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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

THE SHERIFF'S SON

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1.     NEEDFUL

 

I taken that heavy revolving pistol in both hands.
I knew well enough how it worked.
Hate burned my soul like fire in a boiler.
I was too weak to lay hands on him like I wanted.
There is no satisfaction to killing a personal enemy with any kind of a distance weapon.
There is only satisfaction by laying violent hands on the enemy, and by killing the enemy with my own grip, with beating my enemy with a rock or beating my enemy's head on a rock or by strangling my enemy.
I was not able to do any of those things.
I was too young and I was too weak so I did the next best thing.
My Mama married a man who took to drink and took to beatin' me and when Mama began to show she was pregnant he got to beatin' on her and finally he horse whipped me bad enough Mama grabbed his arm and screamed a-beggin' for him to stop, he decked her and he horse whipped on her and I was hurt too bad to move, let alone get up and stop him.
I laid there like I was dead.
Part of me was dead, I reckon, for I heard my Mama gasp and die and it took her a long time to do it and all I could do was lay there and listen and hate.
I hated myself because I was hurt too bad to get up and I hated that monster that done it to us and I hated everything in God's good creation and I laid there and listened and hated that I could hear but not move.
I heard that whiskey bottle gurgle some more and he drunk some more and he laid down in the bed he'd shared with my Mama and the moon was most of the way acrost the sky and he was a-snorin' the way a drunk will by the time I could get up all a-wobble on hands and knees, and it took me that long moon-crosing to get that little bit of strength up.
I couldn't stand.
Hell, I couldn't stay up on my hands and knees.
A baby in diapers was stronger than I was and I collapsed back down on the floor and set my jaw against the weakness trying to whimper its way out my sticky-dry throat.
I hadn't the strength to do aught else.
It took me the better part of an hour, I reckon 'twas, before I could waller over to the side of the bed.
I looked at the holes I'd bored in the side board and the rope I'd twisted and stretched and corded that bed with.
I'd done that for my Mama and a good job it was and now he was on that bed and I figured I would make it his death bed, and by God! I did just that!
Times had long been hard and I was skinny and stunted some and I was hurt and hurt bad, but somewhere I found me the strength to grab the side board of that bed I'd made for my Mama, and I had to stop and rest, and then I worked over torst the head of the bed and the bed post where the gunbelt hung.
I took me a long breath and I turned all that hate into my good right arm and I managed to reach up far enough to grip the walnut handle.
I didn't care he was close enough to reach out and grab me.
My vision was hazy with pain and all I was focused on was gettin' me a good handful of Colt's revolving justice and I done that.
It was considerable heavier than I expected and once I got it drawed out of leather I didn't let go of it but it drug my arm down to the floor and I had to rest some ag'in before I could raise it up.
I took the time to catch my wind, and as I breathed through my teeth and my back was callin' me unkind names, I looked over at him, a-layin' there drunk.
Dead drunk, I thought.
Damn you, I will guarantee you stay dead!
I spread my knees some to keep from fallin' over and I worked my way to my right until my chest faced his nose.
I taken that revolving pistol in two hands and I leaned back and hauled it up off the floor and it felt to weigh fifty pound or so.
I finally got the muzzle end of it up on the edge of the tick and I run out of steam and that gun barrel sagged until it touched the floor.
I took me several more breaths.
I daren't look over at what used to be Mama.
I was focused on killin' that monster that killed her.
I fetched the muzzle end of that blued steel revolvin' pistol up and laid it down on the sheet covered tick and I shoved it into his ear and I fetched the hammer back and he started to snort and work his nose the way he did when he was wakin' up and I made sure he didn't.
I blew his eternal soul and most of his brains out the other side of his head, and then I fell back, I fell on my whipped-raw back and I reckon I must've passed out.

It took me all of the next day to tend what had to be done.
I wrote me out a bill that give the spread and the live stock to who ever come along next and I stuck it in the door frame with his Barlow knife to guarantee it would be seen and not blow away.
I drug his carcass out with a rope and the mule and I drug him for most of a mile and left him lay for the buzzards and before I unhitched his ankles I spit on him and called him for the murderin' spawn of Beelzebub he was, and I hoped the demons from hell would split the earth open to come and drag him down.
They didn't.
I quit believin' in Hell and the devil that day, for I'd seen both of 'em and I'd brought Holy Justice to the evil that murdered my Mama.
I can't say it felt good and I can't say it felt bad.
I did not feel any regret a'tall about killin' him for I kept him from whippin' anyone else to death so I reckoned I done a good thing and that was enough.
I loosed up the rope and coiled it back on the saddle horn and me and the mule walked back real slow 'cause I was hurtin' and bleedin' from my back and it would not have surprised me to find he'd whipped me down to the bone, the way it felt.
I peeled off what was left of my shirt as I walked, I had to wait til the blood soaked it loose afore it would let go of my tore up back.
I looked at it and then throwed it away.  It was ruint anyhow.
I got Mama wrapped up in a quilt and I had to drag her out with the mule too for I lacked the strength.
I did get her a hole dug and I buried her proper and I set rocks on the grave to discourage anythin' that might want to dig her up, and that took genuinely all I had, and I turned the mule loose to graze and went back and collapsed in the cabin.
Me, not the mule.
I managed to fix me a meal just as the sun was a-goin' down and then I laid face down in my own bunk and I don't remember much after that.

I'd growed up so poor I couldn't hardly pay attention, let alone any bills, and there was two bits in cash money to be had so I taken that and I taken all the powder there was which amounted to one copper flask plumb full and a poke full of pistol balls, I had a little tin box with a hinged lid for to hold the greased up felt wads someone punched out of an old hat brim.
One box of percussion caps and the caps and the flask went in a pouch on the belt on the bedpost.
I hadn't enough waist to hold it up so I slung belt and holster off my shoulder.
I wanted to sling it across my body but that would have rode on my raw back and just wearin' a shirt hurt bad enough, so I wrapped the last of the bread in a cloth and that was all the worldly goods that was worth takin' with me, other than a knife and a whet stone and I taken them too.
I looked at that mule and I was some fevered, I reckon, for I must not have been thinkin' clear.
I left that mule and took out a-walkin'.

The woman's voice was like a drink of cool water.
"Who is he?" she asked, and a man's voice, quiet-like, said "I don't know, but he's hurt bad."
Hands … gentle hands, the sound of water wrung out of cloth, and I felt a wet rag draggin' across my back like it was catchin' on gravel.
"Who could do such a thing to a child?"
It was a rhetorical question, I knew, it was the kind of a thing someone says when they are faced with an unexpected horror and they are trying to make sense of the insensible.  
Human nature, my Mama called it once, that trying to make sense of everything.  Everyone did it and almost no one did it well.
I recall cool fingers on my cheek and I recall how she smelled of lilac water, of soap and sunshine, and I passed out again.

I come to in a bed, not knowin' where I was.
I was curled up on my side and I smelled sunshine and soap and I blinked, for I hadn't smelled that for a very long time … not since before Mama had to marry that monster I killed.
I stopped and considered that I'd killed a man.
I looked inside myself to find out what I felt and I realized I didn't feel a thing.
I'd done it because it was the right thing to do.
Young I might be, but stupid I tried hard to not be, and I realized it would be wise not to mention having killed that monster.
I'd known the law to go wrong and I had no wish to get my young neck stretched because someone in authority liked that monster that horse whipped my Mama to death.
I daren't move but finally I had to, either that or wet the bed and that would not be kindly, not when some stranger showed me the hospitality of puttin' me in a clean bunk with clean sheets.
About the time I tried to move, about the time I laid that clean sheet and the thin blanket back so I could swing my legs out, someone knocked on the closed door and it opened.
A well dressed man came in … his boots were shined, his suit was well fitted, and he carried himself the easy way a man will when he's been over the mountain and seen the varmint.
"You're alive," he said, and his voice was gentle – it was that same gentle voice I recalled hearin'.
"Yes, sir," I said hesitantly.
"Go on ahead and sit up," he said, "but don't stand just yet.  Let your legs get used to pointin' downhill again."
"Yes, sir."
The man gave me a long look and finally said "How long you been out there, son?"
I admitted that I didn't rightly know.
Another slow nod and I had the feelin' whoever this man was, he could look right through a body and take a close look at my back bone and see if there was the least trace of yella to it.
He came over and laid a careful hand between my shoulder blades.  "Now stand up, son."
I did and I didn't wobble too much.
"I reckon you'd like to use the back house.  Go on and tend that detail and we'll have some supper."
"Yes, sir," I said, then I stopped and looked at him as the realization hit me.
"Sir … I'm sorry, I don't know where I am … which way is the back house?"
He laughed and said "Follow me, son, and don't apologize.  Mind readin' is not part of the act."

I didn't see any sign of any women.
If this was a woman cooked meal, it was a good one, and if he fixed it, he fixed it well:  bread and broth and some noodles with a little bit of finely cut up beef.
It could have been boiled boot leather and I would not have cared.
I was hungry enough to gnaw the horn off an anvil.
We et and we sat back and he took a sip of coffee and said "How'd you come to be hurt so bad?"
I considered what I might say and then figured he could tell if I was a-lyin' so I told him the truth.
"My Mama got forced on by a man and had to marry him," I said.  "He beat her and she lost the child and when she started to show again he beat her plumb to death but he horse whipped me first."
I could see a quiet, smoldering anger in the man's eyes.
"Where is he now?" he asked and I admitted I didn't rightly know, and that was not a lie:  for all I knew, critters had pulled his bones apart and scattered them all over four counties.
He nodded, looking off into the distance.
"We found you a month ago," he said, "and no idea how long you'd been wanderin'.  You were fevered and out of your head.  I cleaned and reloaded your pistol.  It had one fired chamber.  Do you remember how it got fired?"
I looked at him and recalled driving that gun barrel into the monster's ear and I recalled feeling more than hearing the detonation when I pulled the trigger and I recalled the wet and the red and the splatter that drove out the other side of his head.
That wasn't why the pistol had one fired chamber but the hard memory of my first killin' come to mind first.
"Yes, sir," I admitted.  "I do recall."
Those hazel eyes pinned me to my chair like a bug on a straight pin.
"Was it needful?"  was all he asked.
I nodded slowly and without any doubt.
"Yes, sir," I said, and there was no lie to that.  
"Yes, sir, it was needful."

 

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2.  LIAR!

 

I left that cabin full of death and headed for the high country.
I could keep myself alive and I'd done it before, I'd built me shelters and dug roots and et hand-caught fish and the fish was hardest 'cause that water was just awful cold and had I not hooked it out of the water with that first try there wouldn't have been a second, for my hand took a good while to warm back up.
I'd kilt that man and I was weak ag'in and I should have took the mule but there is no way I would stay down there, not with Mama dead and gone and him a-rottin' out in the open and too many hard memories of that place.
I looked at the lay of the land and froze for I saw a thin trace of smoke.
I could tell the trail I was on led to a clearing and there's where a man would most likely camp and when a man on a horse come around a turn in the trail and stopped, why, he looked at me and I looked at him and I don't reckon either of us knew which was the more surprised.
My Mama told me once that words are important and she was right.
The first words he said was "You stole that gun" and that made me mad so I countered with "Mister, you're a damned liar!" and he fetched a horse whip off his saddle and allowed as he'd teach me some manners and I drove a .44 ball through his face and he come backwards out of the saddle and his horse shied and taken off a-runnin' with him draggin' along behind.
I don't reckon that horse was happy a'tall for it kicked twice at him before they was around that turn and I heard that horse run for some distance.
I walked on ahead with that pistol in both hands and I walked into his camp like I owned the place and I expected to face someone ready to kill me.
I found a fryin' pan on the fire and some bacon just about ready to eat, so I slid the belt off my shoulder and let it fall, for it was a-chafin' and I was still raw where it rubbed and it hurt some.
I considered the wind was carryin' away from me, otherwise I would've smelled both fire and fryin' bacon, and I had no idea why he was a-ridin' toward me if he had bacon on the fire, but he was, and his choice meant his death.
I looked around for any kind of a warbag, hopin' he might have a fork or some such.
I still had that pistol in my good right hand and I ended up reachin' for my own knife to spear me out that fried up bacon and then I froze.
I heard another horse comin' up behind me so I took out a-runnin', I ducked off to the side behind the rock and weasled through a thicket and laid up for a while.
Whoever it was stopped and I reckon they et that fella's bacon and I wasted no time wishin' for what I didn't have:  I et about half that loaf of bread I'd brought from home and figured I'd keep on a-goin'.
If they found that gunbelt and a full flask, why, they'd likely take it and eat the dead man's bacon as well.
I had five shots left.
I'd make 'em count.
Right now, though, I was hid and I was not lookin' for a fight and I stayed put until I figured the newcomer was gone.
I started out when the sun went down and made good headway but it was gettin' cold and I was feverin' again, and I vaguely remember seein' a light – I couldn't tell was it a wagon or was it a window –
I'd gone just as far as I could, and then my knees give out and I went down face first into the cold dirt.
'Twas after that I remembered the woman's voice, the gentle touch, and after that when I woke up in a clean bed and no idea how I'd got there.


We ate and it was good.
I did not realize how empty I was.
The well dressed man sliced off some cheese and had me eat it and I don't reckon I ever tasted better.
I never really liked it before that day but ever since, why, I've loved the stuff and that's likely how come.
He said that would keep me from gettin' the back door trots from eatin' on a long-empty stomach.
I didn't care what his reason was.
After that first bite I was really happy to eat more of it.
I thanked him for his kindness and he give me a long look and that made me uncomfortable.
"My name," he began, the frowned, considering.
He seemed to be wondering if he could trust me.
I waited.
"I am …" he said slowly … "an agent, on special assignment."
"Yes, sir," I said quietly.
Was it up to me that would have been enough.
"Do you have family?"  he finally said.
"No, sir.  All dead."
"Hm."  He nodded.  "You … look like someone I know."
"Yes, sir."
"You're sure you're not related to anyone hereabouts?"
"Not as I know of, sir."
He narrowed his eyes, leaned toward me.  
"I only know of one man with those pale eyes."
"Sir?"  I asked, and I saw satisfaction in his eyes, for there was surprise and interest in my voice, and I reckon he picked up on both.
"Tell me about your family, son."
I leaned back, considered.
"Mama never talked much about my Pa," he said.  "She one time said he'd been in the War and she reckoned he's the reason I had such pale eyes, and she said I favored him some."
"Did she ever," he asked with an elaborate casualness, "mention a name?"
I considered, trying to remember, but I'd been awful young and she'd only spoke of it one time.
"I'm sorry, sir.  I don't rightly recall."
He frowned, drummed his fingertips on the table, seemed to come to some decision.
"You need something more than just a nightshirt to wear."
"Yes, sir."
"I've got some duds that ought to come close to fitting you."
"Thank you, sir."
The next day we drove into town.

I stood on the depot platform and shook hands with a man for the first time in my life.
"Mr. Agent," I said, "I am obliged to you."
The Agent accepted my hand with the gravity of one man to another and that felt good.
"Give the Sheriff this," he said, handing me a folded envelope.  "It is an introduction."
"Thank you, sir."
"Your ticket is for the good car.  You will be eating in the dining car.  I anticipate you will travel most of the day.  Feel free to eat your fill."
"Thank you, sir."
He give me a long look and I could not help but admire the way he spoke, the way he looked.
"We'll meet again," he said, and there was a quiet assurance in his voice.
The conductor bawled for everyone to board and I did, and it's a good thing the Agent told me they'd set my grip with the luggage and I'd reliably get it back, otherwise I would have been right unhappy when that porter fella relieved me of it:  he called me "Sonny" and smiled like he was genuinely glad to see me as he helped me up them wood set-stairs to the cast-iron steps on the passenger car.
I went inside and set myself down and looked out the window, and that Agent fella looked square-on at me and touched his hat brim.
He turned and walked away and I felt of a sudden just awful lost.
I looked at the envelope he'd give me, and the red seal holding the edges shut.
It was bright red and it had the impress of a rose, and I smiled a little, for my Mama said one time she did love roses.
One of these days, I thought, I will have a place, and I will grow roses because my Mama would like that.

That Agent fella had me fitted with a belt and a holster for that Army pistol.
He never made no move to take it from me.
Matter of fact, he had a pouch made for the left side with balls and flask and two boxes of percussion caps.  I never wished for a second loaded cylinder, for the knife behind the left hand pouch struck me as a good working tool.  I'd honed it so I could shave the fine hairs off my arm – I was not yet old enough for them to coarsen up, they were fuzz-fine for I had not seen my fourteenth birthday – but that didn't keep me from shaving patches off my arms to prove the blade's sharpness.
I stoned it and stropped it and could have shaved my face, had I any whiskers.
I set in that padded bench and I wore a coat that covered the pistol, I had a new pair of townie shoes and the drawers he'd give me, I wore a narrow brim hat and I did my best to be invisible.
No one paid much attention to me and I didn't pay much mind to anyone else, least not so they would notice, but I made sure to watch without being obvious.
Nothing happened during the train trip.
It did take most of the day and the meal was good, I et enough for two men and turned down the pie.
I was still comfortable when we come a-rollin' in for my stop.
I looked at the hand painted plank hung over the depot.
Someone did a fine job of letterin' the town's name and I thought it was kind of a funny name.
It said FIRELANDS.

The porter handed me my grip and I thanked him for it and he give me a funny look and I looked back and he said "Damn if you don't," and I said "Beg pardon?" and he blinked and realized he'd spoke without realizin' it.  
"You ain't belong to the Sheriff now do you?"  he asked, and it was my turn to blink with surprise.
The Agent had told me to find the Sheriff.
"Not as I know of," I said, and then I turned and I froze because there was a set of pale eyes lookin' at me from under a man's hat brim and damned if that long tall man with the iron grey mustache didn't look just an awful lot like me.
"You sure about that?"  the porter asked, and of a sudden I had just an awful funny feelin'.
I looked off to the side and saw a woman looking at him – a woman, looking at him the way I'd seen a man look at a prize horse, the way I'd seen a man look at an engraved rifle he coveted, then she looked at me and she looked at me the same way that Agent fella did.
I will never forget her eyes.
Green they were, emerald green, then she looked back at that long tall man with the iron grey mustache.
I walked up to him and never said a word, I handed him the Agent's folded over note with the bright-red wax stamp impressed with a rose.
He accepted the note, broke the seal, unfolded the note and read, read it a second time, nodded:  he folded it back up and slid it into an inside coat pocket.
He stuck out his hand.
"Name's Keller," he said.  "Sheriff."
"My name's Jacob," I said, gripping his callused hand with my callused hand.  "I don't reckon I have a last name no more."

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3.  MY SON, JACOB

 

We walked from the depot to the Sheriff's Office.
I recall feelin' just awful short, walkin' beside him.
He walked slow so I wouldn't have to trot to keep up and I appreciated that.
Seemed like ever'body knew the man.
All the way there it was "Howdy, Sheriff," and "Aft'noon, Shurf," and "Sheriff, thank you," and they'd tell him something he'd done that worked or helped them, and every time the man would reply, generally with a gentle smile, and when they thanked him he stopped and listened and I could tell when he turned them pale eyes on them he was listening to more than their words.
I got the notion his pale eyes could look right through a man's soul and then I realized ...

He had pale eyes.
I have pale eyes.
I'd noticed them before and maybe I distracted myself lookin' at that well dressed woman with them emerald green eyes – I'd never seen green eyes before and they were truly striking – but it kind of set down into me like droppin' an anvil in a man's lap –
He has the same eyes as I have.
We was stopped because he was talkin' with a man and it felt like someone poured a dipper of cold water right down the inside of my back bone, and had we not been stopped I would have quit walkin' it hit me so hard.
I'd not looked in that folded over note the Agent give me and I wondered again what it said.
He started walkin' again and some fella hailed him cheerfully and called him Soapy and asked if he'd et any good soap here lately, and I saw deviltry come into the man and he looked at that feller like he was lookin' at his best friend and he allowed as eatin' the right kind of soap made a man younger, smarter and better lookin', soap worshed the pizens out of a man's liver – that's how he pronounced it and I recall my ear pulled back a little to hear the words – and they laughed like it was an old joke between them.
He unlocked the door to the Sheriff's office with a big, heavy key, and once we got inside I saw the door was big and heavy, the walls were big and heavy and the lock work was big and heavy as well.
I stepped inside.
"It ain't much," the Sheriff said quietly, "but it's home."
I'll say this for the place, it was clean.
I think a man could've et off the floor and not worried about it.
The planks were close set and smooth, the logs on the inside were smoothed off – they'd been adzed off but skillfully done – I've swung a foot adze and it takes experience to use it as well as what I was seein'.
I ain't that good.
The Sheriff unfolded a second folding canvas cot, set it beside one that was already folded out between the wall and the pot belly stove.
"I don't sleep in the cells," the Sheriff said, and I heard somethin' behind his voice and I knowed there was some reason he didn't want to sleep in a cell.
I didn't ask but I'd recognize anything of the kind of he talked about it.
"We'll get a sheet and a blanket from the Silver Jewel and I reckon we can scare you up a pillow."
"Thank you, sir."
He give me a long look and frowned a little and I knowed he was seein' somethin' I didn't pa'tickelar want him to see.  
Didn't rightly know what that was but that was my feelin' and I was right.
"You're standin' odd," he said, "and movin' awful stiff.  How bad you hurt?"
I knowed I could not lie to the man – I could've lied but he'd see through it like a glass window – so I taken off my coat and then my shirt and I turned so he could see my back.
I felt his animal heat as he come close to look and look deep at what was done to me and I saw him pick up my shirt.
He give it a snap and held it out and I run my arm into one sleeve and then into the other and he slid the shirt back on me real gentle-like.
He waited until I'd done myself up and got my coat back on and I turned around.
I turned around and I turned cold and I was never genuinely afraid of a man's expression – not like this – I never saw genuine fury like I saw in his face and if I live long as Methuselah I will never, ever, forget those eyes.
Those eyes looked like polished ice.
I seen winter ice that was warmer and softer than what was a-lookin' at me.
"Who done this to you?" he asked.
His voice was quiet but it started about his boot tops and his voice had gravel in it and if he'd asked a rock somethin' with that voice I don't doubt the rock would speak out of just plain fear.
"He's dead," I said.  "I kilt him."
I saw those hard eyes look down at that Army Colt on my belt and then he looked back up at me and his eyes was just as hard and just as cold but there was approval in them.
"Good."
His bottom jaw run out and I learned that meant he was considerin' and finally he spoke up and said "You et?"
I had but not since midday, and he did not wait for my answer.
"Come on.  I'm hungry."

We'd got as far as crossin' the street.
The Silver Jewel was a saloon and a fancy one by the look of it.
It had fresh paint and the windows was trimmed out real nice and I wasn't used to seein' that.
Matter of fact the whole town looked clean and well tended and I warn't used to that neither.
Mama was tidy but when that monster come into our life things just went downhill and trashy and I realized I'd come to think of trashed up and dirty as normal.
We got as far as crossin' the street and we stopped at the three steps that went up to the boardwalk in front of the Silver Jewel, and the Sheriff lifted his Stetson as a woman and her daughter came down the steps, and I taken off my own hat as well.
The woman had violet eyes and she looked lean and hard used, but she wore a fine gown, and the girl with her was about my age and didn't look a single thing like her Mama.  
I looked closer at the girl, for girl she was, for all that she was made up like a woman.
She was wearin' a gown identical to her Mama's, she looked to be close to my age and she was just a little taller than me, she looked like she'd been skinny and worked hard for some long time but was startin' to fill out, and she looked at the Sheriff like someone who knew him already.
"Miz Bonnie," the Sheriff said, and the woman stopped and give him a funny look like she was about to cry.
"I just found out," she said.
"You found out?" the Sheriff asked innocently, and I could hear something under his voice, like a gigglin' child peeking out from under a tablecloth, pretendin' to be hid.
She laid a hand on his chest and bit her bottom lip and I saw the water brimmin' on her lower lid, and she whispered all husky-like, "I just found out you bought all those sewing machines, you bought up the material you asked me about, you –"
She give a little hiccup and fumbled for a kerchief and the Sheriff's ears turned red and he looked kind of embarrassed and I looked at the girl standing beside the woman.
She was lookin' at me and that made me uncomfortable.
I was not yet a man but I was not stupid and I'd long knowed women was strange creatures that ain't like men, and this little girl was just like them women.
She stepped up to me and said, so quiet she near to whispered it, "Mama was a whore here in the Silver Jewel but she's a decent woman now and the Sheriff just bought the land and material enough to build Mama a dress works."
Now I had no idea what a dress works was, but I knowed what a sewin' machine was, and I knowed a sewin' machine was not cheap by any stretch.
The girl stuck out her hand.  "I'm Sarah."
I took her hand – carefully, for fear she'd break like fine porcelain – and said "I'm Jacob."
"You're his son," she said, and she said it as a fact and not a question.
I looked into them pale eyes of hers and I looked kind of sidelong at the Sheriff, talkin' quiet-like to that Bonnie woman, and it finally sunk in that maybe that Agent fella knew an awful lot more -- about me and about that pale eyed Sheriff and very likely about this pretty girl I was a-talkin' to -- than he'd let on.
I looked at her and near to whispered, "Is that his wife?" and Sarah looked at me like she was borin' into my brain with a pair of ice drills and she whispered back, "I wish she was!"
I pulled back a little at her words and that girl looked off to the side and smiled that secret smile women use when they know somethin' is afoot.
I turned and looked and that green eyed woman in the fine gown was across the street, watchin'.
When she saw me turn and look at her, she smiled just a little and lowered her head, not quite a nod, then she turned and made as if she was headed for the Mercantile, all innocent-like.

Once we got inside and set down and et I could tell that green eyed Irish woman that run the place was kind of sweet on him as well:  she was all bluster and scold and she didn't mean a word of it, and she give me a funny look but she didn't say anythin' to me.
The Sheriff treated her like gold:  I'd heard Mama tell about rich men that treated folks like trash, especially men of influence who'd go to a restaurant and just bully rag them girls that took orders.
I'd never been to a genuine restaurant in my life and this surprised me.
I expected a saloon and it was a saloon in front all right, but the back part was tables and chairs for eatin' and not for drinkin' or playin' poker like up front.
The Sheriff ordered for the both of us and he paid cash money and I was beginnin' to realize this-here Sheriff must be a rich man.
He'd bought all that for that Bonnie woman and now he had money enough to buy a meal instead of fix a meal, and turns out he warn't done.
Once we'd et – and eat we did, for it was good, and we both had an appetite – he took me upstairs to a room with a frosty-figured glass window in the door, and JOHN GREENLEES, M.D. painted on the first line, and GEORGE FLINT M.D. painted as the second line, and under these two names, the word SURGEONS in bigger letters.
I figured the Sheriff wanted me looked at by a saw bones and I was right.
Only one of the surgeons was in, he was skinny and had long hands and a delicate touch, and he'd h'ist that one eyebrow up when he was studyin' somethin' or if he was surprised.
I reckon he h'isted that eyebrow somethin' fierce when he looked at my back.
The Sheriff, he went out and I heard him goin' down them stairs and Doc give me a serious look and he said "You're his son."
Plain.
Fact.
Just like that Sarah girl.
"I don't know my Pa, sir," I admitted.  "Mama, she had to get married when some fella forced himself on her and she lost that child and then the man she married killed her and I killed him so I run off and an Agent taken me in and healed me up some and sent me here."
"Your mother is dead."
"Yes, sir."
My voice had edged some when I admitted I'd killed the monster that killed my Mama and I did not care, the anger was still there and I wished I could kill him again.
Doc, he felt under my jaw and looked at my teeth like I was a horse, he looked in my ears and I was surprised he did not sniff 'em for a trace of coal oil like I'd heard some sharp horse traders to use.
He run his hands down my arms and gripped my elbows and frowned, he bent my arm slow and easy while he held onto the elbow and I got no idea a'tall what he was lookin' for.
He'd had me strip down to my drawers for this and then he set me on a stool and he set behind me and I know he was runnin' those long delicate fingers over my back but all I could feel sometimes was a vague kind of pressure.  Every now and again he'd ask "Can you feel that?"  and I'd admit that I didn't feel nothin', or maybe he kind of pressed and I felt that, and he put somethin' ag'in my back and reached around and spread his big hand out and pressed on my chest and I could see him swing that wheeled stool he was a-sittin' on around to my side and I recall he'd frown and drop his head and he had somethin' stuck in his ears when he did.  I reckon 'twas one of those things docs use to listen to your heart with.
Finally he handed me my shirt and said "Get dressed, son.  Have you eaten?"
I shrugged into my shirt.  "We have, sir, the Sheriff just set me down and fed me good."
Dr. Greenlees grunted, frowning.
I think that frown must have been his usual expression, just like some men have a relaxed look about 'em most times, it was just how his face was most of the time.
"You are the Sheriff's son," he said, a statement again – why are all these people tellin' me I'm that pale eyed Sheriff's son? – "he hasn't said anything about it?"
"No, sir."
"That Agent … we both know the man."
"Yes, sir."
"Did he send anything with you?"
"Only a note, sir."
"Was it sealed?"
"Yes, sir."
"Red wax?"
"Bright red, sir."
"Was it sealed with a … character?" he asked carefully.
I grinned for it was plain the man knew already, or at least suspected.
"A rose, sir."
"Ah."  He rubbed his palms slowly together.  "Where will you be staying?"
"The Sheriff set up a cot over in his office.  He's got one there already."
Doc nodded.  "That man," he muttered, "owns the Silver Jewel and he's a-buyin' the railroad – it isn't much of a railroad but if it was run right –"  he shook his head – "he could have a room over here and be more comfortable, but he's stayin' over there."  He considered, frowning, looking well a-past me, like he was lookin' at somethin' well beyond the wall I knew was there.
"We were in the War together," he said softly.  "Good man, a fine officer.  He saw his share of hell and worse and he nearly died."  He looked at me.  "Twice."
"Yes, sir," I said quietly, for I'd known men who were in the War.  They'd been good men, they'd been quiet men, and they were not inclined to talk much of those days.
"What was all that" – he gestured, and I knew he meant my back – "done with?"
"A horse whip, sir."
"Dear God," he whispered, and this experienced, veteran surgeon paled several shades and I reckon it's a good thing he was a-settin' down.  "I've seen men whipped but to whip a boy" – 
"He gut punched my Mama and her gettin' big and pregnant," I said bitterly, "she tried to stop him from whippin' me and he whipped her plumb to death."
I saw something dark in the healer's eyes, somethin' that meant he was no stranger to death his own self.
"Where is he?" he asked, and his long, delicate fingers closed slowly into fists.
"I killed him, sir."
The doctor shoved his bottom jaw out and closed his eyes.
I heard him take in a long breath through his nose, and he leaned back, relaxed his hands and opened his eyes.
"Good."
Hard knuckles rapped on the door and I turned and saw a man's shape on t'other side of that swirly-frosted glass, then the door opened and the Sheriff come in.
"I just talked to Miz Esther," he said, closing the door behind him and looking at me like he was seeing me for the first time.  "Doc, I need your sound advice."
"Don't drink too much, don't smoke see-gars and don't play cards with a man wearin' blue spectacles," Doc said, leaning back in that easy way a man will when he's giving the rote answer of a long standing joke.
"Yeah, God loves you too," the Sheriff grinned, and that grin was quick, easy, almost boyish, and had Doc not told me they were in the War together, I would've known the two had some long and close connection.
The Sheriff grabbed a chair, hauled it around, set down, looked at me and looked at Doc.
"Miz Esther," he said, and there was respect in his voice as his lips framed the name, "asked how my son was doin' up here.  A couple other people spoke of ... my son."  He pulled a note from an inside coat pocket and I saw it was the one the Agent give me to give to him.
"He" – and he didn't say who "he" was, I don't reckon it was necessary – "said …"
He unfolded the note and read it aloud.
" 'A father should know his son, and a son needs his father.  – S."
"I suspected," Doc nodded.
The Sheriff looked directly at me.
"Tell me about your Mama, son."
I saw him blink and something told me he surprised himself by calling me 'son' – I know it was a common way to address a younger, but it still surprised him that he used it.
"She was beautiful," I said, and I was surprised at the sadness and the loss I felt.  "She loved roses."
I squared up my shoulders and took a breath.  
A lawman would want a description.
"She was a little more than collar bone tall on you and the end of her right little finger was just a little crooked, bent in towards her other fingers, she said she broke it as a little girl and it never did heal right."
I saw the Doc and the Sheriff exchange a glance, then the Sheriff nodded gravely.
"Go on."
"She didn't walk so much as she glided, I recall when she was hangin' out washin' she would turn like she was dancin' –"
The Sheriff raised a hand, palm toward me, I saw he was a-bitin' on his bottom lip and lookin' down at the floor and Doc asked quietly, "Tell me about" – I looked at him, he raised a finger to the side of his head just behind his eye.
"The scar!"  I exclaimed.  "She had a three cornered scar behind her right eye –"
The Sheriff looked up a-sudden and I was not sure if the man was going to lean over and hug me or whether he was goin' to drive through the ceiling and the roof like a skyrocket and bust all over the sky for happiness.
"Did she ever talk about Kansas?" he asked, and I nodded and smiled, for his words grabbed a memory from somewhere deep I'd forgot about.
"Yes, sir.  She said a pale eyed man come through and he helped tend her husband, he'd fell off the roof and was crippled bad and he died less'n a month later.  She was right grateful he finished the roof, for he split shakes and fit 'em in tight and got the job done before the rain hit, and a good job it was."
I looked up at him.
"She said the pale eyed man was the kind of man she wished she'd married in the first place."
"Dear God," he groaned, and lowered his face into his hands.  "Had I but known!"
They was another knock on the door and another man come in, a man that carried himself the way a man will when he's been over the mountain and seen the Varmint, and I judged him to be another lawman and I was right.
"What's this I hear about you havin' family?"  he demanded, his voice harsh, but I could see in his eyes there was a deep affection for that pale eyed law dog and I figured (rightly again, as it turned out) that them two went way back.
The Sheriff rose, nodded to me, and I rose as well.
"Charlie," he said, "may I introduce my son, Jacob."
I stood and my mouth was kind of dry and of a sudden my hearin' was a little funny, it sounded like I was in a hot August field full of insects a-singin', but I recall how good it felt to hear the man say those words.
My son, Jacob.

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4.  TO ADDRESS THE SINNER

 

We walked back acrost the street.
The Sheriff allowed as he figured we'd ought to think about some place else to stay.
He said now that he had family, why, he'd have to think about diggin' an outhouse pit and settin' me up with a bunk and a room of my own, and he had the look of a man right pleased with himself.
That other fella came with us, the one that walked like he was steppin' on soft grass.
It's not easy to move quiet on hard ground but he did, and he was not a trustin' sort, his eyes were busy and he moved with us, but about two arm's lengths away – he didn't make it really obvious that he wasn't a trustin' man but I could see it plain enough.
The Sheriff was watchful, but relaxed.
This other fella wasn't relaxed a'tall.
I don't know if it was him I was a-feelin' or what, and I didn't see that green eyed woman nowhere near, and it had been a couple of hours since I'd seen her sizin' up the Sheriff like she was a buyer and he was a prize beef.  For all I knew she caught the train and was halfway from here to wherever by now.
We went on inside the Sheriff's office and the Sheriff and that-there lawman with him both took of their hats and give 'em a quick flip and they flew a-spinnin' acrost the room and both of 'em hooked just nice as you please on a peg.
Now I could try that for a day and a half and like as not all I'd do is beat the dust out of my hat from hittin' the wall so often.
"Jacob," the Sheriff said, "there's a fire laid in the stove, could you light that thing off for me?"
"Yes, sir," I said, and I saw that box of Lucifer matches right handy and figured yep, the man's well off, and when I set the draft and shook down the ashes, when I lifted the lid and taken a look inside, why, he had a nice little fire laid and ready and all I had to do was scratch match to the wadded up news paper inside and off she went.
There was a step on the board walk and the three of us fanned out and faced the door and the Sheriff looked kind of sidelong real quick, left and right, and me and that other lawman was both a-facin' and ready, and the Sheriff give a little nod like 'twas just what he'd planned.
He opened up that door and I heard a boy say "We got yer horse tended, Shurf," and I heard the Sheriff grin – you could hear it in his voice – he asked the boy if he had to bolt them horse shoes on and the boy allowed as no but that horse snored some, and the Sheriff laughed ag'in and give him a coin.
He stepped out and I saw him gather the reins on a big plow horse with a saddle on it and I felt that other lawman come up beside me and set his hand on my shoulder.
It scared me some to feel that, but there was no grab and no yank and there was no fist that followed it and I knowed he was fixin' to say somethin' when the first shot drove down the street.
I reckonzied it for a rifle shot and heard it hit that horse.
Things moved just awful slow of a sudden.
That other lawman's hand was off of my shoulder and he was on the balls of his feet and movin' off to the side and I run forward, toward the door and that Army Colt was in my hand when the second shot taken the Sheriff in the side.
He give a grunt and turned a little and started to sag and I come out that door and raised up that heavy pistol.
I knowed where it hit and I knowed how to hit with it and I heard someone a-yellin' "DAMN YOU YOU CAN'T HAVE HIM!" and the Sheriff had his own pistol out but his shot went into the dirt three foot ahead of him and he went to his knees and I fetched that hammer back and dropped the barl and I taken a good look at that rifle pointed at me and forty grains of double F spoke my language and I sent me a pistol ball and it felt good when it let go and I knew it was gonna hit right where I wanted.
I felt that big lawman behind me and saw an octagon barrel shove out towards where I just shot and that buffalo rifle spoke and its voice was deep and powerful and it was the language the sinner could understand.
I shoved my pistol back into leather and grabbed the Sheriff by what was closest I could get hold of good, I grabbed the back of his collar and I locked my hand shut around as much material as I could wrap it around and I drug up with my legs and tried to haul him up over the edge of the board walk.
I got him started and had to reset and that other lawman's hand come DOWN and SLAMMED against the Sheriff's collar, his hand beside mine and the two of us just plainly YANKED that man plumb off the GROUND and got him inside and slammed the door shut.
I grabbed the man and rolled him over on his back.
I grabbed that fine coat he was a-wearin' and my fingers run down the buttons and I have no idea how I got them unfast but I did and that other lawman laid that Sharps rifle down beside us and I remembered he'd dropped a timber acrost that door before he turned and went to him knees beside us and he handed me a short knife and said "Here."
I parted the Sheriff's shirt down the middle and laid it open and grabbed his off arm and fetched it up and out of the way.
He was hit low on the side and it was a'ready scarred up and he was bleedin' and bubblin' out frothy like he was lung shot and I knowed there was not one damned thing I could do to stop it.
I looked up and that other lawman's face was hard and set and I said "You got any downy feathers?" and he looked a-past me at the cot behind and he give a nod.
I turned and saw the Sheriff found me a pillow.
I rolled back and fell over and grabbed attair pillow and rolled back and it would have been comical to see had the Sheriff not been a-dyin' right there on the floor.
Something hard hit the door, fast, four times, and a woman's voice, loud, demanding:  "MARSHAL YOU OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW AND LET ME IN THERE!"
I split the ticking seam on that pillow and grabbed a handful of downy feathers and worked them into the wound.
I'd known Indians to use this trick and I had to do somethin'.
I wasn't about to lose my father.
Not after just findin' I had family!
A woman's hand grabbed mine, pulled it away from the wound, looked at it, looked at me.
I looked into those emerald green eyes and it was like looking into two pools of green fire.
I recall her face was white, white as a sheet of paper, her cheeks stood out like bright apples and I never seen such determination in a woman's face, not never.
She reached acrost the Sheriff and grabbed that short sharp knife I just split the pllow seam with and she shoved the handle in my grip and then she pressed the knife side-on against that bloody hole and my hand with it, and she closed her eyes and she began to recite from the Book.
"And I saw Linn Keller lying in Linn Keller's blood in the ditch and I said unto Linn Keller, Live, yea, I said unto Linn Keller, Live."
She spoke the Words and she pressed hard on my hand and on that knife acrost that rifle shot and damned if it didn't quit bleedin'.
I felt somethin' run through her and through my hand and it was hot of a sudden and then it was gone and the Sheriff's eyes opened and he looked just awful surprised and that woman laid her other hand on his head and she said "Linn Keller, you are NOT going to die, I WILL NOT COUNTENANCE IT!"
"Yes ma'am," he said, and his voice was almost normal and that surprised me too.
We picked him up and laid him on one of those folding cots and packed him across to the Silver Jewel.
That other lawman took the downhill end and I taken the uphill and we got him upstairs, me duck walkin' backward and that green eyed woman grippin' that other lawman at the back of the belt and I don't reckon he was a-draggin' her, likely she was pushin' him.
I don't know.
All I know was I was goin' to get him up to attair saw bones or I'd bust myself tryin'!
We staggered down the hall and set the cot down and I didn't bother to knock, I grabbed that door knob and give it a twist and shoved it open.
I recall Doc looked up and he was irritated and that's likely because some fella had his drawers down and was bent over and Doc had a little knife in one hand and a gob of bloodied white rags of some kind in t'other and maybe he was cuttin' open a boil or somethin', I don't know.
All I know is, I grabbed my end of the cot and pulled back down the hall a little so that other lawman could get his end of the cot in.
Of a sudden attair surgeon warn't near so aggravated with us for interruptin' whatever he was doin'.
Things got kind of spotty for me after that.
I recall that other lawman and me gettin' the Sheriff over on the doc's work table and I pulled the gun belt out from under onet they picked him up enough to fetch it out, and they stripped him down and I kind of walked backward away from it for all I could see was that face.
My father's face.
I'd just found I had a father and I desperately wanted a father, a good man, I wanted this man to live, and not a damned thing I could do to help and that was almost as helpless as watchin' my Mama bein' whipped and me not able to move.
There was some comfort with knowin' he was bein' taken care of but I was sick with knowin' he was hurt bad and he just might die.
I recall strong hands on my shoulders – I recall they were gentle but strong – a voice, a man's voice, and I could not look away from my father's face.
I don't recall how I left.
Them strong gentle man's hands might have steered me out the door or I might have wandered out on my own.
I don't rightly recall.
I do recall endin' up standin' in front of the church.
My legs moved without my tellin' 'em to and I climbed up those timber steps and the door was not locked.
I recall my hand was still bloody.
I didn't much care.
I went in and I walked down between the rows of pews and I looked at the altar and I looked up at the cross and I didn't see 'em.
All I could see was how pale the man's face was.
I sank down to my knees and then I just went face-down on the floor and I laid there for a while.
I had no words.
A man told me some years later the Almighty knows our heart and He can hear the words we don't speak.
I reckon that must have been the case.
I finally come out of that church and I went to the nearest horse trough and I washed my hands best as I could, then not havin' anywhere better to go, I went into the Silver Jewel.
The woman behind the counter looked at me when I come through the door ag'in, and she give me a worried look, and I went on in and the fella behind the bar took a long look at me and shoved a short glass of something water clear across to me and said "Here, son, you need this."
I picked it up and I drank it down and set it back on the bar and thanked the man kindly.
It was stout, it burnt goin' down, and I didn't much feel it.
I set down near to the bar and sagged some, then I wandered on outside and stared at the dead plow horse layin' in front of the Sheriff's log office.
"Come with me," a voice said, and that other lawman gripped my shoulder again.  "Let's see who done this."
It was like a sheet had been laid over me and of a sudden was snapped away and gone.
I had a purpose.
"Yes, sir," I said, and I started to think again.

I studied the dead man.
I'd hit him with both pistol shots but that buffalo rifle is what done the work.
"Recognize him?"
I shook my head.  "No, sir."
We went through his pockets and found a letter, we found a watch and some coin and a wallet, the usual trifles a man carries.
"You want his rifle?"
"I'll take it, yes, sir."
The lawman considered for several moments, give me a hard look.
"How'd you like to find out who all's involved?"
I felt something light off deep in my soul, a dark rage that burned like black fire.
The simple question said someone else was involved.
I nodded and looked at the lawman and said "Yes, sir.  I'd like that."
"Good."

Now I ain't the brightest candle God ever lit but I'm not entirely stupid.
I asked that barkeep for the weakest beer he had.
I didn't have much by way of coin but a hand of poker and I doubled my wealth; two more hands and I'd increased it by sixbits.
Luck run my way and I lost some and won some more and I listened as I played.
Word travels fast in a small town and that red headed woman that run the restaurant come over and asked me how the Sheriff was a-doin'.
I told her we'd took him up and I didn't have the heart to go up and find out and about then that red headed woman with green eyes came down and she was all pale and pinched looking and she come over towards the two of us.
I stood up.
Was I to get bad news I wanted to get it on my feet.
That Daisy woman reached over and took my hand and it felt good to hold her hand and I am not sure if she was lookin' for reassurance or she was givin' it and it didn't matter, I reckon each of us helped the other.
"How is he?"  that Daisy woman asked, and the green eyed woman blinked and looked at me and looked back at Daisy.
Daisy's hand tightened on mine as the green eyed woman said, "Jacob, he is asking for you."

 

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5.  "YOU DON'T WANT A STALLION"

 

I went back down into the Silver Jewel.
I had some thinkin' to do.
That other lawman was a Territorial Marshal and he could go just about anywhere he pleased.
A townie policeman had to stop at the edge of town, the Sheriff stopped at the county line, but this man went considerable farther and when he spoke I thought it wise to listen.
The Sheriff was hurt bad and Doc didn't make no bones about it.
He was busy workin' on that hole in his chest and he was not at all happy at havin' to clean out them bloodied up downy feathers I'd murdered out of attair pillow but he looked at me serious-like and said "I'll remember about feathers for a lung injury.  They stopped the bleeding and they stopped the air."
"Yes, sir," I said, and I went around t'other side so Doc could work on my father's side without me a-crowdin' him.
I looked down at my father and tried not to see how much color he didn't have in his face.
"You wanted to see me, sir."
He looked up at me the way no boy ever wants to see his Pa:  pale, sweaty, shaking a little, weak and helpless.
"Did you get him?" he asked hoarsely and I didn't have to ask who the "him" was he was a-talkin' about.
"Yes, sir," I said.  "I put lead into him and the Marshal put a bigger chunk."
"Sharps?" 
"Yes, sir."
He nodded a little.  "He was always good with a buffalo rifle."
"Yes, sir."   I reached down and gripped his hand, squeezed.
He smiled just a little.
"Your hand is warm," he almost whispered, and he almost smiled.
His hands were near to stone cold.
I reckon anyone's hands would've felt warm to him.
"We're a-gonna find out if anyone else was in on this," I said quietly.
I did not brag and I did not spin a castle in the air.
I knowed how to find out and I knowed where to find out and I'd already got started.
"Bring 'em back alive," he wheezed, and his eyes rolled up and he relaxed and had I not seen the pulse a-beatin' in his neck I might well have feared the man dead.
I let go of his hand, nodded to the Doc and walked around the foot of the table, I walked across the room and out the door, I pulled the door to behind me and walked down the stairs and back into the Silver Jewel.
I stopped as that well-dressed, green eyed woman come up to me and took my hands.
"I am going to marry him, you know," she said – she said it as fact, as a done deal, she said it as if it were already cut into a rock like a man's tomb stone.
"Yes, ma'am," I said quietly.
"We've not been introduced.  I'm Esther Wales, late of South Carolina."
"Jacob," I said.  "Don't reckon I have a last name."
Esther reached up and took my chin between thumb and forefinger – her grip was gentle, motherly, and I could not have pulled away or pulled out of it had I wanted.
She looked closely at me, her eyes narrowing a little.
"Your last name is Keller," she said firmly.  "You are indeed your father's son."
 I shifted uncomfortably.  "Yes, ma'am," I finally said.
"Don't you want to be his son?"  Esther asked, surprised.
"Ma'am … I watched my Mama horse whipped to death.  I growed up without knowin' who my father be.  I found him and now he might die and I am not happy with that, ma'am."
Esther gave me a sorrowful look, then she reached for me and gathered me in and held me, and I held her right back, and I closed my eyes and laid my cheek over on her shoulder and a thought come sailin' in and hit me cross grained and I started to laugh.
Esther Wales drew back and gave me an amused look and I apologized to the woman.
"Ma'am," I admitted, "I am so very sorry, ma'am, I had no call to laugh at your kindness, only …"
She give me those lovely green eyes and swung them eyelashes down and back up and I swallowed and finished, "Ma'am, I just remembered … today is my fourteenth birthday."

 

I marched down to the livery like I owned the place.
The hostler was no taller than me, he walked like a man  with a badly healed up broke laig, he frowned as much as he did anything, and he took a good swaller of somethin' amber out of a pint flask he kept in his hip pocket.
"A horse, you say."
"Yes, sir."
"Horses ain't cheap."
"I know that."
"It's a stallion."
"Stallion will do."
"You don't want a stallion, boy."
I reckon the look I give him said plain as words I didn't care much either to be called boy nor to be told what I wanted or didn't want, and finally he said, "You good for it?"
"I am the Sheriff's son," I said levelly – at one time I might have been ashamed to trade on such a filial relation, but I was beyond caring, I needed a horse in the worst way.
He gave me a long, assessing look and I had the feelin' there was more to him than met the eye.
"So I hear tell."  He coughed, spat.  "Well, come on out an' take a look, all the sellin' stock is in the corral."
We went out back to the corral and there wasn't but one horse out there.
That don't sound like much.
Could you see it like I did, that horse would look like more than just a four legged saddle packer.
This particular horse had its forehooves splayed out and its head down between its forelegs, its hind legs was throwed straight out behind it and damn neart puttin' hoof prints in a passin' cloud, and the fella that useta be in the saddle was sailin' backside over tincup, one hand on his hat and the other just a-lettin' go of the reins.
I waited til after that bronc buster got some wind back into him and hobbled to the edge of the corral and clumb out from between the bars, and I waited while attair Appaloosa stallion slung its head back and forth and allowed as it just warn't happy a'tall, and that fella with the aggravated expression come a-hobblin' over to the hostler and he allowed as, "Shorty, you might wanta shoot that horse an' sell its hide, that's the only good that'll come of it" – at least that's what he said cleaned up some.
The exact language he used was south-southwest of salty and unfit to repeat in polite company.
Now I warn't no stranger to salty language but this fella's tongue had to be made of dried leather or maybe wet-down wool, somethin' that wouldn't scorch easy, and that Shorty-fella offered him a tilt of Good-for-What-Ails-Ye, and he guzzled down a good long swaller and handed it back and stomped off torst the Silver Jewel.
I saw him stop and turn and look back at me and he didn't look none too comfortable and I figgered after I bought that-there Appaloosa stallion, why, I'd likely go a-saunterin' back into the Silver Jewel and park my backside and give him a listen.
There's a reason he give me that look and I wondered if it might be my pale eyes.
I stood there some time with my arms folded over the top rail of attair corral and one foot up on the bottom rail and I studied me attair horse.
I liked the way he looked and I liked the way he moved and 'course bein' a stallion he was plumb full of fire and I recht into my pocket and pulled out a twist of molasses cured chawin' tobacker.
My Mama had oncet said that pale eyed man she remembered used shavin's of molasses twist to bribe horses and I had no idea why that memory come back to me when it did but I'd got me a plug and I shaved me off some and then I slud between them corral rails and went in.
About an hour later, oncet I was convinced that ground looked like dirt but must be made of granite, oncet I was filthy all over from a-hittin' it, oncet I felt like I'd been beat ag'in a brick wall, why, attair stallion allowed as maybe he'd let me ride him after all.
I rode him around the corral and I noticed he turned better when I used my knees and my weight ruther'n them reins, so I come out of the saddle and I peeled off the bridle and he liked bein' without that bit.
I stood there and fooled with him and rubbed his ears an' bribed him with some more shaved off tobacker and then I swung back up in the saddle.
He handled just as nice as pie without no bridle on him.
Well I'd be damned, thought I, and we rode around the corral one way and then he turned real nice for me and I rode him around the other way and by golly he done all right, so like a tall boy I grinned and allowed as I'd bite me off a good chunk of give-it-a-try and damned if he wouldn't back up for me when I gigged him gentle with my heels and then I said "Ho," and he stopped and stood.
I leaned forward and laid my hands on his neck and said "You hard headed contrary son of a glue factory, let's see you jump!"
I give him my knees and tucked in my heels and yelled "YAAHHHH!" and that horse dug in its hind hooves and I felt his back side squat, them ears laid flat back ag'in his head and I reckoned this must be what a cannon ball feels like just before the powder charge detonates, and attair patchwork stallion give two long jumps and he went a-sailin' right over the top of attair corral rail and never touched a hoof, he lit nice and easy on t'other side and he stuck that white nose straight out and shoved that white neck straight out and I reckon that white tail was a-twistin' in the wind behind us but I never looked for I was grinnin' too wide and hangin' on like a tick on a coon dog and I tightened down my boot heels in his ribs and yelled "RUN APPLE RUN!" and good Lord! run he did!

Iffen I'd been give a guardian angel I reckon it was hangin' onto my belt with one hand and streamin' out all gauzy and streaky behint me because there is no way in green Creation no winged angel could fly as fast as we was a-runnin!

When that Apple-horse come to a stream he shot over it like he was an arrow sailin' through the air, when he landed he was light and he was smooth and I give him his head and let him run.
We run some good long way and I turned him and he come a-runnin' back.
I knew the next true test would be to get him to stop – he turned when I wanted and he turned well and there was no slip nor awkward when he did – I run him in between a shed and an outhouse, I turned him and run him back, we come back and I leaned back and ho'd and he ho'd and stood there a-slashin' that tail and I reckon he was lookin' pleased with hisself and I come down out of attair saddle and then I remembered I got no reins to hang onto, what's to keep him from runnin' off.
I needn't have worried.
He followed me like a hound dog, his nose an inch from my back, and I recht into my pocket and paid attair Shorty fella cash money for horse and saddle both and allowed as attair bridle and bit was hangin' on the corral post, we wouldn't be needin' it, and I would not want to play poker with the man for he did a right fine job of keepin' his bottom jaw from swingin' in the wind with surprise that I was alive, not stomped on, and attair Apple-horse was still there with me.

Now I did not know it but most of the Silver Jewel come a-runnin' out the back door when someone yelled that damn fool kid is ridin' that mean stallion, and I had no notion a'tall that men was a-bettin' on how long it would take for me to get throwed into the next county or at least over the corral rail, an' when we come a-ridin' back like a white streak acrost the back field, more bets was laid and more money wagered, and I reckon we accounted for at least a hundred dollars changin' hands.
I do know there was a card sharper who allowed as luck must be ridin' with me and he liked a challenge and would I oblige him with a hand of poker, and I looked over at a quiet fella I'd seen in there earlier that day.
I had him marked for a law dog as well.
He was some older and he was watchful and quiet and he didn't do much more than stand or set and watch, and I looked over at him and raised an eyebrow.
He give the slightest shakes of his head – a little right, a little left – and I looked at attair fella with the fancy suit and thanked him for his offer, but I'd built me up a thirst and might be I'd just set for a bit.
Now buyin' attair Apple-horse pretty much burnt up all the coin I'd won, and I didn't want to go winnin' nor losin' and establish myself as a gambler – somethin' told me I was the Sheriff's son and I'd ought to fight shy of any such thing – but I set there with a watered down beer and watched, and listened, and in about an hour, why, I taken a hand of cards and wagered the last of my money, and lost it.
I smiled a little and thanked the man who'd won the pot, and I stood up, drank the last of the watered beer and set the mug back on the bar.
I'd heard what I was a-listenin' for.
There was two others involved with that fella tryin' to kill my father, and I watched them leave, and I saw what horses they rode.
Apple-horse was still outside when I come out and he whinnied at me like he was glad to see me.
I come over and rubbed his ears and called him a hard headed glue hoof and I studied where them two horses had stood and I taken a good long look at their hoof prints.
I'd known men who could track a fly across a pane of glass.
I ain't that good and I couldn't tell a thing significant about any of the hoof prints I was a-seein' so I give up and we taken out the direction them two went, or started to.
A voice stopped me.
"Ain't you bein' hasty?"
I turned and looked and so did that Apple-horse. 

Attair territorial Marshal was a-watchin' me from the boardwalk.
"How's that?"  I asked, impatient to be on my way.
He thrust his jaw to the Sheriff's office.  "Head on over there first."
Now I was just a-burnin' to go after the two of them, but I was not so young and foolish as to ignore the voice of experience, so I went on across the street and he did too.
We went inside.
He handed me a saddlebags and I slung them from my off shoulder.
He picked up the rifle we'd taken from the man we'd killed and he opened a cupboard and taken out a rifle scabbard, slid the rifle into carved leather and handed it to me and then recht in and pulled out a box of ca'tridges.
"Peel off that gunbelt."
I did, and handed it to him.
He recht into the cabinet and pulled out a double gunrig.
"You shoot left handed?"
"I do, sir."
"Good."  He waited until I buckled the belt fast around my lean middle and set the holsters where they felt right, then he handed me a pair of brand new Colt revolvers with a little engravin' around the muzzles, inlaid with gold, and gold cross bars acrost the back of the front sights.
"Them's your Pa's.  Take care of 'em.  There's five beans in the wheel apiece."
He closed the cupboard doors as I holstered my father's revolvers.
"Step on over here."
He opened the top drawer of the Sheriff's desk, reached in, took out two sets of irons, a watch and a key.
He hung the key off the watch chain.  "Put this on."
I thumbed the watch into a vest pocket, used the key for a fob on t'other end.
He thrust his chin at the two sets of irons on the desk.  "Put them in a saddle bag.  You'll want to bring them two in alive."
"Yes, sir."
"You'll need one more thing.  Raise your right hand."
He picked up a badge.

 

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6.  THE LANGUAGE THEY UNDERSTAND

 

Apple-horse stood nice and patient while I fast up that scabbarded rifle.
I slung a bandolier of shotgun shells acrost me and slung that shotgun by a piggin string off the saddle horn.
Attair saddlebags behint me had pemmican and jerky and johnnycake already wrapped up and ready to go like as if the Sheriff might've been settin' up for a travel.
I doubted me if that territorial Marshal had it set up for him.
He was a-standin' in the doorway as I settled my hat on my head and he was given' me the kind of a look the way a man will when he's sizin' a man up for kin he or cain't he.
I set back in the saddle and Apple-horse stopped and stood dead still and I said "I reckon I can figure what you're thinkin'."
"Oh?"
"You're thinkin' I'll either fetch 'em back or get kilt and either way it'll be for the better."
He nodded, slow-like, and I raised my hand and touched my hat brim.
I give Apple my right knee and he turned and off we went.

It taken me about a half hour to find the pair.
Just on a hunch, and that's all it was, I swung through Carbon Hill.
I didn't know that's what it was called, only the road there was well traveled and men in a hurry are going to take the easiest route at first and if it comes to a place where they can go inside and get some liquid nerve tonic, why, that's a good place to start.
Sure enough, their horses were tied off in front of the saloon.
I leaned back and walked Apple-horse, and we paced on down the main street, we avoided the freight wagons and held up whilst folks strolled right out in front of us, and several folks give me a lookin' at.
I don't reckon I looked much like a lawman.
I was wearin' townie shoes and a narrow brim townie hat and I was considerable younger than most folks figgered a lawman ought to be.
I didn't much care what anyone thought.
I was a-lookin' for the town marshal and I found him.
He was leanin' ag'in the porch post in front of his Marshal's office and he was a-lookin' at me the way a lawman will when he's sizin' someone up.
I swung down out of the saddle and walked up to him with attair six point star on my lapel and a hard look on my face.
"Name's Jacob Keller," I said.  "Sheriff's been shot.  I'm after the men that done it."
The marshal's eyes narrowed some and got hard and hateful.
"They kill him?" he asked quietly, and the quiet in the man's voice told me he was right unhappy.
"No sir, but he ain't good."
"How much ain't good?"
I stabbed my thumb into my low ribs.  "Rifle took him here.  Doc done as much as he could."
"Anyone with him?"
"That green eyed Esther Wales woman from South Carolina, I reckon she's with him, yes, sir."
"I'd be surprised if he ain't got a whole harem in there lookin' after him," the Marshal muttered.  "Your Pa is a popular man with the ladies."  He shoved out his hand and his grip was callused and firm, the way a man's hand ought be.  "Harry Macfarland."
I nodded.
"Them men you're after, you seen 'em yet?"
"I seen their horses, sir, but I wanted to have you with me when I went after 'em."
Macfarland nodded approvingly.  "You ain't stupid like most young I've known."  He looked at Apple-horse.  "Fetch off your shotgun and we'll tend this detail."
"Yes, sir."
I fetched off that double gun, I broke it open and made sure 'twas loaded and then I held the barls and raised the back til it closed into battery and I felt that Marshal lookin' at me ag'in.
"Somethin' wrong?" I asked.
"Your Pa closes a gun just like that."  He chuckled.  "Didn't know Old Pale Eyes had a boy, let alone one old as you."
"Life's full of surprises."
I fetched the gun muzzles up and set the butt on my left hip and let my right arm dangle.
The handle of my father's revolver caught me halfway between my wrist and my elbow and I figured I could do well enough with the short gun if the need arose, but I'd rather let the shotgun do my talkin'.
Hard to argue with a whole handful of heavy shot.
We paced across the street, two lawmen, with that Apple-horse followin' me like a pet dog and people partin' from in front of us and traffic holdin' up as we crossed.
We come to the front of that-there saloon and a face shoved up above the curtain coverin' the lower half of the window and I seen him pull back and fetch up a revolver and before I could bring the shotgun down into battery, why, that window blew out a hole the size of my fist and somethin' went whistlin' past me like a bumblebee with a really bad temper.
I never put that gun to shoulder.
I taken it in both hands and thrust it out like I was stabbin' him with a broom handle and I give him the right hand barrel right in the face.
It warn't more than twenty feet from me to him so that shot swarm didn't get much of a chance to spread.
He didn't get off a second shot.
"Around back!"  Harry barked and I legged it around that saloon and sure enough the second man come a-runnin' out back and I raised up that shotgun and yelled "HOLD IT!" and he turned and drove a pistol shot at me and I give him the left hand barrel under the arm.
I broke open that double gun and plucked the two hulls out and let 'em drop, I fetched two brass hulls out of my bandolier and palmed them into the britch end just as Marshal Macfarland came a-boilin' out the back door torst me.
There was a shot from inside and Macfarland dropped and twisted and I closed the double gun and I run torst attair open door and I charged in with two barrels of death takin' the lead and a dirty yellow bloom blasted in the narrow hallway inside that back door and I was mad clear through.
I felt somethin' wake up in me, I felt a black monster that ate my soul like it had fangs, I felt somethin' I never felt before in all that's happened and all I'd hated and all that I'd seen and this dwarfed all that.
I come into that hallway with war just plainly takin' me over and I laid into that fella as he shot ag'in and I don't rightly recall what all I done, only of a sudden I stopped and that shotgun barrel was bent pretty bad and kinked enough I knowed if I fired it she'd blow up and I didn't have to hit that other fella none 'cause he was on the ground and he warn't movin'.

I stood there and I laid a hard hand on the black monster of my temper and I shoved it down into an iron kettle and screwed the lid down, my shoulders a-heavin' as I caught up with the wind I didn't have much left of.
Marshal Macfarland laid a hand on my shoulder.
"Was I not knowed it," he said, "what I just seen would'a told me you are your father's son." 
I turned and looked square-on at the man.
I seen approval in his eyes and that was a good thing and I was coolin' down from bein' murder on two legs and I looked down at my shotgun.
"Well hell," I said, "I just ruint my Pa's gun."
For whatever reason, that took Macfarland funny, and he got a good laugh out of it.

I drove back into Firelands with a borrowed wagon, two carcasses and a prisoner in irons.
And a shotgun considerable shorter than when I started out.
Macfarland knowed a man, and he trimmed them barrels off just back of the kink and he trued 'em up and soldered the lug up between the barls and made it look good.
He even drilled and tapped for a new front bead, which was kindly of him.
The prisoner was willin' to talk.
I reckon he figgered if he didn't, why, I might cut loose on him ag'in and I'd already beat him so bad he couldn't see out of one eye and I'd split his scalp in four places and likely broke his cheek bone, not to mention a couple ribs and his guts was bruised up.
I don't think I hurt his shin bones none.  
Managed not to him them.
I made a note to try harder next time.
Now between the three of 'em they had a comfortable sum of money and I saw no need to let that go, so I kept it.
I'd earned it, I kept it.
Attair territorial Marshal give me a hard look when I come a-drivin' up with a man in irons and two wrapped up in back.  I reckon he was a-lookin' to see if I had any holes in me.
He took my prisoner inside and allowed as he'd be talkin' to him and I said yes, sir, he's all yours, and I was met by a rat faced fellow in a black suit and a tall black hat, a man with a cadaverous expression and a sorrowful air that the Territorial Marshal called "Digger" – he allowed as if I would kindly bring my wagon around to his back door, he would take care of "the deceased," as he called 'em.
I did and he did, and I fetched their worldly goods – their "effects," that Digger fella called 'em – I fetched them into the Sheriff's office and piled 'em on the desk, and as that Territorial Marshal had the prisoner in back, why, I crossed the street and went on into the Silver Jewel.
I was somewhere between needin' to report I'd brought in a prisoner, and wantin' to see if my father was still alive.
I hesitated before I grabbed that door knob.
Matter of fact I retched for the knob and drew my hand back and I recalled how bright red and wet looking my bloody hand was when last I retcht for the knob.
I taken a look at attair knob and 'twas clean, not a trace of blood on it.
I taken a long breath and I figured maybe I'd best knock first so I did.
I taken off my hat and stepped in and damned if Marshal Mafarland hadn't told me right.
That Sarah was across from me and she looked squarely at me as if she'd been expecting me and I was struck by how much her eyes – how … oh, hell, she was the Sheriff's get as sure as I'd been born and not hatched, and I wondered if that was how folks felt when the looked at me.
Miz McKenna and Miz Esther was both in there too, and Daisy from downstairs, and I don't know if they was ready to scratch out one another's eyes or if they was gettin' along just fine.
They all looked up at me and then they was back to tendin' the Sheriff and I come on in and shut the door behind me.
I walked up to the man and looked down at him and I taken his hand in mine.
I had to swallow pretty hard before I could say much.
"Sir," I was finally able to talk plain, "I brought in a prisoner." 
Violet eyes and green eyes swung over and stared at me like I had a fish stickin' out of my shirt pocket.
That Sarah girl – oh hell, my sister one way or another – she looked at me like she warn't surprised a'tall.
I saw Miz McKenna's lips move and she looked at Miz Esther all distressed-like and her lips said "A prisoner?" and her head tilted just ever so slightly toward me.
I felt the Sheriff's hand grip mine, just a little.
He'd heard me.
I felt a hand lay itself on my arm – not a grip, not a pull, more like a butterfly settin' down, and I turned and looked into my sister's eyes.
I let go of my father's hand and we turned and went out into the hall.
"You're my sister," I said.
She nodded.
"My Mama's dead."
"So is mine."
I must've looked puzzled.  I know I looked back toward the closed surgery door.
"She took me in," Sarah explained.  "She gave me her name – McKenna – I'm not supposed to know yet."
"Know what?"
"That I'm his daughter.  He just found out.  He found it in my Mama's bible that got sold for a drink."
I didn't quite follow all that but she did and that was good enough.
"What did you tell him about a prisoner?"
"I fetched him in one.  Two dead and one prisoner."
Sarah's eyes widened and then they got real pale and real hard and she gripped my elbows and she asked, quiet-like, "Are you hurt?"
I shook my head.  "I'm dirty, I'm tired, I been shot at twicet today and I beat the livin' hell out of the man I brought in but no I'm not hurt."
Sarah's nostrils flared and she grabbed a handful of my shirt and waved her fist under my nose and she pushed her face into mine and hissed, "Jacob Keller, if you get yourself killed so help me I will never speak to you again!"
She taken me by surprise and I opened my mouth and said, "Could you wait'll I get a bath before you hit me with that thing?" 
It must've been the right thing to say.
She let go of my shirt and she smiled a little and then she giggled like a little girl, and she laid her head back and laughed, and I smiled to hear it.
When she wasn't fixin' to slug me she was pretty.

I went on acrost and had me a talk with that territorial Marshal.
I walked acrost the street and attair Apple-horse walked with me, and when I went into the Sheriff's office, why, darn if that Apple-horse didn't come right along with me inside.
I turned and looked at Apple and he looked at me and I sighed and shaved off some tobacker for him.
The Marshal looked at me and shook his head and laughed a little, and I rubbed Apple-horse's ears and called him a jug headed, pig eared glue hoof, and then I taken him outside and asked him nice if he'd stay out there whilst I tended some business.
I went back inside and attair territorial Marshal allowed as I was my father's son all right and I said "I been hearin' that some today," and I thrust my chin towardst them cells and said "Did he talk?"
"Oh yeah."  He allowed as I might want to set down.
Now I didn't pa'tickelar want to set down but this was a man I wished neither to cross nor to disappoint.
From what I'd seen so far, the Sheriff was a man to be respected, and this was a friend – and an old friend by all I'd seen – so when he allowed as I might want to set down, I did.
"Your Pa hanged one's brother and sent another's boy to prison.  They set up a plan to bush whack him – here, or elsewhere, if here didn't work.  They were all three supposed to be in on it.  None of them wanted any part of bein' shot back at."
"Sir?"  
The Territorial Marshal nodded.  "Jacob, your first shot hit that man right south of the wish bone and they saw the blood squirt out the hole before your second shot hit, right before mine did.  Your pistol shot at that distance told them they wanted no part of that fight."
"Yes, sir."
He come over and squatted in front of me, his face serious.  "You saved lives, son.  You took one shot and saved three lives – the three didn't want shot so they run off."
"Yes, sir."
"Not to mention whoever would've been killed in the fracas.  Men that set out to do murder aren't generally fussy about who else they hit."
"Yes, sir."
He looked over at the bloodstained floor, at the two cots set up.
"I don't reckon you'd want to stay here tonight."
I looked back at him.  "I'd like to clean up some, sir, but someone's got to stay with the prisoner."
"You're just as responsible as your Pa."
"Yes, sir."
"All right.  You head on over to the Jewel and get yourself a bath, hot water and clean towels for twobits."
"Yes, sir."
"Get somethin' to eat while you're over there."
"Yes, sir, can I bring you anything?"
"Nope.  Once you're clean, you'll take over here."
"Yes, sir."
"Fetch a meal for the prisoner.  He's still got his teeth but that cheek bone is at least cracked."
"Yes, sir."
I stood and I frowned a little, for I was considering some.
I'd lost my Mama.
That green eyed, red headed Wales woman was allowin' she was goin' to marry my Pa.
She'd seemed all right when she gathered me in, right before I laughed into her shoulder when I recalled it was my birthday.
Might be I'd be gettin' …
No.
No, there was no replacin' Mama, didn't matter how nice this woman was.
I blinked a couple times and that Marshal was a-lookin' at me and I looked back at him and said in a small voice, "I got me a father now and now I got a sister too."
He nodded.  "Don't tell her, it's a surprise."
"Yes, sir."
I recht up and went to unfast that six point star.
"You quittin'?"
"You need me to stay?"
"Your Pa's laid up.  You're elected."
I lowered my hand.  "Folks'll think me young."
"Folks'll think a lawman's too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, it don't matter if you're the Angel Gabriel with a dead dragon on the end of your lance, they'll have somethin' to complain about."
I nodded.
"Your Pa wore a suit.  He said when a man looks good folks take him more serious.  You might think on that."
"No thinkin' needed, sir.  I'll arrange it."
"Have a talk with Bonnie McKenna.  You've met her.  Skinny, wore-out lookin' violet eyes, she'll be really good lookin' once she gets some weight on her."
"Yes, sir."
"She runs the House of McKenna.  Ever hear of it?"
"No, sir."
He considered several long moments.
"She … makes women's dresses … and she makes men's duds."
"Yes, sir."
"I reckon was you to go tell her you are gettin' cleaned up and you'd need a suit, she can fix you right up."
"Yes, sir."
"Might tell her you won't need it today."
He said it with a straight face but I saw a good nature he tried to hide peekin' out his eyes and I couldn't help but laugh a little.

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7.  THE BACK STAIRS

 

That violet eyed McKenna woman was still up there with my father.

That green eyed redheaded Carolina woman warn't.

I guess they were takin' turns which kind of surprised me.

I reckon I figured they'd be jealous of one another and might not want either one to get some advantage when it come to him a-likin' 'em but 'twas Miz McKenna I wanted to talk to and I did.

She was wipin' down my Pa's face with a damp cloth as careful and gentle as if she was wipin' a baby's backside and I could tell he warn't in no mood to object.

"I just shaved him," she said quietly, and he spoke up and said "You forgot the bay rum," and she stuffed attair wet rag down in between his teeth and glared at him, but it was one of those women's made-up glares, and that pale eyed sister of mine was a-watchin' close.

"You look better cleaned up," Sarah said matter-of-factly.

"I come lookin' for some good sound advice," I said just as matter of fact, and the ladies both looked at me curiously, I don't reckon that's what they was expectin' to hear.

"My father wears a suit," I said, "and when a man wears a suit he looks respectable." 

I considered and the pushed on.

"If I'm goin' to be his son I'd best look respectable and that'll mean a suit."

Sarah and her Mama looked at one another and Bonnie give a little ghost of a nod and Sarah stood up and came around the foot of the bed and taken me by the hand.

"Come with me," she said, and my Pa give me kind of an odd look I'd not seen before.

It was a while before I realized he'd approved of my comin' in and addressin' the problem by asking for advice ruther'n demandin'.

Sarah and I went out and instead of goin' down the front stairs, she pulled me t'other direction and she opened a panel that looked like part of the wall and we slid in.

There was a little narrow set of stairs and it was surprisin' clean like it was reg'lar used and she went down about two steps and set down so I went down one step and sit down.

"I won't bite," she said, surprised, and I come on down and set beside of her with the wall ag'in my hip and her dress piled up ag'in my other hip.

"Thank you for the clean clothes," I said.  "I reckon 'twas your work to fetch 'em for me."

She gave me a long look and then said quietly, "I've never had a brother."

"You might not like me."

"I already do."

"I like you too but I'm …" 

I run out of words – or rather I couldn't figure the right words to use.

She raised her eyebrows and looked like she was tryin' not to laugh and maybe that's what it was, I can't tell sometimes about women folks, they can hide what they're feelin' or they'll feel one thing and say somethin' else and then they git mad when I cain't read their mind.

"Sarah, I killed the man that horse whipped my Mama plumb to death."

"Is he the one who whipped you?"

I blinked and realized she must've looked in as I was a-getting' that-there store bought hot water bath.

"Yes I looked," she said quickly, and then she grabbed my hand and her eyes got real pale and she lowered her head just a bit and she said "I killed the man that took a shot at my little sister and I, and two days ago a man tried to rob the bank and I punched a Derringer into his ribs and killed him too."

I shifted a little – had there been room I would've turned to face her a little more – and I said "Now damned if you ain't just the surprise!"

That must've confused her for she looked at me and said "What?" – kind of a yelp, like she'd been smacked across the backside unexpected – and we set there a-lookin' at one another and then the both of us tried hard not to laugh and we ended up laughin' anyway.

"You go first," she said, so I did, and I told her plain out what I'd done.

She listened close and she give me them eyes like she was a-hangin' onto every word and I allowed as if she was really goin' to listen to me I'd not waste her time, so I neither built up nor lied a bit, nor did I play down a thing:  I told her in so many words I'd screwed the barrel of attair revolvin' pistol into the man's ear and I'd cranked back on the hammer and I'd sent him to hell a-ridin' a lead ball.

She nodded and allowed as her and her little sister was out in her Mama's carriage and a man was a-runnin' from the law and he seen them comin' torst him so he fetched up a Sharps rifle and taken a shot at 'em.

She twitched the reins, she said, and Butter – that's her Mama's dapple's name – Butter stopped and she grabbed her Winchester and she put four rounds of .32-20 through the man's wish bone, and he fell backward over the edge of a cliff and left his rifle behind, so she took the rifle and give it to the Sheriff and I thought likely that's the same rifle that Marshal used to put a good sized hole in the man that put a hole in my father, and she said her and her Mama was in the bank when this big dirty fella came in and stuck a gun through the bars at the teller's window and got to yellin' about givin' him all the money and she said she looked up at her Mama, because that was her Mama's money in that bank, and about then the girl behind the bars grabbed that gun and the hand that held it and twisted it around hard and that's when Sarah pulled a two barrel Derringer and punched the barrel up hard ag'in his ribs and pulled the trigger and right about then she ducked 'cause someone stuck a shotgun out from between the bars of the teller's window and near to punched 'em into the man's vest before givin' him both barrels.

She said her Mama said she felt surprised 'cause the barrels was up and down instead of side by side and it took her a little bit to realize they had to have turned the gun on its side 'cause nobody makes shotguns with stacked barrels.

I considered on that – not that this pretty girl my age had killed two men so far, but that stackin' two shotgun barrels one on top of the other might not be that bad an idea.

"I understand you killed a man over in Carbon Hill," she said softly, and I realized she was primin' my pump, so to speak, trying to find out information.

I nodded.

"I went to find them other two that was in on my Pa's shootin'."

"How did you find out they were involved?"

I grinned.  "Men like to talk.  I like to listen.  I went into the Silver Jewel and set my butt down and did some listenin', and I was right so I went after 'em."

Sarah's eyes were big and almost glowing and not near so pale, and they had a shade of light blue to 'em.

"Sarah," I said, "I want you to be careful."

She was still hanging onto what I'd told her about goin' to Carbon Hill after them fellas.

"Careful?"  she echoed.

"Sarah," I said, "a body could swim in those big lovely eyes of yours.  Once men find out how good lookin' you really are, you'll have to pack around a single tree to keep 'em from grabbin' hold of you."

Her eyes went pale and hard and somethin' told me somebody tried that already.

My gut told me whoever tried it likely come out in second place.

 

We talked some more but not much more and she taken me on down that set of back steps an' they come out across from the kitchen.

She slid the panel aside and it slid quiet, and she whispered she'd used soap on the slider so's it would be quiet, then she peeked out, stepped out, motioned me to follow.

She slid that panel back and you genuinely could not tell it was different from any of the other wood panels.

We went out the back door and to the right, up behind the Jewel, and up behind a building and into that back door, and that's where her Mama's dress works was set up.

"We're too crowded here," Sarah said, "but once the Sheriff gets our dress-works built out on the other end of town, we'll have two stories, room to work, we'll have a display room and –"

She turned toward me and smiled a little.

"Strip down to your under drawers.  We need to take some measurements."

I reckon I turned just awful red around the ears but she brought another couple women over and explained I'd need two suits for every day and one for Sunday-go-to-meetin' and Bonnie wanted me fixed up with one suit today and the other two in two days if they had time.

They had time.

They measured me up seven ways from Sunday and right glad I was I'd taken me that good hot water bath, and even gladder Sarah brought me that set of clothes, everything new from the hide on out, and Sarah said she'd wait for them to get started but we needed to get me some boots and a decent hat.

I did some thinkin' on what cash money I had on me and damned if she didn't seem to be listenin' to what I was studyin' on.

She come over and leaned in close to me and whispered, "Jacob Keller, if you try to pay for any of this, I swear I'll knock you into the middle of next week!"

I couldn't resist.

I opened my mouth and said something stupid and got what I deserved.

When she allowed as she'd knock me into the middle of next week I said "Wednesday or Thursday?"  and she punched me a good one, right in the ribs.

Hard.

 

I'd never had a proper pair of boots.

I'd only had townie shoes or gone bare foot and havin' a proper pair of ridin' boots was somethin' new to me.

Sarah seemed to know enough about 'em to keep me out of trouble so I let her do the talkin', she was known to the balding fellow who run the Mercantile – she called him Mr. Garrisson, and he looked like he'd sucked lemons for breakfast and chewed some more of 'em for dinner, but he had a measurin' rig for sizin' a body's foot and he sorted through what stock he had in the back room and he throwed in stuff to keep 'em shined up and lookin' good.

I wished to do just that.

I recall my father's boots looked just awful good and I wanted to do him proud.

Them boots fit me good and they was comfortable enough to walk in – not good as a pair of double moccasins, but still pretty good – and attair sour lookin' fella didn't quibble none a'tall when Sarah said to put them boots on her account, and now we needed to look at hats.

Her account, I thought.

Not her Mama's account.

I got me the feelin' there was a story behind that as well.

We sorted through some genuine Stetson hats and Sarah naturally started dealin' 'em torst me sortin' out only the ones that looked like my Pa, which suited me, that's what I would've picked, and I begun to think either she was one of them witch-women Mama told me about oncet, or she was just pretty good at readin' people, and I settled on her bein' good at readin' people.

I'd never met a genuine mountain witch and didn't really think there was anythin' of the kind.

I learned otherwise, but not that day.

I packed a cloth poke of stuff, mine and hers both, we went on back across to the dress works and damned if they didn't have that first suit right next to done.

I proceeded to sort out that sack of stuff and set Sarah's aside and set mine in another stack and then I begun workin' on those boots.  They looked good already but I knowed some about polishin' up leather, or so I thought.

One of them wimmen folks come over and set down beside me and said "Here's how you do it," nice and quiet, and she eased the brush out of my hand and then she commenced to throw a shine on those boots – why, when she was done, I could very nearly have used 'em for a mirror to comb my hair.

She winked at me and whispered, "My husband was an officer," and I started to line up some words to thank her with and she laid a hand on mine and I looked at her – I hadn't expected that – she looked just awful serious and she said, "I want you to take care of your father.  He's done so much for Firelands and he doesn't realize how well he's thought of here."  She chewed on her bottom lip and considered for several moments and finally said "Maybe having a son will make him more careful.  He takes too may chances."

"Yes ma'am," I said seriously, and she patted my hand again and got up and walked away kind of quick, the way a woman will when she thinks she's said too much or maybe she's going to go cry somewhere and then another one came in with that new suit laid over her arm and she declared, "Let's see how this looks on you!"

Sarah come in and come to my rescue.

I was workin' with attair neck tie thing and I didn't have no idea how to knot the thing.

"Here," she said impatiently, then she slapped at my hands and snapped "Let me do it!" and she grabbed attair necktie and she sawed it back and forth and I felt it rub the back of my neck under the shirt collar.

She tilted her head a little and frowned as she did, and then she whipped a knot in attair silky neck tie thing just as quick and easy as anything, then she plucked attair coat off the chair where it was hung over the back – plucked is the right word, she had a delicate touch but when she grabbed holt of something she had hold of it right and proper – she spun attair coat around and steered one sleeve over one arm and I bent up my arm and got the other arm in the other sleeve and she pulled it up and tugged her and smoothed there and reached down and fast it up, frowned, nodded, unbuttoned it and took it off me.

She picked up the vest and it was easier to get on

She run her fingers down the buttons, then slapped me across the belly and said "There.  You're decent."

I tried to think of some good smart remark to make and she pointed a finger at my nose and said "Don't you dare," so I didn't.

She hung attair coat back on me and fast it up, then she got behind me and turned me and pushed me across the room, snatching up my new pearl grey Stetson and dumping it on my head.

She steered me in front of a big tall mirror, wide enough so a woman in a fancy gown could see herself long tall and wide, and I reached up and settled that Stetson back into place where it belonged and then I stopped and I stared.

A well-dressed stranger stared back at me.

Sarah laid a hand on my shoulder, hung her chin over her hand.

"You clean up well," she said, and batted her eyes, then she reached over to the vest I'd wore before they made a proper silk lined vest for wearin' with that nice new suit and she unpinned the badge.

She frowned at me, grabbed one shoulder and turned me side-on torst attair mirror.

I opened my mouth to say something and she shoved that finger at me and give me them pale eyes and I shut my mouth.

Reckon that shows I am smarter than I look.

She turned over my left hand lapel and pinned attair six point star underneath the lapel.

"We sewed a stiffener into the lapels," she said quietly as she turned it back over and ran a hand over it as if to smooth it down, "because the Sheriff wears his under the lapel and now you do too."

She stepped back, gave me a hard look, up, then down, and back up again.

She wasn't the only one.

Three of them dress sewin' women come in and I begun to feel like a beef at auction.

"Your coat is tailored to wear your double gunrig," Sarah said.  "You have a pocket in the back of your trousers.  It's leather lined and flat." 

I give her a curious look and she reached into a slit in her skirt I never knew was there.

She pulled out a two barrel Derringer pistol and held it up.

"This is flat and it hides well.  It doesn't have much punch and it's not accurate beyond the other side of the poker table but it might come in handy.  Especially for a lawman."

Sarah went around behind me and raised up my coat tail and yanked hard at the back of my waist band and slud that little Derringer into the flat leather pocket.

"Handle is to your right.  Are you right handed or left handed?"

"Yes."

She smacked me open hand on the shoulder and come around to where I could see her and she was tryin' to look stern but she couldn't manage it:  she started to turn a little pink and then kind of red around the face and she started to laugh and so did them dress sewin' women and when she come up for air, why, Sarah allowed as that's what my father would say, and then she took me by the hand and said "Let's go see the Sheriff."

 

I taken off my hat when I crossed the threshold into the surgery.

Doc Greenlees was discussing something with an Indian looking fellow, but a man of uncommon neatness and wearing a tailored suit.

They turned and looked at me and I nodded.  "Doctor," I said, and Dr. Greenlees said "Doctors," and he put an emphasis on the S at the tail end of the word.

"Doctor Flint?"  I asked, stepping up to the man and extending my hand.  "Jacob Keller. I'm the Sheriff's son."

"How do you do," the neatly dressed, black-eyed physician replied, taking my hand in his.

I didn't try to squeeze his hand.

I'd heard somewhere – somewhere, I had no recollection where – that surgeons have a light grip when they shake hands, and to shake a surgeon's hand carefully is to respect the skill of his profession, so I did not put the squeeze on him like I normally would.

He raised an eyebrow.  "You do favor your father," he said in cultured tones; his pronunciation was precise, his words without accent or hesitation.

"Thank you, sir."

"I understand you brought in a prisoner."

"I did, sir."

"I understand he tried to kill you."

"He was …"
I hesitated, searching for the right word.

"He was impolite, sir."

Dr. Flint looked at Dr. Greenlees and they both laughed and they seemed genuinely amused by my reply.

"He tried to kill you at close range and all you did was bend a gunbarrel over his head instead of kill him two or three times?"  Dr. Flint chuckled when he finally got over his hysterical bubbles.  "Deputy, no other lawman in the territory would have brought in a close-range murderer!"

"Dead men don't talk," I said.  "I'd already killed one man that tried to kill me and I needed information."

"I told you," Dr. Greenlees said quietly.  "Miz Esther said he was as smart as his father!"

"Let's talk about your father," Dr. Flint said, taking me by the arm and steering me toward the man.

Dr. Greenlees kind of coasted along beside us, his hands folded behind him the way a man will when he's feelin' meditative.

"Dr. Greenlees?"

"The patient is an adult male of middle age, in otherwise good health with an unremarkable medical history, save for one instance of broken ribs and probably pneumothorax right," Dr. Greenlees said in the tones of a man teaching a class.  "On this presentation, the patient presented with a reinjury of the original site, but with a single penetrating gunshot wound, roughly front-to-back, full penetration with no entrained projectile."

I wondered if all doctors talked so fancy.

"Upon arrival, patient was displaying signs of shock.  Field expedient use of clotting material served to both reduce hemorragic exanguination and obviate what would doubtless have proceeded to a traumatic pneumothorax.  Evacuating the wound and cleansing foreign debris was successful.  Patient has had an intermittent fever and a marked aversion to eating soap."

Right about then both physicians looked at one another and tried hard not to laugh.

I looked down at my father and he was looking up at me and I saw a smile start at the corners of his eyes.

"I'll never live that one down," he muttered.

"Live what down, sir?"

"He was fevered and out of his head," Sarah said primly.  "When he swore, I dropped a cake of soap between his teeth.  He came off the bed like a wounded bull and spit that good lye soap clear across the room and I didn't know if Mama and Miz Esther were going to faint, laugh or have a good case of the vapors."  She batted her eyes and managed to look very innocent.  "I told them when somebody swore they had to have their mouth washed out with soap, and since then, the Sheriff's language has been most circumspect."

"I'll never live that one down," my father muttered, then he looked up at me.

"You look good cleaned up."

"Thank you, sir."

"Did the ladies help?"

"Yes, sir," I said.  "They grabbed me by the ears and thrashed me around in a horse trough until I was clean enough to scrub off with a long handle scrub brush."

"Did they remember the bay rum?"

"They didn't shave me, sir."  I ran a hand across my cheek.  "Ain't needful quite yet."

The Sheriff considered.  "Doc tells me he's goin' to turn me loose tomorrow."

"Yes, sir."

"We'll need to look about a house.  A man hadn't ought to raise up a son with a jail for a bedroom."

"Let's get you healed up first, sir.  We can think about everything else once you're on your feet."

I looked up as that red headed Miz Esther come in the room.

"Sir," I said, "please excuse me, I have to talk to someone."

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8.  YOUR INTENTIONS, MADAM

 

I am not the brightest candle in the window but I am not entirely stupid.

My father spoke considerably well than me.

If I was to be his son and his deputy, I already decided I should look respectable.

I reasoned I'd best sound more respectable.

I  stepped right up to that red headed woman and I had my hat in my hand and I considered what my Pa might say.

"At your convenience," I said, and I did my best to sound respectful, for something told me this was a woman to be reckoned with, "I would speak with you."

She give me a very direct look and then I saw her head tilt just a little to the side and she never said a word.

She took my arm and we went right out the door.

We went back to the first door on the left, and it had that same wavy figured glass a body couldn't much see through just like the surgery, only there wasn't nothing painted on it.

She opened the door and gestured me in.

I went into a good sized room that smelled of sawdust and I saw there was some work overhead been done.

"This," she said, closing the door, "will be my office."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, not having any idea why a woman might need an office, but figuring I would find out in due time.

I turned to her.  "Ma'am," I said, "what are your intentions toward my father?"

The words were out before I give them thought and soon as they was gone from between my teeth I could have cheerfully booted my own backside, for they sounded like I wanted to grab her by the shirt front and shake some answers from her and that is certainly not what I had in mind.

"My," she said, raising her eyebrows and reaching for a velvet strip of something hung off the ceiling, "aren't you the bold one!"

She give it a tug – twice, then once, then twice more.

I turned and looked the room over carefully and figured there might be a back door, so I backed up torst a wall I could depend on and had both the door we come in, and the possible back door, both in sight.

"Your father did the very same thing," this Esther woman said as she set down in a velvet cushioned chair.  "I rang for tea.  Please, you're making me tired looking at you standing."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, and I paced back over towards the front door, parked my new pearl grey Stetson on a hook and then come over to the chair beside her she'd waved her hand at.

"Most men don't know what they really want," she said matter-of-factly.  "My father went to town to buy a new rifle.  He was not very sophisticated, for all that we had a plantation, he'd been a farmer all his life and he'd put his efforts into business rather than society. 

"I went with him.

"He was quite … " 

She smiled a little, a soft smile, and I saw her eyes soften and slide off to the side as she remembered.

"He was a big man, Jacob.  He was big and strong and he was gentle as well.  Never forget there is gentleness to be had."  Her voice had gone some softer as well, then she looked at me again.

"He went to select a rifle and between the big city and all the fine selections, he didn't know really quite what to get.

"He picked up a full stocked flint rifle and I laid a hand on his arm and I said, 'Daddy, you don't want that one.  You want this" – I laid my fingers on a half stock percussion and I could have told him to buy a length of varnished timber and he'd have done it.

"We got back out to the carriage and he helped me in, for he was always the gentleman, and he got in and picked up the reins and then he stopped and wrapped them down and said 'Let me look at that,' and he reached in the back of the carriage and pulled out that rifle and honestly saw it for the very first time."

I laughed a little and nodded, for there's been times here of late when I felt kind of over whelmed my own self.

"Your father, now."

She tilted her head again and I had the gut that she was givin' me unvarnished truth here.

"He's been grieving his wife's death and his daughter's and I think perhaps he's still grieving over what happened in the War."

I lowered my head a little and looked directly at her, for I wished to hear every word she cared to speak.

"He doesn't know it yet, but he is to marry me.  I shall arrange it and he will think it his idea.  He will be happy and we will have children.  You, of course, are his firstborn and you already carry his name.  It is known he is a widower and you will be therefore legitimate."

"Yes, ma'am," I said softly, considering that she must be pretty good at manipulation to make a man think marryin' her is his idea, and if she can do that to him, how much more could she do to me?

"I have a very good business sense," she continued.  "I am the driving force behind the House of McKenna dress works, and I am planning a brick-works outside of town.  I have information that there may be gas in the ground, and in a few years there will be drilling for gas, and I shall have brick kilns and I plan to make a great deal of money baking clay into rectangles."  She smiled a little.  "Have you any idea how terribly expensive it is to freight building goods this far?"

"No, ma'am," I admitted.

"You know how expensive postage is."

"Yes, ma'am."

"It is actually cheaper to mail each individual brick through the post office than it is to freight a load of bricks.  Making them here will be far cheaper than freighting or mailing, and it will still be quite profitable for me."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Your father."  She shifted in her chair and sudden-like she was prim and proper and completely ladylike.

"Your father is a man who gets things done.  He is an artisan of the first order.  He could be a joiner or a cabinet maker should he so choose.  His handwriting is precise and as orderly as his mind.  Before he begins work on a project, he has already planned it out, completed his materials list, he has already built it in his mind, before he picks up the first tool or orders the first material."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I should believe you have the same tendency, Jacob."  Her hands were in her lap, her feet flat on the floor, she had her knees pointed square at me and she was looking me straight in the eye as she spoke.

"Your father put his stamp on you in many ways.  My only concern is the man's temper."

I recalled when that black monster come a-boilin' up and overtook my own soul and I beat that fella with that-there shotgun, swingin' blued steel and walnut like I was whippin' around a match stick.

"He has an uncompromised vision of right and of wrong, and when he is right, he lets nothing at all stop him.  Unfortunately his temper is sudden, vicious, mercurial and … murderous."

"Yes, ma'am," I said uncomfortably.

"I suspect Sarah, his daughter, shares this as well.  You are closer in age than you realize and I don't think this is your birthday.  Sarah is not yet fourteen and I would say you're within six months of one another."  She frowned.  "Your father burns a candle for that McKenna woman."

That McKenna woman.

I considered her words but offered no comment.

"She was a good woman and she was dealt a dirty deal." 

I saw the first traces of anger in this woman who'd so far been a planner and a conniver and a maneuverer of people from what I'd seen so far.  It did not surprise me that she had that anger, it surprised me that it taken me this long to see it.

"Her husband was murdered, their property stolen, she was chained –"

She stopped and looked away and I saw she'd turned a little pale:  she raised the back of her gloved hand to her mouth and it was almost a full minute before she turned back.

Her eyes were bright but there was no wet down her face, but clearly something troubled her pretty bad about whatever it was happened to that McKenna woman.

I recall Sarah said she'd been a whore and I'd heard of women taken and –

I recalled something else I'd heard, that the Silver Jewel was once –

I felt my eyes go a little wider and that green eyed woman looked at me kind of sad and whispered, "That's exactly what they did to her."

I felt my good right hand close, slowly, then my left.

My Mama was dead because a man mistreated her and that genuinely lit the fires of my anger.

"A man wants to help and to rescue and to fix what's broken," Miz Esther said softly, "and your father has been more than a gentleman in all he's done.  He is indeed financing her building a dress-works, and I am quietly managing the work.  He thinks Bonnie is doing it.  She's not, she hasn't the business head for it."

"Yes, ma'am."

She raised her chin.

"So there you are, Jacob.  You asked my intentions toward your father.  I intend to make him my husband, and I intend to be his wife, and I intend that his life should be far happier than it has been."

I rose.

"I can ask for no more, Miz Esther," I said.  "Thank you for speaking plainly."

I walked over to the door, picked up my hat.

"Jacob."

"Yes, ma'am."

I figured she would want to have the last word so it did not surprise me she spoke when she did.

"Jacob, you are a fine son, and you are a man to be proud of."

 

 

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9.  IN STILLNESS, I LEARN

 

Recall what I just told you about not bein' the brightest candle in the window?
Blow out the candle, I've got all the brains God give a paving brick.

Turns out that violet eyed Bonnie McKenna is married, her husband's name is Rosenthal and he's a friend of my father's.

My father bein' flat on his back healin' up and he's not a threat to a man's wife, I reckon, so this Rosenthal, he didn't object none to Bonnie spendin' time tendin' the man, least up until my Pa walked out of that doctor's surgery on his own two legs.

I walked out with him.

We went down them stairs side by side, takin' our time, and I did not care if anyone thought it funny that a tall boy wore a suit just like his Pa and a hat just like his Pa.

I figured the Sheriff wasn't in any fit shape to deck anyone with a big mouth but I was young and wiry and I'd tear into anyone comin' or goin'.

I didn't, no one offered a cross word to us, we went on acrost to the Sheriff's office and him and that Territorial Marshal talked some, and we-all talked horses, and it turns out that Territorial Marshal was about full of the politics he had to put up with and he was ready to tell 'em to go straight to.

Matter of fact he'd bought land not far off and was plannin' to raise horses.

Sittin' there listenin' to the two of 'em I got the notion a Mexican acalde was so pleased with the Sheriff having done something – I had not the least notion what – that a big golden Palomino was a-comin' in on the train.

I think they said Palomino.

Maybe they said somethin' else, hell, for all I knew they'd each had a good tilt of Two Hit John and had trouble with their words, but it maybe sounded like they said "Palofeeno" or somethin' of the kind.

I kept thinkin' how stupid I felt, not knowin' Miz Bonnie was married.

I stopped and blinked and looked around and realized them two was lookin' at me.

"Sir?"  I said, and the two of them laughed.

"You looked like you were going to stare a hole in the floor boards," the Marshal chuckled.

"Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir.  What was the question again?"

"Damned if he don't sound just like you."

The Sheriff nodded slow agreement.  "Reckon so."

"You figured out where you'll build?"

The Sheriff nodded.  "I know exactly where."

"You still sweet on that red headed Wales woman?"

The Sheriff grinned and looked at him and at me and he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a little box.

He tossed it to me.

"Take a look at that and hand it to the Marshal."

The box was wood, finely made, hinged on the back, and when I flipped the delicate little latch to the side, it opened up and showed me a green satin interior, and in the green fold, a ring.

I considered the fancy little box and the shiny crystal stone and then I handed it to the Marshal.

He looked at it and raised an eyebrow and leaned forward and handed it back to the Sheriff, who closed the lid and latched it and put it back in his desk.

"You're sure," the Marshal said.

"Nope."  The Sheriff pulled out another drawer and set out a bottle of something water clear, and three squatty glasses with faceted bottoms.  "That's a dream shattered."

I waited until he'd poured two fingers' worth in the three glasses, until we each held one, until we'd each sluiced down something that God must've squeezed out of a fire somewhere but maybe He run it through somethin' to take out all the color – I reckon I scalded the hair right off my tongue – but I swallered it down and set attair fancy bottom glass back on his desk.

"When I first come into town some time ago," the Sheriff said, "the first woman I saw was Bonnie, and the first girl I saw was Sarah."  He smiled – that tight, ironic smile of a man recounting a love lost – "I could have laid down my beating heart at her feet, but I didn't, and now she's married to a good man, a friend of mine."

The Marshal raised his glass and drained the last of its contents, but offered not one word of consolation, and I reckon that was the right thing to do.

I never saw a man look much more miserable in my life as my Pa as he admitted he'd let a woman get away after she'd captured his heart.

It didn't make matters any better that I knowed she felt the same way about him, but I held my tongue on that one too.

I ain't so dumb as I look, which probably means the Lord is merciful.

 

Next day in the Mercantile, two of them dress makin' women was a-gossipin' somethin' fierce, thinkin' they was nobody to hear 'em.

Now I can't turn invisible but I can be right next to it, and a man can gather a surprisin' amount of information by just listenin', so listen I did, and I got a good ear full.

Seems attair fella the Sheriff called a friend and a good man, wasn't quite.

He'd run through all their rebuilt ranch's money, he was wantin' Bonnie's inheritance she'd just got from someone over in Scotland, he was a gamblin' no-good – well, to listen to them two, he was good at losin' money, so I reckon to the other gamblers he was good enough – they talked about how he wanted to keep Sarah lookin' like a little schoolgirl, while her Mama dressed her up with paints and powders and foundations and had her ten years old lookin' like a grown woman, modelin' dresses for her Mama and paradin' her on stage for the buyers in Denver.

I never realized she made that many dresses nor that she shipped 'em out, but to hear this pair tell it, why, she was makin' Hot Cutter dresses, whatever that was, and they was sold as far as San Frisco and all over.

I just stood there an' listened.

Them two went out and a pair come in I didn't like the looks of, they looked kind of … I'd say their eyes was greasy.

That's the word I'd use.

Greasy.

They sort of slid back and forth, their eyes did, they didn't look at a body square-on, and they figgered they was alone and damned if they didn't get to talkin' too.

I just stood there behind a rack of cloth goods and stayed real still and listened, and what I listened to didn't make me none too comfortable, and they must have felt my bein' unhappy 'cause one come around the corner of that stack of cloth goods and spotted me and demanded "What you doin' listenin' like that!" and I looked past him and lifted my chin like I was a-signal to someone behind him.

He turned quick-like and I drove him over the head with the bottom of a can of peaches and I hit him hard enough to bring attair oiled board floor up to meet his eagle beak, and his partner didn't even have his hand wrapped around his plow handle before he was lookin' down the black tunnel of a .44 caliber grave.

The Sheriff and attair Territorial Marshal was still there when I fetched the two in, one helpin' the other, and the other a-holdin' his head and cussin'

"Sir," I said, "I reckon these two have somethin' to tell you about," and then I looked at the gunrack and said, "How many hulls you got for attair Sharps rifle?"

 

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The Sheriff sent me a-scamperin' over to fetch Doc over.

I reckon he wanted to make sure I hadn't busted his skull.

I hit him enough of a lick I'm surprised I didn't drive attair can clear down to his bottom jaw, but either his head was harder than I figured or I had a case of the punies, or so I thought until Doc give him a lookin' over, and he allowed as I did at least crack the man's skull.

I didn't much care.

The Sheriff had a candle burnin' in his window for that violet eyed McKenna woman, and I liked her some myself, and she was my sister's Mama and that made her all right by me, and this pair was talkin' how they was figgerin' to take hold of her and do things to her that a man hadn't ought, least not a decent man.

I didn't know there was more to it until two tall lawmen a-towerin' over them persuaded them to talk, hopin' they'd get off a little better if they spilled their guts.

When they did I got kind of watery in the legs.

I felt my bottom jaw shove out some and I saw the Sheriff's bottom jaw slide out too, and his eyes got just awful pale and awful hard and right glad I was that them pale eyes weren't boring ice drills into me.

We left the prisoners back in the back two cells and Doc come out with us and we was silent for a long minute, then the Sheriff looked at me and said "Head out to Bonnie's and keep her safe."

"Yes, sir," I said, and I fetched down my rifle and that shortened up shotgun, I slung them saddlebags over my off shoulder and that bandolier of brass shotgun hulls.

I stopped and I looked torst the cells and I looked at the Sheriff, and him and the Marshal looked at me, and I saw that Marshal was kind of uncomfortable lookin' at me.

I turned and headed out the door and he didn't figger I heard what he was sayin', but he allowed as I looked just like the Sheriff and God help the man that run cross ways of me!

 

I rode out to the Rosenthal spread.

It'd been returned to Bonnie once the dirty dealin's from the bank got fetched out where folks could see it, oncet that dirty banker come whimperin' out of the bank in irons after the Sheriff went in and kicked in the man's office door and grabbed him up and slung him ag'in the wall a good one, and then fetched him off the floor left handed and held him up and allowed as that banker was under arrest, and he the Sheriff would take it most kindly if he the banker give him any excuse a'tall to break him in two.

Now that Bonnie McKenna was married to that Rosenthal fella they was a-way less cattle to be seen and I'd heard Rosenthal was gamblin' away the ranch, and the more I heard of this man the Sheriff thought so much of, the less I thought of the man.

I reckoned sometimes bein' a friend meant bein' blind to some things but I was satisfied once the Sheriff found out which way the wind was a-blowin' he wouldn't be friends with the man no more.

In the mean time, why, me and Apple-horse pointed our noses that-a-way and we set us a good brisk pace.

Sarah and her little sister was on the front porch watchin' me ride up.

Sarah lifted her chin and damned if she didn't look womanly – I mean growed up womanly, she warn't … no, I taken another look at her and yes she was startin' to curve up the way women folks will when they're startin' to ripen.

Part of my mind wrote this down and slid it into a file like the Sheriff had in his office.

The rest of me swung a leg over and slud out of the saddle and hit the ground flat footed.

I still had attair rifle in hand.

"Sarah," I said, my voice low, "you might want this back."

I retcht back under my coat tail and went to grip that flat little Derringer she give me, and she laid her hand on her thigh and shook her head ever so slightly, and I nodded, oncet.

She had something there and I brought my hand out empty.

Bonnie come to the door and exclaimed, "Jacob!  What a pleasant surprise!"

"Ma'am," I said, not takin' off my hat, "might I speak with you?"

I saw her blink surprised-like and I don't reckon she expected to hear a serious tone to my voice.

Bonnie turned and called for the maid, and turned the little girl over to the hired help, and I said "Sarah, I'll need you too," and we went inside and I still did not take off my hat.

They sat – Bonnie was graceful, Sarah, guarded – Bonnie's eyes were big and luminous.

"Ma'am," I said, "there are men in town who intended you harm.  One is hurt and both are in jail."

"What do you mean, they mean me harm?"  Bonnie asked, looking at Sarah the way a mother will when there is danger that might spill over to her young.

"Ma'am, you came into an inheritance from Scotland," I said.  "There is a relative who wants it.  They're going to come into town and burn the place.  Orders are to kill the men, take the women and girls and when they're done, kill them, leave no stick unburnt."

My voice was level and steady and I was gettin' steadily mad clear through.

"Ma'am, you might want to come into town.  We'll be better able to keep you safe there."

"How long do we have?"

"I want you in town five minutes ago."

Bonnie rose, quickly, put two fingers to her mouth, whistled.

Loud.

The maid popped through a door like a bird out of one of them-there coo coo clocks Mama told me about oncet, and a man care runnin', thrust into the room, alarmed, then he looked at me standin' with a rifle in hand and he looked at Bonnie and back at me.

"Gilbert, harness up two carriages.  Matilda, you are taking the baby and heading for Cripple Creek.  Go to the hotel and sign in under the name Jesse Ricketts, the way we planned.  You have your things packed."  She said it as a statement and not a question.

"Yes, ma'am," the maid said with a little curtsy.

"And change your clothes.  I want you to look like a pretty young widow."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I will contact you when it's safe to return."  She turned to the man.  "I'll need the second carriage for Sarah and myself.  Our things are packed and in the upstairs hall closet, please bring them down."

"Yes, ma'am."  He turned and lit for those stairs like he was scared.

Bonnie looked at me.

"Jacob," she said, "what of the house?"

I looked the woman square in the eye.

"Ma'am," I said, "the hell with the house.  It can be rebuilt.  You can't.  Let's get you to safety."

 

Word spread fast.

The Sheriff went to the Mercantile and they was one of them fancy shiny brass steam engines they use to fight fires, it was just a-settin' in front of the Mercantile and nobody was terrible excited, but I saw them red shirted Irishmen with the fine black mustaches pack two rifle crates out and set on their ladder wagon, and I saw the Sheriff hand the dour Mr. Garrison a poke, and I knowed that poke held gold, for I'd watched him count out a healthy sum into it earlier that day.

The Irish Brigade swung around in the middle of the street and trotted them three horses nice and easy back down the street towards their tall wooden firehouse, and I went on into the Silver Jewel, or started to.

A window opened and I saw a double barrel shotgun with a red headed woman attached to it, a woman who looked around, a hard expression on her face, and then she drew back in and shut the window.

That was Miz Esther's front office and it faced out over the Silver Jewel's front, and it had a grand vantage for addressing sinners with the voice of authority.

Men gathered at the Mercantile and the Sheriff stood on the board walk in front of the general store, he was high enough everyone could see him and everyone could hear him, and he spoke plain so every man could understand him.

He allowed as there was a bunch of reavers comin' into town with full intent to rape their cattle and steal their wimmen, murder all the men and burn down everything includin' the outhouse, and then they allowed to plow up what was left and sow it with salt so nothin' would grow there ever ag'in, and after that, why, them fellas comin' our way was gonna get right mean.

Now one thing I learned young was when you got to scratch for a thing, that thing becomes dear to you.

I reckoned every man there had to go through quite a bit to get to where he was, to earn what he had, to build what he'd put together, and lookin' at their faces, I don't reckon a one of 'em was happy with the idea that everything he'd worked for, earned and built, was intended to be burnt, busted and destroyed.

We-all set to work.

The Sheriff knowed them long tall Kentucky moonshiners from up on the mountain and he was knowed to them and they was really good at timber work and damned if that Territorial Marshal didn't come up with an idea that suited the situation.

He allowed as instead of us goin' out to address the sinners, why not invite them into our parlor, so to speak, get 'em all bunched up where they can neither maneuver nor get away, and then he said "We can pour murderous fire down upon them," and I didn't think that was murder.

That was keepin' us and ours, safe, and that was not doing murder.

There was a big fella – I knowed the kind, he had big feet but he moved like a ghost – and when he slipped into the shadow I seen he had a bow in hand and arrows in a belt quiver, and I smiled and it warn't a pleasant smile a'tall.

I had me the feelin' he was goin' to stick some feathers in the bad guys, either he'd ketch their scouts or he'd slip in and put arrows into 'em where they felt safe.

I reckoned he could tend that detail without my help.

Wagons was brought in and loaded with timber and sacks of grain, set so they could be pushed out into the street to form a barricade.

Timbers and wire was used to shut off the back end of the alleys.

Oncet them raiders come in, they was not goin' to get out.

Men made the preparations they had to and then they clumb up onto the roofs and waited behind the false fronts.

Me, I had my eye on that church steeple, and damned if the Parson didn't meet me there, and him with a Sharps as well, but I didn't go palaver with him until after I'd stopped in the Silver Jewel and talked with Bonnie.

She'd pulled the two pianos out – I got no idea how, but two pianos arrived, I think one had been ordered back when the Silver Jewel was a dirty saloon and whorehouse – whatever the case, Bonnie was a-strugglin' to move one and I lent a hand and we got one stood out beside the stage, stickin' end-on out into where folks usually set, then we rolled t'other one over and set it so they was back to back.

Bonnie reached into her skirt and pulled out a Navy Colt that had seen some use, by the look of it.

"Your father handed me this," she said, "he said he carried it during the War, and it never let him down."

"Yes, ma'am," I said as Bonnie slid it back into its hidden holster under her skirt, then she grabbed two chairs and swung them in between the pianos.

"No one can come at us except from here," Bonnie said, "and I shall ensure they do not succeed."

I of a sudden respected this woman considerably more than I had.

 

Me and Parson Belden clumb up to the bell tower.

He said my father had it rebuilt not long before, with Eastern white oak, pegged together while it was still green.

The Parson said it would turn anything but cannon fire and maybe even that, that oak was used for warships because cannon shot would not uncommonly bounce off seasoned white oak, and we set on crates we'd h'isted up with ropes, crates with some food and the like and extra ammunition.

The Parson was in that War same as my father, and he warn't nervous a'tall.

He spoke quietly of fields of fire an angles of depression, of things like defilade and grazing fire and that was kind of like when Doc was discussin' my father's injuries, it was fancy language that meant something, just not much to me.

"I understand you brought in Mrs. Rosenthal."

I had to consider a moment before I realized that yes, dimwit, Bonnie would be Mrs. Rosenthal, even if he was a gamblin' no-good.

"Yes, sir.  She is in the Silver Jewel and she has a good position."

"Your father saved her just before he was shot."

I give him a curious look.  "Sir?"

The Parson nodded.  "Oh yes.  Relatives of hers wanted her fortune.  She was kidnapped and taken out of town in a personal car.  The Sheriff rode out to a place he knows of and jumped his Cannonball horse onto a flatcar and then stormed the car where Bonnie was held prisoner."

So the Parson calls her Bonnie too, I thought.

"There was swift justice there also.  A woman was involved – Clara, I believe her name was – she's been sentenced and removed to the Women's Prison."

I heard the precise, tight little click as he set the back trigger and then brought the hammer to half cock before dropping the breech.

I done the same thing.

I knowed my rifle was factory converted from the tobacco cutter and that dog leg firin' pin was prone to break, and a man had to half cock it before he dropped the breech block elsewise it tended to break the firin' pin. 

I knowed the Sheriff had a small poke full of replacements but I did not want to have to go changin' out a firin' pin when lead was flyin'.

The Parson slud in a brass cartridge, eased his lever shut, raised his back side, and I did the same.

I stuck up my head and looked around.

"Two hundred yards looks like the longest shot," I said, then looked down at the vernier's markings.

The Parson said, "Two hundred, I concur," and my ear pulled a little the way it did when I heard somethin' funny.

Everyone was usin' fancy language hereabouts.

 

 

 

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10.  REMEMBERING

 

The Parson come off his crate and faded to the left and I come up beside him on the right, and we leaned our rifles over the edge as the riders come into town.

We didn't want to fire early so's to scare them off.

We wanted them to come right down into the jaws of all them rifles a-waitin' from rooftops and hid in shadow behint rain barrels and I wanted to drive that sugar loaf bullet as near to down into the dirt as I could, for it would pass through a man and keep on a-goin' and I didn't want to hole nobody else.

They come in hell-a-tearin' and they come in fast enough they got further down the street than I really wanted to see, so I fetched up my rifle barl and swung to the right and laid it down ag'in and drove attair rifle ball right down through a rider's neck.

My Sharps spoke and a whole bunch more rifles did too and about then I heard a whistle and a yell and a steam whistle and damned if that fire engine didn't come up the street at a dead-open gallop, them three white mares drivin' hard ag'in their polished leather collars and that insane Irishman standin' up in the seat, swingin' attair blacksnake whip and singin' just absolute at the top of his lungs.

Part of me thought he had to be dead nuts crazy, and then them-there red shirted firemen leaned out around the b'iler and off attair ladder wagon and every man Jack of 'em had a Henry rifle and they drove into that bunch of riders like a white gloved fist driving into a man's face.

My hands run without lookin' and I fetched up attair Sharps and set the sight where I wanted it and that steel crescent drove into my high arm and I fetched back that hammer and yanked the lever down and that empty hull come smokin' out of the breech and the Parson fired ag'in and two or three hornets came a-buzzin' past me and dug into the boards overhead and I recall a splinter hit my ear and about then somethin' like a fist hit me just inboard of the right shoulder and I was sick and it hurt deep and I didn't fall, attair bell tower kind of twisted around me and I couldn't figure how it managed to do that and I was a-layin' on my back lookin' up at them splintered boards overhead and I recall thinkin' I could come up here and whitewash over that and then I realized it was kind of hard to breathe.

The Parson grabbed me – I recall his hands was big and they was strong and when he took holt of me it was like a man grabbin' for a float when he's drownin' – he rolled me up on my side and I coughed and tasted blood and I recall it was kind of like a silvery beaded curtain come shimmerin' down in front of my eyes.

I heard gunfire and I heard the Parson yellin' and then it was real quiet and a horse shoved its nose through attair bead curtain.

Now what's a horse doin' up here? I wondered, and then it come clear through and damned if there warn't a woman a-straddle of attair big black horse.

She recht down and grabbed my hand and pulled hard and I come up on my feet and she throwed a leg over attair saddle and come down flat footed and we were about the same height and her eyes was pale like mine and I blinked.

Now damned if she don't look like Sarah, thought I, and she laughed and said "Of course I do, silly!" and she reached up and laid her hand real gentle-like alongside my face.

We warn't there no more, we were by a stream and 'twas green all around and under a shade tree and I realized she warn't dressed nowhere near decent.

She wore a tin shirt of some kind that was shaped like … well, she was womanly and attair tin shirt was shaped just like …

She give me them eyes, them big pale eyes and she blinked all innocent-like and said "You've never seen a warrior-maiden before?"

I swallowed and stepped back quick-like, felt for my Colt revolvers, they were under my coat and I unbuttoned it but didn't throw it back.

I looked around, looked back.

"Ma'am," I said, "I don't belong here."

"Be sure," she said and she almost smiled, like she knowed something more than I did.

I felt somethin' tight around my chest and it hurt and I coughed again and tasted blood.

"You can stay here and you won't hurt," I recall she said. 

I raised my head and it hurt to raise it up and it weighed heavy and I looked up at her and said "I don't belong here!" and then I was a-layin' in the church and my Pa was leaned over me, I recall seein' his mustache and there was a woman with him, a woman with light hair and violet eyes just like Miz Bonnie, I'd seen her before and my Pa grabbed her hand and slapped the handle of his knife in it and he said "Like this," and he pushed it hard against my shoulder and I recall my jaw snapped shut for the pain and I heard – it was distant, but I heard it – my Pa spoke the Word just like that green eyed Miz Esther and I felt somethin' hot drive into me and then I reckon I just plainly passed out.

 

It was some time later that I smelled clean bedsheets, clean like sunshine and a mountain wind, and I opened my eyes and Sarah was a-sittin' there readin' a little book of some kind.

She turned her head and looked at me with them pale eyes and she said "You could have stayed there, you know," and I tried to move and it hurt and I made kind of a face.

"I'm stayin'," I said and my throat was dry and my voice was hoarse and Sarah turned in her chair to face me square-on and she took my left hand in both of hers and she said, "Good.  I'd hoped you would."

I blinked and recalled that pale eyed woman that looked an awful lot like her, that woman in that tin shirt and that short skirt made of long leather strips with metal of some kind riveted on the strips –

"Some dream," I croaked.

Sarah let go of my hand and got up.

I heard water gurgle and realized I was just awful thirsty and then her hand cupped behind my head and she held a glass to my lips and I drank, and I don't think much of it made it down to my gut, I reckon most of it just got sucked into my dried out throat on the way down.

"What happened?"  I gasped.

"Other than your being shot and the Parson letting you down through the hatch with a rope?"  Sarah said, turning to set that tall glass on a table or something.  "Other than the Irish Brigade riding down a half dozen of them, other than your father riding up the street to duel with their leader and cutting his head off with his Cavalry sabre, other than Esther jumping over a hitch rail like a schoolgirl and running out into the street among the carcasses to beat a man to death with a rifle for trying to bushwhack the Sheriff?  Other than Mr. and Mrs. Garrison standing shoulder to shoulder in front of their Mercantile, her with a shotgun and him with his LeMat revolver, keeping the bunch from firing their store?  Other than Bonnie shooting two of them when they came in the back door of the Silver Jewel?"

The more she talked the worst I felt.

I'd gone and got myself hurt and I hadn't done enough good –

"Jacob," she said seriously, "you and the Parson broke their charge and you each took out their most dangerous fighters and you both helped keep all of us safe."

She sat down and took my hand again.

"Jacob," she said, and I don't think I'd ever heard her voice like that – all grown up and really, really serious – "you kept me safe, and you kept my Mama safe, and you kept my little sister safe, and you kept safe the sisters I will have yet.  You, Jacob."  She leaned forward, her eyes burning into mine – not the ice drills I'd seen the Sheriff's eyes look like, but the eyes of a pretty young woman who wanted desperately to make me believe something really important.

I heard a woody knock and a door opened, I felt the wind as it swung open and I heard the Sheriff's pace as he walked into the room.

Sarah rose and folded her hands ever so pretty in her apron and she said "Your patient is awake," and she swept out, all skirts and curls and pretty young woman, and the Sheriff sat down in the chair she'd just come out of.

He gripped my hand in his – a strong grip, I felt his calluses, I saw the worry in his eyes.

"Jacob," he almost whispered, "I'm sorry."

"Sir?"  I heard the surprise in my voice like I'd heard someone else speak.

"I don't think –"

The Sheriff looked to the side and swallowed hard.

He looked back at me.

"Jacob," he said, "you are my only son." 

His hand tightened on mine.

"I want you …"
He turned his head and I saw his jaw muscles bunch up, and then he looked back and his eyes were white and hard again.

"Jacob," he said quietly, "I very much want to bounce my grandsons on my knee.  I'll need your help for that."

"Yes, sir," I said.  "I'll do my best."

"You do that." 

He let go of my hand, rose, give me a long look.

"You did well up there, Jacob.  I'm proud of you."

That felt right good, to hear him say that.

Matter of fact that felt really, really good.

"Yes, sir," I managed to say.

I didn't know what-else I could've said.

There was another knock and attair Doc Greenlees came in and I considered that room was just awful popular, and Miz Esther come in with him, and the Sheriff taken up his pearl grey Stetson and left and closed the door quiet-like behind him.

The Doc undid that strip holdin' a folded cloth ag'in my poor achin' shoulder and I recall it felt like someone drove a broom handle plumb through me front to back and then stirred it around some.

He frowned at whatever was under attair cloth and he laid it back in place.

Doc Greenlees fetched out that funny tubing thing he listened with and stuck the ends in his ears.

Him and Miz Esther got me settin' up and he put whatever it was cold ag'in my back and he told me to breathe and I considered I'd play hell not breathin' and he frowned like he always did and laid two fingers ag'in my chest ribs and thumped on his finger nails with the fingertips of the other hand.

I got no idea what he was a-doin' but I let him do it and finally he looked over at Miz Esther and raised an eyebrow and said "I understand your niece was in the church when the Parson lowered him out of the bell tower."

"She was," Miz Esther said and I heard suspicion in her voice.

Doc shook his head, lifted the cloth off my shoulder again, took another good look at whatever was under it.

"This," he said, "should still be raw and bleeding.  Look here" – Miz Esther come over and looked right at it and I'll say this for her, she didn't have no hesitation, bless her – she taken a good look and then looked at the Doc.

"It doesn't appear to be infected," she said.

"No.  It doesn't."  He pulled off the folded cloth and studied it, turned and dropped it into somethin' and set a fresh, clean one ag'in me and tied it down.

"Jacob," he said, "you have truly remarkable recuperative powers."

"Yes, sir," I said, hoping what he'd just said was a good thing.

"I know the high altitude helps but there is not the least trace of infection.  Your lung is fully inflated and the wound looks like I would expect to see a week from now."

"Sir?" 

"Jacob, I pulled a handful of rib splinters out of you.  You bled out about a gallon and I honestly would not have bet sixbits that you would survive.  A rifle bullet went in between shoulder and nipple and came out just below your shoulder blade."

He frowned again and shook his head.

"Jacob, there is no medical reason you should be alive."

"I'm right sorry to disappoint you, sir," I said, and I reckon I should have been slapped for back talkin' the man, but Miz Esther smiled a little and snapped out a fan and tried to hide her face so's I wouldn't see it.

Doc Greenlees set down on a chair on t'other side of the bed – on my right, Sarah's chair was on my left – and he leaned them sharp skinny elbows down onto his skinny knees and he leaned torst me some and said, quiet-like, "Jacob, you are more than welcome to disappoint me any time you like!"

The Sheriff come in ag'in right after, and Doc and Miz Esther took their leave, and I said, "Sir?" and the Sheriff said "Yes?" and I swallowed hard for I recalled somethin' attair Marshal said.

"Sir," I said, feelin' like I was takin' a long dive off a rock into cold water, "you were rib-busted from a blowed up cannon."

He nodded gravely.  "I was."

"And attair fella shot you in them busted in ribs."

"Yes."

"Sir …"

I swallowed.

"Sir, did you die?"

He give me a long look, the look of a man who knowed considerable more than he was a-sayin', and finally he nodded.

"Yes," he said, like he'd come to a sudden decision.  "Yes.  I did."

"Sir … was there a stream, and a shade tree?"

His eyes went a little bit pale and so did his face and he whispered, "What did you see?"
"A woman," I said, "on a big black horse."

He give me almost a fearful look.

"Sir, she had a tin shirt and a skirt no more'n kneecap long and 'twas made of leather strips wide as three fingers and they had metal squares riveted overlappin' on each strip, like shakes on a roof –"

The Sheriff nodded, once, and I think 'twas a good thing he was a-settin' down.

"I know the place," he said, "for I have set under that tree, and I have drunk the waters from that stream."

"You've been there?"

I tried to set up but it hurt so I laid back down and the Sheriff laid his hand on my chest and said "Just lay still, son," and his voice was real gentle-like, and he said, "Fiddler's Green."

"Sir?"

I frowned a little and considered.

"Sir, please don't think me stupid, but I didn't see no fiddlers."

The Sheriff almost smiled.

"What did you see, Jacob?"

"I seen me a shade tree and the grass was soft under it.  I could have laid down and stayed and that pale eyed woman said I could if I wanted and I wouldn't hurt no more."

"Tell me about the woman."

"She had pale eyes, sir, and she looked like Sarah, only all growed up."

I felt my ears turn red.

"She had a tin shirt, sir."

"What color?"

"Gold it was, sir, and it had engravin' on the front."  I frowned, remembering.  "An eagle, sir, I reckon it was, or maybe a thunder bird."

"Was she alone, Jacob?"

"No, sir," I said as memories cleared up some.  "She had a horse, sir, a big one."

He looked at me like he was waitin' on somethin'.

"Black it was, sir, black and healthy lookin', with long black hair feathered out over its – sir?"

The Sheriff sat down sudden-like.

"I'd forgotten the horse," he whispered.

He looked at me and his expression was that of a man who'd seen a ghost walk right through the wall.

"The horse had wings," he whispered, and 'twas then I remembered it.

He was right.

That big black horse had wings, and we rode it, she and I.

Next day I was well enough to set out on the second story porch there at the Silver Jewel.

I set there in the sun and glad I was for it.

I must have dozed a little for when I woke up I looked across at the Sheriff's office and I reckon had my jaw hinge not been bolted in place, why, I'd have just plainly dropped my chin plumb down to my boot tops for the surprise of it.

Attair Marshal was talkin' to Sarah, and I couldn't hear what he was a-sayin' – it looked like he was speakin' sternly to her and she looked like a little girl gettin' a talkin'-to, and when they was done, she looked up at me with an expression of … well, like she was a girl who'd just gotten away with something.

She looked just awful satisfied with herself, I recall, especially when she taken up the reins and reached up to caress the muzzle of that absolutely huge, shining-black horse with the fur long and feather-brushed over its shining black hooves.

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11.  WHITE BRONZE

 

I heard the woman scream and my head come up and so did Apple's and I give him my knees and he taken out torst the sound like a dog will when it's tryin' to pick up a scent, he coursed left an' we heard it ag'in and he coursed right and come left ag'in and then he lowered his head and I tightened up his knees 'cause I knew he was a-gonna take out a-runnin' and boy howdy did he!

We run down the side of attair hill and down into the holler, he jumped the run at the bottom like he was a Jack Rabbit and come just a-diggin' up t'other side and we come up on a trail I'd almost never seen a wagon on for it was narrow and it was rocky and damned if there warn't a covered wagon with one wheel off and it up on blockin' and there was a woman a-layin' on the ground but tryin' to get up, she had one hand laid on her big belly and she looked like a woman in pain and there was a girl with a rag tied over her eyes tryin' to find her way down the side of attair wagon.

Now I'm lookin' around tryin' t'see if there's anythin' more than her bein' in pain to make her scream and I didn't see nothin' and I come off attair Apple-horse and lit flat footed kind of hard and my shoulder called me some right unkind names when I did.

I thought the Almighty ought to take a kind eye torst me for I did not give vent to what I felt, for I felt right unhappy a-drivin' my boots into the ground hard enough to bring water to my eyes, but I come up straight an' I went over to attair woman and she looked at me with her eyes all big and a-panic and I said "Ma'am, my name's Jacob and I'm a deputy sheriff, is your baby comin' now?"

She nodded, quick-like, the way a woman will when she ain't got wind enough t' talk and truth be told I don't reckon she did an' I figured she was from low down an' the mountains has thin air and likely she couldn't hardly ketch her breath, I seen it before.

"Mama?"  the girl said uncertainly, and I spoke up and said "We're right here," and she came over real hesitant, feelin' her way the way someone will when they're blind of a sudden.

I taken the woman's hand in my own and spoke gentle and reassurin' to her and I fetched out my pocket watch so I would get a notion how far apart her pains were.

I didn't know much about birthin' a child but I was the only one there with two good eyes and two good hands.

Well, hell, maybe one good hand and one that didn't have no strength but it would have to do.

The woman laid back – more like she fell back, she collapsed – and I said to the blind girl, "Have you a blanket, somethin' for the baby once it's out?"

"I have," she said, then she felt her way back alongside the wagon and fell over the rim of attair wagon wheel a-layin' there, and I looked at it again and saw it had a busted axle.

She didn't cry out when she landed, she got up and dusted herself off and felt torst the back of the wagon and directly she come back and damned if she didn't have a cake of soap with her as well.

"You," I said, "are an angel, stay with your Mama and I'll get my hands washed up," I said, and I taken of a-runnin' for attair stream.

I recalled Doc Greenlees talkin' about how important it is to keep a wound clean and he was tellin' about women dyin' of child birth fever for whoever tended her birth had hands filthied from an infected wound or the like.

Damned if I was gonna add to this poor woman's misery!

I come a-scramblin' back and my hands was nice and clean, I set that soap down under the wagon seat for soap had to be made and it was a thing to be prized, and then I come down on one knee beside the woman again.

"How is it?"  I asked.  "Mother, when are you due?"

"I didn't expect this," she whispered and almost laughed.  "Miriam …"

The girl felt for her Mama's hand, squeezed it.  "I'm here, Mama."

The woman turned her head toward me.  "I am Mrs. Campbell and this is my daughter Miriam.  She … we're trying to get to Denver to see a specialist.  Miriam went blind and we were told there is a very good specialist –"

Her teeth clicked together and she hissed her breath in between them, groaned, then eased off.

"Ma'am, where is your husband?"  I asked, for it was evident someone had unhitched their oxen and tied them off and then got that axle broke wagon up on that blockin', and sure as thunder it warn't her nor that blind girl.

"He's gone ahead for help," she whispered hoarsely.  "Oh dear God … oh God, not now, not now …"
I don't know how I knew but I knew it was time to quit foolin' around and get ready to bring that baby out, or more like it was time to clear a path because the baby decided it was a-comin'.

"Mother," I said, "it's time, raise your bottom and do it now!"

I fetched up her skirt and fetched off her things and I did it fast and not at all gentle, and I taken a look and just got myself out of the way when the waters broke.

I've pulled calves and recht up inside a laborin' mare to cup them tiny little hooves in my hand to get a foal out and I watched our Tip-dog whelp just shy of a dozen pups oncet but I never birthed no human baby before and it didn't matter, for the baby was a-comin' and I retcht in and the head come out and turned and Miriam set there all a-shiver, for women know things without seein' and she likely could see through her Mama's hand or some-such.

I didn't have no time to consider that for the head rotated a little and I slid my hand in and a shoulder come out and another shoulder and boom I had me a double handful of slippery ugly grey colored wiggling ugliness.

Now I ain't the brightest candle in the chandelier, but I figured that little one just come out of a small ocean and now it was in air and unless it was a fish it was gonna have to breathe the same air we was, so I taken my kerchief and used it to grab around its ankles and I hung it upside down to drain out what waters was in its lungs, then I turned it face down and rubbed its back and it was a-strugglin' and it drooled out some stuff and I wiped it off and it made a little mouse squeak kind of a noise and damned if that wasn't the greatest sound I ever heard since God Almighty invented sunrise!

The mother looked up and she was a-cryin' and askin' what did she have and she wanted her baby and Miriam looked like she was a-cryin' and I said "Miriam, fetch me attair blanket, this child is gettin' cold!"  and she come up on her knees and shuffled over to me and held out the blanket.

"I got to tie off this cord," I said, "you hold the baby," and I set that little one down in the blanket and I cut me a long thin strip off the woman's petticoat without askin'.

I didn't reckon she'd mind.

I tied me off attair cord about three fingers from the belly and tied the secont one about the same distance from that and I taken my knife and sliced the cord and then I said "Mother, I reckon you might want to hold your child," and she was cryin' some more and Miriam whispered, "Do I have a brother or a sister?"  and I realized I had no idea so I unwrapped it and taken a look.

"Miriam," I said, "you have a fine little baby sister," and I turned the child and the mother was fumblin' with her bodice so I helped her get it unlaced and she set that child to its first meal.

I was so busy payin' attention to what I was a-doin' I like to jumped a foot off the ground when a hand laid down on my shoulder and I looked around and damned if we didn't have half of Firelands there, or at least a half dozen men and more a-comin', and Miz Esther and Miz Bonnie and a stout lookin' woman that looked like a nurse all a-hustlin' towards me and Doc Greenlees come down on one knee beside me and said real soft, "Son, that was well enough done I couldn't bear to interrupt," and then everyone started to either settin' a liftin' jack under that wagon bed or settin' out timber and plannin' repairs and the wimmen all come in on attair new mother and I stood up and so did Miriam and someone handed me a flask of something and I taken me a drink of what burnt like fire and seared my swaller pipe bad enough I reckon I coughed out a little puff of steam.

"Good stuff," I wheezed and handed it back, and they-all laughed and I laughed with them.

 

The ladies got the mother and Miriam and the babe in arms into a nice easy ridin' carriage and the men folks set up and damned if they didn't whittle out another axle with a good hub and they fit it right and proper, and my respect for them long tall Kentucky moon shiners got notched up a ways.

I'd heard they worked wood as good as they did grain and from what I was a-seein' it warn't no lie.

Pa he looked at me and nodded and give me that half smile of his and that warmed me about as good as that swaller of Two Hit John.

I got me back onto Apple-horse and set myself after attair carriage but I warn't in no hurry.

I'd never birthed me a baby before and I reckoned I might want to take some time to quit shakin'.

 

Miriam looked just awful lonely standin' in front of the Silver Jewel.

The pilgrims was put up for the night and fed proper, their oxen were in the corral and Shorty was fussin' over 'em like they was old friends and he was grainin' 'em and brushin' 'em and I reckon he'd have 'em plumb spoiled before full dark.

The wagon was h'isted ag'in and the wheels all pulled the hubs and axles looked over and greased up and set back together and I listened to them Kentucky moon shiners and one of 'em allowed as he'd brought his fiddle and why didn't we have a dance, and I come up beside that Miriam girl with the rag tied over her eyes and I said quiet-like, "Miriam, it's Jacob, I'm to your right," and she startled a little the way someone will when they ain't been blind long.

"I'm sorry," I said, and I felt right sorry for a fact, for I felt kind of protective torst this girl.

I reckoned she was close to my age and part of me wanted to fix her eyes but I knowed that was beyond me, so I taken her hand real gentle like and laid a folded narrow silk cloth in it and said "This might work better for your eyes," and her mouth opened a little like she was surprised, and then she smiled as she felt it between her fingers.

She retcht up and fetched off attair rag and I saw her eyes was bulged out a ways – not terribly, just enough to notice – but one looked off to the southeast and downhill, and the other looked northwest, and uphill.

She blinked a few times, then closed her eyes and laid attair pale blue silk acrost 'em and tied it in back of her head and allowed as that was better, she liked silk.

I heard attair fiddle inside and said "They're goin' to have a dance, Miriam, would you like to dance with me?"

"I can't see," she whispered, and she shivered a little.

I recht down and taken her hand in mine, gentle-like, and said in a soft voice, "You don't have to, Miriam.  I'll see for the both of us and I'll not run you into no one."

Her hand tightened on mine and she nodded a little and we went on inside.

 

Miriam had a bath before she come out and so had I, she'd been give a fresh dress and I had a clean suit on, and I told Miriam I'd hurt my right shoulder but I'd do my best, and we done well for a waltz, and we set out the square dance and then Daisy come in and spoke to the fiddler and he begun to play somethin' I'd never heard but it was lively and she begun to dance with her arms stiff at her side and she threw her head back and laughed and Miriam stood quick-like and pulled me up and said "I know this one!"

She and Daisy commenced to dance, them two and me in the middle of the floor, and damned if they wasn't hammerin' the floor somethin' unmerciful with their heels and attair blue eyed Kentucky fiddler with his hand made curly back fiddle grinned and he fiddled to 'em and I kind of danced with 'em and Miriam retched up and held my hand high above her head and she turned around like a top and Daisy come over and grabbed my right hand and it hurt like thunder when she h'isted my hand above her head so she could spin like a top too, but they was enjoyin' themselves and I reckon they looked really good, but I will tell you plain it felt awful good when I was able to lower my good right arm.

We waltzed once more and then we went outside, and her Pa come out and asked her to see her mother, and I faced the man square.

"Sir," I said, "I did not ask your permission before I danced with your daughter.  I was wrong and I apologize."

He give me a funny look and then he said, "I have not seen my daughter smile in a very long time, Deputy.  You have given her happiness, and I thank you for that."

His head snapped around when he heard his wife scream inside and we both run inside and run up them stairs and I recht under my coat and grabbed hold of my left hand revolver, for I did not know why she screamed.

I found out quick enough.

I went runnin' down the hall and around to the right and I whipped into Doc Greenlees' surgery and Dr. Flint looked up, surprised, and I blurted, "Sir, Miriam is dyin'," and he didn't argue nor ask questions, he grabbed his black warbag and come a-boilin' out of his chair and kept up with me as we run back to Miriam's Mama's room.

Me and her Pa come out of the room and we leaned ag'in the hallway and both of us was bent over with our hands on our knees and I felt as sick as he looked, and he looked just awful sick.

He told me in a quiet voice, the voice of a sorrowing father, that Miriam went blind of a sudden not a month before, that her eyes rolled away from one another and she taken to wearin' a rag acrost 'em so nobody would be distressed lookin' at her.

He said their doc said she was dyin' and not a thing could be done for her but they loaded up all they had and headed torst Denver, and he allowed as he should have just left everythin' behind and taken the train and give up on all he'd left ruther'n try to fetch it all along to start frash ag'in on another patch of land.

I leaned my head back ag'in the wall behint me and recalled how she smelled and how she felt when we waltzed, and how she spun under my hand like she was a child's top, and we heard the door open and a woman was sobbing inside the way a woman will when her heart is just plumb broke apart, and we looked up at Dr. Flint and he shook his head slowly.

 

I went over to the funeral parlor and had me a talk with Digger.

I told him I wanted a particular box to plant her in and he wanted to try and swindle the family into something an awful lot more expensive and I told him they were so poor they couldn't afford to pay attention, let alone pay a big funeral bill, and he didn't like that but I give him a glare from my pale eyes and he looked away and allowed as that box would do fine, did I want a stone.

I told him I wanted white bronze and I thought the man was a-gonna swaller his chaw.

He didn't get no Kick Back from the fellers that made them fancy stones back East and he loved to sell Nantucket marble or somethin' like that because he made an awful profit and he didn't make no profit from white bronze.

I didn't care.

I'd seen soft stones look like they was dissolvin' along the sharp edges and I figured given enough time, why, they'd dissolve enough so a body couldn't read the engravin' but I'd heard attair White Bronze would outlast stone so that's what I wanted.

I paid for her funeral and I paid for her marker and I paid for her bein' planted and I had her planted beside what I figured would be my own plot, and her folks left and I stood there just starin' at her grave, and down below I saw 'em head out of town with attair covered wagon pulled by them two oxen, and I stood there with my hat in my hand and I stared at the raw dirt and I remembered.

I closed my eyes and I leaned my head back and turned my face to Heaven and smiled a little, for I recalled that gentle smile under her silk blindfold, I recalled how she felt when we waltzed and how she hammered the floor with her heels in time with attair curly back fiddle, and the memory was a good one.

If a man can stand beside a grave where he's buried his own heart and smile, he's got some pretty good memories.

 

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12.  THE PROMISE

 

I watched the Sheriff slide attair ring on Miz Esther's hand up on the Silver Jewel's little stage and he allowed as this was a Promise Ring, that he was promising her he'd marry her, and I recall she raised them lovely green eyes and looked back at me and damned if she didn't look like a woman that just snatched a prize.

I heard it said like a cat swallered a canary but cats have to tear the canary apart and chaw it up first and she just plainly swallered him in one gulp easy as if she'd buttered him first.

I stood there with my Stetson in my hand and I didn't feel anythin' much, neither good nor bad.

She had her plans and I reckoned women maneuver men to their advantage, women are smart that way and men can't see it most days and I thought back to Miriam and her Mama and there's no way they could have known I was even alive much less in the territory and I looked down at that floor and realized I felt just awful empty.

I was terrible sweet on that Miriam girl and I thought on that for a while.

Everyone was celebratin' and the fiddler started up ag'in and a fella grabbed my bad shoulder and said somethin' about such shiny boots and stomped on my foot and I left him layin' in the sawdust doubled up, there warn't nothin' wrong with my knee and I put it to good use and reckoned as I walked off he'd be singin' in a really high voice for a day or three, and I went on outside.

I didn't feel mad, really, I didn't feel much a'tall.

I'd felt some pleasure since Mama died, I'd felt surprise, but nothing really strong, and then Miriam come along and I felt just awful protective of her and as I stood there out on the board walk and listened to the night, turnin' attair pearl-grey Stetson around in my hands, I realized I was feelin' somethin' finally.

I felt disappointed, and it warn't worth the wait.

I felt disappointed that it warn't me on that stage with Miriam, and whilst I was a-wishin' I wisht I could have fixed her eyes but that wasn't possible so I let go of the wish and tossed it aside.

Waste of time.

The door opened and Miz Bonnie come out.

Now I liked Miz Bonnie, she'd had a hard way of it, or Sarah said, and she come over beside me the way a woman will when she's a little tentative.

I knowed the Sheriff had a candle burnin' for her and I didn't know if she felt the same way and warn't my business anyhow.  She was married and he'd just promised to marry that green eyed Esther woman and that's somethin' else I couldn't fix.

"Jacob," she asked, soft-like, and I turned and looked at her and I felt myself smile a little as if I was tryin' to reassure her.

"Ma'am," I said quietly in reply.

"Jacob, are you all right?"

I looked away, swinging my gaze off across the street, let my lookin'-at slide off the front of the Mercantile and the funeral parlor and attair photography studio where a fella was settin' up business takin' pictures, and I considered her question and finally said "Reckon I am, ma'am."

"Jacob … I'm … very proud of you."

Now that surprised me and I pushed away from that wall so I could face her, for I was of  sudden curious.

"Ma'am?"

"Jacob, when that poor woman was in labor, you birthed her child and you did not hesitate.  Dr. Greenlees said you did a fine job, as good a job as he could have.  He said you even washed your hands before you started, and you gave the mother a silver dollar for a belly binder."

I nodded and I felt the corners of my mouth twitch a little, like they was tryin' to smile again.

"Yes, ma'am.  My Mama one time told me a man give her a genuine silver dollar for a belly binder, he said to bind it to the stump and the belly button would heal up clean and not infected."
"It's a … a wish for good fortune for the child."

"Yes, ma'am."

She laughed a little, turned and leaned back of a sudden against the wall like me, and I wondered if the two of us wouldn't have dust-bars across our back, for a building up ag'in the street like this gets dusty quick.  I knew the swamper come out every day and used a water dipped bresh broom to sweep the dust off the painted clap boards but they'd still be dusted some, likely.

"I've known men to pass out cold when a woman birthed," she said, and I heard amusement in her voice.

"Yes, ma'am."

"You've given Sarah such comfort as well."
Now this did surprise me.

I looked at her and I didn't make any effort to keep the look off my face.

"Ma'am?"
She nodded.

"She said you're the only soul who really understood her, and it was such a shame you were brother and sister, she said you'll make a fine husband and you'll father fine, strong sons."  She looked at me and I recalled how Mama would look at me when she was feelin' warm and pleased with somethin' I'd done and that was the same look Miz Bonnie give me. 

"Thank you, ma'am," I said, and my voice was kind of soft and thoughtful, and I'd not give any thought to how I should pitch my reply so I reckon that was genuinely how I felt.

We stood there for a little and she said somethin' else to surprise me.

"Jacob, since Miriam died … when she did, did you cry?"

I stopped and considered and then said "No ma'am."

"Not since, not even once?"

"No, ma'am."

She dropped her head and bit her bottom lip a little and seemed to be considerin' and finally she said "You might feel better if you did."

It was my turn to consider and then I give her a careful answer.

It was honest but it was careful.

"Ma'am," I said, "I watched a man murder my mother.  He beat her and horse whipped her and she died and he'd horse whipped me and I could not get up.  When I finally was able to crawl to his bed I screwed his own pistol barrel in his ear and killed him.  I didn't cry then, ma'am.  I don't reckon I expect to cry now."

She still had her head bowed and she nodded and she was fumblin' with a lacy edged hankie and she recht up and dabbed at her eyes.

I stood there and listened to the night, and when she turned to me I turned torst he for I figured she had somethin' more to say and I was right.

She pressed that damp hankie into my hand and she whispered the way a woman will when she's grieved and has no voice.

"Take this, Jacob," she said.  "Take it and … if you can't cry, here are some tears," and she snatched up her skirt and turned quick-like and grabbed that polished brass handle on the fancy, heavy door and she opened the door and swung in, and then the door closed and shut out the sound of fiddles and dancin' and laughter, and I looked down at that damp lacy hankie with BR embroidered in the corner.

Bonnie Rosenthal, I thought, and shoved it in my pocket, and I considered that there was just an awful lot I did not know about women.

 

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13.  REPUTATION

 

I heard an old hunky call it a "Two Pipe Shoot Gun" and that's what we called it, kind of an inside joke you might say.

I knowed it was a powerful persuader, a man who'd not hesitate to drag iron would surely stop and swallow hard and take a long look at his hole card before he'd go up against the twin muzzles of a street howitzer.

The concussion of firing just one barrel inside a closed room is nothing short of spectacular – not just the boom and a man feels it more than hears it, though a body's ears feel like someone just slapped both of 'em, hard! – then there's a dirty-sulfur-yellow-lightning flash, and that rolling cloud of blue selfer smoke grows as it rolls and layers in the tobacco smoke stacked up in the still air.

Firin' a second barrel right after the first is like gettin' hit with two warclubs, wham-wham, and I am here to raise my right hand and testify, friend, that absolutely positively everything in attair Silver Jewel Saloon come to a screechin' halt and it come to a halt immediately if not sooner!

Now I'm not as freezy as most men, I learned the hard way and fast if a body freezes they're gettin' hit and I had my coat tail swatted back and a good grip on my left hand plow handle and I was twistin' and pullin' my skinny carcass hard-a-starboard, as old Lightning said it oncet, and before I could clear leather, why, my pale eyed Pa stepped out of absolutely I-don't-know-how-he-got-there and put both barrels through the man's arm, just above the wrist.

I recall that sawed off hand and the revolving pistol it gripped fell, slow, lazy as an aspen leaf on a summer wind, toward the bloodied floor that was more than ready to receive it.

Sarah was off to my right, her and that dog of hers, and she had a hand on that growin' dog's shoulder.

She didn't have to stoop much to do it, neither, that dog was gonna be just plain BIG!

The Sheriff opened attair double gun and give it a jerk back torst him and them empty hulls near to jumped out of the britch end right before he dunked in two more brass hull loads and then dern if Law and Order Harry Macfarland wasn't right, Pa held the gun by the barrels and raised up the britch end til the action snapped shut.

'Twas then I realized he had that sawed off double gun I'd near to ruint over in Carbon Hill.

I didn't care much, truth be told, I was considerin' the man a-grabbin' that bloody stub and screamin' and I knowed he was makin' just as much noise as he could – hell, his mouth was open big enough to stick in a dish pan – but after attair shotgun spoke with two throats I couldn't much hear and besides I was glad I'd twisted and moved 'cause the blood was makin' an awful mess.

I broke my eyes off attair bloody sight and turned around and my grip was still crushin' tight on Colt walnut and I turned clear around, a full circle, and ever'one there was a-lookin' at me and I never seen so many eyes that looked big as boiled eggs before.

Warn't nobody else wantin' to fight so I relaxed a little bit and let go of attair left hand Colt revolver and I turned and looked at the fellow and my hearin' was startin' to clear up enough I could hear him a-beggin' someone to help him.

I bent down and grabbed his pistol's barrel and picked it and the hand both up off the floor, I had my little finger between the cocked hammer and the frame so's it wouldn't go off and I unlatched that dead hand from the pistol and dropped it in the gatherin' blood and I looked at him and said "You kin have yer hand back," and he was fish belly white and I considered it was plumb amazin' how much blood a man can squirt out like that.

I heard someone yell "AIN'T YOU GONNA HELP HIM?" and I turned and I felt the hide acrost my face tighten up and I give him both eyes and I said "HE TRIED TO KILL ME, MISTER.  LET HIM BLEED!"

I looked clear around and met every eye and nobody challenged me.

The fact the Sheriff was a-standin' there with attair short persuader gripped up in both hands might have had somethin' to do with it.

Someone fetched in a bucket of sawdust and dumped around attair bloody mess an' then into the blood an' I reckon the used a shovel to clean up with, least before they got to scrubbin'.

I stood there and watched the man die and I did not feel the least bit poorly about it.

I recall folks was lookin' at me like I was a monster, all but Sarah, and she looked at me with those long black curled up eyelashes veiled down over her pale eyes and almost …  she almost looked right pleased with herself.

Digger come over and hauled off the carcass and the Sheriff and me, we went on over to the log office we called home and set down to talk 'er all over.

Sarah come over with us, her and that shiny black dog, and made herself just plainly at home and attair black dog set down beside her and damned if it didn't open its jaws and grin like he was right pleased with himself.

The Sheriff didn't pay no attention to her a'tall, he drug attair chair out from behint his desk and we set down facin' one another and he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and we talked some, or ruther he talked and I listened.

"First off, you done right when you got arm's length away and to the side," he started.  "You weren't close enough to grab his barl and twist it out of his grip."  He give me a thoughtful look, almost a kindly look, and he said "I'll show you to do that."

"Thank you, sir," I said, not taking my unblinking eyes from his.

"You went left handed under your coat.  He was expectin' your right hand to move and he was a-watchin' your right hand." The Sheriff smiled a little and he recht into his left hand coat pocket and pulled out just enough of a hideout pistol for me to see, then set it back in.  "I one time punched a fella's guts full of holes with this very left hand revolver.  He was watchin' my right hand and I'd let him see I had a revolver on the right side under my coat."

"Yes, sir."

"Did you recognize him?"

I thought for a moment, frowned, realized … I didn't … and the question led me to think maybe I should have.

"No, sir," I admitted.

"Remember their faces, Jacob," the Sheriff said quietly, and I'll never forget that quiet voice.

It's the voice of a wise father teaching his son, the voice of a veteran lawman givin' a young badge packet somethin' that just might keep him alive.

"That was the same fellow who stomped on your boot."

I raised my chin, my eyes swung left and then right and I remembered.

"You shamed him, Jacob.  Had you took him on with knuckles and beat him, he'd have give an account of himself and even if he lost he'd not be shamed, but you drove him up off the floor with one fast move and he dropped like he'd been hit with a singletree."

"Yes, sir."

"You did right" – the Sheriff raised a finger – "you did absolutely right, Jacob.  You are not just a deputy, you are my deputy, and you established yourself as a man who will not take any thing from any one."

"Yes, sir."

"He stomped on your nice shiny boot and you put him down hard and without warning and absolutely without mercy, but in his eyes you shamed him, 'course it didn't help any when two fellas poured their beer mugs over his face and laughed."

"No, sir."

"He wanted revenge, Jacob, not for bein' hurt but for bein' shamed.  A man will hurt more from bruisin' his feelin's than from a good beatin'."

"Yes, sir."

"I expected it to happen."

"Sir?"

I felt the surprise on my face and made no try a'tall to hide it.

He nodded.  "I expected it to happen, Jacob.  Tom Landers was Sheriff before I come along, and when I bought the Silver Jewel, I hired him to keep the peace, and he was glad to have payin' work after he quit badge packin'.  He can right next to turn invisible and he has excellent ears, and between what he'd heard and what I'd seen, I was expecting the dead man to try somethin'."

"Yes, sir."

"Now.  Let's take a look at what else we did."
"Yes, sir."

He held up that finger again.  "First off, he come at you with a pistol and I come at him with a shotgun."

"Yes, sir."

"That shows the world at large and everyone who saw it, that I do not play fair."

"Yes, sir."

"Second."  He held up another finger.

"You stood there and you gave him those pale eyes and you did not try to help him."
"Yes, sir."

The Sheriff looked over at Sarah and almost smiled, then looked back at me.

"You were closer to him than I was, and you let him bleed to death."

"I did that, sir."

"Then you picked up his revolver and dropped the blown off hand in the blood like it was dirty."

"Yes, sir, I did that too."

"Jacob" – the Sheriff lowered his fingers, leaned back down, looked directly at me – "you have established yourself as a bad man, a dangerous man, a man who will be absolutely without mercy if you are attacked and a man who will let a man die."

"Reckon so, sir."

"It's a reputation, Jacob."  He straightened, looked back over at Sarah.  "Your reputation will save you trouble but it could cause you trouble as well."

"Yes, sir."

The Sheriff and I both rose at the knock on the door – a quick tat-tat, tat – the door opened and a voice called, "Anybody home?"

Sarah's black dog wagged its tail as she caressed his shining black head and she said "We're open," and a man and a little boy came in, each pulling off their hats as the crossed the threshold.

The little boy looked at Sarah's big black dog and came toddling happily over and threw his arms around the big curly neck and declared "Bear!" and giggled as the dog began launderin' the little fellow's pink cheeked face.

A little boy's laughter will generally bring a smile to a man's face, and the Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners and that was right close to a smile for him.

The man came over and stuck out his hand and told us his name, and the Sheriff took his hand and they talked some, the man and his boy were passin' through and wanted advice on a particular route, at least the man did.

The boy was maybe six years old or so and a curious sort, but he didn't talk much – matter of fact, other'n a happy little-boy laugh when Sarah's black dog made sure he was clean behind his pink ears, why, the lad hadn't said more than that one word.

He looked over at me and then he looked at my boots and looked kind of surprised, and he looked down at his own and looked a little disappointed.

I hadn't much to do with young'uns but this little fellow had such a sad look about him when he looked at his own hind hooves I said "You like these shiny boots?" – I stuck my foot out – he grinned and nodded and then put a finger to his mouth all uncertain-like, and I laughed a little and stood.

"Have a set," I said, "let's tend that detail" – I went over to my boot box and fetched it over, and a stool, and directly, why, I had his wiped down and brushed off, I blacked 'em and worked on 'em and brushed the polish and buffed 'em off and did it ag'in, and when I was done, why, his boots were spotless and gleaming, they weren't the near mirror mine were, but they weren't that good to start with and I done the best I could.

I don't think I could've tickled that little boy any more if I'd give him a gold eagle.

He held up one boot and looked at it and looked at me with them big eyes and then he set it down and held up the other boot and looked at it and then looked at me, and then he grinned real quick and scampered over his Pa and he looked up at the man, and when the man found a hole in the conversation and looked down, why, that little boy held his boot up for his Pa to see.

That made me feel right good.

The door opened ag'in, it opened fast and with no knock and the Marshal Macneil come in.

I come to my feet for there was trouble on his face, and I was right.

"Saddle up," he said, "someone put a bad shot into a grizzly just west of here.  It's killed a man and the Daine boys are headin' out to stop it."

I felt my bottom jaw shove out and the Marshal fetched off the Sharps rifle from the rack, held it out.

"I've a bad wing, sir," I said, "I'd best go with a lighter rifle."

He nodded, grabbed the sack with .45-70 rounds in it, slung it acrost his chest.

"Shoot up the nose, up through the roof of his mouth or down into his ear," he said, "and don't shoot just once."

"Yes, sir."

 

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14.  THREE RIFLES

 

Sarah's dog had been just nice as pie up to then.

Oncet Marshal McNeil tried to hand me that heavy Sharps buffalo rifle, once we slung ca'tridges about us – bandoliers and warbags and suchlike – oncet 'twas apparent we was fixin' to go to war, why, damned if that dog didn't want to go too, an' him all bristled up.

I never seen a dog change that much that fast.

One minute he was a-settin' beside Sarah and lookin' like what he was – growin' but not growed, shiny-black, jaws open and that grinnin' look about him, and the next he was on his feet and the hair was stood up straight on down his back bone and acrost his shoulders and his lips was a-ripplin' and I'd laid money that if I was foolish enough to lay my hand flat on his ribs I'd feel him all a-growl inside, but I ain't that foolish.

One foolish man lost a hand that day and I wasn't gon' to be the secont.

We-all swung up into saddle leather and the Marshal taken out, him in the lead and the Sheriff an' me a-follow, and I heard attair dog howl just so mournful and here directly Sarah come a-poundin' up behind us on that big black horse of hers, and I do mean big, and I do mean black – God help me, that mare stood about a third taller than my Apple-horse, and him not small by any means – our mounts were poundin' hard ag'in God's good earth and attair big black … I cain't call her a plow horse, somehow I just could not see her draggin' a plow, but she put them long strong legs to good use and her hoofbeats was considerable slower than Apple's but God Almighty! She retcht out and drug an ungodly distance of dirt behind her with every last stride, and she kept up with us an' no trouble neither!

I taken one look and one look only over at Sarah and she was ridin' like she was born to the saddle and that surprised me some.

I don't know if I'd expected her to be a dainty girly thing or what, her bein' Bonnie's daughter an' all, an' her since she was about ten laced into corsets and all painted up an' wigs an' all an' wearin' her Mama's fashions – hell, some fella tried proposin' to her when she come sashayin' into the Silver Jewel whilst she was all gussied up, least until attair Marshal growled in Spanish that she had only ten years, which kind of put the fella off some.

I get side tracked easy.

Sarah was ridin' like she'd rid all her life and damned if she didn't have attair dog acrost the saddle in front of her, he was tryin' to hang on and she had a good handful of the scruff of his neck by virtue of runnin' her arm under it first, I don't reckon attair dog could have fell off if he'd tried.

We-all run for some distance an' cut up over a trail I knowed of an' took time and ag'in and damned if we didn't come into the most God-awful bawlin' an' men yellin' and brush a-crackin' and the three of us come out of saddle leather an' hit the ground ready f'r a young war about the time one of them long tall skinny Kentucky men come a-runnin' torst us with a mean look about him.

He allowed as they'd set their kin folk around a bowl an' attair wounded grizzly was in the bowl an' two strangers was stupid enough to go in after it an' they was a-layin' dead in the crick, he told us, soon as they got set they figured to cut loose on him with their flint rifles and I thought to myself ain't a rifle among 'em less'n a half inch bore, an' I seen them whiskey makin' hillbillies shoot, an' if they had more'n one rifle speakin' I didn't reckon attair grizzly was long for this world.

I was wrong, but it warn't the first time and it' surely not be the last.

The Marshal run up to the edge of that bowl an' he set his boot heels in the dirt an' turned to yell somethin' at me and attair grizzly come bawlin' up hill an' battin' brush aside with its one good paw, t'other was broke an' bleedin' an' festered some an' it was mad an' red eyed an' it bit limbs in two big as my wrist just one fierce jaw-chop and she fell in two.

I brought up attair .44-40 rifle left handed 'cause I didn't figure I could shoot it right handed, me still healin' and all and I felt more'n heard them flint rifles speak – the Marshal got one shot off with attair Sharps but the range was close and he'd got took by surprise an' he dropped the rifle and whipped out them two Remingtons he wore and somethin' black and fast went screamin' in under the guns and taken attair grizzly right at the throat and jaw-locked on its windpipe and there he hung, diggin' an' swingin' and the air was full of thunder and blue smoke and screams and ever' now and ag'in I'll wake up and I'll taste gunsmoke and blood and I'll hear it ag'in same as if I was a young man standin' there with an unfired rifle brought up to shoulder.

I don't reckon there's much on God's earth could have stood twice six pistol balls that close up.

The Marshal told me later them black pig eyes looked big as a bushel basket an' that's what he was a-shootin' for, that b'ar was slingin' his head back and forth tryin' to get that dog off its throat an' ever' time that head turned sideways, why the Marshal would pour fire and selfer right down that big black hole he was a-lookin' for and I reckon that b'ar's head slingin' was more habit than anythin', but it went over backwards and slid back down hill on its back and we-all went hell-a-tearin' right through the brush after it, bayin' like we was hounds on the chase.

I never got off the first shot.

I eared attair hammer down to half cock and fought through brush so thick a man couldn't hardly waller through it, the same brush that b'ar come through like it was wadin' through soft green grass, an' I recall attair Marshal had that black dog by the hind legs an' he swung it around yellin' at it that it was not goin' to die, he would not stand for any such thing, an' a big clot of blood slung out an' attair dog begun to cough an' the Marshal near to landed on his backside gettin' stopped from spinnin' an' attair dog rolled on down the rest of the way an' come up on his pins kind of shake an' then went over to attair stream where a man lay without benefit of head nor arms, where that b'ar got holt of him earlier.

Sarah's curly furred black dog stuck his muzzle down in that water and thrashed his head back an' forth before he went up stream a little an' drunk, he shook off an' drunk some more before he come back to us.  I reckon he woulda hiked his leg on that b'ar's carcass but for Sarah callin' him off.

Them Kentucky men was happy to have a b'ar, they figured it would meat them for some time and they was talkin' about renderin' out the fat as it made superb oil for gun barrels, an' they-all set on that b'ar carcass with a double handful of knives apiece.

Of a sudden I was wore out.

I clumb out of there and me and Sarah got saddled back up and I laid that '73 rifle down.

I took holt of that black dog an' I slung him up on Sarah's saddle with her and she took a good holt of him an' he must've got back in the water an' got most of that b'ar's blood off it for she took holt of him just as natural as anythin'.

You might've heard about attair black dog, he's the one called Bear Killer, an' that's how he got his name.

He warn't what kilt that b'ar, that was the Marshal addressin' the matter close-up with a double handful of .44 revolver, but if I recall right Sarah named it "Twain Dawg" but that's a puppy name an' that day he become a sure-enough growed up, puppy no more, DAWG.

I taken that .44-40 rifle in to the Mercantile and laid it on the counter, and I had me a talk with that balding fella with the wiry rim spectacles behint the counter, and I told him what I wanted, and he allowed as he could help, all right.

He fetched a rifle off the rack and laid it down with that '73 rifle and then he set down a ca'tridge and said it would do about anything a man wanted, 'twas a .40-60 and not a .45-70, but it run faster and shot flatter.

I nodded and asked how many he had on hand.

He allowed as he had that one but he'd more on order.

I considered carefully and thought about the money I'd saved, money I'd won, money I'd taken from men I'd killed as they didn't have no more need of it.

"If you would be kind enough to order me two more," I said, "just like this one here.  I've cash money for the one" – I set a poke on the counter, and it jingled with hard coin as I did – "you hang onto this rifle until I get back with the rest.  I'll not ask you to stir a finger until you have cash in hand."

He looked at me kind of surprised and started to say somethin', likely he was going to protest that he trusted me, and I raised my finger just like the Sheriff had, and he stopped talking.

"Mr. Garrison," I said, "the Parson told me there are evil demons of the air that listen to every word we say, and then use 'em against us, just like sayin' we're takin' the wife and children out on a picnic and of a sudden it comes up a thunder storm.  Let me fetch in the gold so them evil demons don't come in allowin' to ruin my good name."

I winked at him and he chuckled and he allowed as he would hang onto them for me.

I taken up that '73 rifle and thanked him kindly and I recht in the cracker barl and rubbed the kitty cat under the chin the way I always did, and the cat closed its eyes and purred happily for the attention.

I went over to the Silver Jewel and bought me another sure-enough bath, and I taken in a clean suit of clothes, and oncet I was done, why, me and the Sheriff we sat down in his office and we polished our boots back up good the way they belonged.

That night I thought about those '76 rifles I'd ordered.

One to use and one for an extry, that's all I would need.

Why did I get me a third one?

Somethin' … I was laid down and relaxin' and I wondered on that, the way a man will when he's just about asleep, but I never did figure out that night why I ordered another rifle.

I had no way of knowin' I would hide that rifle in a secret compartment in the schoolhouse, but that wasn't to be for another couple years.

Meanwhile, the '73 rifle I taken off that dead man and a pair of '76 rifles I'd bought.

Three rifles, three suits, a good lookin' Appaloosa stallion.

I started to smile, for I was richer than I'd ever dreamed I might be, and then I recalled the Parson sayin' about that rich man who said he had everything and the Lord required his soul that very night, and I decided not to figure I was all that high and mighty after all.

I slept, and I don’t recall as I dreamed one bit.

 

Next mornin' I stepped outside and looked around and then I turned and looked at the church.

The Sheriff went over there regular-like, and I'd heard him talkin' in an empty room like he was rehearsin' a speech or some-such, and I figgered he must be fixin' to deliver a Sunday sermon.

He said somethin' about King Solomon and the unfinished Sanctum Sanctorum, and I kind of scratched my head at that, for it was fancier language than I was used to hearin' and I considered I might want to get myself educated.

I stood there thinkin' this over and then I went over to attair church my own self.

I come up the steps deliberate, I fetched open the right hand door because I wanted to work that right arm and my healin' shoulder, and it warn't particular pleasant to haul open a door but it warn't bad as had been.

This did not prevent me from lookin' around some before I stepped in.

'Twas quiet inside and a little on the chilly side but that didn't matter none to me.

What mattered was attair Parson bent over lookin' up at me with a half grin on his face.

He had a wood box all rigged up an' he had some white wash and a brush in it, a rope ready to run up them nailed on cleats – he'd coiled it nice and neat on the floor, I could see as he clumb attair built on ladder it would uncoil just nice as anythin' – anyway, he come up straight and stuck out his hand and I taken it and he allowed as he was right pleased to see me.

I nodded and looked at the box and looked up to where attair wood door was still shut where it went out into the bell tower where we'd stood shoulder to shoulder and addressed the Philistines by throwin' big lead jawbones at 'em.

He clumb up and so did I and it hurt some – matter of fact it was more'n I should've done and it hurt but I didn't let on – I was ashamed of myself I couldn't he'p him h'ist attair box up on attair rope – but he got it up and through the hatch nice as anythin' and we taken a look at the under side of the overhead where them bullet gouges was.

I stepped around on the back side and frowned at the longest of 'em and then I looked down and sighted at whar they must've come from, and nodded, and allowed to myself as I would go back and take a look at whar them shots come from.

We white washed over them gouges but we didn't figure to replace no boards nor sand nothin' down smooth.

They'd ought to stay there so folks would see 'em and remember we had to stand, and stand we did.

 

The Parson let attair box back down nice and easy an' then we clumb down and by the time I was down, why, my healin' shoulder was callin' me unkind names.

Doc told me to be careful of a sudden sharp pain an' trouble breathin' and I had none of that but it hurt plenty for the stretchin' of it and I reckoned this was a good thing.

Might be I was punishin' myself for gettin' hurt in the first place.

Might be I was punishin' myself for not keepin' my Mama alive.

I knowed up between my ears I could not have helped her, not whipped down and near to passin' out as I was, but behint my breast bone I still whipped my own soul for not …

For not what?

For doin' what just wasn't possible?

I waited until the Parson was down and flat footed and I offered to pack attair white wash for him and he give me an odd look and gestured forward and said "Let's set down."

We paced on forward and it looked kind of odd, Parson Belden settin' in a front pew instead of standin' behint attair pulpit box.

He looked at attair hand made altar and at the cross hangin' on the back wall.

"Jacob," he said, "I killed some men the other night."

"Yes, sir," I said, for I had too.

"Do you know what Scripture says about killin'?"

Now I knowed somethin' about Scripture, for my Mama taught me to read with the Book.

"Exodus, sir, and Deutoronomy.  'Thou shalt not kill.'"  I looked over at him.  "There's plenty of killin' in the Bible, Parson.  Matter of fact it says for a man not be out of arm's reach of his spear."

"It does that," he agreed, nodding.  "Do you know where the Bible comes from?"

"God's Word," I said without hesitatin'.

"It is that," he agreed, nodding slowly.  "It's translated from previous languages."  He raised his head and smiled a little.  "We generally read the King James version."

"Yes, sir," I said, remembering the first pages in my Mama's Bible said that in big letters.

"I don't really …"

The Parson looked at the floor, considered, looked over at me.

"The King James," he said quietly, as if he was tellin' a secret, or somethin' not many people knew, "was rewritten at the order of King James because he didn't like parts of the Geneva Bible that he thought might lead people to challenge the authority of the Crown.  His Crown."  He snorted.  "I use the Geneva.  That's the one George Washington used, the one he took his Masonic oath on."

Now I didn't have no idea what a Masonic oath was, but I figured if 'twas good enough for George Washington himself, why, that was good enough for me.

"The Geneva was the first English translation.  It was translated out of German, and before it was German, it was Latin and Greek, and before that it was Aramaic."

I considered this and wondered why the Parson was tellin' me this.

"Jacob, if we go back to the original Hebrew, the commandment is not 'Thou shalt not kill.'"

He looked over at me and I seen that look in his eyes the same as I'd seen in the Sheriff's eyes.

"What it says is 'Thou shalt not murder.'"

"Murder," I said, turning the word over slow on my tongue.

"Jacob, you are the Law, and the Law is given an authority the common man does not have.  The Law is given authority to hang, for instance."
"Yes, sir."

"The Law is given authority to kill the transgressor when need be."

"Yes, sir."

"Jacob, I wasn't there but I heard tell you let a man bleed to death yesteday."

"I did that, Parson.  I stood there and watched him bleed and I did not stir a hand to stop it."

"Did you ask yourself if that might have been a murder?"

"No, sir, I did not," I said firmly.  "He taken out a pistol at me.  I figured he was bought and paid for."

The Parson nodded.  "I would agree with you," he said.  "Standing there and letting everyone see that you were letting him die was the same as a public hanging.  It was within your authority."

"Yes, sir."

He rubbed his face, took a long breath, blew it out.

"Jacob, I was in the War."

"Yes, sir."

"I understand your father was as well."

"Yes, sir.  So was Dr. Greenlees."

"Yes he was," the Parson said softly.  "He was a surgeon during the War and still is.  He's healing instead of killing.  I'm saving souls, or trying to, your father is the Law."  He rubbed his hands slowly together, staring a hole in the wall in front of him.  "I liked it up there, Jacob."

"Sir?"  Now I am not easily surprised but that surprised me.

"Jacob, behind that pulpit all I have are words.  I try to persuade my flock to read their Scripture and live a Godly life. Up there" – he hooked a thumb over his shoulder – "I did something far stronger to keep my flock safe."

"Yes, sir.
"I spoke with a far louder voice," he said – he nearly whispered it – "I waded among the Philistines with the jaw bone of a mule, and I laid about in a language they understood."

I considered this, and then I nodded.

"Yes, sir," I said.  "Yes, sir, you did that."

The Parson took another long breath, sat up straight.

"Men at war follow orders, Jacob," he said, as if he was far from where his body was a-settin'.

"Men kill and they tell themselves it's orders and any murder is on the officers and not on the man with the rifle."

He snorted.

"That's what I told myself."

"Did you believe yourself, sir?"

"No."

He looked at his hands.

"I looked at what I did to fine young men who'd done nothing to me.  Next day I tried not to kill any more of those fine young men." 

He looked over at me and smiled with half his mouth.

"At least until those same fine young men tried really hard to kill me."

He leaned back and laughed a little and the sighed real deep and shook his head.

"That's how I met Dr. Greenlees, he didn't say word one while he was workin' on me and right glad I was he didn't saw my leg off like he'd done so many others."

"Yes, sir."

"After that … after that, Jacob, I only did two things.  I kept myself alive, and I kept the man beside me alive."

"Yes, sir."

"That gave me a better purpose.  I wasn't out to kill the enemy.  I was out to keep myself and my fellows alive, and that was … that was all right."

"Yes, sir."

"That's what we did up there, Jacob.  We kept ourselves and our families alive."

"Yes, sir, I reckon we did."

 

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15.  SATURDAY NIGHT BATH, EARLY

 

The Irish Brigade didn't do anything halfway.

When the alarm come in – that's how that big red-headed Irishman Sean said it, when the alarm came in – why, they whistled and yelled and swore fiercely in at least four languages I could tell and likely more'n that, they hitched up them three white mares and they taken right up the street just hell-a-tearin', that big red-headed fire chief with his white pressed-leather hat and that black rubber coat fast up ag'in the winter wind, he was standin' up to drive them mares and drive 'em he did, swingin' that black snake whip around in a big circle and snappin' a hole in the air over the center mare's ears, I don’t know what-all he was a-yellin' but the part I understood sounded like "RUN, LADIES, RUN!  ST. FLORIAN, ST. CHRISTOPHER AND THE BLESSED VIRGIN, RUN!" – and good Lord, run they did, like that engine and the ladder wagon didn't weigh nothin'!

Now I got no idea a'tall why they taken that-there fire engine for a boy fell through the ice but they're firemen so I reckon they do stuff like that.

I didn't expect to get drafted by 'em.

They wheeled up beside the pond and yanked off their ladder and laid it out on the ice and 'twas one of them-there telescope ladders, they run it out twicet as long as 'twas when it was shrunk up an' that big Irishman grabbed me by the back of the coat and yelled "LAD, YOU'RE THE LIGHTEST OF US!  YOU'RE ON THE END, GET OUT THERE!"

"Out there" was where the ice was broke, where two boys was in the water, one was almost half out on the ice and tryin' to haul the other up but the smaller of the two kept slidin' back in.

I shucked out of my coat and gunbelt and throwed the coat over the saddle and hung the gunbelt over the saddlehorn and I run out them rungs torst that broke ice and open water and once I got to the end 'twasn't far enough so I laid down on the ice and snaked out and grabbed the one boy's hand.

He didn't have no grip left a'tall so I wallered a little closer and grabbed hard and I hooked one boot toe over the end rung and I yelled "YOU GOT THE OTHER ONE?" and he kind of gasped "Yeah" and I give a big heave and he come out and I pulled hard and threw him back along the ice, he slid a little and stopped and rolled over and I yelled over my shoulder "GRAB HOLT THAT LADDER AND MAKE FOR DRY GROUND!"

I turned and looked at where that other boy had been and all I saw was water.

I swore and unhooked my boot toe and taken me a good breath and I slud head first down into that cold water.

I found him right directly 'cause I made for bottom and so had he, I grabbed him around the middle and threw my head back to take a sight on where that open water was and I shoved hard ag'in the bottom and there was a rock under one foot so I got a good push, I come up out of the water and tried to h'ist him off onto the ice.

One of them Irishmen was out that ladder and he'd laid out on the ice like me and he was a-reachin' and we fell back in that cold water and sunk ag'in and I didn't fight it, oncet I hit bottom I got both legs under me and I pushed just as hard as I could and shifted my grip and soon as we was close I shoved hard and my one hand was under his bottom and I THREW that little fella onto the ice, he shot out and landed limp and attair fireman grabbed him and pulled him away from the edge and I taken me as much of a breath as I could – what little I could manage, 'twas so damned COLD!!! I couldn't hardly do that, and I went back down and found attair rock and I shot up one more time and a hand grabbed my wrist and I reached up with my other hand and tried to grab that hand that had me and damned if I had no grip a'tall.

None.

One of them fireman pulled and so did I – I could at least do that – he rolled over on his side and I rolled over on the ice and I elbowed and wallered and made for the ladder beside him and we went a-snakin' back torst dry ground, him gettin' up on attair ladder and me skinnin' along on my elbows beside him, hurtin' more'n I'd hurt in an awful long time.

They had a kag of some kind on attair ladder wagon an' they throwed it down on the ground an' throwed that littler of the two boys belly-down over it an' they was rollin' him back an' forth and damned if he didn't barf up about ten gallon of cold pondwater and then he begun to cough and they stripped him down and wrapped him in wool blankets and I recall thinkin' that would be just awful scratchy and right about then Sarah grabbed me an' started peelin' off my wet shirt and she unfast my drawers and I tried to say "Sarah!" and all I got out was kind of a wheeze and I didn't have strength enough to keep her from strippin' me down to my long handles.

She warn't merciful in the least, she shucked me out of my duds an' a couple of them-there Irishmen come over and held up a blanket round me so the mountains couldn't see me buck nekked and Sarah wiped me down fast and gentle she was not, and then she threw a quilt around me and wrapped me up as I stood there bare foot on attair folded towel and she nodded to them Irishmen and they picked me up and set me down in Sarah's buggy.

She dried my hair with a towel and right brisk she was, her lips was pressed together and her face was white and pinchy and her eyes looked just awful hard an' she threw another blanket over me and they loaded them boys in as well and she threw a blanket over all three of us and made for town.

I hurt.

There's no pain like cold and there's no hurt like a deep fell-in-the-water achin' cold and I listened to that little boy beside me, all wrapped up like I was and a-shiver, and I clamped my jaws to keep my teeth from clatterin' but the rest of me had the clanks and oncet we got into town, why, they packed me upstairs and throwed me in a bed in the Silver Jewel and drug in another bed for them two boys, and right directly they was a-primin' the three of us with hot soup and they didn't have but one tub of warm water an' I told 'em never mind me, get them boys thawed out an' they did.

I know attair tub water was cooled way off but it still felt nice and warm to me and I reckon that's because I was so chilled.

Attair big Irish fire chief set in there with me and he looked just terrible worried and he watched solemnly as I drank a mug of hot broth, and oncet warn't no one lookin' he eased his hand inside his coat an' fetched out a flask and offered me a tilt.

I taken it and he did too and I allowed as I would live, how was them boys and he said the Doc was lookin' the two of 'em over.

Their Pa come in and he crowded up ag'in attair red-headed Irishman and he grabbed my hand and allowed as I was a hero for savin' his boys and I blamed them Irishmen for bein' the heroes, an' about then the Sheriff come in with dry duds for me an' they-all went out in the hall so's I could get dressed without the general public seein' it, an' when they was out, the Sheriff set down where that red headed Irishman had set and he pulled out a flask and offered me a tilt.

I taken a tilt and handed it back and he taken one too.

"Jacob," he said quietly, "you are a hero."

"No, sir," I said.  "I just had my Saturday night bath a day early."

Oncet I was dressed – he brought me my good boots and glad I was for warm dry socks and warm dry boots! – why, we come downstairs and a shout went up, the piano player begun earnin' his pay, I got grabbed and hoist up to men's shoulders and I spent the next good hour anyway blamin' them Irishmen for bein' the heros, and they was a-blamin' me, an' the boy's father didn't give a good damn who the heroes was, he was buyin' drinks on the house, and word travels in a small town and women folk started showin' up enough that we managed four sets an' commenced to square dance.

I reckon I hooked elbows with every unmarried woman in Firelands and a couple married ones, and I couldn't help but grin and think it was a good thing I'd had a bath after all.

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16.  HOME

 

Now I didn't have any cause to do it but I begun to think of a place of my own.

Maybe it was because the women and the girls I'd danced with tickled my fancy somewhere inside that I wasn't lookin' at – a man does that, he'll get an idea but it's kind of fermentin' somewhere hid in his mind and he'll get notions from that fermentin' he don't really know about yet – but with the Sheriff having his house started, after he and I taken a look at a couple locations and finally allowin' as this one had good soil and good water – he witched the water, I don't know where he come up with a peach fork but damned if he didn't – why, he and I laid out the size of it and he must have had a picture in his mind for he'd drive stakes an' run string and he'd allow as "Here will be the front porch" and "Here will be the kitchen" and here will be this and here will be that, and then we stopped and set down and looked around and considered some, then he pulled up them stakes and started over, for somethin' didn't suit him just right.

Me, I was thinking about pasture and a barn, I was thinkin' if he was Sheriff he might want a place he could defend. 

I swung back up on Apple-horse and I commenced to ride here or ride there and look and figure and consider, and I saw he was a-watchin' me with that wise look of his, and finally when I come out of the saddle and looked around and started pacin' off, why, he rubbed his chin and leaned his elbows on his knees and begun to grin just a little.

I'd never laid out a buildin' before and I figured a house was a little too complex for me to work on but I could build a barn, and I imagined where it would be – I figured the lay of the ground, drainage out of the barn, where we'd run stock into and out of, I looked around with an eye to snowfall and snow-melt, I figured what would be the easiest way to get hay into it and out of it, I even thought about how that Irish Brigade's fire engine could come in should the barn ketch fahr, and I found myself considerin' if the Sheriff dug attair well he was talkin' about, might out we have a secont one dug so's them Irishmen could have two holes to pull water out of instead of just one.

Now oncet each of us got one with our own silent buildin' in our minds, we begun to refine what we'd sketched out, and just like steel sharpens steel, each of us had notions the other taken a look at and we each found some places that warn't quite right but the other could see plain.

I did not know it but the Sheriff had been a map maker at one time, maybe not in business for that skill alone but had a gift for it, and him and me laid out sheets of butcher's paper on his desk back at the Sheriff's office and he begun to sketch the house and he'd lay down a ruler and measure this and measure that and allow as he wanted to make all his mistakes in the plannin' stage where it was easiest – and cheapest – to fix, and I grinned, for many's the time I'd seen a man commence to build without plannin' out first and time and again I'd seen work and materials have to get tore down and redone and neither the Sheriff nor I was inclined to be wasteful.

Now we didn't quit law doggin' because we were buildin'.

The Sheriff had several irons in the fire.

How he kept all of 'em straight I will never know.

He'd bought that short line rail road and he was workin' with the gold mine and he swung some kind of a deal with 'em – if I recall aright, attair gold minin' outfit said it was cheaper to freight ore to the mill than to build one at the mine – however 'twas, the Sheriff renamed it the Z&W after the railroad he'd bought back East and then sold.

Him and that green eyed Miz Esther would talk long into the night at a back table at the Silver Jewel, or up stairs in her office, the office she was plannin' for –

I'm gettin' ahead of myself.

They got married.

I stood up with him and so did Marshal Macneil, and Miz Esther stood there lookin' all lovely an' Miz Bonnie beside her, and it was quite a shindig and they went off and took a River Boat like married people do and then the Sheriff ended up lassoin' her out of the river and he killed a couple men and she did too, an' then he was accused of murder and that was a dirty deal and Miz Esther snuck him back in a coffin, an' her in widow's black and lookin' just awful mournful when she did.  We still got the fancy coffin she snuck him back in and he allowed as he wants planted in it but that's another story.

Once the Sheriff married her, he give her that railroad.

I know it's his railroad to give if he wants, hell he could throw it away or use the engine to turn a mill if he wanted instead of pullin' freight, but it surprised an awful lot of people that he give his new wife a railroad all her own.

She set right to runnin' it, she went up to the roundhouse an' she talked to everyone there an' by golly now she charmed 'em – I had the feelin' she could've sold ashes to Lucifer himself – and damned if she didn't turn that wore out down at the heels railroad around.

First thing she did was spend an awful lot of the Sheriff's money, she scrapped some cars and sold 'em, she got new ones, she fitted 'em up with them fancy couplers so's none of her men would lose no more fingers to the link and pins, she ordered a brand new steam engine and she had the new cars set up with them brand new Westinghouse air brakes I recall her sayin', and she got an inspection car so's she could run the rails herself and inspect 'em personal like.

I kept out of it.

I wasn't ready to have a new Mama, I don't care if the Sheriff is my father and she is his wife, I wasn't ready.

I spoke to her with respect and I treated her like gold but one day she asked me to her office and she had tea set out and she asked me in a gentle voice if she'd done something wrong.

Now I got a bad habit, I reckon it is, someone asks me a question I give 'em the honest answer, even if it's not what they want to hear.

I looked her in the eye and allowed as she had done nothing at all wrong and she said I did not seem comfortable around her.

I nodded and I said "Ma'am, my Mama is dead.  I never knew my rightful father until I met the Sheriff.  He was no part of my growin' up and I've had to l'arn him like he was a stranger.  I got nothin' ag'in you, ma'am, but I don't reckon I'm ready to call you Mama just yet."

She studied on this and finally she said, real soft-like, "I can understand why you would feel like that."

She didn't look hurt and hurtin' her was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do, but my own hurt was too big yet and too raw.

I reckon I'd drawn back into that hurt when she begun speakin' ag'in and it took me a moment to climb out and give a listen to what she was a-sayin'.

"I've not had a grown son before, either," she said in a quiet little voice.  "It does take some getting used to."

"Ma'am," I said, "I will do my best not to disappoint you."

I stopped and I felt kind of surprised for the sayin' of it, and I think it surprised her too, then she nodded and smiled a little, and picked up her tea, and I taken up mine, and it was good tea.

"You haven't disappointed me, Jacob," she said in a kindly way.  "As a matter of fact I am very proud of you."

"Thank you, ma'am."

She laughed a little and it sounded good, a woman's laugh can be a relaxing thing and hers was, and she gave me … I'd call it almost a pitying look.

"You sound like I'm hiring you."

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

She laughed again.  "I'm just digging myself in deeper, aren't I?"  She shook her head.  "Now let's talk about the house.  Your father and I are agreed that you should live with us."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I understand you've been working with your father on the design."

"Yes, ma'am."

"He credits you with designing the barn, and he was pleased – very pleased – that you dug some test holes to find bed rock."

"Yes, ma'am.  I've known foundations to settle before.  If we set down on rock there'll be no settle to it."

I think she approved of that, from the look she give me.

We talked some more and I left feeling less uncomfortable.

She hadn't tried to charm me and there was nothin' about her that was not genuine and honest, and for that I was grateful.

 

The house went up faster than I'd thought it would.

The Daine boys had a mill set up on their mountain and they made their measurements and did their cipherin' and they cut good healthy timbers and they built that house to last.

They built the barn the same way, and both of 'em set on stone, and the Sheriff brought in some Italian stone cutters for that task – Operative Masons, he called 'em, and they cut them foundation stones as square and smooth as sawed lumber, they laid 'em up level and made 'em look really good.

It seemed a shame to build timber on top of 'em, but build they did, and that looked really good as well.

I thought I might one of these days find someone I'd be sweet on and I'd want a place of my own, and I remembered those Italian stonecutters and I went and asked 'em about buildin' an entire house of stone.

They said it could be done and they'd enjoy doing it, for they'd built great stone houses back in the Old Country and they'd be pleased to build one here.

 

A little boy with bright blue eyes looked up at his pale eyed Great-Granddad.

The two looked very much alike – if you discounted wrinkles, size, and the fact that Great-Granddad Jacob had ice-pale eyes, and his little boy, Wesley Albert, had Arizona-blue eyes, the kind that could look so absolutely innocent, except when they were looking downright ornery, the way a little boy will.

The little boy considered the great stone house behind the bench where they sat in the sun, looking out over the field, and the little boy saw a big bull with an impressive spread of horns and he pointed and exclaimed, "Great-Grampa, can I ride the bull?"

Jacob looked down at his boy and smiled a little, and remembered.

 

"Gwampa, can I ride Boocaffie?"

The bull calf was a little more than a very young mouth could frame and it came out "Boocaffie" … so the name stuck, and the little boy and the young bull grew up together, running together in the pasture, the little boy laughing in the Colorado sun and the bull calf hobby-horsing along with him, and generally a huge black Dawg coursing with them, pink tongue hanging out and happy, and I remembered it like 'twas yesterday, but then my mind was wanderin' from what I'd been tellin', and that happens sometimes.

I'm gettin' old so I'll forgive myself that.

Now where was I?

Oh, yeah.  That big stone house.

Now once the Sheriff's house was finished I taken a long look at it, for he'd laid it out right and proper, he'd give an awful lot of thought to how he wanted it and mine was layin' out in my mind whilst I studied his.

I started with them stairs.

Now most stairways was real narrow.

I never did like those.

Maybe it's because of that fella that took a shot at me over in Carbon Hill, that one that fired at me from well back in the hallway … had I been insie that-there narrow hall, why, chances are right fair I'd be lookin' at mountain lupine from the underneath, and that would just plainly ruin my weddin' plans.

The Sheriff married that green eyed Esther woman and give her that railroad, and she always did love roses, so that's what he had painted on the side of the engine, a spray of roses and then underneath of it in fancy gold letters with black shadowing, he had the engine's name.

The Lady Esther.

Warn't nobody else in ten states had a steam engine named for 'em and some women folks might've objected to it, but she was right flattered.

Why, they even arranged to have one of them-there photographer fellas there and he had just an awful lot of fun, runnin' back and forth and stickin' his head under attair black drape behint that camera box, he'd come out and turn Miz Esther's head a little and then he'd run back and run up ag'in and turn the Sheriff just a wee bit and he run back and whilst he was beatin' feet back for that-there camera thing, why, the two of 'em looked at one another and smiled, and attair photographer fella fetched the cap off his lens and then realized they'd moved and his face fell about ten foot but seein' the two of 'em holdin' hands right square underneath attair three-rose spray, why, that looked better'n anythin' that fella was puttin' up.

The Parson one time spoke of Evil Demons of the Air and sure enough someone was gettin' into deviltry just as attair picture was bein' took, and damned if it warn't them Blaze Boys ag'in.

This time they dropped a stick of blastin' powder down into a rain barrel and blew it apart, water an' splintered staves all over hell and breakfast and scared the bethunder out of a stray dog and I don't reckon they was a cat left in town but wouldn't run t'other way when either of the boys set foot in town.

Anyway, the Sheriff and Miz Esther was a-lookin' at one another like neither of 'em could hardly keep from bustin' out laughin', and about that time BOOM and water squirted up over a shed roof and we heard it come a-hissin' down on wood shakes and dry ground and we knowed somethin' warn't what it's supposed to be.

I think that was the day I set down with the man and spoke of a fear I had.

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17.  TEMPER, TEMPER

 

We'd rode out and spoke with a rancher that figgered his neighbor was poachin' his cattle an' we found it warn't the neighbor a'tall, they was a pasture neither of 'em knew about and them cattle could get in but it was harder for 'em to get out an' we ended up helpin' him fetch them beeves out one at a time and that warn't no fun a'tall.

The Sheriff was not a hand with a rope.

I don't think I ever in all my life seen anyone worse with a rope than attair father of mine.

He'd fetch out a loop and he couldn't spin a loop to save him, he couldn't cast one neither an' finally he'd run up alongside a beef with a loop in his hand an' lean down an' sling it around the cow's neck an' a time or two he near to come off attair shiny red mare he was a-ridin'.

We had to bring 'em one at a time into that narrow pass an' the horses would take kind of a hopping jump an' get up that slick rock an' them beeves didn't much like it but long as we was a-pullin' 'em, why, they'd clatter them hooves and they'd slip and one or two fell chin-down an' we had to wait'll they come a-scramble back up on their pins an' we got 'em out of there, me an' the Sheriff and that rancher and his neighbor all of us together.

I watched the Sheriff listen to one man and listen to the other man, and I watched him listen carefully and look directly at each as he spoke in turn, and I got the feelin' each man went away from that satisfied he'd had his say, and his say was carefully regarded by this pale eyed lawman.

I watched as the Sheriff got both men in the saddle and we rode up and found what neither man knew was there, and I watched as the Sheriff set one man with a rope to pick out a pa'tickelar cow he figgered the rest of the herd would follow, and the other man he set after a pa'tickelar bull, and he must have knowed that man knowed that bull, for it trotted along just nice as pie and the rest of the herd come along, but we still had to haul 'em out one at a time and that took near the whole day.

I tended to pay close attention when the Sheriff was dealin' with folks.

I learned an awful lot by watchin' close and listenin' and not sayin' a word.

I learnt the hard way I never found much out if my jaw hinge was a-workin' but then I was inclined to listen anyway and that helped, 'cause if a man had a guilty conscience, why, he got right uncomfortable if I fixed my pale eyes on him and didn't say anythin'.

More often than not he'd blurt out what I wanted to hear.

L'arnt that one from the Sheriff too.

Now oncet we got them beeves back in their right and proper pasture and we run that hidden pasture to make sure warn't no beef critters hidin' nowhere, why, the Sheriff watched as each man bunched up his stock and headed for his own spread, an' we rode back into town and et supper at the Silver Jewel.

Miz Esther met us and we et together, and I taken pains to watch her close.

She had a refined way of speaking and she had a refined way of handlin' her knife and fork, and she spoke to me in private and allowed as my table graces were improving, for I'd told her how uncomfortable I was feelin' like a stumblin' clod at the dinner table.

The Sheriff either didn't notice or didn’t figger it was worth mention.

Now oncet we et, and I didn't say more than two words that whole meal – includin' the "Amen" when the Sheriff said Grace – I sat there considerin', for I'd been workin' on somethin' and watchin' that pale eyed Sheriff, and when attair cute little hash slinger fetched us each a good slice of apple pie, why, I spoke up.

"Sir," I said, "I …"

I stopped and frowned, for I did not want to sound uneducated, even if that's how I felt.

Esther looked at me and I'd say she looked … gentle.

That's the word.

Gentle.

I considered how I'd seen the Sheriff took a man by the shirt front and fetched him off the floor, and pinned him ag'in the wall and I think that fella was more pinned to the planks by them hard, pale eyes than from that white knuckle grip, and I considered twice when my own temper seized my soul in its teeth – like over in Carbon, when I turned the wolf loose on that feller that tried to shoot me and I just plainly beat his liver loose with attair shotgun – and I nodded and said, "Sir, I … am … afraid …"

I took a big breath and finished with a rush.

"I am afraid of my temper."

I looked at the man and he was looking at me kind of thoughtful, I judged, and I dare not look at the green eyed wife a-settin' beside him.

I did not want to disappoint her and I didn't realize until then just how badly I did not want to disappoint her.

"Did … something … happen?" 

"It did, sir."
He waited.

"Marshal Macfarland and I were over in Carbon," I began, "and a man taken … took a shot at me in a hallway."

I hazarded a glance at Miz Esther and I saw alarm in her expression.

"He missed," I said, "and I had a double handful of shotgun, and I did not even think to shoot."

I felt myself run a little cold and my hands closed slowly into fists and I smelled gunpowder and saw that ugly orange-black bloom and I felt the beast stir inside me and my chest tightened up some.

"I laid into him, sir, I used that shotgun to beat him to the ground and I didn't stop."

I was breathin' quicker now, little short breaths, and I stopped and closed my eyes and taken me a long breath.

It was just a memory, I told myself, and a memory can't hurt me, and there's no sense gettin' all wound up.

"Sir, it felt like a black monster r'ared up inside me and …"

I couldn't help it.

I looked up.

"Sir, I liked the way it felt," I near to whispered, "and that scares me!"

Miz Esther looked over at the Sheriff and I saw her shoulder shift just a little and that meant she was reachin' for his hand under the table.

"I know that feeling," the Sheriff said slowly, "and I know that fear."

He leaned back and considered and finally nodded like he'd come to a decision.

"Jacob, when I was younger than you," he began, then leaned forward, pressing his forearms on the edge of the table and clasping his hands over his half eaten pie.

"When I was well younger than you, I used to go some north of our place to fish.  There was a pond … boys would come down from town and we'd roam the woods and the swamp and push over standing dead trees and the like."

I nodded and carefully did not look down at my unfinished pie.

"I was a little smaller than everyone else, but that didn't matter, we'd cut down cattails and crisscross 'em into mats and we'd sleep right out in the open.  Musquitters weren't bad yet but we were boys and likely we'd not have noticed."

I smiled a little, for I knew right what he was talkin' about.

"One of the boys was some bigger than me and he took a cattail and twisted it apart and fuzzed it all up, then he grabbed me and rubbed it in my face.

"I couldn't breathe.

"I back-kicked his shin and he let me go and I grabbed up my cane pole and I broke it over my leg and come after him.

"Cane poles are brittle and it broke like a spear and I run at him and I intended to drive that sharp splintered end clear through his gut.

"Well, he was bigger than me and he took out a-runnin' and he laughed.

"I wanted nothing more than to kill him.

"I knew which way he'd have to go to get home and I made for home too.

"I taken up the shotgun and took out over the ridge and I got between him and home, for I knew the land and he didn't, and I ducked into a hide and settled in and waited real still and when he come in sight I fetched back them hammers and taken a sight down those two barrels of hell.

"He must've known I was there.

"He called out and said he was sorry and he had no cause to do that.

"He talked, Jacob, and he talked me down from my fury, so I stood up and I told him I wouldn't kill him.

"He never did cross me again."

He rubbed his palms slowly together and then steepled his fingers the way a man will when he's meditative.

"I liked the feeling too, Jacob, and I must guard against it to this day." 

He closed his eyes slowly and opened them slowly and said, "It does feel good.  A man always wants to win, a man wants to establish his authority, a man forever wants to dominate and it feels good!"

His voice dropped to a whisper and I felt my belly shrivel a little at this admission.

"I must guard against it as I would guard against a tempting woman, Jacob, for I am able to cause great harm, and I have caused great harm while that black beast you spoke of was driving its fangs into my eternal soul!"

I looked into my pale eyed father's face and the mask he wore for the world to see was gone.

I saw a man somewhere between lust, and fear, and I knew that my own fear – this fear I had of my own temper – was suddenly very real, and not something I'd imagined, and I taken a long breath and I nodded and I said the only thing that seemed right.

"Yes, sir," I said, and I closed my eyes for a long moment so I could grab hold of my fear with a giant hand and crush it down into the iron kettle where I keep my feelin's, and clap the heavy iron lid down tight and screw it in place.

 

 

 

 

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18.  NOT ALONE

 

I reckon it's a good thing Sarah and I figured out we were brother and sister, even if it was plain as day and the Sheriff couldn't see it.

Miz Esther liked to take me aside and talk quietly and I listened with respect and then with interest.

I'd tended to hold her at arm's length.

I didn't want nobody to even try to replace my Mama and she was – that is, Miz Esther – she was the kind of woman I couldn't help but like and I didn't want to like her.

I still hurt too bad for Mama's bein' dead and I still hated myself for bein' to week to stop it.

I reckon that's why I killed two horse thieves, but I'm gettin' ahead of myself.

Might be I'd best back up a little more.

Sarah come and taken me by the hand and we slipped down the hallway a-past the bar and she opened that panel acrost from Daisy's kitchen when that Irishwoman warn't lookin' and we cat footed up that little narrow back stairway and Sarah set that panel back and we set and I could tell she was troubled.

She chewed on her bottom lip some and then she looked at me and her eyes warn't as ice pale as I'd seen 'em, they were just a little bit blue and I wondered what was goin' on and she said quiet-like, "Jacob, have you ever felt like you'd just been spanked?" and then she got this God-awful look about her like maybe she'd just said somethin' awful and it took me a minute to realize she was thinkin' of all that whip scar on my back.

I tried to give her a sympathetic look – she hadn't hurt my feelin's none – I said "Sarah, what happened?"

She took a long breath and rested her forehead on her splayed out fingers and shook her head, then she looked up at me.

"Uncle Charlie," she said, and I felt my face puzzle up and she laughed quiet-like, the way Miz Bonnie did, and she said "Charlie Macneil.  The Territorial Marshal."

I nodded.

"You remember my Snowflake."

I had to stop and think a minute and then I recalled that big black horse of hers was named Snowflake.

Now I don't have no idea a'tall who in their right mind would name somethin' that big or that black after somethin' little bitty and white, and I had me the notion Sarah did it just for funnin' but she never did say.

I nodded.  "I recall."

"Do you know how I got her?"

"Well, attair rancher come in with a poke of gold and he said some damned fool girl bought that mean tempered black horse and it was likely goin' to stomp her to death or eat her for breakfast, but I didn't know you were a damn fool."

"Did he tell you how I bought her?"

I shook my head.

Sarah threw her head back and took a long, quiet breath.

"I'd heard he was going to kill a mean horse, and I'd heard it was really big and really black, and I knew I wanted to take a look, and …"
She shook her head, looked at me, blinked.

"Jacob, he was ready to shoot her and I put my knife under his chin and said he'd take my price for the horse."

Now when she said she'd fetched out a knife and set the point under a man's chin, that's a serious thing and I couldn't see where she'd do that –'twas the man's horse, not hers – but she said it so she did it, and I nodded, once, to show I was listenin', and my eyes was on hers so she would know I was listenin' close.

"He'd tried to sell her and nobody was interested, she was … I was the only one who could get near her without her being …"
"Mean?"  I suggested quietly.

"Vigorous," Sarah corrected, and I saw anger flash deep in her pale eyes.

"Go on."

"I paid him half again his asking price and I paid in gold, then I threw in a little more for saddle and bridle and I mounted up and rode her out of the corral just as nice as you please."

I nodded again.

"Uncle Charlie" – her voice tightened down some and I saw that anger way deep in those pale eyes again, I doubt if anyone else would've seen it, maybe I saw it because I've got those same eyes – "Uncle Charlie … spoke to me."

"He spoke to you."

"He said … it was the rancher's horse to do with as he pleased and I had no call to put a knife to the man's throat."

She swallowed, looked away, her lips pressed together, then she looked at me like … like she was a lost little girl.

"He's right, Jacob, but I didn’t … I disappointed him, Jacob, and I'm so very sorry!"

Her face screwed up and big tears started to roll down her cheeks and I gathered her up in my arms and held her and she shoved her face down in my shoulder and I could feel her cryin' but she didn't make a sound.

The Sheriff told me how she'd hide, here in the Silver Jewel, back when it was a dirty whorehouse and half the girls were chained by one ankle to their crib, how Sarah's Pa would come in and get drunk, he'd pay Filthy Sam good money to beat the girls and then have them, in that order, and I seen the same deep and hidden anger in his eyes as I'd seen in Sarah's and I suspicioned me I had the same thing.

Sarah taken a bit to soak down my shoulder and she finally come up for air and I don't think she trusted her voice 'cause she whispered all husky-like and kind of raspy-said "I'm not sorry for saving Snowflake.  I'm so very sorry I disappointed Uncle Charlie!"

I fetched a hankie out of my coat sleeve and folded it over twice, pressed it real gently on Sarah's cheek, one, then t'other, and she smiled a little and very gently, very carefully, taken that twicet-folded hankie and then she wiped her cheeks and her eyes – she wiped 'em viciously, like she was punishing herself, or mad at herself, or maybe both.

"How's your temper, Sarah?"  I asked, real quiet and gentle as I could manage, and she give me a surprised look.

"Now?" she squeaked, then giggled, and put her fingertips to her throat.

"General-like.  Do you get mad enough to bite the horn off an anvil?"

"Yes," she hissed, and her cheeks flared almost red, and there was something animal in her eyes when she said it.  "Yes, Jacob, and it feels good!"

I nodded.  "I'm not alone, then."

Just that quick, whatever she'd felt was gone and she looked at me like she was worried.

"I am afraid," I said carefully, "of my temper.  I've seen the Sheriff take a man by the shirt front and fetch him off the ground.  I've seen him build a head of steam and anger fired his boiler and it's in me too, Sarah, and I’m scared because it feels powerful and it feels good."

"Then I'm not alone," she whispered, gripping my forearm – she grabbed holt of my forearm and held on like she was trying not to dizzy on me.

"No." 

I said it firmly.

"No, Sarah.  You are not alone."

She crushed my hankie in her fist and then opened her hand and looked at it, looked at me.

"I could tell you are your father's son without asking," she said.  "Even if I didn't see your eyes."

I raised my left eyebrow and she giggled and I reckon that's because the Sheriff did that sometimes.

"You carry your kerchief in your coat sleeve.  The Sheriff does that, and I know why."

I turned my head a little, curious.

"The next time a stick of cavalry rides through, Jacob, take a look at the officers.  They all carry a kerchief in their coat sleeve.  Your father was Cavalry and the habit is still with him, twenty years later."

I nodded slowly and reckoned I would recall that next I saw it, and I was right.

"He doesn't realize I'm his daughter," Sarah giggled, and the color come back up in her face, and she looked like a giggly little schoolgirl almost.  "Esther said the best place to hide anything from him is in the middle of the living room floor."

I couldn't help but chuckle a little my own self.

I been known to have my hat in one hand and huntin' all over for it whilst holdin' onto it, and Mr. Garrison had his spectacles in his hand, wavin' 'em like one of them-there music conductor fellas will when they're conductin' an orchestra, and he was accusin' their cat of battin' 'em under furniture, and in mid-wave he stopped and looked at his hand and I could tell from the look on his face he felt foolish.

I'm not that bad but there have been times when I looked right at somethin' settin' out in the plain-to-see and didn't see it.

Miz Esther let it slip in almost the same words Sarah spoke and I wondered if Sarah wasn't rememberin' the woman's words, for I'd heard that green eyed bride-to-be of my Pa's sayin' she could hide something in the middle of their parlor floor and the Sheriff would never see it.

I tended to put things together like that, listen to one conversation and realize I'd heard parts of it somewhere else, and then remember where that was.

It came in handy.

A man come into the Sheriff's office and allowed as he'd suspicioned some of his ridin' stock was stole so we went out and looked and sure enough the Sheriff read the tracks and allowed as they was strangers, and we figured which way they'd rode off, and we went after 'em.

I come upon the three of 'em first and got around ahead of 'em, more by luck than by figure-to, but I done it an' when they come around the bend I had my lapel turned over to show my badge and that-there sawed off scatter gun lookin' at 'em from my left hand and my '76 rifle in my right, and they held up for the moment.

My Apple-horse was knee-trained and he had his neck throwed over some and I knowed if I turnt loose attair shotgun, why, Apple would turn to get his head away from the concussion and I'd play hell gettin' a secont shot.

"SHERIFF'S DEPUTY!"  I challenged, "HANDS IN PLAIN SIGHT!"

"What the hell is this!"  the biggest of the three yelled.

"I'm lookin' for stolen saddle stock," I said, "and if them is J-Bar-J, you'd better have a bill of sale!"

They started flankin' out and reachin' so I threw attair shotgun to the side, knowin' it would go off when it hit the ground and it did, I had my '76 rifle to shoulder and cleared to saddles in two seconds and the third set there real still.

Apple kind of danced a little, he'd throwed his head off to the right but he handn't turned none.

Can't say as much for the stolen saddlehorses, they scattered, they run back the way they come and I reckon they'd pack together and head back for the familiar and that suited me fine.

I walked Apple-horse up torst the last man and said kind of conversational-like, "Horse thieves get hung, y'know."

He tried for his gun and it was his last mistake.

Truth be told I would have just shot him, save me the trouble of bringin' in a dead man, His Honor would've had him hanged and dead is dead so I saved me and ever'one else some trouble, and if the Sheriff was caught up with me, he'd see 'twas a fair fight as the dead man made a move and come out in secont place.

I relieved them of their proud-ofs and since they didn't have no more use for cash money, why, I'd make good use of it, and as their ammunition would fit my pistols, I taken it as well, what little there was.

Their mounts were standing – nervous, eye-walling, ears layin' back, but I spoke to them and soothed them, and they snuffed noses at Apple-horse and allowed as they was glad he was there, and I taken up their reins and headed back torst the ranch where we'd started.

If nothin' else the rancher would profit by these horses and saddles.

I recall a day or three later, Sarah and I was talkin' quiet-like and I told her about punchin' their tickets to the Hell-Bound Train, and she asked me if it troubled me to have killed those men.

"No," I admitted.  "It don't trouble me in the least."

 

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19.  KNOWING

 

I don't make no pretendin' that I know more than any other man, matter of fact sometimes I manage to feel about as intelligent as a paving brick, but most times I do all right.

Now women ... I know enough to realize I don't know straight up from go-to-hell about women, and that's all right by me.  I reckon I'll grow into it, common sense tells me all men do, sooner or later.

Some men just grow into it later, sometimes way later.

Some women, now, have a way of knowin' about 'em, and that green eyed Esther is one such, and Sarah is another, that Irish cook Daisy knows things and I don't know about Bonnie but I'll tell you, sometimes my sister Sarah just throws the spookies all over me.

We were watchin' the Sheriff's barn go up, they had it pretty much built and Sarah taken me by the hand and we walked around on the back side and they had the big slidin' doors open and she and I walked inside and she pointed up into the rafters and said "Right there."

I looked and didn't see much of anything and I told her so.

"It's not there yet, silly," she said, and she smiled and she looked so much like an innocent little girl I had to look at her ag'in to make sure that was her.

"I don't think I follow you," I admitted, and she laughed a little and squeezed my hand.

"It's not there yet," she whispered, and she lowered her head a little and looked at me through those long curled eyelashes of hers, like she knew an awful big secret, and then she giggled and crooked her finger and skipped over torst where the Sheriff already had his tack hung up.

She reached up and run her fingers behint the bridle like she was showin' off the engraved silver furniture and she said, "This bridle will hang up there" – she thrust her chin at that shadowy place up in the hay mow – "but you won't put it there until Old Pale Eyes is dead!"

Now that just plainly run the cold water right down my back bone.

"What do you know," I said slowly, "about his dyin'?"

"He'll die at home in his own bed with his family sorrowing around him," she said, turning toward me, looking me square in the eye and gripping both hands.  "You will be there and so will your sons.  He will die an old man full of years and blind from cataracts, and he'll smile just a little as he sighs out his last breath" – she paused and I could not have pulled my gaze away from hers if I'd been hitched to a pair of them big horses like the one she rides – "and beside him on the bed you'll see it indent like someone is lying beside him, and you'll see him reach out his hand a little and close, like he's holding someone's hand."

I did not doubt her when she said this.

There are women with a knowin' way about them.

I hadn't counted on my sister bein' one of 'em.

"What else do you know?"  I asked cautiously.

She reached up and put her fingertip on my lips.  "I know you will grow a mustache, and it will be curled as beautifully as your father's," she whispered, bouncing on her toes like an excited little girl, "and I know you will sire fine, tall sons with pale eyes, but there are things I cannot tell you!"

Like my death, I thought, and she nodded and said "Yes.  Like your death."

"Now that's scary," I said out loud, "you hearin' my thoughts."

She smiled and shook her head.  "Jacob Keller, you are as transparent as a window," she declared with a laugh, and planted her knuckles on her hips for the sayin' of it.  "I can read you like the newspaper!  It's not a large leap of logic to deduce your thought would be for your own mortality!"

Now I'm not the brightest candle in the window but I'm not entirely stupid, but she was throwin' that fancy language around ag'in – it didn't irritate me that she slung it, it irritated me that I didn't understand all of it.

"What'll that bridle be doin' way up there?"

She blinked and wobbled a little and grabbed at me and I taken her elbows and pulled her in, and she shook her head a little and grunted like she'd been punched.

I run an arm behint her and bent and run my other arm behint her knees, I picked her up and swung her over torst a bale of hay and laid her down, I pulled up another bale end-to and then pulled two more in, I reckon it made a prickly bed but she was laid down safe and I went to one knee and held her hand whilst she sorted out whatever was happenin' to her.

"You didn't put it there," she whispered, blinking and passing her hand over her eyes.  "I did."

I looked up and the Sheriff's rose-engraved bridle was still on its peg.

"There's more to this than I understand," I admitted, and Sarah blinked again, shook her head.

"Just lay there a minute," I said quietly.  "Are you still dizzy?"

"I wasn't dizzy to start with."  She laid her forearm across her eyes.  "I sure am now!"

"Hold onto me, then," I said, tightening my hand on hers just a little.  "I'm right here."

"You make a fine anchor," she whispered, then she reached up and laid gentle fingertips on my temples.

"See what I'm seeing," she whispered.

I felt her fingertips, cool and gentle, against the sides of my head, and I waited, and she looked confused and tried again, moving her fingers around a little, and finally she lowered her hands, disappointed.

I'm not sure what she was tryin' to do.

Whatever it was must not've worked, from the look on her face.

 

The Daine boys saw me lay Sarah down and go to one knee, holdin' her hand, and they come over to see if they could help:  Sarah blushed and allowed as she was just a weak woman and her big strong brother was making sure she was all right, and then she give me a look as if to say she was haulin' the wool over their eyes by the square yard, and I run an arm behint her shoulder blades and helped her set up.

She'd come out in her Mama's good carriage and I drove her back to the Rosenthal ranch in the fancy, shining buggy, my Apple-horse tied on behind.

We got near to the house and I heard raised voices.

Rosenthal come a-stormin' out of the house, he looked at Sarah and yelled "What do you mean bringing some common swain into my house like this!  I've a good idea to take a belt –"

I stood up and unfast my coat button, for in that moment I was ready to tear into the man, Sarah's Mama's husband or not, and apparently when he got a look at my pale eyes he realized he'd just made a mistake.

"Jacob," he said, surprised, then he got his thoughts in order and came down the steps, all smiles and hand out to shake mine:  "It's always a pleasure to see you!"  He looked past me at Sarah and I have seldom seen such deathly hatred in all my life, and had I not been gripping his hand I just might have drove my knuckles into his jaw bone.

I've learned better since then, the Sheriff taught me a gunfighter doesn't fist fight and I don't, but I was younger then.

"Mr. Rosenthal," I said coolly.

"Out of that carriage, I am needing it," he snapped, and I said "Stand fast, sir," and there was frost edging the sharpened edge of my voice.

He blinked like I'd slapped him.

I turned, raised my arms.  "Sarah?"  I said, and she came over, I reached up and taken her under the arms and swung her down, set her gentle on her feet.

Rosenthal looked like he'd bit into a green persimmon.

I stepped to the side and he fairly jumped into that carriage, he snapped the reins viciously and galloped that gelding around and down the drive and back towards town.

Sarah took my arm and we clumb the steps together and Bonnie turned her face away as I come up on the deck and I recht a hand up and hooked my fingers gentle-like under her chin, I turned her head towards me and I taken a long look at that growin' bruise on her cheek bone.

I felt my face tighten and Sarah told me later I went dead pale and she said my eyes were like polished ice, just like the Sheriff's got, she said the color run out of my face like red ink out of an eye dropper and I said, quietly, an edge to my voice that would cut flesh, "Bonnie, did he do this to you?" and she nodded and looked away, and down, like she was ashamed.

"Bonnie," I said again, and she looked at me, and I said in all sincerity, "Do you want me to kill him?"

Sarah looked at me and then at Bonnie and she looked at me again.

"Mama," she said, "say yes.  Say yes, Mama, let him kill that horrid man!"

Bonnie drew her knuckle to her teeth the way she did when she was distressed, and she slumped against the wall and started to cry.

I released Sarah's hand and taken Bonnie's.

"Bonnie," I said, quiet-like, "say the word and I will kill him.  Let me kill him.  Let me do this!"

She shook her head.

I knew that under law, the wife was pretty much the property of the husband, the children were owned goods, the husband could beat 'em if he wished and not a thing I could do to stop it.

Nothing legal, that is, and in that moment, had she said yes, Rosenthal would not have lived another thirty minutes.

"Bonnie," I said, "when he comes back I will have a talk with him.  He hit you and I'll show him what it is to be hit!"

I needn't have worried.

Rosenthal had more enemies than me.

Next night he took Bonnie to Denver, to the theater, apparently to show the world all was well with them, Sarah come to me madder'n I ever saw her, she come with her sisters and a full head of steam, and whilst Sarah stormed up and down the floor of that new barn, stomping one way and another, allowing as she wanted to skin that wife beating wastrel, that thief, that ... that ... monster, she called him, her arms stiff at her sides and her hands fisted, declaring that she was going to peel his hide off with a dull spoon, and the Sheriff come in and set down and was takin' it all in, and he finally asked what had the man done to earn her ire.

I taken note of that word, ire.

I'd never heard it before but the way he used it, I understood what it meant, and I was tryin' to improve the way I spoke, so I squirreled that word away for my own self.

Sarah, she turned, she pinned the Sheriff to the back wall with them pale eyes of hers, or at least she tried – he warn't moved by 'em, least not so's a body could tell – she thrust a finger at him and hissed, "You think he's such a noble man!"

"Can you tell me he is not?"  he asked mildly.

"Did you see where he HIT my mother?"

The Sheriff shook his head a little.

"He did.  Ask Jacob.  Belted her right on the cheek bone with a closed FIST!"  She stomped the length of the floor again, stomped back, stuck out that finger again.

"He's spent all our money – he's siphoned off cattle, he's taken Mama's inheritance and blown it, he's going back to the gambling dens tonight, he's pledged to send my sisters and I to boarding school and God alone knows what he's going to do with Mama, sell her probably!"  -- she paced, restless as a hen with a snake in the chickenhouse – she whirled and glared at the Sheriff and said, "I should have killed him!"

"Where is your Mama now?"  he asked, and there was a change in his voice, and I knew he was interested; I knew his next move would be to talk to Bonnie.

"They've both gone to Denver, to the theater."

"Hm"  The Sheriff nodded.  "I'll be waiting at the depot when he gets back."

"May I wait with you, sir?"  I asked.

"I would be pleased if you would, Jacob."

 

The train come back into station just before midnight.

Low Twelve, the Sheriff called it.

The porter slung the steps under the cast iron stairs on the end of the passenger car, and Bonnie came out, alone.

She'd gone with face paint to cover the bruise, but she'd scrubbed it off before coming home, and she made sure the Sheriff got a good look at that ugly colorful clobber mark on her pretty face.

The Sheriff stood very still and I could tell he was becoming very, very unhappy, and finally he said, "He did that to you?"

She looked at him and her eyes were bright and shiny like she was about to cry.

"He's dead, Linn," she said, and I felt my right ear tug back a little the way it did when I heard something that surprised me.

She'd always, always called him Sheriff.

She'd never called him Linn and that told me her walls were down, she was open, she was unguarded toward him, and then she surprised me again.

She grabbed the man and pulled her face into his chest and she cried like a lost child.

I watched whilst Linn wrapped his arms around her and held her, soothing her like she was a little girl, and I waited, doing my level best to turn invisible:  I durst not move, nor shift my weight even, for fear of appearing impatient.

Young I might be, but stupid I try not to be, and my gut told me she needed a good cry, and I was right.

We turned and watched a long box unloaded from the freight car, and set on the depot platform.

Bonnie looked at the box, then she pushed away from the Sheriff and she went over to the coffin, she looked down on it, she curled her lip and she spit on it.

She turned and looked defiantly at the Sheriff.

"He's ruined us," she declared.  "He's spent my inheritance, all of our savings, the money I was going to put into the dress works, he's gambled it all away, and now he's dead and good riddance!"

She hauled off and kicked the coffin, then she bent at the waist and screamed at the closed lid, "I HOPE YOU FINISH BURNING!  IN HELL!"

I heard a carriage drive up and Sarah was at the reins, fully dressed; she set the brake and dallied the reins, climbed out of the carriage and up onto the platform, she walked over to me and took my hand while the Sheriff took Bonnie by the shoulders, real gentle-like, and she kind of collapsed back against him.

"I saw him die," Sarah whispered, and I looked at her, and she had a little smile about her.

"I saw a flaming chandelier drop from the ceiling and hit him, I saw him look up just before it hit, and I saw his face when he realized that he was about to be killed."

She squeezed my hand and looked full-on at me, and she was not just happy.

She was delighted.

 

 

 

 

 

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20.  JUMP!

 

Warn't many turned out for the funeral.

Matter of fact, warn't but the Sheriff and me, and the Parson.

Bonnie didn't come, the girls didn't come, nobody come but us two and Parson Belden, and we planted that wife beatin' cheat thief in the Potter's Field.

I didn't realize just how mad the Sheriff was at him until he opened the coffin and rolled the carcass out and kicked it into the hole so it landed face down – "so he can see where he's headed," he explained – and the grave was filled and marked with a stone that said simply ROSENTHAL, least a stone was set after the dirt settled.

I know the Sheriff was a Mason and I knowed Rosenthal was too or at least had been, and it took me a while but I listened and finally found out they had some kind of a vote and allowed as he warn't no longer a Mason in good standing and so would not get a Masonic funeral.

I don't reckon I have ever in my life seen a whole town so mad at one dead man as everyone was.

Bonnie had supper with us, her and the girls, the Sheriff found that little girl in a train wreck and he adopted her, she set at the little table with Bonnie's little girl and I listened as Bonnie described how Rosenthal had sold her and all the girls to pay his gambling debts, how a rat faced fellow come out ahead of the gang that was supposed to collect them and sell them all in Frisco for the flesh market and how Sarah kilt him.

You might've heard about that, the girl called Ragdoll.

That was Sarah.

I won't go into particulars, the story's well enough known, but I will say this.

My respect for my pale eyed sister went way up when Bonnie told us all the particulars.

Bonnie cried some that night so it's a good thing we had a private room in back so's nobody could see her.

That bruise was healin' on her cheek but it was interestin' colors and she didn't use no face paint to hide it neither, she wanted the world to see what a wife beatin' scoundrel Rosenthal had been.

She cried because so many folks had come to her.

Rosenthal sold off their cattle.

Ranchers showed up with excess stock they just give her.

The women workin' for her allowed as they'd go without pay if she'd keep her dress works open.

Buyers from Frisco wired her with orders.

The general store give her credit.

Folks reached into socks and under mattresses and fetched out cash money and give to her.

I don't think she ever realized how well she was loved until all this happened, and she shed tears for the tellin' of it, for this whole town's helpin' her out touched her just awful deep.

She kept track of all this and she paid back every last soul that give her a helpin' hand even when they acted offended, she said if they didn't want to take the money for repayment, then take it to give to someone else that's needful, and generally they'd take it then.

Sarah was busy workin' for her Mama, she was in the dress works sewin' up dresses and she was with her Mama in Denver, modeling her Mama's dresses, and His Honor the Judge was in Denver one time and by accident come into one of them modelin' sessions with the buyers – he was stayin' in the same hotel and this was in one of the big rooms with a stage, and he was impressed by Sarah.

Seems he'd always thought of her as a sweet little girl and he hadn't really realized until she saw her lookin' like a grown woman that she could change her appearance so completely, and so quickly.

He had an idea, and that idea was that Sarah could pretend to be someone else – a dance hall girl, say, or a schoolteacher, or some-such, and she could act all innocent and big-eyed and listen to men talk.

His Honor told me that men like to talk to a good lookin' woman, especially one young and pretty, and Sarah was both:  his idea was that she could sit on their lap or give them those lovely eyes and they'd spill their guts, and if His Honor was wantin' to know about some crime or another, why, men would tell a pretty little dance-hall girl anythin' if she'd set there and listen, and if a man felt guilty and there was a kindly young schoolmarm to listen to his troubles, why, he could confess, and his confession could help the Judge get a conviction.

It didn't hurt none that Sarah was deadly.

I watched her kill a man and she was absolutely fast, she was without conscience, and she was as accurate as a surgeon when she taken a dagger and sliced the man's arm and then run it into his kidneys:  when she cut his arm he let go of her dress, when she run that sharp tapered blade into his tenderloins, his head snapped back, his mouth and eyes was both as wide open as they'd go, and he made absolutely no sound a'tall as that length of sharp steel drove right into the second most painful places a man can inherit sharpened steel.

Me, I didn't feel much but admiration.

He deserved it, she was gussied up like a dance hall girl and he allowed as she was a tease and he was intending to strip her and have her and they was alone or so they thought:  had Sarah not come up with a knife and settled the matter, why, I had my revolver in hand and I was gettin' ready to introduce some air through his head by virtue of a half inch hole on either side.

I didn't even have to cock my revolving pistol, she was that fast.

We talked it over afterward, once she'd scrubbed off her face paint and got into her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress and joined me at the livery, and she allowed as she was not going to be violated again, and I never knew she'd been violated in the first place, and that's when she told me about being a very young girl, and what she told me turned me cold and made me wisht I could go back and personally murder everyone that laid hands on her.

She must have been listenin' to my thoughts again because she laid a hand on my arm and said she'd already killed two of 'em that had and she knew where two more was, and they were hers, and I asked her if she needed any help and she said she'd let me know.

Now all this happened over in Denver and we got out of town before anyone could put the thumb on us.

Why Sarah wanted to gussy up as a dance hall girl I will never know other'n maybe she wanted to see if she could get away with it. 

I know she could toss her skirts and high kick with the best of 'em and I know men don't much care what a woman looks like as long as she'll show off her frillies and them lovely long legs, and oncet we got on the train and headed for home, why, she was real quiet and she was real frowny like she was studyin' hard on somethin' and finally she grabbed my hand and said "We need to go to the stock car," and she stood up and somethin' told me she warn't gon' to be discoraged none so I come up out of my seat and come with her.

We went back to the stock car and she commenced to rakin' hay off what I thought was timber trunks and damned if it warn't a coffin and she threw the lid back and stripped out of attair schoolmarm dress like I warn't even there and I don't mind admittin' a minute I just stood there with my teeth in my mouth a-starin'.

I'd not seen a woman undress before and this was my sister and I should have looked away and didn't and I reckon God will forgive me for I was surprised.

I kind of blinked and shook my head and turned around and kept lookin' around for fear someone else would come in and nobody did.

Sarah whipped attair mousy grey dress off and damned if she didn't pull out a set of widow's weeds an' some more petticoats an' she threw them ruffly stacked petticoats over her head and settled 'em down over her corset, she th'owed that black widow's dress overhead an' it dropped right down on her like it had a notion of its own, she got into it and had me fast it up the back and she fetched out a travelin' hat with a black veil and yanked it down on her piled up hair and then she shut the coffin, pulled up the veil and put her finger to her lips about the time the train slowed and come to a stop.

I knowed we was at a station and there would be two more and Sarah shut the lid on that coffin box and pulled a kneelin' stool out from under and she set her Prayer Bones down on attair red velvet upholstery and folded her arms and laid her head on 'em on attair coffin lid and about then I fetched off my hat.

I ain't all that smart but I knowed somethin' was in the wind and I stood there with my hat in my hand and the stock door slud open and there was a couple men with a set of irons a-dangle and t'other had a shotgun and they looked surprised-like at us.

I turned back my lapel to show my six point star and unbuttoned my coat and slud it back too and said "Help you fellas?"  and I don't reckon my voice was much friendly a'tall.

After they left, after the door slud shut and latched, after the train started up ag'in, why, Sarah come off attair kneelin' stool and fetched back attair widow's veil an darn if she didn't come a-skippin' over to me like she was a dancin' schoolgirl and she grabbed me by the lapels and hauled me down a little and kissed me.

"You were wonderful," she whispered.

"I'm your brother," I said and I tried to sound stern but that didn't work and we both knew it.

"They were looking for a dance-hall girl, or maybe that schoolmarm," she giggled, and ahead of us the engine whistled and we picked up speed for the grade run downhill just a little, and then my head come up and I grabbed Sarah's arms and I felt my face tighten up some ag'in.

I know the whistle-talk and I said "Saddle up!" and that time my voice did what I wanted, and Apple-horse he come a-backin' out of the stall and I slung blanket and saddle on him and I'd watched them railroaders and I knowed how to get that slidin' door open from the inside and I did, right about the time attair engineer laid on the whistle and it was screamin' like a woman and I grabbed Sarah and swung her up into the saddle and slapped Apple on the backside and yelled "YAAAHHH!"

Sarah grabbed the saddlehorn and screamed and her eyes was about as big as her mouth and Apple-horse jumped blind into the night and I jumped right behind him and we fell for a year and a half it felt like and then we hit water, him and me, and I recall seein' him beside me, his eyes a-wallin' and his mane floatin' in the air and his nostrils a-flared and Sarah's mouth was wide open and she warn't makin' a sound but she had a-holt of me with them pale eyes and then we hit and the water was cold and it was deep and I went under and I let myself go down, down, down, and my boots hit rocks and I let my knees bend deep and I felt solid under me so I threw my head back and shoved hard for the surface.

I got there about the time Apple come a-fightin' to the airy side of attair river and we heard the explosion and me and Apple made for the bank and Sarah was still a-straddle of that spotty horse and we got up on the bank on a sandy flat and I commenced to lookin' around.

We found us what looked like a trail and it was headin' in our direction and it was cold and we were wet and I saw smoke and we made for the smoke.

'Twas a clutch of cabins, settlers they were, and they heard the explosion and seen us come a-shiverin' into their clearing and they didn't waste no time, they got Sarah inside and the women swarmed her for they saw a soaky-wet widow-woman, pale faced and shiverin' with her teeth a-clatter, and the men-folk got me and Apple-horse into a barn and I asked for good light and allowed as we'd jumped from attair train when the whistle blew washout, and I run my hand down Apple's legs and acrost his belly and I talked to him for he was still a-shiver and his eyes was wallin' some at strange hands and strange scents but he's like the stray dog that lives under the Mercantile, he bribes real good, and I shaved off some of attair plug tobacker and fed him and them fellas grained him and I got him rubbed down with gunny sack and I talked to him and he was sore some from hittin' the water with his belly and I reckoned it was gonna be sore, I'd belly smacked into water my own self and it warn't no fun a'tall.

Them fellas they offered to dry my clo'es and dry me off and one fetched in a bottle of somethin' amber and I thanked 'em kindly but I had to tend Apple-horse first, and one them fellers said "Apple-horse, ain't you that depitty from over't Firelands?" and I allowed as I was and he grinned real broad and allowed as whatever I needed he'd provide, the Sheriff kept him from gettin' his neck stretched some time back and his Pa was in the War with the Sheriff and you need it you name it, so I thanked him kindly and taken a tilt of attair amber fire water and handed it back.

I hadn't tasted nothin' like that before and asked what it was and he said "Brandy" and I allowed as that was good stuff, I'd never had much but beer or whiskey and he laughed and allowed as brandy was good for what ails ye and I realized I was more a-shiver than I'd realized, and I allowed them to peel me out of attair soaky wet coat and then I went ahead and stripped down and rubbed my own self down with attair gunny sack.

Things got real quiet when they fetched a lantern around behint me and they got a good double eyeful of the war map of my scarred up back and one of 'em asked, quiet-like, "Who did this to you?"
I stopped and I turned around and said "I was a boy when this was done to me.  I killed him with his own pistol that same day," and I seen somethin' in their faces I warn't used to seein'.

I saw fear.

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21.  MISTAKEN

 

The wimmen folks tended to Sarah and I don't know what-all they did or talked about, women don't talk like men folks and for all they knowed, Sarah was a pretty young widow.

I don't even know what name she give.

I do know they fed us and they dried out our duds and brushed my suit and my boots was all soaky wet and they dried as best we could get 'em but they shrunk some and I only just got my hooves back in 'em.

I reckoned the Sheriff might speak to me about ruinin' so many sets of boots.

He'd be right, I don't hold with waste my own self and I saw myself as wasteful havin' done this but there was no help for it so I reckoned if I couldn't get these dried out proper and oiled up afterward, why, they'd get cut up for leather patchin' or some such, but I hoped to bring 'em back to what they had been.

I set all this out of my mind when them folks insisted on Sarah ridin' in their buggy and they taken us the rest of the way into Firelands, which was not far.

Sarah got out at the Silver Jewel and them wimmen folks wrung her hands and hugged her and they thought she was a stranger goin' to stay at the Silver Jewel and I reckon that's all to the good:  a widow walked in and nobody saw her leave, matter of fact no women come out the front for most of a day and when it was, why, it was Miz Esther and Bonnie and a pretty young schoolgirl, a little tall maybe but she was young, she wore a schoolgirl frock and she didn't show no signs of becomin' womanly yet so no one paid no attention to her.

Me, I went over to the Sheriff's office and when I come through the door, the Sheriff stood up and give me a long look and I saw him go just a little pale.

I walked toward him, slow, I recall my boot heels was louder'n I expected and the Sheriff started toward me and our boot heels hit the floor at the same cadence and we walked up to one another and he had a real funny look on his face.

We stopped at half an arm's length and I saw him swallow.

"I heard you were dead," he said.

I reached down and taken his hand in both mine.

"Do I feel like a ghost, sir?"  I asked quietly, and he grabbed me and hugged me and I felt him shiver and take a long breath and then another, and I knowed the right thing to do was to hug him back so I did.

He was wordless for probably a full minute by the clock and finally we let go of one another and he said, "Sarah?"

"Unharmed, sir."

"There were several killed."

"Yes, sir."

"A trestle collapsed."

"I didn't know what happened, sir.  I heard the engine whistle washout and I grabbed Sarah and threw her in the saddle, me and Apple jumped and I reckon he's got a sore belly from hittin' the water."

"That's where it crosses the oxbow."

"Yes, sir.  'Twas deep enough we didn't hit bottom, least he didn't.  I went on down and hit rock and pushed back up."

He give me almost a fearful look and then he nodded and turned to his desk.

He fetched open that bottom right hand drawer and pulled out two glasses and a bottle of water clear, not over thirty days old, he poured us each two fingers' worth and give me one and we drank.

I warn't about to turn it down.

If he was rattled enough he needed some nerve tonic I was not going to say no to the man.

 

The ladies come over and we talked things out amongst ourselves.

To hear Sarah tell it, why, I was little short of a hero that needed statues made of me, for I'd saved her life at the peril of my own, I'd got her away from a man who intended to defile her, she painted me up like a saint and I reckon my ears turned kind of red.

I said almost nothing.

There was not a thing to say.

I figgered she was drawin' a gauzy curtain over what happened and I reckon that's because she'd been hurt so bad when she was young, she was separatin' herself from killin' that man at least in the minds of everyone around her, matter of fact she didn't say a word about gussyin' up like a dance hall girl nor the first peep about feedin' him eight inches of sharpened steel and I didn't see fit to let no feline out of no burlap neither.

The Sheriff listened careful-like to what she had to say and he leaned back and considered, the way he often did, and finally he brought his chair back upright and allowed as a dance hall girl knifed a man in Denver and they figured she'd tried to escape on the train.

Sarah give him those big innocent eyes and looked like a pretty little schoolgirl, she had a big ribbon bow in her hair and she managed to look years younger than she was, of course that short skirted frock didn't hurt none, not settin' between two matronly women.

"What did this woman look like, sir?"  I asked.  "Height, weight, clothes, scars, birthmarks?"

The Sheriff give me a look and it looked like he approved of my question.

"She was taller than Sarah, from what I'm told, she looked like a houri and disported herself shamelessly, someone saw a woman get on a train wearing a grey schoolmarm's dress but nobody knew her or remembered seeing her until she sat down in the passenger car."

"Was anyone with her, sir?"

"No.  No ..."

He frowned, thought a little, tilted his chair back again, studied the ceiling.

"Yes there was.  A man in a black suit but nothing distinguishing, nobody was looking for a man."

"Might she have disguised herself as a man, sir?"

He nodded slowly, raised his hand to his chin, rubbed it thoughtfully.  "It's possible.  Not likely, but –"

His chair shot out from under him and he went over backwards, the wooden back of the chair went BANG and the women jumped and so did I, and the Sheriff lay there with his legs stuck straight in the air and I tried awful hard to be polite and to not laugh, and directly the women started to get red in their cheeks and they looked at one another and Bonnie put the back of her gloved hand to her lips and Miz Esther put her fingertips delicately to her lips and finally the two of them give up and started to laugh and I stood up and come over to the desk.

"Sir," I said quietly, "are you hurt?"

"Only my pride, Jacob," the Sheriff said in a pained voice.  "Only my pride."

"Yes, sir," I said, then I grabbed attair chair by its swivel legs and hauled it out from under the Sheriff so's he wouldn't tangle up tryin' to get back on his feet.

The Sheriff thanked me once he was up, he set that chair back up and glared at it and then he set back down in it, he set real stiff and straight and I could tell he wasn't trustin' that timber bronc a'tall and I don't blame him.

He looked at me and said, "Jacob, thank you for getting both of you to safety."

"Yes, sir."

"You did well."
"Thank you, sir."

"If you're doubtin' Apple's belly, have Shorty take a look at him.  Is he makin' his pile?"

"He is, sir, he's eatin' and he's leavin' piles of political speeches afterward."

The Sheriff nodded.  "Good."

He looked at Sarah.

"Young lady, I don't believe we've been introduced.  I'm the Sheriff."

Sarah rose and curtsied and said in damned-if-she-didn't-sound-like-a-little-schoolgirl voice, "My name is Sarah," and the Sheriff grinned, quick-like, and said "Dear heart, if you can look like a dance hall girl, a schoolmarm, a widow and a little girl and do it that well, I think we have a job for you!"

He looked at me and said "Jacob, the Judge will be in town the beginning of next week to hold court.  Remind me to tell him we have a candidate."

"Yes, sir."

 

I hadn't no more got over into the Silver Jewel than this fella grabbed me and punched me in the gut, hard.

I fell back and got my Colt on him and he saw death from three barrels:  one from blued steel and one from each of my eyes.

He hissed "You think I don't know?" and I got some wind in me and said "Mister, you are under arrest.  You do exactly as I say or I'll open a hole in you."

He'd got a good haymaker in me and I'd seen spots and I honestly don't know how my Colt got in my hand that quick but it did and I had the hammer eared back and the Silver Jewel was just dead quiet and Mr. Baxter faded off to the left to get out of the line of fire, and most of the customers pulled back from the bar and even the piano player quit thumpin' the 88.

"DON'T PRETEND YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!" 

"Unbuckle your belt and let it drop."

He turned real pale, he was white to his lips, but not for fear, he was mad, he was mad clear through and he raised a shaking finger and yelled again and I figured if he didn't drop that gun belt I was going to punch his ticket, for a man enraged is a man without good sense and he just might try to draw against my drawn gun.

"DON'T THINK I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU AND MY WIFE!" he screamed and about then he went limp, his eyes crossed and he hit the floor like a head shot beef.

Sarah stood behind him, still wearin' that little shoolgirl frock with the big ribbon in her hair and looking like she ought to be holding a lollipop instead of a bung starter:  she was standing on a chair so she'd be tall enough to belt him over the gourd, and she give me an innocent look and said "Did I do good, Daddy?" and I eased the hammer down and the back to half cock and holstered.

"You did good, sweetheart," I said, "Daddy is very proud of you."

She jumped off the chair and skipped back over to the bar, laid the bung starter on the mahogany and said in a little-girl's voice, "Thank you, Mr. Baxter," and then she picked up the sides of her skirt and curtsied and then skipped to the front door, giggling.

I divested this stranger of his gunbelt and found a hideout pistol and two knives and then I picked him up by the back of his coat and the seat of his pants, hefted him a couple times.

"Mr. Baxter," I said, "could you get the door for me, please?"

The Sheriff come out – someone must've run over and fetched him – about the time I had this stranger in the horse trough for the third time.

He was awake by then and must've figgered he was drownin' for he was startin' to fight so I let go of him and dropped him in and he grabbed the sides and r'ared his head up, slingin' water and blowin' and the Sheriff regarded him with cold eyes and I reckon I did too.

We left him in the hoosegow for a day before we said word one to him and by then his wife come to see him, and she had some fella with her that didn't look a thing like me, and they come back the row of cells and looked at him through the bars and I waited about a minute then went back with them.

He looked at me and he looked at that fella with his wife and he dropped his head in his hands and groaned and I never heard a man with such misery in his voice.

His Honor the Judge heard him out, he fined him twenty dollars for striking a law enforcement officer and advised the man to become a professional gambler, for he'd just struck a pale eyed lawman and lived to tell the tale, with that kind of luck he could probably pull an inside straight every hand.

I never did find out but I reckon his wife was leavin' him, they-all cleared out of our county and to this day I have no idea where any of 'em went, and just as well.

 

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22.  AX MAN

 

The Sheriff was a quiet man.

He was a man not given to temper, loud voice or violence.

Unless he decided otherwise.

Generally he was quiet and had a half amused look about him and he'd grin and chaff the fellas when the chaffed him, especially that one that called him Soapy after the story got out about Sarah dunkin' attair bar of hand pressed Lye Soap right between his pearly whites an' he come off attair bunk like a wounded bull, bloody rags and all.

He'd taken attair fella by the shoulder and he'd closed one eye and he'd dropped his voice like he was impartin' a secret or some-such and that other fella inclined his head closer, like maybe the Sheriff was gon' to give him the location of a whole hat full of gold nuggets hadn't been picked out of the streambed yet, and the Sheriff proceeded to pull the man's leg without mercy, tellin' him soap was good for ye and how it made a man younger, smarter and better lookin' and then with an absolutely straight face he told attair fella he'd looked in the mirror and realized the night before he needed all the help he could get.

Now if you stuff a man's boots plumb full and pull his leg with no mercy a'tall and get him to laugh, why, you can tell him just about anything a'tall and he'll take it, and this fella took it hook line and sinker – he didn't believe a word of it but he got a good tickle out of it – and them two stood there on the board walk and had a good laugh, and the laughter of men's voices is a good thing to hear.

'Twas later that mornin' the Sheriff slung what was left of his coffee pot high in the air and drew his left hand Colt and put a hole through it and started it a-spinnin', and he drew his right hand Colt and hit it ag'in and it begun to whip around like it was flyin' drunk and if he warn't Sheriff he'd have ended up in the hoosegow, shootin' off pistols in the middle of the main street like that, but folks notice things and when a man can hit a flyin' coffee pot – twicet – with either hand – why, word gets around, and men talk, and campfire talk had it not long after that Old Pale Eyes could snap a flea off a man's backside at three hundred yards with attair left hand Colt revolver, at night, offhand in a stiff crosswind.

'Twas said he warn't as good with his right hand Colt, he'd have to sneak up within two hundred of a man to do the same thing with his right hand gun.

I reckon it saved the man trouble, lettin' it be known he was both fast and good with a short gun.

I hadn't realized I'd started the same thing in the Silver Jewel, when that fella gut punched me and I near to hit the floor for it, but I still got out my own Peacemaker and truth be told I had half the pull took out of the trigger when Sarah cold cocked him.

The Sheriff said he knowed men on city police departments and now and again they'd pass through and the Sheriff would take 'em into the Silver Jewel and they'd belly up to the bar and have a beer or two or three and they'd set down and Daisy would come scoldin' out of the kitchen and just bully rag the lot of 'em and the Sheriff would stick his knee out and pull her down on to his knee and tell her she was just too good lookin' a woman for her own good and she'd ought to run off with him, and she'd lay a hand on his cheek and lean her forehead in ag'in his and allow as a hot woman and a cold beer and he'd die of apoplexy, and they'd laugh – it was an old joke between 'em, she was married to attair big red headed Irish fire chief and I'd been told when that Irishman, Sean, come to town, why, the Sheriff braced him on the depot and they got into it and they plainly beat the dog stuffin' out of one another and damned if that big Irishman didn't get the best of the Sheriff.

Way I heard it told, the Sheriff hit the ground and shook his head and attair Irishman was standin' there with fists like anvils and shoulders like a blacksmith, his nose was bleedin' and one eye was about swole shut and the Sheriff looked up – he had one eye swole up too and his cheek bone was cut – he grinned kind of crooked and said "You give up?" and the Irishman reached down and hauled him to his feet and run his arm around the Sheriff's shoulders and laughed that big gusty laugh of his and allowed as he'd never fought such a skilled opponent – his words – and them two both staggered their way to the Silver Jewel, and each one bought the other a beer and they been best friends ever since.

Any time Sean saw Miz Esther, why, he'd sweep her hand up and kiss her knuckles, and damned if she didn't look like she was ready to melt right in her moccasins, and the Sheriff would flirt somethin' outrageous with that red headed Daisy.

He told me some years later that she was the safest woman in the world to flirt with.

He knew if he was improper in the least, she would run a knife through his liver, rip the mustache off his face and kick him over the church steeple, not necessarily in that order, and then she'd start gettin' mean with him, and he knew it.

He said she knew that he knew it, and that meant she felt safe because she knew she would do exactly those very things if here were ever improper, and both of them knew that Miz Esther would cloud up and rain on 'em both, and as Miz Esther let herself be seen practicin' with them long real slender swords of hers, why, everyone knew that if anyone was improper there'd be blood on the moon, so everyone was careful not to be … improper.

Now where was I.

I side track myself easy.

Oh, yeah.  The Sheriff had them visitin' city policemen over in the Jewel and they set down and et and lied to one another somethin' outrageous, it got so deep I was afraid Mr. Baxter was goin' to set the swamper to openin' doors and runnin' a floor scraper it was gettin' so deep back there.

After one of them-there sessions he was a-settin' by himself lookin' thoughtful and almost ready to laugh when I come in.

"Jacob," he said, and I could hear a laugh hidin' behind his voice, "there are fancy terms for everything."

"Yes, sir?"  I drew out a chair and set, for I knew he'd found somethin' he thought interestin'.

"You know how I'll listen to men and talk with men and get 'em to talk, and they'll just talk up a storm if they think they've got an interested ear?"

"Yes, sir," I replied honestly, for I'd seen the Sheriff do that very thing any number of times.

"Those city policemen call it 'Cultivating your Street Sources' and they thought they'd invented it."

He allowed himself a little bit of a smile but his eyes were merry, as was his voice.

"They were lecturing me – lecturing!  Me!" – he shook his head – "as if I were an uneducated –"
He shook his head again as if to dismiss the thought.

"They suggested I may wish to do the same thing."

"We've been doin' that right along, sir."

The Sheriff took a long breath, blew it out through pursed lips, his cheeks puffed out as he did.

"I know, Jacob."  He shook his head.  "It is a classic case of the city man believing himself more intelligent than he is."

"Yes, sir."

"Would you like some coffee, Jacob?"

"No thank you, sir."

"That wasn't an offer of a drink," the Sheriff said quietly, and he give me one of those wise looks.

"That was a test of intelligence, Jacob, and you passed."

"Thank you, sir."

"Recall that coffee pot I shot this morning?"

"I do, sir."

"I'd rotted the bottom out of that one too."  He harrumphed and glared at the brand new, blue granite coffee pot settin' on the stove.  "I can make coffee but it's not fit to drink.  The Daine boys allowed as they could use it to strip varnish but that was about it."

"Yes, sir."

"How are your new boots?"

I felt my ears redden some.

"Fine, sir."

"They polish up well."

"Yes, sir."

"Have your old boots improved any?"
"Which pair, sir?"

I saw understanding in the man's eyes.

"You could've taken off the first pair before you went in the water."

"I could have, sir," I agreed, "but I did not wish to take the time."

The Sheriff nodded approval. 

"Jacob, you made a decision and you acted.  Too many men dither and too many men would be undecided.  You were neither.  You saw a need and you acted and you did right."

"Thank you, sir."

He gestured to a book on the corner of his desk, one I was more than intimately familiar with.

"My favorite passage," he said.  "Ecclesiastes."
"'For all things there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens,'" I quoted near as I could recall it.

"Exactly."  The Sheriff nodded again, leaning back and kicking his feet up on the corner of his desk.  "I come back to that quite often –"

Attair chair shot out from under him ag'in and the back of it hit the floor with a BANG and I heard the Sheriff grunt like he was pained, and I come to my feet and hauled attair chair out from under him and slud it torst the front door and waited for Old Pale Eyes to make his feet.

He did and I did not like the look of him.

He glared at attair chair and then he hauled open the heavy door, he grabbed attair chair and drug it outside like he was a-draggin' it by the shirt collar, he come out on the board walk and two long steps to the right to where the alley come down beside the log office and he had room to swing, and he slung attair chair out in the middle of the street.

He turned and disappeared down attair alley and here directly, why, here he come a-steamboatin' back out with a double bit ax in hand and them eyes of his was dead pale and folks on the street was stoppin' to watch, they was a freight wagon drew up and the teamster spit a brown stream and spoke to his restless team as the Sheriff come up to attair chair and proceeded to take the ax to it.

He showed it no mercy a'tall, and what used to be a pretty good swivel office chair on them little caster wheels right directly was little more than scrap and kindling wood, and the Sheriff taken a good delight in feedin' the splintered pieces to the stove, oncet he'd pulled the screws and such-like out of 'em.

He let the badger out when he was bustin' up attair chair, he didn't hold nothin' back, but the scary part, he was just dead silent when he did.

Absolutely, silent-as-the-grave, dead, quiet.

And that scairt me.

 

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23.  DRAGON LADY

 

No I know I have a temper about me.

I know the Sheriff has a temper.

I did not know Miz Esther had just as much a temper and I reckon more dangerous.

She was at the roundhouse when Lightning come a-boilin' out of his little office at the top of his lungs, wavin' a yella slip and yellin' about a man gettin' crushed and they had to git the doc and it sounded like he was ready to announce the heavens to the East and to the West was rollin' up like parchment and the stars was a-fallin' out of the heavens.

Miz Esther was only just give attair railroad as a weddin' present and she was takin' it in hand and she was shakin' it like a dog shakes a rat in a corncrib and she was settin' things to right, but she had a way about her as to make a man like it when she told him to his face he was the laziest devil to stand in shoe leather and she would have him otherwise.

When Lightning came out and started a-bellerin' the grabbed him by the shirt collar and backhanded him a good one and she jerked him up close and SHE yelled in HIS face, "STOP YOUR SCREAMING AND TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED!"

Two voices and then a sudden silence just plain shocked that saggin' warped excuse for a roundhouse into absolute standstill hush, I tell you! – and Lightning, he quivered at the lip some and he fetched up attair yaller flimsy paper and he read from it and Miz Esther's face got hard and she got white around the lips and she turned to the engineer that was a-firin' the inspection car they'd only just got in for Miz Esther's use – it was custom made, it was long as a boxcar and the boiler was upright instead of layin' down longways like a reg'lar engine, and it was set up at the fore for the engineer and at the back for the Superintendent, and that was Miz Esther.

"Mr. Williams!"  she snapped, and her voice had a crack to it like the sharp end of a horsewhip, "how long to steam?"

"Six minutes, Miz Esther," he said and she nodded once, turned, pointed to another man.

"Mr. Stevensen, take my carriage if you please, inform the Doctor we have need of his services and bring him back immediately if not sooner.  Jacob!"

My hat come off my head and I do not recall reachin' for it but it was in my hand and I barked "Yes ma'am!" and saw the approval in her eyes.

"Jacob, have them hitch on the stock car, bring your Apple-horse, you're with us!  Mr. Lightning" – she turned like she was on a swivel, her finger still up at nose level, pointing to each man she was addressing – "how came you by this intelligence?"

Now Lightning was like most men I've seen, he had a talent for opening his mouth and something stupid fell out and he told me later over a sociable beer he could have kicked himself for his reply but he looked at Miz Esther and said "Huh?" and you could tell by the look on his face he was ashamed of himself, likely because he'd panicked and had to be slapped back into sense and now because he couldn't think of an intelligent reply to her question.

Miz Esther gave him a kind and gentle look an put her gloved hands on his shoulders.

"Mr. Lightning," she said, her voice soft, her eyes pleading, "how did you get this message?"

"It, it, it come over the wire, ma'am."

"So they have a telegraph set."

"The portable, yes ma'am, there's one in every caboose."

"Is that your doing?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good man, you get a raise."  She caressed his cheek with her gloved palm, then ran her hand around back of his neck and pulled him a little closer.  "Send that help is on the way."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Lightning had purpose of a sudden and he turned so fast he near to fell and he ducked back into that little office and set to clatterin' on attair telegraph key.

I'm just awful glad he could read the wire talk, I couldn't make heads nor tails of it myself.

The inspection car commenced to move and it chuffed quietly outside; it rolled onto the turntable and men grunted and pushed and it come around and stopped and the engineer backed the inspection car up ag'in the stock car, they coupled her up and fetched down the ramp and I rode Apple-horse up into the rollin' stable.

Apple had rid the rails some and he warn't a'tall discomforted none and neither was I:  I left him saddled and rubbed his ears and I went to the open side door and looked out and Apple horse stuck his neck out and looked too, and Miz Esther stepped up onto that shiny clean step thing the conductor swung into place:  he offered his hand, Miz Esther took it and thanked him, and her smile was just a thing to dazzle a man, and she went up into attair private car with its built in steam engine and the whilstle blew and we started down the line.

I recall they set white flags on either side of the front where they could flutter in the wind and I reckoned they was some kind of a signal ruther'n just decoration but hell for all I knew it meant the boss was on board.

Didn't really matter much.

We rode for a while, Apple-horse and me, and I warn't much of a mood to set down, so I paced and Apple watched and I think he might have been amused by me but he didn't let on if he was.

Now Miz Esther knew an awful lot more about railroadin' than me and I'll make no bones about that.

She'd ordered attair private engine car thing before the Sheriff give her that railroad and I don't know rightly if she tapped into his money or if she used hers, or hell for all I know they could have give it to her, I recall hearin' her say how she understood the new Westinghouse air brakes were both more effective and far safer  than the brakeman walkin' the back bone of them swayin' cars and turnin' a steel wheel to brake the cars down.  I do know that of a sudden when attair engine car thing started to whistle, why, I felt kind of a sigh and a chunk underneath our stock car and we started to slow down faster'n I ever knew a train to slow down.

The ground warn't far and Apple jumped way farther'n that and nobody was around to haul out attair heavy ramp and I warn't gonna bust a gut doin' it so when we was abreast of a little rise, why, I touched my heels to Apple's ribs and he give a grunt and a heave and we sailed out of attair stock car and a good thing I ducked.

I don't reckon my Stetson missed the slidin' door's steel bar by no more'n two fingers, if that.

Miz Esther come out of attair car, fast, she jumped to the ground and snatched up her skirts, she ran to where men was standin' and I rode up and drew up and there was not one damned thing I could have done to help.

Miz Esther shoved between the men and she went to her knees and grabbed the dead man's hand and ran her other hand under the back of his dead neck and I looked at what had been a man, what looked like a man from the bottom of the chest down to the tops of his legs.

What was in between was red and mashed and wet and ruint.

Now I've heard women scream and a scream is one thing.

I don't rightly know what Miz Esther did.

I saw her shoulder start to heave and it sounded like she was startin' to grunt a little and I don't reckon any man there would have held it ag'in her if she'd turned and heaved up her guts but she didn't.

She threw her head back and I don't know really how to describe it.

A woman's scream is shrill and high pitched and hers was more like a roar – it was loud, and it was just plainly terrifyin', and her voice shattered and bounced off one mountain and then another, Apple backed up a couple steps and so did every man standin' there with his hat in his hand.

Miz Esther lowered her head and then she let go of him and she stood and she looked around.

"He was crushed between the couplers?"  she asked quietly.

There were nods and two men said "Yes ma'am," and Miz Esther's jaw muscles bulged and her lips peeled back and the color was standin' out on her cheeks like they was painted.

"Never again," she whispered fiercely, her gloved hands closing and shaking with absolute rage, then she took a deep breath, squinted her eyes shut and threw her head back.

"DO YOU HEAR ME?  NEVER, AGAIN!"

I recall the cords on her neck stood out when she screamed it and that was closer to a woman's scream but not quite.

I do recall I had never seen this woman that genuinely unhappy before and I didn't know what she had in mind exactly but I did pity the poor fool that tried to stand in whatever way she was planning.

She looked around and she looked like a great cat with its fighting canines gleaming and exposed, she looked like a she-wolf with its lips peeled back and its fur stood up for a fight, and she raised a hand and drove her finger at the man holding the portable telegraph set.

"Send this message," she said, and her voice was low and it was cold.  "Cancel doctor, man dead.  All rolling stock stops, NOW.  We are changing over to safety couplers, tell Murphy to place the order."

"Yes, ma'am," the conductor said briskly, and he closed his fingers around the big round telegraph button and I could hear it commence to click and clatter.

Miz Esther went up to one of the brakemen – he was a big man and I'd not want to come up ag'in him in a fight, he had shoulders like a blacksmith and he looked rough – Miz Esther seized his wrist and pulled his hand up.

"Do you see this?"  she shouted, turning:  "DO YOU SEE THIS, ALL OF YOU?  THIS IS ABSOLUTELY THE LAST MAN I EVER WANT TO SEE ON THE Z&W RAILROAD WHO HAS LOST FINGERS TO THOSE LINK-AND-PIN COUPLERS!  NEVER AGAIN DO I WANT A MAN HURT BECAUSE OF EQUIPMENT!  DO YOU HEAR ME?"

Every man replied with a hearty "YES MA'AM!"

"There is a blanket in my car," she said, her voice cracking, and she sort of collapsed to her knees, then she got up and went over to the dead man and knelt again.

She took his dead hand and I come up close behind her in time to hear her whisper, "Forgive me," and her shoulders started to heave again and if this man's shade hung around any after it was squeezed out of what used to be his living carcass, it left with the knowledge that his death was mourned by at least one woman.

 

Miz Esther near to bankrupted us.

Hell, she did bankrupt us, but she made it all back and then some.

The Sheriff apparently had misgivings but he had the good sense to give her whatever slack she needed, and he arranged money when he run out, and the Z&W Railroad spent a young fortune to end up with steel rails instead of iron, to replace rolling stock with new, safety-coupler and Westinghouse-air-brake stock:  when Miz Esther demonstrated for the mines that she could move more ore, faster, thanks in no small part by being able to switch cars faster and more securely than the link-and-pin method, why, the tonnage increased out of the mines and so did the freight we hauled.

Word spread that she'd switched entirely to air brakes instead of manual brakes, although she insisted the manual brakes be exercised on each car and kept in A-number-1 order, and of a sudden the Z&W was not only the first railroad that far West to use safety couplers, it was of a sudden the safest in terms of men hurt or killed on the job.

Miz Esther saw to it the man's widow and children were provided for, and I understand a fine young man from the Carolinas ended up marryin' the railroad widow, and I doubt me not Miz Esther had somethin' to do with that, too, but I never pried into it, warn't none of my business.

I do know she had a nickname amongst them Chinamen she had tearin' up iron rails and layin' down new steel rail tracks.

They were afraid of her.

Called her the Dragon Lady.

Come to find out none of 'em would look her in the eye for fear she was a demon.

She paid them well, she paid them better than the big railroads where they'd come from, she didn't whip 'em or beat 'em or treat 'em the way they'd been slave-worked elsewhere, they knowed they had it pretty good and decent pay means somethin' to a workin' man, but wasn't a one of 'em would look at her if they could avoid it.

I found out 'twas because of her green eyes.

She knowed this – I think she did – she was always wearin' a bright, shimmerin' emerald green and she give out emeralds as a particular sign of favor, and one night they was near to finished with the track, they'd laid new stone for a roadbed and they'd replaced cross ties that were kind of dodie and used up, they'd done good work layin' them rails and gettin' 'em trued up so's the train wouldn't neither wobble nor sway when she run 'em and the last night, why, Sarah allowed as she needed me with her and I went, me and Apple-horse and I taken my rifle in its scabbard and my Colts was around my middle like they always was and I stoned my knives and they had that good rough edge that Doc said was like a surgeon's scalpel.  I knowed it was a grand edge for skinnin'.

They was a fire built up and them Chinamans was singin' and then Miz Esther showed up of a sudden and the place went hush all of a sudden.

Miz Esther came in like a dancer, glidin' more'n a walk, she spun and flared her skirt and then throwed somethin' in the fahr and it shot out a sudden green fountain of somethin' and Sarah laid her hands on the sides of my head and drew close up behint me and she whispered "Look in the shadows, see what they see," and damned if I didn't see somethin' big – big and kind of round like a horse's barrel, only the same shade of bright shining emerald that Miz Esther wore – she danced, she bent, she writhed, and behint 'em in the shadow, whatever was there, whatever big and green and scaly thing that was, why it danced with her.

I never seen nothin' like that and I tell you I was big eyed and ready to pull free and grab for attair rifle but Sarah's hands were pressed all cool and gentle ag'in the sides of my head and my gourd might as well have been spike nailed to one of them-there railroad ties.

I could not have moved had I wanted, and I powerful wanted to move!

Miz Esther stopped, one hand up beside her ear, the other extended, palm out, and Big Green and Scaly came into the clearing and damned if it warn't a lizard bigger'n Sarah's Snowflake-mare … bigger'n three or four Snowflakes! – lizard it was, with red eyes and a red forked tongue, it spread green wings that was veined and ribbed like a bat, only good God! that thing was HUGE! – and it moved easy, it moved light, it lowered its head and Esther laid her palm on its nose and said something, something loud and commanding and I saw that big green scaly throat start to work and it opened its mouth and a pearl rolled out.

I heard them Chinamans gasp.

The pearl was the size of a child's head, smooth and flawless, and Esther bent and picked it up, she held it in front of her and ran her hand over it like she was a fortune teller coaxin' a secret from a crystal ball, then she made a quick move and attair pearl disappeared.

She danced around the fire again, and that big lizard watched her close, she came back, whirling like a top and spinnin' her green skirt out, and she stopped and thrust a finger at that big green whatever-it-was and spoke a command – it had to be a command, in that tone of voice, but I couldn't tell for the life of me what she said! – and attair lizard r'ared up and threw its head back, it give a roar like a steam whistle with a throat cold and threw out them big green wings and three strokes it was in the air and headin' for the distance.

Sarah brought her hands away from the sides of my head and I felt a little dizzy of a sudden, I blinked and looked around and Miz Esther warn't there and there warn't no big flyin' lizard disappearin' torst the horizon.

Miz Esther was there, and she was handing out pokes of coin the way she did on payday, and when she was done she come over and tilted her head and smiled at the two of us.

"I think," she said, "that tomorrow the Z&W Railroad will be back in business."

Next mornin' the railroad was in business and every one of them Chinamans was gone.

Now that warn't the only time Sarah put the Hoo Doo on me like that but 'twas the first and I reckon that's why I recall it so clear.

I thought maybe 'twas a dream until I went up to her office, the office she'd set up before she was married to the Sheriff, before he gifted her with attair railroad, she'd had a man paint on the window glass Z&W RAILROAD MAIN OFFICE, and under that grand headline, E. KELLER, OWNER.

I taken off my hat when I crossed the threshold and turned to hang it on the hall tree and I froze for there was that pearl the size of a child's head I'd seen the night before and figured 'twas a dream and Miz Esther smiled the way a woman will when she knows somethin' and she laughed a little and said "I take it you approve of my ostrich egg."

She stood and she was wearin' that same emerald green dress, and behind her, between the windows, was a hand painted Chinese dragon.

Green it was.

With red eyes.

 

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24.  THE SPOKEN WORD

 

I set down in a front pew and I looked at attair altar.

I recalled how the Sheriff told me Charlie Macneil and His Honor the Judge was hid behint it when he come in with misery loadin' his soul and he fell to his knees and cried out unto the Lord.

He'd picked that little blue eyed girl out of the train wreck, the one where a cast iron rail tore loose and whipped up and gutted the passenger car and just plainly killed everyone on board, all but that one little girl, the one he found under what used to be the car's wall.

She was layin' there like she was dead and her left arm was doubled up and she still had her rag doll clamped in it and he picked her up and she told me later she heard him moan "No, no, no, God Almighty, NO!!!" – and she was so wind-knocked she couldn't move and she recalled she managed to pry her eyes open a little and she said the cords was stood out on his neck and he'd throwed his head back and he was just plainly a-howl at the sky overhead, and she wanted to badly to reach up and hug him for he'd laid his face down into her belly and grieved the way a man will when he's lost the most precious thing in his lifetime.

She'd had no way of knowin' he'd lost his little girl years before and she looked so powerfully like he thought his little Dana would have looked.

The Sheriff come into this same church and looked at this same altar and he went down onto his Prayer Bones and he cried to the Almighty that he wanted to adopt that little girl, that he could not stand to lose another child, and a deep and echoing voice boomed "AND SOOO YOOOOUUUU SHAAAALLLLL!" and then up popped Charlie and Judge Hostetler and both of them a-grinnin' and the Sheriff didn't know whether to pass out in a dead faint, to laugh or to knock the pair of 'em with hard knuckles.

I was here for a different reason.

The Sheriff was prone to come here and he'd talk to the Almighty like he was talkin' with an old friend.

I'd never done that but maybe it was time.

I set there with my hat on the pew beside me and I stood up, for I wished to be on my feet if I was to address Him, and I allowed to myself that I'd speak my piece, and I did.

"Lord," I said, and I recall how my voice echoed inside attair empty church, "I reckon we need to talk."

Then I laughed.

Who was I, to tell the Lord that He needed to talk to me?

I started over.

"I got somethin' on my mind," I said, and that set better with me.

I'd long figured we got secont chances so I didn't worry none about startin' over like that.

"Lord, You recall I went through the ice after that boy here not long ago."  I made a face and looked down and looked back up.  "Ruint my boots, too."

I stopped and frowned and considered that He Who Made the Heavens and the Earth had little use for a pair of boots so that might not mean much to Him but it made sense so I spoke it anyhow.

"Lord, him and his Pa was lookin' for me not long ago and they found me.

"His Pa thanked me and said the boy is their first born and I know a first born …"

I stopped and frowned.

The firstborn, I'd been told, is the trail blazer for all the children that follow, the first born breaks trail, and the first born is the one the parents make all their mistakes on.

I considered that I was the Sheriff's firstborn but he didn't have much chance to make no mistakes on me so likely the first one Miz Esther birthed would get all that.

I looked back up at attair altar, at the candles on the front corners, at the Book in the middle on that slanted board, and all of it finely sanded and gleaming with varnish.

"He said the boy was his first born and he meant just an awful lot to the man and his wife, and he was beholden to me for my havin' kept his boy from drownin'."
I stopped and remembered the moment, the man's hand in mine, and then that little boy lookin' up at me with that grin of his and he stuck out his little hand and he said "Thank you Mits-ter Depitty 'cause you saved it my life," and I taken his hand and then I don't know why but I squatted down and I gripped his small hand in both of mine and I said "Do you know why I did it?"  and he shook his head and I said "Because you're worth it."

I remembered the moment and I remembered the words and I remembered as they walked off that I felt kind of funny.

Don't reckon I’m used to folks sayin' thank you.

"You were there, Lord," I said.  "You heard their words and mine and you seen all we done."
I nodded as I considered the moment again, and then I looked up and couldn't help but smile.

"Thank you, Lord.  You put me to where I was needed, and it worked."

 

Sarah came up kind of quick behind me.

I heard her hard little heels on the board walk and it did not surprise me that she took me by the arm and steered me into the Mercantile.

"What did you think of last night?" she smiled.

"Last night." 

I had to stop and think a little. 

I reckon runnin' into the man and his boy taken up more of my thoughts than I'd realized.

"The dragon's pearl," Sarah smiled, running some gleaming green fabric between her fingers and looking at me with the wise expression of a knowing woman.  "The dragon."

I stopped and taken a step back, I turned my head a little and blinked and I looked at the memory, fresh and shining, from the night before.

I blinked a few times and looked at Sarah.

"The Chinese believe dragons are very real, and they are very ancient, and they are very wise," Sarah said, tilting her head and regarding the bolt of cloth as if it were the most interesting thing she'd ever seen.  "Dragons live in mines and hoard great wealth, but the greatest wealth is the Dragon Pearl."

"Pearl," I said hesitantly, remembering what I'd seen in Miz Esther's office.

"Whoever controls the pearl controls the dragon, for it contains the dragon's life."

"It was real."  My voice was halfway between question and statement.

"Oh, it was very real," Sarah whispered, dropping the cloth and reaching up to lay a gloved palm against my cheek.  "It was very, very real, and you were there to see it."

"Where is that dragon now?" 

I begun thinking like myself again:  somethin' that big would have an appetite and it might look like a big winged snake with good strong legs and claws, but it had to eat and that meant very likely it would work on cattle, horses, maybe men –

Sarah laughed.

"They don't live on this earth anymore.  They went –"

She stopped, considered.

"Ummm, it's complicated, but you don't have to worry.  Dragon's gone."

"Mmm."  I nodded.  "What are the chances it'll be back?"

Sarah smiled again.  "It won't.  Not even if the Chinese build another fire and summon it."

Of a sudden I wasn't terribly comforted, knowing there was a way to summon Big, Green and Scaly.

I needn't have worried.

Warn't no more dragons ever seen in Firelands County.

 

Now Pa, he sent me over't Denver with some papers.

He didn't tell me what they were nor did I ask, he had 'em bundled up and tied nice with a red ribbon and that's just how I laid 'em in a pa'tickelar attorney's hands, and he give me another bundle to take back and I did, and then I got sent back over because Sarah was over there and she wanted me with her when she left.

Now that told me somethin' was in the wind, she wanted me with her to come home, so I made sure both knives was full sharp and I had attair little two barl derringer in the back of my trousers in that little leather lined pocket the ladies sewed in for me, and I went so far as to load a sixth round in each of my Colts and then set the hammer nose down between the rims.

Sarah sent me an address and I went there and damned if it warn't a saloon and I went in and had me a beer and et some of that salty free lunch, which made me kind of dry so I bought me another beer and didn't eat no more of that free lunch stuff.

The piano player hammered out a quick fanfare, they called it, the kind of loud hammerin' notes they'll play to get a body's attention right before the curtains open, and they did and damned if Sarah warn't there amongst them dancin' girls.

She was painted up somethin' fierce, she didn't look like no decent woman a'tall, she was wearin' a real loose skirt all fur trimmed along the hem and she slung it left an' right with both hands, an' she had stockings goin' clear up to Hail Columbia and she was high-kickin' and I'll be honest with you, she looked really, really good.

Was I not her brother I might've had some improper thoughts, and me still just awful young for that kind of thing.

Now one thing about most saloons, they tried to look good as they could, they might have sawdust on the floor but they tried to keep clean sawdust down, the brass work was polished up and so was the mahogany bar tops, they all tried to have some kind of a mirror behint the bar, an' they gen'rally made a good try at lookin' clean and decent, 'cause that kept men a-comin' back and spendin' money, and one thing that brought 'em back was dancin' girls.

They was three of 'em up on attair stage, one was really good, Sarah was some better which surprised me – I knew she could waltz and waltzin' with her was like she was made of feathers, it was like I danced and she floated, she was that good at followin' a man – that third girl up on stage warn't that good but nobody cared much, they all watched and whistled and yelled and allowed as they generally approved of the ladies, and then I saw Sarah give a quick finger-signal we practiced, her and me, and I studied on her and she turned her head, raised her chin, threw her skirt twice left and twice right and fell back kind of quick.

I slud through the men and down a little hallway and a big fell at the stage door made to stop me and I shoved my Colt in his belly and he backed up kind of quick and I did not like the look in his eyes so I drove my knee into him and doubled him over and then buffaloed him down acrost the back of the head and I went on in.

Sarah was back there, the dancin' girl outfit she'd been wearin' was still floatin' in mid air where she'd stripped it off and throwed it up torst the ceiling and her face was in attair wash bowl and she come up scrubbin' that face paint off quick and not at all gentle.

She threw her hand down like she was throwin' a rock and I looked to where she was a-pointin' and saw a box I reckonized so I opened it up and pulled out a short shotgun, it warn't long a'tall and it had been sawed off alongst the curve of the wrist and smoothed down enough so it didn't have no sharp corners to bite a man's hand when he fired it, the barls were sawed off at the end of the fore end and I eared back the hammers as Sarah got into that mousy grey schoolmarm dress ag'in and throwed a dark blue cloak over and throwed up her hood.

I followed her to the back of the stage just as someone beat on the stage door and then it opened, we were out a secret hatch in time so's nobody saw us and Sarah knowed the way in full dark and a good thing.

We come out in a back room and she put her finger to my lips, shushing me to guarantee silence, then she run her hand around back of my head and pulled my head down til her lips was just touching my ear as she whispered.

"We will go out the alley," she whispered, "and into the back of the building opposite."

I nodded to show I understood.

"They will expect us to run down the alley."

I nodded again.

"If anyone tries to stop us, kill them and do not hesitate."

I nodded again.

Killin' meant less than nothing to me, save only that it might get me in Dutch if 'twas found out I was doin' the killin', so Sarah's warning troubled me not at all.

She opened another door, looked out, then we slid out into a back hallway, cat footed to a back door, she opened it the width of a finger and looked out, a little wider and looked again and I looked out the crack between the door and the frame over on the hinge side.

We slid out sideways.

There was a sliver of moon, just enough to see by and barely that.

We run acrost the alley, two long steps it took me and I bent and picked up an Arbuckles can and when I seen a door open I heaved it high and hard and we were in shadow and she grabbed my hand and we went in a door and as it closed I heard the can hit somethin' and somebody yelled "That way!  Down the alley!" – and we went through a room, down a hall, I was lost and knowed it but that short stubby double gun in my hands had eyes in the dark if the need arose.

I smelt perfume and cigarette smoke and heard a piano and women laughin' and damned if I didn't think we was in a whorehouse and damned if I warn't right.

His Honor the Judge was sitting in the parlor, waving his cigar in time to the music, a glass of brandy in one of those fancy real thin sniffer glasses in t'other, and when we come in the madam turned and looked at us like we was a mud drippin' dog trottin' acrost a clean floor and I unbuttoned my coat and loosened up for I figured someone big and mean was goin' to come in to throw us out and I was stirred up some and ready for a fight and His Honor raised his shaggy grey eyebrows and said, "Ah, my dear, what tidings?"

"I have that for which you have so long sought," Sarah said, almost formally, and dropped the traveling-cloak:  it fell to the floor and she stood there, slender and severe looking and she reminded me of little more than a broom handle wearing a mousy grey schoolmarm dress.

"Indeed?"  His Honor had the manner of a half-relaxed man, amused by a mere child's grandiose claim.

A big fellow came out of a side door and I turned to square off to him then I turned some more and another fellow came in and I dropped my coat off my shoulders and that stubby shotgun with it and I stood there and I felt the skin tighten up acrost my face and I figured my first salvo would be with both pistols at once, I could hit each man square in the brisket with my first shot, firin' left hand and right hand at the same moment.

I'd practiced it and at this distance it would be no trick a'tall.

His Honor waved them down with his cigar hand and I recall the blue Cuban smoke made curlicues in the air as he did.

"Gentlemen, stand down," he said in the slightly scolding tone of an inebriated schoolmaster, "you are so far outmatched by this killing machine that it would be sheer murder for either of you to try anything except your immediate departure."

The madam made a little shooing motion and they both backed out and their eyes uttered threats their lips durst not frame and that suited me fine, I hate loud noises and a pair of .44s in a closed room is more noise than I really like.

Sarah stood there as prim as a stiff and disapproving schoolmarm, and His Honor looked at her and took a thoughtful sip of his brandy.

"Your Honor," Sarah said, "Reynolds confessed to both murder, conspiracy to murder, robbery, conspiracy to rob, fraud and intent to defraud, and had I the commission I suggested to you, the confession would be valid and admissible in a court of law."

"I see," the Judge said gravely.  "You said he confessed to whom?"

"To a dance-hall girl, Your Honor."

"I would need to hear this from the same … confessor … that you mention."

"One moment, Your Honor."

Sarah spun on a heel and stalked out of the room, her nose in the air, the very picture of stiff-backed disapproval, and I stood there and waited, the Madam looking at me as if I were a bear escaped from a circus, ready to either stick my nose in the punchbowl or leave a pile of second hand bear feed on her clean carpet.

His Honor looked at the girl sitting in front of the piano, nodded:  she began to play again, softly, gently, and the general atmosphere relaxed, at least until something colorful and short skirted spun into the room, grabbed the piano player and hauled her off the padded piano-stool:  she sat at the ivory 88, played a brisk fanfare and launched into a rollicking, bouncy drinking song, singing its obscene lyrics with carmined lips and rouged cheeks bright and merry, and in the second stanza, where she described a lady of easy virtue approaching a man of impressive stature, she fairly leaped from the piano, spun in a dancer's twirl across the floor and landed herself in the Judge's lap, one leg curled under for balance and the other extended and pointed, her arm around his neck and she stroked his neatly-trimmed mustache with her finger and cooed, "Now aren't you just the cutest thing!"

His Honor's eyes were wide and shocked and she planted her bright-red, wet-look lips on his and just plainly curled the man's toes, his arms threw wide, his brandy flew one way and his cigar the other and for a big woman that madam moved fast, she caught that delicate brandy sniffer glass before it hit the floor and one of the working girls snatched up his cigar before it scorched the carpet, and the Judge's arms waved a little and then the two of 'em went over backward and that-there chair hit the floor, the Judge's feet flew up in the air, that painted up dance hall girl jumped back, skipping on her toes and giggling like a little girl that just caused some mischief, and as the Judge was helped back onto his feet and into the chair, she struck a long-legged pose, one arm up overhead and her wrist bending and her hand twisting the way a woman will when she wants attention, she planted her other palm on her hip and blinked her eyes and said in a voice that would melt a stone statue, "Like what'cha see, big boy?  Reynolds sure did, and he told me everything!"

 

Sarah and I went home that night on the steam train.

Sarah wore a plain looking blue dress and I don't know where she got it, maybe she had some ins with the madam and she had something in her closet other'n floozie skirts, I don't know, that's women stuff and I don't know about such things.

I do know that Sarah looked all innocent and she looked like a young wife on her husband's arm, and I don't mind a bit bein' part of her disguise:  when we went up to the ticket window I patted her gloved fingers on my arm and said the way a reassuring husband will, "We'll be home soon, dear, it'll be all right," and Sarah looked at me and daggone if she didn't look wore plumb out, and on the ride home, why, she laid her head over ag'in my shoulder and I felt her relax.

She hardly ever relaxed for real, but hangin' onto my arm she did, and I made sure I could get to my other-side revolver and a knife whilst we set there, for I felt just awful protective of her.

She'd spoke the words to His Honor the Judge that needed said, the Judge had the good on Reynolds, he'd draw up the warrant and we knowed where to find the fellow and he said he'd wire the warrant to Denver and have them pick him up.

Tonight, though, tonight I had the Judge's specific orders to "Take my quick-change artist and get her safely home, I have work for her to do," and I recall he took her hand and patted it and said honestly, "My dear, forgive me, for I doubted your claim." 

He smiled and there was still a streak of red where she'd curled his toes with her imitatin' a woman of easy virtue and he said, "When you tell me you can become someone else … well, my dear Agent, not only do I believe you, but I now commission you as an Agent of the Court."
He smiled and added, "This is confidential and not yet fully official.  We must wait for the right moment to inform your parents, for you are still of tender age."

She give him a big-eyed and innocent look, for she was become the schoolmarm again, and she dropped a little curtsy and said "Yes, Your Honor," and her spoken word sounded like an obedient little schoolgirl.

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25.  A LITTLE SET OF LEGS

 

I'll be honest, I do believe that if that cute little blue eyed Angela asked her long tall skinny Daddy to fetch the moon down out of the sky and give to her as a play-pretty, I do believe the man would've clumb to the highest mountain peak with a good hand laid riata and lassoed the thing down for her.

Angela was a sweet girl, she was a good girl, she was a pretty little girl, and she had the Sheriff wound so tight around her little finger it's a wonder the man didn't have to find one of them there Chiro Practic Bone Crackers to unkink his spine!

I think she knowed she could have about any thing but she warn't spoilt and she never made unreasonable demands, leastways not too often, I think Miz Esther kept her in line.  I do know Angela could speak French and Spanish, Miz Esther spoke French and so did Bonnie and they got together for tea and spoke them-there foreign languages I think just to keep in practice and she hired maids that spoke them other languages and Angela she just soaked it up like a sponge but that's not what I was a-gonna tell you, I side track myself easy.

Y'see, Angela loved watching her Daddy on that copper Cannonball-mare and then that big golden Rey del Sol, and Angela allowed as she wanted a horsie too and so they went down to the border country and come back with a two year old gelding and an Angela-sized saddle and her Mama asked her if she wanted to ride side saddle like a lady and Angela looked at her Daddy and you could tell she just adored him with those blue eyes of hers and she said "I want to ride like my Daddy," and so Miz Esther smiled and arranged to have Angela fitted with divided skirts for riding.

I don't recall when I started to fork a saddle, 'twas a long time back, I do know I had some bad habits that Apple-horse straightened me out of right quick.  I reckon I could have bitted him and been heavy handed but that didn't … I didn't really feel right about that so I went ahead and l'arned him and me both about ridin' without a bit, hell, most times I didn't even bridle him and most times if I had to tether him at a hitch rail I just said "Stay put," and when I come out I'd bait him with some shaved off molasses twist.

He bribed good as any politician.

Anyhow Angela she went out and had the hired man saddle her horsie and he told me later she come out and asked him real pretty and she waited til he'd finished whatever 'twas he was workin' afore she asked, and he told me most folks he'd worked for, why, the girl would come out and demand and expect him to drop whatever it was, but Angela waited til he was finished and she asked him real sweet-like and I reckon he was wound around her pink little pinky too.

Angela, she saw her long tall Daddy jumpin' that Cannonball mare, and Cannonball could clear a fence like she had wings, and attair gelding warn't sure a'tall about such things and the snow was on and Angela she pointed him at a rail fence and she yelled "Go, horsie!"  and I recall her voice was real clear and real pure and real happy and attair gelding taken out at a good gallop and he was a-runnin' like leaves before a wind and of a sudden he allowed as they was a fence there and he warn't gon' to have no part of hat and he come to a fast stop and I recall his fore legs was set and splayed a little and he dropped his nose and Angela she went right over his head and I recall her little black boots stood out sharp and clear ag'in the cloudless winter sky and she went into attair snow drift head first.

Now me and Apple, we seen that and we come just a-whistlin' over and Apple he turned sideways before he come to a fast skiddin' stop and I was out of the saddle and flyin' through the air but I was out for the figurin' of it and I was headin' for attair snow drift boots first and ready to hit and I went waist deep in the stuff and this little pair of legs wearin' little black boots come shovin' out of the snow so I got my pins under me and grabbed her by the ankles and I heard someone a-ridin' up fast and hard and about the time the Sheriff skidded to a stop I pulled Angela out and she's wavin' her arms and laughin' and there I stand with a double handful of little girl's legs and I look over at the Sheriff and he looks at me and Angela is hangin' upside down and laughin' "That was fun, Daddy!  Do it again!"

Well, I got her right-side-up and waded out of attair snow drift, and Angela was absolutely the vision of a happy laughing little girl and there was the three of us, laughin' out in the cold, just as happy as if we-all had good sense.

 

Sarah swore me to secrecy when it come to her gussyin' up like a dance hall girl.

She said it was essential – her word, essential! – that nobody know she did any such thing.

Me, I figured she was fearful the Sheriff would tell her it warn't ladylike or some-such and she'd not want to run cross grain of his wishes but she would not be denied so ruther'n havin' to cross attair bridge, why, she just rode around it, so to speak.

I swore to her I'd not let the feline out of the burlap and she give me a bright-eyed look and then she kissed me on the cheek real quick-like and whispered "Thank you," and hugged me, and I would have done anythin' a'tall to keep her safe, for my gut allowed as she intended to go into harm's way and that made me right less than comfortable.

I know the harm that can come to a woman and she was half a hand shorter than me and slender and I felt just awful protective of her and it's good that I felt like that even if I did find out she was pretty good at keepin' herself safe.

She got to disappearin' and I found out she was goin' to Denver and she  persuaded some fella over there, a watchmaker who'd been in prison, she persuaded him that she wanted to learn about locks, and she paid him good money, and she turned out to be a right good student.

I had no idea a'tall how she found out a watchmaker was good with locks but apparently he'd got caught tryin' a bank vault door and it was better than him so he spent some time behint bars as a result and must've figured watches was less of a risk.

Now when Sarah come up on her toes and kissed my cheek quick-like, why, we set down and got to talkin' and I told her about Angela comin' off attair gelding and endin' up head first in a snow drift, how I taken her by the ankles and fetched her out and how she hung there with her arms wavin' and her scatterin' giggles all over the snow and Sarah laughed and I did too, for it was a good memory, and she give a sigh and leaned over ag'in me and sniffed a couple times and she recht into my coat sleeve and hauled out my kerchief and pressed it to her eyes and started to cry and I had no idea what I done wrong so I run my arm around her kind of tentative-like and she grabbed holt of my coat front and just plainly buried her face in my chest and soaked down my shirt front some.

I felt just plainly lost.

I had no idea a'tall what she was sorrowin' over and I couldn't think of a thing I done so I just set there and held her and let her cry herself out and come to find out she wisht she'd been Angela and she'd wisht she was young ag'in and she'd wisht all them terrible things hadn't been done to her and she'd been innocent like that, but it taken her some time to say that much to me but I didn't have nowhere else to go.

'Twas the next day when Bonnie stopped me on the street and like I always did I fetched off my cover when she started speakin' to me.

I always liked Bonnie and she was never less than a lady with me and I know the Sheriff he burnt a candle for her and I had her up on a stone pedestal myself, high enough it's a wonder she didn't get nose bleed and I know my ears reddened up some when she thanked me and explained that Sarah sometimes had a really hard time with the terrible memories of her childhood, and Sarah drew such comfort from the patience of my listening ear, and I felt like a red eared dirt kickin' schoolboy and it's a wonder I didn't hang my head and mumble "Yes ma'am" or some-such, and then my head come up of a sudden and I looked at her somewhere between shock and surprise as she said "Your father has been of such comfort to me, Jacob.  Bless you for being that same comfort with Sarah," and she kissed me quick-like on the cheek and then she was a-past me and headed on up the board walk and I stood there with my teeth in my mouth and my elbow halfway up my sleeve and I reckon I looked like someone that just got handed a talking fish.

I felt that delicate little kiss on my cheek for a long time after.

 

That night I don't know what-all happened but I'll give you the short of it, for that's the part that bears repeatin'.

Angela sometimes warn't the absolute angel I said she was and I don't know what 'twas she wanted and her long tall skinny Daddy said no, but Angela stomped her little foot and got all red faced and set one hand on her hip and shook her little finger at the Sheriff and declared "I don't like you anymore, Daddy!  I'm going to the Mercantile and buy me a new Daddy and they're only two dollars and Mama can afford that!"

I reckon me and the Sheriff laughin' at her was more of a discouragement from repeatin' the mistake than if he'd turned her over and swatted her bottom.

 

Now I been talkin' about law doggin' and such like and I reckon I'm makin' it sound like that's all we did.

That warn't the case neither.

A ranch big or a ranch small takes an awful lot of work and the Sheriff and I did that work.

We hired men, yes, just like Miz Esther hired women to work for her.

In them days if you was anyone a'tall you had a Girl – a hired girl – Miz Esther come from a fine family back East and they had servants and she favored maids with some up-bringin' to 'em but she never treated 'em bad.

Now I'm side trackin' myself ag'in.

The Sheriff and I, we set fence posts and we taken care of our horses, we rode the pastures and kept track of what beef we had, we was turnin' a hand to what work was needful and that meant I run that scythe stone the length of that hunky scythe and cut wheat in the fall, I cut hay, we had a horse drawn rake, we shocked up the wheat and hired a baler for the hay oncet it was dry – we durst not bale up green hay, for it would heat up and ketch fahr, the Sheriff called it Spontaneous Indigestion and I reckon he had the right of it.  I've known barns to burn down from green hay bein' piled in and we wanted no part of that.

The Sheriff was a lean man and I was too, I was still growin' into my full size and workin' every day and I was real lean and rangy and that was good and it was bad.

I was skinny enough, why, there was those that figgered they could take me and most of 'em I ended up gettin' the best of 'em but some of 'em got the best of me and that ain't good for a Law Dawg and so the Sheriff he taken me aside and showed me tricks and slights to beatin' a man.

First thing he taught me was cheat.

Cheat every time you get, he told me.

Cheat as much as you can.

Cheat to the greatest degree possible.

If that meant pickin' up a rock and drivin' it halfway through a man's face, do it.

If that meant drivin' my boot into his gut or my knee into him and doublin' him over and then beltin' him acrost the back of the head, why, that was fair game.

If 'twas a fight and I was in it, warn't nothin' off limits.

I taken the man at his word.

He showed me grips and grapples and he taught me a kick to the front of the knee will slip it out of joint – his word, slip, makes it sound easy but it hurts like homemade hell and it takes a man to the deck instantly if not sooner and he just might lose that leg, for the injured joint swells and shuts off the blood.

If someone gets into it with me, they're lucky if a leg is all they lose, or so I reasoned.

He taught me a kick to the side of the knee takes the same amount of kick power to shatter the knee and there's no fixin' that.

He taught me how to grab a man's hand and take it bent over hard and he showed me how to take a man's thumb and crank it around backward and take a man to the ground, it hurt and too much power would rip the thumb out of joint and if I grabbed the hand instead of the thumb, why, with my grip I could splinter the wrist.

He taught me what not to do, too.

He taught me never, ever to punch a man, least not in the face.

"You are a gunfighter, Jacob," he told me when we set down to take a blow, we set down the two of us and we both hurt some for he'd throwed me and I'd throwed him and that ground warn't kindly a'tall when we landed on it but that was needful too for he taught me how to land and how to roll out of a fall if 'twas possible.

"Jacob, a gunfighter can't afford to hurt his hand," he taught me as we set there and watched the shadow line climb up the far mountains, for the sun was a-set behind us.  "You don't want to punch a man's head anywhere.  Hit for the front of the throat.  A fist is sometimes too big, but if you stick your knuckles out like this" – he showed me – "then punch upward, here stand up and I'll show you" – I did – he threw the punch dead slow so I could see where it come from and how to drive it – "bounce it off the top of the breastbone and drive it into the throat, hit for the Adam's apple.  Here, you try it, dead slow."

I did, a few times, until he approved.

"Now let me show you something I learned in the War.   Take your hand like this – fingers straight, good, now curve them just a little.  Tuck in your thumb like so.  Good.  Now – chop down with the edge of the hand like you're usin' your hand like an ax."

I did, I chopped the air and felt just awful foolish.

"Good.  Now instead of chopping down – here, throw your chop sideways and aim for my Adam's apple, just don't hit me."

It was a-way easier to hit from the side like that.

Turns out I warn't the only one he was showin' those fightin' tricks.

Sarah was just an awful good student and I hadn't no idea a'tall he was teachin' her those self same dirty tricks.

I had even less idea how good she got at it.

Least not until she really, really needed it and I couldn't get to her in time.

 

 

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26.  RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES

 

Her name was Annette and when I saw her the wind near to sucked right out of me.

I didn't know her from Adam but I knowed she was full of grief and I knowed she was about to get jumped so I jumped first.

I'd got myself beyond royally lost.

I'd got myself so plainly turned around I felt like I couldn't find my hat with both hands, me and Apple got ourselves all turned around and that agger-vated me.

The bay was off to the right and I figgered if I kept it on my right I'd come out someplace but God help me a city is a confusin' place and me and Apple-horse, we taken the steam train to San Frisco and Miz Bonnie was headed there so she could palaver with them fashionable buyers she sold to, Sarah was with her for a model and I had me a warrant for someone the Sheriff wanted brought back in irons.

I'd gone into attair San Francisco jail and they brought the fellow out and he warn't about to cooperate and one of them jailers had a rifle back there and he ended up dead with the crescent butt plate drove through his face and I fetched up my left hand Colt and settled the matter by virtue of drivin' a chunk of lead in the back of the prisoner's head and my pistol ball carried his eternal soul and most of his brains out the front.

Warn't no fight after that.

That-there police superintendent he allowed as he was goin' to have my hide and I allowed as he was goin' to pull in his horns or I would do the same thing to him and it was him and me of a sudden and he must not have liked the odds.

I told him his man brought a rifle into a jail and that took a special kind of stupid and him the Superintendent was a powerful poor supervisor to teach his men such bad habits and he the Superintendent was to blame for the jailer's death and near to killin' me and I didn't take kindly to men so stupid they nearly got me killed and might be if I'd relieve the city of havin' to pay his wage maybe everyone would be better off.

Now I was in the middle of enemy territory and I'd just kicked the chief hornet in the hornet's nest and that was a really stupid thing for me to do so I allowed as he could forward our Sheriff's office a copy of the death certificate and I holstered my Colt and stomped out and I was right relieved when I got my backside in saddle leather and me and Apple-horse rode away from that place.

To this day I have no idea how we got all turned around but by golly we did and I ended up in amongst some right nice houses but this girl she was bein' stalked up on by a fellow with rope in one hand and a rag in the other and I've seen that before.

He was fixin' to jump her, shove that rag in her mouth to keep her from screamin', he'd tie her hands to keep her from fightin' and he'd pack her off.

Bonnie told me about such things and when I seen that girl was about to be jumped, why, me and Apple horse laid our ears back and we took off a-gallop right torst 'em and the girl she froze the way a city girl will when she's surprised and I reckon had that fella grabbed her she'd'a froze the same way and we shot a-past her close enough my boot near to grazed her shoulder and Apple-horse he had his ears laid back and he didn't like that fella no more'n I did and he hit him square on with his chest and there was two more with a closed carriage and one raised a rifle and I raised my Colt and he missed and I did not.

Apple-horse hit t'other one and I swung us around and Apple-horse, he kicked at that last one he hit and I come out of the saddle and I heard somethin' in attair closed carriage and I yanked open the door with my pistol in my other hand and damned if there wasn't three girls in there already and them tied and their mouths stuffed full an they was lookin' at me like I was the Devil hisself come to eat their eternal soul without benefit of tearin' it out of their chest first.

"Wait there," I said, and didn't stop to consider how stupid that must have sounded.

They were tied wrists and ankles and couldn't have gone no where had they tried.

I went over to where that first girl was still a-standin' and he had her fingers over her mouth and her eyes was real big and I swung down and fetched off my hat and said "Are you hurt?"  and she shook her head and it felt like my heart wanted me to rip it out of my breast and lay it beatin' at her feet.

She was just plainly beautiful and I never before felt that way torst no one a'tall.

No one.

Ever.

I said "They wished to tie you and take you," and she swallowed and laid her fingers against her bodice and nodded.

"Can you drive a carriage?"  I asked and she nodded again.

"Good."  I looked at Apple-horse and that closed carriage.

"I'll need your help."

 

That-there police superintendent was not a'tall happy with me that day.

We come a-drivin' up to that self same jail house and police station – the girl, Annette her name was, knew the way, she was a city girl and she knowed the way – she drove with two girls settin' beside her and I had one ridin' behint me on Apple-horse and them men that intended to take 'em and sell 'em, why, they was inside attair closed carriage.

I done them police fellas a kindness, I left one alive and he was hurt enough I don't reckon they'd have to beat him none to get him to talk.

The Superintendent was holdin' forth for some reporter fellas out in front of that big fancy stone jail house on how safe San Francisco was and how he'd personally seen to it that there were no outrages against humanity, and then he saw me ridin' up with my rifle propped up on my hip and my pale eyes on his and I rode right up the side walk and I allowed as might be he'd want to talk to these girls and damned if Annette didn't turn that closed carriage off the street and over the curb and she drove that matched pair of blacks right through them-there reporter fellas behint me.

The girls jumped off the driver's box and they yanked open the door to that closed carriage and they all started screaming about what happened to them and that-there Superintendent warn't happy a'tall and he started yellin' and them reporters was a-yellin' at him and them girls was settin' up a screechin' and Annette she come out of the driver's seat and come a-runnin' over torst me with her skirts all grabbed up and I kicked my foot out of the stirrup and sidled Apple-horse up to the mountin' block and she clumb up and got on behint me and we set out at a brisk trot right down the middle of the street.

Warn't nobody wanted much to do with us, we was movin' at a good clip and I had my rifle out and I warn't feelin' none too kindly torst no one and I wanted to get distance first and we got that and Annette pointed to a restaurant and allowed as we could go there and talk and I figured that might not be a bad idea.

'Twas just sundown by the time we got home.

I come in the house and the maid taken my hat and I'd already set Apple-horse to right, there in the barn, and Annette right there with me, and she watched me brush Apple down and pick his hooves up one at a time and give 'em a lookin'-at and a diggin'-out and she finally asked me.

I recall she asked, for my heart did funny things when she talked and I never felt like that and I reckon I was tendin' Apple-horse of habit for I didn't much know what to do, and her voice was quiet and it was gentle and 'twas like she recht inside my breast bone and cupped my beating heart with her hands the way a girl will hold a little baby bird.

She asked me, "Are you from Texas?"  and I laughed a little and said no, I'm from here, and she said her father told her only a Texan takes proper care of his horse, and some years later she told me she figured right there I would make good husband material, for I taken first class care of my horse and in spite of goin' to war with him on her behalf I was never abusive torst Apple.

We walked up to the house, I had my rifle in one hand and I had her hand in my other, and we walked in the house and I give my hat to the maid and she gave Annette a long look and then she looked at me and she never said a word but I reckoned her and Miz Esther would have some speakin' about the subject and I was right but that's beside the point.

I walked into the dinin' room and the Sheriff rose as we come in.

I recall Miz Esther was still seated and she looked like a Queen in her throne room.

My hand tightened just a little on Annette's and she squeezed mine a little in reply.

"Sir," I said, "Annette was nearly taken by slavers.  She is newly orphaned and has no one in the world and I am to marry her."

There are times in a man's life when he opens his mouth and the truth falls out but it's surprisin' and it surprised me, it surely did, but the moment I said the words I knew them to be true.

I've heard of men gettin' shot by that fat little angel with them-there heart tipped arrows and I reckon I got shot the moment I saw Annette.

That fat little angel with them short stubby wings nailed me right square between the eyes and there weren't no gettin' away from it.

 

Next day, why, the Sheriff told me oncet we were alone that Miz Esther didn't get no sleep a'tall that night.

She set on the steps, he said, with a ridin' crop in her hand in case I was to come cat footin' out of my bedroom and head torst Annette sleepin' in the guest room and I felt kind of bad about deprivin' her of her good rest and then I realized I was bein' funned and we both laughed.

I told Annette about it some years later and we laughed ag'in.

Truth be told I was bashful as all get-out and I don't reckon I would've known what to do with her had I gone in there.

We figured it out, we did, but I ain't a-gonna tell you about that.

When I come bringin' her into the dinin' room that night with my rifle in one hand and her in t'other, why, the Sheriff came to his feet as a gentleman will, and he set the example for right and proper behavior.

He was nothing less than a gentleman with Miz Esther, and I was determined to be just as much a gentleman with Annette.

Turns out I had a right good pattern to follow.

Now I've talked about us Law Doggin' and workin' the ranch but there's more to it than that, there always is, and was I to stand up on a peach crate and talk all day and all night and well into the next day, I'd not have a good start on what-all we did, for life tends to fill itself with things and happenings and memories, and one of them things the Sheriff had, was wisdom.

He'd carried a table back amongst the cells and he'd dropped a sack of silver on't and stobbed in two knives.

He told the prisoner behint the bars of the end cell that he could sell the Sheriff the Silver Jewel for that poke of silver, and live, or else the Sheriff would open the cell door, they'd each take a knife and only one would walk out with the silver and ownership of the Jewel.

Dirty Sam allowed as he'd take the silver but he didn't much like it.

He ended up dead in prison not long after and 'twas the Sheriff that put him there.

The Sheriff got rid of the whorehouse up above and had the place gutted out and rebuilt and he put good coin in the hands of them long tall skinny Kentucky moon shiners that moved in up on the mountain.

Until the Sheriff went to 'em and said he knowed they was Top Notch Carpenters and he needed their skill, until he said he had work and he'd be payin' cash money, until he said he was Sheriff and they had no reason to fear for their Moon Shinin' operation, why, oncet he did that, they'd do near to anything for the man.

He had pitchers of fine saloons back East and he allowed as he'd like that cyarved fancy work on either side of the big mirror behint the bar, he'd like cyarved columns at the corners of the bar, he'd like a fancy front on the counter in front of the ho-tel desk, he showed 'em pitchers of the Pigeon Hole thangs behint the ho-tel desk.

Damned if they didn't do a first rate job with all that fancy cyarvin'.

They did vine work that looked for all the world like 'twas a livin' vine twistin' around them-there end posts, they ast if he wanted 'em painted up and he thought for a minute and said no, he wanted people to see they was cyarved out of wood, and he allowed as if they was lookin' for business makin' them fancy end posts and such-like, why, makin' these for the Jewel was a grand way to show folks what they could do.

That was neither here nor there to 'em until he said folks would pay cash money for such work.

Then they was interested.

He paid 'em for working the Jewel, of course, and oncet he tried to pay extra for some work he thought was pa'tickelar good and they wouldn't take it, they said they'd agreed on a price and they'd take not a cent more.

When he was done, why, the Silver Jewel was clean and it was bright painted-up on the outside, they'd set in new windows with genuine see-through-it glass.

He'd gone back and talked to Daisy.

She raised seven kinds of Cain with him for she saw him as a scoundrel, buyin' the saloon out from under all the girls and puttin' 'em all out of work, and what was she going to do, her bein' the cook and all, and damned if he didn't just up and give Daisy the kitchen an' dinin' room part.

She was in mid-scold with her finger a-shakin' under his nose and she stopped with her eyes big and her mouth open and she finally winched her jaw up and said "The kitchen?"
He nodded.

"Mine?"

He nodded again.

"All of it?"

"Yup."

She give him a suspicious look and I reckon she'd been lied to before from the way she narrowed up her Irish-green eyes.

"And I suppose you'll want the most of me profits!"  She folded her arms and glared at him and he looked down at her and he said "Daisy" – I recall when he told me about it, his voice was real gentle, and likely that's how he spoke to her – "Daisy, the kitchen is yours.  I give it to you.  Yours are the profits.  You need work done, you bust a stove and need a new one, you let me know, but the kitchen and all it makes is exclusively yours."

She didn't believe him until half a year later, not until her and the bank both rechecked her ledger books and she figured by damn, he hadn't lied to her, and he hadn't taken one cent, not one single copper centavo, from what the kitchen made.

He'd done the same with the bar for Mr. Baxter, only he taken a percentage there, and he run the gamblin' part and of course the odds favor the house.

What I'm sayin' with all this is the man knew how to invest a dollar.

He bought that little down-at-heels railroad and he give it to Miz Esther, just give it to her, the first thing she did was run him right into bankruptcy with buyin' steel rails and overhaulin' not one but two tracks, she had the rolling stock all changed out for it was less money to buy new than to rebuild what they had with safety couplers and them-there Westinghouse air brakes, and the Z&W with its spray of roses on the side of every piece of rollin' stock was not only the first railroad this side of the Mister and Missus Sippi to have both them finger savin' knuckle couplers, they was the first to use steel rails that wouldn't twang and whip up and gut out a passenger car, they was the first with them-there air brakes, and they was the first to turn a decent profit and not be part of them two big railroads that was nailin' down rails acrost the entire nation's belt line.

Miz Esther was pretty good at turnin' a dollar too, she had the head for it, she had the looks and the manner to charm a man which didn't hurt a bit, and when she went into the board meeting with the gold mine and its high rollin' stockholders, all of 'em in fancy suits and diamond stick pins, she went in like she was the Queen and she begin givin' orders and makin' 'em like it, and she proceeded to reduce the cost of their operation while improving the railroad's bottom line.

I don't pretend to understand all I know about it, just that she was soon one of the major stockholders of the Cripple Creek Mining Consortium, and both she and the Sheriff invested heavily in the new silver mines and they both made an absolute pile off them-there investments.

That's how I come by money.

I had the Sheriff invest for me, and he did, and I was able to afford the workmen and the materials to build me a fine stone house.

Houses begets houses, I reckon a man could say, for I taken a long look at the Sheriff's solid, squared-timber home, laid up like a log cabin but with trued and squared timbers, I taken a look at how it was built and how it had that nice wide stair case and then I had this awful feelin' what if it caught fahr and might ought I build out of stone instead.

'Twas expensive but it got built.

Two stories it was and set down on bed rock the foundation, with a good deep cellar dug into the hillside, 'twas a good little ranch with fields for hay and crops and space for a table garden, I laid out the barn and the pastures and figured where we'd need fences and I did not go so far as to mark fence posts for diggin' that same day but I could have.

The Sheriff built a fine, solid home of timber, and a good build it was.

I built me a fine, solid home of stone, and a good build it was.

Sarah taken a look at both of 'em and she had one built in her own turn, and it had that nice wide staircase like mine and like the Sheriff's, only hers was bigger and it had a stone barn built into the cliff face adjacent.

 

That first week, why, Miz Esther taken her time gettin' acquainted with Annette, and the two got alone just fine and dandy and I think it might be a little bit because Annette spoke French and Spanish as well as she spoke Yankee American. 

Bonnie was right pleased as well and turns out Bonnie knew her parents and she was distressed to hear they'd both died the way they did and scoundrelly relatives taken over house and property and pretty much throwed Annette out.

Bonnie and I had a quiet talk with Annette and Sarah set down with us and we let Annette know that if she wished ill toward her relatives, we could make it happen, and she said no, with both parents dead within days of each other, there was nothing left in San Frisco for her now:  she looked at me with them big blue eyes and said, "If you will still have me, Jacob, I would consent."

The women folks thought that was just wonderful and they set to talkin' fast the way women will when they're plannin' and excited and happy, and Annette leaned forward a little and got to plannin' right with 'em and I excused myself before they-all assigned me some task, the way women will when they see a man isn't doin' anything at the moment.

I was a little afraid Annette might want me to fetch down the moon and give her as a play-pretty and likely I would do just like the Sheriff and climb the highest peak I knew of with a hand laid riata in hand, with full intent of fetchin' that shinin' ball down and give it to my intended.

 

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27.  FOOLS AND CHILDREN

 

Now I've heard it said the Lord looks out after fools and children.

I reckon that is so.

Y'see, when Angela's gelding shied at jumpin' fence and he went nose-down and when Angela went head first into attair nice deep soft fluffy snowdrift, why, all she got was some snow down the back of her neck and a red face.

Next day up come a wind and out come the sun and attair drift melted down some and this-yere big nasty rock shoved up through the meltin' snow.

Angela went in right beside it, she could not have missed that thing more than an inch.

I taken a long look at that and then I tilted my face up torst the Heaven above and spoke my thanks.

I thought of them two times I went in the water to get someone out and how I'd jumped in without hesitatin' and really without givin' it no thought a'tall, and in that I was not just a fool but a damned fool.

Might be that's where the "Look Before you Leap" sayin' come about.

I didn't.

'Twas only God's grace that I didn't break a leg jumpin' into shallow water, or maybe got stuck under the ice with movin' water, or hell maybe I'd'a died of ketchin' my breath the way men have, fallin' into iced water like that.

I was considerin' all that and realized in those moments 'twas good that the Lord looked out after fools and children.

Angela was a child and she missed that rock, and me … well, I jumped in the water not lookin', and in that, I was a fool.

When a bullet spanged ag'in attair porch post I stood beside I reckoned I might be a fool ag'in only this time ruint boots was the last of my worries.

Now I didin't have nothin' ag'in them fellas that decided they wanted to take a shot at me, least not until they took that shot, but when they did Katy bar the door I was not goin' to let up on 'em and I did not.

I taken out a-runnin' right torst 'em and I heard what sounded like a whole field of grasshoppers on a hot August afternoon in my ears and I felt my face tighten over my cheek bones and I went a-runnin' from in front of Law and Order Harry Macfarland's office straight acrost the street and I don't reckon they expected I would do that, they ducked back into the saloon and I dove right through the window, never give it a thought, I went head first through it and allowed as I would summerset and come up on my feet and give 'em both Colts at the same time.

That's what I planned.

Didn't quite work out.

First off they was a table just inside attair winda and secont they was a man standin' behint attair table and I ended up with my legs wrapped around him and me settin' on him and him on the floor and I couldn't git up nor off him 'cause my legs was around him and him a-layin' on 'em so I had holt of a tiger and no way to let go.

I don't reckon he was none too happy neither and lucky for me it must've knocked the wind out of him and I recht down and grabbed the hair of his head and drove his head hard into the sawdust three times and his eyes kind of rolled up and and I fetched out my Colts and looked around and warn't but one or two fellas left in the place, ever'one else run off, all but the bar keep and the piano player and the bar keep was ducked down behint his bar out of sight and that piano player looked like he was goin' to grow feathers and cluck.

I managed to waller my legs out from under attair fella I'd run into and Law and Order Harry Macfarland come sojerin' in through the front door and he looked around and allowed as 'twas a shame the winda got broke and where was them fellas that taken a shot at a Sheriff's deputy and then he turned and fired a shot torst the stairway and damned if he didn't punch a fella's ticket and here he come a-rollin' down them steps, deader'n a politician's promise.

Harry didn't fool around none, I'll give him that.

He was good natured and quick to joke with a man but he'd kill as fast as was needful and warn't no mercy in him when needful come around.

Me, I got up and worked my legs some and I was sore but didn't break nothin' and I said "Harry, this fella here was kind enough to break my fall," and after a quick conversation with the piano player and the bar keep, why, that fella had stuck a rifle barl ag'in the winda glass an' fired that shot torst me, so I got the right man.

Harry took the arrest and I didn't care.

His Honor would hold court and Harry would lay out the plain unvarnished truth and the Judge would pass sentence accordingly and was they to stretch this spal peen's neck some I'd not object but that's for the Judge to say.

Harry did ask me why didn't I shoot him while I had him down and I told him I hated loud noises and 'sides my hands was already on his head, why not just take holt whilst they was there, him havin' all that nice friendly hair an' all to get holt of.

Warn't until Apple and me was halfway from Carbon back to Firelands that the thought struck me.

I'd been a damned fool ag'in.

Why, Annette warn't even my wife and I'd come close to makin' her a widow.

Runnin' into a rifle muzzle was just plain stupid, sez I to myself, and I reckonized that was right, and only the Almighty had kep' me from makin' that poor girl a bride afore she'd been walked down the aisle.

"Apple," I said quietly, and Apple-horse's ears swung back at the sound of my voice, "next I start to do somethin' stupid like that, hit me a good one, would you?"
Apple's ears swung forward but he didn't offer no other comment.

 

Annette come down to the barn just as I finished rubbing down Apple and I grinned at her as I hung up bridle and saddle and hung the saddle blanket over the edge of a stall to dry.

I pulled down another blanket and spread it on a hay bale and Annette set on it all dainty-like and she looked at me with big scared eyes and she ast me what kind of trouble had I faced that day and she allowed as Sarah let it slip I was in a man's gunsights and Annette figured when she saw Sarah's eyes go ice pale, why, there was trouble in the wind.

I told Annette warn't a thing to it, I'd gone into the Carbon Hill saloon to tame down a fellow who wished to cause harm, the Marshal was with me and the offending individual ended up in the calabozo.

Annette rose and stepped up to me – I hadn't set, I'd stayed back a few steps – she crossed the straw covered floor and she blinked several times and she laid the palms of her hands on my chest and she whispered, "Please, Jacob, I don't want to be a young widow" – then she slid her hands acrost my chest and around my back and she lifted her face torst me and she kissed me.

That don't sound much.

I'd never been kissed right and proper before.

She made me feel like a steam boiler right after the engineer throws in a slab of side meat to make the fire sudden-like real hot.  Bacon works but side meat costs less and it's just as greasy and burns just fine, but it does stink.

Annette recht up and laid her hand acrost the back of my head and pulled my head down ag'in and she argued powerfully but without words, and now I understood why His Honor divested himself real quick of attair brandy balloon out of his one hand, and the smolering stogie from the other.

Annette kissed me and 'twas genuinely enough to curl my toes, I'd heard the phrase but now I knew what it meant, she'd kissed me so I kissed her back, carefully but just as ... well, she kissed me right well, and I turned that around on her and kissed her in the self same manner.

I held her and laid my cheek down on her dark-auburn hair and I whispered "I will be careful, dearest," and part of me said that's a lie, can't tell the future, next time a man takes a shot at me he will likely not miss, another part of me wondered about that name "Dearest" I just called her.

I'd heard the Sheriff call Miz Esther that.

I wondered if it was right for me to speak to her in that way and she set down and pulled me down to set beside her and I taken off my coat and wrapped it around her and she leaned into me and I held her and neither of us said a word for the longest time.

In that, I was not a fool.

 

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28.  A GOOD SACK OF FEATHERS

 

My head come up like a hound dog hearin' a distant whistle and my belly tightened up some and then my chest tightened and I fetched out my left hand Colt and checked the loads, I dunked in the sixth bean in the wheel and set the hammer nose down between the rims and fetched out my right hand Colt and fed it another bite of .44 caliber brass and the Sheriff he looked at me and then he stood up and he done the identical same thing with his.
I didn't know what was wrong but somethin' sure as thunder warn't right and I looked to the gunrack and my legs had their own notion of what to do and they carried me over and I fetched me off attair short double gun I'd come to favor and I set it down whilst I shrugged into my coat and then slung the double gun muzzle down from my off shoulder and dropped a bandolier of brass heavy shot hulls acrost me as well.
I turned and looked at the Sheriff and he looked at me and I knowed my eyes was gone pale for his was and I recht for attair heavy door and we heard quick, light feet on the boardwalk and the door shoved open and Sarah fell in and she was the color of wheat paste.
A tall Mexican stood behind her and he came in as well and he looked from one to t'other of us and he looked worried when he come in so he warn't worried at the seein' of us and Sarah stumbled over the shoved the Sheriff out of the way and she bent down and taken holt of that bottom drawer and hauled it open.
She uncorked the bottle with her teeth and spit the cork acrost the floor, her hand shook like a whore in church and the bottle's neck clanked like rattlin' teeth ag'in the edge of the glass and she spilt some and swore and she tilted attair bottle up and taken a good gulp.
She set it down and made a God-awful face and slashed at her lips with her coat sleeve and she looked at us through squinted up eyes and declared "How do you drink that stuff!" and the Sheriff relieved her of the bottle afore she knocked it off his desk.
He steered her over to a chair and then drug the chair acrost the floor with her in it and parked her beside the stove, he turned to attair Mexican and said "¿Que pasó?" and the Mexican, he looked at Sarah and he looked at the Sheriff and he said somethin', his voice was surprisin' steady and he talked as much with his hands as with his words.
Me, I didn't speak Mexican in them days but I was a-learnin' and I picked up every few words, I caught pistola and los lobos and Nos Madre and guerrera but damned if any of it made sense.
The Sheriff, he understood the lingo, they talked some and looked at Sarah and she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered and I went on outside still loaded for b'ar and her Mama's sleigh was out there and their her Brindle-mule was hitched up and looked like he'd been run hard so I spoke to him and stroked his neck and there was a bloody scrape on attair mule's neck and I taken him by the headstall and spoke to him and he followed me just nice as pie and I walked him down to the livery and had Shorty tend him, then I walked back, and the sight of a deputy with a shotgun slung over his shoulder and thunder on his brow was a thing men noted, for I was not in a happy mood a-sloggin' through the snow.
Somethin' happened to my sister and for her to come in and take a tilt of liquid sledgehammer was not quite what she ordinarily run around doin' and I was goin' to find out why.
I went back into the Sheriff's office and Sarah looked up at me and I squatted down beside her and she glared at me and hissed "Where were you when I needed you!" and then she puckered up her face and started to cry so I taken my arms around her and pulled her face down onto my shoulder and I looked at the Sheriff and said "What did I do?"  and he said "That's a woman for you, Jacob, get used to it," and him and attair Mexican held palaver a little longer.
The Sheriff he fetched out another two glasses and him and attair Mexican feller hoisted a salute to one another, attair Mexican he come over and swept off his sombrero and gave an awful good looking bow and said something to Sarah; he nodded gravely at me and then he left, and the Sheriff come over with a chair and set himself down.
"Sarah," he said, "can you tell me what happened?"
Sarah's eyes stared right through the man and she was looking at whatever it was that happened, and she described it in a quiet voice, almost a monotonous voice like she was not quite herself and I don't reckon she was.
"We heard the wolves," she said, "and Brindle didn't like it and neither did I.
"I didn't have a gun with me but I remembered Mr. Rosenthal" – she blinked and she looked at the Sheriff and suddenly her eyes were hard – "I will NOT call that man my Papa!" – I recall her fists balled up when she said it and then she stopped and taken a long breath and said, "He had a buggy gun under the seat, a saw handle after the meeting gun with a separate shoulder stock.
"I pulled it out and put on the stock and then I loaded it and my fingers were cold so I dumped the box of caps into the box ..."
She stopped, swallowed, blinked.
"I remember how shiny the copper caps were, rolling across the green velvet liner."
She shivered.
"I loaded a grease patch ball and capped it and the first wolf came off the hill to my right and I shot it in mid air and I remember the flask jumped into my hand and I reloaded without a patch and the second shot went straight to the rear where a wolf was trying to leap into the back of the sleigh and I reloaded and fired again and I lost track of how many times ..."
She shivered.
"I looked forward and Brindle came up and kicked and twisted and I heard another wolf yelp, Brindle got cut on his neck –"  
She looked at me almost a-panic as if she just remembered it.
"Shorty is tendin' it right now," I said in as gentle a voice as I could manage.
"El Senor Vega y Vega came up and I'd killed four and Brindle killed one and he – Senor Vega y Vega – he said I was a guerrerra, a warrior, he whistled at the number of wolves I'd killed by myself, he said the Sacred Mother was hanging onto my coat tails and he looked at my go-to-meetin' gun and his eyes got big and he said "And you used THAT?" and I couldn't help it."  She looked from the Sheriff to me and back and she looked just awful miserable.
"I couldn't help it.  I laughed."

 

That night we had us a dance, we'd been plannin' it most of a month and a half, 'twas winter and folks was tired of winter an' bein' either cooped up or out in the cold.
The Sheriff, he'd built a big round barn that pretty much closed in a natural cave and it went in under attair quartz mountain some distance, 'twas big and he had them Kentucky carpenters build it and he'd built it he said for attair orphaned circus girl.
I ain't told you about her.
I think she's a witch-woman but she's little and she's pretty and she can ride attair yaller circus pony like an Apache but warn't no Apache ever looked just as plain pretty as her but I'm side trackin' myself ag'in.  

He said she didn't have no circus to perform in no more but she wanted a place where she could still ride her Buttercup circus pony and so he built her that big round barn but we had dances there.
He'd set in half a dozen sheet metal stoves all in a cluster and I know heat rises and that's an awful big place to try'n heat but between the stoves was benches and 'twas warm in between 'em and when we was dancin', why, we warn't cold.
Sarah was there and you'd not know she'd come in pinch faced that mornin' with a case of the clanks.
She was lovely and she wore one of her Mama's creations and a little matching hat and she danced with plenty of fellows and they-all was more'n tickled to dance with her, for she'd started School Marmin' and when she was prettied up for a dance, why, she didn't look nothin' like that School Marm she turned into, workin' with attair reg'lar School Marm, Miz Cooper, the Marshal's wife.
Miz Esther, bless her, had taken Annette over to Bonnie's dress works and they got her measured all up and I don't know what all them wimmen folks did to her but when she come in she kind of glided in and of a sudden I couldn't see nobody else and fiddle and banjo of a sudden faded way back and the only thing I knew was the sight of her.
Her.
The only Her that was there.
Oh, I danced with Sarah that night, I danced with Miz Esther and with Bonnie and I picked up Angela and had her up on my Hip Bone and we danced and she thought that was great, I can still see that delighted little-girl face all shining and her head tilted back a little as we whirled around the floor a-scatterin' giggles all over the saw dust, but I remember best when I set Angela down and looked over at Annette and everything got real quiet.
I'd been practicin' with Sarah and she is a right good dancer and I warn't bad, I bowed and Annette curtsied and I expected the fiddlers to come up with another slow and graceful waltz.
That's what I wanted to do.
I wanted to waltz Annette around in big showy circles.
Them Kentucky moonshiners had other ideas.
About the time I taken Annette's hand and she taken mine, about the time I spaced myself from her and put my hand around her flank and she did the same with me, why darn if them rascals didn't start up with "Turkey in the Straw" and Annette laughed and by golly we danced to that, and we danced right good, and dancin' with her was like ... well, 'twas more like I danced and she floated, for she moved with me without flaw or fail, and she didn't weigh no more'n a good sack of feathers.

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29.  SWALLER YER CHAW

 

I can't say I knew the Sheriff as well as some but I knowed him pretty good and when he admitted to surprise, why, right glad I was to see it, if only that's what a young man does, quietly rejoices in the discomfiture of an older man.

Y'see, he'd bougtht attair Silver Jewel from Dirty Sam, he did, an' with it he got the kitchen, the whores, he got tables and chairs and attair scarred up  mahogany bar top and what windows wasn't at least cracked, he got the hull dern thing includin' a stack of stuff Dirty Sam took in trade fer a drink and one thing was a Bible.

Now the Sheriff was a Bible believin' man and a man with due respect for the Word and I knowed he had this-yere Book and he taken pains to keep it dry and in where 'twas some heat for he knowed had he not them pages would get wrinkly and old lookin' and I greeted His Honor the Judge when he come in and him and the Sheriff shared a sociable drank and I turned mine down, that liquid steam engine was a little more powerful than my young carcass really liked.

I could learn to like it way too well, I knew, and I knew I felt really, really good right atter it hit bottom and blowed the socks right off my feet, but about a hour later I warn't friendly a'tall and I don't like bein' cranky when it ain't my choice.

The Sheriff recht for one book and snagged another and he was a-talkin' to the Judge and he flipped open the cover and looked down and then he stopped and frowned some and he read and then he turned a page and read some more and he looked over at me and up at the Judge and he had the look of a man who opened his morning newspaper and found a talkin' fish lookin' at him.

He grabbed attair ledger book he kept track of prisoners in and then he grabbed another, older one, he run his finger down a column of really neat hand writin' and he looked back and forth at attair book and then he leaned back sudden-like so his chair hit the wall and he set there and stared at attair book with the cover open.

He blinked a couple times and he started rattin' around in the left hand bottom drawer of his desk, the one I'd never seen him git into, he grabbed books an' fetched 'em out, opened the cover and frowned and set it down and grabbed another and finally he said "Here!" and he started pagin' through it kind of quick.

He looked at attair first book ag'in and I come over for I was curious and 'twas a Bible and it had a woman's delicate hand writin' and he looked at one name or another and he read in attair smaller book in his other hand and finally he looked up at the Judge and I swear to God he looked like he'd just swallered his chaw.

He set down attair smaller book and he closed the cover on the Bible and he leaned back a-way slower than when he banged into the wall and the Judge leaned forward, clasped his hands together on the edge of the Sheriff's desk and he said in that wise old man's voice, "Mind sharin' what you just realized, Sheriff?"

The Sheriff blinked and cleared his throat and he looked at attair bottle of Two Hit John and then he set it back in his bottom right hand drawer, it and them squatty heavy glasses with the facets runnin' cross grained around the base, and he taken a really long breath and blew it out and he was quiet for about a minute.

"Gentlemen," he said, and when he said that I knew he was includin' me, "I just corroborated that Sarah McKenna is the daughter of my loins."

Well I already knowed that and I reckon most of the town did too, Miz Bonnie had to at least suspect it and Sarah knowed it, but sometimes the best place a wife can find to hide somethin' from her husband is square in the middle of the floor and the Sheriff ... well, I got no idea why it taken him so long to realize it, but realize it he did.

"When will you tell her?" the Judge asked in that quiet voice of his and the Sheriff looked just absolutely miserable.

"Your Honor," he said, "I can't just tell her ... I can't tell Bonnie!  She's raised her as her daughter, I can't just ---"

He shook his head, then he lowered his head into his hands and groaned deep in his chest like his guts was in misery.

"Would it be fair," the Judge suggested, "to keep this truth from her?"

The Sheriff considered this, crossed his fore arms on the desk and dropped his forehead on his crossed arms.

"No," he finally said to the desk top.  "It would not be fair." 

He lifted his head.

"It would not be fair to take her from the only mother she's known!"

"What should be done, then?"  His Honor asked, leaning back and fishing a cigar from an inside coat pocket.

The Sheriff flipped the cover, the first page, ran his finger down the handwriting, stopped.

He looked up and I saw hope in his pale eyes.

"Your Honor," he said, "she was born on Christmas Day.  I reckon we can give this to her on Christmas and tell her everything."

His Honor nodded gravely. 
"Can it wait that long?"  he asked, his voice quiet, and the Sheriff considered this for a long moment.

"I think it can," he said finally. 

"Does Esther know?"

The Sheriff laughed.  "Oh hell, Judge," he declared, "I only just found out my own self!"

"Will you tell her?"

"Oh good Lord yes!"  He stopped and considered a moment and then give kind of a crooked grin.

"Was I not to tell, she'd read my mind just a-lookin' at me and then give me what-for fer not tellin' her!"

Now I warn't quite clear on where attair Bible come from and it taken some talkin' with the Sheriff for me to figger out Sarah's Pa – or more like was my case, the scoundrel her Birth-Mama married—he come into town after he'd kilt her Mama too and he traded attair Bible for a shot of cheap whiskey.

God only knows how it didn't get et up with mice or pack rats or some such, for Dirty Sam was not tidy in any sense of the word, but it warn't chawed none.

Now me and Sarah we had a system and if she wanted to see me she'd leave a slip of wood in a pa'tickelar gap in the front of the Mercantile, and if I wished to see her I'd do the same, and we'd take pains to take a pasear a-past attair place oncet a day and sure enough I went to put my slip in the crack under the Boardwalk and hers was already there, just a slip of wood, kind of a little whittled wedge, not a thing unusual about it, could have been picked up from any splittin' stump.

I turned and looked and she was just goin' into the Silver Jewel and she stopped and looked at me and I nodded, once, and then I upped my backside into Apple's saddle and we taken us a walk around back of the buildin'.

I slud into the back door and eased attair panel aside and Sarah was settin' there with a smile on her face and a bulldog .44 in her lacy gloved grip and I twisted in and slud it shut and set down with her.

"What did you find out?"  she whispered, and I smelt her, she smelt like soap and sun dried cloth and a little hint of lilac.

"The Sheriff found your Mama's Bible," I whispered back and her eyes got big and round and she gripped my forearm tight and then she chewed on her foreknuckle to keep from squeakin' with excitement.

She lowered her hand.  "I have to see it!"

I begun to regret meetin' her to tell her this.

"The Sheriff and the Judge want to give it to you come your birthday."

She looked a little puzzled and I saw her eyes shift left, then right, then she said, "... birthday?"

I nodded. 

"You were a Christmas baby," I whispered, and she bit her bottom lip and her eyes got real bright and then a tear rolled over her bottom lid and streaked its way down her cheek.

I fetched the kerchief out of my coat sleeve and offered her and she taken it and dabbed at her face.

"I have to see it!"  she whispered urgently.

"The Sheriff figures to wrap it up nice and present it all formal-like with the Judge there and I don't know if he'll tell your Mama or not."

"Jacob, I want to see my Mama's handwriting," she hissed, and I patted the back of her hand.

"I reckon," I said, "that can be arranged, but I have to put it back."

She nodded.

 

Turned out to be easier than I figured.

The Sheriff he went off to Cripple for some business or another and Sarah come in, I was sortin' through a stack of wanted dodgers and I looked up and we grinned at one another like a couple kids about to get in trouble together.

I went to the Sheriff's chest and fetched out the Bible and laid it on the desk, I set the Aladdin lamp close by so Sarah could see easily and she drew up a chair and set down and ran her fingertips down the fading blue script.

She read her own name, she read the date, she read the notation, the reference to the man with pale eyes "who was kind enough to repair our roof when my husband lay dying and paralyzed in his bed."

She looked up and looked down and read the next line.

"May God forgive my weakness, but my weakness brought a beautiful baby girl with her father's pale eyes."

Sarah sniffed and her bottom lip quivered a little and she closed the book and caressed its cover like she might caress the back of an old woman's hand – her way of touching her mother, I reckoned – and she nodded.

"Set it back," she said, "and let them present it on my birthday.  I will be surprised and delighted and I will pretend to know nothing about it."

"Can you make 'em believe it?"  I asked.

Sarah looked at me through those lovely long eyelashes and she give me a quiet little smile and she said in a soft, almost a little-girl voice, "Jacob, you have no idea how good a liar I am."

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30.  CONSIDERATION

 

I was warm and relaxed and I'd been asleep a little while at least when I heard someone larrupin' attair gong in front of the firehouse.

Most of me wanted to stay under the night covers and stay warm and relaxed and the rest of me kind of kicked myself and I throwed back the covers and grabbed for my duds.

My sniffer was sniffin' and I figgered if they was a fire somewhere near by I just might smell it and I didn't smell nothin' out of the ordinary and I didn't bother with my Neck Tie, I reckoned the world could forgive me for not wearin' one and if they didn't want to forgive me they could go climb a tree.

I come out the door of the Sheriff's office just as the fire engine went a-gallopin' by, them three white mares had their ears laid back and they were runnin' hard and attair big Irishman with the red hair was standin' up in the driver's box a-swingin' attair blacksnake whip and singin' at the top of his lungs and I couldn't make out a word of what he was sayin' but it didn't matter none for no more was I out the door than I'd shut and locked it behint me and I went on the Hot Foot behint the Sheriff's office and saddled up Apple-horse.

I didn't know what good I could do but they was no way I could have stayed on attair foldin' cot and taken my ease.

Wood dries out fast that high up and fire is hungry and given a chance, why, it would eat ever' one and ever' thang on this-yere earth and them Irishmen was seein' to it they'd not give it no chance to do that.

Me and Apple-horse we come out of that little stable behint the jail part and we run up the tracks behint the Mercantile and we come out and attair fire engine was just bein' unhitched and damned if they wasn't throwin' water even before the mares was led away.

We were lucky.

'Twas a buildin' nobody lived in, least not all the time, chances are someone was tryin' and went to sleep without bein' due careful about their fahr.

The buildin' warn't put together that well and it burnt quick, and they wet down the nearest two buildin's right there on the edge of town to keep them from ketchin' and they got 'er put out in jist A-number-1 jig time.

They warn't a thing I could do 'cept watch, so watch I did, me and Apple-horse, and oncet they'd satisfied themselves there warn't no one dead in what was left of attair buildin', why, me and Apple-horse took our leave.

I was restless yet so Apple and me, we rode up on Graveyard Hill and we went a-trot through attair fancy wrought iron arch.

There was plenty enough moon to see where we was goin' and we rode down the row the Sheriff bought when him and Miz Esther jumped the broom.

Not far from the nearest end was a brand new white bronze marker Digger hated to set.

MIRIAM, the name read, and I knowed there was another name under't, that and her birth and death and her age, but I didn't see any of 'em.

All I saw was that one name.

I remembered the pretty girl with the broad ribbon tied acrost her eyes, I remembered how she played piano, I remember her hand in mine and how she giggled a little.

I blinked and taken me a long breath and then I looked inside me.

Miriam was gone, I knowed this, and I was a little surprised that I didn't feel her loss terribly the way I still felt my Mama's death.

Mama was dead and gone and not a damned thing I could do to change that.

Miriam was dead too and I was there when she died a-screamin' and in pain.

Hell, I'd paid for her box and her buryin', her folks didn't have two nickels to rub together and I reckon that's why they was in such an all fired hurry to get out of town, they couldn't afford to plant her proper and they couldn't thank a mere boy so the just left.

Folks is like that sometimes.

I set there in the moon light and considered.

Annette lit somethin' afire in me that Miriam didn't.

I think I was ... protective ... of Miriam and it hurt me that I couldn't fix what was wrong.

Hell, Doc couldn't fix what was wrong so I had no call to feel poorly about it so I let it go.

Now I looked at her marker and realized I didn't feel much of anything torst her.

I knee-turned Apple and we headed back torst the Sheriff's Office.

I was undressed and laid down by the time the Irish Brigade come a-rumblin' back torst the fire house, but by then I was under my night blankets and I was warm and relaxed and it felt pretty good that I didn't have to stir myself.

 

Folks they went an' gawped at what used to be a buildin' and some I reckon wondered how their own hacienda would fare would it ketch fahr.

The Sheriff, he didn't ride up to look at the ruin, he rode down to the lawyer Moulton's office and he bought the property and he hired some men to clean it off and get rid of what hadn't burnt up, they knocked the rest down and piled it up and set it back afahr then hauled off the ash oncet they'd winnowed out the nails, for nails was precious, an' he traded them burnt nails to the Daine boys for some carpenter work and he had a house built on cut stone foundation blocks and rented it out.

The Sheriff was pretty sharp about makin' money like that.

Way I figgered it, he was one of the richest men in the territory and time proved me right but here's the funny part:  he never used no slicker, trick nor cheat to get that-a-way.

None a'tall.

Most men, oncet they git rich, why, their morals kind of grow wings and fly off but his never did.

I never oncet knowed him to cheat nor wrong nor short change any one.

Dirty Sam don't count, he had it comin' for what he done to them girls and 'specially to Miz Bonnie, but I could stand up on a peach crate and preach all day on that scoundrel's many evils, dead the man might be but I hate him to this day for what he done to that good woman.

Was Sarah not blood to me she'd still be precious to me 'cause she's Bonnie's daughter.

Now there I could get kind of confused, for she's blood to me, she's the Sheriff's get, but she's Bonnie's daughter and no relation between 'em but Bonnie raised her and there's more than blood when it comes to raisin' a child.

Angela, now, she was just happy as anything to be little sister to me and I never onet shied away from bein' her Big Brother and the Sheriff just plainly adored her and it was a fine sight of a cold winter's mornin' to see Cannonball scamperin' acrost the snowy meadow with the Sheriff a-grinnin' in the saddle and Angela standin' up behind him with her little flat sole shiny slippers on the saddle skirt, her a-clutchin' big hands full of the back of the Sheriff's coat, her head throwed back and her teeth a-shinin' and her yellin' "Faster, Daddy!  Faster!" and when that shinin' red Cannonball mare come to the board fence, why, she just lifted her forehooves and sailed right over and landed nice as pie and Angela would let out a happy squeal and then they'd come back and jump back into the pasture and go a-gallopin' back up to the brand new house and the Sheriff would sidle Cannonball up to the porch and Miz Esther would reach over and grab holt of Angela's coat and h'ist her over attair porch rail and the Sheriff he taken Cannonball down to the barn to rub her down and grain her a little and then he'd come back to the house and they'd all have breakfast.

I have many good memories and they make me the richest man to ever stand in a pair of boots.

Might be I'll not have two nickels myself oncet it comes time to face up to Saint Peter but I'll still be the richest man to put footy prints on these granite mountains.

A father's time spent with his children is time invested.

Money can rot or get mouse-et up, gold can be stolen, silver can tarnish and I reckon in time it could tarnish plumb out to nothin', but the time a man spends with his young is time invested.

The Sheriff has given me memories – good memories!

Memories no dollar can ever buy!

Like I said, when they plant me I might not have two coins to rub together but them-there memories will make me the richest fellow to have drawn breath!

 

I made a habit of studyin' folks.

I'd watch a stranger and how he stood, how he carried himself, how he walked.

Sarah and I were watching two men who rode in and dismounted.

When they swung out of the saddle, they moved together like they was used to the dismount at the same time.

One had a ropin' saddle and one had a late McClellan pattern and that feller wore high cavalry boots, but they both paced off on the left and they both kept their right hand free.

We pegged 'em as Cavalry and Mounted Infantry and we was right, for Sarah went over into the Silver Jewel and she asked 'em and of course when a pretty girl asks a question, men are likely to answer.

Sarah would go so far as to lay a wager – "I've got a bet with one of the girls you're a rancher and a good one," she'd say, for men do love to be flattered – if he's but a ranch hand, to be taken as The Rancher was a promotion, at least for the moment, and what man doesn't want to look good for a lovely lady?

"I've got a dollar that you've got rope calluses on both hands," and darn if they wouldn't let her grab their hands and turn 'em over and they'd open their hands and spread their fingers for her inspection.

I was workin' on a small beer when she bumped into one fellow, apologized to him, then whipped her free arm behind her and leaned back into his partner:  she skipped over to me and whispered, "Fist fight," and I raised a finger to Mr. Baxter and he passed me the bung starter real quick, and she was right.

Oncet they started and I finished it, Sarah told me what happened.

She didn't have no one she wanted to examine but she did see one fellow pick the other's pocket, so she went over and bumped into him accidental-like and fetched the stolen wallet out of the pocket he'd slud it into and she whipped it behint her and pressed it into the surprised fellow she leaned back against.

The Party of the Second Part, as His Honor would call it, did then address the Party of the First Part in a hostile and very physical manner, that is to say, he called his boon companion a dirty thief and followed words with knuckles, and the fight was on.

Now as the Sheriff owned the saloon and a good knock down drag out fight sometimes gets contagious, and a contagious fight meant broken windows and broken furniture and that et into the profits, why, I taken that bung starter and belted both parties enough to stop them from fightin' but not enough to Cold Cock them, and whilst they was still grabbin' their heads and yellin' for the pain, why, Tom Landers and me, we hauled them outside and tossed 'em down the three steps onto the dirt street below.

Sarah, she stood there with her hands folded and lookin' real innocent, and I don't think anyone else knowed just what she'd done.

 

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31.  VENGEANCE IS HERS

 

I knowed where the coach road run.

I'd rode it any number of times.

Every time I rode it, I looked for places where I might lay abuscade and hold me up a stage coach.

To catch a thief you have to think like a thief, to catch a bank robber you have to think like a bank robber, and I was fixin' to catch me a stage coach robber.

The chance come a-way sooner'n I figgered.

Matter of fact I paid for my foolishness, but then so did the robber.

I come out ahead of attair stage coach and the driver knowed me and I waved my hat to him and give Apple-horse my heels and Nelson, he whistled and swung attair black snake whip and that tired team found a little more giddyup and they come makin' just a feasome clatter and attair road agent stepped out with a shotgun and he taken a look at me bearin' down on him and I reckon he went a-panic and fetched back on attair right hand barl's trigger.

Apple-horse now he didn't take kindly to gunfights.

He just plainly hated loud noises an' when that feller went kaboom with the shotgun, why, Apple he laid his ears back and was he a bitted horse I doubt me not he'd'a taken attair bit betwixt yaller horse teeth and he'd'a drove right into the man.

As it was, I felt the hit on my left side and I fetched out both revolvers and I r'ared up in the stirrups and I commenced to give him both barls of my own and Apple he didn't like that neither but by then he drove the road agent square in the chest and attair shotgun spun up and fired off t'other barl and Apple he whipped around and slung me out of the saddle, I went one way, I lost both revolvin' pistols, the ground come up and clobbered me a fierce lick and I just kind of laid there for a while tryin' to swim up out of that haze of just plain absolute agony.

Turned out I didn't break nothin' important, I reckon I might've cracked some bones but nothin' broke in two, it hurt to breathe and when I got rid of some second hand beer later I saw was passin' blood and I never told the Sheriff about it but he saw me a-hobblin' and movin' real stiff and he asked me if I'd consider takin' a few days off as a favor to him and I allowed as I would but that warn't til the next couple days any of that happened.

Y'see I laid there because it hurt too much to move, I was a-grittin' my teeth and I just absolutely forbade my eyes to leak and the stage kept right on a-rollin'.

I kept 'em from bein' held up and that was good, they'd be in Firelands in a half hour and that suited me fine.

I run inventory, or tried to, but I give it up for a bad job and decided I'd not move for a while.

I laid there and I listened to birds and I heard the water chucklin' down hill in its rocky bed, laughin' at me most likely, and Apple horse he come over and snuffed at me and I never realized how big that big horse nose was til he shoved it in my face and snuffed ag'in.

I tried reachin' up and it hurt too bad so I laid there and gethered up some strength and I started with my hands and they worked and then my elbows realized they could bend up and back, it hurt to move my shoulders but they worked and I tried to twist a little and that was a mistake.

Now up to that moment I hadn't made a sound.

I been hurt before and I l'arned when I'd get whippin's while Mama was alive and attair monster was hurtin' us both that if I cried or made a sound a'tall it made things a-way worse so when I hurt I get real quiet and I was absolutely silent a-layin' there.

It taken me most of an hour afore I could so much as start to roll up on one side and that was not a wise thing to do so I rolled back onto my back and that hurt too but it didn't hurt as much and then I heard hoof beats.

I couldn't reach under me to get attair two barl derringer in the back of my britches band, my revolvers were who knew where, my rifle was in the scabbard and it was on Apple-horse and I figgered I had best move so I come up on my left side and damn neart passed out ag'in and then a set of hands grabbed my shoulders and I seen these two pale eyes lookin' at me and I heard Sarah's voice and I wondered why Sarah had a mustache and then I reckon I did pass out.

I woke up near to buck nekked beside a fire and the taste of somethin' potent scaldin' my gums and I blinkd and coughed and that hurt and they was a hand behint my neck and the Sheriff said "Does your head hurt?"  and I wheezed "Yes sir it does," and then the Sheriff turned his head and nodded and I felt warm hands pressing flat ag'in my toes and he said "Are your feet cold?" and I said "Yes, sir," and the Sheriff looked at me soberly and he said "Your head hurts so you're not in Heaven.  Your feet are cold so you're not in Hell.  Congratulations, Jacob, you're alive!"

"Yes, sir," I managed, and his arm run around behint me.

I held still as I could and closed my eyes and the two of them run gentle firm fingers acrost my collar bones and gripped my shoulders, they felt my shoulder blades and gently tapped their way down my ribs and when they come to my Tender Loins I let out a whimper and right ashamed I was of it, I tried to bite it off and hold it behint my teeth but it hurt too much and the Sheriff moved on and he allowed as I might have a couple cracked ribs but that was tender over my kidneys and he wanted to have Doc take a look at me and they squeezed my knees and bent my legs and finally allowed as the only broke bones was maybe cracked ribs but good Lord I was bruised to hell and he went and read the tracks and I saw Macneil rattin' around and that man can track a fly acrost a glass pane and he finally come over and said I'd hit on my shoulder and probably tried to roll out of it but it looked to him like I'd flopped back first on a rock and then rolled a few times and Sarah laid a cool damp rag gentle like ag'in my face and then they started feelin' my skull and I saw the Sheriff look over at Macneil and I didn't like the look either of them gave t'other.

Doc had to lay in some stitches where I'd banged my head and I was some dizzy for a day or three but it passed and attair big black Bear Killer he come to the barn with me and I laid down with my legs up on a hay bale and he laid down beside me and I slept near to the whole day, I woke up when somethin' warm cuddled up on t'other side of me and I felt a blanket come over me and I smelt soap and lilac and I woke up just short of sundown and Angela was layin' beside me lookin' at me with big serious eyes.

"Jacob," she said in a small voice, "I'm scared."

"No need," I whispered, and I managed a little bit of a smile.

Angela looked at me with them big blue eyes and she shook her head and them long curls of hers swung too and I wished to have me a little girl some day that looked as sweet as my little sister.

"No, Jacob, I'm scared," she said.

"Why's that?"  I asked.

"Because there's a big ugly spider on your blanket and I don’t like spiders!"

Surprisin' how far a man can throw spider, blanket and all when he's so sore he don't think he can hardly move.

 

Sarah brought me out a book on Shakespeare and I was anxious to read it.

A man is judged by his speech and I knowed I sound uneducated and that did not make me terrible happy.

She was helpin' teach school, she'd been graduated from eighth grade and she got her teachin' ticket, whatever that was, she was helpin' Miz Cooper with them students that warn't learned up too well and she did really well with them boys that had trouble cipherin'.

She put 'em to takin' measurements.

She had herself a yard stick and a tape measure and a foldin' ruler and she had 'em readin' them scales and when they started to complain that they didn't see the use of it she grabbed one by the shirt collar and jerked him up short and said "I am building a shed and you are going to calculate the lumber necessary for its construction!" – then she run her arm around his neck and rubbed her knuckles into his scalp and kissed the top of his head and she taken his hand and skipped around him in a circle and they looked at her like she was either in leave of her senses or the funniest schoolmarm they'd ever run into, and damned if she didn't have them fellers usin' what she'd been teachin' 'em to figger up how much plank they'd need to make her shed.

One boy's father showed up and he was loud and unhappy that his boy was playin' with a foldin' ruler and Sarah shoved two planks in his arms and said "I need these cut, your son has the measurements!" and then she turned and give directions to another boy and she turned back to the man and said "If you're not going to help, get out of the way!" and he stood there with his teeth in his mouth lookin' like she'd just shoved a fish in his coat pocket and he stood back then and watched as Sarah sung out numbers and she'd point to one or another of the boys and she'd call out "How long a plank for north wall bottom!" and he'd give a measure and she'd write it with a charred stick on a handy plank and she'd point to another, "How wide is this batch of planks?" and he'd throw the ruler to a plank in two or three places and give her a figure and then she'd point to a third and say "We can't get any more of this width.  We've got three planks nailed on starting from the bottom.  We can get eight inch wide planks in plenty, how many to cover the entire back side with one full length plank to a course?" and he had to scratch his head and throw a measure at it and then subtract them ones she said was there and he come up with a number and damned if it warn't right.

Sarah taken them boys and put them to work and had them usin' figures for real and they seen how they was useful and that was the moment they started to learnin' and that's when they realized they was hungry to learn.

Now I didn't see any of this but I heard about it and when she come out and brought me attair book she told me about it and I was tickled that she could bring the water to the horse, so to speak, and then make the horse realize it wanted to drink the water.

Now I managed to Side Track myself ag'in.

I wanted to tell you how good a teacher Sarah was but also that when she became that School Marm, why, she wound her hair up into a walnut on top of her head and stuck a pencil cross ways through it, she put on a pair of them round lens Spectacles she wore down on her nose so when she looked at a body, why, she was lookin' at them Over Her Spectacles and that's how school marms do, but when she did all that and she wore that mousy grey dress, she didn't just look like a School Marm.

She became a School Marm.

She became someone entirely different than who she was.

Y'see, His Honor the Judge spoke of a man who done somethin', I never found out quite what but it had to be serious for the Judge wanted him.  I reckon it was probably murder or arson or some such.

Anyway he was mutterin' into his beard somethin' about gettin' a confession and Sarah was nearby and she give His Honor a long look and then she said she could get that confession and she'd need that Agent's commission and that told me His Honor had misgivings about commissioning her and he shook his head and said no, he was wrong in the first place and that's nothing a woman could do or should be doing and he never finished his sentence before Sarah jumped up and swung her skirts around and stormed out, and right directly, why, she was up on that little stage in the Silver Jewel and she didn't look like our Sarah a'tall.

She looked like a saloon girl, she wore a shiny blue sequin outfit that pinched her waist and squeezed out above and below and she'd painted her face to look the part and to be honest she looked like a pretty young harlot.

A really, really good looking, pretty young harlot.

She was up on attair stage and she was what the Judge would call "disporting herself most shamelessly" but she had the full attention of everyone in the Jewel, and matter of fact she must've been doing that kind of regular, for the attendance had grown some since she started and for the life of me I didn't know how everyone and their uncle didn't realize that was our Sarah.

Least not until I considered that when she became the Schoolmarm she became someone else and she didn't look like herself, and I begun to realize when a woman uses them foundations and them face paints and them Feminine Wiles I heard tell of, why … Sarah wasn't Sarah up on that stage, that was someone else, that was a stranger, that was a dance hall girl no decent woman would speak to and no man didn't want but to throw her over his shoulder and bear her off somewhere private.

My pretty pale eyed sister was right good at what she did.

She'd look at a man in the audience and she'd dance for him.

She'd look at him and she'd bent over with her hands on her knees and she'd pucker them red wet lookin' lips up and she'd shake herself at him, then she'd dance some, then she'd look at him over her shoulder and kiss at him ag'in and she'd strut torst the back of the stage, throwin' her dancin' skirt left and right as she did, she'd swing that backside and I tell you honest, her legs run clear up to her shoulders or so it looked, and was I not her brother likely I would melt in my moccasins just like I seen some of them men, they got so hot lookin' at her I was afeared I'd have to take one or two of 'em by the scruff of the neck and dunk 'em in the horse tank just to cool 'em off.

His Honor the Judge liked a good show same as any man and he pounded the table with the flat of his hand to show his appreciation of the show, and he looked enviously at the man he wished to convict as that long-legged dance hall girl come out and stirred amongst the crowd the way she did, a wink here, a caress there, she backhanded one fellow who gave her backside a squeeze and two fellows came to blows when each demanded a kiss of her and neither was willing to let the other go first.

She simpered and took a few mincing steps away from the fighting pair, she taken the arm of the man His Honor wished to waylay, and she said "May I sit down?" and before the fellow could recover from his surprise, why, damned if she didn't turn and sit down right in his lap, one leg curled under and the other extended, her toes pointed, and she run her arms around his neck an allowed as she always did like the bad boys, and she give him those pale eyes and them long lovely lashes and I don't know what she did but she had him under her spell instantly if not sooner.

Of course 'twas not her eyes he was lookin' at, she was wearin' a corset which pushes a woman's, um … which holds up and, ahhh … well, y'see, she was a dance hall girl and she was wearin' kind of a low cut, ummm …

I don't think he ever did see her eyes.

Anyway they talked some and she pretended to sip at a drink while he guzzled his, and she laid her hand delicate-like on the back of his and that poor fellow started to sweat and he turned red and finally she said something only he could hear and she stood up and sashayed across the floor and in about ten minutes' time, why, the Judge and me each got handed a note from the swamper and they both said the same thing.

"Sheriff's office, NOW, Agent Black."

His Honor scowled when he read his and he bit down on his see-gar and he warn't too happy, but he got up and he grumbled his way out of the saloon, him and me we crossed the street and there was Sarah looking like Sarah, her face was fresh and clean and lovely with no trace of face paint, she was in a blue own and modest looking as she always was, and she handed the Judge a hand written sheaf of papers and said, "This is a deposition, Your Honor, taken down by Agent Black of the Firelands District Court."

His Honor grunted skeptically, puffed his dying stogie back to life, begun to read.

He frowned and read some more, he looked up, he turned the page and continued reading.

He re-read the several pages again, he stacked them up and laid them on the Sheriff's desk and looked incredulously at Sarah.

"You got all this out of him?" he asked, staring.

Sarah sat down knee-to-knee with the man and laid gloved fingertips delicately on the back of his hand.

"Your Honor," she said quietly, "if a woman gives a man those big lovely eyes and never says a word, he'll spill his very guts, and he did."  She blinked a few times and smiled.  "Now about that commission, Your Honor.  You said you would commission me an Agent of the Court."

He harrumphed, frowned, and she kissed at him, bent over and shook herself at him, she stood and shook her backside and then minced her way to the door, tossing her skirts left and right, looked back and laughed.

His Honor the Judge looked at the deposition and shook his head.

"Jacob," he said finally, "I cannot use this as admissible evidence unless I receive it from a bona fide law enorcement agent."

"Yes, sir?"

"She's not a Sheriff's deputy and I don't suppose the Sheriff could be talked into commissioning her."

"No, sir, reckon not."

"I need this testimony to put that man away."  He puffed on his cigar, frowning.

"Jacob, has she this level of success with everyone?"

"I don't know about everyone, sir," I admitted, "but she's got that gift!"

He considered for several long moments, then frowned at me.

"Jacob, have you heard of the Pinkerton detective agency?"

I laughed.  "Sir, I reckon the hull world knows about the Pinks!"

"Hm."  He grunted sourly.  "Did you know, Jacob, they had a woman detective?"  He nodded, blue out more cigar smoke.  "She came to Alan Pinkerton herself just bold as brass and told him women will loosen a man's tongue, that women can find out what men never could, and she did.  Proved a most valuable asset."  He returned the cigar to yellow stained teeth.  "I think I may have just found the Agent of the Court I'd hoped to."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll have a badge made for her and I'll draw up her commissioning papers today."

"Yes, Your Honor."

I held my tongue as I considered all this.

I knew Sarah wanted that commission because she wanted to go after a man.

There was someone who'd hurt her in the past and she knew who he was and she wanted him but she did not want to just up and kill him … no, she wanted him by legal means, and His Honor the Judge was – knowin' it or not – the Judge was handin' her the tool by which she could do exactly that.

She intended revenge, and now revenge would be hers.

 

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32. FROM A WOMAN'S HAND

 

I am not in the least little bit ashamed to say that the Sheriff married a beautiful woman.

Nor am I shy a'tall to admit she beat me seven ways from Sunday.

She did it easy and she never looked less than a lady doin' it and I am right glad she did.

You see, she needed help and I didn't realize I did too.

In those days a man who appeared in public wearin' no more than his shirt above his belt line, shamed himself and his family, for the wearin' of a shirt without at the very least, a vest, and preferably a vest and coat, why … wearin' just a shirt would be the same as trottin' down the middle of the street in your red longhandles.

When Miz Esther suggested I strip down to my vest I did, and I stood there curious, and she opened a wooden box and pulled out what looked to be two black knives.

She handed me one, handle first, she taken up a second one and opened a dusty little poke and proceeded to chalk the edge of her black knife and I taken a look at mine and realized 'twas not a knife, it just looked the part, I judged it to be gutta-percha or the like, and she gestured I should hold mine out so I did.

Oncet she got her edge chalked and mine as well, she set that dusty little poke back in its box and closed the lid nice and gentle, then she turned and she lowered her head a little and looked at me through her eyelashes and smiled just a little, almost the way a woman will when she's looking at someone she genuinely would like to know much better.

Then she come at me.

I taken a quick step to the side, I turned, her first slash missed and her second took me square in the gut.

I backed up ag'in, surprised, then I looked down at the chalk mark that meant I'd been gutted.

I looked up at her and I couldn't help but smile a little for that meant I didn't have to treat her like my father's wife now.

I come at her with a quick figure-eight slash and I come back with chalk down my forearm and acrost my upper arm and I stepped back and I said "How did you do that?" and Miz Esther smiled that quiet, womanly smile of hers and gave me a hook-finger, come-here gesture and I did.

I stepped in, I feinted for her face and sliced across her belly.

She got my arm but I put first blood acrost her corset.

'Twas a few hours later that we went on inside for supper.

Neither of us said much but her complexion was rosy in the cheeks and she looked at once tired and very pleased with herself.

None of us said much acrost the supper table and the Sheriff give us both a knowing look; I doubted me not he'd been watching – when your wife squares off with your oldest son and both with knives, why, a man might stop and give such a spectacle a good lookin'-at.

I reckoned he might because I know at some time or another most boys figure they can beat their old man.

So far I hadn't come to that point and I didn't reckon I would, for I'd seen the Sheriff handle men, and I'd seen him with this shirt off, and he was skinny and he was rangy and that's the kind of a man that's just awful hard to beat barehand, and I seen him grab a man by the front of the shirt and fetch him up short and then one arm press him straight up in the air.

A man with that kind of rangy strength is not the kind of man I particular want to tear into.

I hadn't got my full growth yet, I know, but the Sheriff hadn't never done anything to earn my unhappiness and I really, really hoped he never would.

I needed a man to look up to and he was the one.

Now Miz Esther, I knowed her to be complex and capable but today jacked her up a ways on attair pedestal I already had her own, and after supper she notched it up some higher, for she had me come into the parlor and she brought out another wooden box.

She opened it and she fetched out two swords.

She told me about them and how they weren't really swords, they were rapiers and they were meant primarily for point fighting:  she had me come over and handle them with her, an she showed me they were just awful dull, the tips were rounded, and she slipped black gutta-percha balls on the tips – "they'll slow us down a little," she admitted, "but I don't wish for either of us to be pierced" – and then she give just a little bit of a laugh and I seen under her reserve and I seen that real good nature the Sheriff saw in her long before I did.

That's the last either of us laughed the rest of the evening, for Miz Esther begun to teach me the long blade, and right glad I am that she did.

She called them blades Schlagers and I reckon that's German for something really intelligent like "I'm going to run this through your black heart" or some-such.  I don't know that for sure but I reckon that's the case.

Whatever they're called, in her hands, them German blades were just flat forevermore fast.

She took it gentle with me at first, and as I learned how to handle my long blade, she got faster, and she allowed as I was doing unusually well.

I surely didn't feel like I was but she l'arned me, she surely did.

She worked with me every night and sometimes twice a day but generally just of an evening and she'd stop and we'd try somethin' dead slow so I could see where a thrust or a slash was coming from, then she'd have me use my blade to move hers out of the way and she was real patient with me.

I felt pretty darn stupid for what made sense dead slow I didn't see a'tall at workin' speed, not at first.

I didn't know it but she was doin' the same with Sarah, and Sarah was some better than me.

I didn't realize it but she was makin' trade with me.

She wanted someone to fight long blade with her, and she knew I needed to learn knife fightin' way better, and she knew what I learned with them Schlager blades would carry over into fightin' with a Bowie, and she was right.

I didn't know all that, but I did know she knowed what she was talkin' about and I figured if she wanted to show me I'd l'arn it and it paid off.

I was challenged and 'twas in a situation where people was watchin' and I could have pulled my Colt and shot him, for he had a knife in hand, but then he'd be dead and I already had a reputation for being fast and deadly with the short gun.

Mr. Baxter upped with attair shotgun he kept behint the bar and he invited that fella to so much as blink and he'd splatter him all over the back wall and the piano player yelled "Let me git outta the way this is a new shirt!" and he scampered out of the way and I fetched off my gun belt and pulled out my own Damascus blade and I unbuttoned my shirt cuff and rolled it back.

I shaved some hairs off my arm, I never taken my eyes off the other fellow, I raised my blade and puffed my breath acrost it and blew hairs off into the air and I seen his eyes change and of a sudden he realized he might have come up ag'in someone that warn't afraid of him and his blade.

I know what a knife can do.

I know what a good man with a knife can do.

I knew how fast Miz Esther was killin' me in practice and I knew these were not chalked gutta percha, and I knew one mistake and I was dead.

I spun my knife between my fingers, it looked like a sharp edged silver wheel at the end of my arm, I stopped its spin with the blade pointed down in my fist and I bent my knees a little and brought my other arm around and settled my bladed off hand in front of my breast bone and bounced a little on my toes.

"You don't have to do this," I said quietly.  "There's no need for you to die bleedin'.  All you need do is walk away."

He licked his lips and shifted his weight back and forth one foot to the other and he looked around and looked like he wanted to change his mind but ever'one was lookin' at him and he give out a roar and come at me a-swingin'.

His first swing went a-past me and the secont I faded back an inch and it went on by and I ran my blade up the back of his upper arm.

I had a clear shot to drive my blade in his kidneys and I kicked the back of his knee instead, he was startin' to come around and he ended up face first down to a table top and then to the floor.

I turned a little, waited; he switched hands and come in low to gut me and I batted his blade to the side and sliced his other arm, I cut deep and his hand come open and he dropped the knife and give a roar like I'd boarded a bull across the backside with a 2x4.

I wiped my blade off on his coat sleeve and slid it back in its sheep's-wool lined scabbard and then I taken up my gunbelt and fast it up around my middle.

"You might want to have someone go fetch the Doc," I suggested, then I taken up my hat and set it on my head and I turned slow and walked out into the night.

I didn't start to shake until Apple-horse and I was halfway back to the house.

I come in and Miz Esther was waitin' on me, she was standin' there with her hands clasped up at belt level and I knowed that meant she was anxious for I'd seen her do that before, and I come in with my hat in my hand and I stopped and I said "Ma'am, I used what you taught me, and it worked."

She blinked, once, and waited, and I swallowed, and I said "I crossed blades with a man tonight."

She nodded, once, cautious-like.

"You taught me well enough I did not have to kill him."

"Then," she said, her voice low and almost musical, "I have done a good thing."

"You did, ma'am," I said, and meant it:  "you give me that man's life, and I give it to him."

 

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33.  THE PAST

 

The Sheriff described what he saw.

What he saw was me, asleep on the cot there in the Sheriff's office, but I warn't restin'.

He said he saw my eyes swingin' under my closed eye lids, he said I was fightin' somethin' hard for he could see me barely twitch.

I reckon it's a good thing I could not move when I was asleep.

I would have tore the place apart could I have moved.

I was back in … back with Mama alive and her as beautiful as I remember and she looked at me and smiled real gentle like I remembered and then attair blacksnake whip come curlin' in and laid her acrost the cheek and 'twas a snake with red eyes and long teeth and I taken after it with a knife.

Oncet I cut the head off the snake it hit the floor an' come a-hoppin' acrost at me with them fangs just a-shinin' and I stomped it hard with my boot heel and ground it into the floor and then I taken me a look at that black devil holdin' onto the whip's handle and he fetched it back and slung it back at me and I taken off a-runnin' for him with attair knife in my hand and death in my heart.

A shaman once told me I ruled my dreams and I ruled this one.

I tore into that curlin' whip and then I tore into the hand that held it and then I tore into the black soul that was bolted to the arm and I cut it long wide deep and continuous.

My eyes snapped open and I seen the ceiling in the Sheriff's office and I taken me a quick breath and shivered and the Sheriff asked gentle-like "You okay, Jacob?"  and I said "Yes, sir," and then I throwed back the blanket and set up.

"You couldn't sleep either," he said – it warn't a question – and I said "No, sir," and he set down on the edge of his desk and looked at me and smiled just a little.

"Looked like a nightmare."

"Yes, sir.  'Twas."

"Did you win?"
"I did, sir," I said, and I heard satisfaction in my voice.  "I did."

He nodded.

"Have that one before?"

"No, sir."  I tilted my head a little and asked, "Do you have the same one, sir?"
He nodded.  "Same one."

"Do you win, sir?"
He rubbed his face.  "I genuinely wish I could, Jacob."

"What's yours, sir?"

"It's always that damned War."  His voice was quiet and he looked off to the side, down towards the cells, as if he were looking at a personal enemy.

"Was that it tonight, sir?"

He nodded.  "I was on the train home."  His voice was a little hoarse and I saw his arm was clamped down some that same side he had such an awful scar, the side that he'd been shot out in front of the office here.

"I was … the cannon blew up and stove in my ribs."

I didn't know that's what it was but it explained that God awful scar.

"They allowed as my war was over and sent me home, me and a whole train load of injured men."

His voice was still quiet and that run a cold shiver through me, for a quiet man talkin' about his war is generally a man who's seen war for fair and for true.

"There was a man … he was far worse than I."

His voice was quiet, haunted, something I'd never heard before:  his arms crossed themselves over his breast and he looked at the floor, his legs stuck straight out in front of him, his boot soles flat on the floor, and I saw his bottom jaw slide out slow.

"He had one arm left, that was all.  Just one arm."

I frowned and leaned forward a little, listening close, hanging on every one of the man's gently spoken words.

"He rolled out of his bunk and he … he fought his way back to the back door."

In my imagination I could see a stubbled man, bandages dragging, half-wallowing, half-dragging, a man with only one arm, a dirty hand gripping stanchions, uprights, whatever he could find.

I saw a man fighting, struggling, teeth bared, sweating:  he stopped to rest, he gasped, he looked at the several eyes watching him – he returned gaze for gaze, defiant, fierce, a man fighting the very last battle of his entire life.

"He'd been a farmer," the Sheriff's voice continued, not much more than a whisper.  "We'd set up and talk, we'd share coffee if we had it, tea if we found it, chicory when …"

He dropped his chin to his breast and I saw his hands tighten up and shiver just a little.

"He fought his way the length of that sick-car, Jacob.  He reached up and tried to open the back door.

"Not a sound from any throat, not a word, just his hoarse … just the hoarseness of his breath as he fought to get that door open."
"Yes, sir," I said, my voice as soft as his own.

"I hear him in my sleep, Jacob.  I still hear him.  He said 'Help me' and a hand reached out and gripped the door's knob and opened it.

"He hooked his fingers around the edge of the door and drew it open.

"We heard the wheels and we heard the rails and we watched as he wallowed out onto the platform and the last I saw of the man was when he went over the edge."
He looked off to the side, the look of a man who lived with a ghost, with a terrible knowledge.

"He wanted to go home and plow, Jacob.  He wanted to break ground and plant seed and he wanted to laugh with his wife and hold his children." 

His voice was hoarse as he continued, "He was a cripple and useless and he said he wouldn't be helpless and a drone."

He stopped for a long moment, nodding slowly, then he said "I still hear the sound the wheels made when they run over him."
He looked at me and his eyes were hollow, ghostlike, and I shivered to see them.

"I could not help him, Jacob, save only to reach over and turn that door knob for him.  It's all I could do for him."

 He swallowed, he shivered like a ghost stroked his back bone.

"If it was anything, Jacob, I pray to God it was a murder and mine was the murderer's hand.  I don't want to be a suicide.  I don't want the man's soul condemned.  Let it be a murder for I can be forgiven murder."

"Yes, sir," I whispered, and I understood why the Sheriff was sometimes seen at late and lonely hours in the little whitewashed Church, on his knees before the Altar.

Of a sudden my own nightmare didn't seem to be much a'tall.

 

Sarah's face was tear-wet when I seen her and I grabbed her wrist and I pulled her inside and I pushed her back ag'in the wall and took her face in both hands.

I felt the hide tighten over my cheek bones and I know my eyes was burnin' with that cold fire I seen in the Sheriff when he was ready to rip a man's heart out barehand and I heard how cold my voice was when it whispered between my stiff lips, "Sarah, did someone hurt you?" and she shook her head and then she grabbed holt of me like she was drownin' and I was a float on a stormy sea in the dark.

"You're safe, you're safe, I've got you, you're safe," I whispered, my lips was only an inch from her ear so I whispered it quiet, for I knowed she had really good hearin', and she was shiverin' like a little baby rabbit and I felt a rage buildin' in me for somethin' had afeared my sister and that made me just powerful unhappy.

"Who did this to you?"  I demanded, I pushed back out of her arms, I pushed her shoulders into the wall and I stiff armed her and I glared hard into her pale eyes and I didn't see nothin' hard about her, she looked soft and scared like a little girl and that just made me madder.

Sarah seized my head the way I'd put my hands on either side of her face, only instead of layin' my palms flat and warm ag'in her, she drove her fingertips into mine and she might as well have drove those curved fingers into my brain like steel hooks.

"Come with me," she whispered, and I did, my soul roared triumphantly as we soared through the cold clear air and I felt strength and I felt war and I felt a thousand weapons in my hands and my heart sang with the joy of knowing I was going into battle.

We shot over town and over the mountain and down the other side, we roared like the Thunder Bird itself across the ground and I felt steel wings and metal feathers and we come to a set of cliffs and we drew up and burned a hole in the sky as we blasted straight up on a column of fire and the fire was my hatred and then we rolled over and bore straight down at the sand at the base of the cliffs and I recall there were shadows, tall shadows a-dance across the cliff and it felt old, it felt old, and then we drove through sand and rock and busted out in a place that was black and red-lit and hot and dry and Sarah pointed and said in a little girl's voice "There he is, Jacob, he's the one that hurt me," and I give a roar of pure joy and the fight was on.

Warn't much of a fight.

I tore into a pale … I reckon it was a man's soul, but it was the soul of a coward, and mine was that of the righteous, and it warn't no contest.

As soon as I touched it I seen the evil it done, I seen every vile thing it done to my sister, and I recoiled without landing the first blow.

I turned, surprised, I looked at Sarah and she warn't Sarah as I knowed her.

She warn't a beautiful young woman.

She war a little wee child and she war all twisted and misshapen and she wore a little sailor dress and a flat white straw hat and she pointed and said "He hurt me, Jacob," and I looked at the pale, whimpering, twisting, tortured soul and I recht out and I laid a hand on it and I tasted its grief and its horror and its torment.

I looked at Sarah.

"We're in Hell, ain't we?" I whispered.

Sarah twisted and changed and she was the Sarah I knew, and she nodded, and her eyes of a sudden was real old and full of an ancient knowledge.

"He's livin' every thing he done to you."

She nodded again.

I withdrew my hand and I recht over and taken Sarah's and I felt every complex thing she felt – the pain and the violation and I felt the anger, the deep and abiding anger, but the resignation as well, and there was somethin' that surprised me, it genuinely did.