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The Sheriff's Grandson


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167. IT WORKED, DIDN'T IT?

Linn's eyes looked through the wall, through realities, looking at memories and at possibilities.

His breathing was easier and he no longer tasted blood when he exhaled.

As much as he wanted to swing his legs out of the bed and get dressed and throw a leg over his red mare, he knew he was too weak to sit up on his own.

In time, he would rise.

In time.

He smiled a little, blinked slowly as he relaxed.

He remembered -- was it dream, imagination, vision? -- Sarah ... Sarah in a shimmering blue gown, three shades of color and white trim about the bodice and the white crown and the veil flowing down from the crown like mist off a waterfall, and he remembered her coming up on her toes and kissing him on the cheek, and he remembered her whispered voice.

Her white-gloved hand gripped his forearm and he saw his boots, polished and gleaming, marching with slow and dignified ceremony down the aisle of their little whitewashed church.

He smiled a little at the memory, and his eyes closed slowly, and his breathing came slow and regular.

Nurse Susan turned the lamp down, dimming it as far as she could without its going out; she studied the sleeping man, nodded with satisfaction, crept from the room.

 

Sarah's mouth was open a little and she felt her chest tighten and her own breath quicken.

Daffyd had gone to one knee to put the Ring of the Princess on her hand.

He'd proposed in the hospital's waiting room but the Ring was in its little chip-carved casket in his trunk in the firehouse bunkroom, and when he planted his right hand prayer bone on the cobbles, it was in the equipment bay in their firehouse.

He held both her hands and he looked at her with utter adoration, at least until the German Irishman slapped him happily across the shoulder blades and laughed with delight.

"It's about time!" Sean roared, and he and the English Irishman seized the Welsh Irishman under the arms and hauled him to his feet: "Well don't just stand there, man, kiss her!"

Sarah swallowed, wet her lips, watched as Daffyd Llewellyn cleared his throat nervously, looked down at her and said hesitantly, "Sarah ... ye have agreed t'me me wife ..."

"Yes?" she squeaked, her grip on his hands tightening a little.

"Sarah, may I kiss you?"

Sarah threw her head back and laughed, and the sound of a woman's delighted laughter is never out of place in a firehouse: Sarah looked at her betrothed and turned her head slightly, giving him a look that promised much.

"If you don't," she said, her voice throaty, almost suggestive, "I will pound you into the earth like a fencepost!"

She didn't have to.

 

The reaction in the Rosenthal household was one one might expect.

Levi pumped Daffyd's hand, squeezed his shoulder proudly, offered him a drink: the men retired to Levi's study while the ladies converged in an excited, chattering cluster, matron and maidens and even the maid exclaiming with delight at this sudden event, at the beauty of the ring, with speculation, with plans, and behind the closed door, Levi Rosenthal poured two fingers' worth for each of them, hoist his glass in salute: "To a lifetime of happiness!" he saluted, and the two men drank.

Another decant, generous this time: "Sit down, sit down!" Levi laughed. "I remember when I proposed to Bonnie. I thought she was going to squeeze the breath out of me!"

The red-shirted fireman's expression was somber. "It was ... almost ... a have-to proposal," he admitted.

Levi looked sharply at the man, set down his glass. "Mr. Llewellyn," he said slowly, his voice noticeably cooler, "is there something I should know?"

Daffyd's face turned suddenly red. "It's not that," he said quickly. "It's the Sheriff ... her father ... her other father."

"Eh?"

"She ... Sarah can see things ..."

Levi blinked, shifted his weight uncomfortably: he knew women as a rule have a deeper understanding of many things than men, and he knew Sarah had a deeper vision still.

"She ... I asked if he was going to survive."

"And...?" Levi left the question dangle in the room's hush.

"He doesn't look good," the fireman said, his expression bleak, the drink forgotten in his hand. "I asked Sarah and she said it was ... she couldn't see ..."

His voice trailed off and he looked half sick, then he looked back at Levi.

"I don't know if he's goin' to pull out o' this one, Levi. I couldna' wait. He is her father and I had to ask for her hand while he's still alive."

Levi nodded slowly, took a sip of his brandy.

Daffyd looked at his drink as if he'd just noticed it: he tilted it up, swallowed a few times, lowered it.

"Mr. Rosenthal, if I've asked the wrong man --"

"No." Levi shook his head. "You did the right thing and you're right." He drained his glass, set it aside. "You needed to ask."

"Thank you, sir."

Levi raised an eyebrow, smiled with half his face.

"How much do you know about her?"

Daffyd looked frankly at the retired Pinkerton and raised an eyebrow. "That tells me she's more than I realize."

Levi chuckled. "You could say that."

"She's such a lovely young thing," Daffyd said thoughtfully. "How complex could she be?"

Levi laughed. "You, my good man," he chuckled, reaching for the cut-glass brandy decanter, "have no idea! Refill?"

 

Angela slipped out the door, ran silently down the driveway.

Her Rosebud-horsie was back at her Daddy's house.

Bonnie insisted she stay with her while her Daddy was hurt and it was fun at first because the twins were her age and her size and Bonnie gave her some pretty new dresses, but she was worried about her Daddy, and Sarah let it slip that she'd told her Daddy that he would walk them both down the aisle and now Sarah was going to walk down the aisle and get married and her Daddy was still in the hop-sickle and she was way too young to get married and she needed to talk to her Daddy 'cause he could make sense of it.

It took her a while to get to the hop-sickle and the door wasn't locked so she slipped in and she knew which door to go through, so she did.

Her Daddy was asleep and she didn't want to wake him, but she was a little girl who needed her Daddy's comfort, so she pulled up a chair and climbed up and she kicked off her shiny black slippers and eased under the covers with her Daddy and he was warm and she cuddled up against him and she rolled up on her side and gripped her Daddy's arm and finally, finally, she could relax.

Somehow Nurse Susan wasn't terribly surprised when she came in on her next round and found the Sheriff's little girl, sound asleep, her head laid over against her Daddy's shoulder.

When Sarah eased the door open and looked in, she smiled a little too, then withdrew her head and shut the door.

There was no way in the world she was going to chastise her sister.

Sometimes, she knew, a girl needed her Daddy.

Sarah rode home, smiling cynically.

As sometimes happened, her several internal selves were discussing recent events.

Nicely done, sister, a voice said.

You know when to turn on the water works.

Suckered him like a poker table virgin!

Sarah's cynical smile was unchanged, and her spoken voice matched it.

"It worked, didn't it?"

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168. NO THANK YOU, MA'AM

 

"HEY!" Dobreiner yelled through the bars. "HEY! TURNKEY!"

There was no answer.

"HEY OUT THERE!" the prisoner shouted, louder this time, and his fellow prisoner in the next cell called back, "Shut up, Jack, ain't nobody out there!"

"They can't lock us up and forget about us!"

"Ya been fed already, now go to sleep!"

"Whose side you on, anyway?" Dobreiner flared. "I didn't turn on you!"

There was the sound of a fist on the wall separating the cells. "Damn you, Dough! I didn't turn on you neither!"

"Damned rat," Dobreiner muttered, turning away from the barred door. "Damned RAT!"

"I ain't no rat, you sheep farmer, and you know it!"

It was Dobreiner's turn to slam the wall. "YOU TAKE THAT BACK!" he demanded.

"Blow up and die, tree frog," came the sneering rejoinder.

"Why, I oughta --"

"You oughta what? You got us inta this and now we're both gonna hang for it!"

"He ain't dead!"

"He don't hafta be! You said we both figured on hirin' him killed!"
"They can't prove nothin'!"

"You sure?" The voice sagged in defeat, as plain as if he'd been able to see through the timber wall to see the other's shoulders droop. "That black Agent got the goods on us, you dip! You remember hangin' from that tree branch? You remember that belt?"

Dobreiner muttered something inaudible; there was the sound of a body throwing itself onto the hard, narrow cot.

 

His Honor the Judge blew another smoke ring toward the ceiling.

He'd declared mistrial, officially, because the sight of the Old Sheriff keeling over was prejudicial to the jury.

The real reason, he mused, was that he didn't want the prisoners twice in jeopardy -- if they were convicted of a lesser offense, they could not be tried for murder if the Old Sheriff died.

No, better to declare a mistrial, and wait to see if the man was going to live, or going to die.

He could wait indefinitely if need be.

The Judge flicked his cigar's ash into the gleaming, flare-mouth spitoon, sighed, shook his head.

Given his druthers, the dignified old jurist would rather hang the pair for charges extant.

A jury, he knew, had some leeway in sentencing, and there was the chance they would not see planning a murder but not executing it themselves, the same as carrying out the murder themselves.

According to law, it was the same.

A clever lawyer might argue that the law was wrong.

Juries had overturned the intended prosecution before, and His Honor had to be impartial, no matter how badly he wanted to put the noose around the neck of the guilty.

He looked at the decanter, at its amber contents, then looked away.

He wasn't in the mood for a drink.

The Judge reached over, turned down the lamp, then cupped his hand at the top of the chimney, puffed a quick breath, blew out the flame.

It was time for bed anyway.

 

"Pa?"

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Pa, is Grampa gonna be all right?"

Jacob looked across the table at his wife, and Annette looked uncomfortably at their son and then at her husband.

Jacob set his fork down and considered his answer carefully.

"Joseph," he said, "one way or another, your Grampa is going to be just fine."

"They was sayin' he's gonna die," Joseph said quietly.

"He might," Jacob agreed.

Joseph looked at his Pa, eyes wide -- surprise, alarm, confusion, whatever the reason, the expression on his son's face went to his father's heart.

"Joseph," Jacob said, "we believe in God."

"Yes, sir," Joseph said.

"We believe our sins are forgiven and we go to Heaven when we die."

"Yes, sir."

"If your Grampa dies, Grandma will be right there to welcome him when he peels out of his carcass and stands over what used to be his body. She'll take him by the hand and they'll walk to the Throne."

"Yes, sir," Joseph said uncomfortably.

"If that doesn't happen, that means he'll heal up and be the same Grampa you've always known."

"Yes, sir."

"Either way, Joseph, it works out."

"Yes, sir."

Joseph looked at his now-empty plate.

"We have dried apple pie," Annette offered hopefully.

"No thank you, ma'am," Joseph said sadly. "I'm not hungry."

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169. BONNIE'S STATEMENT

 

Nurse Susan froze at the sound of a body hitting the floor.

Morning Star and Dr. Flint were on their feet and moving and the three of them squirted through the doorway, dreading what they would find.

Linn was on the floor, face down but moving.

Nurse Susan started toward him and Dr. Flint seized her arm, pulled, shook his head.

 

"Your Honor," Jacob said, "if you want to try them --"

"I will try them, Sheriff," the Judge said deliberately, "in my own good time."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Don't worry. They'll hang. They're guilty and they will hang."

"Yes, sir."

His Honor looked intently at the young Sheriff.

"How is your father today, Jacob?"

Jacob almost smiled. "He's restless, sir."

"Restless." The Judge fished a cigar out of his inside pocket.

"Yes, sir. He's tired of layin' around."

His Honor grunted, struck a match on the post, puffed the hand-rolled Cuban into fragrant life.

"I'm surprised it took him this long."

 

"You," Nurse Susan scolded, "have no business trying to get up!"

"I'm not up," Linn rasped, pain in his voice. "I'm down, in case you hadn't noticed!"

"Here, let me help you up --"

He turned his head a little, froze her with a glare: she drew back, some instinct warning her that he was less the Old Sheriff she knew and more ... more something dangerous, something she'd heard of but she'd never really seen.

It took him two tries but he came up on hands and knees, head hanging: he took several breaths, gritted his teeth, got his bare feet planted under him, steadied one hand on the floor and reached up with his left and gripped the edge of the bed, hard.

He stood.

He groaned, teeth clenched, like a weight lifter under more weight than he'd ever hoist, but he managed to power himself upright.

He stood, left hand death gripped in the thin mattress, and he raised his head, looked from one to another.

"Get my clothes. I'm leavin'."

 

"Does Doctor Greenlees think he'll live?"

"He said this morning he thought the crisis was past, yes, sir."

"So he doesn't think he's going to fall over dead again."

"No, sir."

"What did he say happened in the courtroom?"

"He said Pa's lung collapsed, sir. He said a collapsed lung is pretty damned painful."

His Honor harrumphed, spat. "Anyone else would have cried like a little girl" -- he shook his head -- "and all he did was say he didn't feel so good." He looked Jacob squarely in the eye. "Your father is one hard man, Jacob."

"Yes, sir."

"I suppose I could go over and see him."

"I reckon he'd like that, sir."

 

Linn looked at the opening door, his eyes pale and hard.

His Honor the Judge stepped into the room, closed the door behind him, turned casually, as if the sight of a naked man standing beside a hospital bed, the discarded nightshirt piled on the floor, was perfectly normal.

"I see you're feeling better," he said mildly, puffing with amusement on his Cuban.

"You are getting back in that bed," Nurse Susan declared.

"I am gettin' dressed or I am damn well walkin' home buck naked," Linn grated, his grip on the bed the only thing keeping him from swaying.

"You are doing no such thing!" Nurse Susan scolded, shaking her Mommy-finger at the man, and the Judge paced slowly across the floor, a serious look on his face to keep himself from busting out laughing.

It was honestly funny, he thought, to see the short, portly nurse all bristled up like a Banty hen, going nose to nose with this pale-eyed warrior.

The door opened behind him and Jacob and Dr. Greenlees came into the room.

Linn gathered a great lungful of air, ready to bellow in anger, and Dr. Greenlees thrust his chin toward the man and said quietly, "Don't you dare."

Linn closed his mouth, his glare slightly intense, then he half-grinned.

"We got enough people here," he said, "why don't we sell some roast peanuts and have a county fair?"

Nurse Susan laid the backs of her fingers against his cheek, then his forehead, frowning a little as she did.

"Well?" Linn snapped. "Satisfied?"

His Honor looked around, found a spitoon, carefully flicked his cigar ash.

"I don't suppose," he said conversationally, "you would care to wait for a professional opinion?"

"I'm tired of waitin'," Linn growled.

"I would imagine so," His Honor nodded, "but it would incense the public sentiment to see a man of your dignity strolling down the street without benefit of your properly dignified attire."

Linn closed his eyes, took a steadying breath. "That," he said tightly, "is why I am TELLING THEM TO GET ME MY DAMNED CLOTHES!"

"Raising your voice won't help," the Judge said reassuringly. "Why don't you --"

"Your Honor," Linn interrupted, "might I have a moment?"

His Honor raised an eyebrow, raised his cigar back to his lips.

"And why," the Judge replied, "would you need a moment?"

"Your Honor," Linn said a little more quietly, "my temper is very near to overriding my good sense, and if that happens I will make a bigger horse's hinder of myelf than I have already."

His Honor puffed thoughtfully on his Cuban.

"Doctor Greenlees," the Judge said quietly, "what is your professional opinion of the patient's condition?"

"He fell out of bed," Nurse Susan said quickly, turning a little.

Dr. John Greenlees turned sideways and worked himself through the crowded humanity, laid a hand on Linn's back, the other on his ribs.

He said something to his old friend, something quiet, and Jacob saw the change in his father's eyes.

The long, tall and buck naked fellow with the impatient expression and the iron-grey mustache nodded, turned a little, sat back against the bed.

Dr. Greenlees bent, hooked an arm under the man's knees, swung his legs aboard: Nurse Susan tried to crowd in, reaching for the covers, but the Sheriff's sudden glare impaled her and she stepped back as if slapped.

"If you could excuse us," Dr. Greenlees said politely, reaching for the stethoscope hung on a nearby peg.

 

His Honor rose as Bonnie McKenna came in the front door.

"Your Honor," she greeted him.

"Mrs. Rosenthal," he smiled, taking her hand and raising her knuckles to his lips. "A pleasure, as always."

Bonnie's violet eyes swung over to the closed door. "How is he, Your Honor?"

The Judge chuckled, his wise old eyes regarding the worried woman with amusement.

"Mrs. Rosenthal," he said quietly, and she could hear the smile in his voice, "please be assured that our dear old friend is improving steadily, but" -- he raised a cautioning hand -- "you may not wish to see him just yet."

"Why?" Bonnie asked, her eyes widening with alarm. "Has something happened?"

His Honor's smile overrode his reserve, and he nodded, dropping the stub of a cigar into the nearby spittoon. "Yes, Mrs. Rosenthal, you could say that."

Bonnie paled a little and her hand rose to her high bosom, and His Honor laid gentle fingertips on her forearm: "Nothing bad, I assure you, it's just that ..."

His Honor felt his ears warming to an alarming degree.

Bonnie's change of expression -- from distress to surprise to suspicion -- did not help any.

"Mrs. Rosenthal ... it seems that our old friend wished perhaps too sincerely that he might go home."

Bonnie's mouth opened a little. "He didn't --"

The Judge nodded gravely, his face serious, all but his eyes: "He most certainly did."

Bonnie looked at the door, her face becoming suddenly stern.

"Mrs. Rosenthal, I wouldn't --"

Bonnie brushed past the dignified jurist, seized the doorknob, pulled --

"Not bad," Linn said quietly. "I reach for the door and it opens."

Bonnie's eyes widened again, taking in the man's pallor, his insouciant grin, Nurse Susan's disapproving, arms-folded-foot-patting expression, Dr. Greenlees regarding the man with one tented eyebrow.

Linn was not only out of bed, he was fully dressed, necktie knotted, boots polished, freshly shaved, his mustache curled the way it always was, his Stetson at its usual slightly-off-level angle.

Bonnie's mouth opened, then closed, and she glared for a moment.

His Honor had just enough time to think Oh, no, before Bonnie whirled, snatched up her skirts and stormed out, her sharp little heels loud on the hardwood floor, the sound of her palm belting Linn on the cheek hung loud in the quiet room.

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170. "I NEED TO BORROW YOUR WIFE"

I don't know what hurt worse on the ride home.

Sarah drove and I just set there looking at the back end of the grey and not seeing anything but that bright burst of pain when Bonnie wound up and smacked me across the face.

No.

That's not right.

I saw her eyes.

I still saw her eyes.

My imagination read more into those gorgeous violet eyes than was really there, or so I reckon now, but as I recalled it then, I fancied I saw disappointment.

That hurt worse than being slapped.

A lot worse.

I don't recall a single word passing between us and as I remember it I sit here ashamed.

There I was, a grown man and I was just plainly wallowin' in guilt like I enjoyed it.

Sarah got us home in good shape and I climbed out of the carriage more by habit than by conscious thought or choice.

My steps were leaden, like a man climbing a gallows, but the good Lord is some smarter than me because right about then my front door come open and I went to my knees and received the full force of an infantry charge, and I run my arms around as many of my happy, laughing family as I could encompass and the twins grabbed the hat off my head and took turns wearing it, and Angela hugged me like she didn't never want to let go and I just stood there on my Prayer Bones and held them.

It was chilly out and a good thing, otherwise like as not I'd have stayed right there with the lot of 'em, but we went on inside and I got pulled into my study with laughter and little children's hands, and Alfdis waited til I was set down before she slid little Dana into my arms and my face felt kind of odd.

I'd had such a pinched look about me for so long that it took me a few to realize what was wrong with my ugly mug.

I had a grin on my face.

A big, genuine grin.

 

Mary, bless her, fixed a cake for dessert and it took stern command to get my Unorganized Militia to clean their plates, but clean 'em they did, because they knew the Grand Old Man would send 'em away if they short changed good rations so they could get to that dessert all the faster, but like I said, clean their plates they did, and in fine shape, and finally the cake came out and we all got a slab.

I made sure Mary got some as well, bless her, there was no way I was going to short the hired help, not when she was such a part of the family.

Alfdis managed to eat herself a slice as well, for all that she had an armful of wiggling little baby girl that wanted a meal of her own: I marveled yet again how women could do so many things at once, for if I'd tried to feed a little one and eat at the same time I'd like as not end up with my fork stuck through my leg or something.

The evening went as evenings did when I was able to make it home and wasn't out on the trail tarryhootin' after the lawless, or tending trouble in town: I read aloud from the Book, we sang while Angela played piano (again, amazement: a child's hands hadn't ought to be able to span the chords she did ... it was evident her Aunt Sarah had been teaching her, and teaching her well indeed!) -- and finally I declared it bedtime, and we all tended our nighttime necessities and then hit our respective bunks.

I lay there restless, discontented, but finally got to sleep.

I woke up dreaming of a campfire, smelling the wood smoke, then I come out of bed like a stung tomcat, wide awake before my feet hit the floor.

I grabbed my boots, shoved bare feet into them, I was to the bedroom door in one long jump, yanked it open just as the maid's raised fist came down fast and caught me on the shoulder: her panicked expression told me she bore the news I already knew, and I thundered down the stairs, ran outside, sprinted for the burning barn.

The Blaze Boys were trying to chivvy the horses out and the horses didn't want to leave but between the three of us we got 'em out, got them into an adjacent corral and swung the gate to: I ran into the burning barn, swearing at hot sparks searing my ears, grabbed two saddles and bridles and ran out: I made as many trips as I could and saved as much as I could, then a thought occurred to me and I looked to the house.

This high up, wood dries fast and stays dry and it burns like hell itself reached out to touch it, and my house was shake shingled, and wood shingles tend to catch fire from embers, and that burning barn was throwing plenty of 'em into the sky.

I grabbed the saddle blanket, ran out of the barn, whistled: Cannonball paced up to me, dancing, walling her eyes: I shoved her nose into the bridle, made it fast, swung blanket and saddle and cinched 'er down, shoved my boot into the doghouse and swung aboard, ignoring the demon that grabbed my hurt ribs and tried to crush them with steel-sharp claws.

"BOYS!" I yelled to the Blaze Boys. "KEEP THE HORSES OUT OF THERE! GO TO THE WELL AND TEAR OFF THE BOARDS AND STAND THERE!"

They hesitated, looked at the barn, looked at me.

"MOVE!!"

It wasn't my voice, it was the voice of the Colonel I had been, and it worked as well on these two scared lads as it had on green troops facing battle for the first time.

I kneed Cannonball around, kicked her hard: "YAAA!"

My beloved red mare spread her wings and sailed across that fence and made it look easy, and she knew I wanted her to run, and run she did, her ears laid back and her nose shoved straight ahead and me standing up in the stirrups, my hands pressed against her neck, bent way over and grunting as she galloped, "Run -- run -- run -- run!"

 

Sean shoved sock feet into his boots before his hard-thrown blankets began to descend, and he was embracing the polished brass firepole before he was fully awake: down he slid and when his boot soles hit the rubber matting at the bottom of the pole, he began to bellow as he always did, a full-voiced roar that echoed in the fine brick firehouse, waking man and beast alike.

Strong, callused fingers snatched the woolen undercoat and then the rubber coated slicker coat from his peg, he seized the helmet and turned to stride across the bay to the dancing white mares, awake and eager to run, no matter the late hour: Irishmen, not awake but still thrilling with the joy of a good fight that all firemen feel when they receive the alarm, Irishmen who knew their jobs, ran for the Masheen and for the mares: harness dropped from the ceiling and was cinched tight, the troika led forward, hitched to the gleaming, polished, now-hard-heating Ahrens steam engine, flame tasting coal and liking it, while the devil's breath -- a new compound called gasoline -- seared the Eastern bituminous into hot life, rapidly transferring thermal energy to the warm water in the boiler's coils.

Two men shoved hard on the doors, the mares danced in their harness, the ladder wagon was hitched behind the steam engine and Sean, seated on the tuck and roll upholstery, regarded the man wearing nightshirt and boots, astride a blowing, shivering mare, rose to his feet and bellowed, "WHITHER AWAY!"

Linn thrust an arm toward the skyglow that indicated an inferno and yelled, "MY BARN! SAVE THE HOUSE!"

Sean gave his wrist a casual, outward snap, then swung the blacksnake whip, hard, cracking a hole in the air three feet over the mares' heads: "ST. FLORIAN, ST. CHRISTOPHER AND MOTHER MARY, LADIES, RUN!"

 

The Blaze Boys were well illuminated now, for flames penetrated the barn's wood shingled roof and blew in an inverted, infernal fall of flames toward the clear sky above: the Irish Brigade swung the engine into position, seized lengths of hard suction, spun on the screen and spun one length to another, lowered its black spiral-wound snout into the hand-dug, stone-lined well, hooked up to the engine.

The German Irishman engaged the pump with one hand, smiled as he felt lubricated bronze gears slide into engagement, then with his other hand he advanced the steam lever and the double-action pistons began their determined labor.

"THE BARN'S A LOSS," Sean bellowed, "SAVE THE HOUSE!" -- and hose streams arced into the sky, carrying the red tint of hell's breath with them as they broke over and the color was lost: twin streams soaked the roof, cascaded across siding and sluiced over windows, and on the other side of the house, the maid and the wet-nurse draped blankets around their young charges, clucked like motherly hens, reassuring them that all would be well, that their father would have things well in hand.

The children, of course, wanted to watch, and truth be told, the ladies did as well, and so they drifted to where they could watch the fascinating, horrifying scene, the sight of the well-built barn gutting itself out, watching with a shivering awe at sparks streaming skyward and floating back down, and flinching at an occasional overspray from the straight-tip nozzles.

Once the worst of the fire burnt itself out, the Brigade was able to throttle back their faithful steam pump, sparing as much water as they could, for they knew the well would recharge, but not fast enough to continue at their former rate of discharge: the German Irishman made careful note of where every well and every cistern was in their jurisdiction, he'd drawn up charts and lists, which -- back at station -- did him no good at all.

He did, however, possess a good memory, and he remembered the rate of recharge on this particular well, and he determined to run at its very limit.

The eastern sky was lightening by the time the Brigade started breaking hose connections and draining water, coiling the hose for the trip back, where it would be washed and hung in the hose tower to dry, and fresh would be unloaded from their rack and replaced on the ladder wagon.

They carried more than most: Sean learned the hard way, back in Cincinnati, that a man is wise to pull hose enough to surround the structure.

He'd caught hell from his Chief for such wasteful extravagance, until the three structures one night that were saved because he had enough hose laid, connected and in position, and so it was tonight.

Had the house caught fire, he would have been ready.

The Brigade raised ladders, extended them and climbed to roof level for a good look-around.

To their relief, it was wasted effort, for the roof was wet, there were no hidden pockets of smoldering embers.

They'd done their job.

 

I took the Blaze Boys by their heads, running my arms around them and pulling them in close, lowering my own head until the three of us touched skulls.

It took some doing but they finally wound up enough courage to come to me and admit they thought they started the fire, something to do with a glass lamp they knocked over in their sleep.

My hands were spread wide and I gripped them firmly.

They were not getting away from me.

"Fellas," I said, my voice quiet, for it was not at all needful to raise my voice, "did either of you wake up this mornin' and figure on burnin' down my barn?"

Their surprise was well expressed by the silence of their answer.

I answered for them.

"I don't reckon you did."

I drew back a little and let them draw back a bit.

"It happened. It's done. You both saved as much as you could once you realized what happened."

They looked at one another and looked at me.

"You two come out here and you've been doing four mens' work between the both of you and I am obliged to you."

I moved my hands to their shoulders.

"I will pay you good wages for the work you've done."

I looked from one to another.

"Looks like I'm going to need this mess cleared out and a new barn built. How are you fellas at carpenter work?"

 

Later that morning, Angela drove our carriage.

The twins rode beside her, and Mary and Alfdis with little Dana in the back seat, and Cannonball and I paced alongside.

I had them go on to the Silver Jewel for breakfast.

There was no way in the cotton pickin' I was going to ask Mary to fix us breakfast after her missin' a good night's rest like she did.

Bless her, she was of a mind to fix a good meal for the Irish Brigade, but Sean went to her and asked her to save her efforts and save her kitchen goods, that he had to get his lads back and set the machine up again b'cause, he explained, there are Evil Demons of the Air that plague us, and sure as St. Florian watched benevoloently over them, if they didn't get things squared away for the next run, it would come in before they were ready an' they might lose the whole town.

I checked with Sean periodically to see if the Brigade was in need of anything, and I figured after they just kept my house from ketchin' fahr and burnin' down was a plenty good reason to stop and ask.

Once they got things squared away, they had breakfast at the Silver Jewel, and none objected to my offer on that count neither.

Once I left there (and I reckon I'd ought to add that I did get dressed somewhere in all this confusion), Cannonball and I clumb up to the Daine boys' settlement and I talked to the old patriarch, who'd seen my barn afire and was already planning on what timber to cut when I come a-ridin' up.

I told him I wanted the new one built of Eastern chestnut, and I would have it freighted in, he could order it or I would pay for him and his boys to go cut what they figured was needful, and he allowed as we'd ought to figure on how big I wanted that new barn before we did much else.

The ladies and my young were returned to home by the time I come down off the mountain, for I had particular ideas on what I wanted done, but they knew who to get to make it happen: I wanted the foundation stones set on bed rock, I wanted it dug out enough underneath so I could walk around wearin' my hat and not have to duck, and I wanted a shaft dug to communicate with the big hole I'd had dug under my house and laid up with good stone walls set for a foundation under it.

I told them I was plannin' to have this stand well after my grandchildren were buried, and they allowed as they could built 'er just like that, so once we got done plannin' I rode back down the mountain and et at the Silver Jewel, and then I started thinkin' on a matter that had troubled me for some time.

I rode out to Levi and Bonnie's place.

 

Levi Rosenthal was just folding his spectacles to put them away when the maid rapped delicately on his door frame, a familiar figure behind her.

Levi rose with pleasure wrinkling the corners of his eyes.

"Levi." Linn gripped his hand firmly. "I need your help."

"Name it."

"I need to borrow your wife."

 

Seven minutes later, Bonnie Rosenthal carefully slipped her own spectacles into a brocaded, slik-lined glasses case and placed them very precisely in a pigeonhole she reserved for their storage.

"You asked him what?" she echoed, blinking.

Linn grinned at her and then at Levi, standing beside him. "That's why I brought him. It's not polite to borrow a man's wife without his being there."

Bonnie shook her head slowly. "If this is a joke," she said, measuring her syllables, "I'm afraid I don't find it funny."

Linn sighed patiently: "It's not polite to borrow a man's wife unless he's right there -- oh, hell!" He threw his hat in a nearby chair. "Bonnie, I need your help -- yours too, Levi, here's why."

Linn frowned. "Levi, yours is the voice of reason, sanity and rational thought."

Bonnie's eyebrow arched and her chin came up.

"And you" -- Linn pointed to Bonnie -- "have a quality I need right now."

"Oh?"

The air cooled perceptibly with that single, simply syllable.

"Yeah." Linn's grin was crooked. "You are the one person in the world I can count on to tell me in so many words if I am being a damned fool. Everyone else is careful to say things ... kind of delicately." He raised a hand to his cheek, rubbed it thoughtfully. "You ... have a way with words."

Bonnie dropped her eyes, her face coloring. "I should not have slapped you," she said softly.

"What should you have done? Kissed me? Bonnie" -- Linn took a half-step forward -- "if it wasn't the right thing to do, you wouldn't have done it!"

"Hold on now," Levi interrupted. "She ... you slapped him?"

"You've heard about the preacher and the mule," Linn grinned. "You gots to gets the mule's attention first."

Bonnie looked up and Levi saw her eyes harden into an honest glare. "You damned fool," she whispered. "You shouldn't have tried getting out of bed!"

"I managed."

"You fell! You could have burst that lung again and then were would you be?"

"I know where I would be," Linn said bleakly. "I realized that when I got home and I got a good armful of family."

Bonnie folded her arms and glared overtop of the spectacles she wasn't wearing.

"Just what do you want to ask me?" she said, her voice soft, not quite a whisper but not far from it.

Linn looked away, his expression thoughtful.

Bonnie looked at Levi, spread her hands: What does he want? -- and Levi shook his head with a slight lift of his shoulders -- I don't know.

Linn bent his knees a little, reached back, found the arm of a chair, sat.

Levi squatted, looked closely at his old friend's troubled face. "Linn?"

Linn opened his eyes and Levi noticed his breathing was labored again -- just a little, just enough to be noticed.

Linn looked up at Bonnie.

"I came here to ask just how selfish a sort I was."

"Selfish?" Bonnie echoed, blinking, automatically encouraging a man to talk by echoing his thought and giving him the benefit of her full attention.

"I ... had thought ..."

Linn shook his head.

"I found my own answer and now I do feel like a damned fool."

"You seem to excel at that," Bonnie said coolly.

"Yeah." Linn's answer was more of a gasp.

"How do you figure that?" Levi asked, easing into the adjacent gold-embroidered, red-velvet-upholstered chair.

Linn looked at Bonnie.

"I had thought," he admitted, "to ride into the desert."

"You what?" Levi looked at Bonnie, whose expression moved smoothly from attentive to seriously disapproving.

"You didn't intend to come out."

Linn looked up, his eyes old.

"No."

"But you haven't."

Linn shook his head.

"Will you?"

He smiled with half his face. "Not now."

"Why not now?"

He closed his eyes, his hands closing tight -- Bonnie knew the man's moods, she knew his expressions, she even knew how he made his fists, and she knew his hands were not fisted in anger, but rather in pain.

She and Levi shared a glance and Bonnie shook her head slightly: No, and Levi nodded, ever so slightly.

"My barn burnt down last night," he said, his voice strained, and Bonnie's eyes widened with genuine alarm.

"Didn't lose anyone, didn't lose any stock, the Irish Brigade kept the house safe."

"Angela?" Bonnie asked quickly. "The children?"

Linn chuckled dryly, coughed, frowned. "They thought it was a grand spectacle."

Levi grunted, raised an eyebrow.

"If I didn't give a damn ... if I wanted to go into the desert and never come out ... I would never have ridden for the Brigade. I would never have met my children with my arms open. I would never have read to them and I would never have run them off to bed and I would never have set beside the stove and rocked Dana to sleep."

He looked up, looked at Bonnie.

"I'd damned myself for a selfish ..." -- he looked away, looked back.

"You don't need to know what I called myself."

"Selfish."

He nodded.

"Why?"

"For siring another child on Esther ... for letting our passions ..."
He took a long breath, bit on a knuckle.

"Do you regret Dana?"

"No."

"Do you resent her for killing your wife?"

Linn looked up, dismay in his expression: "It wasn't Dana's fault! It was mine!"

"Was it?"

He looked away, his voice soft. "I could argue both sides of the coin on that one."

"It wasn't your fault," Bonnie said firmly. "Esther knew she could not birth the child. She begged them to take the baby. She knew her own life was forfeit and she begged them to let her child live!"

Linn nodded miserably. "I know."

"You know, but you'd rather wallow in guilt. You have three children to raise and you'd rather hogwallow in guilt."

He looked up, shook his head.

"It gets worse."

"You're making it pretty bad already," Bonnie declared, "and yes you're being a fool but by all means, do go on!"

Linn nodded, rose. "I knew I could count on you to help me make sense of things."

He picked up his crushed hat, turned it over, balanced its mashed-flat crown on top of his head. "Now if you will excuse me, I think I have to go work on my skypiece." He stuck out his hand. "Levi, thank you. I appreciate the patience of your listening ear." He looked over at Bonnie. "And I thank you for your wise counsel."

Levi and Bonnie stood and listened to the retreating pace of Linn's boot heels as he withdrew across the dress-works floor, to the door; they watched through the window as he grimaced his way into the saddle, turned, eased the red mare into an easy trot.

Bonnie came up beside her husband, took his arm, leaned her head against his shoulder the way she did when she wanted to draw some comfort from the man.

"Do you think we helped?" she murmured.

"I think so."

"Do you know what he wanted?"

"I'm not sure he knew what he wanted."

"Mmm." She hung gratefully onto her husband's solidly muscled arm.

"May be," Levi hazarded, "he just needed some company, or maybe he just needed to talk."

"Mmm, no, I don't think so," Bonnie said softly. "He's like that when he's already found the answer and he's trying to understand how he got there."

 

The Blaze Boys looked at the still-smoking ruin of what used to be a barn.

"Well," one said, "I reckon we can start on this corner."

"You got gloves?"

"I got two pair."

"Two pair! I wondered what happened to mine!"

"You left 'em a-layin' so I picked 'em up --"

And just that quick the fight was on.

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171. VERDUGO

His Honor regarded the condemned men, standing on the lowered tail gate of a wagon bed, the wagon that was backed up to the edge of the drop-off, the drop-off beside what another Agent called the Tree of Justice.

The hangin' tree.

The condemned stood there, shivering, his fellow beside him: both men were hooded now, their upper arms bound together behind their backs so their elbows almost touched; neither had anything to say, and the pale eyed Agent fitted each with a hemp necktie and made sure the noose of thirteen turns was snugged up and properly positioned beside and behind the left ear.

She looked up at the loop of rope running up to the stout branch, ran her eyes up the other line, stepped back and nodded to the Parson.

Parson Belden intoned the final words that were always spoken at such occasions; as many as had been at the second trial, that many were now at the hanging.

The cold-eyed Agent looked around, marveling at how many people got dressed up for such an occasion.

Life, she knew, was not all that grand, not all that special; it was quick, it was short, it was uncertain, and bad decisions meant it ended.

Somehow, she thought, nobody else realizes this.

 

The Daine boys were no strangers to working wood on small scale or large; men skilled at such work dug out the new barn's foundation and its wide, deep cellar; stonecutters rough finished their ashlars, suitable for a foundation, stones were swung into position with man powered and horse powered cranes, and both operative masons and Speculative Masons watched as the first stone, at the customer's insistence, was laid in the north-east corner: this was not a rough ashlar, but a finished ashlar, with the Masonic Square and Compasses incised into one face, with the date, and their Masonic lodge's name, number and district.

Seasoned Eastern chestnut was available and had been delivered -- the long, tall, skinny Kentucky carpenters were most pleased that they would not have to stack timber and let it season before raising the barn -- drills were sharpened, pegs cut, lines sketched on the ground with flour (a damned waste, to be sure, but it helped lay out dimensions and doorways better than pegs and string), and with the Blaze boys getting a good education by working with these skilled and veteran carpenters, the barn began to take shape.

 

Jacob eased his weight onto the stirrups, raised his backside a half inch off saddle leather, rifle across the saddlebow before him, then eased back down again.

He did not anticipate trouble at the hangin' but he knew it could happen, and if it did, he figured to be ready.

He knew his black-coated sister had a rifle on the hangman's wagon, and hardware around her slender, black-shirted middle, and he knew his father stood watchful and ready as well, yonder on his red Cannonball mare.

Jackson Cooper was not present; he stayed in town, along with two trusted associates, not lawmen but no strangers to hardship: should any seek to raise hell in town while everyone was off watching the hangin', they would find themselves made unwelcome, in a most understandable way.

The Black Agent waited, watching His Honor the Judge.

The Judge puffed casually on a hand-rolled Cuban, consulting his watch: she knew he had the good eyes of a man four decades his junior, the jurist had neither need nor desire for spectacles, and he could see the hands on his watch with perfect clarity.

The crowd divided its attention between the silent, unmoving Agent, the shifting, shivering prisoners, and the spade-bearded, frock-coated Judge: they knew when His Honor removed the cigar from between his teeth, when he spat, when he raised the stogie with one hand and the watch with the other, that the prisoners' life expectancy was now measured in seconds.

Nobody really knew where the chant started, or who started it, but it rippled through the crowd as it always did.

Ver-du-go! Ver-du-go! Ver-du-go! Ver-du-go!

Voice after voice took it up, until nearly everyone there -- everyone except the pale eyed father and his pale eyed progeny, everyone but they three and His Honor the Judge -- chanted the Spanish word for executioner, most of them managing to flip the Iberian R off their tongue and very slightly add a proper Castillian lisp to the D, and as the chant built, as the voices raised, as the Judge's cigar rose, so did the volume, and so did the Black Agent's black-gloved hands.

Ver-du-go! Ver-du-go! Ver-du-go! Ver-du-go!

The black second hand at bottom dead center of the Judge's watch face touched the mark.

The Judge swung his cigar down.

The voices stopped as if by common accord.

Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna shoved hard, pushing both prisoners between the shoulder blades, dropping them off the wagon's tailgate and to the end of the calculated length of slack rope, shoved them from the wooden wagon bed at the edge of the dropoff, and dropping their corroded souls into eternity.

The executioner, the Verdugo, had planned her work well.

When the weight of the condemned came to their sudden stop, the knot of thirteen turns smacked the prisoner hard behind the ear, and less than a tenth of a second later, the high cervical spine fractured in a precise location that sheared the spinal cord and turned off heartbeat and breathing like a switch.

This fracture of the second cervical vertebra would be known forever in medical terminology as the Hangman's Fracture, and for this very reason illustrated today.

 

A waspish woman who thought it well beyond disgraceful that a woman would wear britches like a man, tried to sink her claws into Sarah with, "What does it feel like to kill someone like that?"

Agent Sarah Lynne McKenna fixed her with a pair of cold eyes that drove ice crystals into the gossip's withered heart.

"I didn't kill anyone," she said quietly. "They committed suicide. All I did was finish the job."

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172. KELLER UNIVERSITY

I set there on Cannonball and stared at Esther's head stone.

Quartz it was, well shaped, beautifully formed and finished, with her name one one side and mine on t'other, with her birth date and death date, and my birth date.

There beside it was little Joesph's stone, and beside that, another: Joseph's had a lamb on top with its head up, looking around, and the other had a lamb with its head curled around, asleep ... that child was still born, but Joseph was with us for a little while anyway.

I looked back at Esther's name and at the dead grass and snow still hiding in it like dirt hiding in a dog's fur.

Some folks will come here to the stone yard and talk up a storm.

I never saw the sense in it, talkin' to a stone or to a patch of dirt.

Esther was dead, gone, as were my children here ... I was alone, just me and Cannonball, at least until Jacob rode up on one side of me, and Sarah, the other.

Jacob spoke first.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

There was a little wind, not much, and two or three stray snowflakes wandered like lost souls across the top of the double headstone, fell away.

"Sir, Joseph is doing right well with that birdshead pair you gave him."

I nodded, slowly, remembering the look on the lad's face when I slung that carved gun belt around his little middle and snugged it up.

"When he loads it he always says it out loud just like you taught him."

In my mind's eye I saw the earnest faced lad, brow furrowed with concentration as he clicked the cylinder around, murmuring "Load one, skip one, load four, cock."

He said it as such an absolute chant I almost expected him to pat his foot like a musician.

"He listened to you, sir. He pays reeeeal close attention to everything you say."

I felt my right ear tighten back just a little when Jacob said this, for a father always wonders if his son actually listens, and a grandfather gets an awful good feelin' to know his grandson regards his elder's words with serious scrutiny.

"I never worried if you listened, Jacob," I said, my voice distant on the cold air, little puffs of vapor drifting away with my words.

Off in the distance we saw the dead wagon rattling back from where they'd taken the bodies of the executed to Potters Field and dumped them into the waiting, square-cut holes in the ground. We generally kept one or two holes dug with boards over 'em because it's hard to dig frozen ground.

"I paid attention, sir," Jacob replied. "I paid attention because the man I knew as my father died when I was way too young, and the man my Mama married after that ..."

I saw his hat brim tilt down a little and I knew he was remembering that murdering drunkard that beat Jacob's Mama to death and whipped Jacob's back into a scarred ruin. I'd seen those scars many times and it never failed to make me wish to hire the Witch of Endor to fetch up that murderer from the grave so I could kill him myself.

"I know what it is to lose a father, sir, and when you took me in I didn't want to lose you too. That's why I did not hesitate to fetch out that Army revolver when you was shot there in front of the Sheriff's Office. It warn't for years that either of us knew we were blood and ..."

Jacob is not often demonstrative, and he doesn't often talk that long at one sentence, and when I saw his hat brim tilt down I knew he had to stop and swallow hard.

"I about died when Mother passed away, sir. I watched my Mama beat to death and I'd come to love her" -- his voice was tight now and I realized he'd learned too well from me, how to hold in grief and not let it out --

"That's where I have the advantage," Sarah declared firmly from my left.

Jacob and I both looked at her and she smiled a little, just a little.

"I'm a girl. Girls can cry. You men have to keep it bottled up and it eats you from the inside."

I nodded, for she was right.

I'd not let out all the grief and all the horror of that damned War until after, until after I was mustered out and I'd walked the mile and more from the train station to my farm and found my wife dead of the small pox and our little girl Dana dying of it, and not until that night when I held Dana and rocked her and felt her fever-hot breath sigh for the last time ag'in the side of my neck ... it wasn't until I'd lost the last living thing to connect me to my Connie, my lighthouse all through that war, the last and finally the only good and decent thing I could see in a world gone insane ...

I closed my eyes, shook my head, dismissed the ghosts.

That was a long time ago, I told myself.

I opened my eyes and that white wolf was about fifty yards away, settin' there lookin' at me, and a single red rose lay on top of Esther's side of the face-polished, double headstone.

The rose hadn't been there when I closed my eyes.

"You two," I said, "have learned more from me than I realized."

I was still staring at that red rose, fresh and beautiful and not yet dotted with the little dry snowflakes that were carrying in on the wind.

"Yes, sir," Jacob replied, but Sarah's voice smiled with honest amusement when she said, "And did you expect anything else?"

I heard a rapid cadence on approach and recognized Rosebud's gait -- funny, I thought, I wonder how many lawmen can distinguish a horse from its hoofbeats? -- then Angela rode Rosebud in hard against me, wedging in between my red mare and Sarah's huge black Frisian.

"I wondered where you was," Angela scolded, bringing a gloved hand from beneath her wrapped-around cloak and wagging her Mommy-finger at me.

"You want I should spank her butt, sir?" Jacob teased, and Angela threw her cloak open, raised her tiny little fists and snapped, "I'm wuff an' tuff an' hawd to bluff!"

Jacob and I both laughed, and Sarah turned her head away and smiled, and Angela scowled menacingly at her big brother: Jacob raised a hand, shook his head.

"May be," he chuckled, "I'd best not try!"

I looked over at Angela.

"What brings you clear out here?"

I looked back across Esther's grave, to where the white wolf had appeared.

It was gone.

The rose was, too, and I shivered, for not only was the chill soaking through my blanket lined coat, I had the distinct feeling that things just happened that I could not explain.

"I missed you, Daddy," Angela said in a sad-little-girl voice. "I read to the twins an' they laid down for a nap but I didn't feel sleepy."

"Who saddled Rosebud for you, honey?" I asked gently.

Angela smiled, a bright, happy, I'm-proud-of-myself-Daddy! smile.

"I watched you saddleit the horsies, Daddy," she said, her voice excited, and sounding like a much younger girl when she did, running her words together and sometimes tongue-tripping over her words. "I saddledit da Rosie-bud myself! I even gottit da winkles outtda saddlebwanket!"

I looked over at the laughing Jacob, who opined that I'd taught her better than I'd realized, and I thought You know, you're right, to which Sarah snapped, "Damned right you're right, you long tall drink of water, and don't you ever forget that!"

I looked from one to the other and laughed, shaking my head.

"What is this," I said, "Keller University?"

"Yes," Sarah and Jacob chorused, and Angela nodded in big-eyed, solemn-faced agreement.

I looked at Esther's stone.

There were scattered little snow-pellets on its smooth-topped, arched surface.

Snowflakes, but no rose.

I looked down and left at Angela to make sure I could back Cannonball up a little, and I saw Angela was smiling down at a rose she was turning slowly between thumb and forefinger.

"That does it," I muttered. "I need something in my growlin' gut. Company, with me, we're movin' out!" -- and so saying, I turned Cannonball and led our little parade out of the garden of stone and through the arched, cast-iron gate, down the hill past the Tree of Justice, and toward the Silver Jewel.

There would be coffee and there would be pie and there would be a nice friendly cast iron stove to thaw out beside.

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173. ROSES AND BRIDLE

Father and son dismounted as one.

The youngest daughter threw up one leg and squealed with delight as she slid off the saddle and free-fell through miles of space and clouds and landed flat footed and stable on the hard ground, young knees taking up the shock, her voice a happy laugh at her adventure.

Sarah's eyes half-lidded and she said, her voice urgent and summoning, "Jacob."

Jacob took his little sister's shoulders and steered her toward his father; Linn took his little girl's hand, raised a curious eyebrow.

Sarah leaned down in the saddle, spoke quickly, urgently.

"Stay with your father," she said, "he is going to need you very soon."

Jacob turned his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Sarah felt a stab of guilt at the knowledge she held.

"One more death could ruin him," she said quickly, "and he's about to get another one."

"Who?" Jacob asked as his stomach dropped roughly to his boot tops.

Sarah's eyes flicked up, then back to Jacob, and Jacob's face paled noticeably. "Angela?"

Sarah shook her head, swallowed hard. "Jacob, stay with him. Please."

Jacob nodded and Sarah backed Snowflake.

"I will be gone a few days. Watch him."

Jacob watched Sarah whirl her big Frisian, marveled as he always did at how such an absolutely huge horse could move so easily, so light on her hooves.

He turned to look at his father and his little sister, watching him from the doorway of the Silver Jewel.

Jacob walked around behind Cannonball, murmuring to her and patting her hinder so as not to surprise her as he passed.

 

The ticket agent looked up from the printed slips he'd just been handed, nodded.

"Yes ma'am, I'll send these right away."

"I'll need a ticket to Rabbitville, connection to the Rio, with a stock car for the return trip."

"Yes, ma'am, right away." Payment was not demanded; the black-garbed Agent had carte blanche to travel at any time, for any distance, with any thing or any one, at any time -- both on the Z&W, and on almost every railroad in three states and some beyond -- and by standing orders, any telegram she sent went before any others, at no cost.

She nodded once, curtly, her words clipped, businesslike: "I'll be back in a few minutes, how long til train time?"

"You've got twenty minutes, ma'am."

Sarah nodded curtly, her pale eyes hard, turned away from the barred window.

"Ma'am?"

She stopped, turned back to the worried-looking telegrapher.

"Be careful."

Her expression softened just a little and she nodded, and this time the move was not quite so abrupt.

 

Linn looked at his son, his expression that of a man who was doing what he should be doing, who was where he should be, a man perfectly at home with his little girl astride his shoulders and wearing his hat, giggling and looking up and trailing her finger along the smoke-stained tin ceiling panels.

"Sir, she's gettin' kind of big, should you be doin' that?" Jacob asked, worry coloring his voice, and Linn grimaced and said quietly, "Help her down," and Jacob reached up as his father went slowly to one knee.

He managed to subdue his expression of pain, but Jacob knew the hissed breath between clenched teeth for what it was.

Jacob caught Angela under the arms, pulled her free of his long tall Pa's shoulders, backed up a step and turned around, quickly, swinging her skirt out a little as she squealed and giggled with delight: his intent was to draw the casual eye from his father's obvious expression of discomfort, at his slow and pained rise to his feet, and as he reached for his Stetson, tilting dangerously on his little girl's head, Jacob did not miss the tremor in his father's grasping hand.

 

Outside, tethered to the hitch rail, a trickle of blood dribbled down the flare of Cannonball's pink rimmed nose and fell to the ground.

The mare's breathing was labored now, and the longer she stood, the lower her head sank.

Sarah's black attire was hung and her dressed settled into place, she snatched up a grip she kept packed, then stopped, hand outstretched toward the doorknob.

Her hand paused, then settled, as if caressing something unseen.

Cannonball blinked, as if unseen fingers caressed her between the eyes, then the laid-over hair of her copper mane moved as if gentle fingers were combing through it.

A patch of her mane was pressed down the way it will when a reassuring hand rests on a horse's neck, and as the mare sank to her knees, then over on her side, the handprint was still there, and the sun gleamed bright on the hand-chased roses on Cannonball's bridle.

Sarah blinked, returning to herself, took a long, steadying breath, picked up her grip with one hand, then stopped and saw a single rose laying on her pillow.

She bit her bottom lip, nodded, then whispered,"Thank you," and picked it up.

She would wear it for her trip to the Rio, for she had need to visit an old friend, a man who almost proposed marriage half a decade before.

The Rancho Vega y Vega was known for its prize horse flesh, and her father was known and held in very high esteem by the acalde and his many sons.

God please it, she thought, less an idea than an actual supplication, Papa's first Mexican stallion, Rey del Sol was Cannonball's sire.

If there is another of his blood, let them part with stallion or mare.

She thought of Rosebud, the get of Cannonball, and smiled, considering what kind of colts she would throw, then she extended her hand again and turned the knob.

She had to get to the train station.

She had a mission down on the Rio.

 

Shorty laid a hand on the dead mare's neck and shook his head.

"Damn," he whispered. "Damn, I hate this!"

Jacob unbuckled the bridle and Shorty shook his head.

"I never did get used to that," he muttered.

"What's that?"

"No bit. She never knew a bit."

Jacob nodded, looked at the hand-chased roses, remembered the day Mick presented his father with the bridle, a gift from one old soldier to another.

"Can you take care of it?" he asked, and Shorty nodded.

"Thank you. I'll keep Pa inside."

Shorty nodded somberly. "This'll break the man's heart. He's lost too much already."

"Yeah." Jacob stood, "He has."

 

Mr. Baxter looked over at Tillie, and Tillie followed Jacob with big, worried eyes.

She didn't know what happened, only that Jacob never walked like that unless something was very wrong, and she looked at the bridle he held, the only bridle in the territory with genuine silver mounting and hand chased roses on the roundels, and she looked over at Linn, laughing with his daughter, and her hand came up to her mouth.

Mr. Baxter's eyes -- and most everyone else's -- turned slowly to follow the lean Sheriff as he paced slowly back to his father's table.

Linn looked up, happy for the first time in too long, and then his eyes changed and went from his son's expression to the bridle he held.

Father and son never exchanged a word.

Neither had to.

Linn closed his eyes, opened them, then he turned and took his little girl in his arms and hugged her close to him, closed his eyes hard, hard and tight, and his lips peeled back from under his mustache.

Sarah closed her eyes as well as the Z&W's private car stopped just past the depot platform.

The porter placed the short set of steps, offered his hand: she gripped the man's hand, smiled and thanked him, ascended the wood, then the ornate cast iron steps, waited while the door was opened for her.

She turned, looked back to where she knew the Silver Jewel was, pale eyes penetrating the intervening structures, and she swallowed hard.

She could not have framed to speak the words that crowded into a lump in her pretty young throat, but her tears said them as eloquently as an orator.

I'm sorry, Papa.

You couldn't have prevented it, and neither could I.

She raised gloved fingertips to the rose pinned to her bodice.

If you're able, she thought, he needs you.

Sarah McKenna hoped most sincerely that the grief in her heart was sensible in a Valley not of this world, and discernible to a soul she -- and much moreso, he -- still missed.

As if in reply, the scent of roses eddied upward to her nose.

 

Brother William looked up, surprised, for an urgent knock at his open door generally meant something had gone very wrong, and his assistance was needed at the scene of some terrible crisis.

"Perdón, Abad," Brother Thomas murmured deferentially, holding a folded yellow slip between his fingers. "Telegrama."

Brother William rose, accepted the proffered missive, opened it, read.

Abad Mio, he read, confesar y asesorar: My Abbott, confess and advise.

It was signed simply S.

Brother William -- now Abbot William -- nodded, considering: Hermano Thomas waited patiently, knowing orders were sure to follow, and he was right.

Brother William raised his head, hands clasped, forefingers tented and tapping slowly at his thoughtfully-pursed lips.

"Café" he said quietly. "Dos ollas."

Brother Thomas blinked.

Coffee was a treat at the monastery, one which the Abbott enjoyed, but generally denied himself: but two pots, and without hesitation?

A guest, then: un invitado y muy importante!

Brother Thomas bowed, turned, walked briskly to the monastery's cocina.

Coffee would have to be ground, a duty most pleasant, to be sure, for the aroma of freshly-roasted coffee beans was a treat itself: two pots? he wondered, and made a mental note to confess this sin of speculation at his next confesión.

 

Sarah had been right.

Jacob saw the loss in his father's eyes, and he felt the older man's grief.

Linn rose and took his little girl's hand and they walked outside, and Angela touched her red horsie behind the foreleg and Rosie-bud knelt just like Sawwah's Snowflake-horsie did, and Angela straddled her little-girl-sized saddle with ease.

Her Daddy's hand was gentle as he caressed Rosie-bud's mane, then he told his son, "See that Angela gets home," and he walked around the front of the Jewel and down the alley toward the livery, knowing that's where Shorty would have dragged the red mare's carcass.

Jacob watched from a little distance as his father squatted beside the mare, laid a hand on her neck in a final goodbye, then stood and walked away and never looked back.

It was not the first time Jacob damned the universe at large for his inability to take on his father's grief, to ease the man this terrible burden, it was not the first time he damned the Universe for the pain his father carried, and refused to allow to be seen.

Jacob found out from the wet nurse a day later that his father walked, alone, from the livery back to his place, swinging that rose-chased bridle from his hand.

He'd climbed up into the bare skeleton of his barn's roof -- the walls were mostly up -- and he'd hung the bridle high in the barn, where it would be hidden in shadows once it was roofed.

He listened to the buxom woman's account of how he'd saddled his black gelding, the one he'd taken as spoil from a defeated outlaw, the gelding he called Midnight -- he'd saddled up and ridden into the hollow and around the bend and a mile and more from the house, where he was hidden by a cleft in the terrain, where sound was broken and muted by distance and geography, she heard the man's grief, and the sound of a strong man who finally gives voice to long held grief is a terrible thing.

The wet-nurse was a gentle soul and Jacob did not believe she had a mean bone in her body, and as she described the man's sorrows, borne on the sunset breeze, she was obliged to avail herself of her spotless white apron to blot her eyes.

The little girl she held squirmed a little and Jacob asked if he might hold her, and Alfdis handed him the wee girl-child, tilting her head a little with approval as he took the child as does a man with young of his own: as if she knew she was in safe and protective arms, Dana cooed and cuddled, and Jacob held her close and whispered, "Your Papa needs you now, Little Sis. You'll have to be a comfort to him," and little Dana made a contented little baby-noise, the way a tiny child will when it has a knowledge not of this world.

 

Abbott William waited in the confessional, but not for long.

The divider slid back and a familiar voice said "Bless me, Brother William, for I have sinned."

The Abbott opened his mouth to speak and the penitent muttered "The hell with this, I need coffee," and slammed the divider shut.

Abbott William grinned crookedly.

Somehow he wasn't surprised.

Neither was he surprised when he opened the door of the confessional and a pale, drawn, fashionably-dressed Sarah McKenna was standing there, a distressed look on her face, nor did it astonish him when she grabbed him with the desperation of someone who felt very much lost.

William of Maxwell, Abbott of the Rabbitville monastery, embraced the shivering young woman, laid his cheek over against the top of her head.

"I need coffee too," he said softly.

"What are we doing here, then?"

He chuckled.

Five minutes later the two of them sat in the low-ceilinged, log-beamed common room where the Brethren and the Sisters took their meals together, men at one table, women at another: unlike the segregated meals, William and Sarah sat at the same table across from one another, cradling heavy, hand-thrown, glazed mugs of steaming, fragrant, fresh-brewed coffee.

"The Brethren will need their coffee also," Sarah said, "so let me get right to it."

"I would have it no other way."

"You remember Papa's wife died."

The Abbott nodded, sorrow in his eyes: he'd been at the funeral and Sarah knew it, but it was a rhetorical question, to set the stage as it were.

"He's ... "

Sarah stopped, looked down, wet her lips, and Brother William raised an eyebrow, surprised at this sign of hesitancy.

This is not like you, he thought.

This is a serious matter you bring me.

Sarah looked up, smiled a little.

"I knew your eyebrow would go up like that," she said, almost teasingly, then her face went serious again.

"I told Jacob to stay with his father. Our father. He ... he's not given voice to his grief since Esther died and I'm worried about him."

The Abbott nodded: he knew the man as well, he knew his history, they'd shared lonely places and lonely tales, and he knew how the man let go of all the built up grief of that damned war in one hard night in a dark cabin beside the Sweetwater Sea, back in the Ohio country.

"What happened?" the Abbott asked, sipping carefully at his coffee, tasting fresh milk and a drizzle of honey and a little cinnamon.

"His horse ... his red mare Cannonball." Sarah's mug drifted slowly to the table top, as if too heavy to hold, or perhaps forgotten, for all that her hands were still wrapped possessively around it: "He's ridden through hell itself on that mare. She's brought him home when he should've ..."
Her voice trailed off, her eyes staring through the far wall, seeing things insensible to this world: memories of battles, hard chases, she saw her Papa riding up the main street of Firelands with his eyes hard and his teeth bared and his curved Cavalry saber swung hard and the outlaw's head lifted off its shoulders, and she saw him trotting the mare at sunrise, her copper coat on fire in the long red rays of the morning, and she saw him laughing as they galloped across a high meadow, Angela many years younger standing up behind him, her little slippers gripping the saddle-skirt as she clung to his coat, her head back, laughing as they ran ...

"Cannonball fell dead at the hitch rail. This soon after Esther's death, after all he's been through ..."
Her voice trailed off, then her eyes focused, came back to the tonsured Abbott's carefully-neutral face.

"I am for the Rancho Vega y Vega. They're expecting me. If they've a stallion, we can sire a colt on Cannonball's get and continue the bloodline."

Abbott William nodded slowly. "I believe they may have. I spoke with the acalde not two days ago."

"There is another matter."

"Speak. I listen." He took another savoring sip of his cinnamon-flavored coffee.

"I'm getting married."

The Abbott's reflexive snort blew coffee all over his face and down his front, he slammed the mug to the table top and turned his head, coughing violently, his face assuming an alarming shade of red.

Sarah half-rose, but the Abbott raised a hand, waving her back to her seat.

Sarah slowly sat, blinking with distress as the Abbott coughed, choked, snorted and finally shook his head, blinked, wiped his eyes and then his face (making very good use of the angel wing sleeves of his simple long robe) and he said in a strained voice, "You're what?"

Sarah nodded. "Brother William, as Sister Mercurius, I am a Bride of Christ. I will not forswear my oaths, but neither will I commit bigamy. What is the right thing for me to do?"

Brother William wiped his eyes again, for cinnamon down the windpipe is quite irritating.

"Let me think about that one," he wheezed.

Sarah nodded, drained her mug, rose.

"I thank you for your coffee. With your permission I will consult with the Acalde and then return. Will that be long enough to formulate your reply?"

Brother William coughed into his sleeve, sniffed, nodded, smiled thinly.

"Remind me next time," he gasped, "swallow, don't inhale!"

 

Annette noticed her husband was quieter than normal that night, that he held her a little longer than he usually did, that he spent more time with Joseph, that when he read from the Book it was with their infant on one thigh and Joseph on the other, instead of the baby at her breast and Joseph sitting on the hearth, elbows on his knees and chin on his fists.

Jacob's voice was quiet, his words clearly enunciated, his voice soothing: by the time he finished the Ecclesiastical reading, he smiled at Annette and she relieved him of the blue-covered Bible with the gold Square and Compasses embossed in the cover, then she took the baby while he ran his free arm under Joseph's knees and packed him off to bed.

Annette almost asked her husband what troubled him, but didn't, and perhaps that was for the best, for it would have been very difficult indeed for Jacob to describe his father, alone and hidden in a rocky cleft in the earth, finally giving full-voiced screams to an overwhelming burden of utter, absolute, soul-crushing sorrow.

 

"Here he is," the Acalde declared, nodding with satisfaction at the yearling stallion pacing proudly about the corral. "Corazon del Fuego!"

"He looks it," Sarah nodded. "Has he been ridden?"

The Acalde laughed, as did a half-dozen vaqueros and two fine, strong sons: they'd heard of this woman, this legend, this Queen of the Lance: they were wise enough to admire from a distance, as it were, for they saw that their father was treating with this individual as if she were a most important, most honored guest.

"Every man here has tried to ride this one," a skilled and veteran vaquero called, "and every one of us has eaten a mouthful of dirt for it!"

"Mind if I try?" Sarah asked.

Three-quarters of a dozen sets of eyes turned to her, but none gave voice to their thoughts: Sarah studied the pacing, proud, head-tossing stallion for another few minutes, then stepped back from the fence, curtsied formally to the acalde: "Con su permiso?"

The Acalde rested browned, callused, fatherly hands on Sarah's shoulders.

"I would not have you come to harm," he said, "but you are your father's daughter, and he was the only man who could ride El Rey del Sol."

The Acalde closed his eyes, nodded, turned to his chief vaquero.

"Have him saddled," he said, and the vaquero nodded.

Sarah reached for the acalde's arm, smiled at him the way a young woman will when she knows she is in the company of a true gentleman.

"My father has spoken of your kindness," she said, "and of your conquests. El Aguacil Viejo is a hard man to impress, and you have impressed him."

"If I have impressed The Old Sheriff," the Acalde chuckled, "then I have done well indeed!" -- and thus encouraged, he began to tell Sarah of the early days of his rancho, when it had to be carved out of the dry and lonely land, when he fought hard men to keep what was his, when he built his casa grande, with his own hands -- his casa, his rancho, his familia.

Half an hour later, Sarah stroked the stallion's velvety nose, letting the golden stud's nostrils fill with her scent, letting him get used to her touch, her voice.

She grasped his cheek strap -- the vaqueros tapped their foreheads and shook their heads, muttering, when she asked them to bridle the stallion with reins, but without a bit -- and she tickled the stallion behind his foreleg.

A shiver of his golden hide was the only result.

Sarah smiled, petted his shoulder, murmured, "Will you trust me?"

The stallion blinked, swished his tail, the slashing of the coarse hairs plainly audible in the hushed afternoon air.

The watchers, and there were many, were not entirely certain how the pretty young woman got into the saddle: one moment she stood flat-footed beside the stallion, petting its neck, talking to it; the next, with a grip on the saddlehorn and a swing of her leg, she vaulted into the saddle for all the world like an Apache, and sat in the ornate black saddle as if she were a crowned royal on the throne of her inheritance.

For her part, Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of the pale-eyed Linn Keller, tasted copper and had the distinct feeling she'd just straddled a bundle of dynamite with a very short fuse.

Her next conscious thought was how blue the sky was, and how far into it she'd just been thrown.

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174. A LOT OF BULL

I laid down and as usual my hand went over beside me.

It closed of its own accord, and it felt awful lonesome that there wasn't a warm hand returning the touch.

Somehow I could not bring myself to roll over on that side of the bed.

Esther's side.

I lay there looking up at the ceiling, listening to the night, letting my mind drift, willing myself not to think of my flame-haired bride.

I know Sarah went off somewhere and I have no idea if His Honor sent her or what, just she left in kind of a hurry and she was all in black from testifyin' as the Agent.

I closed my eyes and took a long breath, opened them to disappointment.

Part of me wanted to smell roses.

I couldn't help but smile just a little at that, remembering Esther and her roses.

Good memories.

I wondered what Sarah was into, and breathed a whisper voiced prayer that she was safe, that she was unhurt, that she was warm and well and her feet were dry.

 

Sarah twisted like a cat, landed flat footed but dove immediately into a tumbling roll, came up like a cork out of water, eyes pale, face drawn and teeth bared.

The blond stallion's head came up as the young woman snarled and launched herself at him, streaking across the intervening dirt at a flat-out sprint.

The stallion walled its eyes and r'ared its head and backed away, turning broadside and she launched into the saddle again, her weight a solid impact into the smooth leather seat, and she locked her legs around his barrel and seized the reins she'd knotted and dropped over the saddle horn.

"TRY THAT AGAIN!" she shouted.

More than one man watching this creature, this Silverlance, crossed himself and remembered an admonition from childhood to be careful what you wish for.

It would have been sound advice for the pale-eyed rider.

It took five seconds instead of two for the rider to part company, it took several more for her to rise from the ground -- but rise she did, and no man there missed the animal sound deep in her throat.

This time she seized the stallion about the neck and twisted somehow, landing ahead of the saddle, her head snapping forward like a rattlesnake, the stallion squealed and shivered and they could see his eyes wall around but he stood, stock-still, and one, then another, realized not only did she mount like an Apache, she knew the Apache trick of seizing the ear between her teeth and biting, hard.

Sarah bit until her teeth met and she held the grip for maybe half a minute, a very long time to the men who held their breaths and marveled at this woman, this creature of unnatural skill, this warrior in woman-flesh who dared to presume to try to tame a horse no man could ride!

She let go of the ear, rolled off the neck, stood under the stallion's head, then pulled it down to her, caressing his nose, whispering to him, hands and scent and sibilant words penetrating the world of wildness that surrounded his soul.

She walked him around a little, then mounted again, a quick, sudden move, and he stood, stock-still, shivered his hide and slashed his tail at an imaginary horsefly.

She laid the reins against his neck, pressed with her left knee, and he turned away from the pressure; she turned him slowly in his own length, then laid the reins against his right neck and pressed with her right knee, and he turned the opposite.

She lifted the reins, tightened her knees and pushed forward a little and he eased into a gentle trot, his paso fino heritage showing in the smoothness of her seat.

Horse and rider turned as one, snapping around, the stallion's ears forward, searching, and the rider's face hard, intent, eyes wide.

Another scream, the terrified shriek of a child, then a woman's scream: "El toro! Valgame Dios, el toro!"

The Acalde's men were hand picked by the old man, veteran warriors every last one of them, with fighting men's reflexes: no command was given, none was needed, for every man there, even the old acalde himself, sprinted for their mounts, their saddles.

Sarah was already mounted, and on a good horse, and she did not wait for the reinforcements she knew would follow.

"YAAHH!"

No one was left to watch; every man was intent on getting saddle and bridle and his swiftest horse, every man was concentrating on his own task: had they seen, they might have thought a divine hand had drawn a great bow and launched a golden arrow across the corral and over the fence, an arrow ridden by a pale-eyed warrior-maiden: perhaps, had one such watched, and beheld, he might have wondered at the sight of this stallion, this man-thrower, who but minutes before cast even the divine Silverlance herself into the heavens, now streaked at her behest toward the sounds of distress: such a mind may have considered it possible that we creatures, all made of the same clay, all created by the same divine Hand, just might have a very deep connection that can be made in times of need.

But this we will never know, for none were left to see.

 

Joseph laughed, his hands wrapped around the base of Boocaffie's horns.

Boocaffie -- Joseph had been too young to pronounce "bull calf" and the childish label stuck -- Boocaffie was a grown bull now, and had sired several young; he kept order in his herd, he serviced the heifers and kept the younger bulls in check, but he grew up with Joseph, and it was a game between the two of them: Joseph would grip his horns and push, and Boocaffie would snort and push back.

He could very easily have shoved Joseph across the field and flattened him against a convenient rock, but the two were old friends, and both bull and boy enjoyed their happy little game.

 

The Mexican bull, on the other hand, was known to be neither kind nor gentle, and was kept solely because he sired a good strain of cattle.

The community knew not to go into his field, the community knew to send a runner if there was any flaw seen in a fence, the community admonished its young to stay away from the great, short-tempered beast, but boys are boys no matter where in the globe you look, and two lads decided they would have a rough game with the bull.

They catfooted up on the bull, each with a long board club.

One was at the drowsing bull's head, the other at its hind: the first screamed and smacked the bull hard over the boss, as the bull surged to its feet the other smacked him across the back end, both boys tossed their clubs and screamed with the joyful terror of two imps at mischief, and they sprinted for the fence just as hard as they could run.

For one of the lads, it would be the last mistake he ever made, but not before his scream reached the ears of the vaqueros bunched up against the acalde's corral.

 

Sarah stood in the stirrups, her knees flexing easily as the stallion surged beneath her: she lay over its neck, her hands pressed against his muscled neck, and she felt the cords of her own neck stand out as she screamed encouragement: she had ridden Snowflake at respectable velocities, she'd ridden her father's aptly named Cannonball mare, but this! -- this stallion put even Cannonball to shame!

Fire Heart soared over another fence, landed easily, charged into the bull's pasture, circling the bovine as he hooked a small, bloodied form with his right hand horn, rolling it over and throwing it several feet.

Sarah brought Corazon del Fuego around, her face tightening, her eyes going dead glacier's-heart pale, and she felt a terrible joy bloom inside her, just before one of her selves slapped her sensibility across the face and yelled "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING TO DO?"

Unfortunately, enthusiasm and adrenalin conspired to put her in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the bull, having killed one interloper, was not about to stop.

He threw his head up and bellowed a challenge, pawed the ground, throwing dust from the cold, hard ground up over his shoulder.

Sarah saw the vaqueros streaming into the pasture, she took a long look at the impressive spread of horn the bull swung, and just beyond the bull, collapsed against the fence, a boy half-stood, big-eyed, terrified, struggling to his feet, and Sarah's heart fell as she realized the lad was opening his mouth to scream.

Save the horse, she thought as she threw up a leg and slid off the saddle: she smacked the stallion on the shoulder and yelled "GET OUTTA HERE!" just as the child's terrified scream shivered the air.

The bull turned, looked at the boy, looked at Sarah, turned toward the boy.

Sarah charged.

The bull saw movement, turned: time slowed, shivered into twice ten thousand bright fragments, each ten hours long, and Sarah's vision was very clear, very precise, her thoughts were swift, concise, well ordered.

His right horn is more worn, she thought, he will lead with his right hook: she saw the bull's hooves come off the ground, the ripple of light on his furred hide as great bovine muscles rippled beneath: part of her wanted to rip the beast apart with her bare hands, part of her admired the terrible beauty of this engine of destruction that was swinging to bear on her, and part of her, a small part of her in the back of her mind, was screaming "YOU BLOODY IDIOT WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!" and she put a hand on the screaming face and shoved it back behind a boulder and she put her head down and charged.

A woman screamed, reached through the fence, seized her son, tried to pull him between the boards, her eyes on the unmoving, bloodied form of something that used to be her other son.

The bull charged, trampling the body again as it charged the silent figure running toward it.

Quirts snarled through the air, seared across horses' flanks, men spurred their mounts with desperation as they watched a blood and bone locomotive charging across level ground toward what looked like a child's toy on two legs.

 

Miss Sarah stood before the class, showing an engraved plate in a book she'd brought in.

"This is ancient Phoenician work," she taught, "and these young men are running toward a bull.

"They are proving their manhood by seizing the bull's horns and vaulting over its back."

Young and solemn eyes regarded the illustration, their thoughts considering that their beloved Miss Sarah would never, ever lie to them, but every one of them knew livestock and they knew their bulls, and not a one of them would even consider running toward a bull with intent to grab its horns and vault over its back.

 

The bull's head lowered, slowly, bobbing down as its hooves came forward, rose as the hooves shoved back; Sarah felt time stretch like taffy, elongating into cold, clear honey, and her arms were out in front of her and her hands opened and she saw the swing of the horns and she twisted and the right hand horn seared through the air where her belly had been a tenth of a second before and she grabbed the passing horn with one hand and jumped and swung onto its back, locking her legs around its thick neck and grabbing the other horn.

Confused, the bull skidded to a stop, forelegs stiff, joints locked: the vaqueros pounded toward it, each man with la reata in hand, the lead vaquero spinning his loop, ready to sling the living leather and catch the bull's horns while his compadre ensnared a hind leg --

Screaming, windmilling iron-shod hooves, the stallion danced in front of the bull, ears laid back, teeth bared: this new enemy's sudden appearance startled the bull, then something seized its hind leg and pulled hard, a forehoof was grabbed and pulled, the bull fell to earth with a deep, pained grunt.

Sarah unlocked her legs, pushed away, rolled backwards off the bull's shoulder: Corazon del Fuego sidle-danced up to her and she seized the silver-mounted horn, jumped aboard, backed the stallion with heels and hands as the vaqueros spread-eagled the bull, while others snapped blanket-rolls out to cover the dead boy's mangled form.

 

Sarah fully intended to spend the night back at the monastery, guesting with the Sisters, but neither the acalde nor his vaqueros would hear of it: Sarah was guest of honor at a grand fiesta, with feasting, with dancing, with their beautiful, laughing guest being carried in triumph on men's shoulders many times through the night, and none failed to notice -- but none spoke of it -- that Sarah managed to slip away, to hold the grieving mother's shoulders as she collapsed in grief over the simple box that held what was once a beloved son.

It was not far from sunrise when the celebrants retired to their bunks, the musicians wiped down guitar strings and cased their cherished instruments, that the last of the wine was drunk and admiring words exchanged, and as Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of that pale eyed old man with the iron grey mustache, finally took off her boots and stripped down for sleep, she thought to herself that she was going to be very sore in the morning.

It wasn't the first time she hated being right.

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175. "THAT ONE I WOULD VERY MUCH BELIEVE!"

 

I was planning the initial skirmish into fried eggs, having successfully maneuvered through grits and bacon, when the maid's heels tapped briskly down the hall, paused, then returned at about the same velocity.

I felt the old excitement wake in my belly, for many's the morning when a summons would arrive and not long after I would be in the saddle, Cannonball and I setting a good brisk pace to wherever trouble called us ... then I stopped and opened the valve in the bottom of my heart and drained the excitement out on the ground.

That was Jacob's job nowadays.

I wasn't Sheriff and there was no more Cannonball.

Angela was looking at me serious-like and I could not tell what lay behind those Kentucky-blue eyes, but I had the feeling she could see right through me.

Likely she learned that from Esther.

She always could.

The maid laid a hand on my shoulder, held the note above my right hand: it was an octavo sheet, folded into thirds and sealed with bright red wax, a rose stamp, and I smiled in spite of myself.

Sarah, I thought, and cracked the seal, unfolded the missive.

Dearest Papa,

I beg to deliver the greetings of the Rancho Vega y Vega and our mutual friend the Acalde, the Vega of Vega.

I would further beg your indulgence by requesting your attendance upon your front porch.

It was signed with a single, ornate, capital S.

I slid my chair back and the maid picked up my plate, set it on the stove to keep warm, for she knew if it was at all possible I would finish my meal.

"Daddy?" Angela asked, and I winked at her, a smile widening my face, and she slid out of her chair, anticipation in her expression and haste in her movements.

I picked up my coat and slung it around, shoved my arms in the sleeves, picked up my pearly grey Stetson, settled it on my head, opened the front door.

The sun was up but not far and the sun reached across the long meadow to my left and painted the world red and Sarah wore a golden riding outfit that picked up the sun's scarlet touch and it seemed she wore living gold, just like the horse she straddled ... a stallion, and a fine looking one.

I swallowed hard.

A stallion that looked an awful lot like El Rey del Sol.

Sarah looked at me, her chin raised a little, from anyone else a haughty expression: from her ... from Sarah, it was the look of royalty.

Brother William stood beside her, his white robes incarnadined in the sun's early radiance, his black cloak somehow vibrant as well, and he had a big grin on his face, and mine ... well, my face widened into a grin of its own accord, for Brother William was an old and dear friend, and I knew that grin, and it meant he had a tale to tell...a tale we both knew I would really enjoy hearing.

 

Angela waited until Sawwah turned the goldie horsie into the corral and went inside with Daddy and Woom Coffee.

Angela looked through the corral bars at the big horsie and giggled, and the horsie looked at her and swished his goldie tail.

Angela slipped between the bars and giggled and walked over to the horsie and the horsie snuffied her front and she giggled, and the horsie ruckled quietly as Angela stroked his velvety nose, then tilted her head and walked over to the Goldie-horsie's hoofie and squatted and petted it.

"You don't got no featheries," she complained. "Snowflake-horsie gots featheries on her hoofies."

The stallion looked around, made no reply.

"You are very big," Angela said decisively, patting the Goldie-horsie behind its front knee, and the big goldie horsie shivered his hide.

 

"You did what?" Linn asked for probably the third time thus far into the story, his jaw sagging.

Sarah's eyes were wide and innocent.

"It seemed the right thing to do," she said frankly.

Linn listened closely to Brother William's account, looked back and forth from the tonsured monk to the quietly smiling young woman.

"I know that bull," he said quietly. "I've seen it tear into a mountain grizzly. I've seen it take another bull and I saw what was left of a good horse once that bull got done with it, and you jumped it?"

Sarah laughed quietly, looked a little embarrassed.

"The account the vaqueros tell," Brother William said quietly, "differ somewhat from what I've just told you."

Linn laughed. "Oh yeah?"

Brother William nodded thoughtfully. "Something to do with a warrior goddess wearing a golden breastplate, riding a horse made of fire and bearing a lance tipped with silver fire."

Linn looked frankly and directly at his pale-eyed daughter.

"That one," he said firmly, "I would very much believe!"

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176. SOLOMON AND AMBER

Abbot William considered the stone walls, his eyes assessing corners for square, joints for level, walls for plumb: he turned and with a military man's eye assessed fields of fire, lines of approach, cover and concealment, and finally he turned to the work table and studied the drawings.

"I like the wide staircase," he said thoughtfully. "Too often they're narrow."

"I know," Sarah replied. "Ours are narrow and it's the Devil's own time we have getting furniture up or down."

"Or bodies."

Sarah nodded, remembering the discreet coffin-hatch built into each floor of her Mama's home for that fell purpose.

"Stone will not rot, neither will it sag," the Abbot said, and Sarah could almost hear the gears turning purposefully behind those hazel eyes: "you are foundationed on bed rock?"

"We are."

"Have you a cellar?"

"There was a natural cave in the cliff behind. The house connects firmly with the cliff face. It was dressed off smooth for that purpose and the cave enlarged before construction began."

"You have put some thought into this," Abbot William nodded. "Is there an escape from the cave?"

He looked at Sarah and her quietly satisfied expression was reply enough.

"Stone will be fire proof, but what of each floor? Wood beams and wooden floors, furniture, curtains ...?"

"Stone floors, my Abbot, held up with load bearing walls." She smiled. "We will even have a slate roof."

"With the cliff behind, will your chimneys still draft?"

"I'm told they will and I believe the man who told me."

"Tonio?"

Sarah nodded.

Abbot William laughed. "My old friend, Tonio. If he says your chimneys will draft, they will."

"He said he wanted to put little roofs over the chimneys to keep out downdrafts from the cliff when the winds blow backwards."

"You did say yes." It wasn't a question.

"Correct."

"And this will be the home of your marriage."

"Yes."

William turned a page on the plans, turned another, caressed the precise drawings with his finger tips.

"And this will be the marriage bed."

Sarah's face reddened a little and she nodded.

"I have your answer."

Sarah's eyes were direct and serious.

"Let's have a set, my bones don't take well to standing too long."

"Neither do Papa's," Sarah nodded, sweeping an arm toward another table with a rough bench along one side. "I brought a lunch."

The pair laid out the simple meal, Sarah poured wine for them both: good rich Mexican wine, made by masters of the art, sweet and sparkling with Mexican sunlight and the sweetness of the grape.

They bowed their heads as the Abbot returned thanks, then he broke the small loaf of bread in two, gave Sarah half, picked up a strip of cold beef.

"I am not Solomon the Wise," the Abbot said thoughtfully, "and I wanted to offer this problem up overnight before making your reply."

Sarah bit off a chunk of beef and waited, her eyes fixed on the tonsured cleric like a schoolgirl awaiting a professor's answer to a particularly difficult problem.

"When you became one of the White Sisters, you did not go through Orders and Vows as do the novitiates."

Sarah nodded.

"You came to us" -- he smiled quietly -- "like a white-robed whirlwind and you are responsible for establishing the Faceless Sisters."

Sarah nodded solemnly but he could see the deviltry in her eyes.

"Your disguise, by the way, was flawless" -- he pantomined lifting the corner of a face veil and said in a strangled voice, "I used to sing opera!"

Sarah laughed and he did too.

The Abbot looked at Sarah with almost fatherly affection.

"My child, you are an Agent of the Court, and as such your search is for the truth."

Sarah nodded and the Abbot sipped his wine, raised an approving eyebrow.

"The Church is ever in search of truths and in this effort, we approve.

"This search sometimes requires disguise. We entertain angels unawares and all that, and if angels come to us in disguise for the purpose of truthfully divining a situation, why should we not do the same?"

He thrust out his jaw and Sarah saw his eyebrows quirk, then draw together a little as he considered his next words very carefully.

"Your good works as the White Sister have saved lives. You are a Healer of some skill, and your touch and your words have healed wounded souls as well as injured bodies. Your singing voice is ever a joyful noise made unto the Lord and Our Lady must rejoice to know that one of Her Daughters pursues the right."

Brother William turned, took one of Sarah's hands in both his own.

"You have been an Agent of the Court, but you have also been an Agent of the Church.

"You were not brought in under Holy Orders as were the other sisters, therefore this is the answer I have."

He closed his eyes for a long moment and smiled gently.

"You will marry your husband.

"Marriage is the earthly manifestation of Christ and His Church, and you will be a Bride of Christ as a result."
His smile was still gentle but there was amusement in his voice.

"Should your union prove fertile, it may not be wise to appear as Sister Mercurius, but I imagine that your activities as an Agent will curtail for your new role of motherhood."

Sarah nodded. "That's the plan," she said bluntly.

"Then you have our unreserved blessing. When you are ready to become one of the Sisters again, you will be welcomed."

Sarah swallowed hard, nodded, and Brother William drew her into him and held her, gently, his arms strong and comforting, and for a moment Sarah was a little girl again, safe and warm in a father's embrace.

 

Linn set his boot up on the brass foot rail, a thoughtful look on his face.

Mr. Baxter came over, polishing the mug he held, looking at his old friend and considering the man was looking at the bar top instead of in the mirror like he usually did.

No.

Not looking.

Staring.

I've seen that look on old soldiers before, he's seeing something a hundred miles from here.

 

I'd looked the place over when I come in, the way I always did, I compared the faces I saw with a mental file of faces I'd known.

Nobody of any dangerous consequence stood out.

I went up to the bar and planted my hoof on the bar rail and considered, and I saw my thoughts in the absolute, limitless blackness of that gleaming, smooth, burnished bar top.

The Daine boys did a fine job of refinishing this, I thought absently, and then I thought back to the Ohio country, several decades before.

Better'n a half century before, you mean, part of my mind said.

Yeah.

Better than a half century before.

I looked up, blinked.

Mr. Baxter was standing in front of me and I didn't even see him come up.

"You're back," he said, then he puzzled at my coat front and said "You're collecting crackers nowadays?"

I looked down and a stray fragment of saltine stuck out from under my lapel.

I shook it and some miscellaneous cracker crumbs to the floor and muttered, "Long story," then I looked up again.

"Today's my birthday," I said quietly. "Give me the best in the house."

Mr. Baxter nodded once, set down the faceted-bottom shot glass, expertly poured the stubby glass brim full, set down the bottle with an inquiring lift of his left eyebrow.

I shook my head.

One shot was all I figured to take, one shot was all I wanted.

I picked it up carefully, not wanting to waste any spillage.

My grandmother taught me waste was a sin, and I try not to be a sinful man, and so I held it at eye level and contemplated the eternity in that amber volume.

I thought of a good man who planted good seed in strength and in joy, one June night, I thought of the woman who carried the crop for nine months and who labored one late-March night in blood and in pain at its harvest, that death we call birth.

My birth, well better than that half century ago.

I thought of every one of my honored ancestors and every lesson they tried to teach me, and I thought of the man I'd become through the lens of every choice I ever made.

I remembered them all, and I drank.

Happy Birthday to me.

I set the glass down harder than I intended and the sound was loud, and a hard hand clapped onto my shoulder and an Irish voice declared "Ye didna' think we'd ferget ye now!" and another hand on the other shoulder and Charlie Macneil said "His money is no good here, set 'em up again!" and Jackson Cooper nodded approvingly as I turned, and of a sudden I was awash in a minor sea of kind wishes and glad handing and it felt good ... it felt good that these, my friends, my people, cared enough to converge in this place, at this moment, to wish me Happy Birthday.

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177. A CHILD, BUT NOT SO LITTLE ANYMORE

It was full dark and more by the time I got home.

It's probably a good thing Midnight knew which way to go.

Given my head I'd likely have walked in circles the way a man will when he's lost on the prairie.

I got home still feelin' warm and welcomed and I wasn't too badly oiled but that one shot of Old Group Tightener I'd intended turned into ... well, many kind folks wished my birthday well and it seemed every one of them wanted to h'ist one with me, and I ended up slippin' out back and pullin' the same stunt I'd done before.

I stuck two fingers down my throat and threw up two week's worth of whatever had gone down, then I drank myself full of water and did it ag'in.

Matter of fact, last time I done that ... I was still Sheriff, I'd hunted down and killed a man that needed killin', I come back into the Silver Jewel and walked quiet-like back to that table in the corner and I laid my rifle down on the table and I set there looking at a tall glass of distilled detonation.

I pretended I did not know every eye in the house was on me.

I set there til I could set no longer, which was about the space of ten breaths or so, 'cause I was still mad as hell that I had to go kill that fella.

Everyone knew what he'd done and everyone knew I headed out to get him and everyone knew I had no intent of bringing' him back for trial.

I stood up quick like and I raised that glass and I bellowed, "I SENT ANOTHER ONE TO HELL TODAY!" and I upped that long tall glass and I didn't set it down til it was empty.

I'd just drunk enough to load up three men and a mule.

I come up for air, I slammed that glass down on the table, I taken up my rifle and I stomped out of there and men shrank back from me when I did.

I went down the hall a-past the kitchen and the back stairs and I went outside and I parked my rifle ag'in the back of the Jewel and I pumped me some water and drank a little and then I threw up everything I'd drank.

I got no regrets about killin' that man.

Maybe drinkin' like that and then a-gaggin' myself was a punishment of some sort.

Damfino.

I ain't got me figgered out.

Anyway I done that after all them birthday dranks and even then it was a-gettin' to me, so like I said, right glad I was that Midnight knew the way home.

I unsaddled him and rubbed him down, th'owed some grain in the trough for him and then I set down on a hay bale there in the barn and did not bother to strike a light.

I just set there.

It was quiet, it was cool, but not really chilly, I was comfortable or reasonably so, and I set there in the dark and in the quiet and I let my soul expand and my carcass relax.

I felt that gold horse Sarah brought me.

Funny how that works.

I couldn't see much, just the silhouette when he come walkin' slow into the barn, head a-bobbin', and my eyes weren't focused on anything when I rose and fetched out that twist plug of molasses cured chawin' tobacker and sliced off a curl like I've done every horse I ever had.

I held it out, flat palm.

I could feel that big gold stallion come up to me and I could feel his curiosity and I just waited while he snuffed at me, then he lipped that tobacker off my palm and nudged my middle a little and then he snuffed a couple more times down where I was shot.

I remembered how Cannonball used to do that and I rubbed the stallion under his long jaw and he pulled his head up and walked into me and laid his head over my shoulder and I run my arms around his neck.

We stood there, the two of us, he didn't say a thing and neither did I, maybe he knew what I needed.

I don't know that either.

I do know I stood there a good long time and so did he and neither of us was much inclined to let the other go for a good long while.

I heard one time horses are pretty good at judging character.

I dunno about that neither, I seen some spirit broke horses that were more like a flesh and bone machine.

This fellow, now ... from what Sarah told me, this fella was like ridin' a keg of powder.

She's pretty good on a horse and when she told me she'd been throwed a half dozen times by this big gold coated glue hoof hayburner, I considered that I may want to wait a while before tryin' him.

Doc told me not to fall and bust that lung ag'in.

When the two of us finally got restless, I rubbed his neck and whispered, "Whattaya say, fella? Will you let me ride you?"

I felt him blink and slash his tail, and that was his only reply.

"Well, come on, then," I said, and he stood for me to sling a saddle blanket over his back.

I smoothed it out good and made sure there wasn't the first wrinkle in it, then I picked up that black Mexican saddle with the genuine silver brightwork and I brought the near stirrup over the saddle horn, I had to stop for a moment before I hove it up -- that side still give me fits if I moved just wrong -- and sure enough like it always does, the stirrup fell off the saddle horn in mid swing and fell down fit to smack the hammer spur of my right hand Colt.

I wore mine a little to the rear instead of dead under the armpit, and it was under my coat, so the stirrup didn't hit the spur hard enough to knock a primer, and I was set down on my buryin' money anyhow so I warn't worried.

Corazon del Fuego, I thought.

Heart from fire.

A heart brought forth in a forge, or forged out of adversity ...?

Doesn't matter.

Now I might have soaked in more birthday celebration than I'd realized, for I thought it not unwise to slip the same bridle on him Sarah used, a bridle with no bit.

If he was as intuitive as she'd reported, I should have no difficulty.

Provided she was right.

Provided I could stay in the saddle.

Provided I didn't end up bein' taken for a Nantucket sleigh ride.

I grinned.

What's life without a little adventure? I thought.

 

Angela frowned in the darkness of her nighttime bedroom.

Her Daddy hadn't tucked her in like he usually did.

She liked it when her Daddy tucked her in.

He had big strong hands and he smelled of horsies and leather and sometimes he smelled a little like brandy, and his voice was as gentle as his hands as he drew the covers up around her chin.

Angela frowned, threw back her covers, swung bare feet to the hook rug and padded silently across the floor, listened.

She opened her door, peeked out, took three careful, weight-forward steps across the hallway, listened at her Daddy's door.

Nothing.

Angela opened the door, looked in.

The bed was smooth and tight.

No Daddy.

Angela frowned and if it hadn't been so quiet out, she would have huffed a little the way she did when things weren't the way they were supposed to be, so she crept across the floor around the foot of the bed and over to the window and looked out.

There was enough moon to see, and she saw her Daddy and that big goldie horsie of his.

Her Daddy always looked good on a horsie and Angela watched as the big goldie horsie stopped and shoved its head against her Daddy and she saw the puffies of steam-breath as Goldie-horsie snuffied at her Daddy and she giggled to see it, then she frowned and thought, He's snuffying where Daddy got shotted!

 

I swung my leg up and over and set my weight down in that Mexican saddle, my right boot finding the stirrup like it had eyes.

"Okay, fella," I murmured, patting his neck, "show me what you can do!"

The stallion turned with rein and with knee, and I turned him slowly, then more quickly: I withdrew the knee pressure and the rein from against his neck, and he stopped, and I patted his neck again and called him a good boy, like he was a favorite dog, then I laid the other rein and the other knee and he spun again -- more pressure, and he spun faster, and I stopped and so did he.

I laughed, lifted the reins, goosed him forward, and he paced ahead just as butter smooth as his grandsire, my old Rey del Sol, my King of the Sun, who was also a golden stallion, and a good one.

This fellow, now ... he was maybe a hand and a half, maybe two hands taller, and somehow he felt ...

He felt right.

 

Angela watched as her Daddy rose the Goldie-horsie around the corral, smiled as he opened the gate without dismounting, laughed as he and the Goldie-horsie shot across the meadow, clapped her hands with delight and bounced on her toes as they sailed over a fence the way he used to with Cannonball.

Angela clasped her hands under her chin and then hugged herself with delight as she watched her Daddy ride into the moonlit night.

 

It was late when I got home and later when I went in the house.

I had a grin on my face broad as two Texas townships.

I climbed the stairs, went into my bedroom, hung up my coat, then I stopped and looked at the closed bedroom door.

I usually tucked Angela in and I hadn't been home to do that, so I thought I might ought do just that.

She was curled up on her side when I eased her door open, and I cat footed across the floor and looked down at her, and I taken her quilt and drew it up just a little and worked it in under her chin, and I remembered.

I went to my knees and I remembered.

I recalled that train wreck, back in the early days of the Z&W, before Esther replaced those iron rails with steel ... iron fatigues and one did, it thrust up and gutted a passenger car and derailed half the train.

Jacob and I arrived and started looking for survivors.

Weren't but two, as I recall, and Angela was one of them.

I didn't know she was alive when first I saw her, or saw her leg stickin' out from under what used to be the side wall of the passenger car.

I reckon I went a little insane that day.

Jacob and I weren't the only ones there.

We'd rode up just as the first relief train arrived, and railroaders testified later I was seizing timbers and debris too heavy for a man to move and slinging them like they were tooth picks.

I don't recall anythin' of the sort.

The only thing I remember is seeing Angela's leg and her shoe and remembering my little Dana, back in Ohio, the night she died in my arms.

I moved with two thoughts, taking turns in my mind:

I AIN'T ABOUT TO LET HER DIE, and

GOD ALMIGHTY DON'T LET HER DIE!

I recall I seized that wall layin' over atop her and it must not have weighed much for I flipped it off her like it was a sheet of bark, and I knelt beside her, and I brushed the hair back from her eyes and shoved my head down close to her mouth, my hand going to her belly, listening for the sound of breath, praying hard and without words but believe me I prayed it most fervently, that I would feel her belly rise as she took in a breath.

Nothing.

I reckon I took my sanity like an old hat and slung it out over the side of the mountain.

I run my arms under this still, unmoving, limp little child and I stood up and I looked up at God's throne somewhere in the clouds overhead and I am not ashamed to admit I just honestly screamed "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" and I can still hear the despairing echo of my voice, sounding like a condemned soul being dragged away for damnation.

I pulled her up close and buried my face in her front and whispered "Please, let her live, please, let her live, please, let her live," and I remembered my little Dana's last breath on the side of my neck when she shivered and her soul slipped out of her body and left us both alone, alone, there in that dark cabin by the Inland Sea, and I grieved as I held this still little form.

I'd just lost another child.

I'd failed her.

I'd failed, more utterly and more completely and more absolutely than I ever had in my life.

I felt her move.

I heard her gasp.

My head came up and my face was wet and I looked at her and she looked at me and she raised her arm to reach for me and I hugged her to me and I heard the inspection car's shrill little whistle and I went a-runnin' for it, for I knew Doc would be on that inspection car, and I was right.

Nurse Susan was there too, and I figured this little girl with one arm around my neck and the other locked around a rag doll would need a more motherly touch, but she wouldn't let go of me and truth be told I was not in any mind to let go of her.

It took Nurse Susan some little time to get the two of us unwound from one another.

I looked down on that child now ... I looked down on a little girl, orphaned in a train wreck, a child I took for my own and adopted proper-like, a little girl would always, always be her Daddy's little girl.

She may not have been the get of my loins but she was my daughter nonetheless, and I knelt by her bed and crossed my forearms on the edge of her bed and laid my forehead down on my forearms.

My daughter, nine years old, I thought.

Thank You.

I knelt there for about as long as I'd held that gold stallion around his neck, and I reckon the Almighty heard my prayer, wordless though most of it was.

I felt movement, and a child's hand stroked my head.

"Daddy," Angela whispered, "how come you're standing up on your knees?"

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178. "IT'S NOT OVER"

His Honor Judge Donald Hostetler looked up and frowned.

"Don't you ever knock?"

"Don't you believe in locking your doors?" the black agent countered, a hint of amusement in her voice.

His Honor grunted. "Usually I can count on hearing the damned thing open!"

"Yes, Your Honor. Usually you can."

"Dammit, that was a hint!"

"My father does not take hints well, Your Honor. You know that. You have to belt the man over the head with a fence post to get his attention."

"What's that got to do with you?"

"I am my father's daughter."

His Honor glared at the hard-eyed young woman, in a man's all black attire.

"Well, now that you're here, out with it."

"It's not done."

"What's not done?"

"You turned me loose to bring back the guilty."

"Yes I did, and yes you did."

"One left."

His Honor stopped, laid his pen down, leaned back in his chair, took a long, thoughtful draw on his Cuban.

"Now that is interesting," he said slowly. "I find that very interesting."

"I thought you would."

"When did you find there was one more?"

"When I went down to the Border country. I knew one had fled, I just didn't know where."

"You know now."

"I know now."

"Is he across the Rio?"

"I don't think he'll cross. He might."

"And if he does?"

The Agent's smile was tight and not at all pleasant.

"I can travel among them like a fish in water, Your Honor. There I am the Little Faceless One, and they will keep no secrets from me."

The Judge shook his head. "I have no idea how you swindled them into letting you become a nun."

"One is what one makes of oneself," Sarah countered, rising. "There were no Faceless Nuns until I established the Order."

His Honor removed the cigar from between stained teeth.

"You what?"

Agent Sarah Lynne Rosenthal smiled, pushed her hat brim up with one stiff forefinger.

"I was believable enough, Your Honor," she smiled, "that I established an entire Order of nuns. The Faceless Ones, the Veiled Sisters."

"And just when I thought I had you figured out," he muttered, shaking his head.

"I'll be going now. I should have funds enough for what I have in mind. If I run short, I'll let you know."

"You do that," the Judge muttered as he bit down again on the soggy end of his Cuban.

"There is one more thing."

"And what's that?" he puffed, fouling the atmosphere even more than it was.

"Please, Your Honor, lock your doors this time."

 

Agent Sarah Lynne Rosenthal took the time to return home, to bathe, to wash her hair and to change clothes.

She hated the smell of cigar smoke and she hated the way it clung to her, and she hated that she had to leave home and hearth yet again, but there was one man left, one dangerous individual who had to be ... attended.

She smiled as she dried her hair, as she vigorously toweled her auburn lengths.

She would attend to this last remaining murderer, all right.

She would be very personal in her attentions.

Less than a half hour later, a black-clad rider on a huge and midnight-black horse, with a black hound coursing beside, disappeared into the night.

 

A solitary figure soaked the teacup sized fire's remains with cold creekwater, buried it to absolutely conceal any residual odor.

He'd chosen his hiding place very carefully -- very carefully indeed, for only a mountain goat could navigate the rock face behind him, and his horse would alert him from anything to the front.

He drank the last of the cold coffee -- he would have sold a good percentage of his eternal soul for a tin cup of hot coffee, but he durst not heat the brew over the fire, lest its odor betray him -- and so he drank it cold.

Coffee had an effect on a man's system, and between this natural effect, and the hard ground, he intended to guarantee he'd be awake come daylight.

He unrolled his blankets, dug out a little hollow for hip and shoulder and laid down, wished for a woman to curl up with, or at least his old hound dog.

He went to sleep half-dreaming of his old dog at home.

He woke to the sensation of a dog's tongue happily washing his face.

He automatically reached up, found a thick coat of fur, began to rub its owner behind the ears, before it sank in just how much fur he had to get through before he could reach the ear!

He opened his eyes.

He froze when something cold and metallic pressed into his neck and he heard -- and felt -- the terrible, brittle click, click of a double barrel shotgun coming to full stand.

"Daniel Carsey," a woman's voice said, but the figure it came from looked anything but womanly: a broad black hat, the brim sagging down all around, the clothes were all black, the drawers and knee high cavalry boots were of the same, unrelieved midnight hue, and there was nothing feminine or womanly about this squatting figure that pressed a cut down twelve gauge against his throat.

"Daniel Carsey," the figure said again, its voice quiet.

"That's m'name, don't wear it out," he countered.

"I got a warrant for your arrest."

"You ain't got squat," he sneered.

"I have a shotgun to your throat."

Carsey could think of little that would counter that statement.

"You plotted to murder the Sheriff."

An innocent man would have asked what Sheriff, would have protested, a guilty man who tried to lie out of it would protest as well, would claim to be innocent, would immediately grasp for any reason, any excuse, to prove his innocence.

Carsey did none of these.

The Black Agent waited until Carsey's hand was a half inch from the handle of his backup pistol, the one under the edge of his left thigh.

"Meal," she said, and The Bear Killer happily bit down on Carsey's forearm, just enough to stop the arm and hold it in place.

"You are going to do exactly as I say," the black Agent said quietly.

"You ain't hangin' me?"

"No."

"You takin' me back to hang?"

"No."

He tried pulling his head back a little to get away from the pressure of those two shotgun barrels pressing into his neck.

"What, then?"

"Stand up." The Agent rolled back on her heels, stood: Carsey's ascent to a two-legged stance was made more difficult by the canine jaws holding his forearm.

"If you promise to be a good boy, I'll have my associate open his jaws."

"Your .. associate," Carsey said skeptically. "Okay."

Sarah waited until his hand was around the other hideout gun's handle before she gave him one barrel, then the other.

She rose, reloaded; kissing at The Bear Killer, the two of them walked more than a mile before she untied Snowflake's reins from a tree she could have pulled out of the ground.

The black agent mounted a black horse and kissed at the black dog and the three of them rode through the black heart of the night, toward the nearest settlement in that part of the country.

A black gloved hand left a rolled up note hanging by a ribbon from the town marshal's door knob, instructions on how to find the carcass of one Daniel Carsey.

The note was not found until sunup, the body until almost noon, and by then the perpetrators were more than long gone.

 

Mr. Baxter looked up as the quiet figure all in black picked up the bottle, dispensed it without looking into the glass beside it, then took the glass and paced back to the Lawman's Corner.

He watched the figure sit and lay a very short shotgun across the table in front of her.

Mr. Baxter shivered as he remembered a pale eyed lawman doing that not long ago.

He watched as the Black Agent tilted the glass up and downed its entire payload without coming up for breath.

His jaw sagged a little as the slender, boyish looking individual stood and picked up the shotgun: looking around, she declared in a voice that may as well have been a wanted dodger being nailed on the wall, "I SENT ANOTHER ONE TO HELL TODAY!"

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179. THE MARK OF CAIN

It had taken me a while to find her and finally I thought it might work if I thought of her as a wounded animal, hiding from the pain.

I was right.

When I found her she was face down, so I went to one knee beside her, I gathered Sarah's hair and twisted it and pulled her head back.

I wet down my wild rag one handed, set down canteen and tin cup and bunched my wet rag up into a gob, slung out the excess

I fetched her face up far enough to see it and I wiped her face and then pulled harder on her hair, and I was not being gentle a'tall when I did.

I put a tin cup to her lips and said, "Drink."

She drank, slobbered some of it down her chin, gasped in some air, drank again.

I primed her with another tin cup of water and then drew it back as her stomach rebelled anew.

She just lay there, face down on the ground, at least she found a handy ditch to hang her head over and she hadn't made a mess of her hair nor her self.

I poured more water from my canteen with one hand, still holding her head up with the other, brought the cup to her lips again.

She made no move to take the cup from me, she just laid there whilst I primed her with three cups this time before it come back up.

We did that until my one canteen was empty, then I stood and pulled her to her hands and knees and said not at all kindly, "Get up."

Sarah got up.

I stepped around in front of her and took her face between my hands and whispered, "My God, girl, don't you know how to drink?"

She shoved me away, turned, put her hands on her knees and made awful choking sounds as what little was in her stomach came up and then the dry heaves near to tore her apart.

I let her heave.

I let her experience the full absolute agony of her body's rebellion at having just sluiced enough Kentucky Bore Cleaner to kill a good horse and three men.

Some lessons are best learned with experience and this was one of them.

I'd had to learn it the hard way and now it was her turn and I reckoned this would guarantee she would never take seriously to drinkin'.

Nor to abusing herself in this same way.

She come up slowly, arms a-dangle and her shoulders rounded forward, and she gasped, "More water?"

I handed her a second canteen and she drank.

It stayed down some longer this time.

The Bear Killer watched us with worried eyes, followed us over to a bare log: I had my saddle blanket folded and ready and I parked her backside on it and set down beside her.

Sarah leaned her head over on my shoulder and half groaned, half whispered, "I feel awful!"

I patted her hand. "I know," I whispered. "I know."

"I got the last one, Papa."

I squeezed her hand a little.

"I am sorry," I whispered back, partly because I was too sorrowful to speak, partly because I knew a spoken word would be like beatin' on a wash pan with a wooden spoon to her hung over ears.

"It's my fault, Papa. Don't be sorry." She reached her arm kind of weakly and grabbed my shoulder and I turned a little and put my arms around her.

The Bear Killer come up and rested his chin on her knee and she reached down and rubbed his ears all gentle-like, the way I remembered my little girl.

My little girl.

A lady in fine dresses and ribbons, an angel in silks and styled hair, laughing as we waltzed by lantern light in Daciana's big barn ...

My little girl, a murderess in black, a swift arrow of avenging justice, loosed by the Judge's order, a guarantee that Justice would not allow its agents to be murdered in their own home.

Justice was served, I thought, but at the cost ... was the cost, my little girl's eternal soul?

"I killed the last man who conspired to kill you, Papa."

I hugged her a little tighter.

"I found him and I killed him. I did not bring him in to hang. I killed him, Papa."

"I know, Princess. I know."

Sarah wobbled again, reached for the canteen strap, hauled it off the ground like it was a hundred pounds and she was winching it up a cliff face.

Another drink, this time less of it ran down her chin.

Sarah wiped her mouth with her shirt sleeve, the move of a cowhand rather than a fine lady, and she coughed, sniffed and coughed again.

"I hate this," she whispered, spat.

"What do you hate, Princess?"

Sarah reached down and rubbed The Bear Killer's head, and he closed his eyes and laid his ears back and groaned with contentment, the way a big dog will when it's happy.

"I don't regret killing him, Papa. I don't regret any of the killin' I've done. Every one of them deserved what they got."

Her hand rested on The Bear Killer -- I reckon she was drawing comfort from the big black dog, I know I have a time or three -- and she continued, "I suppose I am an Agent of more than the Court."

"How's that?"

"The Bear Killer here." She stared off into the distance the way I have at such times. "Do you remember Cain and Abel?"

"I was just a kid at the time," I deadpanned.

She gave me a pitying look.

"God gave Cain a mark so no man would kill him, so he would be condemned to live with what he'd done."

"I recall somethin' of the kind."

"There is some scall --"

Sarah stopped, breathed quick-like, kind of funny, and I figured her stomach was unhappy with her again.

Whatever it was, it passed.

"Scholarly," she said slowly, enunciating each syllable and almost spitting it out.

"There is some scholarly debate as to what that mark was."

"Mmm." I offered no comment; she was heading for a conclusion and I did not want to distract her.

"Some religious scholars believe it was an actual mark -- like a brand, or a tattoo. That may be why religious scholars believe tattoos are ungodly."

I nodded slowly, knowing she was plowing a field of speculation here, knowing she needed a listening ear and not commentary.

"Others believe it was a curled horn coming out of the middle of his forehead."

I grunted again, kind of a thoughtful grunt, imagining how unhandy it would be to have a handle growing out of a man's skull. Why, in a bar fight someone could grab that curly handle and drag a man around unmercifully, not to mention how hard it would be to fit a good broad brim hat --

"And here we have what other scholars believe."

She ran a gentle hand under The Bear Killer's jaw and the massive Tibetan mountain dog raised his head and opened his mouth in that ivory fanged grin of his.

"Some believe it was a big black dog that accompanied Cain, and kept anyone from killing him."

She looked at me.

"This could be our Mark of Cain, Papa."

I reached down and rubbed The Bear Killer's ears and he groaned with pleasure again, closing his eyes and panting a little.

"Not a warning, and not a mark of condemnation."

Sarah looked at me, her eyes bright and sincere.

"Look at how he loves us, Papa. He is not a punishment. He is a testimony. God still loves us. The Bear Killer is showing us that."

She folded a forearm across her belly.

"Even if I don't love me sometimes."

I ran my arm around her shoulders, drew her to me.

"Sarah, there is a trick to drinkin' when you kill a man, and if you're going to pull that damn fool stunt again, here's how I do it."

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180. THE SHERIFF'S TROUBLEMAKER

His Honor considered the slim docket before him.

He had but few cases to hear in Firelands ... very likely he could have his private car hitched onto the outbound that morning.

Puffing his hand-rolled cigar with satisfaction, he leaned back in his chair, contemplated the spiderweb in the corner of the ceiling, smiled.

A knock at the door, the knob turned: His Honor gave the opening door a serious look, then his face relaxed and he removed the cigar and rose.

"My dear Miss McKenna," he said. "Do come in."

"Thank you, Your Honor." Sarah was paying a social call, not reporting as an Agent of the Court: she was fashionably dressed, and something told His Honor she intended to see more than just an elderly jurist that morning.

"I wanted to let you know," she said as she grasped the back of a chair, "that the last conspirator has been ... addressed."

"Addressed," the Judge echoed skeptically.

"Yes, Your Honor. One tried to escape."

"Unsuccessfully, I take it."

"Very."

"And I take it this individual will engage in no further conspiracies?"

"None in this lifetime, Your Honor."

The Judge nodded. "Well done, my dear. You have satisfied yourself that your investigation is complete?"

"I have, Your Honor."

"Was the advice I gave you of any good help?"

"Very much so, Your Honor, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency was also generous in their assistance."

"Generous, you say," the Judge harrumphed skeptically. "My experience ... they're generally closer than thieves with their information."
"Perhaps it was the mention of a certain Judge's name," Sarah said frankly, "or perhaps the knowledge that one of their own is my stepfather, and no man wants to see a girl's Daddy killed, especially in his own home."

"And I suppose you gauged each man's weakness and tailored your approach accordingly."

Sarah's smile was cold. "Exactly, Your Honor. I am rather good at that."

His Honor regarded Sarah levelly, a look that never failed to intimidate in court.

"Young lady," he finally said, returning the cigar to his jaw, "I am probably to be congratulated."

"You are, Your Honor."

He raised his eyebrows, tilted his head down just a little.

"If His Honor had not recruited me," Sarah said, batting her eyes and managing to look utterly innocent, "who knows what kind of difficulties I might have caused. Why, I would be The Sheriff's Troublemaker!"

"Yes," the Judge agreed. "My thoughts exactly, my dear."

"With your permission, Your Honor?"

"By all means."

Sarah smiled, turned, glided to the door, turned and gave him a smoldering look, a look that promised she had mischief up her sleeve and an intent to deliver same to an unsuspecting victim.

His Honor stared long at the quietly closed door.

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," he said to the stratified air, "if I were younger, I would have your hand in marriage!"

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My friends, give me a day or two.

This tale has ended and another is about to begin.

That pale eyed Sheriff just reached through the screen and grabbed a good handful of my shirt front, jerked me up short and hissed "Write!"

Of course the only correct thing to do is lift my hat and say "Yes ma'am!"

Pale Eyes is a-comin'!

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That pale eyed Sheriff just reached through the screen and grabbed a good handful of my shirt front, jerked me up short and hissed "Write!"

Of course the only correct thing to do is lift my hat and say "Yes ma'am!"

 

Good ....

....... 'cause if she didn't I would've ..

 

;)

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PALE EYES

1. THE WOMAN IN WHITE

Patiently, carefully, she ordered her thoughts like soldiers into neat ranks.

She dipped the steel nib quill into good India ink, part of her mind considering the manufacture of the pen was not long before the turn of the century, just before the calendar rolled over the 1900 mark.

Her thoughts were transferred to the good rag paper before her, an account of what had transpired that night.

She did this, when significant events occurred.

Not far from where the woman in white quietly scribed, a man and a little boy slept: the man was tall and muscled, the little boy had the tall man's hazel eyes; they were tired, for both had labored to clean the barn, polish leather and groom horses as instructed by the pale eyed woman.

Curled up beside her, occupying most of the oval braided rug, a truly massive black dog with thick, curly fur lay a-sprawl, snoring quietly.

She lifted her eyes and considered the glass plate photograph on the wall, a photograph of a man in a well tailored suit, a tall, lean man with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache, and a woman in what must have been a richly colored, beautifully fitted gown, a woman she knew had red hair: this originally hung in the Silver Jewel Saloon, but the pale eyed woman gave in to an impulse and asked if she might have it, and so it was given over.

The dip quill scratched loudly in the nighttime stillness; where she might have lighted the Aladdin lamp atop the desk, she'd lit a simple beeswax candle.

She remembered earlier that night, in the quiet of the sanctuary, as she knelt with the other Sisters in evening adoration, the smell of beeswax, and the silence in the adobe chapel: she'd come to love the time she spent with the Sisters, and she wrote of that tonight.

Her eyes rose as the cell phone in a pigeon hole in the desk vibrated; she reached for it, flipped her finger across the screen and tapped it, and smiled.

Coming to bed? she read, and she bit her bottom lip as she tapped in reply:

Be right there.

 

The Abbot was tall and lean, a veteran of wars he never spoke about, and yet one soldier will recognize another: the woman in white and the tonsured monk in his simple tan robe, both sitting with their backs to a wall so they could see the doors.

"I am very glad you came tonight," he said, his voice gentle, as it always was. "Your presentation of the Sisters and their lives here in the Monastery is ... "

"Amusing?" she teased from behind her white silk veil, and he could almost see her smile behind it.

"I thought educational, perhaps, or informative," he admitted, "but ... yes, amusing."

"Good."

"You learned well the speaker's principle that a leavening of humor improves the presentation."

"My father taught me that."

The Abbot nodded.

"You are well versed in your study of ancestry."

"I've back tracked my own family, yes."

"I understand your findings are ... interesting."

"You could say that."

The Abbot rose. "I found a book," he said, "that may be of interest to you, but I'll need your help."

"Of course."

The Abbot tugged at an embroidered bell-pull; the door opened immediately, and a short, portly Sister with the clear, light-brown skin of her Mexican blood came in, bowed slightly.

"Sister Lucia, do you remember when the children put on their theatrical production?"

"Si, Abbot."

"Do you remember the satchel containing the stage makeup?"

"Si, Abbot."

"Could you bring it here, please?"

"Si, Abbot."

The white-habited nun bowed again, withdrew, closed the door silently.

"Lucia is a marvel," the Abbot smiled. "If something is lost, I don't think she even has to ask St. Anthony, she just knows where to look and there it is!"

"Now that's a handy talent to have," the veiled nun replied.

It was not possible for Sister Lucia to have gone somewhere to get the valise, yet she managed: no sooner had the veiled Sister spoken than Sister Lucia opened the door and brought in the valise, handed it to the Abbot with a quick dip of her knees, and disappeared soundlessly again.

"Are you familiar with collodion?" the Abbot asked conversationally, unpacking the valise, setting out bottles and small wooden hinge-top boxes on the smooth plank table.

"Collodion," the woman said thoughtfully. "I know it's used to adhese bandages, it's used in small particle analysis and I believe it was used at one time for collecting gunshot residue."

"It can have an ether or an ethanol base," the Abbot said absently as he selected what looked like an artist's brush, frowned at the square-cut bristles. "This is ether. I'm afraid it's quite ... smelly."

He lifted the woman's veil, then her wimple, removing it entirely, exposing her head: he pulled her collar apart, frowned.

"I'm going to give you a theatrical scar. Hold still."

He dipped the brush in the brown glass bottle, drew a cold line from the outer corner of her eye down across her cheek.

 

Sister Mercurius held very still as Brother William -- now Abbot William -- drew the brush down across her cheek.

She'd painted her own scars before but it always felt awkward, holding the brush with her wrist twisted around and looking in a mirror, and Brother William turned out to have a strong, natural talent for theatrical makeup ... at least this limited kind of makeup.

The odor of ether was strong; she frowned, sunlight from the window opposite making her eyes sting.

 

"This part will be the more uncomfortable," the Abbot said as he kneaded the sticking-plaster, then carefully pulled her lower eyelid down, stuck it down to her cheek. "Your eye will water and that's what I want it to do."

"Gee, thanks a lot, fella!"

"Patience, my dear Sister. There is method to my insanity."

"There always is."

He frowned, nodded, satisfied. "Good." Turning, he consulted the book he'd found, looked from it to the seated woman with the puckering scar running a diagonal horror across her face. "Just one more touch," he said.

 

Abbot William dipped the brush again and slowly, steadily painted a chill line down and across the front of her throat, then plunged the developing scar vertical down.

"Do you mind if I ask just why you wanted Sister Mercurius scarred up again? Is there an investigation?"

"No, there is a portrait."

"Excuse me?"

The Abbot stood, tilted his head a little to the right. "Yes, I think that will do nicely." He reached up, tugged at the bell-pull again.

The door opened and Sister Lucia bowed a little.

"Are the Sisters gathered?"

"Si, Abbot."

"And the photographer?"

"Si, Abbot."

"My dear?" Abbot William said, extending his hand and rising.

Sarah took his hand, rose, her left eye watering steadily.

They walked out into the courtyard, to the little trellised arch with the fountain behind; the Sisters were ranked neatly with the tallest in the center, but the parted, and the Abbot stood with his hands on the shoulders of the uncharacteristaclly un-veiled Sister Mercurius.

"If everyone could hold very still," the photographer said, disappearing under his black drape at the back of the gleaming wooden box with shining brass trim: "hold it there, everyone, please," and with a flourish, he whipped off the brass lens cap, his pocket watch in the other hand: his lips moved a little as he counted the seconds, replaced the cap, smiled and bowed: "You can breathe now."

 

The Abbot sat again, staring frankly at the pale-eyed woman's face.

"I know what our Holy Mother Church teaches," he said slowly, "and I have my own thoughts on the matter."

"You will forgive me," Willamina smiled, "if I don't have the least idea what you are talking about."

The Abbot chuckled. "I keep wanting to call you Sheriff."

"Hey you will do."

"I may begin to call you Sister Mercurius."

"If you wish."

"Take a look in this." He threw back a cloth napkin, exposed a woman's hand mirror: he presented it handle first, watched carefully as Willamina first beheld his handiwork.

"Looks like I got beer bottled in a barfight," she said, nodding with approval. "You do nice work, Abbot."

"And now the reason I wanted you to see yourself."

He turned the book around, held it up for her to see.

It was an enlargement of a portrait taken in the Monastery's bygone days.

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned forward a little, her eyes suddenly intent, one cheek wet with tears from her turned-down eyelid's discomfort, and she stared at a face with a scar running across it, a scar that ran diagonally across the cheek and seared across the nun's throat and plunged down into her neckline.

"You see," the Abbot said thoughtfully, "I cannot believe the God who put so much work into our souls, would be content with one life and out. The older I get, the more quickly time runs, and I've seen too many things like this" -- his long, artist's finger tapped the page -- "to persuade me otherwise."

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," Willamina said softly. "Past Agent, Firelands District Court, daughter of Old Pale Eyes, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado."

She looked squarely at the quietly smiling Abbot.

"My great-great-grandfather."

 

Willamina hung up her white nun's habit, shrugged quickly into her white flannel nightgown with the pink roses at the throat, slid into bed beside her husband.

"How was your visit to the Monastery?" he whispered as she squeezed his hand under the covers.

"Educational," Willamina whispered back. "Very educational."

"Did you present your historic lecture on the origins of the Veiled Nuns?"

Willamina was quiet for a long moment, staring up at the nighttime ceiling.

"Yes," she finally said. "Yes, I did."

She rolled up on her side, laid a hand on his chest.

"You were right about working after retirement."

"Oh?"

"Oh."

"Oh what?"

"Oh the Abbot needs an investigator."

Richard chuckled, pulled away just a little so he too could roll up on his side.

"You'll be a good one," he whispered, and their arms wrapped around one another, and their lips spoke plainly, but not with words.

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2. "BEAR KILLER! FIND HIM!"

"Jacob?" Willamina called, and Richard smiled to hear it: her voice was that of a mother and not that of the Sheriff she'd been.
The happy clatter of young boots charging down the stairs was her answer: the hazel-eyed son of Past Sheriff Willamina Keller and her retired FBI agent husband ran downhill as easily as if he were sprinting on level ground, and Richard very strongly suspected his son had rehearsed his descent, for he launched off the stairs and onto the hook rug and rug surfed down the hallway, laughing.
Willamina handed him the brown paper sack, gave his cowlick a quick stroke with her middle finger: "All your books?"
"Yes, Mama."
"Homework?"
"All done, Mama."
"Ready to head out?"
"Yes, Mama."
"Say goodbye to your Dad."
Jacob turned, glared at his father: his father glared at his son, went to one knee.
Each of the two "put up their dukes" and thrust out their jaws, each trying to out-snarl the other: neither succeeded and both laughed, the son running into the father's arms.
"Try not to out-run your mother," Richard said as young arms tried to out-squeeze the older: young Jacob ran for the front door, making more noise with three steps than any ten grown men would have in twice the distance.
Richard looked after the closed door, smiling, remembering a day when he too was young, and leaving the house for grade school.
It was a good memory.

Jacob was as comfortable in the saddle as he was at the kitchen table, or in his own bed; the saddle was cinched around an Appaloosa's barrel, the Appaloosa paced easily beside the red mare, and both breathed easily of the cool spring air.
Jacob delighted in riding with his Mama, and if asked, Willamina would probably have expressed a similar affection: when weather permitted, which was nearly every day, unless it was blue cold and blowing a blizzard, or raining like pouring dried peas on a rawhide, they rode to school together.
The Bear Killer coursed silently beside Jacob; the horses moved easily, but not terribly fast, for they left in plenty of time, and the distance was not great.
One thing about a small town, Willamina thought as she raised her hand again in greeting, everyone waves -- whether it was a motorist, whether it was Mr. Garrison (he was always Mr. Garrison, never William or William J) sweeping off the back porch of his tidy, freshly-painted Mercantile, whether it was her twin brother in his police cruiser, grinning at mother and son as they rode up the brick-paved back street.
"Mama?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
Jacob rode, as usual, without reins: when his Mama told him about his great-great-great Granddad (however many greats it was, he wasn't sure but he knew it was lot of 'em) -- his several times great Granddad, a lean man with an iron grey mustache and pale eyes, a man who rode his horse without reins, a man who could charge into battle with a revolver in one hand and a curved cavalry sabre in the other -- well, Jacob tthough this was just a fine idea, and so he figured out how to train his Apple-horse how to be ridden without reins.
Willamina pretended not to notice when Jacob rode through the orchard, because he rode just like she did: wide open, bent over the young stallion's neck, his hands flat on the Appaloosa's muscled neck, yelling encouragement as the pair wove between the ancient apple trees that lined the depression behind the house: she was never sure which one loved their game the more, the horse or the rider, and she finally concluded -- after watching them, after watching their galloping slalom, after watching them sail over the eroded gully, after watching them streak across the high meadow and double back, the stallion's nose thrust straight out, his tail twisting in the wind of their passing, tears ripped from the corners of her little boy's eyes with the speed of their passage, tears that ran cold along his cheekbone and into his ears and down the back of his neck -- she knew this, because she'd ridden in just that same way on her Cannonball mare.
She honestly did not think of them as horse and rider anymore.
When Apple laid his ears back and didn't so much run as much as streak across the cold, hard ground, when her son laid out over the horse's neck with the palms of his hands welded to his equine brother, they were no longer horse and rider ...
They were one magical creature, and they rode the wind itself.
Jacob's voice pulled Willamina back from her swift-running thoughts.
"Mama, how come nobody else rides to school?"
Willamina laughed, and Jacob smiled, for he loved his Mama's laugh.
"Jacob, we're a century too late. Do you remember the little whitewashed schoolhouse in town, beside the park?"
"Yes, Mama."
"The schoolmarm used to drive her carriage, unless her husband drove her in the carriage. Students walked, or rode."
"Nobody much walks, Mama."
Willamina smiled.
"Mama?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Mama, can we go back a century?"
Willamina laughed again, looked over at her grinning son.
"I'm afraid not, Jacob."
"Why not?"
His voice, his question, conveyed all the innocence of childhood.
I wish we could, Willamina thought, then admitted, "I don't know how."
"Oh." He managed not to sound disappointed.
Firelands County was still a mostly rural area; Firelands, its county seat, was still a small town, or relatively so, depending on one's perspective.
Willamina had known truly small towns; she'd also been exposed, not entirely at her wish, to cities, and some sizable cities at that.
No, she reflected as she and Jacob approached the brick schoolhouse on the hill, a small town suited her just fine, especially when she lived outside it.
Cannonball began to dance, the way she always did, showing off her paso fino blood: Willamina found, to her delight, that Cannonball had a sense of rhythm, and one evening, when the school's marching band was rehearsing, Cannonball put on a little show -- dancing flawlessly in time to the music, and with only a little encouragement, pulling a few fancy maneuvers -- dropping her head and kicking, leaping, diagonals, backing -- as a matter of fact, she found out the next day, a few parents had congratulated the band director on what they took to be a new addition to the halftime show.
Today, though, mother and son rode right up to the front door, as they always did, and usually at that point Jacob would dismount, hand his reins to his Mama, fish his sack lunch out of his off saddlebag, his books from the right, and with a final pat on Apple's neck and a wave to his Mama, Jacob would go inside for another day of education.
Unfortunately, there was a new teacher, and the new teacher was not from a small town, nor was she from Colorado, and she was not used to horses, and she was most especially not used to a mother, on horseback, with a rifle in its scabbard and a revolver on her belt.
In short, this new teacher let out a strangled screech, seized Jacob by the arm and jerked him inside -- considerably more harshly than she should have.
Willamina's eyes went dead ice-pale and she threw a leg up, slid off her mare, seized the grip of her '73 rifle and hauled it out of the carved-leather scabbard.
A mother knows her child's voice.
Willamina knew Jacob's screech of triumph, of minor pain, of fear, but this ...
When her son screamed, it was a scream of pain.
Her child was injured and that teacher, the one that seized his arm and yanked him off his feet to get him inside the school building, just hurt her child.
She pulled out the cell phone from her vest pocket, thumbed the screen, spoke quickly, urgently, her syllables clearly enunciated, and as she ended her clipped, one-sided conversation, she wiped her thumb across the glowing screen, dropped the phone back into her vest pocket, drew the rifle back and drove the crescent butt plate into the tempered glass.
Slashing at the shattered safety glass with the rifle's muzzle, she said quietly, "Bear Killer, find Jacob!"

Will Keller, the pale-eyed twin brother of the past Sheriff, hit the brake pedal hard when the alert tone came over the grey General Electric speaker bolted under the dash of his well-maintained Crown Vic.
Their resident electronics wizard, a pure blood Scot who wore a kilt more often than not, preferred his women and his whisky straight, programmed an alert tone into Sharon's console, one that suited her sense of the mischievous as well as her need for clear, concise communication.
What Will heard was the regulation US Navy BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG of a World War II destroyer coming about to go into battle and declaring General Quarters.
His eyes went ice-pale and he worked his lean backside deeper into the seat, stiff arming the wheel as he awaited instructions, willing himself to be a swift arrow of the Law, needing only a direction, a course, a heading.
"NOW HEAR THIS, NOW HEAR THIS, ALL HANDS, THIS IS NOT A DRILL," the Sheriff's dispatcher announced, and Will knew with a tightening of his stomach that something just hit the fan, because this all-call, this broadcast on both the police and the Sheriff's frequency meant one thing, and one thing only.
Officer needs assist.
"CHILD ABDUCTION FIRELANDS GRADE SCHOOL, PERPETRATOR IS A TEACHER AND IS INSIDE THE SCHOOLHOUSE WITH THE VICTIM. FIRELANDS PARAMEDIC SQUAD RESPOND WITH DELAY, VICTIM IS INJURED. OFFICER ON SCENE REQUESTING BACKUP."
Sharon's voice was businesslike, clear, unambiguous, but there was an undertone of stress to her voice that Will didn't like.
Then he remembered.
He'd waved to his sister and his nephew not five minutes before.
He dumped the Crown Vic into gear, set his boot down hard on the throttle, and four hundred sixty rompin' stompin' cubic inches of four barrel Ford go power sang power and shoved him deeper into the seat.
Will had a heading.
Will had a destination.
He reached over and wiped his finger along the horizontal row of rocker switches, power sizzled into the light bar, and a pair of 100 watt Federal speakers low on the front bumper drove a wall of sound out ahead of them.
Sharon heard the siren in the background, and Will's voice over the sirens:
"Firelands Two enroute."

The Bear Killer lifted his nose, scented the air, trotted confidently down the hall, Willamina running lightly behind him on the balls of her feet, her engraved '73 rifle at port arms, waving wide-eyed teachers and curious students back in their rooms.
The Bear Killer stopped in front of the teacher's lounge.
Willamina tried the knob.
Locked.
"Jacob!" she shouted, and she heard a pained "Mama --" that cut off suddenly, as if a hand was suddenly clamped over his mouth.
"JACOB KELLER! WEAPONS AUTHORIZED!" Willamina screamed, knowing all her rage and all her strength was for naught against this reinforced door and its heavy steel bolt.
"WILLA!"
She turned, backed quickly against the brick wall.
"WILL! FORCIBLE ENTRY, I NEED A RAM AND A MEDIC SQUAD!"
"Squad's on the way, I've got a ram in the trunk!"
Willamina stood across the hall from the door, feeling her face tighten, knowing her eyes were the color of a glacier's heart, knowing that she felt just as warm and welcoming as mountain granite in the depths of winter itself.
She heard a woman's voice from the other side of the door, then she heard her son's voice, she heard his pain and she heard his rage and she heard the woman scream -- more surprise than pain, then she heard more clearly an angry little boy's voice, a voice full of tears and of pain and of rage and the rage was terrible to hear in a voice so young -- "YOU MEAN OLD WOMAN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE!" and the sound of broken glass and another scream, and the door came open.
Willamina pushed off the wall like she was pushing off the wall in a swimming pool, she was at full stride before she was halfway across the hall, she twisted to hit the opening door with her back and she hit it hard and spun and she caught the kidnapper under the ear with the octagon barrel with a short grip close to the muzzle.
When Will dropped the ram and ran into the open door, he found Willamina had the woman pinned to the wall, the crescent buttplate against her throat; the teacher's eyes were bulging, she was bleeding from a half-dozen injuries, some incised, some punctures, and Jacob sagged in the corner, cradling his arm, trying very hard not to cry, and The Bear Killer licking the tears that escaped from his red-rimmed eyes.

It took a while to complete the paperwork.
Will and Willamina went together to question young Jacob.
It was significant that both mother and uncle told him the same thing.
Jacob described how the teacher grabbed his arm and yanked him inside and how he felt his shoulder pop and his arm hurt and he screamed because it hurt so much, and how the woman hurt his arm more when she dragged him and threw him into that little room with her and she said something about bad people with guns and I tried to tell her that's my Mama and she was the Sheriff and she didn't listen and when I heard Mama at the door I yelled for her but that mean old woman put her hand over my mouth and I heard Mama tell me Weapons Authorized and I knew that meant I could fight like you showed me so I did.
Will looked up at his twin sister, and his twin sister looked back at him, and Willamina said, "What was your first weapon?"
"My boot heel, Mama. Just like you showed me. I raked it down her shin and stomped her arch real hard." He looked over at his Uncle Will, his young eyes wide and vulnerable. "I tried to break it, Uncle Will. I really tried but I don't think it broke."
"What did you use next?"
"She hurt my good arm," Jacob said sadly. "But I had a pencil I could get to." The nine year old boy's eyes hardened and his left fist closed around the imaginary number 2 lead writer.
"I hit her leg twice, hard and she let go so I turned around and I flipped it between my fingers like you showed me."
"Like a punch dagger."
Jacob nodded.
"I punched her in the front of the leg and she let go of me all the way so I fell back and I got up and I saw a glass and I grabbed it and I broke it and she come at me so I cut her and she quit coming after me."
Willamina's motherly hand caressed her son's head, and Will's big callused hands wrapped around Joseph's young fist.
"You did exactly the right thing," they both said, and in the same voice.

The interview in the principal's office was less than cordial.
The principal didn't know just how big a hornet's nest he was trying to kick, but he found out soon enough.
Not only was he obliged to withdraw his demand that young Jacob be expelled, and that the pale-eyed woman with the Winchester rifle still in hand leave the property immediately and never return under any circumstance -- he found himself facing charges, instead of making demands -- and when he found the teacher was under arrest in their local hospital, charged with not only abduction, but assault, misfeasance, malfeasance, resisting arrest, failure to obey the order of a law enforcement officer, and by a curious facet of the law, assault with aggravated specification -- it seems that, due to the law's exact wording, because she sustained injuries with weapons, she as the cause was liable for the weapons' use -- well, when he realized that he himself would be accessory to every one of these charges, and that this pale-eyed monster with a huge black beast that only incidentally resembled a dog, was actually the police he kept insisting would drag her away in irons... well, he came to understand that he had himself confused with someone important, a lesson that was driven rather firmly home when the phone rang five minutes after the woman and her dog and the policeman with her left.
It was Tom Landers, the school board president, informing him that the involved teacher was fired, and that his own tenure was in serious jeopardy, and that it may look better on his resume if he resigned rather than be very publicly fired.
After considering all that transpired this most unexpected day, he did exactly that.
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3. "MAMA, WHY ARE YOU IN HERE?"

Willamina's voice was quiet.

Part of her husband's mind registered the undertone of worry in her words.

"Richard," she said, "please sit down."

Richard's expression was uncharacteristically hard, his movements unusually slow and deliberate, which did nothing to assuage Willamina's discomfort.

Richard was prior FBI.

Richard was calm and quiet and unexcited and usually unexcitable.

Richard had grown very quiet, and he'd grown very still, as Willamina explained the events that led to their son's adding an arm sling to his wardrobe: finally the man could stand it no longer, and surged to his feet, and began to pace, and in all their married years together, Willamina had never, ever known the man to jump up and pace.

"Tell me again," he said, stopping and looking directly at his worried wife, "just what you did to her."

Willamina's eyes went a little pale and her head lowered slightly and he saw the subtle shift of her musculature that told his trained eye her body was reliving the moment when she drove the crescent buttplate of her Great-Great-Granddad's rifle against the offender's throat and pinned her to the wall therewith.

Jacob watched from across the room, uncomfortable at the tension he was seeing, he was hearing.

In his uncertainty, he turned to his Mama's desk.

His Mama sat here and his Mama worked here and his Mama wrote here, and one of Mama's books was laying on the smooth, sanded, varnished work surface.

He traced the gold letters embossed in the cover:

History of Firelands County, Colorado, 1880-1889

Curious, he opened the cover, turned a page, turned another; he paged through the leaves until he came to the first plate.

He frowned, tilted his head a little, then shifted his weight as he turned to face the desk squarely as he studied the reproduced glass plate photograph.

He looked very closely at the enlarged portion of the image, read the names written under each individual, looked again at one figure.

Sheriff Linn Keller, he read, and he looked long at a lean lawman with an iron grey mustache, one hand on a horse's mane, the other hooked in his belt; beside him, another lawman, just as tall, just as lean: Deputy Jacob Keller, he read, and he smiled a little to see his own name attached to a genuine Western deputy.

He looked at the attractive young woman standing an arm's-length from the men, glaring at the camera like she would like to kick its wooden tripod out from under it and stomp its ground glass eye into the dirt street.

Jacob frowned, looked closer, read the name, studied the woman again.

He looked at the sepia-toned glass plate image of his mother, read the name beneath -- Sarah McKenna -- and then looked at the woman.

Jacob turned, looked across the room and blurted, "Mama, why are you in here?"

His mother looked over at her son, then looked toward the door, toward the summoning knock.

Richard's hand brushed his side and his young son knew his father was checking to make sure his sidearm was under his coat tail.

"I'll get it," Willamina said, and Jacob watched his Mama go to the door, look out, open the door.

Sheriff JW Barrents removed his uniform Stetson. "May I come in?" he asked courteously, and Willamina planted her knuckles on her hip and snapped, "If you don't, you'll catch your death of cold!"

Sheriff Barrents chuckled and came inside, looking across the room at the youngest Keller.

"With your permission?" the Sheriff asked, then walked across the room, his weight on the outside of his boots, rolling a little as he went, and he squatted to get down to Jacob's level.

"How's the wing?" he asked quietly.

"Kinda sore," Jacob admitted.

"It will be," Barrents nodded, "but it will heal." He reached up, patted his own left shoulder. "I ran into a tree when I was your age. Posterior dislocation -- it shoved my arm out of socket, pushed it to the rear."

"Ow," Jacob said sympathetically, realizing better than most just how badly that must have hurt.

"Do you know how my father fixed it?" Barrents asked, and Jacob could see a quiet smile in his obsidian eyes.

"No, sir," he said in a small voice.

"They laid me down on a table with my arm hanging down. They had me grab the bail of a bucket and tied my hand and wrist to it, then they added sand to the bucket and let it hang." His smile was slowly spreading to his high cheekboned face. "When the muscles fatigued, my shoulder pulled back down and it went back into socket."

"That must have hurt," Jacob said in a very small voice.

"It did," Barrents nodded.

"They didn't use a bucket on mine," Jacob admitted.

"Yours was different. They used the right method for your particular injury."

The Sheriff regarded the little boy with bright, interested eyes.

"Jacob, I would like you to do something for me."

"Yes, sir?"

"I would like you to heal up."

"Yes, sir."

"Good man." Barrents winked, then rose, rolled like a sailor on a stormy deck back across the floor to the parents.

He thrust his hand out to Richard and the two men shook. "What says the FBI?"

"The Bureau is not happy," Richard said. "I would not want to be that teacher."

Barrents looked at Willamina.

"It still feels odd to be your boss, instead of your being mine."

"You're the right man for the job, JW," Willamina said with a quiet smile.

"You were the right man for the job for years, Mrs. Keller."

"I know."

"You did a lot of good."

"You've done more."

"No." He shook his head and Richard saw no deception in the man's face, in his posture. "As a matter of fact I've been delegated."

Willamina looked at Richard, looked back at the Sheriff.

"Delegated," she repeated.

"Yes ma'am. I am instructed to ask if you would consider running for Sheriff again."

Willamina looked at a broadly grinning Richard, then she looked over at her son.

"You look troubled, Boss."

"I'm not your boss," Willamina said uncertainly.

"Yet," Barrents corrected her.

She looked at Jacob again, passed her hand over her eyes, shook her head.

"Jacob, thank you for being so very patient. What was your question again, please?"

"Come and look at this," he said, planting a finger on the sepia image.

Curious, all three adults came over to find this youngest of his line indicating the attractive young woman in the photograph.

"Mama, why are you in here?"

Barrents bent over a little, frowning, one blunt-fingered, browned hand planted firmly on the desk top.

"Pale Eyes," he whispered. "My great-great-grandfather knew him."

"You had a great-great-grandfather too?" Jacob asked, surprised, and the square-shouldered Navajo laughed.

"I did! And a great-great-grandmother to match!"

"And he knew my Great-Great-Grampa?"

"Knew him?" Barrents chuckled. "He helped heal your Great-Great-Grampa when he got hurt!"

Jacob looked at the sepia-toned plate, looked at the Sheriff and said very seriously, "I'm very glad he did!"

Barrents looked up at Willamina, looked at Richard, back to the pale eyed woman.

"You will want to think this over. I know you, Boss. You are not the kind to rush into something when it deserves time."

Willamina nodded. "Thank you," she said quietly, then looked at the plate her son was still studying.

"I knew this day would come," she said thoughtfully, "I just didn't think both of them would come on the same night!"

"Then I would say it's a sign," Barrents suggested, reaching up to rub his six point star thoughtfully. "You do realize this looks better on you."

Jacob opened the desk drawer, picked up a magnifying glass, studied the picture more closely.

"Sheriff," he said, "is this the same star?"
Barrents bent, curious, took the glass, drew it back to enlarge the image.

He handed it to Richard, who looked at the image, and they looked at one another, then they handed the glass to Willamina.

"I don't have to look," she said, it's the same one."

"Really?" Jacob asked, excited, eyes big as he turned and stared, awe-struck, at the hand-engraved six-point star pinned to the Navajo's shirt pocket.

"If that's the Sheriff and that's his badge and it's here and that's you there and you're here --"

Jacob looked at the image marked "Sarah McKenna" and then at his mother.

"Mama, were you Sheriff there?"

"No, Jacob. Your Great-Great-Grandfather was Sheriff. Sarah McKenna was an Agent of the Court."

"But ... isn't that you?"

 

That night Jacob laid uncomfortably in his own bed, staring at the ceiling.

His shoulder ached and his mind was confused, stirred up like a snow-swirl in winter.

"That's okay," a woman's voice said. "I get confused too."

Jacob frowned, turned his head, blinked.

"Mama?" he asked, wondering why his Mama was wearing such an old fashioned dress ...

Just like that woman in the picture.

The woman laughed. "I was a Mama," she smiled. "My son's name was Daffyd, and he had blue eyes."

"Well ... how come you're here?" Jacob asked, puzzled, but not at all afraid.

"I am here," she said quietly, "because you have a question."

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4. LINGUISTICS

"I can get up!" Jacob snapped, then dropped his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Mama," he said in a sad-little-boy voice, and Willamina thought for a moment, then nodded.

"No, Jacob. I'm sorry. I forgot what it was like."

Jacob stepped up on the mounting block, grabbed the saddle horn, shoved his booted foot angrily into the black doghouse stirrup and hauled himself up, getting his leg over the saddle before his balance came backwards on him.

He made it astride Apple-horse, his hand still locked around the horn, and he bent over a little, his jaw locked and his face a little pale, but he was damned -- damned! -- if he was going to give the least indication that his shoulder hurt from the exertion!

Willamina's eyes were wide with admiration.

"Nice job," she murmured. "I don't think I could have done that!"

Jacob waited until his Mama was mounted as well before kneeing Apple-horse into a walk.

Their breath hung in clouds behind them, but the spring birds knew the season was here: birdsong echoed off the landscape, and it smelled of spring.

Willamina gave a quiet thanks for the moment.

The sun didn't have much power just yet, it had just clumb out of bed and hadn't woke clear up, but there was a little warmth to its long red fingers, and the pair rode across the back meadow the way they always did.

Their arrival was almost a non-event, for all the notoriety that ensued after the teacher's dislocating a third-grade student's shoulder, dragging him by the dislocated arm down the hall, barricading herself in a reinforced room, only to be attacked with a most unexpected ferocity by the injured student -- the day of and the day after saw news cameras, microphones and strangers craning their necks for a glimpse, a comment, a sound-byte for the evening news.

Two days after, there was nothing, just the shining new door glass with the installer's sticker in one corner.

Jacob felt a moment's trepidation as he realized he would be dismounting one-armed, instead of climbing out of his Mama's Jeep like he did yesterday.

The day before, he did not think it at all unusual that his Mama was in her Sheriff's uniform, nor did he consider it untoward that the Sheriff himself opened the Jeep's door, nor that the big Navajo and his pale-eyed Mama flanked him and stiff-armed the persistent as they made their way through this unfamiliar and uncomfortable press of impolite humanity.

Today, though, his Mama was in blue jeans and a light Carharttt jacket the way she usually was, and the swarming newshounds were nowhere to be seen.

There was one addition for which Willamina, at least, was grateful.

At her discreet suggestion, the janitor had a short set of steps set up as a mounting block, and Joseph came out of the saddle and onto the top of the three-tier folder, and pale-eyed mother saw relief and gratitude in her son's hazel eyes.

Joseph grabbed the strap sticking out of his near saddle bag and hauled out his bundled books, slung them over his shoulder, leaned his forehead quickly against the Appaloosa's neck -- "Bye Mama, bye Apple" -- the Bear Killer gave a happy but impressively powerful WOOF! and swung his heavy tail in a dangerously happy arc as Jacob rubbed his ears.

Jacob's third-grade teacher smiled and waved and held the door, and Willamina waited until he was safely inside and out of sight before she reached over, plucked the knotted reins from where Joseph dropped them over his saddle horn: turning Cannonball with her knees, she steered her bitless mare and led the bitless young stallion, and the pair clattered down the street toward the two waiting police cruisers.

Sheriff BJ Barrents slouched casually against the Sheriff's Blazer, his M14 leaned against the vehicle; William loafed against his Crown Vic, grinning at his twin sister.

"What's the good word?" Willamina called as Cannonball stopped, blinking, waiting for Barrents' strong, blunt-fingered hand to render due homage to her ears.

"Any quieter today?" Will grinned, and Willamina raised her hand and shook it at her twin brother.

"You know better," she warned, "than to use the Q-word! Is it a full moon?"

"No, not yet," Barrents chuckled, then gave her what she knew was "That Look."

"All right, out with it," she snapped.

Barrents reached up and tapped his six-point badge, a hand engraved star well older than himself.

"Are you ready to trade tin yet?"

Willamina looked long and level at the obsidian-eyed Sheriff.

"I am considering it," she admitted.

He nodded.

"It would be a good move for you."

Willamina thrust out her jaw, frowned, looked down at Cannonball's shining red mane, nodded.

"I have two boys to raise," she said softly, "and ..."

She looked back at the Sheriff.

"How soon do you need me?"

"Soon."

"Give me until sundown."

Barrents nodded gravely.

William was not as reserved: he cocked a fist, punched the air and grinned a hissing "Yesss!" -- which, of course, prompted The Bear Killer's enthusiastic jump, and as the two generally did, Will held out a transverse forearm, The Bear Killer draped his forepaws over it and very enthusiastically began washing William's face again.

Barrents hooked a thumb at the pair.

"We need another K9 officer," he deadpanned, "and if the only way to get The Bear Killer back is to swindle you into becoming Sheriff --"

Willamiana laughed and shook her head.

"You two," she scolded, "are incorrigible!"

"We have cookies," William said hopefully.

Willamina raised her hands to the heavens, shook her spread fingers at the high clouds: "Dear God, do they know my every weakness?" She whipped her head around as Cannonball swapped ends, dancing as she did when she picked up her family's excitement. "I have to consult with a wise man of the mountains. Hold action until my return."

"YES, BOSS!" both men shouted as Willamina clattered away, leaning her red mare into a brisk trot.

 

She knew him as Old Hiram, or just Hiram: he was an old man who wore dignity like a cloak and good humor like an overcoat: she had one, and only one memory of the man when his eyes were not merry and there wasn't a quiet smile about his face, and that was after his wife's death.

Hiram had a snow white beard and a bald head, bright eyes and the hands of a Rennaisance man: they were strong and generally had dark grease deep in the wrinkles, where he'd been working on an old fashioned hit or miss engine, or a John Deere tractor twice Willamina's own age.

Hiram was a gunsmith, and a good one, and his skills kept her department's firearms in good working order, though he often kidded her in a good natured manner about those God-awful modern plastic guns.

Given her druthers, the Sheriff would druther have gone back to double-action revolvers in .44 caliber, but she could not deny medical evidence that there wasn't much difference in terminal effect between the several calibers, and that placement -- and firepower -- were the two telling characteristics of a fighting handgun that would keep her people alive in a killin' event.

She steered her course up Hiram's gravel driveway, remembering the row of lilac Hiram's boys planted as chlidren, the lilacs Hiram's wife so loved, and she was reminded for just a moment of the roses her own red-haired Great-Great-Grandmother was reputed to love.

Cannonball shook her head and Willamina raised a hand in greeting, and Hiram wiped his hands on a shop rag and raised his own, along with his cheerful greeting:

"Ya want a beer?"

 

Willamina tilted her head, studying the Sharps rifle with genuine interest.

"I traded for this," he said, and Willamina heard a story behind the simple words, and sure enough, a story there was.

She sat, accepted the chilled Canadian -- he'd taken delight in showing her the bottom of the beer bottle, which had a cast-in bottlecap remover, so if you had two bottles of beer you had the means to open them -- "I was working for my father in a gas station north of town."

She knew this meant back East, and she had some vague memory that he'd worked at a Sohio station, but this was just the tag end of a memory so she nodded encouragement, sampled her beer and waited.

"I had a 97 Winchester," he said quietly, swinging a lighted magnifier on its goose neck over the Sharps barrel and examining the rear sight dovetail. "I got tired of hauling all that iron around so I put it up for sale or trade, propped it up behind the register.

"This old farmer come in and took a long look at that shotgun and said 'I got an old gun I'd trade ye,' and out he went and fetched this in."

His hand rested on the rifle's action.

"It was hacksawed off a foot ahead of the breech and the chamber was hogged out with a hand drill. He'd been using it with .410 shotgun shells and he allowed as this was a genuine antique that was worth a young fortune."

He looked at her with that quiet, knowing smile.

"This was a tobacco cutter, factory converted to metallic cartridge. It's rare and I knew if he was willin' to trade I'd get it, and the fight was on.

"Both of us did our level best to out swindle the other, and by God! we both did.

"I never do recall a trade where each of us praised what we had so high and run the other fella's half down so fur, and when the smoke settled, why, he went a-struttin' out to the car with my 97 and him just as convinced as the sun rose in the East that he'd cheated me out of my socks, and there I am rubbin' the stock on that old Sharps and I know for a fact I just cheated that old farmer out of his eye teeth. It was a good trade" -- he looked at her with those bright, sparkling eyes -- "both of us was so ashamed of ourselves, neither of us could look the other in the eye, and he give me twenty bucks boot money!"

Willamina laughed and raised her Canadian in salute. "Now that's a good trade," she nodded.

"I had it rebarreled at the East Cleveland Gun Shop, and they put on a heavy round barrel on it. Shot good but I never did like it so heavy and it didn't ... "

He looked at her almost shyly and admitted, "It never did look good to suit me, so I just had this octagon put on."

He rubbed his thumb across the dovetail. "When I ordered the barrel I told them I was using a vernier tang peep sight and not to cut a dovetail in it and damned if they didn't."

Willamina took a tilt on her longneck, frowned.

"Can you fix it?"

Hiram gave her a wise look, crooked his finger: he picked up a little squarish piece of metal from his workbench, slipped it into the left side of the dove tail, set a brass drift against it and tapped it a few times.

Willamina blinked as the dovetail ... disappeared.

Hiram ran his finger over the filler. "Try that."

Willamina set aside her half finished beer, wiped her hands on her jean jacket, studied the work from one angle, then another, and finally ran careful fingertips over what should have been a palpable joint.

She could feel no boundary between barrel and insert.

She looked up, delighted, and saw the happiness in the white-bearded old man's eyes.

"Now that's fine work," she murmured.

He nodded. "I thought so."

He waited until she was seated before continuing.

"These factory conversions have a dog leg firing pin," he said, his hands animating his explanation as they always did: "these originally fired with a musket cap, so the hammer came down on a nipple. The firing pin goes down" -- his finger thrust down and forward -- "then it turns in" -- his hand rotated, described a lateral -- "and then forward, to hit the primer. Three angles and it's prone to break right at the worst possible time."

"Are there parts available?" Willamina asked, tilting up the brown bottle and finishing its contents.

Hiram laughed. "I got the last dozen Numrich had. Still got nine of 'em in an envelope in that little drawer there."

Willamina looked at the rifle, considered the lanyard ring on its side.

"Was that originally a cavalry rifle?"

"Very likely," he nodded.

Willamina blinked thoughtfully at the old rifle in the gunsmith's vise and almost whispered, "If only we could get it to talk!"

Hiram laughed, regarded his own empty beer bottle. "'Nother?" he offered, and she smiled and shook her head.

He nodded, took her empty and his, dropped them in the 55 gallon drum, where the falling glass clanked loudly against the bodies of fallen fellows.

She looked over at his bench, nodded at what was evidently a repair job.

"Victory model?"

He nodded.

"Town cop back in Rendville asked me to replace the main spring."

Willamina nodded, considering the elderly Smith & Wesson revolver.

".38 S&W?"

Hiram nodded.

"War surplus."

He nodded again."

"Another one with a story."

Hiram laughed quietly. "His widow sent it to me, why I don't know. I quoted him a price for a new spring and he didn't like that, so some fellow made him a new one out of a butter knife."

Willamina laughed politely, looking from the old revolver to the old man and back.

"She never said he'd got killed when his gun quit on him, but since she sent it to me I'm putting the right spring in it."

Willamina nodded.

"My father," she said quietly, "had one just like it."

It was Hiram's turn to nod politely, for he too knew there was a story behind the quiet words.

"He was ... he was town cop ... killed when I was a little girl." She looked defiantly at the white-bearded old man. "Mother didn't want to keep anything, but I kept his badge and his gunbelt and his shotgun."

She saw approval in the old man's eyes.

"When I was ... I think I was thirteen or fourteen ... a local ... monster ... tried to get me." Her eyes were hard as she looked unexpectedly into the past, a path she hadn't expected to take. "I go to the shotgun and when he saw me chamber a round and bring it to bear ... he decided the climate was healthier in another county."

She swallowed.

"I got the shotgun back from the police. Mother gave it to them and then she took a razor strop to me. She said it was my fault that ... beast ... was attracted to me, that he broke in."

Her hand floated over, caressed the Parkerized military revolver with the British proof stamps.

"I took Daddy's revolver and I found where that beast was looking at little girls in a park.

"I waited until he reached for me and I gave his guts a good dose of my Daddy's justice."

Her eyes were white, hard, her fists closed slowly into shivering lumps and she looked defiantly at old Hiram.

"I was thirteen or fourteen and I don't regret it one damned bit." She looked down at the revolver and whispered, "I still have Daddy's gun."

Hiram lifted the cap on another beer and handed it to her.

"Sometimes," he said gently, "you have to speak the language they understand."

He raised his own newly opened beer in salute.

"To my fellow linguist."

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5. "I KNOW THE ANSWER"

Jacob took the three folding steps with all the fearless confidence of youth, and it is to the credit of both his teacher and his mother that neither cringed to see the lad's vigorous assault of Mount Foldenstairs in order to gain sufficient altitude to get himself in the saddle.

Saddle up he did, if not with efficiency, at least with vigor, and when he swung his right foot forward it slammed unerringly into the black-leather doghouse, and the grin with which he addressed the world was one of the delights of any who watched in that moment.

Mother and son turned their mounts with a wave, the mother hesitating a moment to mouth a silent "Thank you" to the janitor, who'd come out to collect the folding steps, and he gave her a knowing look and a return wave, for he was a father and he knew how important it was for a son to be as independent as he possibly could.

His own son was two years dead after riding a wheelchair for a few years, the result of a drunk driver -- he'd forced himself to stop thinking of the accident, and instead concentrate on helping is son be as mobile as he could.

He would have given a good percentage of his immortal soul if he could have set up a short stack of stairs to help his boy mount a horse, but he learned to make a glass-smooth, varnished and waxed transfer board, and his son had learned to move himself from his chair to damn near anywhere he wanted to go.

The janitor's hand lowered slowly and he folded up the short steps, remembering the day he'd helped his son transfer into the seat of a D9 Caterpillar tractor.

He'd actually moved some dirt that day, he'd thrown his head back and laughed with delight, it wore the boy out but by God! it had been worth it!

The janitor watched mother and son til they were out of sight, then he picked up the flat-folded stairs and went back inside.

 

"How was school?" Richard asked as his son gave him as stout a one-armed hug as he could.

"It was okay," Jacob said diffidently. "I didn't learn much."

"School is like that. How was your math?"

Jacob frowned, stuck out his tongue a little. "The teacher doesn't know straight up about math!" he declared. "Your way is easier!"

"I told you," Richard teased, and Jacob leaned against his Dad, rested his head against his father's collar bone.

"Yeah," he sighed. "You were right all along."

"I hope you brought your appetite," Willamina said. "Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, unless you want to go hungry!"

Father and son looked at one another and rolled their eyes and replied with one doomed, sepulchral voice, "I haaaaaate it!" -- then Jacob scrambled from his father's grasp, charged down the hallway, almost fell on the hook rug and stumbled into the kitchen, nearly wiping out mother, meatloaf and a kitchen chair.

Willamina managed to keep from dropping the meatloaf, but Richard swore later it did a two-and-a-half with a gainer and a half twist, or something of the kind: Willamina did a quick little stagger-step to keep her balance (and meat platter), and Jacob hit the floor, half-rolled and banged his head into the cupboard door.

"OW!" he yelled, squinting his eyes shut, and Richard grabbed his ankle, pulled, siding the lad easily on the waxed floor: he knelt, examined the cupboard door, ran exploring fingers down its surface, then looked at his son.

"Good news," he said, "you didn't bust the door!"

Jacob rubbed his head. "Thanks," he said in a pained voice.

"Concussion?" Willamina asked as she picked up the mixer, added milk to the steaming potatoes, shoved the beaters into the taters and thumbed the switch.

Richard ran Jacob through a quick neuro check -- eyes left, eyes right, smile, frown, stick out your tongue, watch my finger, left, right, in, out, up, down.

Richard leaned back, sat on the floor, looked at his son with a serious expression.

"Jacob," he said, "you've really got to quit running your head into cupboards!"

"Yes, sir," Jacob said with an equally grave expression.

"You can eat on the floor if you like," Willamina deadpanned as she turned the bowl, the beaters clattering against the heavy glazed crockery.

Father and son scrambled to their feet, took their seats, and shortly the family immersed itself in the serious business of supper.

The subject of the injurious unpleasantness at school a few days previous did not manifest: rather, Jacob raised something less conventional.

"Mama," he said, "how come you're in that book?"

Willamina and Richard looked at one another, a look Joseph recognized with a quiet little "Uh-oh."

"What uh-oh?" Richard asked.

"Uh-oh it's gonna be one of those answers," Jacob replied frankly. "Like 'We'll see' or 'Maybe.' It always means no." He planted his good elbow on the table and leaned his palm against his cheek bone, the picture of juvenile dejection.

"Jacob," Willamina began, "I think I know the answer, why I am in that book."

Jacob's head came up, eyes bright, face shining with the delight of new information coming into view. "Really?" he asked enthusiastically.

Willamina nodded. "It'll take some explaining, but yes I know why I'm in there."

"Cool," Jacob breathed.

"Come on. Let's take a look at that book."

"What about dessert?" Richard protested, eyeing the fresh baked apple pie on the kitchen counter.

 

Jacob was getting some size to him and he knew his bony backside hurt his Mama's thighs, but he dearly loved sitting in his Mama's lap.

He liked sitting in his Dad's lap as well, he loved it when his Dad's arms were around him and especially when his Dad read to him -- they were always books that did something, like hunting lions in Africa -- some fella named Chapstick or something like that -- and Jacob was quick enough to recognize these books were where his Dad got some of his language, like calling whiskey "Kentucky Drain Opener" or referring to "Mbogo" instead of the neighbor's bull, or threatening to take a rhino-hide kiboko to his backside if he misbehaved.

His Mama never read him stories like that.

He sat as light as he could on her legs because she was going through the book with him, and she turned to the page he'd found, the sepia-toned plate with his Great-Great-Grampa Linn and his Great-Grampa Jacob (the one he was named after) and his Mama with somebody else's name written underneath.

The picture was obviously taken a very long time ago.

The building behind them was marked "Sheriff's Office" and it had a plank nailed to the front with the word SHERIFF painted on it, but it did not look a thing like the polished granite front buildling that occupied the space today.

There weren't hitch rails like these, neither -- the ones in place today were steel, not wood, and the street was pavement and there was a cement sidewalk instead of ... he leaned a little closer, then pulled open the desk drawer again and gripped the magnifying glass, brought it out, studied the picture.

Boards, he thought.

A board sidewalk? ... oh yeah, they've got one in front of the Mercantile.

Mama said they put it in a few years before I was born.

"Mama, that's you," Jacob said, planting his finger on Sarah's image, "and that kinda looks like Uncle Will, but I've never seen him" -- he stabbed a young finger into the image of his Great-Great-Grampa.

Willamina looked up at Richard, then squeezed Jacob around the middle.

"That's me, all right," she said.

Jacob whipped his head around, eyes big. "Really?" he squeaked. "I knew it, I knew it!" -- then, puzzled, he looked back at the picture and up at his Mama.

"How old are you?" he asked, and Willamina and Richard both laughed at the tone of his voice.

"Jacob, when we're ready to be shipped to Earth to be born," Willamina explained, "we are given a list of things we have to learn.

"We're put here to learn those lessons, to do particular jobs, so when it's our time to leave Earth for good, we'll have the experience we need to step into our jobs in the next life."

"Oh." Jacob blinked, absorbing this new knowledge.

"But sometimes we have to come back."

"Why?"

"Two reasons, mostly," Richard spoke up. "First reason -- we didn't learn our lessons and we flunked out and got held back a grade."

"Like school," Jacob groaned.

"Something like that," Richard nodded. "The second reason" -- he held up a second finger -- "things or people here need us and we are sent back because somebody else needs to learn something, and it's important enough they send a grad student back to help teach."

Jacob nodded.

Put like that, it actually made sense.

He looked at his Mama -- his expression was different, somehow, less innocent and more forthright -- and he asked, "Mama, how come you're here?"

"I had to do something very important," she said quietly, brushing a curl of hair off his forehead.

"Can I help?" he asked, his eyes absolutely sincere, and Willamina nodded.

"Yes you can, and I will need your help." She curled her finger under his young chin. "I am here to raise you to a fine manhood. Your father is here for the same reason. You are important enough that two of the best parents in the world were detailed to you." She smiled as Jacob hugged into her, hugged him back.

"There are several more reasons, though."

Jacob pulled away a little so he could look at her again.

"There are many people I've met. Somehow they needed to find me here in this lifetime. Some need correction, some need direction, some need a good kick in the pants. I give them what they need, whether they like it or not." She smiled. "And there is one final thing I must do."

"What's that, Mama?"

"Now that's the puzzle," she said. "I carry a gift and I have to pass that gift on to the next generation, and I don't know if I'll pass it through you or through a child I have yet to bear."

Jacob blinked, then his eyes went wide. "Mama, you gonna have a baby?"

Willamina laughed.

"Not just yet," she said.

"When?"

"Why? Are you that anxious to be a big brother?"

"Not really," he admitted.

Jacob looked at the picture again and considered that his Mama looked really good in that old fashioned dress.

He looked at his Mama and almost said something about her sitting in the chair beside his bed last night, but something told him he shouldn't.

 

 

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6. BREAKFAST

Jacob opened his eyes and she was there again.

He blinked, looked again.

"Hi," he said, and she looked up from her book, smiled a quiet smile that was almost a Mommy-smile, but ... different.

"You have a question."

"Mama answered it."

"Which made more questions."

"Uh-huh."

"Then start with the first one."

Jacob puzzled his forehead a little, considering what the questions might be, because he'd just woke up and he was just a little kid and this was his Mama but she wasn't and he didn't really understand what was going on --

"You are wondering," she said, "how I can be your Mama, but not your Mama."

Jacob looked at her with a little boy's innocent expression and nodded.

"It is a little confusing," she admitted, "and it might be easier to show you." She closed the book, slipped it into a pocket, stood.

"Let's start with me. What do you see?"

Joseph sat up, flipped his covers back, swung his legs over the side of the bed, frowned a little as he looked frankly at this woman he knew, this woman he didn't know at all.

"You look like Mama," he said, "but your hair is different. Hers is shorter. You're younger. Mama has a couple dresses kinda like that but not exactly."

She nodded.

"Your Mama is a woman of her age," she said. "She is strong and she is intelligent and she is the perfect Mama for you."

Jacob tilted his head a little, and the schoolmarm in the woman knew what was immediately to follow, and she was right:

"Why?"

The woman tilted her head back and laughed a little.

His Mama laughed a little different, but it was still a good laugh, and his stomach relaxed a little to hear it.

"Why is she the perfect Mama for you?"

He nodded.

"Easier to show you."

She reached out her hand and he took her hand and he felt the universe twist around him and he fell twenty feet without moving --

He blinked.

"You are in the same bedroom," she said, still holding his hand, "but it's ... someone else's."

He looked around, alarmed, then bounced a little on the bed, or tried to.

"No, it's not the same bed. It's a rope bed with a tick --"

He stood up, looked down at himself, back up at her.

"I'm dressed," he said, surprised.

She planted her knuckles on her hips. "Of course you are dressed, silly!" she smiled. "Now listen. This is important. You are Jake, you are visiting and you hurt your shoulder falling off a horse. I'm taking care of you for a while. Okay so far?"

He nodded, then blinked and she knew another question was coming.

"If I'm ... you're taking care of me ... do I call you Mama?"

She laughed, knelt, hugged him carefully so as not to pain his healing shoulder socket.

"No, silly," she whispered in his ear, and he felt the warmth of her breath puff against his neck as she did. "You will call me Aunt Sarah."

She drew back a little and studied his eyes, watched the gears turning behind them as another piece of the puzzle slid into place.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, his Mama called her.

Agent of the Court.

"You're an Agent?" he breathed. "My Dad was an agent!"

She brushed that persistent curl of hair off his forehead and smiled.

"Your Dad is a fine man," she said quietly. "He has done some very good things as an Agent and he's still active with them. You should be proud of him."

"I am!" Jacob -- now Jake -- exclaimed quietly.

"Now." She placed her hands firmly at his left and right hips -- mostly because, with his hurt shoulder, she didn't want to take him firmly by the shoulders -- "let's get you some breakfast!"

Jake almost ran into another woman when Sarah opened the bedroom door.

He wasn't sure what she was at first because it looked like she was wearing a bedsheet down her front and he jumped back a little, but then he looked up and realized it was another woman, and women wear funny clothes sometimes, and his nine year old mind was flexible enough to realize, accept and process this without difficulty.

"Sure an' ye're dressed already!" this new woman declared with what he recognized as an Irish accent, but hers was a little different, and he realized she was sure-enough Irish and not the fake Irish he'd heard on television. "And I suppose ye'll be wantin' breakfast! You an' yer great-uncle, two of a kind! Men! They're all the same, they're all mouth an' hands!" She knelt, the merriment in her eyes putting the lie to the scold in her words. "Ye're all after th' same thing! FOOD!"

She tickled Jake gently and he laughed and she said "Wash up now, we're ready t' eat," and she rose and knocked at the closed door across the hall.

Sarah steered Jake down the broad stairs (the handrails were different) and down the hall (the hook rug wasn't there but he didn't feel like rug surfing today) and the kitchen, when he stepped into it, was another world entirely.

He stopped, staring, looking around, trying to equate the kitchen he'd known with the kitchen he saw here, and the smells were ... he smelled bread and bacon and coffee, stronger and more fragrant, more aromatic than he remembered, he smelled bacon, but ...

Wood smoke?

He blinked at the big Monarch range and remembered -- oh, yeah -- they fired with wood -- his eyes went to the end of the stove, and sure enough there was a wood box and wood in it, and two buckets of water -- wood buckets? Won't they leak? Rope handles?

Sarah steered him to a chair, whispered "Don't sit down just yet," and stood beside him, her hand warm and reassuring between his shoulder blades.

Three girls came giggling into the kitchen: one was as tall as he, with a big red ribbon spreading like scarlet wings from the top of her head, and two younger versions -- twins, from their identical dress, though on second glance one was blue-eyed and fair-complected, the other black-eyed and kind of Chinese looking -- and they all stopped and looked at Jacob, then at Sarah.

"Ladies," Sarah said formally, "this is our cousin Jake. He's staying with me for a while, until we get his shoulder healed."

"What happened?" the twins chorused, and the little girl with bright blue eyes and the big red ribbon looked solemnly at Jacob, then sadly as she focused on his wounded wing in its white muslin sling.

"His horse wanted to go east and he wanted to go north, and things didn't go so well," Sarah said ruefully, and a male voice said, "Jake, you're not supposed to imitate my bad examples!" and Jake looked up and his eyes got really big and he leaned back a little against Sarah's legs.

It was the man from the picture.

It was that tall lean man with the iron-grey mustache and the six point star, the man marked Sheriff Linn Keller.

Great ... Great ... lots of Greats ... Grampa, Jake thought, and with the patriarch in the room, everyone pulled out their chair and sat.

"Jake," Linn said, and he wasn't like any Western sheriff Jake ever pictured -- there were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, wrinkles that smiled a little when he looked at the lad, and Jake heard the same smile in the man's voice -- "Jake, I hope you brought your appetite!"

"Yes, sir," Jake said, working his way into his chair.

"Can you manage one handed?" Linn asked quietly, and Jake heard a genuine concern in the lean lawman's voice.

"Yes, sir," he said in a timid voice.

"I won't bite," Linn said quietly, leaning over and winking. "No matter what they told you down at the saloon, I don't eat boys this time of day. Only outlaws. Avoid bank robbery and you'll be fine."

He winked, and Jake felt his stomach unwind a little more.

Pancakes and eggs, bacon and hot fragrant bread, grits and gravy and conversation was suspended for a few at least ... that is, until the twins began to chatter happily, and the girl introduced as Angela studied her cousin with a frankness that reddened Jake's ears.

"That had to hurt," she said, her thoughts speeding ahead of her conversation, but Jake knew she was staring at his sling, stark white against his red plaid flannel shirt and he nodded.

"I have a horsie," Angela declared, nodding once to emphasize that she'd just uttered and Absolute Fact and She Was a Big Sister and She Was Right!

Jake wasn't sure quite how to reply, and it was the Sheriff who came to his rescue.

"What's your mount, Jake?" he asked, and the question was in the voice of someone genuinely interested.

"Appaloosa, sir," Jake said. "A stallion."

"How old?"

"Four years, sir."

"He's well broke?" the Sheriff asked, his voice kindly, his eyes interested.

"Well broke, sir." Jake grinned. "We got him when he was green broke and Mama had a time with him!"

Linn looked at the lad with both sympathy and understanding.

"One of the worst falls I ever took was off a green broke stallion," he admitted. "Yearling he was. A good horse and we got him gentled down, but God as my witness, that one could throw me any time he wanted!"

"And that's saying something," Sarah declared. "The Sheriff is a known horseman, and a hard man to unseat!"

Linn chuckled ruefully. "Don't jinx me," he muttered.

"Like the Q word?" Jake asked, and Linn looked at him, puzzled.

"A superstition," Sarah explained. "Like jinxing your saddle. If you say things are quiet and it's a full moon, things get interesting!"

Linn grinned and nodded.

"Jake," he said, "I believe you may have something there. How about some more bacon?"

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7. "I AM TRYING VERY HARD TO BE A LADY!"

Jake sat on Sarah's right as they drove into town.

If Jake hadn't felt so uncertain, he would have had a broad grin on his face, for -- as much as he was used to riding in his Mama's Jeep, or running a computer or using a cell phone -- he'd always wanted to ride in a horse drawn carriage.

It wasn't quite what he expected.

He delighted that it was open air and it smelled of springtime and he had a wonderful visibility and he could hear what was going on around him, but the smoothness of the ride genuinely surprised him -- so much so that he commented on it, and Sarah looked at him with a gentle smile and said, "You expected a ride like a hay wagon?"

As Jake had never ridden a hay wagon, he really couldn't say, but a shy grin finally peeked out from behind his native reserve, and it was answer enough.

They hummed down the hard packed road at an easy trot, then slowed to a fast walk as they came into the rougher section of tamped down dirt, and finally into Firelands itself, looking much smaller than the Firelands Jake knew.

He leaned ahead and looked one way, leaned back and looked the other, comparing this new reality with what he remembered.

"I felt the same way when I came to your time," Sarah smiled. "I am always more comfortable with my familiar."

"Yes, ma'am," Jake murmured.

"I am curious."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"What did happen to your shoulder?"

"I thought you knew," Jake replied, surprised.

"I know you were hurt at school but I didn't get the whole story."

Jake hesitated.

He hadn't said much since the whole thing happened.

As much as it was festering inside him and he wanted to get rid of it, he'd bottled it up and stove the cork in deep, but now that this woman who looked so much like his Mama asked, he answered.

It was a bad habit he'd inherited from his Mama: ask him a question and you'd get the honest answer, even if it wasn't what you wanted to hear.

Jake looked straight ahead and his gut tightened some as he saw it happen as if he were watching it on a screen.

His voice kept pace with the action and he described what it was to be seized by the arm ...

He spoke of the screech, the grab, the pull, how his shoulder popped and it was like the sun burst inside his shoulder, the pain was bright -- that was his best word to explain it, bright -- and how she'd yanked him off his feet and hauled him down the hall on his side and his belly and he heard someone screaming in pain and he didn't realize until the screaming stopped that it was him, and that wasn't until she had him in that little room with the heavy door.

He described how she said people with guns were bad and she was saving him from being killed and he told her through tear-bright pain that his Mama was Sheriff and Sheriffs carried guns and she wasn't bad and the teacher kept saying she was bad and then he heard his Mama and he heard The Bear Killer and he yelled for his Mama and that mean old woman grabbed him and put her hand over his mouth.

Sarah looked down at the pale, set face, the wide, staring eyes, and she gathered the reins into her left hand and gripped his hand with her right, and he clutched hers in return, seeking an anchor, a stability in the turbulent storm of his memory.

"And I heard Mama yell my name and tell me weapons were authorized and I knew that meant it was okay to hurt that mean old lady even if she was a teacher."

"What did you do then?"

"She hurt my good arm but I can fight with my left," he said, and Sarah felt a wave of sadness that in that advanced and more civilized age, that a nine year old had to know how to fight -- "so I took my pencil like an icepick and I drove a hammerfist into that mean old lady's leg behind me."

He pantomined the strike, then opened his hands and his fingers moved, quickly.

"Uncle Will taught me to take my pencil and stick out out of my fist like a punch dagger." He extended his fist slowly before him, rotating it so his knuckles were horizontal. "He called it a punch dagger. I dunno what that is but that mean old lady leggo 'a me and I pulled back and punched her in the thigh and I let go of the pencil an' she was tryin' to pull it out and I saw that water glass on the table so I took it by its base an' broke it ag'in the side of the table an' she come at me so I cut her arm an' she was bleedin' pretty good."

Sarah could hear the tension building in his voice and she knew his catharsis was almost complete.

"That mean old lady didn't want to stay in there with me 'cause I still had that glass so she went for the door an' my Mama come in an' hit her an' put her against the wall and I kinda set down and The Bear Killer come over and kep' me company."

Sarah put two fingers to her lips and whistled, loud and sharp, and something felt like it jumped into the buggy.

Jake turned around just in time to catch a familiar wet pink tongue across the face.

He did not ask how or why.

All he knew was a familiar old friend was climbing over the back of the upholstered seat and he was very glad to see him.

The three of them were a little crowded, but they managed, The Bear Killer happily laundering (especially behind Jake's ears the way he always did), and Jake hugging the immense canine to him.

Sarah sat very quietly at the very edge of her seat, the ornate ironwork at its edge pressing into her hip.

Her spine was very straight and her eyes were very pale and she was very, very ready to go to that schoolhouse in the far future and raise some tall hell with that mean old lady that hurt one of Sarah's family.

She blinked, shook her head: no, Jake's Mama handled it already, it would only cause problems if she too went and addressed the guilty.

She spoke aloud, very quietly, and to no one in particular.

"I," she announced, "am trying very hard to be a lady!"

 

They drew up in front of the Sheriff's office.

"Something is wrong," Sarah murmured. "Something is ... not right here."

She reached into a slit in her dress, withdrew a .44 Bulldog revolver.

"Know how to use this?"

"Yes ma'am," Jake said, blinking.

Sarah slid it into his sling.

"Don't use it unless you have to, but if you do, don't miss!"

"Yes, ma'am," Jake said, his gut tightening up again, but this time it was different.

This time it felt like this was the reality and all else was but dreamstate.

There is something just a'mighty real about gripping machined steel and knowing six rounds of fast moving justice waited in your grip, for your command, and Jake swallowed something thick and sticky that lumped up of a sudden in his throat.

Jacob's Appaloosa stallion was tethered in front of the Sheriff's office, and the Sheriff's red mare beside.

She must not be fresh, Jake thought, else they'd be causin' trouble -- he broke off the thought as Sarah yanked the brake and leaped from the carriage and into the Sheriff's office.

Jake heard shots, yells: Sarah came out of the Sheriff's office with a double handful of twelve gauge shotgun and she ran lightly, delicately, down the boardwalk, stopped at the corner, took a quick look.

A gunshot rewarded her quick peek.

Jake saw her eyes go white and her face go pale and she bared her teeth and swung around the corner and disappeared.

Jake heard the deep BOOM, BOOM of a double twelve, another couple shots: a man ran up the alley and around the corner, looking wildly about, then he saw the carriage and Jake saw the man's eyes lock onto the carriage and he knew this man was going to try and take it.

He gripped the bulldog .44's checkered handle and stood.

The man raised his revolver, took a shot at Jake.

Jake's second shot caught him just above the belt buckle.

His first shot blew a smoldering hole through the white muslin of his sling.

Jake cocked the .44 and kept it on the bent-over, choking, gagging criminal.

He'd dropped his pistol when Jake's slug hit him, but he came a few more staggering steps.

"DO NOT MOVE," Jake yelled, his voice climbing in pitch, "SHOW ME YOUR HANDS! DO IT NOW!!"

Sarah came around the corner at a dead sprint, skirts floating up as she ran, and she charged the staggering soul, brought the shotgun back and drove the buttplate hard against the back of his head.

He went down and he did not get back up.

Jake raised the .44's muzzle, laid his young thumb firmly around the hammer spur, let it down slow and easy.

He replaced the .44 in his sling and sat down, shaking, weak and half sick.

He recalled a set of strong arms pulling him out of the carriage, he remembered the arms went under his knees and around his back and he recalled the smell of whiskey and horse sweat and saddle leather, and it was cool inside and a little easier on the eyes for being in out of the sun, and he shivered as a strong man's arms held him and rocked him a little.

"Jake," the Sheriff said gently, "are you hurt?"

"No, sir," Jake whispered through wooden lips.

He dimly remembered the sound of Sarah's hard heels as she came in, the sound of the shotgun's action opening, he heard the hollow tunk, tunk as two fresh rounds went into the breech, the solid, metallic click! as the breech closed, the woody sound of the double barrel street howitzer being parked back on its rack.

Linn cradled the shivering lad on his lap, rocking him a little, letting the shivers settle down before speaking.

"Jake," he finally said, "are you hurt?"

"No, sir."

"Do you recall what happened?"

"Yes, sir."

"Can you tell me?"

"That man was gonna take the carriage an' he shot at me."

"You recall he did shoot at you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Describe it."

"It was red."

"Red?"

"Yes, sir. He pointed that" -- he hesitated, remembering discussions with his Mama on the subject -- "revolver. Blued steel. Single action. Five inch barrel. He fired one shot and it was red and kinda yella when it fired."

Jake shivered and cowered more deeply into the strong man's protective embrace.

"I heard the bullet," he whispered.

"What did it sound like?" Linn murmured.

"Like a bumblebee," Jake quavered.

"What did you do?"

"I shot him, sir."

"With what?"

Jake reached a trembling hand into his sling, withdrew the Bulldog.

"With this, sir."

"Good."

The Sheriff closed his hand over Jake's, returned the boy's hand and its enclosed revolving pistol back into the sling.

"You did nothing wrong, Jake. You did not kill the man, he's not dead, but you stopped him." The Sheriff's arms tightened a little around the lad. "You stopped him the only way you could."

He hesitated a moment longer, then repeated, separating his words and speaking slowly to guarantee the boy would understand.

"You," he said, "did, nothing, wrong."

Sarah, for her part, glared out the open door as the now-dead express robber.

As much as she wanted to take a knife and artistically mutilate the dead man's carcass, she exercised a great deal of self discipline and simply watched as the carcass was dumped into a rough box and hoist onto Digger's dead wagon.

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8. "DON'T YOU DIE ON ME!"

Willamina turned a little, regarded the proper lady in the full length mirror.

She'd sewed up a riding outfit based on a photograph, on some research, and some experimentation: with a riding corset, with the proper ladies' riding boots, with the correct red wig and a little hat on top, she was -- in her own eyes -- a stranger.

She frowned, leaned a little closer to the shining glass surface, and the stranger in the glass leaned forward as well.

"You," she said, and the naturally red lips in the mirror moved with her soft sibilant, "should have green eyes" -- the the reflection smiled and so did she, for she knew her eyes were what they should be.

Her cell phone rang, or rather alarmed: she used a World War II bugle call, the Naval bugle for General Quarters, for the ringtone from the Sheriff's Office.

It was guaranteed to bring her out of a sound sleep like a stung cat.

She snatched it up, thumbed the green button: "Keller."

It was Sharon, the dispatcher, and her voice was tight.

"Officer down, squad enroute," she said, her voice clipped, "main and fifth."
"Enroute," Willamina said and Sharon interrupted any further reply.

"It's Will."

 

Willamina did not remember descending the stairs like a flowing green streak, and it wasn't until she was outside that she realized her left hand was wrapped with a crushing grip around her Great-Great-Granddad's double gun that usually lived beside her headboard, nor did she recall snatching the bandolier from the deer-hoof gunrack in the front hall: she heard her curled-lip whistle, bright and sharp, as she ran across the corral and into the barn.

Cannonball danced up to her, for she knew the urgency of that one sharp whistle: Willamina savagely thrust the Damascus double into its scabbard, slung the saddle blanket over the mare's back, seized the saddle and slung it effortlessly in place.

If she were of a philosophic nature, Willamina might have remembered reading how her Great-Great-Grandfather's wife-to-be, a red-headed Carolinian in a riding dress, seized a shotgun and a mare when she heard them man she loved was shot and may be dying, there in the Sheriff's office.

If she were of a contemplative bent, she might have recalled Scriptural admonition that we are surrounded by a great cloud of believers, and she might have recalled a conversation she had with Brother William -- now the Abbot William -- and his mention of the Celtic Christian belief that this great cloud is composed of our honored ancestors, and had this been the case, she might have wondered if the spirit and soul of Esther Keller rode with her, two women with red hair and a fast horse, a shotgun and a willingness to war in a moment of great need.

At the moment, though, Willamina's mind considered none of this.

Bare moments later, a red-haired Valkyrie leaned low over her mare's neck, shotgun across her saddlebow, riding hard for the Sheriff's office.

Someone she loved was in trouble and a beautiful woman was riding to war.

 

Early tourists were not at all unknown; city folk liked to stroll the Firelands boardwalks, gape at buildings that looked like they were spirited away from the days of the Old West, ride the Z&W, which was just making its early test runs (at a discount -- which was even more attractive to the tourist trade!) -- and a family was quarreling in front of the Mercantile.

"This is lame," a boy whined, crossing his arms, while his mother quite reasonably tried to point out historic associations with the research they'd done earlier: a younger boy, looking around with a child's wide-eyed curiosity, tugged at his whining brother's shirt and pointed: "What's that?"

Neither mother, son, nor youngest son were quite sure what it was, but out of habit, a cell phone was raised and a video was begun.

The little one, seeing his big brother was ignoring him -- again -- looked around, leaned out over the edge of the boardwalk and pointed in the opposite direction: "What's that?"

Heads turned, the cell phone followed, and the mother saw the imperative bursts of red and blue appear on the phone's screen.

She looked up at the police cruiser, stopped at an awkward angle, two men: one on the ground, the other moving with an obvious urgency ... and from somewhere, they couldn't tell where, a siren screamed into life.

The youngest one turned and squealed with delight as he saw a red-headed woman on a red mare, bent low over the horse's neck, riding like hell itself was boiling after her.

"Cool!" he enthused. "Le's go!"

 

Willamina's pale eyes began a familiar dance.

Veteran Marine that she was, she wasn't about to ride wholesale into an ambush, but on her approach she could not see any sign that this was the result of hostile action.

Cannonball slowed quickly, carefully: she was used to being ridden on pavement, and she knew how slick steel shoes were on blacktop, and she danced as she decelerated, and when her payload left the saddle, the mare turned to her right and trotted happily onto the grass of the town park beside the little whitewashed schoolhouse, just over a block away.

 

Willamina went to her knees beside her twin brother, laid the shotgun beside her, laid one hand over another and cocked her hand back, assuming a ready posture for CPR.

Will looked over at her, his eyes pale, his words in time with his stiff-armed thrusts:

"We-will-switch-on-three," he paused, "one-and-two-and-three--"

At the grunted "three," Willamina hit him with her left hip and her interlocked hands hit Will's: she shoved his pumping fist out of the way, dropped neatly onto the landmark, "four-and-five," and Will drove a breath into the still figure's lungs.

"I-heard-this-was-you," Willamina pumped, pausing while Will administered another breath.

"Not hardly," he said, his voice tight. "You got this?"

Willamina leaned over, two breaths into flaccid lips and still lungs, came back up and into position with the ease of long practice.

"I-got-this-you-go," she pumped.

Will squeezed her shoulder quickly, but lightly as she continued her chant, "two-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five, three-and-two-and-three-and-four-are-five," and she went down for another breath.

Will stood, hauled open the Crown Vic's door, then straightened as the squad came into view at the top of the street.

"Cavalry," he muttered.

His ear twitched as Willamina's rhythmic chant changed.

Her cadence was flawless, her compression depth was regulation, but the mnemonic she used was new.

Will's hand tightened on the top of the Crown Vic's open door as he listened to his twin sister chanting, "Don't-you-die-on-me, don't-you-die-on-me, don't-you-die-on-me!"

 

Willamina took the Sheriff's shotgun by its checkered wrist rolled back onto the balls of her feet, then her heels, and stepped back as the medics took over, and bumped into a young man with a cell phone.

"Pardon me," she said, smiling gently as he raised the cell phone, stepped back a little.

"Lady, who are you?" he blurted.

Willamina looked around at the increasing crowd of humanity that always gathered when something like this happens, saw a face she recognized.

She placed gentle fingers on the arm of the young man still making his video. "Excuse me," she said quietly, and he followed her with his glowing screen as she went up to a square-shouldered man with a Sheriff's star on his shirt and grief in his expression.

He watched them speak quietly for a few minutes, then as the medics raised the cot into the back of the squad, she took the black-haired, dark-eyed man by the arm and steered him toward the passenger side of the police cruiser.

She opened the door, waited til he was in, then shut the door, thumped the roof twice with her fist and stepped back.

She stood there as the ambulance pulled away, followed by the cruiser: she curled her lip, whistled, and the crowd began to separate the way it always does when the excitement leaves the scene.

Cannonball ruckled a little as she slipped easily between uncertain humans; Willamina laid a hand on her mane and the mare stopped, stone-still, while Willamina slid the shotgun thoughtfully into its carved scabbard.

"Lady," a newly-familiar voice said, "what just happened?"

Willamina turned to the young man, ignored his camera.

"The man down," she said, stopped and cleared her throat, "the man down served in Vietnam. He carried our Sheriff -- that big fella that just left -- back to friendly lines, packed him over his shoulder until he himself was hit, then they took turns propping each other up as they fought their way back home." She stopped, bit her lip. "He is a Marine and I know him well."

"Lady," the boy asked again, awe in his voice, "who are you?"

Willamina looked directly at him, her eyes pale: she thrust a boot into the stirrup, swung into the saddle, looked at him again.

 

Had that Great Cloud of Believers counted among its number a certain pale eyed ancestress, said pale-eyed soul might have considered that this modern-day, pale-eyed warrior-woman had done her level best to pump life into a still form, in the identical spot where a century before, her pale-eyed ancestress had driven a shotgun's butt into a man's skull with full intent to kill, and perhaps there would have been a curled lip in appreciation of this irony.

The only thing that was heard, though, was the reply the woman made from atop her red mare.

"Name's Keller," she said. "Sheriff. Firelands County."

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9. "TRADE YA!"

Jacob's hands were spread, fingers pressed against the cool glass pane, his breath fogging the glass ahead of him.

Mrs. Shaver, his teacher, came over and laid gentle fingertips on his uninjured shoulder.

"Jacob," she said very softly, and he interrupted, "Why is my Mama riding like that?"

Mrs. Shaver frowned a little, looked out the window, saw a woman in an old-fashioned riding dress, a woman on a red mare, running at absolutely a wide open gallop down the main street into town.

Flashing lights to her left caught her eye and she looked, and saw a police cruiser, then another, people running, and faintly she heard a siren, then saw the paramedic squad down the street pulling out of the annex, built onto the old, original, tall-and-narrow horse house.

"I don't know, Jacob," she admitted.

The equestrian disappeared behind a building, reappeared, disappeared again: Mrs. Shaver felt the lad shiver a little and he said in a lost voice, "Something is very wrong."

"I'm sure it will be all right, Jacob. Come, let's have a seat."

"Yes, ma'am."

Jacob shuffled reluctantly back to his desk, sat dejectedly with an elbow on the desk top and his cheek on the heel of his hand, frowning sightlessly at the page of math problems he'd blasted through -- as usual -- and sat there wondering how much longer he would have to endure this utter boredom.

His mind ran as fast as his Mama's horse, scurrying around the inside of his skull, stopping at the memory of the night before.

He'd shot a man, but he'd shot a man in another time, he'd shot a man who tried to shoot him.

I'm only in third grade, part of his mind said, then the strong, reassuring Sheriff who'd held him on his lap, held him in fatherly arms and said in a soft and fatherly voice, "You did the right thing, Jacob. He tried to kill you and you stopped him the only way you could."

Jacob's hand slipped inside his sling, exploring the back side of the white muslin, felt the hole from the .44 ball.

His ears burned as he thought (to his shame) that he'd gripped the Bulldog too tightly, that he'd yanked the trigger before he'd gotten it out --

"The finger will pull," his Mama's voice said in his memory, "out of reflex, unless we train it not to" -- and she'd led her class, a class she taught for the ladies of the area, a class where she taught them how to shoot and when to shoot and when not to shoot, a class he'd set in on, sitting very quietly in the back row and listening to his Mama's voice.

Jacob looked down at his hand, closed his fingers into a fist with his index finger extended.

He tightened his fist and the finger curled.

He relaxed his hand, closed it again, and several more times, willing himself to grip without the trigger finger's pulling with it.

I'll do better next time, he thought.

I just need some practice.

 

The County Commissioners assembled in the lobby of the Sheriff's Office, complete with their local newspaper reporter and a couple of cameras.

There were the formal words, wherein Sheriff JW Barrents officially resigned from his office, and the Commissioners unanimously voted to accept Willamina's return to the office.

Willamina looked at Barrents with hard eyes as he spoke his piece.

"It is with genuine regret," he said, "that I must resign as Sheriff, but before I do, let me recommend my predecessor, Willamina Keller, as my replacement." He stopped and looked at his pale-eyed fellow badge packer and added, "I must resign for reasons of health," and there was something in his voice Willamina genuinely did not like.

Whether she liked what she heard, or not, was quite immaterial in that moment, because as the Commissioners made their on-the-spot voice vote and announced their satisfaction with the result, Barrents crossed the room with his sailor's gait, unpinning his six-point star and holding it out between two fingers.

"Trade ya," he grinned.

Willamina unpinned her Deputy's star from beneath the lapel of her riding dress and traded tin for tin, shook the man's hand, then she seized his shoulder and pulled him into what had been her office before and was so again.

She closed the door behind her, crossed her arms.

"All right, Marine," she snapped, "out with it, what happened?"

"I didn't want to worry you."

"You worry me anyway, White Oak!" she snarled, and he grinned, remembering the time they'd sparred in hand-to-hand and she'd said afterward trying to take down that big Indian was like trying to take down a white oak stump.

"I may have to have my spleen removed."

Willamina's eyebrow raised sharply. "Go on."

"You remember when I had that kidney stone."

Willamina groaned, sagged against the wall, looked away, looked back. "I remember," she said softly. "I remember you tried to kick the floor board out of the Blazer as I got you to the hospital!"

"You thought I was dying," he chuckled, dark eyes bright with amusement.

"YES I DID!" she shouted, storming across the room and shoving herself against him, glaring up at his smiling obsidian eyes.

"Boss, you're funny when you're mad," he said quietly.

Willamina laid a gentle hand on his ribs. "What happened?"

"They ran me through the CAT scanner and found a pinpoint of calcium in my spleen. They called it an incidental finding, they said it didn't mean anything, they said to forget about it so I did."

He saw his boss's eyes grow pale and he knew she was getting ready to rip someone's throat out.

"What happened to that pin point?"

"It's a cyst now," he said, his eyes still amused and his voice still quiet. "Two centimeters. Once it gets so big it goes boom and I will bleed out."

"How soon do you get it taken out?"

"I'll see the surgeon the 20th."

"Of this month?"

"Next month."

"Like hell!" she hissed, poking a stiff finger into his breastbone. "I don't allow my people to go boom!"

Barrents laughed, gathered the Sheriff into his arms and hugged her tight, and she did not hesitate to hug him right back and just as firmly.

"Don't die on me, damn you," she whispered. "We've been through too much together."

He felt her take a long breath.

"Besides, I hate funerals."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Me too."

The intercom buzzed and Willamina heard Barrents' deep chuckle.

"Boss," he said, "I think that one's for you."

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10. "I LIKE YOURS BETTER"

 

The local media delighted in the sight of the sight of their prior Sheriff, swearing-in while wearing an 1885 McKenna riding dress, or a very good reproduction thereof; they were even happier when this image of an earlier age very knowledgeably discussed the history of their county, spoke with authority on their tourist railroad, the restored Z&W, describing how one of the original engines -- in fact the original steam locomotive, The Lady Esther, named for the Old Sheriff's red-headed wife -- was located in South America, how with bribery, flattery, horse trading, diplomatic intervention and finally a personal visit, the various satraps, politicos, bosses and other impediments were finally persuaded to release what they'd considered a candidate for the scrapyard to this crazy Yanqui with pale eyes, and how they'd laughed among themselves at the insane ideas these Norteamericanos came up with: how it took two years to restore the engine, how she'd been completely stripped back at the Nelsonville yards of what was now the Hocking Valley Railroad, under the watchful eye of a master restorer, and finally how she'd been freighted West on a flatcar -- Federal regulations prohibited her from using modern trackage, under her own power.

She described how she'd come the last leg on the Z&W's private trackage, come in on a foggy morning under her own power, breathing easily like some great and powerful beast, ghosting silently through a rare morning fog: those watching saw only swirling grey mist, then a voice: "There she is!" -- and the engine, newly rebuilt, silent on oiled roller bearings and the layering of a century's delay, ghosted into Firelands Station, dead silent, until she was almost abreast of the station: only then did she sigh gently and then the air set up, air powered pistons driving curved shoes against steel wheels, and she came to a halt, breathing quietly in the morning hush.

Willamina's words wove a mesmerizing spell in the room, and at her description, everyone's inner eye saw the gleaming, brass-polished engine, her drivers slowly cycling, the cast-iron spokes on heavy wheels glittering wetly as she coasted to a stop, and then the plume of pure-white steam as the pop-off valve hissed and the whistle lanyard shivered and then The Lady Esther sang a single, powerful, triumphant note that echoed off the mountains behind.

Her description, quiet-voiced, given while wearing the ornate red wig and the stylish little hat, the tailored riding dress and gleaming little boots, featured in a later special on the history of Firelands County and also in a promotional video for their local Board of Touism, but Willamina was not intent on promoting anything.

She was sharing a memory, and a good one.

Later, over coffee and fresh doughnuts from Grubbs Bakery just down the street (Sharon remembered her favorite, still-warm powdered sugar stick doughnuts with white cream filling), she and her command staff held a quick council of war in the conference room, discussing the open cases, current investigations, matters that would require her attention as Sheriff.

When they were done, there was a general feeling that things were looking really, really good.

Sharon, the dispatcher, was the first to comment on Willamina's attire.

"Boss," she said in that tone of hers, "will this be your standard uniform?"

Willamina blinked.

She'd honestly forgotten she'd worn the outfit, but dismissed the thought.

"Yeah," she said, smiling and picking up what was left of her doughnut. "Why not?"

 

"Mama!" Jacob yelled happily as he ran out of the school building and up the three folding steps.

Willamina looked as comfortable in an 1885 gown and astride a copper mare as she did wearing a tailored suit dress and driving her Jeep.

"Mama, I saw you today! You were riding really fast!"

Willamina waved to the janitor and to Jacob's teacher, and they turned together, rode down the street toward town instead of directly away from the brick-and-glass schoolhouse.

"Yeah," Willamina admitted, "we had a situation."

"How bad was it, Mama?" Jacob asked, and Willamina hesitated, then said "Stay with me."

"Yes, Mama."

They walked their mounts down the paved street and waited for traffic to clear before riding down the main street, down past the Silver Jewel, past the saloon and the funeral parlor and the city hall, and Willamina drew up against the curb, barely past the shining stone front of her Sheriff's Office on the other side of the street.

"A man had a heart attack," Willamina said quietly. "Will was doing CPR."

"It was right here, wasn't it, Mama?" Jacob said, his eyes serious, and Willamina heard something in his voice she hadn't heard before.

"Yes, Jacob. Exactly that spot. Why?"

"That's where you hit that bad guy with your shotgun."

Something cold trickled down Willamina's spine as Jacob continued, "You were wearing a dress kinda like that," he said, then grinned, that quick, little-boy grin that delights a mother's heart but raises immediate suspicion in a lawdog's mind: "It was kinda like that but I like yours better!"

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11. HOW ABOUT A KNUCKLE SANDWICH?

"Jacob, stay with the horses, and remember if a siren is coming, get on Apple, take Cannonball's reins and get some distance!"

"Yes, Mama," Jacob grinned, delighted that he was being given a Genuinely Important Job that his Mama Believed He Could Do!

Willamina dismounted, stopped before the hospital's glass double doors, surprised at the reflection, then she reached up and touched the little hat she wore.

At least the wig is still straight, she thought: pacing off on the left, she advanced on the automatic doors, stepped through them and into the hospital lobby.

The receptionist looked up, startled, blinked, shook her head and then gave an embarrassed little laugh: "I'm sorry, Sheriff, I thought someone spiked my drink!"

"They did," Willamina said with a straight face. "You're actually in the year 1885. How's Nelson Bell?"

"Bell," the receptionist said, her eyes losing focus as she went over her mental list of new admits and inpatients.

She blinked again, her eyes focusing again on Willamina.

"You look good as a redhead," she chirped brightly. "He's still in intensive care."

"Still alive."

"Alive, yes. I understand bystander CPR was begun. The squad said it was a witnessed arrest."

Willamina laid gloved fingers delicately on the laminate countertop. "Do you know," she said softly, "that is only my third CPR save?"

"You did that?" the receptionist gasped, her fingers going to her mouth. "Oh my Gawd, Sheriff, that was --" her lashes swept the air almost audibly -- "that was you?"

"My brother Will started it but I spelled him off. Nelson is alive, that's all I need."

"She's on You Tube," a passing nurse tossed over her shoulder.

"Oh, now, this I've got to see," the receptionist giggled, and Willamina turned on her heel and stomped back to the automatic doors.

"Sheriff, I have it here -- would you like to see --"

She looked up in time to see Willamina, her lips set in a disapproving line, turn her red mare and ride off, her son following close behind.

 

Jacob hung on his Mama's every word.

For that matter, so did Richard.

Father and son were rapt in Willamina's quiet-voiced account of what had happened that day.

She'd divested herself of wig and riding dress and was in her usual flannel shirt and blue jeans, and as the day had been demanding of her time, she'd sent out for pizza, which suited the men in her life just fine.

Men, she'd learned, were generally omnivorous, and more often than not they would eat their meal unless the meal tried to eat them first.

Especially these two, she thought with a wry smile.

Of course when she mentioned she'd made the Internet, Richard nodded; he'd already gotten a couple calls, one from Malaysia and one from Quantico and two more from equally far-flung locales, all informing him that his wife looked pretty good on her knees with her hands on a strange man, and in return he'd politely wished each of them a swift trip to hell or the general vicinity, after which the conversations followed the usual route that old and dear friends' conversations generally do.

Jacob, for his part, slipped into the living room, turned on the family computer, and after a very brief -- a very brief -- search, found the aforementioned video.

Awe-struck, he watched his Mama leap from the still-moving horse, exchange a few words with his Uncle Will, then begin CPR like he'd seen in health class videos but for real -- for real! he thought -- and his young heart swelled with pride when the camera swung to look at his Mama, looking regal and beautiful and bigger than life as she was ready to ride away, and a voice said "Who are you, lady?" and she said, "Name's Keller. Sheriff. Firelands County."

Jacob would have hugged himself if both arms were in working order, so it took him a moment longer than usual for one important fact to sink in.

When it did he didn't bother to shut off the computer.

He fell out of the chair, scrambled to his feet, ran back into the kitchen, stopped and regarded his Mama with absolutely huuuuuge eyes.

"Mama," he said, "You're Sheriff again!"

Richard looked at his wife and smiled that slow smile of his, then he rose and took her hand: she rose as he pulled, and he wrapped her in a big husbandly hug and whispered, "I'm proud of you, dearest!"

"You'd better be," she whispered back, and they both laughed.

 

Sheriff or not, the barn had to be cleaned, fresh straw forked into the stalls, the horses brushed down and grained and hooves and teeth checked.

Jacob helped as best he could, but with only one arm it was impossible to run a wheelbarrow and difficult to use a fork, so he brushed one-handed and did his level best.

Willamina washed off her gum boots, used a boot jack to get them off her polished Wellingtons, left the plastic sacks she used for boot liners with the overboots; they walked back to the house together, and Willamina noticed Jacob was unusually reserved.

"What's on your mind, Jake?" she asked, and he jumped a little.

Must have been on another continent, she thought as she saw the reaction.

"That's what you called me before," he said uncertainly. "Mama, I think I could shoot Grampa's revolver."

"Your Grampa's ... the Victory Model?"

"Yes, Mama."

"You're right handed," she said slowly, eyeing his slung wing.

"Mama, didn't Great-Great-Great ... didn't Old Grampa draw left handed first?"

Willamina smiled a little.

He actually listens, she thought, and nodded.

"Yes, Jacob. He did. He was equally good with either hand but he drew left side first."

"Then I should be able to left hand first."

She looked at her husband. "Richard? What do you think?"

He shrugged. "Victory model or a J-frame, the length of pull is the same. Are his hands big enough?"

"There's the Bearkitty."

"There is that."

"Might make a good trainer."

Richard nodded.

Willamina looked at her son, nodded.

"Jacob, you're right. Let's try it."

Jacob's response was silent, but she could read the excitement in his eyes as plain as the morning paper.

 

Willamina lay awake that night, staring at the ceiling.

You troublemaker, she thought. How would you like a knuckle sandwich?

Damn you pale eyed troublemaker, what are you doing with my son!

"What am I doing?" a voice said, and it was her voice, it was the way her voice sounded to her, not the way it sounded on the cassette recorder she still used.

Yes, what are you doing! He showed me that scorched hole in his sling and he told me it was from your .44 Bulldog!

"I don't see why you're complaining. He didn't scream or run or fall off the wagon or wet himself. He did better than most green troops under fire for the first time."

He's not a green troop, damn you, he's my son!

"Oh, that's right, you don't know yet," the voice replied, and Willamina heard a teasing amusement in it.

Willamina realized she must be in a dream state: she stood and she was among a half-dozen standing stones, each one twice as wide as her arms could span, thrice her height: the floor was sandy underfoot, dry and warm -- and she was barefoot, wearing her white-flannel nightgown with roses embroidered at the throat.

A figure paced into view from beside the rock directly in front of her.

It looked like her, but it wore an electric-blue McKenna gown that rippled in the diffused light.

Movement, she thought, turning to the left, and another figure, another her, glided forth in like wise, this one with its hair up in a severe schoolmarm's walnut, round lens glasses worn well down on her nose, in a mousey-grey schoolmarm dress.

Willamina's blood was up, she breathed easily through her open mouth, she was crouched a little, ready to bring absolute utter unforgiving violence on any who posed a threat --

"Close your mouth, you'll catch flies," the self in the electric-blue gown teased. "What are we doing with your son?"

"We are answering questions," the schoolmarm self replied in the same voice. "He is curious about his past, and he is curious about you."

"Though not luminous himself," a third self said, slouching against the rock and all in black, "he is a conductor of light."

The third one pushed its black hat-brim up with one finger and its eyes were pale, hard, cynical.

"Your son didn't kill anyone. He did stop someone. I sent him on to hell. Your son does not bear the mark of Cain."

Yet, Willamina thought, the dread knowledge upon her.

Not yet, but he will.

Another figure, a man, almost familiar, a man with an impressive mustache and a hat brim pulled low, a man who moved like someone who'd known combat and would know it again, a man with a quiet voice: "Sometimes good people have to do hard things. It is the lesson the wrongdoer must learn, and we are the teacher."

Another man, this one familiar, with an iron-grey mustache and pale eyes.

"We protect those who the evil would harm. We protect and we teach the lesson of this lifetime, and for that our souls are scarred."

A great, monstrous animal, a familiar figure, black as a sinner's heart and the size of a small pony, paced out and leaned companionably against the man with the iron grey mustache.

"Brother William," he said, and she heard his voice soften as his hands sought the canine's head, "said that perhaps the mark of Cain was a great black dog."

He looked up and his eyes were a little darker, just a shade of blue to them.

"If that is the case I thank God for that comfort."

A hand landed firm on her breastbone and her hand shot from under the covers like a striking viper, pressed the hand hard against her chest.

Her eyes snapped open and she realized she was breathing hard and she was soaked with sweat.

"Nightmare?" she gasped, and Richard whispered, "Yes," and Willamina sat up and groaned, her face in her hands.

"Go back to sleep, Richard, I'm going to shower."

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12. THAT WAS HIS WIFE

"You look like hell," Sharon offered as Willamina came through the door.

"God loves you too," the Sheriff snarled.

"Rough night?"

"Nightmares. Please tell me there is coffee."

"Fresh pot, did you bring your mug?"

"It's at home I use it for pencils."

"We've got foam cups."

"I'll drink it out of a tin can if I have to." Willamina looked around, really looked, nodded.

"It feels like home," she said in a soft and thoughtful voice.

"You'll have to set up your office, and the computer died so there's a new one, same old intercom, same radio but a new repeater up on the hill."

"Vehicle status?"

"Barrents kept everything in top shape. Two are less than a year old."

"How's the building?" Willamina added a careful drizzle of milk from a short carton, sipped the coffee cautiously.

"We could use a new roof, or so Barrents said."

"We needed a new roof when I ran the show," Willamina muttered, turned as the doors squeaked a little the way they always did when someone pulled open the outer set.

"Chief," Willamina said, one hand on her hip, the steaming foam cup thrust out with one pointing finger as well, "if those are doughnuts you'd better have some duct tape!"

Chief Finnegan laughed. "What duct tape?"

"If those are doughnuts I might as well just duct tape them to my hips," Willamina raised one eyebrow, took another noisy slurp of coffee. "That's where they'll end up anyway."

"No duct tape. I don't like the flavor."

"Hold on , you two," Sharon called loudly, making a time-out sign with two hands: "Boss, you already have a visitor, she's in the conference room, and you want to see her."

"Chief, hold that thought, I'll be right with you." Willamina turned to the conference room door, pulled it open, disappeared inside.

"I suppose you've seen the video," the Chief said to the dispatcher, settling himself into a convenient chair.

"Oh God, fella, the whole world has seen that video," Sharon groaned, thrusting another pencil in her hair: she favored the Big Hair look and probably held stock in the hairspray industry, and thus far her record was ten pencils lost at one time in her sculpted style.

"I wanted to talk to her about her CPR," the Chief said. "Doughnut?"

Sharon's hand dove into the box as if it had a built-in guidance system, closed delicately on a powdered-sugar, cream-filled stick doughnut, still warm.

"Chief, you've got the right kind," Sharon mumbled around her mouthful. "The Boss loves those!"

"I got her two dozen, one for her and one to share."

"She'll kill you. Oh Gawd this is so good!"

 

They didn't have long to wait.

The two women came out, Willamina's arm around the older woman's shoulders: they spoke quietly as they walked to the doors, there was a quick embrace, and the older woman with the fur-collared coat pushed out through the doors like she had a loaded dump truck weighting down her shoulders.

Willamina turned, a dancer's move, her weight on the balls of her feet, flaring her tailored blue suit-dress skirt: "Chief! What can I do for you?"

"Doughnut?" he offered, holding the cardboard box open, and Willamina skipped across the polished quartz floor like an excited schoolgirl, dipped a dainty two-fingered pluck into the box, brought out one of her favorites, took a bite, eyes closed, humming with pleasure, ignoring the fact that powdered sugar trailed down her dark-blue suit dress front.

Some things, she knew, were too good to worry about details, and Grubbs Bakery doughnuts were among them.

Sharon got up and went over to the files, busied herself riffling through file jackets: she brought one out, checked the contents, followed the pair into the conference room.

"Sheriff," the Chief said, "I've been watching the video of yesterday --"

"You and my son," Willamina laughed. "Not only am I Super Mom, now I'm a superhero to boot!"

The Chief smiled a little sadly. "I'm afraid I've got some bad news," he said tentatively.

"Out with it then," Willamina said bluntly, setting down her doughnut and looking squarely at the fire chief.

"It's your CPR," he said. "It's obsolete --"

Sharon laid the file jacket in front of the Sheriff and Willamina held up her hand.

She opened the jacket, began dealing certificates and photocopied cards like a poker player with oversized cards.

"Chief, I am currently certified and in the current method," she interrupted him, her voice quiet, and a wise man would have caught the frigid undertone in her words. "Here are copies of the current certifications."

"Your performance yesterday was not --"

Willamina's temper was not improved for a short night of rest; she was in no mood to be lectured: she slammed her palm down on the table, hard, rose slowly from her chair, her eyes ice-pale and hard as mountain granite.

"DO NOT PRESUME TO LECTURE ME!" she shouted. "WHAT WE DID SAVED THAT MAN'S LIFE! THAT WOMAN WHO WAS JUST IN HERE WAS HIS WIFE!

DO YOU KNOW WHY SHE CAME HERE, CHIEF?"

Willamina's eyes blazed with cold fire and she leaned forward just a little, then she seized the edge of the table, hauled it up, threw it over the other conference room table, scattering doughnuts, papers and her coffee in the process.

Fists clenched and teeth bared, she turned to the Chief, eyes absolutely blazing with a cold fire the man had heard about but never seen.

"I AM CERTIFIED, DAMN YOU, AND SO IS WILLIAM, AND DAMN IT TO HELL I WILL NOT BE LECTURED WHEN I DID NOTHING WRONG!!"

The Chief opened his mouth and Willamina stepped in close, too close, glared down at him, her hands closing into fists.

"HIS WIFE CAME IN TO TELL ME HE IS GOING TO SURVIVE AND HE IS ALIVE BECAUSE WE STARTED CPR WHEN HE WENT DOWN, AND DAMN IT TO HELL, CHIEF, IT WORKED!"

Willamina closed her eyes and took a long breath, then she opened her eyes and stuck out her hand.

"Let's start over. Hello, I'm Willamina."

"Chief Ferguson," he said faintly, taking her hand.

Willamina tilted her head a little and managed a little smile.

"If you ever come in again, Chief," she said, "I will understand if you're wearing your hardhat, but I do not get along well with people who try to correct me when I'm not in the wrong."

 

The Bear Killer rolled over on his back, all four paws in the air, groaning a little with pleasure as the skilled, familiar hand rubbed his chest and belly.

The Bear Killer was nothing short of huge; he was fiercely protective of his pack, and delighted in associating with them, and at the moment his eyes were closed with utter pleasure, one hind leg kicking happily and rather enthusiastically as he reveled in a beloved belly rub.

If one were to watch this scene, one might see the belly fur being stirred; one would see the great canine obviously enjoying himself, but there was no human hand to be seen, nor indeed was there any human visibly present.

Visibly.

 

Willamina dropped heavily into a chair, her cheeks red and an embarrassed expression on her face.

"I hate that," she muttered. "I feel like such an --"

"Language, Sheriff," Sharon admonished. "I know you feel like one but yours is cute and the guys like to watch it."

Willamina looked with shocked eyes at her dispatcher, then laughed, shaking her head.

"Ya got me," she admitted, then looked up with a sheepish expression.

"I never knew he was a veteran."

"Oh yeah. Late Korea, early Vietnam."

"He said he's the same way himself. They aggravated him down at the firehouse last night and he slammed the table hard enough to break its back and bounce it off the floor."

Sharon laughed. "Scary, isn't it?"

"It's scary to think I can grab a table and throw it over like that! God Almighty, I can't afford to lose my temper like that!"

"It happens, Boss. You're short on sleep, you're stressed, you're a big-time video star --"

"If I still had a doughnut," Willamina muttered, "I'd stuff it in your mouth!"

"If it was one of those doughnuts," Sharon laughed, "I'd let you!"

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13. YOU WORE WHAT?

 

Willamina looked at the clock as she lay back in her bed.

Jacob protested (as he usually did) that he wasn't sleepy, and (as he usually did) he was out 30 seconds after his head hit the pillow.

I need to get my beauty rest, Willamina thought.

From the look of my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I need all the help I can get!

She looked again at the glowing red numbers.

9:30.

She reached over, pulled the switch and the little red light came on to show the alarm was turned on.

She slid into her mental submarine, closed and dogged the hatch, and willed it to submerge into the dark lake of slumber.

She wasn't asleep in 30 seconds but it was close.

 

Willamina walked slowly along the gravel drive, looking at the familiar gravestones as she did.

She wore a McKenna gown and a fashionable hat, she wore gloves and she felt the familiar weight of her double gunbelt around her corset-cinched waist.

She stopped, frowning, backed up again.

Something was missing.

"Are you looking for this?"

The voice was annoyingly familiar, and Willamina's gloved hands closed into fists.

"My, my, what temper," the voice mocked. "Just like my Daddy!"

Willamina turned, crouched a little, fist cocked, and found herself facing a gravestone on two legs.

"Go ahead, honey, hit me," the voice said. "It'll be like hitting granite."
"I suppose you think you're funny," Willamina snapped.

"Frankly, sister, I'm hilarious!" the voice replied, and the stone morphed into the mirror image of herself.

"You're looking for my gravestone."

"Yes."

"It's not there."

"It was."

"There is no reason for me to have a stone here," Sarah said flippantly. "I'm not here."

"Neither is anyone else, sister," Willamina riposted, debating whether to punch the pretty, younger, pale-eyed woman.

"What was that thing you used to find a body last year?" Sarah asked, turning her head a little but keeping her ice-pale eyes on her descendant. "That ... thing that pulled like a sled with two wheels and you looked at what was underground."

"Ground penetrating radar."

"Yes, that. You'll want to bring that up here." She pointed to the row of stones and the missing granite was suddenly there again. "You will find carcasses under each one, but not mine."

"Why not?" Willamina challenged. "Where are you?"

Sarah spread her arms, turned around slowly like a little girl pirouetting happily in a shower of fall leaves. "I am right here," she said happily, then stopped, turned quickly, tapping a finger against her cheek. "You may wish to have Jacob polish his boots."

Willamina's expression was suspicious as she regarded her pale eyed ancestress. "Why should he do that?"

"Because, my dear descendant, you are receiving distinguished company and he will be asked to demonstrate his Great-Four-Times-Grandfather's skills!"

"He hasn't been shooting that long," Willamina protested, "and with a bad arm I don't want him running that Apple-horse --"

"What you want is immaterial," Sarah said, her voice serious. "Have him polish his boots, and toss a tin can up for him to shoot. It's easy, you taught your twin brother the trick."

Willamina glared at the interloper.

"Since my last earthly remains aren't rotting here," Sarah said lightly, "would you like to see me die?"

She reached out a feather-light hand, laid her palm gently against Willamina's cheek --

 

The German count lay in his bed, the sheets stained with blood, crimson on the old man's lips.

He'd been stabbed and he'd made his way back to his beloved Schloss, supported by his faithful manservant, himself wounded as well: the Count's physician was summoned, and he'd done what he could, but the wound was in the old man's guts and his lung was punctured, and there was little that could be done.

The family and most of the staff were fled.

Anarchy and revolution gripped their little part of what was a peaceful part of Germany: Sarah's husband had been murdered by anarchists a day before during his summoned visit to the capital, and so she and their two week old daughter remained with the old man, Sarah's personal maid and two manservants.

A peasant ran breathless to the gate with the news that a mob was advancing, that they were armed and that they intended to murder the Count and anyone remaining, and burn the Schloss to the ground: Sarah rang for her maid, handed her a casket the maid knew contained gold and jewels, and gave her a very few, tersely-worded orders.

"But Madam," the maid protested, "of you, what?"

"I must see my child gets safely to Colorado," Sarah said, her eyes pale, hard, "even if I don't" -- and the maid shivered to see it, for all of her years in the Baron's service she'd never seen the beautiful Madam's eyes grow pale in this wise.

"You know the tunnel to the river."

"I do."

"Take the child. Take Vilhelmina. Johann will go with you, a boat will be waiting." She looked back at the Count. "I will join you if I can, but if I am not with you when the Schloss is entered, run, go, fly like the wind, make for the river and you will be taken to safety. From there, make for the coast by our usual route. There are tickets in here" -- she lay a firm hand on the maid's, as she gripped the casket -- "for a steamship across the Atlantic. There are instructions you will give to the first railroad agent you find. From there you will find you way is prepared. If you are asked, your sign is a rose. Do you understand?"

The maid nodded, her face pale.

"Get your cloak and take Vilhelmina and wait for me at the tunnel. Johann should be there. Go." She looked over her shoulder at the old man in his bed. "I will join you if I can, but if I am not there when the mob enters the schloss, it will mean I am dead. Go!"

Sarah turned, ran to the old man's bedside.

He looked up at her, his breath labored, but he still smiled.

"My dear stoffpuppe," the County said faintly. "Only you remain, not even my son --"

He coughed, dabbed at lips wet with new crimson.

"My pistols, on the mantle," he gasped weakly. "I would not die unarmed."

Sarah strode to the mantle, seized the ornately carved box, placed it on a nearby table: she threw open the lid, seized one of the dueling pistols, ran a pick through the touch hole and half-cocked it, then closed the battery-piece, snatched up the fluted German-pattern flask.

Swiftly, with the speed and sureness that comes of long practice, she decanted four volumes of powder into the bore: normally, for dueling, no more than fifteen grains were used, just enough to send the ball on its way, but Sarah knew this was not the time for niceties, and a fighting man's powder charge was needed.

Forty grains of FFF and a round ball, she leveled the pistol and checked the frizzen, added a little powder from the polished antler priming horn, snapped the frizzen shut.

She loaded the second pistol as well, carried them over to the Count.

"Place one in my hand," the Count coughed, "and the other across my belly."

Sarah did as she was told, then she brought the cocks to full stand.

She caressed his cheek, then reached into her bosom, brought out a surprisingly long-bladed Damascus blade with a wire-wound handle, a knife with a script K engraved into its pommel.

"My father gave me this knife," she whispered, "and it has never failed me. If two shots are not enough, give them a taste of Damascus!"

The Count looked into the serious young woman's pale eyes, caressed her cheek.

"My dear stoffpuppe," he whispered. "You have been more faithful than a daughter, and you have been a better wife than my son deserved."

He grimaced, coughed.

"My death is upon me," he said in a surprisingly steady voice. "Go, my dear, go with an old man's blessing. Save yourself and save my beautiful granddaughter."

"I wish I could stay," Sarah whispered back, her tear bright on the Count's cheek.

He smiled weakly.

"My beloved Hartz Mountains are as nothing compared to the beauty of your Colorado," he murmured. "Go now. Raise your child in the Shining Mountains."

Sarah leaned down and kissed her father-in-law on the forehead, then turned and ran from his bedchamber.

She stopped, pressed a catch on a hidden door: she withdrew her American weapons, loaded and waiting for just such a summons.

Quickly, efficiently, she stripped out of her fine gown and into drawers and boots and a shirt and a vest of unrelieved black, she slung a gunbelt around her middle, she hung a Bowie between her shoulder blades, and a .44 Bulldog in the small of her back, and she reached for her black felt hat.

She hesitated, then closed the door, her face pale, her flesh tight-drawn across her cheekbones.

She turned to the wall, to the weapons hung there, she snatched up a boar-spear and reached up and hooked a winged helmet off its display.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, spear in one hand and Winchester shotgun in the other, turned and bared her lips at the first booming assault on the barred front door.

She ran.

The maid turned quickly at Sarah's approach, startled, perhaps, as much by her winged helmet and weapons as by the sounds of assault on the Schloss.

Sarah embraced the maid quickly, parted the blankets, and little Vilhelmina, her daughter, her beloved, looked up at her with happy dark-blue eyes and squealed and smiled with toothless gums and seized her Mama's finger with her chubby little hand.

"Vilhelmina," Sarah whispered, "I have something for you," and she kissed her little girl-child on the forehead, then she took the child's face in both hands, and bowed her head, and the maid saw her lips moving silently while her tears fell on the hand-stitched quilt enveloping the infant.

Sarah drew her head back, then her head snapped around and her lips drew back in a snarl as the sound of the door's collapse reached them, splintering wood and groaning metal echoing loudly in the stonework halls.

"Go!" Sarah whispered urgently, and the maidservant flipped the blanket over the child's face.

Had she looked before she did so, she might have noticed the baby's eyes were suddenly pale.

Ice-pale blue, just like her mother's.

Sarah turned, seized the concealed door, hauled it shut, threw the latch: the tunnel was now safe, but not for long: mobs have ways of finding such things, and when they did, they would fire a volley down the long, straight corridor, and everyone in it would be killed.

Sarah heard them coming.

The first one died with a hard-thrown spear in his throat.

Those that survived told of a screaming warrior-woman of legend who charged them, driving fire and lead into their ranks.

The Baron heard glass break, looked to his left, raised his left-hand pistol and fired: the first of two murderers staggered, a hole where a shirt-button had been, and the second stopped, shocked, then looked up just in time to see the flint pistol's muzzle erupt in the last light his eyes would see on this earth.

He smiled a little as the third man came after him, for he released the handle of the dueling pistol and gripped the wire wrapped ivory of the Damascus knife, a knife older than its user, older even than the Schloss itself, a knife destined to be taken, bought, sold, stolen, given in trade, sold and bought again, a knife he drove hilt-deep in his murderer's belly as the heavy thunder of a Winchester shotgun pounded his ears, as the screams of dying men were punctuated by the staccato concussions of a pair of Colt revolvers, as a woman's screams of defiance and the sound of steel on steel told the old Baron that this night, two warriors shared his roof.

The Baron died that night, but if the tales of the Valkyrie are true, then perhaps women in winged helmets bore his soul to the Allfather's board, women who presented to fellow warriors a man who died with his hand gripping an enemy's throat and his steel in the enemy's gut.

 

Willamina gasped, fell back a step.

She was still in the graveyard, but she wore her tailored blue suit dress and heels.

She raised a hand to her head, as if to check for a winged helmet.

"You wore what?" she gasped.

Sarah stood before her, defiant as always.

"You just saw me die. Are you ready to see how I lived?"

She reached up and cupped her palm gently on Willamina's cheek.

 

"For all things there is a season," Parson Belden intoned, "and to all things a time" -- and a very young Willamina realized she was a little girl, but a little girl from the 1880s.

She was in their little whitewashed church -- she recognized it, she sat between a dignified man in a tailored black suit and a beautiful, violet-eyed woman in a fine McKenna gown, and she made a mental note to ask the Parson a question.

She did, not long after church, and as usual, Parson Belden went to one knee and gave a little girl his full attention.

"Parson," Willamina asked in her little-girl's voice, "is there a time to become really, really angry?"

Parson Belden laughed quietly.

"For all things there is a season," he repeated, "and a time to every purpose under the heavens. Yes, Sarah, there is such a time.

"When you know there is no other recourse, and when you know it must be done because it is absolutely positively the last thing left that might keep you alive, then it is fine and dandy to let the wolf out, to get just as angry as you possibly can."

Willamina remembered how the shotgun recoiled in her hands as she drove round after brass-hulled round of American buckshot into the close ranks of the anarchists, she remembered tossing the empty shotgun and drawing both Colts and firing them with a cold precision, advancing as she fired, how she dropped the revolvers and drew her bulldog .44 and her Bowie and charged, and how she lay about with lead and with steel until she herself was cut down --

Willamina was standing in the church again, and a man with a sculpted handlebar mustache was slipping a ring on her finger, a man whose grin broadened until he could stand it no longer and he seized her and hauled her off the floor and spun her around, laughing, and how Willamina laughed as well, throwing her head back, her veil streaming behind her as her new husband's manly arms crushed her to him, and she lay on her back on a mattress with legs spread and knees bent and her insides being ripped apart by a demon with steel claws and her fingers dug into the mattress and she bowed her head and an unseen hand blotted the sweat beads off her forehead and she took a long breath and willed this child from her, birthing her little baby girl in silence, and she stood in a white nun's habit before an immense, incredibly ornate altar and she heard her own voice soaring from her throat like a white dove circling in the nave, and she galloped her black Snowflake-horse across a high meadow and laughed for joy and her son rode beside her, laughing as well, and she stood beautiful and shockingly naked half a hundred feet above a cold deep mountain pool, and she dove, a pale-skinned arrow, falling through space into a bottomless well of aching-cold water --

Willamina gasped again, opened her eyes, looked at this smiling reflection of herself.

"... wow," she said in a small voice.

"Have Jacob polish his boots," Sarah said, and turned, and disappeared.

Willamina's eyes snapped open.

I've got to get some sleep, she thought, and looked over at the clock.

It was 9:35.

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14. SCHWARZ STIEFELLETTEN

That a diplomatic limousine was parked outside the Sheriff's office was unusual enough.

That an immaculately attired Teutonic legation marched into the Sheriff's office with German precision -- marched is the right word, it was evident these men had worked together, for their moves were precise, crisp, and very evidently part of an elite bodyguard -- but the man in the center, the man who bowed a little and swept up Sharon's hand and kissed her fingers (which she said later "just plainly melted me in my moccasins) was not only a statesman, not only a gentleman, but also a man of dignity and of good humor.

The Sheriff, in her years on this earth, had met folk from many nations and many places; she'd partaken of customs and courtesies in many places on the globe, and she'd met peers, princes, potentates and peasants, and she too had behaved with utter propriety and due dignity.

On this day, both detail and diplomat turned as the Sheriff's office door opened.

In response to this formal diplomatic delegation, Sheriff Willamina Keller yelled "Johann!" and RAN across the polished quartz floor, SLAMMED into the diplomatic representative, SEIZED him in a bear hug, and the dignified old German seized her back and they both laughed and did their best to absolutely squeeze the breath out of the other.

Conversation was fast-paced, multilingual and confusing to all but the conversers, both of them talking at the same time, and the expressions on his security detail were pretty much the same as the looks on Sharon's and a deputy's faces: surprise, concern, then amusement and a touch of puzzlement, for meetings with a gentleman of these august credentials were generally done with considerably more decorum.

When they slowed down enough to come up for air, the old German diplomat held Willamina out at arm's length, beaming at her like a proud grandfather: he stepped back a pace, looked at her frankly, his Teutonic-blue eyes going very obviously down her entire length and back up to her very amused, pale-blue eyes.

"Well?" she asked saucily, hands on her belt and elbows akimbo, "is everything where you remember it?"

They both laughed and he stepped closer, took her hand, patted it in a fatherly manner. "Would that you had married my son," he sighed, "but after you vere vounded" -- he could almost pronounce the "w" sound -- "my son was killed as well."

"I heard," Willamina said quietly. "I miscarried my child, found my husband was dead and then his death --" she paused at the pain in the dignified older man's eyes -- "you didn't know." A statement, not a question.

He shook his head slowly. "Mein Gott," he whispered, gathering her gently into her arms, and the two old soldiers held one another, sharing a common grief. "Such loss. I am so sorry,liebchen"

Everyone else in the office looked elsewhere, elaborately paying no attention whatsoever to such a vulnerably shared moment.

The diplomat cleared his throat, wiped delicately at his eyes, then declared, "My dear, I have something to show you --" he turned to his detail, nodded.

"You must know," he began with a pedantically raised finger, "mein family is very oldt in Chermany."

He frowned as he realized his accent was becoming more pronounced: Willamina nodded, turning her head just a little, listening closely to more than his words.

"My family had a schloss in the ..."

He spun his hand impatiently, looked to an adjutant.

"Hartz Mountains," he prompted.

"Ja!" the diplomat exclaimed.

"Schloss," Willamina interrupted, frowning. "Castle?"

"Nein, mein Sheriff," the adjutant offered helpfully. "Ein Castle ist un berg" -- he stopped, frowned, started again. "A castle is a berg and is for defense. A fortification. Un Schloss ist -- is -- you wouldt say, mansion."

"Entiendo," Willamina nodded thoughtfully; in spite of her unconscious reversion to Spanish, they seemed to understand.

"My great-great-grandfather vass murdered in his bed" He turned, snapped his fingers: two thick binders were brought forth, one handed to him. "Many records were lost in the bombings," he said thoughtfully, "these are not originals."

He paged quickly through the first few, stopped.

"Anarchists rioted at intervals even in peacetime. It happens when war is near. A riot attacked the schloss. This" -- he tapped the page -- "is testimony from a survivor."

He turned, nodded to his detail: two men executed a crisp, military about-face -- if they hadn't been so precise and so precisely coordinated, it would have looked silly with them in civilian suits -- Willamina tilted her head, frowning a little as she scanned the page.

"This man was thought to be insane. He was a riot member --" the diplomat stopped, looked at Willamina and smiled.

"Rioter?" she suggested.

"Just so," he affirmed with a quiet smile.

Willamina was not fooled: Johann could speak English somewhat better than she, as his was free of colloquialisms and dialect, which sometimes led to misunderstandings.

"Why was he thought insane?" Willamina murmured.

"He was arrested and interrogated after the schloss was burned. It was a total loss. Last year a forensic excavation was conducted.

"According to testimony, the riot broke through the main doors.

"They were barred but they used a log ram and destroyed its hinges.

"They were met by" -- he smiled -- "his testimony put him in an asylum, liebchen, and it was not until the other two survivors gave the same testimony that these were believed. They were declared criminal and hanged."

"What was this testimony?" Willamina asked.

"First look" -- he turned a page, showed a color plate of a rusted chunk of burnt metal.

"We identified this as American --"

"Hold there," Willamina said abruptly, turned, walked quickly into her office: she came back out with a long barreled 1897 Winchester shotgun, motioned for the binder to be laid out on Sharon's desk.

Sharon quickly grabbed a tin can bristling with pencils and a single flower in a longneck vase and pulled them out of harm's way.

"Look at that outline," Willamina said quietly. "Now compare this."

She laid the 97 down above the binder.

The diplomat nodded thoughtfully, his bottom jaw thrust out, and he turned the page.

Another rusty something; below it, two more photographs as these somethings were cleaned in a laboratory setting.

Willamina's eyes were pale and she raised a finger, walked quickly back into her office, heels loud on the gleaming stone floor: she came back out, laid one of her Great-Great-Grandfather's Colt revolvers above the shotgun.

The diplomat and his men all leaned over the display, fascinated that their research was being corroborated.

He turned the page once more.

A door opened and several heads came up, and a grinning little boy with his right arm in a sling strutted out of the conference room, boots a-gleam and a small, brass-handled revolver holstered on his left side.

One of the diplomatic entourage murmured an approving "schwarze Stiefel," and indeed the speaker was accurate: Jacob's boots were well polished, flawlessly gleaming, not the military spit-shine worn by the diplomatic legation, but the serviceable sheen of a horseman's Justins.

"This one," the diplomat murmured, turning the page and tapping the excavated item, smiling indulgently as Jacob crowded curiously close, "is not yet identified."

Jacob frowned. "I know what that is," he said, and reached into his sling.

He planted a blunt, squarish bulldog.44 above his Mama's engraved and ivory-handled Colt.

 

Johann laughed with delight as Jacob's Bearcat cracked sharply in the cool mountain air.

His Mama flipped another coffee can aloft and Joseph's little revolver came to bear, cracked: another hole, another ring of stung metal, another wobble.

Willamina tossed an empty soup can aloft -- crack, whinnggg -- it spun with the bullet's penetrating impact, and she tossed another, with the same result.

She turned to the admiring audience, held up a winter-dried, unshucked walnut, flipped it into the air, and diplomat and entourage alike shouted with delight and applauded heartily as the sixth and last shot turned the target into fragments and dust.

Jacob grinned a delighted, red-eared grin, laid the revolver down on the table and frowned. "Mama," he said, "if I had some way to hold this -- maybe a loop I could stick it in like a holster -- I could reload it one-handed."

"No time to reload," Willamina shouted, grabbing a well perforated coffee can and slinging it hard along the ground.

Jacob reached into his sling, fetched out the bulldog .44, fired: 250 grains of round nosed lead drove in just under the can and threw it high in the air, where another slug drove it right on the soldered seam and shoved it several yards in the distance.

Jacob placed the Bulldog, earplugs and shooting glasses on the table, serious-faced, and said "Then I'll use a New York reload!"

Johann strode up, planted one knee of his immaculate suit in the dirt, rested his hands on the boy's shoulders, but lightly -- he knew how painful a healing dislocation could be -- and he said, "Young warrior, your mother is proud of you, and so am I."

Jacob's ears turned absolutely scarlet and he bit his lip uncertainly, looked up at his Mama, then back to the beaming German with the snow-white beard.

"Thank you, sir," he said, and the two shook hands.

Johann rose, turned, frowned a little as he looked into the distance.

Pointing with his entire hand instead of a finger, he said, "Your people ... they lie buried there?"

Willamina turned, looked across the cold clear air at the old section of the Firelands cemetery.

"Yes," she said, nodding as she did. "Yes, they are."

Johann gave her an odd look.

"There is more that we have."

Richard accepted Jacob's gunbelt, gathered the hardware as his wife and son joined the entourage as they gathered around the limousine's trunk.

A box, a binder: the diplomat's demeanor was more formal now, and his adjutants formed ranks: with the diplomat in the lead, they marched in formation back to the picnic table Jacob was just using as his base of operations.

Two more followed, with something wrapped in brown paper, something big, square and not very thick, and a smaller package, about the size of a book.

Johann placed the polished wood box on the picnic table, turned, accepted the book-sized package.

He untied its red hemp string, unwrapped it, and Willamina smiled as she saw the familiar legend on the cover:

The Sheriff's Journal.

She knew the publication of her Great-Great-Grandfather's original Journal proved surprisingly popular, and she remembered -- now that she saw this one, now that it was in the hands of the father of a man whose company she'd come to appreciate -- she remembered that several soldiers, mostly from foreign countries, listened with fascination to her tales of Colorado, of Firelands in the 1880s, and how they inquired after copies of the reprinted Journal.

"I have read this," the diplomat said softly, "I have studied this, I have almost come to know the man." He looked at Willamina, his Teutonic-blue eyes soft with memories. "I have one more thing to show you.

"When the rioter was interrogated, he said when they broke into the Schloss, they were met by a Walküre.

"It seems that someone you ..."

He paused, cleared his throat, nodded, and the paper was whipped off the framed portrait, brittle-sounding as it was snatched free.

"According to the man's testimony, the Walküre met them at the door with a spear that blazed with unearthly light.

"He said die Walküren were American, for only an American would use a shotgun like a trombone, only an American would fast-draw two cowboy guns and slaughter their ranks, only an American would charge impossible odds with a revolver and one of Herr Bowie's knives."

He opened the box, reached in.

"This was found with two skeletons and with what was left of a pair of dueling pistols, badly rusted." He held the knife up, turned it. "Damascus steel. It was not rusted. The stains are blood" -- his eyes smiled as he added, "It was tested."

He extended it, handle-first, and as Willamina reached for the wire-wrapped, ivory handle, she saw the ornate K engraved in the pommel.

"I myself identified the ring that was found on what was left of one skeleton's hand. It was my family crest.

"From other records we find my ancestor was set upon by an assassin, and he was dying." He looked at Willamina and she saw a familiar expression, the look of a fighting man recalling action.

"I would like to think that a man on his death bed still fought."

He turned back to the box, brought out another artifact, unwrapped it, held it up for inspection.

"We found this also. I fear I cannot give this one to you, but you may find it of interest."

He held up a conical helmet with elaborately-detailed bronze wings.

"We have this."

He gestured and Willamina turned.

It was one of the only times in their married life that Richard ever saw Willamina's jaw drop with surprise.

"My ancestor had this portrait painted shortly after his son's marriage," the diplomat said quietly. "This is an American woman his son married. My ancestor was so taken with her tales of frontier life he was convinced she was of die Walküren, and so that is how he had her painted."

Willamina stared at her own face, framed with thick auburn braids, a winged bronze helmet on her head, a boar-spear in her right hand and a rivet-studded roundshield on her left forearm: the figure struck an heroic pose, pale and surprisingly-lifelike eyes staring defiantly into the distance, seemingly ready to leap from canvas and oils and deal death to any who dared attack.

"The Count was a careful man. He built on the side of a mountain and he built both high and deep. This was beneath the Schloss, sealed underground -- it was dry, well preserved -- as was his son's diary. Here is its translation."

The baron placed the translated diary on the table, looked at Willamina.

"I would ask of you something, liebchen."

Willamina nodded.

"I would have a photograph."

Willamina raised an eyebrow a little.

"For my son's memory -- you, as a Marine, here" -- he thrust a hand toward the portrait's left edge -- "and for me, as the Western Sheriff, here" -- he thrust the opposite hand to the opposite side of the ornately-framed painting.

"It might be kind of hard," Willamina said slowly, "to do both at the same time."

Johann laughed. "My dear,the miracles of modern technology! Martin here" -- he thrust a chin to one of the tall, slender men who stood, silent and attentive, just out of arm's reach, "will take a photograph of you on one side, then he will take another photograph with you on the other, and through the miracle of Israeli electronics, poof!" -- he pantomined a magician's sudden smoke-cloud -- "we will have both of you at once!"

Willamina laughed, turned to Martin.

"How long will light conditions remain favorable?"

He turned, regarded the sun, frowning a little.

"Three hours, mein Sheriff," he said politely, and Willamina expected him to crack his heels together and bow a little as he did.

He didn't, but it would not have surprised her.

"Good. Plenty of time. Shall we take it now?"

Martin bowed gravely.

"There is one more thing," Johann interrupted, raising his finger again -- "perhaps a most significant thing."

He reached into the box and brought out something wrapped in heavy plastic.

"When we found the helmet, we found a skeleton." He looked at Willamina and added, "A female skeleton."

She looked more closely at the heavy plastic and saw it was a human skull.

"Most of the bones were so deteriorated they could not be recovered." His hands were gentle as he placed the packaged totenkopf on the table. "We have this, three vertebrae and part of the pelvis.

"Perhaps this American woman would prefer to be interred in American soil."

Willamina's eyes stung and she blinked, swallowed, and Johann took both her hands.

"I think you know who this woman is," he whispered.

Willamina cleared her throat and nodded.

"I think I do," she whispered back.

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15. ANTLERS

"All right, you pale eyed troublemaker," Willamina whispered into the dark, "what are you going to show me tonight?"

She looked over at the clock.

9:30 again.

She closed her eyes, willed herself to relax, passed a mental hula-hoop over herself from head to feet, and just as she got to her ankles, relaxing each muscle group in turn, her phone lit up with a World War II bugle call.

Willamina went from warm and relaxed to wide awake in a tenth of a second or less.

Another tenth of a second and she had the phone in hand, thumbed the green screen-icon and pressed it to her ear.

"Keller."

Richard rolled over, looked at his wife's back, saw her shoulders come up slightly, and he knew he wouldn't have a bed buddy for much of the night.

 

Jacob lay curled up on his side, steadily relaxing, letting the day's tensions and excitements run off his young body like snowmelt off a sunlit mountain.

He heard the chair creak just a little and he opened his eyes.

"Nice shooting," Aunt Sarah said.

He grinned.

"Like to see how I took an elk?"

His eyes widened in the darkness and his young smile was luminous as he threw his blankets awkwardly with his off arm.

 

Willamina mashed the throttle and her Jeep shot ahead in the dark.

It wasn't far to the Sheriff's office and it wasn't far from there to the Spring Inn.

There hadn't been much trouble there for quite some time, but Jelly died of a heart attack right after he hit a small jackpot on the lottery -- Willamina held his hand as the squad raced toward the hospital with the barkeep on board, EKG leads and IVs in place, and Willamina made herself as small as possible as the medics did their job and did it well.

It hadn't helped.

Jelly squeezed her hand and looked up at her and said, "Murphy really sucks, doesn't he?" and she smiled and said "Yeah," because she honestly didn't have the voice to say anything else, and the irascible old Italian coughed and his eyes dilated and he was gone.

Willamina pulled back while the medics started CPR and hit him with the paddles and did their level best, she helped offload the cot from the rig and she waited outside the ER while they gave him every chance, and it hadn't helped.

All this went though the Sheriff's mind as she streaked through the darkness toward the blocky little beer joint.

Whoever you all are, she thought, I am not happy with you!

 

Jacob laughed as he looked down and found he was fully dressed -- just like last time! he thought, the delicious tickle of adventure teasing his gut, the way it did when he was about to jump out of the loft into a pile of hay.

He wore his flannel lined winter jeans and somehow he knew he was wearing his red Union suit, the one with the trap door in back, he was in a flannel shirt and another over top that, and his coat, and the neatest pair of fur lined mittens! -- he reached up and grinned again as he realized he was wearing a fur hat with ear laps, and he blinked and looked around, because his boots were suddenly halfway to his shins in snow and he was in a little brush screen, being pushed to his knees by the blanket-coated figure to his side.

He moved his arm experimentally, looked up with delight, opened his mouth to exclaim happily that his shoulder worked, and Sarah's finger pressed against his lips, her eyes smiling as she looked at him.

She pressed him down into the weeds and the light brush, then quickly scooped snow over him -- just enough, he knew, to break his outline, just enough to confuse the eye, just enough to blend with weeds and light brush and what few rocks thrust up through the deep snow.

Sarah crouched beside him, her hand between his shoulder blades, and he heard her whisper, but he was watching her face and her lips did not move and her mouth did not open.

He heard her in his mind.

Watch, came the whisper, and with it, the knowledge of where to watch.

He turned his eyes, but only his eyes, and he saw movement.

His breath caught and his eyes went waaay wide, because he'd never, ever seen an elk, a real genuine elk! -- he'd seen one on a distant mountain, once, through his Mama's binoculars, but here they came and it wasn't just an elk, the whisper in his mind didn't use words but he knew what it said anyway --

He saw their snow-flecked legs, their bright hooves, he heard their ankles click as they walked, he saw the breath from their moist muzzles.

Sarah flattened herself in the snow, her hand gripping her weapon, a weapon fashioned with her own hands at the direction of an old master of the mountains.

She waited, and he waited with her.

They were less than eight feet when they passed ... a bull and two cow elk, the cows with calves, ungainly looking and kind of awakward, and Jacob was surprised that they looked so wild and so angular, and he was just as surprised that he didn't have any impulse at all to try to pet them.

He felt Sarah beside him and she hadn't moved but he felt her nonetheless and he felt her muscles surge with adrenaline, the roar of bottled up power that sings through the great cats in that bright moment just before they leap, all claws and teeth.

Sarah waited for the smaller bull elk, the one with the nice rack, the young and tender one.

Jacob knew she was fast but he didn't have any idea anyone could get up from on their belly and rear back and drive a hand-thrown spearshaft -- she was a blur and the young bull shied at the movement and suddenly a hardwood shaft stuck out of his chest behind his foreleg and he snorted and took two crow-hop leaps and fell, struggled, bleeding from the nose, and thrashed a little and then lay still.

The other elk took off and disappeared.

Jacob started to get up, all excited, ready to run over and seize the quarry, and Sarah's hand was hard on his arm: he looked at her and she shook her head no, and they waited.

Jacob waited until this remarkable woman gutted the carcass and cut it up, wrapped the quarters in canvas and lashed them down on the packsaddle: she had to address the packhorse sternly, for the skittish equine did not like the smell of fresh blood.

Jacob walked with her back into Firelands, wading through the snow, and he was a little surprised he didn't get tired.

Maybe it's because my arm is okay now, he thought, and he felt her mind-whisper that he was right, and somehow he knew if he walked from here to what his Mama called the Mr. and Mrs. Sippi River, that he wouldn't get tired.

Dreams are funny things and it was like either time or distance kind of bent underfoot.

One step he was in the mountains, and the next he was in Firelands, but it wasn't home Firelands, it was that other Firelands, and his stomach shrank a little as he looked over to where Aunt Sarah cold cocked the fellow he shot.

Different time, Sarah's mind-whisper said, and he relaxed.

He didn't have a sling to hide the bulldog .44 in, and anyway his Mama hadn't let him keep the Bulldog in his room, which disappointed him , but he was raised to obey and so all he said was "Yes, Mama," and offered no protest.

You know I would have found a way, the mind-whisper came, and the mind-whisper laughed a little when Jacob turned on her -- his body was looking straight ahead as they walked, but inside he turned to show her a rebellious face.

 

 

Willamina pulled up in front of the Spring Inn.

A chair came through the front window and there was the general confusion that every barfight sounds like.

She saw lights approaching and she knew the Cavalry was on its way.

She reached into the passenger seat and seized her Great-Great-Granddad's double gun by the checkered wrist.

 

The front door opened outward, which it had to under law, but when it opened it SLAMMED open and several who were near the entrance stopped to look.

A slender woman in black jeans and black boots, a black shirt and vest and a black coat and broad-brimmed hat, stood in the doorway with a double barrel shotgun across her arm and a pair of pale, penetrating and very unhappy eyes stood.

For a moment she just stood there, a work of art framed in the doorway, then she brought the double gun from across her arm, wiped both hammers back to full stand and stepped across the threshold.

One fellow started to reach for her and she yanked the front trigger and BOOOOOM a blackpowder load drove the shot swarm through the ceiling and into the steel plate she knew Jelly kept in the attic specially for her.

The general effect of a blackpowder load, fired indoors, is nothing short of spectacular.

The concussion is at once felt, and heard: it's like being punched inside your chest while a giant slaps both your ears.

The flash of a working charge of 2F, as well, is much brighter when confined inside a room, and the instant fog of war rolling against the ceiling generally brings a good old fashioned knock down bar fight to a shocked halt.

Willamina kicked the nearest man in the gut, a fast side-snap that doubled him over, and when someone broke a beer bottle and thrust toward her, she leveled the shotgun and drove an ounce of swan shot through his middle.

She thumbed the lever, jerked the gun and dunked in two more, snapped the action closed and wiped her thumbs across the hammers.

Two charges from a fighting shotgun by a woman with ice-pale eyes, the sight of a man doubled over and thrown back with his guts blown out his back, and the barfight was over.

Behind her, JW Barrents filled the doorway, his 870 coming into battery loud in the shocked silence: in the face of their pale-eyed Sheriff and their wooden-faced chief deputy, all hostility ceased.

Absolutely, teetotally, with no doubt a'tall, ceased.

 

Jacob watched as the man in an immaculate and old-fashioned suit swept up Sarah's hand and kissed the backs of her fingers in a gentlemanly manner.

Jacob blinked in surprise, because she wasn't the grown-woman Sarah anymore, she was young.

Very young.

I'm twelve, the mind-voice whispered.

Jacob remembered later the man was European ... German, he thought, the Count something-or-another, and he watched as the obviously well-bred man examined the elk's head and antlers with a huntsman's eyes, nodding to himself: he turned to Sarah and remarked with admiration on her youth, and inquired what rifle such an accomplished huntress would use.

Sarah untied her flint tipped spear, and the two discussed at length the technique for knapping the native obsidian into a working blade.

Jacob remembered they talked for some good length of time, and the German described how she could take a crosscut saw and cut into the skull and let it dry -- this could be mounted, and somehow he knew that in his own day it would be called a "European mount."

At the moment, though, he watched as the dignified German reached up and touched the sprig of evergreen in her hat, the evergreen that had been dipped in the elk's blood.

"Vadsmannheil," he whispered, and Jacob knew this was ... that this meant a great respect.

 

It was late and very late before Willamina finally got to bed.

Her last thought before going to sleep was to heartily damn that stupid soul who broke a beer bottle and came at her with its jagged end forward.

Her Great-Great-Grandfather wrote something in his several Journals about wanting to have the Witch of Endor resurrect particularly offensive souls so he could not only pound the stuffing out of them, but afterward, beat them plumb to death with his bare hands, and in that moment, Willamina wished most heartily she could take a singletree to the offensive scoundrel that caused her so much paperwork and deprived her of her good rest.

 

Jacob clutched Sarah's arm as the universe twisted under him again, and they stood in the Silver Jewel as Jacob knew it.

Sarah smiled as she looked around, and Jacob looked around as well.

He looked up at the antlers over the bar, then looked at his Aunt Sarah with big and wondering eyes.

She smiled down at him, and he heard the mind-whisper again.

Yes, he heard.

Those are the antlers.

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16. CRANKY OLD LADY

Willamina lay awake what little of the night was left.

She generally did when she had to kill someone.

She did not take life lightly.

She came too close to losing her own, more times than one, and she'd been with too many people -- both good folk and bad -- at the moment they left this earth.

She knew how permanent death was and she herself did not take life for granted.

She knew as she lay in her own bed, as she wore warm and soft flannel, as she lay under sun dried bedcovers, that the man she killed -- no matter how much he deserved it, no matter that he was assaulting a law enforcement officer, deadly weapon in hand -- that man would never feel anything again, he would never know the sting of whiskey, the coolness of a good beer, coffee in the morning nor the sight of a glorious sunrise.

She would have to testify, she would be obliged to defend her actions in court proceedings that could stretch ten years and more, a decision she made in the space of half a heartbeat, and she knew people would debate her decision while they sat relaxed and under no stress, not in the heat of a barfight surging and roaring around her like an angry sea.

And none of them had the jagged end of a beerbottle bottom coming at them at a rapid velocity.

Her hand lay in her husband's, and she drew strength from that simple human touch, she drew reassurance from this most basic contact.

She lay there staring at the ceiling until it was time to get up.

 

Sleep will come to the wakeful, though they may not realize it; dreams seize the tangled emotions and yank them straight with a snap, then release them to become even more tangled, and so it was that Swiftrunner, the bearer of dreams,slipped into this nocturnal sanctum and visited his magic upon the wide-eyed and staring Sheriff.

A pinch of dream-dust, perhaps, or maybe that was just the woman's imagination, but somewhere in the brief time she had to lay warm and silent in her own bunk, she slept just a little, just a little, and the Dreambringer caressed the tense woman's hair and whispered stories in her ear, for that is how dreams come to us.

She was a girl at home again, a girl alone in their two-story house back in Ohio.

She was immersed in her homework when a sound -- sharp, unexpected -- yanked her attention from the warm, blue Mediterranean Sea and ancient Greece, and back to the empty house.

She listened, mouth open, her chest tightening a little.

A click, kind of a hiss, like ...

Like a window opening.

Someone is breaking in!

Her Daddy was not a week dead, buried with ceremony and with honors and her mother brought the folded flag home and put it in the trash can out back.

Willamina slipped out late and rescued it, secreted it in her bedroom.

Her Mama didn't find the shotgun and the gunbelt and badge Willamina purloined and concealed, either.

It was the shotgun Willamina most wanted.

Her Daddy loved doing things with his little girl, and Willamina loved it when her Daddy spent time with her, and he'd shown her how to shoot, and she'd proven surprisingly skilled -- so much so that they went through a box of bird shot shells for the twelve gauge, and he'd hugged her and called her his Princess.

He'd shown her the trick of snapping the comb of the buttstock up into her armpit -- "high tuck" he called it -- and he had her hitting paper plates at across-the-kitchen distances, and now ... now that she slipped out of the hated patent-leather, little-girl slippers her mother made her wear, now that she skipped across the landing from her room into what used to be her parents' bedroom and now was only her mother's room, she looked fearfully down the stairs.

A stranger was looking up at her.

"Well hello, pretty thing," a voice called, and Willamina felt fear seize her: she tasted copper and felt cold claws close on her guts and she really, really had to go potty, but she made for the closet, the closet with the hidden corner, and she grabbed the ribbed fore end on the Winchester shotgun and brought it out, and suddenly her hands knew what to do and she walked calmly out of the bedroom and onto the landing and the man was at the top of the stairs.

"Now what's a little girl like you doing with --"

She snapped the comb up into her armpit and clamped down hard on it, she yanked the model 12's fore end back, hard, slammed it shut, and for the first time in her young life she felt her face go pale and she felt the flesh tighten over her cheek bones and she did not know it but her eyes were no longer a light blue.

For the first time in her life, Willamina Keller, sixteen years of age and the daughter of a murdered police officer, looked at a criminal over the barrel of a policeman's shotgun ... looked at a criminal with cold eyes, hard eyes, ice-pale eyes that resembled the frozen heart of a mountain glacier.

There is a universal language spoken by a shotgun slamming into battery, a language understood by all but the most determined of miscreants: Willamina watched as the man's eyes changed, as his pupils dilated, as his eyes went wide, as he turned and stumbled and half-ran, half-scrambled back down the stairs and he made for the window he'd lock-slipped with a steel ruler, and she heard the bushes crush a little as the intruder dove headfirst to the safety of the outdoors.

Willamina called the police, and her mother came home smelling of alcohol and another man's cologne to find two cruisers parked in front of the house and reporters, neighbors and other forms of unwanted attention at her doorstep.

She'd insisted the police take that hated shotgun (filthy thing! it belonged to her late husband!) -- she'd waited until they left, then she took a razor strop to her daughter and called her a whore and a slut and a tramp and a wastrel for tempting a strange man into their home and then changing her slutty little mind and claiming he was an intruder, and she punctuated her adjectives with hard swings of the strop.

Willamina did not go to school the next day.

It was not possible for her to sit on a hard wooden school seat with her welted back and bottom and thighs.

All this she dreamed, and lived it in what felt like real time, and her eyes swung over to the clock's glowing face, and the red numbers told her six minutes had passed.

I was alone and I had no adult to keep me safe, she thought.

Had my mother been there she would likely have rented me out for the price of a bottle of booze, damn her!

She thought of Jacob, asleep across the landing, safe and warm in his own bed, and she remembered his skill with the little Bearcat, and his declaration that he wanted to soot his Grampa's revolver.

Grant me, O God, she thought, that my son is never as helpless and abandoned as I was!

 

"Mama?" Jacob asked, and Willamina straightened from her inspection of Cannonball's cinch.

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Mama, how long til my shoulder is healed?"

Willamina smiled, swung into the saddle, looked over at her mounted son.

"The doctor said three to twelve weeks, Jacob. You can't hurry these things."

"I know," he said in a discouraged voice, dropping his eyes -- Willamina smiled a little as she noticed his long eyelashes, a girl's eyelashes, and she made a mental note never, ever to tell him that, for one of her first-grade classmates cut his off with his blunt nose scissors because a neighbor told him he had girl's eyelashes.

"Jacob," Willamina said, and he heard something change in her voice.

"Yes, Mama?"

"Jacob, you said you'd like to shoot your Grampa's revolver."

His face lit up like a hundred watt bulb. "Yes, Mama!"

"Tonight."

His grin was broad as two Texas townships.

 

Hiram waved the Sheriff into his sanctum.

It smelled of oil and of wood smoke, of molasses twist tobacco and just the barest hint of whiskey.

"Take a look at this, Sheriff," Hiram said, and she heard satisfaction in the white-bearded old gunsmith's voice.

He stepped back from the gunstock he had in the vise, motioned to the illuminated magnifier.

Willamina looked through the lens at the man's work, stared, frowned and stared some more, studying the symmetrical, gently curving lines.

She whistled.

"Niiiiice," she murmured. "Not one single skip, slip or over run." She looked up, admiration in her expression and respect in her voice. "I've tried checkering and it is not easy!"
"No it ain't," Hiram agreed, smiling; he spat into an old dynamite box he used for his trash can, rolled his chaw into his palm, tossed it after the spit, picked up a clear bottle of something amber. "Drink?"

"Sounds good."
He shook the bottle, frowned, wiggled out the cork, sniffed: he frowned, stoppered it, replaced it on his bench and reached for an identical bottle behind it.

This one passed inspection.

Willamina sniffed, took a snort, ran it over her gums, savoring the taste, appreciating the sting: she handed it back, swallowed, felt it glow gently all the way down.

"Now that," she said, "is sippin' likker!"

"A buddy of mine brought me that." Hiram took a tilt, corked the bottle, set it back on the bench, then he turned out the light on the magnifier. "My eyes is about crossed from lookin' through that thing!"

"I can believe it!" Willamina agreed. "That is close and tedious work!"

She looked over at the bench.

The Victory model Smith was still there.

"Hiram, do you reckon there's any way I could talk you out of that-there old gun?"

Hiram eased himself into what used to be the driver's seat, harvest twenty years before from a defunct school bus and mounted on timbers for stability.

"Oh," he said, rolling his shoulders forward and then back, "I reckon we might."

Willamina eased herself into a rocking chair she knew was well older than she was.

"Likely you heard about the shootin' last night."

Hiram shook his head, frowning a little.

Willamina laughed and Hiram looked at her with knowing eyes: he rose, walked across the shop and out the door.

She heard the refrigerator open, then shut, and Hiram came back in with two beers.

He twisted off the cap, handed her one, twisted off the other and paced methodically back to his own seat.

"Killin' is dry work," he said. "Did he deserve it?"

Willamina nodded, her eyes quiet-looking, calm.

"Yes."

Hiram raised his bottle in salute, and Willamina raised hers.

"To a cranky old lady," he said, "who can speak the language they understand."

They drank.

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17. THE YOUNG

The Old Sheriff dipped his steel-nib pen in good India ink.

He wiped the excess on the inside of the inkwell's neck, considering, then began to write.

I find being a grandfather is much to my taste.

My young are from infants to the age Jacob was when he came to me.

I find them all delightful.

He stopped, leaned back, letting his mind relax a little, letting it expand, letting it sort through many memories, may good memories.

Jacob and Annette came out with their family.

I don't know who was the more delighted.

The children, laughing and running around the quilt spread on the floor and climbing and wooling and mauling Mount Grampa, or ol' Grampa, laying on the floor laughing like a damned fool.

He smiled just a little, a smile that barely spread from the corners of his eyes: it was a memory, and a good memory, and he could very nearly feel the absolute joy that was the wiggle-and-hug of a little child in his arms.

Lightning and his wife Daciana came to visit as well, and they brought a picnic lunch that could have fed a team of thrashers.

We had much good talk and the house was as I remembered it.

I remember laughter and I remember Esther.

He stopped, staring sightlessly through his rolltop desk, remembering his wife, how she felt in his arms, how she smelled, he remembered ...

Most especially, he remembered her laughs ...

Her gentle laugh, her polite laugh, her genuine laugh, the laugh she had when she first held a grandchild, the laugh when she was bundled up in his arms and he whispered a confession how he'd managed to make himself a damn fool yet again.

He took a long breath, closed his eyes, opened them again.

Daciana would have been hanged as a witch in an earlier age.

He smiled grimly and decided not to add that Esther would have, as well, and for the same reason.

Daciana told me my words would be read by the young of my line, and she bade me write of the day, and so I do.

My son Jacob took a cloth and slung his son Joseph's arm up, as if it were hurt, and we two taught Joseph to run a sixgun with his off hand.

Young Joseph learned very quickly to tuck a second revolver in his sling.

He found he preferred one of old Grampa's revolvers for his hideout, and so I handed him my left-hand Colt.

My grandson acquitted himself very well indeed.

I am proud of him.

The Old Sheriff smiled again and to this final line he added, I have never hesitated to tell someone that I am proud of them, and I spoke thus to my grandson.

I could not have pleased the lad any more had I given him a gold double eagle.

 

Another century, another of the Keller line, another set of hands turned the ancient pages, turned them carefully and with the respect due their status in the household.

Another young man named Jacob, this one with an arm in a sling, read the carefully scribed words, absorbing their content, engraving them on his young mind.

His free hand drifted down to the revolver on his left belt.

His Mama entrusted him with the firing of her father's revolver, the Victory model Smith & Wesson her father carried as a duty pistol, and then she opened a fleece lined gun case to reveal another one, another Victory Model, and she bade him try this one.

He did.

He fired his Mama's hand loads and he drove six holes in the coffee can, thumb cocking the hammer for each shot, and then she set up a silhouette and showed him how to fire with a single trigger stroke.

The action was smooth and easy and her nine year old son had no difficulty cycling the glass smooth action and Willamina blessed that old gunsmith for his efforts, for as good as her father's revolver was, the one her son fired one-handed had it beat seven ways from Sunday.

He tried it twice with the cylinder empty, he punched the gun muzzle at the big, close-up silhouette's middle, pulled the trigger as he did, and then Willamina added a half-dozen butter-soft, hollow-base-wadcutter handloads and said, "Earplugs, and try now."

He did.

Willamina knew hits count, and she knew the young need immediate gratification, and she knew her son was immediately gratified at the sight of those clean round holes appearing in the middle of the close-up silhouette.

Jacob's grin was broad and genuine as he allowed his Mama to take the empty revolver.

He watched as she worked her magic -- he'd long admired how easily she could reload a double action revolver, her hands ran the machine of their own accord -- the empties were not yet stopped bouncing on the ground before she had the action closed, the revolver reloaded, ready to go again.

She slid the revolver into what he knew was a Jordan holster, fastened the strap-over, slid it on a band new belt, then knelt before him and said, "Arms up."

His eyes went big as she reached around him, snugged the gunbelt in place with the left hand holster hanging just in line with his armpit: her tongue stuck just a little from even, white teeth as she wiggled the belt, made fast the buckle, slapped his filled holster.

"Well, Tiger," she said, kneeling before her son, looking him in the eye, "how does your new revolver suit you?"

Neither laughing mother nor beaming father had to caution their son as to safety, storage or use: before he was big enough to understand what they were telling him, they made sure they told him about guns and their use, when to and when not to: he grew up with a loaded gun in most corners of the house, hung on a rack, holstered from a bedpost.

They were as common an item as furniture in the house, and just as ordinary; there was nothing of the forbidden or the mysterious, and as soon as he was able, he was shooting with dear old Dad or with his patient, quiet-voiced Mama, and he learned almost from the cradle how to handle and how to use, and when to not handle and when to not use.

On this day, with his father's approving hand on his shoulder, with his good arm around his Mama's neck and her arms around him, young Jacob Keller could have just busted open with delight and youthful pride, for his Pa was proud of him and his Mama was trusting him.

She was trusting him -- she was trusting him! --, and she whispered the words in his ear as she knelt and held him, whispered the same words he'd read in his Great-Great-Granddad's hand-written Journal:

She said that she was proud of him.

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18. SHE THINKS I'M A TROUBLEMAKER

Most of the passengers in the Z&W's unusually well appointed passenger car were wearing what they might call "modern day dress."

There were groups, and sometimes individuals, who came attired in the raiment of the mid-1800s; some few took pains to research their subject well and dressed authentically, others made an effort using what might be called the "Asbestos Method" -- they attired themselves as-best-as they could, given their level of research and availability of resources.

Rarely -- occasionally, but rarely -- were there folk that might be called "steampunk" -- but among all of these and without exception was one unfailingly common element among all:

They were courteous and more than happy to teach any who asked, about what they wore, and who they were, and something about their "persona," or the identity they'd crafted.

As a matter of fact they generally presented as if that was their real name.

Occasionally a private car was added to the Z&W's lashup, and so it was today, the private car the Sheriff had immaculately and very authentically restored, down to the Judge's desk and his humidor and a handful of fresh Cuban hand-rolled cigars ... with a sliver of apple in the lid of the humidor, to keep just the right humidity for the tobacco.

There were those distinguished guests who appreciated a truly good smoke, and these guests had spoken very approvingly of this thoughtful touch.

Today, though, the Judge's desk was missing, and in its place was a worktable and a treadle sewing machine, and nobody knew this at first.

When the tourists scrambled and clambered happily aboard, they found a young woman already in possession of one of the upholstered seats in the passenger car, a young woman wearing a drab, mousy-grey dress with a touch of lace at the throat and cuffs, a young woman with her hair drawn up in a severe schoolmarm's walnut and a pencil thrust through it, a young woman with her round-lens spectacles halfway down her nose as she quietly regarded the small book she was reading.

A tour bus offloaded at the depot and the tourists delighted in the restored dock and telegraph office, and a young man in a green eyeshade and sleeve-garters sorted busily through telegraph forms and occasionally reached over to grip the round black button of his telegraph key and tap out a message, echoed in the clickity-click of his sounder, then he bent his head a little to his work as the reply clattered back at him.

It was not necessary to purchase tickets: they were already destined to ride the Z&W through some genuinely spectacular territory, and when the uniformed conductor bawled "Boooard! All 'booooard!" and smiling porters placed the wood-and-cast-iron steps in place, the passengers happily swarmed aboard the passenger car, followed by the conductor, who strolled officiously down the aisle, stopping and turning at its end and giving his rote-memory lecture about the Z&W, its origin, the reason for its logo of three roses with crossed and ribbon-tied stems.

The young woman in the drab McKenna schoolmarm dress was not troubled by this surrounding disturbance.

A young girl slipped in between her knees and the next seat, plopped down beside her, "Hi! Whatcha doin'?" she asked brightly with the infectious smile of the charming young, and the schoolteacher delicately placed a playing card for a bookmark, closed the book and smiled at the girl.

"I am traveling to Cripple Creek," she said gently, and the little girl's eyes widened as she saw how pale the woman's eyes were as they smiled at her over the round lens glasses.

"Are you the Sheriff?" she asked in a tone reserved for addressing rock stars or Popes, and the woman laughed gently, placing gentle fingertips on the back of the girl's hand.

"Goodness, no," she laughed. "Do you mean the Firelands sheriff, the one with pale eyes?"

The girl nodded, still not convinced that she wasn't in the presence of someone famous she'd only heard about.

The proper young woman crooked the child nearer with a bent finger, lowered her head to share a confidence: "You must mean my twin sister," she whispered, "but please don't tell her I'm here."

"Why not?" the child blinked, surprised.

The proper young woman reached up to touch the pencil in her hair as if reassuring herself it was still there, and she laughed quietly.

"I'm afraid," she said sadly, "she thinks I'm a troublemaker."

"Oh," the child said. "Why?"

"My name is Sarah," the woman said, extending a hand, and the girl shook it awkwardly. "I'm Cathy."

"Very pleased to meet you, Cathy."

"That is a very pretty dress," Cathy said, tilting her head a little.

"Do you like it? This is a McKenna original." She smiled again, a warm, genuine smile. "Would you like to learn how to make it?"

"Oh, yes!"

"Is your mother with you?"

The girl nodded.

The pretty young woman stood. "Have her come too."

The conductor touched his cap-brim as Sarah came past him, and continued his presentation, ignoring the schoolmarm and the two passengers as they passed out the door behind him, and across the platform, and into the private car.

The other passengers -- those in front, those who could see through the windows -- watched as the mother and the daughter and the pretty young woman went to the work-table in the front of the car: their attention was divided between the magnificent scenery, the conductor's presentation, and the sight of a little girl being measured, material cut, measured again, material sewn: there were those watching who knew fabric and knew dressmaking, and they admired the ease with which obvious experience turned cloth unrolled from a bolt, into a proper gown for a proper young lady.

It took almost the entire trip from the Firelands depot to the Cripple Creek destination, where the tour bus waited patiently to take the tourists to their next destination, one of the gold mines of the area, and as they disembarked, a little girl in a proper gown (and a grin on her face) disembarked holding her Mama's hand, and with a rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow.

The mother waited until the conductor climbed down the steps, then thanked the man for the kindness of the individual who took such an interest in her daughter, and who worked such remarkable magic in sewing up an absolutely lovely dress in such a short time.

The conductor looked puzzled. "Excuse me, ma'am," he said, "whhhere exactly did she ... do this?"

"There," the mother smiled, pointing to the private car, "and she used a treadle machine instead of an electric sewing machine! My grandmother had one and it was so very good to see one again!" And with a smile and a wave, she and her daughter joined the other tourists climbing onto the tour bus.

The conductor removed his cap and scratched his thatch, then turned to one of the porters, pointed.

"Was anyone in the private car today?"

The porter shook his head, frowning. "No, Boss, it's locked like always."

"Check it."

The porter took a long step up, climbed to the private car's platform, tried the door.

"No, Boss, she's locked."

"Is anything out of place inside?"

The porter cupped his hands, looked through the slightly wavy glass, studied the interior.

"No, Boss, the Judge's desk is right there. Say, can a man get one of those see-gars I see in there?"

"There's no sewing machine?"

"Sewin' machine?" The porter laughed. "Boss, ain't no sewin' machine in there!"

The porter turned as the bus pulled away and waved at a smiling mother and a little girl holding a rag doll, and as he stared, the pretty young woman in the long grey dress passed him and murmured, "Maybe it was a ghost," and then she was around the corner, and gone.

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19. NO SERVICE

"You're sure about this, Boss?" Barrents asked quietly.

"Nope," Willamina said, "but I'm going to find out."

"The usual signal?"

She nodded, studied the ranch house through her binoculars.

"Boss, this doesn't feel right."

"Sure doesn't," she agreed. "I am not at all sure this is the right location."

Barrents stopped, looked at the Sheriff like she had a fish sticking out of her shirt pocket.

"The address on the warrant and the address on the house don't match."

Barrents turned his own binoculars on the mailbox and read the numbers, swore.

"I am not going to kick someone's door unless I am double-damned-sure it's the right location. Now is there any doubt at all this is the right road?"

Anyone else might have taken offense at such a question, but Barrents knew the Sheriff and he knew her question -- this same question -- while she was Sheriff some years ago, kept them from raiding an absolutely innocent rancher's place. Since that time, he'd learned to listen to her instinct and to look deeper than what may seem like an insulting question.

Barrents mentally compared the road name on the warrant with the sign post the'd passed earlier. "I believe it is, Boss."

"I'm not." She wiggled back, rose, turned to the Blazer: she opened the heavy back door, opened the big red and white Igloo cooler, reached in and brought out a six pack of long necks.

Barrents stared. "How --?"

Willamina smiled. "Watch and learn, weedhopper," she smiled. "The usual signal."

He nodded, once, worked his scoped rifle into a comfortable position: he was already set up in a sniper's hide, he had a straight shot to the ranch house, the bunk house and the nearest of two barns.

Willamina went to her Jeep, set the six-pack on the front seat, climbed behind the wheel.

Barrents followed her with the lower part of his riflescope, keeping the ranch house in view.

 

Willamina pulled up right in front of the front door, climbed out with beer in hand, slammed her door with a total lack of caution, climbed the three rickety steps and beat on the door with the heel of her fist.

Barrents knew exactly where his boat tail bullet would hit at that distance: the air was still, she was no more than 120 yards from him, easy shot --

Willamina smiled as the door opened. "Hi!" she greeted the suspicious-faced man with a broke brim hat and a day's stubble. "I need your advice" -- she held up a longneck -- "but it's not polite to ask without a drink. Beer?"

Barrents saw the surprise on the man's face, and he accepted the beer, turned a little and used the door's brass striker plate as a bottle opener.

The two of them talked for a few minutes.

Willamina set the carton down on the man's step and talked with her hands as much as with her words, and Barrents saw the man nod, thrust his chin in one direction, then he switched his beer bottle from one hand to another and used his now-free hand to point to the distance, tracing something with his finger and his eyes, and Barrents saw Willamina nod.

She stooped a little and picked up the carton, stuck out her other hand and the two shook: she handed him the beer and said something more, and Barrents saw the man grin and nod, then he withdrew and closed the door, and Willamina skipped back to her Jeep.

He saw her hand at stomach level give a quick horizontal flick -- and his jaw thrust out slowly as something twisted up his belly.

This wasn't the place.

They wouldn't serve the warrant at all.

Willamina passed his location, behind a little rise, hidden from the ranch house, motioned him to follow: he and the other deputies fell in behind their boss's Wrangler, and the little procession returned to the Sheriff's office.

 

Jacob's teacher motioned him to her desk, and Jacob slid off his chair and walked quietly up the aisle, stopping beside her as she turned in her chair.

She bent down and spoke quietly, so only he could hear her: his paper was in her hands.

"Jacob," she said gently, "we don't teach cursive anymore."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You have absolutely the loveliest handwriting."

"Thank you, ma'am. My Mama taught me."

"Your Mama taught you very well," Mrs. Shaver smiled. "I wish I'd been able to write this well when I was your age!" She traced her fingertips across the paper, then placed it on her desk, picked up her red pencil and firmly, clearly, wrote the letter A in its top right hand corner.

She handed it to the solemn-faced boy waiting patiently beside her chair.

"Show this to your Mama," she said, her eyes bright and full of pride. "You earned that A, and you should be proud!"

"Thank you, ma'am," Jacob grinned. "Will that be all, ma'am?"

"Yes, Jacob. That will be all."

"Yes ma'am."

Jacob turned and walked quietly back to his seat.

Mrs. Shaver, watching his retreating backside, marveled at how his tread in well-polished cowboy boots could be so absolutely silent, when the other boys all wore sneakers and moved with as much stealth as a buffalo on a dance floor.

Jacob looked at his paper and he felt the corners of his eyes tighten up in a smile he wasn't about to let any farther out on his face.

He turned and carefully folded the paper and placed it in his saddlebag.

 

A century before, another lad in a nearby schoolhouse stood red-eared and quiet as his pale-eyed Pa listened carefully to the pale-eyed schoolmarm.

This time Jacob was the father, and wore the six point Sheriff's star, and his son's name was Joseph, but the message was the same:

The teacher spoke with pride of how well the student had done, and the father was pleased to hear this glowing report.

 

Outside, a black, curly-furred animal slightly smaller than a Shetland pony lay against the brickwork near the glass double doors, warm and content in the afternoon sun.

Parents were lining up outside to pick up their young, school buses groaned quietly past the line of waiting cars, stopped at their appointed locations, and through this moving confusion a pale-eyed woman in a flannel shirt and blue jeans rode a good-looking copper mare between the rows of metallic conveyances, leading a saddled, light-stepping Appaloosa.

A bell rang, the glass doors powered open, and the happy, yelling, laughing, screeching, running, stumbling, waving surge of youthful exuberance sprayed from the doors as the huge canine rose from his nap and yawned, stretching, for all the world like a great cat, yawning with jaws impossibly wide and impossibly impressive, his arm-thick tail happily slapping the bricks as children fearlessly caressed his shining, healthy coat -- "Hi, Bear Killer!" came from many young throats, and the great and regal mountain dog accepted the adulation as his just due, blinking slowly with his laughing tongue panting out a little.

Jacob flowed out with the happy stream, saddlebags over his good shoulder, swimming in the stream like a fish in water: he moved easily with them and through them and seized his boon companion in a one-armed hug the way he always did and The Bear Killer grinned a great canine grin and his tail happily pounded the bricks a little faster.

Jacob was obliged to wait until the stream of humanity dissipated enough to allow the janitor to set up his stairs: "Thank you, Mr. Charleton!" Jacob piped, and Tommy Charleton laughed and ruffled Jacob's fine, shining hair and winked at his Mama: Jacob slung the saddlebags in place and then mounted, the steps were drawn away and folded, and The Bear Killer shook himself and trotted happily between the cars and out behind Apple-horse.

They weren't but barely out of town when Jacob spoke up.

"Mama," he said, concern in his voice, "what's wrong?"

Willamina looked quickly over into her son's worried face, then she smiled.

"Does it show?" she asked almost sadly.

He nodded.

Willamina dropped back just a little and moved a little closer and said, "I locked horns with a judge today."

Jacob looked quickly at his Mama. "Yes, ma'am?"

"I refused to serve his warrant."

"Oh."

"I called him and asked him about the address on the warrant and he said it came from a credible source."

"But it wasn't?"

"It could not have been. Jacob, where is Fay Iver Ridge?"

Jacob blinked. "Umm ... that's over ... isn't that close to Criipple, ma'am?"

"Bingo," Willamina said. "Teller County, not Firelands County."

"Well ..." Jacob frowned. "Why'd they ask you to serve it?"

"They thought it was my county."

"Oh."

"And when I called to question the location, the Judge got on the phone and ripped me a new one."

Joseph's head snapped around and he looked at his Mama, his young jaw thrust out.

"He shouldn't do that."

Willamina looked over at the serious young face riding beside her and laughed.

"Jacob," she said, her eyes smiling at her young son, "you are your father's son!"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, puzzled.

"That is exactly what Richard said!"

"He did?"

"Weeeellllll ..." Willamina laughed. "That's what he started with."

"What did you do, Mama?"

Willamina looked at her son again.

"I reminded him it was a felony offense to falsify a legal document, and the document he'd sent me was clearly falsified, and I suggested he may wish to have his people investigate who lied to the judge in an attempt to make him look very incompetent!"

Jacob was silent for several moments.

"Did it work?" he finally asked.

Willamina smiled quietly, a satisfied smile.

"It did. He didn't apologize, but he withdrew the warrant."

"Is that good, Mama?"

Willamina nodded. "Yes, Jacob. That's good."

 

Jacob waited until he could present his paper to both his Mama and his Pa, and his young smile was very broad indeed when both his Mama and his Pa expressed their pleasure with his superior skills.

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