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298. AND SHE DANCED

 

Willamina smiled a little as Shelly sat, carefully, almost uncertainly.

"You won't break," Willamina said gently.  "I didn't."

Shelly laughed a little.  "I keep expecting to bloat suddenly!"

"You're going to look like an olive on a toothpick," Willamina agreed, "but you're not there yet.  Any morning sickness?"

"No," Shelly said, shaking her head a little.  "None."

"Good."  Willamina turned to the stove, regarded boil-bubbles just forming in the clear-glass teapot:  she added a stainless steel acorn of loose tea, set the pot off the hot burner.  "We'll just let that sit and repent of its sins.  Sandwich?"

"Oh God yes, I'm starved!"  Shelly exclaimed quietly, then clapped her hand over her mouth:  "I'm so sorry," she blurted, "that's not very ladylike!"

Willamina brought out a platter of sliced beef, set it on the table with another platter with a loaf of homemade sourdough bread.  "I was constantly starved when I carried every one of mine," she admitted, "and I never gained an ounce!"

The two fixed thick sandwiches, they both ate with a good appetite:  sandwiches and tea, and they talked quietly, as two women will.

As often happens, the conversation veered abruptly and unexpectedly, and Willamina found herself discussing ghostly encounters, things that would not be explained in scientific and rational terms:  she spoke of the old engineer's ghost in their roundhouse at the Z&W, she spoke of a ghost train on the same track as their combined freight and passenger run, a train they saw in the distance, coming toward them flat-out and running hard, whistling defiance at them, a train that shouldn't be there, a train that caused The Lady Esther to go into emergency stop -- and as she came around a blind curve, a single huge boulder teetered in the middle of the track, a boulder they would have hit without that ghostly train's warning. 

"We're not the first ones this has happened to," Willamina said quietly, taking a sip of her tea.  "Would you like to hear about one that my very great grandfather had?"

Shelly lowered her tea, eyes wide:  she nodded, raised the heavy ceramic mug, took a careful sip.

"It was back during what he called 'that damned war,' " Willamina began, and as she spoke, a woods grew up in Shelly's imagination, morning fog cool and damp as it swirled around her ...

 

Captain Linn Keller puzzled over the fiddle in his hands.

He looked up, into the fog, at the retreating shadow, a shadow that flowed like water in the fog, the laughing shadow of a girl with long hair, a girl with flowing sleeves, a girl who wore mist like most women would wear a gown.

Stop that.

Women don't wear mist.

He looked down at the fiddle again.

It was solid in his hands, very real.

This isn't imagination, he thought.

She's not imagination, either!

His thumb brushed at the rosin, fallen from the bow and gathered on the polished cherry wood.

Captain Linn Keller, late of Ohio's volunteer cavalry and now attached to who-knows-what, kissed at his mare:  she sidled over to him and he surged easily into the saddle, turned the mare with his knees.

"Let's find her," he said quietly, and the mare stepped out at a walk, then a trot.

 

The girl danced in the morning fog.

She was a beautiful lass, she had hair like cornsilk, hair down to her waist, she wore a pale gown that didn't seem to be made of material ... it was like condensed moon-light shining through fog, and in the morning's fog, it gave her almost a ghostly appearance, save for the redness, the richness of her lips, the healthy glow of her cheeks:  Linn eased his mare into the morning dampness, the War forgotten:  part of his mind remembered tales of mariners, enchanted by women's voices raised in song, beautiful women who lured sailors to their death on fanged rocks that gutted the fragile wooden boats they sailed, women called sirens.

Until this morning he never knew how entranced a man could become with such a sound, with such a sight.

She'd danced as she played, and she laughed as her hair flowed behind her, and for a moment, for a sorrowful, grip-your-heart moment, the Captain remembered his wife, his Connie, back in Ohio's north, his Connie, his lighthouse, his anchor, his only connection with sanity in a world gone violently insane.

He'd taken a step toward her, another, a third ...

He saw her, a silhouette, as if illuimined from behind: she placed the fiddle on the ground and she'd laughed, a light, girlish laugh, a laugh like running water in a shining mountain stream, and she'd skipped away, deeper into the morning's lightening mist.

He urged the mare forward, more quickly:  he heard her happy laugh, saw a half-glimpsed figure.

The mist ended suddenly, as if he'd ridden out of a wall; he looked around, turned his mare, looked to his back trail.

There was not the least trace of fog.

He was exposed.

The Captain had the sudden feeling he'd just been lured into an ambush.

He was near to a house, a fine looking house, where an old black man was hanging a black crape over the threshold.

The Captain rode up, looked curiously at the servant.

"Pardon me," he called, "I'm looking for someone."

The white-haired old man turned, looked:  wet tracks ran down his cheek bones.

"Yas, suh?"

"A girl," the Captain said, his stomach sinking:  he knew, somehow he knew that the girl he sought was not alive --

"She played fiddle in the mist," the Captain said, "and she danced as if the moon were behind her."

The old servant fumbled a kerchief from somewhere, pressed it to his eyes, came down the short ladder.

"Yas, suh," he said.  "Please come in, suh."

Captain Linn Keller hesitated, took fiddle and bow in one hand, then tucked his uniform hat carefully under his arm and followed the old man into the house.

The women were around a casket, the casket was on a bedsheet-covered bier -- likely a couple sawhorses -- and they turned as the old servant cleared his throat.

"I beg yo' pahdon," he said gently, "but this gennulman, he --"

The Captain's breath caught as one of the women turned, looked very directly at him.

"Did she dance for you?" she asked, her voice heavy for grief, and the Captain nodded:  he stepped forward, extended the cherry wood fiddle.

"You're a Yankee."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Very well then, Yankee.  Walk with me."

"Yes, ma'am."

The woman took his arm, and they walked out of the parlor, out and turned and back out the front door.

They stood on the broad front porch, the woman's hand firm on his arm.

"Her name," she said, "was Ruth."

The Captain waited.

"She ... had a gift."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"When did she dance for you, Yankee?"

"This morning, ma'am."

"No other time."

"No, ma'am."

The woman nodded.

"She was a week, dying of the fever."

"Ma'am?"
"She hasn't left her bed for the past sevenday."

"Yes, ma'am."

"There at the last, she gripped my hand" -- her voice faltered, she plucked a lace-trimmed kerchief from her sleeve, pressed it to her nose -- "and she said she was going to dance, and play her fiddle, a she had for her father."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Her eyes were so bright, so very bright ..."

The woman's voice was a whisper, her hand tight on the Captain's arm:  she looked out over the yard, the field, the distance, remembering.

"That was last night."  She bowed her head, dabbed at her eyes.  

"She used to dance and play the fiddle for her father."

The Captain nodded, uncertain quite what to say.

"This morning ... this morning she smiled, just a little, and she tried to say something.  Old Ezekiel said she spoke of the mist.  I was summoned, and she turned her head and looked at me and smiled, oh!"

The woman was trying her best to be formal, to be proper, but she was a mother grieving the death of a daughter she loved, a daughter she'd watched die that very morning.

"She seized my hand and she smiled and she whispered, 'Did you see it, Mother? I danced again, I fiddled as I danced!'  and she looked at something I could not see, something ... delightful."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"And then she was gone."

The Captain disengaged his arm, ran the arm around her:  the woman turned, buried her face in his blue coat, muffling her sorrows in Union blue, soaking her tears into a Northerner's coat, but in that moment it was not important.

All that mattered was, that in that terrible moment, she was not alone.

"It was not until you arrived that I realized her fiddle was gone."

The Captain nodded, slowly.

"I have a wife, back home, and I miss her terribly," Captain Linn Keller said softly.  "Your daughter brought a sorrowing man comfort, and joy, if only for a moment."

The woman sniffed, pressed her kerchief to her eyes again.

"That's my Ruth," she said, her voice husky:  the Captain disengaged his arm and waited as the woman turned, slowly, her shoulders rounded, her back bent a little, stooped, as if she'd aged twenty years in moments.

She turned before going back inside.

"I hope you see your wife again," she said, and then she turned, and stepped across her threshold.

Captain Linn Keller settled his blue uniform hat back on his head, walked slowly down the front steps, caressed his mare's neck, mounted.

"Come on, girl," he said quietly.  "We're done here."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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299. SHEER ENERGY

"You're going to like this."
Linn turned and drifted over to the dispatcher's desk.

Sharon handed him a slip with an address.  "The wife called and said he's going to commit suicide by cop."
Linn's eyebrow quirked up.

"She said he's planning to smack her around, she'll call us, you'll respond and he'll pull a knife so you'll kill him."

Linn sighed -- silent, deep, trying to be patient and not having a whole lot of success.

"Might be I'd ought to head this one off at the pass."

"You be careful," Sharon cautioned, and Linn gave her a tired smile.

"Specially for you, Sweet Pea!"

Sharon shook her head and gave him a g'wan-get-out-of-here wave.

 

Sheer Energy was curled up in the passenger footwell.

He'd gotten comfortable and he saw no reason to be otherwise, and so he did what he did best.

He snored.

Linn twisted the ignition, looked around, eased the Suburban out of the parking space and accelerated smoothly: unlike his predecessor, he generally did not exercise the lead foot, and so got noticeably better mileage than the black-eyed Navajo had:  he was careful not to discuss this, however, as he knew his own hind hoof could mash the go pedal with very little provocation, and the heavier the foot, he knew, the thirstier the engine.

He'd listened as his Mama talked about running squad back East, and how she worked with a fellow who competed with fellow EMTs in the Rolls-Royce chauffeur's school final examination: his Mama said the fellow she worked with was one of only two who could set a glass of water on the dash of their Cadillac hi-top, and come to a full and complete stop without rippling the water.

Linn never tried that particular test of smoothness, but he drove as if he were: if there was need for speed, he could speed, but most of the time he preferred to take it easy on the equipment.

Still ...

He didn't waste any time getting to the address.

He'd just pulled up and marked on scene when Sharon replied, "Your timing is perfect, she just made the call" and Linn clicked the mike button twice, stepped out with the distinct feeling he was walking up on a stick of dynamite with a sputtering fuse.

He pushed his door shut, or thought he had: the keys were in his pocket, which meant anything secured was going to stay that way, but his attention was forward, on the front door swinging open as he approached.

"Barbara, how bad?" he asked quietly as the woman came out, tears running down her face and a wet, bloody washcloth held to her face.

"By doze," she mumbled, sitting heavily on the front porch swing.

Linn gripped the front door, slid in sideways, got the wall to his back: he saw movement in the living room.

The handle of his revolver pressed against the inside of his forearm.

"Howdy," he called, and the figure in the living room grinned -- Linn saw the fellow's hand dive down into the chair beside him -- 

He's trying to trick me into shooting --

The fellow looked surprised that LInn didn't react to a sudden lunge for a weapon --

He came up with a lock back knife, snapped it open --

Linn tilted his head a little to the side.

"What," he said tiredly, "do you think you're tryin' to get me to do?"

The fellow laughed and then dropped the knife, bolted for the back door.

 

Sheer Energy wallowed across the front seat, snuffed at the door handle, slid down the edge of the seat and kind of half fell, half rolled, landed on the ground with a grunt, rolled over onto his stubby legs.

He sighed, wondering if it was worth it to get up, and decided no, he'd just nap here, and so he lowered his head onto his paws and closed his eyes and began to snore again.

 

Linn's long legged pace was enough to overtake the runner in the length of a football field.

Linn paced up beside him, looked over, grinned.

"I can keep this up all day," he said conversationally.  "Just head on back when you get tired."

They ran a little distance, turned:  Linn kept pace, kept silent, and finally his quarry slowed, stopped, bent over, hands on his knees, breathing raggedly.

Linn waited.

"I got to sit down."
They sat on the curb, not far from where they'd started.

"Just out of curiosity," Linn said casually, "how come you wanted me to kill you?"

" 'Cause I can't do it myself."

Linn nodded.  "I can understand that."

Silence grew between them.

"I suppose," he finally said, "I should have a mental health evaluation."

Linn nodded.  "Might be a good idea."

"You could take me."

"I can do that."

 

An hour and a half later, Linn hauled open the heavy glass door, held it open for Sheer Energy.

The bench leg Beagle/Basset cross plodded inside as if he were beyond exhausted, came over to Sharon's desk, wagged his tail hopefully and then collapsed as if dead.

"You faker," Sharon scolded, opening a desk drawer and pulling out a few miniature dog biscuits.

Sheer Energy opened one eye, thumped his tail on the floor, accepted the treats and laid his head back down on the polished quartz.

"How did it go?"

Linn paced over to the coffee pot -- uh oh, Sharon thought, it did not go well, he never gets coffee before answering unless it didn't go well -- 

"They wouldn't take him," Linn said, frustration edging his voice.

"I, ummm ... they what?"

"He'd had a beer in the past 24 hours," Linn replied.  "They said he'd been drinking so they couldn't take him."

"So what did you do?"

"We got coffee and doughnuts and talked for a while and I told him if he smacked his wife again I would not shoot him, I would beat him to a bloody dishrag and then I'd get mean with him, and I think he believed me."

"Will you?"

"He lays another hand on her, you're damned right I will!"

"She wouldn't press charges?"
Linn drizzled milk into his coffee, took a tentative sip.

"No," he finally said, his voice flat, emotionless.  "I put on my used car salesman's hat and tried my very best to swindle her into pressing charges and she wouldn't."

Sharon shook he head, rubbed her closed eyes.

"How many times," she murmured, and Linn snorted.

"Too damned many," he agreed.  "I've lost count."

 

One week later, the fellow set his wife's car on fire.

The mental health facility allowed his admission then, and Linn buttonholed the director and had a very frank discussion with him on his personal and professional displeasure with a facility that would turn away a man who planned to commit suicide by cop, refused to allow a self admit or an involuntary admit because he'd had one beer in the past 24 hours -- but they would admit him for arson on an automobile.

Linn heard later that some tall hell was raised with the staff that turned him away initially.

 

Shelly stood in the doorway, watching her husband muck the stalls.

His moves were controlled, disciplined, precise: she knew her husband and she knew his habits and his moods, and she knew from the way he was loading the wheelbarrow that he had a tight grip on a sizable payload of good honest anger.

She waited until he wheeled the Irish buggy out to the manure pile, waited until he dumped the load, waited until he hosed it out and stood it up, waited until he drew back his arm and launched the fork into a hay bale like he was throwing a hand-forged Zulu war spear into a hated enemy's guts, that she took a step toward him.

Linn turned, looked his wife down and back up, and nodded.

"Darlin'," he said, his voice tight, "you are still a good lookin' woman."

"How bad was it?" she asked, and he grinned crookedly, seized a saddle blanket, spread it out on a square bale.

"Have a set," he invited, waiting until she was seated before folding up his long tall frame to sit beside her.

"You recall that fellow I was telling you about, the one that tried to suicide by cop and they wouldn't take him, but they admitted him for burnin' his wife's car?"

Shelly nodded, her eyes big and concerned.

"That wasn't it."

"Oh?"
"Another fellow allowed as he was going to off himself.  I got there and he was taking a long look down the barrel of a .357."

Shelly nodded, blinking:  she knew what it was to be first on scene with someone ate a full-house three-filthy.

"I didn't know Sheer Energy was right with me."

Shelly's eyebrow twitched and she tilted her head a little, curious.

"The fellow looked down at Sheer Energy lookin' up at him and damned if he didn't lay that revolver on the side table so he could reach down and take Sheer Energy under the forelegs and haul him up into his lap."

Shelly smiled, just a little, imagining the sight.

"He pulled him up on his lap and his chest and Sheer Energy was just happy as anything to lay there and damned if he didn't start to snore, and that fellow wrapped his arms around Sheer Energy and I just let 'em set like that for a while."

"Did they admit this one?"

"They did."

"Did he have a beer beforehand?"

"He had a couple."

"And they admitted him?"

"They did this time."

 

 

 

 

 

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300. MEANWHILE, IN FRANCE

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller cast cold eyes across the field.

Her guide, an eager young man anxious to impress with his command of the English language, gestured with broad sweeps of his arm, describing the German trenches, the Allied lines, and how a truce was called one spring morning, a truce to allow them to return the body of an American whose actions distinguished him particularly as a man of honor.

Willamina looked over at restless archaeologists, stayed in their labors by the arrival of this pale eyed American woman: they'd been given to understand she carried diplomatic credentials, that she had a relative buried here, that she and she alone could fine one grave among many, here in a field whose marked graves were overrun during a war that followed the War To End All Wars, and was only now rediscovered.

Willamina turned and placed her hand flat on her voluble young guide's chest, stopping him in shocked mid-syllable.

"Merci, mon ami," Willamina said, her voice low, musical:  "I would now find that for which I seek."

Confused, blinking, the young man searched his vocabulary, gave up:  "Mas oui, Madame Sheriff," he bowed, backing up a step.

Willamina raised a summoning hand:  two of the researchers approached, frowning, uncertain.

"You have used ground penetrating radar," Willamina said -- a statement, not a question; she waited until this was translated, until they looked at one another, until the polite, "Mais oui, Madame Sheriff."

"Have you a map of the graves?"

"Mais oui, Madame, Sheriff," and a tablet was produced, tapped, swiped, handed to the pale eyed woman.

Willamina turned the tablet, frowned, turned it again: she turned to face due north, rotated the tablet once more, established her landmarks, thrust out her bottom jaw, nodded.

"But how will you find one grave among many?" her anxious young guide blurted, and she looked at him with pale eyes, and smiled, just a little.

"We women," she said quietly, "have our ways."

 

Linn almost ran through the front doors of the Sheriff's office.

Sharon was bouncing like an excited schoolgirl, Linn's old friend Paul Barrents -- son of the former chief deputy and new hire -- was looking from Linn to the dispatcher and back again, his Navajo-black eyes bright, delighted -- Linn shoved open the door to the conference room, strode to the big screen, pulled out the keyboard, tapped a series of commands.

His Mama's image filled the screen and he stepped back to where he knew the camera would pick him up.

"Yes ma'am," he said, his voice filling the room as the rest of the staff filled the room behind him:  "what news?"

"I found Joseph's grave!"

 

Willamina swiped her own tablet, bringing up a photograph of a WW1 doughboy uniform, hung and displayed in the Firelands museum:  another swipe, and a pair of Colt Peacemakers, copper plated and carefully engraved, with the Masonic square-and-compasses engraved in one ivory handle, highlighted with India ink; on the other grip, the Past Master's arc-and-compasses.

There were Freemasons among the researchers, men who'd asked to be assigned to this research because they'd heard the American whose grave they sought, was a fellow Mason: these were men descended from survivors of two wars, and all but one hand ancestors either with the Maquis, or with the other freedom fighters who sabotaged the hated bosche: they'd shared their stories, their families' recollections of two Wars, handed down from father to son to grandson, she'd heard of women who bicycled over the countryside with pistols or explosives hidden either about their person, or wrapped in their bicycle's baskets:  she listened carefully, she'd looked very directly at each speaker, glancing occasionally at her translator, but watching the people who were telling of their families.

Finally an old man stood, leaning heavily on a cane:  he took a sip of wine and addressed the Sheriff in surprisingly good English.

"My great-grandfather," he said, "was present when the Americans and the Germans stood in ranks for the Masonic funeral."

 

There was a whistle, a yell:  orders and orders again, and instead of receiving the approaching Germans with another volley of Springfield lead and steel, men drew up in ranks: at command, they came to attention, presented arms.

The Germans came in with their legendary precision:  one led the ox cart, one hand on the docile beast's halter; on the cart, a coffin; and in the coffin, an American.

The body had been washed, the wounds wiped free of blood, plugged:  the dead man's uniform had been removed, repaired, washed, dried:  even his shoes were free of the ever present mud, shined, replaced, the wrappings replaced:  Joseph Keller, firstborn son of Jacob Keller, grandson of Linn Keller, was borne back to his lines in the finest coffin the Germans could find.

The German officer leading the funeral detachment saluted the American commander: they adjourned to a nearby tent for a brief conference, then returned.

When they emerged, both men wore white aprons. 

 The coffin was opened, the body formally identified, a white apron placed across the dead man's lap: the effects were given over to the American commander, who thanked his German counterpart for this unexpected kindness, and then the German turned and addressed himself to the  Americans present.

"This man," he said, "found a wounded German offizer.

"Rather than kill an enemy, he bandaged the offizer's wounds and carried him to the nearest aid station.

"This was an act of bravery and an act of honor extended to a fellow soldier, to a fellow Mason."

"The nearest doktor was behind German lines, and this American, this Mason" -- his hand went down, gripped the apron he wore -- "and it is right and proper that he be returned to his fellows and comrades, that he may be honorably interred with due ceremony."

 

The old Frenchman took another sip of wine, nodded.

"My grand-pere" -- he smiled a little -- "was most impressed with the Masonic service."

He lifted his chin, took a deeper breath.

"Les Americanes" -- he frowned, passed a hand across his chest, and Willamina saw his hand shiver a little -- "were fond of les chiens, the ...oh, how you say ..." -- the old man frowned, rubbed his forehead, looked up with an expression of triumph -- "stray dogs!"

Willamina smiled a little, nodded: each saw approval and delight in the other's face.

"Le Boche" -- he turned his head and spat -- "had their chiens, the, ah, how you call, Shepherd dogs, but les Americanes had a white Shepherd with, ah, les ..."

He frowned again, said something to the designated translator, and Willamina's eyes grew pale as she heard the young man murmur, "A great white dog with yellow eyes."

Willamina raised her hand.  "Yellow eyes?" she echoed.

The old man blinked, nodded:  "Mais oui, Madame Sheriff."

Willamina's mouth opened, she took a step back, turned:  she looked down at the forensic archaeologist's tablet, studied it for a moment, turned.

Willamina put two fingers to her lips, whistled, a high, shrill note that shivered in the French air.

Something cold trickled down nearly every back bone present.

A howl, another, a third, and then they were surrounded by the sound of feral throats in the ancient song:  Willamina turned, walked quickly out into the field, among the little plastic flags marking where probable graves had been located.

Men and women looked at one another, then hurried after her, folding wooden chairs falling over backward in their haste:  something was happening, they knew, this woman had something to do with it, and though they didn't know quite what it was, they knew she was making a discovery -- and perhaps she was the only safety as well.

Only the old Frenchman, leaning on his cane, remained at the long folding table.

Something large and white seemed to leap from behind a hillock:  it was white, it was canine, it was big, and it did not so much ran as it glided, it paced with an absolute majesty:  it stopped, it regarded the human with what could only be called contempt, and then it turned startling yellow eyes to the Sheriff.

Willamina laid a fearless hand on his ruff, squatted, a pale eyed woman in a tailored suit dress and heels:  she whispered something, and the staring, open-mouthed researchers and dignitaries saw the creature shake its head and sneeze, and then pace back and forth, nose to the ground.

Willamina held up her hand, flat-palming their advance:  she may as well have raised an invisible brick wall, for they halted, suddenly, involuntarily.

The yellow eyed canid looked very directly at the only individual to raise a camera:  Willamina heard the click of a shutter; the canine turned to the side, afforced a perfect profile shot, then turned again, paced a few yards to its left, looked back at Willamina.

They saw it sit.

They watched, spellbound, as its nose rose to the flawless blue sky overhead, as its white-furred throat worked, as a howl began somewhere well below its white-furred backside, a deep-toned paean of sorrow and of grief, and in a sunny French field, a field where graves from a long ago war were recently found, an old man nodded as he remembered hearing from his own great-grandfather of an American wolf with yellow eyes that sorrowed and sang, and the German war-dogs sang with it, and surrounding the dignitaries, the archaeologists, the researchers and reporters, unseen canine throats sang in a wild, primitive chorus.

Willamina walked over to the White Wolf, squatted again, cupped her hands fearlessly under its muzzle, her nose an inch from his.

"Thank you," she whispered, and a pink tongue flicked out and just touched her nose, and then the White Wolf disappeared into a fog that seemed to twist into the earth.

"My friends," Willamina declared as she stood, "here is the grave of Joseph Keller."

"Sorciere," one of the observers whispered, shivering as he did:  Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller walked over to him, gripped his shoulder, leaned her lips close to his ear and whispered something that turned him ghost-white.

Her translator asked later what she'd told him, to cause him to collapse into the nearest chair.

Willamina smiled but did not answer.

When she recounted the moment, later, as seen on the video link in the Sheriff's conference room, she smiled gently and said, "I heard him call me a witch, so -- in perfect, flawless French -- I whispered in his ear."

She smiled, broadly, a rare thing for their pale eyed Sheriff, and Sharon almost expected her old boss to giggle like a schoolgirl.

"He called me a witch, and so I whispered, "Mais non, not a witch" -- her smile became less mischevious and more honestly wicked -- "a mountain witch!"

 

Somewhere in France, there is a tomb stone of Colorado quartz:  upon it, the name of Joseph Keller; beneath the name, a pair of Colt revolvers, sandblasted into the smooth, shining stone, and directly beneath the crossed barrels, the Masonic square-and-compasses.

There is a stone, and beneath it, a body, but Joseph Keller is not there: here lies the fleshly cloak that he wore for a time, the schoolboy's attire in which he absorbed life's lessons:  he himself is elsewhere, that there may be benefit from what he learned in this lifetime.

As for the researchers, they examined the photographs taken by the only soul who raised a camera, and they looked at one another, for there was absolutely no doubt as to this creature that located the grave for them.

There was no mistaking its identification.

This was indeed an American wolf.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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301.  A COLD EYED MAN

Chief Deputy Linn Keller glared at the row of bowling pins.

His reflexes were tuned, honed, smoothed with long practice; his hand had eyes, his fingers welded around the black plastic grip of the issue sidearm, his draw was a textbook illustration of perfection.

The pistol came up to eye level, the front sight was clear and distinct, the trigger smooth beneath his finger, his pale eyes barely blinked at the report and he absorbed the recoil easily, swinging to the next pin and the third, and then he stopped.

He swung his muzzle back to the first pin, took a more deliberate aim, fired.

He blinked, raised his head, surprise evident on his face:  he lowered the gun's muzzle, raised it again, fired.

The first pin fell back with all the drama of a Hollywood bad guy.

He swung to the second pin, fired, fired another round, stopped.

The second pin was still standing.

Linn stopped, all hopes of cleaning the rack gone:  he took deliberate aim, pressed the trigger, and --

other than a BANG and the fired case spinning through the air --

Nothing.

"WHERE IN THE HELL AM I HITTING!" he yelled, frustrated:  he dropped the magazine, yanked the slide savagely, kicking out the live round, turned to show the timekeeper an empty chamber: he let the slide ease forward, pointed downrange, dropped the striker, shoved the Austrian plastic savagely back into the issue holster.

Paul Barrents clapped a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, handed him a bottle of water:  Linn tilted it up, downed just over half of it on one breath.

"Paul," he said, shaking his head, "I can't BUY a hit today!"

"It's that magic plastic," Paul offered, looking down at the checkered handle.  "Bad luck in that gun.  Go back to what you're used to."

Linn took a long breath, frowned at the ground, then looked over at his old and dear friend.

"Paul," he said, "there is wisdom in your words. Your advice is sound, and I shall take it!"

Paul waited his turn; he too, carried the issue Tupperware, but unlike his pale eyed superior, he was more than comfortable with it, and deadly accurate -- at least since he'd had it re-sighted with yellow and green instead of the original plastic triangles.

He'd had to do something, he reflected, his eyes smiling a little at the corners ... one week after he'd been issued the brand new pistol, the front sight fell off during dry fire practice, so he took the opportunity to prevail upon the friendly local armorer to install a set of night sights for him.

Linn came back without the issue sidearm: Paul knew he'd secured it in his Jeep's lock box, and he'd belted on what he'd called Old Faithful.

They waited; there were others shooting today, including his mother, and when the reshoots came back around, the timekeeper yelled, "Keller! The one in pants!"

Of course there was the usual banter -- "Didn't you see him in a skirt?  The man's got great legs!" -- and Linn grinned as he strode back up to the line:  he turned, raised a hand as if he were a pop star receiving a crowd's adulation:  "Flattery," he shouted happily, "will get you everywhere!"

The timekeeper looked down at the revolver on Linn's belt.

"You sure you want to run that?"

"Just start the clock," Linn said quietly, taking a deep breath and letting half of it fall off and hit the ground.

The timekeeper shrugged.  "Your funeral," he muttered.

Linn took another half breath, his eyes tightening a little at the corners, and both Sheriff Willamina Keller and Paul Barrents smiled, just a little, to see it, and the same thought occurred to them both: 

"I'm awful glad I am not a bowling pin today!"

The timekeeper pressed the button on his timer, held it up just under the edge of Linn's Stetson.

He felt the timer vibrate a little, he heard the sharp little BEEEP and he never even saw Linn's draw.

He felt six fast concussions, he saw Linn pull something back, he saw a blur of white hand and blued steel and six shining casings fell to the ground, followed by a yellow-anodized speed loader: six more concussions, another blur, and he realized to his surprise that the pin rack was ... empty.

A dozen pins, down and on the ground.

He saw Linn's bottom jaw thrust out a little, saw him close the cylinder on his .357, slowly, carefully, saw him holster the revolver with an exaggerated slowness, a ...

Precision, he thought.

From that day forward, for some odd reason, nobody thought it odd that Linn was the only officer to carry a revolver instead of the issue self shucker.

A year later, Linn would face up to four individuals, all armed, who were trying most sincerely to put holes in his long tall carcass.

One lawman, standing up against four, a lawman with a six shot revolver, a cold eyed man who placed his shots with an absolute precision: had it not been well witnessed, had there not been surveillance video of the event, there would no doubt have been questions.

The coroner's report was read, and revealed that all four of the attackers were dead from head shots.

All four had a hole between the eyes, small going in and somewhat larger going out, and when the photographs were displayed -- the photograph showing where the pale eyed man stood -- four empty hulls lay on the ground, two unfired rounds, and an empty speed loader.

Chief of Police Will Keller was heard to murmur to a colleague, "Never underestimate a man who carries a revolver," and the agent beside him was inclined to agree.

A shiver did go through the inquest, though, when the video was played for the tribunal, the one video from a camera that, totally by coincidence, had the best view of the pale eyed lawman.

It showed Chief Deputy Linn Keller, his eyes cold, hard, his jaw set, his moves smooth, swift and sure:  it showed him placing his shots with an absolute precision, as slow and smooth as a man pulling out his watch to check the time, and as fast as lightning blasting through the heavens in a stormy night sky.

 

 

 

 

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301. COFFEE

I hunkered by the little fire and watched my Sam-horse's ears.

Sam was not a young horse by any means and Sam wasn't what you'd look for in a good saddle horse but Sam was big and Sam was steady and Sam he outrun a buffalo stampede oncet and me on his back so I thought quite a bit about my horse.

Right now Sam had his head up and he was looking at something and he was curious.

A man gets to know his mount and I knowed Sam's ears and they way they swung, the way they tilted, and the way he stood and slashed that tail and I never saw fit to dock his tail like most did a big horse.

Sam could pull a plow or a wagon in fine shape and he was a good saddle horse and when I taken my broken heart and went West, why, me and Sam we pointed our noses torst the Shining Mountains and we didn't have much of any idea where we were headed but we figured to head that-a-way anyhow.

I'd wintered in a crooked little Kansas town that tried to cheat me out of my eye teeth, least until I waded into the Council meeting in the local saloon and beat the dog stuffing out of the Mayor and the only councilman who allowed as he'd stand with the man.

I recht down and relieved His Honor of his purse and I declared in a voice that everyone could hear that he owed me wages and I was taking them, and I could have taken his entire poke, watch and anything else he had and nobody was going to object: the barkeep winked at me and I knew I'd have no trouble from him, especially when I recht into His Honor's wallet and paid for the table I broke when I picked up the Mayor and slammed him down on top of it.

Anyway I taken my rightful wage and not a jot more and I went back over to the Marshal's office and I laid the Marshal's star down on the desk where it had been the day I taken it up and I propped the sign back up in the front window, the hand painted shingle that said HELP WANTED and me and my segundo we left that place and never looked back.

Anyway there I was, a-squat on the ground with that little bitty fire in front of me and some coffee a-boil and Sam-horse, he allowed as there was somethin' not quite right so I taken me up that Spencer rifle and made sure 'twas ready to speak the language the sinners understand, and I stood up and damned if I didn't see me a little boy.

Now I could look to the north, I could turn around and look to the south, I could cast my gaze to the horizon to the east and to the west and not see so much as a single solitary tree, and damned if there warn't a boy barely belt buckle tall on me and he was a-walkin' torst me kind of tired-like and me and Sam we waited and I fetched out some extra biscuit and what meat I had left and he come in torst me lookin' tired and sad and I set "Have a set," and held out that-there biscuit I tore in two and laid meat in between the halves and he et it like he'd not had a bite for a week anyway though I doubt that was the case.

I poured two tin cups of coffee and let 'em set for a bit for they was both singin' hot and matter of fact I give that some considerin' and trickled in a little water out of my canteen to cool them off and I offered him one and sipped noisily out of mine and he ate and he drank and he looked about all done in.

Now it was still fair to early in the mornin' and still right cool and he was chilled so I waited til he'd et and he'd drunk and I asked his name and he said "Tim Carpenter," and I allowed as I was Linn Keller but as I warn't town marshal no more I didn't give myself no titles and I said "Where'd you come from, Tim?" and he allowed as he didn't like livin' in a wagon no more so he run off and I nodded.

"You cold?" I asked, I knowed he was 'cause he was right close to that little bit of a fahr and that steamin' hot coffee pot and he nodded so I taken off my coat and wrapped it around him and stood him up, we dumped the rest of the coffee on that little bitty fahr and I made double sure 'twas deader'n a politician's promise for I'd heard of prairie fires and I didn't have no wish a'tall to try and out run one of those!

Sam-horse he waited all patient-like whilst I got him saddled up and I swung Tim up behint me and we figured where he'd likely have come from.

I was able to track into the eye of the sun until it got too high and by then we seen where attair wagon train passed and Sam he set out at an easy trot and it didn't take long til we seen the tail end of attair drawn out string of prairie schooners but a man can see for a surprisin' distance in that clear air and it taken us some time to get caught up with 'em and it helped they stopped for their nooning.

I recall one of them women was just awful glad to see the lad, her eyes were red and her face puffy and I reckon she'd been crying quiet-like so's not to upset no one else, people died on these wagon trains and grief was somethin' that no one wanted to share, but hers were not the only eyes that leaked for joy when the lad run up to her yellin' "Ma!  Ma!" and she went to her knees and she grabbed holt of him like he was the most precious thing on this earth.

Me, I didn't feel much, lookin' at it.

Reckon I was still too hardened from losin' my little girl all those years ago.

They staked me to a meal and asked about the territory thereabouts and I allowed as I didn't know straight up from go-to-hell about the territory, I was a man alone and they seemed surprised the Indians hadn't lifted my scalp or maybe monsters et me or some such, but I shrugged and allowed as the Almighty looked after me so far and if He wanted my scalp to decorate a lodge pole somewhere, why, His will be done, and when I said the words I realized just how hard all that grief had made me.

Somewhere deep I must have felt somethin', seein' that Mama holdin' her lost child again.

God willing, thought I, I might feel some affection for a sweet thing.

I accepted their hospitality of a meal, I listened whilst the Wagon Master and his scouts discussed the territory, and as I didn't have any particular destination, they was headed west so I headed myself north.

Attair wagon master said north was Colorado and I thought why the hell not, I never been to Colorado, they might be findin' gold in them Shining Mountains and that got me curious so I stopped in a creek bed a day or two later and damned if I did not find me a whole poke full of fine gold trapped in holes in that hard rock creek bed but that's another story altogether.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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302.  A MAN'S LAUGHTER

 

Jackson Cooper was a full head taller than the Sheriff, and the Sheriff was counted a tall man.

Jackson Cooper was broad enough across the shoulders that he almost had to turn sideways (in addition to ducking a little) to get through your average doorway.

Jackson Cooper considered the broad, stout stump Shorty indicated, then he walked over to the displaced anvil, gripped its horn one-handed and pulled it upright:  Jackson Cooper was a quiet man, Jackson Cooper was not a small man by any means, Jackson Cooper was an even tempered man, and when Jackson Cooper squatted and tucked his backside, ran his hands under the anvil and then stood up, cradling it as easily as the Sheriff might cradle his infant child ... well, in that moment, Jackson Cooper was ... impressive.

He knew good and well where Shorty wanted the anvil, but he also knew that many eyes were on him, especially those who'd elaborately pretended to be paying him no attention a'tall.

"Shorty," he boomed, his voice seeming to come from somewhere well below his worn boot heels, "where d'you want this little thing?"

Shorty was no stranger to feats of strength:  Shorty was their hostler, he owned and operated the livery, he swung a blacksmith's hammer and had a shirt sleeve that was plumb filled with arm (matter of fact, he had a matched pair, for when he tired of hammering right handed, he'd swing that sawed off sledge hammer left handed) -- but even Shorty was awed by the sight, and he thrust a finger at the broad chestnut stump and said "Rattair'll do," and Jackson Cooper stepped easily to the indicated platform and set the anvil down nice and gentle, straightened and dusted his hands together.

"Anythin' else you need, Shorty?" 

"No ... no, reckon that'll do me, thank'ee kindly."

Jackson Cooper looked over at the horse in the corral, a horse walking kind of carefully, and two shamefaced lads trying hard to be invisible and not having much luck a'tall.

Jackson Cooper paced toward them and the two boys tried to squeeze inside of the corral post, with no luck a'tall, so they resigned themselves to death or worse, and waited for the big town marshal to reach them.

Jackson Cooper squatted, regarded them with dark and kindly eyes:  he looked from one to the other and then he said, "How's the leg?"

"Hurts," the younger of the two admitted, his hand betraying him by going to the deep bruise on his thigh.

"That'll likely be sore for a few days," Jackson Cooper nodded.  "How about your saddle?"

The boys looked guiltily at one another, their faces reddening, perhaps with the anticipated distress their Pa would surely bring to their backsides.

The two came up with the idea that they would practice roping, and when roping fence posts got dull, they espied Shorty's anvil: the younger of the two made his brags, the older of the two dirty-double-dog-dared him, and the towheaded younger brother hauled himself into the saddle and kicked their steady old mare over toward the anvil.

After a half dozen casts were unsuccessful, he dropped the loop over the anvil while his older brother kept lookout:  at the panicked "Here he comes!" the younger brother ran the rope twice around the saddlehorn and he kicked the mare harder than he intended.

Horse, saddle, rider and rope came to a fast, hard stop after three lunges: the plaited reata cut painfully into the younger boy's thigh, the worn girth tore through at the buckle's worn, oblong hole, the saddle parted company from the horse, and it was a tie as to whether the toppling anvil hit the ground first, or the boy, still in the saddle.

Now, after the fact, now that the anvil was on the new stump Shorty was planning to move it to anyway, now that the boys were caught, now that the mare was in the corral and the saddle was nowhere to be seen, Jackson Cooper looked from one cowed lad to another and rubbed his chin meditatively.

"How bad's the saddle?" he rumbled, and the boys looked at one another, clearly troubled:  "Bad," said one, and "Really bad," said the other.

Jackson Cooper nodded.

"That was a good saddle," he said thoughtfully.  "I recall when your Pa traded for it."

"Yes, sir," the boys mumbled, looking at the ground, their ears a remarkable shade of scarlet.

"Tell you what."  Jackson Cooper dug fingernails into his beard, finding an itch that had pestered him most of the morning.  "Why'nt we have Shorty take a look at that saddle.  Seems to me it might have been worn some before your Pa got a-holt of it."  He winked, stood, and two boys felt relief wash over them as if they just stepped under a cold waterfall.

Jackson Cooper turned, reached out and gripped a man's shoulder.

The net effect was like dropping a brick wall in front of the man, for he stopped fast, whether it had been his intent or not, and truth be told, he'd not intended to:  he didn't know what his boys had been into, only that they didn't look entirely comfortable talking with the Law, and so his thoughts were running along the line of switch, belt or razor strop, not necessarily in that order.

"Mister Glennamann," Jackson Cooper rumbled, his expression mostly hidden by his broad, bushy beard.

"Marshal," Glennamann nodded, then he thrust his chin at his two uncomfortable progeny.  "Wha'd they git into this time?"

Jackson Cooper laughed -- it was the big booming laugh of a big, strong man, the kind that resounds and echoes and lifts the hearts of all who hear it.

"Why," declared the town Marshal, "your boys saw your saddle-girth was dry and cracked and ready to tear, so they fetched it in for Shorty to fix! They had no wish for you to see the world from the under side of your mare!"

As if on cue, Shorty raised a hand, beckoning the big town Marshal and his entourage, and not a half hour later, father and sons were headed back for their place, the mare tied behind the wagon, supplies and foo-far-raws loaded in the wagon, their mother cradling the newest Glennamann:  behind the wagon, the mare, and on the mare, a saddle with a newly and very professionally repaired girth strap.

At this selfsame half hour mark, Town Marshal Jackson Cooper frowned as he approached the Sheriff's office:  the pale eyed lawman was an old and dear friend, and hospitable, and Jackson Cooper was considering he would have to come up with a polite means of declining the Sheriff's offer of coffee.

It's not that the man makes bad coffee, he considered, it's that his coffee is worse than two terribles!

Jackson Cooper was about a pace and a half from the heavy plank door when he heard an odd sound from within, which grew all the louder as he pushed open the portal and looked inside, curious as to what was causing a sound that generally resembled that of a chicken laying a paving brick.

Sheriff Linn Keller had his hand on his son Jacob's shoulder.

Jacob looked absolutely shamefaced.

There was a gunpowder haze stratifying inside the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office.

Jackson Cooper frowned, puzzled, stepped on in:  he stood up, as the ceiling was higher than the doorway, and looked down at ceramic fragments on the floor.

It took him several long moments to realize he was seeing what used to be a shaving brush, and that must have been a shaving mug, and there was shaving soap splattered behind the shelf where it used to sit, and now a bullet hole decorated the wall behind where he recalled the shaving mug had been.

Sheriff Linn Keller looked at his old and dear friend, a man he'd known since before That Damned War, he pointed to the bare shelf, to the ceramic shards on the floor, he bent at the waist, laughing all the harder:  he straightened after several long moments, wiped tears from the corners of his eyes, looked at Jacob, looked at what had been his shaving mug, and gave himself up to another round of hysterics:  he finally gave up, fell back against his desk, pulled his wild rag free, buried his face in the crumpled cloth and gave full vent to a good load of mirth and merriment, while Jacob looked uncertainly from his father to the Marshal and back.

It took a while for Linn's giggle box to unwind and run down; he finally quit making strangled noises, he took a long breath, he looked at his son and he said, "Jacob."

"Yes, sir?"

Jackson Cooper divined that something happened that caused the mug to be blasted hell-west-and-crooked, and that it was possible that Jacob had been momentarily careless, resulting in the utter destruction of a fragile item.

He considered it might also have been the Sheriff, and possibly the action was intentional -- though from the Sheriff's happy hysterics, the latter was not likely.

"Jacob," the Sheriff finally managed to gasp -- Jackson Cooper counted it to the younger Keller's credit that he was standing to receive whatever the Sheriff was going to give him -- "Jacob, I one time shot a full length mirror."

"Yes, sir?"

Jackson Cooper frowned again and inclined his ear to his old friend's words: he wasn't familiar with any such episode, and so he intended to listen most carefully.

"It was in the best hotel in Denver," Linn grinned, "and I decided to drag iron at my own reflection."

Jackson Cooper saw surprise in Jacob's expression.

"Oh, I paid for it," the Sheriff grinned, "and I paid them for repairs to the walls beyond, and God Almighty is the only thing that kept me from killin' whoever was in the next room."  He paused, remembering, then looked at Jacob and admitted frankly, "Scared the blue hell out of me, too!"

"Yes, sir," Jacob replied, and Jackson Cooper heard something in the younger man's voice that told him Jacob, too, was taken by surprise by whatever it was that had transpired to murder the Sheriff's shaving mug.

"A cheap lesson," Linn said thoughtfully, then he looked at where the mug had been, he considered the soap-splatter and ceramic-dust driven into the wall, he looked at the hole in the wall, he looked at Jacob, he grinned, he chuckled, he patted Jacob on the shoulder as only an understanding father can do.

"DAMMIT TO HELL," Jackson Cooper declared, "CAN'T YOU TWO DO SOMETHIN' SENSIBLE, LIKE SHOOT THAT DAMNED COFFEE POT?"

Linn and Jacob looked at one another, looked at Jackson Cooper:  father and son grinned beneath curled mustaches and said with one voice, "What did that coffee pot ever do to you?"

Jackson Cooper raised his hands, turned his face to the ceiling:  "They try to poison me with coffee," he raved at the overhead, "they rot my belly with that awful stuff that Emma uses to strip varnish off rockin' chairs with and what do they shoot?  THEY SHOOT THE SHAVING MUG!"

Jackson Cooper shook his head, opened his mouth, closed it, took off his hat and ran his fingers through his auburn thatch:  shaking his head, he ducked, turned, went out the door, closed it quietly behind him.

The Sheriff caught up with him later that day, as Jackson Cooper was coming out of the Mercantile.

"Here," the big Marshal grinned, shoving something wrapped in brown paper and string at the pale eyed Sheriff.  "Happy birthday."

Linn blinked, surprised, then pulled the slip knot free, opened the paper, lifted out a brand new shaving mug with a brand new cake of shaving soap in the bottom, and with it, a brand new shaving brush.

He looked up at Jackson Cooper, at the man's merry expression.

"Thank you, my friend," Jackson Cooper rumbled, his grin mostly hidden by a thick overgrowth of rich auburn face fur:  "it does well for a man to laugh!"

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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303. A PRETTY LITTLE GIRL

Angela Keller was her Daddy's little girl.

Angela wasn't that little -- she was ten, she was a remarkably capable girl (she was her Mama's daughter, after all!) -- she had cornsilk hair and sky-blue eyes and a smile like sunrise itself, and it was universally agreed that the Sheriff and his wife would have to keep a war club parked behind their front door to fight off the eligible young men who would, without any doubt at all, swarm in to plead their love for this lovely mountain blossom.

Angela, of course, wasn't that conscious of her beauty: truly beautiful children seldom are: no, her focus was on her studies (top marks in their little whitewashed schoolhouse), following her Mama's examples and her instruction (she could already handle the simpler parts of running a business ledger, she had long since mastered cooking with herbs, and her skill with needle and thread, cloth and scissors, was honed by association with her Mama's dear friend, Bonnie McKenna) -- but her heart's delight, the one thing that brought out the color in her cheeks and sang her heart full of joy, was riding. 

Angela Keller, the adopted daughter of Old Pale Eyes and his red-headed Carolina belle, loved little more than to fill her soul with saddle leather and horseflesh, with speed and maneuverability, with racing the high mountain wind on her Papa's fastest horses.

Angela had been admonished by her Mama that she must do no such thing, that horses could be dangerous, that a fall from horseback could kill her or cripple her for life, and though Angela was an obedient child, a child who loved and respected her lovely and green-eyed Mama, she was a child who knew what she loved, and did not hesitate to pursue that love.

Esther, too, knew that same love; mother and daughter often rode together, but always on mounts of which Esther approved.

Angela had other ideas as to which mounts she preferred.

Esther knew this.

Esther was a mother, and mothers know these things, she knew Angela would slip out and saddle the most spirited of her Papa's herd, and Esther watched, sometimes chewing on her knuckle, sometimes gripping the back porch rail or a fence rail with blanched knuckles, and sometimes with her hands clenched together up under her breasts, her breath coming in short, gasping pants as she remembered what it was to wrap her legs around her own father's most fiery stallion, and to stand up in the stirrups and lay down over the stallion's neck and yell encouragement as they split the air and raced the wind itself!

Esther was not watching this one particular day.

She found about it later, of course, when Angela came in, walking stiff and sore, her riding-dress filthy, her cheekbone scraped, chaff and grass in her hair and an expression of absolute triumph on her young face.

Angela knew her Papa recently acquired a stallion, and Angela liked her Papa's stallions:  this one was in its own pasture, as it picked a fight with Goldie, Papa's herd stallion, and Papa and the hired men played hell getting them roped and separated.

Angela went out to the pasture with an absolute lack of fear.

The stallion saw her come through the gate and came pacing over, nose thrust out and ears laid back, and Angela saw it coming -- as if to guard a nonexistent herd of mares -- and Angela smiled.

It was not the pretty smile of a lovely child, raised of gentility and good breeding:  no, this was more a baring of the teeth, and this beautiful flower of the Colorado mountains snatched up her riding-skirt and ran straight toward the stallion, snarling a little as she did.

Normally, when a stallion is challenged, it becomes a most formidable fighting machine, all hooves and teeth, all twist and kick and bite; her Papa had told her of watching a stallion seize a marauding coyote by the back of the neck, crushing its spine and throwing it high, wide and crooked, before turning and delivering a two-hoof kick to a pair of suddenly-cautious yodel dogs intent on making a meal of a newly dropped foal.

Angela so surprised the stallion that it stopped, splaying its forelegs a little, and Angela stopped as well: she planted her knuckles on her belt and she glared at the big mahogany horsie and she said sternly, "My name is Angela and I am going to ride you!"

She reached up -- she had to make a little jump to do it -- she seized the stallion's cheekstrap by what was quite honestly a lucky grab, and she pulled with a surprising strength for a child.

The stallion, having been led before, knew it was supposed to follow, and so this child of ten years proceeded to tow half a ton of horse flesh toward the gate.

The stallion stood and allowed Angela to fast up the tether to its halter; the stallion tolerated the saddle blanket, but the stallion inflated its belly when Angela went to cinch up the saddle.

She was obliged to avail herself of a mounting-block to get blanket and saddle high enough -- even then it was a stretch, but she was determined, and she spun and swung and used momentum to her advantage -- she jumped down off the block and went around to the stallion's nose, cupped her hand under its jaw and shook her Mommy-finger at it with an admonishing, "Now stop that!" -- then she scampered back to the girth, found the horse had relaxed, and punched her little fist hard into its gut when it started to air up again.

The stallion didn't much like that.

Angela went back around to the stallion's nose.

"My Daddy knee trains his stock," she said, "so I'm not going to bit you."

She reached over, picked up the molasses twist she'd parked there, pared off a thick shaving, another:  she offered these delectables on a flat palm, watching the stallion's jaw muscles closely.

The stallion seemed surprised, snuffed loudly, then rubber lipped the treat off her hand.

"Now," Angela said, her voice sounding very much like a little girl's, "I'm going to ride you."

The stallion offered no comment.

Angela unclipped the tether from the bridle, let it drop.

She stepped back up on the mounting block, thrust her buttoned boot into the doghouse stirrup, bounced twice and swung into the saddle.

The stallion stood as if surprised, his ears swinging back toward her.

"Now horsie," Angela admonished, "I'm going to press with my left knee and you're going to turn --"

Her legs clamped down hard around his barrel, her left hand seized the lip of the saddle and her teeth clicked together as the stallion humped his back, rocked back and forth on forehooves and hind hooves -- like an insane rocking horse, without the rockers -- and then he jumped straight up, came down stiff legged, shivered, twisted and swapped ends.

Angela's right hand was in the air, as if in celebration; her left hand was welded to the front of the saddle, she wished her legs were three feet longer, for she didn't have much purchase, it took everything she had to stay in the saddle --

Something kicked her in the backside and she remembered the sky was where dirt was supposed to be, and the dirt was coming at her fast from the wrong direction and she landed flat on her back.

Angela could not move: she blinked at the water in her eyes as two comets and a few planets swam into view, and then faded:  she gasped like a fish out of water, struggling to breathe, discovered she could move after all, at least a little.

The stallion danced a little, shied to the far end of the corral, then came over, slowly, curious, his nose looming big and wet in Angela's eye-watering, light-spotted vision.

She reached up, seized the bridle, pulled:  the stallion pulled back, and Angela came to her feet, still hanging onto bridle leather:  she pushed her chest into the stallion's nose and fought to get some air into her shocked lungs.

When she had enough wind in her to speak, she let the stallion's head out to arm's length and shook her Mommy-finger at him and gasped, "Don't do that!" -- and she led him back over to the mounting-block.

Angela thrust her boot into the stirrup, and this time the saddle rose to meet her descending backside, and this time she went over in a complete somersault, trying desperately to land on her feet -- she almost succeeded -- she landed on her feet but her forward momentum carried her face first into the dirt.

Again, and yet again, this pretty little girl led the stallion over to the stone block; again, and yet again, she stubbornly ascended to her Papa's carved saddle leather, and finally, in exasperation, she seized the stallion's bridle and snarled, "STOP THAT!" 

Angela brought the stallion up to the mounting block, gripped cantle and saddlehorn, then she released her grip.

Angela reached behind her neck:  she unfast two buttons, then two more.

Angela stepped off the mounting-block and shucked out of her handmade riding-dress, threw it over the fence rail.

Angela pulled off her petticoat, tossed it over the dress.

Young Angela Keller, the blue-eyed, golden-haired, ten-year-old daughter of the pale eyed Sheriff and his beautiful Irish Belle, pressed her lips tightly together, fairly leaped into the saddle.

"Mahogany," she declared loudly, "I HAVE HAD QUITE ENOUGH OF YOUR FOOLISHNESS!"

Whether the stallion was amused, whether the stallion realized this persistent creature was not going to give up, whether because of Angela's resolve, or in spite of it, we may never know:  we do  know that the Sheriff was riding home, and heard a horse being ridden hard, in the distance:  he looked, and a mile away, across a bare field, a young girl in a shocking state of undress was leaned over the neck of a mahogany stallion:  it was a pureblood Arabian, a classic example of the breed, with a nose that will fit into a teacup and a neck arched like the crescent moon, to quote the Arabic breeder:  horse and rider were very much one creature, and streaked across the horizon at an impossible speed, a velocity greater than was possible with mere flesh and bone.

A good rider, the Sheriff knew, could get more from a horse than the horse ever thought possible, but this mount was truly remarkable, he knew:  with the help of his field-glasses, he studied the horse, the rider, and beneath the twin tubes, his teeth shone in a sudden, delighted grin.

Sheriff Linn Keller saw his little girl, his Angela, riding in her frillies and stockings and her buttoned boots, he saw the scrape on her cheek and her hair twisting behind her like the stallion's tail, and he would have to have been quite blind indeed to not see the look of absolute, delighted triumph on his little girl's face.

 

Angela Keller slipped quietly in the back door, wearing her dirty, torn riding dress, her hair pulled back and quickly tied again:  the maid and her Mama met her just inside the back door, both of them with their arms crossed, their feet tapping like an impatient schoolmarm, and the bathtub full of hot and steaming water.

After a somewhat subdued Angela Keller was scrubbed clean, after she was once again in the clean and proper attire of a proper young lady, she was ushered into the study, where her Papa had a snifter of brandy in one hand, his other hand fisted at the small of his back as he stared out the window.

Angela took three steps into the study, her feet silent on hand hooked rug, and she heard the door click quietly shut behind her.

"I understand," her Papa said quietly, "that you rode my stallion."

Angela raised her chin defiantly.  "Yes, Papa, I did," she said, her voice clear, distinct, deliberate.

"My dear, I have some questions."

"Yes, Papa."

Linn turned, swirled his brandy thoughtfully.

Her Daddy was changed into his good suit, she noticed:  his boots were polished to a high shine, his black suit was immaculate, his tie carefully knotted, he appeared to be freshly barbered and shaved, and Angela knew her Papa only looked this presentable if the occasion were very formal, or very serious, and she considered whether this explained why her stern-faced and silent Mama had one of Angela's best gowns ready to be worn, why her Mama wordlessly worked on Angela's washed and dried hair and got it just so, in a style becoming to a proper young lady.

"First, did you ride my new stallion."

Angela looked defiantly at her Papa.  "Yes, Papa.  I did."

"Angela, do you remember I instructed the hired help that I didn't want any man riding that horse."

"Papa," Angela said patiently, "I am not a man."

Linn blinked.

"Angela, what breed is the stallion?"
"Your stallion is a purebred Arabian," Angela replied, "with all the fire of its desert ancestors searing through its veins.  It has a bonfire for a heart and flame in its guts and it hates everyone and everything."

The Sheriff's eyebrow rose as he realized that Angela was listening after all, and better than he'd expected.

"My dear young lady," he said, "you are correct on each and every point."

Angela waited.

"You were riding the far pasture."

"We did, yes, Papa."

"I take it ... he can run."

The Sheriff saw Angela's mask of defiance fall from her face, replaced with the more honest expression he knew she was hiding:  her face went in less than a heartbeat, from stiff and rebellious, to absolutely delighted, her cheeks pinking a little, her eyes shining with nothing less than absolute, utter, delight.

"Papa," she said, and he heard a little shortness of breath in her voice -- he heard the memory of riding faster than anything in her entire young life -- "Mahogany can run!"

The Sheriff nodded.

"I've never been able to stay on his back," Linn said thoughtfully, considering the shimmering gold in his snifter, taking  a tentative sip, setting the delicate glass goblet carefully on a small table.  "How hard was it to stay on board?"

Angela's eyes shifted to the side and a cloud seemed to pass over her face as she considered her answer.

"Papa," she replied carefully, "he did not wish to be ridden."

"But you managed."

"Yes, Papa."

"That's why you're holding your arm kind of stiff."

Angela dropped her arm to her side, pressed her lips together.

"I take it you'll be sore in the morning."

"I think I will."

The Sheriff turned to face his daughter very squarely, took a step toward her, another.

Angela stood her ground, raised her chin again.

She learned that from Esther, Linn thought, carefully keeping the smile from his face, but unable to keep the corners of his eyes from tightening a little, and he knew Angela would see that, and she would know it for what it was.

"Angela."

"Yes, Papa?"

"I want you to come with me."

"Yes, Papa?"

"We are for Denver this night."

Angela's surprise was spontaneous, open:  "Papa?"

Linn reached for his daughter's hands, and she raised them to him.

"When I saw you riding across the back field," he said quietly, "I saw absolutely the most beautiful creature on God's entire earth, and I would dine with such a beautiful young lady in a fine restaurant."

Angela's mouth dropped open, then she closed it, carefully, blinked.

"Papa," she said hesitantly, "thank you, but ... I, um, disobeyed --"

Linn released her hand, cupped his fingers carefully under her young chin, raised her face, lowered his own.

"Angela," he said, "we don't have to go to Denver. We could as well dine at the Silver Jewel."

Angela nodded solemnly.  "I would prefer that, Papa."

"It is well that a man should have the company of a beautiful young woman," the Sheriff said, offering his arm.

Angela took her Papa's arm, and that night, in the privacy of the Silver Jewel's back room, Angela told her Papa what it was like to ride the stallion that could not be ridden, what it was like to ride four hooved dynamite with fire in its blood and pure, unadulterated speed in its hooves:  the Sheriff leaned forward as she spoke, his elbows planted firmly on either side of his untouched pie, his mustache draped over his knuckles, pale eyes fixed on his daughter's glowing, animated face, and as she spoke of sailing through space between heaven and earth, he felt his own stomach soar with her, and when she described landing flat on her back, he tasted the same copper he'd tasted when he too made a hard landing.

The pale eyed old Sheriff and his lovely daughter talked quietly, in the privacy of the back room, and after they were returned home, after Angela was in her bed and asleep with the speed and innocence of the young, the Sheriff sat with his beautiful bride in his study, side by side, holding hands and talking quietly.

Esther felt her husband's silent laughter, and regarded him with knowing eyes.

"Esther," Linn said, "did you father ever forbid you from riding a particular horse?"

Esther smiled, tilted her head back, saw a memory from long ago, when she too was somewhere between Daddy's little girl, and a young woman:  she remembered an Arab cross, a horse that hated men, a horse she secretly rode, quite against her own Papa's wishes, a horse that outran everything her Papa owned, a horse that outran the Yankee invaders when they first came into the county, when Esther came streaking back to their plantation, soaring over fences, screaming a warning to the neighbors, spreading alarm as she ran, buying her family time enough to escape with the silver, the contents of one safe, and the clothes on their backs.

"Yes," Esther replied at length.

"Tell me about it."

Esther smiled, sniffed, pressed her kerchief delicately to her nose.

"My Papa forbade me," she said in a wistful voice, "and of course that's the best way to guarantee it'll happen."

"I know," Linn said, his voice just as soft, just as gentle.

His hand tightened gently on his wife's, and he looked over at her, his eyes a distinct, light blue.
"She is her mother's daughter," he smiled.  "I see you when she rides."

"Do you think your stallion will allow my riding him?"

"Mahogany?"  Linn chuckled.  "I'd not recommend it.  Children bounce and she did, and I reckon she'll be stove up and sore in the morning."

"Mahogany?"

Linn chuckled.  "I hadn't named him yet, so Angela did."

"Mahogany," Esther said thoughtfully.  "Fitting."

 

 

 

 

 

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304.  THE HAPPY FARMER, RETURNING FROM WORK

The Silver Jewel was a long way from here, Sarah reflected, and its appointments were frankly better than these, but she smiled anyway and swung her hips and lowered herself into the vacant chair, picking up the deck with the dainty move of a Lady born.

"The same game, gentlemen," she smiled, shuffling the deck:  she shuffled slowly, smiling, looking around, assessing the three others at the round card table:  it was the man across from her that received her frank attention, which did not make him comfortable at all.

He's hiding secrets, Sarah thought with satisfaction: she'd come some distance to either find information, or to find a man, and she'd just found the man she was looking for, and she knew there would very likely be blood on the moon.

She'd pursued an elusive, intelligent prey for a month now, she'd seen him several times, enough to know his face, his gestures, his habits: she knew he would smoke only with his left hand, she knew he kept a Colt's revolver in his waistband, the loading gate flipped open to keep it from sliding down his pants -- not because this was the most practical, but because he'd read it in a penny dreadful and had adopted the habit.

The fellow across the table looked at her with hard eyes, the eyes of a man who trusted few people, a man with guilt on his conscience, and something told him this woman was trouble.

Most women were trouble, he knew, but this one had something about her that bothered him, and he started to rise, until the fellow beside him laid a hand on his forearm:  he looked over, his companion shook his head ever so slightly, and so Victor Matthews sat down, slowly, waited for the woman to deal.

She smiled, held the deck one-handed:  Victor stifled an oath as the deck fairly exploded in her hand, as cards cascaded in a fluttering fountain all over the table, all over the floor.

"I do declare," Sarah exclaimed in a flawless Carolina accent, "I do believe there is no luck at all in that deck!  Might I have a fresh deck, please?"

Matthews started to rise again -- it was his favorite deck, he'd spent a great deal of trouble cutting the cards on a taper -- he disliked marking them with a thumbnail, corner marks were easily seen and easily added to confuse the players -- and blue eyeglasses were a dead giveaway that the cards were marked with lemon juice:  no, he always had a delicate sense of touch, and he preferred to taper his cards to a varying degree, so they could be stripped out of a deck on the deal.

The saloon-boy scampered over, gathering cards from the floor, placing them on the table, hoping for a coin:  Sarah favored him with a dazzling smile and with silver, guaranteeing the lad's attention, guaranteeing he would be quick to grant her murmured requests, whether it be a drink, a sandwich, or a message to be carried:  Sarah shuffled the new deck, her pleasant smile never fading, and she expertly dispensed a hand of cards to each of the other three players.

Coins dropped and clinked in the middle of the table; cards were sorted, arranged, fanned, plucked, moved:  Sarah watched each of the three, added a coin to the pot.

One folded.

The pot went to the man on her right.

Another deal, another hand:  Sarah's eyes were bright and amused over her fan of cards, held before her face in delicate, gloved hands:  the pot went to Matthews.

Three more hands, and Sarah saw patterns developing.

The man to Matthews' right -- on her left -- was not winning:  she knew the deck she'd been given, she'd set it up herself, it was cleverly marked, and she knew he'd held two winning hands, yet he folded and let the pot go elsewhere.

"Mr. Matthews," Sarah said unexpectedly as she casually tossed another round of silver into the pot, "you look uncomfortable.  May I buy you a drink?"

"Why'd you want to do that?" he asked suspiciously.

"A man with a guilty conscience often has a dry throat," she said, raising a hand:  the boy scampered over, smiling with a milk tooth missing in the front:  "Here's for the barkeep," Sarah murmured, "could you bring Mr. Matthews a beer, please?" 

Bare feet scampered through sawdust:  a moment later, Victor Matthews frowned as the boy very carefully set the beer at his elbow.

He hesitated, then snatched up the beer, took a long drink, downed half the mug on his first breath.

"Mr. Matthews," Sarah said in a reasonable voice, "is the trade in carriages and wagons profitable these days?"

Matthews choked on the last pull he'd taken:  he nearly dropped the mug, but not until he coughed into the mug and sprayed his face with beer:  he set the mug down blindly, wiped his face with an impatient slash of his sleeve, glared at Sarah.

"What d' you know about wagons?" he growled.

Sarah smiled, lifted her chin, called across the smoke-layered air to the piano player.

"Oh, Knuckles," her voice sang, "could you play 'The Happy Farmer, Returning from Work'?"

She turned and regarded Victor Matthews as the piano player's cheerful, bouncy air filled the saloon.

Sarah's expression was both prim and innocent:  she dealt the cards with a casual precision, the pasteboards landing very precisely in front of each intended recipient.

"I know two men swore you cheated them," Sarah replied gently, "and they wish to swear out warrants against you."  She looked at the man at Victor's elbow.  "Tell me, sir, do you really wish to sit so close to a man who is known to be disreputable?"

Sarah saw his shoulder drop and she tasted copper.

There was the sound of thunder -- a single, deep toned BOOOOM, and smoke rolled from under the table.

Victor Matthews' hands were suddenly numb:  he dropped his cards, his eyes remarkably wide, and he opened his mouth a little, visibly sagging as the man to his right sagged further and then fell over.

The piano player flinched, jerked his hands from the ivories as if scalded:  everything froze as smoke rolled out from under the table, as Sarah slid her chair back, rose.

Sarah Lynne McKenna raised her left hand, a leather wallet open in it, a bronze shield polished and gleaming in the carved-leather frame:  "AGENT S. L. MCKENNA, FIRELANDS DISTRICT COURT," she declared loudly, turning as she stood:  her right hand, her delicate, gloved hand, was firmly and most indelicately gripped about the handle of a stubby .44 bulldog revolver.

She took a step toward the man lying on the floor, raised a buttoned boot, placed it very precisely on the dying man's hand, and the pistol that it held.

She turned her head, looked at the boy.

"Fetch me the Law," she said quietly.

 

His Honor the Judge nodded as he read her handwritten report.

"I would never," he said slowly, "have thought to investigate someone else in order to get the man you wanted."

"I knew I had to misdirect him," Sarah replied.  "He was one of the best card cheats I've ever seen.  Matthews thought he was good, but his companion -- Dickens -- was doing his very best not to attract attention to himself, and so became attractive."

"To you."

"To me."

"I can't say I'm sorry he's dead."

Sarah made no reply.

"I understand the Marshal was about to seize you when you drove a knee into him and belted him over the head with a beer mug."

"I didn't see the need to kill him too."

"His deputy?"

"Young and inexperienced.  I shoved the falling marshal into his arms, and then I told the deputy to look at my foot."

"Your foot."

"The one standing on the dead man's gun."

"Ah."

"When he saw that I had an Agent's shield, and that I was indeed standing on a murderer's weapon, he was not inclined to come within arm's reach."

"He could have shot you."

Sarah smiled, just a little.

"I still had a handful of .44 bulldog, Your Honor, and I'd already killed one man.  He might have considered the hand of cards he held, and thought mine was better."

His Honor the Judge nodded slowly.  "I'd say he made a wise play."

"Papa the Sheriff had a talk with the town marshal."  Sarah pressed her lips together, frowned like she'd bitten into something distasteful.  "He vouched for my actually holding an Agent's commission, and he reminded the Marshal, the Mayor and half the council that Alan Pinkerton found a woman to be of great usefulness as an investigator, and exactly why, and that I've been most useful to the Court on multiple occasions."

His Honor the Judge grunted.  "Damned shame he didn't believe you to start with."

"He made a mistake," Sarah shrugged, "and he paid for it with a headache.  And other ... pain."

His Honor withheld comment, knowing Sarah's initial strike on the approaching Marshal was most unkind, but most effective.

"What about Matthews?"

"Oh, he still has warrants out for his arrest," Sarah said casually, "but he has not come to the attention of this honorable Court, so I told him I had no interest in him, and I bought him a drink and a meal before he left."

"I don't think I would have been that charitable."  His Honor's voice was a low grumble as he nipped the end off a hand-rolled Cuban, spat the twist into his goboon.

"Victor Matthews is a cheat," Sarah affirmed, "but having seen the arm of the Law seize a wanted man most decisively, I think he'll be inclined to square his accounts.  He may never regain his reputation -- at least among those who know him -- but he'll be inclined to a greater honestly now."
 

 

 

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305. A CHURCH'S SECRETS

 

Reverend John Burnett leaned back in his chair, his hands light on his Scripture: he let his mind relax, let it wander, as his eyes wandered across the long, concave trim strip between wall and ceiling.

His fingertips traced slowly across the paper, as if a blind man were searching, slowly, tiredly, for the raised dots of a Braille: his thoughts came together, like a fog thickening, until something solid walked in the mental mist, and he looked at what walked in his mind.

It was the Sheriff.

 

Willamina Keller sat on the front pew, considering the hand made Altar, the rude cross on the back wall: there was the very best of craftsmanship to be seen, carving so skilled it seemed the vines winding up the corners of their century-plus-old Altar might suddenly sprout green and living leaves from the carved leaves wrapping skilfully around the seasoned, stained wood.

She felt, more than saw, Reverend Burnett come over, sit beside her.

"Do you know," she said slowly, thoughtfully, "that generations of my family have done this?"

"Oh?"

"Oh, yes.  Old Pale Eyes used to come here."

Reverend Burnett nodded, slowly:  he'd read his predecessors' records, their journals, their letters; he'd read of a Parson Belden, apparently a contemporary of the man his Sheriff called "Old Pale Eyes" -- he'd read where that long-ago lawman would come in, hat in hand, how he'd park his backside on this selfsame pew, how he would contemplate the carved Altar, the rough Cross on the back wall ... and how he would "talk to God about it."

Reverend Burnett smiled a little as he recalled the phrase: he'd asked a man, one time, a man who'd mashed his thumb while hammering a nail -- "Did you talk to God about it?" -- and his quiet pronouncement was enough to shatter the erstwhile carpenter's ill temper, replacing it with a quiet, wry laugh.

He thought of his pale eyed Sheriff, their very own Sheriff Willamina:  as usual, she was in a tailored, blue suit dress and heels; as well put together as she looked, he knew, she was more than deadly, and he was satisfied that -- should the occasion demand -- she could produce sidearm, or baton, life jacket or outboard motor from her clothing.  

He himself was quite sure he would never understand how his wife could carry a complete change of clothes, a second pair of shoes, extra meds, a thermometer, chewing gum, breath mints, a bottle of water, two frying pans and a Volkswagen in that carved-leather purse of hers: likewise, the Sheriff seemed to be able to produce anything that was needed from beneath her own suit coat.

He thought of her quiet voice as they sat side by side in the front pew, contemplating the Eternal in midmorning's hush.

"Parson," Sheriff Willamina said quietly, "sometimes I wonder how many of me there has been."

Reverend Burnett waited, knowing the Sheriff was half in conversation, half thinking out loud.

"When I birthed each of my children," she continued, "every one of my selves was there."

Reverend Burnett raised an eyebrow, looked curiously at his Sheriff.

"Reincarnation was part of Christian canon until the year 500," Willamina continued, "and I have to consider that one lifetime is too short for the lessons we must needs learn."

Reverend Burnett nodded, slowly; he'd thought the same thing himself, from time to time -- more often, with more years on him than once were.

"I saw my selves from far in the past," Willamina said distantly, remembering, "from ... one was from ancient Greece, an Archer-Maiden, guarding a temple with her Maiden-Sisters."
She didn't tell him that the Maiden was the sole survivor, that the Mother-Priestess was killed, as had been every one of her Maiden-Sisters -- but not one of them wavered, not in the face of the onrushing enemy, the wall of blades, shining in the sun, until ultimately they were all overrun by the invaders.

She alone survived, surrounded by a wall of shields, a ring into which the enemy's chieftain entered, offering her the crown of a Queen, would she but yield in that moment.

She'd crossed blades with the Chieftain of the invaders, and had fallen because she refused to surrender:  this she knew, but said not.

"Another was in the American Revolution."  Willamina's voice was soft, gentle, but the memories of which she spoke were voiced in full color, as if a three-dimensional image stepped off a silver movie screen, coming to life before them.  "She shot a British lieutenant out of the saddle, she dropped the fired musket and ran and was shot in the back as she fled.

"I saw my selves as they will be."

She smiled, remembering the pale eyed woman wearing what she knew was called "an Olympic skinsuit" -- but she also knew this was far enough in her future that she really couldn't appreciate it for what it was, only that she recognized an atmosphere helmet when she saw it, and this was part of the white suit, a suit with a six point star embossed over the left breast, with a toylike, oblong, rounded pistol of some kind on the belt.

"One of my selves is buried in the graveyard yonder, in the old section.  You remember when the German legate formally presented me the bones they'd excavated from the ruin of what had been a baronial Schloss."
Reverend Burnett did indeed remember; he'd presided over the interment of these, the final remains of one Sarah Lynne McKenna, woods colt of Old Pale Eyes, wife of Daffyd Llewellyn and mother to young Daffyd, who went on to become Fire Chief back in Cincinnai.

"Do you see them otherwise?" he asked, and Willamina's smile was gentle, almost sad:  she shook her head, took a long breath.

"No," she admitted, then laughed quietly.

"I do wonder, sometimes ..."

Reverend Burnett waited again.

"I can't play piano to save my sorry backside.  Sarah could make the ivory 88 sit up and bark, and she had a voice that could have sung in the Heavenly Choir."

Reverend Burnett blinked, rapidly, the way a man will when he's trying to remember something that should be in the very front of his mind, and isn't.

He realized he'd never heard the Sheriff sing -- not in church, not ever.

"You could give it a try," Reverend Burnett suggested.

Willamina laughed again, and it was good to hear her laugh:  too often, when she came into the quiet, shadowed interior of their little whitewashed church, she appeared drawn, or angry, or stressed: it was rare to hear her laugh, rarer yet to see her relaxed, open, her guard down.

"Maybe I'll try one note," she said speculatively:  she stood, walked over to the piano, reached for middle C, hesitated.

If you think you can't, she thought, you're defeated before the battle starts.

If you think you'll die in combat, you'll find a way to make it happen.

Willamina pressed the key, closed her eyes, took a long breath, drawing air in to the hara, to the center, and she leaned her head back, and she sang one note.

One single note.

One pure, soaring note that spun magic in the church's hush, one flawless, sustained note that seemed to the Reverend Burnett to be a magical dove soaring on glowing, porcelain wings.

Like the Sheriff, the Reverend was privy to things he would take to his grave, and one of them was the memory of the Sheriff's voice, the memory of her expression as she tilted her face back, eyes closed, as she sang to the Cross on the back wall.

It was not the first time she sang, but that one pure, sustained note was the first, and he counted it a blessing that he was there to hear it.

 

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305a: And now, a brief intermission!

 

Pardon me while I let my mind wander.

I am a firstborn, and a firstborn is raised first and foremost to OBEY -- immediately and without hesitation -- and so when my father admonished me, in my fourteenth year, that "When I was a child, I thought as a child, I moved as a child, I spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put these childish things from me" -- at this admonition, I put my inner child ruthlessly from me.

What followed was absolutely the most miserable twenty-four hours of my entire life.

I took up the inner child again and have been quite happy ever since.

Children have a spontaneity and a curiosity; children see possibilities, and I've tried to harvest those qualities when my imagination goes a-wander, as it has here of late.

I find "Short Stories" suits me, as I can happily jump from the dim and distant past, to the far future; I can discuss throwing a shaped charge like a javelin in one-third gravity and a near-nonexistent atmosphere, I can ride my father's mule with a repaired fowler across the saddlebow in front of me, I can leap off a mountainside cliff into deep and icy waters below and listen to the four-count chant of a laboring locomotive, I can swing my partner in a round barn that's stood for more than a century or I can ear the hammer back on an engraved Colt's revolver and say coldly, "Drop the weapon or I drop you."

There's an awful lot of real life woven into those stories.

Not long before midnight in what used to be a coal mining town, I wore a lawman's shield and looked through the sights at a fellow who'd just cocked a set of nunchaku at me, and I told him in a cold voice those same words -- "Drop the chucks, or I drop you!" -- and he said later, in frank admission to a fellow prisoner in the county lockup, that he did not doubt that cold eyed lawman was going to put one right between his eyes.

Jacob and the Sheriff used to shoot in the corral in the lower end of Firelands, tossing cans in the air and punching holes in them: I used to shoot at the range very near my bailiwick of Chauncey, and I knew loafers, hangers-on and other folk whosed professions were less than entirely legal, would slip in to watch my practice, and so I didn't just punch holes in a silhouette target:  I would toss tin cans in the air and put one, then two, then three holes in it; I would sling a can in the air and get at least four hits out of my model 12 pump gun, I would set playing cards edge wise and cut them in two with my .357, knowing full well I was watched.

I spoke of the little brick cube that was the village of Chauncey's village hall.

It still stands today.

The widow Hanson died here recently; I wrote of Jacob staying in her boarding-house: the house she and her husband kept for their lifetimes was indeed a boarding-house, back when coal was King and a million dollar pile of zinc ore was mined out from under the town, and photographed for a postcard.

When Jacob rode the pretty young schoolmarm up the hill on the back of his Appaloosa stallion, the schoolhouse stands to this day.

When I wrote of then-deputy-marshal Willamina raking the muffler off the police cruiser, well, that was me, and yes I burned my hands tossing that torn-free muffler in the trunk, and yes when the horn stuck and I threw the hood up so I could unplug the noisemaker, the hood did come down and mash my brand new Stetson, and yes I did let slip the leash from my temper:  I did pull my Monadnock PR-24 and drive its short end into the hood, and it did leave a dent, which stayed until the village got rid of that miserable excuse of a police cruiser.

Going back to the inner child, mine has a very active imagination, and fortunately the adult is educated enough not to make too many horrible mistakes in storytelling.

The child would have described an interstellar dogfight, in terms of Chandelles and split-S and tight, sweeping turns, but the adult knows there is no air in space to support a banking turn; the child fancied rocketing head-to-head with marauding aliens, and the adult said wait a minute, let's not turn this into a science fiction expedition: those moments of reining in the over active imagination are why the Firelands colonists on a distant red planet, are so enamored with the romance of their forbears, why they built an actual, working steam locomotive, why a Navy pilot who grew up wearing long skirts and work boots and playing fiddle to the four-count chant of the rebuilt steam locomotive with a spray of roses painted on the side of her cab, now plays fiddle in that distant colony.

As a matter of fact, the inner child was scampering busily through the fields of wild and unfettered imagination this morning, and I leaned back against the kitchen counter and sipped my coffee and smiled a little as the child chased through the tall grass, laughing, swinging a stick and happily imagining how he might next get into something interesting.

With my luck, it'll be getting in trouble.

I've written gaffes and goofs and kind souls have PM'd me to offer a gentle correction; other blunders, I discovered on my own -- like the fire doors on The Lady Esther -- when first I wrote of her, I described the fireman stepping on an air valve and the butterfly doors SLAMMING open and BANGING shut ... until I discovered this wasn't until high pressure steam, many years later, so I went back and edited out my goof!

I try to weave in my own experience, but I've relied heavily on trusted sources for other information: I have no experience wearing a tailored suit dress, for instance, or delivering a lethal kick while wearing three inch heels: for this, I consulted those who actually know about these things.

One example was when Willamina picked up a two man generator, back when she was a firefighter back East, she packed it across the bay and asked the Chief where he wanted it:  I didn't do that, a dear friend of mine did, and I watched men stare, slack jawed, as this good looking young woman hauled that heavy beast over before Big Chief White Hat and demanded of him her question.

And now that I have wandered aimlessly in a coffee-scented moment, I return to the short stories: I have to take the Jeep in for oil change and tire rotation, and likely Willamina's twin brother, the pale eyed Chief of Police Will Keller will comment that he used to do all  his own oil change and tire rotation, but hell, he's old enough to let them young fellers handle it, they have a warm, dry place to work, all the tools they need and if he can sit on his backside in the waiting room and drink coffee while they do the work, why not.

Will Keller will say it, because that's exactly what I said to my wife this morning.

Linn

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306. A MAN'S LOGIC

 

Linn held his infant daughter in one arm, a book in the other:  his wife was relaxed, asleep, in her recliner, and he was inclined to let her rest.

He'd put in a full day himself but he was determined to spoil his wife, and when she fed the baby and changed the baby and rocked the baby and she relaxed with  her head back, Linn eased in and lifted the wrapped child from her arms, and drew the blanket up around his wife's chin, and cat footed back over to his own easy chair, where he picked up the face-down book, settled himself, leaned the drowsy little girl against his chest, and read as best he could, one-handed.

The old house was silent, or nearly so; Shelly looked tired, and Linn was very definitely not inclined to trouble her.

He frowned a little, set the book down again, rose:  he picked up the cordless phone, carried it over to his chairside table, lifted his cell phone out of his breast pocket and placed it beside the house phone: should either give alarm, he could snatch it up quickly -- hopefully quickly enough that his wife would drift back down into the dark lake of slumber, which she obviously needed.

He felt his baby girl wiggle a little, and smiled:  he was satisfied she was used to his smell, he was satisfied this would be reassuring to her, that cuddled up against her nice warm Daddy, she would relax and sleep the innocent slumber of a wee child.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller rubbed her eyes, placed her reading glasses on the open laptop's keyboard, pressed the power button: the screen went dark, and she was glad for it.

She made it a habit of not bringing work home, unless there was absolutely no other choice -- and if there had to be more work done, she tried to stay at the office to tend that detail.

Most of the time it worked.

Willamina was not terribly enamored with technology's advance.

She hated change as much as her son hated change.

Sheriff Willamina Keller thought of her son and smiled a little.

Sometimes it's hard for a parent to look at their grown child and regard them as adult, for there was an entire lifetime of seeing a child as an infant, and then a little boy, and then a growing boy and a teenager and a young man, and too often a parent will be trapped in those memories, not wanting to surrender that past reality.

Willamina-the-Sheriff had no trouble accepting her son as her chief deputy, as a man grown, as a warrior and a peacemaker, an organizer and supervisor and when necessary, a referee or a shoulder to cry on or the last hand a dying soul holds when he's the first on scene at a bad and bloody wreck.

Willamina tilted her head back, smiled a little as she looked through the far wall, imagining how her little boy -- a grown man and married -- must be faring with a baby under his roof.

I'll bet he's hanging over the crib and staring at her hands, she thought.

Her father used to do that with him.

It absolutely amazed Richard that something this small could be so absolutely perfect!

Linn, in point of fact, was not staring in amazement and wonder at his daughter's tiny hands.

He was instead on his knees, wiping her little pink bottom with a warm, wet washcloth, marveling at how utterly full of it one little baby could be.

He was no stranger to unpleasant odors; he ordered his stomach most sternly to stop rolling, for he'd smelled worse: still, he was happy to bag up everything, tie a knot in the bag, throw that in a second bag and then set it by the door, to be packed out to the burning barrel.

Shelly stirred, opened one eyes, smiled gently.

"Why are you changing her on the floor?" she asked, her voice drowsy, distant.

Linn waited until his little girl's bottom was clean, dry, powdered and the fresh diaper secured: he leaned back, stood up on his knees and said "Dearest, women are marvelous creatures:  Mama could change my butt on the narrow edge of a two-by-four and make it look easy, many's the time she changed me on the ironing board in between shirts and blue jeans."  He looked down at his happy, arm-waving little girl on her fuzzy pink blanket.  "I know my luck, dearest: was I to try to change her in the middle of a double wide king size bed, she'd roll off and hit the floor."  He paused, looked from mother to child and back again, and added most passionately,

"She can't fall off the floor!"

"Men," Shelly murmured, closing her eye and allowing herself to relax back into that dark lake of slumber she'd only just surfaced.

 

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307. "HERE, MA, TAKE YORE KID!"

 

Old Pale Eyes grinned.

He held his brand new little baby boy in one arm and his brand new baby girl in the other, and he looked as tickled as any schoolboy who'd just been given a whole poke full of rock candy.

He was parked in front of the Sheriff's office, on the Deacon's bench, where loafers and gunmen, ranchers and drummers stopped to set, to spit, to whittle, to whistle, and to lie outrageously to one another.

Each and every one of them agreed wholeheartedly that the Devil was the father of lies, but every last one of them also recognized that it was custom, and expected, and every last soul who parked his backside on the Deacon's bench did his level best to out-yarn, out-lie and out-whopper the next man.

Most of them were pretty good at it.

Matter of fact, all were accomplished at the art, and there were those with an absolute gift, so much so that schoolboys were warned not to go near the place, lest they absorb tales of great, hairy-footed mountain giants that ate children, kept living boulders for pets and took turns throwing each other to the Moon and back, or at least over the Divide itself.

Today, though, today the Sheriff sat in the middle of the bench, his boots planted, his grin broad and genuine:  liars, prevaricators and tellers of tales still stopped, and sat, but it was to admire the young of the man whose loins were so potent that he sired his young in litters.

As a matter of fact, all went really well until Esther Keller, the Sheriff's wife and mother to her children, came up the sidewalk, their daughter Angela dutifully following, and one must wonder about the timing of the event: whether this, perhaps, was a reminder to the pale eyed old lawman that perhaps all that lying was not good for the soul.

You see, he handed his Esther their little baby girl, and then he bounced their little boy on his leg, all full of pride at his progeny:  "My son, my son!" he declared happily, and his little baby boy was so absolutely delighted that he waved his arms and gurgled and laughed and wet all over his Daddy's leg.

Old Pale Eyes picked up the dripping little fellow, his expression of delight fading rather quickly, and it was a point of torment and teasing for years to follow that he handed his damp descendant to his wife: 

"Here, Ma, take YORE KID!"

 

Linn stepped out on his front porch, put two fingers to his lips, whistled.

Out in the pasture, under a pile of hay, something stirred: the net effect was kind of like a volcano swelling, at the moment before eruption: instead of a great cloud of exploding gas and dust, it was a huge black head, thrusting up into the clear air, followed by a massive, curly-furred canine:  The Bear Killer shook, leaped from his nest, charged across the field, tucked his forepaws and leaned out his hind legs and shot between the bars of the corral, galloped around the corner of the yard and pulled a barely-controlled, high-speed turn.

Linn laughed at The Bear Killer, bent down:  "You look kind of fuzzy," he grinned, and The Bear Killer advanced, dancing on his forepaws, tongue out and swinging, his great brush of a tail happily punishing the air behind him.

"Come on in, fella," Linn said, opening the door, and The Bear Killer shook himself, loosing a thin cloud of chaff, and happily tik-tik-tikked in on the hardwood floor.

The Bear Killer dropped his head, snuffing loudly at the little blanket-wrapped figure in the middle of the oval, hand braided rug.

A little pink hand raised, waved, reached for the great canine's blunt, strong jaw.

The Bear Killer licked the little hand, quickly, carefully, then curled up, wrapping his tonnage around the little blanket wrapped baby until only canine fur was visible.

What had been a fussy baby became a warm, cuddled baby, happily contained in the protective, furry bulk of a Tibetan Mountain Mastiff, who lay there looking absolutely pleased with himself.

 

 

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308. "NO!"

Sheriff Willamina Keller came out of her office, closed the door quietly behind her: she was frowning at the papers on the clipboard she held, she had a pen thrust behind one ear, she had the front page lifted, pale eyes on the sheet before her.

She heard the front door open; absently, she pulled the pen from its perch, made a notation, looked up at a sudden, loud patter of what her mind recognized as a child, a small child at a dead run.

Willamina's pale eyes lifted from the page.

Sheriff Willamina Keller went to one knee, spread her arms wide, wrapped her arms around something with big and very pale eyes, curly blond hair, a big delighted grin: a little girl child of no more than four years ran happily into her, seized her in a child's delighted embrace, and Willamina could not help but smile at the spontaneous "Gammaw!" that echoed in the stone-floored office's hush.

Chief Deputy Linn Keller took a pace toward the woman who came in with the child.

His expression was not as welcoming.

The woman had a yellowish, unhealthy look about her; she was not dressed as well as the child -- the little girl was in a pretty frock and little frilly anklets and patent leather slippers -- but the mother was in a shapeless sweatshirt, worn jeans and backless clogs.

"Sis," Linn said, his voice guarded.

"Hello, Linn," the woman said in a tired voice.

Jacob's move was fast, and he did not spare his young strength as he seized her: his arms hooked under hers, he caught her as she collapsed: a hoist, a hook, he ran his off arm behind her shoulder blades and his good right arm behind her knees, and picked her up.

The stranger hung limp, unconscious in his arms.

Willamina and Linn looked at one another, both looked at the dispatcher.

"Squad," they said with one voice.

Sharon reached over and mashed the red button with her right thumb.

 

It took a considerable amount of Willamina's reserve to maintain a neutral expression as the happy little girl spoke in a quiet but very certain voice.

"Mommy dressed me funny," she said, "but she said Good Little Girls dressed like Little Ladies and I was supposed to be a Lady because she never was an' you are my Gammaw is a Lady an' she's been really sad an' I dunno what I did wrong to make her all sad."

Willamina took the child's hand, watched as her firstborn, now on the ambulance cot, was wheeled out the waiting ambulance.

"Linn?"

Linn raised his chin a few degrees in reply.

"This is Marnie. She is my granddaughter."

Marnie's eyes opened wide and she looked at Willamina with an expression of utter, absolute delight:  "Uncle Leeyin!" she declared, shot from Willamina's hands across the floor, skidded to a fast stop as something tall, silent and dark eyed materialized beside her pale eyed Uncle.

Linn looked down at the startled little girl, placed his hand gently on Paul Barrent's shoulder.

"Marnie," he said, "this is my friend Paul. He's a Deputy Sheriff."

Marnie blinked, laughed, shot forward and seized Paul Barrent's leg:  she looked up and declared, "Beeg!"

Linn and Paul looked at one another, laughed a little.

"No, Paul," LInn said gently.

Marnie shook her head emphatically, her curls bouncing with the effort:  "Beeg!" she insisted loudly.

"You heard the lady," Paul shrugged, grinning.  "I've been called worse."

Willamina paced thoughtfully across the floor, frowning. "Let's see how she got here."

"We came in onnada bus," Marnie offered helpfully, "an' we walked da restadda way."  Her words tumbled over one another in her eagerness.

"So much for that," Linn muttered.

"Marnie," Willamina asked, squatting again to come down to the bright-eyed child's level, "did your Mommy have a suitcase or anything?"

Marnie shook her head.  "It was stollen."

"We'll have to get you some clothes, then," Willamina said briskly, looked up at Linn.  "I doubt if your daughter's things would fit her."

Linn laughed a little.  "No, I reckon not."  He squatted as well, looked speculatively at the apple-cheeked little girl.  "She's one of us, all right," he said softly, and Marnie realized, suddenly, that this tall stranger with the curly muts-tache had pale eyes like she did, and suddenly she didn't feel alone in the world anymore.

"I reckon we can dress you in a burlap sack."

Marnie looked at him with surprise and alarm.

"Oh, ya," Linn said straight-faced, "that's what we do with our baby girl. Put her in a diaper and pop her in a burlap sack, draw it up around her neck, she's dressed."
"NO!" Marnie declared, stamping her little foot and shaking her Mommy-finger for emphasis, going so far as to spell it so there would be no misunderstanding. 

"B! R! N! NO!"

Linn threw his head back, laughed, wrapped his arms around the indignant little girl.

He picked her up and she pointed at Barrents and declared joyfully, "Beeg!"

"Let's go check on your Mommy, shall we?" Linn murmured quietly, reaching for his uniform Stetson.

 

Willamina was experienced enough as a nurse to know her daughter was dying.

She drew a chair up beside the hospital bed, slipped her hand under her daughter's, careful not to disturb the IVs in her forearm: she knew they'd had a difficult time raising a vein, and she closed her mind to the reason why this was.

Nancy opened her eyes. 

"Mama," she whispered.

Willamina nodded.  "Yes," she whispered.  "I'm here."

"I'm dying."

"I know."

"Pancreatic cancer."

Willamina nodded again.

"Ultrasound ..."  Nancy's voice faded, and behind her, the Sheriff heard the door open, a familiar, slow step: that Dr. Greenlees' hand rested on her shoulder did not surprise her.

"I'll be right back," Willamina said softly, rose, turned.

Dr. Greenlees led her out into the hallway, closed the door.

"How bad?" Willamina asked.

"She's a time bomb," Dr. Greenlees said frankly. "It's ready to eat through the abdominal aorta. She has mets all up and down the aorta, she's full of cancer, she would never survive surgery."

"She could die at any moment."

"I'm surprised she made it here."

Willamina took a long breath, nodded.

"She asked about her father."

Willamina blinked, swallowed.

"She doesn't know he's dead."

Willamina nodded again.

"She said she wanted to apologize to him."

"She didn't leave on the best of terms," Willamina said slowly.

"I know.  I was there."

Willamina nodded again, leaned back against the wall, thumped her head gently against the painted wallboard, closed her eyes.

"Willa, she told me the father is dead and there is no other family.  She said she didn't know where else to come."

"She did right."  Willamina's whisper was strained.

 

Shelly tilted her head, regarded the pale eyed little girl frankly.

"I think," she said, "we can fix you right up."

"But I'm not broken," Marnie protested, and Shelly laughed.

"I mean with some clothes."

"I DON'T WANNA WEARIT NO BURLAP SACK!" Marnie shouted:  Shelly blinked, surprised, looked up at Linn, whose ears were turning red as guilt rose over his face like mercury in a warming thermometer.

"Umm ... burlap?" Shelly said.

"Yeah," Marnie nodded -- firmly again, her curls bouncing -- "Uncle Leeyin saidit he was gonna put me innada burlap sack like he did the baby an' I'm a big girl an' I don't wanna wearit no diaper!"

As she was declaring her intent in a loud voice, nobody in the Sheriff's office missed a single word that she said:  several faces were reddening, more than one turned away to stifle a smile, and finally Linn and Shelly took the emphatic child out to Linn's Jeep and headed for the hospital to check on the little girl's obviously unwell Mama.

Marnie giggled as Linn picked her up, swung her into the back seat:  Linn felt her stiffen as she turned to face something huge, black and furry, something that shoved a wet nose at her and flicked a pink tongue at this newcomer.

I should have given them both some warning, Linn thought -- too late -- but he need not have worried:  The Bear Killer snuffed Marnie's middle and Marnie laughed and caressed his silky ears and crowed "Vurbeeg!" 

Linn closed the door quietly but firmly, and he was almost around the back of the Jeep when he saw movement inside, and his heart let go of its moorings and dropped about ten feet, until it hit his boot tops and stopped.

The Bear Killer was throwing his head back, and he did that for one reason and one reason only.

Linn opened the driver's door just as The Bear Killer began to grieve.

Shelly looked over at her husband's hand, his knuckles blanched out white as they gripped the wheel, as The Bear Killer quietly sang of a soul's departure from this earth.

 

Shelly carried the baby; Marnie happily held her tall, lean-waisted Uncle's hand.

Linn saw Dr. Greenlees outside a room, and the surgeon raised a forestalling hand, shook his head.

Linn stopped, took a long breath, blew it out.

"Mama is inside?" he asked, and Dr. Greenlees nodded, walked slowly toward them, placed an understanding hand on Linn's shoulder.

Marnie looked up at the solemn faced adults.

Linn squatted down, picked her up.

"Marnie," he said, "do you know what death is?"

Marnie nodded.

"Do you know what happens when someone dies?"

Marnie nodded again.  "Mommy's dead."

Linn nodded.  "Yeah," he husked, his throat tight.

"Mommy said she was gonna go live with God," Marnie nodded with the happy assurance of a little child.

"She's making the trip right now."

Marnie tilted her head and looked at Linn with bright, shining, utterly innocent eyes.

"Will you be my Daddy now?"

Linn bit his bottom lip, looked at his wife, who nodded.

"Yes, Marnie," Linn said.  "I'm your Daddy now."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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309. AND IN THE NIGHT, DIAMONDS

 

Marnie watched solemnly as Shelly changed the baby's diaper.

Shelly's hands were a mother's hands, swift, sure, gentle, efficient: Marnie made no attempt to interfere, she didn't pick up anything the way a curious child does, nor did she prattle with questions and comments, and Shelly realized this.

Finally, with the baby fed, bathed, clean, diapered, wrapped in flannel and being rocked, Shelly asked the silent, watching little girl, "Do you have any questions?"

Linn leaned forward, interested in what their new family member might come up with.

Marnie considered the opening, frowned a little -- She's used to walking on eggshells, Linn thought, I've seen that before -- and then Marnie looked very directly at Shelly and asked, "Was I ever one of those?"

Her voice was high, pure, innocent: Shelly looked over Marnie's head at Linn, grinning at the innocently-voiced question:  before she could reply to the little girl's query, Linn offered, "I was," and Marnie turned, surprised, regarded the tall, lean lawman with an uncertain expression.

"I'm sowwy," she said, almost shrinking into herself.

Linn tilted his head, crossed his legs and sat down, in that order:  he held out his hands and Marnie took an uncertain step toward him, took his hands, her bottom lip pooched out and her head down.

Linn pulled her into him, turned her, sat her on his crossed legs, wrapped his arms loosely around her and rested his cheek on her curly blond hair.

"First off," he said, very gently, "you've done nothing wrong, and you've not made me mad."
He could feel her shivering a little, the way a little baby rabbit will shiver when it's been discovered in its nest.

"Second, I used to be one of those."  He raised a bladed hand, pointed to the baby:  "Only I was a lot more noisy."

Marnie looked at Linn with big, surprised eyes, then giggled, leaned against him:  she shivered a little again, and then she started to cry, and Linn practiced the wisdom of his forefathers.

Like his father Richard, like his Uncle Will, like his distant ancestor Jacob Keller and his father, Old Pale Eyes himself, Linn had absolutely no idea what to do to soothe a distressed female's tears, and so he did the only thing that seemed the least harmful.

He held her, he rocked her, and he let her cry.

All storms rain themselves out, and hers did:  Shelly slung him a blanket, one-handed, and Linn worked this around Marnie's shoulders, holding her safe and warm:  when he figured it was safe, he asked -- quietly, almost in a whisper -- "Marnie, what did you do that was so bad?"

"I dunno," she mumbled into his shirt front, and Linn rubbed her back through the blanket.

"How do you know you were bad?"
Marnie rubbed her face into shirtfront flannel, then leaned back and looked at Linn, distress streaking her pretty young cheeks with wet.

"Mommy didn't want to stay with me no more," she sniffed, "so she went to live with God 'cause God is big an' strong an' got plenty to eat an' --"

She wiped a bent wrist across her eyes.

"An' I was bad 'cause Daddy left an' I musta done somethin' bad" -- she sniffed, and Linn pulled out a white hankie, very gently pinched her nose between a double thickness of secondhand bedsheet:

"Blow."

He'd seen his Uncle Will blowing a distressed child's nose in this manner, but it was the first time he'd tried it.

That night, after Marnie was tucked into her bed, after the baby was sound asleep in the nearby crib, after The Bear Killer went out and back in and came in to pile up on the bed with the curly headed little girl, Linn and Shelly lay side by side, holding hands in bed, as they always did.

"Do you remember the child abuse seminar?"

"Last year?"

He felt her nod.

"They taught us that children assume guilt."

Linn grunted an affirmation.

"If a tornado rips off the roof, or if Mommy and Daddy have a big screaming fight, something terrible happens -- or happens to the child -- they automatically assume the guilt. In their mind, whatever happened, or happened to them, is their fault."

"I remember."

"She think she's the reason her Daddy is dead and now her Mommy left to live with God."

"Because she wasn't good enough."

"Sounds like it."

Silence.

Shelly felt Linn take a long, deep breath.

"Looks like I've got a lot of work to do," Linn said, staring at the nighttime ceiling.

"We both do."

"How do you convince a little girl who's lost both her parents that she didn't do anything wrong?"

Shelly's hand tightened in her husband's.

 

Marnie was rolled up on her side, her arm laid over The Bear Killer's chest.

She hadn't slept well for a very long time.

Her Mommy had been sick for a long time and Marnie was used to waking up to the sound of her Mommy in pain, or sick in the bathroom, or talking incoherently and falling.

Marnie used to cringe in fear, hearing these terrible things, remembering when her Daddy died, when those bad men came in and beat him and took him away and her Mommy told her they beat her Daddy because he owed them money but her Daddy was in a better place now and everything would be fine, and Marnie saw her Mommy's eyes weren't white anymore, they were yellow, and her Mommy got really sick and now Mommy left to live with God 'cause Marnie wasn't good enough for her to stay --

Marnie rubbed her face into The Bear Killer's fur, felt his chest rise and fall.

"Don't leave me, Bear Killer," she whispered, and she felt The Bear Killer's tail rise and fall, thumping happily on the bedcover.

Marnie's guts started to relax a little, and she fell asleep, her arm still laid over The Bear Killer's chest.

 

Linn's eyes snapped open and his hand ran down beside the bed, gripped the pistol in the mattress holster.

He slid out, carefully, thrust bare feet into fur lined moccasins: his left hand had eyes in the dark, it raised, lowered, grasped the small, high powered light in an icepick grip.

He listened, recognized the sound of The Bear Killer's toenails on downstairs hardwood.

He slid the pistol into its holster, slung his gunbelt over one shoulder, cat footed downstairs.

Marnie was stretching up on tip toe, trying to reach the deadbolt.

Linn reached over, turned the knob, then the doorknob.

The Bear Killer flowed outside, happily scampering across the grey-painted porch floor and out into the night-dark yard.

Marnie walked carefully down the hand cut stone steps, her arms wide for balance:  one step, two, a third, and she was down:  she ran a few steps into the grass, laughing:  the T-shirt she wore was more like a floor length gown, far too large for her:  she looked up, turned, and Linn could see her face by the pole light.

He saw a little child's face bright with wonder.

Marnie had never seen stars before.

Head thrown back, she turned, eyes wide, marveling.

Shelly came downstairs after several minutes, concerned that something had happened, wondering why her husband gave no alarm, no signal for good or for ill, and she found her husband -- in undershorts and moccasins -- holding a little girl on his hip, pointing into the night sky with the focused lance of a tactical flashlight.

Shelly came out, spun the shawl from her shoulders, wrapped it around Marnie, who was still looking up, gazing at the wonder in the heavens above.

Years later, Sheriff Marnie Keller would stand on one of those nighttime lights, the one that looked red when she saw it from her Daddy's arms, and sometimes Sheriff Marnie Keller would smile in her sleep, for she remembered what it was to be a little girl, safe and wanted in a strong man's embrace, looking up into a black velvet void, dusted with ground diamonds.

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310. DOCTOR GREEN LEAFS AND THE HOP-SICKLE

 

"She's in?"

Shelly nodded.

"How long?"

Shelly sliced at her baked steak and gravy, stabbing a chunk with her fork, chewing hungrily.  "Oh, God, this is good," she murmured, and Linn nodded, imitating her example.

They were eating in the hospital cafeteria, grabbing a fast bite together while they could, stealing moments from the day: it was Shelly's day off, she'd brought Marnie in to the pediatrician, and after a quiet-voiced conversation with the doctor, Shelly headed for the elevator, knowing she had a half hour anyway.

A medic gets good at eating efficiently, at managing their time: it was her day off, but she did not wish to inconvenience any of the hospital staff by dawdling over her meal.

Linn, for his part, had the black brick of a Motorola talkie in the middle of the table, turned down far enough to avoid disturbing the other diners, but loud enough he could catch a call.

"I think it'll be a solid half hour anyway," Shelly said finally:  Linn hadn't repeated his question, choosing instead of eat steadily, and had made a good percentage change in his plate's content by the time his wife spoke up.

"The baby?"

"She's getting a well-baby check."

"How'd you arrange that?"

"Good looks and talent."

Linn half-grunted, half-chuckled, finished cleaning his plate.  "Dessert?"

Shelly shook her head, raised a forestalling hand, only two bites behind her husband:  "I need to get upstairs," she mumbled, tossing back the last of her coffee.

Both rose; the uniformed deputy sheriff kissed his pretty young wife, took her hand, and the two slipped out of the cafeteria.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up, saw a shadow on the outside of her frosted glass office door window.

"In," she called, and the door swung open.

"Permission to come aboard," Linn grinned.

"Call me sir and I'll punch you right in the kneecap," Willamina muttered.  

"Yeah, God loves you too."  Linn pushed the door shut behind him.  "Good news."

Willamina laid down her pen, leaned back, looked very directly at her long tall son.

"I could use some right about now."

"Marnie is not used goods."

Willamina was quiet for several long moments; finally she nodded, blinking, considering carefully her reply.

"I was afraid," she finally admitted, "that she might be."

Linn nodded slowly.

"How is she sleeping?"

Linn laughed.  "Better than I am," he admitted:  "she rolls up on her side and throws one arm over The Bear Killer, and all's well with the world."

"You were much the same," Willamina murmured, and Linn saw his Mama's eyes soften a little, saw them shade into a more distinct blue from their normal frost pale hue.

"You'll like this."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"She won't sleep in her flannel nighties."

Willamina leaned back and favored her chief deputy with a curious expression.

"She'll sleep in one of my T-shirts and she'll come downstairs of a morning in her flannel nightie, and she'll put on the flannel once she gets her bath, but she won't sleep in it."  Linn's grin was growing steadily broader, and his ears were turning equally redder.

"She sleeps in my T-shirt because she said it smells like Daddy."

Willamina tried hard not to smile, and had not a bit of success:  as a matter of fact, she turned her face away from her offspring, raised the back of her hand to her lips, her shoulders working:  Linn knew she was chewing on her bottom lip, and sure enough in about ten seconds she started to laugh:  Linn managed a poker face and added solemnly, "I do not believe I have ever received a greater compliment."

Willamina removed her readers, wiped her eyes, nodded:  she took a great breath, blew it out, looked at her son with an expression of approval and delight.

"How does it feel to be Daddy all of a sudden?"

Linn grinned, then sobered.

"Mama ... she slid out of bed the other night and went downstairs."

"Oh?"
"The Bear Killer went with her and she couldn't quite reach the deadbolt, so I slipped downstairs and opened the door for the both of them.

"We went outside and she went out into the yard.

"I picked her up and she leaned back and asked what those were and I didn't know what she was asking about."

Linn leaned over, heels of his hands on the edge of his Mama's desk.

"Marnie had never seen stars before," he whispered, both eyebrows raised.

"Shelly came down to see where I'd got off to and there the two of us were, I'd hipped her on my left side and she was pointing to this star and that star and I used my tac light as a pointer, and we stood out in the dark for some time looking at stars."

Willamina nodded, slowly, thoughtfully.  "Never saw stars before," she echoed.  "I wonder what else she's never done."

"She has good vision, Mama.  She spotted Mars and asked what that red star was."

"Did the pediatrician test her vision?"

"Yes, ma'am.  He said it was excellent, not even astigmatism."

Willamina grunted.  "Better than me!"

"Yes, ma'am."  Linn hesitated.  "I told Marnie that colonists were preparing to fly to Mars and set up a colony, and she wanted to go along."

Willamina froze; she remembered a moment in her barn when she had unexpected visitors: one, with curly black hair and wearing an off-the-shoulder tunic and sandals, with a bow slung across her back, was from ancient Greece, one in an electric blue gown, gloves and a stylish little hat (and a concealed .44 bulldog revolver), one in  a white skinsuit with a trim atmosphere helmet and visor, with a six point star embossed over the left breast and the name M. KELLER, SHERIFF -- and something told her she should keep this one behind her teeth.

"Thank you for letting me know."  Willamina rose.  "I take it she is otherwise in good health."

"A little undernourished," Linn admitted, "but the way she's been eating, she'll overcome that right here directly!"

"I have a Paso mare that should be a good fit," Willamina said slowly, "and I have a saddle I bought when you were about her size."

Linn grinned.

"I was hoping you'd say that."

"There's something else, isn't there?"

Linn nodded, chuckling.

Willamina raised one eyebrow.  "Out with it, mister, or it's no chocolate chip cookies for a month!"

Linn clapped a hand dramatically to his chest, leaned back as if shot in a B-movie melodrama:  "Wounded!  Wounded, I say!" -- then he straightened, grinned.

"I'm having trouble keeping a straight face," he admitted. "Dr. John Greenlees became Doctor Green Leafs.  He works in a hop-sickle, and Paul" -- he hooked a thumb over his shoulder -- "now has a new name."  He grinned a little wider and quoted, "Beeg!"

Willamina nodded, smiling.  "Sometimes it's delightful to see the world through the eyes of a child."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You know what to look for, the signs of having been raised the child of an alcoholic parent."

"The signs are there, ma'am."

"Let me know when I can help."

Not "if" I can help, Linn thought.

Likely she's right.

I'll need her help!

 

Willamina waited until her son was departed before she walked over to the wall to the right of her desk.

She looked at the glass-front, matted print made from a glass plate negative.

It was the Old Sheriff, Old Pale Eyes himself, with a Winchester rifle balanced in one hand, his other hand on the neck of a good looking Palomino.

"He's going to need your help," Willamina murmured, crossing her arms.

"You adopted Angela.  He's adopting Marnie.  He's never raised a little girl -- he's never raised children at all." 

Willamina closed her eyes, shivered. 

"Okay, Pale Eyes," she said, her voice hardening.  "He's your namesake and he looks just like you, now give him a hand with this!"

Willamina waited, listened, the shook her heat and snorted -- like you really expected a ghost to talk to you on demand? she chided herself.

What were you expecting?

Personal service?

 

Out in the lobby, Linn stopped, frowned, turned.

He could have sworn someone gripped his shoulder, momentarily, not a cautioning grip, nor a warning pull, more ... more a friendly, I'm-here from a friend.

He frowned, nostrils flaring.

Bay rum?

 

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311. I DO NOT PARADE

 

Will looked thoughtfully at his twin sister.

"How you holdin' up, Sis?" he asked.

Willamina reached over, took her brother's hand, squeezed.

They were in the back seat of Willamina's Jeep.

Linn drove; Shelly and the girls followed his his Jeep.

Willamina wore her black suit dress; Will wore his black suit as well.

Willamina held a small box, unadorned, sealed: on top, under a strip of clear tape, a twist of fine hair, a curl clipped from a little girl's head many years before.

"You're good at compartmenting your feelings."

"I'm good at it."

"Too good," Will cautioned.  "It wouldn't hurt for you to let some of 'em out, Willa."

Willamina turned her head and glared at her twin brother:  Linn glanced in the mirror, caught the look.

That, he thought, means trouble: he was glad he was driving, and not sitting with the pair, for Willamina's pale eyed glare could have frozen a mountain lake.

"I," Willamina said, "do not parade my grief for the entertainment of the public."

Linn heard his uncle Will sigh patiently.

"That's not what you mean and you know it."

Willamina looked straight ahead and made no reply.

Linn knew where the grave was dug and ready; he knew his Mama had his older sister's body cremated; he had questions, but he had patience enough not to ask until the right time.  He eased down on the throttle, just enough to make the grade, came through the big cast iron cemetery arch and then straight ahead, until he came to the family section.

The small grave was opened; the funeral director stood discreetly aside, beside Reverend Burnett, who Willamina had asked to preside:  the graveside service was brief, Willamina knelt on a folded rug beside the grave and laid a gloved hand on the featureless box with a little girl's curl of hair taped to its lid:  she rose, her face expressionless, turned with her twin brother at the concluding words, paused before she got back in the Jeep.

Will waited as Willamina's head bowed for a moment, her eyes closed, then she placed a hand on his shoulder and said quietly, "No parent should ever have to bury their child."

Marnie watched, solemn and silent, as all this transpired:  she looked around, and went over to a small gravestone, a stone shaped like a lamb.

She tilted her head a little, looked past the lamb, smiled:  a big white doggy was sitting there, looking at her with slanted yellow eyes, then the pretty white doggy yawned and laid down, licked its nose, looked to the side, and disappeared.

Marnie's eyes widened as it turned into a twist of fog that seemed to sink into the ground.

She turned and walked industriously back to her Daddy, who was standing with his Mama.

Willamina looked down at her granddaughter, who looked solemnly back up at her.

Willamina squatted down, held out her hands:  Marnie stepped forward, took her Gammaw's hands.

Willamina smiled, just a little.

"You don't look like your Mama," Willamina said softly.  "You look very much like your own unique self."

Marnie giggled a little, then blinked and said "Gammaw, why doesit the white doggie disappear?"

Willamina's eyes widened a little and she leaned a little closer.

"The white doggie with yellow eyes?"

Marnie nodded.

"That is a very special doggie," Willamina whispered, "and only very special people see it."  She touched Marnie's nose, delicately, carefully, bringing another giggle from the pretty little girl with pale eyes, and Willamina looked up at Linn and smiled.

"She's ours, all right!" she declared happily, then reached for her brother's hand.  "Here, help a decrepit old lady up."

"What's de-cwep-pit?" Marnie asked.

"It means she can't get up as easily as she used to."

"Oh."  Marnie frowned.  "I'm sowwy."

"Marnie," Willamina said, "we have a tradition in our family."

Marnie looked up at her pretty Gammaw, blinked.

"We have a banana split after a funeral."

"Yaaay!" Mandy cheered quietly, bouncing on her toes and clapping her pink little hands, then she stopped and frowned.

"Gammaw," she said, "what issit a banna spit?"

Willamina laughed, looked at Shelly, looked at Linn.

"You've neglected her education," she teased.  "Saddle up, troops, I'm buying!"

 

Linn held his counsel as his Mama and her twin brother talked quietly in the back seat.

He drove Will home; Willamina declined his offer to come in, as did Linn:  Will smiled and nodded, and said he understood, and he looked very directly at Linn and said, "Take it from a man who knows what it is to bury his son.  Cherish your children, and spoil your wife."

"Your advice is sound, and I shall take it," Linn said without hesitation.

Willamina turned to Will, her hands on his shoulders.

"Thank you," she murmured.  "That ... was difficult."

"I know."

"You would know better than anyone."

"She ... when she left, she might as well have spit venom."

"She did.  I was there."

"I'm surprised she came back."

"I'm not."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"She didn't give a good damn about herself anymore, Willa, but she loved that little girl."

Willamina took a long breath.  "You're right."  Linn saw a slight smile to his Mama's face.  "So do we."

"I know."

"Good night, Will."

"Good night, Willa."

Willamina looked at her son, waiting patiently, eyes half lidded.

"You drive," she said.  "I want to gawk."

 

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312. PRETENDER

Angela threw her head back, looking up at the rafters, shadowy suggestions of straight lines in the arched ceiling of the big round barn.
Her Daddy had her hand in his, and he had his arm around under her backside, and they whirled and spun with the other dancers:  Linn swung his little girl, spun his little girl, held his little girl to him as best they could: while everyone else danced the regulation square dance, Old Pale Eyes grinned and danced and Angela scattered happy little-girl giggles all over the sawdust floor.

Linn carried Angela over to where Esther was seated, regal and composed, having set out this one: they'd danced every set so far this night, and they begged their husbands' indulgence for a breather.

Angela, on the other hand, wanted to dance.

Her big strong Daddy obliged her.

Angela laughed through the set, but when they were returned to the ladies, Angela frowned and considered and then planted her little pink knuckles on her waist and declared, "Daddy, I want to dance for real! That was pretend dance!" -- and so saying, she scampered off behind some folks, around a table, and was gone.

Linn raised his eyebrows, looked at Esther, who gave him her very best Innocent Expression, at least until something feminine and spinning and all blue gown and smile whirled in like a Texas twister and landed neatly on Old Pale Eyes' lap.

"Hello, Papa!" Sarah laughed, her cheeks pink, her hairline damp:  she'd been in demand all night, and like any young lady her age, she was warmed up and ready to dance all night -- unless, that is, she could get into some happy mischief, and her Papa's lap looked like the right place to do just that.

"Well hello yourself," Linn grinned, a sudden, quick, not-often-seen expression:  "how many engagement rings and men's hearts have you collected so far tonight?"

Sarah laughed, looking at Esther and at her Mama, both of whom gave her a cautioning, knowing look: they too had been young and beautiful once, instead of older and still beautiful, but both knew what it was to toy with men's feelings and come to pain and sorrow.

"Why, Papa, you wound me!" Sarah batted her eyes innocently.

"Only if I turn you over my knee."

"Catch me first!"  Sarah kissed Linn quickly on the cheek, rose -- she did not thrust her dancing-slippers against the earth to rise, it was more as if she floated up off the man's lap -- she laughed, spun, and was gone.

Linn blinked and looked at his wife and said in a wondering voice, "What just happened?"

"It's still happening, my dear," Esther murmured gently, nodding toward the middle of the dance floor:  the sets were forming, and in one of them, Angela was towing a red-headed boy in his Sunday best, if you allow as he'd taken off his coat because the arms were too short and he was hot and coats were dumb anyway.

Linn blinked, watched as the couples began to dance the Texas Star, and damned if his little girl and the fire chief's red headed little boy didn't dance right well with them.

It was a little awkward when they made the star and picked up the ladies -- Angela was much further off the floor than her grown partner -- but her little-girl laughter was contagious, and more children paired off, and shortly there was a set made entirely of the young.

"Now that's proper," Linn murmured, nodding his approval.

"You know, my dear," Esther said gently, "I shall have to prevail upon Sean for his good graces."

"How's that, darlin'?" Linn asked, puzzled.

It was Esther's turn to bat her eyes innocently, to place gloved fingertips delicately to her bosom as she declared, "I shall have to prevail upon that great, red-headed Irish fire chief, to obtain for me a genuine Stick of Shillelagh, that we may keep the swains and suitors suitably distant from our lovely child!"

Linn laughed again:  Esther smiled, for it was good to see her husband's walls down:  he needed this dance, he needed tonight, he needed to laugh.

He needed his ladies, she reflected, and he needed them all ... the maidens, and the matrons alike.

Levi took Bonnie's hand, looked at Linn:  the pale eyed Sheriff with the iron grey mustache took his bride's hand as well, and they rose, and entered the dance floor.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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313. ONCE HIDDEN, TWICE FOUND

Angela Keller's cheeks were red, her hair was a single thick braid down the middle of her back:  she wore a black divided skirt, a canary-yellow blouse and a scarlet-and-black short vest, with a flat-crowned, black Mexican hat with silver conchos around the band and a silver slide on her storm strap: her Daddy taught her how to polish her boots to a high shine, and they were: her spurs were silver, and gleaming, worn for show and not for use:  a quirt hung from her right wrist, also for show.

Angela was but one month younger when she took the quirt and deliberately slashed herself with it, searing a burning welt of startling agony across her own back, because she wanted to know what a horse felt when it was quirted.

She'd also considered the bloodied rowels on the spurs of a truly bad man, a man who raked his horse without any mercy at all until he ran it to death: Angela did not know much about the man, save only that he was trying to escape her pale eyed brother, and didn't, and Angela watched with a grim satisfaction as her brother took the man by the throat, there at the last, after a long and desperate fight, after Jacob seized his opponent in a crushing grip and drove his boot knife up and into the man's belly, thrusting half a dozen times, until the bad man finally went limp and still and turned dark the way a dead man will.

Angela was not the least bit distressed to see this happen.

He'd hurt his horse and she had no liking at all for him.

Today, though, Angela rode with the knowledge that she had to do something.

She honestly had no idea quite what that might be, and so she puzzled as she rode:  finally, she turned down an alley, then turned again behind the bank, and crossed the little field and jumped the stream -- more like her horse hobby-horse stretched across it, not a true jump -- and they climbed the side of Cemetery Hill and came out at the back side of the field of stone.

Angela rode through the stones, frowning, until she saw the familiar double stone she'd stared at as a child.

It bore her Daddy's name and her Mama's name, though it held only their birth dates, but this did not claim her attention.

A huge white wolf did.

Angela rode to within twenty feet of the wolf.

The wolf looked at her, yawned:  unconcerned, it blinked, drowsy-looking in the sun, and Angela leaned back a little to bring her mare to a halt.

She dismounted, tilted her head a little as she looked at the wolf.

The wolf was in front of a small stone beside the big double stone ... a smaller stone with a lamb on it.

Angela knew she had a brother buried there.

She'd seen the White Wolf before, on the day they buried little Joseph:  she'd been much younger, much more impulsive:  she'd happily cried "Doggie!" and started to run toward the big fuzzy doggie when she tripped and fell, and her dead brother's coffin caught the buckshot swarm intended for her Mama -- a swarm that flew low and left of its intended victim.

Angela screamed when she fell, partly because she fell, partly because she was stung by stone spalls and maybe lead spatter: she heard the fast hammer of gunfire, and her Daddy told her later that a very bad man tried to kill her Mama, but they killed him, and his soul was going to boil in a kettle of buffalo fat over a bed of burning sulfur, and Angela approved of this because that bad man tried to hurted her Mommy.

Angela looked at the White Wolf, remembering.

"Hello, pretty thing," she whispered.  "You saved my life here. What can you tell me today?"

The White Wolf laid a paw on the stone lamb, her dead brother's tombstone:  the wolf looked at her with old eyes, with very wise eyes, and then became a twist of fog, corkscrewing into the ground.

Angela walked up to the carven lamb, looking around, then she hunkered down, balancing on the balls of her feet, laid her hand on the lamb, studied it.

She considered the carving -- across its base, parallel with the ground, it said

Joseph Keller

Infant son

Beneath the date, a single word, centered on the marble:

Stillborn.

 

"Mama," Angela asked, "what is stillborn?"

Esther froze, and Angela felt something shoot through her Mama -- she felt things like that sometimes, she felt the wave of pain when her Daddy hit his thumb driving a nail, she felt the shattering blast of an impact when her pale eyed big brother Jacob fell off a rearing horsie and landed flat on his back, knocking the wind out of himself.

Now, looking at her matronly, dignified Mama, she felt something else, something that scared her.

Esther's hands went to her belly, an unconscious reaction, and Angela's hands went to her own belly, and for the same reason.

She felt her Mama's emptiness, her Mama's loss, and suddenly she realized what the word meant.

Angela turned and ran.

Angela ran blindly, she ran fearfully, she ran as hard as she could, she slid between fence rails and across the pasture and across another field, she climbed a hill, she scrambled back into the graveyard, exhausted, out of breath:  she collapsed, breathing hard, head hanging, on her hands and knees, and then she raised her head and her lips peeled back to reveal even, white teeth, and the Sheriff's pretty young daughter snarled like an animal and she came up into a launching sprint and ran again, ran for all she was worth, until she saw the big double stone and the lamb beside it.

Angela stopped in front of her brother's stone and looked at that terrible word, that awful word, that word that caused her Mama such a soul-deep ache, and Angela ran her hand through a slit in her divided skirt and seized the handle of her boot knife:  she brought it out, she went to her knees, she dug fiercely at the dirt, until she had enough loosened to pile up and hide that hated word.

Angela pounded the dirt down into the words, she piled the dirt up on the edge of the stone, she packed it as hard as she could with her hands and the butt of the knife and then she wiped the blade in the grass and slid it back into her boot sheath, and she sat down suddenly and held up her dirt-stained hands, staring at them.

She was shaking.

Hard.

 

Linn was beginning to regret his fine idea.

His Mama's Paso was a gentle horse, a horse with absolutely the softest gait, but she was a horse and horses love to run.

Linn was only just teaching Marnie how to ride, and he was teaching her to ride without a bit, using her weight and her hands to guide the horse:  Marnie circled the corral easily, her head tilted a little to the side, as if hearing something he couldn't, and when he opened the corral-gate and said they would ride together in the meadow, Marnie's smile was quick and dazzling -- the way he remembered his own Mama's smile, when she was very pleased with something, or about to do something she perhaps shouldn't -- and he felt like he'd just touched match to too-short a fuse on a cannon cracker.

Marnie stood up in her shortened stirrups, leaned over her mare's neck with her hands flat on either side of the silky mane and yelled "GO, HORSIE!" and Willamina's mare -- trained for the pale-eyed Sheriff herself -- appeared to cock her launch mechanism, set her hind hooves into the earth, and then fire through the gate like a ball from a field-gun.

What Linn said in that moment does not bear repeating in polite company.

Suffice it to say that, by the time he was in the saddle and beginning his pursuit, Marnie was most of the way across the meadow, all hooves and mane and twisting tail, her hair braided down the middle of her back and her hat bouncing along behind, held by its storm strap and absolutely nothing else.

Marnie swung her mare gently to the left and the mare picked up speed, started the little down grade, thrust her nose straight out and her tail twisted straight back, held nearly level in her slip stream, and Jacob's heart launched from its cradle where it had fallen to boot top level and lodged up into his throat.

Marnie had never jumped a horse.

Marnie had ridden a horse less than fifteen minutes total.

Marnie was heading for the chest high fence at an absolute wide open gallop.

Jacob's stallion pinned his ears back and grunted and swung in pursuit.

Too late.

Marnie's scream shivered across the meadow as the golden Paso launched into low Earth orbit, lifting easily from the sod and sailing with no difficulty at all over the board fence, landing on the other side as she'd done many times before, but this was easier because her rider was much lighter weight than the mare was used to jumping with, and so she bore down all the harder, and Linn yelled "GET 'EM GET 'EM GET 'EM!" and his stallion drove hard against the earth and he too sailed over the boards, the stallion's off hind horseshoe barely scarring the white painted top rail as they passed over:  the stallion's eyes were locked on the mare's backside as surely as gunnery radar, and the stallion, a herd animal, was not going to let this part of his herd escape him!

Marnie's eyes were wide, her mouth open a little, her heart hammering with absolute delight:  she and her Gammaw's mare rode up hill, struck a road, swung to the right.

This was familiar territory for the mare:  she slowed a little, slowed more, came into the back side of the cemetery at a brisk trot:  she paced between the ancient stones, and Marnie laughed with delight as the mare stopped at a big double stone with a little stone beside it.

Marnie tilted her head curiously, frowning as she did:  the stone was shaped like a lambie.

"Whoa, horsie," Marnie said, and sat up straight, and the mare obediently stopped.

Marnie kicked her boots free, swung a leg, fell to the ground, landed flat-footed:  she straightened, walked over to the lamb, frowned.

She laid a hand on the smooth, polished marble, picked up a stick, started scraping at its base.

Linn caught up with her as she finished digging dirt out of the letters:  he saw her staring at them, frowning at them, her lips moving as she sounded them out like she'd been taught, looked at her Daddy, then back at the lambie.

"Daddy," she said, "what's stillborn?"

That evening, after Linn reported back to his Mama, after he and his little girl rode some more together, after Willamina showed Marnie how to groom down a horsie, how to check its hoofies and its shoezies, after they grained the horsies and hung up saddle blankets and saddles, Marnie said "Gammaw, what's stillborn?" 

It was the first time Marnie felt someone else's grief, someone else's loss:  Willamina's hands went involuntarily to her middle, and she sat down, hard.

Willamina smelled blood and cordite and hot oil and she felt the life leave her body, and for a moment she was in combat again, in a Humvee that just hit an IED.

Marnie doubled over, her hands to her belly, and as she collapsed to her knees, she realized with absolutely no doubt at all, exactly what the word meant.

 

 

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314. "CATCH ME, DADDY!"

 

Marnie looked around the firehouse with big and wondering eyes.

A firehouse is a magical place to a child: it smells of rubber and exhaust and tires and boots and smoke and cinders, it is filled with an expectant hush, the sensation of a crouched lion with quivering haunches pervades its shadowed interior: the Chief was a big, jolly man, bent over double, chasing after his son -- "Hold it, don't run in the firehouse!" -- and as Marnie watched, Marky ran headfirst into the stainless-steel rear bumper of their tank truck.

Marnie saw several of the men, and her Mommy, all grimace at the sound -- the bumper plainly rang with the impact -- Marky stepped back (staggered, truth be told) -- he reached up, rubbed the red, swelling lump on his forehead, muttered a quiet "Ow," and took off running again.

Marnie faded back between the chairs at the long table, doing her best to turn invisible.

She'd gotten good at it, when her Mommy was unwell, when people were over who weren't nice, when she didn't feel safe: Marnie watched as her Now-Mommy took the scampering little fellow around the waist -- "Whoa, cowboy," she called, swinging him up off the floor, grunting as his full weight came on her, swinging him back down and dropping to one knee, turning him to face her:  she frowned, lowered her head:  Marky frowned back.

Shelly sneered her lip up on one corner.

Marky sneered his up as well.

Shelly opened her mouth wide; so did Marky.

They each grimaced at one another -- stuck their tongues out at one another -- finally Shelly covered one of his eyes, waited several seconds, dropped her hand away:  she did the same with his other eye, and having just swindled the lad into a surprisingly effective neurological examination, she lowered her forehead until it just touched his and whispered, "I see youuuu," and Marky, seeing one big eye instead of two of them, giggled and echoed, "I see youuuu!"

Shelly turned him around, pointed him at his Daddy, swatted him gently on the backside:  "He's all yours, Chief," she called, "you can't kill a kid!"

"Don't say that too loud," Fitz cautioned as Marky ran into his waiting arms:  "he'll take it as a challenge!"

 

Willamina paged through one of Old Pale Eyes' journals, frowning: she knew what she was looking for, and when she found it, she felt her stomach shrink a little.

Sarah is utterly without fear, she read.

I do not wish to think she was showing off for a swain -- to my knowledge, none of the Irish Brigade have voiced any intent to pursue her hand -- she is marriageable, she is fourteen years old, but good Lord, what ever possessed that girl?

She'd climbed to the top doors of the hose tower and threw open the double doors at its apex.

The Irish Brigade were drilling with their life-ring: I understand they were arguing among themselves as to who would be the luckless soul to climb the hose drying tower and leap into the life-ring to practice themselves -- they were arguing their way into stitching together a straw stuffed dummy, weighted with scrap iron or something similar -- Sarah threw open the doors, gave a whistle and called "Yoo-hoo, boys!  Catch me!" -- and damned if she didn't JUMP!

Willamina's stomach gave a little flutter, as if she'd just experienced that terrifying moment of weightlessness she'd experienced when jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft.

The Irish Brigade caught her without difficulty: Sarah bounced once, laughing, she rolled off the edge of the taut canvas, gripped its frame with one hand and leaped to the ground, she bounced on her toes and waved her arm as gaily as any circus acrobat, and skipped away, laughing!

Could I have stirred from my foot-prints, I would have turned her over my knee and fanned her little biscuits!

 

Marnie watched, and listened: she'd learned to watch and to listen and to be as invisible as possible, and here in this amazing place full of big strong strange men and laughter and joking, with machines that spoke of strength and speed and power, here in this place with her Mommy and her Mommy's ambulance, Marnie watched with big eyes and her breath hesitating in her throat.

Marnie really, really liked this firehouse!

 

Angela Keller was curious about the hayloft, and so Angela Keller climbed up into the hayloft and looked around.

It was warm and it was dusty and she sneezed and blinked and laughed, for two hens clucked at her from nests they weren't supposed to have up here:  Angela walked fearlessly along the very edge of the dropoff, giving no thought whatsoever for the possibility of a fall, of the packed dirt floor below.

She headed for the open loft doors at the end of the barn.

"Angela?"

"Here, Daddy!"

Linn looked up, shaded his eyes as he squinted at the latched-open loft doors:  a little girl in a pretty dress waved at him from the hayloft, and Linn's stomach shrank and twisted up fast as Angela spread her arms and called "Catch me, Daddy!"

Linn's eyes were wide and his face was dead white as he powered forward, one long pace, half a pace, stop: his hands spread, he reached up --

Angela fell through space with a delighted squeal, her stomach singing with delight as she experienced that moment's weightlessness, her arms and legs extended toward the heavens, hair and skirts streaming in the passing wind --

Angela landed neatly in her Daddy's arms.

Linn's knees flexed a little as his little girl's weight drove down into his arms: his fear-powered muscles had no difficulty catching, holding, controlling her sudden weight: he twisted and bent and dropped her feet to the ground.

"That was fun, Daddy! Can I do it again?"

Sheriff Linn Keller went to one knee, his fingers gentle on his little girl's elbows.

"Angela," he asked softly, his pale eyes darkening to a distinct blue shade, "have you been talking to Sarah again?"

 

 

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315. THE PROMOTION

 

Reverend Burnett came into the Sanctuary with a mop bucket and mop, as he usually did of a Saturday morning.

He wheeled the yellow plastic assembly through the short hallway connecting it with the rectory, through the doorway, rolled it a little to the side, straightened.

Linn Keller stood in front of the front pew, regarding the sky pilot with amused eyes.

"My wife was going to sweep off the front steps," Linn said, "and I looked at the broom she held and asked if she was getting in her flight time."

Reverend Burnett grinned and laughed quietly, nodding.

"I suppose," he said, his voice easily heard in the church's hush, "I should come up with something about miles per gallon of mop water, but the mind just went blank!"

Linn shook his head sorrowfully and sighed:  "You," he said, "are not supposed to imitate my bad examples!"

They laughed together:  when the Reverend rolled up his sleeves to do honest work, Linn felt him more approachable, more a kindred soul and less a preacher: not entirely fair, he knew, and not entirely accurate, but he always felt like he was ... well, almost wasting a man's time when he spoke with the Reverend, when he was busy being the Reverend.

"So what brings you here of a lovely Saturday morning?" Reverend Burnett asked, dunking the mop in the warm, steaming water, hoisting it out and dropping it in the wringer:  he hauled down on the handle, the mechanism gave a little squeak, there was the sound of a minor waterfall, and he brought the mop out, slapped it unceremoniously on the varnished wood floor.

"Parson," Linn said thoughtfully, "I run acrost some really good news and I figured you're the right man to share it with!"

Reverend Burnett raised an eyebrow.

It was not often that Linn lapsed into vernacular:  when he did, it inevitably meant the man was pleased, that he was open and unguarded, and the Parson leaned the mop handle against the wall, turned to face the tall, lean deputy squarely.

"You have my undivided," he prompted. "Say on."

Linn grinned -- wide, quick, almost bashful -- then he frowned a little, nodded.

"Parson," Linn said, "it looks like Marnie is ours now!"

"The adoption went through!"

"There's some kind of a special condition for blood kin with no other surviving relatives. I don't pretend to understand what-all goes into it but my family is officially increased by one!"

Reverend Burnett strode forward, delight on his face and congratulations in his extended hand:  the two men gripped one another's hands, then embraced, happily pounding each other's backs.

"How does it feel to be outnumbered?"  Reverend Burnett laughed, and Linn shook his head, chuckled.

"Hell, Parson, that's nothin' new," Linn admitted.  "I grew up outnumbered!  I learned early and well that women and cats will do as they damn well please and a man had best get used to the idea, and once I figured that one out, why, I get along well with women and cats!"

The double doors opened; sunlight seared into the interior, there was the sound of pattering feet and a delighted "Daddeee!" and something with curly blond hair and a big smile came charging up the aisle, pursued by something larger, black and curly furred:  Linn turned, went to one knee, opened his arms and received the full-bore charge of a happy little girl.

Linn stood, bouncing Marnie to get her into a more secure position, his arm under her and her arms around his neck.

"Whatcha doin' here, Daddy?"  Marnie asked, her blue eyes bright, and Linn said "I came here to give thanks.  It is proper that we come before God with our devotions."

Marnie's eyes went big and she looked at the Reverend Burnett.

"Is he God?" Marnie asked, her eyes wide, and Linn and the Parson both laughed.

"No," Linn said, "but this is the Reverend Burnett, and he works for God."

Marnie twisted powerfully in Linn's arms: he bent and squatted and Marnie's feet hit the ground, she ran around behind the Reverend and made a disappointed little sound.

"I wanted wings," she said sadly, and the men laughed again, and the following Sunday, the Reverend Burnett mentioned at the beginning of his sermon that he'd been promoted by one of God's smaller angels: he knew he'd been promoted because she'd been told he worked for God and she ran around behind him to take a look at his wings.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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316. DISPOSITION

Esther came back into Linn's study.

She was very composed, she was very calm, she was most proper, she was most ladylike.

Linn knew that meant she was most dangerous.

He saw a brown stain smeared on her bodice, something she'd missed when she removed the other discolorations, and he decided against commenting on it:  it was his fault, at least in part, that her fine gown was suffering what would probably become a permanent stain.

In another room, Linn heard the sympathetic murmur of the maid, the sounds of a little girl being very, very sick, and Linn hoped most sincerely that little Angela's face was in a dishpan to catch the mess.

"My dear," Esther said, and her voice held a sharpened edge under its softness, "please tell me what has happened to our daughter."

Linn turned from the window, revealing his own brown smear on the front of his black coat:  he held a kerchief, similarly discolored, with which he'd been trying to remove the materia disjecta, with but little success.

"Do you remember," Linn said, "Levi's and mine's discussion of snuff."

Esther's brows quirked momentarily, then she lifted her chin.

"Yes.  I remember."

"And you recall Levi described how you take a small pinch and snuff it up your nose, one side, then the other."

"My father took snuff, yes, I've seen it done."

"Angela tried it."

Esther closed her eyes, raised her hand to her mouth.

"She didn't take just a little pinch."  Linn recalled the moment when Angela's head came up, the end of her nose furry brown with the ground tobacco:  "she shoved her beak down in the stuff and took a big snort."

Esther looked at her husband, her lips pressed together and white, as color flooded her cheeks:  in the other room, Angela coughed, retched again, and Esther cupped her hand firmly over her mouth, trying to hold in her laughter:  her green eyes were bright, shining as she looked at her husband, as she bit down on her knuckle, as she wrapped her other arm across her stomach and bent over, as she snatched up a big handful of skirt material and pressed to her face to muffle a strangled sound of guilty laughter.

Linn looked at his wife, knowing she was torn between anger that her daughter was ill, laughter that the curious child did what curious children do, distress that her child was sick -- but as she explained later, there was a sympathetic laughter with it, for she had done something very, very similar, back home in the Carolinas, back when she too was a wee child, back when she was curious about her Daddy's powder-fine snuff.

 

Marnie frowned as she looked at the foil wrapped block inside the zipped shut, clear plastic bag.

Marnie was discovering the delights of the refrigerator.

She tilted her head and considered the riches, the wealth, her stomach growled happily as she considered what-all she might select.

Marnie had many likes, and one of them was for cheese, and so Marnie picked up the zipped shut, plastic bag that contained a foil wrapped block of cheese.

She closed the refrigerator door quietly -- very quietly -- she'd never been smacked for getting into the refrigerator here, but she had too many memories of being smacked across the back of the head, or her hands slapped, her backside kicked -- Marnie learned early, and the hard way, that stealth was her friend, as so she was stealthy as she clutched this delectable treasure and retreated, slipping out the back door, closing it silently and scampering over to the shed.

Marnie opened the plastic bag and pulled out the foil wrapped cheese, she frowned and pulled at the wrapping and finally tore it suddenly open, she squeezed the cheese to pinch off a chunk, she tossed it quickly in her mouth, she bit down --

She might as well have closed her teeth on the south end of a skunk.

Marnie could read a very little, but her skills were not sufficient to discern between Neufatschel, Cheddar and Limburger: an acquaintance gave Linn a block of Limberger, claiming its taste to be somewhere between sublime and exquisite:  Linn planned to try a nibble of it here in a day or two, but when Marnie came around the corner, making some terrible faces, spitting and making the dramatic, exaggerated sounds of a disgusted preschooler, Linn stopped and raised his eyebrows and then went down on one knee.

Marnie was ten feet from him before she saw him:  she still held the baggie in one hand, she still had a terrible expression on her face, she held the baggie at arm's length between thumb and forefinger and she held her other hand up as if it were contaminated.

The wind eddied; Linn read the label, smelled the odor, motioned her closer.

Marnie's young stomach dropped and she tasted copper, under the horrible layer of rancid objection coating her tongue.

"Darlin'," Linn said, "is that stuff fit to eat?"

Marnie made a face like a Moorish idol and said "No," in a tiny little voice.

Linn nodded, reached around, pulled out a handkerchief.

"Come with me."

He rose, led the way to the pump.

Linn pulled the tag end of the old shoelace, the bow knot slipped apart, the handle raised of its own accord:  he gripped the curved, time-browned, cast iron handle and pumped it twice, quickly.

He hooked a tin cup from the old coat hanger it lived on, caught the first gush of water, rinsed out the cup and tossed the contents out into the yard:  another pump, another gush, another catch, and he handed it to Marnie:  "Swish and spit," he said, and she did, and he took his white hankie to very carefully dab the water running down her chin.

He rose again, dumped out the chipped porcelain basin on the rough-lumber stand, pumped in two strokes' worth, set it back on the small table:  he picked Marnie up, set her on the block beside the table (put there by his uncle Pete, a man who knew what it was to have children) and he handed Marnie a green bar of coarse, gritty soap, and said "Wash that stuff of your hand, darlin'."
Marnie looked at the pump and Linn caught her another cup of water:  she sloshed and spit again, with more enthusiasm than precision, and Linn again -- very gently -- mopped her chin dry:  she drank the rest of the white-enamel cup and handed it back, and Linn hung it back on its bent-wire hook.

"Y'know," Linn said conversationally, "if that stuff's not fit to eat, I don't want it stinkin' up my refrigerator."

Marnie began to hope -- just a little -- that she wasn't going to get a belt across her back, or across her bottom.

"Hands clean?"  Linn held his up, like he was showing them off, Marnie followed his example:  Linn frowned, looked closely at one, closely at the other, kissed one of her cool, damp, pink fingers, which brought a surprised giggle, and then he picked her up, hoisted her up on one shoulder and headed back for the house.

Marnie laughed when Linn looked up -- they'd come to the front door -- "Oh, darn, someone shrunk that doorway!  Now I'm gonna have to cut it out so you'll fit!" -- then Marnie gave a surprised squeak as she was slid off his shoulder and into his arms, and he carried her into the house.

Linn set her feet down -- "Let's make a choice here" -- he walked over to the gun case, opened the left hand door, reached in.

"This one."

Marnie didn't know one long gun from another, but she knew her Daddy had something in mind.

He opened a drawer, opened a green box of some kind, pulled out a shining brass cartridge, dropped it in his shirt pocket.

"This'll do."  He turned, handed Marnie a set of earmuffs, picked up a second set for himself.

They trooped back outside, around back, up the fence line half a hundred yards.

Linn carefully placed the foil wrapped block of that awful stink stuff on top of the fence post, took the rifle and his little girl and stepped back about twenty feet.

His Uncle Pete had loaded these particular .22 Hornet rounds just over a half century ago.

Linn was curious to see if they would go bang.

He helped Marnie get her earmuffs adjusted, and he told her to hold the plastic cups firmly against her head -- she did -- and she watched as he opened the bolt, dropped in the round, closed the bolt.

 

Old Pale Eyes picked up the tin of snuff.

He'd never liked it -- he'd tried it a few times over the years, might as well have snuffed red ants, or ground pepper up his beak -- he put the lid back on the tin, carried it over to a fence post.

Angela watched from the back porch as her Daddy set that round tin of that awful stuff on a white painted postie and he stepped back and brought up his pretty 'graved rifle.

 

The Hornet spoke, its voice sharp, loud, and the block of Limburger sprayed for an amazing distance behind the fence post: its odor was strong, objectionable, but as it was pretty well atomized, Linn knew it would not take long for all that awful smell to dissipate and be gone.

 

The Winchester spoke, its voice deeper and more commanding, and the round tin of dust grade tobacco became a brown funnel, hanging momentarily on the still air before raining to the earth and disappearing.

 

Old Pale Eyes looked at Angela, watching from their back porch not far away.

Linn looked at Marnie, watching solemnly from not many yards away.

Two lawmen's throats framed the same words, spoken more than a century apart.

"Disposed of that one, darlin'!"

 

 

 

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317. STILL, SMALL VOICE

Linn settled into the pew with his Mama, his wife, his daughter and the baby.

He'd been smiling quietly when they came into the church; he'd been talking to several people, shaking hands, laughing a little: Sunday was a day when he could relax a little, when he could wear a suit instead of his uniform, when he could ask how a man's once-broken leg was healing, when he could hunker down with a grinning, bashful preschooler and ask the little fellow, "Can you wink?  Just close one eye? -- well, that's not bad, two for one!" -- when he could compliment a young couple on their new baby, or congratulate an awkward-looking young man in an ill-fitting suit making the Honor Roll, while the uncomfortable young man stood, red-eared and shifting weight from one foot to another, unsuccessfully hiding a smile at the tall, lean lawman's kind words.

Linn took a long breath, chuckled, picked Marnie up and set her on his lap.

"That won't last long," Willamina murmured, and Marnie happily cuddled back into her Daddy's chest, grabbing his hands and pulling them around her middle:  "Seat belt!" she said, nodding, and she felt her Daddy's belly quiver with the laughter she knew he was hiding under his muts-tash.

The piano began its prelude, Linn ran his arm under Marnie and around her middle and stood, looking innocently forward as he held his little girl, and Marnie actually smiled a little -- Willamina saw this and gave a small little nod of approval -- and then she saw Linn's expression change and she knew things just changed, and not for the good.

Linn turned, squatted quickly, set Marnie down:  "Stay with your Mama," he said quietly, one hand to his ear: he looked at his own Mama, reached two fingers into the breast pocket of his suit coat and pulled: his six point star, on its leather flap, followed his fingers out and hung in plain view as Linn strode quickly, silently down the aisle, headed for the door.

Willamina reached over, took Marnie's hand in a gentle grip, winked:  Marnie leaned against her Gammaw, shivering a little, wondering what she'd done wrong to make her Daddy leave in such a hurry.

 

Linn waited until he was at the back of the church before keying his radio, and Sharon heard the opening hymn briefly -- very briefly -- as she heard Linn's quiet, professional "Firelands Two, enroute station," and she noted the time in her log.

Linn didn't bother with the Jeep: the Sheriff's office was across the street and uphill not far, and he leaned forward into a sprint: Linn knew the short run would get his blood up and circulating, he'd be deep breathing and oxygenating, and besides, he was still young enough to enjoy a quick run on a cool Sunday morning.

Sharon looked up as he hauled open the inner door, strode inside.

"Say again," he said without preamble.

A moment later, he was in the Sheriff's Suburban, headed out of town, fast.

 

Marnie climbed back into the pew, scooted back, folding her hands very properly in the unaccustomed skirt: her legs stuck straight out, her eyes were bright, curious, and she sat very still between her Mama and her Gammaw.

Willamina reached over and Marnie gripped her Gammaw's hand, leaned over against her a little, and Willamina smiled quietly, enjoying her new role as grandmother.

They looked ahead as Reverend Burnett ascended to the pulpit, gripped its sides the way he always did, and looked over the crowd, left to right, before his booming, "Good morning!"

 

Linn shoved the shifter into park, flipped the safety switch, stepped out: the engine was still running, but if anyone but him got behind the wheel, the engine would shut down and the horn would start honking, preventing anyone unauthorized from running off with a cruiser: it was a lesson another department learned the hard way, and Willamina directed its addition "on the Q.T." -- with the stern admonition that it was not to be discussed with anyone. 

Linn strode toward the knot of people, sizing it up: he shoved between two of them as one raised a menacing hand, seized him, yanked him backwards, off balance, threw him to the ground and roared, "ENOUGH!"

Now when a long tall lawman suddenly appears in the middle of a half dozen neighbors, seizes one by the back of the collar and throws him to the ground, it tends to shatter the general train of thought.

When the man on the ground scrambles to his feet and inherits a boot in the gut and hits the ground again, this further gives a clear and distinct message that perhaps their dispute should not be further pursued, and the sight of a man in a black suit driving his knees into the prisoner's kidneys and quickly, efficiently applying irons to said sorry soul's wrists confirmed the fact that perhaps they should, individually and severally, reconsider the strength of their aggrieved feelings.

Linn secured the prisoner in the Suburban, stomped back into the loosening knot of staring humanity.

"Now," he said, his eyes very pale, his voice tight, his fingers flipping open his field notebook, "let's start at the beginning."

 

Marnie slid off the pew and stood when everyone else did:  her Gammaw slid over and bent over, ran her arms around the four year old, holding the hymnal in front of her:  Marnie hesitantly lifted her hands, held up the book from the underside, marveling at the rows and lines of words and those funny dots with lines on them, wondering how anyone could read that and know what to sing.

Her Gammaw had a beautiful voice, and Marnie discovered she could hear the singing as a whole, but she could selectively hear her Mama's voice, and her Gammaw's both, and she looked up, quickly, distressed, as the baby began to fuss a little.

The usher, seated beside the doors, heard a familiar scratching at the portal:  he grinned, slid off his tall, three-legged stool -- he'd wondered how long it would take -- he opened the door and a familiar, huge, black, curly furred canine grinned at him and slipped silently through the opening.

The usher ran his hand into his coat pocket, held out a palm, and The Bear Killer happily took the dog biscuit, and the usher rubbed the big Mountain Mastiff's back, marveling at how a dog could actually look happy.

The Bear Killer's ears came up and he trotted down the aisle, toward the altar rail, turned left.

Marnie's face lit up like a hundred watt bulb when The Bear Killer made the turn at the end of the aisle.

The congregation ended its hymn, sat; The Bear Killer happily snuffed at Willamina, at Marnie (who giggled a little) and then laid his big blocky head on Shelly's lap, licked at the little arm that was starting to wave in juvenile protest:  the baby's face was wrinkled up, her mouth was open, she was red and angry and ready to cut loose with a miniature thunderstorm, at least until Shelly laid her flat and The Bear Killer snuffed her, and then the baby's face unscrewed and Reverend Burnett, watching from the pulpit, could not help but grin as two little girls looked absolutely delighted that their dear and trusted friend was with them once more.

"We read in the book of --" the Reverend began, and from the anteroom, the clear, distinct sound of another infant in distress, a second joining in out of sympathy if nothing else.

Reverend Burnett paused, looked down.

"Bear Killer," he said, "you are needed in the Infantry."

There were several smiles; some wise wag posted a carved wooden sign over the anteroom door -- INFANTRY -- as the very young were sometimes taken there for service, under the watchful care of trusted adjutants, rather than risking a crying child interrupting the church service:  Marnie and Shelly rose:  the several in the congregation who smiled, now chuckled at Marnie's happy "C'mon, Bear Killer!" and Reverend Burnett waited until they were departed before continuing, "The secret to successful administration is delegation," to which he frankly added, "but I never thought I would dispatch a canine to tend the infantry!"

It was unplanned, a spontaneous, shared moment of amusement:  Reverend Burnett well knew the relaxing moment of humor and its uses in a presentation:  this was not planned, but he did not hesitate to take advantage of it.

 

"He raised his fist," Linn explained.  "That is assault. You can press charges or not. I sure as hell am."

"We have to live here," the woman's husband said.  "He lives two doors down.  I don't want no trouble."
Linn nodded.  "I'll make it clear to him you refused to press charges, that'll make me the bad guy and not you."

 

Reverend Burnett was curious about proceedings in the anteroom.

He'd been a father himself; he knew that when a group of babies are in earshot of one another, if one starts to cry, often the others join in, out of sympathy if nothing else: when the Keller women disappeared through that far doorway, he'd heard the quiet "Rooo rooo rooooo" of a truly huge dog's song, and he'd heard nothing since, why, he couldn't help but wonder just what happened.

He wondered if he could somehow turn his carefully planned sermon a little, work in the idea of a still small voice and use The Bear Killer's gentle howl as its illustration, decided against it.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back in the straight back rocking chair, holding her granddaughter: Shelly, in the second rocker, had an infant in each arm.

The Bear Killer was curled up on the floor, two more babies in the encirclement of his furry mass: the young mother in charge of the Infantry wasn't sure about placing her young charges on the floor, with this familiar but still scary looking ... dog ... ready to cuddle with them, but she had to admit that it worked, it worked fast, and it worked very well.

 

Linn slipped in the double doors just as the final hymn was being sung.

He waited; his ladies, instead of coming down the aisle toward him, with the rest of Firelands humanity, came out the anteroom, laughing with the other young mothers.

Over Sunday dinner in the back room of the Silver Jewel, Willamina asked carefully, "What was the cause of the alarm?"

Linn grinned.  "Neighborhood dispute. An old woman with Alzheimer's flagged a young fellow to a stop so he wouldn't run over a dog. He didn't see the dog, words were exchanged, I got there as he raised a hand."

Willamina's left eyebrow frowned, just a little -- Marnie's breath caught to see it, she'd learned to watch for such signs, she looked under the table, gauging where she might hide --

"I got him in irons and got him back to the office," Linn continued quietly.  "Took him back to a cell, shoved him in but didn't lock the door."

Willamina's eyebrow raised, for he'd omitted such minor and trivial details as processing an arrested prisoner.

"He'd had time to cool off and I told him quietly how many laws he'd violated, how many fines that would add up to, and the more dollars I added to the bottom line the sicker he looked.

"Luck had it that the Judge stopped by for some reason, and he came back to see what was going on.

"I introduced prisoner to the Judge and the three of us talked it over and the Judge looked very directly at the fellow and said "Young man, have you learned your lesson?" and of course he said he had, so he Judge said "Time served," and left.

"I took him back out and removed his irons and asked if his wife was fixing Sunday dinner.

"He allowed as she was.

"I told him I'd get him back home before the meal got cold, and I did.

"He was just crushed, once he cooled off, and he said something about having a record now, and I said today was Sunday and that's a day of rest, I was too lazy to write anything up, now get your feet under your own table where they belong and keep a better hold on that temper!"

"Do you think he will?"

"I had a quiet talk with the other parties involved.  We-all reckoned it was youthful hot temper and misunderstanding, husband came to wife's defense when the young fellow confronted his Alzheimer's wife and it escalated from there.  If the peace holds, fine, if it doesn't" -- he shrugged -- "I told him I'll give any man one chance, and he just had his."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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318. BRIBERY, AN ANCIENT AND HONORED SPORT

 

Marnie frowned as she carefully cut a slice off the smelly twisty tobacco thingy she'd seen her Daddy use.
He held it in his big strong hand and he'd cut toward himself and he'd sliced off long thin slivers and Marnie wanted to do that but she knew her hands were not as strong as her Daddy's and she lacked the reach of her Daddy's big hand so she carefully held the twisty thing with one hand and with much effort, with her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth and a frown concentrating her youthful forehead, she managed to murder a thicker slice than her Daddy managed.

Daddy cut two or three of these, she thought, but this one is kind of thick and it's enough, and she put the knife and the twisty tobacco thing back where she saw her Daddy kept them in the barn on a shelf and she closed her hand around the slice and scampered happily out to the fence.

Her Daddy's horsie was there and so was the little horsie she rode.

"Hey Horsie," she called gently, and both horses came head-bobbing over:  Angela petted the stallion's nose and she thrust her hand out toward the little Paso and giggled at the sensation of horsie lips slobbering the treat off her flat palm.

Marnie was still wearing her pretty Sunday dress and slippers.

Her Gammaw was in the house with her Daddy and Mommy and the baby and they were busy with the baby and talking and Marnie was bored and she wandered outside, looking around, and she saw the horsies out in the field and she giggled and scampered toward the fence and then she remembered how her Daddy bribed the horsies over and he said "They bribe as well as any politician," and Marnie didn't know what a politician was, but if she could bribe a horsie over to her she would be happy.

Marnie petted the little horsie and rested her forearm on the fence rail, her chin on her arm.

"I liked widing you," she murmured, then she frowned, curled her lip, tried again:

"Rrrrrrr," she said, rrrrrride!"

Marnie lifted her head, nodded.

"I liked rrrrriding you!" she said empatically, and the little Paso mare snuffed loudly at the little pink hand that reached up for another caress.

Marnie considered the fence, looked through the neatly painted boards, debated whether to climb, or whether to go around to the gate.

Marnie jumped and squeaked in fear as a hand brushed her shoulder: she turned, arms wide, backing hard against the fence: her eyes were pale, her face was stark-white, and Linn took his little girl under the arms, gently, just enough to let her know he was there, but not enough to make her feel confined.

Marnie's heart was hammering, her mouth was dry, she felt herself shaking inside: she was too terrified to close her eyes: she waited, waited for the inevitable angry shout, the words, the swing, the slap --

"Did you pet the horsie?" Linn whispered, and Marnie, too honestly terrified to freeze, nodded.

"Did you bribe the horsie?"
Linn saw her throat move, saw her try to talk, heard something raspy come through her throat -- Dear God, she's terrified! he thought.

What did that damned sister of mine do to her?

Marnie started to hyperventilate.

"Easy, easy," Linn whispered, picking her up, holding her close: he was squatted down, he set her on his thigh, leaned his shoulder against the fence to keep his balance.

"You're scared," he whispered.  "It's okay, Marnie. You've done nothing wrong."

Marnie started to relax, and she started to whimper.

Linn stood, hoisting her with him: he turned her, bounced her a little, caught her: she was a child, in his arms, cradled: Marnie looked at her Daddy's face, and her face screwed up, and she started to cry.

Linn rolled her into him, not at all sure quite what happened, only that his little girl turned ghost white when his fingers barely brushed her shoulder, she acted like she was utterly beyond terrified, and he would have cheerfully have given a bushel basket of gold nuggets to the Witch of Endor if only she would resurrect his damned sister, so he could methodically beat her to DEATH! for whatever she'd done to this innocent little child!

"Hold onto me, Princess," he whispered, his arms warm and strong around her, reassuring rather than entrapping:  "hold onto me, darlin', we'll get through this together, the both of us, I'm not leaving you, shhhh, that's all right now," and he turned, walked toward the gate, lifted the latch and slid it back.

He turned, pulled the well-balanced gate to behind him and fast it up, then he held out his hand and his Appaloosa stallion came over, curious, ears swinging.

"See?"  Linn said quietly.  "Apple-horse wants to know what's wrong."

Marnie lifted her face from where she'd buried it in his shoulder:  she was still shivering, not as bad: Apple-horse regarded her solemnly, and Linn said, "See?  He's worried about you same as I am!"

"B-b-but I was b-b-bad!"  Marnie stammered, tears running in two steady streams from her scared-wide eyes.

Linn saw her blink with what looked like surprise when he smiled, just a little.

"Princess," he said gently, almost whispering, "what could you have possibly done that was bad?"

Marnie sniffed, wiped her nose on her sleeve:  Linn reached around, pulled his bedsheet hankie free, shook it out -- normally he would have popped it briskly, but he knew this might be scary for an already scared little girl -- he blotted her cheeks:  "Close left," he said, pressed folded cloth against her closed eye, "close right ... good."  

He put the cloth over her little nose, pinched gently:  "Blow."

Marnie squeezed her eyes shut, hunched her shoulders, blew vigorously:  Linn carefully wiped, dabbed and nodded.

"There.  Better?"

Marnie swallowed, nodded.

"First off, Princess, you haven't done anything to make me mad, and near as I can tell, you haven't done anything wrong.  Matter of fact you made Apple here kind of happy.  He's a flirt, he likes the ladies."

Marnie's pale eyes swung to the stallion's placid, dark eye, still near her own.

"And Mama's little Paso kind of likes you too."

Marnie looked like she maybe, just maybe, might be relaxing a little, a very little to be sure -- but she didn't have the God's honest clanks now.

"Did you like riding your Grandma's Paso?"

Marnie's eyes widened again and Linn knew he was treading a minefield: as carefully as he proceeded, he kept hitting things that exploded without warning, and again he damned his older sister's corroded soul to the deepest, darkest, most distant ring of Nefflheim, the coldest reaches of the Norse Hel, the hottest, most demon-infested section of the Inferno: involuntarily his lips framed the words, the whisper, "What did she do to you?"

Marnie reached out, her fingertips just touching Apple-horse's furry cheek.

"I stolded the twisty," she said in a small voice.

"Did you slice off a chunk?" Linn asked, his voice almost a whisper.

Marnie nodded.

Her eyes were still big, but Linn thought they were big and trusting, instead of big and scared.

"You did the right thing," Linn nodded, caressing her cheek with the back of one bent finger.  "Have you ever seen someone chaw tobacker?"

"You mean the hawk patooey?" Marnie asked, her innocent voice making the reply funny, and Linn couldn't help but grin as he nodded and said "Yes."

Marnie nodded.

"If you'd given that little horse that big chaw of twist, why, she'd be staggerin' around her chawin' a quid and spittin' all over the place and makin' just an awful mess!  Yuck!"

Marnie looked at the Paso mare and giggled.

"You remembered to bribe her?" Linn asked, and Marnie nodded solemnly.

"Did it work?"

She nodded again.

Linn winked, touched the tip of her nose with a delicate forefinger.

"Bribery," he said solemnly.  "An ancient and honored sport."

Marnie wasn't sure what ancient and honored meant, and she thought sport meant to sit in front of a television and yell at a ball game, but nodding seemed the safest answer, and so she nodded, big pale eyes in her Daddy's face.

"Let's recap."

Marnie wasn't sure what a recap was either, but she nodded again.

"You came out and said hi to the horsies."

She nodded.

"I don't see where you've done anything wrong."

"Weewee?"  she asked, her voice a little squeak, and then she frowned, curled her lip:

"Rrrrrr," she said.  "Rrrreally."

Linn nodded again.

"I wanta sound like a Big Girl," Marnie explained with a firm nod, her fearful mood gone like a puff of downy fuzz on the breeze.

"Sounds like a fine job to me," Linn winked, then stood, his little girl still in his arms.

"Now tell me, darlin'," he said, turning and walking toward the house, "did anything interestin' happen in church today?"

 

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319. MIRACLE

Sheriff Marnie Keller, Second Martian District (Firelands), hummed contentedly, the way a woman will when she is particularly relaxed, and content, the way she will when her guards are down, her walls are down, when she is where she should be and doing what she should be doing.

At the moment, she was cuddled up against her husband.

She was particularly content because she was here, here in her own bed, instead of zipped in a plastic sack, behind a 3D printed door in the settlement's morgue.

Sheriff Marnie Keller was home, with her husband, alive, well: she was warm, loved, cared for, cared about.

Her Gammaw promised her years ago that she, Gammaw, would keep her, Marnie, safe:  Marnie was a little girl, learning that there actually was a world where a question, or an action, did not result in a slap, a shout, in harsh words or harsh treatment: the wounded child healed, in the high mountain air, the scared little girl grew, and explored, and learned, and she and her big strong Daddy rode together and laughed and jumped fences (when Mommy wasn't looking!) and Marnie became a beautiful young flower of the mountains, a favorite of the boys, a friend of the girls, and a harvester of mountain flowers and memories.

Sheriff Marnie Keller lay beside her husband, warm and safe, feeling that particular contentment of a married woman who has survived multiple difficulties, and come out the other side.

Her daughter was as tall as she -- Marnie was about five feet two, or was when she arrived; Mars gravity is considerably less than Earth gravity, and so her own spine expanded, a little, as did her husband's; their child, like other Earth children born on the red planet, all grew at a surprising rate, and to a surprising height: at six years of age, her daughter was within an inch of looking her in the eye, and Marnie remarked to her husband that it wouldn't surprise her if their little girl didn't come into the room wearing Marnie's high heels and asking for keys to the convertible!

Marnie thought back to the day she'd gone after a murderer, a killer who'd blasted a hole the size of two fists through the chest of the first Sheriff, and of another deputy, and he came at her with a shaped charge on the end of a pole, charging with the weapon level like a lance, and -- impossible though it was -- he was stopped by a pale eyed woman in a riding dress and boots, a pale eyed woman with a double barrel shotgun, a woman who gave the would-be murderer both barrels and the declared, loudly, "NOBODY KILLS MY LITTLE GIRL!" -- and then she disappeared in a twist of fog that seemed to corkscrew down into the red Martian sand.

Marnie smiled drowsily, remembering the two fired hulls she'd sealed in an evidence baggie, the hulls that now hung on her office wall, along with the framed photo of boot prints, too small for the bear paw boots of an atmosphere suit.

Marnie slipped out of bed to answer an urgent summons; her feet hit the floor, her eyes opened, then opened wide:  she reached back, gripped her husband's shoulder.

Dr. John Greenlees III was instantly awake: he threw back the covers, rolled upright:  "Report!"

Marnie stood, gripped a fresh green stem, carefully placing her fingers between the thorns.

She turned, bringing the dew-speckled, fresh-cut rose to her nose, savoring the fragrance.

Dr. John Greenlees raised one eyebrow, frowned, tilted his head, nodded.

"I'll call Botanics," he said.  "Get that down to them while it's still fresh!"

And so it was that Sheriff Marnie Keller, the chief law enforcement officer of the Firelands colony on Mars, ran through the tunnels in her flannel nightgown and slippers, giggling and holding the rose like a trophy, and this is how roses came to be found on Mars ... just another one of those unexplained things that happen, when a pale eyed woman is involved.

And, yes, the rose was indeed a harbinger.

Nine months later Marnie gave birth to another pale-eyed girl child, but that story has yet to be told.

 

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320.  GAMMAW'S WOZIES

Angela Keller, the pretty little daughter of Sheriff Linn Keller, looked curiously at the row of windows newly installed in the west facing wall of the Mercantile.
She blinked solemnly as Esther explained that the western sun would enter the windows in winter, that it would keep it warmer in the upstairs: that she'd had outer and inner windows installed "for insulation" -- Angela heard her pale eyed Daddy refer to several layers of winter clothing as "insulation" and somehow she couldn't quite figure how two layers of windows did the same thing as several layers of cloth.

She blinked her shocking-blue eyes, imagining her Daddy wearing two windows, front and rear, against winter's blowing snow, kind of like that fellow in Denver who wore a sandwich-board advertising Dr. Brown's Elixr and Miracle Oil, and decided this would not quite work.

Esther took her into the Mercantile, where she greeted Mr. Garrison with her usual courtesy; the ladies went upstairs, and Esther explained that she'd had her hired men bring dirt upstairs to make beds.

Angela didn't understand this either, imagining her Daddy's hired man dumping dirt on her bed: she frowned and decided that, although she didn't quite follow what her pretty Mama was telling her, she would find out shortly, and so she dutifully followed Esther up the narrow stairs, into the surprisingly-warm room.

Angela blinked at brightly-colored fabric covering what had been bare rafters.

Esther explained that this, too, was insulation, that she'd used thick cotton batting between the rafters, held in place with wooden striplies every six inches, to hold the heat from escaping through the roof:  she examined the wooden beds, took a trowel and explored the soil, nodding her approval, and then pointed out the little green sprouts.

"These," she said, "are a particular variety of roses I had imported for this very purpose."

Angela blinked, regarded her Mommy with big and solemn eyes.

"These roses are grown in Europe. They resist cold better than the roses we had back home, on our plantation."

Esther sighed with pleasure, looked at banks and rows of green stems, delicate little leaves, all stretching, all reaching toward the sunny windows.

"Each of these is small enough, the box can be picked up and turned, so the stems won't all grow bent like a drawn bow."

Angela nodded solemnly.

"I plan to have roses planted beside our house, and beside the Church: this will serve as my greenhouse, and I shall continue to grow them here."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller was not meticulous about his garden.

He drove the steel plow into the earth, ripped furrows, cut the furrows with a horse drawn disc, harrowed it down level, laid out rows with a chalk line; he drove in corn with his Uncle Pete's corn planter, stabbing its steel nose into the fragrant black dirt, slamming the handles together, dropping a small charge of fertilizer and two seeds with each cycle: pull, stab, slam, step: corn was not his only crop, but it was the one in which he took the greatest satisfaction, perhaps because he remembered being a little boy, lost in the bewildering forest of tall green stalks, calling "Uncle Pete, you're lost," while Uncle Pete bent over, hands on his knees, laughing.

Linn tended the roses along the house with a much greater care.

His Mama was never a gardener: though Willamina loved the sight of her roses, she was not a gardener in any sense of the word, and so it fell to Linn to tend her lovely roses: as a very young boy he delighted in his Mama telling him how Esther Keller, the green-eyed wife of Sheriff Linn Keller, imported cold-hardy roses from Europe, how she grew them in a surprisingly effective greenhouse over the Mercantile, how the roses along their own little whitewashed church, and these roses along the house, were all products of Esther's labor of love.

It was also an organic knowledge in the area that when a woman first became pregnant, a fresh cut rose appeared beside her bed, still damp and sparkling with morning's dew, fresh and fragrant, and no one ever knew how they arrived, only that they did: even Dr. Greenlees Senior, chief surgeon of their local hospital, recalled the first time a blushing newlywed bride came in, glowing the way a woman will when she knows with no doubt that she bears new life: she came in, holding the rose in both hands as if it were something precious, and she whispered, "Doctor, I am having a baby!" -- and Dr. Greenlees blinked, for he'd been at her wedding not three days before.

Linn knew there was a proper name for these roses, and he knew he'd heard them called by a name, very likely not their proper title and certainly not one that would be recognized in their European country of origin, but it's what he called them anyway.

Sheriff Linn Keller, son of the now-retired Willamina Keller, father to his own minor legion of pale eyed progeny, finished weeding the rose bed, leaned back, stood up on his knees and declared with satisfaction:

"Gammaw's Wozies!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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321. I KNEW IT COULDN'T LAST

I'd been following suspicious fires in the area.

I knew a fellow was reputed to burn down anyone's barn for a six-pack, but I'd grown up hearing this and dismissed it as just so much local hogwash.

I was learning it wasn't hogwash.

When I got too close to a local businessman's dirty dealings with the county's contracts, someone decided they'd send me a message.

Lucky enough I've taken pains to cultivate my street sources.

I heard about it before the fellow arrived with a can of gas in hand, and two highway fusees in his hip pocket.

Chief Deputy Linn Keller regarded his words, written with a dip quill, good India ink shining in the light of his Uncle Pete's Aladdin lamp: he was careful to feed it only the best lamp oil, he used only the recommended mantles, and as a result, the ancient lamp continued to serve him very well indeed.

Linn looked over at the gun case, smiling a little, just a little.

Apple-horse was saddled and ready and tied off to the corral post.

I waited half a hundred yards away with that Winchester bolt rifle I like so well.

When I saw the would-be arsonist skulking close, then closer, when I saw him look at my barn and head toward it, I eased that rifle to my shoulder and took a good look at his gas can through my rifle's scope.

I waited until his leg was forward and out of the way, then I drove an expanding round through the can he held.

I planned for it to bust open at the seams, and it did: it might have been imagination, but I thought I heard him say something unkind as he dropped the ruined can and took out in an absolute sprint.

I parked the rifle against a corral post, ran over and jumped a-straddle of Apple-horse, brought him around.

Neither of us were in a mood to wait for such niceties as opening the gate; we orbited the corral, cut across its equator and sailed over the top rail.

I caught up with the fellow, for there were few places he could go.

I ran Apple-horse into him and knocked him backside over tincup and then I jumped down atop of him.

It's rare that I let my temper loose and I didn't, but I come close: once I beat him enough to loosen him up, I picked him up by the shirt front and his belt and I swung him well overhead and threw him down on the hard ground.

He landed flat on his back and I pulled out my boot knife.

I keep it sharp but I sharpen it with a coarse stone, I sharpen only the one side and then strop it off to take off the wire edge and that's the edge I like best for skinning.

I let him see me consider that knife and I'd just shot the gas can out of his hand, I'd run him over with a horse and I'd just beat the stuffing out of him: he had a couple cracked ribs and I didn't do his face any favors, and then I went down on one knee and laid that knife up beside his cheek.

"You know," I said quietly, "was a man so inclined, I could give you a smile."

He coughed, spat blood, groaned, laid a hand across his chest, likely to try and splint off those ribs.

I laid cold steel against his throat and added, "I reckon a smile from ear to ear might look good on you."

I saw his eyes change about then.

You can tell when fear claims a man's heart, you can see it, you can smell it, and I smelt it.

"You like burnin' down barns," I said, and I was conversational in my voice: "I like doing very bad things to criminals, and arson is a criminal act.  Matter of fact, arson is a capital crime, and that means I can hang you."
I don't reckon my smile was any too kindly.

He'd lost those two road flares out of his hip pocket when Apple-horse hit him.

"You figured to burn down my barn," I continued.  "I don't like that.

"You won't get paid for the job. Your employer got locked up in my hoosegow an hour ago.  Now ..."

I turned the knife a little, let him feel the rough edge, not enough to break the skin, just enough to tug at it.

"I reckon you remember Hockenberry gettin' busted two days ago."  My voice was still quiet.

"We let it slip that he was set up, and your name was mentioned."

The arsonists' eyes widened a little.

"You're being looked for.  Now I've got a business proposition for you."

I seized him by the hair, pressed the back edge of the blade against his scalp, just at the hair line.

"You can stay and Hock can have you killed, or you can find out if Florida suits you better."

I knew he had family in Florida.

"F-f-f-Florida," he managed to stammer through bloodied and puffy lips.

I released his hair.

"Good choice," I nodded.  "Now why don't you head that-a-way.  I'll give you a ten minute head start and then I'll go tell Hock myself where I saw you last.  If you're quick, you can be out of the county in ten minutes."

He saw the wisdom of my argument.

I heard two days later he was killed in Florida, something to do with a drug deal gone bad.

Doesn't surprise me a bit.

I picked up the road flare laying on my desk, turned it slowly in my fingertips: I set it back down, dipped my pen, wiped off the excess.

Mama inherited Old Pale Eyes' roll top desk.

It has hidden compartments.

I had the Maxwell carpenters study it and they built me one.

This account will go in the hidden compartment.

I don't reckon the courts would take too kindly to my actions.

Shelly rubbed my neck: she'd been reading my words as I wrote them.

"What was it you told me your Uncle Will said?"  she murmured, her voice gentle as her hands:  "You have to speak the language they understand?"

I took a long breath, brought my arm up across my chest, laid my hand on hers.

"Yes ma'am," I said quietly.  "That's what he said."
 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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322. "I THOUGHT THE DOG WAS DEAD!"

 

The detective's hand shook with a palsy as he accepted the short, heavy, diamond-cut glass of something amber and potent: he managed to drink most of it, with only a small amount of its potent payload running down his chin, to be slashed away by an impatient coat sleeve.

Chief Deputy Jacob Keller stood in his sock feet and longhandles, wearing his Stetson and his gunbelt, and a quiet expression: they were in Jacob's hotel room, in one of the finest hotels in Denver, and when Jacob answered an unexpected knock, the gunbelt went around his lean middle and his Stetson went on his head.

As long as he had his engraved Colts and his Stetson, he was dressed; did not matter if he had on a stitch otherwise.

Fortunately he was also wearing his red longhandles, as it was a fellow student of Professor Hunt's School of Detection: Jacob was taking a select few classes recommended by an alumnus, his pale eyed sister Sarah, and that day he'd watched in amusement as the Professor introduced his thirteen year old niece, a lovely child, diminutive and bright-eyed, seated in a straight back chair on a platform in the middle of the room.

The Professor held a new set of Tower handcuffs, shining and polished; he explained that men of slight build were hard enough to keep in irons, but women were an especial problem, and with the help of his lovely niece, he would demonstrate.

"It's not difficult to keep them shackled," he said -- indeed, his niece's ankles were already confined in locked steel, with the conjoining chain passing through a heavy steel ring, heavily bolted to the stout wooden platform -- "but her feet aren't going to kill you."

He took his niece's wrist, lifted:  she wore a close-fitting sleeve and matching glove, her wrist was bent in an attractively feminine manner, and the Professor lay the Tower cuffs in her lap as he brought his hand up under hers.

"The bone structure is the key," he explained.  "Women, and some small men, have a smaller hand, and women especially are more flexible."  He turned her hand palm-up, gently moved her thumb into her palm.

"When we encircle the wrist with the manacle" -- he formed a circle with thumb and forefinger for illustration, wrapping them around her wrist -- "it is placed -- so -- but under stress, the offender will produce both sweat and skin oil."  He looked around, curious.  "I don't suppose any of you have tried to catch a greased pig?"

Smiles; young men in suits looked at one another, one raised a tentative hand, admitted he'd tried, when he was very young, and yes sir, it was quite difficult.

"When this young lady" -- the Professor picked up the Towers, closed one about her gloved wrist, then her other -- "folds her thumb into her palm -- so -- and then twist and pull -- go ahead, my dear --"

Jacob recalled her gloves appeared to be silk, or something equally smooth and slick:  it was not terribly difficult for this pretty little lady to twist out of one cuff.

"Now, gentlemen," the Professor declared, raising a teaching finger, "we have a problem, do we not?  We have a prisoner" -- he laid a hand on her shoulder -- "with her hands free.  She's not going anywhere, she can't come out of her shackles" -- he thrust a finger at the irons holding her ankles to the platform -- "but with her hands free, she can surprise us" -- the young lady made a sudden lunge, bladed her gloved hand under an open coat, seized and withdrew a student's short Smith & Wesson -- "and tell me, can you see where this might pose certain difficulties?"

The Professor's pretty young niece reversed the pistol, handed it back to its red-faced owner, handle first, as the Professor bent, picked up a pine board a foot wide.

"Even if she didn't seize a sidearm, she still has a flail attached to her wrist."

The pretty little girl threw her arm out, the swinging handcuff striking the board with a sudden, sharp sound: more men than one flinched at the sudden woody note, and the Professor ran thoughtful fingers at the indent in the soft pine.

"You see, gentlemen," he smiled, "if we are to secure a prisoner, we must do so in such a way as to discourage escape."

 

Jacob's classmate handed the empty glass back, collapsed into a chair.

"Forgive me, old man," he gasped, "but I just had a bit of a facer."

Jacob nodded solemnly, considering his classmate was also picking up language from the same British newspaper he himself had read that morning: the Times liked to print detective stories, and they used such language: once or twice, listening in a saloon, Jacob's ear had inclined itself to the spoken language of native Britons, and he'd heard such phrases there as well.

"What happened?" Jacob asked bluntly, easing his long, tall frame down into an embroidered and beautifully upholstered chair.

"I was assigned to slip into this particular house," came the hesitant answer. "I was to go to a certain room, to a certain desk: if it was locked, I was to pick the lock and remove a blue envelope and bring it back to the Professor."

Jacob nodded; his pale eyed sister had burgled in class as well, and discussed it with him afterwards.

"They had some kind of a little dog and I thought it was dead."

He looked at Jacob, obviously distressed:  Jacob recalled the man had spoken with affection of his dogs at home.

"I got caught."

Jacob raised an eyebrow.

"I knew I was about to be found out but it wasn't what I expected."

He took a long breath and Jacob poured him another brandy, which was accepted with thanks and tremors.

"The place was being burgled while I was there."

Jacob leaned forward, interested.

"As I knew there was the chance I would be caught, I had no weapon on me."  He hung his head, stared into the now-empty glass.  "I realized when the other burglar came in the room, and the howling pursuit behind, I had to do something even if it was wrong, so I seized up a pillow, I ripped the pillowcase free of it and I grabbed that dead dog and threw it in the pillowcase."

Jacob's eyebrows raised, but his face remained otherwise expressionless.

He'd long practiced his father's Art of the Poker Face, and right glad he was, for his classmate was obviously distressed, and this would not be the moment to laugh in his face.

"Honest to God Almighty, Jacob, I thought that dog was DEAD and I thought to swing it in that pillowcase and use it as a club and the dog started to thrash and squall and everyone came rip-roaring into the room and the burglar dove out one window so I tossed the dog to the man in the lead and I dove out the other window, and here I am!"

Jacob nodded slowly, considering carefully the little play conjured by his fellow's words.

"For God's sake, Jacob, say something!" the man declared miserably.

Jacob looked at him, blinked slowly, nodded again.

"At least," he said, "you didn't have to send a runner to get the right keys to release your niece."

His classmate blinked, sat up straight, then shook his head and laughed quietly.

"How long did that poor girl have to sit there?"

"About an hour and a half before the right keys were found."  Jacob allowed himself the merest ghost of a smile.  "I made so bold as to pick the locks the moment the Professor went running out the door."

"You didn't!"  His classmate brightened considerably.

"I did," Jacob smiled.  "By then it was just the young lady and myself, and I told her about my sister, and how she picked her own locks and surprised the hell out of her detective class in the process."

His classmate took a long breath, leaned back, then looked unhappily at the bottom of his empty glass, shook his head dolefully.

"Honest to God," he said softly, "I thought that dog was dead, Jacob!"

"When you tossed it to the lead man," Jacob said softly, "was the dog active?"

"Active?"  The man sat bolt upright, his face animated, his hands thrown wide.  "That little dog was SCREAMING and I though it was going to tear its way out of that pillowcase!"

"So you had a good distraction -- sound and motion both."

"Yes."  His voice was faint as he recalled the moment.  "Yes."

"And when you went out the window ... did anyone shoot at you?"

"Somebody shot," he admitted, "but I don't know if they shot at me or at the other fellow."

"You're not bleeding."

"No."

"Did you find the desk?"

He blinked, surprised, nodded.

"Was it locked?"
Again the quick, double-nod.

"Was the envelope in the desk?"

His classmate blinked, surprised: he unbuttoned his coat, threw it wide, reached into the inner pocket, withdrew the blue envelope.

"Well done, old man," Jacob said softly.  "Well done."

Jacob stood, walked over to his classmate, frowning:  he gripped the man's unbuttoned coat, drew it wide open again:  "Stand up for me."

His classmate stood, puzzled.

"Take off your coat," Jacob said slowly, and his classmate did.

Jacob turned the coat, ran his finger along a frayed line -- the material was frayed as if grazed by a passing bullet.

Jacob raised one eyebrow, pursed his lips in a soundless whistle.

His classmate sat down heavily.

"Jacob," he gasped, "I think I could use another brandy."

 

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323.  A RIVER, A LETTER

 

Richard, Willamina thought, I wish you could see this.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller looked around, her pale eyes softening to a light blue:  it felt good to get out and walk, after the transcontinental plane trip, after the taxi ride, after consulting with a variety of local law enforcement -- who better to ask directions of, than the people who keep their county safe? -- and finally she arrived at something she'd been hoping to find.

A plantation once occupied this acreage.

Now it was modern, grown-up; there was a box store, there were apartments, but in the middle of flowering fruit trees, of immaculately cared for flower beds, was a small building, and in front of the building, a sign, and on the sign, WALES PLANTATION MUSEUM AND GIFT SHOP.

Willamina knew gift shops were the necessary evil for any small museum; there had to be an income, and lacking the clientele who came to see the museum, the sale of trinkets and souvenirs was a necessary part of their bottom line.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller raised her chin, paced off on the left, her heels loud and regular on the immaculate, smooth, poured-cement sidewalk.

The interior was cool, hushed: perhaps a dozen tourists were scattered through the museum, staff were behind counters, answering questions; Willamina walked up to the older of the women behind the counter and tilted her head a little as they looked at her, surprised.

Tourists usually didn't wear a tailored suit dress and heels; tourists didn't have an immediate presence: for a moment, Willamina knew, they felt a discomfiture, wondering whether the State was sending an inspector, if this was an investor, just what kind of trouble did this immaculate looking woman with the shocking-pale eyes mean for them today.

"My name is Willamina Keller. I am expected."

 

Willamina sat, smoothing her skirt under her, placing her satchel on her lap and withdrawing two files.

"These," she said, "are the additional materials I mentioned. You did receive the ones I sent ahead."  It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes. They arrived two days ago."

"Good.  I had these enhanced. Time and oxidation faded the handwriting, but with alternate light sources and some other magic, we were able to bring out the lettering."

The curator looked at one page, another, reading quickly:  her mouth fell open, her eyes opened wide, a look of utter and absolute delight came over her face.

"Margaret," she whispered, then, louder:  "Margaret!  We've found her!"

"Found who?" a voice came from the other room.

"We've found the missing Wales!"

There was the sound of something glass, or perhaps porcelain, being set down in a hurry, and a greying woman wearing a long skirt and a distressed expression thrust into view in the far doorway.

"Excuse me?"

"Here, here, here," the curator stammered:  "and you won't believe the story she tells!"

 

Esther Keller stood on the aft deck, above the bright-red-painted paddlewheel, looking over the river: their wake, broad, flat, was marked with the cross hatches common to a sternwheeler's passing.

Belowdecks, she could hear laughter, music, the usual confusion of voices from the saloon:  the riverboats insisted it was a salon, but this was invariably corrupted to saloon: riverboats prided themselves on being a grand hotel on the water, but the clientele insisted on more prosaic pursuits: drinking and gambling were profitable, and profit was ever the goal, and so these grand palaces afloat offered no objection to the change in terminology.

Humanity of every stripe rode the rivers.

These great, broad highways accommodated travel, whether by a man powered canoe, or a steam powered, shallow draft passenger and cargo vessel: Esther had seen men whose appearance would be more at home in Nantucket than Kansas City, she'd seen gambling dandies in ruffled front shirts and velvet jackets, roughly dressed cattlemen, women of easy virtue, two mountain men and one shifty soul she wouldn't trust if she had to, a man her instinct told her was not just a Yankee, but a damned Yankee, and she thought she might know him, if only she could recall where from.

She smiled and allowed whoever was behind her to touch her: she felt her husband's animal warmth, and his hands cupped her elbows, as they always did, and she molded herself back against her husband's flat-muscled belly, purring a little at the memory of their wedding night, two nights before.

She wore a traveling-dress, a recent manufacture of the House of McKenna: she'd spoken with several of the better class of ladies on the boat, all of whom were surprised to see such couture being worn here, of all places, and Esther explained that this was the creation of the House of McKenna, of Firelands, Colorado: that they had exemplars of the very latest Parisian fashion, sent as miniature gowns on porcelain-headed dolls, sent by sailing-ship to the East Coast and then by express trains to Firelands: from there, scaled up, they were taken to the buyers and the fashion-houses in San Francisco and other points West, where they were eagerly received:  once the House of McKenna established itself as the source of the very latest fashion, receiving their Parisian exemplars months ahead of the ships rounding Cape Horn and fighting their way north along the western shores of the two Americas, they grew to expect this young firm from the high mountains to provide them with the gowns women demanded in the gold-rich West Coast cities.

Esther did not miss the envious looks given her necklace.

It was a cameo, commissioned by her adopted son, Jacob: white ivory, set with emerald and ruby, enough to be attractive, not so much as to be gaudy: wealth should be displayed, but it should not be shoved in the viewer's face, and Esther considered this particular gift to be the very most she would wear at any one time.

Then as now, larcenous souls will look upon another's gain and covet what someone else has, and Esther did not miss the looks certain men gave her, men she knew were pick-pockets and thieves: she'd grown up listening to her Papa, and her Papa was a good judge of character; she'd grown up with brothers who became lawmen, and they too added to her useful knowledge of human nature, and she was married now to a Sheriff, and like any true scholar, Esther learned from every experience, from every acquaintance:  this, enhanced by a woman's intuitive judgement, had served her well, and it caused her to murmur, "My husband, do you see those fellows across the deck from us?"

"The two on the left I shall have to kill?"  Linn murmured quietly, his arms encircling her waist.  "Yes, I see them."

"The rat-faced man on the right concerns me."

"I shall be observant, my dear."

 

Willamina's voice was quiet, but clearly enunciated:  as she half-read, half-narrated from the documents before her, she wove a story:  it was clearly told, and the women of the museum, joined now by two more, found themselves drawn into a tableau, into a play, into a theatre-in-the-round of their own imagination.

The found themselves standing on the aft deck of a living, breathing sternwheeler, feeling the sigh of steam in pipes and stacks, hearing the calliope singing gaily above them, seeing the costumed acrobat in harlequin leotards and mask disporting herself most shamefully as she played:  beneath their feet, through their shoe-soles, they felt the thump-thump-thump of paddleboards driving into the water, felt the mist on their faces as the crimson reel turned, slinging shining water-diamonds like a wealthy man casting a double handful of faceted gems across a great banquet table, and as Willamina narrated, as she spoke with the words of a green-eyed woman dead well more than a century, each of them felt the warm, strong, reassuring embrace of a lean, flat-bellied, pale-eyed Sheriff, the man they'd just married, embracing his lady love from behind.

 

Esther turned: her reaction was by reflex: her hand went to her sleeve, she swung, thrust: her eyes were bright green, blazing with the fire of a woman who would not allow an impropriety.

The grasping hand that reached suddenly for her was striped with bright red:  her first slash caught the attacker between the middle and ring finger, laid his palm open to the wrist: Esther danced to the right, whirled, drove her other hand forward, the slender blade that came from nowhere anyone saw, burying itself to the hilt in a second man's stomach.

Esther Wales, a girl at home, insisted she was a match for her brothers; they, of course, derided her, for she was a mere girl, and so Esther, on her own, arranged for skilled tutors to school her in the art of the blade:  naturally coordinated and graceful, Esther proved herself an apt student: she was toned and athletic, a dedicated equestrienne from her earliest age, indulged by her father, who delighted in his little girl pacing him when he too was horseback.

Now, surrounded by those dirty-necked scoundrels who wished her goods, or perhaps her virtue, or more, Esther laid about with a shining silver web of death, bringing blood from several sudden, deep slashes: faces and hands were laid open, one rushed her, reaching for the bauble at her throat.

Esther knew she could kill the attacker, but his momentum would carry her to the deck, or overboard: she mis-stepped, fell back against the low rail, overbalanced, fell.

Thought is the swiftest of runners.

Esther saw at a glance the lower deck was wider than the upper, and a straight fall would break her against the deck: she pushed hard, far enough to clear the deck, hit the water awkwardly, sank.

 

"Oh my God," the curator murmured, her hand over her mouth:  "how horrible!"

"Now," Willamina said, opening another folder, "let's see what my Very Great Grandfather saw."

"Your ... grandfather?"

"Old Pale Eyes.  Her husband, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado."  Willamina sorted through the papers, brought out a print.  "Here they are. This was hand drawn by one of the Kentucky moonshiners from up on the mountain overlooking town.  It's nearly as good as a photograph -- here is a portrait of Esther, in her later years, and this" -- she laid another before the curator -- "is Sheriff Linn Keller, his son Jacob, his daughter Sarah.  That's his Palomino stallion, Rey del Sol, this is Jacob's Appaloosa stallion, and Sarah looks like she could cheerfully kick the photographer over the nearest roofline."

Several feminine heads bent over the new documents:  all stared at Esther Keller's portrait, looking elegant, refined, beautiful: it had been hand-colored, and beautifully done:  even the spray of roses in her gloved hands sparkled as if just snipped from a dew-kissed morning.

"We know she survived," the curator murmured, "but everything from before the War was destroyed."

Willamina nodded.

"This" -- the curator handed her a few pages of something hand written, obviously photocopies -- "is a letter, one of the only ones we have from the original Wales family.  It tells of her hearing a baby crying while she was underwater, how she turned and stroked twice and broke surface, and how" -- she giggled, turned a little red -- "she said she did not know a whaling-boat full of Nantucket sailors, with a rope-swinging cowboy standing in the bow, could look so much like Jesus Christ cutting through the brown water toward her!"

Willamina smiled, leaned back, nodded.

"Somehow," she admitted, "that does not surprise me!"

"You don't happen to have anything on Duzy Wales?" one of the docents asked hopefully.

"Yes," Willamina smiled.  "She is buried, but not in my county.  Her grave was discovered on Sopris Mountain. It was found when the linotype characters -- a three and a zero -- were found near a streambed, where recent flooding uncovered them."

"We have mention of her, but she went West and we lost all record of her."

"She started a newspaper and a library."  Willamina sorted through a third folder.  "Here. The Firelands Gazette.  Here's a photocopy of the masthead, you can see she is still listed as Editor-At-Large."

"How did she die?"

Willamina hesitated, considered.

"I believe she met her end through some misadventure," she said carefully, "but I have no corroboration of this. I do know her death hit my pale eyed ancestor quite hard, and I know he was involved with her burial, but I'm sorry, that's all I have."

"Her grave was found, though?"

"It was. She'd been interred in a pine pitch lined wooden enclosure, which of course with time decayed and collapsed. As nearest kin, I presided over her reburial, but the interment is on private property on Sopris Mountain."

"I see."

"Duzy Wales went out West as a newspaperwoman.  I understand she was a very independent minded young lady. She wanted to write articles on the ... working women ... the brothels, specifically."  Willamina looked at them, looking very directly at each of them.  "She shot a man who was going to hit her.  Punched a Derringer into his gut and sent him to hell on a .41 rimfire."

"Oh, my," the curator murmured uncofortably.

"She established herself, and not long after, Esther Wales came out to make sure her niece was doing all right.  She met the pale eyed Sheriff and decided he was good husband material.  He gave her the Z&W Railroad as a wedding present, she turned it into a profitable enterprise, and somehow -- I'm not sure how -- roses became her personal insignia."  

Willamina brought out an 8x10 glossy, another:  one was a profile shot of a steam engine, polished, gleaming, brightly colored, under steam: the second photograph, a close-up of the spray of roses on the side of the cab.

"Originally this was a single rose, and the engine is The Lady Esther. She was found, returned, restored and runs on a daily schedule now." Willamina smiled.  "As children came, roses were added: Esther turned a bankrupt short line into a very profitable freight and passenger line, and it's actually used for commutes now, as well as freight runs."
"How delightful!"

"So."  Willamina slid her folders across the table to the curator.  "I brought materials I thought you may find helpful. They have explanations where I felt they were needed, so you won't have to wade through dry facts and wonder why this-or-that was hand carried clear from Colorado." Willamina's fingertips rested lightly on the polished tabletop.  "Now it's your turn.  What can you tell me about the Wales plantation?  How big was it, how much of it remains, and please tell me you offer a horseback tour, I brought a riding dress and boots!"

 

 

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324.  A TWIST OF FOG

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller landed flat on her back.

Habit caused her to slap the ground hard to break her fall: it didn't knock all the wind out of her.

Maybe half of it, but not all.

Willamina rolled, snarling, came up on all fours, launched.

She came off the ground like a missile, seized the horse's bridle in mid-rear: her boots came off the ground and swung up and when the horse realized that something white, unhappy and heavy was suddenly attached to its head, it came to earth more quickly than it realized, stumbled, and Willamina snarled a little, seized the saddlehorn, launched back into the hurricane deck without benefit of stirrup.

She bent forward fast, both arms shooting forward, she seized the reins, then slipped them through her hands, brought them back without hauling on the startled saddlehorse's bit.

"Now, damn you," she declared loudly, "you want to try that again?"

This time when Willamina hit the ground, she was a little more prepared:  she managed to tumble once, come up on her feet:  this time she got the horse by the cheek strap and reins both, she pulled the chestnut gelding's head to the side and snarled quietly, "I am about two inches from punching you into the middle of next week, Glue Hoof.  Do you want to land on Wednesday or Thursday?"

She drove a hand into her vest pocket, came out with two baby carrots, held them out:  surprised equine nostrils flared, blew, rubbery lips slobbered the delectables from the proffering palm, and Willamina wiped the horse slobber on her backside with all the delicacy of a kindergartener wiping the remnants of an ice cream bar on a brand new pair of pants.

"Let's try this again, shall we?"

Willamina turned the horse so it faced into the sun -- she placed a now-scuffed, now-dusty boot into the stirrup -- she bounced twice, and on the third bounce, swung gracefully aboard, at least until the saddle came up and hit her backside, hard.

Willamina's legs clamped around the gelding's barrel and her teeth clicked together as the shock drove up her spine and into her skull, she seized her filthy, brim-broke Stetson and swatted the horse, fore and aft, calling it every vile term any horseman ever called a recalcitrant mount:  if language could do what a slaughterhouse blade does, the gelding would have been throat cut, heart thrust, skinned, flayed, sliced, filleted, boned out, boiled down, rendered out and otherwise wrapped, frozen and stacked in a deep freeze while its hooves and bones were boiled down for glue and bandsawed into buttons.

As it was, about the third time Willamina kept herself from being launched into the stratosphere, the gelding stopped, shivered like he was shaking off a pesky fly, lifted his head and his tail and stepped out just as pretty as a postcard, following the watchful old man on the riding mule, who'd watched the performance without comment.

Willamina was sore, Willamina ached, Willamina felt better than she had for some long time: there is a grim satisfaction in bucking out a horse, especially when she was past retirement age and had no business confirming that Terra Firma was considerably more firma than her old bones could possibly enjoy, but by God! she thought,  that felt good!

Willamina eased her gelding up beside the old fellow in the chambray shirt and worn work pants.

"I ain't heard dat kinda language since I was in d'Marines," he said quietly.

"That's where I learned it."

"I was in d'Nam."

"Sandpile."

He looked long at her, nodded.

Willamina rode erect, rode easy, moving with the horse: it was clear she was very much at home in the saddle, especially when her chin thrust forward and she said "Dead ahead, seventy meters, what's that?"
Rheumy old eyes squinted, a weathered old forehead knitted and wrinkled:  "Damfino," he said, "looks like --"

Willamina leaned forward, put her heels to the gelding's ribs:  "YAAH!" she snapped: startled, the gelding surged forward, and Willamina drove toward something she didn't expect to see.

The old gent was going to show her the original boundaries for the plantation, but here -- here there were stones, markers, monuments --

A white wolf sat, majestic, blinking sleepily in the Carolina sun, a wolf where no wolf should be.

"Ho now," Willamina called, and the gelding slowed quickly, cantered down, walked:  Willamina walked the gelding up to the white wolf, crossed her forearms over the saddlehorn, leaned over a little.

"Hello again," she said softly.  "Fancy meeting you here."
The white wolf blinked again, looking like a sleepy cat sunning itself in a firehouse window, then it yawned, curled its pink tongue, stretched.

Willamina dismounted, patted the gelding's neck.

The gelding elaborately ignored the white furred lupine.

Willamina tilted her head, walked fearlessly up to the wild creature, caressed its head as if she'd done this a thousand times, and then she looked at the stone over the grave where the creature sat.

Willamina went to one knee, her mouth opening:  her fingers traced over the names, hand carved in immaculate italics.

"Duzy Wales," she whispered, "of Colorado."  

She smiled a little.  "Esther Wales Keller, of Colorado."

More names, more locations:  Willamina took a quick snap with her cell phone, looked back at the wolf.

The white wolf turned into a twist of fog that looked like it corkscrewed into the ground.

Her guide watched from a little distance back, clearly not willing to approach the old family burying-ground.

Willamina rose, slipped the phone back into her vest, mounted: this time the gelding did not contest her boarding.

She turned, walked her horse back to the old man.

"Haunted," was his only comment, and he looked away, uncomfortable, as he noticed how ghost-white this woman's eyes were.

Willamina turned the gelding, walked it back to the graveyard: she studied the stones, read the names, stopped, dismounted.

"My name is Willamina," she said.

"My father was Ted, his father was Freeman, and his father was Albert, and his father was William."

She stopped, frowned, considered.

"My blood runs back to here.  My many times great grandfather married the red-headed, green-eyed Esther Wales, whose name appears on her father's stone.  She married well and lived a happy life and was well admired in her community."

Willamina reached into her vest, bent, laid a rose at the foot of the patriarch's marker.

"This is from her garden."

Willamina turned, thrust her boot into the stirrup, swung aboard: the gelding turned, and Willamina saw her guide raise a bladed hand and point.

Willamina turned, smiled.

A fresh-cut rose rested on each and every grave marker in the little family cemetery.

 

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325.  IT WASN'T HELL, JACOB, BUT IT WAS DAMN CLOSE TO IT

 

Jacob knew the haunted look in his father's pale eyes.

He'd seen it in his own mirror a time or two, but he persisted, and Linn considered for a long moment, then nodded, turned to his son.

"Jacob," he said slowly, "I have a bad habit.  If you ask me a question, I will give you the honest answer, even if it's not what you want to hear."

"Yes, sir."

"Now ask your question."

"Yes, sir."  Jacob thrust out his lower jaw and asked the question he'd wondered about for several long years now.

"Sir," he said, "I am given to understand that you and Charlie Macneil went to Hell to get Sarah's soul back."

Linn took a long breath, sighed it out through his nose, nodded.

"It wasn't hell, Jacob," he said, "but it was damn close to it."

He turned and faced his pale eyed son.

"Have a set. This might take a while."

Two lean lawmen sat on saddle blankets in the lower barn.

 

Long years and not two miles distant, a pale-eyed little girl woke to the thump, thump, thump of a heavy canine tail happily punishing her bedcovers.

Marnie Keller sat up and rubbed her eyes, looked at The Bear Killer.

She giggled.

The Bear Killer's mouth was open in a happy doggy grin and he was looking with obvious delight at something in Marnie's room, and Marnie turned and blinked and then she smiled as well.

A pretty lady in an old-fashioned, pretty shimmery blue dress and a matching hat, sat in a chair, smiling at her, and the pretty lady had pale eyes just like Marnie.

"Hello," Marnie said, as if waking to a stranger in her bedroom was the most natural thing in the world.

 

"There is a reason Sarah has to be kept alive."

Linn's voice was quiet, and there was no doubt at all in his words, in his tone.

"And that reason, sir?"

"The same reason you have to live, Jacob, the same reason I was allowed to survive that damned War, the same reason I sired you and Sarah, and like as not, the same reason Angela landed in my lap. There's something about our family line that has to be preserved."

"What is that something, sir?"

Linn took another long breath, shook his head, looked ruefully at his son.

"Damned if I know, Jacob. I know an awful lot.  I know I can blow fire and stop blood with the Word, and that's something only women are supposed to be able to do."

"Yes, sir."

"But as far as knowing what it is that has to live through the generations ... I'm damned if I know that."

"Yes, sir."

"Now Sarah.  You asked about Charlie Macneil and I going to hell to get her soul back."

"Yes, sir."

"Half her soul was there. There's something about Sarah in particular ... from what she's told me, the hell-demons tried to rip the soul from her body when she was near to dyin' when she was a little girl, but she was too strong and only half of it tore loose and got drug away."

Jacob's eyes were pale, his face was growing tight: this was a wrong, an assault on his sister, and his masculine reactions were flexing themselves deep within his soul.

"When she was strong enough, she went to hell alone and damned if she didn't get it back."

"Yes, sir, she told me about crawling through that mountain."

"I don't think I could have done it."

"No, sir."

"She found the other half of her soul, Jacob.  It looked like her when she was that scared, hurt little girl, only twisted and misshapen because she'd seen only ugliness, but the longer she was exposed to Sarah, the less ugly it got."

"Yes, sir."

"She fought her way back, Jacob, and she ... I don't know what-all she's told you, but she said something about a waterfall that flowed up, and the hardest part was walking a narrow plank across a deep chasm with blue fires of burning sulfur at the bottom, calling her name, telling her she was leaning, she was tilting, the plank was twisting underfoot.

"She made it, though, and she got back to us, alive and whole."
"If she made it back, sir, why did you and Charlie go to hell to get her?"

"Because Hell didn't want to give her up, Jacob.  It was a near thing that he and I fought 'em off long enough to get her back."

"So you went to Hell, sir."

"No, Jacob."  Linn shook his head.  "Hell is an absolute separation from God Almighty.  We were never separated from Him.  We were in a pretty damned infernal region, I'll admit" -- his teeth bared in less a smile and more a snarl -- "but we hung onto our faith and we prevailed."

"Yes, sir."

 

"How old are you, Marnie?" the pretty lady asked, and Marnie held up a hand, spread her fingers.

"One, two, three, four," the pretty lady counted -- like a schoolteacher, Marnie thought -- and nodded.

"I was this many years old once," the pretty lady said.  "I wore a sailor dress and a straw hat.  Would you like to see it?"

"Oh, yes," Marnie blinked, delight in her whisper and innocence in her expression.

"Okay.  Slide out of bed and I'll show you."

The pretty lady tilted her head, rested her fingertips on the outside of Marnie's shoulders, as if measuring, or considering:  she nodded, tilted her head the other way, brushed Marnie's fine, blond hair with the back of her bent fingers, nodded again.

She stood, turned, reached into the shadow, rolled a full length mirror into view.

Marnie looked at the reflection, clapped her little pink hands together, delighted:  "Yaaay," she said, softly, bouncing on the balls of her feet:  she was wearing a sailor dress, and shiny slippers, and white stockings, she wore a white straw hat with two swallowtail ribbons down the back of its brim.

Marnie turned, quickly, flaring the skirt, the way a delighted little girl will when she is particularly happy with her attire.

"You look very much like I did," the pretty lady smiled.

Marnie stopped, looked at herself in the mirror, looked at the pretty lady.

"My name is Marnie," she said.  "What's your name?"

"My name," the pretty lady smiled, "is Sarah, and my Daddy has an iron grey mustache, and pale eyes."

 

Linn stood:  he remembered what it was to stand on black sand, a roundshield on his left forearm, hand-forged blade in his right, knowing this was very likely the day he would die, but if he died, it would be with the blood of many enemies on his blade.

Sarah stood shoulder to shoulder with her Papa and her Uncle Charlie.

All three wore metal greaves, protecting their shins; Sarah's boots were knee-high and flat heeled, her skirt of plates extended just to her knees, wide strips of boiled leather with steel plates riveted to them: the wore forearm-guards and breastplates, the backs of their gloves were armored, their hands protected by basket-hilts:  three warriors with steel upraised, as the legions of Hell arrayed themselves behind rocks and sand dunes ahead of them, occasionally silhouetted by dirty red flames in the distance.

"Charlie," Linn said quietly, "open the portal."

Something silver gleamed in Charlie's palm:  he turned, threw, turned back.

"Sarah," Linn said, "are you ready?"

Sarah's knees bent a little as she braced to receive the hell-charge:  her blade was raised, her blade was thirsty, her soul cried for war, for carnage --

"Sarah."
Charlie's voice cut through the heat of her war-lust like a cold hand dipped in mountain springwater laid over a fevered brow.

"Sarah, you turn around and you run as hard as you can for the opening and you do it NOW!"

Sarah spun, ran:  the portal was open, a shimmering silver disk that looked like a mirror made of shining, sun-lit water:  she ran through it, gasped as she felt like she'd just run through a very shallow, very cold waterfall --

 

"We laid about like giants," Linn said, his voice quiet.

"The portal to our world was open and they wanted in the worst way to get through us so they could pour into this plane of existence."

"Yes, sir?"  Jacob said, his voice tight, quiet.

"We held them, Jacob.  We retreated one step at a time, we wove a shining web of silver in front of us, we heard the songs of ancient warriors as the souls of men long dead rejoiced with us.

"We got to the portal and it was shrinking, it was wide enough for one man to get through.

"Charlie grabbed me and yanked, he threw me for the portal and I seized his belt and we fell through, the two of us, and we fell back into an empty field as it closed and disappeared."

"Where did you come out, sir?"

Linn lifted his chin and pointed.  "Out in the pasture yonder about two hundred yards."

"Where was Sarah?"

Linn chuckled.

"Esther was waiting for her when she ran through the portal.  By the time we got back, Sarah had a bath and a change of clothes, and the two of them were drinking tea and discussing who knows what.  When we landed in a pile and came up ready for a young war, why, it was just the two of us, and Sarah fluttered her kerchief at us from the front porch."

He laughed a little.  

"She called 'Yoo-hoo, oh boys, your bathwater is ready,' and if I could have reached her, I'd have turned her over my knee and fanned her biscuits!"

 

"I had a little sister, too," Sarah said gently.  "Her name was Angela, and she had deep blue eyes, and she was beautiful, just like you."

Marnie's face fell.  "I'm not boo-tie-ful," she said sadly.  "Mama said I was ugly."

"Anything but, sweets," Sarah whispered, tilting her head toward the mirror again.  "Look again.  This is you."

Marnie saw herself in the sailor dress, skipping up the aisle in church, her Mommy and Daddy and her little baby sister with them.

Marnie saw herself walking into a classroom, feeling the anticipation and uncertainty and delight of her first day of school.

Marnie saw herself happily hugging The Bear Killer as a pretty little pale eyed girl blinked and looked at the blanket wrapped bundle in her Mama's arms and then she turned to Marnie and said, puzzled, "Was I one of those?"

Marnie saw herself in a long gown with a wrist thing that had flowers on it and she was holding hands with a handsome young man and they were walking under a banner that said PROM, and Marnie saw herself in an astronaut suit laying on her back as a mechanical voice counted backwards and she saw herself turn her head in the goldfish helmet and look at that same handsome young man lying beside her just as there was a deep rumble behind her and she was pushed into the couch and Marnie looked up at stars, bright and stark in a black sky and she remembered what it was for her Daddy to hold her and point at different stars and shapes with his powerful little light and Marnie laughed a little to see these things.

She frowned suddenly, and looked a little sad, and she looked at the pretty Sarah-lady and said, "But my Mommy died and my Daddy he got beated and I don't want my new Mommy to die and I don't want my new Daddy to get beated!"

Sarah flowed from her chair, knelt, all skirts and blue shimmering cloth:  she bundled Marnie up in her arms, hugged her and laughed, just a little, and Marnie liked the pretty lady's hug 'cause she smelt like rosies and Marnie liked rosies.

"Your Daddy," she whispered, "comes from a long line of warriors, and he can handle an awful lot more than he realizes.  And your Mommy" -- she touched Marnie's nose, delicately, smiling as she did -- "has no plans to die.  As a matter of fact, I believe she just might live to what we call ripe old age!"

"Good!"  Marnie nodded, emphatically, the way a little child does when she wishes to emphasize a point.  "I like Mommy's pancakes!"

"Now you do remind me of my little sister Angela," the pretty Sarah-lady laughed.  "Now let's get you back to bed, sweets."

Marnie blinked.  "But Idawanna," she protested.  "I like talking with you."

Sarah kissed Marnie on the forehead.  "I know, sweets," she whispered, "but we women have to get our beauty rest!" -- and so saying, she brushed her gloved palm across Marnie's eyes, and Marnie relaxed, quickly, unexpectedly, and realized she was lying warm and safe in her own bed, with The Bear Killer cuddled up against her, with the bedcovers tucked in under her chin, and when her Mommy called up the stairs to tell her pancakes were ready, Angela opened her eyes and then sat up suddenly, her mouth was open in an O of delight, for there was a pretty little sailor-dress draped over the chair beside the bed, and a pair of shiny slippers and white stockings, and a straw hat with swallowtail ribbons down its back, and laid on top of them, a single red rose.

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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326. THE UNIVERSITY STUDENT

Sheriff Willamina Keller opened a briefcase she'd forgotten she had, and laughed quietly.

Linn looked up.  "Find a good one?"

Willamina sorted through some papers, pulled out a 8x10 glossy and handed it wordlessly to her son.

It was ... well, at first he thought it was his Mama, but this doxy was in a short skirt and scandalously high heels, she was draped most shamelessly over a young man, giving the camera an absolutely seductive look, her mouth open, her lips a shining scarlet... and her eyes a remarkable, distinct violet.

Linn turned the photo over and it bore a dozen signatures and an equal number of testimonials -- all directed at the consummate actress in the photograph.

Linn looked at the picture again, looked at his Mama, raised an eyebrow.

"That," she said, "is the only photographic evidence of my very short lived career as a thespian."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"I'm told I was quite convincing -- both as a vamp, and with other productions, as a cripple, as a nagging housewife, and of course when I portrayed a nurse, the professor didn't like it.  He said nurses don't act like nurses and so he got someone else for the part."

"Professor?"

"When I was with the Marshal's office back East, I was taking classes part-time."

"I see."

He handed the glossy back to his Mama, and she looked at the photo and smiled.

"I was young," she sighed, "and I could wear those skyscraper heels."

"You look good in 'em," Linn agreed.

"I was wearing those when I belted two guys over the head with a sap and dragged them into an alley."

"Ma'am," Linn grinned, "you have my undivided!"

 

Willamina's shiny-black stiletto heels punished the sidewalk as she steered her course for what she knew was going to be trouble.

One of her brother officers was coming down the sidewalk with a pizza box; there was a little steam coming out of it, and Willamina knew her fellow officer Don had just spent his last five bucks to get supper for his family that night.

She also knew the two accosting him were trouble, and she did not like trouble.

She was still made up from the theater -- she'd performed well that night, she was a most convincing seductress, and when the leading man bent her over backwards and put his mouth on hers, he gave her a most intimate kiss -- well, he was a fine looking young man, and she was a healthy young woman in the full bloom of beauty, and she kissed him right back, her hand busy at the back of his head -- anyway, Willamina was to meet someone for a drink before she went back to her apartment, at least until she saw a brother officer in trouble.

Willamina had little liking for most college boys, as she called them -- nearly all were so immature she refused to call them "college men" -- and when one said "Hey, can we have that?" and Don gave a firm "Nope," Willamina slipped a hand into her bodice and gripped the flat leather slapper she kept there for unexpected encounters.

She leaned forward, weight on the balls of her feet -- she was a natural dancer, and the move was not only a boost to her speed, but silent -- she skipped up behind one as he reached for the pizza box and demanded "Gimme that!" -- the lead-weighted slapper banged against the criminal's head, hard -- Willamina turned, smacked the second one over the head as well, and both would-be footpads went down.

Don had the pizza box hoisted up at arm's length to keep it out of their reach.

Willamina grabbed one by his shirt collar, dragged him back into the alley.

Don squatted, grabbed the other, followed suit.

"Get out of here," Willamina hissed, "I'll take care of these two" -- Don frowned, then nodded:  he had a family to feed, and so he continued on his way.

Willamina waited.

One came to consciousness; holding his head, he sat up.

Willamina glared at him, intending to pin him to the wall with an ice pale stare, forgetting she had the cosmetic contacts in:  all he saw was a really good looking woman in a short skirt and hooker heels, hands on her hips and tapping her foot like an impatient schoolteacher.

"Take out your buddy's wallet," she said, swinging the sap suggestively.

He eyed the slapper, raised a hand to his aching head, nodded.

He pulled his buddy's brown-leather wallet from the fellow's hip pocket.

"Open it and take out the money."

He did.

"Now count it."

Willamina waited until he'd exceeded a hundred twenty dollars, then:  "Stop."

He looked up, held out the money.

"Put it back in his wallet and put the wallet back in his pocket."

She folded her arms, still wagging the lead weighted slapper.

"He's got better than a hundred dollars, and you're trying to take a man's pizza?  He just spent the last five dollars he had so he could feed his family, and you want to take it from him?"

She shook her head.

"Why don't you two go back where you came from.  You don't belong here."

She turned, walked gracefully -- flowed gracefully -- back toward the sidewalk, slipping the sap out of sight:  she turned the corner, and was gone, and two college boys staggered back to their own apartment, rubbing their aching heads and trying to convince themselves that it wasn't their fault.

"An investigator came around the next day," Willamina said.  "I wasn't wearing makeup, I had jeans and boots on and those violet contacts were out.  The investigator knew I was with Chauncey's marshal's office, so he came over and asked me where I'd been last night.

"I told him that we'd been rehearsing and I went home afterward."

Linn nodded.

"I gave him my best wide eyed Innocent Expression and asked him what happened.  He told me that some hooker with gorgeous eyes and legs a mile long banged two fellows over the head with a ball bat and lifted their wallets.  I laughed and said "Hookers, here?" -- I laid my fingers on his forearm -- "the local truck stop doesn't run a house because truckers can come into town here and not have to pay for their fun! A hooker?"

"Yeah," he replied, "that's what I told the Chief and he agreed with me, but I had to investigate."

Willamina sighed.  "What did they do, try to not pay her?"

"They didn't say."

"Did they act guilty?"

He nodded.

 

Willamina put the photograph back in with the other papers, closed the briefcase, pressed the latches shut.

She smiled, just a little.

"Sometimes," she murmured, "it's good to get all dressed up."  She looked at her son and laughed.  "As long as you remember to bring your working tools with you."

Linn nodded and smiled, just a little.

"Yes, ma'am."

 

 

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327. AND IN THE FATHER'S DARKNESS, A CLICK

Linn was dreaming.

Shelly swam toward the surface of the dark lake of slumber, half floating, half kicking: she rolled like a dolphin in slow motion, laid her hand on her husband's chest.

Usually, when his soul's torturers flayed him at night, she needed only lay a hand on his breastbone: his hand would sear out from under the bedcovers, moving like a striking viper, it would press down on hers and she would feel him shiver, once, and sigh a great breath, once, and then he would relax, and she would, too.

Linn felt his wife start to stir.

He heard the brassy blare of the bugle and recognized the call -- it was a Navy bugle, he saw a sailor whip open the grey box on the bulkhead, point the bell of his bugle at whatever was inside the box, he heard the alarm, crisp, sharp notes, then the nasal voice drawling "General Quarters, General Quarters, all hands man yore battle stations, this is not a dree-yil, this is not a dree-yil," and then he smelled roses --

Roses, stifling, overwhelming --

Linn's arm threw his bedcovers back, he rolled out of the bunk and powered into a sprint the moment his left hind hoof hit the tanned, fur-on elk hide beside the bed.

It took Shelly perhaps thirty seconds to fight her way to full wakefulness, wondering what in the hell just happened, then her covers launched toward the ceiling and she, too, ran barefoot from the bedroom at Linn's summoning, full-voiced, "SHELLY!"

Shelly saw Linn, bent over their daughter, his arms around her: she saw him jerk his arms, hard, saw the little girl's body jerk: there was a little glasslike click and Linn ran his hand under her face, came up with a handful of slobber and a little blue marble: he flipped Marnie down on her bed, ran his hand under her neck, tilted her head back, sealed his mouth over her mouth and nose.

Shelly knew there was only room for one to work so she watched, she assessed, then she blinked and remembered -- oh yeah, we do have lights -- she turned, flipped the light switch, blinked painfully as the ceiling light blasted its glare into their night-dilated eyes.

Linn's breaths were careful, short puffs, enough to inflate his little girl's lungs, not enough to over-expand and bust them: a buddy of his survived having both lungs overinflated in surgical recovery, an episode that landed the man in Intensive Care for a while and required rehab from four simultaneous embolic strokes: Linn remembered this with part of his mind, puffed air into his little girl, quick, frequent, regular.

There is that part of the soul that maintains a silent communication with the Divine.

In this moment, his was anything but silent: could one hear it, he would have been screaming for help at absolutely the top of his mountain-strong, thin-air-expanded lungs.

Shelly's eyes were wide, expressionless, as she heard the little girl cough, gasp, cough again: Linn brushed the hair back from her forehead, rubbed her belly like he would rub a newborn's to stimulate it to take another gasp of air.

"Breathe, Princess," Shelly heard, and Marnie gasped, and he rubbed her belly again and said "Breathe, Princess," and Shelly heard another gasp, and then her color went from what-it-shouldn't-be to little-girl-pink in an instant:  Linn picked her up, held her, hugged her to him, shivered:  Shelly came over, lifted Marnie's eyelid, her other eyelid:  Marnie shivered, blinked, woke up a little more.

"Mama?"  Marnie whispered, and Linn closed his eyes, bit his bottom lip.

Shelly smiled a little, opened her hands:  Linn turned, handed their little girl to his wife, looked downstairs.

The glare of headlights slashing across the front of the house washed across window-glass and he heard an engine under heavy acceleration, the skid of tires, heard gravel scatter against the front of the house:  he heard someone hit one of the front steps, take one step on the front porch, a key thrust viciously into his front door's lock: Sheriff Willamina Keller SLAMMED open his front door, CHARGED up the stairs at a full sprint, stopped:  she had to put out a hand, grab her son's shoulder to soak up her momentum: her pale eyes took in her son's expression, Shelly's maternal whisper, Marnie's sudden, wide-eyed expression of delight, her spontaneous "Gammaw!" and suddenly Linn felt a little funny and he had to sit down.

He looked up at his pale eyed Mama, her head tilted a little as she studied her smiling granddaughter: Shelly handed Marnie to Willamina, who held the child up, frowned, looked her up, looked her down, and then eased her face in closer to rub noses with the giggling little girl.

Willamina hipped the child, looked at Linn.

"What happened?" she asked.

Linn held out his hand, opened it.

A little blue marble in a blob of child slobber gleamed in his palm.

Willamina's eyes went very pale and she looked at Marnie, looked back at Linn.

"How did you know?" she asked.

Linn's expression was haunted as his mind turned around to look into the back of his skull to try and find the answer.

"I smelled roses," he said slowly, and Willamina nodded wisely.

"So did I."

 

The Bear Killer sat hopefully beside Marnie's chair, waiting for the inevitable fallout, watching as the happy little girl picked up a bare naked waffle and happily took a bite out of it.

Willamina turned and smiled, lifted another roundel of waffles from the iron, flipped it expertly onto the steaming stack already on the counter:  she turned off the waffle iron, added the last ladle of batter, closed the lid, looked at the sweep second hand on the wall clock.

"Last one frying," she said, and Shelly turned, smiled, slid another fried egg onto the platter she was filling.

The adults all agreed it was near enough to get-up that it wouldn't be worth going back to bed, so they decided to fire up breakfast instead:  bacon and eggs and waffles met with a universal agreement, especially to the tail-swinging Bear Killer, busy polishing the floor with his posterior protrusion.

 

Many years later, and many thousands of miles away, Sheriff Marnie Keller sipped fresh, fragrant, steaming tea, a product of their own manufacture and far better than the artificial stuff they'd had to suffer through for so long.

She looked at the new mother, bouncing her little boy on her lap:  the happy child laughed and reached for his Mama's nose, and she pretended to bite his hand, bringing another freshet of juvenile mirth and merriment.

"He'll be an adventurous one," Marnie predicted.  "Just don't let him take his poke of marbles to bed with him."

The young mother looked at the Sheriff, puzzled.

"Children like to take their prizes to bed with them," the pale eyed Martian Sheriff explained.  "Mine was marbles. Unfortunately, children like to taste test everything they can, and I went to sleep with a marble in my mouth and it nearly killed me."

The young mother's eyes widened in alarm, and Marnie nodded.

"Oh, yes.  My Daddy came rip-roaring into my bedroom and gave me a good thrust" -- she placed her fist on her abdomen, jerked it up a half-inch for illustration -- "and I remember how loud the click was when that marble fired out of my throat and hit the back of my front teeth."

She smiled.

"My Daddy is a wonderful man."  She looked at the chubby pink lad, chewing on his little pink fist, looking around with bright eyed wonder as only a little child can.  "So is yours, young fella."

 

Linn Keller stopped halfway through his fried egg, looked very directly at his pale eyed mother.

"Mama?"

Willamina looked up, gave him that wise look that meant she already knew what he was going to ask.

Mothers are like that.

"Mama, how did you know?"

Willamina looked over at Marnie, looked at Shelly.

"You said you smelled roses," Willamina said.

Linn nodded.

"So did I."

"But that wasn't all."

"No."

"What, then?"

Willamina stopped, placed her fork very precisely beside her plate, looked very directly at her son.

"I heard you screaming."

 

That afternoon, Linn stood in the hush of their little whitewashed church's sanctuary, his Stetson very correctly under one arm.

He stood and stared at the rough cross on the back wall, his eyes pale, haunted with memories.

It was quiet in their little church; he stood as if carved of stone, until finally he brought his good right hand across his belly and gripped the brim of his Stetson, turned it thoughtfully round a few times, finally gripped its crown and looked back up at the ornately carved altar.

He raised pale eyes to the Cross and nodded, and spoke the first words he'd said since he'd come in.

"Thank You."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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328. COFFEE, AND SUNRISE

Two coffee cups lifted, two prolonged slurps were heard.

Two sets of pale eyes regarded the far horizon.

Silence grew between the two, but a companionable silence, the kind that is comfortable between old friends.

Two hands gripped each of the heavy ceramic mugs: mother and son sat on the broad back steps, regarding the lightening horizon, the intervening terrain resembling granite teeth, more distinct now, upthrust as if to tear a snarling rip in the heavens themselves.

Finally, a voice, quiet, hushed, respectful of morning's hush.

"You've done this before."

It was a statement, not a question.

Two mugs raised, two prolonged slurps were heard, and the corners of Linn's eyes tightened a little: his wife had a few, a very few, things she truly detested, and slurping was one of them -- but as she was not with them, there on the broad, solid, red-painted back steps, she was not there to be offended, and so mother and son slurped their coffee together, savoring the fragrant steam that rose to caress their faces.

"Yes," Willamina said finally.  "I've done this before."

She did not look over at her son as she added, "You have too."

Silence again, at least until a rooster crowed well beyond the far side of the barn.

"Yes, ma'am," Linn said quietly, cupping his hands around the warm ceramic.  "That I have."

Mother and son contemplated the eternity shimmering in the depths of their mugs, the mystery to be found in their shared brew:  they were distinctly individuals, but they were so very much alike, a fact which could only be appreciated by an outsider watching the pair, for when Willamina looked at Linn, she saw such a remarkable resemblance to his late father, and when Linn looked at his Mama, he saw a unique soul, utterly unlike anyone else on this earth, and yet when they parked themselves side by side, it was evident -- very evident -- they were woven of the same cloth.

"I'm glad you came over."

He felt her smile without looking, knew the smile was not extending beyond the corners of her eyes.

"Mothers do that."

Linn nodded.

"I remember reading about the measles."

Willamina nodded.

"A scared young mother who was intimidated as hell and yet she went to the one soul who intimidated her most for help."

Willamina chuckled, nodded.

Two mugs raised, slowly; steam rolled up, two mugs lowered.

"Always did like mornings."

"Mornings were always your favorite."

"Speakin' of which."  Linn looked over at his Mama.  "How's that new fella workin' out?"

"The one you hired to clean my barn?"  Willamina smiled.  "He'll do."

Linn frowned a little.  "If he's not doing it right --"

Willamina fluttered a hand, a brush-it-away gesture, her forehead wrinkled with a frown:  "No, no, he's fine.  He doesn't hit it at the crack of dawn like you used to, but he does a good enough job."

Willamina didn't have to look to know Linn's eyebrow raised a little, just like his father's used to, and her lips followed his words, silently shaping the syllables she knew would follow:  "Good enough is not good enough."

Willamina took a long, patient breath.

"He won't last long," she admitted, "but the barn gets cleaned out, and your decrepit old Ma doesn't have to wheelbarrow second hand horse feed out to the manure pile."

"Decrepit, my Aunt Fanny's billy goat," Linn muttered, and Willamina laughed and laid a companionable hand on his shoulder.

They felt a step behind them, heard Shelly's voice through the screen door.

"I hate to interrupt," she said, "but if you're going to get your shower and get to work on time, you'd better get at it."

"Yeeessss, Maaawwwww," Linn groaned, tilting up his mug and gulping the last of his coffee.

"I'd better get a move on, too," Willamina quavered in a terrible imitation of a reedy-old-woman's voice, which got a laugh from Linn and Shelly both:  Linn smiled, debated momentarily whether to comment that he worked for a real stickler for punctuality, decided against it: it was a comment his father had made and he fancied his Mama was expecting him to say it --

"You might as well say it," Willamina murmured as she stood, turning toward her son as he pushed open the screen door.

"After you," he murmured, and the laughed, and added in his own terrible comedic accent, something nasal and vaguely New York-ish, "Do yas knows me or what!"

 

 

 

 

 

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329. "GAMMAW, DO ANGELS HAVE PALE EYES?"

 

Willamina offered Marnie a cup of milk, which the child took with a bashful little "Think you." 

Willamina started to take a sip of coffee when Marnie looked up, smiled with a milk mustache on her upper lip, and asked with wide-eyed innocence, "Gammaw, do angels have pale eyes?"

Willamina's throat slammed shut to keep her from drowning.

She swallowed quickly, carefully, leaned her head forward, placed her coffee very calmly, very precisely on the tabletop.

Marnie placed hers on the table as well, her eyes widening a little, and she seemed to shrink into herself, the way a child will when she is afraid she's just done something very bad, and the wrath of two hells and a dragon are about to be visited upon her.

Willamina tilted her head a little, blinked, and asked in a gentle voice, "Where did you see the angel?"

Marnie's eyes were wide and frightened and her reply didn't hide a quiver of fear very well.

"She was vewwy pwittie," Marnie said, reverting to the speech patterns of a younger self.  "She was in my bedwoom."

Willamina nodded, looked very directly at her granddaughter.

"First of all," she said, almost whispering the words, and Marnie quailed even more:  every time she'd heard these words, they were followed by a loud and blistering blast of anger, generally the burning taste of the belt across her back or across the back of her thighs.

"... you've done nothing wrong," Willamina continued.  

Marnie dare not relax.

She willed herself not to tremble, not to betray the terrible fear she felt, for she remembered far too well how things used to be.

They hadn't been like that since she got a new Mommy and a new Daddy, and now she had a Gammaw, and she had people with pale eyes so she didn't feel all alone like she had, but all the old reflexes of a child hurt far too young were there, and very close to the surface.

"Where did you see the angel with pale eyes?" Willamina asked gently.

"My bedwoom."

"Can you show me where she was?"

Marnie leaped from her chair, ran around the table, seized her Gammaw's lowered hand:  she did her best to tow her Gammaw like she would tow a kite, and Willamina scampered, bent over, keeping up with the energetic little girl who was burning off adrenalin-fueled fear with sudden effort.

Willamina took the stairs two at a time, marveling at how this little four year old child could ascend with such speed, and Marnie pulled them into her bedroom -- she released her Gammaw's hand, fell back against her bed, thrust an arm and an accusing finger -- "There, Gammaw," she said, "an' she left me a dwess too!"

Willamina looked at the indicated chair, nodded:  "Can you show me the dress?"
Marnie nodded, scampered over to her closet.

Willamina brought the indicated garment off the closet rod, held it up, her bottom jaw easing out a little.

"She gimme a hat an' stockings an' a paiwwa slippers," Marnie added, and Willamina looked at the top shelf, reached up, brought down a little flat-crowned straw hat with swallowtail ribbons.

She carefully placed the hat back on the shelf, carefully hung the dress again, looked down at the shiny, little-girl shoes.

"I know about that dress," she said slowly, "and I knew a little girl who wore that hat."

"Was it the angel, Gammaw?"

Willamina walked over, turned, seated herself on the bed.

She glared at the chair.

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," she said, her voice sharp, commanding, "show yourself!"

A voice from the doorway:  "There's no need to shout," she said, and Marnie turned, her mouth open in a delighted O:  "Gammaw! It's the angel!"

Sarah Lynne McKenna laughed, clapped her gloved hands with delight:  "I've been called many things," she replied, pale eyes shining, "but rarely have I been called an angel!"

Willamina rose, lifted her chin.

"Why," she demanded, "are you tormenting my granddaughter?"

"Why are you claiming my little sister?"  Sarah countered.  "Or rather, why don't I ask why you are not wearing this gown, or riding a great black horse with feathered feet?"

Willamina opened her mouth and Sarah raised a flat palm.

"Save it, sister," she said.  "I'm here for the same reason you'll be" -- she stopped herself.  "I can't tell you that."

"I'll be what?" Willamina demanded.

Marnie looked from one to the other, frowning, no longer afraid:  she walked over midway between the pair, turned to look directly at Sarah, then turned to look directly at her Gammaw.

"Gammaw," she asked, "are you an angel?"

Willamina looked at her granddaughter, then looked at her ancestress.

Marnie walked up to Sarah, patted her skirt, gave it a tug:  she reached up, gripped Sarah's gloved hand:  she turned, walked over to her Gammaw, patted her skirt, gave it a tug, gripped her Gammaw's hand.

"You're both real," she said, "an' you both have pale eyes an' you're both vewwy pwittie."  

Marnie tilted her head, frowning.

"Gammaw, if she's an angel why ain't you an angel too?"

"Who says she isn't?"  Sarah smiled.  

"I knew it!"  Marnie declared happily, jumping up and throwing her arms in the air:  she stopped, frowned, looked at her Gammaw and asked, "Gammaw, where's your wings?"

Sarah looked at Willamina as if to say "Answer that one!" -- and Willamina smiled and slid off the bed, kneeling before her delighted granddaughter.

"Do you remember we're not supposed to be selfish?"  Willamina asked quietly.

Marnie nodded.

"I've shared my wings with you already."

Marnie blinked, half afraid and half delighted, uncertain how she should understand that puzzle.

"Do you remember the horsie you rode?"

Marnie clapped her hands to her mouth, jumped up and down again, stifling a little squeal of delight.

"She's right, you know."  Sarah glided closer, knelt as well.

Marnie took it as absolutely normal that the two women were the same height -- that they moved the same when they went down onto their Prayer Bones -- and that, the longer the two of them were together, the more absolutely alike their features were.

"Horsies really do have wings," Sarah affirmed.

Willamina glared at her.  "Don't you dare," she hissed, and Sarah seized Willamina's hand, and Marnie's.

The world twisted around them: they were in a meadow that smelled of summer, the sun hot on their arms, their backs.

Willamina and Sarah stood.

"Don't," Willamina warned.

"Stop me," Sarah challenged:  she curled her lip, whistled, then looked down at Marnie.

"There are things which we women are privileged to know," she explained, "and things which we may know, that nobody else may know.  This is one of them."

A great black horse came cantering up, slowed, stopped:  Marnie looked waaaaay up at this truly huge horsie -- it was black, shining, gleaming, rippling black, the light shimmering off healthy fur.

Marnie looked down and giggled.

She'd never seen a horsie with fuzzy hoofies before.

"You think that's something?" Sarah laughed.  "Sister, you ain't seen nothing!"

Marnie's breath caught as the horsie stepped back, head bobbing, hooves light on the soft grass -- then suddenly, a pair of white wings snapped out, flexed, stretched.

"You asked about wings," Sarah smiled, tilting her head as she looked at the delighted little girl, barely containing her delight, almost ready to bust with the effort of not jumping up and down again.

Marnie stared at the huge, shining, black horsie, remembering what it was to ride her Gammaw's horsie and how magic it was, how much like flying it was, and here was a horsie with wings --

"She's not ready to know," Willamina cautioned.

"I'm not telling her yet."

Marnie looked from one to the other, feeling the tension, feeling a great secret, unspoken, crackling invisibly over her head.

"What are you telling her?"

"Marnie."  Sarah went gracefully to her knees again.  "What are angels?"

"Angels are messengers from God," Marnie said with an affirming nod, the positive reply of a little child who absolutely knows that what she says is absolutely positively right!

"Exactly so," Sarah nodded.  

"Now.  What do angels look like?"

Marnie's expression went from positive to panicked.

"Aren't you an angel?" she asked in a small, disappointed voice.

Sarah smiled, looked at the huge black mare.

"Do angels have wings?"

"Isit the horsie an angel?" Angela asked, tripping over her words.

"I won't say she's not," Sarah said.  "I know she lets me use her wings from time to time."

Marnie walked up to the big black mare, looked up, as the mare looked down at her, and Willamina bit her bottom lip as the little girl asked wistfully, "Are you an angel?"

Willamina turned quickly at the sudden sound of hoofbeats, as Marnie turned and thrust out a finger, as her little voice demanded, "Gammaw, izzit dat an angel?"

A lean young man with pale eyes rode toward them, a young man riding an Appaloosa stallion, a stallion that just happened to be folding a set of white wings.

"Hello, Aunt Willamina," the young man called, whipping off his campaign hat and bowing a little in the saddle.  "Cousin Marnie, my name is Joseph, and this was my father's horse."

Willamina thrust out a bladed hand.  "Don't," she warned. 

"Yes, ma'am," Joseph replied, then looked very directly at Marnie.

"Angels," Marnie said firmly, "have pale eyes!"

 

That Sunday, in church, Reverend John Burnett turned to the book of Revelations, and his sermon concerned the Last Days.

Marnie sat between her Daddy and her Gammaw, and her Daddy held the baby, and her Mama sat beside her Daddy, and Marnie looked over toward the piano.

Her eyes widened and the piano player put a gloved finger to her lips.

Marnie's delighted "Aunt Sawwah!" froze behind her teeth:  she stiffened, her breath coming quickly, as she watched Sarah Lynne McKenna, composed and ladylike on the piano stool, apparently unseen by anyone else.

The Bear Killer slept beneath their pew; he was undisturbed by this sudden appearance, and her Gammaw did not move a single muscle, and so Marnie did her best to turn invisible.

She listened to the words written so very long ago, heard their Parson quote someone called Napoleon when he visited the terrible place where The Last Battle would be fought.

"When Napoleon viewed the Plain of Megiddo," the Reverend said, "he remarked that all the armies of the world could maneuver here."

Megiddo, a voice whispered in Marnie's mind.

One final battle between good and evil.

Marnie looked at the pretty lady in the shimmery blue gown.

Will we be there? 

The pretty lady smiled, and Marnie remembered that we women are privileged to know things, and she held very carefully still, trying to sort some sense out of the good Reverend's words.

She looked back toward the piano and the stool was empty.

 

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

Marnie leaned against her Daddy.

"Daddy, we gonna fight at Megiddo?"

Her Daddy was quiet for several long moments.

"I doubt it," he admitted, "but I'd sure enough like to."

"Why?"

"Because that's where Good and Evil will fight a final battle."  His voice was quiet, gentle, and very certain.  "And if I'm to fight a final battle, that's the one I want to be in on."  He smiled down at his little girl.  "That's why I train and train and train again."

Marnie looked up at her Daddy.

"I wanna train too, Daddy."

Linn nodded.

"The women of our line are warriors," he said thoughtfully.  "I think you'll do well at it."

Willamina looked up as the pretty woman in the shimmering blue gown glided out from behind a knot of parishoners, looked at her.

You're damned right she'll do well, Willamina heard in her mind, and two pale eyed women smiled grimly... two pale eyed women who knew what it was to be a warrior.

 

 

 

 

 

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330. "WELLSIR, HE HAD A SHOTGUN, AND I DIDN'T!"

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland was town marshal of Carbon Hill.

Carbon Hill wan't terribly far from Firelands; it was near enough to be a stop on the Z&W Railroad, it was near enough that he and Old Pale Eyes spoke with regularity, and it was no secret that Harry preferred the food at the Silver Jewel to the provender available at their own saloon, which seemed to change hands often enough that they'd given up on repainting the plank out front with a new name every week, and just left it saying SALOON.

Harry eased himself down into his chair, considered kicking his feet up on the desk, then decided against it.

He had a guest, and the guest had pale eyes, and this pale eyed guest happened to have a pale eyed father that didn't have very good luck ridin' that office chair of his, and Law and Order Harry Macfarland was present in the Firelands County Sheriff's Office when the chair went over backwards and Linn's boots ended up thrust straight in the air with his heels pointing toward the ceiling, his pants sagging and showing his boot tops for about half their height, and Harry managed to hide a smile as he recalled his old and dear friend's quiet threat from behind the desk, a stated intent to reduce the recalcitrant chair to stovewood and incinerate it to make coffee.

He didn't, for which Law and Order Harry Macfarland was grateful.

Old Pale Eyes made truly awful coffee.

Harry sat down, gestured toward a chair:  "Have a set."

Jacob sat.

"Now't the dust has settled, just what in the hell happened over there?"
Jacob smiled, just a little.

"Before or after I throwed that table?"

"Before.  Why'd you throw a poker table in the first place?"

Jacob spread his hands, shook his head, and in an exaggerated nasal drawl, replied, "Well, y'see, it's like this ..."

 

Jacob's hand released the handle of his beer mug.

He slid his fingers in through the handle, gripped the mug firmly:  he spun, drove the heavy glass into the man's face, his off arm coming up and blocking a punch: he stepped into his own punch, used the glass as a fist and hit the attacker again, and he had the momentary impression of arms and legs kind of flappin' in the breeze as his opponent sailed backwards and hit the floor, limp.

A fist came in from his left and Jacob leaned back, grabbed a miner by the back of the head, introduced his nose to the edge of the bar, or rather the heavy plank that served as a bar, the original having been stolen some time ago and replaced by rough lumber on four scarred barrels: Jacob seized a whiskey bottle, a good heavy square-cast war club and laid about like Samson with the jaw bone of a jack mule, at least until some fellow come around the corner with a twelve-bore.

 

"Now I'd done good work with that whiskey bottle," Jacob said quietly, "and I'd laid about the Philistines to good effect, but a bottle of whiskey just ain't much of an argument ag'in a swarm of heavy shot."

"No," Law and Order Harry Macfarland agreed, "it ain't."

"That's when I tossed attair bottle torst the barkeep and grabbed that poker table."

Law and Order Harry Macfarland considered, knowing he was about to open his mouth so something stupid could fall out, but he could not help himself.

He opened his mouth.

"Did he catch it?"

 

Jacob moved like a panther:  he ducked, seized the round table from beneath, threw it, hard.

The fellow with the shotgun was surprised and gave the table both barrels, boom boom, blowing splinters and smoke clear over against the opposite wall, two ounces of lead doing absolutely nothing to improve the interior decor:  Jacob swarmed in, seized the shotgun and stomped the man's foot, hard, a tactic he'd used to good effect in the past.

He jerked the gun free -- seized it with two hands, ripped it free, pulling it to his left, then reversed course without reversing his hands and drove the checkered wood butt into the shooter's face, hard.

 

"That fellow with the shotgun hit the floor," Jacob said quietly.  "I recall the checkering kind of marked up his forehead."

Law and Order Harry Macfarland nodded slowly.  "I reckon it would."

"After that, why, the fight became general so I committed that classic military maneuver known as Gettin' the Hell Out of There."

Harry nodded again.

"Good of you to bring me the shotgun."

"Figured you might need another one."

"Man can always use a good double gun."

Silence grew long in the Marshal's office, until Harry, looking up toward the ceiling and considering, mused aloud, "Wonder what started that whole fracas in the first place?"

Jacob snorted.  "Some fellow said if I could afford to wear a suit, I could afford to buy him a drink and I told him to go to hell."  Jacob's pale eyes were a little wrinkled up at the corners, and Harry knew any other man would be grinning broadly.  "Had he asked nicely I'd have bought him one, but when he demanded, why, I just cain't abide by bad manners."

Harry nodded.  "Can't blame you a bit."

 

 

 

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