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Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

THE SHERIFF'S SON

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211.  TWO SHADES OF ROSE

 

Now Sarah she did not much care to set there in widow's weeds, folks treated her like she was delicate china and they might break her if they touched her even real gentle and that did not set well with her.

Annette she come out with me and I had little Joseph up in the crook of my elbow and he looked at Sarah and her black veil and said "What wrong Aunt Sawwah?" and Sarah raised the veil and looked at Joseph and she had the damndest look on her face, she was halfway mad and halfway tickled and that meant she was up to somethin' and she leaned over and said somethin' to Annette and then she turned and raised her chin to her Mama and Esther she come over and them wimmen they commenced to have them selves a powwow and a palaver and a council of war so the Sheriff he come over and taken Joseph and looked at my pale eyed son real solemn like and then the Sheriff he dropped one eye shut kind of casual, it warn't a wink, he just dropped that eye lid down and Joseph he screwed half his face up tryin' to get one eye shut and the Sheriff he nodded real solemn but I could see the laugh in them pale eyes and so did Joseph only his laugh was for all the world to hear.

The Sheriff he looked a them women kind of driftin' away in a knot and their heads was all together and Daisy she come through the crowd like she was a sail boat plowin' through a wave tossed sea and she come into that knot of women and they all got to talkin' all of 'em at the same time the way women will and the Sheriff he looked at Joseph and said "Joseph," and little Joseph said "Yis?" all bright eyed and innocent and the Sheriff said "Did you tie that neck tie you're a-wearin'?" and Joseph nodded all serious-like and he knowed that was a lie, I'd tied it for him, but 'twas a standin' joke, the Sheriff knowed I tied it and Joseph he knowed the Sheriff knowed it and he knowed I was in on it too and the Sheriff he said "That is a good lookin' knot in that neck tie.  What say us men go get us somethin' to eat 'cause them women is goin' to be busy with somethin'," and I thought me of the meal Annette had made ahead of time and the maid she wouldn't have to no more than lay it out and heat up a little bit of stuff but damned if her maid and the Sheriff's hadn't joined that knot of women too and I figgered hell, the Grand Old Man knows more'n I do, let's go eat, so the three of us ended up in the Silver Jewel Saloon and we set down back in the Lawman's Corner, the three of us, and we had us whatever was good comin' out of Daisy's kitchen even if she warn't there to run it.

She'd turned out to be what the Sheriff called an Efficient Administrator, she kept a good eye on the place but she warn't afraid to let her right hand woman tend affairs in her absence – the Sheriff called her a "faithful lieutenant" and Daisy swatted at him with a dish towel when he did and scolded him for tryin' to turn her kitchen help into the bluecoat Cavalry and she wasn't about to try fryin' eggs from horseback and sometimes I wondered how hard she had to work to come up with some of the scoldin' she give the Sheriff.

There's times when I think he goes in to devil her just to see what she'll whip on him next.

Them woman went out to Bonnie's dress works and Sunday or not they got to cuttin' cloth and sewin' up outfits and damned if the whole lot of 'em didn't show up the next day, ever' one of 'em come into town wearin' matchin' two tone rose colored dresses, Sarah too and her with not a bit of black a'tall anywhere to be seen.

I heard later Bonnie told her and them other ladies that she refused to mourn when her second husband was killed, he wasn't worth the grief and she wore a bright yellow dress with a very little bit of black trim to his funeral – which scandalized the community – and she forbade her daughters to have even the least amount of black anywhere on them, they even wore white shoes and white stockings.

Sarah she wore somethin' pretty, green I think, she even went so far as to put ivory grips on that Army .44 she had hid under her gown, and her not but twelve years old.

Sarah she come up to me with a matchin' pink parasol over her shoulder and she asked me all sweet-like if I would come with her to the graveyard for she wished to speak with her dead husband's stone and I said sure thing and off we went in Sarah's good carriage and I give her my hand for her dismount and she walked all stately and lady-like over to the frash turned dirt and new stone Digger set in not two days before.

DAFFYD LLEWELLYN, it read, and give his birth date and his death date, BELOVED HUSBAND, and beneath that a funny symbol I was told was a Fireman's Scramble, whatever that is.

"You would not want me to grieve your death," Sarah said to the carven stone, her chin up a little, the parasol folded and her leanin' on its round end like 'twas a walkin' stick:  "I miss you, Daffyd, and I grieve that I will never see you hold our son," and she laid a pink gloved hand on her flat belly.

Somehow I warn't surprised a'tall that she knowed she was carryin' nor that she knowed 'twas a son.

She had a knowin' way about her and so did several women there in town and I noticed about then, they was a frash cut rose layin' on top of his stone, and that happens too and I taken that was a mark of favor.

Who favored it, I warn't rightly sure, but Sarah picked it up and smelled it delicately, then she found a pin somewheres and fetched out a little foldin' knife and trimmed the stem up short and pinned it to her bodice, up on the point of the lapel.

"You would want me to see the beauty of a sunrise, to marvel at the wide fires of a mountain sunset.  You would want me to taste coffee and feel a good horse under me and to know joy and life and I shall do just that."

She paused and swallowed and then said, "I am through wearing widow's weeds.  My grief is my own and I shall not parade it for the entertainment of others."

Now there, thought I, is my little sis, and I could not help but smile just a little at the thought.

In two more days, rose was the most common color for a woman's gown there in town.

I reckon the Ladies' Tea Society and ever'one else wanted to show Sarah they agreed with her decision.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled as Reverend John Burnett eased down into the chair across from the pale eyed woman in the tailored business suit.

He smiled and thanked the waitress as coffee settled down in front of him.

"Have whatever you want, Reverend, I'm buying."

"If I could trouble you for the chicken breast dinner," the Reverend said to the waitress with his usual quiet courtesy, and he smiled a little as he looked at the Sheriff.

She shrugged.

"The only thing we have to trade for our paycheck is our time," she explained.  "If I'm going to prevail upon your time, it's only right that I at least offer you a meal."

"Very kind," he nodded slowly, then:  "I have made diligent search, but without effect."

Willamina's right ear pulled back a little.

Her husband Richard was not only prior FBI, he was also a Mason, and he'd used that very phrase:  though she had no corroboration, she suspected the Parson was drawing on his own Masonic vocabulary in the moment.

"Pity," the Sheriff frowned, reaching for the white-ceramic cream pitcher:  she drizzled a little into her coffee, turned it handle-to, and the Reverend accepted the courtesy:  he added to his own coffee, replaced it halfway between them, handle to one side, spout to the other.

"I have Journals from multiple Sheriffs, I have correspondence, I have monographs written by the Black Agent, I have a few peeks into Sunday services," Sheriff Willamina Keller said thoughtfully, "but I would like a better look into that little whitewashed church.  Short of a time machine, personal accounts are the best way to do it."

Reverend Burnett nodded, tasted his coffee, found it to his liking.

"I can put out an appeal," he said, "perhaps someone will have an ancestor's moldy trunk or dusty satchel in the attic."

"That's how we found a grenade and the copper plated revolvers."

"Eh?"  Reverend Burnett leaned back to allow the waitress enough room to set down the platters.

"Genuine Second War pineapple grenade," Willamina nodded, "fortunately it was an inert – no live primer, no composition B and glad I was to see that big hole in the bottom!"  She shivered a little in spite of being perfectly comfortable in a long sleeved blouse and the suit jacket.

"Composition B?"  the Reverend echoed, a technique he'd found useful when he was curious about something unfamiliar.

"B stuff.  My uncle had some. They made grenades across the river from Felicity, over in Kentucky, and he said it's surprising how many of those nasty little iron bombs came home in dinner buckets. It gets unstable with age.  Given this stuff dates back to the Second Disagreement, the propellant could be over half a century old.  Once it gets unstable enough, a change in barometric pressure can set it off, or a bump or dropping it."

"I see."  The Reverend twisted uncomfortably in his seat.

"If the community goes attic raiding, it's hard to tell what treasures they'll come up with!"

The waitress hesitated, then settled the Sheriff's plate in place.

"We found a two-tone pink gown in the attic yesterday," she said hopefully.  "I tried it on and it just fit and Mom said I could wear it to the prom!"

"Thread rot might be a problem," Willamina murmured, her eyes brightening, then she looked at the Parson.

"If you put the word out, Parson, we're looking not just for journals kept by church folk."  She smiled at the waitress, picked up her fork. "We're looking for those two tone pink gowns!"

The waitress looked excited:  "Is there a story behind the gowns, Sheriff?" she asked hopefully, and the Sheriff's reply was to look at the girl and smile.

The waitress bounced a little on her toes, clapping her hands together in delight:  "I knew it!  I just knew it!"

 

 

 

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212.  A MATTER OF COSTUMING

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller turned and glared at her profile in the ancient, oval, full-length mirror.

It was more than twice her age and likely was original to at least the era of her house – and her house was built by her several-times-great grandfather, the pale eyed, second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado.

It probably wasn't his green-eyed bride who critically examined her reflection in this very mirror, but it would have been a contemporary, and Willamina considered herself most fortunate to acquire it.

The reflection regarding her rather sternly was that of a schoolmarm, a slender woman with pale eyes and a flat belly, a woman in a mousy-grey dress of severe and straight cut, with her hair drawn up into a disapproving walnut on top of her head:  she'd played hell finding a wig that looked right, but she'd managed, and she'd thrust a hand-whittled pencil through the walnut, just as her pale eyed, schoolteaching ancestress had done.

 

I handed Sarah my rifle.

"Little Sis," said I, "the Sheriff told me oncet, 'When in doubt, son, follow your gut.'"
Sarah took the rifle and give me a long look and I warn't sure if that meant she was pleased but it did mean she was listenin'. 

Matter of fact I'd expected her to tell me was I to follow my gut I'd end up in someone's kitchen, eatin' right out of the stew pot.

"I don't know why but my gut said to give you this rifle."

"Jacob ..."  Sarah turned her head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear – just like the Sheriff, thought I – "Jacob, this is ... your rifle."

"It's yours now."

"You have another."

"I have."

She nodded.  "What else says your gut?"

Now I was not entirely comfortable when she asked me that.

I know them wimmen folks has the Second Sight and they can look at one another and know when one's carryin' a child and mothers is wonderful creatures anyhow and they can tell when someone is lyin', it's a gift, and Mother told me men folk aren't supposed to be gifted that-a-way.

I taken Sarah by the arm and steered her down the street and finally we come in front of the school house.

"Sarah," said I, "turn and face up the street."

She did and so did I.

I looked up the street and I felt my breathin' change and I got real uncomfortable and Sarah gripped my hand and near to whispered, "Jacob?" and I seen it ag'in like I'd seen it before and I looked at her and I kind of wheezed "I saw you there, Sarah, I won't be there, I cain't help, you'll have to stop 'em –"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was the unquestioned leader and spearhead in the effort to unearth Firelands' past.

It was thanks to her good efforts (and a considerable infusion of her personal wealth) that the museum was established and stocked, that artifacts were obtained and researched; her influence was considerable – the Ladies' Tea Society was resurrected, thanks to her research, and the fact that when the Ladies attired themselves in garb and manners of a previous century, suddenly they were accorded a proper status of being Ladies, more so than if they were dressed in a more contemporary fashion.

The little one room schoolhouse was restored (the Sheriff insisted the Daine carpenters do the work, and they delighted in restoring it with the same tools and methods of their own ancestors, who'd built the original structure!), and on special occasions, local children were recruited, coached, dressed in attire of the period, and school was held after the fashion discovered by the Sheriff's research.

The children had just come back inside from recess – where tourists delighted in taking pictures of little boys chasing barrel hoops with sticks, or little girls happily chasing one another, long skirts and pigtails flying in the chill sunlight – the slender, severe-looking schoolmarm emerged from the red-painted doors like a clockwork figurine, raised her polished brass handbell and gave it three swinging clangs, giving the children an approving look as they lined up at the foot of the red-painted steps:  she turned, the bell held as if a scepter, and marched into the schoolroom, followed by her young charges.

A loud and harsh noise from up the street, and the schoolmarm's head snapped around, pale eyes driving through wavy glass windows:  it was the unmistakable sound of a motor vehicle collision, and the Sheriff's gut dropped to the top of her buttoned boots.

She almost dropped the bell to her desk's top and said loudly and firmly – she very carefully did not snap the words, which was her inclination – "Children, be seated, and do not come outside!" – which guaranteed that the moment she set foot outside, every last child would be pressed to the windows, peering out to see what the excitement was.

Willamina's hand raised as if on its own accord, pressed a hidden release:  a panel, not before apparent, clicked and swung open, and Willamina reached in without looking, gripped the fore-end of a Winchester rifle, pulled it free.

The pale-eyed schoolmarm marched to the red-painted door, hauled it open, took one step and jumped.

 

"Little Sis," said I, and I felt half sick when I said it, "you have to keep them safe –"

I looked up and saw the herd comin' down the street, cattle, panicked, mindless, I could see they were a-comin' and I knowed they had to be stopped, they'd come right up them steps into the schoolhouse and nowhere for the children to escape –

 

Willamina landed easily, cranked a round into the rifle, pale eyes hard, her glare cold as the winter air:  across the street, tourists held their phones out, capturing the drama on video, some wondering if this was a street performance, others wondering if they were safe.

Further up the street, a cattle truck, over on its side:  coming down the middle of the paved thoroughfare, cattle, panicked, running, mindless, escaping.

Willamina curled her lip, whistled:  something bayed, a deep, savage note, and Willamina brought the crescent steel butt plate up to her arm, flipped the tang mounted peep up with her thumb, set the front bead on a steer's skull plate.

Winchester steel and lead and a screaming woman, the thunder-slap of a rifle's report echoing hard and sharp from the buildings, a voice, loud, commanding:  "TANK!  BEAR KILLER!  HOLD 'EM!" –

Cartridge brass spun through the air, a little thread of smoke trailing from its blackened mouth, another shot, a third:  the pale eyed woman fired quickly, driving frontier justice into the lead element of the stampeding shorthorns, dropping carcasses into the path of those that followed:  beside her, a huge, black, blunt-muzzled monster of a dog, curly-furred death on four paws, snarling and jaw-chopping and inviting the herd to come and play, and on her right, a tan-and-black, bristling Malinois, fangs bared, dancing and eager to war again as it had in another land, as it had beside this very woman with the sound of gunfire and screaming commands.

Young noses pressed against wavy glass, young fingers spread like starfish against the cold window, young breath fogged their view:  they watched, wide-eyed, as their schoolmarm, their Sheriff, stood in the middle of the street with a rifle, as one woman stood against a black river, as two canine arrows shot forward and tore into the survivors.

 

"Little Sis," said I, "I don't scare easy and that warn't no nightmare."

Sarah's hand was warm on my shoulder and I leaned back ag'in the hitch rail, looked up the street.

"There's where they'll come from and you've got to stop 'em."

"What else did you see?"
"You'll have The Bear Killer with you and another ... I think 'twas a wolf of some kind.  Brown, though, and not grey."

"Will we keep the children safe?"

"I don't know," I admitted.  "I don't know."  I swallowed hard.  "All I can do ... Little Sis, I cleaned that rifle and it's ready to go.  Park it where you can get to it, you'll need it."

Sarah was quiet for a long moment.

"I know just where to put it."

 

That night, after Sheriff Willamina Keller finished her reports, her shots-fired investigation, her discussion with Chief Taylor, she finally got home about ten o'clock.

Richard met her at the door, held her, felt her shivering a little.

"How can I help?"  he whispered, and Willamina twisted from her husband's arms:  "I know where to find it," she muttered.

Richard watched as she walked quickly over to her roll top desk, ran a finger across the several volumes ranked along its top, plucked one free, paged quickly through it, carried it back to her husband, turned on the overhead light.

"Read this," she said.  "Read starting here."  She turned, went to her computer, rattled the keys for several seconds.

"Then come and read this."

Richard read the hand written account, puzzled, then walked slowly over to the computer and read their weekly newspaper's just-released report of the day's events.

He blinked, re-read the journal, re-read the screen, looked at his wife, and Richard felt something cold march its bony fingers right up his back bone.

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213.  TOTENKOPF

 

Bruce Jones, chief editor, reporter, photographer, publisher and floor sweeper of the weekly Firelands Gazette, scrolled slowly through the pictures forwarded him after their recent excitement.

He wore his glasses halfway down his nose, a pencil behind his ear, he wore a bow tie and a vest and sleeve garters because that's how his namesake back in the 1880s looked when he had a portrait taken at this same desk.

Bruce's chin was meditatively in the web of his left hand, at least until he scrolled to the last picture in the file.

His chin lifted a sixteenth of an inch, his hand rotated on the end of his arm, he pointed with two fingers, rubbing his upper lip with his thumb.

"That one," he said.  "That is front page, right there!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stood and glared at the glass faced photographs on her wall.

She looked at the Old Sheriff and at his son, she looked at the pale eyed young woman who glared right back at her from across a century of time and through a pane of glass, she decided against trying to stare them down:  she turned, rubbed her closed eyes and sighed.

"Jacob Keller," she muttered, "I need someone to beat on!"

Her cell phone vibrated in her jacket pocket; she dipped her hand delicately into the satin-lined pocket, withdrew her phone, tapped a quick code, turned it sideways to expand the picture to full-screen.

She saw a slender woman with a severe walnut of hair on top of her head, transfixed with a pencil; she was leaning into a rifle, and the shutter caught blue smoke and dirty yellow flame squirting out the barrel:  whoever took the picture used the photographer's trick of putting the subject at the edge of the photograph, leaving room to run into, or ride into, or in this case, shoot into:  the frame showed one beef down, another in a twist-head flinch, and beside the slender woman in the mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress, a brown-and-black Malinois, fur bristled, fangs bared, bouncing in mid-air, raging at the oncoming herd, and on the other side, something huge, black, its head turned a little sideways and jaws open, fangs gleaming:  it was a dynamic image, and the viewer's imagination populated the moment with the thunderclap of a rifle and the yammering roaring war-challenge of two fighting canines – three warriors, frozen in battle by the shutter's snap.

Willamina's jaw thrust out slowly, her pale eyes raising at the sound of knuckles on her door.

"Come in."

 

Jacob Keller considered the pine stick he held.

The air was fragrant with fresh whittled pine; he loved the smell, he remembered the Sheriff's grin as the two of them searched for the ideal tree on

Christmas eve, how the two of them would have scouted out trees ahead of time, then gone out on that magical, hushed night to harvest whichever of those they'd spotted, seemed right.

Tonight he sat on a bale of hay with his son.

Joseph watched as his father whittled the pitch pine into a fuzz stick, dropped it onto the burlap he had laid open for that purpose, picked up another stick and whittled some more.

Joseph didn't have to ask what these were for; he absorbed knowledge by observation, he knew his father used these fuzz sticks for starting fires.

He knew his father would whittle up a gunny sack full, he knew when he had enough, he would pick up the gunny sack and they would pack it inside and distribute their work between the stoves – it was always "our work" – and Joseph knew their fuzz sticks would start fires to keep them warm and to fire the big Monarch range.

Joseph watched with big blue eyes, pale blue that would get less blue and more glacier with time, watched his big strong Pa fork hay and manure, watched him saddle horses and rub down horses and grain horses, watched him trim calves and assess bulls, a weed between between his teeth and a boot up on the fence rail, watched him slaughter beeves and shoot game and hook fish in a mountain stream.

Whenever it was in the least little bit possible, Jacob included his son in the activity, even if it was a minor part:  as he grew, he learned, he was given more responsibility.

Boys never stop learning.

Fathers never stop teaching.

Joseph learned many lessons, more than he could count, lessons taught by his long tall Pa, and chief among these was how to treat a woman.

Joseph watched as his Pa took Annette in his arms and spoke with gentleness, he watched as his Pa and his Ma discussed matters of finance, as they made decisions together, as they laughed together and acted silly together and Joseph sat and watched when he'd go to dances with them, when Annette looked up at her husband as they danced, as she looked up with adoration into the face of the one man she loved more than any, and Joseph watched as his Pa held his Ma and the two moved as one, moving with the music that filled the Silver Jewel.

 

"Word travels fast in a small town," Willamina muttered.

"I'm sorry?" 

"You're looking for the Sheriff."

Bruce Jones stopped, blinked behind his round-lensed spectacles.

"Ummm ... yeeeeeesssss ... who else would you be, Sheriff?"

"From the looks of the photo you sent me, I must be some kind of an action-video character."

Bruce Jones smiled, shook his head.

"Sometimes I think you should have your own action figure."

"Sometimes I think I should crawl in a hole and pull it in after me."  Willamina pulled her chair out, dropped heavily into it, planted her elbows on her desk blotter and lowered her head into her hands.

"Bruce," she said, "do you know what my son did this morning?"

"Sheriff," Bruce said carefully, "I'm psychotic, not psychic."
Willamina raised her head a little, closed one eye, regarded the newsman with equal parts of fatigue and amusement.

"He finally told me why he didn't go out for football."

Bruce considered his pocket recorder, decided against activating it:  it would take a simple press of a button, but something told him this was not a discussion he wanted to put in the local paper.

Willamina considered for a long moment, seemed to come to a decision of some kind.

"Bruce, we've known one another for a long time."

He nodded, for they'd met when she was only just come to Firelands, they'd become fast friends and saw no reason to change that.

"Right now I need a friend."

"I'm here."

"Richard has cancer."

Bruce felt as if the chair fell out from under him and spun slowly down a deep, rocky shaft.

Willamina took a long breath, blew it out.

"My son ..."

She smiled with half her mouth.

"He didn't play football because he said he could either be on a bus full of sweaty guys or he could go marching band and be in a bus full of sweet smelling girls."

"He trained with the football team."

"He ran with them," she agreed, "and so did I.  They guys loved it.  I even sewed them a guidon."  She smiled a little at the memory, the recollection of the football team asking her to help them run like Marines, and she did.

"A guidon?"

"The pennant the patrol leader carries.  I don't know why ... but the ... I sewed a totenkopf."

"Totenkopf?"

"A skull, without a lower jaw."

She raised one eyebrow.

"God help me, Bruce, my little boy is talking about riding a bus full of sweet smelling girls?" 

She laughed, spread her hands helplessly.

"I knew it had to happen, but ... his automatic pilot is taking over!"

"How many ... know about Richard?"

"You can't hide information like this.  It's spreading."  She made a go-away gesture, as if to dismiss the fact, rubbed her forehead again.  "What you just heard – about Linn and his automatic pilot -- was inappropriate humor as a coping mechanism." 

She looked up, her expression haunted.

"I'm scared, Richard."

"How much do we know, Willa?  Facts, not fears."

" 'Facts, not fears,' " Willamina repeated, then laughed – more a harsh bark than a laugh – "Quoting my own words back to me?"

"They're good words, Willa, otherwise you would not have spoken them."

"Yeah."  She shoved her bottom jaw out, leaned back, looked over at the picture of her old friend, Marshal Beymer, long dead now; her father's revolver rested behind glass, the revolver she'd saved from the trash can, that and his gunbelt and the flag with which her mother was presented at his funeral.

"I was just a girl when I lost my Dad," she said faintly.  "I lost my first husband when I was deployed.  You remember that, he was killed by a drunk driver.  Uncle Pete died of a broken heart when Auntie died of that fast moving breast cancer and now Richard –"

"Stop."  Bruce raised a hand.  "Just stop, Willa.  How much do we know about Richard's cancer?"

"Right kidney, a lesion the size of a silver dollar, unchanged on CT for six months. Something changed, when he twists it stabs him and he's going to see the best surgeons at University Hospitals cancer center." 

Richard saw her hands tighten into fists:  her voice was steady, quiet, but her knuckles were blanching and he heard one, then another pop with the angry clench of fingers into her palm.

Now I know why she keeps her nails filed short, Bruce thought:  if she had nails, they'd bloody her palms!

 

Willamina's son sat beside his father on a bale of hay in their barn.

They each had a knife, they each had a stick of pitch pine, they each carefully whittled fuzz sticks they way they'd done since Willamina showed them how, years before.

"Sir?"  Linn asked quietly.

Richard looked over, smiled a little.

"Thank you."
"For ...?"  Richard's one eyebrow raised a little.

"For teaching me."

Richard nodded, turned his stick a little, considered his next cut.

"I've seen the way Mama looks at you when the two of you dance."

Richard's knife stopped before it bit into the soft, fragrant wood.

"She ... her face shines," Linn said softly, looking up, remembering, knife and stick forgotten. "She looks like a Queen in the arms of her King."

Richard blinked, considering this new information.

"You've taught me how to treat women."
Richard chuckled a little.

Of all the directions their conversation could have turned, this wasn't one he'd anticipated.

"Sir, I understand you'll be having surgery."

"Now who told you that?"

Linn looked over at his father, smiled a little, that same quiet smile Richard had seen so many times on his wife when she surprised him with some new information on a case they were working together.

"I find things out, sir."

Richard laughed, leaning his head back a little as he did.  "Good God," he declared, "you sound like your mother!"

"Reckon I learned from her as well, sir."  Linn grinned, then sobered.  "I understand they'll go robotic."

Richard sobered.  "I ... understand they will."

"Good."  Linn nodded.  "Otherwise the incision is quite large.  One small hole in, one small hole out, laser to cauterize the bleeding.  It's extremely precise."  He looked at his father again.  "That is easy for me to say.  I'm not the one getting whittled on."

Richard nodded, droped his fuzz stick in the half filled bucket.  "Yeah."

"I'd like to tell you it'll be all right," Linn admitted, "but I can't do that."  His expression was bleak as he stared at the far wall.  "I can't guarantee the sun won't rise in the west tomorrow morning."  The corner of his mouth twitched.  "It's highly unlikely but I can't guarantee it."

Richard nodded.

"I will be standing up on my knees for you, sir, and I am bringing reinforcements."

"Reinforcements?"
"Yes, sir."  Linn grinned openly.  "I'm ... do you remember the maxim about gunfights?  About bringing friends, lots of friends, with rifles?"

Richard chuckled.  "I remember."

Linn pulled out his cell phone, keyed in a quick series of numbers, swiped at the screen, tapped it three times. 

Richard frowned at what his son just pulled up.

Before he could ask why his son would have a photograph of a skull, missing its lower jaw, the younger, pale eyed Keller hit the SEND button.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller nodded thoughtfully.

"You're right, Jacob," he said finally.  "If a man knows he's going into a fight, he's wise to get as many men with him as he can arrange."

"Preferably with rifles, sir?"  Jacob grinned.

Sheriff Linn Keller laughed, nodded.

"Yes," he agreed.  "As many as possible and all with rifles!"

 

The day of Richard's surgery, Bruce Jones, editor, photographer, broom pusher and publisher of the Firelands Gazette, looked out his office window.

He knew the Sheriff's husband was for surgery that day, and he'd talked to God about it that morning.

What caught his attention was a platoon of young men, in Marine-straight ranks, running in formation, young men with a red guidon carried by their leader, a red guidon with a gold skull, missing its lower jaw.

Bruce Jones had a reporter's instinct, and his instinct prompted him to seize his reporter's bag – recorder, camera, spare batteries, pad and pencils – he ran out the front door, jogged down the sidewalk, saw the squad stop and file into their little whitewashed church.

Bruce Jones wasn't the only curious soul that morning.

The Reverend Burnett looked at his wife, wondering at the sound that seemed to come from his church.

He rose from his desk, his half finished sermon forgotten, the discarded pencil diagonal across his neat print on the ruled page:  he rose, opened the hallway door, and the sound was more distinct, almost ...

Like a locomotive? he thought, then opened the door and looked into his church's interior.

 

Half a dozen young fists pounded the altar rail, keeping time with their tribal chant.

Theirs was a prayer, offered up in concert, in keeping with the admonition that where three or more are gathered in His name, there He would be also, and this squad of earnest young men were offering up their prayer.

As Linn explained to the good Reverend, "We read in Scripture that we are to weary Heaven with our prayers."  He turned and indicated strong young men – Willamina's Warriors, they called themselves – the entire football team and a few more, all with their eyes fixed on the rough-wood cross on the wall behind the Altar.

Fists beat on the altar rail, keeping time with the chant, as Linn tapped and swiped at his phone, and as Reverend Burnett felt the sincerity of the several voices chanting, "HE-al RICH-ard, HE-al RICH-ard, HE-al RICH-ard," he looked at the cell phone's screen, looked at the pale eyed young man.

"Rabbitville," Linn explained.  "They have every one of the White Sisters and every one of the Brethren."

He turned the volume up so the Reverend could hear.

 

Willamina chewed her knuckle as she looked at her cell phone and heard the chant, saw young fists pounding the altar rail in unison, saw the familiar guidon leaned in a corner, as she looked at the White Nuns and heard their supplicating soprano, underlaid by the deeper chant of the Brethren.

The image wobbled a little, flipped; she saw the Reverend Burnett and her son, standing together.

Linn grinned.

"Hi, Mom," he greeted her.  "I brought reinforcements."

 

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214.  I'VE HEARD THAT SAID BEFORE

 

Parson Belden was improved enough to wrap up in a heavy coat and step out on his side porch.

He sat here, at the end, where the sun still hit, insulated against the cold:  his home was warm and inviting, his wife benevolent and not at all irritating, but he felt the need to step outside for just a little while.

He'd been laid up for most of a week with chills and fever and the back door trots; he'd ignored the discomforts of a cold outhouse seat, telling himself instead that he was grateful it was sanded smooth, and made of one broad plank, instead of the one he'd used years ago made of two planks, a seat that – although well enough made, carefully enough sanded – well, it pinched when his weight came on it, and ever since, he'd seen to it any outhouse over which he had any influence at all, had a seat made of a single broad plank.

One of his fellows in seminary complained about such a pinchy seat, and was immediatley dubbed "Tendercheeks" – an unflattering nickname the Parson knew followed the man on into his life – and this, too, weighed into his decision.

The Parson looked up as Jacob came pacing around the house on his butterscotch gelding.

"Well, you ain't dead," the younger man greeted him, and when the Parson raised his head to consider a reply, Jacob was honestly shocked at how ghastly the man looked.

"Parson, either you've lost a pile of weight or somebody forgot to bury you," Jacob offered frankly, if undiplomatically:  "why'nt you get inside before you freeze what little is left of your poor old carcass?"

The Parson considered for a moment, lowering his chin back into the welcoming nest of fur around his neck, and finally nodded:  he stood, a little less than steady, and Jacob came out of his saddle and up the steps on the Hot Foot to seize the man's arm against any unwonted collapse.

Mrs. Parson looked up as her door was thrust open with a vigor she hadn't expected from her normally placid husband.

Jacob hooked a kitchen chair with his boot, spun it expertly around, lowered the sky pilot carefully, then turned and closed the door behind him.

"It's just a bit frash out," he said mildly, taking off his hat and looking around for the peg.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller slid her chair closer to Reverend John Burnett's kitchen stove.

It was a move of nostalgia that prompted the man to install a genuine cast iron Monarch – a move his wife disagreed with, but tolerated – Willamina knew the woman did most of their cooking on a two burner gas hot plate or the microwave, and the Monarch was used more to heat that end of the house, which it did in fine shape.

"You were asking about records," Reverend Burnett said, opening an ancient ledger-book and sorting through a half-dozen age-yellowed sheets stuck loose between the pages – "and I remembered someone saying something about some old books, so I got to looking."

"Beautiful handwriting," the pale-eyed Sheriff murmured.

"My predecessor. I believe he was a contemporary of your Old Sheriff."

"Parson Belden?"  Willamina's eyes widened a little and the good Reverend saw her pupils dilate just a little.

"Yes, ma'am.  These are some of his sermons, but this" – he slid the pages apart, moved one aside, another, then handed the Sheriff a single sheet.

"He seemed impressed by the sermon given by the Sheriff's son."

 

Parson Belden accepted the heavy ceramic mug of fragrant, orange-spiced tea.

"A gift from your mother," he murmured, thrusting his face into the fragrant cloud of steam rising from the amber payload:  "her kindness has given me great comfort here of late!"

"It's all he's been able to keep down," Mrs. Parson said worriedly.  "A little bread, some crackers, not much else."

Jacob frowned.  "No broth?"

Parson Belden took a tentative sip, then another.

"Let's see how this sits on my stomach, shall we?"  He peered benevolently through the rising steam.  "I think perhaps I might try it, but let's just give it a minute."

 

Willamina's pale eyes swung left, swung right, following the long-dead Parson's account, line by line, reading of the young lawman speaking from the pulpit, hearing the voice in her imagination – a young voice, powerful, confident, a voice full of merriment and deviltry, for only a laughing soul would dare to be funny from the pulpit.

Jacob, Jacob, she thought, how I wish I'd been there to hear you!

 

Parson Belden's hands trembled as he tore a strip from the slice of bread.

He raised his eyebrows, looked at Jacob, watching quietly, loafing back in his chair, one boot crossed over the other knee, hand loosely gripping his own steaming ceramic mug.

"If I were a crude man," Parson Belden said quietly, and Jacob heard a smile hiding behind the man's voice, "I would say I'm slobberin' like a starvin' dog."

Jacob's eyes tightened a little at the corners – just like his father, the Parson thought – but he made no other reply.

"That is a good thing," Mrs. Parson said, wiping her hands in the dishtowel that lived over her right shoulder:  "he couldn't stand the smell of it this time yesterday!"

The Parson dipped bread in broth, raised it, took a noisy, slurping bite, chewed slowly, closing his eyes and savoring the experience.

Mrs. Parson came over, brisk and motherly, bent and very carefully dabbed the dribble of broth from the man's clean-shaven chin.

Ill he might have been, but his military habit of neatness was well formed, and in spite of a trembling hand, he'd managed to shave that morning as he had every day since leaving the bloody insanity of that damned War.

 

"It says here," Willamina said slowly, reading and re-reading the pertinent lines –

"Jacob," the Parson said finally, after the slice of bread was behind his belt buckle, and with it, half the mug of broth – "Jacob, I did enjoy your sermon."

Jacob nodded slowly.  "Glad you liked it."

"I was surprised," the Parson admitted, then raised his mug, holding it in both hands, sipping carefully, swallowing slowly – "I was surprised at how well you spoke."

Jacob's face tightened a little at the edges the way a man's face will when he's trying not to smile.

Jacob knew the Parson and he knew the man was not given to false flattery.

The Parson lowered his mug a little.  "Frankly, Jacob, I wasn't the only one surprised at how well you spoke."

Jacob smiled ever so slightly.  "You expected me to sound like a poor dumb hillbilly."

"Frankly, yes."

Jacob nodded slowly, then looked at the sky pilot.

"Parson, I do nothing without purpose."

Parson Belden raised an eyebrow.

"People judge a man by how well he speaks." 

He looks like a cat who's gotten into the cream, the Parson thought.

"Everyone has heard me sounding like that poor dumb hillbilly.  They've heard it for years.  Now all of a sudden I speak as well as the Sheriff?" 

Jacob tried without any luck whatsoever to stifle his smile:  he turned his face away, then looked back.

"Now people will wonder, Parson.  All of a sudden I'm not the slow minded sort they're used to hearing."

Jacob leaned a little closer, as if to confess the man some confidence, some secret.

"The smart ones will always remember that, and they will never be certain.  That'll give me an edge.  Now let's say we have someone who's not quite that smart.  They'll still think me a poor dumb hillbilly.  That will give me an edge too."

 

Willamina raised her head, blinked.

She remembered shortly after she'd come to Firelands County.

She remembered killing a man who needed killin'.

She knew she still had to establish herself, and she did.

Word travels fast in a small town, she knew, and especially news that the new Sheriff killed a man.

She'd slammed the door open at the Spring Inn, stood in the doorway, all boots and jeans and Stetson and rifle in hand, and then she'd come in, cold eyes glaring from under the shadowing felt brim of her black skypiece:  she'd raised a finger, she'd accepted the water glass of distilled sledgehammer, she'd walked through the crowd like Moses walking through the parting waters and she'd laid her rifle across the table and set down behind it.

She placed the glass on the table and glared at it until the silent, watching crowd wondered if it wouldn't split open and spill all over the table, or explode in flame, or freeze solid.

She seized the glass and the rifle, surged to her feet, kicked the table over:  she downed the whole glass full of liquid detonation, stomped for the door, SLAMMED the heavy glass down on the bar and stopped.

She turned and glared round about, she met every eye in the place, and then she just shy of screamed, "I SENT ANOTHER ONE TO HELL TODAY!" – she turned and shoved aside her chief deputy and her fiancee, both of whom had come at the barkeep's nervously telephoned summons.

She'd had them take her home, where she downed two aspirin and two glasses of water, she bent over and heaved up her guts:  she drank again, heaved again, and after the third time, she wiped her mouth on her flannel shirtsleeve and turned to face the two men she trusted more than any other.

Sheriff Willamina Keller read the words written by the long dead Parson, and as she read the sky pilot's account of his conversation with her pale eyed ancestor, she heard her own voice as she said the same words:

"I do nothing without purpose."

The Sheriff's phone vibrated and she slipped a hand into her pocket, withdrew it, smiled.

"Reverend, thank you."

Reverend Burnett rose with her, gave her a fatherly look.

"Safe travels, my dear," he said in a kindly voice, and Willamina winked at him, spun, skipped out the door, drew it shut behind her.

Less than ten minutes later, the Sheriff slipped a set of headphones in place, plugged in her commo, gave the seat belt a final tug, looked at the pilot, nodded.

She smiled a little as the turboprop began to sing, almost laughed as the pilot's thumb rested heavy on the transmit button.

"Tower, Firelands One on takeoff roll."

 

Richard stared up at the ceiling tiles.

"You'd think they'd put pictures up there," he said to nobody in particular.

A familiar face leaned over his, pale eyes smiling:  "I'll see what I can do about that."
Richard smiled and felt himself relax a little.

"Willa.  You're here."

She batted pale eyes innocently, raised her eyebrows. 

"You noticed."

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215.  AND SHE TURNED THE PAGE

 

Annette always felt guilty when she opened her husband's desk.

She knew he kept his journal in a particular place, she knew he marked his place with the two of clubs, a card long lost from its original deck – she suspected its fellows were either shot full of holes, or shot in two edgewise, he and his pale eyed father delighted in showing off their marksmanship after church in the corral at the end of the street.

She had a moment to sit and relax, and she was curious to read what her husband entrusted to good rag paper.

Her eyes swung back and forth and she frowned a little, then she smiled, her hand came to her high bodice and then she chewed her knuckle a little:  her cozy, warm, comfortable, solidly-built stone house faded from around her as she read.

She turned the page, her eyes widened, and her breath caught for a moment.

 

I come on what was left of the sleigh.

Butterscotch he ho'd without me tellin' him and we stood there and his breath was plumes of white steam in the cold air.

We sat stone still, I don't reckon he even slashed his tail, hell, 'twas froze up, no bugs to swat at.

I read the story in the snow, turned in the saddle, looked to where it come from.

It looked like they was a thrashin' in the snow, might be the horse went down there, the sleigh was busted up, I saw somethin' in the snow that looked like it might be a carcass.

I listened.

I heard somethin' kind of hollow and brittle soundin' and I knowed it was somethin' on the ice below, they was a pond down yonder and Butterscotch he heard it too so we got curious and rode around the wreck and on down where we knowed the trail was and I taken a look and damned if there warn't a harnessed up horse and what was left of some traces behint it and attair horse was layin' on its side on the ice.

Ever' now and ag'in it tried to git up, it set a hoof on the ice and it slid and I never seen a sadder nor more discouraged lookin' dapple grey in my whole entire life.

From the look of the scarrin' up on attair ice he'd been tryin' to git up but steel shoes is slick and he warn't gettin' no bite so me and Butterscotch we rode around and down and I slud out of the saddle and taken me the lariat and studied the situation.

I knowed where the water normally run and figured that might be thin so I walked on the Cat Foot out torst attair horse and I knelt down by its head and talked soothin' to it, attair horse was wallin' its eyes and it didn't much like the situation but I figgered was I to tie off on its harness might be I could slide it across the ice and into the snow but I'd have to hit him hard for a first pull.

I run my hands down its legs and didn't find nothin' I shouldn't so I taken attair plaited reata and tied it off and strung it out behint me, I fetched up into the saddle and run attair line around the horn, we eased into it and I backed Butterscotch a couple steps and then we come up ag'in attair line and I knowed it had some give to it and we got attair horse started and it didn't like that none a'tall and it was movin' and startin' to slide and Butterscotch he lunged ag'in snow and sand underneath and damned if we didn't haul attair thrashin' dapple acrost the ice and into the snow and he kind of piled up and thrashed some and got his legs under him and come up on all fours and I come out of saddle leather and waded through the snow and come up and recht for his cheek strap and he shied some but finally let me take holt and I bribed him with some Pepper Mint and attair horse allowed as that was real good and then its ears come up and turned his head and looked and I looked at Butterscotch and his ears was up too and then I heard it.

"Katie" – whack! – "now Katie – whack! – "Katie it warn't my fault – whack, whack! – "daggone it Katie quit hittin' me with that whack!ow! Katie –"

"Don't you Katie me!"  I heard a girl's voice and she warn't happy a'tall and here come a young fella in a heavy coat slidin' down hill and throwin' up a cloud of snow with him, he slud down what was likely the froze up water fall and hit the ice, he slid over to where attair horse had been and I seen the ice was cracked some and I commenced to unhitch attair lariat from the dapple's harness and I near to had it free when he give a yelp and I looked and he was swimmin' acrost attair ice and I seen where they was water come up through the cracks and he warn't really swimmin' for there was jut a little water on top, enough to run through his britches I reckon and he was near to panicked gettin' off attair ice and he was just a-diggin' with gloved hands and the insides of his boots and I am proud of myself.

I realized he looked like a bull frog swimmin' through a pond only he was swimmin' acrost ice and makin' a right fine imitation of Old Green Legs.

I looked up and seen a girl I knowed, she was maybe twelve or so, the look she give that poor fellow was enough either to re-freeze that cracked ice, or maybe melt it down to steamin' hot bathwater, I warn't sure which, but she was right unhappy and damned if she didn't grab her skirt and draw it tight around her legs and take a runnin' jump and land on her backside and slide down attair froze up and snow covered waterfall and she hit the ice and slid a little, she come up on her feet and she run acrost that ice with attair war club upraised and I stepped in and grabbed it before she could put another knot on this poor fellow's head.

"Katie Katherine Katrina," I said, "you are beautiful when you're angry."

Now that warn't her name but it did take her by surprise and that broke the back of her anger and she stopped and looked at me and her mouth opened and then she reckonized me and I said "I do believe that was the best recovery from a fall I've ever seen!"

She turned and looked at where she'd come from and she turned and looked at me and she turned and looked at attair slide ag'in and she looked at me and squeaked, "I came down that?" and she let go of that war club so I tossed it well out of reach just in case she'd get her steam back up.

"You come down that slide ready for a young war," I said quietly, "and you come up on your feet like a dancer.  Come the next barn dance, if your dance card is open, I would tread a measure with you."

Now there's about the time her face started to turn red and she looked at that young fellow beatin' snow off his coat and tryin' to stand so his frozen britches warn't touchin' his hide.

"Now do you two reckon you kin ride this-yere dapple without killin' one another?"

 

Annette laughed at the mental image her husband's carefully crafted characters portrayed on the stage of her imagination.

His written word was considerably less crude than his vulgar – that is, his usual, everyday – speech.

Annette knew the term "vulgar" did not mean rude, crude or socially unacceptable, it correctly meant "ordinary, average or everyday" – such as the everyday language, as opposed to High Church Latin – then she decided against referring to her husband's spoken word as vulgar.

It could, after all, lead to misunderstandings.

She looked again at the page, at the unexpected scrawl, then the regular, block print, encircled, with an arrow toward the scrawl:  Here did The Bear Killer nose my arm this day, and Annette smiled again, for she remembered how The Bear Killer did love to nose an inattentive hand or arm in an attempt to beg a back scratch or a belly rub.

She turned the page.

 

Butterscotch and me we went on back to what was left of what used to be a good sleigh and we got the buffalo robe and that went over their dapple's back before they clumb aboard and I reckon that was welcome for that poor young feller's backside for everything astern of his side seams got wet and oncet it got ag'in that buffalo fur why I reckon it trapped enough heat it quit burnin'.

I been soaky wet in freezin' weather and it burns and I don't much care for it my own self.

Now they went on back torst town and she was hangin' onto him and she had her head turned sideways and laid ag'in his back and I figured long as she did that she wouldn't be stranglin' him but he looked kind of sick knowin' he'd busted up that sleigh but he was goin' on in to face the music.

 

Annette read.

Her husband's careful script picked her up and set her in the saddle with him.

She felt the gelding warm and strong under her, she felt the mountain wind caress her reddened cheeks, she saw the welcome solidness of the Sheriff's fine, strong house:  she felt Esther's motherly hands, heard the kindness in her voice, sat with her husband, all without leaving her seat in front of her husband's desk, all without lifting her fingers from the bottom of the hand written pages.

 

"Annette is well, ma'am," I said, "and she sends her love."

I felt my ears gettin' a little red as I thought of my beautiful bride.

Mother tilted her head a little and gave me a warm and approving look, as if she knew what I was about to say.

Likely she did know.

Women can see through me like a pane of window glass.

"Mother," I admitted, "Annette is absolutely the one best thing that ever happened to me!"

 

Annette read on, her foreknuckle between her teeth, her eyes welling a little as she read her husband's words, his confession to his mother of his deep and abiding affection for this woman who chose to be his wife:  she read of Esther's quiet question, "And Jacob, do you tell her this?" and Annette had to stop and fumble for a kerchief and press it against one eye, then the other, as she read her husband's reply.

 

"Yes, ma'am," I said honestly.  "I tell her.  Every day."

Mother gave me that patient look of hers.

"Mother," I admitted, "when we go to sleep, we're holdin' hands and –"

I felt my ears warm and I looked down but then figured I was in it so just push on through and I did.

"Ma'am, I tell her I love her and that's my last words before I'm asleep and the last thing I hear is her sayin' the same thing and unless she has to get up for Joseph, why, when we wake up we're still holdin' hands."

I was thinkin' about this when I got home that evenin' and Annette she had a fine meal fixed and she was dressed up and Joseph he was scrubbed up and shinin' and Annette she grabbed holt of me at the door and hugged me like she was goin' to squeeze me in two.

I figured she'd got some real good news or she was with child ag'in but no, she said it was just because.

I hugged her back and figured well, sometimes women are like that, and lucky I was she warn't whappin' me over the gourd with a tree branch or some such.

 

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216.  TOO DAMNED REAL

 

I slid the tabs off my hammers and drew them down out of the way.

The Sheriff saw my move but his eyes never changed.

The other fellow did not know I was anywhere near.

Now the Sheriff is fast and I am just a shade faster and this fellow we did not know from Adam, he might make lightning itself look like slow molasses on a cold day, we had no idea, but he was carryin' hardware on his belt and he was standin' like a man who was bristlin' up for a fight and I come into the conversation late so I had no idea which way the wind was a-blowin'.

However 'twas I blessed the Almighty and Charlie Macneil for l'arnin' me the value of movin' quiet, like the Sheriff, like Charlie, like Marshal Cooper ... big men they all were and absolutely silent they were when they moved.

Hell, Marshal Cooper was one of the fastest men I've ever seen, and that was a great advantage to him, folks looked at that walkin' mountain of muscle and bristlin' red beard and figured he was slow to think and slow to move and they were dead wrong on both counts.

The Sheriff was relaxed and that warn't a good sign.

When he's relaxed and he looks like a sleepy cat sunnin' on a window sill he's more'n dangerous, that's when he's fastest, and he was relaxed and sleepy and could near to see the sun shinin' on him he looked so sleepy cat like.

Was this other fellow to move warn't many ways he could go.

He could turn torst me and inherit fast movin' lead for his trouble.

He could turn away from me and head for the door.

He could rush the Sheriff, which would not be smart neither, men tried that too and come out in secont place for their troubles.

Now all this went screamin' through my head in about one and one half heart beats, it's surprisin' how fast the mind will run, and then the Sheriff said mildly, "Who you lookin' for?"

The man's voice was even, steady: he warn't wound up like an eight day clock – that was good, a nervous or jumpy man might make a stupid move, and stupid moves when you faced a gun hawk is a good way to get your name sand blasted on granite – this fellow said "I'm a-lookin' for some Yankees."

The Sheriff nodded, just a little.

"Plenty around," he said.

The fella was facin' torst the Sheriff so I could not see his face but his head turned ever so slightly and I would be willin' to bet money he frowned a little, then he looked square on at the Sheriff ag'in.

"I'm lookin' for a pa'ticular Yankee."

"Any pa'ticular reason?"

"Yeah."

The man's voice was flat and he offered no further.

"Oncet you find him what'll you figger will happen?"

Now I could see his face just a little, quarterin' away from me, and a man focused on trouble will lose his side vision and I was standin' dead still so it's likely he didn't see me, but I did see his jaw ease out a little and the hide on his forehead moved a little like he frowned some.

"I figger I will fall over dead."

"You been lookin' for some time."  It was a statement, not a question, and the man nodded.

"Well hell," said the Sheriff, "set down and tell me about it, I'm tired of standin'!"

If the Sheriff moves first, thought I, this'll give that fella and opening –

They both recht for a chair at the same moment and they both set down in the same moment.

Neither chair had arms and I knowed the Sheriff practiced the draw from that chair for moments like this but I moved not a bit, for I am not a trusting man.

"What happened to send you lookin'?" the Sheriff asked quietly – there was no reason to raise a man's voice, for we were inside the Sheriff's office, the heavy walls shut out the biggest part of the outside sound, they was snow enough on the roof to muffle some more.

"I was just a boy," the fella said, and he stopped and swallered like his mouth was dry and the Sheriff he opened the bottom drawer of his desk and fetched out a bottle of beer, set it on the desk, come up with a secont:  he flipped the wire bail on both, worked out the corks and handed the man one.

"Talkin' dries the throat," he said and I seen the hint of a smile at the corners of them pale eyes and damned if I would have got up and taken the two steps over to where that fella was set but he's him and I'm me and I just stood there not movin' a'tall.

Movement catches the eye and I did not want to give no let-be that I was back there watchin'.

"Thank'ee," the fella said, and taken a drank, and he taken a secont, smaller, and I could tell he appreciated the wet and the taste.

"Y'see, 'twas torst the last of the war and that damned Sherman come through rippin' the guts out of the country."

The Sheriff nodded and he looked sleepy-like and I reckoned that was to hide the deep and abiding anger in his eyes.

He'd rode with Sherman and he'd seen the outrages Sherman done to the South and he never spoke that war criminal's name without sayin' right after "Pardon me while I spit" – but I genuinely did not expect what this fella said next.

"My sister was just fourteen.  We didn't have much left but we had a little cake for her and then the shout come up that Sherman was a-comin' and we didn't have enough warnin' to get away."

He stopped and I seen his free hand clench up some.

"I got caught and they beat me awful and they made me watch what they done to my sister."
His voice was a whisper now, hoarse, and I could hear the horror in a boy's memory as they hissed out of a grown man's throat.

"They held her down and this Yankee captain he come up and he fetched out a pistol and shot the three that was on her and he held the three a-helpin' at the point of that cocked pistol and he allowed as they-all was under arrest.
My sister and I watched as he hanged them that was helpin'.

My sister she did not shed one single tear, not until well into the night and we was alone and them bluecoats kilt every live stock we had, they taken every horse, they wrung every chicken's neck and broke every egg and fired the house and barn and sheds and left us with a whole lot of nothin' a'tall.

"They killed ever'one but us and the slaves they went followin' and rejoicin' and my sister she went off by herself and I seen her go out into the family grave yard.

"I seen her take a paper out of her pocket and set it on Pa's grave stone and she taken a little bottle and drank it and set that bottle on the paper and then she laid down and I had me just this awful feelin' and I run over to her but she was thrashin' some and then she looked up and her eyes was empty and she was dead."

He swallowed again and then looked down, recht into his coat pocket and pulled out a wallet.

"I kep' that note."

He handed it to the Sheriff.

The Sheriff read the note, nodded, laid the note on his desk between them.

"Who exactly were you hoping to find?"

Now this fella looked just awful old.

The Sheriff was thirty years after that damned War but this fella looked thirty years older than the Sheriff, he'd had a hard life and no two ways about it, his clothes was worn and his boots was worn and his hat was scuffed but what he had was clean and mended as best as a man alone can arrange.

"I wanted to kill all them Yankees," the stranger finally said.  "I kilt some, I followed along and I'd shoot from ambush if I could find a place to run away from but there was no pleasure in it.

"The only one I really remembered was that damned Billy Sherman and that pale eyed Captain that shot three of his own men and hanged three more."

"Once you find this pale eyed man," the Sheriff said, "what then?"

There was a long silence.

The fellow drained the last of his beer and set the empty back on the Sheriff's desk.

"I don't know," he admitted.  "He was the only one of them damned Yankees that did not try to destroy all we had."

"Have you a family?"

"No."  He shook his head.  "No I don't."

"Where will you go from here?"

"On West, I reckon.  I'm too old to hunt for gold and I ain't goin' down in no mine.  I been in a mine and 'twas like walkin' through a tomb."

"Don't blame you there," the Sheriff grinned – a quick flash of teeth, then gone – "I was in a coal mine when I was a boy and it give me the honest-to-God, get-out-quick shivers!"

"That's it exactly!"  this fellow declared, slapping his knee and pointing at the Sheriff.

"You ever hunt men before?"

A slow shake of the head.  "Never had the stomach for it."

"Hm."  The Sheriff nodded.  "Much of a hand with cattle?"

"Never tried it," came the frank admission:  "kind of long in the tooth for a young man's job."

"How about blacksmithing?"
"Now there's somethin' I can do," he nodded, and I heard a change in his voice:  it warn't so heavy with hard memories – a man's voice will ... lighten ... relax, might be the word I'm wantin' ... when he speaks of a thing that is a pleasure to him, and he did with this.

"I hear tell Black Smith over in Cripple died last week and they've not found a smith worth a damn to take over his business."  The Sheriff opened his top drawer, pulled out paper, a steel nib pen and a bottle of ink.  "What might your name be, friend?"

"Morgan Walters."

The Sheriff's pen scratched noisily in the silence:  the fellow watched with interest as the lawman's pen inscribed regular lines of regular characters:  the Sheriff laid a blotting sheet over it, run a rocker over it, held it up and waved it a few times.  "There.  Ink's dry.  Give that to the young man at the forge.  You'll need this."

He opened the drawer again, brought out a small book, tore out a leaf.

"That's passage on the Z&W Railroad, that'll get you a meal on the train.  You et today?"
The man shook his head.

"First off, you stick this in your wallet."  He laid the paper beside the ancient, yellowed note; the man took them both, placed them carefully away, slid the wallet back into an inside coat pocket.

The Sheriff rose, lifted his head so the man could see his pale eyes.

"I remember you, Morgan," he said.  "I remember the scared, hurt boy you were."  He extended a hand.  "Name's Keller.  Past Captain, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry."
The man had got most of the way stood up when he taken the Sheriff's hand and when the words hit bottom, why, his knees kind of buckled and his bottom hit attair chair and his jaw dropped a foot or better.

The Sheriff looked at me. 

"I remembered that scared, hurt boy you were when I run into another of the kind."  He raised his chin a fraction.  "May I introduce my son, Jacob."

Now it would not be polite to speak of the man openin' and closin' his mouth like a fish out of water so let me say instead that when the Sheriff and me saw him off at the depot he had a full meal and a bath, he had frash clothes and a new pair of boots.

I wondered about that note his sister left on the tomb stone, held down with that little brown bottle.

I run into them bottles of prussic acid my own self and I've known women to use 'em, 'twas not at all uncommon for Ladies of Horizontal Refreshment to get burnt out and beat on too many times and they'd be found laid out wearin' whatever good they had and gener'ly a note, but this one ... the Sheriff he told me what that note said and that just was not comfortable a'tall for me.

Hearin' this man talk and knowin' what it done to him made all the Sheriff said happened in That Damned War, of a sudden, too real.

Too damned real.

 

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217.  CASUALTY

 

The sound of a gunshot up close is harsh enough.

Detonate a .44 inside a closed room and it is a wondrous thing indeed.

I know it fired and I drove the muzzle of my own Colt into the man's ribs and blowed blood and guts out the other side of him and I had aholt of my temper and I was hard and cold on the inside and I moved like I was in cold clear honey and I fetched up my revolver and saw the dirty bloom of a shot and I brought my front sight up and as it crossed where I reckoned his nose was I tripped the sear and he snapped back like he'd been drove between the eyes with a brick bat and I shoved hard to the side and knocked someone down and I looked around and warn't nobody else showin' a fight about 'em, least no one but that stubby shotgun suddenly shoved out from between the bars and I yelled "BEATRICE, WE GOT 'EM!" and Beatrice she hauled that double gun back from between the teller's bars and she come bustin' out through attair door like a tug boat with a belly full of run-you-down and she looked down at the fella layin' on the floor coughin' his last and she snapped "NOBODY ROBS MY BANK!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller read, absorbed, reached for another book, paged quickly through it.

"Plat map," she muttered, "plat map, plat map, where ... ooooohhh!" 

She pressed her lips together, furrowed her brows, shook her head.

"I know I saw it!"

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna clapped her hands twice, sharply, ensuring that every shining, scrubbed student's face was turned toward her.

"Class," she said, "I will need your help."  She looked over her students, mentally assessing their skills.

"I need three volunteers," she said, then pointed:  "You, you and you.  You are volunteers, come with me."

She gathered a writing board, some paper, rulers, pencils:  a peck basket, a brisk step, and she led her small entourage out into the street.

"Now.  Cecil, you are a mapmaker."

Cecil opened his mouth to protest and Sarah thrust the basket into his hands.

"You are a mapmaker," she said firmly.  "We are drawing a detailed map of the main street.  We will have each building, each horse trough, each hitch rail and rain barrel and other notable features and we will have them to scale."

She reached into the basket.

"Now.  First we have to take measurements.  Amos, you are secretary.  Cecil will measure the length of each feature and will call you the measurement.  You will write down its name and its measurement, and Cecil, you will sketch your work and also write in your measurements.  We will take this information back with us to make the finished map.

"Here is a fifty foot cloth measuring tape. Do not stretch it."

She watched as her young charges studied the situation and then began looking up the street, and down the street, discussing where and how to start, and the decided they'd start at the lower end, just past the firehouse, shy of the corral.

 

Jackson Cooper took the first holdup by the scruff of his coat and dragged him out of the bank.

Whether the man survived to undergo the doctor's tender ministrations was of no concern to the big Marshal, for this was HIS bank and HIS town and he had neither patience nor any kindly disposition toward any who would bring grief to either one.

I didn't much care neither.

The man laid wait inside the door and when I set foot inside he drove the muzzle of his gun ag'in my tenderloins and I spun and knocked it aside and introduced my own justice to his sinner's gizzard.

When I spun 'twas to knock his gun muzzle aside and my arm was down and stiff to do it and his shot went out the door.

I was curious so I stood where we'd been and figured okay, the shot would have gone from here – I taken a sight from the left edge of the door frame – to here – I taken me a sight acrost the right side of the door frame – then I squatted and studied the door frame to make sure it hadn't hit wood.

It hadn't.

I studied the threshold and the board porch and then the street and didn't see where he'd gouged up nothin' from a shot gone low so I cast a wider arc and then I seen it.

There was a squirt of water comin' out the bottom of the horse trough.

I stood there and laughed.

Jackson Cooper he caught up with me not long after and we had us a powwow and a palaver and a council of war and we went back into attair bank and I'd already got statements from ever'one who was in there, I give Beatrice a big hug and allowed as I was proud of her and it was kind of like huggin' a ruffled up Banty hen for she was still of a mind to scratch and cluck but she was pleased to hear my words for I told her she done all right and a woman who's been powerful unhappy likes to be told she done the right thing.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller knew their bank was higher than the original, that it was offset somewhat from the original bank's footprint; she was puzzled about something, and she knew that unless she satisfied that curious question, it would nag at her incessantly, and so she searched one volume, then another, and finally found a hand drawn map of the main street.

She looked at the bottom left corner.

Cecil, Mapmaker, she read:  the words were in a fine, scripted hand, slowly and carefully drawn more than signed:  beneath this,

Amos, Chief Surveyor

Enoch, Surveyor's Assistant

With it, the handwritten account by their schoolteacher:  how, after a shooting at the bank, she determined that a record should be made of the street's exact character, and how, after careful measurement, after translating their measurements into proportions, after using those Masonic virtues of Geometry, they arrived at this hand drawn work.

Sheriff Willamina Keller studied the map and compared it to her intimate knowledge of the area described, and finally she smiled, and straightened, and nodded.

The next day, when she walked down to the Firelands drugstore, she stopped and studied one of the two original horse troughs that somehow survived the century and more:  she squatted, ran her hand slowly across its bottom edge, then rose, peered into its watery depths, and finally, shaking her head, frowned her way to the gleaming-chrome-fixture drugstore, and her daily lunch.

It was not until that evening that she returned to the written account to refresh her memory:  the next day, she flagged down a passing utility truck, the Firelands Water Department truck, and borrowed a fiber optic rod as long as her leg and as big around as her wrist.

The meter reader, curious, double-parked in front of the horse trough, amber lights flashing – it is a perogative of a small town utility department that they can park anywhere, without limit, as long as their yellows are on – and he watched, curious, as the Sheriff thrust his meter-reading peeper into the trough, obviously studying its lower, street-side corner.

"I use that to read water meters in underground pits," he said curiously, "most of 'em have some standing water ... but I've never looked at the bottom of a horse trough with one!"

He saw her smile a little and heard her satisfied, "Got you," then she drew it from the water, stripped the wet from it with ringed thumb-and-forefinger, handed it back.

"Thank you," she smiled.  "You've just helped me find another piece of local history."

"How's that, Sheriff?" he asked, opening the long door on the truck's utility box to return the peeper to its padded place.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at the horse trough, looked back, laughed.

"Back when a pale eyed old man was Sheriff," she said, "his deputy stopped a bank robbery and deflected a shot meant to kill him and" – she motioned toward the perpetually-seeping fixture – "in the process, he caused one casualty."

"Casualty?"

"He killed the horse trough."

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218.  "WISH I HADN'T SAID THAT!"

 

Now boys grow, and I knew that.

(I'm tryin' to improve my language.  I would've said "I knowed that" but Sarah gives me hell when I don't talk well and she's been addressin' me on the matter here of late!)

Joseph he was growin' and doin' a fine job of it, we were havin' a time of it keepin' him in britches and boots and to be real honest we were havin' a harder time keepin' up with him.

I've run foot races and that's nothin' ... but keepin' up with a laughin' little boy, runnin' buck naked and drippin' wet through the house ... well, it warn't possible to ride a cuttin' horse through the livin' room but I'll be honest, tryin' to chase down that runnin' little boy was an awful lot like ridin' a cuttin' horse through brush thickets, tryin' to rope a steer that didn't want nothin' to do with attair reata loop!

Joseph he found ...

No.

He didn't find out.

I found out, for he knowed it right along, and there I go again, Sarah threatned to take a ruler to my knuckles if I didn't straighten up my language.

Let me try that one ag'in.

Joseph knew right along that he had no fear.

(There now, Sarah.  You happy?)

I didn't know it until I saw him climbin' through the fence rails, he was dressed so far as he was concerned, he was wearin' his boots and his hat and a big grin and that's absolutely all he had on, and damned if he didn't go in the pasture with attair long horn calf I'd got, and him and attair calf and Joseph he was not near belt buckle tall  yet, him and attair calf got to runnin' one another.

Now picture a buck naked laughin' little boy in the middle of summer and he's wearin' boots and a hat and a big grin and not one stitch otherwise and there's this big Texas long horn bull calf trottin' beside him and lookin' at him kind of curious now and ag'in like he cain't quite figure out what this little pink skinned fellow is but they're both havin' fun and I recall how his happy little boy's squealin' laugh floated on acrost the air torst us and Annette she was wringin' her hands in her towel and makin' distressed noises like worried mamas will and me I went on over to the fence and I folded my arms over top and set my boot up on the bottom rail and I'm grinnin' like a possum eatin' on a dead horse.

It warn't long before Joseph found out he could climb.

He'd climb fences, trees, ladders, he clumb up on the fence and talked attair long horn bull calf over and damned if he didn't jump a-straddle of attair bull and the two of 'em took out acrost the field and I l'arned when I heard that happy laugh of his he was into Dutch except when he was dead quiet which meant he was either sound asleep or into more Dutch.

He was dressed when he rode attair calf.

I warn't terrible happy when he found out he could climb down as well as up.

Y'see, I'd been meanin' to replace the platform over the well and rebuild the well house and I had it all tore off and I went in to get me a bite to eat for I was right hungry and Annette she looked around and asked "Where's Joseph?" and I got me just this awful feelin' and we went lookin'.

He warn't takin' a nap and he warn't over with Boocaffie (he couldn't talk plain when I got attair calf and his little boy's pronunciation kind of stuck) and I'm lookin' around and I looked at attair open well with the hand laid stone linin' it and my heart just plainly hit my boot tops.

I taken off a-runnin' and Annette she said later my hands was open and straight and she said they looked like blades cuttin' the wind as I run and I commenced to yellin' and I made me a flat out dive and landed skiddin' on my belly and I shoved my head over the edge of attair well and looked down and instead of a round disc of smooth reflection at the bottom, why, 'twas all choppy and I yelled "JOSEPH!" and this scairt little voice coughed and spit some and he hollered "Pa!" and me and the hired man we set up a tripod and it ain't possible for us to have set up two triangles and a beam that fast but we done it, I run the bucket down and stuck my head into attair cold rock lined shaft and said "Joseph," and I pitched my voice gentle, for I knowed talkin' down that straight-down tunnel he could hear me easy enough and he didn't need to be no more scairt than he was already and I said "I'm lettin' the bucket down now and I want you to set your feet inside and ride that gentleman up whilst I winch you up."

"Yes, sir," he said and I will never long as I live forget the scairt in my boy's voice.

I spoke to him with all the rich, warm confidence of a father who has everything well in hand.

I was scairt lily white.

This was not the time to let it show.

I felt the weight come on the bucket and this scairt little voice kind of quavered "I'm in the bucket, Pa," and we commenced to winch him up.

It was all I could do not to spin that winch crank like a madman.

We hauled him up steady-like until he was plumb out and the hired man dogged the winch and I recht out and taken my little boy under the arms and h'isted him out of attair water filled bucket and I held him one arm whilst I peeled out of my coat and I got it around him and then I hugged him hard and I went to my knees and I recall he was a-shiver with fear I reckon and prob'ly 'cause he was cold, well water is always cold, and his teeth was a-chatter and I recall he kind of clattered, "I'm sorry, Pa," and I whispered back "You're safe now, Joseph, you're safe now!" and Annette she come out of nowhere and she run a quilt around the both of us and we got him inside and into a hot bath and he kept lookin' at me like he was expectin' me to turn him over my knee.

Now oncet he was thawed out and Annette she got some hot soup in him and got him in clean duds, why, I set him down in his chair beside the stove and I set down with him and he was lookin' at the floor the way a little boy will when they've messed up and they know it.

"Joseph," said I, and my voice was gentle and quiet, and Annette she was watchin' from the doorway so I motioned her in, "can you tell me somethin'?"

"Yes, sir," he said in a tiny voice.

"Joseph, how far down that well did you get?"

He looked up kind of surprised.  "I hit bottom, sir!"
I laughed a little.  "I know that," said I, "but when you started to climb down ... how difficult was it?"

"It wasn't hard, sir," he admitted and he looked a little surprised.

"What happened to cause your fall?" 

He licked his lips, blinking, remembering.

"The rocks started to get a little slick," he said hesitantly, "and then the one I had hold of, slid out and I went over backwards."
Now a well isn't terribly big across and I considered he's just awful lucky not to have peeled his head on a rock on the way down but I did not say anything of the kind.

"I was kind of scared when I realized you were down in that well," I said softly.

"Yes, sir," he said, and his eyes went to the floor again.

"Joseph," said I, "I don't think I could have climbed down that well."

I saw his eyebrows twitch – he didn't look up – but that warnt' what he expected to hear.

"I'm quite a bit heavier than you are.  Chances are good a rock would have pulled out way higher up than yours did."

"Yes, sir."

I tilted my head a little.  "Joseph, did you learn something today?"

He nodded.  "Don't climb down the well."

I nodded, and I let a little bit of a grin look through my eyes, just enough he knowed I warn't going to bite his head off down to the belt buckle.

"There's something else."

"Yes, sir?"

I looked at him and I looked serious.

"Joseph, I will not tell you don't climb.  There's times when a man has to climb and we both know that."

"Yes, sir?"

He sounded a little bit hopeful and a little bit curious.

"You'll probably remember this without me sayin' it, but here 'tis anyway."

"Yes, sir?"

"You've got to be sure of your hand hold and your footin' both.  If either one lets go you can come to grief."

"Yes, sir," he said seriously, and I seen the understanding in his eyes on that one.

Now Annette she was not quite glarin' daggers at me but she was close and we talked some after Joseph went off to bed and she allowed as I should have applied some authority to his Seat of Understanding.

I allowed as that warn't necessary.

He knowed he'd done wrong and what he needed was to be wrapped up warm and safe in his Pa's coat for it was warm with his Pa's body heat and it smelt of his Pa and he need to be held and he needed to know he was safe.

It taken a few days but she finally allowed as I was right.

I knowed I was right.

I warn't goin' to be the kind of father I'd had to kill.

I am not the brightest candle in the chandelier but by God! I was goin' to l'arn from what had been done to me!

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219.  TO REMEMBER

 

The Sheriff had more young under his roof than me and I reckon that's why he got a tree a day before I did.

Somehow I warn't surprised much to see several sets of feet stickin' out from under his tree.

When Sarah was a wee child, so the Sheriff would tell me with that quiet smile of his, she and his daughters would lay on their back and waller under attair tree and look up through the branches at the shiny bulbs and doodads and they'd lay under there and giggle.

Sure enough, widow woman or not, Sarah was flat on her back and Angela beside her and the others war under as well and all of 'em gigglin' and talkin' like girls do.

Joseph he slud under too and Sarah she taken him in close and his head layin' on her upper arm and they was both lookin' up through attair tree and I remember the look on both their faces.

It's interestin' to look at the world through someone else's eyes.

Especially when it's children's eyes.

Next night was Christmas Eve and Joseph and me we went and got our tree and fetched it in and he was just plainly struttin' when we come in, we kicked the snow off our boots and set it up and of course Joseph he wanted to hang them pretty glass bulbs and Annette she was kind of nervous for she was afraid he'd drop them delicate little antique things so she got him to runnin' the popcorn string around instead.

He liked that.

Annette she drafted me to hang the high ones and I did but I had Joseph standin' way back and I'd ask him if this looked right or that looked right and did I need windage or elevation and Annette she looked at me kind of funny but Joseph he knowed what I meant.

'Course Joseph had to go divin' underneath the tree and he wanted to look up through it from underneath like the girls done and he laughed when he did.

Like I said, it's kind of happy to look at the world through someone else's eyes.

I reckon I'll look back on this as an old man and remember this night.

I hope so.

I want to remember what it's like to have my son on my lap and the Book open in my hands, to have Annette rockin' patient-like and knittin' whilst I read aloud from Scripture.

I want to remember how it smelt with that frash set up tree and them sweet cakes the wimmen folk baked up and Joseph all scrubbed up and shinin' and wearin' clean duds and watchin' the page with interest for he'd started his l'arnin' and he wanted to read with me for I'd often times have him read and what he didn't know, why, he'd have me right there to ease him over whatever rough spot on the printed paper he'd snagged on.

I taken pains to write this down as best I could.

Might be I'll read it ag'in some years down the road and it'll help me remember.

My arm was around Joseph's middle and he leaned his head back and grinned up at me.

I don't never want to forget this!

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up from the leather bound journal, at the tree against the living room window.

She remembered a little boy with shining eyes, scrubbed clean and in flannel jammies, wiggling under the tree on his back ... and two little girls who in their turn did the same.

She knew what it was to go out in winter's cold and snow with her big strong husband and bring in a tree on Christmas Eve – they always waited until the Eve, much to the impatience of their young – and she, too, knew the smell of a clean child on her lap, or the smell of a fresh cut pine in the living room:  she knew what it was to have young fingers help her string popcorn and hang bulbs, to have that rich, strong, masculine voice reading from the Book,  and she let the leather bound journal fall shut on her marking finger as she, too, remembered.

She looked toward the computer screen, dark now; she knew the call would be coming through from Mars just any time, she knew her granddaughter would have her own young on her lap, she knew her offspring would be creating their own memories, and she knew as soon as the digital link cleared, the scanned copy of Jacob's journal would go searing through empty space and emerge on a glowing screen, millions of miles away.

"I hope she reads it tonight," she whispered, biting her lip as she, too, remembered.

"I want her to remember good memories, like I do!"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller laughed as he bounced his little girl on his lap, and she laughed with him.

Esther smiled gently, a maternal hand on her belly, feeling new life within stir and kick, grateful that the kick was out and not down – which was generally followed by a rude, but gratefully rare, surprise.

Linn looked at his green-eyed wife and said "I don't ever want to forget this."

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220.  MY WIFE, IN TEARS

 

I've threatened to write me a book.

I'm not the only one, the Sheriff and Charlie Macneil and Marshal Cooper and Sean the red headed Irish fire chief and hell even Mr. Baxter now and again has allowed pretty much the same thing.

I'm goin' to write attair book and it'll be thick and it'll be heavy and it'll be an absolute encyclopedia.

On the cover it'll say in fancy gold leaf letters, "All I Know about Women."

Every last page will be ... blank.

Y'see, I had occasion to speak to Macneil's wife Fannie and I have no idea what possessed me but I said "Miz Fannie, forgive my bein' forward, but you are one of the most naturally beautiful women I've ever seen."

It was not an attempt to seduce her nor to insult her, it was the God's honest truth and I've long maintained when someone does a thing particularly well it's wise to tell 'em so, for a man who's so said will bust his backside to do it again because bein' told that feels pretty good.

Same goes for boys and maybe double for boys for they are forever tryin' to do well enough to get the Grand Old Man's approval and it don't matter how proud a man is of his boy, nobody reads minds (well, 'cept women, they can read me like I was window glass and they look right through into them gears turnin' between my ears) – but boys don't read minds and unless they are told, they never know, and that is where too many fathers fall short.

Now women, women are forever talkin'.

I'll swear, God Almighty must have put an automatic oiler on a woman's jaw hinge for women folks get together and was words to pile up around 'em they'd smother in the snowdrift of their own utterances.

Men don't think the same as women and men don't talk the same as women and men might mean well but women don't react like men and that's where I get all kind of turned around.

Now the Sheriff an me, we knowed just about ever'one in the county and several well removed, we knowed when they was havin' good times or lean, we knowed who was needful of help and we knowed who was about to lend help, we was go between for delicate negotiations, hell I arranged a marriage oncet and all the reward I got for it was a nod from the rancher – the groom's father – and a wink from the father of the bride, but that marriage j'ined two families just shy of a feud startin' up and because of that marital union, both families got to visitin' and 'course when men git together they talk and they worked out differences of fence lines and water rights and damned if they didn't go into partnership and raise some right fine mountain beef but that's strayin' off my subject.

I'm bad about that, I wander after an idea like a hound dog scentin' a field mouse.

Now I was talkin' about Miz Fannie.

Fannie Kikinshoot, like I said, is just plainly a beautiful woman, and has been all the years I've knowed her.

She's got red hair too, and she's got eyes that'll startle a man, for one moment it looks like you could swim in those deep and lovely eyes and the next, why, it looks like she's goin' to fire sword steel out of 'em and pin a body to the nearest wall.

She's a dead shot and she's fast and pretty damned good with a blade of any kind, she asked me to "take exercise with her" (my life passed before my eyes when she said that) so we squared off in the barn, she was wearin' britches which she did on occasion and we each had a Gutta Percha practice knife and we chalked the edges and damned if she didn't kill me ten tries out of ten.

I am fast and I am good and she just plainly put me to shame.

Now she tried to tell me I was faster than most men but I think she might be tryin' to kindness the sting of being beat by a mere woman but there was no sting to it, for let me tell you! Miz Fannie is no mere woman, no sir!

Anyway this one day we was just outside the Silver Jewel and I taken off my hat as I always did, most women I'll touch the brim but for Miz Fannie and for Mother and for a very few others I remove the sky piece altogether, and I told her she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever see and I thought she should know that.

Miz Fannie she give me a warm and motherly look and then she taken my face in her hands and bent my head down and kissed my forehead and I felt my ears warm up considerable and she blinked them big lovely eyes and she said softly, "Jacob, you are every bit the gentleman of your father," and then she taken me by the wrist and hauled me into the Silver Jewel and up the stairs and she knocked twice on Mother's office door, the one marked Z&W RAILROAD, E. KELLER, OWNER, and we shoved on in.

Mother she must've figured we were comin', women are like that, she had a tray of tea and them little finger sandwich things and tea cakes and other dainties set up and she was just pourin' tea when we come in.

"Jacob," Esther said, "I understand Fannie has something to tell you."

"Yes, ma'am," said I, figurin' I was in for a beatin' so I allowed to stand still for it, I must've earned it, and Miz Fannie taken her tea and looked at me over the rim of that delicate china teacup and she asked me, "Jacob, have you told your wife she is beautiful?"

"I have, ma'am," I nodded, "and this morning the most recent."

"Good."  Miz Fannie and Mother each took a delicate sip and hummed with pleasure and then set their teacups down on their saucers.

Miz Fannie looked at me and tilted her head a little the way a woman will when she's bein' all womanly and feelin' interested in somethin' and she said "Jacob, you are in every way a true gentleman.  I've spoken with your father on this subject."

"Yes, ma'am?"

Now I was just a little corn fused here, normally when someone says they've spoken with your father, it means you've messed up to the point where you're a boy ag'in and needin' a father's guidance in the least little thing.

"You see," she explained, "the son is a distillation of the father."  She looked squarely at me and I was struck by her absolute frankness and I reckon that's what she was tryin' to bring across.

"There is only one place you could have learned to be a gentleman, and I thanked the Sheriff for teaching you in that wise."

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

"I've noticed gentlemanly behavior in Joseph, even at his young age," she said approvingly.  "There again, Jacob, there is only one place you could've learned that."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Miz Fannie looked at Mother, and Mother looked back, and I saw a smile – just a little smile, and I knowed somethin' just went between 'em, and damned if I know how they managed to communicate but they did.

"Jacob," Mother said in her gentle voice – she had many voices, but the one I loved most was her gentle voice – "Fannie has known difficulty in her life, and she has an appreciation for men who take pains to make their wives' existence ... not difficult."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Did you know your wife baked a batch of cornbread yesterday?"

"No, ma'am," I admitted, frowning a little:  I thought back to supper the night before and could recall no cornbread.

"She did.  For someone we both know."  She gave me a meanigful look and she didn't have to name me the name, I knowed who it was from the way she looked at me.

"He's dying, Jacob."

"Yes, ma'am, I know."

"He asked Annette if she would take a cast iron frying pan and bake him a batch and he told her what he wanted in it."

"Yes, ma'am."

"He was spoken to afterwards and scolded, for Annette has enough to do, but she was delighted to do this one thing for the man."

"Yes, ma'am."

"His mother made corn bread with no sweetenin' of any kind," Mother smiled.  "My own mother baked but rarely, we had servants, but her cornbread was made with neither molasses nor honey."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mother leaned forward, setting her half empty teacup and saucer to the side:  she reached over, gripped my hand, and I set my own aside as well, for I did not wish to get distracted and dump it on the floor.

"Jacob, she brought a moment's happiness to an old man.  I would like to think this will be a jewel in her heavenly crown when she finally goes to her reward."

"Yes, ma'am," I said faintly, smiling as I did, for that was just like Annette:  she was geninely the sweetest soul I knew, and for her to do a man a kindness like that would be just like her.

Now I am right glad Mother and Miz Fannie told me these things.

You see, when I went home that night, I passed the Sheriff:  he'd been to my place and we stopped and talked, he said he'd given Annette a message.

"Was it bad news, sir?"  I asked, for normally when a lawman delivers a message it ain't good news a'tall.

He grinned, quick-like, almost boyishly, the way he did when he knowed he'd done a good thing.

"No bad news this time, Jacob!" he declared.

I am right glad he told me that.

You see, once I got home, Annette she was red eyed and weepy and dabbin' at the corners of her eyes with a dainty little lacy edge kerchief, and come to find out the Sheriff he'd come out to thank Annette for that very kindness of bakin' that man his Mama's cornbread, and the Sheriff had told Annette that she reminded the man so powerfully of his own mother, and he thanked her for that generosity, and that struck her right in the sentimental and it didn't help none a'tall when I held her and whispered down torst her ear (for I am considerable taller than she) that she is still the sweetest thing I know, for she got teary-up ag'in and Joseph he looked as puzzled as I felt and he was squirmin' in his seat as he said "I didn't do nothin', Pa! I swear!"

 

 

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221.  THE SMITH'S KNIVES

 

Now I always did appreciate a good knife.

I know what a knife can do and I've done an awful lot with mine and so has the Sheriff.

I throwed my leg up on his desk one day and hauled up my pants leg and said "Sir, there's somethin' in there and I can't see well enough to get it out" and he fetched out a knife about a foot long and I knowed the entire length of its edge was shaving sharp, he kept it to a shaving edge, his fightin' knife had a rough edge which is better for butcherin' and he'd butchered men with that knife since he'd carried it in that damned War.

Anyway what I had next to my shin bone was like a little bitty boil but I couldn't work nothin' out of it so I asked for help and the Sheriff he put on his spectacles and frowned a little and leaned close over it and he recht in with just the tip and cut a little band of meat and somethin' black jumped straight up out of my leg about a quarter of an inch.

He recht down with thumb and fore finger and plucked out a fire blackened thorn and then I recalled.

I'd stomped out a line of fire up on the mountain and oncet I got it out I bulled my way through a thicket and I reckon I got a burnt over crab apple thorn in my leg when I did:  I know Doc used heat to sterilize his tools and this must've been fire burnt enough not to carry any corruption into my leg but it warn't natural to my body so it was gettin' festered around and rejected only they was that band of meat over top holdin' it in.

Yes sir, I do like a good knife.

The Sheriff was in Denver on business and I was settin' his desk and they was a knock at the door and I rose as it swung open and I could not help but grin for Mrs. Smith and her boy come in and her still in widow's black.

"Mrs. Smith," I said, taking her hands, "it is good to see you again."

Now Mrs. Smith was the widow of Black Smith.

He's been a freed slave and he run the best forge in Denver and he'd made Sarah and me any number of knives and he'd even made her a breast plate – I should say a full front plate that covered her from collar bone down to just about her hip, and big enough to cover her whilst she carried her child.

I set down with her but she was not comfortable carryin' her dead husband's child and settin' on them stairs like we used to do, so we set elsewhere and she stuck her legs out and made a face and allowed as her little Welshman was kickin' her ag'in and she said she was havin' that curiass made for she did not intend her child to be hurt.

I give her a hard look and asked if she was still bein' the Black Agent and she give me that Innocent Expression and she allowed as no one would suspect a woman with child and I chewed on my lip and considered before I spoke.

I've l'arned from previous mistakes, y'see, when I spoke without considerin' first.

It didn't do me no good a'tall, Sarah said "You may as well say it, I can see it on your face," and I stood up an so did she and I taken her face between my hands and I leaned my forehead in ag'in hers until our noses just touched and her pale eyes was one pale orb in my vision and I said "Sarah, I've only got one of you and I don't want you comin' to harm!" and she pushed in hard ag'in me and she hugged me hard enough to crack two or three knots out of my back bone.

She didn't say nothin', she just held me and shivered some and I held her and her belly was pushed ag'in me and I laughed and she drew back and smacked me across the front of the chest and I laughed ag'in and said "I could feel him kick!" and Sarah she set her knuckles on her hips and then she taken that one hand and shook her Mommy-finger at me and laughed a little and said "Little Daffyd is protecting his Mama already!"

Now I did not have no idea what the future held and somehow she did and I ain't figured that out but she's a woman and women know things and I know Mother knew when a woman was with child before the woman did and Mother knew when a death was comin' and Mother made sure every bride had a fresh red rose in her bouquet and she done that even when she – when Mother – warn't nowhere near Firelands.

I don't pretend to know how she did it, only that she did it and she managed to make it happen even after her death but that's gettin' ahead of myself and I don't want to think of that ag'in, not right now.

Now I got myself side tracked pretty badly, I do that, I was talkin' about Black Smith's widow.

The Sheriff he found a man with iron in his blood who was down on his luck and he'd give him a letter to introduce him and sent him over to take over Black Smith's forge and he did, and the widow Smith she come over to thank the Sheriff for that kindness, and to let him know she and her boy was headed back to live with family back East, but she had Black Smith's last job in the wagon and we went outside and her boy unloaded a half dozen wood cases, nicely finished they were.

The widow Smith she picked one up and handed to me.

"Miz Sarah," she said, and there was respect in her voice when she pronounced the name, "said this one is for your boy," and I thanked her and the widow she dipped her knees and laid a hand on each box:  "This is for your boy when he leaves and these are for Miz Sarah."

She stood and swallowed hard and then she laid a gloved hand gentle-like ag'in my cheek.

"You and your father have been very kind," she said, and there was a catch in her voice and there were tears bright and unshed in her dark eyes.  "I don't know what we would've done without him."

I bit my lip and nodded and finally said "Ma'am, he's like that," and she said "You are too," and 'twas but a whisper, and then she and her boy turned and clumb back into attair wagon and drove on down to the depot and that's the last I ever saw of them.

Sarah she was right unhappy she missed the Widow Smith but she taken them boxes for she said she wanted Joseph's to be a surprise and it genuinely was but that warn't for some years neither.

I helped Sarah load them nicely finished boxes in her carriage and I asked her why she warn't at home with her feet up and she laughed and I said "You ain't bein' the Agent now are you?" and Sarah she laid a hand on her belly and give me a look I never seen before.

I've seen her killin' mad and I've seen her excited and happy and I seen her scairt only oncet in my entire life but I never seen how she looked today.

She looked ... motherly.

There is times in a man's life when things are suddenly uncertain and this was one of 'em, for I realized my twin sister was a woman, she was grown, that's one of those things a man has long known behint his eyes but behind his breast bone it sets in some time later and that's what happened today.

I knowed it behint my breast bone.

"Joseph is big enough now," Sarah said.  "I'll start training him."

"You do that, Sarah," said I, thinking maybe settin' at home with her feet up was so boring she had to dream up somethin'.

I had no idea she was goin' to put Black Smith's knives to use this early in my little boy's young life.

 

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222.  I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT I KNOW

 

Now when Sarah married Daffyd he planted a good seed and he planted it deep and Sarah's belly grew with new life and she had that glow of a woman who is becomin' a mother and she loves the notion.

I seen that with my own Annette and it is a good feelin' when your bride is with increase.

The women tried to run me out when Annette had our second child and I would have no part of it, I set there on the off side of the bed and she damn neart crushed my hand with her grip but I would not let go of her hand and she gritted her teeth and she sweated and she went hard red and she went death pale and her eyes got wide and her eyes squinted shut and she clamped her jaw shut hard and Daciana she midwifed her in fine shape and once the after birth come why Daciana and the ladies they managed to shoo me out and them wimmens they all gathered around attair bed and I reckon they all saw themselves in my wife in that moment.

I think they did anyways.

Oncet they let me back in, Annette was all cleaned up and the bed had frash linens and the hired girl she scuttled out of there with the soiled linen all bundled up like it was unclean and she set it to soakin' in salt water and the ladies they formally presented me with our little baby girl and I held her and looked at her and I looked up and I asked Daciana if I could start spoilin' her yet.

'Twas not long after that Sarah she had hers.

She had a boy.

She named him Daffyd Llewellyn, after her husband, and the ladies tended her as they tended all the women who went into labor, and of course the Sheriff and me was down stairs and so was Jackson Cooper and the big bristle bearded town marshal he was worryin' his hat somethin' awful, I reckon Emma give him an old hat for he taken it and twisted it up in his big hands and he ended up wtih a felt sausage and I reckon had he done this with a good hat he'd have ruint it but this was an old one and beat up soft from wear and sweat and rain and it looked bad when he wore it that mornin' and truth be told it didn't look no worse for all that he'd just plainly mauled it, waitin' with us whilst Sarah labored upstairs.

They was no more than a quiet murmur from the ladies until the very end, when Sarah's scream pierced the still air like a knife drove into a man's gut, it sounded like she was bein' ripped in two and she screamed "DAFFYYYYYYYYYD!" and then things got just grave yard still and about a year later, or maybe thirty seconds by the pocket watch, we heard a little whimper and then a squeak and then a little baby boy commenced to tell the world he did not like the way he was bein' treated and me and the Sheriff we looked at one another and grinned and Jackson Cooper he come to his feet and dropped attair sorry twisty-up hat and he had a grin on his face that split his red beard plumb in two and the Sheriff he went over to the Side Board and set out three glasses and we taken us a salute of good California brandy, for another Welshman breathed mountain air and our family knew its increase.

It was maybe another hour before the ladies summoned us, and we trooped up the broad stone stairs to her room, and she lay there all a-smile as her little Welshman yawned and drowsed on her breast and he didn't object none as we passed him around and held him and allowed as he was a fine figure of a lad and I looked at him and I looked at Sarah and I prob'ly should not have opened my mouth but I could not help it, 'twas too good to pass up:  I said "Sarah, he don't look a thing like his Pa," and she looked at me kind of surprised and I stroked my curled up Handle Bar and said "No mustache!"

Sarah lowered her head just a fraction like she was lookin' over her round schoolmarm spectacles and she said "If I could get up, Little Brother, I would kick you right in the liver!"

Now I knowed Daciana had the Second Sight and I suspicioned Sarah had it as well and when I handed young Daffyd to Daciana and the Sheriff and Jackson Cooper they turned to leave Sarah said "Jacob, a moment, if you please," and I stopped for I'd started to turn and go my own self.

Sarah looked at a chair and I fetched it over beside the bed and parked my carcass.

I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and I looked at my pale eyed sister and she said "You are wondering."

"I always wonder."

"You wonder about me."

I nodded.  "Ever since you taken me to that place with black sand that glowed red and I seen all who you'd been, yes I wonder, Sarah."

"What do you wonder?"

I shoved out my jaw bone and considered.

"Sarah, the Book don't lie and the Book says it is for man to die but once, and then the Judgement."

"It also says no man may look upon the face of God and live."

"It does that."

"But you have."

Now that stopped me in my tracks.

That's somethin' I had not spoke to her about nor much of anyone else.

It happened when that man my Mama married kilt her and tried to horse whip me to death and damn neart succeeded.

I was standin' in a green place that smelt of springtime and there was fiddle head ferns and hills and hollers – it was not mountain country, I seen county like that back in the Ohio territory when the Sheriff he sent me back with a warrant for Don Douglas – only that hadn't happened yet and I was but a boy when I died and I stood in that green place and I seen Jesus Christ and he seen me.

We laughed with a delight and with a happiness I have rarely felt and we RUN at one another and we SLAMMED into one another and we seized one another and we laughed and it was the good laughter of strong men and I blinked and come back to Sarah's bedside and I said "I did that," and she said "You looked upon the face of God but you are yet alive."

I nodded.

"I don't have it figgered," I admitted, "but there's an answer.  The Book don't lie."

"You'll find your answer," she whispered tiredly, blinking like a sleepy cat.  "And I have an answer about me."

I frowned and turned my head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"You are wondering about all of me that you saw."

I nodded.

She turned her eyes to the bedside stand and I saw they was a prayer book on it.

"The pages in a book," Sarah said, "are very close together."

I nodded.

"Imagine if an idea slid from one page to another."
I raised an eyebrow.

"Now imagine if each page is its own world, its own universe. Run a straight pin through the cover, pierce all the pages, punch it out the back cover."  She stopped as if to gather some strength.  "Now ... you've just connected all those universes."

I almost understood.

Almost.

Sarah smiled, just a little.

"Time exists all at once," she whispered.  "God is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow but do you know why?"

I shook my head.

"Because there is no yesterday, there is no today, there is no tomorrow.  Time as we know it does not exist. We invented the idea to try and control it, but all time exists all at once, Jacob.  You saw me as I will be because you saw who I became and who I've been, in another time."

"I am not sure I understand," I said slowly.

Sarah looked up and smiled as Daciana glided over and laid the drowsy little boy-baby in Sarah's arms.

"I don't understand what I know," Sarah admitted, and Daciana laid a hand on my shoulder.

"She iss tired," she said in that soft accent of hers.  "Let her rest."

I nodded and rose.

"Sarah," said I, "you need, you holler."

"I will."

I bent down and kissed my sister on her forehead, then I leaned over a little more and kissed the fine hairs on the warm little boy-baby's head.

"Wlelcome home, Daffyd," I whispered, and I pretended not to notice as Sarah bit her bottom lip and salt water run out the corner of her one eye.

The Sheriff he was outside and him and Jackson Cooper was all set to drive back into town and I whistled up Butterscotch.

The Sheriff he give me a close look and asked "Jacob, is all well?"

"It is, sir," said I, "and I am headed for the Parson's."

It was a wise move.

I am not the brightest candle in the chandelier but sometimes I make a good move and this was one of them times.

The Parson he listened to me tellin' him about what that man done to my Mama and to me, and I told him what I'd seen as I lay there more dead than alive and how it felt to see the world fall away from me and then I was standin' in that green Valley, and he listened as I told him about landin' back in my own carcass thinkin' I'd been condemned to live – a terrible fate – and how long it took me to realize what a gift it actually was.

I told him how I could not understand what happened to me and I'm still drawin' breath, and he listened to that too, and he allowed as I was tellin' the truth, for he could hear the Spirit in my words, and he said "In that moment – when you saw the Christus – you were not a man."

I felt that eyebrow tent up ag'in the way it will, the way the Sheriff's will, when he's run acrost somethin' he don't quite follow.

"No man may look upon the face of God and live," he explained.  "You were not a man, Jacob.  You were a spirit.  Spirit may look upon spirit, but no man may look upon God, Who is of spirit."

Of a sudden I felt a whole lot better.

 I knowed the Book don't lie and I knowed I had to be missin' somethin' and that was it.

That night Annette knowed I was mullin' somethin' over and she was quiet and let me think on it, supper was near silent, least until I picked up Joseph and stood him on my chair and give him a serious lookin'-at and then I asked Annette to come over and she stood behint him with her hands on his shoulders and I frowned a little and looked closely at him.

I never did figure children looked like one parent or another except on those rare times when they was just the spittin' image and that I have seen, but here I looked at Joseph and I looked at Annette and I figured he don't look much like her nor like me, he looks like his own self, but there was one more thing I wanted to try.

I come over and worked a little strand of Annette's hair loose and I laid it acrost Joseph's upper lip, and I slid it back and forth a little and then I nodded and let it go and thanked my wife for the use of her hair and Joseph he looked up at her and they both looked at me and I give them my best Innocent Expression.

"Just wanted to see what he'd look like with a mustache," I said, and Joseph's grin was instant, broad and bright.

 

 

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223.  THEM ORNERY BOYS

 

It taken me a while but I got the story out of him.

Digger he was wringin' his hands and he was distressed and he was pacin' back and forth and finally he just collapsed into a chair and shook his head and laughed.

Now I'd been over't the Silver Jewel and I'd been talkin' to His Honor the Mayor, he was tellin' me old man Hormberg wanted to start a Committee of Utility to over see that new gas line stuff comin' into town and he wanted to be in charge of the new water lines and of course Sean he was all in favor of havin' water run under the street in iron pipe for he'd used them Fire Plug things back in Cincinnati and long as they was water runnin' under ground they'd have water to fight fires with and me I couldn't see how them cast iron Fire Plugs would keep from freezin' in Winter for it gets more than blue cold here but Sean he allowed as they was designed not to freeze so he's a man that knows his trade and I l'arned a long time ago there's just an awful lot I don't know but I was talkin' about the Mayor and so I set aside that side track thought with the final figger that if Sean said they would work I'd not wonder no more about it and I paid attention to Mayor Wright.

He was talkin' about the new water works and how it was goin' to cost the town more money than he'd ever seen let alone could lay hands on and he was a-frettin' about design and he was frettin' about supply and he'd got hisself wound up like an Eight Day Clock and we was settin' at a table about midway back in the Silver Jewel and had I but pulled the curtains aside I could have seen the Blaze Boys at work.

Now the Blaze Boys was ornery as two cats full of carbide, they stole a Sky Rocket and set it off into the belly of a Thunder Storm one time and attair Thunder Cloud showed its appreciation for bein' Gut Punched by shootin' a Lightning Bolt down and blowin' one boy east and one boy west and blastin' a hole in the ground and settin' the roof of attair shed afire until the rain put it out and woke up them boys, and ever after that, why, one had a white blaze in his hair on the east side of his head and t'other had the same white streak on the western face of his gourd and they warn't much related but folks figgered they was twins and they was never knowed by their given Christian names, hell I don't think I could recall their names had I the task, we all knowed them as the Blaze Boys and that did not knock no sense into 'em a'tall.

His Honor the Mayor he was so wound up and excited about havin' Gas Lights in town, why, when I tried to get him to eat some Pie he sputtered flaky crust crumbs acrost the table and I swiped them into a pile and he never paid no mind, I reckon I'm lucky he didn't spit no preserved Cherries acrost the table at me and finally he come down off that anxious stack of worry of his and went his way and that's when Digger he come a-runnin' acrost the street at me.

I know the man deals wholesale in the dead and I didn't think he had a nervous bone in his carcass except where he thought he might be losin' a nickle then he got just rattle-your-kneecaps unhappy and he was unhappy, matter of fact he was pale as wall paper paste and he couldn't hardly stammer none but he drug me into attair funeral parlor in front where the display caskets are laid out and laid out is the right word to use.

Now I'd seen them Blaze Boys loafin' outside and that ornery look about 'em and their faces and ears was red and I figgered they was up to somethin' but nobody's shed went boom and the sky was clear so I went on into the funeral parlor and Digger he p'inted at the fancy box in the show window and I seen there was a carcass in it and I was goin' to say somethin' about showin' the customers  after they was in the box and this-yere carcass groaned and the bunch of flowers in its hand fell over and Digger he grabbed my arm and his eyes rolled up and he set down in a chair and just hung limp.

Now me I had my Colt in hand for I've not fought the dead before and I recalled Daciana told me that vampires and such spirits can be cut with a silver knife and I know what a Colt's revolver will do if you put a .44 ball between the eyes at a short distance and when whatever 'twas didn't set up and take a bite out of me I holstered and stopped and considered and then I looked outside and damned if them Blaze Boys warn't standin' on t'outside of the window with their hands cupped around their eyes so they could see inside and then they begun to laugh and I legged it out of there and I was on them in three runnin' steps.

They was fast but I am faster and I had 'em by the collar and I had them face down on the Board Walk and I had a death grip on the back of their necks and I said "Now I do not know what is goin' on here but I reckon you two kin tell me," and they did and I didn't have to convince 'em too terrible hard.

Now Firelands is a nice enough place.

We've got us good folks and some not so good, we've those who're peaceable and them that will try and swing their weight until they inherit a mouth full of someone else's fist, we have those who eat wisely and not very well, and then we have the town drunk, whose habits are ... I reckon you could say he drinks well indeed but not at all wisely.

The Blaze Boys they found him passed out beside the Board Walk, and they slapped him a little and he was dead drunk so they allowed as the dead ought to have a coffin and that's where they put him.

In Digger's fanciest display box.

Right in his front window.

With his hands folded and a bunch of lily flowers in his grip.

Digger come in about the time he groaned and tried to set up and poor old Digger he's seen all kind of dead folks but he never saw one talk and he figgered the newly woke up dead might not talk too clear so he committed that classic military maneuver known as Gettin' the Hell Out of There and that's when he come just a-scamperin' acrost the street to get me.

I turned them Blaze Boys loose and then I grabbed their shoulders and put their backs ag'in the front of the building and I shoved my face in close to theirs so no one else could hear what I had to say and so no one else could see how red faced and grinnin' I was gettin' for that struck my funny bone and I said "Fellas, this never happened, I never saw you today, get out of here and hide for a while and I wisht I'd thought of what you've done!" and they went a-runnin' around the corner and up the alley and I went on inside and Digger he was still starin' wide eyed and I drug up a chair and got the drunk set up and then had him throw one leg over and then t'other and I got him stood up on that chair before he fell over and I hauled him outside before his gut went into rebellion and I dunked his face into the Horse Trough and sloshed him around some and he scooped up some water and drunk it and heaved up his guts ag'in and I helped him stagger most of the way to his place and I got him inside and under roof before he passed out ag'in.

Next day I seen the Blaze Boys and I tossed 'em a grin and a wave and they waved kind of sheepish and when I went out to visit Sarah the next day she looked at me and then she looked at that hungry little boy-baby workin' on his meal under the concealing shawl and she said "Jacob Keller, you look like the cat that caught the canary, what have you done this time?" and I give her my best Innocent Expression and said "Now just because you're a mother, don't think you can pull that mother stuff on me!"

She shook her Mommy-finger at me and said "I'd ought to turn you over my knee, young man!"

I drug me up a chair and the maid she brought tea and once she'd left, why, I give a big noisy sigh and said, "Sarah, I just busted up a conspiracy," and I shook my head sadly and Sarah she give me a narrow eyed look and asked "Was it involving schoolboys cheating at marbles, or perhaps the passing of notes in class?" and I give her a long look and she looked serious of a sudden and said "You found something."

I nodded.

I tried to look wise but it didn't work, I reckon I looked red faced and I commenced to laugh some and finally I said "Sarah, you ain't gonna believe this," and I told her about the Blaze Boys and the town drunk.

Sarah she turned red, Sarah she smiled some, then Sarah she picked up her handkerchief and tried to hide her face behind it and that didn't work and her hungry little Welshman under attair shawl he didn't miss a stroke gettin' his meal as his Mama giggled, as his Mama laughed, as his Mama leaned her head back and howed at the ceiling, and finally when Sarah was able to bring her head upright and wipe the laughter from the corners of her eyes she looked at me and she giggled and she said "They laid him out in Diggers' display –" and she started laughin' ag'in, and it taken her a while to finish up so's she could come up for air.

I reckon she must've needed that laugh.

She surely did enjoy it, though!

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224.  BLACK SAND, BLACK DOG

 

The stranger looked at The Bear Killer.

The Bear Killer looked at the stranger.

Neither one moved.

The stranger's boots were knee high, with dog ear pulls, and brand new.

They were not, however, waterproof, in spite of the seller's claims.

It was winter, he'd broken a sift of ice from the little pool to dip up some sand to pan, and the water burning his left foot, and the his right, was absolutely, utterly, most distressingly, cold!

The stranger's vest held a watch of surprisingly good quality and the trifles a man carries ready to hand – shirt pockets were not known yet, but pockets in vests were well utilized – and as this fellow realized the creature looking at him was indeed not a bear, but rather a dog that resembled a black bear, both in size and in coloration, he debated whether to move, speak or run.

It took him a little under a year, or so it felt, to realize that he had an equally new Colt's revolver in an absolutely brand new and pristine holster, worn cross draw after the fashion he'd seen in a penny dreadful back East.

When he bought the revolver, he thought it powerful enough to stop the noon freight, but looking at this ivory-fanged monster three arm's-lengths from him, suddenly what used to be a handful of Thor's hammer felt more like a spitball flicked from a naughty schoolboy's finger.

A movement to the stranger's left and the great, curly-furred beast's head turned, the ears lifted a fraction, then that great, forearm-thick tail began to swing back and forth, barely grazing the gravel along the streambed:  something obviously garnered this silent, menacing beast's approval, and the stranger considered that this could be very good, or it could be very, very bad.

It might be this beast's mate, in which case he could end up as a meal.

He considered the walnut handle of his holstered pistol and then he asked himself if he really, really wanted to make this monstrous apparition unhappy.

Fearful, apprehensive, he turned his head and looked.

 

"Howdy," said I, taking in this greehorn's outfit:  everything he wore was new, off the shelf less than a day unless I missed my guess.

Even his gold pan was shiny-new, lacking the mercury in the bottom to capture stray flakes, nor had it been burnt nor even smoked to better show the yellow gold for which men sold their lives, and more.

He looked at me – no, he didn't look, he gawped at me like was simple, and I hoped sincerely that some family didn't think it good fun to outfit a lackwit relative and turn him loose in the high country.

I'd knowed folks to do such things.
"How ..." he said and then cleared his throat, "howdy."

"You ain't from around here."  It was a statement, not a question.

"N-n-no."

"You shoot that pistol yet?"

The stranger shook his head.

I give him a pitying look and considered 'twas a good thing – hell, he was green enough he likely didn't know how to start his own fire nor sharpen his own knife.

"You're from back East."

He nodded and then he rallied a little:  "I came out to find gold."

Now he was in the right place and likely didn't know it, there was gold here all right and I hoped to hell he didn't find any.

"This is already claimed," said I. 

"Claimed."

"Yep.  Kolascinski staked this claim some years back.  Hereabouts if a man jumps claim he's likely never goin' to be found."

"I was told," he said carefully, "that I could come out here just anywhere ..."

"Afraid not, friend."

"By whose authority –" he began, and I turned my lapel over to show the six point star.

"Mister, where did you get them brand new duds?"

"Duds? ... I, um, Cripple Creek, the general store."

"Hm."  I nodded, for I knew the man that ran the place.  "And likely he skinned you out of every centavo in your poke."

He made a face.  "I thought I would make it back in one day or less."

"It's been done," I agreed, "just not here."

"Claimed," he groaned, shaking his head and dumping his pan back into the creek.

I saw he'd panned up some black sand and I knowed that was not good, for there was the really good chance he'd have some flakes stuck to his pan.

"Is there ... are there any lands not claimed?"

I considered for a moment, deciding whether to lie to the man and then chose the truth.

"Friend, as best I know, every square yard of these mountains is claimed. You might find some free ground up north but I'd not count on it.  It's been too long since they found gold and the locusts come through and sucked up ever'bit of gold God put here."

Now that warn't true a'tall but I did not need anyone screamin' about a glory hole, I've seen that happen and it's not a nice thing to happen: men swarm in like locusts, a shack town struggles up like mushrooms and it plays out fast and ever'one leaves and the ground smells like an outhouse and them shacks is half tore apart and packed off and they leave trash all over hell and breakfast.

"Would anyone be willing to sell a claim?" he asked.

"You spent your last cent on them nice new clothes." I shook my head.  "Why'nt you come out of the water, dump out your boots and we'll see about scarin' you up a meal."

 

Joseph Keller held onto his Mama's skirt and stared, wide-eyed, as a great steam-puffing monster blasted through the snow toward them.

His young fist tightened on his Mama's dress material as The Lady Esther hit another drift, detonating a great spray of snow over her and to either side, bearing down on them with a sudden shivering scream of steam whistle, drivers thrashing against cast iron wheels, steel rails vibrating the frozen ground under his youthful boots:  the little boy's eyes grew big, his breath came fast and shallow, his heart taken out a-gallop as this magical monster pounded through drifts and snowfall and then roared past them, all half-seen motion and a great cloud of snow.

Annette looked down as Joseph looked up at her and she felt that magical delight a mother always feels when she sees that look of wonder and discovery in her child's eyes.

It was a moment she would carry with her and remember.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna, the feared Black Agent, cuddled her swaddled child, her cheek against her baby's head, rocking a little in the handmade chair, humming a near-forgotten tune her own Mama used to sing to her when she was but a wee child.

Sarah had a minor fortune on which to draw – for the rest of her life, should she so desire – she had a maid to tend the housework, and so she could enjoy something she'd known but rarely since becoming the Black Agent, the feared and legendary Agent of the Court.

She let her guard down and rocked her child, and for the moment, for this one peaceful moment, she was complete, and she was content.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller seized the man by his shirt front, up near the throat:  he hit the man hard with his open hand, clawed fingers claimed an impressive square footage of material, he twisted and hoisted and brought the man, choking and kicking, off the ground, left handed.

The pale eyed Sheriff hauled the troublemaker off the ground, brought him up to eye level:  the Sheriff was a tall man, and the troublemaker's boots were just under a foot off the ground, and there is something most discomfiting about discovering one no longer has contact with the Earthmother.

"Mister," the Sheriff said, and he said it quietly, for he knew a quiet voice was somehow more menacing than a shout, "I don't think you ought to speak that way to a lady."

The troublemaker's face was taking on a somewhat dusky shade:  he felt the pulse hammering in his temples, he felt his ears flame and engorge, and he fought to breathe, gripping futilely at the Sheriff's lean, corded wrist.

"Now I reckon you really don't want me to kick your sorry backside all over this street."

The Sheriff's pale eyes were less than a hand's-breadth from the troublemaker's glassy, increasingly-bloodshot eyes:  "and I don't reckon you want me to kick your backside up between your shoulder blades.  Now" – he smiled a little, just a little, and that smile added to the fear the troublemaker felt – "Now I reckon you really should leave my town and I reckon you should not come back."

The Sheriff eased the man down – his toes touched the ground, scrabbling a little like a chicken scratching frozen ground – the Sheriff let him the rest of the way down, released him.

"He's relaxed," Daisy observed, leaning against her muscled husband's bulging arm, and Sean nodded solemnly.

"He's too relaxed," he agreed. 

"What do you mean, too relaxed?" Daisy blinked, looking up at the red-headed fire chief.

Sean took a thoughtful pull on the beer he held in his other hand:  he was not the only man to bring his drink out on the boardwalk when word came in the Sheriff was correcting a boor's bad manners:  he swallowed, belched, then smiled a little, just a little.

"He's ready to kill that spalpeen," Sean whispered.  "I'm wonderin' whether it'll be a knife or will he just rip his throat out barehand?"

 

Esther Keller smiled as she saw her son cantering his Appaloosa stallion up the street.

His beloved Apple-horse had been on loan to the Macneil ranch, she knew, and she knew that although he delighted in the smooth-gaited, butterscotch-colored Paso he rode, he still had a soft spot for his old and dear Apple-horse.

She'd watched her husband correcting a man's ill manners; from the look on her son's face, he'd had his own excitement that morning, and in the distance, she heard the steam engine that bore her name sing into the high, cold air.

Esther Keller, owner of the Z&W Railroad, wife of the pale-eyed Sheriff Linn Keller, returned to her desk, dipped her steel nib, wiped it delicately against the neck of the ink-bottle, and wrote:

Dearest Cousin,

You asked whether our little town was as wild and wooly as the penny dreadfuls would have you believe.

No, dear Cousin, Firelands is remarkably peaceful: the men are well mannered, the women ladylike, and gunfights in the street simply don't happen.

 

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225.  ANGEL EYES

 

I eared my Winchester's hammer back.

I was ready and more than willin' to kill a man and that is exactly what I intended to do.

Tom Landers was the first Sheriff and when the Sheriff taken over the office he hired Tom Landers to keep the peace in the Silver Jewel and he did a right fine job.

Now Tom didn't look like much more'n a long tall drink of water, he looked like what he was, a dried up skinny old lawman and that ought to be enough to put off any trouble hunters but I'm here to tell you, a skinny man is a rangy man and old Tom could just plainly take a good man and wind him up in knots and kick him around like a child's playground ball and he'd done it too.

Tom was peaceable and easy goin' now that he warn't Sheriff he didn't have to be a hard man near so often but he had eyes like he was a boy and he could spot a cheat or a slicker deal even if 'twas on t'other side of the room and hid under a man's hat.

He sent me a note that said a stranger allowed as he was goin' to cyarve his initials in the Sheriff's liver and do some right impolite things to his red headed wife and a man's word is his bond, iffen a man says he'll do somethin' and he don't why his word is never trusted ag'in and this man made a statement of fact and of intent and that was enough for me.

I knowed where he'd have to come down the street and I waited in the alley back fur enough he could not see me but close enough I could get to him once he come in sight.

Was I to put a rifle ball in the back of his head and blow his eyeballs out the front of his face I would be just as happy.

Now Angela she'd come in town with the maid and she'd done what she does when she comes to town, she run around and got into stuff and The Bear Killer he was with her and I saw that man I was goin' to kill and he'd come down the street right down the middle like he was here for a walkdown and he had his Yankee nose pointed at the Sheriff's office and he warn't lookin' left nor right but he was comin' up fast on between me and Angela and no way in the world was I goin' to whistle a fifty ball torst him with her on t'other side.

 

The Sheriff set the note aside and stood.

He knew the man who'd made his brags.

Tom Landers' script was clear and legible, but complete: it contained the man's words, his description, his intent: it was borne to the pale eyed lawman by youthful hands and swift legs, and the Sheriff rose on the strength of this hand written missive:  he reached for his Stetson and strode for the door, his boot heels loud and regular on the close fitted planks.

He opened the door and opened it wide and he took a long breath, and was there anyone there to see it, as his eyes went dead pale, the barest hint of a smile came to his face, as if he was going to do something he'd wanted to do for a very long time.

He heard locusts in a hot August field and he tasted copper and he paced off on the left and walked into the middle of the bare, hard packed, frozen dirt street.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller tilted her head a little, interested.

"What does it say?" she asked, and Richard, her husband, leaned forward, the newly found papers in hand.

"Let me read it to you."

He read, and Willamina saw it play out in the dirt street stage of her imagination.

 

I taken two steps out and saw the Sheriff was headed up the middle of the street.

He walked straight and tall and his pace was regular, like he was marching and I knowed that step.

He was intent on killin' a man and that meant this fella was bought and paid for and I stood ready and just visible around the corner but only just.

Was the Sheriff intent on killin' him I'd step in only if the stranger kilt him and then I'd have my bloody vengeance, but I was not at all confident I would bust a cap today, least not on this one.

 

The Bear Killer turned sideways and pushed back against Angela's legs.

Angela stopped – not that she had any choice – she was no longer a little girl, she was tall and she was blue eyed and she was lovely, and she was getting some height to her, but The Bear Killer was the size of a young bear and when he turned and stopped her, she stopped.

Puzzled, she laid a hand on his shoulders and felt what she hadn't really heard.

She felt the deep, menacing rumble that started about ten feet below his black paw-pads and echoed and amplified in the great, muscled chest, and as the deep-rooted growl grew in intensity, she saw his black lips peel back from shining ivory war-fangs and she saw the rich healthy pink of his gums, and she saw the fur ripple up the length of his spine, from the root of his tail to the base of his skull and the fur across his shoulders as well and Angela remembered her Mama's words.

The Bear Killer has angel eyes, she'd said, and Angela, puzzled, looked at her beloved monster of a canine and realized that yes, he had twin brown spots, one over each eye, and her mother continued that if The Bear Killer was staring fixedly at something and nothing was there, why, if Angela were to crouch behind him and sight between his ears – over his Angel's Eyes – she would see what he saw.

Angela laid a hand on his bristling back, swung around behind him, crouched.

Her breath caught in her throat and she felt suddenly cold.

Cold, and terribly, suddenly, afraid.

 

The blond-haired Sergeant bawled, "FORM RANKS, DAMN YOU! DRESS RIGHT, DRESS!"

Men scrambled to fall in, dressed right:  blue arms slapped down against their sides, they stood stiffly at attention, men united in their loyalty to one man:  not to Lincoln and not to Nation, but rather to their pale eyed Captain, a man with whom they'd marched and fought, a man who led them and fought as one of them, a man who'd fought despite his bloodied wounds, a man they'd come to respect.

"AT ATTENTION!" the brass-throated Sergeant roared – even though the men were already stiffly at attention – "THE CAPTAIN LEADS AND WE FOLLOW!  FIX BAYONETS!"

Metallic sockets were thrust over rifle muzzles, twisted, locked into place.

"FIRST TWO RANKS, PRESENT!"

Rifles came to level, two rows of steel thrust forward, ready to harvest men's souls and drink men's blood.

"FORWARD!  MARCH!"

Blue legs paced off on the left, the drummer's wrists setting the pace: the snare was long since lost from the bottom of the drum, which suited the drummer just fine:  he hated the rattling snare and believed the deeper tone of the snare-less drum penetrated better.

Men were ranked shoulder to shoulder the full width of the frozen dirt street, their pace matching that of their pale eyed Captain.

In their eyes he wore Union blue.

 

My mouth was dry as the two men approached one another.

I knowed this man was reputed to be deadly and he was said to be fast and the Sheriff's pace did not slack one little bit.

I know the Sheriff is a dead shot and he could have stopped and bored a half inch hole through this sorry soul, but he did not stop.

He leaned forward and started to run, squarely for him.

 

Angela's breath made a sharp little sound as she suddenly drew in the cold air.

Her Kentucky-blue eyes were wide and terrified, and she felt as much as heard The Bear Killer's increasing snarl:  she did not have to look, to know his black lips were rippling a little as he gathered himself, hard muscles bunching under curly black fur.

Angela saw her big strong Daddy marching straight for the other man and she knew from the set of his face and from his hard and cold eyes that he was not happy with this man and she wished suddenly she was in her Daddy's arms back in their solid warm house and she saw her Daddy lean forward and she saw his hands come up and he had silver steel in each hand and she saw his mouth open and she heard him yell, loud and sustained and she saw ranks of men behind him, wide as the street itself, a river of blue warriors with rifles and bayonets and hard, set faces, men who leaned into a run and raised a shout, each man's throat giving vent to an adrenalin fueled challenge to war and to death and The Bear Killer's roaring war-challenge added to the hell and Angela watched this river of steel charging up the street behind her Daddy –

 

The Sheriff's action was completely unexpected.

A gunfight could be faced, yes; a man could stop, and draw, and fire, but this – this, when that damned Yankee lawman launched himself at a dead-out run, this was not what was expected –

Almost as an after thought, his hand sought the walnut handle of his revolving pistol, and by then, surprise delayed his reaction and it was too late, too late, too late.

 

I watched the Sheriff's blades describe silver circles that turned red after the first stroke.

I reckon his first cut come down left handed and chopped into the man's wrist and t'other blade come acrost and finished cuttin' it off and then he skidded a little and come around and another swing and a thrust, the man's spine was severed with that hard swing and the other knife went in up to the hilt in the man's kidneys.

The Sheriff he grabbed the head by the hair and pulled, he was bent over to do this for the man was on the ground and bleedin' like hell and he swung attair knife ag'in and straightened up and he danced around in a circle, screamin', whirlin' around like a madman, swingin' the head by its hair and the other hand with a bloodied blade thrust up torst the cold blue sky and then he stopped and he held that head up and looked into them dead eyes and then he tossed it aside like 'twas a discarded cleanin' rag.

 

Angela stood, frozen, shocked, unmoving, her fingers locked into The Bear Killer's thick, curly fur.

The blond haired Sergeant came over to her, went down on one knee, pushed the bill of his cap back with one finger:  he ruffled The Bear Killer's ears fearlessly and grinned at the pretty girl:  "You'd be Angela," he said.

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

"I served wi' your father.  Good man."  He rubbed his stubbled chin.  "Damned shame I got killed.  I'd like to've stayed wi' him."

"You were killed?"  Angela asked in a small, almost a little-girl's voice.

"Oh, ya.  So were the rest of us."

"You're ... ghosts?"

The Sergeant threw his head back and laughed the good laughter of a strong man.  "Why yes, Miss Angela, we all are!"

"How come I can see you?"  Angela's eyes were bright and sincere and she tilted her head a little, curious.

"It's The Bear Killer here."  The Sergeant thumped The Bear Killer's flank affectionately.  "He can see us."

"His Angel Eyes?"  Angela asked, her blue eyes wide and sincere.

"The very thing!"  the Sergeant declared.  "And now if you'll excuse me, we've got to get back."

"But ... how come you were here?"  Angela asked as the men behind the Sergeant dissolved, became transparent, disappeared.

The Sergeant had turned away, but he turned back, as if reluctant to leave.

"Ah," he said sadly, "ye remind me so much of my own little girl."  He shook his head.  "Why are we here?  We all served wi' yon Captain, Miss Angela.  He was needin' his men wi' him and we were there."

"Oh."  Angela's innocent expression, her single word, seemed to indicate her satisfaction.

 

I walked up to the Sheriff as he come up from the horse trough.

He'd washed off his steel and he'd washed off his face and he turned and smiled a little as he saw me, as he realized I was there with a rifle and ready.

"Sir," I asked carefully, "is all well?"

The Sheriff wiped his face briskly with a bandanna, looked at the carcass, at the remarkable amount of crimson spilled on frozen ground.

"It is now."

 

"Dear God," Willamina whispered.  "It sounds like he was insane."

"PTSD?"  Richard asked, and Willamina raised an eyebrow, looked up at the pale eyed man's portrait, printed from the glass plate original.

"It could be," she murmured.

"Have you ever done something like that?"

Richard's question was quietly worded, but he watched his wife closely:  he'd done his share of interrogation and he knew what to look for, especially now, when he knew his wife's defenses were down.

Willamina shook her head a little.

"No," she said.  "Not even ... over there."

She looked again at her ancestor's portrait.

"There are things about the man I never knew."

The Bear Killer – Willamina's The Bear Killer --  raised his head and Willamina caressed his great black head absently, her fingers lingering over the brown spots over his eyes.

 

Two days later her twin brother Will brought her documentation that brought her to a full and complete stop.

It was a letter, written by a schoolgirl, relating what she'd been told by a classmate.

It was something about having seen an entire street full of ghosts, of men in Union blue, marching with a pale eyed Sheriff.

Of course it was a classmate's wild imagination, surely it could not be anything else, but it was a wonderfully detailed imagination nonetheless.

 

 

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226.  SWALLOWING THE ANVIL

 

I reckon I should tell you about Sean first.

Now that leads to another thought.

I'm re-reading what I just wrote and when I read it, I hear the words as I run my eyes over them, and I hear them in my voice.

I reckon you'll hear them in the voice you've heard me speak or if you never knew me you'll invent one and that'll work just as well.

That's why I said I reckon I should tell you about Sean first and I said that because I don't want to tell you about what I have to.

Sean came in and I was busy puttin' thoughts down on paper and he set down and allowed in a quiet voice that he never took me for the kind that would write like that, write in a journal, but then he allowed as several folks he knew did as much, especially pilgrims, and then we got to laughin' and talkin' about his boys and how one of his daughters was gettin' tall and pretty and she was lowerin' her eyes and her cheeks was a-color when she realized she was bein' looked at nowadays different from what she'd been, and then he laughed and said his Daisymedear was a-followin' the girl with fire in her eye and a rollin' pin in her hand just darin' any man to say anythin' out of line to her darlin' daughter.

I nodded and allowed as time changes us all and Sean he give me a long look and then he spoke again.

 

"Out with it, lad," Sean rumbled.  "There's a weight on your soul like ye've swallowed an anvil!"

I looked at Sean and I hope the misery I felt didn't match the face I wore.

I try and wear a poker face but it don't always work.

"Feels like I swallered an anvil," I admitted.

Sean lowered his head like an old b'ar and squinted just a little as he looked at me hard.

"Hard news then?"
I nodded.

"Ye're not pregnant now are ye, lad?" he asked, and that taken me by surprise and I blinked and then I laughed and I shook my head and allowed as no, that ain't what happened, and then I looked at him and said "I don't reckon I'd ought to say much," and I considered and then I looked at the man, for I decided.

"Sean, you and the Sheriff have been fast friends for a lot of years."

"Aye, lad, that we have," he nodded, his expression serious.

"Has he spoke to you about ..."  I frowned, thrust my jaw out, considered.

"His eyes?" Sean asked softly, and I reckon the surprise I felt is the surprise he saw.

"His eyes."

"I feared as much."  Sean lowered his big Irish head into his hand and rubbed his forehead, come up for air.  "It's the man wi' pale eyes that runs th' risk o' cataracts, especially here in th' high mountains.  I've seen blue-eyed men go blind from 'em.  Y'almost ne'er see it wi' a brown-eyed man, or black eyes."

"He told me this mornin', Sean.  He's talkin' about retirement."

Sean shook his head slowly.  "I canna' see him settin' in a rockin' chair."

"He's done his share and more," I said slowly.  "He's money enough to hit the rockin' chair and not worry for the rest of his days."  I looked squarely at the man. "I'd be just as happy if he lived another hundred years or so!"

"I said the same o' my own Pa," Sean admitted.  "'Twas a fell day indeed when his gallant heart quit."  He looked at me and chuckled.  "'Course that may'a had somethin' t' do wi' a jealous husband's puttin' a knife through it!"

I warn't sure whether to laugh or not and Sean closed one eye and put a blunt finger to his lips and I nodded.

The Sheriff he spoke of Masonic matters now and again and he'd said somethin' about bein' oath bound to keep the secrets of a Master Mason when given to him as such, and I taken that seriously, and I figured whether or not Sean was a Mason was immaterial, he'd given me a secret and put his finger to his lips so I'd carry that one to my grave. 

Wouldn't be the first and won't be the last.

I trusted Sean because the Sheriff trusted him first.

The only thing I give him new was that I was troubled, and a son given such hard news will be troubled.

Sean was right.

It feels like I've swallowed an anvil.

 

That afternoon the Sheriff and I we went down to the corral and we taken some tin cans with us and we took turns tossin' 'em up in the air and bustin' a hole through 'em with the short guns.

'Course when Old Pale Eyes and me gets to tossin' up tin cans and laughin' folks come and watch, and the Sheriff he tossed up a can and punched a hole through it and I tossed up two and he hit 'em both and I threw up three of 'em and he out with both revolvers and hit 'em, left-right-middle, and he looked at me with that quiet grin of his and said so's only I could hear, "Not bad for a blind old man, eh?" and winked.

We talked some later on and he said he wanted to show everyone he was still fast and good with a sixgun and he admitted them cans stood out black and plain ag'in the blue sky and he could see 'em without much trouble but it wouldn't be long before that warn't possible and he wanted me to take over as Sheriff before it did, so he could hit the rockin' chair and still be thought of as fast and good and not over the hill.

I nodded and swallered and said "Yes, sir," and the Sheriff he turned over his lapel and unpinned atair six point star and he held it for a long moment and run his thumb over it and then he smiled just a little and said "I'd like you to pin this on Joseph in due time."

Now that one was hard, but I nodded and I managed to say "Yes, sir," and on that moment I became Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado, and may God have mercy on my corroded soul!

 

 

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227.  THE SHERIFF'S SON

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller squatted by the small fire.

Her son Linn watched as she turned the frying eggs, savored the smell of frying bacon.

Neither spoke a word; the sun made more noise than the two of them as it hauled itself up over the rim of the world, looking like it was impaling itself on the far, sharp-toothed peaks.

It was not until they ate, not until fried eggs and bread dough, twisted around a stick and baked over the coals, until bacon was speared and twisted up on three-tine forks older than the two of them put together, not until they'd eaten and savored coffee boiled in a blue-granite pot, that either spoke.

"You're probably wondering why I asked you here today," Willamina said, using the identical words she used to open any meeting:  it was a standing joke between them, and her pale-eyed son grinned, quickly, boyishly, and Willamina's quiet smile reflected her pleasure in this moment alone with her son.

He was not her firstborn, but he was the one most like her: he'd inherited his father's blocky build, but he'd inherited the height from her side of the family, and after Richard's death, he'd taken the name Keller – something he'd long wanted to do, simply because he felt such a strong tie to the pale eyed lawmen who'd come before, and gone before, especially that seminal ancestor who'd become so much of the family's mythos, the pale eyed lawman for whom he'd been named, and who he resembled to a remarkable – almost a shocking – degree.

"Yes, ma'am," he said in his gentle voice, and Willamina leaned back on her boot heels and regarded him frankly.

"I'm retiring," she said – a statement of fact.

"Yes, ma'am."

"I need someone I can trust to take over."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I've discussed this with the County Commsisioners."

"Yes, ma'am."

She turned the lapel over on her insulated vest, unpinned her six point star, rubbed it thoughtfully with her thumb.

It was an old badge, a very old badge:  lawmen wore this particular badge since the mid-1880s, when a pale eyed lawman rode into town and decked the crooked lawyer, when that pale eyed old soldier became Sheriff and had the badge made:  it was a simple star with six points, with the one word hand chased across its middle, the word that declared his authority:

SHERIFF.

She looked long at that badge, weighed it in her palm.

"I was reading last night."  Her voice was soft, thoughtful.

"I read Jacob's journal again, and how his father gave him this same badge."

She held it out, over the fire, the rising smoke a thin veil caressing the back of her hand.

Linn reached through the thin smoke, picked it up, considered it thoughfully, then turned his own lapel over and removed his own matching star.

He'd had it custom made, a simple, six point star, unadorned as the one he'd been handed, its hand-chased legend simple, DEPUTY SHERIFF.

"I'll need a good deputy," he said.  "Be pleased if you'd ride with me."

Willamina bit her bottom lip, nodded:  Linn knew she was fighting the lump in her throat, for he'd used the same words her late husband used when he proposed to her.

Richard was prior FBI, but he was a wise man, and when he fell – and fell hard – for this new hell-raising Sheriff, this woman who was not afraid to kick a man's backside up between his shoulder blades when need be, this woman whose first act of office was to drive a charge of OO buck through a saloon ceiling and then drag the Mayor across the table by his Italian-silk necktie ... well, Richard knew she was a woman of the West, and he researched the language of the period, and he'd stood with her on a rock shelf he didn't know was called High Lonesome, a rock shelf he never knew was almost sacred to family memory:  he'd stood beside her, holding her hand, looking into the distance and he'd pulled out a ring and said "Willamina, I'd be pleased if you'd ride with me."

He never told her about the White Wolf he saw at the end of the shelf; he never had the chance, for Willamina seized him in an embrace and pulled his face down into hers, and thoughts of a pale-furred lupine were quickly dismissed from the man's mind.

Willamina nodded, pinned her son's badge in place of her own.

"I reckon," Linn said quietly, "I will start me a new journal now."

Willamina looked at him with knowing eyes.

"I already had it printed up," she smiled, reaching beside her and lifting the flap of her saddlebag.

She withdrew a black-leather volume and handed it to her son, and Linn took it and smiled, and nodded.

"You knew," he murmured.

"I'm your mother," Willamina whispered.  "I always know."

Linn smiled a little and wiped at his eyes with his shirt sleeve, and the sun's early shaft shot into the rock cleft and caressed the gold leaf embossed into black leather.

The words were as he'd imagined them, but hadn't spoken:  it did not surprise him in the least little bit that his Mama would know, that she would have them here.

Even were he blind, his fingertips would have read these words, glowing in these first long, red rays, and they seemed to burn with their own inner fires.

Pressed into black leather, alive almost, he read the words:

THE SHERIFF'S SON.

He swallowed a lump of his own and nodded.

"Mama," he said, "that's proper."

 

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THE LAST CHAPTER

Well, folks, there it is.

Another one run its natural course.

As usual I feel like a wrung out dish rag.

There's an awful lot of me goes into these tales.

My baby sis said she reads 'em and nods and grunts "Uh-huh, yeah, I remember that, yep, uh-huh," to the amusement of her husband, who generally ends up reading them himself.

Every time I finish one of these tales I say the same thing ... I'm gonna step back and take a bit of a break ... and every time, either Willamina reaches through the screen, seizes me by the shirt collar, jerks me up short and burns those pale eyes into mine as she hisses, "WRITE!" -- or Jacob stands there looking levelly at me, saying more with those pale eyes than an orator on the floor of Congress, and more times than one Sarah Lynne McKenna flounced across the floor, all frills and skirts and pretty pink cheeks, she set down all ladylike and sweet smellin' beside me as she takes my hand and coos "You know you still love me," and then she bends my thumb back until I give a yell of pain!

I have no idea a'tall what's going to happen next, but with my luck, it'll hit me between the eyes like the noon freight!

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Linn,

Thanks for bringing Firelands to life and letting us all enjoy the characters and your amazing story tellin!!!

cant wait to see what’s in store next. 

 

Short Term

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Linn,

Thank you for the great tale.  Reading each chapter has been like living the adventure riding in a posse alongside you.  

 

Thanks for the ride,

 

Jailhouse Jim

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Linn,

Thank you. Looking forward to what ever comes next. 

 

Cactus Jack

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My friends, thank you for those kindnesses!

I woke up with a headache -- no doubt the result of the noon freight catching me square between the eyes while I floated between slumber and wake, at least until the alarm clock went off and I pulled out a big colorful cartoon mallet and pounded it into silence (I think in cartoons!) -- well, maybe that didn't really happen, but I'd like to!
I was going to set the alarm clock on the sill of the open window and when it went off, send it to hell on a hard cast .44 semi wadcutter, but it's cold out, the neighbors would object and it would cause misunderstandings with She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) ... so I filed it under "A" for "Another good idea down in flames!"

Charlie Macneil (a blessing on his name!) had a sterling idea, in the meantime I thought myself to try something different.

A short story.

(Try not to laugh.  Me ... the Resident Windbag ... a SHORT story? Hey, miracles can happen!) -- no guarantees but I'm going to work on an idea I woke up with!

Will advise progress!

Linn

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