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366. MY WILD AND MISSPENT YOUTH

Dr. John Greenlees, Jr, looked over his wife's shoulder, his hands gripping her upper arms gently: he squeezed, just a little, and Sheriff Marnie Keller reached up, patted her husband's hand.

"I remember that day," she sighed, and Dr. Greenlees smiled at the sight of a delighted, laughing little girl, riding on her Gammaw's lap, as her Gammaw drove the backhoe across the pasture.

It's not usual for a well dressed woman, in a tailored suit dress and heels, to operate a backhoe, but Dr. Greenlees knew early in his life that Sheriff Willamina Keller was not a usual woman.

"I was adventurous," Marnie sighed.

Dr. Greenlees leaned down, kissed his wife's neck:  "I know."

"Mmm," Marnie purred.  "I'll give you a week to stop that."

"And here I thought you were a good little girl," he whispered.

Marnie laughed.

"Uncle Pete's house was old," she sighed, "and so was the refrigerator. I think it was a Crosley. I remember you pulled a lever to open the door."

Dr. Greenlees nodded, looked again at the picture of his wife, as a little girl, on her Gammaw's lap, laughing.

"The refrigerator shorted out."

Dr. Greenlees raised an eyebrow.

"We didn't have any breakers or GFIs or anything of the kind.  Plug type fuses and two-conductor Romex. The refrigerator was right beside the sink and it started throwing big blue arcs against the metal sink body."

"Yikes," Dr. Greenlees said quietly, his hands stopping their gentle shoulder massage.

"Mama dropped a sheet of cardboard in between them to break the arc, and she told me" -- Marnie giggled -- "she told me not to ever, EVER, touch both sink and refrigerator at the same time."
"Oh, no," Dr. Greenlees groaned.  "You didn't?"

"Oh, yes I did," Marnie nodded.  "I marched right up to the fridge and grabbed that handle, I grabbed the sink, my head snapped back, my lips peeled back and I heard this buzzing sound and I could not MOVE!"

Dr. John Greenlees squatted, looked very seriously at his wife.

"And you survived."

"Only because Mama tried prying my fingers loose with a butter knife, and then she laced her fingers together in a single fist and swung up -- from underneath -- and knocked my hand loose."

Dr. John felt kind of weak: he'd worked ER, he'd been a paramedic, he'd known field electrocutions, and he'd never known one to go well.

"So when Daddy told me not to go in the corral because that was a mean horse, well, I never knew mean horses existed."

Dr. Greenlees groaned, rose, sat down heavily in a woven-plastic chair that promptly snapped under his weight: the good physician fell over sideways, arms and legs swimming in the air as he tried to control his fall:  he got up, painfully, glared at the offending chair, and then at his red-faced wife.

"I don't know if I should tell you any more," she said, her voice a little strained with the effort of not laughing:  her husband was not hurt, just startled, and suddenly the moment became funny, but she didn't want to bruise his feelings.

Dr. John sighed patiently, picked up the remnants of what had been a lightly constructed, 3-D printed frame, hand-woven chair, and stuffed it into the disposal slot:  he picked up another, brought it over, sat carefully this time.

"My adventurous girl," Dr. Greenlees said with an exaggerated dignity, "I have just earned that story. Pray, do continue."

Marnie looked at the picture again.

"We were dragging a dead horse out into the pasture to bury it."

"The mean horse your Daddy warned you about?"

Marnie nodded.  "I went out and I don't know how, but I persuaded the horse to sidle up to the corral boards where I'd climbed up. I climbed aboard and I patted his neck and called him a good boy, and he danced sideways to get away from the boards, and then I discovered what it is to sit down on a bomb burning a short fuse."

"How old were you?"

"Nine or ten, I think. I remember something detonated under me and I went whipping through the air -- I was stable, but the earth was spinning around me at a remarkable rate of rotation -- and then the corral came up and hit me right across the saddle."  She bent forward, ran her hand across the back of her pelvis, made a face.  "Y'know, those damned boards didn't give one little bit, either!"

Dr. Greenlees blinked in sympathy, nodded his go-ahead.

"I hit the ground and I hurt too much to move, and that was not a good thing, because that horse came after me."

Marnie looked at her husband with big and innocent eyes, and when she spoke, it was with the voice of a little girl, which brought a grin and a laugh from the medicine man.

"My Mommy and my Daddy came to res-cue me," she said, blinking, and then she couldn't contain it any longer:  she laughed with her husband.

"Mama came boilin' out of the house like a swarm of hornets and Daddy already left for work. I don't know how he turned around and got back so fast, but he did, and Gammaw right behind him, and Beeg."

"Beeg?"

Marnie laughed again.  "Paul Barrents.  Daddy's best friend.  Mama saw that horse rearing and about to drive those spear-hooves through me and she addressed the matter with a rifle, and the horse fell dead."

Dr. Greenlees nodded, slowly.  "I can just see her with a Winchester rifle," he murmured.

"Winchester nothing," Marnie snapped, "that was Uncle Pete's M1 Garand he carried in the Second War!  My skinny little mama emptied that rifle into that horse's brain just as Daddy vaulted the fence and laid down across me, and that dead horse pinned his one leg and got him all filthy."

She smiled.

"Daddy said she put eight fast rounds of thirty-ought into an area the size of a playing card."

Dr. John nodded.  

"I knew your Mama was a competent medic," he said slowly, "and she never lost her cool when it hit the fan, but I never knew ..."

He shook his head.

"My father collected Garands.  He had one ... he had the rifle that won the Camp Perry thousand yard trophy, twice."  He smiled, remembering.  "He didn't win it, but he bought the rifle that did."

"I wouldn't mind having one here," Marnie admitted.

"Kicked like hell," Dr. Greenlees muttered, rubbing his shoulder with the memory.  "Just like that single barrel shotgun I had."

Marnie smiled.

"Mommy dusted me off and Gammaw drove the backhoe into the corral, they hitched onto that dead horse and I rode on her lap as we dragged it out.  She let me run the bucket a little -- she dug the hole, but she let me try the controls, because Gammaws know how much children want to try things."

Dr. Greenlees nodded.

"Then there's the time," Marnie sighed, "that I harvested gunpowder out of some linked blanks.  I smuggled it out of the house in a pill bottle and spread it down a corrugation in a shed roof, then I touched match to it."

Dr. Greenlees' eyes widened with alarm.

"Oh, don't look at me like that.  It was actually kind of disappointing, it just burned, no kaboom."

Dr. Greenlees shook his head.  "It's a wonder we survive childhood," he admitted.

"I don't suppose you did anything like that."

"No, no," he shook his head.  "No, nothing like that, as long as you don't count asphyxiating most of my chemistry class with chlorine gas."

Marnie's eyes widened.  "That was you?"

Dr. Greenlees laughed ruefully.  "Yes, my dear, that was my screw-up."

Marnie laughed, clapped her hands together:  "Hey, it got us a day off from school!"

 

 

 

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367. DICHOTOMY

 

"Mama?"

Esther Keller heard a note of uncertainty in her little girl's voice.

Deep in her memory, she recalled voicing that same uncertain note, she remembered wishing her Mama's reassurance, and so she wiped the tip of her pen, delicately, carefully, placed it gently in the pen-holder with the several others:  she turned, tilted her head and smiled gently, opened her hands to her daughter.

An observer once said that we respond according to our initial training, and Esther did.

Angela almost glided over to her Mama, the way she did when she was thinking hard:  her young brows were puzzled, her smooth forehead wrinkled, and she looked up and said "Mama, how come I'm not s'pos'ta fight?"

Esther's eyebrows raised; she blinked twice, then bent down, took her fast-growing daughter under the arms, leaned back and hoisted young Angela into her lap.

"Now what's this about fighting?" she murmured, and Angela cuddled into her Mommy and gave a great big, little-girl sigh.

"Mama, when boys gets mad they fight an' it's over."

Esther rocked, just a little, and hummed "Mm-hmm," her arms warm and reassuring around her little girl.

"Girls aren't s'pos'ta do that."

Esther's deep memory remembered how her Mama always stopped what she was doing, and paid close attention: children learn by observation, and so Esther learned how to stop, and how to listen closely, when her child was troubled.

Esther tilted her head, regarded her child's scowling expression with patience -- a mask, hiding her amusement, for she remembered making a similar face in her own childhood -- and said, "Angela, we women are supposed to be helpless creatures, protected by our big strong men and provided for by our big strong men."

Angela's scowl fell to the floor and shattered, and in its place was the face of a bright-eyed child, entertaining a new idea like she would a new toy.

"Daddy's big and strong."

"Yes, he is, dear," Esther affirmed, and Angela delighted in the slight tightening of her Mama's arms, in affirmation to her decisive declaration. 

"Daddy protects us."

"Yes, dear, he does."

Angela considered for a moment.  "But what if he wasn't here --"

"And something bad happened while he was away?"  Esther rocked a little again, her hands reassuring as she brushed a curl back from Angela's forehead.  "Then we women have a secret," she whispered.

Angela was surprised:  she blinked several times and blurted "A secret?"

Esther nodded.  "We women have ways to keep ourselves safe," she whispered, "but these are women's ways, and no man must ever, ever know of them!"

"Am I a women, Mama?"

"You're getting there, sweets."  Esther kissed the top of Angela's head.  "I think it's time you started to learn some secrets that only women may know."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at the reporter sitting across from her.

"Lay down in your seat," she said, her voice low, urgent, and of course the reporter, hearing this, sat there with a blank look and said something terribly intelligent -- "Huh?" -- just before things happened, and happened fast.

Willamina raised her chin, a pleasant-but-neutral expression behind her greeting:  she was only halfway through "May I help you?" before a loud and angry voice said something the reporter really didn't want to put into print.

Willamina preferred her Lawman's Corner, as it had her back to the wall, her eyes toward the doors: she sat at the end of her booth's padded seat, and neither reporter nor attacker saw the pale-eyed Sheriff's nylon-stockinged leg draw back, her foot drive out, but the effect of the edge of Willamina's right hoof driving in under the attacker's left knee was undeniable.

His obscene string of threats ended, the grab-and-punch he'd started ended in surprise, and as he went down, Willamina seized him by the ears and introduced his descending face, into the thick timber of the booth's table, and she was not at all gentle in her move.

The table jumped, as did silverware, coffee cups and plates, the sound was loud, shocking: Willamina pushed back, deeper into the booth, her hands came up -- each bore a pistol -- her voice was loud, sharp, pitched to carry, clear enough to be heard, and backed by a double handful of self shucking authority.

When she declared "HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE 'EM!" -- not a single soul in the Silver Jewel doubted that she meant exactly what she said.

The reporter scooted toward the window, turning, and realized two others were behind the initial aggressor; she swallowed and she felt her face cool by several degrees as the blood abandoned her cheeks, and she realized things were suddenly very, very ... 

Concerning, she thought, and then her reporter's mind shifted gears and she began rearranging her thoughts into a format she could use for her article.

She was, of course, deposed:  to her surprise, it was the jurisdictional police department, and not the Sheriff's office, who investigated the event:  as the initial aggressor was armed, and after Willamina casually mentioned seeing the handles of two weapons where they were surreptitiously stored about the aggressor's person, she was ultimately no-billed for a charge of assault; owing to the disparity of force -- three aggressors in total, all armed -- her use of force at all levels was also declared justified, and justifiable, and Willamina called the reporter and invited her to the Sheriff's office for a follow-up on the moment.

"Since you were there," she said, and the reporter heard a smile in her voice over the phone, "you deserve to know what-all happened."

In the course of their conversation, the Sheriff produced a leather-bound book with gilt lettering on its spine:  she opened the book, paged quickly through it, smiled, turned the book so the reporter could see the colorized portrait, right-side-up.

"This," she said, "is my Very Great Grandmother, Esther Keller.  They had several children, one was adopted, and in a letter to a correspondent" -- she turned the book, frowned, opened its back cover and ran a finger down hand written notations on the back flyleaf -- "here it is.  It was a letter she wrote to family in the Carolinas."  She closed the back cover, returned the full-length portrait to view.  "I have a gown just like that, by the way.  We made it, using this image as an exemplar."  She smiled a little as she leaned confidentially toward her guest.  "I wear a red wig when I wear it!"

"A letter?"  the reporter prompted.

"Esther and Linn Keller -- Old Pale Eyes, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado -- had an adopted daughter, Angela.  She was from Kentucky and was orphaned in a train wreck.  The Sheriff found her and brought her home and he was just sick with grief, when he found her she looked dead."  She pressed the backs of her fingers against her mouth, momentarily troubled, then she shook her head and her mask was again in place.  "He'd fought in Lincoln's War.  I think he probably had PTSD, and from what he's written, I think he had a flashback to when his own daughter died in his arms the night he got home from the War."

"Lincoln's War?  The Lincoln County War?"

"No." Willamina shook her head.  "The Civil War.  There were as many names for it as there were people trying to twist it to their benefit.  Old Pale Eyes just called it That Damned War and that's what every veteran I've ever known has called the particular war they fought in."

There was a long silence:  Willamina looked very directly at the reporter and affirmed, "Yes I was, and thank you for not asking.  Some things I don't like to remember."  

She tapped a trimmed fingernail on the table beside the open book.  "Esther wrote in her letter that her little girl asked why she wasn't supposed to fight like boys do, and Esther told her she was old enough to start learning Women's Secrets."

"How old was she?"

"Maybe ... she was in school, I don't think she was more than nine or ten."

"What kind of women's secrets?"

Willamina smiled.  "She never did say."

The reporter frowned, disappointed.  

Willamina smiled, a quiet, knowing smile, tapped her fingernail on the tabletop again, twice.

"You saw part of it when we spoke last."

"Yes," came the reply as the woman shifted uncomfortably in her seat.  "What was that all about, anyway?"

Willamina shrugged.  "One fellow was unhappy because I'd indicted his son for stealing a four-wheeler. The other two were his backup. Unfortunately, he didn't listen to people who told him not to brace me."

"Brace you?"

"Confront."

"I see."

"You're not from around here."

"Nnn ... no.  San Francisco."

Willamina frowned, just a little, nodded.

"Is ... that a problem?" the reporter asked hesitantly.

"No."  Willamina blinked, smiled.  "No.  'Braced' is an Old West term. Some linguistic traces ... linger."

Willamina looked to her left, at the large, easy to read clock:  "I'll be testifying on that matter in an hour.  You're more than welcome to come and sit in the audience.  You can bring popcorn if you like."

The reporter laughed, surprised.

"On the other hand, you might have to bring popcorn for everyone.  I have it on very good authority that His Honor the Judge likes popcorn really well."

"I'll remember that." 

"The secret" -- Willamina raised a finger -- "is that it's okay for girls to fight. I'd like to think Esther taught her daughter to let her men fight for her, to allow them to be men, but when the men aren't around, it's okay to let the badger out."

"Is that what you did?"

"No."  Willamina smiled again and the reporter saw something beneath the smile, something that touched her soul with a very cold hand.  "No, I was very controlled."

She looked at the reporter through long, curled eyelashes, and her guest shivered again, as if the cold fingers that had caressed her soul with a light brush, suddenly turned liquid and cascaded like an icy Niagara over her eternal essence.

"As a matter of fact, I teach women's self defense."  Her expression was slowly melting from pleasant, to hard and uncompromising.  "I know what it is to be brutalized, and I intend that the ladies of my bailiwick should be capable of letting out their own very effective badger."

 

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Posted (edited)

366. A CHILD'S GREETING

Sheriff Linn Keller urged his red Cannonball mare to greater speed.

He didn't want to run her at a gallop, not here beside the railroad bed, not at this altitude: he'd no wish to stone bruise her, to cause a stumble, a fall, he'd no wish to wind break such a fine mount.

At the same moment, he wished mightily he could utter a word, speak a phrase, that would snap a great set of white wings from his mare's back, wings that could carry him along as fast as Thought itself.

There'd been a derailment, a wreck: his son Jacob was with the engine, the engineer, the fireman: they'd pulled a link and run the locomotive into Firelands, screaming alarm as they approached, laying on the whistle fit to wear it out.

The roundhouse was alarmed, a runner dispatched for the good Doctor, the Sheriff had no doubt a relief train would soon make their best speed to the wreck, but for now, for now there was him, and his mare, and he had the same awful feeling he had during that damned War, the same feeling he got when he looked over the smoke hazed field of slaughter after a battle, the same feeling of utter, absolute, failure, that it was his fault, his fault --

His mare had a good, long-legged pace, she covered ground in good shape, but the Sheriff fretted as he rode -- until the moment he saw the wreck, saw what was left of a passenger car, saw the rail, snakeheaded up where it tore loose of the spikes and gutted into the passing car's belly, the car it tore apart and threw aside, the car that lay splintered and ruined --

Cannonball surged up and over the rail, the other rail, picked her way daintily through shivers of wood, around bloodied carcasses:  a few were alive, sitting or standing in shock.

Linn looked down and his heart broke free of its moorings and fell about two hundred feet.

A tiny little hand, a hand sticking out from a ruffle-trimmed sleeve, a tiny white hand still gripping the leg of a rag doll --

Linn vaulted from the saddle without benefit of bringing Cannonball to a stop.

He landed flat-footed, squatted, an old rage detonating into white-hot, flaming, consuming life inside him: he was not a man given to passion, to uncontrolled, free-running emotion, but now, now he gave his rage a slack rein, gave it permission to roar like a wind-blown bonfire and burn him alive, from the inside.

He landed flat-footed and seized the wall of the passenger car, he tucked his backside, gritted his teeth, threw his head back and roared in pain and in sorrow and in utter agony and the measureless depth of a father's sorrow, and he hauled the wall up, and to the side, and threw it from him: he staggered back, one step, two, stopped, swayed.

The child wore a clean, paisley, obviously worn and mended dress, likely the best she had: the child was clean, save for a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth, save for the slitted, glazed eyes staring sightlessly at the heavens, and he saw his own daughter -- his own Dana -- his own child, back East, dead ten years and more, he saw the daughter who died in his arms back East, the child he buried atop her mother's coffin in the raw, unsettled grave, a grave first dug not a week before.

Linn felt the strength run out of his belly, he sagged to his knees, bent over the little, white faced figure:  he pulled off one glove, the other, let them drop:  he felt his soul groan, he slid his arms gently under her, he picked her up, her head dropping back, her arms and legs limp, still, so still --

"No," he whispered, "no, dear God no," and he threw his head back and screamed.

A strong man will cry only in the extremity of his agony; a strong man will scream only in extremis --

-- but when he does, it is a scream that will freeze the blood of any who hear it, a scream that carries for miles, that shatters its sorrow off the granite peaks, that blasts itself into shivers and rains its sorrows on the ear of any who are within earshot.

He had that much strength, at least:  he buried his face in the child's belly and wept, the hard, harsh, bitter choking of a man who has just lost the only good and decent thing in an entire universe gone insane, the lighthouse and the anchor he used to keep himself sane in a time that did its best to rip sanity from the strongest man.

Scalding tears soaked into the child's dress; the pale eyed lawman with the iron grey mustache snapped his jaw shut, forbidding his agonies their exit, choking silently, trying desperately to seize some modicum of control from a moment when he was utterly without control.

 

A century and more, another pale eyed lawman of the same name stood, holding the limp and bloodied remnants of what used to be a pretty little girl.

She was someone he knew, her mother was someone he knew, her father had been graduated with him, and the limp, pale, helplessly still figure he held was a classmate in his daughter's third grade class.

She and Marnie were the same height, or near to it; they were both slender of build, they both had the same color hair, and when Linn first saw her, for a mad moment he saw his own little girl lying there in the grass, lying where she'd been thrown from the vehicle.

This Linn Keller recalled the description he'd read in his Mama's Journals, and as many times as he'd read the agonized account from the hand of the pale eyed old lawman himself, he never really appreciated how hard such a discovery could honestly hit a man.

As he told his mother later, he knew it here -- he tapped his forehead -- but until it happened to him, he never really appreciated it here -- and he tapped his breastbone.

Digger came rolling up with his black Blazer, and Linn carried the child over to the back of Digger's four wheel drive hearse:  the coroner came toward him, frowning, until he saw the look on the lawman's face, and swallowed any criticism he might've had for disturbing the scene before he, the Coroner, could examine the deceased.

"Two more dead on scene," Linn said as he laid the child out on the funeral home cot:  he turned and walked away from the hearse, wandered toward the rescue truck, kind of coasted to a stop.

"Firelands Two, Four," the microphone on his epaulet said, and he reached up, found the transmit bar, pressed.

"Four, Two, go."

"Sitrep?"

Linn sagged against the rescue's front bumper, sat heavily.

"Can you take over?"

"Enroute."

Never have I ever asked anyone to take over for me, he thought, his head hanging:  he was staring at the ground, his eyes wide, pale, and utterly blind:  all he could see was his little girl, Marnie, laughing as she rode her Goldie-mare beside him -- Marnie, pale and big-eyed scared as she lay on the ground in the corral, and that damned horse reared and aimed those steelshod spears at her -- Marnie, utterly delighted as she rode on her Gammaw's lap on the backhoe -- 

Marnie, dead, in his arms, bloodied, torn, broken ...

Dead.

"She's not dead," he whispered hoarsely, and he looked at the coroner, slowly, respectfully drawing the sheet over the little girl's face:  Digger and one of the firemen were standing beside one of the other two bodies, half-ejected from the car's passenger window when it rolled, waiting for the coroner to dust his hands off and walk over to view the other customers. 

"Marnie is not dead," he repeated.
He closed his eyes and he saw his little girl's face on the limp form he'd held.

A year and a day later, or less than twelve minutes later, depending on whether your timepiece has numbers and hands, or is measured in the heart's sorrows, another deputy sat on the rescue's front bumper, a deputy who laid his hand on the first one's shoulder and never said a word.

Sometimes, when you look into the jaws of Hell itself and see your worst nightmare looking out at you, the best thing a friend can do is sit with you, and let you know he's there, and not say a word.

 

That night, when Linn drove home, he shoved a particular CD into the player, listened to Spanish guitar playing the Malaguena: it was a favorite of his, and he needed something soothing in that moment.

He'd finished his shift, he'd done all his work, he'd handled calls and met with prosecutor and investigator, he'd debriefed with the Irish Brigade and he'd filed the appropriate reports, complete with diagrams and duplicates:  the Sheriff regarded him with formal, official eyes and quietly offered her congratulations on a difficult day, well done, and he thanked her with a quiet "Yes, ma'am," and he knew the dispatcher gave the Sheriff a worried look as her chief deputy walked out the doors, as the Sheriff bit her bottom lip, and then, after the doors closed behind the long tall deputy, she sat slowly beside Sharon and said faintly, "Sometimes it's hard being a mother as well as the Sheriff," and she turned to her dispatcher and added, "He's hurting, Sharon, and I can't ease that hurt!"

The two mothers shared an understanding moment, for it was something all mothers experience, which made it not one little bit easier.

 

Linn parked his Jeep, shut off the ignition, locked the door and closed it:  he took a long breath, walked slowly for the front door.

He heard the rapid tattoo of boot heels as he opened the door, and he went to both knees and opened his arms, and something with pale eyes, a broad and delighted smile, an enthusiastic "Daddeee!" and a pair of red cowboy boots, happily ran up and seized her big strong Daddy in the utterly uninhibited embrace of a happy little girl.

Linn held his daughter, held her tight, feeling her giggle against his chest, her hair against his cheek, feeling the tears he'd forbidden himself all day, that finally spilled over and ran down his cheeks and into his little girl's ruffle-trimmed, paisley dress's shoulder.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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367. AS SANITY RAN IN FEAR

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller gripped the wire-wound handle of the old cavalry saber.

She knew its history; she knew what she'd read in the several Journals; she shivered a little as steel whispered silently from its fleece-lined scabbard.

She knew Old Pale Eyes carried this particular blade during his time in That Damned War.

She knew he'd had the scabbard custom made, and lined with sheep's skin, wool side against the blade: lanolin in the blade oiled the steel, the wool was abrasive enough to keep it clean, and it guaranteed a silent carry.

She still felt ... something ... powerful ... as honed steel emerged into sunlight once more.

Willamina swallowed, shivered.

She closed her eyes, took a long breath.

"I remember," she whispered, her voice a little less than steady.

Her war had not been his war.

She'd not been issued a saber -- hers was a black rifle, her blade was on her belt -- but she knew what it was to cast sanity and rational thought to the desert wind and feel the dragon uncoil in her belly as she threw the empty rifle from her and charged, teeth bared, Ka-Bar in hand, war in her heart and the absolute certainty that she was going to cut the life out of the bearded, screaming soul charging her position.

"What was your war like?" she whispered, running her palm the length of the blade, feeling the soul that sang, long ago, through curved steel.

 

Linn Keller seized his sanity and threw it viciously from him.

His left hand held a rifle's barrel, his saber in his right:  the enemy was upon them, among them, the fight was no longer at distance with Enfield lead, now it was bayonets and rifle butts, now it was rocks and fists and men murdering one another with their teeth and their fists and their feet.

He used what was left of the musket in his left hand to knock aside a bayonet, cut a man's neck to the spine: he spun, whipped the bloody blade around, down, felt it bite through a soldier's soul: he wove a shining circle of murderous steel in the sunlight, carved a circle of death as far as his arms could reach:  his eyes were white, hard, his face pale, like dried parchment drawn over a grinning skull, and through it all, through all his exertion, his desperate slash-hack-and-thrust, a constant madman's scream, unceasing, shivering the air into splinters against the ear, until suddenly it was over, and the tip of his saber was too heavy to hold up any longer, until those still on their feet sagged, and sat, or knelt, or collapsed:  living and dead, together in the butcher's yard of an internecine battlefield, a battle fought by honest men of good conscience trying desperately to belive they were in the right, that theirs was a just and worthy cause ... at least until the battle was engaged, and then it became a flat-out murderous melee, no longer for ideals, no longer for a cause, but for the simple reason that someone else was intending to kill me, to kill my comrades, to kill the men I'd shared the last of my coffee or the last of my rations with, men I'd known for days but loved like brothers ...

 

Willamina slid the blade back into its scabbard, slowly, thoughtfully.

It would end up in the Firelands museum, along with other artifacts from the area's past; it would have precise notations of Old Pale Eyes' military service, a list of his known battles, such artifacts as might illustrate for the casual viewer, for the young who would view it as memorabilia from a century ago ... she'd put that together later.

For now, she looked to the shelf that held the Journals, and she remembered.

 

When a man tries to kill me, he'd best kill me on the first try, because I will not grant him a second chance.

I knew that morning the war was upon me again.

I could smell blood in the morning air, I could taste sulfur smoke and copper and I took down my Cavalry saber from the far wall of my Sheriff's office and I mounted up.

I rode like a man following a compass needle, but the needle was on the wind, something bade me take this road, this trail, and I smiled a little as I came round a bend and downhill:  there was a creek crossing, and after that, a rock, and I knew that's where Death waited for me.

Cannonball was across the creek without even a jump, just a long-legged stride, and her hooves were no sooner across that a freight train seared past my right ear.

I saw where the bushwhacker's muzzle flare came from -- I kicked Cannonball into a gallop, the saber came out of its sheepskin scabbard like a steel snake coiling for a strike, we charged --

I heard men's shouts, the massed throats of a regiment charging the enemy, the enemy charging from the opposite direction, every man Jack of them at the top of their lungs, screaming defiance and screaming to keep up their own bravery, knowing enemy steel came at their bellies and their comrades' steel came at their backs and there was no stopping and ten thousand throats splintered the air --

I seized my sanity and threw it aside, I think it hit a tree and slid to the ground, and I did not care.

I was screaming with the lunatick's voice, mine was the madness that seizes a man in battle, the bushwhacker was not expecting his quarry to charge him and he was not expecting bared steel and his eyes were wide and the Spencer cartridge fell from suddenly nerveless fingers just before I swung the saber and felt it cut through flesh and cartilage and the man's spine and the head shifted a little and then fell off and I was out of the saddle and Cannonball danced back, nostrils flaring, eyes walled, throwing her head and snorting as I seized the jawbone-chattering head by its greasy hair.

I whirled around in a circle, blade up, head swinging, I danced with Death and we described a circle, slinging blood and screaming defiance, and the sanity I'd slung away from me looked at me and turned around and ran away in fear.

There is an insanity, a madness, that comes upon men in battle.

Sometimes it comes back.

It did that day.

 

Willamina sat at her rolltop desk, reading Old Pale Eyes' words, smiling a little.

She remembered the day an old widow woman gave her what she thought was a grenade.

It looked like one -- it was a fake, but very realistic -- and Willamina shoved it in her pocket when the bank alarm came in.

She'd gone into the bank, smiling, casual, she'd walked up to the robber with the suicide vest, holding a switch in his fist, threatening to blow himself and the bank to atoms, and Willamina had gone up to him, her eyes pale, her mouth smiling, and she'd laughed and said "They we die together," and she pulled out the fake grenade and pulled the pin.

"See this?"  she'd said.  "World War II vintage.  Cast iron.  It'll bust right through your armor."

She seized the bank robber's belt, yanked hard, shoved her fist with the grenade down the front of his pants.

"Now when you get to Paradise, you won't have anything left down there," she smiled, and the holdup dropped the suicide vest's detonator.

Willamina looked up, blinking, remembering.

"Insanity," she whispered.

She looked at the saber, nodded, closed the Journal.

"Pale Eyes," she said aloud, "I think you are right."
She looked at that same grenade, the one she used for a paper weight now.

"Sometimes it does come back."

 

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

368. SURPRISE!

The Ladies' Tea Society politely pattered their gloved palms together as Sheriff Willamina paged through her notes and smiled:  she looked up at her contemporaries, the ladies of Firelands, gathered in gowns and hats of the late 1800s, an indulgence they had come to cherish: it was a moment when they escaped the everyday and modern; cell phones were verboten -- they were to be turned off and discreetly tucked into reticules, or surreptitious pockets in their carefully reproduced McKenna gowns.

Willamina looked up and smiled.

"You're all familiar with Old Pale Eyes, and some of the more interesting moments from Firelands history," she began.  "Things like a locomotive exploding like the bomb it had become, because it ran out of water, the crownsheet went red-hot and when water sprayed in, it created superheated steam, killing two men and turning a perfectly good Baldwin into scrap."  She shivered a little -- she was too familiar with explosions in general, and back East, she'd had to respond to multiple explosion emergencies -- she pushed the memory from her and continued.

"Then there were things like bank robberies and pursuing wanted criminals, scoundrels who wished to murder honest citizens for a variety of reasons, generally involving greed and resulting in blood, high drama, blood, violence, and blood, not necessarily in that order."  She looked over her half-glasses at her audience, doing her best to look innocent, and almost succeeding.

"Not everything to do with today's Sheriff's office is exciting, and so it was back when.  As a matter of fact" -- she smiled, just a little -- "in that era, Everyman went his way armed, and it was far less violent than it is today.  I believe that's cause and effect.  There were other factors as well, but that's a rabbit trail that can take us far from home."

She looked through her spectacles, peered at her notes, nodded.

"Let's take another look at one of Old Pale Eyes' journals, shall we?"

 

I came fully awake in the space of a heartbeat.

My eyes snapped open:  I drew in a deep, silent breath, testing the air, smelling a trace of woodsmoke overlaid with bacon and fresh baked bread:  I smelled the warmth of my wife's sleeping form, warm and soft beside me, her hand in mine, as it always was when we woke:  I listened, heard nothing but the hired girl in the kitchen, readying breakfast for the family, bless her.

It was routine for every family of any substance at all, to have a hired girl, generally referred to as The Girl:  ours was Irish, her name was Mary, she was a sweet soul and I had no doubts she'd be courted and married in short order, for women were in short supply, and Mary was a proper young lady who'd done more and better with her life with us, than she ever could have, back East.

I slipped my hand carefully from my wife's, eased out of bed:  I dressed quickly, carried my boots to the back door:  the girl smiled at me as I ghosted by, and I saw her turn to pour coffee, knowing I'd be ready for it when I came back in.

It was chilly out, I could see my breath, but that did not stop me from stripping to the waist and washing as I always did:  well water, cold as it was, was just a bit warmer than if I'd used water pumped the night before, and allowed to cool in the night air.

About the time I wiped my wet face and looked around again, that feeling hit me and my nostrils flared again.

Something wasn't right.

My eyes were busy, my ears strained:  hooves in the barn, the hired man mucking the stalls, birds ... nothing was at all out of place, but something, something was not right.

I hauled the galluses back up over my shoulders.

No sense lettin' my drawers fall down when I went back in the house.

I can make a horse's backside out of myself easy enough without my trousers helping.

My unease abated, just a little: there was the usual unspoken exchange between my Esther and the girl, between Esther and Angela: women have a way of communicating with a glance, with the unspoken, and they did this morning, and that's what makes women so hard to read.

A British detective would observe this same phenomenon.

He said he'd take pains to sit in the chair with its back to the window, so he could observe his visitor, seated across from him, with good natural light, but women would sweep to his chair first, and with the light at their back, they were harder to see, harder to read:  with men, it's because they wished to conceal something, but with women, it could be as inconsequential to the investigation as hair out of place, or cosmetic not to their liking: I've found that very true, and to be honest, women can pull the wool over my eyes clear down to my belt buckle.

I can read a man like a book but women are too often a genuine mystery.

I'm side tracking myself.

 

Willamina looked up and smiled.

"My husband and my son are just like that," she added as an aside.  "They'll mention something and bear off on a tangent, and I have to remind them of the subject at hand."

The observation struck a chord with the ladies, several of whom smiled and nodded in agreement.

Willamina's lace-gloved fingertips were gentle, delicate on the printed pages.

She adjusted her spectacles again -- more for show, more to emphasize her return to "the subject at hand" than any actual need, continued reading.

 

The feeling faded as I crossed the threshold and stepped out into the world.

All was as it should be when I saddled up, as we went a back way into town instead of down our road and to the main roadway.

This route would cause me no delay and would do no harm, and if my earlier discomfiture foretold an attempt on my life, this would interfere with nefarious planning.

Once I hit town, the feeling was gone, but as soon as Jacob stepped into the Sheriff's office, it came back, fast and hard.

He, too, was not entirely comfortable -- he acted as if there were something he wished to tell me -- I chose to trust him, for he is not only my son, but my chief deputy: he has proven himself a thousand times over, and if there was something he wished to divulge, he would, in his own time, and after anything needful was tended.

The morning's details were few: His Honor the Judge stopped in, and I offered him some liquid sledgehammer, the Daine boys' latest experiment -- they'd fermented their mash with crushed cherries as well as sprouted grains, and the result was delicate, there was a little honey to cut the harsh edge and I found it very much to my taste.

His Honor the Judge raised an approving eyebrow and allowed as he, too, found it worthwhile: we discussed the fact that there were no cases, that things had been -- I looked around suspiciously, lowered my head, leaned closer and almost whispered, "Your Honor, there are Evil Demons of the Air that listen to every word we say.  'What's that about a picnic?' kaboom! -- thunderstorms and red ants!"

His Honor chuckled and nodded.  

"I understand, Sheriff," he agreed, standing:  we shook hands and he wished me, "May you have an ... uneventful ... day," and we laughed quietly at the shared sentiment.

No prisoners.

No court cases.

No warrants to be served, no disagreements to be settled, I prowled like a barn cat in early labor: I rode out to the Kolascinski household, greeted Inge and her children and handed her off a sack of coffee, and some hard candies for the several young: Kohl, she said, was at the mines, and a man o' his age had no age bein' underground, and she'd rather have a live husband in poverty than be a wealthy widow woman, an' Sheriff kin ye talk some sense into that hard headed man, and I told her I'd give it a try, and she dipped a hand in her apron pocket and came up with a green-glass Rosary and held it up.

"Tell yer wife I'm still usin' her gift, an' I bless her for it!" 

I rode back into town and the longer I rode the warier I became: all day I waited for the Evil Demons of the Air to visit thunder and red ants upon my picnic, and nothing happened, and at day's end I rode home, but by my usual route.

I was watched.

I knew I was watched, there is an indefinable something that warns a man he is under another's eye: I rode relaxed, ready, considering where I might ambush from, but nothing happened.

Nothing.

Not until I arrived at my own hacienda did I discover the cause of my discomfiture.

There were a number of carriages and conveyances, several horses guesting in my pasture, and I could not help but grin, and the hired man met me by the house and took my horse and said "Might ought you'd go inside, Sheriff," and when I crossed my own threshold, why, everybody and their uncle was all dressed up and waitin' for me, and damned if they didn't have me a birthday cake and they-all sung me Happy Birthday and my ears got all red and I felt like a dirt kickin' schoolboy.

This, then, was what I'd been feelin' all day.

 

Willamina looked up, smiling just a little.

"Sometimes," she said, "back in the day, when something did happen, it wasn't all that bad."

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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369.  DESIGN CHANGES

 

"Sir?"

The Sheriff stopped his work, laid down his pen, backed his chair from the desk and turned it to face his son directly.

Had he continued working, or remained scooted up to his desk, it would be evident his work took precedence, but when a son's voice holds a certain note -- when there is a particular timbre, or perhaps just the hint of a quiver, or if a father's instinct prompts -- then it behooves the Grand Old Man to stop entirely and give his undivided to his young.

"Sir, do I recall correctly that you taught me a man ought to make his changes in the plans before the work begins?"

Sheriff Linn Keller considered for a long moment.

His gut told him his firstborn was not discussing blueprints for a construction.

He nodded, slowly.

"It's way cheaper and way easier to change things in the planning stages," he agreed, then frowned a little as he studied the misery in his son's face.

"You look like you just lost your best friend," he said softly.  "How can I help?"

Jacob looked at him, half-smiled, looked away.

"Sir," he said, "I am the veriest of fools."

Sheriff Linn Keller considered a long moment, then he pulled open his bottom drawer, withdrew a bottle and two glasses.

"Fetch your chair over here," he said, "my hearin' ain't what it was."

Jacob rose, picked up his straight back chair: he walked it the two steps over to his father's desk, set it down quietly, gently, almost soundlessly.

Linn rose, poured them each two fingers' worth, handed one to his son.

They drank.

Linn pulled his chair around to the corner of the desk, so nothing was between him and his son: they both sat, both men hunched forward, elbows on their knees, both men laced their fingers together, flexed their fingers, looked each at the other with one eyebrow up.

Jacob took a long breath, pushed forward into the subject like a man breasting a swollen river and trying to keep his feet.

"Sir, I found myself gettin' sweet on another man's wife."

Linn's eyebrow tried to rise but he seized it from its back side and hauled it down to where it belonged: he nodded, slowly, but made no other reply.

"I don't know if she's feelin' anythin' for me or not."

"Been talkin' to her?"

"Only what's polite, sir -- good mornin', that's about it."

Linn nodded again.

"Sir, Annette is the dearest thing I know. I have fine tall sons and daughters that are comin' up fit to break a man's heart to look at 'em they're so beautiful.  I am content and complete in my marriage -- but I look at this other woman --"

He stopped, clearly distressed:  Jacob closed his eyes, took a long breath, shook his head.

"Sir, it's not gone beyond my imagination and that scares me."

Linn allowed his eyebrow to rise a little.  "How's that, Jacob?"

"Sir, thought is parent to the act, and if I am so ... if my thoughts are so undisciplined as to allow myself to feel this strongly..."

Linn's bottom jaw slid out a little and he nodded again, thinking hard.

"Sir, was I to ... I ..."  He turned his head, took a quick breath, his hands closing into fists.

"Sir, I never thought this would happen."

"You've not touched her?"

"No, sir."

"You haven't taken her in your arms and laid a good toe curlin' kiss on her."

"No, sir."

Linn counted it a good thing that Jacob grinned, almost bashfully, and colored a little, for he'd once confessed to taking his wife Annette in such an embrace, and empassioning them both with just such a kiss.

"Do you still kiss your wife like that?"

"I do, sir."

Linn nodded, slowly, frowning a little.

"Sir, I let my imagination run down a dark path."

"How's that?"

"Was I to ... should she ... sir, I would break four hearts and destroy two marriages!"

"It would."

"I would disgrace my name."

"It would."

"We'd have to leave in shame."

"Reckon so."

"Sir, how do I discipline my thoughts so I don't ... so they don't run down that road to Hell?"

Linn considered, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

"Sir, I can see why Scripture tells us the road to Hell is broad and easy walkin' ... it's a-way too easy to think of those things I hadn't ought!"

Linn reached over, left handed, picked up the bottle, looked at Jacob, raised an eyebrow in inquiry.

Jacob shook his head.

Linn corked the bottle, set it back in his drawer with the two glasses.

"I one time thought like that," he said softly.

"Sir?"

Jacob's eyes widened and the surprise was plain on his face.

"Oh, ya. What you're feelin', almost every married man has felt, one time or another, and it is dangerous, Jacob, it is more dangerous than makin' nitroglycerin or stirrin' hornets barehand."

The Sheriff took a breath, blew it out.

"It's so important that even in Freemasonry we speak of learning to subdue our passions."

"Yes, sir."

"Passion is not solely lust.  Passion is any uncontrolled emotion and a man ought to have a good tight rein on his.  Lust is not the only thing that can cause us a great amount of grief."

"Yes, sir."

"I've felt what you're describin'."  Linn blinked, considered, continued.  

"Jacob, a woman showed up in my life and stayed ... I could have torn the heart beating from my breast and laid it at her feet.  I did not, of course -- I married your mother and I'm happy with that choice -- but I've thought, time and again, how I'd ... how easy it would be to go down that path you spoke of."

"Yes, sir."  Jacob frowned.  "Sir, how'd you not go down that path?"

"Life is choices, Jacob. I had a choice, in that moment. Do I say something to let her know how I feel, yes or no. I chose no, and it was the right choice to make."

"Yes, sir."

"I've planned my life, Jacob, and those plans include your mother. I thought there was no room for any other women until our daughters came along."

Both men grinned, a shared understanding.

"Jacob, you've recognized the terrible consequences of allowing want-to its rein.  An old and dear friend back East let his want-to lead him on, and he ..."

Linn kind of coasted to a stop, he looked past his son, remembering, started up again -- haltingly, like a trace-horse starting a heavily laden sled in winter.

"Jacob, when you spoke of breaking four hearts and destroying two marriages ... he said those same words, and he regretted it to his dying breath, for I was with him when he died."  Linn's hand closed as if around another's grip, his off hand coming over in support:  Jacob recognized the gesture, for he'd seen his father, kneeling beside a dying man, gripping the departing soul's hand, offering a last moment of comfort.

Linn looked at his son.

"It's a choice, Jacob. It's like changing your plans before cutting the first board or driving the first nail."

"Yes, sir."

"Thus far, Jacob, you have chosen not to act on this.  Is that a fair statement?"

"It is, sir."

"Then you've no damage to repair."

Jacob frowned.  "Only inside of me, sir."

Linn leaned forward another inch.

"Jacob," he said, his voice serious, "I know too much about death and dyin'.  I look at my Esther every day and I dread the day of her death.  I know it will happen and I know it's comin' and I hate every tick of the clock because that takes me that much closer to the moment when she'll be torn from me and not one damned thing I can do to stop it."  He reached out, laid a fatherly hand on his son's knuckles.  "Jacob, go home to Annette.  Go home right now.  Bundle her up in your arms and tell her she's the dearest thing in the world.  She'll ask  you why and you can tell her honestly that your sentimental Old Man spoke of the sorrow he'll feel when he loses his wife, and you considered that maybe you'd ought to tell yours that you love her while you still can."

Jacob was quiet for a long moment.

Linn with drew his hand; both men rose.

"Thank you, sir.  I will do that."

 

Linn waited until Jacob's measured pace could no longer be heard, then he sat down -- he felt suddenly very tired -- he stared through the far wall, and his voice was but a hoarse whisper.

"I know how you feel, Jacob," he said to the still air of the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office.

"That is how I still feel about Bonnie McKenna, and may God have mercy on my corroded soul!"

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370. A DOLLAR

 

Two men watched as a happy little girl handed the old man a carefully hoarded, one dollar bill.

"You drive a hard bargain," Linn said thoughtfully.

The old man was quiet for a long moment, then he laid a skinny, wrinkled hand on the tall, lean deputy's shoulder.

 

Marnie tilted her head and regarded her Daddy with pale eyes.

"Daddy, you rose your Apple-horse to school."

It was a statement, not a question.

Linn cut  a final bite of pancake, thrust the tines of his fork under the cut off piece, thought for a long moment.

"Yes, Marnie," he said, and Marnie saw the shadow of a smile at the corner of her Daddy's eyes.

Linn set his fork down, leaned back, looked at his wife and beyond her at a memory from his own days as a schoolboy.

"Mama and I would ride to school.  She'd park her horsepower behind the Sheriff's office. We built a stable there, not a big one, just enough for a one horsepower horse.  I'd ride to school and she'd ride to work."

Marnie looked hopefully at her Daddy, and her Daddy looked with affection at his daughter.

Shelly looked at the both of them and watched as their little girl wound her big strong Daddy around her little schoolgirl's pinky finger.

 

Linn swung the saddle onto his Apple-horse's back.

It wasn't the same Apple-horse he'd ridden as a schoolboy -- that fine old fellow was long since joined the ghosts of his ancestors -- but this one was unmistakably out of that excellent bloodline.

The near stirrup, as it always did, fell off the saddle horn:  Linn twisted just a little so it missed the hammer spur of his holstered revolver.

He preferred a revolver when horseback -- old-fashioned, he'd admitted, but it hits where I want it to -- and somehow the sight of a mounted deputy with a single action revolver just looked better.

Marnie waited patiently as her Daddy saddled her Goldie-horse, and she climbed up on the mounting block to reach her stirrup.

Marnie insisted on her skirts, her dresses -- "Gammaw wears dresses an' she looks really good an' that's what I wanna wear" -- and Linn knew his pale eyed Gammaw recommended Marnie wear pantyhose when riding, to keep the saddle from chafing:  Linn knew what it was to gald himself and if he could spare his little girl saddle sores by allowing her the benefit of his Mama's wisdom, why, that suited him fine, and so it was that a long tall deputy and his pale eyed little girl rode off together, headed into town on a fine mountain morning.

They had business to transact before going on to school, and Linn knew just who to consult.

"Marnie," he'd asked, "where will Goldy stay while you're in class?"

Marnie looked at her Daddy, tilted he head a little.  "Where'd Apple stay?" she countered.

"A fellow rented me some pasture.  I paid him pasture rent and Apple was fenced, he had graze and a shelter against the weather.  I'd take care of the fence and the shelter and pay the man rent, and Apple had a place to stay while I was in school."

"We'll do that," Marnie said with a decisive nod of her head, and so father and daughter rode to an old man's house and beat on his door, and shortly the old fellow came out with a mug of coffee in one hand and a curious expression on his face.

He considered his visitors' request as he leaned against a fence post, looking at the pasture and remembering.

"Daddy said he paid pasture rent," Marnie said confidently.  "What are your demands?"

The old fellow looked at Marnie, surprised, raised an eyebrow.

"Good pasture can rent pretty high," he said speculatively, took a noisy slurp of coffee.  "Some folks will pay a thousand dollars a month."

Linn's eyes were quiet:  he knew the old man, and he knew the old fellow was wandering his thoughts in the general direction of where they'd ought to go, and sometimes they wandered off a little until he chivvied them back.  "This ain't thousand dollar a month pasture but it ain't bad."

"It's got good drainage," Marnie said confidently, "you've got a good tight stable -- the roof might need replaced in a year or two but it's baffled against the wind."

Father and landowner both looked with surprised at the child's confident words.

"Tell you what," the old man said finally.  "Same deal as for your Pa here.  Keep up the shed and the fence, pay me m' rent an' it's yours."

"How much rent?"  Marnie asked, and Linn's ear pulled back as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger:  he heard the first shiver of uncertainty in Marnie's voice -- momentary, there and gone.

The old man considered the wisdom to be found in the last of his coffee:  he tilted the heavy mug up, swallowed the last of it, came up for air.

"Dollar a month."

Marnie's smile could have lit up a dark room.

The old man gravely accepted the dollar bill:  Marnie scampered happily toward the stable, her Goldy-horse following like a happy puppy, The Bear Killer bouncing along beside.

"You drive a hard bargain," Linn said thoughtfully.

The old man was quiet for a long moment, then he laid a skinny, wrinkled hand on the tall, lean deputy's shoulder.

"I had a little girl once," he said softly.  "She died in her eleventh year.  Always wanted a horse, she did, an' I made one excuse an' another, an' finally she up and got cancer an' when she was dyin' in her bed I set there and held her hand an' I'd have got her a herd of 'em if it'd kep' her alive.

"She was weak."  His voice was an old man's voice, full of years and full of sorrows, and Linn listened carefully, his boot up on the bottom rail, watching, listening.

"She was s'weak she couldn't lift her head from the pillow.  Hair was all fallin' out. Cancer, it was.

"I was a-holdin' her hand an' the Doc said it could be any moment an' she smiled at me an' I told her I should have got her that horse.

"She set bolt upright in that bed an' she looked around, her eyes got real wide an' damned if she didn't have just th' happiest look on her face an' she said 'Daddy, look, horses!" an' then she fell back an' she was dead before she hit."

Linn pretended not to notice as the old man wiped his eyes with an outside bandanna, which he stuffed fiercely back into his hip pocket.

"I'm glad your girl has a horse," he said, and patted Linn's shoulder:  he turned, shoulders bowed with years and with memories, and walked slowly back into his house full of memories.

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371. HER NAME WAS CLARK

Marnie looked at the girl in the mirror.

The girl wore a paisley dress with ruffle trim at shoulders and cuffs, at throat and at hem.

The girl's complexion was clear, flawless (if you didn't count freckles, which Marnie liked, 'cause her Gammaw said she had freckles when she was Marnie's age!) -- and then Marnie brushed out her hair, and she divided her hair, and she carefully, precisely, braided her hair.

Twin pigtails.

Marnie's hair was long -- her Mama asked her if she wanted it cut, and Marnie declined the offer; her Mama pointed out that her Gammaw had short hair, and Marnie gave her an innocent look and a polite "No thank you, Mama," and so it was that when Marnie was finished braiding her hair, she tied off the ends with light-blue ribbons to match her dress, and then carefully, precisely, wound the braids around her neck, tucked in the ends.

Her expression as she regarded the finished product was serious, almost grim:  she went downstairs, walking on the balls of her feet so her stacked-leather heels would not clump-clump-clump down the stairs, and just as she reached the bottom, the front door opened and her Gammaw stood there, smiling at her.

"Ready?" she asked, and Marnie's smile was instant and brilliant:  she took her Gammaw's hand as Willamina called, "Shelly?  I'm stealing Marnie for the afternoon!"

 

Marnie liked it when her Gammaw took her to Tea Society lessons.

Her Gammaw taught her things a Lady needed to know.

This was the secret reason Marnie preferred her skirts and her dresses:  she wore full skirts, not tight skirts, and this afforded her a marvelous range of motion.

She and her Gammaw would stretch, and warm up, her Gammaw taught her kicks and thrusts, her Gammaw taught her grips and come-alongs, her Gammaw taught her punches and strikes: Marnie and her Gammaw worked on these at least every other day, and generally a little more often than that, and her Gammaw told her about the McKenna ranch, and a pale eyed girl named Sarah, and Sarah's twin sisters, and how Sarah's first Daddy was a rake and a scoundrel and a gambling no-good who intended to sell his wife and daughter into slavery in San Francisco:  Marnie grew very quiet and very serious, for she knew what it was to see someone sold, and taken away, and she listened carefully as her Gammaw told her how someone Old Pale Eyes knew, a woman named Clark, came out and took over the running of their beef operation.

Willamina described how Clark's hair -- thick and red and coarse and clear down to her belt -- would be braided, and wrapped around her neck as insulation in winter, but mostly for protection against knife attack, and Marnie considered this wisdom, and so when her Gammaw came to pick her up for another Tea Society lesson, she noticed her granddaughter's braids were neatly, precisely, wrapped around her neck.

 

Young John Greenlees Jr. gave his bow tie a final tug, tilted his head down, considered his hair, decided it was fine.

His shoes were shined, his trousers pressed, he wore a button up shirt and a necktie, his jacket hung over the back of the chair: the Sheriff asked him to help her, and he'd agreed, and he thought it a little unusual that she asked him to dress for the occasion, but dress he did, and glad he was that he had.

John Greenlees admired the Sheriff's pale eyed son, a lean man with a quick smile and a way of making John feel as if Linn was listening to him with both ears when the talked:  John loved watching Linn dance with his wife, with his Mama, with the several ladies of their Tea Society: John wished to be able to dance as well, and when Willamina came into the still air of the round barn under the cliff, she had her granddaughter with her.

John's ears warmed to an amazing degree as Willamina paired them off, placed John's hand around Marnie's waist, brought their hands out and clasped, and with the help of her tall, lean son, and some appropriate music, Marnie and John learned to waltz.

Years later, many years later, as Marnie looked up at her husband, as Marnie waltzed in her husband's arms, she remembered what it was to be a shy, uncertain little girl, just learning to dance, and somehow -- even though in those later years, Marnie and John were husband and wife -- she still felt that delicious thrill of dancing with him for the very first time.

 

 

 

 

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372. ANALYSIS

The fist was fast, hard, launched with all the strength of its owner: Linn's forearm intercepted, knocked it out of line, then straightened and grabbed the attacker's neck while his polished Wellington boot snapped up behind the fighter's knee, pulled: Linn backed up a step, pale eyes hard, hands raised and bladed as his attacker hit the ground, bounced, came up at him again just before running into the heel of a fast moving hand.

Linn drove a heelstrike into his attacker's nose, just as hard as he could hit him: blood squirted in two directions and the man's head snapped back.

Marnie's eyes were wide and she watched, shocked, as her big strong Daddy -- her Daddy, laughing, smiling, her Daddy who'd picked her up and rubbed noses with her, the Daddy who leaned his fore head against hers and looked at her with one big eye and hummed, "I see yooouuuuu!" and Marnie giggled happily when he did -- her Daddy, who went from laughing and smiling, to silent and deadly when attacked without warning, her Daddy was someone she'd never seen.

Marnie was shocked, frozen, remembering the violence she'd seen in Where She Used To Be, but the violence there was uncontrolled:  her Daddy was tightly controlled, and even though he decked his attacker, he remained silent: instead of jumping on the attacker, stomping the attacker, instead of jumping up and down on the attacker's belly and ribs and face like she'd thought was normal, her Daddy rolled the attacker over and cuffed him quickly, tightly, rolled him up on his side and made sure he was breathing:  only then did he pull out his phone, thumb the screen, put the phone to his ear.

Marnie was surprised that her Daddy's voice was quiet.

She'd been used to screaming and swearing and voices in anger, but here, even with her Daddy's face pale and tight and his eyes shining like weak sunlight on a lake's frozen surface, his voice was quiet, tight, controlled.

He looked at her as he put his phone away.

"Princess," he said, "are you okay?"

Marnie was honestly surprised she could still nod.

"Let's go see your Gammaw, shall we?"

Marnie blinked hopefully, nodded again, afraid to move.

 

Willamina pulled a chair up beside hers, behind her desk:  she picked up Marnie, sat her in the chair.

Willamina seated herself, clasped her hands on her stockinged knees, regarded her silent, unmoving granddaughter with interested eyes.

"Tell me what happened," she said, her voice gentle, and Marnie, shivered, blinking rapidly, remembering.

"This guy," she said, "he called Daddy a bad word."

"Go on."

"Daddy smiled and said 'Yeah, God loves you too,' and the, he, Daddy raised his arm" -- Marnie raised her forearm -- "he tried to hit Daddy an' Daddy didn't let him an' Daddy put his hand out" -- Marnie's hand pushed out, fingers curled, hand cocked back, unconsciously imitating her Daddy's strike -- "an' he Daddy give him a bloody nose!"

"I see."

"An' Daddy put the hancups on him an' he called 911 an' he come over an' said you okay Princess an' I was scared Gammaw I couldn't move I was scared --"

Willamina opened her hands, a grandmother's invitation, and Marnie slid out of her chair and into her Gammaw's embrace and Willamina held the terrified child as she shivered and remembered.

"What happened next?"  Willamina whispered in Marnie's ear, pushing her through the most terrible moment she recalled, knowing she had to push the child through that wall of terror, or the wall would grow tough and strong and Marnie would never, ever get past it.

Marnie whispered back, "Da bad guy he they picked him up an' he went to jail," and Willamina whispered "What happened next?" and Marnie whispered "Daddy held me and he picked me up and said he had to do lots of paper work now an' we were gonna come see Gammaw."

"What happened next?"

"Daddy carried me to his Jeep an' put me in the front seat an' The Bear Killer was asleep in back an' he woke up an' come up to say hi."

Willamina's arms tightened, just a little, enough to reassure, not enough to confine:  she loosened her embrace, leaned back, placed gentle fingertips under Marnie's chin.

"That must have been scary," she whispered.

Marnie nodded, her eyes big and vulnerable.

"Have you ever seen your Daddy like that?"

Marnie shook her head.

"Does it scare you that your Daddy can be violent?"

Marnie blinked, frowning a little, as she tried to justify the memory of her laughing, gentle Daddy-who-loves-me with this cold-eyed, brutal and unquestionably effective warrior.

"Gammaw, how come Daddy didn't yell any?"

Willamina blinked.  "Yell?"

Marnie nodded.  "Lots of yelling. An' he didn't jump up an' down on his guts neither."

"Is that what you saw before?"

Marnie paled, nodding.

"Your Daddy," Marnie said gently, "is a strong man who does what is necessary, when it's necessary. He is not vicious and he is not a murderer. Sometimes good men have to be violent when it's the only thing bad men will understand."

"I was scared, Gammaw."

Willamina brushed the hair back from Marnie's forehead.  "You had every right to be scared," she whispered.

Marnie blinked, surprised.  "Really?"

Willamina nodded.

"Now" -- Willamina tilted her head a little, smiled -- "tell me about the braids you've wrapped around your neck."

Marnie's smile was sudden, bright.  "Sarah Lynne McKenna said that's what Clark did!"

Willamina took a moment to search her mental files, came up with the ancient notation that prompted Marnie's action, nodded.  "Yes, she did."

"Gammaw, I don't want hurt no more."

"And we intend that you should not be hurt."  Willamina's voice was gentle.  "This is why you are being introduced to the Ladies' Tea Society, and this is why you are receiving Tea Society lessons."

Marnie blinked, puzzled.

"Marnie, your Daddy is a fine man and he does his level best to keep his ladies safe."

Marnie nodded solemnly.

"Your Daddy can't be everywhere. Right now your Mommy is at work and your Daddy is in the conference room, writing up reports and talking with the prosecutor and arranging for surveillance videos to be obtained.  You're here.  He can't be at the firehouse, and here, and in here, all at the same time, so we women" -- her smile was quiet, but there was something different, something ... inclusive ... about the expression -- "we women have secrets, and one of them is that we can keep ourselves safe when we have to."

Marnie's eyes went from interested and trusting, to scared, and Willamina could see Marnie pulling into herself, drawing her defensive shell protectively around her young, wounded soul.

"Come with me."  Willamina gripped Marnie's hand lightly.  "I understand that a chocolate sundae is therapeutic after watching a street brawl."

 

 

 

 

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373. A WOODY ADDRESS

I looked at the town below me.

Firelands looked deceptively close, a trick of clear air and distance.

Wood smoke trailed straight up out of a half dozen chimneys, declaring the wind's stillness: this was a rare moment, and it made me uncomfortable.

I have not been truly comfortable for a very long time.

I'm the Sheriff.

I was in that damned War.

Men learned not to come up behind me, men learned not to touch my back, those who would wish our little society ill learned the hard way that once my fuse is lit there's no hold-back a'tall.

I've killed more men than they've had meals in their lifetime, and I've killed men since that damned War, and killin' a man doesn't trouble me much anymore.

My son Jacob is my right hand.

Might be God give my corroded soul a second chance when He brought Jacob to me.

I'd no idea I'd sired a colt on that half crazy woman back in Kansas, but I had, and once the Agent Sopris steered Jacob to me, why, I taken him in for my own, for he was my own.

Jacob was my height now, he was as broad at the shoulder and as lean at the waist, he had my pale eyes: both of us had a curled lip broom, though his was a good rich red and mine was gone to iron grey.

Both of us curled our mustache in a good sweeping handlebar and Jacob's is better than mine, for his is a fuller growth of hair.  Mine ain't bad but his is better, and that suits me, for a father always hopes his son will out-do him.

I rode a palomino stallion, a gift from the Rancho Vega y Vega, and Jacob rode an Appaloosa cross of his own breeding: he had an eye for horses and he bred horses that were tough as seasoned white oak and suited for the thin air of these high mountains, and all his horses were named Apple.

Makes it simple, I reckon.

I looked down at the town and I was restless, waiting for something bad to happen.

Jacob's horse was angled left a little, and mine, to the right: we both had the habit of watching round about, of listening, of smelling: neither of us took up tobacco and so we could smell much better than those who had, and we listened and we smelt and we watched round about, and we lifted our chins and tightened our knees and stepped our horses off toward town.

 

Jacob Keller sat his saddle with the ease of a man born to horseback.

His pale eyed Pa told him he'd learned to ride before he'd learned to walk, and though that was likely not so, it encouraged Jacob to set his own son a-saddle before the laughing, toothless babe was ready to take his first step: young Joseph, and his brothers after, did grow up in the saddle, did learn to ride well younger than most, did learn the horse and learn it well.

Jacob's boys delighted in riding with their pale eyed Pa, just as Jacob delighted in riding with his pale eyed Pa, and he and his father sat stirrup to stirrup, for a long moment, then by old habit they stepped their horses a little to the side and angled them outward, the better to cover each other's blind side.

Jacob saw a tidy little town, the buildings painted, the streets clean, he knew every living soul there: it was home, and he was content to live here, and he looked upon the scene with contentment.

 

We rode on into town, to the Sheriff's office; we stabled our mounts in the little shed we'd built for that purpose, behind the Sheriff's office, we stripped saddles and bitless bridles and brushed down our mounts, not out of need, but because the horses liked it, and it afforded a few quiet moments when things might be discussed before assuming our duties of the day.

Nothing came to mind.

Jacob has a most satisfying gift of silence.

Too many men will fill silence with idle chatter, talk for the sake of talking, as if afraid of the quiet: me, I'd rather an honest silence -- very likely because my own father taught me at a tender age, "Son, if you have nothing to say, say nothing!" -- advice which I found to be sound indeed.

Kind of like his admonishment, "Hurry up is brother to mess it up."

It's right amazin' how often I've proven the Grand Old Man right on that one.

Once we finished up, why, we went on around the corner -- I don't know if Jacob gave it another thought, but we both hesitated at the same moments, he looked left and I looked right and we swung our gaze around, and then we came out and down the alley, and we swept the ground near to far, we cast our eyeball upon the rooflines, we trod with stealth, all as a matter of habit, and such a habit it was, that I don't reckon either of us gave it a moment's thought.

Nobody was dozin' on the Deacon's Bench, no new wanted dodgers had been hung, none were torn down; I reached up, pulled one loose -- I'd got word the night before that Froggy Schlingermann met with a bad end over in Carbon, and I was not surprised a'tall.  The man didn't have a huge reward on his head, but it was enough, and it turned out he wasn't killed for the reward, but for the big mouth that gave him his name.  Apparently he run that big mouth one time too many or to the wrong man and he got kilt over in Carbon Hill's saloon.

I turned and glared my gaze the length of the street up, I turned and seared it with my eyes for its length south, for there was something waiting, something that wished to cause me harm, or my family, or my county, and when it happened, I would kill it, and I would sleep well the night following.

 

Jacob turned as well, and at the same time, and the same rate, as his father:  his pale eyes, too, scoured the street, from its uphill terminus, through its length, to the opposite end: he, too, was watchful for any threat, but he'd concluded he could whip anything the Almighty permitted to come his way, and if he could not whip it, it would whip him, and that would mean the Almighty had set up a lesson somebody else needed to see, and that he, Jacob, would be a tool in that lesson:  though it cost his life, it would be God's will, and in this, he was content, knowing that it would be God's will, and content knowing that he would fight it with every last living fiber in his long tall horseman's carcass, and like his Pa, he was just pretty damned good in a fight.

Father and son disappeared into the little log fortress that was their Sheriff's office.

An observer, standing outside, might hear the squeak of the pot belly stove, might see smoke just starting out the chimney, might hear the measured pace of boot heels on the puncheon floor, and an observer would not miss the sight of a coffee pot being slung out the door, slung hard -- a coffee pot that spun through the morning stillness, and hit the street, bouncing, rolling over, revealing its bottom to be crumpled from the impact, rotted clear out:  a street urchin scampered out, seized the blue granite wreck, ran it back to the trash pile and tossed it onto a pile of similarly murdered coffee pots, the accumulation of several years' worth of the Sheriff's absolutely terrible luck at trying to make coffee.

Were the observer to look through the still-open door, he might see the Sheriff's son maintaining a carefully neutral expression as he watched something -- a scene that followed a BANG and an oath, followed by the sight of the Sheriff packing his office chair out into the street, and hoisting it over his head and SLAMMING it down into the wagon-ruts in the center of the street:  the lawman would then be seen stomping over and behind the Silver Jewel, returning with an ax, with which to address this offending piece of furniture, and by this token, by the sight of the pale eyed lawman in a lack suit swinging an ax and breaking up what used to be a perfectly good office chair, the observer would know that the Sheriff had set down in his chair and it flipped out from under him, landing him flat on his back with his boots thrust toward the ceiling and the back of his head smarting from bouncing off the tight-fitted, sanded, varnished, painfully-clean plank floor.

The chair's shivers were gathered and carried inside, and would serve as kindling for subsequently fires in their cast iron stove; another chair would be obtained from the Mercantile, and the Sheriff would set it in place, the Sheriff would carefully place his Stetson on its peg, the Sheriff would shake his coat back and formally address the chair with the warning that its predecessor met its end when it threw him down and wallered him, and he had no patience with equipment that worked ag'in him, and he would not hesitate to take an ax to this new chair if it proves as treacherous and traitorous as its predecessor.

The Sheriff always did have a fine speaking voice, and the Sheriff's voice would be heard by this unnamed observer.

Jacob, inside, would be seen through the doorway, maintaining a solemn and neutral expression through his father's address:  it was a performance he'd seen four times so far, and as long as those rascally chairs were made with a swivel base and four casters, he had no doubt the performance would be repeated.

 

Brother William once told me it was a Druidic belief that spirits lived in trees, and we were performing a pagan propitiation when we "knock wood" -- that we are calling to the spirit of that particular tree to intercede on our behalf.

Perhaps he might speculate that I was addressing the woody spirit within my chair, instructing it to work with me and not against me, lest I take an ax to it as well.

I'll have to address him on the matter.

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

374. LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Linn dipped a popcorn shrimp in the red sauce, took a bite, looked around.

He and Paul Barrents were in a booth against the far wall, where they could see the entrance of the little diner; Linn took the interior, Paul, the window: should unpleasantness develop, one or the other of the two lawmen would have a visual on it -- hopefully before anything happened.

Paul took a bite of his burger, regarded his old friend speculatively.

"Out with it," he finally said.  "You've got somethin' runnin' around in your head like an armored packrat in a squirrelcage."

Linn picked up a waffle fry, dunked it in the little cup of cheese sauce.  "Yeah," he admitted.

Both lawmen continued their meal as Linn arranged his thoughts.

"I am not the brightest bulb in the chandelier," Linn finally admitted.

Paul squirted a little ketchup on the waxed paper liner, dabbed a salted fry in it, looked at his partner, nodded.

"Every night -- well, most every night," Linn said, "I'll pull Marnie up on my lap and I'll read to her."

Paul Barrents had the gift of a poker face, but Linn could still see approval in his old friend's eyes.

"She's ... she likes to read, but she likes it when dear old Dad reads to her."

Barrents nodded, taking another bite of burger.

 

Shelly turned, surprised, took a step toward a woman she almost didn't recognize.

"Freida! I'm sorry, my mind was on another continent!"

"I've only got a minute," the older woman confided, laying gentle fingertips on the back of Shelly's hand, "but I just had to tell you!"

Shelly raised an eyebrow, inclined her head, the way a woman will when another is sharing a confdence.

"Your daughter," Freida said.  "Marnie.  Delightful child.  I just had to tell you!"  Freida looked at Shelly with a very pleased expression.  "Your daughter is very ladylike in her demeanor, and there is only one place she could have learned that!"  

Freida's voice was thin, an old woman's voice, but a voice that smiled, and Shelly could hear the smile in her words, even if she couldn't see the delight in the old woman's face -- which she did.

"Now, dearie, I want you to do something for me."  Freida stopped for breath, nodded, looked at Shelly again.

"When you get home tonight, I want you to stand in front of a mirror.  I want you to reach over your shoulder, and pat yourself on the back, and tell the reflection, 'You done good!' " -- because there is only one place your daughter could ever have learned to be such a proper young lady!"

 

"She's taken to her lessons -- I think her first grade teacher is unhappy with me."  Linn chuckled, took a long drink of iced tea.  "She went into first grade reading at a sixth grade level."

"You did too," Barrents reminded quietly.

"Sure did."  Linn laughed.  "I got so sick full of See Dick, See Jane, See Baby Sally, see me throw up.  I'd slip up to the sixth grade library and steal National Geographics just so I had something to actually read!"  He took a long breath, remembering, shook his head.  "Got sent to the office for that one."

"I always hated it when they held back the bright ones."

"Yeah, me too."  Linn finished the shrimp, frowned at his empty cheese dip, ate the last waffle fry naked, drained his tea.

"Marnie is really excelling in school.  Her teacher told me she's well advanced, and I told her about getting sent to the office, and she told me Marnie won't be held down or stifled.  I guess there's advanced placement available."

Barrents nodded.

"And she still climbs in your lap and asks you to read to her."

"Yeah."

"You're doing it right, my friend."  Barrents leaned forward, looked very directly at his pale eyed counterpart.  "My father was discussing that with me last night, and he sends some advice."

Linn leaned forward, listening with both ears:  he had a very deep respect for JW Barrents, who'd served as his Mama's segundo for years, and had earned Linn's absolute affection and admiration from a very young age.

"You, my friend, are to go home tonight. You are to look in a mirror.  You are to reach over your shoulder, and pat yourself on the back, and say to the reflection, 'You done good.'  And my father says to take that from a man who knows what it is to bury a child."

Linn's expression was serious as he listened to the words.

He nodded, slowly, then he looked up as the waitress came around and asked about dessert.

She tilted her head and smiled.

"You're Marnie's Daddy, aren't you?"
He looked at Barrents, looked at the waitress, grinned.

"Yes, ma'am," he said gently.

"She is just the sweetest child! I should have known she was your daughter by the way you placed your order!"

"Well, trust me to cause trouble," Linn said carefully, and Barrents saw his partner's ears starting to redden, "what did I do now?"

The waitress laughed.  "Most people will come in and say 'Give me this' or 'I'll have that,' and every time you come in, you ask if you could trouble me for whatever it is, and you always ask it gently, and she does the same thing."  She looked at the pale eyed lawman, bent just a little at the waist, and said quietly, "You're doing it right, keep it up!"

Linn gave Barrents a funny look and said "O-kay, I'll do that," and handed her cash money for the meal: the two rose, followed the hash slinger to the front door and wished her a good day, and went on out to the cruiser.

"You drive, or me?"

"Hell, I'll drive."

Barrents climbed in the passenger side, Linn slid behind the wheel: he thrust his key in the ignition, stopped, frowned, looked at his partner.

"That felt kind of good," he admitted.

Barrents nodded.  "You earned it."

Linn turned the key, the big block engine shivered and woke up, and Barrents reached for the grey plastic microphone to mark in to Dispatch.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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375. THE LESSON

The Bear Killer was an organic part of the land, or so it seemed.

Linn and Shelly were concerned that The Bear Killer's death would distress their little girl:  Marnie had been through hell itself in her younger years, and they had no idea how the loss of this boon companion and massive protector would affect her wounded soul.

Somehow Linn wasn't surprised when Marnie came bouncing back in the house, the day after The Bear Killer's exanimate clay had been given honorable interment up on High Lonesome, with a bright-eyed, scarlet-tongued, black-furred ball of something furry, something she called Bear Killer, something that had very obviously adopted her.

The Bear Killer's collar fell off the shelf and hit the floor -- a loud, sharp note, Shelly jumped and Linn almost did -- and the little fur ball went over to the collar, snuffed it, grunted a few times, and sat down in it.

Marnie looked up with bright and shining eyes and said "The Bear Killer says he'll have to grow into his collar."

Later that day, the Sheriff asked Linn, "When did The Bear Killer die?"

He looked at her, not entirely surprised -- he'd not told her, but she had a way of knowing things -- he said "Last night, beside Marnie's bed."

Willamina smiled.  "Draw some coffee and sit down."

Linn did.

Willamina settled into her seat, wrapped her hands around the warm ceramic mug, stared into its shimmering black heart, and spoke in a quiet voice.

"He came to see me last night."

 

She was naked.

She sat on the riverbank, her arm around The Bear Killer's shoulders.

He was old, and tired, his muzzle was silvered; she could feel the aches of old age deep in his bones, she could feel the strength of that loyal old heart, she could feel his soul-deep fatigue.

He was tired, and it was time he wasn't tired any more.

It was time to put aches and pains and old-age tired behind him, once and for all.

They rose together, walked to water's edge.

Willamina looked up, looked at the solid, firm, very real bridge that arched over the river:  the bridge was made of a shining, almost glitter-sparkle rainbow, and her lips formed its name, unbidden:

"Bifrost."

Her hand was light on The Bear Killer's shoulders, and they waded into the river and swam.

Willamina swam easily, stroking against the gentle current:  The Bear Killer forged steadily beside her, keeping pace: they came to the far bank, climbed the gentle, sandy slope:  they dripped water and laughed as they slung water from them in shining crystal arcs, and they lay down in the sun-warmed grass and rolled, and stretched, they rose and they ran, and Willamina felt young, renewed, refreshed.

It did not surprise her that The Bear Killer ran without pain, stretched without the arthritic agonies that nearly crippled his faithful old carcass:  here, here he was refreshed, renewed, young, strong, the way she remembered him.

He ran toward her, and past, his mouth open and happy, his tongue out, and there was no longer the least trace of silver about his blunt muzzle.

They spent their day thusly, together, running, rolling, laughing, remembering: there at the last, as the sun slid down toward the horizon, they sat once again, side by side, Willamina's arm across The Bear Killer's shoulders, and they were content.

Just before the sun dipped a toe below the horizon line, Willamina rose, looked across the river, looked across the clear crystal waters at the Land of the Living, looked at her old and dear companion.

"I have to go back," she said.

"I know," The Bear Killer replied.  "And I have to stay."

"I know," Willamina said.

She knelt, she wrapped her arms around his great, muscled neck.

"I will miss you."

"I will be there."

Willamina rose, and waded into the water, she pushed out into the current, and swam back, as The Bear Killer sat on the far shore and watched:  finally he turned, and loped across the sun-warmed grasses, toward those who waited to welcome another of the Faithful into their Pack.

Willamina woke, alone, in the darkness of her bedroom, her hand closing on the empty space where her husband's hand used to be, and she felt her eyes sting, for she knew.

She knew.

 

Marnie did not train her very young Bear Killer.

She didn't have to.

He already seemed to know all he needed to: he was at once a happy, romping puppy, scampering along with the apple-cheeked, giggling little girl, sitting beside her and looking at her with bright and adoring eyes as she read her lessons to him, waiting patiently at the supper table for the inevitable fallout: at night, and just as The Bear Killer had for the first year and more after Marnie arrived as a timid, frightened, soul-wounded little girl, this Bear Killer slept cuddled up against the small of her back, warm, solid, reassuring.

Willamina was a frequent visitor, and a most welcome guest, generally arriving horseback, and invariably greeted by a delighted "Gammaw!" and a pair of flying pigtail braids, by a bouncing black dog, hard-muscled and blocky already, and in the dirt of the corral, beside a little girl's small boot prints, the prints of the passing canine were not those of a small, growing puppy.

They were the prints of a full sized mountain Mastiff.

 

 

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376. A MERE GIRL

Firecrackers rattled in the background, far enough away to avoid the ire of those with horses; those with horses to race, checked cinches and bridles and hooves, looked at the other riders, gauging their skill, the way they set their saddles, the way they moved with their mounts:  knowing eyes appraised the horses, bets were laid, wagers placed.

The brass band played with enthusiasm and with a surprising amount of skill:  from the judge's stand, a man in a top hat and a colorful sash read something that no one paid the least attention to, at least until he laid down the paper from which he read, and picked up a pistol, pointed the muzzle in the air and screamed, "GO!" and punctuated his command with a pistol-shot.

Sarah Lynne McKenna's blood cooled several degrees as her legs tightened around the mare's barrel.

On the signup, she was S. McKenna, riding White Star: she wore all black, she wore her hat low and her bandanna pulled up, and unlike the other riders, she did not carry a quirt.

She carried a three foot long, braided leather cane, and she did not carry it for her horse.

She carried it because it was a weapon.

Riders, a moment ago side by side, launched off the line, spurring, quirting, profaning their mounts: Sarah knew the rider to her right had the reputation of a cheat, and when his quirt slashed through the air at her face, the cane caught the quirt close to his hand:  a twist, a jerk, her leather gloved hand seized his weapon and pulled, hard.

The mare surged forward under her, the cheat yelled, fell out of his saddle, his left foot caught in the stirrup:  he pulled desperately on the reins, released the quirt, and just before a hoof caught the side of his head and turned his vision into a red-hazed burst of stars, he tried to kick his trapped foot free.

Sarah stood up in the stirrups, pressed her palms against the white mare's neck.

Hooves thundered and pounded, horses fell, reared, screamed:  the mare swerved, leaped, sailed over a fallen horse and rider:  Sarah clung like a tick on a hound dog, screamed "GO, GO, GO, GO!" and the mare's ears flattened back against her head:  Sarah rode with slack reins, letting the mare do what she loved most of anything on this earth -- she loved to run -- and run she did, and Sarah's soul sang for joy as she and her mount became one living soul, disdaining to touch the profaning earth, skimming along like a bird thrusting mightily against the air rather than a creature with legs, running on dirt.

The mare stuck her nose straight out, her tail streamed straight out behind her, they turned at the mark, swung left, across the open country:  two horses, and only two, were flanking her, and neither one close by.

Sean watched through his polished brass spyglass, smiling a little as his dear Lady, his lead mare, the one who led the three-horse hitch, drew a pure white line across the field:  Sean raised his horses, he trained his horses, he exercised his horses, he sold his mares to fire departments back East, and for a pretty penny -- fire horses raised and trained in the high mountain air, the thin mountain air, were stronger and faster when they ran in the heavier air of the lowlands, and so it was here.

This Colorado mare was showing these Kansas horses what it was to run!

The final turn.

Sarah was first to the post, she swung wide, knowing the rider to her left would cut it tight around the post: she did not wish to risk a collision -- she dare not -- they came out abreast of one another, each horse determined not to let the other ahead, each one digging fiercely against the earth, each one absolutely splitting the wind:  Sarah's spine was parallel with her mare's, she rode with her hands on the mare's neck, like her Papa did, she ran with her weight balanced on the balls of her feet, she rode for the sheer unadulterated joy of riding and of running and her mare grunted with each thrust, and they came in sight of the finish line, of men waving hats and yelling, little boys jumping up and down, women fluttering their kerchiefs, they ran with sunlight shining off the brass band and hats thrown in the air and a tape pulled across the finish line and Sarah screamed "SAINT FLORIAN, SAINT PATRICK AND THE BLESSED VIRGIN, GIRL RUN!" -- they pulled ahead --

A little boy ran out under the tape, chasing something, bent over, oblivious to the onrushing hooves --

A woman reached, screamed --

The white mare launched off the earth, soared through the air, over the bent-over little boy and over the tape, she came down and kept running, and it took a while for her to slow down, and to turn, and to ride back, back to where the other riders were slowing, and stopping, where a woman alternately cried and hugged her little boy, and took him by the back of his neck and smacked his backside, and hugged him again, and Sarah cantered back to the crowd, and the crowd parted as men shouted and hats were thrown in the air and Sean shouldered his way through the crowd with a grin on his face and a bottle in his hand, and Sarah sat down and tickled the mare with her toes, and the white mare reared, and windmilled her hooves, and Sarah whipped off her broad black hat and pulled down her bandanna, she shook her head to free her braids and Sean roared with delight and tossed his bottle to another of the Irish Brigade.

The German Irishman took the mare's bridle, and walked her away at a brisk pace to cool her down, and Sean caught Sarah as Sarah jumped from the saddle, and Sean threw his head back and laughed with delight, whirling Sarah around, and Sarah threw her head back and laughed as well, arms and legs and pigtail braids swinging in the breeze, and Sean threw her in the air, caught her on his shoulder and strode boldly to the judge's stand.

There was some official sputtering and protest -- something about not awarding the prize to a mere girl -- at least until Sean tossed Sarah off his shoulder and into his hands, until Sean set her feet down on the wooden judge's platform, until Sean seized the judge one handed and picked him off the floor, until Sean pressed the man up to arm's length and carried him to the edge of the platform and held him out, until the judge's face turned kind of purple and he agreed that indeed, this remarkable young lady was the winner, to which there was a general surging roar of approval, the brass band struck a lively air, and Sean snatched Sarah up as the German Irishman came triumphantly through the crowd with the white mare in tow.

Sean whirled Sarah around again, and brought her in close, and Sarah felt very much like a little girl again, in the grip of the hard-muscled Celtic giant, and she laughed and threw her arms around his neck, delighting in the moment, laughing yet again when Sean rumbled, "How does it feel t'be a mere girl, lass?" and Sean felt Sarah's vibration against his hard-muscled chest and she whispered in his ear, "It feels good!"

 

 

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377. AFTER THE PARADE

Marnie Keller sat in the driver's box of the Firelands Fire Department's immaculately restored Steam Masheen, their gleaming, fully functional Ahrens steam fire fighting engine.

The German Irishman was the designated engineer; he made sure they had water enough on board, he had enough of a fire to generate steam -- what good was a steam engine without a working steam whistle? -- their very own Irish Brigade, in red bib front shirts with the gold Maltese cross hand embroidered in the very center, pressed-leather helmets, mustaches grown for a year especially for this Fourth of July parade -- grown, trained, waxed, curled -- and three matched white mares in their polished black harness, handmade harness bells swinging from a stiff wire above each padded collar.

The parade was formed up just down-street from the firehouse: the plan was for the horsedrawn Ahrens to fall in, in the designated gap, followed by the square nosed, freshly waxed Kenworth pumper: the pumper-tanker would remain at the firehouse, staffed, ready to respond, as would one of the two squads: the rescue, which doubled as an ambulance, would follow the pumper-tanker, with the tanker and the regular ambulance, remaining at station.

This was the plan.

Unfortunately, the Chief had a rather urgent summons at the very last minute, one of considerable discomfort and intense urgency, and he was not yet returned to the driver's box when the designated gap in the parade arrived at the firehouse.

Marnie turned and regarded the German Irishman with serious young eyes and nodded, in response to his quietly voiced question: a white helmet was carefully placed on her head, tilted back so she could see out from under it, Marnie clucked up the mares, gave the reins a little flip, and three matched white mares stepped out, swinging their beloved Steam Masheen into the gap.

The front page of the Firelands Gazette would be carefully preserved, laminated, kept in a book maintained for such moments, a front page clipping that showed their steam machine with the upright boiler, the blunt mouth exhaling smoke, a white finger of steam blasting up and around the steam-whistle, and a little girl in a white leather helmet, a denim skirt and vest, sitting very straight in the driver's tuck-and-roll upholstered driver's seat, her red cowboy boots braced on the dash board ahead of her, reins held quite properly in both hands, a black, curly-furred, blunt-muzzled young Mountain Mastiff on the seat beside her: the mares were in step, the shutter freezing their moment, one forehoof captured in mid-air, their square harness bells in mid-swing, and red-shirted firemen, grinning beneath villainously curled mustaches, hanging onto various parts of the burnished, gleaming, Steam Masheen, or perched casually on the ladder and hose wagon behind.

 

Marnie jumped down from the driver's box at the end of the parade route: she accepted an ice cream cone with a polite "Thank you," and with the old-fashioned, white leather helmet tilted way back on her head, she walked around to the mares and talked to each one like they were old friends, caressing their noses, thanking them for their kindness in letting her drive them in the parade.

Marnie drove the steam engine back to the firehouse, when she was asked to do so: the Irish Brigade was content to let this talented young lady handle the horses -- besides, they could flex muscles and puff out manly chests while she handled the driving, they could tilt their helmets aggressively forward on their heads, hamming it up terribly for the ladies, knowing they were making spectacles of themselves and not caring -- it was a parade, after all, they were part of the scheduled entertainment, and such manly preening was almost expected, wasn't it?

Later that night, The Bear Killer watched, head tilted curiously, as Willamina handed Marnie the long nose lighter, as Marnie clicked it into life, as she applied flame to the fuse and backed away, and a skyrocket laid in a V-shaped cradle hissed and seared a blazing path into the night sky: and that night, when she finally lay down in her own bed, after her Mommy and her Daddy tucked her in, after The Bear Killer launched into bed with her, turned around three times and lay down, warm and reassuring against the small of her back, there alone in the dark, Marnie smiled and remembered fireworks and lemonade, remembered the smell of horsies and the feel of horsepower drawing her along, knowing that if the need arose, the matched white mares could draw her along at a most respectable velocity.

A little girl closed her eyes, content, for her Fourth of July had been delightful indeed.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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378. "I BROUGHT YOUR HAT"

Chief Chuck Fitzgerald smelled flowers and antiseptic, he felt bedsheets and something uncomfortable just below his belt on the right hand side, he took a long breath and opened his eyes.

Oh yeah.

Hospital.

The nurse had been in not long before and helped him get rid of some second hand coffee, and breakfast was supposed to be on its way -- not that he held much hope it would amount to much, his breakfast would likely be broth and weak tea -- but it still gave him something to look forward to.

There was a delicate little tap-tap at his door, and the door pushed open:  Fitz took a long breath, wondering what medical indignity would be inflicted upon him this time.

It was bad enough he passed out in his own firehouse, bad enough he was told he'd been loaded on one of his own stretchers, loaded into his own squad, transported by his own people to the ER:  now he had to recover from some ham handed surgeon going elbow deep in his guts, stirring things around and, oh, I dunno, maybe he wasn't content to pull out a hot appendix and decided to look for buried treasure while he was in there?

Fitz opened his eyes again and blinked with surprise.

He was looking at a solemn pair of light-blue eyes, and as he focused, he realized the eyes belonged to a pretty little girl with pigtails and a serious expression, a little girl who lifted something dome shaped and white and said "I brought your hat."

Fitz watched as she stretched way up on her tippy toes and balanced the hat on top of the shining, chromed side rails; he reached a hand up, gripped the pressed-leather brim of the ancient, white, Chief's hat with the tall shield in front, a hat worn first by a red-headed Irishman named Sean well more than a century before.

"It doesn't fit me very well," a little girl's voice said, and Fitz smiled a little, for she was enunciating her words very precisely, the way a well mannered child will do when someone special came to visit.

"Thank you, darlin'," he said quietly, smiling a little.  "Forgive me if I don't rise."

Marnie tilted her head curiously.  "You're not bread dough, how can you rise?"

Fitz chuckled, grimaced: it hurt to laugh, and the serious-faced little girl suddenly looked distressed.

"I'm sowwy," she said, looking around:  "Gammaw said she used to give pate-chunts a pillow to hug if they had belly surgery an' it helped."

"That's okay," Fitz gasped.  "I'll live."

"You don't want to reinjure," Marnie said with a positive nod to her head: "the initial injury will heal in a normal progression, but a reinjury takes more than twice as long."

Fitz raised an eyebrow, and his father's instinct told him she'd heard an adult discussion and managed to file it appropriately in her flexible young mind.

"That's right, sweetheart," he said gently.  "Thank you for bringing my hat."  He placed it on his flat belly, smiled.  "It would be a little awkward wearin' it here in bed."

"They put it on me an' said drive so I did," Marnie said cautiously. "The ladies were ver-ry ver-ry good."

"Ah, the ladies," Fitz sighed.  "I'm glad they were good for you."

"Nobody ran the siren behind us. I'm glad too. Gammaw said sirens spook horsies."

"Aye, lass, they do that," Fitz sighed again, shaking his head. "I made that mistake one time an' got spoken to about it!"

"I'm sowwy," Marnie said sadly, sorrow clouding her pretty young face.

Another knock on the door, a candy-striper came swinging in, all smiles and striped skirt and brisk, bubbling enthusiasm:  "Good morning, good morning, I see you have a visitor, we have breakfast, I'm sure you'll like it," and Marnie turned and said "I see ya," and turned, and scampered noisily out of the room, all pigtails and red cowboy boots and denim skirt and giggle.

Fitz grimaced as the bed was raised to a sitting position, as the table was run over his middle as the chattering high-school girl whisked the stainless-steel lid off his sumptuous repast, as he saw his breakfast was, as he'd feared, weak tea and unseasoned broth.

"Can I get you anything else?" the candy-striper chirped helpfully, and Fitz gave her a sour look, regarded the IV bag plumbed into his left elbow, and said, "Yeah.  Replace that plastic sack with a bottle of whiskey, why don't you."

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379. GAMMAW'S MISSING SUIT

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller knew she was going to kill a man.

There had been a conspiracy, and the conspiracy already cost one renegade miner his life, but not until that murdering conspirator murdered the first Sheriff and a deputy, and damn near killed her as well.

Had it not been for something utterly impossible, something she had yet to process, evidence she had yet to collect -- well, she'd tend that in due time, but right now it was time to put an absolute end to a plot.

She pressed the comm button, spoke quietly into her wrist-mike.

"Medical emergency, Council Chambers," she said, and cut the comm-link.

She looked at the glowing lock plate, showing the Do Not Disturb logo.

Her eyes were very pale as she keyed in her override code.

The airlock door hissed open and she stepped through and into the Council chamber.

Surprised expressions turned toward her.

"Ah, Sheriff, I'm sorry, this is a Council meeting --"

"At which I have a rightful chair," Marnie snapped, striding up to the Council President's table.

She ripped the force-gun from her belt, raised it up and slammed it down on the table in front of him.

"Understand me when I tell you this," she hissed.  "I am the Sheriff. According to our charter, my authority exceeds yours. You have tried to circumvent my authority and remove my authority and that ends now. You can take that damned force gun and do things with it which are physically disgusting and anatomically impossible, I don't care, but I will NOT be constrained by YOUR IDIOT IDEAS EVER AGAIN!"

Shocked silence followed the Sheriff's pronouncement.

It was rare that she raised her voice -- for the others present, it was the first time they'd ever heard her speak above a pleasantly modulated tone -- but it raised the temper of the Council President.

He stood.

"Now see here, little lady --"

Marnie seized him by the front of his pressed tunic, hauled him across the table: she threw him to the floor, raised her hands to collar bone level.  

"You said you could whip me in a fair fight," she said.  "You made your brags, big man, now let's see you do it!"

"Why, you --"

Marnie twisted, letting his punch sail past her ear, dropped her shoulder and drove a fist into his low ribs: she had three into him before he could recover from his first, and as he gasped out his first pained breath, she backhanded him across his immaculately barbered cheek.

This last insult drove all good sense from his mind.

Marnie deflected a hooked punch, intended to catch her in the gut, she fired a straight left into his Adam's apple, and her punch was not in the least little bit gentle:  she drew the energy from the planet beneath her, focused it through the lens of her diaphragm and blasted it out through her good left arm, and her right swung in and buried her white-gloved fist, wrist deep in his solar plexus.

He bent over, his throat crushed, unable to breathe, the dread knowledge upon him that he was going to DIE and Marnie spun, a Dervish in one revolution, a Dervish with one upraised boot that caught him on the cheekbone and laid him out.

Sheriff Marnie Keller reached behind her, pulled a dangling cord: she caught something white and beltlike as it fell from her backpack, she swung a white gunbelt around her lean middle, she drew it snug, fast up the buckle: she pressed the thumb break on the white holster, withdrew a blued steel revolver, dunked six shining brass rounds into it, closed the cylinder, holstered.

"I and I alone will make the decisions concerning my Department," she said quietly, her voice smooth with the ice shining in her pale eyes.  "My word is law, now and forevermore, and that's in our Charter."  

She paused as the medic team overrode the Do Not Disturb and thrust into the Council chambers.

"Traumatic airway obstruction," Marnie announced, "I recommend you cut this throat and let him bleed."

She looked at the rest of Council.

"My investigation revealed a murderous conspiracy. I have the proofs. The murderer of our first Sheriff is dead. This conspirator is to be confined, if he lives, which he might not. One conspirator alone remains."  She looked very directly at one particular councilman, who turned a distinct, sickly pale.  "Suppose you tell us what you know, Shaw."

 

It feels good to wear a revolver again, she thought.

Uncle Will carried one of these, and he never felt under gunned.

I reckon this will serve me better than that damned force gun.

Sheriff Marnie Keller's pale eyes turned glacial again as she remembered discharging what was supposed to be the very latest in sidearms, only to see the force-bolt deflected by what was actually a very weak magnetic field.

Gammaw quoted her Uncle Pete, she thought.

I will not tolerate equipment that works against me.

As I recall, he'd tried his pipe lighter, it did not work, he laid it down on an anvil and addressed it most sternly with a crescent wrench, and then threw the battered remnant into the scrap pile.

Her inner forearm pressed lightly on the contoured, rubber-like handle, the way she used to when she was briefly a Sheriff's deputy back on Earth.

This feels much more natural.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller went back out to where the miner tried to waylay her with a shaped charge on a standoff pole.

She read the story in the red sand, saw where her flitter was crashed by a javelin-thrown shaped charge, she saw her own footprints, remembering ...

She frowned, turned her hoverplate, coasted above the red Martian sands, went over to where she'd seen what could not have been there.

She found boot prints.

Marnie stared at them a very long time, before photographing them, setting down a calibrated bar and taking more photos, to absolutely establish their size: she carefully picked up the dropped, empty, shotgun shells, dropped them in an evidence bag.

Her Gammaw had appeared, there on the surface of Mars, and drove two charges of heavy shot into the would-be murderer's chest -- Marnie clearly heard the report, saw the blue doughnuts of black-powder smoke wobble out and expand, and disappear, and she heard her Gammaw's triumphant shout, "Nobody shoots my little girl!" -- and then disappeared into a twist of vapor, a twist that corkscrewed into the sand, and was gone.

She looked at the bases of the shells, nodded.

Was she not wearing an atmosphere suit, her trademark white Olympic skinsuit with the six point star embossed over the left breast, she was satisfied she could sniff the fired hull and smell burnt Black.

Marnie frowned.

How is it possible, she thought, that Gammaw appeared here ... it is not possible for a human to ...

No.

Not without an atmosphere suit.

Which she was not wearing.

Marnie frowned, considered, then blinked.

"No," she whispered as a realization, a dread seized her.

She turned the hoverboard, leaned forward, scooted back to the flitter: she whipped the transport disc around, slammed the throttle full forward, keyed the airlock open while she was still half a klick away.

Dr. John Greenlees came into the Sheriff's office just as the screen steadied and a familiar voice filled the room.

"Marnie, it's your Dad," Dr. John heard, and he swung around the desk, pulled up a chair, sat with his arm around his wife.

"There's a twelve minute delay between my words and your hearing them, so I'll just talk."

Something's wrong, the Doctor thought, and his wife's hand came up and laid on his.

She was shivering, just a little.

"Marnie, I know this is the time you and your Gammaw usually talk, but today it's me, honey."  He took a long breath, swallowed:  The Bear Killer reared up beside him, looked at the screen, yawned, and Linn rubbed the big mountain Mastiff's ears gently.

"Marnie, your Gammaw busted a criminal ring this morning. She had 'em dead to rights and she honestly beat one of 'em right into the ground.  You'd be proud of her."  He grinned that crooked grin of his and he looked very directly at the camera.

"She told me, 'Not bad for a decrepit old lady,' " and Marnie laughed, and then hiccuped, and bit her knuckle, the way she did when she was nervous, the way she did when she was anxious.

"Marnie, your Gammaw busted that ring and she went for a ride.

"I found her in the pasture, where she'd fallen off her horse.

"Doc said she had a heart attack and she was dead before she hit the ground.

"She was not viable when I found her."  He swallowed again, and it was evident he was having trouble keeping his voice steady.  "Absent blink reflex, pupils fixed and dilated, corneas beginning to dry."
He looked away, took a quick breath.

"This is not the kind of news a man ought to give over video. This is the kind of news where I ought to knock on your door and look you in the eye and hold your hands while I tell you this, but this is the best I can do."

He took a long breath.

Marnie held up the clear evidence baggie with two spent shotshells in it.

"Daddy," she said, "from one lawman to another, check Gammaw's double gun. She always kept it loaded. Let me know if it still is."

Marnie stared at the wall behind her computer screen.

"That," she whispered, "is why she didn't need a suit."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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380. AND I WONDERED HOW

I pride myself on wearing a good poker face.

I can't play poker to save my sorry backside but I can deal it and make it look good, I've got a line of bull -- well, Sean said I was as full of it as a sack full of politicians, and he's right.

I stood in front of the Sheriff's office and had I not been wearin' that poker face mask I reckon my jaw would have dropped down to about my belt buckle, for I honestly stared in absolute amazement.

Bonnie McKenna and Sarah were in their fine carriage and driving up the street, the twins in the seat behind: Sarah was the focus of my amazement -- Bonnie is a woman to be desired, and she is married to an old and dear friend, a brother Mason, a good man and true -- but Bonnie ...

I blinked, breaking that train of thought.

When first I come to Firelands, I saw Bonnie and Sarah, and I could have taken them both up in my arms and taken them in as my own, and to this day I reckon I burn a candle for that woman, but she is married and so am I, and that alone sets a gulf between us.

Sarah, now, Sarah is the child of my loins -- which I did not discover until her fourteenth birthday, when we presented her with her Mama's Bible that Dirty Sam took in for a drink, back when her murderin' ... no, can't call him her father ... the man that married her Mama and beat her to death.

I'm side trackin' myself.

The reason I started all this was that Sarah was a-settin' beside her Mama, and they were both wearin' matched gowns, identical hats, they sat the same, their heads turned the same, they had the same expression, Sarah looked so absolutely grown up and womanly and good God she's just a little girl and had I not been wearin' that poker face mask I would likely have looked like a dirt kickin' clod.

The Bear Killer rode in the very back, lookin' pleased with himself, and I saw his muzzle was shot with silver and he was big and impressive lookin' and I realized he was well more than full grown, and then my son Jacob approached and he was a man grown and wearin' a suit and I knew that under his lapel he wore the six point star I gave him, he was a full deputy, and my own little girl was damn neart grown and of a sudden I felt just real funny.

That'll happen when a man realizes that his young are old as he was when he hit some significant landmark in his life, and that is unsettling.

I touched my hat brim as the ladies approached, and Bonnie favored me with that warm look of hers.

I reckon she knew my feelin's toward her.

I had never acted on them.

Not once.

Ever.

God willing, I never will:  she is another man's wife and I will not violate that.

Sarah, her daughter, child of my get, gave me the same warm look, the same womanly expression, and I realized she was marryin' age and more, and that was one of those moments when I've known a thing behind my forehead for some time but only now did I realize it behind my breast bone.

I took a long breath, considered, and then I turned and paced slowly down the board walk, down the two steps, into the dirt alley beside my Sheriff's Office:  I walked back to the little stable Jacob and I built, I saddled up my golden stallion and mounted, we paced out into the street and on down hill to the fire house.

I had need to talk with Sean, was he available, for he is a husband and a father and he has a passel of young of his own, and he'd understand what I was a-feelin' about Sarah and my little girls and Jacob and all of 'em growin' up so fast and how did this happen all of a sudden.

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381. A LISTENING EAR

Linn Keller walked his Appaloosa through the cemetery.

It was quiet; The Lady Esther was already on her outbound run, so her four-count chant wasn't echoing in the distance; there was a little traffic to be heard, not much, and though there were contrails laid out across the sky like a draftsman's paintbrush strokes, the jet aircraft that drew them were long gone, and were no longer audible.

Linn drew up, looking around; he saw someone in the newer section, someone he knew.

Apple-horse picked up and paced silently toward the visitor.

Linn saw the visitor unwrap something, pull out a long bladed butcher knife:  he looked at the gravestone, appeared to be saying something, then he went to one knee, stabbed the blade in the sod:  he rose, stomped his heel hard on the handle, driving the knife deep into the grave.

Linn walked his Apple-horse up within a very few feet as the visitor hawked, spat on the gravestone.

He must've felt a shift in the wind as Linn leaned back in the saddle and Apple-horse stopped.

"Mike."

"Linn."

Linn looked at the stone.

"You liked her as well as I did."

Mike turned, looked at the carved quartz marker, his hands doubling up into fists.

"Yeah."

"What did she do to you?"

"She beat me.  In class.  For no reason."  His hands opened, closed again.  "I'd like to beat her!"

Linn nodded, slowly.

"She beat me too," he said quietly, and Mike turned, surprised.

"She asked me if I even had the right page," Linn explained.  "I held my textbook up with my finger on the page and said "Right here!" and she came boilin' out from behind that desk and she laid into me with that damned ping pong paddle acrost my shoulder blades."  Linn's voice was quiet, but Mike could hear the undertone of anger in the long tall deputy's words.  "Had I a bushel basket full of shekels, I'd hire the Witch of Endor to resurrect her miserable carcass so I could beat her plumb to death!"

Mike chuckled.  "I thought I was the only one who felt that way."

"Oh, no," Linn replied, his voice gentle.  "You recall Mary Lou, she was a year ahead of you.  Went on to become Middle School principal back East."

Mike nodded.  "I recall."

"She hated the woman too. I've no idea what she did to Mary Lou, but I recall she tied Viola to her desk with a jump rope."

Mike grunted, grimaced.  "I'd heard she did."  He looked up at the mounted deputy.  "How come they didn't fire her?"

"Didn't have to."  Linn's eyes wandered to the stone, the side-by-side marker:  husband and wife, date of birth, date of death marking their final resting place.  "She died of a stroke the night of the last day of school."

"Good riddance," Mike muttered.

"Yep. Don't reckon there were many tears shed when she quit breathin'."

Mike looked back at the grave.

"You wished you could have driven that knife right through her black heart."

"That's ... exactly right."

"I did worse."

Mike looked up, surprised.

"You only spit on that stone," Linn said, and said no more:  Mike grinned, looked from the deputy to the marker, and back.

"Don't get any ideas," Linn cautioned.  "I didn't see you stomp that knife in the ground, and I don't want to see you pouring a beer over that stone after you run it through your kidneys first."

Mike laughed.  "You readin' my mind?"

"I wouldn't be that impolite."  Linn shifted in his saddle.  "Everything else all right?"

Mike nodded.  "Yeah.  Just ... dealin' with the memories she gave me."

"The Parson keeps tellin' us to forgive," Linn mused.  "I finally figured that meant forgiveness is when I say they can't hurt me ever again, so they are no longer important, and I dismiss them out of my mind."

"I'll work on that."  Mike considered a moment.  "Like a beer?  I brought an extra."

Linn laughed.  "Good of you to offer, but I'll pass for now."  He raised a hand.  "You take good care now."

"You too."

Apple-horse turned and Mike watched as his old friend rode slowly down the gravel road and out of sight around the far bend.

He looked back at the stone.

"You don't matter anymore," he finally said.  "You aren't important and you can't hurt me."

He walked up to the stone, looked at the husband's name, sandblasted in the right hand side.

"I see why you died before she did," he said candidly.  "Was she my wife, I'd die too!"

He looked at his old sixth grade schoolteacher's stone and shook his head.

"You must have been a truly evil soul," he said softly, "to earn the undying hatred of little children."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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382. IT SEEMED THE THING TO DO

Sheriff Linn Keller nodded slowly as he studied the pencil drawing.

He regarded the rendering of a long neck water bird in flight, wings coming up and forward, drawing the eye to the bird and allowing the riverbank behind it to fade into mere background -- Linn knew how difficult it was to draw well, and so he studied the background as well, remembering deadfalls that were washed up against the steep clay during flood, remembering the smell of leaves and lowland and trod-upon weeds.

"When ye told me what was in your mind," the rail-thin Kentucky moonshiner drawled, "I recalled I'd seen that very thing back home."  

Linn swallowed, placed the drawing carefully on his clean desk top.

"That," he said, "could not have been easy to draw."

"Warn't," the Daine mountaineer drawled in agreement.

"What do I owe you?"

"A dollar."

Linn looked up, regarded the man seriously.

"That's worth more to me than a dollar."

"Well hell, twist my arm then!  How 'bout some more o' them fancy pencils you gimme?"

Linn nodded, grinning:  he went from serious and solemn to a split-the-face grin in a tenth of a second or less.

"Pencils and whatever kind of paper you find that's good to draw on."

"This-yere," came the bewhiskered reply as a ragged, work-smoothed nail forefinger tapped the desk beside the rendering, "is 'bout the best I found."

"The Mercantile has some left and they can order more in."  Linn reached into his vest pocket, handed the man a small stack of coin, to which the mountaineer protested "You cain't be payin' me that much!"

Linn regarded the man with amusement, his eyes turning a light blue with pleasure.

"A bargain is where both parties are satisfied," he said quietly, "and the best trade I ever made, why, each of us thought we'd just swindled the other fellow out of his eye teeth, and we were both so ashamed of ourselved neither of us could look the other in the eye afterward!"  Linn looked at the picture of the flying blue heron and said, "It's worth every bit of ten dollars to me.  I'll have that framed and hung on the wall at home, and thank'ee kindly for it."

The sun-browned, slat-thin mountaineer considered that the Sheriff had likely taken leave of his senses, but if a man was so insane as to hand out money that freely, why, he'd be wise enough to accept the bounty!

"What say we sashay up to the Mercantile and get you some more workin' tools."  Linn reached up, plucked his Stetson from its peg, settled it on his greying thatch.  

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller placed the framed drawing on the display easel, turned to the Ladies' Tea Society.

"This is an original Daine Maxwell," she said, "which has hung in my home for many years. Old Pale Eyes was feeling homesick and asked a local artist to draw him a blue heron in flight. I understand the man who drew this did not know what a blue heron was, but the Sheriff described it, and the artist rendered it in pencil -- well enough that it's instantly recognizable, upside-down."  Willamina smiled.  "Old Pale Eyes could draw out a map very well indeed, but for whatever reason, he could never render much of anything else -- at least not to his satisfaction."  She smiled a little, then laughed.  "I think he was like me:  if I can't draw it perfectly, I won't draw it poorly, so I don't draw it!"

There were smiles and nods; she was not the only soul to hold the same belief.

 

Later that evening, at her son's invitation, Willamina had supper at Linn and Shelly's, with Marnie in silent, bright-eyed attendance beside her:  the little girl with big eyes and twin braids hung on her Gammaw's every word, listening much and saying almost nothing beyond "Yes please" and "Thank you" -- at least until dessert, when she increased her responses to "Yes, thank you, that would be very nice" when offered ice cream for her pie.

Willamina stopped in mid-bite, as did her son: they swallowed quickly, placed their forks carefully beside their plates, so as to make no sound:  Marnie froze when she saw this change, she placed her fork silently as well, and the three listened intently.

Shelly was busy feeding the baby, cooing encouragement as the youngest Keller happily took another bite, when The Bear Killer let out a baying, snarling challenge.

Marnie rolled out of her chair, launched into a doubled-over sprint, straight back, toward the gun cabinet beside the staircase.

Willamina slid her chair back, rose, her hand blading under her unbuttoned suit coat, her hand closing firmly about the handle of her belt gun.

Linn thrust his chair back, rose bent over, strode around the table.

Marnie seized the gun cabinet door, twisted the key, pulled the door open, backing quickly to do so:  Linn straightened as he moved, reached in, seized the Garand and its twin, turned:  he thrust one into his Mama's hands, reached in, snatched up a canvas belt with reloads, thrust it over her extended arm;  he hooked a second one, his pale eyed Mama half-walked, half-ran for the back door as Linn went to the front.

Marnie looked from one to the other, then she turned, reached into the gun cabinet, pulled out the rifle she and her Daddy were shooting earlier that day:  she pressed the magazine release, looked to make sure it was loaded, snapped it back in place, and ran, quick, light, on the balls of her feet, following her Gammaw.

Willamina "sliced the pie" to look out the back door -- she'd shut off the nearest light -- she opened the door a little, looked out, forefinger hooked over the Garand's charging handle:  Marnie could smell nighttime and grasses, she could hear The Bear Killer's deep rumbling snarl, she saw the mountain Mastiff pup look one way, look the other.

Marnie saw her Gammaw's face go pale, saw her Gammaw's pretty face change, saw the skin draw tight over her cheekbones:  Willamina thrust open the door, the Garand made a metallic sound as the chamber swallowed a brass round, Willamina surged down the steps and yelled "BEAR KILLER!  GET'EM!"

Marnie jumped the steps, landed easily, flat-footed:  she came up beside her Gammaw, her finger pulled the bolt back on her .22, she didn't quite know what to do but she was at her Gammaw's side and her Gammaw looked ahead and left so Marnie looked ahead and right, switching hands so she could fire left handed.

Linn's voice was loud, harsh, commanding:  "DO NOT MOVE! DROP WHAT YOU'RE CARRYING, SHOW ME YOUR HANDS, DO IT NOW!"

Marnie and Willamina rose together:  they swung left, looked, saw no threat:  "With me," Willamina whispered, and the two ran, rifles at high port, around back of the farmhouse, stopped at the corner of the house.

Willamina flattened her back against the siding:  Marnie, not sure what to do, did the same, her rifle barrel carefully, precisely at the vertical

Willamina made a mental note to speak a word of praise for this.

The pair waited a moment, listening, then Willamina drew away from the house, motioning Marnie to hold station:  she looked, looked again, slicing the pie: she jerked her head, Marnie came up beside her.

Willamina moved from one shadow to another, saw movement, to the left, behind the tractor shed:  "STOP WHERE YOU ARE!" she shouted, and the figure took out at a run, fleeing into the night.

"BEAR KILLER!  GET 'IM!"  Willamina shouted again, and this time the growing Bear Killer did not hesitate.

Instead of making a puppy-like, half-hearted lunge into the dark and then return, he ran -- a black arrow, fired through night and shadow -- Willamina ran after, and so did Marnie:  she was younger, she knew she likely might not keep up with her swift-running Gammaw, and so she did what seemed right and natural:  she ran a few steps, spun, scanned behind, then turned and followed at a flat out sprint.

A scream, the sound of a snarling canine on attack: Willamina did not slack her charge, she reversed the rifle, drove the smooth steel buttplate into the skulker's skull, downed him:  "BEAR KILLER!  OFF!"

The Bear Killer backed away, snarling, and Marnie released the checkered walnut fore-end of her rifle to run a hand down The Bear Killer's spine.

His fur was standing straight up, almost crackling, and she felt more than heard his continuing snarl.

"PRISONER DOWN!" Willamina called, her shout sharp as she turned, seeking another target:  Marnie went to one knee, grounding her rifle's butt, her barrel tilted away from her Gammaw a little.

"PRISONER DOWN HERE!"  came the answering shout, followed by a menacing, "Do as I tell you or I will spread your guts over three acres!"

Marnie waited, silent, one hand on The Bear Killer:  it seemed a year and a day before she heard sirens, then she saw lights, and suddenly there were Sheriff's cruisers and two police cars in the driveway and in the turn-around, and Marnie drew back a little as hard-faced men ran up and seized the prisoners:  Marnie backed into the shadow with The Bear Killer, who'd gone from guarding the farm, to guarding Marnie:  the two drew back to the corner of the house, where the shadow was deepest, she waited until the powwow and palaver and discussion that followed an arrest, was over.

It was a little chilly out, but The Bear Killer was warm, and so Marnie and The Bear Killer waited, and cuddled against one another, and finally her Gammaw came around the corner, stopped, elaborately paying no attention at all to her granddaughter, crouched against the hand cut stone foundation:  Willamina drew the bolt back, thumbed the rounds down, reinserted the round she brought out of the chamber, eased the bolt closed on an empty chamber, pointed the rifle away from the house.

Marnie heard the striker fall.

Willamina slung the rifle muzzle down from her off shoulder -- Marnie's Daddy did that too, he said it was faster for him than a muzzle up carry -- and her Gammaw said, "It's getting cool outside.  Why don't we go in."

"Okay, Gammaw," Marnie replied in a small voice.

They paused at the back door.

"Chamber empty?"  Willamina asked.

Marnie turned, dropped her magazine, eased the bolt back:  she caught the round as it fell down the magazine well, she closed the bolt and dropped the striker, just like her Gammaw did.

Grandmother and granddaughter, rifles at sling arms, went back in the back door and closed it behind them.

 

Marnie spent some time that night at her desk.

The Bear Killer, no longer a pup but not yet a mature dog, expressed his opinion of the evening by laying down at her feet, then rolling over on his side:  as Marnie frowned and sketched, The Bear Killer snored, and when Linn finally got back home, when he came upstairs to look in on his little girl, he stopped:  he pulled out his cell phone, took a quick snap, then turned, motioned for his wife to approach.

Shelly came upstairs in her sock feet, carrying the baby, and she stopped and leaned against her husband, smiling.

Marnie was sound asleep at her desk, pencil still in one hand, her arm a-dangle at her side:  beside her, on the round, hand braided rug, The Bear Killer was sprawled, head up, looking at them with bright, black eyes.

Linn eased forward, looked at The Bear Killer, put his finger to his lips, then bent down and slipped the pencil from his sleeping daughter's grip.

He pulled the chair out, picked Marnie up, carefully, rolled her into him.

She sighed, murmured something, cuddled her head into his collarbone:  he turned as Shelly turned down the bed, he laid Marnie down, and together, carefully, gently, they got her out of her clothes and into her flannel nightgown.

The Bear Killer watched them attentively; Linn drew up the covers, kissed Marnie's forehead and whispered, "Rest easy, Valkyrie," and reached over to turn out the light.

It wasn't until they were in their own bedroom, where there was a night light by the baby's bed, that Shelly realized her husband had a tear running down one cheek.

Concerned, she lifted her hand, laid the backs of her bent fingers against his cheek.

"That's the first time," he whispered, "the first time I've touched her when she's asleep, that she did not wake up screaming."

He swallowed hard, hugged his wife fiercely.

"We must be doing something right," he whispered into her hair.  "Shelly, darlin', we must be doing something right!"

 

 

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383. THE ARTIST'S SOUL

The several sheets of Marnie's work went from hand to hand to hand.

All the hands belonged to those privy to the previous night's activities, when two thieves decided to steal gasoline, and had no idea their raid was upon the chief deputy's residence.

Willamina stared long at the drawing of a little girl's face -- quite obviously her pale eyed granddaughter -- this explains the mirror on her desk instead of her vanity, she thought, for the pencil drawing was remarkable in its accuracy.

The more she studied the work, the more she saw:  instead of a highlight in one large, dark pupil, she saw a figure: Willamina frowned, opened a drawer, pulled out a magnifying glass.

"Linn?"
"Hm?"
"Take a look at this."

She handed her son the glass.

Linn looked through it, lifted the lens to enlarge the subject.

"Well I'll be sawed off and damned," he murmured quietly.  "I missed that."

Inside the pupil was another Marnie, looking out at him.

Willamina studied the second drawing, the one surrounded by a half-dozen smaller works:  here she saw herself, in silhouette, featureless and yet clearly as attentive as a hound on a hot scent: there, two silhouettes, with a dark form shooting between them, indistinct -- it had to be The Bear Killer, a black dog running through shadow in the night -- the streaking trail was arrow straight, but the subject, indistinct.

Here was Willamina, her rifle reversed, driving into the base of the intruder's skull, and here, a little girl, crouched in the shadowed corner, with a dog at her side, her rifle's muzzle to the vertical and her free hand over the cuddled canine's shoulders.

"Look at this one," Willamina whispered, her finger circling above the self-portrait's hair.

Linn looked closer and he smiled.

As he stared, another figure emerged from the textured hair:  it became a pretty little girl running toward the viewer, a cape flowing behind her, sword in hand.

Marnie nudged her husband, handed him another sheet.

This had Marnie's self portrait in profile, but it was drawn with her profile in cutaway:  behind the face, on a ladder, a fearful looking child was looking out through the Outer Girl's eye ... as if to say her true self was small and scared and lost inside her Outer Body, hiding inside where she wouldn't get hurt.

"Dear God," Linn whispered.  "How badly was she hurt?"

Willamina smiled a little as she held the compound picture, the one with the hidden figure in the hair.

"I know that look," Linn said slowly.  "Mama, have you been teaching Marnie sword dancing?"

Willamina gave her son an innocent look.

"You know good and well," she said gently, "that a Lady should know how to dance."

"I know that, Mama."

"And if she should happen upon some handsome Cossack, what better way to impress him than to dance with swords?"

Linn opened his mouth, closed it, smiled a little.

"Mama," he said, "I have seen you dance with swords, and I was really, really impressed!"

Willamina blinked her eyes innocently, looking like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

"Did you teach her rifle work as well?  I notice she had the .22 out last night."

"No," Willamina smiled, pride in her voice:  "no, she did that on her own, and she did very well indeed!"

 

 

 

 

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384. SWEET SIXTEEN

 Marnie Keller stood with her red cowboy boots planted on either side of the center line.

She stood in the middle of the highway with a Winchester rifle gripped in both hands, with her Daddy's Appaloosa stallion grazing on the shoulder, with her hat thrown back and dangling between her shoulder blades, the storm strap across her wild rag.

Marnie Keller's eyes were pale as she looked at the approaching vehicle, at two sets of blue lights pursuing.

She did not have to look at her rifle's receiver to know what was engraved there.

It was a pre-'64 Winchester 94 in .32 Winchester Special.

It had belonged to her Uncle Will.

It was hand engraved -- To a fine niece of whom I am very proud.

Deputy Marnie Keller, from Uncle Will, Chief, Firelands PD.

Marnie jacked the action, caught the loaded round, thumbed it down into a trouser pocket.

She dipped her fingers into a flannel shirt pocket, brought out a replacement round.

She did not have to look at this one to know it was not a cast lead round, nor was it a jacketed round.

It was cast of pure gold, cast from three nuggets she'd panned herself, cast and sized and gas checked and lubricated, weighed and loaded and she thumbed it into the rifle's magazine and jacked the action once more.

The gold bullet payload chambered easily, the lever locked shut, and Marnie caught the jacked-out lead-bullet round, thumbed it into her pants pocket with the other.

The rifle came easily to shoulder.

Marnie was initmately familiar with this rifle.

Her Uncle taught her to shoot lever gun with this rifle.

She'd competed with this rifle, and had done well indeed in scenarios that duplicated real-world police encounters, though she herself was not yet a Sheriff's deputy.

She'd been graduated from high school the night before, in a small ceremony with the school board and a few select guests present; she was two years a head of her peers, she had her Associate's degree in Criminal Justice already, and she had full intent to become a Sheriff's deputy.

These were her plans up until fifteen minutes ago.

Marnie was a planner, like her pale eyed Gammaw, like her father, like Old Pale Eyes generations before, and Marnie knew about the Society of the Rose, and she knew that sometimes justice had to be dispensed outside the normal channels of the law.

When Marnie got word her Uncle was run over and killed on a traffic stop, and the murderer was escaping, she seized her rifle -- given her the night before as a graduation present -- she yanked open a drawer, unrolled a silk kerchief, shoved three gold-bullet rounds into her pocket, thundered downstairs, whistling for her Daddy's short-tempered stallion:  she was saddled and headed for the highway at a dead-out gallop, the stallion grunting and shaking his head, the stallion was spoiling for a fight, and that suited Marnie fine.

She leaned back in the saddle -- "Ho, no, ho, boy" -- she threw up one leg and fell to the ground, landed flat footed, ground-reined the stallion -- "Stay," she said, and jerked the rifle viciously from its scabbard.

Marnie knew about the Society of the Rose, and what it represented, from words written by men dead a century and more:  she knew Charlie Macneil and her pale eyed ancestor, Old Pale Eyes, each carried a loaded round, a round with a solid gold payload, for those times when the Law was not enough, and Justice needed dispensed anyway.

Marnie waited with her boots on the blacktop as the car's engine howled protest, as the fleeing felon firewalled the throttle, as the engraved '94 rifle came to shoulder, as a pale eye settled behind the rear peep and her cheekbone crushed itself into the rifle's comb.

Marnie felt the smooth, familiar trigger, the bead was steady, the scene was frozen --

The rifle punched into her shoulder --

Marnie lowered the rifle, backed up and to her left --

The car seared through the air where she'd been a tenth of a second before --

Chief Deputy Linn Keller was past his daughter before he realized who she was --

The subject vehicle began to drift to the left --

Linn's boot snapped off the throttle, hit the brakes, swung into the right lane, back left, swinging left and right as a signal to pursuing units, Back off, back off, back off --

 

The Society of the Rose met that night, on the third floor of the Masonic building:  men from many jurisdictions assembled, speaking in quiet voices, shaking hands, laughing a little, the way lawmen will when they are relaxed and able to lower their guard.

A rose hung from a string, up near the ceiling, directly above the Altar.

An impressively uniformed State Trooper raised the gavel, brought it down -- once, twice, thrice -- three sharp, woody notes, which brought instant silence and undivided attention from all in attendance.

"Friends, kindred and brethren," he declared, rising, "the Society of the Rose is hereby convened."

He looked at Marnie, and though his face was carefully impassive, she thought she saw approval in his dark eyes.

"Normally we of the Society are veterans of the profession, recruited after due trial and examination."

He looked at Marnie again, and Marnie lifted her chin, looked fearlessly back at him.

"Tonight we induct one of our own under slightly unusual circumstances."

 

Marnie was in the saddle and galloping after the rapidly retreating police vehicles.

She saw the suspect vehicle stay on the road for a surprising distance, before it drifted left and  hit the ditch.

Marnie's heels were locked around the short-tempered stallion's barrel and she yelled encouragement as he punched a hole in the wind, warring against the sullen earth underfoot as if disdainful of its contact:  she got there as men swarmed around the wrecked, steaming, smoking, ruined vehicle, now on its wheels, now still, its sole occupant bloody and unmoving behind the wheel.

Marnie threw up a leg, landed flat footed on the ground:  she stormed up to the car, shoved men aside, reached in, seized the dead man's head.

She turned it, her pale eyes burning into the dead, discoloring, bloodied face:  she turned the head, reached into a pocket, pulled out a lock back knife.

Eyes pale and eyes otherwise watched as she explored the back of the dead man's head with careful fingers, made a small slit:  a squeeze, and she withdrew:  Marnie turned, knife in one hand, something bloody in the other, and with a snarled "Outta my way, move," she shoved between lawmen and squatted beside the ditch, sloshed blood off her knife, folded it and thumbed it back into a pocket:  she sloshed the other hand back and forth in muddy water, brought it out, opened her hand and looked at her prize, nodded.

Marnie stood, dropped whatever it was into a shirt pocket, walked up to her father.

"Uncle Will?"  she asked, her voice ragged.

"I don't know," Linn admitted.

Marnie's jaw was thrust out:  she turned, seized the stirrup, shoved her red cowboy boot into the doghouse, swung aboard.

Lawmen turned to watch the pretty young sixteen year old gallop down the road, back toward Firelands.

 

"Marnie Keller," the trooper boomed, "come forth."

Marnie raised her chin, paced off on the left, came to a point directly between the Altar and the uniformed President.

He descended the three steps.

"Above you," he said, "you will see there are constellations painted on the ceiling."

Marnie nodded, her eyes never leaving his.

"This symbolizes our authority.  There is no authority above us save Heaven itself."

Marnie never moved.

"The rose is an ancient symbol of fidelity, but also of secrecy.  We meet here sub rosa, under the rose, with the understanding that all that occurs here is under the seal of secrecy, and may never be divulged outside of these walls."

"I understand."  Marnie's voice was firm in reply.

"The Society of the Rose has as its insignia" -- he produced a gold coin, the size of a silver dollar -- "on one side, the Christian Cross, superimposed with the Seal of Solomon.  On the other" -- he turned it over -- "the Rose, which is our insignia."

He held it up before him, at her eye level.

"Marnie Keller, you have proved yourself most worthy of our Society, but our Society is made up solely of those who are sworn to uphold the Law, and that presents a problem."  

Marnie saw a slight tightening of the corners of the broad shouldered trooper's eyes.

"Will Sheriff Willamina Keller and Chief Deputy Linn Keller step forth."

Two uniformed law dawgs paced off on the left, came up beside Marnie: they wheeled, facing the pale eyed, sixteen year old girl, whose eyes, though as pale as those of her father and her grandmother, were considerably older than her few years.

"Our Society is composed of sworn officers."  He looked up, his gaze swinging from far left to far right.

"Friends, kindred and brethren, should she be sworn at?"

"AYE!" came the unified, booming shout.

"Is she worthy of our Society?"

"AYE!"

"Sheriff, if you please."

Chief Deputy Linn Keller opened the polished mahogany box he held:  inside was a six point star, rather plain, as were the badges of the Firelands County Sheriff's Office:  its hand chased engraving said simply DEPUTY SHERIFF, FIRELANDS COUNTY.

"Raise your right hand."

Marnie raised her hand.

"Do you?"
"I do."

"Good enough."

Marnie had trouble keeping a straight face as an appreciative chuckle rippled through the assemblage.

"You will be pleased to learn," the President added, lifting his chin and sweeping the audience once more with his dark eyes, "that Chief Will Keller survived his murderous attack.  He'll be a while recovering. Older bones take longer to heal, but I know the ornery old fellow.  He'll be back."

Marnie swallowed hard as Willamina pinned the six point star on the front of her dress.

Willamina took a step back.

Linn handed the empty box to the President.

Grandmother and father both saluted the new Deputy, and Marnie returned their salute, and men and women of the Society alike pounded their palms together in approving applause as Marnie seized her Gammaw in a big hug, and then her pale eyed Daddy, and only Willamina was close enough to hear Marnie squeak "Oh, Daddy," the way she did when she was a little girl.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller opened his eyes.

"Hi, Uncle Will," Marnie said shyly.

He smiled a little, turned his hand over -- carefully -- it hurt to move, even a little, and he was stubborn enough to refuse the morphine infusion pump.

"Uncle Will, I kilt the b'ar that tried to kill you."

He blinked, took a careful breath.  "What happened?"

"He was fleeing, with multiple units in pursuit.  I waited for him with a Winchester rifle."

"And?"

Marnie blinked, smiled, slipped one cool hand under his, laid her other hand over his palm.

"He came out in second place."

Will closed his eyes, took a breath, grimaced.  "Good."

"What can I do to make you more comfortable?"

"You wouldn't have a flask of Old Stump Blower on you, by any chance?"

Marnie giggled.  "No, but I can get one!"

"No."  Will's voice was a whisper.  "I won't risk it, Marnie, not even for this.  Our mother was not just a drunk, she was a damned drunk, and addiction is often hereditary.  I won't risk the narcotic."

He looked at her, winked.

"But asking if you had a flask makes a good line!"

Marnie gave an exaggerated sigh, shook her head.  "Two million comedians out of work and you've got to come along!"

"Yeah, trust me to cause trouble."  He grimaced.  "I forget how many bones they said are broke."

"Will they pin, screw or Super Glue any of 'em?"

"I'm for an orthopedic consult right here directly."  He looked up at the businesslike knock on the door.

"That's probably them."  Marnie withdrew her hands.  "You heal up, Uncle Will.  You're the only one of you we've got!"

"Good thing too," he grunted, then looked over her head.  "Hey Doc, you heard the one about the Farmer's Daughter and the Harley Davidson motorcycle?"

The doctor blinked, surprised.  "No, I'm sorry, I haven't."

"Neither have I, and I've been asking for forty years now!"

Marnie laughed.  "I'll leave you two alone to give those politicians hell."

Will chuckled, grimaced.  "Does she know me or what?"

 

 

 

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385. HANDLED

"Quite a sixteenth birthday."

Marnie drew a tall glass of water, drank it in one breath.  "Not what I'd planned."

"Oh?"
"I'd planned on letting you and Daddy surprise me with something."  She set the glass down, very carefully, very quietly, beside the sink:  she leaned the heels of her hands on the edge of the sink, stared out the window.

"And what was to be our surprise?"

"A car, maybe. Or a pretty frock, something frilly and girly, a new pair of shoes."

Willamina raised an eyebrow, folded her arms, smiled quietly.

"A birthday cake at least."  Marnie turned.  "I didn't expect to stop a murderer."

"But you did."

"It needed done."

"And the coroner never made mention of a thirty caliber hole through the dead man's head."

It was Marnie's turn to raise an eyebrow.

"Is that why there's been no inquest, no interview, why I'm not in custody."

"Yes, Marnie, that's exactly the reason. Just like he never took official note of a one inch slit in the back of the scalp where you extracted your bullet."

Marnie nodded, slowly.

"A gold bullet, I presume."

"Yes."

"You had the forethought to cast gold bullets."

"From nuggets I panned myself, yes. I cast them, lubed them, sized and gas checked them, loaded them to the same velocity as the lead bullet rounds I'm used to shooting in that rifle."

"You didn't have much time to fire and get out of the way."

"I know."

"He was doing just over a hundred miles an hour when you fired. I'm honestly surprised you were able to sidestep in time."

Marnie nodded again, her face grim.

"We do what we must, Marnie, but please ... for your old Gammaw's sake ... remember that there's only one of you, and your decrepit old Gammaw would like to have you around for a good long while yet."

Marnie nodded, looked away.

"Have you dealt with it yet?"

"It?"

"Killing a man.  It's hard enough when it's a righteous shoot, when you know it's kill the other guy or he'll kill you."

"This wasn't a righteous shoot?" Marnie asked quietly, a dangerous smile tugging at one corner of her mouth.

"What do you think?"

"I think I slept well last night, Gammaw.  I think I was justified and I'll stand in front of the Throne of Judgement and say as much."

Willamina nodded again.

"I killed first when I was fourteen," she said softly.  "The ... recipient ... of my attentions was unarmed, and I put six rounds of .38 Smith and Wesson into his belly at an upward angle."

"He was unarmed?"

"And intending to lay hands on me. I knew him to be a rapist and he'd come after me once before."

Marnie saw her Gammaw's eyes grow cold and hard, saw the older woman's face pale by several shades.

"I know what it is to be brutalized, Marnie.  Tortured, and worse. I spent good money for plastic surgery and skin sanding to get rid of most of the marks."

Marnie waited.

"Since then I've fired a golden bullet myself, and more than once."

"It was necessary."  Marnie's reply was a statement, not a question, and Willamina nodded again, slowly.

"Yes.  It was."

"You asked if I'd dealt with it, Gammaw.  How do you deal with it?"

"The same way Old Pale Eyes dealt with it."

Marnie's chin lifted and she smiled, just a little.  "You?" she asked, blinking in honest surprise.

"Yes.  Me."

Marnie shook her head.  "I would never have thought."

"After I drink a water glass of Old Sledgehammer," Willamina smiled, "after I slam the glass down on the table, after I stand up and declare I sent another one to hell today, I stride out of the place before it hits me, while I can still walk straight -- I head for the nearest pump -- I pump out good cold wellwater and I drink my stomach full, then I bend over and throw up.  I fill my gut again with water and throw that up too, and then the third batch I mix with Dr. Kroner's Seltzer Powders and drink that."

"Eew!"  Marnie made a face like a Moorish idol:  her Mama fed her Dr. Kroner's powders when she had a sour stomach, and she recalled it was bitter as owl pellets.

"Yeah, eew.  Tastes awful.  I suppose in a way I'm punishing myself.  I don't drink, but it makes it look like I'm a hard case who can guzzle that much lightning and still walk straight!"

Marnie shook her head.

"I handled it, Gammaw.  I brought some of it to show you."

"Oh?"
Marnie unfolded her arms, paced into the living room, a slender young woman in boots and blue jeans:  she came back with a manila envelope.

Willamina accepted the sheets that were handed her:  she sat, ran her hand over the tabletop to make sure it was dry, laid the stack in front of her, pulled out her half-glasses and studied the drawings.

The first was Marnie, standing in the stirrups, her hands flat on the Appaloosa's neck:  both her expression, and that of the stallion, bore a focused intent, unmistakable to the viewer's eye:  horse and rider were intent on a common goal, the sense of movement was very real, and Willamina turned the page over, revealed the second.

The stallion was in mid-rear, mane and tail loose and free, the rider had one hand on the saddlehorn and was in freefall: the next sheet was a close-up drawing of a feminine hand, seizing the wrist of a Winchester rifle and pulling it from a carved saddle scabbard.

Willamina turned the page.

Marnie stood, legs apart, rifle at high port, glaring, her Daddy's Appaloosa ground-reined behind her.

Willamina turned the page, marveling at the realism of her granddaughter's pencil renderings.

Willamina stopped.

The last page was not of her granddaughter.

The previous drawings had been of Marnie riding to war, of Marnie preparing for battle.

This was the battle itself, but seen from inside the windshield, and Willamina's heart froze for a moment, for she had seen this new rider before.

Instead of seeing Marnie, with rifle to shoulder, Willamina saw the scene from behind the wheel, and what she saw was not her granddaughter.

She saw a huge black horse in thundering gallop, forehooves up, nose down and teeth bared:  she saw a rider with pale eyes, with steel greaves and a plate-mail skirt, she saw a shining curiasse of distinctly feminine contours, a Norman helm and nasal with upraised wings ... but what commanded her attention was the lance, couched under the rider's bare arm, the lance driving with an utterly merciless precision, right toward the viewer's face.

Marnie saw the slightest tremor to her Gammaw's hand as she stacked the drawings again, slid them in the envelope.

"Those are yours, Gammaw.  You may have need of them."

Willamina placed the envelope on the table, looked up, removed her half-glasses.

"Thank you."

Willamina rose, laid a gentle hand on her granddaughter's forearm.

"We are links in a very long chain," she said softly.  "We carry a bloodline that cannot be allowed to end, not just yet."

"I know."

"It will end, and those of our line will be there."

"I know the place, Gammaw."

Willamina raised an eyebrow, surprised.

"It will be the Omega, the Ragnarok, the end of all things.  Only the very best warriors will be there, and our get will be among them."

"Unless we are that last generation."

"Unless we are."

"Is that why you and Sarah McKenna look like sisters, why my Daddy and Old Pale Eyes are a mirror image, each for the other?"

Willamina smiled, just a little.

"I expect it is, Marnie."

"And in the meantime?"

"In the meantime," Willamina sighed, "sometimes there is justice, and sometimes ... a wise man once told me, sometimes there is justice, and sometimes there is just us."

Grandmother and granddaughter embraced, hugged each other hard, held one another for a long time, there in Willamina's kitchen, while Marnie's drawings slept in their manila envelope on the table.

 

 

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386. LEVELS

Linn knew he was a man.

Linn knew this meant women would forever be a mystery, and some things he would never be able to figure out, and in this, he was content.

He was also cognizant of the mystery under the hood of his Jeep: he knew it was an engine, he knew he used to be able to rebuilt the Carbon Tater, he used to be able to replace points, plugs and condeneser, use a timing light, adjust valves, grind valves, rebuild a manual transmission ... and he knew his skills as a shade tree mechanic were for naught in the face of this new mystery.

In like manner, he knew his darlin' daughter, now crowding twelve years of age, was as much a mystery as his darlin' wife or his beloved mother.

Marnie was still Daddy's Little Girl, and Marnie was fast moving and giggly like little girls tend to be, but little isn't what she was anymore: she was all legs and bright smile, she still wore her hair in pigtails and she still wore red cowboy boots, and she still absolutely loved seeing the world from the saddle, but she was a deeper soul than he was realizing -- and he realized this depth, this mystery, and in this, too, he was content.

Marnie tilted her head, looked at her long tall Daddy, smiled:  "I'm going to Gammaw's," she said, "she's running with the football team again!" and Linn hugged his little girl, looked at her with light blue eyes and said gently, "Get 'em, Tigress," and Marnie giggled and kissed him again, then skipped out the door:  he knew she would whistle up The Bear Killer, and the pair would run into the back pasture, she would select whichever of his horses was the most challenging, she would get it saddled, she'd buck it out, and the pair would run cross country to his Mama's house, in time to change into shorts and sneakers and belt on two canteens for the football run.

Sheriff Willamina Keller ran with the Firelands Football Team:  she ran in full rattle battle, fatigues and boots, pack and rifle, she had an ice chest of water and plates of cookies, wrapped and ready, and when the team hit their halfway mark, she'd be ready with shade and a drink, a quick bite and a smile:  any who needed attention, whether it was blisters, cramps or motherly hands holding theirs, or wiping sweat off a face, or a quiet word of encouragement:  the second half of the run, the hardest, was with Willamina pacing along with them:  they were tired, they were sweaty, the second half was always longer, harder, more trying than the first, but with this pale eyed Valkyrie running with them, they fell into ranks, into lines; they ran in pace, in cadence, and inevitably they would grin and sing, because Sheriff Willamina Keller was a Cool Little Old Lady, and she sang the most delightfully obscene running songs, in which they joined most joyfully.

Marnie ran with them as well, ran beside her Gammaw, her youthful legs matching her Gammaw, step for step, pace for pace:  she never sang with them, but she felt their unified esprit, she felt the change from individuals, pushing through their personal boundaries, to a united, focused, cohesive unit.

Marnie learned from this.

She, too, had to push through her personal barriers; she, too, had to shove herself mercilessly beyond what she thought she could do, into what she could do if she absolutely have to:  this pushed her boundaries back, which she realized with a sudden delight, and this showed her that she was capable of more than she thought possible.

Just as football teams will sometimes guest rival football players in practice -- with the gentleman's agreement that visitors departed when particular plays were being run -- rival football players came to the Firelands practices, and one such ran with them today.

Marnie was used to seeing her Gammaw circulating among the players, she'd seen her Gammaw dressing wounds or splinting a broken arm from a trip and a fall, she'd assumed this was normal, and so Marnie wore two canteens, one on each hip:  she had not earned boots and a pack like her Gammaw, but she could carry water, and she would circulate around to those who looked kind of dry, and offer them a drink on the run.

One such was a visiting team member, who snarled and threw the canteen rather than drink from it.

Marnie learned about this individual, and she learned that his teammate spoke sharply to him for the action:  she saw the looks exchanged among Willamina's Warriors, and later, when quiet voices agreed that this visitor was not to be readmitted, she learned more about those who saw.

The offending player's coach, and his father, both learned as well:  the father, when his son asked to borrow the car -- "Are you going to see a girl?" his father asked, and raised an eyebrow when his shamefaced son admitted "No, I have to go apologize to a girl," and the father learned (through the channels fathers tend to develop) that his son stopped at their local surplus store before returning to Firelands.

The car was returned, washed, freshly waxed, vacuumed, and with a full tank:  when asked how his date went, the football player's face reddened and he mumbled "Fine," and his father was wise enough to let that stand.

The rival team's coach, too, was discussed of this event:  he and the football player spoke in quiet tones, behind a closed door:  the coach was honestly surprised that this young man replaced the canteen he'd thrown away in a moment of short temper, that he'd apologized to the kind soul who'd been good enough to offer him water as they ran, and  when the lad returned home and sat down beside his Dad, the father wisely offered no comment as his son admitted it was the first time he'd ever gotten a girl flowers.

Willamina, too, learned from this event:  she listened silently to the comments made after the run was finished, she refrained from recommendations as the team, as a whole, discussed whether to allow rivals to run with them at all, ever again, and if they did, that Marnie was to be respected:  she met with the team the next night, at football practice, and shoulder to shoulder with their coach, she described with them how this rival player beat on Linn's door with a canteen, with flowers, and how the individual handed Marnie the flowers, and the canteen, and said in very plain language that he was wrong, and he was sorry.

Marnie herself considered her part in the little play, and it took some time for her to realize the several layers that were involved, and it impressed her young mind that she, one single soul, could be involved in so many layers, even without trying.

 

 

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387. THE TRAIN

Bonnie Lynne McKenna watched the figure on the passenger car's rear platform fluttering a kerchief, until the departing train disappeared around the far bend, and was gone.

Retired Sheriff Linn Keller watched as well, as did his daughter Angela, standing beside her Daddy and holding his arm:  she, too, had swung her kerchief in farewell, and she looked at her Daddy, then at Bonnie.

Bonnie looked at Levi, her husband: they stepped forward, together:  Bonnie came up beside the pale eyed old lawman, and she saw the same thing that the man's lovely daughter saw.

She saw sorrow.

The train was gone and out of sight; Linn brought his hand up, rested it lightly on Angela's gloved knuckles, looked from her to Bonnie, looked at Levi.

He swallowed, took a long breath, nodded.

"I'll never see her again," he said, his voice surprisingly level:  he looked half sick, he looked like a man gut punched, a man who'd just wakened to find all he had in the world was irrevocably gone.

Angela bit her bottom lip, uncertain, almost afraid:  her father was the strongest man she'd ever known, the steadiest, he was her rock, he was the foundation she'd built her universe upon, and suddenly she saw him as something she'd never seen before.

She saw him as vulnerable.

"Come.  You must have dinner with us."

Linn heard Bonnie's words as from a great distance.

He felt a familiar hand on his shoulder, one he recognized -- Levi's -- he allowed himself to be steered to their carriage, he climbed in, settled himself in the back seat, staring unseeing at the back of Levi's well-fitted suit coat.

No, that's not entirely correct.

He saw his daughter, his Sarah, the get of his loins, departing, forever, taken from him by the machineries built by men, taken away and to be taken by other machines a great distance, greater than a man could traverse alone, taken to a strange land, never to return, never to return.

Not since the death of his beloved Esther had he felt so utterly lost.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stood in the visitor's area, watching the huge screens as the rocket steamed and waited, as figures on the gantry crossed from the elevator into the capsule.

His daughter, his Marnie, his pale eyed little girl, was going to be slung from the earth itself, fired aloft on a confined, continuing explosion, taken high and higher yet on the dragons' breath of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen:  she would transfer to an orbiter, which would use its momentum and another set of chemical engines to launch, to slingshot, on a calculated trajectory toward another planet, another land, another shore far from home.

He stared at the screen, his pale eyed mother on one side, his wife on the other, their children at home watching as well:  they would tell him later that they saw him, when the cameras showed the families watching were named, their faces and their stories broadcast, as fillers while countdowns were delayed, while checks and rechecks were made:  and all the time, a pale eyed lawman stood, straight, tall, strong, confident, with is wife on one arm, his mother on the other.

Willamina knew what it was to see her children leave home; she knew what it was to say a final goodbye; she was handling her granddaughter's departure from Earth with a calmness, a knowing that is the gift of many women.

Shelly watched with a hollow feeling in her belly, as one of her own was leaving home, but Linn ...

Linn watched with a sick feeling, with an honest grief:  around him, lips moved as the echoing, amplified voice counted backwards to zero, as the rocket's fires blasted against water- cooled concrete, as the man-made arrow shivered and rose and gathered itself and soared, and finally Linn's lips moved as well, and none but his wife and his mother heard his tortured whisper, and none but his wife saw a single wet streak trickle down his cheek.

"I will never see my little girl again."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled as she walked the aisle of the passenger car, as she opened the far door, stepped out onto the platform:  she hopped easily to the next platform, totally ignoring the passage of crossties and ballast beneath her, utterly uncaring that a fall as she crossed would mean an instant, most horrible death:  she opened the door to her private car, the car His Honor the Judge insisted she use, and as she came into the car, the dignified old jurist rose, motioned to a chair beside his own.

Sarah swept around his desk, turned, settled into the chair, accepted a steaming, fragrant cup of oolong, sipped appreciatively:  "Mmm," she hummed.  "Thank you, Your Honor."

"How does it feel," the Judge asked speculatively, "knowing that you'll never see home again?"

"Oh, I'll see it," she smiled, "perhaps not in this lifetime, but I'll see it again."  

"Oh?"

"Oh, yes," she smiled.  "Until then, it's the Continent, grand balls, royalty and fine carriages."

She looked over her teacup at the skeptical old, white-haired judge, and smiled knowingly.

"If you want the truth, Your Honor," she said quietly, "I am scared lily-white, and if my hair is not grey by the time I reach New York, I will be surprised indeed!"

"Hmpf!"  His Honor grunted, struck a Lucifer into life, applied it to the end of a freshly-clipped Cuban.

"Scared, you?"  He grunted again.  "If anyone could walk up to Old Nick himself and backhand him across the chops and make him like it, I'd say you were the one for the job!"

Sarah's eyes drifted to the door she'd just come in, and the Judge could tell her thoughts were far on the other side of that door.

"Dear Papa," she murmured, and there was a note of sadness in her voice.  "He is such a sentimental man.  He has Angela and he has the twins, he has his children and he has his friends, but he will feel my loss" -- she looked sharply at the Judge -- "simply because he knows I am no longer there!"

"Yes, I suppose you're right," the Judge nodded.  "I shall feel that same thing, once you change trains, and I will never see you again either."

Sarah tilted her head, looked at the dignified older man with the trim, spade-cut beard.

"Tell me, Your Honor," she said frankly.  "Was I actually useful to you as the Black Agent?"

The Judge lowered his Cuban, uncrossed his legs, planted his feet flat on the floor:  he leaned forward, glowered at her beneath shaggy white eyebrows and frowned.

"My dear," he said frankly, "you were worth a small regiment!"

 

Marnie Keller, flat on her back in the custom fitted acceleration couch, listened to the metallic murmur of voices in her helmet:  they'd been crushed by takeoff acceleration, they'd gone suddenly weightless when the last stage burned out, she'd flinched at the kick-in-the-framework BANG as they separated, as they drifted, at the muffled, almost silent docking:  she and her husband hit the chest stud that released their belts, and they both grinned as they started to float, weightless.

Marnie turned, followed her husband, a half-dozen others followed her:  they filed, one at a time, through the tunnel and into the Slingshot, as the orbiter was known, and as they settled into their assigned seats, Marnie reached over, gripped her husband's hand -- or, rather, his puffy, gloved hand -- and squeezed.

"Not the honeymoon we'd planned," she said silently, and he lip-read her words through the visor:  he grinned, he nodded, and they settled into their pods, relaxed as mechanical restraints closed around them, drew them into position, as fine little needles penetrated over the assigned veins, as she took a final, long breath, and then went to sleep, knowing she was going to wake up a very long way from home.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller shook Levi Rosenthal's hand gravely.

"My friend," he said, "you have been of great help to me today."

Levi nodded slowly, considered, his bottom jaw thrust out as he thought:  he looked at his pale eyed host and said frankly, "I do not know if I could conduct myself with your dignity."

Linn's hand tightened slightly and his other hand reached up, gripped Levi's upper arm as he took a half-step nearer.

"My friend," he said quietly, "you most assuredly have."

 

That night, Angela Keller and the twins spread a blanket outside, lay with their heads together, looking at the stars.

"What's that red one?" a little girl's voice asked, pointing.

"That's Mars," Angela said.  "It's a planet, not a star."

"Oh."  A long silence, then:

"Angela?"

"Hm?"
"Are there any trains to Mars?"

Angela laughed, gently, so as not to bruise fragile young feelings.

"No, sweets," she smiled in the darkness.  "I don't think there are."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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388. CHINESE FLIES

Before he was Sheriff, before he was Colonel, Captain, Lieutenant, before he was any of those things, he was just Linn.

The land of his nativity was the West, or the West as it was in those days:  Ohio was the West, and his were hills, hollers, cricks, runs, his were grouse drumming, deer growing scarce, and working from can-see to can't-see.

His was also a love of books and of reading, and his was a curious mind and observant eyes, and so it was no surprise to the town marshal when Linn hunkered down beside him, the crescent silver butt plate of his flint rifle grounded beside his knee, and both of them regarded the dead man.

"Killed with a scythe?" Linn asked.

The Marshal grunted.  "Everybody and their uncle has a hunky scythe."

Linn rose.  "Who had it in for him?"

"Who else?"

Linn rose.  "I know how to find out."

The Marshal rose, looked at the skinny boy with the long barrel flint rifle.

"All right," he said, "let's find out."

They showed up at Ribarin's shack an hour later, and Ribarin was cutting weeds with his scythe.

He stopped, regarded the newcomers with hostile eyes, pulled the scythe stone from the pouch around his neck and began stroking the blade with a practiced ease, the curved steel singing under coarse stone's caress.

The Marshal hailed the man and engaged him in conversation, and Ribarin carefully tucked the precious sharpening stone back in its leathern pouch:  he grounded the blade, leaned casually against it -- the ideal position, they all knew, to make a killing stroke, without looking intentional beforehand.

Linn listened to the conversation with only part of his attention.

He looked at the blade.

He waited. 

He smiled.

His rifle was loaded, as it always was; he'd wiped the flint clean after the last shot, the pan was primed, the touch hole clear, as he kept it, and he spoke up in a lull in the two men's conversation.

"Marshal."

Both men turned and looked at him.

"Look at his blade."

Surprised, both men looked down at the curved cutter, to see flies gathered on it.

"They're drawn to blood, Marshal," Linn said casually, backing up a step and bringing his rifle to what he would later learn was called port arms.  "There's your killer."

Ribarin roared, brought the blade up:  the Marshal stepped in, fast, inside his swing, the blade cutting air behind him:  he drove a punch into the murderer's face:  Ribarin dropped the scythe, turned, ran.

Linn's rifle floated to his shoulder like a feather on the breeze.

It was a handmade HR Keller rifle, sized to fit the boy he'd been when his father started the work.

It was late Bedford County pattern, slender and willowy and delicate, Linn had long since outgrown it, for the Old Man forgot two things when he set to building his son a rifle:

First, boys grow; and second, Old Man Keller was an artist, and an artist can only work on his art when the mood is upon him.

By the time he'd finished the rifle, his son was considerable taller and longer of arm, which mattered not one bit to Linn: he had his father's love in solid form, he had something he could rub and heft and smell and show off, his father made this rifle for him! -- and now that rifle, that extension of his very soul, came to the shoulder, his middle finger hooked the set trigger back and his forefinger hauled back the striker and he said "Say the word."

"Shoot him."

The flint rifle spoke, a quick sn'bam! and a squirrel ball seared through the air and drove through the back of the murderer's skull.

Blue smoke hung on the still, humid air as Linn grounded the butt, bent down to plug the touch hole:  he reloaded, seated the patched ball on a horn-tip measure of powder, brought the rifle up and pulled the long, slender touch hole plug, tapped a little fine ground powder into the pan, snapped the battery-piece over the powder.

Only then did he look at the dead man.

"That's the third one you saved me from hangin'," the Marshal finally said, then he looked at the tall boy.

"How did you know about them flies?"

"I read it," Linn said quietly.  "A Chinaman was killed by another'n with a sickle.  The magistrate rounded up the suspects and had each one lay his sickle on the ground.  The murderer's sickle had the dead man's blood on it even though he'd warshed it off in the crick and them Chinese flies, why, they smelt that blood and landed on it."

The Marshal nodded, gripped Linn's shoulder, released.

"I'll have to remember about them Chinese flies."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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389. YOU'RE NOT FROM TEXAS, ARE YOU?

Linn felt her watching him.

There was no mistaking the woman.

Military uniforms are cut to make the wearer look good, and she would have made a burlap sack look good: he and the Texan both gave her a good looking-at ... she was built from the ground up, not excessively in any particular parameter, but the whole of her construction had to be as close to ideal as either of the pair had ever seen.

She knew she was being watched; very likely she got that a lot -- good looking women tend to be looked at -- but neither Linn nor his buddy were inclined to stare, and they paid attention to their mounts.

The Texan was the horseman: he went up to the ugliest, jug headed, pointed eared, disagreeable nag and whispered something, stroked its neck, ran his hands under its jaw and hauled its mouth open, frowned at yellowed teeth, rubbed its ears, felt down its forelegs, picked up each hoof and examined it closely:  he pulled a small screwdriver from somewhere, tapped the horseshoe experimentally, ran the blade carefully around inside the hoof:  satisfied, he moved to the other hoof:  he ran his hand down the ill-tempered nag's back, turning suddenly and holding up a knotted fist when the horse started to bring those yellow teeth around to try and take a bite out of his backside.

"Don't," he said quietly, and the horse didn't -- to the amazement of the Israeli trail guide.

Linn and Tex were delighted to find that trail rides were popular in Israel.

The American West, it seemed, was a favorite subject for romance in any language; here, horses were anything but purebred, tack was worn, patched, mismatched; still, when Linn and the Texan swung into the saddle, the horses ... changed.

Instead of impatient, disagreeable, restless trail nags, they stood with their heads and tails up, somehow -- in spite of their mongrel bloodlines, in spite of patches and repairs and the mismatch -- they actually looked regal.

Their trail guide rode point.

Linn was less than comfortable, being in a foreign country, unarmed: he was used to riding with a Winchester rifle under his leg and a belt gun as well, and here he had a whole lot of nothing: their guide had an Uzi slung across his back, and he was willing to bet that good looking Israeli officer he and Tex had been admiring, could produce unexpected surprises if the need arose, but that was little comfort: he'd been a lawman long enough that he was automatically picking out those places where ambush could be waiting.

He turned his head as a rider came up beside him.

"Ma'am," he said pleasantly.

"You look incomplete," the Major said, her voice pitched to carry to his ear, and no further.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Are you from Texas?"
"No ma'am. My partner is."

"Your ... partner."

"Yes, ma'am."  He resumed scanning, uncomfortable with having his attention divided.

"Is there a connotation?"
"There is, ma'am," he replied.  "I'm a Sheriff's deputy and I'm used to partnering."

"I see."  He felt her smile more than saw it. 

"You asked if I'm from Texas."

"Only a Texan cares for his horse as you did."

Linn looked at her, laughed quietly:  "Ma'am, I will take that for a compliment."

 

Willamina looked up from the screen.

"That," Linn said, "is where things got interesting."

"I'd heard something about it," Willamina said.

"Yes, ma'am. It was ... kept quiet."

"Really?"

"I don't think they wanted to admit that two Yankee Americans made a screaming charge into the teeth of enemy fire, that two crazy Texans ran their horses into an ambush and trompled the fellows wanting to shed tourist blood, and they sure as hell didn't want to admit that those two crazy Texas horsemen grabbed a couple rifles and cleaned out a hornet's nest before the regulars could get there."

"What about the guide?  He was armed."

"He was the first one they killed."

"I see."

"Tex got a bullet burn alongst his cheek bone. That Israeli major said it would heal like a Heidelberg dueling scar, that he could have his pick of beautiful German fraulein, that schoolboys would idolize him and grown men would lift their hats in salute as he walked down the street."

"How did he take that?"

Linn laughed.  "Ma'am, I never saw a man's ears turn quite so red as his did."

"What did Tex say to the Major when she told him his souvenir would stand him in good stead as a Teutonic warrior?"

Linn's expression sobered.

"Ma'am, he was very polite with the woman.  I think he was a little afraid of her."

"Afraid?"

"Yes, ma'am.  He told me later she had everything in the right place, she had everything in just the right amount, he said he devoured her with his eyes from the ankles up, until he got to her eyes."

Willamina's chin lifted a little, the way she did when she found a nugget of truth in an interrogation.

"Ma'am, he said when he got to her eyes ... 'I don't know what kind of hell that poor woman has seen,' said he, 'but she had eyes like a marble statue, and I reckon she could have gotten an order on her phone and killed every last one of us, gone home and slept with a clean conscience that night.'"

"Did you see her eyes?"

Linn hesitated, staring past her, nodding slowly.

"Yes, ma'am, I did."

"And?"

"She had eyes like ours, ma'am.  Exactly like yours and exactly like mine."

 

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390. SHALLAGOTHA

 

I taken our wagon and mule and set myself to the west.

We had a stack of furs to sell, we had other goods, I had several stops to make, but ultimately I was for Shallagotha, which the white man called Chillicothe: first capital of Ohio, it had long before then been a hub of native civilization, and I counted it a loss that it was no longer that, but then I was nothing but a long tall hillbilly so what do I know.

I'd saved my money from barking -- we'd cut trees and bark 'em off, we sold the bark to tanneries by the railroad flatcar, there was timber in plenty so the logs got rolled off into a holler and burnt just to get rid of 'em. To this day the sandstone is burnt red and I reckon will be forever. Oncet I got older I realized what a shameful waste of good timber that was, but when we done it I was young and didn't have any amount of good sense.

Actually I did, I just get mad at myself thinkin' of all that good walnut, burnt up and gone.

Anyway I taken my rifle and my poke, I taken furs and other goods and I headed West and finally made it, there was fur buyers nearer but I dealt with Scotty for he give me the best prices and besides 'twas my first trip to the big city.

Sure enough, I got lost.

I ended up goin' out torst Paint Crick and I seen a girl, she was clean and she was barefoot, she was outside a church an' she was in tears.

Now that's a hard memory and let me shorten it up some, I married that girl, her name was Connie and I brung her back home but not before I kilt one of her brothers right away, I hurt another bad enough he died before he could be hanged, and I hurt her Pa bad enough Connie was able to take a razor strop to him while he lay on the doctor's table and me an' the doctor we paid no attention to the sounds from inside whilst she laid her Pa's back bloody from neck to ankles, for that's what he'd done to her when he found she'd been talkin' to me and when I went out and found Connie stretched over the wood pile and her brothers holdin' her whilst her Pa laid into her with that razor strop, why, I laid into them --

I get this way sometimes.

Memories have deep roots and that still makes me boilin' mad.

I heard a man say oncet that he wished he had a bushel basket full of Hebrew shekels so he could hire the Witch of Endor to resurrect someone-or-another so he could beat 'em plumb to death with his fists, and now I understand how a man could hate someone so bad as to wish that, but mine are the words of a widower, for I got back from that damned War to find my Connie, my wife, the only good thing in a world gone insane, dead of the Small Pox, and our daughter, our little Dana, dead on her second birthday, she died in my arms --

I rubbed my face and looked away and I taken me a long breath, and my little girl laid a hand on my shoulder and whispered, "Dear Papa, I wish I could help," and I laid my hand on her cool fingers and I allowed as she just did, for my wife, my Esther, was not in the ground a week yet, and the grief does that to a man, it drags up old memories and I recalled just awful clear when I left home with a wagon load of goods and come home with a poke full of money and a wife.

Angela was growing, and grown; she had suitors, and one young fellow who came to me and looked me in the eye and asked my permission to pursue her hand, and I considered for several long moments, I held up a hand when he got uncomfortable with the prolonged silence and started to speak.

I walked over to the cupboard and pulled out two brandy balloons, I poured us each two fingers' worth of distilled California sunshine:  I swirled mine, took a deep sniff of the fragrant distillate and looked up at the uncomfortable young man.

I raised my glass to him, and he to me, and we drank, I motioned him to a seat and I parked my carcass in a padded chair, grateful for the set-down:  a lifetime of hard work and badge packin' didn't do my poor old back any favors, and it felt good to set my backside down on somethin' soft.

"Your family," I said slowly, "is of good report, and prosperous.  You are a young man of industry and thrift. Your personal habits are exemplary and you have a good business mind."  

I pressed my lips together, rubbed my palms slowly together, feeling more than hearing the calluses whispering to one another as I did.

"I've given advice to young men who were sweet on a girl," I admitted.  "I warned them that, no matter how old she gets, she will always, always be Daddy's Little Girl."

I grinned at him and it felt like a boyish grin, and he grinned back and he looked kind of boyish and bashful, and I allowed as a Daddy always wants to make sure his little girl is properly taken care of.

"Your Pa," said I, "treats his wife like a queen, and that is a lesson to his sons.  From that, I take it you will treat my little girl in like manner."

He allowed as that was his intention.

I taken me another long breath and studied the pattern on the rug in front of me.

"You generally get what you pay for," I said slowly, "and it would be awful easy for me to give you just a whole wagon load of free advice, but I reckon you've already got more than you can use."

I rose, and so did he.

I stuck out my hand and he taken it, and his grip was firm and he looked me square in the eye.

"Young man, you have asked my permission to pursue my daughter's hand."

"Yes, sir."

His grip was still in mine; it neither slacked, nor did I feel a quiver.

"You are welcome in my home at any time, and you have my permission to commence your pursuit."

He looked suddenly solemn, as if the full weight of realizing responsibilities dropped on his shoulders:  he nodded slowly and said, "Sir, I shall," and then Angela burst through the door, came running over to me, seized me in a delighted embrace and a girlish "Oh, Papa!" -- she kissed me on the cheek, then turned, took her swain by the hand and looked at him, half-anxious, half-hopeful, and looked back at me.

"I reckon," said I, "you two have matters to discuss."

 

I waited until they were in the carriage, and headed for his place, for his family would wish to know that he had secured my permission, and I reckoned his Mama and his sisters would want to sit down with my Angela and talk about the things women always talk about when one of 'em is lookin' at marriage.

I went outside and set down on my porch swing, I looked at the mountains high against the far horizon, I thought of my Esther, dead in childbirth, buried in her emerald green wedding gown: I heard the door open, the whisper of a girl's patent-leather slippers on the painted boards, and something pale eyed and giggly with long blond curls whirled around in front of me and landed on my lap.

I ran my arms around my little Dana and drew her in close, hugging her with the fierceness of a man who knows what it is to lose the dearest things in life.

"Papa?"  Dana asked softly, after I'd swung a little, with her on my lap, with her long coltish legs hung over to the left and her head leaned against my collar bone, all frills and skirts and smelling of soap and sunlight and lilac water, and I said "Hmm?"
"Papa, when is Angela getting married?"

"Oh, I reckon right here directly."

"I was afraid of that," Dana sighed, and she leaned her head away a little and looked up at me.

I leaned my face down into hers, wiggled my mustache against her nose, which made her giggle, and that felt good, I always did like it when she giggled, but then when it comes to my girls, I'm just an old softy.

"Papa," she asked, and there was a serious note to her voice, so I slackened my arms and I looked into her eyes and said gently, "My dear?" and she bit her bottom lip, and I knew she was thinking of her dead Mama, for I used to address Esther as "My Dear."

"Papa," she whispered, as if not trusting her voice, "what are we going to do with Mama gone?"

I hugged her up into me, swung a little more, hearing the chain groan in the hand forged hooks overhead -- I'll have to grease those again, I thought -- and I laid my cheek against her rich, auburn curls and murmured, "Darlin', we'll just have to do the best we can," and I felt her quiver a little, and I held her whilst she cried, for she was a girl hurtin' for her Mama, and not a damn thing I could do but hold her and let her bury her face into my shirt front.

"We will rejoice with Angela's wedding," I said quietly, "and we will find joy where we may, for that is what your Mama taught us. Grief and sorrow will always be there, so it's up to us to find the good in this lifetime."

We set on the front porch swing for some long time, holding one another, and I considered just how far I'd come from that trip when I was young, when I headed for Shallagotha to sell our goods and come home with a wife.

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391. AS THE DAY IS BORN

Captain Linn Keller set his pains aside.

He'd spent much too long at the latrine, pale, sweating, shivering with his personal agonies: he'd boiled water and he'd drunk water and he'd made enough water himself to float a river boat, but he set these aside and swung into the saddle, for a runner reported enemy forces on the approach.

Higher brass than himself allowed as this was not the case, the enemy was nowhere near, but Linn was an old campaigner by now and he knew where there was a report there was at least a little fact, and he rode out toward their cannon emplacement, rode out ahead, raised a spyglass and took a look.

He doubled over in his saddle as the agonies seized his guts and he damned the Devil and the legion of demons that planted what the surgeon called a Kidney Stone in his guts, for he'd known pain in his lifetime but he'd never known anything -- anything that was both painful, and made him sick to his very soul -- than this infernal creature tearing at his guts.

 

Connie bent over and groaned, an arm across her belly.

The birth pains hit her fast, faster than they should.

She'd stored the precious rocket near to the fireplace, near enough to keep warm and dry but not too warm, she did not want this wizard's wand blasting fire and destruction inside their cabin.

She snatched up the paper wrapped Chinese rocket and reached down, picked up a smoldering-red stick from the fireplace, staggered for their door.

Their neighbor knew if she fired off that rocket it meant she was in need of help, they knew she was great with child, they helped her as best they could:  Connie groaned, swayed, fell against the hand smoothed door frame, the frame she and Linn had pegged into position, the frame he tried with a plumb bob and tapped here and shimmed there and finally pronounced it good, and she rejoiced at the pride in his face as he looked at her, for he hadn't built that cabin for him.

He'd built it for her, and for the family they would have, here, here where the dirt was deep and black, where 'twas fertile, where they planned to live their life and raise children and crops, at least until that slick talking German came along, recruitin' for that damned War.

Connie took a breath, blew it out, took another, staggered away from the cabin, feeling her pelvis shift with every step, the way a woman's bones will loosen when she is ready to deliver.

She set that Chinese skyrocket against a stump, blew on the stick to fan the coals bright, touched red coal to the lumpy black fuse:  she flinched back as it sizzled, she backed away as sparkling fire hissed and sparkled and climbed, and she tilted her head back and shaded her eyes as the skyrocket shot into the afternoon sky, as it drew a finger of fire trails and smoke, as it arched over and BANG spread itself over an acre of blue Ohio sky with falling balls of red and green fire and a cloud of smoke.

She laid a hand on her belly.

"Soon," she whispered.  "Soon."

 

Linn hammered his heels into the chestnut's ribs, streaking back toward the waiting cannon.

"LOAD!" he screamed, "LOAD, DAMN YOU, THEY ARE NEAR!"

He hauled the chestnut to a skidding stop -- his adjutant ran up, saluted -- "Orders, sir?"

"Load canister, you'll need it!" Captain Keller shouted as a grey line melted out of the trees on the other side of the field.

The nearest cannon was loaded, a weather-tanned hand wrapped the string around scarred knuckles, yanked:  there was a concussion, the chestnut went down sideways, Linn felt a giant kick him in the ribs, pain beyond pain, he could not breathe, the world was an orange wash of fire and smoke --

 

Women's hands gripped Connie, wiped her forehead, got her stripped down and into her birthing bed:  men were shooed away, the fire built up, Connie heard water being dipped, felt the gourd dipper put to her lips, took a sip of water, cool, sweet --

Something like a mule kicked her in the ribs and she couldn't breathe and she smelled sulfur and she heard her husband's voice, a pained groan she'd never heard before --

 

Linn found the chestnut, gripped her bridle, turned her:  he got a boot into the stirrup, swung into the saddle more out of habit than aught else:  he lay down over her neck, looking at the smoking wreck that used to be an old cast bronze smoothbore, at men's carcasses, at what used to be a fine young Lieutenant who a moment before saluted him smartly and asked, "Orders, sir?" just before the explosion that killed him and like as not would kill the Captain.

Captain Keller clenched his teeth against the agony; he turned the mare with knees and his hands, pointed her back toward Headquarters:  he felt her gather herself, felt her pacing under him:  he pressed his hands against her neck, stood in the stirrups, fought for breath, fought for even one good breath, and as she picked up her pace and finally started to gallop, he grunted "Run - run - run - run!"

 

Connie's head fell back against the pillow.

Her water was broke, she relaxed for a moment, anonymous hands wiped her forehead, her cheeks, her neck with cool, wet cloths --

Connie's hands seized a double handful of blanket --

Her head snapped back and she bared her teeth --

 

Sentries shouted at the approaching horse, grasping hands tried to snatch the passing bridle, but the horse veered and shied, trotting briskly up to the command tent:  men with rank on their shoulders stepped out of the tent, buttoning their blue tunics, wondering what in two hells was going on --

The bugler was a skinny young fellow with blond hair, he knew the mare, he called "Ho, there, ho, now," and the mare came to him, and he saw the man with the bloodied side start to fall from the saddle.

The bugler turned, caught him as he rolled out of saddle leather, eased him to the ground.

Pale eyes snapped open, a callused hand seized him by his coat's front --

"Blow assembly, damn you, they're upon us," he grated from between bloodied, clenched teeth, then his pale eyes went wide and he fell back, limp.

The bugler straightened, looked around, released the Captain, ran.

A moment later, the sharp, staccato notes of "Assembly" penetrated the air, bringing men to their feet, bringing men at a dead run.

 

The sun was just coming over the horizon when Dana Lynne, bloody and protesting, emerged into the world:  she didn't have much to say about it, at least not at first, though after five minutes or so she was declaring her opinion that she didn't think much of this new change of residence, at least until she started working on her first meal.

Captain Linn Keller rolled his head a little to the side, saw the sun coming up, bloody red on the horizon:  his voice was lost in the sound of running feet, shouted orders, galloping horses.

Nobody heard his hoarse, "Connie."

Nobody but a women with a newborn at her breast, a woman back in the Ohio country, a woman who was breathing hard, recovering from having just birthed her first child.

 

"Doctor?"

The field surgeon looked up, looked back at the leg he was amputating.

"How many casualties?"

"I've lost count."

The major nodded, looked around, saw a familiar face -- but pale, so very pale.

The surgeon looked up.

"Talk to him," he said, "while you can. Nothing I can do for the man."
The major walked over, took Captain Keller's hand, squeezed.

Linn opened his eyes.

"My wife," he whispered hoarsely.

"Sorry, I'm taken," the Major said gently, and both men smiled: it was an old joke between them.

"Doc says I'm done for."

The Major nodded.

Linn shook his head, just a little.

"I got work to do," he whispered hoarsely.  "I got crops to raise. My wife is with child."

"Mine, as well."

"Major."

"Yes."

"Pray for ..."

Linn's voice drifted away, his eyes rolled up in his head:  the Major's hand still gripped his, and Linn's grip was still firm.

The Major waited.

Linn shuddered in a pained, shallow breath, another.

"Major, pray for my wife," Linn whispered.  "I feel sorry for a mother birthing a child that looks like me."

The Major nodded, squeezed Linn's hand a little more, released.

"I will that," he said gently.  "Rest now."

 

Somewhere in the night, a visitor came: it was maybe an hour before sunrise, that fell hour when weakened souls release their grip on life and fall away from the earth.

The visitor had pale eyes, and she rode a black horse, and she carried a silver headed lance: the horse came spiraling down from the heavens, landed easily, folded her great white wings, and the pale eyed warrior woman removed her Norman helm and regarded the Captain with pale eyes.

"Warrior," she said, her voice low and musical, "you have proven yourself worthy.  You are offered a choice."

"I'll take a beer," Captain Keller whispered hoarsely, and he saw amusement and approval in his visitor's eyes.

"If you remain," she said, "you will have to heal, and you will have to live with a body that has been badly hurt.  Or" -- she hesitated -- "you can come with me, and your pain will be at an end."

Linn was ready to give up.

He'd come to absolutely the last of his reserve, and he let go, and he fell away from his body.

He wished mightily to see his wife, his Connie, and his essence soared through dark sky and shadow and he was at his cabin, back in the Ohio country, and he was inside and he saw his wife, his Connie, and she had an infant at her breast.

She looked tired, worn, but she smiled as she slept.

Connie's eyes snapped open, she frowned, looking around.

She ... smelled ... her husband?

"Linn?" she asked softly.

Linn's very soul was exhausted.

"Connie," he said, "I am so tired."

Connie Lee Keller, wife of Linn Keller and mother to their child, came up on her elbows, her jaw set and her eyes snapping.

"Linn Keller," she declared, "you get back into your body and you come home to me on your own two legs, do you hear me?"

Linn fell back into his own body, back into an ocean of pain, but he fell back with the knowledge that he had work to do, and the very first thing he needed to do was heal up so he could get home and see his wife again.

Linn shook his head, rebellion building in him.

"I'm stayin'. Work to be done."

The pale eyed woman nodded and he saw her braids were wrapped around her neck, and part of his mind remembered hearing about Viking women who wore their hair thusly, as protection against a knife attack.

"You will see me again," the woman said, and turned, thrust a polished black boot into her stirrup.

"What is your name?" Linn gasped hoarsely.

The woman hesitated, removed her foot from the stirrup:  she came over, gripped the man's hand, looked very directly into his eyes, and it finally sank in that her eyes were the same pale shade as his own.

"Do I know you?"

"You will," she whispered, caressing his forehead.  "You will not remember this encounter until it is your time to leave, and that will be many years hence and far from here."  She bent, kissed the man's forehead, and he felt something wet spat against his hairline.

"Papa," she choked, "my name is Sarah, and I am your daughter yet unborn."

She turned, mounted:  the huge black horse turned, snapped out a pair of pure white wings:  there was the sound of hoofbeats, and horse and rider soared into the night sky.

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392. DISAPPOINTMENT, AND DELIGHT

Captain Keller felt a familiar grip on his wrist.

He did not open his eyes.

"Well?" he asked. "Do I have one today?"

He heard the physician's slow intake of breath, his tired sigh, as he always did.

Linn opened one eye.

"Did you get any sleep at all last night, Doc?"

Dr. John Greenlees shook his head slowly.

"Doc, we've only got one of you."

"I'm needed."

"That's what I said, and look where it got me."

"That's why I keep coming back here."  

Dr. John Greenlees leaned back in the straight-back chair harvested from a ruined house, let his head fall back, stared sightlessly at the ceiling of the hospital tent.

"You shouldn't even be alive."

Linn was quiet, breathing carefully:  it hurt to breathe, it hurt to hold still, it hurt to move; he was accepting pain as a new companion in his long tall body, an unwelcome companion he'd like to seize by the throat and beat against the nearest wall, but until he healed some he knew he'd not be strong enough to pick up a kitten, let alone rip this hated enemy from his own body.

"I could tell you what it is to walk the Valley," Linn said quietly.

Dr. Greenlees brought his head back to normal, blinked, looked steadily at the injured, healing Captain.

"It's green," Linn almost whispered.  "It smells of a thousand green growing things."

Dr. Greenlees nodded.

He'd had men at death's threshold describe the Valley to him before.

"If you've walked the Valley of the Shadow, why are you still here, Captain?"

"I was sent back," Linn said frankly, "because my work was not yet done.  Word for word, that's what I was told."

Dr. Greenlees' long, slender fingers gripped Linn's hand, not a physician's analytical touch, but the companionable, familiar grip of one man, in comforting agreement with another, a moment's letting down of the guard, a moment of vulnerability.

"Doc, you don't look good, what happened? -- other than slaughter, torture and death on the hoof?"

Dr. John Greenlees released Linn's hand, planted bony elbows on skinny knees, leaned his face down into his hands, rubbed his face.

He was tired, so tired! -- he would give a good percentage of his eternal soul for an uninterrupted night's rest! -- he took another long breath, wiped his fingers down across lean, almost cadaverous cheekbones, reached his delicate surgeon's fingers into an inside pocket.

"I received this."

Linn nodded, his thoughts going to the inverted hat beside his bed, in which he, too, had a recently arrived missive.

Doc unfolded the good rag paper; Linn could see the broken seal, weighting its two edges.

"It's from my father," Doc said softly, and Linn could see sorrow in the man's deep-set, fatigue-rimmed eyes.  "He speaks of his disappointment in me."

Linn closed his eyes, grimaced:  the pain was no worse, but the knowledge of such words was as a new lance through him.

"My father imagined I would have a genteel and profitable practice on a tree-shaded street, that I would wear a fine hat and drive a fine carriage.  I wrote him of amputations, of battlefield expedients, of men shattered and knee deep carnage and how I wept like a lost child when I was obliged to take a pistol and release a gut-shot horse from its agonies."

He looked up, looked through the far wall of the canvas infirmary, a man crushed by his father's words.

"He writes that he is so deeply disappointed in my career choice -- military, instead of a private practice."  He snorted.  "Read "A Profitable Practice!"

"My God, Doc," Linn whispered, "I am so sorry to hear that."

Dr. Greenlees nodded, looking like a man lost, a man utterly empty, a man with his reserves of strength and of spirit, nearly spent.

"Doc, I can't reach it," Linn said his voice husky, "but I've a letter here in my hat -- there, to my left -- if you could open it for me I would be very much obliged."

Doc slid his own folded missive back into its inner pocket; he rose, leaned carefully over the suffering man, reached for the folded, sealed quarter-sheet.

It was addressed in a feminine hand.

"It's from ... it looks like Sandusky."

Linn nodded.  "Home.  Open it."

Doc bent the dark-green seal, Linn heard the brittle snap as it broke, the whisper of folded paper rubbing against itself as the physician opened it.

"It is from Rita Cowhick," Doc said, his eyes scanning the neat lines of delightfully legible handwriting.  

"Neighbor," Linn husked, grimaced, trying hard not to cough.

Linn saw the man's eyes scanning the lines of print, saw the light come back into the doctor's hazel orbs, saw something he had not seen on the man's face for a very long time.

He saw a smile.

"My friend," Dr. John Greenlees said, his eyes going from folded paper to the pale eyed man in bed before him, "you have a daughter, and her name is Dana Lynne."

Linn nodded, closed his eyes.

Doc saw the man wet his lips, open his eyes, blink a few times.

"A little girl," he whispered.  "A little girl."

"Mrs. Cowhick writes this for your wife."

Linn nodded, carefully, afraid of the slightest move.

"Connie could not read much.  I taught her as much as I could.  She never did learn to write."

" 'Your daughter is strong and healthy,' Doc read aloud. 'I know kittens' eyes change as they grow, but it looks like your Dana will have blue eyes.' "

Linn stared at the canvas ceiling overhead, smiling, blinking.

"Connie?"

"She is well," Doc replied, scanning the handwritten missive yet again:  "she birthed the child with a minimum of difficulty, and she is anxious to return to tending your farm."

Linn's jaw eased out a little, and Doc was encouraged by the determination he saw on the man's face.

"I made the right choice," he whispered, and Doc frowned a little, for he knew there was something missing from his understanding of the man's words.

"I got to heal up now," Linn whispered, smiling.  "Doc, I've got even more to live for!"  He breathed through an open mouth, short, shallow breaths, and Doc recognized the guarding of his broken chest.

"Easy," the physician cautioned.  "I worked the ribs back out where they belong, as best I could, but you'll likely have bone splinters working out of your hide for some years to come."

"I can live with that."  Linn's eyes hardened -- where he'd looked almost hopeless, now he looked determined.  "Doc, thank you.  I figured to live for Connie and now I'm livin' for Dana as well!"

"I expect you plan to just grab a handful of saddlehorse and ride out of here."

Linn shifted a little, set his teeth against the sudden cascade of pain that came with the slight movement.

"Not just yet."

"You'll be a while healing.  Give yourself time."

"Time?"  Linn grinned with half his mouth.  "Doc, I've got a little girl to spoil! I've got to get home and sire her a little brother to boss around!  Why, now that I've started a family, this country is going to need horses and horsemen, and I figure to raise horses and children!"

"And just how many do you figure to raise, Captain?"

Linn relaxed a little.  "Oh hell, I'll start with two dozen and go up from there."

"Two dozen children?"  Doc asked, shocked, and Linn laughed at the dismay on the care-worn healer's face.

"Horses, Doc. I don't reckon to sire more than eight or ten young myself."

Doc shook his head, chuckled, gripped Linn's hand once again:  he turned, rose, and Linn looked up at the ceiling, fingers on the folded paper Doc placed on his chest.

"A girl," he whispered.  "Connie, darlin', we got us a little girl!"

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393. AND THE GIRL CALLED MAYDAY

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller squinted her unswollen eye and said "You don't want my picture."

The reporter regarded the woman with the bruised, swollen, discolored face, the woman who bore other marks of violence on her lean body, and silently wondered what kind of a young war she'd just come through.

The reporter followed the paramedics with her eyes: one patient on an ambulance cot had already been wheeled away, another -- a young mother, with a blanket wrapped bundle cradled protectively to her oil-stained top -- was being dollied carefully down the extra-wide, black-traction-coated gangway.

Willamina extended a hand and a little boy with big ears and slightly crooked teeth came shyly up, looking adoringly at the pale eyed woman in the green one piece swimsuit.

"Here's the one you want. This young man is a hero.  Let me tell you what happened."

 

Willamina threaded a nightcrawler on her hook, running the barbed point through the worm, making a looping gob on the hook, something that could not be easily stripped away.

"Walleye for supper," the Captain grinned, and Willamina grinned back.

There were few things she loved more than fresh caught fish, and she'd long had a weakness for Lake Erie walleye.

She froze as the radio spoke.

It wasn't what she was used to hearing.

Sheriff Willamina Keller was used to hearing her dispatcher, she was used to hearing her deputies, the firefighters, the paramedics.

She was used to professional radio.

When a little girl's voice came over the speaker, she thrust the handle of her fishing rod into its socket, turned to face the cockpit.

"Mayday," the small voice called, "we need help," and Willamina looked at the Captain.

He reached for the microphone just as the Coast Guard came on channel.

Willamina turned, eyes narrowed, scanning the flat expanse of light chop:  her hand slashed out, slapped the Captain's arm, then thrust straight out, her hand bladed.

The Captain's mouth went dry as a gout of fire roared up from a boat a half mile distant, as the boat disappeared behind a dirty, petroleum-fired cloud, and as the light breeze shoved the cloud impatiently aside, he swore as he saw the boat roll slowly over.

"REEL 'EM IN!" he shouted, swarming up the ladder to the flying bridge:  "HOLD ON!"

The Caterpillar Marine Diesel shivered, snarled, rumbled:  Willamina gripped the rail, her jaw thrust out, her eyes went to the open cabin door, and she strode into the cabin and seized the plastic flare pistol, pulled it free of its mounting clip:  she broke it open, dunked in a red flare, stepped out.

The boat powered through the waves, beating them aside, and Willamina brought the pistol up, firing it at a high angle ahead:  they were headed for the capsized boat, she drove a flare through the air, marking the position of the watercraft in distress.

 

"This young man's name is Robert," Willamina said, her hands on his shoulders:  "he dove into the lake with absolutely no hesitation and his first rescue was a grown man."

The reporter's eyes swung to the departing ambulances.

"Yes, that grown man.  He was unconscious and Robert got him over to our stern."

 

Willamina and the Captain leaned down, seized the limp man's wrists, pulled:  they hauled him ungently onto the stern platform, over the stern itself, dumped him onto the deck:  Willamina reached down, pulled Robert up onto the platform.

The Captain looked back at the boat.

"Who else?" he said, fear in his voice, and Robert, breathing deeply, happily hyperventilating, declared "I'll find out!" -- and as his father shouted "Bobby, NO!" -- Robert dove back into the lakewater, swam like a dolphin for a surprising distance before coming to surface, taking another several breaths, swam to the capsized vessel and went under.

Willamina grabbed the first victim, rolled him over on his belly, ran her arms around him, lifted: she emptied his over-filled belly, dropped him, rolled him over again, seized his head, hauled it mercilessly back, her ear dropping to his lips.

Willamina's two fingers found his Adam's apple, dropped down into the carotid groove.

The Captain heard her muttered "Dirty second one, dirty second two, dirty second three, dirty second four, dirty second five," and on ten she barked "CODE BLUE!" and began compressions.

 

"Bobby got their Captain to us," Willamina said, pride in her voice, "and he went back to see who else was there.  We knew there should be a little girl -- she called Mayday -- when he came to surface he had them both, by the hair of their heads, and he yelled for help.

"One of our fishermen threw in a life ring and jumped in after it, he helped pull the mother to the boat, and Bobby did such a fine job of getting the girl to us."

 

Willamina looked up as she compressed the unmoving man's chest.

"Oh dear God," she groaned:  "one-and-two-and-three-and-four-are-five, one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five" -- she dropped her fingertips into the carotid groove, closed her eyes:  she bent down, listened at the man's mouth, took a breath, sealed her mouth on his, blew.

Twice more she breathed her life's air into his still lungs, twice more she came up for air.

He coughed, once, weakly.

Willamina surged to her feet, glared at the Captain -- "Watch him!" she snapped, leaped across the deck to the woman who'd been hauled aboard, the woman who was very, very pregnant.

Willamina's fingers landed on her neck, the woman's eyes opened, her hand went to her belly and she groaned.

"Talk to me," Willamina said quietly.  "Are you in labor?"

The woman nodded, looked around.  "Cindy?" she quavered.

"She's fine, she's in the cabin. Was anyone else aboard?"

"No," she whispered, groaned.

The Captain looked over as Willamina seized the woman's elastic waist, pulled.

Willamina looked up, her pale eyes hard.

"I need a bedsheet or a blanket.  She's in labor."

"Labor hell," the woman groaned.  "Third child and she's comiieeeeEEEEEEEEEEE!"

 

The reporter tilted her head and smiled as a little girl shyly came over and took Robert's hand.

"You must be Cindy."

The little girl nodded.

"Cindy was very helpful," Willamina said.  "She helped tie off her little sister's cord, and I showed her where to cut."

"It was kinda gross," Cindy admitted, "but it was kinda funny when the Captain threw up!"

"He made it to the side," Robert offered helpfully.

 

"Robert!"

The lad looked at Willamina, half-scared, half-eager.

"Robert, do you know what a smoke signal is?"

He nodded.

"Do you know what they look like?"

He nodded again.

"Find two of them, red if you can, and get to the bow, stand ready to light one."
He nodded again.

"Ever fire a flare pistol?"

He shook his head.

"Like to?"

He nodded.

Willamina grinned -- it was rather a wolfish grin, the kind shared with someone with whom one was plotting mischief -- and Willamina wrapped the newborn, placed it on Mama's breast, tilted her head as the newest freshwater sailor began to dine at the Topless Restaurant.

"Typical man," Willamina grunted.  "Feed him and he shuts up."

"Tell me about it," the mother sighed, grimacing.  "Three weeks early and he still comes out like the noon freight!"

"He's an over-achiever, Mother," Willamina said, rising.  "Robert, with me."

Willamina loaded the flare pistol, positioned her newest deputy in the bow, with instructions to fire straight up, but not until she said so.

Willamina snatched up the mike -- cheap. lightweight, not like the good substantial General Electric mikes she was used to -- she keyed up and chanted "Coast Guard, Coast Guard, here is Silverheels, Silverheels, we are on rescue and request assist, over."

"Coast Guard, here is Silverheels, we are on scene of a boat fire and capsize. Four souls rescued, one CPR save, one woman in labor, delivery successful, it's a boy!"

"Silverheels, Coast Guard, we have you in sight."

"ROBERT! FIRE ONE!"

The grinning towhead thrust the red-and-white plastic pistol straight overhead, hauled back on the trigger: there was a sharp crack and a red fireball seared into the air, soaring high into the cloud-puffed blue sky.

"Coast Guard, here is Silverheels, do you see our flare?"

"I see red flare."

"ROBERT!  SMOKE 'EM!"

"Coast Guard, Silverheels, we have smoke, call the color."

"I see red smoke."

"That's us, Coast Guard. Our medical situation is stable and the capsize is still afloat."

"Silverheels, Coast Guard. Have you medical personnel aboard?"

"Coast Guard, Silverheels, one off duty nurse with no supplies."

"Roger, Silverheels, we are three minutes out."

 

"So you delivered a baby," the reporter said softly, her eyes shining.

"It wasn't my idea," Willamina admitted.  "I didn't vote for it and I don't think her Mama did either, but when it happens, it happens!"

"What happened to your eye?" the reporter asked.

Willamina raised a hand to her face as Bobby and the Captain trooped down the gangway: there were uniforms waiting, and Willamina knew she'd have to join the debrief, but she didn't want to hurry the reporter -- she seemed young and inexperienced, and Willamina knew what it was to be on the receiving end of someone's impatience.

"I was visiting friends and we took a walk along the Black River."  She smiled, then laughed.  "A doe and three fawns splashed across the river -- it was only about a foot deep -- they came up the bank and across the path in front of us, and then the buck followed them.

"He came up the bank and watched us through the tall weeds.  I think he thought he was hidden, but I could see his antlers, a six point just coming out of velvet and that meant his automatic pilot was waking up.

"He came out into the path and faced us.

"I had a stout stick -- thick as my wrist, tall as my head -- I had it in front of me, in both hands -- the buck came toward me, slowly, and I could see the hair was starting to stand up on his back.

"My host backed away and as soon as I started to back, here he came and he didn't come slow.

"I got my licks in and so did he, I ducked to the side and got that stick around his neck and God help me, I swung up on his back and there I was with a double handful of antlers, my legs were around a buck deer's barrel and neither of us knew what to do!"

The reporter's mouth was open, her eyes were wide; apparently she knew something about deer, if only that they weren't supposed to be ridden.

"He got rid of me and I rolled, he got his hooves into me and cut me pretty good.  I've got stitches under my swimsuit I won't show you.  I came up and tore into him with fists and feet and then I pulled back and we both allowed as we didn't want any more, so he went East and I went West, and neither of us went slow!"

"No wonder your face is cut," the reporter whispered, shocked.

"If we were any deeper into the rut, he would not have stopped," Willamina said soberly.  "I'm lucky I got off as light as I did."

"That's light?" the reporter murmured, shocked.

"Excuse me.  I think these good looking young men in uniform want a word with me."

 

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