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The Sheriff's Grandson


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20. TEMPER, TEMPER

Willamina walked a few slow paces, her energies contained and building like those in a mountain cat preparing to launch claws, teeth and snarl on the back of an unsuspecting victim.

She wore Marine Corps issue combat boots and fatigue pants, she wore a tank top, she was covered with a light sheen of sweat, and Jacob could see in the cool air of their barn's lower level, she steamed just a little.

Cool, he thought, and wondered if he ever steamed.

Willamina's kick was almost faster than the eye could follow.

It was certainly too fast to be avoided.

She drove her foot into the heavy bag, drove in close and hit it with an elbow forestrike, pulled back, fists up, her eyes pale: the bag swung, swung back, and she reached for it, damped its swing.

She reached out, slow, just kissed it with her knuckles, then drew back again.

Jacob watched with wonder and width admiration as she feinted and kicked again, this time a front-snap -- he knew what the kick was called -- and she backed a few steps, brushed the back of one leather-gloved hand across her nose, then pulled off her gloves and walked over to a hay bale.

She picked up her duty belt, swung it around her lean middle, made fast: Jacob knew the blue gun in her holster was just a block of plastic that only incidentally looked like his Mama's duty pistol, but it was heavy like her real pistol, and he'd watched her practice with it, and she'd taken him to a junkyard one time with him with a class of rookie officers from the Academy, and she demonstrated several really neat moves, like drawing the blue gun and taking it in both hands and punching the muzzle hard into a car's window to bust it.

Willamina picked up a length of shining-dull black aluminum with a side handle and what she called a toilet washer on the end of the handle, and she casually dropped it in the ring on her left side.

It hissed like metal when it dropped into the ring and Jacob held his breath, because he knew it was going to get really good.

It always did when his Mama got mad and she came down here and she started working out with her side handle baton.

Jacob heard his Mama talk about the time she was pulled in for riot duty in a college town, how they'd formed a skirmish line at the Armory end of the street and they pushed "the children" as she called them -- college age, but most of them from out of town -- pushed the crowd the length of the main street, and how if they didn't want to go, they were left lying in the street, in irons, for the cleanup squad to haul off to the hoosegow.

"You never leave a living enemy behind you," she said, "and you never leave an unsecured prisoner behind your line."

He imagined the crowd, being pushed down the street, and in his mind's eye he saw the two or three that squirted up or down the alleys they passed, and how they would bird dog two officers after them.

His Mama stood still, very still, and it seemed to grow very quiet in the barn, and even the light mist of steam rising from his exercise-warmed Mama's flesh seemed to slow, and then she moved.

The baton rang as it seared out of its belt ring, it spun in her hand and hit the heavy canvas with a vicious, meaty thwak! -- his Mama dropped back a step, dropped back in a guard stance, ready to spin-strike or punch with the short end, and she stepped in and punched with the short end and Jacob saw it drive into the heavy canvas.

Sawdust hemorrhaged out the ragged hole she'd just made.

He imagined his Mama, a lone officer bird dogging after two frat boys, so drunk they could barely stand; they fell into one another and one declared drunkenly, "Let'sh go bash a cop," and the other reached down and grabbed the only loose brick in the several miles of brick-paved alleyways, and his Mama thought hard -- there was one of her and two of them, she had one set of cuffs and they were drunk enough to fight her, so she drew her aluminum-sheathed baton, spun it hard against the brick walls to her left and to her right -- clang, clang! -- and then yelled, "I'm the Man from Glad, and you're in the bag!"

Jacob thrilled at the thought of his Mama's bluff working.

The pair turned and ran, and she ran after them, and they dove into the safe haven of the nearest frat house, which slammed its door before the sprinting Officer Willamina could reach it.

This actually suited his Mama fine, she'd told him, because they were inside and off the street, they were causing no trouble as long as they were inside, and the frat boys would welcome a pair of fellow revelers, especially a pair they'd just rescued from the Crossbar Hotel.

Willamina spun the baton, dropped it back in its ring, drew it again, thwak! -- she dropped back, feinted, spun another strike.

This time the overstressed sleeping bag liner failed spectacularly, a rip beginning at the hole she'd punched in it with the baton's short end.

Two-thirds of the bag fell to the floor, fell over, spilled its guts, so to speak, and Willamina stood there and watched it fall and fall over.

She slowly, almost ceremonially, returned the baton to her belt, then she bowed as if to a respected opponent, executed a flawless military about-face and took two steps, stopped.

She turned and looked at her son, hidden in the shadows, thinking himself invisible.

"Don't you have homework?" she smiled, and he scooted.

 

The conductor sat in the Silver Jewel, frowning into his beer.

The engineer set down across from him, a shot of something potent, amber and half-gone in hand.

"Deke said you wanted to ask me something?" Bill said, taking a cautious sip of his amber bore cleaner.

"Yeah." The conductor debated whether to take a drink just yet, decided to wait.

He looked up at the engineer.

"I heard you saw a ghost in the roundhouse."

The engineer looked away, his lips pressed together, and he looked back.

"You know that one car in there -- the one they drug out of that mine shaft. That's the one the Old Sheriff went into and killed all them outlaws, y'know?"

"Yeah, I know. I read the brochures."

"Nah, listen." The engineer extended a finger, pointed at the still-uniformed conductor. "That car gives me the wackadoos, I'm here t' tell ya. I never saw nothin' in that car, I never heard nothin', just knowin' it's there and he stood on the roof, the Old Sheriff and him shot and bleedin' red down his shirt front an' that car rollin' downhill a-trailin' smoke from the gunfight --"

He shivered.

"And that pale eyed son of his and his pale eyed daughter both come in with that same restored inspection car we got in that same roundhouse -- Fitch, you listenin'?"

"Yeah."

"Well hell, the thought of all them outlaws he killed and him ridin' that death car down into the mine drift an' his pale eyed little girl runnin' that inspection car down grade t' push that passenger car int' the mine shaft, an' then they dynamite the drift an' pull up the tracks? An' a century later they dig it out and lay new track and fetch it out and the whole doggone forensics department from the University an' the State Police send their forensics team -- my God, man, that thing, in our roundhouse?" He shivered. "That's enough to conjure ghosts just out of a man's imagination!"

"Hmp." The conductor hoisted his untouched beer, took three long swallows, set it down.

"What do you know," he said slowly, ignoring the foam mustache on his clean-shaven upper lip, "about a sewin' machine in the Judge's car?"

"A sewin' -- whaaat?"

"There was a woman thanked me for the re-enactor who sewed her little girl up a long dress in that car. It was locked when we started and locked when we got to Cripple and locked when we got it back here. I opened it up and went through it and there was no trace off a sewin' machine. No cloth. No scissors or pins or needles or ribbons and " -- he stopped, gripped the beer mug's handle -- "they was no smell of perfume. If there was women in there it would smell like perfume."

The engineer gave the conductor a long, assessing look, knocked back his half-glass of Old Group Tightener, raised a summoning finger for the barmaid.

"Darlin'," he said, "could I trouble you for some water clear, not over thirty days old?"

She winked at him. "We got a fresh batch in this mornin'."

The engineer nodded, handed her a bill, and the conductor drained his beer.

"Could you make that two?"

 

Willamina reached for her flannel shirt.

A movement to her left and she turned, fists up, eyes white and hard, stepped into a punch and drove this unexpected intruder hard enough to turn him inside out with one punch.

Sarah McKenna turned, the punch went past her.

"Damn, girl, you're fast," she said admiringly.

The Sheriff lowered her fists cautiously.

"Don't you ever knock?"

"No." Sarah turned and went over to what was left of the heavy bag.

Nudging the remnant on the floor, she murmured, "You do have a way with words."

"Thanks. What do you want?"

"Direct. I like that. You remind me of me sometimes."

"I can't imagine why."

Sarah's shade laughed. "I'm afraid I've caused some trouble."

"You seem to excel at that, to read accounts of the period."

Sarah waved a gloved hand dismissively. "Penny dreadfuls. Pay no attention to --"

"It was the Judge's own account."

"Oh." Sarah drew her mouth into a moue and placed delicate fingertips to her chin and batted her eyes.

Willamina wanted nothing more than to backhand her a good one.

"Just what kind of trouble have you stirred here in my century?" Willamina asked, buttoning the flannel shirt.

"I ... seem to have ... caused some ... concern."

"Right," Willamina said skeptically. "Since I'm in the basement of an old barn talking with someone who's been dead for a century, why don't you just spill it. What have you done this time, Pale Eyes?"

"That is our name, isn't it?" Sarah said meditatively, then blinked, shook her head. "It seems that I did a little girl a great favor and her mother thanked the conductor for whoever sewed her daughter's lovely dress." She smiled and Willamina was struck by how genuine this one looked. "I even made her a rag doll and made its dress of the same material as hers."

"Wait a minute," Willamina said. "How did you make a dress?"

"I traded the Judge's desk for a treadle Singer, I set up a work table, I measured her and cut cloth and sewed seams -- how else would I make her a proper gown?"

"And just where did you do this?"

"On the Judge's car, of course."

"And just how did you get a sewing machine into the Judge's car?"

Sarah laughed. "Oh, you'd be surprised what I can do when I want to!"

She flowed forward without moving -- must be a ghost thing, Willamina thought -- and to her surprise, Willamina found her wrist seized in a surprisingly strong grip.

She reacted out of training.

She broke the grip out through the thumb, drove her elbow into her attacker's solar plexus, then her boot into the attacker's gut.

Sarah fell back, fell on her backside, landed with a pained gasp.

It took her several minutes to get enough wind in her to admit, "I deserved that!"

"Damned right you did," Willamina snarled. "Do not EVER touch me without my permission!"

"I'll remember that." She closed her eyes, shimmered, flowed into an upright posture. "There," she said, all trace of discomfort gone. "All better." She brushed an imaginary stem of straw from her sleeve, looked at Willamina, respect in her pale eyes. "You hit hard, sister!"

Willamina nodded. "For a ghost you are surprisingly solid."

"It's because you're wearing my knife."

"Your ... oh."

Willamina's hand went to the hilt of the wire-wound, yellowed-ivory handle, the handle with the ornate K engraved in its pommel, the handle attached to the ancient Damascus blade.

"You know, I do admire the way you handle yourself," Sarah said frankly. "You are doing very well raising Jacob. If the opinion of a dead woman is of any value, I am proud of you."

"Thank you." Willamina inclined her head, raised it again.

"And I enjoyed watching you beat the stuffing out of that Judge," Sarah smiled, nodding to the now defunct remains of what was once a homemade heavy bag.

Willamina waited; she knew something cynical had to be following close behind, and she was right.

"All I could think of was admonishing you with 'Temper, temper,' but my father was of the same bent, and I never said that to him."

"Sounds wise," Willamina offered cautiously.

Sarah turned as if to leave.

"Before you go," Willamina called, and Sarah stopped, turned, smiling a little.

"Yes?"

"Tell me about making that little girl's gown."

Sarah smiled.

"What are those little things you hung on the depot platform, up under the roof? Those little tintype things ...?"

"Security cameras?"

"Security," Sarah laughed, fluttering a kerchief as if to dispel an odor. "I understand you can look at their images afterward?"

"I can."

"Look at the ones at the Cripple Creek depot. You'll see the dress there."

Just that quick, she was gone, as if she'd never been.

Willamina glared at the space occupied a moment before by her ancestress's shade, then she drew her baton at fighting speed, slashed viciously at the dangling remnants of the sleeping bag cover.

"I'll temper temper you!" she snarled.

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21. BISCUITS AND GRAVY

Jacob Keller was like any other nine year old boy.

He was noisy, incautious, clumsy, curious, inventive, perpetually hungry and absolutely incapable of standing still, unless the mood was upon him, of course; he liked being the center of attention, and on this occasion he found he very definitely was.

His classmates were running out onto the playground at the top of their lungs, Jacob scampering out with them, for a third-grader released for recess on a spring day inspires a boy to speed, until a yell of pain seized his ear and he stopped, turned, one hand up as if to block or grab.

He saw a classmate on the ground, rolling over on his back, gripping his arm, and a red stream spraying an amazing distance into the air.

Joseph grabbed his sling with his good hand, ripped it over his head, ran for the lad: his shoulder protested as weight came on it again and he ignored it, ignored the shocked, staring children in his way, shoved between them.

He saw a broken Mason jar on the ground and blood on its upturned tines, running thinly down the glass knives, and he saw his classmate's face full of shock and pain and going awful pale.

Jacob saw a piece of glass sticking out of the boy's forearm and he grabbed it, yanked it out, then he wrapped the sling awkwardly around it and squeezed.

Blood soaked through it and fast.

Jacob ran his good hand up the boy's elbow and up his upper arm as the shivering lad lay down on his back, and Jacob rolled the lean bicep out of the way and pushed down with the heel of his hand on the artery beneath: he squeezed desperately with his right hand, then looked around for help.

All he saw was a staring crowd of children.

He needed an adult and fast, and he reacted by doing what his Mama did when there was an injury among the cadets from the academy.

He filled his lungs and threw his head back and screamed, "MEDIIIC!"

 

Willamina picked up her phone. "Sheriff Keller," she said in her professional voice.

"Mama?"

"Jacob?" Willamina's expression was puzzled; her son had never, ever called her from school.

She glanced at the caller ID on her desk unit: it said FIRELANDS LOCAL SD.

Yep, calling from school, and her Mama's intuition told her something was very much not right.

"Mama, please don't be mad, but I'm at the hospital," he said, his voice shaking a little.

"Jacob, are you hurt?" she snapped, rising from her chair, calculating the fastest way to get from here to there.

A voice, not her son's: "Let me talk to her, son," then, "Sheriff Keller?"

"Speaking."

"Sheriff, this is Doctor Sanders, your son is uninjured and he's done nothing wrong."

"Why is he at the hospital?"

Dr. Sanders hesitated.

"Sheriff, you son has quite a grip for a young man his age."

"Grip? As in around someone's throat?"

Dr. Sanders laughed. "No, no, Sheriff, nothing like that. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact, he saved a life today!"

Willamina sat slowly, her brows puzzling together. "He saved a life," she echoed.

"He did. A classmate sustained multiple lacerations to two separate arteries in the distal forearm. Your son saw what was needed and stopped the excessive bleeding."

"I see."

"You don't sound surprised."

"I'm not, Doctor. It sounds as if he reacted according to his training."

"His ... training?" It was the doctor's turn to be surprised.

"Yes, Doctor. People of all ages are injured. My son is trained in a variety of modalities, including basic first aid."

"Then may I congratulate his trainer," Dr. Sanders exclaimed heartily, "for not only did he know to apply direct pressure, he went for the mid-humeral brachial artery with one hand and he applied direct pressure with the other."

"My son is recovering from a dislocated shoulder," Willamina said slowly. "Is he complaining of discomfort, or range of motion deficits?"

This time there was a long silence.

"Sheriff," Dr. Sanders said slowly, "can I get back to you on that?"

"I'm on my way, Doctor."

 

Dr. Sanders studied the pair: the mother in a tailored blue suit dress and heels, and the son in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, cradling one arm with another -- he'd refused the offer of a sling -- he watched as the two embraced, then Jacob drew back a little, and the Sheriff put her fingertip in the middle of his chest and said in a hard and professional voice, "Soldier, report."

Jacob came to attention and heel locked, raised his chin and fixed his eyes on a distant point above and beyond his Mama's head.

"On or about first recess this date," he said as if reciting a rote lesson, "I did observe one male child in distress as expressed by position and by sound.

"Upon inspection I discovered he had sustained a laceration of the right forearm with arterial bleeding.

"In accordance with my training I did proceed to relieve the situation in the following manner."

He took a breath, blew it out, took another, continued.

"I did remove my sling and wrap it around the injury, without good effect.

"Said victim did then fall backwards and I was able to place the heel of my left hand on the upper arm pressure point and I leaned my weight on it and squeezed with my other hand and that did the trick."

Dr. Sanders saw Jacob's eyes drift down to his Mama's eyes, for she was kneeling before her son, listening closely to his words.

"It worked, Mama. It stopped the bleeding. Just like you said it would. Only ..."

"Only what?" she encouraged him quietly.

"Only I shoulda had some Quick Clot stuff with me. I coulda done better."

Willamina laughed and hugged her son again. "I think," she said, her chin hung over his shoulder, "you did just fine!"

 

Jacob was returned to his class, his ears red with all the attention he'd gotten, and he somehow managed to immerse himself again in his lessons.

His classmate, of course, would not rejoin them for several days: he'd had emergency surgery, they had to call in a neuro consult as well as resect the lacerated arteries.

Jacob tried to concentrate on his lessons but it was difficult; his Mama managed to come up with another sling and his arm felt an awful lot better for being supported again, and he fidgeted a little in his seat -- which could be easily forgiven, given that he'd just handled something that might have panicked or nonplussed many adults.

At the final bell, he and his classmates, as usual, surged out of the building, and as usual he swung around to where The Bear Killer was sunning himself.

Jacob was quite subdued as he sat down on the pavement, his good arm around the Tibetan mountain dog's neck, and he leaned into the warm, black fur, drawing comfort from the great beast's presence.

His Mama wasn't there yet so he knew to stand fast until otherwise instructed.

Tom Brown came running over -- "Hiya, Bear Killer!" he greeted the huge canine, and The Bear Killer raised his head and thumped his tail emphatically against the sun-warmed bricks beside him.

"Hey Jacob! Ya wanna be innerviewed? You can tell me what happened an' I'll be the reporter an' we can put it on You Tube!"

"Nah," Jacob said, frowning a little.

"That must hurt," a voice called, and they looked, Tom's phone turning with their heads.

A stranger lounged against the open side door of a white van -- he'd been there all along, like any parent waiting on a child.

The Bear Killer's hair rippled up right and Jacob heard him begin to growl.

"Hey, I got some video games here," the stranger said, casually walking towards them, "and some really good candy if you'd like --"

The Bear Killer stood, fangs bared, his hair standing up the length of his spine and across his shoulders, and the growl came from about ten feet below his chest, a deep, monstrous rumble that brought the man to a wide-eyed stop.

"You can come in and try these games," he said, "but not that dog --"

 

"Firelands Two out at the elementary school."

Will hung up the grey General Electric mike as Sharon's voice came out of the speaker's plastic grille.

"Tell Jacob well done," she said, and he heard the smile in her voice, so he tapped the red push-to-talk button twice and stepped out of the cruiser, settling the eight-point milkman's cap on his head.

He knew this time of day Jacob would be waiting for his Mama, and he knew Willamina was tied up at the office, so he came up to tell his nephew his Mama would be along as soon as she got free, which shouldn't be too long.

Will saw The Bear Killer bristle up and suddenly lunge for some fellow: he crossed fifteen feet like a furry black arrow and the man went over backwards, and Will heard The Bear Killer's snarl and then a terrified yell.

Will ran up and saw The Bear Killer was straddling the man, he saw The Bear Killer's muzzle was an inch from the man's chin, he saw The Bear Killer's eyes were red and his fangs were white and his lips were peeled back and Will decided it was time to take control of the situation.

He drew his revolver and put the barrel in the middle of the man's forehead and thumb cocked the hammer.

"Mister," he said, "my dog does not like you and that means I do not like you."

"Call him off," the man whispered hoarsely. "For God's sake, call him off!"

"Not a chance, fella," Will said. "You've done something bad enough to warrant a police dog taking you down, and that means if you so much as blink hard I pull this trigger. Unless I feel mean, in which case you will be buried in a series of sandwich baggies that smell suspiciously of secondhand dog chow."
"He wanted us to get in that van with him," Tom called.

"Yeah, he said he had neat games and candy!" Jacob added.

Will's eyes were already pale, but they turned an absolute frosty-hard shade as he heard this testimony.

"Mister," he said, "you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent and if you want to live to see sunrise you had damn well better exercise that right!"

 

Willamina put her finger in the center of he son's chest for the second time that day.

When he gave his concise report, he looked at his Mama and added, "I didn't do nothin', Mama. He looked at me and he said that must hurt and he wanted me to get in that van with him!"

"You did the right thing, Jacob," Willamina said quietly, and Jacob heard the fury his Mama was trying to hide in her voice.

"Will got the video tape" -- he pointed to the camera on the side of the building -- "and Tom's phone. He wanted me to ... he wanted to interview me about today an' when that man tried to get us in his van Tommy got it on his phone!"

Willamina was on her knees before her son for the second time that day; she brushed a wisp of hair back from his forehead, nodded.

"You've done well today, Jacob," she said quietly. "I am very proud of you."

Her phone vibrated: frowning, she pulled it out, looked at the screen, tapped the green circle.

"Yeah, Will."

She listened for a few moments and Jacob saw her jaw muscles harden.

"Thank you for letting me know."

She pressed the red button, slid the phone back in her vest pocket, her eyes thoughtful.

"Jacob, I am even prouder of you."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"That was your Uncle Will."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"That man The Bear Killer jumped?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"He's wanted for some pretty bad things." Willamina hugged her son and whispered, "Thank you for listening to me!"

Jacob hugged his Mama, and The Bear Killer came over and leaned against Willamina's back with a companionable muttering groan.

"You did good too," Willamina smiled, ruffling the huge head and rubbing behind his ears, which made him close his eyes and lower his head and give a deep-toned moan which meant he was utterly, absolutely in ecstasy.

"All right, you two," Willamina said briskly, standing. "Biscuits and gravy for everybody!"

"Yay!" Jacob applauded, and The Bear Killer dropped his bottom to the ground, raised his muzzle and gave a yow! of delight.

He knew what the phrase "Biscuits and Gravy" meant, and though he might not have comprehended the term "for everybody" he knew it always meant there was some for him.

There was.

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22. BLACK

Willamina finished rolling out the pie dough when her phone rang.

Jacob looked up, Richard looked up, The Bear Killer looked up.

Willamina flipped her phone open, put it to her ear.

"Keller." Professional voice, distant eyes.

"Which one is he?" she asked, frowning a little. "Is that Don's ... his uncle? I know him."

Her eyes paled and she said in a quiet, controlled voice, "I'll be right in," and snapped the phone shut, dropped it in her pocket.

Willamina placed the rolling pin on the table, reached behind her and jerked savagely at the slip knot, ripped the apron off her head and threw it viciously to the floor.

"I have to go," she said quietly.

Richard took her around the waist, pulled her quickly to him, kissed her with a surprisingly delicate touch, released her.

Jacob watched his Mama almost run upstairs, her step light, quick, and he looked at his Pa, his eyes big and worried.

"Don't worry, bud," Richard said reassuringly. "We'll finish the pie."

"Yes, sir," Jacob said in a small voice.

Richard started opening cupboards, frowning, obviously searching.

The Bear Killer rolled over on his side, licked his chops, biscuits and gravy setting very pleasantly in his belly.

Jacob got up and walked over to the cupboard under the coffee pot, picked up two cans of pie filling. "Pa?" he asked, "do you want peach or apple?"

Willamina came clattering downstairs -- she never came downstairs that noisily unless she was less than happy, and Jacob's hands started to tingle a little and he tasted copper as he saw his Mama was not in her usual, dark-blue tailored suit dress and heels.

She wore a black suit dress and heels.

She never wore that black dress unless someone was dead and she had to go tell the family.

Jacob swallowed and his Pa relieved him of both cans of pie filling.

They watched the door close behind her and they heard the Jeep start and they looked at one another.

"Pa?" Jacob said hopefully, "do you want me to show you how to run the can opener?"

 

A century before, in that same solid built house, another Sheriff wore a black suit and headed out the same door to deliver the fell news that a husband was not coming home.

A wife and a daughter watched him depart, and they looked at one another as the door closed behind his broad shoulders, and then mother and daughter hugged one another, quickly, sharing the knowledge that no man is untouched by the grief he visits upon another, even when he is but the messenger, and they shared the worse knowledge that neither of them could take that grief from the lean old lawman with the iron-grey mustache who kept himself so strong for everyone else, and who carried so much sorrow of his own.

A century before, mother and daughter turned to the kitchen table and together busied themselves making dried-apple pies, while a great black dog snored before the Monarch stove, his belly content with its payload of biscuits and gravy.

 

Willamina drove to the Sheriff's office and strode across the gleaming, polished quartz floor, three inch heels loud on stone, her pace that of a panther, loose and easy and beautifully coordinated and deadly as a viper's bite: beneath her tailored black suit coat, at her right hip, she wore a modern pistol with night sights and laser grips, and under her left armpit its twin, in an old but very comfortable shoulder rig, one she'd had since before she hung a badge on her blouse.

 

The Old Sheriff dismounted from his copper mare and stepped up onto, then across the boardwalk.

He moved with the ease and the grace of a hunting cat, and as he stepped into the Sheriff's office, a matched pair of Colt revolvers at his waist added a welcome balance to his stride.

 

Sharon gave Sheriff Keller the information as she had it, information transmitted over the Sheriff's band radio and gleaned from the fire department and squad traffic, then she handed the Sheriff the note she'd just written, the note she was scratching on her pad with the phone wedged between her ear and her shoulder as the Sheriff pulled up in front of the glass double doors.

 

Jacob Keller, the Sheriff's chief deputy, handed his father the folded telegram he'd just received.

He'd been at the depot when the first report came over the wire, and he sent a runner to summon his father, for he knew what the following message would hold, and he was right.

There were times when he genuinely hated being right, and this was one of them.

The Sheriff unfolded the flimsy, read it, read it again, folded it and placed it carefully in his wallet, then slid the heavy leather wallet back into its inner pocket.

 

Sheriff Keller stepped out into the night and into her Jeep.

Sheriff Keller stepped out the heavy wood door and across the boardwalk and stepped into the saddle.

Sheriff Keller backed her jeep out, eased down on the throttle, accelerated eastward, the taste of ashes between her teeth.

Sheriff Keller gave his red mare his knees and she picked up to a trot, pacing out into the darkness, and the old Sheriff with the iron-grey mustache tasted ashes.

 

"Pa?" Jacob asked. "Do you reckon we'd ought to use a little milk on the crust?"

Richard nodded, frowning seriously as he considered the unfamiliar task before him.

He'd slipped the pie dough over the pie pan, pressed the dough down, used a butter knife to trim the excess dough: Jacob pulled a chair up to the counter, stood on it to run the can opener (Richard, for all his expertise at altered-documents detection, for all his skill at analyzing handwriting, forgeries and falsifications, could not for his very life make this particular can opener work!) -- they managed to dough two pie tins, they dumped the contents of the peach can into one pie and the apple can into the other, they even got the top crust in place.

 

Esther and Angela each worked on a pie.

Esther's, of course, was done the more quickly, but Angela frowned with concentration, bit her protruding tongue lightly and managed to get the biggest wrinkles out of the dough as she fit hers into the pie tin.

Esther dipped out the still-steaming filling, smelling of apple and of cinnamon, filled one crust, then the other, and Angela bounced a little on her toes and clapped her hands and gave a happy little "Yaaay!" as Esther waved her hand and laid the top crust in place with the ease of long practice.

 

Richard crimped one crust, and Jacob, the other: they shared the little cup of milk, each dipping the pad of their middle finger into the cold white liquid, anointing the crust and then carefully, delicately, sprinkled sugar on the milk dampening the crust.

 

Angela watched as her Mama painted the piecrust with milk -- quick, sure strokes, and Angela knew that as much as she wished to help, her Mama was much better at this phase of the operation, and so she watched with quiet delight, feeling the heat from the cast iron stove pressing almost uncomfortably into her near hip as her Mama delicately, carefully, precisely ground a cone of maple sugar against her stamped-steel grater, sprinkling the milk-damp crust for that special, unique touch that nobody else ever did.

 

A pale eyed Sheriff pulled up in front of a tidy little house.

The house number was over the garage door and under the porch light both, and for a moment -- for just a moment -- the Sheriff wished she wasn't right, hating this one time that she was not wrong.

 

A pale eyed Sheriff leaned back in his saddle and the bitless mare slowed, her ears swinging, knowing her place was at the post in front of the porch, the post with a tether ring hanging from the heavy iron staple.

The Sheriff placed his hand on the saddle horn, placed the other hand on top of the first, pushed up until his back popped with a bright moment of hurt-so-good.

"Hello the house," he called into the darkness.

A door opened a hand's-breadth, and the Sheriff knew there would be a shotgun in the opening.

"Samuel," the Sheriff called.

"Sheriff," a voice replied: there was the sound of a gunstock thumping against the floor as the double gun was parked against the inside wall. "Light and set."

The Sheriff dismounted, his face shadowed from the full moon's light by the broad brim of his Stetson, and then before he even moved from beside his mare, he removed his cover, slowly, ceremonially.

"No," a woman's voice moaned from within the darkened doorway.

 

Willamina pressed the lighted doorbell button, stepped back about a step, standing intentionally in front of the peep hole.

The door opened and a teen-age boy and a middle-aged woman looked curiously out the storm door's glass, and the woman reached over and turned on the porch light.

"Sheriff," she said, opening the door, then her hand went to her mouth, her eyes becoming very wide with a terrible knowledge, with the awful certainty that the Sheriff herself never came to anyone's house at such an hour -- and never, ever in black -- unless it was not just bad news, but the worst.

 

The Old Sheriff held the widow as she beat her tiny birdlike fists on his chest, moaning "No, no, no --" then she seized his lapels and leaned her forehead against his chest, and he held her as she gasped her almost soundless sobs into his shirtfront: his arms were strong and reassuring, his grasp was gentle, and finally she gave a little shiver and she raised her head, and he loosed his enveloping embrace.

She raised her head, her face wet-streaked, and she looked up into the old lawman's eyes, and he felt the full weight of her grief.

It was something he never refused to do, for he knew it was too great a burden to bear alone.

She drew back and dried her eyes with her apron, and she gathered her dignity around herself like a cloak, and she lifted her chin and said, "Tell me what happened."

The Sheriff reached into his coat and withdrew the telegram.

 

The Sheriff held the woman as she sobbed.

The woman grieved hard and she pressed her face into the pale-eyed woman's shoulder, she clung to the Sheriff as a drowning man might clutch a life-ring.

Willamina held her and let her cry herself out.

She looked over the woman's head at her son, a tall, slender young man, the image of his father at a younger age.

"Sheriff," he said, and her ear caught the quiver in his voice -- he was trying to remain strong, in the vain hope that perhaps it wasn't the terrible news he feared -- "tell me what happened."

 

The Sheriff said the same thing, a century ago, and today.

The Sheriff said that it was quick, that he felt nothing, that if a man must die that was the most merciful way: sudden and without warning, for he felt neither fear nor pain.

And a century ago, and today, the Sheriff admitted there were times to absolutely, utterly hate the job, and this was one of those times.

One mounted a red mare, and one climbed into a butterscotch Jeep, one went home to the smell of apple pie and the other went home to the smell of apple pie.

In each century, the Sheriff of that era dedicated one arm to a spouse, and the other to a child, and held them both for a long, long time.

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23. LOW

The secretary came to her feet, alarmed -- "Ma'am, I'm sorry, you can't go --"

The Sheriff breezed past her, seized the doorknob, twisted it and shouldered through the conference room door, slamming it behind her.

She glared at the half-dozen people present.

"Don't mind me," she said, slapping her hand hard on the back of an empty chair and curling her claws into it as she dragged it away from the table. "Do go on."

"Sheriff, I'm sorry," the school district's legal counsel said, "this is a closed meeting."

"Then shut up and listen," Willamina snapped. "You're here to discuss your liability, both criminal and civil, concerning my son's injury."

The attorney opened his mouth to reply and Willamina thrust a stiff finger at him. "I said shut up."

Willamina planted her elbows on the tabletop, leaned her forehead into the heels of her hands. "I had a rough night last night," she said, "my diplomacy is out the window, so bear with me while I think out loud."

She leaned back in her chair -- quickly, thrusting her arms up overhead and lacing her fingers together behind her neck, her eyes cast up and her legs thrust out and crossed at the ankles.

"Now if I were to investigate the teacher's background," she said speculatively, "I would find she's been fired from multiple positions, two for violence against students and once because she was found to be prejudiced against male students. As a matter of fact," she smiled just a little, "an investigation would reveal her name is actually Alice Flitter, and every class she's taught has every girl without exception passing and generally honor roll, but not one single boy in her fifth grade made honor roll, most barely passed -- Cs and Ds, when they went in with As and Bs" -- she stood, smoothed her skirt under her, sat again.

"In other words, this Board did not vet the teacher at all, and what is the cost?"

She looked around the table, her eyes cold, hard, unforgiving.

"My son will be in a sling for maybe another ten weeks. He'll be well into summer vacation and even after that he'll be in for physical therapy to get that shoulder back to full function. There is a question of nerve damage. Is there liability? Yes. Where does the liability lie?"

She looked directly at the school board's attorney.

"Let me put it this way," she said, her voice hard, icy. "I could eat off all of your tables for the rest of my life if I so chose. Do I have your attention yet?"

Silence.

The entire school board looked away, uncomfortable, fidgeted with pencils or papers; a few shot quick glances at their legal counsel, but nobody said a single word.

"Now let's take a look at the real world, shall we?"

Willamina tapped her fingernail twice on the tabletop.

"I have excellent insurance. My son's medical and follow-up expenses will be taken care of. The perpetrator is in custody and is criminally charged with multiple offenses, both misdemeanor and felony, and it turns out there are two warrants from back East connected with her actions in the aforementioned school districts.

"I have no intention of coming after this Board, or the school, or anyone.

"I have the criminal locked up in my jail and she's staying there until she's sentenced elsewhere, or extradited to another jurisdiction. It looks like she'll be extradited, tried and sentenced on the prior claim, and when she's done with that sentence -- however long it'll be -- she will be brought back here to serve out whatever sentence our court imposes." She looked at the school board president. "You will recommend to the State Board of Education that they revoke her teaching credentials."

It was not a question, and the president knew it.

He nodded, looked guiltily away.

"So what do we take away from this little meeting?" the Sheriff asked rhetorically.

"First" -- she raised one finger -- "we learn the value of actually looking into the applicant's background.

"Second, we need not fear a big nasty civil suit, so that should be weight off your shoulders, and by the way your insurance carrier should have been invited to this meeting."

A disembodied, slightly tinny voice came from the hexagonal plastic structure in the middle of the table. "Right here, Sheriff. John Wolly, School Insurers and Liability Coverage out of Denver."

"Mr. Wolly, we met last year," Willamina said, smiling a little and rubbing her palms slowly together. "Your daughter was performing on the balance beam and acquitting herself well indeed."

"Thank you, Sheriff. She placed third in the tri-state competition."

"Good!" Willamina smiled. "Mr. Wolly, you heard my remarks about not intending any civil action?"

"Yes, Sheriff, and the conversation is being recorded."

"I would be quite disappointed if it weren't."

"Sheriff, are there criminal indictments for the Board?"

"None at this time, Mr. Wolly. My office is not inclined to spread the criminal action beyond the criminal. I cannot speak for the prosecutor."

"I understand."

"Gentlemen, and lady," Willamina nodded to the strained-looking woman sitting on the president's right, "I've had my say. Are there any questions for me?"

The board looked left, looked right, heads shook slightly.

"Mr. Wolly?"

"No, Sheriff, nothing here."

Willamina stood. "Thank you for your kind attention." She looked at the board secretary. "Paula ... your brother-in-law?"

Paula looked up, numbly; she was dark under the eyes, and she'd been crying recently, judging by her face.

"My condolences. It was so sudden."

"Thank you," Paula whispered.

Willamina nodded, looked around, made eye contact with everyone there, turned.

She paused at the door, leaned her head against the hardwood for a moment, and for just a moment she looked so very tired, then she raised her head, squared her shoulders, turned the knob and pushed open the door.

 

Will shut off his cruiser's engine, opened the door, stepped out of the Crown Vic.

Willamina walked around the car's front, frowning: she stopped and laid the backs of her fingers against Will's cheek, then cupped her hand at the back of his head and pressed her palm against his forehead.

"Just as I thought," she said, nodding. "You're low on chocolate."

Willamina took his arm and said "Come with me," and her twin brother, amused, did just that.

They went into the old-fashioned drugstore, the one with the soda fountain; Willamina looked over their booths, then nodded to the round table in the back corner.

Will nodded once in agreement.

She steered him over to a display, ran her eye over the satin-topped boxes, picked one and carried it to the cashier.

"Two chocolate sundaes and this," she said, plucking a card from the little wire rack, "and I'll need this delivered."

The clerk reached up, puled a dangling string with a fishing sinker on its end: a grinning boy came trotting out from in back.

"Have a delivery," the clerk said, waiting until Willamina wrote something on the card and slipped it in the envelope, and wrote a name on the envelope.

She paid (over her brother's protest) and the two seated themselves at the fake-marble-topped table, there in the corner, each turning their high-legged chair just a little so their backs were to the wall and they could see very well through the depth of the drugstore.

"What was that about, Sis?" Will asked, watching their orders being assembled in heavy-glass bowls with the rippled edges.

"Someone I noticed," she said, "looked like she was low on chocolate, too."

Will chuckled.

"How's your case with that child molester you collared at school?"

Will snorted and his quick, boyish grin twisted into an ironic grimace.

"He thought he was going to fight extradition," Will said quietly, "until the Feds claimed jurisdiction. Interstate flight and human trafficking."

Willamina's eyes widened a little.

"Where is he now?"

"Gone. The Federal boys picked him up a half hour ago."

"Will you still be prosecuting?"

"If he ever sees the light of day again, yes. He won't last long in prison. Baby rapers tend to get killed."

Willamina leaned back, her smile bright as the soda jerk set the two heavy-glass bowls down, conjured two gleaming, stainless-steel spoons from somewhere, spun them and placed them with a showy roll of the wrist very precisely on the folded napkins beside the bowls.

They waited until they were alone again before resuming their conversation.

"You will need Jacob's testimony."

"I think we should take a video deposition while it's fresh in his mind."

"I've already had him deposed for the shoulder."

"Good move."

Willamina carefully took her first taste of the chocolate sundae, closed her eyes and groaned with pleasure.

"Oh God I need this," she mumbled through her mouthful, swallowed.

Will sampled his as well, and found it very much to his liking.

They were about halfway through their sundaes when the light bulb came on over Will's head.

"Hey Sis," he said, "what's this I hear about ghost hunters coming to the Z&W?"

Willamina's spoon clanked loudly against the glass dish as her hand dropped to the tabletop and she looked at her brother with surprised eyes.

"What?"

She caught movement from her left peripheral, looked -- it was a mirror -- and a young woman with pale eyes, wearing a McKenna gown, laughed and stepped out of sight.

"I know that look, Sis," Will said seriously, leaning closer and pitching his voice low, so only she could hear it. "You know I will help you hide the bodies if need be."

Willamina leaned her elbow on the table top, lowered her forehead into her hand, then looked up, more annoyed than anything.

"Thank you, Will," she said, "but I'll have to handle it myself."

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24. "THEY ARE MY PEOPLE, AND I KEPT THEM SAFE"

Jacob sat cross legged on the hook rug, his good hand on The Bear Killer's shoulder.

The absolutely huge Tibetan mountain dog wiggled just a little and gave a quiet, deep-chested groan of utter contentment.

Willamina paged slowly, absorbing her Great-Great-Granddad's handwritten account, and Jacob could see his Mama was absolutely entranced by what she read.

"Read it to me?" he asked quietly, and Willamina blinked, then looked down at her son and smiled.

Across the room, Richard's book was forgotten in his lap as he took in the scene: his wife and his son, their dog and the old desk, and a mother's voice, gentle in the rustic panelled room, her lips framing the words of her long-dead ancestor, and the shining and eager face of a little boy, absolutely spellbound by the story she wove in the quiet air.

"The Old Sheriff," Willamina said, "was riding his copper mare Cannonball." She looked warmly at her wide-eyed son as he sat like an old Indian, his slung arm resting on his knees.

"He'd ridden forth into the dawn."

She saw the question in his eyes and she raised a finger: "Hold on," she murmured, turning back a page, running her finger down the reprinted account: the original, handwritten Journal, he knew, was kept in a climate-controlled safe-deposit box, but this copy was special.

It was the one his Mama had, and kept in Great-Great-Great granddad's desk, the one she read, the one that contained magic.

Jacob knew it was magic because he watched his Mama's face as she read it.

He'd seen her fists close, he'd seen her eyes widen or harden and he'd seen her close her eyes as a tear ran down her cheek.

There was magic in that book, he knew, and tonight his Mama's words lifted the ancient handwriting from the printed page and it became the woof and weft of a story, and as the little boy sitting cross-legged on the floor listened, a lean old lawman with an iron-grey mustache took shape in the young imagination.

Jacob could feel saddle leather under his backside, he could smell the dust of their passage, he could smell horse sweat, and he felt the cool morning air on his cheeks as his Great-Great-Granddad's ride became reality, at least in the young boy's soul.

"They were seen," she read, "and their location known, and I rode out to meet them.

"They were intent on causing my people grief.

"The bank's money is the people's money. If they held up the bank they stole not from a bank, but from every one of us who trusted the bank to keep our money safe from such as they.

"Jackson Cooper remained behind with two stout yeomen with intent to stop any who got past me."

"What's a yeomen?" Jacob interrupted, and Richard smiled a little to hear the sincere tone of the little-boy voice.

"Yeomen," Willamina smiled, marking her place with a finger, "are British. Faithful retainers, soldiers if you will."

"Oh." Jacob's eyebrows puzzled together. "I know soldiers but what are retainers?"

Willamina laughed. "Think private security, good men and true."

"Okay!" Jacob's understanding was immediately evident on his shining face.

Willamina turned back to the page and began reading again, and as she read, Jacob could see it happen, if only in his mind's eye.

 

I rode out to meet them.

They were at least four and maybe eight and I did not care, for I intended to wade among them like Samson, with the jawbone of a jack mule in each hand, and lay about them and smite them hip and thigh, and anywhere else I could smite them.

When it comes to smitin' the lawless I am not terribly fussy about bein' neat.

I'd got over my first hard anger at the realization that this bunch intended to come in and rob the town.

Anger is like a hot, fast fire, it flares up and it's gone and there's just smoldering ashes left.

No, what I needed was a cold fire.

I needed a hard, cold, deadly resolve, and that lived in my belly and all I had to do was blow the ashes off it and I was ready to go kill again.

I reckon that's what happens to a man who sees too much of war and too much of killin'.

I did not care.

The enemy approached and I intended to stop them, peacefully or otherwise.

My Colts were loaded with six -- I did not use a chamber for buyrin' money, if I needed that sixth round I wanted it and today I had 'em -- my rifle was under my leg and my shotgun hung from its sling off the saddle horn with a bandolier of brass hulls.

Cannonball knew we were heading into hell and she was ready for it.

She didn't run flat out though she could.

She's lived her entire life in the high country and her blood was thick, rich, much moreso than a Lowland horse: here in the mountains, I knew, natives grew bigger lungs and thicker blood to make up for the thinner air.

Thanks to the telegraph and my faithful eyes to the east, I knew the band was headed our way.

I intended to keep them out of town altogether.

Running into a fight is a fine time to think because there is no time to think when the fracas starts, and I come over a rise and there they were, five abreast, and I had my double gun in hand and stood up in my stirrups and I gathered in a good double lung full of air and I challenged them, and I felt war in my veins and I felt fire in my guts and I felt men long dead ranked to my left and to my right, Union blue and stubbled whiskers and bayonets on Enfield muskets, knees rising and falling as we advanced, knees like blue waves of an ocean, and the enemy raised their weapons and I shoved that double gun straight out in front of me and I fetched one man, then another out of the saddle, and I dropped into saddle leather and I heard a voice screaming in my ears and Cannonball laid her ears back and shot ahead like a bloody arrow and I dropped the shotgun back over the saddlehorn and fetched out a double handful of Colt revolvers and the fight was on.

 

Willamina picked up an ancient Ace of Spades -- it had three holes in it, touching at their edges, kind of an off-center cloverleaf -- and slipped this experienced old bookmark between the pages of experienced old words and said, "Excuse me, I'll be right back."

Disappointed, Jacob hugged The Bear Killer's neck and laid his head over on the massive canine's head.

The Bear Killer muttered, twisted his head a little and proceeded to launder Jacob's ears, bringing a smile to his father as the little boy's giggles filled the space left echo-empty when his wife's voice was interrupted by a necessity.

Father and son both imagined what it would be like, riding into the dawn, armed for war and ready to tear into a superior force of known bad men, and father and son ran through the words again, in their own imaginations their legs tightening around the horse's barrel as she picked up speed and drove her nose into the wind, an army of one riding into a legion of Philistines.

Willamina's moccasins were silent as she came back in, set the tray on a sidetable: she poured a dainty, eggshell-porcelain teacup full of citrus-fragrant Earl Grey, set cup and saucer on the rolltop's pulled-out desktop: she poured a more substantial mug for each of her men, pouring an inch or so and swirling the hot, steaming brew to mix up the sprinkle of brown sugar she'd added to the cup back in the kitchen, then adding the rest of the tea: one for her son, one for her husband.

The Bear Killer looked hopefully at her and she bent down, offering a tiny little dog biscuit, which the massive mountain mastiff took with a surprising but practiced delicacy.

Willamina sat, removed the center-holed Ace of Spades, ran her finger down the page.

"Oh, yes, here we are," she murmured. "And they lived happily ever after, The End."

"Moo-ooom!" Jacob protested, and Richard laughed, and The Bear Killer licked his chops, his big tail applauding the floor with a slow, contented cadence.

"Silly me," Willamina smiled, "here we are."
She read.

 

We drove through the hole I made when I blew two of them to hell on a charge of swan shot apiece.

Cannonball heeled over like a ship in a heavy sea as she turned, hooves digging into the hard ground, and we come back for another pass and I heard that screaming again and it sounded like a Cherokee and part of my mind wondered at this for there are no Cherokee this far West but I shoved the thought aside because my right hand revolver chopped down like I was throwing a rock and so did my left hand Colt and I rode through them again and another man was down and I heard gunfire and Cannonball heeled over and we come for them again and something burned my left cheek and I saw the man that shot at me and I returned the favor and he kind of sagged and I saw his gun drop and my knees tightened on Cannonball because she plainly rammed that other horse and knocked them over on their side and I shot that man on his way down and come around and they were gone.

They were gone.

I lowered my right hand hammer and holstered the Colt and then I did the same with my left and fetched out my '73 rifle and we rode a circle and then a bigger circle and it took me a little for the war bees to quit buzzin' in my head and I counted the dead and there were five.

They were all dead.

We rode around them three times in a sunwise circle and I satisfied myself they was all dead and I set up straight in the saddle and I fetched out my left hand Colt to reload it.

I was shakin' like a whore in church.

 

Richard nodded as he heard his wife speak the words, and he thought to himself, That's where you got that phrase, and Willamina looked down at Jacob and admonished him, "Please don't use that kind of language, Jacob, even if it is true."

"No ma'am," Jacob replied obediently, making a mental note to use it often as possible.

You know how nine-year-old boys are.

 

"Mama?" Jacob asked. "Have you ever ridden against the Philistines?"

Willamina slipped the shot-up Ace of Spades in the Journal and closed it gently, slid it back into its pigeonhole.

"Yes, Jacob. I have."

"Did you smite them hip and thigh with the jaw bone of a jack mule?"

Willamina laughed gently, slid out of the chair and knelt before her son, stroked his hair.

"I used something a little louder," she murmured, "but mine worked just as well."

"Why did you do it, Mama?"

Willamina blinked.

She hadn't expected that question.

Jacob knew about her service in the Middle East, and Willamina blinked as those hard-edged memories roared back, filled her for a moment, until she too shoved them aside.

She gave her son a direct look and an honest answer.

"Soldiers fight in wars because their governments tell them to. They don't fight for the government. They fight to keep their foxhole buddy alive.

"I fought to keep the man on my left alive so he could go home to his wife, I fought to keep the man on my right alive so he could go home to his parents."

Willamina's hand trembled a little as she stroked her son's fine hair.

"They were my people, and I kept them safe."

 

I'd ridden amongst the Philistines.

They rode to war against my people, and I rode out and stopped them.

Once I rode back to Firelands and sent Digger out with the dead wagon, and I set down and had a good tilt of nerve tonic, I considered.

Nobody knew what I'd done that morning.

Like as not nobody would count what I'd done, or why I did it, in my favor.

Didn't matter.

I'm the Sheriff.

These are my people and I kept them safe.

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25. SAITH THE BARBER

"Mama?" Jacob asked as his Mama chivvied him up the stairs.

"Yes, Jacob?"

Jacob stopped on the landing, his Mama a few steps below him, which brought them closer to eye level; Willamina took one more step, tilted her head a little and regarded her little man with a maternal smile.

"Mama, I got my hair cut today."

"I know," Willamina said, taking her son by the shoulders and giving him a very frank appraisal, "and you look much the better for it!"

"Mama, he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up."

Willamina frowned a little, stepped up onto the landing with him, then she turned and sat down on the top step and patted the board beside her.

Jacob set down beside his Mama and leaned a little against her shoulder.

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him I wasn't sure," he admitted, and she could hear the little frown he always got when he had that note of uncertainty in his voice.

He raised his head and looked at her.

"I told him I didn't know if I wanted to be a police officer like your Pa, or maybe Sheriff like you and Old Granddad, or an Agent like Pa."

Willamina draped her arm carefully across his shoulders, gripping his left shoulder and very carefully not pressing his right shoulder into her high ribs.

"Did he ask about your arm?" she said quietly, and he nodded and grinned up at her.

"He asked if I got it pulled out of socket roping a Texas longhorn."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him I'm not as dumb as I look, which proves the Lord is merciful."

Willamina laughed quietly, for she'd heard the line before.

"And what did Tony say?"

"He laughed and he said I was a good boy and to eat my vegetables so I would grow up big and strong, and then I could become whatever the hell I damn pleased!" Jacob looked panicked for a moment and he added very quickly, "That's what he said, Mama. I didn't say that, it's a spontaneous utterance."

He does listen, Willamina thought, for she and Richard were professionals in their field, and tended to use professional terms when discussing a case, and Jacob could not only pick up the lingo, but use it correctly.

Even if it was to try and get out of trouble.

"You even got his accent correct," she said, nodding. "You have a quick ear. That is valuable for a lawman or an investigator both."

"Mama?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"I think I want to be Sheriff."

She nodded slowly.

"It could happen," she said slowly. "It could very well happen. You certainly have it in your blood!"

They rose and went into Jacob's bedroom.

Usually he had the privacy of undressing by himself -- he was nine years old, after all! -- but with his bad shoulder it was easier with his Mama's help, and to be honest, he was grateful for her reassuring touch.

"Remember, you start physical therapy tomorrow," Willamina reminded him.

"I know, Mama. After school."

"Which does not mean you get out of homework."

"Yes, ma'am."

"It does mean that part of your physical therapy involves your revolver."

He looked up, his eyes bright with anticipation. "Really, Mama?"

Willamina nodded, sat down on the edge of his bed.

"Jacob, do you recall when I read you about your Old Granddad riding his Cannonball mare with no bit?"

"Yes, ma'am. She was knee trained, just like your Cannonball."

"That was necessary for a fighting man in that age. Just like knights in armor who rode into battle with a shield on one arm and a sword or an ax in the other, their mounts had to be very well trained for riding without reins." She laid a gentle hand on his right collarbone, her palm warm through the flannel of his pajama top.

"You learned how to ride without reins at the same time you taught Apple-horse how to be ridden without reins. You still use them -- you neck-rein him, and that's fine, but you also ride him without neck-reining him."

"Yes, ma'am."

"That is a very useful skill. I've used it many times."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Before you were born -- back when dirt was young, and so was I" -- they both laughed, it was a joke his Mama used often -- "I rode Cannonball when I took over as Sheriff. She was a good horse but she wasn't steady enough. I had to work with her to get her well enough trained. You and Apple already have that."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You also have to be able to shoot with either hand. Reload with either hand. That's rifle, pistol and shotgun all three."

"Yes, ma'am." He thought for a moment. "Does that mean I get another rifle?"

Willamina laughed. "We'll stick with what you've got for now" -- she tilted her head and smiled -- "besides, didn't you outshoot me the last three times we had it out?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said almost bashfully.

"You know, Tony the barber is right," she said, drawing the quilt up and tucking it in under his chin, which he loved but wouldn't admit to if he had to.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"You can be whatever the hell you damn please!"

She bent, kissed her son on the forehead. "Night," she whispered.

"Night, Mama."

Willamina left the door open a finger's breadth, the way she always did, and catfooted down the solid old stairs.

She sat down with Richard, cuddled up against him, drew her legs up beside her like a setting hen.

"I heard him say something about Tonio," Richard murmured.

Willamina smiled. They both liked Tonio -- there had been unpleasantness some years before, and Tonio came out with a Beretta submachine gun and politely grassed two armed terrorists, one with a grenade and the other with a select-fire AK, who were trying to slip up behind the Sheriff -- that was the summer of the exploding motorcycle ... and of several attempts on Willamina's life.

Richard was quite pleased when she resigned as Sheriff, as it allowed her a lower profile, and as she increased in girth he assumed a greater role in her protection, at least in his own mind.

He also bought her a weight bench so she could bench press a barbell.

Her pregnant belly prevented her from the push-ups she was used to.

Richard's arm went around his bride's shoulders and he looked frankly at his lawfully wedded spouse.

"So what did Tonio have to say?"

"He said" -- and Willamina assumed a truly terrible Italian accent -- "that-a Jacob was-a good boy, an' he could-a become anyt'ing he damwell pleased!"

Between her awful accent and her exaggerated gesture, Richard laughed -- quietly, so as not to disturb Jacob upstairs -- and he nodded.

"I can just hear him say that, too!"

Willamina sighed.

The man might be a retired Mafia don, but he was a good friend, he was part of the community, he was an excellent barber, and besides, he was right.

Thus saith the barber, she thought.

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26. DISCIPLINE

Jacob tried to sleep.

Really he did.

I wonder what it was like, he thought, then smiled, for he remembered being shown how it was, if only for a brief time.

"Where are you, Aunt Sarah?" he whispered in the darkness.

There was no reply.

He turned his head, looked at the empty space where his Aunt Sarah sat on earlier nights.

The space remained empty.

Jacob wiggled a little, laying flat on his back, looking up at the dark ceiling.

Mama said I would have to be able to shoot with either hand, he thought, and smiled a little.

I am right handed.

My right arm is hurt and I can't use it yet.

I used my left hand.

He smiled again, feeling the satisfaction of an achievement.

Old Grampa used both hands.

He wore two Colt revolvers.

I've seen 'em.

Mama wears them sometimes and she shoots stuff she throws up in the air.

Jacob smiled again, remembering how delighted, how proud he was that his Mama could throw a dirt clod the size of a tennis ball up in the air, then draw and fire and hit it, blowing dried dirt into a surprisingly big dust cloud.

When Pa watched me shoot my revolver, he put his hand on my shoulder and told me he was proud of me.

Jacob smiled again, alone in the darkness, and he was filled with the utter delight of a boy who's been told something very meaningful by someone very meaningful.

Jacob's mind was as quick and unpredictable as any boy his age: he went from a warm feeling of fulfillment to wondering again, wondering about the Old Sheriff, the lean waisted old man with an iron grey mustache and the same pale eyes as his Mama and his Uncle Will... wondering what he was like, and then he remembered.

Jacob shivered and felt cold of a sudden, his gut falling about ten feet or so as he remembered what it was like to sit all alone on the wagon seat, knowing his Aunt Sarah went running around the corner with gunfire singing past her, running into an alley, and then the heavy concussion of the shotgun she'd snatched from the Sheriff's office gunrack.

He remembered the outlaw that ran out the alley and looked at him and ran toward Jacob and the carriage, intending to carjack him.

Jacob used the term he was familiar with, not considering the term was probably not appropriate for the age when it happened to him, and he felt like he was falling, and his hands clutched into his mattress to stop his fall.

Jacob sat up, cradling his right arm in his left, remembering the weight of the .44 Bulldog in his sling, and how he seized the unfamiliar handle, and as his fingers clutched the checkered walnut with the desperation of a scared kid, his trigger finger closed as well from sheer, untrained reflex, and Jacob remembered the sudden concussion as the .44 blackpowder load blew a hole in his sling.

The uncontrolled gunshot was enough to slap himself into a calmer, almost detached state.

He knew in that moment he was the only one he could depend on.

He was the only one who could keep him safe.

Jacob withdrew his Aunt Sarah's squarish, blunt, unlovely revolver and his thumb reached up and hauled the hammer back and he remembered feeling the mechanism's several clickety-clatters, and his thumb slipped off the spur and his eyes went from the outlaw to the front sight.

He felt the whistle of the .44 slug past his ear as the outlaw drove a shot at the only thing keeping him from stealing speed and mobility, and part of his mind compared the sound to that of a very angry hornet passing very close to his ear.

The rest of his mind remembered his Pa's quiet words, "Put the front sight on what you want to hit, then bring the back sight up level with the front. Put the same daylight on each side of the front sight and squeeze."

His Pa's words guided his eye and his hand and he saw the front sight, sharp and clear, and the notch in the top strap came up to wrap around the squared steel post and he knew the sight was setting at the dead square middle of the man who was shooting at him, and he felt the smooth, curved trigger, and he eased back on the trigger and the Bulldog shoved hard back into his hand and his eyes focused on the oncoming threat and he saw a little puff-in as the Bulldog's slug punched the outlaw just above the belt buckle.

Jacob remembered that moment and swallowed hard.

Thou shalt not kill, he remembered hearing, and he heard his Mama's quiet words, when he asked her about it.

"Scripture translates accurately as 'Thou shalt not do murder,'" she explained. "If someone is trying to kill you, there is a duty to keep yourself alive by whatever means you have to use. If the only way you can keep yourself alive is to kill the other guy, you do it and there is no sin."

Jacob remembered his Mama's words, and there in the darkness of his bedroom, he found a comfort in them.

I have to get my shoulder to work again, he thought.

Jacob slid to the floor, walked barefoot to the peg on the wall, the peg where his Stetson hung.

The Stetson.

And his gunbelt and holster.

And the Victory model revolver.

Jacob removed the revolver.

He did not need light to shove the cylinder release forward.

He did not need light to walk over to his bed and open the cylinder with both hands like his Mama showed him, supporting the cylinder.

He kept his upper arm clamped against his rib cage -- it hurt his shoulder a little less that way -- he rotated the slim muzzle straight up, then thumped the ejector rod with the edge of his hand.

He lowered the muzzle, ran his thumb around the breech of the cylinder, satisfied himself it was empty, pushed on the ejector rod just a little and felt it again.

Jacob closed the cylinder and raised the revolver, left handed, bringing it to what he knew was eye level.

It felt right.

It was a little big for his hand but it felt right.

He laid the revolver on the bed.

Jacob extended his right arm, or tried to.

He closed his eyes, took a long breath, blew it out through pursed lips like he'd seen his Mama do when she was getting ready to hoist a bale of wet hay.

Jacob raised his right arm.

His shoulder hurt but he raised his arm, cupping his left hand under the elbow and raising his arm for the first time since it was dislocated.

Jacob held his arm out level, his eyes closed, shivering a little, then he lowered his arm and let it hang at his side.

It hurt but it hurt good.

I need to do this again, he thought.

This time he bent his arm at the elbow first and then brought it up, using his left to support most of its weight.

It still hurt and he felt it tighten up a little.

He lowered it slowly, his breathing a little faster now.

I have to stick my arm out all the way, he thought.

That's how I'm going to shoot.

Jacob opened his eyes in the darkness, looked to his bed, looked to where he knew that dull-black wartime revolver waited.

I can do this.

He reached for the revolver with his right hand.

He found the cylinder.

He clamped his jaw tight shut against the ache in his shoulder and he gripped the handle.

He took a long breath, blew it out, then he extended his arm, resting the pistol's weight on the bed quilt.

I can do this.

Jacob raised his right arm, slowly, feeling the ache, feeling the hurt, feeling the weight of the heavy service pistol at the end of his skinny boy's arm, and he gritted his teeth and he reached down into his gut and he raised the revolver off the quilt and he held it out in firing position.

I did it.

He lowered the revolver, letting it almost fall, then he let go of the handle and bent his elbow and cradled his wounded wing to his belly and bent over a little with the pain, but he did it, he did it!!

"Grampa," he whispered, "I did it," and he wished most powerfully that old lawman with the iron-grey mustache, that old Sheriff that picked him out of the carriage and packed him into the Sheriff's office and sat Jacob on his lap and held him ... Jacob wished most powerfully his Old Grampa could see what he'd just done.

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27. "WHY IS EVERYONE HERE?"

 

It would be difficult to count the man-hours involved in the effort.

Every piece of rolling stock in the firehouse had been detailed.

Inside and out, inspection ready, ship shape and Bristol fashion: clean, polished, waxed, buffed, burnished, polished, prepared for presentation.

The Firelands High School Marching Band rehearsed this short-notice event; they, too, were prepared for public presentation, and ready to strut their stuff right down the town's main street in front of God and everybody.

Local politicians rehearsed speeches, the presentation material was crafted and reviewed,signed and sealed, the local paper dispatched a reporter and a photographer, there was even a news team sent from Denver to cover the event.

Tony the barber was button bustin' proud of "his-a boy" and so declared to his several customers, the local Red Cross chapter scheduled a record number of first aid classes, the drugstore sold out of first aid kits, and if the truth were told, it was only the guest of honor who was oblivious to what was going on, at least until his head came up to stare, alarmed, at the wood-cased speaker mounted on the classroom wall.

He was used to the principal's voice, he was used to the rubber mallet's stroke on a xylophone chime before her pronouncements.

He was not used to the raucous BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG that someone recorded from a computer file of US Navy alarm sounds, nor the metallic-voiced NOW HEAR THIS, NOW HEAR THIS that followed.

Mrs. Dunlap's voice followed this very attention-getting preface.

Jacob looked at Mrs. Shaver, who was smiling at him, a knowing look on her face, and she held her hands up, palms out, and gave a little nod:

Remain seated, the gesture said, and the class did, putting down pencils, looking at her, looking at one another, wondering what was going on.

"There is a special event of recognition today. Effective now classes are on hold. We will evacuate per fire drill protocol, but this is not a fire drill. Teachers will march their classes downtown, to the town park, where the ceremony will occur. Begin evacuation."

"Just like the fire drill," Mrs. Shaver called, making a sweeping, on-your-feet gesture: "it's quite nice out, you will not need your wraps. Fire drill, out you go!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller wore her trousered uniform for the event.

Cannonball wore her uniform saddle blanket, the black blanket edged in gold with the six-point SHERIFF on one lower corner.

Apple-horse wore a bored expression and his usual saddle and blanket, and The Bear Killer wore an expression of attentive delight as the entire Firelands grade school emptied out, formed up and began its mass migration the short distance downtown.

Jacob looked around the way he always did when he came outside; he saw his Mama, and he felt Mrs. Shaver's hands gentle on his shoulder blades Mrs. Shaver was a diminutive soul, and at nine years of age Jacob came within a half inch of looking her in the eye, and Mrs. Shaver's voice was warm and approving in his ear as she murmured, "Go to her, Jacob," and he did.

Jacob broke ranks and ran for his Mama, and Willamina -- or, rather, Sheriff Keller -- dismounted, a length of black material in her hand.

He stopped, big-eyed.

"Mama, what's going on?"

The Sheriff said "Hold still," with the voice of a mother who is ready to bust open with pride but can't show it just yet: she turned Jacob's collar up, drew the necktie around and knotted it quickly, expertly. "Did you wonder why I laid you out a dress shirt instead of a flannel shirt?"

"No, ma'am."

She snugged the tie, turned the collar down. "Saddle up, Jacob, we have work to do. Stay with me."

"Yes, ma'am."

There was a clank and a squeak behind him and he saw the grinning Mr. Charleton unfold the short stairs he used to mount, and would until his shoulder healed.

Willamina nodded to the stairs.

Jacob needed no second telling.

"Thank you, Mr. Charleton!" he grinned, swarmed up the three steps, shoved his burnished boot into the gleaming doghouse and grabbed the saddle horn: it was still awkward to mount with his arm in a sling but he was used to it, and his right boot drove into the right hand doghouse like it was magnetized, and Apple-horse danced a little in the warm and welcome sunlight.

The pair rode at walking speed with the rest of the class, but when they got to the main street, they drew up as the rest of the grade school trooped to the town's park, the one between the restored, whitewashed, one-room-schoolhouse and the bank.

Jacob was too excited to more than note the old-timey schoolmarm standing on the steps of the schoolhouse, smiling her approval behind round-lensed spectacles, a brass schoolbell in hand -- he saw it was a little off, like maybe the handle was bent -- part of his mind noted the schoolmarm was wearing a mousy-grey dress, and her hair was pulled up into a severe walnut on top, with a pencil thrust through it, and this schoolhouse, too, had emptied out, its children dressed, like their teacher, in attire from the 1880s.

Jacob saw this from a distance: he and his Mama were holding station at the Mercantile, at the high end of the street.

"We wait," Willamina said.

"Yes, ma'am," Jacob replied.

They waved as the Firelands first-out ambulance started dead slow down the street, its grinning driver hanging his arm out the window to wave at them, and Jacob waved back -- there was a gap, a fire truck, then the Marching Band, majorettes in short skirts and white boots high-stepping it, their batons silver disks in their skilled hands.

Convertibles with local politicians seated high on the back seat, fire apparatus here and there, even a mounted unit of Cavalry re-enactors in Union blue, led by a stubbled fellow in a worse-for-wear bummer's cap that looked like he just rode out of a Civil War battle: he gave the mounted pair a salute, and Jacob could swear he was looking right at him -- but that couldn't be, he had to be saluting his Mama right beside him.

"We're right after the marching band," Willamina said. "Yup, girl."

They rode alongside the parade at an easy trot, right into the gap behind the Marching Band and ahead of His Honor the Mayor, and a wide-eyed Jacob was at once exhilarated and almost dismayed at finding himself the absolute center of an awful lot of attention.

Jacob might have been a little uncertain but he warmed to the idea: grinning, he waved to one side, then to the other, glancing shyly at his Mama, then waving again, and thus they rode to the town park, to the decorated and bunting-draped gazebo: the Marching Band formed up to one side of the gazebo, a double row of dignitaries ranked the sidewalk leading up to the little podium, and Willamina and Jacob drew up, a grinning JW Barrents taking their horses' bridles.

"Dismount," Willamina said, and Jacob slung his leg over the saddle and rolled into his Papa's strong hands, and Richard lowered his son to the ground and squeezed his shoulders reassuringly.

"To the gazebo, tiger," he murmured, and Jacob stopped and looked around, eyes wide and wondering, and he looked at his Pa and at his Mama and said "Why is everyone here?"

"Everyone is here," Willamina said, "for you, Jacob. Now march."

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28. GAZEBO

 

The brass band was small but well practiced, their instruments gleamed and their uniforms immaculate: they were ranked in a semicircle, providing the background and the excitement as notables and dignitaries ascended to the gazebo's platform.

The Old Sheriff's eyes were busy -- quiet, but busy -- old habit it was, to look, to watch, restless, searching, not for anything in particular, just ...

watching.

He watched for patterns, like any lawman, he looked for what didn't belong, for what was out of place, and this day was no different, save only that he sat with the dignitaries on the gazebo instead of flowing silently and invisibly among the assembled.

The Mayor spoke first, then the Judge, and the boy in a suit a size too big and shoes a size too small, a boy with very red ears and a freckled, grinning face, squirmed a little as he patiently endured the oratory.

At some point roughly ten years after this moment, the speeches were concluded (time travels differently when you're a boy and you'd rather be somewhere else), and the Sheriff rose.

His appearance was surprising, though everyone knew he was there; the man and a knack for becoming invisible, or at least unnoticed: perhaps it was because he'd perfected the art of holding very still, perhaps it was some gift bestowed by an angelic guardian: whatever the case, his rising without a word gained the instant attention of every last soul there.

The Judge and the Mayor sat down; the Sheriff went over to the boy, touched his shoulder and gave him a reassuring wink.

The pair of them stood front and center.

"My friends," the Sheriff said, "let me tell you about this young man here.

"If you were to take off his coat and his shirt, and no I am not going to do that" -- he smiled, just a little, and a ripple of laughter flowed through the crowd -- "you would find some painful looking burns.

"He ran into a burning barn to get the family's horses out, and he got them out, in spite of their wanting to run back in."

The quiet smile again as he added, "Horses can be as stupid as politicians."

The Mayor laughed as heartily as anyone else.

"He got the horses into the corral and he heard something.

"Now when you've got a barn on fire, you've got burning hay falling out of the mow, you've got timbers burning in two, you've got sparks and smoke and heat, and that's enough to run a grown man out and send him at a dead run for the next county."

He looked down at the shuffling, embarrassed lad, laid a careful hand where he knew no burn resided beneath the third-hand suit coat.

"His little brother was in that barn.

"He ran into an oven, I'm here to tell you.

"You all know how an oven works. You fire the stove and the oven gets hot all around and the heat comes at whatever's inside from both sides and the back and the top, all at the same time.

"It's worse than that when you run into a burning barn."

His eyes were pale and hard as some memory threw itself against the back of his eyes, a memory he turned and shoved back into the pit it roared out of before continuing.

"He ran back into that oven.

"By now the fire was on both sides of him and overhead.

"It was hot, it was smoky and he could not breathe, so what did he do?"

The Sheriff paused, looked around, meeting every eye.

"He grabbed a saddle blanket and shoved it down into the horse water, he shoved it in and then he wrapped it around his face, all but his eyes.

"He heard his little brother and he got to him just as the first timber hit him."

The boy shivered, remembering the impact, remembering the burn, remembering his face slamming into the dirt, remembering his little brother's pitiful cries.

"He shoved up on all fours and got out from under that timber and he fought to his little brother.

"His Mama said she was outside, screaming their names, afraid they were dead or about to be, and she said something came running out of that barn and she didn't know what it was.

"She said it had legs and it had a blanket over it and she said that blanket was a-smolder and either steaming or smoking, and she said she saw a little pair of bare feet stick out and then of a sudden that blanket fell off and it was her boys.

"Now what she didn't say was that this young man here not only run into that-there fire and got his little brother the hell out of there -- or maybe I should say he got his brother out of that-there hell" -- his eyes tightened a little at the corners, for he'd made a funny and he appreciated his humor if nobody else did -- "but he run over to the horse tank and he kind of fell over the edge and rolled them both in that cold spring water."

He nodded approvingly, his hand warm and gentle and strong on the lad's shoulder.

"Doc told me later that was the best thing he could have done to stop those burns and likely that's the only reason the two of them are alive today.

"His little brother is still healin' but Michael is here with us, and I believe the Mayor has a presentation."

The Sheriff stepped back as His Honor, with due ceremony and fine words, hung a colorful ribbon about the boy's neck, a ribbon with a fine medal hanging from it, a medal with engraving on the back and the Federal eagle on the front.

He shook the lad's hand and uttered the usual words of congratulation, and the band struck up an energetic air, and the crowd cheered, and the Sheriff went unnoticed, for he had a gift of becoming invisible at such times.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller, great-great-granddaughter of that lean old lawman with the iron-grey mustache, followed her son as he walked boldly between the ranked majorettes, their batons raised in salute.

She waited until her son was up the four steps and onto the gazebo before she mounted as well, and she bent to whisper to him which chair to set in once he was introduced, and then she moved a little to her right and she went invisible, for it was a gift she had -- whether it was because she'd learned to hold absolutely still, or whether it was a gift bestowed by an angelic guardian, nobody really knew and it didn't matter, for whichever it was, it worked.

His Honor rose, raised his hands and nodded, smiling, warming up for a grand speech, for on occasions such as this, Mayors had given fine speeches from this gazebo since just over a century before, and today would be no different.

Today it would honor a quick thinking boy who did what needed done, a boy who by the testimony of the emergency room physicians, had saved his classmate's life, a boy who acted while everyone else froze.

 

Later that afternoon, as Jacob drank iced tea and listened to the big, hard-muscled Sergeant in the blue Cavalry uniform talk to his Mama -- excuse me, the Sheriff -- it was an agreement in their household that when they were in public and she was in uniform, she was the Sheriff; it was only when she was in civilian attire, or they were home, that she was Mama -- Jacob listened as the Sergeant explained that he'd read the Old Sheriff's journals, and he had the journals his own Great-Great-Grandfather kept, a Cavalry sergeant known generally as Mick, a big Irishman who specialized in training horses.

"As a matter of fact," he said as he took a happy pull on his beer, "ma Great-Great-Granddad trained the horse your Great-Great-Granddad rode!"

"He did more than that," Willamina smiled. "He had the bridle made that I use today. It has hand-chased rosettes, I found it high up in my barn's rafters, and I recognized it from his description."

"Faith and the Mother, I would admire to see that!" Mick exclaimed happily. "And by th' bye, 'twas a delight t' see tha' schoolmarm on th' schoolhouse steps wi' her handbell, an' th' children dressed f'r the occasion!"

Jacob saw his Mama's eyes darken a little and she nodded, smiling. "That was my sister in law. I asked her to dress for the occasion."

"Ah, she had th' look down t' perfection," Mick sighed, then drained the last of his beer. "I'd be pleased t' take a look a' tha' bridle!"

Jacob rose, but a hand on his shoulder returned him to his seat: he turned and saw the familiar pale eyes behind her round-lensed spectacles, the schoolmarm herself in her mousy-grey dress, with the pencil thrust through the walnut atop her head, and her finger on her lips.

Jacob eased back down in the seat and she settled gracefully into the chair beside him, leaned her head close.

"I missed you," Jacob whispered.

She smiled again. "I'm causing trouble today, Jacob," she giggled, then she looked up at his Mama coming back into the Silver Jewel, cell phone in her hand and a frown on her face.

Jacob looked back to his Aunt Sarah and she was gone, and he sighed, then finished the last of his tea, turning the glass quickly to let the ice cubes clink to the bottom before he set the glass down on its coaster.

Willamina spoke a few words, folded the phone, slipped it back into her pocket.

It wasn't until they got home that Jacob heard his Mama tell his Pa that his Aunt Crystal was sick that morning and could not make it to be the designated schoolmarm.

Jacob saw movement in a window, and in the black-glass mirror of the nighttime pane he saw his Aunt Sarah again, finger to her lips, before she disappeared again.

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29. WHAT DID I REALLY DO?

 

Recognition, unfortunately, brings out jealousies, and jealousy fuels bullies, and unfortunately both came to bring their focus on the quiet lad in the third row, the one wearing a shirt and tie with his right arm in a sling.

Karl McFann waited until Mrs. Shaver was stepped from the room before leaning over and hissing, "I bet you wanta be like your Mama," and when Jacob looked at him, puzzled, McFann sneered, "You wanna be a girrrl just like your Mama."

The shutters closed behind Jacob's eyes and he turned back to his work.

McFann reached over and punched Jacob's injured shoulder about two seconds before Mrs. Shaver came back into the room.

Jacob clenched his jaw against the pain, forbade his throat to betray him: McFann gloated at the pain on the smaller boy's face.

Jacob knew it wasn't over.

Recess was less than five minutes later, and sure enough McFann confronted Jacob, emboldened by his success in the classroom and by the lack of anyone tattling.

Jacob knew McFann picked the one spot that the cameras wouldn't be recording -- they were few, but he'd marked them, and sure enough that's where the attack came -- and as he expected, it was another punch, directed at the tender, vulnerable, healing shoulder.

Jacob didn't just twist, he spun.

Jacob ducked and spun, fast, unexpectedly: McFann expected the blow to land, he expected a howl of pain, he anticipated shoving the smaller boy and claiming he tripped and hit his shoulder when he hit the ground.

He did not expect a polished boot heel to catch the back of his knee and he did not expect to land hard on his back and he did not expect Jacob's knees to drive him hard in the ribs.

Jacob grabbed McFann's hair and slammed his head hard against the blacktop.

Jacob's eyes were pale and ice-hard, his lips were bared and his teeth gleamed and he snarled deep in his throat and for a moment, for a mad moment, he knew he could seize the enemy's throat and he could crush the life from the hated --

No.

Jacob pulled himself back from the pit, from the Rage that tempted him, he came to his feet, wide-eyed and shocked at the murder his heart conceived.

Now he understood.

He had vanquished an enemy.

Had he killed this enemy he would have done murder.

He considered the dark lessons his mother taught him without realizing it -- how he could stomp the vulnerable throat, crush the voice box beneath his stacked-leather heel, how he could kneel with his shin cutting off the wind, how he could, how he was able, to take a life.

To kill.

To do murder.

Jacob looked down as McFann's eyes rolled back and he shivered and twitched and Jacob turned and ran, ran from the hidden corner, ran from this place where no eyes beheld: he ran back to the safety, to the familiarity of the classroom.

"Mrs. Shaver," he blurted, "Karl McFann just had a seizure! He fell down and hit his head and his eyes are rolled back and he's having a petit mal!"

 

Principal Fran Dunlap regarded the fidgeting little boy across the desk from her.

"Jacob," she said, her voice gentle, "I am very proud of you for getting help for Karl McFann."

"Yes, ma'am," he said in a subdued voice.

"You told Mrs. Shaver he had a petit mal seizure."

"Yes, ma'am."

"How did you know what was happening?"

Jacob looked up almost shyly.

"Mama went to nursing school," he said, and Fran blinked -- she hadn't known this about the pale-eyed Sheriff -- "and a friend of hers was a guest speaker."

"Go on," Fran encouraged gently.

"Her name was Dana and she wanted to be a nurse but they wouldn't let her 'cause she had uncontrolled seizures an' she couldn't drive neither but she wanted to teach them what seizures were and what they weren't," Jacob said all in a rush, then he stopped, took a long breath, and continued a little more slowly.

"Alexander the Great had the Falling Sickness. That's what they called it but they were grand mal seizures. He never had 'em in battle, only afterward.

"Dana -- Mama's friend -- took medication but if she drank or if she saw flashing, oscillating or rotating lights" -- his speech slowed as he recited what was obviously a rote memorization of some formal phrase -- "she would have a grand mal and then a petit mal and she really, really hated it when someone called 'em fits."

Jacob looked at the principal, his eyes sincere.

"She said dogs have fits and people have seizures."

"She is right," Fran agreed.

"Will Karl be all right?" Jacob asked uncertainly.

"He's in surgery," Fran said almost sadly.

"Surgery!" Jacob's eyes widened with honest alarm.

Fran nodded. "When he had his seizure and he fell, he hit his head. I understand he has a subdural hematoma."

"Oh, no," Jacob murmured, half sick.

"I'm sure he'll be all right," Fran said reassuringly. "I'm just glad you were there to help him."

"He hit me in class," Jacob said in an uncertain voice. "He hit me in my shoulder."

"Why, that wasn't very nice of him!" Fran exclaimed. "And you still helped him even after he hurt you. Good for you, Jacob. I am very proud of you."

"Yes, ma'am."

Fran looked at the clock. "It's two minutes until the bell, I'd better let you go." She rose, smiled. "Jacob, I'm very glad we have you here."

Jacob rose. "Thank you, ma'am."

 

Willamina knew her son and she knew something weighted his mind, but she waited for him to say what might be troubling him.

Fran Dunlap called while Jacob dawdled in the barn, brushing his Apple-horse.

Willamina thumbed the screen, raised her chin to her husband, pressed the speakerphone icon.

"Sheriff," Fran said, and they heard a note of pleased satisfaction in her voice, "you have a son to be proud of."

"O-kaaay," Willamina said, looked at her husband, her eyes a distinct light blue. "What did he do now?"

"It seems that he didn't just turn the other cheek, he returned a kindness for a wrong."

Willamina turned, looked toward the barn, looked back to her husband.

"Well don't leave me hanging, what happened?"

"Karl McFann punched Jacob in his shoulder in class," Fran explained, and Willamina's eyes went frosty and cold.

"Go on."

"Karl McFann had a seizure at recess. He had a seizure and fell backward, and when he hit his head he sustained a subdural hematoma." Fran paused to let this process before adding, "Jacob witnessed the seizure and he ran for help. Had he not been so prompt, Karl's condition might have been very much worse."

"Subdural hematoma," Willamina repeated. "Was surgery needed?"

"Yes. Yes, he's out of surgery and by all accounts he did just fine. He'll be in Intensive Care, of course, but as a precaution, or so his mother tells me."

"I see."

"We need more students like your Jacob," Fran said frankly. "He is the nicest young man, he has absolutely immaculate manners, he excels academically, and when a crisis comes his way, he handles it ... even when he's been hurt."
"Thank you," Willamina said slowly. "I appreciate your call."

 

Jacob dropped heavily on a hay bale, lowered his forehead miserably onto the heel of his hand.

"You look like you just lost your best friend," a familiar voice said, and he felt Sarah park her backside beside his on the bale.

He leaned into her, shivering a little, and she put her arm reassuringly around his shoulders.

"Okay, out with it," she whispered. "What happened?"

"I almost killed Karl McFann," he whispered back, and she felt him shudder.

"Does that distress you?"

He looked up at her, his face pale. "Yes," he whispered, his throat tight.

"Did he deserve it?"

"Yes," Jacob said, then, "No," then "I don't know."

"I think you do know," Sarah said quietly. "Tell me what happened."

"He hit me in my shoulder in class," Jacob said defensively, "and it hurt."

"It would. Did you cry?"

"No. I wanted to but I didn't want him to see he'd made me cry."

"Good." He felt Sarah's nod. "What did you do next?"

"We went out for recess."

"Did he hit you again?"

"He tried to."

"What did you do?"

Jacob looked up at her, a little less distressed, a little more rebellious.

"I kicked his knee and he went over backwards."

"Did he hit his head?"

"Yeah."

"Did you help him hit his head?"

"Yeah." He shoved his jaw out. "I took him by the hair of his head and I hit his head into the blacktop."

"What else did you do?"

"Oh, yeah," he recalled. "I kneedropped him in the ribs."

Sarah turned a little, took his good hand between both of his. "Good for you!" she declared. "I'm proud of you!"

"What?" he blinked, surprised.

Sarah caressed his cheek, looked deep into his hazel eyes.

"You spoke the language he understood," she whispered, "even if he doesn't remember it. He might not" -- she shrugged -- "but you did the right thing at the right time. Now what's this about almost killing him?"

Sarah felt his soul turn cold as the deadly knowledge came back to the forefront of his young mind.

"I could have stomped his voice box," he said slowly. "It would crush the cartilage and the -- the cords-- the voicebox cords would snap shut" -- he made a grabbing gesture with the snap! -- an' it would seal off with mucus an' blood an' crushed cartilage an' he would suffocate. I coulda dropped my shin bone on his throat and strangled him. I coulda ..."

He looked up at Sarah, confusion at war in his young eyes.

"Did you?"

He shook his head.

"Would it have been right, to kill him?"

He shook his head again.

"So ... you did the right thing to stop him from hurting you."

He nodded.

"You did a right thing there. Did you then stomp on his throat or shut off his wind with your shin?"

He shook his head.

"You made a choice, Jacob. You chose to go so far but not farther."

"What if I did?"

"You didn't, and don't you dare live a life of what-ifs," Sarah said sternly, then she brushed the hair back from his forehead and kissed him.

"You are your mother's son, you know," she said warmly, "and I can see much of your father in you too."

"Did you ever kill someone?"

"Several someones," Sarah admitted. "Every last one of them deserved what I gave 'em and most deserved more."

"Did you ever stomp on their throat?"

Sarah laughed, patting Jacob's denim covered knee, throwing her head back with genuine amusement.

"No," she said, giving his knee a final squeeze. "No, that's one thing I never did." She reached over her shoulder, gripped the checkered handle of a cut-down double gun he hadn't noticed, pulled.

"Niiiice," he murmured.

"I used this a few times," she smiled. "It was a good and trusted friend that spoke loudly and persuasively on my behalf on several occasions."

"That's what my Mama said about her Winchester rifle. The Christmas rifle."

"The one that belonged to her Papa," Sarah nodded. "I've heard her say it too."

"Mama killed a man with that rifle."

"I remember."

"Were you there?" Jacob asked, surprised.

"Jacob" -- Sarah hugged him carefully to her, pulling his good shoulder into her side, her hand pulling against his lower ribs so as not to distress his shoulder -- "do you remember reading in Scripture about a great cloud of believers, about being surrounded by a great cloud of believers?"

Jacob shook his head.

Sarah smiled gently, caressed his jaw line, her expression almost maternal.

"Jacob, the living are surrounded by a great cloud of believers. These are our honored dead who've gone on before. Sometimes we come back, if there's a need, and you really, really needed to talk about today and you couldn't talk about it with your Mama."

"No," Jacob groaned, resting his head on her shoulder. She smelled like lilacs.

"Sometimes having a Sheriff for a mother is a little unhandy."

"Yeah."

"Like when you cold cock some son of a sheepherding horse thief and you don't want her to know you banged his gourd against the ground a few times."

Jacob giggled.

"I never did that either, but I did smack a couple fellows over the head with a lead filled sap," Sarah reminisced. "I also clobbered some fellow in front of the Silver Jewel with a brass schoolbell."

Jacob blinked. "The bent handle one?"

Sarah laughed again, and Jacob smiled to hear her laugh.

"You've seen it!"

"It's still in the schoolhouse," Jacob exclaimed. "When Will's wife Crystal dresses up like a schoolmarm it's the one she uses!"

"Good." Sarah frowned a little, like she was deciding whether to tell him something.

"Jacob, I'm going to give you a secret."

"Okay," he said, looking bright-eyed at the surprisingly solid shade of a woman dead for more than a century.

"If you go into the schoolhouse, my arm's length from the front door -- on the same side as the city building -- there is a hidden catch behind the edge of a board."

"Okay," Jacob said, eyes bright, his mind traveling to the schoolhouse.

"If you press that, it'll open with a spring. There's a rifle inside, another Winchester, a .40-60 that belonged to my brother."

She smiled at Jacob, took his face between gloved hands.

"Do you know what my brother's name was?"

He shook his head.

"My brother's name was Jacob."
Sarah blinked quickly, bit her bottom lip.

"Jacob, your Mama will need that rifle really badly, and when she does, she will find it." She pressed her finger against his lips. "Under no circumstances are you to mention this to her, nor are you to find it."

Sarah took a long breath, threw her head back.

"I am trusting you, Jacob. Your Mama will need that rifle really, really badly. People will die if it's not there when she needs it." Her eyes were intense as they burned into his. "Promise me this, Jacob!"

"I promise," he whispered.

Sarah grabbed his head, kissed him quickly on the lips, then she was gone.

 

Later that night Jacob padded barefoot down the stairs, the ribbon and its medal dangling from his hand.

He sat alone in the living room, at least until The Bear Killer came tik-tik-tikking over, and curled up at his feet.

Jacob stared at the medal, remembering the day.

He remembered walking up to the gazebo.

He remembered standing beside the Mayor, he remembered the microphone being adjusted down to his height, he remembered closing his eyes and taking a long breath and squaring his shoulders and describing what he saw and what he did and why he did it, and he remembered the Mayor putting the ribbon around his neck and the fine words and the handshakes.

He held the medal in his hand and he looked down at The Bear Killer's button-bright eyes and he said, "What did I really do today?"

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30. MY ESTEEMED COLLEAGUE

 

Jacob swam up through the dark lake, rising smoothly, as if he were a great sea creature, perfectly at home in the lightless depths.

Below him there were swirls of light: dreams they were, dreams he left behind when he began his ascent.

He opened his eyes in his own bed, blinked, then his belly tightened like a slamming door and he snapped his head around to look at the clock and he threw his covers back in a panic --

I'm late I'm late I'm late --

He rolled up on his side, grimaced as he bore weight on his healing shoulder, rolled back on his back, teeth bared, hissing his breath in.

He panted a little, then sat up, hooked a leg over the edge of the bed, his good arm cradling his bad, and he kind of wallowed to the edge of the bunk.

Wait a minute.

It's Saturday.

Jacob groaned and sagged, then he worked his shoulder, he worked his hand: the numbness was pretty well gone now and his grip was returning, but his shoulder still hurt like thunder.

Especially this morning.

Jacob blinked, rubbed his eyes and regretted the move, for he had to lay his wounded wing in his lap to reach up and wipe the sleep grains out of the corners of his eyes.

He'd taken his shower the night before and made good use of the long handled scrubber his Mama got him (it was especially good to scratch his back -- Jacob did love a good back scratchin', just like his Pa) -- so all he had to do this morning was get dressed.

Jacob long ago disdained the attire of a little boy, as he called it -- "I don't wanta dress like a little boy, Mama" -- and so instead of the easier shorts and maybe barefoot sneakers which were rapidly becoming ubiquitous, he stubbornly insisted on blue jeans and boots, a button up shirt and his Stetson.

"That's how Old Grampa dressed," he declared, "and that's how I'm gonna dress" -- his Mama had to turn away and hide her amusement, for twin brother Will's boy made much the same pronouncement not a week before.

It took Jacob a while to get his duds on, and he couldn't get his belt as tight as he wanted, but it would do -- his drawers stayed up well enough without a belt, there are advantages to being young and skinny -- and his Mama looked up as he came downstairs, his hat in his hand, and she smiled a little as he turned and flipped it easily onto its peg in the hallway.

"Breakfast is about ready," she called. "Oats this morning."

"Horses like oats," Jacob countered, "and horses are big and strong!"

Willamina laughed. "What about chocolate?"

Jacob stopped and drew himself up, closing his eyes in concentration, and recited, "'Chocolate contains anti-oxidants, isoflavones and at least two other long words. Chocolate eases asthma symptoms, it improves cardiac circulation and it makes you younger, smarter and better looking.'"

He opened his eyes.

"DId I get it this time?"

Willamina laughed. "Yes, Jacob, you got it that time!"

"Good!" he declared. "I'm starved!"

Willamina squatted down, hugged him carefully, then patted his left thigh, his right, and frowned. "I suspected as much," she murmured, patting his left thigh again. "This one's empty."

Richard laughed at his wife's joke.

He'd observed quietly that Jacob ate like he had a hollow leg, and ever since, Willamina or Jacob would smack each leg in turn and declare one to be empty.

Father and son and mother all three sat at the end of the table -- Richard at the end, actually, Jacob on his right and Willamina on his left -- oats and toast and a plate of bacon commanded their attention.

It wasn't until the oats were gone and father and son ceremonially divided the last strip of bacon between them that Willamina spoke.

"Jacob," she said, "Karl McFann is out of surgery."

Jacob looked at his Mama and she saw discomfort in his posture and guilt in his expression.

"What happened yesterday?"

"He hit me, Mama," Jacob said honestly, and she saw no guile in the response. "He punched my shoulder in class. Mrs. Shaver was out of the room. I didn't holler but it hurt." His good hand came up slowly, protectively, covered the joint. "It hurt bad."

"Go on," she said in a soft voice.

"He tried to hit me again when we went out for recess."

"He tried?"

"Yes, ma'am. He waited until we were between cameras."

Willamina shot a look at her husband, one eyebrow twitching up momentarily, and Richard's return nod was shallow, almost imperceptible.

"What did you do?"
"I ducked."

His reply was so quick and so frank that it took Richard completely by surprise, and he couldn't help himself ... he laughed.

"That actually sounds very sensible," he remarked. "Where did he try to slug you?"

"He wanted to hit my shoulder again. I though he'd try so I was ready. I twisted and his punch missed -- Mama, you remember how you showed me how to slip out of the way when a punch --"

Willamina's eyes flicked to Richard again, her expression almost guilty, for she had indeed taught her son how to avoid a punch, and she was suddenly wondering how many other professional secrets she and her husband so freely discussed were absorbed by this hazel-eyed young word-sponge.

"Anyway I twisted but I spun like you showed me, Mama. You showed me that dance step and how to hook behind the knee so I did it and he went down."

Willamina's gaze wandered across Richard's empty bowl, across his coffee cup and meandered to the sugar bowl, her eyes thoughtful, her mind busy.

"He went down backwards and he started to shake and breathe funny, just like Dana in nursing school."

Willamina's expression when she looked at her son was one of open and honest surprise. "Dana?" she blurted.

"Yes ma'am. Dana taught your nursing class about seizures and what they weren't. I looked up seizures on the 'Net and I ran back to the classroom and told Mrs. Shaver that Karl was having a petit mal."

"What happened then?" Richard asked smoothly, not wanting to lose the smooth flow of information.

"Mrs. Shaver called the Cavalry."

Richard and Willamina looked at one another at Jacob's easy use of that familiar phrase, the phrase Willamina used to describe a typical officer-assist response.

"He is his mother's son," Richard sighed.

"Jacob," Willamina finally said, "did anything else happen when he went down?"

Jacob swallowed.

"Yes, ma'am, I decided not to kill him."

"What?" Richard and Willamina exclaimed together.

"Mama, you remember the heel stomp to the voice box."

It was Willamina's turn to look guilty. A little shocked, to be sure, for Jacob still looked the image of youthful innocence, especially with his arm in a sling, so utterly in contrast to his use of the language ... and his apparent, and obvious, understanding of what he was saying.

"Mama, Karl told me I wanted to be like you. He said I wanted to be a gur-rul." Jacob drawled it out with all the contempt of the original speaker's voice.

"I didn't say anything and that's when he slugged me.

"Mama, I wanted to stomp him in the throat and I wanted to drop my shin bone across his throat and ..."

Jacob looked half sick as his eyes fell away and he said in a faint, lost-little-boy voice, "Mama, I wanted to hurt him as bad as I could because he hurt me."

He looked up, misery in his expression and in his voice both.

"I wanted to hurt him bad, Mama, and I ... I knew I could ... I didn't --"

He looked away again, looked back, rebellious now, his jaw set.

"Mama, it wouldn't be right. I could have, but I didn't."

There was a very long silence around their kitchen table, and finally Jacob muttered, "I gotta go clean the stalls," and Willamina interrupted, "Not yet, Jacob."

She took a long breath, looked at her son.

"Jacob, they had to do surgery to relieve a subdural hematoma. You've heard me talk about those before."

"Yes, ma'am."

"When he hit his head he had a subdural bleed and they had to relieve it to save his life."

"Yes, ma'am."

"They also found out why he had a seizure."

Jacob blinked. "Huh?"

Willamina reached across the table, took her son's hand. "Jacob, Karl McFann has a brain tumor. They found it on the initial x-ray when he was taken into hospital. His mama called me this morning. He has something called a glioma. It's probably what caused the seizure. It may be the reason he called you names and hit your bad shoulder." She squeezed his hand. "Jacob, when you kicked his knee out from under him you stopped him from causing you harm." Her grip was firm, her words sincere, her eyes intense. "You remember the doctor told you to protect that shoulder because a re-injury takes longer to heal."

Jacob swallowed something sticky and muttered, "Yes, ma'am."

"You did what you had to do, to keep him from hurting you pretty seriously," Willamina said quietly, firmly. "I know the school wouldn't see it like that, but to hell with the school. This is our rules, capice?"

"Capice," Jacob echoed, surprised.

"That he has a tumor does not change a thing," Willamina said, her voice hard, her eyes lightening a little. "He caused you harm and you stopped him, end of story. The school already knows he had a seizure and he's not coming back to school. Case closed."

"Yes, ma'am." Jacob looked a little confused, but not at all relieved.

He thought he saw something reflected in the chrome sided toaster, something moving, kind of mousy-grey in color, then he blinked and it was just the toaster.

"Now." Willamina released his hand, straightened. "We'll get this cleaned up, then we'll head for the barn." She looked at her husband. "Richard?"

Richard laughed, squeezed his wife's hand. "I find I must concur with my esteemed colleague," he said, nodding, then he looked at Jacob and back to his wife.

"After all, she is younger, smarter and better looking than me!"

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31. TRIUMPH

"Do you really think you can keep this quiet?" Richard asked as he knotted his tie.

Willamina leaned close to the mirror, examined some imagined flaw on one cheekbone, turned.

"No," she admitted, "but I have not publicized it. Besides" she reached for the black hat with its black ribbons and veil -- "nobody is interested in planting some old bones."

"You are absolutely sure nobody is buried there."

Willamina smiled tiredly. "Ground penetrating radar says it's undisturbed, with known interments on both sides."

"What about the stone?"

"We're keeping the stone. It's accurate."

"And you are absolutely certain the skull and bones are hers."

"Positive. My contacts in the Bundeswehr ran the DNA and compared it with mine." She turned, took a few seductive steps toward her husband. "Well, stud, how do I look?"

Richard turned and gave his wife a rather frank appraisal.

"You," he said as he gathered his wife into his arms, "always did look good in black!"

"Especially in a McKenna gown?"

Richard's reply was wordless but unmistakable, and conversation was mutually suspended for several long moments.

Jacob, on the other hand, was streaking across a high meadow on his Appaloosa stallion, fighting to keep abreast of a monstrous black horse, a mare with a mane longer than he'd ever seen on a horse, a mare with hooves the size of dish pans and big enough to drag a mountain behind her if you had chain enough to wrap around it.

The woman in the light-blue gown looked with narrowed eyes, thrust out an arm: "There!" she shouted. "That one!"

Boy and stallion, woman and mare, and a truly huge, curly-furred black dog pounded across dried grasses and open terrain until the crack in the mountain rose higher than expected.

"Ho, now, ho, girl," the pale-eyed woman called, and the big Frisian coasted down to a trot, then to a walk, and finally walked slowly up to the mouth of the cleft.

Jacob drew up beside her, studying the terrain, turning his stallion to survey the country they'd just crossed.

The woman looked over at the slender lad, giving him an approving look: she, too, was in the habit of watching her back trail, not only alert for pursuit or danger, but -- more commonly -- to know what the return trip was supposed to look like.

"We walk."

They each threw a leg over and slid to the ground, landing with practiced ease on the balls of their feet.

"Where are we?" Jacob asked as Sarah took his hand.

"You have questions," Sarah said, "and I'm taking you where I go when I have questions."

The mountain twisted, shifted, the sky went dark and Jacob looked around, alarmed.

There were six huge stones ... six stones as wide as his Pa was tall, and twice as tall as his Pa.

The floor was sand, and warm; the ceiling was ... somewhere ... and black.

"Stand here," Sarah said, "and do not move out of your footprints."

"Yes, ma'am," Jacob said in a faint voice.

"I lived here for a very long time," Sarah said. "My living soul was torn in two by ..."

She pressed her lips together and looked hard at the sand.

"Terrible things," she whispered. "I was much younger than you, Jacob, and someone my Mama trusted ... blasted my soul with his evil and the things he did to me."

She raised her head, looked into the far darkness, where it glowed a dirty red, a shade just at the edge of the human eye's ability to appreciate.

"Half of me lived here, near the River Styx. A kind old man named Charon took care of me and kept me safe."

"Charon?"

"Charon the boatman, the dread creature that ferried souls to the eternal Land of the Dead."

She looked at Jacob and smiled.

"He used to tell me he would not take me on his boat because I had no coin to give him."

Sarah released his hand, paced gracefully to the center of the natural, nocturnal, subterranean amphitheater.

She spread her arms, her face turned upward, and began to dance.

Jacob turned, crouching a little, uncomfortable: he wished mightily he'd shoved his Victory model in his belt before taking Sarah's hand, back there in his bedroom.

Movement!

He turned, hands defensively before him, eyes wide, and Sarah came around the nearest rock.

Movement --

He looked left, and Sarah was still dancing, and he looked right again and Sarah stood in an electric-blue gown, and another Sarah came from behind the next rock -- but this one had a cynical twist to her mouth as she leaned against the rock and folded her arms, crossed her legs, stared at Jacob from beneath the brim of the black Stetson she wore.

She chewed on a toothpick, Jacob noted, knowing this was somehow significant.

Another -- from behind the next rock -- Sarah again, but wearing her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress and her round-lensed schoolmarm spectacles.

There were more ... they were all Sarah, but they were all different ... a bride, a ... not a pioneer woman, Jacob had seen ...

American Revolution?

He blinked, looked to the center of the sand stage.

Sarah -- his Sarah -- stopped her dance, turned slowly, her extended arm summoning all of her selves.

"I call a meeting," she cried, her voice loud and echoing in the stone-lined chamber, and Jacob heard the distant echoes, as if this place were truly massive.

"So this is the kid," the Sarah in all black said, the toothpick shifting as she spoke.

"My name is Jacob!" he flared, hands fisting in anger.

She walked across the black sand, stopped and went to one knee.

"You have the Blood, all right," she said slowly, assessing him like he was a slab of beef. "You're smart, too. Real smart."

Jacob studied her right back, refusing to allow himself to be intimidated.

"Do you know why all of us are here?" she asked, and Jacob was somehow surprised at her directness.

The schoolmarm glided up, her hands folded properly before her. "You have a question, Jacob, and we are here to help you find the answer you already have."

The Sarah in the electric-blue gown floated up beside the schoolmarm as if she were on wheels, or a magic carpet -- she moved so smoothly Jacob could not tell she was walking -- then the others, and he was surrounded.

Sarah -- his Sarah -- was among them, he knew, and on some level he realized they were all her.

He didn't understand how he knew this.

"You felt anger," one said.

"You tasted rage."

"You saw your destruction open before your feet."

"You chose to not kill."

"You felt fear," the Sarah in black drawers and knee-high black boots and black shirt and wild rag and black vest and Stetson whispered, and he heard her all the better for her whisper. "You felt fear, Jacob, because you knew you could cause great horror. You realized for the very first time how much harm you could cause, and that scared the hell out of you."

"A lesser soul would have killed him," the Sarah in the Revolutionary ruffled cap said.

Another, but this one without a face -- no, not without a face, this one wore a white silk veil, and she was all in white, a nun ...

A nun?

"For all things there is a season, a time for every thing under the heavens," the veiled nun said in a quiet Sarah's-voice, and Jacob could hear the smile in that very familiar voice. "Yours was the time to learn, Jacob, and it was your time to learn about yourself, and it was your time to learn how important one decision could be."

"There may come a time when you must kill," the Sarah-in-black whispered. "You will know when it must be done. You will keep others safe, Jacob, and you will keep yourself safe, for you are a Guardian" -- she pulled off her black-leather glove, laid the pad of her finger against his lips -- "but you must never, ever tell anyone what we told you here, nor what you saw here."

She rose, working her hand back into the glove.

The Sarahs turned and walked away from him, each one to her own stone, each one passing behind the stone and out of sight, and only one Sarah, his Sarah in her light-blue gown, remained.

"I come here," she said, "when I have a question. I am all of these, and we are ... facets ... of the same gem."
Jacob's brows puzzled a little at this and Sarah laughed. "Facets?" he asked, and his mind tasted the thought She's a real gem, and his Sarah smiled again.

"Do you remember your Mama's ring, the diamond?"

He nodded.

"Do you remember how polished it is, and how many little flats are polished into its surface?"

He nodded again.

"Each of these is like a facet on a beautiful gem. We are one gem, but each of us is ... a different window to look into."

"Okay."

"Come." She took his hand and the sand twisted under him, the black sky went blue, he staggered and took a quick breath as he stood in front of the cleft in the mountain again.

He looked around, saw how the shadows lay --

It's the same time, he thought.

"Of course it is," Sarah smiled. "Now let's get you home, you have my funeral to attend!"

Jacob stood in his bedroom, absolutely unsure as to how he got there.

He looked around.

He was alone.

He frowned and looked down and found he was fully dressed in the suit his Mama had custom made for him, a suit that would have been completely normal when his Old Granddad was still Sheriff.

He raised his hand, grinned.

He was even wearing the correct necktie.

He shifted, feeling something different, ran his hand into his sling, pressed.

He felt something heavy under his right arm, under his sling, and his exploring fingers found the squarish, unlovely, blunt Bulldog revolver, and he grinned, knowing that it would be completely concealed.

His Mama's knock on the door -- she always knocked with a fingernail, always a rat-tat, tat -- and the door opened a little.

"Jacob?" she called. "Would you like me to tie your necktie?"

Jacob's hand went to his throat again and he whispered, "Thank you, Aunt Sarah," and he walked over to the door and drew it open.

His Mama wasn't sure quite how he managed it, but as there was also the scent of lilacs, she suspected she knew how her son, with a healing shoulder, managed to get fully dressed without help.

Without earthly help, that is.

"It looks like you're all ready," Willamina said, hiding her surprise, and Jacob blinked.

"Almost," he blurted, then he turned and walked quickly to his dresser, opened a drawer, pulled out a small leather pouch.

He worked the string loose, reached in, withdrew a silver dollar, dropped it in his coat pocket.

"Okay," he said, not bothering to put the poke away nor shut the drawer, "I'm ready now!"

 

The hole looked all the deeper because it was small, as if to admit a child's coffin.

The Daine boys up on the mountain made it at the Sheriff's special request: it was tapered, almost faceted, the roof was carefully fitted, with nails at precise intervals: it did not have to be large, just enough for a skull and half a pelvis and a few vertebrae.

They stopped first at the funeral home, where Willamina had the mortician open the box, and she looked long at the last earthly remnants of the ancestress who'd become such a surprising part of her life.

Jacob reached in his pocket and reached into the coffin, placed the silver dollar: Willamina looked down, surprised, and saw her son's jaw was uncharacteristically thrust out, with the mandibular muscles a-bulge.

He looked up at his Mama.

"That's for Charon," he said, as if it explained everything.

 

The Sheriff's influence in restoration was often not fully appreciated.

Whether it was restoring the Z&W Railroad, whether it was retrieving the death car from the mineshaft, whether it was publishing her Great-Great-Granddad's Journals, or whether it was the restoration of the original, horse-drawn hearse used in that lean old lawman's day, Sheriff Willamina Keller saw to it that the past was neither forgotten, nor swept into a corner and neglected.

The mortician and his assistant wore the proper black mourning coats and top hats; the hearse was gleaming, burnished, a work of art in its own right, and within, the tiny coffin, visible through the oval glass windows on either side.

Willamina drew the black veil over her face; husband, wife and son rode in the first carriage behind the hearse, and they made their way, with two others, also in carriages but in more modern attire, to the town's cemetery.

The stone still read Sarah Lynne McKenna.

Born Christmas Day, and a year, but there was a line added, a fresh inscription, cleanly incised into polished quartz:

Killed in defense of her family.

Another vehicle joined the procession, also black, but a modern Mercedes limousine, a limousine with diplomatic plates: it followed at a discreet distance, but clearly attached itself to the funeral procession.

 

Richard reached up and swung his son down first, then gave his hand to his beautiful bride: Willamina dismounted with her quiet "Thank you," as she always did, and they gathered at the back of the hearse.

Richard took one side of the tiny coffin, and Jacob, the other: he handled it easily, one-handed, and the two walked to the graveside and placed the coffin gently on the two planks spanning the freshly-dug grave.

Behind them, a little distance away, the ghost hunters that had come up with frustratingly negative results at the railroad roundhouse, frowned at readouts, peered at screens, muttered into hand-held radios and waited.

Jacob stared at the small box, thinking it a shame that such lovely wood should be buried, to just rot.

He saw something cross behind a tombstone down hill a little, and his eyes widened as it came out from behind an old marker.

It was a white wolf.

He'd heard of the white wolf, it appeared at family moments -- his Mama saw it when her brother moved into her Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary's place, without knowing it was originally a horse ranch belonging to that lean old man with the iron-grey mustache he'd heard so much about -- the White Wolf was mentioned in the Journals in several places, and always at a death or something significant.

It was here.

Jacob watched, knowing The Bear Killer was behind him, waiting for that deep baying challenge, waiting for the massive mountain mastiff to charge downhill and attack the intruder --

The Bear Killer sat down on his broad, square backside and yawned most prodigiously.

 

"Thermal imaging, do we have anything?"

"Nothing unusual."

"Magnetometric readout?"
"Nominal and unchanged."

"IR laser?"

"Nothing broken."

"Look sharp, people. This is a graveyard. We should get something!"

 

Jacob stared at the box, looked beyond it to where the White Wolf had been.

I should have seen it move, he thought.

He couldn't have gotten away without me seeing it!

"Hey, check it out," the professorish researcher chuckled. "Come here, fella."

He rubbed the muscled neck, the lean shoulders; the dignified, white coated canid blinked feral yellow eyes and ran his tongue out, clearly enjoying the back rub.

His magnetometer gave a quiet chirp and all thoughts of the white visitor evaporated.

"Magnet," he blurted as he keyed his talkie. "Magnet reading at station six."

"Thermal at six," came the reply.

"John, we getting all this?"

"All channels recording, looking good here."

The pad's screen showed something gauzy and fast -- whatever it was, it came out of the grave they just buried the child in, then it was gone.

"Magnet, report."

The magnetometer was going nuts, both the swinging needle and the cascade of numbers across the digital display betraying something, some energy source that was neither anticipated, nor was it mild.

 

The Reverend Burnett -- Parson Burnett, as the Sheriff called him -- spoke the service, and waited with his head properly bowed while the small coffin was lowered into the grave.

He waited until Willamina, then Jacob, and then his father, each sifted a handful of dirt into the grave, and then he gave his final benediction.

A half-dozen nuns, all in white and with veiled faces, formed a semicircle behind the family: they raised their arms, and one sang a single note, a high, pure C, and held it for several seconds: she lowered hear arms, and the White Sisters harmonized flawlessly, singing their signature Ave Maria.

Willamina sang, as well, her voice as pure and pitch-perfect as theirs: Jacob thought his Mama's voice sounded like a dove, or maybe a seagull, soaring in a cloudless-blue sky, the sun glowing through flawless porcelain wings.

 

"Screen one, screen one, screen one!"

"I see it!"

"My God, are we recording? Are we recording?"

"Record aye," came the calm reply. "All channels in."

"Oh will you look at that," the most veteran of the ghost hunters breathed. "I have never seen anything like that!"

 

Willamina frowned a little behind her black veil, feeling a vibration underfoot.

Jacob heard it as well.

Willamina turned her head a little, as if listening closely for something, and then she recognized it --

Hoofbeats --

The horse was big, black and working hard, pounding hard uphill, and Willamina heard the triumphant screaming, like a Cherokee warrior --

How did I know that's Cherokee? part of her mind asked, and she shoved the question to the side as the hair prickled up on her arms and the earth shivered a little more and a huge black horse came roaring up out of the open grave and a girl about eight or nine years was saddled up on the mare's back and looking all the tinier for the absolute enormity of the Frisian mare's size, and the little girl had a Winchester rifle in her hand and a grin on her face and they came clawing and pounding and soaring out of the little rectangular hole in the ground and the mare danced a little, and reared, and the little girl thrust the rifle to the heavens and screamed with utter triumph, screamed in victory, and the mare spun and reared and windmilled her hooves, and an enormous black dog with a shining, curly coat surged silent as death out of the grave and snapped his jaws and bayed a triumphant challenge to the heavens.

Willamina and Jacob watched the mare and the mountain Mastiff thunder down the gravel road and through the cast-iron-arched gateway, and the girl's joyful screams faded into the distance.

Willamina changed her focus quickly as a dignified older man in a flawless black morning-coat approached her, gleaming top-hat in hand: he bowed, formally, correctly, and Willamina automatically dropped a flawless curtsy.

The dignified gentleman offered Willamina a small box: she took it automatically, and he bowed again, then turned and returned to the Mercedes.

Puzzled, Willamina watched the contingent enter the gleaming black limousine, watched as it backed, turned, departed.

"What's in the box?" Richard asked, and Willamina untied the string, wiggled the lid off.

It was a ring, and a note.

Willamina's jaw fell open and she was grateful she still wore the veil, so nobody could see just how far her mouth was hanging open.

 

Jacob waited until they were home before he said anything at all.

"Mama," he said hesitantly, "I think Aunt Sarah is happy now."

Willamina considered her answer very carefully before making any reply.

"I would like to think that she is," she said slowly,unfolding the note again.

"You never did say what this is all about," Richard murmured.

"It's from ... "

Willamina reached under her veil, wiped the wet from her eyes, handed the note to her husband.

He raised an eyebrow to see the diplomatic crest on the note, then he looked more closely as he re-read the note, twice.

"The ring," he said, and Willamina raised her hand.

She wore the ring, and it was a perfect fit.

"This was found with the skeleton," she whispered.

"It belonged to Sarah ... it was her engagement ring from Daffyd Llewellyn."
She looked at the ancient, faceted ring, blinking rapidly.

"This is the Ring of the Princess."

Richard reached down, took his wife's gloved hand, looked long at the ring he'd only heard of until now.

"And you rate a diplomatic delivery ...?"

Willamina shrugged.

"I know some people."

"I know someone very special." Richard drew his wife into his embrace with a sigh. "That was the loveliest solo, by the way."

Solo? Willamina thought -- I sang with the White Sisters, what do you mean --

Solo?

She looked around, hoping to spot a mirror, knowing she wouldn't but hoping anyway.

Now how did you pull that off, you pale eyed troublemaker? she thought.

 

"It'll take us a month to sort all these readings out."

"I know, but man, we have some results!"

"Well?" the pale-eyed woman smiled, "did I put you in the right place?"

"Lady," the professorish fellow declared, "you put us in exactly the right place!"

The pale-eyed woman smiled, her hand idly caressing the white wolf's ears.

"Good."

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32. APPLAUSE

"How's the shoulder?"

"It's better, Pa. I've been working it like Physical Therapy showed me."

"Good."

"They showed me how to crawl my fingers up the wall like a spider."

"Like a spider?" Richard took a bite of toast, favored his son with a curious look.

"Yes, sir." Jacob walked his fingers across his napkin. "They said a little higher every day."

Richard nodded. "That makes sense."

"Who's your therapist?" Willamina asked, stirring the milk into her bowl of oats.

"Her name is Judy," Jacob said, spider crawling his hand over to the bacon platter and snagging a crispy strip: he was obliged to concentrate on his shoulder to lift it and bring it back to his plate, but he managed, and he saw the approval in both his parents' eyes at the achievement.

He hadn't been able to do that, right-handed, for a good while now.

"Old HIram calls her Judy the Arm Wringer," Jacob added innocently.

Richard snorted in his coffee -- he'd just tilted his mug up to take a drink and his son's comment struck him as funny and he was obliged to grab his napkin and wipe the coffee splash off most of his face.

"Did Hiram have some shoulder work done?" Willamina asked calmly, ignoring her husband's dripping chin.

"Um-hm," Jacob replied through a closed mouth of partly-chewed bacon: he swallowed, took a drink of orange juice. "He had a spur taken off his shoulder."

"Oww," Richard sympathized. "That hurts to think about!"

"Hiram said it was like toothpaste but the joint is so close it hurt awful!"

"I've known men with shoulder spurs," Willamina murmured. "They are painful!"

"HIram said his was from years of gear shifting. He drove truck for a while."

"That would do it," Richard agreed, frowning at his anointed shirt. "I'll have to change, excuse me."

Richard set his coffee cup down and left the room; they heard him ascend the stairs, and Willamina looked at Jacob.

"Jacob," she said, "what did you see at the grave yesterday?"

Jacob grinned and looked at the chrome-plated mirror that was the side of the toaster.

This time the face nodded, with a smile, and Jacob looked at his Mama.

"Sarah wanted to show me what she looked like when she was my age," Jacob said quietly. "She told me about her Snowflake horse and that's the first time I saw her either!" He blinked, remembering the huge mare with feather feet and a long, shining mane, roaring out of the ground and rearing, pounding the air with her forehooves. "She's big!"

"What else was there?"

"She showed me her Bear Killer, and I saw the White Wolf."

"What about when I sang?"

"The Sisters were behind us. I didn't know they were there until they sang and you did too." Jacob smiled brilliantly. "I like it when you sing."

Willamina nodded.

"Mama, will those ghost hunters show you what they got?"

"They're supposed to meet with me tomorrow, Jacob. They said they got so much data it will take them that long to sort it all out."

Jacob nodded.

"Will you be wearing your sling again today?"

Jacob grinned again. "Yes, Mama. Joe Adams called me and he wanted to know if I was still in a sling. He's coming back today and he didn't want to be the only one."

Willamina laughed. "I expect he'll have to catch up on some lessons."

"Yes, ma'am. I saved all mine for him."

"That's very thoughtful of you, Jacob."

"He also can't write left handed very well so I can help him there too."

"How is his hand?" Willamina asked as she rose and gathered dishes for the sink. "Does he have any feeling yet?"

"Some," Jacob admitted. "He said he can feel some but ..."

Jacob rose, stacked his glass in his oats bowl and placed his flatware in the glass, carried it carefully to the sink and handed it to his Mama, then looked up at her.

"Mama, he said he may never be able to use that hand again and he's scared."

"How did you feel after your shoulder got hurt?"

"I was scared too, Mama."

"Did you think at some point your shoulder might not work again?"

He nodded.

She hugged him to her and whispered, "Then you can help him. He is where you were. You can show him it can be overcome."

"I didn't get cut on broken glass, Mama," Jacob protested.

"No," she agreed, "but he'll listen to someone in a sling like him."

"Yes, Mama."

"Now let me run some water in these and I'll be right with you. Your saddlebags are packed?"

"Yes, Mama."

"Remember you have physical therapy again tonight."

"Yes, Mama."

Richard came clumping downstairs with all the stealth of a bull buffalo. "I pre-spotted that shirt," he said, "and I put clothespins on the spots."

"Thank you." Willamina came up on her toes and kissed her husband, patting his chest with the flat of her hand. "You good lookin' hunk of man, kiss me again!"

Jacob discreetly slipped out of the room, slung the saddlebags over his good shoulder, walked out on the front porch.

Apple-horse and Cannonball were both saddled and waiting, and Jacob's eyes went big and round at the sight of a truly huge, gleaming, absolutely black Frisian mare with fuzzy feet and a long mane, standing beside them and making them look considerably smaller than they were.

A little girl in a child's riding-skirt straddled the mare's back -- she was saddled, and the child sized saddle and the child in it were almost ludicrous, owing to the size of the mare, and Jacob remembered thinking it looked like the child was saddled on a dining room table.

"Are you going to school too?" Jacob asked hopefully, and Little Sarah laughed, then morphed into the schoolmarm Sarah he knew.

"No, silly," she smiled. "I just wanted to say hello."
"I don't think my Pa saw you yesterday."

"He didn't."

"Why not?"

Sarah wrinkled her nose. "Men don't like to see these kind of things."

Richard stepped out on the porch and grinned, "I'll be the judge of that!"

"Pa, this is Sarah," Jacob offered helpfully.

"I recognize her from her pictures. Hello, Agent Rosenthal!"

Sarah laughed. "Hello my fellow agent!" she riposted. "I was afraid you might think me wicked or something."

"You're female," Richard smiled. "That means you are complicated." He ran his arm around Willamina's waist. "Just like my wife here."

Sarah nodded approvingly. "You make a cute couple," she nodded. "I'm glad you married better than I did."

"Daffyd?" Willamina blurted.

"Oh good heavens no, Daffyd was an angel!" Sarah said with some dismay. "No, that German lout that couldn't --"

She closed her mouth, frowned.

"Let's just say my father in law was a gentleman, and my husband pretended to be."

"Ah," Willamina nodded knowingly. "One of those."

"Yes, one of those."

The two women shared a look and Richard knew there'd been another one of those secret communications, an understanding that passed without words, something that a mere man would never quite grasp.

"I gotta get to school," Jacob said. "C'mere, Apple."

Apple-horse sidled up to the porch and Jacob swung a leg over the railing, turned his foot sideways to stand on the projecting porch boards, then shoved a polished boot into the doghouse stirrup, balanced for a moment while he slung the saddlebags awkwardly in place, and finally hauled his leg over, his right boot driving into the doghouse like it was magnetized.

He turned to ask his Aunt Sarah if she was going to school with them, and both she and the huge black horse were gone.

 

Two teachers were in the room, watching the two boys, each with his right arm in a white-linen sling, each applying themselves to their lessons.

Neither of the teachers interrupted with one leaned over and whispered to the other, or offered help in gripping a pencil in the awkward hand, or shuffled through a stack of papers to consult on a catch-up lesson.

The teachers were impressed by the close and natural cooperation between the pair, and Mrs. Shaver called for the class to give them a round of applause for the excellence of their work that day.

Even here the pair worked together.

Two boys, their right arms immobilized and healing, happily pounded their left palms together to join in the applause.

There was one thing the two boys did not do together, though ... only one of the pair could see both teachers.

Only the one with the bad shoulder could see the teacher with the round-lensed spectacles, the one wearing a mousy-grey dress with the floor length skirt.

Only one of the pair saw her wink, and then she was gone.

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33. HIGH LONESOME

Jacob's schoolwork did not suffer that week: he maintained his usual standard of excellence, but Mrs. Shaver noticed he seemed unusually quiet, as if he were preoccupied.

Mrs. Shaver had thirty other students to consider, and noted Jacob's preoccupation only in passing: his grades didn't slip, and it was easy to overlook this change, which may have been perfectly normal, considering an active boy was dealing with being less able.

When his Mama met him that evening, she on her red mare and his Appaloosa beside, she was in her trousered uniform and obviously restless.

"You go on, Sheriff," Jacob said. "I can make it okay."

"It's urgent, Jacob," she said, her expression uncomfortable, "but ... okay."

Willamina turned north, and Jacob, to the south.

He rode as he usually did, with The Bear Killer coursing easily beside him, but at the edge of town he hesitated, looked up-mountain.

Apple-horse turned to follow his rider's thoughts, and The Bear Killer turned with them, and they followed a path that was ancient when his Great-Great-Granddad wore the six point star on his Mama's uniform blouse.

Jacob rode to a bench he knew of, a natural shelf of bare rock, wide and deep and facing the lowering sun.

Jacob Keller, nine years old, worked his right arm out of its sling, put his palm down on the saddle horn, then he laid his left hand over his right and pushed up, rounding his shoulders and grimacing, biting his bottom lip and shifting his weight and feeling a sudden *pop* in his back.

He eased the weight off his arms and worked his shoulder a little, then a little more.

I'm getting better, he thought with satisfaction.

I wonder if Old Grampa came up here.

He smiled a little, a quiet smile that narrowed the corners of his young, unwrinkled eyes, a smile that did not spread to his face.

Jacob turned Apple-horse, his eyes busy, quartering the terrain before him like an infantryman: he scanned each quarter from near to far, studying structure -- boulders, downed logs, brush tangles where an attacker might hide.

He did not look at the land like a nine year old boy.

He scanned the terrain like a man who's done it many times, done it to stay alive, just like a lean-waisted old lawman with an iron-grey mustache had done, better than a century before.

Jacob eased his weight onto his legs, stood just a little, frowning, his mind busy.

A boy's mind is quick, and not weighted with the excess of words that slow an adult's thought processes: boys think more quickly, more efficiently, and without realizing it, he'd delved deep into matters that troubled him most of the week, in the only place he could think without interruption, the only place that could offer the solitude he needed to contemplate these matters.

A phrase came to mind, one he'd heard before.

High Lonesome.

He didn't know what it really meant -- his Mama said it was an old term for tying on a wild drunk, the kind a man regrets most sincerely as he's sobering up -- but Jacob suspected it held another meaning.

He thought of home and supper, and his stomach reminded him it was empty enough the side walls were kind of sand papering together, and all of a sudden the supper table held a great appeal, so he and Apple-horse started down the steep, narrow trail, The Bear Killer following.

Jacob rode up to the old house, the Old Sheriff's house, his house, and his Pa came out on the porch, grinning.

"I'm fixing supper," he said cheerfully, wiping his hands on a shop rag -- at least it was a clean shop rag -- and Jacob felt a sense of delight, because his Pa was a pretty good cook, especially if he made burgers.

Jacob liked his well done on the outside and his Pa made 'em just right.

Never mind that Ma wouldn't eat 'em and muttered something about charcoal or incinerate or suchlike -- Jacob did not care -- that meant more for him and his Pa.

"I'll unsaddle Apple-horse," Richard offered. "You watch the burgers."

"Yes, sir," Jacob grinned, throwing up a leg and cascading to the ground: he landed easily, ran up the stairs and into the house.

Richard was indeed fixing burgers, and he'd fixed them according to his usual formula, and Jacob found that it was indeed possible -- owing to Richard's not removing them from the stove when he came out on the porch -- it was entirely possible for a nine-year-old boy to operate a fire extinguisher, one-handed.

He and his father spent the rest of the evening running the shop vac and wet-wiping everything, and the two of them agreed they should replace their dry-powder extinguishers with CO2 units, because dry powder, they learned, was the absolute devil to try and clean up.

At no time did either of them suggest Richard should cease fixing burgers: as a matter of fact, they washed the powder off the burgers and ate them anyway.

It took more cleanup time than either of them realized to get the powder up, but somehow they managed, and deep into the evening -- while Willamina was still at work, tending things the Sheriff must, in the course of the office.

After the kitchen was absolutely spotless -- after even the plants in the window were washed free of the clinging powder -- Jacob asked, "Pa, what's that rock shelf called, the one above Roberts Fork?"
"That?" Richard asked, frowning. "Your mother talked about that once. She called it High Lonesome." He gave the windowsill a final wipe, rinsed the cleaning rag out under the faucet. "She said the Old Sheriff used to go up there to think. Why?"

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34. A GOOD THING

Jacob worked one handed, doing the best he could cleaning stalls; he tried to hit the stalls every day, because he learned (the hard way) that even at idle, horses have exhaust, and exhaust piles up, and if he gets rid of the ... exhaust ... on a daily basis, it's less work.

Barn work was family work and they all pulled on their gum boots and between the three of them, made as short a work of it as they could.

They also cut up, laughed, and "made wit' da smaht remahks," as Willamina put it: the horses were turned out for the duration, of course, and The Bear Killer generally made it his personal business to find a sunny spot out of the wind where he could roll over on his side and drowse.

If one were quite honest, one would admit that The Bear Killer had his part of the operation down pat.

Their barn cats only marginally tolerated the humans that disturbed their feline demesne; Willamina caressed them fearlessly, Richard did not attempt to go near them, and Jacob watched carefully to see whether the cats wished to be approached, bearing in mind the pale-eyed admonition that cats were worshiped as gods in ancient Egypt, and had never forgotten that fact.

The young of these ear-notched and scarred barn cats, however, had no such diffidence, and after one such had happily batted at The Bear Killer's tail, after another came with rolling gait and curious tilt of the head to pitty-paw at The Bear Killer's forepaw, they both cuddled up against the massive mountain mastiff's sun-warmed fur, and curled up in contentment themselves, for they'd learned they had a friend in this huge, warm napping partner.

When all was done and fresh straw laid, tools and boots cleaned and set back, Willamina curled her lip and whistled, and both Cannonball and Apple-horse came trotting over to the fence, ears swinging, eager for their bait of Union Workman tobacco. Willamina used the molasses cured, shredded leaf to bribe the horses, and to her delight they bribed as well as any politician: she was a product of her modern generation, and rather than whittle slivers off a plug, she had an aluminum-foil pack of chawin' tobacker shoved in the hip pocket of her barn jeans for the purpose, and while the horses were receiving caresses, Willamina asked, "Jacob, do you remember me shooting coyotes off Cannonball?"

Jacob blinked, surprised: like most males, he was a visual creature, and the mental image he had in that moment was a 'yote, perched grinning on his Mama's saddle.

"No ma'am -- I mean yes ma'am," Jacob corrected himself.

"Do you remember last year's parade, when someone threw a cannon cracker and that one horse just plainly came unglued?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jacob nodded. "I played hell catchin' him too!"

Father and mother both shared an amused look and silently chose to let the language slide, for his statement was accurate.

When the mare in question threw her rider and took out in utter panic back through the parade, scattering the marching elements, Jacob and Apple-horse whipped around and gave chase, and fortunately the mare's blind panic took her in a straight line, right down the highway.

Jacob followed, working his lariat loose, shaking a loop out, and Apple-horse faded a little to the left, for boy and horse played roping games before, chasing after Cannonball in their big back pasture, and Jacob favored coming at a horse from its left rear.

It wasn't necessary this time: the mare wasn't used to high altitude and ran out of steam fairly quickly, and Jacob came trotting back into town, leading the mare as if it were the most natural thing in the world: the mare was winded did not look in the least little bit abashed, but Apple-horse had a decidedly satisfied look about him.

Willamina gave her son a warm look of affection, and his little-boy grin near to split his face in response as his Mama said, "I think that was one of the best pursuit-and-capture rides I've seen in my life!"

"Yes, ma'am," he mumbled, grinning and digging at the dirt with his boot toe.

"Now. Jacob. Shooting from horseback. If a horse is not used to sudden loud noises, what do they tend to do?"

"They run, ma'am. In a group they stampede but they stick together because horses are herd animals."

"How do we get them used to loud noises?"

"Exposure, ma'am."

"How do we expose them?"

Jacob looked hopefully at his Mama, for they'd had this conversation before, which was the reason he could give answers so easily.

Willamina caressed Cannonball's long nose and whispered, "We'll be back," then she tilted her head to her son: This way, the gesture said, and Richard's hand was warm between his son's shoulder blades as the three trooped back to the house.

Willamina went to the roll top desk, slid it open.

Jacob's eyes widened at the sight of an oiled gunbelt and a matching Slim Jim holster, at the walnut handle and brass frame of what he recognized as a percussion revolver.

Willamina unwound the belt from around the holster. "Arms up."

She wrapped the belt around her boy's middle, snugged it up. "How does that feel?"

Jacob lowered his hand, ran it down the holster's length, gripped the handle, looked solemnly up at his Mama.

"Feels fine, ma'am."

Willamina picked up a second gunrig, identical to the first, only right hand holster instead of left: she slung this around her own middle, then she picked up a white tin of percussion caps, slid it in her flannel shirt pocket. "Let's see if Apple-horse likes it."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Get some alfalfa pellets, he loves those."

"Yes, ma'am."

They returned to the barn; the horses came back to the fence, snuffing, hoping for another treat.

"You bum," Willamina murmured, caressing both horses' noses: "you know we've got something, don't you?"

Lazy blinks and slashing tails were their only answer.

"Fetch out your revolver."

Jacob did so, carefully keeping it pointed at the ground.

"You've shot percussion before."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You did well with it, too, as I remember."

"Yes, ma'am."

"We're only going to cap these today."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina twisted the lid off the tin of Remington caps.

"Half-cock," she said, and Jacob drew the Navy Colt repro's hammer back a little, trying the cylinder to make sure it rotated.

Willamina dexterously capped all six nipples, then eased the hammer down in the notch between, handed the revolver back to her son, who holstered: he watched, solemn-faced, as she capped her own.

"Take Apple-horse three fence posts that way," Willamina nodded, "and I'll take Cannonball up this way."

Jacob did so, murmuring to his stallion: the horses paced with their riders, curious.

Willamina reached into the big patch pocket of her denim jacket, pulled out a few alfalfa pellets, dribbled them onto the flat wood fence rail.

Jacob did the same.

When the horses reached up to lip off the treats, mother and son drew their capped pistols, pointed them to the rear, and fired a percussion cap.

Cannonball's ears twitched, but that was her only response; Apple-horse drew back a step, then came back for the rest of the alfalfa pellets.

 

Chief deputy JW Barrents watched, one boot up on the bottom rail, arms crossed and his chin on his arms, as mother and son rode together: they would each draw and point their pistols to the rear, at arm's length, and he heard the sharp *blap* of a percussion cap: he watched as they gradually increased the proximity of the percussion to the horse's head, until finally, at a gallop, young Jacob could chop his pistol down like was throwing a rock, at about 45 degrees from straight ahead, and Apple-horse would never break stride, nor even flinch.

Barrents could not help but grin, for his own father spent time with him in exactly that same drill.

He remembered the day, the feeling of horse flesh under him, a good revolver in hand, and his father's attention, and the memory was a good one.

Gold can be stolen, he knew, money could disintegrate and investments lose their value, but the time invested with the young is time truly invested.

Likely he himself would never be a wealthy man, but the memories his father gave him in those days were good memories ... memories no dollar could every buy.

He would likely never be a wealthy man, but Chief Deputy JW Barrents could not but grin, for he was the richest scoundrel ever to fill a pair of boots.

He had the memories his father gave him, and those memories made him wealthy indeed.

He looked across the field, raised his arm, and the Sheriff raised hers in reply.

"You are doing a good thing," he said in a quiet voice, then he returned to his patrol vehicle and resumed the day's work.

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35. "YOUR DOG IS OVER HERE!"

Sharon's left hand had eyes of its own as it levitated and hovered for a moment, then fired on a low ballistic arc the short distance to the telephone receiver.

Her right hand was on its own aerial mission, pouncing from altitude to the cracked coffee mug bristling with writing devices of several kinds -- it had been her favorite mug, with big bold black letters: on one side it said DAMNED IF I DO, and on the opposite, DAMNED IF I DON'T.

When it was not longer suitable for holding coffee (she would have used it with the crack on the uphill side but it leaked and she didn't like cleaning coffee rings off her desk) it got turned into her favorite pencil holder, and this nearly a decade ago, and in that time it lived within a quarter of an inch of the spot it currently occupied.

Sharon's hand made a feminine curling motion, and to the uninitiated it might have appeared that the handset jumped into her palm; that wasn't the case, of course, but she had the move perfected: phone to the ear, pencil to the pad before her, and professional voice, at least for the first word and a half.

"Sheriff's off --" she began, then with a surprised look she said "Slow down, now, a little slower, take a deep breath" and she looked at the caller ID display and blinked.

"Janet?" she said. "Janet, take a deep breath for me, that's it, now is anyone hurt?"

A pause, she blinked a few times, quickly, dropped the pencil and hit a button beside her phone three times.

"Janet, hold on, I"m transferring you to the Sheriff, hold on, okay?"

 

Willamina looked up as her phone buzzed three times.

"Excuse me, Chief," she said, and her discussion of purchasing multiple automatic external defibrillators and arranging training just got put on hold.

Sharon never, ever hit the button three times unless it was fire, murder, or the cows were out.

"Sheriff Keller," Willamina said, her eyes hard, her voice professional, then she blinked and Fire Chief Finnegan saw something he very, very rarely saw on this woman's face.

He saw surprise.

"Janet, this is Willa, what's wrong?"

The chief saw her eyes widen a little and swing to the right.

"My dog? Over there? Is anyone hurt?"

The Chief ran his mental inventory -- he knew the Sheriff had two dogs she used for both law enforcement and personal purposes, one was the size of a pony and looked like it could eat a tractor-trailer for breakfast, the other was a military surplus Shepherd or maybe one of those Belgian dogs that look like a Shepherd, and she had a lazy bench leg Beagle that fell asleep every time it stopped walking, that was the best dog he ever saw for sniffing out narcotics --

"I'll be right over," Willamina said, and hung up.

She came around the desk, snatched the form from between the Chief's fingers, turned and slapped it on her desk blotter: she snatched up her pen, signed it beside the X, her signature bold, readable -- she handed him the form. "Purchase approved, make it happen," and just that quick she was out the door.

The fire chief blinked.

He'd just been admitted to the Sheriff's snactum, he'd just begun his pitch for the purchase of the AEDs for both his department, for the municipal facilities -- the water and sewer plants, the combined muny/township garage, the police station and the Sheriff's office, and two in reserve, plus training for all employees -- he knew the Sheriff was given authority to authorize purchases, and he expected discussion, negotiation, comparative pricing, a bid process.

He looked at the signed form and wondered if this was the way purchases usually went.

 

Willamina backed out of her space in front of the Sheriff's office, eased down on the throttle, turned, turned again: it was not far at all to the Adams household, and she knew Jacob went there after school to help his healing schoolmate, the one who fell on broken glass, the one who had to have such extensive surgery to his forearm and hand.

She knew the Adams household was in town and not far at all, and she was right -- the Appaloosa stallion tethered in the front yard was a clue -- she braked quickly, shut off the ignition, got out and slammed the door, hotfooting up the sidewalk as she hit the remote lock button.

Willamina hammered on the door with the heel of her fist. "Mrs. Adams!" she called, then hit the doorbell button three times quickly with her thumb.

"Mrs. Adams! Janet, this is Willamina, are you in there?"

Willamina stepped back, looking around, listening.

Nobody was outside the house.

If The Bear Killer came over and something happened, it would probably be outside --

Footsteps, hurrying toward the door.

Jacob shoved the door open, grinning. "Come on in!" he called, his cheerful hail absolutely the last thing she expected.

Willamina squatted quickly, gripping her son's hand. "Jacob, is everything all right?"

"Mama, you gotta see this," Jacob gushed, the pulled from her grip and ran back down the hall.

The Sheriff came to her feet, followed, her heels loud on the spotless laminate floor.

Janet Adams turned as the Sheriff came into the room.

Her face was wet and she stumbled blindly for the Sheriff, clutched her and almost collapsed, sobbing into Willamina's shoulder, and the Sheriff looked at her grinning son, and then at the huge, curly-furred, absolutely black mountain Mastiff a-sprawl on the floor, one child in diapers, cuddled up against his belly, behind his forelegs, sound asleep -- one was draped over his rib cage, looking up at the Sheriff and looking like a Kewpie doll in a pink T-shirt and a diaper -- twins, the Sheriff thought, twin girls about a year old -- The Bear Killer grinned up at the Sheriff, looking absolutely pleased with himself -- and young Joe Adams, Jacob's school chum, his sling hanging around his neck, limp and forgotten as his stitch-pulled and bandaged forearm lay across The Bear Killer's neck and shoulder.

Joe was staring at his injured hand.

His injured hand was moving.

He looked up at the Sheriff.

"I can move my hand," he said in a small, wondering voice, then he grinned and he added excitedly, "I can feel his fur!"

When Janet calmed down enough to take a breath and blow her nose and wipe her eyes, Willamina drew her away, into the kitchen, knowing the kitchen is often a woman's Place of Power, a place where the exerted control, and Willamina knew she needed that steadying surrounding: she looked quickly through the cupboards, found two mugs and some tea, employed the microwave to heat water, and in not long at all -- time enough for Janet to wipe her face and her eyes and compose herself -- the two sat together, sharing the fragrance of Early Grey, and finally Janet was ready to talk.

She talked, and the Sheriff listened.

The surgeons repaired what they could, neurosurgeons worked their magic as best they could, vessels were rejoined, repaired, tendons were not damaged but the tendon sheaths were, and Janet had been warned -- while carefully out of earshot of the drowsy, drugged, post-surgical patient -- that there was the possibility that her sons may never regain full use of the hand: that he may not be able to fully close his hand, or he may not have strength in the hand, and there was the very good chance he will never feel anything with the hand.

Janet looked into the amber depths of her oolong, shivering a little, and Willamina laid an understanding hand on the mother's forearm.

"I didn't know he brought The Bear Killer in the house," she whispered, "and by the time I got back there, the twins were all over him, and then Joe ..."
She turned her head and Willamina saw fresh tears cascading down the woman's face.

Janet looked at the Sheriff and whimpered, "He said he could feel his fur and I saw his fingers moving!"

Janet's eyes were not the only ones that leaked, there in the Adams household's kitchen.

Part of Willamina's mind cynically observed, "That's it, sister, play a role," and in that moment Willamina was one mother, sharing a moment with another mother, for they both had sons, and they both knew what it was to gain the victory of healing progress.

Part of Willamina was relieved that the call of "Your dog is over here" was not followed by "Your dog ate my children for breakfast" or something of the kind.

And part of her was quietly proud that her son was wise enough to bring The Bear Killer into the household when he was most needed.

Willamina knew the triumph of overcoming an injury, and she knew this was exactly the encouragement a boy might need, the affirmation that yes, I can heal, and yes I am healing, and yes it will get better.

She was right.

 

There was no betrayal of a confidence to fill Sharon, her dispatcher, in on what happened that afternoon, and even if Willamina hadn't, the news was spread by a very happy mother.

The news did not surprise the good Dr. Sanders, nor any of the hospital staff there in Firelands; they all remembered a boy not much older than Jacob, a lad dying of cancer, whose life was made joyful for a short time when the Sheriff put him on her Cannonball mare and walked beside, her hand gripping the back of his belt, and the two of them traveled the little distance out of town, talking quietly, the Sheriff on one side, gripping his belt, a nurse on the other, gripping his belt as well: it was the first time he'd been out of the hospital in three months, it was a lovely day, and by the time they got back, he had a grin on his face as broad as two Texas townships, and although his condition deteriorated quickly, he and the Sheriff became fast friends, and she brought Tank, the Belgian malinois she'd acquired as military surplus equipment -- when Tank was in uniform, in his vet and harness, he was all business, but when Willamina removed these in the lad's hospital room, Tank shoved his black, wet nose over the edge of the bed, sniffing curiously, then surged up on the hospital bed and introduced himself, snuffing loudly at the grinning, pale lad and finally laying down beside him, his muzzle on the boy's chest.

Willamina knew it took most of his strength to do it, but he raised his arm and laid his hand on Tank's shoulder, and Tank's tail thumped the covers happily as he did.

The Sheriff's bomb dog spent a considerable amount of time in the Firelands hospital that next two weeks, and at the boy's funeral, the Sheriff held his mother's hand as she read aloud her dying son's last will and testament.

"I bequeath you all a ride on a horse," he'd written.

"I bequeath you a sunny day and a clear sky, flowers in the meadow and the hand of a friend to steady you whenever you need it.

"I bequeath you a warm and furry dog to keep you company when nobody else is there to help when you are alone and scared and too weak to turn over on your own.

"I bequeath you a friend who will hold your hand and tell you she'll meet you in the Valley, and you know she will, because you saw it in her pale eyes."

 

That night Willamina lay awake, staring at the ceiling and holding her husband's hand.

He finally rolled up on his left side.

"Out with it," he said. "What's eating you?"

Willamina swallowed.

"You remember the funeral today."

"I remember."

"You remember his mother read his last words."

"I remember."

Willamina rolled over on her side, faced her husband in the darkness. "Richard, do you remember the line about knowing she would meet you in the Valley because you saw it in her pale eyes?"

"Umm-hm."

"Richard, I never said that to him."

Richard was quiet for a long moment.

"Maybe it was the pain meds he was on," he suggested.

Willamina rolled over on her back, unconvinced, then she rolled over again and embraced her husband, shivering.

"Hold me," she whispered, and he did.

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36. FAMILY LEGEND

The Old Sheriff leaned back against the rock face, his hand on the black, curly fur of the Tibetan Mastiff drowsing in the sun beside him.

This was a much smaller Mastiff than he was used to, it was barely longer than his Beagle dog, but it had the button-black eyes and the sinner's-heart black fur, and it had the same warm and loyal nature of his sire.

There had never been any doubt as to a name.

His sire earned the name by locking his jaws on the throat of a wounded grizzly, years before, a grizzly that was put down with Kentucky rifles and two lawmen with more modern hardware, but brought finally to earth with a young dog -- about this size, as a matter of fact -- a dog that sang death and launched like death's black arrow between the Old Sheriff and Marshal Macneil, defying one of the largest, fiercest and most dangerous creatures that ever roamed the mountains.

The Old Sheriff's hand rested on the almost-asleep dog's shoulder, and he remembered the day with a surprising clarity.

Old men do that, he thought, and smiled a little, a smile that tightened the corners of his eyes but did not extend any further, a smile his little girl used to say "hid beside your eyes, Daddy!" and then giggled, and he smiled again, for that too was a good memory.

The Old Sheriff sat on the rock shelf, his back against a smooth face of broke-off granite, listening to the wind, listening to his golden stallion crop the sparse grass, remembering.

The Bear Killer -- he'd been Sarah's Bear Killer, he'd been no bigger than his two fists together when Macneil reached into his coat pocket and gave the wiggling, pink-tongue pup to little Sarah, and she a little girl yet -- The Bear Killer decided not to go to Europe with Sarah: there were tears at the depot, for this pale eyed child of his loins knew she would never see her beloved mountains again, and yet she went: she knew she was leaving family and friends and all she knew, and still she left: such is the way of the young, leaving the nest, casting their chances to the spring winds.

The Old Sheriff stood and watched the steam train disappear into the distance, his hat in his hand, held up at arm's length, and the figure in the tailored, electric-blue gown stood on the rear platform of the passenger car, her white kerchief fluttering in farewell, and long after the cars disappeared around the far curve, he stood there, and more than one noticed than when he finally moved, he looked to have aged in that brief time.

He turned, and the curly-furred mountain Mastiff, silver around the muzzle now, and old, moved with him.

He walked slowly, somberly, his shoulders weighted with the years, and he got as far as the street before stopping and looking around, as he always did.

He looked over at the Silver Jewel, but not with the eyes of a man in search of a drink, or companionship.

He looked at the brightly-painted saloon and hotel, at the clean curtains behind the windows, the neatly-lettered sign, the well-kept steps and boardwalk, and he nodded with satisfaction: the Silver Jewel had been his, ever since he offered the crooked, thieving owner the choice of a knife fight or a poke of gold for the place.

He remembered a washed-out, worn-looking face, peering hopelessly from a cracked, dirty, flyblown upstairs window.

He remembered, and he closed his eyes, and he opened them again, and he looked down at The Bear Killer.

The big Mastiff looked up -- he didn't have to look far, the animal was the size of a young pony -- and muttered something, deep in his chest.

Sarah's folks had been on the depot as well, and they thought it unusual for the Sheriff to leave without a word; Levi took a step forward, as if to follow, but Bonnie laid her hand on her husband's, shook her head, for the knew the man wished to be alone -- for all that Sarah was their daughter, they knew the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache was much deeper than he looked, and she knew he needed this time, and she was right: the family Rosenthal returned to their carriage, and then to their own home, returned in near silence, for one of their own was flown their little nest, and they missed her already.

 

"Mama," Jacob asked, cupping his hand fearlessly under the big Mastiff's mandible, "why is The Bear Killer grey around his mouth?"

"He's old, sweetheart," Willamina replied. "In dog years he's past retirement age."

"Oh." Jacob turned around, sat down on the floor, his arm around The Bear Killer's neck, and the big Mastiff laid his head contentedly across Jacob's thigh with a great sigh.

"Mama ... how old do dogs get?"

Willamina gave Jacob a long look, and he saw something in his Mama's pale eyes he hadn't seen before.

He saw uncertainty.

 

The Old Sheriff, years before, knew this same restless feeling.

He'd stood where he stood right now and looked across at The Silver Jewel, up the street to his right, then he swung his gaze to his left and looked at their whitewashed church, and crossed the street in that direction.

He'd gone in, with his hat in his hand, and he contemplated the silence, and the handmade altar, and he spoke his thoughts aloud.

That had been right after the derailment, the one where a rail drove up through a passenger car's belly and killed all those people, the derailment where he found little Angela under a pile of scrap timber, and he threw the side of the car off her with a madman's energy, he picked her up and threw his head back and screamed his sorrow to the uncaring heavens above, for as he held this limp little stranger, he held his own little daughter, dead of the small pox twenty years before.

He'd walked into the tidy little church and stood before the altar and he spoke his heart.

He damned himself for going off to that damned war, he condemned himself for leaving his wife and a child to be at home while he chased across the country like a damned fool, and he paid with their deaths.

"I have been justly punished for my sins, Lord," he'd said. "Connie was a ... a lighthouse and a beacon, the only good and decent thing in a world gone bloody and insane, and she was the anchor that kept my sanity through everything ... through it all."

He bowed his head, grief in his heart and sorrow in his words.

"Lord, I'd like to do better.

"I lost one little girl because of my foolishness.

"I want this one. I want to raise this little girl as my own and give her the life I could not give my Dana."

A great, deep, stentorian voice boomed, "AND SOOOO YOOOOU SHALLLLL!" and the color ran out of the Sheriff's face like red ink out of an eyedropper, and a laughing Charlie Macneil stood up from where he'd been crouched and hid behind the piano, and a grinning Parson Belden, from behind the altar.

It was to their credit that neither man ever told anyone how the Sheriff swayed in that moment and came close to passing out.

Charlie came down and shook the man's hand and gripped his shoulder and told him he'd already started the proceedings, the Judge was sympathetic to the cause and the adoption would be formalized quickly: Parson Belden gripped his other hand and pounded his other shoulder, congratulating him on the new addition to his family, and to his dying day the Old Sheriff could not remember the exact words they said.

All he could really remember were the two words that he spoke in his heart, where the Almighty could hear them, for he could not force them out past the lump in his neck.

Thank You!

 

The Bear Killer usually slept on the rug in front of the stove, where it was warm, where the heat penetrated his old bones and kept his joints from aching too badly.

It was rare that he was up through the night, unless intruders were a-prowl, or a storm woke him.

Tonight, though, his soul was restless, and so was young Jacob's, and the lad came downstairs and crept over to where the big Mastiff lay, and curled up against The Bear Killer's back, with his arm over the great canine's shoulder.

Thus comforted, boy and dog slept.

 

The Old Sheriff sat on the rock shelf, high above everything else, the place he called High Lonesome.

He sat here with his hand on The Bear Killer's shoulder, and he felt the canine's head come up, and he opened his eyes.

He'd fallen asleep, he realized, and part of him was grateful for the rest, as his eyes scanned the bare shelf, and his eyebrows tightened a little.

A white wolf looked at him.

A white wolf, and two cubs.

One cub was as flawlessly white as its dam; it blinked, warily, yellow eyes regarding him with suspicion.

Its twin -- at least in size, if not in build -- tilted its head and regarded him with button-black eyes.

The White Wolf came pacing over, slowly, almost stiff-legged, touched noses with The Bear Killer.

The Sheriff felt The Bear Killer's tail raise and fall, slowly, and he realized the big Mastiff's breathing was labored.

He slipped his hand back a little, pressed against the ribs behind the foreleg, felt for a heart beat.

It was there, but slow, slow.

He heard Parson Belden's words, almost as if they were spoken aloud:

"For all things there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens."

The Old Sheriff bit his bottom lip, his hand rubbing his old friend's shoulder slowly, gently.

The Bear Killer muttered something deep in his chest and lifted his head and laid it on the old lawman's thigh and gave a contented sigh.

 

Jacob woke.

The Bear Killer was muttering as he rolled over and got up.

Jacob rolled over on his backside, got his feet under him, stood.

"Do you need to go out?" he asked quietly.

The Bear Killer looked at him and gave a quiet whuff, and paced for the front door.

Jacob opened the door.

The Bear Killer paced outside, flowed down the steps, then turned and looked at Jacob and whuffed again.

Jacob shoved bare feet into his boots and followed.

 

Chief Deputy JW Barrents was restless.

He'd relieved one of the younger deputies -- the man's wife was in labor and Barrents happily told him to get the hell out of here, go to your wife! -- he would work the rest of the man's shift and with a glad heart, for he knew what it was to stand with his own wife when she labored to birth their children.

It was a restless night and his hand strayed down to his holstered 1911, the Government model with the Thunderbird engraved just aft of the slide serrations: his forefinger rubbed the totem, and old knowledge stirred in his heart.

An owl swept low in front of him and he slowed -- he'd been well less than 40 miles an hour when the silent messenger made its pass -- the obsidian eyed Navajo braked, and a familiar, very large black dog crossed the road in front of him, and an equally familiar lad in pajamas with his arm in a sling beside.

Barrents blinked, his jaw dropping open.

Jacob?

Barrents knew he couldn't just stop the cruiser here, there was no shoulder wide enough to allow traffic to pass -- he'd have to go turn around --

He rolled down the window.

"Jacob!"

Boy and dog disappeared into the brush as if they'd never seen him.

 

The Old Sheriff tilted his head as the White Wolf reached down, licked her pups, both of them, then nudged the black one with her muzzle.

The pup took a few steps forward, licked The Bear Killer's jowl, its little tail whipping happily, and The Bear Killer's tail lifted, and fell.

 

Jacob scrambled up the path after The Bear Killer.

He knew where he was going.

He knew there was only one place the path went.

It was an easier climb if he was a-horse, but he persevered, and he and The Bear Killer came out on the swept-clean rock shelf, high above and hidden, an ancient place of solitude.

The Bear Killer's head sagged, his breath labored, and Jacob went to his knees, slipping his arm out of the sling, ignoring the pain of the healing joint's movement as he embraced the big Mastiff's neck.

"Not now," he whispered desperately. "Bear Killer, not now!"

He looked up, looked over The Bear Killer's shoulder, stood.

The White Wolf stood in the half-light, staring at him.

Jacob's free hand slipped into the sling, closed on nothing: behind him, Barrents, silent as usual, saw the messenger of the gods, the owl, as it swept over them again, and he knew he -- they -- were supposed to be here.

The clouds drew free of the moon's silver face, and he saw the boy on his knees, and the big dog as it sank to the ground: he saw the White Wolf, and her get, and he knew the Thunder Bird had indeed guided his steps this night, for he was seeing what his ancestor saw in this very place.

 

Doctor George Flint usually wore a white man's suit, a white man's starched shirt and necktie: he usually spoke in the cultured tones of a Harvard graduate, his language was most frequently couched in the subdialect of medicine, at least when he was where he was usually seen.

Tonight he stood on the smooth rock, behind the Old Sheriff, feeling the man's sorrow, but feeling his wonder as well, for this man knew that all traveled in the Great Circle, and he knew that in death there was life.

Doctor George Flint, a pure blood Navajo, touched the beaded Thunder Bird he wore, and watched as The White Wolf nudged her black get toward his sire, and he saw the curly-furred pup give due homage by grooming his sire's underjaw.

Of all the white men he knew, only this man who sat with his dying friend knew Doctor George Flint's true name.

Walks-the-Stars raised his arms and began to sing, softly, an ancient song of passage, a song that guided the soul of the departng and welcomed the soul of the arriving, for in all things there was balance.

The Old Sheriff reached down and the curly-furred pup snuffed at this strange, pale hand, and then licked it, and then allowed it to caress his young ears.

The Old Sheriff felt the big Mastiff's head relax, and he felt the soul leave his old and trusted friend, and the White Wolf raised her head and sang, and her song was as ancient and as potent as the one the Navajo chanted, for as one departed, another arrived, and it was as it should be.

 

The Bear Killer made it to the High Lonesome, but the effort cost him.

Head hanging, he breathed hard, staggering, and Jacob sat down, sat with his back to a smooth, broke-off granite face, and The Bear Killer lay down with his head on Jacob's thigh.

"Don't leave me," Jacob begged, his whisper loud in the stillness. "Bear Killer, don't leave me!"

He looked over at The White Wolf, and saw she was not alone: two pups sat before her, watching him as well: one was as white as she, and the other ...

The other was black as a sinner's heart, and curly furred.

Behind him, he heard a voice, and he knew the voice, and he heard the Navajo song he'd heard once before, when an old man died and he and Barrents were the only ones with him: Jacob bit his bottom lip and he felt The Bear Killer behind the foreleg, felt the magnificent heart slow, and something flew low over the rock shelf, something silent and grey and moving fast, and The White Wolf raised her muzzle and sang a song as ancient as the one the Navajo deputy chanted.

Jacob felt The Bear Killer's head sag, and he felt the chest sigh out a final breath.

 

There is an undercut, on a rock shelf, high on the side of a mountain.

The place is lonely and windswept, it can be reached by a path more ancient than any living today.

The undercut is blocked up with rocks, and the rocks are carefully cribbed in place, and the bones it guards rested undisturbed for many years.

The bones were seen, far ahead in time, when a container, and then another container, was deposited with ceremony and with solemnity, containers of ashes, the ashes of those who knew the significance of this place, the ashes of those who knew the family legend.

The legend spoke of a boy, and of a man, who brought a curly-black pup home from this place, and of a white wolf that appeared at certain times.

There were those who claimed a visit to this place at the right phase of the moon would gain the visitor the blessing of the Owl, that silent messenger of the gods, and if one were unusually fortunate, one might see -- for only a moment -- one just might catch a glimpse of The White Wolf, watching yellow-eyed, with a black pup on one side and a white pup on the other.

But these are legends, and nobody believes legends anymore.

 

The Old Sheriff woke again, and the young Bear Killer raised his head, regarding the old lawman with happy eyes and a happier tail.

The old lawman smiled again, and this time it did spread to the rest of his face.

He rubbed the young Mastiff's head, grinned as an energetic pink tongue enthusiastically laundered the caressing hand.

"Come on, fella," he said, "what say we go home."

 

Chief Deputy Barrents walked with Jacob up to the porch.

The door opened as they approached; Willamina was a light sleeper, and the approach of a vehicle up their long drive guaranteed she would greet any visitors at the door, admittedly in a flannel nightgown and with a handful of double barrel shotgun.

She parked the double gun as her son and her chief deputy approached the porch steps.

Barrents hung back two paces as Jacob climbed the steps, his face wet, and suddenly a little black head thrust out of his sling and began washing the salt off her son's face.

Jacob looked up at her, biting his bottom lip, and finally he said, "Mama, this is Bear Killer."

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37. ANCESTRY

 

Long and long ago, a well-to-do Chinaman sailed the wide and salty Pacific and established a business in the booming market called San Francisco.

His exact business is not remembered, nor is his name, but two of his family were noteworthy: the pair accompanied him wherever he went, silent, seldom speaking, quietly attentive: he called them by names that were unfriendly to the Western tongue, and they answered only to him.

San Francisco was described as little and full of fleas and it was said it tended to burn down every five minutes.

This was an exaggeration.

Every five days, or so it seemed, but not every five minutes, but one conflagration roared through the Chinatown section, destroying the merchant's business, setting off multiple explosions and a devil's sorcery of fireworks, and the only survivors of the rich and unnamed Chinaman's household were his two silent, faithful servants.

When it was evident all was lost and they could but save themselves, the pair ran into the night: huge, black and graceful, their black fur singed by flame and embers, they flowed easily through the confused darkness, seeking what they knew, seeking high ground, seeking the mountains.

And so it was that a mating pair of Tibetan mountain dogs established themselves in the California mountains.

How, exactly, Marshal Charlie Macneil came up with his famous Dawg, is also not recorded: it is known, however, that Dawg did not belong to the Marshal, Dawg chose to keep company with the Marshal, and was free to come and go as he saw fit.

It is known, from our study of the Old Sheriff's journals, that when a woods colt named Sarah was heartbroken because her Uncle Charlie and Dawg were going away to Denver, the Marshal reached into a voluminous coat pocket and pulled out a ball of wiggle and grunt, a warm and furry gift for the little girl, and little Sarah wasted no time -- after giggling happily when the little pink tongue happily laundered her face and ears -- giving her Twain Dog a baffie and pouring in some of her Mommy's baffie salts 'cause they smelt good and little Twain Dog sat contentedly in the warm water with soap suds piled up on his furry head like a jeweled crown.

It was not until Twain Dog -- who accepted more members into his pack, people like the Old Sheriff and the returned Charlie Macneil -- not until Twain Dog snuffed out the wounded grizzly, not until he shot between the two lawmen and not until he launched himself like the avenging arrow of Death itself, to lock his young jaws on the grizzly's windpipe -- not until then did he shed his puppy name and acquire his grown-dog name.

Bear Killer.

The Bear Killer grew to a truly impressive size and was mistaken at a distance as perhaps a melanistic and over-furred African lion, escaped from a zoo, or taken for some huge dog, but much further away, due to his great size -- a fact that saved his life, as the marksman shooting at him held far too high, believing it not possible for a dog to attain such a gigantic stature.

The Bear Killer lived a good and full life, a life full of adventure, and when it was time, he left his seed in fertile ground, and so another generation of pure bred Mountain Dog came to be, thanks to another of its kind escaped from a passing train.

We do not know how this black pup came under the care of a white wolf, but we do know he was raised as such for a time, until an old man's sorrowing heart called to it, called in a language known only to the canine soul.

Less is known about subsequent generations.

There were rumors of a hermit who kept no company but that of three huge dogs, bigger than most saddlehorses according to legend, but this was never established; there were rumors of huge black dogs coursing the mountains, or singing with their wild brethren in the full of a cold winter's moon, of lone black forms completely at home and absolutely comfortable in winter's coldest blasts, and more than one soul came out of the mountains swearing they would have frozen to death if a massive, impossibly-huge canine hadn't dug them out of the snow and curled up with them, covering them with body and fur while the snow buried them in a snug and insulated shelter.

These folk were generally considered addled from their ordeal, kind of teched in the head, but folks hereabouts were polite enough not to say so.

We do know from later editions of the Sheriff's journals that The Bear Killer made itself at home in the Old Sheriff's snug and well built home, as did its descendant when another Sheriff of the same line took ownership of the same dwelling -- though we will admit to the surprise on Sheriff Willamina Keller's face when a dog of truly huge proportions and even more impressive dentistry, pushed open the door and walked into her living room, curled up on the rug in front of the stove, thumped his tail happily on the floor and looked at her with those button-black eyes, and hung his pink tongue out in greeting.

Now we are come to a more natural arrival, with the get of The Bear Killer as a black, furry ball of wiggle and grunt, and here we have a laughing boy, on the back porch, with a washtub half full of steaming-warm water, and a sinner's-black pup with a healthy pink tongue and a pile of soap suds on top of his head like a shining, shimmering crown.

Willamina smiled as she watched the pair, her shoulder against the doorpost and her arms folded: each one was imprinting the other on his soul, though neither could suspect how close this union might become.

The Sheriff knew.

She'd inherited a war dog when she wore desert camo and ate grit for breakfast, she'd been part of the dog's pack when his handler was killed, and she'd set in her hootch with the big Malinois laying with his head on her lap, and she learned for the first time that dogs can grieve.

She went out on night patrol and she kissed for the Malinois, and he came after her, his head sagging, lethargy in his step, until the full moon grabbed the far horizon and hauled itself quickly into the clear desert sky.

There is something wild about a full moon in wartime, and the blood of uncounted generations of warriors seared her veins and incinerated her heart, and she felt all the black fury of a soldier whose buddy was killed, and she drew her Ka-Bar and her lips pulled back from even white teeth and she felt the skin tighten on her face and she flowed across the no-mans-land toward where they knew the enemy waited for them.

What she did was wrong that night, for she was of command rank, and it is the job of the commander to do just that -- to direct the fight, to command subordinates, to lead from the rear.

She considered this for maybe three-quarters of a second, then hissed "Blistering hell," and in that moment she was no longer entirely human.

She became what she'd always been, what was hidden by civilization's veneer.

She became a silent and very effective killer.

Her knife drank deep that night, honed steel savored the taste of hot, fresh blood, and two blooded killers slipped back to their lines, avoiding the watchful sentries, coming directly to the only man using night vision and giving the recognition signal before crossing the Dead Line, that border beyond which any unidentified who approached was to be shot without hesitation.

The Malinois flowed through the dark with her, his nose and his ears giving her range and bearing and warning as well.

So it went for three nights, and the silent watcher with the night vision kept her secret, for it was strictly against regulation to take scalps, or even to engage the enemy without orders, for this was a limited war.

She did not care.

Neither did her comrades, and they established an understanding, that when the enemy ranked against them in the darkness, the enemy were found dead, and sometimes one was dead and another, two arms-lengths away, still alive and unharmed and absolute unaware that Death came, and went, and bore a soul to hell when it did.

Thus did soldier and canine forge a bond, thus did two assuage their grief, thus did two in a far land bring fear to the enemy, the enemy that killed one of their own.

Willamina looked at her delighted son and the equally delighted black pup, who patted experimentally at clumps of suds and the exposed water surface with a curious paw, and Willamina nodded a little, and a smile tightened the corners of her eyes.

This was, she knew, how it was supposed to be.

God willing, he would never, ever know what she'd known.

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38. THE PAST

Richard had never seen his wife pacing with an open book.

He knew she was driven to find something, he knew that look on her face, and he knew she would not rest until she found it, however long it took her to find it.

He also knew there were multiple volumes of the Old Sheriff's journals, and he knew she would go through each of them one page at a time if she had to, until she found chapter and verse she was looking for.

It wasn't necessary.

She stopped, and he saw her forehead tighten a little, and her eyebrows came together just a little, and she nodded, her jaw set, and she looked up at her husband and he saw triumph in her eyes.

Whatever she'd been looking for, she just found.

 

I keep coming back to Ecclesiastes, she read, because I am tired of Job's lamentations.

I learned long ago that all is vanity -- that life is nothing, I learned this when my beloved Connie died, and then the lesson again but harder as my little girl died in my arms.

This life and its laurels, its awards and its adulations, are nothing.

Nothing.

All I have now is my children, and this curly furred black dog.

 

She walked slowly, barefoot, up the staircase, imagining that lean old lawman with the iron-grey mustache, retired now and a father and grandfather, and she studied the date he'd carefully prefaced and did a quick mental calculation, then nodded.

She stopped at the top of the stairs.

I write this with a grandson asleep on my lap, leaned over into me, warm and relaxed and at utter peace with all of creation.

I remember being his size and when I was in my Pa's embrace there was no safer place in all the world.

If I look down -- if I were to scoot back from the desk and lean a little to the side and look down -- I would see a black pup with curly fur, rolled over on his back and up against my leg, paws in the air and utterly relaxed and at peace with all of creation.

It is humbling indeed to think that I bring such comfort to a little child, and to a creature.

Willamina leaned against the wall beside her bedroom door, took a long breath and closed her own eyes, remembering ... remembering long and long ago, when she was a little girl, and how safe she felt when she sat in her own Daddy's lap, and his arms warm and strong around her.

She swallowed, opened her eyes.

Jacob's bedroom door was open the width of a finger.

She pushed it open, looked in.

She'd installed a night light and he hadn't objected, and it was for her convenience, not his: when she looked in, she saw her son, rolled up on his left side, his right draped over The Bear Killer, and she saw The Bear Killer sleeping on his back, with his paws bent and relaxed, and she saw the black head turn and the shine of button-bright eyes, and she saw the pink tongue and the happy tail as he looked at her and she put her fingers to her lips.

"Ssshhh," she whispered, and The Bear Killer sshhh'd, and Willamina drew the door shut again, all but a finger's width.

 

Willamina walked halfway across the living room and stared at the roll top desk.

The Old Sheriff sat at that very desk, she considered, scribing the very words she read, and her splayed fingers held the book open as she imagined an old man with a grandchild on his lap and a sinners-black, curly-furred dog rolled up against his leg, and both of them sound asleep, trusting and relaxed because they were near this one unique soul.

Willamina remembered that closeness, back during her War, and later when she was able to obtain that same Belgian Malinois as military surplus for law enforcement use, she thought she might have it again, but Tank -- the Malinois -- as happy as he was to see her, bonded instead with Barrents, her chief deputy.

Willamina knew that the mountain Mastiff was intelligent but hard headed, she knew it was fiercely loyal and viewed those close to it with a pack hierarchy, and she knew she would be seen as the alpha female, and that was good.

"You miss him, don't you?" Richard asked quietly, and she nodded.

He rose, took his wife in his arms.

"I do too," he whispered. "If you want, I can have his fur woven into a little doggy doll you can have. I've got a whole shop vac full of dog hair."

Willamina closed the Journal, ran her arms around Richard's ribs and pressed her face into his shirt to stifle her giggle.

Richard laid his cheek over on the top of his wife's head and smiled a little.

He did so love her laugh.

 

The Old Sheriff wiped the tip of his dip quill, lowered the pennyhead stopper into the ink bottle, opened the drawer just a little and rolled the pen back into the tray.

The black dog's eyes opened and its tail began swishing back and forth as it looked up, wondering what adventure it was hearing, and the lean old lawman with the iron-grey mustache smiled down at the eager canine.

"Do you want to go out?" he whispered, and the little Bear Killer rolled over and came up on his paws, all bright eyes and swinging tail, and Old Grampaw stood, cradling the sleepy little fellow in his arms.

"I reckon this little fella might want a trip to the outhouse before I put him to bed," he whispered. "You might as well come with us."

Old man and young child and a happy, bouncing young dog slipped out into the night.

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39. OLD MAN

Sheriff Willamina Keller demanded much of her people, and she demanded more of herself.

In season she ran with the high school football team, as they ran the back roads for conditioning and to build their wind.

At the beginning of the year, the runners were kind of an amorphous lump, the few in best shape out front, the bulk in kind of a clot in the middle, and several Tail End Charlies, straggling along behind.

Willamina knew that the stragglers would get easily discouraged, seeing nothing but backsides retreating ahead of them, and being Willamina, and running with them, inside of a month they ran -- not in a teardrop shape -- but in formation, and in pace, and she taught them some delightfully obscene marching cadences, which they swore never to divulge.

She ran with them, she kept them in ranks, she dropped back and ran with the last rank, and if someone fell behind, she locked elbows with the poor unfortunate and paced him and kept him with the group: with her example, one, then another would drop back, and keep pace with the slower runners, encouraging them, keeping them up with the group.

At home she favored a set of cast iron weights, hexagonal on the ends and heavier than were comfortable: not only would she hoist, swing and curl them, she used them as push-up handles, generally to music.

Before Jacob came to be, she preferred "In the Hall of the Mountain King" at high volume, driving herself mercilessly, generally to the point of exhaustion, and Richard wondered if these were self punishment sessions of some kind: Willamina would work herself to exhaustion and then collapse, and he learned the best thing to do was nothing at all, that she would recover, and struggle to her knees, and put the weights away -- but not before using them as anchors for sit-ups and leg lifts.

Since Jacob's arrival she hadn't turned the speakers up, in fact she had the music just loud enough to hear and no more, out of deference for the youngest member's acute hearing, but she quickly discovered there was a new complication.

Now, when she was in push-up position, young Bear Killer regarded her with a quizzically cocked head, studying her with shining bright eyes and a curious expression: when Willamina set her rhythm, timing her push-up thrusts with the music, she didn't realize her attentive audience was coming in for a closer look until she dropped toward the floor and suddenly had a mouthful of fur.

Another thrust, another descent, and The Bear Killer busied himself industriously laundering her knuckles and the backs of her fingers, and Willamina discovered that trying to do push-ups when a happy puppy was tickling her hand was absolutely fruitless, and so she gave it up for a bad job, and rolled over and sat on the floor and rubbed the delighted little fellow's belly.

She looked up at her Great-Great-Granddad's journal, open on her desk, and debated whether to try reading a little more.

She decided against it.

His last entry, the one marked with the bullet-holed Ace of Spades, was a cryptic, "Went for a ride. Didn't like it."

"I wonder what happened," she murmured as the pup groaned with pleasure, waving his forepaws in absolute delight and kicking his hind hoppers as she found the tickle spot.

"Your sire was well trained," Willamina murmured. "I wonder how well you'll take to instruction."

 

I saw The Bear Killer skulk through the brush to my right.

I made a slight, almost imperceptible gesture and he stopped, just as I'd taught him.

"Nice lookin' horse," the one fellow sneered, and I knew he intended to relieve me of my stallion, and not by gentle means.

I made no reply.

"Ain'tcha got no manners?" the other one demanded. "Say, what's in those saddle bags anyway?"

"Noneyer damn' business," I growled, "now git outta here, sonny, before I spank you with your own belt!"

Their eyes changed and I knew they were ready, and so was I.

I jerked my hands both to the right.

They expected me to jerk the King Stallion's head hard right, and whirl, and maybe run, and they both drew and fired where they expected me to be.

I wasn't there.

You see, I am not as dumb as I look (which probably proves the Lord is merciful) and I trained Sun King to some particular tricks.

When I yanked my hands to the right, Sun King jumped to the left and I went with him, and when the pair fired at where they figured I would be, I fired at where they still were.

They missed.

I did not.

I fired twice, fast.

The near one looked surprised and kind of folded over and the other one dropped his gun and he fell back and laid back over his horse's hind quarters and his arms fell wide and he laid there and gasped a few times, and coughed, and his blood was absolutely bright, bright scarlet when he coughed.

I did not care.

The first one slumped and slid and he hit the ground, one foot still in the stirrup.

I felt more than heard something a little to my right and I turned my head and looked.

The Bear Killer was all bristled up and had I not just punched two outlaws' tickets to the Hell Bound Train, I might have laughed, or maybe smiled.

The fur was stood up down his spine and across his shoulders and his lips were peeled back and he was a-snarl.

He startled the far gelding and the beast shied, and the dead man fell off the paint pony's back as it sidled a few steps and stopped, responding to the dragging reins and the lack of weight on its back.

The Bear Killer walked, stiff-legged and snarling, and walked up to the outlaw's carcass.

He sniffed at it and then he took one more step and hiked up his leg and cast his ballot on the holdup's character.

I reckon it was half a day later I finally got back into Firelands and handed off the carcasses to Jacob.

I let him go through their effects.

I used to do that.

I'm not Sheriff anymore.

I'm just an old man who wants to be left the hell alone.

My son is the Sheriff and that suits me fine.

Once Jacob took my statement, I went on home, and The Bear Killer went with me.

Poor little fellow, he was about wore out ... we'd come a good distance and he kept up with me, and him nowhere near as long legged as a grown dog, but he didn't have any trouble fallin' asleep when I set down on my front porch steps, and he laid down beside me.

I ended up packin' the little fellow inside, and I laid him down on the rug in front of the stove.

He must have been comfortable.

He started to snore.

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40. DID YOU HAVE TO DO THAT?

Willamina reached over and rubbed the pup's ears.

"You like riding in a saddlebag?" she asked, and The Bear Killer cocked his head and pricked up his ears and looked just awfully pleased with himself.

"Okay. We'll take you another ride tonight, when we pick up Jacob."

The Bear Killer turned and put his paws up on the door, looked out the side glass, and Willamina started the Jeep.

She normally drove nice and easy -- she liked to set down and talk with fellow professionals, and some of the old-time EMTs on their fire department got their start back when Cadillac was THE ambulance to have, and they talked about the competitions they held to see who could give a Rolls-Royce ride and the passing test was to set a glass of water up on the dash, and come to a full and complete stop without rippling the water.

This, she was told, was part of the Rolls-Royce School of Chauffeur final test.

Willamina tried to give a nice, easy, almost chauffeur ride whenever possible, mostly because it was easier on her nerves, and led to a longer life for her machine.

Like her honored ancestor with the iron-grey mustache, she knew there was a time when speed was essential, and she knew there were times when it ... wasn't.

The Bear Killer didn't know any of this.

All he knew was, the world was going past him sideways, and he was delighted with it.

She came to the end of their long driveway, cleared herself both ways, eased out onto the highway and accelerated smoothly, and everything was just fine for maybe a minute and a half, then this big jacked up pickup came whipping around her and she had the impression of a leering face staring out the passenger window as they came over and tried to force her into the ditch.

Willamina nailed the brakes and The Bear Killer rolled into the passenger footwell.

The Sheriff grabbed reverse, mashed the throttle, got some distance fast.

The truck slid to a tire screaming halt and she saw the backup lights come on.

Her eyes went pale and she reached for the short lever and pulled it back, one click, and engaged the front axle.

"Follow me, boys," she said, and with a sudden surge of horsepower, she shot across a covered culvert and into the field, a field she knew intimately from putting hoofprints over it half a hundred times since snow.

The truck blasted backward, its exhaust loud and vulgar in the morning air, she saw them jerk to a halt and then surge forward to follow her.

She shot across the field, barely skirting a patch of longer grass, turned quickly, backed and pulled ahead, aiming the nose of her Jeep like she would aim a howitzer, and waited.

The grinning pair blasted across the field, throwing grass and mud with their acceleration, until they hit the patch of longer grass, then the ground fell out from under them and the truck dropped to its frame and stopped.

Willamina picked up the grey GE microphone and spoke a few words, waited for the reply and smiled a little as she heard other voices respond to her hail -- other voices that came through the cream colored speaker housing, several other voices as a matter of fact, most of which included a little background music.

The Bear Killer surged back up on the seat, tongue out, laughing at this great fun! -- then it smelled the Sheriff's change and backed up a step with a curious little puppy sound, and then a thousand years of war-dog ignited in his veins and the fur stood up on his spine and across his diminutive shoulders.

He didn't know quite what was going on but his instincts were waking up, and the happy fuzzy puppy savored his first taste of his ancestors' mission:

Protect the pack.

Willamina waited in her Jeep, her eyes busy, forward, the sides, the mirrors; she waited, knowing the next move would be the pair that obviously thought they were going to run a well dressed woman off the road and have some fun, whatever their version of fun might be.

Willamina released her seat belt, unbuttoned her tailored suit jacket, glanced up quickly, and her eyes tightened a little at the corners.

The truck was well and truly hung.

Not only was it in soft ground, it was in very soft ground, a pit slightly less than the truck's length in diameter; the frame, fore and aft, rested on solid ground, and the tires hung free in what was very quickly becoming soupy mud, and the driver screamed in frustration as he gunned the engine and threw an impressive four-tailed plume of mud from what must have been well in excess of the speed limit on his speedometer.

Finally the pair bailed out and one had a tire tool, and the other, a length of chain.

Willamina keyed the mike: "Officer assist, weapons involved," dropped the mike and reached up, thumbed the button, heard the brisk click! as two solenoids engaged and her M4 carbine dropped into her waiting hand.

The pair expected a well-dressed woman, helpless and cringing before their armed approach.

They did not expect a well-dressed woman in a tailored suit dress and heels, with an Evil Black Rifle held at ready port, nor did they expect the grille of the Jeep begin to flash blue-and-red with the otherwise-inconspicuous LEDs she'd had installed.

Willamina raised the rifle, thumbed off the safety: "DROP YOUR WEAPONS!" she called in an experienced voice, "DROP YOUR WEAPONS OR I DROP YOU!"

The pair looked at the business end of a fighting rifle and looked at one another, then looked behind them as a black Suburban with red-and-blues on the roof, and a white Crown Vic, similarly lit up, fishtailed off the highway and across the covered culvert toward them.

Willamina felt the brush of fur against her stockinged ankle and she heard a little puppy throat, trying its level best to sound fierce, and she did not have to look to know The Bear Killer was bristled up beside her, fangs exposed, yammering a screaming war-challenge, and more than willing to take on however many of whatever there might be -- puppy or not, blood will out, and The Bear Killer's blood was up, and it was afire.

The driver dropped his tire tool and raised his arms, but the other, unfortunately for him, did not.

He took out running with chain in hand.

Barrents hit the window drop and the power window didn't crank down, it disappeared -- it was a custom window opener and it was fast! -- and something brown-and-tan shot silently out of his Suburban and across the meadow, something with a target lock and an incredible velocity that launched itself in a low ballistic arc, and the fleeing co-pilot found better than a hundredweight of war-tempered Malinois moving at three times his own speed, suddenly and unexpectedly and very tightly locked on his forearm.

Man and dog hit the ground, the Malinois snarling fit for three dogs, sounding like he was going to eat the fellow for breakfast, and The Bear Killer streaked across the intervening grassland, latching onto the felon's pants leg and shaking it fiercely, growling like he was going to personally rip the leg off and beat him with it.

Willamina lowered her rifle, turned the selector back to SAFE.

Barrents seized the driver, picked him up and introduced him rather less than gently to the ground, dropped his knee in the small of the back and cuffed him quickly, tightly, then expertly went through pockets and the usual tuck-aways the criminal element used: sure enough, he came up with enough to charge felony possession, which suited him just fine.

Will walked casually over to the other fellow, who was screaming, begging, pleading, the usual histrionics the evildoer uses to try and persuade the universe to take this fierce creature of fangs and destruction away from him.

The Bear Killer bristled and snarled at Will's fearless caress and absolutely refused to unlock his jaws from the jawful of denim he had, and Will couldn't help but laugh at the little black furry critter, which didn't help the criminal's distress at all.

"GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF ME! IT'S KILLING MEEE!" -- the screams were shrill, almost falsetto, and Will shoved his eight-point milkman's cap back.

"You ain't from around here, are you?" Will asked, hunkering down beside the fur-bristled Tank.

"AAAHHHHH! MY AAARRRMMMM!!! GET IT OOOOOOFFFFF!"

"Now that's a shame," he said thoughtfully. "You see, that's not my dog. I can't do a thing with him. You'll have to wait until the owner gets here. Until then, try not to move. He hasn't eaten for a couple days and we usually feed him spare prisoners."

Will smacked the fellow on the backside, frowned, ran his hand into the prisoner's hip pocket, came out with a baggie of light colored rocklike crystals.

"Hey Sheriff," he called, holding it up, "looky what I found!"

The felon was between screams when he heard "Hey Sheriff," and his screaming pleas became an absolute wail of despair.

Willamina and Barrents got the pair processed and busied themselves with the paperwork and the usual calls to the prosecutor, faxed their statements and their reports, plus arrest records and everything that a good drug bust required, in addition to the charges: assault on a law enforcement officer (weapon specification -- mandatory felony), reckless operation, interfering with a law enforcement officer (three counts), resisting arrest, mopery with intent to creep and impersonating a human being -- everything that would hold up in court.

The chain and the tire tool were photographed, tagged, bagged and secured in the evidence locker, Willamina's Jeep's cruiser cam was downloaded and added to the evidentiary cascade, and finally Will came in the conference room with a box of doughnuts, the smell of a fresh batch of coffee following.

"You'll need my statement, and here's my cruiser cam" -- he dropped a thumb drive on the table -- "and here's just because," and set the brown-and-white box down beside it.

Willamina reached over, threw back the lid on still-warm, fresh-baked, cream-filled, powdered-sugar-dusted doughnuts.

The Bear Killer sat up, button-bright eyes locked on what smelled really, really good, and Willamina laughed and tore off a small chunk.

Will laughed as Willamina held up a finger: "Gimme five," she said, and The Bear Killer made a happy, puppy-like swipe at her extended hand with his paw, and happily snapped at the carefully-tossed treat.

"He's got the instincts, all right," Will said, then cocked his head. "Sis, what did you do, leave him in the dryer too long? I remember The Bear Killer as some bigger!"

Willamina gave him a long look, and Will's face fell, and he sat down.

"Dear God," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

He looked down, rubbed The Bear Killer behind his puppy ears, and was rewarded by a happy, puppy-sized growl.

"You've got the instincts, fella," he murmured, "but did you have to pee on him like that?"

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41. WORRY

Richard gripped his wife's shoulders as she pulled away from him.

"No, no," he murmured, "you come back here."

Willamina stiffened at the man's touch, then backed up a step, allowing him to spread his hands and begin the magic his fingers held.

She tilted her head a little to the side as his strong, experienced hands massaged the base of her neck and her shoulders; she leaned her head to the other side, letting him work on the other side of her neck, then she leaned back a little more, letting him run his arms around her, leaning her head back against his chest.

"How," she asked, "did you know?"

"I always know," he replied, bending down a little and kissing her forehead, upside-down though it was.

"Does it show that much?"

"What do you think?"

Willamina sighed. "I think I don't feel like fixing supper."

"I didn't think you would," Richard chuckled. "I picked up Chinese."

Willamina nodded. "Thank you."

It had been a long day, it had been a difficult day: she'd taken her turn as Court Officer -- she set a rigid schedule and every one of her deputies took their turn, and she was no exception -- she'd had to testify in several cases, none of them particularly pleasant, and in between trips to the witness stand there had been other details to handle, disputes to arbitrate, and in one case, she found herself obliged to tell a particularly difficult customer that he could either pony up title to the car he sold, or she would personally park his nasty carcass in a jail cell full of sex starved addicts, which meant he would be infected with some dread disease like heroin or ammonia -- she'd given him an innocent expression with her arms crossed and her foot patting like an overly patient schoolteacher, and she got the result she'd angled for: surprise, a laugh, then agreement.

She'd also had a Dutch uncle discussion with her chief deputy.

Over General Tsao's chicken and steamed rice, over fortune cookies and hot tea, Richard managed to pry the cork from his wife's reticence and he finally got her to talk.

"You know Barrents and I have a history," she said, challenging him with a look.

Richard carefully ignored the look, speared a crispy crumble of glazed chicken. "Go on."

"He was my segundo over in the Sandpile."

"I know that."

"He saved my backside and I saved his and not a few times."

Richard nodded, shaking soy sauce on his rice.

"Since then he's been the best partner I've ever had behind the badge."
Richard set the soy sauce down with an exaggerated care and he looked directly at his wife. "That," he said, "is saying something."

"You're damned right it's saying something," Willamina snapped, then she dropped her fork, planted her elbows on either side of her plate and dropped her forehead into her hands. "I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that."

Richard reached over, brushed the backs of his fingers against her bare forearm.

"Remember our wedding vows," he said quietly, winking at the carefully observing Jacob: "It says for storm and for strife and for lightning rods as needed."

Willamina raised her head, looked over a set of non-existent spectacles at her quietly smiling husband.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah."

Willamina took a long breath. "Richard, you've partnered."

"I certainly have."

"You'd tell your partner things you'd never, ever tell your spouse."

Richard nodded. "Yep," he agreed.

"Most partners ..." Willamina's voice petered out and Jacob blinked at the lost look on his Mama's face.

"Your spouse isn't the one with his back to yours, and a double handful of riot gun when you're surrounded by Huns in the wire," Richard suggested.

Willamina tossed a point-the-finger at him. "Bingo!"

"So what's with Barrents?"

"He has a splenic hemangioma."

Richard looked at Jacob, Jacob looked at his Pa, they both looked at the Sheriff.

"Mama, is that cancer?" Jacob asked, and Willamina shook her head.

"No. No, Jacob, a hemangioma is a knot of tangled blood vessels. His is in a cyst the size of a walnut. They found it on cat scan for kidney stones."

Richard grimaced. He'd had kidney stones -- twice -- which to his way of thinking was ten times too many.

"Sooo ... what do they do now?"

"Now?" Willamina's laugh was more a sharp bark. "The bottom polishing desk witches won't schedule him with the internist for another month!"

"Splenic hemangioma," Richard said thoughtfully. "I'll have to look that one up."

"Let me spare you the trouble," Willamina said, her voice flat. "His has irregular borders, it's ring enhancing and it looks like it's following the vasculature."

"Meaning ...?"

"Meaning it could be a cancer," she said, her eyes bleak. "The spleen is almost never the primary site. That means metastasis, that means the primary focus is elsewhere and we don't know where."

"I see."

"I called the hospital and called in two favors and he'll have an MRI tomorrow," Willamina said, then pushed her plate back. "I'm sorry. I'll have this for lunch tomorrow."

Richard nodded.

 

After supper the three got into their barn boots and ritually cleaned the stalls, though there was none of the usual raillery.

Willamina's deflated character was contagious and Jacob for one was glad when the work was done and they could hose off their gum boots and get back to the house.

On the short walk back, Richard draped his arm around his wife's shoulders and she ran her arm around his lean waist.

"He didn't need this," Willamina muttered.

Richard nodded.

"He's got a wife, he has children, if someone punches him in the ribs or he falls against a table top or something he could bust that cyst."

Richard nodded again.

"A golf ball sized hole in the spleen benefits nobody."

Richard pressed his lips together, nodded meditatively: he'd known some people who had to have their spleen removed because of, say, a disagreement with a brick wall -- skateboard in one case, car wreck in another -- and he imagined a burst cyst to have a similarly deleterious effect on the general health.

"You know what's really frustrating?"

"What's that, Sweet Pea?"

"I can't fix it," Willamina said, defeat in her voice and resignation rounding her shoulders. "He's my responsibility and I can't fix it!"

Richard had no idea how to respond, other than to hug her a little tighter.

 

Jacob worked his shoulder under The Bear Killer's watchful eye, using the Victory Model revolver as his weight: he repeated the Physical Therapy prescribed exercises empty handed, then he ran through his own series of moves with the revolver, two-handed, helping support its weight with his left hand.

The effort left him in pain, and sweat popped out in fat beads on his forehead, but he persevered.

 

Next day Richard's phone rang when he was halfway back from Denver.

"Love you, dear," he greeted the caller, and Willamina's throaty chuckle was his reward.

"Barrents had his MRI," she said quickly, "and unofficially from the tech, it's confirmed a hemangioma -- no metastasis and no signs of cancer."

"Now that," Richard said quietly, "is good news I'll take any day of the week!"
"Me too," Willamina said, her voice becoming bleak again. "It's not been that long since I did a brother lawman's funeral. I am quite sure I do not want another."

"Sooooo ... this is good news, yes?"

Willamina was quiet for a long moment.

"Yes it is," she finally said. "It's not cancer and that is very good news."

Richard knew his wife would worry anyway, even if he told her she shouldn't worry if the news was good.

She didn't make friends that easily and he knew she and Barrents had someting he would never have: their unique association was forged in battle, tempered in combat, polished and honed as lawmen here.

"What would you like for supper?" he asked at length, then "Oh that reminds me, I got the fire extinguisher replaced today!"

"Don't bother fixing supper," Willamina cautioned.

"O ye of little faith," he teased. "I'm better than halfway home, I'll see you soon!"

"Love you, dear," they said together, and broke the connection.

Richard considered that his wife would worry anyhow, and Willamina considered that she was still cleaning up fire extinguishing powder from where her husband and son almost got it all up.

Willamina remembered the kitchen grease fires she'd helped to extinguish in her brief career as a volunteer firefighter, and she decided if her husband was going to try making supper again, she honestly did have just cause to worry.

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42. WAR ON THE MOUNTAIN

It wasn't long after sunset when Jacob and his buddy Joe Adams heard a noise.

His Mama ran to the store real quick for something and admonished the boys not to get into trouble, they heard her car start and then drive away, and they looked at one another and grinned.

Boys are boys the world over and this pair, faced with the delightful prospect of being unsupervised, if only for a few minutes, immediately started assessing their situation to see what mischief they could accomplish in the brief time available.

Mrs. Adams took Joe's younger siblings with her, it was just he and Jacob in the house, and Jacob kicked out of his boots so he could travel silent in sock feet: Joe said "I wanna show you sometin'!" and they ran down the hallway and into the master bedroom.

The Bear Killer galloped happily after them: pups and boys share a joyful affinity and the sinners-black dog sensed adventure, and besides, when the rest of his pack ran, he ran with them, and run he did, skidding a little as he made the turn and scampering at a happy gallop on the rag rug -- his own momentum was minimal and the rag rug, between thrusting puppy paws and a well waxed wood floor, operated much like the belt on a treadmill, and for a confusing moment The Bear Killer ran in place while the rug passed beneath him.

Traction, sudden and unexpected, and he propelled himself suddenly forward the three feet to the carpeted surface: he ended up rolling, coming up abruptly against the foot of the bed, pink tongue out laughing the way a happy pup will do.

"Mama won't let me shoot it," Joe said, pointing at the cherry stocked shotgun on the deer-hoof gunrack over the bed, "but I wanta!"

He jumped up on the bed, stretched and grabbed the shotgun, one-handed, fell back a step and landed flat on his back on his Mama's bed, the model 12 Winchester held up at arm's length, then he rolled off and held it out for Jacob to see.

Jacob nodded, admiring the gorgeous blued finish, noting the wear on the magazine tube, remembering how his Mama would throw clay birds in the air and then fetch up her own shotgun and blow them to dust (his Pa tried but by his own admission he'd have to step into the barn and shut the door to hit its broad side with a shotgun!) -- Jacob frowned a little and tilted his head, looking at the loading gate and seeing cartridge brass.

"Let me see something," he said, turning his head and frowning at the top of the barrel, the pointed. "See that mark there?"

Joe looked at the proof stamp. "Yeah, so?"

"That's a proof mark," Jacob said importantly. "It means it won't blow up."

"Neat!"

There was a sudden noise -- not quite a slam, but loud, sudden, and they felt it as much as heard it, and The Bear Killer spun around, fur standing up the length of his short-coupled back, and the boys heard the young mountain Mastiff snarl a warning.

 

Willamina smiled and turned, feeling elegant in her gown: it was the reproduction of a McKenna gown displayed in the local museum, it was tailored to fit her, and truth be told, she looked really good in it.

She was covered from high collar to cuffs, the hem was floor length, she showed no flesh save her face -- even her hands were gloved -- but she felt, and she looked, more modest and more feminine than the much-younger ladies in their prom gowns who'd occupied this same gym floor two nights before.

She was presenting for the Ladies' Tea Society, discussing the early history of Firelands, and she had a number of photographs cued up on the overhead projector, and a video of The Lady Esther, the restored and very significant steam locomotive, the first one used when the legendary and red-headed Esther Keller was gifted with the Z&W Railroad by her pale-eyed husband, the Old Sheriff himself.

Willamina decided not to have her horse indoors, mostly because steel horse shoes and a gym floor just don't mix well, but Cannonball was tethered without, and she'd recruited from the Unorganized Militia and prevailed upon particular trustworthy young man to make sure no one brought her mount mischief.

She did this out of a sense of responsibility.

Cannonball was well trained, Cannonball was well behaved, but Cannonball was quite particular, and if it wasn't Willamina in the saddle, Cannonball had a distressing tendency to launch trespassers into low Earth orbit -- or brush them off against the nearest tree, power pole or the side of a building -- one would-be horse thief ended up pinned to the ground, the saddle crushing his leg against the pavement, while Cannonball lay atop the screaming and unsuccessful practitioner of the unsavory art of prad-prigging.

It amused the jury, a week later, when one of the attorneys asked the Sheriff if her horse had an anti-theft system, and she pressed a button and projected the video clip of the struggling, screaming, would-be horse thief, and the Sheriff squatting beside him, commenting mildly that they used to hang horse thieves, then the camera moved in for a close-up, showing the thief's leg and his high top Felony Flyer sticking out from under the horse's barrel and Willamina froze the image and replied, "Anti-theft system? Yes, I suppose you could say that, and" -- she gestured toward the freeze frame -- "as you can see, it works!"

Tonight, though, the horsepower Willamina intended to discuss was fueled by coal, powered by steam, and ran on steel rails, at least until a question, then another, led her into a discussion of the woman she portrayed.

She began to tell them about the Old Sheriff's wife, Esther Keller.

 

Jacob grabbed the shotgun away from Joe, knelt, set the butt down on the carpet and leaned it against his shoulder: one-handed, he reached down, felt for the release behind the trigger guard, pressed it, heard the mechanism unlock.

He grabbed the fore end, eased it down, pulled it forward, quickly, using its weight to his advantage.

The breech locked shut, but not loudly.

Jacob knew stealth was his friend.

"Get down," he whispered, reaching down and grabbing the polished cherry wrist of the gun stock. "Get down and stay quiet!"

"Joo-eeeeeee," a voice called, "where aaarrreee yooouuuuu?"

"Gimme a phone," Jacob whispered urgently, then he shoved himself into the wide-eyed, frozen-into-uncertainty classmate. "Joe, gimme a phone!"

Joe's mouth was dry and he felt panic clutch at his chest, then he looked at Jacob and looked at the shotgun Jacob had laid across the coverlet, pointed at the doorway, and he looked to the bedside table, and he surged over and grabbed the phone.

 

Sharon had just left for the day.

One of the younger deputies picked up the Bat Phone before he'd even parked his backside in her chair.

"Firelands County Sheriff's Office, what is your emergency?" he said smoothly, reaching for a pencil from Sharon's cracked mug a-bristle with pencils.

He heard a young voice whispering loudly, urgently, and he dropped suddenly into the chair, his mouth suddenly dry.

A dispatcher knows when a call is genuine and his gut told him this one was.

"Somebody just kicked in the door and we're in the bedroom with a shotgun and I need backup and Mama is the sheriff and this is Jacob and we're cornered and nowhere to escape," he heard.

"Jacob?" he asked. "Jacob, this is Ralph. I'm sending backup right now!"

He leaned over toward the silver-and-chrome-trim desk mike, hit the broad dark-grey transmit key.

"Now hear this," he called, his voice tight, "now hear this, all Firelands PD and Firelands SO, now hear this." He paused, swallowed. "Breaking and entering in progress with home invasion, one juvenile male in the house with shotgun." He looked at the display and read off the address, then: "All units within two mile radius, report."

Jacob's eyes were big and his face was pale as he looked over at Joe and then down at The Bear Killer.

Jacob could hear a whole lot of background chatter from the dispatcher's phone, most of it consisting of "Woo-Woo-Woo-where was that again fella Woo Woo Woo" and he whispered to Joe, "They're coming!"

The Bear Killer shoved against Jacob's leg and his snarl was considerably louder as a figure passed the bedroom, then stopped and looked in.

Jacob saw the evil twist to the man's mouth, and he saw the blue arc from the stun gun he held in one hand, and he saw the zip ties dangling in interlocked loops swinging from his left.

Jacob dropped the phone.

 

"Esther Keller had flaming red hair and green eyes," Willamina explained, "and she rode a paint mare named Edi -- she rode her very well, as a matter of fact" -- she smiled -- "Esther was a Southern belle from a good family in the antebellum South, and she had a whole housefull of brothers, all of whom were determined that their sister should be able to ride, shoot, swear, whittle, whistle and spit as well as any of them." She laughed, picked up a fencing foil from the table, stepped into a few expert strokes, a thrust, then she picked up a basket-hilted dagger in her left hand and smiled. "Esther could also play piano and sing, she was an expert dancer, and her father taught her as a young lady the ancient Chinese dictum that one should never give a sword to a man who cannot dance."

She wore a red wig and a little emerald-green hat to match her gown, she moved with the grace of an accomplished dancer, and Willamina wove a web of shining steel in front of her as she did. "The art of swordsmanship, of course, was not in the accepted curriculum of Proper Young Ladies of the Era, which didn't really bother her" -- she placed the blades back on the table, picked up Esther's original, long-barreled double gun -- "she was also an excellent wing shot, and provided meat for the table whenever it suited her." She smiled, breaking open the English-gripped double and smiling. "As a matter of fact, she consistently outshot the eager young swains who came to court her hand."

"Sheriff," a voice called from the doorway -- she called softly, and Willamina honestly didn't hear her.

"When Esther's niece came West to establish a newspaper, Esther came out as well to make sure her relative was doing well. In the process she met a tall, good looking lawman" -- Willamina placed the double gun on the table, planted her hands on her hips and took a few steps toward the ladies of the Tea Society ... but her steps were those of a woman bent on seduction, her lashes were lowered, and as she walked, she swung her upper body a little, making it quite evident she intended to bring all her womanly charms to bear.

"She met my Great-Great-Grandfather, the second Sheriff of our fine county, and she said to herself" -- Willamina stopped, blinked, then cupped her right elbow in her left gloved palm, tapping her cheek with the forefinger of her other hand -- "she said to herself, 'This is the man I will marry, whether he knows it now or not!' -- the ladies tittered their understanding, for such knowledge is often given to the feminine, even if the masculine is too dense to realize it for a time.

"Then when she and her niece and a few others were making a fine dinner for two of the men, a runner came with the news that this man she intended, had been shot."

 

"YOU GET OUTTA HERE!" Jacob yelled as loud as he could.

The phone lay on the floor, forgotten, half swinging from the curly cord, the dispatcher's voice almost inaudible at this distance.

He knew the call was being recorded, he knew it was electronically preserving every nuance, every sound, every syllable, and all with a time stamp, but the dispatcher's mouth was dry and he had the terrible feeling that -- although he'd done everything right, although the Cavalry was riding to the rescue, although he'd commanded the forces of Good and Light to the very best of his ability -- the young deputy at the dispatcher's desk felt an ovewhelming sense of dry-mouthed impotence.

He reached for the selector, hesitated over the AMBULANCE switch.

No, he thought, wait, I don't want to clutter the scene with unneeded vehicles and personnel --

 

The Bear Killer's lips were peeled back and rippling with obscenities, his young eyes were red around the edges and his haunches wound up like an eight day clock.

The intruder took a step across the threshold, took another, leering at the boys crouched behind the bed.

Young or not, small or not, puppy or not, a furry black missile the shade of a sinner's heart shot like the black arrow of Death from under the bed, sounding somehow like a minor pack of attack pups, and grabbed the front of the intruder's ankle.

His momentum and inexperience and a suddden kick threw him off and he spun, hit the wall, then leaped and grabbed the ankle in probably the most effective place for his young jaws.

The Bear Killer seized the attacker's exposed Achilles tendon.

 

The secretary ran across the gym floor, stopped.

Willamina turned, locked eyes with the woman, then she turned to the Ladies' Tea Society and said "Excuse me," and turned to the secretary.

The ladies of the Tea Society saw the change in the costumed woman's face.

They saw her head come up, they saw her eyes go pale and they saw her face tighten and the suddenly colorless cheeks were tight-drawn across her cheek bones.

Sheriff Willamina Keller grabbed the double gun and the bandoleer of brass hulls, slung the bandoleer over one shoulder and strode for the door.

 

"Dispatch, Firelands Six on scene, the door is kicked in."

"All units, Six on scene, door is kicked."

The Firelands officer jerked the charging handle of his M4 carbine, ran a shining brass round into the chamber, flinched.

He turned, planted his back against the siding beside the front door, reached up and pressed the rectangular button on the microphone he'd clipped to his epaulet.

"Dispatch, Six, shots fired, I'm going in!"

 

A woman rode through the night, a woman with flaming red hair with a shotgun across the saddle in front of her.

She rode with the knowledge that someone she loved was in danger.

She rode with the blood of warriors searing her veins and she rode with all the fury of a mother intent on protecting her cub and she rode with all the focus of a horsewoman born, and Cannonball thrust her nose straight ahead and laid her ears straight back and drove sharpened steel hooves into the earth and shoved it away behind her.

Willamina pounded through the darkness, a red arrow of vengeance, ready for war and willing to deliver it personally.

 

Jacob grabbed the fat trap grade fore end and jerked down, then back up, threw the gun back across the coverlet and grabbed the wrist, pulled the black plastic buttplate hard into his left shoulder again.

Beside him, Joe, silent, his eyes huge and his mouth open, cradled his healing arm with his good arm, sat down on the carpet, shaking as if he had a fever.

 

Willamina was off the horse and running before Cannonball was stopped.

The officer raised his chin. "Shots fired, I just got here."

"With me!" Willamina snapped, surging into the kicked-open door.

She drove the twin muzzles of the double gun into a panicked man's throat, her pale eyes as eloquent as a shouted warning.

Stun gun and zip ties hit the ground and he raised his hands in surrender.

Less than a minute later the house was a-swarm with hard-handed lawmen; the house was swiftly and expertly cleared, and Willamina personally grabbed the would-be kidnapper by the front of his shirt as he lay on the floor.

Part of her mind recognized that The Bear Killer still had the man by the back of the ankle.

She did not care.

She picked him up off the ground -- she grabbed him and just hauled him off the deck, then she slammed him against the wall -- her face was six inches from his, her eyes were glacier-pale, her teeth were bared and even her lips were corpse-like and bloodless -- and she hissed, "I am the Sheriff. If you hurt my son I will kill you very slowly and very painfully," and only the hand of the police chief himself on her shoulder prevented her from driving her knee into the criminal's crotch.

She let Chief Taylor take the prisoner outside, then she turned, slowly, the buzzing of an angry beehive filling her ears.

The Bear Killer sat on the floor, looking up at her, looking very pleased with himself.

Willamina squatted, picked up the bristling canine.

"Where is Jacob?" she asked, picking up her double gun with her free hand.

"Sheriff?"

She turned, saw an officer raise his hand in an urgent summons.

Willamina walked quickly down the hall and into the master bedroom.

Jacob ran across the floor, ran into her, clutched her with the desperate strength of a child who'd just handled a very bad situation but now it was over and his Mama was there and everything would be okay, and Willamina looked at the white-faced classmate still hiding behind the bed, and she saw the model 12 trap gun laying across the bed and she saw the scorch mark on the coverlet, then she turned and looked at the fist sized hole in the drywall.

She squatted, laid Esther's double gun down on the carpet, hugged her son, and The Bear Killer jumped up, his paws on Jacob's thigh, tail a-wag and bright black eyes declaring his happiness with the general situation.

Mother and son embraced for a very long moment, then Willamina felt Jacob twist away.

"Mama," he said urgently, "I gotta go bathroom, right now!"

Willamina released her son and leaned back on her haunches, listening to his scampering footsteps and knowing exactly how he felt.

She'd felt exactly the same, the first time she'd had to face down the Forces of Darkness all by her lonesome.

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43. "WE DON'T WANT HIM"

Willamina quieted her mind, rested her fingertips on the green desk blotter, closed her eyes.

She took a long breath, blew it out through pursed lips, focused her thoughts.

Two attempts on my son, she thought.

We've ruled out Mrs. Adams as a suspect.

We've ruled out her collusion with someone else.

Was the home invader after her son or mine?

She opened her eyes, slowly, feeling her face tightening again.

Is it coincidence that he was with Joe Adams each time?

Is Joe the target?

She considered again.

Mrs. Adams is a widow and doesn't have two nickles to rub together.

She could not come up with any ransom.

She has no holdings, no inheritance, no business interest, nothing negotiable.

What about me?

I'm the Sheriff.

I'm interdicting the drug trade.

I'm stopping illicit profits.

Is that what they want?

Her eyes were pale and hard as she glared at the opposite wall.

They who?

Who am I dealing with?

Where will they hit me next?

Her pale eyes swung from the opposite wall to her desk top, to the cell phone placed very precisely at the upper right corner of her desk blotter.

She looked at the display.

Unknown caller.

She opened her desk drawer, pulled out a suction cup on a thin wire, pressed a button on the recorder, pressed the suction cup against the back of her phone, tapped the screen.

Professional voice.

"Keller."

The voice was female

"You know we could have had your son," the voice said.

"I gathered."

"We don't want him."

"You could have fooled me, lady."

"We want you."

"Where can I meet you?"

"We will let you know." The signal dropped.

We, she thought.

She reached into the drawer, withdrew the recorder, turned it off, then picked up a sterile cell phone, tapped a number, put it to her ear.

"Richard?"

Her voice was cold, as cold as her husband's.

"Did he call?"

"She. Yes. I have the recording."

"We'll need your phone. I'll get the tower records."

"Good." She hesitated. "Richard?"

"Yes?"

"Watch your six."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina tapped the screen on her sterile phone, thought for a moment, then she rose and went into her private washroom.

When she came out she was in blue jeans and boots, with one pistol at her belt and another in her old familiar shoulder rig under her vest.

Barrents looked up as she came out of her office.

"Boss?" he asked.

Willamina's eyes were cold, hard, her face white and set.

"I want that prisoner brought to the conference room," she said, and Barrents did not have to ask which prisoner she meant.

 

Will pulled up in front of the school, Mrs. Adams in the front seat beside him.

He pressed the trunk release, his eyes busy -- ahead, the sides, the mirrors -- he climbed out of the Crown Vic, then quickly to the trunk, pulled his carbine loose from the trunk lid clips.

He cycled the bolt, ran a shining brass round into the chamber, came up the passenger side of the car, took Mrs. Adams by the elbow.

"Inside," he said, his voice clipped. "Move."

Police officer and mother stepped into the schoolhouse, the custodian pulling the steel-and-glass door shut behind them, and Will heard the magnetic lock hum and click behind him.

"This way."

Will's long-legged stride obliged Mrs. Adams to skip along in almost a run, just to keep up.

Will tapped on the door, looking through the pane, pulled it open, eyes sweeping the schoolroom.

"Jacob," he said, "and Joe Adams. With me, now."

Mrs. Shaver shrank back, alarm betraying itself on her face, but only for a moment: she knew something had to be very wrong for an armed policeman -- a very armed policeman -- to come in and demand two of her students.

"Mom, what's wrong?" Joe asked, and Mrs. Adams shook her head, chivvied her son out the door.

Will looked up at the schoolteacher.

"My apologies for the interruption," he said gently, "it is necessary. Story at eleven."

He turned, looked down-hall, up-hall, and began running to catch up with the frightened mother and son.

 

"I want my lawya," the prisoner sneered, and the Sheriff backhanded him hard across the face.

"I'm putting you into general population," she hissed. "I'm telling them you are a baby raper, and I will go to each one of the separate gangs in that prison and I will tell him that you like little babies. Their kind of little babies." She seized the prisoner's throat, her teeth bared, her eyes pale. "Those big boys are going to make you feel really welcome. You'll find out what it's like to be baby raped."

She let go of his throat, walked away a few paces, walked back.

"You don't scare me," he sneered.

Willamina turned, her eyes pale.

"You aren't too damn smart," Willamina said, her voice low, as devoid of emotion as glacier ice is devoid of color. "You're not prior military."

"No."

"Too bad. You'd know you don't want women as soldiers."

He swore, spat.

Willamina pulled out a chair, sat, slowly, as if she were ready to come off the chair like a mortar out of its tube.

"My father," she said, "watched the Viet Cong cut schoolgirls' fingers off because they dared go to school in spite of VC orders to the contrary."

"So?"

"So the ones cutting little girls' fingers off were women." Her gaze bored into his like drill bits into soft wood. "I watched the Taliban cut schoolgirls' fingers off in Afghanistan." Her smile was more like a skull, peeling lips back to display its native ivory. "Right before I drove my Ka-Bar up under his wish bone."

"Sure," he sneered.

Willamina's kick was too fast to follow, she drove her boot heel into his gut, knocked him over backwards.

Cuffed behind, shackled, seat belted to the chair, he could not break his fall.

Willamina's boot heels were loud as she paced over to where he lay struggling to breathe.

"I can kill you," she said, "very slowly, and with great pain, just like my ancestors did." She bent at the waist, hands on her knees. "I know how to use a knife to bring your singing voice into the soprano range and keep it there."

She tilted her head, studying him as if he were an insect pinned to a cork board.

"I cut the skin off a man's leg once."

She smiled, and the smile was almost genuine, all the more horrifying for such fell words from such a pretty face.

"I took an entire week to peel all the skin off that leg. A few centimeters at a time, slowly, in a long spiral. Did you know you can tan human skin? No? If you take it off right -- and scrape off the fat -- it'll make a nice light weight leather."

She dropped her knee onto his breast bone, felt cartilage pop.

"You kicked the door of an honest citizen's house. Suppose you start at the beginning and tell me who sent you."

"You go to hell."

"Been there, bud," she said, dropping her backside on his belly. "I think I'll start by suffocating you. Of course there will be no autopsy. The coroner is in my pocket, he'll rule natural causes. Do you know why?"

She smiled, reached into an inside vest pocket, brought out a little black pressure container, held it up.

"I stole this from a CIA operative. It's an enzyme. Spray it in your face" -- she brought up her free hand, tweaked a finger down as if pressing a little spray nozzle on top -- "it absorbs through the eyes and the nose just like snorting your favorite blow. Do you know what it does?"

She drove her knuckles into his breast bone, ground them for several seconds.

"It gives you a heart attack. If they do an autopsy all they find are the same enzymes from a heart attack. Black ops at its finest and I've got it here."

She got up, waited until he gasped in a pained breath, before turning and looking down at him again.

"So what'll it be? Tell me what I want to know, or I will make you talk and you'll die afterward and nobody will be the wiser."

Her voice was as casual as her shrug.

"I've done it before."

 

Sharon replaced the phone on its cradle, looked up as the Sheriff came out of the conference room.

"Lock that animal back up," she said to her chief deputy.

"Isolation?"

Willamina nodded. "Nobody talks to him and I mean nobody. 24 hour surveillance. No exceptions."

"Yes, ma'am." Barrents' smile was wolflike, his black eyes as hard as stony-hard as hers.

"Will just called. Mrs. Adams and her children are on that Lear jet you called in."

"They're in the air?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good. Get Chief Taylor on the phone, I want that house sealed and watched."

"Will is on his way here, Richard checked in, all's well at your place."

The Sheriff nodded, frowning a little, then looked at her dispatcher and smiled.

Willamina tossed up the little pressure container, caught it, spritzed a little on her wrist, held it out.

"Like my new perfume? Aunt Martha loved this one."

"Mmm, nice," Sharon hummed, picking the phone back up.

"Oh, Barrents," Willamina said, turning.

"Yes, boss?"

"My office, once he's secured."

"Yes, ma'am."

Sharon gave the Sheriff a long, appraising look.

"You must know something," she said speculatively.

Willamina sniffed delicately at her wrist.

"I know I need coffee," she murmured.

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44. YOU'D BETTER CALL THE SQUAD

Barrents listened to the conference call.

He and the Sheriff sat very still -- he, with the patience of his native ancestors; Willamina, with the stillness of carven stone.

"He's untouchable," Richard's voice said in the tones a man uses when he's not just frustrated, but defeated. "He's not going to see the light of day for a very long time, but we can't get to him to interrogate him. At least not in time."

Willamina and Barrents looked at one another.

"I have new information," Willamina said quietly.

She waited until a quiet click told her Richard just double checked the lines' security. "Go."

"Plomo o plata."

"Silver or lead," Richard said quietly. "Willa, they didn't!"

"No. Nobody tried to bribe me. They tried to either take Jacob or make it known that they could. Barring that, they'll come directly after me."

"The plomo."

"Yeah. I don't like being a walking target and I survived one Jeep blowing up. I don't want 'em to hurt Butterscotch. Besides ... rather than just kill me, there's the chance they'll snatch someone else instead."

"There is that."

"I have to move fast and move now."

"I wish we could interrogate that fellow who tried to get Jacob and Joe into that van."

"Yeah, me too," Willamina snapped. "People in hell want ice water. Listen, I've got about six hours before a deadline and they come in again. I know where they are and I know how many, and I know how they're armed."

"Is your strike team ready?"

Willamina looked up at Barrents, her eyes pale. "Just about."

Willamina stood. "Got to go, honey. Stay frosty."

She went over to a set of wide file drawers, the kind as-built construction drawings are kept in: she ran a finger down the first, the second, the third, drew open the bottom most drawer, riffled through the several broad, long sheets, picked out a half dozen.

"Get the door."

Barrents opened her office door, swung through, held it wide as the Sheriff came out with the big sheets of good rag paper.

Sharon rose, looked out the glass front doors. "Will's here."

"Tell him we need coffee," Willamina tossed over her shoulder.

Sharon waited until the Sheriff's twin brother came through the door, his carbine slung muzzle down from his off shoulder, Jacob ahead of him with a box of doughnuts.

"I just made coffee," Sharon said, "you'll want the whole pot." She looked at the door, then stepped over to the filing cabinet, opened the top drawer, brought out a stack of cups and a fresh box of creamers. "You grab the pot, I'll take these in."

"Council of war?" Will asked.

Sharon looked down at Jacob, at the telltale powdered sugar dribble on his chin and down his flannel shirt front, at the cultivated expression of little-boy innocence.

"You could say that."

A few moments later Jacob came out of the conference room, looking dejected.

On the one hand he knew this was Important Sheriff Stuff and it was Very Grown Up, and he still felt kind of poorly at being excluded.

He stopped, then looked around, saw Sharon was looking at him.

"I gotta go," he said, and walked quickly toward the latrine.

Little boys, Sharon thought. Just like my Mikey. He had a bladder the size of a walnut.

Jacob turned, looked back.

No one in sight.

He pushed open the door to the ladies' room.

Restrooms have mirrors and this one had several, and he looked anxiously in each one, hoping to see his Aunt Sarah.

She would listen to him, he knew.

"Aunt Sarah?" he breathed, then turned away, shoulders sagging with defeat.

She's not there, he thought, and jumped as a feminine hand gripped his shoulder.

He raised his dejected head and looked into Sarah's pale eyes.

She was squatting before him, wearing a burgundy gown with cream colored inserts and a little burgundy hat, and cream colored gloves with burgundy embroidery work on their backs.

Jacob ran his arm around Sarah's neck and Sarah hugged the lad, and they held each other for several long moments.

"What are you doing in a ladies' powder room?" Sarah whispered, and he could hear the amusement in her soft sibilants.

"You're a lady," he whispered back. "I wouldn't look for you in the men's room."

Sarah giggled -- he felt her giggle, they drew apart and she stroked his cheek as she looked at him and smiled that special Sarah-smile he'd come to love.

"Thank you," she whispered. "It feels good to be called a lady."

"Mama's in trouble," Jacob blurted. "She's gonna go after someone bad."

"I know," Sarah replied, looking very seriously at her much younger relative. "Now tell me where you learned how to handle a shotgun like you did!"

Jacob blinked, shifting his mental gears as the conversation's subject changed so radically.

"Oh," he said, "yeah" -- and he remembered running Joe's late father's Winchester trap gun as they laagered behind the bed.

"Pa was FBI," he explained, "and Pa was tellin' some cadets from the Academy about a shootout in Florida."

Sarah's eyes were fixed on his and it was evident she was listening very carefully to his every word -- a trick she'd used on young men and old, for the fastest way to a man's heart was not through his stomach, but through his ego, and Sarah knew that paying close attention to a man's words was the surest way to get him to say something useful.

"Pa said the FBI agent was shot in his good arm so he had to use his weak hand with the shotgun." Jacob swallowed, continued. "Pa said he threw the 870 over the car's fender and shot, then he pulled back and dropped the gun's butt on the ground and jacked the slide and laid it across the fender again and took another shot, so that's what I did." He paused, frowned. "I think I kinda scorched Mrs. Adams' quilt, though." He made a face like he'd bit into something distasteful.

"And I missed."

"You didn't miss," Sarah said quietly, drawing a fingertip across his chest. "You cut a notch in his shirt right here. He turned when The Bear Killer took hold of his ankle."

"He wanted to hurt us," Jacob whispered, his throat tightening as he remembered the crackling blue arc of the would-be abductor's stun gun. "He was gonna tie us up an' kidnap us!"

"You did the right thing, Jacob," Sarah said firmly, quietly, as she gripped his elbows in her lace-gloved hands. "You kept Joe and yourself from a very terrible fate. Now let's get out of the ladies' room, shall we?"

Jacob blinked and opened his mouth to reply, and just that fast he was in his Mama's office, and Aunt Sarah was with him.

 

"I saved the old mine drawings," Willamina said, running her finger down one page and across a dotted line. "These old maps were the most accurate of their era and I've found most of them are off by ten feet at most."
Will frowned as he compared the mine map with a commercially-printed county map. "I know that place," he said. "If they're holed up they've got a good defensible position."

"Which is why you are going to storm their castle."

He nodded. "Can do."

"We can expect them to have night vision, IR, the works. They've got money backing them. I want you seen. They'll be looking for someone, I want your approach to hold their attention."

"I can do that, but what about you?"

Willamina smiled.

"I want you and Barrents, and take Tank with you, advance on their position. I'll need a head start. If they start firing, take cover and keep their heads down."

"We need an alternate in case you don't make it, Boss."

Will spoke up. "Yeah, Little Sis, where will you be?"

"I'll be about twenty feet underground, if I'm reading this right."

"If the shaft is still open, if you can get through, if they don't know about it and if they don't have it booby trapped."

"If the dog hadn't stopped for a beer maybe he woulda caught the rabbit," she snapped.

"Boss, let me run the shaft," Barrents said, his voice deep, reassuring.

Willamina shook her head. "No. No, if you have to leave your ghost I don't want it underground."

"Yeah, what about you?" Will countered.

"I'm not going to leave my ghost in any hole in the ground."

"Do you plan to leave it anytime soon?"

Willamina smiled, looked directly at her little brother. "My will is made out, I've named you as Jacob's godfather and Cannonball likes to pull the bandanna out of your hip pocket when you go to saddle her. If it's my time, I'll go but by God!" -- her voice became a venomous hiss and her eyes went glacier-cold in a tenth of a second or less -- "when I stand before the Throne, it will be with my boot on the enemy's neck, blood on my knife and my wounds in front!"

Will shook his head. "I'd rather have you alive, Sis."

"Oh don't worry," she teased, clapping her hand hard on his shoulder, "getting killed would ruin my vacation plans!"

Barrents looked surprised, sat down suddenly, his hand going to his left side, and he looked up at the Sheriff.

"You'd better call the squad," he said mildly.

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45. IT MADE THE NEWSPAPER

JW Barrents lost weight that night.

The Alfred Hitchcock method.

Use a knife.

Willamina considered the words, the corners of her eyes smiling a little.

She sat alone at the old roll top desk.

The Bear Killer slept upstairs with her son, her husband was warm and relaxed in their bed upstairs, and the Sheriff closed her eyes and ranked her thoughts before dipping the ancient pen into good India ink.

Uncle Pete once said we grow too soon old and too late smart.

Maybe I'm smarter than I look.

When the Van Man ended up with the FBI interrogators, he spilled his guts.

They sent out a small army.

I gave them what intel I had and also maps of the old mines.

They went in with firepower, with surprise and with numbers.

It looks like they'd planned to capture and torture me just for grinskis and gigglers.

"You remind me of Papa," a familiar voice said, gentle in the nighttime dark.

Willamina picked up the stained cloth, wiped the pen's nib carefully, laid it very precisely along the right margin of her hand written Journal, and turned the swivel chair to face her visitor.

Sarah sat as if on a chair, still wearing the cream-and-burgundy gown she'd worn earlier, her hands folded properly in her lap.

"Nice dress," Willamina said.

"Your son like it," Sarah smiled. "He said I look like a lady in this one." She looked frankly at Willamina. "It would fit you too, you know."

"You heard about Barrents."

"I saw him earlier tonight. I think he knows it wasn't you, but don't be surprised if hospital staff tell you about the lovely dress you wore tonight."

Willamina nodded. "You really are a troublemaker, you know."

"I know." She smiled. "And I'm really good at it."

"Why are you here?"

"Why aren't you planting explosives under that shack?"
"I got outranked."

"You could have done it."

"They had more and better resources."

"You could still have come through the hatch in the floor and laid about the Philistines with the jawbone of a Colt revolver."

Willamina smiled, just a little, and nodded.

"Yeah," she agreed. "I could have."

"But you did not."

"No."

"Good."

Willamina frowned. "What?"

"Barrents thought I was you," Sarah said smoothly.

"What other trouble did you cause?"

"I left a rose on his bedside table."

"Oh, now he thinks he's going to have a son?"

"Of course he's having a son. I'll leave him another rose in nine months."

"I thought that was Esther's job."

Sarah shrugged. "I like to help out."

Willamina's eyes narrowed. "Why exactly are you here?"

Another Sarah-self stepped forward, as if from a shadowed doorway: a quiver of arrows at her hip, a recurve bow in hand, she wore a white tunic and sandals, and her hair was swept up in the Grecian fashion: another, in the dress and mob cap of a woman of the American Revolution, stopped and leaned on her flint musket: silently the came, and silently they stood, and they each regarded their pale-eyed, modern day twin with their own pale eyes.

"I made a choice," the archer-maiden said, "to stand with my sisters and defend the Temple against an invading enemy. I died."

"I chose to shoot a British officer. I made it a hundred yards before I too was shot."

Each in turn spoke to her last moments, and these moments were all a time of war, a moment of battle.

Willamina listened to each in her turn.

"So why are you here?"

"You did not die in battle."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"You chose not to engage against a hopeless situation."

"You could have but did not."

Willamina blinked.

"Is what I did wrong?"

"Far from it," Sarah said, rising. "Most of us here had no other choice. You had a choice and you chose to delegate." She dropped her eyes. "Papa did that."

Willamina nodded.

"Your lessons are learned," each of the Sarah-selves said. "You will leave no work undone, and you will have no need to return as have we."

Willamina's eyes paled and her jaw thrust out.

"Baloney."

The selves waited, watching in the shadowed living room as Willamina stood.

"I already know that I will appear on Mars when another Sheriff needs backup." She thrust her chin toward Esther Keller's double gun, hung on its deer-hoof gunrack. "I'll use that gun and I'll drive two charges of double-ought into an outlaw's ribs. I know what I'll be wearing and I know what I will say to my descendant."

The selves disappeared, all but Sarah.

"Our blood runs true in your veins," she nodded approvingly. "Now ... Barrents."

"His hemangioma burst. He'll be on antibiotics for a while. They took his spleen but he'll be alive to complain about it."

Sarah nodded, steepling her fingertips thoughtfully together.

"The people who raided the cabin ... did they find anything?"

Willamina chuckled. "Boy howdy did they ever," she smiled. "It even made the newspaper."

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46. "GET AWAY FROM MY MAMA!"

Jacob frowned as he finished the column of figures.

He'd checked his work three times, and still finished his work before anyone else in class.

He flinched as someone gripped his shoulder, then froze as a familiar voice whispered, "Tell the teacher your Mama is hurt and run out of the classroom."

He turned to see who was there and saw his Apple-horse looking at him through the window, then turn and walk toward the front of the schoolhouse.

"Go," Sarah's voice whispered, and Jacob surged out of his seat, taking his paper with him: he slapped it down on Mrs. Shaver's desk and said quickly, urgently, "Mama has been hurt and she needs me!" -- then he turned and ran for the door, and the startled teacher heard his running boot heels in the hall way.

Jacob ran pell-mell for the front door, slammed hard against it, leaned into it, pushing with his good shoulder: it was magnetic locked, but by law it had to give way to a prolonged shove -- fire regulations and all that -- and the door released with the reedy, warbling alarm that signaled an unauthorized opening.

Jacob ran up to Apple horse -- he didn't stop to question why he was already saddled -- he turned him, looking around, then pulled his young leg up as far as he could get it, got his toe just started into the stirrup, grabbed the saddlehorn and shoved off with his right foot, barely getting up, but once up he was in the saddle and ready to go.

Apple-horse was ready as well.

Eyes young and old watched the schoolboy and the stallion gallop down the grade toward the main street, and more than just his teacher wondered what in the world was going on.

Jacob looked over at the young woman in the pearl-grey riding dress, astride a huge black Frisian mare.

"Make for the back door," Sarah shouted, "I'll meet you there!"

Somehow Jacob was not surprised that he heard her voice clearly, but he did not hear the least sound of hoofbeats from the enormous black Frisian.

Jacob and Apple-horse turned onto the main street -- gratefully, no traffic was anywhere near -- and the Appaloosa's steel-shod hooves were loud on the blacktop as they surged down the main street.

Jacob slowed his stallion before kneeing him into the turn and they clattered down the alley beside the Sheriff's office.

He slid out of the saddle, tethered the Appaloosa to the same ring his Mama used when she tied off her Cannonball mare, turned to the back door.

Sarah was waiting for him, composed, beautiful as ever.

"Your Mama needs your help," she said. "I need you to get into her office without being seen."
Jacob nodded, closed his eyes.

His Mama taught him her secret combination, the number combination that would get him into the back door, and he whispered the mnemonic she'd used when she read him the story of warriors who rode dragons into battle.

"Eena, meena, pitsa teena, avoo bumbarina, osha gosha barbarosa, nineteen hundred and one!"

He opened his eyes.

He punched 1-9-0-1 ENTER and the lock clicked loudly.

He pulled the door open, swung in, pulled the door shut, quickly, before the five-second override activated; he glanced up at the camera, knowing he could not avoid its ground-glass gaze.

He catfooted down the hall.

 

Most of a half century before, a police officer looked at the radio's speaker.

His eyes turned pale as he listened to the report.

Escaped felon, he thought. Southbound, high rate of speed.

He looked up the street, nodded.

I can block him here.

The main street through town was the only way anyone could get through: it was the state route, on one side was the sulfur creek, on the other a stand of trees.

He'd position his cruiser crosswise of the two lanes.

You'll ram a tree or fly off into the creek, he thought.

Either way, you stop here.

He continued listening to the radio as the prison breaker screamed through the county seat, sideswiping a cruiser, outrunning the pursuers on the crooked county roads, then the crooked state route: one by one he got past the hastily positioned officers -- Rendville, Corning, Glouster.

When Glouster marked on the air, Theodore Keller pulled his cruiser across the roadway, lit the single beacon in the middle of the roof, stepped casually out of the driver's door and drew his revolver.

He sauntered around the car and stood, waiting.

His car was in plain view, the roof light was on, the criminal would have no choice but to try and evade ... and he'd have him.

Surely he wouldn't ram the cruiser.

He watched as a vehicle came into view, came at him at an unholy velocity.

His gut tightened and he realized ...

He's not going to stop.

His mouth went dry and he raised his Smith & Wesson Victory Model -- it was the only pistol he could afford, he was a young married and he had a wife and a daughter and he got the best his slim purse could afford --

His pale eye was steady behind the pistol and he placed the front blade on the driver's side of the windshield and fired, fired again, and then the car rammed him.

Ted felt like a bomb detonated across his legs and he collapsed over the car's hood, the pain so intense he was well beyond screaming.

Witnesses later testified the driver was screaming and so were the tires as he tried to shove his ruined and steaming car through the injured lawman and his bent-in-the-middle cruiser.

Ted died on the way to Columbus, in the back of an ambulance

His wife was given a folded flag and his badge and his pistol, and she threw the flag in the trash.

His pale-eyed daughter salvaged flag, badge and revolver; the flag was in a triangular frame in his grown-up daughter's office, the pistol in a glass-front frame on her office wall, with his badge and six loaded rounds.

Jacob knew they hung on his Mama's office wall, and he knew his pistol at home was the twin for his Granddad's pistol.

He managed to sidle down the hallway, peeked around the corner, ducked back as his Mama left her office and headed for the front door, past the dispatcher, her heels loud on the polished quartz floor.

He peeked quickly around the corner, saw her push through the inner doors.

He made his move, knowing her attention would be directed outward.

Silently, quickly, he turned the knob, spun in, eased the door shut.

"Well done," Sarah smiled, her hands properly folded in her apron. "Pull up a chair and withdraw your grandfather's revolver."

"Mama will kill me!" he breathed, dismay on his face and ashes on his tongue.

"She will do no such thing. Move."

Jacob obediently (and silently) slid the chair under the frame, stood up on it, turned the latch under the frame, raised its hinged glass cover.

"Take the rounds first."

He pulled the six from their cloth loops, dropped them one at a time into his shirt pocket, then lifted the pistol off its hooks.

"Step down and put it on your mother's desk."

He did, hoping mightily nobody came in to catch him.

"Open the top drawer."
He hooked his fingers under the edge of the wide, shallow drawer, pulled carefully.

"Screwdriver and magnifying glass."

He placed them on the green desk blotter.

"Watch."

Sarah picked up the screwdriver, passed her hand over the pistol's handle, a magician's move, and the grip came off with her palm.

"Look."

Jacob blinked, stared, picked up the lens, looked closely at the secret the grip concealed, looked up at Sarah.

"The Thunder Bird," he whispered, awed at the discovery.

Barrents told him of the Thunder Bird, and its significance, and here it was on his grandfather's revolver.

He brought the lens up, magnifying the engravure.

"G. Flint," he read, his brows puzzling together. "Flint?"

"Aye, that's right," a jolly voice declared, and Sarah was gone.

In her place, a British Tommy wearing that funny tin hat and a brown uniform.

"That's the pistol I carried into Europe," the old man happily declared. "I had two of 'em. Sent for 'em special, I did, you Yanks made me a fine pair and this is one!"

A feminine hand appeared from nowhere, placed its twin on the blotter: a wave, and its grip was gone, and beneath, the same cartouche.

"Well bless me, both my old pops!" the old man cackled, clapping his hands happily together. "George Flint his name was, an' he worked for your Smith & Wesson, he did, an' he made these up for me!" His eyes were almost invisible, so delighted was his expression. "He asked for measurements -- I didn't know why he wanted t' know how long me arms were, an' how big m' chest, and when these came they were in a double shoulder harness, they were!"

He laughed, sighed.

"He wrote me a note, he did, he said t' wear these under m' blouse so when I parachuted in, they wouldn't be ripped away by th' slipstream." He lifted his face, looked very directly at young Jacob.

"He was right, y'know, an' a good thing it was.

"We were captured but the damned Bosche didn't pat me down, an' I give me boys th' wink, an' when we formed up I brought out my old pops an' bang bang bang, I shot three Germans, I did!" He nodded happily. "Me boys grabbed th' Boschies an' got their rifles an' we turned things on 'em, we did!"

He stopped and considered for a moment.

"You'll need these now," he said. "I'll tell ye th' same as Mr. George Flint wrote me in that note he sent wi' 'em.

"You put th' front sight on what y' want t' hit an' my old pops here will do their part!"

He nodded once, a nod with a wink, and he was gone.

Puzzled, Jacob picked up one pistol, then the other, and he flinched again as a strong set of hands pulled him back, wrapped his gunbelt around his middle.

"Holster," Sarah's voice commanded, and he did.

"Shove the other in the small of your back."

He did, a little uncertainly, and said "I'm sweeping my butt."

"It's called a New York reload. Your Mama told you about that."

"Why are you telling me about this?"

Sarah's eyes were pale as she knelt, placed her hands on his shoulders.

"Your Mama needs you now," she whispered. "Go to her."

Jacob walked around his Mama's desk, reached for the door knob, turned it and started to pull when the first burst of submachine gun fire ripped through the still air.

 

It felt like she'd been punched, hard and deep, and she fell back a step.

Her right hand swatted her coat open and gripped the black pistol's handle and the Glock came up and her pale eye was steady as she punched her sidearm toward her attacker and returned fire.

Something grazed her head -- it felt like she'd been clubbed -- she stumbled back, fell, tried to crawl under her Jeep.

She heard the buzz gun's empty magazine hit the ground and she saw the glass door swing open and she saw Jacob, her little Jacob, she saw her son, her little boy, and why is he wearing his pistol and isn't he supposed to be in school, and he drew the revolver and part of her mind heard a shrill screaming and Jacob's draw was slow, slow, everything was so slow, and she saw the pistol come up and the hammer was back and she could see the hammer nose sharp and clear and the gun cracked and she saw him flip the pistol up and thumb cock it again and he lowered the barrel a little and fired a second time and it finally registered in her confused mind what she was hearing.

She was hearing her son's voice.

She was hearing his furious "DAMN YOU YOU CAN'T HAVE HER! NOBODY SHOOTS MY MAMA!"

She saw him stride forward and she saw his hazel eyes were ice-pale and she saw his jaw was set and she saw him move with determination and confidence and she heard the rounds he fired and she tried to get up and why was she looking at the underside of her Jeep's running board and hard hands grabbed her jacket and she was flying, she was flying, and voices ... oh, shut up, quit shouting willya already ...

A face, pale eyes, her brother, shouting something ...

 

Sharon moved mechanically, her lips moving, she felt her voice in her throat, she made the calls, and then she slumped back in her chair.

She'd just seen the Sheriff jerking like her chest was being jackhammered, then she saw her fire back and then she went down like she was hit hard and Jacob came running out of nowhere and she could not lose the image of what used to be a happy little boy, screaming in fury and firing a revolver and he moved out of sight and she heard him continue to shoot.

Sharon dropped her head into her palms, then she bent over and grabbed her trash can and threw up.

 

"GET AWAY FROM MY MAMA!"

Something hit Will like a torpedo and he fell backwards and Jacob scrambled up and knelt beside his Mama.

Nobody moved as this child, this little boy, grabbed his mother's lapels and yanked and screamed "MAMAAA!" and then he drove stiff fingers into her throat, dug for the carotid as he'd been taught, and Will struggled back to his feet as Jacob yanked his arm out of its sling and stiff-armed over his Mama's still form and began driving his weight into her chest.

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47. TROUBLEMAKER

Willamina groaned, rolled over, pushed up onto hands and knees, stood.

She looked around and swore.

She was in the Amphitheater again, and she saw one of the Sarah-selves standing against the nearest ... arms crossed, one booted foot propped up on the rock.

Willamina heard her whistle -- a low, admiring, sliding note -- "Damn, sister, he shot you a dozen times right in the wish bone and you still put four in his gut!"

"What about the two just under his chin?" she snapped. "Where the hell am I?" Anger burned bright in her and she turned ice-pale eyes on the black-clad woman.

"Am I dead?"

"Yoooouuuuu're ... mostly dead," the agent Sarah said casually.

"Mostly dead doesn't sound good."

"No. It's not good."

"I've died before," she said, eyes narrowed, pacing slowly toward the Agent. "I died and I was in the Valley. This isn't it."

"No. You don't go to the Valley until you're really dead."

"Then how did I come back from that one?"

"The same way we come to you," a voice said to her right.

Willamina turned, quickly, hands open and up before her, ready to chop, punch or block, but the beautiful Sarah-self in the burgundy-and-cream gown smiled gently, tilted her head a little to the side.

"Your work was not yet done," she explained quietly, her voice as gentle as her sister self's was cynical. "Now ... well, now you have to choose."

"Choose what?" Willamina snapped.

"Whether you choose to live," the schoolteacher said primly as she paced out from behind her Standing Stone, "or whether you wish to die."

"There is no choice to be made," Willamina said slowly, anger building in her belly. "I choose to live, now how do I get back!"

"Be very careful what you wish for," a soft voice said, and Willamina turned to see the veiled nun gliding toward her. "Death is ... pleasant."

She withdrew her hands from where she'd had them tucked up in her sleeves, and made a graceful curve, and Willamina felt a familiar ecstasy wash over her.

It was immediate and it was profound and it was the most glorious thing she'd ever felt, and she knew it felt right.

She'd felt it before.

She'd felt that way when she died.

 

"Jacob, off," Will said urgently as the defibrillator pads were placed on Willamina's exposed chest.

He tried not to look at the bloody mess where the machine gun burst hammered the flesh under Willamina's ballistic vest into bloody, bruised jelly.

"Don't touch her," Will cautioned, and nodded, and Sharon hit the button on the AED.

He held his breath, stared at his sister's unmoving form, his hands closed into fists as the machine's mechanical voice said, "No activity, continue CPR."

Will laced his fingers together and brought his shoulders over his sister's bloodied chest and began driving hard, keeping the rhythm of the AED's loud clicks, at least until he looked up and yelled, "WHERE'S THAT DAMNED SQUAD???"

Jacob knelt on the other side, his breath quick, shallow.

He reached for her face, drew back, then laid the backs of his fingers against his Mama's cheek and whispered, "Mama?"

 

Willamina looked up, toward the black ceiling overhead, at that one word, that child's heartbroken voice, and she looked around, her eyes no longer just cold ... now her eyes glowed, they glowed white and fury burned within her.

"I AM GOING BACK, NOW SHOW ME HOW!"

"You felt the world's weight removed from your shoulders," the Faceless Nun murmured. "While we live, the weight of all of creation bears on each of us, for each word we say or say not, every thing we do or do not, has a significance and an effect in a world unseen. When we die, all this pain, all this agony is taken from us, for we are born into a seething ocean of unremitting pain, a pain we don't realize until it is taken from us at the moment of our death."

Willamina nodded savagely. "Yeah, Sister, now SEND ME BACK!"

"Know what you're returning to," the Faceless Sister said sadly: another gesture, and Willamina's chest felt like it was being crushed by a bulldozer blade, her head felt like a Mob enforcer just ball batted it across the back field fence, and the rest of her echoed the general sentiment of these two primary foci of utter agony.

Willamina opened her eyes and spread her arms, pointed to the Sarah-self, the one that looked like herself, the one in a mob cap and a Colonial dress.

"YOU TOOK A MUSKET BALL THROUGH YOUR SPINE AND IT BLEW YOUR HEART OUT YOUR BREASTBONE," Willamina shouted. "YOU SURRENDERED ALL YOUR SORROW AT NEVER SEEING YOUR CHILD GROW UP! I CLAIM YOUR SORROW!"

Something like a lightning bolt seared around the Colonial woman, and shot into Willamina's extended hand, shot into her arm.

She pointed to another.

"YOU CHARGED THE KING WITH A BLOODIED SWORD AND YOU DIED WITH HIS BLADE THROUGH YOUR HEART," she shouted. "I CLAIM THE RAGE OF A WARRIOR, THAT RAGE YOUR SURRENDERED WHEN YOU DIED!"

Another searing, spinning shock-storm surrounded another of her selves, and drove into her arm.

"I CLAIM THE JOY YOU FELT WHEN YOU WERE WED!"

"I CLAIM THE SORROW YOU FELT WHEN YOUR CHILD DIED!"

She turned to each one, she seized everything they'd felt in their lives, and though she was not familiar with this brand of woman's magic, she was familiar with her training as a woman of a modern age, and she framed these new energies in terms she could understand.

Willamina drove them into her soul, drove them into an impossibly small space, she crushed them into the volume of a pin's head.

She detonated these many lives' worth of unspent energies and she made her own Hiroshima, deep in her very soul.

The shock wave blew the sand from the amphitheater floor, turned standing stones to gravel, sent a shock wave through the miles-deep strata, and Willamina formed herself into a silver missile and drove straight up, up through granite and quartz and overburden of many kinds, tasting each element and each layer as she passed: some part of her realized she'd well exceeded the speed of sound, and she did not care.

She drove into the light, then she fell, and she fell hard.

 

"How long has it been?"

The doctor shook his head.

Will's hands crushed into fists and he sank to his knees again beside his dead twin's pale form.

"NOOOOO!" Joseph screamed, stiff-arming over his Mama's bloody breastbone, compressing desperately again, and Will gripped his arm.

"Jacob -- Jacob, I'm sorry, but she's dead --"

"YOU LEAVE ME ALONE!" Jacob screamed, driving his fist into Will's nose.

Dr. Greenlees heard the cartilage snap.

Startled, enraged, overwrought, Will brought back his arm for a roundhouse slap.

 

PAIN PAIN PAIN OH GOD IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS --

Willamina gasped in a breath, coughed, squeezed her eyes shut against the agony, tried again, worked at the oral airway holding her tongue down.

"Mama!" Jacob's joyful scream broke the spell.

Something grabbed Will by the back of the shirt, jerked him hard, threw him back several feet.

Chief Roger Taylor turned and stood over the supine, bloodied policeman.

"Go to the hospital," he said. "She'll be along shortly." His obsidian eyes narrowed. "And pray to your white man's God that she did not see you draw back your hand to strike her child."

 

Richard turned, curious, at the odd noise from the living room.

He turned off the fire and moved the frying pan of burgers to a cold burner, stepped to the doorway and froze as something surged up his throat.

The Bear Killer -- this little Bear Killer -- was backed up under the roll top desk, muzzle pointed toward the ceiling.

Richard saw the young throat working, and then he heard it.

The Bear Killer was starting to howl.

Oh God no, Richard thought, for the only times The Bear Killer than he'd known, had howled, was when Uncle Pete died, and again when Aunt Martha died.

"Oh God," Richard gasped, and then the phone rang.

Two minutes later he slid his restored '68 Mustang convertible sideways onto the state route, and left several dollars' worth of rubber on the pavement as he launched the gleaming-black muscle car toward the hospital.

 

It's been said that lawmen are like a tribe of Scotsmen.

Step on one toe and the whole clan hollers.

That was certainly the case here.

They didn't come in lights and siren, but precious few of the arriving vehicles paid any attention to the prima facie speed limit, at least until they were in town, and the waiting room found itself packed with silent, watchful men and women in a variety of uniforms.

Somehow the surveillance tape from the Sheriff's office got passed to a network, pads and smartphones were consulted and passed around, and when a scared-looking little boy with an empty holster on his belt came into the waiting room and looked around, he was immediately received by folk who regarded him at once as one of them, and one most worthy of respect.

Not a one of them objected when Jacob lifted the back of his vest, and pulled out the second revolver, and dunked it in his holster.

A State Trooper was on one knee in front of him when he did, and when Jacob said simply, "It's more comfortable like that," the trooper nodded and said "Yes, son, it is."

 

Barrents laid out several items on the Sheriff's desk.

The Sheriff's ballistic vest was there, with the bases of what looked like a double handful of hardball 9mm rounds impacted into the material.

Her corset was there, and its steel stays, bent and dented but intact, and Barrents considered that this, too, helped keep her alive.

He took a look at the revolver, then looked up at the empty picture frame, and smiled, then he picked up the old veteran revolver.

The grip fell off in his hand.

Barrents blinked, looked more closely at the grip frame that a moment before was concealed by the walnut grip panel.

"No," he whispered; he reached down, drew his own pistol, then looked from the Thunder Bird on one to the Thunder Bid on the other.

He smiled, for he knew the man who'd hand-chased this most powerful totem on the old revolver, was the same man who hand-chased the same sigil on his own pistol, and for the same reason.

He raised the old revolver overhead, two-handed, then placed it respectfully back on the desk, placed the grip panel back on the frame.

"Thank you, Grandfather," he whispered, and a shadow passed through the room, a shadow that reminded him of an owl's flight.

 

The operation took some time, but at last Richard and his son came out into the waiting area.

Richard looked around at the many sets of eyes, and he cleared his throat, then swallowed.

Jacob had no such difficulty.

"They had to wire her stern back together," he said with the assurance of the very young.

Lawmen looked at one another, then at Richard; there were smiles, and a few chuckles, and it was evident Jacob didn't quite realize just what he'd said.

"How did they do that?" a Sheriff's deputy from neighboring Teller County asked, going to one knee and looking the lad in the eye.

Jacob frowned. "They had to staple the wire on one side and then on the other and then they pulled her stern together."

Richard was turning red and trying hard not to laugh.

"I'll bet that hurt," the deputy said gently, thinking of his own son at home.

"Nah," Jacob said. "My Mama's tough. She didn't even cry!"

 

Chief Taylor parked his chair outside the Sheriff's hospital room.

He'd set in hospital corridors before, a few times for this same individual.

Tonight another chair set beside his.

A nine year old boy sat in the chair, an old revolver on his hip, and the Chief did not mind one bit that the lad leaned over against him.

As a matter of fact he set like that most of the night, with his arm around the boy's shoulder and a hospital issue blanket over the both of them.

It was another couple of days before he got to see the Sheriff, and when he did, she still looked like warmed over hell.

He carefully refrained from telling her that Jacob said they had to wire her stern back together -- he knew the lad meant sternum, for her breast bone was broken in a few places, and she would be laid up for a good while healing from that -- but he also knew it would strike her as funny, and if she laughed it would hurt, and he didn't want to cause her any pain.

Chief Taylor sat beside her bed and said instead, "You've got quite a son, Sheriff."

"I saw the surveillance," she said quietly -- any but a quiet reply hurt -- "I don't remember being shot."

There was a knock at the door.

Chief Taylor rose as a nun, all in white and with a white veil, glided into the room.

She circled the bed and placed a string-tied bundle in Willamina's hands, then slipped her hands into her angel-wing sleeves and bowed.

"Brother William's complements," she said in a husky voice, "and he rejoices that your Last Rites were not necessary."

"Excuse me ... do I know you?" the Chief asked, curious, and the nun hesitated, then lifted the corner of her veil.

A horrible, puckered scar ran from one eye down across her face, then plunged into her neckline; the eyelid was puckered downward, and a trickle of tears ran steadily down her cheek.

"I used to sing opera," she husked, then dropped the veil, bowed, and glided out of the room.

Chief Taylor turned back to Willamina. "Can I get you anything?"

"Yeah," Willamina almost whispered. "An aspirin the size of a washtub." She smiled just a little. "Untie this for me, please."

He untied the string, laid the corners open on the package.

"I'll send Richard in," he offered.

"No," Willamina whispered. "Tell him to go home and get a shower, tell him to put Jacob to bed and to get some sleep himself, and then tell everyone outside to go home and hug their wives and kiss their children."

Chief Taylor nodded, and Willamina raised a finger.

The police chief stopped, waiting.

"Is Will out there?"

He nodded.

"Send him in, please, and tell everyone outside ... tell them thank you."

"I will."

Willamina carefully unwrapped the package, breathing very carefully, but hurting no matter how easily she inspired or expired.

There was a note, sealed with bright scarlet ink, the seal was a strung bow, and an arrow.

She broke the seal.

You have passed your last test, she read.

I have taught you all that I can.

You will see me no more.

I wanted to leave you with a memento.

It was signed with an ornate, flourished Sarah McKenna

Willamina picked up the small brass case, pulled at the latch, opened it.

It was hinged.

The picture within might have been Willamina, save that the gown was burgundy and cream, a gown she herself had never worn.

The boy in the picture was immediately recognizable -- a mother always knows her son -- he even wore the white linen sling Willamina made for him.

They were standing beside an absolutely huge, gleaming, utterly black horse, with an equally huge, black-curly-furred dog.

The boy wore his usual flannel shirt and vest, and he had a holstered pistol in a left-hand holster.

The woman held a sign, its letters big enough to be easily seen, and Willamina smiled to read its single word.

Troublemaker.

She nodded, closed the case.

A knock at the door; it opened tentatively, and Will came in.

He had a bandage across his nose and two rolls of gauze up his nostrils, he had just the suggestion of one darkened eye.

"Howya feelin', Sis?" he asked carefully.

Willamina nodded.

"Like I've been shot," she whispered.

Will leaned against the back of the hardback chair.

"Can't imagine why," he deadpanned.

"Will." Willamina smiled.

"Yes, Sis?"

"Will, I was dead, but I could hear Jacob's voice.

"Nobody else's.

"My son brought me back from the other side of the river.

"Will, if you ever hit my child, I don't care if I am dead, I will kill you." Her expression was angelic. "I will kill you slowly and I will make you suffer for at least a week and I know just how to do it."

Will's ears flamed red and he looked like he'd just bit into a rotten fish sandwich, and he nodded.

"I deserved that," he muttered.

"You are forgiven." Willamina frowned. "Dear God, did he break your nose?"

"Yes he did," Will admitted, raising a tentative finger to his bruised beak.

Willamina took a careful breath, winced, looked back at her twin brother.

"Good."

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48. TALE'S END

If we were to remain in Firelands, we might note the variety and frequency of the Sheriff's visitors, for the Sheriff was universally respected and admired: even the lawless held that respect for the pale-eyed woman, for she was unfailingly fair and even-handed in her treating with the lawful and the lawless alike.

We might find a visitor with a Sicilian-black mustache, curled in a tidy handlebar, a certain barber reputed to be a retired Godfather, who reported to the Sheriff that he called in some favors and called in some enforcers, and the last of the gang who wished the Sheriff harm, had contributed their souls to the Madonna while he contributed their miserable filthy bodies to a wood chipper, and how -- well mixed with soil -- they were finally doing the world some good, by fertilizing a patch of crop land nearby.

We might -- in a few months, when the Sheriff is healed enough to do so -- we might visit with the Sheriff and the Italian barber with the grand and expressive gestures, and as we sit at an adjacent table, we might gather that he is the Sheriff's guest ... kind of a thank-you between old friends.

We might listen to Willamina's quiet laughter, as she hugged a pillow to her chest to ease the pain of her healing breastbone while she laughed, as her husband described how their son solemnly assured a room full of lawmen that the surgeons stapled wires to his Mama's stern so they could pull it back together, and we might hear Willamina's near-whispered admission that her ... stern ... was about the only part of her that hadn't hurt.

And finally, not much over a year after that moment, we might hear a disappointed Jacob Keller tell his Mama that Sarah hadn't been back, and we might hear his young lungs huff out a sigh twice as big as the chest it came from when his Mama said she did not believe Sarah would be back to see them again.

And we would likely rejoice in The Bear Killer, because everyone loves a pup with huge feet and bright-button-shiny eyes, a pup who ran and played with the boy as he too ran and played.

But all this is speculation, for if we were to do this, we would need a crystal ball, or some other magical adjunct to take us from this mundane and ordinary world into one populated with red mares, Appaloosa stallions and ghosts that borrow family members for photographs taken a hundred years ago.

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Back a very long time ago (sure feels it anyway!), my Mama, my beautiful bride and my baby sis stood shoulder to shoulder in Mama's kitchen.

They spoke with one voice.

My first book, "The Sheriff's Legacy," was out and I'd started the second already, and these three ladies read that first book and debated among themselves just who Sheriff Willamina came from (each of them wanted to be the inspiration for that pale-eyed Sheriff!) -- but they surprised me when they spoke, for they were firm in their opinion that older was better.

They wanted to read more about the Old Sheriff.

They wanted to know more about that lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache.

All things have to have a starting point.

Reckon I'll begin there.

THE SHERIFF'S ORIGIN

1. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND GANG

I set my boot on that good Ames shovel and shoved.

The diggin' wasn't bad here.

Was I to dig almost anywhere else it would be all tree roots, but the trees had been cleared off here long enough what roots was left were pretty well rotted and cut easy enough.

Granddad marked out a circle about four foot across and allowed as he wanted 'er dug out down to the water, and he handed me the shovel, and when yer Pa sends you over to work for family, you work and no excuses.

I dug.

I dug around the circle and cut me a ring and then I proceeded to dig out slabs of dirt, walking around that circle and cutting in a shovel at a time, and stacking the sod behind me.

Once I got the sod cut for the full circle and had an actual ring about wide as my hand and deep as one shovel cut, I stacked that-there sod on the wagon -- I had no idea what Granddad wanted it for, but he wanted it stacked, so stack it I did.

I went back to attair hole and proceeded to cut out the rest of the circle, until I had me a hole one shovel deep and four foot across.

I didn't get it dug in on the first day, nor on the second, and there was some rocks to contend with once I got belt buckle deep, but I'd been sent over to work and not make excuses, so I prized out them rocks and muscled 'em out of the hole and I kept diggin'.

Granddad picked the dry part of the year to dig, and glad I am of it, for once I started comin' into damp dirt I was about a foot below my own height.

We held up about then -- we was my brother and I, Albert his name was and two years younger than me -- we scrapped some the way brothers will, and he was hard headed and contrary as a bank mule, but he was a worker, he was, and he sledded in rocks he'd dressed for the purpose, and proceeded to drop 'em down the hole to me.

I cut that hole true and smooth 'cause I knew we would be layin' up stone, and I knew we'd be drivin' smaller stone in between the bigger ashlars to keep the dirt from crowdin' it shut, and we laid them stones steady and close and nice and tight.

Handlin' rocks of that size will tire a man out and it'll tire out a tall boy and I was not yet a-growin' of a beard nor even the shadow of one, I was long and tall and skinny as a saplin', and Granddad could see I wasn't about to holler give-up -- but I was about wore out.

He fetched in a couple more boys and the four of us picked up stone and dressed off stone and stacked stone on the stone boat to sled into the well site, and at one time or another every one of us was down in attair hole in the ground.

Once we got stone laid up good -- I had to build a low scaffold to get stone laid clear up to ground level, then we cut it back a little and laid a stone rim around it at ground level and stacked on top of that to bring it up to belt buckle high.

Granddad dug the post holes to set posts for the winch, and he wanted a roof built on that -- I hadn't come over to more than dig a hole, at least that was my understandin', and I got resentful that the old man kept a-loadin' more work on us and more work on us.

Now brother Albert was game to try and build the roof over the well but he was no hand at workin' with wood.

Dressed lumber was a dear thing in them days and he short cut three boards in a row and Granddad spoke to him about it and I think it hurt his feelin's, for he throwed down his tools and stomped off and never did come back.

Me, I cut one more shovel deep and I hit sand and then the water started makin' in that well and I clumb out of there and fetched out the ladder I'd lashed together, and we worked on attair roof and I managed to make those cut-short boards work after all.

Was that work for a stranger I would have charged a fair wage, but this was for Granddad, and him and Grandma fed me and them other boys, and she called us her Hole in the Ground Gang, and allowed as we'd ought to go into well diggin' for a livin'.

We just looked at one another.

Now I'm not the least bit leery about hard work, but I had me no wish a'tall to go into well diggin' for my life's profession.

 

Pa never said hi yes or go to hell about diggin' that well.

Neither him nor Granddad offered a word of praise for the work we'd done.

Didn't expect any.

Work needed done, you did it, and I did.

Next mornin' I picked up my pea rifle and slung my possibles and my horn and headed out over the break of the ridge.

I was of a notion I could get me some eatin' meat.

Us boys had the task of keepin' the garden safe and we were hell on critturs that come in and allowed as our table fare made good fare for them.

Me, I'd rather eat meat than garden truck, and everything I shot out of that garden, we et and glad for it.

I headed for Sunday Creek.

I'd seen a goose nestin' in the bottom near to the creek and I'd been told they pair off for life, and I hadn't no wish to turn one into a widow or the other into a widower, so I allowed as I was goin' to way lay the both of 'em.

I'd seen 'em a-buildin' attair nest and they hadn't clutched yet, and fresh eggs were a thing to be wished for most days, and goose eggs will fry up just as nice as chicken eggs, so I followed the bench some distance then dropped down toward the bottom ground.

Now you have to understand, this was back in Perry County, Ohio, and the ground looked like it'd been pulled up in long wrinkles.

Ridges.

The stage coach run the coach roads and these were all laid out on the back bone of the ridges so they wouldn't flood out, but the Hatfield Road come down into Hatfield's Bottom where the mill set, and come flood, why, attair stage had to use a little squinchy turn-around once it left off what mail or passengers or freight it had.

I was up-hollow from the Mill and I slid through the brush nice and quiet-like, until I could see the creek.

Sure enough, the gander was swimmin' up river.

I fetched up that pea rifle and set the back trigger, I raised up that nice shiny silver spot of a front blade and followed that goose.

Now when a goose swims its head bobs back and forth, and you've got the current to consider, and I was usin' a flint lock.

The gun cracked and I fetched that goose's head off.

Wasn't another fifteen minutes and I had the hen as well, and hung the both of 'em up to bleed out while I wove me up a basket and I stacked them eggs nice and careful in attair basket, and when I come home, Pa warn't too happy that I'd just up and left 'cause he always had work for me, but he was right pleased that we had eatin' meat and he was even happier with them eggs.

As I recall we had eggs for supper and I never had better.

 

I had probably the best bringin-up a boy could have.

I was nowhere near perfect and Pa took a belt to me when it was needful.

As a boy I never saw where it was needful a'tall, but boys are like that, and I learned the hard way that sometimes you've got to get someone's attention before they'll listen to you, and by golly now when Pa swung attair belt he had my undivided attention!

Other than them times when I deserved it (I only recall one time when I didn't deserve what I got), I was raised as Pa's apprentice, least when I wasn't diggin' wells, huntin' meat for the pot, cuttin' wood, sawin' wood, splittin' wood, plantin', hoein', fixin' what was broke ... I look back on it now and realize my Pa was a hell of a sight smarter than I'd give him credit for, and he taught me an awful lot more than I ever realized.

I run a trap line when the fur was decent -- not price wise, but quality, for if we didn't have a market for fur, it never, ever went to waste.

Winters in southern Ohio were blue cold.

I've known colder since then, especially in the mountains, but it was plenty cold enough when I was still a tall boy shovin' my feet under Pa's table.

When the market was good we sold fur.

They was only one decent buyer in the territory and that was Scotty.

We'd bundle up all we had and drive over to Chillicothe, at least it was "we" on the first trip, and after that Pa sent me by myself.

One of those fur runnin' trips was how I met my wife, Connie.

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2. CHILLICOTHE

 

When you live in a place all your life, you don't see it.

Oh, you look and you know there's a rock shelf and here's a stand of locust and the sun's comin' up melon orange and it might rain before sundown, but you don't really ... see ... it.

Pa knew this.

He'd sailed the big water to the north, the inland sea named for the native Erie.

He said the natives allowed as there was a great creature called the Seiche that lived in the sweet waters, and every now and again it got ornery and thrashed its tail and made what they called Seiche Waves, big gallopin' walls of water that come out of nowhere and if you didn't point your bow into it and lay on all speed before you got to it, why, that-there big monster wave would just plainly swallow a good size ship and not leave splinters enough to pick its teeth.

He also said the dirt up that-a-way was flat as a file and so fertile a man could stomp a grain of corn in the ground and pick ears by evening, but he also said it was all growed up with monstrous big oak and hardwood timber.

If a man could clear ground and grub stumps, he said, he could make good farmin' and if he didn't want to farm the land, why, the lake was right there and plumb full of fish.

Now when Pa looked around the hills, he saw 'em, really saw them, for he'd been to where folks looked at that big water every day and every day and they never saw it ... it was the same big water they'd growed up with, and they paid it no mind because it was so familiar to them.

I didn't give none of this much thought at the time.

I looked around my hills and they were the same hills I'd growed up with.

I knowed every rock shelf and every place a body could dig coal out of the hill side, I could tell you which bend in the creek had fish and which didn't, I could sniff the wind and tell you when rain was a-comin' or if it was already fell, but it was everyday.

It was the same as it always was.

When Pa give me that fancy wood box and said to give it to Scotty when I went to take them furs down, I said yes sir and harnessed up the chestnut and we set off for the capital, me with a bed roll and my flint rifle and the pistol I'd made to match it.

It carried the same size ball as my rifle and the lock work was identical, my thought was if the rifle broke I could rob the pistol for parts and if they both worked I'd have an extra chance if things went bad.

Most of the journey wasn't terribly exciting,which suited me just fine, and we made it to Shallagatha in good order.

Shallagatha, I thought.

The old Indian name.

This was a civilized place long before bearded adventurers clumb off a boat and come ashore.

Old and well used trade routes crossed here, I knew, and the white man's roads tended to follow these.

I knowed where Scotty set up business and we went there first, and the man was pleased to see me, for he knew our hides were well kept and free of fat, there were no carelessly-cleaned places that would hide rot, and he paid top dollar for he knew we had top grade pelts.

His wife asked me in the way she always did, and I give Scotty that fine box Pa made, and he set it down on the kitchen table and opened it up.

'Twas a matched pair of pistols and I recognized the Masonic square and compasses, inlaid in silver wire in the dark walnut, and I don't reckon I ever saw the man any more tickled in all the times I ever seen him.

Flint guns they were, for Scotty preferred a flint gun.

He'd spilled a box of percussion caps one winter when his fingers was cold and stiff and they rattled down into a crack in the ice and he didn't have a single one he could salvage, and he went hungry that day because of it. I recall his tellin' Pa of it and he said "As long as th' guid Lairrrd makes th' world o' rrrocks, I'll have me firelock,"

His wife set supper in front of us and it would have been impolite not to eat my fill.

While we et, Scotty took a look at whatever the note was Pa put in with them pistols: whatever he read, pleased him greatly, and he looked at me with a serious expression and said, "Lad, do you tell yer father thank ye, an' from a grrrateful mon."

I nodded with an equal gravity and replied that I would do that, and then we went out to the wagon and I lowered the tail gate and we took us a look at the furs I brought.

Once we settled on a price and shook on it, Scotty counted out coin and I slid our bounty in a money belt and snugged it around my lean middle, under my shirt.

I knew how much was mine and how much was ours, and I'd been settin' back money steady-like as I made it.

There was little enough to spend on and I figured one of these days I'd likely take a shine to a girl and women meant men spend money, or so Pa would say, and he'd laugh when he said it, but I figured there must be something to it, elsewise he'd not say so.

Things really didn't get interestin' until I left, me with a full belly and the chestnut grained up good, 'cause I didn't often go to the City and once I got into what they called Down Town I got more than gloriously lost, and ended up somehow leavin' on Paint Creek Road.

Now the Paint Crick got its name for some good reason, I doubted me not, but I had no idea what that reason might be, and I drove for a while until I realized I warn't quite where I wished to be.

About the time I allowed it might be wise to ask someone where I might be, I come in sight of a tidy little church and I heard singin' from it, and I seen a girl standin' outside of the church, so I drove up towards it and she didn't hear me til I was right upon her, and she startled some.

I saw she'd been cryin'.

I whoa'd the chestnut and set the brake, I clumb down and took my hat in my hand and allowed as I didn't intend to startle her, and she didn't make a sound but I could see grief was just plainly carved into her pretty face.

She was kind of skinny and she was bare foot, which didn't trouble me none, I'd run bare foot a-plenty, her dress was wore and needed some work but she was clean and her hair was the color of my gelding and straight as a die.

I turned and set my hat over the brake handle and I fetched out a flour sack napkin and offered it to her.

Somehow the Almighty knows when two souls need one another.

She needed a listening ear, and I didn't know I was needful of her til I met her.

Turns out she wanted to go to church that evening but he didn't have a decent dress and she didn't have no shoes and she ended up cryin' in my arms.

I'd heard of women usin' this as a ploy of some kind and I had no experience in this kind of thing and had she been that kind of woman she would have took me in hook line and sinker.

As it was she told me her name and I told her mine, and she said her Mama died a few days before and her Pa allowed as he didn't want her seein' no man.

That should have been a warning to me and I should have been a-way more circumspect, but I was young and a young man is impulsive and sometimes I can get in trouble just settin' on a fence rail, and sure enough I did.

I asked if I could take her home, and she looked at me with bright and sorrowful eyes, and she said yes.

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3. "I KILT ONE AND CRIPPLED TWO OF 'EM"

My Mama was a Wise Woman.

She had a knowin' way about her.

She taken one look at Nellie Belle and said "Nellie, you're pregnant!" and Nellie had just the God-awfulest look of surprise about her, for 'twas way too early for her to even had a suspicion, and it turned out Mama was exactly right.

She didn't want me to have none of the Knowin' Ways a'tall and I never did know why.

My baby sis told me some years later that Mama was the sixth first born female in six generations and her first child was female but mis carried way early, and I was next in line, and I reckon I must've inherited somethin' of it for I have stopped blood with the Word and I have blown the heat from a burn, and to stop blood and blow fire is supposed to only be women's gifts, that no man can do 'em.

Be all that as it may, my gut told me when we come a-rattlin' up to Connie's place this was nothin' but trouble.

Her Pa come up and jerked her out of my wagon and he shoved his finger at me a-yellin' that I was stealin' his daughter and she was bought and paid for and two of her brothers come out and they grabbed her arms and half-drug, half-marched her over to the wood pile, an' the one snarled "I'll have that horse" before him and the other'n throwed Connie belly down across the split wood stack and I felt somethin' come over me.

Mama told me of the Rage that run in our blood, 'twas heritage of what she called Berserkers or some-such, I never did know the straight of it, only that this was the first time it set on me and I didn't rightly know what was a-goin' on.

I didn't know until her Pa throwed her skirt up over her shoulders and fetched out a broad leather belt and he laid into her back side a-swingin' that-there belt two handed.

I set the brake on attair wagon and I come a-boilin' off that wagon seat with a double handful of flint rifle and I honestly did not intend to drive that silver crescent butt plate hard ag'in the man's throat.

I honestly had no intent to crush his wind pipe the way I did.

I intended fully to use the silver points of that there flint rifle to rip his wind pipe plumb out and tear open the great vessels, only he turned and lunged at me and I stopped him with one hard thrust that snapped his chin down into the gun stock.

Her brothers let go of her arms -- they were on the back side of that-there wood pile -- one run one way and one run t'other and I figured the one that run torst the cabin was a-runnin' for a gun his own self so I drove him through the hips with a fifty ball and he went down.

I tossed that flint rifle for the wagon bed and I took out a-runnin' after the other'n, he tried to get around the wagon and I come around t'other side and he had a knife and so did I.

He swung and missed and I grabbed his wrist and hauled him into me and I thrust him hard above the knee on the out side and twisted his wrist and I felt bone splinter and he dropped his knife when he collapsed for I'd cut the big leaders in his leg and crippled him.

I kicked him hard in the chest to get him some distance away from me and I stepped back, fetched out my pistol and pinky cocked it and I run into attair house and looked around.

It was dark but it looked cared for by a woman's hand and then I saw something that just plainly run the blood cold in my veins.

There was a length of chain run around an anvil, and an open slave cuff on the end of the chain, there was a hammer and a rivet a-waitin' on the anvil and I could see attair chain was wore bright where it was drug around right regular.

I went outside and her Pa was purpled up and bloody mouthed, he was layin' on his side and managin' to breathe a little but it was awful hard for him.

The one brother I shot through the hips was dead where he fell and when I went inside sure enough there was a shotgun leaned just inside the front door.

Likely that's what he run in after.

I took Connie by the shoulders and she flinched and then she saw it was me and she throwed herself into me and clung onto me like she was a-drownin' and I was a chunk of float-wood, and I held her for the longest time.

Her brother was screamin' for us to help him, he was bleedin' to death, so I went over and kicked him hard in the belly to shut him up and then I stuffed the cleanest rag I could find into the cut and tied it tight and I set Connie in the wagon and I reloaded my flint rifle and eased the hammer down on my pistol to half cock and shoved it back into my belt.

Connie looked around and she looked into that cabin door and her face got real hard and she come out of that wagon.

She couldn't stand and she hit the ground and I helped her up and together we went over to her Pa.

He was still alive but not very,and I reckon the last he knew anything about this earth was the sound of his own daughter screamin' and a-layin' every curse she could scar his soul with, and she took that belt he was a-whippin' her with and she whipped on him til he warn't breathin' no more.

I let her whip.

I let her whip and I let her rage and I let her just plainly wear herself out and then I picked her up and set her back in the wagon and I pointed attair chestnut's nose for town.

 

Turns out Scotty knowed Connie's Pa and his brothers and they were nothin' but trouble.

Turns out I was right about that-there shackle and chain, too.

That's where and how he kept Connie's mama for twenty years or so.

That's where he planned to keep Connie.

Scotty's wife tended to Connie and she give her a good hot water bath and she had some goose grease or some such she put on them welts, and some of them welts was bloody where they criss crossed, and on them'uns she used honey, for honey will keep it from infectin' and it's good for burns too.

I've used it so myself.

I told Scotty what I'd' done.

I told him I'd kilt one and crippled two, and then the one died and only the one was left alive.

I told him what I'd saw and what they'd done to Connie and I told him everything that happened exactly as I recalled it.

He listened close-like to what I said and finally he laid a hand on my shoulder and allowed as I'd done the right thing, that I'd done the territory a favor gettin' rid of them trouble makin' thievin' sorts, and a shame I hadn't killed the one I'd leg-cut and left.

I thanked him for his kind words and allowed as I reckon I'd best see the Sheriff, and Scotty said he'd come with me.

I'm right glad he did.

The Sheriff and the Judge were both in the court house, and with Scotty there to vouch for me, they heard me out and they both allowed as they'd ought to come out and depose Connie.

I didn't know what depose meant but long as they weren't going to take her dress off her I reckoned it would be all right.

We went back to Scotty's and the Sheriff and the Judge enjoyed Scotty's hospitality and his cider while Scotty's wife got Connie all ready.

When they come in the room we all come to our feet.

Connie's hair was clean and shining, long and straight as a die and nut brown it was, she had a brand new dress and she was genuinely the most beautiful woman in the entire world I'd ever seen.

Mrs. Scotty introduced her like she was the Queen, nice and formal like, and the Judge took Connie's hand and brought it to his lips and addressed her gently as "My Lady" and I thought Connie was just plainly gonna melt in her moccasins right there.

It didn't take long for the law to satisfy itself that Connie's account was the same as mine, only she turned around and h'isted her skirt to show those God awful welts and the cuts her Pa made when her brothers held her down across that wood pile, and I saw the two share a glance when Connie told them about how her Mama was kept on that chain with a shackle riveted around her ankle, and they'd planned the same for her.

Connie come over and stood beside me and our hands just naturally found one another and we stood there for a minute and I looked at the Sheriff and then at the Judge and I said "I don't know a soul over here except just us here. I wouldn't know where to look for a sky pilot but I hear tell Judges can perform weddings."

I felt Connie's hand squeeze mine just a little and I looked at her.

"Will you have me, Connie?" I asked, and she nodded, and she said yes, and that's all there was to it, least until the Judge sprinkled them fine words all over us and when he said to kiss the bride ... I realized I didn't know how that was done neither.

It didn't take me long to learn.

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4. DEPARTURE

 

I'd never had much and Connie had less, and I spent out of my hide money on what we'd be needful.

Connie picked out the sewin' notions and cloth she figured we'd need, and Mrs. Scotty set a wicker basket in the wagon when we weren't lookin' and it had enough to feed us both for several days, and I didn't find that basket until we were well on down the pike.

One thing I did get, whilst we were there in the Big City, and that was a ring.

I figured if Connie was goin' to be my wife she'd ought to look like a man's wife, and that meant a ring on her hand.

She near to cried when I slid it on her finger.

Turns out her Mama had a ring but her Pa sold it.

Her Ma had a Bible, too, and she used to read to Connie out of it, least til her Pa sold that too.

I happened to accidental-like see Connie's bare back and it was scarred some and I felt that Rage ignite inside me again and I wished I could find that old mountain witch I'd knowed, the one that told me I have hot hands, a Healer's hands ... 'twas said she could raise the dead, for the right price, and I reckoned 'twas a good thing I didn't know where she was nor had a peck basket of money, for I would surely have raised her Pa's miserable carcass so I could kill him all over again.

Connie come over to me and I saw the worry in her eyes and her hand was cool and gentle on my cheek bones and she leaned her fore head in ag'in mine and whispered, "It's all right," and I shook my head, just a little, and I run my arms around her and held her, and she held me, and I felt her shiver a little.

"Your eyes," she whispered. "They're so pale."

"What?" I drawed back a little and Connie give me a funny look and she went to the wagon and there was a woman's hand mirror in that-there picnic basket and she brought it over.

I looked in that mirror and a stranger looked back at me.

The face I saw was white and drawed tight over my cheek bones and the eyes that looked back at me was ... was not just pale ... they was hard, hard like winter ice, and I raised my hand to touch my cheek bone and I saw fingers reflected in the mirror but they was a good healthy color and my face wasn't ...

"You looked like that when you saved me," Connie said, her eyes serious, and I looked at her -- she looked so gentle and so kindly and all of a sudden I didn't feel I was worth keepin' company with someone as genuinely sweet as her.

I tried to say somethin' but she set her lips on mine and we didn't do no sayin' with words.

I took a look in that-there mirror after bit and my eyes was light blue like they always been and my cheeks was colored up like they should'a been and I puzzled at that.

 

We finally come up the road to the house, and Pa was in the forge temperin' spring stock.

Mama shaded her eyes with the flat of her hand when I come a-drivin' the chestnut around the flat the way I always did, and backed the wagon in beside the shed the way I did, only this time I didn't back it in.

I set the brake and I went around t'other side of the wagon and I retched up and took Connie around the waist, an' she come out of that wagon seat nice and light and I set her down easy, and then her hand found mine ag'in and we walked around the front of the chestnut.

Connie caressed the gelding's long jaw like she was sayin' thank you, an' then we went on up and I said "Mama, this is my wife Connie."

Well, Pa come out and he had kind of a funny look on his face, and the two of 'em must have planned for somethin' like this to happen sometime, for Mama got Connie inside and Pa had me come out to the shop with him.

He didn't say a word for some time, not til the spring stock was cooled enough in the ash bed to take out and set aside, then he kind of dusted his hands together and allowed as I'd picked me out a woman.

I said yes sir, I have.

He asked if she was a good'un, and I allowed as yes sir, near as I could tell.

Pa, his eyes went torst the cabin and he had kind of a soft look about his eyes the way he did when he was thinkin' of Ma, and he motioned towardst the cheer and I set myself down and he fetched two copper mugs out from under a shelf and then he fetched out a pa'tickelar jug out and I knowed he was serious.

He fetched out this pa'tickelar jug for state occasions, for notable visitors, for important events ... he never ever brought it out for just a drank.

He poured us both just shy of two fingers' worth and he coulda poured a little less, for he poured Uncle Will's Finest, and I'd had just a wee taste before.

Pa, he set down and he stared down into that copper mug and he talked quiet-like, as if he was sharin' his thoughts with no one a'tall, just lettin' his secret notions kind of spin out.

He allowed as he didn't really know Ma when he married her.

He'd seen her and he knowed she was a nice girl and 'twasn't until they were married and been together through some trials that he really know what she was and who she was, and he give me the look of a man who sees himself in his young, and he allowed as I might find the same thing.

I nodded slow as I soaked all that in, for I reckoned the man was very likely right.

Once we got to talkin' we begun to plan, and he asked me if I could give him a hand with a bee tree he'd run acrost and I allowed as yes I could.

He said honey comb would keep for a journey and might be I could use some and I allowed as yes, sir, that's likely true, and he asked if I'd give any thought as to where we'd like to set up house keepin'.

Now Pa would be happy with raisin' horses and children, at least a dozen of each, but he stopped at two horses and three young'uns, and if I'd said we figured to set up house keepin' right here, why, he'd have been just as happy, but I'd thought myself of that good black dirt up north and how it ought to grow me a right smart crop, could I grub out all them stumps he'd talked about.

We went on out and unhitched the gelding, we curried him down together, we worked and we talked and Pa's voice got kind of tight at one point and he had to stop and kind of collect hisself.

I was his first born and I was first to leave and it wasn't until I was of age and had a grown son that I really knew what he meant, and that just a little, but when his son -- my grandson -- went off to war, when my daughter went off to Europe to marry that German count's son -- that's when I really realized what Pa was a-feelin' when we were groomin' down the chestnut.

We left three days later.

I bought that wagon off Pa and he said to take the chestnut up into Corning and see Tom Gaitten, he had a horse that would suit the journey better and him and Tom were talkin' about a trade and that's how we ended up with that big Sam-horse.

I don't know if Sam was short for Samson, or if it was just the name he fancied, and it don't matter, but when we left on that third day I knowed it was the last time I would ever see my Pa, ever, and my Ma as well.

Connie told me some time later that Ma reminded her of her own Mama and it was hard for her too, specially since her Mama died so recently, and I reckon it was hard for her.

It was awful hard for me to keep from playin' the baby.

 

We turned our faces to the north, my wife and my big plow horse and me, and we went at a steady pace, a good easy pace, and we did not stop until I laid eyes on attair Sweet Sea Pa talked about.

The nearer we got, the higher them big white clouds banked up, and Connie never saw clouds like that before and neither had I.

Once we got above Somerset the ground got real flat and we could see for an unholy distance and I took it as a strange and unnatural thing to see daylight between tree trunks, when them trees was at ground level and not along a ridgeline.

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