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399. DISAPPOINTED AGAIN

"You wanted to see me."

The County Commissioner looked up, surprised:  Willamina planned her arrival carefully, at a time and in a place the man was not expecting.

"Sheriff," he said without rising.  "I'm about to have dinner, will you join me?"

"You're buying?"

Willamina's question was gently voiced, her expression carefully neutral, and the Commissioner had the distinct feeling she'd gotten the upper hand a second time, in very rapid succession.

He looked up as the waitress appeared, and Willamina noted his grimace.

She could almost tell what he was thinking -- that the waitresses generally appeared at her table the moment she was seated, and he'd been kept waiting:  now that Willamina was here, so was the waitress, and that would irritate him.

"The special," he snapped, "and coffee."  He scowled at Willamina, realizing that a gentleman would have asked the lady to order first.

"The same," Willamina smiled.

"Now."  Willamina looked very directly at the Commissioner.  "Just what did you want to talk about?"

"This isn't how it was supposed to happen," he muttered.

"Oh?"

He lowered his head a little, glared at her from under bushy eyebrows.  "Just how do you do it?"

"I'll need more information that that," she said pleasantly.

"You know. The brawl at the All-Night. You did CPR and you were the mysterious, unnamed nurse on the news -- that rescue back East, where you singlehandedly pulled people out of the water, did CPR with one hand and delivered a baby with the other, how you gave orders to the Coast Guard and pushed the reporter in the water because she wouldn't get out of your way!"

Willamina laughed pleasantly.  "I honestly don't remember the reporter getting her Saturday night bath a few days early," she smiled, "and I'm afraid I'm not quite as talented as rumor might have you believe."

"You and your son put two men in the hospital --"

"Two men," Willamina said coldly, "who attacked my son, with weapons I might add, two men who took him by surprise with the confessed intent to kill him, take his gun, hold up the All-Night, kill the clerk, move on to the next town, ditch the gun and do it again. Two men who are wanted across three states, two men who will be taken from here in an ambulance and in chains by Federal authorities who are already at our hospital, standing guard outside their doors to ensure they do not escape."

"How do you do it?"  the Commissioner wondered aloud.  "When we hired you all those years ago, I voted against you -- I told the others you're a woman, you'll be moody, you'll be premenstrual, you'll cry and you'll scream and you'll be unreasonable and you've NEVER been ANY of those things!"

His voice was low, his voice tight, he was intentionally speaking quietly -- when two political powers meet in the Silver Jewel, it is guaranteed to be noted, and it was not a place where a man could bang his fist on the table nor raise his voice without being noticed -- Willamina considered his words, leaned back a little as two baskets of rolls were placed on the table, with two saucers of butter pats.

Usually it was just one basket, but the waitress was experienced, and chose to prevent any territorial disputes over the bread course.

Willamina picked up a roll, smelled it, closing her eyes and humming with pleasure.

"Still warm," she murmured.  "I do love these sweet rolls!"

"Are you always this infuriating?"

Willamina tore the roll open, slipped in one of the butter pats, closed the roll to let it melt.

"Are you always so prone to contain your emotions?"  Willamina asked neutrally.  "If you bottle all that up, you'll die of heart disease or high blood pressure!"

"You're the Sheriff, not a doctor!"  the Commissioner snapped, his temper skating along the cliff-edge of control.

"Actually, sirrah," Willamina said pleasantly, "I have been a nurse more years that you've been out of knee pants, so yes, I do speak with the assurance of a courtroom expert.  Next question."

The Commissioner's reserve broke:  he slammed both fists on the table, spilling his coffee and Willamina's, dancing silverware and saucers with the violence of his blow:  "DAMN YOU, STOP THAT!" he shouted, shocking the interior of the Silver Jewel into silence.

Willamina looked at him with innocent eyes.  "Are you entirely well?" she asked pleasantly, and he shook a thick finger at her:  "You -- YOU -- you WOMAN!" he screamed.  "YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BREAK DOWN AND QUIT!"

"Well," Willamina smiled, planning on how to receive his attack, "I seem to have disappointed you yet again."

The Commissioner dropped his head and dropped his shoulder, and before he could launch either a punch or a charge, a set of hard hands seized him under the arms and yanked him off his feet, over an extended leg and to the clean, waxed floor.

Chief of Police Will Keller glared at the man with pale, cold eyes.

"Stay down," he rumbled.

Willamina caught the spilled coffee with her unrolled napkin before it could spill over her side of the table: the waitress, shocked, stared from behind the police chief, her hand cupped over her mouth, eyes wide, shocked.

Willamina raised a finger.

"He'll take his order to go."

 

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Posted (edited)

400.  JINGLE GHOST

Like most strong men, Linn tended to attract those who weren't quite as strong.

Matter of fact, the young especially tended to gravitate toward him, and so it was no great surprise when a little girl came up the boardwalk toward him with a purposeful gait.

She also had her bottom lip stuck out some and she didn't look terribly happy, so Linn went down on one knee and said "Why hello Sunshine, you look like you lost your best friend!"

The little girl regarded the pale eyed lawman solemnly and then said "Shewiff, my dog's a ghostie."

Linn frowned a little, picked her up; she was a little smaller than his Angela -- he judged her to be about nine years old -- he turned, backed up, parked his carcass on the Deacon's bench in front of the Sheriff's office, and set the child in the colorful frock on his lap.

Linn took off his hat, set it on the bench beside him, looked seriously at the child.

"Tell me about your dog," he said in gentle, fatherly tones.

The child looked down, considering; her eyes darted across the street, toward the schoolhouse, and Linn saw something he'd seen before, something he never wanted to see in a child's eyes again.

He saw hate.

"Dat nasty teacher," she pouted, "called me names 'cause I was cwyin'."

"What made you cry?"  Linn asked, taking her little hand in his big strong hand.

She looked up at him and he saw her eyes were starting to fill again:  "My Salty-dog is dead an' she called me names 'cause I was rememberin' Salty an' I miss her!"

Linn nodded, reached into his sleeve, pulled out a kerchief:  "Close your eyes," he said softly, then pressed shirt front linen against her closed, leaking eyelids:  he wiped her apple cheeks with a father's gentleness, draped the kerchief over his knee to dry.

"Tell me about Salty," he said.  "How did she get her name?"

"Mommy said my Daddy was a Salty Dog an' she misses him an' I named her Salty 'cause Mommy needed a Salty Dog!"  the child declared, all in one breath.

"Was Salty a good dog?"

She nodded, slowly, looking past him, seeing memories where the dirt street used to be:  "She was the besty dog!"

"I've known besty dogs," Linn agreed, "but I don't think any of mine were as good as Salty."

She nodded, downcast, then looked back up at the man with the iron grey mustache.

"Mama says there's no sutch thinks as ghosties but Salty is a ghostie 'cause I heard her!"

Linn looked at her with a serious expression:  his eyes were on hers and he was very evidently paying close attention to what the child was saying.

"What did Salty's ghostie sound like?" he asked -- he was clearly interested -- sometimes an adult will feign interest in a child's account -- there was nothing phony about his attention, about the fact that he was listening with both ears.

"I hear her coming down the hallway," the child said.  "At night.  She'll come to me.  Sometimes I feel her jump up onto my bed but there's nothin' there when I reach for her an' sometimes I'll hear her jingle. Mommy hung a jingle bell on her collar an' I'll hear her jingle."

Linn nodded slowly, considered.

"Did you know," he said slowly, "that sometimes an angel will announce its presence with a bell?"

The child shook her head, her expression hopeful.

"Nobody told me if it's a great big church bell, or if it's a harness bell or a cowbell or what kind of a bell it is."  He leaned his head down a few degrees, just enough so she could see him drift a shade closer, the way a man will when he is about to share a secret.

"It sounds to me like Salty-dog has been promoted to Angel, and she's letting you know she is okay."

"Really?"  she asked in a tiny, dare-to-be-hopeful little girl's voice.

The Sheriff nodded slowly, picked up his hat, settled it on his head, looked out across the street, looked back at the big-eyed little girl on his lap.

"Yes," he said.  "I am certain of it."

A little girl in a colorful frock seized a lean old lawman in a sudden, delighted embrace, and a lean old lawman wrapped his arms around a little girl who just found out her world wasn't so full of sorrow after all.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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401. A PROPER YOUNG LADY

"Jacob."

"Yes, sir."

"I understand you laid hands on the schoolteacher."

"I did, sir."

"You threatened to rip her arm off and stuff it down her neck."

"I did, sir."

"You dragged her out of the schoolhouse and threw her down the stairs."

"I did not, sir."

"Oh?"

"I dragged her to the back door, sir, and then I kicked her in the backside just as hard as I could."

"So you kicked the schoolmarm out of her own schoolhouse."

"I did, sir."

"And then what happened?"

"Sarah took over the schoolhouse while I took the schoolmarm by the hair of the head and hauled her to her feet."

"You had good reason for this."

"I have, sir."

"Well" -- Linn took a long breath, blew it out, consulted the papers on his desk -- "she has filed against you, and the Judge will hear the case in the morning."

"I will be ready, sir."

"You will need to explain your actions."

"I plan to, sir."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna guided material under the foot of her treadle Singer.

Bonnie McKenna, Sarah's mother and owner of the House of McKenna Dress Works, watched approvingly as her daughter sewed the grey fabric into a very plain, unadorned dress, a dress with a straight skirt, very severe lines, the kind a spinster might wear.

Bonnie knew her daughter was going to play a role -- a very convincing role -- and in an era where women were married at thirteen, and if unmarried by eighteen were considered spinsters, fit only to teach other peoples' children -- Sarah would appear to be just such a maiden lady, an unmarried woman, unfit for marriage.

Bonnie knew the arrangement was temporary, that Emma Cooper, wife of Town Marshal Jackson Cooper, would be soon returned to her rightful place in the schoolhouse: in the meantime, the schoolhouse would need a schoolmarm, and Sarah, having been graduated from eighth grade early, with excellent marks, easily acquired the requisite certificate to teach school.

When Sarah was finished sewing her dress, she slipped easily into it, stood before the full length mirror, pulled her hair on top of her head, frowned.

"Mama, you glasses," she said, extending her hand:  Bonnie slipped her spectacles from her face, placed them across Sarah's extended fingers.

Sarah put on her Mama's spectacles, slid them halfway down her nose, gave the mirror a disapproving look, turned to scowl at her mother.

Bonnie could not contain herself.

She bent at the waist, hands on her knees, her face reddening as she gave full vent to the bubbling laughter rising from her soul, and Sarah -- as much as she tried -- could not keep a straight face.

Mother and daughter looked at one another, at the mirror, and embraced one another, laughing.

 

Judge Donald Hostetler swung his gavel.

"The first witness is Jacob Keller."

Jacob stood, paced to the center of the floor.

"Please take the stand, Jacob," His Honor said sternly.

"Your Honor, I should prefer to speak from here."

"Oh?"
"Your Honor, I am charged with assault on a female person.  I am here to demonstrate the justification for this."

"Then you admit your crime!" the hired attorney fairly shouted, thrusting to his feet and driving an accusing finger at the pale eyed young man.

Jacob turned, cold eyes swinging like a gun turret brought to bear upon the hired councilor.

Jacob's left hand came up and he unbuttoned his suit coat quickly, easily, threw it toward the defense table: his vest, too, came loose, he tucked his watch in the off pocket, the vest sailed through the air after the coat, and Jacob's hand went to the collar of his shirt.

"Objection!"

"Germane to the case, Your Honor!" Jacob countered.

"I'll allow it," Judge Hostetler said sternly, "but believe me, young man, the bench does not wish to become accustomed to the sight of a naked figure!"

"Your Honor," Jacob declared as his shirt landed on the defense table and he began on the Union suit's top, "you are not going to like this, and I guarantee that!"

He shrugged out of the Union suit's sleeves and the court gasped -- the sound was plainly audible, nearly every mouth dropped open and most of the eyes present were wide with dismay, with shock.

Jacob turned, the top of his Union suit falling down behind him:  his face was hard, the flesh drawn tight across his face, his eyes hard, hard.

"TAKE A LOOK!" he shouted.  "TAKE A GOOD LOOK, EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU!"

He turned, showing everyone in the court the scars across his back -- crisscrossed, long craters, gouges in his living flesh, healed but horrible, horrible!

"THE MAN MY MOTHER MARRIED," Jacob shouted, "TRIED TO WHIP ME TO DEATH AND HE NEARLY DID! HE BEAT MY MOTHER TO DEATH, AND SHE WITH CHILD, WHEN SHE TRIED TO PULL HIM OFF FROM WHIPPING THE FLESH FROM MY BONES! WHEN HE WAS DONE, BONE COULD BE SEEN IN THE GOUGES!"

Jacob glared as he turned, bearing the full power of his glacier's-heart white eyes on every last soul there, sparing no one the full anger of his frigid visual blast.

"I call Mike Hall to come forth!"

A schoolboy came from the gallery, working his way between adult shoulders, a shirt draped over his forearm.

"This" -- Jacob laid a hand on the lad's shoulder -- "is the reason I planted my boot sole on the schoolmarm's backside!"

He accepted the shirt from the lad, held it up, displayed the brownish stain across its back.

Jacob turned, strode powerfully, angrily over to the defense table:  he picked up a slim stick, thick as his thumb, brought it back, holding it before him in both hands.

Young Master Hall shuddered visible as he saw it:  it took an apparent act of will to stand, to not shrink back as Jacob approached.

"Do you recognize this?" he asked, his voice gentle.

Mike Hall nodded.

"Tell me what happened."

He turned, pointed to the now-uncertain-looking schoolmarm.

"She said I didn't have my lesson. I held up my slate and said 'Right here!' and she came after me with" -- he nodded to the thumb-thick stick -- "that!"

"And what did she do?"

"She hit me across the back."

"Your Honor," Jacob declared, holding the shirt up, "she hit this CHILD!" -- he shouted the world -- "SO HARD HE BLED!"

Jacob glared at the schoolmarm, raw hatred in his expression, then he turned his drawn, rigid face to the frowning jurist.

"Your Honor, I came out of my seat and I seized her wrist. I took her in a grip that caused her immense pain and immobility.  I practice such things for use against the criminal, and she was most certainly CRIMINAL IN HER BLOODY ASSAULT!"

A little color came to his cheeks, just enough to stand out against the parchment white of his flesh.

"AFTER I KILLED THE MAN WHO TRIED TO KILL ME, I BURIED MY MOTHER AND I SWORE TO GOD ALMIGHTY THAT ANYONE WHO TRIED TO WHIP A CHILD AS I'D BEEN WHIPPED WOULD BE DEALT WITH!"

He raised the shirt again, showing the rusty stain across its back.

"I gave her a train ticket and told her to head west, because you don't do this to a man's son and expect to survive."

The attorney for the defense rose.  "Jacob, did you honestly believe his family would come after her?"

Jacob turned to his legal counsel, his jaw thrust out:  he nodded slowly.

"Yes, sir, I did," Jacob said.

"And what did you do?"

"I told them she'd taken the stage east."

"But she was on the train west."

"Yes, sir."

"So you acted to save lives."

"I did, sir."

"Why did you do that?  It would seem that a man would be justified in taking blood for blood."

Jacob raised his arms, turned, a complete circle -- a gesture that included everyone in the courtroom -- then turned to face the attorney.

"Look around," he said.  "If you hit a woman, you pay for it.  There is less risk to have me stand accused of planting my boot in her backside, than to have an entire family accused of her murder.  This way, she lives -- in disgrace, for she is now known for what she is -- but she is alive to complain about it, and no one in Mike's family will stand to be treated to their own hemp neckties."

"But how did you know she would continue her attack?"

Jacob strode over to the defense table, his Union suit top still hanging free behind him.

He picked up a handful of telegraph flimsies.

"Here" -- he raised them in the air -- "are communications from a variety of communities that had the misfortune to hire her.  This one" -- he lowered the bundle, looked briefly at the top sheet -- "two boys, bloodied, she was fired.  Here -- three boys, bloodied backs, one with a broken knuckle, she was fired.  This" -- he looked up, looked around -- "she has an actual arrest warrant issued, as she broke a stick over a boy's head, it broke and took out an eye."  

His Honor nodded, raised his gavel, brought it down.

"Get dressed," he said.  "Prosecution, you had your say, Defense has had its say.  Members of the jury, you may retire to the jury room for deliberation!"

The jury huddled, looked at one another, conferring in low voice:  there seemed to be an agreement, because the jury's foreman rose.

"Your Honor, we have a verdict," he declared.  "We find the defendant, Jacob Keller, NOT GUILTY!"

Jacob finished buttoning his Union suit, picked up his shirt, shrugged into it:  his fingers ran down the buttons and fast them up.

Sheriff Linn Keller rose.

"Your Honor," he said, his voice carrying well, as he pitched it to be heard, "I seem to recall mention of a warrant."

Jacob picked up his necktie, slid the telegraph flimsies to one side, frowned:  he went through the stack, stopped, pulled one free.

"Here you go, sir."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna stood before the schoolchildren.

She held a thumb-thick stick that had been brought in to her by her pale eyed brother.

She looked at Mike Hall.

"I need your help," she said.  "Could you come up here, please?"
Mike rose, uncertain; reluctantly, feet dragging, he came forward.

"If you would open the top right hand drawer on my desk, please."

Sarah waited until the drawer was slid open.

"Reach in and fetch out the hatchet."

He did.

"Place the hatchet on my desk, then roll that chunk from yon corner.  Roll it up here."

The schoolchildren watched curiously:  they missed Emma Cooper, that other teacher had been ill tempered, nasty, prone to insult, to harsh accusations:  it was a relief when Jacob seized her by the wrist and elbow, applying pressure somehow enough to bring exclamations of pain from her throat: every set of young eyes followed as the woman was half-marched, half-dragged to the back door, Jacob's grip merciless and tight, keeping her bent over, until he kicked open the door, positioned the hated schoolmarm, drew his leg back and slammed his foot into her backside, the dove out the door behind her.

Sarah waited until Mike rolled the chunk to the center front of the schoolroom.

"Now.  Mike.  Please pick up the hatchet."

He did.

Sarah laid the stick on the chunk.

"Hit it right ... here."

The hatchet rose.

Young eyes watched, young throats held anticipation:  the hatchet rose, trembled for a moment, fell --

Young lungs breathed again as the honed steel bit cut half a foot off the end of the bloodied stick.

Sarah slid it across a little:  "Hit."

Slide.  "Again."

The hatchet rose, the hatchet fell:  chunks spun, fell, clattered to the painfully-clean floor.

Sarah slid the last piece to the center of the sawed off stump.

"Kill it."

Mike took the hatchet in both hands, raised it overhead, brought it down, hard! -- the last pieces of the stick spun in two different directions.

Sarah folded her hands before her.

"Thank you," she said gently.  "Please place the hatchet on my desk and resume your seat."

Mike placed the hatchet carefully on her desk and grinned his way back to his place on the bench with his fellows.

"I very much appreciate Mike's assistance in this matter," Sarah said, turning a little as she spoke, her gentle smile including everyone in the little whitewashed schoolhouse.  "It behooves a schoolteacher to be a proper young lady, and I fear it would be less than dignified were I to have taken a hatchet to that rascally stick."

She picked up the hatchet, smiled a little, turned:  she drew back, let fly:  the hatchet turned over once, and once only, stuck blade-on in an exposed post.

"And Mike did seem to enjoy helping me, didn't he?"

Sarah dusted her hands briskly together. 

"Now who will help me pick up these pieces and put them in the stove?"

 

 

 

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402. NO THANK YOU

 

Sheriff Linn Keller was particular when it came to his horses.

Every one of his horses was different, but all of his horses were similar: they did what he wanted, when he wanted it done.

He did not train them with lash and with fist, with club or boot or anger: no, he trained them with patience, and with kindness, and this was noticed, and commented on, for it was not the usual way to train a horse.

For one thing, it took more time, and for another, there is a feeling of power and of satisfaction when using violence: the Sheriff knew this, he'd felt it too many times, and he knew he had to be very careful, lest this temptation pull him into the realm of the Usually Violent.

One of his favorite horses was a black gelding he named Outlaw.

Most times a horse with such a name tends to bite, or tends to buck, or tends to kick or otherwise conduct himself in a manner generally considered rude, crude and socially unacceptable.

This wasn't the case with Outlaw.

The black horse had been beaten and otherwise abused, to the point that if the Sheriff raised his voice, if the Sheriff spoke in loud-toned anger, his black Outlaw-horse's eyes would wall up and he'd fall over in a dead faint, just colder'n a foundered flounder, to quote Town Marshal Jackson Cooper.

The Sheriff worked with Outlaw, he rode Outlaw, he rubbed and curried and fooled with Outlaw, he gained the black horse's trust; in the privacy of a hidden pasture, he trained his Outlaw-horse to lay down on command -- he used a wide, looping gesture, slow at first, looking very much like a roundhouse punch.

And then he used this to his advantage.

There are times when a man wishes to appear angry, or violent; there are times when one chooses to bluff, whether at cards, in a business deal, or in a situation:  the Sheriff, knowing men were in town who would try him, rode up to the Silver Jewel, and while being watched by these men, the Sheriff dismounted, walked around in front of his horse, drew back his fist and for all the world appeared to deliver a haymaker to the side of his horse's head.

Outlaw went down like he'd just been hit over the head with a steam locomotive.

The Sheriff turned, his jaw set and his eyes cold, and he walked up to the biggest of the men who'd been discussing among themselves just how they'd like to treat this pale eyed lawman, and he said "Somethin' you'd like to tell me?"

Funny thing.

Nobody amongst these newcomers wanted to do anything to that pale eyed old man.

 

The Sheriff liked that Outlaw-horse because he rode well -- not as well as his Paso-cross and pure-Paso mounts -- but well enough, and that black Outlaw-horse was tough and had good endurance.

The Sheriff never used him to run down a wanted man, but he did have occasion to run Outlaw.

The Sheriff knew Outlaw was very likely not born and raised in the mountains, and so he did not run his black gelding to any degree until he'd had him a year, until he'd exercised him a year, until the big horse was better acclimatized to the high mountain air.

His daughter Angela liked her Daddy's big black gelding.

She saw her Daddy take that wide roundhouse swing, saw Outlaw hit the ground, but she was at just the right angle to see his fist did not hit the horsie, and she giggled, and after her big strong Daddy came home (and picked her up and swung her around, and she spilled happy little-girl giggles all over the front porch when he did), she went strutting out to the pasture and slide between the boards, she went up to her Daddy's black Outlaw-horse and she looked up at the horsie, she drew back her finger and lashed it forward and snapped, "Bad horse!  Dead!"

Outlaw-horse obediently went over on his side like he'd just been belted over the head with a cedar fence post.

Angela's eyes went big and she said "Oooo," the way a surprised little girl will, and she squatted beside Outlaw's head and laid a little pink hand on his neck and said "Okay horsie! Up!"

Outlaw raised his head, snuffed through his nostrils, heaved to his feet:  Angela giggled and rubbed his horsie nose as Outlaw rubbed his head against her, and Angela stood out in the pasture and talked to her Daddy's horsie because his big black horsie listened as good as The Bear Killer.

 

Linn liked horses that could run when need be, which is why he was careful not to over exert that black Outlaw-horse at any time, and not to run him hard or for any length, until he was well more used to the thin air this high up.

This was a good thing, as there are times when a man must split the wind, when he must ask much of his mount, and when that day came, Linn was most grateful he'd worked with his Outlaw-horse, that he'd given trust and earned trust, for without that trust, performance will never be optimal.

 

"What happened, sir?"

Linn's knuckles were white as he stood beside his Outlaw-horse, as he gripped the cantle with one hand and the horn with the other, as he pulled the saddle free, hung it on the livery stable's stall.

He picked up a curry brush and a rag.

He stood there staring at them as if he'd never seen either one in his life.

"Sir?"  Jacob asked, concerned:  there was fresh blood down his father's front, staining the black coat, his right leg.

Linn looked up at Jacob.

Outlaw was still breathing deeply, nostrils flared, but he was not breathing hard:  he'd recovered his initial oxygen debt and was now in the longer recovery period, lowering his nose to snuff at fresh grain in the trough, not yet inclined to partake.

 

Linn heard the woman's screamed summons, as from a distance:  Outlaw stopped, head up, ears pricked:  Linn's eyes searched the distance as Outlaw began to dance under him.

"Go," Linn whispered, and Outlaw did not have to be told twice.

The big black horse jumped a sizable rock, floating over it easily, the way a horse will when he's used to jumping:  they came around a point, and again heard the woman's scream, this time less intelligible, as if her voice fell off, gone from words to sobs.

Outlaw snorted, lowered his head, ran harder:  when a horse and rider are well matched, there is a sharing of the soul, and Linn could feel the raw power driving through his Outlaw-horse's forelegs:  Linn stood in the stirrups, lay over his horse's neck, hands pressed flat against the shining black muscular mountain of moving meat, willing them to wings, willing them to a speed impossible.

Outlaw streaked across a high meadow, slowed as he approached a woman, collapsed against a woodpile; on her legs, a boy; her apron was bloodied, wrapped around his arm, the boy's face was the color of wax, his lips pale and the Sheriff swung out of the saddle and hit the ground at a dead run.

A glance told him the wound was bad, an ax on the ground, the cause: his arm was laid open above the elbow on the inside:  the Sheriff seized the lad, laid him down on the ground, put the heel of his hand above the blood-squirting cut, pressed his stiff-arm weight against it to shut it off.

He addressed the woman in a calm voice, telling her to take this knife and cut a wide strip out of the apron, yes, just like that -- he pressed the pad against the wound -- another strip, and he bound the pad down hard against the wound -- a third, which he doubled, ran it around the arm above the deadly cut:  a stick, a knot, a twist, a tourniquet:  he picked up the boy, lifted his chin, his black Outlaw horse paced over to him, tail slashing, nostrils flared, not liking the smell of hot fresh blood, but trusting the man who'd earned that trust.

The Sheriff said "I'm headed for Doc Greenlees in Firelands" -- his boot round the far stirrup and Outlaw leaned into a long-legged gallop as the Sheriff hugged the boy to him.

 

Linn looked at Jacob, his hand resting on Outlaw's mane.

"Outlaw did me proud," he said quietly.  "Damn few horses could run like that."

Jacob nodded, his eyes assessing the big black horse:  he, too, knew what it was to wind break a horse in that thin air, and like his father, he had no wish at all to kill a fine mount.

A horseman afoot was a rare sight indeed; it was a joke among Easterners that a cowboy would mount his horse to simply cross the street, and this was very true, so when the Sheriff and his son were both afoot, and the Sheriff leading a horse, they knew something was very much out of the ordinary.

When the pair stopped at their hospital, still under construction, they knew the matter was serious.

When Jacob came out and left town on his stallion, headed the way his father had come from, they knew something was going on, and when Jacob came back, his father had his Outlaw-horse home, his coat and trousers were soaking in salt water, and the pale eyed lawman looked up at Jacob's approach.

"Two brothers," he said, "got into it."

Linn's forehead tightened a little but he gave no other reaction.

"The mother is still beside herself."

Linn nodded, slowly.

"She has not spoken to the boy that did it."

Linn's eyebrow raised a little.

"I did."

Linn lowered his head a fraction -- so little that Jacob could just tell the slight down-tilt of the hat brim, but only just.

"He is sick at what he's done. I asked him if his Mama spoke to him yet and he said no."

Linn's eyes were unblinking, fixed on his son's.

"The boy is just plainly crushed. He said he'd feel better if she'd take a horse whip and rip the hide off his back."

Linn blinked, nodded, considered.

"Reckon she will?"

"No, sir, I don't reckon so."

Linn took a long breath, swallowed.

"Haven't had to twist up a tourniquet since the War."

"No, sir."

"Doc said it's all that kept that boy alive. He'll have to mend a while and build his blood back up."

"Yes, sir."

Linn leaned against the door frame of his stout built barn, took a long breath, blew it out.

"Have you had supper, sir?"

Linn shook his head, staring at the ground:  Jacob could not see the man's eyes, but he knew they would be wide, staring, seeing ghosts from years past, horrors he never spoke of, legacy of that damned War.

"You're welcome to come eat with us," Jacob offered.  "You know Joseph loves it when you come over."

Linn considered, raised his head, looked at his son with a hollow, haunted expression.

"I would not be fit company, Jacob."  He shook his head slowly.  "Very kind of you to offer, but no thank you."

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403. NEVER DOUBT

 

"Papa?"

Marnie looked at Linn and realized she was looking at an older man than she wanted to see.

He still had those pale eyes, those gentle eyes, he still had that smile under his curled handlebar, but his mustache was going to grey -- very likely, she thought, it will become iron grey in another few years.

Linn turned his Apple-horse a little so he faced his daughter.

Marnie bit her bottom lip, looked down, clearly troubled.

"Whatever it is, darlin'," Linn said gently, "I recommend words of one syllable or less."

Marnie looked up at him, surprised, then laughed:  he always did have a way of disarming her doubts, generally with humor.

"Papa, have I really done any good in this world?"

Linn considered, his eyes drifting to the far horizon, his top lip dropping as if he was momentarily chewing on the inside of the lip:  it was an unconscious habit of his, and it meant he was thinking.

"Darlin'," Linn said, "do you recall when you delivered that baby in the Spencer barn?"

Marnie smiled, nodded:  she'd shoved three bales of hay together for a delivery table, thrown three sheets from the squad's meager supply over the bales to try and keep the prickles from punching through, and in a driving summer storm, by the light of the squad's headlights, with rain surging in rolling curtains against the tin roof overhead, Marnie delivered a farm wife of her young.

"I remember."

"You remember you wrapped your hand over her husband's to guide the sterile scissors to cut the cord."

"I remember."

"He spoke of that one thing, of your hand on his, because he said he was shaking too hard to hold the scissors, but your touch was enough to steady him, and he cut the cord for his firstborn son."

Marnie nodded, smiling a little.

"You remember when you rolled on an officer assist and kept Smitty from being killed."

"I remember," she said faintly, her smile fading:  Smitty was outnumbered at a traffic stop and Marnie came rip-roaring in, screamed to a tire-burning stop and laid amongst the Philistines with her Gammaw's sidehandle baton, a tan-uniformed tornado driving aluminum-sheathed, nylon-filled justice into guts and ribs and across shin bones (she'd broken two legs, an elbow and two ribs with her attack, and as she explained to the Judge, the odds were four to one, they were armed, Smitty was down and bloodied and she had to do something even if it was wrong!)

"I remember," she said faintly, nodding as she did.

"Do you remember during last year's parade, you saw a little girl crying as she watched, so you turned your Nugget-horse and swung down, you went to one knee and pulled out a kerchief and blotted her cheeks and asked her what was wrong.  She pointed at Nugget, and so you introduced her, and The Bear Killer came over and you introduced him, and you asked if she'd like to ride Nugget a little, and you threw her up in the saddle and walked her a block bass-ackwards from the parade, and when you walked back, she had such a delighted look to her, and then you looked at her mother, and her mother was crying so hard she couldn't see straight."
"I remember," Marnie murmured.  "The little girl's Daddy was mounted patrol back East and he always promised her a ride, and he died of cancer before he could fill that promise."

Linn reached over, took his daughter's hand.

"I recall shortly after you came to us," Linn said, his voice quiet, almost serious.  "You were in bed asleep and I was wonderin' if I had ever done one damn thing in my whole life that made a difference, and I looked at you and I realized that yes, and there you were."  He winked at her, grinned.  "And here you are."

His hand squeezed hers, just a little, and he released.

"Darlin'," Linn said, "never doubt the good that you do."  He took a long breath, frowned.  

"I recall when a young man walked up to me and shook my hand, he badged me and it said DETECTIVE, and he said he'd made Lieutenant and he'd just broken a kidnap ring, and he went into law enforcement because of what he saw in me."  Linn looked very directly at Marnie.

"Darlin', I seem to recall someone told you that very thing two days ago."

"Yes," Marnie said slowly.  "He did."

 

One week later, when Marnie lay flat on her back in a pressure suit, waiting for the final count that would fire the engines beneath her, the engines that would shove her hard away from her home, her planet, she remembered her Daddy's words.

She looked over at another figure in a pressure suit, a figure whose clumsy-gloved hand reached over, gripped hers quickly, reassuringly, and she saw her husband's boyish grin, all adventure and anticipation, and Marnie blinked and bit her bottom lip, and as the disembodied voice chanted the numbers backwards into her ears she whispered "Thank you, Daddy," and those were the last words that Sheriff Marnie Keller, of the Second Martian Colony (Firelands), spoke on the planet Earth.

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404. I'M LOOKING FOR A BATTLE MAIDEN

 

"Sheriff Keller."

"Sheriff, this is Hanna, the librarian."

"Hanna!  How in the world have you been?"

Hanna laughed. "Busier than I ever expected! Say, there's someone here you want to meet."

Willamina groaned.

Ever since Marnie's departure for Mars, she'd been interviewed, fawned over, she'd shaken hands with people great and powerful, and she'd listened attentively to children and students asking her about her granddaughter, and how could they go to Mars too.

Willamina also knew Hanna would not have called unless it was something that might interest her.

"Okay. Give me about fifteen."

"Does the name Aalis Hadu sound at all familiar?"

"WHAT?"  Willamina's spine snapped straight and her eyes went wide, her eyes swinging to the framed prints on the wall.

"I will be right there," Willamina said, rising:  a swipe of her finger and the computer went dark, the press of a button and her out-of-office auto-answer activated on her desk phone:  she snatched up her blue suit jacket, spun it about her shoulders, came out of her office with a businesslike gait, heels loud on the polished quartz floor.

"I'm for the library," she said as she stopped momentarily at her dispatcher's desk:  "this promises to be good," and Sharon smiled, delighted, for it was not a common thing to see her boss's cheeks pink with delight, and the Sheriff's look of anticipation was unmistakable.

Not three minutes later Willamina was turning off on the paved road, at the sign that said FIRELANDS MUSEUM/LLEWELLYN HOUSE.

 

The maid had been hired because she spoke English, and the old Baron knew his son's new bride was that remarkable American he'd met when she was still a girl.

The Baron had gone hunting in the howling wilderness of the American West; he'd had excellent guides, he'd marveled at the distances, the sheer volume of open, untenanted land:  Europe, he realized, would never seem the same, for even the open places in Europe were ... well, tiny, at least compared to what he was seeing here!

The Baron had known want, in his youth, and unlike his contemporaries, he was not inclined to hunt simply to shoot an animal and see it die -- if he wished to shoot at a mark, he would hang a popinjay on a pole and have at it with his crossbow -- no, though he did pursue the great beasts of this raw, untamed continent, and though he had a fine Drilling in hand when he did, he'd yet to fire the first shot.

The old Baron found great hospitality wherever he went, but the very best, his favorite of all his travels, was a small village in the Rocky Mountains, a place called Firelands -- he'd imagined volcanic activity, but saw none, and honestly could not divine the reason behind its name.

Still, it was ... interesting.

He'd found a clean, well-tended settlement, but sprawled and not crowded: his beloved Alpine villages were as clean, as colorful, as freshly painted, but here ... here was a sense of adventure!

Before the Baron left Europe, one of the Gypsy women had come to him with something in her hand, something covered with a silken kerchief:  she'd walked up to him, silent, raised her head, looked at him through a veil of golden coins, then she'd snatched the veil from the crystal sphere she held in her hand.

"Your daughter," she hissed, and he'd frowned -- then, curious, he peered into the distorted, inverted reflection, and blinked, for the image cleared and he saw a girl -- a young girl -- with two stripes finger-painted on each cheek, painted with ...

... blood? ...

She carried a spear, with a faceted, knapped, lanceolate head, lashed with leather string, she was walking beside a burden, cloth covered, very neatly, very symmetrically tied over a horse's back.

He blinked as the cloth floated back over the sphere.

The Baron found this girl, this child, this ... stofpuppe, as he called her with fatherly affection, for he'd been entertained by the pale eyed Sheriff (not at all like the unshaven, smelly, unkempt lawmen he'd read about in the dime novels!) -- the Sheriff said that yes, he knew the child, her name was Sarah, and he'd known her since she was a little girl with a rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow -- and he told the Baron how she'd gutted that same ragdoll, and slipped it over the muzzle of an Army revolver, and used this disguise to get close to the criminal who intended to kidnap and sell she and her mother in the flesh-markets of San Francisco, and ever since the legend of the Ragdoll was remembered among men who wore the badge and kept the Law.

Stofpuppe, the old Baron thought with affection:  this child, this Ragdoll, then, had been shown him by a Gypsy seer, and in time -- with a little judicious prodding, some arranging, his stofpuppe came to him and married his son.

He hadn't realized exactly what this pale eyed Lady really was, not at first, not for a year and more, perhaps he never fully knew what she was until the night she stripped out of her silks and her gown and assumed the all-black clothing she'd worn back home, back when she carried a bronze shield and acted as an Agent of the Court:  the Baron shot the assassin that broke in his tall, glass-windowed doors to his bedroom, the doors that opened to a balcony, the balcony with a ladder thrown up against it, shot his murderer with a fine dueling-pistol he'd had custom made in Bresica:  the Baron knew his masion-house, his schloss, would be a target, and so he asked his stofpuppe to hand him the box on his mantel, a box containing a fine pair of dueling pistols -- he regarded the revolvers on her belt, her all black attire, the shotgun slung across her back -- she'd kissed him and he said "I will be fine, my dear, keep safe your daughter!" -- and the Baron's last sight of his beloved Ragdoll was as she closed his bedroom door, and her eyes were pale, hard, the shade of winter ice, the polished, gleaming hearts of a high mountain glacier.

Willamina knew much of the story, but not all; she'd found an account, written in German, signed with Sarah's maid's name:  she'd tracked her ticket purchases, from New York to Cincinnati to St Louis to Firelands.

Willamina knew the name of Aalis Hadu Llwellyn, but only from research.

Something told her a horse's mouth just landed at the Firelands Museum. 

 

Willamina's heels were loud, her pace busineslike, brisk, as she headed for the museum's main reception.

A pleasant-looking, older woman turned, smiled, looked at Willamina, her eyes pale, light blue, almost white.

"Hello," she said.  "I understand you're looking for a battle maiden."

 

 

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405. THE DEAD WOMAN

 

She was a woman alone, save for the young life bundled and warm against her bosom, under her heavy wool traveling-cloak.

She'd made her way to the seaport by coach, a coach waiting at the dock, a dock where the silent, unsmiling boatman drew up with swift, strong pulls of his oars: she'd been helped ashore, her bag handed up to her, the child never left her arms: she was shown to a carriage, the carriage clattered swiftly to an inn, she was met with a plump and motherly sort who showed her to an upstairs room -- surprisingly clean, and well appointed -- she was told little, only that her bath was ready, a change of clothes waited, folded, on the bed, a meal would be brought her:  she and the child slept that night, not deeply -- she knew terrible things occurred after her pale eyed American mistress sent her down the secret tunnel, down a tunnel the maid didn't know about until the bookcase swung aside to reveal its opening -- it was not until months later, not until she'd fled down the tunnel to the waiting boat, not until after she'd sailed the cold, stormy Atlantic, not until she'd made New York and found a German-language newspaper -- only then did she read of the destruction of the old Baron's schloss and the death of all within -- even herself.

There was an account of a terrible battle that had to have been fought by at least a company of trained soldiers, for there was fierce fighting and much loss of life, there had to have been a squad of hardened veterans to mete out such slaughter against a mob armed with clubs and axes, torches and pitchforks, the mindless rabble that are easily incited to violence -- she read the account and read it again, saw her own name listed among the dead, and realized that here was a gift indeed.

Her American mistress had entrusted her with the greatest treasure she had -- her infant daughter -- the child she held to her as she read, the child who was sole heir to the old Baron's fortune ... only her name was listed among the dead.

The maid followed the instructions her pale eyed mistress gave her: she spoke at a ticket-window and was given an envelope, and in it, a ticket, passage on the American trains, and so she followed the ticket and found herself in what she knew to be fine accommodations.

Meals provided, privacy when she wished, a comfortable bunk:  she saw no need to conceal her name -- was she not dead now? -- nobody searches for a dead woman! -- and after a journey of incredible length -- who would have known this country was so huge, an individual state was larger than the entirety of her native country! -- she came at last to a town the old Baron spoke of with affection, a mountain village in the great American West.

Here she was a woman alone, a stranger in a strange land:  here, according to the last of the instructions she'd been given, she was to go to a man with an iron grey mustache and pale eyes, a man whose business was the Law, a man who kept the peace, and here is where the plans went awry.

 

"My twice-great-grandmother's name was Aalis Hadu Llewellyn."

If the Sheriff had been a cat, her ears would have been swung forward and radar locked on the woman whose quiet voice carried across the kitchen table, there in the restored home of one Sarah Lynne Llewellyn.

"I was told her name meant noble warrior maiden, but she told me her name gave her nothing but grief:  she was told her name was Alice, that Hadu was not a proper name.  It took stern conversation with the schoolmasters to persuade the teachers that indeed her name was correctly spelled, and that Hadu was actually a very proper name for a German girl."

Willamina frowned, leaned forward, fingertips delicate on her bone-china cup of steaming oolong.

"Where did your great-grandmother go to school?"

"I believe it was a coal mining town."  A frown, a moment of reflection as she searched the memories she'd acquired as a young girl.

"Was it near here?" Willamina prompted.

"It was a funny name ..."  

The woman sipped her tea, frowning.

"Carbon Mountain?" she guessed.

"Carbon Hill?"

The woman's eyes widened.  "Yes!" she exclaimed.  "Yes, that's it!  Carbon Hill!"

Willamina's hand dropped, came up with a cell phone;  two swipes and a push, and she raised it to her ear:  "Mildred?  Willa. School records, Carbon Hill, looking for anything you have on female student with a German name, stand by to copy."  Willamina looked across the table, smiled.

"Last name Llewellyn."  Willamina paused, smiled.  "Yes, Mildred, that Llewellyn.  First name phonetically, I spell Alpha, Alpha, Lima, Idaho, Sierra."  

Another pause, then:  "Readback correct. Middle name, I spell, Hotel, Alpha, Delta, Uniform."

She drew the phone from her ear, pressed the screen:  her visitor heard a brisk clatter of fingers on a keyboard, then:

"Got her!"

The two women looked at each other, shared an expression of triumph.

"How much do you have?"

"I have mother's name, father's name -- I have residence -- I have a class picture!"

"Are the children tagged?  Can we tell which one is our subject?"

"Let me ... YES!" -- her reply was an exclamation, and Willamina could hear the delighted look on the librarian's face -- "Yes I can!"

"This is the long lost daughter of Sarah Lynne McKenna."

"WHAT???"

"Oh yes! Follow her, Mildred! Anything you can drag out of the archives! Was she graduated and from where, I need residence, marital status, children, anything you have. We know she had children, I am sitting with her great-granddaughter right now!"

 

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

406. IRON BOMB

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland regarded the stranger with his usual level of excitement.

Under usual circumstances, you'd have to drive a stake in the ground beside the Carbon Hill marshal's boot heel and wait a few hours to see if he'd moved.

Today was one of those days.

A woman -- he judged her to be a foreigner, but most of Carbon Hill's miners were of foreign extraction, so this was nothing new -- came toward him, her shape almost completely obscured by a long, grey traveling cloak.

Harry could tell she was holding something close -- very likely an infant -- he waited patiently as she approached, his eyes never changing as a slender, delicate hand emerged from the cloak, an envelope between her fingers.

Harry did not miss that she was trembling.

He took the envelope, frowned at the familiar handwriting.

To the chief law enforcement officer, he read:  he turned it over, studied the absolutely scarlet-red seal, nodded.

He knew the seal.

It was a rose: at the two o'clock position, a cross; at the five o'clock, a Seal of Solomon: without opening the envelope, Carbon Hill Town Marshal Law and Order Harry Macfarland knew that he would bear every effort to aid and accommodate this stranger.

In the event that the administration has changed, he read, this woman bears my only child.

She has outrun death itself to bear my child to safety.

Please see that my firstborn is hidden in the community and raised as one of our own.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland's eyebrow betrayed his absolute astonishment at the signature.

He'd seen it often enough, and knew the signer.

Agent S.L. McKenna, Firelands District Court

Law and Order Harry Macfarland considered, thinking fast.

"Hide the child in the community," he said aloud, nodded:  the woman threw her hood back, and he saw an attractive woman of perhaps twenty years, her hair tightly braided in a fashion he'd seen before, among certain of the miners' wives.
He folded the note, nodded, straightened:  he watched as the woman opened her cloak a little, and Law and Order Harry Macfarland's eyes crinkled at the corners as he saw an infant, swaddled in a colorful blanket:  one pink little arm worked loose, and the woman took a step forward.

Harry's teeth gleamed as he grinned, for he was a man with a fondness for lost dogs and stray kids, and he laughed as a little pink hand reached across the gap betwen them:  he took the child in his arms, bouncing a little, laughing aloud as tiny fingers closed about his mustache and pulled.

 

Willamina's visitor lowered herself slowly into the offered chair:  she was shoulder to shoulder with the librarian, her head thrust forward, staring at the computer screen.

"We computerized our records," the librarian explained, "and we still have microfiche in the archives, but computers are so much faster."

"That's her," the visitor whispered, awed.

"That's her as a schoolgirl," the librarian explained.  "Carbon Hill's one room school. She would be about ten years old here."

"Is ... are there more pictures of her?"

"Give me a day and I'll find out ... here ... in the school archives, a record of ... yes, here, an account of a meeting between her father and the schoolteacher ... no, I'm sorry ... there was a superintendent, this is the superintendent's account.  It ... discusses the schoolteacher's attempts to change Aalis's name."  The librarian read quickly, scrolling steadily through the account.

"It seems that the schoolteacher was later fired for trying to change another student's name."

 

Lightning stepped out of the telegraph office.

His old war wounds plagued him when the weather changed; he moved slower these days, and he'd had to wedge an empty Prince Albert tobacco tin behind his telegraph sounder, and then he trickled sand into the tin until it resonated at the best pitch for his aging ears to hear.

He knew this marked him a "Lid" -- a pejorative term, generally applied to inexpert or incomptent brass pounders -- but it was the only way he could reliably hear the clicks and clatters of his telegraph receiver.

Lightning straightened, hands at the small of his back, he twisted a little, feeling his spine complain, legacy of an explosion on board his Confederate ironclad.

Like the Sheriff, he was a veteran of that damned war; like the Sheriff, he carried the aches and pains of decrepit old age, and like the Sheriff, he didn't like to talk about what he'd been through, and like the Sheriff, he was never without the working tools of a fighting man: he kept his rifled musket loaded and ready inside the telegraph office.

The passenger train pulled into station, right on time: Lightning waved at Bill, the engineer.

Lightning's eyes went down the train, noting the extra car in the lashup: he recognized a private car, smiled a little as he remembered fine ladies of business and fashion who traveled their railroad in a private car, and then his gut contracted a little as he saw a rat-faced man in a funny hat, running out of the passenger car, back to the private car:  Lightning's legs moved before his mind told him what was wrong, his eyes were wide and staring as the stranger scatched a Lucifer into life, put the flaring match-head to the fuse of an iron bomb, drew an arm back and heaved the bomb through the window of the private car.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller sauntered casually up beside the depot.

He liked to be there when the train arrived, if it was handy for him: the train was the common means of ingress and egress for the greatest number of people, and Linn liked to cast an eyeball on who was coming in.

When he saw a fellow in a funny hat -- a Tyrolean hat, he recognized the style -- and a short cloak, he paid attention, for this was not ordinary, but when the man set match to something, then stepped out into clearer view, drew back an arm, heaved the bomb through the car window -- Linn powered forward into a sprint.

 

The bomber turned, just in time to see a large hat coming at him, just before a shoulder drove into his gut, just before he slammed back into the bottom edge of the private car.

Just before the bomb went off.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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407. A CONFEDERATE SPEAKS

Lightning was on in his years.

Lightning was long and lean, with penetrating blue eyes and a quick laugh, long artist's fingers and wrists that were perpetually longer than his shirt sleeves: he'd been born thus, his Pa used to tell him ... but his Pa also told him, "When you were born, I give you a glass hammer and told you if you couldn't bust an anvil with it, I was throwin' you away and startin' over."

Lightning was not a slow witted man by any means.

His wits kept him alive in that damned War: when his hand made rifle was shattered by a Yankee musket ball, he snatched up a smoothbore and a dead man's warbag and kept on fighting, until his butternut ranks overmatched the damned Yankees and they were able to re-arm with genuine Enfield rifled muskets.

Lightning saw that rat-faced man up to no good and he began backing up, toward the open door of his telegraph office:  he saw the fellow pull something round and black out from under his cloak, something he recognized.

The recognition lent speed to his long, skinny shanks:  he whipped around the end of the depot and into the open door, he shoved his heavy wooden chair savagely under the table, thrust a bony hand out, seized the Enfield:  he turned, his off hand running with eyes of its own, snatching up his ancient, stained, canvas warbag:  it went over his head, his hat went flying, and he did not care.

A warrior lived in his heart, a warrior that was not only awake, but ready for a fight, screaming with rage:  there was an explosion and he was a half-step ahead of shattered window glass blown into the office.

Lightning came around the corner, his hand sweeping back, the heavy percussion hammer coming back to full stand, the heavy battle rifle coming to shoulder as he advanced, knees flexed, taking up the shock of his walk and keeping the barrel, the sights, smooth and steady.

The bomb blew out every window in the private car, chunks of its cast iron casing searing through the wooden walls:  one drew a bloody finger across the Sheriff's cheekbone as the pale eyed lawman whirled, throwing the bomber hard against the side of the depot platform.

A man might expect such a fight to be held at the top of the participants' lungs.

The human eye is drawn by movement, and of those eyes drawn to this sudden, shocking development, to the smoke rolling out of the private car, the two men in sudden battle, no record exists of how many were surprised by the silence of the fight.

Linn turned and charged again: he was a man well armed, a brace of Colt's revolving pistols at his belt, knives in three places about his lean waisted carcass, but in his utter rage, in his white-eyed, teeth-bared, claw-handed fury, he wished nothing more than to lay violent hands on his enemy, to tear the living soul from the carcass, rip limb from body and seize the bloody carcass and drive its head into the ground like he was spudding for oil with a Parkersburg rig.

The rat-faced bomber had other ideas.

Steel gleamed in the sunlight and in spite of having the wind knocked clear out of him, he thrust forward to meet this parchment-faced lawman --

His arm came back, the blade poised for a thrust --

Linn reached for the nearest shoulder --

Lightning's blue eye was steady behind the Enfield's sight, his soul rejoicing that he was once more at war, singing with the power that comes with battle, with the knowledge that what he does is beyond any doubt right --

Linn's hand slashed down, seized the wrist behind the knife, pulled:  the lawman's back was to Lightning and he stayed his finger, released the trigger he'd started to pull:  Lightning's blood was up and he charged to the end of the depot platform screaming "DAMNED YANKEES!" --

Lightning jumped --

Linn drove a fist in under the bomber's ribs --

Something sharp and burning sliced along his own ribs and he flinched back, clenching his teeth against the roar of anguish the blade cut loose --

The bomber, barely able to breathe but terrified to his core, ran, scampering toward the main street.

Lightning dropped through space, his eyes on the fleeing man's back --

He was wet, wet and cold, he realized he'd just jumped into the rain barrel --

Linn bent a little, twisting, and Lightning saw blood, bright, shining --

Somewhere in his mind he heard his own voice screaming "DAMNED YANKEES!" and his finger curled around the smooth, curved steel of the rifle's trigger --

The Enfield spoke, the ball drove into the fleeing man's leg, hitting him in the back of the knee:  the ball kept on going, threw up a handful of hard packed dirt in the center of the main street, howled between two buildings, deformed and spinning and disappearing into the distance.

Linn lifted his face, regarded the telegrapher belt buckle deep in the rain barrel:  he stepped over to the skinny old man, seized him under the arms, heaved:  he hoisted Lightning easily out of the rain barrel, then turned, pale eyes hard and glaring, and strode over to the screaming foreigner, wallowing in agony and blood in the dirt.

Linn drew his own knife.

The foreigner's screaming raised an octave as he saw Death on two legs towering over him, a shining Damascus blade in his grip.

Linn bent, seized the trouser leg, cut quickly, expertly:  he bared the shattered knee, seized the cloak, slashed long strips from it, quickly forming a tourniquet: he'd used just such improvisation in the field, back during that damned War, to keep men from bleeding to death from just such a wound, from just such a cause.

A kindling stick from a nearby woodpile provided the windlass:  he tightened it mercilessly, knowing he was causing the man pain, and not giving a good damn that he was.

Once he'd stopped the bleeding, he squatted, seized the man by the hair of his head, laid the blade against his neck, considered:  his pale eyes were wide, unblinking, and the bomber saw his own death reflected in those wide, white, unblinking orbs.

The Sheriff straightened, seized the bomber by the back of his neck, began dragging him.

The Irish Brigade came pounding up the street -- Linn pulled to the side -- and the matched white mares reared, screaming their protest at being halted:  Sean stared, open mouthed, at the bloodied lawman dragging a bloodied man ... with the lawman bearing a naked blade, and no kindness whatsoever in his expression.

"Did he offend ye then!" Sean exclaimed, and Linn nodded slowly.

"Reckon so," he replied.

"HILF!" the bomber screamed. "RETTE MICH!"

The German Irishman, surprised, looked around the shining boiler.

Linn glared at him.  "HOSPITAL, WHEN YOU'RE DONE!" he barked, and resumed dragging his screaming, protesting felon down the street, leaving a dark, wet stain as he went, not all of it belonging to the bomber.

"LADIES!" Sean roared.  "LADIES, THERE!"

The shining steam engine surged forward, toward the smoking private car.

Lightning climbed the steps at the far end of the depot, shaking his head:  his hand thrust into his warbag, came up with a cartridge:  he bit off the end, spat it away, dumped powder and struck the paper tube free, inverted the ball and shoved it down, pulled the ramrod.

His arm raised, lowered, with the ease of much practice: the greased Minie ball slid smoothly down the bore, and Lightning spun the steel ramrod between his fingers, eased it back home beneath the blued barrel.

He looked at the Irishmen swarming off the steam engine, into the private car, around it, assessing damage, potential exposures:  as long skinny fingers pressed a shining copper cap on the nipple, Lightning's eyes tightened a little at the corners and he paced the length of the depot, leaned around the corner.

"DAMN YOU, SHERIFF," he yelled, "I ALREADY HAD MY SATURDAY NIGHT BATH!"

 

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408. I WILL FIND OUT

Jacob and Apple-horse trotted up behind the steam engine, took in the Irish Brigade's few efforts: apparently something happened, the private car as without most of its windows, there were ragged holes in the side -- something came out of the car, not gunshots --

Jacob turned, frowning, studying the ground --

Jacob's eyes were pale and hard and he turned Apple-horse back, searching out the big Irish fire chief.

He leaned over, crossing his forearms over the saddlehorn, as Sean came up, laid a big, callused hand on Apple-horse's mane.

"Yer father," he said, "is at th' hospital. Th' man tha' tried t' blow up th' car is there an' they're both bleedin'."

Sean saw Jacob's flesh tighten over his cheek bones:  the younger man nodded, straightened, touched his hat brim, turned again, studying the ground.

The story was pretty well unreadable, save for dark stains that spoke of some struggle:  Jacob followed the confusion in the dirt, until the confusion cleared and he saw his father's boot prints, he saw blood moving with the boot prints:  drag marks starting here, with a large stain of blood --

He raised his eyes, looked at the front of their new little hospital, still under construction, but with a working front -- offices and Doc's workshop, as Jacob called it.

He tightened his knees, barely touched Apple's ribs with his boot heels.

The German Irishman looked at Sean, then at Jacob's retreating backside, back to his Chief.

Sean lifted his chin:  Go, and the German Irishman didn't have to be told twice.

There was no fire, his beloved Steam Masheen would not have to throw water, and the Welsh Irishman would take good care of her:  he leaned forward into a run, legging it after Jacob.

 

Willamina's finger ran down the screen:  she frowned, looked down at a stained, time-yellowed book with battered corners, looked back up at the computer screen.

"Here" -- she tapped the glass -- "we have the ... this is the telegrapher's  ... copy ..."

She looked at her visitor.

"Why did she get off in Carbon Hill?  Her ticket said Firelands."

The librarian leaned over her shoulder.  "Does the Town Marshal's record have anything?"

"No ..."  Willamina scrolled down, leaning forward, reminding the other two of a hound questing after a hot scent.

"No, but here ... a telegram was sent from Carbon Hill to the Sheriff and it only says urgent I see you yesterday."

 

Dr. John Greenlees looked at the hard and pale eyes glaring into his.

He looked a little to the right at another set of hard and pale eyes and saw the same cold, polished glare.

He thrust a chin at a chair, then turned away:  his first concern was for the most seriously injured patient, the one with a shattered knee, the one whose life was being held in his body with little more than a twist of cloth and a kindling stick.

"You two might want to wait in the next room," he said as he washed his hands with a surgeon's thoroughness:  Nurse Susan looked over her spectacles at the man, looked at the Sheriff and his son, and shook her head.

"As well tell the tide not to come in," she muttered, then bustled across the room.

"Turn toward me, Sheriff," she said briskly, and the man did:  the nurse's fingers were quick, efficient, deft as they danced down his vest, slid it and his coat off together, handed them to Jacob without looking:  she regarded his still bleeding ribs, visible through the slash of what used to be a good linen shirt, pulled out a shining pair of scissors and proceeded to reduce the shirt to a bloody red cleaning rag.

"Strip to the waist," she said, "unless you're hurt further down."

"No ma'am," the Sheriff growled.  "Just here."

The nurse pushed her spectacles up to the bridge of her nose, frowned at the long, clean incisement.

"His work?" she asked, and the Sheriff didn't have to ask who the "his" was.

He grunted again, nodding:  Nurse Susan bunched the ruined shirt under the bleeding cut and said "Hold this," turned:  her steps were quick, sure, propelling her proper, starched, white, ruffled, professionally-disapproving self across the floor like a steam-tug crossing the harbor under heavy throttle:  she returned with a bottle and a handful of cotton batting.

Nurse Susan set the heavy, brown-glass bottle on a sidetable, twisted the pennyhead stopper, placed the tapered brown-glass stopper beside the bottle:  a small wad of cloth over the bottle's mouth, a twist to invert, a quiet "This won't feel good," and the Sheriff's teeth clicked together as she wiped the brown-stained cloth against his raw flesh:  Jacob saw the man's iron control as pain seared through his father, worse than the clean, fiery slice that was the initial injury.

He'd had time to process the injury, get used to the pain, his nerve endings were tired of screaming in pain, but at this new insult -- at the nurse's professional cleansing of the wound -- it was as if she drew a rag moistened in liquid fire the length of the cut.

Linn willed himself to stand still, to neither flinch, nor sway:  he looked over at the doctor, at the surgeon's quick, practiced moves:  Dr. Flint had the screaming patient pinned at the shoulders.

Chloroform worked quickly, and so it did here:  once the bomber was no longer fighting them, the surgeons were able to examine the wound, consult, and then begin the amputation.

Linn stood unmoving, his bloodied Union suit's top hanging down behind him, his son standing beside.

"This should take some stitches," Nurse Susan said quietly.  "If you can wait."

Linn nodded.

"Sheriff" -- Nurse Susan looked over her spectacles again -- "would you like a drink?"

Linn shook his head:  she looked at Jacob, who replied in the same manner.

"Jacob."

"Yes, sir?"

"Go back to the depot. See if anyone was in that car."

"Yes, sir."

"You are looking for a young woman with an infant."
"Yes, sir."

"This was an assassination attempt."
Jacob raised an eyebrow.  "Sir?"

Linn's glare was his only reply.

 

Lightning reached for the Barlow-whittled pencil, his neat, regular characters flowing from the graphite tip: he reached for the key, gripped the gutta-percha button, tapped an acknowledgement, stood.

He rose, stepped out the door, looking for the boy that usually hung around the depot, and as usual, when he was needed, he was nowhere to be found, but lucky enough, the Sheriff's son came riding around the far end of the depot, the end opposite the rainbarrel and the steam engine.

Lightning raised a summoning hand, the telegraph flimsy between his fingers.

Jacob ho'd quietly, leaning back in the saddle, and Apple-horse ho'd:  light pressure with one leg, and Apple-horse sidestepped easily, daintily, as he'd been trained:  like his father, Jacob's riding stock were all knee trained, and bitless.

Jacob accepted the flimsy, read it, frowned, read it again, looked up at the skinny telegrapher.

"Where's the conductor?" Jacob asked, and once again, old Lightning was reminded most powerfully of just how much the son resembled the father.

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409. COURT'S IN SESSION

Willamina accepted the mug of hot, steaming, fragrant oolong, sipped delicately at her favorite blend.

She considered the screen ahead of her, nodded, placed the mug very precisely at the corner of the computer's monitor -- the only bare space on the table:  all else was bundles of paper, books, records of one kind or another, all accumulated over the past few hours.

Willamina checked periodically with her office; as long as they did not require her attendance, she intended to ride this horse until it fell over dead, or she was satisfied, whichever occurred first, and whichever it was did not honestly matter to her.

She turned to the legal pad -- two pages, three, all covered with neat, precise, abbreviated entries:  she nodded, took a long breath.

"Did we ever find -- oh, you found it!"

The librarian smiled, looked triumphantly at Willamina's guest:  it wasn't often that she managed to surprise the pale eyed Sheriff, but she was a librarian, after all, and librarians are magical creatures who deal in the mystic and the arcane, and the arcanum she handed to the Sheriff was a familiar volume ... at least the cover was familiar.

Willamina opened the ancient hospital record, turned the pages quickly, frowning.

"Dates, dates, dates," she whispered, referring to her notes:  it took a few minutes, but she found the hospital record, ran delicate fingertips down the page, eager eyes scanning the (frankly beautiful) handwriting of an earlier century.

"Here," she said, placing the open volume on the keyboard -- there was no room anywhere else -- "here, the record of ... yes, it lists a prisoner's left-leg amputation at the knee, secondary to a musket ball ... posterior entry, joint shattered, presented with tourniquet in place."

She turned the page, looked up, triumphant.

"And here is where he sewed up a long knife slash to the Sheriff's ribcage!"

 

Linn backed up to the operating table, got one cheek on the table, walked his bony backside onto the table.

"Where do you want me," he growled.

"Right where you are."

"Doc, are you gonna have to bend over to sew me up?"

"No."

"I don't want to cramp your style now."

Dr. Greenlees washed his hands with his usual thoroughness, nodding as Nurse Susan set out his needfuls on a clean, shining metal tray.

"I can set a stool up here so you'll not have to bend over."

"Hang from your heels from the ceiling, why don't you."  Dr. Greenlees dried his hands on an immaculately clean towel.  

He shot a concerned look at the Sheriff.

Usually Linn would come back with some fine reply.

Doc was across the room in three long strides:  he seized Linn's chin, tilted his head up, felt the man's neck, his hands, back to his head, pressing analytical fingertips against the man's temples, feeling for the pulse behind the tail end of his eyebrows.

Linn should have had some wise crack to make about this fast assessment.

The man just sat there, staring through the physician's shoulder at something about ten miles on the other side of the wall behind the frowning surgeon.

Dr. John Greenlees pulled up a stool, spun it to raise it, sat.

"What happened?" he asked quietly.

Linn was hiding something, he knew, something that was causing the man considerable pain.

He knew the man's expression -- he'd seen it often enough, back when they were both in that damned War -- and he knew he was one of the few people Linn would trust with whatever it was.

Linn waited until Nurse Susan slipped through the door to check on the recent amputation -- Dr. Flint was in the other room as well -- and when they were alone, Linn said, "Sew me up, Doc, I'm tired of bleedin'."

Dr. Greenlees grunted, picked Linn's arm up:  "Lay your forearm over your head, just like that, or behind your neck, whichever is easier."

He crossed the room, washed his hands again; a fresh towel, and he returned, picked up the curved needle, threaded suture material through it.

"I can give you something."

"I don't deserve it, Doc.  Sew me up."

Dr. Greenlees began to suture the wound.

It was long, it had been bloody, and under his ministrations, it began to bleed again, though not nearly as badly as before:  he approximated the wound margins, laid stitches in at intervals, then went between them, laying in more.

His patient gave no outward sign of pain -- neither grunt, flinch nor wince, not even a shiver of his hide -- unless you looked at his face, at sweat beaded on his forehead.

Doc did look, and he saw something more.

The man's face was almost engraved, almost carved.

On another man, Doc would think this a pain response.

It wasn't.

Doc finished his stitchery, snipped the last knot free, dropped his tools onto the tray, looked up at his old and trusted friend.

"Out with it," he said quietly.  

Linn looked at Doc, and Dr. John Greenlees saw misery flow unbidden into the man's pale eyes.

"I haven't told anyone yet," he said, his voice ragged.

Doc nodded, just a little.

"Sarah is dead."

Dr. Greenlees felt like he'd just been gut punched.

"I got word yesterday. A rider came in and showed me his coin."

Dr. Greenlees raised an eyebrow.

"The Rose."

Doc nodded.  He knew of the Society of the Rose, at least enough of it, what little Linn had confided, and he knew this meant the rider bore a confidential message for another of their secret Brotherhood.

"Sarah was killed in Germany. She was trying to keep the old Count alive.  His mansion or castle or whatever the hell he lived in -- a mob attacked and she cut loose on 'em."  His eyes tightened a little at the corners, and not with humor.

"Just her.  Alone.  Against ... the official count was half a hundred, and she tore into 'em with everything she had.  Eyewitness account had it she was alone, and she fought from the top of the stairs, and when she'd shot everything dry she went screamin' among 'em with what she had left."

Linn looked with a hollow, helpless expression at his old and trusted friend.

"Fifty of them and one of her," he said, his throat tight, "and she knew she was in a fight until she was killed."
Linn hung his head, his knuckles blanching as his grip did its best to crush the edge of the heavy operating table.

"Fifty came through the doors.  Some ran, not many, and only four survived."  He shook his head.  "The police came in -- they had to wait for the fires to die down before they could go in -- from the number of bodies they dragged out, they didn't believe the survivors.  Said it would take a squad of hardened warriors to cause casualties on that scale."

Doc reached up, laid his hand on Linn's, squeezed.

"My little girl," Linn wheezed.  "My Sarah, dead."  He looked at the doctor, his expression that of a man utterly lost.

"I failed her, Doc."

Doc squeezed the man's hand again.

Linn shook his head.  "Damn me," he whispered hoarsely, his jaw muscles tightening.  "Damn me to HELL!"

His teeth were clenched, his eyes squeezed hard shut:  there was a knock on the door and Linn's head came up, he took a fast, deep breath, blew it out, his mask once again firmly in place.

The door opened.

Jacob came in, a paper wrapped bundle under his arm, His Honor the Judge beside him.

"Sir."  Jacob stopped, took the package in both hands.  "I took the liberty of fetching you fresh duds. Your spare set from the room in the Jewel, everything from the Union Suit out."

"Good," Linn said, his voice surprisingly normal.  "Doc, did you get me all hemmed up?"
Dr. Greenlees stood, shaking his head.  "Get dressed and get out of here," he sighed.  "You're too tough to be killed!"

His Honor the Judge Donald Hostetler paced over, frowning at the stitched wound along the lawman's ribs.

"Sheriff," he said, "I believe we should confer."

Linn nodded.  "And we shall, Your Honor, but I would take it favorably if I might get dressed first."

"Of course.  Doctor."  The Judge inclined his head politely to the surgeon; he and Jacob withdrew to the waiting room, and not long after, the Sheriff emerged, settling his Stetson on his head.

"Your Honor," he said without preamble, "the Doctor amputated a man's leg. The patient gave me the slice along my ribs you saw. He was resisting arrest after having thrown a bundle of powder into the private car at the depot."

"It was an iron bomb, sir," Jacob offered.

"Foreigner, Your Honor," the Sheriff said thoughtfully.  "I'd like to find out some more before I hang him."

"Foreigner, you say."

"Yes, Your Honor.  I believe the German Irishman recognized his language."
As if on cue, the outside door opened, flooding the wood-paneled room with reflected sunlight.

"Ye wanted t' see me, Sheriff," the Irish Brigade's engineer declared.

"Did you recognize my prisoner's language?" the Sheriff asked bluntly.

"Aye, I did.  German it was, and the same accent as me dear Mama."

"Good."  Linn looked at the Judge.

His Honor the Judge removed his cigar from between yellowed teeth, considered its wet, ragged end, looked up at the Sheriff.

"Court's in session.  Let's see what the condemned has to say."

 

 

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410. A NEWSPAPER ACCOUNT

 

From the Firelands Gazette --

PRIVATE RAILCAR BOMBED

--  Mother and child murdered --

-- SHERIFF WOUNDED --

-- European Anarchy comes to our peaceful West --

The shattering blast of an assassin's iron bomb shattered both our quiet community's sense of tranquillity, as well as one of the private cars of the Z&W Railroad: the bomber, identified as a European assassin, for reasons known only to himself, threw the murdering device through the train-car window, and attempted to flee the death the dastard dispatched:  our own Sheriff Linn Keller, ever alert and ever vigilant, seized the assassin's person and introduced him swiftly and less than gently to our peculiar brand of justice:  owing to the moment's confusion of the explosion, and to the assassin's knife, our Sheriff was most grievously wounded, and reluctantly let slip his grip on the prisoner.

Our own telegrapher and war veteran saw fit to address the situation like an old soldier:  the assassin had taken scarce half a dozen running steps when Lightning's a musket-ball ended his flight, shattering a knee and assuring capture.

We are given to understand the Sheriff and His Honor the Judge Donald Hostetler are conducting their investigation as this report goes to press, and we have every confidence that justice will be both swift, and final.

 

 

 

Then, lower on the same page, another column:

 

It is with genuine regret that we report the deaths of a mother and child, owing to the murderous attack of a European anarchist on a private railcar.

Our own Irish Brigade swarmed bravely into the smoking, shattered car, only to find the piteous form of a mother, thrown violently against the back wall, protective arms still holding her child to her maternal bosom: both were dead, killed instantly:  so shocking and so sorrowful was this discovery, that strong men went to their knees and groaned, and more than one shook defiant fists to Heaven and swore a deadly revenge, could they but find the author of such a horrendous act!

The Sheriff's investigation is ongoing, but has yet to discover the names of the dead woman and her child: their bodies has been removed from the death-car, and with solemn tread, respectfully borne on a litter, the silent, still figure of the infant still on her mother's breast.

As of this printing, the bodies are removed to our Church, where the Service for the Dead will be performed, with interment in our town Cemetery.

 

She looked at her visitor, smiled.

"I know Old Pale Eyes," she said.  "This smells of a subterfuge."

"I don't understand."

Willamina smiled.  "You've been DNA swabbed."

She nodded.

"You are shown to be of our line."

Again a slow, careful nod.

"It is not possible to be a daughter of the dead. Had Sarah's daughter actually been killed in the blast, you wouldn't even exist."

They laughed quietly and Willamina thrust a chin at the glowing screen.

"Old Pale Eyes was pulling a fast one.  He must have thought the threat serious enough to declare them dead.  Nobody pursues a dead woman, especially if there is a formal burial."

 

Linn spoke to the red headed Irish chieftain.

The German Irishman had carried the message:  meet with the Sheriff five minutes ago, and a brief description of the man's being sewn back up:  Sean's eyes hardened and he nodded, and he met the Sheriff as they came out of the hospital.

Linn stopped, shook the man's hand.

"Sean, I need your help."

"Name it!"

"Dummy up something on a litter, carry it out of the railcar like it was a body. I want it noised about that you found a mother and child, dead from the blast."

Sean was not an easy man to surprise:  he frowned, considered, then looked the Sheriff directly in the eye.

"Is it a bluff you're runnin' then?" he asked, and Linn nodded.

"The woman and child exist. We must convince the world they were killed, otherwise there will be more assassins, and those damned European anarchists don't care who they kill, as long as they kill their intended victim."

Sean nodded.  "Aye, we'll make it believable."

"Carry what looks like a body to the funeral parlor.  We'll pack a weighted coffin to the church.  The lid will be screwed down so nobody will be looking inside."

"Ye're playin' a deep game, Sheriff."

Sean stared long at the man's face.

"Ye're no' lyin' about a woman's death."

Linn swallowed, looked at Sean, shook his head, his face the very image of misery.

"No," he whispered, the way a man will when his throat is too full of grief to speak the word aloud.

 

"The newspaper goes on to describe a fine service, a good turnout; burial was ..."
She scrolled ahead, ahead again.

"Burial was one day before the anarchist bomber was hanged."

 

Linn leaned heavily on the back of the chair.

He looked around Bonnie and Levi's neat, tidy parlor, waited until the maid brought a tray of sandwiches, waited until Levi poured a brandy for the men, until the maid poured tea for the ladies, waited until the maid withdrew.

The older children were present, as were the wives: the women clung to their husbands' arms, for women are creatures of knowing, and they knew such a call together was for a reason, and generally the reason was not a good one.

Linn looked at Bonnie and at Levi.

He cleared his throat.

Esther's hand tightened a little on his arm:  Angela, beside him, folded her hands before her, the very image of a proper young lady; beside her, the twins, scrubbed clean and in matching dresses, and behind them, their brothers.

Linn took a long breath, made a face:  he stared into the brandy he held, then looked very directly at Bonnie and Levi.

"Sarah," he said, and cleared his throat:  Bonnie's hands tightened suddenly and she leaned into her husband:  Levi pulled his arm free of her grip and ran it around her, pulling her into him.

"Sarah has been killed."

Utter, absolute, complete, shocked silence.

Not a breath, not a gasp, not an exclamation: it was as if the black cloak of utter entropy enveloped the room.

The maid, just outside the door, listening, snatched up her apron, pressed it to her mouth: tears stung her eyes and it was in her to run, run away like a heartbroken little girl screaming NO NO NO NO NO, but she stood, and she listened, her double handful of crumpled apron muffling the tiny choking sounds she could not completely stifle.

Bonnie lifted her chin, looked very directly at the Sheriff.

"How did my daughter die?" she asked, her voice almost steady.

Linn took a more careful breath this time.

"She faced a mob with torches and clubs," he said, "and stood between the old Count and half a hundred raiders."  

Levi studied his old friend's face, concerned.

Normally Linn would have grinned with half his face.

He didn't.

"She killed all but four."

"And when will my daughter's body be returned home?"

Linn looked very directly at Bonnie.

"The mansion was burned.  They were not able to find her body."

Bonnie Lynne McKenna Rosenthal turned to her husband, leaned her forehead against his collar bone, then pushed savagely away:  she snarled, turned to Linn, stormed across the room at him.

Linn drew free of Esther and took one step forward.

Bonnie drew back her hand -- as if to slap the pale eyed lawman -- then she lowered her hand, looked up into wet and miserable eyes.

"She was your daughter too," she whispered.

Linn nodded.

Bonnie ran her arms around Linn's neck, hid her face in his shirt front:  Linn's arms went protectively around her and he held her as her shoulders heaved, as the full shock of the terrible knowledge scythed through her soul.

Bonnie barely felt her husband's hands on her shoulders, but she felt his soul, warm and comforting, and she let go of the lawman and turned to her spouse, and the spell of silence was broken.

The maid staggered blindly for the kitchen, sat down, crossed her arms on the tabletop, staring blindly at the white enamel cupboard, remembering a happy girl with a big smile, a little girl with a big black dog she used to bathe there on the back porch, happily chattering as she worked bath salts and suds into the mountain Mastiff's shining black fur.

A thousand memories ran, wet and hot, down the maid's grief-reddened cheeks.

 

"From what I've read in the Sheriff's Journals," Willamina said, "there was no funeral for Sarah, but a stone was set with a memorial service.  Not many years ago, a forensic excavation was made of the Baron's schloss, and more bones were found."

"Really!"

"They were able to DNA match Sarah's skull, and about half a skeleton. That's all they could find."

Willamina took a breath, leaned back.

"The German legation came out with her remains. We entertained their diplomatic team, and they presented her credentials as certified nobility."

"Really!"

"Yep. Your pale eyed ancestress was a Baroness."

Her visitor considered this, then:

"They brought her skull?"

"And as much of the skeleton as survived the years, yes."

"What did you ... do ..."  Her voice trailed off, her eyes looking left, looking right, as if expecting a partial skeleton on display in a glass case.

"She is buried in the family plot."  Willamina's smile was gentle.  "Her grave is empty no longer."

 

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Posted (edited)

411. FALSE TRAIL

Inge Colascinski threw the hood up on her traveling-cloak.

It still smelled of cedar, where she'd had it folded in a trunk and preserved from moths with cedar-chips, but it felt like a thousand memories, memories of when she was a little girl and her Oma wore such a cloak when they went about their village, back in the Old Country.

Her fingers passed a bead between them, the rest of the green-glass rosary dangling from her grip, swinging a little as she rode in the rental buggy.

They'd ridden to Carbon Hill on the steam-train, they'd taken the last train of the evening, they'd waited until full dark before proceeding further, waited in the Marshal's office: they spoke in low voice, though none were there to hear them:  when they finally departed, Inge had the feeling she was wading into a dark and dangerous pool, where unknown monsters swam.

She closed her eyes, swallowed, swatted the feeling aside:

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It was not far from the Marshal's office to the house, half built into the hillside.

Inge waited in the carriage with Esther: Inge spoke fluent German, legacy of growing up in a multilingual household: she spoke Polish with her husband, to keep fluent in the language of her childhood, and she delighted in speaking German and Croat with any in town who shared those linguistic gifts: she reached up, threw her hood back as she heard men's voices, raised a little, but only a little, and in the night air she heard, "Where did she go?"

 

Jacob Keller rose, went to the door.

The Sheriff's office was lighted by a single lamp; he drew the bar aside, pulled the door open, one hand gripping the handle of his right-hand Colt.

A pair of bright-blue eyes peered from the depths of a cloak-hood, two fingers thrust an envelope at him, and a low, musical voice murmured, "Let us in, there is danger," and Jacob stood aside, allowed the woman in, looked left, looked right, closed and barred the door.

He turned up the lamp.

The woman reached up with one hand, threw back her hood:  her hair was shining gold, braided, coiled about the sides of her head: she looked at Jacob, raised gentle fingers to his chin.

"You have her eyes," she murmured, her voice barely accented:  she nodded to the envelope he held.

"Read this."

Jacob thrust a hand toward the Sheriff's desk: they paced over to it, Jacob drew out a chair for his visitor, and before she sat, she reached up, one-handed, unfast her cloak, draped it over the chair.

A child nursed at her ample bosom, and the dress she wore was one he'd seen before.

It was Sarah's, a dress she made when her son, her Daffyd, was an infant.

Jacob lit another lamp, sat in his father's chair, studied the seal, looked up at the visitor, his eyebrow tenting into a peak:  he read the familiar handwriting on the front, turned it over, unfolded it, read the message, read it again.

He looked up.

"She spoke of a brother," the woman said.  "You would be Jacob."

There was a trace of the "v" in her "would" and she almost started Jacob with a "ch" sound.

Jacob nodded solemnly.  "Ma'am, you have the advantage of me."

"This is your sister's daughter."

"Her name?"

"Bonnie Esther."

Jacob nodded again, slowly, his expression solemn.

Sarah had written him after the birth of her first child, and had told him she'd named the child for her mothers.

"My father believes you are in Carbon Hill."

"I intended that he should."

Jacob raised an eyebrow again.

"I traded places with a young mother who was run away from home. She was ..."

She frowned at the desk's smooth pine top, blinking as she thought.

"Unmarried and with child ..."
"A girl in trouble?"

She looked up.  "Ja. I told her she would be more comfortable in a private car and she went, and I traded her tickets and told her to get off at Carbon Hill, where she would not be recognized."

"How did you know Cabon Hill?"

The woman smiled sadly.  "Your sister.  Her plan."

 

They returned on the last train of the night, husband, wife, interpreter:  silence rode the carriage with them for about half the trip, then:

"My dear?"

Esther looked at her husband.

"If ever I doubt the superiority of the female mind, remind me of tonight."

Esther considered this, looked round at Inge, smiled, and Inge smiled back:  it was the kind of a shared expression women exhibit when they manage some secret triumph, something they know but don't speak about in the presence of men.

"Sarah had the forethought to hire someone with brains about them, and Sarah had the brains to map out the maid's return to Firelands, and the woman she hired as maid and wet-nurse traded places with another young mother, who got off in Carbon Hill, while the maid sat beside the assassin and plotted with him to murder the hated bourgeoise in the expensive Capitalist rail-carriage."

He turned his head a little, then his body, to speak to Mrs. Kolascinski, in the back seat.

"Inge, I do apologize. We've brought you on a fool's errand tonight."

Inge smiled.  "It does well to get out of the house, Sheriff, and the night is not yet over. You may need me yet."

Linn nodded, laughing.  "This is a night of surprises, Inge, and you're right, I may very well!"

 

Jacob frowned as the baby's weight settled in his arms.

The child waved a pink hand, found his nose, squeezed:  Jacob laughed quietly, nibbled at the hand with his lips, then turned a little to get a better light on her infant face.

He looked at the stranger, smiling at him with knowing eyes.

"You know babies," she offered.

"I've several," he admitted, "and one a year or so bigger than this."

"Good. Your wife is with milk, then."

"No."  He shook his head, gently, bouncing the smiling, cooing infant.  "No, she's dried up."

He looked at the woman. "Matter of fact, our hired girl is getting married and leaving.  You want the job?"

She shrugged.  "I worked for one American. I can work for another."

Jacob looked up at the sound of a carriage out front, heard the jingle stop: there were boots on the boardwalk outside, the lighter sounds of women's hard heels, the door swung open.

Sheriff Linn Keller looked at his grinning son, at a stranger in a familiar dress, at a baby in his son's arms.

"Sir," Jacob said, "this is Bonnie Esther, your granddaughter."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller straightened, eyes wide with distress.

"What's wrong?"

"Your great-grandmother ..."

Willamina looked at the woman.

"I just cross-checked the census records."  She shook her head.  "Something's wrong.  Old Pale Eyes laid a false trail, and I followed it.  Your great-grandmother's name wasn't Aalis.  There was an Aalis in Carbon Hill, and your great-grandmother used the name when it was needful, to hide her background."

Willamina looked at her visitor.

"Your great-grandmother's real name was Bonnie Esther, and she was raised by the Sheriff's son Jacob."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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412. BONA FIDES

I have profited from listening to my beautiful bride.

When Annette cautioned me on this stranger with a child, I realized I'd gotten in too much of a hurry.

Pa's news about Sarah's death about killed me, but I hid it, the way I always do.

This woman showed up and she said the right things and she showed me the right paper with the right seal and I was hook, line and sinker.

Annette was not as easily convinced.

I looked closer at the situation, for I can tell when a man is lyin' but women ... women folk can whip the wool over my eyes clear down to my belt buckle and I'd not even realize it.

Law and Order Harry Macfarland give Pa the same note that woman showed me, and when Pa laid it on his desk beside the one I'd cracked open and read, I smelt a rat and so did he.

We looked at one another and said "Daciana."

Daciana was married to Lightning's boy, the relief telegrapher: I really should not call him Lightning's boy, young Lightning was a man growed but it's hard not to shed that father son setup, hell, folks still call me Linn's boy time and again and I don't take no offense to it.

Anyway we taken that woman and the child over to Daciana and didn't tell the woman what we were doin' nor why.

Damndest thing.

Daciana opened her door as we come down out of the carriage and set our feet torst her threshold.

This-yere German woman with her braided hair all curled up on the sides of her head, she turned and thrust that little baby into my arms and she give out a squeal and so did Daciana and they went a-screamin' torst one another and last time I seen two women do that, why, they was tearin' hair an' tearin' clothes and rollin' in the dirt like the Kilkenney cats, and damned if they didn't grab one another's elbows and jump up and down a-squealin' like two schoolgirls, and me and Pa and Mother, we all stood there with our teeth in our mouth just a-starin' and Daciana she swum he arm at us, wavin' us in, them two was all a-chatter an' Daciana she started throwin' out tea saucers like a gambler will whip out poker hands, I'd swear she was a-whippin' some women's magic acrost that table the way she got saucers out an' fancy delicate teacups and she went a-pourin' tea she already had brewed up like she knowed we was a-comin' over and she set out a platter of some kind of dark bread that smelled sort of like fruit and it was genuinely good, I et about half a loaf my own self.

Anyhow, Daciana and that German maid they set beside one another at the corner of the table and they was holdin' hands and talkin' and not one single word could I understand, and finally the maid she got up and come over and relieved me of that little girl and hell I was content to set there an' hold her, there is somethin' peaceful about holdin' a sleeping baby and she set down with Daciana and that little one made a face and waved them little fists and I reckon she wanted a meal for that's what she got, an' Daciana she stood up and went over to the window sill to where she had sometin' covered with two silk scarves.

I knowed what it was before she whipped them scarves off.

She's looked into that-there crystal ball before and I never seen much in it other'n the room upside down, but she held it in one hand and ran her other hand over like she was pettin' a kitty cat's head, an' she brought attair crystal ball close to that little baby and begun to whisper sometin' that didn't sound a thing like what her and attair German maid was a-sayin', and it felt like a cold breeze started through the room an' I looked at Mother and she raised a hand torst me as if to say 'twas all right, and I trust her judgement for she is a woman with a knowin' way about her.

Daciana brought attair crystal ball close to that little baby girl an' I got up and walked over torst her, I'd not parked my Stetson for I'd had that double armful of wrapped up little girl-baby, and a good thing I still had it, for no more had Daciana touched attair crystal ball to the baby than she jumped and let go of it like 'twas hot and I dipped my hat down and caught it just neat as you please.

No sense lettin' it hit the floor and bust.

Daciana's face was white and her hands went to her cheeks and she whispered something I reckon translated to w'al be damned, least that's what it felt like, and she looked at me an' pointed to attair crystal ball and said "Look."

I looked.

I reckon I looked kind of surprised, for Sarah was lookin' right back at me.

I recht in and touched attair crystal ball and of a sudden I was settin' on a parlor chair and Sarah was settin' square in front of me, lookin' at me with that wise expression of hers and I said "Little Sis, what just happened?" and Sarah she laughed and said "You're somewhere else, Little Brother!" and I allowed as I'd throw her acrost my lap and fan her little biscuits and she laughed and said "Catch me first!" and I knowed that was Sarah, all right.

"Pa said you were dead!" said I, and Sarah nodded.

"I am, Jacob.  I died fighting to keep a good man safe."

"Did you win?"

"There were fifty of them, Jacob," she said patiently, "I got all but ten. Six ran and the last four lived to tell their tale."

"Am I dead?"

"Not yet."  She smiled again and I recall seein' that look of delight before.

"Jacob, this is my daughter, and I trust the maid with my life. She speaks excellent English and she is a master forger. I gave her my Rose Seal and my Baronial Signet -- it's a ring worn by a Baron's wife. The Old Baron gave it to me when my no-account husband abandoned me."

I reached out my hand and touched her cheek.

She reached up, pressed her palm against my fingers, pressing my fingers firmly against her face.

Her hand was warm, her skin soft, and I could smell lilac-water and soap and sunshine, the way she always smelled.

"Jacob, I have to go now. I won't see you again until ..."

"Until when?"

I seized her wrist.  "Sarah," I whispered hoarsely, "when will I see you again?"
Sarah reached up with her other hand, wrapped it around mine, stood.

Of a sudden she didn't look like my little sis, all girly in a fine gown.

Of a sudden she looked like some kind of a queen -- a fighting queen, with an engraved silver breastplate, a steel helmet with white wings, I looked her down and looked her up and she had on a skirt of some kind that looked like maybe wide leather strips with silver-bright metal riveted on, steel shin bone legs -- and her usual, black, flat heel cavalry boots.

"You will see me when you die," she whispered, and her wrist melted out of my hand, and her hand caressed my cheek, gentle-like, the way she used to.  "I love you, Jacob.  Raise my little girl for me!"

And then she was gone.

I was still standin' there with my hat in my hand, with Daciana's crystal ball in the hat, and I was withdrawin' my fingers from the hat.

I looked at the maid.

"You gave a letter of introduction to the Marshal over in Carbon Hill."

She nodded.

"You gave me one."

She nodded again.

"Sarah's seal?"

The maid slipped two fingers into a hidden pocket, brought out a wax seal, handed it to me.

It was Sarah's.

I know.

I had it made for her.

It had the hand chased, deeply engraved rose, with the Christian cross and the Seal of Solomon, separated.

I handed it back.

"And her ring."

Again the two finger dip; again the extended hand.

The ring was heavy, wide, thick: it had a fancy seal and I nodded, looking at it, then I turned it and looked closer.

On the inside of the ring, a word:

Stofpuppe.

I could not but smile.

She hated being called Ragdoll, but she'd told me it was the old Baron's particular term of endearment for her.

"She hated being called a stuffed puppet."

"I know."

I extended my arm, and with it, the captured crystal:  Daciana draped the two silken scarves over it, picked it up by the scarves, gave me a long look.

Like as not she wondered what I saw.

I figured I'd not tell her just yet, but I would tell her.

Anyway after all that, an' after Daciana fed us and the two of them talked some more, after the women folks took that little girl baby into another room and I reckon they changed her out for a clean diaper -- young'uns that size tend to leak -- why, they brought her back in and dunked her in my arms and there I set just as happy as if I had good sense, this big idiot grin on my face, and by the time we left, we were satisfied as to the maid's bona fides.

I reckon I'd ought to tell you her name, if I keep callin' her The Maid you'll think she's a bought and paid for general store set-piece, kind of like when my little girl got aggravated with me and she stamped her little foot and shook her little finger at me and declared "I don't like you, Daddy! I'm gonna have Mama go down to the general store an' buy me a new Daddy! They're sixbits on sale and she can afford that!"

Anyway it turns out attair maid was a forger and a good one, and she could turn a signature just as pretty as you please, and she'd made a copy of Sarah's letter of introduction an' then she melted and re-sealed the original and a man honestly could not tell the real from the copy, she was that good, and I've a good eye, and of course she had Sarah's seal so she could wax up a frash seal on the copy.

We put her talents to good use, but that was some later.

Oh, yeah.  Her name.

Leni Zelma Merckle.

 

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413. FRONT PORCH

Bless our hired girl, the coffee was hot and it was good and my coffee and I stood out on the front porch and watched the colors over the mountain as the sun rolled over in bed and threw back its covers.

Now that's almost right.

I stood on the porch, my coffee did not.

Charlie Macneil allowed once as my coffee could rise up and walk and he's not the first to voice those words, but I am not as dumb as I look so I let the girl make coffee here at home.

I am a remarkably capable man, I am a wonderfully skilled man, I am a man of many talents and I like to think I am not entirely unintelligent, but one thing in this world eludes me, and that's how to make decent coffee. God knows I've tried and every time I end up with varnish stripper that will chase the hair out of your chest from the inside, it'll rot your guts like it rots out good enamel coffee pots, so I've pretty much give it up as a bad job unless I'm the only one drinkin' it.

I reckon I had enough bad coffee over the years I'm immune to the stuff.

Anyway me and my coffee were out on the front porch but I was the only one of the two of us standin' on my hind legs.

I heard the door open and I could tell with the first step 'twas Angela.

Esther's step was heavier, firmer:  besides, she was dead three years and more, and Angela was the Lady of the House: she was growing into fine womanhood and there were young men who wished her hand, and the rest of her as well (in spite of appearances, yes, I was young once) but for today, for today Angela was still my darlin' daughter, and for today she and I stood out on the front porch and watched the sun rise.

I'd been off the porch and into the grass for I wished to gauge the dew on the ground, I studied the colors of the morning, and between dew on the ground and kind of a half hearted melon orange shade along the Rim of the World, I reckoned we might get rain, but not for one day and maybe two.

I took a quiet slurp of coffee and dashed the drippin's off my mustache, slung 'em off my bent finger, turned and looked at Angela.

Now I will be honest.

Angela is plainly beautiful.

Big bright blue eyes, corn silk hair, she had a ribbon run under her hair and tied in a bow on top of her head and she was wearin' that blue gown of hers:  I was somewhere between wantin' to bundle her up in my arms and just hold her, or set her on a high shelf with a glass bell over her to keep the world and its harms from her, like I would a rare china doll.

I didn't do neither one.

I reached down and took her hand, I raised it to my lips and said frankly, "Darlin', you are beautiful," and she laughed "Oh, Papa," the way she often did, and my Esther once said Angela had me wound so tight around her little finger it's a wonder my back bone didn't look like a Cork Screw and I reckon she's right.

We stood together and sipped, she her tea and I my coffee, and we listened to the morning, and Angela ran her arm through mine and leaned her head against my shoulder and give a quiet sigh.

"I do love the morning, Papa," she murmured, and I nodded:  I pulled my arm free, run it around her and drew her close, and she cuddled into me like a little girl.

"Mornin's are better when we share 'em with someone we love," I said quietly, and I felt her smile.

Such words were a rare thing in our part of the world, just like a smile was not all that common: no one wanted to show weakness, and a smile was seen as weak -- which did not stop me from smilin' when I damn well pleased, there had been those who thought me weak and I managed to persuade them to the otherwise -- but here, just the two of us on the front porch, why, 'twas the right thing to say, and the right time to say it.

I reckon my mind was relaxed and free wheelin' for I recalled Ecclesiastes, where it says there is a time and a purpose for all things under the heavens, and I reckoned that might make a fine sermon for the Parson, and I'd mention it to him next I saw him, and then I tossed that idea right over the porch railin'.

The Parson comes up with Jim Dandy sermons without my help, and I'm not about to tell a man how to do his job.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stood on her front porch, sipping coffee and studying the colors along the rim of the world.

Linn came striding up from the barn, freshly washed muck boots swinging from his left hand -- 

He already keeps his gun hand free, Willamina thought.  

Dear God, he's only fourteen, what other bad habits have I taught him?

Linn stopped in front of the porch, swiped his foot in a showy arc through the grass, frowned at his polished Wellington boot, turned and frowned at the sunrise horizon.

"Rain tomorrow," he said with the self-assurance of the young, then took two running steps, cleared the three steps to the porch with one long-legged stride, came up and kissed his Mama on the cheek, careful not to bump her arm.  "Barn's tended."

Willamina shifted her coffee mug to one hand, ran her free arm around her long, tall son, hugged him, and he hugged her back.

He smelled of soap and Old Spice and horses, and Willamina laughed a little as he twisted his Stetson from his head and leaned his head gently against hers.

She sighed, looked toward the mountains again.

"I do love mornings," she sighed.

"Me too, Mama.  Me, too."

They stood, each with an arm around the other, listening to the morning, smelling coffee, content.

 

 

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414. A MERE NURSE

 

The cell block was quiet.

Three prisoners waited to be loaded with irons, to be marched out to the van with bars on the windows.

Three prisoners had been sentenced an hour and a half earlier, three prisoners who came out in second place when they made the mistake of attacking a local.

The local looked like an easy mark.

The local ... wasn't.

 

The clerk turned, shocked at the sudden violence erupting among her station's fuel pumps.

The nurse's head snapped back -- the blow was unexpected, it came from nowhere, the nurse was sucker punched -- and things went rapidly to hell from there.

The clerk reached blindly for the phone -- numb fingers fumbled the grab, the handset fell toward the floor, bounced on the curly cord.

The clerk saw the nurse come up like a cork out of deep water, scarlet streaking down what used to be a pristine white top, and the clerk reached under the counter to the right of the register, found the panic button, pressed it hard.

 

"I don't know why I didn't see it coming."

Linn listened closely, carefully, his hand gripping the nurse's hand:  he knew how important such touch was, he knew how reassuring this was, he knew the unspoken message it sent:  I'm here, you're safe, I'm listening.

"I came up and grabbed the arm coming in.  I twisted and drove the heel of my other hand against his elbow and broke it, right before I hauled him around and gave him a face full of the passenger door of his truck."

Linn nodded.  "Go on."

"The second one was coming in so I didn't straighten up.  I was doubled over so I shifted sideways and brought my whole body into an elbow strike. Up. Into his diaphragm."
"Which elbow?"

"My left. I hit him hard and then I twisted again and drove my fist just as hard as I could just under his zipper.  I meant to bring him a foot off the ground and I think I did."

"Did it work?"

"I don't know.  The third one belted me with a club or something and things didn't.. I know I went at him and I think I kicked him at least once."

Linn nodded. "You did."

"Am I in trouble?"

Linn's hand tightened just a little.  "Three to one odds and you were assaulted with weapon specification? I think we'd ought to pin a medal on you!"

The nurse tried to groan, but it came out as more of a pained hiss.

"I'm supposed to work tonight.  I need to call the nursing supervisor."

"I think she knows."  Linn's hand tightened just a little, again, released.

Linn waited a moment, then:

"How do you feel?"

"My head hurts."

Linn chuckled, patted the nurse's hand firmly, just short of roughly.

"You should see the other guy."

 

It took some time for the prisoners to heal, to be transferred from hospital to jail, courtroom and finally to the state penitentiary.

It took less time than that for their story to arrive at the state pen.

There is a distinct hierarchy in the State funded institutions of higher learning, Criminal Division: here, if you killed a cop, you were King; if you harmed children, you were the lowest of the low, with a short life expectancy: other offences fell between these two poles, and when these three, now released from hospital, made their transfer from the local lockup to the state facility, questions were asked.

Their answers were generally not believed.

You see, they'd been collectively beat into the ground by a nurse.

A mere nurse.

The fact that this mere nurse was a guy, and had been a Naval Corpsman who saw service with the US Marine Corps, had been carefully omitted, when this intel was introduced to the prison population ahead of their arrival.

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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415. THE CAST IRON LADY

 

Marnie Keller clattered, laughing like a delighted little girl, down the steps at the end of the depot platform.

She and her pale eyed Daddy helped rebuild those very same steps.

They took careful measurements from the originals, they took photographs with yardsticks and rulers to get the scale right, they were ready to transfer these to butcher's paper for a template, when her Daddy simply laid the original on/ the heavy timber he intended to use, drew around the original as a template, sketched in where wood used to be, and then used a big bandsaw to cut it out.

Marnie marveled at how her Daddy could ease the singing steel ribbon through good, close-grained hardwood, imported from back East – "White oak," he'd explained, "it'll last until Hell freezes and the Devil learns to ice skate!" – then he grinned – "I'll ruin this bandsaw blade cutting this stuff, but it'll last!"

He was almost right; he broke two blades and burnt a third one blue cutting "this stuff," but when he was done, the sides of the steps were as solid as concrete, and bolted firmly to the original timbers, the bottom ends set on native stone cut well more than a century before for the purpose.

The treads, also, were of seasoned white oak, but they'd been cut to size before being shipped: they were screwed down, through drilled holes, for though it's possible to spike down green white oak, once it seasons out, it generally takes a carbide blade to cut it, and good sharp bits to drill ... and forget about trying to nail through them, unless one drills a pilot hole first.

Marnie listened to her father's quiet wisdom as she was his step-and-fetch-it, his apprentice:  he saw to it she spent time on the drill, delighted when she looked at him with a triumphant expression as she drilled her first hole, straight and true, hugged his little girl's shoulders as she looked at him in distress as the bit caught in the second hole, twisted from her hands and broke off:  he showed her how to grip the broken stub with locking pliers and twist it out backwards, with the help of a squirt of oil and muttered Anglo-Saxon labiodental fricatives which he followed with, "Don't let your Mama know I said that," and Marnie felt her distress slip away as she laughed at the ruefulness of her Daddy's exaggerated expression.

Today, though, Marnie clattered down those steps, remembering momentarily the experience of helping rebuild them:  she delighted in making the most noise possible with her trademark, red cowboy boots, and she scampered over to The Lady Esther's cab, looked up at Bill, grinning down at her.

"Like what'cha see, darlin'?" Bill called-*, and Marnie shaded her eyes: "Yeah!" she threw back, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet.

Bill looked down at Linn, lifted his chin:  Linn took his nine year old daughter under the arms, hoisted her with a grunt, swung her back, then powerfully forward:  Marnie swung her feet up, planted them on the steel deck, grabbed the wrought-iron grab rail with one hand, seized Bill's extended hand as he stripped it out of its glove and thrust it toward the delighted little girl with braids swinging behind her.

"Come on in," he laughed, pulling her easily into the cab, "grab that shovel, darlin', let's teach you how to fire!"

Marnie grabbed the shovel, hesitated.

Bill lifted the lid on a built-in box, pulled out a brand new pair of heavy leather gloves.

"You might want to put these on first," he suggested, waiting until Marnie thrust her little hands into the big gloves:  "now drive your shovel in under the coal here" – Marnie grunted a little as she slid the shovel's flat bottom bit under graded bituminous – "just like that.  Hoist it up" – Marnie picked up the shovel full of coal, frowning with concentration – "turn, swing back and sling it ahead and to the right!"

Bill reached down, unlatched the firebox door, swung it open:  heat seared out at Marnie, even more than the blunt back of the boiler with its mystery of pipes and valves and gauges:  she slung her shovel full inexpertly, missing about half the payload, scattering stoker grade on the steel deck.

"Fooey!" she exclaimed in disgust, and Bill laughed.

They were not ready to leave just yet – not without the fireman, who was on his way back – Bill waited until Marnie scraped the stray black rocks together, got them shoveled up and into the firebox, waited until she turned and thrust the shovel at the newly arrived fireman.

"Here," she said.  "You know what you're doin', I don't!"

"Why darlin'," Fred West laughed, "it's easy!  Sit right up here" – he stripped off his gloves, picked her up easily, perched her on his seat – "now we'll open the door, we'll turn like this" – he pivoted, the ease of long practice in his moves – "we'll get a shovelful" – his shovel drove in under the edge of the coal pile, cutting smoothly under the flammable stone – "we'll aim for the front right hand corner" – Ames steel rang as the coal slung off the shovel into the inferno – "and we'll close the door so she'll draft properly!"

He grounded the shovel's bit.

"We want to fire uniformly," he said, his voice loud, the voice of a man a little hard of hearing – "we throw the coal to the front right, front left, back right, back left and then right down the middle.  And I'll show you a secret" – he winked, raised a finger, gestured for Marnie to hop down – he opened the lid she was sitting on, reached in, pulled out a big side of bacon.
"This is rancid and it's not fit to eat," he grinned, "but it'll burn like Hell itself in that firebox!"

Marnie's eyes were big, taking it all in.

"Come on outside. You can help me oil."  The fireman grabbed the big, long-nosed oilcan, swung down the ladder to the ground.

 

Marnie stood on the depot platform, studying the steam engine as the passengers boarded:  Jim Burcher, the conductor, was dressed in the correct conductor's uniform, taken from patterns actually used in the late 1880s, right down to the hunter-cased Ball pocketwatch, engraved inside the lid with his name, with "Conductor, Z&W Railroad", with a delicate, scarlet-inlaid, hand-chased rose in the very center:  Marnie heard the conductor calling "Boaaard!  All aboooooard!" and she knew he would swing an unlighted lantern from his position on the rear platform of the tail end car.

The lantern, she knew, was just for show, for those tourists delightedly taking photographs, taking video:  he could as easily have waved his hand, but the lantern, she knew, made better theater – and besides, she knew Jim, knew he loved to ham it up for the tourists.

Marnie knew all this, without looking, and a good thing.

Her eyes were for The Lady Esther.

She'd listened to her Gammaw talk about finding the Baldwin engine, abandoned and rusting to death, in a South American desert, on a rail line long forgotten: she'd heard the stories of how it was freighted, with appropriate bribes to appropriate officials, bribes to keep it from being stripped or stolen on the journey: she'd asked her Gammaw why it was in South America, did someone carjack it and drive it off – and her Gammaw laughed and said no, the Old Sheriff was so broken hearted when his Esther died, that he could not stand to see this engine he'd named to honor his wife, this engine with her personal insignia of the Spray of Roses on its cab, and so he'd sold it to a Brazilian grandee, and stubbornly refused to watch her departure from Firelands.

He'd sold it, she explained, because his heart was broken, and he was not thinking straight: he later regretted the move, and complained of the expense of replacing it, a stupid move based on a stupid decision for a stupid reason.

Marnie listened, big-eyed and silent, considering with her young mind the complexities of being an adult and reacting to sorrow.

Marnie had known sorrow, in her young life, but she'd never considered sending anything to Brazil to try and lose the sorrow, and so she put the thoughts aside for some future time, when she had more experience in such matters.

Today, though, today she stood and watched with the sense of awe she always had, watched her beloved steam engine breathing like a great and powerful animal at the depot:  she felt heat radiating from it, like she felt The Bear Killer's living warmth when they cuddled together, she smelt hot iron and coal smoke, she planted her palms over her ears when Bill reached for the whistle's lanyard: she felt that sudden surge of delight when steam seared through pipes and blasted into cylinders, when the engine huffed loudly and began to move, when all those big heavy cast iron parts began their coordinated dance, and she stared, fascinated, as the drivers rolled down and back up and the cast iron wheels began turning, and once again, in her nine year old mind, Marnie Keller, daughter of the pale eyed Linn Keller, bounced on the balls of her feet, waving happily at Bill and at Fred and at her Lady Esther, was happily and absolutely convinced that this cast iron Lady was indeed alive, alive and possessed of entire lifetimes of secrets, of memories!

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416. UNDER A ROCK

 

Sheriff Linn Keller's eyes were very pale, very hard.

He looked at what had been a pretty young woman, he read the story in the dirt, in the sign painted in blood on the rock adjacent, he read the story her dead body told him.

He'd studied the ground as he came up; he resumed its study again, nodding as he did.

He recognized the tracks.

He'd seen them before.

He looked at his son, nodded.

Jacob advanced with his bedroll, snapped it open, draped it respectfully over the corpse.

A lean Kentucky mountaineer waited, still on his mule, his flint rifle across the saddle in front of him.

"Ebenezer," the Sheriff said, "I would take it kindly if you would let Digger know we are headed his way."

The Kentucky man nodded, once, slowly: his shapeless felt had was in his hand, as it had been since he came in eyeshot of what he knew was a dead woman.

"Jacob."
"Sir."
"We will wrap the body and I regret that we must suffer her a final indignity: we must needs drape her across to pack her out."

"Yes, sir."

"I will help you get her wrapped and aboard, and then I must tell the family."

"Yes, sir."

"You will have Digger prepare her, for the family will not want to see her as she is."

"Yes, sir."

The Kentucky man offered no comment as the two pale eyed lawmen rolled the woman's bloodied body into the bedroll, drew it up, tied it, and carried it with what dignity they could to Jacob's restless stallion:  he did not like the smell of blood and death, but he was well trained:  restless though his hooves might be, he stood for the loading, and Jacob gripped his bridle and said "C'mon, fella," in a gentle voice.

Linn turned his red mare uphill, toward a path he knew of, a mountain trail that would bring him close to the family's ranch.

 

Marnie sat up in bed, rubbed her eyes:  she looked at the chair against the wall, smiled -- a sudden, bright smile, the delighted smile of a child seeing someone she knew.

"Hi," she chirped:  The Bear Killer raised his head, looked toward the visitor, his tail thumping the bed in welcome.

"I know where there's gold," the Pretty Lady said gently.

Marnie swung her legs over the edge of the bed, stood up, planted the knuckles of her left hand on her belt and shook her admonishing Mommy-finger at the Pretty Lady.

"Oh no you don't," she scolded.  "I read about ghosties that tell people where there's gold. They want 'em to come to grief!"

"I could tell you where it is," the Pretty Lady said, "or I could show you."

Marnie regarded her pale eyed visitor skeptically.  "I'm not even a teen-ager yet. I can't do much with gold!"

"There is," the Pretty Lady admitted, "another reason I wanted to tell you."

"Oh, yeah?"

"There's something else hiding with the gold."

"Hiding."  Marnie, though but a child, had a suspicious streak about her -- no doubt learned, or honestly inherited, from her pale-eyed Gammaw, and her pale-eyed Daddy, and her level-headed Mama.  "What kinda hiding?  A mont-ster that wants to eat me?"
The Pretty Lady laughed quietly.  "Nothing like that," she said.  "But it's something that's important to your Gammaw."

"Oh," Marnie said, wide-eyed:  "that's different!"

The Bear Killer padded downstairs after the delighted little girl, waited until she thrust sock feet into her red cowboy boots, slipped outside with her.

The household was still quiet as hoofbeats retreated into the early morning mountain mist.

 

I am not a man given to revenge.

I know what it is to want revenge, I know what it is to take revenge, I know how hollow and meaningless it was after I brought bloody revenge on those who most richly deserved it.

No, 'twas not revenge I wanted.

That's what the family wanted, so bad they could taste it.

What I wanted was justice -- and prevention.

I was after an animal, a ravening monster, and if I did not stop him, more would die and die horribly, and I will not have that.

Not when I can stop it.

 

Jacob watched the lamentations of the women, the silence of the men: they had questions, he replied as best he could, given his observations.

They of course demanded justice, demanded revenge, demanded to know who did this, where this monstrous soul could be found, and Jacob admitted he himself did not know, but his father did.

"The Sheriff is after him," he said quietly, his voice firm:  "there is no better man-tracker short of Charlie Macneil, and you know my Pa."

Jacob's smile was not quite pleasant.

Matter of fact, it was distinctly wolflike.

"When he strikes a blood trail he does not quit."

 

Marnie rode her Goldie-horsie, riding beside The Pretty Lady and her greaaaaat big black horsie, the one with the white snowflake between its wide-spaced, intelligent eyes:  they rode around back of the town, through the mountain fog, the silent shape of black death itself pacing with them:  The Bear Killer kept easily with the horses, for they were not going terribly fast:  they circled on the far side of the town's cemetery, crossed well below the old corral, well below the firehouse, riding partly on what Marnie knew to be the old McKenna ranch.

They turned their horses toward the mountain, crossed the highway, then the railroad tracks, the second set of tracks:  they crossed two streams and struck a trail and followed it well high up on the mountain, taking the right hand fork, and Marnie recognized where they were, for she and her Daddy had ridden here before.

She and The Pretty Lady drew up on a rocky-sandy beach, looked at the bridal veil waterfall cascading down a sheer drop, into a mountain pool.

The Bear Killer waded out into the cold water, drinking noisily.

"It's filled in quite a bit," The Pretty Lady said, "which is why nobody found the gold."

"What gold?"

"The gold that's under the big rock in the middle."

"What big rock?"

They dismounted:  The Pretty Lady undressed, easily shucking out of her riding-dress, her corset, her several underthings.

"Come on.  We're going for a swim."

"Nuh-uh," Marnie protested.  "I'm not gonna fall for that."

The Pretty Lady went to her knees, took Marnie's hands, looked her very directly in the eye.

"Look at me," she whispered.  "Who do I look like?"

Marnie frowned, undecided.

"You look like Gammaw when she was younger."

"And what color are my eyes?"

"You have pale eyes like Daddy an' Gammaw an' all them pictures she's got."

"And who am I?"

Marnie's hands squeezed the warm, soft, womanly hands that held hers, and she looked down past their hands, looked at sand and rocks, and frowned.

Marnie looked up, all indecision gone.

"You are Sarah Lynne McKenna," she declared.

"Yes I am."

"How come you look so much like Gammaw?"

"Would you believe she is me, reincarnated?"
Marnie raised an eyebrow, lowered her head.

"No."
The Pretty Lady closed one eye and smiled.  "You're right," she whispered.  "Your Gammaw is her own self, but she is of a very important line, and you are part of it.  But right now you need to help out your Gammaw.  Strip."

Marnie frowned, then began stripping out of her own layers -- considerably fewer than her more adult (and surprisingly solid) counterpart -- and the two held hands, waded into the water.

"Now, Marnie," Sarah said in a schoolteacher's voice, "you can swim?"
"Oh yeah!"

"Good.  Can you swim underwater?"

"Oh yeah!"

Good.  We're going to the big rock underwater and we'll go to the bottom.  Something was freed after that last big flood, it washed away a lot of sand.  I'll need you to follow my lead when we're underwater."

They waded out until Marnie was up to her chest.

"Deep breaths," Sarah said.  

"One.

"Two.

"Three.
"Down!"

They dropped, thrust, swam: Marnie slitted her eyes, marveling at how clear the water was with morning's sun on it, opening them barely enough to see -- it minimized the burn -- she found the big rock, jackknifed, kicked, swam straight down.

She felt Sarah's hand brush her own and she felt sand, and rocks.

The rocks were surprisingly uniform.

Sarah grabbed a handful, then found something else, something kind of round and smooth.

Up, she heard:  she rocked back, planted her bare feet on the gravels, shoved hard, kicked.

They made surface at the same time, both of them slinging their heads, throwing wet hair behind them:  Sarah had something white -- a sack -- she held it out, underwater -- "Put everything in here," she said, and Marnie did, dropping whatever it was that was kind of round, and the rocks she'd grabbed from the bottom.

"We're done. Let's get dressed."

They swarm for shore, Sarah holding the white linen sack to her chest and stroking sidelong as Marnie splashed happily in a surprisingly swift overhand crawl.

 

Jacob rose at the summoning knock on his door.

He'd just set down to supper when he heard his father's tread on his porch, his father's shave-and-a-haircut alarm.

Jacob knew by the look on his father's face he'd been successful.

Two pale eyed lawmen regarded one another and the moment was utterly shattered by three young voices all exclaiming "Grampa!" and the hard-eyed lawman with the iron grey mustache was suddenly set upon by three youthful, enthusiastic, chattering, bouncing, grabbing grandchildren:  he did not hesitate under this sudden attack, he crossed one shin bone over the other, folded up his legs like Big Chief Mug Wump and sat straight down, gathering a great double armful of wiggling, giggling, happy humanity:  all pretense at solemnity was lost as his Stetson fell away and hit the clean-swept porch, as he threw his head back and laughed, as his son's serious expression shattered and was swept away by the broad and knowing grin of a father who had himself undergone such a delighted youthful swarm.

Jacob looked at the maid and said, "Dear heart, would it be a terrible thing if I asked you to set another plate?" and the maid lowered her head as if to look over a pair of spectacles:  she shook her wooden spoon at him and said something in German, which Jacob took to mean yes there's plenty, or she would clobber him with a frying pan, he wasn't sure which.

 

There had been towels -- Marnie didn't know where she got them from, she didn't care, the water was cold and she was cold and a good brisk toweling warmed her a little, she dried her feet very thoroughly before getting into her socks; she stood on the towel as she dressed, serious-faced, and once she was back into flannel shirt and jeans, back into her vest and her red embrodered boots, she straightened and Sarah was smiling at her, her hair done up and dry, completely dressed and ready to go.

"How'd you do that?" Marnie exclaimed, and Sarah laughed.

"We women have our secrets," she smiled.  "Come on, we have to meet your Gammaw!"

 

Marnie rode around the fence and into the front yard as her Daddy came out on the front porch, concern on his face and a phone in his hand.
"Daddy, I gotta see Gammaw, it's important!" Marnie called:  she did not wait for her father's reply, but instead pressed her heels into Goldie's ribs.

Linn opened his mouth to call after her, but he closed his mouth, knowing it would do no good, and then he grinned and shook his head.

"Ain't no doubt," he said to the cool morning air.  "She is her Gammaw's granddaughter!"

 

"Where have I been?"  Linn asked as youthful eyes regarded him with a mixture of awe and delight.

"Why, I have been over the mountain and down the valley, across the river and through the middle of a buffalo herd!"

"Naawww," Joseph and his little brother chorused in an irritatingly nasal harmony (Annette was satisfied they practiced sounding annoying, but didn't correct them at the table, as they were replying to their Grampa, and he was provoking them, after all!)

"Whattaya mean naw?"  Linn protested, his eyes wide with mock innocence.  "There's mountains and valleys and a river!"

"Ain't no buffalo!" the boys chorused, and Linn snapped his fingers.

"Darn it, you're right," he agreed.  "Darn it, no buffalo!  Now where was I?"

"You were storyin' us, Grampa!"

"You're darn right I was!  Now you asked me where I was and what I was doin'."  He frowned, lowered his head, leaned toward them.

"You want to know what your ol' Grampa was a-doin'?"

"Yeah!" two little boys replied, delighted:  their little sister was busy working on a buttered roll and trying to look ladylike in the process.

"You want the bloody details, you want me to tell you all them terrible details that would raise the hair on a bald man's head?"

"Yeah!"

Linn harrumphed, leaned back in his chair, assumed a stuffed-shirt posture and raised a teaching finger.

"Wellsir, I'll tell ya," he said, and Annette shot Jacob a knowing look:  it was about to get deep, she knew, but it was generally, good, and she leaned back a little as the maid slipped in and poured her some more tea.

"There was this b'ar, y'see, and oncet I drug him out of his cave by his big toe he got kind of irritated with me and we got into a good knock down drag out --"
Linn stopped, regarding three sets of eyes giving him That Look.

"W'al there was!" he protested, and the maid set a slice of pie in front of him and said "And you'll go t'hell f'r lyin'!"

Usually supper would be followed by reading, either newspaper, Scripture or one of their several books:  tonight, the Sheriff and Jacob excused themselves and walked out toward the barn, and it took stern admonition to keep their adoring young devotees from following.

Linn knew what he had to say would not be fit for young ears.

"You found him, sir."  It was a statement, not a question.

"I did."

"Justice was done."

"It was."  Linn stopped, looked out across the pasture.

It was evening; the sun was sliding over the rim of the world, and Jacob's herd of saddle horses glowed in the long red rays, looking vibrant and rich and healthy as they grazed.

"Jacob, I reckon God forgives an awful lot."

"I reckon so, sir."

"He'll forgive me, then."

"I doubt me not He will, sir."  

There was a pause, and the two lawman leaned against Jacob's rail fence, shifted their feet to find a comfortable position:  the Sheriff found a rock the size of a man's head and set his boot up on it, which helped his poor old back.

"I found him, Jacob, and I killed him."

Jacob nodded, his eyes studying his distant herd.  "Good."

"I drowned him."

Jacob nodded again.  "Reckon he deserved it."

"I wanted him to die slow."

"Not slow enough."

"No," the Sheriff agreed.  "Not slow as I'd like but I wasn't going to decorate him with the edge of my knife."

Jacob was silent.  He knew what it was to watch a man tortured under a sharpened blade.

The man he'd seen so tortured more than richly deserved it, but he personally didn't favor such matters -- but neither had he been inclined to stop what the criminal more than richly earned.

"I drowned him in that deep pool Sarah used to dive into."

"I recall it, sir."

"He didn't die easy and I reckon God Almighty might have approved of what I'd done."

"How's that, sir?"

"I'd hauled him out in the middle where it's good and deep.  I'd tied him pretty well and tied a rock to him and I packed him out in the middle and him just a-blisterin' the air with curses and what he planned to do to everyone I've ever known, and I stopped and asked him about that girl and he laughed and he told me about what all he'd done, and he laughed.

He was laughin' when I dropped him in the water.

"I'd waded out to where it was collar bone deep on me, right at the edge of the drop-off."

"I know the place, sir."

"He went probably twenty feet down and there he'll stay."

"Sir?"

"I'd no more waded back to the bank than there was this unGodly big splash behind me and I turned around and damned if this big bugger of a boulder hadn't jumped out of the cliff overhead and dropped right on top of him!"

Jacob considered this, raised an eyebrow.  "I'd be damned," he murmured.

"That's what I said."

They leaned against the fence for a bit longer.

"I rode out and told the family."

"How'd they take it, sir?"

"They were pleased he was dead, and most pleased he did not die easy."

"Did you give them the particulars?"

"No."

"Just as well."

"I thought so."

 

Marnie tied off her Goldy-horse in front of the Sheriff's office, pushed through the heavy glass doors, scampered the length of the Sheriff's office, clutching the neck of the white linen sack and yelling "I gotta see Gammaw it's really really important!" and Willamina looked up, surprised, as something hit her door, as someone fumbled at the antique brass doorknob, as the door pushed open and Marnie came in, all big-eyed and excited, scampering around her Gammaw's desk and almost falling, and she was chattering "Gammaw I gotta show you this it's really really important!" and she set the wet, white-linen sack on the floor beside Willamina's office chair.

Willamina pushed back, turned, watched as Marnie squatted, rolled down the neck of the white linen sack to expose the contents.

Marnie let go of the rolled-down linen like it was hot, she fell back on her youthful backside, looked up at her Gammaw in open-mouthed distress.

Willamina reached down, picked up a human skull, turned it in her hands, studying it: it was what the Germans call a totenkopf, a skull without its lower jaw:  Willamina nodded, then looked down at the sack, reached in, pulled out two gold coins the size of silver dollars.

"Marnie," she said, "where did these come from?"

Marnie looked at her Gammaw, weighing whether she'd believe her if she told her about the Pretty Lady, decided against it.

"Gammaw, you know that mountain pool where Sarah used to dive?"

Willamina nodded.  "I've swum there myself.  It's no good for diving anymore, it's all filled in and there's a big rock in the middle."

"This was at the bottom of the rock. All that rain we had washed out the sand an' gravels."

Willamina raised an eyebrow, nodded.

"Marnie," she said, "we women have our secrets, and this is one.  Do not tell anyone what you found."

"Okay, Gammaw."

Willamina looked up at the woman in a McKenna gown faded silently into solidity behind Marnie.

Willamina looked at her, raised the skull a half inch, raised an eyebrow:  the visitor shook her head, turned, raised a finger, pointed at Old Pale Eyes' print framed on the wall behind her, and then faded and was gone.  

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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417.  APPROACH

"You wanted to see me."

Willamina looked up, looked over the tops of her half-glasses.

"In."

Linn stepped across the threshold into the Sheriff's office, closed the door quietly behind him.

Sheriff Willamina Keller removed her readers, deliberately placed them in their case, placed them precisely into the broad, shallow center drawer of her desk, slid it shut.

"Sit."

Linn sat.

"You remember Sarah's bridal veil falls."

"I remember."

"You remember the boulder in the middle."

"The one that killed the Middlesex boy.  Yes, I remember."

"There was a move to remove the boulder."

"I recall."

"If it were removed, it would just fill in again."

"Likely it would."

"You recall you own the land."

"Yes, ma'am."

"It may be wise to remove the boulder to reduce your liability."

"Attractive nuisance statute?"

"Among others."

Linn nodded slowly.  "I think I can get a crawler up there."

"I can get a D8 up there if I have to."

Linn laughed.  "Ma'am," he chuckled, "I seem to recall you told me you used to skin 'Cats."

Willamina smiled, just a little.  "Uncle Pete taught me, and I had to jump on a Caterpickle over in the Sandpile so we could raise some understandable hell."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina had alluded to such maneuvers when she was with the Marines, but never went into any real details: something told her firstborn son he'd be wise to not inquire: if she wanted him to know, she'd tell him.

"I'm not sure how big that boulder is, ma'am. A man might roll it out if it's not too big."

"It's not terribly deep. If need be we could rent a rotary jackhammer and drill that gentleman."

Linn grinned like a delighted schoolboy.

"Dynamite, ma'am?"

Willamina laughed. "You always did like things that go boom in the night!"

"Ma'am, you would not have called me in to make a casual mention of a rock."

"You're right."  Willamina frowned.  "Three can keep a secret if two are dead, unless we're sharing it among pale eyes."

Linn raised an eyebrow.  "Ma'am?"

"I'd rather roll it out if we can, but there's a bigger problem."

"You have my undivided."

Willamina opened her shallow drawer again, lifted out a gold colored washer, flipped it to her son:  it spun in a whirling, ballistic arc through the still air in her office, landed neatly in Linn's flyswatting palm.

He opened his hand, picked up the surprisingly heavy washer, and realized ... this was not a washer.

"Mexican gold?"

"Spanish gold."

Linn raised an eyebrow.

"From the boulder?"

"Yes."

Linn felt his belly sink.

"I can see why you want to keep this one quiet."

"I can't haul a gold dredge up there without getting a lot of attention we really don't want."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I can, however, work a body recovery."

"Ma'am?"

Willamina leaned down, picked up a dirty linen sack, placed it on her desk, rolled it down.

An empty-eyed skull emerged as she rolled the cloth down.

"Friend of yours?" Linn drawled.

"Old boyfriend," Willamina deadpanned.  "He got fresh on a first date."

"If you'd tell me that, ma'am," Linn said, quirking his left eyebrow, "I would be inclined to believe you."

"This may be a body recovery. I don't know whose body and I don't know the circumstances, only that the skull was washed free of sand and gravel in that last good gully washer."

"Might it have washed out some coin also, ma'am?"

"Which is why I don't want the dredge. Officially it'll have to be a forensic recovery of skeletal remains."

"That'll involve a dive, ma'am."

"Yes it will.  Feel like getting your Saturday night bath early?"

 

 

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 418. YOUNG BLOOD

Gottleib Daniel Keller bent a little.

Gottleib looked under the whitewashed board that formed that part of the fence.

On the other side, a dark, shining, knowing eye looked back at him.

Gottleim launched into a sudden sprint.

Hooves on the other side of the fence ran with him.

Gottleib ran the length of the fence -- several hundred yards -- he whirled, he ran back, the length of the fence again, and on the other side of the fence, hoofbeats kept pace, golden-tan fur rippled over flat, hard muscles, a dark, intelligent eye watched the little boy's grinning, running form through the gaps in the boards.

Forth they ran, and back, two children, a colt near to a yearling, a lad still a stripling, pacing one another, until finally they coasted to a stop:  the colt breathed through flared nostrils, tail slashing, and the boy bent over a little, gripped a fence board, breathed deep of the thin mountain air.

He grinned at the colt, thrust his hand through the gap:  the colt snuffed loudly at the proffered palm, then delicately rubber-lipped a mashed biscuit from the lad's open-flat hand.

Gottleib climbed the fence, dropped to the ground on the inside.

The colt snuffed loudly at the lad's shirt front, laid his chin over the boy's shoulder, and Gottleib Keller, grinning, rubbed the warm, furry colt's shoulder.

Jacob leaned against a porch post, slouching hip shot as he regarded his offspring, running back and forth with that yearling colt.

He felt his wife come up behind him, mold herself to his back side, slide her hands across his shoulder blades, grip his shoulders, press herself into him.

"Give you a week to stop that, woman," he rumbled, feeling the desire rising in him again, and his wife leaned her head over his shoulder -- he knew she'd be on her tiptoes to do it -- and she nibbled at his earlobe.

Jacob turned, ran his arms around his wife's waist, drew her into him: he reached up and took off his Stetson, removed it with a twist of his wrist, brought it down to his side in a great arc as he lowered his face to his wife's.

"Mrs. Keller," he whispered, and then he tasted of her mouth, and it was several long moments before any reply was attempted, and this in a halting breath as his own lips nibbled their way down the side of her neck.

"Yes, Mr. Keller?" Annette whispered back, her voice less than steady, her arms around her hard-muscled husband, not wanting to let go.

"Is there something you wanted to tell me, my dear?"

Annette's eyes were closed, her head thrown back, her face flushed: Jacob lifted his head, planted his mouth on hers, then bent, hooked his arm behind her knees, picked her up.

The German maid discreetly withdrew with the youngest two as Jacob carried his wife upstairs, for they had an appointment, and he did not wish to be late.

Gottleib Keller ran, laughing, across the pasture, the shining, golden colt hobby-horsing along beside him.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller frowned as she glared at the computer screen.

The Firelands Gazette had long since scanned and computerized its early issues; Willamina knew she could enter a term into the search engine and it would bring up any articles on the subject.

Right now she wanted to know about that skull from the mountain pool.

She was not able to devote the time she wanted to the search; she knew Linn would be on the job, at the pool, she knew her son swam like a fish, she knew he would make a preliminary survey and report back, but in the meantime ... in the meantime, her badge packer's gut told her she was missing something, and she did not like missing something.

Boulder alone got several references to the city of that name; pool brought up several places of entertainment, and crime associated therewith, including multiple instances of a pool cue being used as a war club, two instances of being used as a javelin (one drove through a man's eye, killing him instantly).

Entering both "Boulder" and "pool" was not helpful.

Willamina's jaw slid out as she frowned, considering, her fingers light on the keyboard.

On impulse she entered "Bridal Veil Falls."

Willamina blinked, scanned rapidly, leaned back, frowned, leaned forward and read again.

Her eyes tightened a little at the corners, her lips smiled ever so slightly, and framed the single whispered word.

"Jackpot."

 

That evening the coroner examined the hatful of small bones Linn arranged in a row on the examining table.

"These appear to be ... I'd say these are ... hand, foot, fingers, these two are toes ... this is all you found?"

"Yes, sir."

"Were there other artifacts?"

Linn regarded the ossified remains, ranked on stainless steel, looked at the coroner.  "These are all the bones I could find, sir."

The coroner nodded: things like belt buckles, buttons, perhaps a pocket watch and chain might not be unexpected; if they were not found, well, he'd make do with what he had.

"I'll see what I can find out."

"Thank you, sir."

 

Willamina looked up as Linn came in, an aluminum lunchbox in hand.

He set it on her desk: he set it down carefully, but she could tell there was some weight to it.

She remembered when he came home with a long face, this same lunch box in hand; he'd gone downstairs, he'd emerged several minutes later with a length of brazing rod thrust through the curled, stamped-steel staples holding the lunchbox shut:  just as a padlock through a hasp keeps a door from opening, so did this simple metallic rod keep his latches from failing -- which is what happened that day, out in the hayfield.

She understood two dogs with them, delighted in the spilled bounty.

Linn pulled the long, tarnished, brazing-rod safety from the lunch box's latches; he flipped the latches, tilted the lid back.

Willamina's eyebrow raised and she looked at her son.

"How difficult was it?"

"There's a problem, ma'am."

"I'm listening."

"Apparently all that rain we had washed out the lighter bones, all right, but it also washed out a bloody ton of sand and gravel.  Apparently there's current coming in from underneath and that's what blew out the wash.  I'll have to go downstream quite a ways and work my way back to find any more light bone."

"Go on."

"It gets worse."  His face was solemn.  "There's not one boulder in there, there's two.  Apparently that was a diving hole and it was quite deep.  There is the one boulder just under the surface. It's sitting on top of a second one.  I think we can roll the one out easily -- I can likely hook it out with a track hoe -- but that second one will be a bear to hook onto.  Whatever's in there is under that second boulder."

"How did you get all this?"  Willamina tapped the side of the lunchbox with a bent foreknuckle.

Linn grinned.  "How do you think I found flow from underneath?  I dove down to the bottom when the sun was shooting down at a steep angle so I could see!"

"And the current from beneath carried off any sediment you stirred up."

"Yes, ma'am, or at least carried it up enough to let me see through it.  Not enough to carry it clear out."

Willamina nodded, stared thoughtfully at the bounty.

"Secure that."

"Officially, ma'am, or otherwise?"

Willamina looked at her son and smiled.

"To my knowledge it's not fruit of any recent crime, and these coins are a couple centuries old."

Linn closed the lid, slid the long brass safety pin back in place.

"I'll take care of it, ma'am."

 

"Jacob?"

Annette's finger drew lazy circles on her husband's damp chest:  she was cuddled into him, reveling in the feel of this strong, lean, virile man with whom she was cuddled.

"Hm?" Jacob hummed, curling his arm, rolling her even closer.

"Jacob, why did you name him Gottleib?"

Annette's voice was a whisper; Jacob's was little more.

"Gottleib means child of God," he replied, his fingertips trailing up her spine at the small of her back.

Annette's eyes closed and she groaned with pleasure, then lowered her face to his, and conversation was ended for some time.

 

 

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419. SCENT OF A ROSE

I am no stranger to grief.

I felt it when first I left home, when I left my Connie to go off to that damned War.

I felt it with every man I lost.

Every last one of them.

I felt it when I got home from that damned War and found my Connie dead, and our daughter dying, and I felt it when our little Dana sighed out her last breath on the side of my neck as I held her.

I felt it again in the years that followed, and not a few times: more deaths, more losses, and every one of them my fault, my fault.

Between my ears I know they were not my fault, but behind my breastbone I would admit to nothing of the kind, for a man marries a woman and swears to provide for her and to keep her safe, and when he cannot keep her safe it is a wound through his own soul.

I learned to live with my griefs, to not show them.

There were those who knew I grieved, and very few who saw that grief:  only my closest, most trusted family ever saw my sorrows, Charlie Macneil among them, and he a man I would trust with more than my own life.

I was not terribly surprised, then, when Angela sat down beside me on the front porch and folded her hands in her lap and asked, "Papa?"

I looked over at her and I saw a girl, tall and lovely and becoming a woman, a girl who walked like my Esther, a girl who sounded like my Esther, a girl with a direct gaze and a clear way of thinking, just like my Esther had been.

"There is a question in your eyes," I replied, and my voice was gentle, for Angela had long ago wrapped me around her pretty little pinky finger and I reckon I still was.

"Papa" -- she raised her chin, just short of defiantly, then looked quickly away, defiance replaced with uncertainty -- "I miss Mama."

I nodded, shifted, raised my arm and ran it around her shoulders, and she leaned into me and give a big deep sigh, the way she did when she was a little girl and she needed her big strong Daddy to give her some reassurance.

"I reckon you do," I agreed.  "I know I surely do."

Angela was quiet for several moments.

I felt her swallow and knew there was another question a-comin', and sure enough, I was right.

"Papa, I think I hear her sometimes."

I nodded, slowly, tightening my arm just a little, just enough to tell my little girl that I did too, and she was not alone.

"She used to look in on me, at night," Angela said softly, grief lacing her words together, and I nodded again, for Esther had that habit:  she would slip out of our bed and she would Cat Foot out the door, and to each of the bedrooms, looking in on her young, making sure they were covered up, asleep, and breathing, not necessarily in that order.

"Papa, last night I buried my face in my pillow" -- she stopped, took a long, shivering breath.

"Mama ... I felt her draw my covers up over my shoulders, just the way she did."

I nodded again.

"Did you smell anything?" I asked.

Angela pulled away from me, suddenly, startled, eyes wide:  her face went from surprised to suspicious to sorrowful again, just that fast, and she whispered, "How did you know?"

"She wanted you to know 'twas her," I explained, "and she ..."

It was my turn to give a long, shivering breath.

"Papa?"

I looked out across the field, toward the mountain overlooking Firelands, toward the snowy peaks that shone in the sunlight, remembering how Esther and I used to ride the high trails together, how we would stop and she would spread out a checkered cloth and we'd eat what she brought, I recalled picking her up and whirling her around and how she threw her head back and laughed, she, a married woman, laughing like a schoolgirl, how she would stop and dismount, quickly, kneeling to study a flower, then she would look up at me and she was so beautiful my heart would be ready to bust --

"Angela," said I, "do you know why I have not cleaned out your Mama's closet and give away her gowns?"

Angela blinked and looked at me with those lovely blue eyes, wide and innocent  and nearly afraid, afraid at the thought of giving away what had been her Mama's, afraid of giving away what little she had left of her red-headed mother.

"When Esther was drawing your covers up," I whispered, "I was in amongst her gowns."

I felt my jaw thrust out and it felt like I was being tore in two inside but I pressed on, for the grief was in me and my little girl had to know 'twas not wrong to grieve.

"I bundled her gowns up in my arms and buried my face in them.  I did not want anyone to hear me."

I was whispering because I did not trust my own voice.

"I bundled up her gowns and buried my face in them because they still smell like her, Angela, and I miss her bad."

l bit my bottom lip and willed myself to show nothing more and it didn't work.

I felt my face redden and hot waters swelled in my eyes and I hugged my little girl to me, and she buried her face in my shirt:  "Dear Papa," she whispered hoarsely, and I heard Esther's step on the porch floor behind me and I smelled roses, just like Angela smelled roses in the night, and I knew Esther, my Esther, was there with us.

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420. ANTIQUITIES

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled at the small group waiting in the Cripple Creek depot building.

Cripple's depot had been rebuilt to duplicate its appearance when it was a boomtown, when the Z&W was a regular visitor: within, it had a spacious meeting room instead of a cavernous cargo hold, and here were the good people from the State, from the Antiquities Commission, from the museums and the treasury, and conversation stopped and heads turned at the sound of a man's boot heels on the smooth, varnished wood floor.

Eyes widened a little, a few mouths opened as a distinguished looking woman in a flawless McKenna gown glided into the room, smiling her welcome, and a pale-eyed lawman followed her -- a man with an immaculately curled mustache, a flat brimmed hat, and eyes as warm and welcoming as the pale, icy heart of a high mountain glacier.

That he wore a black suit of a style worn in the late 1800s, that he wore a six point star upon his lapel, that he carried a double barrel shotgun, added to the clear and unmistakable impression that here was a lawman, and a man not to be trifled with.

Sheriff Willamina Keller clapped her gloved palms together and declared happily, "I am so very pleased you could all come at my little invitation!  I am Sheriff Willamina Keller, of Firelands County, and this is my son Linn.  He is also my chief deputy."

A little girl in a proper young girl's frock from the same period came strutting purposefully into the room, frowning a little as she carried a wooden chest in both arms:  it was a bit of a strain for her, and she was a little red-faced, but she marched forward and placed it carefully on the table.

"My granddaughter Marnie," Willamina smiled.  "She is nine years old and a fine young lady who can split a playing card edgewise with a pistol, and has done it often enough to become bored with it."

Marnie looked up at her big strong Daddy, stood beside him, clasped her gloved hands and bounced impatiently on her toes.

"Now I suppose you'd like to know exactly what we found, that is of sudden interest to the State."

Several voices spoke at once -- the variety of agencies wishing to establish primacy in their claims -- and Willamina held up her palms, tilted her head a little to the side, the very image of charm and propriety.

"If you will all take a seat," she said, turning and nodding to Marnie:  the pale-eyed child scampered happily to the doorway, reached up and swiped off the overhead lights, picked something from a small shelf, ran the few steps back and handed it to her Gammaw.

Willamina thumbed a control:  there was a quiet hum and a screen descended, effectively blocking the glare through the curtained windows.

"This" -- Willamina lifted her chin toward the first projected image -- "is our Coroner, and this" -- she brought up another image -- "is less than half the skeleton we found in a local waterway, very shortly after recent heavy rains cleared an underground channel and allowed water to rush up from beneath the sandy sediments and wash them away.

"The real reason I wished you all to come" -- Willamina nodded to Marnie again, who happily took the heavy, old-fashioned key her Gammaw handed her -- "was because skeletal remains were not all that we discovered."

Marnie wiggled the key into the lock, frowning with concentration:  she turned the key, the lock dropped open:  she removed the heavy, old-fashioned padlock, raised the hasp, released the two catches and then lifted the small, rectangular, metal-banded chest's lid.

Marnie reached in, scooped up a double handful of Spanish gold, walked around, distributing coins to all present, one to a customer.

"There have long been rumors of Spanish gold, hidden among the mountains," Willamina said, "and we seem to have found one such cache.  I thought it wise to summon those agencies best able to catalogue this find, to determine its history, its origin and its possible route from well south of here."

One of the two museum representatives looked up, blinking, held the coin up at eye level, then dug in a pocket for a jeweler's loupe:  Marnie slipped over to the light switches, turned  on one row of overhead lights.

"Are there more?" he asked, scrutinizing the coin, tilting it to take advantage of the sudden light.

"I suspect there are."  Willamina nodded at Marnie -- lights out -- another image on the screen -- 

"This is the mountain pool where we found them.  You can see from this view -- this was taken from the cliff above -- there is a boulder in the middle of the pool. This actually sets atop another, larger rock, and it was at the base of the larger stone that we found bones and coins both."

"Has your coroner dated the bones?"

"That's where we were hoping your expertise would come in. I did find a news article where a known criminal was fleeing pursuit, fell into the pool, and a truly huge boulder fell in behind him, presumably crushing him in the process: I have copies of the newspaper article."  Again the nod to the pretty, pale-eyed girl, and the child happily danced among the visitors, handing out stapled sheaves of paper.

"Now.  Who wants to help us get those big nasty rocks out of our swimming hole?"

 

Linn and Willamina stood together on the Firelands depot platform and watched the train depart for Cripple Creek.

Their guests had stayed for the full day, eating at the Silver Jewel, using the back room for their headquarters, conferring with each other, one of the rare occasions when multiple agencies actually spoke with one another:  Willamina had long known the value of what was euphemistically called "Face Time," and she saw to it that these several agencies were brought together, and kept together, and given information at the same time:  their departure, as guests aboard the Z&W, was the beginning of what she knew would amount to a minor invasion, one that would be of startling intensity, but like a summer thunderstorm:  sudden arrival, spectacular for a short time, then gone, and when gone, the boulders would be removed from the deep mountain pool, the watery cavity given a forensic and archaeological excavation, to recover any further treasure, and then each agency would retreat to its respective bureaucracy, congratulating themselves on having skinned every other agency out of their eye teeth.

Linn ran his arm around his Mama's discreetly corseted waist.

"Ma'am," he said softly, "I think you could sell coals to the Devil."

Willamina looked up at her handsome son and laughed.

"It's just one of my endearing charms."

"By the way, ma'am," Linn said, turning to face his mother and running two fingers into a vest pocket, "they didn't get 'em all."

He held up a pristine example of Spanish gold, and Willamina smiled, opened her palm to show that she, too, had one.

"I know," she whispered, then raised an eyebrow.  "Have you considered how similar in size these are to the Rose coin you carry?"

Linn blinked, looked at the gold piece between his fingers.

"Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit," he smiled, "were the originals made of these?"

Willamina batted her eyes innocently.  "I would have to call upon the shade of your very great Granddad to find out," she replied, "but I wouldn't doubt it!"

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421. CLASSROOM

Marnie woke and looked at the chair where the Pretty Lady generally sat, when she visited.

Sure enough, there were those patient eyes, that understanding smile:  Marnie threw her covers back, sat up on the side of her bed, rubbed her eyes.

Marnie had not been asleep.

She'd been thinking.

With the directness of her pale eyed Gammaw, and the spontaneity of the child she was, she asked, "Howcum Gammaw gave away the gold? You said she'd need it!"

The Pretty Lady laughed, rose:  she glided over to Marnie, caressed her hair back from her face.

"Dear one," she whispered, smiling, and suddenly Marnie was in the whitewashed, one-room schoolhouse, and the little building was filled with children about her age ... but children dressed kind of funny.

Marnie was not a clotheshorse but she was a girl, and girls know things, and Marnie knew there were styles here from the Pretty Lady's era right on up to her own:  Marnie stood up, looked around, frank and open in her assessment of her classmates.

"Marnie."

She turned at the familiar voice.

The Pretty Lady stood in front of the class, wearing a severe, mousy-grey, schoolteacher's dress; her hair was drawn tightly up into a walnut atop her head, and a yellow pencil with a whittled tip and without an eraser was thrust through it.

"You have a question."

Marnie planted her knuckles on her belt, thrust out her jaw and nodded, frowning.

"How come Gammaw just gave away that gold?"

Several hands thrust into the air:  "Miss Sarah, Miss Sarah!" multiple voices chorused.

Sarah dipped a bladed hand toward a barefoot lad in bib overalls, a lad with a white streak in his hair.  "The floor yields to our esteemed colleague who can call lightning from the heavens!"

The lad grinned and his ears turned a remarkable shade of red, then he looked shyly at Marnie and replied, "Political advantage!"

The boy beside him -- identical in appearance, save only that the white blaze in his hair was on the other side of his head -- jumped up and declared, "A bribe!"

"Who else?" Miss Sarah asked, smiling over the tops of her round spectacles.  "Miriam."

A little girl stood, lifted her chin.

Marnie blinked, surprised.

Where Marnie's eyes were the same clear, pale, ice-pale shade as Miss Sarah, as her Gammaw and her Daddy and All Those Pictures her Gammaw Had, this girl's eyes were milky, and though she looked forward, she did not look at her schoolmarm.

"Not for its intrinsic value," Miriam said shyly, "but for the goodwill she purchased with it."

Miss Sarah nodded.  "Very good, all of you.  Please be seated."

The schoolroom, the children, shimmered and evaporated, and Miss Sarah in her mousy schoolmarm dress and her hair up in a tight walnut, smiled at Marnie from her usual seat in Marnie's nighttime bedroom.

The Bear Killer padded over, laid his chin on Miss Sarah's lap, slitted his eyes and groaned with pleasure as her pale hand caressed his huge head.

"Your Gammaw," Miss Sarah said quietly, smiling as she looked down on The Bear Killer's contentment, "is Sheriff, and as Sheriff, she has to work with many other agencies. This guaranteed to the several State-level agencies present, that she was inclined to turn over treasures for their societal value, rather than keep it for its intrinsic value."

Marnie considered Miss Sarah's words, frowned, then looked very directly at her and replied according to her experience and her understanding.

"Huh?"

Miss Sarah laughed.

"Let's say word reaches the State that a treasure has been found, some archaeological find, or a hoard of Spanish gold. They will contact your Gammaw and they will believe what she tells them, because she was honest enough to bring them all together and just hand over a young fortune without hesitation."

"Oh," Marnie said, as if that explained everything.

Miss Sarah rose, glided over to Marnie, sat beside her; Marnie felt the bed sag as Miss Sarah's weight came on it, and she leaned into Miss Sarah with a happy sigh as the schoolmarm ran a grey-sleeved arm around the little girl and hugged her, happily, quickly, tightly:  Miss Sarah patted the bed beside her, and The Bear Killer flowed easily up onto the bed, thrusting his head in between the two ladies.

Miss Sarah kissed the top of Marnie's head.

"Get some rest, little chick," she whispered, "you have school tomorrow!"

Marnie felt herself suddenly sleepy:  she laid down, curled her legs up, felt the bed covers being drawn over her, felt The Bear Killer lay down behind her, warm and solid and protective against the entire length of her back and more, and just before she submerged into the dark lake of slumber, Marnie smiled drowsily, for she smelled roses, and the next morning, there was a fresh-cut rose, its petals beaded with morning dew, on the chair where Miss Sarah sat the night before.

 

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422. THE NICEST THING

Dan Carsey felt his chest tighten the way it used to when he was a boy and about to get caught and switched for doing what he was told not to.

Dan Carsey felt that familiar sense of panic, knowing what he was about to get was far worse than a switch applied to his backside.

Dan Carsey raised his rifle and took a sight at the lawman following his trail.

Panic hurried his shot, pulled the rifle out of line: the slug threw a hand's-breadth to the side, and that damned old lawman didn't so much as flinch.

Carsey jacked another round into the chamber, his breath hurried and cold in his throat as that damned old pale eyed lawman leaned forward and his shining copper mare laid her ears back and stuck her nose out and came straight at him, and him hid, at least until the rifle boomed and that big squirt of smoke rolled out in a wobbling blue doughnut in front of him.

Carsey yanked the trigger before he was ready, before he even took a sight, and this one went further astray than the last, and he felt his belly sink and he remembered the preacher reading from the Book and he recalled the phrase as he felt it:  something about his bones turning to water.

Carsey was a coward and Carsey was a bully, and Carsey was a cheat as well, and when he was about to get caught, he'd do anything he had to ... anything a'tall, to keep from getting caught.

 

Jacob pressed his heels into his stallion's flanks, his thumb laid over his .40-60's hammer: Apple-horse surged forward, coming around to flank the outlaw that by now had taken three shots at his Pa.

This made the pale eyed deputy unhappy, and Jacob was a man who did not like being unhappy.

Jacob Keller felt a deep, intoxicating joy, the utter absolute inner rejoicing that comes of knowing with no doubt a'tall that what he was doing was right -- was absolutely, positively, unequivocally RIGHT!!!

 

Carsey raised his head a fraction, his eyes wide, his mouth dry: he tasted paper and ashes and he tried to swallow something sticky in his throat, about one half of one second before something not much bigger than a schoolboy's lead pencil drove very precisely into his left ear, crossed through his brain, and carried a percentage of the grey matter out the opposite ear.

Jacob Keller saw the bloom of another rifle's smoke and he leaned over Apple's neck, standing in the stirrups:  his stallion surged under him, charged uphill at an incredible speed, crossed behind the dead man's hide, steel-shod hooves striking sparks off the exposed rock.

Sheriff Linn Keller rode straight up on the rocks Carsey lay behind, rode around them, glared with hard and pale eyes at what used to be a two bit outlaw and petty thief.

His jaw was thrust out as he regarded the end of the low-grade hoodlum; a lesser man might have addressed the still air, speaking his mind as if to address the deceased and discuss his wrongdoings, but the Sheriff held his counsel, choosing instead to raise his head and regard the sight of his son launching out of the saddle.

As there was no sudden gunfire, as his son did not wade into an immediate confrontation, the Sheriff was satisfied that there was no enemy found, and so turned his attention again to the dead man sprawled on the ground, one leg under him at an awkward angle, a posture that would have been most uncomfortable had he lived.

Linn dismounted, walked slowly up to the carcass, bent down and picked up the rifle dropped from suddenly uninterested fingers.

Nice rifle, he thought. 

Stolen, of course.

The Sheriff knew where the rifle came from, knew the man from whom it was stolen: it was not the only purloined item to be found here, but it was the first.

 

Jacob landed flat-footed, his rifle up, as a pretty young woman rose, smiling, her .32-20 across her arm in front of her.

"Why, Little Brother," Sarah smiled mischeviously, "fancy meeting you here!"

"Little Brother!"  Jacob declared in mock indignation.  "Why, I oughta turn you over my knee and fan your little biscuits!"

"Catch me first," Sarah laughed, and Jacob grinned:  it was an old joke between them -- that is, as old a joke as a pair of fourteen year olds can share.

Jacob turned, looked back at his father, thrust his chin toward what had been a pursued outlaw.

"Your work?"

Sarah smiled.  "Why, yes," she simpered, batting her eyelashes and putting a lace-gloved finger under her chin as she dipped her knees -- which brought another laugh from her can't-hold-a-straight-face brother.

 

Linn took Carsey by the hair of the head, lifted, studied, frowning: he leaned the flaccid-neck gourd left, then right, nodding, finally released the hair and let it drop.

He straightened as Sarah and Jacob approached, Jacob's stallion following like a puppy.

"Your work?" he asked, and Sarah skipped up to the lean waisted old lawman:  "Yes, Papa," she smiled, coming up on her tiptoes to kiss him quickly on the cheek.

"Precisely done," Linn said, looking approvingly at the pretty girl in the stylish riding dress.  "Well done."

"Thank you, Papa."

"Jacob."

"Yes, sir."

"Good move, flanking around like that."

"Thank you, sir."

"I didn't know you two were coming along."

Jacob considered this for a moment, looked at Sarah, then they both turned and faced their father squarely, spoke in chorus, sounding more like twins than anything else.

"We only have one of you," they replied with one harmonized voice, and Linn could not but notice that there was not the least trace of a smile about either of them when they said it.

He nodded, slowly, then laid his rifle down and ran an arm around each of them.

They felt him take a long breath, felt the shiver in his inhale, the catch in his exhale, and he cleared his throat before he spoke -- a sure sign that he was indeed moved.

"I do believe," he said finally, "that is the nicest thing anyone's said to me all week."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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423. BEHIND EVERY GOOD MAN

Esther Wales stopped, raised her double gun, swung.

Feathers burst into the heavy, humid air:  "Bird down!" her father exclaimed, and Esther's heart lifted to hear the delight in his voice.

Esther was the daughter of Carolina nobility, a child of gentility and wealth, an intelligent and pretty young woman with the best education, the best prospects, a fiancee, with a bright and shining future, at least until that damned War tore everything apart, ruined the family's fortunes, burned their plantation and killed most of her family.

Esther found herself fighting for her very life: she knifed a Yankee raider who tried to lay hands on her, she snatched up his musket and drove its barrel into another's face, swung it and clubbed a third before hauling back the heavy hammer and punching a hole through an unshaven raider's chest: she seized the flap holster on one's belt, pulled out the revolving-pistol -- she was not entirely familiar with Colt's revolving pistol, but she knew well the shooting of her father's dueling-pistols: this device had a hammer, it had a trigger, and Esther Wales, a daughter of nobility and wealth, was suddenly a woman fighting to preserve her virtue, and probably her very life.

She had six shots.

She made them count.

 

In the years that followed, Esther Wales, one of the very few of her family to survive those terrible days, re-established their plantation: she was a woman with a good business sense, thanks to her father's teaching: she sent her niece Duzy to college, securing her higher education: Duzy grew up seeing the injustices around her, reading the newspapers of the day, and Duzy was convinced that this profession, this art of the written word, could actually make a difference.

Duzy went West, convinced that her skill as a newspaperwoman could make a difference, and for reasons of her own, she was determined to expose the excesses inflicted on women trapped -- women with no other choice -- women who felt they had no choice but to become women of easy virtue.

Esther Wales saw the opportunity to make an incredible profit by selling all she had, including the plantation: with her family gone, there was little to hold her, and so with a young fortune to her credit, she too went West, her real concern was for her niece.

And then Esther met the Sheriff.

We all remember the stories, how she was set up in housekeeping with her niece and with a recently liberated woman, Bonnie McKenna, a widow (thanks to a murderous banker's dirty dealings), how Esther carefully concealed her wealth, how Esther met the pale eyed Sheriff and knew this would be her husband.

It became a facet of local legend, this Esther, this red-headed woman who heard the Sheriff had just been shot:  she was a changed woman, thanks to that damned War, and where another woman might have turned to her feminine companions and wept in distress, Esther seized a shotgun, saddled Duzy's mare Edi, and streaked like a flame-haired Valkyrie with a shotgun across her saddle-bow, a woman gone to war, a woman who knew the man she intended to marry needed her, and by God! not Hell itself would keep that from happening!

Legends occur in splinters, bright facets, moments snapshot into stories, and so it was, how she streaked toward the Sheriff's office, her paint mare's tail twisting in the wind behind, ears laid back, Esther's hair loose and streaming behind:  another facet, another moment, when Esther Keller, wife of the pale eyed Sheriff, leaned out her office window in the second floor of the Silver Jewel, leaned out with a Parker shotgun and with two shots from her double gun, cleaned two outlaws from their saddles:  another moment, in the same day, when Esther snatched up a dropped rifle, brought it to shoulder, shot an ambusher before he could kill her husband:  she fired as she advanced, a beautiful woman become warrior, shooting the rifle empty and then swinging it like a club, breaking the stock from the receiver as she clubbed the last enemy over his head, and then bending at the waist and screaming at the bloodied bodies, "NOBODY SHOOTS MY HUSBAND!"

Esther Keller, daughter of Carolina royalty, cast her lot with a lean waisted lawman: she took the railroad with which she was gifted as a wedding present, turned it from bankrupt to profitable, acquired controlling interest in Cripple Creek's extensive gold mines, established herself as not only a society matron, but the one most profitable businesswoman in the entire state -- and did it unobtrusively, did it quietly, did it with such skill that she was seen as the matron of the Z&W Railroad, as the Sheriff's wife, as the mother to several children.

The Sheriff was an effective lawman in his own right, and his efforts in business were generally successful (though by his own admission he was nowhere near as skilled at business as his green-eyed bride!) -- but truth be told, it was this successful woman who inspired the Sheriff to his successes.

Truly, behind this good man, was a very good woman.

 

 

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424. COFFEE. GOOD FOR THE SOUL!

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat in a little coffee shop in Cripple Creek.

She had her back to the wall, she was at a corner table, her pale eyes were restless: she controlled her breathing, willing herself to breathe steadily, silently, through her nose:  adrenalin sang power in her veins, her soul screamed and slammed itself against the sides of her chest, raving as a warrior will right after a desperate conflict, but Willamina seized her emotions with a merciless grip, shoved them down into a bottle, stoved the cork in tight, set the bottle in an iron kettle and screwed down the lid.

She raised her coffee, two-handed, took a sip.

The surface barely rippled as she held it, which surprised her: by rights, her hands should be vibrating, not shaking, and she should be slopping coffee all over the little tabletop.

 

The family Daine was originally from Kentucky.

Family legend had it their ancestors came out to escape the false accusation of murder: many men left their birth-name back East and went West to invent themselves anew -- some because they were falsely accused, others because they wished to escape a righteous accusation -- time showed the family Daine's seminal ancestors innocent, and in another two generations, consensus would be to return to their native name of Maxwell, but for now, for now young Albert called himself Albert Daine and was content.

He was also hungry.

Boys of his vintage, maybe seven or eight years old, were as their older brothers:  a walking appetite on two hollow legs, and Albert was no exception.

He'd killed the rabbit that formed part of their table fare -- his brothers tormented him for carrying that throwin' hatchet, never mind he used it every day as a tool of utility as well as for taking a squatting bunny -- he preferred to take whatever he could with the hatchet, or with a rifle, instead of a shotgun: so far he'd never broken a tooth on a shot pellet, and he'd watched his brothers and even his father suffer the agonies of an infected, shot-broke tooth.

As much as Albert tried to stay out of trouble, the old Dutch seemed to try and get him into it: even here at the supper table, where voices were quiet if anyone spoke at all, at least until Albert started happily chewing meat off the rabbit's back bone, laughed at something one of the older men said, and inhaled the partly gnawed spine.

He laughed -- he inhaled unexpectedly - the spine slid neatly right down his wind pipe.

Albert slapped the side of his plate flat-handed, his eyes bulged in panic, unable to breathe.

 

Willamina went to Cripple Creek for the evening.

She was newly widowed, she'd driven herself long hours and absolutely mercilessly, punishing herself for her husband's sudden, unexpected death: aneurysm, the coroner said; no predicting it, the coroner said; nothing you could have done, the coroner said, and yet Willamina wished she had a British Navy cat-o'-nine-tails, for she would have surely whipped herself bloody for not taking the day off, for not having a crystal ball in which to see her husband would need her, there on their front porch, where he sat in the swing with his morning coffee, the way he always did, the moment his soul was required of him.

I should have been there was her most frequent thought; she'd washed her face in cold water, looked at her wet, dripping reflection in her private latrine, there in her private office, she'd spoken to the reflection -- "That is neither rational nor realistic," she'd said, and her reflection nodded back at her and replied, "I know that here" -- she'd tapped herself on the forehead -- "but it's different down here" -- her curled forefingers tapped her breastbone.

Sheriff Willamina Keller tried something different, come quitting time.

She drove to the depot and took the steam train to Cripple Creek.

She'd take in a movie, she'd eat popcorn and let her soul relax in the darkness, but the comedy did not suit her and she rose ten minutes into the flick, just as a woman screamed and Willamina automatically went to one knee, her hand blading her tailored suit jacket out of the way and gripping her sidearm:  her left hand came up with her small, high-intensity light, ready to illuminate or to strike.

Nostrils flared, she turned a little, shot the light into the dark, saw people turning, staring, a woman rising, holding a struggling two-year-old -- Willamina saw bare legs and denim, red sneakers, and as her light shifted as she strode toward the wide-eyed, panicking woman, she saw the faces, frozen, staring, not knowing what to do ... and she saw the child's face and saw in the concentrated, absolutely pure-white beam of her high-powered tac light, the child was turning a familiar, ugly, shade of slate-blue-grey, and turning fast. ... mouth open, eyes wide, she saw flesh retracted behind the collar bones.

Airway obstruction, she thought.

Training engaged her automatic pilot.

"MOVE!" she snapped, elbowing two people viciously out of her way: she reached in seized the child, pulled:  she backed into the middle of the aisle, where she had room to work.

She'd taught a thousand times, "When it hits the fan, rational thought and fine coordination join hands and jump out the nearest window.  We are left with gross muscle skills and training -- which is why we train, and train, and train again -- we don't train until we get it right, WE TRAIN UNTIL WE CAN'T GET IT WRONG!" -- and when Willamina ran a class, she made double damned sure her people performed to HER standard, and as the instructor, she drove herself harder than she drove her people.

It paid off in terms of how many of her people were not killed on duty, and it paid off here.

Willamina automatically dropped her backside against the side of a theater seat, thrust her legs out, squatting a little:  the child was face down on her thighs, head downhill, her arm under the chest and her hand under the ltitle, open-mouth face, her Vulcan salute hand straddling the child's nose:  her world shrank to the little denim straps, crossed behind the child's back, overlaying the little white T-shirt.

Four flat-handed blows.

She spun the child, raised it, carefully tried to get air into its lungs: no dice, don't blow the obstruction deeper:  she flipped the child down, four more blows, this time she felt something -- her fingers curled, felt teeth, felt a hard candy -- it fell into her hand, she dropped it, flipped the child, sealed her mouth over its mouth and nose, breathed.

The house lights came up as she got the first breath into the limp figure.

 

Old man Daine rose abruptly, knocking his hand made chair over behind him:  he seized the nearest son's shoulder as he strode around, to where Albert's face was turning an ugly shade of slate, and turning fast:  the old man did what seemed right in his eyes.

He seized Albert by the belt, hauled him out of his seat, grabbed and ankle, held him upside down and smacked him hard, flat handed, between the shoulder blades.

A rabbit spine has barbs that lie along its long axis, but they point backwards, and Providence alone dictated the spine went down young Albert's neck, points-down: had they gone down points-up, they would have dug in like fish hooks, they would not have let the spine shoot out, and he would have died there at the supper table.

As-is, under Old Man Daine's less than gentle ministration, the rabbit's spine was blown out of his throat, out his mouth, it hit the floor and was immediately seized by the nearest hound, where it was happily crushed, chewed and reduced to a tasty canine snack.

Albert hung, coughing, from the Old Man's hard grip:  shocked eyes regarded him, and the Old Man hoisted the lad's bare foot until it nearly touched the ceiling:  he lowered his head like a disapproving grizzly until they were eye to eye and rumbled, "You gonna behave now, boy?" and Albert swallowed hard, took a breath and nodded "Yes, sir," and the Old Man grabbed him by his denim crossbucks in back, turned him right side up and set him down gently.

"Clean your plate, boy," he said, his voice not unkindly, and Albert swallowed hard and decided he'd work on some smashed taters.

 

Willamina straightened, the child across her arms, she got another breath in and felt a return, waited:  the child shivered, took a breath, took another.

She looked up:  Mexican-black eyes looked at her, big and scared, and Willamina smiled a little and whispered "He's breathing," and handed the child back to its young mother.

A man -- the father, maybe -- hugged Willamina quickly, then ran his lean, tanned arms around mother and child, held them -- Willamina saw her chance and slipped away, past the usher, running up with flashlight in one hand, phone in the other -- "Should I call 911, should I call 911?" -- the child was breathing, her job was done, she just wanted to get out, get out, get out!

 

And so it was that Sheriff Willamina Keller, the pale eyed, veteran warrior, past paramedic, old veteran nurse and widow, sat in a little coffee shop, willing herself to stillness.

In her mind, the sight of her husband, dead, sitting in their porch swing, coffee cup on the railing before him -- an image she'd kept there, in front of her mind's eye, since the moment she'd found him -- this self-flagellating sight of a thing she could not change -- was replaced by the sight of a child, alive and breathing, in its mother's arms.

She finished her coffee, went to the ladies' room, splashed cold water on her face and looked at the wet, dripping reflection.

"You made a difference," she said, and the reflection nodded, once, in approval.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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425.  LONG WAY DOWN

Willamina stretched her arms out, then up.

She came up on her toes, bent her arms, pulled them down:  she bent her knees, leaned forward until she started to fall, shoved hard against the water-slick rock and fisted both hands, aiming herself like a missile in the first rays of morning's sun.

She fell through cold air and punched into cold water, diving deep, diving like an arrow dropped point-first:  she coasted to a stop, drew up her legs, rotated, kicked hard against the sand underfoot, shot for the surface.

She thrust her arms up, hands flat-bladed, stroked strongly, scissored well-muscled legs, exhaling steadily: she broke surface, blew, took a breath.

Marnie stepped up to where her Gammaw launched from the sandstone cliff:  her feet ached, the water running over the lower half of both feet was considerably colder than she'd expected, but her Gammaw took a dive and Marnie was going to dive too, 'cause her Gammaw did and she wanted to be like her Gammaw!

Willamina rolled over, started swimming toward the sand-and-pebble bank where she'd left Marnie: the pool wasn't really big enough to get a good swim going, but with the boulders and the sandy sediment removed, sieved, washed, dumped, it was good for diving again.

Willamina's fingertips grazed bottom:  she rotated again, stood, feet flat on sand and small flat rocks, just as something hit the water behind her.

Startled, Willamina turned, remembering the boulder that hit the water more than a century before: she gauged the secondary splash flipping up from water's surface -- it wasn't enough to have been a big rock -- she turned, facing the pool more squarely, laughed as a head emerged, as a little girl slung her head, her braids slashing the water behind her.

Marnie squinted, fought the water from her eyes, looked around, got her bearings, and swam swiftly for her Gammaw, for where she knew there would be towels and dry clothes.

 

A young mother crossed herself, went to one knee, bit her bottom lip.

She and her husband and her little girl drove down to Rabbitville, to the monastery, for they had need to consult the Abbott.

They remembered something they'd heard as children, a legend, a half-remembered story told by their wise, wrinkled, ancient grandmother, something about one of the Sisters who had the gift of healing.

A Sister with pale eyes.

The Abbott received them with a grave courtesy: he'd heard of their experience in the theater, he'd heard their child inhaled a sourball, he'd heard the child had been tended by a woman who radiated power, a woman who seized the child and drove the offending obstruction from the child, a woman who disappeared like a ghost.

A woman with pale eyes.

The Abbott was familiar with the legends attached to the Rabbitville monastery, the stories of their own Sister Mercurius, a healer who appeared, and disappeared, taking their Artifact, their Lance of St. Mercurius, riding to the grand hacienda or the humble cottage of the sick, the injured, the dying: how she would ride on a huge black horse with wings, streaking across the earth faster than the wind itself, the Lance upright and shining like the sun itself, a silver globe enveloping its tip, a tip that was lowered toward a closed door or a set of gates, and the door would swing open in welcome or collapse into dust at the Lance's touch.

The Abbott led them into the old wing of the Monastery, where walls were thick, were sun-dried adobe, led them into a room with a heavy, handmade table with a half dozen books on it.

He considered the books, picked up one, set it aside, slid another in front of him.

The young couple flanked the Abbott, watching his tanned hands as they chose the one book, shoved the others back; he opened the book, paged quickly through it, stopped.

He reached for a second book, opened it, turned one page.

He heard the young mother's sharp intake of breath.

She extended a hand, pointed to one of the Sisters:  her husband nodded.

The Abbott nodded slowly, then turned the newly opened book so they could see it right side up.

It was a photo of the Abbott and a woman in a suit dress and heels, a woman who glared at the camera.

They looked back and forth between the two.

One, a nun in a white habit, glaring at the camera with pale eyes.

The other, a woman in a modern dress, glaring at the camera with pale eyes.

And five minutes after a Gammaw and her granddaughter left the newly-deepened pool, another woman with pale eyes stood atop the cliff, raised her arms, came up on the balls of her feet:  she lowered her arms, crouched, leaned forward until she started to fall, shoved hard against the cold, wet rock:  she thrust her arms straight up, fisted her hands, and fell like an arrow dropped point-first toward the deep, cold pool.

 

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426. LONG TALL LAWMAN

Sheriff Linn Keller grounded the end of his scythe handle and raised his sharpening stone.

Stones were precious and he took pains to take good care of his:  he sharpened the scythe blade with long, practiced strokes:  he knew just how many strokes it took to give the blade a good sawtooth edge -- he wished to wear out neither blade nor stone prematurely -- and so his strokes were brisk, efficient, and sufficient.

He looked at the hay crop standing and smiled with his eyes.

Hay had to be put up for winter: it was a good dry day -- not the best for cutting with a scythe, if he was mowing to clear ground, he preferred to address the work on a morning with heavy dew -- but today was good to cut for winter's hay: his old war wounds were not troubling him and he had every reason his hay would dry well before he put it up and filled his and Jacob's hay mows.

Linn lifted the scythe, turned it, swung in an easy, familiar rhythm.

 

Years later, another long tall lawman stroked another scythe blade with another stone.

His posture was nearly identical, his method was unchanged from his lean waisted predecessor.

He, too, knew how many strokes it would take to sharpen his blade; like his long-dead namesake, he saw no need in wearing out steel prematurely.

Linn spun the scythe, took a swing, stepped into the swing and took another:  he set up an easy rhythm, good winter hay fell at his blade's stroke: most of his crop would be cut with a sickle bar and turned with a rake, but this little section here he insisted on cutting by hand -- it was a bit of a grade, he'd said; it was in a tight place, he said:  truth was, he was an incurable romantic at heart, he wanted to cut at least this little section as had his Very Great Granddad.

Plus there was a certain amount of vanity.

Shelly once commented on how much she liked his lean waist and his muscled back, and he knew that working with the scythe kept him well toned, and ... well, when a man's wife says she likes the look of her husband, the husband will often work to keep it that way, and he did.

It didn't take long for him to cut as much as he wanted; he'd come through in a day or two and fork it onto a wagon, after which he would get honestly lazy and dump the wagon out where he could pick it up with the square baler.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller went to the door in her nightgown, the hammer twelve over her shoulder:  she looked out a handy window and smiled a little, then went to the door, unlocked it.

"I knew you were coming," she smiled.  "Coffee's on."

Will grunted and stepped in, flipped his stained John Deere ballcap onto a handy peg.

"Coffee smells good," he muttered.

"Aren't you just all peaches and sunshine tonight."  Willamina turned, picked up a heavy ceramic mug, poured fresh ground, fresh brewed coffee:  she set his down on the table, poured her own.

Will waited until she set the gallon jug of milk on the table, waited until she was seated, before milking his own coffee and sliding it handle first across the table, before sitting himself.

Willamina whisked a dish towel off a mounded-full bowl with the flourish of a stage magician:  "Cinnamon rolls," she declared triumphantly, "not over three hours old!"

Will reached for one of the rolled up treats, held it for a long moment, studying it, and Willamina could see the memories in her twin brother's eyes.

"I remember when Aunt Mary made these," he said softly.

"I do too."

"I miss her, Willa.  Her and Pete both."

Willamina drizzled milk in her coffee, set the jug back down, stared at an empty place on the checkered tablecloth.

"I do too, Little Brother," she said, sadness in her soft-voice reply.

Will set the untasted treat down; they raised their coffee mugs, each taking a noisy first slurp, almost a necessity as they'd both filled their respective ceramics uncomfortably close to too full.

"Now."  Willamina set her mug down, reached for a cinnamon snail.  "What brings you to my door this time of night?"

"Marnie."

Willamina stopped chewing.

She was suddenly very still, very controlled.

Willamina took a sip of coffee, swallowed, set her mug down; Will saw his sister's jaw ease out, knew she was raising her inner defenses against bad news.

"What have you heard?"

"I haven't."

Willamina's left eyebrow peaked quicky.

"I dreamed."

Willamina leaned forward, planted her elbows firmly on the red and white tablecloth.

"Speak."

"Woof."

Will's reply was delivered with an absolutely straight face.

"Little Brother?"

"Yes, Little Sister?"

"Would you like your beatin' now or later?"

He batted his eyes innocently.  "Who, me?"

"You have news about Marnie, and you have dreamed dreams.  Out with it.  I've known too many old mountain witches not to discount the Second Sight."

Will frowned.

"You recall ... mention was made of some isotope they found, it's such a fantastic energy source they're able to power damn near everything with it now?"

Willamina nodded, once, slowly, unblinking eyes never leaving his.

"And you recall those pictures NASA was quick to debunk, like what appeared to be an old work shoe on the Mars surface."

Again the slow, single nod, the steady, unblinking gaze.

"I dreamed it was a shoe."

Willamina allowed herself one blink.

"An old miner's shoe.  From here.  From a deposit of that same ore they found and didn't know what it was.  Someone threw a shoe into the deposit because it glowed and they wanted to see if they could bark a layer of glowing foxfire off it."

"Did they?"

" 'Twas not foxfire."

"What was it?"

"It was that same isotope, Willa.  Least it was in my dream.  That shoe got ... I dunno, maybe those deposits are like magnets and it got shot to the receiving magnet on Mars."

"Go on."

"I dreamed you stacked a couple ammo cans of stuff for Marnie and she rode out horseback to get it."

"Horseback."

"Yeah."  He snorted, raised his mug, took a drink.  "Like they'd have horses on Mars."

"Is there any ... fact ... to this, Will?  Is there something I should know?"

"No."  Will shook his head.  "It was a dream."

"I see."  Willamina took a careful sip of her coffee.  "So what brings you to my door, if it's only a dream?"

Will stared into his coffee mug, putting together some kind of a coherent answer.

"I guess I'm just an old worrywart."  He looked up, raised an eyebrow.  "Woke up and couldn't get back to sleep."

"So you walked clear out here."

"Yep."

"I can drive you back."

Will shook his head, bit down on another cinnamon snail.

"I can offer you a bunk."

Will took a short snort of coffee, chewed, swallowed.

"I'll walk back.  Keeps me young."

Willamina nodded, raised her mug, considered.

"I have a Geiger counter," she offered.

Will chuckled, drained his mug.  "Already got one, darlin'," he grunted, rising.  "Fresh batteries and calibrated."

They rose.

"You be careful down in those mines."

Will looked at her with a wise expression.

"Always."

Willamina saw her twin brother to the door, waited until he was well down the driveway before drawing back inside and closing the portal.

"You won't find anything," she whispered to the darkness.  "I've already checked."

 

 

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427. DAS BOOT

Chief of Police Will Keller turned quickly, his newly oiled office chair spinning easily beneath him: of the several things he was expecting, a pair of sympathetic eyes wasn't it.

Willamina set the tray down on his desk, taking up the only available clear space in front of the Chief.

Unlike her own desk, which was generally immaculate, neat, tidy, orderly and otherwise a reflection of her military background and personal nature, the Chief's desk resembled little more than the happy collection of an executive-level hoarder.

Willamina picked up one of the cardboard coffee cups she'd gotten at the All-Night, helped herself to three of the fresh, fragrant, still-warm chocolate chip cookies she'd baked for the occasion, sat in a chair that also held two of Will's uniform shirts -- one hung over the back, one savagely thrown in a pile.

Will glared at his twin sister, regarding her calm, her obvious enjoyment of the cookie she nibbled:  she peeled back the sip stopper, took a tentative taste, nodded her approval.

"I do like their Suth'n pecan blend," she murmured.  "Try it."

Will slouched in his chair, his expression sour.

"I'm going to have to fire a man," he growled.

"I know."

"Not much gets past you, does it?"

"Not much."

"You came to gloat?"

"I came to offer a shoulder to cry on, Will, I came to offer a lightning rod, or a sympathetic ear.  I came to plant my boot in your backside if that's what it takes."  She took another sip of coffee.  "Mmm, good.  Still hot!"

Chief of Police Will Keller took a long breath, set his elbows firmly, noisily on either side of the tray of cookies, dropped his forehead into his hands.

"Of all the times I regret not having Linn on board," he groaned.

"Tell me what happened."

"You already know what happened.  We received a warrant, my new second in command went hellin' out all authority and brass buttons to serve it, and they brought in the librarian."

"The librarian."

"He never checked the plates on the cars at the residence. He never confirmed the address came back to the name on the warrant.  He didn't crosscheck to make sure --"

Will came upright in his chair, threw his head back, glared at the ceiling.

"Linn did.  He checked all those things and twice he kept something like this from happening."

"And the librarian?"

Will looked half sick:  his gaze swung down, contemplated his newly-emptied trash can, then swung his gaze up to look at his pale-eyed twin.

"Willa, I wish she'd screamed at me and raised hell.  I wish she'd kicked me in the shin and kicked him in the -- "

He bit off the phrase, turned his head, grimaced, looked back.

"Willa, once I got her in here, once I got on the horn and talked to the issuing jurisdiction, once I talked to their chief and told him their screw-up just put our local librarian in irons, once I went down his warrant, line by line, once I told him exactly where he'd screwed up" -- he looked away, hands fisted, fury on his brow and sorrow in his voice -- "Willa, I had him on speaker so she could hear him too."

"And?"

"And when she left here, she patted my hand like an old grandmother and said she'd just had quite the adventure, and she hadn't had this much excitement since someone put a skunk in the football bus when she was a cheerleader, and she told me it would be all right."

"Horns of a dilemma," Willamina said sympathetically.  "On the one hand, we have to accept an out-of-jurisdiction warrant on its face.  On the other hand, we know our people.  What was the warrant for?"

"Grand theft auto, chop shop, carjack ..."

Willamina's eyebrows raised innocently and Will sighed.

"Yeah, I know. The only reason this isn't in the newspaper already is she was coming out her door and hadn't closed it yet, otherwise Featherhead was going to take a ram to the door and make a dynamic entry."

"Ooh," Willamina grimaced sympathetically.

"Yeah, ooh."  Will looked sick.

"How long have you been flagellating yourself over this?"

Will stared through the wall to the right of his office door:  Willamina could almost feel the man's stomach turning over, judging from the look on his face.

"Since it happened," he whispered.

He looked back, looked lost.

"I thought he was the right man for the job," he said quietly; there was no missing the distress in his voice.  "I thought ... I got used to Linn.  Now there was the right man for the job!"

"Do you want him back?"

"HELL YES I WANT HIM BACK!" Will shouted, then flinched.  "Sorry.  I didn't mean to be loud."

"Who else do you have for a lightning rod?"  Willamina asked softly.  "Did you fire him?"

"No."

"Did you chew his backside bloody?"

Will shook his head.

"Time off?"

Again the slow shake of his head.

"Good."  Willamina leaned forward, elbows on her knees, pale eyes glaring at her twin.

"You took no hasty action. That much is good.  Does he know how unhappy you are?"

Willamina had already spoken to the man; she knew her people, she knew her brother's people:  Will's new segundo was young and anxious to prove himself, the way young men are when they haven't had the careless gung-ho beat out of them by experience.

Willamina knew this would be a serious slap across the young man's face; she knew he was sleepless, afraid he was about to be canned, sacked, fired, and in a way that was a worse punishment than if Will had ripped him a new one in front of God and everybody.

"Tell you what, Will."

Willamina rose, reached, retrieved another cookie.

"Why don't we have another joint training session.  Warrant service.  We'll cover what to look for, what to check before we go in like a beach landing, we'll discuss the liabilities of hitting the wrong door and the consequences of both the victim and the consequences to our personal pocketbooks when a civil suit lands in our lap."

"Our?"  Will looked sour, looked at the cookies, sighed, reached for one.

"I think we can engineer the class so the participants realize they can be sued personally, in addition to being sued as part of the Department."  She took another sip of coffee.  "And if we mention that you can't bankrupt out of a civil suit, that there's no escape once that air to air missile is launched at you --"

Will nodded.

"Good idea," he agreed.  

"Good.  Now, on to bigger and better things. You've had three days to run that Geiger counter.  Anything?"

Will shook his head.

"Not one damned thing. I guess when the great uranium hunt was on, back during the Second War, all those tunnels were scouted for the least click from the counter and they didn't find squat."

"So your dream ...."

Will grunted.

"Likely those Mexican roll up things I had for supper.  Hell, I dunno, Willa.  I've just got a wild imagination."  He looked at the cookies, sighed, bit down on one, chewed.

"Heard from Marnie?" he mumbled, pattering cookie crumbs down his shirt front.

Willamina smiled, nodded.  "She's fine, so's the baby.   Doctor John Junior is looking distinguished, but he's not really aging. I guess they have quite the farming operation underground."

"No old shoes appearing here and there?"

Willamina smiled a little.  "She said that infamous Martian Shoe was in a designated Historic Preservation Zone, and they don't want it all messed up with footprints when they look at it with a Rover or from orbit."

"So there's something they don't want us to know about."

Willa shrugged.  "Why else?"

Will took a noisy pull on his coffee, set it down on some papers that weren't too important.

"I'll let somebody else worry about all that.  Meanwhile I'll call Hotshot and tell him he's still got a job.  Set up that training you were talking about.  That'll be a mandatory all-hands."

Willamina smiled just a little, rose:  she walked carefully around his desk -- carefully, as she did not want to brush anything that might trigger an avalanche.

Will rose and the two hugged, each one warm and solid in the other's arms.

"Thanks, Little Sis," Will whispered.

Willamina looked up into her twin's pale eyes and laughed, cocked a fist.

"Little Sis?" she protested.  "Shut up or I'll punch you right in the kneecap!"

 

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428 DON'T YOU DARE!

 

Bacon and eggs, coffee and a kiss, a little girl's giggle and a companionable lick of the face: Linn's morning started out as many had -- Marnie, Bear Killer and the youngest, an arm gripping a handful of Mountain Mastiff, the other fist stuffed in a young mouth, and all following Daddy to the door -- Linn grinned down at them, picked his uniform Stetson from its peg, opened his front door.

The change was like being doused with a bucket of cold water.

The Bear Killer felt it; their youngest felt it, or rather felt the shadow of a rumble in the big canine's chest:  The Bear Killer felt Linn go from unguarded, happy, father and husband, to suddenly a watchful guardian with cold eyes, regarding the world outside his front door as hostile and ready to kill him.

Linn stepped out on his front porch, eyes busy, listening, smelling:  The Bear Killer, divested of the young hairless puppy clinging to his coat, came out, nose busy:  Linn's eyes swung left, The Bear Killer's big head swung right, and together they stepped into the morning's dark, breathing deep of the cool morning air.

Smells good this morning, Linn thought, listening with more than his ears: The Bear Killer watched, tail swinging, as Linn disappeared into his Jeep, then went tail-swinging back to the porch, back into the door, washing breakfast's stains from the toddler's face, and the two of them piled up in the middle of the living room floor for a sudden and happily mutual nap attack.

Linn came grinning through the front doors, looking around:  Paul was there already, happily lying to another deputy, the two of them laughing:  Linn stopped at the corner of the dispatcher's desk, expecting to be handed a sheaf of papers -- complaints, dispatches, warrants, grocery lists.

Sharon looked up at him, raised upturned palms.

"Sorry, handsome," she said, shaking her head.  "I got nothin'."

"Darlin'," Linn deadpanned, "you have a sparkling personality, ravishing good looks and a Viking husband I would not dare cross.  I'd say you've got it all!"

"Flattery will get you everywhere," Sharon smiled:  Linn winked, drifted over toward the coffee pot, not because he needed to fill his tank, but more out of habit than anything else.

Later that morning, he and Paul were most of the way to Cripple when Linn stopped, backed into a handy side road, stopped.

Paul looked around, looked in his side mirror, looked at his old friend, curious.

"Paul," Linn said quietly, "I am worried."

"You're worried."

Linn nodded, eyes searching the ridgeline.  "No paper this morning.  No warrants, no bulletins, no papers to serve, nothing."

"And this is bad how?"

Linn's grin was quick, boyish, contagious.

"It brings out the paranoid in me."

He pulled the shifter into gear, cleared left and right, eased back out onto the paved road.

 

Shelly watched as Marnie leaned down a little, then bent a the waist, forearms crossed over her saddlehorn.

Everybody knew everybody in Firelands; when one of the high school photography club's members asked if she could take some dynamic shots, Shelly wasn't sure quite what she wanted, and as the idea took shape in words and in her imagination, Shelly thought it sounded interesting, and of course if it involved getting into the saddle, Marnie was all for it.

Timing was critical:  dawn tended to come up fast, and the photographer wanted Marnie in silhouette, and from the first streaks across the horizon, dawn was going to be spectacular.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller's pupils dilated as she looked at her screen.

Her pale eyed Papa sent her more pictures from her childhood.

Her mouth opened and her breath sighed out in a delighted "Ahhhh," and she wished most sincerely that there were some way horses could survive on the Martian surface -- which, of course, was impossible in so very many ways, but of all the souls Marnie missed, her horses were among those she missed the most.

 

Shelly watched from her car, Yadkin asleep in his car seat in back.

The Bear Killer took up the rest of the back seat, his big head laid over on Yadkin's lap, the little boy's chubby hand resting on The Bear Killer's head, and both of them sound asleep.

Just like your father, Shelly thought, smiling as she regarded them in her rearview mirror:  you're both like an old bear.

Get your belly full and get warm and go to sleep.

She watched as the chase car started to move, and so did Marnie.

The road paralleled a level stretch of field, without an intervening fence or brush to contaminate a shot.  Marnie rode easy in the saddle, as she always did -- it was like she'd been born knowing how to fork saddle leather -- Shelly could not hear the exchange between photographer and subject, but she saw Marnie nod her understanding, and as the chase car turned around, Marnie rode back to the start point.

She saw Marnie look at the photographer, saw the daughter of one of her high school classmates leaning a little out the window, her camera pointed: the car's brake lights went out, Marnie threw her head back and laughed, and then both of them -- at the speed of a galloping horse -- took off.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller was sitting at her desk, chin on her fists, when her husband came in.

He slid the door shut behind him, regarded the soft smile on his wife's face.

"I wish you'd look at me like that," he grinned, and she said "Come over here and see this."

Dr. John Greenlees came over, bent over behind his wife, one hand on her shoulder, his face coming up and resting warm against her ear.

"That's you?" he said softly.

"Mm-hmm."

"Dear God, you're still beautiful!" he whispered, his hands tightening gently on her shoulders.

 

Shelly watched the photos march across the screen, watching her daughter's expressions:  patient, impatient, delighted, laughing: she saw her daughter's intent face as she listened to the photographer.

Shelly laid gentle fingers on the back of the high school student's hand as the one perfect shot came across the screen.

"That one," she said.

 

Dr. John Greenlees had his wife save that shot, had her print it out:  he framed it and hung it in his own office, and he looked at it every day, and when he did, he smiled.

It was of a young Marnie Keller, standing in her stirrups, leaned over her horse's neck:  her hat was mashed down on her head, tilted down at an aggressive angle, the wind holding it down on her braided head, braids swinging behind her:  the mare's ears were back, her tail streaming out, and the sky was on fire behind her, broad bands of red and orange:  the shot was in silhouette, but Marnie's face was perfectly framed against a broad swath of yellow, and there was no mistaking exactly who this equestrienne was.

 

Linn and Paul came in at the end of their shift, having burned the county's gas, having drained their water jug, having discussed anything from drilling out a broken bolt on an A model John Deere's cam flange, to the meaning of the several strictures in the book of Leviticus:  they came through the doors at the end of their shift, stopped and looked at one another, and Paul said "If you like, I can go down to ER and tell the nurses that dreaded Q word."

Sheriff, dispatcher, chief deputy and road deputy all looked at Paul with shock and dismay, and from several throats came the chorused, "DON'T YOU DARE!" -- and then everyone, Paul included, laughed.

Linn drove home and was greeted by the happy charge of a little girl in red cowboy boots and pigtails, by the happy squeal of a little boy in diapers, of a truly huge mountain Mastiff, and a genuinely beautiful wife.

He listened as Marnie reported on her experience in front of the lens and laughed as she complained that "It's not what I expected for a modeling career, can I try some other career tomorrow?"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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