Jump to content
SASS Wire Forum

Recommended Posts

434. STRUT

 

Marnie raised the experienced revolver with both hands.

Her focus narrowed to the front sight and the target.

Young eyes are flexible eyes: Marnie had no trouble at all setting the Smith & Wesson's thumbnail front sight in the rear notch, planting the top of the front sight in the middle of the steel plate: Marnie was not your typical grade school age little girl, she was used to mucking out a barn, swinging a lariat, she was used to gripping the strings of a bale of hay and hauling it off the ground and strutting for a distance with it -- she hadn't the beef (yet) to sling the bale of hay into a wagon, like her Gammaw did (with either hand!) -- but she was working on it.

Marnie helped her long tall Daddy dig post holes, at first with the ancient, wooden handled, Armstrong powered post hole digger that was older than both of them put together, then with a borrowed 8N Ford tractor and a hydraulic digger on the three-point:  her Daddy put her at the controls and told her, "Here's up and down, here's dig and here's reverse -- I've marked where I need the fence posts -- she's all yours!" and Marnie, big-eyed and solemn with the trust her Daddy put in her, backed the redbottom Ford very precisely into position, then turned, her bottom jaw thrust out with concentration, and she bored the steel bit deep into Colorado dirt.

It wasn't until the third post hole that she allowed herself the trace of a smile, and when she reached the end of the string -- several hundred yards' worth, driving the steel bit into the center of a white patch of flour hand dropped by her Daddy to show where he needed the holes -- not until she'd finished the string did she lean back, did she turn and throttle down to idle, did she let out a little giggle.

Not until then did she laugh, and to her pale eyed Daddy, his little girl's delighted grin felt like sunrise on the first day of Creation.

This was the little girl that gripped the checkered walnut grips of the Victory model Smith & Wesson revolver.

This was the little girl whose finger tightened on the smooth face of the narrow trigger.

This was the little girl who brought the revolver down out of what little recoil it produced, planted the front sight firmly on the next plate, then the next; this was the little girl, still in grade school, who pulled the empty revolver back to her chest, shoved and spun and smacked the extractor rod, dropped the speedloader's payload into the cylinder: she closed the cylinder two-handed, shearing off the empty speedloader, raised the revolver.

Not until six more rounds were downrange, not until she'd smacked out the empties, not until her hand closed on the empty place on her belt where the second speedloader normally lived, did she stop: she took a long breath, blinked, turned to show the timekeeer the empty cylinder:  he nodded, Marnie closed the cylinder and holstered.

Marnie was competing that day.

Marnie was shooting shoulder to shoulder with lawmen and agents, Marnie was shooting with people her Mommy and her long tall Daddy worked with, and Marnie had been nervous before she began -- she didn't want to do badly in front of these people 'cause they all knew her Gammaw and her Daddy -- but when the shot timer screamed in her ear, making her flinch a little, she suddenly went into This Is How Daddy Showed Me mode:  she'd practiced her draw time and time and time again, she'd taken to wearing the same revolver her Daddy shot with when he was her age (at home, of course, not to school or anything like that!) -- her Daddy taught her to practice with Snap Caps, and he'd shown her how the ancient Victory Model's hammer nose was its firing pin, and how it stuck through the frame, and he taught her that the hardened hammer nose would in time batter the softer steel of the frame unless she used snap caps to keep the tapered firing pin from striking the frame, and so Marnie faithfully employed the aluminum snap caps -- but when she did, she also practiced her reload, and she always reloaded from the speed loaders.

Marnie Keller, her hair in pigtails, a little girl still in grade school, a little girl in a blue denim skirt and a flannel shirt, a little girl in cowboy boots and big goggly shooting glasses, drove six rounds of hand loaded .38 Smith & Wesson into the steel plates, and then six more, and she did it in better time than any other revolver shooter that day.

She heard the several comments that were made, afterward, but the one that brought that quick, flashing grin to her face, the same grin they'd seen on her pale eyed Gammaw, was when a State Trooper looked at her with honest admiration and declared, "Never underestimate the power of a woman!"

Marnie looked at him with an expression of absolute delight as she genuinely strutted over to her long tall Daddy, looked up at him:  "Did I do all right, Daddy?" she asked, and he grinned down at her and said "Yes, Princess, you did well!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

435. CERTIFICATION

"Shelly?"

Shelly and her father stopped.

They were wheeling the freshly disinfected, newly made-up cot down the hallway, toward the ER exit when the voice called.

Shelly looked toward the outpatient entrance, at a familiar-but-unfamiliar figure looking at her.

The Captain felt the cot twitch under his hands as his daughter released it, as she thrust toward the grinning figure.

"RICHARD!"

Shelly ran for the young man, who took one step forward:  Shelly SLAMMED into him, SEIZED him and whipped him around, laughing, and Richard laughed with her.

It took the Captain a few moments to recognize him.

 

Marnie very carefully put the certificate in her notebook, carried her notebook with her as she left the schoolhouse.

It was the last day of the school year; as was customary, awards were given, and she'd received more than one -- but the one of which she was proudest, was the Honor Roll, Every Six-week Grading Period.

Marnie was two years ahead of her classmates; she'd been informed, before the entire school assembly, that she would begin college level classes even before starting high school, and her Certificate of Achievement reflected this.

Marnie saddled her Goldie-horse, slid the notebook into her saddlebag, buckled the flap:  she stepped up on the cut-granite mounting block (Marnie, in her youthful acceptance, never considered why some dedicated idiot took the trouble to saw out a massive block of high mountain granite, convey it here and set it solely for the purpose of mounting and dismounting) -- and Marnie turned her Goldie-horse, rode uphill until she hit a particular back alley, turned, and rode down between the railroad tracks and the backs of the oldest businesses in Firelands.

Marnie rode past the Mercantile, the funeral parlor, she rode past the Sheriff's office, looked in the little stable in back -- no, her Daddy's Apple-horse wasn't there -- she rode on down just short of the firehouse, turned, rode up the wide alley beside the police department.

Uncle Will was just stepped out the front door when Marnie turned her Goldie-horse.

"Well now there's a familiar face!"  Will declared happily, shoving his uniform cap back on his head.  "How's today for you, darlin'?"

Marnie laughed, threw up a leg and kicked her other boot free, slid to the ground with a happy squeak and a flare of her denim skirt:  she ran up and hugged her Uncle, quicky, impulsively, and her Uncle Will laughed and hugged her back.

"I want to show you something!"  Marnie declared, pulling free:  she skipped the two steps back to her Goldie-horse, unbuckled the saddlebag's flap:  she came back, frowning at her notebook as she opened it, carefully extracted the certificate.

Will read it, read it again, his grin growing slowly, broadly, and he nodded his approval.

"This," he said quietly, still nodding, "should be celebrated!"

He looked at Goldie, already lowering her head and starting to drowse.

"Why'nt you tie Goldie off in front of the drugstore and we'll have us a chocolate sundae, whattaya say?"

Marnie turned, kissed at Goldie, and the three of them walked up the sidewalk, the Chief of Police, a twelve year old girl, and her saddlehorse, as if it were the most natural sight in the world.

For Firelands, perhaps it was.

 

Shelly's hands were tight on the young man's shoulders, her face absolutely alight.

"Richard, dear God, you look FANTASTIC!"

Richard's ears turned red and he nodded, looked bashfully at the Captain.

"My surgeries," he said, "were successful."

Shelly's hands went to her mouth and she bounced on the balls of her feet and gave a delighted squeak and hugged him again:  the Captain thrust out his hand, grinning:  he'd last seen Richard when he was sick as two hells from radiation and chemo, and had one chance and one only, and that was a surgery, three months before.

 

"This," Uncle Will said, leaning back a little as two hot fudge sundaes were placed before the two celebrants, "is worthwhile, Marnie."  He reached across, laid his big hand gently on hers, lowered her head and looked very directly at her.  "Darlin', I'm proud of you!"

Marnie tilted her head a little, frowned.

"Uncle Will," she said quietly, "what's wrong?"

Uncle Will frowned a little, brought his hand back, rested his chin against the back of his hand.

"Darlin'," he said gently, "you're ... twelve?"

Marnie nodded solemnly.

"I was a little younger than you when I brought one of these home."

Marnie's eyes were big and soft, the eyes of an adoring niece, the eyes of someone who knew a strong man was about to reveal a hidden hurt.

"I was so proud of this."  He smiled, just a little, sampled his sundae, found it good.

"I out-scored everyone else.  I got better grades than anyone, than everyone else, and I did it to make my Mama proud.  Our Dad was dead by then."

Marnie nodded, a little:  it was her turn to reach across, lay her hand, warm and reassuring, on the back of her Uncle's tanned, scar-lined knuckles.

Will snorted, frowned.

"She looked at it, sneered."

Marnie's eyebrow twitched up and he saw her eyes go from soft and accepting, to hard, hard and growing steadily colder.

"She said, 'How many groceries will that buy?  How many pair of shoes can you buy with that?"  She tossed t back at me and said "Worthless!"

Marnie's eyes went soft and sorrowful and she reached her other hand across, gripping her Uncle's hand with both hers.

Uncle Will took a long breath, raised his own eyebrow, smiled just a little.

"You know what I found out, darlin'?"

Marnie blinked, shook her head.

"When someone does something well, when they do good at a task, it's proper to tell them so."

Marnie's head tilted a little to the side, the way she did when she was curious, when she was listening closely.

"It feels good to be praised, Marnie.  Tell a man he's done well at something and he'll bust his backside to do better so he can feel good like that again."  Will reached over, turned his hand over, tapped the certificate with the back of a bent finger-knuckle.

"That, darlin', is worth bein' proud of, and" -- he looked at her again, his voice deep, rumbling powerfully, reassuringly in his chest, pitched so she and only she could hear -- "darlin', I am just pretty damned proud of you!"

Will picked up his spoon, the corners of his eyes tightening with his smile.

"Now let's finish spoilin' our supper, shall we?"

Marnie grinned and giggled and happily joined her Uncle in his stated purpose.

 

Shelly and her father climbed in the squad, buckled in, slammed their doors, and just sat there, staring out the windshield.

Shelly looked straight ahead and reached to her left, and her father, staring straight ahead, reached to his right.

Father and daughter held hands for a long moment.

"I didn't think he'd survive."

"Me neither."

Their hands tightened a little.

"Kind of rare ... a success story like that."

"It is."

"Cancer usually kills."

"It does."

They looked at one another, smiled.

"It's nice to see a success for a change."

"Yes it is."

"I think we should celebrate."

"I think so."

"Sundaes?"

"We need chocolate syrup and nuts."

"If we stop by the store, the whole shift can celebrate."

Father and daughter looked at one another and grinned.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

436. IS SHE NUTS?

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

Linn looked up from the boot he was polishing, set the horsehair brush back in the black-stained boot box.

Marnie frowned, considering her words with all the intensity of a studious ten-year-old.

"Now that's a serious look if I ever saw one," Linn prompted gently.

"DaddyIbeen readin'," Marnie blurted, then blinked, realizing she'd gotten excited again -- she ran her words together when she got excited -- she closed her eyes, took a long breath, tried again.

"You've been readin'?" Linn's voice was gentle, as were his eyes, and Marnie nodded.

"Must have been a good book."

"Gammaw let me read about Sarah."

Linn grinned, wide, genuine, remembering how he himself positively devoured the stories, the Journals, the recovered newspaper articles, even letters written about the adventures of his ancestors: like Marnie, his young mind was well ahead of the others in his grade, to the point that he was stealing National Geographics from the sixth grade library just to have something to actually read.

In first grade.

He got sent to the office for it, where he pled his case before a skeptical principal and the visiting superintendent -- until he snatched up the newspaper, read aloud from the front page, turned quickly to the obituaries, read one aloud, looked up:  "See Dick, see Jane, see Baby Sally, see me throw up!" -- from the mouth of a six-year-old, struck both principal and Superintendent as funny, and thus did Linn advance ahead of his peers, and that example was why the Firelands school invested in advanced classes for deserving students.

Marnie, Linn doubted not, was comprehending what she read in the Journals and the other literary sources his pale eyed Mama painstakingly accumulated over the years, and he was equally certain that Marnie had come across something that resonated in her young soul.

All this seared through his mind with the speed of summer lightning -- there and gone -- and he nodded, once, slowly, encouraging her to continue.

"Sarrrah," Marnie said carefully -- Linn knew she was deliberately slowing herself, keeping herself from mashing her words together, preventing the distressingly juvenile "Sawwah" that was another mark of her personal stress -- "wrote about Jacob Keller's boys and they had a Boocaffie."

Linn nodded again, that slow, single nod, that fatherly go-ahead:  he remembered reading about Boocaffie, how the Texas longhorn let little boys ride him, how another longhorn squared off with him in the high meadow, how Sarah found herself between them, and how Sarah stripped off her black, flat-crowned Mexican hat and her short riding jacket, how she took off running toward the longhorn -- how she sprinted with all the speed she could command -- how she seized the longhorn's big powder horns, in close to its head, how she vaulted its back, turning a flawless somersault and coming down flat-footed, turning as the bull trotted in a big circle, wondering what in Bovine Hell just happened:  how this intruder, this stranger, shook its head, its long horns swinging in impressive, shining arcs, how it lowered its head and pawed, how it snorted and came at Sarah, how Sarah fisted her hands and her neck cords stood out as she screamed defiance, how Sarah charged the bull and Sarah vaulted its back again, and how she barely dove to the side as Boocaffie came charging full-bore to slam squarely into the intruder's flank, knocking it off its pins -- at which point Sarah realized that perhaps this business of imitating the Greek vase's decoration she'd read about, might not be such a grand idea after all.

"Boocaffe," Linn echoed, encouraging her to expand on her swift young thoughts.

"Daddy, I'd like to take a look at a Texas longhorn."

Her voice was certain, her words carefully pronounced, but her expression was that of a hopeful little girl.

Linn set the half polished boot down, leaned forward, his elbows on his knees:  he nodded slowly, with that gentle, Daddy-smile Marnie delighted to see, that Daddy-smile that meant he was wound so tight around her little finger he'd probably need a winch to un-twist his backbone.

Linn winked, leaned forward, said in a confidential voice, "I just happen to know where there's a genuine Texas longhorn we can take a look at."

Polishing boots can wait, he thought, rising:  "Darlin', get your hat!"

 

It wasn't much more than a half hour, but to Marnie, wide-eyed and silent in the front seat, it seemed forever: her young eyes searched the distance, wishing to throw herself to the horizon, the faster to see this creature of legend, this Boocaffie, this set of Texas powder horns that only incidentally happened to have a sizable bovine attached.

They turned up a dirt road, pulling  a cloud of dust behind them:  another mile, another turn, and they pulled up beside an absolutely unremarkable plank sided shack -- well, maybe not all that unremarkable:  to Marnie's quick gaze, it looked ready to fall over, as it described a distinct list to starboard.

An old man with a shapeless felt hat mashed down on unkempt, greying hair shuffled up to Linn, stuck out a skinny hand:  "Now damned if you don't look like your Pa," the old man said, and though his lined, weather tanned face betrayed no sign of emotion, there was a genuine affection in the man's voice.

"Can't imagine why," Linn grinned.  "Hank, this is my daughter Marnie."

The old man turned and regarded Marnie with his lined, expressionless face, nodded:  he squatted down, slowly, extended a hand.

Marnie gripped cool calluses and old man's slack flesh, feeling bony strength and great age:  she tilted her head just a little, studying the old mountaineer with an open curiosity.

"Now damned if you don't take after your good lookin' Gran'ma," the old man nodded:  he released her hand, rose, turned slowly -- carefully, Marnie thought -- to face Linn again.

"Speak your piece, young man."

"Marnie wants to take a good look at a genuine Texas longhorn."

The old man grunted, turned, squatted again, slowly, laboriously, bringing himself more on the child's level.

"How fast kin yew run?" he wheezed.

Marnie's eyes were wide and innocent, and then wide and surprised, and then wide and excited, as something big and brindle with a wet pink nose came nodding and plodding up behind him.

A bull.

A rather large bull, with horns that were half again longer than Marnie was tall.

"This is Babe," Hank said, rising, his knees crackling in protest.  "He's runt o' th' litter."

Marnie walked slowly toward the Longhorn, her pale eyes seeing the diagonal scar across the moist, mobile nose, seeing the flaking and the green at the base of the horns, she marveled at how tall the bull was at the shoulder:  she had the distinct feeling that big, shining, black eye was studying her just as much as she was studying him.

Sarah walked forward, curious:  the bull levered his nose forward, snuffing loudly, and Marnie caressed the bovine cheek, reached up, trailed her fingertips along under the swinging, flipping ear, then she spread her hand like a pink starfish against the big, rough-textured horn's base:  she ran her hand down the big beef's neck, the shoulder, stood beside the bull's foreleg, looked up at the shoulder, mentally assessing how far she'd have to climb were she to straddle this mountain of furred meat.

The bull tolerated the child's attention, her hands, her proximity, with the patience of the truly wise, the tolerance of an ancient soul: Sarah walked out under one of the horns, staring up at its gentle curve, and as the bull tilted his head, Sarah caressed the shining, smooth, pointed end, and finally walked around in front of the bull again.

She turned, looked at Hank and her Daddy, looked at the bull, looked at Hank and her Daddy again, and finally she reached up and realized just how much of that horn she could not get her hand around.

Marnie turned and said "Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

Marnie turned and looked at the bull -- up, and down again -- she turned and asked, "Daddy, was Sarah stupid, or just plain nuts?"

 

 

  • Like 1
  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

437. WILDCAT!

 

Marnie Keller was a junior at Firelands High School.

Marnie Keller was a cheerleader -- her Mommy had been a cheerleader, and her Gammaw had been a cheerleader, and both the cheer coach and the cheer squad realized that Marnie was a tempered steel axle around which the entire squad could reliably depend.

Marnie was lean and muscled; Marnie wore the pleated skirt, the blouse and sweater-shell her Gammaw wore, she wore the knee socks and saddle shoes her Gammaw wore, while the other cheerleaders wore the tights and cheer sneakers and the scandalously brief outfits that were currently in vogue: this actually worked out well, with Marnie in the dead center of their routines, an anchor to times past, and both administration and cheer coach knew this link to the past would be a most pleasant reminisce for the parents and grandparents in attendance.

Marnie was also a track star, due in no small part to her pacing with her pale eyed Gammaw when the two of them ran with the Firelands football team:  they ran farther than the team, because the pair of them ended up orbiting the squad, falling back through their ranks or sprinting ahead through their ranks, watching for a stitch, a muscle pull, watching for the unexpected:  Marnie would fall back to anyone who had to fall back, out of formation, pacing with them, while her Gammaw -- in fatigues and combat boots, a ruck and a rifle, would lead the team, singing delightfully obscene running songs in which the grinning boys joined with delight, singing lyrics they would never dare voice at home.

Marnie Keller was not at all afraid to cause trouble when trouble was warranted, but for the most part, she preferred to be a quiet, unremarkable and immaculately polite soul -- that is, as quiet and  unremarkable as someone can be when they occasionally wear a McKenna gown to school, or when they leave the school day with a whistle and a yell, rolling out of the saddle, catching the ground with her boot soles as the turf passed beneath at galloping speed, launching her back into saddle leather, or when she would bend backwards at an impossible angle, grip the cantle and do a handstand on the back of her Goldie-horse, then half-roll, half-flip forward and back into her seat, waving her hat at the passing school buses and laughing.

When Marnie was in her junior year, nobody had to ask whether she'd been asked to the Prom: there had been several suitors, but everyone knew she'd set her intentions on a classmate, John Greenlees, and when she and her pale eyed Gammaw conferred on the matter, her Gammaw related her own less than stellar prom experience -- how she'd been obliged to flatten her date's nose when he became amorous, then insistent, how she'd walked home and how her flats had blistered her heels and convinced her that properly fitted shoes would be in her future from then on.

Her Gammaw offered her a pair of heels, but Marnie giggled and showed her Gammaw a picture on her phone, the high-button shoes she'd already purchased:  grandmother and granddaughter giggled and sat with their heads together as they discussed how the high-buttons were invented so women could show the curve of their ankles, without showing -- horrors! -- the actual flesh of the ankle.

It was also a foregone conclusion that Marnie's gown would have been perfectly at home in the mid to late 1880s, and she and her Gammaw had carefully tailored Dr. Greenlees' firstborn son's suit as if he were a young gentleman of the same period.

And so it was that this properly attired young gentleman and this properly attired young lady came together in Linn and Shelly's living room:  young John stood, tall, bashful, red-eared, turning his Derby hat nervously in his hand, afraid to sit down for fear of wrinkling his trousers any more than they already were; at the sound of a thump and a grunt from upstairs, they all looked to the broad, handmade staircase, all varnished hardwood and gleaming bannisters and a great, black-furred Mountain Mastiff galumphing happily downstairs, black toenails rattling a sharp note, and John's breath caught in his throat as he saw Marnie.

It was a moment he remembered for the rest of his life, filed beside the memory of seeing her in the same dress as she started down the aisle of their little whitewashed church two years later.

Marnie descended the stairs like the Queen herself, regal and beautiful, all hairdo and long gown and femininity, and John didn't walk as much as he floated to the foot of the stairs.

He admitted later he did not remember moving, just that he was there, and he stared in awe and in admiration at this beauty, this stranger, this glorious soul he was seeing for the first time, all grace and composure and a small bunch of fresh, fragrant, shockingly scarlet roses in her gloved hands --

Marnie's arms threw wide, flowers scattered, she gave a shriek, diving suddenly, uncontrolled, her pale eyes wide, panicked, and John stepped forward, caught her under the arms, lifted:  he picked her up, she fell against him, he stepped back, surprised, astonished:  her face was level with his, her weight was in his hands, he knew her feet were off the floor, and having caught his lady love --

Having kept Marnie from going face first into the floorboards --

Having just salvaged an entire evening from utter disaster --

John Greenlees did what he did best in such moments.

He stuck his hind hoof between his pearly whites.

John blinked, took a breath and said, his voice loud in the shocked silence, "Fancy meeting you here!"

Marnie grabbed the back of his head and snapped, "Shut up and kiss me!"

He did.

 

Fifteen minutes later, John's shirt and hands were scarlet with blood and Marnie was sizzling like a wildcat, her legs wrapped around a screaming senior's waist, her arms wrapped around his neck:  she did what she'd been taught never, ever to do, because it was the only thing she could do.

John came around a curve at a moderate speed -- he was always a cautious driver -- and the car ahead of them was just off the road, on its wheels and steaming, apparently a rollover that just happened.

John nailed the brakes, his hand and Marnie's went for their seat belt releases.

"Kit in the trunk?" Marnie snapped.

"Get it, I'll go," John replied, his voice clipped:  he hit the four way flasher switch, they bailed out: the trunk lid swung open and Marnie, one hand snatching up her skirts, swung around back of their car, her gloved hand had eyes of its own as she seized the medical kit and the crash kit both from the shadowed, poorly-lit trunk:  she dropped the gym bag with flares and flashers, opting instead to run after John, who was sprinting for the car.

He grabbed the passenger door handle, yanked, twice, teeth clenched:  he felt the mechanism release, the door moved a half inch, stopped.

Jammed, dammit! he thought, then thrust head and shoulders through the dark, misshapen rectangle where a window used to live.

He swore, yanked back:  Marnie hit the end cap on her compact flashlight, shot a beam into the car.

"Arterial!" John exclaimed, reaching for the source of the shooting scarlet stream.

Something knocked Marnie aside, a panicked voice yelled "LEAVE HER ALONE!" and John was yanked out, thrown to the roadside's graveled shoulder.

Marnie felt her eyes go pale and she felt her face tighten, she dropped the well-stocked first-aid kit and she launched toward the intruder, climbed his backside like she'd climb a slanting board -- she seized him around the neck -- her pale eyed Gammaw taught her how to do it, but cautioned her she must not ever, ever do it -- and so Marnie did.

Marnie Keller, granddaughter of the Sheriff, daughter of the Chief Deputy, and Chief Paramedic, niece to the Police Chief, threw a chokehold around the offending neck, and she was not at all slow, nor was she gentle in her application.

John picked himself up off the ground and he felt his blood cool several degrees as he listened to Marnie -- no longer a proper young lady, no longer delicate and feminine and ladylike -- in the wash of his idling sedan's headlights, he saw her face, and Fear brushed his blood with cold corpse-fingers.

Marnie's eyes were white, ice-white, her teeth were bared, and she sounded like an angry wildcat, snarling a warning as it backed into a corner and unsheathed its claws.

Marnie and the unconscious driver fell to the ground.

Marnie swarmed upright, seized the limp figure by the back of his suit jacket, began dragging him away from the wreck.

"JOHN!  TAKE CARE OF HER!"

 

Linn and Shelly looked at their scanner, looked at one another, just before Shelly's cell phone rang, just before Linn's talkie alarmed the household.

They waited, loading their drowsy young in the back of the Jeep, bundling them under blankets, waiting in the dark, listening to the traffic on Linn's scanning radio, the Jeep's engine idling quietly in the darkness.

 

Dr. John Greenlees looked at his bloodied son.

"I'm not hurt," young John said.

Dr. Greenlees listened to the medics' report, turned impassive eyes to his son as they described how young John, up to his belt buckle through the shattered passenger window, held pressure on the young woman's artery, how he'd been talking in a calm and reassuring manner to his patient, how he'd kept her alive.

Her date was brought in by the Sheriff's office and charged with a variety of offenses, compounded when his bloodwork came back and showed a significant level of alcohol, and it was not until he was sobered up that Marne walked into his treatment room, her fine dress filthied, bloodied and torn, her eyes hard, and she told him exactly what he'd done, and what she'd done, and that if he ever interfered with an emergency again, she, Marnie Keller, would not choke him out.

She, Marnie Keller, would twist the head off his miserable carcass, she would drive her bladed hand up through his belly and rip his heart out, she would carve her initials into his liver with a teaspoon, and then she would proceed to get mean with him.

His retort was rude, crude, obscene and less than gentlemanly, not necessarily in that order.

When Marnie left the room, her face was pale, the color in her cheeks stood out like painted dots of red over her cheekbones, and the deputy standing outside looked at her and asked, "Did I hear a slap?"

Marnie's eyes were as kind and as gentle as the frozen heart of a mountain glacier.

She glared at the Deputy, and that was reply enough.

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

438. A PLEASANT YOUNG WOMAN

Sarah Lynne McKenna slapped her fan smartly into her gloved palm and smiled.

Men's hands grasped Snowflake's bridle; men's eyes assessed the shining black mare's build, her strength, and Sarah could see them assessing the big Frisian for their purposes.

"I don't suppose you're interested in selling," Sarah smiled, pacing closer.

She and her pale eyed Papa were taking a trip East, partly for business, partly for ... well, sometimes it does well to see another part of the country, and Sarah and her Papa, the Sheriff, decided that a sojourn might be entertaining, and things were going well indeed until the conductor told Sarah that someone was offloading her horse.

Sarah Lynne McKenna was a lovely young woman, fashionably attired, very properly attired: she was dressed for travel, and as was her custom, her dressing was, shall we say, complete.

Complete enough that she could access a variety of weapons, in well less than a moment's notice, should it be necessary, and she was convinced that it was going to be very necessary.

She came within arm's reach of the man grasping Snowflake's reins, she could smell him, smell his breath, and her smile was at once lovely, it was also most disarming.

"You may wish to reconsider your theft," she said, her voice gentle, her words voiced in a kindly manner -- so  much so that the man blinked, momentarily confused, which is what Sarah wanted.

Her gloved hand slashed twice -- once down, once across -- the man's mustache was suddenly diminished on its left side, the parted hairs falling to the ground, and the tip of Sarah's blade was pressed against the front of his trousers.

"Let go of my horse," Sarah hissed, and suddenly this beautiful young woman was not just a beautiful young woman.

This was a pale ice-goddess who seized men's hearts with a word.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller saw the get of his loins, this daughter he'd sired on a widow-woman in Kansas without knowing his seed found fertile ground, this daughter he'd seen first when she was four and knew not for certain she was his blood until her fourteenth birthday:  he saw Sarah tilt her head and smile, saw her glide toward three horse thieves, and Linn may as well have been a ghost, for his approach was neither seen, nor was it heard.

He saw Sarah smile that charming, disarming smile, he saw her as did they, as a vision of loveliness; he saw greed on the one man's face, and he knew Sarah had very likely asked about buying that magnificent creature.

Linn's hands bladed under his open coat, gripped the engraved, inlaid ivory handles of his matched, engraved Colt's revolvers:  his thumbs were heavy on the hammer spurs, the mechanism rotated and chuckled to itself as they cocked coming out of the holsters, and Sarah's glance told him she was ready.

Her hand was swift as a rattler's strike -- too fast for the unsuspecting eye to know what she held -- but when half the horse thief's mustache parted company from his face, without blood being drawn, when his vest fell open without the shirtfront linen being so much as frayed, Linn knew it was time.

"NOBODY MOVES," he called, his voice firm:  Sarah Lynne McKenna's head tilted down just a little, and she saw the horse thief's face grow pale at the pressure of the slender blade into a most valuable portion of his very personal real estate.

"This," Sarah whispered, "is my little mare.  She is my saddlehorse, and you are not going to steal her."

Linn heard feet start, then stop, on the depot platform behind him, heard the footsteps retreat quickly.

"You two.  Take off your coats and throw 'em on attair bush."

The two turned, ready for a fight, until they saw a pair of hard and pale eyes, and it was a toss up whether it was the look on the man's face, with those ice-carved eyes above that iron grey mustache, or whether it was the sight of a pair of .44 caliber muzzles looking at them with black and unblinking eyes of their own: whichever it was, it was enough to persuade the pair that they should indeed comply with command.

"YOU CAIN'T DO THAT!  THAT'S MY HORSE!" the man with the split vest blurted.

"You two.  Step around here.  Side by side now, face the depot.  Put your hands on the edge of the depot platform.  Just like that.  Now walk your feet back like you're pushin' the platform."

"You cain't do this!" came the protest, "you ain't the law!"

"I could just shoot your miserable carcass right here," Linn snapped.  "Horse thievin' is a hangin' offense!"

"Not here it ain't!"

"I am not from here," Linn said slowly, menace in his voice.  "I'm from Colorado and I'm the county Sheriff out there, and this is my little girl's horse, so yes I can hang you right here and right now!"

"But that's my horse," the man with half a mustache almost whimpered.

"Snowflake," Sarah said gently.

The mare's head came up.

"Behind me, girl."

The mare pulled free of the grasping hand, stepped around behind Sarah, laid her chin over the pale eyed woman's shoulder, blinking.

"You cain't ride that thing, it's too big!"

"And you, sirrah, will keep your tongue behind your teeth, unless you wish it cut from your head," Sarah smiled.  "Look at your vest."

He looked down, plucked at its left and its right with thumbs and forefingers.

The vest came open -- it was laid open from its top to its bottom hem -- and Sarah said, "Feel your shirt."

Dirty fingers trailed along the shirt's front.

"Not a thread is frayed, sirrah.  I can lay you open with an equal precision."

Sheriff Linn Keller eased the hammers down, holstered one, then the other, placing the hammer's nose between the rims before he did.

"Who are you?"

Linn turned as the town constable came running up, one hand up to steady his uniform cap, the other hand swinging a nightstick.

Linn turned over his lapel and declared, "SHERIFF LINN KELLER, FIRELANDS COUNTY, COLORADO," and Sarah held up a flat leather wallet, dropped it open to reveal a shining bronze shield:  "Agent S. L. McKenna, Firelands District Court."

 

As father and daughter rode away, one of the three men whined, "Of anyone to pick on, Carl, them's the ones you had to pick on?"

 

They rode until nearly dark; neither wished to trust their saddle mounts to the local livery where they'd parted company from the train, and so they moved on, and took a room in a little Northern Ohio town in a hotel that had been recommended for them:  the beds were clean, breakfast the next morning was good, and Linn looked around as they rode, marveling at how the countryside was at once familiar, and strange.

They rode to a church near the edge of town -- when Linn still lived there, town was a distance away, but it had grown -- and Sarah asked, "Papa, was there a stone on her grave?"

Linn looked at Sarah, surprised:  he hadn't told her he intended to visit the grave of his wife Connie and their little girl Dana -- but then he realized this was just one of those things that Sarah knew, without being told, and that's just the way she was.

"There is a stone," he said.  "I was back here one time and saw it."

They drew up outside the fenced churchyard, dismounted, tied off their horses.

They knew they were watched, for it was still not terribly common here in the East for people to ride horses.  Most folks still drove rather than rode:  drove wagons, drove carriages, drove buggies.

Sarah swung her pale gaze around, from left to right, and she knew her pale eyed Papa was swinging his from right to left: it was their habit, and after this first quick scan, they advanced, flanking out.

Linn's coat was unbuttoned; Sarah was as prim and well dressed as she always was when traveling, and part of Linn's mind still marveled at how she could be at once so very proper, and still produce a weapon in less than half a heartbeat when occasion demanded.

They saw the stone at the same moment.

The churchyard was grown, since those days before that damned War; more graves, more stones, more monuments, but one stone, and one only, caught their eye.

They walked together, father and daughter, and their hands sought one another's:  father and daughter, gloved hand in callused hand, and Linn reached up with his free hand and removed his Stetson.

They looked at the carved slab, a little weathered, a little discolored from the perpetual damp.

Linn stared long at the carved names -- Connie Keller, beloved wife, and beneath, Daughter Dana, aged two years.

Sarah's hand squeezed her father's, just a little, and pulled free:  she reached into her sleeve, pulled a kerchief free.

Linn saw the flutter of corner-embroidered white linen, and then looked at Sarah as she turned toward him.

"Dear Papa," she whispered, and reached up, and caught the wet as grief over flowed his eyes.

Father and daughter knelt on the sod, beside the carved stone slab they'd found so easily, found with ease because it was the only stone with a fresh-cut rose, shining with morning's dew, laid atop, and beside it, a rosebud, also fragrant and fresh and spotted with water.

Sarah held her Papa as he squeezed her, hard, as he shoved his face mercilessly into her shoulder:  she held him and felt his chest surge and convulse, and she knew he harshly forbade himself to make a sound, and she knew that in a moment she would feel the heat from the scalding tears he refused to let the world see, the liquid grief he buried in the material of her dress's shoulder.

Sarah held her Papa until he loosed his grip, until he was no longer drowning in long-bottled sorrow, until the ocean of grief quit trying to drown him, until he could risk releasing the one thing that kept him stable in a storm.

Sarah's face was an inch from her Papa's and she whispered, "I never knew her, Papa.  Tell me about her."

Linn smiled, a little, and they rose.

Still holding hands, they walked slowly to the church, up the three steps, stopped just inside the doors and looked around:  they walked the length of the aisle, they sat on the front pew.

Linn set his Stetson on the polished hardwood beside him, patted Sarah's hand gently.

"You would have liked her," he said, his voice gentle.  

"I'm sure I would have."

They heard a lone seagull, mewing and crying outside, and Linn's head came up a little, and he smiled.  

"She did love the lake so," he murmured, memories thickening his throat.  "She called it our Sweet Sea."  

Linn looked at Sarah again, and smiled, just a little more.

"I met her," he began, "near what the natives called Shallagotha, near Sugar Loaf Mountain," and as father and daughter sat together in the hush of the little country church, the freshwater waves rolled into shore and sounded like a great sea-creature breathing, while seagulls wheeled in the sunlight on glowing, white-porcelain wings.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

439. DUCT TAPE

"Sheriff?"

Willamina glowered at her intercom: she took a long breath, set her personal pique aside, reached for the button.

Professional voice.

Neutral voice.

"Yes?"

"Someone to see you."

"Enroute."

Outside, in the lobby, at the dispatcher's desk, Sharon knew the Boss would emerge from her sanctum in less than six seconds:  she looked up at the visitor and said innocently, "She'll be right out," and as the visitor's eyes swung to the frosted-glass window in the antique door, the window with a six point star and the word SHERIFF hand painted beneath, the door opened, and Sheriff Willamina Keller came out into the lobby, closed the door carefully behind her, raised an eyebrow.

Sharon suppressed a smile as she heard the Sheriff's heels, loud on the polished quartz floor, and she could hear both the eyebrow and a quiet smile in the Sheriff's, "Now what brings you here?"

 

Linn opened the men's room door, his eyes pale, hard.

The sudden appearance of a uniformed deputy was not exactly what was expected.

"I just checked the lights," Linn said, his voice level, his eyes less than friendly: "they'll play hell seeing a vein with those new bulbs" -- then he smiled, for he recognized the type he was looking at.

Restrooms were a favorite place to shoot up, and Linn had a strong dislike for illicit drugs.

His Mama seeded that in him at a very young age, when she spoke of her own mother, a drunk -- no, not a drunk, a damned drunk -- and he'd seen enough overdoses, enough deaths, to cultivate a deep loathing of the drug trade.

The fellow facing him made a furtive move and Linn's hand shot out, seized his wrist:  a pull, a twist, a sweep of the leg and the unwashed, unshaven soul was on the ground, Linn on top of him:  a snarl of handcuffs, a hard hand and a pull, and the druggie's kit fell out, fell open, showing the little baggies of a crystalline substance, the hypodermics, the disposable lighter, the cooking spoon.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller listened to the sound of the freight wagon rumbling down the street, heard the clattering crash as it hit a particular rut just wrong, jarring the contents, rattling them loose against the wagon's wooden bed:  rain two days before softened the dirt and passing traffic rutted the street, and it was drying in that poor shape:  he'd talk to the Mayor and see about getting the water wagon out to soak down the area, then stone the ruts full and tamp them down good.

With all the stone we've beat into the street so far, he thought, it ought to be gettin' a good solid base by now, and he considered the talk he'd heard of actually pounding in a stone base, boardwalk to boardwalk, full length -- but he knew it was just talk.

Old Pale Eyes was a considering man, and he was considering a talk he'd had with Jacob not many years before.

He'd gone into the Mercantile for no apparent reason, and he'd had Jacob go around back and come in the back door, but just watch:  he waited until Jacob had time enough to get inside, to get to where he could look through the open door separating the Mercantile from the storage in back, then he went in.

Jacob had surveyed the interior as he'd learned, as the Sheriff had taught, as he was inclined:  he knew the three inside were trouble, he was inclined to step forth and see about discouraging them, and he knew from their demeanor they would not take kindly to a younger man addressing them on the matter, and it would likely devolve into what the Sheriff referred to simply as "Unpleasantness."

Jacob saw his father's silhouette through the windows in the front door, saw the man thrust open the door, heard the cheerful jingle of the spring mounted bell.

He saw his father leading with the forward edge of his Stetson and ice-pale eyes beneath, and he saw those eyes go straight to the three, and he felt more than heard their loud-voiced, trouble-seeking jests stop like they'd had a door slammed on them.

He walked slowly toward them, his boot heels loud on the oiled board floor.

There were two other customers, two ladies, who'd been regarding the troublemakers with discomfort: Jacob stepped to where they could see him, he kissed at them like he was kissing at his horse, he gestured them toward him: they sidled toward the open door, turned, backing toward Jacob, not willing to take their eyes off the greater threat.

Jacob heard his father's voice.

Old Pale Eyes did not raise his voice.

He did not have to.

"The man that runs this place," he said, "is a friend of mine, and you boys are lookin' for trouble."

Jacob could not see his father's face.

He didn't have to.

He knew the man would have a tight, humorless smile ... with only half his mouth.

"If you have business, conduct it right now and get out.  Or you can just get out."

Linn and Jacob discussed the moment later, in the quiet of the little log fortress that was their Sheriff's office.

"Did you notice," Linn said thoughtfully, "that they did not seem inclined to stay?"

Jacob nodded thoughtfully.  "I noticed that, sir."

"I've dealt with one of the three before."

"Yes, sir?"

"He come out in second place."

Jacob's eyebrow twitched a little, an unspoken question.

"What happened was seen and talked about.  It always is, we were in public when he decided he was going to raise Hell and I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.

"He took a swing at me and I blocked it with one of Mr. Baxter's heavy glass beer mugs, and then I shoved into him and knocked him backwards on the floor.  I invited him to get up and he did and for some odd reason he kind of run his face into that self same beer mug.  I turned it sideways so's not to knock out any teeth."

"Kindly of ye, sir."

"I thought so," the Sheriff nodded.  "Then I taken him with my left hand, I wound up a good handful of his shirt and vest and I fetched him off the floor."  The Sheriff's eyes were as quiet as his voice as his words remembered the event.  "Fetch a man's feet off the floor and of a sudden he's real uncertain about what he'd started."

"Yes, sir."

"I pressed him up at arm's length and held him there and I allowed as he could let me know when he was ready to come down."

Jacob nodded again, slowly, for he'd seen his father do this on more than one occasion.

"Once he saw me again he knew I was not going to fool around with him, and likely the other two with him heard about our little meetin'.  He left right quick, and when somebody in a group breaks and runs, why, that generally takes the fight out of the bunch."

Again Jacob's slow, thoughtful nod.

"Once you establish a reputation, Jacob, it saves you some grief."

"Yes, sir."

 

Chief Deputy Linn Keller set foot in the All-Night, his pale eyes swinging around like a battleship's gun turret.

Paul Barrents was behind him, ready to come in: his gut told him there was trouble, the back of his mind told him he could see it in his old friend's posture, in his suddenly-slow step as he turned a little.

Paul had seen this slowdown, this slight movement of his shoulder before.

Paul hesitated, seeing three fellows clustered; Paul leaned back a fraction, getting the edge of the open door and the steel door frame, between most of his blocky body and the three.

Linn paced slowly into the All-Night, his boot heels loud in the sudden hush.

He led with an ice-pale glare and a set jaw, and his voice was quiet as he addressed them, for there was no need to raise his voice.

"You fellas have business here?" he asked, and Paul could see three heads over the aisle display, he could see parts of two bodies through the display, he was planning which he would shoot first, who was next, and which direction they would likely go once things went south --

Part of Paul's mind remembered he and Linn used to do this when they were boys, coming into the All-Night to get chocolate milk and a sandwich, they'd made almost a game of assessing cover versus concealment, angles of fire, when to shoot and where to shoot, and this childhood self training became a lifelong habit.

Twice it had kept each man alive.

Linn's hard-eyed glare followed them out the front door; he saw their startle as they realized another deputy, looking just as friendly and welcoming, was outside the front door.

Both deputies chose to ignore the tire-burning takeoff as the trio had apparently decided the climate was healthier somewhere else -- they might not know exactly where this somewhere might be, but they weren't going to waste any time at all getting there.

Linn reached in the cooler, picked up two cartons of chocolate milk:  he held one up, waggled it, and Barrents grinned, nodded.

 

Willamina watched as the manager of the All-Night opened the fresh, fragrant box of assorted doughnuts, still warm from their local bakery.

Willamina groaned aloud.

"Thank you is only words," the manager said frankly.  "Your people have been keeping us safe, and after the excitement we had in the past few months, it feels pretty good to have nothing happen!"

She looked down at the assortment.

"Thank you is only words.  Pastries say it better!"

"You want coffee with that?"  Sharon called through the open door, and Willamina could hear the gurgle of hot coffee decanting into big, thick-walled ceramic mugs.

"Is the Pope catholic?" Willamina deadpanned, and they both laughed:  it was an old joke between herself and the manager:  she looked at the selection, turned, nodded to Sharon, who handed the first steaming mug to the manager.

"Did you bring any duct tape with these?"  Willamina asked.

"Duct tape?" the manager echoed, honestly puzzled.

Willamina picked up a cream filled, chocolate iced, stick doughnut.  "I might as well duct tape this to my backside.  That's where it'll end up anyway!"

 

 

  • Like 1
  • Haha 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

440. A SPEECH

Sheriff Jacob Keller detested change.

He hated these new fangled gadgets that insisted they were God's gift to progress, and turned out to be little more than an aggravation: he heard another one of them damned Skunk Buggies puttering up the street -- they breathed harder going up hill than they did running down hill -- he glared at where that crank handle box of a telly-o-phone used to hang, and he turned his pale eyed glare on the telephone sitting on his desk:  damn the thing, usurping a square foot of his desk, his desk! -- and as if responding to the lawman's pique, the damned thing rang and Jacob jumped and then he rose to his feet and picked up the hand set.

He knew very likely the voice on the other end would be one of the local girls, recruited to run that switch box whatever the hell the damned thing was, they plugged in wires and talked into curled cones like black gutta percha powder horns with the big end open, and so his voice was gentle as he said, "This is Jacob."

"Sheriff, I have Mrs. Arnold who wants to speak with you."

Jacob knew Mrs. Arnold, and he blinked twice, frowning:  he said, "I'll speak to her," and there was a click and a hum and then a familiar voice, and Jacob's heart fell to his boot tops to hear it.

"Jacob?" an old woman's voice quavered.  

"Mrs. Arnold, what's wrong?"

Jacob's voice had an edge to it:  he reached up, snatched his hat from the peg, held it ready to clap on his freshly barbered head.

The old woman's voice on the other end began to cry, softly, and she stopped and gathered herself and said, "Sheriff, I am so very sorry --"

"Mrs. Arnold, are you home right now?"

"I'm at the mercantile, Jacob."

"I'm on my way."

He heard something, some reply, that he couldn't quite make up:  there was a scrape, a clatter, a click:  Jacob set the handpiece down in its ornate cradle, he slammed the hat down on his head, he strode for the door.

Jacob's eyes were pale, his jaw was set, he walked like a man who was more than ready to rip someone's head off and heave it over the nearest roof's peak:  men drew aside, women pulled their children from the boardwalk:  they'd seen this man's walk before, and only the incautious stood out in the open to watch his progress.

Jacob seized the door to the Mercantile, thrust it open.

Mrs. Arnold was leaning against the display counter, one-handed, a single, fresh-cut rose in her grip:  the other hand held a kerchief to her lower face, and her cheeks were wet:  she looked at Jacob, tottered toward him, reaching, and Jacob powered forward, caught her under the arms:  he pulled her into him, feeling her trembling, skinny, wrinkled, birdlike hands grip -- or try to grip -- his muscled upper arms.

He held this sweet little old gal, knowing the best thing he could do right now was let her sorrow-storm rain itself out against his chest: it took a while, and when she finally came up for air, Jacob carefully blotted her cheeks with a folded, bedsheet handkerchief: he steered her toward a chair, went down on one knee, her hand between his own.

"Mrs. Arnold, what happened?" he asked gently.

Her eyes were as lovely as they'd always been, set as they were in an old woman's age-wrinkled face: she bit her bottom lip, dabbed at her nose with the kerchief Jacob pressed into her gloved palm, she took a breath and swallowed and tried to speak, and ended up shivering out that long breath she'd just taken.

"Take your time," Jacob said gently.

"My grandson," she said -- she tried to speak with propriety, with the dignity of an elderly woman, but her eyes screwed shut and her head bowed into the kerchief she held.

The proprietor's voice, gentle, from behind:  "Sheriff."

Jacob turned, rose.

The two men went outside.

Jacob felt his face grow pale: his eyes became hard, his jaw set, and the flesh drew tight across his cheekbones.

"Sheriff Jacob Keller?"  a uniformed man asked -- there were two of them, Jacob knew well the uniform of the US Army, and he recognized both the rank and the insignia -- and he knew there was only one reason to send a ranking officer, and a chaplain.

"Mrs. Arnold?" Jacob asked, his lips barely moving.

The two nodded.  "Her grandson."

"Anybody else?"

"Yes."  The Army captain handed Jacob a folded paper, his expression that of a man who genuinely regretted what he was about to do.

Jacob accepted the folded paper, looked at the Captain.

"Joseph Keller?"

"Yes, sir."

Jacob nodded, slowly, took a deep breath, tapped the folded paper against his palm.

"Captain?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Thank you."

The Captain nodded, looked uncomfortably at the Chaplain, who opened his mouth to say something.

"Excuse me, gentlemen.  Mrs. Arnold called me and she has no family left.  I believe I will invite her to my home this night.  She does not need to be alone."  He paused, looked at the Captain.

"You have a difficult assignment," Jacob said, his voice softening a little.  "Have you eaten, gentlemen? I'm sure we can welcome two sojourners to our table."

The two looked at one another again, then at Jacob.

"You ... may wish to look at ... the paper," the Captain said uncomfortably.

Jacob frowned, broke the seal, read.

The general store's one-armed proprietor saw the Sheriff's hand tremble, a little, then steady: Jacob read the missive, read it again, folded the paper.

"From the German Legation."

"Yes, sir."

"Kind of unusual, since we're at war."

"It was ... an unusual circumstance, sir."

Jacob tapped the re-folded paper against his palm.

"Gentlemen, let us retire to the conference room in back of the Silver Jewel Saloon yonder.  I believe there is much you need to tell me."

 

Mrs. Arnold was a welcome guest in Jacob's household that night.

His children regarded her with interest; Annette was delighted to have company, they took turns playing the piano, and after the children were abed, Jacob asked the ladies to join him in his study.

He looked long at a portrait he'd had taken, the year before he and his son Joseph had words, the year before Joseph packed one grip and left on the steam train, the year before Jacob raged and attacked the big central post under his barn with a pitchfork, shouting his anger and breaking the fork's tines and its handle both before finally throwing his arms wide and raging at the ceiling, giving full vent to uncontrolled passion, the soul-deep rage of a father who'd forbidden his son to go off to war, and then found that his son had done just that.

Jacob's rage, in his mind, was justified, and justifiable:  he, Joseph, was his second-born -- the firstborn Joseph died in his sleep while an infant -- Jacob taught his son to ride, to shoot, he'd had men skilled in the art, teach him to rope; Joseph was a delightful son, a worthy heir to all Jacob had built in his lifetime, and now he, Joseph, had left -- defied his father -- defied good sense and reason and run off to war, to war! -- to the same stupid, insane bloodshed that haunted his late father, Linn, the same mindless destruction and ruin that haunted that fine man with the iron grey mustache!

Jacob considered all this as he stood, as he looked at the portrait, taken in a better, a happier time, and he remembered Jacob as a wee child, laughing happily as he rode the longhorn he'd named Boocaffie, because he couldn't quite wrap his young tongue around "Bull Calf" -- he remembered Joseph, an infant yet in diapers, running and laughing and buck naked, wet and dripping and scampering through the house, as Annette chased after him with a towel and a distressed expression, how Joseph would ride Jacob's shoulders, holding his Pa's Stetson overhead at arm's length --

Jacob took a long breath and looked at the ladies.

"Mrs. Arnold," Jacob said carefully, "we grieve with you at the death of your grandson.  I am given to understand he was killed in the War."  Jacob swallowed, lowered his head a little, finding the moment more difficult than he'd anticipated.

"Our Joseph was killed as well."

Jacob's teeth clenched and he hissed in a breath, threw his head back, glared at the ceiling.

"The German legation sent me his death notice and it was hand carried by an Army captain, and given into my hand."  He unfolded the paper.  "It seems that Joseph found a wounded German officer.  He recognized the Masonic Square and Compasses on the man's collar and he set out to get the injured officer to the nearest aid station."

Jacob stared sightlessly at the precise handwriting marching in regular rows across good rag paper.

"My father sent him to war with a brace of Colt revolvers.  They were copper plated because Pa remembered mud and damp and wet from his War.  He had ivory handles installed and I remember he'd had them deeply engraved -- on one, the Square and Compasses of the Masonic order, and on the other, the Past Master's Arc-and-Compasses.

"Joseph was not old enough to become a Mason, and Pa knew it, and he said he told Joseph to come back to us and wear the hat."

He looked at the portrait again.

"The Germans brought his body back to American lines, but they brought him clean and in a clean and mended uniform, under a flag of truce."

Jacob paused again:  Annette started to rise, but Mrs. Arnold's hand laid gently on hers, and she sat back down, looking uncertainly at the older woman.

"He was buried in French soil, with full Masonic honors, with the Germans and Americans both firing the volleys over his grave."  Jacob's hand lowered, slowly, and he stared at the opposite wall, his voice growing faint.

"They speak of a white dog that sorrowed with the bugler, and how their own Shepherd dogs sang with him."

Jacob folded the paper, walked slowly to his desk, thrust it into a pigeonhole, slid the desktop shut, rolling it down slowly, leaning heavily on its edge.

"Mrs. Arnold, I am so very sorry that your grandson was killed.  I don't think we want to be alone tonight. Would you be able to stay the night?"

Mrs. Arnold, her cheeks streaked with wet, nodded; she and Annette leaned into one another, two mothers sharing their common loss.

Behind them, the maid gathered her apron, pressed it into her face as she turned away.

Jacob sat slowly, heavily, into his woven-bottom rocking chair.

His hand reached blindly for the book, felt the wear-softened cover:  he opened it, or rather he let it open, and he nodded.

"Ecclesiastes," he said.  "My father's favorite passage, and it seems fitting."

He cleared his throat.

Mrs. Arnold stared at the rose she'd been given earlier in the day, given her by a woman she did not recognize, a woman all in black, with a black veil:  she'd pressed the rose into her hand, not ten minutes before she was met by the Army Captain and the Chaplain.

The mysterious widow-woman pressed the flower into her palm, wordlessly, slipped on past her:  puzzled, Mary Arnold turned, looked after the woman, only to find the boardwalk empty.

As if she'd disappeared, she thought, then she smiled a little.

Such a silly thought, people don't just disappear.

Jacob's measured words were a comforting murmur as she, too, remembered a happy, laughing little boy, a child who grew into a fine young man, a young man with a serious face who came to her and announced he was going to join the Army and fight the Hun, that he and his friend Joseph would likely whip them rascally Huns and be home in time for supper.

The old woman's hand moved, as if of its own accord, and she reached blindly for the furry canine head she somehow knew would be there.

Annette's hand caressed black, curly fur as The Bear Killer rested his chin on her knee, and through her grandmotherly tears, Mrs. Mary Arnold saw slitted, feral-yellow eyes and a lupine head, with pure white fur:  she felt it, alive and warm beneath her caressing palm, and then it disappeared into a twist of fog that sank into the floor and was gone.

 

"Sheriff?"

Willamina looked up, surprised:  Linn only addressed her as "Sheriff" for official purposes.

"Permission to speak freely, ma'am."

Willamina's expression was carefully neutral as she thrust her chin toward the conference room door.

Linn turned over the card that said MEETING IN PROGRESS, DO NOT DISTURB, and closed the door behind them.

Willamina stood, waited.

Linn considered for a long moment, then he walked up to the Sheriff, wrapped his arms around her, held her for a long moment, resting his cheek down on top of her head.

Willamina returned the embrace.

They stood for several long moments, and finally they slacked their arms:  Linn drew back, looking very directly into the Sheriff's eyes, and Willamina read a shade of uncertainty in his expression.

Her raised eyebrow was the question, and Linn answered.

"Sometimes," he said, "I don't have the words to say."

Willamina nodded.

"Kind of like thank you is only words so here's a box of doughnuts.  I didn't have the words."

Willamina smiled, just a little.

"I think your speech was ... concise," she said.  "And eloquent."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 1
  • Sad 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

441. ERASURE

John Greenlees Jr. grinned like a bashful schoolboy as he shook Linn's hand.

"Ah hev come t' take yer dutter a-steppin'," he said, all pretense at wearing a straight face abandoned: they both laughed, and a laughing little boy ran up and seized John's leg:  John looked down and said, "Did you come to help?" and Linn reached down, hauled his son quickly into the air, swinging him toward the ceiling and back down, scattering happy-little-boy squeals all over the kitchen.

"John Greenlees," Marnie called from upstairs, clattering happily down the stairs, "are you tormenting my little brother?  Do I have to drive you through the floor like a fence post?"

"I'm innocent!" John protested, just as Marnie grabbed the end post of the hardwood bannister and planted her knuckles on her hip:  "John Greenlees, you look so innocent you've got to be guilty of something!"

Shelly slipped up behind her husband, took her grinning, giggling little boy, looked affectionately at young John:  "I suppose you two will be out until moonset," she said gently, smiling a little, and John reached for Marnie's hand.

"No, ma'am," he said, his ears starting to redden, "just long enough to wipe the slate!"

"Is that all I am to you?" Marnie protested in mock indignation, raising spread-finger hands in the air:  "I can be replaced with a felt eraser!"  She bent backwards, a bent wrist to her forehead in mock drama:  "Oh, she shame of it all!"

Linn shook his head sadly.  "She takes after me," he said in a mournful voice.  "Two million comedians out of work and she's got to come along!"

Marnie straightened, instantly going from drama queen to innocent:  "Why Daddy," she said, blinking rapidly, "I do get it honestly!"  She took John's arm, looked up at him.  "What's on the menu tonight, handsome?"

John looked uncertain, almost panicked, but he swallowed, took a quick breath:  "Filet of gum boot boiled in axle grease, sawdust pressed into loaves, toasted over a kerosene fire and rotten eggs for dessert!"

"We'll eat at the Silver Jewel," Marnie translated, looking at her mother, and Linn knew in that moment that another silent communication passed between two women, and for the life of him he had no idea at all what was just said without words.

"We'll hold down the fort," Linn said.  "John, you got gas money?"

"I have."

Linn looked at Marnie.  "Darlin', you've heard me say it before, free advice is worth what you paid for it, but if you need, you holler."

Marnie released her beau's arm, took one step toward her Papa, came up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek, one hand caressing his smooth shaven jaw.  "Dear Papa," she whspered, "if it comes to that, ride to the sound of battle, for I'll be in the center!"

"That's what I'm afraid of!"  Linn declared.  

Linn and Shelly waved from the open doorway as the eldest son of Dr. John Greenlees opened the door for his Lady -- he looked down to make sure both her skirt and her foot had made it completely into the car before shutting the heavy door -- he turned around, and Linn nodded in approval at the effectiveness of the backup lights he and John installed a few days before.

"Bear Killer," Linn said, looking down at the massive black canine, "what do you think?"

The Bear Killer looked very directly at the pale eyed chief deputy, then opened his mouth, curled his tongue and gave a slow, whining yawn, then dropped his jaw to his paws, closed his eyes and began to snore.

 

John and Marnie drove through the Colorado evening, their headlights impatiently shoving the gathering dark to the sides.

They intentionally drove the same route they'd taken on Prom night, the night when neither of them made it to the once-in-a-lifetime festivities, the night they both came home bloodied and rather the worse for wear.

Dr. John Greenlees had his son scrub in for the surgery that night: his son had a stated intention to pursue his father's profession, and Dr. John had been involving his son to an increasing degree:  Dr. John was normally taciturn and not terribly talkative, but he was also a superb teacher:  young John, at his father's side, was close enough to effectively learn, but he kept enough distance to not crowd his father.  

Young John's skills at suturing were not as accomplished as his father's, which is to be expected, but his skills were still quite good:  his powers of observation were excellent, his knowledge base broad: Marnie, out in the waiting room, still in her McKenna gown and elaborate coiffure, paced the length of the tile floor, arms folded, head down, glaring at the black-and-white panels:  she came to the far wall, stopped, turned, paced back, her jaw out, her face set, until her Papa came through the door, came up to her, until she walked up to him, looked up.

"Daddy," she said, her voice strained, "we didn't make it to the Prom."

"Where's John?"

"He's in surgery."

Marnie lay a gloved hand on her Daddy's forearm.  "He's not hurt, Daddy, he's helping with the surgery."

"Princess," he said in reply, his hands cupping her elbows, "are you hurt?"

"No, Daddy," Marnie said, her voice steady, her eyes hard, resolved:  "but I choked out the at-fault driver when he yanked John away from an arterial bleed and threw him to the ground!"

"I'd heard John saved a young woman's life."

"My classmate.  I know her."

"She's the one in surgery?"

Marnie nodded, her jaw still thrust out.

"The other guy?"

"He's handcuffed to a gurney."

Linn looked up as a deputy stepped around the corner, raised his chin.

"Princess, I need to take a report.  Will you be okay?"

Marnie nodded and resumed her pacing.

 

Marnie Keller blinked.

She was once again in John's Buick and they were approaching the curve where it happened.

Marnie's hand found John's, and they squeezed gently as John slowed.

He did not stop; they kept on going, and as they drove past, as they continued down the straight stretch following, they relaxed a little:  Marnie didn't realize she was holding her breath until she let it out and took a deep, cleansing double lungful.

"Yeah," John said.  "Me too."

They went on into town, eased into a parking space very near the Silver Jewel.

John released his seat belt, but sat there several long moments.

"Marnie?"

"Hm?" She turned her head, looked at the worried looking young man.

"I'm sorry I ruined our prom."

"John."

"Hm?"
"You didn't ruin our Prom."

He blinked, waited.

Marnie turned a little in her seat, frowned, released the seat belt, turned again.

"Look, handsome," she said, her voice a little lighter, a smile hiding behind her words: "if we'd have gone there, you would have looked better than most of the guys there and I would sure as hell have looked better than any of the girls."  She tilted her head a little, smiled.  "Look at how many young hearts we didn't break!  What was it you told me?  First do no harm?"  She laughed.  "I'd say we spared a lot of people from realizing just how second rate they really were!"

John laughed, nodded, then he grew serious.

"Marnie?"

"Hm?"
"I have to ask you something, but I have to ask you inside."

Marnie turned her head a little, her expression interested.  "Johhnnnn ...?"

John Greenlees grinned, pulled his door's latch:  he came around the car, opened Marnie's door, took her hand.

 

Marnie Keller came skipping back into the house, hugged her Daddy and kissed him on the cheek, then seized her Mama's arm and hauled her back deeper into the kitchen.

John Greenlees followed them with his eyes, looked at Linn, who was just turning back, for he too, watched the two ladies retreating, their heads together, talking quickly, urgently.

John and Linn looked at one another:  Linn tilted his head toward the living room and the two walked into the comfortable, wood paneled room, sat.

"Can I ask you a question?" John said thoughtfully.

Linn nodded.

"Is it even possible to figure out women?"

Linn took a long breath, blew it out, cheeks puffed, while sandpapering callused palms slowly together.

"John, I'll be honest," he admitted, "after all these years I have absolutely no idea how to even begin trying to figure 'em out!"

John nodded slowly.

"Do you remember," he said slowly, "in one of the first of Old Pale Eyes' journals ... Old Pale Eyes went to one knee and gave Esther a Promise Ring?"

Linn nodded, slowly.

"He gave it to her on the stage in the Silver Jewel and he made a public show of it."

Linn nodded again, slowly, and John saw a smile lurking at the corners of the tall lawman's eyes.

"I did that tonight."

Linn's grin was instant and broad: both men stood, suddenly, and Linn seized the man's hand, wrung it enthusiastically.

"We had most of the ... we had friends and classmates, and ..."  

John's voice slowed, his eyes tracking back and forth as he sought the right words.

"I spoke the same words Old Pale Eyes used, as best as I could remember them. I told her this was not an engagement ring, but it was a Promise Ring, and that I intended to set things up to where I could propose to her ... but it was my intent."  He looked at Linn, his young eye serious.  "In due time I will ask your permission, to ask your daughter for her hand in marriage."

Linn nodded thoughtfully.

"This is one of those moments," he said slowly, "when a father realizes here" -- he tapped his breast bone -- "that his little girl is growing up."  He grinned, reached up and thumped his forehead.  "Here -- up here, I've known it, but as a bare bones fact.  Here" -- he tapped his shirt front again -- "it's a little harder to process."

John hesitated, not really knowing how to respond.

"John, when the time comes -- you'll know when the time is right -- come to me with that question."

"Sir, I shall."

They turned and looked toward the kitchen, where they heard the sound of two feminine voices raised in a shared, happy squeal, they knew mother and daughter were holding hands and jumping up and down on the balls of their feet like two excited schoolgirls.

Linn and John looked at one another.

"I reckon they feel the same way."

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

442. I'M NOT A HERO

 

There were two pictures in the newspaper that day, one beside the other.

The resemblance between the two was unmistakable, even if they were taken more than a century apart.

Each one involved three badge packers, horseback.

Lean and pale eyed lawmen, iron-grey mustaches and pale eyes:  women, also sworn, also with pale eyes: they differed only in their majority.

The older of the two pictures, taken in the 1880s, had two men, looking enough alike to be brothers, but in the article one would learn they were father and son -- and between them, a proper young woman astride a truly huge, very black horse:  the men looked stern, the way lawmen often do, and the attractive young woman looked cool, aloof and perfectly willing to tear the camera apart with claws and teeth.

The more recent photograph was taken with the same kind of camera -- a wooden box, with the photographer bent over behind it, a black cloth drape covering him -- he emerged, consulted his pocket watch, removed the lens cap and said "Hold very still, please" -- he watched as the small sweep in the small bottom center circle on his pocket watch drew its arc round about -- he capped the lens and smiled:  "Thank you, let's take another, just to be sure!" -- the glass plate negatives were immersed in a series of chemical baths, the image came clear and was transferred to more modern medium for printing in the modern-day Firelands Gazette.

Shoulder to shoulder, joined by blood, by family, by a common oath, a common purpose:  father, son and daughter in one; grandmother, son and granddaughter, in the other.

In both photographs, nobody smiled.

In both photographs, the horses looked bored.

The article spoke of the long tradition of peacekeeping, it made mention of generations who followed the badge, those who went to war, some who came home, others who slept forever in foreign lands: it spoke of the common thread of horsepower, and quoted Jacob Keller's short tempered observation that the only real horsepower is under his saddle.

Bruce Jones, who was Editor, Reporter, Photographer and Chief Broom Pusher, asked Linn if he ever thought of himself as a hero.

Sheriff Linn Keller considered for a long moment, frowning, his bottom jaw sliding out a little as he thought.

"Bruce," he said candidly, "I do not consider myself a hero.  My daughter has a differing opinion, but that's not unusual."  He frowned, blinked a few times, and then smiled, just a little.

"I will tell you there's something just pretty damned humbling about a young man who comes up to you and shakes your hand, and tells you he became a lawman because of what he saw in you."

Linn thought a moment longer.

"No, Bruce, I'm not a hero, but I must've done something right."

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

443. YEP, GOT THAT TOO

Linn Keller was what you'd politely call a long tall lawman.

The lad he was regarding was ... well, he was nowhere near tall.

Matter of fact Linn had to bend his head down some to see the lad, and the boy had to crank his head way back to look up at the lawman, and the both of them could not help but grin.

"Howdy."

"Hi."

"Can you give me a hand?"

"Yis!"

Linn nodded and went to the back of the cruiser.

He opened the Suburban's back hatch and lowered the tail gate:  the curious little boy craned to see what was in this fascinating mystery of the Sheriff's car.

Linn reached in and set out one, then a second, white-plastic, five-gallon buckets: he handed the bail of one bucket to the boy and said "If you could carry that for me," and Linn reached in and pulled out two thick, folded towels, dropped them in the second bucket, closed up the cruiser.

 

Inside the Sheriff's office, Sheriff Willamina Keller was working on the perpetual bane of an administrator's existence, paperwork; she'd suffered through a conference that seemed populated with speakers who either had themselves confused with someone important, or those who proved without any doubt at all, that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing -- and proved that they knew just enough to get themselves in trouble.

Willamina listened politely to their presentations, held her counsel, and came home convinced that she'd just been bathed in an ocean of amateurs, all intent on telling professionals how to do their work, and the form she was filling out seemed corollary and directly derived from that dismal waste of her time.

Willamina looked up at a monitor and saw her son and a little boy carrying a five gallon bucket apiece, toward the front of the Sheriff's office.

She watched as they turned the buckets over, each placed a thick, folded towel on the upended bucket, and each sat:  the camera's position caught the little boy's delighted expression as he sat, squinted up at the deputy sitting beside him, and she could hear in her mind's ear, Linn's quiet voiced remark about having a genuine bucket seat.

Yes, we have a public relations officer, she thought, ticked a box on the form in front of her, looked back up at the monitor.

The phone rang.

Sharon was gone for the day -- there'd been a problem at home, Willamina told her to go, she'd handle things here, she picked up the phone:  "Sheriff's Office," and frowned a little at the agitated stammer in her ear.

"Now slow down, Mrs. Lingal," she said reassuringly.  "Say that again a little more slowly."

Her yellow-plastic, mechanical pencil hovered over the yellow pad, then the words lost child flowed from the tip.

Age seven, male

Not runaway

Last seen main street near drugstore

Willamina looked back up at the monitor, saw her son with his knife out, whittling, saw the little boy leaning toward him, fascinated.

"Mrs. Lingal, was he wearing blue sneakers, blue shorts and a green hoodie?"

Willamina smiled.

"He's found and he's fine, Mrs. Lingal.  Where are you now?"

The Sheriff smiled.

"I think if you come out of the drugstore and turn right, you'll be able to see him.  He's with my Chief Deputy, just outside our front door here at the Sheriff's office."  

Willamina nodded.

"Anytme, Mrs. Lingal."

Willamina looked up at the monitor and watched Linn and the little boy talking, laughing; Linn worked the blade carefully against the piece he was working on, folded the knife, held up a serviceable pair of small wooden pliers, opened and closed the jaws, handed it to the grinning little boy.

 

Willamina remembered the summer before, during a parade.

Half a dozen boys on bicycles were riding in and out of the parade, being a nuisance.

Willamina was considering how to handle this when Linn stepped out into a gap between the marching units, whistled:  he gestured the boys toward him, pulled back in front of the library, hunkered.

She remembered how he hadn't given them hell.

Likely the lads expected to be scolded.

Linn told them they had too much talent to be wasted whipping through a parade like that.

"You" -- he pointed to one -- "can turn a bicycle faster than I ever could, you can turn tighter and you are under perfect control.  You" -- he pointed at another -- "can ride on the hind wheel longer than anyone I've seen.  You" -- he indicated a third -- "can ride beside another and you can exactly mirror everything the other guy does, exactly!"

He had their attention -- if only for curiosity's sake, for though they were grateful not to be getting their hind pockets chewed off their blue jeans, they were curious to see what this pale eyed lawman was getting at.

"Now look at your bikes," Linn continued.  "You have good high quality bikes, they're short coupled and that means they're maneuverable.  Ever see trick riders in a parade?"

Young eyes widened, young faces lit up with the realization of what this long tall lawman was getting at.

"Look.  You all have the reflexes, you have the talent.  Organize, fellas.  Become a regular performing unit.  You won't be riding through a parade getting yelled at, you'll be asked to participate in parades, because you can ride figure-8s, you can ride formations -- you've got the talent, you've got the equipment, you have the skill -- I've seen it.  What do you think?"

Willamina smiled at the memory, looked at the form on her desk, looked up at the monitor.

She saw a woman coming up the sidewalk with the quick, anxious step of a distressed young mother, she saw her son rise and remove his Stetson, saw his easy, reassuring smile as he reached down and gripped the lad's shoulder quickly, the way a man will when he's acknowledging some deed done by a boy, and Willamina could not help but wonder exactly what kind of a line of good old fashioned Irish blarney he was laying on with a trowel.

She watched the monitor, nodding approval, reading body language, reading their lips; the boy turned to leave with his Mama, he turned and raised a free hand, waving, and Willamina could see the whittled pliers between his fingers.

She looked back at the form, the pencil scratched another check box.

Yes, Willamina thought.  We have a PR officer.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

444. BIG SHAGGY

There is a mountain very near Firelands, one of the many that make up that rugged territory: solid, brooding, aloof, a study in grey and green and white and a thousand shades in between, at least until it is painted on one side by morning's sun, and on the other, by the evening.

Its terrain is rough, in places solid, in places crumbling: there are fans of loose debris that are treacherous to walk, there are paths along solid rock that were there when the earth was young and so far show little if any wear: there are draws, gullys, places a man (or an animal) can shelter from wind, overhangs to protect against rain -- most of these are smoke blackened from innumerable fires, and if one were to dig in the debris of these overhangs' floors, one might come up with bones, or shards of broken pottery, or perhaps a broken knapped tool of some kind.

There are other places, some hidden in plain sight, which were used by the shamans, the Seers, those with gifts of which they knew, used by others with gifts of which they knew nothing.

One of these places was known to a pale eyed lawman, and to his direct descendants: it was difficult to get to, and once there it was but a shelf, narrow, then broad, and facing the evening sun.

Old Pale Eyes would go there when he wished to be alone.

Some men will bring a book to such places; some men will write, or paint, or perhaps bring a mouth organ: this lean lawman with the iron grey mustache never did, preferring to place a folded saddle blanket on a handy rock, and park his bony backside on a convenient slab of granite.

He called the place High Lonesome.

There was a cave, there against the cliff, narrow -- a man would have to belly down and slither in, and for that reason, Old Pale Eyes never explored it -- his son Jacob did, and found it deep, and found it was bigger inside:  great cats had littered there and raised these litters, wolves on occasion had birthed there young within as well; the bones of an ancient and honorable line rested within this hidden shelter, wrapped in a handmade quilt: Jacob bore the body of his beloved Bear Killer there, and honorably interred his friend and confidante, wrapping the grey-muzzled Mastiff in the quilt from Jacob's own bed: he cribbed the body up in a natural alcove, working by the light of a miner's carbide light:  in this secret place, in the fullness of time, others would be placed for their final rest.

Jacob, too, became Sheriff, and a man grown: his son came to this cliffside shelf on occasion,  knowing only that his Pa came here to be alone, to think, to let his mind relax.

Old Pale Eyes knew this shelf was special.

He didn't know how he knew, only that he did, and perhaps that's because his Mama had been a Wise Woman, and he may have inherited something of her Second Sight.

He didn't really know, and he didn't particularly care.

He knew that he carried his past with him -- every horrible moment, every bloody sight -- the weight of men he'd led into battle, men he'd sent out who never came back, the weight of every tombstone he'd ever created, crushed down on him every moment of every day.

Most of the time he handled it.

Most of the time.

There were moments when the rage and horror within him came screaming to the fore, moments where he would charge an enemy with a face that looked like it was carved from an Egyptian mummy, or stolen from an ancient tomb-carving:  he'd ridden against men who tried to kill him from ambush, going in a tenth of a second from a quiet-eyed, watchful lawman, to a bared-teeth ice warrior, screaming into a full charge at absolutely the very to of his lungs, he'd killed men with his old Cavalry sabre and with his hand forged Daine knife and with his bare hands, he'd laid amongst the Philistines with the jaw bone of a jack mule -- on one occasion, it was a broad ax, snatched up from a handy woodpile -- so fast, so violent, so LOUD was his assault on those who surrounded him, that he laid all but one on the ground, bloody and dead, all but the one who ran, the one who spent the rest of his days locked in an insane asylum, wide eyed and silent at the horror of seeing a man with ice for eyes morph into spinning death with a red-bladed ax.

There were times when the pale eyed old lawman had to get away from everyone and from everything, and when he did, he went to the granite shelf he called High Lonesome.

 

The Bear Killer paced easily along the narrow path.

Unlike humans, his mind was not given to fancy: he did not regard the drop to his left, the sheer cliff face that promised a most unpleasant death, should one's foot stray from the narrow path.

He padded steadily, stealthily, up the curving path, to the shelf where a man with pale eyes leaned his head back against the rock, his pale eyes drifting along the horizon.

The Bear Killer regarded the white furred lupine at the opposite end of the shelf.

Each recognized the other as a kindred spirit, and perhaps spirit is the right word to use here, for , when The Bear Killer came to High Lonesome, he was greeted by a yellow eyed, white furred wolf sitting at the far end of the High Lonesome, looking quiet and ancient and very, very wise.

The Bear Killer padded up beside the pale eyed man, turned, sat beside him, leaned companionably into him.

The Sheriff's hand came up, rested on The Bear Killer's shoulder.

The two of them sat long in this place, each content with the other's silent company, until finally the Sheriff rose and picked up the folded blanket.

"Reckon we'd ought to get back," he said gently, not whispering but not speaking loudly at all.

The Bear Killer blinked sleepily, thumped his tail on the bare rock.

"Well, c'mon then, let's see about some supper."

The Bear Killer's pink tongue ran out and flicked his moist, shining-black nose.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

444.  A SECRET PLACE

There is a mountain very near Firelands, one of the many that make up that rugged territory: solid, brooding, aloof, a study in grey and green and white and a thousand shades in between, at least until it is painted on one side by morning's sun, and on the other, by the evening.

Its terrain is rough, in places solid, in places crumbling: there are fans of loose debris that are treacherous to walk, there are paths along solid rock that were there when the earth was young and so far show little if any wear: there are draws, gullys, places a man (or an animal) can shelter from wind, overhangs to protect against rain -- most of these are smoke blackened from innumerable fires, and if one were to dig in the debris of these overhangs' floors, one might come up with bones, or shards of broken pottery, or perhaps a broken knapped tool of some kind.

There are other places, some hidden in plain sight, which were used by the shamans, the Seers, those with gifts of which they knew, used by others with gifts of which they knew nothing.

One of these places was known to a pale eyed lawman, and to his direct descendants: it was difficult to get to, and once there it was but a shelf, narrow, then broad, and facing the evening sun.

Old Pale Eyes would go there when he wished to be alone.

Some men will bring a book to such places; some men will write, or paint, or perhaps bring a mouth organ: this lean lawman with the iron grey mustache never did, preferring to place a folded saddle blanket on a handy rock, and park his bony backside on a convenient slab of granite.

He called the place High Lonesome.

There was a cave, there against the cliff, narrow -- a man would have to belly down and slither in, and for that reason, Old Pale Eyes never explored it -- his son Jacob did, and found it deep, and found it was bigger inside:  great cats had littered there and raised these litters, wolves on occasion had birthed there young within as well; the bones of an ancient and honorable line rested within this hidden shelter, wrapped in a handmade quilt: Jacob bore the body of his beloved Bear Killer there, and honorably interred his friend and confidante, wrapping the grey-muzzled Mastiff in the quilt from Jacob's own bed: he cribbed the body up in a natural alcove, working by the light of a miner's carbide light:  in this secret place, in the fullness of time, others would be placed for their final rest.

Jacob, too, became Sheriff, and a man grown: his son came to this cliffside shelf on occasion,  knowing only that his Pa came here to be alone, to think, to let his mind relax.

Old Pale Eyes knew this shelf was special.

He didn't know how he knew, only that he did, and perhaps that's because his Mama had been a Wise Woman, and he may have inherited something of her Second Sight.

He didn't really know, and he didn't particularly care.

He knew that he carried his past with him -- every horrible moment, every bloody sight -- the weight of men he'd led into battle, men he'd sent out who never came back, the weight of every tombstone he'd ever created, crushed down on him every moment of every day.

Most of the time he handled it.

Most of the time.

There were moments when the rage and horror within him came screaming to the fore, moments where he would charge an enemy with a face that looked like it was carved from an Egyptian mummy, or stolen from an ancient tomb-carving:  he'd ridden against men who tried to kill him from ambush, going in a tenth of a second from a quiet-eyed, watchful lawman, to a bared-teeth ice warrior, screaming into a full charge at absolutely the very to of his lungs, he'd killed men with his old Cavalry sabre and with his hand forged Daine knife and with his bare hands, he'd laid amongst the Philistines with the jaw bone of a jack mule -- on one occasion, it was a broad ax, snatched up from a handy woodpile -- so fast, so violent, so LOUD was his assault on those who surrounded him, that he laid all but one on the ground, bloody and dead, all but the one who ran, the one who spent the rest of his days locked in an insane asylum, wide eyed and silent at the horror of seeing a man with ice for eyes morph into spinning death with a red-bladed ax.

There were times when the pale eyed old lawman had to get away from everyone and from everything, and when he did, he went to the granite shelf he called High Lonesome.

 

The Bear Killer paced easily along the narrow path.

Unlike humans, his mind was not given to fancy: he did not regard the drop to his left, the sheer cliff face that promised a most unpleasant death, should one's foot stray from the narrow path.

He padded steadily, stealthily, up the curving path, to the shelf where a man with pale eyes leaned his head back against the rock, his pale eyes drifting along the horizon.

The Bear Killer regarded the white furred lupine at the opposite end of the shelf.

Each recognized the other as a kindred spirit, and perhaps spirit is the right word to use here, for , when The Bear Killer came to High Lonesome, he was greeted by a yellow eyed, white furred wolf sitting at the far end of the High Lonesome, looking quiet and ancient and very, very wise.

The Bear Killer padded up beside the pale eyed man, turned, sat beside him, leaned companionably into him.

The Sheriff's hand came up, rested on The Bear Killer's shoulder.

The two of them sat long in this place, each content with the other's silent company, until finally the Sheriff rose and picked up the folded blanket.

"Reckon we'd ought to get back," he said gently, not whispering but not speaking loudly at all.

The Bear Killer blinked sleepily, thumped his tail on the bare rock.

"Well, c'mon then, let's see about some supper."

The Bear Killer's pink tongue ran out and flicked his moist, shining-black nose.

  • Confused 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

445. SARAH LYNNE'S TRIGGER

The Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners.

His thumb reached up, laid across both hammers, brought them back to full stand.

His fingers loosened, tightened again on the checkered wrist of the double barrel Greener.

Three down.

One to go.

 

Hans Lukas Hake -- or, rather, Hautpmann Hake, commanding officer of the Mars Defense Fleet -- lifted the material of the newest pilot's tunic, shoved the pin through the material, slipped the retainer on the back.

His best pilots were all female, and for whatever perverse reason, the Interceptor squadron acquired the nickname of the Valkyries: if that was their popularly used name, their commander decided to go with it: their squadron insignia was of an armored woman with a shining curiasse, armor-shin boots, a skirt of plates and a shining helmet with back-swept white wings, and an upraised lance with a silver starburst at its point: their pins were of the wings, with the single upraised spear-and-starburst.

He stepped back, saluted the newest pilot: she returned the salute, then father and daughter stepped into one another and seized each other in a delighted, rib creaking hug.

Hauptmann Hake kissed his daughter on top of the head, released her, took one pace back.

He swept the little squadron from left to right, lifted his chin.

"VALKYRIES!" he roared, "FLY!"

A half-dozen young women spun, sprinted for their lockers, for their flight suits.

They were not yet zipped up and pressurized when the general alarm sounded.

Six silver arrows launched from their tubes, six ships of war  curved away from the red surface into the starry dark.

 

They'd come after him in a rush.

Linn wasn't hit in the first volley, which came from behind, an attack which took him absolutely, completely by surprise: by rights he should have inherited at least four slugs in the general neighborhood of his shoulder blades, but the only casualties were timber and dirt:  Linn spun, gone from a civilized man to a pale eyed warrior in a tenth of a second or just under, and each hand blossomed in red flame and blue smoke.

Something slammed his belt, something felt like a giant's fishhook drove into his pelvis bone and whipped him halfway around: both his revolvers fired again and he thrust sideways, bounced off the closed door of his Sheriff's office.

Linn holstered his left revolver, raised his right to eye level, fired once, seizing the door's latch: he thrust through the now-open door, slammed it:  the bar fell into its iron hooks and Linn spun to the right, getting solid logs behind him.

Empty hulls hit the floor, fresh rounds dropped into smoking chambers.

Five for carry, six for war, he thought, and carefully, precisely, placed the hammers' noses between shining brass rims, then he stepped over to the gun rack and lifted out his favorite Jawbone of a Jack Mule.

He opened the Greener, made sure the brass hulls had good primers -- he'd one time brought up a shotgun, pulled one trigger, then the other, and realized in that moment someone had fired it and not reloaded it -- fortunately the fellow he'd leveled on, passed out in a cold faint -- Linn expected lead to come blasting through the heavy plank door -- he took a quick peek through the shuttered window's spy-hole, saw nothing.

He thrust up the timber bar, yanked the door open, swung the gunmuzzle across the opening -- left, then right -- 

Nothing.

Something hot and wet trickled down his leg, something hurt like homemade hell just below his belt line on the side.

Linn didn't care.

Someone tried to kill him and he didn't take kindly to that.

 

"Valkyrie Squadron, inbound eight, read vectors."

Their screens lit up as their engines screamed behind them, shoving them deeper into their couches, as the reactors powered their Hellbore cannon:  they felt the loading mechanism chuckle as the blunt nosed, cylindrical projectiles were rolled into the breech and the cannon came into battery.

Their ships were built like a famous war-plane from old Earth, described as a Vulcan cannon that only incidentally had wings and an engine: their ships were far faster, far deadlier than anything old Earth ever saw, and right now their targeting computers were feeding speed and trajectory data to their plots.

The easiest way to hit an incoming asteroid was to head straight for it, just as hard as their Interceptor would run, then fire the Hellbore when their course and the asteroid's were aligned: so powerful was the recoil that they would be thrown to nearly a full stop, but this guaranteed the hardened, tempered, unbelievably dense alloy would have the greatest possible velocity.

Mars still had surface structures they couldn't afford to lose; their net of detector buoys gave barely enough time to respond, and sometimes not enough, but it was the best they had.

The Commander's daughter flew number six position; there were six Interceptors, and eight asteroids, and she saw her chance to even the odds:  the asteroid was a projected image on her screen, the gunsight swung beside it, and as she corrected her course, just a little, just a delicate thrust to the side, the target slid into the circle-and-crosshairs.

Sarah Lynne Hake's lips peeled back as her finger tightened on the red plastic trigger and the Hellbore fired the depleted-uranium-core, tungsten-steel-coated, five-hundred-pound projectile at twice the speed of the incoming asteroid.

The recoil slammed her forward in her harness; only the helmet restraint kept her chin from driving down into her chest.

 

Linn took a long step, off the boardwalk and onto the street.

Across from him, a truant schoolboy backed quickly into the alley opposite;  he waved at the Sheriff, pointed.

Linn nodded, once, ran, his thumbs laid over the hammers.

He slowed, took a quick look down the next alley.

Nothing.

He turned, powered into a sprint, turned.

The double gun came up in front of him, thrust forward in both hands like he was driving a bayonet into an enemy's guts.

The twelve-bore slammed back in his hands as the right hand barrel spoke justice and one of the lawless felt the full force of the law.

Linn dropped into a crouch, shouldered, the shotgun's rib pointing toward the next man's wishbone.

He yanked the back trigger, hard.

 

Sarah checked her fuel gauge.

She checked her screen.

The mechanism behind her chuckled and the Commander heard an animal snarl from the speakers.

He could see her telemetry; he could see she was borderline on fuel; he could hear he quiet "Got you now," he saw the power drop as the rail gun fired a quarter of a ton of hardened, super-dense payload --

 

The shotgun drove back into his shoulder, the would-be back-shooter fell back, flopping like a cut-loose marionette puppet.

Linn laid the shotgun down, drew his right hand revolver, charged.

 

Sarah's finger tightened.

She imagined she could hear the rail gun sizzle under her as it threw her hard into her straps again.

She'd be bruised and she'd be sore in the morning, she knew, but she was not going to let any damned anonymous rock cause her colony damage.

She'd lost friends to asteroid strikes -- decompression does very ugly things to the human body, and the asteroids blasted holes in the atmosphere domes before they got their detection net in place -- and she was not going to lose any more.

Not one.

She turned the ship, fired a light burn, felt the ship push against her as she came to a stop, as she started back toward home.

She read her gauges and realized she might be in trouble.

The laws of physics were immutable, she knew, and if she had insufficient fuel to get home, there was no way she could stick out an oar and row, and she sure as hell couldn't walk back.

Sarah closed her eyes, took a slow breath.

"Valkyrie Six."

She opened her eyes.

"Six, go."

"Valkyrie Six, we're showing another inbound, can you handle?"

Sarah's hand lifted, tapped the touch screen: she frowned, then her eyes tightened at the corners and she smiled, just a little.

"Valkyrie Six targeting," she said.  "This one is mine!"

She might not have fuel to get home, but she had plenty for the maneuvering thrusters, and she could maneuver her ship like a surgeon maneuvers his scalpel.

She rotated, floating in space, turned to face the incoming threat.

Sarah Lynne Hake's finger tightened on the red-plastic trigger.

This one is small, she thought.

I won't have the velocity of a full speed launch but it'll be enough to bust this rock.

The Hellbore fired another quarter of a ton of projectile, the recoil throwing Sarah mercilessly against her harness yet again:  she winced, but then she consulted her flight computer.

The recoil gave her enough momentum for her to cross the threshold.

Between recoil, and remaining fuel, she could get home.

She consulted her targeting display.

The projected yellow image rotating slowly in the circle-and-crosshairs, shattered and disappeared.

"Firelands Base, Valkyrie Six," she called.  "Mission accomplished, enroute home."

Hans lifted his head, looked at the speaker, listened to his daughter's voice coming through the green-plastic grille.

"I'll be a little late getting home, Daddy, I'm moving kind of slow today."

Commander Hans L. Hake ran a fast computation.

"Valkyrie Flight, well done," he transmitted.  "Six, at your own best speed."

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

446. TWO POUND OF SALT

Esther Keller sighed patiently and stirred the big, steaming kettle.

Her maid stoked the cast iron cookstove, carefully shook down the ashes, cautiously ran the narrow, black, stamped-steel ash lifter through the open ash-door, extracted as much as she could, very slowly, very carefully lowering her ash-shovel to let the hot, whitish residue slip into the ash-bucket: she did not want to raise dust, if nothing else, because she would have to clean up any dust she caused, but more because she did not want to stain her employer's fine gown with the discoloring ash.

Esther lowered her husband's blooded coat and trousers into the hot saltwater.

She'd dumped an entire pound of salt into the washboiler, stirred the hot water until it was all dissolved; his shirt, his smallclothes, even his sock, went into the solution, and now she fed his trousers and coat into the steaming batch.

She and the maid lifted the heavy container off the stove.

It was just warm enough to steam, only just; any hotter and she might actually cook the blood into the material, and she wanted to soak it loose, not set it in:  they took careful, shuffling, tiny little steps, Esther backing, the maid waddling forward, Angela, big-eyed and silent, quickly opening the door to the back porch.

The ladies set the washboiler on the back porch; Esther picked up a wooden paddle, slowly, carefully stirred the clothes a little:  she tapped the excess saltwater off the paddle against the porch rail and said quietly, "There, now.  We'll just let those repent of their sins for a while."

"Yes, ma'am," the maid said uncertainly.

Angela reached up and took Esther's hand, her young face upturned, worried.

"Mama?" she asked in a tiny voice, "when is Papa coming home?"

Esther squatted, taking Angela's little hands in her own: Esther's green eyes were luminous, gentle, the eyes of a mother:  she smiled, just a little, and said softly, "He'll be along, sweets.  He wasn't hurt too badly."

Angela's eyes went to the clothes soaking in saltwater, then she looked at her Mama.

"Yes he was," she said:  she blinked uncertainly and added, "Mama, I don't like it when Papa gets hurt!"

Esther's eyebrows raised, and she laughed a little, glancing up at the maid, who turned away, slipped back into the house, perhaps to hide her own reaction to the sad little girl's reaction.

"Angela," Esther said after several long moments, "I don't like it either."  She frowned, caressed Angela's soft pink cheek with delicate fingertips.  "I do wish he would consort with a better class of criminal!"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller glared at the stamped tin ceiling in the treatment room.

His clothes had already been bundled up and whisked away -- he suspected Esther's hand in this, she was always efficient at getting blood out of his clothes -- his jaw was set and he silently damned himself for putting that fine woman through the grief she'd endured, simply because she was the wife of the county Sheriff.

Dr. John Greenlees looked over at his old friend.

"Don't set the ceiling afire," he said.

Linn's expression never changed, but his mood did.

"It ain't got to a red heat yet, Doc.  As long as she's not glowin' hot you're safe."

Dr. Greenlees grunted.

Another man might have engaged in a lengthy repartee, but Linn knew his old friend, and he appreciated that Doc said more with that taciturn grunt than most men could with a half hour's oratory.

"How soon can I get out of here?"

"How soon can you mend bone?"

Linn's jaw clenched; Nurse Susan saw his jaw muscles bulge, and she came to his bedside, took his wrist in a dainty grip, then sandwiched his callused hand between her own.

"Are you in pain?" she asked.

Linn's pale eyes swung from the ceiling to the nurse.

"I am in a bad mood," Linn growled.  "I'm layin' here buck nekked, I don't know who those fellows were that tried to kill me, right about now my wife is soakin' my duds in salt water to get the blood out and that won't make her happy a'tall."  He resumed his upward directed glower.  "I've put that woman through too much already!"

There was a knock at the door, Linn felt the door open:  Nurse Susan felt his hands loosen, just a little, and she knew his reflex was to lower his hands to his sides, where a pair of engraved Colt's revolvers normally lived.

Nurse Susan knew very well that Old Pale Eyes did not like being defenseless.

Nurse Susan knew that his son, Jacob, was without the inner door, and if not Jacob, then another trusted adjutant:  the necessities of the Sheriff's office would be tended, she knew, and the injured Sheriff's personal safety guaranteed, but she also knew this was a man who was used to keeping himself safe, no matter what happened.

"Sheriff," she almost whispered, "if you're in pain, I can get you something."

Linn blinked, his other hand swam under the covering sheet and blanket, emerged to pat Susan's hand gently -- a fatherly gesture, a gentlemanly move.

"Darlin'," he said, his voice not as hard, not as harsh as it had just been, "forgive me.  You did not deserve my ill temper."

Susan blinked, her surprise both evident, and genuine.

"You haven't been ill-tempered with me," she protested.

"I spoke harshly," Linn insisted.  "When I came in here I said some very unpleasant things."

"You mean when you came hobbling in here with your arm over your son's shoulders, when you were bleeding into your boot and white as a ghost, right before we began cleaning bone splinters out of your bloodied hide?"  Nurse Susan laughed a little, and she saw the Sheriff's eyes relax a little at the corners, for the sound of a woman's laughter can ease the knots in a man's gut.

"Sheriff, you'd just been shot.  Most men would be on the ground crying like a lost child or wallowing like a worm on a fishhook.  You came in here looking like Storm Cloud Number Nine and calling yourself a damned fool for being surprised as you were, and then you asked me to belt you between the eyes with a setting-maul, but I don't remember anything really unpleasant!"

Linn nodded, closed his eyes.

He felt, more than heard, the Doctor come up on the opposite side of the bed.

Doc's hand was firm, reassuring on his shoulder.

"I do remember," Doc said, and Linn heard a smile in his voice, "right after you asked Susan to cold cock you I started working on you."

Linn raised an eyebrow, looked up at Doc's solemn expression.

"For the entire time I was getting you taken care of, you did give absolutely the most profane silence I've ever heard!"

Linn chuckled a little, grimaced.

"Trust me to cause trouble!"

 

The airlock door rumbled open.

Sarah Lynne McKenna stepped briskly through it, handed her helmet off to a waiting flight-mate, took two running steps, slammed into the uniformed figure directly ahead of her.

Sarah Lynne Hake's arms wrapped around her big strong Daddy, and her Daddy was bent a little as she did:  his arms were firm, strong, and he straightened, lifting his little girl off the deck.

Sarah needed the reassurance of her Daddy's arms, and her Daddy needed the visceral, soul-deep confirmation that his little girl was alive, and the two stood there for a full minute, silent, not moving.

"Daddy?"  Sarah finally asked, almost whispered, for her mouth was near enough his ear that she did not need to speak loudly.

Hans set his little girl's feet down -- she was nearly tall as he -- in the lesser Mars gravity, the new generation raised here grew taller than their parents, and Sarah was not done growing -- he held her hands in his, looked very directly into her eyes, blinking, remembering how he'd done this very thing with Sarah's mother, years before, on Earth.

"Daddy, you remember when the reactor engine in the shuttle went runaway and Mama and the Sheriff made Earth in three minutes?"
Hans frowned.  "You're not supposed to know about that."

"I find things out.  They also shot back through time, which the brightboys have figured out how to keep that from happening again. They've also got the flight computers ready for that new engine."  She looked -- she bored her soul -- into her Daddy's hazel eyes and said, "I want one of those reactor engines in my interceptor."

Hans' jaw dropped a little.

"I want a Runaway engine in my Interceptor, Daddy."

"You're not supposed to know --"

Sarah closed her eyes, raised a forestalling palm.

"Spare me, I know already.  This" -- she hooked her thumb over her shoulder -- "is a reaction engine with a finite chemical fuel supply.  Yes, the atomics make it unbelievably efficient, yes I'm getting unheard of velocities for a reaction engine, but it's limited and I don't like limits!"

Her voice was a hiss, lowered so only he could hear.

"Look, I'm the best pilot you've got.  You yourself said if you mounted a scalpel on the nose of my Interceptor, you'd let me take out your appendix, I'm that good."  Her hands gripped his again, quick, strong, sincere.  "Daddy, I can do more work, longer, better, with a Runaway kicking me!"

"They don't runaway anymore, darlin'," Hans said in a cautioning voice.

"I know.  Ever since that one did, the name stuck, but they've improved --"  

Sarah hesitated, shook her head.

"I know, I know, I'm not supposed to know that either."

Hans was quiet for several long moments.

"Walk with me."

Sarah shot a look at her flightmate, nodded her thanks:  her helmet was back in her locker.

The pair walked down the hall, through three airtight doors, came out in the mess hall.

Hans waited while his daughter slipped away, headed for the ladies' room -- he always marveled at her reserve, when he'd flown combat missions he could not wait to get to the latrine, for stress has a certain effect on the body -- she returned, her face damp and shining in the harsh artificial light, and he knew she'd washed her hands and face, the way her mother used to.

He smiled a little at the memory, remembering his wife's scent, the way she molded herself into him.

He hadn't seen her for two days; she was running a cargo flight to the other side of the planet, taking supplies out and bringing back some high value rare-earth minerals, but even that short loss ached his heart, for he was a man very much in love with his wife, their bond stronger for this common adventure they still lived.

He and his daughter picked up their trays, sat.

Sarah looked at her Daddy, saw how dark he was under the eyes.

"You haven't slept," she said -- a statement, not a question.

"No."  He addressed what was advertised as ground steak -- it tasted quite real, and it had been grilled with locally grown onions, which he loved.

"You were still out there."

"I was a day and a half getting in."

"I slept like a feline."

"You catnapped."

"That is the word."  He looked up, smiled, and Sarah smiled as well, for a trace of his German accent still slipped through -- to a native Earther's ears, he usually had a distinct Germanic accent, but she'd grown up hearing it, and only when it grew quite distinct did she pick up on it.

"Daddy, that's sweet," Sarah said sadly, "but I slept on the way home."

"I know."

"Daddy."  She dropped her stamped-steel fork to the injection-molded tray, reached across, laid a hand on his, tilted her head a little to the side, and Hans realized just how beautiful his daughter really was.

"Thank you," she whispered.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna laid a gloved hand on the Sheriff's sleep-relaxed hand.

He did not open his eyes, but he did speak, and Sarah could hear the smile in his words.

"Didn't anyone tell you," he half-wheezed, "it's improper for a young lady to walk into a married man's bedroom?"

Sarah bent over, kissed her Papa's forehead.

"Dear Papa," she whispered.  "I heard there had been misfortune."

"Did you speak with Jacob?"

"I have, Papa, and I shall be leaving within the hour."

"I'm missing something."

"We found out who tried to have you killed, Papa.  I am going to harvest his soul."

Linn opened one eye.  

"Darlin'," he said quietly, "you are an Agent of the Court.  You are not its assassin."

Sarah Lynne McKenna, a fashionably dressed young lady of the era, tilted her head and smiled -- a charming, disarming smile -- and replied, "Papa, a man tried to murder my father.  That's family and I am not in a forgiving mood."

"Learn," Linn growled.  "We need him brought back here in irons.  We need to drag him through the streets so the world can look upon him and know that he used to be a man of influence and now he is a chained animal, disgraced and convicted and sentenced to a prisoner's stripes and cage."

Sarah was quiet for a long minute, and Linn saw her bite her bottom lip as she frowned, thinking hard.

She finally blinked, looked very directly at her pale eyed Papa.

"If it is at all possible, Papa," she said, "I will bring him home.  In irons, in a prison wagon, so all may look through the bars and see him for what he is."

Sarah rose.

"You will understand, Papa, that I said if it is at all possible.  Not if it is convenient."

Linn nodded carefully.  "Then I will count it done."

Sarah saw her father grimace: alarmed, she seized his hand, bent her face over his:  "Papa?"

"You be careful, Sarah," Linn whispered fiercely.  "I'd rather have you alive and well than him!"

Sarah unbuttoned the glove at the wrist, peeled it off, laid the backs of her fingers against her Papa's cheek, his forehead.

She reached up for the dangling strip of embroidered fabric, tugged twice.

Her Papa was beginning to fever, and she'd just summoned the nurse.

 

"Who was at the door, Mary?"

The maid came back down the hall, carrying a string-tied, paper-wrapped package.

She placed it on the table, pulled the tag end of the bow knot.

"It was the boy from the Mercantile, ma'am," the maid replied, unwrapping the delivery.

"It's the coffee you asked for" -- she raised the cloth bundle to her nose, closed her eyes, inhaled, appreciating the aroma of the freshly ground, very recently roasted coffee beans -- she lowered it, laid the wrapping paper flat open on the tabletop.

"And it looks like we have two pound of salt as well."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

447. TIME, WISELY USED

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled a little as she stirred her tea.

She preferred a touch of honey, just a touch; the amber liquid rippled around her dainty silver spoon, and continued to shimmer even after she'd laid the implement on her saucer.

She sipped her tea, her pale eyes raising to look out the windows of the private car.

An observer might think her a young woman of fashion, of style, daughter of prosperity, or perhaps its wife, and indeed that would not be far from the truth: but the full truth was hidden, concealed behind pale eyes and a gentle smile, behind a genteel voice and fashionable, modest attire.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, Agent of the Firelands District Court, traveled in a private car belonging to the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler, a private car that had belonged to a relative of Sarah's family, a relative who coveted the McKenna wealth, a relative who abducted her mother, Bonnie Lynne McKenna, chained her in that very car, with intent to murder her and throw her dead body into a deep ravine, and thus lay survivor's claim to her estate.

A certain pale-eyed Sheriff exercised his extralegal authority in the matter, putting a solid gold bullet from a .44 Winchester rifle through the criminal's head as Bonnie made the only resistance she could: her wrists were manacled overhead to a ceiling-chain, her ankles shackled, but she was still able to raise her foot, to drive her sharp little heel down into her abductor's arch, crushing it and causing him to fall sideways -- he'd been hiding behind her, threatening the intruding Sheriff with her death, at least until he fell sideways and inherited a .44-caliber headache for his troubles.

The Judge discovered later the man had nefarious tastes, and that Bonnie was not the first victim he'd taken, and that there was a hidden jail cell in the car, along with some truly barbarous implements of torture:  the cell was still there, the Judge used it as a closet, but Sarah intended to use it for its original purpose.

If her quarry cooperated.

If he did not ... well, his would not be the only soul she'd sent to Hell in her young life, and she was more than willing to give her father's would-be murderer, a first-class ticket on the Hell-Bound Train.

 

Another Sarah walked with another pale-eyed Sheriff, thousands of miles away and well more than a century later: this Sarah wore the wings-and-spear insignia of a Valkyrie, of an Interceptor pilot; this Sheriff wore the six-point star on the left breast, but this Sheriff, like ancestors before, had pale eyes and a short, violent temper, most generally kept under good control.

Unlike her ancestors, though, this Sheriff wore a white Olympic skinsuit instead of a severe black suit; her tread was silent on thick, padded, puncture-proof soles, and only one of her forebears had the same feminine curves as she displayed.

The two women talked, laughing occasionally, with no real destination: they wandered into one of the farming caverns, where artificial light, courtesy their underground generators, grew a marvelous array of vegetables: they'd found it profitable to run back to Earth in what they now called "a Runaway" instead of a shuttle: the engines showed a serious flaw at first, which was analyzed and harnessed, and now they could make the year-long trip in minutes, and did: theirs was a technology not known to Earth, and it was generally agreed that it should not be revealed:  they brought back things that could only be wished for, back when technology depended on orbital slingshotting, on chemical rockets, when an ounce of payload cost literally millions of dollars to get from Earth to Mars.

They'd brought back seeds, fertile seed that would produce fertile seed -- heirloom, they called them -- and this was one of several caverns dedicated to growing what they needed to survive.

The two talked in quiet voices as they walked.

Sarah, daughter of a Luftwaffe pilot father and a US Navy Super Stallion pilot mother, wanted the Sheriff's wise counsel.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna consulted the clock on the opposite wall.

She was traveling alone, as was her preference: she rose, she undressed, placing her fashionable attire carefully in a closet; she stripped down as far as was necessary, and resumed clothing more appropriate to her intended task.

A fashionable young woman, looking like wealth and privilege, would draw the wrong kind of attention:  all women drew attention, but Sarah became a plainly dressed woman, looking like a young wife, unremarkable other than for her femininity.

She was masterful at disguise; she fashioned a veil of the same material as her dress, a veil that draped half her face:  a brush, a bottle of non-flexible collodion, and she painted a wet stripe the length of her right jawline, a second down her forehead over her right eye, then from the lower lid, down the cheek to the drying, puckering line she'd just applied.

Sarah picked up a fan, snapped it open, waved the ether fumes from her as the lines dried, as they puckered into horrifying, very realistic looking scars:  lastly, she picked up a pair of wire rimmed glasses, slipped them on, hooked them behind her ears, then draped the veil over the right half of her face, settled the hat atop her hair and tied it in place under her chin.

Under the veil, the right hand lens was dark; the left lens was window glass: her disguise complete, she consulted the clock and rose.

She left the private car, stepped easily across to the passenger car, slipped in the back door; a minute later, the train eased to a stop, and an unremarkable woman with a veil over half her face descended from the passenger car, mingled for a few moments with the other passengers, then descended the steps carefully, head bowed, concentrating on not falling down the stairs.

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

448. LITTLER SIS

Angela was a lovely child.

Angela was a Daddy's girl, when she wasn't being Mommy's girl: she delighted in riding with her Daddy, and she delighted in riding with her big brother Jacob, and thanks to her green-eyed Mama's careful admonitions, Angela was careful never to make a nuisance of herself when she wanted attention from the men in her life.

Most of the time, she listened to her Mama.

Angela and the maid carried their trays upstairs, to her pale-eyed Papa's bedroom: the maid had a maid-sized tray, well loaded, and a small folding table under one arm; Angela had an Angela-sized tray, loaded with very little, which irritated her; she was satisfied she could carry as much as the maid, but she knew better than to argue the matter.

Her big strong Daddy was in bed 'cause bad men tried to shooted him and Angela thought that was very impolite of them, and she understood her Aunt Sarah was going to bring justice to the Philistines.

Angela knew about Philistines 'cause the Parson talked about Philistines and laying about them with the jaw bone of a jack mule.

That's what her Daddy called it anyway and Angela's Daddy was always right and that meant the Parson didn't read it right.

The maid set up the little table and placed her tray, and she relieved Angela of her little tray and Angela marched purposefully around the foot of the bed and looked solemnly at her Daddy, setting up with pillows under him, and she frowned a little and considered climbing in bed with him.

Linn looked at his little girl and smiled, just a little.

"Darlin'," he asked quietly, "has Doc Greenlees come out yet?"

Angela shook her head, her curls swinging as she did.

"Would you bring him up when he does arrive?"  Linn asked gently.

Angela nodded, her curls bouncing.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, would you like some brrr -- brrrrr -- brrrrrandy!"  Angela frowned with the effort of forming her Rs; she was trying hard to break herself of the little-girl-sounding "bwandy" -- even if it brought that quick Daddy-look that made her all warm inside.

"Dear heart," Linn said seriously, "if you were to fetch up my brandy and two glasses, I could offer Doc some when he gets here."

"Okay!"  Angela's face lit up like sunlight on quartz, she charged around the foot of the bed, scampered across behind the maid, pattered noisily down the stairs -- Linn looked at the maid as she arranged the table in easy reach:  "And would ye wish to sit up, sor?" she asked, and Linn grimaced, nodded.

He managed to work his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up, frowning, his jaw set: the maid knew the man was in pain, likely from being stiff and sore -- pain he might have felt, but he never uttered word one of his discomfort, which concerned her.

It did not surprise her.

It was the maid's experience that when a man was not badly hurt, but hurt only a little, he would complain to high heaven, but the worse a truly strong man was hurt, the less fuss he made, and the Sheriff was truly a strong man.

Linn heard the front door open, he heard a happy little girl's voice, he heard the clink of glass on glass:  a light set of footsteps ascended the stairs, their happy rhythm counterpointed by the heavier, measured tread of the good physician.

Angela scampered into the room, her forearm wrapped around the cut-glass brandy snifter, holding it firmly into her little belly, a heavy, short, broad glass in each hand.

The maid turned and caught the bottle as it slipped from Angela's efforts; Angela reached up, placed the two glasses on her Daddy's table, and she backed up, blinking innocently.

"I brought the brrrrrrandy, Daddy.  And two glasses!"

Linn winked at his little girl.  "Darlin'," he said, "I do appreciate that!"

Angela whirled around, skipped happily out of the room and bounced down the stairs:  she hadn't closed the front door, and Linn heard her happy "Jacob!" and the sound of young feet, running across the front porch, and he didn't need to look to know Angela was launching herself off the painted planks and into her big brother's arms, and sure enough, he heard both their laughter rippling up the stairs.

What he didn't hear was Angela's happy chatter as Jacob caught her, as he swung her up in the air and caught her, as she laughed and then ran her arms around Jacob's neck and looked very seriously at him and asked, "Jacob, Sarrrrrrrrah is gonna gets the bad guys, can I be your little sis while she's gone?"  and Jacob laughed, leaned closer and rubbed noses with her, which brought even more giggles from the happy little girl.

"Wa'l now," Jacob drawled, "Little Sis sounds better than Littler Sis, so yes you can!"  He looked his littler sis in the eyes and then looked up, as if peering through planks and timbers to the bedroom upstairs.

"Little Sis, how is he today?"

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

449. A WOMAN ALONE

A woman walked slowly along the boardwalk, pretending not to see the stares as people regarded the sight of a woman with the right half of her face covered.

She knew there would be speculation as to why an attractive woman would hide half her visage: there would be guesses, rumors, the usual happy speculation given people who had idle time in which to speculate, and she knew that, sooner or later, there would be an accidental sighting of the face beneath the half veil.

She carried a book, up under the swell of her bosom, a small, leather-bound volume with some writing impressed on its cover: in her other gloved hand, she carried a small grip:  she stopped frequently, looking around, as if searching for something.

She knew there were those who watched, those who observed, those who had purpose beyond idle curiosity:  she knew when she stopped and looked very directly at a particular establishment, and then crossed the street with a determined step, with her chin lifted purposefully, that her abrupt change would be noted.

She intended that it should be.

 

The barkeep looked up as a woman came into the saloon.

It was -- as were most saloons in that part of the country -- generally considered a man's establishment, and it was a rare and intrusive thing for a woman to enter.

Especially when the woman seemed to consider herself perfectly at home.

She dropped her grip, looked at the bartender.

"Maderia, if you have it," she said, her voice pleasant, though tired-sounding:  the saloonkeeper frowned, mentally reviewing his inventory.

"I ... don't think we have any," he admitted.

"Wine, of any variety?" she asked hopefully, slding a coin across the bar.  "And some advice."

The barkeep frowned, chewing on the inside of his bottom lip, raised a finger, nodded:  a moment later, he was back with a delicate wineglass (the last one he had) and a bottle:  he worked the cork out, poured something with a visible sediment, something that was halfway between purple and brown, something the woman sipped carefully:  she drew her half-veil aside, just a little, and the barkeep saw a horrible-looking scar running down her face.

Good God, he thought, managing to hold his tongue, but unable to keep the dismay from his expression:  what happened to this poor woman?

He excused himself politely, refilled a couple beers, polished his way back to the woman, who slid another coin to him.

The barkeep's hand passed over the offering; the coin disappeared as if by magic.

"Where can I find a man," she said quietly, eyes lowered -- then she raised her good eye and looked at him sharply -- "who can ... make ... things ... happen?"

"What kind of things?" the barkeep asked suspiciously.

The woman frowned, looked down into the shimmering liquid in her glass.

"I wish to have someone ... disappear."  She looked up again.  "I understand such men can be had here."

The barkeep considered the wealth she'd slid across the polished bar top, looked at two fellows who raised an eyebrow, looking speculatively at the woman:  the barkeep shook his head, ever so slightly, and the two relaxed:  no, this was not a woman of easy virtue, this was business.

"Let me see what I can find out," he said cautiously, decanting more wine into her glass.

The woman watched the mirror behind the bar.

It was nowhere as big as the one in the Silver Jewel -- by comparison, it was much smaller -- she'd positioned herself to her best advantage, to where she could see the most likely avenue of approach.

Nobody did.

She drank alone; she could not help but notice conversation muted when she entered, and remained subdued:  only the sharp patter of cards being shuffled punctuated the smoke-layered atmosphere.

The barkeep was back in not many minutes; Sarah saw in the mirror that two men were behind her now, two men who were watching her.

"I think I know someone," the barkeep said quietly, polishing a heavy beer glass with an exaggerated casualness.  

"I'm listening."

"He's to your right.  White hat, flat crown, red necktie, looks like a dandy."

"You have been most kind."  Another coin whispered across the bar.

 

Physician and patient shared a mutual silence.

Doctor John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, examined the wound:  he'd made no attempt at closing it, he'd not tried to approximate the shredded wound's edges, nor to lay in any stitches:  he knew the shattered bone had to mend, and he wanted to make sure it was going to mend without infection.  He'd cleansed the wound as best he could; today, when he removed the bloodied bandages, he carefully wiped the open injury, frowned, waited until the Sheriff thrust a leather roll between his teeth and nodded before addressing the matter further.

Linn's hands seized a great double handful of the ticking he lay on, sweat stood out on his forehead, beading up in shining response to the carbolic with which Doc wiped the open wound:  strong white teeth bit down on rolled rawhide, cutting through most of it:  Linn closed his eyes, willing himself to breathe slowly, steadily, to not make a sound.

Dr. Greenlees knew the nerve endings were screaming, and he genuinely regretted the pain he caused his old and dear friend, but he knew the work was necessary:  he'd seen infected bone before, and he knew if Linn's pelvis infected, there would be no salvation.

He dropped the carbolic-wet wad of boiled and dried cloth into a waiting dishpan; he withdrew a shining set of tweezers, frowned, reached into the wound, gripped something:  a wiggle, a pull, a repeat, and he dropped two more fragments of splintered bone into the dishpan beside the brown and bloodied cloth.

"You," Dr. John Greenlees murmured absently, "are the one hardest headed man I know."

Linn glared at a single point on the opposite wall, focusing all his upset on mentally blasting a hole in the wallpaper, through the lath-and-horsehair-plaster, and out into the open air:  had his thoughts been a cannon, the should would have blown a sizable hole through the wall and traveled at least a mile and a half before landing.

"There."

Doc packed the wound again, had Linn roll one way, then the other, wrapped the binding-cloth around the man's lean middle to hold the fresh bandaging in place.

He reached up, gently tugged at the rawhide:  Linn opened his jaw, and Doc was obliged to wiggle it a little to free it from his impaling teeth.

He turned the rawhide, considering it closely, raised an eyebrow, but offered no comment.

Linn released his death grip on the ticking, slowly gripped a handful of bedsheet, raised the bed linen to his forehead, wiped away the beaded sweat.

"How soon can I get up?" he asked hoarsely.

"You can get up any time you're able.  I don't want you walking any distance, not until we're satisfied there are no unhealed cracks in your pelvis."

"Damned lucky it hit the point of the bone and skinned out instead of in," Linn almost whispered, and Doc nodded.

"If it had gone in you'd be dead by now.  It went out and gave you enough grief."

"Esther told me I simply must consort with a better class of criminal."

Doc nodded, washing his hands carefully, thoroughly:  he'd learned early and well the need for sterile supplies and scrupulous, meticulous handwashing.  "Your wife is right."

Linn closed his eyes, breathing through his nose, controlling himself as rigidly as he'd done back in that damned War.

"Your little girl brought up some brandy."

"Help yourself."

"You?"

Linn closed his eyes, nodded.

"Yeah."

 

The man in the fine suit rose, walked slowly over to the woman drinking wine at the bar.

"I understand you need some work done."

"Is there somewhere we can talk business?"

She did not look at the man.

"Upstairs, in my room."

The woman carefully placed her wineglass on the gleaming bar:  outside, the sounds of the city:  horses and carriages, wagons and men's voices, here a shout, there a laugh:  within, the piano had resumed, men's voices were beginning to murmur once again.

The woman lifted her chin, regarded the man with her one good eye.

"Business, sir," she said.  "I am not a bargaining chip."

"I would not dream of it."

She took his arm, lifted her chin; together, the two turned and went up the stairs, and men's eyes followed them as they left.

 

Angela came in, carrying a steaming dish of hot water on a small tray:  she'd loaded the tray herself -- she had her Daddy's shaving brush and cup of shaving soap, she had the strop and a towel over her shoulder, the straight razor was on the tray as well.

She pushed the door open with her foot and walked carefully over to her Daddy, who relieved her of the tray, placed it on the table.

He was naked to the waist; he'd tended his ablutions; he looked down at his daughter as Angela frowned and regarded the clean bandages bunched on his right side, the surcingle holding it in place.

She looked up at her Daddy and said, "Does it hurt?"

Linn considered for a moment, then sat on the side of the bed, smiled gently and took his little girl's hands in his.

"Yes, Princess," he admitted quietly.  "It hurts."

"I'm sowwy!"

Linn leaned down, hugged his little girl, who hugged him back.

"You've done nothing wrong, Princess," he whispered, holding her several moments longer than were necessary.

A little girl will draw strength from her big strong Daddy, but sometimes a Daddy will draw more than that from the embrace of a little child.

They released their mutual embrace; Linn spun up a lather in the cup, Angela watching, fascinated.

Linn lathered his face quickly, with the ease of much practice:  he sloshed out the brush in his washwater, set it aside, hooked the strop on the bedpost and began running good German steel up and down the leather, polishing the edge for the day's work.

For the actual shave, he referred to a mirror:  Angela giggled at the faces he made, pursing his lips and throwing them to the right, then to the left, lifting his chin, opening his mouth in a comical O to tension his cheeks; Linn frowned at the reflection, turned his face left, then right, saw his little girl watching his reflection.

"Angela," he said, "I need your help."

Angela took the few steps over to him.

He wiped the soap from his face.

"Run your fingertips over my jaw here.  Make sure I didn't miss anything."

Angela frowned -- her Daddy asked her to help, and that was serious work -- she touched the rear angle of his jaw on either side, then ran her fingertips up and down, finally putting her entire palms on his face, working slowly forward:  she caressed under his chin and down to his Adam's apple, and finally she said, with a straight faced not, "I don't find any missies, Daddy."

Linn nodded.  "Thank you, darlin'.  I wanted to make sure I presented a proper face."

Angela planted her knuckles on her belt, tilted her head a little, frowning.  "Dad-dee!" she protested.  "I like your face!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

45. MAKING A POINT

The dandy placed his hat carefully on an unusually clean peg beside the door.

"You understand," he said frankly, "normally when I admit a woman to my room, my purpose is rather base."

"I find that men who accomplish difficult tasks, are men who understand certain natural uses."

He turned, considered the woman as she set her grip down on the floor.  "I didn't get your name."

"I didn't give it."

"No," he said speculatively.  "No, you didn't."  He regarded her coolly.  "Ordinarily I would not be discussing my price with a woman."

"Usually the woman would be discussing hers with you."  She tossed him a leather poke; he caught it by reflex, surprise momentarily visible on his face, but quickly concealed.

"I want to make sure I have the right man for the job," Sarah said coldly, "and these are my bona fides."

He weighed the poke in his hand, tossed it to the bed without examining the contents:  he was familiar enough with coin to know its sound, and he knew these were neither slugs nor steelies:  no, this was legal tender, and a more than respectable amount.

"How, then," he asked, looking from the bed to his guest, "may I prove my bona fides?"

"Tell me how you killed that pale eyed Sheriff."

He chuckled, wagged a finger.  "Oh, no," he smiled.  "No, no, I didn't do anything of the kind."

"You're not who I'm looking for, then."  She took a step forward, as if to reclaim her gold.

"Now, little lady," he cautioned, "I didn't kill him myself."

She stopped, raised an eyebrow:  "Oh?"

He smiled, clipped the end off a cigar, turned and dropped the snipped tip into a convenient cuspidor.

"I sent four men to do it."

"Four?  You couldn't find one man who was competent?"

"Frankly, no," he admitted, and somehow she knew his admission was absolutely honest.  "I sent four men I knew could not do it -- if each went up against him alone, none of them would have stood a chance, and two were pretty good.  I sent all four in a bunch and told them all to back shoot him, all at the same time, as close as they could get."

"I see."

"Now let me ask you something."

"You may ask," she said coolly.

"Why do you want this whoever-it-is, killed?"

Sarah glared at him with one good eye, then she looked away:  he saw her bosom lift as she took a breath, and he knew she was coming to a decision of some kind.

She reached up, seized the tail of the bow-knot that held  her hat:  she yanked at the carefully tied slip knot under her chin, ripped the hat from her head, cast it to the floor:  she reached up, found the tag ends of the bow-knot on the cloth tapes holding the veil, pulled viciously.

He saw a woman with color rising in her face, as if embarrassed, or inwardly humiliated:  she was looking quickly away, exposing half her face the way other women would blush with shame at exposing the length of a stockinged leg.

He saw a woman with what appeared to be a vicious slash the length of her face, a cut that must have taken her eye as well.

"This," Sarah hissed, her face continuing to color, "is the reason I want a man killed."

"I see," he said seriously.  "Please ... resume your ..."

Sarah hung the half-veil over her disfigurement, tied it quickly, tightly:  she bent, snatched up her hat, placed it a little more carefully over her head:  the broad ribbon with which it was tied down, served to hold the veil in place for its draping length.

"How do you wish him killed?"  he asked casually, reaching down and picking up the leather poke.

"I want him gut shot," Sarah said, "the way you had the Sheriff killed."

"I wasn't sure he was dead."

"Oh, yes, he's dead," Sarah said, her smile tight.  "Your men missed their first volley and he shot two of them and then ran.  They ran as well.  He pursued them with a shotgun and killed one, but he was shot -- here -- low on the right side.  Busted the big gut and there was no salvation.  He killed his murderers, and then he died slowly."  She looked very directly at him.  "He died screaming in pain.  You could hear him for a little less than a mile, and not even the doctor's damned poppy juice eased his pain."

Sarah could not miss the look of satisfaction her words gave him.

He nodded, slowly:  he almost spoke, but reconsidered.

"You know why I want a man killed.  Why did you want the Sheriff killed?"

"I have my reasons."

He looked down at the poke, turned, placed it on the dresser, began to worry at the knot with thumb-and finger-nails.

He frowned a little, worked at the knot, his attention on the contrary knot:  by the time he realized there was movement in the mirror in front of him, he had time to raise his head for a better look and that was absolutely all.

He never felt the dagger that drove into his spine, just barely below the base of the skull.

The Black Agent made a study of such matters; she knew an injury there was instantly fatal, and silent:  she'd come to apprehend the individual who tried to kill her pale-eyed Papa, and very nearly succeeded:  she stepped back as he collapsed -- his collapse was instantaneous, boneless, as if he were a sack full of ground sausage meat -- she reached down, set the sole of her shoe on the back of his skull and worked the dagger free.

She wiped it on his immaculate coat, sloshed it a bit in the pitcher of water, wiped it again, returned it to its sleeve sheath.

Sarah opened her grip, removed a small bottle of solvent, wiped the artificial scars from her skin:  she scrubbed her entire face, giving her complexion an overall, healthy glow; she removed her plain-looking dress, slipped into another, from her grip, a dress of light purple and a deep, richer purple; she folded the hat, rolled it mercilessly, folded and rolled the dress she'd been wearing, packed them away in her grip.

She picked up the poke of gold, slipped it into the grip as well:  she went through the dead man's pockets, removed his watch, a ring, but left a well-stuffed wallet:  the watch and the ring she would give to the Sheriff.

He might recognize them.

She opened his coat, found a pocket, some papers:  one was a letter, another, a receipt, with the same name on both.

These went into her bodice as well.

Sarah opened the door just a little, looked, listened; she slipped into the shadowed, stuffy hallway, walked quickly, quietly to the back of the building.

As she suspected, the back stairs were well used and solid, without squeak or groan underfoot, and the back door's hinges were well oiled and silent.

Sarah made her way unhurriedly to the Depot:  the porter smiled and touched his shining cap-brim as she boarded the passenger car.

She presented her ticket to the conductor as they got underway; she rose after a few minutes, picked up her grip, walked slowly to the rear of the car -- she walked uncertainly, as if she were unused to walking in a moving rail-car.

Sarah smiled as they were suddenly in darkness.

She leaped, as she'd practiced a thousand times, leaping gracefully from the rear of the passenger car onto the narrow deck of the private car; she slipped inside, quickly stripped out of her purple dress, hid it and her grip in what used to be a jail cell, and resumed the fine McKenna gown with which she'd begun the journey.

The tunnel was not a long one, and another followed soon after.

Sarah opened the door to the private car, leaned out into the tunnel's smoke-fouled dark, and screamed, as loud as she possibly could, then she clapped a hand over her own mouth to cut it off; she ducked back, shut the door, felt her way around the Judge's desk and sat in the padded chair.

They came once again into daylight.

Sarah picked up a book, opened it, thrust in a finger and closed it, as if to mark her place:  she rose as men came out of the passenger car, looking around:  the conductor came out, alarm on his face:  he looked through the window at Sarah, and Sarah rose, swept around the desk with the ease and grace of a bluewater sailor on a gently rocking ship's deck.

She opened the door, looked curiously at the distressed committee crowding the passenger car's back railing.

"I heard a scream," she said, "whatever happened?"

"A passenger fell," the conductor said uncertainly.

"Or she jumped," one of the assembled hazarded.

Sarah pressed the back of her fingers to her lips, eyes wide:  "Oh, no," she murmured.

"Did ye see anything, ma'am?"

Sarah shook her head.  "No, I ... I was ready to light a lamp when we went into the first tunnel and then decided against it ... oh, how horrible!"  She turned her head quickly, pressing the back of her bent wrist to her lips:  she backed into the private car, closed the door, the very image of feminine distress.

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

451. A RUTHLESS MAN

As usual, Linn's golden stallion very nearly stepped on the man's foot.

As usual, Linn pulled his foot six inches and avoided calamity.

As usual, he swung the saddle over his stallion's back.

As usual, the near stirrup fell off the saddle horn and smacked the engraved hammer spur of his right hand Colt revolver.

As usual, he blessed the man who taught him the chant, "Load one, skip one, load four, cock."

Jacob watched his father dress the stallion for the day's work.

Jacob, the Sheriff's oldest son, held his counsel as he saw his father tending this routine morning detail.

Jacob knew what it was to be shot, to be hurt; he had a minor collection of scars, of aches and pains that come of horse handling, of ranching, of encountering men who wished him harm, but he had nowhere near the injuries his father survived.

Jacob's ear twitched a little -- almost as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-finger -- as the distant echo of The Lady Esther's whistle shivered through the cold, thin morning air.

They could see their breath this morning:  summer was in retreat, they knew, and Jacob and hired men had been busy with harvest -- cutting and shocking wheat, corn, putting up hay; his father worked as best he could, and truth be told, the pale eyed old man worked himself too long and too hard:  no one dared counsel the Grand Old Man to take it easier; he drove himself harder and with less mercy than he would have driven a healthy man, and when he finally set down his scythe and nearly collapsed, out of sight of the others, and in the shade of a friendly tree, Jacob brought him a canteen, a woven basket, and a concerned look.

Linn wiped his face with a sweat stained bandanna that used to be a tablecloth, before it got stained and torn and was disassembled into other useful elements.

Jacob hunkered beside his Pa, his face carefully impassive, and his pale father looked back at him.

"I know," Linn said, his voice almost steady.

Jacob nodded:  words were not needed:  he rose and rejoined the men, as Linn reached into the basket, withdrew a small canning jar, unscrewed the lid, took a long sip of good California brandy.

Not until he'd downed a good swig of Old Soul Saver did he refer to the canteen, and then to a cloth wrapped sandwich.

The ground did not make a terribly comfortable seat, but he'd had worse; he ate slowly, savoring the small meal, deliberately refusing to feel guilty that good men and true were still laboring in the sun, still cutting hay and crops and sweating:  he'd long ago learned that sometimes men labor and sometimes they rest, and he knew he was still hurting from being shot.

He'd learned other lessons, just as long ago:  pain was to be ignored, for it was a constant in a man's life.

As the brandy relaxed his muscles and relaxed his mind, he recalled the stranger he and Jacob ate with, there in the Silver Jewel.

It was not at all uncommon for travelers to stop for a drink, for a meal; the Silver Jewel had a well deserved reputation for hospitality, for excellent food, for straight games: a drummer came through, an Easterner with a sallow face and a melancholy disposition, and the Sheriff -- again, as was not at all uncommon -- the Sheriff asked him to share a table, and the two men shared a meal, for the Sheriff learned long ago that many men are like a water pump.

Prime them, and they can produce a surprising volume.

And so he'd primed this stranger, primed him with words and with a meal, and again, as was not at all uncommon, the fellow carried a burden, and felt the need to talk.

Linn had gained much information from just such moments, and so he let the man talk:  if there was nothing to be gained directly for the Sheriff's peacekeeping concerns, sometimes there was background information that might come in handy, but as the Sheriff told Jacob years before, "It's interesting to look at the world through someone else's eyes."

And so this drummer, this Easterner, unburdened himself, helped with refills on his plate, his beer mug, the coffee mug:  the man was a recent widower, he'd decided to take a look to the West and see if that was more to his taste, and he'd found it wasn't:  the West, he said, was for a harder man than he -- he admitted that perhaps that was because he'd so recently lost his beloved wife, Ruth -- the Sheriff listened patiently as he described the woman in the gentle words of a man who genuinely loved a kind and generous soul, and now felt so empty without her.

They discussed the area, the drummer used phrases like "sales potential" and other fancy terms the Sheriff understood instantly, but hadn't heard before; the man knew retail, it was plain, but he was not comfortable this far from towns, from crowds, and he expressed an uncertainty as to his fitness for life this far from civilization.

The Sheriff listened much and said little -- this, he'd found, was the secret to gathering information, especially from a stranger -- when finally the cute little waitress set pie down in front of both men, when she refilled the Sheriff's coffee and the drummer declined another beer -- after their conversation ranged wider than the drummer's profession -- the Sheriff nodded gravely as the man concluded that perhaps his lot should indeed be cast back East.

The Sheriff agreed quietly that there were more people there with coin in their purse, and a man had ought to be where he's most comfortable; the men rose and shook hands, and the drummer thanked the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache for a most enlightening conversation.

Never mind that in better than an hour and a half of conversation, the Sheriff hadn't spoken more than two minutes' worth.

The drummer watched as the hash slinger swung her hips and sashayed bac to another table, and the Sheriff saw a sadness cross the man's face as the drummer almost whispered, "I miss my Ruth," and then he turned and walked out of the Silver Jewel.

Sheriff Linn Keller opened his eyes, realizing the sun had moved a surprising distance; his son was only just walking up to him, hunkered down beside him.

"Is all well, sir?" the son asked the father, and the father smiled ever so slightly and said, "I was remembering a Ruthless man."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

452. A FACE FULL OF GREEN BEANS

 

"What happened?"

Marnie was looking straight ahead, through the windshield of her Gammaw's Jeep.

Glaring straight ahead would have been the more accurate term.

"That new football jock grabbed my backside."

Willamina nailed the brakes and she looked very directly at her granddaughter.

"WHAT?"

Marnie's jaw was thrust out and the color was standing out over her cheek bones.

"I hit him, Gammaw, and the fight was on."

Willamina pulled off in a wide place, stopped the Jeep again, shut off the engine; she released her seat belt, turned in her seat, turned to face her granddaughter squarely.

"What ... exactly ... happened?"

"Before, or after he got a double handful?"  Marnie's face was white, the flesh drawn tight over her cheekbones, her eyes ice-pale and unblinking.

"Before."

"He was bragging what he'd like to do to me."

"Which was?"

Marnie turned her head, glared at her Gammaw:  her jaw was set, her expression was less than kindly.

"I see.  That kind of bragging."  Willamina blinked, nodded.  "Where was he when he grabbed you?"

"He was directly behind me, Gammaw."

"And how did you hit him?"

Marnie took a long breath.

"We were in the lunch line.  I'd just picked up my tray.  I threw it back overhead and took him flat in the face as hard as I could swing it."  Marnie took a long breath.  "It was kind of an awkward first strike, but I thought I'd give him a face full of green beans and take it from there."

"A face full of green beans," Willamina murmured.

Marnie was not looking at her Gammaw, at least not until her Gammaw made kind of a funny noise.

Marnie blinked, turned to look at her Gammaw again.

The Sheriff was turning red.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, summoned to the high school at the report of a fight, having interrogated half the combatants, had the back of her wrist to her mouth; she was trying hard not to laugh, and having little luck:  she giggled, she snickered, she leaned back in her seat and laughed:  Marnie looked at her Gammaw and felt the knots in her belly unwind a little.

She watched in honest surprise as Willamina leaned her head forward, against the steering wheel, making the approximate sounds of a chicken laying a paving brick, and it was a minute or three before the pale eyed Sheriff was able to wipe her eyes and take a few breaths, and recover her composure.

"Now tell me," Willamina said, "who else heard him, and who else saw what happened, and where exactly did this occur?"

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna laid the papers down in front of the Judge and the Sheriff.

"This," she said, "and this ... the names match, I believe them to be the deceased."

She opened the pocket watch, lay it between the papers, added the signet to her little collection.

"The watch and the ring are also identifiers."

His Honor frowned at the names, examined the watch, the ring:  he handed the hunter cased watch to the Sheriff and said "It's a watch, all right, but bless me if I can make out what's inside the case."

The Sheriff frowned, reached into an inside pocket, withdrew a set of spectacles:  he frowned at the watch's inner case, nodded, looked again at the letter and at the receipt.

"I have two wanted dodgers on this man," he said thoughtfully.  "If you'd brought in his carcass, you could have lined your purse."

Sarah made no reply.

"I take it," the Judge said thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair, "that apprehension was out of the question."

"It was, Your Honor."

"Then we are satisfied, and the Court thanks you for your efforts."

"Is there anything you'd like to add?"  the Sheriff asked with a deceptively gentle voice.

"Yes there is."  Sarah's eyes grew cold.  "When I told him you'd been gut shot, that you'd died slow and in unbearable pain, he was quite pleased, and when I said your screams could be heard for half a mile, he laughed and dry-washed his hands.  When I asked why he'd had you killed, he said he had his reasons, but he did not elaborate."

"Convicted by the imprecations of his own mouth," the Judge said thoughtfully.

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Hm.  If he'd found the Sheriff survived, he'd very likely have tried again."

"I thought so, Your Honor."

"Sheriff?  Any idea why he wanted you killed?"

Linn nodded slowly.  "I ran afoul of him a few times.  Cost him twice -- I kept him from holding up the messenger, to the tune of two thousand dollars in gold ...  it cost him two years in prison on top of that."

"Hm."  The Judge grunted, puffed anew on his dying Cuban, rolling grey clouds into the still air.  "Good riddance, then."

"I thought so, Your Honor."

"Tell me, Agent."

"Yes, Your Honor?"

"Are you always so cold-blooded?"

"Not always, Your Honor," Sarah said candidly.  "Only when it's the right thing."

 

The Sheriff herself conducted the interviews; it took two days, as the students' parents had to be present, and the Sheriff had to corroborate statements with the video evidence:  after a school board level hearing, Marnie was exonerated, and regarded with a new respect.

The football star, on the other hand, elected to change schools, his family moving from the district, and ultimately out of state:  it seems the shame of being beat up by a cute little cheerleader was too much to bear, or maybe it was the shame of being defeated by a face full of green beans.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 1
  • Haha 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

453. NOT AGAIN!

The brawl in the cafeteria ended faster than it started.

Sheriff Marnie Keller's reflexes were better than they were when she was a cheerleader.

She'd come to the Third Colony at its Sheriff's request, and was going through the chow line, when she was grabbed in a way that did not trigger an unpleasant high-school memory.

It detonated a most unpleasant high-school memory.

Instead of the miner experiencing a pleasant grab-and-squeal, the grinning miner inherited a face full of hot food -- green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy -- right before his left knee's cartilages were blasted into shivers by a fast, well-practiced kick: his hands, reaching for his face, dropped as a sunball of agony flared into searing life halfway down his leg, which meant nothing was in the way to block the Sheriff's knee as it soared up like an ICBM on takeoff, mashing his nose flat and breaking one cheekbone.

A knife flashed: the Sheriff's bladed hand came up, she backed a half-step as she drew, and the concussion of a full-house .357 Magnum was heard for the first time in the Third Martian Colony.

Two more knives hit the floor; men backed up, hands raised cautiously, uncertainly.

"You," the Sheriff said to the groaning, retching man, "stay down.  You" -- she thrust her chin at the nearest, the one who'd pulled the blade -- "hands against the counter.  Top of the counter, face the counter, feet back and spread 'em.  You two, assume the position as well."

One of the latter two turned, slowly, put his hands on the stainless-steel counter.

The other eased slightly behind the first fellow and grinned, "No spikka-da Angaleesh --"

Watch their shoulders, she remembered:  they can't draw, punch or grab unless they drop their shoulder first.

Sheriff Marnie Keller saw the second man's shoulder drop as his hand went behind him.

The back of his head blew off in a bloody mist; the gunshot felt like a giant's hands slapping everyone's ears.

"ANYBODY ELSE?"  Sheriff Marnie Keller screamed, her face reddening, going to an absolute scarlet:  "ANYBODY ELSE?  THE HELLWAGON IS HERE AND I'M OPEN FOR BUSINESS!"

Silence echoed with the red ringing in everyone's ears.

"I WILL SAY THIS ONCE AND ONCE ONLY," Marnie shouted, anger fueling her voice:  "ANYONE WHO PULLS A WEAPON ON A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER WILL BE KILLED, ON THE SPOT, NO SECOND CHANCES AND NO DISCUSSION!  AM I UNDERSTOOD?"

Her full-powered scream echoed and rang in the cavernous, shocked-silent cafeteria.

Sheriff Eddie Rudder came running in the far door, a deputy behind him:  Marnie lifted her chin.

"TWO PRISONERS, WEAPONS VIOLATION, AIDING AND ABETTING!  TWO DEAD, ATTEMPTED MURDER ON A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER!  THIS ONE" -- she thrust her chin at the man with the bleeding face, the man gripping his knee, the man barely able to breathe for pain -- "ASSAULT ON A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER!"

Marnie shoved the Smith & Wesson's cylinder release, smacked the ejector rod with a vicious slap of her palm, rotated and dumped in six fresh rounds, closed the cylinder and sheared off the empty speedloader.

Eddie ran up, wide-eyed -- he was an experienced lawman, but not yet a blooded old veteran -- he skidded to a stop, shocked, stared slack-jawed at bloodied carcasses, at a pale-eyed Sheriff with a double handful of blued-steel justice.

Sheriff Eddie Rudder dropped his white-polymer force pistol.

Sheriff Eddie Rudder turned, bent over, and heaved up everything he'd eaten for the past two weeks.

"Lightweight," Marnie snarled, holstering her Smith, fastening the thumb break.

She drove her cold glare through the gaping, blinking deputy's soul as effectively as if she'd lanced him from a galloping horse:  "YOU!  MEDICS HERE, ONE CASUALTY, NOW!"

She raised her command pad, keyed in a sequence.

Every portal buzzed, turned red as they locked shut.

She raised the command pad to her lips, her amplified voice echoing through the hall.

"BY AUTHORITY OF THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE, NOBODY LEAVES. YOUR IDENTITIES ARE RECORDED. YOU WILL EACH GIVE A SWORN STATEMENT.  EVERYONE WHO WAS SEATED WILL REMAIN SEATED.  EVERYONE WHO WAS LINED UP WILL RESUME THEIR PLACE IN LINE."

One portal chimed, turned green; a medical team ran in, ran toward the Sheriff in the white Olympic skinsuit, the Sheriff who raised a summoning arm and yelled "OVER HERE!"

 

Hans relaxed in his command chair, rubbed his eyes.

His Valkyries had spent their day in the simulator, and he'd spent his day watching them from his review station.

The new engines promised to perform better than he'd imagined.

Gracie sat down beside him, handed him a steaming mug of tea.

He sipped it noisily, the way he always did:  he closed his eyes with pleasure as the first swallow warmed him all the way to his belt buckle.

"This," he murmured, "is better than usual."

"Home grown," Gracie smiled.  "I grew that batch myself."

Hans took another appreciative sip.

"How are the new engines?"

"Better than expected."

"I'm still mad at you."

"Oh?"  He managed to look innocent as he regarded his smiling wife over the rim of both their steaming mugs.

"You know what I mean," Gracie scolded gently.  "You installed fighter jet controls instead of helo controls because you didn't want me flying them."

"You can handle a stick and rudder," he protested.

"I trained on a collective," she said, her voice wistful, and Hans saw memories in his wife's eyes.  "You'll never appreciate it, jet boy, but there's nothing like three engines driving a Super Stallion!"

"Too much noise and vibration," Hans frowned.

"That's part of the fun!"

"If it's noise you want" -- he leaned over, turned on another screen, tapped a few keys.

The evening news came on.

The familiar face of the announcer, who doubled as a research scientist, came on the screen:  behind him, the image of something human shaped, white and fast moving, something that froze, zoomed in to show a six point star with the single word SHERIFF along its arc.

Gracie sat up, lowered her mug, stared unblinking at the screen.

"An attempt was made to murder Sheriff Marnie Keller during an officer requested investigation in the Third Colony," the announcer said solemnly.  "The attack came in the cafeteria line.  One attacker is under arrest, two attackers are dead, shot while perpetuating an armed attack on our chief law enforcement officer.  The Sheriff is reportedly unharmed.

"In other news --"

Hans' hand lowered the volume.  

"What about the noise?"  Gracie asked, surprised.

Hans tapped a few more keys, then one more.

A surveillance view, from above:  the Sheriff flipped her stamped-steel tray up over her head, smacking a man flat in the face:  the tray's contents sprayed out around and behind his head.

The picture froze momentarily, a lighter circle appearing around the man's hands, and where they were gripping the Sheriff in a rather improper place and fashion.

"Good for you, Willa," Gracie murmured.

Movement resumed:  the Sheriff spun, impossibly fast, drew a leg up to her chest and then out and down, into the targeted knee:  there was no sound, but in her imagination, Gracie added the sound of a stalk of celery being twisted, hard, and she flinched at the sight and the imagined sound.

White-sheathed hands seized the descending head, the uprising knee caught the descending face, blood squirted in two directions, in slow motion, and in living color.

The screen shifted, up and to the right; the lighter circle appeared around a blade, gripped for an upward thrust.

"Here it comes," Hans murmured.

The white-sheathed arm and hand drove back, down, came back up.

The screen froze as fire drove a yellow lance from the blued-steel muzzle of an old-fashioned revolver:  mercifully, the actual bullet strike was not shown.

The playback was held frozen during the sound of two gunshots, then resumed, zooming in on dropped knives on the deck, at the familiar sound of Marnie's voice, edged with tension and at at full battlefield volume, giving very clear, very concise, very plainly stated orders.

"Examination has shown the Sheriff's actions were necessary, and were justified," the announcer continued, "and the originator of the attack has been charged with multiple counts."

Hans shut off the news feed.

"Was that enough noise for you?" he asked innocently.

"No.  I want more."

"More?"

Gracie laughed, and Hans could not help himself:  this was the woman he loved more than any, and when she laughed, his heart was light enough to fly on its own.

"Yes, more"  She sipped her tea, gave him a long look he understood, a look that made him feel much younger.

"There is a square dance tonight.  I'll be playing, and so will my students.  I plan to let them play a set, and I intend to dance with my husband."

Hans raised an eyebrow, drained his tea, set his mug down.

"I envy the lucky fellow," he murmured, and Gracie scooted her chair closer, took his hand, smiled a little more.

"You are lucky," she said, "and I am glad for it."

 

Marnie came into her office, frowning:  she went to her desk, opened the broad, shallow center drawer, withdrew a box of shells:  she refilled her speedloader, returned it to her belt.

"I saw the news broadcast," a voice said, and Marnie nodded tiredly.

"Likely the entire colony has, by now," she sighed.

"It was on the big screen in the cafeteria."

"For Big Lunch, I suppose?"

"Of course."

"The place was packed."
"It was."

"Not one of the little lunches."

"No."

"And?"

Dr. John Greenlees, Jr., rose and walked over to his wife.

He ran his arms around her, looked very directly into her pale eyes, bent and kissed her forehead.

"I haven't heard a cheer like that since the last birth announcement," he murmured, and Marnie hugged her husband, feeling his warmth, hearing his heartbeat, smelling his soap.

"Will you be at the square dance tonight?" John asked quietly, his voice rumbling deep in his chest.

"Mmm, wouldn't miss it, handsome," she mumbled as she raised her face to his, and his lips put a gentle halt to any further conversation.

 

Sarah Lynne Hake was alone in the launch bay.

She'd had a pallette of paint in one hand, a fan of small artist's brushes in the other; she backed up as one of the schoolgirls came off the ladder, took the brushes and the pallette with a smile and a polite "Thank you," and Sarah looked up at her Interceptor.

Back on Earth, Sarah's Daddy had flown a fighter jet with the Iron Cross as its insignia.

Her Mama's black Super Stallion had a white circle on its side:  on the circle, a rearing black stallion with a white star between its eyes, and astride the stallion, an armored Valkyrie with an upraised lance.

When the first surface shuttle flew on the Red Planet, it had her Mama's insignia at the center of a huge black Iron Cross, and Marnie had the same insignia painted on her ship.

Stenciling the heat resistant main insignia was not difficult; the black paint was baked onto shining steel, almost as if baking on a layer of flexible ceramic: the white center was also simplicity itself, though it, too, required a full day to apply, bake and cure.

Both days, the guts of her Interceptor were being torn out, replaced, rebuilt; her beloved Maniacs, as they'd called the flight mechanics -- or, rather, as the party-loving mechanics called themselves -- labored steadily as a schoolgirl, balanced on a tall stepladder, brought a rearing black stallion to life inside a white circle.

She added a personal touch.

The schoolgirl was a talented portrait artist in her own right, and the Valkyrie's face, within its winged helm, was the flawlessly-rendered face of its pilot.

There was no mistaking Sarah Lynne's ship, even if one ignored the name carefully laid in below the rearing horse's rear hooves:

Snowflake

Sarah Lynne Hake bit her bottom lip as she stared at the nose art, as she nodded:  she looked away as the curing lamps were wheeled into place, and she and the artist were well away before the lamps began baking the insignia into permanence.

That evening, after the square dance, Sarah came back to the bay, stared long at herself astride a black war-horse, remembering the many things she'd read about a particular ancestress who rode such a horse.

"Aunt Sarah," she whispered, "I wish you could see this!"

And in the darkness, after the last of the Maniacs packed their tools and departed, after the lights were shut off and the bay doors sealed, one could be forgiven if one fancied hearing a horse's hooves, echoing in the empty launch bay.

Restless hooves, impatient to run.

 

 

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

454. HELLWAGON

Linn and Shelly sat together, watching the big monitor:  Linn was leaned forward, elbows on his knees, eyes unblinking:  Shelly rocked their little boy on her lap, careful not to pull him too tightly on her growing belly.

The solemn announcer's image was surprisingly good, considering the the distance, through the void, seared by cosmic rays and sieved by micrometeors: the voice was rich, confident, reporting on the local happenings in the Second Martian Colony.

"And now for tonight's Firelands News," he intoned:  "our Sheriff Marnie Keller was the victim of an assassination attempt tonight while going through the chow line during her invited investigation in the Third Colony.  According to reports, the Sheriff was able to take down one attacker, but was obliged to terminate two others with extreme prejudice.  Those surviving their gang attack on a lone law enforcement officer are expected to face the severest justice."

Over his shoulder, an inset square, with the white-suited Sheriff attacking her first assailant, then the draw, the two shots, the camera's zoom on knives dropped to the deck.

Shelly looked over at her pale eyed husband.

Linn's expression was neutral -- frighteningly neutral -- and his face was pale.

Shelly laid a gentle hand on her husband's.

He opened his hand, gently enveloped his wife's:  he looked at his bride, then at the portraits on the wall.

Shelly saw his eyes stop on a particular photograph, shot against an absolutely blazing sunset.

The photographer planned the shot well:  the camera had been swung with the subject, then a little ahead -- "like leading a clay pigeon," as it had been explained to the interested lawman -- "you want to leave room enough in your frame for the subject to move into."

The subject was Marnie Keller, probably about fourteen or fifteen years old:  the shot had been taken against the sunset, but horse and rider were illuminated by remote-fired strobes.

Instead of a silhouette against the fiery evening sky, Linn's little girl was perfectly illuminated.

The photo had been enlarged; Linn studied the shot, saw the hand tooled detail in her hatband, saw her braids, bouncing off her shoulder blades, the texture of her flannel shirt, the stitched detail in her red cowboy boots.

He saw her expression, and her eyes, and he remembered, the way a father will ... he remembered the look of absolute, utter joy Marnie had when she rode, when she had a responsive horse under her, when she had a horse that challenged her, and she turned that horse from a creature of flesh, blood, hooves and bone, to a creature of magic and flight.

Linn remembered the night that shot was taken, and how Sarah leaned out over the stallion's neck, how she'd screamed "DAMN YOU SON OF PERDITION, RUN!" -- and run they did -- his breath caught in his throat as they flew like a low-altitude fighter jet for an impossibly wide arroyo --

If ever there was a time when Linn knew horses were creatures of magic, that was the night.

His stallion was a creature of fire and fight, of energy and challenge, but that night, that night it was not a horse and a rider.

No.

Far from it.

That night, after the photograph was taken, that one perfect, flawless, gorgeous portrait of his little girl doing what she loved, Linn saw magic swim across the earth, and that magic looked like a horse, for only a creature with wings could have crossed that gulf and lived.

Marnie and his stallion touched down, lightly, on the other side, galloped a great distance, in a great circle, drawing dust up behind them:  they rode nearly a complete circle, rode around behind her pale eyed Daddy and the photographer; the stallion cantered up to the Sheriff, walking the last twenty yards, ears and tail swinging, and as Linn reached for the long, fur-trimmed nose to caress it, the stallion snapped at him, strong yellow teeth nearly closing on lawman's fingers.

Marnie kicked her feet free of the doghouse stirrups, threw one leg up, fell through space until she landed, flat-footed on the ground, skipped happily to the horse's head and fearlessly caressed him, murmuring to him and calling him a good boy, and damned if that man-snapping stallion didn't lay his chin over Marnie's shoulder and whicker happily, quietly, closing shining-dark eyes in pleasure and she caressed him anew.

Shelly knew all this as she watched her husband's eyes, for a wife knows her husband, and it did not surprise her to see a tear roll over his bottom lid and streak wetly down his cheek.

He looked at her, embarrassed, dashed the wet from his cheek:  "I'm just an old softy," he whispered huskily, and Shelly leaned over, hugged her husband.

"I know," she whispered back.  "That's why I love you, you old softy!"

Linn blew his nose, looked at the now-blank monitor, reached over, shut it off.

"What was it they called her?" he blinked, looking curiously at his wife.

Their two-year-old son blinked and declared with a little boy's innocence, "Hellwagon!"

Linn shook his head, laughed.

"Hell of a name for a girl," he sighed, "but y'know, it fits!"

"Hellwagon," their little boy said again with an emphatic nod of his dark-auburn-haired head.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

455. BONE CONDUCTION

Linn looked at Shelly, astride her mare, with their little boy standing up on the saddle behind her, gripping her shoulders.

Normally it would have brought a smile to the lean waisted lawman's face.

Shelly got that funny feeling in her belly, that feeling she used to get when Linn's pale eyed Mama would say something -- like when Shelly walked into the Silver Jewel and Willamina took one look at her, came skipping over, grabbed her with a squeal and a hug and declared in a hushed voice, "Shelly, you're pregnant!"

Like the time Linn told her about his Mama sitting bolt upright in bed, how she yelled his name, how they both came boiling out onto the upstairs landing wearing what was essential -- she, a white-flannel nightgown and an irritated expression -- he, his Stetson and a firmly set jaw -- they looked at one another, the mother with the double barrel twelve-bore, the son with a Winchester rifle -- they stopped, they returned to their bedrooms, they emerged again in the same moment, both still armed, but more appropriately attired:  neither spoke, both hit the Jeep's front seat, and Willamina did her best to set the Land Speed Record out of town.

Neither spoke.

It was two miles to the scene of the wreck.

Willamina's husband Richard was hurt, but not badly:  Willamina and Linn were first on scene:  after they bailed out of the Jeep -- after Willamina locked the brakes, threw her four wheel drive into a broad side skid, scattering gravel from the shoulder, rubber protesting at the abuse -- after they ran for the subject vehicle, after both bellied down, Linn at what used to be the passenger window and Willamina at what used to be the driver's window -- only then did either of them say a word, and that was not until Richard regained enough functioning brain cells to say, "Ow."

Linn looked across his father's nose -- the man was hanging upside down from his seat belt -- and said "I can get in," and Willamina said "Go," and Linn rolled over on his back, slithered in like a snake, and with Willamina steadying the man's shoulders, Linn managed to hold his weight as he popped the seat belt's buckle, keeping him from driving his head into the wrinkled roof of the car.

Shelly recalled Linn's quiet words as they sat in the car, in the driveway, and he recounted the moment.

Shelly recalled how he'd looked at her with that knowing expression and said, "It wasn't until we put it into words later that we really realized what we'd done.  Mama knew when he lost it on that curve and rolled, and I knew she'd come off the bed like a stung Siamese cat, and until we said out loud what we'd done ... we didn't realize we'd done it."

Shelly looked at her husband, recognized the look on his face -- his eyes went very pale and his jaw muscles bulged -- he lowered the cell phone from his ear.

He'd told her earlier their little boy should ride her saddle and not his, and Shelly got that same funny feeling, for he had that same knowing look when he said it, and now she knew she was right.

"Head for the house," he said, his voice flat:  his stallion spun, reared, took out at a gallop, and Shelly's stomach fell to the approximate level of her mare's hooves.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller closed her hands into fists.

She crushed her fists closed, and Dr. John Greenlees Jr. looked at her and raised an eyebrow as he heard one, then another, quiet, cartilaginous pop, pop -- and he knew she'd fisted her hands hard enough to crack two knuckles.

She'd done it before, he'd been there when she did, and both times she was happy enough with something, or someone, to rip the horn off an anvil and toss it over the nearest mountain peak.

Marnie looked at the camera's unblinking eye.

"Daddy," she said, "I went white eyed again, and I'm not proud of it."

She closed her eyes, took a long breath, considered before adding, "I am really, really trying to be the master of my temper, Daddy, but when someone pulls a knife on me there is no salvation and when ... I ..."

Marnie cleared her throat.

"Daddy, they're building an artificial knee joint to replace the one I destroyed.  There's no salvation.  You saw the news report.  The good news is that Mars 3 is considerably more peaceful since my investigation -- by the way, I figured it out and Bonnie and Clyde and two others are locked up with an airtight case against them.  I'm also ... regarded ... differently here.  People got used to me as Marnie the White."  She snorted.  "Hell, maybe I should go back to red boots and a flannel shirt instead of the skinsuit, but I'm in and out of places where there's a good chance of atmospheric loss.  Colonists in surface structures all wear suits -- atmosphere suits -- the Undergrounders don't."

Marnie closed her eyes, rubbed her forehead, looked at the camera again.

"And now ... even here, they're starting to call me Sheriff Hellwagon."

She looked over the camera, at her patient, silent husband.

"John, I'm sorry, I really am, but sometimes a girl just wants her Daddy."

 

A little boy, back on Earth, scampered back into the house, happily grabbing two chocolate chip cookies and pattering into the living room.

The light was on, blinking, and he reached up, hit a button, hit another, and the screen flared bright-grey, then blue with red lettering and an insignia.

A delighted little boy's eyes widened as he saw a familiar face and heard the words, "Daddy, I went white eyed again," and cookie crumbs scattered across the keyboard as he exclaimed happily, "Hellwagon!"

 

Marnie raised her head at the communications chime:  she pressed a key, pressed another, and a little boy with wind-reddened cheeks, a little boy waving a chocolate chip cookie, a little boy in a red-flannel shirt stood between her Daddy's chair and the desk, a delighted look on his face.

Marnie blinked, and then laughed, at the delighted juvenile pronouncement, and Dr. John smiled, ever so slightly, as the little boy's voice came over the speakers:

"Hellwagon!"

Marnie looked at her husband, shook her head.

"What have I done, John?" she groaned, and they looked at one another and chorused in a groaning lament:

"Meee and my biiiiiig mouuuth!"

 

Linn ground-reined his stallion, put a finger to his lips.

The stallion snapped at his other hand, barely missing.

"Yeah, God loves you, too," Linn muttered, turning.

He looked at the neat row of houses -- three of them built close together -- the middle house showed a house number on its back porch, right under the back porch light, for which Linn was most grateful.

He'd taught an Academy course the year before, and one real-life lesson he'd included, was a raid team that hit the back door of a house, instead of the front, but they'd miscounted and hit the wrong back door.

A year later, the acting police chief had to issue a formal, official apology, and the media made quite a bit of the fact that it took a year's worth of the wronged resident's efforts to get an official statement that yes, the wrong house was hit, yes it was the raid team's fault, and yes they were sorry.

Linn catfooted towards the unlighted back deck.

The sliding door was partially open.

His foot came down on something that wasn't grass.

He looked down.

His well polished Wellington boot was inside a semicircle of bare dirt.

Only one thing kept grass from growing, and had a neatly circumscribed border.

Linn looked to the center of the semicircle.

A Doberman, inside his box, was looking at the pale eyed deputy, ears laid back, teeth bared, and growling.

I don't want to shoot someone's dog.

I don't want to lose surprise.

I don't want to get bit.

Linn did what came naturally.

He raised his finger to his lips and hissed, "Ssshhh."

The Doberman ssshh'd:  its head raised a little in surprise:  the ears came up, his tongue came out, and Linn grinned.

"Good boy," he whispered, long-stepping it toward the open door.

A figure was backing toward the partially open door.

Linn stepped up onto the back deck, weight on the balls of his feet.

"I'LL KILL YOU!  YOU MOVE AND I'LL KILL YOU!"

Linn waited until the screaming kid's foot came across the threshold, until the gun he held was off-line, then he reached around, seized the kid's chin, pulled it back, grabbed the kid's elbow and twisted him to get his pointing arm away from whoever was inside.

He pulled, hard, dumped the kid over his leg, landed on top of him.

The gun the kid held went off, the bullet gouging the deck boards and tearing a long rip in the vinyl siding before falling off to the side and hitting the sod:  the stainless steel barrel of Linn's .44 drove hard against the bone just behind his ear as he eared the hammer back.

The triple click and clatter of a single action .44 rolling around to full cock is an amazing thing in a quiet room.

It was fully appreciated by the criminal, prone and pinned on the back deck of the home he'd just invaded, robbed and terrorized, for the gun muzzle was pressing quite firmly against the scalp, guaranteeing a perfect bone conduction of the big bore persuader's immediate intent.

Linn heard tires skidding out front, slamming doors,  running feet, shouted voices:  he looked up as his backup arrived.

"Cuffs," he snapped:  booted feet charged up onto the deck, hard hands seized the prisoner, secured criminal wrists, hauled the miscreant upright.

Linn rose, lowered his revolver's hammer, holstered.

He turned, looked into the home's darkened interior.

"SHERIFF'S OFFICE!" he barked.  "WHO'S HURT?"

 

The news announcer's smooth voice was edged with amusement.

Marnie looked at the big, wall-mounted screen in the lunchroom and groaned.

"John, you didn't," she pleaded, and Dr. John Greenlees picked up his tray and blinked innocently.

"Who, me?"

"And a viewer's comment on our previous evening broadcast," the announcer said:  the screen flickered, showed Sheriff Marnie Keller bristled up like a Banty hen, a double handful of frontier justice in her white-handed grip:  "ANYBODY ELSE?  THE HELLWAGON IS HERE, AND I'M OPEN FOR BUSINESS!"

The screen flickered again, and on the big screen, elevated so everyone in the cavernous cafeteria could see it, a happy little red-cheeked boy in a flannel shirt holding a chocolate-chip cookie, grinning as he declared, "Hellwagon!" in a happy little red-cheeked boy's voice.

Willamina shot a guilty look at the fellow who happily pounded her shoulder in congratulations, she turned a remarkable shade of red at the several additional congratulations she received, she had to explain that the lad was her little brother she'd never met, and when she and Dr. John returned to their quarters, some anonymous soul made it to her door before she did ... someone with the skill to letter the name plate, neatly, precisely, someone who mounted SHERIFF MARNIE HELLWAGON on the door.

Marnie looked at the new plate, she looked at her husband, she reached for her husband and she said, "Hold me, John."

Dr. John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, wasn't sure quite why -- personally, he thought the name fit -- and then his wife buried her face in his chest and began to laugh, muffling the sound of her mirth and merriment in the warm and manly shirtfront before her.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Posted (edited)

456. LA GOLONDRINA

 

"That," the woman said gently, "is a misconception."

A hard man sat on a rock, swept free of dirt, of sand, by the perpetual wind.

He'd dismounted, he'd watered his horse, filled his canteen, taken a long, grateful drink: as he usually did in such moments, when he felt the desiccated flesh of his throat crackle and rehydrate, soaking up so much of his swallow that damn little got to his gut, he sighed with pleasure:  "God Almighty, that's good," he whispered, not so much a statement of fact (which it was), but a prayer of thanksgiving.

He was not a terribly religious man, mostly because he'd been taught as a child that nothing he did would ever be good enough to earn his way into Paradise, and so he lived his life as best he could: like most men of the West, he was rough enough to survive, he was practical enough to do what was needful to keep himself fed, clothed and in saddle leather, and though he'd never been terribly sinful, he'd neither been outstandingly good.

He was an old man now, an old man, wore plumb out, probably ... hell, he'd lost track.

Maybe forty now.

Maybe.

He looked at his hands, at the light lines crossing the backs of his his hands, the one going up under his wrist and disappearing under his shirt's cuff, remembering each of them, remembering how they were gained and how they hurt and how he ignored the hurt until he was away from the danger.

He looked to his horse, gauging the flare of the nostrils, the position of the ears, the overall posture, and then he realized he was further gone than he'd realized.

His horse died a day ago and he was alone, and on foot, and more lost than he'd ever been.

He squinted up at the cloudless sky, felt the sun searing through trail-dusty clothes, saw wheeling specks that meant the vultures were about and searching.

Well, hell, why not, he thought.

I've et enough in my lifetime.

Reckon they got to eat too, so why not me?

His lips pulled back in a snarl and he felt his canteen, shook it a little, nodded.

He drank again, slowly, refilled the blanket covered, wax lined container, waited a little longer, working himself into what little shade there was, and when he was able, he drank more, filling his stomach.

The best place to carry water, he knew, was inside him, and if he was plumb full and had a canteen as well, he'd stand the best chance of getting somewhere.

The practical side of his mind said he'd likely die in the effort, but he didn't listen to the seductive voice: giving up had never been in his nature, and he wasn't about to.

He heard something -- his ear twitched, he turned his head --

A horse?

Hope rose in his heart; he squinted, saw movement through the thorny brush --

Something black, very black, and something white -- so white he couldn't bear to look at it in the noonday sun --

A woman's voice --

What's a woman doing out here?

If it's a woman she's likely with a company and that will mean food --

The woman was dressed all in white, all but her black, flat heeled boots: she was not a large creature, and looked all the smaller for riding atop the biggest, absolutely the BIGGEST, BLACKEST horse he'd ever seen in his entire life.

The horse stopped, looked at him, looked around, as if looking for graze; finding none, the horse drifted to the water hole, drank.

The woman threw up a leg, slid out of a saddle, fell to earth, her white nun's habit rippling as she fell:  she landed easily, flat-footed, arms out in front of her, knees bent:  she rose, slipped her hands into her sleeves, tilted her head a little.

He couldn't tell what she was thinking, he couldn't even see her face:  she wore a white silk veil over her entire face, she was covered completely -- hell, she could have green skin with red stripes and he'd not now it!

The woman turned, reached up, stretched up on the balls of her feet, unbuckled a saddlebag:  it was a stretch for her, but she managed; she brought out two cloth wrapped bundles, came over to the man.

"I'm sorry I have no coffee," she said gently, "but I hate to eat alone.  Would you join me?"

He blinked, surprised, reached dirty hands out to accept the red-and-white-tablecloth-check-wrapped bundle, and he smelled fresh baked bread, he smelled meat, and as his teeth sheared through the bread-wrapped miracle, he realized -- he'd drunk his stomach full -- but he still had room for this!

The woman sat beside him, there in the meager shade; she smacked a fly, brushed its crushed carcass to the hot, dry sand.

The mare wandered through the brush, hooves silent on the soft, sandy ground.

"She won't get far," the little white nun murmured.  "She's like us, looking for something to eat."

"My horse is dead, a day ago now."

"You were in the War."

Something cold walked down his back bone.

"Ma'am, do I know you?" he asked cautiously.

"You led men in battle and you hated winter more than you hated the Rebs."

He took another bite of his sandwich, nodded as he chewed.  "That's so."

"Right about now you'd not mind a breath of cold air."

He swallowed, chuckled.  "Right you are, little lady."  He looked sharply at her. "Or should I call you Sister?"

The little nun seemed to be looking straight ahead:  she never turned her head as she replied, "Call me anything but late for supper!"

In spite of his hardship, in spite of knowing that without a horse he was a dead man, he chuckled: her arrival, a meal, the promise of transportation, infused him with new hope.

"I never held much with religion," he admitted.

"You are Sergeant Charles Sloan."

He blinked again.  "Now how did you know that?"

"My Papa was in that damned war.  You were wounded.  So was he.  Do you still have nightmares?"

He shoved the last bite of the sandwich in his mouth, chewed, thinking fast.

"Yeah."

"Tell me about last night."

He offered her the canteen; she shook her head, raised a hand to decline:  he saw the flesh of her palm and thought, Well, she's not green and red striped, and took a short tilt from the water container.

He swallowed, blinked, realized his eyes felt better for having got water inside of him.

"I dreampt I was dyin'," he said slowly, "and a parson come up and said I warn't good enough and I'd not get into Heaven."

"And that scared you."

"Scared me bad."

"Do you believe that?"

He took a long breath, his shoulders rising, falling.

"Tell me."  Her voice was quiet in the hush of the place.  "Do you recall being dunked when you were a boy?"

He blinked, smiled:  yes, he'd been dunked in the bend of the creek behind the Dunker Church.

That had been a very long time ago.

The woman rose:  her mare came pacing back, another horse with her.

His horse.

He blinked, his mouth opened, he looked at the woman.

She rose, took his hand.

"Saddle up.  We've a distance to go yet."

He rose -- he felt oddly light -- the brush disappeared from around him, the water hole smoothed out into unremarkable sand and rock, he looked to his left and saw a horse on the ground, dead; beside it, face down, a dusty man, an empty canteen, its stopper hanging from the short chain.

In the man's hand was clenched a red and white tablecloth checked cloth.

He looked at her, looked back at what he realized was his own dead carcass, looked at his own horse -- alive, well, not favoring that hind leg like he had for the last couple of miles -- 

"How ...?"

The diminutive, white-veiled nun shrugged.

"You were afraid nothing you did was good enough.  That much is true but it's not the whole story."

He frowned, turned his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"You were dunked.  You spoke of your belief, in so many words."  She turned, extended her arm; his gelding paced up to her and she caressed the underside of the bay's jaw.  

"That," she said, and he heard the smile in her voice, "is a misconception.

"Saddle up, Sergeant Charles Sloan.  Today we ride."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

457. TIMBER THIEF

"I used to drive truck."

Sarah raised an eyebrow, folded her arms.

The young man in the maniac's coveralls licked his lips nervously, looked around -- he knew they were alone, but he was still nervous -- Sarah was suspicious, her guard was up, but she was also curious.

"I know how to jimmy the governor on a Kenworth," he said confidentially, "and that's kind of like what I can do with Snowflake."

Sarah's hand shot out, took him by the throat, shoved him back against her ship's hull, hard: Sarah did not have the pale eyes of her namesake, but with the name, perhaps, came some of her temper:  she shoved hard, glaring at the talented young man, and she hissed between clenched teeth, sounding very much like a puff adder he'd tormented once as a child.

"You," she said through a locked jaw, "will, NOT, jimmy Snowflake!"

"You don't even know what it is," he protested hoarsely, gripping her wrist, trying to relieve the pressure on his Adam's apple.

Sarah released, snapped her arm down, breaking his grip:  she shoved her finger into his upper lip, thrust her face into his.

"Look, Stardust," she said, her voice very quiet, very cold, "I don't have all she can do figured out yet.  Until I know what she can do, I don't want anything changed!  Capice?"

He blinked:  he'd heard that word before, and turned a little cold to hear it, for it was last spoken -- in his brief time as a living, breathing soul -- by a Mafia enforcer, who had a mark by the throat, pinned back against a brick wall.

He held up both hands, palms out, in front of him.  "Look, all I'm saying" -- he looked around again, wondering if his big mouth was going to land him in the infirmary, or perhaps in the nearest recycler -- "once you do get her figured out, I can open up the time traveler again."

Sarah shook her head decisively.

"Too risky," she said.  "Too many things can go wrong.  I'm not willing to end up somewhere in the Dinosaur era or so far ahead in time that I see the last star dissolve."

"It won't," he said confidently.  "We reverse engineered that old technology but we left blocks of it intact because they still work --"

Sarah silence him with a simple raising of an eyebrow.

"Just think about it," he said.  "I can do it.  I can do it!"

"Oh, I don't doubt that," Sarah admitted.  "You are the only one I trust to work on Snowflake.  Don't make me change my mind."

He nodded.

 

Brother William -- he was still Brother William, not yet become Abbott William -- drove his staff into the bare dirt of the path, looking around.

He was a man alone in a hostile country, and he knew it.

Travelers in the time of Christ, traveled in a much more populated land:  here, he might walk a day and a night and a day again before seeing another living soul, or another building.

He liked it that way.

Like that pale eyed old lawman north of him, up in Firelands, across the New Mexico border into Colorado, he was a veteran of That Damned War.

Old Pale Eyes had ranked; he, William, had not -- he was a Chaplain, and declined the honor of rank: he'd gone into battle with his fellows, he'd gone in unarmed, but when he realized men were falling around him like wheat before the reaper's scythe, he snatched up a rifled musket and fell back on the deep instinct of survival:  before the battle was over, he'd killed, with gunshot, with bayonet, with the butt of the rifle:  he'd gone from an educated man, a man of privlege and sophistication, to the most primitive, murderous brute he could ever have imagined.

William had been matriculated through a seminary in New Orleans; he'd said goodbye to the most beautiful girl in the world, and intended to return and marry her:  this damned war changed that, as it changed all things:  when finally he was able to return to New Orleans, the seminary was gone, destroyed in a storm, the remainder by fire; the girl, long gone, none knew where.

William returned under an assumed name; he returned with his heart in his hands, and he left it behind, where he'd kissed a girl before riding off to fight the damned Yankees, ridden off with good intentions, fine aspirations, and an utterly unrealistic expectation of what he was riding into.

Now ... now that he was a man alone, a lean, tanned, solitary soul somewhere near the northern border of New Mexico Territory, somewhere near the southern edge of Colorado Territory, he was a lean, scarred figure, a man afoot, a man punishing himself.

It took him a year at least to admit to himself that he was indeed punishing himself.

Somehow it felt good -- it felt good to starve himself, to walk impossible distances, to bring comfort to all he met, while denying himself of any comfort whatsoever:  he slept on bare rock, he drank water from the hidden tanks, he accepted the charity of the few people he met.

Brother William had been afoot long enough he wondered with a little wry amusement how long it would take until he saw things, until he started seeing talking rocks, or trees that walked about and birds with dog's heads or something of the kind.

He heard something -- not a gunshot, but something sharp, not quite a crack and just short of a boom, and he felt the wind push momentarily against him.

Brother William drove his staff into the bare dirt path, leaned against it, looked at the illusion and laughed.

"Well, I've done it," he said.  "I'm seeing things now!"

 

"Look, Sarah," Gracie said, "I've got the best synthetic fiddle the replicators can print.  It sings well enough and yes I miss my curlyback fiddle from home, but there's no way in Creation I can ever have it in my hands again."

Sarah nodded slowly, considered the shimmering mug of hot tea.

Nobody asked how the tea got there; nobody asked how tea bushes were growing in the hidden, underground farms, nobody -- absolutely nobody -- asked how they had such a variety of farmed crops, of fruit trees, and nobody asked how the honeybees got there.

Most took it for granted:  they were hungry, there was food, we have farms somewhere, end of story.

Sometimes there was quiet voiced speculation on just how these had appeared; generally someone in authority would suggest it was newly arrived on an unmanned freighter, and when it was discovered that no freighters had come in within that window of time, why, it was generally ignored, swept under the proverbial rug.

Sarah sipped her tea and listened to her old and dear friend.

"I would give a good percentage of my eternal soul for that old fiddle," she admitted, "and ... y'know what I'd really like?"

Sarah raised her eyebrow.

"If I had a good chunk of willow," she sighed.  "Sarah, have you ever heard an Irish harp?"

Sarah's eyebrow spoke of honest surprise:  she leaned forward, looking very directly at Gracie.

"The Irish harp is made of willow.  Water willow, Sarah, it's a feminine wood, the harp is a woman's instrument" -- she leaned confidentially toward the carefully-listening pilot -- "and I know how to make them.  I've got the tools here.  Tools are nothing, it's the experience and I made 'em in college and for craft fairs -- Sarah, if I had the wood I could make the harps!"

"And then?"

"Oh dear Lord," Gracie groaned, leaning back:  "two harps singing in harmony?  It's enough to make a statue cry for the beauty of it!"

Sarah grunted, took another sip of her tea, frowned.

"Of course that's not possible," Gracie sighed sadly.  "We'd have to ship enough rare earth elements back to afford the millions of razbukniks it would take to freight me the wood, and even then" -- she twisted half her mouth into a half-smile -- "they'd tell me to 3-D print it."

"Have you tried it?"

"I tried it."  She shook her head sadly.  "It's not the same."

"Can't you replicate wood?"

"Not without an exemplar."

Sarah nodded, her eyes veiled.

 

A young man returned to his quarters, found the annunciator light blinking.

He pressed a key, read the message, read it again, grinned.

The glowing screen held a text that brought joy to the young fellow's heart.

Meet me for coffee, he read, and tell me more about Jimmy Kenworth from back home.

 

It was midnight when the shining silver cylinder appeared in a little flat place on the riverbank.

No one was anywhere near; a single figure emerged, looking around, walked up to a riverbank willow, pressed a rectangular sensor block against the trunk.

Hollow.

Not this one.

Silent steps on the soft earth, a figure in a flight suit, tuned to dark to blend with the night.

This one.

A plasma cutter sizzled into life, sliced easily through the wood at ground level; the tree fell, swishing softly through the branches of its fellows, enveloped in a force-net that bent the branches upwards into as compact a package as possible.

The force-net served as an antigrav, enabling the dark figure to swing it up, lay it hard against the hull, where it remained as if stuck by a great magnet.

A moment later there was the sound of a handclap, and the riverbank was as it had been, less one willow tree, and less one silver cylinder.

 

Brother William watched as two women emerged from a cylinder that shouldn't be there.

It shone like polished steel, it stood on spindly, spiderlike legs, it was rounded on top and looked to be just as rounded on the bottom.

He recognized the Germanic cross on its side, and he tilted his head and studied the figure in the white circle.

Daughter of Odin, he thought.

Valkyrie?

He shook his head, laughed a little, sat down on the ground, his staff across his lap, and regarded the illusion, squinting a little to make out the word Snowflake beneath the rearing black mare's rear hooves.

"William," he said aloud, "when you hallucinate, you do it right!"

The two women stepped out, reached back into the upright cylinder; one handed the other what William recognized as an ornately-carved, dragon-headed, Irish harp:  she reached in, brought out another, identical to the first.

The two women looked at one another, giggled like two mischievous little girls.

They pressed the harps into their shoulder, reached up, spread their fingers.

William sat there on the dry dirt, his legs crossed, staff across his lap, listening.

 

"This panel," the Maniac explained, "establishes when.

"This panel establishes where, and it's already Earth-calibrated."

"You know what we're looking for."

"I've got it set for Little Hocking.  I used to fish there, where the Hocking River joined the Ohio."

"How stealthy will we be?"

"Very. Your arrival will sound like kind of a distant, soft boom. It'll be felt more than heard, it'll displace your ship's volume of air when you arrive. When you leave, the vacuum of where you used to be, will sound no louder than a handclap."

"Good."

"Remember, you can darken your suit in the same manner."

"That much I know."

"If you want to run the simulator, I've also jimmied the memory so nobody can track just how you've simmed."

"I'll take it."

"Here.  You want to bring back good, solid wood.  Some of those riverbank willows grow too fast and grow hollow.  Press this against it, press this, it'll read how solid it is or isn't.  Press this and it'll fall in a force-net and you can bundle it, it's its own antigrav, lay it against the ship and it'll travel in your displacement bubble."

Sarah nodded.  

 

The two women sang their harps, one song after another, and the solitary man listened, unmoving, feeling water run down his face and not caring.

The two women hadn't looked his way and apparently did not realize he was even there:  how, he did not know, but he accepted it, for this was surely an illusion, born of hot sun and solitude, the fevered waking dream of a man tormented by sorrows and losses and horrors he'd known, a man who sought to punish himself, penance for his sins, real and imagined.

The two women returned to their cylinder; the doorway was just tall enough for them to walk in without ducking; the door slid shut from the side, the spidery legs hummed up until they were flush with the outside of the cylinder, and then it shimmered, there was the sound of a handclap, and they were gone, just like that.

 

Gracie and Sarah stepped out of Snowflake's lower hatch into the empty bay.

There hadn't been a launch; Snowflake hadn't rocketed out, there were no heavy doors swung open, swung shut, no enclosure to contain the exhaust as they blasted free of the launch tube: they carried their harps toward the bay door, pressed the release.

The door hissed open, sliding into the wall.

Sheriff Marnie Keller stood there, looking at them with pale, knowing eyes.

She regarded Gracie, their mountain fiddler, she looked at Sarah, she read the flush of guilt on their faces, she looked into the darkened bay.

"Let me guess," she said.  "The acoustics in there are phenomenal."

Gracie tilted her head a little.  "Come on in.  Hear it for yourself."

Marnie looked very directly at their best musician:  perhaps there was one of those unspoken communications that occurs between women, perhaps the Sheriff already had intel on the Maniac's time-travel offer.

She was Sheriff, after all, and she had a way of finding things out.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller looked up as a familiar figure crossed the far set of railroad tracks.

Linn stood, watched for a few moments; the distance was considerable, but there was no mistaking that lean, almost emaciated figure in a white Cistercian robe, a man alone, with a traveling bag slung over one shoulder and across his body, a thick staff, long as he was tall, in his off hand.

Linn smiled, just a little.

"Looks like I'll have company for supper," he said aloud, and he was not at all displeased for it.

 

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

458. TWO MEN, TWO WOMEN

 

Jacob Keller was on the far end of town, riding back in.

He was bone tired and so was his Appaloosa stallion.

Apple-horse had acquitted himself well, he'd out-run, out-maneuvered and out-fought another man on a horse -- it was the first time Jacob used his mount as a weapon, and Apple-horse proved himself a most vicious, most capable and most bloodthirsty weapon indeed -- it took all Jacob's skill as Apple twisted, kicked, reared, bit, slashed, threw his head sideways into the enemy rider, as Jacob twisted, chopping down with his engraved Colt's revolving pistol, firing bullets with the skill of a little boy throwing rocks, and using the very same chopping motion -- the fight had been one on one, with the outlaw's partners watching, deciding that within that spinning, screaming, kicking, hell raising tornado of dust, gunfire and horse's hooves and teeth, spun a layer of violent Reaper's breath itself they wanted no part of.

When the opposing mount decided the climate was healthier further West -- somewhere near the far horizon, judging by the speed of its departure -- they all looked at what was left of the outlaw on the ground, then the outlaw company watched the pale eyed deputy holster his left hand Colt and draw his right hand revolver and politely ask if anyone else cared to join in, he and his horse were just warmed up and ready to go some more.

Jacob threw the mangled body across the saddle of one of their spare mounts, ordered the prisoners to ride ahead of him, their gunbelts his prize:  he rode themt into the nearest settlement, and arranged to have the reward money sent to himself, care of the Firelands Sheriff's Office:  when the town marshal looked at him skeptically, Jacob raised his hat brim with one finger, bored those pale eyes into the startled lawman's and turned over the dust-covered lapel to reveal the six point, hand chased star.

Jacob was only just coming into view of Firelands, wore out from the pursuit, the fight and the long ride home, and grateful he was for the seeing of it, when he espied a familiar figure, saw her clearly through the crystal air.

Jacob knew his sister Sarah was a schoolteacher, every chance she got, and he recognized the way she moved, he recognized the mousy-grey, severely-tailored dress she wore.

He also saw her running out into the street, herding the schoolchildren back toward their schoolhouse, running after them, her moves fast and desperate.

Jacob's stomach turned over and whipped itself into a knot and Apple-horse's head came up -- he didn't know what the danger was, but he sensed his rider's sudden change from fatigue to full fight--

Jacob drove his heels into Apple's ribs, reached down, yanked his Winchester out of the scabbard, galloped straight toward Firelands, in the distance, toward his sister, running the children back toward the schoolhouse and safety.

Jacob yelled encouragement and he and his Apple-horse streaked across the earth, toward the stampede of cattle just coming down the far end of the main street.

 

Sarah Lynne sat in the quiet of the plot's bay, studying the glowing scope, frowning.

Something was at the far reach of the satellite outposts' detection; something was coming in fast, and something stood the hairs up on the back of her neck.

She keyed in a command, turned a half dozen of the sentinel satellites' electronic eyes toward the anomaly.

The computers were silent as they did their work -- somehow it would have been more satisfying if they'd made the noises of a 1950s science fiction film -- but they didn't have to make a sound to bring Sarah's heart up into her throat.

The trajectory was squarely for her current location, as precisely as if it had been laid out with an engineer's T-square and a French curve, with the precise pencil strokes of a draftsman's hand.

Sarah's hand smacked the panic button and she was out of her seat and headed for the airlock door at a dead run.

She saw the maniac's backside sticking out of her Interceptor's service hatch:  

"BOOTS AND SADDLES," she screamed, "I NEED TO LAUNCH SIXTY SECONDS AGO, HOW LONG WILL YOU BE?"

The maniac slid out, closed the hatch, waited with his hands on the cover to feel the dogs sink back in place.

"GOOD TO GO!" he shouted.  "LET ME GET OUT OF HERE!"

Sarah swarmed up the ladder, dropped into the pilot's seat, thrust her legs down the rudder tunnels:  she seized the harness, pulled it hard over her shoulders, reached over and behind and pulled her helmet free, set it down on her suit:  a twist, a tug, the helmet was sealed and she felt her suit inflate.

Her canopy closed over her, the cigar tube rose from the floor, enveloped the Interceptor in darkness.

Buckles, belts, three plugs:  she was wired into her beloved Interceptor.

Her screens were alive, the controls aglow:  she saw the telltales that told her the other five Interceptors were waking up.

She knew her fellow pilots were on their way, at a dead run.

Sarah's cigar tube was fully extended, her Interceptor, her beloved Snowflake, was awake, awake and muttering behind her, a swift and powerful bird of prey, anxious to sink deadly talons into an enemy.

This was a full wartime emergency launch; preflight was usually meticulous, but she did not have time.

Above her, the heavy door swung up, a great, reinforced steel lid, forged from iron meteorites in the nuclear fires of their orbital refinery:  the stars came into view, bright, sharp, and Sarah drove the back of her helmet hard against the headrest.

Her blood was up.

She watched the red arc scroll across her screen, the gauge that would tell her when the nuclear fires reached the right level of critical, she waited for the SLAM into her back that was the launch, and for a moment, when she was crushed into her contoured acceleration couch, when it felt like she was being crushed into a sheet of living paper, she wondered if this is what a cannonball felt like when launched from a field gun.

The automatics took over and Sarah shot out, away from the red planet, toward the intruder, toward Death itself spinning toward her home.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna ran the children into the schoolhouse, almost fell getting inside after them.

Death and thunder rumbled toward them as she spun, hooked hard fingers behind a trim board, pressed a hidden release.

A long, skinny panel flipped out, powered by hand forged leaf springs:  Sarah reached without looking, seized the heavy Winchester rifle, took two running steps toward the back door and jumped.

She fell as if in slow motion, cranking the lever down, back, slamming it shut, hard, feeding a brass panatela into the chamber.

She landed -- not as well as she wanted -- but she traded a face first fall for a full out sprint.

She wondered who was screaming, and realized with some surprise it was her, and she was even more surprised at the scream that joined hers, for she was not screaming with fear and she was not screaming in distress.

She, Sarah Lynne McKenna, the pale eyed daughter of the pale eyed Sheriff, was screaming with joy, knowing she was going into a fight she could not possibly win, and not giving a good damn.

She ran out into the middle of the street and thrust the rifle out in front of her, slapped the trigger.

Five hundred grains of Government issue lead blasted into the open air, blue death looking for a meal.

 

Sarah Lynne Hake firewalled the throttle.

She had to get closer, had to be sure of a one shot kill, had to be dead on.

She had a full load of projectiles on board:  the Interceptors were all stored ready for launch, fully loaded, fueled, powered, ready to go:  meteors sometimes came an unholy velocities, and their far flung picket line of satellites kept them from death on several occasions:  Mars' gravity well reached out like a welcoming beacon to passing celestial debris, and one such was tumbling end over end, heading unerringly toward her home.

Sarah's computer commanded a velocity cutoff.

It didn't happen.

The engines should have shut off.

Sarah saw the discrepancy, toggled the engine cutoff; her hard acceleration ended and she was no longer being pushed into her seat.

Sarah ran a fast calculation and saw she was in trouble.

I've never made a full power decel before, she thought.

This might kill me.

Can't be helped, too close to shoot, I'll be shredded when I run through the debris field --

 

"BEAR KILLER!  HOLD 'EM!"

Sarah brought her rifle's crescent buttplate hard into her upper arm and then she pulled the trigger again.

Her second shot went as true as her first.

The lead steer rose up a little and then collapsed, its nose plowing a furrow in the dirt street, as did the steer immediately adjacent.

Beside her, The Bear Killer roared his challenge, a hell-hound's bay of come and get it, I'll eat you for breakfast, and Sarah fired again -- Winchester steel chuckled as the lever flashed down, back, spinning smoking brass shone in the sunlight --

Noses and fingers flattened against the wavy windows, and behind them, Emma Cooper's hand went to her bodice, then to her mouth, as their soft-spoken, bespectacled Miss Sarah the schoolteacher, snapped back and forward again under the recoil of a heavy Winchester rifle, while beside her, a black, curly furred dog with ivory fangs and bloody-red eyes roared and yammered and sang promises of death, his full voiced song of destruction and war a counterpoint to the ladylike and gentle Miss Sarah's warrior's defiant screams of a Valkyrie in battle.

Thunder echoed between the buildings, slamming against the rumble of hard hooves, backed by the sounds of utter and absolute chaos.

Jacob leaned over Apple-horse's neck, his teeth locking the groans into his throat, forbidding himself to admit he was too late, too late, too late --

 

"Valkyrie Six, advise status."

Sarah fired the engines:  she was crushed back into her seat, worse than the high-velocity takeoff:  her vision hazed and she willed herself not to pass out.

The automatics cut in again and she was beside the asteroid.

I'll have to push it out of line, she thought.

I'll aim for the center of the spin, that'll give me the most time before I'm crushed, a full throttle burn should be enough --

Distantly she heard her father's voice yelling "VALKYRIE SIX, BREAK OFF!  BREAK OFF!  SARAH, BREAK OFF NOW!"

Sarah hit her retros, hard.

She'd not practiced retrofire since the new engines were installed.

Instead of a halo of fire appearing around her, shoving her back, she was thrown forward into her harness --

Something hit her ship's belly, something hard --

The stars began spinning around her, impossibly fast --

Good God, what happened?

I'm locked into the asteroid's spin --

No collision --

Not a collision ... a landing?

Her ship sucked down against the asteroid, pulled hard into it --

Like a magnet, she thought, and the figurative light bulb came on.

She felt remarkably stable -- why shouldn't she, she was at the center of the asteroid's spin, at the very equator of a figure 8 shaped blob of interstellar iron, moving at its velocity --

Didn't the Maniac tell me he'd built in those experimental inertial dampeners?

Why not.

I'm dead anyway.

She pressed the touch screen, keyed in the command, then fired the spin-recovery sequence.

The stars slowed, steadied, stopped.

"VALKYRIE SIX, REPORT!"

"Six here, stand by."

Sarah knew that would at once reassure and infuriate her father, and at the moment she was too busy to care.

"Valkyrie Flight, report."

"Valkyrie Six, why are you even alive?"

"Charm, good looks and I play a mean game of poker.  Valkyrie Five, your ETA this rock."

"Three minutes."

"Approach this vector" -- she sent a data burst -- "and stand by for ship to ship."

"Six, Five, roger that."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna counted her rounds.

She knew the last one was under the hammer and she knew once this was gone, she was dead.

She didn't care.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, woods colt of the pale eyed Sheriff and half sister to his pale eyed son Jacob -- Sarah Lynne McKenna, adopted daughter of Bonnie Lynne McKenna, schoolteacher, sister to twin girls and singer in their little whitewashed Church -- Sarah Lynne McKenna drove her last round through the skull of an oncoming steer.

She released the rifle, reached into her skirt, brought out a pair of stubby, blocky, bulldog .44s and began firing them, aimed fire, sighting left eye right eye left eye right eye, her face sheet-paper white, stretched over her cheekbones, joy singing in her heart and the joy of war firing her eternal soul, The Bear Killer raging and rearing beside her, dancing back and forth, inviting any and all to step right up, heedless of the fact that he would in all likelihood be crushed into a bloody paste --

Jacob came pounding toward the far end of the main street on the far end of town, standing up in his stirrups, rifle held out in front of him, wind whipping tears out the corners of his eyes and back toward his ears --

 

"Valkyrie Five, rotate and match speed."

"Five, Six, roger that."

"Now with your Runaway at idle, drift in until you make contact, touch down on your belly."

"You're sure about this."

"Trust me."

Sarah felt the slight bump as her sister ship touched, grabbed, held.

"Sarah, what just happened?"

"Slave your controls to me and stand by."

"Roger that," then, "Done."

Sarah smiled, just a little.

"Okay, Vickie, hold my beer and watch this."

 

Several sets of eyes scoured the screens.

"What in seven blistering hells did she just do?"

Sarah's voice came over the speakers, confident, calm, the infuriating calm of a pilot who'd just pulled off the impossible.

"Valkyrie Flight returning home," she called, "with a report on the field effect of our Runaway engines."

"What field effect?"  Hans demanded.

"It's something the Maniacs and I were discussing.  We'd intended to try a short-throttle run-up in orbit to measure it, but things kind of got away from us.  We'll be leaving this chunk of pig iron with the furnace boys and be home for supper.  Don't wait up."

Hans leaned back in his chair, wiped his face with a red-and-white tablecloth-check bandanna.

"If she wasn't the best damned pilot we have," he said quietly, "I'd turn her over my knee and fan her backside!"

He didn't realize the transmit was still on until he heard feminine laughter and his daughter's bantering, "Catch me first!"

 

The stampede slowed, milled; the half dozen dead, falling as they did, and the sight of a full grown mountain Mastiff promising death and mayhem, and the repeated, thundering detonations of a heavily loaded Winchester rifle, was sufficient to break the stampede.

Jacob came pounding up the street, Apple-horse slowed, stumbling a little, turned in front of Sarah:  Jacob leaped from the saddle, one hand full of rifle.

The Bear Killer was still bristling, snarling, pacing stiff-legged, glaring at the milling, lowing herd.

Jacob ran up to his sister and seized her in a crushing hug, hoisting her off the ground and spinning her about, burying his face in her severely-drawn-up, lavender-scented hair.

Hauptmann Hans Hake sprinted into the bay, waited until the giant cigar tube withdrew into the floor, exposing the pinging, cooling Interceptor:  he seized his daughter in a worried father's desperate bear hug as she hopped off the ladder, crushed her to him, spun her around, his face buried in her short, lavender scented hair.

The men were nowhere near related, but in long ago Firelands, and in yet to come Firelands, they both smelled the lavender scent of a pretty young woman they loved, and they both whispered the same words:

"I thought you were dead!"

Both men heard the same bubbling, laughing reply:

"Not today!"

The schoolhouse doors flew open and the children ran down the steps, yelling, rushed their beloved Miss Sarah, enveloping her and her pale eyed brother in their youthful enthusiasm.

Five Valkyries tossed their helmets to their waiting flight crews and sprinted for their flight leader, and five sets of arms seized father and daughter in an enveloping, bouncing, laughing, chattering embrace.

 

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

459. A FINE SUNDAY

Sheriff Linn Keller shook out the blanket, spread it out, looked at his wife.

Esther set the woven-withie basket on the blanket, turned to her mare, pulled out a cloth wrapped jar: it was cool enough to sweat a little in the springhouse, but in the dry air it dried fast, though thanks to the thick wrapping, it was still delightfully cool.

Dana looked at her Daddy and her Mommy with big and innocent eyes, and she very carefully folded herself down into a sitting position, trying to look Very Grown Up and Ladylike, the way a five year old girl will when she knows she is under watchful and approving eyes.

The sun was lowering, the far horizon was beginning to color up, the way sunset over the mountains often did:  behind them, the sun's long red rays were setting distant livestock on fire, painting the terrain in a fantastic array of living colors, shades truly alive under the Master's brush.

Dana watched, her head tilting a little to the side, as her Mama set out their meal.

Dana liked it when they ate someplace else.

She liked eating at home -- her Daddy was generally solemn, straight faced, quiet for the most part, his voice gentle as he discussed the day's events with his wife, but there was always time for his young:  he would often look very directly at one of his children and close one eye, one relaxed eyelid quietly sliding over his pale orb, the rest of his expression unchanging:  when the child blinked, Linn's eyelid came back up, then slid back down as his jaw dropped, slack, and the giggles would start.

Esther would generally sigh patiently and pretend to ignore her husband's face-making, at least until she'd had enough, at which point she would do something to change the moment:  Dana's favorite was when her Mama picked up one of the small biscuits and flipped it at her Daddy, neatly landing the diminutive, golden crusted sweet roll right between his shining teeth.

Dana was never sure whether this is what she intended or not, but her Daddy closed his mouth and chewed as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

This maintained a respectful silence around the supper table, at least until the maid set pie down in front of each of them:  Linn bowed his head, frowned, lowered his head until his nose nearly touched the flaky, golden, sugar-dusted crust, and then he raised his head, looked very solemnly at whichever of his family was seated directly across from him.

"There's somethin' wrong with this pie," he said firmly.  "I'd best eat it all so none of you get sick."

All pretense at solemnity and quietude departed the supper table:  every child picked up their fork, stabbed their slice of pie and declared, "NO!"

Esther sighed again, shaking her head; she looked at her husband with a wife's patient, longsuffering expression and reprimanded gently that "You are teaching them very bad manners, my dear," and Linn would blink innocently and say, "Who, me?"

This was never as true as it was of the Sabbath, when everyone was reliably around the table, when everyone was home from the social gatherings, from Church, from visiting, and so it was today.

Dana sat on the top rail of the corral on the lower end of town, the one nearest the firehouse but on the other side of the road, at the foot of the mountain that went up and became their cemetery and kind of flattened out, like maybe the mountain got broke off and thrown away somewhere.

Dana watched Sarah, standing in the middle of the corral, and Dana wished mightily she was a Grown Up Girl so she could stand in the middle of the corral like that.

Her Daddy and her Big Brother Jacob rode the inside of the corral, orbiting at an easy trot, Sarah with her arms extended, turning opposite the direction the horses were riding:  she had a tin can in each hand, a big one, used enough it was of little account: off to one side, Gracie, the mountain fiddler, was happily spinning music from her curlyback fiddle, setting her rhythm with the horses' hoofbeats:  Sarah was up on the balls of her feet, dancing as she turned:  of a sudden she went into a dancing spin, dead center in the corral:  her arms came down, crossed in front of her, then whipped out and up, and two tin cans went spinning, tumbling into the air high overhead.

Two pale eyed lawmen drew, fired --

Two tin cans flinched in midair -- 

The shout went up from every throat assembled --

"ONE!"

Sarah stopped, her skirt still twisting for a moment:  one arm up, one down, little boys squeezed between the whitewashed corral bars, ran for the fallen cans:  they were run back to Sarah as the fiddle held a single, sustained note --

The horses never slacked their easy trot:  the fiddle caught up with their hoofbeats, Sarah raised the tin cans overhead, coming up on the balls of her feet, came down as she lowered the cans, crossed her arms:  Palomino and Appaloosa and two unsmiling lawmen, a young woman in a tailored Sunday dress, spinning again, turning with the music:  the horses danced, as if responding to the fiddle, Sarah danced, as if with them all, then her arms -- crossed in front of her -- whipped down, swung up, tin cans spun into the blue sky --

Two pistol shots punched holes in the cloudless dome overhead, the crowd happily shouted "TWO!"

Sarah laughed, dipped her knees to accept the tin cans from the fleet footed lads who retrieved them:  this time the arms crossed and shot up almost immediately --

"THREE!"

The pale eyed lawmen, father and son, rode without using their reins; none could see how, but they brought their mounts to a halt:  they carefully, precisely, punched six empties out of their engraved Colt's revolvers, reloaded, set their hammer noses between the rims, holstered.

A few noticed the two had used their left hand Colt's revolving pistol.

Stallion and mare turned, the Sheriff nodded to the mountain fiddler in the enveloping bonnet:  he waited until the curlyback fiddle tucked itself under her chin, until she spun the bow three times, laid it across the strings again, waited until Sarah crouched a little, crossing her legs under her twisted skirt.

This time the pretty young woman in the middle of the corral brought the cans down, up overhead, slowly, crossing her arms again as she brought them down to knee level, back up:  she straightened her back, drew the cans apart, struck their rolled-edge bottoms together -- once, twice, thrice --

Gracie spun out a single note, then sawed the note into four pieces, into eight, and Sarah began to dance again.

She was boneless, she was lithe:  Sarah studied many styles, and this was one she'd seen on a stage show, a show that displayed a veiled Arab houri, all silks and veil and kohl-rimmed eyes, dark and mysterious and captivating to men's hearts (and lusts) ... her dance became Sarah's dance, and Sarah's dance here was sensuous, boneless.

Sarah bent back, then rolled herself forward, kicking her leg up with her foot pointed:  she spun, she whirled, she slung two cans in the air, one-two, one spinning generally northeast, one toward the opposite pole of the compass rose --

She'd thrown them so they were nearly straight up, one over each lawman's head, high up:  father and son drew, their Colts hammered, impossibly fast, six shots:  what was left of two cans sieved the air on their way down, and the little boys who scampered to retrieve them had to be careful indeed not to cut themselves on the shredded remnants when they clamed them from the dusty ground.

Dana, on the top rail, happily joined the triumphant chant, for everyone counted the shots as they slammed, rapid, stacked one on another's heels, and when the last concussion slapped through the air, voices raised in happy chorus, for everyone saw the cans flinch with each successive hit:

"SIX! SIX! SIX! SIX!"

 

Linn sipped the cool, sweet tea, grateful and not for the first time that his beautiful bride brought her culinary tastes with her from the Carolinas.

This chilled, sweetened tea was very much to his taste.

Darkness drew a veil across the sky with a surprising speed.

They'd eaten; they'd sipped cool tea; they talked in hushed voices ... hushed, perhaps, because they felt so tiny, looking at this grand, sparkling Creation overhead.

It was in Dana's big strong Daddy's nature to lay down on the blanket, and he did, and Dana happily lay down as well, her head near his: they lay on their backs, looking straight up, and as if on cue, something bright streaked across the sky, a bright angel's-finger drawing a line of pure light halfway across the sky.

Linn heard Dana's quick intake of breath.

"Did you like that, Princess?" he asked gently as Esther turned, lay back, her auburn coiffure near her husband's silvering thatch and her daughter's cornsilk-blond curls.

"Oh, yes, Daddy!" Dana whispered, awe widening her eyes and hushing her excited voice.

They lay together, looking straight up:  another, shorter streak burned through the sky, there and gone:  two more, then a really bright one, sudden, broad, that disappeared with a sudden flash.

"Daddy," Dana almost whispered, "is this magic?"

"Reckon so," Linn said thoughtfully.

Esther laughed, quietly, smiling in the increasing dark.

She'd actually expected her husband to tell their daughter that angels were striking fire to light the slower stars with, or some such tall tale:  he was prone to outrageous lies, but only when he thought he could get away with it, like the time he told Dana that The Lady Esther was powered by a captured dragon riding a vel