw out the wide-open door.

He heaved it again, twisting his body, slinging the wooden offender, clipping the door frame but getting it outside this time, where it tumbled over the boardwalk, bounced off the hitch rail and fell over on its side.

The Sheriff stepped outside, slammed the door behind him and stomped down the board walk and down the little alley beside the log building.

"Now what," the perpetual hanger-on lounging against one of the Silver Jewel's immaculately painted-and-trimmed porch posts wondered aloud, "is ol' Soapy up to now?"

Digger peered out the front window of the funeral parlor, watching as the Sheriff came a-trot down the alley on his shining-copper Cannonball mare, shaking out a loop: the man wasn't much of a hand with a lariat, though he'd been known to be adequate when it counted, including the time his wife nearly died in the muddy Missouri, when he sailed the plaited loop of a Texan's riata very neatly over her desperately-upraised arm, preventing her death at the hands of the hungry water-gods that lived there: this time, though, there was no hostile river to contend with, and he flipped the hand-braided loop over the chair's legs, dallied the tag end around his saddle horn and kneed the mare into a brisk trot.

Two men leaned into the Jewel, whistled a sharp note, gestured most urgently: Digger snatched up his fine silk topper, two or three schoolchildren pressed their noses and fingers against the wavy window-glass and were quickly joined by another half-dozen, plus Miss Emma and Miss Sarah.

The entire schoolhouse emptied out, running down the street after the Sheriff and the bouncing, dragging chair.

Sean saw the Sheriff coming down the middle of the mildly rutted, hard-packed dirt street, pulling a minor cloud of dust and a small crowd after him: the crowd was soon increased by the entire population of the fine brick firehouse, hanging onto their gleaming, brass-hulled steam machine drawn by three head-tossing white mares.

Digger quickly, awkwardly locked his front door, hung a sign on the doorknob -- OUT, BACK SOON -- and with one hand desperately gripping the brim of his black-silk topper, the other swinging back and forth for balance, he too ran after the crowd following the Sheriff and the dragging chair.

There was a secondary corral on this end of town, back beyond the firehouse and just below the rise that went up to the town cemetery.

It was a familiar place to nearly the entire population: not only was it a convenient place to pen stray livestock, it was where the Sheriff and his son took regular pistol practice, regarded by the locals as part of their entertainment, just as much as the weekly session of the Firelands district court.

The Sheriff rode into the corral, leaned back in the saddle, and Cannonball stopped, shaking her head and jingling her silver-mounted bridle a little.

The Sheriff swung a leg and dismounted, stomped back to the chair and hauled his leg back and kicked it a good one with his boot heel, then he seized the chair, picked it up and slammed it down on the ground, hard.

He had slack enough now: he yanked the lariat free, teeth bared and eyes pale: the Sheriff's moves were vicious, savage, unlike his usual tautly-controlled expressions of occasional violence: as the entire town formed a semicircle around him, it was clear to all present that the man was not in anything remotely resembling a good mood.

He coiled the lariat, returned it to its home on the saddle, patted Cannonball and whispered to her, turning her: she trotted back to the opening in the corral, turned broadside to him, waited.

Sarah reached up, caressed Cannonball's velvety nose, whispered to her as she looked at her pale-eyed father with worried eyes.

The Sheriff looked to his left, his lips peeled back: he bent a little, seized the chair quickly, yanking it off the ground, hauled it overhead, stomped over to the edge of the corral, then slammed it down on a square hay bale, upside down, its four legs and round, black wheels up in the air.

He turned, glared at the townsfolk, thrust a finger at a rancher's seven year old son: "ROBERT! I NEED YOU TO COUNT!"

Young Robert blinked, absolutely at a loss to find himself at the pale-eyed focus of this quietly furious man's attention.

Miss Sarah's hands closed on his shoulders and she leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Count to ten, Bobby. Count slow but loud," and she gave a reassuring squeeze.

Young Robert murmured "Yes ma'am," then he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath and almost shouted, "ONE!"

The Sheriff's left foot came forward and stomped hard in the dirt.

"TWO!"

The Sheriff took another pace, his eyes dead pale, the flesh taut over his cheek bones.

"THREE!"

More voices took up the count, chiefly led by a suspiciously Irish accent: Sean flexed his shoulders, opened and closed his hands, a man with the distinct impression that he was going to see some violence, and soon.

"FOUR!"

Another stomping step.

"FIVE!"

The Sheriff's hands opened, his shoulders rolled back, then forward.

"SIX!"

Nearly every voice roared the number.

Curious, His Honor the Judge selected a fresh Conestoga from his cigar-holder, bit off the end, spat it in the dust, drew his mare to a stop and set the brake on his surrey.

"SEVEN!"

Sarah saw the Sheriff's hands close hard into rage-shaking fists, open again, relax.

Sarah's pupils dilated, her lips parted a little, and she felt the coolness of December-cold air caress her tongue and chill her throat as she took an anticipating breath.

His Honor the Judge gripped her shoulders, puffing happily on his freshly-lit cigar.

"EIGHT!"

The Sheriff's eyes were dead pale, his face the color of chilled parchment, his fingers suddenly relaxed, still.

"NINE!"
"HOLD!" His Honor the Judge shouted.

The Sheriff looked like a cat half a heartbeat from its murderous leap, his eyes fixed on the Judge and the jurist felt a sudden chill, as if the black-robed Reaper himself trailed a bony finger down his spine.

He'd seen that look before, he'd seen that look half a heartbeat before the man fairly exploded into a cyclone of pistol balls and sabre-cuts, tearing into a company of enemy infantry that surprised them in an orchard.

Everyone turned to stare at the Judge, even young Robert, who twisted out of Miss Sarah's grip and cranked his neck to regard the dignified jurist with incredulous eyes.

His Honor was a hard man to nonplus, and he was not nonplussed in spite of his faux pas: he stepped around Miss Sarah, patted young Robert's head reassuringly, gestured grandly with his smoking stogie and inquired in a loud voice, "Sheriff, what is the cause of this confusion?"

The Sheriff straightened, squared his shoulders: "Your Honor," he replied in just as loud a voice, pitched to carry to the farthest rank of listeners present, "I have passed sentence on this miscreant and I am about to carry out said sentence!"

His Honor made a show of leaning a little to the side, looking past the Sheriff at the inverted office chair.

"Of what offense is this miscreant convicted, Sheriff?"

The Sheriff half-turned, thrust an accusing finger at the condemned: "THAT CHAIR," he shouted, "has THROWN ME FOR THE ABSOLUTE LAST TIME!"

"Specifically, sir, what is the charge?" His Honor pursued, realization tickling the edges of his thoughts.

"ASSAULT ON A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER, MULTIPLE COUNTS!" the Sheriff flared. "FAILURE TO OBEY THE LAWFUL ORDER OF A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER! CONSPIRACY ON ALL PREVIOUS COUNTS!"

"And, Sheriff, can you call witnesses to attest to these alleged offenses?"

"SEAN!"

"AYE!" Sean shouted, joyfully thrusting his voice into the open circle, coming up beside the Judge. "I witnessed the very thing meself! 'Twas just as he said!"

"Are there more witnesses who will attest to the facts of this case?" His Honor called, flicking ash from his stogie.

Jacob stepped into the clearing, raised his hand. "I can, Your Honor, on each count."

His Honor nodded, paced across the corral to the Sheriff, stopped and looked long into the man's face.

The Sheriff did not flinch from the jurist's scrutiny.

His Honor nodded, continued across the corral, regarded the inverted chair with a side-cocked head, looked back at the Sheriff, walked back, his pace sedate, measured, deliberate.

He walked up to the Sheriff again, stopped and looked long again into the man's eyes, studying the long, tall and lean-waisted lawman's visage, and finally nodded, thrust the cigar back between his teeth, puffed thoughtfully and looked off into the sky for a long moment.

He withdrew the cigar, spat, harrumphed, spat again.

"Sheriff," he declared in a voice intended to be heard by all present, "the wheels of justice grind slow but they grind fine. It is the opinion of this court that the accused is indeed guilty of the named offenses, and it is hereby decided that the penalty assessed will stand. Sir," he said, turning to face the Sheriff squarely, "you may proceed!"

So saying, the Judge patted the Sheriff companionably on the shoulder, and puffing industriously on his cigar, paced leisurely back to his station behind Miss Sarah.

"ROBERT!" the Sheriff barked. "WHERE WERE WE?"

"TEN!"

The Sheriff spun, the air hammered with four fast concussions: all were watching the tall lawman with the iron-grey mustache, but none could honestly say they saw him draw.

They did see the fourth wheel spin off for parts unknown, momentarily silhouetted against the lighter background, and they saw quivering, rolling smoke rings wobbling toward the hay-bale.

The Sheriff froze, or almost: they could see his shoulders heave as he breathed, deep, adrenaline singing in his veins, more alive than he'd been in a very long time.

Sarah's hands tightened on Robert's shoulders and she felt the lad quiver under her grip and she knew he was feeling the same surge of warrior-fury the Sheriff himself was experiencing.

They held very still, staring, barely breathing as gunsmoke drifted slowly in the still air.

The Sheriff rose, slowly, up out of his crouch, slid his right-hand Colt back into its holster, and they heard the quiet metallic clicks as he kicked out the empties and reloaded his left-hand pistol, then holstered and reloaded his right.

Only then did he turn.

"ROBERT!" he shouted, raising a summoning hand, and Sarah gave him a little push.

Robert sprinted across the corral, shining face upturned: "Yes, sir?"

"ROBERT, GO SEE IF THERE ARE WHEELS ON THAT CHAIR!"

"Yes, sir!" Robert grinned, and streaked across the corral, followed by three other lads: they ran their hands across the flat wooden base where the wheels had been.

"AIN'T NONE HERE!"

"Fellas," the Sheriff called, "pack that thing back to my office!"

"YES, SIR!" the four shouted with one joyfully youthful voice.

 

Sarah knocked delicately on the open door.

The Sheriff looked up, smiled a little, paintbrush in hand and a can of varnish open on his desk.

"Come on in," he said. "I just sanded out the bark marks."

Sarah closed the door behind her, leaned one shoulder against it, folded her arms and gave her pale-eyed sire an amused look.

"Just how did you come up with that idea?" she asked.

The Sheriff turned the chair, turned it the other way; satisfied, he nodded, dropped the lid on the varnish can, tapped it down with the paintbrush handle.

"Brother Emory, actually," he admitted. "He asked me why I didn't just shoot the wheels off the damned thing."

"So you did."

The Sheriff parked his backside on the corner of the desk. "Yep."

"If someone told you to take a long step off a cliff, would you do it?"

Linn laughed. "You'll make a fine mother."

"I know I will, and his name will be Daffyd."

The Sheriff looked hard at his daughter, his face no longer amused.

"My Grandma tried to beat the Sight out of my Mama," he said slowly. "She was a little girl and she come a-runnin' for the comfort of her Mama's arms, and she told her what she'd seen. Grandma switched her all the way back to the bunk and called her a liar, said she'd just had a dream, but Mama saw the neighbors burn to death the night before they did.

"Next day ... it happened.

"When word come to the house, Grandma looked at Mama and she said 'You witch,' and Mama said she turned kind of pale when she said it."

"Am I a witch?"

"If you are, Esther is."

"Is Esther?"

"No, but neither is Esther human."

Sarah blinked. "What?"

The Sheriff took a long breath, walked over to the pot belly stove, pointed down at the floor.

"You recall the blood stain that was here."

"I recall."

"That was my blood, Sarah. A fella shot me right outside this door. Charlie Macneil and Jacob dragged me back in and someone legged it to the house your Mama shared with Esther and Duzy and someone else, I forget who."

His eyes darkened a little, no longer glacier-pale.

"Esther grabbed a shotgun and saddled Edie -- you remember Duzy's paint mare -- she come a-foggin' in town with her red hair trailin' behind her, ready for a young war, she was all set to take on the Devil and every legion of hell single handed, all because I'd been right next to kilt."

Sarah waited, silent; she'd heard the story, but never from the man to whom it happened.

"I was genuinely next to dead when she come through that door. Macneil had it barred and she drove through it, and how I will never know, that bar -- you've seen it, wide as my hand can span and thick as my arm and Esther slammed it open. She shoved that double gun in Macneil's hands and went to her knees beside me."

The Sheriff's voice was soft, his face grave, his eyes staring through the floor, seeing something only he could appreciate.

"She said she would not countenance my death. Her words. She looked down and she said 'Linn, you listen to me, I will NOT countenance your dying!'

"I was a-layin' on my back, Sarah, but I was a-layin' on my back" -- he pointed -- "on the ceiling yonder, lookin' down, watchin' it happen. I looked down at my long tall skinny carcass and I recall thinkin' that poor fella needed a good square meal for he was just dreadfully thin and then I realized ..."

His voice trailed off, his eyes raised from the floor, haunted ... his eyes were haunted as he saw the memory again, and she felt the chill of the Shadowed Valley in his words.

"That fella bleedin' on the floor was me, Sarah, and there I was lookin' down on it."

He shook his head.

"Sometime I'll tell you what the Valley looks like, for I seen it that day."

He was silent again, and the hush grew long between them, and finally Sarah said "I understand my mother came to see you."

The Sheriff looked up, laughed. "Yeah, you could say that."

"Did she get it off her chest?"

"Well, she smacked me a good one, if that's what you mean!"

Sarah shook her head. "I'm sorry she did that, Papa. She had no call to slap you."

"What does she think of me, Sarah?"

"Do you fancy her?"

The Sheriff laughed a little.

"Sarah, I will tell you honest, I've loved your mother since the day I decked Slade, and I've loved you since that same moment." He sighed, deep and gusty, the sound of a man making a frank admission. "Your mother is a good lookin' woman but do I desire her? Do I want to ... know ... her?"

"In the Scriptural sense?"

"I do not wish to know her in that sense, no."

Sarah looked closely at her Papa, seeing his eyes, gauging the language of his body, assessing the man for truthfulness.

"Esther is my wife and in her I am more than content. I am fulfilled and I am satisfied and I am as much in love with her as any man could ever be."

"That sounds like high praise."

"It's not high enough," he grunted. "That woman is an angel, putting up with the like of me." He considered a moment, then continued.

"Sarah, what does your mother think of me?"

"You already asked that."

"I have to know if she wants to make a play for me."

"And if she does?"

"I don't think she does. I hope she doesn't. I don't want to hurt her feelin's -- I'd rather take a beatin' than bruise that woman's heart! -- but I am content in my marriage."

Sarah looked at her Papa, gauging his responses, satisfying herself he was being honest.

"I have to be sure. I have to know what I'm dealing with."

He slid off the desk, stood.

"Agent Rosenthal, I have a case and I need your help. Discover her intentions."

"Will you throw a lariat around her and drag her to the corral if she is?" Sarah teased.

The Sheriff's glare was his only reply.

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Though it was a rocking chair Bonnie sat in, there was no movement. The fact of the matter, the only movement to be seen was the fingers on her left hand gently rubbing the palm of the right. No pressure laid upon the palm. Just a movement like a gentle breeze blowing back and forth as if to cool the sting.

 

Lace curtains hung at the window she sat by, and those violet eyes stared right through them, but not looking any more than the chair not rocking. But what was behind those eyes .... now there was where the movements ran rampant. Memories. Those damned memories that dug through when she least expected it.

 

A single tear escaped a proud eye and slid down Bonnie's cheek. She did not bother to wipe it aside. More were sure to follow.

 

She remembered an early memory of looking out a window every bit as opposite of the ones which graced her house. A tobacco streaked window that she cleaned with her ratty chemise, and the reward was a cornflower blue sky.

 

Next memory was Graves harshly dropping off a frightened little girl into the hands of a saloon full of whores, of which she was one.

 

Another tear.

 

Sarah.

 

Bonnie placed the hand that not too long ago struck the man she had the deepest of respect for, to the upper swells of her breasts. She pressed hard to feel the beating of her heart. Sarah. The little girl who captured her heart. The little girl she would save from the ugly life that she was living at the hands of a drunk.

 

Bonnie smiled slightly. It was Sarah who had saved her. The little girl who gave her hope.

 

Memory changing to Slade. The palm laid upon her chest clenched into a fist. "Slade", she whispered. The man who threatened to steal her hope. Hope was stolen once before at the hands of slavery in that wretched saloon. Fear swept through her. Yes, Bonnie remembered the fear. She remembered the sweat trickling down her back. She remembered holding onto Sarah's hand.

 

She remembered ...

 

Linn

 

She remembered Linn

 

Tears fell like rain leaving drops of moisture on the front of her woolen skirt.

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139. IN SEARCH OF A WISE MAN

I think better in the saddle.

Just like I talk better when I walk.

I tend to pace when I address a group, habit, I reckon: when I addressed troops there were too many of them for me to just stand in one place and run off at the head, so I'd pace some and make sure all of 'em could hear me.

Now I'll talk out loud -- if I'm memorizing degree work for the Masonic lodge, for instance, I'll throw it out on the air so I can see how it sounds -- I do this when I'm alone, say in the barn or out tendin' my stock -- I've got one ornery steer that could likely recite the Fellow Craft lecture with me, he's hear it so often -- but I didn't have anything to say, not to the steer nor to the empty air.

I needed to think, and I think better in the saddle.

Cannonball set a good easy pace and we headed out of town on the only road there was, and I rode a-past Jackson and Emma Cooper's place, waved at their hired man when I went past -- Jackson Cooper tended their little spread in a proper manner, they didn't have much by way of live stock but they had enough, Emma tended the herb garden (the "yarb garden" as Jackson Cooper called it) just outside her kitchen door, and that raised bed was just like her kitchen, tidy and organized, though this time of year it slept under a snow cap -- I rode on out a-past the field where Sarah rode that runaway mule that time, that racin' mule that streaked across the field and jumped a gully and scrambled some to keep from fallin' in, but he made it -- I shook my head, remembering how Sarah screamed with delight as they sailed through the air, and how she hung onto that mule's back like a burr on a bluetick hound whilst it dug for purchase and scrambled up over the lip -- I looked ahead, looked to that one fork and remembered how me and Sarah kilt that mountain cat, when she whipped out that short double gun and settled the matter in a most definite way.

Ruined the cat's hide but I'd ruther ruin it than Sarah.

I shivered.

A thousand memories here, and they all started when I first rode into town on a plow horse.

Cannonball's gait was butter smooth.

She was the get of Rey del Sol, a big Palomino stallion, a racing stallion and he won me some gold a time or three with his speed.

He'd been a gift from the Vega y Vega rancho down in the Border country ... I smiled again, remembering their hospitality, remembering their black-eyed senoritas, their laughing vaqueros, their immaculate and elaborate hospitality.

I had them to thank for my Cannonball mare, descended from the paso fino brought by Spanish conquistadores and bred with tough native stock.

I shook my head.

I didn't have need to think about my horse.

My thoughts were of Bonnie.

Now I loves the wimmens, I surely do, and may God forgive me, I was a widower and broken hearted when I rode West ... and twice I accepted the hospitality of another woman's bed.

Twice, with Jacob the first result, and Sarah, the second, and I admit to my shame that I did not know Jacob even existed until he was a tall boy and Sarah ... I first saw her that night I rode in and decked that crooked lawyer, and little Sarah clung to Bonnie's hand and I thought them mother and daughter.

It wasn't until Sarah's fourteenth birthday, when I presented her with her Mama's Bible I found in dirty old Sam's effects, that it was revealed that she, too, was the get of my loins.

And Bonnie ...

I am a married man and I am happily married and I have not strayed since I jumped the broom with Esther.

As much as Bonnie might have affection for me -- if she does -- she too is married, and to a good friend of mine.

Levi is a good man and true, honest as the day is long, he's a retired lawman and just as happy as if he had good sense, bein' married to Bonnie and Pa to their several young.

Poor fellow is outnumbered, though.

He's so far sired only girls.

Now a Daddy loves his little girls, but a man likes to have sons.

It doesn't feel quite right teaching a little girl to ride, whistle, whittle, spit, wring a chicken's neck, gut out a slaughter beef or skin a coyote

Sarah is a rare one: she can ride like a Mexican, she can out-shoot me, I don't think she drinks nor has she taken up tobacco, but she can swear like a sailor with a mashed foot -- I am most pleased that she generally doesn't, though she can speak whatever language will be most easily understood -- Sarah can fight like a wildcat, she's as fast and deadly with a knife as a Mexican and that's saying something, and I honestly didn't know where she got all that until she and I stood in front of a mirror one day and I realized how much she looked like me, pale eyes and all.

I was thinkin' about all this so hard I didn't realize we'd come back into town.

"Cannonball," I said aloud, "might be I'd ought to seek wise counsel."

Cannonball offered no comment, just swung her ears back at the sound of my voice, swung forward again.

Now when you come into town the new library is on your right, the Mercantile on your left.

A little further down you've got the Silver Jewel on your right, all painted up and lookin' good, and my little log fortress is diagonal from that off to the left across the street, and back on the right, the solid, blocky Municipal Building, and beside that, with the same polished quartz construction, the Masonic Lodge building.

On a-past that is the schoolhouse, and beside that the church -- Digger's funeral parlor is behind us now, on the left, between the Mercantile and the Sheriff's Office.

"Ho," I said quietly, and Cannonball ho'd, as much from my shift in the saddle as my voice: she was knee trained and I generally didn't use a bit with her, just a bridle.

We turned around, looked back, and I considered.

If I were to seek wisdom, I would need a man experienced, a man thoughtful, a man knowledgeable.

I turned my head and thought of Parson Belden, of the long talks we'd had.

I turned my head t'other way and looked to the Silver Jewel and thought of my good friend Mr. Baxter, and wished mightily he was still with us, for he and I had talked much in our time.

I looked back at the church.

Parson Belden was an old soldier.

We spoke a common language.

If the man wasn't busy, I might just ask his sound advice.

Mrs. Parson came to the door, smiling a broad welcome as I rode up, and the Parson come around the corner with an armful of split wood.

I waited until he'd filled his wood box, waited until Mrs. Parson hugged me and chattered happily about how Angela and the twins were growing and how I needed a good square meal and she'd fix us a bite, and when she bustled happily toward her kitchen, the Parson come out with his coat brushed off and shook my hand and inquired how my pulse was a-beatin', the way he always did.

"Parson," said I, "I am in search of a wise man."

He give me that ornery, I-know-you're-full-of-it look, and I continued, "I have found it profitable to consult those who are younger, smarter and better looking than me, and you are the very first one I thought of!"

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Tears spent and with the rocking motion of Bonnie's foot, heel to toe, heel to toe, the rocking chair took on a slow and steady gait.

 

The lace curtains changed to a different window. Esther and Bonnie's eyes, cupped with their hands, peering into what would be the first store front for Bonnie McKenna's business.

 

"What say you child ... will this do?"

 

"I dare say, Esther, yes. Yes!!"

 

With that a bargain struck. Supplies ordered. Employees hired ..... "How Tilly worked magic with that needle", Bonnie spoke out loud, and the chair rocked a little quicker with the matched enthusiasm that Bonnie felt with remembering an extension of new hope.

 

For such a rugged man of men, Linn knew exactly what he wanted when ordering that emerald green gown for Esther. Right down to just how much decolletage he wanted seen above the curve of the bodice front. Bonnie laughed a musical laugh with this memory. The laugh became louder when knowing this gown was to be a secret from Esther. "Nothing was ever a secret when Esther was involved!", Bonnie blurted while the laugh still sounded. But Esther let everyone think she didn't know. Her little game, harmless as it was. Bonnie did her damnedest to comply with Linn's wishes, and she blushed wondering if the gown would even make an appearance once Linn saw it on her. Every body enhancing entrapment was sewn into that gown.

 

Caleb Rosenthal. Son of her late Pappy's business partner from Chicago. Handsome. Charming. A tremendous business partner ..... A cad. Ruthless charlatan. Gone several years now due to a mishap with a chandelier and Denver Opera House fire. Bonnie was on to him, of course. Oh, it took a while, and to this day she was ashamed that she allowed his charms to nearly outwit her, but as it was her death he wanted, justice was served from above that the table was turned. Linn knew. She also knew Linn would have served the judgement had it not worked out as it had. Levi Rosenthal knew as well. Pinkerton, brother to Caleb, and now husband to Bonnie.

 

Levi. Bonnie's heart skip several beats at the mere thought of him. Husband, friend, Father to her children, lover. The heat rose up from her neck at the admission of lover. Women only pretend to be discreet, you see. Women talk. Women, who love their men, gossip from behind their tea cups or cordials or fans ... it really does not matter. It was done with pride. Oh how Esther loved her Linn!

 

There are all manners of love. All of which have honor. The love Bonnie felt for Linn was strong and true, but the heart of her love was Levi's, just as Linn's heart was still with Esther. This love of Bonnie's for Linn was also charged up a notch due to Sarah being Linn's child, and to know Sarah is to love her, as with her Father. What a pair those two! And Bonnie always took such delight in being called that "She-Cat" of a daughter's Mama. Though not from her own body, Sarah was hers, and because of that, Linn, too, would be a connection.

 

"Is that really so bad?" Rocking chair came to a halt.

 

"Nay. Not bad at all ...."

 

With that Bonnie rose.

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141. I FORGOT

Mrs. Parson was a stout, motherly sort who was firmly of the opinion that every guest that crossed her threshold was starved plumb to death and needed a good square meal.

Her cat, on the other hand, was equally convinced any stray or idle hand should be employed at the cat's pleasure.

When her cat was just a little thing I set down at their table and the Parson just finished his blessing and Mrs. Parson loaded my plate with peas and mashed taters and I was ready to accept the meat platter being passed my direction when I felt something go tug, tug on my pants leg.

I looked down.

That little kitty cat was climbing my leg like a tree.

It come over the crest of Mount Kneecap, marched up the slope of my thigh, turned and surged up onto the table, waded through my mashed potatoes, grabbed a chunk of beef I'd just dropped onto the plate, then picked it up and glared at me ... and growled.

Mrs. Parson froze, Parson Belden looked at me with an amused expression, and I leaned back and laughed like a damned fool.

Since that time her cat learned better manners, probably because Mrs. Parson discreetly removed it from the kitchen before throwing vittles on the table.

'Twas after a meal and pie and coffee and general conversation -- Mrs. Parson was a pleasant woman and easy to talk to, I never did hear a cross or waspish word from her -- the Parson and I drifted into the next room and set ourselves down in comfortably upholstered rockin' chairs.

I was careful not to rock, for I saw Mrs. Parson's puddy cat on the floor, but I need not have worried: no more had I got myself set down than her fuzzy grey launched into the air and landed just as light and nice as anything, right on my lap.

Her cat had grown some since the days it went trompin' through the taters.

It had matured into something different, something ... well, Jacob put it well.

He said their cat wasn't so much a mouse catcher as it was a test of intelligence, and he said it right.

"What troubles you, Sheriff?" the Parson asked, and my hand hesitated in its motion toward the relaxing cat's exposed belly.

"Parson," I replied, "I hope it's no more than wild imagination."

The Parson looked over a set of non-existent spectacles at me. "You, sir," he said with that amused tone of voice, "are not given to wild imagination."

"I hope not," I agreed.

"Let's hear it. Perhaps I can help determine what's wild and what's not."

I took a long breath and considered, and then recounted my brief but unexpected adventure in the Sheriff's office.

"Now I don't know," I continued, "whether Bonnie is going to try and seduce me. I doubt that she will but I would be foolish not to consider all possibilities."

"Would you like her to?" the Parson asked quietly.

I laughed. "Parson," I declared, "it's the rare man who can truly satisfy his own wife. More than one lover is prime stupidity."

"Oh, I'll agree with you there," he nodded. "I've seen it too many times." He gave me an understanding look. "On the other hand, a man might consider his wife too pure for base desires, and spend his energy on a lesser woman."

I shook my head. "I refuse to consider any woman lesser."

"I know." He nodded. "I've known you for a long time, Sheriff. Even a hardened streetwalker becomes a lady when you speak to her." He looked at me and I could see the amusement on his face as well as hear it in his voice. "Do you know why that happens?"

"I didn't know it happened," I admitted, speaking slowly, shaking my head a little.

"Oh, yes," Parson Belden nodded. "It's because you treat them as a lady. You speak to them as women of quality and they rise to that."

I grunted, skeptical. "Didn't know I had that kind of magic."

The Parson laughed quietly. "I've seen you do it. Trust me, Sheriff, it's there." He leaned forward a little. "It's just like you told Sarah."

I frowned, turning my head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"You told her if she ever wanted to truly captivate a man's heart, she should give him those big lovely eyes of hers and hang on his every word as if it's the most fascinating thing she'd ever heard."

I nodded. "I recall that."

"Sheriff, you are a natural gentleman. You listen carefully and with your full attention when a woman speaks, and women like that. You treat them like a lady, and women like that. Even that woman you have locked up, the one that tried to knife Sarah. Oh, don't look so surprised, word gets around. You took her supper, you brought her a quilt and saw she had her clothes to change and water to wash in, and you bought her a hair brush and some women's trifles."

I grunted, annoyed that my actions had been noted.

"Sheriff, you are a decent man with a kind heart. In the big city you'd never make it as a policeman, but here you are exactly what we need. I watched you pull two men apart and give each one his say, uninterrupted, and I saw you belt another over the head with Mr. Baxter's bung starter rather than shoot him or beat the dog stuffing out of him. You bought the Silver Jewel from Filthy Sam and gave the women a fresh start, or as many of them as wanted one."

I nodded, slowly, for the man was right about the latter.

I had bought the Jewel, and I had helped the women get a new start.

Even Bonnie.

Especially Bonnie.

The Parson scooted six inches closer, motioned me nearer, lowered his voice.

"Sheriff, Mrs. Parson hears about anything coming or going, and she's heard nothing about Bonnie wanting to seduce you."

I leaned back, took a long breath, blew it out.

"Most of me is relieved."

The Parson nodded wisely.

I grinned.

"Part of me is still eighteen and vain and that small part is annoyed that she doesn't consider me the absolute apex of manliness."

The Parson chuckled. "Who said she doesn't?"

I blinked, surprised, and brought my hand up to rub the Parson's puddy cat's belly.

"Sheriff, a man can't be shot for what he thinks, and the Almighty is an understanding sort. Neither of you have acted on any impure idea, and I do not believe either of you will."

I began to rub the puddy's belly and the puddy cat nailed my hand with all four sets of claws.

I forgot the cat liked to do that.

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It was no secret that Bonnie McKenna Rosenthal was a woman of significant financial means. She was rarely seen without her auburn hair, yet to be touched with gray, not coiffed in the current style, or without wearing the proper gown designed for the proper occasion. Today was an exception. Descending the grand staircase was a woman with determination, clad in Levi Strauss jeans, calico button down shirt, brushed leather vest, riding boots, waist length hair tied back and with leather ridding gloves in one hand and Stetson in the other she maneuvered through her expansive home with purpose, brushing past various staff with raised eyebrows. Well, except from her cook,Nelda, who had seen this on several occasions, and with a shooing of her hand, and the set of her stern jaw, she sent the questioning eyes out of her kitchen.

 

The stable hand stepped aside as he saw her. Levi Rosenthal spoke often of the look he was witnessing, and there was no way he was going to cross what could be THE Scottish stubbornness. Though close at hand "should" she need anything, he spied her swiftly readying her mare. With graceful adeptness, Bonnie was in the saddle and with an expert hand, she pulled the reins in the desired direction. The mare was off at a full gallop before the stable hand blinked twice.

 

Who says the dead can not talk. Years earlier at Sam's Place was a woman of Mulatto coloring. Clea, who was exotic on one hand, but mysterious and frightening on the other, was rumored to be from Louisiana, and of Haitian Creole decent. When the girls were treated roughly, beyond that which was deemed consensual, Clea would mumble phrases in a dialect unknown, and peculiar, and sometimes dire circumstances, would befall the girls assailants. Bonnie never could understand why Clea never took care of Sam, or Sarah's step daddy. When questioned, Clea always said in her low sensual throaty voice, "Li se pa tan yo" It is not their time. Clea was found dead a couple of years earlier in a little cabin just outside of town, gifted to her by none other than Sheriff Linn Keller. It did not matter the social standing the day Clea was buried, Bonnie was there with head held high, as was Tilly, and a large number of others both in and retired from "the business". But ever since that day, Bonnie could swear upon her Fathers Bible that she heard Clea's voice from time to time.

 

Esther was generally who Bonnie would talk to. This situation it could definitely NOT be Esther. No, not when endearing words of sentiment could be mistaken for words of betrayal and conquest. No, Bonnie needed Clea. So to the little cabin she rode.

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143. ROSES

Esther closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, savoring their scent.

It was still winter, it was cold outside, but upstairs in the Mercantile was a room with many windows facing south and west, a room with rows of tables and long planters of rich black dirt, a room scented with the blooms of many roses.

Esther brought roses when she came out from the Carolinas, roses she tended every year in beds beside the church and the schoolhouse, roses she grew beside her home, roses she used as her personal signature.

Esther owned the Z&W Railroad, its insignia a spray of roses, painted on both locomotives, on the steam-powered inspection car, on the translucent glass pane in her office door.

Esther savored the odor, remembering her Mama's parlor, remembering the smell of her childhood, and she lay maternal hands on her great belly, feeling life stirring again.

"Soon, sweets," she whispered to the girl-child she knew she carried. "Soon."

She looked around at the rows of blooms, glowing richly in the sunlight, delightfully in contrast to the winter outside.

Esther turned, humming a little, then she stopped and clipped a rose, held it up, turned it slowly before her eyes.

"Every new mother," she murmured, "should have a rose," and she smiled again, then sadness drew its veil over her still-attractive features.

"Roses," she whispered. "Even at a death."

 

Jacob's teeth snapped together, his head whipped down and his chin drove into his chest, but he'd locked his heels around the bronco's barrel and he was not going to part company with the horse.

Not peacefully, anyway.

Joseph yelled encouragement but Jacob couldn't hear it, his son waved his hat and Jacob couldn't see it: his vision was filled with sky as the bronc reared back and crow-hopped on his hind legs, then came down stiff-legged again.

Joseph heard his Pa grunt when the horse landed, opened his mouth to yell again, but took in a sudden breath instead when the spotted bronc threw itself sideways.

Jacob kicked out of the stirrup, slammed his right foot down flat on the ground, then the bronc wallowed back upright, Jacob still in saddle leather.

As much as the lean lawman wanted to stay astraddle of this uncooperative horse, he knew it was time to part company when the horse came up again.

"PA!" Joseph yelled, and Jacob couldn't hear him this time either: he was too busy rolling -- he'd kicked loose in mid-leap, shoved hard, fell backward through space as the horse went over on its back, driving the saddlehorn hard against frozen ground, grunting painfully and rolling over on its side.

Jacob came up on all fours, ran back to the thrashing mustang, jumped back on as the mustang got his hooves under and came upright again.

Jacob snatched up the reins again but did not pull back on them.

"You wanta try it again?" he challenged, and the mustang shook -- shivered itself from nose to tail -- then paced off just as nice as you please.

Joseph puffed his chest out and he thought, My Pa can ride anything!

Annette patted Joseph's thigh and Joseph looked down at her, grinning.

"Ma, did you see that?" he crowed. "Did you see Pa?"

"Yes, I did," she squinted up at him, one hand shading her eyes, the other on her own growing belly.

"Ma, am I gonna be a big brother or a big sister?"

"What?" Annette laughed.

"If it's a boy I'll be a brother," Joseph said seriously, "but if you're carryin' a girl do I hafta be a big sister?"

"No, silly," Annette laughed, "you'll always be a big brother!"

"Good," Joseph said seriously. "I like being a brother!"

 

The Sheriff closed and locked his office door.

It had been a long day.

He'd been in the saddle most of the day, but he'd finished what he'd started, he'd got two rivals to set down and talk their situation over and he'd plied them with Daisy's dried-apple pie and coffee he'd given one rancher's wife -- a minor treasure that time of year, fresh ground and fragrant even before being boiled up -- and setting down with the two rivals, he'd been able to show them they had more in common than in difference.

He didn't figure he'd made them friends or business partners, but he'd got them to consider the possibility that they hadn't ought to go after one another.

Now he was ready to head for home and kiss his wife and hug his children and get a good night's rest.

He was looking forward to an uninterrupted night in his own bunk, under his own roof, with his wife warm beside him.

He smiled as he remembered the previous night, when she was laying on her left side the way she did now that she was big and pregnant, and his arm laid up against her belly and he felt what Esther assured him was their little girl, kicking his arm.

He swung his leg over Cannonball, remembering Esther's whisper in the dark, promising him their daughter would have blond hair and blue eyes, a laugh like water chuckling over mountain boulders and the voice of a singer born.

 

Esther lowered the cut end of the rose stem into the tall, narrow vase on the table beside her bed, and smiled, bent a little and savored its scent once more.

The maid looked up, alarmed, at Esther's surprised exclamation.

She straightened from turning down the bed, blinking, as Esther's left hand pressed the small of her back and her right hand laid across her belly, and she looked up, her face glowing.

There would be no good rest for the tired Sheriff this night.

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Bonnie gentled her Mare down from the run a short distance away from Clea's cabin without much thought. In life, Clea never liked things barreling in on her at full run, and the same was true in her absence from this earth. Bonnie's horse instinctually slowed itself down without much work on Bonnie's part. Clea was methodical, not slow, just did not appreciate things happening at fast speed. She though that was mankind's doing, and not always the will of what the Universe, nor its Creator, had in mind. She would argue with anyone at what was time to the Almighty. Only We put such a definition to what constitutes time. Whether true or not, folks generally didn't press the issue with her.

 

At Bonnie's request, the cabin would not be occupied by another. She purchased the small plot of land the cabin and grave rested on, and it was Bonnie who would see to its upkeep. As she told Linn, "there will come a time when Clea says this place can belong to another". Linn Keller understood these things. He understood the "sight" without question.

 

The plot of land always had a fragrance of its own. Unlike even 30 paces to any side of it, the plot of land had its own life. When Bonnie, or anyone she hired to make the trek to clean or see to any repair, all came back saying it was .... fine! Bonnie grew to not be surprised by that. One of those unexplained marvels.

 

As gracefully as she got on her horse, Bonnie slid from her, gently running her hand down her long neck and slipping her fingers into her mares mane. Resting her mouth to the Mares ear, "I trust you will remain here?" Bonnie smiled as the Mare answered in kind.

 

Dropping the reins, Bonnie moved slowly toward the cabin porch, paused to look at the whitewashed door, then moved on to the side of the house, all the while breathing in the uniqueness of fragrances. You always smelled cinnamon, cloves, the healthiness of earth. But there was always a scent of copper in the air as well, ever so slight. On this day, it actually gave Bonnie a chill, but not from the cold that hung in the air. Just a shiver, and it was gone as quickly as it came.

 

When Sarah was a little thing, she would look into Clea's eyes, shake her head and smile. Clea would wink. Bonnie inquired what was going on between them and Sarah's response was, " just stuff, Mama". One time Sarah told Bonnie that she thought Clea was much much older than they all thought, and inquired what was an Old Soul ..... "hmmm", Bonnie thought, "I had forgotten that".

 

Rounding the far corner of the cabin, and looking slightly off to the left, was a well maintained grave site set up on the top of an inclined pathway. And as usual, even in the winter months, there was still the color of life. Bits of green grass dotted the mound, an ivy vine crawling beautifully on the tombstone with fingers of vine growing on a nearby bush. Roses. Bonnie was marveled, once again.

 

A wooden bench that Bonnie had made was nestled close to the site, and Bonnie sat down on it slowly, taking her gloves off. She reached over and gentle touched a leaf on the ivy, rubbing it between thumb and middle finger.

 

"Hello, Clea. I believe I may have hurried something along that did not need hurrying. I wonder if you might aide me."

 

The gentlest of breeze washed over. "Nye timoun" Silly Child

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144. TONIGHT

I near to run into the maid, coming out of our bedroom.

I'd figured Esther would be laying down the way she did of an afternoon. I still had sun to work with but my stomach told me supper ought to be any time, and I was not about to set down to a plate of good cookin' without going upstairs and kissing my wife.

I'm kind of an old softy like that.

Like I said, I near to run into the maid, and stepped back sudden-like.

She give me one of those looks that women will when they know something, and they know a man is about to find out.

She was right.

I took a deep breath and caught the smell of roses, and saw Esther had a rose in that skinny little vase on her side table, and I grinned as she stacked pillows up and turned covers back and was otherwise as restless and active as a woman is when she's starting to labor.

I walked around the bed, my foot steps slow, my tread as near to silent as I could arrange, and I gathered her into my arms.

Esther turned her face up at me and God help me, she was shining, the way a woman will when she's all lit up with happiness, and I kissed her delicate-like, the way I generally did, and I whispered, "Is it tonight, then?"

She hugged me hard, cuddling the side of her face into my shirt front and she whispered back, "Yes, darling. Tonight!"

I felt a wild wahoo surge up in my insides but I kept it in there, for I dislike loud noises especially in the house, and Esther could feel me laugh, and she squeezed me again.

"Has your water broke?" I asked, realizing that birthing a child involved that first step, and Esther drew back a little and laughed.

"No, silly," she giggled. "I wouldn't be standing here if that was the case!"

The door swung open and the maid sailed in, all starch and ruffled cap and immaculate apron, glaring her disapproval at our embrace as she hauled in a big armload of bedsheets.

"Now shame be wid' ye," she scolded, "she's not hatched the one she's carryin' an' ye want t' plant th' next crop already! Men! Hmpf!" -- and so saying, she dropped the pile of linens unceremoniously on the chair, h'isted her nose in the air and steered a course right back out the door, and I looked down at Esther and she looked up at me and we both laughed.

"Dearest," I said, "shouldn't you be in bed?"

"Not yet." She did sit, though, and I set down beside her, my arm around her, and she leaned into me, and we set there for a while.

"Do you remember when we got married?" Esther whispered, and I grinned, for I did remember, and the remembering was good.

"I recall I married the most beautiful woman in the world," I replied. "Matter of fact I still am!"

"You're married to an old woman," Esther groaned, and I laughed.

"Old woman, my Uncle Pete's billy goat!"

"Now, dear, you know that older women have a harder time birthing babies."

"Tell me another one, redhead," I whispered. "You delivered the twins easier than most women deliver just one!"

Esther sighed, hugging me again. "You, sir," she murmured, "are a hard headed old German."

"The Pope is Catholic, what else is news?" I chuckled.

She looked up at me again. "You must be tired."

"Not now I'm not."

"You should get some supper. I'll be a little while."

"Ye should really listen to her," the maid scolded and I jumped as she swatted me across the back with the towel that lived draped over her shoulder. "Troublin' that puir woman when she's birthin' yer child! Is there no gratitude to ye? Now go boil some watter or somethin' men folk are supposed to be doin' t' stay out from underfoot!"

I stood, then knelt.

"Dear, heart, how say you? Do I stay until your cork pops or should I get out from underfoot?"

"Shoo," Esther smiled. "This is women's work, but if you would let Bonnie and Sarah know I would appreciate it."

I nodded.

Like most men I hate indecision, and this was a specific task, a course of action.

I rose, kissed Esther's knuckles.

"On my way."

 

The gelding had a good foot under him early on and grateful I was for it.

I don't mind topping off a horse first thing in the morning but I had a task and I wished to tend it and I did not wish to waste time showing the horse I wasn't going to be thrown.

We set a good ground covering pace and I headed for the Rosenthal ranch not far off, on the other side of town, and I reckon I had a grin on my face as broad as two Texas townships, for Sarah come out on the front porch and shaded her eyes against the afternoon sun and planted her other hand on her hip.

"Ho, now," I said, and the gelding ho'd, and I looked up at Sarah and she asked, "Has her water broken?"

I laughed, shook my head. "Women!"

"Yes, women," Sarah laughed. "Has she sent for us, then?"

"She has."

"I will have the carriage readied. We'll be along directly."

I backed the gelding, tickled him behind his forelegs with my boot toes: he dropped his forelegs and I raised my Stetson, and Sarah clapped her hands with delight at the horse's bow and my flourish, and we were about turned and stepping out when Sarah called, "Whither goest thou?" and I turned a little and called back, "Jacob's!"

Sarah waved a hand and we galloped down their driveway and through the cast iron arch with ROSENTHAL in big letters overhead.

I didn't know it until Sarah went inside, and she didn't tell me for some time, but when she went back in the house, there was a fresh rose laying on the side table.

It hadn't been there when she stepped out to greet me, and nobody was there to leave it, or so she said.

 

Annette was getting a good belly on her too, but that didn't keep her from taking care of her men.

Poor old Levi Rosenthal was outnumbered in a house full of women, Jacob's wife Annette had a herd of menfolk to tend: a son, an infant son, and Esther swore Annette carried another boy, or so the broomstraw told her, but she said 'twas a single child and not twins.

Had it been twins I would have congratulated Jacob on siring his young in litters, or starting his own regiment.

She was settin' out supper when I come through the door, Joseph bouncing with excitement, and I grabbed him and hauled him off the floor and up in the air as high as I could reach and he laughed with delight and I laughed with him: I turned him upside down, carried him by his ankles and duck-walked into the kitchen, Joseph giggling and grabbing at my legs, and finally I eased him down onto the floor.

He flipped easily from a handstand to right-side-up, his face red and cherubic as he grabbed a chair until the dizzies passed.

"Annette," I said, "I reckon I am here for you as much as to see Jacob."

Annette's eyes went to the table, then to her stove, then back to me. "Esther?"

I nodded.

"How far along?"

"She's only just started."

"Has her water broken?" I heard the tension in her voice and she automatically picked up a towel, ready to wipe her hands clean and quickly pack up what was needful.

"No, no, heavens no," I reassured her.

"This is her ... third pregnancy ... no, her fourth." Annette turned to her cupboard, traced a finger along the spotless shelf, plucked three tins of dried tea and set them on the counter. "Jacob, could you be a dear and fetch me the withie basket?"

Jacob grinned, stepped over to the pantry, lifted a curtain and pulled out the hand woven basket.

 

Angela stood, big-eyed, back against the wall as the maid fussed and clucked and twitched the covers up and over Esther, and Esther fussed at the maid, and both of them smiling as they did.

The maid had several layers of sheets under Esther, ready for what would follow; she had hot water and towels, she had a horseshoe under Esther's pillow, and a small knife, its tip driven into a big cork, laying beside the horse shoe: iron for luck, a knife to cut the pain.

Esther took a sudden, deep breath, her eyes widening, her hands going to the mound Angela knew was her belly.

The maid folded the sheets back from the foot of the bed, crossed herself and whispered, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, be with this mother in her time of deliverance!"

It was time.

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145. COMMUNITY

Word travels fast in a small town, and word tended to travel exceptionally quickly in Firelands.

Whether it was the Sheriff's quick "Sean, Esther's in labor, drinks will be on me!" as he drew up in front of the firehouse, to pass the delightful news to his old friend the fire chief -- whether it was the unseen and unheard jungle drums that throb and mutter on a subconscious level, calling those that were needed when the times were right -- women gather when one of their own is ready to bring new life into the world, and the ladies of Firelands began to converge.

Jacob shook the Sheriff's hand and gripped his shoulder in congratulations, and little Joseph watched, marveling at how young his Grampa suddenly looked, and how much father and son resembled one another: he helped harness up the buggy and he packed out his Ma's withie basket and the overloaded contents, teas and bread and the like, and his long tall Grampa was grinning and nervous and finally excused himself, and even in his youth, young Joseph knew is Grampa was exercising a great strength of will not to gallop his red Cannonball mare down the mountain, screaming triumph like the Cherokee he talked about over a trailside fire one evening, when it was just Grampa and Grandson, and the world stretched wild and quiet around them, high in the cold and lonesome mountains.

In the saloon, the Silver Jewel, the local hub of commerce, information, good food and better drink, bets were quickly laid -- boy or girl? -- then counter-bets and side-bets -- how long before the Sheriff taught the wee child to ride, to shoot, would he bring his newest child into the Jewel in a basket, in his arms, perched on his shoulder? -- would it be twins?

The piano player struck a lively tune and there was laughter, drinks were hoist and downed, and the new barkeep everyone called Mr. Baxter happily traded gold dust or coin or a set of binoculars for drink and for Daisy's good provender.

 

The Sheriff could not stand it any longer.

He swung a leg over his Cannonball-mare, turned her, lifted his hat to his grandson and set off on a slow trot back down the mountain.

Joseph raised his own hat and whipped it happily back and forth, then turned as his Pa opened the door.

"Fetch up the carriage, Joseph," he said, grinning, "we've set supper away and we'll tend it later!"

"Yes, sir!" Joseph grinned, setting down his payload, and sprinted happily for where they'd just harnessed up the gelding to their carriage.

 

"Oh my God," the maid whispered.

Sarah's eyes went dead pale and she grabbed a diaper, folded it, shoved it against the crimson flood.

"Too much blood," the maid muttered. "Mother Mary help us!"

"Angela," she snapped, her voice tight, "run get your father."

"I can't run that far," Angela said in a tiny, scared little voice.

"Rosebud," Esther gasped. "Angela, Rosebud! Fly like the wind!"

"Yes, Mommy," Angela squeaked: she turned and ran, ran for fear, ran for desperation, ran down the stairs and across the yard and toward the corral, shouting for the hired man, shouting for her Rosebud-horse, and bare moments later, Rosebud, get of Cannonball and of Rey del Sol before her, laid her ears back and shot out of the corral gate, heeling hard over as she made the turn, pounded across frozen ground and launched over the fence as if she had wings.

This time the little girl on her back did not scream with delight.

Behind her, a woman's voice, a despairing, I'm-going-to-die scream, muffled and contained by the solid, well-built house.

Tears ran cold back along Angela's cheeks because something was very wrong with her Mommy and she had to get her Daddy and Daddy would make it right.

A little blond-haired girl with Kentucky-blue eyes streaked through the early darkness just as fast as a racing-blooded mare could carry her.

 

Heads turned as Angela galloped wide open, punching a hole through the air, just as fast as that little mare could run, right down the middle of the main street, standing up in her stirrups, her hands pressed against the sides of the little red mare's neck: mare and rider had their faces thrust forward, and it seemed that a set of gauzy wings propelled them as well, thrusting savagely at the air, so swift was their passage: one moment the ground quivered with the desperation of hard hooves on frozen ground, and the next, they were gone, the silence drawn in their slipstream more ominous than the galloping omen of a scared little girl on horseback, on what must have been an absolutely desperate mission.

Inside the Silver Jewel, the celebration continued unabated by this dark and unnoticed portent.

 

I held Cannonball to a slow trot.

There's nothing I could do to help Esther, I knew, save to stay out of the ladies' way.

I've helped birth babies before but women have a way about them, and a woman should have women to tend at such a time.

I grinned as I remembered how sudden it had been -- the head crowned out and then come clear out, and it was an ugly little thing -- I recall how the head turned, and one shoulder come out and I gripped the little thing, cupped it in my fingers and lifted to clear the other shoulder and just that fast I had a double handful of slippery little baby.

I laughed with delight at the memory.

My laughter ended when I heard a voice.

"Ho, girl," I said, and Cannonball ho'd, and something dumped a dipper of cold water right down my back bone.

"DADDEEEEEEE!"

Something cold and bony gripped my gut and I looked to my left, up the mountain, and I knew Jacob would be coming.

"DAAAAADDEEEEEE!"

"YAAHHH!"

Cannonball lifted her forelegs and thrust her hind hard against the roadbed and we shot ahead and I stood up in my stirrups, then lowered and grabbed my engraved '73 rifle, fetched it out.

I knew my little girl's voice and I knew she brought bad news and I was ready for a young war.

Angela came beating straight for me and I turned Cannonball side-on to her and Rosebud saw us and slowed and we circled one another til we'd both slowed to a stop and Angela was gasping and crying and scared to death and I brought us stirrups-to and reached over and grabbed her and fetched her over to me and she grabbed hold of me scared plumb to death, she was crying and sobbing and gulping and I soothed her and I held her and I finally got her calmed down enough to talk and she didn't need no questions to deliver her message.

"Daddy it's Mommy something bad happened Mommy's hurt Daddy I'm scared!"

I hugged her Daddy-tight, dread wrapping cold coils around my heart, and I looked up hill and bellowed "JAAACOOOOBBBB! WWAAAARRRRRR!"

I swung Angela back over into saddle leather.

"Princess," I said, "can you keep up with me?"

Angela's blue eyes locked onto mine and she nodded, grim-faced.

I reached over, cupped her cheek in my hand. "I'm proud of you, Princess. Stay right with us!"

"Okay, Daddy," she said, and her voice was almost normal but her face wasn't.

Uphill, I heard hoofbeats, then the carriage, and I knew Jacob was saddled and headed my way.

I waited til he was in sight, then I raised my rifle, spun Cannonball, and thrusting the rifle back in its scabbard, I stood up in my stirrups and pressed my hands against her neck and shoved my nose into the wind and we run together, she and I, we were not horse and rider, we were one living soul riding the wind itself, and in time with her hoofbeats I grunted, "Run -- run -- run -- run!"

Behind me, Jacob leaned low over his Apple-horse's neck, and he too begun to split the wind.

 

Dr. George Flint was restless.

Dr. Flint was a full-blooded Navajo, but perfectly comfortable in a white man's suit and tie: he was also a graduate of the Harvard School of Medicine, an accomplished surgeon, the son of a native healer and the product of civilized Eastern matriculation.

In short, he was the most accomplished and the most skilled physician in the territory, and at the moment, he felt as comfortable as a jack rabbit in a room full of coyotes.

Dr. Greenlees and Nurse Susan were gone, summoned to a distant ranch where a hand was mauled by a stallion; they would be gone probably overnight, and Dr. Flint had tended business with his usual efficiency, skill and lack of casual conversation.

His chief nurse and wife, Morning Star, watched with shining obsidian eyes: she read her husband like a book, and she quietly began assembling the tools that would be needed, in all likelihood, for she could smell blood and she could smell fear, and she set out the surgical bag and a second one with chloroform and carbolic and something potent, water-clear and not over thirty days old.

They both turned and looked, for each caught a slight whisper, a sound that shouldn't be there.

They stared at the single red rose, lying on a side table, a rose that had not been there five seconds earlier.

They looked at the rose, they looked at each other and then the door bell swung and rang alarm, pulled briskly by someone without the outer door.

 

Esther gritted her teeth and bowed up her back with the effort: it was the only way she could breathe now, to take a great lungful of air and grunt hard as she exhaled.

Her face was dead pale, ghastly pale, and blood, an impossible amount of blood, pooled beneath her.

The ladies worked quickly to remove the bloodied pool, contained in the bedsheet, someone fetched up a washtub and they dropped the ghastly payload into galvanized steel and quickly, desperately attempted a cleanup, but more followed.

"My baby," Esther gasped. "Can you see her?"

"Not yet," Sarah muttered, red to her elbows: she turned, washed quickly, viciously, turned back to the shivering woman.

She's about bled out, she thought, just as Dr. Flint thrust his blocky frame through the doorway.

He looked at Sarah.

Hard obsidian-black eyes met hard glacier-pale eyes.

"Sarah, report."

Sarah reported.

Dr. Flint laid his hands gently against Esther's cheeks, pressed the sides of her throat, seeking the life that should be throbbing, rich and full, on either side of her windpipe: what he found was thin, thready, barely fluttering.

He looked over the bed into the number two washtub and realized she should be not only unconscious, but dead from blood loss.

"Save my baby," Esther whispered, brought up a dead-pale hand, gripped his arm weakly. "Please. Save my baby."

Dr. Flint turned, gestured: Morning Star placed the satchel on the bed, opened it.

"Everyone out," he said, then thrust his chin at Sarah. "Not you."

He extended a hand.

Morning Star slapped the handle of the scalpel briskly into the man's browned palm.

 

We shot through town like a dose of salts.

I've hauled men into His Honor's court room for galloping a horse in town.

We three didn't just gallop.

Cannonball lived up to her name and Jacob and Angela were neck and neck right behind me.

Voices shouted at our passage and I did not care.

I swung off to the side, Cannonball skidded a little as I drew her up in front of the hospital, and I reached for the bell-pull and hauled, one-two, pause, one-two, pause, one-two, and I let go and waited.

Jacob and Angela kept on for the house.

Morning Star come to the door.

"Esther is in labor," I said, my voice hard but steady. "Something is wrong."

She nodded, once, and I saw understanding in her eyes.

I waited for the Doctor, and Cannonball shivered and blew and prowled restlessly until the big, solid-built Navajo healer rattled out from behind the hospital in the physician's surrey I'd bought for them, and we set a brisk pace for home.

 

Dr. Flint knew the men were downstairs.

He looked up as Bonnie came into the room, eyes big and face pale, and he turned and thrust his chin toward the note on the side table.

He'd seen it when he came in -- a single sheet of note paper folded in two, with Bonnie written in Esther's flowing, ornate script.

He reached into the incision, lifted the child free, tore the membrane from the girl-baby's head, flipped her face down and massaged her back.

Esther had no so much as flinched with the physician made the incision, parted the tissues, then delicately opened the muscular uterus, its taut tissue pulling back from the shining scalpel's steady progress.

The child wiggled and made a little mouse-squeak noise and Esther's eyes fluttered open and the corners of her mouth drew up a little, and Dr. Flint turned and placed the child on its mother's breast, picked up Esther's hands, placed the cold, pallid hands on her child.

"You have a daughter," he murmured, and kissed her forehead, and Esther blinked again, and he saw understanding in her eyes.

Sarah, her face pale and drawn taut over her cheek bones, shoved past her mother, slammed out the door, and they heard her feet running down the stairs.

Bonnie, numb, picked up the note, unfolded it, noticed with a sense of detachment that her hands were shaking.

Bonnie --

Take the lovely emerald gown you made for me and cut the back out of the skirt.

You will know when to do this.

Make a christening gown for my daughter from the material, and on the day of her christening, whisper in my husband's ear that our child wears my happiness.

He will understand.

My time is near.

You have been a good and steadfast friend.

Thank you.

Esther

 

Sarah staggered a little as she came toward us.

She was bloodied and she looked a little insane and I turned to reach for her and she bent and grabbed my long-bladed knife from my boot top.

She drew back, her teeth bared, then she whirled and ran upstairs, sounding like an animal backed into a corner.

I looked at Jacob and my mouth went dry.

 

Sarah slammed back into the room, reached down the back of her neck and pulled out a second long-bladed knife, identical to her father's.

"Step back," she said, her voice hard, and spun the blades in her fingers: Dr. Flint drew back, his arm out, crowding Bonnie back against the wall.

Sarah raised the blades to the high ceiling, then crossed her arms over her breast and bowed her head.

She began to dance.

Outside, shoulder to shoulder, a massive black dog and a lean but no less impressive white wolf lifted their muzzles to the cold, uncaring stars, howled their ancient song of passage, sang together of the mysteries of death and of life as a woman's shadow passed before the curtained window above them.

Sarah danced with steel, she spun sharpened Damascus like circles of silver at the ends of her arms: slowly, gracefully, she sliced the air beside the dead woman's bed, and over the still figure, and around and down the other side: graceful, almost majestic, but terrible to see, a final salute from a warrior born into a woman's body.

Steel, woven through space, a ward and charm against any malevolence that would try to steal this woman's newly-released soul.

Perhaps, if we had eyes to see, we might see just such a warrior at the Nether-gate, protectively guarding the passage of a new, vulnerable soul, a soul only just born from one existence to another.

Or perhaps it was an act of grief, a salute and tribute to someone loved and admired.

Whatever the case and whatever the cause, Sarah's dance slowed, and stopped, and once again the stood with her head bowed, and her arms crossed over her bosom, the knives bright and shining in the lamplight.

Bonnie looked up, tears running down her face.

"Who's going to tell him?" she whispered, her throat tight.

"I will," Dr. Flint said quietly, turning.

"No." Sarah stepped around the bed, took both knives in her left hand, laid a gentle palm against the black-eyed physician's smooth cheek. "Dr. Flint, you saved the only life that could be saved. Without you we would have nothing. Thank you for that." She bit her bottom lip. "I will tell him."

She turned and lifted the hungry, fussing little bundle from the maid's arms.

"Come, child," she soothed. "It's time you met your father."

 

Jacob stood numb and he watched Sarah's lips move as she spoke.

He couldn't hear her for the hissing, buzzing sound that came over him like a tow sack dropped over his head.

He saw the color, what little was left, drain from his father's face, and he saw his father, this stone-hearted warrior, sink slowly to his knees, and Jacob could see the strength run out of the man like water from a knifed water-skin.

Sarah knelt with him, and he leaned his forehead against hers, and Jacob saw his father raise shaking hands to accept the little wiggling bundle, and he felt hands on his arms and shoulders and he realized that he too had sunk to his knees, and his son and his wife were gripping him, letting him know they were there and they grieved with him and Jacob's eyes were wide open and staring and he could not hear a single thing that was being said, not for the hissing and buzzing that filled his ears.

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146. A GREAT FAVOR

 

Jacob and his family stayed the night.

Annette slept in Angela's bed, and Angela slept in the trundle bed, and Jacob and Joseph slept in the Sheriff's office, least until Jacob decided that two quilts or not a hardwood floor didn't make much of a mattress, and he took the quilts and ended up settin' in one of the upholstered chairs, and Joseph -- as big as he was getting -- ended up on his Pa's lap.

Jacob folded a quilt into a good thick pad and Joseph's bony little backside didn't drive into his Pa's legs near so bad and so the pair of them slept, or slept as best they could.

Annette lay awake much of the night, listening, she wasn't sure for what.

Now and again she heard yodel dogs singing, at one point she heard quiet footfalls outside the door, as if a restless sleeper were wandering in the dark.

Probably Linn, she thought, poor man ... Esther was his world ...

Annette heard Angela's regular breathing, and she peeped over the edge of her bed at the child, relaxed, sprawled a little, her hair framing her head.

God bless children and their innocence, she thought.

 

I paced most of the night.

No.

Paced ain't the word.

I was a shadow, wandering in a world of shadows ... I wandered like the lost soul I'd become.

I needed no light, for my own home was more than intimately familiar to me.

Jacob and Joseph slept in my office, I knew, and I felt bad about that.

An old campaigner like me ought to have a couple folding cots at least.

I used to keep one in my office, generally leaned up ag'in the far wall on t'other side of the pot belly stove.

I sighed, pinched the nose-bone up between my eyes, leaned against a door frame, remembered ...

I remembered how Esther looked that morning, her face aglow, smiling, alive.

Now she was cold and still and unmoving in the fancy cherry wood box up on two saw horses in the parlor.

Women ...

Women traditionally tend us at the beginning of our life, and at its end.

The women came together to help Esther birth her baby, and the women cleaned her up and got her dressed and ready for the coffin.

I knew Bonnie was in there, and Sarah, and the wet nurse they found on short notice and that's another gift women have, they can find what's needed.

I finally knocked delicately on the parlor door, eased it open.

Sarah rose, her hands clasped before her; Bonnie, poor soul, looked so tired, worn ... her eyes were swollen a little, and I'm not surprised.

Few things will tear me apart worse than a woman's grief and Bonnie grieved hard tonight.

I would too, I knew, but for now I had to hold things together.

Our twins were asleep, as was Angela, I hoped Jacob and Joseph were ... very likely the maid was laying awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering if she'd still have a position come daylight.

Sarah picked up a lamp with one hand and reached for me with the other and I reached for her and I laid my cheek down on top of her head and closed my eyes, feeling her quiver a little, and I knew she was feeling her grief anew having seen me and touched me.

I looked over at the cherry box.

I knew under that beautifully figured, carefully polished, precisely domed lid, lay what was left of the one woman I loved more and better than any in my entire life.

I also knew that wasn't her in there.

Esther, the Esther I knew, was gone ... she'd shed out of that body like a man will shed out of a worn, soiled cloak.

I was satisfied her shade stood up and looked around, and very likely tilted her head back and closed her eyes and spread her arms and lifted away into the Light ...

I looked to the left, where a stranger sat in a chair, leaned back a little and asleep, a baby to her breast.

Our baby.

My baby now.

I'll have to raise a girl, I thought, and looked over at Sarah.

She followed my gaze and looked back and took my arm and we slipped out, closed the door silently behind us.

"Papa," she whispered, "Mama and I were talking."

I looked down at her, held her hands in mine, grateful for the contact, for I felt more than lost even yet.

"Papa, we can raise her. We can take her in."

I shook my head.

"She is my child, and she will be my child," I whispered hoarsely.

"Have you named her?" Sarah asked, blinking, her eyes bright.

I nodded. "Esther and I decided ... her name is Dana."

"Have you told the baby yet?"

"Not yet."

I looked at the closed door.

"Your Mama is asleep," I whispered, "and I don't want to wake her."

Sarah looked curiously at me, one eyebrow raising a little.

"Sarah, would you ... would you do me a great favor?"

Sarah nodded, blinking.

"If you could ... retrieve Esther's emerald gown."

Sarah's expression betrayed her curiosity ... no surprise, but definitely curiosity.

"Ooo ... kaaay," she said slowly, "retrieve her emerald gown ... and what?"

I had to take a moment before I answered.

"Sarah, have your Mama cut the back out of the gown. Put the front half on Esther in the box. Have her make a christening gown for Dana out of that emerald material."

I felt my eyes fill and didn't bother to wipe at tears scalding down my cheeks.

"When she's christened ... when I hold Dana in front of God and everybody ... I want her in Esther's emerald gown."

Sarah bit her bottom lip, her eyes glitter-bright, and she nodded.

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Death is one of those horrible things that everybody hates, but it is one of those absolutes that happens to each person born. When it happens unexpectedly .... that is always gut retching. But to die when giving life ... well now, there is always something unfair about that one.

 

Bonnie did not know if she wanted to be angry or sad.

 

Heartbroken? Yes.

 

Confused? Yes.

 

Angry? Most definitely.

 

The Parson would probably tell everyone come Sunday morning that no one was to hold God accountable. That Esther was always His child first and that she was "on loan" to those who would be enchanted enough to know her. That she served the Almighty well while she graced the earth. That those who knew her would always have a piece of Esther inside them. It is basically always what parishioners hear when someone they love was taken. Words that are spoken to give comfort. Comfort comes to people at different times. Bonnie was unsure when she would see any comfort in this.

 

Once again, Bonnie was entrusted with an Emerald green gown. This particular task was not completely derived of joy, but Bonnie knew she would not let Esther, nor Linn down. "Interesting how both Esther and Linn had the exact same idea as to what to do with you", Bonnie said aloud as she looked down at the gown laying stretched out between her two arms.

 

"Well, dear, sweet Dana, you will be richly dressed on your Christening day .... Lord, give me strength to do this"

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148. WOLF IN THE SNOW

I don't remember much about that week.

I don't know who-all kept things going there at the house.

I'd been told since then that I was a rock, that I was quiet and solid and reassuring to everyone, that I was the strong right hand that kept the household going in the dark days following my life's best and most beautiful light being blown out.

I sure as hell don't remember one single word the Parson said when we had attair funeral service.

The wet-nurse -- Alfdis, her name, a big Norwegian farm girl -- set beside me on that hard church pew, but I held our daughter, my daughter, little Dana, and I held her up across my chest and my arms were over her and under her as if to shield my child from Death itself.

I recall feeling as if I'd lost my conscience.

Had someone reached for Dana without my let-be I'm satisfied I would have taken them by the throat and fetched them off the floor no matter who they were, and I would have crushed their throat and pinched the head off their neck and had absolutely no regret for it.

Now that I look back on it ... I'm glad nobody tried ... I was not entirely driving my own team, so to speak.

Part of me realized I was being spoken to, as folks would come up and say the careful words we all craft for such sad moments, part of me realized the hands that shook mine or rested reassuringly on my arm or my shoulder.

I will never, ever remember one single word that was spoken.

I will never, as long as I live, forget each and every one who cared to speak those carefully crafted words.

I recall how prickly my scalp felt when I handed Dana to the wet-nurse, and Jacob and I stepped up to Esther's box.

He and I went to the head of the box, and we each executed a perfect turn, he a left-face and I, a right.

We took the silver handles on that hand rubbed cherry box and gripped it and looked at one another, then Jacob said "Up," and the six of us that carried the box hoisted it properly to shoulder height.

I do recall the slow-march out of the church and part of me was surprised at how full the little whitewashed church was, how every pew was packed full and folks stood along the sides and along the back, and I recall how cold the air was when it hit me in the face.

We slid her box into the immaculate, ornate hearse and Digger closed the glass doors on the back and scuttled around to climb into the driver's seat while we formed up behind.

Jacob squeezed my shoulder and nodded, once, and then he stepped behind me.

I reckon he had Annette's hand in his right, and Joseph's in his left.

I had Angela's hand in my right, and the twins were on my left, and we followed Digger's fancy hearse.

It wasn't terribly far to the grave yard, and Digger drove slow enough the children had no trouble keeping up: once we got there and off loaded her coffin, we set it across the boards laid across the rectangular hole.

I recall thinking it must have been one hell of a job to cut through that frozen ground, and likely it was hard rock miners that did, but I did not really know, and it didn't matter.

It was snowing again, big fluffy flakes that caressed my cheeks and laid on Angela's curls like feathers, and slid off that cherry wood box as we arranged ourselves.

I had not the heart to speak.

Jacob spoke for me and part of me admired how well he spoke: he read the words I'd written the night before, there in the silence and the darkness of my study, by the Aladdin lamp on top of my roll top desk: Alfdis sat nearby, in the rocking chair I'd had brought in for the purpose, and Dana slept on a motherly bosom.

My words were few; my words were simple; I did not address my loss or Esther's life: rather, I spoke to those I knew would be present.

"My friends, forgive me if I have not the words to speak.

"I have never lost a wife.

"You have come to show your respect for the finest woman I've ever known.

"Thank you for that.

"This day we celebrate her ascent into Paradise with a feast at the Silver Jewel. You are all most welcome to join us."

I remember he stood at the head of her grave, and after the Parson uttered his final words, Jacob read my words, his voice strong, clear, distinct: he raised his right hand and hesitated, then placed his palm reverently on the head of the box, and stood there, head bowed.

He withdrew his hand, straightened.

As one, we who sat in the first row -- family and close friends -- leaned forward as one, and we all laid our hands on Esther's box, a silent, final goodbye.

I looked over top the box and saw that white wolf looking at us,there in the snow, and Angela giggled and I looked down and saw The Bear Killer had shoved in between whoever he had to and was standing against her, looking up at my little girl, and then she looked past the foot end of the box and saw that white wolf, and looked up at me with a delighted expression and pointed and whispered, "Daddy!"

We looked again, and it was gone, and there were no tracks to show it had ever been there.

I looked again and a single red rose lay on the coffin, a rose that hadn't been there when I looked over at that wolf.

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149. DON'T DISAPPOINT YOUR SISTER

I laid down on my own bed for the first time in three days.

I didn't particular want to.

Last I'd laid down in this bed 'twas with Esther, and we whispered and laughed like newlyweds, spinning plans and laying our future out on the night air, and now ...

Now the bedroom smelled of soap and the bed smelled all fresh and sun dried and I know it was because they tried to scrub away the tragedy, they tried to clean away their own grief, and ... it smelled ... like soap.

I laid a hand out like I always did, and she wasn't there.

She wasn't in that box, neither.

I knew that, and I did not imagine my beautiful bride suddenly opening her eyes in a buried coffin.

I knew she was long gone.

That didn't help the missin' of her much.

I know the Parson said time and again we should rejoice at a death, for they are with God, but that meant they weren't here with me, and part of me is still a child and I don't want my playmate to leave me.

How much more than that, a wife.

I shared my dreams with her, I shared my fears, she was my wise counsel, she was my balance wheel, she was my business advisor, she was mother to our children and Queen of our realm ...

My hand closed on emptiness and I never felt so lost in all my life.

 

I'd got maybe four hours' rest when my eyes came open and I was wide awake.

I listened, hard, wondering what brought me to wakefulness.

Ever since that damned war I would come to full wake, boom, and that's what I did just now.

I threw back the covers, reached for my socks and then I heard someone a-beatin' on my front door.

I was dressed and my gunbelt slung around my middle, I plucked up the double gun I keep stacked by the bed stead and was startin' down the stairs when the maid came around, lamp in hand and distress on her face.

I knowed it was trouble, for no one beats on the Sheriff's door at oh-dark-thirty unless it's bad.

Five minutes later I had Cannonball saddled up and underneath of me and we set out for my visitor's ranch, for he said an outlaw was a-hidin' in his barn.

We didn't trade words til we come to about a quarter mile of the structure in question and I asked the rancher how he knowed this fella was an outlaw.

He said he'd got a look at the man's horse and the brand on its flank, a brand he recognized, stamped on the mustang's white left hip, and I recognized the description.

We rode slow, used his ranch house between us and the barn, and I told him to stand fast, no use in both of us gettin' killed, and I walked Cannonball up to the rough lumber hay house.

"Jeff Beulah!" I called.

No reply.

Didn't expect any.

I stepped off Cannonball, fetched my engraved '73 rifle out of the scabbard.

"This is Sheriff Keller, Firelands County --"

"I know who you are!" a voice shouted back.

"Come on out, Jeff. It's over."

"It ain't over an' I'll kill you if I hafta!"

Now I knew Jeff -- rather, I knew of him -- and any man will kill if he's provoked or especially if he's cornered but right about then I don't reckon I was thinkin' any too straight yet.

"I don't care," I shouted back. "I'm a-comin' in."

"I'll kill ye!" Jeff shouted, his voice rising in pitch.

I walked toward the barn.

It was not much for light outside the barn and it was considerable darker inside the barn but I walked across the open ground right toward the open double doors.

I barely saw a rifle barrel stuck out.

I kept walking.

I walked right up to those doors and the rifle barrel pulled back into the dark and I couldn't see a damn thing inside and I knew he could see me silhouetted.

I reached up for where the lantern usually hung, and it was there, and I fumbled for the matches I knew the rancher usually kept in a tobacco tin under neath of it, and scratched a Lucifer into life.

Jeff was standing there, or rather leaning, and at an alarming angle, one leg stiff out from him, and he set down on a hay bale, his rifle barrel still lookin' at me.

I taken up my '73 rifle again.

"You drop that now!" he said, his eyes big, "an' drop them pistol too!"

"You go to hell." I walked right toward him, the '73 rifle swinging from my hand.

He leaned back a little and I swatted his barrel out of the way and set down beside him, planted the crescent butt plate between my boots and shoved my hat back.

"How in the hell you been, Jeff?" I asked quietly.

Jeff looked at me like I'd growed a third eyeball and set the butt of his rifle down too.

"You don't know me," he said, curiosity in his voice and uncertainty in his expression.

"Oh yeah." I rubbed my forehead. "Lawmen talk, Jeff, I know you. What're you runnin' from?"

"None yet bizniss!" he snapped, looking down and away and I figured from that it wasn't a criminal matter. I could have been wrong but I didn't think so -- a man who's kind of ashamed of something but not really guilty will do that.

"Oh, I reckon if a man's runnin' from somethin' it's my business," I replied in a reasonable voice. "Cheatin' at cards, claim jumpin' ..." I looked over at him. "You ain't been sheep herdin', have you?"

Jeff laughed, a little nervously, and he shook his head. "No," he said, looking down. "I ain't been sheep herdin'."

I nodded.

I let the silence grow between us, I let him feel the heat of my body close to his, I let the knowledge that Old Pale Eyes himself just walked up to him and set down beside him and wasn't showing no fear a'tall of him.

At least that part of me was thinking.

"Twas a woman," he admitted.

I grunted, nodded.

"A married woman."

I nodded again.

"I shouldn't ha' done it," he said, his voice a little softer, "but God help me ... it ain't her fault she was willin' ..."

I nodded again.

"That's all you done?" I asked neutrally.

Jeff nodded, looked forward, his face reddening some.

"Yeah. That's all I done."

"You didn't take something besides a woman's virtue by any chance ... you didn't make off with her prize necklace or somethin' of the kind?"

He looked quickly at me, alarmed. "How'd you? ... oh, hell!"

If there was any hold-out to him, it drained out of his hip pockets as he was a-settin' there and he reached in a vest pocket.

"Here 'tis," he said, pulling out a diamond framed locket.

I held out my hand and he lowered it into my palm.

"Now what?"

"Well, let's see here," I said. "Theft, flight to avoid arrest, resisting arrest, assault on a law enforcement officer and rousting me out of a warm bunk," I said slowly, totting up the offenses on my fingers. "I reckon His Honor will sentence you to about fifty years after the hangin'."

Jeff dropped his head and groaned, shook his head.

"You got any kinfolk in California?"

Jeff's head come up slow and he looked at me like I had a fish hangin' from my hat brim.

"I got a sister," he said, and his surprise told me this was an honest answer.

"Tell me about her."

"She married a rancher ... she writes to me and I write back to her ... she said anytime I want to come out they've got a place for me."

"What does she think of you?"

Jeff was quiet for a long moment.

"She don't know nothin' about no outlawin'."

I nodded.

"Your sister thinks pretty well of you, then."

"Yeah." He wiped sweaty palms on his pants legs. "Yeah, she does."

He looked at me again. "Why you askin' me this?"

I looked straight ahead and didn't reply.

"How come you just come in here? I had that rifle right on you. I coulda killed ya!"

I nodded, slowly. "I know."

His expression was one of incredulity. "Sheriff, are you nuts? You got a wife an' young'uns --"

"My wife is dead," I said and my voice was flat and he stopped like he'd run into a stone wall.

"Oh hell," he whispered. "I didn't know."

"Yeah." I couldn't muster a voice on that one, just kind of a dry raspy squeak.

"That's why you just walked in. If I'd'a killed ... you'd be with her ..."

"Reckon so," I said, my voice as bleak as I felt.

"YOU TOM FOOL IDJUT!" he flared. "THEY GOT NO MAMA AND YOU TRIED TO GET YOUSELF KILLED?"

He stood up, laid the rifle against the hay bale, tore the hat from his head, turned and glared at me.

"Pale Eyes, my Pa hung hisself after Ma died and I didn't have nobody! You ain't got no right --"

I blinked and thought of Angela, screaming with delight as she sailed Rosebud over the whitewashed board fence.

I thought of the twins, running for the door when I come in, grabbing my legs and laughing.

I thought of Sarah, looking at me with those eyes, and Jacob, grinning at me.

I looked at Jeff and realized he was right.

I stood, nodded.

"You might want to fetch up that rifle," I said. "Up behind the barn you've got a narrow draw. You'll want to dismount and throw your stirrups up on the saddle horn, it's too narrow to ride through. It's squinchy like that for quite a ways but it comes out in a sheltered meadow. Far side on the right is a trail, it goes up over the back bone. Head south and you'll strike a trail -- I reckon you know which one -- you can find your way to Californy from there."

Jeff turned his head a little, suspicious.

"Why you doin' this?" he asked.

I held up the necklace, smiled.

"I know what charms another man's woman can hold," I said. "God forgive me, I've sinned, but I'll see this returned, just give me the owner's name and where she's livin'."

Jeff nodded and spoke a name, and I knew the name, and he told me the place, and I knew the place.

"You head for Californy. I hear tell it's a big place and a man can live a good life there." I smiled a little. "One thing, though."

"What's that?"

I laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Once you get there, Jeff ..."

He looked me square in the eye and I knew he was listenin' with both ears.

"Don't never, ever disappoint that sister of yours."

 

I lied to the rancher, but it was a good lie, and about noon I was at another ranch, and I handed the woman her locket and told her I was returning what I understood to be property stolen from her, and she asked about the thief, and I shook my head and said I had no idea, this was hand delivered by a fellow who'd come up from Arizona way with a note from the Sheriff there.

On the way back I stopped at Jacob's place.

Annette was sitting down, red-faced, Joseph was cleaning out the barn, and I inquired as to Jacob's whereabouts.

"He's gone into town," Annette admitted, frowning and laying a hand on her belly.

"Do I need to boil up some water?" I asked quietly.

"No," she smiled, "it does this. False labor. I'm getting ready, just not ..."

She groaned, grimaced, started to pant.

"Joseph!" I shouted, and Joseph came running out with a hay fork in hand.

"Joseph, saddle up!" I called. "Tell your father he needs to get out here and boil water!"

"Sir?" Joseph asked, puzzled.

"Joseph, do it!" Annette snapped, and I dismounted.

"I reckon I'd best wash my hands. Now let's get you inside." I looked up and saw Joseph was bringing the lineback dun out of the corral. "Joseph!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Once you tell your Pa, I want you to go out to your aunt Sarah's place and tell them too!"

"Yes, sir!"

I squatted in front of my son's wife and she smiled a shaky little smile.

"Can you walk, dear heart, or do I have to pack you in?"

Annette shook her head, bit her bottom lip. "Mr. Keller, I love you like a father, but the only man who ever carried me across that threshold was my husband and I am not about to change that!"

"Yes, ma'am," I laughed, lifting my hat.

Joseph came pacing up, looked down at his ma, realizing something was wrong.

"Ma?"

"Go," she said, and made a little shooing motion, and I went over to him, motioned to him: he leaned down and I gripped his shoulder and whispered in his ear.

"Tell your Pa to boil up some water, and tell him everything will be just fine."

Joseph looked at me and his young eyes were scared.

"Sir," he whispered back, "how do you know it'll be fine?"

I turned and pointed to the front step, and he looked, and he nodded, and he kicked the horse and off he went.

I picked up the red rose from the stone step, the rose that hadn't been there a moment ago, and I thrust it into Annette's hair.

"Now," I said, taking her hands and helping her stand, "let's get you inside!"

 

Yes, it was a fine healthy baby boy, and no, I didn't deliver it, and that's all I'm a-gonna say about it, because it would not be polite to admit that any son of mine stood at the foot of the stairs and turned ghost white and his eyes rolled up and he passed out cold when she give out that war whoop and his son come into the world kickin' and screamin'.

I did, however, catch him as he fell.

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150. JUDGEMENT

His Honor swung his gavel.

Its impact was loud and sharp in the respectful hush of his courtroom, and more than just the defendant jumped.

"Time served," he said. "I will see the defendant in chambers. Bailiff, bring her."

"Yes, Your Honor."

The bailiff took the woman by her arm, gently but firmly brought her to her feet.

Her throat was dry and she had a feeling of doom, not in the least allayed by the Judge's pronouncement.

She'd spent most of a week locked up, regretting most sincerely her rash decision to try and slice fillets off the wrong woman.

How was she to know -- how was she to know this woman was younger, prettier and ... and ...

And the Sheriff's daughter?

She stumbled a little; the bailiff's hand was firm on her arm, but he stopped, waited until she got her balance again, whispering "You all right, ma'am?" before continuing on.

His Honor hung his coat over his chair, frowned as the woman was brought in.

"That'll be all, thank you," he said through a cloud of fresh Cuban smoke: he did not smoke while on the bench, but his chambers were a place of indulgence, and he frequently fouled the atmosphere with an incredible volume of secondhand incineration.

"Sit down, sit down," he motioned, waiting until the woman was seated before seating himself behind his desk.

"Young lady," he said, and the woman almost smiled, for it had been a very long time since anyone called her "young" or anything close to it -- "you realize that it is most unusual for me to sentence anyone to such a light term of incarceration."

She swallowed something dry and sticky, or tried to, nodded.

"Normally," the Judge continued, plucking the cigar from between stained teeth and waving expansively, "you would enjoy the hospitality of stone walls and steel bars for about, oh, a quarter of a century." He returned the smoldering stogie to his dentures, glared at the woman while puffing briskly on the hand-rolled cigar.

She tried to swallow again, nodded.

"Now I understand you were unhappy because someone tried to steal your husband." His Honor stood, began pacing, the way he did when he was working through a problem. "I can well understand that. I challenged a cad to a duel, until I realized that if my wife saw something in him, she didn't see it in me, and I let him have her." He stopped, looked penetratingly at the defendant. "It was a hard decision and it broke my heart, but a woman won't stray unless she's getting something elsewhere that she can't get at home. Same goes for men." He almost yanked the cigar from between his teeth, turned and spat into the gleaming brass goboon.

"I didn't want to give her up and you don't want to give up your husband, but if he's such a cad as to let another woman pry him away from you, maybe he's not worth keeping."

His Honor's words were harsh, as was his voice, and in spite of her attempt at composure, the woman started to cry again.

"There now. Go ahead and cry, it's good for you. Women live longer than men, did you know that?" His Honor's voice was almost hoarse, but not unsympathetic. "Women have sense enough to let it out. We men" -- he thumped his fist with his chest -- "we men are stupid enough to hold it in and it eats us alive. That's why men die earlier." He stopped, puffed thoughtfully on his cigar and said almost absently, "If I know so damned much, why haven't I made a million dollars and retired, eh?"

He harrumphed, spat again, waited until the defendant's tears slowed somewhat.

"The woman you assaulted. My Agent. The Sheriff's daughter. She asked me to be lenient." He shook his head. "I don't know if I could be so charitable."

He began to pace again.

"Y'know, young lady, my Agent has never in her entire career asked me for one favor. Not one." He tilted his head back, directed a liquid stream of smoke toward the ceiling.

"Your sentence stands. Time served. You are free to go. You may leave by any door you choose."

It was not until the bailiff gently steered her into the open air that she realized she actually was free, that she would not spend the rest of her entire life behind steel bars.

 

Alfdis jumped as the Sheriff put two fingers to his lip and whistled.

The maid came steaming in from the kitchen, swatted him with her towel: "Shame be wid' ye now, makin' such a racket in th' house! Ye've a wee babe asleep --"

The Sheriff ignored her, bent to receive the infantry charge: the twins came down the hall at a happy gallop and the Sheriff seized them, hauled them off the floor, laughing and bouncing the squealing, delighted boy and girl.

He dropped to a crouch, quickly, bringing another squeak of delight from the pair, and he looked from one to the other: in a deep, rumbling voice, he intoned, "Bring, me, The Book!" and released them.

He stepped quickly to an upholstered love seat, parked his backside precisely in its center: the twins came scampering back with a favorite book gripped in both their hands, and they almost threw it onto their Papa's lap before climbing up onto the love seat beside him.

"Alfdis," Linn called gently, gesturing.

Alfdis rose, walked silently in carpet-soled slippers over to the Sheriff, bringing the sleeping infant with her.

The Sheriff reached for the child, brought her in to his chest: cradling little Dana in one arm, with his twins cuddled up on either side, he fumbled a little getting the storybook open, but managed: wetting a finger, he paged critically through the first few pages, stopped, smiled, looked left, looked right.

Eager young faces looked adoringly up at their mustachioed Papa.

Linn worked his back a little, leaning forward, and the maid neatly dunked a pillow in behind him, a slender one that was just right to support his poor old back: he wiggled again, winked at the scowling Irish girl, then reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a pair of wire rimmed spectacles.

He got these adjusted, finally, and peered through the ground glass lenses at the familiar print, and began to read aloud.

"Once upon a time," he began, his voice gentle, and the maid smiled, for there was a magic to a father that read to his young, and she remembered being a wee child cuddled up against her big strong warm Papa, and she remembered how he too would read, and she watched the spell he wove with his words, and she smiled at the wet-nurse and slipped silently out of the room, for she knew before three pages were read, the twins would be sound asleep against his sides, and very likely the babe, with a full belly and a fresh diaper, would be sound asleep as well, reassured by her Papa's warmth and the strength of his encircling arm and the reassuring cadence of his fatherly voice.

 

The one-armed proprietor of their Mercantile peered through his own spectacles, nodding a little as he ran his finger down the ledger-book, marking off orders against goods received, and he smiled.

The Sheriff had him order a custom pair of pistols, Colts they were, but with the small birds-head handles: these were a custom job, ordered two months before, custom engraved.

The proprietor was an old war veteran himself, and an admirer of fine guns, and he opened the carefully-wrapped package and stared in awe at the pair.

The Sheriff ordered the pair in .22 rimfire, and a case of ammunition with it, and a case of .22 shorts as well: the engraving was at his particular order.

A half inch behind the muzzle, two gold-inlaid lines encircling the barrel, a quarter inch apart, and between the lines, gold-inlaid vining.

Just ahead of the frame, top dead center of the barrel and aft of the factory stamping, a rose, inlaid with gold, and between the rose and the frame, in script, a word.

Joseph.

The proprietor nodded, smiling, for he remembered his grandfather, and how the man would whittle pliers and a ball-in-a-cage for him, and how he prized these!

Carefully, very precisely, and surprisingly dexterously for a man with but one arm, he re-wrapped the Colt revolvers.

He knew the Sheriff would pick up their holsters from a leatherworker of his acquaintance, and he smiled again, for the belt would be quickly replaced as the lad grew, and grow he would.

 

Joseph watched his Pa's patient strokes with the stone, silent while his father sharpened the ax before continuing.

"Pa," he finally said, "do you reckon Grampa will teach me to shoot?"

Joseph blew the dust off the ax blade, then off the stone, tapped the stone gently against the ax handle.

He set down the ax and he set down the stone and he set his forearms on his knees and he looked at his son, marveling at how the lad was growing.

"Joseph," he said seriously, "I would judge that you are ready for your Grampa to teach you."

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151. I CAN'T FIX IT

Mary was Irish, and Mary was a woman, and Mary made it her business to know all there was to be known about her household.

It was her household -- oh, the Sheriff might own it, the children might fill it with laughter and the happy confusion that comes of the young, there might be visitors and the visitors might be of high station or low, but it was her household, for she was the one they depended on to keep it running and running smoothly enough that she wouldn't really be noticed.

Mary was efficient. She'd boiled the laundry and pumped and hauled the water, she'd wrung out what needed wrung, she'd spun the handle on the wringer and she'd run bed sheets through the mangle (they had one of the only two mangles in the county!) -- she'd hung laundry and while doing all this, she'd made sure the stoves were stoked but the dampers shut, the wood boxes filled, and her kitchen stove had a meal in various states of preparation, just as she'd planned.

Now that the red-headed matriarch was dead -- Mary brushed viciously at the corner of her eye with a bent wrist, trying not to get soap suds in her eye like she'd done earlier -- she'd insisted Mary call her Esther, and she never did, she called her Ma'am -- Mary stopped, and took a long breath, ruthlessly shoving her grief away from her.

She had no time for grief.

She had a household to run.

Mary turned to the stove, lifted the big crock bowl from the shelf above, set it quickly on the table, whipped the towel off the bowl and over her shoulder: she opened the flour bin, lifted out the sifter, made a quick pass over the bare wood tabletop, squeezing the spring backed handle, made a second magical pass, set the sifter back and closed the bin: she dumped the risen bread dough out of the bowl onto the floured tabletop, patted her palms in the flour on the table, rubbed her hands together and began kneading the bread dough.

She'd just begun to work the dough when a quiet voice broke her concentration, making her jump.

"Mary?" the Sheriff asked. "I'm sorry. I'd no intent to surprise you."

"I'm sorry, sor, what can I do for ye?"

The Sheriff looked tired, worn, like he hadn't slept for a week.

No, he's no' slept for three days, she corrected herself.

"I ..."

The Sheriff had been many things, in the years she'd known him: strong, gentle, angry, laughing, somber, joking, but one thing he'd never, ever been, was indecisive.

Now he was, and the change was not comfortable to see.

"I came to say thank you," he finally said. "You do an immense amount of work here. I do appreciate it. Thank you."

She used to thank me like that, Mary thought, and he has before ... but no' like this.

"Thank ye, sor," she said. "Ye pay me, I work."

The Sheriff nodded, turned.

Mary noted how slowly he moved, as if he carried a great burden, but his spine was still straight, his head erect, his shoulders back.

She stood and listened to his boot heels retreating slowly down the hallway, she heard the front door open, she heard it shut.

Mary swiped viciously at the corner of her eye with the back of a bent wrist and turned back to the bread dough.

She glared at it and her hands closed into shivering fists and she attacked the lump as if it were a personal enemy.

 

Sarah took a week from schoolteaching to stay with Jacob and Annette.

She'd helped birth their new boy-child, she'd cleaned and washed and cooked, she'd planted her knuckles on her off hip while shaking a gravy-dripping wooden spoon at Jacob, which amused little Joseph to no end, and she'd arranged to hire a girl -- most households had one, she argued reasonably, and now of all times you need the help, she'd persuaded, and finally Annette relented and their new hired girl moved into the extra room: satisfied, Sarah took her leave, but not until Joseph wrung the promise out of her to continue their knife throwing lessons.

Sarah had slept little in the week involved.

What time she hadn't spent under her brother's roof, she spent at her sire's, most of it doing what she did best.

Jacob once complimented her on her ability to turn invisible, and she put that talent to good use, and the next day she rapped briskly at the door to the Sheriff's office, shoved open the door and swung in, all skirts and pale eyes and anxious expression.

"How is he?" Jacob asked without preamble.

He too had been to see his father, but he knew his pale eyed sire could and generally did put up a pretty good front: the man was deep, far deeper than he appeared, and Jacob felt awkward, uncertain, this soon after the death of his green-eyed, red-headed stepmother.

He'd asked Linn how he was doing, and Linn stopped, and looked at his son, and said quietly, "As good as can be expected, given the circumstances."

He'd spoken slowly, deliberately -- but colorlessly ... as if the joy was wrung plumb out of his life.

Sarah remembered the previous day, when she watched as the man came out his front door, as he sidestepped as he generally did, getting a wall to his back: he methodically, deliberately, scanned the ground, quartering it like a military man: near to far, near to far, and not until he'd satisfied himself he'd seen everything, did he lean forward against the wall and paced slowly, deliberately, over to the corral.

Sarah slipped silently to the side, keeping him in sight, using every trick she'd learned to break her visual signature, to interrupt her silhouette: she watched as he walked across the corral, as he caressed Cannonball, as he whispered to his red mare, whittled off shavings of tobacco from the molasses cured plug he carried as a bribe, held out on a flat palm.

He watched the Sheriff run an arm over Cannonball's neck, and she watched as Cannonball wrapped her neck around him as much as she could, and Sarah knew this as the same as an equine hug, and she brought her hand up aid bit her knuckle as her eyes stung and blurred.

Linn put up a good front, all right, but there was no one to see him here.

He didn't have to be strong for someone else.

There was just a man and his mare, and Sarah saw his shoulders heaving and she saw him bury his face in Cannonball's mane, and she heard his muffled sounds of grief as he was finally able to give vent to the sorrow and the aloneness and the absolute, bottomless, infinite loss he felt.

Sarah recounted this to Jacob, her voice quiet, her expression troubled, and she finally looked at Jacob.

"I don't know how to help him, Jacob," she admitted. "I don't even know what to say."

"Me neither," he admitted, "but I do know this."

He looked up at Sarah, seated as he was behind his father's desk, and Sarah was struck by just how much the son looked like the father.

"I know saying nothing is absolutely the very worst thing to say."

"What did you say to him?"

Jacob's expression softened, as did his voice.

"I told him I was used to fixing things that were wrong."

He looked up at his pale-eyed sister.

"I told him Mother was dead, and I can't fix it."

Sarah sat, looking more lost than Jacob ever remembered.

"What did he say?" she whispered.

Jacob took a long breath, looked at the water bucket, thinking how good a long cool drink of water would be right about then.

"He said he didn't know how to fix it neither, but he'd do his best."

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152. NOPE

 

"We're short on money."

Pentecostal Smith nodded.

"Yeah."

The pair consulted their wallets, found little but crumbs.

Pentecostal's partner was almost entirely unknown, didn't even have an outlaw name.

Pentecostal got his nickname because he was just absolutely as irreligious and ungodly a man as there was.

His partner hadn't discussed metaphysics with his newly-made associate. Matter of fact he hadn't done much except help with a couple holdups.

"Grub's gone."

"Yeah."

The last of their coffee was dispensed into scratched tin cups, swallowed; the sooty pot's dregs were swirled, slung into the nearby brush.

"Reckon we could hold up somethin'."

"Yeah."

They squatted, considering their small fire, sipping sparingly at the last of their coffee, considering.

"Could go look for work."

They both laughed. Neither had worked at anything since they left home and hit the owl hoot trail -- at nothing, that is, except relieving folks of their proud-ofs.

"I hear tell that Firelands bank is an easy mark."

The other grunted. "I hear different."

"How's that?"

"You know that stout built gal that runs it? Beatrice?"

"I don't know her but I heard tell of her, yeah. She'd be a good one to bunk with." He smiled sadly. "I'd like a sure-enough woman to keep me warm at night and she's big enough to do it!"

"She's also the one that shot two fellas already, a-tryin' to take her bank. Gut shot one with a pistol and run a shotgun through the bars and blew the other'n's chest open. I hear tell it made just one hell of a mess."

"Hmp." A frown, a sip. "What else is there?"

"Well, lessee. They got a funeral parlor. You wanta steal a buryin' box?"
"Nah," he laughed. "I'd steal them genuine silver handles off'n a box, though."

"Might keep that in mind. I hear tell the feller that runs it is a skinny little sort."

"How about that-there Mercantile? They oughta have some cash money on hand, an' we can load up some canned goods."

"I could sure-enough do with some canned peaches."

"Yeah. Me too."

Talk coasted to a stop and the two added dry sticks to the fire, looked around, listening, watched their horses -- a horse's senses are far sharper than a man's, and if anyone approached, their mounts would let them know.

There was a sound from behind them -- something soft, maybe a small rock come loose from its socket and fell downhill, knocking a little dirt loose.

They both rose in a crouch, hands wrapping around walnut gun handles, careful not to spill what little coffee was left.

They listened; their eyes strained, trying to penetrate brush and rock, and one gestured to the other: they catfooted apart, then ahead, searching.

One tilted up his tin cup, drained the contents, set the cup down: he took a step, another, his foot came down on a stick and he froze, lifted his foot, drew it back a little, then stepped, not wanting the snap of a twig to betray his movement.

The other leaned a little to the left, tasting copper, every nerve screaming that they were about to be set upon by a screaming horde of painted savages --

"Hssst!"

The summons was urgent; both men turned, eyes busy, and both felt the same clutch of fear seize their stomach.

The horses were gone.

Stealth forgotten, they sprinted across the clearing, ran toward where the horses had been --

Twin barrels thrust suddenly out of a light brush screen, a bulldog .44 not far from it, and each one directly at the onrushing outlaw.

What they said on that moment does not bear repeating in polite company.

Suffice it to say they were unhappy at having just lost their horses, and even less pleased at having the twin bores of a hand cannon looking at one, and the unblinking eye of a 44-caliber persuader glaring at the other.

"I don't think Firelands would be a good idea," a woman's voice said in a conversational tone.

Pentecostal's gun started to raise, fast, and the giant's earslap of a 12-bore horse pistol put an end to any foolish action.

The other fellow dropped his revolver as the double gun swung over to take a long look at him.

"Now like I said," the woman's voice said, louder now, and hard-edged, "Firelands is not a good idea. The Sheriff's wife just died and he's not in any mood to put up with the likes of you."

The outlaw stared as the woman melted out of the brush -- it was too thick to walk through and she didn't crowd through it, she just sort of come out of it like she was made of fog or somethin', only fog didn't put a charge of heavy shot clear through a man's chest and blow out his spine.

"That's Pentecostal Smith," the woman said, and the outlaw still stared, for the women of his acquaintance were in dresses and their hair was fixed up and they generally smelled nice, and this woman ... all in black, wearin' a man's britches and Cavalry boots ...

His mind spun around his skull like a rat in a trap, running in circles, trying to find a way out, and he found the memory and seized it and unrolled it and read it --

She looked at him and her eyes were ice-pale, hard and cold as the heart of a mountain glacier, and a name floated up from the dark pool of his subconscious.

That's the Black Agent, he thought.

Rosenthal.

Rosenthal ... there was a damned Pink named Rosenthal ... I don't recall as he had those eyes ...

His stomach shrank and he did well not to let his knees betray him as a realization walked up and slapped him across the face.

Oh my God ... the Black Agent ... her ... that's not Rosenthal ... that's Pale Eyes!

Wait a minute.

Pale Eyes is Sheriff ...

"Who are you?" he blurted.

"Agent S.L. Rosenthal," she said, "and that carcass used to be a fella they called Penecost. There's a reward on his carcass. How about yours?"

He shook his head, numb.

"Shame." The bulldog .44 disappeared into an invisible slit in her coat.

"We were broke," he stammered, "we're ... out of food ..."

"I heard. Honest work suggests itself. Try anything around here you'll end up like him. Fetch me the poncho off his saddle."

"Our horses are gone."

"They're not yours. They're stolen stock. I oughta hang you here for horse thievin'."

Sarah saw the road agent's eyes change and she saw his gun start to lift and the world was movin' slow, like he was at once yanking his Remington up as fast as he could and still moving through cold, clear honey.

The horse pistol spoke again, catching the would-be gunfighter just inboard of his right shoulder, putting a fist sized hole through his lung, his subclavian artery, a number of ribs and the shoulder blade.

The Agent's eyes were cold and unforgiving as she broke open her horse pistol, dropped the empties and dunked in two more heavy shot rounds.

Taking the stubby twelve gauge in the other hand, she shook her left hand, frowning.

"I hate that," she muttered. "That hurts."

She looked down at the gasping, bleeding man, dying on the ground.

She leaned over him.

"Don't ever draw on a lawman," she said quietly, "especially not Old Pale Eyes' daughter. And when you get to hell" -- her eyes became flint-hard -- "tell my father I said hello!"

 

Jacob paced across the board walk as Sarah rode up to the Sheriff's Office, two horses in two, obviously carrying a cargo of dead men, judging from the way they were wrapped, and the boots sticking out and visible.

"I see you been busy," Jacob observed.

"Just cleaning up some trash."

"Anything worthwhile?"

"This one's Pentecost. That other fellow was just stupid."

Jacob shook his head. "Ignorance can be cured with education but there's no helpin' stupid."

Agent Sarah Lynne Rosenthal smiled tightly, and there was no humor in her expression or her reply.

"Nope."

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153. CHOICE

The Sheriff and His Honor the Judge both rose as the black-coated Agent swung around the door and into the Judge's chambers.

The Agent snatched the black, flat-brimmed Stetson off her head with a flourish and the Sheriff almost smiled to see she'd wrapped her auburn braids around her neck, as he'd recommended some time ago as a protection against slash wounds.

"Reporting as ordered, Your Honor," Sarah said with almost a smile, her light-blue eyes merry as she regarded the white-bearded jurist.

"Sit down, the both of you," His Honor said, gesturing as he resumed his seat. "Cigar?"

"No, thank you, Your Honor," Sarah said with her very best Innocent Expression. "I never took up the habit."

His Honor grunted. "Shows once again you're younger, smarter and better looking than me. Sheriff?"

Linn shook his head.

"Agent Rosenthal," His Honor said, biting the end off his hand-rolled Cuban and spitting it indelicately into the polished brass goboon's flared mouth, "the stolen horses will be returned to their rightful owners. As a matter of fact" -- he looked sharply at the pale-eyed Agent -- "the owners are quite grateful for their swift recovery. It seems they are of a valuable bloodline and were brought out for breeding purposes, not riding purposes."

"Yes, Your Honor," Sarah replied, her voice carefully neutral.

"Now as far as the horse thieves."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"The Sheriff tells me the account you gave him, and I have every reason to believe his account is accurate. The Court has therefore returned you a no-bill on the double killing."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Is that all you can say?"

"No, Your Honor, but you yourself observed that I am younger, smarter and better looking than your honored self. That means" -- she turned a little, a subtle shift, her chin lowered and her lashes just low enough to be seen -- "I have a reputation to uphold."

"Reputation," the Judge grunted. "God help us, young lady, your reputation is that of a Valkyrie, or a shield-maiden already! Taking on two outlaws, stealing their horses and --"

The Judge shook his head.

"Never mind," he muttered, then changed his mind, thrust accusing fingers and the smoldering cigar at the seated young woman.

"No. You mind this and you mind it good." He stood to emphasize his words. "We only have one of you, Agent McKenna. I am responsible for you -- God help me, I'm the one that recruited you, and I had no idea you would take to the part so well --"
He clamped down on his cigar, shook his head.

"There is only one of you," he said, his voice softer, as he leaned over the desk and rested fingertips on the miscellaneous papers that mostly covered the blotter. "Only one, and I for one would wish my universe to be enriched with your presence for the rest of my lifetime."

"Yes, Your Honor."

His Honor sat, hauled open a desk drawer, bent a little as he reached into its depths: he withdrew a buckskin poke, tossed it up on his desk.

There was the distinct ringing clank of good coin.

"Reward money. I detest bounty hunters but you weren't hunting a bounty."

Sarah leaned forward, picked up the poke, hefted it. "Thank you, Your Honor."

"The Sheriff tells me you are rather astute with your investments."

Sarah looked over at her silent, watching father.

"I have a good teacher," she said simply.

"Hmp." His Honor bit down on his cigar again. "Speaking of investments, the Sheriff has invested time and effort both well and wisely, it seems." He looked with a mixture of amusement and pride at the lean lawman with the iron-grey handlebar.

LIfting his chin, he called, "Bailiff!"

The door opened and the bailiff touched the brim of his cap deferentially. "Yes, Your Honor."

"Have Jacob step in here."

"Yes, Your Honor."

His Honor the Judge and the Sheriff both stood as Jacob Keller walked easily into the room.

"Close the door," the Judge nodded, and he waited until the portal was closed before continuing.

"Jacob," he said, "I understand you served as Sheriff pro tem while your father was laid up."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"As I recall, you did a fine job of it."
"Thank you, Your Honor."

"Sheriff?"

The Sheriff looked at Sarah, then the Judge, then turned to his son.

"Jacob," he said, "take off your badge."

The barest twitch of his left eyebrow betrayed Jacob's otherwise poker-faced reaction.

The Sheriff relieved his son of the proffered six point star, laid it on the Judge's desk, moved a sheet of paper aside to expose a second, six point badge.

He picked it up, hefted it in his palm.

"Jacob," he said, "you are my son, both of my loins and of my choice. Your conduct has been exemplary, your judgement sound.

"You are also a man with a wife and a family.

"I give you now the choice to accept or to decline."

He held up the six point star, a simple emblem with the single word SHERIFF hand engraved across its equator.

Jacob looked at his father, then at his sister, and then at the dignified, spade-bearded, cigar-puffing Judge.

He considered for a long moment, then he gave his reply.

"Sir," he said, "I learned long ago to listen to the wisdom of those I respect."

He nodded.

"I'll take it."

The Sheriff nodded in reply and took a half-step nearer his son.

He threaded the badge through the stitch-reinforced holes in his son's vest, and nodded, then stuck out his hand.

"Congratulations, Sheriff," he grinned.

Jacob grinned back and for a moment it was like each man was shaking hands with a mirror, for other than age, they looked that much alike.

 

Some hours later, Sarah Lynne McKenna -- now in a fashionable McKenna gown and gloves, with one of her gloved hands wrapped around her Papa's forearm -- walked with him into the roundhouse.

Sarah's nose picked up the smell of fresh paint, which was nothing new, for the rolling stock of the Z&W Railroad was known for its well-kept appearance -- but she noticed a man standing on a wire crate, apparently painting something on the Z&W's trademark rose insignia on the tender.

Sarah's eyebrows puzzled together momentarily, and seeing her study, the Sheriff directed their steps over to the artist.

Sarah saw the central rose was now rimmed with gold, and the ribbon binding the stems was now black instead of red.

"This one is for Esther," the Sheriff said quietly, indicating the gold-limned blossom, "this one is Jacob and these buds are his sons, this one is you, there's a single unopened bud on its stem" -- he looked at Sarah, smiling quietly. "Esther seemed to know something."

Sarah nodded, for she, too, knew that she would bear a son.

"What else have you seen, Sarah?" the Sheriff whispered, and she heard a heaviness, a grief in his voice.

Sarah stopped, took his hand in both hers, drew it to her lips, looked up at her tired-looking Papa and considered her answer.

"Papa," she said, "when they bring The Lady Esther in for maintenance, she sits right here, no?"

They walked over to the pit where the crew could stand and work on her lower parts without having to hoist her off the rails.

"You're selling her, aren't you?"

The Sheriff was not surprised by her question. He simply nodded.

Sarah nodded as well. "You asked me what I've seen," she said, and her hands tightened on his again.

"Papa, a century hence and just a little more, The Lady Esther will sit here again. She will be newly overhauled, she will be painted and polished and looking as grand as she ever did, and the ribbon about her stems will be red once more."

The Sheriff frowned a little, then looked disapprovingly at the child of his loins.

"You will stand here and you will be looking around, and you will be challenged, and it will be time for you to meet those of your line who will follow your office."

She drew his hand to her lips again, then released his hand and hugged him quickly, impulsively, like a little girl.

"Dear Papa, we are in this lifetime to learn our lessons, that we may tend our duties in the next."

"In that house not built with human hands?" the Sheriff murmured, hugging her in return.

"There, or wherever we'll be needed. We become part of a Great Cloud of Believers with whom each of us is surrounded, and sometimes ..."
He felt her shiver.

"Sometimes we have to intervene. It's rare and we can only intervene if it's ... if the Will permits it."

"I see."

"No you don't," Sarah contradicted,"but you will. In due time, you most certainly will."

They walked across the shop floor, avoiding laboring men and a flanged wheel and axle being trundled across from an overhead crane.

"Papa, do you think Jacob is ready to be Sheriff?"

"I do."

"I do too." She sighed, released his arm, ran her arm around his lean waist.

"I've bought property, you know."

"I know."

"I'm hiring stonecutters and stonemasons and I've hired an architect."

"I know."

"Is there anything you don't know?" Sarah scolded, drawing back and swatting his upper arm, but her smile and bright eyes belied the sharp tone of voice.

The Sheriff looked up and laughed quietly.

"I know enough not to lie to you."

They resumed their walk, Sarah's gloved grip once more around his forearm.

"I'm having a house built."

"Tell me about it."

"It and the barn, of stone. Two stories, with an upper porch and a good field of fire."

"Mmm."

"Cliff to our back, approach from the front, but an escape up a narrow draw into a hanging meadow. There's a line shack up there and I am having it rebuilt as well."

"I see. You'll be running cattle up there?"

"No." She shook her head. "No, there's not enough pasture, to be honest-- at least for more than three head. No, the line shack will make a fine honeymoon cottage."

The Sheriff stopped, took his daughter by the forearms, his grip firm, his gaze direct as he looked down into her laughing, pale-blue eyes.

"Honeymoon," he said, his left eyebrow raising.

Sarah nodded. "I am about ready to start persuading Mr. Daffyd Llewellyn that it's time he proposed to me."

"I see."

"By the time he does, the house will be well underway, and by the time you and Marshal Macneil walk me down the aisle and give me away, it'll be ready to live in."

"You've planned this out."

"I have."

"It's a big decision, being someone's wife."

"I know."

They walked a few more paces.

"A stone barn, you say?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Good choice." He patted her hand and she looked up at him, smiled. "Rot proof and proof against wind."

"And fire proof."

"The building, yes, but remember the contents."

"I know." She squeezed his arm again. "Remember, I am marrying a fireman."

"And he doesn't know it yet."

"He knows it, on some level. He's shown me the ring with which he'll seal his proposal and his promise. It's called the Ring of the Princess."

The Sheriff laughed.

"You and your mother," he chuckled, shaking his head. "I could never slicker anything at all past that woman!"

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154. PREPARATIONS

 

Joseph frowned as he studied his little brother.

Joseph's little brother looked at something only he could see, which apparently pleased him: he smiled, he squealed, he waved little pink hands, and Joseph looked at his Pa and said "He's awful little, Pa," which brought both a grin and a laugh from his pale-eyed father.

"He'll grow," Jacob assured his son, resting a fatherly son on the lad's shoulder. "You did."

Joseph looked at his little brother, wrinkled up his nose.

"I was one of those?" he asked distastefully, which his father found terribly amusing.

 

Angela frowned as she studied her little sister, and the twins stood solemnly shoulder-to-shoulder as they too shared in sibling scrutiny.

"She's very little," Angela said with an emphatic nod, and the twins, looking at their knowledgeable big sister, nodded as well.

"Yes she is," Linn agreed.

"Daddy," Angela asked, looking at her big strong Daddy with innocent blue eyes, "was I one of those?"

Linn smiled a little and nodded.

"At one time you were, Princess."

 

"Pa?"

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Pa ... are we goin' to christen this'un?"

Jacob nodded slowly, grinning as he did.

"Yes, Joseph. We christened you, we'll christen him too."

"Do I have to wear a dress?"

Jacob laughed. "No, Joseph, but why would you wear a dress?"

"You're puttin' him in a dress, Pa."

"He's in diapers too."

"Yes, sir."

"If he's in a dress it's easier to change a diaper than if he was in britches."

"Yes, sir."

"It's also easier to make," Annette murmured, relaxing in the rocking chair. "Hand me that handsome young man."

Jacob came over and made as if to sit on his wife's lap. "You wanted a handsome fella, good lookin'?"

Joseph looked at his yet-unnamed little brother and whispered, "Pa does that sometimes."

Jacob leaned down and kissed his wife, delicately, the way he always did, and Joseph wrinkled up his nose again, turned back to the baby in its blanket-lined basket.

"He does that a lot, too," he whispered, and both Joseph and Annette pretended to ignore him.

 

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, did Jacob name their baby yet?"

"Oh ... I reckon he's got a good idea."

"Oh." Angela frowned, the way she always did when arranging her thoughts for a reply. "Daddy, we know what Dana's name is."

"Yes we do, Princess."

"Howcome cause why for Jacob wants to keep it a secret?"

Linn laughed quietly, squatted slowly, ignoring the sounds his knees made as he eased himself down to the same level as his blue-eyed daughter.

"He'll tell us when they christen the lad."

"Are we gonna cwissen ... cwwwissen ... crrrrrissen Dana?"

"Yes we are," Linn nodded. "We are going to christen her on Sunday."

"Yay," Angela sang quietly, bouncing on her toes and clapping her hands very quietly together, then she stopped and frowned and tilted her head a little as she asked, "Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"How do we crrrrr ... crrrrr ... chrrristen a beebee?"

"Well, let's see."

Linn pretended to think hard: he closed one eye, frowned, then he opened the first eye and screwed the other one shut and twiddled his mustache back and forth, which brought giggles from the twins and a giggling smile from Angela.

"First we put her in a christening gown."

Angela nodded, her eyes big and attentive.

"Then we take her to the church."

Angela nodded again, and the twins nodded with her.

"Then we pack her up front so everyone can see her."

Angela blinked, nodded, looked at the now-sleeping, pink-cheeked infant.

"Then we pick her up by one foot and dunk her in a rain barrel."

"Dad-dee!" Angela scolded, planting her palms on her hips, "we do not!"

Alfdis, rocking quietly and listening to this familial exchange, smiled and remembered her own father, tormenting her in just the same manner.

"We don't?"

"No!" Angela shook her Mommy-finger at her Daddy and ran out her bottom lip.

"Oh. Well, maybe that's when we hold her up and tell everyone her name is Dana."

"Don't they know already?"

Linn smiled. "No, Princess. They don't, and they won't until we tell them."

"Can I tell them, Daddy?"

Angela's voice was so little-girlish, so pleading, that her Daddy genuinely regretted shaking his head.

"No, Princess. That's my job."

"Oh."

 

"Pa?"

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Pa, when we gonna christen him?"

"Sunday."

"Ya gonna dunk him, Pa?"

Jacob chuckled, shook his head. "Nah. For a christening they get sprinkled."

Joseph nodded his understanding.

 

Sarah turned slowly, one arm above her head, the other down about belt level, turning easily on the balls of her feet.

Bonnie turned with her, her arms up and down like her daughter: unlike Sarah, she did not hold a pair of castanets.

Sarah rippled the fingers of her right hand, one-two-three-four, then with her left hand, a single quick squeeze, five! -- one-two-three-four, five!, turning suddenly, flaring her skirt.

Bonnie matched her turn, bringing her high arm down, imitating Sarah's graceful sweep: mother and daughter turned quickly and Sarah's castanets purred, her heels striking in a quick one-two-three-four, and she nodded to Bonnie.

Again, the smooth snarl of castenuelas, and Bonnie followed Sarah's tightly-controlled steps, her heels echoing her daughter's cadence, one-two-three-four!

They danced together for almost an hour, the daughter teaching the mother the basics of the Mexican dance she'd learned: they both wore loose skirts, lobster tailed and open in the front, and at the end of the hour, each collapsed into a welcoming and well padded chair, laughing and happy.

"I can have a guitarist if you like," Sarah said, and Bonnie shook her head, dabbing at her damp and glowing cheeks and forehead with a lace-edged kerchief.

"Oh, no, not yet," she protested. "Let me get used to the steps first!"

"Would you like a set ...?" Sarah turned her hands to display the dark wood castanets, and Bonnie laughed.

"Oh, my goodness, no," she smiled. "I'll be doing good to run my heels, let alone all that!"

Sarah made a mental note to have a guitarist at their next session.

Dancing was much easier, she'd found, if there was music, especially when it came to learning a new style altogether.

She knew her mother needed a break.

She'd been busy making a christening gown for the little Keller baby, and Sarah did the only thing she could think of when she saw her mother crying, again, as she worked the familiar emerald material.

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Bonnie was looking at the pile of Emerald green fabric cut from the back of Esther's prized gown. She could not help remembering the woman's patience, albeit, Esther countered patience a time or two, which brought a thin smile to Bonnie's lips, but there was always tenderness associated with Esther. Such determination to teach Bonnie all that she knew and shared her wonderful knowledge.

 

It is the cruelest of torments that grief does not abate, at least beyond a certain point. "It merely continues , my companion across oceans of time", Bonnie whispered aloud as she fingered the final stitches to Dana's Christening gown.

 

"Mamma"

 

"Yes, Sarah?"

 

Sarah reached a hand toward Bonnie, and when Bonnie placed her hand into the youngers, was lifted gracefully to her feet.

 

Next thing Bonnie knew, she was twirling around, being taught steps she knew no one knew on what would be deemed the Proper Dance floor. But it felt great! Liberating, as well as exhilarating.

 

Opal and Polly sat at the top of the staircase looking down at their Mother and Sister. Polly's feet dared to be still, while Opal smiled and giggled. They watched as their Mamma laughed. Watched as she and Sarah dance, at what was sure to be forever in time ... everything in time is forever when you are girls of 9 and 11 after-all, and when Bonnie and Sarah collapsed, the little girls ran down the stairs and jumped into the middle of open arms and laughter.

 

"Come on Sarah! Teach us!!! Pleeeeeease!!"

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154. HE'S TAKIN' LIFE EASY

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland looked at Jacob, studying the younger man, his eyes stopping on the six point star on the younger man's coat lapel.

He'd seen Jacob's badge there many times before, but now a different badge hung there.

This one had the single, hand-chased word across its middle, the single word SHERIFF.

Harry looked up, into the lean lawman's eyes, and Jacob saw him nod.

"I never woulda thought it," he said softly. "Your Pa finally quit." He shook his head, chuckled. "The Millennium has arrived!"

"Have a set," Jacob invited. "You're havin' a drink."

Harry watched, curious, as Jacob hauled open the bottom drawer and fetched out a bottle of something water clear and not over 30 days old.

Two short, broad glasses followed.

Jacob poured about a finger and a half in each, tilted the cork back into the bottle, offered Harry one and kept one.

"To yer new job?" Harry asked skeptically.

"Nope." Jacob tilted his glass up, swallowed its contents, grimaced. "To my wife and my brand new baby boy."

Harry grinned -- quick, broad and genuine -- and he raised the glass before he knocked his back.

Once they both recovered from having the nerve endings seared off, once they could breathe without gasping, they looked at one another and with one voice hissed, "Gooood stuuufff!"

They both sat and Harry tilted happily back against the wall. "A son!" he exclaimed softly. "How big?"

Jacob held his hands apart. "Oh, about so long, he ain't terribly big yet, but I reckon he'll get there."

"Mmm. You feedin' him beef steak and corn likker yet?"

"Annette won't let me. Hell, she's still got him in a dress."

"Wimmen will do that," Harry nodded, then shook his head . "What's your Pa gonna do now that he ain't here?"

"I reckon ..." Jacob said thoughtfully, "I reckon he's gon' to try somethin' he ain't tried before."

"Yeah?" Harry grinned expectantly. "What's that?"

Jacob raised an eyebrow, grinned. "I reckon he's gon' to take life easy for a change!"

 

I spat blood and the demon of war-battle sang seduction in my heart.

I set my leg and drove my fist into the intruder.

Whoever this was come into my house and made to cause me grief and I was going to kill him.

Barehand, just as savage and ruthless as I could, fists, feet, elbows, and I started with a punch I figured to hit him hard enough to drive him inside out with one hit.

It didn't work.

Whoever this was, was was fast -- he twisted, my fist went right a-past him and the front end of the noon freight caught me right in the middle of the gut just under the end of my breast bone, and it knocked every bit of wind out of me.

I was a dead man and I knew it and that made me very happy.

I am dead and by God! when I stand before the Throne I will either have my hands around his neck or my boot on it --

I grabbed, got a handful of material, yanked: my right hand went to the back of my neck, come up with my fist welded around the wire wrapped handle of my hideout knife.

There was no time for anything fancy and a knife is not made for fancy, and the demon that howled in my soul screamed for blood and I brought my arm up and spun that knife in my palm and I brought my fist down like a hammer and I allowed as to drive that knife so far down the back of his neck as to pin his foot to the floor --

That didn't work neither.

The blade skidded off vertebrae but it bought me a half-second, a half-second that give me a second stroke down behind the intruder's collar bone in that little soft triangle assassins favored for centuries.

I run the blade down through an artery I knew to be there and into the top of the lung and I jerked the blade and I had an arm around under his arm and still gripping that hand full of material and I run my legs around his belt and I grabbed him around the belly and hooked my feet together and I heard the screaming of a man insane, the screaming I'd heard in battle, I heard my own voice as I drove that knife into him like a sewing machine, I felt the impact as I drove Damascus steel hilt deep into the side of his neck and I was ridin' him like a horse and he twisted under me and I felt him go down and I let go with my legs and landed on my feet and I turned and kicked him under the chin hard as I could and I recall blood slinging in an arc as his head snapped up and I was about out of air and the world started to haze out and sparkle some.

 

Linn leaned back, gasping, coughing, trying desperately to get air into his starved, punch-paralyzed lungs.

He had absolutely no recollection of heaving the bleeding carcass through his door's ornately-frosted window without benefit of opening it first.

He managed to get a little air in him, and a little more, and as he struggled and grunted to get his lungs to work again, he sank to his knees, the knife still white-knuckled in his good right fist.

He looked up and saw a set of serious blue eyes looking at him and he whispered, "Angela, ride into town and get your brother," and the solemn-faced little girl whispered back "Okay, Daddy," and she turned and slipped a little in the blood as she scampered back through the kitchen and out the back door.

 

I got the front door open, staggered some as I walked across the porch, then I picked up the intruder by his belt and packed him like bloody luggage the hell off my porch.

I dropped him in the yard and I kicked him hard in the ribs.

I recall lifting my fist and staring at the knife in my hand and wondering how in the hell did that get there, and then I recall Jacob's voice shouting in my ear and him and Law and Order Harry Macfarland were standing there and Jacob started unbuttoning my shirt and ripping it off me and then he pressed something against my back and it hurt some and I looked at him funny when he looked up at me and Harry said "Now what's this about you takin' life easy?" and about then the ground come up to meet me.

 

Angela watched her big brother Jacob and another fella she kind knew run out of the Sheriff's office and gallop off to her Daddy.

Angela blinked and looked around, then she saw the Mercantile sign swinging a little in the wind the way it did, and she smiled, and skipped up the boardwalk, her curls bouncing, and she stopped in front of the Mercantile and looked at the keg that lived there, the keg that more often than not held a checkerboard.

Angela giggled as she remembered how Brother William would sit on one side, and any of a number of fellows on the other, and how he always had a small sack of coffee with him, which earned him the nickname "William Coffee."

Young throats sometimes could not frame to pronounce the word aright, and instead of "William Coffee" it came out "Woom Coffee," and Angela giggled again at the memory of the man's laugh when he heard it.

"Angela?"

Angela turned at Sarah's voice, and she blinked in surprise at the sight of Sarah, with her skirts snatched up as she ran across the street.

"Angela!"

Angela laughed and pushed into the Mercantile.

She liked it in the Mercantile.

The proprietress was a buxom, motherly sort who gave the very bestest hugs, and it always smelled like apples and crackers and mint and tobacco and Angela skipped up to the counter, giggling, and reached for the stick of peppermint candy handed to her from the smiling woman behind the counter.

"Thank you," Angela smiled back, as Sarah came in, out of breath, concern in her expression and haste in her step.

"Angela," she asked urgently, "what happened? Why did your brother and the Marshal ride off so fast?"

"Cause Daddy said so."

"Cause Daddy said--" Sarah repeated, going to her knees and gripping Angela's arms. "Angela, it's important, what was Daddy doing?"

Angela gripped the candy stick like a dagger and made awkward little stabbing motions.

"He was beating on a guy," Angela said, her eyes suddenly serious, "and they was fightin' awful --"

Sarah suddenly felt weak, for she remembered being Angela-sized, and standing in the exact spot Angela occupied, holding a stick of peppermint candy in exactly this same way, and Sarah remembered describing how the man who would become Sheriff used a knife in just such a way in this very mercantile, to keep from gunplay with other customers in the store.

Sarah seized Angela and hugged her quickly, desperately, remembering that childhood memory with a fearful clarity, and then she let go and surged to her feet and ran out the door, slamming it behind her, making the spring-hung bell swing and dangle in her wake.

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155. WAULKRE

"What did you find out?" Jackson Cooper asked in a voice that sounded like big nasty boulders were beating one another to death in the bottom of a deep, stone lined well.

"I don't know who tried to kill him," Jacob admitted, his face as tight as his voice. "Whoever it was slipped into the house and shot Pa in the back."

He turned cold eyes to the big town marshal and his smile was more the rictus of a dried corpse, his lips drawn back from shining teeth with absolutely no humor in his expression.

"All he did was make Pa mad."

"I seen the mess," Jackson Cooper rumbled, his eyes veiled. He'd seen his share of horrors in his own life and he was no stranger to killing a man when the need come upon him, but the idea of someone sneaking into a man's house to back shoot him ... well, that was plainly dirty.

Had his old friend not killed the attacker, Jackson Cooper would have cheerfully volunteered for the job.

"As near as we can tell," Jacob continued, "and I got a good part of this from Angela" -- the icy hardness of his expression softened momentarily, but only for a moment -- "it looks like the fella made Pa mad."

"I seen what was left of his carcass," Jackson Cooper muttered. "My God, it looked like the fella had been beat to death and run through a sewin' machine!"

Jacob snorted, imagining a giant size Singer with multiple fencing blades instead of a single needle.

He'd examined the dead man himself, turned the body over, examined the knife wounds, run a slim wooden probe down them and compared them with the length of his Pa's bloodied knife.

His Pa, near as he could tell, beat the dog stuffing out of the fella before he climbed him and rode him like a horse and drove that knife near to vertical down through the base of his neck more times than Jacob could honestly count.

Jackson Cooper considered his hat, hung it up rather than twist it into a felt sausage, and Jacob knew this was not a good sign at all.

He'd only seen it when this giant of a town marshal was most decidedly unhappy.

Doc Greenlees opened the door to the waiting room.

Neither lawman had to rise, both were too restless to sit, but they both turned when the door opened.

The main door opened behind them and Jacob did not have to look to know his sister came sweeping in, for he could feel the waves of disapproval beating on his back like the ocean beats on the seashore: she pushed between the two lawmen, yanked the partially opened door out of the surgeon's grip, pushed past him into the room where her father lay pale and unmoving on his back, under a fresh sheet, looking as lively as a blood-drained corpse.

Jacob looked up at Jackson Cooper, concern in his expression, and Jackson Cooper stepped back as Bonnie McKenna slipped between them, taking advantage of the gap her daughter plowed: she, too, stormed into the room, Sarah stopping on the right side of the Sheriff's bed, Bonnie on the left.

Sarah flipped up the neatly-draped sheet, seized her father's hand, held it firmly between her hands, gripping it with a desperate tightness, hoping against hope that there would be a returning squeeze.

Bonnie, on the other side, lifted the coverlet a little more delicately, gently took the supine man's hand, held it delicately between her palms.

Sarah was in no mood to be delicate: in a hospital, traditionally a place of restful quietude, leaned over her shallow-breathing father's face.

Fear powered her voice as she screamed, "YOU IDIOT, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"

"Sarah, please," her mother said gently. "People are watching."

Sarah gave her a pale-eyed glare that would have split rocks.

Bonnie leaned down and placed her lips near Linn's ear, whispered near enough so the warmth of her breath caressed the man's flesh: "Don't you dare leave me!"

Sarah released her left hand, laid it on Linn's forehead, closed her eyes.

"Where are you, you pale eyed old lawman?" she shouted in her mind.

Show me!

 

"Here's the bullet," Dr. Greenlees said quietly, holding up a deformed round ball. "It wasn't hard to find."

"Where was it?" Jacob asked, his voice tight.

"Right about here." Dr. Greenlees touched the front of Jacob's ribs. "It was just under the skin."

Jacob's eyes widened as he realized where the bullet's track must have taken it.

"It went through his lung. How it missed his kidney I will never know. It drove between two ribs, there was only one bone splinter I had to pick out."

"Lung," Jacob gasped, looked at his father's pale, unmoving form. "Will he live?"

"I've done all I can," Dr. Greenlees said quietly. "It's not up to me now."

The color run out of Jacob's face like red ink out of an eyedropper, and he reached blindly for Jackson Cooper, gripping his arm and clenching his jaw against the groan that tried to twist up out of his guts.

In that moment, it was not the Sheriff, drawing strength from the Town Marshal.

It was a son facing the possibility that his father, the bedrock and anchor of his universe might very well die, and it was an old friend bearing the double burden of his own grief, and the grief of a firstborn son who was looking to him for strength.

Jacob closed his eyes and straightened, took a long breath, blew it out.

"Jackson Cooper," he said quietly, "if you would go fetch Parson Belden, I would be very much obliged."

"I'll do that."

 

Sarah felt her father's soul, and Bonnie saw her daughter smile a little tight smile she hadn't seen very often.

Sarah opened her eyes and looked into her mother's violet gaze, and Bonnie felt the world lurch underfoot like a ship's deck taken a broadside wave.

Sarah locked her legs around the black mare's barrel, her eyes hard in the red-rimmed darkness, the shining silver head on her ribbon-trailing lance the only true light in this fell and deadly place.

Sarah wore a chased-steel breastplate and a silver helm, a helm with wings, shining black wings that rippled in the wind of their passing.

Sarah saw a figure laying on the hot, black sands ahead of her, a still, unmoving, pale figure, and she saw things that slithered toward it.

Her eyes narrowed and she lowered the lance, and beside her, a dog -- a huge, black, curly-furred dog with glowing red eyes and teeth that gleamed with white fire -- the hell-hound coursing beside her threw back his great head and bayed a war-challenge.

Sarah stood in her stirrups, brought the Lance down level, and drove straight for the biggest and most dangerous of the slithering black shadows.

Bonnie pulled back, blinking, shocked, shook her head, looked around.

She was in the hospital room, Linn was still there, Sarah on the other side, one hand gripping the pale man's hand, the other on his forehead, her head bowed, her eyes closed --

Bonnie felt ... fear.

I don't understand, she thought. I don't -- what --

Bonnie smelled roses, felt a familiar voice.

You don't need to understand, she thought.

Watch, and see what your daughter is become.

Bonnie looked around, expecting to find Esther standing beside her --

Nothing.

She looked back at Sarah, swallowed hard, then she closed her eyes and took Linn's hand with her left, and laid the palm of her right on the back of her daughter's left hand, draped over the still man's forehead.

Of a sudden Bonnie was no longer in the hospital room.

Sarah drove into the hell-beast, the shock jarring her in the saddle, slamming her into the jousting-saddle's high back.

The silver lance drove into the beast's core, detonating it in a flash of darkness: steel-shod hooves trampled others, and Sarah heard the terrible sounds of a war-dog tearing into a hated enemy.

She hauled the shining black mare around, red fires rippling across the mare's hide and through the pure-white silks the warrior-maiden wore, threw up a leg and leaped to the hot, black sands.

The three warriors -- horse, dog and wing-helmeted maiden -- formed a fighting ring around the still man, each bringing their own brand of destruction to those who would devour a helpless man's soul.

Sarah spun the lance easily, whipping the blade across a beast's belly, driving the steel butt into another's face: she breathed deeply, easily, war sang in her veins and she never, ever felt quite as alive as she did now, with the full knowledge that she warred for a good man's soul, and for her own as well, for if she lost, more than this one man would be devoured.

They fought for a day and a night and a day yet again, a black sun coasting across the black-ceiling stalactites overhead, and when the enemy found it could not defeat this fighting triangle, they stopped throwing themselves at fang and hoof and gleaming silver blade that hurt their shut-sewn eyes.

Sarah grounded the lance's steel butt into the black sands, dropped to one knee, laid a hand on the fallen warrior's breast.

She closed her eyes and remembered snow and mountains, leaves and grasses, a little girl's blue-eyed laughter and the taste of good whiskey and the feel of saddle leather and a good horse beneath, and she whispered a single word.

"Return," she sighed, her lips framing her sibilant breath.

Bonnie's wide, frightened eyes saw her daughter's lips move.

She heard the single word, "Return."

She looked down and blinked and swallowed hard.

 

I lay on my back and looked down at the floor of the Sheriff's office.

A red-headed woman knelt there, a woman I knew.

Esther, I thought, then I considered the fellow she knelt beside.

He's just awful skinny, I thought, then I realized with some surprise that skinny feller down on the floor that needed a good square meal was ... me.

Esther laid a hand on what I realized was my forehead, and I heard her whisper one word.

"Return."

Of a sudden I was a-layin' on my back ag'in and my chest hurt like hell.

I felt a hand on my forehead and I knew I had a choice to make.

I could go back to where it didn't hurt no more, or I could stay and fight.

I had to fight.

I took me a long breath and I growled a little and I doubled up my fists.

If it was a fight it took, I'd show 'em what it meant!

I opened my eyes and I was looking up at what that German fella, that Count that took such an admirin' fancy to Sarah ... he called her a Waulkure.

I didn't know quite what that was, and he explained the Waulkuren, the maiden-warriors, rode winged horses over a battlefield, judging each fallen warrior's heart, and that only those found worthy would be taken to the Allfather's board and be welcomed into Walhalla, that Afterlife reserved special for only the greatest warriors.

He described them and what he described was what I saw, only ... she looked an awful lot like Sarah.

I blinked, and the chased-steel breastplate and winged helmet were gone, and it was Sarah as I've always known her.

"Welcome back," she smiled, and I heard a gasp and a sob to my left and I turned my head -- damn, I'm weak, I thought, for it took about all I had just to turn a little to look, and Bonnie smiled a little crookedly and then she turned away quick-like and my left hand was cold and I realized that meant she'd been holding it.

There was a sudden weight beside me and The Bear Killer jumped his forepaws up on the bed and he begun to wash my face like he'd not seen me for a year or so, and I recall hearing Levi's voice -- must have been towards the foot of the bed -- and he said "I'd heard he'd been murdered!"

"They tried," Dr. Greenlees said, "and they very nearly succeeded."

My head was still turned a little to the left, but my right was held by Sarah, and I squeezed her hand a little.

I recall thinking Of course I'm alive, these women won't countenance any less, and I smiled inwardly, for I could smell roses and I heard Esther's gentle That's what I told you already, and they could have run a brass band through the room right about then and I would not have heard it for I reckon I just plainly passed out.

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156. LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR

His Honor rose slowly when Sarah tapped a knuckle on the glass of his private car's door.

Sarah crossed the polished-brass threshold strip, closed the door carefully behind her, then paced deliberately to the front of his smooth, gleaming desk.

His Honor's ascent from a seated position was not just slow and deliberate ... it seemed to be ... labored, as if he were suddenly very old.

His cigar jutted defiantly from the side of his mouth and his fingertips trembled a little as he splayed his hands and rested them on the desk top.

"Is he alive?" he grunted.

Sarah nodded, once.

"Sit down, Agent, we need to talk."

Sarah took a half-step left, one step back, sat without looking: her back was straight, her feet flat on the floor, palms on her knees, and her eyes were pale.

Very pale, very cold and very, very hard.

The Judge withdrew his cigar, regarded the wet, chewed edge with distaste, dropped it into the brass goboon, spat after it, harrumphed, spat again.

"You need a drink," Sarah said, her voice quiet but emotionless.

His Honor glared at the pretty young woman in the fashionable gown, his lips parted, then he clamped his teeth together against the retort that came naturally to mind.

"Agent Rosenthal," he grated, "when I hired you I had something different in mind." He glared at Sarah. "I thought you were young and pretty, I thought you a quick-change artist who could bat your long, lovely eyelashes and melt men into telling you things I needed to know." He swung his glare over to the humidor, decided against another cigar, at least just yet.

"You are your father's daughter," he continued, speaking with a hard and brutal frankness.

"You and your mother walked in on a bank robbery. You were just thirteen years old when you punched a Derringer into a holdup's soft ribs and punched a ball through his guts. You were well younger than that when you used your father's .44 Army revolver in a ragdoll to stop the man --"

He was stopped by Sarah's glare, by her expression of distaste.

His Honor harrumphed quietly.

"If there was any doubt as to your effectiveness, you tricked your way into a criminal gang's headquarters and laid death among them with both hands. Not only did you prevent them from torturing you to death, you dealt death to the guilty like a deck of cards.

"And when I sent you out to find the man who we thought killed your father, you dolled up like a dancing girl and got into the murderer's confidence, which is exactly what I'd planned you do, but then you belted him over the head with a lead filled sap and brought him in for trial, bent over his horse but still alive."

The Judge looked long at the silent, watchful individual with more fascinating facets than a Swarovski crystal.

"Agent Rosenthal, you are fast, silent, deadly, you are a killer with no conscience. You would make a fine assassin."

"Thank you, Your Honor."

"Hmp."

The Judge blinked and his eyes tracked to the left and Sarah knew his thoughts were re-railing themselves on another track.

"Your father is still alive."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"How is he?"

"Very weak, Your Honor. The doctor still fears he may die."

"I learned a long time ago a woman's intuition is worth considering," the Judge said softly. "What does your gut tell you?"

Sarah's expression never changed.

"My mother and I both told him we would not countenance his departure. Thus far, he has not."

The Judge rubbed his eyes, groaned, then looked up again.

"I never asked you if this is what you wanted."

"You knew my answer would be yes."

His Honor nodded, considered his next words carefully.

His voice changed, as did his posture: he became what he was at his core, the Judge, the chief jurist of the Firelands District Court.

"Agent Rosenthal, I am outraged that a man can retire from his profession and then be murdered in his own home the next day."

Sarah saw the dignified, controlled, normally calm jurist close his eyes, watched his hands close into fists, raised an eyebrow as he rolled his fists palm-up, shaking with fury, his lips pressed together between mustache and chin whiskers: the Judge took a long moment to silently express his contained rage, then slowly, deliberately, opened his hands again.

"Agent Rosenthal. I have an assignment."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"I want you to find out all you can about this murderer."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"I want to know if this was one man with a grudge, if this was a hired killer, if there are more attempts to be made."

"Yes, Your Honor."

The Judge opened the top left drawer of his desk, withdrew a leather poke, shifted it to his right hand and leaded forward, deliberately dropping it at the corner of the desk, its metallic impact declaring unmistakably that it contained an impressive amount of coin.

"I give you carte blanche.

"Any expense.

"Draw whatever resources you require, draft from the Unorganized Militia as you must." He stepped back a little, opened the shallow middle drawer, withdrew an envelope. "This letter authorizes you to act within all of Colorado and invokes agreements we have with all bordering states for your free operation there as well. It is recognized by every railroad -- the railroad police are a useful resource and they are generally very good at what they do" -- the Judge stopped, looked sharply at his silent, unmoving Agent -- "as I recall, you've enlisted their assistance in the past."

"Yes, Your Honor." Her voice was still quiet and utterly without emotion.

"Your mother's husband is a retired Pinkerton. Use those contacts, use the Pinks, use them without shame. Exploit them.

"Anything you need -- anything at all, however outrageous or however many, do it, buy it, requisition it.

"Do anything it takes, do everything it takes, do whatever it takes, whatever it may be."

He gestured at the young fortune contained in the leather poke.

"There is more where that came from. Spend it like water if you must, I don't care."

He sat heavily, suddenly, leaned his elbows on his desk and rested his face in his hands.

"My God," he whispered. "In his own home."

He raised his head, nodded.

"Agent Rosenthal, I authorize you to go where you must, do what you must, whatever that may be" -- his voice hardened, emphasizing his command --"without restriction and without let. No longer do I expect you to be a pretty girl batting your eyes and fluttering your fan."

His right hand closed into a fist again.

"Agent Rosenthal, my beautiful young murderess, let slip the dogs of war."

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157. SHERIFF, AND MISTER SHERIFF

 

"We, um ..."

Jacob stopped, turned ice-pale eyes on the Blaze Brothers, which only increased their discomfiture.

The pair looked at one another, then looked back at the long tall lawman and Left Hand Blaze blurted, "I don't know what to call you no more!"

"Sheriff will do," Jacob said mildly, his voice at odds with the hard edge of his expression.

"But what about the Sheriff -- I mean -- Mister Sheriff, if you're Sheriff, what's the Sheriff?" Right Hand Blaze confessed his confusion.

Jacob motioned them closer, laid a hand on their shoulders.

His voice was soft, his words were kind, his hands were warm and strong on their shoulders and he said, "I'm not Mister. Mister is my father."

"So you're just Sheriff and he's Mister Sheriff."

Jacob's eyes smiled, ever so slightly.

"Yep. I reckon that's so."

The pair looked at one another and with one voice -- a relieved voice -- declared, "Now we know!" -- then they looked earnestly back to Jacob.

"The Mister Sheriff -- he was hurt -- we heard he was dead but then we heard he warn't --"

"Shut up," the other hissed, slapping his cohort across the ribs: drawing himself up with almost comic dignity, he said, "Mister Sheriff done us all right an' we want to help!"

Jacob had received several offers that morning already: offers to go cook, clean, launder, offers to clean the barn, feed livestock, run the fence line.

"Fellas," Jacob said, "I believe we need your help," and the Blaze Boys looked at one another, grinning.

 

Mr. Baxter (that wasn't his name but it's what everyone called the barkeep, whether his name was Smith, Jones or Schickelgrubenheimen) polished the gleaming mahogany with a bar towel, then flipped it over his shoulder and picked up a heavy glass beer mug, held it up with a questioning quirk of the eyebrow.

Levi Rosenthal nodded, waited until the barkeep drew the glass full, sliced the foam off with a dull knife he kept handy for the purpose.

Levi accepted the beer with a nod, picked it up just as Sarah swung through the door: he hadn't got the first sip before she had him by the arm and with a curt "This way," led him back through the Jewel, back to the Lawman's Corner.

"Levi Rosenthal," Sarah began before he could ask why she'd snagged him away from a quiet brew, "thank you for sitting up with Linn. Dr. Greenlees and Dr. Flint both agree that hearing is the very last sense to leave our minds, and your speaking to him as you did was a comfort to him. Of this, sir, I am satisfied."

Her eyes were as pale and hard as her brother's were, out on the street.

"Levi, you did not favor the Judge's decision to recruit me as an Agent. You spoke against it because you knew firsthand some of what I would face."

Levi's beer sat untasted on the table; his hands were on either side of the heavy glass vessel, his face carefully neutral.

"Thank you for caring enough about me to want to keep me away from the profession."

Levi blinked.

He hadn't expected this level of candor.

"And thank you for caring enough about me not to stop me as I pursued it. I believe I have proven my worth."

Levi nodded gravely. "You have indeed proven your worth, Sarah. I could not have done better and I don't know of any man who could accomplish what you have."

"A man would look pretty silly in stockings, dancing the can-can in Denver," Sarah smiled mischievously.

"There is that."

Sarah was serious again.

"Levi, I need contacts in the Pinkertons. I need letters of introduction, I need to know who to talk to. His Honor has just given me carte blanche to bend the heavens into a corkscrew if that's what it takes to find out if this was one man after my father, or if it was something deeper."

Levi looked hard at his wife's daughter, considered the letter currently in his coat's inside breast pocket, the letter asking Alan Pinkerton's detective agency to come in on this very thing.

He grasped the mug's cool glass handle, raised it, took a drink, took another.

Sarah waited.

Levi lowered the mug, brushed foam from his handlebar with a bent foreknuckle.

"Sarah," he said slowly, "I was wrong." He looked frankly at her and continued, "I didn't want you to go where you've gone. I didn't want it because you are Bonnie's daughter, and I ..."

Levi looked away, frowning, then looked back.

"Sarah, I wanted to keep you young and beautiful forever. I didn't want you stained by the world. I didn't want --"

He stopped, frowned again, and Sarah thumped her clasped hands gently on the table top, leaning forward a little.

"Levi," she almost smiled, "my father said nearly the same thing. He said he wanted to put me on a high shelf like a rare china doll and put a glass bell jar over me to keep the world away from me."

Levi considered this, nodding in agreement.

"I had a doll, Levi, and I used it to conceal a revolver so I could get close enough to kill the man who intended my Mama harm. My Mama shoved me between two pianos and pulled a Navy revolver and shot the reavers that came through the back door of this very saloon with intent to take us both. Neither she nor I am a rare little flower, to be planted in a bed and cherished and admired from a distance." She leaned back, her eyes going pale again. "Someone did this to my father, to the man who sired me into this world. His Honor ordered me to find what can be found. Can you help me?"

Levi nodded, his jaw set.

"Linn is one of my oldest and dearest friends. Let's go to my office. I'll write those letters of introduction and give you a list of who to talk to and where to find them."

 

"Mrs. Rosenthal?"

Becky tilted her head a little and smiled sadly at her boss. She'd been obliged to call her name three times before the grim-faced proprietress blinked and her head came up.

"Becky, I'm ... I'm sorry, I was ..."

"You're troubled, Mrs. Rosenthal. We all are. What can we do to help?"

Bonnie blinked, her mouth opened, then closed.

"We know the Sheriff has that new little baby girl. He has Angela and the twins, we know he has the maid and the wet nurse and we want to help ..."

Becky's voice trailed off, her expression distressed.

"Mrs. Rosenthal, we'd like to help him, but we don't know what to do."

Bonnie blinked, leaned back in her high-back chair, motioned Becky in.

Becky took another step into the owner's sanctum, closed the door.

"Mrs. Rosenthal, the Sheriff bought the Silver Jewel and us with it, and then he arranged for you to make your House of McKenna and he saw to our care and gave us the choice of working with you, here, or moving on."

"I know," Bonnie whispered, then cleared her throat, tried to speak in a normal voice. "I know."

"He gave us all a new start. Most of the girls married well and we're happy here. We have him to thank for that."

Bonnie nodded.

Of all he'd done for the women working in the House of McKenna Dress Works, he'd done that much more for Bonnie, for every brick, every yard of cement, every Singer sewing machine, every pane of glass and wood beam and flooring plank was paid for by that lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache.

He'd gone to one knee before her and taken her hand and he'd asked her to accept all this as a gift, and he would tell her why in due time.

He never did tell her.

"Becky," Bonnie finally said, "thank the girls for me, and I will find out what he needs, and I will let you all know."

"Thank you, ma'am." Becky rose, turned to the door, paused just before her hand opened to take the knob.

"Mrs. McKenna?"

"Yes?"

Becky turned, looked at Bonnie with tired eyes, old eyes.

"Mrs. McKenna ... you saw him ... is he going to live?"

Bonnie's chest tightened and she shivered a little.

"I don't know, Becky. Dr. Greenlees doesn't think so, but ... I don't know."

"Oh, God," Becky blurted, cupping her hand over her mouth, then she opened the door and whirled out, closing it quickly behind her.

 

Digger, for his part, lifted his fine silk topper and gave little obsequious bows to the curious public filing through his front parlor, pressing a nickle into his palm so they could gawk at the figure in the coffin.

Its eyes were closed, Digger had used powders and cosmetics to make the deceased look somewhat less ghastly, but he made no effort to conceal the knife wounds, nor the broken and laid-over nose, the crooked and clearly-fractured lower jaw (though fishing line and staples, hidden under the closed lips, kept the damaged mandible closed.)

The public at large was curious as to what kind of a monster could back shoot a retired man in his own home, and at least a few derived a certain satisfaction from knowing the man he'd tried to kill, had killed him.

The deceased wore a draped sheet.

The rest of his clothing was being examined by that cold-eyed young woman Digger used to know as Sarah McKenna.

Who she was now, he wasn't entirely certain, but she most certainly was no longer the pleasant young girl he'd watched grow up.

Whoever she was, she was going over the man's clothing, through his effects, and as soon as she was done, she planned to go back over to the Silver Jewel and examine the man's hotel room, and whatever he might have left in it.

Digger had no idea what she was trying to find.

Digger had no doubt at all that, whatever it was, she would very definitely find it.

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158. "I'M THE NEW GIRL"

I must have been hurt worse than I realized.

Once I come clear headed enough to look around and recognize I was looking at them tin ceiling squares and that meant I was either in the funeral parlor, the hospital, or the Silver Jewel -- but I was in bed and not a coffin, and I didn't hear that saloon piano and couldn't smell beer, sweat nor tobacco smoke, and when I tried to move it felt like I'd been stomped by a range bull and horn hooked over the nearest fence by an irritated longhorn ... well, that meant I must be in the hospital.

I opened my eyes and blinked and swallowed something thick and sticky.

God Almighty, I thought, water would taste just pretty good right now!

Cool fingers draped over my forehead and a genuinely lovely voice said "Levi!"

A mustache come into view overhead and I blinked to clear things up and the face around it come into better focus.

"You're alive," Levi said.

"You're ugly," I countered, and I had to stop and take a breath before adding, "and yer Mama dresses you funny. How's for a beer?"
Levi laughed, relief wiping the strain from his face.

"Good God, man," he breathed, "we thought you were going to die on us!"

"Digger was in to measure you," Bonnie added in a prim and proper voice. "I ran him out of here with a broom."

"No need to measure me," I whispered huskily. "My coffin is in the cellar under the house."

"It's actually over at Digger's," Levi corrected helpfully, to which Bonnie hissed "Levi!" -- and the retired Pinkerton, startled, protested "But we wanted to get it cleaned up! It was all dusty --"

"Water," I croaked, and it was Levi that run an arm behind me and h'isted me up some and Bonnie held a glass of fresh pumped well water to my lips.

I slobbered about half of it down the front of my neck but that was genuinely the best drinkin' water I have ever had in my entire life on this planet.

I nodded and she took it away, I swallowed, coughed, swallowed, choked a little, and every time I coughed, it felt like someone had a singletree drove between my ribs and halfway to my breastbone.

"What happened?" I gasped.

I saw Bonnie lift those gorgeous violet eyes and looked worriedly at Levi, then I swung my eyes -- turning my head was too much like work -- I swung my eyes over to look at Levi and I recognized the look on his face.

"Start me off," I said. "Might be I can recall somethin'."

"You were in your house," Levi said cautiously. "Someone else was there --"

My eyes snapped wide open and it come back to me all in a rush.

"Angela!" I gasped, then lifted fifty pounds of forearm and forty more of hand to reach like a palsied old man for Levi's arm. "Angela -- the twins --"

"Safe," Bonnie soothed, draping a cool wet cloth over my forehead.

I coughed again and smelled blood on my breath.

I closed my eyes, shivered.

"Cold," I whispered.

"I expected this," Nurse Susan's brisk voice scolded. "Now you step back, there, take that edge, no, don't fluff it, you'll raise a draft --"

A quilt settled atop me and I shivered again, anticipating my body's heat would begin to gather.

"Angela," I squeaked.

"She is unhurt," Levi said, his words careful, precise. "The twins are unhurt. They saw nothing."

"Angela saw it," I whispered, closing my eyes against that awful realization. "She saw me ... she saw what happened."

"She's also the one who shot lightning and blew up the outlaw, remember?" Sarah's voice said cynically and something sat down on the bed with me, patted me lightly on the chest. "Remember? She said 'Bad man! Dead!' just as that low thunder cloud was overhead, and a lightning bolt blew him apart and she looked at you and said in that tiny little-girl voice, 'Daddy, did I do that?'"

I smiled, for I did remember.

"Yes," I whispered.

"Angela knows he came in to kill you. Do you remember being shot?"

"No." I swallowed again, looked over at Bonnie. "More water?" I croaked hopefully.

Sarah waited until I'd drunk -- I didn't make near as much a mess, and Bonnie toweled the front of my neck and tucked the towel in under me to soak up what spilled the first go-round -- and I gathered my strength so I could talk.

"No." My voice was no more than a hoarse whisper. "I recall ... I was punched ... in the back ... and I knew he tried to kill me." I felt my flesh tighten across my face and a dark anger started to build. "I meant to kill him."

"Oh, you did that," Levi nodded. "You most certainly did that!"

"Good." I gave up trying to be strong and relaxed.

"Papa?" Sarah asked, and I heard the seriousness in her voice. "Papa, do you know the man who tried to kill you?"

I considered for a few moments, going back to when I turned and saw him and started toward him just as he started toward me.

"No."

Weak, so damned weak!

I got mad as I could so I could have a little more strength, took a deeper breath, ignored the pain.

"No. Stranger," was all I could manage before I had to give up and collapse again.

"I found a name and some receipts. I'll back track him. We have to know whether he was alone or was he sent."

I looked up at her as she bent over and kissed me on the forehead.

"Dear Papa," she whispered, and I saw her eyes darken, and her beauty struck me -- this was my little girl -- then I saw her eyes go pale and the flesh tightened over her cheek bones and I realized that yes.

Yes.

Sarah Lynne McKenna is my little girl, right down to her core.

"I will find out, Papa," Sarah said, her voice hard-edged, "and I will report back."

"Sarah," I whispered, and she stopped: she'd risen from the bed, started to turn.

"Sarah, take my hand."

She stood there with those pale, hard eyes, almost glaring at me.

"Please."

I saw her look over at Bonnie, and I could just see the shallow nod Bonnie gave out of the side of my eye, and Sarah carefully raised the covers and I felt her grip my hand in both of hers.

"Sarah," I said as strongly as I could -- which was not strong at all -- "I promised to walk you down the aisle."

I had to stop and breathe a few times, but I closed my hand on hers, and she closed hers on mine, and bless her, she waited.

"Don't make me a liar, Sarah. When you're done, come back to me."

I took a few more breaths, squeezed with what very little grip I had.

"Daddies ... need their ... little girls."

Sarah gave me a long look and she nodded, once, the way I'd seen Jacob nod, the way I'd nodded myself, then she spun and marched out of the room.

Levi looked after her, then he looked down at me.

"If it was anyone but you," he said, "I could pity the poor sods she is going after."

His voice hardened, too.

"But they did this to you and I hope she finds them and makes them suffer!"

 

That night Levi set up with me.

They didn't have to, I told them, and Levi and Bonnie both cheerfully told me to shut up, so I did.

No sense arguin' when I'm out numbered like that.

Bonnie had family to tend and so did Levi and they took turns -- Annette came in as well, she brought Joseph and he climbed up in bed with me, and Annette smiled as Joseph kicked off his boots and slid under the quilt and laid real still beside me.

I don't know who fell asleep first, me or him.

 

Sarah looked in the mirror, satisfied at what she saw.

What she saw was a woman of low morals, a woman who harvested men, a woman who was -- by her very appearance -- of easy virtue.

She smiled, and the smile was cold, heartless, cynical.

She picked up the deck of cards, shuffled them, cut, shuffled one-handed, cut, shuffled again.

The deck was taper cut, she could strip out whatever card she wanted, she had them marked with lemon juice and a thumbnail, and she intended to hand this deck to another table and use a clean deck herself.

She was spending the Judge's gold where it would gain the greatest return, and she was starting at the poker table.

 

His name was John Aler and he liked cards, whiskey and women, but not in that order.

When the dealer excused himself and was replaced by a good looking woman with too much face paint, Aler was intrigued; as she leaned forward a little, displaying a shocking amount of valley between the mountains, he was titillated; when he won three hands in a row and looked at her, and she ran her tongue slowly across her bottom lip, he was hooked.

The other players threw down their hands in disgust, as the luck was obviously running in Aler's favor, and Sarah turned her head a little, looking at him sidelong like a butcher sizing up a side of beef.

"If you would like a private game," she purred, "I have a table upstairs you may wish to try."

"Is that so?" Aler leered, for her invitation saved him the trouble of propositioning her.

She turned her head, gave him a smoldering look and whispered, "I thought you'd never ask!"

 

Aler paid the man at the foot of the stairs, who gave Sarah an odd look.

"I'm the new girl," she explained, her long and curled lashes sweeping the air: normally the customer paid the whores, and the whores paid the whoremaster, but this fellow was giving the pimp the full amount.

The gatekeeper shrugged.

New girl?

More money in his pocket?

Who was he to argue with a good thing?

The new girl smiled crookedly, swept a bottle off the bar, leaving coin in its place, and taking the man's arm, ascended the stairs, giving all below a good look at long, stockinged legs and tight-fitting, red-sequined drawers under her white-fur-trimmed dancing girl's skirt.

 

The police chief chewed in his cigar, frowning at the telegram.

Telegrams were expensive and therefore brief.

"Barnabas!" he snapped. "When did this come in?"

His nattily-dressed secretary scampered in, a mousy young man with slicked-down hair, round spectacles and a stammer: "S-s-s-sir, it cammm -- cammm -- it arrived yesterday evening!"

"Why wasn't I shown this!" the Chief demanded. "Good God, man, I need to know these things!"

"Yes, sss, sss, sssir," Barnabas stammered, wringing soft, uncallused hands. "It w, w, w, won't h, h, h, happen again!"

The Chief waved him irritably away and re-read the telegram.

TO ALL SHERIFF POLICE CHIEF FEDERAL MARSHAL FIRELANDS TERRITORY AND ADJACENT FROM JUDGE DON HOSTETLER URGENT SHERIFF LINN KELLER ATTACKED IN HOME NEAR DEATH STOP DISPATCHING AGENT S L MCKENNA STOP REQUIRE ALL AID AND ASSISTANCE TO AGENT STOP HIGHEST PRIORITY END

"Dear God," the Chief breathed. "Not Linn!"

He looked to the door. "BARNABAS!" he bellowed. "GET IN HERE!"

 

Sarah's skill at costuming and makeup was begun as a model for her mother's dressmaking business, modeling her mother's wares for the big-city buyers at fashion shows, on stage, in Denver.

Sarah was also quick to avail herself of learning opportunities wherever they may come, and so she discovered lock picking, sleight-of-hand (which combined made it difficult to contain her with handcuffs, rope or manacles), and she learned stage tricks as well, which served her in good stead both as a model, and as an Agent.

She learned more about makeup for the stage, and how to alter her appearance: she could, with face paint and the right costume, look ten years old, or thirty: like a schoolgirl, or a dowager: she could look as innocent as the driven snow, or she could look like a slattern -- and not only did she look the part, she could walk and sound like any of these, and not infrequently, did.

She'd developed an interest in a particular stage performer with an unfortunate thirst for cognac.

This fellow was a sleight-of-hand artist when he was sober, a hypnotist when he was only a little inebriated, and hopelessly limp when well oiled: he'd taught her, with the bribe of a bottle, another bottle, and then a case of the best cognac she could find, the fine art of stage hypnosis, allowing her to be his assistant as he turned the dignified, the respected, the staid, into clucking chickens and lowing cattle for the amusement of the audience.

He'd also shown her tricks he'd learned about hypnosis, and thanks to a bottle of claret, another bottle of claret, and a case of claret, she came away with something she thought would be wonderfully helpful, and she had this with her as she climbed the stairs to the working girls' quarters above.

John Aler found himself overbalanced into a chair, and a truly magical set of hands descended on the back of his neck and then his shoulders.

At her behest he shed coat and waistcoat and loosened his shirt (at which point she stopped him, for why would she want him to hurry?) -- and as she kneaded and massaged and caressed his shoulders and neck, he began to relax, and when she handed him a glass, why should he suspect she'd philtered a thimbleful of white crystals into it, and stirred it with a finger, and so dissolved this tasteless compound into the good Scotch?
Sarah continued to soothe and massage the man's tenseness, feeling the muscles relax, seeing his head begin to nod.

He was just lightly asleep when she stepped to the side, picked up a small sidetable, brought it over and placed a new wax taper in the holder, lit it.

She began to speak, quietly, the way she'd heard the stage hypnotist speak; she knew the man was relaxed, but would easily waken, but he was now very, very suggestible, and she intended to make him even more so.

"John," she said soothingly, "can you hear me?"

"Yes," John replied.

"John, until I tell you otherwise, you will hear nothing but my voice, do you understand?"

"Yes."

"John, raise your head, slowly ... that's it ... you are relaxed, everything is as it should be."

"Yes."

"Open your eyes, John, and look at the crystal."

She held a faceted crystal, hanging from a short length of chain, directly above the candle.

She turned it slowly, letting its ten thousand facets shatter the light and sparkle them across his face.

"Look into the crystal, John. See only the crystal. You are falling into the crystal, John, you are very relaxed now."

"Yes."

Sarah guided him deeper into his subconscious self, satisfying herself he was deeply ensorcelled before beginning her interrogation.

She was ready to begin when a heavy fist hammered on the locked door. "Open up in there! Police!"

"John," Sarah said, her voice soothing, reassuring, "when I snap my fingers, you will hear nothing. You will be deaf and not able to move. I will squeeze your shoulder -- like this -- when you can hear again, do you understand me?"

"Yes."

She snapped her fingers, went to her bag, slipped a broad, heavy leather sap under her arm, opened the door.

A fellow in a brown suit and derby hat puffed importantly on a cheap cigar, turned over his lapel, displayed a cheap badge.

"Brothel inspector," he said in an officious voice. "You know the rules, honey. All you new girls have to be inspected."

Sarah focused but a moment on the badge -- it did indeed say BROTHEL INSPECTOR -- and she smiled.

"I see no reason why I shouldn't have two men at once," she purred, seizing his coat and pulling him into the room. "I hope you came" -- her hand caressed its way down his front -- "prepared?"

"Oh, I'm always ready for the likes of you," he sneered.

"Then let me help you off with your coat," Sarah said lustfully, running her tongue across her lip in an overtly lascivious manner. "You look like a man who knows what he wants."

"That's right," he chuckled as he unbuttoned his coat, turned his back to her so she could remove it like a good slavey. "I do."

Sarah plucked the derby off his head -- which did not surprise him, a woman ought to serve a man and if she took the coat she should take the hat as well -- and then the world exploded in a bright burst of stars as Sarah belted him over the head with the slapjack just as hard as she could swing it.

She hit him three times hard, then yanked him so he would not fall straight down to the floor -- she kind of rolled him down, so to speak -- then quickly, efficiently and absolutely mercilessly, tied his hands behind his back, then tied his elbows together.

She heard heavy footsteps in the hall, looked up.

As ill luck would have it, the brothel inspector was accompanied by a patrolman.

"It's about time," Sarah snapped, reaching into her bodice and whipping out a folded paper, then a small leather wallet. "Take this to your Chief" -- she shoved her Agent's badge in his face -- "and tell him the Agent has arrived, and he will cooperate!"

"I, um, what about him?" the patrolman stammered, indicating the trussed and unmoving brothel inspector.

"I want this impostor locked up. Get him out of here. Charge him with impersonating a police officer and assault on the Firelands District Court Special Agent!"

She waited impatiently as the patrolman whistled for the bouncer; Sarah crossed the bouncer's palm with a double eagle and indicated she was not to be disturbed, no matter what he heard -- he looked at the gelt in his palm and grinned, for this was profit indeed -- and Sarah locked the door behind her, leaned back against it, head tilted back and eyes closed, and took a long, steadying breath.

She opened her eyes, walked quickly over to her mark, laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezed gently.

"John, can you hear me?"

"Yes," he said in a drowsy voice.

"John, you feel well. Everything is as it should be."

"Yes."

"John, tell me about the Sheriff over in Firelands County. Tell me everything you know about anyone who would want to hurt him."

Sarah pulled up a chair, laid a few sheets of foolscap on the small table, began taking notes.

The candle was a third of the way gone when John ran out of information.

"John," Sarah said, I want you to stand up."

John stood, slowly.

"John, take your clothes off, all of them. Every stitch."

John did.

"John, walk over to the bed, draw back the covers and get into bed."

John did, moving slowly, methodically, eyes open but not registering what they saw.

"John, you are going to sleep. You have just bedded the most beautiful woman in the world. You don't know her name and you don't remember what she looks like, but she did things that brought you pleasure you never thought possible, and now you are spent and tired and you want to go to sleep." She stroked the hair back from his forehead. "Close your eyes, John. You will sleep now. When you wake, you will be yourself, you will be clear minded and you will feel rested and refreshed and very, very satisfied."

"Yes," John murmured drowsily as his eyelids closed.

Sarah looked around the small room, this ornate whorehouse crib, this place where men and women coupled like animals, and she remembered the same kind of rooms -- only dirty, and barren, rooms in the upstairs of the Silver Jewel many years ago, and she imagined her Mama, naked and shackled by one ankle to a bed, a captured animal for other animals to use, and Sarah ran for the window, and threw it open, and hung out to her waist, violently ill.

 

"Chief?"

"Yes, what is it?"

He looked up and saw a pair of ice-pale eyes beneath the wide, flat brim of a black felt hat.

A black-gloved hand turned over a black coat lapel to expose the burnished, gleaming bronze badge.

"Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna, Firelands District Court."

"How did you get in here?"

"Never mind. You are aware the Judge requires your cooperation."

"See here, I --"

"No." Sarah stepped closer, eyes blazing. "You see. I am finding who tried to have my father killed. Your brothel inspector is to be charged with interfering with an investigation. That should keep him out of circulation long enough for me to work. He's using the working girls for his own pleasure and I don't like that."

"You don't have to like it," the Chief snarled. "It's part of the job!"

"Just one of the benefits?" the black-clad Agent sneered. "Business as usual?"

"Yes." The Chief thrust a fresh cigar between his teeth. "You could say that."

"Have him explain how a new girl got the best of him, and him a big strong man," Sarah hissed.

"How did -- ?" the Chief began, then stared, realization widening his eyes.

"You --"

"Surely you've heard of me," Sarah snapped. "The Black Agent. The ghost, the wisp of fog, She Who Can Look Like Anybody."

"You." The Chief regarded her as if she were contagious, or perhaps explosive.

"Yes. Me."

"The Judge said to render every assistance," the Chief said slowly. "How ... can we help?"

Sarah swung around the man, yanked open a desk drawer, another: she pulled out an octavo, reached into her coat and brought out a whittled pencil, wrote down four names, thrust the sheet at the Chief.

"I need to know where these four are."

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159. I AIN'T KILLED NO ONE IN A WEEK

 

"Sheriff," the Blaze boy blurted, "there's some fella over in the Silver Jewel" -- he paused, panted in a few quick breaths -- "he said he's gonna kick that pale eyed sheriff's --"

Jacob stood.

Jacob's move was easy, without effort, almost like a cat flowing to its feet: he reached above the desk without looking, plucked his pearl-grey Stetson off its peg and the Blaze boy saw the lean lawman's jaw set.

He'd seen that expression before, and it did not bode well for the reason the jaw set itself.

 

"You might not want to say that," Mr. Baxter suggested neutrally, polishing a heavy glass beer mug -- he held it by its stout handle, calculating the exact swing it would take to cold-cock this boasting loudmouth.

"Ah, hell, what can he do! Beat me? I'll kick his butt up between his shoulder blades and send him back to his Mama --"

Jacob seized the man's shoulder, pulled hard and drove his fist into the man's wind -- fast, hard, vicious, driving vertical up right into his diaphragm, knocking every bit of arrogance and wind out of him.

He seized the man's throat and his belt and hauled him off his feet, raising him overhead, an impressive feat of strength -- Jacob was just under a yard around at the belt, and just over that at the inseam, if he'd turn sideways he wouldn't have thrown a decent shadow in the noonday sun -- and yet he hauled this stout fellow not only off the floor, but stiff armed overhead: he held him just long enough to find a bare place on the barroom floor, then he gave him a slight shove and let him fall.

The floor shivered with the impact, shot glasses and poker chips jumped on table tops and Jacob stepped over and looked down at the supine, silent sufferer.

"Mister," he said, "I am the Sheriff. I understand you want to kick my butt."

He smiled, and the smile was not in the least bit pleasant.

"If you think you're man enough, jump right on."

He straddled the man, bent over and grabbed him by the front of his coat, squatted, set his lips tight together.

Jacob hoist the breathless, eye-bulging bigmouth off the floor, powered into a quick, short run, slammed the man into the timber wall.

The Silver Jewel shivered again as Jacob drove the aforementioned, hard, into good seasoned timber.

He held him off the ground, pinned to the wall, waited until the fellow got at least a little bit of wind into him.

"Mister," Jacob said quietly, and he didn't have to raise his voice a'tall, for there wasn't so much as a mouse's sneeze to be heard, "my Pa is Old Pale Eyes. He's retired as Sheriff and someone tried to kill him the night after he retired. In his own house and in front of his little girls. Damn neart did the job, too, and I'm reeeeeal innerested in anyone who's makin' their brags about how they want to kick the Sheriff's hinder. Now you are going to tell me everything I want to know or by God Almighty I will knock the liver and lights right out of you" -- he was getting steadily louder, his face tight, drawn, and dead pale -- "I will skin you out with a dull spoon, AND THEN I WILL START TO GET MEAN WITH YOU!"

It was rare that Jacob Keller ever raised his voice.

As a matter of fact most folks there had never in their lives heard him shout, let alone speak with such an overt threat in words and tone.

More than one man there shivered a little to hear it, shivered as if the Reaper stalked the room, and just for fun, trailed a bony finger up a random spine here and there.

 

"How soon can you move him home?" Bonnie asked, looking to her husband as if for reassurance.

"Not yet," Dr. Greenlees said quietly, turning a little away from his patient as if not wanting the man to hear something discouraging: he tilted his head toward the door, and Bonnie looked again to her husband, who rose and followed the pair into the waiting room.

Dr. Greenlees waited until the pair held hands.

He knew his community and he knew his people and he knew that Levi and Bonnie held hands, especially when things were very good ... or very bad.

They held hands now.

"You two are some of the only things keeping that man alive," he said bluntly. "His children, his grandsons, you two. Was it not for you earth anchors he'd have give up and let go and that is absolutely the only thing that keeps his wore out old soul in that carcass of his."

Levi felt Bonnie's fingers tighten on his arm, felt her warmth as she leaned into him.

"I don't want to move him. He's been lung shot before and the only thing that saved him was these mountains. We're high enough his blood is thick and rich and that likely kept him from bleedin' clear out. He nearly did anyway and he's weak. A lesser man would have never survived the gunshot, let alone that fight that followed." Doc shook his head. "Shot clear through and he beat and knifed the other guy to death and then he picked him up and heaved him through a window! Levi" -- he looked sternly at the retired Pinkerton -- "if you ever feel moved to write a Western novel, you put that man in it."

"Nobody would believe it," Levi muttered uncomfortably.

"Hmp. Then write a whopper of a tall tale and use it there. Let the reading public think it's a lie. We'll know better."

"I feel so damned helpless," Levi admitted. "Not just helpless, damned helpless."

Doctor John Greenlees rested a hand on the tall ex-lawman's shoulder.

"How do you think I feel?" he whispered.

 

Somehow the realization that a double barrel shotgun was pressed to his throat was sufficient to persuade the man not to cry out.

It was full dark, save only a little light from the moon, through the bedroom curtains.

The figure beside his bed was an indistinct dark shape; only the twin shafts of light that followed the blued-steel barrels' curve was clear to his panic-dilated eyes.

He felt a metallic click shiver through the gunbarrel as the silent figure cocked one of the shotgun's hammers.

Several seconds later he felt the second click and he knew now beyond any doubt at all that his life was indeed forfeit, unless he did exactly what this intruder wanted.

He was prepared to offer wealth, for he was a man of means; he was ready to offer services, for he was a man of influence.

A match scratched into life, touched the wick of his bedside lamp; the globe was replaced, moved a little to cast its yellowish glow on his face.

The intruder's face was in shadow -- the coat hid any shape, any clue as to build, the hat was broad brimmed and black, the face fully shadowed, and when the intruder spoke, it was in a whisper.

He was correct in that the intruder wanted something he had.

He was not at all correct as to what the intruder wanted.

 

It was dawn on the second day after the Judge launched his swift arrow of vengeance.

He read the telegram, nodded, checked his watch.

The message made no sense -- it wasn't supposed to, it was their private cipher -- but he read it as easily as if it were the Denver Morning Post.

He checked his watch, grunted, frowned: he had time enough to breakfast at the Silver Jewel before the first train through deposited its mail sack at the depot.

His Agent's first report should be in the morning's mail.

He was right.

After bacon and eggs, sourdough biscuits and coffee, after dried-apple pie and a shot of good amber to settle the stomach, His Honor sauntered across the boardwalk to the Sheriff's office.

Jacob rose as the dignified jurist came through the door.

"Your Honor."

"Sheriff."

"Drink?"

His Honor held up a forestalling palm, shook his head. "Just had one, thank you. I'm expecting a dispatch from my Agent."

Jacob nodded, his eyes narrowing slightly.

Sarah's disappearance was sudden and not all all in character, and he believed it meant she was on assignment.

He allowed himself a moment's satisfaction that he was right.

"I thought I had something myself," he admitted, "but it was a bigmouth makin' wind."

"Oh?" His Honor asked, looking closely at the young Sheriff.

Jacob filled the Judge in on his findings, disappointing though they were, and the Judge nodded.

"Just another bigmouth," he muttered, shaking his head. "God must love fools, He made so many of 'em!"

"Yes, sir."

"Your clock tells me I have just time enough to make the depot. If I'm standing right there when Lightning goes through the mail, I can get your sister's message the soonest."

"Yes, sir."

 

Agent S. L. McKenna, looking fresh and lovely in the very latest McKenna gown, breakfasted at a small table in the hotel's restaurant.

The police chief joined her, looking significantly less rested and refreshed.

Sarah delicately bit into a slice of crispy bacon, regarding the Chief with innocent eyes: she waited until the man ordered breakfast in a surly voice before sipping her tea and sliding an envelope over to him.

"What's this?" he asked, jumping a little as it touched his hand.

"Two names," Sarah replied, picking up a triangular slice of toast and buttering it delicately, eyes lowered, looking absolutely feminine.

The Chief grunted, compared this lovely, fashionable young woman before him with his memory of the menacing black-clad Agent of the night before.

"These two men are to be watched." Sarah said it as if discussing the opera, or the cost of pearl buttons at the Mercantile. "They told me all they knew, but I need to know if they try to run. If they do, word to me at the earliest moment but do not follow."

"Don't follow them?" the Chief asked, confused. "How can we watch them if we don't follow?"

Sarah smiled charmingly, tilting her head a little as she did. "That is why you must inform me on that very moment!"

"Two men, you say."

"Yes." She took a delicate bite of her toast, chewed.

"I thought there were four names."

She sipped her tea, lifted her linen napkin, blotted her rich, red lips, smiled.

"There were."

The Chief was not a man to be intimidated; one does not rise to the office of Chief of Police by being easily influenced ... and yet this lovely young woman, looking as charming and innocent as a favorite daughter, just managed to run cold water through his veins with those two words.

"There ... were?" he asked carefully.

Sarah batted her eyes, altogether feminine and charming in her appearance, which made her next words all the more terrible.

"The other two won't be any more trouble."

She smiled.

"Ever."

She blinked.

"Chief, you don't look well. May I offer you some tea? I understand it's good for the digestion."

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160. COMMUNICATION

 

"This doesn't look right," the Judge murmured.

Jacob looked at the hand-folded envelope in His Honor's hands: it was wrinkled, stained, dirty, it looked like it had been dropped and stepped on, and it was crudely sealed with what looked like dirty, secondhand sealing wax and the base of a shotgun shell for a stamp.

"That's not her handwriting," he said, almost to himself, as he puzzled over the crude, straggling address:

Judge Horstettler

Firlands Distrct Cort

He turned it over, turned it over again.

"No return," he murmured, cracked the seal, unfolded the outer, enveloping paper.

The enveloping page within was as pristine as its outer jacket wasn't, and the inner, folded envelope, bearing a familiar handwriting, said,

Judge Donald Hostetler

Firelands District Court

Its wax seal was a bright red, and the impressed stamp was a rose.

"That's her," he said, and Jacob heard the smile in the man's voice.

He cracked this second seal, unfolded the page, smoothed it out on the desk top, stood a little to the side so Jacob could read it as well.

 

Your Honor,

I have found some dust.

Dust leads to a vein.

The vein should lead to a profitable lode, or at least a richer vein.

I will dig until it's mined out.

 

It was signed with a single, ornate, capital S.

"That's my girl," the Judge said quietly.

"Kind of light on the particulars, ain't she?" Jacob asked laconically, almost drawling the words.

"Patience, my boy," His Honor cautioned, folding the missive and placing it carefully in his pocket book. "She knows what she is doing."

"I'm thinking of St. Francis," Jacob muttered, and His Honor nodded, patted Jacob's shoulder in a fatherly manner.

"Moderation," he agreed, "moderation in all things. I agree, Sheriff, and I wish I could whisper wise counsel into her ear as well, but she is beyond our reach now."

"That," Jacob admitted, "does not make me feel any better."

 

Sarah tilted her head a little, smiled disarmingly, regarded the sour-faced man and did her level best to look like an angel in a McKenna gown.

"You must have heard of him," she coaxed. "He's tall, broad-shouldered, he's a fine figure of a man who would turn any girl's head -- why, he was not widowed a day and he had ladies calling on him, not widowed a week and three intimated they would be very open to his proposal!"

"Hmp," the merchant grunted. "Women."

"I understand he's not unknown to the men of the region," Sarah continued. "They call him Old Pale Eyes."

The merchant's cigar stopped halfway in its rise, lowered slowly, recognition widening the formerly-veiled eyes.

"Pale Eyes?" he echoed. "You mean Sheriff Pale Eyes?"

"Why, yes, I believe he is Sheriff, now that you mention it."

"Widower, you say?" He shook his head, bit the twist off the cigar, spat it toward a tarnished, dented spitoon. "Damn, I didn't hear that!"

"You must hear a great deal here," Sarah coaxed. "A man of your stature has a position in the city, and people are relaxed and open around you. You inspire confidence, or so men tell me, and ..."

She blushed, lowered her eyes.

"I'm sorry. I do go on so."

The merchant frowned, motioned to a chair, waited until Sarah was seated before lowering his own broad backside into a substantially-made seat.

"Old Pale Eyes," he said thoughtfully. "Yes, as a matter of fact ... it was two days ago, I'd just run inventory ... "

He waved his cigar as if conducting an orchestra, arranging his thoughts into some semblance of order, then thrust its smoking end toward the attractive young lady in the chair opposite.

"By Jove and all the heavenly host, I do know!" he exclaimed. "Two men were in here, one is a weaselly looking fellow, I've seen him before, Kovach, Kovack, Kovash ..." His eyes tracked back and forth across the floor, then he looked up triumphantly at the big-eyed young woman who was very obviously hanging on his every word.

"Kovash! That's the name! And the fellow with him ... Dough ... Dough ..."

He puffed briskly on the cigar, drawing the end into furiously glowing life, jerked the stogie from between his teeth and exclaimed "Dobreiner!"

"Dobreiner?" Sarah echoed, blinking innocently, engraving the name on her memory. "Where would Mr. Dobreiner be from?"

"The Bar S Bar, just north of here. The two of 'em ... I don't know what they did but they can't get enough of profaning Sheriff Pale Eyes." He coughed, chuckled, coughed again. "I think they did something over in Firelands and the Sheriff brought them to task. I know Dobreiner just got out of prison."

Sarah nodded, smiling a little.

"Now just what would a pretty little thing like you want with a no-good jailbird like Dobreiner?" the merchant asked.

Sarah smiled almost sadly. "Mr. Pennington, a girl needs to know who to stay away from, and you may have just saved me a great deal of trouble." She stood, extended her hand, her wrist purposefully limp: the merchant, not schooled in good graces, was at least careful enough to grasp her hand gently.

 

"Second note here ..." the Judge's voice was thoughtful.

"Says she found a rich vein north of town, the Dobreiner ranch."

He looked sharply at Jacob and saw the Sheriff's eyes start to pale out.

Both men nodded and breathed, "Dobreiner."

"Pa saw to it he got prison time," Jacob said, his voice tight. "I recall the trial. Next county over. He testified well and Dobreiner ... they drug him out screaming and fighting and he swore he'd get Pa."

Jacob's chest swelled as he took a long, calming breath, but his hands closed into hard fists, and His Honor heard a knuckle or two crack with the strength of the lean young man's grip.

Jacob looked away, thrust his jaw out -- God Almighty, he looks like his father! the Judge thought -- then Jacob looked back, looked at the dignified jurist with the neatly spade-cut, nearly-white beard.

"Your Honor," he said tightly, "you are a wise man."

"I know that, son," His Honor agreed, "but what wisdom strikes you today?"

"You sent my sister," he said, "because if you hadn't I'd'a gone hell-a-tearin' to find this fella!"

 

Mr. Pennington watched the fashionable young woman mince back to her rented carriage; he smiled as she had a little trouble getting the nag to go, chuckled as she squeaked with dismay at finding she'd not released the brake, laughed aloud as she shreiked with surprise as the rented gelding hauled the carriage around in a tight U-turn.

He shook his head, still laughing, and returned to his mercantile's bookkeeping.

 

The sun was crowding its zenith as a figure skulked through screening brush.

The figure flowed more than walked; crouching here, stepping there, finally slithering on a buckskin colored belly, fringe and blotchy coloring blending flawlessly into the background, the figure found the least uncomfortable prone position and assumed overwatch on the ranch.

Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna waited in stillness and in silence, watching partly with good German binoculars and partly with her own good eyes, studying the ranch and the comings and goings of its people.

It was less a ranch and more a run down farm, it had but few cattle and fewer horses, it looked tired and down-at-heels and it needed considerable work, even to Sarah's less than experienced eyes: she knew what a properly run ranch looked like, and this wasn't it.

She studied the ground between her and the main house, smiled a little as she planned her approach.

One hour later, one of the two ranch hands grunted as a hand reached from behind, seized his chin, hauled his head back and to the side: the honed edge of a very sharp knife kissed through a layer of skin and a voice hissed, "I have a knife to your throat. Obey me or die Nod if you understand."

Frozen with fear, he nodded -- once, carefully, shallowly, and he felt something warm trickle from the stinging slice on his throat.

"Good." The hand released his chin; a moment later something hard shoved into the middle of his back.

"I have a shotgun in your spine. Do exactly as I say or I will kill you at least twice."

He nodded again, with the same caution.

"On your knees." The voice was a dry hiss behind him, and he very carefully, very slowly, descended until his prayer bones were in the dirt.

"Tell me your name."

The same dry hiss, the sound of a snake crossing a dry desert rock.

"Do -- Do -- Dobreiner," he stammered.

The knife released its sharpened grip on his stinging neck, but the shotgun stayed right where it was, threatening to press his back bone out the front of his shirt.

This discomfort disappeared in a bright detonation of stars, and the general sensation of being clobbered by the noon freight right in the back of the head.

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161. MISCALCULATION

It was another three days before Linn was strong enough to ask about his children.

That afternoon Angela led the twins into her Daddy's sickroom, her little brother's hand in her left and her little sister's hand in her right: they came in and solemnly regarded the still figure in the high bed, at least until his youngest boy complained "I can't see nothin'!" and the Grand Old Man grinned, slowly, then chuckled.

"Come up here," he said, his voice weak, and Doctor George Flint took the Sheriff's little boy and hoist him onto the bed, then the little girl -- placing them on the Sheriff's uninjured side of the bed -- Angela he hoist onto the Sheriff's healing side with the whispered caveat, "His ribs are hurt, don't squeeze him" -- as well he might've told the tide not to come in -- no sooner than the young were in his bed than they immediately piled on him and seized him and squeezed him, and Linn lay there with this big idiot grin on his face and tears running out the corners of his eyes and running back into his ears, and whether this was from pain or from joy, the Navajo doctor didn't really know, nor did he care.

A man needs a reason to live, and three of the very best reasons were pouring their youthful strength into their Papa's healing carcass.

 

Dobreiner woke to darkness, dust and pain.

Something filled his mouth -- something dry that used to taste like burlap -- a tow sack was over his head and tied around his neck and he tried to move and found he'd been hogtied good and proper.

It didn't take but one attempt at movement to persuade him to hold very still, for any movement at all and his head felt like it was going to swell up and bust, so he lay still, listening.

He heard a woman's voice impatient, sharp, the sound of ... sounded like belt leather on bare skin.

He shivered.

He remembered being beat with a belt when he was a boy.

 

Linn hadn't slept well since all this started.

Strange bed, strange surroundings, strange smells, strange sounds, not to mention pain, fever, dreams.

Doctor John Greenlees well knew the value of healthy, restful sleep, and he knew proper rest was essential to healing, and the solemn physician smiled a little at the sight of three children laying beside and sprawled atop of their father, his arms out from under the covers and holding them into him.

For the first time since arriving at their little stone hospital, Linn's face showed a degree of relaxation.

 

Sarah clucked to the horse, walked it forward, leading it by its bridle.

As the horse walked forward, the rope tied to its saddle horn tensioned; a little more, and the rope running back and over a tree branch, raised its burden.

Sarah hoist the prisoner by his wrists until his bare feet were just off the ground, then she walked back to him, swinging the belt from her hand, assessing his naked carcass with hard and dispassionate eyes.

"I'm new at this," she said conversationally. "I don't know which will persuade you faster. An hour with the belt, or a small fire under your feet."

"You go to hell," Kovash hissed between yellowed teeth.

"Or I could just let you hang there." The pale eyed stranger regarded him like an insect pinned to a cork board. "I understand you can breathe in easily, but it's harder and harder to breathe out, and eventually you'll suffocate."

It was already harder for him to breathe.

He growled, struggled.

"Or I could give you some more belt." Her conversation was as casual as if she were asking someone if they would like another biscuit at the dinner table. "I understand the inside of the thigh is a very tender target." She smiled. "You thought you could fight someone smaller than you. Looks like you miscalculated."

The naked, slightly swinging prisoner clamped his legs together, shivered, anticipating the burning kiss of belt leather any moment.

"Or you can tell me what I want to know. That might be the easiest for all of us."

 

"Pa, I gotta go," Linn's youngest whispered.

"You know where the outhouse is."

"Yes, sir."

The lad slid backwards off the bed, landed on the floor, scampered out of the room: the door had not yet swung shut when a minor Irish cyclone stormed into the room, scolding as she came.

"Now shame be wid' ye," Daisy declared, a basket in either hand, "layn' about when there's work t' be done! The puir lads are cleanin' yer barn an' tendin' yer chores an' ye're no' even there t' appreciate it! Ye've no' had a guid square meal an' ye make these puir folk wait on ye hand an' foot! Men! Hmph!"

Daisy leaned down, seized one of the cranks at the foot of the bed, spun it briskly, bending the bed up at knee level.

Muttering something uncomplimentary in Gaelic -- or at least in a language that the clergy do not know -- she spun that crank backwards, until the mattress was flat again, then seized the other and raised the head of the bed, the patient and his young with it.

"Off, now, go, scoot," she scolded, and children cascaded off the bed, dropping to either side and standing back a few feet: Daisy seized a small table, whirled it into position beside the head of the bed, rapidly drafted from this young contingent of the Unorganized Militia to help her set the table and set out provisions, and then she planted her knuckles on her waist and glared at the unmoving man in the bed.

"And just look at ye, layin' there like th' Laird o' th' Manor! I suppose ye want yer meal brought to ye!" -- and not waiting for a reply, she proceeded to load a plate, she swung briskly to the other side of the bed where she could reach the man; muttering as she went, she started cutting up the tender meat, glaring as she did, and proceeded to feed him, one bite at a time.

Daisy knew Linn was a strong and independent man, and she knew it would hurt his pride if she were to simply come in and feed him as if he were an infant, unable to handle spoon or fork: she knew that if she put up a good front and scolded him and shook her Mommy-finger at him and berated him for his laziness, he would laugh and she could get away with tending him, and she was right.

She got most of one plate down him before he hit his full mark.

She helped him grip the coffee mug, and she pretended not to notice how he dribbled as he drank: she did, however, take care of the spillage with a quick, almost vicious swipe of a napkin, muttering about men and how untidy they were, then she snatched away the plate, whirled around the bed, loaded the baskets again, set them aside and returned the table to its former position against the far wall.

Daisy came back and thrust herself hard against the bed, reached over and seized Linn's hand, gripped it tight, brought it to her lips, her eyes bright, but she willed herself not to let herself cry as she looked at the man she remembered as strong, laughing, capable and a warrior withal: she whispered, "Damn ye, Sheriff, don't ye e'er do this to me again!" -- and then she laid his hand back under the covers, bent over and glared into his eyes for a moment, kissed him quickly on the forehead.

Linn's young watched silently as she snatched up the two woven withie baskets and stormed out of the room, her chin up and her jaw set, and Nurse Susan opened the door for her.

Linn's children had eaten at the same time he did; the little boy still had a light roll and chewed solemnly on it while the three of them considered this Irish tornado's recent visit.

 

It took neither belt nor fire to persuade Kovash to cooperation.

Sarah waited patiently until he realized she would be content to let him hang there and suffocate.

 

His Honor removed the cigar from between his teeth, handed the telegram to Jacob.

FOUND MOTHER LODE HAVE TWO BIG NUGGETS ARRIVE NOON SLR

"I suppose," he said quietly, "we should be here to meet her."

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162. "THAT'S WHAT I SAID!"

The Silver Jewel was doing a land office business.

Mr. Moulton's services were retained as prosecutor; a fellow named Chipalinski agreed to defend; multiple witnesses were subpoenaed, and about half of them had to be brought to Firelands under what we will politely call "less than amicable circumstances."

The case generated quite a bit of interest, and for a surprising distance; usually, when an attempt was made on a lawman's life, it was from ambush, it was successful, and it died down quickly: but when the lawman is back-shot in his own home, when he beats and knifes the attacker to death, when his own life is despaired of for some time, and when it all actually comes to trial -- well, this was new, this was novel, and this meant every room was taken up in the Silver Jewel and in the boarding-house, it meant there were reporters, there were two fellows with new fangled photography equipment and their portable darkrooms set up behind the courthouse, it meant Daisy's kitchen was running smoothly, efficiently and turning out meals that were gobbled as soon as they were placed on clean plates and set on checkered tablecloths.

Reporters scribbled busily at their meals; apparently the Eastern reporters thought it unique and unusual that the Silver Jewel did, indeed, resemble a shining jewel of near-civilization in this unwashed and howling wilderness they'd only read about, until now.

The Mercantile's business was brisk, the Chinese laundry ran at capacity, the new bakery added its aromas to the atmosphere, and local folk found firewood to be not only in demand of a sudden, but with the volumes suddenly requested, actually profitable.

The Daine boys, those lean Kentucky moonshiners that colonized the higher reaches overlooking Firelands, did not waste the opportunity either: they found a ready market for their product, and they found productions and sales limited only by the number of glass bottles that could be obtained.

Sheriff Jacob Keller recruited men he could trust to work the jail, and to keep reporters out; he was obliged to station guards outside the jail, to keep the curious from setting up a crate under the barred cell window and charging the unwary a nickle a peek to gawp and stare at the prisoners, or to ask them questions, or as the reporters tried, to actually interview them.

There were no shootings, there were a few shots fired, there were drunks that ended up in the calabozo until they sobered up, bruised and sore from learning the hard way one does not cross the law in Firelands: these folk were fined and turned loose and told not to come back, unless of course they were residents -- and of those who ended up in this undesirable place, none were residents of the county.

The locals knew better than to cross Old Pale Eyes.

Or the younger Old Pale Eyes, who was rapidly acquiring his sire's moniker.

When trial day arrived, the courtroom was absolutely packed.

It was normally spacious enough, even when locally notorious events were tried; here -- here the unscrupulous tried selling tickets to the courtroom, and were treated harshly for their scoundrelly efforts; here men sold their standing-room-only place for the cost of a drink, or a meal, or close to trial time, one fellow got the price of a good horse for the space he covered with his boot soles, standing in the very back of the room.

The Sheriff was smuggled in ahead of time.

He was an essential witness.

He was also there against the advice of his physician, against the recommendation of Levi, and very much against the wishes of one violet-eyed woman who planted her knuckles on her hips, tapped her foot and pressed her lips together disapprovingly while raising an admonishing finger and finally shaking her head without saying a word -- Bonnie Rosenthal knew it would do no good, and though she wasn't terribly happy with that hard headed, mule brained, contrary, stiff backed reprobate of a retired Sheriff, she had no choice but to aid and abet smuggling the man into the courtroom before it began to fill.

Linn rode the woven-wicker-seat wheel chair with ill grace, a sour expression and occasional profane muttering, to which the surrounding, red-shirted Irish Brigade cheerfully profaned him in return, to which Bonnie, marching along beside him, maintained a most profane silence, and when finally the Sheriff -- with help -- rose from the Sears & Sawbuck wheeled invalid chair and set his backside down on the high-backed, hardwood chair behind the prosecution's table, he growled to nobody in particular, "Now I wish we had at least one whorehouse in town!"

"And why would that be?" Sean asked, his Irish-blue eyes dancing with merriment, for he was absolutely delighted to see his old and dear friend off his back and out of that damned sickroom.

Linn glared up at the big, hard-muscled Irishman and snapped, "Because I could steal a pillow from it and pad my bony old butt from this damned hard chair!"

Bonnie McKenna wordlessly smacked him in the face with a pillow she'd brought for just that purpose, to the uproarious laughter of the entire Irish Brigade, and Sean carefully squeezed the retired lawman's shoulder in lieu of the happy thumping he usually delivered.

"Ah, 'tis a shame we've no' a gilded throne t' park yer butt in," he chuckled, reaching into a hip pocket, "but perhaps a wee nip of the Old Soul Saver will sweeten yer disposition" -- and so saying he handed the past Sheriff a silver flask with a wink and a knowing grin.

Bonnie McKenna glared at the big Irishman.

"Instead of causing trouble," she hissed, her eyes narrowed, "can't you at least pick him up so I can put this under him?"

"Ah, now, can't ye wait'll th' man has a touch o' the pain killer first?" Sean asked, eyes wide and innocent, and Bonnie wanted nothing more than to punch him, or at least kick him in the shin, and would have, if she didn't have the wheelchair in her way.

Sean chuckled, brushed her aside -- which brought another glare -- he seized the chair, slid it back, then bent down in front of Linn and ran his hands under the lean, older man's arms.

"I'm sorry, this'll hurt," he whispered, and their eyes met for a moment: Linn saw a genuine regret in the Irish Chieftain's eyes, and he nodded: Sean lifted the man easily, Bonnie slid the tasseled, bright-red-velvet pillow under his backside, and the Chief eased his friend down onto the padding.

Linn's eyes were closed against the pain, but he nodded.

"Better," he whispered hoarsely, and Bonnie saw regret in Sean's eyes, for he knew he'd caused a good man pain, and Bonnie made a mental note to apologize to him later, and thank him for his kindness.

Sean picked up a little on the back of the chair, used his knee to slide the high-backed hardwood seat back into position at the prosecution table.

 

Sarah placed her bent finger under the Judge's chin, lifted.

"Chin up," she murmured, running her fingers under his necktie, working the twist out of it, then smoothed the dark-blue-velvet neck strangler and frowning a little as she tugged out the asymmetry.

"There now." She pulled at his coat collar, slid her fingers under his lapels, gave a twitch and a tug and turned him with light fingers on his shoulders.

She plucked a nonexistent fleck of lint from his back, turned him again, nodded.

"You, sir," she said, "are a fine figure of a man."

His Honor smiled warmly at his pretty young Agent.

"There is little to warm an older man's heart," he said softly, "than the kind attentions of a pretty young woman." He raised a hand stroked her cheek with a bent forefinger. "I envy Parson Belden."

Sarah blinked.

They usually maintained a professional distance, almost an adversarial distance, but today they were brought closer because the trial concerned someone they both genuinely loved, and seldom expressed in public.

"Oh?" she asked.

His Honor nodded. "He will perform your wedding." Judge Hostetler smiled sadly. "I won't even be giving you away. You've got the Sheriff, you've got Charlie Macneil, you've got your brother ..."

Sarah came up on her toes, kissed the dignified jurist on the cheek. "Thank you," she whispered, blinking quickly. "That's ... that's very sweet."

His Honor looked longingly at his humidor, decided against a cigar.

"Get changed," he said, his voice quiet. "Today you are a terrible creature of legend. Today you are the Black Agent."

"Yes, Your Honor."

 

Angela Keller was escorted in, brought to the chairs behind her Daddy.

"Can I sit with my Daddy?" she asked plaintively; at the negative reply, she wrinkled her forehead in disappointment and said "Oh," and sat, wiggling back in her seat.

Annette, her brother Jacob's wife, slid in, asked "May I sit here?" and Angela smiled quickly and piped "Yes!" -- Bonnie and Levi sat on her other side -- and of a sudden, with her Daddy in front of her, with her Aunt Annette and her Aunt Bonnie flanking her, she was content, and happily hugged her rag doll.

 

His Honor waited until the room was filled before raising his gavel: he looked over at the bailiff, then looked at the prosecutor's table, then the defense:

"Is the prosecution ready?"

Mr. Moulton stood. "We are, Your Honor."

"Is the defense ready?"

Council for Defense rose. "Your Honor," Mr. Chipalinski said, "we move for dismissal."

"On what grounds?"

"My clients had no part of the egregious and murderous attack on Past Sheriff Keller. They were nowhere near Firelands when it occurred and we can produce multiple alibi witnesses. My clients remain unacquainted with the deceased attacker and --"

His Honor swung his gavel.

"Sit down, sir," he said sternly, "I am given to understand there is a connection. If your clients are indeed innocent, this will come out."

He rapped the gavel three times in slow cadence, nodded to the Bailiff.

"Firelands District Court is now in session, the honorable Judge Donald Hostetler presiding. May God bless this honorable Court!"

"Reverend Belden."

Parson Belden stood and the Bailiff called, "All rise."

Everyone, including and especially the Judge, rose; heads were bowed, the prayer intoned, the "Amen" rippled through the courtroom, and the Judge rapped the gavel, once: "Be seated."

"In the matter of the attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, aiding and abetting the attempted murder," the Bailiff read from the paper handed him: "now comes before this Court the persons of Roberto Kovash and John Dobreiner, who have elected to be tried together."

"How plead the defendants?" His Honor asked, his voice clear and well audible in the packed courtroom's hush.

Mr. Chipalinski rose. "Not guilty, Your Honor."

"The recorder will enter the not guilty plea into the record," the Judge addressed a young woman to his left -- one of Miss Sarah's prize pupils, her hair drawn up almost into a dowager's knot, her dress plain and almost dowdy; she had a pencil thrust through the dowager's knot, and several laid out in a neat rank near her right hand, all sharpened, and a stack of blank sheets of paper: she was prepared for a lengthy trial.

"Prosecution, are you ready to present your case?"

"We are, Your Honor."

"Do you wish to present, or go directly to witness?"

"We wish to present, Your Honor."

"Very well, you may proceed."

His Honor looked at the defense table; he saw attorney Chipalinski arrange a half-dozen whittled pencils in a neat rank before him, he angled his paper just so in preparation for taking careful note of Prosecution's presentation.

He's organized, His Honor thought, and methodical. He may have some skill after all.

 

Prosecution laid out their case in plain language.

Mr. Moulton described a man of long and honorable service as Sheriff, who'd just retired that morning and wished only to live a quiet and unremarkable life as father and grandfather in the time remaining after his wife's demise during childbirth.

He spoke of a murderer slipping silently into the house, then back shooting a man in his own home, a man who in desperation to save his children from some unknown but terrible fate, commenced to stop the attacker, a man who lay half across Death's threshold for a few days before finally being dragged back until he was merely at Death's door, a man who was present against medical advice for purpose of testifying at this trial.

Defense then presented, claiming the two defendants had no acquaintance with the deceased criminal, that they had now knowledge of who this individual was, that they were nowhere near Firelands when this terrible and murderous deed was done.

Prosecution then called the first witness.

"Prosecution calls Past Sheriff Linn Keller!"

Linn rose, his jaw set: he stepped carefully from behind the prosecution's table, stopped, one hand resting on the smooth hardwood: he closed his eyes, took a few breaths, then he straightened, slowly, brought his shoulders back: the courtroom was absolutely silent as the lean old ex-lawman focused his pale-eyed glare on the witness stand, then paced off on the left: his step was usually brisk, but today it was deliberate, it was measured, and his boot heels were loud and almost echoing as he paced diagonally across the floor, stopping before the witness stand, and turned to face the bailiff.

"Place your hand on the Bible, raise your hand and repeat after me," the Bailiff said mechanically: Linn did, and the Bailiff felt his weight come onto the Bible, and he saw the man wobble slightly: Linn's jaw muscles bulged, and sweat was starting to bead out on his forehead, but he stood straight, and as the Bailiff recited the Oath, Linn recited it back, and his voice was strong and steady.

"Thank you," the Judge said. "You may be seated."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Linn said, and it took a considerable percentage of his strength to hoist his booted foot up on the one step to the elevation of the witness chair.

He turned, eased slowly into the seat, and grimaced.

His Honor asked quietly -- almost whispered -- "Are you all right?"

Linn closed his eyes for a long moment, then turned his head and looked at the Judge.

"I should have brought that pillow," he said, his voice distinct, which broke the tension: quiet laughter rippled through the courtroom and the Judge raised the gavel.

"I can have it brought over."

Linn shook his head. "My fault, Your Honor. I'll suffer it out."

Mr. Moulton rose, walked briskly across the floor, stopped in front of His Honor's desk.

"Please give us your name, your age and your occupation."

"Everyone here knows me," Linn growled. "Name's Keller. Old Pale Eyes. I just retired as Sheriff a little better'n a week or two ago and it feels like I just turned eighty."

Prosecution nodded, elected not pursue a more precise answer.

"Mr. Keller, could you tell the Court what transpired on the day in question."

"Short answer?" Linn glared at the defense. "Some fella tried to kill me. Damn near did."

"But he didn't."

"Shot me in the back and I tore into him. He tried to fight and stopped him."

"What exactly did you do?"

Linn blinked, his breath coming shorter, and of a sudden there was a sharp pain in his side.

"I kilt the man that kilt me," he said, and he clamped his arm to his side, then: "I ain't doin' too good."

Alarmed, Dr. John Greenlees rose, began working his way through the packed crowd.

Both the lean physician and His Honor noted the alarming sign that the Sheriff's lips were turning blue, and the Bailiff leaped forward and tried to catch the retired Sheriff as his eyes rolled up and he slowly folded over in the witness chair, then pitched forward.

His Honor rapped harshly, shouting "Order! Order in the court! Bailiff, Levi, Sean, get him to the hospital --"

Men surged from their seats, powered across the floor: Linn tried to say something; Sean thrust his ear down to the grey-faced man's lips, nodded.

"I'll tell him," he murmured, then he scooped the man from the Bailiff's awkward grip: "Make way now!" he bellowed, powering toward the door. "Make way for an honest man! ALL HANDS ON DECK" -- he raised his voice to a full-throated bellow -- "CLEAR A WAY! NO IRISH NEED APPLY! MOVE, DAMN YOU, OR I'LL HAVE YER GUTS FOR GARTERS! IRISH BRIGADE, TO ME!"

A half-dozen red-shirted firemen elbowed forward, knocking spectators out of the way, formed a flying wedge before their grim-faced Chieftain, their hard-eyed appearance as effective as knotted fists at moving the crowd back out of the way, Dr. Greenlees immediately behind the quick-stepping Irishman.

Voices, confusion; the Judge hammered for order, and Angela looked up at Bonnie with big scared eyes.

"My Daddy's hurt," she said in a tiny voice, and Bonnie hugged the frightened child to her: "I know, sweets," she murmured, kissing the top of Angela's head. "I know."

Two seats distant, Sarah closed her eyes and willed herself to calm.

She knew she could not help; she would only be in the road.

Bonnie looked over at her daughter and saw her hands close into white-knuckled, trembling fists.

 

"Mr. Prosecutor," the Judge shouted, rapping the gavel again; at his call, the crowd's murmurs quieted, the assembled were seated.

"Mr. Prosecutor, call your next witness."

"The prosecution calls Angela Keller."

A surprised murmur, from those who knew the child: outsiders would not know Angela was the Sheriff's little girl, but all knew that calling a child to the stand was unusual and not at all ordinary.

Angela slipped out of her seat, slithered past knees, down between two chairs, and strutted across the floor, her rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow.

The Bailiff hesitated, looking at the Judge, and Angela stopped, looked at him, shifted her rag doll to her left elbow and almost shouted, "ISWEARTOTELLTHETRUTHTHEWHOLETRUTHANDNOTHINGBUTTHETRUTHSOHELPMEGOD!" all in one word, then she hoist her nose in the air with an audible "Hmph!", whirled and climbed into the witness chair as if she owned it.

His Honor stifled a smile, as did both Prosecution and Defense: the Judge considered the irony of this innocent child and her bringing the court a quiet laugh after the grim moments preceding.

Mr. Moulton walked slowly across the floor, stopped in front of the little girl in the light-blue dress.

"Hello, Angela," he said gently.

"Hello, Mr. Moulton."

"Angela, do you know what the truth is?"

Angela nodded.

"Will you tell us the truth today?"

Angela huffed, placed her doll beside her, slid out of her seat and planted her knuckles on her hips. "I already said I would!"

More smiles, quiet chuckles, muted out of respect for the Court.

"Yes, so you did," Mr. Moulton nodded.

"I need a pent-cil."

Mr. Moulton blinked.

"I beg your pardon?"

Angela pointed to the court recorder's table. "I need a pent-cil."

"Objection," Defense called, rising.

"On what grounds?"

"Over-familiarity, Your Honor."

His Honor looked at Angela.

"Angela, who is this man in front of you?"

"That's Mr. Moulton. He was Mommy's attorney and he smells like bay wum." She nodded emphatically, establishing this as an incontrovertible fact, to the Court's general amusement.

"Do you know that fellow over there?"

The Judge pointed to the defense table.

"Him on the left is named Chip-pal-lintski," she said, separating the syllables, "and dat one is Dough-winder an' dat one is Go Wash."

Even the defendants smiled a little at this high, innocent little girl's voice, declaring the facts as she knew them.

"And do you know my name, Angela?"

"You're da Judge Hop-steck-ler," she said, her positive affirmative nod bouncing her blond curls.

His Honor was obliged to pass his hand before his mouth to hide his grandfatherly smile, but the smile in his eyes was unmistakable.

"Hostetler," the court reporter stage-whispered, and Angela looked at her and smiled, "Dat's what I said. Hop-steck-ler." She looked at Mr. Moulton. "I still need da pent-cil."

"Now whatever would you need a pencil for, Angela?"

"You're gonna ask me what happened an' I'm gonna show you."

"With a pencil."

Angela nodded, her Kentucky-blue eyes big and innocent "I hafta use da pent-cil. I don't gotta knife."

"I ... see," Mr. Moulton said, looking with surprise at the Judge: he leaned over, relieved the recorder of one of her sharpened pencils, handed it to Angela.

"Da bad man come inna da house," Angela said, her words quick and urgent. "He snuck in da back door into da kitchen when nobody was watching. Mary -- she's da maid," she explained with such sincerity that even the most hardened of the assembled had to smile -- "Mary was outtada kitchen cause she hadda hang uppada bed sheets so they could dry an' she could mangle 'em."

"I see," Mr. Moulton nodded solemnly. "What happened then?"

"Den da bad man ran down da hallway an' he shot my Daddy in da back!" Angela declared loudly.

"What were you doing when this happened?"

"I was weedin' a story to my liddle brother an' my liddle sister an' I seen da bad guy in da doorway an' I seem him shoot an' I seen my Daddy in da udder doorway --"

"One moment," Mr. Moulton interrupted. "Which room were you in?"

"I was in da par-lor. It's got two doors."

"I see. And is there a hallway on the other side of the parlor wall?"

Angela nodded.

"So you saw the bad man in one doorway and you saw your Daddy in the other doorway."

Angela nodded again.

"What happened then?"

"Daddy said a bad word."

"I would imagine so," an anonymous voice said quietly from the audience.

"What happened then?"

"Da bad man run at Daddy an' Daddy gwabbed him an' da gun fell into da room where we were so I gwabbed it an' Daddy was beatin' on this fella an' dis fella was beatin' on Daddy an' Daddy gwabbed him by da shirt front an' he reached down da back of his neck an' pulled out da knife an' he said some more bad words an' he took da knife like dis an' he stabbed da bad guy like dis!"
Angela's gestures were brisk, forceful -- and also frighteningly accurate -- so much so that most of the assembled were chilled by this innocent little girl's first hand account of the murderous attack on her father, and his defense against the intruder who was still trying to kill him.

"And did the bad man say anything?" Mr. Moulton asked.

Angela nodded. "He said some bad words too" -- she looked at the Judge, then back to the prosecutor -- "an' he said he was gonna kill my Daddy. He said it real loud too."

"I see," Mr. Moulton nodded. "What happened then?"

"My Daddy fell down," Angela said sadly. "He went down on his hands and knees an' he coughed an' he spit out some blood an' den he got up an' he took da bad guy an' he throwed him through the winda innada front door!"

Her pantomine was quick, vicious; the pencil was still gripped in her hand, point down, like a dagger: Mr. Moulton reached forward, gripped it lightly and whispered, "Thank you," and returned the pencil to the recorder's desk.

The court recorder's pencil traced quickly, and surprisingly audibly, in the courtroom's hush.

"What happened then?"

"My Daddy went outside an' Jacob an' Marshal Macfarland come up an' dey took Daddy to da hop-sickle."

"The hop ... you mean the hospital?"

"Dat's what I said," Angela said, her eyes wide and sincere. "Da hop-sickle."

"No further questions, Your Honor."

"Mr. Chipalinski?" the Judge asked.

Counsel for the Defense recognized a hand they could not win.

"No questions for this witness, Your Honor, pending further recall."

His Honor's attention was caught by an upraised hand: it was the red-headed Fire Chief, raising a summoning finger.

His Honor rapped the gavel. "We will take a half hour recess. Chief Fitzgerald, in my chambers, if you please."

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163. I KNOW A SECRET

Sarah took advantage of the courthouse's extra room, and her own skills as a quick-change artist: no longer the menacing Agent, all in black, now she was the young and lovely Sarah McKenna, marriageable young woman about town, and at the moment, a very frosty-eyed young woman-about-town.

His Honor had declared a mistrial -- his conference with the Fire Chief was a rather thorough debrief, in which he managed to extract more information from Sean than the big Irishman realized he knew -- after which, the Judge returned to the bench and summoned both councils.

"Gentlemen," he said, his voice low, "I have little choice but to declare a mistrial. Seeing the witness fall in such a spectacular manner can be seen as prejudicial to the jury."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Attorney Chipalinski preened, not attempting in the least to show his pleasure at this unexpected development.

"Don't thank me too quickly," His Honor said, an edge to his voice. "Unless things change for the better, we will be amending the charges to include murder with premeditation."

Sarah ran as quickly as dress shoes and her skirts would allow, steering her course for the gleaming, polished-quartz hospital.

She ordered herself not to cry, demanded of herself she would not cry, and in spite of her determination, her eyes filled with tears enough to obscure the obstruction before her, and she ran at speed into the wool bib front of one of the Irish Brigade.

Daffyd Llewellyn seized Sarah and stepped back enough to keep from being knocked over, and Sarah seized the Welsh fireman around the waist to keep herself from spinning out of orbit: she hung desperately to this moment of sanity, when she could draw from another's strength, and he hung onto this attractive young woman for whom he had plans, and a deep and genuine affection.

Sarah shivered like a scared little bunny rabbit, and Daffyd soothed her, and whispered to her, and held her, and gradually her distress eased and she was finally able to look up and ask, "How is he?"

 

"Aunt Bonnie," Angela asked in a sad little voice, "how is my Daddy?"

Bonnie stopped and squatted, regarded the sad-faced little girl with the startling blue eyes: she swallowed hard, then enveloped the nine-year-old in a motherly embrace.

"I don't know, sweets," she whispered, "but we can find out."

Angela, her chin resting on top of Bonnie's shoulder, was barely able to nod her agreement.

 

The scalpel sliced easily through skin, then muscle and connective tissue: the incision was not long, but it was precise.

Dr. John Greenlees was a surgeon and a good one, and his precision showed in his work.

So it was here: he made the initial incision, then thrust the scalpel into the pleural space and was rewarded by a quick hiss of trapped air, then blood.

"It's no wonder," he murmured, then set about draining all the trapped blood that built up until finally the lung was collapsed.

"Doctor Flint, what are his lung sounds?" Dr. Greenlees asked, not looking and not needing to look, in order to know that his partner was auscultating the chest, checking that very parameter.

"His good lung sounds all right," he said slowly, plucking the ear-tips from his ears. "The lung you're evacuating, doesn't."

"It doesn't feel good either," Linn complained. "You try layin' still while the sawbones slices into yer hide!"

"I'll bet you're hungry, too," Dr. Greenlees murmured. "And if you want a beer on top of that I'll pronounce you healed and send you home!"

Sarah slipped into the room, breathing deeply; she swung around the far side of the operating table, slipped in beside Dr. Greenlees's shoulder, bent close to Linn's ear.

"I know a secret," she singsonged in a breathy whisper, right into Linn's ear: "Esther told me what she saw, and now I tell you.

"You will live not only long enough to walk me down the aisle, you will walk Angela down the aisle, and she will look at you with those shining blue eyes, she will look at you as if you are a god come to this earth!"

She straightened, considered, bent again.

"Remember you promised to walk me down the aisle. I'm not going to place bets at the Silver Jewel, but I could. It's that much a sure thing."

Dr. Greenlees had his own opinion of that matter, but he kept his own counsel.

"There, now," Dr. Greenlees murmured. "All done."

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164. MINE

 

I laid there in that damned bed and I willed myself to stillness.

I pushed myself away from my carcass like I was pushing away from a floating log in a still pond, and I watched.

I watched the self I used to be, blown nearly out of the saddle when that cannon blew up beside me.

I watched the self I used to be, when a man I never knew shot me in front of my own log office and come near to killin' me then.

I watched as that murdering back shooter skulked into my house -- my house! -- and shot me in the back, and I watched myself turn around and charge him, teeth bared and fists knotted, roaring with an honest man's rage, and I watched myself beat and knife that murdering son of perdition plumb to death, and I watched myself and I looked close and I looked closer and I saw insanity in my own eyes when I seized this murderer and slung him back and heaved him right through my front door's window.

Part of me was not at all pleased, for that was a good window with a frosted glass design and I'd seen only one other like it.

The rest of me sang with a fighting man's joy, that an enemy sought my death, and I visited death right back upon him, and with my own hands sent him to Hell's fires.

I floated back, looked at myself layin' on that blood stained sheet, at Doc frowning at the slice he'd just made in my side, and I watched Sarah float over toward me and I saw her bend down and I slipped back into myself so I could hear what she said.

It hurt to put my body back on but I did, I thrust myself back into my carcass like I would shove my foot into a boot, and I embraced the pain.

The pain was bright, the pain was overwhelming and I hugged it to me like a lover and I felt my lips peel back from my teeth and I gasped.

Part of me heard Doc Greenlees grunt "It's about time, you contrary old bird," and another part of me felt Sarah's breath, warm, caressing my ear like a lover's touch, and her words spun like silk ribbons on a breeze and laid gentle-like, draped over my heart.

I saw her words as much as heard them, and I saw her on my arm, and she looked up at me, her pale eyes bright and happy and she whispered, "Thank you, Papa," and she kissed me quickly, on the cheek, and I felt the veil between her lips and my clean shaven face.

My daughter, a bride, and beautiful.

Whispers, ribbons, curling on the breeze, and another daughter, one with bright, Kentucky-blue eyes, her hand just as tight on my arm, and I looked down and she smiled up at me and she, too, came up quickly, impulsively on her toes, and another daughter kissed my cheek through her veil.

It felt warm, it felt...

It felt right.

I liked the way it felt.

Pain seared through me again, pain fresh and hot, pain fork-trailing like a lightning strike forking and spreading across a clouded night sky.

I was no longer in our little whitewashed church, surrounded by family and friends, I was alone in my own bathed-in-pain carcass, and I felt my lips peel back from my teeth, and I heard an animal sound rumble deep in my throat, and I felt my body searing in more pain than I've felt in a very long time and my hands closed into fists and Sarah's hand was warm and firm on my high chest and I opened my eyes and I thought This is my fight, and I took a shivering breath and I looked at my daughter and she looked at me and my God she's beautiful, and I'm going to walk her down the aisle!

"Dear Papa," Sarah whispered, and I heard her with my own ears this time, and she stroked my forehead and I saw the hardness in her eyes as she pretended not to hear Dr. Greenlees mutter something about contrary old lawmen who are too stubborn to let a little thing like being shot to hell kill them.

"Sarah," I whispered, and she smiled a little and nodded.

"Heal up, Papa," she whispered back.

I nodded and closed my eyes.

I got work to do, I thought, and I felt my jaw muscles harden up the way they did when I faced something that would genuinely task me.

I am going to heal up and I am going to walk my daughters down the aisle.

This is my fight now.

Mine.

 

Jacob sat in his father's chair, in his father's study, at his father's desk, and studied his father's ledger.

He'd written several letters, instructions to investors, instructions to mine owners, instructions to bankers: his father's investments were several, but like a campfire -- or a woman's heart -- they had to be tended often, lest they grow cold and distant.

He'd spent part of the day in the Z&W's offices, with his unofficial and very small board of directors, three men he trusted more than he trusted himself, and they'd gone over the running of the railroad, giving Jacob quick, concise and very accurate synopses of the business's activity.

Thus far, in spite of his mother's death -- in spite of Esther's quick, incisive and profitable touch -- the Z&W was maintaining a good profit, a good efficiency, and the morale of the working men was still absolutely top notch.

Satisfied, Jacob turned his full attention to his father's affairs again, and wrote a series of deposit orders, quietly shunting that lean-bellied, iron-grey-mustached old man's profits into their designated accounts in the variety of banks he favored: when finally he wiped the pen's steel nib and set it away, when finally he capped the ink bottle, sealed the final envelope, rubbed his eyes and straightened, it was a little past high twelve, and time he was back about his own affairs.

I can't do a damned thing to help Pa heal up, he thought as he slowly, carefully drew the roll top closed on his father's desk.

I can at least do this much for him.

 

Outside, Angela methodically curried her Rosie-bud horse, pursing her lips and frowning a little as she delicaely feathered out the fetlocks.

Rosie-bud head featheries but nothing like her Aunt Sarah's Snowflake-horsie but Snowflake was very, very big, and Snowflake had very big shiny black hoofies and big featheries and it took but little for the blue-eyed child to imagine the huge Frisian with wings on her hooves, sailing the mountain winds like a great, gleaming bird.

She stood, quickly, and Rosebud turned her head at the sudden movement and looked curiously at her.

Angela caressed Rosebud's slick nose and murmured wistfully, "Rosie-bud, can you fly?" and the little red mare blinked, and slashed her tail, but made no other reply.

 

Doc Greenlees looked down at his old friend and smiled that crooked smile of his.

"Welcome back," he said cynically.

"Thanks," Linn grunted. "How many holes do I have now?"

"Just one more. It'll heal."

Linn swore, quietly, but most sincerely, and Doc chuckled.

"As long as you can cuss you'll be all right," he nodded: the man seldom smiled, really, that crooked, sardonic twist of his lips was the closest thing he generally came to such an expression, but Linn knew the man and knew the expression for what it was.

"If that's the case," Linn gasped as another lightning bolt seared through him, "plug your ears and I'll throw some sulfur in the air!"

"Don't get too ambitious," Dr. Greenlees cautioned him. "Healing up is hard work."

"Then get me somethin' to eat, I'm about starved out and I got work to do."

"That is a good sign," Nurse Susan declared stoutly, swinging like a ship at anchor with a shifting tide: she steered her course for the doorway, for all the world like a ship-of-the-line under sail, thinking matronly thoughts on just how much good beef she could get into their patient.

Linn's eyes swung back up to the well-studied tin ceiling.

I'm gonna have to fight to heal up, he thought, then his lips pulled back in an absolutely humorless smile.

That's okay.

This is my fight.

Mine.

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165. WORD GETS AROUND

 

"You hear about that pale eyed old Sheriff out Firelands?"

A chuckle. "What did he do this time, kill three men with one shot?"

"Nah, that was last week."

"Yeah, that's right."

"What did happen?" a third man asked, spreading his hands over the small fire, grateful for the warmth.

"I reckon he throwed someone over the church steeple ag'in, left handed."

"I thought he was left handed!"

"That skinny old so-and-so? God Almighty, man, didn't you ever watch him practicin'?"

"Whattaya mean, practice?"

"I mean he kin throw up a marble, draw and shoot it left handed, reload and holster before the glass dust hits the ground!"

"So he ain't no good right handed."

"No good your Aunt Janet's billy goat! He's better'n any man in the territory left handed, an' he's better with his right hand than his left!"

"And I reckon you seen it!"

"Seen it hell, I lost a double eagle bettin' ag'in him!"

Coffee gurgled into tin cups; the three men, squatting in the lee of two boulders and doing their best to soak up every bit of radiation from the little fire, watched greedily as the youngest of the three shaved bacon into the frying pan, eyed bread dough twisted over a stick and hung near the flames.

"I hear tell some fella tried t' have him killed."

"Wha'd he use, dy-nee-mite?" Breath blew gently over the rippling black liquid, the man grunted as he burnt his lip on the tin cup, swallowed the scalding liquid.

"Nah, he hired some fella. I hear tell he tried back shootin' the man in his own house."

Silence for several long moments ,and finally one spoke for all three's thoughts: "Now that just ain't right."

"I should smile it ain't," the oldest of the three grunted. "His wife's not two months dead an' his young'uns were in the room when they tangled!"

"He didn't kill him?"

"Tried, or so I hear. Shot him twice in the back with a rifle an' bent the barrel somethin' terrible beatin' the man over the head with it!"

"Dayum-nation!" Two sticks clattered quietly onto the fire. "Ain't they knowin' you can't kill a lawman an' git away with it?"

"He ain't a lawman no more. Quit that mornin'."
"Quit!"

"Yep." The hat brim tilted and rose as the head beneath nodded slowly. "Said he didn't have a wife no more an' he didn't want his chilrins t' lack."

"Wise man." The words were grunted, but sincere. "Wisht my Pa was that kind!"

"So attair Sheriff quit that mornin' an' he got kilt that evenin'."

"He ain't dead," came the dour correction, "but he's laid up. I hear tell that boy o' his is Sheriff now, an' he's as fast an' mean as his old man."

"Likely he'll be awful proddy."

"Likely will."

"Don't reckon we'd ort try anythin' over that-away."

"Don't reckon."

"Attair bacon gittin' done?"

"It's gittin' there."

They listened to the wind, to their horses, to their thoughts.

"You said he was back shot an' beat over th' head."

"Yep."

"Attair fella git away?"

A chuckle. "Not hardly."

"What'd he do, throw 'im in the air left handed an' shoot 'im like a marble?" Two laughed; all smiled.

"Nah." Dirty fingers poked experimentally at the crusting bread dough. "I hear tell he ripped a spindle off his stairway an' beat th' fella t' death with it!"

A low whistle. "Make a hell of an epitaph."

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166. "I HAVE TO GO"

"Go on ahead," Daffyd Llewellyn said quietly. "I'll be along."

"If we get a run, we'll blow the whistle for you."

"You do that." The German Irishman gripped the Welsh Irishman's hand, looked toward the door, then back to his friend and colleague.

"Stay with her," he said quietly. "She needs you now."

Daffyd nodded.

The rest of the Irish Brigade filed out and trooped solemnly through the cold air, back to their tall, narrow brick firehouse.

As if it were timed (and somehow Daffyd Llewellyn suspected it just might have been), Sarah opened the door into the waiting room.

Daffyd turned as she slipped out, closed the door silently behind her, leaned against it, closed her eyes: every fiber cried out Go to her, go to her! --

Sarah opened her eyes, looked at Daffyd.

Daffyd paced slowly toward her, and she, slowly toward him.

They met.

Sarah raised her hands, and Daffyd, his: she interlaced her fingers with his and looked up at him, her bottom lip quivering, her eyes full and ready to spill over.

"I can't save him," she whispered, looking as lost as he'd ever seen anyone look in all his entire life: "I can't save him, Daffyd."

Daffyd Llewellyn pulled his hands from hers, wrapped his arms around her, held her: she pressed herself desperately into his embrace, shoving her face into his red wool shirt front, and he felt her heaving, knowing she was screaming with grief inside, great racking sobs that threatened to tear her apart, but forbidding them voice, not allowing a sound to escape.

Wisely, he waited: he knew words would not help, he knew the best thing he could say, he said with his arms; he knew he could not comfort her with his voice, but he could comfort her with his presence, and so he held her, and she grieved in silence, clutching this man with desperation, seizing this one stable thing in a universe spun off its axle and whirling uncontrolled and disintegrating through a limitless eternity of fire and destruction.

Time is often flexible: it can stretch immeasurably or shrink with a snap -- Llewellyn knew what it was to watch a burning building collapse, slowly, oh so slowly, taking at least an hour as the fire that burnt it out from the inside swallowed it in one spark-slinging gulp, a collapse he knew took no more than six seconds, but a collapse he watched with horrified fascination one dark Cincinnati night, and so it was here.

He knew he didn't hold this sorrowing lass, this beautiful young woman he'd have given his very life for, this soul with whom he was smitten, to whom he'd given the one thing left from his family, the Ring of the Princess itself -- he knew he didn't hold her for more than the span of a very few minutes, but he held her for a year and a day, as long as it took, and finally he drew her back from him just a bit, just long enough to lay his finger under her chin and raise her face a little.

Her face was wet now, as was his shirt front, and Daffyd Llewellyn knew that men often took their intended to a great height, or to a place of beauty, to a fine cathedral or a high mountain top where the earth fell from their feet to display the glory of Creation in all its beauty.

He considered for a moment that a hospital was a hell of a place for a proposal, but he knew it was time.

"Sarah," he whispered, "will he live?"

Sarah closed her eyes, leaned her forehead against him. "I don't know," she whispered. "That is hidden from me."

"He's alive now?"

She nodded, numb, miserable.

Daffyd took her by the shoulders, turned her, pushed her back a little until the backs of her knees touched the edge of a waiting room chair's seat.

"Sit here," he said. "I have to go."

"Go?" Sarah blinked up at him, confused.

Llewellyn's jaw set and he motioned her stay, then he turned, seized the doorknob, pulled open the door.

 

I was somewhere between awake and asleep, breathing.

I concentrated on breathing.

It wasn't as hard as it had been -- fact is, since Doc cut that hole between my ribs and did whatever the hell it was, it wasn't nearly so hard to breathe -- but I concentrated anyhow.

Seemed like folks were comin' and goin' all the time ... I heard a man's pace coming toward me and I opened up my eyes.

It was work but I got my good right hand out from under the covers.

Llewellyn's hand was warm and strong in mine, and somewhere I got strength enough to grip his back.

"Sheriff," he said, his voice grave, "if I may, I have a question."

I took another couple breaths, pointed.

"Bottom of the bed," I managed, and the fireman looked at the footboard, puzzled.

"Three cranks. Right hand crank."

He looked back at me, then went slowly around to the bottom of the bed. I felt him fiddle with the crank a little, then he began turning it, slowly, looked up at me as he did.

He cranked up the head of my bed.

"More," I gasped, and he fetched it right on up.

I nodded and he stopped.

"Is that better?" he asked, concern in his voice, and I nodded.

He reached up, laid the backs of his fingers against my cheek, then my forehead. "You look like hell," he murmured.

"I need a beer," I said, smiling a little.

"I can fetch ye one."

I shook my head, or tried to ... I managed just a little weak back and forth and I don't reckon the tip of my nose moved more than a half inch, but it was enough.

"Drag," I husked, "up a chair."

He shook his head, bit his bottom lip, looked away, looked back at me.

I took another couple breaths.

"There is a," I said, paused, gathered up some more wind. "A question ... in your eyes."

Daffyd Llewellyn nodded, his face serious.

"I'd intended to ask when ye were more ... yerself," he said, then plunged ahead. "I can't wait any longer. May I have your daughter's hand in marriage?"

"Sit," I managed.

He wavered, turned, grabbed a chair, spun it into place beside the bed, planted his backside on it and set bolt upright, looking expectantly at me.

"You," I said in as strong a voice as I could manage -- which wasn't much more than a whisper -- "want Sarah's hand."

He nodded. "I do, sir."

I took another few breaths. "Is she without?"

"She is."

"Bring her in."

He blinked, stared at me -- I'm not sure whether he thought my reply for good or for ill -- but he stood, slid the chair back, walked across the well-fitted floor and opened the door.

"Sarah?" he called, and Sarah came in, looking more like a scared little girl than the hard-eyed, bloodthirsty Agent she'd made herself.

I motioned her closer.

"Sarah," I said, "my first wife was your age when we were married."

Sarah's eyes went big and round and her hands clapped flat-finger together over her mouth.

"Connie was the dearest thing I'd ever known." I had to stop and rest a little, and Sarah sank into the chair, leaned forward, took my hand in hers, bent over and kisssed my bent fingers.

"Sarah," I whispered, "I wish I'd ... I wish ..."

"I know." Something hot and wet dropped onto my wrist. "I know, Papa. I do too."

"I can't ... change that." Another few breaths. "You are, my ... daughter."

I was exhausted but I had to push on.

"Is it ... your wish ..."

I looked up at Daffyd Llewellyn.

"What kind," I said, a little more strongly, "of a son in law will he make?"

Sarah's grip almost crushed my hand and she was crying hard now, nodding.

There was nothing hard or vicious in her in that moment.

In that moment she was my little girl, happier than I'd ever seen her, and crying harder than I'd ever seen her.

I looked up at Daffyd.

"I'm tired," I whispered. "Take good care of my little girl."

Sarah threw herself on me, hugging me and crying and I wanted so bad to reach my arms around her and crush her into me and all I could manage was raise a hand and grip a little material at the top of her skirt.

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