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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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246.  CONSPIRACY, WITH A CADILLAC   John Burnett inclined his head a little, the very image of what Sherlock Holmes called "peering benevolence" -- he was the Firelands hospital's chaplain,

308. "NO!" Sheriff Willamina Keller came out of her office, closed the door quietly behind her: she was frowning at the papers on the clipboard she held, she had a pen thrust behind one ear, she

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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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