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The Sheriff's Grandson


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5. NORTHERN HOMESTEAD

 

Sam-horse was never one to wander, and we slept under the wagon most nights.

Didn't have much trouble.

Oh, they was a couple fellas allowed as Sam was their horse and not mine, and I had to teach the both of 'em some manners.

Once we found the local law, we found they was known to try and relieve travelers of their proud-ofs, and I reckon them constable fellers were glad to see my back side disappear into the distance, for the pair I'd brought in both was known as bad men and they'd both come out the poorer for makin' my acquaintance, an' they both tried to lie out of it but that-there one constable said "Shut up, Matthews, you bit the wrong leg this time!" and they took my statement and allowed as I could be on my way if I did not want to stay and wait for the Judge.

We moved on.

Connie cried some in her sleep and I held her, we generally ended up with her a-layin' mostly on top of me so she wouldn't have to lay on her back.

It taken her a while to heal and I reckon she was bruised deep where she'd been belted long hard and continuous, and I know how an old bruise can ache when you press on it, but she never give me the first word of complaint all the way north.

That first year was little but work.

I got a piece of ground and dealt for another, we cut timber and grubbed stumps, we prized out rocks and hauled 'em to a rock yard.

Plowin' was a red handed bear and I busted that plow any number of times and just kept rebuildin' it same as I did anythin' else that broke.

We caught fish and dried fish and I did some horse tradin', I one time had twenty pigs penned up and had 'em sold the next day and more than doubled my money -- I told Connie the Lord looks out after fools and children, and I must have qualified under one or t'other -- then a week later I bought a half dozen cattle and sold them too, and lucky I was them folks wanted them cattle real bad and their first offered dollar was just a notch over the highest amount I thought I could get out of 'em.

Like Pa said, when you make a trade and both of you are so convinced you'd just cheated the other man out of his eye teeth and you're both so ashamed of the deal you just swindled over on the other guy that neither of you can look the other in the eye, why, 'twas a good trade.

I made a really, really good trade on them cattle.

Timber, now, timber was a steady income and the more of it I cut down and limbed off, the more ground I cleared to grow crop.

I did have trouble with timber thieves and near to got myself killed.

Like a damned fool I went out with an ax and didn't take my rifle and ended up in an ax fight.

Connie had to sew me up for I took a cut behind the right side of my neck and a long slice down the side of my leg and why it didn't cut in no deeper'n it did is proof of the Lord's providence.

They was two of them and they both had axes and they was only one when I turned on t'other and he dropped his ax and run scared and that evening the law come out.

I showed him where it all happened and I told him how it happened, an' that other fella tried to lie out of it an' that-there constable allowed as he was a-gonna take me in an' I showed him the business end of my flint pistol and said if I can whip two of them and them both with axes I was gonna do it ag'in only this time I had a gun on him and a knife for that other fella and nobody would ever find their carcasses.

Turns out my neighbor was a-watchin' when everything happened the first go-round and he'd already fetched the sheriff an' attair sheriff had his suspicions his deputy was crooked.

I didn't go to no jail that night.

That crooked deputy an' that coward that run off and left his partner in crime ended up in the Cross Bar Hotel that sundown.

The sheriff sent out a doc to take a look at where I was hurt but the man allowed as Connie had me sewed up good as he could'a done.

I offered him a tilt of Two Hit John I'd brought with me and he liked that, so I poured him out a quart of it in a little jug I had, and he went his way just as tickled as anything, and that evening Connie and I laid in our cabin and listened to the waves on the lake shore soundin' like a great creature breathing,

Next day I arranged some help and we commenced on the barn, and once it was up I did somethin' I'd been threatenin' to do for some time.

I set down an' wrote Pa a letter.

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6. COMMUNICATION

 

When the old man came into the cabin, his auburn haired wife looked up from the bread dough she was mauling on the table, for he held something in his hands and his head was down and he was obviously studying this object closely.

He stopped and looked up and said, "Come outside," and his voice was gentle, and she puzzled a little at this, but she followed him out, dusting her hands on her apron as she did.

They came into daylight and he stood in the shade of the shake shingled overhang and she could see it was a letter, and she laid a hand on the man's hard shoulder, for letters were rare and too often were not good news.

"This is from Linn," he said, and she gave a delighted little squeak and bounced on her toes the way she did when she was particularly pleased.

He read.

"Sam-horse got us here in good shape," he read aloud. "Wagon held up fine, greased the hubs regular and picked our crossings. Never knew so much flat ground in one place." He grinned, nodding, for as he read it aloud, he heard his son's voice in his imagination, speaking these very words.

"It ain't been easy but we found us a Bee Tree and I was fixen to smoke 'em good an' take an ax to it an' Connie laid a hand on my arm and said to let her try.

"Pa, she is a Bee Charmer and she come out with a big hand full of Honey Comb.

"We won't need much an' she left plenty for the Bees to winter on.

"Ain't no B'ar left up here so I don't believe we'll lose our Bees unless someone comes an' cuts on my ground. Already had that trouble but settled it."

The old man's hazel eyes sough his wife's brown eyes and she saw concern and he saw worry and they both turned back to the hand written page, but that was all Linn wrote on the subject.

"I wonder what happened," his Ma breathed, and Linn's Pa put an arm around his slender wife's shoulders and murmured, "Don't worry, Red. He took care of it."

Linn's Ma shivered, for she'd birthed him and she'd wiped his shining little bottom and she'd fed him and she had many motherly memories of a laughing lad that shot up like a garden weed, tall and slender like his Pa, and part of her wished her boy was still home, but she knew boys grow and her own Pa had the Fiddle Foot ...

She reined her running thoughts and nodded.

"What else does he say?"

"They miss us both and Connie planted garden herbs and he's turned into quite the Live Stock Trader." He chuckled and then his throat tightened as he read the last line on the page.

He couldn't read that one out loud, instead he handed it to his wife, and she saw his chin wrinkle up under his bottom lip and he looked off toward the ridge line.

Worried, she took the folded sheet with the regular, neatly scribed characters, and ran her eyes over what had already been read aloud, and stopped at the bottom of the page.

"Pa," she read, "I never realized how much you taught me, but every last thing you taught me I have used, and I thank you for it."

She did not read these words aloud either, but in her mind as well she could hear her son's voice speaking them.

 

I looked down at the man's carcass.

He'd been gut shot and shot low and the cloth was powder burnt, so it had to be an up close shot.

He died hard and he died in agony, from the look of his face and the way he'd wallered in the dirt, and he'd bled like a stuck pig.

I read the sign and I read the dirt and I read the blood and I raised my eyes along his back trail.

He'd come from my place.

Connie!

My hands tightened on my flint rifle and my good right hand had eyes of its own, my middle finger curled around the back trigger and hauled it back to set and my thumb wrapped around that pierced hammer-screw that held the good blond French flint in leather padded jaws and I felt the flesh tighten over my cheek bones and I run a-catfoot toward our cabin.

Everything looked normal, chickens were a-scratch and Sam was grazing and slashing his tail and the Lake nearby was rolling slow breakers into the shore.

I run a curved line, didn't see anything unusual to the one side and I swung over some and the door was shut and I crossed to take a look down the back side and nobody was there neither and the latch string was pulled in so I figured Connie was inside.

I was right.

I come near to the front door and I heard the latch come up and she swung attair door open and that's the first time I ever seen my wife bristled up like a Banty hen.

Connie had my flint pistol in her hand and she had her jaw set and she planted her knuckles on her hips and her hair was just fairly a-crackle and her eyes was snappin' and she come out that front door and she pointed her finger torst attair carcass and her lips peeled back and she tried to say somethin' and I saw how just plain ghost white she was but she was mad, God almighty was she mad! -- I parked my rifle by the door and I gripped her elbows gentle like and I looked at her face, I looked at one side then the other, real close, and I looked at her arms and then I asked, "Connie, are you hurt?"

Connie looked at me and she looked almost surprised at my question, and she shook her head and melted into me and I held her and she shivered like a scared little bunny rabbit and she didn't cry, she didn't cry none a'tall and that kind of surprised me, but she shook like she had a thunder storm in her belly, and I finally picked her up and packed her inside, her in my arms and that flint rifle in my hand, and I parked it and then I set down and her on my lap and I held her and rocked her and she finally started to talk.

She talked, and I listened, and her voice shivered a little and I held her.

 

Connie felt a shadow at the doorway.

She'd laid down her sewing and turned and a stranger's silhouette filled the portal.

"Well," the voice said, and she heard the lust in that single word.

She'd heard it often enough as a girl at home, and she knew what was coming, and she froze.

For a moment she was a scared little girl again, alone in that cabin on Paint Creek, alone and about to be brutalized -- again -- and she was as froze as a rabbit hypnotized by a swaying, rearing, coil-looping snake.

Connie's fingers tightened against one another as if they sought comfort with each other's company, and she felt her ring --

"I ain't had a woman in a long time," the man grinned, he was inside far enough the outside glare didn't wash out his face and she saw the lust in his expression and she saw him unfasten his belt and she saw good old fashioned lust in his expression.

The ring pressed into the sides of her tightening fingers --

I'm a married woman, she realized, and something in her changed.

She'd been hyperventilating, she'd started shivering, and of a sudden she stopped both and she was dead calm and she felt her jaw muscles set up hard.

She wasn't a scared little girl any more, she wasn't a helpless victim.

Of a sudden anger flooded her, as if she'd just stepped under a waterfall of the stuff, and as the stranger stepped in, she stepped sideways.

She'd never fired her husband's pistol before but she was more than familiar with the mechanism, and she moved fast and she moved sure and her pinky finger fetched back that heavy flint jaw striker and she punched the muzzle into the intruder's groin and she mashed the trigger and his hands let go of her upper arms and part of her mind realized how hard he'd grabbed her and he let go and fell back and staggered out the door choking and sick sounding and Connie set her husband's pistol on the table and ran to the door and slammed it shut and dropped the latch in place and then she yanked the latch string inside and she slid to the floor and drew her knees up and wrapped he arms around her legs and buried her face in her drawed-up knees and moaned.

 

"And I just set there and I felt so lost," she whispered, her voice a tight squeak, her arms wrapped around herself and the absolutely most lost expression on her face I ever saw.

I held her and whispered to her and I don't recall what all I said.

I think I told her she done right, she was a woman alone and he was a-gonna brutalize her and she stopped him and she done the right thing, and nobody in the world would blame her for it, and finally she pulled away and twisted off my lap and she turned on me and stabbed her stiff fingers into her forehead and shouted, "YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW THAT? I KNOW IT! HERE!!!"

She stabbed her fingers viciously into her own forehead, then she lowered her hands and tapped herself less harshly in the breast bone.

"I don't know it here yet," she squeaked, and she sagged to her knees, and I got up and went over to her and I knelt with her and I held her, and this time she held me back.

It was some time before I wiped the foulin' out of the pistol's pan and run a couple patches through the bore and reloaded it, then I put it back where Connie could get it easy and I taken up my rifle and went on outside.

Sam-horse didn't shy none at the smell of blood, and a good thing, for this fella bled out considerable before he finally died.

I laid him in the wagon bed on bark I'd peeled off some timber and headed for town.

This was the civilized flat country and I reckoned I'd ought to take this fella in to the county sheriff.

Once I got back, Connie and I held a council of war and as it was Sunday the next day we both took our Saturday night bath and got ourselves all clean and sweet smellin' and Connie put clean bed linens on and I allowed as come Monday we were headed into town, the both of us.

I'd made friends of the gun smith there in town and I knowed he had some flint pistols of the right caliber and as percussion was all the rage he had those flint guns at a good price, and I figured it was time to increase our fire power.

Sometimes you can communicate with folks in a civilized manner, and sometimes you have to speak the language they understand, and my slender, gentle voiced wife had proven herself an effective communicator.

I didn't want her to run out of language.

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7. THE BOOK

We went to church on Sunday like we always did, and my wife wore a new, store-bought dress, and she wore shoes and stockings.

I had me a talk with the Almighty when I took her hand back at Scotty's place, and I allowed as my wife would not ever ag'in do without.

I recall how absolutely lost she looked in front of that church she was ashamed to go into, I recall how heart broke she sounded when she told me how ashamed she was for bein' bare foot and in a wore out dress.

Connie never had much to say out in public.

Oh, she was polite enough, but she was kind of shy, and I could tell from the way folks was a-lookin' at us they'd heard about that fella I kilt with an ax and the one Connie shot in just an a'mighty personal way.

I didn't much care what they thought.

We done right in both cases and I made sure Connie knowed that.

At least she knowed that was what I thought.

The Parson was stacked up with folks wantin' to talk to him and I did not see fit to crowd in and try and bend the man's ear so Connie and I spoke with the close neighbors and then we drifted on out to the wagon.

Turns out the Parson was a-wantin' to talk with us, so when he come over on the Hot Foot, why, I quit harnessin' up Sam-horse and let him graze, and Connie drifted over and took my arm and give him a polite look.

Now we didn't know this man that well, and I've listened to sky pilots good and bad, I've known 'em good and I've known them that was not, but this man was one of the good ones, and he asked us to come on back into the church.

He set down in front of the altar and a little to one side, and Connie and I sat in front of him in the front pew, and attair preacher went a-pagin' through the Book and he found a verse and read it to us, then he paged some more and found another that hitched right onto the one he just read, and one after another -- like he was forgin' out a length of trace chain -- he showed us where it is not sinful to keep yourself safe ag'in those that walk the Path of Evil.

That's how he said it, too, I could hear the capital letters when he said it.

The Path of Evil.

I reckon he wanted to put Connie's mind to ease that she hadn't done nothin' wrong when she kilt attair feller that allowed as she was fair game, and he asked me about how that ax cut was comin' along and I said it was drawin' some and it itched, but there warn't no infection, that Connie made me up a poultice for it.

Now what he said -- he looked to Connie when he spoke from the Book and showed her where 'twas no sin when she was set upon, that warn't her fault, that any sin lies with her attacker and how he's answerin' for all that his own self -- why, he was careful how he worded it, for the same thing could have been said straight to me, since I kilt that one fellow when he tried to ax me.

Once we got to home, Connie had a meal ready, 'twas a cold supper like we usually had comin' home from church, she heated up coffee and like we did after we et, I set down with the Book and Connie asked me to read them same passages the Parson read to us, and I did.

Connie come over and set beside me, real close, and she looked close at that printed page, and she asked me to track them words with my finger as I read, and I did.

She was turnin' somethin' over in her mind and I could tell she wanted to ask somethin' and I waited for her own good time and it wasn't long a-comin'.

"Linn," she said at length, "teach me to read."

She looked at me and her gaze was steady and sincere.

"I want to be able to read the Book," she said. "Please. Teach me to read."

 

We made our way steady and solid that first year and we were half way through the second year, when we first heard talk of war.

Pa knew war and he didn't want nothin' to do with it, and frankly neither did I.

Everything I heard said that war was so fur off a man hadn't ought to have to pay no attention to it a'tall, so I didn't.

I had enough to tend to.

I had the farm and I had to provide and Connie was carryin' my child and we were just about as far north as a man could get without leavin' the country altogether.

I figured I was pretty well proof against anyone talkin' me into goin' to that damned war and for a good while that was so, but this fella come by and he did his level best to get me to volunteer.

He said they was a-fightin' in the South and they needed men that could ride horses, for them Southern boys was real good at ridin' horses, and he said nobody rode here in the North -- everybody drove, they drove buggies, they drove wagons, they drove carriages, nobody ... rode.

Not unless you were from the far West, from that place they called California, or from Texas ... or from my native hill country.

I let myself get talked into volunteerin' for the Third Ohio Volunteer Cavalry.

We'll whip 'em in a month, I was told, we'll have it all tied up with a ribbon and done with and everyone will be home in time for harvest.

All I had to do was teach men how to ride, and teach horses how to be rode.

I looked back years later and cussed myself for bein' not just a fool but a damned fool, and worse, but that's gettin' ahead of myself.

In the time I had best I taught Connie as best I could, for she wanted most of all to be able to read from the Book.

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8. FERVOR

 

We weren't the first volunteer cavalry outfit this fella started.

I don't think we were the biggest but we were plenty big enough and I could see the deck was stacked ag'in us from the word go.

Patriotic fervor swept the country, so I come to understand later, everybody and his uncle wanted to help whip them Rebels that was tearin' the country apart and were being rapidly blamed for everything from high prices to the stove goin' out at night.

Local leather workers made the proper military pattern saddles and done it at no cost.

Women sewed uniforms and a ladies' aid society made us our very own flag, which was presented with pomp and formality.

I didn't feel very pomp and I sure as hell didn't feel formal, we'd been puttin' up buildings all day and I got drug into the presentation and me dirty, hot and tired, but I put on a good face and stood stiffly while the sun wasted itself across another chunk of sky and all I could think of was gettin' shelter built before cold weather.

Me, I knew how fast the season was a-runnin' by, I knew I had crop to harvest and so did most of the men there -- most of 'em was my age or so, maybe younger, those that farmed knew crops and animals and how to shoot, they weren't many city boys amongst us and those that were, generally slipped away in the night with their soft hands a-bleedin' from unaccustomed labor.

I reckon they figgered "Volunteer Cavalry" meant they'd be given a sword and a horse and a fancy uniform and they'd trot down their own main street a-flirtin' with the girls.

They never figgered they'd have to build their own corrals, their own barns, their own barracks and mess and latrines.

Now me, I witched me a well and went over to where the latrines were dug and I witched the water there and I made sure the water was a-runnin' away from our drinkin' well, and a good thing I did, for on into that damned war there was more men laid up and killed by disease and infection than by enemy lead.

I didn't know that, of course, but I knowed I didn't want to drink nothin' that swum down stream from the out house.

I ain't as old as my Pa and I ain't as smart as him by no long shot but I am not entirely thick neither.

I was one of two men there who could ride a horse.

Ain't that a terrible note.

We had a whole outfit of Cavalry and only two of us could ride.

I'll tell ye somethin' worse than that.

We only had two horses that knowed how to be rode.

I had to teach men how to ride, but I had to teach horses how to be rode, and most of them horses didn't pa'tickelar want nothin' to do with a saddle on their back.

I reckon that's because they weren't used to seein' legs on either side of 'em.

It took work and a lot of it, and it took and awful lot of gentlin' down some of them horses, but we got 'em to where they could be rode and we got 'em used to them brand new saddles and we got their barns built and we laid in hay and straw and I done three men's work in a day's time most days and it's a damn good thing I was young and skinny elsewise it would 'a kilt me, workin' that hard.

As it was I worked from first light to dark and generally laid down where I was workin' with the ground for a mattress -- provided 'twas dry -- and if I was lucky a pile of straw for a pillow.

Most nights I warn't that lucky.

Those few of us who come from near by got our heads together and I was allowed to form up groups and drill a-horseback.

Part of my drills was to disappear and we'd go to one another's farms and harvest what crop was ripe, or get what work done we could, and then we'd come a-ridin' back lookin' smart and in formation with the guidon snappin' as we come trottin' back in.

That worked for a while and by the time anyone put a stop to it we had most of our harvests in.

Now the Gub'mint didn't have much respect for volunteers.

Them professional sojer boys figgered amateurs was gonna be in the road and likely would cut and run when the lead started whistlin'.

That just made us mad and we worked all the harder to get ourselves all the better and finally we got orders to pack up and head south, and pack up we did.

I made one last trip over home and I held my wife and she held me back and she was like ever'one else, she was all on fire to go whip them Rebels, only she wanted me to get it done so I could come home to her.

I had this awful feelin' when I rode back to our rally point, where we formed up and boarded the south bound steam train.

 

It seems like ever'body wants to know about that damned War.

Yes, I was in it and yes I survived.

I had to've survived, else I wouldn't be here, now, would I?

Early in that trip, why, the Gub'mint allowed as maybe even if we was volunteers we'd ought to be armed so they give us smooth bore muskets.

Flint muskets.

From the War of 1812.

Now there ag'in I had to take over and do an awful lot of trainin' for every'body forgot how to run a flint gun when percussion come along.

They was some amongst us that never saw a flint gun.

I knapped a thousand flints and I tuned up near every lock work we had for I knew my boys' lives would ride on whether these worked.

That-there what someone called "Patriotic Fervor" was changin'.

Oh, folks still cheered and waved kerchiefs and yelled at us to give 'em hell and whip them Rebs but now folks was chargin' instead of givin'.

I went to hunt up enough calves' knees to cover them lock works from rain and dew and slaughter houses suddenly wanted a young fortune for what was a week before just scrap leather that ended up on the gut wagon.

I approached supply officers with regular Cavalry and was shown the door in a right impolite manner and only the knowledge that there was more of them than there was of me, kept me from teachin' them snobby officer sorts some manners, and I got my first taste of why those of us in Union blue were known not as Yankees, but as damned Yankees.

Well into the war we finally got absorbed into regular Cavalry and were issued the shorter Enfield musket. Only then were we allowed to draw from the regulars' stores. By then somehow I carried the rank of Lieutenant and when I went into the supply to requisition something --I don't recall what it was -- why, 'twas the same snotty corporal who turned me away like I was a ragged beggar on the street.

I slid in quiet-like and said "Say, I need a couple pair of uniform pants and my coat is kind of ragged," and he never looked up, he said "What outfit," and I said "Ohio Third Volunteers," and he sneered "Volunteers supply themselves," and about then I stepped up and grabbed him by the front of his tunic and I hauled him across the table and jerked him up short so my face was right in his.

He let out a strangled yell and a Sergeant come runnin' in from the back and he went to grab my arm and I drove the end of my fightin' knife into the front of his tunic, just enough to let him feel the tip, and I said "Stand at attention in the presence of a superior officer," and I don't know if it was my shoulder boards or my steel, but he let go of my arm real quick-like.

I sheathed the knife and told the Sergeant to back up two steps, then I turned and I throwed attair corporal out the door, hard.

Heads turned when he come yellin' out and hit the ground and rolled.

I come out and picked him up and gut punched him hard enough to bring his brogans off the ground and I picked him up by the collar and the belt and I r'ared back and slung him right square torst the biggest standin' mud and water hole I could find.

I never knew throwin' a man could feel quite that good and I never knew a man hittin' a muddy roadway could throw up that big a water spray, and I walked over to him and grabbed him by the front of his tunic again and drug him back through the mud towards the supply building.

I fetched him up one handed and slammed him ag'in the plank front and I reckon by then my eyes was kinda pale and I said nice and quiet, "Maybe you didn't hear me, Corporal," and he swallowed and stammered and his eyes were just awful big and I felt someone step up close on my right but they weren't inteferin' so I continued, "Now when you are settin' on your butt and a superior officer addresses you, what are you supposed to do?"

He sounded kind of like "Hee, I, eee, rrr," and I pulled him back about an inch and thumped him ag'in the plank wall ag'in and said "Come again, Corporal?"

"Excuse me, Lieutenant," a voice said on my right, and I turned my head and looked and the first thing I saw was a set of shoulder ranks that was way the hell higher than my own.

I switched hands to keep the Corporal ag'in attair plank wall, then once my right hand was free I saluted and said "Yes, sir."

"Lieutenant, might I inquire," this fellow said mildly, amusement in his eyes, "what is going on here?"

"Education, sir," I replied.

"Education." He returned his cigar to his teeth, nodded. "Carry on."

"Yes, sir."

I saluted again and received his salute in return, and waited until he kind of sauntered away, then I packed attair corporal back into the supply building, still carryin' him one handed.

I threw him back over his table and he missed his chair and hit the ground hard and just kind of laid there.

I waited until he got some wind back in him and I waited until he got back to his feet.

"Mister," I said, "if you ever treat volunteer cavalry like you just did when I come in here, I will come back and I will kick your back side up between your shoulder blades."

I did not wait for him to salute.

I knew that turning my back on him and walking out would be a greater insult, so that's what I did.

Turns out that pa'tickelar supply corporal was well and truly detested and the office that asked what I was doin' loathed the man, and he was so tickled I'd rolled him in the mud and bounced him off the front of his own building that I went into our first battle a lieutenant and come out a captain.

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9. HE SET HER ON THE SADDLE IN FRONT OF HIM

There's just an awful lot about that-there war I don't want to remember.

Seems like someone asks me about it even yet and it's near to thirty years after.

A little girl come up to me and asked me if I could tell her about that terrible war, she wanted to write just a Jim Dandy report for school, and she figured if she talked to me, why, she'd come up with a good one.

I set myself down on the Deacon's Seat in front of my little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office, and I picked her up and set her on my lap.

I'd say she was maybe ten or so and she'd give me them big pretty eyes the way a girl will when she's tryin' to get somethin' out of a man, and when I set her up on my leg like that she giggled and turned real read and didn't hardly know what to do.

I considered real careful-like what I wanted to tell her, for there was much that would likely give such a pretty little girl a bad case of the screaming nightmares, and I did not want her Mama comin' after me with a Rock Maple rollin' pin for givin' her little girl such night terrors.

On t'other hand I have a bad habit.

You ask me a question and I'll tell you the honest answer.

I frowned a little and I shoved the hat back on my head and I looked at her serious-like and I said, "Do you really want to know what it was like, back in that war?"

She give me them big innocent eyes ag'in and batted them long lovely eyelashes (did her Mama teach her to do that, I wondered, or do all girls know how to swindle a man just naturally?)

I nodded kind of slow and said, "I think I can help."

I looked at her again and said "Do you know why you are up on my lap?"

She shook her head a little.

"It's because a Confederate raider did just this same thing with a little girl, and I'll tell you about him, and about her."

Her eyes fairly sparkled.

 

Once we got south of the Ohio, an engineer wanted to take my men away from me and put them to building bridges.

I come off my horse and drove him a good one in the gut, didn't give him no argument a'tall, just folded him up like a fresh-dried shirt, then I mounted back up and give a whistle and a wave of my arm and my men and I lit out of there at a gallop, and a good thing we did.

We headed due south on this little road and formed a line, we set our horses back behind us with three horses to a hand -- each man behind the line held six horses, I'd trained the men and I'd trained most of the horses and I knew they would stand -- and my men and I formed a staggered line behind a low rise.

That Captain must have gone Boo Hooing to someone for a column come ridin' towards us, he was about third in line and some fella with rank on his shoulders and thunder on his brow was a-yellin' my name, least until Rebel lead punched a hole in his wish bone and he come out of that saddle, deader'n a politician's promise, and the fight was on.

I knew we had to stand.

Had we remained mounted we would have been too fluid, the Rebs would have shoved through our lines and we'd have lost too many men and too many horses.

As 'twas, they attacked without artillery, but they were charging what amounted to a fortification.

We could hit them and they had a harder time hitting us, and we held them until the Infantry behind us got their backsides behind them and come up to j'ine the fight.

That little schoolgirl looked at me with big, almost frightened eyes, and she said, "Weren't you scared?"

I shook my head.

"No," I said. "No, and I know why I wasn't." I smiled just a little -- I know it was a sad smile, for I could see the blood again and I could smell it again and just at the edge of my hearing I could hear it all again.

"When a man is in battle he goes insane." I looked that little girl in her pretty brown eyes and I said "I saw a good man take a rifle ball through the head and I saw the blood and brains spray out the back of his head. I knew the man and I liked him, and I knew he had a wife and two boys back home, and he was dead just that fast."

I felt the old anger ignite in my belly and my fists closed, slow, trembling a little.

"I wanted blood.

"I shoved up from behind that breast work and I fetched out my cavalry saber and my flint pistol and I started across that clear ground between us and them."
Her eyes were big, now, and frightened, and I painted the portrait of a man in Union blue with eyes the color of winter itself, a man striding boldly across half a hundred yards of open ground with not so much as a corn shock to hide behind, a man with a single shot pistol in one hand and a bared steel blade in the other.

"I rose up out of that trench and my men came with me and we formed a blue line to my left and to my right.

"I throwed back my head and yelled for the forward march, and we all stepped off on the left, and Union blue rose and fell as we marched forward, right at 'em, we shot at them and they shot at us and we never stopped movin', my men reloaded on the move and fired again and we drove 'em back."

I was shivering a little.

"The infantry come a-runnin' up behind us, they had their bayonets fixed on their muskets -- we were Cavalry, we didn't even carry bayonets -- I whistled and my men stopped, we drew back and let the Infantry have the charge and the capture.

"I went back to the rear and found that engineer.

He was settin' on the ground lookin' sick and I grabbed him and laid him down and asked him if he was hurt.

He looked at me and he was the color of a sheet of paper and he said he was not.

I reached down and unhooked his gun belt, I grabbed the front of his coat and I picked him up off the ground, I curled him up one hand, until my nose was an inch from his.

I nodded to the dead officer at our feet.

"You," I said, "killed this man. You fetched him out here and he got shot and it's because of you."

He looked sick and I hoped he was, for he deserved much worse.

"You are never again going to take fighting men to build bridges nor anything else. Cavalry is off limits" -- I proceeded to raise my voice -- "and if you ever, EVER, try and take cavalry again" -- I slammed him back against a tree hard enough to rattle his eye balls -- "I will come back here and I will skin you alive."

I shoved my face in his again and I smiled, and it was not a pleasant smile.

"I will skin you with a spoon, and I will enjoy it."

"What did you do then?" the little schoolgirl on my lap whispered.

"I went to his horse and I went through his saddle bags. He had a brand new Navy Colt revolver. I slung it around my own middle and I took everything he had for that revolver and I told my men to rob the dead for anything they needed. That's how we got most of our revolvers, our own dead officers."

I took a long breath. "It wasn't all fightin' by any means."

She gave me a curious look and I continued.

"We chased the Southern general John Hunt Morgan."

She blinked, curious.

"Have you ever heard of him?"

She shook her head.

I smiled gently.

"He was a good man," I said softly, and she was puzzled at this, and I laughed.

"He was a Mason -- do you know what a Mason is?"

She nodded, smiling.

"Your Pa is a Mason, isn't he?"

She nodded, smiling a little more.

"Now General John Hunt Morgan, and I bless the man's name," I continued, "was not only a general, he was a Cavalry general, and he was not only one of the smartest men I've ever met, he would have made a superb actor!"

"You met him?" the little girl asked, awe in her voice, and I grinned.

"Met him?" I laughed. "I had coffee with the man, and poured his cup out of my own pot!"

 

We'd chased Morgan all over Tennessee, Kentucky, hell and breakfast, not necessarily in that order.

Morgan and his men were ... well, this was their land, this was the land of their nativity: they could hide among the population, they could find assistance among the residents, they could fade before us like smoke on a spring breeze, and they did.

Matter of fact -- good as we were -- they were that much better.

General Morgan also had a trick he used to very good effect.

He would disguise himself and come into a Yankee camp, just as bold as brass, he'd come in as a drover or a trader or a merchant or something not at all out of the ordinary, he had a marvelous and absolutely flawless command of accents and language, he could look like and sound like a Connecticut yankee or a New England preacher or just about anyone else he wanted to, and in such disguise he would join in campfire conversation, and he would learn the Yankees' plans and he would thank them for their hospitality and drift on out and raise absolutely no suspicion at all.

He visited my very fire one night for that very reason.

We sat and talked about home and family and crops and cattle and he laughed when I described teachin' those farm boys how not to fall off a horse, how I had to make the horses understand that they weren't set upon by some horse eatin' monster the first time a man stepped into the saddle they'd never worn before; I described how a staid, steady old plow horse could all of a sudden come unglued and send the unsuspecting rider an amazing percentage of the distance to the full moon overhead, and how Terra Firma was an awful lot more firma than we could really enjoy.

I allowed to him that we'd been followin' a will-of-the-wisp, that-there General Morgan and his men, and I quite frankly admitted that he'd made every man Jack of us look absolutely like a monkey in the process.

"I would very much like to meet the man," I said thoughtfully. "He is not only a genius, he has ever conducted himself as a gentleman, and he has that reputation."

We talked long into the night and when he rose to leave I shook his hand and thanked him for his company, and then I reached into my saddle bag and pulled out a cloth wrapped ball.

"You are a man who likes coffee," I said, "and coffee is hard to come by these days. I come on this much extra and I would admire if you would take it."

He seemed genuinely surprised and shook my hand again, and thanked me most kindly for it.

The next night a sentry come a-runnin' into came, callin' my name, and he had a box in his hand.

He said he'd found it hung at eye level from a tree branch and it hadn't been there five minutes before, and should he turn out the guard?
I unwrapped the wooden box -- it was full of cigars, and good tobacco they were -- and with them, a note, written in a regular, very pleasantly formed hand:

Capt Keller -- thank you again for the hospitality of your Coffee Pot -- my men and I enjoyed your gift, and they wish to extend their thanks as well.

You have coffee, we have tobacco, and we would take it as an honor if you would accept this token of our appreciation.

"Very truly yours,

"General John Hunt Morgan."

 

I looked at this child, and I asked her, "Have you heard of Morgan's Raid?"

She shook her head.

"It was the longest, fastest, deepest penetration of Confederate troops into Yankee territory of that entire war."
I smiled a little.

"When they come through Perry County -- where I'm from -- my Mama wrote me several letters but precious few ever got to me -- she said they come up Sunday Creek over towards Hemlock and into Corning, and when they did they stopped at the Linscott farm for supplies.

"While the other raiders were gathering up bread or chickens or anything edible, one of the Raiders leaned down and picked up the farmer's little girl and set her on the saddle in front of him, kind of like I've got you settin' on my lap now."

Her eyes were large and liquid and she was enthralled by the tale, likely imagining herself in the hands of a Confederate raider, a dashing young man on the swiftest of steeds, all brass and polish and sword and pistol and a tall hat with a feathered shako, at least in her imagination.

"She said he had the strongest hands, the bluest eyes, the gentlest Kentucky voice, and he brushed the hair back from her forehead and said, 'I have a little girl, back home in Kentucky, and she looks very much like you.' Then he kissed her on the forehead and set her down, nice and gentle-like, and he whirled that good looking horse he was on and rode off with his fellows."

"You see," I continued, "General Morgan ordered his men, wherever they were, that they were not to trouble any women, at any time, for any reason, and I admired that."

I know my smile was kind of sad now.

"Matter of fact I gave my men that same order."

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10. "WERE YOU BORN STUPID?"

I knew it was a-comin' and I didn't particularly care.

Sure enough, I was escorted into a tent and there was a considerable amount of brass a-settin' in there and a guard outside, and that-there engineer with a look on his face I've seen before, and nothing would have pleased me more than to slap it off.

"I see you brought back my revolver," he said, his voice smooth, oily.

The Major raised his hand. "I'm sure we can clear this up," he said, "and please bear in mind, Captain, that Captain Keller here kept you and your men from being overrun by a Confederate push."

That engineer didn't look too happy then, for he realized he might not win this one.

"Captain Keller."

"Sir."

"Captain Lonsdale has given us to understand that you did, without privilege to do so, lay violent hands upon his person, that you did without having privilege to do so, remove from his person one revolver, percussion, Navy Colt, and with hit holster and gunbelt, plus miscellaneous personal effects from his saddlebag, constituting theft from an officer."

"You're damned right I did," I cut him off. "Major, my men and I are cavalry, not engineers. He intended to strip my men and put them to work building bridges." I looked squarely at the man and I felt my hands close up into fists.

"Sir, we don't build bridges, we fight the enemy, and we did just that. As a matter of fact" -- I stopped, took a long breath, then drew my saber, ran my gloved fingers down its spine -- "as a matter of fact, my men and I stopped the first charge and allowed your infantry time to get off their taken-entirely-by-surprise backsides and get into the fight."

I started the saber into its scabbard, then thrust it home fast, angrily.

"Had it not been for MY CAVALRY," I raised my voice, glaring squarely at that engineer, "your ENGINEER would be either dead, or a prisoner, more likely the latter, and en-cour-aged" -- I sneered the word -- "to turn his talents to the enemy's benefit. From what I saw of his back bone -- no, that's not right," I corrected myself, "he has no back bone a'tall. Why, from the way he went all fainty like a scared little schoolgirl and just fell down on the ground and bleated like a sheep" -- again the raised voice -- "why, he' do whatever he had to t' guarantee rations and a dry bed at night!"

"Captain, we are fully aware that your men stopped the charge," the Major said mildly.

"Then, sir, you are aware that my men could have stopped nothing with their arms full of logs or sledge hammers or shovels," I cut him off. "Sir, we are cavalry pure and simple. We ride, we fight, and if we are left alone to do, our, job" -- I could feel my temper trying to get out, like steam surging against the riveted steel walls of an over-pressured boiler -- "we can shorten up this war and get home where we all belong!"

"Enough."

I recognized the voice and then the voice's owner stood and I realized I'd just reached out and likely swatted me a hornet's nest and now I was a-gonna pay for it.

"Captain, walk with me."

"Sir."

Colonel Holland and I left the tent and proceeded to walk in silence across the camp.

We'd got to the other side and stopped at a handy wood pile and we each set up a sawed chunk and parked ourselves, and the Colonel shoved his hat back and looked squarely at me.

"Captain," he said, and he did not raise his voice, for he didn't have to, "were you born stupid, or did it come by degrees?"

I looked at him and waited, for I knew a rhetorical question when I heard one, and I knew this man already had his mind made up, only he'd come to a little thinkin' out loud before he'd show it to me.

"Had you not just saved not only that preening politician of an engineer" -- I could see a smile hiding behind his eyes, and I durst not let him see the smile I knew hid behind mine -- "had you saved the entire company as well, not to mention provisions and a goodly percentage of our supply train, you would likely be experiencing a court martial in very short order."

"Yes, sir," I said, thinking that the safest reply.

"You did assault a fellow officer."

"I did, sir."

"Was there not a more ... diplomatic ... approach?"

I considered his reply.

"Sir," I said, "I reckon I was one of the only men who knew what was about to happen and I had no time for your diplomatic approach. I had to shut that speechmakin' scoundrel down like I would shut the throttle on a steam engine. While I was in the business I needed to replace my single shot flint lock pistol with what he had, and since he was obviously not a fightin' man, why, I allowed as it was necessary for the war effort and so confiscated it."

The Colonel's eyebrow raised. "Interesting," he said, his voice carefully neutral.

"His saddlebags had a flask and balls, grease and percussion caps, it had two loaded and capped cylinders, all of which I have." My smile was utterly without humor. "I made every last one of those six pistol balls count, Colonel. I ducked behind a tree and switched cylinders and went at 'em again, an' by the time I'd emptied that third cylinder, why, the Infantry was just a-foggin' up behind us so I allowed as this might be a good time to reload that-there revolvin' pistol, so I did."

"Your men tell me you were leading from the front, Captain."

"Yes, sir, I did. I can't expect them to follow me if I'm not willin' to lead."

The Colonel blinked at this and I knew I'd kicked a memory off the shelf somewhere.

"You're ... not ... an Academy man, by any chance?" he asked slowly.

"No, sir," I admitted.

"Have you read Von Clausewiz?"

"No, sir, I've not."

"You have the instincts," he murmured. "Captain, I'm going to put you in for a brevet-colonelcy."

"Sir?" I reckon I looked at the man like he had a fish sticking out of his tunic.

"Your action today was one of the best examples of leadership I've ever seen. You had a complete disregard for your own safety, yet you saw to the safety of your men. You charged and halted the enemy and yet you were able to stop and render aid to the wounded. You kept your men organized and steady and when the Infantry came through, you gave a concise battlefield report to their commanding officer."

"Yes, sir," I said quietly, for he spoke the truth.

"I think we're done here," the Colonel said, rising. "Captain, I find that your actions were right and proper, that you exercised a battlefield commander's perogative, and I will be chastising the Captain on his ill-chosen attempt at stripping fighting men for a non-combat assignment."

I saluted and he returned the salute, then I remembered.

"Colonel?"

He stopped, turned, and I handed him the last of General Morgan's cigars.

"I never took up the habit, sir, but I understand you have a taste for good tobacco. I am told these are quite good."

The Colonel took the three cigars, stared at them for a long time, then he looked at me and the smile escaped his eyes and tugged up the corners of his mouth.

"That old fox Morgan got you too, did he?"

"Yes, sir, he most certainly did."

The Colonel nodded, wagged the cigars at me. "Thank you for these," he said, then he turned, and strode back across camp toward his command tent.

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11. DELIVERY

Another week and we were still chasin' through Tennessee after a handful of fog, a wisp of smoke, we were big and clumsy hounds wallowing around a stink-patch trying to find a lithe, slender fox that peeked out from tree boles or the end of a hollow log or a groundhog hole, laughing at our stumbling efforts.

We made camp, we set our pickets, we tended our horses same as we always did.

I looked to that Colt revolver I took off that idiot engineer, and right glad I was to have it, for it had spoken with loud and persuasive authority when I was most in need of a steadfast friend.

I'd known men to have belt pouches made for extra loaded cylinders and I figured maybe that was not such a bad idea, but another pistol would be better ... much faster than trying to knock the wedge loose, it was stiff and new and I couldn't thumb press it out, I had to smack it with the butt of my knife -- I was careful to hit it with the wood and not the steel, for I did not want to bugger up the nose of that-there wedge.

I heard a challenge, I heard some confusion, and I come to my feet, for something unusual was going on.

A runner came up and saluted.

"Sir, a messenger," he blurted, and behind him, a beefy-red-faced Irishman with sergeant's stripes and a cauliflower ear snapped a palm-forward salute.

"Have I the honor of addressing Colonel Keller of Ohio?" he boomed, and I nodded.

"You have, Sergeant," I said.

"Sir, could you come wi' me, please," he said briskly, and without waiting for my reply, executed a flawless parade-ground about-face, paced off on the left, and strode with a positively metronomic pace across the clearing.

I felt kind of like the tail of a kite, following this broad-shouldered man, my long legs a blessing to keep up with him.

He extended a hand and a fair-haired corporal handed him the reins of a good looking chestnut mare, then came to attention.

I noticed he had a bulky package under one arm.

"Colonel," the Sergeant declared -- he had a parade ground voice and I don't reckon he'd ever learned to lower his voice -- "I have the pleasure to hand you the reins" -- which he did, and I took them -- "of a mare I trained meownself." He caressed her nose with affection, then looked sharply at me with bright, Irish-blue eyes.

"I understand ye're a bit of a horseman yer own self."

I wasn't sure what reply to make.

I moved forward, caressed the mare's under jaw, let her snuff me, then I reached into my shell jacket and pulled out a plug of molasses cured tobacker.

"Ah, ye've learned that, have ye?" the Sergeant murmured, amusement in his voice, and the mare waited until I shaved off a half dozen thick slices and held them out, and she lipped them delicately from my flat palm.

"You bum," I murmured, rubbing her ears. "You're bad as Pa's chestnut."

"Ye grew up wi' horses, then?" the Sergeant asked, and I recall I was surprised that he could speak in a more normal volume.

"A few," I admitted.

"Ye ha'e th' touch," he replied, and I heard the smile in his voice.

"Will ye try her, then?" he asked, and I rubbed the mare's neck.

"May I ride you, sweetheart?" I whispered, and her ears swung back toward me, swiveled forward.

I h'isted my leg and shoved my hind hoof in the stirrup, I shoved off and swung my leg over the polished McClellan saddle, and some son of twice-damned perdition lit off a stick of powder under me.

That saddle come up to meet me and I had me a leg lock around her barrel and the Irishman jumped back and yelled, "NOW FOR IT, LADS, STAND CLEAR!" and everyone nearby got distance, fast.

That mare just plainly come unglued underneath of me.

She swapped ends, she crow-hopped, she sun fished, she pitched her nose down and her stern up and I had the Devil's own time keeping my seat in that damned Cavlary saddle, but somehow I didn't come a-flyin' off of her -- how, God only knows, for I surely don't -- but once she showed me who was boss, why, she shook herself like she was shiverin' off a fly and proceeded to prance around our campsite, just a-struttin' with her head and tail up and showin' the world in general and me in particular that she was right proud of herself.

"Ah, me darlin'," the Sergeant sighed, "ye always were such a pretty dancer!"

I laughed and rubbed her neck. "She's done this with you, Sergeant?" I grinned, for there's few things to snap the kinks out of a man's spine like topping off a feisty horse.

"Aye, sir, she has," the big Irishman laughed, "but ye're the first mother's son who's e'er stayed on 'er for the first waltz!"

I walked her just as pretty as you please back over to the Sergeant and his stiff-postured corporal.

"Colonel, ye'll want t' see these," he boomed again, his voice resuming a good-natured parade-ground bellow, and I dismounted, keeping hold of the reins.

The mare seemed content to stay right with me.

The Sergeant had the corporal lay the package down, motioned him to open it: strings were untied the bundle unwrapped, and the Sergeant reached in, withdrew a letter, handed it to me, then picked up a scabbarded saber on a heavy belt, its US buckle burnished and gleaming, and said "Sir, take off yer belt."

I unbelted my officer's saber and the holstered Colt and handed them to the Sergeant.

"Raise yer arms, sir."

I did, and he swung the loaded belt around my middle, pulled it tight, made it fast, then quietly bade me adjust hanger and pistol for my best comfort.

I did.

"Sir, if ye would examine yon blade."

I withdrew the saber, stepped back two paces, swung it experimentally.

We'd drilled with swords for hours, until our shoulders ached and our wrists were ready to fall off, but by God! we had wrists like iron, and after two years of daily practice at swinging steel, our forearms were like locust posts.

I stepped away from the Sergeant, drew the blade slowly and with respect, gave it an experimental cut, then another.

I couldn't help it.

This blade felt good in my hand and I grinned to swing it.

I closed my eyes and remembered a fellow I'd sparred with, and both of us with sticks instead of blades, but I could remember his moves, and I took a long breath, and that blade came to life in my good right hand.

I don't recall when I've spun a blade any more skilfully than I did in that moment.

I wove a web of shining silver around me -- cut and block, thrust and cut again, and I stopped, and ran my gloved thumb and forefinger down its spine and then slowly, respectfully, guided its shining tip back into the fleece-lined scabbard.

I opened my eyes and returned to the here-and-now.

The corporal was plainly staring, but the Sergeant was grinning with absolute delight.

"Now, sir," he said, "ye'll like this!"

He came up to me, unfast the belt and threaded on a holstered pistol.

"There now," he said, "ye'll balance. Yer pistol and that light officer's saber are yonder, where ye left 'em" -- he turned, thrust a chin at them -- "an' here, sir, ye'll like these."

He kissed to the mare and she came mincing over to him.

He proceeded to hang a double, saddle-holster rig on the mare.

"There now!" he crowed, rubbing the mare's shoulder like a man would a favorite dog. "Ye've four pistols on yon horse, an' ye've two f'r yer belt, ye're fit t' wage yer own war yersel'!"

He picked up the envelope I'd dropped.

"Ye'll want t' read this, sor. It explains all this." He saluted me again, palm-out, executed a flawless about-face, and marched into the darkness.

I saw my mare to the picket line, I secured my saddle and the saddle holsters in my tent, I sat down by the welcome fragrance of my bees wax candle and cracked the seal on the envelope.

Good grade of paper, I thought, and lovely hand writing.

I reached in, withdrew the single sheet.

Lieutenant Collins, my aide and a man I trusted implicitly, came in about the time my jaw dropped to my belt buckle.

"Sir?" he asked, and I handed him the single sheet.

I just set there kind of numb.

The Lieutenant read it out loud.

"Colonel Linn Keller, 3d Ohio Volunteer Cavalry," he read, "please allow me the honor of recognition of your fine leadership in turning the enemy charge.

"It would be a blessing on a fellow Westerner if you would accept these tokens of the appreciation I have for a man who will stand and fight and inspire his men to do the same.

"Very truly yours ..."

He looked at me, his eyes big, bright.

"Abraham Lincoln."

We looked at one another, we looked at that single sheet of neat handwriting and we looked at one another again, and with one voice, we both said,

"I'll be damned!"

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12. RUN!

Next morning I had the crawlies down the back of my neck.

Graybacks hadn't been a problem, regular kerosene washdowns and boilin' my clothes kept the critters at bay.

No, I had this awful feelin', like the Reaper was teasin' me with them bony fingers, and I didn't much like it.

Lieutenant Collins was a marvel.

He was up and shaved, dressed and saddled, he had that chestnut mare of mine saddled as well, by the time I tended to the ceremonial and barbaric scraping of the face with a sharpened blade and emerged from my tent, he handed me a tin cup of coffee with a drizzle of precious and rare milk, and we two stood there in the morning's cool and quiet.

I had two revolvers around my middle, and that saber, four Colt Navies in saddle holsters, I had extra cylinders, and I considered for a moment that if I fell into the river all that iron would haul me straight to the bottom and drown me.

"Sir," the Lieutenant said, "there were reports of troop movement about five miles that way." He turned, thrust a chin out; neither of us pointed, if we could help it, for we'd observed that leaders were pointers, and a man shoving his arm out to this direction and to that direction marked himself a leader and tended to end up the guest of honor at a sniper's party.

Me, I'd as soon decline that offer, and in this, the Lieutenant and I were in agreement.

"How far could troops move in the dark?" I asked slowly, and the Lieutenant and I looked at one another.

"Sir, your map may be helpful," he suggested, and I shook my head.

"No. Let's go take a look."

"Sir, who'll be in charge during your absence?"

Right about then I heard something zip a-past me like a mad-as-hell bumblebee and a trooper to my left grunted and collapsed awkwardly, and then we heard the boom of the musket.

I grabbed the chestnut's dangling reins, got my hind hoof into the stirrup and I reckon I floated into that-there saddle, I don't recall pushing off from the ground, and the Lieutenant was right beside me: we whirled and I was a-yellin' "TO ARMS! TO ARMS! BUGLER, BOOTS AND SADDLES!"

Collins and I were scanning the trees, the distance, the near, we were looking for the telltale cloud of smoke.

Collins raised his arm, pointed, and I saw it.

I looked around and the camp looked like a kicked over anthill, men were half dressed but fully armed, it wouldn't be but a minute before they were mounted up and ready for a fight.

Something sang past me and I think it just clipped the under side of my hat brim over my left ear and I jumped Chestnut to the left.

She was a dancer, all right, and like a good woman in a man's arms, she was just Almighty light on her hooves, and she was in constant motion, which suited me fine -- it would make me a more difficult target.

The infantry encamped to our left was turning out as well, and they formed a solid blue rank, all gun barrels and bayonets and kepis at any and every angle.

I curled my lip and whistled, a quick double-note, and kneed Chestnut over to the coalescing ranks of mounted cavalry.

I sent a half dozen to scout our left flank, three to the right, and a runner came sprinting in from the Infantry -- a boy, likely not over thirteen, somewhere between excited and scared; he saluted and blurted, "Sir, Major Thomason begs to report he is prepared to engage the enemy and we have cannon primed with solid shot!"

I returned the salute, patted Chestnut's neck to try and calm her a little; she wanted to run, I didn't dare let her, not without good cause.

"My compliments to the Major, and we're taking a look to see where the Johnnies are coming from. Have him stand ready to flank as needed!"

"Yes, sir!" He snapped a salute at me and was off like a shot, pelting across the ground, coat tail and canteen flapping with his effort.

"Lieutenant," I said, "I have a notion they'll come from straight that-a-way." I thrust a chin almost due east. "They'll come out of the sun, that hollow is almost level and easy walkin', not too much brush. If I picked an approach that's what I would use."

"Right with you, sir!"

I raised my gloved hand, looked: my men were saddled and ready, and their attention was on me.

I thrust my bladed hand straight out in front of me.

The Lieutenant and I led at a trot and twenty good cavalrymen followed.

The sun was just coming up, dew was heavy and the air was clean and sweet and smelled an awful lot like home, and for a moment I wondered how my Pa was doing, up on that mountain side where that drunken Irishman Kilkenney built the place out of spiked-down, green white oak timber that warped as it seasoned out: not a floor was level, no doorway was square, the chimney come up and made kind of a twist and had a belly where it passed through the middle of the house, but it was solid -- you could not have shivered that structure with an earth quake, and a cannon ball would likely have bounced off it.

I dismissed the thought.

Right about then something detonated beside me and blew that chestnut mare off her feet.

I hit the ground a-rollin', God alone knows how I got out of the stirrups, we heard the screaming, chopping, gobbling yell from what sounded like a thousand throats, and the fight was on.

 

The old Sheriff with the iron grey mustache shivered as he sat behind his desk, there in the Firelands County Sheriff's Office.

It had been a very long time since he looked so squarely at those dark memories.

For all things there is a season, he told himself, and he took a long breath, and he gathered himself at the very edge of sanity, and then he dove back into the memory like a swimmer diving off a tall rock cliff into a very deep, very cold mountain pool.

 

I come to my feet with a handful of Colt revolver and a fire lit inside me.

I did not know what it rightly was but I'd felt it before and I felt the skin of my face draw up tight and I fetched out that heavy saber and I saw 'em a-comin' and I run straight for 'em.

I shoved that revolver back into its holster and I run straight at what looked like a picket fence of three foot steel spikes shoved over and a-pointin' right toward me and I was movin' at a dead-out run and I knocked that bayonet aside and thrust the saber through the enemy neck and twisted, I yanked the blade free and spun and my coat caught on the point of the next bayonet behind and I felt something hit my back like a man slapped it hard and that was the gun shot and I swung that saber and the man's head fair to jumped off his shoulders, I crouched and drove it into the next belly and I shoved and twisted and yanked and I fetched out my fightin' knife with my other hand and I was amongst them and I wove a web of shining steel around me, I parried steel with the knife and I reached out and sliced for the neck with that saber and I swung and clove and come to their rear rank and I was through it, I was through, and I turned and I come after 'em again and there was this God awful screamin' and men were pullin' back from me and when they brought their gun muzzle to bear I'd spin or twist and they never hit me but I could feel the concussion as gun powder detonated deep in steel throats and rifle balls buzz sawed through the light morning misty-fog.

I never quit movin', I was amongst 'em and I was a-movin' fast for I knew if I stopped I was dead, and then someone must have hollered "Bull!" and ever'body run off, ever'body but the ones on the ground, and I turned, one blade up to slash and thrust, one point-down in my off hand to strike and parry, and I turned and there wasn't nobody there, just me and the smoke turnin' in slow eddies between the trees, and I seen the Lieutenant a-walkin' towards me, and I stopped and of a sudden I felt just powerful tired.

He said something and I couldn't hear what he said.

I frowned and looked around and I went to a dead man layin' face up and dear God his throat was slashed open and he'd bled an ocean it looked like, and I marveled at that unholy gash under his chin, and the Lieutenant gripped my shoulder and shouted something and I shook my head and took a fast, deep breath, and I could hear again.

"Colonel!" he shouted, and I wiped my blades off on the dead man's coat.

"Yeah," I said. "Yes, Lieutenant."

"Sir, we've stopped them."

I ran my hand through dew-wet grass, wiped down the blades again, dried them on dead Confederate wool, frowned.

I sheathed the blades.

"Lieutenant, what are our casualties?"

"One, sir."

"How many enemy dead?"

The Lieutenant looked around, as did I.

We looked at one another.

We looked around again and I closed my eyes against the horror I'd just wrought.

Part of me knew I'd just killed husbands and fathers and sons, and my red hand brought the shadow of widowhood and the sorrow of mourning to families I'd never met -- but I pushed this away from me, for we were still in a fight.

"Lieutenant, they'll want to capture our cannon. Where is the infantry?"

I saw alarm in the man's eyes.

"The cannon," he blurted.

I saw Chestnut and his black and I slapped the Lieutenant's arm and took out a-runnin' for the horses.

We galloped up to the cannon -- there were a half dozen field pieces, the men were looking around, restless, uncomfortable, their infantry screen gone hell-a-tearin' after the retreating enemy.

My men were making a sweep, I knew, and would likely be back any time, but until they were, the guns were vulnerable and I was not about to let them fall into enemy hands.

I rode up to their commanding officer, saluted.

"Sir," I said, "I would recommend you load with canister and prepare to receive an enemy charge."

I saw rebellion in the man's eyes -- I was Cavalry and he was Artillery -- but I outranked him and he knew it.

"All right, boys," he bellowed, "you heard the man! Pull your shot and load canister! Prepare to receive close infantry!"

He turned and glared up at me. "I hope you're right," he snarled.

"Lieutenant."

"Sir."

"Where are our main forces?"

The Lieutenant turned, pointed. "Five miles that way, sir, follow the river road and you'll come right to them."

I nodded. "Lieutenant, I want --"

"HERE THEY COME!"

Gun crews rammed canister down hard on the powder bags, they'd already been pierced and primed, they waited until the oncoming force was close before firing -- half the guns fired, and while they were reloading, the other half fired.

The enemy was determined to have our guns.

I dismounted, as did the Lieutenant; we ground reined our mounts, knowing they would stand, for that big Irish Sergeant trained them both.

Our personal firepower would be needed, I knew, and I fought better on foot in this situation, for we had to defend the guns.

It was a fine idea until their main force hit us from the side.

The gun crew hauled an old bronze smoothbore around, shoved a powder bag down her throat, stabbed the touch hole while a canister was almost thrown down her muzzle.

I don't know if they dumped in two canister, loaded her with double cracks for close-in work, I don't know if the old gun was flawed in the casting.

I remember seeing the primer stabbed into the touch hole, the gunner danced back and yanked the string.

I remember being knocked off my feet.

I came to tasting blood and feeling something cold and wet nudging my face, I reached up and felt a bridle.

I was blind.

I reached out an arm, found -- a body -- I squinted tears out of my eyes and I could see -- a little --

"LIEUTENANT!" I yelled, and what was left of a fine young man reached feebly for me.

His body was a ruin, he was gone from the waist down, he was barely able to sob and I clutched him, held him as if I could keep his life from slipping away, and I held him while he sobbed his last breaths, whispering for his mother, and his last breath was warm on my neck and he was gone and nothing I could do to stop it.

I rolled over, came up on all fours, found Chestnut's foreleg and more by luck than anything I found the stirrup.

Another moment and I was in the saddle, wiping my eyes with the back of a shredded sleeve, looking around.

I drew my right hand Colt and shot the man grabbing for her bridle, I drew the left hand revolver and gave the mare my heels and proceeded to shoot my way through the yelling, swearing, screaming enemy.

We got clear and I realized I was getting light headed and I couldn't hardly breathe.

I knew I had to warn the main force.

We'd lost the guns.

My men were who knows where.

I had to make for our main force and warn of this enemy advance.

I got my Colts back into their holsters, I laid out over Chestnut's neck and gathered up her reins, then I pressed my hands against the sides of her neck and stood up in the stirrups and I grunted to her, for that's all the wind I had, I grunted with the rhythm of her pounding hooves as we shot across the field and down into the river bottom and down the river road --

"Run -- run -- run -- run!"

I don't recall how long we run.

I heard a shot, a shout, distant voices, and Chestnut shied her head away and dodged around someone, and I raised my head and saw the command tent ahead of me, and two officers come out and look squarely at me, and Chestnut trotted up to them just as nice as you please.

I tried to sit up and I raised my arm to salute and I wondered why the world was rotating around me, kind of slow like a child's merry go round, and then the sky swung around me as well and I was a-layin' on my back and I gathered all my strength with full intent to scream "BUGLER! BLOW ASSEMBLY, DAMN YOU, THE ENEMY ARE UPON US!"

I remember making a squeaky little "Damn!" as someone with an impressive set of Burnsides bent over me, and that's the last I recall until I woke up in a strange tent with my ribs all wrapped.

They told me I'd managed to whisper that the guns were taken, our position overrun; their counter-attack was successful, thanks to my timely warning; they told me while I healed that prisoners told of a madman with white eyes, a lunatick in Union blue with four arms and six swords that glowed with blue fire and sang like a sawmill blade, a creature of silent horror that burned a red trail through their ranks and came back for another pass, that the madman was a magician for they'd fired volleys point blank at him and hadn't hit him, that it was not a man at all but the skeleton of a long dead soldier with parchment for skin and revenge for blood.

They counted the holes and tears and bullet burns and scorch marks on my coat and marveled, and they looked at me, and I couldn't tell if it was with awe, or with fear.

Me, I couldn't hardly move.

Near as we could figure, when that old bronze smooth bore blew, it cut the Lieutenant's legs off right at the hook-up and it caved in my ribs on the one side, and why it didn't outrightly kill me too God alone knows.

We were a few days more here, then we moved to the railhead and I got put on a train full of wounded.

They were sending me north.

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13. HIGH LONESOME

I come to with my fists doubled up and pushin' hard on the top of my desk.

I don't reckon I was entirely my own self.

It felt like I was suffocatin', like the world was dark and I could not breathe, and I looked over at that cavalry saber hangin' on the far wall.

I looked at that saber and I recalled how it felt on my side and in my hand and I remembered how it felt to cleave a man's shoulder and how it felt to swing hard and level and cut through wind pipe and leaders and half way through a spine and I drove my foot flat ag'in the dying man's chest and twisted the blade free and slung it hard to get the gore off the blade before I crouched and drove it through an oncoming belly and the bayonet took my hat off and near to parted my scalp and I swung that blade hard up and back down and sliced most of the way through a man's leg --

I fell back against the wall, gasping, my eyes wide and staring, I near to fell and I grabbed for something, anything, I staggered for the door --

Cannonball was blinking at me, hip shot in the sunlight, bright as a new penny and calm as milk and I stumbled across the board walk and grabbed the saddle horn with one hand and the cantle with the other and I shoved my forehead against the polished leather and groaned, shivering, then I yanked my leg up and found the stirrup and Cannonball was a-moving before I was astride of her and we headed east and we headed out fast.

I reckon I was a sight, my mouth was open and I was shiverin' and I reckon I was as pale as I felt, and we headed out a ways and doubled back and up hill on a trail that was ancient before bearded men waded ashore from Viking longships and laid their claim to the Land of Vines, far to the east.

We clumb the trail and Cannonball was sure of foot and I'm glad of it for I wasn't no help a'tall.

I was near to laid over her neck shiverin' like I had the Buck Agers.

She come out high on the mountain on a broad, wind-scoured rock flat, a secret place you couldn't much see from below, but I found it and I knowed it was significant.

I knowed it was significant when I got up there the first time and that White Wolf was a-settin' there waitin' for me, blinkin' sleepy-like, and sure enough she was there again.

It was always a she, there was never a dog wolf pure white and a-watchin' me, it was always a dam, and sometimes she had two cubs ... one as pure and flawless a white as her, and the other just as black as The Bear Killer, and I always wondered if he'd not sired on her, but I never could get close enough to know.

Cannonball got me up onto the flat again and I come off of her and I fell against that rock and it felt like I was standing on the edge of that narrow ledge a hundred feet above a mountain pool, water black and water cold and water deeper than a man could measure, and I fell back against the rock and pressed my back against it as sanity spun around me like a fog twister and I looked down into that pool.

I looked at the Lieutenant, ripped apart and dying in my arms, I felt him solid and bloody and shivering and I felt his last breath on my neck and I heard his whispered "Mama," and I felt my little Dana, my two year old daughter who died in my arms on her birthday, died fevered and a-shiver and I felt her last breath warm on my neck, and I looked down into that roiling black pool of my life's memories and I saw men to my left and to my right, men in blue with rifles and bayonets, knees rising and falling like waves on the ocean, I saw me striding down the street of a narrow rutted dirty coal minin' town where I was town Marshal and the ghosts of all these men marched with me and I walked up to the man who wanted to kill me and he fired and fired and fired again, just like the enemy fired volley after volley into our ranks and we kept on a-comin', and I twisted the pistol out of his hand and drove mine into his belly and fired one time and he fell dead, his spine blowed out his back and blood coughing between his teeth.

I looked down into that pool and I saw something I never wanted to look at again, something I tried to bury in the back of my mind, something I shoveled dirt over and piled rocks on top of and it come a-rippin' out of that stirred up reservoir like the noon freight launching straight up towards me.

I saw that girl shrink from me and I saw the fear in her one eyes, the one that wasn't swollen shut from her bein' fisted one by the man that brutalized her.

I shot the three that done it and I hanged the three that helped and near to got my own neck stretched by that ill tempered little red headed Sherman -- pardon me while I spit! -- the one and only thing in my entire life I am genuinely ashamed of is that I was with him on that march to the sea, and when he swung north to the Carolinas to punish most especially those who'd first rebelled against the Union.

I threw my head back against the rock cliff behind me and my arms was throwed wide and my fingernails found some slim purchase and I clung to the rock out of fear, I clung to the living granite face out of desperation.

It was the only link to sanity I had.

I'd come home from that damned War to find my wife, my Connie, the shining light of sanity I anchored a long chain onto so I could drag myself back to the land of the living after all the horrors I'd seen, my Connie, my wife ...

... dead ...

Our good Christian neighbor had her buried proper-like in the church yard and he'd taken in little Dana just before she broke out in the same pox that killed her Mama, and I got there in time to fetch her out of the shed where they kept her so's she wouldn't infect their family, and I took her home and wrapped her in her Mama's hand made quilt and I held her and rocked her and she shivered in my arms and just before sunup she sighed out that last breath, just like Lieutenant Collins had, and all the grief and all the loss and all the sorrow I'd kept bottled and corked and hid away come a-boilin' out, and I screamed and I sobbed and I raged in the cabin's darkness, and I let go of every bit of every thing I'd held onto and hid under a dark cast iron lid for so terribly long.

In all the years since I took my broken heart and went down into Southern Ohio and worked as a lawman, and then Sam and me went on West like so many men did, I carefully kept from looking into that disquiet pool of black memories.

I looked at them now.

I heard later that my screams were thought those of a man insane, lost and dying in the mountains; I was told later the sounds of a tormented soul were enough to run cold water down a strong man's back bone.

I know I did not know I was screaming until my face was wet and I was face down on the rock and my throat was sore from screamin' so loud and so long and I wept my face into the dirty granite, ridding my soul of every bit of every thing that damned war done to me.

Least I tried.

Some stain will never wash away, no matter how well it's scrubbed with salt water tears, and I will always wear the scars of a man who waded through horror and felt that terrible joy of screaming into a desperate conflict with a yard of sharpened steel in hand, and laying about with the abandon that is given a soul at war.

I laid there until I was cried out, I wept in a day and a time when men did not smile in public for fear it would be seen as weakness, where tears were the sole domain of the female, when grief was something a man kept to himself, but mine was like a boil all swole up and full and ready to bust.

Well I busted it and I spilled out out and I reckon from how gut sick I felt, I got it all out.

I got up, finally, I sloshed my canteen into a cupped palm and splashed my face a time or three and wiped off with my wild rag and I looked around.

That white wolf was still settin' there looking wise and quiet.

I looked at her and wondered why she was here, and her and them two pups disappeared, just twisted into a curl of fog that kind of settled down into the ground and was gone.

I looked around.

I'd been here a while.

Cannonball swiveled her ears and switched her tail and I shoved my hind hoof into the stirrup and swung my leg over.

"Come on, girl," I said quietly. "Let's go home."

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14. OLD AND DECREPIT

Jacob's eyes were quiet, veiled, as he looked up the street.

It was cool that morning... cool, and the air smelled clean.

He turned, looked down the street, saw the big arched doors swing open at the firehouse and the Welsh Irishman led the mares out, walked them into the little side pasture, turning them into the generously sized corral.

It was morning, and their very own Irish Brigade was tending their morning housekeeping.

Jacob knew their fire department was experienced and well practiced, every man cycling out from Cincinnati for a one-year tour, and every year Sean, the only Irishman who was fully Irish, would sell their troika, their three-mare hitch, and he would make a tidy profit indeed, for the horses were acclimatized to the high altitude and when returned to the heavier, oxygen-rich air in the low country, these horses could out-run and out-pull and make it look easy.

Jacob's eyes tightened a little, the smile never leaving the not-yet-developed creases at the corners of his eyes, and he recalled the day his father personally bankrolled their first steam fire fighting engine, their first three-mare firehorse hitch, and the first of what they knew as their Irish Brigade.

Jacob recalled how his father met them when they came off the steam train, and how he stepped up to the muscled mountain of a mustachoed Irishman, how his Pa glared with pale eyes and handed his hat to his son and faced this big Celtic chieftain with the villainously-curled, absolutely-black mustache and snarled, "No Irish need apply," and the fight was on.

It was a fight that was still mentioned today, these many years later.

Two warriors, two veteran fighters, two men who'd known violence and viciousness, two natural guardians of their tribe, raised their fists and the fight was on, and God Almighty, what a fight it was!

Each man staggered the other with his first blow, each man measured the other's strength, reach and speed, and then they set their heels and hammered into one another, each man blocked and grunted and twisted and punched, they raged in silence the length of the depot platform, knuckles pounding into muscled bellies and slatted ribs, they grunted and pounded their way the length of the depot platform again, until at length the Sheriff stepped quickly back and said "Hold," and the Irishman, not entirely trusting, stepped back, fists raised, eyes wary.

The Sheriff stepped off the end of the depot platform, motioned the Irishman nearer, scooped up a double handful of rainbarrel water and splashed the purpling bruises on his cheek bone, shoved his red and scraped-raw knuckles into the cool water.

Warily, the big Irishman did the same.

The Sheriff waited until they were both refreshed a bit, then he slapped his hand hard on the Irishman's shoulder and declared loudly, "You hit like a Missouri mule! I'm buyin' the beer, who's with me?"

In this wise he renewed the acquaintance and friendship of a man he'd met years ago, they strode into the Silver Jewel Saloon loud and boisterous, each one trying mightily to out-lie the other, and when Daisy came storming out of her kitchen, waving her wooden spoon like the Queen's scepter, intending fully to crack heads for disturbing her cooking -- why, Daisy stopped and the spoon hit the floor, her eyes went wide and she squeaked, "Sean?"

Her eyes rolled up in her head, her knees buckled and she collapsed in a calico skirted heap.

The Sheriff, startled, turned to look at Sean.

This big, hard-muscled, hammer-fisted, raw-knuckled beef of a brawling Irish fire chief was the color of wheat paste.

"Daisy?" he rasped through a suddenly dry throat, and for the first and only time in his entire hard-fought life, Sean's knees buckled and he fell into the Sheriff.

Linn knew better than to try and catch that much meat, so instead of wrecking his back, he jumped back a step and let the Irishman fall.

He looked up at Mr. Baxter, leaned out over the bar to see what-all happened, then he turned and looked around the shocked-silent saloon.

Cards and poker chips and the ever-spinning wheel were stopped, halted, frozen in the shared, shocked silence.

"Well hell," he said, "now that I caused this much trouble, gimme a beer!"

 

Jacob blinked and returned to the here-and-now, looking down the street, knowing the Irish Brigade would be polishing brass, scrubbing floors, they would be fixing a breakfast that would do credit to any kitchen, and he turned, set his polished boot up on the first step, then the second and the third, and he opened the ornate-glass door of the Silver Jewel Saloon.

Esther Keller, the Sheriff's red-headed wife, stood at the head of the stairs -- Jacob looked up as he came in, knowing there were eyes on him -- "Jacob," she called, "could you attend your poor decrepit mother?"

Jacob Keller, deputy to Sheriff Linn Keller and the pale-eyed lawman's firstborn son, swung his gaze across the interior of the Silver Jewel, then back up the stairs, and this time the smile run out the corners of his eyes and flowed over his entire face.

"Yes, ma'am," he said gently, removing his Stetson and flowing up the stairs.

Esther Keller owned and operated the Z&W Railroad.

Like any executive, she led and others labored; under her leadership, the rail line was profitable, its people were content, at least for the most part -- no operation is without some discontent at one time or another, and the Z&W was no exception, but by and large its employees were fiercely loyal to the green-eyed, red-headed woman who tended to appear at odd moments and asked very intelligent, very penetrating questions.

Jacob followed his mother into her office, smiling a little: he smelled the orange spiced tea she favored, he smelled roses, he smelled her lilac scent.

Jacob closed the door behind him, hung his immaculate skypiece on its peg and wrapped long, rangy arms around his Mama and embraced her gently but firmly, the affectionate embrace of a son who truly loved his mother.

"Jacob," Esther said when they were both seated, "did you hear the disturbance last night?"

"The madman dying on the mountain?" Jacob asked, frowning a little. "I heard it, yes ma'am. I've heard talk about it but nobody's found a carcass."

"They won't." She rose, rearranged her skirts under her, sat again. "Jacob, do you remember my asking Annette if you have nightmares?"

Jacob blinked, surprised.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Do you know why I asked?"

"No, ma'am."

"Your father," Esther said carefully, "has nightmares." She looked sadly at her son and he knew she was sharing a confidence that was to go no further.

"He was in the War, Jacob, and it ..."

She frowned a little, considering.

"Jacob, Annette asked you if you'd ever killed anyone."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You told her you had."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I remember the night you fought for the town, the night your father and your Aunt Duzy stopped the bleeding."

Jacob remembered, nodding, and he stopped his left hand from rising to his right collar bone, where the bullet hit and busted the big artery beneath.

"Your father taught your Aunt Duzy how to stop blood with the Word."

"I ... don't remember that, ma'am."

Esther considered for a moment.

"When Annette asked you this, you were across the street, just up from Digger's parlor."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You indicated the church tower and said you were there, and you turned and pointed to several places where you shot the raiders."

"I did, ma'am."

"You've never had a nightmare from any of that."

"No, ma'am." He grinned. "But I did have a nightmare, ma'am."

"Oh?" She looked genuinely surprised, her eyebrows rising, left more than right.

"Ma'am, I was set upon by a boulder with teeth and chicken feathers, and I drew my right hand revolver and the trigger would not pull.

"I give up on it and I fetched out my left hand revolver and the ball rolled out the barl and kind of dribbled out onto the ground."

"Oh, my," Esther murmured. "What happened then?"

"I woke up laughin'."

Esther laughed as well. "Oh, Jacob," she murmured, shaking her head and smiling.

"The madman, Mother. Those terrible screams we heard."

Esther nodded, sighed.

"Jacob, your father is a man who would be on good terms with all men. Had he his way, he would engage in no conflict, he would cross no words, he would raises horses and children and lead a life of peace and happiness."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Unfortunately, Jacob, there are men who will not let this happen, and there are times when this cannot be done, and your father had the misfortune to be dropped into a cyclone of such men and times."

Jacob saw sorrow in his mother's eyes; he nodded, once, encouraging her to continue.

"Your father is a man of conscience, Jacob. He saw war for what it was. He saw it as unnecessary and wasteful, he saw it as politicians squabbling and putting good men like chess-pieces on a great gaming board, and he saw what happens to those men." She looked piercingly at her son, her eyes bright, glittering.

"Jacob, your father was stained by all the sorrow and all the horror he'd ever seen, and even the strongest man ... "

She looked away, bit her bottom lip, arranged her thoughts.

"Jacob, a man is ... is often like a clouded sky. It builds up so much and then it has to rain, there has to be lightning, because the sky is too full."

She looked at the attentive, listening Jacob, saw him leaned forward a little, elbows on his knees, focused absolutely on her, listening intently to her every word.

"Is any of this making sense?"

"It is, ma'am."

"Your father is ... neither ... weak minded ... nor is he inclined to melancholy."

"No, ma'am."

"Your father is one of the strongest men I've ever known."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Your father's nightmares ... he's been having more of them, Jacob, but last night, after ... after he came home ..."

Esther rose, came over to her son, knelt before him, took his hands in her own, gripping them tightly, almost desperately.

"Jacob, he slept the night through without a twitch or a whimper."

Jacob squeezed her hands in reply.

"Please don't ever let him know I said anything of the kind," she whispered, and Jacob closed his eyes, opened them.

"Mother, I followed him last night," he said slowly, and Esther's eyes were big, bright, alarmed.

"Mother, he rode up to the High Lonesome and I followed."

He swallowed.

"I was afraid for him, Mother. I was ... I'd never seen him anything but strong and capable."

His voice was a husky whisper and she almost heard the scared little boy she knew still lived in her son's wounded heart.

Jacob drew his mother's hands up to his lips, kissed her fingers, then held her clasped hands to his lips.

"Mother," he whispered, "it is a terrible day when a son learns his father's feet are made of the same clay as is own."

Jacob slid out of his chair to his knees and he wrapped his arms around his kneeling mother, and they held each other for a very long time, at least until Jacob chuckled: his cheek was laid over on the top of her head and he murmured, "Now what's this guff about the strongest woman I've ever known, being old and decrepit?"

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15. IT IS AS IT SHOULD BE

 

I set down on the front pew.

'Twas not Sunday and Angela and I were the only ones there.

We'd walked up the aisle slowly, our footfalls loud and echoing in the reverent hush, it smelled of cedar and beeswax candles, and empty or not ... it still felt like the Almighty filled the place.

I recalled walking into an empty church near to dark, and I recall feeling almost terrified as I was in the awful presence of the Eternal, in His own house.

I looked down at my little girl's bright blue eyes and she looked up and me, and I winked at her and she giggled, and I recall how her little-girl's giggle filled the silence, and I took that as a sign that the Almighty rejoices in the innocent laughter of a little child.

Angela wasn't all that little, she was crowdin' ten years or nearly so, but in a Daddy's eyes, his little girl is still ... well, a little girl.

I knowed she was gettin' some height to her and she was smart as a whip -- Sarah spoke very well of her progress in school, she was as avid a reader as Esther or I, and we read voraciously, or we read voraciously when we could -- sometimes bein' Sheriff took an awful lot of my time, and when I wasn't tendin' business there, why, there was always work at my place ... I didn't have that big a spread by any means, Macneil had a hell of a lot more acreage and he was makin' a fine business of raisin' horses -- he'd borrowed my Cannonball mare, and after that, one of the mares from Rey del Sol's line, strengthening that Paso Fino bloodline while keeping the toughness and endurance of the Appaloosa -- Jacob's Apple-horse contributed his noble seed to that particular admixture, and the result was a fine saddlehorse, raised in the high country, tough and durable and a good easy ridin' mount that could cover ground fast if need be, that could cover ground for a long period at an easy pace, and from what I'd seen, if need be they could eat aggravation, thorns and cactus shadow and be just as well nourished as a firehorse fed exclusively on grain and Eastern alfalfa.

We stopped at the front of the pews and then set ourselves down.

When we come in for Sunday services, why, Esther set on one side and Angela on the other, and more often than not I held hands with both my ladies.

Now this was an era where men didn't smile in public for fear of bein' seen as weak, couples did not smile for portraits for the same reason -- that, or to hide bad teeth, and God gifted me with granite teeth, me and Esther both -- anyway I did not give a good damn what men thought if I smiled, and I smiled and laughed when I damn well pleased.

Matter of fact it honestly put the God-awful go-to-hell fear in men when I smiled and laughed when I was honestly knocking the dog stuffing out of some fellow who allowed as he was a-goin' to put his fists into me, and I recall how the entire Irish Brigade shrank away from me when I laughed while I hauled two men off the floor, one in each hand, and I banged their faces together right there in front of the mahogany topped bar there in the Silver Jewel.

I couldn't figure for the life of me why they had such a fearful look about 'em, but they pulled back from me as I carried the two limp and sagging forms toward the front door and joyfully bellowed "OPEN THE DOOR!" and Tilly scampered out from behind her hotel counter and run for the door, she hit the door knob and grabbed it and near to fell over her feet or her hem and she sung that door open and held the burnished brass handle white-knuckle hard to keep from falling as she did.

I hove that pair out into the dirt, slung 'em hard enough to miss the horse hitch and the horse hitched there -- I didn't have enough beef in my arm to clear the horse, but they kind of fell down beside it, and as I recall, the dun danced a little bit to the left and one landed, then danced ag'in to the right as the other one hit on t'other side.

Them two I slung out the door like that had no complaint comin' a'tall.

That-there horse didn't make no effort to kick 'em.

I waited until Tilly got her feet under her and come on inside and damned if she didn't look up at me like she was half afeared of me, and I give her a wink and I turned and slapped a hard hand on the bar and yelled " NOW BY GOD THAT FELT GOOD! MR. BAXTER, BEER ON THE HOUSE!"

Angela shifted beside me and I blinked and I was back in our little whitewashed church, and Angela leaned over ag'in my arm the way she did, the way she'd done since she was a little girl, kind of like she was cuddling into me, and I reached across with my other hand and patted hers gently, the way a Daddy will his little girl.

She leaned her head over ag'in me and I felt her take a long breath, and I felt her let it out, and I heard her little voice, the voice she only used when it was her and me.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, why are we here?"

I pulled my arm out of her grip and out from under her head and I run both my arms around her and I hugged her into me with big strong Daddy-arms, and I threw my head back and I laughed a good booming Daddy-laugh, and my little girl giggled a little as she cuddled into me again, the way Daddy's little girl will do when she feels safe and everything is the way it ought to be in the entire world.

"Angela," I said, "when you were just a little girl, I was absolutely heart broke when I found you in that train wreck."

I felt her press into me a little more firmly.

"I'd lost my little girl back East and I was afraid you were dead or going to die, and it felt like my heart got ripped out of my chest and throwed under a team of horses."

My arms tightened around her again.

"You didn't die, Princess. You didn't die," I whispered, and she hugged me back.

"I come in here and I didn't know if you were going to come through it. I figured you would but nothing is certain ... not after a wreck like that ... you could have been hurt inside where a man can't see ..."

I shivered, then looked up at the altar, and my eyes shifted over to the piano, and I chuckled a little.

"I come in here just full of misery and grief, and I went down on my prayer bones." I bent down and kissed the top of her head. "I leaned my head back and opened my mouth and my heart done my talkin' for me."

Angela lifted her head and looked curiously at me, and I smiled me a sad little smile and my little girl was alive and real in my arms and she was warm and life glowed in her cheeks and for that one moment I soaked it in and did my best to engrave that portrait on my heart, where I could look at it in years to come, and remember what this felt like.

Only the man who's lost a child can truly appreciate the child he has, and I appreciated this pretty girl that sat beside me, this pretty little girl that held me while I held her.

 

Angela cuddled into her warm, strong Daddy, this anchor of her universe, the bed rock on which all of Creation was built.

Angela knew what it was to be hurt and alone, crushed under the debris of a shattered passenger car, looking up through the wooden wall that lay over her as if it were clearest glass.

She remembered looking into the limitless blue sky and the few wispy mare's-tails and she saw her Mama, alive and beautiful and bright eyed and whispering in that voice she still remembered, whispering that she had to go, but she was sending Angela a big strong Daddy who would take care of her, and telling her she would have a new Mommy with green eyes and red hair, and Angela said "Don't go, Mommy," and she was gone and of a sudden she was alone and being crushed and it was dark and she was alone and she hurt, she hurt! --

Hoofbeats, a shout: she felt more than heard someone running toward her, she felt a man's terror, a man's rage, she felt the earth itself drive a surge of power through the man's boots and into his soul and she felt it focus through his diaphragm and she felt gloved hands seize the edge of splintered wood and the dark pressure lifted off her and spun away and a tall man stood over her, a man with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache.

She remembered her Mommy's words and she felt herself fall away from the earth and she still hurt, and strong arms held her and of a sudden it didn't hurt quite as bad.

Angela Keller, a little girl who left Kentucky with her parents to make a new life in the new West, a little girl who lost her parents when an iron rail work-hardened and broke and bent up under the passage of engine and tender and gutted the following passenger cars, a little girl who landed hard on the ground and was buried under the shattered wall of the passenger car, cuddled into the big, strong man she knew as her Daddy.

There in the silence of the little whitewashed church, a girl and a man, each shaped by the grief and loss of their past, found a peace in each other's company.

It was as it should be.

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16. MY HONOR REMAINS INTACT

I been known to let the badger out now and ag'in.

I don't do it too often.

I figure once a year is enough.

'Course sometimes I figure wrong and there have been times when I was ahead by a few years.

I reckon today I'm not ahead more'n four or five.

Men are men and boys is boys and sometimes boys don't grow up as fast as the carcass they're inside of and sometimes men become boylike in their fun.

I am not really sure how it started but I finished it and there was no doubt a'tall that it was finished, and I was not happy.

I learned a long time ago, if a man wanted to find somethin' out, you went to the local saloon.

Our own Silver Jewel Saloon was restaurant, watering hole and hotel all under one roof, Esther had the Z&W Railroad's office upstairs, Daisy's kitchen was in back and the stage stayed long enough for passengers to finish their meal when they stopped on their regular route -- a departure from most stages, who rushed a body so they paid for their meal but too often didn't even get it before they had to continue their journey.

The saloon, wherever it was, tended to be the hub of where everyone went.

Need a meal, need a drink, need a woman or just need some company other'n your horse and that's where a man went.

Often times I'd just go in and nurse a beer for some long time, idlin' ag'in the bar, listenin'.

Surprisin' how much a body will pick up.

Now sometimes the only thing I got was the need to go out back and get rid of that beer I'd just drank, there was times when the only talk was just that -- talk, and of no value to a lawman -- other times, why, I got information that come in right handy.

And then there was times when fellas decided their language could be far less than circumspect.

This one day I was standin' with a boot up on the rail and a beer in my hand and my eyes busy in the mirror, and a couple fellas a little down from me was a-sizin' me up.

I reckon they thought me a townie, for I was in a suit like I often was, I wore a narrower brim hat than them -- townies don't wear the broad brim of an open country rider, but neither does a man that rides the woods, and my rides often took me through brushy and woody terrain -- anyway, I reckon one thought it would be grand sport to provoke the other into aggravatin' me.

I don't like it when people do that.

When he come over, he bumped into me less than accidentally.

I never said a word but I felt my jaw tighten some.

He looked at me, then back at the other fellow, and he looked at me and reached out a hand and shoved me one.

I let go of my beer real quick, rocked back, come back into battery and took hold of that beer again, there was half a mug and I didn't want it spilled.

"You don't rile easy, mister," he said, and I could hear a smile in his voice, like he was pullin' one over on an old man.

Things were gettin' real quiet around us and Mr. Baxter was workin' his way to the center of the bar where he kept his double gun: he raised one eyebrow and I give a slight little nod, and if things come badly, why, he'd toss me the shotgun and we'd take things from there.

"You," this trouble makin' sort sneered, "are a daisy."

I could see the other fella grinnin' in the mirror.

Now I kept my eyes kind of veiled, I didn't give neither of them a direct look.

They were strangers to me and obviously strangers to the territory, when they come into the Jewel I could see their breathin' wasn't that of a man used to the high country, so that give me an advantage right there: my endurance would be greater, as would be my strength, simply because I was used to the high country and they weren't.

"What's it take to make an old man mad?" my tormentor sneered.

I sighed.

"You ain't there yet," I said quietly. "Now run along, sonny, and go find a game of marbles or something."

"Why don't I just go grab holt of your wife," he began in that fingernails-on-the-chalkboard sneerin' voice, and he never saw the punch that drove what little wind he had, right out of his gut.

Now I'll tolerate a man insultin' at me -- I'll educate him, but I'll tolerate him up to a point -- but when he lays his tongue to my wife or my little girl, I do not hesitate.

I didn't want to get Mr. Baxter's bar messy so I did not introduce this stupid soul's snout to the mahogany bar top: no, I grabbed his ears and pulled down whilst I brought my knee up, his head snapped back and I kept a-raisin' my leg and shoved my hoof into his belt buckle and shoved him back into the other trouble makin' sort.

Ever'one else was already back away from the bar, and as soon as the fight was on, the yellin' started and I heard bets a-flyin'.

I didn't give neither of them two a chance to recover, I was on them like blow flies on dead meat, I grabbed that second one by the throat and banged his head twice ag'in the floor and the fight was over.

"DOOR!" I barked as I stood, I had each by the scruff of the collar, and Tilly jumped up from behind her hotel counter and scampered for the fancy front door, and she hauled it open and spun out of my way as I drug this pair out, their boot toes scrapin' as we went, and I dropped 'em in the dirt outside, at the foot of the short stairs: I took one by the back of the belt and the back of the collar and dunked him waist deep in that cold horse trough, then I hauled him out and throwed him to the side and give the other one a to-the-waist bath as well.

That woke 'em up.

I stood there and this time I made no effort to veil my eyes.

I reckon they was as cold and as hard as I've heard men describe.

They come to and one started to bluster and I swatted my coat tails back to expose my Colts and I never said a word.

The other one come around and shook his head and wiped his eyes and looked up at me and he looked kind of green and sick and he blurted, "Oh good God it's Pale Eyes!"

You could see the bluster run out of the other one like red ink out of an eye dropper.

I reached up slow and turned over my lapel to display that hand engraved six point star I wore, then turned it back.

"You," I said to the instigator, my voice a little hoarse, "put him up to it."

He kind of shrank a little. "I didn't know it was you," he mumbled.

"And you," I continued, shifting my hard-eyed gaze to the fellow who'd come over in the first place, said somethin' about my wife."

His mouth opened and shut a couple times but no sound come out.

"I am prepared to receive your apology at this time."

I felt something behind me and beside me and Esther's voice was in my ear.

She had her double gun and she looked at the pair with the hauteur of an Ice Queen, and she said, "Just what did they say about me?"

"This is my wife," I said conversationally. "I call her Big Red. Her morning exercise is runnin' down a bobwarr fence barefoot, swingin' a bob cat by the tail out of each hand, just a-darin' 'em to growl. She drinks blood and eats fresh livers and she ain't et today."

"I am hungry," Esther murmured. "Which of them is the healthier, do you think?"

"I don't know," I admitted, drawing my boot knife, "but we kin find out."

By this time most of the Silver Jewel was spilled out onto the board walk, half of them come down to street level and was crowdin' up behind me so they could hear.

Once we went back inside, Esther sashayed in to the mid point of the bar, put two fingers to her lips and let go a most unladylike but equally effective whistle.

"Gentlemen!" she called to the appreciative and attentive audience, "my honor remains intact."

She smiled, the double gun over her arm, and not a man there failed to recognize that she handled the two pipe shoot gun with the ease of long and expert familiarity.

"To celebrate that fact, drinks on the house, one round only!"

She turned with a dramatic sweep of her skirts, she flowed upstairs, chin high and shotgun in one hand, skirt lifted with the other, and she gave the Saloon a warm look of appreciation as the assembled voiced their thanks for her generosity.

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17. MIRROR, MIRROR

I spread out that waxed canvas tarp and tacked it to the side of the shed with a half a dozen little tack nails I had.

I tapped them careful-like for I did not want to hole that tarp any more than was needful, and I have a lazy streak in me.

If I can save myself some work, why I'll do exactly that.

I'd put an awful lot of thought into why I felt like a bucket of stirred up crick water and I thought I just might have an answer.

One nail left over and I tacked it in just about hat band level and then I turned and picked up that cloth wrapped package I'd got at the Mercantile that morning.

I unwrapped it careful-like and as the last fold fell away, its silvered surface reflected the solemn visage of my own face back at me, shadowed by my hat brim and framed round about by bright blue sky above.

I hung that there mirror on that little tack nail and very carefully adjusted it until it hung nice and straight, and I stepped away from it and turned and set my back to that shed and thought me some more.

"Old son," I whispered aloud, my eyes roving along the distant, saw toothed skyline, "are you punishin' yourself?"

I thought about that and I considered the question and I let it set there and ferment for a bit and I stepped away from that there shed and turned to look into that mirror I'd just hung.

'Twas exactly at eye level so I didn't have to bend none to look into it.

I looked and I looked deep and I saw that flat field back in Ohio where I trained men how to ride horses, and where I trained horses how to be rode, back when that damned War was jut started.

I remembered the first battles, horses lathered and a-drippin' with sweat, the way a terrified horse will do.

I remembered men screaming in fear and screaming in pain, men I'd trained -- my men -- men who looked to me to steady them and make some sense of this insane abattoir that was their first encounter with lead and bayonet steel and cannon fire.

Men who trusted me, men who reached for me with bloodied hands that quivered and fell as they died.

My men.

Dead.

My fault.

I remembered going back to that cabin Connie and I raised, back to that church yard with a fresh grave, I remembered wrapping my little girl up in Connie's quilt and bringing her back in the wagon, her on my lap as I drove and Sam-horse patiently drawing us along at a surprising velocity, for he was a big horse and covered a good stride, and I remembered begging my little girl not to die.

I remembered laying her out in that rough box I knocked together, and layin' that rag doll I'd bought her for her second birthday, layin' that rag doll in the box with her, I laid it in the bend of her elbow and bent her arm up and she warn't dead long enough to stiffen yet.

I recall diggin' out Connie's grave and settin' that little box on top of hers and fillin' in the hole, and I recall straightenin' up and lookin' through them tomb stones at the rising sun and wishing mightily it was Resurrection Morning.

Jacob, my son, sired on a woman desperate for comfort, a woman in mourning for her husband who wasn't dead yet but might as well be.

Jacob.

Under fed and whip scarred and lookin' more like a starved mongrel dog when he come to me, and all that happened to him was my fault.

My fault, the whisper-voice said, and I closed my eyes against it and I still heard it.

My fault.

"You have to forgive yourself," Preacher Sopris told me one dark night while I stood, arms folded, brooding at the Tree of Justice as he called it.

Ever'one else knew it as the hangin' tree and I stood there with the grave yard to my right and up hill and his hand rested momentarily on my shoulder, and was gone.

I was Sheriff now and a reaver still come in and stove in WJ Garrison's skull and raiders come screamin' into town and did their best to kill us and burn the place down and men got killed and men got hurt and I hadn't stopped it.

Part of me knew I'd done my best and no man could say I'd not done my absolute but it did not help.

Good men were dead.

My fault.

You have to forgive yourself.

My fault.

You have to forgive yourself.

"All these years," I said out loud, my eyes shut hard and my fists wound up tight and shiverin' in my gloves, "all these years I been punishin' myself."

I knew it to be true.

I knew I threw myself into danger and denied myself too often and it was all me punishing myself.

My breathin' was gettin' faster, like I'd run a distance, and I felt a little dizzy, and I put out a hand against the weathered plank side of that shed for a steady rest and I dropped my head and whispered aloud, "God, have I punished myself enough yet? I've forgiven everyone, every thing, but have I forgiven, me?"

I raised my head and looked into that mirror and I looked into those hard and pale eyes and I looked at every death I'd caused and every grave that was dug on account of me and I could not have stopped it had I chained it to the drive wheel of The Lady Esther.

My good right hand up and drove into that mirror and busted it all to splinters.

Part of me was sensible enough not to punch through it and bust my hand bones against the seasoned timber behind the glass, but I still hit it a hell of a lick.

I froze and then I withdrew my fist, slowly, examined the stretched-tight leather, surprised to find no silver splinters stuck halfway up to my elbow.

I looked down at shattered silver glass, bright on that waxed canvas tarp, and I had my answer.

No.

I had yet to forgive myself.

I shook my head and sighed, then took down the empty mirror frame, laid it careful-like on that draped-out tarp, pulled the pliers out from my chaps pocket and commenced to pullin' out those little nails I'd used.

I'd need 'em elsewhere, I figured, and once I got 'em pulled out, why, I would gather up that tarp and drag the glass off to the hole I'd dug for trash burnin' and shake it out there.

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18. THANK YOU FOR THAT KINDNESS

I set foot into the Silver Jewel and the place went silent.

It tends to do that when I am feelin' proddy.

I have no idea how everyone knows I am about as friendly as a backhanded hornet, but every time I'm ready to bite the horn off an anvil and I come into the Jewel, every face turns toward me and silence settles like a heavy snow -- sudden, thick and absolute.

Likely I did not look none too kindly.

My '73 rifle swung easy from its balance in my gloved left hand and my pace was measured, deliberate, slow.

Men drew back at my advance, all but one, a fellow about my age or maybe a year or two younger, a man with a squint to one eye and a frown to his brows.

He looked squarely at me and I looked squarely at him and he shoved out his bottom jaw and turned his head a little and spit.

"Yew," he said, and his voice was tired, the voice of a man who'd come a very long way, "ain't that Yankee cunnel, now?"

"They was plenty 'a' Yankee cunnels," I replied, trying to place him -- somewhere, where did I know him from ...

He turned his head a little more and squinted some and he nodded.

"I will be sawed off and damned," he said quietly. "I finally found ye."

I smelt blood and gunpowder and dirt in the air and I looked at this man in a worn canvas coat, a man who did not give a good damn if everyone else drew back as I came near.

He nodded again, reached up and poked my chest with a stiff finger.

"You're him," he said, and his voice changed a little and he begun to smile -- stiffly, as if he'd not smiled for a very long time, almost as if he was afraid his face would crack and fall off.

"You done me a kindness," he said, "an' I ben huntin' ye ever sints tryin' t' find ye."

I considered this fellow -- he didn't look like he had two cents to rub together, his wrists was all bone and cord and the hide was stretched over his hands like an old man's, all shiny and delicate lookin'.

"You et yet?" I asked quietly.

"I ain't takin' no charity!" he flared.

"AND I AIN'T OFFERIN'!" I shouted back.

"I'D NOT TAKE NOTHIN' FROM THE HAND OF A DAMNED YANKEE!"

I blinked and turned my head a little, squinting my eyes a little at him, a memory swimming to the surface of the troubled pool of my past.

"I remember you," I said slowly.

"And I remember you, you pale eyed Yankee," he wheezed.

"You'd best set," I said, taking him by the arm, and he didn't resist any as I turned him and steered him toward my table.

He set down like he'd run plumb out of strength.

I parked my engraved rifle in the corner like I always did, retched up without lookin' to hang my Stetson on the peg and raised my chin towards Daisy's girl, then I looked at this tired old sojourner.

"You kep' me from bleedin' t' death," he said, "an' you give me water from yer own canteen."

I nodded.

"You saw my men was took care of an' fed, you saw they got th' same keer as yer own wounded."

I nodded. "I did."

He chuckled a little as Daisy's girl set a plate down in front of him -- I don't recall what-all was piled on it, but I know it was good, for if it came out of Daisy's kitchen, it was good! -- she set coffee, hot and black and steaming, down beside the plate.

She set the same down in front of me and we bowed our heads and talked to our plates the way men will before they eat, and he might have been wore out and skinny but he et enough for two good workin' men.

'Twas not until he looked at a slice of pie the way a man will look at a beautiful woman when he realized she was truly his, not until his belly was full and he and I both celebrated our satiation with Daisy's flaky crust and canned fruit fillin' that either of us said another word.

There is a time for talk, and when two hungry men are busy shovelin' groceries in their yap, why, that ain't the time.

We leaned back, satisfied and comfortable, and I offered him a drink.

We each hoisted a glass of something water clear and not over 30 days old: I was pleased to take this on a full stomach, for the Daine boys' product is potent, to put it mildly.

My guest sipped his, sipped again, raised an eyebrow and took a third savoring sample of Two Hit John.

"I will be sawed off and damned," he whispered reverently. "Last I had o' this was back in Kaintuck."

He looked at me, nodded again.

"I ben tryin' t' find ye sints I got outta them eighty acres o' hell," he said slowly.

I shivered.

I knew about that Yankee prison camp, and I knew that -- bad as Andersonville was said to be -- that cold northern prison was worse.

"You've found me," I said. "Now what?"

He looked at me with a speculative expression.

"You were the only one o' those damned Yankees that treated me decent," he said. "I come to thank ye."

I nodded.

I recalled that day -- a hard fought battle it had been, I went out into the butcher's yard afterward and gave such aid as I was able to the wounded, irrespective of uniform.

I remembered this man.

He was considerably younger looking then, and he had the Masonic Square and Compasses on the flap of his possibles.

I was not yet a Mason but I had a profound respect for the Fraternity,

My father was a Mason, many of the men I knew back home were Masons, and I knew every last one of them to be a good man and true, and now here was the same fellow, older and time worn, but alive.

He was my guest that night.

When he went on his way, for he had a destination and it was kinfolk he was intending to join out Californy way, it was with a new suit of clothes, with a week's provisions packed up, a full belly and money in his purse.

LIke as not he didn't know I'd put cash money in it til he was on the steam train and on his way in unaccustomed comfort, and that was by design, for he was a proud man and not likely to accept what he'd see as charity.

I will admit to a moment's discomfort.

We talked about that night, as he lay injured and as I traveled among the dead and the dying like a lost soul, my way lighted by candle lanterns, we each admitted to hearing the dying crying in the night, seeing the night mist like the shades of those newly dead lifting from still-warm bodies to hesitate in the heavy, humid air before drifting away, unsure quite what to do now.

I watched the train disappear in the distance and I remembered what he asked me as he boarded, and the question troubled me.

He asked me who that woman was, that woman with me that night, the one all in white, a woman with a mother's touch and eyes pale like mine and the whispered voice of an angel as she tended the wounded and closed the eyes of the dead and held the hands of the dying as they choked their last breaths into the warm and cloying night air.

He asked me about that woman who was with me, and I remembered the night, and I remembered when I went amongst the dead and the dying, rendering succor and aid as I was able ...

... I made my way alone.

 

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19. UNBROKEN

It was always entertainin' to me, watchin' The Bear Killer come into the Silver Jewel to say howdy.

Daisy kept one particular plate back there, on the floor under a table, and that was The Bear Killer's plate.

'Twas cracked and not fit to set out in front of a payin' customer but when she throwed biscuits and gravy on it, The Bear Killer didn't care if it said "Vote US Grant" ... long as it had somethin' edible on it, why, he was just fine with that old plate.

Now when he come paddin' slow and ponderous down the hallway, swayin' a little as he walked the way he did, lookin' like an absolutely black African lion from the front, the effect was startling to the uninitiated.

I didn't help things along any.

If I was there, I'd turn square-on to him.

He'd stop.

I'd glare at him.

He'd peel his lips back and lay them ears flat back.

I'd bent over a little and fist up both hands.

He'd start to bristle and you could see the hair ripple up from the back of his head right on down his spine like a column of marching troops, and another across his shoulders.

I'd snarl somethin' supremely intelligent like "I'd oughta thump you," and he'd peel his lips back some more and commence to growl and let me tell you, friends and neighbors, when a dog the size of a long haired pony begins to growl -- especially him inside a hallway and makin' him look that much bigger -- why, men get right uncomfortable with it, especially when I take a step forward and raise up one fist higher than the other and allow as I oughta put KNOTS on his head and his head come up a little and he warn't growlin' no more, his lips rippled with obscenities sensible only those of his tribe, then I'd get down a littleand I launched at him and he'd come at me and we'd hit in the middle --

He'd hit his paws on the front of my shoulders just under the collar bone and it was kind of like running into the lead end of The Lady Esther.

Any of you that's been hit by a Baldwin steam locomotive know that it ain't the brightest thing to do, and it jolted me some, but it was worth it, for I'd grab holt of him and he'd commence to launder me about the face and the ears and swing attair tail like a war club and I'd commence to laugh, and them that was strangers to the Jewel would realize they'd just been had, and those that had seen it before got a tickle out of it.

If it was possible, I found it to my advantage to wait until The Bear Killer had his biscuits and gravy before settin' down for my own meal.

For all that The Bear Killer was intelligent, strong, loyal and incredibly warm if I had to sleep out on the trail (though he was a blanket thief), he was also a bum when it came to the supper table ... and for all his ferocity, for all his fang and snap and bone crushing jaws, those black eyes of his could wheedle and plead as good as any waif of a stray pup.

At least when I give up and handed him a delicacy with thumb and forefinger, he took it delicately, though from his size (and the size of his fighting canines) he could easily have taken my hand off ... clear up to my elbow.

Now on this one particular day, I was not in the Silver Jewel and neither was The Bear Killer.

He'd drifted off to who knows where, likely over towards the Rosenthal ranch.

Him and Sarah made an entertaining pair.

Sarah was just a wee slip of a thing (I don't reckon she was but maybe thirteen and skinny) and I don't know if she made The Bear Killer look big, or he made her look small ... it did look like she could ride him, but he was spared this indignity by her natural affinity for anything with hooves and a mane.

I contemplated that too but not for long for I was still chewin' on me.

I bought me another frame mirror -- the last one the Mercantile had in stock, the one-armed proprietor's blind wife smiled and asked if I'd dropped the last one, and I admitted I'd broke it all to splinters, and bless her she patted my hand and confided that her husband did that when he tried to hang a mirror just the week before.

This time I didn't hang the mirror on the side of the shed with a tarp under it ready to catch its shivered slivers.

This one I hung up over my shavin' basin back at the house, and I stared into it and frowned a little as I studied my face.

Esther came in with her hands folded, the way she generally did, and she waited patiently while I stared into the sliver.

"Dearest," said I finally, "you probably know this already."

She charitably offered no reply.

"I," I sighed, "have been punishing myself."

Esther's head tilted a little.

I turned and grasped the points of her elbows with just my finger tips... delicately, as if I were holding a soap bubble.

"Maybe it's time I stopped."

Esther blinked and looked at me with those bright, wise, gorgeous green eyes, but said not a word.

I took her in my arms and kissed her, once, as delicate on her lips as my fingers had been on her elbows.

We talked that night as we lay in bed, we talked in quiet voices, whispers mostly, and I talked long into the past, talked of home and family and how guilty I felt comin' home to Connie's grave and Dana's last breath, and how ever since I blamed myself and I walked into danger not caring if I died or not.

Esther lay across my chest and my arms were around her and I whispered that I realized I'd started carin' ag'in, and I had her to thank for it, her and Angela.

She hugged me for her reply.

Next morning, smellin' bcon and eggs and good frash baked bread, I stropped my razor as Angela watched, her bright-blue eyes solemn and attentive as I lathered up and carefully engaged in the barbaric and ritual scraping of the face with a sharpened blade.

Angela waited until I was about done before she asked, "Daddy, does that hurt?"

I laughed into the towel I was wiping my face with, and I looked in that mirror, and for all the thought I'd put into things, the mirror remained unbroken, and I counted that a good thing.

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20. I AIN'T PERFECT

Jacob warn't more than a tall boy but I trusted him implicitly.

I'd rather have him sidin' me than most lawmen I know.

With some significant exceptions, like Charlie Macneil, but he warn't anywhere near and we had work to do, so it was my boy and me and off we went, the two of us, goin' off to bring in four men, peacefully or otherwise, and neither of us much cared which it would be.

We rode for maybe half a day, takin' it easy on the horses, sparing them in case we'd have a desperate run to make.

I heard a German laugh, back during that damned War ... he'd been in the German army and when he set foot on the dock in New York, why, the recruiters grabbed him and the rest of the Germans with him and said "You want to live in our country, fine! Serve in our army and you can stay!"

This suited the Germans just fine.

They were already militarized.

They had their own oom-pah bands, they had their own tactics, they were already soldiers, and the North had German regiments, led by German officers who fought with German field tactics and shouted orders in German.

They had their own oom-pah bands, they had their own German food, and their officers were amused by our fumbling attempts at soldiering.

Now the South ... them Germans had a hell of a lot of respect for Southerners, especially Southern cavalry.

We had officers from France, Britain, Spain, hell we had a Russian or two and one fellow in what was called a silk bathrobe, but nobody ever said it to his face, not after they watched him run screaming into the teeth of a Confederate charge with that long curved sword of his and cleave a man from the base of his neck to his soft ribs with one stroke.

I think he was from Nippan or something like that.

Hell of a nice fellow, immaculate manners, wouldn't touch coffee and we freighted in rice specially for him ... he'd strip down to his loin cloth and muck around in the swamp after cattail roots and such-like ... now how'd I side track myself so far from where I was?

Now what was I gettin' at? ... oh, yeah.

Sorry about that.

That puff of smoke on the horizon is my train of thought recedin' at a fair velocity.

What I was gettin' at -- before I got all side tracked, intendin' to talk about how all them foreign officers were observin' how we fought and what we fought with, and whether we had the guts to stand toe to toe and slug it out with lead and steel and fists and feet ... every one of them foreign fellers agreed on one thing.

They'd seen cavalry from around the entire world.

Of all the cavalry they'd seen, why, Northern cavalry didn't impress 'em much.

To a man they agreed, though, that Southern cavalry was the best in the world.

Of the Southern cavalry, those horsemen from Kentucky were the best in the South.

Once we started a-chasin' after that General John Hunt Morgan, why, I learned just how good those boys were, and I will say with no shame a'tall, they made us look like monkeys!

Now I started talkin' about them Germans.

I was intendin' to tell you about that German officer who quoted Von Clausewiz when he allowed as all skill was in vain when an angel watered in your firelock, and I intended to tell you about that because Jacob and I were sparing of our horses in case that angel watered right down the frizzen of our intentions.

We were after four bad men, four who'd killed a guard breakin' out of a jail train two counties over, four men who'd beat a rancher and his wife so bad he wasn't expected to live and she'd lost an eye.

These four had forfeit their right to live, to my way of thinkin', and I said as much to Jacob.

His eyes were steady and quiet and he give me a long look but all he said was, "Yes, sir," and off we rode, an old man and a tall boy, both of us intent on fetchin' back four carcasses, breathing or not.

 

"Hank!"

"What?"

"You see anything?"

"Nah!"

Nervous hands gripped and released and gripped the rifle's fore-end again.

Sweat made it slippery; he remembered as a boy he would never have laid sweaty fingers on the bare gun barrel, but now ... now, he did not care.

He wasn't sure whether he feared his fellow felons more, or the law that was sure to follow, but he knew as long as he had the rifle in hand he had a chance, and he had no chance at all in that damned train.

He'd got his hands on two slender wire nails and managed to work one into a little bit of a hook and somehow, somehow picked open the lock on his right ankle, and when one of his fellows saw what was happening, he turned and leaned back against him, hiding his labors from the bored guard's eyes.

They'd gulled the guard over and grabbed him, their attack was fast and brutal and calculated to cause such a detonation of red agony in the man as to render him unable to make a sound; they seized his double gun, slammed the checkered-wood, steel-skeletonized butt against the man's voice box, guaranteeing he would never make any sound, ever again.

Four of them got loose, four of them got another guard, four of them got the door open far enough to jump, four of them by sheer luck -- good luck for them, ill luck for the rancher -- found a nearby ranch house, and did their best to kill the man and his wife, and they managed to do their deed without firing a shot.

They got guns and horses and they made their escape; behind them, a yell, a shot, and they spurred their stolen steeds mercilessly, making distance, looking for another mark to raid.

They would need food, they would need a change of clothes, and they would need fresh horses.

At the moment they needed distance, and they were more than willing to ride good horses plumb to death to get it.

 

Of the three ranch hands that rode in pursuit, one forked north, to the railroad depot, to the town marshal, to the man he trusted.

He was out of the saddle and running before his horse was stopped and he slammed into the Marshal's office, he staggered a moment and nearly collapsed, and as the alarmed Marshal came to his feet, he blurted "My Gawd, Pete,they kilt the boss and his wife an' they're ridin' south!"

"How many?"

"Four there was, we kilt one and put lead into one."

The town marshal knew which way they were headed, he knew there was only one lawman in that territory and he knew the man personally.

He sat the ranch hand down and yanked his desk drawer open.

Snatching out a sheet of paper, he picked up a whittled pencil, licked the lead and frowned, then began to print.

The ranch hand sat, staring, as the lawman nodded, dropped the pencil to the desktop, stood, walked to the door.

The door was still standing open from the hand's precipitous entrance; he laid a hand on the door frame, curled his lip and whistled, one high, shrill note.

A boy ran up, the Marshal spoke quietly, urgently, handed the lad a coin, and in less than seven minutes, a telegraph key a hundred yards away began to clatter.

Four minutes after that, another lawman picked up the flimsy, read the words, nodded.

There was only one place between here and there, he knew, and that's where they would end up, and he was right.

"Jacob," he said, and the Sheriff's pale eyed son stood and replied "Yes, sir?"

"Saddle up."

"Yes, sir."

"Bad business, Jacob, and likely killin'."

"I am with you, sir."

 

A woman sobbed quietly, her scalp torn and bloodied, one eye swollen nearly shut.

She lay in the corner, slouched against the wall, too weak to rise from the floor, too terrified to crawl over to her husband.

Her husband lay unmoving in a pool of blood, but two bodies lay with him, one of them missing most of its face, the other with a knife still driven into its gut on a high trajectory; before the world fell away from him, the man who put the knife there, knew with no doubt at all its sharp, gently pointed tip drove far enough up through the outlaw's heart that it nearly came out between the near ends of his collarbones.

If he was to stand before the Throne, he thought, just before another bullet drove through him, it will be with my boot on an enemy's throat and heart's blood on his blade.

 

I drew up in some brush, with rocks behind us, enough to break our outline.

Jacob eased up beside me, his eyes still quiet, his face relaxed.

I've known good and war-seasoned men who'd be wide-eyed and wound up like an eight day clock right about now.

Jacob was just the opposite.

I would not have been surprised if he'd yawned wide and deep and looked ready to lay down for a nap.

He didn't.

He thrust his chin out.

"Sir," he said quietly, "horse to the right of the house."

I swore.

The horse was on the ground -- dying, by the look of it, most likely run plumb to death -- another swayed, its head down, flanks heaving, gleaming with sweat.

"Sir," Jacob said, "hammer and anvil?"

I considered for a moment.

Usually if we had sufficient troop strength, we would position dug-in lines to one side -- the anvil -- then hit them with mobile strength, the hammer.

With two of us the idea was almost ludicrous, but the principle remained the same: instead of riding in side by side, showing them two was all we had, we might be better off to come in from two different directions.

"I don't see any swales," I murmured.

"No, sir."

"Did you bring your binoculars?"

"I did, sir."

"Take a look at that barn to the right."

Jacob opened the flap on his hard leather case, drew out the German binoculars he'd won in a poker game.

He raised them to his eyes, studied the barn, then began casting about, and I saw him smile just a little.

"Sir," he said, "I see nothing in the barn, but I see one man in a window, watching this way."

"Which window?"

"The only one in the ranch house on this side, sir. The window remains closed."

"Is there another? I make four horses, all rode hard and drippin' wet."

"Got him," Jacob whispered. "Sir, I think I can get close."

"The terrain is pretty open."

"I can use this fold" -- he lowered his binoculars, pointed ahead and to the left -- "to get close. I'll come around behind that boulder, the one to the left of the outhouse."

"I see it."

"Sir, when you see me there, if you would kindly provide me a distraction, I believe I can gain us some advantage."

"Hold here," I cautioned. "There should be three others."

"I only see one, sir. He's stayin' near to that outhouse."

I nodded.

"Likely they're inside, probably eatin' or havin' their way with the woman."

Jacob's eyes paled a little and I reckon mine were just as pale and just as hard.

He very carefully wrapped the neck strap around the glasses, slid them back in their case, fast up the flap, his moves unhurried, precise.

He bent back a little and took his '76 rifle by the wrist and fetched it out of its carved scabbard: he eared the hammer back, eased the bolt back enough to see brass, closed the lever and laid his thumb on the hammer spur, eased it down to half cock.

"Sir, I could knock one from here,"he offered.

"I know you could, Jacob. That's a right fair shot but I doubt me not you could punch his ticket from here."

"I could, sir, but it would not be wise." I saw him smile, just a little, and I realized what boy there was in my son's frame was long since burnt out of him, and all that was left was a man more than ready to lay more souls at the feet of the Almighty.

"Jacob, if you could take care of that fellow at the outhouse, I would be very much obliged."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll wait until you're in position, then I'll come a-foggin' in over here" -- I thrust a stiff-bladed hand to the right -- "and come in beside the barn. Anyone in the barn will be fair game. They'll be there or in the house, and I'm thinkin' the house."

"Yes, sir."

Jacob never looked over at me; he never moved, but his Apple horse did, and my firstborn son flowed easily down hill and into the fold in the ground, and he made his way like a clot of death-fog down the curved wash.

I watched, and I waited, and when he got as far as he thought wise, I saw him thrust his rifle back into its scabbard, then dismount.

He turned to face me, raised a fist:

Wait.

I raised my fist to show I understood, and I couldn't help but smile.

Orders of battle generally never survive first encounter with the enemy, and ours just fell apart when Jacob pulled out his knife and I saw him crouch, and then he disappeared.

I could see nothing, for he was behind the boulder, and then behind the outhouse, and I heard nothing save the wind and a stray bird or two, and then Jacob appeared like he'd jumped up out of the ground -- jumped up beside his horse, he took out his rifle, raised a fist and pumped it twice.

I fetched out my own rifle and Cannonball began to dance a little.

She knew when I smelt of anger and when I wrapped my good right hand around the wrist of that engraved rifle my wife give me, that war was on the mountain, and she was likely going to ride right into the middle of it.

 

The rancher's wife gripped the handle of her pistol.

The man at the window was studying something, his head was moving to the left, to the right, the way a man will when he's trying to see something that should be there.

He took a few quick steps toward the door, pulled it open about a foot, spun to the side.

"Hank!"

No reply, just the wind, the wheezing of a wind broke horse.

"HAAANK!"

He opened the door a little.

The woman rolled over on her side, raised her right knee, her foot flat on the floor.

She rested her wrist on the point of her knee and set the thumb nail front sight between the murderer's shoulder blades, and she drew the hammer back on her Owl Head, and the outlaw turned, startled, and she pulled the trigger.

He jerked, spun, his stolen rifle fell from nerveless fingers, and part of the woman's mind wondered how her shot -- aimed for the middle of his spine -- ended up blowing most of his brains back into the ranch house.

She cringed as bloody spatter speckled her cheeks, cold and disgusting, and she shuddered and wiped desperately at the stuff.

A slender boy with pale eyes, hard eyes, stepped into the doorway, rifle at the ready: he swung quickly, efficiently, one hand gripping the rifle well forward of its wooden fore end, the other hard about the action: his steps were light, quick, he almost ran into the next room, then came back, laid the rifle down, removed the pistol from the woman's grip.

"Ma'am," he said, and his voice was gentle, "my name is Jacob. My father is Sheriff Linn Keller and he is ridin' in right now. How bad are you hurt?"

She looked at him with her one good eye and then looked at her husband.

A tall man with an iron grey mustache stepped through the doorway, and she saw he had cold eyes, hard eyes, pale eyes just like the boy that was turning her husband's body over.

She couldn't look at her husband, her lover, the man who made her complete, if she didn't look maybe it wouldn't be real, maybe he was really alive --

Sheriff, she thought.

I recognize you.

Old Pale Eyes.

Anger ignited in her wounded heart and she turned her face to the wall as he approached.

Damn you, why weren't you here earlier!

"Sir," Jacob said, and her ear twitched to hear the sudden tension in his voice, "he's alive!"

 

I sent Jacob back for Doc Greenlees, for I did not think the rancher would stand the wagon ride from here to there.

Once Doc got there and saw what slights I'd used to patch him up, he frowned and got real quiet, and I knew that meant I'd done really well or I'd personally grabbed this poor fellow by the scruff of the neck and was holding him a-dangle over the edge of a mile deep canyon.

He turned his attention to the woman, him and Nurse Susan -- bless her, she was a stout built and motherly sort who had absolutely the best manner with women of anyone I've ever seen -- she managed to shush the rancher's wife and get her into another room and let me and Doc get the rancher up off the floor and onto the table and he taken a long look at what I'd done and allowed as the poor fellow would likely live.

I made so bold as to ask if he'd live because of what I'd done, or in spite of it, and Doc looked at me and asked if I'd fed him any coffee.

I allowed as I had not.

He nodded and told me to fire the stove, this man would need broth and likely there was supplies on hand to make some, and if I dared make coffee he would personally break both my arms.

Can't for the life of me imagine why he was a-sayin' that, I didn't rot but two coffee pots out this year and we're plumb into June already.

I shrugged.

If the man wanted a fire in the stove, why, I'd kindle him up one.

I'd satisfied myself comin' in warn't nobody else outside, but I left Cannonball adrift, knowin' she'd circle the ranch house and give a whistle if anybody else come near -- and if they dared lay a hand on her or reach for her bridle, she'd treat 'em to a forehoof windmill while she sung Whistle Britches in the process.

Once Doc got the rancher patched up as best as he could -- he said the bullet skidded across his ribs,the wound was bloody and likely it would hurt like homemade hell but it wouldn't kill the man long as it was kept clean -- the man was the color of wheat paste from losin' so much blood, but he come around and he called his wife's name and I took his hand and I called him by name and allowed as she was going to be just fine but he had to hold still 'cause we'd just patched him back together.

Doc looked at me and raised one eyebrow and said "What's this 'we' stuff, Sheriff?" and I laughed.

Doc went in and tended to the woman, and he was back out after a bit and he told the rancher his wife was going to be fine, but once she was healed up she'd likely come after him with a fryin' pan, for he'd had to shave some of her scalp so he could stitch that cut back together.

Jacob rode for the neighboring ranch where the man's son was a-workin' and he came a-foggin' back, him and the neighbor and the neighbor's pretty daughter, which I believe is why the rancher's son was a-workin' over there in the first place.

Once we saw things as far as we decently could, Jacob and I headed back for home.

Likely our statements would be needed, for it was no light thing when wanted men broke out of a jail train, even if it was nothin' more than a chain gang in a boxcar.

We stopped at the depot first and I sent a return telegram and let my esteemed colleague (who generally cheated at poker and never figured out I let him) know that we'd caught two, two more was killed by their latest victim.

That guaranteed he'd be over in a day or two, curiosity was ever his weak point.

I was right in that too.

Jacob and I talked that one over a few days later, once everything got all squared away, after I'd had a good old fashioned horn lockin' with the county and I allowed as they could go straight to hell and be damned but I was going to make Jacob my deputy, young or not, and once they realized they'd have an insurrection on their hands if they made me mad enough to quit, why, they backed down and Jacob Keller, long tall and seventeen years of age, raised his hand and swore, and by God! I was proud to be the man givin' him that lawman's oath!

I reckon I could have been diplomatic with the county, but I ain't perfect.

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21. WINDOW

A pale eyed woman turned the hand written page.

She read slowly, frowning a little as she did, studying not only the words but trying to divine the thoughts behind the words.

In all likelihood the words she read were written at the very desk on which the book rested, with one of the pens in the drawer beneath; additional books, all hand written, were neatly ranked on a shelf above,and the woman had read each of them multiple times.

She was re-reading this one, trying to find something that kept nagging at her memory.

She frowned a little at the Old Sheriff's account of the event -- how he and his son rode out ... his account was scattered and rambling, almost as if he were either distracted, or upset, or perhaps he'd partaken of an unaccustomed volume of the locally-famous Two Hit John, that water clear liquid compound that went down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off a body's feet.

She re-read the after-action report in the larger journal, the ledger-sized book to her right, the official record of the Firelands County Sheriff's Office: it was more concise and less narrative, consisting mostly of single line entries -- arrests, fines, events -- but in with these were official statements, and as she paged backwards through the smaller journal, searching for a date, she grimaced, for her ribs still hurt like two hells.

She was out of that hated body cast and back into a corset, which supported her battered ribs and her still-healing breastbone, and her hand drifted to her chest, a defensive move as she remembered being hammered by a controlled burst of 9mm submachinegun fire at close range.

Had she not been wearing both her body armor, and a steel-boned corset, it would have buzzsawed a hole through her chest you could have stuck two fists into.

As it was, she got off three return shots before shock stopped her heart -- Doctor John Greenlees called it the "R-on-T phenomenon," and went into the technical aspects of the heart's ionic recharge after each contraction, and how a blow to the chest as the heart was recharging could shock it into standstill.

Her eyes rose to the window and for a moment, for an unguarded moment, she saw her little boy, her firstborn son, his young and innocent face carved with rage and the innocence of childhood gone from his eyes as he pulled a revolver from his left-hand holster, a revolver she knew, a revolver she'd used when she wasn't much older than he ... a wartime .38 S&W, an underpowered round good for punching holes in tin cans and paper targets.

Her nine year old son, screaming something about nobody shoots his Mama, did not shoot a tin can.

He shot a man through the left eye at twenty feet.

The man had only just thrust a fresh magazine into the black buzz gun and slapped the bolt and looked up in time to inherit a slow moving, round nose lead round, loaded back in the 1940s, delivered by a revolver custom tuned by a Navajo gunsmith in the Smith & Wesson custom shop, a round fired by the hazel eyed son of a pale-eyed Sheriff, in front of the Sheriff's office that had stood since the early 1880s.

It may be considered ironic that the identical spot where the boy -- this Jacob Keller -- stood and fired was the identical spot where another Jacob Keller stood and screamed defiance, and fired his Army Colt revolver at the man that just shot his own father, who fell in the identical spot where Willamina hit the ground.

None of this was lost on the pale eyed woman as she referred to one book, then the other.

She ran her finger down the official account, skimming over the deposition, then stopped, her mouth opening a little.

It was easier to breathe if she opened her mouth when it hurt, and it was hurting now.

 

Emma Cooper was not only the Marshal's wife, she was the schoolteacher, and as a schoolteacher, she had absolutely lovely handwriting.

She was generally recruited for the official recording of the Firelands District Court (the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler presiding) and depositions and official statements for the Sheriff's Office, and so on this day she sat with her spine properly erect, both feet flat on the floor, at the little desk that was provided for her use: she dipped her pen in good India ink, brushed it lightly against the inside of the ink-bottle to wipe off the excess, looked up through her schoolmarm spectacles, waiting for the young deputy to speak his piece.

"State your name for the record," the Judge said in a kindly voice.

"Deputy Jacob Keller," he said, making no effort to lower the pitch of his voice: he was comfortable with being young, and he honestly did not give a good damn if anyone else regarded him as old enough to pack a badge or not, and he'd already proved that twice so far today, and both challengers were currently in the jail with a variety of injuries (officially attributed to "Guilty of stupidity in public")

"Deputy Keller," the Judge said, "we are regarding the death of one Hank Matthews, and one Glenn Tenney."

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Tell us what happened."

"The Sheriff and I rode to the Hill ranch," Jacob said, his voice clear and plain in the empty courtroom, "with intent to apprehend four escapees from the jail train."

"How did you know they were there?"

"We'd received a telegram that gave direction of travel. We know the territory, sir, and we knew Billy Hill's place was the first one they'd come to."

"How did you know they would be there?"

"Men escaping are men afraid, sir, and a fearful man will take with violence. He'll take horses, guns, women, whatever he wants. A ranch house would have food and water and a change of clothes -- they wouldn't want to be recognized so they would most likely change horses and change duds -- and we were right, they were there."

"How did you apprehend them?"

"We watched, sir, from a high point. We saw four horses and they'd been run hard by the look of 'em. The Sheriff and I laid our plans and I made for the lookout."

"Let the record show the lookout was the late Hank Matthews," the Judge interjected gently.

Miz Emma's pen scratched loudly on the good rag paper; she nodded once, without looking up.

"Deputy Keller, how did you apprehend this Hank Matthews?"

"Your Honor, we believed them to be four in number. I wished to find out what I could without alarming anyone else. We believed them inside the ranch house, as nothing was seen when we glassed the barn and the out buildings." Jacob waited a moment as the schoolteacher's pen kept pace with his words.

"I Injun'd up on the man beside the outhouse and put my knife to his throat.

"I allowed as he could tell me what I wanted to know or he could die and I didn't much care which."

"Isn't that a bit harsh, coming from an officer of the law?" His Honor asked slowly.

"No, sir. I had to let him know I would do anything I had to, including carving pretty pictures on his liver, if I had to. I had to convince him he'd cooperate or he'd die and I had to make him believe it."

"Did he?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did he tell you about the others?"

"Yes, sir, he said the rancher killed two of 'em before they killed him."

His Honor frowned, as this did not jibe with his understanding of the situation: the rancher was indeed alive, and he considered whether to consult a fresh Cuban from his humidor there on the desk, then decided against it.

"I see. Go on."

"Now once he realized he'd just betrayed his pards, he tried to get my arm away from his throat and the knife with it."

"What happened?"

"I figured if he didn't want my knife to his throat, why, I'd remove it. He wouldn't expect that. He'd figure I'd rassle with him to keep the blade right there."

"What did you do?"

"I jerked my arm back and shoved him away from me."

"And what did he do?"

"He caught my boot a-comin' up."

"Your ... boot."

"Yes,sir. I drove him good right in the" -- Jacob bit off the word he was forming, looked over at Emma Cooper.

"I kicked him in the stones, Your Honor, and I hit him hard enough to drive 'em up behind his eyeballs."

His Honor looked away, clearly uncomfortable, and Jacob continued, "I was obliged to run my knife into his wind pipe when he reached for his belt gun, sir. I could not risk him giving an alarm."

His Honor nodded, swallowed, shook his head.

"I see. Then what happened?"

"I fetched my rifle out and run up to the ranch house. A voice was calling "Hank!" and I knew Old Man Hill didn't have nobody there by that name so when the door opened and I saw he was raisin' a rifle toward me, why, I put one through his left eye and settled the fight."

Jacob grinned -- almost a boyish grin -- "Your Honor, Mrs. Hill was inside. She'd got her pistol and when my gun cracked so did hers and she put her pistol ball through his spine so she got her licks in too."

 

The pale eyed woman leaned back -- carefully, for movement still hurt -- she contemplated the joint between the ceiling and the far wall, her pale eyes trailing back and forth as she thought.

Another Jacob Keller, in another century, shot another outlaw through the left eye.

Willamina nodded, smiling a little.

Almost -- almost! -- she could hear a young voice, a tall boy wearing a deputy's six point star maybe, whispering something about doing what was needful, then she dismissed the thought.

The door opened and a boy's voice called "Mama, I'm home!" and her son, this century's Jacob Keller, came running in, cheeks pink and healthy and a grin on his face.

Willamina placed a bullet-holed Ace of Spades for a bookmark in the open Journal, this familiar window into what used to be, carefully turned her swivel chair, and Jacob stopped, gripped her hands as she extended them.

He didn't dare hug his Mama, much as he wanted to.

"How was school today?" Willamina smiled.

"Ahh, it was okay," Jacob shrugged. "I'm hungry, what's for supper?"

Willamiana laughed. "Your father is fixing hamburgers."

Jacob's eyes widened with alarm and Willamina squeezed his hands reassuringly. "Don't worry, he hasn't set the kitchen on fire yet!"

"Mama," Jacob said, pulling his hands away and dropping the backpack from his left shoulder, "William said to give you this."

He unzipped the blue-nylon backpack with the John Deere patch crudely sewed on, extracted a short envelope.

Willamina frowned a little, then slowly, carefully turned, removed a small lock back knife from the drawer, flicked it open and unzipped the sealed envelope.

 

Little Sis, she read, and she smiled at this, for it was a standing joke between them -- they were twins, and forever bickering about who was the little sis, or the little brother -- Crystal found more ancestry on the Old Sheriff and I think we tracked him back to the Ohio.

We'll be over later tonight to share what she found.

Several people told me they like the idea of a Keller as Sheriff and said I ought to grow a mustache.

It feels odd sitting in your chair but I'm doing my best at it.

That's a hell of a promotion, from police patrolman to county sheriff.

Now I outrank my old boss the police chief!

Will

 

"What is it, Mama?" Jacob asked, working his right arm a little: he was out of his sling and his shoulder was almost back to normal, but he still tended to favor it a little.

"It's your Uncle Will with some news," she smiled, filing the note in a pigeonhole in the ancient roll top desk. "Your Aunt Crystal did some ancestry research and she's found something more about the Old Sheriff."

Jacob's grin was quick and genuine, and he took his Mama's hand as she extended it.

"Help your old decrepit mother up," she said, and Jacob stepped in, steadied her elbow as well, not missing the note of pain as her weight shifted and she came slowly to her feet. "Let's see about getting you something to eat."

 

Mother and son sat together at the kitchen table.

Each had a sandwich, each had hot tea and each had an appetite.

Willamina's sandwich has half the size of her son's and he still finished his first, which did not surprise her -- she'd described Jacob as a walking appetite on two hollow legs -- and finally he spoke up, just before taking a noisy slurp of Earl Grey: "Mama, what's the earliest you know about Old Grampa?"

Willamina smiled.

"You mean The Sheriff's Origin?"

He nodded.

"Well, from what he wrote ... he started out in Ohio."

"Oh." Jacob puzzled at this, then looked at his Mama.

"What did he do there?"

Willamina smiled. "He got married, and then he went off to war."

"Kinda like you."

Willamina nodded slowly, cautiously, pleased that the move didn't send a knife through her fractured breastbone. "Yes. Only I left Ohio first and I didn't go to war until I was out here."

"With Uncle Pete."

Willamina nodded, smiling. "Yes."

"What was Old Grampa like?"

Willamina laughed.

"He was tall and broad shouldered, lean waisted, he had pale eyes like your Uncle Will" -- she didn't mention her own -- "and he had an iron-grey mustache. I understand he was as good with his left hand Colt as he was with his right, and he rode a copper-red mare named Cannonball."

"Mama, would you read to me about him? The real early stuff?"

Willamina nodded. "Of course. Tonight, I should think, after your Uncle Will comes over."

Jacob's expression was one of anticipation and juvenile impatience.

 

"Sir?" Jacob asked quietly, and I looked up at the younger version of myself, sitting on the woven-bottom chair leaned back against the log wall.

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, when the time comes, I wish to have sons."

I nodded. "A man generally wishes to have sons."

"I would have them know where they came from."

I nodded again. "Generally a good thing," I agreed.

"Sir" -- Jacob hesitated, then plunged ahead, as if swimming out into a pool of water -- "I would have my sons know about us, and where we come from."

I looked at Jacob for a long moment, then I pulled open my top right hand desk drawer, fetched it way out so it barely hung there, and I reached in behind them two bottles of the Daine boys' distilled war club and brought out one of my journals.

"Right here it is," I said. "My origin. It's clear in the very back. This tracks my family back as far as I know it."

I smiled a little.

"Sarah called it The Sheriff's Origin."

Jacob laughed politely.

"I would admire to read that to my sons, in due time," he said thoughtfully.

"In due time," I admitted, "I would admire to have you read it to them."

I slid it back in place, closed the drawer.

"I'm hungry, and Esther said if you were anywhere near to have you come eat with us."

"Thank you, sir," Jacob replied, rising. "I would like that."

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22. THE LADIES' TEA SOCIETY

 

Another shot charge ripped through the roof, the heavy pellets scarring the floor and flinging back off the opposite wall.

So far I had a fine collection of welts but they hadn't drawn blood.

Not for want of trying.

My Sheriff's office was proof against most gunfire short of a pack howitzer, unless you could slip a ball through a wide chink gap, but the roof was not made of logs, and whoever it was wanted to part my immortal soul from the rest of me was smart enough to figure that out.

The only way they could get that angle down on the roof was from the roof of Digger's funeral parlor.

I smiled and I felt my face tighten some and I took two long steps to the gun rack and fetched off the Sharps rifle.

I had the medicine for them.

 

The Ladies' Tea Society met in the back room of the Silver Jewel, as it had for better than a century.

It hadn't met continuously for that time, there were years when nobody much cared for such get togethers, but with the Sheriff's research into Firelands and its past, and especially with her public presentations, the Ladies' Tea Society was now a well attended event.

The Sheriff, out of habit, wore a proper McKenna gown, or at least the best reproduction she could assemble, though for one meeting she was seated at a treadle sewing machine, frowning and muttering and then jumping up to drape her latest effort over a dressmaking dummy, and finally -- as if she were an actress on stage -- she shoved the dummy and knocked it over, threw her arms in the air and marched back and forth shouting in frustration "I GIVE UP, I'M NEVER GOING TO SEW ANOTHER THING AS LONG AS I LIVE, THIS IS A WASTE OF TIME, I'LL NEVER BE ABLE TO PUT ONE TOGETHER RIGHT!" -- and then she stopped, looked at her smiling audience; she blinked smiled, raised a teaching finger and said "Let me show you my latest creation," and then picked up an absolutely gorgeous gown that could have come from the famous McKenna Dress Works not five minutes ago.

Tonight's meeting lacked any such props.

A bedsheet was hung for a projector screen; Willamina had several books on the table, she wore a shimmering, electric blue gown with a high collar, a cameo at the hollow of her throat and white ruffles trimming throat, bodice and sleeves; she wore a wig, for her own hair was Marine Corps cut, and although feminine and attractive on her, such a hair style would be jarringly out of place with an 1885 McKenna gown.

"Now class," she began, in the tones of an Old West schoolmarm, "we will begin by reviewing the past lessons already covered." She nodded; the house lights dimmed by half, she pressed something on the table, and an image showed up brightly on the bedsheet screen.

"This is taken from a glass plate photograph discovered last year in what used to be a studio attached to the Mercantile, as our general store was then called. The camera was quite boxy" -- she held her hands apart -- "about so wide, so deep, about this long with a bellows, and the black cloth on the back so the photographer could hide to keep from laughing." The first image showed an individual bent over behind just such a tripod mounted camera.

"My husband is the model here and I think I caught his good side," she quipped, to the general laughter of the assembled.

When women get together, husbands are fair game, and Willamina knew she had her audience right where she wanted them.

"Now here is one of the photographs that was taken from right in front of the Silver Jewel here, or just up the street a very little bit."

A click, a new image.

The Ladies' Tea Society saw a sepia toned picture from a century and more before, here in their own town.

"Note we have a dirt street, we can see light wagon ruts here and here" -- she used the ruler as a pointer, without actually touching the sheet -- "behind these figures we have the Sheriff's office, which stands today where it did then."

She smiled at the audience, turned to look at the image, then turned back.

"I like mine better," she admitted with a smile; there were smiles and nods in return.

"Now" -- another click, another image, magnified.

"Please notice this first figure, on your far left: this man is tall and slender, and due to the limitations of photography in the day, we can't see the colors. My research indicates his mare -- here -- is a bright copper color, just like my own Cannonball" -- she smiled -- "indeed, this is Sheriff Linn Keller, and that is his Cannonball."

A high-school girl raised her hand from the second row, asked "Is that why you named yours Cannonball?" and Willamina laughed.

"Actually not," she admitted, "but story at eleven." She turned and indicated the second figure. "This fellow, holding the reins of this good looking Appaloosa stallion and scowling at the camera" -- she made a face like a carven idol, which brought another ripple of laughter -- "may look familiar to you.

"Photography in that day used long exposure times, which gave a phenomenal detail when enlarged, and if we enlarge this one" -- another button, another click, and suddenly a lean young man with pale eyes stood almost life size on the hanging sheet, reins in one hand and a rifle balanced in the other.

"This is the Sheriff's firstborn son Jacob Keller," Willamina said. "Note his six point star -- this is why ours are all six-points -- does he look at all familiar to you?"

"That's Will," a voice gasped from near the back row.

"Certainly looks like him, doesn't it?" Willamina smiled. "I'll be really honest, when I took a magnifying glass and looked closely at these photographs, I got kind of scared. Want to know why?"

She dropped her eyes to the table, placed a delicate, gloved fingertip on the red-plastic button, pressed.

Another life-size enlargement.

"The detail in these photographs is good enough to actually see the eyes."

Willamina placed the ruler on the table, stepped over beside the projected image of the third figure.

There was a collective intake of breath.

Two women stood before them: one on the screen, and one in the flesh.

They were of identical height, and they both stood the same: when Willamina lowered her head a few degrees, her pale eyes and the pale eyes of the figure on the screen had the identical, I'm-going-to-kick-your-camera-down-the-street expression.

Same hair style.

Same gown.

Willamina held the pose for several long seconds, then broke the spell with a laugh and a dancer's side-step: she turned, flaring her skirt, pressed the button again, returning to the first photograph.

"I have letters and diaries, journals and newspaper articles from the period," she said, ignoring the ache in her chest, "and as you can imagine, healing up from my injuries gave me time to return to those studies." She folded her hands very properly before her. "As a matter of fact, although I am still Sheriff, I found it necessary to appoint an interim Sheriff to handle my duties until such time as I am able to seize a charging locomotive, throw it down and stomp it a few times before putting it in irons and stuffing it in the back of a Sheriff's cruiser."

Not a few of them remembered her doing just that to a bruiser of a brawler, right in the middle of the street; her moves had been swift, savage and effective, and as this was done in the presence of some truly rough characters, it helped establish her reputation, and that of her department as a whole.

Especially when she slammed the door on the cruiser, stomped around to the other side and planted her knuckles on her hips and declared, "I've got men a head and a half taller than me, men half again as broad at the shoulder, men who can pick up the back of that cruiser and make it look easy. Now if a skinny little girl like ME can do THAT to HIM, think of what my DEPUTIES can do!"

The Ladies' Tea Society remembered this, and considered this pale-eyed woman and the image of another pale-eyed woman, in a gown of identical cut, on the screen.

"I always did enjoy re-enacting events out of history," Willamina said with a feminine tilt of her head. "It helps us understand the foundation on which our present and our future are built. You recognize my twin brother William as looking very much like Jacob in this photograph." She raised a hand, gestured to the image; eyes followed, watching closely.

"According to the literature, Jacob Keller was the very image of his father.

"Given this information, and given that my twin brother was recently appointed as interim Sheriff" -- she stepped back one long pace from the sheet -- "I give you Sheriff Keller!"

A lean lawman with the beginnings of an iron grey mustache stepped out from behind the screen.

He wore a six point star and a Stetson, he carried an engraved '73 rifle balanced in his left hand, and he too was the very image of the man projected before them, saving only that his mustache had yet to reach anywhere near handlebar length.

"Again, in perusing the literature, we find that Sarah Lynne McKenna here" -- she pressed the button again -- "was not only the Old Sheriff's daughter, she was a hellraiser and a troublemaker from the word go. She was accomplished at costuming and at disguise, and the Firelands District Court recruited her as an Agent."

Another press, another click; they saw a dignified older man with thinning hair and a spade-cut beard sitting at a broad desk, cigar between his fingers and a frown on his face.

"This is the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler, long a friend of the Old Sheriff, and his superior officer back during what he called That Damned War."

Willamina turned, pressing her fingertips together: "I'm sorry, I don't have anyone that looks like the Judge."

"We have to talk," Will said quietly, and Willamina shot him a sharp look.

"Excuse me," she smiled at the audience, crossed in front of the projection, rippling like a ghost through the projected characters.

Will leaned down, said something in a quiet voice.

Willamina's eyes widened and those in the front two rows were close enough to see them go pale and hard.

She nodded, turned so only Will could see her face: he nodded, gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, then touched his hat brim to the audience:

"Ladies," he said quietly, and strode down the center aisle, between the padded, folding chairs, and they heard his boot heels, quick and urgent, as he made his exit.

"My brother is handling a situation," she said, "that came up from my research."

She pressed a button; it was another view of the Sheriff's office, but wider, and showed the funeral parlor.

"This is Digger's funeral parlor," Willamina said, nodding to the image. "Note the height, three stories. Most buildings had a false front to make them look bigger. We still see those in coal mining towns in Appalachian Ohio.

"The Sheriff's Office was built of logs," she smiled, "and the Old Sheriff referred to it as his 'little log fortress.' Unfortunately,there were those in that day who wished the Sheriff harm, just like today."

She raised a palm to her bodice, frowned, took a few moments.

"Do excuse a frail woman her infirmities," she said in a pained voice, "but healing up is kind of hard work."

"Sheriff, are you okay?" a concerned voice asked, and Willamina leaned against the table, nodded.

"Just give me a moment," she gasped.

 

I slid the steel plate aside, shoved the octagon barrel out and set the front bead just under a man's breastbone.

He was on the roof of the Mercantile and he had a small bundle of powder of dynamite, I did not care which, and he raised it up like he was ready to throw it.

They'd been putting shotgun fire through my roof and I reckon they wanted to shoot me if they could, and blow me to hell if they couldn't, and this man was ready to do just that, only I beat him to it.

He fell back when that 500 grain freight train caught him just under the wish bone and I saw that three stick bundle fly back out of his hand and someone grabbed it and yelled all a-panic and slung it off to the side, toward the back of the funeral parlor, throwing it high and hard and that suited me fine.

I looked around and saw there was more of them.

Well, I'd planned for this.

I fetched the hammer back and the set trigger, I yanked the lever down and the brass kicked out and trailed smoke as it spun slowly to the floor, I thumbed in a fresh round and raised the breech block and looked for what I wanted.

I saw it, and I smiled, and I reckon the smile would not have been pleasant to look at, for I was intent on sending men to hell.

I touched the front trigger and drove another government issue slug into where I knew that "Dinamit Boom" was hid on the roof.

I knew it was there, and I knew it had scrap metal and pistol balls backing it, and I knew when it went off it would be like a canister round, and I was right.

I'd put three of them up there.

One of 'em just blew off a chunk of cornice and there were screams and I reloaded and drove that second one and it went off too.

I hauled that heavy octagon barrel back in and shoved it into the gun rack, I grabbed up two double guns and a bandolier of shotgun shells and I long-legged it out of the front door and I was ready for a young war.

I was ready and they weren't and that worked to my advantage.

 

Acting Sheriff Will Keller grabbed the man's shoulder and pulled him back.

"Go downstairs," he said quietly, urgently, "and tell the fire chief I need him up here, then I need you to pull back one half mile. Do not approach until you hear either a hell of an explosion or we come and get you."
"Whattaya mean?" the surprised workman blurted.

Will sighed patiently. The man's partner had more sense than this knucklehead; he'd seen what looked like sparkly coated highway flares bundled up and he ignored the double handful of lead balls that rolled out of the tore-open hole and he'd come down to grab the nearest lawman he could fine.

His partner, on the other hand, stubbornly kept digging and hacking and prying at rotted wood.

Now a pale eyed cop was telling him he had to leave the job.

It wasn't until he realized the words "Until you hear a hell of an explosion" that it sank in ... maybe he'd best listen to this pale eyed badge packer.

"Fire chief," he repeated.

"Yep," Will nodded. "Name's Finnegan, he's got a crooked nose and he drives a big red truck."

"Yeah, I'll tell him," he muttered in reply, looked at the gleaming crystals they'd uncovered.

"Nitroglycerin," Will smiled. "Crystallized nitro is just as unstable as the liquid stuff. I'd suggest you walk nice and quiet so you don't shiver the stuff."

 

"My honored ancestor," Willamina said in a schoolteacher's voice, "was a man who planned ahead.

"He knew his little log fortress was proof against anything short of a pack howitzer, unless you could slip a lucky bullet between the logs and through the chinking, but the roof was made of much lighter material." Another click; a photograph of the interior of the old Sheriff's office.

"I have that desk, by the way," she said as an aside. "You can see from this interior view the walls are made of dressed logs. Actual lumber was quite expensive and as they wanted law and order in this young and wild territory, they built the Sheriff's office fast and cheap." She stopped, tapped a thoughtful finger against her cheek. "I knew some classmates like that in high school," she murmured, then blinked and waved her hand.

"Forget I said that," she smiled, to the amusement of the ladies present.

"This worked to the Old Sheriff's advantage. Simple, quick and heavy duty.

"He was aware that the roof was the weak point, and that the building next door -- three stories tall -- would be a possible avenue of attack.

"He built gun ports into the sidewall with sliding steel plates to cover the ports, but he also installed what he called 'Dinamit Booms' on the roof -- I think it was without the owner's knowledge." She smiled again as if sharing a secret. "We don't have much information about Digger, save only from the Sheriff's comments in his several journals, but I don't think a business owner would be happy knowing explosives and shrapnel charges had been installed in his lateral cornice."

A familiar figure stepped into the room, raised a summoning hand.

Willamina raised a finger to the Ladies' Tea Society, raised her chin to the visitor: "Confirmed?"

He nodded.

"How far?"

"Half mile."

Willamina clapped her hands, for all the world like a schoolmarm commanding the attention of her class.

"Ladies, I regret to inform that one of the Old Sheriff's dinamit booms has been found on the roof of the building opposite. As we wish to be cautious about these sorts of things, we are evacuating to a distance of one-half mile." She looked out the window and saw amber clearance lights coast to a stop. "We have a bus outside that will take us to the high school, where we will continue our presentation, or at least have something to eat." She turned off the projector. "If you could exit out the back, please, and get on the bus, this is not a drill."

 

Chief Finnegan whistled.

"Now that's gonna be a problem," he muttered.

"Yeah, I know a trick," Will said thoughtfully.

"A trick?"

"One Willamina told me about. A buddy of hers run into something similar back in Chauncey."

"Where the hell is Chauncey?"

"Athens County. Southeast Ohio. Coal mining town. They were tearin' open a wall on a company house and found a gunny sack of what used to be 60% Red Diamond or some such. They took a look at it and tiptoed out and evacuated to a mile or so."

"How did they handle that one?"

Will laughed, looked at the shining nitroglycerin crystals furring the bundled dynamite sticks. "They took a garden sprayer and soaked 'em with a gentle Diesel fuel mist."

"Ah-huh," the Chief replied skeptically. "Then what happened?"

"They set the place a fire and let it burn."

They both looked around, then looked at one another.

"I don't reckon we can burn this one."

"No."

"You got a garden sprayer?"

The Chief rose, his knees crackling in protest. "I can get one!"

 

I came out of the Sheriff's office and shot two of them right off the bat.

When a man comes out of a doorway with a shotgun in each hand and he sends two of 'em a swarm of shot right in the gut, why, that'll shiver the resolve of anyone else who wants some of the fight.

One grazed my arm just enough to burn and the other went somewhere, I don't know where, they shot at me and missed and I shot at them and didn't.

I took a couple running steps to my right and poked that right hand double gun near to straight up and drove that one fellow who was leanin' over the roof takin' a shot at me.

I recall he dropped his rifle and collapsed and hung over the edge of the roof.

I tossed the shotgun ag'in the boardwalk and broke open t'other and reloaded the right hand barrel and the front door swung open on Digger's place and I fetched that double gun up and Digger's eyes went wide as saucers and I drove that reloaded right hand barrel and Digger just plainly collapsed.

The man behind him did, too, probably because I took out the middle of his face.

I grabbed Digger and pulled him hard out of my way and I drove into his parlor and swung around lookin' and all I saw was polished boxes and a bloody mess, and part of me thought "I ain't cleanin' that up," and I broke open the double gun and reloaded that right hand barrel.

I come to the stairs and I'd took a grip well forward of the fore end and went up them stairs muzzle first.

Nobody was in my way.

I swung back and forth on the second floor and nobody was there.

I thrust them twin gun muzzles up towards the third and up them stairs I went at a dead run.

I come out on the roof ready to tear into a regiment, I was fired up and war sang in my veins and death peered at the world through the deep black eyes in my left grip and I come out and swung around and nobody was on their feet.

Three lay on their backs and only one wasn't tore up too bad, one that I'd shot with that buffalo rifle, and I figured if I rolled him over his back would have a bigger hole than the one I'd punched in his front.

One of 'em was still breathin'.

My dinamit boom made a mess of him and they was no way he was going to survive those injuries.

I knelt beside him, shoved my hat back, then I come up off that knee and made a fast circuit of the roof, gun up and ready to kill, and I made sure nobody else was nowhere to be seen.

I kicked myself for that moment of weakness.

I'd let my guard down and if someone was going to way lay me that would have been the moment.

The Lord looks out after fools and children and I was a damned fool, had there been one left alive likely I'd have been killed when I went down on one knee beside that last man breathin'.

 

Willamina felt something nudge her leg and she looked down at The Bear Killer, looking hopefully up at her.

"I can't pick you up," she whispered, and a grey trouser leg with a black stripe down its length stopped beside the curly-furred pup.

Chief Taylor squatted, picked up the wiggling, tail-swinging Mountain Mastiff pup.

Willamina looked up, toward the roof where she could just see her twin brother's head against the darkening sky.

The Chief's hand rested lightly on her shoulder.

"You should go," he said quietly.

"I know," she said, and he heard the regret in her voice. "We have to have a living Sheriff."

"He'll be fine."

"Don't lie to me," she hissed. "I know what's up there."

She turned, gripped the hand rail, gritted her teeth and took the first long step up into the idling school bus.

 

Will tightened down the nozzle, gave it an experimental squirt, tightened it down a little more, nodded.

"You're being awfully particular about that," the Fire Chief observed.

"Those crystals are as touchy as liquid nitro," Will murmured, setting the pump sprayer square beside his polished Wellington boot and giving the handle another half dozen pumps. "If I hit it with a stream, it might be shock enough to detonate."

"What about when you sprinkle it?"

"That's why I'm using the finest mist this thing will make." He looked at Chief Finnegan. "You might want to get some distance, Chief."

Finnegan shrugged. "I'll stick around."

"It gets worse," Will said, pulling up a five gallon bucket and turning it upside down. "If you're stayin', grab a bucket seat and get comfortable, this will take some time."

Will parked his backside, closed his eyes and set his teeth, then he opened his eyes and carefully, delicately, began to mist the exposed nitroglycerin crystals.

 

Richard nodded. "I'll take 'em all," he said, pulling out his wallet.

The solemn faced woman behind the bakery counter set two boxes on top of the glass case and bent, quickly emptying the trays in the case into two more boxes.

Flipping the lids shut, she thumped them on top, pulled down the two empties, filled them quickly and without ceremony.

"Keep your money," she said. "We're evacuating. People get nervous, they want to eat. Take these and get out of here."

Richard nodded, thumbed his wallet back in his hip pocket. "Thank you, Betty."

"Yeah." She pulled her apron strings loose. "I got to shut off the ovens." She turned, looked at the retired agent.

"Your wife," she said. "Is she staying?"

Richard looked down at Jacob, back to the baker.

"Probably."

"Damn that," Betty hissed. "We need her alive."

 

I spent some time afterward helping the Daine boys rebuild Digger's cornice.

Once I rebuilt the ones I'd detonated, why, we got them framed in and finished and I personally put a good coat of paint on them.

I'd told Digger them outlaws that wanted to kill me was what blew hell out of the side of his roof and he believed me, probably because that one fellow I shot donated his bundle of powder sticks to the man behind, who threw it towards the back and blew out all the windows on the back of Digger's building.

I replaced those too.

Now Digger is no more honest than he absolutely has to be, and he happily accepted my charity when I said I felt bad that them fellows causin' damage to his building when 'twas me they wanted to damage.

I am not at all ashamed I lied to the man in order to get them shrapnel bombs in place.

I was the only one that knew about 'em, other than the Daine boys, and I trusted them moonshining Kentucky carpenters more than I trusted myself.

God be praised, I never had to use them again.

 

Willamina positioned the projector, turned it on, and the glass plate image of the little one room schoolhouse filled the screen.

"I don't have anything about this one," she said, "other than it's a neat picture." She turned to face the Ladies' Tea Society, whose numbers were considerably increased by a good percentage of Firelands' population. "This is Emma Cooper, wife of town marshal Jackson Cooper. As tall as the Old Sheriff was, Jackson Cooper was a full head taller, half again broader and equally stronger." She smiled. "Education went to eighth grade and it's few high school graduates today that can pass the eighth grade graduation exam of that era."

Willamina turned to face the growing crowd, her fingers steepled and angled down.

"We had a home invasion here in the county, you're all aware of what happened with the attempted kidnappings. There is nothing new under the sun, and the Old Sheriff dealt with violent home invasions back in the 1880s. If we refer to Scripture" -- she smiled -- "we read that the criminals must tie the man of the house and make him helpless before they can plunder the household, and so it is with criminals."

Her smile was unchanged but her eyes were noticeably harder.

"In recent memory, an attempt was made on my life. I am effective in my office and the intent was to remove an effective agent so the criminal element could benefit. They tried the same thing when my Great-Great-Grandfather was Sheriff.

"He knew" -- she frowned at the laptop's screen, another click, and the image of the log Sheriff's office -- "he knew the log structure was proof against incoming firre, but the roof was a weak link."

Another click, again Digger's funeral parlor: Willamina was plowing the same ground twice, she knew, but there were many new faces in the room, and she knew the community needed answers.

"My honored ancestor planted shrapnel bombs along the adjacent roof that would detonate when shot. I found out about these from my research and a careful examination was begun." She paused to slowly look over the silent, tense and very attentive community.

"They are still there."

She took a breath, paused as a lightning bolt lanced through her healing breastbone.

"Dynamite will crystallize out its component nitroglycerin. It's like ether -- ethyl ether does the same thing, I could tell you about that too -- but the one we found is being deactivated right now."

She recognized the man who raised his hand -- he was the only mechanic in town she trusted with her Jeep -- she nodded to him and he asked, "How do you deactivate nitroglycerin?"

"You don't," Willamina said bluntly. "All you can do is make it less sensitive."

"Why not call in the bomb squad?"

"No time," Willamina snapped. "Those crystals are touchy. A change in temperature, a change in air pressure -- an oncoming storm front with the drop in barometric pressure -- can set 'em off. We find it, we have to act on that moment, or risk an explosion."

"Who is taking care of it?" her mechanic persisted.

Willamina looked back to the laptop screen, made a selection, pressed the button.

The image of the Old Sheriff appeared on the screen behind her.

"My twin brother William," she said in a small voice.

 

William waited until the bundle was saturated, then he leaned back, working his shoulders to get the tension out.

"Is this the only one?" Chief Finnegan asked.

Will froze and he felt his inside go cold.

"I don't know," he said slowly, and he tasted copper as his eyes scanned the edge of the roof.

He picked up the crowbar.

"I reckon we'd best find out."

"Wait." The fire chief raised a cautioning hand. "How did we find out about this one?"

Will stopped and the chief saw the Acting Sheriff's eyes smile: he switched the nail bar to his other hand, clapped a delighted hand on Finnegan's shoulder: "Chief, you're a genius and the beer's on me once we're done!"

 

Willamina frowned, slipped a lace-gloved hand into a hidden pocket, brought out her cell phone.

"Keller."

"Sheriff Keller, this is Sheriff Keller," Will said, and Willamina couldn't help but smile a little at her twin's tease.

"Talk to me."

"One is soaking down. Are there others?"

"Stand by one." Willamina put her phone on speaker, set it on the table, her presentation forgotten: she sorted quickly through the journals, stopped, opened one, ran her finger down the hand written page.

The bullet-holed Ace of Spades fluttered to the floor, unnoticed.

Willamina wet her lips and her eyes paled a little.

"Will?"
"Right here."

"Total of three. Look center and both ends, maybe ten feet in from the street and five from the back corner."

"On it, will advise."

Will darkened his phone, slid it back into his shirt pocket, buttoned the flap.

"Chief," he said, "I'll need more Diesel fuel."

 

Willamina dropped her head, then she carefully closed the journal, placed it aside, and the room was absolutely silent as the pale-eyed woman in the electric-blue McKenna gown leaned against the table, her gloved hands closing into tight and trembling fists.

"I," she said slowly, "want to rip someone's GUTS out!"

She raised her head and smiled crookedly.

"But right now I would take a chocolate doughnut."

"HEY, GET'cher DOUGHnuts!" a cheerful, Italian-accented voice called. "We gotta-da DOUGH-nuts! We gotta-da CHOCK-lit, Van-NEL-la, POWder SUG-gar, FRITters, Gar-Ran-Teed Good and No Calories!"

Willamina looked up at the grinning, black-mustached Italian barber at the back of the room as he clattered a well-laden tray to the table top.

"COF-fee! We gotta-da COF-fee! Black as a murderer's conscience, hotter'n a two dollar pistol and bitter as a widow's tears! Milk! We gotta-da cold pure milk! Come an' gettit, we gotta-da reFRESHments!"

Willamina straightened raised both hands with forefingers extended, gave a most unladylike whistle and made a crack-the-whip motion with both hands: "You heard the man, feed bag's on!" she called cheerfully.

Tony swam against the current, pastries in one hand and a steaming foam cup of coffee in the other: he set the coffee down, handed the pale-eyed woman a chocolate doughnut and a napkin.

"How's-a ma girl?" he asked, and Willamina hugged the blocky Italian.

"I'm scared," she whispered. "But thank you."

He very carefully held her -- he knew what it was to heal from broken ribs -- and he whispered back, "Will's-a da good man."

"I know."

"He's-a da careful man."

"He'd better be," Willamina whispered firecely, and she drew back a little: pale eyes looked into black eyes, and he saw her eyes were bright with tears unshed.

"He'd better be careful," Willamina whispered. "If he gets himself killed I'll never speak to him again!"

Tony laughed and hugged her to him again.

 

Will pried up another board.

"Chief, could you have some lights brought up?"

"Did you find something?"

"Yeah."

The fire chief twisted the half-watt Motorola from its worn leather holster, talked with the dispatcher, looked at Will.

"Your dispatcher wants to know if you want EOD."

"What I want is a flying saucer to cut the top story off this building and take out in the middle of nowhere," Will snapped, then he frowned. "I'm sorry, you didn't deserve that."

"People in hell want icewater," Finnegan replied quietly, "but the best I can do is the bomb squad."

"Yeah," Will said. "Send 'em."

He waited until he had lights to work with before removing any more lumber, and it was a sound decision, for this bundle nearest the street was not only crystallized, but the crystals were welded to the underlying wood.

By the time the bomb squad arrived -- they came in by air, landing at the county airport -- all three devices were exposed, only two were crystallized, and these two were well saturated with Diesel fuel.

 

It was nearly dawn before all three shrapnel bombs were removed to a safe location.

By noon the next day, life was returned to normal; repairs were underway on the roof of the building adjacent the Sheriff's office, the bakery did a land office business, and Will sat behind the ancient desk, both eyes feeling like they were full of sand, and by his own description there was a scraping sound when he walked -- "my hip pockets are a-draggin'," he joked, and finally he gave up.

He stood, leaned tiredly against the desk, then straightened, squared his shoulders, opened the door to the Sheriff's sanctum and went out into the lobby.

"Sharon," he said, fatigue thick in his voice, "is there anything pressing for me right now?"

The dispatcher fished about in her huge hairdo, brought out a pencil she hadn't seen for a few days: "No, Boss, not a thing."

She gave him a saucy look and for a moment he saw her as she must have been in high school -- mini skirt, big hair, too much makeup, cracking her gum -- and he nodded.

"God willing I'm going home for a nap," he mumbled.

"Rest easy," Sharon smiled. "I won't call unless it's fire, murder or the cows are out."

"Yeah." He rubbed his eyes. "If Sis calls, tell her the Amazons kidnapped me or something."

"In your dreams," Sharon muttered.

"Beg pardon?"
"I said dream on, cream puff," Sharon snapped. "Now go home and get some rest! You're ready to fall over!" She frowned as the phone rang. "Do I have to make all the decisions around here?" She made a shooting motion with one hand, picked up the phone with the other. "Sheriff's Office."

Will froze, waiting: he had this awful feeling the Gods of Fatigue were intent on torturing him further.

Sharon looked up, dropped the mouthpiece a little. "It's your wife. Should I tell her about the Amazons?"

 

 

 

 

 

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23. THE SIGN

 

A feminine hand dipped a steel nib quill in good India ink.

The quill was well older than she.

She wiped it against the inside of the ink-bottle's neck to remove the excess and wrote deliberately, steadily, dipping the pen after every few letters; she filled the journal's page, considered for a moment, then turned a little to catch the light across the paper.

At least half the ink was still shiny.

She carefully picked up the blotting paper, floated it over the page, let it drift straight down onto the freshly written, high-linen-content paper, then she picked up the wide, heavy rocker she'd bought at a flea market for fifty cents and pressed it firmly on what she'd just written, taking it once toward herself and once away, then she lifted the blotting paper.

Her words were still clear and legible -- not as rich a black, kind of grey now, but a lasting record of her words.

She couldn't sleep.

Her healing breast bone ached -- a deep ache, a miserable feeling like the pounding of an old tooth ache that was about to go into abscess.

She refused to use the narcotic pain killers she'd been prescribed.

Her mother was an alcoholic and Willamina recognized it was possible that she carried a genetic predisposition to addiction, and so she drank sparingly and used pain pills if there was absolutely no other choice.

It was full dark out; her only light was a single beeswax candle, one she'd frozen for a week on the rumor that it would burn longer.

So far it hadn't.

Her twin brother, the acting Sheriff, said earlier that day that his butt was dragging, he was that tired, and she understood exactly what he meant ... though while her fatigue was from not sleeping due to her own hard headed contrariness, fighting the pain without the assistance of certain narcotic assists, her twin brother's exhaustion was honest fatigue was from being up all night while he and the bomb squad dismantled devices planted by a man they all agreed was brilliant, forward-thinking, proactive, clever, and if he'd been there while they were tearing down his handiwork and hauling it to a remote location in a blast trailer, they would have cheerfully drowned him in the nearest spitoon.

I have to do something even if it's wrong.

Willamina smiled in the darkness.

Her father's words, come back to her over the years, the memory of the young girl she'd been.

She closed her eyes against the pain, clenched her teeth again, then slowly, painfully, rose from the swivel chair and paced slowly to the kitchen.

She opened a cupboard, gripped a bottle, brought it out: she did not need eyes to find a glass, and with the faint moonlight reflected on the counter top, she poured two fingers of something water clear and not over 30 days old.

She corked the bottle, set it back, closed the cupboard door, laid a hand on her breastbone and sagged against the counter.

"I give up," she whispered, her head hanging a little.

She pushed away from the counter, went to the kitchen table, to the white plastic bottle with the pharmacy label.

It was the only pill bottle in the room.

She pushed down on the lid, twisted, reached in a finger and raked out one white, oval, Plaster of Paris pill.

She capped the bottle, flipped the pill in her mouth, grabbed the glass of Two Hit John and drank.

Now, damn you, she thought, if this does not work ...

She left the thought unfinished, returned to the swivel chair.

It hurt less to sit up than it did to lay back.

She didn't want to slouch on the sofa -- that made her back ache -- it hurt like blue hell to lay down, with the shifting stress as she went from vertical to horizontal.

No, she would sit here until the pain left her, then she might try something else, or maybe even lay down, if her relief was great enough.

She willed herself to relax, impatient for the relief she hoped would come and feared wouldn't, knowing it takes a half hour for meds taken by mouth to start to work.

Maybe if I read, she thought, reaching for the nearest Journal.

 

The Old Sheriff was just that.

Old.

His son was grown and a grandfather now, his firstborn long dead in another damned War; the Old Sheriff was grandfather and great-grandfather, a smiling man with a silver beard and a ready laugh, but always a hint of sadness.

The young man sharing his table knew why.

"Young man" is a relative term, he knew; compared to the Old Sheriff, Lightning qualified, though most would not consider him young.

"Lightning" was both title and name there in the mountain community.

Few now remembered his father, who was also known by that name, the honorable title given the telegrapher, the Keeper of the Key, the brass pounder who linked one community to another with wizard's pulses over copper wires.

It was a hard anniversary for him, and maybe that's why he came out to visit.

The Old Sheriff knew what a hard anniversary was.

His own wife, dead long years now, was still fresh and young in his memory: not a day passed but that he didn't miss her and miss her terribly, but he chose to remember the happiness they'd had, rather than the loss he felt.

His daughters, too, moved off and gone, one to Europe, where she'd married the son of a Count -- there was no word from her for two years, and then he learned via telegram from the German Embassy in Washington of the Count's murder, and of his daughter Sarah's death.

His faithful old Bear Killer, the Bear Killer grown now from a pup, was old and stiff like the old man beside whom he dozed these days; it was said the two of them spent sunny afternoons in a place known locally as High Lonesome, a barren shelf where nobody else went; sometimes they prowled the night, as if neither could sleep, and it was said a white wolf walked with them, though this was generally discounted as loose talk.

This day, though, the Sheriff talked in a quiet voice, and Lightning could hear a smile hidden in his words, and he smiled a little, kind of a sad smile of his own, for the Old Sheriff was talking about Lightning's father.

"I remember his last day with the Union Navy," Linn said, his eyes distant.

"They'd just fought ... hell, I don't know what engagement it was. They were on a small river and were nearly overrun, and your father made good use of a pair of LeMat revolvers." Linn shifted in his chair, the way a man will when his old bones are giving him aches.

The Bear Killer was stretched out in front of the stove, looking like a three-dimensional rug, intent on nothing more strenuous than soaking up heat radiating from the cast iron cooker.

"The river was shallow and they almost grounded, but they got free ... I think it was a sand bar." He frowned, reached for his coffee, not so much to drink it, as to hold it, to soak its warmth into his aching finger joints: arthritis ran in his Mama's side of the family, and unfortunately he'd inherited it.

"The boat shivered and he was leaned out over the edge with his pistol extended" -- his own arm was outstretched, as if to take a shot -- "and they hit something and it shivered his hand loose from the stay he was hanging onto and over he went."

Lightning leaned forward a little, listening intently, picturing the scene.

"When he realized he was going in, he jumped and kept his legs under him.

"Lucky enough the bottom was solid and he went in over his head but that LeMat pistol was still sticking out of the water, so I laid belly down on the deck and grabbed his wrist and the boat pulled him loose from the bottom and up he came."

He grinned.

"I think it was the last battle his boat fought, and it wasn't long after that the war was over, but I'll never forget the sight of that pistol sticking straight up and your Pa's hand wrapped around it!"

They chuckled together, and their chuckles kind of died out, and the two sat in companionable silence for a minute.

"I miss him," Lightning admitted.

"I miss him too," Linn agreed. "Always did like that skinny old coot."

"He respected you too."

Linn nodded, and Lightning saw another memory in the man's pale eyes.

"He come out with a Minie ball musket one time. I don't recall the occasion but he come a-boilin' out of that telegraph office with his war bag slung over his shoulder, that Enfield in both hands and fire in his eyes." He leaned back, stopped short of laughing, and nodded at something only he could see. "He was ready to come hell-a-tearin' to help me." He shook his head. "Couldn't sing to save his backside, though. At least he knew it. In church he'd stand and hold the hymnal but he held off singin' for fear of throwin' ever'one else off."

Lightning nodded. "I recall."

"Today's his deathday, isn't it?"

Lightning nodded. "It is."

"A black anniversary." His voice was more of a tired sigh.

"Yeah."

"I wondered how ... every year ... I wondered how I was going to get over missin' him."

"You don't," came the flat-voiced reply. "You don't ever stop missin' 'em. You realize people die and you can't stop it so you live. You," he said, leaning forward and thrusting his head toward the telegrapher, "live."

He leaned back.

"Esther can't hold her grandchildren, so I do. Lightning can't taste good coffee anymore, so I do that for him. Joseph" --

Linn looked away and Lightning saw his hands close, then open slowly.

"Joseph won't ..."

He opened his mouth to continue, then closed it and shook his head, and it took him a little while to finish the sentence.

"Joseph won't ride that bull anymore ..."

A smile quivered at the corners of his mouth, then fell to the floor, forgotten, as the pale eyed, retired Sheriff looked across the table at his guest.

"When he was a little boy he used to ride that bull calf." He gave kind of a hiccup, turned his head, turned back. "He was too young to say Bull Calf. It came out Boocaffie and ... that's what they named it." He managed a faint smile this time. "Even when it was a long horned mossy back old bull that followed him around like a pet dog."

Lightning picked up his coffee mug, drained it, and Linn did the same.

"I reckon we look at the mountains and we eat good food and ride good horses because they can't and we still can." He thrust out his jaw, considering. "Sarah once told me we are surrounded by a great cloud of believers -- I know Scripture says so -- but she allowed as that great cloud was made of our honored dead."

The dignified older man with the white beard shook his head.

"I never saw any sign of it. Was she or Esther here" -- he hesitated --"they'd surely give me some sign."

 

Willamina's eyes were closed; her chair was back against the wall, she was relaxed, one hand on the closed Journal on her lap.

The beeswax candle was still burning, casting its steady light across her and across a darker shadow on the other side of the room.

The pain was considerably reduced and she finally -- finally! -- was relaxed enough to sleep.

She dreamed, and she dreamed of an old retired lawman with a white beard, and of a great black mountain Mastiff that snored in front of the wood stove, and she dreamed of a skinny sailor desperately thrusting his arm straight up to keep his pistol from drowning out, and beside her, stretched out on the floor, a young mountain Mastiff snored gently in the darkness, and across the room, an absolutely huge mountain Mastiff lay on the sofa, and with this curly furred, absolutely huge Mastiff, a dignified old man with a snow white beard: the pair sat silently and watched the old lawman's great-great-granddaughter, waiting until her eyes were closed before going over to her and laying a gentle hand on her bosom.

He closed his eyes and he took her pain, and then he turned and walked toward the stairs, he and the old black Mastiff, and as they walked, they faded, and were gone.

Willamina never did know exactly when the pain left her, just that she was finally able to relax, and when the pain left, her exhausted body gratefully submerged itself in the first good sleep she'd had in better than a week.

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24. "BEDSHEETS, DAMN YOU! AND I WANT 'EM CLEAN!"

Jacob absolutely loved the sound of his Mama's voice as she read to him.

He loved it more that she was paying attention to him.

In this, he was little different from the black, curly-furred pup that lay happily beside him, flat on his back, paws in the air, eyes closed with pleasure at yet another belly rub.

Willamina thought for a brief moment on the similarities between the two: how they were both enthusiastic, energetic, each had a bottomless appetite and a bladder the size of a walnut, and both responded well to the sound of her voice.

She turned back to the Journal, to the page marked with an Ace of Spades with a cloverleaf hole shot though its middle, and ran her finger down the hand written page, down the words her Great-Great-Grandfather wrote with his own hand.

" 'I rode to Carbon Hill,' " she read, " 'to see my old friend Law and Order Harry Macfarland, and it kind of went downhill from there.' "

 

Acting Sheriff Will Keller sat slowly on the comfortable chair in front of the Fire Chief's desk.

The Chief pulled another chair up beside Will and sat as well.

"Tell me what happened," he said quietly, and Will did.

"Chief," he said, "I delivered my first baby today."

Chief Finnegan grinned and squeezed Will's shoulder. "And you lived through it. Congratulations."

Will was still a little pale, he'd taken time to change into a clean uniform and wash his face, but he had need to talk about what happened, and he knew the Chief was a veteran paramedic as well as a good friend -- so he walked into the white-concrete-block fire station and called "Hey Finn! You home?"

 

"How did it go downhill, Mama?" Jacob asked, and The Bear Killer groaned with pleasure and kicked his hind hoppers as Will's exploring fingers found the infamous Tickle Spot.

"Well, you see, it's like this," Willamina drawled in a horribly nasal voice, and they both laughed.

Willamina turned and focused on the hand written page.

 

It was a fine morning for a ride.

It smelled of springtime and of a thousand green growing things, like the world was young and I almost felt young with it.

For a moment I thought I smelled lilacs, and that made me wonder -- lilacs, this high up and this far west? -- then it was gone, maybe my imagination.

My brother and I planted lilacs near Mama's house, back home, and we dug up some daffodils from down by Hatfield's Mill and brought back and planted for her.

She did love them so and it was a good memory, but I did not dwell on it.

Cannonball was in no hurry and neither was I.

The Bear Killer paced easily with us and I kept an eye on the pup.

Had he started to sag or labor I would have fetched him up on the saddle with me.

He generally ended up draped over my front with his head and fore paws over my left shoulder, watchin' the world recede over Cannonball's backside, and my arm around him as if he were a curious child watching our back trail, but he was growin' well and strong and with Cannonball's leisurely pace, why, he kept up with us without any difficulty.

Now once we got to Carbon and I handed my shining copper mare off to the hostler, The Bear Killer waited until she was in a stall, then he hobby-horsed into the straw, turned around three times and folded up his legs and sort of fell straight down right into the bedding and he was sound asleep just that fast.

I tossed the hostler a coin and he grinned, for I was a cash payin' customer and I always over paid the man.

He made a profit and I got the guarantee that Cannonball would be well taken care of, so it worked out for the both of us.

No sooner had I started for the street than a little boy with bare legs and a scared expression come a-runnin' up and grabbed my hand and blurted "Ya gotta come quick, it's Ma," and he pulled so I taken off with him, wondering what in the cotton pickin' I'd got myself into this time.

 

Will bent his head and rubbed his forehead, remembering.

"Sharon called me on the radio. I was a mile from the squad call and she said it would take them several minutes to get there, so I went on in."

Chief Finnegan nodded, listening carefully to more than the man's words.

"When I got there, she was ..."
He smiled thinly, snorted.

"Chief, that poor woman wasn't just pregnant, she looked like an olive on a toothpick!"

Finnegan laughed, nodded. "That's just how my wife looked," he chuckled. "Looked like she was carrying a Mack truck!"

"My wife said a whale," Will agreed.

"Was she in the house?"

"Lucky enough."

"Lucky is right," the Chief sighed. "My first delivery was as a student EMT in ER. The father passed out and banged his head on that tile floor. Mother and child were fine, he was in ICU with a subdural." He shook his head. "Number two and three were twin farm girls. Big Swedish girls they were, one insisted on bringing her husband lunch every day in the field. Delivered her in the shadow of a Massey-Ferguson tractor tire. Her twin sister delivered the next day, the next farm over. I pulled three hay bales together for a delivery table."

"Now that's different," Will laughed.

"She wasn't happy," the Chief grinned. "Those hay prickles stuck up through the sheet and dug into her back."

Will nodded.

"Back to your delivery. What did you see when you first went inside?"

 

The barefoot boy hauled me into what passed for a hotel and up the stairs.

I knew the proprietor and he knew me, and he scowled as the lad came through the door, and I recall seeing his look change from scowl to surprise as the lad towed me upstairs like the tail of a kite.

He shoved open the door and yelled "Hey Ma, I found the doc!" and my heart dropped to about my boot tops, for a woman lay on the bed and it looked like she had a pony under her night gown she was so big and pregnant, and from the look of her sweaty face, she was about to be delivered of that-there pony she was packin'!

 

Willamina paused, reading ahead, carefully excerpting and rephrasing her honored ancestor's words.

His account was factual, accurate, concise, but explicit, and at this stage of her son's understanding, she did not believe he needed to hear about a meconium plug, water breaking, crowning or the emergence sequence: she thought quickly, far more quickly than her carefully enunciated words.

"I stepped back out the door and shouted down the stairs.

'Mactavish!' I roared. 'Damn your tight fisted soul, I need a half dozen bedsheets! I'll buy 'em and I want 'em clean and I want 'em five minutes ago!'

I heard the man's chair legs bang on the floor, for he usually sat rocked back on its hind legs: he would have rocked forward and hit the floor running, for he was a man who liked to make money, and when a known paying customer said he wanted to BUY a half dozen bed sheets, why, he would rattle his hocks.

 

"Rattle his hocks?" Jacob wrinkled his nose, puzzled, and Willamina laughed, reached over and caressed his shining brown hair.

"Do you remember my reading about Sarah, dancing on stage in Denver?"

He nodded.

"Do you remember the girl she was dancing beside said she could shake her trotters on her stage anytime?"

Jacob grinned as the memory returned, bright and fresh.

"Rattle his hocks is kind of like shaking his trotters."

"Okay!" Jacob grinned, delighted at this new understanding.

Willamina turned back to the page, wondering how much trouble her ancestor was going to cause her by reading this to her son.

 

I washed my hands in the cold water and I looked at the boy.

He was maybe nine or ten, he was shifting from one bare foot to the other, he was looking from his Mama to me, and I said "Son, what is your name?"

"Samuel, sir," he said, and I nodded, shaking the water from my hands: I went back to the door and yelled down the stairs, "MACTAVISH!"

Mactavish appeared at the foot of the stairs, a stack of folded linens in his arms.

"TOWELS, DAMN YOU! HOW'S A MAN SUPPOSED TO DRY HIS HANDS? AND HOT WATER!"

Mactavish chugged up the stairs, hugging the folded bedsheets to him like they were precious, and I pulled back into the room.

"Samuel-sir," I said, "fetch that chair over here. We'll need somewhere clean to stack these sheets."

Samuel seized the chair, hauled it noisily over the warped and uneven boards.

"Set 'em there," I instructed the puffing proprietor. "Hot water and a cake of soap."

Mactavish took a look at the panting woman and ran back out of the room like he was fleeing a leper.

I went back over to the woman, took her hand in both mine. "My name is Linn," I said gently. "By what name would you be known?"

"Miriam," she gasped, her hand tightening on mine.

"Pain?" I asked, and she nodded.

"Miriam, how many children have you had already?"

 

"Three," Will said, his eyes wide with the memory, staring at something only he could see.

If his gaze was any more intent, the Chief thought, he'll bore a hole through my desk.

He looked at Finnegan, blinked.

"Chief, I recall my sister saying the more babies they've had, the faster and easier they come."

"Generally," Finnegan nodded.

"When she said she'd had three" -- Will put his hands out like a catcher behind home plate -- "I knew I was in trouble!"

 

Willamina skimmed ahead, paged back, paged ahead again.

"Okay," here he is," she murmured, as if the author had slipped away for a beer and returned.

Jacob looked patiently at his Mama.

The Bear Killer happily pawed at Jacob's idle fingers, mouth open in a canine laugh.

"Your Great-Great-Great Grandfather looked around," she said, "and he could not find anywhere to hook up calf puller, so he knew he would have to deliver this child himself."

"Wasn't there a doctor?" Jacob asked, puzzled. "Howcum they didn't have a hospital?"

Willamina laughed. "The nearest hospital was Firelands. They were in Carbon Hill and the stork was landing, and when the stork starts walking around on the roof, you don't have time for travel."

"Oh."

 

Mactavish said the Marshal was hunting down the doc, and I knew that would not take long, for the town doctor was also the town drunk and frankly I figured the woman was better off with me than with him.

Hell, I've pulled calves and delivered two human babies, though that was a long time ago.

I knew it was really important to have clean hands so when Mactavish fetched up a basin of steaming water I gave my hands a good scrubbin' and then I took a towel and wet it and wrung it and wiped down the woman's face and neck, her wrists and hands, and she was grateful for it: another bellow down the stairs and Mactavish fetched me up two clean pillows and four pillow cases, and I traded out the hot and sweat soaked pillow under her head for a fresh clean one.

Between laborin' pains Miriam told me her husband was drowned just short of a month ago in a river crossin' and they'd lost about all they had, it was just her and her boy now and she didn't know what she would do and her with child and about then the child must've heard her talkin' about it 'cause she snapped her head back into that fresh pillow and my belly tightened up and I knowed just absolute sure it was time.

I was right.

 

"From what my crew tells me," the Chief said slowly, "you had a textbook delivery."

"Yeah," Will said bleakly. "I guess."

The Chief clapped a hand on Will's shoulder. "Textbook normal, no complications, your hands were steady when you clamped and cut the cord."

"They sure didn't feel steady," Will muttered.

"Mine didn't either," Finnegan admitted, "but we got through it." He stood, went around and pulled open one drawer, another.

Will looked up to see him sorting through a file jacket, then he grunted and pulled out a rectangle about the size of a playing card.

He put the file back in the drawer, pulled out a bottle and two glasses, poured something amber and potent and handed one to the acting Sheriff.

"To your first," he said, "nerve tonic for medicinal purposes only."

Will accepted the charity, raised the shot glass, drank.

The Chief handed him the item he'd laid on his desk.

Rectangular, mostly silver, it was obviously reflective.

It was a stork, with a pink swag in its beak.

"You might have seen one of these on the side of our squad."

Will looked at it, nodded.

"You've earned this. Put it on your rig, and here's the matching pin."

Will accepted the pink stork pin.

"Wear it with pride, my friend. You earned that one."

 

"Your Grandfather cut strips off one of the bedsheets to tie the cord," Willamina read, her eyes busy on the page, "and he used a small, very sharp knife he carried ... to cut the cord."

"Where did he carry it?"

"I think that's the one he had behind his collar."

"Oh."

 

Mactavish brought up a number two washtub and I dropped everything in there.

I got the woman cleaned up and the linens changed out and got her as comfortable as I could arrange.

Samuel-sir and I went downstairs and I gave Mactavish to understand that the woman was to be fed and he was not to give her any of that stringy beef, she was to have the best in the house or he would answer to me, and about then, why, here come Law and Order Harry Macfarland and the town doc.

I told the doctor the woman was delivered of her child, the after birth was out and she was all cleaned up and he wouldn't be needed after all.

I paid him for a house call, which delighted the man, I paid Mactavish for his troubles and his supplies, which delighted him as well; the widow, Miriam, ended up with a local rancher who'd lost his wife about a month before, and she invited me to their wedding, so I reckon it all worked out.

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25. "MAMA, WAS GRAMPA EVER YOUNG LIKE ME?"

Willamina laughed as she buttered another slice of toast.

"What?"

Jacob's eyes were big and guileless as he bit into the corner of hot, fragrant, freshly buttered wheat bread.

"Sometimes," Willamina sighed, "I wonder if I was ever young."

Richard gripped her shoulders from behind, carefully, putting only the slightest squeeze for fear of causing her healing chest any further ache.

"You're still young," he murmured, kissing the side of her neck, "and you are beautiful."

"Flattery," she murmured, "will get you everywhere!"

"I'm counting on it."

Jacob paid the two no attention; grownups did that kind of stuff, he knew, and he did his best to ignore it.

A good bowl of oats and the rest of his milk later, Jacob set down his empty glass and looked at his father, thinking he might have better luck with what he had in mind.

"Dad," he said, "how come I have to drink milk?"

"Because you're too young for beer," Richard deadpanned.

"Aw, Dad," Jacob protested. "I like coffee!"

"It'll stunt your growth," Richard said, winking at his wife. "Look what it did to me! If I hadn't started drinking coffee as a child, I would be ten feet six inches by now! Just think what the NBA would pay for my services!"

Jacob looked at his mother and sighed a great, exaggerated sigh, which cut no ice at all with either parent.

The Bear Killer, for his part, was rolled over on his back, hoping for a belly rub: his miscalculation had been to be out of arm's reach, and so in lieu of kind attention, he elected for a nap.

Richard swallowed a bite of toast and said, "You asked about milk."

Jacob's young mind returned like a ball on an elastic string and he turned bright hazel eyes to his father.

"I'll tell you why," Richard said, and his voice was a little quieter, and Jacob knew the man was going to speak of something serious.

He gave his father both eyes and his full attention.

"Do you remember when I fell on the basement stairs?"

"You mean when the whole house shook?"

Richard nodded. "That be the one."

"Mama said you sounded like a wounded bull."

"She also said it registered a 2.5 on the Richter." Richard grinned. "Jacob, when I went down, I hit on my arm -- here, just ahead of the elbow --" -- he picked up an arm and touched the opposite forefinger to the impact point -- "and I caught that right on the edge of the step." He frowned and worked his shoulder a little. "My Mama had milk for us with every meal. No exceptions. We had good strong bones as a result."

"Do you remember when that woman dislocated your shoulder?" Willamina asked, and Jacob heard the hiss of steel behind her words: he looked over at his Mama, and her half-lidded eyes were considerably more pale than they had been.

He swallowed.

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

"When that woman grabbed your arm and pulled as she did," Willamina continued, "had you not a good strong bone structure -- if I hadn't put milk on the table with your every last meal -- your upper arm would have broken at the ball. Your radial nerve would have been sheared and your arm from the shoulder down would be paralyzed." Her words were flat, emotionless, and Jacob's stomach shriveled a little in spite of its full meal.

"Yes, ma'am," he said again in the same small voice.

"You can expect to fall and probably to be hit, struck, thrown, maybe run into and run over. If that happens I want your bones strong enough for you to hit the ground and come up fighting."

"Yes, ma'am."

Richard nodded slowly, thoughtfully.

"Now." Willamina reached over to the napkin holder in the middle of the table, snapped out one of the harvested fast food napkins they hadn't used the night before, dabbed her lips -- "you were asking about your Very Great Granddad and whether he was ever young."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I think we can find out."

Jacob's grin was instant, brilliant and broad, not necessarily in that order.

"In the meantime we need to get you to school. How's the shoulder?"

Jacob worked the joint experimentally, shrugging the injured side. "Kinda aches," he admitted.

"Yeah, I do too," Willamina agreed, tapping her own breastbone very lightly with the tips of two fingers. "You and I are feeling the barometer drop. We'll know when it's going to rain before the National Weather Service!"

 

Willamina would never have admitted to it, but even Cannonball's smooth gait was less than comfortable.

She knew her repaired sternum was knitting nicely, she also knew that any change in stress caused it to ache: she was used to a rigorous round of calisthenics on a daily basis, she was used to doing push-ups to a vigorously-paced version of In the Hall of the Mountain King, loudly and harshly played on what she called the "Gut Bucket Bass" -- orchestral cellos -- her orthopod told her to wait for her bones to knit before stressing them in such a way -- he hadn't believed her description of her daily routine, until Richard quietly told the man that Willamina's regiment put his FBI routine to shame, and she could match him, one-handed, at push-ups any day of the week ... one handed.

She'd only just started back with barn work, stopping only when her husband stopped her, alerted to her increasing pain by the sweat beads popping out on her upper lip and her forehead: frustrated, she'd leaned her forehead against his chest, snarling a little, and he held her carefully and let her snarl, knowing any other woman would be in tears.

Hell, most men would be in tears at that point.

Willamina rode an indirect route home, she and Cannonball and Apple-horse, and it wasn't until she turned Apple-horse into the pasture, where he rolled (which he always did when she pulled off his saddle) and ran (which he always did after rolling), that she led Cannonball back to the mounting block and swung back into the saddle.

She reached down, opened the gate, walked her mare through the metal gate, then Cannonball turned and nosed it shut -- it was a trick Willamina taught her, and at times like this, she was most pleased she had -- she latched the gate, then she turned Cannonball and looked down-pasture, at the distant Apple-horse, on the other side of the ancient, twisted apple trees.

Her Great-Great-Granddad planted those trees, she knew, and he planted them at precise distances and precise intervals, and he planted them in that manner for one reason.

Willamina had not taken advantage of that reason for far too long.

She knew she was going to pay for it afterward, and her eyes were a little more pale than they had been, and Cannonball danced a little under her, sensing her rider's mood.

"All right, girl," she whispered, patting the mare's neck and easing her weight a little more into the stirrups, "show me what you've got!"

Willamina felt the mare's legs surge and the copper coated child of Spanish racing blood, descendant of the Conquistadores' famous mounts, blood of the renowned racing stallion Rey del Sol himself, launched herself like a ball from a field-gun.

Willamina screamed with delight as Cannonball streaked across the meadow like a red arrow from a war-bow, she was a burr on a hound dog's fur as Cannonball slalomed in and out of the trees, and for a moment, for one glorious soaring moment, when Cannonball raised her forehooves from the confining earth and launched herself into low Earth orbit and sailed over the washed-out, gullied run, Willamina was not a rider and Cannonball was not a mount: they were a flying god, one magical creature, and they rode the wind itself.

 

Jacob looked up as Mrs. Dunlap, the school's principal, came to the classroom door: Mrs. Shaver gave the class a sweeping glance, then went over and talked quietly: Jacob tried not to notice that they were looking at him, and it wasn't until the end of the school day that he had any idea why.

Mrs. Shaver handed him a manila envelope and said, "Give that to your mother," and then she smiled warmly and hugged him quickly and said, "Tell her I said you two should enjoy yourselves."

His Mama was waiting for him, outside, she on Cannonball and Apple-horse beside; she slipped the sealed manila into a saddlebag and waited until he was mounted, then the two turned and walked their horses as they always did, and headed home.

"Jacob," Willamina said finally, "do you remember this morning you asked if your Very Great Grampa was ever young like you?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

"How would you like to go to the Ohio country with me and take a look at where he came from?"

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26. FLINT RIFLE

 

Pa trusted me with the rifle.

I took a long breath, eased it out, set that bright front sight just under the groundhog's eye.

The whistle pig had designs on our garden and he'd already et some of it so I reckoned it only fair that he contribute to our cook pot.

Guest of honor, you might say.

Pa made the rifle and Pa taught me its loadin' and its shootin' and when I saw a movement just above the furry garden thief, my finger was but the breadth of two hairs from tickling that light front trigger.

I eased the rifle's sight up, slow and steady, and set it square on that bright and shining doe's eyeball.

The Almighty had set us up with eatin' meat and I was not about to turn Him down, it wouldn't be polite, and I saw movement behind and under and I stopped again.

I'd been holding my breath and I eased it out and I helt real still as I breathed just as quiet as I possibly could.

The fawn blinked and r'ared its head up and started to butt at its Mama just like a goat and that little tail begun to whip around as it got itself a meal and I stayed my shot.

Matter of fact I eased my hand up, dead slow, eased the battery piece forward on that flint lock and then hooked my thumb around the cock before touching the trigger.

The set snapped with a distinct, sharp, metallic CLICK that sounded like someone smacked an iron bar with a blacksmith's hammer, and that doe blinked and her ears swung around huntin' the sound and I saw her wet shiny black nose twitch and she was trying to pick up a scent, any scent out of place.

The groundhog was interested in something green and edible, the fawn was working on its meal, and that doe stamped her forehoof and give kind of a wheezy whistle.

I didn't even blink.

I don't recall how long I knelt there behind that dead fall, just a-watchin', but once that fawn got its belly full and decided it would go wanderin' some other direction and the doe with it, why, I considered that-there groundhog, or started to, only it was gone.

I taken a long, silent breath and let it out, and near to jumped out of my hide when my Pa's hand eased down on my shoulder.

I turned my head slow, for he'd come up silent, the way he generally did, he was low to the ground and I could see those hazel eyes of his was bright and crinkled up a little at the corners and that meant he was just a-mightily pleased.

We waited until that doe was gone and out of sight before I eased the flint cock back to the half cock notch and brought the battery piece back up.

We kind of flowed through the brush, the two of us, and once we were on the other side of the ridge, why, Pa stopped and set down and so did I.

My ears were red and ashamed, for I'd had two real good chances to put meat in the pot and I'd wasted 'em both, and my Pa caught me at it.

He didn't say anythin' of the kind.

He leaned over so I could hear him without he raised his voice any and his breath was warm in my ear and smelt of tobacker the way it usually did.

"I always did like watchin' 'em too," he said, and of a sudden I did not feel near so bad.

 

"This is one of his last Journals," Willamina said thoughtfully. "He wanted to remember ... maybe he wanted to help us remember? -- what it was like when he was your age."

Jacob's gaze was steady, unwavering; he'd been soaking in his Very Great Grampa's words as his Mama read them aloud.

"Jacob, have you ever fired a flint lock?"

"No ma'am," he admitted.

"Tomorrow you will." Willamina closed the book, made a little face, her hand going to her chest the way it did when the ache was upon her. "How's your shoulder?"

"No rain, ma'am," Jacob said, working his arm and shrugging the shoulder a little.

"Mm." His mother's grunt and the nod of her head was her only reply.

"I'll let The Bear Killer out," Jacob said, rising.

"You'll let him back in, too?"

"Yes, ma'am." Jacob's grin was sudden, like the flash of a dark-lantern thrown open in a midnight room, and at mention of his name, the black, curly-furred pup came to his feet, ears pricked, ready for a romp or a belly rub, or -- hopefully -- something to eat.

 

Next day they rode over the break and through a saddle to Hiram's place.

The white bearded old man with the merry eyes greeted the pair, offered them a drink -- Willamina smiled and demurred, Jacob's ears turned red and he grinned shyly, the way a boy will in such moments.

"Your Mama," old Hiram said as he set the bottle back on his work bench, "said you might want to learn about a flint rifle."

"Yes, sir," Jacob said.

"I've got one here that might fit you. You shoot a rifle?"

"Yes, sir."

"You don't shoot these like you do a center fire rifle." Hiram sat in what used to be the driver's seat from a harvested-out school bus, though the seat was now mounted on heavy wood blocking instead of rubber coated steel flooring. "Step over here and I'll show ye."

Jacob walked over to the old man as he reached over to the corner of his work bench and picked up a silver mounted flint rifle, a full stock, late Pennsylvania made with curly wood.

"You shoot right handed or left handed?"
Jacob hesitated. "I'm right handed, sir, but I shoot pistol left handed."

"Hmmm." Hiram considered this. "Is your right eye your master eye, or your left?"

"My right eye, sir."

"You shoot a rifle right handed?"

"Yes, sir, but ..."

Jacob looked at his Mama, clearly uncertain.

"Sir, my shoulder got hurt and I daren't kick it hard."

Hiram's eyes narrowed at the corners, wrinkling up the way they did when the man was pleased.

"I hurt my own shoulder some time ago," he nodded. "Had to have a calcium spur taken off. Hurt like hell, too."

"Yes, sir," Jacob said faintly.

"Well, step up here. Grip the wrist -- here -- now you bring this up -- no, not to your shoulder." His hands were strong, gentle, with eyes of their own; his voice was patient and reassuring, and he eased the shining silver crescent butt plate into position -- "here, just where the muscle of your bicep tapers down and the shoulder muscle tapers down to meet it. Feel that hollow right there?"

"Yes, sir."

"That's where you set it. Right there. How's that feel?"

Jacob sighted along the top flat of the long, browned, octagon barrel.

"It feels fine, sir."

"Good. You ever fire a flint lock before?"

"No, sir."

"You'll have no bad habits to unlearn." Hiram stood, retrieved the rifle. "You'll need these. This is yer powder horn" -- he draped its leather string over Jacob's left shoulder, hanging the powder reservoir on his right side -- "and your warbag goes on t'other side, like so."

The possibles hung off the opposite shoulder; strap and string crossed in the middle of the boy's chest.

"Ever shoot a patched ball rifle?"

"No, sir."

Hiram nodded.

"Time you learned. My Pa started me shootin' on a patched ball rifle. Matter of fact he built me my first rifle and glad I am he did. He taught me the value of one precise shot, and that's what i used, 'cause one shot is all I had!"

"Yes, sir."

 

A man remembers moments in his life, a man's memories are often like photographs stacked in a shoebox, slices of time to be brought out and looked at.

Hiram kept the mental slices in his private shoebox for the rest of his life ... the memories of teaching another boy how to load a muzzle loadin' patched ball rifle, teaching him how to prime the pan and teaching him that the CLACK, the fire, the flash and smoke, wouldn't hurt him a'tall.

He fitted the lad with ear plugs and a set of shooting glasses, and when he was done, old man and young boy alike had hands stained with powder fouling, and old lined face and smooth shining face alike each bore the delighted grin that comes when two generations bridge a divide and share a manly moment together.

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27. BEECH TREE

Anna Mae was my age and we set close to one another in school.

School was near to out now and I spoke to her about the Bee Tree I'd found.

She got all excited.

Her Mama was a Bee Charmer and she said not to cut it as that would kill the hive, she'd like to come down and take the bees and set them in her own hive and I told Pa and he grinned and allowed as he'd admire to see that.

The bee tree was a rotted out old beech that was likely to fall over come the next good ice storm. I'd cyarved my name in its back and so had plenty of other fellows, or they cyarved their mark if the couldn't make the letters.

We taken a good look at that-there tree and allowed as if we felled it, which way we wanted it to drop, and when it did which side would be up for there was a big split down its front that would give us a good get-in to all that honey comb.

A b'ar got into it maybe two year ago but I reckon that's the one the Post boys shot when they heard it rattin' around their chicken house.

I think that's the b'ar I tracked last snow right as we were comin' to thaw.

I struck that-there b'ar track and I grinned and hefted my pea rifle and allowed as I would skin me out a good rug to keep my Mama's bare feet off that cold floor in winter time and off I went, just hell-a-tearin' after that-there bear, followin' them dish pan tracks in the melting snow.

Now God don't give boys too much by way of intelligence most times and I didn't have much by way of smarts about me that mornin', for here I was not yet growin' chin whiskers, I had a rifle that carried a ball the size of a sweet pea that was just fine and dandy for squirrel and groundhog and deer if I shot 'em in the eye ball, but about the time I come to the sun side of the next ridge and the snow was melted off with what sun was squeezin' through them high thin clouds, why, it occurred to me that I was just awful light on Fire Power when it come to a b'ar.

I stopped and looked at that-there bare ground and though I could likely track the crittur in the fresh turn-up of them leaves and such-like, why, that would very likely mean I would find it.

If I found it, I would put lead into it.

And if I put that pea sized rifle ball into it, why, it just might make it mad and it could do me harm.

I have looked at my reflection time and again and in that moment I allowed as I was not as dumb as I looked.

I give that one up for a bad job and made my way back to the house and on the way back I found me that bee tree again and scouted out how to get to it easiest, and what wood lay around it, and was there anything else here to make the trip even more worth while, and that took me up to where I started writin'.

 

Jacob grinned as the Lear Jet roared off the runway, streaking like a silver arrow into the thin mountain air.

His hand tightened in his Mama's grip and the two looked at one another, delighted eyes sharing a happy moment.

Jacob could not see his Pa's expression.

Richard's head was leaned back against his head cushion, turned a little, his eyes closed: he, too, held his wife's hand, but he'd flown so often and so routinely that he was asleep before the pilot turned their craft and advanced the throttles for their takeoff roll.

Jacob, on the other hand, thrilled at the sensation of being shoved back into his seat, and in his imagination they were a silver arrow, describing a contrail path into the sky, carving a hole in the atmosphere through which stars might tumble from their firmanent and fall to earth in the void sliced open by their thunderous passage.

Willamina smiled a little, for somewhere behind her still-bruised and healing breastbone, behind the womanly exterior and the placid expression, was still a little girl, a child like the one that held her hand, a child that felt herself shoved back in her seat as they ripped a hole through the sky and screamed a path between the stars themselves.

 

Anna Mae's Mama come with her and they brought a straw bee hive with them.

I'd never seen one.

It was kind of conical and made of bundled and tied straw and she introduced the queen to it with some comb and them bees, why, they followed her and we set more comb in with them, but as we did we took some for us.

Anna Mae looked over them combs kind of careful and she set one back in the tree and allowed as it was close to hatch and if we left it alone they would be another nest there next year as well.

We had honey enough for us and if her and her Mama told us there would be this much and more a year from now, why, that suited us fine.

If that bee tree come down before then we'd strip it out but otherwise we'd leave it, for that meant a sweet crop a year from now.

Jacob frowned a little, listening to his Mama's quiet voice reading from his Very Granddad's journal, and she could feel the curiosity prickling from her silent child.

She marked the place with her finger, closed the book; mother regarded son, and son regarded mother.

"Mama," Jacob asked, "I never saw a beech tree."

Willamina smiled, reached over and laid her hand on his.

"I'm sure I can show you a few," she said quietly.

"Will they have bees?"

"They might."

Jacob considered a moment longer.

"Mama," he said, "Old Grampa carved his name in a beech tree."

"Yes he did, Jacob."

"That sounds like a lot of work."

Willamina laughed quietly, squeezed her son's hand, considering that the only trees he'd seen were either peel-bark aspen or rough-bark trees, pines and a very few hardwoods.

"Beech has a very smooth bark. It's easy to carve."

"Did you ever carve a beech bark, Mama?"
"No," Willamina admitted softly. "No, I never did. Your Uncle Will did, I believe, but ... I don't know where."

She smiled a secret smile, for she really did know where, and she knew the two names he carved in a fat, slightly lopsided heart, and she knew he never, ever went in that section of woods again after the girl to whom he'd given his heart, dumped him for a football jock.

 

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28. THE SON'S SURPRISE

 

Three squirrels swung by their tails from his young grip.

Linn was a-hotfoot for the house, rifle balanced easily in his other hand, a grin on his face.

He stopped and looked up at the circling hawk, and his young, quick mind imagined what it must be like to see the territory from above, then he shook his head and turned his attention back to the path in front of him.

Freezing, he dropped the squirrels, then brought his left hand around and grabbed the rifle's fore end: his middle finger hooked the set trigger as his thumb hauled back the flint cock, and he thrust his rifle straight out in front of him and fired, his eyes on the gleaming copper coils of a sunning snake that wasn't about to move for him or anybody else.

His Pa heard the shot, and the shot was unusually close to the house, and it was not long before his son came a-grinnin' into the clearing and parked his rifle.

Hazel eyes met pale-blue eyes and his Pa said "Get one close, did you?"

"No, sir," Linn replied, throwing a skinned carcass up on the chopping block and grabbing the hatchet. "Copper Jack was coiled up in the path ahead of me."

The hatchet raised and his Pa watched his son divest the skinned carcasses of head, feet and tail, then he scooped water out of the rain barrel and splashed them, inside and out.

"I had to drop 'em," Linn explained, "so's I could have two hands on the rifle. I didn't want Ma to see dirt on the meat."

 

The Sheriff's deputy watched the sleek, shining Lear turn and stop, heard the turbines whistle down; it was not a usual thing for a Lear jet to land at the county airport, and he had his doubts as to whether such a machine could stop in time, but either the pilot or his brakes were very good: the Lear had no trouble at all with rolled blacktop that usually saw prop jobs take off and land.

The deputy tugged at his shirt, glanced down at his shoes, then stepped off as the jet's door opened and its passengers disembarked.

First out was a broad shouldered man of less than his own height, a man in a well fitted suit who moved with a confident, efficient alertness.

The Sheriff, he thought, is shorter than I expected -- the deputy had spent his entire life east of the Mississippi, except for a short and undistinguished stretch in the Army, and his acquaintance with a Western sheriff was formed from childhood episodes of TV westerns. In his imagination they were all tall, lean and expressionless (except when talking with a pretty lady, of course) -- the second passenger out fit his mental stereotype, for a Sheriff ought to have a pretty lady, and this one surely was: she moved with an easy, confident grace, and she wore a tailored suit dress and heels, and when she looked around, he had the feeling that she saw not only everything, but that she saw what might be.

The attractive woman looked at him and smiled, and he saw she had pale eyes.

Last out was a little boy with a big grin, a lad in blue jeans and boots and a button-up shirt, a lad who turned and looked under the jet.

Children are naturally curious, the deputy thought as he strode across the runway toward the three.

"Good morning, Sheriff," he greeted the distinguished looking man in the fitted suit, thrusting out his hand. "Deputy Tom Parker, Perry County Sheriff's Office."

The man's grip was firm in return, his look was penetrating, as if he fired his gaze through the deputy's eyes and read what was printed on the inside of his skull.

"A pleasure," he said quietly. "Richard Walker, FBI, retired." He turned a little, rested his hand on Willamina's shoulder.

"May I introduce my lovely wife, Sheriff Willamina Keller, Firelands County, Colorado."

The deputy's face turned instantly red and his jaw dropped with dismay as Willamina took the mans hand, murmuring "Deputy Parker." She released his hand and reached back, placing the flat of her palm between her son's shoulder blades. "And this is our son Jacob."

Parker's mind was running fast, trying to think of some quick and clever phrase that might salvage his inadvertent gaffe, when Jacob interrupted his thoughts.

"We have to rent a car, can we have a Jeep?"

Willamina looked curiously at her son and Jacob shrugged.

"If anybody knows anything it's the road deputy. He'll know where to eat and where to stay and where to avoid." He looked up at the surprised badge packer and said -- with a child's wide-eyed innocence -- "Where's a good place to stay that doesn't have bedbugs?"

The spell was broken; Deputy Parker laughed, and so did the other two adults, and Jacob turned and shaded his eyes at the aircraft turning and lining up with the runway.

"He's getting ready to land," the deputy explained, and Willamina's head snapped a few degrees to the left and both husband and lawman felt her pull into herself, crouching a little as she heard something they didn't.

"Jacob," she said, her voice tense, then mother and son shoved past the deputy and began sprinting across the runway.

"Whaaat --" the deputy asked, staggering a little as he spun around, then, "Oh, no, not again!"

 

Linn knuckled the chestnut and the gelding grunted and deflated his belly.

"You're not gonna dump me again," the lad muttered, tightening the cinch, then patted the horse's shoulder as he went around to its head, fishing in his warbag.

"You bum," he murmured, rubbing the horse's long jaw, and the gelding nudged his chest, anticipating a bribe.

Linn whittled two thick shavings off the molasses twist plug he carried, held them out flat-palm, and the gelding rubber lipped them off his hand.

Linn rubbed the horse's ears, whispering to it, calling it a bum and a slug and rudder besides.

"Aren't you going to bridle him?" his Pa asked, and Linn grinned.

"No, sir," he replied. "No need."

His Pa shook his head.

He hadn't believed his boy when the lad announced he'd been riding the gelding without bit or bridle -- why, he never heard of such foolishness! -- then he found out his son routinely rode without reins.

Today was the first day he knew the lad to saddle up without bridling the gelding, and he was frankly interested in seeing whether they'd have a long chase to capture a runaway mount, or whether his boy actually knew what he was doing.

Linn stepped up on a high stump they'd left for a mount block, threw a leg over the saddle.

His Pa handed him up the repaired rifle.

"Tell George we'll square up come next meeting."

"Yes, sir."

His Pa didn't see quite what his boy did but the gelding backed up a few steps, turned, then stepped out lively and down the broad path to the coach road, and he heard the rhythmic hoofbeats as they climbed the coach road up the back bone of the ridge, until the sound faded.

"I'll be damned," he said softly.

 

Willamina spread her arms and whistled, whistled again.

The horse threw its head, shied, danced a little at this unexpected appearance.

Willamina whistled again, softer now, then extended a hand, her voice gentle, low, and the chestnut gelding's ears swung forward, interested.

The voice was soft, pleasant, not harsh and demanding.

The smaller of the two humans reached into a pocket and pulled out something.

"Come here, you bum," Jacob said, extending the cherry licorice whip.

The horse laid its ears back, lowered its head, nostrils flaring: lashing its tail, it took a tentative step forward, then another.

Willamina's voice was still soft, still gentle: she reached forward, laid a hand on the chestnut's long nose as Jacob fed it half the licorice whip.

Behind them, a yellow-and-black Piper Super Cruiser rumbled down and chirped a little as it landed, its pilot expertly greasing in on a textbook perfect landing.

"Now where did you come from," Willamina murmured, "and who saddled you?"

She checked the cinch, tugged it, tightened it a little.

"You bellied out, didn't you?" she soothed, patting the gelding's neck.

"Mama," Jacob said, "is this a Paso?"
Willamina smiled a little. "I wish," she whispered.

"Cannonball is a Paso, isn't she?"

"Yes she is," Willamina murmured. "That's why she's so smooth gaited."

Jacob saw his mother's grimace -- she tried to hide it, but he knew she was hurting again -- he knew she was curious about the horse, and he knew her instinct would be to mount up and find out.

I'll save Mama the pain, he thought.

"Jacob!" Willamina blurted as the lad swarmed into the saddle.

Surprised, the gelding turned, walling his eyes and laying his ears back, then his ears came up and he stood.

Jacob patted the gleaming chestnut's neck, grinned at his Mama.

"All right, boy," he said, echoing his Mama's own words, "show me what you got!"

Deputy Parker looked at the impassive Richard, turned to see the boy had climbed on that damned trouble making horse.

"Oh, nuts," he muttered.

"No, horse," Richard deadpanned, his hands clasped loosely in front of him.

He was as relaxed as the deputy was tense; he knew better than to get excited.

Jacob turned the gelding, leaned ahead a little, and the gelding responded instantly: he walked easily through the ankle thick grass and up onto the pavement.

"Ho," Jacob said softly, and the gelding ho'd, switching its tail, slashing the flies that perpetually deviled a good horse's life.

"Okay, boy," Jacob whispered, patting its neck with both hands. "Walk."

Willamina's eyes widened, as did her grin, and the ache in her chest was almost forgotten at the sight of her son astride a chestnut Paso, at the sound of the flawless four-beat clattering steadily on the blacktop.

Jacob rode easily, erect, relaxed, his head was absolutely steady level -- there was no bob, no bounce, and Willamina's breath caught for a moment, for the sheer beauty of the perfect union of horse and rider.

Pasos had come to the New World with Columbus's second voyage, she knew, and the Paso was known for its smooth gait, and she knew her Cannonball was of Paso blood -- Cannonball had a butter-smooth gait, but it was not this pure, flawless, dainty, classic Paso that she was seeing now.

Jacob had a grin on his face as broad as two Texas townships.

He never appeared to move -- Willamina, experienced equestrian that she was, never saw the subtle shift of weight, the tightening of the legs, the pressure of one over the other, that turned the gelding -- she heard Jacob's delighted "Largo!" and the Paso turned toward the Lear, the deputy and his father, and she saw the horse's gait lengthen.

A Paso walks.

A Paso's gait is a walk.

A Paso will walk with a short stride, or a longer stride, or a longer stride yet: they can and do gallop, but they do not trot: common horses trot, but not Pasos.

A Paso's long gait covers ground surprisingly quickly, and it does so effortlessly, easily, and very, very smoothly, more so than even her beloved red Cannonball.

All this went through her consciousness as she walked back up onto the runway, walked slowly, absently across the tarmac to where husband and deputy, horse and rider waited.

Jacob slid down out of the saddle and grabbed one of the suitcases, unzipped it and ran an arm in: he came out with an iPad, turned it on and waited impatiently for the tablet to wake up.

He looked up at the deputy and said, "This is Mama's horse," and the deputy took the tablet, looked at the image, looked at the quietly smiling woman walking across the pavement with all the grace of a panther ...

... a panther in heels and a tailored suit dress, he thought.

"Nice horse," she said, caressing the chestnut Paso's nose. "Yours?"

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29. AIN'T YOURS!

"She's too well trained," Willamina murmured, almost to herself, then she turned to the deputy.

"You said that horse was trouble. Does she come here often?"

"Yes ma'am, she does," he nodded, frowning. "She'll come up here and good old what's-his-name down yonder will call up here and ask if his horse is out, and he'll come and get her again."

Willamina frowned, looked at the Paso, gestured Jacob closer: the mare came willingly to the pale-eyed woman.

She stroked the mare's nose, her ears, her neck, then cupped her hand under the mare's jaw and raised her head a little, pulled down the bottom lip.

She rubbed the mare's nose, lifted the upper lip; she pulled out her cell phone, thumbed the screen a few times, took a shot.

The deputy looked from the woman to the distinguished man in the tailored suit and back with the expression of someone wondering if the subject of his attention was entirely sane.

"I want to know the moment he calls again," Willamina said, tapping the screen with a stiff middle finger, and at that moment a man in coveralls and a greasy cap opened the door to the office and yelled, "Hey Depitty, he's askin' about his horse, what'll I tell him?"

Willamina laid a hand on the deputy's arm. "I'll take this," she said, and marched briskly for the county airport's prefab office, her heels loud and brisk and absolutely businesslike.

The deputy turned to Richard.

"Is she always like this?" he asked.

Richard shrugged. "Only when she's on a case."

"A case?" The deputy looked back to the aluminum sided office. "What case?"

Inside, Willamina picked up the receiver: "How much do you want for this spavined, sway backed troublemaker?"

The voice on the other end hesitated. "She ain't fer sale."

"She's nothing but trouble. She jumps fences, she made off with your saddle, you can't keep her penned up and she'll hit an airplane and they'll sue you for everything you'll ever have, including every lottery win you haven't won yet but might. I can take her off your hands, she'll make fine dog food. I'll give you a hundred fifty cash."

"A hundred --"

He hesitated.

"Two hundred," he countered.

"One-seventy-five, and I'll need vet's certification and bill of sale."

"I, um, got 'em here somewhere."

"I'll need the bill of sale and vet's records. If you can have 'em here in ten minutes it's worth the full two hundred."

"Okay."

Willamina hung up the phone, a quiet smile tightening her pale eyes at their corners.

"Deputy," she said as she came out of the office, "you are going to bust a horse thief."

"I'm what?"

"This horse is a Paso Fino. She's worth about seven thousand as she stands. She's well trained, she had been well cared for and I think she was either runaway or stolen -- either way, the man who has her can't keep her fenced because she keeps trying to go home. She's from near an airport and she has a tattoo inside her upper lip." Willamina held up her cell phone, displayed the picture she took. "I just sent this to my brother back at the Sheriff's Office back home. He's checking the horse registry now."

Her phone rang, the French-horn fanfare intro to a TV western the deputy recognized, and she put the phone to her ear. "Keller."

She looked at the deputy, smiled, pressed the speaker phone.

"Will, say that again," she smiled, "the jurisdictional deputy is right here."

"I said," the voice repeated, "that horse was stolen from Athens a month and a half ago. She has that same tat inside her lip as you sent me."

"Thanks, Will."

"Any time, Little Sis."

Willamina pressed the red disconnect button, looked at the deputy.

"Your collar. You know the man, you can find him if he runs, but I'd suggest you get him in irons as soon as he comes over to take his horse back."

"What'll I do with her?"
"Do you have a mounted division?"

"Yes, ma'am, they're all auxiliary."

"Who's close?"

He thought for a moment, smiled a little. "I know just who to call. She's close by, too."

"Mama?" Jacob asked.

"Jacob, when he shows up he'll likely come up and try to rope her or put a hackamore on her. Wait until he's close enough to grab, then you get some distance."

"Yes, ma'am!" he grinned, and his enthusiasm was infectious: the mare danced a little, nodding her head as if in agreement with the plan.

"He'll be here directly," the deputy said. "Might ought I move my cruiser. I don't want him to see me."

 

Linn brought the rifle across him, dropped the frizzen shut, fetched the flint cock back to half stand.

The three ahead of him were trouble and he knew it.

He made as if to ride around them and one reached for the chestnut's head, apparently expecting to find a bridle.

All he found was a set of yellow teeth.

Jacob kneed the gelding hard with his right leg and the gelding whipped around, the screaming tough's hand still in the horse's grip: the gelding spun to the left, fast, dragging the would-be horse thief with him.

He fell hard, his hand crushed, and Linn ran the gelding into the other two, knocking them to the ground.

He kept on going.

He knew they planned to divest him of the horse and anything else they could get.

They didn't count on a mere boy knowing that ahead of time, nor did they count on the determination of a young lad to protect what was his.

He also knew he'd better be ready for his return trip.

 

Willamina knocked on the Sheriff's door with delicate knuckles. "Permission to come aboard?" she called gently.

The Sheriff looked up, rose. "Can I help you?"

Willamina turned over her lapel, displayed her six-point star. "Sheriff Willamina Keller, Firelands County, Colorado. We just got in."

"Well my goodness," the Perry County Sheriff blinked, rising and coming around his desk. "Please come in! -- Colorado?"
"Firelands County. It's in the Cripple Creek gold mining district."

"I see," he murmured.

Willamina swept in, gripped the man's hand. "I must really compliment you, Sheriff. Not only did you extend the professional courtesy of having a deputy meet us at the county airport, you sent your most knowledgeable man, who by the way needs a raise in pay." Her expression was almost mischievous; she knew the deputy hadn't been dispatched as a professional courtesy, she knew the man was there just because he'd heard a Lear jet was landing.

"He recommended a good place to stay, told us where to rent a car, which restaurants to avoid, and he solved the theft of a seven thousand five hundred dollar prize mare."

"He did," the Sheriff said uncertainly, not quite certain how to play the hand of cards he'd just been dealt, but the man was a poker player and he knew he'd just been dealt a friendly hand.

"I'm originally from Corning myself," Willamina said, tilting her head and looking at the memorabilia behind the man's desk: a quick sweep of her pale eyes and she divined he'd played football, he was prior Navy, and he was a poor golfer. "My son is curious about my Great-Great-Grandfather and I told him I would show him where his Very Great Granddad grew up."

The Sheriff smiled. "It's not often we get a visiting Sheriff from so far away. Usually a visiting lawman is working a case."

"Not this time," Willamina smiled, raising delicate fingertips to her high center chest. "I was shot several times right here" -- she lowered her fingers to the still tender area -- "thanks to a very good vest and a steel-boned corset under that, all I got was mostly dead."

"Mostly dead."

She nodded. "If you strike a man's chest, right over his heart, you stand a chance of shocking it into standstill. Something they call the R-on-T phenomenon. You're not a ... corpsman, by any chance?"

He shook his head. "Engineer. I ran the turbines."

Willamina whistled admiringly. "The man that runs the heart of the ship," she said softly, nodding.

He smiled a little -- almost sadly, she thought ... the sad smile of a man who loved what he did.

"Good memories?" she asked gently.

He nodded. "The best."

"Me too."

"You were an engineer's mate?"

"Oh, no," she laughed. "No, I was a Marine." She waved her hand as if to dismiss that sidetrack. "No, I'm here to heal up and relax. They had to wire my breastbone back together and it's still healing." She leaned a little closer and said confidentially, "You know how it is when a cop is shot. The hospital is full of lawmen standing around with their hat in their hand, looking uncomfortable. My husband and my son came into the waiting room to tell them I was going to live and my son spoke up and said they wired my stern back together!"

"Your --" The Sheriff's face turned red and Willamina nodded.

"Right there in front of God and everyone, he told every loose lawman in the state of Colorado that they had to staple wires to my stern and wire it back together." She tapped her breastbone again, very carefully. "Of course he meant sternum ... but it will take me a long time to live that one down!"

"Um, yeah," the Sheriff chuckled.

Willamina rose. "I hate to howdy and run, but I have two men to feed and my son is a walking appetite on two hollow legs."

The Sheriff laughed again and nodded. "I've got two boys myself."

Willamina extended her hand and the Sheriff gripped it carefully. "Sheriff Keller, if there's anything we can help you with?"

"If there is, I'll certainly ask your help," Willamina said frankly. "I don't plan to go woods running so I don't expect to run into any pot farmers, and I don't suppose you're seeing moonshine stills these days?"

He shook his head. "Not for several years. Before I took office."

Willamina nodded. "Moonshining is too much like work for this modern generation."

"Isn't it the truth," the Sheriff sighed.

 

George was more than pleased with the rifle.

When he'd taken it down to the old man, it was broke in two at the wrist.

The new stock was curly wood and had a double curlicue of silver wire inlay, one in the cheek piece and the other on the opposite side of the stock.

"Pa said to square up with him later," Linn said.

George nodded. "I'll do that."

Linn grinned and turned, stepped up on the mounting stone and shoved his boot in the stirrup.

He waved to George as he turned the gelding, and George waved back, and Linn waited until he was around the bend before he stopped.

He pulled his shotgun from the deer hide scabbard under his right leg, he checked the priming, snapped the battery piece shut over the fine, black, gleaming Curtis & Harvey priming charge.

He lifted the blanket he'd draped over his horse's back side and withdrew a two pistol holster that draped over the front of the saddle.

He checked the priming on both these also, slid them back into place.

Finally he gripped the heavy knife in its sheath on the war bag's cross strap.

He may be a boy but he was sent on a man's task and it was a man's responsibility to get something as valuable as a horse home safely.

When he saw the three waiting for him, one with a horse whip, one with a gun and one with a club, he knew he was right.

He kneed the gelding hard with his left leg, spun the horse broadside and drove a charge of heavy shot into the thief with the gun.

The other two didn't expect the pistols.

 

"No, sir, it was easy," the deputy said, and the Sheriff heard a degree of surprise in the man's reply.

"When he brought out that bridle thing, the horse backed up and that pale eyed woman plugged the muzzle of her pistol into the man's neck and said, "Ain't yours," and then she allowed as he could come along peacefully or otherwise, and she didn't much care which."

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30. WHY IS IT YELLOW?

"Mama," Jacob said, "how come we got two cars?"

"So you father can check the courthouse records." Willamina turned into the street and accelerated a little, her eyes busy.

"Oh."

"Records are boring," Willamina smiled. "We're going to look at some territory."

Jacob looked around, taking in the county seat, its old buildings, the lack of terrain thrusting up behind them.

"It's kinda flat," he frowned, wrinkling his nose a little the way he always did, and Willamina laughed and nodded.

"Yes it is, Jacob. Do you know what a glacier is?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Ohio was covered for two thirds of its length with a continent wide glacier. It bulldozed the ground flat and piled up the spoil along what's called a moraine."

Jacob considered this, puzzling a little, for the term bore a surprising resemblance to a girl's name.

"Lorraine?" he asked, looking at his Mama.

Willamina signaled for a left turn at the Y, waited for the green light before moving on.

"Lorain is a city well north of here, it's named after a French province. Lorraine is your Sunday school teacher. No, the moraine" -- she drawled the word out a little -- "is a broad band of ground up dirt and rocks the glacier bulldozes in front of it, and as it melts away but continues advancing, it acts like a conveyor belt and moves more spoil to its terminus."

"Oh."

Jacob watched as the ground started to acquire texture, hollows, ridges: his quick eye saw ground healing over, some early timber, and his Mama commented that it was poorly reclaimed strip mine, and that her uncle was a brick mason for the mines when they were still active in the area.

"What would a brick mason do in a mine?" Jacob asked, picturing a small, low, narrow shaft with narrow rails and sweating men with picks and candles on their caps.

"The mines were extensive and had many shafts going in all directions," Willamina explained, "and they had ungodly big fans to move air through them."

"Why?"

"Coal mines accumulate methane and coal gas. It's explosive. If a man walks into a pocket of coal gas he'll suffocate, so they keep air moving through them at all times. If a side shaft is worked out and they don't use it anymore, the brick masons wall it off so the air doesn't go there anymore, they seal it to keep out any gas and keep the air moving where it's needed."

"Okay."

Willamina turned off the state route onto a paved county road, accelerated uphill for a little distance.

Jacob was not a stranger to grades by any means, but he wasn't used to such a narrow and twisty road.

"Doing okay?" Willamina asked.

"Yeah," Jacob nodded. "It's kinda crooked."

"Yes it is. I learned to drive on these roads."

"You did?" Jacob's eyes were big and he looked from his Mama to the blacktop and back.

"Sure did. South of here, where we're going -- a little place called Corning -- before they put the new highway through."

Jacob looked around with new eyes, imagining how the road must have been when his Mama was younger, when she was just learning to drive.

 

Sheriff Wilson Thomas shook Richard's hand. "Anything I can do for your or your wife," he offered, and Richard said "As a matter of fact there is."

Lawman and retired Agent sat down in the lounge, a fresh pot of coffee adding its welcome fragrance to the courthouse air -- they all smell the same, Richard thought -- and the Sheriff spread his hands. "Name it."

"Sheriff, would your archives go back shortly before 1850?"

"Archives?"

"Arrrest records, court documents, witness statements, anything of the sort."

"We've stored the originals in a climate controlled vault," he said slowly, "but we ..." -- he smiled, almost bashfully -- "we've ... they're digitized and we can call 'em up on computer."

"There's a story behind that," Richard smiled, and the Sheriff's ears turned red.

"Yes there is," he admitted. "A cute volunteer came in and did all that work for free. I think it was for a school project. She'd come in every day in a short skirt and for some odd reason every last deputy I have found some excuse to be here when she was."

Richard laughed, nodding. "I understand."

The Sheriff's face turned a little redder. "I waited until she was done before I let the feline out of the burlap."

Richard leaned forward, grinning, anticipating a zinger, and he was right.

"I didn't tell anyone it was my niece and I swore her to say nothing until she was done." He laughed. "On her last day there I told everyone we'd have a presentation for her to thank her for her hard work."

"Yeaaahhhh?" Richard encouraged, his grin a little broader.

"She was there, all right, looking all sweet and pretty and I hit the button on the projector and showed her standing beside her Daddy ... and beside four brothers ... and every one of them with a double barrel shotgun, and standing in front of the family backhoe, with a sign that said "I have 40 acres, a shotgun and a backhoe, any questions?" -- and then I introduced her ... as my niece."

He laughed and so did Richard.

"Two of them admitted to me later they almost suggested some things to her that would have been a serious mistake."

The two men shared a good laugh and some surprisingly good coffee, and finally got back to the subject at hand.

"Sheriff, my wife's ancestor's name is Linn Keller. We're looking for any records you might have -- Monroe Township area, before 1850."

The Sheriff nodded, rose.

"Let's go see how good a job my niece did."

 

Willamina pulled into the village park.

A pickup softball game was underway; the two walked wide around the yelling, jumping, waving players, swinging most of the way over to the apartments, then bending back behind the game, towards what Willamina called Sunday Creek.

"How come they called it that, Mama?"

"When the first surveyors came through here, they crossed this creek on Sunday." She pronounced it "crick," and Jacob's quick ear told him this was its correct pronunciation-- "the next one they crossed was on a Monday, which they named Monday Creek."

They came to the edge of the mowed grass, looked in: the water was shallow, the creekbed ten feet below grade and twice as wide here.

"Mama," Jacob frowned, "how come it's yellow?"

Willamina motioned upstream. "Come here, I'll show you."

They walked upstream.

"Over there, on the other side of the highway -- see that church? -- there was a gob pile behind and to its left."

"What's a gob pile?"

"Coal spoil. Low grade coal, bone coal they called it. High sulfur shale. It doesn't burn well so it was picked out of the good coal and discarded in big hills like ... well, this one's long gone, it was used for fill when they put the new highway through. Before they did, though, it caught fire from spontaneous indigestion and smoldered for years."

"It did?"

"Um-hm." Willamina nodded. "It put so much sulfur in the air that you couldn't put up aluminum downspouts. They would rot away inside of a year. They had to use galvanized steel and even then they had to paint 'em."

"Wow," Jacob murmured.

"Bad for the lungs. Lots of emphysema here. It put nickle, aluminum ... I forget what all metals ... mercury, I know, and we breathed that stuff." She squeezed her son's shoulder. "You remember I had that brain scan last month."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I get those regularly. People who grew up here and breathed that stuff get brain tumors."

Jacob's eyes were worried. "Mama, are you gonna die?"

"I don't have tumors, if that's what you're asking," Willamina smiled, stopping and squatting and taking her young son's hands in hers. "And if that assassin with a machine gun couldn't kill me, I don't think I'm going to die today."

"Good," Jacob said solemnly.

Willamina rose and Jacob heard the wet squishy noise of her knees.

"Jacob, do you see that water coming out here, among all these rocks?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Is this clear water or yellow water?"

"Clear water, ma'am."

"Correct." She stared at the thick fountain. "That drains coal mines clear back to Johnson Run. Now you asked why the creek is yellow."

"Yes, ma'am."

"When water percolates through coal strata, if it stands for a time, it picks up sulfur compounds and these make sulfuric acid, but the acid solution is clear as a bell." She thrust her chin at the mine drainage fountaining out of the riprap. "Just like that.

"It picks up iron and manganese and other metals, but these are dissolved like sugar in tea. Okay so far?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Chemically, these are in the ferrous and manganous states, but when it comes out and hits the air and the sun it oxidizes and goes from the soluble ferous and manganous to the insoluble ferric and manganic states, and it settles out as that yellow stuff."

"Oh."

"That yellow stuff is commonly called yellow dog. The creek is way less yellow than it ever was." She pointed at a streamer of green algae. "I never saw green stuff grow in this creek when I was still here -- there! See that?"

"That frog jump in?"

"Yes!" Willamina's eyes sparkled and Jacob saw delight on her face. "I never saw frogs here before either!"

"Is that good?"

"Oh, Jacob, that's very good, it means the creek is cleaning up!"

"Oh." Jacob frowned a little. "Are there any fish in it?"

"No," Willamina admitted sadly. "No fish, Jacob."

"Will there ever be?"

"I hope so."

"When?"

Willamina barked a cynical laugh. "Two weeks after hell freezes and the devil learns to figure skate."

Jacob considered this, debated whether to try to find a rock to toss in the water, decided against it.

"Let's go take a look at my old school."

"Okay."

 

I looked that-there Sheriff square in the eye.

It taken me most of the day to ride to the court house but I had it to do so I done it.

I told him them three stepped out with a gun, a whip and a club and allowed as they was a-gonna take my horse and everything I had.

Then I told him what they said they was a-gonna do with me and I saw the man's eyes change.

He rode back with me, him on that long legged mule of his that could walk down anything on four legs, and me on my Pa's chestnut, and we got back there and he taken a good look at the situation and he looked long at each face a-layin' there dead and finally he set down on a log and motioned me to set beside him.

He allowed as he knowed all three of them fellas and he allowed as they'd been a-doin' such things but always to old men or to women or to young boys, folks that could not fight them, and he was intendin' to find 'em so he could hang 'em his own self.

Attair Sheriff said he would find this justifiable and that suited me just fine.

It was well after dark before I got home and me and Pa set down and talked long about what happened, and Ma listened with her brown eyes all bright and fixed on mine.

She never said a word but her hands did, she was knittin' when I come in and she spent most of the discussion crushing what she'd knitted up in both her fists, but she didn't say nary a word.

 

"Here it is," Sheriff Thomas said. "Linn Keller, you say?"

"Yes."

"Here ... it's faded and if we had an alternate light source and the original document it would be easier, but ... let me try something."

A few key clicks and he frowned again.

"I'm sorry. This is as good as it gets."

"Can you print it out for me?"

Another few key-clicks and the printer began to hum and chuckle to itself.

 

"It's about as big as ours," Jacob said, "only ours is one story."

"This used to be the high school."

"What about that old building up there?" Jacob pointed uphill, to the ruin of a brick building.

"That was the original schoolhouse. They had one through eight there and in the day, that was the education."

Jacob frowned.

"When they expanded it to twelve years, one through six was up here" -- she pointed to the decaying, dark-brick building with plywood over half the windows and nothing but air in the others -- "and the high school was down here."

"Isn't it still a school, Mama?"

"No, Jacob. The county consolidated back in '63. I was in third grade. I was your age."

Jacob looked up at his Mama with that delightful, quick grin of his.

"Our third grade was over on that side. I forget what it used to be. The typing room, I think, business classes and secretarial. They taught shorthand and manual typewriters."

"Oh."

"My Daddy flunked chemistry and algebra. I got straight A's and ..."
Willamina swallowed hard, looked away.

Jacob reached up and took his Mama's hand.

Willamina brought her other hand to her mouth and bit her foreknuckle, hard, squeezing her eyes shut tight, tight.

She hadn't expected she would still miss her Daddy this much.

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31. TRIMBLE

 

They drove south, Willamina pointing here and pointing there and keeping up a steady narrative:

"This is the New Highway, Jacob. The old one was narrow and twisty and up hill and down hill and I learned to drive on it. Believe me, this is an Interstate compared to that old slay!"

She pointed to the right. "This was the bottom of the hill, the Dead Pond was there. It grew mosquitoes and cattails and red-wing blackbirds but nothing else. Road salt washed in every winter and poisoned it."

Another half-mile: "There -- on your right -- that big empty bottom with the railroad tracks going down it?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"That used to be the New York Central roundhouse. It was HUUUGE!"

"Yes, ma'am." Jacob turned and looked to the other side of the roadway, built up on a big dike down the middle of what used to be a flood plain. "Mama, what's that down there?"

"That's the new Corning sewer plant, and I don't know if you noticed, but when we went past -- oh, here, I'll show you."

Willamina checked her mirrors, whipped a quick U-turn and buzzed north again.

"Over there, at the base of the ridge. Hang on."

Another U-turn and she pulled over close to the silver guardrail.

"See those houses along the creek?"

"Sunday Creek, Mama?"

"Exactly. Generally just the Sulfur Creek. Now on your right ... see that one house jacked way up on concrete blocks?"

Jacob searched for a moment, grinned. "I see it, Mama!"

"That's Boob Taylor's place. He said when this highway cut half the flood plain, that it would flood hard back into town and he jacked up his house so he wouldn't get flooded out. Some folks said he was crazy until the next flood."

They continued on south.

"Your Very Great Granddad would have put footy prints all over every one of these hills and hollers," Willamina said, a soft little smile on her lips. "The highway wasn't here at all -- just a wide dirt path, one wagon wide, no bridges ... see how low all of this is?"

"Yes, Mama."

"He would have used the ridge road. We'll take it on our way back."

"Yes, Mama."

"Here's the first Sunday Creek bridge," she said as they crossed a low concrete structure, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the highway, save for guardrails and the presence of a creekbed on either side -- "and here's the second Sunday Creek crossing. It makes a big bend right there and doubles back on itself. That helps flood control by giving floodwater someplace to spread out and slow down."

Jacob nodded.

Willamina continued her narrative -- a cabin was here, when she was a girl, that road is really Fay Iver Ridge, only some bottom polisher in the county seat named it Cornstill Road -- another quarter of a mile and there's Burr Oak State Park and Tom Jenkins Dam, but neither one would have been here when your Old Granddad was around.

Willamina smiled over at her son.

"Before Mama became a damned drunk, she was in the Marching Band, and somewhere I think I have a picture of their Marching Band in the dragline bucket of the shovel that excavated for that dam yonder." She pointed to her left and Jacob saw a flat wall of sod, an earthen dam, topped with guardrail, and a castle looking structure on its right.

"It's not much to look at here, but it backs water up for three counties. It's the source for a rural water system and it helps flood prevention downstream."

"Oh."

They passed through Glouster and Willamina pointed out the huge mural where the hotel stood: "They found poor old Casey's body in his room there," she said, "and I was sorry to hear it. Casey was the last and the only moonshiner whose product my Daddy trusted."

Jacob looked at the empty lot, then looked around at the decaying little town.

"It floods terribly here every year. Flush the pot twice upstream and it floods all this, clear down through Chauncey." She pronounced it "chancy," like a native.

"Chauncey?" Jacob brightened. "Isn't that where Old Grampa was town marshal?"

"Right you are!" Willamina exclaimed with that quick, brilliant smile Jacob loved.

"Would you like to see the place?"

"Yeah!"

"We just happen to be going there." Willamina chuckled. "Just not very fast because every last community through here is a speed trap." She glanced over at her grinning son. "Remember this, Jacob, a small town has two cash cows: the ticket book and the water meter, and these through here are no exception."

They left Glouster; about a quarter of a mile of blacktop and the respective corp limit signs, back-to-back, are all that separated Glouster from Trimble.

Jacob read the white letters on the green reflective background -- TRIMBLE CORP LIMIT -- and looked at his Mama with fearful eyes.

"Jacob," she said, "we're going to stop for a moment."

Willamina pulled over as far as she could, punched the four-way-flasher button, shut off the Jeep and checked her door's mirror before stepping out.

Jacob popped his seat belt and opened his door as his Mama opened the Jeep's rear door and reached in.

 

Horace Hall frowned as he looked up the highway.

That wasn't a terribly good place for a vehicle to stop, and the driver was unusually well dressed for this area.

He didn't recognize the vehicle either -- a four door Wrangler, dark green -- and when she opened the back hatch and took out something that looked like a wreath, he stepped on the brake, pulled the shifter into gear, and eased onto the roadway.

What she was doing might not be illegal, but it was unusual, and Horace, like most good lawmen, had a well developed sense of curiosity, and this ... this very definitely made him curious.

 

Jacob watched solemnly as Willamina hung the wreath on the guardrail, making sure the wire hooks were well engaged, and he considered the diagonal ribbon with the glitter letters that read Daddy, and he looked at his Mama and how she bit her bottom lip, and he automatically reached for his hip pocket for the clean white hankie his Pa told him he should always carry.

His shoulder pained him momentarily but he pushed through the pain and pulled out the clean, folded, ironed cloth and stepped up to his Mama and wordlessly offered the unused snot rag.

Officer Hall pulled up behind the pair just in time to see the woman pressed the cloth to her eyes, one, then the other, and he read the word Daddy, and his eyes flicked left, to where two tire burns used to be, before they paved this section of road over a few years ago.

He reached into his trouser pocket, pulled out his cell phone and found the push-to-talk key.

"Uncle Neil," he said, "this is Horse Face, I'm a hundred yards south of the corp limit on 13, get up here, now!"

He took a step forward, clearly uncertain, but he tilted his head a little to try and get a better look at the woman as she blew her nose, noisily, inelegantly, but effectively.

She thanked the boy and her voice was pleasant and Horseface Hall removed his uniform cap and tentatively asked, "Willa?"

 

It was not unusual for the little restaurant at the bend of the road to have a police cruiser of some sort parked out front.

The owner was a pleasant woman and her food was good and she could give as good as she got, and the county's lawmen treated her with courtesy and with respect, and for that she'd opened her place at unholy hours in truly ungodly weather so the Brothers of the Badge could thaw out in winter's worst storms.

Local lawmen and firefighters alike helped her haul out tables, chairs and anything not nailed down when it flooded last, a Century Flood they called it -- all she knew was, her little restaurant was immersed to the top of the window casings, and it was these same badge packers that put on gum boots and ballcaps and helped her bucket and muck and shovel and hose and tear out and rebuild.

Today her parking was plumb full and her kitchen was busy and she called in two more girls to help, and when a local wasp was peeved because she couldn't get served in time, and a possible fire code violation was called in because one of the tables was pulled into the middle of the floor and everyone gathered around it to view whatever was on the table, the Fire Department showed up, and after they spoke with whoever was inside, they moved their pumper out of the way and they too added to the crush of humanity filling the little diner.

Horseface called his uncle, his uncle came to the scene, another cruiser arrived -- this from Glouster, the community bordering to the north -- then the zone cruiser for the Sheriff's office, a State Trooper, and rather than clutter up the state route, everyone adjourned to the little restaurant.

Neil pulled a table to the middle of the floor, other tables were pushed back; Willamina looked around, found the owner, who was regarding this crowd with calculating eyes: Willamina worked her way through the lawmen and pressed a folded bill into the woman's hand: "Whatever anyone wants, give it to 'em," she murmured, "and there's more where this came from" -- well, when the pale eyed woman's opening argument just happens to have a certain Mr. Franklin on it, and a promise of more to come, suddenly the owner's apprehensions were eased: coffee and chicken fingers, burgers and biscuits, fries and onion rings began to flow steadily out of the kitchen, every man there was convinced the chief of the neighboring jurisdiction was footing the bill, and so everyone there ate with a good appetite.

Neil was not a terribly tall man -- not short by any means, but he had the shoulders of a blacksmith, and the rest of him was pretty much the same -- Horace's Uncle Neil laid open a photo album, put his hand between Jacob's shoulders, and with a blunt, stubby finger, began pointing to pictures and narrating their stories.

One of them was two men, shooting pistol, the photo was taken from a low angle, the men and their extended arms silhouetted against a cloudless summer sky.

"That's Ted," Neil said. "Your grandfather."

Willamina leaned over her son, murmured "Jacob, do you recognize the pistol your Grandfather is using?"

Jacob studied the Smith & Wesson in the man's grip.

He turned, grinning.

"Yes, Mama. That's the pistol that hangs in your office."

Willamina placed her hands on her son's shoulders.

"Gentlemen, I want you to look at this one picture," she announced, and heads craned, bodies shifted, men looked at the album curiously.

"I want you to see this picture, because that is my Daddy in the photo, and he is using the pistol that my son here used to save my life."

Dead.

Silence.

She had their attention.

"You already know that I am Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado."

Not everyone knew this; they all knew she was someone of note, they all knew she was a remarkably good looking woman, by now all either knew or had divined that she was the daughter of a lawman they knew was murdered in this very community, not far from where they were gathered.

"I interdicted some shipments that made some people very angry," she said, "and when I stepped out of the Sheriff's office, one of them caught me right here" -- she placed delicate fingertips on her breastbone -- "with a suppressed submachine gun. Very controlled, very tight pattern, and it turned meat into hamburger and did very unkind things to my ribs and sternum." She grimaced, then smiled again. "I am still healing.

"Thanks to properly fitted armor and a steel boned corset under that, all he did was beat the hell out of me.

"My son here came out the door with my Daddy's revolving pistol and addressed the situation while the bad guy tried to switch magazines," she smiled, her voice raised enough to carry to the furthest, intently listening row.

"One shot, gentlemen. One shot from a .38 Smith & Wesson caliber, Victory model revolver."
She tapped the picture with her fingertip. "The pistol my Daddy used to fire one shot into the windshield of the man who killed him."

Of a sudden she was not smiling.

"My son used that same pistol to kill the man who was trying to kill me." She swallowed hard and her throat tightened and she was barely able to continue, "He is his grandfather's grandson and I am proud of him."

Strong hands gripped her shoulders; she bowed her head and bit her lip again, then raised her head with that brilliant smile of hers and said, "I'm hungry. Let's eat!"

 

It took a couple of hours for their happy and impromptu gathering to disperse; Jacob, his belly comfortably full, watched the Athens County countryside pass by his window.

His Mama, instead of providing a steady narrative, was thoughtful, quiet as she drove.

It was not until they came to another sign, just before a set of railroad tracks, that said CHAUNCEY, CORP LIMIT, and Jacob's eyes widened with recognition.

"Mama," he said, "Chauncey -- is this --"

"Yes, Jacob," she smiled. "It is. This is where your Old Granddad walked down on Butcher Knife Joe."

"Do you have Old Granddad's book, Mama?"

Willamina reached over and squeezed her son's hand.

"Yes, Jacob. I have the book."

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32. CHAUNCEY

Willamina parked in front of the library.

"If I remember rightly ..." she said, her voice soft, "Jacob -- take a look at the bricks here."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Now look at that little square building there."

"Yes, ma'am."

"What do you see?"

Jacob frowned a little, looked from one to the other.

"The ... bricks, Mama?"
"Yes, Jacob."

"They're the same, Mama."

Willamina nodded. "I thought I remembered that."

"Huh?"

Willamina smiled. "Walk with me, Jacob."

The sun was hot, the afternoon bright; Jacob walked with his Mama, swinging around to the street side -- it was proper, he knew, for a gentleman to walk on the street side, and Willamina smiled to see it.

They both stopped.

The sun had been hot, the air heavy and humid, and now ... now it was as if they stepped through a doorway, into a cool, shaded cellar.

"Mama?" Jacob asked nervously, turning a little to put his back to his Mama: Willamina turned as well, and the pair swung their eyes, their heads, feeling ...

...something ...

"Jacob, get back to the car," Willamina said quietly, an edge to her voice, and Jacob did not need to be told twice.

He got all of three steps and the world swung violently around him and went dark.

 

Hard hands gripped him around the ribs, hoisted him off the ground, swatted the dirt off his pants legs.

Jacob wobbled a little, steadied himself, looked around.

It was night, there were funny looking street lamps, kind of yellowish, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew these were gas lamps -- genuine gas flame lamps, and he wondered at this, for he'd never seen anything but the bluish mercury vapor or yellow iodine bulbs.

The pale eyed man squatted, looked the lad square in the face.

"You okay, son?" he asked, his voice gentle, and Jacob's breath caught.

His eyes went big and his jaw dropped.

"My name's Linn," the man said quietly. "Haven't seen you around."

"Mama," Jacob stammered, then he closed his mouth, tried again. "I'm sorry, sir, my name is Jacob." He extended a hand.

"Pleasure, Jacob." The man frowned a little. "Your shoulder givin' you trouble?"

Jacob nodded.

"Broke it?"

"No, sir, dislocated."

"Ow," Linn said sympathetically. "Can you use it okay?"

"Yes, sir."

The man nodded. "Your Mama," he said, "is she close?"

Jacob looked up, relief washing over him like it was poured over him from a bucket.

"Yes, sir," he said.

"Good." The man straightened easily, turned.

Willamina looked at the pale eyed man and Linn looked at the pale eyed woman.

"I haven't seen you before," Linn said, looking down at what must have been to him a shocking-short hemline.

"Actually you have," she said, "several times. The first time was in Afghanistan. You had your wife's double gun."

"CONSTABLE!" a voice shouted, and Linn turned, then turned back.

"Excuse me," he said civilly, touching his hat brim, "we have something," and he turned and strode toward the cubical brick building.

"Constable?" Jacob asked, puzzled, and Willamina steered him off the walk and into shadow.

"Jacob," she said quietly, "do you remember my reading about his walkdown with Butcher Knife Joe?"

Jacob nodded.

"This is the night."

"How do you know, Mama?"

She took his hand and they walked across the grassy lot and up to the cubical building, and they walked through the brick wall.

Willamina squatted quickly, put her lips to Jacob's ear.

"We are the ghosts here. I don't think they can see us."

Jacob nodded.

Willamina straightened, looked around; sure enough, nobody paid them the least attention.

Linn strode through the front door, reached into his pocket, pulled out something silver, shiny.

He leaned over the Council table, raised his hand, slapped something hard onto the table top: "I TOLD YOU I WILL NOT BE CONSTABLE! I'LL BE TOWN MARSHAL BUT DAMNED IF I'LL BE CALLED CONSTABLE!"

The door slammed open and a rough-looking fellow with worn-at-the-knees trousers and a bloodied cheekbone nearly fell into the room.

"Constable," he half-shouted, "Butcher Knife Joe is nuts again! He's killed one with a pick handle and he's lookin' for you!"

Linn turned his pale eyes like gun turrets toward the village Council.

"I'm going to go take care of this," he said quietly, "and when I get back you'd damn well better pass that resolution to make me town Marshal or by God! I'm leaving tonight and be damned with you!"

Willamina took Jacob's hand and they walked across the room, through a table and through several men, some seated, some standing, and through the brick wall to the cleaner air outside.

Ghosts or not, they could smell the thick, cigar-fouled air inside, and the cooler, dirt-and-fresh-dug-coal smell of the river bottom was far less objectionable.

"There he is," Willamina whispered, her hand going under her jacket and gripping the handle of her Glock pistol.

Jacob saw a man with a bloodied, oval-headed pick handle in one hand and a pistol in the other.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, "and here they come!"

"They?"

Willamina turned and looked up the street.

They saw the man they knew as The Old Sheriff.

He was younger, much younger than any of the drawings or the tin types they'd seen back home in Firelands, but his eyes were old, just as old as the oldest images they'd viewed.

That's not what had their attention.

The street was full.

Men in blue jackets and blue trousers, men with rifled muskets, men with bayonets fixed -- men in ranks, one after another, marching in perfect step: the first three ranks had their rifles leveled, bayonets forming a steel barrier before them: behind them, rifles were carried upright, affixed blades a forest of death, shoved vertically into the night air, and behind these, three rows of mounted cavalrymen, sabers drawn and upright against their shoulders.

Jacob could feel their measured tread and he could feel their iron jawed determination as they followed this man they'd followed in life.

Butcher Knife Joe shouted angrily and cast his bloodied club into the street, raised his pistol, fired.

Linn marched at the head of his men, his step as regular, as measured as theirs, his back straight, his pale eyes hard and unforgiving as he faced the man who intended to kill him.

Jacob saw Linn's hat twitch as a ball seared through its brim; another shot, his open coat jumped a little as the third ball passed through the fabric.

Willamina brought out her Glock pistol, raised it at arm's length, took a good steady two hand grip and got her sight picture.

Butcher Knife Joe fired again, a fifth time, and Willamina began her trigger press --

Linn surged forward, grabbed Joe's empty pistol, twisted it aside and drove his own Navy Colt into the man's gut, pulled the trigger.

Willamina saw the spray out the man's back as the .36 ball carried through his belly and out the back and she released her trigger a tenth of an ounce before it would have broken over.

She watched as her pale eyed ancestor stripped the empty pistol out of the dying man's grip, she waited until he holstered his own revolver, she waited until he shoved the battlefield prize under his own belt and drew his coat over it, waited until he executed a crisp, military about-face and paced off with the same measured tread.

She knew he was returning to the Village Hall.

Willamina and Jacob both blinked painfully as their night-dilated eyes were seared by the hot afternoon sun; heat soaked quickly through their shoulders, and they leaned against each other for a long moment as they got their bearings again in the world of light and the living.

"You wanted to see the night it happened," Linn said, his voice quiet but hard-edged: he stood before them, solid and real, and he extended a percussion revolver to Jacob.

"You might as well have this," he said. "You saw me take it off old Joe."

"Yes, sir," Jacob said faintly, then, "Thank you, sir."

Linn looked at the pale eyed woman. "You're right," he said. "We did first meet there, and I did use my wife's gun." He looked at Jacob again, and back to Willamina.

"His good manners could have come from only one place," he added seriously. "In my day such manners were the rule, but in your age they are rare."

Willamina tilted her head a little, curious.

"My dear descendant, might a broken hearted old man ask a beautiful younger woman a favor?"

"Yes," Willamina whispered.

"When next you are able, I would like you to stand in front of a mirror."

"A mirror."

"Reach over your shoulder and pat yourself on the back, then look at your reflection and say, 'You did well,' because you have."

He squatted, looked frankly at Jacob, sizing him down and back up and nodding.

"You remind me of my own boy," he said, and Jacob grinned, quick, broad and delighted.

He stood again.

"You remind me of me," he said. "You've got years of grief bottled up."
Willamina's eyes were guarded.

"Don't. Get it out. You're close to your father's grave. Throw yourself on the ground before his stone and cry like a lost child. Scream and wail and soak the ground with bitter tears."

"Is that what you did?" Willamina asked, her voice hard-edged again.

Linn nodded slowly, his eyes bleak.

"Yes," he said finally. "Yes, I did."

 

It wasn't until their return to Firelands that Jacob saddled his Apple-horse and rode to the old graveyard, the one where his thrice-great granddad was buried.

He dismounted and stared at the double stone, the one with LINN on the right and ESTHER on the left.

He walked a little to the left and read his own name and knew the Sheriff's son and his wife were buried here, and he looked at other graves, and came back to his Very Great Granddad's grave, and he sat down on the ground, cross legged.

"Mama did like you said," he reported, talking to the stone, "and a Sheriff's deputy was there with his K9 officer. The dog came over and set down beside her and she cried hard and the dog howled just like The Bear Killer did when Uncle Pete and Aunt Martha died, and Mama put her arm around that dog and cried all the harder."

But if I tell you about that conversation, and how Jacob wondered aloud whether his words were being heard, and then he turned and found a white wolf sitting in arm's reach, looking at him, why, I would be getting too far ahead of myself.

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33. WOODS WALK

 

Linn smacked the back of his hand, rolling the deerfly: the biting fly had deviled him enough that morning and he took care of the problem the same way he'd taken care of the little black woods musquitters.

More than a century later, Jacob smacked the back of his hand and rolled the deerfly, disposing of it the same way he'd ended the careers of several tiger striped Asian musquitters.

The woods were fragrant, quiet; a century ago, it smelled the same as it did now, the birds sounded much the same.

 

Richard looked at the Perry County Sheriff.

"How old was Linn when all that happened?"

The Sheriff frowned at the computer screen, scrolled down, scrolled back, nodded.

"He was nine years old."

"Nine?" Richard blinked. "That's ..."

He leaned back in his chair, considering his own son.

"That's my boy's age."

 

"Mama?"
Willamina swatted at a mosquito. "Hm?"
"Mama, how come Old Grampa walked down on Butcher Knife Joe?"

"I, um ..." Willamina blinked, waved her hand in front of her face. "What, I'm sorry?"

"Old Grampa," Jacob repeated impatiently. "Why didn't he just shoot him? He didn't have to get that close. Why'd he let Butcherknife Joe shoot all those times?"
Willamina turned slowly, her eyes busy, studying the brush, the trees, the shadowed woods-light.

Jacob knew his Mama was not entirely comfortable; he was looking, too, and Willamina froze as his hand closed on hers.

She turned, dead slow, turned her eyes as far as they would go to see what her son was looking at.

He was facing along their back trail, along the abandoned logging road used only rarely by oilfield maintenance equipment.

Her hand returned his squeeze as she, too, saw it.

A doe was watching them, her ears swung around like radar dishes, moist black nose twitching.

Her fawn had no such idea.

The fawn was happily rooting for a meal, its tail windmilling like a goat's, and mother and son watched mother and son, each one listening, watching, smelling.

It was not until Junior got his fill, and doe and fawn drifted into the dappled shadows, that Willamina returned to Jacob's question.

"You asked why your Old Grampa didn't just shoot Joe from a distance?"

"Yeah."

They were walking back to the township road, walking on the high center of the oilfield track to keep out of mud and standing water.

"Your Very Great Grampa blamed himself for his wife's death, and for his little girl's death."

"He didn't kill 'em," Jacob protested, looking up at his Mama with a distressed expression.

"I know," Willamina nodded, "but he felt ... guilt ... because of everything he'd been through. Because of his men who were killed. He was the man in charge, he was commanding officer, they were his responsibility. I think he carried all that guilt for the rest of his life."

"I'm confused," Jacob admitted. "What's that got to do with a walkdown?"

"Maybe he wanted Joe to kill him."

"Nah," Jacob said confidently. "He wouldn't do that."

"Maybe he wanted to be sure he'd hit Joe. Did you see how many people were behind him? Maybe Granddad didn't want to risk missing."

"He coulda got a rifle," Jacob suggested.

"Overpenetration and availability."

"Oh ... yeah," Jacob agreed with a disappointed voice.

Jacob stopped, turned, and Willamina saw his quick grin as he spotted another something in the woods: to her left, a squirrel cussed them from several feet up a white oak.

They emerged and Jacob looked back into the woods as Willamina hit the remote unlock on the Jeep.

"I like it here," he said.

"Even if there are no mountains?" Willamina teased.

"I'd have to have Apple-horse. And Bear Killer."

"How about your Dad and I?"

Jacob looked over a pair of nonexistent spectacles and gave his Mama "That Look."

"Okay," Willamina laughed. "Let's get something to eat!"

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34. WE DO THE BEST WE CAN

 

Jacob straightened, his eyes big, his expression that of a hound raising its ears at the sound and scent of its quarry.

Jacob's Mama's eyes went a little pale and she came off the throttle, fast.

The Jeep had a great deal of squared off frontal surface -- "it has all the aerodynamics of a billboard," she'd joked -- but it also helped slow it from wind resistance without nailing the brakes, given enough advance warning.

Her right hand described a little circular motion and Jacob knew she was reaching for the microphone that wasn't there.

He deliberately ignored her profanity, vicious and heartfelt though it was, hissed between clenched teeth as she slowed and planned her approach.

"Jacob, check your phone," she said, "see if we have signal."

"Three bars, Mama."

"Make the call."

The Jeep speakers hummed a little, a professional voice said "911, do you need fire, police or ambulance?"

"This is Sheriff Willamina Keller, Firelands County, Colorado. We are on Ohio 13 a mile and a quarter south of Corning at the scene of a two-car collision, one vehicle on its side, both off pavement and no fire seen. Requesting fire, medic squad and backup. Firelands One on scene, out of the vehicle."

Jacob's breathing was a little quicker, his mind processing the sight of two vehicles off the road, either steaming or smoking: an arm hung limp out one window, the windshield was bulged out from the inside like half a volleyball.

"Jacob," Willamina said, her voice as brisk and businesslike as it was when talking with the 911 dispatcher, "grab the kit and bring it to me."

"Firelands One, Perry County 911," the confident masculine and unnervingly disembodied voice said from somewhere behind the windshield.

"Firelands One, go."

"Fire and EMS enroute, ETA two minutes, OHP responsive from Athens County."

"Copy. Will you be on-line for initial triage or do I call back?"

"I'll hold."

"Out of vehicle."

Willamina walked forward, her ear twitching as the air raid siren began to howl up the valley, summoning fire and medical personnel to the run.

"Jacob, stay there," she said, looking in the driver's window of the nearest car: it was on its wheels, its front end mashed back and bent upward, what was left of the engine was under it.

So was what was left of the driver.

Willamina still made the effort to check for a carotid, though once she touched flesh she realized patient number one was nonviable.

"Jacob, relay one dead," she called, and heard the faint "Yes, Mama," as she struggled out from under and stood, thrusting her head inside.

The front seat wasn't there: it was under the car, too, along with a good percentage of the floor.

Willamina saw what looked like a doll ... about a two year old sized doll, mostly under the dash on the passenger side.

She looked in the back seat.

Empty, she thought, thank God!

She skipped around the car, reached in the broken-out window, practiced fingers feeling for the pulse she prayed would push against her fingertips.

For a long moment her stomach free-fell, then she felt it ... there! ... and again!

"Jacob, one alive," she called, and Jacob dutifully spoke into his cell phone.

Willamina could not hear the disembodied voice in her son's ear, the reassuring, deep, masculine "You're doing fine, son, you're being a big help."

She couldn't hear it, but Jacob could, and it was something a scared little boy needed to hear, as he watched his Mama do what she did best.

 

Linn's Pa leaned over the rock ledge, belly down on the bare sandstone, looking down at his son.

Linn looked up at his Pa.

"He's bleedin' bad, Pa," he called, his hands tight around the shattered limb. "I can't squeeze it tight enough to stop the blood!"

Linn shifted the pad, pushed it hard with the heel of his hand, and the blood slowed significantly.

"I might have it," he called, his voice quieter, "but he's lost an awful lot, Pa!" He looked up at his father and the Old Man saw his son's eyes were big but steady in his pale face.

"How we gonna get him outta here, Pa?"

 

Jacob backed up against their rented Jeep as the firemen ran from the truck, toward the upturned car.

He heard his Mama's voice as she addressed them -- she was good at giving orders, he knew -- and she came out from behind the car, her front all dirty from where she'd bellied down to crawl under the first car for a pulse check.

Jacob handed her the phone.

"911, Firelands One."

"Firelands One, go."

"The cavalry are on scene. One dead, one trapped, two injured. I'll wait for the State Patrol in case they need a statement."

"Yes, ma'am. We thank you for your help."

"Firelands One clear," she said, then lowered the phone, tapped the red hangup icon, handed it back to her son.

 

Richard looked up at the knock on the Sheriff's door.

A deputy leaned in. "Beg pardon, Sheriff," he said, then to Richard, "Sir, is your wife's name Willamina?"

"It is," Richard said, rising.

"She is Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado?"

"She is."

"She just called in a wreck."

"Hers?" Richard asked, and the deputy heard Richard gather himself, like a boxer drawing in his elbows before engaging the opponent.

"No, sir. She came across it right after it happened."

"And my son?"

The deputy grinned. "Sir, I hope my sons are as steady as that young man was!"

 

Linn wrapped his cut-off shirt sleeve around the wound, bound it as tight as he could, knotted it quickly.

"Ready," he called, his hand wrapping around the hand plaited rope.

His Pa spoke to the gelding and the rope tightened, raising the limp figure from a shockingly large puddle of coagulating blood, hoisting it up the rock bluff.

His Pa reached over, grabbed the shoulders, heaved, brought the unmoving figure up onto the shelf it'd fallen from.

It took Linn several minutes to skirt around the bluff, find his way back up -- he'd come down in a hurry, climbing down the exposed strata as easily as a squirrel down a white oak -- the trip up was considerably more difficult, but he made it.

His Pa was just straightening from squatting beside the figure; he looked over at his son, shook his head, and Linn's expression was absolutely, utterly lost.

 

The State Trooper handed Willamina the OH-4, the witness statement, and she began filling it out, precisely, neatly, concisely: Jacob watched the firemen as they opened the passenger door, the medics as they stablized the girl, started the IVs and immobilized her various injuries: his cell phone rang and he put it to his ear.

"Jacob Keller," he said, and his father's voice said "Jacob, are you and your mother all right?"

"Yes, sir," Jacob said, "only ..."

"Jacob?"

"I'm here, sir. Mama is filling out a report. I'm watching everything and Mama checked everyone out before the firemen got here and she's all dirty down her front!"

Willamina pretended not to hear that last comment.

She looked up from her form to see a still figure, sheeted and on a folding cot, being placed to the side.

She felt half sick.

"You were first on scene," the trooper said -- a statement, not a question.

She nodded, handed him the form on its thick aluminum clipboard.

He looked at it, admiring its tidy nature, then stopped on her signature.

"Sheriff ... Colorado?" he asked, his voice rising a little with the interrogative.

Willamina opened her ID wallet, laid it atop the form he was examining.

 

Linn looked at the unmoving figure, dreadfully pale, almost waxy from blood loss.

"You did your best," the old man said, his hand warm on Linn's back. "You tried. That's all we can do."

 

Willamina looked at the still figure, sheeted and unmoving, the one they brought out from under the car.

You did your best, she thought.

You tried. That's all we can do.

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35. TESTIMONY

"Mama?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"I don't really have much appetite."

Willamina looked over at her son, reached over and gave his hand a quick squeeze.

"Me neither," she admitted. "Let's go see what your father found."

"Yes, ma'am."

They coasted up to the Corning stoplight, eased to a halt: Willamina saw a horse trailer to her right, at the little gas station/convenient store, and on impulse, turned.

She pulled in beside the trailer and Jacob grinned to see a uniformed Sheriff's deputy coming back out of the white-painted, concrete-block building, a bottle of tea and a sandwich in hand: Willamina stepped out of the Jeep, and Jacob kind of swarmed out of his side, youthful enthusiasm quickly displacing any distress that might have lingered from their most recent adventure.

They watched as the deputy placed his purchases on the seat of his truck, then went around and opened the back of the horse trailer: he disappeared within, and the horse's restless hooves were loud on the heavy plank floor, they heard the man's reassuring voice and the horse's answering nicker, a few miscellaneous bangs and finally the big grey gelding backed out of the trailer, the deputy at his head, one hand on the cheek strap and the other on the horse's neck, the man's voice calm, reassuring, saying the nonsensical things a man will say to his horse.

Willamina tilted her head, assessing the mount, and the deputy saw her looking, and grinned -- whether it was at the sight of a good looking woman, or a woman who was all dirty down her front, she wasn't sure.

"You must be that Colorado Sheriff," he grinned, ducking under the grey's head and thrusting out a callused hand. "Rollin Parker."

"Willamina Keller."

The man's grip was firm, she made a mental note of approval as she felt his calluses, and that though he did return her firm grip, he didn't try to crush hers.

She smiled. "I don't usually look this bad."

He laughed. "Trust me, I've looked worse!" He gave her an appraising frown and said, "Know anything about horses?"

Willamina stepped up and let the grey snuff at her, then her hands took on a life of their own: she looked at everything from eyes, ears and teeth, to hooves, shoes and hide: her fingers traced a linear, hairless scar along one flank and she turned and shot an accusing look at the deputy.

"Yes ma'am, that's where he was shot," he said. "We were after an escaped prisoner two years ago. I've got the matching scar right here." He bent a little and slashed a finger along the inside of his right calf. "The bullet went right between us but it got us both."

Willamina patted the grey's hind quarter and spoke to him before slipping around behind, continuing her examination: something told the deputy she most definitely knew her way around horses.

She tugged at the cinch, nodded approvingly at the saddle blanket with its stitched-on Sheriff's Office patch, then turned to look very directly at the deputy.

"You're not from Texas by any chance?" she asked, and he blinked, surprised.

"No ma'am," he admitted, and Willamina smiled, caressed the grey's shoulder.

"Only a Texan cares for his horses as well as you care for this fella," she said softly.

He grinned. "I'll take that as a complement, ma'am." He considered a moment, then offered, "Would you like to try him?"

Willamina laughed. "If I wasn't in a dress I'd take you up on it," she smiled, "but we're headed back for the motel. I need to clean up and my son Jacob here could likely eat the horn off an anvil!"

Deputy Parker laughed, nodding. "My son is much the same. I wish I could take feedin' him off my taxes, I'd be able to retire early!"

"I'll not keep you. We turned in when I saw your horse trailer."

Jacob returned from where he'd slipped back to the Jeep. "Here's Mama and Cannonball," he offered, handing the deputy his tablet: the deputy grinned broadly to see this pale-eyed woman in jeans and a denim jacket, with a rifle in hand and Colts at her belt, astride a shining copper mare, obviously in mid-stride and covering ground.

"Now that's a good shot," he said softly.

"Jacob is quite the photographer," Willamina smiled.

"He has the eye." The deputy winked at the grinning lad as he handed back the tablet. "Cannonball, you say?"

"My Great-Great-Grandfather was second Sheriff of Firelands County," Willamina explained. "He was given a copper mare by a Mexican breeder, a horse out of the golden racer Rey del Sol. My Cannonball is of that line. He and I both named our mares that because when she takes off it's like riding a ball from a field gun!"

She squeezed Jacob's shoulder. "We won't keep you, Deputy Parker. Thank you for your hospitality. I'll be testifying in court tomorrow."

"That stolen horse at the airport?"

She nodded. "The same."

He grinned. "You take care now, ma'am, and good to meet you both." He grinned at Jacob again, making sure the lad was included, and Willamina and Jacob smiled and waved in reply.

 

They were less than a mile up the road when Jacob's phone rang, the warbling tone coming through the Jeep's hands-free system.

Richard's voice laughed as he heard something bi-syllabic, followed by two voices chorused in "Keller," and he said "One at a time, please!"

Sheriff Keller and Jacob Keller grinned at one another; Willamina spoke first.

"It's me, dearest, what's up?"

"Willa, you're not going to believe all the stuff I've come up with!" Richard crowed. "Sheriff Thomas printed out some really old reports and get this -- the first one is when the Old Sheriff was Jacob's age!"

"Really?" Jacob asked in a delighted voice.

"Yes, and he showed me on an old map and I have a copy where it happened," Richard said, all in a rush and getting ahead of himself as he sometimes did when in private and rather delighted.

"We might have come near it," Willamina speculated.

"You may have driven either over or right by it. I'll show you and we can overlay it on a current county map."

"I like maps," Jacob said quietly, and Willamina laughed, "Me too, Jacob!"

"How's your day so far?"

"Productive!" Willamina exclaimed. "And filthy. I'm all dirty and I need a shower and clean clothes, and I believe I'll be testifying tomorrow on that horse case."

"Meet you at the motel, dearest?"

"You're buying supper!"

Richard laughed. "I haven't even eaten lunch," he admitted.

"Us neither, and I want steak!"

"Sheriff Thomas recommended a place."

"Sounds good! See you shortly!"

 

A shower, a change of clothes, a good meal and the three spent an hour afterward, poring over the Perry County Sheriff's printouts: Willamina produced a well thumbed copy of her honored ancestor's Journal and referred back and forth between the two, taking notes, frowning, muttering, running her finger down the old map: at one point they placed the current county map against a nearby window and overlaid the printout of the old map on it to get an idea of where the Old Sheriff's boyhood rescue had been.

"All we have is the report that the stranger fell off a rock bluff," Richard said, frowning at his hand written notes and glancing back over to one of the reproduction sheets, "and was dead by the time they got him hoist back up."

"He says a little about it here," Willamina murmured. "This is his earliest accounts ... he mentions not being able to stay the man's bleeding."

"Stay the bleeding?" Jacob chirped, looking up from his banana split.

"It's kind of an old phrase," Willamina explained.

"I like the way it sounds."

"So do I," Willamina smiled. "Just like the Bible. I like the King James because of the archaic language."

"Sheriff Thomas said he knew this area," Richard tapped the map with an imperative fingertip, "as BK Crossing. It wouldn't have been known as that until the railroad went through and there was an actual crossing."

"Unless that referred to a creek crossing," Willamina said thoughtfully. "Hatfield's Mill was not far below that."

"Thomas said there's a hell of a high rock cliff just east of the highway."

"He's right," Willamina nodded. "I remember it well."

Jacob debated whether to ask for another banana split, decided against it: he was comfortably full, and would remain so for at least another five minutes.

 

"I don't know how you do it," Richard murmured as he looked up from knotting Jacob's tie.

Jacob tolerated his father's attentions, waiting patiently for the man to finish: he knew his father would then tie his own tie, and Jacob would discreetly remove his father's slightly lopsided, triangular, old-man's knot and re-tie it in a neat, square Windsor knot, the way his Mama taught him.

Jacob might only be nine years old but he well knew the value of diplomacy, and it was diplomatic to let his Pa tie his tie, for the man would never notice the new knot -- in two years' time he never had, and Jacob had carefully avoided ever mentioning the change.

Willamina smiled at her husband as she turned away from the mirror, her hand at her throat and the abbreviated, feminine necktie she wore with her uniform blouse.

"You don't know how I do what?" she smiled, winking at Jacob as he sidled away, his own hand rising to the ugly knot his father just well-meaningly inflicted upon him.

"You take so little by way of luggage but you have everything you could possibly need." Richard shook his head. "How could you ever know you would need uniform so you could appear in court?"

Willamina blinked. "My good suit dress is dirty," she said innocently. "By the way, I need to drop it off at the cleaner's on our way back, and Sheriff Thomas invited us to their qualification." She gave her husband an impish look, turned a little sideways. "I think it'll be fun!"

"Yes, dear," Richard said quietly, and they both laughed -- it was a standing joke between them -- one evening Willamina was discussing how she would like to go into Denver and take in a theater production, and Richard, pretending to ignore her, hid behind his newspaper and in a horribly nasal voice said "Yes, dear. That's nice, dear. Whatever you say, dear."

He lowered the paper and laughed as Willamina shook a wooden spoon at him and made a terrible face, then they both laughed: his nasal "Yes, dear," had become a standing joke between them, and so it was this morning.

Breakfast was at a nearby restaurant.

It may be significant -- it certainly was to Willamina -- that when Richard was paying their bill at the register, the waitress came up to Willamina and looked at Jacob and whispered, "Thank you."

"For what? Willamina blinked, surprised.

"You have the most polite son," the waitress observed. "There's only one place he could have learned those manners." She looked at Richard's broad, square shoulders, then back to Willamina. "Thank you for raising him right."

Willamina blinked again, bit her bottom lip, then whispered, "Thank you."

 

Willamina approached the Clerk of Courts. "Sheriff Willamina Keller," she said. "I believe I am to give testimony in a horse theft today."

The clerk pushed her wheeled office chair back, spun quickly to face the pale-eyed woman, sorted through some papers.

"I've got it here," she said slowly, then stopped and handed Willamina a single sheet.

"He plead out already."

"He what?" Willamina blinked.

"I understand when he found he'd been caught by a visiting Sheriff and then we showed him the picture of the stolen horse's tattoo, he gave up and entered a plea."

"Well how about that," Willamina laughed.

"I like the uniform," the clerk said thoughtfully. "Is that what your deputies wear?"

"All but the skirt."

"Skirt?" The clerk jumped up, leaned over the counter. "I'll be damned!"

She considerately refrained from commenting on the ugly shoes.

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36. SMILE

Sheriff Willamina Keller faced the roomful of faces.

She'd met less than a handful already but she knew every one of them, for they were brother lawmen: some were hardened veterans, some were green and inexperienced, there were two other women; most were in civilian attire, for it was their yearly qualification.

"Sheriff Thomas, thank you for that kind introduction," Willamina smiled to the distinguished and greying older man, "and I think my head just swelled three sizes."
There was a polite ripple of chuckles; it was common for a new speaker to open with something at least mildly humorous, and so Willamina's opening was -- thus far -- pretty much what they expected.

"You already have a training officer, you already have your course of training established. You have your rules of engagement and your weapon and ammunition specifications and I will not cover any of that. That's your department's say and I won't tread upon their ground."

She paused, looked around, sweeping the room.

"I'm not your typical Sheriff. Obviously I'm not a guy and I don't try to be. I am a leader, just like I led Marines in combat" -- there were several changes of expression at that, and not a few sat up straighter: a woman good enough to be a Marine, a woman good enough to lead Marines, in combat, was a woman they were suddenly very willing to listen to.

"I am also a wife and a mother and I'm not normal there either." Her smile was sudden and genuine. "I married retired FBI who consults now -- he said he does the same thing he always did, only without the politics" -- a few heads nodded slowly, and most smiled again -- "and our son killed the man who tried to kill me."

Her words were so unexpected, the training room was suddenly very, absolutely, silent.

"If I were to unbutton my blouse and remove my turtle shell" -- she knocked on her chest with careful knuckles, flinching a little -- "you would see a big scab right here. I inherited most of a magazine of nine-millimeter hardball from a suppressed stutter gun and even with armor and with a steel boned corset under that, it nearly killed me." Her voice was flat, her face hard. "First order of business, I want every one of you sorry sons to wear your armor. We've only got one of you and I don't care to perform another lawman's funeral. I did the funeral service for my old police partner and it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life."

She let that sink in for a moment.

"Right now I have a scab the size of your hand -- here -- where those several impacts turned meat into hamburger. Under that there's wire stapled to the bigger chunks of bone, holding it together while it heals, and about a half dozen ribs as well, or so I was told. It's taken me a while to heal as well as I have and I'll tell you right now, even as I stand here under no stress, these old bones ache like a toothache!"

"Your son," one of the women prompted, and Willamina nodded.

"My son used my father's revolver. I had it in a frame on my office wall. He came out the front door right after I went down and he put one round into my assassin's face. Right," she said, placing her thumb directly under her nose, "here. One shot."

"Dear God," a voice whispered.

"He wasn't satisfied with that. They thought I was dead. Jacob started CPR on me and my brother -- my twin brother, he's acting Sheriff while I heal up -- told Jacob I was gone, and Jacob hauled off and drove him square in the nose." Willamina smiled sadly, looked down. "Right about then I took a breath, or so I'm told. All I remember is looking up at the underside of my Jeep's passenger running board wondering what I was doing under there."

"What brings you here?" a voice asked, its speaker's hand rising like an uncertain, pale balloon.

Willamina smiled. "I promised my son we would learn more about my Great-Great-Grandfather. He was second Sheriff of Firelands County but he grew up just south of Corning. I also stopped and hung a wreath on the guardrail where my father was murdered."

"Ted?" Sheriff Thomas asked, and Willamina turned her head, looked at him, nodded.

"So. That's all I've got, other than my husband and son will be at the range with us, and if it won't be too offensive, Jacob would like to shoot qualification with you."

She looked over at Sheriff Thomas again, who nodded slowly.

"He'll be using a revolver, the twin to the one he used to keep me alive. Until all the dust settles on my shooting, my Daddy's revolver will have to stay in evidence. You know how it is."

"Oh, yeah," Sheriff Thomas nodded.

"Okay. I've taken two minutes forty seconds and that's plenty. Sheriff, she's all yours."

The Sheriff deferred to the training officer, who went over multiple subjects -- Willamina listened carefully, refraining from any move, nod or grimace that might indicate any disagreement -- after a half hour, they dismissed to the range, Jacob and Richard with them, still in shirts and neckties.

Jacob and Richard also both wore their suit coats.

The range was in an old strip mine; the highwall behind the targets was high enough that a man would have to work at it to put a stray round over the top.

It could be done but it would have to be intentional.

The rangemaster was less than comfortable with a child on his line, and was discreet enough to voice this very quietly to Willamina, away from the others.

Willamina smiled disarmingly.

"I can understand your ... concern," she said carefully, "liability is something we all have to consider." She looked over at Jacob, then at the row of silhouettes stapled to the press board backers. "How about he goes first, then?"

"Okay," the rangemaster nodded.

"Jacob," Willamina called, and Jacob removed his suit coat and handed it to his Pa.

He wore an undistinguished, apparently unaltered revolver in a left-hand thumb break holster.

Willamina opened her own shooting bag, brought out a cloth pouch, nodded to her son, then to the target butts.

"Twenty yard mark," she said, then to the rangemaster, "Come with us."

Jacob stopped at the sign stenciled with a black 20, looked at his Mama.

Willamina stood to his right and back by a half-step.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Shooter ready!" Jacob shouted enthusiastically, and Willamina smiled.

She reached both hands into the cloth bag, bending over to reach its contents; she stepped on the bag to make sure it stayed put, then she straightened, throwing something into the air.

Jacob drew, his move swift, easy, coordinated, and something told the rangemaster he'd done this very thing a lot of times before.

The revolver fired -- six times -- the boy was shooting double action, he noted, and with each shot, a ball of colored plaster just plainly exploded in midair.

Six shots, six hits.

Jacob wasn't done.

His reload was equally fast and practiced, the empty speedloader hitting the ground at the same moment he brought the pistol up to eye level.

Six shots, another reload; the rangemaster mentally scribed a line from the pistol to the first target, considering the lad was boy-sized and the targets were man-sized, and it wasn't until Jacob reloaded again and fired the second target, emptied, showed empty and holstered an empty weapon, that he blinked and took a better look at the targets.

He was using the standard all-black silhouette targets.

The sandstone-and-dried-clay wall behind the targets was light in color.

He saw Jacob's rounds all were ... hits.

Twelve shots, six head shots on each target.

Not just head shots.

Jacob punched two eyes and a four-hole smile under them.

Both of them.

The rangemaster looked at the pale-eyed Sheriff and then at the boy and Willamina saw a new respect in the man's eyes.

The rangemaster turned, raised his summoning arm.

"I want every last one of you up here," he shouted. "I want you to see what a NINE YEAR OLD BOY WITH AN OLD REVOLVER CAN DO!"

He looked at Willamina and said quietly, "I would never have believed it had I not just seen it!"

He looked again at Jacob and continued, "Son, you can shoot with us, any time you want!"

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37. "MY NAME'S JACOB. I'M NOT FROM AROUND HERE."

Word travels fast in a small town, especially one with little by way of organized entertainment.

The county library system was forever on the scout for guest speakers -- they'd had Civil War re-enactors, they'd had presenters on haunts in Ohio (which was of special interest, as Perry County had its share of haints, spooks and boogers, or so it was claimed), so when a visiting Sheriff arrived and it was discovered she was researching, discovering and gathering information on a native son who went on to become a genuine Western Sheriff, a week's notice resulted in flyers, posters, e-mails and word of mouth.

The main room in the New Lexington library had chairs in neat ranks; the chairs were well filled, three walls had standing humanity, shoulder-to-shoulder, and the buzz of conversation filled the room.

Talk stopped and many of the assembled leaned forward a little, for they didn't expect quite how the show began.

Several young men came in, moving quickly, removing the podium and front table, hauling in an old wooden desk: they propped up a sheet of plywood behind it, set the braces behind and hung an old fashioned pendulum clock squarely behind the desk; they carried in a wood office chair, set it behind the desk, a girl (jarringly out of place) in a ponytail and poodle skirt came skipping in, set a black-bound journal book on the desk, frowned, picked it up and slapped a desk blotter in place, then placed the journal beside it: her twin, identical in appearance and attire, skipped in behind her, ponytail bouncing, placed an inkwell and a wooden pen holder with an old-fashioned, steel-nib dip quill thrust up at an aggressive angle; the two turned, faced the audience, put a forefinger under their chin, dipped their knees, then giggled their way down the center aisle and out of the room.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller swept in front of the front row.

Nobody saw her come into the room.

She wore black britches and black, knee-high Cavalry boots, a black shirt and vest and wild rag and a broad-brimmed black hat: she moved with the easy grace of a panther, and as she turned, her coat flared open to show the matched Colts on her belt.

She reached up over her shoulder and brought out a short, double-barrel shotgun -- a very short gun, cut off at the pistol grip and just ahead of the splinter fore-end.

She glared from under her hat brim, cold eyes contrasting with the severe midnight of her attire, and she nodded.

"You're here," she said. "Good. I don't have much time."

She turned over her lapel, displayed a bronze shield.

"This is need-to-know information and it does not leave this room," she declared, her voice pitched to hit the back wall and reflect back to her. "I am Agent Sarah Lynne Rosenthal, Firelands District Court, and you're new to the business. I'm here to tell you about the Sheriff."

The double doors at the back of the room banged open and a little boy with touseled hair and well polished boots yelled, "Agent! The Judge said the train's been robbed, rattle your hocks and make tracks!"

Sheriff Willamina Keller spun the shotgun up and over her shoulder, thrusting it back into its back-scabbard: she sprinted down the center aisle and out the door.

Heads turned, voices murmured, and the little boy sauntered up the middle like he owned the place.

He walked around behind the desk, set himself down in the office chair, kicked his boots up on the desk, grinning.

"I'm Jacob," he said in a cheerful, high, little-boy's voice. "I'm not from around here."

He pulled his ankle-crossed riding boots off the desk, banged them loudly to the polished wood floor, stood, put his fingers to his lips and whistled.

The twins came skipping in again, this time with an easel, and on the easel, a map: they planted the easel at the end of the desk, whirled and ran out again, giggling, and Jacob shook his head.

"Girls," he said in a mournful voice, which of course got a quiet laugh from the audience.

"Sheriff Linn Keller is my Pa," he declared proudly. "He come from here. Well ..."
Jacob frowned, considered.

"Not from here exactly."

He picked up a length of wooden dowel from the easel, used it as a pointer.

"We're here -- New Lexington -- and Pa, he's from down here." He squinted at the enlarged county map, then placed the dowel's filed and beveled end precisely on the spot. "Just below Corning.

"He grew up there and then he went to Chillicothe to sell some furs and he got married."

Jacob frowned again and muttered, "Boy, that was fast!" -- then he shook his head and looked at the audience and said with a solemn expression and a serious voice, "Girls will do that to you!"

He couldn't help but grin at the laughter that followed his straight faced pronouncement.

"Now Pa ought to be back shortly and he can speak for hisself because he knows about girls." He nodded again, frowning. "He married one" -- then he stopped and looked down.

"That was when him and the girl he married moved clear up to Lake Erie. They had a farm and he was fixin' to raise plow horses and kids and I think he said he wanted a dozen of each and then some fella come around and talked him into joinin' the Army and he fought in the Civil War."

The double doors opened again and a lean man with a curled mustache, a pale-eyed fellow on a gleaming Paso Fino mare, rode at a walk down the center aisle, between astonished and delighted audience members: he swung out of the saddle, handed the reins to Jacob and said quietly, "Take care of her, will you, Jacob?" and Jacob grinned, that delighted grin of a little boy who absolutely loves getting into whatever dear old Dad is busy with: "Yes, sir!" he exclaimed, and happily led the placid mare back out of the room.

"I understand Agent Rosenthal started to brief you," he said, hanging his Stetson on a peg and sitting on the corner of the desk.

Willamina glided up the center aisle, looking rather younger than her actual years in an electric-blue McKenna gown: she was the poised, composed image of a proper Victorian lady, and she fairly radiated gentility and culture as she coasted to a stop at the opposite corner of the Sheriff's desk.

Right before she parked her backside inelegantly and swung her leg, thumping the back of her heel quietly against the desk, looking with amusement at the pale-eyed lawman, the one favoring her with a cold glare.

The Sheriff -- the one in britches, the one with the curled handlebar -- shook his head a little and looked back.

"It's been a lot of years since that damned War," he said. "I went from here in Ohio through places and battles I try to forget, I fought beside men I will always remember." He looked down, frowning, looked back up.

"Here's how it happened."

Acting Sheriff Will Keller had flown East at his sister's summons -- all ways uneventful in Firelands County, so he appointed the acting chief deputy to fill in for him -- hoboes of a previous generation would say they "grabbed an armful of boxcar" for their travels, and Will cracked that he'd "grabbed an armful of airplane" when he met his sister at the airport.

He didn't know the history behind the Paso mare that waited on him outside the library; he knew only that she'd requested a particular appearance, and that he give the same presentation he'd given at local schools, and when he asked about the mare, he'd grinned broadly when his twin sister said she'd like him to ride it right into the library, that Jacob would bring it out.

Will Keller, great-great-grandson of that pale-eyed old lawman, took on the character of his honored ancestor, and described the man's progress, from boyhood in the wooded Ohio hills to farming the glaciated flat lands, through what he called "that damned war" with an edge to his voice -- Willamina admired the man's skill as a storyteller, for as he spun his tale, the listener was there with him, in the middle of the action: he spoke of his joys, his rage, the fear and the pain, the cold and the hunger, he spoke of triumphs and victories and he spoke of the first sunrise he saw over mountains he'd just crossed, and through his words they too saw golden shafts of light shatter and radiate from the back side of snowpeaks.

They walked with him down the warped and dusty boardwalk, they heard the hollow, measured pace of unhurried boot heels as he advanced on an appointment, they felt the rough cloth in their left fist as he seized a mouthy drunk and fetched the man's boot soles off the ground and quietly invited him to reconsider his words toward the ladies.

He spoke of building and of the town's increase, and of raising fists with that big red-headed Irish Chieftain on the depot platform, and how each honestly knocked the dog stuffing out of the other, and how they were the best of friends afterward, and he spoke of riding his copper-red Cannonball mare, and how she wove at speed through the apple trees he'd planted, at full gallop as smooth and as sinuous as a serpent.

His words were magic, and carried the listeners to a place they could see in color and smell in reality and feel and experience as if they were there themselves, and when he described The Lady Esther's four-count chant as she shouldered against the mountain grade, they could hear her whistle shatter off the granite bluffs as she shot great plumes of pure-white steam from her diamond stack.

He ended up his presentation with, "You've already met my boy Jacob." He nodded, extended a hand, and Jacob came sauntering almost insolently down the center aisle, grinning, his ears red: "when I was just taken over as Sheriff, some fella allowed as I just might crimp his style, so he fetched up a rifle and put lead into me." He stabbed a thumb into his low ribs. "Here, where that exploding cannon busted in my ribs.

"Jacob -- just as you see him now -- fetched out his Army Colt and allowed as this fella was a-gonna do no such thing, and Charlie Macneil settled the matter with a buffalo rifle, the the pair of 'em grabbed me by the shirt collar and yanked me inside."
He smiled quietly.

"I died, layin' on that plank floor, and my red headed fiancee come just a-hell-a-tearin' into town on her paint mare and allowed as she would NOT countenance my leaving this world, so all I could do was raise my hat and say "Yes ma'am" and crawl right back into my poor old carcass and live!"

He laughed quietly, as did they.

"So there it is. I started out just a poor Perry County hill runner and ended up owning a railroad and most of a gold mine, I married a red headed Irishwoman and raised a passel of young and I was Sheriff for most of the rest of my life."

He shook his head sadly and murmured, "I can get in trouble just sitting in my easy chair!"

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38. NEVER HAPPEN

Linn straightened his nine-year-old back and looked up.

A hawk swung slow overhead, looking for a meal, riding the updraft from sun-warmed winds being pushed up-hollow.

"I wonder if I'll ever fly," he murmured aloud, then laughed and went back to splitting wood.

Daydreaming was fine but it didn't fill the wood box.

 

Willamina leaned back in the upholstered seat as the Lear swung around, aiming itself like a silver arrow, ready to launch itself down the blacktop runway.

Richard was already nodding, his eyelids heavy, and Jacob's head was turned and he was watching out the window, grinning: he looked up at his Mama, then at his Uncle Will, and the pilot ran the throttles forward and Jacob's belly went Wheeeeeeeee! deep inside him as he was shoved deeper into the seat and the slender silver jet surged down the runway and lifted its nose, buoyed at the very beginning of its climb by a sun-warmed thermal being pushed up-hollow, heat helping the prevailing wind funneled by geography.

Willamina looked over at the briefcase of documents and records she'd harvested and smiled tiredly.

It had been a long two weeks, it was a week longer than she intended, but she needed that time.

Needed or not, it would feel really, really good to sleep in her own bed again.

It took Jacob about a half hour, but sitting in one place with the constant waterfall of just short of six thousand pounds of General Electric go power weighted his eyelids, too, and Willamina was pleased to see her active, busy, curious, swaggering, grinning son's eyes close and his head loll back and a little to the side, just like his father.

It took another three minutes but she, too, allowed herself to relax.

She relaxed, and as she did, her mind, not content to stop running like a racing engine, dreamed ... dreamed of a nine year old boy with ice-pale eyes, a grinning lad with a swagger and a grin, splitting wood and looking up at the sky and watching a hawk wheel and soar on a thermal, up-thrust from wind funneling up an east-west hollow.

She heard the boyish voice wonder aloud if we would ever fly like that, and then the laugh and young hands, already callused, picked up the ax and prepared to cleave another stick of elm into kindling.

"It'll never happen," he said aloud as the ax swung down in a quick, shining arc.

 

Willamina's eyes snapped open as the landing gear thumped down and the engines' pitch changed a little.

She was awake in a tenth of a second or less, adrenaline searing through her veins and blasting all drowsiness from her brain.

To her credit, she did not jump, but Jacob was awake and looking at her, concerned; he gripped the seat arms as the jet banked and began an appreciable descent.

"We're turning base leg," Richard said quietly. "We'll be down in less than a minute."

Jacob shifted in his seat, frowning a little, and Willamina knew this meant his young bladder just sent the full-mark signal.

"Not long now," she murmured, and Jacob smiled a little.

Yes, Mama."

 

The Bear Killer came streaking across the pasture, a young, black lion, maned and swift, and Jacob dropped his grip and grabbed the leaping canine and went over backwards, laughing as the enthusiastic canine gave his young master a thorough, vigorous and very happy face washing.

Crystal set down her wheelbarrow of stall scrapings and waved, and Willamina waved back, looking around, truly appreciating getting home where she belonged.

Jacob sat up, hands busy with The Bear Killer, who writhed and danced and groaned happily to have his pack around him again, and Jacob saw something above, something silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky.

He hugged The Bear Killer, and as he got another good chin laundering, he looked up at the hawk, wheeling on a mountain thermal, circling high above.

"I've been where you are," he whispered, and then The Bear Killer's happy greeting smothered any further comment.

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39. YOU AND YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS

"You're not," Richard said in a guarded voice.

"You're damned right I am," Willamina snapped, propping a boot up and yanking the laces like she was strangling a particularly hated enemy.

"Willa, you're still healing."

"And bones need stress to maintain strength!" Her voice carried and edge and her pale eyes should have been a warning.

Maybe they were, but Richard wasn't heeding the warning.

"Willa ... maybe this is ... premature?"

Willamina straightened, took a long breath, glaring at her husband.

Her hands closed slowly into tight, white-knuckled fists.

"It takes time to heal from broken bones," he said quietly, spreading his hands, palms-up: "your breastbone was shattered, you had a half dozen ribs broken loose, you've got enough wire to run an antenna --"

Willamina squatted, then rolled forward onto her knees, gripped the cast iron handles of the one-piece dumbbells.

They were octagonal, they were stable on the floor, they were her preferred push-up assists: she could get a deeper push-up using these than if she were just pushing flat-palmed on the floor (though if she were outside, she used her fists, the sod padding her knuckles as she labored)

Willamina gripped the handles, thrust her legs out, held for a moment, stiff-armed, then dropped quickly to the floor.

Richard expected -- hoped -- she would stop just short of the hardwood.

She almost did.

She made a strangled sound of pain, laid flat on the floor for a moment, then let go of the dumbells and half-twisted, curling up on her left side, drawing into a fetal ball: he saw her ears turn red, her face went pale, and her eyes were screwed tight shut.

He almost allowed himself the thought "This ain't good" -- but thrust it from him before it could form and be recognized.

Richard paced slowly over to his wife, knelt beside her, laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Willamina absolutely forbade herself to cry, and she hurt too much to swear -- she had a fine vocabulary, carefully cultivated for such moments, words that would stain the air with sulfur, cause the sky to darken, words that would blast the life from houseplants and kill crickets at twenty paces, words that would curdle milk and send small children running in terror.

She had such words for such moments, but frankly she hurt too much to utter any of them.

Richard waited patiently, though he wanted to roll her up in his arms and pack her out to the Jeep and haul her off to the emergency room.

Willamina's hand blindly grabbed through the air, found his pants leg, seized his thigh.

He leaned forward, gripped her shoulder. "I'm right here, Willa," he said gently, and Willamina's reply was a pained, quavering, childlike "Owww."

 

Linn watched with worried eyes as his Pa carried his Ma back into the house.

His Ma was white-faced with pain and she held one arm with the other kind of like she was holding and infant but she was holding her fore arm and he saw her shoulder hung kind of funny and he followed his Pa inside, least until the man said without looking, "Linn, go fetch Doc Kramer," and Linn said "Yes, sir," and snatched up rifle and possibles and powder horn and near to run out the door.

Later that evening his Pa set his Ma up in their bed, propped her with every feather pillow they had and two rolled up quilts besides, and he dosed her with some of Doc's opium nostrum so she could relax, and once she was asleep and breathin' easy, why, the Old Man come over and set down with his son.

"Your Ma broke her collar bone," he said quietly. "We'll have to tend everythin' she usually does."

"Yes, sir," Linn said in a hushed voice, for she was just across the room.

"You are a right fair cook and I reckon we kin take turns fixin'."

"Yes, sir."

"Do you know where she hung the bone set?"

"Yes, sir."

"Reckon you kin make her up some bone set tea?"

"Yes, sir."

His Pa nodded, turned and looked across at his sleeping wife.

"We been married a lot of years," he said thoughtfully. "I don't reckon I know how to behave with her laid up."

"Yes, sir," Linn agreed quietly.

 

Willamina ran up the white flag and accepted the pain pill.

"Do you know how much these go for on the street, just one pill?"

Richard shook his head.

"A buddy of mine is State Police. He said one of these little jewels is twenty bucks."

Richard whistled.

"Think what that bottle would bring."

Richard nodded.

"That's how a lot of Grandma's meds end up on the street. Either Grandma gets short on cash and sells 'em, or their grand kids steal 'em."
"How long before the pain stops?"

"P.O. meds take on average a half hour before they start to work. As far as how long until the pain stops, don't know."

"Will one be enough?"

"I've got some stuff that would intoxicate a volcano," Willamina said darkly. "If this doesn't work I'll help it a little."

Richard wisely refrained from comment.

He'd picked her up and packed her to bed, he'd helped her undress and he'd managed (somehow) to get her flannel nightie on her without causing too much more pain.

He considered that whatever he did, caused her pain, and anything he did wouldn't make it any worse

Willamina wasn't about to tell him he was right.

She snarled and growled about slow healing bones, about poor repairs, about having probably just pulled healing ribs apart and she would have big ugly calcium knots where she'd re-injured herself and she'd probably have to get get some liquid Soul Saver from under the cupboard and this damned cheap made medication isn't doing squat.

The nartcotic levels rose in her system and the pain quietly crept away between complaints, and Willamina stopped, suddenly realizing ... it didn't hurt now.

Not long after that she, too, was asleep, and helped by the refined extract of the opium poppy, compounded in a Plaster of Paris pill, she dreamed.

She dreamed she was sitting in her own office, and a pale-eyed young woman with a cynical twist to her lips, a pale-eyed young woman who looked much like the face Willamina saw in the mirror every morning, sat across from her.

"Well, sister?" Sarah McKenna asked, raising a knowing eyebrow. "How did your exercise go?"

"Exercise," Willamina growled, and in the dream her voice was normal and her chest felt fine.

"Exercise?"

She barked a sharp laugh.

"You and your bright ideas!"

Sarah shook her head sadly, tugged at her black vest, ran her fingers up the made-fast shirt front to make sure it was fast up.

"Sorry I asked."

"I haven't hurt like that in a very long time," Willamina wheezed, arms folded protectively over her dully aching chest.

"You and my father," Sarah nodded. "He said that same thing."

Willamina shot her a sharp look. "His ribs? From the cannon blowing up?"

Sarah nodded, looking thoughtful.

"You weren't born yet, how do you know?"

Sarah smiled quietly. "I was an investigator, remember? I found it out." She tilted her head a little, frowned.

"Why don't you try to sleep. Shakespeare wrote that it is a great healer."

"Yeah," Willamina gasped

She did not wonder when she shivered and she was in her own bed and laying on her side.

A dream, she thought, and relaxed, and let the submarine of her consciousness slide into the deeper levels of the dark lake of slumber.

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