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This is an experiment.

I want to see if I can write a short story.

(Try no to laugh -- me, brief? -- well, miracles do happen!)

When I wrote Willamina's original tale, she reached out of the screen, seized me by the shirt collar, jerked me up short and glared those pale eyes into mine and hissed, "WRITE!" -- and of course the only correct reply to a lady is to lift the skypiece and say "Yes, ma'am!"

I honestly don't know where these sawed off tales will be -- past, present or future -- good Lord, you have ridden patiently with me clear to the Red Planet, we have trotted across the deck of a carrier as a pale eyed Kentucky fiddler took off in a Super Stallion and did things with that flying truck that should only be tried in a fighter jet, and we've gone well back to the past, clear back to not long after the American Revolution.

So -- fair warning -- we'll likely be wandering some.

When the noon freight hit me this morning, it was of course in Firelands, but it was in the hospital lobby, and there were a couple boys there named Emil and Gottleib, sons of Sheriff Linn Keller:  ten years old they are, and ... well, I'll let you look 'em over yourself.

Here they are.

 

 

THE SHERIFF'S TWINS

 

The punch caught Linn's right cheekbone coming in and it shook the man to his boot heels.

Something bright detonated in the lean-waisted, pale-eyed Sheriff's field of vision and his left arm spun up to block the follow up punch he knew was coming, he bent a little and drove a haymaker just under the other guy's wish bone, an uppercut delivered with all the muscle that throwing hay bales, scraping barns and other affairs of bein' Sheriff had given him, and he punched his good right fist into the man's guts hard enough to bring him off the ground feeling like that upward bound ballistic missile started just above the belly button and came to final rest a half inch beneath his Adam's apple.

A stainless-steel bedpan spun past the Sheriff's left ear like an insane, gleaming Frisbee and the pale eyed lawman turned, left arm up and hand bladed, he drew his left knee back to his belt buckle and drove a kick into an advancing belly and doubled the would-be attacker, knocking him back against the receptionist's desk hard enough to crack it loose from its bolted down foundations.

Dr. John Greenlees shoved through the double doors with an immaculate white coat unbuttoned and flowing open in the wind of his passing, wearing a shirt and tie and a professionally irritated expression:  the man was a gifted surgeon and he was not going to risk his hands in a punch, but he had a handful of laser sighted .44 revolver, and when this quiet man roared "ENOUGH!" and nobody paid him the least bit of attention, he hauled back the hammer and turned loose 240 grains of handloaded lead slug that knocked a spall out of the cement beam overhead half the size of a man's fist and brought everything to a fast stop.

The glass double doors hauled open and half a dozen lawmen swarmed in, looking around, two in the lead with shotguns cocked, locked and ready to rock, and the Sheriff straightened, glared at them with hard and pale eyes, and put the back of his hand gingerly to his swelling right cheek bone.

"What took you so long?"  Linn muttered.  "Doc, you okay?"

 

Emil Keller – one of the Sheriff's twins – looked at his brother Gottleib.

When the fight started in the waiting area out front, just inside the big glass doors and around the receptionist's desk, the Sheriff swung around in front of his boys and said "Boys, get in back," and they turned and ran through the heavy wooden double doors, shoving through them in pious defiance of the "NO ADMITTANCE" in red letters across their equator.

There was the general sound of a full-blown, shouting riot, a uniformed policeman came out of an exam room and ran to the sound of battle, and the twin ten-year-old boys ran into the room he'd just run out of.

Gottleib stopped and looked at the man lying on the treatment table.

Emil looked at Gottleib and then at the patient.

The man's eyes were wide and wild, he was shivering, he was sweating, he was looking around as if seeing something darting about the room, something that terrified him.

His manacled wrists were secured to a belly chain, he was belted down, it was evident he was confined and probably under arrest, but the officer assigned to watch him was gone, and now it was just two scared little boys and what was probably a dangerous, if not violent, prisoner.

"Don't let it near me," he hissed between clenched teeth, shaking, struggling:  "DON'T LET IT TOUCH ME!"

Emil went up beside the man, reached up, gripped one of the man's hands:  "My name's Emil," he said, "you're safe here," and the man's head snapped around and he looked at the serious-faced little boy and gave a scream of sheer terror.

"It's all right," Emil said with all the firmness and confidence he could manufacture – he'd heard his pale-eyed Pa say those same words, and in the same way – "you are safe here and I will not let you come to harm."

The man whimpered, looked around, clearly terrified.

"They'll hurt you," he gasped.  "They'll hurt you!"

"They'll not dare," Emil said with all the confidence as if he held a loaded shotgun himself:  he gave the man's hand a reassuring squeeze.  "You're cold.  Let me get you a blanket."

Gottleib looked around the room.

The boys knew hospitals sometimes had warmed blankets – Emil broke an arm falling out of the hay loft once, and they put a warmed blanket on him and he remembered how good it felt – Gottleib was in the room when this happened, and he looked around, pointed.

"There."

The two boys – identical in flannel shirt, blue jeans, polished boots and wide, basket-stamped belts – scampered over to the blanket warmer, opened it, carefully brought out a warmed, fragrant blanket.

They ran over to the prisoner and carefully, quickly, unfolded the blanket over him, ran back, got another.

"They can't hurt you now," Emil said, drawing on a childhood memory of hiding from nightmares by huddling under a blanket:  "you're safe now," and the prisoner relaxed visibly, blinking.

Neither boy really knew what to say and so they said nothing:  one stood on the man's left, the other on his right:  youthful hands gripped his shoulders reassuringly, and when the officer finally came back in, he looked, surprised, at the quiet prisoner, at the two boys, and asked with honest surprise, "What are you two doing in here?"

 

The janitor squinted at the crater in the cement beam.

"Yeah, I can patch that," he said confidently.  "Gimme a day and you'll never know it was there."

Dr. John Greenlees looked at the Sheriff, frowned.

"You'd better let me look at that."

The Sheriff nodded.  "Yeah," he grunted, dabbed at his nose, frowned at the drop of blood that came away when he brushed an experimental knuckle across the front of his beak.

They went in back and into the first treatment room, the room with the officer, the prisoner, and two boys.

 

The local paper had the expected article, describing how a fight broke out in the hospital's lobby, how the Sheriff, who was there to interview what turned out to be a poisoning victim, became the first lawman on scene; there was mention of the number of casualties, of the Sheriff's broken cheekbone, of the charges filed:  there was a smaller, separate article on how a college student from out of town ended up in police custody after erratic behavior, and how it was finally determined he'd been slipped some drug cocktail that brought out every paranoid fear he'd known, causing him to be violent and combative, and how this was treated, with no charges against him, and the investigation turned over to the police in the jurisdiction where the chemical assault took place.

The newspaper had no mention of two little boys who helped break the man's paranoia.

 

Linn patiently endured his wife's attentions as she fussed over his face:  it was bruised, it was going to be spectacularly colored, Doc tended the cracked bone as best as could be done, gave his good professional advice, and turned the Sheriff loose:  as he and his boys left for the office and paperwork, and then home, they passed the janitor up on a ladder plastering the bullet crater full:  it would be ready to paint in a few hours, and Linn knew the man took pride in his work, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference in twenty-four hours.

Emil and Gottleib waited patiently as their tall, pale-eyed Pa conferred with the police chief and a variety of officers, they stayed to one side and silent as lawmen came and went, as the prosecutor discussed what had transpired, and finally, when the Sheriff stood and stretched, he looked over at his sons and winked and said "Fellas, let me tell you a secret."

The twins came to their feet and with one voice said "Yes, sir?"

"Cheek bones heal better with ice cream."

"Yes, sir!" came the eager, juvenile-grin reply, and the three of them walked down to the chrome-and-glass drugstore with all the mirrors and polished metalwork, and sat down at a table with a chocolate sundae in front of each of them.

They waited until the Sheriff picked up his spoon, and hesitated when he hesitated.

"Boys," he said seriously, "your Mama would not be happy with us spoilin' our supper."

"No, sir," the boys said, looking sorrowfully at the bounty before them.

"There is a solution."

Hopeful eyes raised to their solemn-faced Pa.

"Since this is for medicinal purposes only," he continued, as solemn as the old judge, "we just don't tell her!"

Three pale-eyed Kellers in well polished boots and blue jeans, snatched up their spoons and happily consumed their chilly treats.

 

After they'd eaten, the Sheriff listened carefully to his boys' testimony.

It was not so much an interrogation as it was an interested father looking at a situation through the eyes of his sons.

He listened to their description of how they went into the back hall, and how they thought that general knock down drag out brawl might spill through the doors they'd just pushed through, and so they ducked into a room the policeman just came out of – they knew it wouldn't be locked, so they could get in – they described the appearance of the man on the ER gurney, and they gave a clear verbal picture of the terror on his face, how he was looking around at something and telling them how "IT" was going to get him, and how Emil tried to reassure him with touch – something he'd learned from his Pa, though he didn't say as much – and how he'd realized the fellow was cold.

Emil and Gottleib described remembering the warmed blankets and finding the blanket warmer, and how they covered him with one and then another, because Emil remembered how fast his first warmed blanket cooled off, and how this was a comfort to the man.

Linn listened patiently, carefully, to what his sons told him, and then he leaned across the small, cleared, glass-topped drugstore table, and took their hands in his.

"Fellas," he said quietly, looking into one son's eyes, and then the other, "you have done a good thing.  You brought comfort to one who needed comforted."  He squeezed their hands just a little and smiled, remembering at time when his own pale-eyed Mama told him the same thing, under rather different circumstances, but knowing it would be meaningful nonetheless:  "You did a very good thing an I am pretty damned proud of you both!"

It is a powerful thing when a father praises his sons, and Linn knew it was a lesson his sons would remember, and God willing, it would be a thing they would do with their own sons.

In the fullness of time, it was, but that's another tale altogether.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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2. BEING THERE

 

My boots crunched quietly on cold gravel as I walked down Keller Row.

Our family has been here a long time now.

Here ... here in front of me, an old stone, a double tomb stone.

I stare at it and I read my own name.

Linn Keller.

I smile a little and remember my wife telling me she had this same funny feeling when she stood at a stone near Parkersburg, back East, and read her own name.

She'd been named after a great-grandmother.

I know how she felt, reading that name, standing at that grave.

The other half of the stone – the one that said "Beloved Wife and Mother" – Esther Keller, the legendary green-eyed wife of Old Pale Eyes himself.

I smiled a little and remembered how Mama used to read to me, she read from journals and from her own research, she was putting together material enough for a book until she finally laughed and shook her head and said "Who would read such a silly thing," and she put it all away, and I dug it out after she died.

I would read it, Mama.

I am reading it.

Mama read to me from her written notes about Esther, how she took over the Z&W Railroad, named after the rail line back East her husband sold in order to purchase this struggling little short line:  he named it after the one he sold – the Zanesville and Western, profanely known as the Zig Zag and Wobble, which Esther did not know until after she'd turned it around and gotten it profitable – and by then, she said, changing its name would be like renaming a boat, and that's very bad luck among blue water sailors.

I looked at the small stone on the far side, the one with the lamb on top, the one with a couple chunks knocked out.

Their son Joseph, died in infancy, nowadays we'd call it crib death, and I remembered my first house call for unexpected death.

It too had been crib death and the parents were crushed, devastated, and my partner and I were gentle and careful in removing their child's remains:  I was a green EMT and it ... hell, it was my first run, period, and that about ruined me.

I turned and looked off to my left and estimated where the assassin would have hidden with his long barrel shotgun, waiting to murder the Sheriff's green-eyed wife:  their little girl Angela was on the far side of the stone, and when the gun cracked, the Sheriff was hit and that made him mad.

He, Jacob an Charlie Macneil all replied, and none of the three men missed, and Angela didn't realize what happened because she'd tripped over something and she was flat on the ground when heavy shot sang over her.

Mama said she'd been told Angela saw a white wolf, the legendary white wolf that appears to the family sometimes, but nobody knew for sure – all they knew was Angela's delighted "Doggie!" and she took two running steps and went face first into the snowy ground.

I looked left.

More stones, more names.

Jacob Keller and his wife Annette, their son Joseph – his remains were not really here, he'd been killed in France during the First World War.  His uniform and the revolvers the Sheriff had made for him are over in the museum if you want to see them, along with the hand written account from the officer whose life he saved.

The German officer.

More names, more stones ... I paced on a little further, stopped and smiled at a stone with a recent laser engraving in its polished quartz face.

Sarah Lynne McKenna.

God Almighty, I thought, she looks like my Mama.

There wasn't room on Old Pale Eyes' stone for his visage to be graven, otherwise Mama would have had it done, because I am the very breathing image of that fine old lawman, just as Mama's twin brother William was the living twin for Jacob Keller, who became Sheriff after Old Pale Eyes.

Her son – Sarah's son, Daffyd Llewellyn, isn't here – that's his father's grave here, with the same name, he was one of our Irish Brigade and he died trying to escape a house fire, but he'd thrown a wrapped baby across the gap to the fire chief – if I recall Mama's notes rightly, one of the pale eyed relatives married that little girl child that got tossed across the chimney of fire that swallowed Sarah's husband.

Mama still has her ring, the Ring of the Princess.

I stopped and blinked and looked off into the distance and it hurt again, Mama's being gone and all, and I reckon I'll feel that hurt as long as I live.

I have the ring and it's locked away and safe.

Sarah's son Daffyd is buried in Cincinnati, under a fine stone in a riverside cemetery that almost washed away but they got stone in and stopped the erosion and today it's walled up and safe.  I've been there and seen his stone and a police officer stopped and came out into the cemetery and we got to talking.

It seems that his granddad or great-granddad was a beat cop when he stopped to investigate a woman, grieving in the night:  thick fog, no moon, he opened the iron gate and followed the sound and came upon a woman all in black, kneeling at the grave, her lantern on the ground.

Years later – I don't know how it came about – but he saw a photograph of Sarah Lynne McKenna and he said that was the woman, grieving at his grave.

I don't have that one quite figured out.

Sarah Lynne McKenna was dead by then, she'd been killed in Germany not long before the First World War, when things were getting unpleasant, when there were local uprisings, when raiders with torches and pitchforks stormed the residence of the old Count.

Sarah sent her maid with her baby girl down a hidden stone passageway and Sarah changed out of her fine gown and into what she wore as the Black Agent, and she belted on her bulldog .44s and took up her rifle and a shotgun and she went to war.

She shot the rifle empty, she emptied the shotgun twice, she emptied her revolvers and then she came out with a pair of blades and she laid about like a steel tornado and finally someone took her through the spine with something and she went down and they killed her as she lay there but only one survived to tell the tale, and when the Staaspolezi got there, they were aghast at the carnage one woman alone caused.

I couldn't help but smile.

I've set and looked long at glass plate prints of Sarah Lynne McKenna, and compared them side by side with pictures of my Mama, and there were times when Mama would wear a wig she'd had made to look just like the way Sarah wore her hair, and she'd hand made gowns to look just like gowns Sarah wore in those plates, and damned if she did not look like a twin, an absolute twin!

Now Mama told me there were times when the dead walked with us, she told me of conversations she'd had with Jacob Keller and with Old Pale Eyes, she told me of Sarah coming into her living room and taking her to Firelands as it was back when, and then she'd give a little laugh and say maybe she'd dreampt the whole thing.

I don't know.

Mama was never one to go into a flight of fancy.

She was always really well grounded in fact.

Hell, she was Sheriff, she'd have to be!

I can't help but wonder if it didn't really happen and she kind of let it slip and then she gave me that little bit of doubt so I could think it was a dream and not a damned lie.

The Bear Killer shoved his head up against my hand and I rubbed his neck and his shoulder:  this wasn't our first The Bear Killer, I'd buried one up on High Lonesome and I cried when I did, this one was not nearly grown but he was already little short of absolutely huge.

I smiled a little.

There'd been The Bear Killer in my life ever since I could remember, although I never saw one of the white wolves Mama told me about, at least not until that day.

I stopped at the newest stone and I swallowed hard.

WILLAMINA KELLER, it read, BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER, and in one corner, the six point star, same size as the one she wore and now I did; in the other corner, a red rose, laser engraved and they tinted it somehow, and that's another mystery about this place:  when a woman is with child, or when someone is about to die, a red rose will appear, and I remember when my wife woke and found two roses on her bedside table, fresh, fragrant, the petals still dew-wet, fresh cut and stuck in a little narrow neck vase.

I said about not seein' the white wolf until that day.

I found Mama dead in the pasture.

She'd been out for a ride and Cannonball was standin' right beside her and not movin' an The Bear Killer he taken off from the house with a growl and the hair standin' up down his spine and acrost his shoulders and I grabbed a rifle and came out of the house on the Hot Foot and I saw her layin' there.

I taken off runnin' hard as I could go.

For the first and only time in my entire life, I slapped my hand on the top rail of our board fence and vaulted it at a dead run, I hit flat footed on t'other side and taken a point shoulder roll with my rifle tucked in ag'in my belly and crossways and I come up runnin' and The Bear Killer he beat me there and he snuffed at her and then he set his broad flat bottom down and he raised his muzzle and he commenced to howl.

I will never in my entire life forget that howl, how it filled the whole world, how it echoed and rolled off the mountains themselves.

Habit and training take over when the noon freight smacks you between the eyes, that's why we train and train and train again, we don't train to get it right, we train until we can't get it wrong:  when it hits the fan, rational thought and fine coordination join hands and jump out the nearest window, and we are left with muscle memory and training, and I went through the checks and she wasn't breathing, and I took a close look at her eyes and they were just started to dry across the corneas and I knew – no pulse, no respirations, discoloration, drying corneas – she was long past dead.

I picked up my Mama and throwed my head back and I let out a sorrowful scream that I reckon shivered the bottom step of the Pearly Gates, and then I collapsed to my knees and I sorrowed into my dead Mama's shirt.

I looked at her stone as I remembered all this and I recalled in my misery there was a White Wolf.

I had seen one.

It was looking at me, and it raised its muzzle as well and it and The Bear Killer sang and I looked up over Mama's stone, the double stone with her name on the left and Pa's on the right, and over that stone I saw it.

The White Wolf, just settin' there, lookin' at me, and then it stood and turned and there was a twist of fog where it used to be, and it was gone.

A hand laid on my back and a gentle voice.

"I won't tell anyone," she said, "but under that hard lawman's shell you're just an old softy."

I nodded, my chest tight and tears stinging my eyes, and I reached for my bandana.

I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and took a deep breath, and I gripped the corners of the stone and bent over until my forehead rested on polished granite, and I stayed there for a bit.

That evening, after supper, my wife knew something was on my mind.

I helped her with the dishes and when we were done I took her in my arms and held her, and she knew something troubled me, so she held me, and the boys were doing their homework in the living room, belly down on the floor and frowning at their sums laid open on the hardwood before them.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"You're welcome."  Her voice was a little muffled but I felt her giggle, then she lifted her head and looked at me and said "What for this time?"

"For being there when I needed you."
She looked kind of puzzled.

"You know.  Today.  At the graveyard.  I didn't even hear you drive up."

"Ummm ..."  She raised an eyebrow and turned her head just a little and gave me a really funny look.

"I wasn't at the graveyard today."

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3.  THE PAINTER AND THE LADY

 

The stool was narrow and hard beneath his broad backside.

He'd never imagined his talents would be so employed.

Still ... he'd never imagined he'd starve, either.

This new land, this America, this opportunity, was supposed to be paved with gold, with generous patrons in grand cities, with the nouveau riche dripping with gold and gaudy jewels, clamoring to give patronage to a known European artist such as himself!

He closed his eyes for a long moment, took a steadying breath.

What he was doing now was less than child's play.

A half blind enfant could do what he was doing!

He rested his forehead on the back of a bent wrist:  there was a step behind him, a firm hand clasped his shoulder.

"Take a few minutes if you need to," a kindly voice said in that strange English accent:  a woman's voice, but stained with the cadencing and pronunciation of ... what?

New Orleans?

In France, in Paree, he'd been Rogere Halasz, painter of portraits and guest of rich and powerful families:  here, here in this howling wilderness, he was ... he was Roger Halasz, which these primitive provincials pronounced "h'alice" ... but he'd learned not to correct them, not if he wished to be paid, and his belly reminded him that getting paid was now of sudden and overriding importance.

"That," the woman continued, "is some of the most precise freehand lettering I have ever seen."

She spoke English now, and Rogere's quick ear tasted the haunting flavors of another accent, one he'd come to associate with certain rich patrons in the American South, refugees after that terrible time that nearly destroyed this young nation:  his ancestors included the great Charles L'Enfant, who designed their new Capitol, and even Marquis de Lafayette, who fought beside their revered Washington!

"Merci, ma Dame," he murmured.

With such an ancestry, he reasoned, he should be feted and not scorned, not reduced to painting letters on the side of a locomotive!

The woman's hand never left his shoulder:  he felt her weight shift and he knew she was bending a little, looking more closely at his work, and he heard her breath catch.

He smiled a little.

He knew she was looking at the rose he'd painted, the rose with a ribbon about its stem:  it was not something ma Dame had requested, but he felt it fitting:  he'd seen her holding a rose, fresh-cut, given her by her pale-eyed husband, that remarkable, iron-muscled gendarme, the ... oh, what was the word ...

Shérif.

Rogere smiled again, swished his brush in solvent, wiped it delicately on the folded rag he'd been given.

"Merci, ma Dame," he said again, setting the brush aside, turning a little and looking up at the striking woman who'd commissioned his work.

Her startling green eyes were still on the rose:  he'd painted it as he remembered the roses in his grand-mère's garden, fresh and rich and with droplets of dew still gleaming on the petals, on the leaves:  he'd captured the roundness of each hydrosphere, an inverted, tiny reflection in each one.

"Rogere," Madame Esther said softly, "you must be hungry, would you guest with us tonight?"

"Alors?"  The exclamation slipped out unbidden and he silently cursed his incaution, but the woman laughed gently and gripped both his shoulders.

"We have a room for you in the Silver Jewel, and a bath:  clean clothes, a meal, wine and music, and I think you will be a new man on the morrow."

Rogere swallowed, nodded:  here was fortune indeed, and a greater, a more generous treatment than he'd received since setting his Gaulic foot on this primitive and backward continent!

"Merci, ma Dame," he said softly, and began gathering his pigments.

 

The woman at the head of the room – a room in the back of the Silver Jewel Saloon, a room gutted out and rebuilt well more than a century before as a private meeting room, rebuilt by blue-eyed Kentucky moonshiners from up on the mountain, master carpenters and musicians – the woman stood at the head of this room, her hands properly folded in her apron, looking about with the patient hauteur of a woman of means who was addressing a crowd composed of mostly ... well, her social inferiors.

An enlarged image, projected on the screen behind her, was of a single red rose, hand-painted:  it was faded with time and exposure to the sun, but it was more than evident that this was remarkably executed:  had it not been faded, it might have been mistaken for a photograph, so precisely was it rendered.

The woman raised a hand, and in it, a small, black-plastic rectangle:  a press of a delicate, manicured thumb, the picture changed to a high-resolution, close-up of the trailing ribbon, tied about its stem.

Delicately woven into the painting, a signature, following the flow and curve of the ribbon, invisible unless one looked for it.

"The painter," the docent explained, "was a French immigrant who went on to San Francisco and became a famous portrait painter until he was taken by a measles epidemic a year-and-a-half later."

She turned and looked at the screen, smiled.

Beside her and a little behind was another image, this an actual painting:  it, too, was old, and newly restored by a master hand.

The docent wore an emerald-green gown, and had an emerald brooch at her throat, framed by four emeralds:  the docent's elaborate wig was a remarkable shade of red, and it was evident she was portraying the woman in the portrait.

"The lettering, and the insignia," she said, "was a commission by the Sheriff's wife, Esther Wales.  She was from South Carolina and we have a rather extensive history on her" – she smiled – "which we won't get into, because we don't have the time.  This gown" – she brushed the dress she wore with a delicate, wrist-bent hand – "duplicates what she wore in this portrait.  The man with her" – she smiled at the man in back, the tall, lean fellow with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache – "is her husband, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado."

The docent could not help but display the smile of a woman who knew a secret.

The Sheriff – her Sheriff – was a man of high good humor, in addition to being a most effective lawman:  she'd seen him seize a rowdy by the shirt front and hoist him off the ground and casually press him one-armed, straight up, hold him, lower him and press him up again, then lower him until they were eye-to-eye and he'd say something quiet, something in a gentle voice ... at which point either the rowdy became cooperative, or he generally ended up in the nearest horse trough.

He'd slipped into her presentation while the audience was engaged with her; he came in silently, as he always did, knowing full well she'd be showing that portrait, knowing the audience would see that pale eyed old lawman standing beside his lovely, green-eyed wife, knowing they had no idea he was there, at least not until they stood to leave.

The docent practiced the gliding walk of a Carolina belle, and after her presentation, she would glide gracefully back to the Sheriff, her Sheriff, and take his arm, and they would take questions together, and it delighted the docent that there were days when the Sheriff smelled particularly the way she loved her men to smell:  he smelled of horse-sweat and leather, he smelled of whiskey and Indian tobacco, he smelled the way she remembered her grandfather smelling, and she never, ever questioned this, not even after the time that she glided back and boldly laid claim to his arm and asked if there were any questions, and the next day she thanked him for his appearance.

Sheriff Linn Keller turned off his computer's monitor, turned to face the docent squarely, his brows puzzling together.

"I never left the office all day," he said slowly, and then they both turned and looked at the portraits on the wall, the framed prints made from glass plate photographs discovered in a dusty box, hidden away and forgotten in the local photographer's studio.

They looked at the prints, and they looked at one another, and the docent swallowed and turned and slipped out the Sheriff's office door.

She got halfway across the Sheriff's office lobby, stopped, looked back, hesitated, and finally shook her head.

"No," she said firmly.  "No, that's not possible."

 

 

 

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4. DECENT WOMEN

 

A man who will face the black gaze of eternity itself as presented by the business end of a Colt's revolver, might well hesitate when faced with the sharpened edge of hand held steel.

There is something frightening, viscerally terrifying, about the prospect of steel's kiss laying open a man's hide and spilling blood, guts and everything else, with a single hard swing.

So it was that, although the saloon full of men surrounded the enraged, screaming individual with a genuine Bowie in his fist, although chairs were kicked over and tables dragged away, leaving a rough circle in which this roaring challenger turned with honed steel uplifted, none stepped forward to accept his challenge.

The piano player's hands were drawn up from the keys; forgotten was music, forgotten even was his beer, and he too turned and watched this deadly tableau:  encircled, trapped, this individual's paranoia was fed even more by the perception that escape was impossible.

A voice.

A single voice, carrying over their heads:

"Make way, gentlemen, please," and heads turned, men shifted, moved aside.

A woman in an emerald-green gown, a red-headed woman with green eyes slipped through the small opening they afforded her, and behind her, these ranks of manly shoulders wove back together, and suddenly two were in the ring and Death smiled behind its bony mask and Esther Keller, wife of the pale eyed Sheriff and owner of the Z&W Railroad, spun a shining silver figure-eight in the air before her with Solingen steel:  the Bowie, heavier, stronger, was almost a foot and a half of fighting steel, forged on a smith's anvil, hammered from the fiery heart of refined ore; it had the apple on the pommel to counter the weight of the blade, putting the balance point in the fighter's hand:  the grip was walnut, checkered, flat on the sides, the checkering smoothed a little with use and with years, and stained with blood of more men than one.

The Schlager blade was more than twice its length, slender, its edges shaving-sharp, its point tempered, tough, proof against the thrust.

It, too, knew the taste of man-blood:  indeed, the last heart it pierced was back East, when a brigand held up the family carriage and, seeing the lovely young ladies riding in the fine brogham, decided he wanted to take a more delicate prize than the jewelry they wore.

That Eastern brigand came out in second place.

Esther Keller raised the blade in salute, slashed downward:  with her tip lowered, she said "Sirrah," and the word dripped with contempt, "no man draws steel in my husband's saloon.  You may apologize to these good people and leave, or we may cross steel, and only one will live.  Choose now."

Rage had long since smoked any good sense from the snarling soul's skull: now he was challenged, insulted by a ... a mere woman?

"No decent woman fights a knife," he sneered, and Esther raised her tip in salute.

"You have insulted the Sheriff's wife," she said, her voice low, quiet:  in the silence, there was no need to raise the voice:  "and the Sheriff does not tolerate insult."

She bent her knees a little, tucking her backside as she did, raised her off arm, gracefully, elbow and wrist bent, feminine, almost a dancer's gesture.

Her voice carried the same shock to the ear as if someone had snapped a blacksnake whip overhead.

"HAVE AT THEE!"

The man was an experienced knife fighter, but he'd only fought knives, and he'd only fought men who were marginally as good as he.

Her blade was longer, more slender; she was shorter, more slightly built, and her moves were those of a dancer:  long skirts hindered her not at all as she flowed in, watered steel whispering death through the air as she half-circled him, stinging his arm with a backhand slap with the flat of her blade:  a flick, and he raised his off hand to his cheek, eyes wide with surprise:  he drew back a bloody hand:  enraged, he roared, he charged.

Esther Keller took a half-step to her right and thrust, twisted:  her blade drove in just below his Adam's apple, penetrated to his spine:  her sidestep, her twist of the blade, and the entire left side of his throat was ripped open:  she withdrew the blade, thrust again, driving the point into his left kidney as he fell past:  she pulled, hard, letting the dead man's momentum pull himself off her blade before it twisted and bound between the greenwood grip of his overlapping ribs.

There was a long silence as Esther's blade's tip slowly lowered, until it touched the floor.

Scarcely a man breathed.

Esther paced forward, squatted:  she laid the blade across the tail of the man's coat, folded the material over the steel, withdrew the Schlager, wiping it free of blood:  twice she did this, then she stood, raised the blade in salute, laid it back across her shoulder.

A man's voice, loud, harsh, angry:  "MOVE!" and men turned, drew aside:  the pale-eyed Sheriff stormed through the opening his voice commanded, the double twelve-bore in his grip, his eyes pale, hard.

Esther Keller, matron of society and businesswoman of considerable acumen, turned and smiled quietly.

"Hello, dear," she said gently.  "And how was your day today?"

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5.  FATHER AND SON

 

I watched the Sheriff run the stone the length of the blade.

He kept his old cavalry sabre shaving sharp.

He seldom took it down from its peg, but he took it down and I knew there was going to be blood on the moon.

I turned to the rifle rack and picked up the warbag of shotgun shells and the double gun.

The Sheriff took off his double gun rig and opened a cupboard, pulled out another one:  I knew it was there, I'd seen him wear it when he didn't think I was around, times that he had that sabre out and he did very unkind things to a straw-and-overalls practice dummy in the barn, or when he'd ride down a double row of fence posts with burlap-and-straw balls on top, and he'd swing that curved steel left and right as he rode.

He looked at me as I slung the warbag across my chest and hung the shotgun from my off shoulder and across my back and silence hung like smoke in the room until finally he said "I need you here, Jacob."

"I need you alive, sir."

"The county needs a Sheriff."

"It has a Sheriff, sir, and I intend that the county's Sheriff should live a long and healthy life."

"There's a good chance I won't be comin' back."

"There's a better chance you will if I come along, sir."

I turned and picked up my rifle, looked at the lean lawman with an iron grey mustache.

"I could order you to stay."

I stood still.

Now when I say I stood still that doesn't mean my carcass didn't just not move.

It meant silence cascaded off me like snow cascading down a mountainside.
"You could," I said slowly, "and I would obey your order."

"You wouldn't like it."

"I would not, sir."

"I don't want you to go, Jacob."

"People in hell want icewater, sir," I said, "and we both know how well that works."

The Sheriff looked long at me and I saw his bottom jaw slide out and he finally nodded.

"All right."  He frowned a little.  "I'd rather you stayed here.  Joseph needs a father."

"I need a father too, sir."

I saw something in the man's pale eyes and I knew he was remembering his own father, a man I knew only from tales told at night, generally over a fire, out on the trail:  he was a man of legend in my mind, but someone who'd been very real to my own father, this lawman, this Sheriff.

"Jacob, do you know why I'm taking my sabre?"

"You intend to make a cavalry charge, sir."

"You're right."

"You intend to go up against odds, sir."

"I do."

"Are you in the right, sir?"

"I am."
"That decides it, sir.  You recall what the Ranger said, there's no stoppin' a man who's in the right and keeps on a-comin'?"

His smile did not descend from the corners of his eyes.  "I remember."

"If you're right, then so am I."

The Sheriff nodded slowly, then reached over and gripped my shoulder.

"I can think of no one I would rather have at my side.  Saddle up."

We rode off together, two lawmen, side by side on the best horseflesh we could arrange – horses we'd ridden for a good long while.

Folks watched as we rode out of town:  neither of us looked to the left or to the right, but we two did stop at the end of the street.

Two women stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the roadway, each holding a single red rose.

One, with red hair and green eyes, the Sheriff's wife; beside her, my wife, my Annette.

We rode with unbridled mounts, for our saddle stock were all knee trained:  they stopped as we wished, and our wives came up beside us, and handed us their rose.

Neither woman showed any distress, but both spoke, as if with one voice.

"Come home when you are done," they said, their voices almost musical, in chorus, and chilling with their message:

"Come home bearing your shield, or borne upon it."

We did.

 

A brother lawman sent for the Sheriff because he needed help.
He needed more than he realized, or maybe he figured Old Pale Eyes had such a reputation that he'd be enough, I'm not sure.

I know we faced a half dozen riders and I knew these were desperate men who we'd cornered and there is little more dangerous than a cornered animal.

They couldn't get out, we'd boxed them with rock at their back and no escape, and the Sheriff give them their chance and their reply was a shot, and that decided it.

Now I like my shotgun real well but it only holds two shots and I wanted to be closer before I went for heavy shot.

The Sheriff fetched out attair saber and I heard it whisper promises of death as it come free of the scabbard.

He laid curved steel back against his shoulder and stood up in the stirrups, looked around like he was reviewin' his troops.

"WAAAAALK!"

We advanced at a walk, him and me and ten thousand ghosts, I reckon:  when he got like this, he admitted to me once and only once, every dead man he'd ever served with either marched beside him or rode beside of him and I reckon he seen horse flesh and cavalry beside and behind.

I recall them six they kind of half grinned and half goggled.

I don't wonder none at that.

Two against six, and them with rock to their back?

"CAAAAAAAANNNTER!"

Our horses were both inclined to run, they wanted to run, they both wanted to charge in amongst the Philistines and truth be told so did I, there is a joy to battle and I felt that joy roar like a furnace through me but I held back, I rode beside my Pa, I kept exactly stirrup to stirrup side-on with him and when he whipped down honed steel and screamed "CHAAAAARRRGGGEEE!"  our horses they shoved their noses straight out and laid their ears straight back and I laid down acrost Apple-horse's neck and the wind started to strip tears out the corners of my eyes and them six they started a-shootin' and r'ared up and I counted left to right and every one I counted I whistled a rifle ball torst and I opened up when they was less than half a hundred yards betwixt us and I fired four times and four men hit and I was too and I did not care I heard someone screaming and it was me and I locked my heels in Apple's ribs and we hit into 'em and Apple-horse he grunted and them we hit into slammed to the side and we come skiddin' around and I laid out two more with my rifle and the Sheriff was froze for a moment, he had attair saber brought around, he'd cut a head off as he passed and he was comin' around and he had that blade brought back acrost his body and them that was left was turnin' to fire at us and Apple he dug in and drove at 'em ag'in and I fired and I warn't but three foot from him when the gun cracked and I recall seein' his head jerk and a red hole appear behint where his ear lobe used to be and they was only one left and the Sheriff he twisted around on that red Cannonball mare and he couldn't get a good cut but Cannonball she was as mean as she was fast, she slammed into the man side-on and him and his horse went down and Cannonball she commenced to jump and buck and she four-footed horse and rider and damned if she didn't dance death right into the both of 'em and me I baled off attair Apple horse and I come down on the last man left alive, the first one I drove into, and I hauled back with my fightin' knife and sliced it down and blood sprayed into my face and I grabbed the man's hair and hauled back and my first cut was through the front of his throat and I cut hard like I was cuttin' down a tree and I cut through the back of his neck and his neck bone and the head come loose and war was singing in my soul and Death laughed in my throat as I danced madly about in a circle, slinging the dead man's head by the hair and me screaming for the joy of the kill and my red-wet blade shining against the blue sky above and I looked over at the Sheriff starin' at me and he looked at me all kind of shocked and I stopped and I looked at the dead man's head I held, and I wiped my blade off on his hair and I tossed his head aside like a dirty rag and finished wipin' my blade off on his coat.

"My God, Jacob," the Sheriff blurted, "are you insane?"

"No, sir," I said as my blood cooled, and I fetched out my wild rag and hunted around for some water, for the blood was cooling on my face and I reckoned I looked a fright.  "I am quite sane, sir."

The Sheriff stared at me and he looked troubled and finally he said "I have just seen my own soul," and I'm not sure what he meant by that.

I cleaned up as best I could with water from my canteen, and we collected up what was proper, and then we rode off to find the man that asked our help.

He'd be pleased to learn we'd taken care of his problem.

We got most of the way there before the Sheriff realized I'd been hit, and that's only because I passed out and hit the ground, but I ain't talkin' about that.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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6. FRANCE

 

Private Joseph Keller's knife sliced easily through the potato, neatly paring off skin and preserving the white interior.

The private's moves were quick, efficient; he had an impressive pile of potatoes to be peeled, but so far he'd had to call for the orderly twice to take his kettle of peeled spuds into the mess, and finally the cook came out and demanded to know how many men were peeling, and Joseph raised his knife and waggled it a little.  "Just me, Frank."

"Jake?  That you?"  The mess sergeant squinted a little. "Whatinell are you doin' on KP?"

Joseph grinned, picked up his whet stone and spit on it, began to draw his blade smoothly, expertly across the abrasive.  "The Sergeant wanted to teach hand to hand and he picked me for his victim."  He grinned, a quick, boyish grin:  "I whipped him right there in front of God and everybody and he's been mad at me ever since!"

"And that ends now," a voice said, and Joseph and the mess sergeant both came to attention.

"As you were," the kindly-voiced older man said, motioning them down:  the mess sergeant, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, muttered something about getting back to his stew, and retreated quickly to his duties:  Joseph eased back down into his seated position, resumed whetting his knife.

"I've always admired the man who can stone a knife like that," the Colonel admitted.  "I saw what you did with the Sergeant."

"Yes, sir."  Joseph's voice was quiet and carefully neutral.

"Effective now you're off KP.  I'm putting that sergeant in your place."

Joseph's knife stopped in mid-whet and he looked up, puzzled, at the man in the immaculate uniform.

"Sir?"

The Colonel blinked, surprised.

"You're ... where are you from, son?"

"Firelands County, Colorado, sir."

"Tell me your name again."

"Keller, sir, Joseph L.  Son of Jacob, son of Linn, son of Harold."

The Colonel's mouth opened, closed, opened again.

"Your father ... his eyes ...?"

"Pale, like mine, sir."

"And he was in the War?"

"He was, sir.  Captain, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry.  I forget whether it was second or fifth."

"It was second," the Colonel said, his voice soft, his gaze turning to the side.  "My father was in the Fifth."

Joseph sloshed the whet stone in a bucket of water, slung off the excess, wrapped it carefully:  it was the only sharpening stone he had and he wished to keep it in one piece.  The knife, too, was carefully wiped and returned to its hidden sheath.

"I'm given to understand," the Colonel said slowly, "that you Western men are pretty good in a fight."

"I'd like to think so, yes, sir."

"If you're like your grandfather you'll be hell on wheels itself in a scrap."

"He taught me well, sir, as did ... others."

Joseph remembered his pretty Aunt Sarah, and the hours and years she spent teaching him from his youngest age to be deadly with a knife, any knife:  she'd given him four matched fighting knives, balanced for throwing, tempered for durability, honed for shaving, and indeed he shaved with one of them, to the distress of a few in his company who thought such a practice barbaric.

"Tell me ... what did you do before you ... enlisted?"

"I was in line to become Chief Deputy of Firelands County, sir, but my father and I got into a horn lockin' and I allowed as I was right so off I went and raised my right hand, and" – he grinned again, that quick, boyish grin that made him look younger, much younger – "here I am, peelin' taters!"

The Colonel gave him a long look.

"If I was to inquire," he said slowly, "would I find you ... underage?"

"Colonel," Joseph said, "I'd be pleased if you'd not do that."

The Colonel was quiet for a very long moment.

"I cannot doubt your dedication and I have seen you in combat," he said finally.  "Though I do wonder about your revolvers."

"A gift from my grandfather, sir.  He instructed me to come home alive, and to assume my place in the East."

The Colonel raised his head, blinked, then lowered it.

"That explains the grips."

"Yes, sir."

"You are not a Mason."

"Not yet, sir."

"You wear the Square and Compasses on your grips."

"And the Arc and Compasses, yes, sir."

"You're not a Mason and you wear these ... why?"

"My grandfather," Joseph said quietly, "is Past Master.  He wished me to know his strong and sincere wish that I come home alive and well."  Joseph looked the Colonel squarely in the eye.  "I intend to do just that, sir."

The Colonel reached over, squeezed Joseph's shoulder.

"You might want to get ready to move out.  Your company is being sent on a reconnaissance.  You may expect to encounter the Hun."

"Yes, sir."

The Colonel stood, as did Joseph.

"I have a son about your age," the Colonel said thoughtfully.  "We're from back East and he's fourteen and I cannot imagine him being here."

"Give me a horse, sir," Joseph said with that boyish grin, "and I can cover ground a lot better!"

"I'll see what I can do."

The Colonel seemed to consider something, then raised his hand in salute, which Joseph mirrored.

"Carry on, Private."

"Yes, sir."

 

I looked at what used to be a pitchfork.

The tines were all bent, the handle was broke, my hands stung and my arms ached and my ears still rang.

My son, my firstborn, my Joseph, stood up to me – he stood up to me! I hissed through clenched teeth – he allowed as a man ought to go over and stop the Hun, for if they beat the British they'd not hesitate to come on over here – and I recalled what that damned war did to the Sheriff.

I was not, I was NOT!!! going to countenance any damned war on someone else's damned continent to do that to my boy!

Joseph he looked me square in the eye and he allowed as he was goin' to go anyway and I told him he would not and he turned his back on me and he walked off and I felt my heart drop down right on a-past my boot tops and hit the cold water in a really deep well.

The last words we had were harsh and angry and my last sight of him was with him stiff and prideful of spine and he rode off for the depot with his grip and that afternoon I couldn't think of nothin' else and when I heard The Lady Esther's whistle why it all come to a head and I taken attair pitch fork and I drove it into the center post in my barn and yanked it out and I swung it hard and raked the tines ag'in it and I drove the end of the handle into it and I beat the livin' stuffin' out of attair seasoned timber and broke the pitch fork handle and I screamed like a madman and just honestly wore myself out and I ended up sinkin' to my knees and I leaned my head ag'in attair center post and I felt lost, so absolutely lost.

I just stood there on my prayer bones and my heart was empty and so was my mind and it was cold and I was cold and I did not care.

Was Joseph to live through that European war he'd come back as scarred as my pale eyed father the Sheriff and I did not want to see that pain in my boy's eyes, I'd seen it too often in my father's, I'd seen the Sheriff screaming with rage in a fight and he'd killed men fast hard and nasty and he'd owned up to me that he'd been fightin' that War ag'in when he did and it scairt him and it scairt me and now my boy was going over into that man eatin' machine –

Sarah she laid a hand on my shoulder and said "What was his will be returned" and that was like runnin' winter ice right through my veins.

"I taught him what he will need," Sarah continued quietly.

"I know," I said, my forehead ag'in the post and my chin in my chest.  "You taught him to kill."

"As did you."

"Yes."  I lifted my head, ran my eyes up that rough hewn post, seein' the adz-marks clear and sharp.  "I did."

"He'll use everything you taught him, Jacob.  He will save a brother Mason."

"He's not a Mason. He's too young."

"The man he saves is a Mason. You are a Mason. The Sheriff is a Mason."

"Yeah."  My voice was a hoarse rasp.

"Your father gave him a brace of Colt's revolvers with the Masonic insignia –"

"I DON'T GIVE TWO DAMNS IF HE GAVE HIM A PAIR OF GATLINGS AND A PARROTT RIFLE!"  I shouted, anger bulging my neck and firing my ears.

I came to my feet and Sarah grabbed my upper arms and I grabbed hers and then we let go and bear hugged one another and she whispered "He will be tried as metal in the forge, and he will not be found wanting."

"I want my boy back," I whispered, my eyes stinging.  "I want my little boy back!"

I remembered Joseph as he'd been, as a laughing boy, standing up behind me in the saddle, gripping my coat and looking around over my shoulder yelling "Faster, Pa! Faster!" and how he screamed for joy as we launched over the rail fence, and how Annette would turn her back and whistle Dixie to keep from watching as we did, for she was fearful, so fearful Joseph would end up hitting the ground and busting something open and he never did, he never did, and I groaned like my eternal soul was being ripped out from around my guts.

"He is destined to save a man," Sarah whispered back to me, "and that man's son will have a grandson, and his blood will marry into ours –"

I quit listening.

All I could see was my son walking away from me, and all I could hear was the quiet determination in his voice, and I never felt so absolutely lost and abandoned since my Mama died and not one damned thing I could do either time.

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Before I begin this one, I had to stop and look at the title I put for this thread.

I wanted to make sure I'd used the plural.

I should have put in a statement of intent or a disclaimer or an explanation, that I figured to write a series of short stories, none connected, with only one common thread:  the location of Firelands, and even that can be changed ... for instance, Jacob wants me to tell about him jumping off a Cincinnati river boat in his red longhandles, and Apple-horse thought this looked like great fun so he jumped in too.

Right now, though, Willamina woke up feeling like something wasn't right, so she dressed in jeans and boots and a flannel shirt instead of a housedress.

She's retired now, her son Linn is Sheriff, and of course things can never go normally, retired or not ...

 

 

7.  DEATH'S ANGEL

Willamina Keller woke up restless.

She did not know what was wrong, only that something didn't feel right, and she'd learned a very long time ago, long before she'd become Sheriff, that her gut was right more often than not.

She'd planned on doing some baking today, but she had to go tend her livestock first, and so she decided blue jeans and a flannel shirt and her old comfortable boots would be the better choice.

She'd cleaned stalls, forked hay, laughed at her horses bumming for peppermints – she bribed them better with the red-and-white spiral mints than she ever could with molasses twist tobacker – and her red Frisian could hear the crackle of unwinding cellophane at two miles, or so it seemed.

She'd gone back to the house and hooked off her overboots, left them on the front porch:  she usually ran around in her sock feet, but the feeling, that general, vague, indefinable something, bade her remain shod.

She stopped when she came inside, held the door open, whistled:   Tank and The Bear Killer galloped happily back inside, stopping to circle happily on the rug she kept for the purpose, and hobby-horsed into the kitchen, hoping to get a handout – "You bums," she laughed – and of the bacon and eggs she fried, about a third went down canine throats instead of hers.

She'd stacked her dishes, washed and dried them, looked around:  she went from window to window, her bottom jaw out, then she went to the closet and brought out the vest she kept there, and hung it on the back of the chair nearest the front door – a vest with multiple pockets, into which she inserted a charged, Sheriff's-band talkie, a vest stocked with other necessaries she'd selected to grab and wear for an unforeseen situation – then she reached into the same closet, withdrew a gunbelt, slung it around her middle and snugged it tight.

She drew the engraved revolver, flipped open the loading gate, thumbed the cylinder slowly around, making sure she had six beans in the wheel, grateful for the new model that allowed a full charge instead of keeping an empty chamber under a Colt's-pattern longnose hammer.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller walked slowly into the kitchen, frowned.

"Gut feeling be damned," she muttered, "it's Richard's birthday and I'm going to have a birthday cake for him!"

The Bear Killer and Tank both raised their heads, looking hopefully at the ingredients being set out; as Willamina paid attention to mixing batter, wet black noses raised and twitched at the intriguing scent of chocolate cake batter, of eggs and flour and vanilla and milk:  black eyes watched closely as Willamina greased and floured the cake pans, as she dispensed batter into each, as she checked the oven's temperature, as she carefully placed the two pans in the oven and straightened and smiled over at the attentive pair –

Willamina's eyes widened and she turned, her hand dropping automatically to the handle of her revolver, knees dropping into a crouch, her weight coming up on the balls of her feet:  she felt her blood cool and her belly tighten and both dogs' heads came up, their ears snapped forward, and Willamina powered for the front door, snatched up Stetson and vest and whirled her coat around her shoulders.

The two dogs shot through the front door as Willamina yanked it open; she ran for the barn, curled her lip, whistled.

"YOU BLACK HEARTED DRAGON EATER, GET OVER HERE!" she screamed, charging into the barn and seizing saddle and saddle blanket:  she ran out the side, spun the blanket atop her red Frisian, screwed the saddle down, touched the mare behind her foreleg:  Dragon Eater knelt, bellied down, and Willamina swung her leg across.

"UP!"

Dragon Eater levered herself up, dancing a little: she could smell the Sheriff's excitement, she could smell the dogs' attention:  The Bear Killer's hair was up, a ridge rippling down his back and across his shoulders, and Tank – actually the second Tank, the first one was given a police funeral some five years before – Tank was bristled as well, ears alternately flattening back and snapping upright, lips rippling back as he looked from the big black mountain Mastiff and his pale eyed Mistress.

Willamina knee-trained all her saddle stock, as had her honored ancestors:  she kneed Dragon Eater around, the big mare paced up to the gate, waited as Willamina leaned down and savagely yanked at the latch:  Dragon Eater turned in her own length, swinging her hind out, waiting for the gate to swing shut, for Willamina to shoot the board latch back into place.

Bear Killer on her left, Tank on her right, both with muzzles raised, watching, waiting:  Willamina turned Dragon Eater, locked her heels into the red mare's ribs, yelled "YAAA!"

The human mind runs with an incredible speed.

Were Willamina to give a moment to consideration, she might have reflected on a discussion she'd had with Reverend Burnett, where they discussed the Celtic Christian belief that the great cloud of believers with which we are surrounded, is composed of the same honored ancestors that trained their mounts to the knee, to ride without bit or bridle.

Had she given thought to the matter.

She didn't.

She was focused on whatever summoned her, that something that shot through her soul like a surveyor's laser.

She knew where she had to go and she was headed there just as fast as her long legged mare could run, two hounds coursing alongside, ears laid back, mouths open, wind in their faces and a savage joy in their hearts.

 

The mother carried her little boy inside, barely able to bear his weight:  glass curved out of his arm, a shard, a scimitar, blood running steadily from around it:  inside, she thought, inside, and get help, and she stopped and fumbled desperately with the doorknob, crying as her blood-slick hand slipped:  it took a half dozen tries but she managed, she pushed into her warm, tidy kitchen, she laid her boy on the table, crying for fear, everything she'd learned about first aid joined hands with her fine coordination and did a swan dive out the nearest window.

Her boy lay pale, limp, unmoving.

 

Willamina heard the scream as she came in sight of the ranch house.

Dragon Eater was already at a flat out gallop, but Willamina laid out over her neck, pressed her hands flat against the muscled hide, heels digging in:  The Bear Killer raised his muzzle and bayed, a black hound from hell announcing his full intent to war, to rend, to kill: he'd heard his beloved Mistress scream, "RUN, DAMN YOUR BLACK HEART, RUN!"

 

The mother was hyperventilating, barely able to stand: she felt light headed, her feet tingled, she had to do something, do something, and she seized the broken glass, pinched it tight, wiggled it, pulled –

Willamina slammed through the door just as a tight stream of arterial blood sprayed to the ceiling.

She ripped off her coat, threw it viciously aside, seized her Aunt Martha's flour sack apron:  teeth bared, she snarled, tore it from around her neck, neat hand-stitching ripping through the material:  she spun it, snapped it, turned it from a flat piece of material to a folded bandage:  she shouldered the mother aside, seized the boy's arm, wrapped it as tightly as she could, used the torn neck-strap to tie it in place, tight, tight:  she reached back, into what would be a game pocket in a hunting vest, found the package she knew was there:  she seized the corner with her teeth, pulled, tore open the package, ran the tourniquet high on the boys' arm, not far above the wound:  she hauled it tight, turned hard and pale eyes to the mother.

"CAN YOU DRIVE?" she shouted, knowing she had to ram the words through the shocked wall that numbed the pallid, wobbling woman.

Wide-eyed, she managed to open her mouth, close it.

Willamina scooped up the limp figure.  "TANK! BEAR KILLER!  WITH ME! DRAGON EATER, DOWN!"

The mother leaned weakly against the door frame, watching as Willamina straddled the huge red mare, as the mare came upright, turned, as equine muscles bunched, as horse and rider and two flanking war-dogs thundered across the snowy field toward town.

 

Bruce Jones, editor, reporter, photographer and chief broom pusher of the weekly Firelands Gazette, laughed at his brother-in-law's question.

"Nothing much," he admitted.  "It's a really quiet place –"

His police scanner stopped and Bruce raised a finger, turned to look at the display.

His brother in law saw the newser's eyes widen, his mouth open:  they looked at one another, then Bruce slammed the chair down onto all four legs, picked up his reporter's bag, slung it across his shoulder and seized his hat.

His brother-in-law wondered whether the air was spinning in an invisible tornado behind him as he ran for the door, at least until Bruce stopped and looked back.

"Well?"  he demanded.  "Something finally happened!  You coming?"

 

Maryann frowned at the radio console's speaker.

She knew the voice, she knew the voice's owner was a Sheriff's deputy, but there was an urgency she'd not heard from this particular voice.

Maryann replaced Sharon, who retired the same day Sheriff Willamina formally removed her six point star before local dignitaries and Bruce Jones's attentive camera:  she'd pinned on her son, formally shaken his hand, then she seized him by the lapels of his vest, came up on her toes and gave her son a motherly kiss on the cheek.

Maryann had never heard the pale eyed Sheriff Willamina Keller with her blood up, but she knew something was not right, simply ... well, maybe if you heard what she did.

She was used to an electronic hum, or the sound of a vehicle's engine, or even the summoning, screaming song of an electronic siren.

It was not an ordinary thing to hear the deep, four-beat cadence of a galloping horse underlying the urgency of the speaker's words.

"FIRELANDS DISPATCH, ONE ROMEO, SIGNAL 99 TRAFFIC."

Maryann responded as she'd been trained.

"ALL HANDS NOW HEAR THIS," she transmitted, "ONE ROMEO HAS SIGNAL 99 TRAFFIC, ALL STATIONS HOLD TRAFFIC UNTIL FURTHER, BREAK.  ONE ROMEO GO."

There it was, that four-beat background ...

Hoofbeats?

Can't be!

Maryann snatched up a mechanical pencil, prepared to note down as necessary.

"FIRELANDS DISPATCH, ONE ROMEO, INBOUND ER ONE PEDIATRIC CASUALTY, BREAK."

"Copy your pediatric inbound."

"FIRELANDS DISPATCH, ONE ROMEO, ARTERIAL BLEED, TOURNIQUET APPLIED, ETA FOUR, THIS IS NO DRILL!"

Maryann's mouth went dry and she reached for the red phone, ran her finger along the row of old fashioned push buttons, pushed hard.

She knew this was a direct line to their hospital's emergency room, this was a line that only rang when it was hitting the fan, this was the same as declaring general quarters aboard a battleship.

"Firelands Sheriff's Dispatch," she said to the professional voice on the other end.  "One Romeo is inbound with a pediatric arterial bleed, ETA four."

Maryann hung up what they called the Batphone, pressed the grey transmit bar on the GE desk mike.

"One Romeo, Firelands, they'll be ready."

"ROGER THAT!"

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller squinted a little, tears stripping out the corners of her eyes:  she was laid forward, her left forearm crossways, gripping Dragon Eater's mane, the other arm locked around the still form she held desperately to her:  snow gave way to cold pavement, and Willamina turned her big Frisian to bring her across back lots, and a more direct route to the polished-quartz hospital.

 

Bruce Jones' finger was hard down on the shutter release.

He blessed the technology that let him take a few hundred photos at a time: he'd started in the business when he was in tall cotton with a roll of 36 exposure film:  now he was quite liberal with the number of photos he took, especially when it concerned a pale-eyed past Sheriff, riding like the Devil himself was after her, riding a truly huge red horse that didn't seem to touch the ground as it did skim along on the dainty little ballerina tips of its unshod hooves, while beside it, silent as death and just as lethal, two hell-hounds, their ears back, fangs bared, swift and faithful arrows flying at the bidding of this woman with eyes the color of a glacier's heart.

As Bruce's head came up, the black Bear Killer raised his muzzle and so did the Malinois, and two dogs bayed a challenge to war that felt like an unseen hand poured a dipper of cold water right down the center of Chief Editor and Reporter Bruce Jones's back bone.

Willamina didn't bother to have her Dragon Eater kneel, she threw up one leg, fell to earth, landed flat footed and kicked three times at the automatic doors before they opened.

Behind her, the red mare stood, blowing, prancing restlessly:  Willamina shoved into the hospital's lobby, ran past the desk, slammed into the heavy wooden doors with her shoulder, driving them open against the safety.

Dr. John Greenlees met her – "HERE!" he snapped, and Willamina followed the man to the nearby bed.

Aunt Martha's apron was cut free, dropped, and Willamina snatched it up:  it was wet, dripping, and she stared hard at the unmoving little boy, looking all the smaller on the ER cart.

Dr. Greenlees did a fast exam as Willamina backed away, breathing hard:  she came up against the wall, stopped.

She closed her eyes, composing herself, until she heard, "He's lost too much blood," and her eyes came open, pale, hard and unforgiving.

She turned, strode for the front door.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller's boot was hard on the throttle, until it lifted and mashed down on the brake:  his Jeep skidded a little, he bailed out, shotgun in hand:  someone hit the panic alarm at the hospital and he was closest.

"BEAR KILLER!  TANK!  WITH ME!" he barked, and the two panting dogs leaped eagerly to their feet, pacing alongside the long-legged lawman as he strode into the lobby, shotgun at port, cocked, locked and ready to rock.

He nearly ran into his mother headed the opposite direction, something bloody and sodden in her hands.

Puzzled, he stopped:  he turned, followed.

Willamina grunted, slapped the wet cloth against the left doorpost, took two steps, hit the right, then she crouched, gathered herself, jumped.

Linn watched as she smacked the bloody rag against the lintel overhead, beside the automatic opening sensor.

Willamina landed, crouched, ran.

Linn followed, stopped, stared as his Mama hit the door posts – left, right, overhead – and ran again.

"Mama," he called, "what in the hell are you doing?"

Willamina paused long enough to shoot him a pale-eyed glare and snarl, teeth bared.

There were a dozen doors and Willamina hit them all, burning off her excess adrenaline, slamming the bloody cloth into the door posts like she was attacking a personal enemy:  she made a complete orbit of the Fireland hospital, came back inside, back through the ER doors with all the delicacy of a Sherman tank running over a Volkswagen.

Linn followed, laid a hand on her shoulder. "Mama, slow down," he said quietly, and she snapped, "Roll up your sleeve!"

Dr. John Greenlees was just going down the hall following the ER cart.

"DOC!"  Willamina shouted.  "HOW'S YOUR BLOOD SUPPLY?"

The white-haired old physician turned and regarded her with tired eyes.  "Not good," he admitted.

Willamina held out her arm.  "You've got two donors.  O-triple-neg."

Dr. John Greenlees stopped, stared, then he turned and pointed to a nurse.

"I want phlebotomy up here five minutes ago," he said, "and I want two units from each of these donors!"

 

Bruce Jones reached up, squeezed the Sheriff's hand.

"You've had quite a night, Sheriff," he murmured.

Willamina's eyes widened and her head turned as The Bear Killer and Tank both raised their heads, tensing.

Bruce pulled out his pocket scanner.

"Firelands Engine One and Tanker One, enroute."

Willamina's hand yanked from Jones's and slapped her forehead.

"Oh God no," she groaned.  "Richard came home and" – she looked at Jones, and he saw a laugh breaking through her mask of tension – "I just put a cake in the oven and it's burned to a cinder and he probably thought I was burning the house down!"

"It's all right, Mama.  We'll swing by the bakery and get him one."

Sheriff, past Sheriff and newsman all laughed quietly:  the phlebotomist crouched, disconnected the first two units, handed them off to be rushed to the surgery, to the waiting little boy.

"Will he make it?" Jones asked as fresh collection bags were attached to the two donors.

Willamina's eyes turned toward the editor, hardening as he watched.

"I made sure he will."

Her voice was just as stony-cold as her glare.

Puzzled, Bruce said "How ... you made sure?  How?"

Linn looked over at his mother, interested in what she had to say:  he suspected this had something to do with her almost manic behavior outside, slamming the blood-sodden flour-sack apron against door posts and lintels.

"Bruce, do you remember the story of the Israelites in Egypt?"

Bruce frowned a little, then nodded.

"Do you remember they bloodied the doorposts and lintels with the blood of a lamb, of an innocent, and the Angel of Death would not enter."
"I remember."

Willamina looked at her son and smiled gently, tiredly.

"I made sure the Angel of Death wasn't coming tonight."

 

She was right.

The Angel of Death did not set foot inside the hospital that night, and Bruce Jones, chief editor, lead reporter and head broom pusher for the weekly Firelands Gazette, was on hand two days later, when retired Sheriff Willamina Keller settled a grinning, bashful little boy ahead of her in the saddle and set off across the snowy fields towards his house, two big, tail-swinging hounds coursing on either side as they paced across the frozen ground, and the picture of a little boy going home, where he belonged, made the front page of their weekly edition.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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8.  NEW JOB

I was too tore up to be mad.

It was in me to rage, to rend, to destroy, to kill ...

But kill who?

My son, gone off to fight that damned European war, dead.

My little sis, my Sarah, gone off to Germany to marry the Count's firstborn son.

Sarah, dead.

My father, going blind. 

Cataracts, Doc said, and nothing to be done to help.

And me.

Me, standing here in a winter graveyard, looking from stone to stone, rage and sorrow each taking up half my heart.

No stone, no marker for Joseph, for Sarah: their bodies were ...

Where?

I'd gotten the official notification that Joseph was killed, that he'd done his duty and we could be very proud of him, but they didn't tell me where he was buried.

Or if he was buried a'tall.

And Sarah ... no word on her either.

There was a plot for each, here, but my son, my sister, gone, gone ...

Off to my right, a white wolf sat patiently between two markers, blinking slow, sleepy, either from great wisdom, or ...

Or what?

'Twas rare I'd see the White Wolf.

It generally meant somethin' was about to happen or had just happened.

Doctor Flint was pure blood Navajo and he'd told me the White Wolf was a spirit guide and it was assigned our family, but he'd not told me much else, so I looked at attair white wolf and I looked inside of me and then I said "I do not fear you."

The White Wolf's ears swung towards me and I half expected it to cock its head like a dog when it's listenin' to your voice.

"What are you here to tell me?"

"He's not," a familiar voice said, and I am not a jumpy man and I did not jump but when I felt a hand laid on my shoulder 'twas all I could do not to spin around and drive the muzzle end of my left hand Colt into whosever belly it was.

Sarah looked at me with them pale eyes and I looked hard at her and I know 'twas not possible for her to be there but part of my mind said wait a minute, maybe she got away, maybe she warn't kilt a'tall –

"There are some things you must know," she said with that quiet, knowin' smile of hers.

I nodded slowly.  "Go on."

"First of all, yes I was killed over there."

My belly shrunk up some and I got all hard and knotty inside.  "I heard tell."

Sarah caressed my jaw bone the way she used to and her hand felt real, her gloves smelt the way they always did with that hint of sunshine and lilac water and soap she always had about her.

"You would be proud of the way I died."

I said not a word, just glared at her.

She almost smiled, then she pulled out a book from someplace and said, "You recognize this."

It was a statement, not a question, and yes I did recognize the book.

"I do."

"Do you know what it stands for?"

I blinked a couple times.  "Now that's a short question with a real long answer."

Sarah laughed and it was that Sarah-laugh I remembered so well, her laugh that always bubbled a little in my belly, that contagious laugh of hers that couldn't help but make folks around her smile.

"B-I-B-L-E," she said.  "Basic Information Before Leaving Earth."

Now I frowned at that for I'd never heard that one before, but it also meant she was dead, all right, and that didn't set well with me a'tall.

"This lifetime is basic training," Sarah explained, "and we're being groomed for a job or jobs to come."

I grunted.  "It is given to man to die but once, and then the Judgement."

Sarah sighed – tiredly, I thought.

"Didn't know a ghost got tired," I said and I heard the chill edge my voice taken.

"Oh, I'm very real, little brother."

"I'll admit your hand felt real."

Sarah recht up and thumped me on the chest with the Book and it felt real too.

"Take this," she said, and I did.  "My name is in the front so you'll know it's mine.  Now listen."

"I'm listenin'."

"You already know that we carry a fighting bloodline."

"You told me that and so did the Sheriff."

"Your father," she corrected.  "You are Sheriff now."

"Go on."

Sarah looked away, towards the White Wolf, or maybe where it had been:  I did not turn my head to look, for part of me was fearful that if I taken my eyes off my little sis she'd disappear and I did not want that to happen.

"Our ... our get ... will be in the Last Battle."

I frowned a little, turned my head just a shade as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Sarah laughed to see it, and I figure it looked to her just like the Sheriff turned his head in the same manner.

"The Last Battle?"

"In the Valley of Meddigo."

"Har-Mageddon," I breathed, then I frowned.  "You're sure."

"I'm sure we'll be involved.  If not there, then somewhere critical."

"What's that got to do with Joseph being killed in that damned European war?"

"Joseph."  Sarah's eyes dropped and she bit her bottom lip. 

"How did my boy die, Sarah?  Were you there?"

"I was there," she admitted.  "I watched it happen."

"And you didn't stop it?"  Accusation honed an edge to my words and little sis or not, if she was there and she did not keep my boy from bein' killed –

Sarah stepped back and got ... brighter.

"I have a job, Jacob," she said, and there was the sound of huge wings feathering the air, and damned if that big black Snowflake-horse of hers come swingin' down out of the sky on this God-awful big set of pure white wings and come down to ground level and trot up behint her just as nice as you please but that warn't what I was lookin' at.

Sarah was real good at costume changes and when she'd dress like a schoolmarm, she became a schoolmarm.

When she dressed like a schoolgirl, she became a giggly schoolgirl.

When she dressed like one of the Faceless Nuns, she became one of the White Sisters.

What she was now, was somethin' I had never seen.

I'd seen her take that thing ... oh hell, what was it Abbott William called it? – a relic, a holy relic, the Lance of St. Mercurius – she'd taken it from its hidin' place behint the Altar down at the Rabbitville monastery, and she'd taken it without them seein' even with them keepin' an eye on it – she'd rode off with attair Lance stuck in the stirrup beside her right hand boot and there were those who swore she used attair silver head Lance to cure sickness, keep people from dyin', melt gates like a hot knife through cold butter, and I'd seen her do that a time or two – so when she stepped back two paces, then two more, and lay a hand on Snowflake's gleaming black neck, she warn't the Sarah I recalled.

Her hair grew and twisted down in front of her shoulders and it braided itself and braided fast and tight.

That's not what I was starin' at.

Now them Spanish conquistadores wore a breast plate shell thang and she was wearin' one but it was gold or maybe polished bronze and 'twas engraved and she'd not changed clothes, it just kind of appeared and she warn't wearin' that proper ladylike dark blue gown no more, she had a white shift under attair polished bronze vest thing and 'twas no more than knee length – scandalous, even for a schoolgirl! – and she was wearin' knee high boots, she had attair long silver head lance in her hand and a conical cap on her head with white wings stickin' out to the sides.

"I have a new job now, Jacob," she explained.  "I take up the souls of the valiant from the battlefield and I take them to Paradise."

I frowned and turned my head a little and I recalled the old German Count who taken a long look at her when her and Charlie Macneil fetched in attair elk all boned out and hide wrapped and loaded on the pack saddle ... he'd called her a Waulkyrie, and that's the word that come to mind.

"Valkyrie," I whispered.

Sarah laughed and it was the same delighted, contagious, running-water laugh I remembered so very well.

"Yes, dear Jacob," she smiled.  "And Joseph was comforted when I took his hand and he stood up, young and strong and uninjured once more, and he laughed like a delighted little boy when he saw Apple-horse standing there waiting for him."

"Apple?"

My voice squeaked and I looked at the enormous black Frisian she was caressing.

Her big black Snowflake-mare was long years dead, and so was my Apple-horse, and for a moment I remembered riding across a sunlit meadow, me and Apple and Joseph, and him a laughing little boy, standing up behind me in the saddle, gripping the shoulders of my coat and yelling "Faster, Daddy! Faster!" and how he screamed for joy when we launched over the rail fence, and landed galloping on the other side.

"Of course," Sarah smiled, "Apple has wings too now."

"Whoa," I said, "hold it.  This" – I shook my head, held the Book up before me like a shield – "this is an awful lot ..."

"I know."  Sarah skipped up to me, let go of attair lance – she didn't drive the butt end into the ground, she just let go and it stood there like 'twas set in a socket – she taken me by the lapels and pulled me close and kissed my cheek the way she always did and then she caressed my jaw again.

"I'll see you again," she whispered, and then her and that big black Snowflake-mare was gone.

I stood there with the Book in my hands and feelin' more lost than I had been to start with, and I looked off to my right, torst attair White Wolf, or where it had been.

Sure enough it was still there.

It stood, arched its back and yawned, and then it was gone too, just a wisp of fog cork screwing into the ground.

Had it not been for the Book in my hands I would have thought it wild imagination.

I've known men to see things that warn't there, I've seen men in grief fancy they saw their dead wife or mother or someone, and I might have thought just that had it not been for this-yere Book.

I turned and kissed at Butterscotch and I swung me up into the saddle and I went on home, and Annette had supper hot and ready and I set attair Bible off on the side table and after supper why I went back and picked it up, I took it in my study and set down to read it.

I lit the Aladdin lamp so's I'd have good light, and I opened the cover, and there was Sarah's handwritin', but that warn't what caused Annette a fright.

You see, she heard my chair bang as it fell over backwarts and she come hustlin' into the room wipin' her hands on a dish towel and she seen me backin' away from my desk with eyes like silver dollars and my face the color of wheat paste.

Attair Bible was a fancy presentation grade.

The hand writin' inside the cover was real fancy and I made out what I thought was "Countess" in front of her name.

I'd turned another page and that's when I jumped back like I'd been stung.

I knowed with no doubt a'tall this was Sarah's Bible, all right.

 Sarah's Bible was printed in German.

 

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9.  SABRE AND SWAT

Sheriff Willamina Keller and her husband sat in the front pew and held hands, smiling quietly.

Her son was Sheriff, but people still called her "Sheriff" ... her son learned to be patient when he and his mother both replied "Yes?" when someone called, "Sheriff?"

Her son, tall, handsome, proper in his immaculate uniform, stood with his brushed, Sunday-go-to-meetin' Stetson under his arm; he stood with a tall, handsome Army Ranger, impressive and stolid in his dress uniform, and in the center, closest to the Parson, the groom:  this man wore a tailored, three piece suit, he stood awkwardly, dry-mouthed, very unlike the competent, confident chief deputy's son Willamina and her son had known for years.

Willamina rose with the rest of the congregation as a beautiful young woman in a proper Victorian gown began her slow march down the aisle, gripping her father's arm with gloved desperation:  Willamina had sewn the gown, she'd spent two weeks on it and she'd gotten it just right, which was a rare thing.

No artist is ever satisfied with their own work, and Willamina regarded this young woman with a critical eye, not so much looking at the woman within, but at the gown, without, searching for flaws, for anything not properly fitted ... and she found absolutely nothing of which to be critical.

"This is my master's piece."

Pale eyes blinked in surprise as the old words came back to her, and she smiled again, remembering.

She'd gone with Dr. Greenlees up onto Daine Mountain – the family considered renaming it Maxwell Mountain, but everyone knew it as Daine Mountain, so they left well enough alone – he'd had a rifle restocked, and those lean Kentucky moonshiners didn't just restock the rifle, they rebuilt it entirely.

It started out life as a late Bedford County rifle, slim, delicate, almost fragile: it was built by a master of the craft, but built to fit the twelve year old boy Dr. Greenlees had been when the work was begun.

Now, after the Daine boys' rebuild – it was a complete overhaul – it was more robust, it was late Pennsylvania pattern, still full stocked but almost Hawken in appearance. 

Even the slim lockwork was now replaced by a rounded, blunt, Hawken-profile flintwork.

"This," Old Main Daine said when he handed Doc the finished rifle, "is my masterpiece."

Doc looked the rifle over carefully and well.

He knew flint rifles and he'd known a few of the old masters, and he studied the rifle with a knowing eye and finally said, "This is indeed your master's piece."

Old Man Daine closed one eye and turned his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Willamina recalled Doc's quiet words of explanation as he handed her the rifle for her inspection.

"In the European Middle Ages," he said, "trades were divided into guilds, just like unions today. You have master electricians, master carpenters, these masters start out as apprentices."

Daine frowned ever so slightly and gave a shallow nod.

"Then these apprentices learn some and travel to the work.  They journey, and are called journeymen.  In Freemasonry" – here Willamina's ear twitched, as if pulled rearward by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger – "they are called Fellowcraft, for they are fellows of the craft, and they journey to the work."

Old man Daine grunted and gave another shallow, almost imperceptible nod.

"When a man is good enough, he presents a Board of Masters with an example of the work that he does, something that shows Master's grade work."  Doc accepted the rifle back from Willamina, caressed the comb of the rearstock with a surgeon's touch.  "This was examined by the Board of Masters.  If found worthy, it was laid up in the archives in the Guildhall as his Master's Piece, so if any inquired whether he was a Master of that craft, his Master's Piece bore testimony to his skill."

He nodded, held the rifle across the crook of his arm.

"This is indeed your Master's Piece."

Willamina sat when the others sat, listened to the familiar words, relaxed and regarded her son with the eyes of a proud mother: Linn dipped a hand into his coat pocket, brought out a small box and opened it, and held it out to the Parson when the sky pilot called for the rings.

Willamina rose again; she was next to the aisle, so she had an unobstructed view as the newlyweds marched out under the Arch of Sabres.

Willamina could have been part of the Arch, but she knew the groom had men enough eager to volunteer for this happy duty, and she saw the gleam in the farthest man's eye as he shot her a quick glance and a wink, just as the bride came abreast of his position:  they were well spaced, he was Tail End Charlie, and as she passed the last crossed sabres, he lowered his blade and smacked her briskly across the backside.

The bride spun, half-crouched, with one arm up and bent a little, and gave him a look that would incinerate carbon steel, then she smiled and turned and resumed her dignified march out on her husband's arm.

At the reception, Willamina danced with her husband, her son, the groom and the Parson:  when she waltzed with the Parson (who was surprisingly skilled at the art!) she murmured, "Reverend, I can die happy now," and they spun off the floor and sat, and the Parson looked at Richard and Willamina and raised a curious eyebrow.

"How's that, Sheriff?" he asked, accepting a cup of punch from the bride's younger sister and taking a sip.

Willamina laughed quietly.  "Parson, do you remember when the bride won the Mixed Martial Arts trophy this year?"

Reverend Burnett blinked, nodded.  "Yes ... I remember that."

"Did you see her pass through the Arch of Sabres?"
The Parson grinned, set his punch down.  "I saw that!"

Willamina leaned across the table, forearms pressed into the table's edge, head down and voice low, as if confiding a conspiracy:

"Parson, that is the only time in recorded history that anyone EVER slapped her backside, and lived to tell the tale!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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10.  AN OLD MAN, STOVE UP AND SORE

 

There is a coldly practical reason men of the American West wore a large bore sidearm.

It's not often discussed, but it is found in the literature written by men who were there.

This story explores that reason.

 

 

"Mama?"

Esther smiled at her youngest daughter, a beautiful young woman with a drowsy infant on her hip.

"Mama, why does Papa still wear a pistol?"

Esther rocked a little, closed the book she'd been reading, set it aside, gave her daughter both her eyes, but said nothing in reply.

"Mama" – the red-headed young woman settled herself onto the couch, arranged her skirt nervously, clearly uncomfortable with discussing her elderly father's habit – "Mama, he's quite blind –"

The sound of a pistol shot in the distance, followed by two more.

Esther rose quickly – uncommon, she normally rose in a slow, dignified and planned manner – her green eyes were wide and her nostrils flared just a little.

The maid, alarmed, approached from the doorway, looked from one attractive woman to another.

"Suzette," Esther said, her voice brisk, "I shall need my gelding saddled. You may wish to have the carriage made ready and I want a messenger."

The maid dipped a quick curtsy and turned, almost ran out the front door.

"Mama?" her daughter asked, blinking quickly, and Esther turned and took her youngest daughter's hands.

"Stay and tend the child," Esther said quietly, reassuringly.  "I'll be back."

Her voice may have been reassuring, but the sight of her mother snatching the double gun off the rack, checking its loads and slinging a canvas warbag across her shoulder, was anything but.

 

I hit the ground hard.

My foot was still caught in the stirrup and that damned horse wasn't content with shying at a shadow or whatever it was, he took out and kicked me a good one behind the high left leg and I knew he'd kick me to death or beat me to death a-draggin' and so I did what every horseman in the West was ready to do.

I grabbed my right hand Colt and drove a .44 slug into its ribs.

The horse flinched and I drove it twice more, I knew where I was and I knew where it was and I knew I would not hit my own boot and I knew where its shoulder and its boiler room had to be and after the third shot why that damned horse stumbled and fell and rolled away from me and near to broke my leg for the haul-up of it.

I tried to kick my foot free of the stirrup but it wasn't working and so I wiggled closer as best I could and took the strain off my leg.

Once that was done, why, I reloaded and dropped the empties, I got the chambers reloaded, I looked with my fingers for my eyes were pretty useless by then with these damned cataracts, but I counted my clicks.

I knew where the empty chamber was.

That was skip one.

One, two, three, four, cock:  I turned the pistol safely away, pulled the trigger –

Click.

She fell on the empty chamber just like I wanted.

I holstered, tabbed the hammer and then I pulled myself up and started working on how in two hells I'd got my foot through that damned stirrup, and I swore at myself for letting that fellow talk me out of my usual dog house stirrups!

 

Esther rode to a little bit of a high point, casting about like a hound seeking a scent:  she knew her husband's habits, she knew he usually rode along the fence line, for he could keep his bearings even a-horseback:  she knew he was on a new horse, she knew he still loved to ride, she knew he intended to try this new mount.

Esther shaded her eyes, looked long down the fencerow, her mouth opening a little.

"Oh, no," she moaned, then she lifted her reins, pressed her heels into her mount's barrel.

 

I heard hoof beats a-comin' and comin' fast.

I couldn't see for beans but I figured I was still on my own ground and whoever 'twas, had to be one of mine, so I gripped the corner of my wild rag and waved it twice.

That's all the strength I had.

I'd been beat bad and I think I'd cracked ribs and I knew I'd cracked my gourd a good one, or maybe twice, bein' dragged by a horse and kicked a couple times does not a young man good and a man of my vintage even less.

At least I'd managed to shoot the horse – dammit to hell anyway, that was a good lookin' horse or so I'd been told, and he felt good under me, and dammit twice, I spent good money on that mount!

I had strength enough to wave that wild rag twice.

It hurt too much to give it a third swing.

I heard the rider comin' fast and then the hoofbeats stopped and then a grunt and they started ag'in and whoever 'twas, was close, and I heard someone come out of the saddle and whoever 'twas must've jumped and landed flat footed and I couldn't help but think maybe Dana come home for that's how she dismounted and then I smelt Esther's lilac-and-sunshine-and-soap and she laid her hand on my cheek and said "Dearest, are you hurt?" and I lied through my teeth and said "Not a bit," and she must'be bent over for she kissed my forehead and whispered "Mr. Keller, I was concerned," and I whispered back, "Mrs. Keller, so was I," and then Esther gripped my hand and patted my hand and she said "I'll fetch the carriage," so I just laid there, for it honestly hurt too much to move.

 

The boy saw Mrs. Keller stand up in her stirrups, shading her eyes:  she came back down into the saddle, he saw her put her heels to the mount, she saw the gelding gather itself and shoot across the meadow, a grey arrow streaking toward the board fence.

His own mount was a racer, and a good one, and took little bidding to give pursuit:  the hired man's son loved to ride and he loved riding a fast horse, and when the maid came running out and seized his shoulders and said in an urgent voice that they needed a messenger and he was it, he said "Yes ma'am!" and saddled a shining, copper-red mare, one of the famous Cannonball line.

His Pa followed in the carriage:  the rescuers were strung out, each could see the next one, but only Esther had eyes on her husband, at least until the boy came streaking across the meadow and sailed easily over the fence that Esther's grey arrow barely cleared.

Esther looked up at the big-eared little boy with freckles and buck teeth, a boy who had yet to grow into his features:  "Raymond," she said steadily, her voice level despite what she was feeling, "please have Dr. Greenlees attend us at the ranch house, Mr. Keller is unwell."

"Yes ma'am!" Raymond declared in his high, little-boy voice, and his young knees gripped the red Cannonball's get as they launched across the meadow, heading for town, for the shining, polished-quartz hospital by the most direct route.

 

"Esther?"

My voice was a little hoarse.

When a man gets hit, or he gets drug and beat around some with his foot caught in the stirrup, there's some numb goes along with it but that numb was wearin' off and I was startin' to hurt kind of seriously.

"My dear?"

"I'm sorry."  My voice was little more than a whisper.

"I have a canteen.  Let me get you a sip."

"No."  My hand tightened on hers.  "If my guts are busted, I don't want to risk it."

"You're bleeding.  Let me clean that up."

"Yeah."

I heard Esther's skirts, or maybe her petticoats, starchy and rustling as she moved:  I heard the canteen lid drop on its short chain, the slosh and gurgle, then her hands again, wet and cool and she wiped blood from the back of my head.

I must've been clobbered worse than I realized.

"Mr. Keller, you are a hard headed man," Esther muttered.  "A lesser skull would have broken like a hen's egg."

"Flattery," I gasped, "will get you everywhere."

Things got a little hazy after that.

I recalled hearin' the carriage come up and I heard my hired man's voice and my daughter's husband's voice and there were hands, strong and careful hands that got me up and I recall bein' set on what my fingers knew was the tuck and roll upholstery and I knew I was in our carriage and I held onto the seat to keep it from turnin' around underneath me.

"I'll get it all dirty," I muttered, and Esther set beside me and held me by the shoulders and said "Let me worry about that," and we set off careful-like and I clenched my jaw a little but not much – I didn't want my gorge to rise, but my jaw ached from the beatin' I'd taken so I couldn't clamp down much.

 

Clarissa stared, open-mouthed, out the parlor window, then she snatched up her drowsy little boy and followed the maid out the big front door.

She stood, wide-eyed, staring as four men lifted her father very carefully from the carriage, bore him into the house:  her father's face was pale, lined with pain, his lips were pressed together, and it was not until Dr. Greenlees examined him, not until his wife and the maid undressed and bathed him, not until the man was in a nightshirt and tucked in and his wife seated beside him, holding his hand, that she was finally able to slip in and see her father.

 

Dr. Greenlees was just finishing tying a folded cloth cravat around my head:  "That'll keep you from chafing the stitches," he explained, "they'll come out in a few days.  Your hard head doesn't seem to be cracked and that's a miracle" – his voice was stern, his expression likely would be clearly worried – "and I don't think you've busted anything inside."

I managed to gasp a quiet, pained "Yeah," and the physician hesitated.

"You're going to get sleepy and that's okay.  Sleep if you want. Whether you sleep or whether you stay up and play cut throat poker, you're going to stiffen up and you'll be sore as hell tomorrow."

"Not far from it now," I managed to gasp.

"Can I do anything to make you more comfortable?"

I opened my eyes and smiled a little.  "Y'know, Doc," I managed to wheeze, "I'd ought to come up with a smart remark, but the mind just went blank."

"I'm surprised you've got a mind left, you hard headed old badge packer," Dr. Greenlees snarled, then he bent and leaned his weight, stiff-armed, on the mattress on either side of the me.  "This is not medical advice, Linn, this is from me." 

Doc bit his bottom lip and considered for a moment, but only a moment.

"Linn, I don't make friends all that easily, and no man is so rich that he can throw a friend away. I'm glad you're alive. You came too close to not being."

"Yeah," I husked, trying to laugh, but it hurt too much.

 "You know the worst part, Doc?"

Dr. Greenlees straightened – I felt his weight come off the bed – and I could imagine his expression, for I knew the man well.

"What's that?"

He'd be standing upright with his arms loose and relaxed and those long surgeon's fingers almost straight, and he'd have his head turned just a little, looking down at me.

I set my teeth against the pain and took a moment, then admitted "I spent good money on that horse and ended up I had to shoot that damned horse to keep it from kickin' me to death!"

"I am glad," Dr. Greenlees said solemnly, "that you did not miss."

 

Their youngest daughter never, ever again, questioned why her pale eyed Papa still wore a pistol.

 

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11.  TENDERCHEEKS

 

The pale eyed Willamina Keller chewed on her knuckle and giggled.

Richard looked over, raised an eyebrow.

Willamina was retired less than a week, she was still ... tight ... she hadn't quite relaxed into the realization that she was, indeed, retired.

Richard knew she was a Marine, a blooded warrior; he knew she bore the marks of violence beneath her carefully tailored suit, or flannel shirt and blue jeans:  he knew she was fast and deadly with a variety of weapons, and that she had multiple belts in a variety of Oriental and Israeli methods of ungently pacifying thy neighbor.

It was a little out of character to hear his wife ... giggle.

Perhaps it was not a bad thing, he reflected:  his wife deserved to relax, his wife deserved to decompress, his wife deserved to not be hypervigilant anymore.

He knew it would take a while.

He hadn't expected it would start with his pale-eyed wife chewing on her knuckle, reading an old journal and giggling like a schoolgirl.

She looked up, eyes shining.

"Richard," she said, "listen to this."

She read.

 

The Sheriff has a really good poker face.

I don't think I did.

Few things are colder than a winter-cold saddle and mine surely was.

It was cold and it was slick and the corners of the Sheriff's eyes smiled to see my discomfort.

"Cold?" he asked quietly, and I settled myself into a good seat and I couldn't help but grin a little.

"I'll not admit it, sir," I said, "for I don't wish to be known as Tendercheeks!"

We both laughed, our breath puffing vapor into the cold air.

 

Willamina looked up at her husband and he saw a softer expression on her face than he'd seen in some long time.

"Let me tell you about a friend of mine."

 

Town Marshal Bob Beymer turned the screwdriver with an exaggerated patience, screwed the outhouse seat securely in place.

He'd searched for some long time before finding the ideal plank.

Walnut it was, too thin by far to make a gunstock, but stout enough for his needs:  he'd measured, cut, laid out, drawn, drilled:  he ran the jigsaw along the oval crayon line, beveled the opening, sanded it glass smooth:  he'd sealed it, mounted it, attached a brass plaque the size of a playing card.

An old college chum, Lars Carlsen, availed himself of Beymer's outhouse, and complained when the seat pinched his backside:  Beymer considered the situation, tore out the two-plank seat, replaced it with a one-piece.

The plaque was custom engraved:  "Dedicated to Tendercheeks Carlsen," he read, and nodded.

His friend would be back in a week and he intended that he should direct the man's attention to his work.

 

Willamina leaned back, pointed overhead at a stout man in a black uniform and uniform Stetson, a man with a thin mustache and a big grin, leaning casually against the fender of a white Crown Vic cruiser.

"That," she said, "was Brother Beymer when he was town marshal.  He rolled the cruiser in a high speed pursuit."
Richard flinched.  "Ouch," he muttered.  "How badly was he hurt?"

Willamina laughed.  "His badge came up and cut him over an eyebrow, that was all."

"Lucky!" Richard grunted.

"You're telling me!"  Willamina sighed.  "He and I were living proof that not all young are birthed from the same womb."

"Were?"

"I spoke his funeral sermon."

Richard's mouth opened, then he closed it carefully, cleared his throat uncertainly, looked away.

"He told me about making that outhouse seat for his friend," Willamina said softly, "and that's what came to mind when I read about Jacob and that cold saddle."

 

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12.  MEOW

 

The Sheriff curled her legs up, intent on her reading: her focus was absolute, her attention undivided.

Her husband smiled and brought her a steaming mug of tea, set it on the stand beside her.

"You look like a cat, curled up like that," he said quietly.

The Sheriff looked at him, her pale eyes playful:  "Meow," she replied, then she returned to the journal, her lips parting a little, a smile tugging at her normally neutral expression.

She laughed a little and said "You've got to hear this," and Dr. John Greenlees Jr. eased himself down into his own spun-plastic chair, leaned back, savoring the smell of brewed oolong, genuine Earl Grey from Earth:  they tried to duplicate it, but it was just not the same as those rare and precious shipments of the real stuff.

Sheriff Marnie Keller, of the Second Martian District (Firelands), read her Mama's words and chewed on her foreknuckle, seeing the action unfold as she read:  she stopped, backtracked, began to read aloud.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller's pale eyes were hard and cold as another body came flying backwards out of the Silver Jewel's double doors.

She disliked barfights and she disliked her people being thrown about and she knew she was probably the only one who could put a stop to this.

She seized the edge of the door and stepped inside.

Mr. Baxter was gone, Tilly was cowering behind the hotel counter; chairs were knocked over, one table broken, a curtain pulled down:  it looked like there had been a good knock-down, drag-out brawl – probably because it was, she thought – and she looked at the only man standing.

A tall, slender man, leathery skin tanned by tropical sun and desert wind, stood at the bar, pouring wine from a long necked bottle into a beer stein.

Willamina set her jaw, paced forward, SLAMMED the pump shotgun's action open, SLAMMED it shut, running a charge of 00 buck into the chamber.

Few sounds are as recognized worldwide as a riot gun's metallic cycle.

Willamina stalked around the corner of the bar, looking as friendly as a wood rasp, feeling as kindly as a b'ar with a sore tooth.

Each one looked at the other.

She saw a man with the erect carriage of a soldier, with the scars of a veteran; he saw a hard-eyed woman in a tailored suit dress, with really nice legs and high heels, and a cocked-and-locked twelve gauge at high port.

He swirled the beer mug, took an appreciative sip of wine, calculating whether he could get to her before she drove a swarm of lead beehive through his guts, decided against it.

"What's your outfit, soldier?" she asked, and his ear twitched a little, for the voice was familiar, the phrasing somehow –

He blinked, frowned, looked again.

Pale eyes, eyes he'd seen before, and then he remembered.

 

Fighting was close-in, fast and dirty: he'd taken a rifle butt in the ribs, another to his elbow:  his rifle, lost, was somewhere in the dirt, trampled, kicked:  he seized an AK and laid about, using it as a quarterstaff:  he was outnumbered, surrounded, but the fight was fast moving and too close to fire a shot, lest his enemy miss and hit one of their own –

He recognized the Marine Corps camo, for the little time he had to think about it:  somewhere, this American had seized an old bolt action rifle with a long bayonet and was driving into the enemy, slashing the bayonet's tip across a face, driving it through a throat, knocking down a rifle muzzle and shoving two feet of triangular steel through a man's guts:  the odds were suddenly much better, and he felt a renewed surge of killing joy, and together the two of them laid about in horrifying silence, leaving the screams, the shouts, to those they were killing.

The last one fell, his rifle's butt split but solid enough to cave in the man's head:  the Legionnaire and the Marine slammed into one another, back-to-back, each one cycled the action of their rifle, faced outward:  he felt his American counterpart breathing, deeply, controlled, silent, and knew that like himself, this Marine was rigidly controlling his emotions, mouth open, tasting blood and dust and the smell of men's guts laid open.

He looked for an enemy, saw none:  he felt the Marine move, turned.

The ancient Mosin-Nagant bellowed, blasting a fireball out its muzzle, and he saw something spray out from under a head-cloth:  this American, this stranger and yet his brother-in-arms, drove a head shot at half a hundred yards with a strange rifle that probably hadn't seen a cleaning kit (or a cleaning) since the end of the First World War.

Cartridge brass spun, the Mosin's bolt cycled:  he turned, his AK up and ready –

 

The woman turned her lapel back to reveal a six point star.

"Sheriff Willamina Keller," she said, not raising her voice.

He came to attention, cracked his heels together, saluted her, palm forward.

"Mon Colonel," he said briskly, and she snapped the shotgun up in presentation, then turned.

A deputy stood in the doorway.

Willamina tossed him the riot gun, waved him out:  the deputy caught the Remington easily, backed out, eyeing this tanned stranger warily.

The two approached each other, stopped just short of arm's length apart.

Willamina looked around.

"Looks like there was a fight," she said mildly.

"Mais oui, mon Colonel."

She looked at the man, raised an eyebrow:  he saw amusement in those pale eyes that surprised him so much after their encounter half a world away.

She looked around, picked up a discarded beer mug, poured three fingers of wine:  he picked up his own mug, they clinked their heavy glasses together, drank.

"So give an account of yourself," she said quietly.  "How in the hell have you been?"

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller laughed, her head back, her voice relaxed.

Dr. Greenlees the Younger smiled to see this, to hear this:  it was not often his wife relaxed, not often she was other than the Sheriff, not often she was not constantly scanning for some unknown danger about to step out and bite her on the shin bone.

He considered if he could carry a snapshot in his heart, this was it:  with her sitting like a curled up cat, her head thrown back in delight, laughing.

She looked back at the text, printed on thin plastic film recycled from something, he had no idea what:  she read a little more and laughed again.

"Dear God," she shook her head, "after this long tall drink of water busted the place up, broke two noses and decked a half dozen good men, she took his arm and said – get this – "'Only one of the Legion can take one of the Legion,' and I am not one such, so I will ask you:  Would you accompany me, for a lady properly leaves a room on a gentleman's arm."

"I suppose there were some international considerations with that," Dr. Greenlees suggested, and the Sheriff nodded slowly, thoughtfully.

"Yes, there were," she said, "but that's the part I wanted to read you." 

She shook her head, marveling.

"Just think, John ..."

Her voice was soft, thoughtful.

"Most grandmothers bake cookies.  Mine fought back to back with the French Foreign Legion and walked into a barfight and walked out with the last man standing!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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13.  IN THE DARK OF NIGHT, WHEN SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH

 

"You look like you could bite a chunk out of an I-beam."

Willamina looked up, raised pale eyes toward the portly Chief of Police, smiled ever so slightly.

It was her first night as a commissioned police officer, in a little ex-coal-mining town called Glouster.

She raised her shotgun, stood, walked over to the Chief, handed it to him:  "Graduation present," she said shortly.

"I heard you graduated nursing school today.  Congratulations."

"Waste of time," Willamina muttered.  "I learned more as a basic EMT that that damned school taught me."

"You're a medic now, aren't you?"

She nodded.

"Will you become a Corpsman?"

She smiled slightly.  "That depends on what the Corps wants to do with me."

"How long before you go in?"

"Two months."

"Are you getting ready?"

"I'm running every day, I'm in Jonsey's gym every day, I've been sparring and weights."

"Good."  He nodded.  "Don't let them know."

Willamina raised an eyebrow as the Chief stood, shouldered the twelve-gauge a few times, nodded.

"I'm having Brother Beymer put rifle sights on it."

Chief Warren handed it back.  "You hunt?"

"Damn right I hunt."  He saw something in her eyes, hidden quickly, as if she drew curtain across behind her pale orbs.  "My Daddy hunted and so do I."

"Hm."  He nodded, let his eyes follow the line of light running the length of the blued steel Winchester barrel, and Willamina saw a memory soften his eyes just a little, and then the laugh that followed.

"My buddy and I thought we'd be smart," he said softly, the way a man will when reminiscing about his youth.  "We were football players and we ran every day and when we went into the Corps, the Sergeant was pleased to see the others were gasping and bent over sick and we were a little short of breath but doing okay."  He winked at her.  "Next day he had us doing squats for a half hour before we went out on our run."

Willamina grimaced, sat on the corner of the desk, rubbed her thigh as if it were sore.  "Oh," she groaned in sympathy.

"Yeah," the Chief half-grunted, half-laughed.  "We've told any number of candidates going into Basic to never, EVER let 'em know in Basic that you're not wimpy like the others!"  His great gusty laugh filled the village's ancient brick police station.

The phone rang; a brief conversation, a frown.

"Fight down at the candy store."

Willamina's jaw hardened.  "On it."

 

Pale eyes watched a figure in black striding down the alley, eyes busy:  veteran eyes narrowed with approval as the young officer in black uniform and Stetson "sliced the pie" from the alley's mouth, taking a look, a bigger look, a bigger look yet:  finding the source of the problem and scanning for ambushers, the officer emerged at a sprint, crossed the street, pounded down the sidewalk.

The sound of running boots at a fight naturally draws the attention of the cautious:  "Cop!" someone yelled, and about half the crowd scattered:  the core of the problem, two snarling individuals, wove and danced, fists up, trying to get some advantage.

One of the spectators turned to face Willamina, pulled a set of nunchaku, spun them in a web of welcoming death.

Willamina took a quick step to the side, one foot on the sidewalk, one on the street, a double handful of blued steel revolver thrust forward, her voice clear, distinct, but not terribly loud:

"DROP THE CHUCKS OR I DROP YOU!"

 

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back, eyes closed:  she opened them, wiped the nib of her steel dip quill, placed it very precisely along the right margin of the leather-bound Journal in which she was scribing:  she leaned back again, rubbed her eyes, stretched.

It was late.

Her husband Richard was gone to bed.

The Bear Killer drowsed beside her, silver hairs limning his muzzle:  these days he was content to soak up heat by the stove and pad alongside her, though when the mood was upon him, he was spry as a puppy, though she knew he paid for it afterward.

Like me, she thought, smiling a little.

Just that morning she'd run with the football team, run like she had when she was still Sheriff, run in full field gear with a rifle over her shoulder, desert boots laced and comfortable, pounding in cadence with young men full of testosterone and vinegar, happily singing deliciously obscene Marine Corps running songs, teaching the Firelands High School Football Team the same rude, crude and socially unacceptable tunes she'd happily sung as a boot recruit:  at their head, one young man ran five paces ahead of the pack, holding a pole; from the pole, a red guidon; on the guidon, a hand sewn, death-black skull, missing its lower jaw, the Totenkopf, that feared sigil of warriors from time immemorial:  Willamina's Warriors, they were unofficially called, and despite their youth and their green strength, they had a deep and abiding respect for this "Cool Little Old Lady" they adopted as their own, and they rejoiced when she ran with them.

This may also have had something to do with the fresh baked chocolate chip cookies she had ready when they came by, something the coaches cheerfully ignored; Willamina instilled a sense of unity among the team they'd never seen in all of Firelands High School's history, and so if the boys broke training with some cookies, what the hell ... the way that pale eyed woman ran them, they burned off more calories than they'd eaten, easy!

"You could type that," Richard suggested, soft voiced, and Willamina smiled, lowered her arms from her great yawning stretch.

"I used to work for a hospital," she said quietly.  "I can't do anything the easy way."

He leaned over and hugged his wife from behind, kissed her ear, nibbled it a little.

"Why don't you just type all that into a file?" he whispered.  "Then you won't have to scan it to send it to Marnie."

Willamina sighed.  "No."  She tapped the pen.  "Old Pale Eyes used that pen.  Jacob used that pen.  Sarah McKenna and three or four others used that pen.  If it works, don't fix it."  She took a long breath, sighed it out.  "Besides ... one of these days technology will fail, but books will still work."

"You've got me there."

She picked up the pen, studied it tiredly.

"I wonder how many ghosts come with this pen."  She tilted her head back.  "I'm supposed to tell ghost stories again tomorrow night at the Ladies' Tea Society meeting."

 

Square topped front sight was level with the square topped rear sight, and steady on the second shirt button.

Willamina's finger was heavy on the grooved, double action trigger, 125 grains of Remington controlled expansion projectile ready in the chamber.

She did not repeat herself.

She did not have to.

 

When the chief introduced the prisoner to the back seat of the cruiser, after the door was shut and transport begun, after they'd covered a few miles in silence, the Chief said casually, "You made a good choice back there."

"Yeah," his prisoner grunted.

"Would you have done that for me?"

"Hell no," he grinned, and Chief Warren saw the man's silent laughter in the rear view mirror, sudden and then sobered:  "I can read a man like a book but I can't read a woman."

"Welcome to the world of men," Chief Warren muttered.

"Naw, naw, not that, man," came the protesting explanation.  "You can't predict a woman!  Give a woman a gun and you don't know WHAT she's gonna do!  A man –"

He shivered.

"When she looked at me with those pale eyes I just KNEW she was goin' to blow a hole through me!"

"She's like that," the Chief nodded.  "She's done it before."

He saw his prisoner's face pale a few degrees.

 

Patrolman Willamina Keller, of the Glouster Police Department, sipped her coffee, eyes busy:  she was outside the all night gas station, back to a wall, but not leaning against it:  her pale eyes caught a movement, turned to focus –

 

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled at the memory, looked up at the several framed prints on the wall.

One was her pale eyed ancestor, Old Pale Eyes himself, his hand on the neck of a saddled, bridleless, good looking mare – the print, unfortunately, was black-and-white, and she'd considered having it colorized, for she knew her thrice-great-grandfather rode a copper mare he named Cannonball ... but that's not what she looked at, and smiled.

Beside him, another man, a full head taller and proportionally broader.

This, she knew, was the famous Jackson Cooper, town marshal of Firelands, Colorado; he married Emma Cooper, the diminutive schoolteacher, and for all their many years of happy marriage, he treated her at once like a Queen, and as if she were delicate china.

Willamina stared at this picture, and remembered.

She remembered the Old Sheriff and Jackson Cooper were boon companions in a town called Sedalia, back East.

A town that renamed itself Glouster.

She remembered the night she told the man with the 'chucks to drop them or she'd drop him, and she'd used that line any number of times since, and she remembered typing out her report and returning to the street.

She remembered standing outside the all night gas station with coffee in hand, eyes busy, listening to the night, and she recalled the sound of hoofbeats, and she saw a man riding up the street, a tall man with an iron grey mustache.

He stopped and dismounted and another figure, broad of shoulder and a full head taller, stepped out of a shadow and they two shook hands, and then they turned and looked squarely at her.

She saw pale eyes beneath the brim of the Stetson, and a six point star on the lapel of his black coat, and she saw both men look very directly at her, raise their hands and tug at the brim of their hats ... and then they were gone ...

Willamina remembered how she'd blinked, puzzled, how she tossed her coffee and ran over to where they'd been, how she'd pulled out her flashlight, laid it close to the ground and shot a beam across the ground to transluminate any tracks, and how she'd finally squatted, touching the impress of a horse shoe in the soft shoulder of the roadway.

"Do you know what ghost stories to tell them?" Richard whispered, his breath puffing warm and sensually against her ear, and she smiled.

"Yes," she whispered back, reaching up and squeezing his shoulder.  "Yes, I do."

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14.  BETTER, NOW

 

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned her head back and laughed, bringing several smiles in reply from the audience.

The Ladies' Tea Society was visited by a group of tourists from the Z&W Scenic Railway's tour group; there was a delay while repairs were conducted, something to do with a reported problem up the line, and the group was brought to the Silver Jewel Saloon in two freight wagons converted for just this use – each one had two rows of school bus seats, harvested from cycled-out buses, mounted longways down the length of the wagon, set back to back so the occupants could look at the town as they drove.

Willamina was their tour guide (she was also owner of the Z&W Railroad, and had excused herself from the Tea Society meeting, and swept onto the depot platform in a fitted McKenna gown and picture hat) – swinging her reticule from one daintily-gloved hand, she brought her other daintily-gloved hand to her lips, blew hard and frowned:  nothing came forth but the hiss of wind:  she knew eyes were upon her, so she shook her hand, frowned at it, shook it briskly and then whipped her parasol up over one shoulder and announced, "I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here today!"

This, of course, with her innocent-yet-mischievous expression, brought a number of chuckles:  she directed the restless visitors to the end of the platform and onto the wagons, leading by example, and stood behind the driver, facing her guests as they drove up the modern, paved street of Firelands, Colorado.

Willamina used her parasol as a pointer, as a cane, as an extra hand to make grand gestures:  here, she said, was their original church, restored to original condition, and if they looked closely, they would see bullet-gouges in the ceiling of the open bell tower:  the Parson and the Sheriff's pale eyed son used it as a firing-point the night raiders rode into town intending to steal the women, rape the cattle, burn everything to the ground, and after all that they intended to become rather unpleasant; there, across the street, the modern new funeral home, which was originally Digger's funeral parlor – yes, folks, his name wasn't really Digger, but that's all anyone ever called him, and most folks never knew his right name.  The original building was wood framed and three stories, with a false front, and the fire department, their very own red-shirted Irish Brigade, used it for ladder practice, for they knew that practicing their craft in the public eye guaranteed they would retain a favored position in the popular imagination.

Whether it was planned, or not, the Firelands Fire Department's restored Ahrens steam engine, drawn by three matched white mares, came trotting the opposite direction, red-shirted, black-mustachioed firemen riding the ladder wagon:  they waved pressed-leather Philadelpha helmets and hailed the Sheriff most cheerfully, and the big, muscled Irishman standing up in the driver's box swung his blacksnake whip and snapped a hole in the air three feet above the mares' ears, to the delight of boys young and old alike on the sidewalk and in the tour wagons both.

The Sheriff's Office, in its turn, was pointed out:  its polished-quartz construction was on the site of the original, log, Sheriff's Office, lost to a fire the night a tornado ripped through the mountains very near the town, two days after the Old Sheriff's death:  Old Pale Eyes, as he'd been known, helped draw up the plans, and these plans were overseen by his pale eyed son Jacob, and across the street, our destination, the Silver Jewel Saloon, owned first by the Sheriff's wife Esther, and then by the Sheriff after her demise. 

Watch your step, folks, please come in, we're just in time for the Ladies' Tea Society meeting.

 

"We've taken a page from certain Medieval re-enactors," Willamina smiled, her voice carrying well to the farthest rows, "and we re-enact ... creatively."  She held out an arm.  "For instance, I used a Singer treadle machine to sew this dress, instead of stitching it by hand –"

"You made that?" a visitor blurted, her mouth open, and Willamina laughed. 

"Why yes, J.C. Penney didn't have this in stock, and I was in a hurry, so ..." 

She shrugged.

The members of the Ladies' Tea Society – women, and a half-dozen girls, from four to fourteen, all in period garb – were mixed evenly with the tourists, a little uncomfortable in more modern attire:  two little girls giggled together, one in a pretty, ruffled frock, the other in jeans and sneakers:  their clothing may have been different by more than a century, but giggly little girls are the same in any era.

"The Silver Jewel Saloon changed, over time.  It was originally a dirty saloon and whorehouse, then it was a respectable saloon and restaurant; Prohibition saw its time as a restaurant alone, with the bar and the glasses and empty bottles just for show, and of course gambling laws took their toll on games of chance.  We've restored it to a degree, but the restaurant and bar are once again operating together.  There is a small stage and we have entertainment, most commonly of The Period, the mid-1880s.  Dances, waltzes, square dances and the like."

"I love your tin ceiling," one of the men said, pointing.

"It's original.  We were doing some overhaul work and a tin panel fell loose out in the main room" – Willamina pointed – "I kicked my chair back as a circular saw fell through and hit the table in front of me.  Ruined my pie and cracked the tabletop, but when I threw myself back I caught a pocketwatch in my skirt."  She reached thumb and forefinger into a hidden pocket, drew it forth, pressed the stem to flip open the hunter case.  "This was one of the first railroad watches issued by the Z&W Railroad, and it has a hand painted portrait inside the case."  She touched a button on the podium beside her; a screen hummed down from an almost unnoticed slit in the ceiling, lit up:  a few more buttons, a computer mouse, and an image:  it was a picture of the same watch, close-up.

"This is the portrait of Esther Wales Keller, the green-eyed, red-headed wife of the Old Sheriff, my thrice-great-grandfather."  She smiled, touched another control:  now they saw a hand-drawn pencil sketch of the Old Sheriff and his wife, sitting together, laughing.

"This is rare for the period.  Normally people had solemn expressions because of long exposure times with their photographs, and also a smile was seen as a sign of weakness, and nobody wished to be seen as weak."  The screen went dark.  "Also dentistry was not the art it is today, and it was not at all uncommon for people to have bad teeth, which they did not wish to reveal with a smile."

A restless little boy elbowed his sister and stage-whispered "Brush your teeth," and the little girl responded with a distressed "Mo-o-om! He's touching me!" at which Willamina, and everyone else, laughed.

"There was some discussion of restoring the original Sheriff's office."

Willamina's tone was light, conversational, easy to listen to.

"We have his original desk, and we did have his original cast iron, pot belly stove, at least until a rock fall in the underground mineshaft where it was found.  Cast iron does not do well when a ton of granite lands on it."  She smiled, as if at a secret, then continued:  "The Old Sheriff had trouble with his office chairs."

She turned, gripped the back of an old fashioned, wooden office chair, wheeled it to the middle of the front.

"You'll notice this has four casters.  Modern chairs have five, for a very practical reason."  She turned the chair, sat in it.  "The Old Sheriff had back trouble as a result of wartime service.  He was a veteran of what some call Lincoln's War, or the War of Northern Aggression, or the War of Secession.  He just called it That Damned War, and I have to agree with him."  There was the trace of an edge to her voice, which disappeared as she continued, "An old smoothbore cannon blew up beside him and caved in some ribs.  Twenty years later the town doctor pulled shrapnel out of a reinjury at the same site, which did ease some of his pain, but his back gave him grief, and these chairs did not help a bit.  He'd lean back in it and try to sleep and –"

So saying, she tilted back, intending just to get a bit of a tilt, but the chair had other ideas.

The sound of a hardwood chair SLAMMING into the floor was unexpected, loud, sharp, spectacular:  the sight of a woman's stockinged legs, high button shoes, her sharp little heels pointing at the ceiling, was likewise not quite what had been planned.

Silence and shocked expressions:  one man surged to his feet, powered forward, went to one knee:  "Ma'am?" he asked quietly, urgently.

"Owww," Willamina groaned, grimacing:  she rolled to her right, toward him and out of the chair, gripped his forearm, his shoulder:  he rose with her, his rising helping her stand, his hands firm around her waist, then cupping her elbows.

"Are you okay?" he almost whispered, and she nodded, lips pressed together:  she reached up, pulled out three long hatpins, removed her hat and scaled it off to the side, placed the long pins on the podium.

"I meant to do that," she said in a pained voice, which got a good laugh, and she laughed with them.

"Actually I didn't mean to do that, but it shows why the Old Sheriff SEIZED his wooden chair and THREW it out the door and took a broad ax and proceeded to bust it up into stovewood right in the middle of the street."  She laughed a little at the thought.  "For some odd reason, the sight of a pale eyed old lawman swearing at the offending furniture and disassembling it with less than gentle means, guaranteed nobody interrupted his work!"

"Talk about a traffic stopper," a young man said appreciatively, and Willamina extended her gloved hand toward him, palm up.

"Exactly!"  she declared. 

She reached behind the podium, withdrew an engraved, and rather worn, Winchester model of      1873 rifle:  she held it up in one hand, and with the other, extracted a wooden stocked Mini-14 carbine.

"This" – she held up the Winchester – "is Old Pale Eyes' personal Winchester, a wedding gift from his wife.  It's a One of One Thousand, hand picked for accuracy, engraved and presented.  This" – she smiled, held up the Mini-14 – "is my personal cruiser gun.  I carried this as Sheriff and it never let me down.  This one can say BANG ten times before you have to reload, and this one" – she smiled – "can go BANG twice as many times before the hopper runs dry."

She laid the rifles down on the table behind her, picked up a telegraph key mounted on a small plank.

"This was state of the art communication back in the day."  She tapped the round, black button a few times; the electronic sounder clicked loudly.  "That's the sound they would have heard, a simple click:  one for a dit, two for a dah, or dot and dash if you prefer.  This" – she held up a black-plastic talkie – "well, you're all familiar with these, and then there are those silly cell phones everyone carries."

She smiled, for a half dozen of the devices were out, recording her presentation.

"So whether it's communication, firepower or these office chairs" – she bent down, picked up the wooden chair and set it on its wheels – "sometimes the good old days aren't all that good old." 

She laughed a little.

"I'll admit, I like my nice comfortable high backed office chair with five wheels!"

"Ma'am?"  The rear door opened and the Z&W's conductor stepped in, tugged at his polished cap-brim.  "We're ready."

"What happened?"

"A minor rock slide, ma'am, and a tree down.  The track is clear, the tree's bucked up and loaded and it's stable up-slope. We should have no more problems."

"And that concludes our presentation for today," Willamina smiled.  "If you'll follow me, we'll load up and ride back to the depot and continue the Scenic Railway tour!"

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15. FAST, HARD AND DIRTY

I don't know where it came from but when it come spinnin' up ag'in my shin bone I grabbed holt of it and taken it for the gift it was.

I grabbed attair singletree in both hands and drove it into a man's crotch on my way up and hit him ag'in in the face as I come to straight and then I whipped it up and blocked a punch and I felt and heard the man's hand break when knuckles hit steel banded white oak and I did not care.

I let go of one end and whipped it around and caught a second fellow's collar bone and hit it hard enough to break, I seen his shoulder drop right before his face screwed up and he bit down hard to keep from cryin' like a little girl and I laid about like Samson with the jaw bone of a jack mule, driving the end of attair singletree into bellies, ribs and anything else I could find, I bent and swung and cracked shins hard enough to break 'em.

Men went down and they went down hard and they went down bloodied and I had a good hand in it, I was certainly not the only one puttin' a stop to this general disagreement but I did my share and when the dust settled the hoosegow was full and we had about a dozen chained to trees nearby until His Honor could hold court, and hold court he did, he went to each prisoner and had a talk with 'em and assessed fines or jail time as he saw fit, mostly fines because we didn't have as many lockups in the calabozo as it would've taken to handle everyone.

Now ordinarily there was not such a large knock down drag out knuckle party in Firelands, ordinarily it was quiet and boring and that suits me just fine, there was a bunch come in with wagons and two trainloads as well and all of 'em had the notion somehow we was Cripple Creek and they figured we'd had a gold strike and when they found out they hadn't been no strike here why tempers got the better of 'em and of course it didn't help none that most of 'em got all likkered up to try and ease the disappointment, I reckon.

I reckon I could have wrote most of a book had I set down and put my pen to every last individual's activity in attair fracas, but I didn't see no need, besides I'm kind of lazy when it comes to writin' things down.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller frowned, her finger laid across her upper lip like a mustache, her forehead wrinkling a little as she read.

She looked up as her chief deputy came in.

JW Barrents regarded the pale eyed Sheriff with Navajo-obsidian eyes and tilted his head a little.

"I know that look," he said quietly, closing the door behind him.  "What's up?"

Willamina took a long, patient breath.

"It's Jacob," she said, and Barrents chuckled, glancing up at one of the several framed prints on the wall.

"You make it sound like he's a naughty boy who's just done something today."

"I was going over old court records," Willamina said, poking a finger at an obviously old, worn ledger.  "I cross referenced with Jacob's journal."

"And?"
"Here's what he wrote about a general riot ... from the newspaper account, the street was filled with 'seething humanity' ... Jacob wrote, 'We had a riot. Took care of it.'"

"That's it?"
"That's it."

Chief Deputy JW Barrents shook his head, chuckling.

"I always did like his way with words."

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There is a marvelous freedom with not having to keep things in chronological order.

In this short snort, the Sheriff is considerably younger, as is her son: we infer his youth from having his appendix removed, and that this is not her firstborn, as she's in the cafeteria having a meal, while he's in recovery.

Here we see a glimpse into her past, a facet only alluded to in the several past tales we've told of this pale eyed descendant of her pale-eyed ancestor ... you know, the one with the iron grey mustache and a fiercely protective nature.

 

16. YA GOT MINE BEAT!

 

"May I join you?"
Willamina looked up and smiled tiredly, nodded to the chair opposite: a tall, slender man in scrubs set his tray down, swung his narrow backside into the chair.

"How's your son?"

Willamina chuckled a little.  "His appendix is out now.  He's still in recovery."

The nurse nodded.  "They know you're here?"

Willamina picked up the pepper shaker, briskly anointing her mashed potatoes and gravy: the nurse opened his hand, she slid the heavy glass shaker across the table to him:  he peppered his own, traded pepper for salt, gave a quick double-shake, slid it across to the pale eyed Sheriff.

"I don't need to taste 'em," he muttered.  "Taters always take salt!"

Willamina laughed.  "Man after my own heart!"

"I heard they tried to recruit you."

Willamina nodded, chewing a bite of meatloaf.  "I told 'em I get in enough trouble as Sheriff, I didn't need to work as a nurse too!"

"How did you like nursing?"

Willamina wrinkled her nose.  "I started out hating nursing school and it went downhill from there!"

"You too?"

She nodded, tearing open the roll, twisting her butter knife in the little individually packaged pat, spread the gut grease, looked up at her companion.  "You've got a story.  You go first."

His chuckle was dry, almost forced.  "Not much to tell, really.  The school discriminated against men hell west and crooked.  I was lied to and lied about from the word go.  On graduation day they waited until I crossed the stage, got my pin, handed the stub of my short timer's stick to my favorite instructor and then a runner came up and told me the Dean needed to see me immediately if not sooner."

"Short timer's stick," Willamina mused.  "You're an Army brat?"

He nodded.  "My Dad was in the Southeast Asia War Games.  You?"
"Sandpile.  Marines."
"That's right, I'm sorry.  I forgot."

She waved a hand.  "What did the Dean want?"

"She asked me why I hadn't taken my Pharmacology final.  I told her the instructor told me my grades were good enough I didn't have to, so I didn't.  She said that wasn't right, I had to take it and since I hadn't, my graduation was invalid. 

"I told her if she had any questions she should call the instructor and she said the gal was on a Bahamas cruise and I said 'How convenient,' and my voice just dripped sarcasm."

Willamina's eyes were half veiled and he saw her eyes go a little more pale.

"I told her, 'Why don't I just tricky-trot upstairs to the testing center and take it right now."
She waved a dismissive hand and said 'Do what you want.'

"I went upstairs, I was back in five minutes, I laid the paper on the desk in front of her."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"I scored one hundred per cent."
Willamina's eyes narrowed at the corners, a smile of approval from one warrior to another.

"I asked her if there was anything else and she couldn't even look me in the eye."

They ate in silence for a minute, long enough for the nurse's curiosity to get the best of him.

"How about you, Sheriff?  You've got a story and I'd like to hear it."

"You are familiar with confidentiality."

"Intimately."

"You have read the statistics that most nurses were raped as a young teen, that the head shrinkers theorize that's why women become nurses, to heal where they themselves were harmed."

He nodded.

"My father was town marshal back East.  He was killed in the line of duty.  My mother was a damned drunk and she threw out his gunbelt and the flag they gave us at his funeral."
She saw his hands close slowly into fists.

"I was ... brutalized ... but I didn't just go into nursing."  She looked up, her eyes hard and cold.  "I went into the community college's police academy as well."
He nodded slowly.

"The nursing instructors did not like it ... that I was taking a dual major, that I arranged my classes to avoid conflict between them, and they really did not like my arriving in class in a police uniform."

The nurse grinned, nodded encouragement.

"I was in my emergency room rotation as a nursing student when we had a situation."

He leaned forward, elbows on either side of his tray, the meal forgotten:  fingers laced, he pressed his upper lip against his index fingers, eyes intent on the quiet-voiced, pale-eyed woman across from him.

"A man came in and pulled a gun.

"I trained for that, and the fact that I wore a white dress and pantyhose didn't stop reflex from taking over." 

Again that slow, encouraging nod.

"I seized the muzzle and twisted, I got both hands on it and wound it around backwards and yanked hard."  Her bottom jaw slid out as she talked, as she remembered.  "I remember driving my foot into his thigh as I yanked.

"He was high on something and breaking his finger and then tearing it out by its roots didn't stop him so I had his gun in both hands and I cold cocked him."  She chuckled dryly.  "My second kick to the gut wasn't really necessary.

"Anyway ... I got called on the carpet next day in nursing school, and the dean said they were going to expel me.

"I felt myself getting mad.

"I knew if I stayed I would say ... regrettable things ... so I turned and started to walk out.

"The Dean said 'I'm not done,' and I said 'Oh yes you are,' and I left.

"I was mad clear through and I didn't know where to go and I just started driving and I ended up at the police station.

"I went inside and the Chief was grinning when I came through the door.

"I recognized the reporter and I knew better than to get anywhere near but the Chief saw me and waved me in.

"I went in and said 'Chief, we have a situation,' and he switched off his good-old-boy an switched on his I-am-in-charge and we went into the inner office and he closed the door.

"I was mad.

"I was absolutely clear to my core mad.

"I took a long moment to steady myself and then I told the Chief what the Dean said to me and he frowned and then he took me by the shoulders and said, "Willa, I want you in your class As, we're going over there,' and then he opened the door and told the reporter he was giving him an exclusive.

"We went back over to the college.

"We went back over in a convoy.

"When I walked in, it was not as Willamina the nursing student, it was Willamina the police officer.  Full uniform, gunbelt, sidearm and baton, and the instructor did not like it one little bit.

"The Chief and I held back while two lines of long tall lawmen marched into the lecture hall with rifles at port arms.

"The Honor Guard was practicing that day and when they found out what the Chief had in mind they didn't hesitate ... we had retired men from our department, we had current and retired from the Sheriff's Office, we had some State Troops, everyone was in uniform, everyone was warmed up and ready, and it was an impressive sight when this much spit-and-polished marched in, solemn jawed and straight backed.

"These guys were good.

"When they formed a double row they started with the Queen Anne's Salute and got fancy from there, and the Chief and I marched in between spinning M1 Garands, and the instructor is standing there with her jaw hanging down to her belly button.

"Someone ran and got the Dean and she got there just as the Chief introduced the reporter and said that as I had saved lives and prevented a mass killing in a hospital setting, that the Department was recognizing my heroism in executing a barehand disarm while off duty.

"He formally presented me with a commendation, the reporter got it all on video, and the Dean of Nursing looked like she'd bitten into a rotten dill pickle."

"Did they kick you out of the program?"

"How could they?  The hospital sent their CEO over for the occasion and he waxed eloquent over me: he said I'd saved lives among staff and patient population alike, and their legal beagle buddied up with the nursing school's legal counsel and suggested that if there were any more episodes of discrimination against me, for any reason at all, the nursing school would find itself without clinical sites anywhere in the state, and the next day the Board of Nursing informed the school that if there was any retribution against me, they would lose their accreditation."

"I'll bet they really liked you after that."

"Like the Black Plague," Willamina sighed.  "They just couldn't wait to get rid of me."

"Expulsion, or graduation?"

"Graduation.  My mother was too drunk to attend.  I could tell it hurt the dean to have to read the commendation for heroism when I was given my diploma."

"Sheriff, yours has mine beat."  He eased his chair back from the table, paused, turned back to face the pale eyed woman square-on.

"Thank you for that disarm," he said quietly.  "Do you remember an ER nurse, Janice, curly blond hair, red cheeks, a little heavy set?"

"Oh heavens yes!"

"She was there that night." 

"You're ...?"

"Yep."  He grinned.  "You saved my Mama's life."

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17.  LAST VISIT

 

"Grandma?"

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at Captain Marnie Keller and smiled a little, the big Malinois at her right leg slitting his eyes with pleasure and running his tongue happily out under a moist black nose.

Both women were in uniform: the Sheriff, in her skirted Sheriff's uniform, as this was her day as court officer; her daughter, in the skirted uniform of a Navy Captain.

Her appearance was a little unexpected, though when a big black Sea Stallion came hammering overhead, several people looked up, shading their eyes and squinting a little:  the family Maxwell, up on Daine Mountain, smiled a little, because they knew their mountain-bred daughter was the pilot, and very likely the pale eyed daughter of their pale eyed Sheriff was aboard as well.

They were right.

Willamina was waiting at a correct parade rest, eyes narrowed against the rotor wash as the big black bird with the white snowflake on its nose settled onto the local crash patch tarmac:  it was not unknown for military craft to land – a C-130 landed one evening, delivering the Sheriff's surplus US Marine Corps tank – or, more correctly, Tank:  a Belgian Malinois with whom the Sheriff was acquainted in her overseas service:  it was, however, unique enough to see something this big, this black, this ... naval.

Of course, the service crew that ran out to the bird, the fuel truck, all had been arranged as well.

This happens when both pilot and passengers are in the revived Space Program, especially when they were riding the countdown to their Mars launch.

The pilot had her shutdown procedures, this Willamina knew; she'd admitted to Chief Deputy Barrents, before jumping in the Suburban and wheeling up the mountain, that you could take everything she knew about flying a rotary wing and stuff it down in a sewing thimble, and have room enough to pour in a quart of whiskey on top, and so she waited patiently, watching activity through the canopy, watched the conference with the ground crew, waited while a half-dozen souls came out of the big black bird with the impressively-sized engines, with the twin chain guns, with the snowflake on its nose and a rearing, winged stallion, ridden by a helmeted Valkyrie bearing a silver-tipped spear, painted on the side, and beneath, in what she knew to be authentic Viking runes, Odin's Daughter, and beneath this, in block letters,

CAPT MAXWELL

VALKYRIE!

Of the half-dozen who finally disembarked, three came to the black Stallion's nose:  two, shoulder to shoulder, in flight suits, and one in her class As:  they paced off on the left and marched directly to the Sheriff.

Willamina came to attention as they neared.

Three hands came up in salute, and the salute was returned, and after that, all formality was cast to the mountain wind:  women's voices raised in the happy confusion of family coming together, and then there was a pause, and Willamina turned her pale eyes on a tall, slender, blond headed, blue eyed Teutonic officer.

Willamina bent, seized his trouser cuff, hauled it up to expose an ugly, puckered scar slashing across the meat of his calf.

She lowered the trouser material, gave it a little tug, straightened.

She extended a hand and he took it without hesitation.

"Waddsmanheil, Hauptmann!" she declared, and she saw the grin hiding in his Teutonic-blue eyes:  "Any man with a boar's tusk on his leg is a man worthy of the name!"

Hans blinked, surprised, then looked accusingly at Gracie.

Gracie batted her eyes, doing her very best to look innocent, and almost succeeding.

"She's the Sheriff," she said with a shrug.  "She finds things out."

Hauptmann Hans Merckel, ace pilot with the Luftwaffe and hand picked for the Mars mission, grinned like a delighted schoolboy as he tried to look everywhere at once.

He'd heard Gracie talk about home, about mountains and ravines and magnificent sunrises, and Hans told her of the Alps and the Hartz Mountains, and they shared a love of flying:  Hans told of his great-grandfather, the Baron Manfred von Richtofen; Gracie told of her great-grandfather, a lean moonshining Kentucky mountain runner:  Hans told her of his grandfather, and of his father, both pilots with the Luftwaffe, and how they wouldn't call out "Tally-Ho!" or "Bandits!" as did the Allied pilots ... no, the German cry was "Indians!" – to Gracie's immense amusement – and she found that the American West enjoyed a romantic reputation in Germany (and in Israel, as she later learned, but that's a separate story)

Hans looked around, absolutely positively delighted to be in an honest to God Western saloon:  a pretty young girl in a saloon girl's short skirt and stockings was playing a merry tune at the piano, and Willamina pointed out the Old Sheriff's portrait, pencil-drawn, with his beautiful bride: the Sheriff pointed out the elk's antlers over the bar and told the German pilot about the pale-eyed ancestress Sarah McKenna, and how she and Charlie Macneil took this particular elk with a knapped obsidian spear.

The Hauptmann stared, open-mouthed, at the antlers, then regarded the Sheriff as if she were bearing a divine revelation.

"Die Stoffpuppe?" he breathed, as if whispering out the name of a living saint.

Willamina regarded him frankly, nodded.

"Yes," she said.  "The Ragdoll."

"Mein Gott," Hans whispered. 

"Another grandfather?"

"Jawohl, mein Sheriff!"

"Ever been in a genuine Old West saloon before?"

"Nein, mein Sheriff."

"Belly up to the bar, then.  Mr. Baxter, give the man what he's having."

 

They retired to the private, back room, where a good meal was laid before them:  over tenderloin beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and salad and sourdough bread, Willamina listened with pride as her great-granddaughter and her shirttail niece laughed and described their adventures in the military, how each had been absolutely floored when approached about the Mars mission, and how each had trained harder than they'd ever done in their young lives, and how now, now it was going to happen!

"Marnie," Willamina said, "I'm a little surprised they didn't pick a Marine for this job."

Marnie laughed. 

"Grandma," she said, her pale eyes bright, laughing in the electrified lamplight, "I still carry a deputy's commission, and I still remember every trick of dirty fighting you ever taught me!"

"She iss a good student," Hans offered innocently – Gracie's expression was less innocent and more wolflike, for she remembered the night the three of them were set upon by twice their number of street Apaches, and how the Sheriff's granddaughter was less the proper "Offizer undt a Lady" and more an unmitigated mankilling tornado  in blue jeans and cowboy boots.

Hans leaned forward, elbows on the table, looked directly at the Sheriff and lowered his voice confidentially.

"The most frichtening part," he almost whispered, "the most frichtening part, Sheriff, your grandt daughter fights silently."  He shivered a little, closed his eyes, remembering, then opened them again.

"The street Apaches set upon us mitt shouts undt demandts undt zis pair, zey mooft as if zey'd braktist all zeir lifes for zis!"

Willamina smiled a little, remembering long hours with her granddaughter and her shirttail niece in the restored barn, Daciana's barn as it was known, a great round structure built beneath the overhang of a natural granite cave:  she'd taught her daughters there, she'd taught her sons there, and elsewhere,  she'd taught her granddaughters, her nieces, she'd taught the Ladies' Tea Society there.

"You could say that," Willamina agreed slowly, took a final sip of her coffee, pushed back from the table.

"So.  You're here in the Wild West.  What would you like to see?"

Hans' grin was quick, bright, boyish.

"I voot like to zee," he said, looking at Gracie and back to the Sheriff, and his accent disappeared entirely:

"The Lady Esther."

"We can do that!"

 

 Hans stopped dead on the boardwalk and honestly stared.

A long, tall, lean waisted lawman with an iron grey mustache regarded him with pale eyes:  hard eyes, cold eyes, eyes like the very heart of a mountain glacier:  within these eyes he saw humor, and a laugh that crept out the corners, and wrinkled his flesh, and the black-suited lawman with the brushed black Stetson and gleaming stovepipe boots thrust out his hand.

"Linn Keller," he said.  "Willamina is my mother."

"Mein Gott," Hans breathed.  "A cowboy!"

Linn laughed.  "I've been called worse!"  He looked at the Sheriff.  "I have the carriage."

"Thank you, dear," Willamina said in a tired old woman's voice, so convincing Hans looked at her in shock:  she laughed and so did he, and they boarded the gleaming carriage, settling into the tuck-and-roll upholstery, as Willamina's hired man eased off the brake and flipped the reins, and they clattered down the pavement toward the depot.

Hans marveled at this little town he'd heard so much about.

He'd had Gracie describe it, and her description came to life as they drove.

There, on the left, the funeral parlor – it used to be taller, with a false front; beside it, the alley, then the Sheriff's office – a gleaming, polished-quartz structure with heavy, double glass doors, built on the same site as the original log structure – uphill from the funeral parlor, the Mercantile, modern now, with plate glass windows, with mowers and tillers and hand tools on display, and across the street, the library, and its display of ladies' period gowns from the 1880s, and a treadle sewing machine from the McKenna Dress Works.

He turned, gawping like a tourist:  there, the little whitewashed schoolhouse, the town park, the little whitewashed church – he peered into the darkening shadow, trying to make out bullet gouges in the bell tower ceiling.

They drove on down the street, past the bank, past the firehouse, broader and more modern than the original tall, narrow horse house; they turned beside the firehouse and were at the depot, and chuffing quietly, breathing in the dusk like a great and powerful iron beast, The Lady Esther waited patiently on steel rails.

Hans vaulted happily from the carriage, reached up and swung Gracie down:  he took her hand like it was delicate bone china, walked slowly, reverently towards the locomotive, his eyes wide, feeling the heat from her boiler, staring at the spray of black-ribbon-tied roses on the side of the cab, and the letters beneath – gold leaf, with black shadowing –

"The Lady Esther," he whispered aloud, and nodded.

"Would you like to climb up, stand in the cab?"  Willamina offered, and Hans shook his head, smiled.

"Nein, mein Sheriff," he said gently, then laughed and looked up at her sand dome, her steam dome, the diamond stack breathing invisibly into the darkening night.

He turned and laughed a little uncertainly.

"Ironic, isn't it," he said thoughtfully, his accent just flavoring his words, but only just.

"Ironic ... I fly beyond Mach mit impunity, I am going to fly –"

He looked at Marnie, who gave him a warning shake of the head.

"I am going to fly on Mars," he amended, "but I would be ... intimidated ... to set foot ..."

He nodded at the cab, at the grey-haired old man in overalls and the hickory stripe cap leaning casually out the window, looking down at his guests.

"I vouldt be intimidated to set foot in there."

 

They drove back, past the Silver Jewel and on up the street and out of town but a little ways, to the Sheriff's house:  The Bear Killer drowsed on the front porch, at least until they drove up, until the door opened and a man stood silhouetted, and the smell of baking bread rolled out to greet them.

They sat around Willamina's kitchen table and laughed and talked and drank tea and ate fresh from the oven sourdough with hand churned butter, and Hans pressed the Sheriff for tales of her pale eyed ancestor, that lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache, and Willamina laughed and told him tales of the grand old man, and finally conversation sagged, and Marnie looked across the table and her voice grew serious.

"Grandma," she said, and her voice was almost that of a little girl, "this is probably the last time I'll see you."
"I know," Willamina whispered, her throat dry.

"I mean ... ever."

Willamina nodded.

"I know ... a century and more ago ... covered wagons and oxen and all that, and people left all they knew and everyone they knew and they went into a distant land and faced death and that's what we'll be doing but Grandma ..."

Marnie swallowed, blinked, bit her bottom lip.

"Grandma, I'm a little scared."

Willamina smiled gently, nodded.

"If you weren't a little scared," she said frankly, "you'd be a little nuts."

Marnie laughed, surprised, Gracie laughing with her.

"I think we're all kind of nuts, running off to another whole planet!"  Gracie declared firmly.

"Weight will be at a premium," Willamina sighed.  "Otherwise I'd rig you with a full gunbelt and ten thousand rounds of ammunition, a rifle and shotgun and –"

She stopped, frowned.

"But I suppose you'll be issued what you need.  That, or you'll make it once you get there."

"You wouldn't believe what we can 3-D print nowadays, Grandma!"

Willamina nodded.  "It would cost a young fortune to freight one pound of goods from here to there."

"Zere vill be communication," Hans said slowly, "but iss not the same."

"No it's not," Gracie agreed, picking up her tea, taking a sip, the smiling.  "I think tea is something I will really, really miss!"

"So tell me, Sheriff," Hans said, breaking the spell, "tell me something of your own career.  Your granddaughter tells me you are a most effective Sheriff."

"Oh she does, does she?"  Willamina smiled, looking at her granddaughter and leaning back a little.  "Well, there was the time, back in Chauncey ..."

 

It was well that they had two days' leave.

Hans and Gracie and Marnie went back to Houston, and then to Canaveral, with memories of actually riding the steam train, of watching the Sheriff's son buck out an Appaloosa stallion, of sleeping in a log home well older than all their years added together.

Hans insisted on formally asking the eldest Maxwell for the honor of his permission, to ask Gracie for her hand in marriage:  he'd shaken hands with a blue-eyed Kentucky moonshiner, and they'd toasted the upcoming marital union with something that went down like Mama's milk and blew the socks right off his feet, and when Hauptmann Hans Merckel lay back on his launch couch and took his first long breath of the anesthetic gas that would prepare him for stasis, he smiled a little, for he'd gotten to wear a gunbelt and handle a pair of revolvers worn by a lean old lawman with an iron grey mustache.

Just before his eyes closed, he wondered drowsily about that white wolf he'd seen outside the Sheriff's house, and he made a mental note to ask his wife sometime about it, and then his eyes closed and he did not wake up until a slender man with a caduceus embossed on his skinsuit removed the oxygen mask from the Hauptmann's face and said, "Wake up, Hauptmann.  You're a Martian now!"

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I know what it is to bury a daughter, to bury a wife:  maybe that's why the Old Sheriff fell so desperately in love with the violet-eyed Bonnie McKenna and her little girl Sarah when he first saw them, why he did not hesitate to deck the crooked lawyer Slade on the boardwalk in front of the Silver Jewel Saloon.

Maybe that's why he taught them both how to shoot and why he especially taught Sarah the Rules of Knife Fighting, so eloquently demonstrated on the silver screen a century and more later, and maybe – just maybe – that's why Sarah grew up to try so desperately to make her pale eyed father proud of her.

Sometimes in a child's life there is a seminal event that starts their career choice.

This might have been Sarah's.

 

18.  THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna, a pale eyed child of the mountains, was later in life known as the Black Agent, as Sister Mercurius, as one of the two schoolmarms in their little whitewashed schoolhouse.

Before she was the investigating arm of the Firelands District Court, before she was Miz Sarah, before she was the founder of the Faceless Sisters, known also as the White Nuns, she was just Sarah, a waif, an orphan, a scared little girl with sad eyes and a shy disposition.

Her life changed – all lives change, but hers changed suddenly, radically:  she went from orphan to beloved daughter, she went from waif to a scrubbed-clean and well-dressed child, she went from nearly starving to well-fed – and now, as her new Mama pressed her lips together and shoved the ends of two pianos together, forming a protective triangle, Sarah's arm tightened around her rag doll and her other hand gripped Dawg's thick, curly hair, and the big, scarred, stub-tailed canine leaned companionably against her.

Dawg smelled considerably better than he had.

Sarah insisted on giving her favorite dog in all the world, a bath: she'd dumped most of her Mama's bath salts in the steaming tub, she'd somehow managed to convince this veteran of many battles into the tub, he'd closed his eyes in – pleasure?  Patient tolerance? – as her pink young fingers scrubbed through his fur, working suds into his fur, scrubbing accumulation from his underlying hide.

He'd decided the nice warm bath felt pretty good to his old bones, and he'd not objected when Sarah giggled and piled soap suds on his wet black head like a crown.

He'd even tolerated the bright red ribbon Sarah tied around his neck, at least until he could work a paw under it, then his lower jaw, and reduced it to ragged scrap just before Bonnie McKenna bade her daughter to hide between the back-to-back saloon pianos, then shoved the ends together, trapping her little girl in their protective walls.

Sarah's bottom lip pooched out in disappointment.

"Dawg," she said in a small voice, "I wish I could play the piano!"

Dawg's mouth was open a little, his pink tongue run out a little, panting.

"I'm glad you're here," Sarah whispered, and Dawg heard the stress in her young voice:  he turned his head, gave her a companionable lick.

Gunshots – yells, the sound of horses – Dawg came to his feet, hair bristling down his spine:  Bonnie glanced quickly into the shelter and said "Dawg, protect," and Dawg's jaws snapped as he bit off a deep "Rrowf!"

Sarah drew back, eyes big, until her shoulders just touched the wall at her back, the she flinched away:  a child cannot remain long affrighted when there is something to tease her curiosity, and she saw her Mama's eyes widen as she felt boot heels, hard and powerful, shiver the floor through the soles of her patent leather slippers.

Sarah's chest tightened and she drew her arms up protectively in front of her, the rag doll trapped in the bend of her elbow, but forgotten:  she knew the voice she heard, she knew the harsh and demanding tone, she knew the menace, the threat, and she saw her Mama shrink, and then she saw her Mama glance at her and she saw her Mama change.

Sarah was a curious child and Sarah was an intelligent child and Sarah might not know her letters nor how to read, but Sarah read (or tried to read) anything she could get her hands on, and she'd stared long at the copperplate print of a woman, tall and lean and beautiful, long curled hair and a gleaming helmet on her head: she carried a shield in one hand, a long spear in the other:  Athena, the letters at the base of the statue said, and her Mama explained this was a warrior-goddess who kept ancient Greece safe.

Sarah remembered she'd blinked, for she was a little confused.

Her Mama kept her safe.

She'd up from the page, looked at her Mama, and her Mama didn't look a thing like this woman-statue in the book.

Sarah looked out between the ends of the piano and she saw her Mama and her Mama was different.

Her Mama wasn't wearing a bronze helmet, but her hair was carefully styled and ornately atop her head, it was clean and it shone in the lamplight.

Sarah's breath caught in her throat and she stepped forward as far as she could go, at least until Dawg flowed in between her and the gap in the pianos: she could feel more than hear the deep, powerful rumble in the aging canine's big chest, but she wanted to see, she came up on her toes, she watched, wide-eyed as her Mama went from shrinking with fright, the way she'd done upstairs when she was badly put upon – no, that was not her Mama now – her Mama looked at her and she became like that woman in the book, she set her jaw and she straightened her spine and she looked at someone Sarah couldn't see and Sarah heard her Mama's voice tighten and her Mama said in a loud and commanding voice, "YOU LEAVE US ALONE!" and Sarah saw her Mama pull a big revolver from somewhere and Sarah saw her Mama's thumb lay over that stand-up percussion hammer and ear it back and Sarah saw the cylinder roll around and Sarah knew it was going to get really loud and Sarah clapped her hands over Dawg's ears and pressed hard and squeezed her eyes shut against the concussion she knew was coming and she felt more than heard the Army Colt cough deep in its machined steel throat and she heard the loud and flat-sounding BOOM and then another BOOM and her Mama's angry voice and BOOM and she bent down on top of Dawg and whimpered a little but she kept her hands on Dawg's ears because she didn't want his ears hurt by the noise and she felt footsteps and she opened her squeezed-shut eyes and looked just in time to see her Mama's skirt disappear and she felt her Mama's footsteps light and quick and BOOM and she heard men yelling and horses scream and the tortured tocsin of the Irish Brigade's shiny steam machine's whistle as it wailed past the Silver Jewel and she heard her Mama's voice way far away yelling "YOU CAN'T HAVE US!" and BOOOOOM again and Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and sat down and found her rag doll and she hugged it to her and fell over on her side and curled up and she heard Dawg give one loud ROWF! and then he laid down half on top of her and she shivered a little and then she relaxed a little, just a little, because he was warm and he was solid and she felt him breathe and she kept her eyes shut and she shivered a little and Dawg got up and she felt his cold nose and then she felt him snuffing at her jaw and he licked her chin and she felt the pianos being pulled apart and she opened her eyes as Dawg got up and her Mama was there and Sarah let go of her rag doll and she hugged her Mama and her Mama hugged her and Sarah giggled because she was her Mama again and she didn't look a thing like that woman in the book.

She'd looked an awful lot like Athena a minute ago, but not now.

Sarah hugged her Mama and she felt Dawg nose her leg and through her child's eyes she saw everything would be okay now.

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Something always comes before.

Well remembered is the pale eyed Captain's desperate ride to warn of the imminent attack, riding despite his injuries.

Until now we only had his account; we look at a small part of it through another set of eyes, and perhaps now we have a better idea why their sky pilot was in the bell tower with a Sharps instead of hiding in a closet, on his knees, shivering and mumbling over an open but unseen book.

 

19.  MINISTRY

Good Ames steel bit into the sod.

Men grunted and sweated, complained and swore: at one time they might have bridled their tongues.

Earlier in this damned War, they might've moderated their language and glanced uncomfortably at the man who labored with them, muttered some beg-your-pardon, but not now, not this long into the conflict.

No, the good Chaplain was one of them:  he shared their same poor rations, he shivered under their same issue blankets, he marched in their ranks and dug in the dirt the same as they, whether to throw up breastworks, to dig a latrine, or as the did today, dug holes for the dead.

He was one of them and they respected him for it.

There was a shout, a shot, the sound of galloping hooves:  one head, then another, rose, turned.

The men were all veteran fighters by now, blooded and bloodied; all had lost friends and fellows, boon companions and blanket-mates: they'd been sent here, here where no attack was expected, here where the grey-coat enemy would surely not attack.

Not here, not for a while, at least; the men needed a respite, and they'd allowed themselves to relax, but the single musket shot brought them all back into a vibrating state of awareness.

Parson Belden straightened, leaned on his shovel, wiped sweat off his forehead with a kerchief that used to be a bedsheet, an eternity agone: he blinked, wiped his eyes and his eyebrows, forestalling the saltwater that was wont to cascade and sear his eyeballs.

He saw a chestnut mare, a good looking horse, rear its head away from the sentry's grasping hand, dance to the side, and he saw a bloody-sided figure laying over the horse's neck, arms limp.

"Dear God," the boy to his left swore.   "It's the Captain!"

Parson Belden stabbed his shovel into the dirt he'd excavated and leaned forward into a run.

Parson Belden was a noted runner, fleet of foot since earliest youth: he ran swiftly, easily, skimming over the rough ground, and he came pounding up to the command tent just as the rider more poured off the horse than fell from her:  he saw the commanding officer swat the tent flap back, advancing with a firm, assured step, surprise and then recognition on his bewhiskered face, and the Parson saw the bugler, nearest the fallen man, drop to his knees, lower his ear to the man's lips, and the Parson saw the fallen man's hand raise up, seize the bugler's blouse:  he saw the knuckles whiten, he saw the bugler's eyes widen, he saw the hand fall away and then men abandoned shovels and whatever else they might've been occupied with, and sprinted for the neat tipis of stacked muskets.

The bugler's lungs were young and powerful, his lip was well practiced, and he turned a little as the commanding notes of "Assembly" shivered out across the encampment.

 

Parson Belden stood behind the well crafted pulpit and looked out over the empty church, smiling a little.

It had been years since he'd worn Union blue, since he'd marched and ducked as musket balls ripped through the air, since he'd been shoulder to shoulder with good men and true: now, two decades and more later, he'd come West, he'd been churched in the mountains, in a little community he'd never heard of, a town of no great size, a town near the Cripple Creek gold strike.

Firelands, it was called, and he smiled a little, for this was the least likely place he could think of to be associated with a conflagration, unless maybe a seaport would be even less likely.

Shining mountains surrounded them; it took him a year to get used to the high country, but he'd stayed, he'd worked side by side the same as he'd labored with his fellow soldiers, and was respected for the same reason.

He'd known clergy who'd stood back and let others labor, preaching on Sunday but living a poor example: no, when there was wood to be cut, his were the hands on the bucksaw or the ax, setting the wedge and swinging the sledge: if a barn was to be built, he was there, though ever since those long, lean Kentucky men set up operation on the mountain, most of the woodworking was done by these skilled craftsmen: the Parson knew men like that, quiet mountaineers who listened much and said little, men whose keen blue eyes were on him listening to his every word as he spoke on Sunday, men who seldom smiled, save with those penetrating eyes, and when the Parson was presented with a jug of something that smelled of distilled fruit, something that went down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off his feet, he knew he'd been accepted by them as well.

This gave him a deep satisfaction, for trust is not easily earned, especially by mountain folk, and these quiet, clannish folk had come West from their own mountains, and it was only natural that they sought out these granite mountains for their new home.

A set of hands descended on his shoulders, he smelled his wife's soap-and-sunshine:  she rubbed his shoulders, then began to knead his neck, where the cords were tight, and he leaned his head a little to the side and groaned.

"You're remembering again," she murmured, and he nodded and gave a quiet "mmmm" of agreement.

"You get so tense when you remember."  Her voice was gentle, understanding.  "I thought you might.  You were restless in your sleep."

"Mm-hmm."

"You were remembering when the Captain rode in and you feared for his life."

He nodded again, eyes closed, letting her massaging hands work the tension out of his shoulders.

She was right, he realized:  he'd tensed up more than he'd realized. 

He always did, when he remembered.

"You'll be going out to Bob Parsons today."

He smiled, nodded:  Bob Parsons ran the mercantile in Carbon Hill, and the man was crippled with a recent apoplexy: stubborn and hard headed as any, he insisted on working, though he moved slowly, dragging a bad leg that served as a stiff prop, working with one arm with the other straight down at his side.  The Parson took pains to visit every Wednesday, putting on an apron and stocking shelves, sweeping the store, working beside the man.

He knew the two of them would work in silence for a couple of hours, he knew Parsons would carefully not notice the two covered baskets the Parson would surreptitiously hand off to Mrs. Parsons, two meals' worth of his wife's preparation: he'd helped the man three times a week at first, until his sons could be summoned:  nowadays the Parsons family was come together again, and Parson Belden was able to see sons mend their youthful rifts with their father – the young always rebel, and young men always pull away, often with harsh words, and these had, until they came home and realized their words may have contributed to their father's distress, realized the consequence of their actions, their words, could be the crippling of what had been a strong and capable man:  now his sons and their wives all made the Mercantile their own, and the Parson was no longer needed to help keep their business alive, but still he went, and he stocked shelves and swept the store, and afterward, he'd tell his parishioner he was tired and needed to set down, and only then would the prideful proprietor deign to rest from his labors, and they would sit, and eat, the Parson eating with the same slowness as his old friend.

He worked shoulder to shoulder with the man, and he listened.

When the reavers came to town, he'd spoken from the pulpit and spoke words to strengthen the spirit and harden the resolve: men and women alike were resolved to war, for this was their home, and they'd labored to prepare Firelands to receive deadly attack: the Parson well remembered the example of a Revolutionary War parson who delivered a fiery sermon against the red-coated oppressors, and at the height of his sermon, stripped off his black clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Continental soldier, who raised his hand in blessing, and then took up his musket and marched from the church to join his fellows in the fight.

Parson Belden climbed into the bell tower with a Sharps rifle, climbed up with the Sheriff's pale eyed son, feeling the same fire in his blood he'd felt as a young man: he knew what it was to stand in ranks with musket in hand, he knew what it was to fight for his very life: this man of God dropped the breechblock of his octagon barrel rifle and ran in a shining brass panatela and thought of his wife, young and beautiful, and her tidy kitchen, and he thought of every face he looked at on Sunday morning, and he closed the rifle's breech and waited, for he too was fighting for his home and for his family, and he knew from this rifleman's perch he could make very good account of himself.

He'd split wood with others in his congregation, he'd plied a froe and split shake shingles and handed bundles of shakes up a ladder to the boys roofing their father's barn, he'd turned a hand to shoveling manure, or patching harness, and always he listened:  it was an era when a man was strong and unsmiling in the public eye, and men confided in a trusted few, and the Parson was one such.

It might have been splitting wood and it might have been shoveling second hand horse feed, it might have been stacking cans of peaches and swinging a brush broom, but always he listened, and his replies were well considered and prayerful, and he was respected because his hands were callused and his ear was open and ready to listen.

In time of war, or in time of peace, it's what he did.

It was his ministry.

 

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21.  IN THE PROVERBIAL NICK

 

Mother took one look and she knew things were not right.

The Sheriff and I came in and we were both silent.

We hung our Stetsons on their pegs and I reckon was I to stand back and watch, our moves would have looked like we'd rehearsed it for a dance or some such.

We stacked our rifles at the same time and in the same manners, we hung our skypieces at the same time and in the same manner, I moved a little to the side so we'd both have room to shuck out of our blanket lined coats.

Mother raised her chin just a little and then she paced over to us and the Sheriff he looked at her and the two of them reached for each others' hands and Mother she studied the Sheriff's face and I seen tenderness and worry both and I recall how gentle her voice when she asked, "Dearest, are you injured?" and then she looked really worried when the Sheriff did not give voice to his reply, only a slow shake of his head.

Mother looked at me and I'd done my best to turn the same color as the wall behint me and Mother looked at the Sheriff and said "Supper is ready," and she turned and we filed in after her.

We'd already stopped and washed up before we come in the house so we was clean and a little damp and she'd have knowed this from our habits and from the Sheriff's hands bein' just a little chilly and a little wet and we set down and we et and 'twas dead silent, the girls they was big eyed and watchful and they never said a single word and finally the Sheriff he didn't eat much, he said "My dear, may we counsel?" and I knowed when he was that formal he wanted to be alone with her so I did not raise up nor follow and oncet they was out of the room Angela looked at me with them big blue eyes of hers and she said real quiet-like, "Jacob, did something happen?" and I leaned over torst her just a little and nodded and I said "We was just in the k'nick," and I give a wink and a single nod and she looked at me kind of puzzled.

 

Sergeant Willamina Keller, Chauncey Village Marshal's Office, closed the door on the secondhand and well worn Crown Vic police cruiser.

She'd turned it around, backed in beside the township grader, she'd positioned it for either a fast getaway, or so she could dive over it and get shelter in a hurry.

Two local boys thrust into the brick cube that was their village hall and police station, all excited and big-eyed and out of breath, and said they'd seen someone "messing around" the township grader – 'twas not their local gas thief, this was a stranger, who left in a hurry – boys are curious, and when this individual did not siphon fuel from the tank, they went over and looked, and then they snatched up their fishing rods and legged it for the century-old village building.

Willamina looked up as the pair burst in, and she listened to their almost stammering report, and she picked up the grey General Electric microphone, keyed up and called "520 Baker, 520."

"520 Baker, go."

"Report to station, this is no drill."

"Enroute."

Willamina picked up the phone, dialed a number.

"Athens County Sheriff's Office."

"Kaye, this is Willa, have a report of a bomb in the township grader beside the water plant. I'm going to go take a look, will advise."

She hung up, rose.

"You two stay on this end of town."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled a little as she read her hand written journal, penned when she was still a green badge packer back East.

Richard, her husband, regarded her with interest.

"I know that look," he chuckled.  "What happened this time?"

"I just found another one."

Richard shook his head.  "This happens too often, you know."

"I know."

 

Angela was gettin' some height to her and she was smart as a whip and I never saw fit to speak to her like she was a child.

"There is talk of a mine strike," I said, "and striking miners are a rough bunch."

Angela regarded me with wide eyed solemnity and nodded slowly, swallowing.

"They figured the railroad belonged to the mines because of the ore it hauls."

Angela's brows puzzled together, for she knew the railroad was owned by her Mama.

"They set powder under the tracks to blow the rails so they couldn't haul ore."

 

There was a timer on the bundle of fat, waxy sticks.

It was crude – Willamina saw this kind of before, it was absurdly simple, something her Uncle Pete told her about after he'd returned from Southeast Asia.

Charlie Cong, he said, would steal watches and pop off the crystal.

Depending on how much of a delay he wanted – less than an hour and they'd break off the hour hand, leaving only the minute hand, or if several hours' delay was desired, break off the minute hand – a hole was bored in the crystal:  one wire grounded to the watch case, the other sticking through the crystal: add a battery and a detonator and when the hand swung around and touched the inserted wire, bang.

Willamina bent a little, came up on her toes, looked over the bundle, her head shoved partway under the overhanging orange grader hood, and her eyes widened.

Her partner, Mark Frazier, saw her hands come up and snap apart, and he saw something shiny fly out of the bundle of waxy sticks, and he saw Willamina turn and power into a sprint, saw her plant one hand on the cruiser's hood and leap across the car, just before he ducked.

 

"The Sheriff reached down and jerked the fuse out of the powder," I said.  "I seen his face and he warn't happy a'tall."

"But that's dangerous," Angela whispered through a suddenly dry throat, and I nodded, remembering he'd burned his fingers on the stub of a fuse, for he'd found it barely in time.

Barely in the k'nick of time.

 

"I'd vaulted over the hood of the car and I intended to drop down into its blast shadow," Willamina explained, "but there was no time."

"No time?"

She shook her head.  "I'd jerked the dynamite caps free but they were still hanging by their wires."

She smiled a little, chuckled.

"Dynamite caps are loud!"

"I know they are."

"They also throw shrapnel."

Richard's eyebrow went up.  "Oh, no," he murmured.

 

"The Sheriff washed his hands well and that's all he needed to do for the burn."

Angela looked like she'd lost her appetite.

I'd lost most of mine with the telling of our evening.

I've seen what a bundle of powder sticks can do.

"We taken attair bundle and give it back to the mine, I reckon that's where it got stole from, and then we went and figured out who set it there."

"Is that why Daddy is so quiet?"

I nodded.

"He ... had a talk with the fellows who set the powder."

I looked away, for I did not want to lie to her, and I chawed a little on my bottom lip and finally I nodded once or twicet and sayd "You ... could say he did, yes."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at her husband and smiled a little, and then she giggled.

"Richard," she said, "I know you looking at my backside."

He raised an eyebrow and she saw the corners of his eyes tighten a little with a smile he was trying not to show.

"If you made a study of my setter, you might, you just might see some little fine scars."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Scars."

She nodded.

"Dynamite caps throw shrapnel, and the ER doc said he'd not taken shrapnel out of such an attractive backside in his entire career."

Richard's attempt at hiding his smile was not only ineffective, he ended up bent over double, snorting into a pillow, for he did not want to laugh aloud at his wife's red-faced admission.

"That was the night," Willamina continued, leaning back in her chair and looking at the framed prints and photos on the wall, "that Beymer hauled me out of the river."

Richard wiped his eyes, having managed to muffle the most of his hilarities into the pillow, leaned back with a deep breath and then frowned.

"I don't think you told me about that one."

"Two boys again, different ones this time."

 

Sergeant Willamina Keller looked up as two white-faced boys nearly fell into the village hall.

She raised an eyebrow, rose.

"There's a monster under the trussle," one blurted and the other nodded vigorously.

"What kind of monster?"
"It's big an' its eyes glowed an' it hissed at us!"

"It's a wildcat," his nodding cohort stage-whispered.

Willamina rose, unlocked the gun case and withdrew the only shotgun the department had, a Hi-Standard that worked fine if you held the gun upside down.

"Show me."

 

"It worked if you held it upside down?" Richard asked incredulously.

Willamina nodded.  "The chief didn't want to believe it so I took it to the range with him.  I had him try it and he said it ran just fine and it jammed big as you please.  He couldn't clear the jam so I did, then I charged the target, made a running jump toward the silhouette, twisted in mid-air, landed flat on my back and with the gun upside down, boom boom boom emptied it."  She smiled a little.  "Next day he traded it in on something that worked."
"What about the monster under the trestle?"

"It was a wildcat."
"It was what?  Back east?"

She nodded.

"Bears and wildcats run a loop.  Bears come out of Pennsylvania into Ohio, across the north of the state and down.  The cats come out of Pennsylvania towards the bottom of Ohio and then north and back into Pennsylvania.  They like to den in Wildcat Hollow in Morgan County because there are rocky cliffs.  Ideal for bobcat dens."

"Bobcat."

"Yep.  Stub tail bob kitties with tuffies on their ears."  She stuck two fingers up above hers, wiggled them like a little girl.  "We went down to the river and the cat was gone.  The chief had the shotgun, of course, even if it wouldn't shoot more than once without jamming.

"He said the kids were imagining things and I said 'Don't move,' and he froze and turned the color of putty.

"I shone the light down beside his shoe and there was a pug mark in the wet clay."  She smiled quietly, a satisfied, I-told-you-so smile.  "He was standing beside a puddy track, and it was not a small one."

Richard's mouth was open a little but he was saying nothing at all.

"That's about the time I slipped on that wet riverbank clay and went into the water."

Richard's mouth hung a little more open and his eyes betrayed his distress.

His wife looked really good in uniform, and she took pains to look really good in uniform, and he could only imagine her distress at going into a dirty old river in uniform.

"I took out downstream because there was a sandbar I could use to climb out, but the bank was still kind of steep, and my dear old friend Beymer was waiting on me."  She looked up at the picture and smiled. 

"Big fellow.  Half a head taller than you, dearest, and you're six two."

He nodded.

"He could pick up and pack off just about anything he wanted and it didn't matter what that might be."

She sighed.  "I don't have any photographs or prints of the Old Sheriff's friend, Jackson Cooper.  He was town marshal when Old Pale Eyes was Sheriff."  She smiled a little.  "I imagine they might have looked alike" – she chuckled – "but my Very Great Granddad said he had the lean waist of a horseman, and Brother Beymer ... didn't."

Richard looked at the portrait of the grinning lawman leaning against the fender of a white Crown Vic, a man who was most decidedly not with a lean equatorial belt.

"He'd come to discuss the bomb I found on the grader.

"He gave me One Of Those Looks when I told him about yanking out the fuse caps when I saw how close it was to detonation."

Richard squirmed a little.

He had an intimate knowledge of explosives, for all that his specialty was altered documents.

"He told me that I was just in the very k'nick of time" – she smiled again – "that's how he pronounced it, k'nick."  She looked at her husband, and her look was almost sad.

"He hugged me to him on that nighttime riverbank, and me soaking wet, and he said he was very glad I was still in one piece."

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22.  JUSTICE

 

Sergeant Willamina Keller lowered her revolver.

It was late, it was dark, she was alone now ... just her, and a carcass with a hole just below its nose.

It used to be a criminal.

It used to be someone who'd brutalized two young girls, and gotten off.

It used to be someone who raped a paramedic of the Sergeant's acquaintance, someone who Willamina was satisfied had killed her friend afterward ... someone who got out of that, too.

Insufficient evidence to prosecute.

Willamina pulled the revolver back, turned, looked around.

She'd fired once – a single shot, at night, not repeated, would very likely not get much attention.

The cruiser was halfway across the village.

She'd pursued this murdering soul on foot, chasing him down the back alley, around the new Schoolhouse Road and across the state route, over the bobwarr fence – he'd scrambled over the spiked strands, Willamina charged it full-bore, slapped her hand atop the weathered locust fence post, swung her legs up, vaulted the strands – she'd come down wrong, did a point-shoulder-roll, came up on her feet, still running.

They'd run around behind the Reverend Lauker's garage (the parson couldn't make ends meet with passing the plate on Sunday, so he ran a wrecker, a repair garage and custom exhaust bending service) and into the back field.

He'd fallen, rolled, she stopped, twice the length of her own height from him, and drew her handful of blued steel justice from its brown basket stamped holster.

"Get up," she said, her voice low.  "Get up and face me!"

He got up, slowly:  he'd intended to make a clean getaway, but this damned woman ran faster than any lawman he'd outpaced before.

He sneered when he turned, hands barely to shirt pocket level.

"I suppose you're gonna shoot me now."

His eyes did not even register surprise when 125 grains of Remington justice drove through his phrenum and through his brainstem.

He fell like a baggie of ground up hamburger meat.

Willamina opened the cylinder, eased back on the ejector rod; she plucked out the fired casing, fished in a breast pocket, dropped in a fresh round:  she closed the cylinder gently, as she always did, and holstered, snapped the thumb break back in place.

Now, she thought, how do I get you to the old air shaft?

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat, eyes half-lidded, looking around.

The Firelands Masonic Lodge room smelled of cedar and men's cologne, the way it always did, and she could not help but feel the smile behind the mask she wore:  her face was a carefully neutral mask, cultivated from years behind the badge, and she did her best to hide her feelings when wearing the six point star that was her office for as long as she wanted it:  she looked around, at rows and ranks of fellow lawmen, convened to bring another of their kind into the Order of the Rose, the Secret Christian Order of Law Dawgs.

SCOLD.

A rose hung over the central Altar, its message ancient:  what occured sub rosa, what occured under the Rose, was secret, and would not leave this room.

Willamina held a coin between thumb and forefinger:  gold it was, the size of a silver dollar:  on one side, the rose, and on the reverse, the superimposed Christian cross, and the six point Seal of Solomon.

She slipped it into her breast pocket and stood as her son's name was called.

"Deputy Sheriff Linn Keller, Firelands County," the deep-voiced, barrel-chested State Trooper intoned.

Her son, tall, lean-waisted, rose smoothly, paced off on the left, well-polished Wellington boots silent on the immaculate tan carpet.

Willamina paced off as well, taking shorter steps, timing her arrival with her son's:  she held a polished wood box in her left hand, brought it up before her:  her left hand under, her right hand over, ready to open the box to display its contents.

 

Willamina spread the canvas tarp, rolled the carcass onto the heavy, surplus, Army-green canvas, lapped the ends over, tied the edge down:  she knelt, worked her arms under it, then rocked back, using leverage to get the roleau up to knee height:  she took three long breaths, blew them out, took a fourth, let half it out and stood.

Turn and two steps, and she slid the payload into the waiting pickup truck's bed.

It was late; nobody was about; she drove the well-muffled, well-maintained machine out of the good Reverend's back field, drove slowly, quietly down the road without lights, turned up a newly-bladed-out dirt road and drove back to where the coal mine's shower house used to stand.

One of the last of the abandoned coal mine's air shafts was very nearby:  a track hoe stood beside it, waiting for daylight, so it could fill in this last remnant of the bituminous legacy of the long-abandoned mines:  it was a State project, and Willamina knew it would be burying an unholy amount of evidence:  she hauled her grisly payload out, untied it, laid her hand over the end of her flashlight, examined the wound by filtered .

Nice shot, she thought:  clear through ... no retained bullet.

Good.

She re-tied the roll, gripped the canvas, tipped the carcass into the hole, watched as it slid into the old abandoned coal mine air shaft, and waited a few seconds until she heard it hit bottom.

Deep hole, she thought, smiling a little as the roll fell and landed.

 

"We are a Star Court," Willamina explained, her head up, her voice clear:  "we are Justice where Justice has not prevailed."

She leaned her head back, regarded the constellations painted on the ceiling.
"A Star Court is so called because the only authority higher than we, is Heaven itself." 

She lowered her head, looked solemnly at her son.

"This is a responsibility we accept, because it must be accepted:  we are the hand behind the Law, and we are the Law when the Law is powerless to act."

Her son regarded her with the pale eyes common to their blood.

"There was a law on the books in Wyoming that justified killing if someone needed killin'," she smiled, "and there are those who need removed from society."

 

Deputy Sheriff Linn Keller breathed easily, mouth open, catching up on his oxygen debt.

The other fellow was in considerably worse shape.

High altitude is not kind to someone used to a denser atmosphere, and this particular felon was from Kansas City and very much unused to the thinner air this high up.

"You've got nothin'," he panted.  "You got nothin' on me, copper."

Linn's eyes tightened a little at the corners.

The stranger wasn't sure what to make of a lawman that didn't reply.

He was used to provoking the cops.

If he could provoke them he could control them.

"You killed a lawman," Linn said, his voice gentle.

"You can't prove nothin'!"

"You killed a dozen kids."

"I did nothin'!"

"You sold the drugs that killed those kids."

He smiled and his smile was not pleasant.

"Their choice."  He snorted, spat, turned his head and coughed.  "I didn't force 'em."

He turned back just in time to catch a .38 special through the left eye.

It wasn't far to the brick works, not far to the kiln that could reduce a human body to glowing bones in short order:  there was an open, metal box, a box that went in with a load of raw brick, and came out glowing dully with gas-fired heat:  the box was drawn aside, a steel plate laid over it:  when cool, the bones were ground and ground again, mixed with clay, baked again:  somewhere, a murdering, drug dealing cop killer, a monster of society who'd done nothing but evil with his entire life, was lending his exanimate essence to the bricks that ended up building a hospital and a school.

 

Deputy Sheriff Linn Keller accepted the gold coin, handed him by his mother, the Sheriff.

"And here," the pale eyed Sheriff said, "is our trademark."

She reached into the polished wood box and withdrew a single loaded .38 Special.

"The bullet," she said, "is pure gold.  This is our trademark.  If the Society of the Rose has need to Star Court a subject, this is what we use."

Linn accepted the loaded round, examined it closely, tapped its nose with a curious forefinger.

"Silver?"

His left eyebrow tented a little, bringing a smile to his mother's face – that's what his father does, she thought – and she nodded.

"Silver tipped," she acknowledged, "and gold beneath."
She handed him the box; there were five more rounds within.

"I'm sorry we didn't bring you a brick," she said, and for a rare occasion, she actually saw surprise in her son's eyes.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, for a miracle, managed to keep her smile hidden behind the solemn mask of her official face.

 

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23. A PROMISE

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller zipped open the envelope with her genuine Barlow knife.

It wasn't that good a knife, really, the steel was kind of soft but that meant it could be sharpened with any common field stone, and Willamina took it as a point of pride to keep it shaving sharp, just like her Uncle Pete used to:  his Barlow was much older and the steel was much better, and Willamina had the sneaking feeling hers was a cheap Chinese copy, but she carried it anyway, because it reminded her of her beloved uncle.

She reached two fingers into the envelope, withdrew the single, folded sheet, and the check.

Puzzled, she looked at the check, and in the memo line, neatly printed with a fine point pen, she read A MARINE PROMISED.
If there had been an observer watching closely, the observer might have seen Sheriff Willamina Keller's pupils dilate just a little.

She unfolded the letter.

 

Shining Winchester brass slid easily into the Springfield's breech.

A young Marine took a cheatin' rest, laid out on bare ground, his rifle supported well out on the fore end with his fisted left hand:  he took a long breath, let it out, laid a gentle touch on the trigger and began his squeeze.

The Army man beside him watched through binoculars.

Under the double optic, beneath the soft hair of a young man's mustache, white teeth gleamed as the soldier watched unsuspecting Germans going about their business.

They'd slipped up far too close to enemy lines, but a bet was a bet, and each bet the other that he could knock off more pickelhaubes than the other:  as the soldier watched, the Springfield barked and a moment later, a German flinched, raised a hand to his helmeted head, then looked wildly about as his fellows began to shout in alarm.

They were well hidden; the soldier, in his turn, knocked off a helmet spike:  the Marine drove another from its steel mount, and the soldier missed his next shot, though not by much:  the Marine, studying the intended target with the eyes of a young man, gazing through the dual lenses, said "I think you grazed his helmet right at the base of that spike."

They withdrew before artillery could be called on their general area:  upon return to their respective lines, the Marine was congratulated by his CO, whereas the soldier was called into the command tent and told that he'd disobeyed orders by engaging the enemy, and next time he intended to disobey a direct order, he'd damned well be able to outshoot that Marine, and the only reason his CO wasn't going to cloud up and rain all over him, was he'd won a bet as to whether his man could knock off a German helmet spike at that distance.

He had.

Multiple times.

She read a little more, blinked, bit down on her bent forefinger as she read, and then pulled out a tissue and pressed to her eyes.

 

They made a bet, she read, and he outshot the Marine.

The Marine was my grandfather, a few times removed, and his last letter said he'd lost the bet and he was waiting to be paid so he could pay up.

This check covers the bet.

I read somewhere that you had a relative in the War to End All Wars, and I thought maybe you'd be the right one to send the settle-up

Some things were a little too close to home, even yet.

Sheriff Willamina Keller read this account and smiled a little, then she pulled out the bottom drawer, walked her fingers across the hanging folders, opened one and pulled out a grid ruled pad.

At its top it had her name – Willamina Keller – and beneath, Historian, lecturer and re-enactor.

She began to write.

 

Dear Mr. Hixson,

Thank you for your check, and for the story that came with it.

I served with the Marines and know the hard headed sense of honor that comes with the Globe and Anchor, and I thank you for upholding the bet made between two fighting men.

Like yourself, I lost family in WWI.

His name was Joseph Keller, firstborn son of Sheriff Jacob Keller, and he was a fine looking young man.

Joseph's uniform and the Colt's revolvers he wore are on display in our museum. You're more than welcome to come and take a look.

I would take great pleasure in giving you the personal tour, and to tell you the story of how we acquired his revolvers well more than a century after he was killed.

Very truly yours,

Willamina Keller, USMC

Sheriff, Firelands County, Colorado

 

An envelope, a stamp, a few moments to address the missive:  Willamina signed the check and smiled a little, and when she presented the check at the bank's teller window, she and the girl behind the counter laughed ... something about never knowing my name was Bearer, though I've been called worse.

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24.  A WOMAN'S VEIL

 

The man across the desk from her was built like a linebacker.

His shoulders were broad, his waist trim, he was lean-jawed and looked like he could seize the massive, hardwood desk and flip it over just for the fun of it, at least until you looked at his delicate, watchmaker's hands.

Sheriff Willamina Keller watched peoples' hands as a matter of long and very old habit.

The eyes might be windows to the soul, she knew, but hands could kill you, and besides, she could learn about the person from their hands.

A man might wear his wrist watch on the left, for instance, and yet carry his briefcase or his groceries or his crescent wrench in the left hand, like her Uncle Pete:  he explained to her that it's because a man leaves his right hand free out of habit ... to return a salute, for instance.

Or to go for the holstered sidearm, she thought, smiling a little behind her veil.

Her husband Richard was dead a month now, and she wore widow's black:  she was retired, she could wear whatever she damn well pleased, and she would be attending the Ladies' Tea Society this afternoon, and she would be attending in mourning:  her McKenna gown was severe, unrelieved black, the buttons were gleaming jet, the brooch she wore was black, with the barest trace of gold around it, framing the ebony portrait.

She'd raised the veil to conduct her business with her attorney, the pleasant, middle-aged man she called either "Big Mike," or more affectionately, "Kid Mike" – he was young enough to be her son, or she was old enough to be his mother, whichever way you wanted to look at it – and she was firming up a few details she wished taken care of.

While I have time, she thought, and her carefully cultivated, expressionless mask, hid a discomfort that was visiting itself upon her more often now.

Willamina knew her heart was giving her trouble.

She also knew what ailed her, could not be cured – oh, there were things that could be done, but none would prolong her life more than about a month – no, rather than being cut or burned or poisoned, she'd written in her journal, she'd just let things run their course:  she'd led a good life, and she intended to live what was left of it.

"That should do it," Kid Mike said, turning the page and laying the pen diagonally across the sheet. 

He waited patiently for Willamina to read it:  she read every word of anything she signed, and finding this addendum to her will acceptable, she picked up the pen and signed it with her usual flourish.

He rose as she rose, and she smiled:  she'd found when she wore a McKenna gown, men were more conscious of her as a lady, and they in turn were more likely to be a gentleman:  Willamina waited for him to come around the desk before extending her hand.

"You've been more than my attorney," she said candidly.  "You have been a good friend, and I am very much obliged to you" – and then she came up on her toes and kissed him quickly on the cheek, came back down on her heels, merriment dancing in her pale eyes – "We old ladies can get away with that," and she giggled a little as she dropped the veil over her face and skipped for the door like a happy schoolgirl.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller stepped out onto the modern-day sidewalk, looked uphill, toward the Sheriff's office on the opposite side:  she smiled a little as her memory wandered, and she remembered the day – there, just down from the schoolhouse – where she'd run in her mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress with a Winchester rifle in hand, two raging dogs at her side, and she'd head-shot three stampeding beeves, one-two-three, while The Bear Killer and her beloved Malinois, Tank, reared and yammered and snarled, inviting any who wished, to come into range of their fighting ivories:  there, in front of the Sheriff's office, where a bomb was placed under her Jeep and wired to the brake lights – the detonation shocked her lungs and nearly killed her, and came perilously close to blinding her – memory wandered up the boardwalk to the Silver Jewel, where she'd gone into one of the very rare barfights, and came out with a French Foreign Legionnaire on her arm –

Willamina blinked, took a long breath.

There was somewhere she wished to go first, before she did anything else.

She walked slowly up the boardwalk, and after a little distance, turned, and walked up the whitewashed steps into their little church.

Willamina closed the doors behind her and smiled again.

It smelled the way a church ought to ... hymnals and furniture polish and beeswax – she paused at the back row of pews, leaning heavily on one until she could breathe normally again.

Almost done, she thought. 

Almost.

She walked slowly up the aisle, remembering the day when she walked up this aisle a single woman, and back down as a married:  she remembered baptisms, christenings, programs, funerals, announcements.

She came to the end of the aisle and looked up at the rough cross on the back wall, behind the simple Altar, and she laughed a little at the thought of her honored ancestor, Old Pale Eyes, coming into this same church and gazing upon that same cross and laying his heart out before the Almighty by crying out that he wished to adopt little Angela, and behind the altar – in conspiracy and chewing on their knuckles to keep from laughing and spoiling the joke – the Parson, and Charlie Macneil, and Charlie pitched his voice about ten octaves lower and boomed "AND SOOOO YOOOUUUU SHAAALLLLL!" – and then they stood up and laughed, for they'd divined the pale eyed old lawman's wish, and had things started for a formal adoption.

Not that it was needed in those days, she thought, and then she raised her chin.

"Old Pale Eyes used to come here," she said, her voice carrying well and clearly, "when he was troubled, or when he wished guidance."

She folded her black-lace-gloved hands very properly in front of her.

"I am here for the same reason."

The weakness hit her again and she cursed herself for it, then half-swayed, half-fell into the front pew, head back, breathing carefully.

"Did I do the right things?" she gasped, blinking.  "Did I raise our son right, was I a good wife, was I a good Sheriff?"

She gripped the front edge of the pew, knuckles whitening as she forbade herself to weaken any further.

Behind her, the doors opened, closed; harsh light flooded the quiet interior, then dimmed as the doors closed:  Willamina's right ear tugged back a little, as it always did when she listened to someone coming up behind her:  a man's tread, she thought:  hard heels – boots – measured, slow, the walk of a strong and confident man, the walk of a man who is coming after ...

Coming after me.

Her hand slipped into a hidden pocket, gripped a bulldog 44's checkered handle.

She felt him come closer, come up beside her ...

"I know someone else who favors a bulldog .44," a voice said, and Willamina squared her shoulders and stood.

An old lawman in an old fashioned black suit lifted her veil and smiled, his iron grey mustache lifting a little at the corners as he did:  his smile was quiet, gentle, more in his eyes than the broadening of his face, but it was there, the smile of a father, the smile of a man who knew what it was to love, and to love deeply.

"Dear God," he whispered, "you are beautiful!"

"I'm glad you think so," she blinked, not quite willing to relinquish her grip on a good handful of frontier justice.

"You'd best set down, darlin'," he said, his voice deep, reassuring; he dropped her veil, cupped her off elbow in a fatherly hand:  the gesture was not possessive, but rather reassuring:  she turned and lowered herself back down in the bottom-polished pew.

His Stetson was beside him, and not on his head:  his weight settled slowly, easily onto the century-old seat, and he looked up at the hand made altar, and at the rough cross on the wall behind.

"I always did like it here," he said quietly.

"Yeah," Willamina whispered.  "Me too."

His hand closed easily around hers, and she squeezed his in reply:  his hand was warm, his grip reassuring, and right now, that's what she needed.

He was still looking at the Cross, the look of a man, remembering.
"You asked a question," he almost whispered, his voice deep in his chest, and her hand tightened a little in his.

"I asked several."  Her head bowed, her bottom jaw thrust out, invisible behind the concealing veil.

"Darlin'," he said in that quiet and powerful voice, "you were absolutely the very best wife your husband could ever have had."  He looked over at her, down at her; he released her hand, ran his arm around her shoulders, drew her close, and she cuddled into him like a little girl cuddling into her Daddy's ribs.

"Was I a good mother?" she whispered, her voice tight, and she felt him nod.

"Yes you were.  Your son is pretty damned proud of you."  She felt his silent laughter.  "Even if you did torment him for usin' too much bleach on his underwear when he went off to college."

Willamina giggled, raised a glove up under her veil to touch her nose.  "They were a bunch of holes held together by a few rotten threads!"

She felt the old lawman with the iron grey mustache nod again.

"You done all right, darlin'," he rumbled again, his arm tightening just a little, the way a big strong Daddy will when he is comforting a sad little girl.  "And you were just a pretty damned good Sheriff.  Even if people were tryin' to kill you all them times!"

"It's a wonder I survived."

She felt his laughter again, strong, silent, the laughter of a powerful man, remembering.

"It's a wonder any of us survived, darlin'."  He laid his cheek over on top of her head.  "Your son and mine both come out with war in his heart and a revolvin' pistol in his hand, and that's one reason you and I both draw breath today!"

"It was my father's revolver," Willamina whispered.  "He was killed with that gun in his hand."

"And he was firin' his sixth round when he was hit.  He went down fightin', darlin', and that's in your blood too, just like 'twas in mine, and just like it's in your son's, and in your daughter's, and in her daughter's blood as well."

"I tried my best."  Willamina swallowed.  "I ... tried ... really I did!"

"Why do you think I come around with my wife's double gun when you was layin' in that shell hole over'n Sandpile?"

Willamina pulled back like she'd been burned, the blood running cold out of her face.

"You!"

"You're damned right, darlin'," the pale eyed old lawman with the iron grey mustache grinned.  "Ain't no way no one is goin' to shoot at my little girl an' git away with it!"

"But the other times – you didn't –"

"Oh, I wanted to, darlin', but you had to show the people what you was made of."

"Yeah.  Thanks a lot."

His arm tightened again.  "Now damned if you don't sound like my Sarah!"  She felt that laughter again, and then he released her shoulders and leaned back, and lifted her veil.  "And you look just an awful lot like her, too!"

"I look like her twin."

"Yep."  That pale eyed smile again, the one that barely lifted the corners of his mustache. 

"Am I Sarah?"

"Nope." 

She felt something radiating from him ... not body heat, but something ...

Is he radiating laughter? she wondered, then dismissed the question as unimportant.

"You know I'm dying."

"We start dyin' the minute we're born, darlin'.  The question isn't are you dyin'."

She quirked her left eyebrow and this time his mustache lifted a little further at the corners.

"Dear God," he whispered, "now that does look like my Sarah!"

"What is the question?"
"Are you livin'?"

She blinked, and then she smiled and nodded a little.

"Uncle Pete used to tell me that."

"Your Uncle Pete is a wise man."

Her lawdawg's ear twitched again, for Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary had both been dead two decades and more, but she considered that maybe to his man, Uncle Pete was still alive.

She reached up and turned over his left hand lapel.

The cloth was a little heavier than she expected when she turned it over, and her gloved fingers caressed the six point star, the star with the single, hand-chased word, SHERIFF.

"I wore that," she whispered.

"Yes ma'am you did," he nodded, "and your son wears it now" – his curled finger came up gently under her chin, raising her face to his.

"I want you to listen to me now," he very nearly whispered, and she blinked to show she understood.

"That badge has never known disgrace nor dishonor, and you have quite a lot to do with that."
She swallowed, blinked again, but this time for the damp in her eyes.

"Your son is an honorable man and he learned that from several people.  You're one.  Your husband's another."  He paused, his pale eyes boring deep into her pale eyes.  "A child learns first and best and the most from the parents, darlin', and you were a damned good mother to a boy who needed one in a bad way."  His mustache lifted a little more at the corners.  "Even if his smallclothes were all full of holes."

Willamina opened her mouth to ask him something more and he was gone – the finger curled under her chin, gone, the warmth, the laughter, gone; she was suddenly alone, very much alone in the little whitewashed church's hush.

A young woman stood up from where she'd been sitting, silent and unnoticed, on the glass-caster piano stool.

"I swiped this stool from a Denver whorehouse," she said offhandedly, turning to glance at it.  "Wish I'd taken the pillow that was on it!"

She looked at Willamina, a very direct, pale eyed look.

"You've got all my fire in you, Willa."

"You're Sarah."

"You know it, honey.  Here I am, all lovely and sass."  She slipped her hand in the pocket hidden in her skirt, caressed the checkered walnut handle of her own bulldog .44.  "By the way, I do like your taste in hideout guns!"

"I had a good teacher."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, honey!"  Sarah laughed.  "Now you came in here asking questions and I have a bad habit.  If you ask me a question I'll give you the honest answer, even if it's not what you want to hear!"

Willamina opened a suddenly dry mouth.

It was somewhat unsettling to see a young and beautiful version of one's self, and Willamina could not help but wonder, Was I ever that beautiful? – and Sarah laughed, an easy, natural laugh, a laugh like running water in a mountain stream, bright and beautiful and liquid.

"Honey," Sarah declared, "not only were you this beautiful, you're still a damned good looking woman, let me tell you!"

This image of her younger self – this mirror image of what she herself used to be – planted her knuckles on her hips and gave her other self a knowing look.

"You heard what Papa said," she scolded.  "We're born to die. Don't worry about that, it happens to all of us.  I died the way I was born, screaming and covered in someone else's blood, just the way Joseph died."

Willamina saw something change in her eyes as she, too, remembered, then a blink and the thought was dismissed.

"He died doing exactly what I taught him to do, and he did it very well, and it was what he was meant to do."

"He didn't leave any children!"  Willamina protested.

Sarah smiled.  "He didn't.  The officer did."
"The ...?"

Sarah laughed.  "His line married into the Greenlees line.  Doctor John's grandfather belonged to the VFW."

"Ye-eesss," Willamina said slowly.

"He was a veteran of a foreign war."

"I kind of suspected," Willamina said suspiciously, and she felt amusement bubbling up inside her, for she figured something was sailing in from left field, and she was right.

"He was a physician with the Wermacht," Sarah smiled.  "Dr. John took his German greatcoat to kindergarten for show and tell one day, and he pointed out the bullet holes like they were something precious."  Sarah shook her head.  "Six holes, and he never got a scratch!"

Sarah pulled a pair of gleaming-black castanets from somewhere, turned her hands, spun on her toes, her skirt flaring, castanuelas snarling –

Willamina blinked, alone again in the little whitewashed church, and then she rose, walked over to the piano bench, laid the backs of her fingers against the smooth, varnished wood.

Stone cold, she thought, then ran fingertips across it, looking for dust.

She turned back to where Old Pale Eyes had been sitting, planted her palm on the smooth seat –

Cold.

She slid her hand to where she'd been, and the pew was still warm with her body's heat.

She straightened.

"So I'm hallucinating now, am I?" she challenged, and then she smelled roses, and she smiled.

"Okay."  She laughed, her laugh easy and natural, filling the silent sanctuary.  "I'm not imagining things."

She looked down at where Old Pale Eyes had been sitting.

A single rose, fresh-cut, dew still beaded on its fragrant petals.

She picked it up, studied it, turned it slowly between lace-gloved fingers, and finally looked up at the rough wood Cross.

"Thank You," she whispered, and then she lowered her veil, and her tread was silent as she walked down the aisle, and out the doors, and down the stairs.

 

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25. ANGEL EYES

Willamina loved to ride, and her Cannonball mare loved to be ridden.

Unlike the Sheriff, the red mare was born to the high country and did not have to acclimatize herself to the thin mountain air: neither did The Bear Killer, the massive black shadow that seemed to appear out of nowhere, pacing along beside his beloved Mistress, only to disappear again.

She'd gone so far as to issue The Bear Killer a commission, and to let it be known that he was indeed trained, though she was intentionally vague on what that training was, or by whom: so far, though The Bear Killer was apparently more than willing to masticate any who dared lay a hand on the diminutive Sheriff, he'd never driven his fighting ivories into human flesh.

Should it ever happen, she knew, he'd damn well better be a commissioned, canine officer.

Cannonball was pacing along a rimrock, sure footed and confident in spite of the world falling away to their left.

Willamina's nostrils flared a little at an unexpected smell –

Sulfur?

Cannonball started dancing, clearly unhappy: she stopped, shook her head, blew, backed a few steps.

Willamina leaned forward, slapped her neck a few times:  "Steady, girl," she murmured, then bent a little more, reached back and shucked the Winchester from its carved scabbard.

She looked down at The Bear Killer, laid her thumb over the hammer, looked around, eyes busy, nostrils flaring, watching her mare's ears –

She'll hear something before I will, she thought, and about that time Cannonball's ears snapped forward, locked onto something, and then laid back, and she backed up again, muttering deep in her chest.

"Okay, girl, back," Willamina murmured, an old familiar fire lighting in her belly:  below her, and now ahead of her, The Bear Killer was bristling up, fur rippling down his spine and across his shoulders, his ears laid back and an impossibly deep, menacing growl rumbling from somewhere twenty feet below where his black-furred paws planted themselves on mountain granite.

I don't see a thing.

I don't hear ... I hear The Bear Killer, but I don't ...

What in two hells is it?

Willamina's lips peeled back and she felt that same reckless, charge-Death's-teeth-and-go-to-hell feeling she got back in the Sandpile, when she picked up an enemy's discarded AK with the Soviet, top-edge-sharpened bayonet, and led a screaming charge into the enemy, laying into them with buttstock and sharpened steel at the absolute top of her lungs, slinging blood and terror in equal amounts until what was left of the terrs dropped their guns and ran like scared little girls.

She got her backside chewed for that one.

She also got a commendation, and the respect, or the fearful suspicion, of every man that followed her that day.

She felt that same recklessness now, as she threw a leg up and slid out of the saddle, as she landed flatfooted on bare mountain granite, as she bent double and catfooted up behind The Bear Killer, as she laid a hand over his back and she looked between his ears.

 

The grizzly reared, jaws open, spittle slinging as he threw his head back and forth, maddened by a bad shot in a foreleg: the wound was infected, swollen painful, the bear's mind was gone: all it saw was enemies, all it knew was to attack.

A pale-eyed Sheriff heard gunpowder cough deep in octagon barrels, knew rifle balls more than a half inch across were screaming through the thin air, aimed by Kentucky-blue eyes and guided by lean, Kentucky-bred mountaineers:  he raised his Sharps, the rifle coming to shoulder as if it were part of his own body, and then he stayed his finger on the curved-steel trigger, teeth locked against the oath that coursed up his throat.

 

Willamina came to her feet, rifle coming up, her eyes locked on the huge ursine and its swinging paws, one vigorous, the other dangling –

Silence –

Her ears still recalled men's angry shouts, the bear's screaming bawl, the sound of a dog –

It's gone –

What in Perdition's fires –

She sank to one knee, beside the bristled, snarling, lip-rippling Bear Killer, bent down to sight between his flattened ears again –

 

"TWAIN DAWG GET BACK HERE!"

The blocky, hard-muscled, black-furred get of Macneil's famous partner Dawg bayed his own challenge to this living mountain of fur and death:  a thousand generations of Tibetan Mastiff blood was afire in his young heart, every guardian that kept its entire Tibetan mountain village safe against all comers focused through the lens of time and came into bright, blazing war-life in this young canine, weaving flat-out between men's legs and around spurred boots and launching through the air and timing his near-horizontal dive to pass under the drawn-back arc of clawed ursine paw:  young teeth drove through fur and found flesh, young muscles clamped the jaw down hard, blood and cartilage and fur and flesh crushed under the curly-black-furred Mastiff's mandibular grip, just as Macneil dropped his empty rifle and drew both Remingtons, oiled steel with a worn blue finish coming up in slow motion and driving round after round after heavily-loaded .44 balls into the bear, close enough to scorch fur and blast smoke deep into its pelt, as the pale eyed Sheriff saw his chance and settled the Sharps sight right where he wanted it and he felt the smooth crescent butt plate shove hard against his shoulder and Willamina powered to her feet and brought her Winchester to shoulder and the bear was gone and the men were gone and her front bead was looking at blue sky and distant snow mantle, and she lowered the rifle's muzzle and realized she was breathing hard and deep and she eased back down into a half squat, her hand seeking The Bear Killer's still-bristled shoulders, and she hissed "What in HELL is going on here?"

She took a step forward, another:  she stood where the man with the Remington stood, studied the ground:  she looked over the rim at a ledge, wide enough ...

"Wide enough for a bear to stand," she whispered.

She looked around ... there, and down there ... two men could ... wait a minute ...

"How did I know two men stood there?" she murmured aloud.

She took another step, turned.

"He stood here.  He had a Sharps.  He stood ... "

She frowned, moved one foot a little, the other a little more ...

"Here," she said.  "He stood right here."

She looked down, frowning.

"He had a Sharps. If he reloaded ... brass would fall here ..."

She looked, then shook her head and laughed.

"How long ago has that been?" she wondered.  "A century?"

Willamina paced back to The Bear Killer, still standing bristled, still glaring, ears still hard back.

Willamina laid a hand across his back and squatted and looked over his head, between his ears, once more.

 

The Remingtons were holstered and he had the curly-furred dog by the hind legs, swinging him hard, then spinning in a circle, until a clot of blood and fur slung out from between gaping jaws and the dog began to breathe, quickly, almost desperately.

He set the dog down, let him recover.

Willamina looked at the black-furred, bloodied, smaller version of The Bear Killer, frowning as she studied him, as he looked squarely at her and barked, once ...

Just the way my Bear Killer did, the first time he saw me.

She tilted her head a little and almost smiled as she noted ...

Just like her Bear Killer, he had two light-brown dots, one above each eye.

 

That night she had supper with Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary, and partway through mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans with bacon and onions, she asked her Aunt Mary what it meant when a dog had light spots over its eyes.

Aunt Mary looked at Willamina, ancient wisdom in her expression, and she looked at Uncle Pete, and the two of them smiled as if at a shared secret.

"Did you crouch down and look over a dog's head," Aunt Mary asked in her gentle voice, "and see something that wasn't there before?"

Willamina looked very directly at her aunt and swallowed.

"Yes."

"Those brown dots on The Bear Killer?"

"Yes."

"They're called Angel Eyes, dearie, and dogs with Angel Eyes can see spirits."

"Spirits."

"If you see The Bear Killer suddenly lock up and start to bristle, and you get down and look between his ears from behind, look where he's looking, you'll see what he sees."

Willamina was suddenly very, very still.

"Sometimes," Aunt Mary said, carefully not looking at her pale eyed niece, "you might see something that scares you."

Uncle Pete waited, watching, his fork forgotten, his meal no longer the subject of his attention.

"And horses?" she asked.

"Cannonball saw it too?"

Willamina nodded.

"What did you see, dearie?"

Willamina looked down at the immense, black, curly-furred canine drowsing beside her chair, and smiled.

"I think I saw some ghosts."

 

 

 

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26.  YOU STAND RIGHT THERE!

 

His name was Finnegan.

His hands were cold, his feet were cold, he wore a heavy canvas coat and an anxious expression, and he double-clutched the next lower gear and deliberately broke traction, swinging the back end of his pickup to get away from the ditch he knew was under the snow, trying to drag him in.

It worked.

He knew where the road was supposed to be – he'd been over the county's Macadam since the first day he was brought back from the Firelands hospital – but right now he was not thinking of anything except getting himself and his truck up the grade.

Finnegan was an EMT with the Firelands Fire Department, a paramedic student and a veteran firefighter – a volunteer, to be sure, but in line for the next paid opening:  he threw himself joyfully into whatever task was needed, whether it was scrubbing hose, hoisting the wet, canvas-jacket sections into the drying tower, whether it was digging out a sewer line by hand, swinging pick and mattock and crumbing out the ditch around the original baked-clay tile:  the Chief hadn't failed to note the lad's drive when it came to fighting a fire, but his level head as well, and when the time came, Finnegan hadn't been afraid to drop the nozzle, seize his partner and drag the pair of them back along the hose line, abandoning nozzle and line both to the structure when the inferno raged fast and untamed and most unexpected around them.

Most chiefs would have raised Hell at losing a good Elkhart nozzle, but this man knew what it was to lose a son, and he was pleased when something yellow and black and moving like a giant, spavined tortoise wallowed out of the front door, then stood upright, became a firefighter hoisting another across his shoulders, both men so hot their turnout coats were steaming, smoking.

The Chief waited until the pair was hosed down to cool them off, waited until they'd gotten the unconscious man on the ambulance cot, got him loaded, waited until young Finnegan half-sat, half-collapsed on the tailboard of the second-in pumper.

The Chief waited until he'd handled what used to be Finnegan's helmet, now a study in black and yellow and warped and bent, its visor twisted and useless, the brim looking like filthy, thermoplastic ruffles.

He pulled a bottle of water from his white turnout coat's patch pocket, twisted off the lid, walked over to the young firefighter sitting hunched and breathing the way a man will when he is trying hard to keep his passions within due bounds, handed him the bottle.

Finnegan looked up, took the water, dumped half of it over his head, tilted the bottle up and drank the rest without taking a breath.

"Thanks, Dad," he gasped.

Finnegan blinked, shook his head, dismissed the memory, looked out at the blizzard screaming past his windshield.

He was needed.

The wind hit the side of his pickup, rocking it a little, blasting a field of opaque white across in front of him:  no, God, don't whiteout on me, not now, I can't stop now, and the wind dropped and he picked up a mailbox, a sag in the wind-laid snow, a pole, and he knew again where he had to be.

The big Ford engine cackled confidently into the blizzard, his headlights glaring back at him, but Finnegan clawed and swore his way to the top of the grade, where the road leveled:  here the wind had half the roadway swept bare, and he made a little better time.

I'm coming, Sharon, he thought. 

He'd been in bed, asleep, he'd been warm and relaxed with Tip-dog, his black-and-white border collie, cuddled up warm against his flank:  he never slept alone, he'd joked, he kept a .45 automatic under the pillow, and he had Tip to help him nap:  Tip sat on the seat beside him, looking around, panting a little, feeling Finnegan's tension, but offering no comment:  she'd twitched, then slid out from under the covers when his phone rang, hitting the floor with a sharp clatter of canine toenails and the happy thump-thump-thump of her tail, for she knew the tone of her Master's voice.

"Yeah," Finnegan mumbled, rubbing his eyes, then he sat bolt upright, his eyes wide, suddenly awake.

"On my way."

He knew how bad the blizzard was.

He knew the squad couldn't make it.

He knew he was closer.

He knew when the dispatcher called him – not as a dispatcher, but as a scared mother whose daughter was fevered, a daughter who was lethargic and not responding – he knew there was only one answer to her querulous "Can you come?" – and so he and Tip-dog sat on the blanket-covered bench seat, 360 cubic inches of rompin' stompin', four-barreled Ford go-power churning through driveshaft and axles and rough tread tires, and finally, finally! – he gave a grunt and Tip's ears came up and he swung the wheel hard left, geared down and swatted the throttle to swing his backside, and bulldozed triumphantly up into Sharon's driveway.

Tip leaped from the truck after him, almost burying herself in the snow:  it didn't matter, she knew snow and she loved snow and she bounced along beside him as he slogged toward the front door.

Sharon was there, wearing a quilted housecoat and a distressed expression:  Finnegan kicked the snow off his boots and pulled off his fur-lapped hat, dropping it and his coat just inside the door, while Tip shook happily and began casting about on the floor, scenting the carpet for any trace of sheep that might need herded.

"She's over here," Sharon said, and her twelve-year-old daughter lay listless on the couch, and Finnegan could see without touching her, she was burning with fever.

"Sharon," he said, his voice urgent, "I'll need four bath towels and a dishpan of tepid water.  I want it just tepid, it has to be almost warm."
Sharon, anxious, not knowing quite what to do, suddenly had a focus, an assignment:  Tip-dog, ears and tail up, went tik-tik-tikking along behind her, not sure quite what was going on, but happy to see if there was anything edible.

Finnegan laid the back of his hand against the girl's cheek.

"You're burning," he whispered, his jaw thrusting out:  he considered for a moment, nodded.

Sharon was back in a moment with a dishpan of water, a towel over her arm.

"Good," Finnegan nodded, taking the dishpan and setting it down beside the couch.  "Help me strip her down.  I need her down to her underpants."

Sharon did not hesitate. 

She and Finnegan sat the girl up and stripped her down, laid her down on the quilt she'd been covered with; Finnegan pulled off her flannel pajama bottoms while Sharon almost ran for more towels.

"Sharon, have you another dishpan?  I'm going to need at least two."

She nodded wordlessly.

"Tepid water in that one too, please, and when you come back" – he grinned, pointed to the floor – "I need you standing right there.  If I'm going to be with another man's daughter and she's in her underwear, I'm damn well going to have her Mama in arm's reach, all the time!"

 

Chief Deputy Barrents shoved his hands in his hip pockets and glared at the crystal tempest outside the double doors of the Sheriff's office.

The wind was blowing up the street, keeping it mostly clear; the concrete walk in front of the outer doors was only just covered, but his experienced eyes knew this would be a deep one.

He also knew Sharon, their dispatcher, had called for an ambulance, and it hadn't been able to make it:  the storm was hard, fast and nasty, and all hands waited for it to abate, for the wind was carrying snow enough to strand a snowplow, and none had a wish to have to rescue the rescuers.

His expression was absolutely wooden as he considered their Irish Brigade, probably doing just like he was:  glaring out into the darkness, willing the storm to abate so they could saddle up and ride to the rescue, as was their job.

He heard the phone ring behind him.

He heard the handset lifted, the quiet, confident voice, the acknowledgement:  he heard buttons tapped, heard the edge to the night dispatcher's voice:  "EMT on scene, no other information."

EMT on scene, he thought.

My God, who would be such an utter absolute fool to go out in a storm like this?

 

"If we use cold water," Finnegan explained, "it'll SLAM the surface capillaries shut and lock the fever in, and she'll cook from the inside out.  Don't want that."

He wrung out the towel, carefully, not wanting to get the floor wet – or any wetter than it already was.

He had three basins, not two, and a towel in each:  Sharon was sitting anxiously on a padded stool, alternately looking with an anxious-mother expression at her limp daughter, and at the confident young man whose voice was a soothing unguent to her soul, a voice like a warm and confident hand gripping hers.  "The trick is to use tepid towels, like this."
He laid the wrung-out towel carefully over the girl's chest and belly, then laid the backs of his fingers against the towel over her right thigh.

"This one's warm.  It's pulled heat from her surface without chilling her.  We'll replace this" – he picked up a towel from the big blue-granite dishpan, probably older than he was, wrung it out:  he lifted the warm towel from her thigh, dropped it into the blue-granite, laid the fresh, almost-warm towel in its place.

"The trick is to keep the heat coming to the surface.  This'll take a while but it works."  He looked at Sharon, gave her a wink and a grin.  "I've pulled this dodge before."

Sharon allowed herself to relax.

A little, just a little, but she started to let go of the screaming fear that her daughter was going to convulse and die like her own sister had done when she was her daughter's age.

Finnegan laid the backs of his fingers against the towel on the girl's belly:  he straightened, looked around, pulled a chair over, sat.

"I remember when my baby sis fevered and went into convulsions," he said softly.  "She had measles and she was out of her head.  Scared the hell out of Mama, she didn't know what to do, and Doc Greenlees showed up and did this very thing."  He nodded to the dull-eyed girl on the couch, her lids barely open, her lips dry.  "Notice her breathing.  A little shallow, a little quick, but not too quick.  We don't need to do anything about that right now."

I can't do a damned thing about her breathing unless she stops breathing, he thought, but that'll reassure Sharon, and right now she really needs that reassurance.

I've got to sell her on the idea that I can cure a rainy day.

He felt his bottom jaw ease out a little.

And if I can't pull this off, I may as well pack up and leave, because my name will be Mudd!

 

Barrents studied the Firelands county map.

He liked maps.

This modern generation relied on their phones and their gadgets and their touch screens, on their GPS and their mapping programs, and he still preferred a topo map and a lensatic compass.

Just like I prefer books to e-readers, he thought, reaching a blunt finger toward the map, thumping it once, planting his fingertip between two intersections on Radford Road.

There.

That's where Sharon lives.

I wouldn't try that road tonight with anything but a damned good saddlehorse and even then I'd think twice in this weather!

"Sir?" 

He turned, regarded the worried young deputy at the dispatcher's desk.

"Sir, should we call the Sheriff?"

Barrents considered for a moment, then shook his head.

"No," he said finally.  "No, let's let her get a good night's rest.  God knows she can use it, after all she's handled over the past few days!"

 

A hand gripped the mechanical pencil, the other hand gripping a black-plastic microphone:  worried eyes looked at the windspeed display glowing on top of the dual-band ham radio.

The severe weather 2-meter net was up and running, reporting to the one individual, Net Control, who was running the directed net:  Net Control was going down the list of check-ins, nearly all certified Storm Spotters, and most of whom had weather stations.

They were monitoring wind speeds and visibility.

Everyone had a scanner, everyone heard the priority traffic that kept responders behind their bay doors, everyone heard the reports of the very few units actually out on the roadway.

Microphone up, button down, professional voice.

"Wind speed is down to three," he said, and several miles away, another mechanical pencil made a quick notation, a greying head nodded.

Net Control ran his eyes down the list of wind speed reports.

The wind was dropping to the west... consistently.

The greying head a few miles away rechecked the windspeed reports and made a decision.

He smiled, reached for the telephone.

It was time to open the bay doors and let men and machines do what they did best.

 

Sharon watched the water shimmering in the big,  ancient, blue-granite dishpan, Finnegan's quiet, confident voice a drone in the distance:  he'd set his Scotchlite-striped warbag down, pulled out his tools, as he called them:  a flashlight to check the eyes, a blood pressure cuff, secure but deflated around her daughter's upper arm, the blue Littman Cardio stethoscope, casually, professionally draped around his neck:  who was it, called it a doctor's stethoscope? – Sharon blinked, shook her head, rubbed her forehead:  someone, someone was mad as a wet hen when she'd said something about a doctor's stethoscope, now that's what everyone called it

"I remember how she and her sister loved to stomp my boots," Finnegan chuckled, and Sharon blinked, returning to the here-and-now suddenly, unexpectedly:  she blinked quickly, then smiled, remembering.

Finnegan always had his Wellington boots polished to a high shine, and her daughters – they were much younger – took a juvenile delight in running up and giving him a happy hug, and then merrily stomping all over his feet – it was something that children did, and it was a good memory, for all that it hadn't been terribly polite, and she'd spoken to her daughters about it, but as she looked at Finnegan's quiet smile, she could not help but laugh a little, just a little.

"Yes they did," she sighed, shaking her head.

Finnegan's fingers searched the girl's wrist, found the pulse, lingered:  he bent her palm over his knuckles, laid his other hand over the back of hers, tilted his head a little, looked at the girl's face as she grimaced, turned her head.

"I'm thirsty," she whispered through dry lips.

"We'll fix you right up," Finnegan murmured gently.  "Let's listen to your chest, just lay still and breathe normally."

Sharon's hands came to her mouth, her eyes big:  Finnegan fitted the Littman's tips into his ears, looked over at the dispatcher, winked.

 

"Sir?"

Barrents turned.

"Sir, snowplows have busted the drifts on Radford Road."
Barrents looked at the map again, nodded.

The dispatcher listened a few moments longer, the telephone welded to his ear.

"Sir, they're at Sharon's place."

"The squad?"

"Behind the plow."

"How is she?"

"I don't know, sir."

Barrents nodded again, turned, gave the young deputy a knowing look.

"Waiting is the hardest part of any operation."

"Yes, sir."

"We'll hear their report when they're enroute the hospital."

"Yes, sir."

 

Finnegan, as usual, was right on time for his duty shift.

Volunteer he might be, but they ran the platoon system, and it was his day to be at the firehouse, ready and responsive:  he hung his coat up, kicked the snow off polished Wellington boots, turned to see the Chief approaching.

He turned, faced the man in the white Bell cap.

Chief and fireman, father and son:  each regarded the other steadily in the lower bay, a bay that had seen steam engines and a team of matched white mares, a bay with brick walls laid up by willing hands, a bay that, in its time, echoed to a multitude of Irish voices.

"Sharon said when you came through her door, you looked like Jesus Christ on Resurrection Day!"

Finnegan felt his ears redden.  "It's a little early for Easter, sir."

"Her daughter's goin' to be fine."

"Yes, sir."

"I understand," the Chief said, raising up on his toes and coming back down, his thumbs hooked in his belt and a knowing look on his face, "that ye've been undressin' the young ladies again."

Finnegan grinned, that slow, knowing grin, the grin of a son who looked much like his red-headed father.

"I did, sir," he said, "and wouldn't you know, I talked her mother into helpin'!"

"Ye don't say!"  The Chief clapped his son on the shoulder.  "We just happen t' have some coffee that's not been drunk yet, suppose you tell your Old Man what happened!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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27. CONSIDERIN'

 

Sheriff Linn Keller turned his six point star over in his hands, studying it as if it were the most important thing in the world.

He sat on the Deacon's bench in front of his log-walled office, his boots set apart, flat planted on the boardwalk:  he held the tin star by two points, between thumb and forefinger, flicked it, watched it spin, flashing in morning's light.

He considered how long he'd worn this hand engraved star, how long it declared his authority for all the world to see:  it had ridden under his coat's lapel the day he went to one knee before a woman with green eyes and asked if he might have the honor of her hand in marriage, it hung beneath his lapel when Doc Greenlees shook his hand and raised a glass of something potent and water clear, congratulating him on the birth of a fine pair of twin:  "To the man of such potency of loin that he sires his young in litters!"

Six symmetrical points, smooth and polished, but not mirror-bright: he blinked, thrust out his jaw, wondered absently if his son would wear this same star.

He hoped so, at least part of him did: the rest of him hoped his son would be smarter than he'd been.

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller loafed casually against the door frame, looking across the street at the steam crane huffing importantly in the chilly air, sounding for all the world like a self-important politician laboring up a long staircase.
"Gonna be a fine building, Sheriff," Mr. Baxter said quietly, and Jacob nodded, once.

"Here you go.  Vanilla coffee.  Your father liked it."

Jacob turned, smiled a little, hooked his finger through the handle.  "Thank you," he said, his voice gentle, a little sad.

Mr. Baxter looked back over at the Italian stonemasons working their magic with polished quartz.

"I miss him too," he said, his voice a little husky.  "He was a good man."

"Yeah."  Jacob took a noisy slurp, swallowed, swallowed again:  smell is the most associative of the senses, and it had been long and long again since he'd had the vanilla coffee he and his father, the pale-eyed Sheriff with the iron-grey mustache, used to drink, back when Jacob was young, when he was tall and lean and just coming into his own manhood.

He snorted.

Hell, you're still tall and lean, he thought wryly, and Mr. Baxter looked at him curiously.

"Something wrong with the coffee?" he asked, and Jacob shook his head.

"No, Mr. Baxter ... no, just ... rememberin'."

Mr. Baxter nodded, wiping his hands absently on the towel he pulled from where he'd draped it over his off shoulder.

"You're worried about your boy."

"Am I that transparent?" Jacob snapped, then frowned.  "I'm sorry. You did not deserve that."

"I saw you take off that six point star and look at it for a long time, Sheriff," Mr. Baxter said quietly, "and I saw you look up the street the way a man will when he remembers."  Mr. Baxter turned to go back inside, reached up, laid a companionable hand on Jacob's shoulder.  "I know what it is to lose a son, Sheriff.  I can't fault a man for being worried about his boy."

Jacob nodded, took another sip of coffee, followed the crane's steam plume as it shot into the air, smiled as it coughed out a wobbling, white steam doughnut into the air.

God willing, he thought, Joseph will come home from that damned War and settle down to raisin' fine tall sons and horses.

He reached up and touched the tips of the six point star that he wore, the hand engraved star with the hand chased SHERIFF across its front.

I'll be most pleased to pin this on his coat, once he gets back.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller opened the polished mesquite box.

"My father's father's father knew the man," Chief Deputy JW Barrents said quietly as she lifted the lid, exposed the six point star sleeping on its blue satin bed.  "When someone who did not have pale eyes was elected, this ... disappeared ... and nobody knew where it went."

Willamina lifted the six point star from its box, turned it over, turned it over again, ran her fingertips delicately over the hand-chased SHERIFF engraved across its equator.

"Old Pale Eyes himself wore that."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.  "Old Pale Eyes?"

She saw amusement peeking like a little boy out the impassive obsidian orbs of her Navajo chief deputy.

"You don't know about Old Pale Eyes."

Willamina shook her head, slowly, studying the blocky man with the tanned, weather-lined face.

"Your Great-Great-Grandfather was second Sheriff here."
Willamina's eyebrows puzzled together.  "Go on."

"The original Sheriff's office stood where we are standing.  It was of logs and it burnt down the night after Old Pale Eyes died.  There was a tornado, and ..."

He looked away, looked back.

"You're probably not interested in what the shaman said about you."

"The shaman?"

He nodded, considered.

"There is much you must learn, Sheriff."  He turned, picked up a rectangular package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string.  "Start with this.  We'll make your introductions in the morning and get you oriented to the Department.  You'll be staying at the Silver Jewel?"

"No.  I'll be staying with Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary."

"You'll want to speak with ..."  He frowned.  "That will wait for morning."

She raised an eyebrow and he saw the change in her eyes, and he knew she was getting her feet under mentally, coming fully into command in her own mind.

Good, he thought.

"Get a good night's rest, Sheriff. Unless things fall clear apart, we'll try not to bother you."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller held the six point star between thumb and forefinger, flicked it, watched it spin.

She laid it flat in her palm, hefted it, studied it as if it were the most important thing in the world.

"Old fellow," she whispered, "if only I could get you to talk!"

Her Uncle Pete chuckled from the doorway. 

Willamina looked up, smiled, and he saw the smile of the sixteen year old girl she'd been when she first arrived, the girl they welcomed as if she were their own.

"That tin star is nearly as old as Firelands."

"Really!"

"Your great-great-great granddad wore that. So did his son, and his son, and his son after that, and he died in office and they had to elect someone else.  I think that's when it disappeared and that was a scandal."  He tilted his head a little.  "By the way, how'd you come by that old slay?"

Willamina considered her reply carefully.  "It came with the office," she said simply.

"Hmp."  Her Uncle Pete wasn't entirely convinced, but he didn't press the matter. "Well, g'night."

 

Aunt Mary smiled a little as Pete's big, callused hand closed gently around hers.

"Where's Willa?" she asked, smiling a little, and she saw her husband's weathered, lined face soften, saw the corners of his mouth raise a little, saw the gentleness come across his face.

"She's ..."
He smiled a little more as he remembered how she looked, sitting at the kitchen table like she used to.

"She's considerin'."

 

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28. IMAGES

 

The photographer let out a yell of sheer terror.

Jacob watched impassively as the natty-dressed Easterner came out from under the black drape at the back of his camera like he'd been stung – he hadn't – his bowler hat slid way over until the man's left ear was bent nearly double; he danced, he jumped, he got his legs under him and he legged it across the street like the Devil himself was a-chase, high-stepping it like as if someone lit the seat of his pants afire.

I slid his stallion's reins through my fingers, slowly, thoughtfully, as the man capered and sprinted and quit yellin' once he'd run far enough to run out of wind, which was most of the length of the street:  the fact that the man came to a stop in front of the firehouse, and three of the Irish Brigade were pointing, guffawing, and taking turns bending over double with mirth and merriment, may have also contributed to the man's coasting to a stop and ending his terrified tremolors.

Sarah batted her eyes and looked very innocent, and Jacob, looking at his pale-eyed sister, remembered how a moment before she was glaring pure poison at the camera, as if she wished she could walk over and visit violence upon the ground glass lens and everything attached thereto.

And for his part, The Bear Killer sat, looking a little disappointed:  he'd come up behind the photographer and thought to greet the man companionably, never minding that the fellow was presenting his hind quarters as if for inspection, and as The Bear Killer was a dog, and ... well, a shove and a sniff and suddenly this stranger was jumping, running and yelling, and The Bear Killer tilted his head a little at these unexpected histrionics:  he stood up, yawned, turned around and sauntered down the street, then down the alley.

Maybe he'd have better luck cadging some biscuits and gravy at the kitchen's back door.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned back in the high-back office chair, frowning a little as he considered the framed portraits, the glass-plate prints, the displays, on the inner walls of his sanctum.

There – across from the desk, to the right of the door – a grinning man in police blue, wearing what his pale eyed Mama called "that eight point milkman's hat" – his grandfather, who'd been killed by a fleeing felon, rammed by the car he was trying to stop.  That was his revolver, in the display box beside his portrait, an old Victory Model Smith & Wesson.

Linn's eyes narrowed as he remembered using that same revolver, the day someone tried to machine gun his Mama in front of the Sheriff's Office, how he'd spun out the door when the would-be assassin lowered his muzzle to change magazines, and he'd put six holes in the man's face, placing his shots with the same deadly concentration as he'd shown in practice:  the action of that old Smith was glass smooth, and he was used to shooting it, and he'd gotten six into the murderer before he collapsed like a baggie of ground beef.

He remembered walking over to the man and kicking him hard in the ribs and then bending almost double and screaming into the bloody mess that used to be a face, "NOBODY SHOOTS MY MAMA!"

I was ... what? 

Ten?
Not twelve yet.

Mama killed her first when she was fourteen, I think.

She used that same pistol, too.

He blinked, shook his head:  a memory, he thought, nothing more, and then he leaned back and his eyes wandered some more.

He looked at his Mama's portrait and smiled.

She looked the way he remembered her ... confident.

Confident, young, and beautiful.

"I miss you, Mama," he whispered to the empty air, and then he looked a little to the right, and then to the wall on his right.

He considered the picture he'd studied many times.

Old Pale Eyes himself, with his Rey del Sol, a Mexican stallion – Paso Fino, if he recalled rightly – there beside him, Jacob, and on the other side, a woman who looked like she'd be pleased to blast the photographer's box to hell and gone.

That, he knew, was Sarah Lynne McKenna, the pale eyed, troublemaking sister to Jacob.

Linn smiled again, remembering how he'd used a magnifying glass to study the original, glass-plate image, convinced as a wee child that his Mama was a time traveler or something magical, for she and Sarah looked enough alike to be twins.

He'd studied the others in the picture and always with disappointment, for he looked nothing like either the pale eyed Old Sheriff, nor his pale eyed son Jacob.

 

I'd added a bench to the front of my log Sheriff's Office.

It was called a Deacon's bench, but it's doubtful if an officer of that rank ever parked his carcass thereon:  no, this was a gathering place for lawmen and outlaws alike, for hard men with the bark on, for gunfighters and bounty hunters and sometimes, sometimes for the men they hunted.

It was not uncommon for men to come and set down beside him, and talk, or just set; there were often shavings scattered about, for men whittle when they set, and sometimes boys would come and set, and it was a source of local amusement that this pale eyed master of men (me) would talk with schoolboys and listen solemnly to their discourses, answer their questions, show them how to use a whet stone, or how to whittle out chain links from a stick of soft pine.

I would tack wanted dodgers above the bench; I'd just tacked one up and set myself down when a man of my acquaintance drove up.

His horse was still fresh looking; he'd come down the street at a walk, but that's not what caught my eye.

No, the man on the buggy's seat was hunched, almost crushed, utterly dejected:  he looked like a man under an unbearable weight, and when he drew up in front of the Sheriff's office, when he climbed out of the buggy with the expression of a man in utter misery, the Sheriff knew he bore hard news of a very personal variety.

He sat, shoulders rounded, head bowed:  I waited, knowing the man would speak when he was ready, and he did.

"I murdered m'wife," he said without preamble.

I nodded, once, but made no other move.

"Th' Doc said she'd never get better," he said, his voice rough, the voice of a man who didn't know how to cry and didn't care to learn, but a man whose throat was raw from stifling the agonies that tried to tear free of his restraint.

"She was in such pain, Sheriff.  Such pain."  He lowered his head into his hands, then jerked up, looking at his hands with surprise.

"I strangled her, Sheriff.  She was the dearest thing I knew but I couldn't stand to see her hurtin' that bad, so I ..."

He closed his eyes and groaned, then bent over again, holding his head in both hands and rocking a little.

I reached up and laid a hand on his shoulder.

It wasn't the grip of a lawman taking someone into custody, it was the understanding of a man who knows what it is to lose a wife.

"I killed my Esther," I said quietly, and surprised I was at the words that fell out of my mouth.

"I killed her," he gasped.  "Sheriff, I killed her, she was the dearest thing I've ever known" – he held up his hands, looked at them with horror, remembering – "I strangled her, I remember what her throat felt like –"

He looked at me, his eyes were hollow, haunted, twin wells of horrors only he could see.

"My God, Sheriff, what am I gonna do?"

"Tell me again why you did that."

He slowed his breathing a little, stared off across the street.

"She was a-hurtin', Sheriff.  She was screamin' until she couldn't scream no more and the Doc dosed her with laudanum and it didn't hold long, he said 'twas a woman's cancer and not a damned thing he could do, and when even that damned sauce wouldn't hold her she begged me to end her pain and God forgive me I did!"

I nodded, my hand still on his shoulder.

Was I to take him into the calabozo and lock him behind steel bars, was I to haul him in front of His Honor the Judge, was I to snug up a noose of thirteen turns around his neck, was I to beat him with my fists or horse whip him bloody, I could not punish him any worse than he was punishing himself.

Once he got his say he kind of sagged like he'd run out of wind.

"I killed my wife," I said quietly, "and not a day goes by but I wonder if I shouldn't have me a good breakfast of gunbarrel."

He looked at me, misery etching his face, but I had his curiosity and I knew I had to pull him in like a fish, right now, or lose him forever.

"I sired a child on her and her on in her years, and damn me for my hellish lust!"

My voice was harsh, almost a hiss, and I flogged myself again with my words.

"The child wouldn't come and she tore and started to bleed bad and she told the Doc to take the child if it meant her life.

"He did, and it did, and my Esther is dead as a result.  He gutted her like a fish to get the child out.  She's alive and she's a beautiful little thing and I killed my wife but not with my hands."

He nodded again, staring across toward the schoolhouse, seeing something sensible only to him.

"I was gonna hang m'self out in the barn," he said softly.  "Didn't want m'boy to find me.  He don't know I kilt his Mama. I don't think he'd understand."

"Did he hear her screaming in pain?"

Again that slow, numb, nod.

"Your wife didn't struggle none when you strangled her."

He shook his head.

"What you did was a mercy, friend, and in the eyes of the law you did no crime.  She was dead already, she just hadn't quit breathin' yet and there's no law ag'in killin' a corpse."

He nodded again.

We sat there for a while, two men immersed in grief, and finally he stood and so did I and he thanked me for my kindness and we shook hands, and he walked slow with shoulders rounded and his head bowed towards the buggy.

Jacob came out not long after with a boy, a lad red eyed with weeping and wet tracks down his face, and they set down with me.

"Luther," Jacob said, "could you tell the Sheriff what you just told me?"

"I killed my Mama," Luther said in a raspy voice, almost exactly the same voice his Pa just used.

"Go on."

"I couldn't stand her screamin' with pain so I pi'zened her."

I nodded.

I knew he had, for I'd heard his confession to Jacob, right before his distraught father drove up and poured out his guilt like he'd pour out a bucket of water.

I told the boy the same thing I'd told his Pa, and he told me many of the same things his Pa said:  I knew the woman was not well, and I'd heard the women folk talking like women will, sayin' she had that female cancer and she was dyin' and she knew it, and the poor thing was in such pain, and wasn't she the perfect lady to step outside the church before taking a tilt of laudanum for her agonies.

I told the boy the same as I'd told his Pa, that there is no law ag'in killin' a corpse, that his Mama was dead, she just hadn't quit breathin', and he'd done a kindness to end her pain.

I made sure Digger knew to put the woman in a high neck dress before she was planted, and I recall father and son, side by side, their shoulders crushed with the weight of their own guilt as they stared at the box just before we lowered her into her eternal bedchamber.

I went home that night and looked at our bed, the bed I shared with Esther, and I wondered again if I shouldn't just stick the muzzle of my revolving pistol in my mouth and punish myself for the last and final time for having murdered my wife with my lust.

I ended up flogging myself with that memory for the rest of my entire life.

I never did forgive myself.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller looked at the pale eyed lawman with his hand up beside the golden stallion's head.

It was a black and white print, but he knew this was the famous Rey del Sol, a Paso Fino stallion and one of the Old Sheriff's favorite mount:  he knew the horse was a shining gold color, just as the pale-eyed Sarah Lynne McKenna's beloved Snowflake-mare shone like burnished obsidian.

"Old man," Linn murmured, "what was it like back then?"

The picture made no reply.

Linn leaned back in his chair, stared at the wall between the pictures, remembering ...

 

"Tank, hold," he'd said quietly, and the Belgian Malinois with the Kevlar vest, embossed with the six point gold star, lowered his head a fraction, the hair rippling up the length of his spine:  his lips were peeled back from his teeth, and Linn could feel, but not hear, the menacing invitation to hell rumbling around in the big tan dog's chest.

He looked to his left.

Paul Barrents – his father was Willamina's chief deputy – raised his hand to his face:  two fingers to his eyes, a turn of the wrist, three fingers up:  Linn knew there were three marks.

Three bad guys.

Three would be given one, and only one, chance to surrender.

The Bear Killer waited patiently at the corner of the building, down the alley:  Linn knew if they came out the back, The Bear Killer would alert, would look to Linn:  given the release, he would be as an arrow from a drawn bow, and would run to the attack.

Linn looked up the street.

One of the Siemer boys was squatted behind the checkers barrel in front of the general store, and Linn saw the barrel of a rifle sticking up beside him:  he saw binoculars swing his way, and Linn leaned his shotgun against his shoulder, brought his hands up in front of him.

Siemer knew sign language, and Linn did too:  a quick flurry of fingers – What do you see? – the binoculars swung over to the library, then back.

Three, he signed back: 2R 1S.

Linn swore, quietly, powerfully.

Two rifles and a shotgun, he thought:  he turned, passed the intel on to Barrents.

It would be easy enough to get to the building.

Getting inside might not be quite so easy.

Linn saw Siemer raise his rifle and he knew from the way he was raising the rifle he intended to take a shot.

Linn looked at Barrents, rose, drove into a full-on sprint, the Navajo chief deputy less than three paces behind:  they were halfway to the library when the rifle cracked, surprisingly loud, echoing down the empty street.

Tank coursed along beside him, his fur bristling ahead of and behind his vest, keeping pace and keeping silent, eager and ready to go to war as he'd done before.

They heard The Bear Killer's screaming roar and the library door swung open and a man ran out, rifle out ahead of him, and Linn thrust his Winchester out in front of him and took the shot and the man's head sprayed red and he collapsed like he'd been ball batted between the lug and the horn and another came out the doorway and met another Winchester slug and Tank's chest-deep bay filled the cold air and they heard a scream inside, a scream of utter, paralyzing terror, and they ran in, ready to kill anything with a weapon, and they saw the librarian and two girls huddled under a desk and The Bear Killer stood on top of a crotch-soaked kid with a shotgun barely out of fingertip's reach, and The Bear Killer's fangs six inches from the kid's throat.

"Behind you!" the librarian screamed, pointing, and Linn dove, somersaulting, came up with rifle level, finger on the trigger, the front bead of his mother's .30-30 steady on a meth-ravaged face, a face with eyes big as boiled eggs and just as white, a face with a slack, drooling mouth and a whimpering voice, begging them not to let it get him, don't let it get him, please call it off, please!

The squad rolled up as soon as they radioed the all-clear; Tank and The Bear Killer trotted along beside the lawmen, tails high and happily swinging:  the prisoner was introduced to the back seat of a cruiser, and taken to the lockup, while Sheriff Linn Keller and Chief Deputy Paul Barrents proceeded to process the scene.

 

Linn blinked, still leaned back in his office chair.

He looked at the desk, at the report on top of the desk, and he re-read the words he himself had typed.

"Subject begged us not to let something invisible get him – invisible to us, but quite real to him.

"He said he was facing a white police dog with yellow eyes, and it was an inch from his nose.

"He said he could smell its breath and feel the saliva that drooled from its open jowls and he said he will never, ever forget how the fur wrinkled up between its laid-back ears."

Linn closed his eyes, rocked a little, then turned and looked back up at the black and white print of Old Pale Eyes, a print taken from a glass plate, exposed right outside what was now a quartz-and-granite Sheriff's office.

"I didn't write everything in my report," he said to the framed image.

"I didn't write that when I came in, when I rolled and came up with my rifle level and ready to take the shot ..."
He paused, his jaw thrusting out as he considered, then he looked back at the pale eyed picture.

"I didn't put anything down about seeing our White Wolf, and how it turned to look at me before it turned into a twist of fog that screwed down into the floor and was gone."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Posted (edited)

29. DEACON'S BENCH

I was down on my Prayer Bones, screwing the lock nut down on the concrete-bedded bolt, when the shoes came walking up to me.

I snugged down the nut – not too tight, the bench had cast iron legs, and cast is brittle:  I'd broken a cast goose neck fitting, tightening it down with a breaker bar when I changed the thermostat in a Dodge pickup one time:  our local parts store gave me a goose neck fitting off a '32 Chevy of some kind, it mated up perfectly but I didn't use the breaker on it – anyway, I removed the socket and said "I recognize the brogans.  Doc, how ye be?"

I'd heard the phrase when I was yet a boy, when Mama and I went back East so she could put a bunch of flowers on a guardrail on route 13, back in Trimble, where Granddad was killed by that prison escapee.

I have no real recall of who said it, but I'd grafted it onto my personal vocabulary, and for whatever reason, Dr. John Greenlees, Senior, was amused by it, so I'd used it with him, ever since.

I stood, grinning.

"Do you like the Deacon's Bench?"  I asked and he looked at the brand-new, shiny-green-painted park bench.

"Is there," he asked carefully, perhaps a ... historical reference here?"

I laughed.

"There is," I said, turning and parking my backside.  "Have a set."

Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., sat cautiously, as if afraid it might break under his weight – small chance of that, the man weighed less than I do, and I am a lean waisted man.

"Old Pale Eyes," I explained, "built a Deacon's bench in front of the original Sheriff's Office, the log building that stood years ago."

"Hm," Doc acknowledged neutrally.

"It was a gathering place for men great and small, the occasional schoolboy, drifters, bounty hunters, brother lawmen.  They'd whittle and talk matters over til hell wouldn't have it.  From the Old Sheriff's journals I gather they had some serious talk about gunfights and what worked and what didn't.  His son Jacob wrote of listening closely to the words of men who'd survived such encounters, and the Old Sheriff wrote of Jacob's ability to turn invisible as he stood there and listened."

"Your mother had that gift," Dr. John said softly.

"I know."  I leaned forward, set my elbows on my knees.

"My son called yesterday."

I turned my head and looked at the man, then leaned back and turned a little.

His son was on Mars, with my niece – they were married, matter of fact – the Martian Second District colony elected to call itself Firelands, and my pale eyed niece was the second Sheriff of Firelands, only on another planet, God knows how these coincidences kept piling up.

"What did Littlejohn have to say?"

Doc gave me an amused look.

"You know he nearly went into the ministry."

I raised an eyebrow, shook my head. "No.  No, I never knew that."

Doc nodded.  "He said it would be ... ironic ... if he went into Seminary with that nickname."

I laughed.  "Trust me to cause trouble!"

"That's right," Doc smiled, his whole face lifting as he did, "you're the first one to call him that!"

"What else did he have to say?
"You'll like this."  Doc rubbed his palms slowly together.  For all that it was spring, it was still kind of chilly, and I recognized the thoughtful move of a man wishing to experience the sensation of cool air and warm hands.  "He wanted me to know that he used what I taught him, and it worked."

I raised an eyebrow again.

I recall Mama used to talk about that.

She said few things will please a man more than going to him and telling him that you'd used something he taught you, and it worked.

"What did he do?"

Doc's gaze wandered across the street, seeking the distance past what used to be the livery, behind the Silver Jewel diagonally across from us.

"There was a penetrating chest injury.  He used a sheet of foilplast to fashion a flutter valve."  He was quiet for a long moment.  "If I remember correctly, your pale eyed ancestor wrote of such an intervention on the train, back when."

It took me a moment, but I found the memory, nodded.

"Was he able to save him?"

Doc nodded.  "He saved that one."

"Implies he couldn't save another."

Doc nodded again, looked at his own hands.

"It's a shame there is such a distance between here and there," he said sadly.  "I'd love to have an actual conversation, instead of watching his video and then dictating a reply."

"There's no substitute for Dear Old Dad."

"I know."

"Sounds like he remembered what to do when it hit the fan."

Doc nodded again.

"As I recall, you have that same gift."

"So did your mother."

"She did that."

"She was a damned good nurse, too."

My head turned a little more quickly than I'd intended and I felt something pop in my neck.  It does that sometimes.

"She never said much about her nursing career."

"It was quite brief," Doc admitted, "and it pretty well ended when her picture came out in the paper with a baby on her hip and a cocked pistol in her extended hand.  She prevented an abduction and saved a woman's life, but the hospital didn't want their nurses in uniform looking like a gunfighter."

I grunted.

I've dealt with such folk before and had little liking for them.

Doc looked down at his hands, examined his palms, spread his fingers a little.

"John was distressed when he made the video," he said softly.  "He said he couldn't stop the second man's life from dribbling out from between his fingers."

"You've got good hands, Doc.  So does your son.  You're both pretty damned good at what you do."

"Sometimes," Doc admitted candidly, "it feels like I'm an utter incompetent.  That's how John said he felt, then he admitted he'd done a great deal of good, and he attached detailed files I have yet to finish."

He took a long breath.

"He is doing very good work there, Sheriff.  Very good work."

"I'd expect nothing else from the man capable of winning the Sheriff's hand."

"She's pregnant again."

I felt my own grin split my face.  "Now by golly that calls for a drink!  We have coffee and I didn't make it!"

Doc looked at me curiously.  "Is that another historical reference?"

"It is," I laughed.  "Let's go inside, it's gettin' chilly out here!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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31.  PRESUMPTUOUS

 

"Shewif?"

Sheriff Linn Keller frowned at the stick he was whittling, at the three links he'd freed from the parent wood, dangling now as a short chain:  he considered the little boy who'd come up and set down beside him, restless, squirming on the Deacon's bench, the way little boys will.

He considered that he'd waited for the lad to speak up:  it took the length of that last chain link, and when it fell free, fell and dangled, the boy spoke up.

He looked over at the lad with the expression a man reserves for little boys, the expression of a man who remembers what it was to be small, and to sit beside someone big.

"Mama wats ta mewwy you."

"Oh she does, does she?"

The lad nodded vigorously, his expression sincere and without guile.

"Did she send you here to tell me this?"

A vigorous and prolonged shake of the head, which made the lad dizzy:  he shook his head some more, for the joy of getting dizzied, and he giggled a little, and swayed:  the Sheriff's hands on his chest, and his far shoulder, kept him from getting terribly dizzied.

The Sheriff waited as the little fellow recovered.

"You're Beaver Watson's boy."

The lad nodded and the Sheriff saw the hidden sadness the lad tried to control.

His father was killed not ten miles from here, casualty of a drunk driver.

The Sheriff should have taken some satisfaction in knowing the culprit was caught, prosecuted and imprisoned, but that didn't bring a good man back and it didn't restore a husband and father to his rightful place, and so he looked at the lad grinning up at him and he asked, "Son, can you wink?"

The boy looked surprised, wide-eyed, and the Sheriff dropped one eyelid casually shut:  the boy screwed up half his face, squinting, and the Sheriff said "That's not bad now, two for the price of one!"

"Is my son troubling you, Sheriff?" a woman's voice asked, and the Sheriff rose, swept off his Stetson.

"He and I were discussing manly subjects of great importance," Linn said with an absolutely straight face.

"I'm sure you were."  She reached a maternal hand for her son's shoulder and Linn said "Might I enlist your aid and assistance?" and she looked at him, surprised.

"I, um, okaaay, I suppose," she said hesitantly.

"I would ask your advice but I'm also empty. Might I have the two of you for lunch guests?"

The boy jumped excitedly on the balls of his feet, bouncing like his legs were steel springs, his expression eager, and the Sheriff laughed to see it.

"When I was his age," he said, "my Mama said I was a walking appetite on two hollow legs."

"Oh, he is that," his mother agreed.  "Just like his fath –"

She stopped, looked away, looked down.

"I understand the Silver Jewel has quite a good lunch special today."  His expression was solemn, his voice impassive:  "They even have banana splits, or so I've been told."

 

They walked down the alley beside the Sheriff's office, comfortably full, and the mother was right:  the lad ate well indeed, and the Sheriff had no doubt at all that his shark's digestive system would have his hollow legs emptied before daybreak.

He'd asked the boy if he'd ever ridden a genuine, fire breathing, rompin' stompin' hard kickin', crow hoppin', sunfishin' genuine Western buckin' bronco, and the boy's eyes got big and hopeful and he shook his head and the Sheriff squatted down and put his finger to his lips, and winked.

"Don't tell your Mama, but neither have I," he said quietly, "but I've got somethin' just as good," and they walked down the alley to the little stable behind the Sheriff's office and the lad's mouth went round as the Sheriff spun a saddle blanket on his Paso's back and then dropped the stirrup over the saddle horn.

"You always want to hang your stirrup," he said, "and you want to carry five beans in the wheel.  Watch what happens when I hoist this kak."

He swung the saddle up and over and sure enough, the stirrup fell free and smacked his holstered sidearm unerringly on its back.

"What's five beans in the wheel?" the boy asked, and the Sheriff laughed a little as he tended the several steps to get Streaker saddled to his satisfaction.

"That," the Sheriff said, "is the subject for some formal education.  Up you go!"

He took the lad under the arms, hoist him into the saddle:  "Stand fast," he said, and proceeded to shorten the stirrups to fit the little fellow's inseam.

The Sheriff patted his Steaker-horse a few times, murmuring as he went around behind, then matched up the starboard stirrup for length:  he knotted the reins, hung them over the saddle horn.

"Now Streaker here is knee trained," he cautioned, "and he's not bitted, so just leave the reins right where they are."

The lad nodded solemnly, grabbing the saddle horn.

Linn backed the gelding out, stopped and looked at the mother.

"Did you drive," he asked, "or may I walk you home?"

"We walked."

He smiled.  "I know a shortcut."

 

He looked down at the lad, sound asleep in his bed:  the Sheriff carried him in, and he and the mother undressed the lad and tucked him in:  they drew back, watching the child relaxed in slumber, safe in his own bunk.

"A boy needs a father," Linn said quietly.

"Yes he does," she agreed.

Linn considered a moment, still looking at the sleeping child.

"It would be presumptuous if I were to say a widow needed a husband."

"It would be presumptuous if I were to say a widower needed a wife."

The pale eyed lawman looked at the young woman, a woman who'd been a classmate since first grade, someone he'd known all of his life, someone he'd rejoiced to see well married to a friend of his.

"He was so happy riding your horse," she whispered.

"The outside of a horse," he quoted, "is good for the inside of a boy."  He bit his bottom lip, frowned a little.

"I think Streaker liked it too."
"I think he did."

Linn turned to face the woman, and she turned to face him.

"Anna Mae," he said, "would you like to discuss being mutually presumptuous?"

"Linn Keller," she said, "I would."

He nodded.  "I would call on you again, if I may."

"I would like that."

Linn swallowed, feeling suddenly awkward.

"If you will excuse me," he said gently, "I must adjust my stirrups.  I'm afraid I would look rather silly riding with my knees up beside my ears."

 

 

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32.  CLIFF NOTES

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller stood in water just shy of belt buckle deep.

He wasn't wearing a belt buckle.

Nor a belt.

He was looking up at a steep angle at the figure of a woman.

She'd stood there before, and he'd admired her beauty:  the first time he saw her thus, poised for the dive, she'd still been a maiden.

He watched and his chest tightened a little as she stood, young and beautiful and shockingly naked, coming up on her toes and raising her arms, palms up, describing a slow raising of her hands to the absolute zenith, as if offering handsful of the thin mountain air to the mountain gods:  she came down on her heels, bent her knees and launched herself almost horizontally, bending to touch stiff-legged toes before snapping out straight and cutting into the cold mountain pool like a knife.

Jacob knew this pool well and he knew it was well more than deep enough for such a dive, and the first time he took his Annette in his arms to know her as a man knows a woman, was after this first dive.

Now he looked, and now he beheld:  Annette, his wife, his world:  no longer a maiden, not for some long time now, but just as gloriously naked, and just as absolutely beautiful.

He watched her arms raise, palms up, as she swept cupped handsful of the cold mountain air upward, and raised up on her toes, and he watched her come down and flex her knees a little, and he watched his wife, his world, this mother of his children and the other half of his heart, he watched her shoot almost horizontally from the cliff face and snap into a quick tuck-and-straighten and cut into the water like a pale skinned knife.

God Almighty, he thought, I do love this woman! – and it was not a profane use of the Almighty's name in vain ... no, this was a prayer, a most sincere utterance to the Creator, words and sentiment he meant to the absolute foundation-stones of his eternal soul.

 

Her name was Willamina, and she was seventeen years old:  slender, graceful, far stronger than she appeared, thanks to a year with her Uncle Pete and Aunt Martha:  she could, and did, sling bales of hay, dig post holes by hand, change a flat truck tire, help her Uncle rebuild the lower end of a Farmall tractor engine, she reveled in honest labor, knowing it would help her succeed in Basic Training to come.

She stood on the rock outcrop over a mountain pool, a place isolated and not well known, save only to a very few trout fishermen:  she'd cleaned up what little trash was left behind on its sandy and rock shore, she'd swum the pool, she'd surface dived and satisfied herself she could make a dive from here in perfect safety – as long as she held a little to the left, for there was a skull buster of a boulder had fallen from the cliff face, and now hid in the clearwater depths just to the right of center.

Willamina swept her arms up, cupping her hands as if offering handsful of cold air to the mountain gods:  she took a long breath, blew it out through pursed lips, took another:  she came up on her toes, closing her eyes for a moment, picturing the dive, timing the thrust of her slender, well shaped legs to clear the obstructions below, a little more right leg than left, to aim her away from the underwater murderer.

Her dive was flawless, her execution perfect; she cut into the water and immediately snapped into a hard arch, came up and powered for shore, for the two teen-aged boys who ran, laughing, with her towel and her clothes.

They were encumbered by her belongings and a rifle.

She was encumbered by absolutely nothing at all.

The two bounded, laughing, down the trail, expecting wails of distress from behind:  they expected they would jeer and tease and torment and make demands of her, and finally they would throw her clothes, probably back into the pool, and they would run away, laughing, and next day at the Firelands High School they would make known what sport they'd had with this standoffish girl known as Ironpants.

Willamina had other ideas.

Silent she ran, and swift:  she vaulted a log, twisted to miss an extended, thorny branch:  she caught up with the slower of the two, the one that held her clothes:  she seized him around the neck, brought her legs up and locked around his waist, grabbing her other hand over top of his head, into his eye sockets and gouging deep, hard, viciously:  she heard a deep, savage growl, just before his yell of pure pain and panic, and realized that feral growl was from her own throat, just before he twisted and tried to throw her off.

The other stopped, skidded, turned:  his jaw dropped and he raised the rifle unconsciously, not quite pointing it, not really knowing what to do.

Willamina released her first victim and charged.

She saw the second offender's eyes widen and he raised his rifle as if to block her, holding it at an extended port arms:  Willamina was at a wide open sprint in three steps and she twisted, thrusting, focused her rage through her right heel, driving her leg in under the upraised walnut barrier and driving him full in the gut.

She seized the rifle from his nerveless fingers, tore it free, raised it and drove the butt plate hard down across his face, smashing his nose:  she hit hard enough to feel bone shatter, she turned, charged the first one, wiping at the bloodied fingernail gouges above his eyebrows, and hit his knuckles and face hard with a butt thrust, backed by every rangy ounce of her lean-muscled frame.

An hour later, the Sheriff sat in conference with two bloodied, bruised boys with bandages on their faces and both eyes blackened:  he sat with their parents, and he sat with a bristling young high school girl who looked like she would like to seize the conference table and use it to beat the offending pair about the head and shoulders.

Sheriff Tom Wilson was a soft spoken man, and a man of uncommon wisdom; he knew his people, and he knew how to draw lessons out of the unexpected, and he knew how to coax the truth out of an unwilling subject:  he'd looked up at his closed office door at the sound of raised voices without, at the dispatcher's protest – "You can't go in there!" – then his door thrust open and an irritated girl he recognized came stomping into his office, threw two pair of blue jeans on his desk and slammed a bolt action .22 down across them.

She'd told him what the pair did, and she told him what she did, and she added that she intended to let it be known that she would not be trifled with, and she told him why, in very plain language.

Sheriff Tom Wilson asked her to have a seat, and to run all that past him in low gear, and he listened very closely as seventeen-year-old Willamina Keller explained to him exactly what happened to her, back East, and how she intended to establish the reputation that anyone who tried to pull anything at all with her, would come out in second place, and she did not care whether the law liked it or not!

The boys' parents were not happy that their progeny ran off with a girl's clothes; they were less happy that Willamina spread their noses over most of their face, and that when the Sheriff brought them down off the mountain, they were without their drawers, but when Willamina suddenly leaned forward and laced her fingers together and turned her pale eyes on them like she was swinging a gun turret to bear, and when Willamina began speaking in a quiet voice, they felt their blood cool several degrees.

"I," she said, "will not be coerced, nor will I be forced.  I will not be bullied or swindled, I will not be strong armed into giving them a peek, a look, a feel, a fondle, a kiss or anything else."

Her voice never raised; her words were quiet, but they carried ice with them as she spoke.

"I know what it is to be tortured and I know what it is to be raped, and if anyone is foolish enough to try anything at all with me" -- her trimmed index fingernail tapped the tabletop in emphasis with her words -- "you may guarantee that next time I will not stop with one butt stroke to the nose."  She looked at the Sheriff and she looked at the parents and she looked at the perpetrators.

"Next time anyone, and I don't care who it is, tries anything at all that is illegal, immoral or improper, you will need a body bag.  Are there any questions?"

The silence was profound enough Sheriff Wilson could hear his perpetually ringing ears hissing like a field of crickets in the middle of a hot August afternoon.

"I intend that my daughters should be safe as well."  She looked slowly around the table.  "When the time comes, I will teach them every dark skill I have learned and will ever learn in this lifetime and that includes how to kill by whatever means necessary.  I am the weapon.  Everything else is a tool for my use."

She swung her pale gun-turret gaze to the guilty pair.

"I won't tell anyone I was the one that broke your noses.  If word gets out, it'll be you that lets it.  Deal?"

The pair nodded sullenly.

"I think we're done here."  Willamina rose.  "And now if you'll excuse me, I feel dirty.  I'm going to go take a bath!"

 

Marnie Keller, granddaughter of the late Sheriff Willamina Keller, leaned back in her chair and stared at the portrait of the pale eyed woman in a tailored blue suit dress, with tall and muscled men in uniform flanking her on either side.

Marnie remembered a deep mountain pool, one her Grandma showed her, one with a boulder on the right side – "Dive a little to the left," she'd said, "like this" – and she'd swept her arms up, and come up on her toes, and then dipped her knees and fired out horizontally, like a torpedo being launched into the thin mountain air, and Marnie marveled as her Grandma cut into the water like a knife, and then came up, slinging the water from her eyes with a toss of her head.

Marnie blinked at the memory.

She never gave it any significance before, but ... when her Grandma came out of the water, she'd slung the water from her eyes, and then she looked very precisely, very deliberately, at a particular location on the rocky, sandy shore.

Marnie went back many times and dove from that rock, perfecting her dive until she, too, cut into the water cleanly, and though it was known that she went, she was never, ever, not even once, troubled by anyone.

Anyone.

At all.

Ever.

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34. DOUBT

 

"Do you remember when we were in football?"

A chuckle, a nod, a hand raises a heavy glass mug, tilts.

Beer, cold, fragrant, flavorful, sliding down a thirsty man's throat after a hard day's work.

"I recall she used to run right with us."

"Right with us, hell!  She used to run us into the ground!"

"Only once."

They shared a knowing look, remembering the day one of their young, testosterone-fueled fire-eaters challenged the Sheriff to a race and she said "Sprint or distance?" and he chose distance.

Four chose to run with them:  two, choosing to side with the challenger; two, following, just to see what would happen.

All four who ran with them, ended up dropping out, coasting to a stop, walking back:  the Sheriff and the football star ran grimly, side by side, for the agreed-upon distance.

The entire football team ended up following, at least as far as the four who dropped out; once gathered back into the group, they found a nearby promontory, someplace they could watch, somewhere they could see in the distance who was ahead, and who ... wasn't.

"I remember they came back together."  He raised a finger, and Mr. Baxter – sadly, no relation to the original Mr. Baxter who was given charge of the Silver Jewel's bar back when Old Pale Eyes straightened the place out – refilled both their mugs, polishing the stray drops, the condensation rings from the gleaming, glass-smooth mahogany bartop.

"I recall that," came the soft-voiced, thoughtful reply.  "I recall they came back with his arm over her shoulders, he was white faced and sick and she was half carrying and half dragging him, and she never slowed a bit from her original pace!"

A chuckle, a nod.

"Nah," another fellow, several years younger, interjected.  "I doubt an old woman could do anything like that!"

"We were there, sport," came the soft voiced answer.  "We saw it happen."

"You're damned right I did," a familiar voice smiled from behind them, and a hand clapped down on each of their shoulders.  "Boys, how have you been?"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller glared suspiciously at his wooden swivel chair.

The four legged office chair was not impressed by his pale eyed gaze.

"I need to fetch in a peach crate to set in," he muttered.  "It'd be safer."

He looked toward the stove, banked against the time he intended to spend elsewhere:  he'd emptied the corroded coffee pot of its vile payload, rinsed it out, checked for leaks – by his own admission, he made the world's worst coffee, and he tended to rot the bottom out of a good granite pot in just a short time – seeing no leaks, weeps or drips, he hung the empty pot on a peg and called it good.

I might see if Daisy has something good today, he thought:  his stomach agreed with his assessment, and his boots proceeded to carry him toward the Silver Jewel.

Mr. Baxter looked up with his quiet, wise expression, sauntered over to the bar. "What'll it be, Sheriff?"

"What's Daisy got good today?"

There was the distinct WHAP! of a wooden spoon smacking a man's shoulder, loud in the momentary lull in barroom conversation, and Daisy raised her chin and snapped "Whattaya mean what's Daisy got good today?  You pale eyed hell raisin' man killin' badge packin' horse giggin' –"

Linn turned, raised his palms toward the scolding Irishwoman.

"Dear heart," he pleaded, "flattery will get you everywhere!"

"Flattery is it!"  Daisy fairly screeched, stepping up close and thrusting her belly into his, raising her hand to shake her Mommy-finger under his nose.  "Flattery!  And to another man's wife!  You scoundrel, I'd ought to bend you over my knee and take a board to your backside!  Insultin' my cookin' and now you're tryin' t' corrupt me morals!"  She reached up and seized the man's face with both hands, pulled his head down and planted a kiss on his lips, then pulled away, spun around with a "Hmph!" – she raised her chin, she raised the wooden spoon like a scepter and she lifted her skirts with the free hand as she marched purposefully back to her culinary demesne down the hall.

The Sheriff felt his ears redden, he felt his cheeks warm, and he had the general expression of a man who'd found himself in the middle of a Texas twister, only to be tossed away and discarded just as quickly.

"Mr. Baxter," he said cautiously, "maybe I ought to start with a beer."

"Hell, Sheriff," a voice chuckled, "after that show I'll stand you a beer!"

The Sheriff looked his benefactor in the eye and replied, "As the old preacher said, all donations cheerfully accepted!"

Moments later, Daisy – still muttering – loaded one plate after another, stacked them on a tray, picked it up and turned, almost running into the pale eyed young woman standing unexpectedly in her kitchen.

"I'll take it," Sarah said, smiling:  "I'm here to cause some trouble."

Daisy, startled, surrendered the tray, reaching instead for the towel that lived on her off shoulder:  wiping her hands, she collected her thoughts, then nodded briskly.

"Right," she said decisively.  "Yon pale eyed rapscallion causes enow on his own, now do ye add to it an' my blessin' upon ye!"

"Daisyyyyyy," Sarah drawled warningly, giving her an amused look, "what did you do now?"

Daisy blinked, her Irish-green eyes wide and innocent:  "Why wha'e'er ga'e ye such an idea?  Now be off wi' ye before yon gravy cools!"  She made a little shooing motion and Sarah giggled, her cheeks pinking like ripe apples, and she turned carefully and slipped silently out of Daisy's kitchen and down the shadowed hallway.

"Now ye're tellin' me ye ran yer fist down that dog's throat?" she heard, and she saw a fellow with a beer in one hand and a hand rolled in the other gesturing expansively:  "Ye're damned right I did, an' I did it so he'd not bite me!"
"Ye ran yer fist down a dog's throat," the first one chuckled, shaking his head as Sarah placed the tray on the bar, slid it just enough to touch the Sheriff's leaning elbow:  he turned to see his pale eyed progeny smiling knowingly, working with the buttons on her off sleeve.

"An' that holds as much water as that sweet little schoolmarm that broke a wolf's neck!" came the skeptical rejoinder.

"She broke it an' made it look easy!"

"I doubt that!"

Sarah twisted past the Sheriff, shoved herself in between the two, held up her forearm.

"Right there it is, boys," she said, reaching up with her free hand to caress the puckered scars: "it broke this bone and tore up the meat and this part of my hand" – she traced a line along her palm – "is still numb.  It may never have feeling again, and it's less than convenient when I'm playing piano."

"Dear God," one whispered, as the other took her hand as gently as if he were cupping delicate bone china, staring at the shiny scar tissue.  "And numb, y'say?"
"Not just numb," Sarah said frankly, turning her hand over.  "See that dot right here? – I wanted to see just how much I couldn't feel, so I took a straightpin and heated the head red hot, and just touched it – just touched – where that little white spot is."

The man's stubbled chin sagged a little at her frank description of touching glowing steel to her feminine flesh.

"I could hear the sizzle of burning meat and I could smell it and I did not," she said in a near whisper, "I, did not, feel, a thing."

She pulled her sleeve back down, buttoned the dainty little buttons, one at a time:  she smiled, dipped her knees, whirled and flowed back down the hallway as smoothly as if she were on wheels.

"Dear God," the man repeated.  "She ... burnt herself, with a straightpin!"

"Any doubt there?" the Sheriff asked, raising an eyebrow and regarding the pair over the rim of his mug.

"No," one said, and "No" said the other, and three men raised their mugs and drank, right before the Sheriff turned and picked up his tray to carry it back to his usual table.

 

 

 

 

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35.  APOLOGY

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller handed her chief deputy a steaming mug of coffee.

"Black as a sinner's heart," she said quietly, "and just a little sweet."

She tipped milk into her own, sipped, regarded her Navajo segundo with knowing eyes.

"All right, out with it."

"Out with what?"

Barrents' eyes were obsidian-black, polished and bright, and he did his level best to look innocent.

The Sheriff knew better.

Silence grew long between the two; they slowly raised their heavy ceramic mugs, took a tentative pull at their caffeinated payload, swallowed.

"All right," Barrents growled, and Willamina's left eyebrow tented up just a little.

Barrents set his mug down, leaned an elbow on top of the filing cabinet. 

"You remember my wreck last year."

"I remember."

"You recall when I went over the guardrail the only injury I got was when my badge came up and cut my forehead."

"I remember."  Willamina set her own mug down.  "I remember getting there and seeing that Crown Vic wheels-up and you looking like you were ready to rip the wheels off with your bare hands!"

"That's how I felt."

"I figured."

"So ... you had a wreck more than a year ago."

He nodded, frowned, eased his bottom jaw out, considering.

"My leg was giving me trouble so I went to see the chiropractor."

Willamina nodded, once:  he didn't have to say which chiropractor, there was only one anywhere near, a man with a good reputation, a man who'd given her late Uncle immense relief on occasion.

"I never put much stock in 'em," Barrents admitted, "so I stomped up his sidewalk mutterin' about damned quacks and filled out the paper work and he had me come back and strip to the waist and we talked for a little bit, he laid me down on the table and turned me one way and then the other and then he felt my neck and said he thought he knew where the trouble was and he could fix it."

"Mm-hmm."  Willamina took another tilt, topped off her mug from the coffee pot, held up the glass pot.

Barrents extended his mug, accepted the refill.

"He had something that looked like a kid's plastic dart gun, only instead of the slide – you know those dart guns that look like a little .45 automatic? – it didn't have a slide, it had a piece of wooden dowel with a rubber ball on the end.  He cocked it back, set it close to my neck and that little round ball shot forward and thumped me in the neck.  He did that maybe eight or ten times and said 'All done' and I put my shirt on and paid the woman out front, I stomped out of that office muttering about a damned quack and halfway down the sidewalk" – she saw that flash of humor in his glitter-dark eyes – "I realized I didn't hurt anymore.

"I turned around and stomped back inside and apologized to the man!"

Willamina nodded knowingly, almost smiling, but not quite:  she, too, knew what it was to be wrong, and to own up to it.

"I'm glad it's fixed.  I could see you were hurtin'."

Barrents looked almost wounded.  "I tried not to let you see it!"

"I know.  That's why I didn't speak up."

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Posted (edited)

36.  Ein Sheriff, mit blassen Augen

Tales are told by sailors bold

Of fight, across the sea:

With canvas spread, a sense of dread,

Hull-split waves and hearts so brave,

Canvas wings –

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna leaned back against the rock, frowning at the folded page laid against her knee:  she chewed thoughtfully at the end of her pencil, imagining a swift vessel, a clipper, driving before the wind:  she imagined what it must feel like, running across waves, dashing them aside, hearing them slam against good oak planks ...

"Canvas wings what?" she muttered around the tooth-dented wood.

She raised pale eyes and looked at her jet-black Frisian mare, grazing contentedly in this wind-sheltered cove, tail thrashing lazily against her sides, more out of habit than anything else.

"Papa was right," Sarah sighed.  "You write best what you know best, and what do I know about the sea?"

She slipped the pencil in her dainty little writing-satchel, slipped folded paper in behind it.

"I don't know straight up from go-to-hell!"

She rose, looking around, dusted off her backside, walked up to Snowflake, caressed her warm, shining neck:  living fur was warm under her palm, and Sarah smiled, ran her fingers through the mare's long, gleaming mane.

"I could write poetry about riding horses," she speculated aloud, touching Snowflake behind the foreleg:  the mare obediently folded her legs, bellied down on the ground:  Sarah lifted her skirt, swung a leg over, kissed at the mare and marveled yet again at the sense of sheer power as her beloved, gleaming-jet Snowflake-mare rose with absolutely no difficulty.

A pretty young girl's laughter floated on the high mountain air, like a bird winging its way between the stars.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller leaned his palm against his Jeep fender and squinted up at the sky.

"Thinking about flying again?" Willamina asked gently.

"Yeah."  He shaded his eyes, watched the golden eagle bank across his zenith.

"Did you know," he said thoughtfully, "the Red Baron's Fokker still has the best climb of any unaltered airplane?"

"I didn't know that."

"Oh yeah.  Twenty nine horsepower engine and it would climb like a monkey."

"Twenty nine horses?"  Willamina raised an eyebrow.  "I've run bigger chain saws!"

"There are custom jobs that will just burn a hole in the sky," Will said, either not hearing his twin sister, or choosing not to hear her:  "but for a factory unaltered airplane, that three wing Fokker ..."

He chuckled, lowered his palm, looked wryly at his pale eyed twin sister.

"Sorry, Sis.  Daydreamin' again."

"I love it when you do."  Willamina folded her arms and gave him a knowing smile.  "You look almost like the boy I remember!"

"Yeah," he sighed, then looked back up at the eagle, shading his eyes again and squinting a little.  "Yeah, but can you imagine what that must feel like, to fly like that!"

"I know what it is to fly on a horse," Willamina said with a quiet smile, and Will grinned again.

Off in the distance they heard The Lady Esther whistling to the station as she came around the last bend.

"I never knew whether I wanted to drive a steam engine or drive a fighter jet," he sighed. 

"I'd say you've done well with your life."

"If it wasn't for these eyes I'd have been an Eagle driver!"

"I know.  You're not the first man I've heard lament the need for 20/20 uncorrected."

"Nowadays they can grind your prescription into your flight helmet's visor."

Willamina laughed, her head tilted back a little, cheeks pink in the sunlight.  "I wonder if they could grind in a bifocal for me!"

Will chuckled, pulled up his shirt cuff.  "I know it was a signal day when I got my first set of bifocals.  I looked at my wrist and realized hey presto, I can actually read my watch again!"

"I remember."  She tilted her head a little.  "Say, I was talking with Tammy – you know, Tammy the nurse –"

"Big hair, face paint?"

"She used to be a beautician.  I think she still has her license."

"I know her.  Works the nursing home."
"Bingo.  She was telling me about some of the things she's heard, and I just remembered ... do you recall the old German?"

Will didn't have to ask which old German:  there was only one Old German, and he was the man who'd held onto Joseph Keller's copper plated Colt revolvers, and the documents that came with it.

"You're thinking the German we knew.  This was his brother.
"Oh."

"Just before the brother died, there in the nursing home, he was telling her about his wartime experience."

"Oh?"  Will favored his pale eyed sister with his own pale eyed gaze, raising one eyebrow and dropping his shoulder just a little as he did, and Willamina laughed to see this common posture, seemingly bred into every Keller she'd ever known.

"He was First War Luftwaffe."

Will turned and faced his sister squarely.  "Hel-lo," he said quietly.  "Say on, sis!"

Will leaned forward a little, both palms resting on the Jeep's hood:  his expression was that of a hound on a hot track.

"She said ... he said something about meeting a Valkyrie, and that she looked a lot like me."

Will frowned ever so slightly and turned his head as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"This," he said slowly, "is ... innnteresting!"

 

Tammy turned the mug around in her hands, smiling a little.

"I work here to keep my sanity," she said, sipping at her coffee and turning to sweep the interior of the beauty parlor with her long-lashed gaze.

Will chuckled, pointed.  "I like your coffee mug."

"You like that?"  She removed her covering hand, exposing DAMNED IF I DO, then she turned it around to show DAMNED IF I DON'T on the opposite.
"Your sister said you wanted to ask about a patient."

"I ... eeeee."  He frowned, realizing how that sounded – ask about a patient – confidentiality, a voice whispered somewhere between his ears, and Tammy tilted her head.

"Come on in back.  We need to talk."

He followed her back to a little office, just big enough for a desk, a filing cabinet and two chairs.

Tammy placed her mug very precisely on a wicker holder on top of the grey steel cabinet, opened a drawer, frowned at the several hanging folders:  he saw her mouth widen ever so slightly, as if she almost smiled, just before her hand dove into the green-cardboard dividers and came up with a manila folder.

She handed it to him.

Chief of Police Will Keller raised an eyebrow and Tammy laughed:  "Oh, don't look so surprised!"  she declared.  "He told my mother someone would ask and she should tell them, so there it is!"

She lowered her head, regarded him through long, curled eyelashes.

"He only spoke German and my mother was the only nurse there who did, so I did an awful lot of translating for him.  SheI got to carrying a tape recorder so she could review his conversations later and make sure she'd not gotten something confused.  That" – she reached a lacquered, manicured nail over the top of the jacket, tapped it briskly – "is about his Valkyrie."

Will opened the manila folder.

Centered on the first page:

 

"You may think me a foolish old man, telling a little girl of his wartime,

but before I die I want someone to know about my Walkure."

 

There was a picture of a grinning young man with one hand on a mottled green-and-black biplane, and under the cockpit opening, just above his hand, in that angular and ornate Old English lettering ...

 

Walkure

 

She was beautiful, my Walkure:  she was my lover! -- she smelled like castor-oil and clouds, she smelled of the sky and of petrol, she embraced me like a lover and she flew like the angel of death herself.

I was a young man – we were all young then – I could tell you much of our life on the ground, of the pranks, of the officers, the parades and the food and of grand speeches I wished to escape, but let me tell you of something I saw.

The Englischers called it Bloody April, for the hunting was good, and my harvest was bountiful.

I sent men and airplanes spinning to earth, some on fire and some not, and one I shot killed the pilot but his airplane continued to fly straight and level and I suppose it flew until it ran out of fuel.

We were hunting, Ernst and I, and both of us in our leopard-spotted Albatros fighters – they'd just come back from a refit, the leading edge of the bottom wing had been replaced, damned shoddy work they had to do over! – we  surprised three Sopwiths and the fight was on.

I shot one through the engine and he began streaming oil, and then he caught fire, and I saw him put a pistol to his head rather than burn, and he went down:  the second fired a short burst into Ernst's belly and then turned a hard wingover and ran for home as I came at him.  I lost him in the clouds.

I flew back and for a miracle Ernst was still in the air but he was slumped in the cockpit, and circling, a slow spiral down and I flew wingtip to wingtip and screamed at him – "Ernst, Ernst!" – near enough I could have hit him with a stone but too far to help him.

I saw something coming toward us, fast and black and I threw my stick hard over and kicked the rudder, thinking it an incoming fighter, and I pulled up fast to get my guns on him and I froze.

I have never frozen in the air but I froze that day.

It was not an airplane coming toward us that I saw.

It was a horse, and what a horse! – black, big as the Albatros I flew, its wings half again broader and snow white, and on the horse, mein Gott, on the horse a woman, and what a woman!

I circled and flew closer, and I paced her coming in, barely ahead of the great feathered wingtips.

She looked at me and I saw her clearly, and I have seen her since.

"Draw near, Liebchen, for you may know her."  He nodded, closed one eye confidentially.  "I have seen her, and you know her."

He coughed, spat into a kerchief, threw it irritably into the nearby can, waited until he could breathe more easily.

"Liebchen, you know her, my Walkure, my angel, and she will come for me as well, she and her great black horse." 

He took a few more gasping breaths, raised a hand to his chest, turned his head back and forth the way a man will when all is not well.

"She flew against Ernst's Albatros, Liebchen.  She flew beside it and eased into it and she took Ernst in her arms and lifted him from the cockpit and then she banked right and described a circle and I flew with her."
He breathed through an open mouth – air hunger, the veteran nurse thought, rising and looking out in the hall for the portable oxygen – the old man's hand closed on her wrist and she turned and saw his expression.

Beseeching, the way a man will look when he knows his time is upon him.

"I saw her lift Ernst from the cockpit, dead and broken, bloodied and beyond all help, and she drew him to her breast as a mother will her child.

The great black horse banked right, away from his Albatros.

I looked at his Albatros and saw he was still in the cockpit.

"I looked back to the horse and the woman in the golden helmet and breastplate and Ernst was alive and unharmed in her arms and he looked at her and he looked at me and he was delighted and waved as he always did, and then the woman lifted the lance she'd had socketed in her right stirrup, and the head was silver and it burst into light as if it were a silver sun, and then the black horse she rode stroked most powerfully, and lifted away, and at full throttle my Albatros could never have kept up with them."

He leaned back into his pillow, blinking.

"Mein Sheriff mit blassen Augen," he whispered, and he swung his eyes to the nurse in the white cap and starched white dress. 

"My Sheriff," she whispered as the man's eyes swung to the right, and he smiled a little, and he raised his hand, as if to grasp a visitor's palm:  "my Sheriff, with pale eyes," and he sighed out his last breath, and his old and worn body seemed to shrink a little, the way an old man's body will, when his spirit stands up straight and tall and feels the old worn self fall away like dropping away a worn and soiled cloak from the shoulders.

The nurse rose and reached for the man's throat to confirm what she already knew – she was a nurse, she would check the carotid pulse, for if there is any cardiac activity at all it will be palpable there – and then she drew back, startled, for they two were no longer alone.

An immense black horse filled most of the room, its white wings folded almost demurely against an ornate saddle, trimmed in gold and carved in runes:  beside the bed, a slender, athletic young man with his uniform cap at a jaunty angle, his uniform crisp, pressed, holding hands with a pale eyed woman with long, thick braids and a winged golden helmet, a golden breastplate, and a silver headed lance in her other hand.

The young man looked at her and she heard his laugh, but not with her ears, and she watched as they climbed on the gleaming, shiny-jet horse's back, and there was the sound of a canvas sail booming full of wind as the wings swept up, and down, and they were gone, and she was alone, with the body of an old man, still and dead in the bed before her.

 

Will looked up at Tammy, his jaw hanging open.

"That's your copy. I have another."

"My Sheriff," Will said slowly, "with pale eyes."

Tammy looked very directly at the Chief.

She was an attractive, heavy-set woman with an ornate hairdo and perhaps too much makeup, a woman with a coffee mug and a hairdresser's smock and the expression of a woman who knew the truth of what she said.

"There's more to your sister than meets the eye, Chief."

Chief of Police Will Keller looked down at the last page, then back up to the veteran nurse who did beautician work to maintain her sanity, and he honestly could not think of a single thing to say.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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37.  TO EXTEND THE HAND, AND SMITE AT A DISTANCE

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna flattened herself against the wall, grimaced as wood splinters stung her face:  she reached up, found one impaled just below her cheekbone, plucked it delicately and dropped it as if it were unclean.

Even wounded, a half empty pistol in her hand, her move was as dainty, as ladylike as her true inner self.

Her outer self resembled the inner but little:  she wore black britches, the knee high, flat heeled cavalry boots she favored:  she had a trickle of blood from the shivers spalled away from the corner of the building by a swarm of heavy shot that tried to find her in the dark.

She broke open her bulldog .44 by habit, reloaded by feel:  she well knew the human eye was geared to detect movement, she was all in black, she was unmoving, and she was in shadow.

As long as I wait, as long as I stay still, she thought, sinking slowly into a squat, these city boys won't see me.

Her side burned like homemade hell – one of the shotgun blasts fringed her, which did not make her happy at all – she knew her fair skin would show up, at least her face would:  she wore skin-tight, thin-leather gloves, she closed the Bulldog, she willed herself not to acknowledge the pain, the taste of copper, the sweat popping out under her hat, the deep visceral, nauseating body-scream that something is very, very WRONG!!

Her glove felt the wood siding behind her, then nothing – and she smiled.

Sarah rolled over on her side, crawled quickly under the building, just a little, and waited.

The .44 hammer eared back under her black-gloved thumb and she felt as much as heard the oiled, honed mechanism come to full stand in her grip.

Silent, hidden, a wounded animal cornered, Sarah smiled with sharpened fangs glistening unseen in the dark.

 

Angela paced left, then right:  Sarah was late, very late:  Angela was the oldest daughter of Old Pale Eyes, the old lawman with the iron-grey mustache who kept Firelands County safe:  worried, Angela looked at the bristling, quietly growling canine looking out the back window.

The Bear Killer looked over his shoulder at her – a fighting canine the size of a bear cub, a rather large cub – Angela detested ponies as much as her beloved Sarah, and shared her pale-eyed relative's loathing of the ill-tempered, chop-gaited beasts – she looked at The Bear Killer and her bottom jaw slid out a little.

The moon had been out, she knew, but it was gone now, hidden beneath a thick heavy veil of rain-swollen clouds:  Angela spun her blue shawl around her shoulders, walked over to the trunk, lifted it.

She brought out a shotgun as long as her arm, stock and all:  it had an eye screwed into the rib, between the barrels, and a length of braided line forming a loop, clipped into this balance-point:  she slung the shotgun across her body, under the shawl, under her left arm, shoved two brass rounds in a hidden pocket on her left, another pair on her right:  she felt for the needle dagger in her left forearm sheath, her Derringer at the small of her back:  properly attired for a pretty young lady, she looked at The Bear Killer and lifted her chin.

He needed no second invitation.

Angela flowed like a ghost down the hallway, toward the rear of the hotel, unlocked a door with a key Sarah had given her:  this was a stairway used only by staff, she knew, and she had authority enough under her shawl to discourage any challenge.

Her gut told her all was not well with her beloved Sarah, and she trusted The Bear Killer to find her.

The same key opened the back door, and the pair flowed silently down the outer staircase, and into the night.

 

"Where is he?" a voice growled as the clouds fractured, and moonlight fell to earth, weak, pallid, but enough.

Sarah saw a set of legs in the dimness, a shotgun barrel caught the gleam of what little moonlight there was, and she extended her arm.

The .44 slug ranged up under the killer's soft ribs, through inner parts that were never intended to have holes ripped through them, and emerged just behind his left collar bone.

Her second shot followed a half second later and followed the same general trajectory.

Something seized her coat tail and pulled hard, yanking her under the building:  it took her by surprise and she could not have resisted this sudden pull if she'd wanted, not lying on her left side, not with her attention in the alley.

She felt a furred muzzle, felt the puff of breath, felt the familiar warm, wet tongue give her face a lick, then another:  The Bear Killer laundered the blood from her cheek, then grunted and pulled back.

Sarah followed, quickly, praying that there would not be a random shot slung under the building.

 

Angela's light-blue dress almost glowed as a crack in the clouds let a shaft of moonlight drive down through the heavens:  by random chance it illuminated the length of the alley, showed two men, one with a shotgun:  Angela saw two flashes from low beside the building, felt twin concussions, saw the one man fall, his shotgun under him.

Angela never sped up, nor did she slacken her pace:  she saw the second man advance on the first, she saw him look where gunfire flashed from, saw him reach down and seize the shotgun barrel.

Angela Keller, the pretty young blue-eyed daughter of Old Pale Eyes the Sheriff, saw the man look up at her, start to raise his shotgun.

She felt her own two pipe shoot gun thrust hard against her and she felt the concussion of both barrels going off like she'd been slapped in the entire front of her whole body:  she'd practiced this very move before, the gun was held where her arms could recoil, her thumb tripped the lever and she broke the action, jerked it back, tipped in two hulls at once and closed the action.

She had not stopped advancing.

Angela raised the gun, eared back the hammers with her left hand, a quick rearward sweep, her long-lashed, pretty blue eyes fixed on the man who'd flinched at her gun's concussion, and now looked down at himself, apparently surprised he was still alive.

She saw him in jerks as lightning seared across the sky overhead, she felt her hair stir and start to float, she smelt ozone and she heard a howl, the howl of one of the warrior hounds of Hell itself, and Angela felt a deep rage, some ancient instinct that women feel when one of their own has been hurt, and Angela raised her right hand free from the stubby double's grip and she raised one finger and snapped her arm forward, like she was slinging a whip from her fingertip, and she shouted – her voice tight, sharp, carrying the sharpened edge of authority – "Bad man!  Dead!"

Lightning seared from the heavens, sundering the very atmosphere, blasting the second killer where he stood:  the bolt was thick, blinding, twisted, an intense, blue-white blast that detonated the killer's body in a sudden steam explosion.

Angela staggered back, her ears ringing, blinking the blindness from her skull, the heat-blast only just registering itself on her face:  she paced forward, toward a smoking crater the size of a peck basket, toward the townie shoes, one upright, on its side, toward the ruin of smoldering clothes and smoking meat that used to be a man.

"You shouldn't have raised a gun toward me," Angela said quietly – a condemning elegy over a dead man's carcass -- then turned and walked, delicate and ladylike, through the dark alley, drawing her shawl up over her head against the first, fat, very cold drops that preceded what she knew would be an absolute downpour.

Angela turned right at the end of the building, whistled:  a deep ROOF to her right, and she lifted her skirts, skipped ahead, slowed as something dark rose in the shadows.

 

Sarah heard the concussions, saw the flash:  it felt like the building was crowding down on her, the way that narrow, twisty tunnel did when she crawled into the mountain in search of the other half of her soul.
She dug her elbows into the dirt, willing herself not to feel the pain in her ripped-open side, and having absolutely no success in the effort.
She managed to crawl the entire width of the building, came out the other side, rolled over, sat up:  the ground was wet, it was raining, and she was in pain.

She listened, eyes busy, rain rattling off her broad-brimmed, cobweb-draped hat.
Something pale, ghostlike, glided down the alley toward her:  something dark, huge, beside her, and she knew the darkness, knew her Bear Killer, and from that she knew the ghost was at least friendly.

Sarah rose, fell back against the building as the ghost rushed at her.

"Angela," she whispered, grimacing at the effort, then: "The key?"  

"Here."

"Let's go."
Angela smelled blood but said nothing:  she got Sarah's rain-wet arm around her shoulders, ran her other hand around and grabbed the belt under Sarah's thigh-long coat:  the further they went, the more weight Sarah surrendered to her younger half-sister, and by the time they got to the back stairs, it was pouring straight down, soaking them both, and it was genuinely all Angela wanted, to get the steadily-weakening Sarah up the stairs.

They made it up the inner stairs, The Bear Killer silent as death and close as a shadow behind them; they made it down the hall and to their room, they made it inside, but only just, before anyone else tenanted the corridor.

Angela was pale, her lips pressed together as she got them both stripped down and hot water drawn: she exposed Sarah's wound, her hands steady as she cleansed, then probed Sarah's ragged wound.

"It's barely into the muscle," she murmured, "but it's wide as my hand."

"The Lord looks out after fools and children," Sarah gasped as Angela wiped the wound ungently with a pad soaked with carbolic.

Sarah's teeth clicked together against what she wanted to say, her breath hissing in through her locked-shut jaw; she turned her head, took three more breaths before gasping, "Christ Jesus and seven saints, that hurts!"

"Never heard that one before," Angela murmured.  "Here, hold this while I wrap you."

"Wrap it thick, I'll wear a corset over it."

"You'll have to."

Sarah glared at her sister but offered no further comment.

The Bear Killer watched, black eyes fixed on his beloved Mistress, unmoving as carved and polished bituminous:  it was not until Sarah lay down on her bed, not until Angela drew her covers up in a motherly manner, not until she checked the door's lock again, not until she checked her stubby shotgun's loads and lay it across her lap as she sat facing the door, that Angela turned her head and whispered "Bear Killer, okay," and The Bear Killer took two short hops and then soared into Sarah's bed, landing light and careful:  he snuffed loudly at Sarah's injured side, then at her ear, and lay down, warm and solid and protective, covering her hurt with his living soul.

Angela sat a little to one side, so if someone came through the door, she would not be squarely in front of them, nor would she be immediately seen:  she knew at this distance, her eighteen inch barrels on the pistol gripped gun would spread to the size of a serving plate.

Two barrels, she knew, would be enough ... enough, that is, if anyone was foolish enough to try forcing their way in.

Angela remembered something Charlie Macneil told her, on one of those occasions when she was able to sit and listen to the man, one of the rare moments when he'd come to visit but he wasn't conferring with her pale eyed Papa.

He'd been talking with Jacob, and they were discussing matters important to the two of them, and Angela remembered hearing him say something about the terrible responsibility that comes of being a lawman, of being entrusted with the authority of death and of life as needed, of wearing the full weight of the law on the front of his vest, of lawfully possessing that quality reserved for the gods ... the ability to point the hand, and to smite at a distance.

Angela remembered when she was a little girl, and a bad man tried to hurt her Papa, and she felt the power in the clouds overhead and she raised her finger and slashed it out like a whip and yelled "Bad man!  Dead!" – and lightning blasted from the rain-swollen clouds overhead, and the man died a sudden and most horrifying death.

She remembered triggering both barrels of her short howitzer and apparently not hitting the man with a single shot – the distance was too great, and so was the shot spread – but she recalled the power in the clouds, and she felt that power run to obey her, and she smiled as she remembered what it was to extend the hand, and to smite.

It's kind of like when I shot pistol at the county fair, she thought.

I shot the stems from under five cob pipes set up on a plank, and I won a beef.

She smiled as she remembered how one of the fair officials loudly derided a mere girl shooting with the men, and after she cut five pipe stems with five shots, his mouth dropped open and his freshly-lighted Marsh Wheeling stogie fell to the ground, forgotten.

"How," he'd gasped, "how did you do that?"

Angela remembered she waited until she reloaded the .44 Smith & Wesson, and slid it back into the holster concealed beneath her skirt, that she walked up to the man, planted her knuckles on her hips and said innocently, "My Papa taught me to shoot.  You might know him.  His name is Linn Keller."

She recalled how his eyes widened, and how "Oh," was all he could say.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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38.  MISTRESS OF DISGUISE

 

Two detectives conferred in quiet voices.

These men were with Denver's police force.

They'd long known of a criminal underworld; for reasons several and persuasive, they'd been tasked with taking down this enterprise, and they'd had a notorious lack of success, until a maverick in their trade arrived.

A woman.

Young, pretty, a mistress of disguise, most commonly unseen: thanks to her good efforts, the detectives were credited with several arrests, the recovery of a young fortune in stolen goods, the ruin of two separate white-slavery rings, the solution of multiple kidnappings and counterfeiting efforts.

"We owe her this at least."

"We owe her a hell of a lot more than just this!"

"Did you see her?"

A chuckle, a nod.  "The last time I saw her was when she brought in that chest full of stolen Army payroll.  You remember."

"How could I forget!  All in black, sitting on the chest with a shotgun across her lap and her hat brim bent down to hide her face ..."

"Have you ever seen her face?"

"Once.  Only once."

"Was she pretty?"

He shivered.  "She was disguised as a nun – one of he Veiled Sisters from down Rabbitville."

"The White Nuns?"

"The same!"  He shivered.  "God Almighty, that poor woman!"

"How's that?"

"She lifted her veil and she had this raw scar that ran from the corner of her eye down across her face and down her neck – at least I think it ran down her neck, you know how they wear those high neck things with their habits – her eye watered all the time from that slash and she whispered kind of husky something about she used to sing opera, and then she lowered that veil again."  He shuddered as if someone stepped on his grave. 

"Well, I saw her, and she didn't look nothing like that!"

"What!"

"She was a little taller than I'd imagined, but not by much.  She had fine blond hair, shined like corn silk in the summer sun and blue eyes, the bluest eyes I've ever seen ... she had a blue ribbon in her hair and a blue gown and she had a mouth a man dreams of ..."

He shook his head.

"I don't know how women do it.  Walked up to me bold as brass and handed me this note and she said 'The Black Agent greets you,' and I about fell over, for she didn't look like the Black Agent anytime I ever saw her! – 'and asks your help,' and she handed me this note and smiled a little and then she walked away into the crowd and she was gone, just like that!"

An admiring whistle.  "Bright blue eyes, you say!"

"Biggest, brightest, shining like she wanted to capture your heart!"

Another chuckle.  "It sounds like she did!"

 

The enclosed cab shivered a little with the agonies of the sufferer.

The driver was known to them, and trusted:  he waited patiently in his elevated seat; the rented nag stood patiently, slashing its tail out of habit more than aught else.

From within the cab, the sound of a woman, coughing:  Angela skipped up to the carriage, rapped twice on the door, called "It's me!" – opened the door, regarded Sarah sadly:  "I delivered the message."

Sarah nodded, her cheeks flushed, sweat beaded on her face, the picture of misery.

"Can I get you anything?"

"Some hot tea would be wonderful," Sarah whispered hoarsely.

 

The hotelier was less than helpful:  yes, the young ladies in room 421 were gone; no, they were no trouble; no, nobody before them had any illness, nor had anyone else in their hotel:  the detective knew what to look for, and he knew the hotelier was being less than forthcoming, but he couldn't be sure the man was outrightly lying.

He had better luck with the physicians in the area.

He and his partner canvassed the doctors' offices and hospital both, seeking anyone suffering the dreaded consumption, who had perhaps stayed at the same hotel as the Black Agent.

By noon they met at a particular saloon, and over beer and sandwiches, compared notes.

"That's it, then."

The other nodded.

"We'll send her a note via the usual messenger?"

"Yes."

 

Angela thanked the nervous boy, gave him a coin:  she read the note, read it again, nodded.

Ten minutes later, between spasms of hoarse, wet coughing, Sarah read it as well.

"Murray," she called huskily.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Murray, good news, you won't have to burn the carriage!"

"Yes, ma'am."

Murray was one of those absolutely unflappable souls Sarah knew she could absolutely depend on:  if the carriage would have to be ground to powder and blown into an industrial furnace, if the carriage had to be painted screaming red with canary yellow bands, if the carriage had to be attached to a hot-air balloon and flown over the mountains, Murray would see to it with his usual quiet efficiency:  in this case, he knew a simple airing-out of the carriage would suffice, perhaps a wipe-down inside, which he did anyway:  had his unnamed client, the widow-woman with the terrible cough, actually had consumption, she was prepared to pay him for the carriage and have him soak it inside with coal oil, and then fire it:  as it was, the carriage would serve for some time yet.

Murray didn't particularly care; he was paid to drive, and to keep his mouth shut, and he did both very well, and for this she paid him well.

It was a mutually satisfactory arrangement.

 

"Blond haired and blue eyed," the detective murmured, shaking his head.

"Pretty thing.  Nicely built, too, if you know what I mean."

They shared a look, a knowing look between men who appreciated the female form.

"All woman?"

"All woman."

"Damn."  He blinked.  "From what I'd seen of her as The Black Agent – all in black, dressed like an active young man, moving like a panther – I would never have imagined she would look like that!"

 

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