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331.  LATER, IN CARBON HILL

Law and Order Harry Macfarland took a deep breath and managed to pry his shoulder from where it was propping up the porch post in front of his Marshal's office.

Local wags speculated on how long it would take the man's shoulder to polish a smooth spot on the upright; occasionally, when said spot was unoccupied, one or another might come over and take a look at the spot, but so far it showed no sign of being burnished glass smooth.

Harry strolled across the street, looking around, having the appearance of a man in no hurry at all: he strolled across ruts and almost-muddy swales, nodded to teamsters clattering and jangling past, stepped up onto the boardwalk and under the faded, weathered plank that declared SALOON in once-fancy scrollwork lettering.

A father and son had just gone in; Harry caught the swinging batwing, stepped inside and to the side, looking around:  he was a quiet man by habit, easy going and not in any hurry a'tall -- an image he worked hard to cultivate.

There were those who'd learned the hard way the man was phenomenally fast when the mood was upon him, but so far as possible, he preferred to be slow of speech and slow to move, but very quick to listen, and anyone who watched him would very quickly appreciate that his eyes didn't miss much at all.

Harry sauntered up to the bar, nodded at the fellow in the dirty apron -- a mug of beer appeared on the almost smooth plank in front of him -- the barkeep flipped the bail and worked the cork out of a bottle of sarsaparilla and handed to the boy, who was barely big enough to see over the plank.

The father accepted the beer:  he and Harry gripped their mugs, hoisted their libations, drank.

Harry savored the beer, delighting in how good it felt going down:  he lowered his mug, watched the lad industriously chugging on his bottled beverage:  the boy must've taken a good charge of wind in before starting to drink, for that was a fair sized bottle, and he tilted 'er up and didn't stop gurgling it down until it was dry.

He lowered the bottle, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, gave a good, rippling, resounding belch.

His Pa looked down at him.

"What do you say to the man, son?"

The lad looked with bright-eyed sincerity and utter childhood honesty at the barkeep, set the empty up on the plank and declared, "Sure would like to have another!"

 

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332. "I'LL NEVER SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN!"

Something hit Linn in the side, hit him hard, like he'd been punched, but punched deep.

He tasted copper right before his mouth went bone dry, and deep inside his long tall skinny carcass something was screaming "SOMETHING IS WROOOOOONG AND I'M SIIIIICK!" and he ruthlessly wound up a phantasmal hand and backhanded that part of his psyche, hard, seizing his emotions with hard and uncompromising hands: he suddenly felt cold, and part of him knew he was going to die.

The rest of him was mad as hell and intent on taking the enemy with him.

He'd been off duty and he'd been relaxing, he'd sunk a double bit ax in a chunk and tacked a nail in on either side, he'd set a clay pigeon on either side of the ax, set between the nail and the ax head, and he'd paced back with a reproduction .36 Navy Colt.

He'd eared the hammer back, he'd brought the octagon barrel down level, he'd set that little brass front cone of a sight right where he wanted the ball to hit, he just barely touched the trigger when his cell phone went off.

Muzzle up and thumb over the hammer spur, hammer to half cock and holster: he answered the phone, knowing it was nothing good, for it was the Sheriff's office ringtone, and not fifteen seconds later he was in saddle leather and headed for an outlying grocery store he and Shelly liked real well.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller walked across the Sheriff's Office lobby, headed for the heavy glass doors.

"Wait," Sharon said, and Willamina turned.

 Sharon was on the phone, her face serious:  Willamina saw her reach up and mash the button for the Irish Brigade, looked up at the Sheriff as she drove the edge of her hand down on the desk mike.

She was double dispatching; what she said next went to both the fire department, and to the units already responding.

"Supplement to previous," she said, her voice clear, her words very clearly enunciated: "Approach with caution. Shots fired, tango down, scene is not secure. Firelands Emergency Squad, respond to Kasler's Grocery, multiple down, shots fired, S.O. enroute."
Sharon released the transmit key, looked up at Willamina.

"Linn's on his way."

Willamina nodded, once.

 

Linn knew how to get there faster than any of the motor units: his Appaloosa loved to run, and loved to run in rough country: the horse loved to challenge the land, and Linn loved to ride the challenge, and when he and Apple-horse went airborne across the last ditch and came pounding up toward the store, Linn heard two gunshots, bang-bang, and saw a holdup stagger backwards out the front door, fall.

He brought Apple about, dismounted fast behind two cars he didn't recognize: he drew the Navy Colt he'd intended to use to split a round ball on an ax blade with, thumb around the stand-up hammer, took a fast look, another.

He reversed, came around the rear of the vehicle.

The top flat of the Navy Colt's barrel reflected one of the clouds overhead: it rose of its own accord, the conical front sight rose the length of the criminal nose, stopped between the eyes, and the revolver fired just as the holdup punched a round at the lawman wearing a flannel shirt and an irritated expression.

The distance was not great.

Neither man missed.

The outlaw collapsed like a baggie of ground meat:  Linn flinched, swayed, then set his teeth and brought the Navy's hammer back, swung around.

He sliced the pie through the front door, rushed: Mildred was on her knees beside her husband, the old man was cursing, trying to reach the pistol on the floor:  there was blood under his head and Linn swung, came up out of his crouch:  "IS THERE ANYONE ELSE!" he shouted.

Mildred thrust a shivering, arthritic finger at the doorway.

"Roger shot the one," she said, "and the other one got away!"

Linn eased the hammer down, took a long breath:  he eared back to half cock, rotated the cylinder, set the hammer down on the fired nipple, holstered.

His side felt like someone sledgehammered a stake through his ribs and his breathing was not good:  he was breathing faster, but he had work to do, so he went over to Roger, went to one knee.

"Where you hit?" he asked.

"I'M NOT!" Roger shouted.  "I TRIPPED AND FELL BACKWARDS AND HIT MY HEAD!"

Linn rose.  "Squad's on the way," he said, turned, his right arm clamping down on his ribs: he walked to the doorway, hand on the revolver, eyes busy.

One man was down, gasping his last: Roger, Linn knew, carried a .32 Colt automatic in his hip pocket as a matter of everyday course, and it looks like an old man with an old gun was the last thing this robber would ever tangle with:  there was one hole through the center of his wishbone, and as Linn watched, he saw the chest sink one last time, and grow still.

He looked up.

Sirens were approaching.

Linn fell back against the front of the building as a familiar Jeep skidded to a broadside stop, as something with pale eyes and a blue suit dress came running toward him, as a pair of pale eyes in a pale face glared at him.

He felt his Mama's hands seize his flannel shirt, rip the buttons through the buttonholes with a two-handed jerk:  he heard his Mama's breath between clenched teeth.

"Roger's inside," Linn said.  "I'm okay, he has a head injury, tend him."
Linn closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the building as more sirens came: he heard hard braking, a confusion of voices, running feet:  someone shouted his name from a very long way off and he opened his eyes, grimaced:  his chest was hurting now, hurting like homemade hell, and someone was shouting at him, pulling his vest off him, he saw the flash of sunlight on stainless steel as bandage scissors sheared through woven cotton, he saw the yellow tubing on the ambulance cot as it was wheeled up to him as fast as two people could run --

"Never mind me," he said, "Roger's hurt," and suddenly his vision was filled with something pale and intense, a voice loud, commanding.

"DAMN YOU, LINN!" he heard his Mama's voice shout -- he knew she was shouting, he could feel her breath, warm on his face, he knew it was a shout, but it was from so far away, so very far away -- 

"IF YOU DIE I'LL NEVER SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN!"

Linn remembered seeing her hand, white, blurred, moving fast: he knew she'd just slapped him, hard, and he remembered turning his head back to look at her, as she looked suddenly shocked, as she clapped her hands to her cheeks, as she whispered "My God, what have I done?"
Strong hands tried to grip him but he shook them off.

Linn took a step toward his Mama.

Linn's face was hard, Linn's face was graven with pain and with anger, and Willamina shrank a little, looking like a little girl who'd just done something she shouldn't and knew she was going to get her backside spanked for it.

Linn gripped his Mama's shoulders.

"I'll tell you what you did," he said, and his voice was hollow and distant in his own ears.  "You just showed us why women live longer than men.  Men hold it in.  Women vent."

Linn's eyes rolled up and his knees buckled.

He distantly remembered being laid on something soft, he felt the sting of a needle, he mumbled something about having veins like the Alaska Pipeline under all that married man's lard.

Willamina didn't lean against her twin brother, so much as she fell back against him:  Will felt his pale eyed twin sister shiver as the squad doors slammed shut, as the rig started moving, as she turned and buried her face in his shirt front.

"He forgave me, Will," she whispered, not trusting her voice.

"I know, Little Sis," Will rumbled, wrapping his arms around her and patting her back in a fatherly way.  "He learned that from you."

Willamina looked at Linn's gunbelt, wrapped around the holster, at the brass grip frame of the Navy Colt, shining against the smooth walnut handles.

Willamina bit her bottom lip.

"Old Pale Eyes," she said, "would be proud." 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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333. QUEEN BEE

Shelly leaned her head back, rested it against the painted plaster wall behind her.

She disliked the injection molded plastic hospital chairs, but it's all they had, and she was tired; she closed her eyes, her infant laid over her chest, the wee head on her shoulder.

Marnie looked around with big and interested eyes.

There were lots of lawmen either standing, or coming, or going: some brought in flat cardboard boxes of coffee, or passed around wrapped sandwiches, and Marnie's stomach reminded her she hadn't eaten for at least the past ten minutes, and so she slipped out of her chair and strutted industriously over among the sea of striped-legged lawmen.

Strong and anonymous hands reached down, picked her up, bringing a giggle from the pretty little, pale eyed girl:  Marnie decided she liked this bunch of fellows, 'cause they fed her half their sandwich, or half a doughnut, they talked to her like she was a Big Girl, and they listened when she talked to them.

Men's voices continued conversing, quietly: Marnie didn't miss a look one gave another when there was speculation that he might not make it.

"My Daddy will be fine," Marnie said, nodding her head once, firmly, in emphasis: "he has to teach me stuff."

The lawman holding her up to his own eye level looked at her curiously and asked, "What kind of things is he teaching you?" and she smiled -- a quick, bright, delighted smile -- "He said he has to teach me to spit and cuss and whistle and whittle 'cause he wants a dozen kids and there's gonna be little brothers I'm gonna hafta teach and so I hafta know how too."

Marnie felt her benefactor's chest quiver a little as he contained his laughter, but there was no hiding his broad grin and the reddening of his face at the child's innocent but very convincing pronouncement.

Someone came in amongst them, and the lawmen all turned, and Marnie saw her Gammaw moving through the crowd, lawmen drawing back for her:  Willamina looked at her granddaughter, planted her knuckles on her hips, nodded.

"You," she said quietly, "are a flirt."

Marnie giggled happily.

She didn't really know what a flirt was, maybe it was some kind of a bird 'cause birds sort of flirt around, don't they? -- and Willamina looked around, nodding a little.

"He's alive," she said, "and he's headed for recovery. They didn't have to take out much of his lung but he's going to be sore.  The bullet hit a rib."  Willamina frowned a little, took a long breath.

"They 3-D printed the damaged rib and put in a plastic section, so he won't have a hole where bone used to be."  She looked at Marnie.  "His work isn't done yet, is it, princess?"

Marnie solemnly shook her head, the half-eaten sandwich still clutched in both hands.

Willamina looked around.  "Gentlemen, your kindness is appreciated, but we are officially off deathwatch.  The Silver Jewel is open and I'm buying!"

 

Shelly opened her eyes as warm hands rested gently on her bare forearm.

"Mrs. Keller?" a gentle voice asked, and Shelly saw a set of understanding eyes between the surgical hair bonnet and the surgical mask.

Shelly blinked, grimaced.  "I hate these chairs," she said quietly.

"I do too."  The surgery nurse settled into the chair beside her.  "You look exhausted."

Shelly nodded, shifted her grip on the baby.

"Your husband is going to be just fine. One broken rib, the lung partially collapsed. They took out a little of it but not much. The lung is reinflated and he's in Recovery."

The nurse patted her reassuringly on the arm, rose as the Sheriff approached.

"How's for a meal?" she asked.  "The Silver Jewel.  I'm buying."

Willamina dipped her knees, hooked the diaper bag, stood.  "You look like you could use a good night's rest."

Shelly nodded.

"Come on then.  Let's get you fed, we'll get you home and you can lay down."

"What about Marnie?  And the baby?"

"Listen, sister," Willamina laughed, "I used to change your husband's diaper on my desk blotter, and Marnie is having the time of her life being Queen Bee with every lawman in three counties wrapped around her little finger!"  

 

Linn opened his eyes.

He took a breath, took another, grimaced.

"Lie still.  How do you feel?"

Linn worked his tongue; it felt like leather.

"Water," he croaked.

"In a minute."

He felt the cuff tighten on his upper arm, felt it loosen slowly.

"How do you feel?"

He turned his eyes toward the questioner, anonymous in green scrubs, bonnet and surg mask.

"I ache," he rasped, "so I'm not in Heaven but my feet are cold so I'm not in Hell."

"You must be alive, then."

"Yeah." He licked dry lips with a dry tongue. "Shelly."

"She knows you're okay."

"The Sheriff."

"She knows too."

The figure in surgical green stood, turned:  someone else replaced her, someone in a shimmering blue gown, someone with pale eyes.

Linn blinked, squinted:  "I know you."

"I know."  He felt a gloved caress across his forehead.

"Is it time?"

"No."  The pale eyed woman bent, kissed him on the forehead.  "Not yet. Your work is not yet done."

Linn swallowed, or tried to.  "How's Roger?"

Again the caress, the gloved fingers tracing across his forehead.

"He's got a headache but he'll be fine.  Sleep now, warrior. All is well."

 

"Sheriff?"

Willamina raised her head: she had a hand on two lawmens' shoulders.

"You're wanted, ma'am."  The young officer turned, extended a bladed hand toward the door to the back room.

Willamina raised her chin, squared her shoulders, paced off on the left: she glided more than walked, but she did so with an absolute confidence.

She left the dining room, filled with lawmen from many jurisdictions, went into a room she'd believed was empty.

She was almost right.

She stopped, pale eyes hard, glared at the only other soul in the room: Willamina turned, closed the door firmly, quietly, behind her, turned.

The room was empty.

This was unusual.

Usually it was overflow dining, usually there was at least a podium at the front, pushed up against the wall when not used: the room was bare, not even pictures on the wall, nothing but clean, ruffled curtains on the windows.

Willamina glared into a pair of pale eyes: her own eyes were hard, cold, not at all welcoming: the other's held no such hardness ... a knowing, perhaps, but not the stony expression the Sheriff projected.

Willamina's approach was as blunt as her speech.

"Speak."

"Woof," Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled: Willamina was a blur, closing the distance, landing three blows -- two would have killed, one would have crippled -- Sarah was equally as fast, deflecting without retaliating: the two drew apart, circling: one woman, hands open and bladed, moving easily on the balls of her feet, silent on the varnished, waxed, polished floor:  the other in a floor length gown, moving equally as easily, her hands half-open, ready to grapple, deflect or punch.

Suddenly both women drew back a pace, relaxed, lowered their hands.

"We could be at this all day, you know."

"I know."

"He's asleep now."

"I know that too."

"He looks so very much like my father."

"He looks very much like himself, thank you very much!"

"Why are you here?"

"Why don't you speak your mind?"

"I just did."

"No you didn't," Sarah smiled.  "You were going to call me a feather merchant but you nearly said feather duster."

"Damn you," Willamina hissed.

"We are of the same blood, remember," Sarah admonished.  "I can't read your mind but I can predict you pretty closely."

"Are you here to take his soul?"

Sarah shook her head slowly.  "No.  No, not for that."  Her image rippled and suddenly she was the Valkyrie, a Viking roundshield on her left forearm, sword in the right, magnificent and both frightening and feminine in leather and steel armor.  "You're thinking this."

Willamina nodded, her eyes still hard.

"You went to France and you set a stone on Joseph's grave."

Willamina nodded, slowly, and Sarah's hand lowered, caressing a white lupine head that wasn't there a moment before, and Willamina watched as The White Wolf condensed into reality beside the Valkyrie.

"I was there.  So was he."  Sarah smiled a little.  "And when Joseph fell for the last time, I was with him."

"What did you there?"

"Ever the lawdog," Sarah said, admiration in her voice.  "My pale eyed Daddy was much the same."

"Answer the question."

"I took him by the hand and pulled him out of his body," Sarah replied gently.  "I introduced him to Snowflake and his father's Apple-horse, and he laughed like a little boy when he realized that horses really do have wings."

"Why are you here?"

The Valkyrie sighed, grounded the tip of her sword beside the toe of her right boot.

"I knew you would want to know."

"Know what?"

"I'm not here for him."

"For whom are you here?"

The Valkyrie smiled.

"For now, nobody. You needed to know your son's soul is not required of him this day."

"I did have a concern," Willamina said carefully.

The Valkyrie was suddenly Sarah Lynne McKenna again, dignified and feminine in a shimmering blue McKenna gown and matching little hat.

"I do have one more stop to make."

Willamina raised her eyebrow, which amused Sarah: she laughed a little, raised flat-together fingers daintily to her lips.

"I'm sorry," she giggled, "but you looked so very much like Papa --"

"If I weren't a lady," Willamina snarled, and then she blinked, for suddenly she was alone.

Willamina's hands closed into fists and she snarled a little, then snapped, "I HATE it when she does that!"

 

Marnie looked up as the pretty lady in the shimmery blue gown sat down beside her.

There hadn't been a chair there, as Marnie was sitting at the end of the table, but the pretty lady sat anyway, and without difficulty:  she smiled at Marnie and said "How are your fries?"

Marnie nodded happily, chewing the hot, crispy crinkles.

"I talked to your Daddy.  He's going to be fine."

"Mommy isn't vewwy happy with Daddy," Marnie confided, swallowing:  she swallowed again, frowned, looked back up at the Pretty Lady.

"Mommy said Daddy has to stop getting hurt so much."

"It would be a good idea," Sarah agreed, nodding.  "May I?"

Marnie nodded and Sarah picked up a fry, nibbled it daintily.  "Mmm, good," she hummed.

"How come Daddy gets hurt?" Marnie asked, and Sarah heard the distress hidden under the little girl's words.

Sarah caressed the hair back from Marnie's forehead.  

"He doesn't mean to, Princess," she said gently.  "He'll do better."

"I hope so," Marnie said, and this time her sadness weighted her words.

She leaned over against Sarah, and Sarah cupped her gloved hand under the little girl's jaw, and Marnie allowed herself a little bit of hope that things would actually be all right.

She'd lost one Daddy because she'd been bad and  he got hurted 'cause she was bad and she didn't want to lose this one too.

She wasn't sure what she'd done bad to make her Daddy get hurted but she knew with no doubt whatsoever that it entirely her fault.

 

Willamina looked around, frowning.

Now where did she get off to? 

 

Marnie pushed open the church doors, let them close behind her.

She always felt a sense of awe, here in their church: it was quiet, there was a sense of ancient power, a great wisdom: Marnie looked around with big and frightened eyes, then she bit her bottom lip and pattered quickly down the aisle, toward the front.

She stopped, looked up at the rough cross on the wall.

"Hi, God," she called.  "It's me."

Silence.

Marnie hung her head.

"Daddy got hurted and I'm scared," she said, her voice tiny in the sanctuary's shadows:  "I done something bad an' he got hurted 'cause I was bad and my first Daddy got hurted 'cause I was bad and he died an' I don't want my Daddy to die."
She sniffed, wiped her nose on her sleeve.

She was a little girl, and she was scared, and she was alone, and she did what little girls do when they are scared and alone.

It is said that tears are the prayers we offer when we don't have the words, or when we can't force the words through a grief-swollen throat: there are those who argue that the tears of an innocent child are powerful charms in and of themselves:  however it was, there in the little whitewashed church, a little child's tears of fear and of grief spatted wetly on the floor in front of the ornately carved Altar.

In all the years that followed, these tear stains remained, light circles and spatter marks: when finally they were noticed, nobody knew from whence they came, nor how long had they been, only that they seemed to be part of the wood itself, and neither scouring, nor varnish, nor stain, would remove them, would conceal them.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller checked the ladies' room, asked if anyone had seen a little girl slip out.

Some had, and she followed the witness accounts:  outside, then down the street, and she looked at the Church.

How much  you want to bet?

 She followed the child, slipped into the church, bit her knuckle as she listened to the little child accuse herself of having done something very bad that caused her Daddy's hurt.

Willamina waited, knowing a storm had to rain itself out.

When it did, Marnie hiccupped and closed her eyes as her pale eyed Gammaw gently pressed a bedsheet kerchief against the little girl's damp cheeks, dabbed at her cute little button nose, hugged her and murmured the things Gammaws always murmur when a little child is distressed.

 

Linn looked up at Dr. Greenlees, smiled tiredly.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," he sighed, and Dr. John Greenlees laughed a little, rested his surgeon's hand on Linn's, shook his head.

"You," he chuckled, "are just like your mother!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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334. HOW DO WE DO IT?

 

Jacob Keller had one boot up on the bottom rail, one elbow on the top rail and his right arm at his side.

Sheriff Linn Keller's eyes tightened a little at the corners, for Jacob's son Joseph stood beside him in the identical posture.

Jacob was twelve now, long, tall and skinny, all arms and legs and broad grin, whipcord and rawhide and an absolute snake with a sixgun.

Father and son stared long into the corral, watching an outlaw mustang pace in a circle, whistling, throwing its head, daring anyone to come in easy reach:  its orbit never came within ten feet of the corral rails, and more than one wrangler allowed as that was more horse than he could ride.

Linn didn't know how the mustang came to town, he had no idea who brought him, but he knew Jacob bought him, and Jacob was watching the horse, studying the horse, reading the horse.

Joseph, beside him, watched as well, assessing the head-tossing, mane-slinging outlaw.

"Reckon you can ride him?" Jacob asked quietly.

Linn was close enough to hear the gentle voiced question, and he did not have to look to know a slow smile spread across Joseph's face: he knew Joseph wanted to top off this fellow, wanted it so bad he could taste it, but he'd learned caution when experienced mustangers went sailin' through the air.

"I reckon I could," Joseph said, just as softly.

Linn came up behind his boys, laid a hand on each shoulder.

"I reckon that one is tough as raw hide leather," he murmured.

"Mean as a snake."

"Fast as a wood chip in a flooded stream."

Linn nodded.

"You reckon the old man could ride that one?"

"Yes, sir," father and son chorused, and Linn laughed quietly.

"I don't doubt I could," he admitted, "for about one and one half seconds!"

His rueful chuckle was contagious:  all three gave quiet sounds of amusement.

"Reckon I know who could ride that one."

"You think?"

"Oh ya," Jacob said, straight faced.  "I know just the one to turn that wild man eatin' sky slinger into a meek little kitten."

Linn looked at Jacob.

Joseph looked at Jacob.

Jacob looked at the mustang.

The mustang blew, threw his head, continued his fast-paced orbit, and didn't look at anyone.

"Sarah."

Grandfather and grandson both grunted.

Very likely each of them had the same mental picture of a pale eyed girl in a fashionable gown, caressing this wild herd-leader, this feral creature of mountain and meadow, cooing to it and taming it with a feminine caress.

Grandfather and grandson snorted, realizing this, too, was a moment's mental fantasy, and very likely not even Sarah could tame this herd stallion.

It was Sunday morning, church was out for the day, the church bell had already triumphantly declared that its membership's souls were scrubbed clean of sin and ready to tear into a fallen world for another week; hands were shaken, conversation held, people dispersed, and these three pale eyed sons of the mountains ended up here, at the corral, watching a gorgeous buckskin stallion pacing steadily around the inside of the big circular corral.

The three were silent for several long minutes, then:

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, how do we do it?"

The Sheriff considered, trying to figure where Jacob was going with the question.

"Sir, Joseph here went down into a well when Joy Parsons fell in, and that would be a frightening thing for me."

Old Pale Eyes considered, remembering how Joseph had half-climbed, half-fallen into the well: there had barely been room for the two boys once he hit water, and though he'd intended the younger boy should ride his back while he climbed out, the younger boy's leg was broke and the stones were smoother and slicker than he'd reckoned, and he'd admitted quietly to his Grampa -- but not to his Pa -- that it had been a frightening thing, to be cold, in the dark, not knowing when help would get there.

He'd known help was on the way -- another boy ran for the Irish Brigade, Joseph told him the Brigade had ladders and ropes and could get them out -- Joseph had wrung out his bedsheet hankie and used it to stanch the blood from Joy's head wound, an injury he found by feel, for it was terrible dark that far below the surface.

"Sir, how do we do it?"

Old Pale Eyes remembered Jacob stripping off gunbelt and boots, drawers and vest and shirt, and diving into the cold water of the rain-swollen river: he'd swum with quick, powerful strokes, he'd grabbed the drowning man, slugged him hard when the panicked victim tried to climb Jacob and ride him like a life-raft:  Jacob grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and swam sidelong through the current, angling for the near shore, knowing the current would carry them both well downstream, not fighting it, but working with it.

Jacob had confided in his pale eyed Pa that he'd been terrified: he'd nearly drowned some years before, but when he saw the man swept off his feet and tumbled into the current, he did not hesitate: it was too far to sling a lasso, the water was too rough to risk his horse:  his hard punch to the man's jaw was more a reflex at being shoved underwater by a panicked drowner than anything, and it was the right thing to do:  it shocked grasping hands from him, he was able to haul the man, face up, they got washed onto a sandbar and Jacob dragged the fellow half out of the water, rolled him over, got his arm under the man's belly, lifted:  he threw up two gallon of river water, coughed, choked, he came up on all fours and Jacob released him, stood.

"Sir, how do we do it?"

Old Pale Eyes remembered seizing the burning girl around the waist, swinging her overhead and thrusting her down into the rain barrel, extinguishing her burning gown.

He still carried burn scars on the back of both hands and on his wrists from it.

He stood at the corral with his arms on the top rail and his boot up on the bottom rail and he smelt burnt flesh and burnt hair and he heard a young girl scream, and then she tried to scream as her burnt throat swelled, and then she squeaked a little and then she was silent and she struggled and she died with her eyes wide open and her mouth open and he saw those wide, dead eyes looking at him and not one damned thing he could do about it.

"Sir, how do we do it?"

Old Pale Eyes considered, knowing two young men were looking to him for an answer.

"Jacob," he said finally, "we carry more grief and more sorrow than would last ten men their lifetimes."

"Yes, sir, we do."

"You and I have seen things that would curl the hair on a bald man's head."

"Yes, sir, we have."

Old Pale Eyes leaned his face close to his hand, raised a thumb, scratched the center of his lip, between the curled, iron-grey halves of his sculpted, sweeping handlebar.

"We carry all that, Jacob, because we have to."  

Jacob and Joseph each turned their heads slightly toward their Clan Chieftain, listening carefully.

"We do it for the same reason we take a man that doesn't want to be taken."
Son and grandson considered this, their jaws easing out just a little as they listened.

"We do it for the same reason we do a job nobody else can do."

Son and grandson blinked, frowned a little, considering that this was correct.

"We do it because someone was hurt and scared down in a well and the right thing was to send for help and then go down to try and get them out, and when we can't get them out, we stay with them until help gets there.  We swim a river we're afraid of because someone else is more afraid than we are and we have to take care of them.  We carry what we do because nobody else can do it and it has to be done."

Linn took a long breath, looked at his son, his eyes quiet, understanding.

"I don't know if that's the right answer, Jacob, but it's the only answer I have."

Jacob considered this, looked at Joseph, who nodded, once.

"Thank you, sir," Jacob said quietly.  "I reckon it'll do."

Three pale eyed men stood at the corral, one boot up on the bottom rail, their arms on the top rail, watching a pacing mustang as it circled and shook its mane and muttered to them as it passed.

"I reckon the women folk are wonderin' where we are."

"Yes, sir."

Old Pale Eyes stood, brushed the dust off his sleeves, frowned.

"Well, hell," he muttered, "I should'a known better, now my arms are all dirty."

Father, son and grandson turned and headed for the Silver Jewel, where wives and mothers waited.

 

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335. A WIDE EYED WIZARD

Willamina folded her arms and lowered her head a little, as if she were glaring over a set of spectacles.

"Wiilll," she said, a warning note in her voice, "what did you do this time?"

Chief of Police Will Keller, twin brother of Sheriff Willamina Keller, gave her his best Innocent Expression -- which did not work at all, in spite of years of practice -- and he said, "Who, me?"

"When you come in here with that expression, you've been up to something," and Will chuckled.

"You're right.  I did, and I made the news!"

Willamina raised her open hands to the ceiling, shook her head.  "See what I have to put up with," she lamented to the overhead:  then, to her pale-eyed brother, "Okay, mister, out with it!"

Will grinned at her, then told her which news station to crank up on her computer.

She did.

"Now."  Will swung around behind her desk, bent over, weight on his palm on top of the desk, studying the screen.  "Okay, local news ... let that open ... right there!"  His fingernail barely touched the screen, causing the link to open.

 

Will had business in Denver.

He'd taken care of the business, but he had something else in mind as well.

He'd found one of the detectives was a newlywed, and he'd found his new wife was with child already, and he'd found she hadn't told him.

Exactly how he found this, he kept quiet: when he had something in mind, Will was really good about keeping his cards close to his vest, and in this particular expedition, he had a handful of aces, and he had them close in against the watch chain draping his waistcoat.

He'd taken note of the appointment, and as husband and wife came from the clinic, delight on his face and the glow of new life on hers, Will happened to saunter toward them, a rose and an envelope in hand.

"Pardon me, friend," he'd said to the young man, "it wouldn't be proper for me to address your wife, so this" -- he pressed the stem of a fresh rose into his hand -- "is something you should give her, and this" -- he pressed the envelope into the young detective's astonished grip -- "is for the three of you, and remember a man should name his son after his father."  He winked and strode on down the sidewalk, leaving an absolutely flabbergasted young detective and his wife opening the envelope, their mouths dropping open in utter astonishment.

 

Will and Willamina watched the news report on the computer's monitor.

A young man and his wife were being interviewed.

There was no envelope in sight, but the woman turned the rose slowly in her fingers, smiling that secret, knowing smile women have when they are newly with child.

"This fellow," the detective said, "handed me a rose and said I should give it to my wife, and then he said she is carrying a son."

"How would he know that?"

The detective looked very directly at the camera.

"I know this," he said, "he was a wizard.  A --"
A passing truck's air horn washed out what he said, but the scrolling text across the bottom of the screen filled in the missing words:

"He was a wide eyed wizard."

Willamina laughed and leaned back, looking up at her twin brother.

"Will," she said, "you didn't."

"I most certainly did."

"How much did you give them?"

Will shrugged, straightened.

"They'll never figure out it was me."

"Why not?"

Will laughed.

"When a perfect stranger shoves ten thousand dollars in a man's hand and tells him his wife is carrying a son, that throws him so mentally off balance he can't remember things as clearly as he should."  Will's grin faded slowly.  "Besides ... I know what it is to bury a wife and to bury my son.  He's just starting out and his father was an old partner of mine.  They'll need a house and land and that will get 'em a down payment at least."

Willamina's eyebrows raised.  "And the son?"

Will grinned.  "I had a fifty percent chance of being right."
"And you're sure he'll not know who you are?"

Will laughed again.

"He's not looking for a white eyed wizard, Willa ... they'll be looking for a wide eyed wizard,  someone with big eyes, like a UFO alien or something!"

Willamina shook her head, patted her twin brother's shoulder.

"Will," she said, "you white eyed wizard you, I'm proud of you!"

 

 

 

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336.  BUDS AND BLOSSOMS

A little girl with pale eyes stared in wonder at The Lady Esther.

In a child's world, a steam engine is a creature of magic and of mystery, a living thing shelled in cast iron with fire in its belly and a whistle for a voice ... but alive, above all else.

"Daddy," she asked, tilting her head a little to the side, "what's dat?"

A little pink finger pointed at the design painted on the locomotive's cab: a spray of roses, with blossoms and buds, stems and leaves, so cleverly done as to appear very nearly alive: even drops of dew, crystal, gleaming, were rendered in an absolutely realistic fashion.

"That?"

A pale eyed man squatted, picked up his giggling little girl, nibbled the side of her neck and tickled her ear with his muts-tache, which brought even more happy little giggles out of his happy little giggle box.

"This one" -- he extended a big, strong, Daddy-hand, pointed to a bud -- "is a rosebud.  Do you know what a rosebud is?"

The pretty little girl with pale eyes shook her head, extended a little pink finger beside her Daddy's.

"It's a flower that hasn't grown up yet," the man with pale eyes explained.

"This one" -- he touched the rose at the very top -- "is Esther.  This one is me, this is Jacob.  This smaller flower is Joseph, and this rosebud is Joseph's little brother."

Angela blinked, delighting in the feel of her Daddy's strong, protective arm around her middle, of his lean, muscled thigh under her, holding her weight: she rejoiced at her Daddy's quiet, confident voice in her ear as he named each rosebud, each flower, and she laughed and clapped her hands together happily as his finger brushed an unwinding rosebud named Angela.

 

A pale eyed little girl marveled at this huge, magical, cast iron creature, a hot monster with iron skin that sang with a brass throat, sang to the mountains and hauled mightily on steel rails:  her Daddy touched a rose and said "This one is your Mommy, this darker one is me, and this" -- he brushed another, small rose, almost unwound from bud to blossom -- "is Marnie!"

Marnie giggled, rejoicing in the feel of her Daddy's strong, protective arm around her middle, the sound of his quiet, confident voice, the feel of his lean, muscled thigh supporting her weight.

 

A pale eyed girl marveled at the cast iron creature breathing quietly in the red-walled tunnel, a creature that stood daintily on steel rails, a creature that looked like the engine she'd seen in the holovids: her pale eyed Mommy touched a rose and said "This is your Daddy, and this one is me, and this one" -- she tapped a trimmed nail on the very lifelike, hand painted blossom, just emerging from what had been a tight-twisted rosebud -- "is you!"

 

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned forward, elbows on the desk, her chin resting on the heels of her hands, smiling a little as she watched her granddaughter touching the roses and rosebuds painted on the side of the Martian steam engine, an engine that ran with a nuclear fire in her belly instead of burning coals, an engine that looked so very much like her own beloved The Lady Esther.

The video was grainy in places, the signal degraded in places as it screamed across the airless void between the red planet and the blue planet, but enough remained for a pale eyed woman to see a pale eyed woman and a pale eyed little girl baby marveling at a spray of roses, hand painted on the cab of a steam locomotive, and she remembered holding a pale eyed little baby boy and doing the same thing, the very same thing, and she knew that pale eyed little baby boy grew up to do the very same thing with his little girl.

 

 

 

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337.  LESSONS

Linn's duties as Chief Deputy kept him busy, but he'd remembered his pale eyed Mama's admonition from years before -- "The secret to successful administration is delegation" -- and so he delegated as necessary, without abdicating his authority or sloughing off work that was rightfully his: he watched his Mama's labors and learned efficiency, and put these to work for himself, and so made sure he had time for his young bride, and for his little girl.

Especially for his little girl.

He knew she'd not had a good life thus far.

Her feelings were fragile -- on an unusually warm day, Angela was wearing a pretty dress and pumps and another little girl in sandals asked her "Aren't your feet hot?" and Angela ran crying to her Daddy, her self-confidence utterly shattered:  Linn knew that this response from such a trivial thing meant she'd been wounded, deeply wounded, and that he had a lot of healing to do with his little girl.

He'd never been a husband before, but he was learning as he went, and at least according to Shelly, he was doing a decent job: he'd never been a Daddy before, and although he amused his wife and mother both by insisting on changing their little baby boy's diaper on the floor (on the premise that "He can't fall off the floor!"), he was proving ... well, at the very least, adequate.

Willamina knew he'd long had the ability to reach the very young, and she saw him putting that gift  to use with her granddaughter.

Willamina did make one mistake.

She did not tell her son that he was doing a truly excellent job.

 

Linn laughed as Angela swung the muck fork and dropped most of its payload on the way, but managed to get a little in the wheelbarrow:  she frowned, scraped up the dropped detritus, tried again:  steadily she labored, and finally, with an exaggerated wipe of a flannel sleeve across her brow, she declared, "Daddy, this is hard work!"

Linn laughed, squatted, hugged his daughter, then picked her up and showed her the inside of the well loaded wheelbarrow.

"You're doing good work, Princess," he murmured.  "Let's run this out to the manure pile."

"Okay, Daddy!"

Angela scampered over to the wheelbarrow, gripped the handles:  Linn waited, knowing youthful enthusiasm was heading for a failure, but knowing there were lessons to be drawn.

He had to let her fail, had to let her taste defeat, but he could not beat down her young spirit when she failed: something told me she'd been badly crushed in such moments, and he wanted to repair her young soul, not continue to crush it.

Sure enough, Angela managed to lift the handles, take one step, two, start to turn, and the wheelbarrow heeled over and dumped its entire payload on the barn floor.

Angela let go of the handles like they were hot, she backed up, eyes wide, scared, she looked up at her Daddy, the waters rising in her pale eyes, and Linn squatted again, put one gentle arm loosely around her middle, and whispered as he thrust a bladed hand toward the dumped over Irish buggy.

"Angela," he said, "that rascally wheelbarrow just dumped itself out on you!"

He felt her shivering:  he nuzzled his nose in under her hair so his muts-tash tickled her ear, he kissed her neck and whispered again:  "Angela, do you speak Spanish?"

He loosened his encirclement:  Angela turned, regarded him with puzzlement.

Linn raised a teaching finger.

"In correct grammatical Spanish," he said, assuming a pedantic tone -- actually an exaggerated lecturer's tone as he raised a waving finger toward the bare boards above, which brought a giggle from his mercurial little girl -- "in correeeeect Spanish" -- he wagged his head, eyes closed, deliberately shaking his cheeks and bringing another giggle -- "you never lose anything."

He returned to looking like his Daddy-self, ran his arm back around Angela's middle.

"Whatever it is, loses itself upon you.

"If I lost my wallet -- I don't want to do that, my wallet is precious to me -- I would say "I lost my wallet" and it's my fault -- in English."

Angela nodded solemnly, regarding her Daddy with wide and serious eyes.

"In correct Spanish, I would say, Se me olvido mi cartera" -- my wallet has forgotten itself upon me.

"You see, I don't want to forget my wallet.  My wallet is precious to me.  That rascally wallet has lost  itself, upon me! I'm the victim here! It's all that wallet's fault!" -- and so saying, he lashed his finger down like a horsewhip, frowning, shaking his head, exaggerating again, as if he were berating the wallet for its sins, and again his little girl giggled.

"So."  The pontifical mask was gone and he was his Daddy-self again.  

Thrusting a bladed hand at the wheelbarrow, he explained, "That rascally wheelbarrow has dumped itself out upon you.  It's all that wheelbarrow's fault."

"Yeah," Angela echoed.  "All the wheelbarrow's fault!"

"I should thrash that wheelbarrow."

"Yeah! You should thwash the wheelbawwow!"

"With a tree branch!"

"Yeah!  Wifth a twee bwanch!"

Linn leaned down a little, closed one eye.

"Got a tree branch on ya?"

Angela blinked, shook her head uncertainly.

"Hmp."  Linn frowned.  "Just as well.  It wouldn't feel anything anyway."

Angela blinked, surprised, looked at the old, heavy, steel-hulled wheelbarrow, still over on its side.

"If it won't feel anything when I thrash it with a tree branch" -- he shrugged -- "why bother?"

"Yeah," Angela agreed.  "Why bovver!"

"So."  Linn raised his teaching finger again.  "If it won't feel anything, and we don't bother, we've saved ourselves some work.  That's efficiency."
Angela wasn't really sure about this line of reasoning, but her Daddy said it, so it must be true.

Angela nodded.

Linn frowned at the wheelbarrow, tilted his head.

"Take a look at this, Angela."

He stood, picked up the handles.

"How many points of contact does this have with the ground?"

Angela wasn't really sure what her Daddy meant, but she looked at the wheelbarrow, then at her Daddy, and she gave him her honest answer.

She shrugged.

Linn laughed.  "The wheel is the only part that's touching the ground.  It's not stable, because it has only point of contact."

Angela blinked, not quite understanding.

Linn looked around, picked up a hay fork, stood it on its handle, tines up.

"How many points of contact does this hay fork have?"

Angela looked almost panicked -- she was being asked a question! She dare not give the wrong answer! -- but something in her whispered It's all right, and she tentatively, hesitantly, raised one little pink finger.

Linn nodded.

"Exactly right.  Only one, and that's here" -- he tapped the floor, where the end of the handle was just touching.

"If I let go, what'll happen?"
"It'll fall over?" Angela guessed in a small voice, and she backed up a step, her eyes growing fearful again, and Linn thought, This child is terrified of giving an answer! M
y God, what did my damned sister do to this little girl? -- but he nodded solemnly and said, "That is exactly right!"

He pointed to the wheelbarrow.

"That rascally scoundrel had only one point of contact and it dumped over!"

"Yeah!"  Angela agreed.  "Wascally scoundwel!"

Linn laughed and Angela laughed as well:  the Daddy, because he realized that his words were going to come from her mouth, and so he must be circumspect in his language, and Angela laughed, because she realized she was not going to be smacked and screamed at.

"Now."  Linn set the wheelbarrow back up on its legs.  "How many points of contact does it have now?"

Angela strutted in her filthy muck boots around to the front of the wheelbarrow, pointed at the steel wheel:  "One," she counted, then she frowned, reversed course so she wouldn't have to go around the dumped payload:  she pointed at one leg and declared loudly, "Two!" -- and then she circled behind her Daddy and pointed at the third leg: "Thwee!"

"So.  Three points of contact."

She looked up, nodded, knitting her fingers together, still a little uncertain.

"When we have three points of contact" -- Linn squatted again, took the wheelbarrow's worn smooth wooden handle between thumb and forefinger, wiggled it -- "it's stable."

"Stable," Angela dutifully repeated.

"If it has more than three, like four tires on my Jeep, it's stable."

"Stable."

Linn winked.  "Exactly right."  He picked Angela up, set her on a hay bale, looked at where she had been working.

"I'd say that's done there," he said, turned to his little girl, smiled gently.

"Thank you, darlin'.  That's good work."

"But Daddy," Angela protested, "I dumped it over on me itself! Myself!"
Linn laughed as Angela mangled two systems of grammar.

He sat down beside her, ran his arm around her, drew her close to him:  "Darlin'," he said softly, "we'll get'er figured out!"

Angela ran her arms around her Daddy and gave a big sigh, and he felt her nod as she pressed her head against him, and Daddy and daughter sat on a bale of hay for a long time before they finally loaded the wheelbarrow and dollied it out.

 

Later that evening, Shelly looked at Linn as Angela orbited the kitchen table, counting legs on the chairs, chanting "One, two, three, four, stable!  One, two, three, four, stable!"

"Linn," Shelly asked as she rolled back strap in peppered flour, "what have you been teaching her?"

Linn gave Shelly his best Innocent Expression and said, "Spanish grammar."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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338.  A DIPPER OF COLD WATER

Annette Keller sighed patiently as her husband hobbled slowly into the house.

That new mustang of his followed peacefully enough when he hitched it on the back of the wagon, and drove home; he opened the gate, drove the wagon into the near pasture, fast up the gate behind them, and only then did he unclip the tether from under the mustang's halter.

Jacob never took his eyes off this wild, magnificent creature.

He knew better.

The mustang eyed the nearest forearm and Jacob said quietly, "Don't," and the mustang didn't listen.

It was a tie, which was the faster:  Jacob's strike, or the horse's:  broad yellow teeth closed on his coat sleeve just as the heel of his off hand drove into the side of the horse's long nose.

Man and beast drew back one pace, each sizing the other up, and then a loud cross between a snort and a snuff drew the mestena's attention.

Jacob drew back a step, another, getting the wagon between himself and his new acquisition.

He needn't have worried.

Boocaffie, his Texas longhorn, was regarding this newcomer.

Jacob climbed into the wagon box, unwound the reins, flipped them lightly:  "Yup," he called, and immediately "Haw," and the horse swung left:  Jacob drew round in a broad circle, aiming to come back out somewhere near the gate.

That, at least, was his intent.

"Boocaffie," he called, "don't!"

The mustang's ears swung back at the sound of his voice, swung forward.

The bull lowered its head, shook those broad Texas sized powder horns, pawed:  the mustang shook his head, reared, windmilling unshod hooves and screaming in what was clearly a challenge, and Jacob called "Ho" and sized up the fight.

He heard the latch clack back -- "Pa!" a young voice called, and "Gee!"  Jacob yelled, and the gelding didn't have to be told twice:  he thrust fast, hard into his padded leather collar and took the wagon though the gate at a spanking trot, and Joseph slammed the whitewashed timber gate shut, shot the wooden bolt, peered through the gap in the smoothed, tinted planks.

Jacob swore, quietly, bitterly:  he hadn't counted on a bull and a stallion not getting along, and he cursed himself for not thinking of this possibility, and he damned his stupidity, for he'd paid good money for that mustang, and he'd seen what a Texas longhorn could do to a good saddlehorse.

The stallion ran straight for Boocaffie, and the bull raised his muzzle and just almost bugled his own challenge before lowering that broad boss and launching into his own attack.

Jacob expected a twist, a hook, expected the entire length of one of those pointed, black tipped horns to gut that mustang, to rip him open:  the bull instead rammed the center of his boss into the horse's chest at a dead gallop, bringing the mustang to a splay-legged halt, a staggering rear:  Boocaffie stopped, backed, rocking those long horns menacingly, watching.

The mustang staggered, hit the ground, fought to get his hooves under him:  he was hurt, but he was not quit:  Boocaffie sidled a little to his right, a little more, a little more yet, quite obviously lining up for a broadside attack.

The mustang made his legs, swayed, head hanging, clearly in pain.

Jacob waited beside his son, watching:  this first, violent collision was the only physical encounter between the two:  Boocaffie waited until he was satisfied the stallion was not going to challenge him again, then he turned, uninterested, and began grazing.

Jacob went back out to the stallion, his hands and his voice gentle, running his hands along its neck, down its cheek, caressing its nose fearlessly:  he wasn't trusting enough to offer some shaved off molasses twist chawin' tobacker, but he did have a few twists of clover and alfalfa he'd gotten just for such moments as this, and the mustang accepted the dainties without offering to remove any fingers in the process.

It wasn't until two days later, two days of patience, of calmly walking up on the mustang as if it were the most natural thing in the world, two more days of a gentle voice and a gentle touch, of running his hands along flank and legs and down the barrel and finally daring to bring out a saddle blanket and throw it over the horse's back, and then the saddle.

Annette knew her husband was a hard headed man.

She knew he was a contrary man.

She knew once he set his mind to a thing, that he would master a thing, whether it was that Jew's-harp he insisted on twanging at odd moments, or whether it was perfecting his own handwriting, with the help of an instruction-book Sarah bought in Denver for him, or whether it was the riding of a horse that couldn't be rode, and when Jacob came hobbling back into the house, Annette very patiently helped him out of his filthy clothes, supported him as he eased into the slipper tub of hot water, helped him get himself scrubbed off; she dipped out a bucket of water, replaced it with freshly heated water, keeping her husband's bath good and warm, for she knew from the number of times she'd seen him flying higher than the corral's top plank, that he'd hit the ground more times than he was willing to admit.

Annette summoned young Joseph, and dispatched him into town with some coin, and bade him ask of Daciana, the Gypsy healer, if she might have some powders or herbals that would help the aches and pains of sore muscles:  she steeped the crushed leaves in a hollow metal acorn like it was good oolong, she gave it to Jacob in a teacup, and she gave him a sympathetic look when he made a face like a Moorish idol, ran his tongue out, shivered and made an awful strangling noise.

He admitted to her, that it really didn't taste all that bad, but making a fuss was expected, and he didn't want to disappoint her, at which point Annette dumped a dipper of cold wellwater right down his naked back, bringing a most authentic yelp from her emerging husband.

Jacob seized the edges of the tub to keep himself from falling back in, he looked over at Joseph, who was regarding him with solemn visage, and he said, "Joseph, let this be a lesson:  don't EVER make your Mama aggravated!" and Joseph replied with a quiet, "Yes, sir," approached, and handed his dripping, laughing Pa a thick, fluffy towel.

 

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339. LINGUISTICS

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland lifted his chin.

The barkeep tossed the shotgun to him as men drew back.

Harry turned, thumbed both hammers back and shoved the two pipe shoot gun toward the man's back.

Two men there in the saloon managed to get their hands over their ears before the concussion of the shoulder fired howitzer slammed the saloon's interior into a shocked, silent standstill.

Harry looked around, lowering the gun's muzzle, assessing every man there, then he broke open the gun, plucked out the smoking hull, dropped it to the dirty sawdust covering the floor.

He hadn't said a word since he came in the door.

He hadn't said a word when he heard gunfire from the saloon, he hadn't said a word when he crossed the street, not a syllable passed his lips as he shoved through the faded, paint-peeling batwings. 

He hadn't said a word when he turned and signaled the barkeep, who knew what the lawman would want and was ready to deliver it by what would be known (a century later) as airmail.

Harry did, however, speak in a language the criminal would understand, and his persuasive address was just over an ounce of heavy shot through the spine, through the great vessels and out the front of the chest.

Harry could care less whether someone punched holes through the ceiling and the floor above and then the roof, but Harry knew there were people in the floor above, and he knew he had to stop this stupid soul from putting their several lives at risk, and he did so the fastest and most effective way he possibly could.

News of his unhesitating action, he knew, would also spread -- word of mouth was wonderful advertising -- and men would realize, with no doubt at all, that if they came into his saloon, into his town, if they decided it would be fun to shoot holes in the ceiling, that they would not be received in a kindly way.

Harry turned and handed the broke open shotgun to the barkeep and then he went upstairs, beat on doors, checked every room:  the working girls knew, when they heard his heavy hammer on proximate portals, heard his demanding voice, that they were about to be visited by The Law -- well, they covered themselves as best they could, all but one, and that was the one Harry was hoping he would not find.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland looked long into a young woman's dead eyes, at the red and ragged hole where a hole hadn't ought to be, and then he turned and went back downstairs.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland walked over to the dead man's body, face down on the sawdust.

Men drew back as he approached.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland drew back his boot and kicked the dead man in the ribs, hard:  once, twice, then he raised his leg and stomped hard on the dead man's ribs, and finally he uttered the first words of the entire fracas.

"That's for her," he said quietly, and then he turned and walked out.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned an elbow on the gleaming, mahogany bar top in the Silver Jewel.

Harry loafed indolently beside him, his back to the bar, both elbows propping himself.

Linn accepted the beer, thanked Mr. Baxter in a quiet voice, handed the beer to Harry.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland thanked the Sheriff, took a long pull on the cool refreshment.

Linn turned and leaned back against the bar, and he and Harry each hooked a boot heel over the brass rail as they drank.

Each man lowered their mug.

"I hear tell you had a fellow shootin' up your saloon."

"Yep."

The question was asked in almost a drawl; the single word, in reply, was just as slow.

Each man raised his mug, took another drink, lowered his mug.

It was evident neither man was in any kind of a hurry.

"I hear tell he killed one of the workin' girls."

Harry hesitated for several long moments.

Both men raised their mugs, took another drink, lowered.

"Yep."

The Sheriff nodded.

"I understand you spoke the language he understood."

Harry nodded, slowly; each man raised his mug again, lowered, and finally, the slow, thoughtful and lengthy reply.

"Yep."

Old Pale Eyes nodded.

"Sometimes," he said quietly, "you have to speak the language they understand."

Both men raised their mugs, took another drink.

"Yep."

Linn looked into the depths of his mug, grunted.

"Must have a hole in it," he muttered.  "Damn things's empty."

Harry stared dolefully into his own diminished tankard.

"Yep."

"Well, hell," Linn said finally, "I ain't et yet, how about we set down and I'll try to think of a big lie to tell ye."

Law and Order Harry Macfarland turned, set his mug on the gleaming, freshly burnished bartop; he turned, took a long breath.

"Yep."

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340. TALKED MYSELF OUT OF IT

When Linn gets mad, Linn gets quiet.

When Linn gets real mad, he gets real quiet, and that's when it's wise to be someplace else.

It is not wise to push a patient man beyond his limits, and it is not wise to provoke a quiet man to anger.

When he got real quiet, that meant he was ready to seize someone by the throat and rip the throat from their living body, and when he was walking up to someone with full intent to do just that, he did not walk quietly.

When he walked up the center aisle of their little whitewashed Church, his boot heels sounded like the drumbeat of doom itself.

His pace was slow, his pace was measured, and his eyes were the shade of a bleached skull.

Linn stopped at the end of the center aisle, looked at the ornately carved altar, then at the rough timber cross.

He raised his hand a little and contemplated the fresh picked blossom he'd brought.

"God, it's me again," he said, his voice echoing in the sanctuary's silence.

His bottom jaw thrust out and he frowned, arranging his thoughts into rows, into ranks.

"I just went up to the graveyard," he continued, "and I stopped and looked at my damned sister's tombstone."  He smiled with half is mouth.  "Not my sister.  My damned sister."

He raised the blossom to his nose, sniffed it delicately, then turned it slowly between thumb and forefinger, considering its shape, its color, its beauty.

"Marnie is like this flower."  He tilted his head a little to the side, looked at the Cross again.

"I have no idea what that damned sister of mine did. For all I know she was a good woman and a good mother and she was in a situation she couldn't get out of until she brought Marnie here."

He considered, knowing the patience of the Almighty would not be tested by his hesitation.

"Lord, I've been blamin' my sister for whatever all happened to Marnie, and that might not be fair," he admitted.  "It might be that she was a good and decent soul after all.  I don't know. She just plainly slammed the door on any communication.  Not even a Christmas card after her and Mama had that fallin' out and she screamed she hoped she never saw a single one of us again."

His shoulders rose as he took in a long breath, let it out.

"I do know this, God."

He raised his hand in front of him and said, "This flower is like Marnie.  It's delicate and it's beautiful and it should be cherished."

His hand crushed the flower, wallowed it down into his fist and mashed it into a sundered oblivion, an amalgamation of something that used to be, and no longer was.

He opened his hand, let it fall.

"That's pretty much what happened to Marnie, Lord, and I've been blamin' my sister for that."

His eyes tracked down and to the side as he considered.

"Well, she's dead and I reckon you've burnt the impurities out of her like I'd flux a pot of lead and skim off the dross, and whatever she's done wrong in this lifetime has already tormented her enough."

He wiped his hand on his pants leg, a quick, slapping brush, the way he did as a little boy.

"I'm a-gonna need Your help, Lord.  I don't have any experience with little girls.  I reckon I'd ought to make a standin' appointment with the chiropractor, Mama said she's windin' me right around her little finger and I don't doubt that's true."  

His smile was brief, almost sardonic.

"She's been hurt and that hardened Mama. Marnie is way younger than Mama was when she lost her Daddy and she was brutalized and I reckon hurtin' a little child that young and that bad will ..."
He blinked rapidly, remembering what he'd read about comparative anatomy of the brains of puppies -- one group raised with love, another group raised with abuse, how each brain physically wired itself differently.

"Lord, I'll do my best to help her heal, but I'd appreciate Your helpin' me."

He took another long breath, chuckled.

"Now here I came in with a head full of boilin' mad, and I was all set to cloud up and rain all over the place, and damned if I didn't talk myself out of it."

He looked up at the Cross again.

"Appreciate your listenin'."

He picked up what was left of the crushed blossom, turned; he walked back down the aisle, and this time his passage was almost silent.

 

 

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341. "YOU NEED THIS"

Sheriff Willamina Keller made it a point to know her people.

She was respected for many reasons, but chief among them was her unfailing fairness, and her unfailing willingness to listen, to really listen -- and whenever possible, she used that to her advantage, for even with two parties in serious disagreement, each one wants to be heard, and she made sure they were.

As a result, people talked to her, talked with her, sought her out: this was often useful, sometimes not useful at all, occasionally amusing, as it was today.

Marnie decided she would like to sit beside her Uncle Will, 'cause he was big and he was warm and he had a laugh that tickled her inside, and he had pale eyes like she did.

Will knew children were restless creatures with a short attention span, he knew children liked to be involved, and so it was that Will spelled off the fellow at the VFW table selling poppies, and Marnie delighted in being handed a poppy, and scampering around the table to hand it to the buyer.

Marnie's happy giggle brought several otherwise serious faces to a smile; after the first poppy, she didn't wait for her Uncle Will to hand her one:  she dove her hand into the box, came up with a poppy and scampered around the table, held it out:  "You need this!"

Willamina's eyes tightened a little at the corners as she listened to Dr. John Greenlees' account of this happy, pale eyed little girl and her contagious smile, and how she personally doubled sales of the VFW poppies.

Dr. Greenlees wasn't the only one to mention this to Willamina; many people knew Marnie was her granddaughter, and there is a particular delight in speaking with a proud grandmother about something the grandchild did well, and speak, they did.

 

 

 

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342. NOT BAD FOR AN OLD MAN

Chief of Police Will Keller snarled, reached up and across his chest, found a thumb and seized it, hard.

He turned, ran backwards as hard as he could -- he felt the impact with another body and he didn't care -- he knew he was headed for the corner of the brick wall and he intended to hit it as hard as he could.

He did.

The thumb he'd seized failed with a crunch he felt more than heard, just as the corner of the hand laid, locally fired brick slammed into his attacker's spine:  Will managed to run backwards almost as fast as he could run forwards, and in that moment he was having no mercy at all on whoever jumped on his back and ran an arm around his neck and tried to throttle him.

It wasn't easy to sneak up on the pale eyed police chief, but someone did it, and they did not wish him any kindness in doing it, and Will intended to return their unkindness, with interest, and so he not only drove into the wall as hard as he could, he hit it with all of his weight: he snapped his head back, hit something hard that wasn't brick, then he twisted, bent, threw his attacker over his shoulder.

He deflected an incoming fist:  he was already twisted, turning, he kept his momentum up, brought his knee up hard into the newcomer's ribs, hit hard:  his arm shot out, he ran it around the attacker's neck from the front, bent the attacker backwards over his leg as hard as he could, fully intending to break this one in two.

His other hand, as if working entirely on its own, raised up, fisted, came down like he was driving an icepick into the attacker's gut.

He threw this one to the ground, turned, lips peeled back, his face pale and taut across high cheekbones, his eyes as shockingly white as a blizzard in a full moon, and just as warm.

No one was in arm's reach; the people he could see were shocked into stillness, staring open mouthed and wide eyed at the explosive demonstration of utter, savage, merciless, violence.

Will straightened, turned again, a slow, full circle, then he reached for the back of his belt and spun out two sets of cuffs.

He had both prisoners in irons by the time the first responding backup arrived.

It wasn't his only adventure of the day.

It was more strenuous than the first one he had, the one that brought his brogan down hard on the Crown Vic's brake pedal, the one that shot his heart up behind his Adam's apple:  he was ready to pull out of his driveway, his eyes were following a half dozen little girls on bicycles, ranked from oldest to youngest, the youngest was on a little bitty bike that fit the little bitty girl ... only the larger ones claimed his attention, and the smallest hesitated behind a cluster of mailboxes, and when Will came off the brake and eased down on the gas, only then did he realize something wasn't right --

-- the little girl just came into view --

-- he nailed the brakes --

It wasn't even close, the white Ford Interceptor had moved all of one inch when he stomped the Whoa-Clydes, he hadn't momentum enough to chirp rubber -- but it surprised him, it distressed him, and he sat there for a couple of minutes, willing his adrenalin pump to shut down.

 

His pale eyed sister sat down at her conference table with him, slid a folder over to him.

"Coffee?" she asked -- unnecessarily -- she sat a heavy ceramic mug of shimmering, sinner's-black brew in front of him -- "You'll like this."

"The report or the coffee?"

"The coffee.  I added cinnamon to the grounds, two shakes across the top.  Cuts the bitterness."
"Here I was hopin' to be a bitter old man," he muttered.  "Got any cookies?"
Willamina laughed, turned, picked up a bakery box.  "You and my son!"  she laughed.  "When I made cookies at home, between him and Richard, I couldn't keep up!"

"Hmp."  Will bit into a chocolate chip cookie, nodding:  he took a noisy slurp of coffee, opened the folder, turned a page, turned another, stopped.

Willamina saw her twin brother's forehead wrinkle into a frown.

"I thought you'd be interested," she murmured.

"So he's the one."

"He's the one."

"Damn."  He took another bite of cookie, chewed slowly, thoughtfully.

"I'd heard of this pair," he said slowly.  "Bend a pipe over the town cop's head, lift his gun, shoot him, move on to the next town, hold up a joint, kill the cop, drop the gun and take the dead cop's gun, move on to the next town."

"Yep."

"A couple cop killers."

Willamina nodded, rubbed her twin brother's back.  "Not bad for an old man."
Will glared at his pale eyed twin sister.

"You'll never be an old woman," he rumbled.

Willamina laughed, patting his shoulder blade.

"Oh, I don't know," she bantered. "The football team calls me a cool little old lady!"

Will laughed, nodded, took another noisy slurp of coffee.

 

Captain Crane carefully smoothed the decal on the side of the squad.

He'd had the reflective sticker custom made.

It was a pink stork -- which in and of itself was not rare; reflective storks came in blue or pink, for a boy baby delivered, or a girl baby delivered -- but both these storks, one red and one blue, had something in common.

These cartoon storks, each with a sling dangling from its beak, with a little pink hand and a little pink foot sticking out ... these cartoon storks wore saddle shoes.

He looked at his daughter, who was looking down at the pink stork pin on her uniform shirt pocket flap.

"I haven't received the third one yet," he said quietly, and Shelly laughed, embarrassed.

"I'm going to run out of room on my shirt pocket," she complained.

"I'll get you a sash like a Girl Scout," her Daddy teased.

Shelly wagged her Mommy-finger at the Captain and snarled, "Don't, you, dare!" -- and immediately regretted it -- knowing her Daddy as she did, he'd be sure to get her one, just to torment her.

"Be grateful you're a medic now instead of back in the dark ages," her Daddy said, raising a soft cloth and polishing the storks and the gleaming squad surrounding.  "We used to wear a belt pouch with a Buck knife, a light, a window punch, two pair of scissors -- trauma shears and short bandage shears -- a needle forceps and a curved hemostat, with a Velcro tourniquet wrapped around it."

Shelly raised her eyebrows, her hand dropping to the oversized thumb-and-finger loops of the trauma shears she carried in the narrow pocket on her thigh.

"I told people I had a death wish," the Captain deadpanned.  "I told 'em if I fell in the river, all that iron guaranteed I'd go straight to the bottom and drown!"

"Oh, Daddy," Shelly laughed.

She skipped forward, hugged her Daddy like a happy little girl:  Captain Crane turned, laughing, hugged his little girl and picked her up, just as the howler went off.

He set her down, staring at the speaker on the wall, reminding Shelly of a hound just striking a hot track as he waited for the dispatcher's voice to follow.

"Firelands Emergency Squad, respond to the woman in labor, water is broken. Vanway residence at High Point and Spears."

"COME ON, SADDLES!" the Captain shouted happily.  "WE'LL FILL THAT SASH YET!"

Father and daughter hit the saddle; the explosion proof battery switch rotated, clicked twice, the Diesel engine woke up with a snarl of valves as the overhead door chuckled open, flooding the old apparatus floor with sunlight, raw and unfiltered.

"Firelands, Squad One, enroute."

 

It took another two weeks, but the third and fourth storks -- wearing saddle shoes -- were applied to the side of the squad, and Saddles turned an incredible shade of red as her Daddy formally presented her with a custom made sash to wear with her pins, medals and badges. 

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343. YOU OKAY?

Shelly found her husband in the barn, sitting on a hay bale, his head leaned back against a post, eyes closed, one hand pressed hard on his thigh: his face was drawn, pale, and she saw the shine of sweat beads just starting out of his forehead.

"Linn?" she asked gently.  "You okay?"

Linn took in a quick breath through his nose, nodded.

"Liar."

Linn took another breath, deeper, lifted his head from the post behind him and looked at his wife with amusement.

"Do yas knows me or what?" he asked in his comic-nasal drawl, and she saw that crooked grin of his, and she tilted her head a little, sat on another bale, probably left from a previous conference with father and daughter.

"Your leg?"

He nodded.

"Other foci of pain?"

He nodded again.

"Weather coming."

"Yeah," he gasped.

Shelly's hand rubbed her own shin bone, where scarring betrayed the presence of steel rods reinforcing her healed tib-fib fractures.  "I feel it too."

She looked seriously at her pale eyed husband.

"I am so very sorry you hurt yourself."

Linn's crooked grin widened a little, he closed one eye, regarded her with the other.

"You're worth it, Sweet Pea."

Shelly bit her bottom lip.  "Sometimes I don't feel like it."

"Oh, trust me, darlin', you most certainly are!"  Linn grimaced, shifted on the bale, frowned: he was trying to find a comfortable position, and not having much success.  "When Marnie and I went to the bank the other day, Beatrice took me aside and said I should tell you to look in a mirror, reach over your shoulder and pat yourself on the back and tell the reflection, 'Ya done good.'"

Shelly blinked.  "Why?" she asked, surprised.

Linn's grin widened to cover his entire face.

"She said Marnie is absolutely a Lady" -- he raised his hand in the thumb-and-two-fingers gesture Beatrice used for emphasis, shaking it like a movie-screen Italian stereotype -- he lowered his head, looked at his wife very seriously -- "and there is only one place she could learn that!"

Shelly's face colored and she bit her bottom lip:  her eyes cast down, swept back and forth across the straw chaff on the hand fitted board floor.

"She's right," Linn added quietly, "and if I could get up I'd come over there and give you a hug!"

"Dear God, Linn what did you do?"

Linn waved a hand as if to sweep the question aside.  "I'll get better, I always do."

Something blond haired, fast moving and giggly came spinning into the barn:  The Bear Killer was at a full-on lunge, thrust himself between the laughing little girl and the sweating man with the pale face:  Marnie ran into The Bear Killer, her arms out-thrust toward her Daddy:  The Bear Killer pushed her away, turned his ponderous head, looked at her with button-bright eyes and snuffed, once, loudly.

Marnie's eyes went from happy to serious.

"The Bear Killer says you hurted your leg," Marnie said, nodding as if to add affirmation to her very certain words.

"The Bear Killer," Linn admitted, and Shelly heard the pain edging his voice, "is right."

"You gonna get drunk now, Daddy?"

Linn's eyes opened wide and he regarded his little girl with honest surprise:  he looked at her, he looked at Shelly, he looked back at his little girl, and Marnie giggled to see the sudden, spontaneous grin light up her Daddy's sweat-sheened face.

"Why darlin'," he asked, holding out his hands, "why would I do that?"

" 'Cause you gots hurted an' you'll hafta get all drunked up an' beat Mommy with a belt an' if you see me you'll yell at me so I'll go hide," she said slowly, and Linn and Shelly heard fear start to cloud her voice, and they saw her shrink, and her eyes spoke of memories as she spoke the words.

"Come here, darlin'," Linn whispered, opening his arms, and Marnie blinked, lowered her head, shuffled over to him like a little girl about to get a severe chastising.

Linn hoisted his little girl onto the hay bale beside him, reached back and pulled a saddle blanket free:  he draped it over her shoulders and his, utterly disregarding straw chaff that cascaded onto her chambray dress and his own red-and-white flannel shirt.

"I don't get drunk," he whispered, his arm around her under the blanket, "and I don't take a belt to your Mama."

"Do you use a paddle?"  Marnie asked in a small voice, and he felt her shivering, and he laid his cheek over on top of her head, shook his head slowly.

"Never have, darlin', and don't intend to start now."

Marnie pulled her head free, looked up at him in honest surprise:  "Weeally?"

Linn nodded solemnly.  "Yep.  Really."

"But ... but ... Mommy ... an' Daddy got all drunked up an' --"

She blinked, confused, comparing the memory of Before with the memory of Since Before.

"Darlin'," Linn whispered, "was I to take a belt to your Mama, she'd take a fryin' pan to me and she'd drive me through the kitchen floor like a fence post."  He looked over at Shelly, winked.

"Then I'd have that hole to fix and she'd make me beat the dents out of her fryin' pan before she could make supper and I'd be goin' hungry until I got her fryin' pan fixed and the floor fixed, and I don't know about you, but I kind of like her cookin'!"

He reached down, tickled her belly, eliciting a wiggle and a giggle from his suddenly happy little girl.

"Besides, was I to try and smack your Mama, The Bear Killer would take my hand off clean up to the shoulder!"

Marnie rested her hand on The Bear Killer's huge black head as the tail-wagging guardian laid his chin in her lap.

"Besides, beatin' your Mommy sounds too much like work and I'm just naturally lazy."

"Dad-deee," Marnie protested, pulling away, planting her knuckles emphatically on her waist, "Mommy says you're the hardest working man she knows!"

"Oh does she now?"  Linn blinked innocently.  "What about her? She works pretty hard too!"

Marnie leaned into her Daddy, looked at her Mommy and back up to her Daddy.  

"Mommy delivers babies," she said with an absolute certainty, nodding once, firmly.

"She does?"  Linn asked, pretending surprise.  "Where does she deliver them from?"

"United Parcel!"

 

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344. ONE DIDN'T SLEEP

Two pale eyed men with hard expressions slid in between the shrinking little girl and the beefy, red-faced man.

Reverend John Burnett tasted copper and he knew with utter certainty that something very bad was about to happen.

He'd been in the military and he knew that bright sliver of a second just before something powerful went BOOM and the blast wave knocked him back and to the ground, and that's exactly how he felt right now.

He was shaking hands, nodding and smiling, church was dismissed, he took pains to greet his parishioners by name, and when possible to ask them something appropriate: he was known as a gentle and caring man who tended to show up at the front door, at the hospital, sometimes at the scene of something very bad, as if he had some preternatural knowledge that the sky pilot's services, or at least his reassuring comfort, would be needed.

In reality, it was because he was so familiar with his community, that people would take pains to get word to him: a child was being born, a football player was taken in with a broken leg, there'd been a wreck, someone just got fired:  the good Reverend had as efficient a network of informants as the Sheriff herself, and in many cases, they utilized the same street sources, just for different purposes.

Reverend Burnett watched big, beefy Vernon Kales frown at the shy little girl, standing between her Mommy and her Daddy, and he bent over and gruffly demanded of her what she was going to be when she grew up.

Marnie Keller froze at this intrusion:  Linn felt her shrink against his leg, and he laid a hand protectively over her shoulder:  he'd been taking great effort to heal the child's wounded soul, and at this sudden violation of their personal space, something in him lit up like a gasoline splash into a steam boiler's firebox.

Marnie drew strength from her Daddy's presence:  at the stranger's demand, she shivered a little and looked at him with wide and frightened eyes, and then she swallowed and something inside her stood up and she lifted her chin and declared "I'm just a liddle kid! I don't know yet!"

"Well you've got to know!" Kales demanded in return, "and you've got to get ready because --"

Linn pushed Marnie behind him, took a half step forward, and Will shoved in, until his shoulder touched Linn's:  two tall, lean lawmen, both feeling extremely protective, and both ready to enforce that protection by means peaceful or otherwise, formed a sudden, hard-eyed wall.

Kales straightened, demanded "What!" and Reverend John Burnett had the distinct feeling that the explosion was about to blast a clearing in the parishioners like firing a pound of C4 off in a ripe wheatfield.

Kales felt feminine hands grip his arm, his wrist:  "Vernon, let's walk," a woman's voice said, and Kales found himself steered around, and out the front door, and Sheriff Willamina Keller, smiling and nodding to the good Reverend, marched Kales down the front steps and out of the little whitewashed church.

"Walk with me," she said unnecessarily, steering their course for the little park between the Church and the restored, one room schoolhouse, and Kales could feel two sets of hard and pale eyes burning into his shoulder blades.

Willamina smoothed her skirt, sat, and Kales sat beside her.

"Marnie," she said, "is my granddaughter."  She took Kales' big, callused, blunt-fingered hand in hers, patted it gently.  "She has also been hurt worse in four years of life than most people are hurt in two lifetimes."

She looked very directly into Vern's eyes, her expression as gentle as her voice.

"Vern, you and I were raised in a generation where we were callused as children.  We were taught -- you and I both -- that if we don't teach our children to handle hurt and insult and the rough side of life, they'll never make it.  You and I were taught that a child has to know what they want, and they have to go after it, and the earlier they learn to do this, the better their life will be."

She smiled, just a little, a sad and understanding smile.

"Marnie has been brutalized, Vern.  She's been shattered.  We're trying to help her heal.  When she told you she was just a little kid, that was the first, the very first time she has ever stood up for herself."  She hesitated, then added, "To anyone."

Vern grunted and looked away, and Willamina could hear the gears turning between his ears.

She knew he was going to try to come up with something to justify his gruffness; she knew it was just the way he was.

She spoke before he could try and justify his gruffness.

"She's still healing and we're very protective of her.  She'll heal, Vern, but until then we're not going to let her be hurt again."

Willamina leaned her face in close to his and whispered, "By the way, I still owe you a beer," and she released his hand, stood, and walked back to the church.

Buying him a beer is a cheap way to salvage his feelings, she thought:  I'll tend that detail later today.

 

Marnie frowned a little as she went down the steps with her Daddy and her Mommy and with her Uncle Will behind them like a big protective wall.

She'd shaken hands with Reverend Burnett and she'd blinked at him when he asked how she liked his sermon, and she tilted her head a little and asked "Wevwund, where's Jewwico?" and Reverend John Burnett laughed quietly, considering his answer.
"It's on the other side of the world, Marnie," he explained, "it's near Israel."

"Oh," Marnie said, as if that explained everything, then she smiled brightly and declared happily, "Gammaw has a globe. She'll show me!" and Reverend Burnett laughed, looked at Linn, who was grinning broadly at the exchange.

"Well," he said, "I know at least one soul didn't sleep through my sermon!"

 

 

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345. FINALITY

Linn crossed his wrists over his saddlehorn and stared thoughtfully at a tombstone he hadn't looked at in a few years.

He was a little distance from his family's section; he'd stopped over there with a pint of distilled sledgehammer and a shot glass, and he'd carefully dispensed a shot of Old Knockemstiff on each of the tomb stones, anointing them with memories and with respect, and finally he poured one for himself and raised it in salute, then downed it.

He saddled up and rode deeper into the graveyard, looking for a particular stone:  once he found it, he contemplated the words sandblasted into the polished quartz.

It was a husband and wife stone; on her side, a name, date of birth, date of death; in the middle, separating the two, a spray of flowers, artistically eroded into the stone; her husband's name, and his particulars, and the Masonic Square and Compasses.

Linn dismounted.

He unbuckled his saddlebag, looked casually around:  seeing no one, he brought out an old butcher knife and a squeeze bottle of liquid fertilizer.

He contemplated the grave, walked onto the woman's grave, deliberately, intentionally.

He went to one knee.

He looked at the man's half of the stone.

"You died two years before she did," he said softly.  "I don't blame you.  I'd die too if it was the only way I could get away from the likes of her."

His jaw eased out as he considered the memory, the memory of himself as a twelve year old, in this woman's class.

She'd demanded of him some information on a European country, and when he could not find it on the textbook page in front of him, she sneered loudly whether he even had the right page.

He'd picked up the textbook, held it up with his finger on the page -- "It's right here!" -- which ignited her snakish temper:  she'd seized the hated ping-pong paddle from her desk, she'd charged him and she'd beaten him about the shoulder blades with an apparent hatred, with a sudden burst of violence, that left him red-faced with humiliation.

He could have come out of his seat and kicked her below the knee -- he'd practiced the move, he knew he could get her down, he could put his boots to her and reduce her to bloody immobility -- but he was raised, first and foremost, to respect authority, and so he sat and clamped his jaw against the sounds of distress that wanted to tear from his throat.

The teacher did not return to teaching the next year; she'd died a month into the following semester, once school started again, and when Linn and the rest of the class filed by her open casket, not a one of the children felt the least regret at seeing her safely dead and in a long box.

Linn considered the knife in his hand.

He'd planned to carve big, bold letters in the sod covering her grave.

He'd planned to carve a word, cut through the sod, he'd planned to pour liquid fertilizer from the squeeze bottle into the cuts, so the word would grow, bright and healthy on her grave: he'd even thought to spray down the back of her tomb stone with brake cleaner, to strip off any kind of a protective layer, to stick on black vinyl letters to spell out CHILD ABUSER, to apply paste wax and buff it off, then remove the letters and spray it with muriatic acid, so the letters would etch and be seen:  he had the brake cleaner, the letters, the muriatic acid at home, but today he had the knife and he had the fertilizer.

"You," he said quietly, "had to be a truly evil soul to earn a lifetime's hatred from 35 children."

He nodded slowly, remembering how one of the children -- now a college graduate, and principal at a middle school some distance from here -- mentioned to him how hateful a soul the teacher was, and how she had a strong dislike for her to this day.

Linn smiled a little, raised the knife:  instead of carving into the sod, he stabbed into the sod, about where he figured her black heart should be, then he stood, raised his boot, stomped on the handle, driving the knife just below flush.

"Guess what," he said, his voice still gentle.

"You can never hurt me again."

He smiled, just a little.

"I can see the green of life, I smelled coffee this morning and I tasted bacon and eggs.  I felt my little girl's giggle and my wife's embrace, and you will never know those things, ever again."

He harrumphed, spat, aimed for her tombstone, and did not miss.

"By now God has burned away your impurities and you are a new creature.  I release you to His care."

 

Some years later, Marnie Keller sat at the kitchen table, a young woman now: she listened with a serious expression as her pale eyed Daddy talked about going to the graveyard, how he'd intended to carve his hate into the grass and raise a crop of resentment, until he realized that the impurities he hated were already burned away and gone, and so he drove his resentment into the heart of What-She-Was with the stomp of a well polished Wellington boot.

Marnie frowned a little as she considered her Daddy's quiet words, and after supper, as she sometimes did, she went out for a ride.

Her Daddy looked at his wife as they heard the sound of receding hoofbeats.

"Shouldn't you go with her?"  Marnie asked, looking up from a sock she was darning.

"No," Linn said gently.  "No, she needs to do this herself."

 

Marnie Keller drew up, glaring with hard and pale eyes at a tombstone that bore a woman's name.

"Beloved Mother," she sneered, reading the words aloud, then she swung up a leg and fell to earth, landing easily on the balls of her feet.

"I was going to share a beer with you," she hissed, "after I ran it through my kidneys first, but Daddy is right."

Her lip curled with contempt.

"You can never hurt me again, and that is my revenge on you."

She bent over at the waist, her face white, tight-drawn over high cheekbones, anger carving her pretty features into a mask of hatred.

"Daddy said your impurities are burned away and you are a new creature again."  Marnie's hands closed into fists; she opened them, relaxed with an effort, a deliberate effort.

"I am going to hurt you now, so listen carefully."
Marnie's smile was anything but kind.

"I," she said, "forgive you!"

Marnie Keller turned her back on the grave of the woman that bore her into the world, the woman whose life's choices hurt a little girl, scarred a wee child, drove a frightened little girl so deep into herself that it took years to heal the hurts, to repair the damage, to teach the child that she was indeed neither despicable, nor unclean, nor was she beneath contempt:  she turned her back on the grave, she walked away from the grave, she mounted her horse, and she rode very directly away from the grave, and she never, ever went back. 

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346. THE LONG WINDED PREACHER

 

Parson Belden took a long, appreciative breath of the morning air.

It smelled of morning and damp, the air was cool: it smelled of the mountains, it smelled of flower blossoms, almost like white clover in blossom back home, back when he was a boy.

The gelding moved at an easy trot.

Parson Belden had driven this gelding before and he knew the horse had a good endurance, that he could keep up this pace most of the day: it helped that he was driving the physician's surrey:  as a joke, Shorty one time hitched the lightweight, short-coupled surrey to Sarah's big black Snowflake-horse, and he and the hostler laughed at the sight, for his good natured combination had the general appearance of that huge black Frisian hitched to a tiny little two wheel surrey looked like a normal horse towing a postage stamp.

Today, though, the Parson was headed for one of the more distant ranches.

He'd heard the rancher's wife had been delivered of her child, and as was his custom, he was taking them bread, bacon, some canned goods; he knew they likely had enough, but more was always welcome, especially when the woman of the house was recovering from giving birth.

The Parson lifted his chin a fraction as he saw a rider, coming toward him: he knew instantly something was wrong, very wrong: the man was hunched over and a little to the side, and as the Parson drew up, the man's horse came up to him, stopped.

Parson Belden set the brake, climbed down, walked around the stranger's lineback dun, stopped.

Blood, dark, fresh, gleaming: the sky pilot reached up as the rider leaned further to the side -- he was not intentionally leaning -- he was not intentionally doing anything, matter of fact.

The Parson pulled him free, reached up, kicked the stirrup from around his near foot:  he laid the man down, his nostrils flaring.

Like most men his age, the Parson had been in the War, and he knew the smell.

Blood, the hot coppery metallic smell of blood, the smell that still turned his stomach.

Parson Belden opened the man's vest, his shirt, his red flannels, and he felt his heart drop down to about his boot tops.

 

The White Nuns were not strangers to the sick and injured.

They had a reputation as healers, and when a young man came to them, a young man doubled over and looking very sick, he was propped up and guided to a pallet.

Skilled hands searched him for injuries; gentle voices asked him the necessary questions: he was covered with sun-warmed blankets, a cool damp cloth laid across his forehead.

He shook as with a fever, yet he was fevered not; his eyes were bright with horror, his teeth chattered: sun-warmed blankets were piled on him, he was given cool, watered wine, and kept in a quiet part of the infirmary.

One of the Sisters glided in: as she approached, the others drew back, folding their hands, bowing a little:  one by one, they slipped out, silent on straw sandals, as the newcomer approached the young man.

Her hands were clasped inside her sleeves; she was a figure in white, with no flesh showing: when finally her sleeves came apart, they seemed empty, until she lowered her forearm and he felt living flesh grip his hand.

He turned wide and frightened eyes to her.

"Help me," he whispered, and through her veil, she could see his face was parchment-white, his lips were pale: he had the appearance of a man scared to the depths of his very soul.

 

Parson Belden flipped the reins and the gelding leaned into a more brisk gait.

He wasn't that far from Firelands; there was a chance -- not much of one, but a chance -- that Doc might pull off a miracle.

The man leaned against him; the Parson drove with one hand, his other arm around this fellow's shoulders.

His breath smelled of old alcohol, like he'd had drink and he was coming sober: he was still bleeding, not as much now, but still seeping steadily:  the Parson packed the wound as best he could, he knelt beside the man, worked his arms under him, leaned back, lifted: one knee up, rested the man on his knee, reset his arms a little, took a breath, grunted as he lifted.

He got the man into the surrey, climbed quickly in before the fellow could fall over again; the dun tied on behind, and he brought his little surrey around and pointed his nose back toward Firelands.

 

"Tell me what happened."

Her hands were under his, and over them: her hands were cool, her hands were those of a mother, gentle but firm, clasping and enveloping and protecting: her voice was just as enveloping: a whisper, a murmur, a compelling voice that reached into his soul before he heard the words.

"Tell me what happened."

He hadn't stopped shivering since he'd seized the bell-pull, since he'd given it a weak tug before collapsing against sun-dried adobe with a sob and a whimper.

He hadn't known where to go, only that he had to go, he had to run, he had to escape the terrible evil he'd seen, almost as if watching it from without, watching it as a spectator, but there was no escape, for he himself was the evil, he himself was the terror, he himself was the reason a man lay dead, bloodied with the knife he'd dropped ... and he, himself, had condemned his eternal soul to hell and damnation, and that terrified him more than the thought of death itself.

 

Strong hands reached up, pulled the man out of the borrowed surrey.

The Parson followed as the suffering man was carried into the surgery:  he watched as the Doctors Greenlees and Flint stripped him down, assessed his injury, discussed it in professional language, in hushed voices, and when they began to lay out the tools of their trade, the Parson swallowed hard and shook off his feelings.

He stepped up to the table, as far out of the way as he could get, he took the man's hand and as he'd been doing since the moment he realized he was dealing with an imminent death, he proceeded to talk to God about it.

 

Brother William listened impassively to the young man's halting voice, to the steady stream of self imprecation, to the voice of a man who was already -- in his own mind -- condemned, sentenced, bound for the Inferno itself.

Brother William listened patiently.

This was not a time to listen, with intent to reply.

This was a time to listen.

 

Leah Doss smiled at the handsome young man sitting across from her.

She'd followed her intuition and left her last town: she had one trunk and one carpetbag, and if need be she could live out of the carpetbag -- but as long as she had a pretty smile, and as long as she could make fools of men, she could always find willing hands to move her trunk to and from a stagecoach, or a train car.

She'd thought it wise to move, without telling anyone, she'd thought it wise to disappear, because she'd done something she really enjoyed ... she played men for fools, and she'd played one against another, and she'd watched as a young man, gripped by the lustful throes of a woman's adoring expression, drove a knife into another's belly to keep this newcomer, this competitor, from her long-eyelashed, red-lipped, dark-eyed attentions.

She'd drawn back, slipped into a back room, closed the door before the young man could turn, could search her out, could beg her forgiveness, her attention: in his mind, she was as enamored with him as he was with her; in her mind, he was young, a play-toy, a puppet.

And she liked it that way.

Leah smiled at the well-dressed young man sitting across from her.

He had the look of a dandy, an inexperienced Easterner, the kind that came West with a pocketful of money and a vague idea of how he might increase his fortunes.

Leah lowered her eyes demurely, knowing he was watching, and she happily considered how she might relieve this tenderfoot of his fortune.

 

Something cold, smooth and rounded pressed against the side of the man's face.

He'd rolled up on his side before his stomach clenched and two years' worth of everything he'd ever eaten launched out of his gullet.

This was expected; this was all caught; strong hands held him up on his side, gentle hands wiped his face, held a tin cup of water to his lips, a quiet voice instructed him to slosh out and spit and get the taste out of his mouth.

He did.

Another sip, a careful, small swallow, another; later, there would be broth, and then the feeling of warm blankets, a welcome weight on him, and distantly, the memory of blankets lifted, of his sore belly exposed, touched, pressed, examined, and then the blankets and darkness.

Another day, and he was allowed to sit up, and broth -- good God, he'd forgotten how good broth could taste! -- and bread dipped in the broth, and he managed to open his eyes and look around and wonder where in the hell he was, and how in the hell did he get there, and an amused man with pale eyes sat beside him and handed him more bread, and a fresh pannikin of broth.

"Don't feel bad, friend," he said quietly, "I've said the same things myself when I woke up here."

The stranger with the bandaged belly squinted at the pale eyed man.

"You ain't kin to a Stone Crick preacher?" he asked, and the pale eyed man laughed a little.

"Yep, he's kinfolk of some kind," Sheriff Linn Keller affirmed.  "He's either an in-law or an outlaw, I ain't sure which, but we're blood kin."

"You as long winded as he is?" the sufferer asked, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.

"He is not," a stout woman in a nurse's starched cap and apron said tartly, "and don't drink his coffee, unless you want to lose your belly from the inside out!"

The stranger looked a little distressed as the nurse turned and steered her course for a door on the far side of the room, reminding him of a cargo ship under full sail:  he looked at the Sheriff and asked, "Kind of broad across the beam, ain't she?"

"I heard that!"  Nurse Susan snapped from the next room, and the Sheriff chuckled, nodding.

"She's got ears like your mother," he cautioned, and Nurse Susan shouted "I heard that too!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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347. BEHIND THE BORDELLO

There was a scream, a screech, the sound of a fast moving hand striking a face.

Something shattered -- glass, probably, maybe ceramic -- and the two Denver police officers stopped and looked at one another.

"Should we go in?"

Another scream, something to do with a troublemaking feather merchant, more sounds of a very personal conflict, and language that would not bear repeating in polite company.

"Let's go around back."

Two Denver beat cops walked slowly down the alley beside the bordello.

 

"How's the belly?"  the Sheriff asked.

"Sore," the stranger admitted.

Linn rolled the doctor's three legged stool up beside the patient's bed.

"Doc tells me you were gutted."

"Damn neart."

"I won't tell you you're lucky."

"Lucky?"  The patient snorted.  "Why, man, with luck like that I should have been in on a game of faro! I could have cleaned the house!"

The pale eyed Sheriff nodded.  "Reckon that's so."  He raised his hand, unfolded a heavy paper braodsheet.  "Take a look at this."

The patient looked at the wanted dodger, frowning tiredly.

"Well, hell," he sighed, "ya got me."

"I don't think so."  Linn folded the dodger, handed it to the man.  "You might want to keep that."

"Why?"

Linn ran two fingers into an inside pocket, drew out a smaller sheet, unfolded it, handed it to the man.

The patient frowned again, read it, read it again.

He looked up at the Sheriff, his mouth open in surprise.

"Wa'l now butter my butt and call me a biscuit," he said slowly.  

The Sheriff grinned, stood.

"I do love good news," he said, and the patient saw this lean waisted, pale eyed lawman's eyes tighten at the corners, and he knew the smile beneath was genuine.  "When I can tell a man he's been exonerated and he's not wanted anymore, why, that's worth a drink!"

 

Leah Doss backed up, a hand to her red, stinging cheek, her eyes wide with surprise.

"Get out," the madam hissed, and then the two women tore into one another again:  Leah was fast, and young, but the madam had a lifetime of dealing with difficult people, and just as the two Denver flatfoots got to the rear corner of the building, the back door shivered, yanked open, and two screeching, tumbling clouds of pastel and petticoats and high-button shoes whirled out onto the back porch and down the back steps.

A distinguished, well dressed young man stepped out on the porch behind them, watched as the older of the two women took the younger by her hair, pulled, threw her to the side:  the two beat cops watched with admiration and squinted a little at the general sound of two cats tearing into each other on the alley fence at midnight.

"I never knew," one cop said to the other, "they could kick like that."

They watched in admiration as the older woman, as the normally dignified, soft spoken madam, seized the younger one's bodice and ripped down:  fast, vicious, effective.

The older of the two cops watched with a mixture of dismay and admiration.

He'd known the madam for some long time now, years: when he was a young man, he'd taken another veteran lawman's advice, and he'd gone to the back door of the fanciest house he could find, and knocked.

"They'll feed you," he'd been said, "and they'll give you a place to sleep, but they won't do anything else until you're earning a wage."

The advice had been sound: as a matter of fact, the madam spoke with the police chief, when the chief came around as he generally did, once a week for breakfast:  the beat cop knew the Madam was a dignified woman who could handle drunken land barons, intoxicated cattle kings, senators, peers, potentates and visiting royalty, he knew she could either soothe ruffled feathers or serve a too-rowdy client with a frying pan to the side of the head, as may be necessary.

Seeing her roll down the back steps, all claws and screech as she ripped hair out of another woman's head and then tore the front down off her dress, told the old veteran lawman that here was trouble he wanted no part of, and he'd be wise to let this one play itself out.

A trunk was carried out of the back door; a wagon clattered up, and men helped the bleeding, glaring younger woman aboard: the trunk was loaded, and the madam said more with her silent glare than a harridan could have spoken with a half-hour's profane screeching.

The madam looked up at the well dressed fellow on the back porch, watching the proceedings with a carefully impassive expression.

"Gentlemen," the madam addressed the beat cops, "may I invite you in for coffee?"

The older of the two men approached, took her hand, raised it to his lips, kissed her knuckles in a most gentlemanly manner.

"My Lady," he said gravely, "if all is well, we'll leave you to your labors."

The madam dropped a very proper curtsy; she turned, ascended the stairs, took the young man's arm, and together they went back inside, and the door closed.

"To answer your question," he said, as they sat at the little table in the back room, just off the kitchen, "yes.  I believe I do wish to invest in your ... business."

He reached into an inside pocket, withdrew a thick envelope, laid it on the table.

"Will fifty thousand do?"

The madam smiled quietly.

"Yes," she said.  "That will do nicely."  She tilted her head a little, regarded him with warm amusement.  

"You were hesitant, earlier," she said.  "What convinced you?"

The young man's expression was carefully neutral.

"You did," he said finally.  "You have a reputation for accommodating men of fine and high stature, but your handling of a golddigger tells me you have the strength necessary to run a business profitably."  He frowned a little.  "And tell me ... what of the golddigger?"

The madam's eyes were veiled as she considered her reply.

"Her kind will always land on her feet," she said slowly.  "She will find someone to fleece."

"Just not here."

"No."  The madam picked up her delicate, bone-china coffee cup, took a careful sip.  "Not here."

The investor rose and bowed; he accepted his hat and his coat from the ruffle-capped, starch-aproned maid.  

He turned and opened his mouth as if to speak, hesitated:  he closed his mouth, blinked, blinked again.

"My Lady," he finally said, "you have my respect."

 

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348AND THE BLIND MAN WON

 

It doesn't matter how it started.

A word, a shove, a misunderstanding, an insult: preventable in the beginning, but like a boulder shoved over the crest of a hill, once it starts, there's no stopping either its progress, or the damage that will happen because of its having been pushed too far.

So it was in the Silver Jewel.

It hadn't been a word, or a shove, it hadn't been a quick turn and spilling a mug of beer down a man's front.

It had been a matter of honor, which is why father and son rode into town, each dressed for business:  two tall, lean men with pale eyes and black suits, well polished black boots and each with a stern expression that warned off any friendly or casual contact.

A man came to town to kill the Old Sheriff – "that damned pale eyed old man" – and Jacob bore the news to his father, asked his thoughts on the matter, asked if he might settle the situation without his father's stir.

The Old Sheriff's reply was simple, and direct.

He proceeded to put on his black suit.

He had his daughter knot his necktie: she was adept at tying that good looking square Windsor knot he favored, and besides, he liked having a pretty girl fuss over him.

Especially now, these many years after his wife's death.

Retired Sheriff Linn Keller swung his leg over the saddle, felt his Paso under him, smiled a little:  he'd had good horses over the years, he'd had some really good horses, but of them all, this Paso had the smoothest gait and the steadiest disposition.

Father and son turned as one and rode together into town.

Old Pale Eyes was retired as Sheriff, but he was a man of honor, and when someone came looking for him, he would be sawed off and damned if he'd run and hide, or ask his boy to do his fighting for him.

No, he would ride in and brace this fellow, and one of two things would happen.

The stranger would back down, or one of them would die.

 

Old Pale Eyes, men said, was retired now.

Old Pale Eyes, it was said, was no longer the Sheriff.

Those who made it their business to know such things, knew that there was more than one lawman with pale eyes, and made it their business to tend their business, elsewhere.

Those who were careless, paid the price of their carelessness.

When the well dressed man in a black suit unbuttoned his coat and stepped a little away from the bar, facing the other man, who backed up toward the window, hands of cards were laid down, the dice ceased to tumble on green felt, the piano player lifted his hands from the keys, and men drew back to give them room.

Tom Landers, who'd been Sheriff when Old Pale Eyes first came to town, hired Linn the night he arrived, and very shortly thereafter, handed the office over to this pale-eyed newcomer: lean waisted lawman with the iron grey mustache immediately bought the Silver Jewel, overhauled it, hired Tom Landers as its chief peace keeper and cheat slinger, and as the now retired, pale eyed lawman turned his face toward the window, Tom Landers, behind the bundled curtains on one side of the Silver Jewel's little stage, eased the hammer back on his carbine and took a bead on the challenger's middle shirt button.

 

Later that night, the retired Sheriff took his daughter's hands in his own.

"Angela," he said, and she knew he was going to release one of his hands, and reach up and brush the hair back from her forehead – he'd done this since she was a little girl – she bit her bottom lip as he did, and she replied in a small voice, "Yes, Papa?"

"Angela, this young man has come to me and asked for your hand in marriage."

He felt her hand tremble a little in his own.

"Yes, Papa."

"He has come to me with due courtesy and with due respect, and his question is phrased as a gentleman ought."

"Yes, Papa."

Linn's hands tightened a little on his little girl's, and he blinked, and Angela felt her eyes sting, for he was looking directly at her, and she knew he could not see her:  at least, not clearly – he'd told her he could see a little through his cataracts, light and dark, vague shapes, shadows, and he saw silhouettes best of all: he'd had to learn tricks and slights to get along in what he called his "decrepit old age."

"Angela, when a young man asks for a daughter's hand, the father must make some hard choices."

"Yes, Papa," she whispered.

"I have to ask myself whether this young man will provide for you as a man ought, whether he can provide for himself and a family.  I must consider his reputation and that of his family, and whether he is a decent and honorable man, for none but the decent may be considered."

"Yes, Papa."

Angela's throat was dry; she swallowed something sticky, she dare not look at her beau, as much as she wanted to – oh, how she wanted to! – but she dare not look away, not for a moment.

"This young man is a man of means. His family is prosperous and his business is increasing. His reputation and that of his family are both first rate, and I find him a most acceptable choice as the man to provide for my little girl."

Linn paused, considered.

"Angela, what are you wearing?"

Angela blinked, surprised:  her mouth opened, she shot a glance toward the young man, standing uncomfortably beside a chair, listening, waiting.

"I, ah, I am wearing a gown, Papa –"

"And you are wearing a ribbon in your hair," her father said gently, smiling just a little, "and you are wearing your hair up in a very attractive style.  Perhaps I should ask what you are not wearing."

"I don't understand, Papa."

"This young man asked for your hand in marriage, Angela."

"Yes, Papa."

"I cannot grant it."

Angela's heart fell to the floor, shattered.

 

"You have a choice," the neatly dressed, older man said, his voice firm, his stance relaxed:  "you can tell me you are sorry, and that you take it back, or you can drag iron.  Your choice."

"I ain't afraid of no old man," the challenger sneered.

The old man raised his chin, his eyes wide, his hat brim revealing a pair of wide, white, milky eyes, and the last words heard before a .44 revolving pistol shattered the saloon's hush:

"FILL YOUR HAND!"

 

Angela blinked. "Papa ... I, I don't ... understand ..."

Linn raised his daughter's knuckles to his lips and kissed them gently.

"Angela," he said, his voice soft and fatherly, "you have been my right hand since your mother's death.  You have had the business sense to increase our prosperity and you have had the good sense to keep your decrepit old father out of too much trouble."  He chuckled a little, patted her hand.  "Let me tell you what you're not wearing."

Angela looked at her beau, who returned her puzzled look:  he took a step nearer, listening closely.

"Angela, my dear, this young man has asked for your hand in marriage.

"I cannot grant it.

"I cannot grant it because" – he lifted his hand, found her chin, ran his bent forefinger down the front of her throat.

"You are not wearing the locked steel collar of an owned slave."

Silence filled the room.

"Angela, you are not property, to be given, or to be sold.  I cannot grant this young man's request, because you and you alone must decide if he is the right man for you.

"He has come to me in honor and in respect, and he has asked the proper question in the proper manner, but it is now up to you." 

Linn raised his daughter's hands to his lips again, and she was surprised to see his milky, blind eyes start to shimmer with waters unspilled.

"Angela, my dear little girl," he whispered, "I give you permission to choose for yourself."

Linn turned to the young man.

Like the gunfighter, who'd been silhouetted against a saloon window, Linn could tell exactly where the young man stood, for he was silhouetted against a window there in the study:  Linn looked very directly at him.

"Young man," he said, "I cannot give you this most valuable part of my very life, but I can give you both permission to make the decision for yourselves."

Angela looked hopefully at her beau, and as he approached, Linn turned toward him, raised a hand:  there was a quiet conference, where Linn rested a hand on the swain's shoulder; the two men nodded, and Linn stepped aside.

The young man went to one knee.

"Angela," he said, "will you have me for your husband?"

Angela's mouth dropped open.

She extended her hand – mechanically, stiffly – and the young man slid the ancient, familiar ring on her finger.

It was Angela's turn to feel the waters rising in her eyes, and this time there was no dam of reserve to hold them back.

She recognized her Mama's ring – the Promise Ring – given to her green-eyed Mama, by her pale-eyed Papa, on the stage in the Silver Jewel.

Linn waited an appropriate length of time before speaking.

"Angela," he said, "would you be so kind as to pour us each a brandy? There are things your husband and I must discuss."

"Of course, Papa."

Angela poured two short, heavy glasses of shimmering, distilled sunshine, handed one to each of the men.

They raised their libations.

"I will presume to say only this," Linn said quietly.  "No matter how old a daughter becomes, she is always, always!" – he smiled a little – "Daddy's Little Girl." 

His smile became a little sad as he remembered, remembered across the years, remembering the little girl with the Kentucky accent, clutching a rag doll in the bend of her elbow, a happy, laughing child who had only two speeds, a dead run, and a dead stop – a child who was as comfortable in the saddle as in a fine gown.

"You will understand this when your own daughter wraps you so tightly about her little finger, you will need a standing appointment at the Bone Cracker's to unwind your spine!"

They drank.

 

Tom Landers accepted the coffee and sandwich with his usual quiet thanks.

Other than one stupid soul who thought he was Billy the Bad, it had been a quiet night, though not at all uneventful.

His earlier watchfulness, his readiness to guarantee a fair contest, wasn't exactly for naught: there were those who knew, who noticed, that his carbine was ready to speak on the side of fairness, should the challenger try something dirty.

No, he and the Silver Jewel both saw something he never thought would be possible.

He watched a gunfight with a blind man, and the blind man won.

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349. EVIL DEMONS OF THE AIR

Reverend John Burnett drummed his fingers on his desk blotter, listening to the phone purr in his ear.

As usual, it rang only once.

As was not usual, he was greeted not by a brisk, efficient, "Sheriff Keller," but rather by Willamina's unguarded, open, honest, bubbling laugh.

Reverend John Burnett had dialed his long time friend the Sheriff with a knot of apprehension in his gut, but at the sound of her familiar voice, laughing, his tension unwound to a good degree and he could not help but smile a little himself.

Willamina took a long breath, exhaled with a musical sighing note, sniffed, wiped her eyes and took another breath.

"John," she greeted him, "what can I do you out of?"

This, too, surprised the good Reverend, and at this final insult to his solemnity, all pretense of seriousness cracked and fell into a disorganized pile:  Willamina heard him chuckle and knew the man was shaking his head a little as he tried to scrape his scattered thoughts together.

"Tell you what.  I'll start."  Willamina smiled as she spread her fingers over an open book's pages.  "I was going over some journal entries and found one where Linn was out on his own for the first time.  He called me and asked "Mama, what's that sprinkle stuff we use on eggs?" and I said "Rosemary Garlic?" and he said "That's it!" and hung up, then he called right back and apologized and said he was frying up some framed eggs.  I think it was the first meal he was fixing in his own place when he was off to college, and then he yelped and dropped the phone, and I waited for him to come back on the line.

"I heard a smoke detector and he said he had the heat too high, he'd burnt his eggs and he had to air the place out before somebody called the fire department."

The good Reverend had the memory-flash of a similar exercise, involving a pan of rice he was boiling, and had honestly forgotten about:  he'd filled his apartment with smoke, he'd ruined the pan, and he'd been so very disappointed with himself, for he was a thrifty man and it distressed him that his carefully crafted budget was now debited by one ruined meal.

The Sheriff closed her personal journal with a decisive move, intentionally making it loud enough for her caller to hear.  "So.  John.  What's up?"

"Sheriff, I'd like to discuss the evil demons of the air."

There was a long silence, and then Willamina said, "I have a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies cooling, the coffee's freshly brewed, come on over."

Fifteen minutes later, the sky pilot and the badge packer sat across from one another at a tidy kitchen table, coffee and cookies at hand and two old friends regarding one another with quiet amusement.

Willamina dunked a cookie, took a bite, wiped the dribble of coffee that trickled down her chin with a paper napkin.  "Now what's this about evil demons of the air?"

Reverend Burnett blinked, frowned a little, looked at the half eaten cookie, laid it on his saucer.

"I'd been thinking," he said slowly, "about our Church."

Willamina nodded, took a sip of coffee.

"Sheriff, I believe in trusting Divine Providence, but I have a concern for an attack."

"That's why God sent me," Willamina said flatly, and he saw something change in her eyes:  the happy simmer of steady good humor was gone altogether, and she was once more the serious and focused Sheriff he'd seen so often.

"Sheriff, I hate the thought of mounting an armed guard," the Reverend said hesitantly.

"I already have."

Reverend John Burnett was not a man easily surprised.

He thought he knew his church and he knew his parishioners, and this flat statement of fact took him genuinely by surprise.

Willamina stood, scooped up a stack of cookies:  she turned to the counter behind her, opened a drawer, pulled out a baggie, another:  she sacked up cookies in each, turned.

"Let's take a ride."

 

Willamina handed the plastic grocery sack with the baggied cookies to the sky pilot as they got out of her Jeep, ascended the church steps.

Reverend Burnett unlocked the door, opened it for the pale eyed woman in a flannel shirt and black vest, jeans and boots and a .44 revolver:  she waited until he, too, crossed the threshold before speaking.

"John, you're concerned for an attack."  Her voice was not terribly loud, but carried very purposefully in the sanctuary's hush.  "You've got people here meeting in harmony and wanting to do nothing but worship the God they adore."

Reverend Burnett nodded.  "Yes, that's so."

"They're sitting with their backs to the door, facing front, they've brought cash money for the collection plate."  She looked very directly at the Parson. "When church is holding services, the door is unlocked and anyone can come in."

Reverend John nodded, his jaw easing out just a little as he did.  "I'd been considering that very thing."

"Come with me."

Willamina took Reverend John's arm and they walked up the aisle together; they turned, climbed the steps beside the pulpit, crossed behind the podium and went over to the ornately hand-carved altar.

Willamina slipped two fingers into a pocket the Reverend hadn't noticed and came out with a small, high powered flashlight.

She turned it on, shot the beam vertical-down along the back edge of the altar.

"Ever notice these?"

Reverend Burnett hunkered, frowned, raised his fingers, ran them across four holes he'd never noticed:  he looked at the Sheriff in surprise, his face illuminated by the intense white light splashing off the backs of his questing fingers.  "No," he admitted.  "I never did."

"Shotgun hooks."

"What?"

Willamina turned off the little light, slid it back into its vest-mounted hide.  "Those were common in some English Catholic and mostly Irish Catholic churches during the Persecutions. A short double gun would be hung behind the Altar for the priest's use."

Reverend Burnett nodded slowly.

"Your pulpit can be easily adapted to hide a carbine."  Willamina took the Reverend by the arm again, steered him down the steps and back to the center aisle.  "When you come in the back door, you've got the Infantry squarely in front of you -- the doorway, a little foyer, then the children's section is off to the right."

"That's right," the Reverend said, puzzled.

"Who sits in the foyer?"

Reverend John Burnett blinked and realized ... he had no idea anyone sat in that little shadowed foyer.

Willamina steered him into the foyer.  "Have a seat."

Reverend Burnett parked his backside on one of the two padded, three-legged barstools, Willamina on the other.

"Now. You're wearing a dark suit, it's not well lighted in this foyer, but you have direct line-of-sight with the back door. Step into the doorway and you have visual command of the entire sanctuary."

The Reverend knew she had a point and was coming to it very quickly.

"Now let's suppose two men quietly assume this station, two men who just happen to have the means to un-gently pacify the Philistines."  She smiled.  "Let's say it involved something suppressed, with a folding stock that would carry well under a coat, something with an optic to lend precision to any needed shot placement."

She smiled.

"You already know my deputies are active in competition, Reverend. They're pretty damned good, too. I've found the men who can shoot well under match stress are the men who can shoot well when it hits the fan stress. Their families worship here.  My family worships here. There's no way we'll not have your back."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Willamina's smile was thin.  "Reverend, you've worn Uncle Sam's baggy green."

"I have," he admitted.  "Vietnam."

"Then you're familiar with the military need-to-know principle."

He nodded.

"Until now, you had no need-to-know."  She tilted her head, looked at him with interest.  "Now what's this about evil demons of the air?"

Reverend John Burnett blinked, surprised, realizing he'd honestly forgotten all about that.

"I, um," he said, "I was talking with a colleague, a priest in Denver, and we were discussing such matters, and ..."

He reassembled his scattered thoughts, nodded, looked back up at the pale eyed Sheriff.

"You've heard of the Evil Demons of the Air, the ones that listen to every word we say and then use them against us?"

Willamina nodded.

"They're the ones that -- if you speak it aloud -- 'What's that you say about a picnic? ZAP! Thunderstorms and red ants!' -- I've heard it suggested that's where your Miranda warning came from."

"Actually it was from a botched raid on a house of ill repute in Cleveland," Willamina murmured, "and they named the court decision after the aggrieved madam, but yes, I'd have to say they were involved."

Reverend Burnett raised an eyebrow, uncertain whether his pale eyed companion was pulling his leg or not -- she'd been known to stuff a man's boots with an absolutely straight face, and not a few times, either.

"I was afraid if I discussed this matter," he said slowly, "those Evil Demons of the Air would hear my words and bring my fears about."

Willamina rose.

"I need coffee.  Let's head back to my place."  

"The shotgun hooks," Reverend Burnett frowned.  "Where are they?"

Willamina smiled.  "Inside the Altar.  With the bolts."

"And the shotgun?"

"Long gone, I'm afraid, but that can be remedied if you like."

Reverend Burnett considered for a long moment, shook his head.  "That might pose ... difficulties."

His eyes shifted, and Willamina knew he was considering her comment about modifying his pulpit to contain a carbine.

He'll come to me in a week, she thought, and he'll talk about it some more, and when he decides, he'll use what he's most familiar with.

 

Reverend John Burnett drove back to the parsonage, backed into the garage, pressed the remote closer, shut off the engine.

He sat there and thought for most of a half hour before finally getting out of his car and going back into the Parsonage.

He bent over, reached under the bed, pulled out a slender wooden box:  he released two metal catches, opened the box, stared at the .30 carbine he'd bought years ago, twin for the one he carried for Uncle Sam.

His Granddad had been in the Second Disagreement.

When he'd come back from d'Nam, he and his Granddad sat down and discussed matters, and he'd shown the old veteran the carbine, and his Granddad brought out his Garand.

He'd said he felt lost without his war horse and his Granddad laughed and said, "My Garand is a war horse. That is a tough little war pony," and they both laughed, and when his Granddad died, someone else got the Garand.

He stared at that light, handy carbine for several long moments before closing the lid, fasting up the catches and sliding it back under the bed, then he opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a fifty foot engineer's tape.

Reverend John Burnett took a notebook and the tape into the sanctuary and began taking measurements, looking at his little bailiwick with the eye of the infantryman he used to be:  armed with the figures, with the measurements, he drove out to a place he knew and laid out a series of lines scraped in the dirt with the side of his shoe sole.

Distance from the target to the first line would be to the head of the church aisle.

The second line, to the piano -- a place where a hostile might seek to take cover.

Distance from pulpit to the hallway leading from sanctuary to parsonage.

Distance to the back of the church.

He raised the old, familiar carbine to shoulder, smiled, lowered it, worked a set of earplugs in his ears.

It had been far too long since he had this little war pony out for a trot.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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350. THE CHAPLAIN AND THE WOLF

 

Willamina leaned forward, frowning, her elbows planted on the firehouse table.

In front of her right elbow, a pad with several lines of her tidy, precise print, a pen aligned very precisely along the right edge of the pad.

Directly beneath her chin, a heavy ceramic mug of coffee, steaming, fragrant.

Across the table to her left, the Fire Chief.

Beside him, his Captain, and beside him, the chaplain, Reverend Burnett.

"Gentlemen," Willamina said quietly, "when I was with the fire service back East, the State Fire Marshal got the bright idea that we should have a written pre-plan for every structure in our fire district."

Her voice was quiet enough to be polite, loud enough to be plainly heard; men looked very directly at her, and at her daughter-in-law, seated beside her.

"I helped him write up the order of attack on every last structure, and when we were done, the only building we didn't write up was an abandoned chicken house behind Ed Hornsby's place."

She smiled, just a little, as she added, "Guess what caught fire during my term of office."

Nods, smiles, chuckles:  everyone there well knew the infamous Murphy and his perverse legislative efforts.

Willamina raised a teaching finger.

"We had written pre-plans on file to cover nuclear attack, the Red Chinese sailing overhead dumping plague infested fleas from the air, satellites dropping out of orbit and painting mustaches on passers-by, and because we provided for all these possibilities, none of them ever came about."

"It's what you don't see that blindsides, ye," Chief Fitzgerald muttered, and Willamina turned her teaching finger into a pointer, turning it toward the speaker:  "Bingo!"

"Now."  She tapped the pad with a neatly trimmed fingernail.  "You've pre-planned your response for an attack on the church, and it appears comprehensive.  My own plans are already drawn up and of course are quite different.  Our use of a common dispatcher and a common frequency will facilitate inter-agency communication, and our availability of other channels for intra-agency commo will keep things from getting too cluttered."

Willamina's head came up, reminding the good Reverend of a hound hearing a distant hail.

He looked past her, at a movement at the far corner of the bay.

For a moment he thought he saw something white, and then it stepped into view, standing broadside -- he blinked -- 

A wolf, a magnificent, healthy, full-grown, majestic wolf, shining, flawless white, a wolf that turned its head and looked very directly at him with those feral yellow eyes --

"Chief," Willamina said, "do you still have that recording from In Harm's Way, the general quarters bugle call?"

He frowned, blinked, nodded.  "I have."

"Play it.  Make it no drill."

The wall-mounted, 110-volt alarm blared, shattering the firehouse quiet, followed by the Sheriff's dispatcher's voice:

"Firelands Fire Department and Emergency Squad, respond to the rollover accident, one mile east of town, the near end of Hill's Bottom, time out ten-oh-two."

Willamina thrust her chair back, stood, her eyes pale, the flesh drawn tight across her cheekbones.

Shelly looked at the Sheriff, her eyes big, her mouth dry.

"I hate it when you do that," she hissed, then she laid a hand on the pale eyed woman's shoulder, used it as a pivot point and swung from around the chairs, leaned forward into a dead sprint toward her squad in the far bay.

Reverend John Burnett thrust to his feet, suddenly light, lighter than he'd felt in a very long time.

Part of his mind said this was adrenaline singing power in his veins, and the rest of him yelled SHUT UP AND FOLLOW! and he ran, ran directly behind Captain Crane, seized his blue Chaplain's helmet, his blue turnout coat, he kicked out of polished oxfords and thrust sock feet into bunker boots and yanked up his turnout pants, hooked suspenders over shoulders with his thumbs: he settled the helmet on his head and had to stop and take a breath, his hands were clumsy, his fingers shaking:  he got his coat snapped up, he lifted his chin, ran around in front of the shining scarlet Kenworth engine and ran to the squad, grabbed the back door handle, hauled it open and launched himself inside, losing his balance and twisting a little to keep from planting his face on either squad bench or ambulance cot rail.

He scrambled to his feet as an anonymous hand slammed the door shut from outside and he landed his backside in the jump seat as Saddles yelled "We okay back there?" and he heard a stranger's voice and felt his throat vibrate and he heard "GO GO GO GO!" and the sunlight seared through the windshield at him as the bay door opened and he felt the Ford Diesel vibrating under his feet and they were rolling, they were rolling, and he gripped the ends of the seat belt desperately, shoving himself viciously, deeply into the jump seat, pressing his short tailed helmet into the head rest, eyes screwed shut, willing himself to stop shivering.

Just before his eyelids slammed shut, he had a momentary impression of a white wolf, looking at him through the glass in the squad's rear doors, but he dismissed it as excited imagination.

 

The Chief's booted foot was heavy on the stud, sending current to the shining, chromed Federal siren in the center of the grille:  the air bearing Q screamed like a damned soul and the engineer grinned viciously as he reached up, hauled down on the lanyard, blared a hundred pounds' compressed air warning through the twin trumpets bolted to the cab roof:  some damned idiot was pulling out of a parking space, paying no attention at all to two sirens, and twice a dozen red and white lights heading for them, not to mention the big red flat nosed truck they were bolted to, but by God! they nailed the brakes when they thought a tractor-trailer was going to have them for breakfast!

"TAKE THAT, DAMN YOU!" Berkowitz laughed, and the Chief shook his head: "Berkie, you're havin' too much fun!"

"Damned Sunday drivers," Berkie half-sang, then settled to his usual monotonous, continuous, nonstop, almost inaudible cursing of the road, the truck, the other drivers and anything else that came to mind.

The Chief had long ago quit marveling at the man's vocabulary: he never seemed to repeat himself, he never seemed to end his quiet, steady stream of Billingsgate, and he never failed to amaze the man in the white hat with his vituperative range.

Fire truck, rescue and ambulance screamed up the main street, past the All-Night, heading due east on the main highway.

 

Willamina's booted foot was heavy on her Jeep's throttle as she followed, thirty seconds behind the squad.

This was the main highway, the State Police had jurisdiction, and so did she: they had a cruiser nearby and enroute, from the opposite direction; Willamina kept a healthy distance between herself and the squad, for she well knew that, if anything untoward occurred among the responding vehicles, she just might need distance to either maneuver, evade or brake.

The Bear Killer, paws planted on the dash, panted happily, his jaw open in a doggy grin, watching through the windshield.

Thus far Willamina had not needed to refer to her siren, and just as well:  her Federal electronic tended to hurt The Bear Killer's ears, and he would throw his black nose toward the ceiling and sing in protesting harmony, and she would rather not distress her old friend and boon companion.

She did admit, in private, that his howls were actually quite pleasant, and his harmony was better than most singers she'd heard, but she knew it was the result of pain, and she'd rather not cause him pain.

"Brake lights," she warned, and The Bear Killer shifted his paws, growled, bracing for deceleration:  she saw a patch of shoulder wide enough to take the full width of her Jeep, eased off well behind the squad:  she pressed a button, which left her engine idle, powering the lights and the electronics: Willamina checked her mirror, bailed out, The Bear Killer happily flowing to the ground behind her as she strode to the back of the Jeep and seized the flare box.

Willamina ran aft, the Bear Killer ran forward, men ran toward the rollover accident:  the car was on its wheels, but on fire, a long and broad stripe of vicious flame marking its lane of travel, trickling down into a ditch.

"PULL THE CROSSLAY AND GET ME WATER ON THAT CAR! ADDINGTON, SET FOR FOAM!"

Reverend Burnett climbed out the squad's side door, nearly running into the Captain:  he recoiled, the Captain reached in, seized the tall orange box, ignoring the Chaplain's presence:  the Captain pulled back, for all the world like he'd never even seen the extra member.

The only way Reverend Burnett knew the Captain realized he was there, was the fact that the man left the side door of the squad hanging open.

The Captain ran toward the vehicle, his daughter matching his long legged sprint, step for step.

Reverend Burnett watched as a fireman drew back with some kind of a tool, heard it bite into the car, saw the man pry once, twice --

The door opened --

Two men seized the door, hauled it open, the sound of groaning metal --

"SADDLES, WITH THEM!" the Captain yelled, dropping the orange box, turning:  his arm came out as he ran back to the squad:  "WITH ME!" he yelled, and the Reverend John Burnett skidded to a stop, reversed, ran back to the boxy, shining, waxed, Omaha-Orange-and-white ambulance.

They ran to the back, hauled open the rear doors:  Reverend Burnett was not as practiced, but he had drilled with them, and when the Captain reached in and kicked the release with the heel of his hand, Reverend Burnett seized the cot with his left hand:  they hauled it out, seized it, brought it out and down:  the Captain grabbed the foot end, the Reverend, the head, and they ran clumsily toward the fireman who was carrying a limp, coughing form toward them.

Willamina scratched the flares into life, laid them on the shoulder, one not lit but overlaying the other so when one burned down, it would ignite the second:  she ran back, slammed the empty metal box back into her Jeep, slammed the door, sprinted toward the ambulance.

 

Something under the car lit up -- a sudden rolling gout of fire, then a rolling wall, the back half was engulfed --

Men turned the nozzle a little, throwing a wider fan, marched resolutely against this wall of hell's breath -- 

Something big and black dove into the open car door --

 

The Captain raised his head.

He'd thrust his ear down close to the woman's bloodied face, listened to her desperate whisper.

He straightened, took a deep breath, his full-voiced roar started about his boot tops and came out like a steam whistle.

"THERE'S A BABY IN THE BACK SEAT!"

 

The car was a total loss.

The child was, however, not.

Something big and black leaped from the wrinkled, pried-open passenger front door, something black-furred and smoking ran from the conflagration, something big and four legged with a bundle in its jaws curved around and down across the creek and up the other side, something with head up and tail swinging happily trotted up to a pale eyed woman, posture and pace declaring that it was absolutely pleased with itself.

Sheriff Willamina Keller knelt and accepted the blanket wrapped bundle, feeling the crunchy texture of scorched cloth, smelling burnt hair and seared cotton, and she unwrapped the bundle to reveal a little pink face and two little pink hands, reaching out and waving, and Willamina smiled and said, mother-gentle, "Why hello there," and a little bundled baby squealed happily and then reached for the wet, black, snuffing nose that reached in to say hello with a companionable lick of a bright-pink tongue.

 

Upon return to quarters, the several agencies sat down together for a debrief, and to complete their reports:  it was easier if everyone sat down together, for each had information the other lacked, and besides, there was coffee in the firehouse.

The Bear Killer sat beside the Sheriff, who caressed his great head and jaw; his flank was scorched, she'd have to trim and brush, but his hide and his paws were undamaged: Reverend John Burnett came in a few minutes later, and reported that mother and child were resting, the mother's injuries should heal with minimal scarring, the child appeared unhurt.

Captain Crane excused himself: stress and coffee had their effects on his system, and this was not the first time he was grateful a latrine was nearby when the pressure came off him.

He washed his hands afterward, as he always did, and he washed his face, more to simply take a moment than for any other reason.

He leaned over the sink bowl, remembering the run.

He frowned.

"The child," he whispered, "was secured in a restraint seat."

He frowned, remembering the days when he secured his own little girl in such a seat.

"How in the hell did a dog release that child?"

He straightened and someone handed him a towel:  he wiped his face as an unfamiliar voice said, "A dog didn't."

He lowered the towel, puzzled:  he blinked, looked at the stranger -- a stranger who looked pretty damned familiar.

"I didn't let a child burn up then," the man in the bib front shirt and the pressed-leather helmet said, as he reached up and stroked his fiercely curled, absolutely black, handlebar mustache.  "I sure as hell won't let one burn up now."

Captain Crane blinked as the image faded, became a wisp of vapor that corkscrewed into the cement floor, and was gone.

Willamina looked up as the Captain came back to the meeting room.

He walked past the table, out to the equipment bay.

Willamina took one look at his face, rose.

"Excuse me," she said, and followed him out into the bay.

The Captain looked at the row of framed portraits.

He stopped at one he'd just seen, there in the men's room.

A man with a fiercely curled mustache and a pressed-leather helmet.

Willamina saw the Captain swallow hard, look at the Sheriff with the knowing expression.

She took his arm and they returned to the table.

"So," the State Trooper said, reviewing his notes, "upon arrival, the car had rolled and was on its wheels and on fire. The driver was extricated from the passenger side and the child was extricated as well."  He looked up.  "Who performed the second extrication?"

Willamina looked at the Captain, looked at the trooper.

"Firefighter Llewellyn," she said, and the Chief shot her a surprised look.

The trooper nodded.  "And how's that spelled, Sheriff?"

 

 

 

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351. THE OLD CHIEF'S REPORT

 

Chief Charles Fitzgerald ran his finger along the bookshelf, along the bound volumes, ranked neatly in order.

He didn't remember the last time he'd cracked a one of them open.

They were a gift from their Sheriff, the bound records of their firehouse, complied from original documents, annotated with new information uncovered by her research.

He frowned, ran his finger back to the first volume, then across to the very last one, the one that said INDEX at the base of its spine:  gold letters embossed into burgundy leather.

Beautifully done, he thought, this cost her some coin to have these printed!

"Index," he muttered, pulling the book off the shelf, flipping it open

"Llewellyn," he muttered.  "Llewellyn."

His finger traced down the very first column, "Roster of the Irish Brigade," and he stopped.

"Daffyd Llewellyn," he murmured aloud.

"You're partway there," a familiar voice murmured, and he looked up, into a pair of pale eyes.

"Sheriff!" he exclaimed, startled.  "Didn't hear you come in."

"I like to appear sometimes," she said, "or is that make an appearance?"

She pirouetted on the balls of her feet, one arm up, one down and slightly out:  she wore a gown of an old fashioned style -- "Do you like it?  I sewed it myself!"

"Yes," the Chief admitted.  "Sheriff, you look like a million dollars!"

The pale eyed woman laughed, her head back a little, and she stepped closer, took the Chief's arm.

"What have you found so far?"

"The man I saw," he said.  "Llewellyn."

"Daffyd Llewellyn," she said, smiling, patting his arm:  she stepped away, skipped out of the room, came back with the portrait in hand.  "Him."

"Him."

"And what did he say, exactly?  You looked a little uncomfortable when you came out."

Chief Fitzgerald chuckled a little.

"You could say that," he said, "and I'll bet I looked even less comfortable when I stood there and stared at this picture!"

"Your chin," she agreed, "was down to about your belt buckle."

He looked back at the book he held.  "I was trying to find out something about him."

"Here."  Feminine hands took the book gently from him, gloved fingers riffled the pages, ran down one page, another.

"Here."

She pulled the chair out.

"Sit."

He sat.

The book settled onto the desk in front of him and he felt her animal warmth, her feminine softness, as she leaned over him from behind, her electric-blue-sleeved arm shimmering a little as she tapped a finger on the page.

"Read this," she said.  "Out loud."

Chief Fitzgerald frowned, read, considered.

"This appears to be the hand written account of ... Chief ..."

"Finnegan," she prompted.

"Finnegan," he agreed, scanning ahead a few lines, then clearing his throat.

He began to read, aloud, and as he did, the firehouse was less and less real, as the words took on their own reality ...

He heard the Ahrens steam engine hiss, the quiet chuckle of twin pistons shoving water through the pressure dome and the fire lines:  the engineer had the hard suction down what he knew was a good well, with a fast recharge, and he was satisfied that it would keep up with their demand, even with two lines.

One hose team was in the house, one was beside:  his Irish Brigade preferred to close with the enemy during what their pale eyed Sheriff called That Damned War, and they preferred to do the same here as well:  belt buckle to belt buckle, whether it was a knock down drag out Cincinnati street brawl, or fighting  the Devil's breath inside a boarding house here in Colorado, they closed with the enemy whenever possible.

"Llewellyn!"

"He's inside!"

The Chief looked around:  his men were all on task, no one else was available: they knew their jobs, he would not be needed outside in his leadership capacity, and he was, at heart, a fireman.

The Chief roared his challenge and charged into the burning boardinghouse.

"Llewellyn!"

"Up here!"

The Chief looked up the stairs, swore:  he charged up the staircase, two at a time, damning the conflagration that would soon turn varnished, hand-fitted wood to smoke and ash:  he got to the landing --

"Chief!"

He heard something in the Welshman's voice he'd never heard before.

Daffyd Llewellyn was a veteran fireman and not afraid of the Devil himself: he'd ridden a collapsing staircase and gotten out alive, he'd swung a child out a third story window and dropped it to the man atop a one story ladder, and the man caught the child:  he'd done it a second time, then he himself hung from his fingertips and yelled "FAUGH A BALLAH!" -- the man on the ladder swung under it, hung from its underside, and Daffyd Llewellyn released the window sill, dropped, free-falling for the intervening distance of one floor:  he caught the ladder with the inside of his boots, slid:  he seized the polished, varnished wood as he fell, slowing barely enough to hit the ground with enough control to hit a deep squat, then stand upright, and he had looked up just as the entire floor collapsed and fire blasted out the window he'd just vacated.

This was a man made of wrought iron and whalebone, and Sean Finnegan heard something in the man's voice he'd never heard before.

Just as the Chief made the top of the boardinghouse stairs, he heard fear.

 

The Chief threw his head back, took a great gulp of air, like a swimmer down too deep in a dive:  he felt firm, gloved hands on his shoulders, heard a familiar, feminine voice murmuring, "Easy, now, you're okay, you're safe, easy --"

The Chief took another deep breath, lowered his head, dove back into the text.

The woman in the old-fashioned dress, the woman with pale eyes, held his shoulders, knowing she was his anchor to the here-and-now.

"I've got you," she murmured as he fell through time and landed in a burning boardinghouse.

 

"I FOUND ONE!"  Daffyd Llewellyn shouted, flinching back as the floor sagged between them, then collapsed, and a twisting cyclone of fire drove straight toward the roof.

Daffyd knew he had a moment while the fire mushroomed out, he knew he had a moment while it died down, he knew when it died he would have to move.

The floor had broken free to the edges.

He was on a little platform with a blank wall behind.

The Chief could still get to the stairs.

He looked at the child he held, he remembered his wife, in his arms the night before, he remembered her smile, how blue her eyes were as she surrendered herself to their shared passion, how they'd spoken of a child, a son --

He looked at this child and at the fiery gulf separating them and he felt the remnant under his feet sag and he knew he had one chance, and one chance only.

"CHIEF!  CATCH!"

Daffyd Llewellyn took a half-step forward, slung the blanket wrapped infant across the gulf, saw flames reach greedily for the enveloping cotton, saw little blue fire-demons searing off the blanket fuzz:  the child described a flawless arc, the Chief caught it easily:  he stepped back --

"LLEWELLYN!  GET OVER HERE!"

Daffyd Llewellyn gathered himself, took a long stride, jumped, just as his little shelf of survival eroded under the flames and fell.

The Chief looked down into the chimney from hell and screamed "NOOOOOOOOOO!" --

 

Chief Fitzgerald gasped, panting, shivering:  he swallowed, he reached up, laid a hand gratefully on the gloved hand resting on his right shoulder.

"Oh my God," he whispered.

"Now you know," the woman whispered in his ear, her breath warm as it puffed gentle syllables against the fine hairs furring his pinna. "Now you know what he meant when he said he was not going to let a child burn."

The Chief pushed the book to the side, slid the portrait squarely in front of him.

"This is the man," he said, his voice a little less than steady.

"Yes," came the whispered reply.  "This is Daffyd Llewellyn, husband of Sarah Lynne McKenna, and he is the man who refused to let a child burn."

The Chief blinked.  "Why today?"

He felt gloved hands squeeze his shoulders.  "Some say a ghost lingers because there is unfinished business, or perhaps it's too much like home to leave.  Your Parson would say that we are surrounded by a great cloud of believers, and Celtic Christianity especially believes this cloud is made of our honored ancestors."

"The dog --"

"Has his own tasks to perform.  Forget the dog.  You were looking for the reason a dead man released a child so it could be brought to safety."  A pause.  "Did you ever look at The Bear Killer's face?  He has little brown fur-spots over his eyes.  Angel eyes.  Dogs with Angel Eyes can see spirits.  I see no reason why they can't hear them as well."

The Chief nodded.

"I need a drink of water," he said.  "Can I get you one?"

He rose, turned.

He was alone in his office.

Chief Fitzgerald looked around, looked at his closed office door.

"I hate it when the Sheriff does that."

 

Later that day, the Chief had need for another drink of cold water.

He'd stopped in the Sheriff's office to thank the pale eyed woman for her guidance when he was looking in the old reports, and he intended to speak especially of how well the books were bound, for he'd taken them for granted until that day.

He'd knocked at the door of her inner office, and he'd spoken his thanks, and he'd mentioned how good she looked in that shimmering blue gown, and she puzzled her brows together.

"Chief," she said, "when was this?"

"Today, just this after --"

He stopped, frowning, turned his head a little to the side, regarding her suspiciously.

"And it was me."

"Yes," he said slowly.  "It was you, all right."

Sheriff Willamina Keller stood.

"Come over here, Chief.  Take a look at this."

He walked over, looked closely at a framed print.

It was the old log Sheriff's Office from the late 1890s, or early 1900s:  he looked closely at the two lawmen and their horses, and then at the woman, and he looked at the Sheriff, suddenly uncertain.

"Now come see this."

The Sheriff seated herself again, drew open the bottom right hand desk drawer, withdrew a leather bound volume.

She paged quickly through it, opened it to the same image he'd just seen on the wall.

"One thing about the old glass plates," she said, "they had a thick emulsion and a long exposure time, and that made for a very rich, very clear, very well saturated image."

She turned two more pages.

It was a close-up of the woman in the print.

The Chief stared hard at the image, looked at the Sheriff, back at the image.

"It gets better," she murmured, turned the page.

The same image, only colorized.

The Chief backed up a step, sat down hard.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at him from across the desk, and he was willing to swear she was also looking at him from the page in her book, and wearing the identical outfit in the book that she'd worn in his office earlier that day.

"Chief," she said, "I haven't been out of my office since we got back from that run."

She hesitated.

"Chief, are you okay?  Here, let me get you some water."

 

 

 

 

 

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352.  MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE OFFICE

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller placed her half-glasses on the desk in front of her, rubbed her eyes tiredly and sighed.

She had a loathing of reports, she hated the time she spent at a desk, she detested being separated from the rest of her world by the barrier of a desk and paperwork, but she tolerated it because it was part of he job -- just as dinners with judges, the Mayor, politicians of various kinds had to be fit into her schedule: in the military, once you hit captain and above, it's all politics, she reflected, and it was sure as hell true when you happened to wear the Sheriff's six point star.

She did not look up at her dispatcher's brisk two-hit knock: she recognized Sharon's tap, the door opened, closed, but nothing was placed on her desk.

Willamina leaned back, looked up, rubbed her temples.

Sharon gave her an understanding look, placed a heavy ceramic mug of steaming-hot coffee on her desk.

"Bless you," Willamina groaned.  

"Doughnuts in the meeting room," Sharon offered, hooking a thumb over her shoulder as she gave the Sheriff a concerned look.

"Is there duct tape with it?"

"Duct tape?"

Willamina planted her elbows on the desk top, rested her chin on overlapped hands, looked up and smiled a little.

"I might as well just duct tape them to my backside as eat the damned things," she sighed, and Sharon laughed in agreement. "My backside's where they'll end up anyway!"

Sharon hesitated.

"You know, Sheriff," she said, "my daughter skates."

"Mm-hmm."  Willamina took a sip of her coffee, hummed with pleasure as it warmed her all the way down.

"You're a really good dancer. I think you'd be good on skates."

"I used to skate," Willamina said softly, and Sharon saw the corners of her eyes and the corners of her mouth both start to smile, just a little, the way she did when she remembered.

Sharon smiled, too, but hers was not with a soft reminiscence:  no, it was a slightly wicked smile, the kind women use when they needle one another.

"She's in Roller Derby and they need new blood.  I think you'd do really well skating with them!"

Willamina blinked, looked up at her dispatcher, very carefully placed the heavy ceramic mug on her green desk blotter.

"What do you say, Sheriff?  A short cheerleader's skirt, a black helmet, elbow pads and gloves and all the mayhem you can create?"

Willamina entertained the mental image of herself as a cheerleader on skates, blasting through a crowd of opponents, all elbows and kneecaps and snarling rage, steel wheels searing the banked hardwood track, hearing the crowd roar in approval as bodies spilled over the edge, as she blew a hole through the opposition --

Willamina blinked, shook her head a little:  she reached for her readers and slipped them back on her face.

Willamina stood, folded her arms, raised a teaching finger, her spectacles halfway over her nose.

She glared over the half-glasses, tapping her foot, exaggerating her posture (to her dispatcher's obvious amusement) and said quietly, "No."

"No?"
"Not just no," Willamina said, fighting to keep a straight face.  "HELL no!"

Sharon started to laugh and so did Willamina, and the Sheriff nodded.

She'd needed the coffee, and she'd needed the laugh, and she realized yet again that a good dispatcher is worth her weight in gold.

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353.  DIPLOMACY

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller opened the front door of her son's house, poked her head in, looked around.

"Permission to come aboard?" she called, as a welcoming cloud of fresh brewed coffee swirled around and seized her by the olfactories.

Something small, blond, fast moving and loud came scampering out of the kitchen and toward the laughing, pale eyed woman:  Willamina laughed, stepped inside and went to both knees, preparing to receive the full-gallop charge of a happy little girl.

"GAMMAW GAMMAW! DADDY SAYS YOU MAKEITS DA BESTY COOKIES INNADA WORLD!"

Willamina's laugh was punctuated by a happy grunt at the moment of collision, and grandmother and granddaughter embraced, and the house was filled with the happy sound of matronly and childish laughter, as well as the good smells of breakfast.

 

Linn dropped his jaw open, rolled his tongue to the side of his mouth, dropped one lax eyelid and slurred, "Schtick wit' me, schweethaht," and Marnie giggled happily as she dunked her cookie in a short, broad glass of milk.

"Daddy," she'd said, "I never haddit cookies for breftis before."

Linn waited until the freshet of girlish amusement swept past before adding confidentially, "I'll teach you all kind of bad habits," and winked, and Marnie squinted happily, trying to wink with one eye and throwing the other one in for good measure.

"Your Mama's now down here yet," Linn explained as he pulled another cookie out of the package, "and I'm hungry, and cookies are made of good stuff so I reckon we can have some for breakfast!"

Marnie frowned a little, wiped awkwardly with a paper napkin at the milk-dribble running cold down her pink-scrubbed chin.  "But Daddy," she protested, "won't dat spoil our supper?"

Linn leaned over and murmured "Long way to supper, and I'm hungry now!"

He heard the slight scuff of slippers behind him, and saw Marnie look up, saw the delight in her eyes as she chewed another milk-dunked bite of lemon whateverthehell these were.

Marnie swallowed quickly, frowned again.

"Daddy," she said, "who makesit da bestest cookies, Gammaw or Mommy?"

Linn frowned, leaned back in his chair, considered.

"Marnie," he said, "if there were two plates of cookies in front of me" -- he slid his plate to one side, pulled hers over to him, pointed to hers -- "this one full of your Mommy's cookies, and this one" -- he pointed to his -- "full of your Grandma's cookies, I'd have to say they were equally good.

"Now."  He slid her plate directly in front of him.  "If your Mommy's cookies were all there were, I'd say they were the very best, and if" -- he slid Marnie's plate back in front of her, slid his plate back in front of him -- "if your Grandma's cookies were the only ones here, I'd say hers were the very best.  But if both were there" -- he winked again -- "I'd have to say they were both just pretty darn good!"

"Pwitty darn good," Marnie echoed with an emphatic nod.

"Exactly right!"  Linn declared, and that's when his pale eyed Mama opened the door:  she'd been invited over for breakfast, she was expected, and Linn laughed a little as Shelly laid a hand on his shoulder, both of them delighting in the sight of a happy little girl scampering across the floor toward her Grandma.

Marnie was like any little girl of her tender vintage, bubbly, happy, spontaneous, uninhibited --  here in the safety of her home, anyway -- the adults were concerned Marnie's previous experiences might leave her permanently shelled, scared, withdrawn, but the complete change of surroundings, the complete change of circumstances, seem to have had a most salutary effect.

Linn reached up across his chest, laid his hand on his wife's hand, resting on his shoulder, and Shelly felt her husband laugh a little as Marnie declared happily, "GAMMAW GAMMAW! DADDY SAYS YOU MAKEITS DA BESTY COOKIES INNADA WORLD!" and Willamina laughed and looked up at her pale eyed son, and at Shelly behind him, holding their drowsy, blanket-wrapped infant, and Willamina nodded.

"Practicing diplomacy this early in the morning?" she called.

"I had to," Linn grinned.  "Shelly was right behind me and she'd probably beat me if I didn't tell the absolute truth!"

 

 

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354. TRADITIONS

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller's daughter was just nine years old.

She was also an inch taller than her pale-eyed Mama.

Young Willamina Keller sat cuddled against her Mama, watching the vidscreen with her, giggling as her Mama's young image smiled at the camera, then turned and thrust a polished, ornately stitched boot into a black doghouse stirrup, swung easily into the saddle.

Nine-year-old Willamina Keller felt her Mama sigh.

"Mama," she said gently, "what was it like to ride Butterscotch?"

Willamina laughed, brushed her daughter's bangs with a gentle forefinger.

"Willa, do you remember when your Uncle Hans put you behind the controls of an interceptor -- the time he told you not to tell anyone -- and you raised the launcher and slammed the throttle full ahead?"

Willamina nodded, blinking innocently:  it was something neither she nor her Papa were supposed to be doing, but Daddies like to show off their work to their young, and their young love to get behind the wheel of Daddy's truck and make vroom-vroom sounds while wiggling the wheel, and Willamina had been no different.

No different, that is, until you consider that she took off with full wartime acceleration, she squealed with delight as the G-forces mashed her into the seat, until she streaked straight toward an incoming asteroid, until she fired the three satellites that spread out, established a force-net between them, slowed the rock enough to allow grapples to seize the incoming rock and steer it toward the great, silent Rippers that tore matter apart at the subatomic level and allowed the components to be reassembled into more useful compounds.

Willamina drew up, vectored right and right again, carefully flying as if she were living in a flat universe, maneuvering on an enormous, imaginary dinner plate:  she circled back, not flat-turning like everyone else, but actually banking, feeling the Gs pull her down, making her heavier:  she established her trajectory, cut thrust, coasted:  she'd come back flawlessly on the correct approach vector, she'd flipped ends, given a calculated blast of thrust, another, and she'd brought the Interceptor in on her own, instead of letting the automatics take it:  she set down gently on the cradle, allowed her ship to slide backwards, with gravity, about ten centimeters, until there was a gentle thump, multiple clicks, and her panel showed the umbilical was in and locked.

She'd gone into Control skipping like a little girl coming home from school, swinging her helmet, a happy grin on her face:  her Daddy stood in front of the sensors with a couple other serious-faced fellows, and one of the more important ones said "Young lady, have a seat," and she did.

The more-important fellow (Willamina was in fourth grade.  She knew stuff.  This fellow had insignia on his shoulder and he stood very straight and that meant he was important!) went over her flight: he discussed G-forces and heart rates, trajectories and efficiency vectoring, his hands held their own conversation as he described the additional momentum given the net-sats because she launched them while still on attack, and how this was beneficial in slowing this particular rock.

He turned and looked very directly at Willamina, then turned and reviewed her final approach and her landing -- "the automatics could not have done as well" -- and finally this Important Man with Stuff on his Shoulders looked at her Papa and said, "Stallion Wing has a new pilot," and stuck out his hand.

Willamina leaned her head against her Mama's shoulder as they watched the screenvid of her Mama swinging a leg over the saddle, and Willamina giggled as the camera zoomed out, as the spotted horse started to buck, as her Mama seized her Stetson and used it to swat the horse every time it bucked:  nine-year-old Willamina Keller, daughter of the pale-eyed Sheriff Marnie Keller and Dr. John Greenlees Jr, clutched her Mama's hand happily as she watched her Mama's image moving with the horse, "sticking to the saddle like a burr on a hound dog" to quote the words she'd read in one of the Journals -- though Willamina was a native Martian, and had never seen a burr, nor a hound dog -- and finally, after many launches, dives, landings, twists, shivers, spins, rolls, pitches and yaws (and none of them gentle), the spotted horse finally landed, shook, and proceeded to trot off as if nothing at all were out of the ordinary.

Willamina sighed.

"I'd like to try that," she said softly.

Marnie squeezed her daughter's hand in return.

"Probably never on this planet," she said, and Willamina heard a note of sadness in her Mama's voice.

"If I ever make a return trip to Earth," nine-year-old Willamina Keller said softly, and Sheriff Marnie Keller ran an arm around her daughter, hugged her, nodded.

"Yes, sweets.  Our family is still there, and they still have horses."

"I'm glad you grew up there."

"I am too."

"Do you miss them?"

"You always miss home," Marnie admitted, "but this is home now and I'm happy here."

"I use the Earth-gravity simulator every day," Willamina offered.  "That's why I'm not as tall as Sheryl."

Willamina laughed.  "I don't think it's stunted your growth much."

"I probably won't go back to Earth, but it's nice having Earth-strong muscles."

Sheriff Marnie Keller nodded.  "It comes in handy, all right!"

They watched the vid, watched Marnie as a girl, laughing, running, and Willamina smiled.

Marnie didn't have to look, to know her daughter was smiling.

"That," Marnie whispered, "is The Bear Killer."

She had to whisper.

She didn't trust her voice.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller swung the video camera, smoothly, tracking The Bear Killer as he came charging up to, then behind, then up beside, nine year old Marnie Keller.

Marnie laughed and laid an arm over The Bear Killer's shoulders: it's not that Marnie was that small, it's that The Bear Killer was honestly that big!

"I remember when Grandma Willamina shot that video.  I remember the day."

 

Marnie and her pale eyed Daddy rode together, side by side, in the cool of the morning.

Marnie's schoolbooks were in her saddlebags.

Most girls at school slung a backpack in a fashionable slouch over one shoulder.

Marnie slung her saddlebags over her shoulder and had everything she needed.

Principal Mitch Landers was outside when she and her Daddy rode up, and she remembered the man laughed to see them.

"Some things never change!" he declared, reaching up to shake hands with Linn, who leaned down to meet the man's grip:  "I remember when you rode to school, and your Mama rode with you.  Some traditions are worth keeping!"

"I remember when you father was principal," Linn grinned in reply.  "Some traditions are worth keeping!"

 

"I spooked the hell out of your Grampa Linn that day," the Sheriff whispered, stroking her daughter's bangs, her voice distant with the memory.

 

"Marnie," Linn said as she dismounted, as he handed her saddlebags down to her, "when you get home tonight, The Bear Killer likely won't be there."

Marnie looked up at him, her pale eyes solemn.

"He's not well, Marnie, and I'd say he's ready to die."

Marnie smiled, quickly, brightly:  "That's okay.  He'll go to sleep and he'll go into the Dark and wait for me."

Linn frowned a little, turned his head slightly, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"When I go to sleep tonight, we'll swim the River together.  I've done it before.  My Bad-mommy did very bad things and Kee-kat an' I swum the River an' we got over to the other side an' we rolled around in the grass to dry off an' we run an' played an' there were butterflies an' it was warm an' sunny."  Marnie spoke with the absolute certainty of a child, relating an inarguable fact.

"Then when the sun started to just almost touch the far horizon" -- she smiled, for she knew something cold was trickling down her Daddy's spine as she spoke, and she knew with no doubt at all, that 'twas her words put that cold-shiver right down his back bone -- "I stood up and said I had to go back.

"Kee-kat said I know, but I have to stay, an' I said I know, an' Kee-cat had plenty of comp'ny, and I'll go back when it's time for me to stay.  Only tonight, me an' The Bear Killer will swim the River an' we'll say hi to Kee-cat."

Marnie waved and sang "Bye, Daddy," and skipped into the school building, a happy little nine year old girl in a denim skirt and ornately stitched cowboy boots, her saddlebags over one shoulder, her braids swinging with her every happy skip and step, and Linn Keller stared after her, his mouth open a little, and finally he winched his jaw bone back up into place.

He looked at the Principal, touched his hat brim: his Appaloosa stallion turned, the butterscotch Paso mare paced easily alongside the bigger, heavier Apple-horse, and Linn got about half a hundred yards away, leaned back in the saddle, ho'd to the horses, turned, stared at the schoolhouse.

"How?" he said aloud, one hand on his thigh, one caressing Apple-horses warm-furred neck.

"How does she know about swimming that river?"

He blinked, shook his head.

"Come on, folks," he finally said, and two horses and a rider turned their faces back toward the hacienda.

 

The Bear Killer was dead by the time he got back.

He'd planned to take his old and dear friend to the vet, for that final mercy against the death that ate the faithful Mountain Mastiff from the inside.

Shelly met him at the front door, her face damp: she looked upstairs, swallowed, seized her apron and crushed a wad of cloth against her face to muffle her grief.

Linn took the stairs two at a time.

The Bear Killer was stretched out beside Marnie's bed, where he often slept:  he looked like he'd just lain down and gone to sleep, but when Linn pressed practiced fingers against the rib cage, behind the fore leg, he felt nothing.

Shelly's stethoscope was still draped over the night stand.

She'd left it there, he knew, so he would know she'd checked for life, and found none.

He laid a hand on The Bear Killer's head, bit his bottom lip.

 

Next day, Marnie bounced out of bed with her usual happy smile.

It was Saturday, she didn't have school, but she had horsies, and she got into her work clothes and clattered noisily down the broad, solid-built stairs -- amazing how one little girl can make the noise of a hobnailed regiment at full charge -- she ran to the front door, hauled it open, ran across the front porch and jumped the three steps, landed easily, kept running around the house to the barn.

She saw something in the field behind.

Marnie changed course, squirted between the bottom two fence rails, ran out into the field, toward something big and white and yellow eyed, and something small and black in front of it.

Marnie tilted her head and looked with interest at the white furred lupine, regarding her with eyes full of ancient wisdom.

The ball of something dark, between the White Wolf's forepaws, uncoiled, shook, stood, looked at Marnie with black and button-bright eyes.

Marnie hunkered, tilted her head, looked at the ball of wiggle and grunt, rolled forward on her knees and the little black creature reached up and licked her nose with a warm, pink tongue.

The white wolf dissolved, became a twist of fog that corkscrewed into the ground, and Marnie picked up the pup, cradled it against her.

"Come on, Bear Killer," she said happily, and Marnie Keller rose and went skipping back to the house, her ribbon-tied braids bouncing against her shoulder blades.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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355.  A BEER

 

Fighting was in his blood.

His ancestors were fierce Celtic warriors, the only people in the known world not conquered by the Romans: these wild Hibernians were artisans, poets, singers, warriors of the finest kind, screaming into battle with sword and ax, spear and an absolutely single minded intent to cause the greatest number of the enemy to surrender their lives, and with no intent at all that their surrender should be peaceful.

This inbred ferocity could be seen in their civilized ancestors:  both North and South had their Irish Brigades, and all who fought under the Harp and Shamrock distinguished themselves in battle as some of the fiercest warriors of the entire internecine slaughter.

Sean Finnegan, the pure blooded Irish Chieftain, the white hat leader of their own Irish Brigade, led the red shirted firefighters -- long ago, a lifetime before, in Porkopolis, that great slaughterhouse on the Ohio, center of meat packing and bare knuckle brawls with rival fire companies, and later in Colorado, in the high country, leading his Irishmen -- the Welsh Irishman, the German Irishman, the New York Irishman, the English Irishman (God would forgive him for being English!) -- together, with their collective experience, their Chieftain's single minded leadership, the Sheriff's money -- they freighted in the very first Ahrens steam fire engine, brought it in on the steam train, with a cadre of hardened, veteran firemen to run it, and to establish fire protection for their community.

Sean knew he'd likely be tested, and tested he was, but he didn't expect it quite so soon.

He'd no more than swung out of the passenger car, stomped up onto the depot platform to supervise unloading the steam engine, than that pale eyed lawman stepped up in front of him, glared at him with eyes that honestly shot a shaft of ice through Sean's soul.

Sean was no stranger to war and to combat, but when those ice-pale eyes drove into his, those hard and glacial eyes set in a face that showed absolutely no welcome, he knew that trouble just walked up and was ready to belt him across the face, hard.

It wasn't often that Sean felt fear, but he felt it now.

Here was a hard-eyed Western Sheriff, and he'd read about such men, rough men who'd survived that damned War and didn't stop fighting, men who sought out combat, men who fought an enemy and pounded an enemy into bloody defeat and wiped his feet on the bloody rags of what was left, and Sean's gut told him that's exactly what he was facing, right now.

  He did not let it show -- a warrior never does -- he shoved his Derby hat aggressively forward, peeled out of his coat and handed it to a loyal adjutant, turned his head, spat.

"NO IRISH NEED APPLY!" the Sheriff snarled, raised his fists.

Sean raised his own scarred-knuckle meat pounders, and the fight was on.

The story was told for years, how the lean-waisted Sheriff and the blacksmith-square Irishman stood belt buckle to belt buckle on the Depot platform, each hammering the other without mercy, neither giving a sound as the other's fist drove deep into ribcage or hard-muscled belly: Sean's ear was cut, the Sheriff's cheek was cut, both men bled, neither man yielded:  the Irish Brigade stood in awe, for never had they seen two fighters so evenly matched: what Sean had in strength, the Sheriff had in speed, and when both men, their breathing ragged, pained, bled shining scarlet drops on the painted boards, the the Sheriff stepped back, quickly, shouted "HOLD!" and Sean took a half-step back, fists still up, wary of a trick.

The Sheriff walked over to the rain barrel, splashed his cut and bleeding face, thrust burning, throbbing knuckles into the water, walked dripping and wet back over to the Irishman.

He turned, slapped his arm across Sean's shoulders, roared to command everyone's attention, never mind they were already absolutely the center of attention:  as a matter of fact, most of the town, by now, was gathered around the depot:  some men laid bets, some women stood, wide-eyed, shocked and perhaps entranced by the sight of two blooded and bloodied warriors, each taking the other's measure, and neither one yielding so much as one inch in the face of the other's full frontal assault.

The Sheriff took a great, deep breath, felt Sean breathing deep as well, the way a man will when he's under exertion:  the Sheriff glared about with those cold, hard, ice-white eyes and declared, his voice pitched to cut through to the furthest ranks:  "I CAN WHIP ANY MAN IN THIS COUNTY, AND THIS MAN HAS WHIPPED ME!"

Sean raised a bent wrist, wiped at the blood trickling down the side of his head:  he frowned a little, for he knew damned good and well he hadn't beat the Sheriff -- it was a draw, and a damned close draw at that.

"THIS MAN IS FIRE CHIEF!" the Sheriff continued, raising a bent wrist to wipe blood from a cut and flattened lip.  "HIS AUTHORITY UNDER LAW EXCEEDS MY OWN!  HE SPEAKS WITH MY AUTHORITY AND HIS WORD AT A FIRE IS LAW!  IF ANY MAN WANTS TO DISAGREE, STEP RIGHT UP, THE STORE IS OPEN!"

The Sheriff turned, stood squarely in front of the big, square-shouldered Irishman with the blacksmith's arms, with hands like squared sledgehammers, the man who'd honestly pounded most of the stuffing out of the lawman -- and truth be told, the Sheriff had pounded most of the stuffing out of the Irishman.

Neither man could have gone another few minutes and they both knew it.

"IRISHMAN," the Sheriff shouted in the man's face, "I WOULD ADMIRE TO STAND YOU AND YOUR MEN TO DRINKS!"

Sean nodded, wiped a trickle of blood off his sore-as-hell ear, turned.

"YOU HEARD HIM, LADS!" he roared.  "DRINKS!"

Years later, Sean would ask the Sheriff -- after that initial bout on the depot platform, they'd formed a firm friendship -- "Now Sheriff, tell me, why'd ye call th' fight when we weren't done?" and the Sheriff grinned a little -- a grin he seldom let slip, a grin only his closest friends ever saw -- "Sean, I had to establish your authority.  We've never had a fire department.  I needed to let the world know that you were the absolute authority at a fire.  I called the fight and declared you the better man so everyone would know they could try you only at peril of me!"

Sean laughed, raised his heavy glass mug, took a long drink, sighed with pleasure.

"Sheriff," he said softly, "I pity the poor fool who tries you." 

He gave Linn a very frank look.

"I'm not a'tall sure I could've taken ye."

Linn's grin widened a little; his hand raised to an almost invisible scar line on his cheek bone.

"Trust me," he said, equally softly.  "I thought the same thing!"

Both men laughed a little, raised their beer mugs to one another, drank.

 

 

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356. THE RIVER

Marnie laid a hand on The Bear Killer.

She stood beside him on a riverbank, her bare ribs tickling with his black, curly fur warm against her hide, and they looked at the river, at the riverbank on the far side.

Marnie had a wonderful sense of anticipation: she looked up at the broad, flat, shining arc overhead, all colors and sparkles, and she knew, somehow, this was a bridge.

The Bear Killer raised his massive head and she heard his thoughts.

Bifrost.

"Bi-frost?" Marnie questioned back, and she felt his silent, strong affirmative.

Marnie Keller, ten years old, marveled at the structure:  it did not look substantial at all, there were no supporting arches, no pillars, no buttresses, just a shining, long-striped band, soaring over the river.

She giggled.

We don't need no old bridge, do we? she thought happily, and she felt The Bear Killer's calm, satisfied reply:

No.

The two ran down the riverbank, thrashed into the water, stroked strongly against the clear, almost body temperature stream, swam for the opposite bank:  Marnie swam well, surprisingly well -- she'd never been swimming before, but she seemed to know how it was done -- and of course The Bear Killer swam strongly and well:  they climbed up the opposite bank, wet, dripping, they ran up the grassy bank, stopped:  they both lay down in soft, sun-warmed grasses and rolled, laughing, then they lay in the sun together, satisfied.

They'd made it.

They'd swum The River.

They eventually got up and ran, laughed, played, and they were happy.

The sun continued its slow and steady march across the blue summer sky, and descended as it always does, toward the far horizon:  when it was almost ready to touch, Marnie looked up, shaded her eyes with her hand, gagued the sun's progress, looked across the river, back to the Land of the Living, where they'd come from.

"I have to go back," she said.

I know, The Bear Killer replied, and I have to stay.

"I know."

Marnie hugged The Bear Killer, who washed her face as he always did.

You will see me again.

"I know."

Marnie turned, ran the few steps to river's edge, thrashed back out into the water:  she swam back, alone, she came up on the opposite bank, stood, water running off her, turned and looked back across the water.

The Bear Killer was not alone.

He raised a paw in salute, then he turned, and others -- most smaller -- swarmed out into the field to meet him, and Marnie felt their joy that one of their own had made it.

Marnie opened her eyes and smiled.

Something warm was cuddled against her ribs, and she laid a gentle hand on it, and something licked her hand and she giggled, then she threw back the covers, carefully picked up the warm, black, furry ball, carried it up against her chest, downstairs:  she eased back the door's bolt, twisted the knob, eased out onto the porch.

The Bear Killer grunted anxiously as she set it down in the cool, dew-wet grass, then it relieved itself the way growing pups will:  Marnie waited until all was done before whispering, "C'mon, Bear Killer," and the black-furred pup romped toward her, to be picked up and cuddled again, and they went back in the house:  Marnie eased the door shut, turned the knob before closing it so as to make no sound, secured the lock again, one-handed, climbed the broad stairs to her bedroom.

She set The Bear Killer on her bed, climbed in, pulled the covers over them both, and The Bear Killer wiggled happily, warm and solid and furry against her flannel nightie, and Marnie closed her eyes and smiled.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller opened her eyes in the near-darkness and smiled.

Her husband was warm and solid, cuddled up against her back; his arm was draped over her, and she suppressed a wiggle of contentment that she was where she should be:  under her own roof, in her own bunk, with her own husband.

Having a dog here on Mars would be absolutely impractical, but she still wished it, and she remembered The Bear Killer, and the last time she saw him, and she closed her eyes again, and somewhere on a blue planet instead of her red one, a massive, black-furred canine sighed in his sleep, remembering a pretty girl with pale eyes who hugged him and whispered "I'll miss you, Bear Killer," and he'd washed her face, tasting the salt water running down her cheeks, and he'd watched her drive off, as another pale eyed woman laid a hand on his shoulders:  he'd turned and washed salt water off her face as well, for a mother feels a loss when she knows she will never see her child in person again.

 

 

 

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357. PEACEFULLY, OR OTHERWISE

 

Canter had a good view of their approach, and the view did not make him at all happy.

Three riders were coming straight toward him.

That they sat their horses well did not surprise him: the horse was Everyman's transport, horsemanship was a common skill, but this trio ... these three could not be mistaken, not if he were a blind man in black glasses, being towed along by a hired urchin.

No, these three meant he was a dead man, or worse.

As he watched, the rider on either side split off -- as if on signal, though no signal was given -- and his stomach shriveled a little more: he'd heard about these three, but he'd never seen the three working together like this.

The one in the middle was holding straight for him.

Canter knew he had to make a decision and he had to make it fast, for that long legged palomino Old Pale Eyes rode covered ground at a good clip, and the other two were intent on flanking him if he was any judge, and they likely figured he'd wait here, here where he had a view of the pursuit, where he would have cover but be able to fire effectively at any pursuers.

The Winchester rifle was solid and reassuring in his hands, and he started to ease the muzzle out over the fallen tree's fork, then he hesitated.

If I kill Old Pale Eyes, them other two will kill me for sure.

If I get away anyhow I'll have every lawman this side of the Big Muddy after my hide.

Every bounty hunter will be after me for the cash reward.

So will every two bit gun hawk who wants to kill the man who killed the most feared gunfighter ever to stand in boot leather!

Canter felt his blood cool several degrees.

No, he'd not put lead into Old Pale Eyes.

He still stood a chance of escape.

His horse was a good one, fresh, grained; if he hit the saddle now, he stood a chance.

He knew the country -- not well, but well enough.

Canter withdrew the blued steel barrel, turned, ran bent-over toward his waiting mount.

 

"Gammaw?"

Willamina was bent over, her Paso's off forehoof between her knees, frowning at the newly-installed horseshoe.

"Hm?"  She opened her knees, released the forehoof:  the Paso leaned against her a little, warm and solid, and Willamina straightened, patting the mare's neck and murmuring reassuringly.

She looked over at her nine year old granddaughter.

Marnie decided she wanted to be not just a girl, but a girl like her Gammaw, and nothing would do but that her Gammaw sew her up some riding outfits, and so she and Willamina laid out patterns and cloth and straight pins, and Marnie giggled a little as Willamina draped a measuring tape around Marnie's neck and mumbled "Hld dis fr me" through the half-dozen pins between her lips:  she and her granddaughter talked and laughed and sewed, the same way Willamina and her Aunt Mary had talked and laughed and sewed when Willamina was much younger.

Marnie wore one of the riding dresses today, which did not stop her from thrusting her boots into plastic bags, and then into muck boots:  divided skirt or not, she helped her pale eyed Gammaw scrape the stalls and dolly out the scrapings and dump them on the manure pile, and then Marnie sat on a hay bale and watched her Gammaw grooming out her golden Paso mare.

"Gammaw, tell me about Gampaw Pale Eyes."

Willamina worked a tangle out of her Butterscotch mare's mane, and smiled a little.

"He was tall," Willamina said quietly, "and he had pale eyes, and an iron grey mustache."

Marnie blinked, listening closely.

"He was lean waisted and broad shouldered, and I don't think he was afraid of the Devil himself."

Marnie tilted her head a little to the side, the way a little girl will do when she's listening closely, and thinking as she listens.

"Old Pale Eyes was a snake with a single action. He wore a double gunrig and given the choice, he'd go for his left hand revolver first.  He was a dead shot with rifle or pistol, but his son Jacob was better with a shotgun if they went hunting birds."

Marnie nodded carefully.

"Gammaw, did Gampaw Pale Eyes kill ennybuddy?"

"Oh, ya," Willamina said casually.  "He was in that damned War, and once he became a lawman, bad people tried to kill him, so yes, he killed them first to keep them from killing him and a bunch of other people."

Marnie nodded, her face serious.

"If he could take someone alive," Willamina continued, "he would, but if it was needful, he killed."

 

Canter rode due west, following the land, then bent a little to the south, until something threw up dirt twenty feet ahead of him, and a moment later, the report of a rifle from his left.

He wheeled, saw smoke, rode back behind some screening brush.

He swore, looked around, considered:  a ravine ran toward whoever fired that shot.

They would not expect him to ride toward the rifle, and if he was reading the lay right, the ravine bent to the right and he could make an escape.

To think was to act: Canter kicked his mount in the ribs and ran toward the rifleman, turned down the run with the stream at its bottom, hauled up into a dead stop.

He swapped ends and ran back the way he'd come.

One of them three riders was cross ways of his trail, a figure he'd never met and never seen, a figure he'd heard plenty about.

The intruder, the impediment to his flight, was a slight built sort, all in black, on a truly huge, absolutely flawlessly black horse.

Canter did not wish to go up against the Black Agent.

He'd heard the Black Agent was as absolutely fair as Old Pale Eyes: his shoulder blades tightened together a little anyway, but he was mostly confident he would not be back shot by this particular Agent of the Court.

"Canter!"

The voice was not far away.

He did not know if it was Old Pale Eyes or that pale eyed depitty of his, but if he figured right, that depitty was the one that taken a shot at him and so that must be that cold hearted lawman hollerin' at him.

Canter wasted no breath cussing himself for being so stupid as to hold up that bank, nor did he profane his ill fortune for the bad luck of having this trio on his trail.

He considered, then turned uphill, figuring to cross behind that depitty, hoping like hell the man hadn't moved -- most men, once they get a good firing position, are reluctant to leave it.

His horse grunted with each thrust as he surged up the bank.

 

"Gampaw Pale Eyes looked kinda like Daddy."
Willamina laughed, glided over to her granddaughter, surprisingly graceful in bright yellow muck boots; she turned, sat on the bale, hugged Marnie to her.

Marnie leaned her head over against her Gammaw and gave a great sigh, closing her eyes and relaxing in the moment: she was where she wanted to be, she was with who she wanted to be with. 

"Yes, Sweets," Willamina said gently, kissing her granddaughter on top of the head.

"Would you like to see where he came up against a bank robber?"

Marnie looked at her Gammaw, big-eyed, nodded.

"Let's saddle up."

Not many minutes later, two pale eyed ladies galloped across the back pasture, both of them squealing happily as they soared over the painted board fence and kept on going.

Marnie rejoiced at the feel of her Goldy-mare under her -- there is a magic when horse and rider are well matched, and Marnie rode abreast of her smiling Gammaw, who felt the same joy at having a good horse under her.

They rode at the paso largo, the ground covering, butter smooth traveling gait that made the Paso Fino the most desired saddle horse of the Spanish Empire:  Marnie had never ridden this part of the country before, and did her best to memorize the terrain as she rode.

Her Gammaw drew up and Marnie's mare slowed as well, circled around the pale eyed woman, came up close on her off side, stirrups almost touching.

"Marnie," Willamina said, "let's say you wanted a good place to hide.  What would you look for?"

Marnie frowned a little, eyes busy.  

"Someplace I couldn't be seen," she hazarded.

Willamina nodded.  "That would be a really good start.  What else?"

"Umm," Marnie hesitated, then raised her shoulders in a shrug.  "I dunno."

Willamina laughed, gave her granddaughter a warm, affectionate look.

"You have no idea how good it is to hear that," she said, and Marnie looked back, surprised.

"You weren't bugling."

"What's bugling?"
"It's a military term.  It means to try and stuff someone's boots with baloney when you don't know the answer."

"Oh."  Marnie's eyebrows raised and she blinked, then nodded, as if that settled everything.

Marnie raised a bladed hand, pointed.

"Straight ahead," she said, "that little bit of a rise."

"I see it."

"Square in the middle, there's a dip."

"Yeah."

"That's where we're headed.  Turn around."

The two turned their mounts around.

"Look at where we came from."

Marnie looked, surprised at how different the countryside looked.

"Now look over there -- and there -- see the big rock here, that tree with the two forks?"
"Yeah."

"Remember those.  Now follow."

The two rode toward the rise, rode around it, came up behind, dismounted.

Marnie and Willamina held their mounts' reins as they walked up a little grade, looked through a natural notch in the rock.

"Now look there -- see that rock? -- and there, that tree with the two forks?"
"That's where we were!"

"And if we were here, we would have a clear shot along the back trail."

Marnie blinked, nodded.

"Old Pale Eyes was coming straight up that same trail we took, and the bad guy was standing exactly where you are standing now."

Marnie's eyes were big and solemn as she nodded.

"What did the bad guy do, Gammaw?"

"He robbed a bank."

Marnie frowned.  "That's bad."

"Tell me about it," Willamina murmured.  "Try adding a hand grenade into a robbery."

"Huh?"
Willamina waved a hand.  "Some other time.  Now the bad guy was here, but he didn't shoot at Old Pale Eyes because -- well, because it was Old Pale Eyes after him."

"Oh."
"His son Jacob flanked left, and The Black Agent went right."

Marnie frowned and added "flanked" to her list of Adult Words She Figured Out By Listening.

"They left Gampaw Pale Eyes all alone?" she asked in a forlorn voice, and Willamina hugged her granddaughter again, surprised at the sadness in the child's face.

"Part of their plan," she whispered.

"Oh," Marnie whispered back.

 

Something blew a geyser of dirt out of the ground in front of him.

Not again! he thought bitterly, scanning to find the gunsmoke.

"I'd put that rifle back in the scabbard was I you," a voice said slowly, and something cold crawled right up the very center of his spine.

He hesitated.

"Odds ain't good," the voice continued.  "I've got a rifle on you and so does my adjutant."

Canter considered kicking his horse into a gallop, throwing himself quickly flat against the horse's neck, maybe a little to one side --

He thought he heard, very faintly, a single, metallic click, as if a lawman's thumb just brought a rifle from half cock to full cock, and he remembered hearing about Old Pale Eyes, with that engraved One of One Thousand rifle, hitting marbles and shot glasses tossed into the air.

His shoulders sagged as he gave himself the surrender.

He eased the rifle's muzzle into the scabbard, slid it in, deep, placed his hands on his thighs.

"What now, Pale Eyes?" he called.

"Get down and help me start a fire, we need coffee."

 

Marnie blinked, confused.

She'd seen bad guys on TV get arrested an' the cops grabbed 'em and cuffed 'em and wallowed 'em around, she'd seen that back in the days she tried not to think about, she knew you just didn't do this with a prisoner --

Willamina smiled gently as Marnie looked up at her with a confused expression.

"Coffee?" she asked.

"Yes, sweets," Willamina said gently, brushing her granddaughter's bangs with a bent forefinger.  "They gathered sticks and made a fire."
"That don't make no sense," Marnie said slowly.

Willamina laughed.  "It was a different time, Sweets," the Sheriff replied.  

 

"How come you didn't just kill me?"  Canter asked, blowing across his tin cup of scalding hot.

The Sheriff reached in a saddlebag, pulled out a cloth wrapped bundle.

"You didn't try to kill me."

He unwrapped the sandwich, handed it to Canter.

Canter took it with a mistrustful look that lasted until his first bite.

"I coulda."

The pale eyed Sheriff nodded.  "You coulda."

"So where's the other two?"

Linn smiled, ever so slightly, but made no reply.

"They ain't here."

"You're welcome to try something," Linn said conversationally, his hand blading into the saddlebag.

Canter started to move and Linn came out with a handful of bulldog .44 revolver, its stubby muzzle suddenly looking like an unblinking eye staring at the bank robber.

Canter closed his mouth very carefully.

"Now let's talk about that bank robbery."

"What bank robbery?"  Canter asked -- not very convincingly.

The Sheriff took a long, patient breath.

"Man robs a bank," he said quietly, "is not robbin' the bank's money."

"Yeah?" Canter took another bite of sandwich.

"Workin' man puts his money in the bank so the bank can keep it safe for him.  He's lettin' the bank put his money to work."

Canter took a noisy slurp of coffee, watching the pale eyed lawman as he examined the bulldog .44, elaborately paying no attention to the bank robber.

"The bank puts that money to use.  Loans it out. It's paid back with interest. Man keeps his money in the bank, the bank pays him interest on that money.  You steal that money, you're not stealin' from the bank, you're stealin' from every last hard workin' soul who puts their money there."

"So?"

"So, you can tell me where the money is, my adjutants pick it up and take it to the bank, I take you to the hoosegow and let the Judge take it from there."

"Hmp.  No money."

The Sheriff sighed patiently.  "Friends of mine put their money in that bank."

Canter looked uncomfortably left and then right.

"Okay, it's not all gone."

"Keep talkin'."

Canter looked up, surprised, at the approach of a truly huge, absolutely black horse, a horse with feathered feet and enormous, dishpan sized hooves ... a horse that approached with an unnerving, utter, absolute, silence.

It didn't help his nerves any that the rider was all in black as well, with a black kerchief drawn across the lower half of his face, and the cold willies ran down his back bone again with a yellow paint brush as he saw -- for the first time -- the Black Rider's eyes.

They were glaring at him.

No.

Not at him.

Through him.

The Black Rider picked up two canvas messenger bags, tied at the necks with piggin strings, draped over that big black horse's neck.

The Black Rider eased that big black horse closer to the Sheriff, picked up the money bags, dropped them.

Canter sagged again, feeling like every bit of good fortune he'd ever had, just drained out his boot heels.

"All there?"  the Sheriff asked, and the Black Rider nodded, once.

"Well, that'll go easier on you in front of the Judge," the Sheriff said.  "If all the money is recovered, nobody is out anything except a year's growth."

 

"Did the bad guy get sent up the river?" Marnie asked, blinking innocently.

"Yes, sweets.  He got sent up the river."

Marnie leaned into her Gammaw and hugged her, tightly, desperately.

"I remember a bank robber," she said, and Willamina heard fear in her voice.  

She looked up at her Gammaw.

"I saw where he hid the money."

 

The bank offered the Sheriff a cash reward for returning their funds -- they could do this, as the pale eyed lawman hadn't liberated a percentage for his own pockets, then claimed this is all there was -- but Old Pale Eyes declined their less than generous offer:  he returned to his own jurisdiction, and the town marshal listened to the banker gush with delight about finding an honest man, while the town's marshal privately considered the Sheriff a damned fool for not keeping some for himself.

He could've gotten away with it.

 

Willamina smiled a little as she spoke to the voice on the other end of the phone.

"No, a cash reward won't be necessary," she said, "but as it was my granddaughter who told us where your bank's money was hidden, there is something you could do for her."

Willamina smiled and nodded.  "She'd like a new pair of cowboy boots.  She wants red, with white stitching and black trim."

And so it was that nine-year-old Marnie Keller came strutting into the Sheriff's office in a handmade riding dress and red cowboy boots, with a grin on her face like sunrise on a clear day, and when she saw her favorite deputy she exclaimed "Beeg!" and ran for him, laughing as he picked her up and swung her around, her pigtails flying out behind her as she scattered happy giggles all over the polished quartz floor.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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358. BROOMHANDLE

Chief Deputy Linn Keller twisted the ignition, shutting off the engine.

He sat there for several long moments, his eyes closed, before releasing the seat belt and climbing out of his marked vehicle.

He pocketed the keys, closed the driver's door -- slowly, carefully, the controlled, precise moves of a man who was making an effort to keep his temper under control.

His badge hung down to just below his belt -- apparently it had been grabbed, the shirt tore, a long, narrow strip of cloth connected the six point star with the rest of the ripped garment -- his face bore the ill effects of knuckles, or maybe a small club: a cut over his eyebrow had stopped bleeding, but was still glistening, fresh, probably painful, by the look of it:  he stepped back to the driver's rear door, opened the door and glared at the occupant.

"You gonna behave?" he growled.

"Why should I?" the prisoner sneered.

Linn took a long breath, considered his reply carefully.

"I am going to bring you out of there," he said, "and I would be very much obliged if you did not fight me anymore."

"Yeah?" the prisoner challenged.  "I'm gonna fight like hell, how's that?"

Linn's eyes were very pale, very cold, and his bruised and bloodied face was like parchment stretched over his cheek bones.

"You," he said, "are going inside and be processed.  Peacefully or otherwise, and I really don't care which."

His voice was steady, almost quiet: the prisoner waited until his seat belt was released, until he was just at the edge of the seat, and he launched himself toward the deputy.

Linn figured he might try it.

The prisoner was helped into what a pilot might refer to as an "unplanned descent" -- Linn's leg kept the prisoner from making his feet, and the back-shackled felon went face first into the pavement, Linn's knees on top of him.

Linn seized the man -- his hand slammed down between the prisoner's shoulders, twisted up a great handful of shirt, as his other hand ran under the waistband, picked him up like baggage.

Unwilling, swearing, kicking, twisting luggage.

Linn packed the prisoner to the door, turned, hit the handicap plate with the back of his upper arm:  he turned, stepping around the opening door, carried the now-screaming prisoner inside.

The Sheriff was inside, as were two other deputies: the prisoner continued to struggle, his efforts becoming more vigorous when he felt what has been called "the Laying On of Hands," earning even more charges added to his arrest:  after being stripped down, scrubbed off, fought into a set of jail coveralls and slippers, after being carried (in a most painful and only marginally effective armlock) to the drunk tank, he was locked into the featureless room, where he proceeded to scream and tear apart anything that was loose, which amounted to a thin pillow and a blanket that was not supposed to be tearable (turns out he didn't tear it, but it was rather the worse for wear after the first hour.)

Once the prisoner was secured, after fingerprints and mug shots, after the heavy steel door slammed on the criminal's freedom, Linn slumped against the wall, reached up, twisted his body cam loose and handed it to the Sheriff.

"You'll need that," he gasped, "and Jelly wants to press charges. He's got video."

"How bad?" Willamina asked, gentle fingers lifting her son's chin, turning his head to the left, to the right.  "Teeth?"

Linn opened his mouth, peeled his lips back: there was blood, and Willamina peeled the upper lip back.

"Intact but bloody," she muttered.  "You know what to rinse."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Men's room."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Elsewhere?"

Linn was still leaning back against the wall, half bent over.

Willamina laid a gentle palm against his face, looked very seriously at him.

"ER. Now," she said, and her voice did not brook any discussion.

"Yes, ma'am," Linn gasped.

"I know it's probably not necessary," Willamina continued, her voice low, so only he could hear, "but you're the only one of you I've got!"

"Ma'am," Linn grinned, and the grin was crooked, one half of his lip was puffed and discolored, "if I was to up and die, Shelly would never speak to me again!"

Willamina glared at him.  "Two million comedians out of work," she muttered.  "Barrents, get him out of here."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina watched them depart down the back hall, shook her head, folded her arms and walked slowly back to her office.

She opened the door and Marnie was standing up on a chair, studying the old revolver in the glass front frame.

She pointed to it and said, "Gammaw, that's my size."

Willamina considered her nine year old granddaughter, nodded.

"Your father has one just like it," she said.  "I think it's time you learned how to shoot it."

Marnie's eyes shone with delight and she jumped off the chair, to the floor, stood up, hands clasped under her chin as she bounced with excitement.  "He's had me shoot some, Gammaw, but that one" -- she turned and looked back up at the frame -- "who's that man in the picture?"

Willamina squatted, ran her arm around Marnie's middle, pointed up at the framed relic.

"That," she said, "is my father."

"Really?"  Marnie's eyes were big and she surged back up on the chair, craning to see the photograph more closely.  "He was a deputy?"

"He was town marshal."

Marnie jumped back down.  "Good!"

"That was his revolver."

Marnie frowned, looked from the frame to the Sheriff and back.

"That's kinda small for a grown man," she said, and Willamina laughed, surprised yet again by her little granddaughter's grown up voice.

"It's all he could afford," she admitted, "and he did the best he could with it."

Willamina took the chair Marnie had stood on, swiped quickly at the seat, pulled it over next to her desk, patted it.

"Have a seat."

Marnie came over, sat.

Willamina sat in her high backed chair, scooted out from behind the desk, closer to the child, leaned forward, took her hands.

"Marnie, I have to tell you something, and I don't want you to be scared."

Marnie nodded, suddenly serious.

"You know that sometimes criminals will resist arrest."

Marnie nodded again.

"And sometimes they do bad things that hurt lawmen."

Willamina's heart fell a few feet at the look of dread on her granddaughter's face.

"Your Daddy brought in a criminal today."

Marnie swallowed, nodded, her pale blue eyes lightening noticeably.

"Your Daddy will very likely have a puffed lip and maybe a black eye.  I think he might get two stitches over his eyebrow, and he'll be moving slow and sore for a few days.  Be very careful when you hug him, don't run into him or jump on him."

Marnie nodded, dropped her eyes:  Willamina saw her lips start to move, and then she looked up, and she blinked several times, quickly.

"Gammaw," she said, "how can I keep Daddy from bein' hurt?"

Willamina tilted her head a little to the side, the way a grandmother will when a child's question reaches through her walls and wards and the shields around her heart.

"We have some things to teach you," Willamina said, "and I think just maybe" -- she looked up at the framed revolver -- "we might start on that."

"Gammaw, bad people hurted my Bad Daddy," she said, her young voice a little less than steady.  "They hurted him bad an' I don't want my Real Daddy hurt!"

Linn is her Real Daddy, Willamina thought.  

Good. 

She's accepted her new life.

"Tell you what."  Willamina patted Marnie's hand, gently.  "I have to go check on him.  Why don't you come with me?"

Marnie nodded.

 

"You can see him now."

Paul Barrents was standing at a very correct parade rest outside the exam room door, his hat under his arm, one arm behind him, doing his best to glare a hole in the opposite wall.

Down the hall, to his right, toward the front of the hospital, he knew two receptionists were watching him, and he knew they were not entirely comfortable with what they saw.

He didn't really give a good damn.

He took pains to be as poker faced and as impassive as was legendary among The People, but here, today, for this moment, he felt a dark and aiding fury, a deep seated rage, and his obsidian glare was the least hostile of his body's visible expression.

When the door opened and he was admitted, the receptionists hesitated, then one came down the hall, timidly, hesitantly.

She raised her hand, felt the wall at which his glare was directed.

Her partner saw her jerk her hand back, an expression of surprise on her face.

 

Linn had a small, tidy, white bandage over his eyebrow; his lip was swollen on one side, puffed out; Linn lifted the washcloth in greeting, laid it back on the discolored lip.

"Do you feel as bad as you look?"

"God lovesh you, too," Linn muttered.  "Am I that bad?"

"Ask your wife when you see her."

"That bad."   He closed his eyes, relaxed back into his pillow.

"What happened?"

"I shtopped at the Shpring Inn. Shome Jack Doe shtarted bushting the plash up right bephore I came through the door.  I shtepped acrosh the threshold and everyone looked at me like I was Jeshush Chrisht leadin' the Sheventh Cavalry, sho I laid into him and he laid into me."

"Damn."

"He didn't have to take that broomhandle to me."  Linn grimaced, raised a tentative hand to his swollen upper lip, flinched.  "Shtitches inshide my lip. I shound drunk."

"Probably that numby stuf they gave you."  

Barrents leaned over a little more.

"What about a broomhandle now?"

"Hit me hard acrosht my burnsh."

"I thought those were healed."

"Yeah."  Linn unfolded the washcloth, fanned it to cool it a little, reapplied it to his bruised lip and cheekbone.  "Shtill tender."

Barrents' black eyes were almost unreadable, and Linn knew that meant the man was either worried, or mad as hell -- likely both.

There was a knock at the door.  "Permission to come aboard?"

Barrents came to his feet.  "Ma'am."

"At ease."  Willamina walked up to the black eyed deputy.  "Get out to the Spring Inn.  Get statements, pull the video, Jelly wants to press charges, make it happen."

"Yes, ma'am."

Paul turned, nodded to Linn, headed for the door with an absolutely soundless tread.

"When he moves that quietly," Willamina observed, "he's ready to rip someone's throat out."

"Trusht me to caush trouble."

"Stitches?"

Linn nodded, frowning.

"You look a fright."

Linn nodded again.

"You could have called for backup."

"No thime."
"Oh?"  Willamina leaned on the chromed siderail, regarded her wounded progeny with professional eyes.

"Routhine patrol," he almost whispered. "Shtopped at the Shpring Inn. Shome Jack Doe shtarted tearin' the playsh up jusht before I crosht the threshold."

He swallowed -- carefully -- looked up at the ceiling.

"Efryone looked at me like I wash Jeshush Chrisht leadin' the Sheventh Cavalry an' the fight wash on."

Willamina nodded.  "Been there, done that," she murmured, "but I had a shotgun."

"Lucky you."

"We're pulling surveillance and getting statements. I've already downloaded your body cam."

Linn nodded, grimaced.

"How's the belly?"

"Shpleen's intact."

Willamina frowned, concerned.  "Ribs?"

"Shore. None broke."

Willamina pulled down the covers, pulled up the gown, read the story printed in bruising and abrasions.

Silently, carefully, she lowered the hospital gown, drew the bedcovers back up.

She looked very directly at the IV's drip chamber, then looked just as directly at her watchful, waiting son.

Willamina's eyes were as hard and as cold as the polished heart of a high mountain glacier, and her voice was just as warm and welcoming as she whispered, "Sometimes I am honestly sorry I am a sworn law enforcement officer," and she leaned on the chromed siderail again.

Linn did not miss how her knuckles blanched as she did her best to crush the slick steel tubing in her blanched fists.

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359. MAGIC DISPENSERS

 

Marnie was big-eyed and subdued, following along beside her Mommy, carrying a package like it was something precious.

To her it was.

Very much so.

Her Mommy slipped up on her while she was indulging herself.

Marnie had a secret, and she'd kept it from everyone for a very long time.

The last time she tried doing something she really liked, her Bad Mommy was very mean, and few things are as easily bruised as a child's heart:  wounds can be permanent, and scarring can be a dark lens through which a child will view the rest of their lives: still, if a love is profound enough, something can be seen through that scarred lens, and Marnie sat very quietly, the sharpened pencil whispering secrets to the paper, curved lines and shaded sweeps of the turned-on-its-side pencil lead giving drape and sweep to a skirt.

Marnie didn't quite smile as she drew, but she felt the corners of her eyes tighten a little, and that meant she was happy: she could feel that, without showing it, and no Bad Mommy to yell at her for laughing or smiling when things were so bad, or she had a headache, or she was upset because her Bad Daddy was in jail or got caught or didn't bring something home.

Marnie studied the figure on the paper, remembering the Pretty Lady sitting in the chair, in her bedroom, talking to her in that gentle voice, and how The Bear Killer looked at her with such an absolutely adoring expression.

Shelly rested a hand lightly, gently on Marnie's shoulder:  Marnie jumped and squeaked a little with distress, and Shelly felt her flinch away and start to shiver.

Not for the first time she thought My God, what did those people DO to this poor little girl?

Shelly put her hands carefully, gently, on her little girl's upper arms, feeling her shivering like a scared little rabbit desperately trying to hide:  she leaned down and whispered, "That's gorgeous, Marnie.  Is that your grandmother?"

Marnie was frozen, her voice locked in her throat:  she expected the slap across the side of her head, the paper to be snatched, torn, crumpled, thrown: her pencil fell from clawed fingers and she felt her chest tighten, she waited to be hit, waited for the screaming voice, the blows --

Shelly squatted, alarmed, looked at her ghost-white child's face:  she laid the backs of her bent fingers against Marnie's cheek, then her forehead:  "Marnie, my God, what happened?"

Marnie could not move.

Terror turned her into a passive statue, waiting for the terrible things that always happened when Bad Mommy came up behind her like that.

Shelly wrapped her arms around Marnie, held her, rocking a little:  she pulled the nine year old from her chair, rocked back and sat on the polished, gleaming tile floor, her shivering, terrified, wooden-faced little girl on her lap.

Marnie pulled way deep inside herself, the way she'd learned to do when Bad Mommy did bad things to her:  she sacrificed her Outside Self and hid, deep inside her belly somewhere, arms and legs drawn up, hugging herself desperately, alone in a dark place --

You're not supposed to be here, a voice whispered.

Marnie looked up.

Something light-blue and shiny, something that looked like maybe a fairy floating across a swamp, something pretty and silvery floated toward her.

Deep inside herself, hidden, withdrawn, Marnie lifted her face further from her drawn up knees, blinked.

The silvery bluish floaty-ball came toward her, bobbing a little, and then it grew, flared, became a familiar figure.

"You came!" Marnie exclaimed happily, releasing her death grip around her drawn up legs.

"Yes, sweets, I came," the Pretty Lady smiled, shaking her skirts and kneeling, "and you're hiding!"

Marnie nodded.  "I come here when I'm scared."

"I came here too, sweets," the Pretty Lady whispered.

Marnie blinked, tilted her head curiously.  "How come you look like Gammaw?"

The Pretty Lady laughed, delicately, gently, caressed Marnie's cheek with a gloved hand.

"For the same reason you look very much like her, sweets, and your Daddy looks like Old Pale Eyes, and your little brother will look like a man named Jacob.  By the way" -- she brushed Marnie's bangs back from her forehead, the way her New-Mommy did -- "your little brother will have a red mustache, and he'll curl it up in a handlebar like the firemen in the old portraits."  The Pretty Lady sketched a curled mustache with a quick gesture, and for a moment, a fine, Clan Maxwell red handlebar mustache, thick and rich and villainously curled, appeared on her feminine features, which drew a giggle from the withdrawn little girl.

"That's better," the Pretty Lady whispered.  "By the way, I love what you've drawn.  You've captured my expression perfectly, and" -- she touched the tip of Marnie's little button nose with the tip of a gloved forefinger -- "I could never draw skirts.  I could never get the drape right, and you've done it perfectly!"

Marnie giggled, blinked, and suddenly she was seeing through her eyes again.

She was sitting on her New-Mommy's lap, and her New-Mommy's arms were around her, warm, secure, and there were no firey lines screaming agony across her back or her legs or her belly.

"Nobody beat me?" she asked in a small little voice, and Shelly hugged her tighter and whispered, "No, Princess, nobody's going to beat you."

 

It took some time, some hot chocolate and the Captain handing Shelly a talkie with a quiet, "Go," but Marnie managed regain enough confidence that she followed her Mommy out the door and down the street and into a shop she'd seen but she'd never been in.

Shelly looked over several drawing pads, spoke quietly with the proprietor, showed him Marnie's drawing:  the man raised an eyebrow and asked if he might photocopy this, or -- better yet -- buy it from her:  he ended up putting a copy in a frame, displayed it in his window, the frame and matting carefully selected to allow the artist's signature to be seen along the bottom edge.

Most people in Firelands who viewed it, thought it a delightful pencil rendering of their beloved Sheriff Willamina, in one of the gowns she'd sewed: she looked very much a lady of the 1880s, and the picture looked very directly at the viewer with an expression of absolute dignity.

Two, and only two people, knew this wasn't Sheriff Willamina Keller.

One was the little girl who drew the picture, the little girl who carried the precious package of colored pencils and eggshell finish drawing paper.

The other was a woman nobody could see, a woman with pale eyes and a hand sewn gown from the 1880s, who looked with approval at what a little girl drew from memory, in a happy moment when she sat at the same firehouse table as a Welsh Irishman sat, many years before.

Marnie fairly strutted as she carried the package, clutched tightly to her chest: her Mommy sat her down at a little table in the shop and opened a pencil case, showed her the rainbow of colored pencils, she bade Marnie try each one on the paper and see what the colors actually looked like, and Marnie tilted her head and stuck her tongue out the corner of her mouth and frowned, then she sat up very straight and proceeded to draw flowers of incredible realism, dainty gloved hands, a parasol over a woman's shoulder, and then, quickly, she sketched a woman walking away from the viewer, parasol over her shoulder, holding the hand of a little girl walking beside her, and both flawlessly attired in the fashions of the late 1880s.

Shelly marveled, delighted at what she was seeing:  later that day, when she showed the Sheriff Marnie's work, she tapped the clear-plastic pencil-box and said, "I don't think these are colored pencils."  She smiled at her pale eyed mother in law and said, "When Marnie uses them, these dispense magic!"


 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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360.   DELEGATES, AND AN AMBASSADOR

Sheriff Willamina Keller was just starting to consider coffee when the intercom buzzed.

She pressed the spring loaded toggle.  "Yes, Sharon?"

"A delegation to see you, Sheriff."

"Be right out."

Willamina released the red plastic coated switch, stood:  she stepped into her private latrine, looked at her reflection, nodded with satisfaction: she was presentable, and if there was a delegation, she needed to look presentable.

Officious, stern, affable, all could be added as necessary, but the basic foundation of presentability was where it all started.

She opened her office door, stepped out of her inner sanctum, came into the main lobby and stopped.

Seventy-two eyes looked at her, better than two dozen shining young faces turned toward her, several of them held poster boards with carefully crafted images or words.

"Well!"  Willamina declared, smiling.  "To what do I owe the honor?"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stood, hooked his Stetson from its peg: he settled it on his greying thatch, turned and looked at the clean-scrubbed young faces regarding him with a variety of expressions:  interest, eagerness, disdain, curiosity, boredom: they were, after all, Sarah's schoolchildren, and a child's interest has a short lifespan:  the pale eyed old lawman with the iron grey mustache nodded slowly, then looked at the very proper young schoolmarm with her hair up in a very proper walnut atop her head, her mousy-grey dress severely unadorned, and said, "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled a little as she regarded the posterboard presentations carefully:  she made sure she looked at each one, knowing how important it was to a young heart that they be noticed:  she touched each of them, studied each of them, whispered her thanks to each young artist.

Most of them depicted the young artist's rendering of something large, black and generally smiling, for they all loved The Bear Killer:  the Sheriff visited the schools, and generally The Bear Killer visited with her, and while the Sheriff lectured the class on how fierce and ferocious her great black companion was, The Bear Killer would yawn, roll over and bicycle his black paws in the air, or grin a great doggy grin as an adventurous student slipped around and massaged his thick, curly hair -- which the Sheriff always carefully managed to not (officially) notice -- and while she was declaring that touching a police dog might result in their losing their hand up to the shoulder, The Bear Killer would be on his back, tail thrashing as he got a belly rub from a grinning child.

Now the third grade delegation was presented in her lobby, expressing their condolences on the passing of The Bear Killer, made so recently famous by his daring rescue of an infant from a burning car, as depicted in felt tip marker, complete with yellow triangles for flames, curly blue lines for smoke and word balloons from a smiling circle-in-a-box that said "Help" and word balloons from something black, smiling and four legged that said "I'll save you."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller considered, went down on one knee, frowned.

The Bear Killer lowered his great head and began to snarl, deep in his broad warrior's chest.

The Sheriff raised a fist, shook it, thrust his jaw out aggressively.

The Bear Killer's fur stood up in a ridge down his back and across his shoulders.

"I oughta thump you," the Sheriff snarled.

The Bear Killer's lips peeled back from shining ivory fangs, lips rippling with canine obscenities, and his deep and menacing growl filled the little log fortress.

"I OUGHTA THUMP YOU WITH A WAR CLUB!" the Sheriff nearly shouted, and The Bear Killer roared a challenge, charged.

 

Sheriff Willamina folded her hands in front of her and nodded.

"Thank you all for your kindness," she said, her voice gentle; she pitched her voice to carry to the rearmost row of her young humanity -- pitched her voice to be heard, but heard gently:  she well knew that a raised voice can be a menacing voice, and she managed to be heard without sounding stern.

"The Bear Killer was a fine fellow, but he was an old dog.  The old dogs pass away" -- she looked up -- "and the young follow where their elders have led."

The third grade class shifted, looked around, parted:  something black, furry and rather smaller than any of them remembered, came trotting happily toward the Sheriff.

Willamina went down on one knee, removed her readers, folded them and slipped them into an inside pocket:  she frowned a little at the curly-black pup.

She raised a fist.

The young Bear Killer stopped.

"I oughta thump you," she said, the warning plain in her voice, and this juvenile Bear Killer cocked its head sideways, then snarled, its young voice almost comical.

"I oughta put knots on your head," the Sheriff snarled, managing an exaggerated-angry face, and The Bear Killer's fur stood up down his spine and across his shoulders, his comical, juvenile growl increasing to fill the sudden, shocked silence.

 

Linn squatted just a little, balancing on the balls of his feet, fists raised:  "I OUGHTA KNOCK YOU INTO THE MIDDLE OF NEXT WEEK!"

The huge mountain Mastiff launched himself --

Children gasped, a few closed their eyes, turned their heads, others stared, unable to look away, sure and certain there would be war and mayhem --

Squinted eyes unscrewed enough to take a cautious peek --

The Bear Killer's paws were on the Sheriff's shoulders as he stood to full height, the pink tongue industriously laundering the pale eyed lawman's face, as strong, lean fingers massaged into his fur and the chief law enforcement officer of the county did something he seldom did in public.

He laughed, the good and relaxed laugh of a man who delighted in a shared moment with an old and dear friend.

 

Willamina cocked a fist.  "I OUGHTA KNOCK YOU INTO THE MIDDLE OF NEXT WEEK!"

The Bear Killer's snarl raised just shy of an octave and the diminutive Mountain Mastiff pup launched itself on an attack run, streaking across the polished quartz floor like a four-wheel-drive torpedo, and his launch and her catch were in the same moment:  Willamina stood, laughing, with a double armful of happy, wiggling, face-washing dog-to-be, and her laughter filled the Sheriff's office as the children, unable to contain themselves any longer, broke ranks and crowded close-in around her.

 

Then and now, it would not the first time The Bear Killer rejoiced in the attention of the young of the community, whether individually or severally, and it would not be the last; The Bear Killer was part of the Sheriff's Office, and the schoolchildren delighted in the Laying On of Hands of this living legend.

Great or small, The Bear Killer was at once part of the Sheriff's office, but he was also One of Them, and Willamina looked up as a familiar figure grimaced:  Linn carefully hauled open the heavy glass doors, arms loaded with flat cardboard boxes, his face betraying the unkind names that bruised and healing ribs were calling him.

Pained or not, his grin and the delight in his voice were unmistakable.

"I heard you were entertaining a delegation of dignitaries," he called over the happy hubbub, "so I brought doughnuts."

 

 

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361. A PRINCIPAL MATTER

 

Willamina first met Principal Thomas Landers when she was campaigning for re-election.

She'd nearly been killed when her Jeep was booby-trapped; the explosion blew two granules of safety glass into her eye socket, and when she stepped out on the local high school stage to address the crowd, she was -- by all appearances -- a trim, athletic-looking woman in her trademark, tailored blue suit dress and heels, and wearing a pair of fashionable, slightly oversized, sunglasses.

She'd crossed the stage as a Lady ought -- on the arm of a gentleman -- the man was the high school's principal, Tom Landers, a descendant of the original Sheriff Landers of Firelands County, who'd hired Willamina's seminal ancestor, Old Pale Eyes himself.

Principal Landers escorted her to the podium, murmured a few instructions:  she released his arm, caressed the podium with delicate fingers, smiled a little and addressed the crowd in a firm and confident voice.

Principal Landers retired to the edge of the stage:  he stood behind a fold of the withdrawn curtain, watching with admiration as this woman removed her sunglasses to reveal a bruised face with a few healing cuts, not softened at all with makeup -- no, she wanted to show the voters that she'd been hurt, but she'd been hurt doing what was right -- and then she'd teased the flesh-toned, self-adhesive eye patches off her eyes.

She'd blinked painfully as the stage lights seared into her retinas, and with tears running down both cheeks from this new pain, she'd declared, "I, AM THE SHERIFF, AND I AM GOING TO STAY!"

She'd been reelected by a more than substantial majority.

Time passed.

Principal Landers became Superintendent Landers; he saw Willamina's career continue, her reputation increase; he saw her young matriculate through the school system, his was the voice that fired the teacher who lay violent hands on the Sheriff's son, his was the voice that called the Sheriff to tell her of a playground accident, that her daughter's arm was broken, she was here in his office, splinted and the squad enroute; his was the hand that gave each of her young their diploma at graduation, and now, as a ready to retire Superintendent, he smiled as he saw another pale eyed child running across the playground, laughing.

Landers would not have had to ask anyone to know this child, all pigtails and smile and red cowboy boots, was the get of the pale eyed Sheriff:  this happy little girl with her quick laugh and apple cheeks, this fast moving expression of childhood delight with pale eyes and the expression of utter, youthful joy, was how he imagined his pale eyed Sheriff as looking, when she was a little girl.

Marnie ran across the playground, her laughter trailing behind her, when a boy from one grade up, reached out and seized her braids.

Grabbed them both and pulled back, hard.

Marnie's running legs ran ahead, her laugh turned into a squeak as her head stopped, she ended up landing flat on her back, the little boy raising a fist to drive down onto her exposed belly.

Superintendent Landers tasted copper and he willed himself to drive forward, to sprint over to the pair, to seize the attacker --

 

Marnie saw the Pretty Lady, looking beautiful, and wise, and The Pretty Lady tilted her head a little and said, "You have a choice, Marnie."

The inner-Marnie whimpered and tried to ball up, to make herself as small as possible, the way she used to when terrible things happened to her, and The Pretty Lady whispered, "You can choose to curl up and take it, or you can stop it."

The inner-Marnie stopped, surprised, and then realized that, yes, there is a choice.

The inner-Marnie, curled up in a fetal position, felt her face tighten, felt the corners of her eyes narrow just a little, and then she dug her shoulder deeper into the playground dirt, twisted just a little and drove both her red cowboy boots into her attacker's thigh in a single, explosive thrust, driving all the power in her young legs through the focus of the stacked leather heels.

 

Principal Landers saw the pale-eyed little girl in the denim skirt outfit uncoil.

Her attacker, his fist descending, hard, suddenly went horizontal, hit the ground beside his victim.

Something white-faced, wearing a denim skirt and vest, swarmed atop the startled attacker, reached down, yanked:  there was a yell, almost a scream, then the sound of an enraged mountain cat as Marnie jumped up and drove her weight down, onto his back, jumped again, but this time instead of driving her weight into his back through her polished black boot heels, she jumped to the side, backed up, hands up and open, eyes wide, wide but cold, pale, not entirely sure what to do, but knowing she was NOT going to be a VICTIM!

The playground monitor, shocked, fumbled the chrome athletic whistle to her lips, whistled the playground to a standstill:  the hard hand of doom closed on the nape of the attacking boy's neck, and Superintendent Landers hauled the supine attacker to his feet.

Landers looked at Marnie, who was pale, nervous, shivering, but standing.

She's not running away, he thought approvingly. 

"Young lady, with me, if you please," he said, but his voice was gentle, and Marnie swallowed, lowered her hands and said meekly, "Yes, sir," and the three of them went into the schoolhouse.

 

Willamina blinked as she lowered her phone.

She wasn't quite sure what happened, but she knew there were cameras on the playground, and with multiple views, she should be able to tell what really happened.

She walked out into the lobby:  "Sharon, I have to go pick up Marnie," and there was something in her voice that led the dispatcher to ask, "Sheriff, can I loan you a tire tool?" and Willamina's smile was thin as she thanked her old friend and said "I have the jaw bone of a jack mule under my seat."

 

Superintendent Landers wiped the blood off the boy's face.

There were parallel rows of bright-red clawmarks on both his cheeks.

It seems that the young Miss Marnie clawed her attacker's face while she had him down; the injuries were painful, they'd bled, but not much, and the Superintendent was less than sympathetic as he ran the cold washcloth carefully across the wounds.

"Young man," he said, "normally I would bend you over the desk and take the board to your backside, but I think you've learned a lesson.  In my district, you do not ever lay hands on another student."  He dropped the washcloth on the desktop and looked very directly at the very subdued student.  "We especially do not, ever, EVER, lay hands on a girl.  Do you understand?"

The boy ran his bottom lip out, nodded.

 

Linn and Willamina watched the video several times, then ran it in slow motion, zoomed in.

"There," Willamina said, freezing the image.  "Enhance."

The image cleared; Willamina nodded, took a screen-cap.

"He was going to gut punch her," Linn said slowly, and mother and son looked at one another, their eyes a similar shade of rip-someone's-throat-out pale 

"Yank a girl to the deck and then beat her? Children don't invent something like that. He's imitating."

"Yes, but imitating who?"

Linn stared at the image.

"His father is going to raise hell.  I need to show him what his boy did."

 

Later that night, Marnie sat on her Daddy's lap, her head against his chest, as Linn rocked a little, his arms around his little girl.

"Marnie," he said gently, "you did nothing wrong."

He felt her nod, just a little.

"Matter of fact you did several things right."

He felt her head turn a little this time -- as if surprised -- as if to bring a good ear to bear, and he smiled as the phrase whispered through his mind.

"You stopped the attack and you got distance," he said.  "That is exactly the right thing to do."

He felt her nod again.

"You are not in trouble, Marnie. I am proud of you. You did the right thing."

"Will it happen again tomorrow?" his little girl asked in a small voice.

"No.  No, Marnie, he's been suspended for three days.  He won't be at school the rest of the week."

Marnie nodded again.

"Next week, when he's back, he'll be watched."  Her Daddy's voice was rich, warm, comforting.  "If he gives you any trouble at all, he'll be nailed."

Marnie nodded again.

Linn leaned his head back against the back of the high back rocking chair, closed his eyes.

The Bear Killer regarded them both with button-bright eyes, yawned, lowered his head to his forepaws.

Shelly came in several minutes later and smiled, just a little.

She picked up a blanket from the couch, shook it out, draped it carefully over daddy and daughter.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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362. SECRETS I'LL CARRY TO MY GRAVE

 

Dr. John Greenlees, Jr, tied the final knot, finishing his neat row of sutures on the unconscious child's belly.

As far advanced as their science, as grand and comprehensive as their medicine, when a child doubled over with pain and was carried into the Mars colony's Sickbay in a worried father's arms, Dr. John Greenlees did what surgeons have done for centuries before.

He prepared a sharpened blade, and he cut out the inflamed appendix.

The suture material came to just the right tightness, the knot was good, shining stainless steel scissors snipped the black cord, and the physician straightened, smiled behind his green cloth surgical mask.

There was a light click, then a voice, foreign to the cramped but adequate confines of Sickbay's operating niche.

"Dr. Greenlees. A word, sir."

"I'm just finishing up."

"Sir," the voice persisted.  "Now."

"Bandage and monitor, standard post-op protocol," Dr. Greenlees murmured to his surgical nurse, who nodded:  Dr. John, as he was generally called, stepped on the sensor plate just in front of the door, waited until it hissed open, stripped out of gloves, gown, mask and cap, and glared at the second-in-command.

"Sir, it's your wife."

Dr. Greenlees froze and something cold trickled down the middle of his spine.

"What about the Sheriff?" he asked, his throat suddenly tight.

"Her ship went runaway."

 

Marnie sat very still, very silent, watching Gracie's fingers crawl almost obscenely over the compact control panels.

They were supposed to make a half-lightspeed run to Earth, but the reactors wouldn't stop winding up -- chemical rockets were long in their past, the Sheriff knew they were using something close to antimatter but she didn't know exactly what it was, and when she and the best pilot on the second Martian colony climbed aboard, Sheriff Marnie Keller had every reason to believe it was a routine run, that the machinery would operate as specified.

No one planned on a runaway.

When it hit, it hit fast and their speed spiked, but the effect was not simply acceleration.

The effect was to end up screaming for Earth at an unholy velocity, after having shifted backwards in time.

Gracie navigated: after the reactors blasted a hole in the space-time continuum, after they were squirted backwards in time, she did not trust the rest of the system, and flew the ship manually, for the short distance remaining.

She flipped them end-for-end and gave several full power blasts, shedding speed, falling deeper into the Sol orbital, until they curved over the rim of Earth's near-field gravity well.

"We're in atmosphere," Gracie muttered.

Marnie made no reply.

 

Several sets of eyes saw the meteor burning through the atmosphere -- a meteor of an unusual sort, something with a diamond-white nose, something that roared a continuous blast of monster's voice, something that fell behind the great granite mountains, something that came to earth on legs that unfolded, flexed a little as the ship touched down beneath the highest peaks.

 

"Think anyone saw us?"

Gracie stared at her instruments, shivering as she did.

"Probably."

"Where are we?"

"I aimed for home."

"Home?"
Gracie nodded, flipped a switch, a viewscreen brightened, showed the view outside their cooling hull.

"There."  She nodded toward the overhanging peak.  "Daine Mountain."

"Dear God," Marnie whispered, releasing her harness and standing.  "How in two little red hells did you manage that?"

"Aim small, miss small," Gracie muttered.  She shot a sideways look at the Sheriff.  "That's what your Gammaw taught me."

"God bless Gammaw Willamina," Gracie whispered.

"Something's wrong."

Marnie sank back into her acceleration couch.

"Don't tell me that," she whispered.

"Oh yeah," Gracie said, her voice tight.  "I can tell you exactly where we are."

She touched a control; the view fell away, like zooming out on a map.  "Look there."

Marnie's jaw hung and her eyes widened.

"Zoom in on that."

Gracie touched a control.

The image of a shining, green-red-and-black steam locomotive filled the viewscreen.

Gracie tweaked a control, brought the side of the cab into close view, sharp focus.

A spray of roses, hand painted on the emerald cab under the engineer's window, and beneath, in gilt, shadow-enhanced letters, three words.

Marnie bit her knuckle, unsure whether to whoop with delight or curl up and groan in despair.

"The Lady Esther," she whispered.

"Yeah, and that's not Bill in the window."

Gracie zoomed out, shifted the view:  she found the main street and Marnie felt like she'd been punched in the gut.

Gracie zoomed in again, and Marnie's lips traced the name on the front of a building.

"The Silver Jewel," she whispered, and Gracie drew the image back again.

"How ...?"  Marnie felt a dread, as if she'd just been condemned to a life sentence on a bare rock in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

She was looking at Firelands, Colorado, her home, the place where she grew up, only this Firelands had a dirt street and horses, wagons, women in long dresses.

Marnie dropped her head back, stared blankly at the overhead, for one of the very few times in her young life feeling utterly, absolutely, incredibly, unrecoverably, lost.

There was an alarm tone, then a buzzer -- Gracie ran her fingers over a screen, another --

Something hard hit the hull of the ship, three times.

Gracie found the source, the screen shifted.

A pale eyed woman, all in black, held a square, stubby, bulldog .44 reversed in her hand, and was hammering on the exit port with its corner -- bang, bang, bang.

Marnie stood.

"Open 'er up," she said.  "I know her."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna backed her Snowflake-horse as the curved, square hatch popped out an inch, gave a sigh, then one end tilted down, metallic stairs unfolding as it did.

Something with two legs began to descend the stairs.

The bulldog .44 disappeared into a pocket, Sarah leaned back, shucked her .40-60, laid her thumb on the hammer spur.

Whatever was coming down those perforated tin stairs was smooth, shiny, white, and most definitely -- almost obscenely -- female.

The head was round, the face featureless, and like Sarah, it had what must have been a rifle in its white-gloved hands ... that is, if those were gloves, for they ran clear up the arm and merged seamlessly with the rest of the skin tight suit.

Sarah frowned a little, turned her head slightly.

A six point star was embossed over the swell of the left breast, a star with which Sarah Lynne McKenna was more than intimately familiar.

The figure released its grip on the white rifle's fore end and raised, pressed something on the side of its face, and the enclosing white head envelope disappeared.

Sarah stared, blinking, and Sheriff Marnie Keller stared right back.

"I know you," she said.  

 

Dr. John Greenlees leaned heavily on the edge of the director's desk.

"Uncontrolled, you say."

"Telemetry showed a runaway reaction and then they disappeared. Trajectory was for Earth and one-half lightspeed."

"A runaway can exceed lightspeed by an ungodly multiple," Dr. Greenlees groaned, his head hanging.  "Can we project a possible course?"

"Through the heart of the Sun," the director said bluntly, "and then on into space."

Dr. John Greenlees sank into a chair, feeling like he'd just lost every last hope of surviving the next few minutes, let alone the rest of his life.

He lowered his face into his hands and only vaguely felt warm and sympathetic hands rest on his shoulders.

 

Marnie smiled with delight.  "Snowflake!" she exclaimed, slinging the rifle across her back and jumping down the last few steps.

This was a mistake.

Mars gravity is considerably less than Earth gravity, and despite her regular sessions in the centrifuge, where she made every effort to keep herself in shape, Earth seized her and yanked her hard down against its grassy bosom.

"Ow," Marnie groaned.

Sarah threw a leg up, slid out of the saddle, fell to the ground, landing easily on the balls of her feet:  she looked with concern at the woman in obscene white and said, "How can I help?"

"An antigrav would help," Marnie muttered, pushing herself up to hands and knees:  she raised her head, looked at Sarah.

"Dear God," she whispered, "it is you!"

"You believe in God."

"I went to church in Firelands as a little girl."

Sarah's left eyebrow raised skeptically.

"Look.  Help me up."
Sarah took the rubbery-slick hand, gripped under a rubbery-slick arm: the woman stood, breathing heavily.  "At least we keep out atmosphere to Colorado standard."

"I don't understand."

"Look."  Marnie gripped Sarah's hands, looked her very directly in the eye.  "My name is Marnie Keller. My Mama is Sheriff here. Old Pale Eyes" -- she hesitated as she saw the recognition in Sarah's face -- "the man with the iron grey mustache. Jacob his son, Esther his wife, I can tell you how he acquired the Silver Jewel from Dirty Sam, this place is legend back on Mars, but if I tell you about the future, I'll change it and that will kill an awful lot of people."

Sarah blinked, frowned, then nodded.

"Marnie!"  Gracie yelled.  "Get in here, we have to go, now!"

"Gotta go," Marnie whispered, squeezed Sarah's hands:  Sarah squeezed back, nodded, released.

Marnie labored up the steps, stopped, looked back.

"The Stallion Wing is elite," she said, "and your Snowflake is their insignia" -- and then she disappeared into whatever this oblong, shining metal thing was:  there was a barely audible hum and Sarah felt like ten thousand ants were crawling under her skin, so she backed up a few feet until she didn't feel it, and watched as the oblong rose, hesitated, then fell away, straight up, streaking into the cloudless heavens, disappeared.

Sarah Lynne McKenna slid her Winchester back into the carved leather scabbard.

Snowflake was completely unfazed by the whole thing, for which Sarah was grateful: had her Frisian bolted, the long legged mare would have been halfway to the Big Salt Water before she could catch her.

Sarah turned, started to ride away, looked back.

"The Stallion Wing," she said slowly.  "Now what in the hell is a Stallion Wing?  Flying horses?"

 

"Belt in," Gracie said. "We can just make it."

Marnie had no idea what she meant, but when she said to belt in and that they could make it, that was good enough, and she felt herself pushed deep into the padded couch again.

Gracie's face was grim as she addressed her controls, and Marnie felt that clutch of fear again as Gracie exclaimed, "Runaway!"

 

Dr. John Greenlees was looking up through a transparent panel, staring at the cold, uncaring stars overhead, when a silver, oval disk opened, for all the world like a great eye opening, and something silver shot through it, wrong-end-to, and Dr. John saw the flare of the reactor's engine on full wartime emergency acceleration -- or in this case, deceleration.

The Director seized his arm and hauled him along to the landing pad, they rode side by side in the open car, silent on smooth plastic rails a hundred feet underground, until they came to the elevator.

The lights counted down, blast-plastic doors slid open, and something white with an embossed six point star over her left breast squirted out of the elevator, bearing directly at him at a full-on sprint.

Dr. Greenlees seized his wife, spun her around, lost his balance: the two hit the floor, rolled, stopped, all arms and tangled legs.

Marnie reached up and touched the side of the face plate, and her skin-helmet disappeared:  she planted her lips on his, squeezing him hard, hard in the desperate embrace of someone who was convinced she would not ever see home again.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna considered the day's goings-on.

She remembered seeing the oblong silver disk fall straight toward the mountains, hesitate, wobble a little, then come down not far from her:  she remembered riding up on it, seeing what looked like a door, and hammering on it with the butt of her Bulldog revolver.

Sarah remembered the woman in white, and her strange words, but she remembered especially her warning, and so that night, when Sarah Lynne McKenna sat at her desk, sat very properly, her back straight, feet flat on the floor, the end of her steel dip quill gleaming with freshly dipped India ink, she carefully inscribed the date, hesitated, dipped her pen, wiped the excess and then wrote:

"Rode the mountains today."

Sarah Lynne McKenna carefully wiped her pen's nib, put it away, stoppered her ink-bottle and rocked a blotting-paper over the gleaming words she'd just written.

She looked up, remembering the pale eyed woman with the six point star embossed over her breast.

If I tell you about the future, I'll change it, and that will kill an awful lot of people.

"Stranger," Sarah whispered aloud, "I carry secrets I'll take to my grave. Yours is just one of many."

 

 

 

 

 

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363.  A SACK FULL OF POLITICIANS

 

The local VFW was a haven and a meeting-place, it smelled of tobacco smoke and beer and Old Spice, and today it smelled of Hoppe's 9 Plus and GI bore cleaner.

A sheet of plywood was laid over the pool table, and an old bedsheet, stained and blotched with gun oil, dissolved fouling and rings where wet mugs were set carelessly beside half disassembled rifles: Willamina frowned through her half-glasses as she carefully toothbrushed the disassembled bolt face, then the extractor, then the firing pin: she and she alone dared to detail strip the Garands, and she was good enough to make it look easy: the men were more than content to let her handle this detail -- their old gunsmith died two months before, and until Willamina came in, unlocked the gun case, yanked out a pair of M1s and started to strip them down, why, no one else was willing to disassemble what they were afraid they wouldn't be able to put back together.

She worked steadily, methodically, one rifle at a time; her moves were sure, her mechanical dance with parts and brushes were the precise manipulations of someone more than intimately familiar with her task.

His Honor the Judge Donald Hostetler walked slowly across the floor, two mugs of steaming coffee in hand:  he set one down a little forward of the Sheriff's occupied area, he leaned back and parked his bony backside on a well padded, high legged stool.

"I tried that once," he admitted.  "Took me a week and a half to get it back together."

Willamina looked up, smiled, dipped the toothbrush in Hoppe's, brushed delicately at the long recess in the side of the bolt.

"You know," the Judge mused, "when I was in college, if a girl used Hoppe's behind her ears, I'd have been on my knees offering her a ring."

Willamina laughed quietly, wiped the bolt with a stained but clean rag, began reassembling the parts.

"You," she said, "are not the first man to tell me this."

The Judge was silent for several long moments.

"You're troubled."

It was a statement, not a question.

The Judge grunted in reply, frowned, took a noisy slurp of his coffee.

"Yes, Sheriff, I am."

"Speak."

"Woof."

Willamina looked sideways at the Judge and he saw amusement in her pale eyes.

"Sheriff, you'll recall my father was in the Second Disagreement."

"I remember when we buried him."

"I remember you ran the firing squad."

"I remember the fired round stuck in the chamber and that's when we went from the Krags to M1s."

The Judge nodded slowly, frowned.  "Did they ever fix that rifle?"

"I did."

His Honor raised an eyebrow.

"I gave it a good long soak in a half and half of automatic transmission fluid and kerosene, I let it bake in the sun to get it warm clear through, and it came right out."

The Judge frowned, nodded.

"I offered to buy it, but they wouldn't sell, so I tore it down and gave it a good detail cleaning.  Like this old war horse here."  She tapped the Garand's stock with a bent forefinger.  "This is the last one, I'll have it back together and in the rack in ten minutes."

"Ten minutes?"

"Unless I'm interrupted."

"We must have a funeral coming up."

"Mm-hmm."  Willamina turned the barreled action, slid in the reassembled bolt, turned it over, picked up the operating rod.

"You said something was troubling you."

"I didn't say anything of the kind," the Judge snapped.  "You're the one who saw it, you pale eyed mountain witch!"

"Careful, Judge," Willamina warned quietly, a smile hiding behind her words.  "Do not credit me with more than my due.  Remember, I'm psychotic, not psychic."

The Judge grunted, reached into an inner pocket.  "Mind if I smoke?"

"Smolder and burn for all I care," Willamina muttered, drawing back on the charging handle, slowly: she eased it forward, pulled it briskly back, pulled again.

"There."

She held the charging handle, ran her thumb into the action, eased the rod forward:  the bolt slid ahead, rotated, locked, and she pulled the trigger.

The hammer's fall was a sharp, metallic punctuation in the momentary lull in conversation.

"There."  Willamina straightened.  "Done."
She rose, picked up this last freshly cleaned rifle, walked over to the rack, settled it in place.

"Now."  She turned, looked at the Judge.  "Let me wash my hands and you can tell me about your father."

 

Donald Hostetler Senior -- that is, Captain Donald Hostetler -- growled, looked at his co-pilot, jerked his head.

His second in command did not have to be told a second time.

Everyone else was out; their crippled bird was descending, two engines on fire, she barely held trim: the bomb bay doors were open and the co-pilot paused, then dropped out the open bomb bay.

Hoss, as he was called, looked around one last time, then stood, stepped through the doorway, dropped out the bomb bay and fell away from his smoking, burning aluminum bird.

He fell -- fell far enough, he judged, pulled the rip cord -- the chute snapped open above him, and he was momentarily grateful to the Englishman who rode a bicycle to their air base every day, the Englishman who had ingredients in the basket on the front of his bike, the Englishman who packed their chutes:  every so often he'd go out to his bike, he'd mix himself a stout one, drink it down, and thus fortified, would return to his work.

He may pack chutes in a happy state of inebriation, but he never packed a bad chute; Hoss trusted the man, and his wing never knew a failed chute.

He landed badly.

His knee detonated in an absolute sunball of pain:  he ran this thumbs through the rings, pulled, the harness fell away and he gritted his teeth against the vision-hazing agony of his leg.

 

"It was early enough in the War," the Judge said quietly, as he sat across the little table from the Sheriff, as they leaned over plates of steaming-hot fries and hamburgers piled high with layers of meat and cheese and delightfully crispy bacon, "that pilots were still Officers and Gentlemen.

"My father was incarcerated with German officers in an underground bunker.

"He was tended by an excellent physician -- the man was trained in the US, he spoke excellent English, and he was fascinated by American profanity."  

The Judge chuckled.

"When my father was brought to him, the good doctor found an absolute well of verbal foulness, for my father could cuss for an hour at a time and never repeat himself."

Willamina laughed.  "That sounds like someone Fitz was telling me about."

"Fitz?"

"Chuck Fitzgerald.  The fire chief."

"Ah."

"He has a fireman -- Berkowitz -- Berkie is a damned good man, he drives very well, he's an aggressive, get-in-close firefighter, and the moment his butt hits the seat he starts to cuss, everyone and everything."

The Judge laughed quietly, raked his fries through a broad dollop of ketchup.  "Sounds familiar!"

"Your father," Willamina prompted.

"Oh, yes. My father's leg healed, but it healed stiff -- like Festus -- and the doctor said "Ve vill fix dot leg," and my father laughed and called him something that can't be repeated in polite company."

"Mm."  Willamina took a bite of her sandwich, delighting in feeling her incisors shear through the bacon layer.

"They were going to breakfast one morning. They came to the stairs and the doctor hung back half a step, then he smacked my father between the shoulder blades.

"He went down the stairs, hip pockets over tincup, halfway down there was a SN-NAP! and my father rolled to the bottom, he came up with his fists cocked and yelled "DAMN YOU HEINIE SON OF A DUCK HERDER, I'M GONNA KICK YOUR BACKSIDE!" or words to that effect, and the Doctor said "Ya, first bending mit der leg."

"My father bent his leg and realized that his knee was working.

"Well I'll be God-damned," he laughed.  "C'mon, let's get breakfast!"

Willamina nodded, chuckling, looked at the Judge warmly, the way an old friend will.

"I wish I'd known him," she admitted.

"You would've liked him," the Judge nodded.  "He would've appreciated how you ran his funeral detail."

"He deserved it.  I never knew him, but he deserved it."

"You'll be running this next funeral?"

Willamina nodded, took another bite of her burger.

"Did you find a second bugler?"

She nodded again, swallowed, took a noisy slurp of coffee, sloshed it around a moment, swallowed again.

"Yes I did.  We'll have the bugler and the echo both, no worries."

"Thank you."

Willamina tilted her head a little.

"You tell good war stories."

The Judge laughed.  "You should have heard my father.  He was windy as a sack full of politicians."

"Sheriff?"

Willamina looked up.

The man behind the bar held up a telephone receiver.  "It's the Corning post. They're asking availability of a bugler."

"How soon do they need?"

The barkeep brought the receiver back to his ear, spoke quietly, frowned:  he lowered the phone.

"Tomorrow."

"Morning or afternoon?"

Another consult, then:  "Tomorrow noon."

"Take a number, I will call them back in six minutes."  Willamina stood up.  "Sorry, Your Honor, I have to make a couple calls."

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364. HEAVENLY STEEL

Marnie was a curious child.

Marnie was an adventurous child.

Marnie reminded Willamina most powerfully of her own young, at her age, and of previous generations of pale eyed children, of whom she'd read in the several volumes on her shelves.

It did not surprise her to find a pair of red cowboy boots sticking out from under her roll top desk, nor to hear a vague scratching sound, a click, a childish exclamation of discovery -- followed by a sound of dismay, an "Ouch," and the metallic sound of something steel hitting the floor.

Willamina went down on one knee.

"Marnie, what happened?"

Marnie wallowed out from under her Gammaw's rolltop, clutching her wrist: bright red blood ran across her palm, dripped to the floor, and Marnie said "I messed up, Gammaw!"

Maybe fifteen minutes later -- after a wash-off, after some stinging antibiotic, after her Gammaw pulled the edges together, applied a quick layer of something clear that burned like fire and then drew up and puckered, but held the edges and sealed the wound -- after Marnie wet a paper towel and cleaned up her blood, only then did they explore the source of this distressing moment.

Willamina bent over, looked, raised her eyebrows.

Marnie bent over, looked, then looked at her Gammaw.

Willamina nodded and Marnie, on hands and knees, went under the rolltop, carefully took the knife by its checkered maple handle, brought it out,  sat down and crossed her legs Indian style.

She stared at the blade, turning it slowly, entranced.

"Gammaw," she said slowly, "what kind of knife is this?"
Willamina drew out her office chair, sat, leaned forward, elbows on her knees.

"I think I know," she said slowly.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna looked up, shaded her eyes.

Something was streaking through the blue sky -- but this something left a trail, this something was coming much faster, this something was bright --

She turned her face as a thunderclap slapped her, hard, as Snowflake threw her head, turned sideways:  Sarah kneed her viciously, turning her back around, her mouth opening as dust and rocks blew up as from an explosion.

Sarah's eyes were hard, cold, as she remembered the familiar looking woman in the white rubber suit, the shining steel obloid that came from the heavens, but came down under control, silently, not in a streak of smoky flame and an explosion.

Unless something went very wrong.

Sarah kneed Snowflake forward.

 

Willamina ran her fingers across the rows of books:  she frowned, went down to the second shelf, the one under the several Journals.

"Now I read," she muttered, "something ... about ... this ..."

Her finger traced along the books' spines, stopped almost on its own.

She plucked the book from the shelf, opened the cover, paged slowly through the contents, ran her finger down several lines of print --

"Oh, yes," she murmured, and Marnie looked expectantly at her Gammaw as the pale eyed woman sat again, as she reached up and turned on the green-glass-shaded banker's lamp, as she paged eagerly through the book.

"Marnie, look at this," Willamina murmured.  "Here, put the knife here where we can see it."

 

The crater was hazed with dust, with a little smoke.

It looked like it was hit by a giant shotgun.

Sarah sat, studying the freshly blasted, nearly-circular scar with narrowed eyes.

It wasn't them, she thought, and that's a good thing, but what was it? 

 

Sheriff Linn Keller looked up as the heavy door swung open, as sunlight flooded the interior of his Sheriff's office, as Sarah came in with a gunny sack and a serious expression.

Linn laid down his pen, scooted back from his desk, rose, automatically reaching for his Stetson.

"Is that a head you're bringing me?" he asked, only half joking, and Sarah did not smile in the least little bit as she said "Not this time."

Linn raised one eyebrow, but offered no further comment.

Sarah dropped the burlap sack, dropped into a chair, looked at her pale eyed Papa with rather a speculative expression.

"Papa," she said, "I just saw something I can't explain."

Linn leaned back against his desk, raised one hip, rested half his backside on the heavy pine top.

"Something just came burning down out of the sky. There was an explosion -- we turned away, Snowflake and I both -- when we looked back, it ... there was a ..."

Her hands spread, thumb-and-forefingers wide, as if encompassing a circle.

"Papa, it looked like someone took a shotgun the size of a Dahlgren gun and blew a hole in the dirt!"

Linn turned his head just a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear, his expression one of immediate interest.

"I brought some rocks from it, Papa, but they were too hot to handle.  I'm afraid I ruined my gloves but I got some of them."

Linn frowned as Sarah folded the sack down, gripped one of the rocks tentatively, plucked it out, tossed it to him.

It was still warm, but only just, as if it had been left out in the sun.

"Tap that with your knife."

Linn frowned, turned the rock over.

"It looks like slag."

"Doesn't it, though!"

"I wonder ..." he murmured.

Sarah watched as the Sheriff stood, opened his desk drawer, brought out a compass, brought it near the rock, orbited the melted, cratered surface with the shining brass instrument.

He placed the rock on his desk, came over, tried the same with each of them, and finally laid his hand gently on his pale eyed daughter's gloved hand.

"Sarah," he said gently, "when God made this earth, He had parts left over and they sometimes find their way here.  Rocks, generally, and when they hit the ground they're on fire. I don't know if they get hotter the higher they get off the ground or what, but they're burnin' up as they fall."

He picked up two of them, tapped them together.

"If you were to take these to Black Smith, he could likely forge you a fine knife. These are often of a high grade of iron."

 

"Here it is," Willamina murmured, and Marnie felt a thrill of happiness to see that quiet smile hiding in the corners of her Gammaw's eyes, the slight up-tug at the corners of her mouth.  "Sarah Lynne McKenna.  You remember her."

Marnie nodded.  "She's very pretty."

"Yes she is," Willamina agreed.  "She ... Marnie, you know what meteorites are."

Marnie nodded.  "Asteroids that hit the ground."

"Correct."  Willamina nodded, bringing another delighted thrill to her granddaughter.  "Meteors that hit the ground are often of iron. Sarah was riding in the mountains just as a meteor strike blasted a crater very close to where she rode."

Marnie blinked, her expression serious.

"She took the fragments to a blacksmith in Denver, a fellow named Black Smith."  Willamina hesitated, decided against explaining Black Smith's personal history.  "He refined them into steel and forged her a set of knives, and she gave one to the Sheriff."

Marnie stood, stared at the knife placed crossways, above the book.

"How come it's striped, Gammaw?"

"That's called Damascus," Willamina explained.  "It's made by folding the red hot metal and hammering it out, then folding it again and hammering it out."

"Oh."  Marnie tilted her head a little, blinked.  

"It's very pretty," she said wistfully.

Willamina took Marnie's hand, turned it over, traced her finger the length of Marnie's sealed wound.

"It's also very sharp."

Marnie nodded.

"I think Old Pale Eyes would want you to have this one."

Marnie's eyes widened, her face lit up, and Willamina laughed as she felt her granddaughter's absolute delight.

"Come with me.  I know someone who can make you a sheath."

 

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365. PINNNGGGGG!

Paul Barrents looked through the glass doors, frowned.

Something small, black and mostly round -- something furry and urgent -- was trying to dig through the heavy glass outer door.

Paul pushed open the inner door, then the outer, and the little black fellow fell back, rolled over, scrambled to his feet and streaked inside, ran into the inner door, yelped.

"Easy, now," Paul said, letting the front door shut on its own and reached for the inner door.

The small, round, black, fast moving creature absolutely streaked across the polished quartz floor, made a beeline for the closed door in back, the door marked SHERIFF, and began digging desperately at the closed portal.

 

"Marnie," Linn said gently, squatting and running his arm around his little girl's waist, "you see that horse in there?"
Marnie nodded solemnly, looked at the horse pacing in restless circles in the corral, looked at her Daddy curiously.

"That's a mean horse," Linn said.  "Don't even think about trying to ride it.  I'm going to have my work cut out for me trying to gentle it down."

Marnie blinked, considered the ear-tips she could just see over the top board of the whitewashed top plank.

"I've got to get ready for work, darlin'," he said, hugging her gently. 

"Okay, Daddy."

Linn laughed quietly as his little girl hugged him back.

He drew back a little and looked at her and said, softly, not quite whispering, "Darlin', you make livin' worthwhile!"

Marnie smiled -- that quick, bright, spontaneous expression of delight of a truly happy child, and Linn hugged her again, wishing somehow the moment would never end.

 

Willamina's head came up with a snap, something cold searing through her veins, the taste of copper on her tongue.

She was out of her chair and around the desk before the dropped ballpoint hit the green desk blotter.

She seized the door, yanked it open, looked down.

Her eyes became very pale.

 

Linn kissed his wife, laid his finger in their little baby boy's grip, marveled at the child's toothless, delighted grin, at the closing of that little, perfect, pink, flawless hand around his own callused, scar-crossed finger: Shelly looked at her husband's expression, felt his hand warm and firm at the small of her back, and wished this moment would never end.

 

Marnie waved bye to her Daddy, then she turned and regarded the corral boards.

She slid between the boards, looked at the horse pacing toward her, giggled, then climbed the boards as the horse came over and shoved a wet nose firmly into her belly, snuffing loudly.

"Hi, horsie," Marnie said, stroking the long, blaze-streaked nose.  "C'mon over."

The horse came over, and forward, and Marnie remembered seeing her big strong Daddy swing a leg over a horse's bare back and so she did too.

 

Willamina seized the pup, snatched him up into her arms, as her flesh stretched taut across her cheekbones.

Willamina came to the Sheriff's office by virtue of a mistake.

She'd been hired off a resume, and for whatever reason, she'd put her name as Will Keller, instead of Willamina:  the county had no idea they were hiring a woman.

When she arrived, she established herself by virtue of blowing a hole in the barroom ceiling, seizing the Mayor by his Italian silk necktie and dragging him across the table and to the floor, then cuffing him, picking him  up off the floor and packing him over to the Chief of Police and shoving the prisoner into the lawman's arms and ordering him to place this wanted felon under arrest.

She stomped into the County Commissioners' meeting, identified herself, and before any objection could be made, she pointed a stiff finger at one and informed him of his gambling habit, how much he'd lost, when, and to whom; the next man, when she began about his affair, raised his palms in surrender: for all that she came into the county like a God's-honest tornado, she presented at work in a tailored suit dress and heels.

She well knew the folly of trying to be One of the Guys:  she was, after all, not a Guy: she instead presented in Office Professional, declaring to all hands and the world at large that she was not a man, and she was not trying to be a man.

By this means, she became a most effective chief law enforcement officer: she established a reputation for unfailing fairness, absolute honesty, and a complete lack of duplicity.

She was also known to be a short tempered hell raiser who was not afraid to wade into a good old fashioned knock down drag out, and genuinely kick backsides with the best of them.

When this remarkable woman began moving at anything faster than a dignified walk, that meant something was going on, and the faster she moved, the faster people got out of her way.

When Willamina charged the length of the Sheriff's office at a flat-out sprint, the black curly furred pup tucked in like a football, Barrents shoved open the inner door and spun out, shoving open the outer door with a long-armed push.

Willamina's Jeep chirped and its headlights flashed as she hit the remote unlock, and Paul ran for the next vehicle in the row.

He had no idea what was going on, but he wasn't going to let The Boss get into something without backup!

 

Mothers are marvelous creatures.

A mother can change a baby's diaper on the narrow edge of a two-by-four and make it look easy.

A mother can stretch a stew, stretch a paycheck, come up with a three-course, meat-and-potatoes meal from half a cup of flour and a can of soup.

A mother can hear her young cry out if she were standing in the middle of a boiler factory at full production.

It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that Shelly -- with the radio playing in the background, with her little baby boy making sleepy baby sounds, with her mind busy with planning her day -- that she should hear a little girl cry out.

She heard a horse, loud and angry, the sound of hooves on wood, and Shelly Keller's heart froze.

 

Marnie grabbed a double handful of mane, patted the horsie on its warm, fuzzy neck and said "Nice horsie!"

The nice horsie sidestepped, spun, jumped straight in the air and came down stiff-legged -- Marnie's teeth clicked as the shock drove up her spine and into her skull -- and then the world exploded away from her and flipped around and she came down and hit the wooden corral rail, she spun, she hit the ground, hard, biting off a cry of pain -- and almost, but not quite, succeeding.

 

Willamina honestly mashed the go pedal.

Hard.

Willamina was the kind to take care of her equipment.

She'd learned that from her Uncle Pete, she'd learned to take it easy with equipment, she'd learned to not abuse her equipment, but now -- now, her Jeep squalled against the pavement and she was pushed back into her seat as her white knuckles on the wheel, betrayed what her gut was telling her.

Beside her, The Bear Killer's fur stood up and his little black lips pulled back from shining white teeth, and he snarled, deep in his black puppy chest, the blood of a thousand years of fighting canines simmering in his young heart.

Willamina did not so much drive her Jeep as she piloted a guided missile of steel and glass and spinning rubber, her eyes wide, unblinking, and very, very pale.

 

Shelly yanked open the gun cabinet, seized the familiar wooden stock, jerked: the baby would be fine in its crib, she launched for the door, her left hand crushing around the long wooden military issue fore end, her right clawing for the doorknob:  she took one long step, her second one carrying her clear of the steps and into the yard.

Shelly turned, fast, giving no thought to her once-broken leg: no, she was a mother, a mother who heard the cry of her child, and she was going forth to keep her young safe.

Peacefully if possible.

Otherwise if she had to, and part of her felt a grim satisfaction at knowing she could do just that if need be.

 

Linn pulled up just as Shelly's running backside disappeared around the house and his heart fell about ten feet.

He slammed the shifter into park, shouldered the door, hit the ground running, war and rage firing his boiler:  he ran up to the corral, he saw a little girl on the ground, he saw a horse rearing, he jumped in mid-stride, seized the top rail, vaulted over it, roaring "HOLD IT!"

The horse whirled, came down on all fours, and Linn seized its halter, jerked hard.

He might as well have tried to grab a steam locomotive at speed.

A horse is half a ton of muscle, and a mere man is no match for that much good honest horsepower:  Linn's legs swung up as the horse reared, swinging him a good eight feet off the ground:  he twisted, trying to fork his legs over the horse's neck and almost making it.

The horse slung its head and Linn went rolling, slammed against a corral post: he snapped away from it, came up on all fours, eyes blazing white, teeth bared, hands open and ready to grapple.

Marnie lay limp, unmoving, not able even to shiver.

Linn charged the horse, the horse charged the man:  Linn jumped, swinging a leg high, grabbing around under the neck.

The horse spun, rolled:  Linn kicked at the horse's spine, the horse rolled away, made its feet.

Man and beast drew back from one another, each taking the other's measure.

Marnie found strength enough to move.

She turned over, pushed up from the ground, her eyes big and scared.

The horse's head came around, the movement attracting its snakish temper:  it reared, danced forward on hind hooves, targeting this new victim.

 

Willamina mashed the throttle again, breaking traction, swinging the Jeep's back end with a rooster trail of gravel and dirt:  she held the pedal to the floor, aiming the square nosed four wheel drive like she would aim a fighter jet's nose cannon.

She came up the driveway too fast, threw her Jeep sideways, skidding to a stop:  she reached up, seized the AR's black-plastic fore end, pulled it free, hit the ground running:  she brought the short rifle up into ready port, yanked the charging handle, war singing joyfully in her ears.

Something black and furry fell out of her side of the Jeep, turned, scampered after like a small black arrow.

 

Shelly seized the charging handle, hauled the operating rod back, hard, smacked it with the heel of her hand:  the horse was rearing, ready to bring those steel-shod forehooves down on her little girl.

Shelly Keller, the slender wife of Chief Deputy Linn Keller, shouldered the Garand, pulled it in hard, set the front sight right where she wanted to hit, and yanked the trigger.

 

Marnie squirted along the base of the fence, shoving up with her hands, getting her red cowboy boots under her and running, running for her very life --

There was the sound of thunder, and thunder again --

Linn streaked ahead, throwing his body between those descending equine knives and his little girl --

Willamina slapped a hand on the top rail, vaulted it easily, soared through the air as Shelly drove round after round after round of military issue, full metal jacket, 30-caliber justice through the brain of the horse that was coming down on her little girl.

Willamina landed, turned, rifle thrust out in front of her --

Linn landed, bridging between dirt and fence, Marnie under him, safe --

Something heavy came down across his legs and Linn's head snapped back, his teeth clenched against the pain that wanted to rip free of his throat.

Willamina froze.

Shelly stood, the Garand still at shoulder, the ringing of ten thousand chimes shivering in her ears, and through the red ringing of eight rounds of Winchester Ammunition Justice, she could just hear --

Pinngggg!

 

"Marnie?"

"Yes, Daddy?"

"Marnie, are you hurt?"

Marnie sniffed.  "Daddy, I'm sowwy."

"I asked," Linn said quietly, "if you are hurt."

"No, Daddy," she said in a tiny little voice.

"Can you get out from under me?"

"I think so, Daddy."

"Shelly?"

Willamina came around -- he knew it was his Mama, nobody else would wear nylons and high heels in a corral -- she bent down, picked up her granddaughter, brought her in close and rubbed noses with her.

Linn, his leg still pinned by the dead horse, could not but smile, just a little, at his little girl's happy giggle.

Linn heard the woody sound of the gates' latch thrown back and Shelly came running over.

Linn looked at his skinny wife and the man sized battle rifle she held.

"I thought you said Uncle Pete's Garand was more rifle than you wanted to try."

Shelly looked at the rifle, looked at Linn, looked at what was left of the horse, looked back at Linn.

"Did you break anything?" she asked.

"My pride," Linn said carefully, "is kind of scraped up, and my dignity is bruised all to hell, but if I can get out from under this carcass --"

"Gammaw," Marnie said, "I did a bad thing."

"Don't worry," Willamina whispered.  "Your Gramma won't let anything happen."

Marnie looked at her Daddy with a worried expression, looked at her Mommy with an uncertain expression.

Linn managed to pull out from under, he got his legs under him, stood.

He looked down, looked at his immaculate Mama.

"I seem to be hard on my uniforms," he said ruefully.

The Bear Killer bristled as he sniffed the dead horse, then he raised his hind leg and cast his ballot on the situation.

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