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468. A GENTLEMAN

 

Bonnie McKenna looked up from her desk at the tap on her door.

Sondra Mae opened the door, letter in hand:  "Have you seen this?"

Bonnie blinked, extended her hand:  she received the missive, read it, read it again, her hand coming to her mouth as she took in the order.

She looked up at Sondra, delighted eyes shining behind her round-lensed close-work spectacles.

"And to think people were asking if we'd still be in business a month from now!" Sondra teased.

"Call a meeting," Bonnie said.  "Call it now!"

Tara smiled, turned, marched out to the middle of the McKenna Dress Works floor:  she looked around at the ladies, she heard the several treadle Singers chuckling through material, she heard the muffled syllables of seamstresses communicating with a half-dozen straightpins between their lips, and everything came to a quick, coasting stop at the sudden, shrill, piercing whistle that reverberated in the brick building.

Surprised eyes turned to the woman with two bent fingers to her lips:  Sondra seized a three-legged stool, stepped up on it, clapped her hands twice and raised her arms, palms out, claiming the attention of the entirety of the House of McKanna Dress Works.

"Now hear this!" she called loudly as Bonnie glided toward her:  "Attention to the Center Deck!"

She lowered a hand dramatically to the Dress Works' owner, chief operator and namesake.

"Bonnie McKenna, the floor is yours!"

"So are the sewing machines," a voice called from a far corner, and Bonnie laughed, for it was an old joke.

Bonnie held up the letter.

"We have an order," she declared, her voice carrying well in the hushed interior:  "they must think we're a New York sweatshop, but we'll fill this.  It'll be all hands on deck, but I can promise a bonus when we're done!"

Delighted expressions, a patter of applause, the ladies converged on Bonnie, everyone talking at once:  the ladies summoned one of the boys from outside, then two more, and fleet-footed messengers ran into town, seeking those seamstresses who weren't in attendance this particular day.

"What about Sarah?" someone asked Bonnie.

"She's in Denver," Bonnie explained, and a shade of worry colored her voice:  "her sister had a terrible toothache through the night, and Sarah knew a dentist who could be persuaded to leave his nice, warm bed!"

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna had indeed taken the night train to Denver.

Truth be told, the Z&W would have dispatched a special for this mission, simply because Sarah and her family were that well connected.

She'd hired a hack and they'd clattered through the sleeping city, Sarah's sister clinging in misery to the reassuring security of her big sis.

The hack's driver was less than entirely sober, and when Sarah realized they weren't anywhere near the dentist's office -- she knew the way well herself -- she persuaded the cabbie to scoot over, and Sarah took the reins, a pretty young woman with a quick laugh and a charming line of wit, who absolutely snowed the cabbie into submitting his horse and carriage to her control, and enjoyed the doing of it.

They eventually reached the dentist's office:  Sarah asked the cabbie to wait, and was not at all surprised, once they were admitted into the antiseptic-smelling office, to hear the cab clatter off.

Drink, and not two young ladies in distress, were obviously the cabbie's priority.

Getting her little sister some relief, was most definitely Sarah's.

Sarah was well acquainted with what would, in later years, be called "General Trauma Medicine," but dentistry was a specialty in which she was admittedly quite ignorant.

Still, she assisted the dentist as best she could, and when he explained the procedure to Sarah and her sister, they were agreed that perhaps ether would be a good choice.

Sarah placed the cotton ether mask over her little sister's nose and mouth, and told her to close her eyes, and breathe deeply, as she carefully, delicately trickled the noisome anesthetic from its conical screw-top can.

The troublesome tooth was removed with little difficulty; the dentist pointed out to an attentive Sarah, the blackened, infected root, he cleaned out the shivering Polly's excavation, packed it, instructed Sarah on after care:  she listened carefully, nodding her understanding, and after paying the dentist in cash money -- with a little over, as he had been kind enough to tend this detail when most good folk are sound asleep -- Sarah steadied her wobbly little sister and they departed by the front door.

Polly was quite unsteady, and Sarah ended up scooping her up, just as a private carriage came down the road at a spanking trot:  it was a fine brougham, obviously expensive, and Sarah looked up as a voice commanded the driver to stop:  the door fairly flew open, a well dressed young man in a shining top hat and evening-coat almost fell from the carriage, but he advanced down the sidewalk toward Sarah.

"My Lady," he said, sweeping off the shining topper, "how may I be of service?"

Sarah, for her few years, was pretty good at sizing people up -- especially men -- she barely hesitated before replying.

"My sister Polly had ether, and a tooth removed," she explained, "and we are for the hotel: we must needs remain in the City, in case she should require further attention."

"May I?" he asked gently, dipping his knees:  Sarah surrendered her sister to this stranger, followed him to his carriage:  the driver lifted his cover and bowed slightly as he helped his passengers in, then closed the door and resumed his station in the driver's box.

 

The next morning, after Sarah tended morning's ablutions, after she saw to Polly's morning preparations -- ether is not a gentle anesthetic, and its morning-after effects were not particularly pleasant -- they went downstairs, and found a well dressed young man in a flawless morning-coat, a young man who bowed formally at the two young ladies' approach.

"I must beg your pardon," he said, "but I don't believe we were introduced last night."

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," Sarah replied, offering her hand, her wrist properly bent:  he raised her knuckles to his lips, looked at Sarah's sister.

"My sister, Polly, and I fear she remains unwell after her ether."

The young man bowed to Polly, turned back to Sarah.  "Reginald Simpson," he said.

"Reginald Simpson of the silver mining Simpsons?" Sarah asked with a smile.

"The same," he admitted, delighted that she recognized the name.

"We are for the dentist's office for a follow-up visit."

"My brougham is without, my Lady, and it would be my honor if I might offer the services thereof."

Sarah Lynne McKenna looked at Polly, who looked distinctly green.

Sarah took a step closer to Mr. Reginald Simpson and said in a confidential voice, "Sir, it is an indelicate admission, but I fear we must needs borrow a waste can, as I fear my sister's stomach may yet rebel."

Mr. Reginald Simpson nodded gravely, turned to the stuffy soul behind the desk:  a moment later, two ladies, a top-hatted gentleman and a trash can were bowed out the ornate front doors, helped into the shining, polished brougham, and to the relief of all concerned, after Sarah and her sister were seen to the Z&W's Denver terminus, the waste can was returned to the front desk of the hotel, none the worse for its absence.

 

Marnie Keller was a curious and active nine-year-old:  when her little brother wallowed under the ancient Singer sewing machine, looked up and frowned at its underside, Marnie tilted her head and then went to her knees beside him.

"Marnie," Jacob said, "whatzat say?"

Marnie rolled over onto her back, worked her head in beside his, frowned, then smiled -- a sudden, bright, delighted smile.

Shelly looked in on the two just as Marnie sat, her face shining with the delight of new discovery.

"Mommy," Marnie declared happily, "you 'member Daddy read us about Sarah and the McKenna dress works an' he said about the McKenna gowns the Ladies' Tea Society make and wear and he said they used Singer treadle machines like this one?"

Shelly laughed, for Marnie's words were excited, rushed, run together, and Shelly remembered what it was to be so excited her own words fell over one another in her haste to utter them.

Shelly held up a hand.  "Slow down now," she smiled.  "One thing at a time.  McKenna Dress Works, Sarah McKenna.  Yes, I remember."

Marnie thrust to her feet, patted the Singer's work table happily.  "This one says McKenna Dress Works underneath and it says 'Sarah Was Here!" right under it!"

 

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469. TAPHOPHILIA

Marnie Keller walked her Goldie-horse along the packed gravel road in the old section of their town's cemetery.

She liked the old section: it had a feel of ... well, of belonging.

She looked at the ancent, double stone, the one with a six point star carved in the far upper left corner, and a rose, beautifully executed, in the upper right:  the name KELLER in the middle, with Old Pale Eyes on the left, and his wife Esther, on the right.

Marnie crossed her palms on the saddlehorn, eased the weight off her young backside, contemplating the stone.

Her Daddy told her he'd considered having Old Pale Eyes' portrait laser engraved in the stone, but that would mean having a section of it polished smooth; such work would be difficult with the stone in place, and he was not willing to pull the stone like pulling an ancient molar from their settled earth:  no, Linn and Esther Keller's stone would bear their names, their dates, his six point star and her trademark rose, and that would suffice, and all who knew them, would know the significance of the sparse decoration.

Marnie's eyes drifted to the side, to a stone with a kneeling lamb, the insignia of an infant child:  her eyes wandered, wider, picking out a hand holding a rose, signifying a beloved daughter; a hand pointing up, to indicate the soul had risen to Paradise, a hand pointing down, to indicate God's grace descending to earth.

Marnie walked her Goldie-horse a little further, studying the garden of stone.

There was a column, carved to look like it was broken off, with an open book resting on the broken surface.

Her Daddy told her this meant a life was cut short, before its time.

Marnie knew about the roses that appeared, suddenly, with no human hand to place them, roses that arrived to signify to the watcher that there was about to be a birth, or a death:  she knew that when the German legate arrived with Sarah Lynne McKenna's bones, what bones they could find in the charred collapse of the old Schloss after its forensic examination, there was a rose atop each of the Keller tombstones:  Sarah's bones were interred with due ceremony, and before the assembled could depart, a rose appeared on her stone as well -- though none could tell from whence it came, nor whose hand placed it there.

Marnie turned her Goldie-horse and walked back to the ancestral double stone.

She considered the hand carved rose, thinking to herself that if it were painted, it would look most lifelike, very real:  she herself had hand drawn roses, she'd painted roses, she had touched up the roses on the side of The Lady Esther and every piece of rolling stock the Z&W operated.

She'd also proven herself a steady hand at pin striping cars, and made easy pocket money at it, going so far as to re-create the sleeve decoration from a Civil War officer's coat on the side of the hood of her Grampa Crane's Jeep:  she'd studied the pattern, she had the correct width and number of lines, and there were those who studied such matters that instantly recognized the rank, though these souls were far fewer than those who simply admired good work, well done.

Marnie dismounted, ground-reined Goldie, walked over to Sarah's grave, squatted.

She studied the portrait her Gammaw had laser engraved in the shining, polished surface, the image of a pleasant young woman looking warmly at the viewer, and Marnie smiled again at the thought that her Very Great Aunt Sarah could have been the twin, or the clone, of her pale eyed Gammaw.

"I wish I'd known you," she whispered, her hand resting gently on top of the carved-quartz marker, and she smiled again, just a little, because she was certain she was not alone.

If she'd turned quickly, she might have seen a beautiful young woman in an 1880s gown standing just behind her, and maybe, just maybe, the fore quarters of a great black horse, its hind quarters barely suggested in a ghostly mist.

We'll never know, as Marnie rose slowly, dusted her hands together, turned to her Goldie-horse, extended a hand.

Goldie came head-bobbing over to her.

Marnie shoved her red cowboy boot in the doghouse stirrup, shoved hard against the ground, hauled herself up into saddle leather, gave a final sweep of the graveyard with her pale eyes.

"I wish I'd known so many of you," she said softly, and after a moment, added, "Not a one of you are forgotten."

She turned her Goldie-horse, hesitated, frowned.

Something brushed the back of her right thigh.

She turned and saw her saddlebag was unbuckled.

That's odd, she thought.  

I fast that back up after I took my schoolbooks out.

Marnie lifted the saddlebag's carved flap, pulled it wide open, looked within, and grinned with delight.

She ran her hand into the saddlebag and came out with a fragrant, fresh-cut rose, morning's dew shining on its rich scarlet petals:  she closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, then opened her eyes and looked down the row of stones, so many of which bore her family's name.

"Thank you," she whispered:  she thrust the stem through her shirt pocket's buttonhole, turned her Goldie-horse with her knees, and pointed her golden nose back toward home.

 

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470. LOST

Sarah Lynne McKenna leaned back, bringing her shining black Snowflake-horse to a stop.

Young eyes are sharp eyes, and her pale-blue eyes scanned the terrain before her.

Sarah was not a man-tracker:  her brother Jacob was, and he was tracking a mile from her, trying to find a survivor, someone injured, someone wandering, confused.

Sarah was not a tracker, but she did know something of the human mind: she knew an injured animal, a lost child, or a confused elder, would generally track uphill, as it is easier to keep one's balance going uphill: she also looked at those areas where the walking might be easier.

She sat for several minutes, not moving; she had a good vantage, and from here, with her eyes, she searched.

Jacob frowned a little, reading the slight disturbance in a patch of bare dirt, the bruising of a foot's passing on low vegetation: he smiled a little as he eased his Apple-horse ahead.

Like his pale eyed sister, he was kitted out for a stay in the mountains: like his sister, he had no wish to forego his nice warm bed, but like his sister, he had known want and cold and the pinch of an empty belly, and could he but find this injured soul, he could offer a sheltered campsite, a meal, a night's rest before setting out for home.

 

Sarah Lynne Hake spun slowly in limitless space.

Her beloved Snowflake-ship was gone, blown to hell, and a wonder that she hadn't been hit by shrapnel when it blew.

She'd ejected, and ejected at speed, and she knew she was still traveling the same relative velocity as Snowflake when the undetected micrometeoroid sizzled through hull, armor and reactor.

She'd ejected, and she had no idea whether she was still entirely sane, because she'd seen something before she blew the canopy and yanked the red handle, something that triggered whatever fighter pilot's instinct she'd inherited from her Luftwaffe father.

There'd been no time to send a mayday and her suit lacked commo, now that she was no longer part of the ship, now that her ejection seat was gone.

Sarah drifted, alone, utterly and absolutely lost.

She blinked, frowned, considered her situation.

"I'm hungry," she said, and then giggled.

Of all things to worry about, her hunger was probably the least important.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller spread the hand drawn map out on his desk.

"Here," he said, "is where the wagon was found. Here" -- his hovering finger moved a little -- "we found a bloodied bonnet and her shawl. Tracks went in this direction and then were lost.  We have a mantracker here, a party here, here and here."  He looked up.  "I don't want to send anyone else out. If we have tracks to follow, I don't want them destroyed by well meaning feet.  We'll stage your group -- Hank --"

A rancher's chin lifted a fraction.

"Your men, here.  Set up camp, build a fire.  Jacob knows you'll be coming.  Pete, your crew, here, a mile away.  That should bracket the search area.  Questions?"

He looked around, pale eyes studying ranchers, cowboys, miners.

"The Silver Jewel is packing provisions for first meal and second, and we'll have resupply in six hours to your locations."  He straightened.  "Move out."

 

Hans Hake rubbed his face, too a deep breath, blew it out.

"No call, no mayday?"

"We got the automatic signal she'd ejected, and then nothing.  Gone."

Gracie gripped her husband's shoulders.

"How many have we out looking?"
"Five Valkyries.  We're projecting course and speed to establish the search pattern."

"Why would she eject?"  Gracie whispered, and Hans reached up, laid a hand on his wife's fingers.

"Sir?"

Hans looked up, his face impassive.

"Sir, we have a robot interceptor fueled and ready.  It's the drone ship, sir, it has twenty search drones on board."

"Did you get telemetry worked out?"

"We did, sir.  We can box-grid and scan --"

Hans nodded.  "Launch."

 

Sarah eased her Snowflake-horse around the trail, listening, watching.

She thought she'd seen something out of place; she searched the brush, and more by accident than design, she glanced down, looked again.

Snowflake halted and Sarah swung down, went to one knee, bent closer, studying something shining.

A button.

She smiled, picked it up: it was a shell button, something from a woman's garment, and there was no dirt on it.

"Freshly fallen," she whispered, looking around.

 

"How long," Gracie asked, then hesitated.

"Can she breathe? Her suit has one hour's oxygen. If she's still in her ejection seat, four hours."

"So five hours," Gracie murmured, staring at the box projection, the cubic miles of space being searched.

"Sir?"

Hans lifted his chin; the adjutant stepped into the circle of lighted panels.

"We've located what's left of her ship, sir."
"Report."

"We can account for less than ten per cent of the aft section, sir. It looks like a reactor burst."

Hans' jaw slid out and he nodded, slowly:  if the reactor burst, it would have vaporized most of the ship with the release of hell itself, normally contained in unearthly alloys: there were enough safeties this should never, ever happen, but if it were hit -- 

"Continue the search.  We know she ejected. The ejection seat should be out there."

"Yes, sir."

 

Sarah saw a depression, tilted her head, studied it, realized it was a footprint -- a heel, where the ankle rolled, digging in one side more deeply -- 

She looked ahead, then touched her Snowflake-horse behind the foreleg.

The huge black Frisian knelt, allowing Sarah to board.

Jacob turned uphill, as he'd expected.

Here, a scrape, the dirt darker where it was freshly exposed; there, a branch pulled down, caught under another, where a hand gripped it to pull the traveler uphill.

Apple-horse climbed the grade easily, Jacob leaning to his right, studying the ground, looking ahead.

There.

Hair, caught --

Blood under --

Getting close.

He looked to his right.

Sarah was riding, slowly, studying the ground; she was a quarter mile from him.

 

"Valkyrie Five, Valkyrie One."

"Go ahead, Francine."

"I found her seat."

There was a long pause.

"Base, Valkyrie One."

"Go, One."

"There was no pinger from the seat but I have it on scope, moving in now."

"Roger, One, vectoring medical."

"Sir, should I recall the robot ship?"

"Negative.  Deploy as planned."

"Deploying search drones in thirty seconds."

"Base, One, have target in sight."

Silence grew in the control room and Gracie's fingers tightened a little on her husband's muscled shoulders.

They heard Francine's long intake of breath and their collective stomachs fell ten miles.

"Base, the seat is empty. Something took off the bottom half, it looks melted."

"Continue searching."

"Roger that."

Gracie's hands rose, she clasped her fingers, pressed her lips into them, shivering a little.

"No seat," she whispered.  "How much oxygen does her suit have?"

Hans looked at the elapsed-time display.

"Fifty minutes."

He pressed a toggle.

"Sheriff, could you come to the control room, please, and bring the Chaplain."

 

Assuming I get back alive, Sarah thought, what am I going to tell them?

I punched out of a perfectly good Interceptor just for grinskis and gigglers and then the ship blew up under me?

What am I, psychotic? -- I mean psychic?

She stopped herself from taking a deep breath.

Even her breathing had to be rationed, to stretch her oxygen supply as far as possible.

She checked her wrist panel: so far she was not losing any to leaks - for small favors, O Lord, I give thanks, she thought, then:

For the favor if rescue, O Lord, do I now pray.

 

Hank looked around at what used to be a clearing.
His men were used to handling whatever came along.

He still had a chuck wagon; Cookie was already fixing a meal, the tent was being set up, they had their picket line set, watches assigned, and now came the hard part.

Hank was like any man: he was patient when he had to be, and he had to be patient now.

His daughter went out with the wagon, the horse came back in harness and towing the front axle, and the wagon was found over a drop-off.

The wagon, but not his daughter.

Hank was patient when he had to be, and right now he did not want to be patient at all, but he knew his best chances were to let that pale eyed bloodhound find his little girl.

Hank's hands closed into fists, then opened: he blinked, considered the ground at his feet, frowned.

She hadn't been a little girl for some years now, but a man's daughter is always Daddy's Little Girl, if only in her Daddy's beating heart.

 

Something pressed the side of her head:  she felt cool fingers, motherly fingers, she knew something wet was wiping the sticky from her head, or trying to.

"Ow," she complained, grimacing, then opened her eyes.

Someone with pale eyes was bent over her, someone with a beautiful face and a fashionable little hat; another face, another pair of pale eyes, and then a horse's head, solemnly contemplating the scene from above the first two.

"Hi, I'm Sarah," the young woman murmured.  "What's your name?"

"Ow."

"Hello, Ow, but if I were you I'd kick your folks for naming you that!"

 

If I say anything at all, the suit recorder will pick it up.

Better I say nothing.

They'll think I was killed, or hurt so bad I didn't know anything.

Sarah closed her eyes, as much to stop the stars from moving as to collect her thoughts.

She went through the sequence in her mind.

She'd pushed another meteor into decaying orbit so the miners could catch it and feed it into the furnaces: it would be assayed, she would be credited with anything special -- rare earth elements, gold, platinum, diamonds.  Most of the time it was either rock or iron, but sometimes there were traces of other elements.

She was hoping to find one made mostly of gold.

There was no proximity alarm, just the appearance of a pale eyed woman in a fashionable gown astride a huge black horse, lit up like she was riding in sunlight -- Sarah could hear her shouting, "GET OUT BEFORE YOU'RE KILLED!" and she reacted.

She grabbed the handle, pulled once, pulled a second time.

First pull blew the canopy and she slammed her helmet back against its rest, pulled a second time.

Sarah grunted with pain as she was kicked out of the cockpit by the explosive charge; she rotated just enough to see her beloved Snowflake, then she screwed her eyes shut as the ship vaporized.

It surprised her that the flash, the explosion, were both ... silent.

Sarah looked at her wrist panel.

Ten minutes left.

She closed her eyes again.

 

Hank's head came up, as did several others, as the whistle shrilled in the distance.

Men looked at one another.

More wood went on the fire; Cookie dumped another bucket of water into the kettle.

He knew women, and he knew the boss's daughter would likely want a bath, and he'd have hot water ready.

 

Sarah felt something tug at her, then she slammed facefirst into something very solid.

She tried to push away, relaxed.

One of the Valkyries came in close, engaged the field effect, enclosed Sarah in a force-bubble, holding her hard against the Interceptor.

The stars weren't rotating around her now, and she felt the ship turn and pick up speed.

 

Hank was on his feet as the pale eyed deputy carried his little girl into the encampment.

He recalled the mare, skittish, walling her eyes and throwing her head as they tried to catch her, catch the trailing reins, as they regarded the front axle, broken free and still attached to the horse, the rest of the wagon missing.

He watched silently as the good looking young woman with the deputy ladled water over his daughter's bloodied hair, as she soaped and scrubbed and rinsed, as she wiped and then delicately, carefully, with a sharp little needle and genuine silk thread she had Hank boil in a tin cup for her, sew up the gash on his daughter's scalp.

"It'll be hidden by her hair," she told Hank, "and likely she'll have a headache for a day or three.  I don't find anything else broke or tore up."

Hank nodded, numb, staring at his little girl's pale face.

Her eyelids fluttered open and she raised a hand.

"Daddy?" she asked uncertainly, and Hank bent over and ran his arms around his little girl as everybody else elaborately pretended not to watch.

 

Valkyrie One eased into her cradle, her reactor still live, the space suited figure stuck to the side of the ship.

A maintenance platform was run up to the ship, raised; strong hands gripped the unmoving figure.

The Valkyrie watched through her canopy's lower edge, waited until another Valkyrie raised both arms, then made a throat-slash.

Valkyrie One shut down her reactor and Sarah fell about an inch, then strong hands had her.

The maintenance platform rolled back, lowered.

Hans and Gracie disciplined themselves severely to keep from running out into the bay.

Sarah looked at her parents, then twisted her helmet, lifted it off her short-haired head, tucked it correctly under her off arm.

Hans looked pointedly at her wrist panel.

"Cutting it a little close, are we?"

"What's this 'we' stuff?" Sarah countered, grinning:  protocol be damned, Sarah Hake seized her parents in a sudden, two-arm hug, and everyone elaborately pretended not to watch as Sarah whispered, "Daddy, I was so scared!"

"I know," he whispered back, manly arms tightening around his wife and his little girl.

"I knew you'd get me back, Daddy, but I was still scared!"

Sarah looked over her Daddy's shoulder, pulled free.

"Be right back."

Sarah strode over to where the Sheriff and the Chaplain were standing.

"We need to talk," she said to the Sheriff, her voice urgent, then she turned to the Chaplain.

"Brother Chaplain," she said formally, "thanks are in order!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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471. COLLECTION

Sheriff Linn Keller had been leaned back in his chair.

Sheriff Linn Keller had been relaxing with his boots up on the corner of the desk.

Sheriff Linn Keller had his hat over his face and was making the approximate sounds of a buzz saw at working speed, biting into good straight grain pine.

Sheriff Linn Keller came out of his chair like he'd been clap boarded across his backside, he scrambled for his hat, swatted at the chair, ended up on the floor, rolling over on all fours and looking very much like he was recalling a former life as  a scared graveyard feline.

He came up on his hind legs, snatched up the dropped Stetson, swung it up onto his iron-grey thatch and frowned, wondering what in two hells he'd just half-heard, and now that his head was up and his heels down, he heard it again.

Someone was outside and someone was not happy at all and it sounded like a fight.

Sheriff Linn Keller sighed and said something a man wouldn't say in polite company and started for the door when something hit one of the posts outside hard enough to rattle dirt loose from between the ceiling boards, and then he heard a familiar feminine snarl and he knew what at least part of the party was.

Sarah.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of a local society matron, child of wealth and privilege, a beautiful young woman with ice-pale eyes and a winning smile, a woman who knew the wiles needed to slip into a man's heart and make herself perfectly at home, a woman who carried the bronze shield of an Agent of the Court.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, recruited by His Honor the Judge Donald Hostetler, intended to be a detective in the classic sense of the word -- one who detects, a fact finder, someone who could gather information, and who better than a pretty young woman?

Men will make fools of themselves for the blush of a pretty face, men will brag and talk and divulge to a woman where they would be cool and circumspect in the company of other men, and this was what His Honor the Judge intended when he recruited the lovely Miss Sarah to the task.

The Sheriff knew this.

He also knew something hit his door and hit it hard, and a female voice on the other side of the door was expressing her low-voiced displeasure, and the Sheriff knew this was a very bad thing.

He opened the door, stepped back, hands up and bladed, ready to grapple or strike.

A man with a bloodied face fairly flew across the threshold and went face first into the puncheon floor, and something in what used to be a fashionable dress flew through the air and landed atop the prone prisoner, fists rising and falling in a rapid, obviously angry cadence.

The Sheriff reached down, seized a double handful of dress material and hauled Sarah to her feet:  "Whoa, now," he cautioned, and Sarah turned, charging the pale eyed lawman.

Sheriff Linn Keller was a tall man, and he had a tall man's arms, and he thrust out his left arm and put the palm of his hand on Sarah's forehead and held her at arm's length as she sizzled and snarled and swung at him, repeatedly, while the onlookers outside peered cautiously through the open door, marveling at the sight of Old Pale Eyes holding a wildcat at arm's length.

Finally Sarah slowed down, bent at the waist and backed up, raised her hands to her hair and stood, brushing her wayward locks back out of the way:  a long breath and she was composed, her eyes were cool, and in a perfectly calm voice she said "Hello, Papa."

"Hello, Sarah," the Sheriff said, amusement in his eyes and gentleness in his voice.  "And what have we here?"

"Here we have the man who tried to murder the stage coach driver."

"Ah, him."

"I have recovered most of the take, it's out in the wagon."

"And you are satisfied this is the man."

"He's been bragging about it for the past two days."

"And what was that thump and thunder that brought me out of my chair like a scalded cat?"

"Oh, that," Sarah said with a dismissive wave of the wrist:  "He decided he really didn't want to be my prisoner, so when he leaped from the wagon, I jumped with him and got him by the collar and the belt, and I bounced him off the side of the building."  She blinked innocently and added, "I'm afraid I may have knocked some chinking loose."

The Sheriff looked down at the groaning man, squatted.

"Fella," he said, gripping the prisoner's shoulder, "I'm going to take you back to a nice, quiet cell and I'll get those irons off you, and then I reckon we ought to have us a palaver."

The reply was neither well thought out, nor was it polite, for all that it was indeed most heartfelt:  it involved mostly the ancestry of the Sheriff, women in general, this woman in particular, courts, stage coach drivers and two or three miscellaneous other titles, combined with infernal destinations and allusions to actions that were not only physically not possible, but were rather unpleasant to contemplate.

The Sheriff grabbed the prisoner by the back of his coat, hoisted him easily off the floor.

"I reckon he might be kind of dusty," he said casually.  "Excuse me, my dear."

Sheriff and prisoner walked out the door -- or rather, the Sheriff walked, the prisoner kind of came along for the ride, until Sarah heard a splash outside, heard the approximate sound of a bull buffalo being drowned, heard men's laughter:  another splash, another snort, and the Sheriff and the prisoner came dripping back into the Sheriff's office, both of them far less than dry.

"I reckon he missed his Saturday night bath," the Sheriff said dryly.  "Darlin', if you could kindly open that jail cell for me."

The Sheriff followed Miss Sarah down the row of cells, to the last one in the row:  he planted the prisoner, face down, on the cot, sat on him -- the Sheriff's backside, and the prisoner's backside, were two of the only dry areas to be had -- he unscrewed the Tower cuffs, removed them, handed them to Miss Sarah, who accepted them with a prim "Thank you," and then the Sheriff rose, motioning Sarah out.

They both backed out, watching the prisoner as they did; as the man did not seem inclined to rise from his hard pallet, the Sheriff closed the door quietly, turned and fired the cast iron stove at the end of the cell row, waited until it was drafting well, then nodded to Sarah.

They returned to the main part of the office.

"Now how," the Sheriff said, "did you come by this one?"

"I was looking for the holdup who shot the stage driver.  He wasn't hard to find, men like to brag, especially when they've had a few and an attractive young woman shines up to him."

"So you gulled him into talking."

"No.  I got into a catfight with the trollop he was bragging to."

"I see.  That's why your gown is ...?"

"That's exactly why."

"And she ...?"

"I got a double handful of her bodice and ripped down.  She covered herself with her hands, let out a screech and ran for the back, and a half-dozen men insisted on buying me drinks, and I ended up in this fellow's confidence."

"Until ...?"
Sarah smiled, reached into her own bodice, pulled out a heavy leather slapper.

"Until I banged him over the head twice, hard, and got him in irons.  He didn't like the confinement and I didn't like him, and a good time was had by all."
Linn frowned, placed gentle fingers under Sarah's chin, lifted it, turned her head a little to catch the light across her cheekbone.

"You're going to have a shiner come morning," he said, his tone that of a disapproving father.

"I'm going to have more than that, Papa."  She grimaced, twisted a little.  "Once he realized I wasn't going to go upstairs with him for some ..."  (she cleared her throat delicately) "refreshment" -- again, with fingertips to the base of her thoat and an innocent expression, a feminine "ahem" and a quick flutter of the long, curled eyelashes -- "well, he insisted, and the fight was on."

"And you won."

"I won."

"How in hell's name did you win a fight with a grown man who wanted you for breakfast?"

Sarah laughed, laid gentle fingertips on her Papa's chest.  "Why, we women have our secrets!"

She curled her finger at him, gripped his shoulders, drew him down until her cheek lay against his, and whispered, "I cheated!"

The Sheriff gripped his daughter's arms firmly, gave her a warm, approving look.

"That's my girl!"

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472. DOUBLE EAGLE

"I hear you need a piano player."

The barkeep looked up, surprised.

A saloon is a man's establishment.

Paintings of ladies in various states of undress hung on the walls, smoke and laughter hung in the air, beer and whiskey and obscene jokes flavored the atmosphere.

The saloon was where men came to relax, to let off steam, to laugh and curse and numb themselves against life's difficulties.

Women here were a commodity, women were things, objects; the tarts, trollops and unlaced corsets were for men's entertainment, for their lascivious leers, for their obscene jests.

When a woman of obvious quality puts a high-button shod foot up on the polished rail, leans a fashionably-sleeved elbow on the bar top and raises an eyebrow -- "I hear you need a piano player" -- well, it wasn't quite what the barkeep expected.

"I wasn't expecting ... you," he said slowly.

"I know."

She gripped her skirt, swung, steered expertly around a fellow who placed himself accidentally on purpose in her path; she sashayed over to the ivory 88. seated herself with the grace of a queen settling into her throne, raised gloved hands, hesitated.

She turned, looked at the barkeep.

"I'll need a beer," she called, and the sound of a woman's voice -- raised so she could be heard -- commanded the attention of what very few in the saloon hadn't noticed her already.

The barkeep came over, placed the beer carefully atop the piano, looking at her as if she were either insane, on fire or a bale of compressed trouble:  wisely, he offered no comment, and the "Arkansas Traveler" followed him back to his station behind the bar.

The woman played well, and conservatively:  the piano player in a saloon gauges the crowd, plays to the mood:  she wove a pleasant, relaxed background to conversation, to cards, to sandwiches and salt peanuts.

No one approached the fashionably dressed woman sitting composed, drawing quiet magic from the slightly out of tune piano -- nobody, that is, until a nervous young man in suspenders and sleeve garters came over, lifted his Derby hat and said, "Ma'am, I believe you're in my seat."

The woman smiled, lifted her hands from the yellowed keys: the sudden absence of background music left a hole in the smoke-fouled atmosphere.

The woman rose, the young man sat:  his style was not as smooth, not as expert, but it was more what was expected in a saloon:  the woman laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, pointed to the beer --"There's one that hasn't been drunk yet, it's yours" -- and turned with a smile.

She tilted her head, regarded the man who was regarding her.

"You look like a gambling man," she said with a knowing smile:  a deck of cards appeared in her gloved hands, and she began working the deck without looking at it:  "I'll bet I can relieve you of some coin."
A lift of her eyebrows and a smile took the sting of challenge from her words, and the two settled into chairs on either side of a round green-topped table.

Cards were quickly dealt:  one for you, one for me, ten cards in total, the deck placed in the center of the table.

She placed a gold double eagle on the green felt.

"I will bet you," she said, "if you cut, the show card will be higher than a deuce."

"Not much of a bet."

She laid a second double eagle beside the first.

He looked at her coolly, smiled just a little, dropped a matching sum to the tabletop, cut.

Deuce of diamonds.

"Yours," she smiled, placing another double eagle on the felt.

"Your choice of dealt cards," she said, "we turn over at the same moment, high card wins."

He placed a double eagle with hers.

They each touched a card, each looked at the other.

Her trey beat his deuce.

Two more double eagles on the felt: another card turned over.

"Yours."

Back and forth they went, the man winning more than he lost:  when finally the deck was depleted, the woman smiled.

"I recognize the better player," she said, rising and extending her hand.  "It's good to play an honest opponent."

He gripped her hand carefully, not entirely certain what her game was:  he was ahead by two double eagles; they each replaced their winnings in their respective pokes, and the woman turned, raised a summoning hand.

"Barkeep," she called, "drinks on the house, I'm buying, one to a customer!"

She swung around the table, gripped the man's sleeve, rose on her tiptoes, whispered in his ear.

His expression was suddenly serious and he looked at her, startled:  she released his sleeve with a smile, paced over to the bar, paid the slick-haired barkeep with the stained white apron, and smiled again as she sashayed out the door into the clean air outside.

The woman was gathering the reins to her carriage when the man ran up to her.

"Ma'am," he said, "how did you know that?"

"I have known false accusations myself," Sarah Lynne McKenna said, her face suddenly serious:  she lifted her palm, displayed her bronze shield:  "The Black Agent is only interested in the guilty, not in a man innocent of the crime of which he has been accused."
"The Black Agent," he whispered, and turned white to his lips.

"You did not murder and you robbed no bank.  The criminal is caught and confessed.  You will find a wire waiting for you at your boarding-house.  You have been exonerated, the accusations are no more, and the courts have no further interest in you.  Besides" -- she smiled a little, that gentle smile she wore while plying the pasteboards -- "a couple double eagles will make your travels less uncomfortable."

He watched as she drove down the Denver street, then he blinked, looked around, legged it for his boarding house.

Either a wire awaited him, or an arrest, but either way, it was over.

He could quit running now.

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473. A BROTHER'S UNDERSTANDING

 

Jacob took his sister's gloved hand, placed it on his arm.
"Walk with me."

Sarah's chin came up and Jacob could feel the air cool several degrees.
The pair walked down the boardwalk, feeling the sun's welcome warmth soaking through their garments: their breath steamed in the high mountain air, their boot heels were loud on warped, dusty planks.

"Little Sis," Jacob said quietly, "Pa is not sleeping well."

Sarah's eyebrow raised a little.

Normally she would have risen to his "Little Sis," but she heard a deeper concern in his voice -- not in his words, but in his throat, a tonal quality her musician's ear picked up on instantly.

"That damned War," Jacob said quietly, "ruined many a good man.  Eyes, limbs, scars, things a man can see. Look at a man on a crutch and he's got one good leg and the other trouser leg folded up and pinned to his belt.  You can see that.  Pa --"

He took a long breath -- not a steady breath, kind of a shivering inhalation, and from this alone Sarah could tell the depth of his upset.

"Mama said he was nightmarin' again last night."

Sarah blinked, her pace slowing to match his slowing cadence:  she looked at her brother's face, marveling yet again at how much he looked like his pale eyed father.

"What about you?"

Jacob's jaw came out a little, set: she saw muscles bulge, and then he stopped, and turned his head to look very directly at Sarah.

"I could ask you the same question."

Sarah reached up, laid gentle fingers along her brother's cheekbone.

"I slept well last night, Jacob."

"So did I."

"Liar."
"I slept like a rock. The windows shivered I snored so loud. Annette said sleepin' with me is better than a warm brick."

"You have your father's hands," Sarah admitted.  "A mountain witch told him he has hot hands, a Healer's hands."

Jacob's hand floated up of its own accord, rested briefly just under his collar bone.

"He stopped blood with the Word," he said softly, "elsewise I'd not be here."

"I've seen the scar."

He looked sharply at her.  "I never intended that you should."

"You were out of your head with fever," she smiled.  "You didn't have much say in the matter."

Jacob bit his bottom lip, nodded.

"How do we help Papa?"

Jacob stopped, looked ahead, well into the distance, not seeing street, buildings, horses nor mountains beyond.

"I don't know," he admitted.  "I'd ought to be able to help -- somehow -- but damned if I know how!"

Sarah nodded, leaned against him, her head resting against his shoulder.

Jacob's arm ran protectively around her, drew her close.

"You realize the old gossips are going to tell Annette you were disporting most improperly with another woman."

"I know."  She heard the smile in his voice, felt his chest shiver with a suppressed chuckle.  "Remember when Cousin Millie came around, I had her on my arm, she was so tickled to be in a genuine Wild West town she came up on her tiptoes to kiss me on the cheek?"

Sarah laughed.  "I remember.  Annette had fun with that one."

Jacob smiled at the memory, nodded.

"Do you control your dreams, Jacob?"

He looked at her with honest surprise.

Sarah reached out, seized the burnished brass handle, hauled open the freshly-painted door of the Silver Jewel, steered Jacob within.

Tillie looked up from behind the hotel counter, smiled:  Jacob lifted his Stetson, took her extended hand, kissed her knuckles in a most gentlemanly manner.  "My dear," he said with mock gravity, "I do appreciate your assistance!"

Tillie gave him a wide-eyed look of absolute innocence: she looked at Sarah and saw a shared secret, so she lowered her head a little, regarded Jacob, knowing he was going to whip one on her.

"Sarah and I were without, and I am assured the old biddies will tell Annette I'm consorting with other women!"

"Oh, you wanted to add an older woman to your harem," Tillie teased.  "Jacob, I'm old enough to be your mother!"

"All the better," he declared happily.  "It's obvious that I gather women of quality!"

Tillie laughed, sat back down.  "Jacob Keller," she sighed, shaking her head, "you are as full of it as your father!"

Jacob placed a dramatic hand on his breast, fingers spread:  "I come by it honest!"

Sarah hauled him hard by his upper arm and Jacob mock-stumbled after her:  "Hot tea," she called to the grinning Mr. Baxter, "and coffee for Jacob!"

"What's wrong, Depitty?" a voice called.  "Can't handle your women?"

Jacob stopped and laughed, patting Sarah's hand, still firmly about his upper arm.

"Handle her?" Jacob replied, white teeth gleaming beneath his curled, waxed handlebar:  "Fella, I one time roped a Texas twister and rode it in the County Fair, won first place in the horse race with it! I saddled and rode a circus elephant, I've rode bull buffalo across the thunderin' prairie and my little boy rides a Texas longhorn!  I can rope, ride, hogtie and brand anythin' that draws breath but I'll tell you honest" -- he looked down at his pale-eyed sister and laughed -- "I don't think there's any way on God's green earth I could EVER tame my baby sis here!"

"Baby sis?"  Sarah riposted, planting her knuckles on her belt in mock indignation.  "Who you callin' little sis, little brother?"

The two made their way back to the back, sat in the Lawman's Corner -- Jacob's back to one wall, Sarah's against the other, the corner between them -- hot tea and coffee arrived, and fresh apple pie with it, which gained the hash slinger a wink:  "Jacob Keller, I know you well!"

Sarah sipped her tea delicately, a proper young lady in a fine gown; Jacob addressed the pie -- Sarah considered that she'd have to describe his consumption as joyful, no other word really fit -- and after his plate was cleared, Jacob took a noisy slurp of coffee and considered his dainty, feminine sister.

"You called me a liar."

"You are a window, Jacob," Sarah said patiently.  "I can see through you like window glass."

"Hmp."  Jacob frowned. "Your Mama can, too.  So can mine."

"Face it, Jacob," Sarah said quietly, "you'll never best women."

"I yield to the more capable," Jacob replied, just as quietly.  

"Tell me about your nightmares."

Jacob was never one to sidestep a difficulty, even one this deep and personal:  he nodded, put his head down like a bull and plowed right into it.

"Mostly I'm not able to change something. Or can't fix something."

Sarah nodded carefully.

"And our father's nightmares?  What are they?"

"I don't know," Jacob admitted.  "Mama one time said he'll be shiverin' in bed beside her, he'll be soakin' with sweat. She'll hear his breathin' change and he'll groan some and she'll roll over and lay her hand flat on his breast.

"His hand will rip out from under the covers for all the world like a rattlesnake, he'll press his down flat on top of hers and she'll feel him relax, and his hand will quit pressin' and go back under the covers and if there's light enough, she'll see his face go from lined and tense to relaxed, and that'll be it for the night."

"I see."

"If they go to sleep with Mama rolled up on her side ag'in him, he never does have nightmares."

Sarah nodded slowly.

"Is that what yours are like?"

Jacob shook his head.  

"I'll wake up and try to lay real still so I don't trouble Annette."  He hesitated.  "Sometimes it works."
Sarah nodded; she'd discussed the matter with her sister in law before, but never said as much to her brother.

"Do you suppose it would help to get him to talk about it?"

Jacob smiled sadly, shook his head.

"The man's as close as bark on a tree when it comes to things like that. He'll brag his wife up to high heaven, but he'll not let slip any secrets about her. He'll tell outrageous lies about himself but he won't let slip any secrets. He's just as close when it comes to those nightmares."
"You've tried."

"I've tried."

Sarah hissed her breath in between her teeth, frowned.

"You can't fix him, Little Sis.  He don't want fixed.  He holds that hate close, holds it like somethin' precious."

"I know what that's like."

"I give mine up a long time ago."

Sarah looked at him, her eyes veiled.  "I've walked the red sands of hell, Jacob. I'm not sure I could if I wanted."

"You asked about Pa's nightmares. I don't reckon I can do anything to help the man."

"If I can't help him, can I help you?"
"You said you steered your dreams."

"I command my dreams, yes. It is my kingdom and in it, I am supreme, and nightmares are something I seize and control. I have taken monsters by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants and heaved them out the bat wing doors into the street."

"I'll have to try that."

They rose, Sarah taking his arm again.

A stranger stepped in their path, leered at Sarah.

"A good lookin' woman in a saloon," he sneered.  "You gonna dance for us, honey?"
Sarah turned, placed her gloved hand on Jacob's chest:  "Let me," she whispered, then turned with a smile.

"I am not dressed for the occasion," she smiled, "nor am I so inclined.  Now if you will step aside --"

Jacob saw the surprise on the man's face as something hard punched into his belly.

"because if you do not step aside, sirrah, I shall blow a hole through you the size of a freight wagon."

Jacob stepped back, drew his coat aside to reveal his engraved Colt's handle.

"Was I you, friend," he said conversationally, "I'd listen to the lady."

Tom Landers took two long steps, flipped the man's Derby hat free and belted him hard with a shot-filled slung shot.

Sarah twisted, hooked her heel against the front of his ankle as she seized his arm and introduced his face to the floor at a good velocity.

"Mr. Landers," she said as she returned her bulldog .44 to its hidden holster, "thank you. I detest loud noises, and my Bulldog pistol is quite noisy."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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474. DR. JOHN GREENLEES, M.D.

 

Doctor John, as he was generally known, washed his hands and frowned.

Valkyrie Six -- or, rather, Sarah Hake -- slipped easily back into her flight suit, zipped up her boots, shrugged and wiggled to get the wrinkles out of flight-suit nylon, picked up her helmet and carried it all of three feet: for all that they could manufacture an incredible array of things, they were underground, and expanding Doc's infirmary was scheduled but not yet accomplished: in the meantime, to go from the examining room to his office, one needed only turn around and take two steps.

Sarah did, and Sarah sat, and Doc handed her a mug of fresh ground coffee.

"We're growing our own beans now," he said, "this is from native stock!"

Sarah sipped the steaming, scalding, sinner's-heart-black beverage, closed her eyes and hummed with pleasure.

"Now. As far as your honored self," Dr. Greenlees said, tenting an eyebrow and regarding her sternly.

"I can find no ill effects from radiation. Your flight suit apparently protected you from that."

"That, or I was in the ejection seat's shadow."

"I understand it was melted."

"The bottom, yes."

"Better the seat's bottom than your bottom," Dr. Greenlees said frankly.  "I have it on good authority that a certain young man likes your contours just the way they are."

Sarah nodded, her face carefully neutral.

"I do have a concern."  He tapped a few keys, scrolled through one file, another, then stopped:  he read, frowned, looked at Sarah.

"Tell me about that field effect."

"It's something we didn't expect," Sarah admitted.  "It's a gravity field. If we can expand it, the brightoys think it'll be a ... bubble universe, and they're pushing their theories to try and believe it'll make faster than light travel a reality."

Dr. Greenlees' eyebrow lowered, raised slowly as he digested this development.

"For now, though, we can get close to an asteroid with maneuvering thrusters, we can engage the reactor and the field effect skirts out around us and pulls us together. Given that we can vary its strength, we can pretty much lock onto an asteroid and fire our engines, move it into a different trajectory.  Aim it for the furnaces and away from collision with home."

"And that's how Valkyrie One got you home."

"Yeah."  Sarah grimaced.  "I can't recommend being flattened against an Interceptor hull as my preferred means of travel, but it beat running out of air!"

"It also beat hell out of your knees."
"I know.  The bruises are starting to color up nicely."

"I'm not seeing any other injuries, Sarah, but would you know how many rads you absorbed while you were stuck to the side of the ship?"

"None that I know of," Sarah said slowly, turning her head as if to bring a good ear to bear.  "Why?"
"You're pregnant."

Silence hung long in the colony's underground infirmary as a grin unwound from its hiding place and painted the pilot's face with delight.

"Boy or girl?" she asked, her face shining, the color rising in her cheeks.

"It's early yet, but this early in the pregnancy, you'll be very susceptible to radiation damage."

"I'll fly the droneship, then.  It's flown by remote and I can do that with no risk to my baby."

The physician's ear pulled back as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger.

She was already owning the child as her own:  my baby, she'd said.

Not "The Child."

My Baby.

"I will leave it to you," Dr. John said slowly, "to give the news. In the meantime, try to stay away from exploding reactors."

Less than 70 seconds later, there was a full-throated, female-voiced "EEYAAAHOOO!" out in the hall, and Dr. John Greenlees smiled, for he'd done exactly that same thing when he found his own bride was with child.

At least she waited until the door shut before she cut loose with her celebration.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller sewed the bride's dress, and gave her the earrings to wear.

The bride's mother played the traditional wedding march, and the equally traditional recessional.

It seemed fitting that the Second Martian Colony, having renamed itself Firelands, celebrated a wedding with a mountain fiddler playing "Turkey in the Straw" as bride and groom danced in sweeping circles, waltzing down the aisle, as the rest of the colony rose and began to dance as well.

 

Something water-clear and not over 30 days old chuckled out of the stainless-steel carafe into Marnie's clear-plastic cup.

"Potatoes," Dzerinski complained.  "They always ask if we grow potatoes.  Of COURSE we grow potatoes!  How else will the Rus produce vodka?"

Marnie waited until their circle all had filled their glasses, then she raised hers.

"The hell with long winded toasts," she declared loudly. "L'CHIEM!"

"L'CHIEM!" came the return shout, and newly distilled, unaged, raw distillate of fermented taters seared its way down the several gullets.

Marnie Keller's eyes watered, she stifled the need to cough, opened her mouth, and a little puff of smoke escaped her lips:  "Smooth," she wheezed, and had everyone else not had the same experience, her statement would have been greeted with polite laughter:  as it was, the assembled -- pilots, parents, engineers, technicians, friends, family and everyone else -- privately decided that this was one really good reason why the did not drink!

Marnie patted Dzerinski's arm.  "Good recipe," she gasped.  "Don't change a thing!"

"Another?"  the grinning Russian offered, raising the carafe, and Marnie waved him off, gasping a little and dropping her plastic cup in the Ripper bin.

"I think I need to find my husband."

 

 

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475. MOUNTAINSIDE

Sheriff Willamina Keller grinned humorlessly as she advanced the throttle.

Beneath her, the Sheriff's saucer rose from the sandy surface, shot forward on a bubble of something she didn't understand and didn't particularly care to understand.

It worked and that's all she cared about.

This didn't really make her content; somehow it would be more satisfying if she threw up twin rooster tails of Martian dirt and went four-wheeling across the surface, hitting bumps and shocking her spine and ramping the rises.

I miss my horses, she thought as she flew, smooth, silent and fast, imagining for a moment her Goldy-horse wearing a gold colored skinsuit, rejecting the thought in the same moment as irrational.

She screamed across the silent landscape, lit by a weak and distant sun, hauled around the rise where a murderer tried to throw an explosive-tipped lance at the approaching Sheriff and came to grief as a result.

Marnie locked her thoughts down as she banked, turning hard, headed up the mountain, up the extinct volcano.

She knew what she was looking for.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller walked casually along the cliffside path, a rocky walkway normally traveled by mountain goats and small animals.

He walked it with confidence and with ease, for he disciplined his thoughts: when he was a boy, he walked this path and when he imagined he might fall, he nearly did.

From that day forward he forbade himself from such imaginings.

He'd had to try three times to achieve his goal, to make the trip he intended.

He knew he had to make the journey alone.

Every one of his ancestors who knew of this place, made the first journey alone.

He had no idea whether any of them nearly fell because of their imagination.

He had a good idea that every one of his ancestors knew well the principle that a battle -- or a war -- is first won or lost in the mind of the combatant.

The pale eyed Sheriff climbed for some distance; the path was long, it wound around the cliff face, and finally came out in a broad shelf, wide enough to sleep comfortably on -- hell, could he get his Jeep up here, it was wide enough to park his buggy, though he'd play hell getting out of it -- part of the broad shelf was a natural bench, and he threw down a folded saddle blanket and set his bony backside on thick, folded wool.

Linn took off his Stetson, drew up his knees, parked the skypiece on one knee, leaned back against the sun warmed stone and took a long, deep breath.

He'd come to High Lonesome to think, and to let the accumulated stresses run off him like water off an oilskin, and he imagined them streaming invisibly over the rim and a thousand feet down, to splash and die on granite and boulder, and good riddance.

He leaned his head back, squinted at the evening-darkening sky overhead, his eyes searching the heavens for a red point of light that would be the planet Mars.

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller climbed the narrow footpath, saddle blanket rolled up under his off arm; he walked the path confidently in the evening sun's rays, pushing steadily until he reached the broad shelf with the settin' rock and the undercut that he'd once bellied into and found it opened into a cave, just shy of tall enough to stand upright.

The Bear Killer slept there, forever; he'd been a boy when he'd brought his old and dear friend's carcass, blanket wrapped and stiffening, when he'd slithered in and towed the still, wrapped form deep into the cave, when he hugged what used to be a good and faithful friend who'd sided him in some pretty tight spots:  he'd come out, and he'd cribbed up the opening, and he had no way of knowing that in years that followed, a few of his descendants would choose to have their ashes honorably interred here, instead of in the family plot.

Another Sheriff Linn Keller, father to Jacob, walked the narrow path to the High Lonesome, parked his bony backside on a folded saddle blanket, sat with his back to sun warmed rock and gazed out at mountain and granite, knowing this place was not only his by right of title and purchase, but ... well, other men tried to find it, and somehow nobody ever could.

No local legend tied it with anything significant, no tall tales grew of idle speculation about the place; it was forgotten, for the most part, by all but the pale eyed badge packers, who came here to sit in silence, and listen to the wisdom of the wind.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller drove her saucer up the steep slope, ascending as smoothly as if she were on rollers and a steel track; the grade was quite steep, but the saucer didn't care and neither did she.

She watched the screen and she slowed, then brought the saucer to level.

"I'll be damned," she murmured.  "There she is."

She hit the chest stud; her belts fell away, retracted into their slots.

The canopy swung open -- it always surprised her that it was dead silent outside of atmosphere -- she knew this was normal, here on the Martian surface there was no air to conduct sounds so -- *(nok nok)* Hello Einstein, you won't hear it here like you will in the hangar -- but she allowed herself the momentary surprise, the exercise of imagination.

She stood up, stepped out on the edge of the saucer, stepped onto the ancient rock shelf.

The stone here was remarkably like granite.

It was broad, it ran level for several yards to her left, and to her right.

There was more than enough of the weak sunlight to see clearly; she turned back to the saucer, unclipped something from the external rack, turned, and for the first time in Martian history (at least her history there), a woman proceeded to sweep with a broom, swept dust and dirt and small rocks, especially from what looked for all the world like a stone sitting shelf, made just for her.

She replaced the broom, pulled a release: she unrolled something comfortably thick, gripping its end and giving it a snap, then laid it down on the cold stone shelf, turned, parked her backside on it and looked around.

Sheriff Marnie Keller nodded slowly, looking into the distance; she scanned from near to far, dividing her field into quadrants, studying the colony's surface portion, the launch cluster's blunt mouths barely thrusting out of the ground, tracks here and there where the earliest, wheeled vehicles marked up the otherwise smooth surface.

Dear God, she thought, here is a view!

Sheriff Marnie Keller sat for a long while, relaxing, letting stress flow from her and run like a mountain stream down the steep side of the ancient volcanic slope.

She sat there, alone with her thoughts, unmoving.

It was two hours before her comm chimed.

"Yes, John," she said gently -- the suit's microphones contacted her throat and another set mounted close to her lips, and her signal was an ideal, digitized mixture, the most easily understood over their comm channel -- her voice was gentle, because with this quad pickup system, raising the voice was not only unnecessary, but impolite.

"Will you be home for supper?"  Dr. John Greenlees asked, and Marnie heard the smile in his voice.

"You bet, handsome," she replied.  "Just let me clean up here."

She rose and rolled the pad tightly, secured it in its wide-plastic-banded, external carrier.

"Clean up?"  Dr. John asked, his voice light.  "Is there much of a mess?"

"Oh, you know me, John," she teased.  "A woman's work is never done."

She leaned over, reached into the saucer, pulled out a stainless-steel cylinder.

She flipped the sipping nozzle up, smiled at the squirt of vapor as the pressure equalized and the contents proceeded to boil in the thin atmosphere.

She poured newly distilled alcohol on the wall behind, and on the flat, and murmured, "I dub thee High Lonesome."

She flipped the nozzle down, turned, stepped onto the saucer, into the cockpit.

The hatch hummed shut as she slid the stainless drink sipper into its pocket, as she pulled the harness across her taut waist and over her shoulders.

Marnie grinned wickedly as she gripped the controls, throttle on the left, joystick on the right, with her feet on what they still called rudder pedals -- the saucer turned so it was aligned with the mountain, so the steep volcanic slope was now its referent, and Sheriff Marnie Keller aimed her saucer straight downhill, shoved the throttle forward to the halfway mark, eased it back to neutral thrust as she tobogganed downhill on a bubble of some kind of energy she didn't understand, and in that moment, she didn't want to.

She was screaming "Wheeeeeee!" as her stomach tickle-floated the way it did when she rode a sled down a snowy grade as a girl at home.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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476. AND A WOODEN SPOON SHALL LEAD THEM

 

The Bear Killer tilted his huge head hopefully, his great plume of a tail swinging slowly.

Daisy turned, glared at him, shook her wooden scepter at him:  "And 'tis yoursel', is it! Ye're a typical man an' ye know it, there's one thing ye're thinkin' of when ye look a' a woman!"

The Bear Killer's ears picked up hopefully as Daisy planted her knuckles on her waist and concluded:

"FOOD!"

She turned back toward the big cast iron Monarch, muttering, thrusting her wooden spoon into a pan and stirred briskly.

"Well now don't just stand there an' gi' me those big sad eyes," she muttered, reaching up and flicking three biscuits onto the cracked plate:  she neatly split the fresh, fluffy, fragrant breads, ladled them with a generous amount of gravy, turned, regarded The Bear Killer with Irish-green eyes.

"Well c'mon, then," she scolded, and The Bear Killer's head came up, his mouth opened in a happy, doggy grin, and she bent and set his plate under the little work table at the end of the kitchen.

"Men," she muttered, glancing happily at the furry backside of the black mountain Mastiff, his head under the table, his tail declaring his delight.

 

"Ah, Sheriff," Sean sighed with a smile, "me dear Daisy is th' sweetest wife a man cuid e'er have! Why, she doesn't speak as much as she sings, she's the glowin' face of an angel, her words are soft an' kind --"

There was the sound of something heavy hitting the wall in back, a woman's indignant screech, something the size of a half grown pony came charging down the hallway, shoving between men with the single minded intention of making an escape and making it as fast as it possibly could.

Matter of fact, a luckless soul who'd just pulled open the heavy, ornate door to the Silver Jewel was slammed in the belly by the leading end of a four legged freight locomotive -- he flew back, landed on the boardwalk with a pained grunt, and was immediately leaped over by something loud, red-headed and fast moving (he had the momentary impression of skirts and petticoats but as his eyes were in the process of screwing themselves shut against imminent attack, he couldn't be sure) -- and as he rolled quickly to the side, there was the sound of pursuit, men's voices, hard heels thundering past where he'd just been, and as he struggled his way upright, a fellow with slicked down hair, a long white apron and a broad grin seized his shoulder and shoved a mug of beer at him before joining the lengthening string of humanity stretching down the street.

The entire contents of the whitewashed schoolhouse had just adjourned for a hard earned recess when The Bear Killer came charging down the street, Daisy following at the top of her lungs, closely pursued by a red-shirted fire chief, a pale eyed Sheriff and an entire host of revelers, determined not to miss whatever transpired with this unexpected entertainment.

Whether it was premeditation, intent, or convenience, The Bear Killer charged into the town's corral where the Sheriff and his pale eyed son staged their Sunday practice and exhibition:  he trotted proudly up to the stone mounting-block at its very edge and laid Daisy's wooden spoon on the only clean spot around, backed up a few paces, an expression of delight on his face, his tail swinging happily.

Daisy stopped, planted the knuckles of her left fist on her apron string, shook her Mommy-finger at the delighted black Mastiff and proceeded to screech something in Gaelic -- whatever she said, she said longer and louder than a trained opera singer could hold a sustained note, but she made whatever she said seem like she was ready to run her hand down The Bear Killer's throat, seize his tail and jerk him inside out:  she turned, regarded her pursuers, most of whom had poured into the corral and were now formed in a semicircle around the two contestants.

Daisy regarded them with Irish-green eyes and a frowning countenance:  having just delivered a blistering diatribe in a Language that the Clergy do not Know, she dispensed with her audience by swinging Irish-green eyes from one end of the circumferential arc to the other -- she spared no man her green-eyed glare -- at the end of which she took her recovered wooden spoon, uttered a distinct "Hmph!" and marched purposefully back to the Silver Jewel.

Somehow, in the way that these things are known, everyone present followed, interested in what else would transpire:  Daisy waited for someone to open the door for her, swept in, chin up and wooden spoon held like the Queen's scepter, ignoring the huge black curly-furred Bear Killer half a step behind her.

Daisy stopped halfway down the burnished mahogany bar, looking like Storm Cloud Number Nine as everyone filed in, as men resumed their seats, as Mr. Baxter proceeded to draw one beer after another and hand to the thirsty folk repopulating his little kingdom, and finally -- finally, when the last man was in and the ornately frosted doors shut, Daisy's bottom jaw shoved out and she gathered herself once more.

"Daisymedear," Sean said gently, and Daisy thrust the wooden spoon up under his chin.

Wisely, Sean stopped talking.

Daisy turned, thunder on her brow and wooden spoon in her hand, and declared stoutly:

"MEN!"

She fairly spat the word and her eyes were those of a legendary Irish warrior goddess, fit to spit bolts of fire.

"YE'RE ALL ALIKE!  EVERY ONE O'YE!"

Her voice was sharp, it rang in the silence of her attentive audience:  men nudged one another, stifled grins, looked at one another and then back at the woman commanding every soul's attention.

Even Mr. Baxter paused in his perpetual polishing of the burnished blackwood.

"YE'RE ALL ALIKE! YE'RE ALL MOUTH AN' HANDS!  WHY, WHEN YE SEE A WOMAN THERE'S ONLY ONE THING ON YER MINDS, EVERY MITHER'S SON O'YE!  YES, EVEN YOU, YOU PALE EYED JAIL SLAMMER!  IT'S A WONDER YER LONGSUFFERIN' WIFE LETS YE IN TH' HOUSE AT NIGHT!"

She paused for breath, the wooden spoon still under her husband's chin, his head tilted back:  she glared round about one last time and concluded,

"YE'RE ALL MOUTH AN' HANDS, THE LOT O' YE! THERE'S ONLY ONE THING ON YER MINDS!" Daisy paused, took a few long breaths as if to get her temper under control, then she raged the single word:

"FOOD!"

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477. A POINT, CLEARLY MADE

 

Linn Keller's fashion sense could be politely called ... basic.

His boots were shined -- always -- his shirts were either blue or green, button-up, neatly pressed, military creases sharp enough to cut yourself -- with pressed jeans.

Or unpressed jeans and a flannel shirt.

Fashions came and went in his years in school, but his style remained unchanged, from his youngest days in elementary school, through his senior year, when he lay half-curled-up on a hospital cart, apologizing to his mother for ruining a shirt.

The fact that she'd just finished processing a major crime scene, at the high school, where one lay dead and her son stood, one hand to his belly, leaning back against the brick wall, eyes glacier pale and teeth bared, with shocked staff standing back and honestly afraid to approach him.

He'd put the incident out of his mind for several years, at least until his son Jacob came into the bathroom as he was toweling off after his shower.

Jacob solemnly regarded his long tall Pa's wet carcass, frowned.

"Pa," he said, "what's that?" -- and Linn flinched as a juvenile finger traced the scar on his belly.

Linn grinned, continued toweling off.

"That's a scar, Jacob.  It means something tried to kill me and didn't."

Jacob's eyes were solemn.  "Did you kill it?"

"Yes, Jacob, I did."

"Did it hurt?"

Linn stopped, hung up the towel, stepped into his briefs:  he considered how to answer his son, picked up the shaving brush and his cup of shaving soap, spun up a lather.

"Yes, Jacob, it hurt."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller gripped her son's hand.

"Mama," Linn said faintly, "he tried to kill me."

"I know."

"Did you recover the knife?"

She nodded.  "Yes."

He squeezed his mother's hand, gently, containing the rage within him: they only had moments before he went into surgery.

"Talk to Paula Canter and talk to the ... to his posse.  He made his brags about him and his posse."

Linn grimaced; Willamina laid her hand over his.

"Sshhh.  You're in good hands."

"The best," he said faintly, then:  "Mama, I'm sorry, I ruined my shirt!"

Willamina laughed a little, gave her son a warm, motherly look, brushed his forehead as if sweeping a lock of hair from his face.

"It'll sew up," she whispered, then looked up as a white nursing shoe stepped on the brake release, and anonymous figures in surgical scrubs and masks rolled him out of the room.

She felt her segundo at her side, warm enough to feel the animal warmth from the man's stocky body.

"We've processed the scene," he said quietly, "and we've done the interviews.  The family is mad as hell and screaming for blood."

Willamina turned to look at Barrents, her glacier's-heart eyes driving into his polished obsidian orbs.

"If they want blood," she said quietly, "I can spill as much of theirs as they would like!"

 

"You see, Jacob," Linn explained as he scraped whiskers and foam off his face with short, practiced strokes, "I did what was right, and a fellow tried to kill me for it."

Jacob solemnly regarded his father's efforts.

"That's a straight razor."

"Yes it is."  Linn rinsed foam and whisker stubbles off the honed blade.  "Ever use one?"

Jacob shook his head.

"Y'know" -- Linn ran a few fast passes on the strop -- "in barber school they make you shave a balloon."

Jacob's eyes widened, then puzzled a little at the mental image of a balloon with whiskers.

"When you're good enough to shave off the foam and not bust the balloon, you can probably shave someone's face without cuttin' off their schnozz."

Jacob raised his young hand to his own nose, wiggled it to make sure it was still there, looked back at his Pa, who'd returned to the barbaric art of scraping the face with a sharpened blade.

"That looks easy," Jacob offered.

Linn grinned.  "It takes practice, Jacob.  I've cut myself and I had to use a styptic pencil to staunch the blood."

Jacob frowned: he'd fallen while running and cut his chin on a gravel, he came in and tried his Pa's styptic pencil to make it stop bleeding 'cause he didn't want to worry his Mama, and he didn't want his Mama to wipe his chin and wash it out 'cause it would hurt more but the styptic pencil hurt worse an' he set it back in his Pa's drawer, and when Linn found fresh blood on the pencil -- and saw a fresh scab on his little boy's chin -- he quietly wiped the blood off and carefully said nothing.

"You shavin' yet, Jacob?"

Jacob shook his head.

Linn washed out his mug, set it aside to dry, washed the brush and spun it between his palms, hung it up; he carefully wiped the straight razor, set it aside on its towel, well to the side on a shelf to keep young fingers from exploring its honed edge.  

He looked in the mirror and saw a tall, lean figure with a narrow waist and broad shoulders, with a white scar to one side of the navel, about halfway between the belt and the soft ribs, and he remembered.

 

Linn turned, drove the heel of his hand hard into a new student's shoulder.  

His eyes were hard, his jaw set and his "DON'T TOUCH HER!" shocked the hallway, turning every head.

In the years that followed, Linn's experience and training would have alerted him to the possibility of a low attack, but Linn was a high school junior, well practiced in the Arts Martial, but not yet skilled in the Rules of Knife Fighting.

The newcomer's fist drove up and Linn felt a fist's impact, an impact that was deeply sharp and burning.

His entire body went cold and he tasted copper and he knew soul-deep that SOMETHING IS WRONG SOMETHING IS WRONG SOMETHING IS WRONG and his right hand came to his shirt pocket, he drove his left arm down and seized the knife wrist and his fingers flipped the steel bodied pen around and he held it like a punch dagger and drove it hard into his attacker's left eye and he released and hit it again with the heel of his hand and his foot swung around behind the attacker's ankle as he seized the new student's neck and drove his head hard into the floor and he hit him hard enough to drive his skull clear through the hand-laid polished-tile floor --

He blinked, looked at his reflection again, raised gentle fingers and caressed the scar.

His breathing was faster, his pupils were dilated, but his eyes were dead white, and he'd lost most of the color from his face.

"Pa, you all right?"  young Jacob asked in a worried-little-boy's voice, and Linn blinked, took a long breath, nodded.

"Just rememberin', Jacob," he said quietly.

 

Linn woke up in a hospital room.

His Mama sat beside his bed, her forearm laid along the siderail, her forehead on her arm: her other hand was through the railings, resting on Linn's hand.

Linn blinked, swallowed, or tried to: he shifted a little, and Willamina raised her head.

Linn turned his hand over, felt his Mama's hand close lightly on his own.

"I'm glad you're here," he whispered hoarsely.

"Me too," she whispered back.

"How bad was it?"

Willamina reached into a pocket with two fingers, drew out a folded slip of paper:  "Lottery ticket."

Linn nodded, closed his eyes.

He'd had to make up work he missed while the investigation was completed; it took a court injunction to get him readmitted to school, where some regarded him as a hero, where some regarded him as a dangerous murderer, a walking time bomb, and where a significant percentage of the girls looked at him with appreciation.

It seems the newcomer was from the big city, where girls are commonly treated badly: she'd been grabbed, then absolutely mauled in the hallway -- "right in front of God and everybody," Paula testified in a quivering voice -- and when Linn accosted the deceased, he'd inherited a knife in the guts for his trouble.

That the knife was recovered, that it was a witnessed event, that the Sheriff saturated the scene with uniforms immediately after it happened, all worked to exonerate the soft spoken, pale eyed honor student: when the court found he was not only not guilty, but factually innocent of any wrongdoing, the school board was forced into a formal, official apology for their insistence on immediate expulsion.

There were those school board members who insisted on expulsion and who loudly defended their decision; they were removed from office with a recall vote in just under one calendar month.

When in the fullness of time it came to Sheriff Linn Keller's re-election, the event was resurrected, and the general consensus among the voting public was that he had a firm sense of right and wrong even as a schoolboy, an absolute sense of fairness that they wanted in their chief law enforcement officer.

Sheriff Linn Keller looked at the scar as he shrugged into his T-shirt.

"Jacob," he said quietly, "is supper near to ready?"

"Yes, sir, it's near to ready."

Linn winked at his son, picked him up.  "Well, your old man is clean and sweet smellin' so I reckon I'd best get my glad rags on and tend that detail.  Reckon you could help me eat some supper?"

Jacob Keller laughed and said "Yes, sir," and Linn laughed with him, and Linn set his son down, patted his backside and admonished, "Go warsh your dirty cotton pickers," and Jacob, with much splash, fuss and bother, happily set about washing his hands, for supper's good smells were coming up the stairs to invite them.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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478. HI, MOM! WHAT'CHA DOIN'?

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat demurely on the molded plastic chair in the hallway.

She heard the band rehearsing one of their numbers in the music room; they'd been out on the field, practicing formations, and now that it was dark -- rather than spend the school's sports money on the stadium lights -- they came inside to work on their music.

There were also football players coming and going, cheerleaders coming from their own practice, hanging around to flirt with the guys, and a rock in the flowing stream of humanity sat quietly, darning socks.

One, then another of the guys would stop, fascinated -- hand sewing was a lost art, or so it would seem, and some squatted beside her, others loafed against the tan brick wall behind her:  "Hi, Mom!  What'cha doin'?"

Willamina would laugh and look at the questioner and explain that she was darning socks, that there was no sense throwing away a perfectly good sock because there was a hole in it, here let me show you how this works -- and they watched, fascinated, as she wove woman's magic over a wooden darning egg, as she re-wove material with needle and thread, as she turned something most would discard, into a newly serviceable item.

Very few of the girls stopped; most seemed less than comfortable with the whole idea, but none missed the fact that the guys were attracted to a woman who not only wore a dress, a woman who was feminine in her appearance and conduct, but a woman who exhibited womanly skills, and made it look easy.

Willamina's laugh was easy and light, and the guys relaxed in her presence.

Here was not the pale eyed Sheriff.

Here was a mother, waiting for her son to get out of band practice.

Here was a mother who talked with anyone who stopped, a woman of charm and kindness who made everyone who stopped, fell welcome.

When band practice was finished, when laughing humanity piled out of the band room, some carrying cased instruments, some not, the janitor swung in behind them:  he'd tended every other classroom, this was the last one before he ran a last pass down the hallways with a fresh dust mop, before he shut off the lights and went home.

Willamina packed her sewing in a colorful carpet bag, a set of knitting needles and a skein of yarn sticking out a little:  she took her warbag in one hand, her son's arm with the other:  Linn pushed the heavy door open for her, and one of the girls -- whether out of jealousy, or wanting to be noticed -- "Hey Linn, do you always do that?"

Linn turned, grinned and declared loudly, "Wa'l now, I'll have ye know my Mama here took a great deal of trouble to beat some manners into me -- *hak-kaff! Har-rumph!* -- I mean teach me good manners!"

Willamina threw her head back and laughed, as did most who heard; they walked out to Willamina's Jeep and Linn unlocked the door, opened it for his Mama.

"No, you drive," she said, smiling:  "I want to gawk."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, closing the driver's door and walking with his Mama around to the passenger side.

Willamina waited until he unlocked the door to ask, "Now Linn, is your mean old Ma that bad?"

Linn pulled the door and gave her his very best Innocent Expression, which he knew would not fool her in the least little bit, but it was expected.
"Mama," he said, "I have never seen you with your fuse genuinely lit.  I have never seen you mad enough to bite the horn off an anvil and spit railroad spikes, and I don't want to be in the same county should that fell day arrive!"

Willamina laughed again, hugged her son quickly, looked at him with the warm affection of a mother who can see through her child like windowpane:  "Do ya know me or what?" she murmured.

Linn waited until she was all in, until she'd checked to make sure the hem of her skirt would not be caught by the closing door:  Linn walked around the Jeep, climbed in the driver's side, ran the key into the ignition.

"What would you like for supper?"  Willamina asked, and Linn looked over, caught just a trace of fatigue in his Mama's profile.

Willamina saw the same ornery look in his eyes and the same slightly crooked smile of his late father as he replied in one breath, "Do you really feel like fixing supper I'll take that for a no how about the Silver Jewel I'm buyin'," and Linn reached over and squeezed his Mama's hand, the way his Pa used to.

He stopped and bit his bottom lip, then he reached into a hip pocket and pulled out a bedsheet handkerchief, handed to Willamina.

She pressed it to her eyes, one, then the other, she blew her nose delicately, handed it back:  Linn wiped his own eyes, blew his nose with all the grace of an air horn.

"Yeah," he said, stuffing the damp cloth back into his jeans pocket.  "I miss him too."

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479. WELL TEMPERED

Chief of Police Will Keller looked up, saw a shadow on the other side of the frosted glass of his office door: there's been a quick rat-tat, not so much a summoning knock as a percussive request to come aboard.

"IN!" Will barked, and it was hard to tell which grinned the more:  pale eyed uncle, or pale eyed nephew.

"You need something."

Linn handed his uncle a paper bag, set a paper coffee cup down beside it.

"Bad manners to show up empty handed if I'm asking."

Will opened the sack, looked inside, nodded his approval:  he dove a hand inside, pulled out a wax paper wrapped sandwich, and took a long, appreciative sniff of the good smells coming from within the sack.

"Didn't know how hungry I was," he mumbled as he bit into the still-hot-from-the-grille bacon cheeseburger:  he closed his eyes and chewed happily, swallowed, groaned.

"Thought you'd like that."

Linn folded his long tall carcass into a chair, waited until his uncle finished with the sandwich:  Will reached into the sack, dumped the fries out of their sleeve, tore open a salt packet, dumped this in, seized the sack and crushed the neck, shaking it briskly to salt his fries.

Linn sat straight, but relaxed; he almost looked sleepy, which Will knew was deceiving:  he also had a revolver under his coat, which Will personally approved of:  Linn had a set of standards, and those who lacked standards didn't much like that, and even though Linn was a year from his high school graduation, he'd had to have an understanding with the Philistines on two occasions that Will knew of ... and when dealing with Philistines, one is wise to have the jaw bone of a jack mule ready to hand.

Matter of fact, Will considered, was he to lift Linn's coat open and take a look, he'd find the word JAWBONE hand chased on the flat top of his three-screw .44, inlaid with gold ... genuine gold leaf, the same stuff that filled the double ring around the muzzle, and the roses carefully and expertly engraved into blued steel, tiny little roses that vined their way on either side of the front sight base.

Will didn't lift the coat.
That would have meant getting out of his chair, and going around the desk, and he was too busy filling his growlin' gut with still-hot, still-crispy fries.

Once he was done, he carefully, precisely, folded the sack flat, folded it into thirds, set it very exactly in the bottom of his empty trash can:  he took a long drink of coffee, came up for air, and loudly, inelegantly, belched.

Linn blinked lazily, his smile getting no further across his face than the corners of his eyes.

"Didn't realize how hungry I really was."

"Kind of figured."

Will took another long drink of coffee, sat down an empty cup, disappointment plain on his face.

"Damned thing's dry," he grumbled.  "Must have a hole in it."

Will dropped the empty cup on top of the folded sack, drummed neatly-trimmed fingernails on the desk on either side of his stained, scribbled-on desk blotter.

"Now."  He frowned at Linn, closed one eye.  "What brings you here today?"

"Other than makin' sure you don't starve plumb to death?" Linn asked mildly.  "Uncle Will, I came here with the honest fear you'd lose so much weight from not eatin', why, you wouldn't throw a decent shadder in the noonday sun!"

"Look who's talking," Will reposted good-naturedly.  "Was you to drink a redpop, you'd look like a thermometer!"

"Don't I know it," Linn muttered.  "I played hell findin' jeans with a 32 waist and a 34 inseam."

Will nodded.  "I used to be built like you."

"You were better lookin'."

"Crystal thought so," Will admitted, and a shadow of sadness crossed his face.

"Uncle Will, I could use some good sound advice."

Will nodded slowly, considering.  "I notice you didn't ask for some free advice."

"You get what you pay for."

Will nodded again.  "How can I help?"

"Uncle Will, I have a ... an honest fear."

Will raised an eyebrow and Linn knew he suddenly had his uncle's undivided.

"You may speak frankly," Will said slowly, and Linn had the impression his Uncle Will's elbows were pulling in tight against his ribs as he raised invisible fists against whatever might be causing Linn's discomfiture.

Linn's jaw slid out a little and he frowned as he took a deep, slow breath.

"Uncle Will," he said, "I am honestly afraid of my temper."

Will's brows crowded together a little and he lowered his head a fraction.

"Go on."

Linn closed his eyes, considered.

"I find there is a rage within me," he said slowly, almost formally:  "it is like a great, dark monster, it lives within me and it wishes to take me over."

"And what happens if it does?"

Linn looked beyond his Uncle, seeing something well beyond the pale eyed police chief's left shoulder.

"Given my intelligence and my skills," Linn said slowly, "if I ever give that monster its head, I am capable of terrible destruction."

Uncle Will nodded slowly, leaned back, steepled his fingers.

"Ever hear of the Little Tar Baby?"

Linn frowned, blinked, nodded.  "Uncle Remus tale, wasn't it?"

"Yep. You can't play with tar without getting stained."

"True enough."

"Evil is the same way, Linn, and you and I have both had to fight monsters."

Linn leaned forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, listening closely.

"You were in third grade when you took your Granddad's revolver and killed the man that tried to kill your Mama, and you slugged her chief deputy when he tried to pull you off doing CPR on her."

"Yes, sir, I did that."

"You've taken down hellraisers and troublemakers when they needed a good dose of headache."

"I did that, too."

"And you took a knife in the guts to keep a girl from being --"

Will saw Linn's eyes grow hard and pale, just as fast -- just as frigid -- as his legendary mother ever did.

"My point --"  Will raised a teaching finger, rolled it point-down, tapping the blotter for emphasis -- "is that you've known evil.  You have known absolutely black contamination, you've known the depths of hell's damnation.  It stained you, Linn, just the way it stained me, but it stained you harder and deeper because you were just a child -- the same way it stained your Mama."

Linn's face was hard, but the flesh hadn't drawn tight across his cheek bones:  to the pale eyed police chief, it seemed that Linn -- despite his relaxed appearance -- was containing himself to prevent a minor detonation.

"You know what it is to stop evil and you know what it is to act when that action is necessary, and you are one HELL of a lot smarter than most men, because you recognized that you could cause hell itself if you were to let slip your dogs of war."

Linn nodded slowly.  

"Yes, sir.  I reckon that's so."

"If you're smart -- and you've already proven you are -- you'll keep that scaly gut-monster inside of you where it belongs.  You are its monster, it is not monster over you."  Will relaxed his face, considered.  "Linn, do you control your dreams?"

It took Linn a moment to process this complete change of subject:  he blinked, shook his head a little, then smiled ever so slightly.

"Yes, sir.  I do that."

Will nodded.  "And where did you learn that?"

"Readin' Mama's Journals.  I don't recall which I read about first. I don't think it was Old Pale Eyes, but it was one of 'em ... and I went into my dream and I decided I was going to have fun with it."

"How did that go?"

Linn laughed, a little, leaned back in his chair, his eyes swinging up to the stamped tin ceiling.

He looked down at his Uncle Will, visibly relaxing.

"I must have a comedian somewhere inside me," he said somewhat ruefully:  "my dreams are written for a comedy act."

"That is a healthy sign," Uncle Will nodded.  "Did your Mama tell you about that idiot instructor she had that spoke of humor as a coping mechanism?"

This time Linn laughed more easily.  "I recall, sir.  She said she looked at the instructor and thought, 'Sister, you don't know the half of it,' and then she said humor is not a coping mechanism, it's a SURVIVAL mechanism!"

"It is that," Will agreed.  "We deal in grief and loss enough to last ten men their lifetimes and if we didn't have that survivor's rotten sense of humor, we'd end up piled in a corner cryin' like a lost child."

"You," Linn said slowly, "are not the first to tell me that."

"I didn't think I was."

Linn's gaze crawled down the back wall, then tracked along the ancient baseboard trim, ornate and dark with varnish and years and many memories.

Linn was silent for long minutes; Will let him think, knowing the younger man was settling realizations into place.

Linn finally rose, leaned over the desk, thrust out his hand.

"Thank you, Uncle Will.  I appreciate your kindness."

 

 

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480. PROMOTION

A child's imagination is a rich imagination, Willamina reflected, smiling at the children scampering up onto her front porch, thrusting out pillowcases or plastic sacks or withie baskets or plastic pumpkins -- "Trick or Treeet!" -- and she dispensed goodies into each, delighting in the high, juvenile "Thank you" with each dispensation:  for the occasion, she wore a McKenna gown, with a wig and a fashionable little hat that matched the dress.

Last year a matter came up that required her to shut off her porch light and report to the Sheriff's office, and she ended up helping process a major crime scene in just such a gown; it was a complex scene, the State Police were in on the investigation as well, and the senior ranking officer made a point of removing his cover, gravely hand-kissing her, and saying that in his father's day, such a sight would be unimagined, and that he was most grateful we were not stuck in the bad old days.

Willamina gave him a warm look, she rested a gloved hand on his forearm:  they ate at the Silver Jewel later that night, back in the Lawman's Corner, two old friends talking and relaxing, but never completely relaxed ... and for some odd reason, on Halloween, no one thought the sight of a woman in period correct 1880's attire, dining with a uniformed State Trooper, to be odd or out of place at all.

The Ladies' Tea Society met the next day, in the back room of the Silver Jewel, and it was not at all uncommon for the ladies to bring younger relatives -- nieces, daughters, sometimes little boys in knee pants and neckties, but all in period attire.

Willamina noticed a newcomer -- properly attired -- brought her daughter.

This would not normally command much of Willamina's attention.

The child was in a proper little girl's frock, but she was also wearing dark glasses.
Not just dark glasses.

Black glasses.

Willamina noticed the child sized white cane slid discreetly under the seat and she remembered the second-grader was newly enrolled in their school, and she'd lost her beloved grandmother a very few days before:  for some reason, Willamina did not greet the ladies with her usual opening:  instead, she slid from behind the podium, squatted carefully in front of the child, took her hands.

"Good morning," she said gently, and the little girl's face lit up as her chubby little hands squeezed Willamina's with what was obviously an enthusiastic delight.

"I thought she might like different surroundings," he mother explained, almost apologetically:  "her Grandmother's death has been so very ... difficult."

The child reached up, caressed Willamina's face: her other hand rose as well, and she read the pale eyed Sheriff with her fingertips, her mouth open a little, lifting at the corners.

"Gammaw," she said, "tell me a story."

Willamina sat down on the floor in front of the little girl, crossed her legs under her gown's skirt:  she reached up, brought the child into her lap, one arm around her, drawing her close, her other hand very lightly gripping the child's off hand.

"Once upon a time," she said, and the ladies began to rise, and surround her, for they knew any story Willamina told, just might be interesting.

"Once upon a time is the same as saying hold my beer and watch this," Willamina confided quietly to the child, who giggled, leaning her head happily against Willamina's collarbone.

"There was a pale eyed woman who was a deputy back East.  She worked in a little coal mining town that had more beer joints than churches, and she regularly threw drunken hellraisers over the nearest roof, or into the river, whichever was closer."  

Her fingers stroked the little girl's cheek, a mother's gesture, remembering the many times she'd stroked her own children's cheek while telling them a story.

"It was Halloween, when the veil between the worlds is thin, and sometimes creatures can cross over and cause trouble.  That's why we dress up for Halloween, so these evil creatures won't recognize us, and they'll think they are outnumbered, and they leave.  Only ..."

She paused, took a breath.

"Sometimes they don't."

 

Carla Bayless toweled the last plate dry, her hair hanging in sticky ringlets, partly because of the day's work she put into cleaning house, partly because of leaning over a steaming sink full of dishes for the past hour.

She wished for a window over her sink like she used to have at home, before she got married, before she moved.

She liked being able to see outside, and had she been able, she might have seen a cadaverous looking man in an immaculate, formal, tuxedo-like suit step from a glowing oval that appeared, and disappeared just as quickly.

She looked up, surprised, as someone knocked on her back door.

Nobody ever comes to the back door, she thought.

Something cold ran its finger down her back bone and on impulse -- afterward, she really couldn't say why, but she snatched up the phone and quick-dialed the village hall, hoping, hoping, hoping the town cop would be there!

 

"The pale eyed deputy answered the phone," Willamina said, "and she could tell from the woman's voice on the other end, that something was genuinely going on, something that shouldn't be going on, and so she said 'I'll be right there,' and it was quicker to run to the house than it was to get in the cruiser and drive down, so she grabbed the shotgun she kept behind the desk and ran down the street and up the alley, and she swung into the back yard just as something went BLAANNGGG and a man fell backwards out of an open, lighted doorway.

"The deputy walked up to the man -- he was dressed kind of funny, very formal, he wore a long black cloak with red velvet lining, he wore white spats on his shoes and he had a jewelled medal of some kind hung around his neck, but what struck the pale eyed deputy was how pale his face was -- even with his nose flattened, there was no blood -- and his teeth in front were pointed."

"Like a vampire?" the little girl breathed, and Willamina hugged her reassuringly.

"Yes, sweets.  Just like a vampire."

She felt the child shiver a little.  "What did she do?"

"The woman in the doorway -- the woman with the frying pan -- told the pale eyed deputy that the man looked at her with glowing eyes and he said "You vant to invite me in," and she said "Please come in," and then he stepped inside and grabbed her shoulders and said "I vant to drink your blood," and she broke his grip, grabbed a cast iron frying pan and gave him a face full of What Part Of No Don't You Understand, and that's when the deputy arrived."

The little girl giggled and Willamina lifted her face, smiling, looked around:  the ladies were listening closely, clearly enjoying the tale she was spinning.

"Do you know how magic works?"  Willamina asked.

The little girl shook her head, a little, and Willamina explained, "It's all a matter of belief.

"The vampire was from another plane, a place where everyone believed in vampires and believed they could hypnotize you with a look, a place where everyone believed vampires can only be killed with a wooden stake through the heart."  She paused, took a breath, continued.

"He'd arrived in a place where no one believed in vampires, where a pale eyed deputy believed she could bring him to heel fast, hard and nasty, and when the vampire shook his head and got to his feet, he was angry and he decided he would be unkind to the first soul he saw."

"What happened?" the little girl asked in a tiny, frightened voice.

Willamina laughed.

"I was young," she said, "and I had the absolute knowledge that what I was doing, was absolutely RIGHT.  I brought my shotgun barrel down and I drove a charge of buckshot right through his wishbone and a second one through his head."  Her voice was quiet, steady, confident, her gaze seeing something through the opposite wall, her eyes unblinking as she looked back at her own memory.

"I sent him back to his own plane, deader'n a hammer, because my belief was stronger than his."

"But he was a vampire," the little girl protested, her voice a little uncertain.  "How come he didn't believe?"

Willamina laughed.  

"We women," she said, "have a gift, and that is the Dreaded Intercontinental Ballistic Frying Pan, and when we smack someone in the face, hard, it's because someone believes they are going to do us harm, and that mighty and righteous face full of Cast Iron Justice knocks that belief right out of their head!"

Silence filled the room for several long moments, and then the little girl's mother asked gently, "Did that really happen, Sheriff?"

Willamina rose, lifting the child with her:  she placed the little girl on her Mama's lap and caressed her cheek, she smiled and looked at the young mother hugging her child.

"Yes it did," she said.  "It most certainly did.  It was Halloween, and things like that happen on Halloween."  

Willamina rose, turned, leaned back against the table her speaker's podium sat on.

"Now that's not to be confused with the year following," she smiled.  "My partner and I were patrolling the graveyard.  We'd received intel that some kids were going to conduct Rites of Spring among the tombstones, and we intended that they should not.  There was a full moon and we were cat footing through the graveyard -- it wasn't a big one, it filled up overnight when the Millfield mine blew up -- and as we crept like to shadows through the darkness, the moon came out from behind a cloud just as a cat jumped up on a tombstone and MEEYYYOOOWWW'd at us, all hunched up and bristling" -- Willamina's hands came up, empty, but clearly in firing position -- "and that cat has no idea how close it came to inheriting enough .357 Magnum justice to lose seven of its nine lives!"

 

The ladies filed out, chattering happily, settling among the tables, as the Tea Society invariably had their lunch after their morning meeting.

The young mother and her blind daughter hung back.

As Willamina approached, the little girl turned, slipped her hand from her Mama's, tilted her head as she looked with blank, black spectacles at the pale eyed woman in the electric-blue McKenna gown.

"You're the Shewiff?" she asked, and Willamina squatted, rolled forward on to her knees.

"Yes, sweets.  I'm the Sheriff."

The little girl dropped her cane, rushed forward, embraced Willamina happily.

"Gammaw Shewiff!" she declared happily, hugging with all the delighted strength of a little child, and Willamina hugged her back.

She looked up at the young mother, her pale eyes bright and glittering, and she almost whispered, "I think I've just been promoted!" 

 

 

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481. LOST, AND FOUND

 

"Firehouse, Captain Crane."

Shelly's head came up and she looked over at her father: she set down knife and onion, picked up half a lemon, rubbed it briskly over her hands to kill the smell.

"We can stage there or here, Sheriff, whichever you like."

Shelly turned and ran her hands under the faucet, washed her hands quickly, thoroughly, efficiently:  she was toweling them dry when her father reached over and smacked a big red button with the heel of his hand, setting off the general alarm, triggering the station-wide howler that brought men down the firepole, out of the back room, thumbing suspenders over red-shirted shoulders, headed for their respective vehicles.

"ALL HANDS ON DECK, NO IRISH NEED APPLY!" the Captain roared, following the General Quarters call that had been used since the Irish Brigade was first imported by Old Pale Eyes better than a century ago:  "TURN TO, DAMN YOU, OR I'LL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS! RESCUE ONE! SQUAD ONE! ON THE APRON"

Large displacement engines rolled over, started with a clatter of Diesel-compression valves, overhead doors chuckled open, flooding the shadowed interior with high-altitude sunlight.

Gleaming, boxy vehicles eased out onto the apron as the first police car rolled up the alley beside the firehouse and into the parking out back.

 

Linn raised the cell phone to his ear, lifted his chin:  Marnie, staring at her Daddy, froze, then took two steps closer.

Linn frowned, heard his mother's voice in his ear:  "Linn, I know it's your day off, but we have a lost child and I'm calling an all-hands."

"On it," he said. "What special?"

"The usual."

"Can do."

Marnie knew from his abbreviated conversation, his clipped words, his serious tone of voice, something was in the wind, and she had the feeling she got when she watched a hand thrown firecracker, its fuse sizzling, shortening, knowing it was about to detonate with that curious sensation of time lengthening between the sizzle and the BANG --

Linn slid his phone back into the inside vest pocket where it usually lived, looked at his twelve year old daughter.

"Saddle up," he said.  "Can you handle Outlaw?"

Marnie's face -- My God, she's not a child anymore, Linn thought, realizing her face was more resembling a young woman's than the little girl he'd known for so long -- her face lit up with delight at his question.

Her face may have been more matured than he remembered, but her quick smile and her childish, enthusiastic "Oyeah!" was the Marnie he'd known and loved all these years:  she turned, put two fingers to her lips, whistled:  she dug into a spring, muck boots clumping on the packed ground as she headed into the barn at a dead run.

Linn turned.  

"BEAR KILLER!"

Something directly behind him went WOOF and Linn turned, a fist cocked:  The Bear Killer stood there with that doggy grin and his pink tongue hanging out, his great brush of a black tail swinging.

Linn raised his head, curled his lip, whistled.

On the far end of the pasture, an Appaloosa stallion raised his head, whinnied, then set for the barn at a brisk trot.

"C'mon, bud," Linn said.  "Work to do."

The Bear Killer welded himself to Linn's shadow and they headed for the barn at a brisk stride.

Moments later, father and daughter, both well mounted, turned their horses to the house:  both mounts ground-reined in the front yard, two sets of booted feet -- the younger set at an enthusiastic sprint, the other at a businesslike stride -- entered to get what they would need.

When they emerged, each had a gunbelt around their middle, each had a high-viz vest with multiple visibly bulging pockets, each had a blanket lined denim jacket and two canteens, each had their saddlebags -- clearly loaded -- over their off shoulder.

"Bear Killer."

The Bear Killer padded up to Linn, held still as Linn ran the harness over his head, between his forelegs and around his middle: the black nylon harness had a six point star and the word K9 DEPUTY on the side, with a metallic, six point embroidery in the center of his chest, and with the harness, all play dropped from the black furred Mountain Mastiff.

The harness meant there was work to be done, and The Bear Killer was all business.

Linn was pleased to see Marnie had a cased set of binoculars under her off arm, that she did not run from the house, that her pace was regular and steady and her face was serious.

She was learning to contain her feelings.

Linn remembered, briefly, what it was to be young, to feel that wild surge of excitement, and how difficult it had been for him to contain himself: he did, and the ability to control his emotions served him well ever since, and he was pleased his daughter was showing this same ability.

Marnie led her father's black Outlaw-horse over to the porch, used it for a mounting block.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller gave a whistle, spun her hand in the air:  rally on me, and firemen, medics, police officers, Sheriff's deputies and a half dozen proven volunteers crowded in around her as she spread a topographic map out on the flat hood of the rescue truck.

"We are here," she said, tacking the map's corners with magnets, then placing a small, bright-red magnet on the map:  "here" -- her finger trailed across the map -- "is the Z&W right-of-way, from Carbon Hill to here.  Somewhere between the water stop and here" -- another small, bright-red magnet -- "a child left the train."

"Description?"  Captain Crane asked, eyes half closing as he pictured the familiar terrain between here and there.

"Male, age seven. Shorts, sneakers, striped T-shirt. Brown hair, brown eyes, no other identifying features, scars or marks. Answers to Mark."

"Mental conditions, medical conditions?"  Shelly asked quietly.

"None."

"Allergies?"

"None stated."

"Medications?"

"None mentioned."

Father and daughter nodded; as medics, theirs would be the greatest need-to-know if the child were dependent on medication, or suffered an allergic reaction to bee or wasp venom.

"Commo."  Willamina drew her black-plastic talkie with the long rubber antenna from her vest, frowned at its display.  "For this exercise, all hands on F7. Dial it in now. You should have dispatch override in case anything else comes up."

"How long since the boy went walkabout?" Linn asked, frowning over his mother's shoulder at the map.

Willamina backed up, ran her arm around her son's lean waist.  "No longer than one hour."

Linn nodded, considering how far an active boy could get in one hour, given the terrain.

"Carbon Hill PD is loading up on the train now. The Lady Esther will come off the siding here" -- she thumped a finger onto the map -- "and we'll have the special car staged there with the engine steamed and watered. That is about the middle of where he could be as near as we can G2 from here.  Questions."
"Who goes where?"

"Linn, you and Marnie are the fastest and most mobile.  Take The Bear Killer here, start halfway between Carbon and the siding switch."

"Can do."

"Team Two, deputies, start at the same place, downhill side of the track."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Team three, the Irish Brigade.  Either side of the tracks a half mile this side of the end of the siding."

"Can do."

"The rest of you, on me.  I'll have the six-by. Help me get the cover off."

She turned, handed her flannel shirted son a sealed plastic bag.

"Exemplar."

"Yes, ma'am."

 

Linn and Marnie rode around back of the firehouse and to the railroad tracks, then set off at an easy trot up the railroad bed.  

Linn knew they'd make better time riding the flat beside the roadbed; behind them, they knew, his mother would be following with the surplus military six-by -- and probably grinnin' like a possum eatin' on a dead horse, he thought, she does love to fight that truck! -- in his imagination he could see his mother behind the wheel, happily and quietly profaning the olive drab surplus vehicle, alternately coaxing, threatening and blaspheming its cast iron six as she ground up the roadbed behind them, the rest of the volunteers in back, enjoying the scenery.

The Bear Killer flowed easily along with the horses.

Linn's Outlaw-horse, like its namesake a century and more before, was a black gelding; unlike the original Outlaw, this one was not prone to faint at the sight of a fist, or at the sound of an angry voice: no, this Outlaw liked to fight, and Linn had ridden it into a hostile crowd, and Outlaw seemed to delight in being directed to ram a variety of combatants, chest-first, knocking them to the ground without trampling them.

Except for one that pulled a spiked club.

Outlaw whipped around and gave that one a gut full of hind hoof, which ended any further disagreement.

Marnie, on the other hand, was having no difficulty in guiding her Papa's shiny-black gelding:  her young eyes were busy, alternately scanning terrain, and her father:  she knew he would have a better idea of where to start than she, and she was at once content to follow his lead, and yet she wanted so very badly to run ahead and find the child herself.

The side track left the main line a mile back toward Carbon, she knew, and was used in the old days as a saw-by -- when two trains occupied the same track, one would shunt onto the side track; they would both run dead slow:  the first train would continue down track and stop short of hitting the other train, still partially on the main line:  once the first train was passed, the switch on the other end would be thrown, allowing the sidetracked train to crawl back onto the main, pulling its tail end off the main line and allowing the other train free passage.

Marnie also knew the passenger train slowed considerably on the up grade out of Carbon.

She remembered hearing her Daddy say one time they didn't have to -- they weren't pulling that much weight, and the engine could actually make much better speed -- but it was more a matter of tradition, left from the days when ore cars would be drawn, when it was a hard pull and a single stage steam engine didn't have the raw pulling power of the later, high-pressure duplex engines.

"Marnie."

Marnie turned her head, looked at her Daddy.

"We're looking for footy prints."

"Yes, sir."

"He could have gotten off at low speed just any time."

"Okay."

Linn drew up and so did his daughter.

"We'll have a team on the other side of the tracks, so we'll look here unless The Bear Killer says otherwise."

Linn swung down:  "Stay mounted," he said gently as Marnie kicked her right boot free of the doghouse.

Linn pulled open the zip closure, held it down.  "Bear Killer."

The Bear Killer came padding up, tail swinging slowly: it was a game they'd played many times before:  Marnie would bring a half dozen classmates home, The Bear Killer would sniff an exemplar from one of them, and then trail the right one, all six having gone in different directions:  it was a game he enjoyed, and something at which he excelled.

"Find," Linn said, zipping the heavy plastic bag shut again, rolling it and thrusting it into a saddlebag.

The Bear Killer raised his black nose, eyes nearly shut, sniffed -- Marnie's belly tickled happily inside her as she saw The Bear Killer's shining wet black nose working -- then he looked up at Linn and whuff'd quietly.

"Stay with him!"  Linn yelled, and Marnie did not have to be told twice.

 

Willamina's language was most definitely not that of a cultured lady.

The six-by was considerably older than anything Willamina was used to driving.

It was supposed to be upgraded -- power steering and maybe a new issue automatic transmission -- but for now, Willamina muscled the wheel, double-clutched the gearbox and made it look easily.

The deputy sitting beside her honestly marveled at how she could maintain such a quiet voiced stream of nonstop invective; he was truly amazed at how colorfully she could profane Detroit iron, how completely she could blaspheme a machine in one breath, and beg, cajole and sweet talk it in the next breath:  they'd not only removed the canvas top from the back, they'd removed the canvas top from the cab, and on occasion she would lean out and yell "HANG ON BACK THERE!" before easing the stiff-sprung machine through a rough place.

She knew there was no way in two hells the squad or the rescue truck either one could make it, but the ancient six-by could, peacefully or otherwise, and her deputy had the idea that "Otherwise" would not trouble his pale eyed Sheriff in the least little bit.

 

The Bear Killer ran ahead, Marnie yelling encouragement:  she drew up -- "Whoa now, whoa, Outlaw," she called, leaning back in the saddle:  Outlaw slowed, not liking it,shaking his head in displeasure.

"It's okay, boy," Marnie soothed, stroking his neck, "we'll give you a good run later," and Outlaw threw his head up and down vigorously -- whether affirming her promise, or just showing his impatience, only he knew.

The Bear Killer's nose had gone from high to low -- he was no longer air scenting, he was ground scenting -- he cast back and forth, looked back at Marnie, gave a happy "whuff," and ducked to the side -- away from the roadbed, into the brush.

"Stay with him, boy," Marnie breathed, and Outlaw surged forward, shoved through the brush.

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland stood on the rear platform of the train, methodically glassing the terrain.

Harry was never in much of a hurry to start with; he knew haste, in a search, could overlook some vital sign, and he was not about to be the one to overlook something significant.

He had a good vantage point; he worked from near to far, quartering his area of search, until he was satisfied he'd covered it thoroughly:  then he lowered his arms, let the blood return to his shoulders as he turned, paced to the uphill side of the little platform, and began glassing the other side of the tracks.

Nobody really knew which side of the tracks the kid went, but if he could be found, Harry was going to find him.

Preferably by not getting in a hurry.

 

Mr. Baxter paused from his perpetual polishing of the mahogany bar, flipped the polishing rag over his near shoulder.

"You'd be the mother then," he declared.

The woman looked at him, half sick with worry:  she nodded, uncertain quite what to do -- whether she should ask for something, or perhaps take a seat and let her vibrating nerves try to shake the bolts out of her chair.

"They told me to come here," she said hesitantly.  "The ... um, the Sheriff's office said -- I'd be more comfortable ..."

"They told you the food's better here," Mr. Baxter suggested gently.

She looked away, nodded.  "Yes."

Mr. Baxter turned, lifted the divider, came out from behind the bar, took her gently by the arm, steered her toward a table.

"Now don't you worry," he soothed.  "We have some of the best man trackers in the territory.  I understand we have horsemen, dogs, we've mobilized people who know the county like the back of my left hand here!"

The mother looked at him somewhat dubiously, as Mr. Baxter's right arm was extended as he said it.

"Here."  Mr. Baxter pulled out a chair.  "I can't recommend anything really strong -- not with you worried like this -- but we have tea, cold water, we have wines ..."

She shook her head.  "Thank you, no.  No wine."

Mr. Baxter's smile was quick and genuine.  "Never liked the stuff myself," he admitted.  "Too sour. Got sick on it at my brother's wedding and never touched it since."

"How old were you?"

"Fourteen."

"And you tend bar?"

Mr. Baxter laughed gently.  "Who better?  I've seen too many get too sick too many times."
"Yes, I suppose that's so."

"Tell you what."  He laid gentle fingers on the back of her hand.  "I think some nice hot tea."

 

The Bear Killer snuffed at the ground, sneezed, sneezed again:  he raised his nose, scented the wind, cast back and forth.

Marnie was calling herself unkind names for not wearing her chaps:  I should have thought ahead, she thought, I should have thought ahead -- she eased Outlaw through the brush, ignoring thorns that punched through her jeans, probably drawing blood.

"Stay with him," she muttered, and Outlaw's ears swung back, then he lowered his head, grunted, pushed into a clearing.

Marnie leaned back.  "Ho," she murmured; her hand ran down her thigh, found a broken off thorn, gripped it, pulled it out, squeezed her thigh.

"Bleed out," she muttered.  "Wash out the dirt."

She looked down, saw a small footprint, with a big dog print beside it.

She smiled.

Suddenly, scratches and brush punctures were forgotten.

"Yup, boy," she whispered, and Outlaw eased forward, followed her knees as she leaned over, tracking -- for real -- for the first time in her young life.

 

A little boy looked around, realizing he had no idea where he was.

He thought maybe he'd come from uphill, but he was tired, so he sat down on a sun warmed rock, looked around, yawned.

He was not from Colorado; he was not used to the high altitude, and he was sleepy, so he leaned back against the rock and closed his eyes.

Something warm and furry cuddled up with him and he raised a drowsy arm, draped it across a warm, furry back, and he smiled as he relaxed.

 

Marnie -- a scratch on her cheek, the sleeve of her flannel shirt torn, a bloody spot on her right thigh, cast back and forth, trying to pick up the track.

"Lost it," she muttered.

If I whistle for The Bear Killer, Dad will know I've lost ... no, he won't know I had the track ... he might think I found the boy --

Outlaw's head came up a little, his ears swung forward.

Marnie tended to pay attention to her mounts; her Daddy taught her a horse can hear better than her, he said a nose that big meant they could smell better than her, and if a horse noticed something, the wise rider would pay attention.

"What is it, boy?" she whispered, her hand gentle on Outlaw's neck.

Outlaw pushed through another brush screen, stopped.

The Bear Killer looked up at her, his tail thumping happily against the ground.

Marnie grinned, looked up, her eyes widening with surprise.

"How'd you get here?" she blurted.

Linn laughed.  "I heard you coming so I waited," he explained.  "Do you remember reading about The Bear Killer finding a lost child for Old Pale Eyes?"

Marnie blinked, shook her head.

"As near as I can tell, here's where the search ended back when."

Marnie glared sourly at the child, half curled up, mostly covered by The Bear Killer.

"I hate to disturb him," Linn admitted.

 

Willamina halted the six-by, raised her talkie.

"This is One, say again."

"Special mission accomplished," her son's voice reported via her talkie's black plastic speaker grille.

"Location?"

"Due south of you a quarter mile. Our easiest rendezvous will be at the Firelands end of the side track."

"Copy that, will stand by there."

Willamina grinned wickedly, looked over at her deputy, then leaned out and called, "Hold onto your beer, boys, we're turnin' around!"

"Oh, Gawd," her deputy groaned, seizing the Oh Gawd bar bolted to the dash and locking his jaw shut as Willamina hooked the gearbox in compound low and crawled up over the ballast and lurched over the near rail, the six cylinder Jimmy singing defiantly as they bounced, sawed, backed and managed not to hang up.

 

A little boy rubbed his eyes, looked into a set of pale eyes.

"Howdy," a gentle voice said, and the lad said "Hi," a little uncertainly.

"How would you like to see your Mama again?" Linn asked.

The boy's arm was still around The Bear Killer:  the big mountain Mastiff snuffed loudly at the lad's ribs, then reached up and laundered the side of his face, which brought a squint-eyed grimace and a giggle.

"This is The Bear Killer.  He found you."

"He's warm."

"I know.  He keeps my feet warm at night."  Linn unrolled a light cotton blanket.  "Stand up now."

He wrapped the lad, bringing the blanket up around his head like a hood; he picked the bundled child up, bounced him once in strong and manly arms.  "My name's Linn.  You'd be Mark."

The little boy nodded, then turned to look at the Appaloosa stallion.

"That's Apple-horse."

Marnie stepped up and Linn handed the boy off to his daughter.

"This is Marnie."  Linn turned, thrust a boot into the stirrup, swung aboard:  he leaned down, accepted the bundle, brought the boy across him, grinned.

"Let's go get something to eat, what say?"

Marnie thrust a boot into her own stirrup, bounced once and swung easily into saddle leather.

 

The mother looked up as Mr. Baxter set a plate down in front of her, another across from her; the burger and fries were hot, steaming, very fresh.

She looked up at him, surprised.

"You might want to come and see this," Mr. Baxter said, delight on his face and welcome in his extended hand:  she took his hand, rose:  he place her hand on his arm and took her to the front door as an ancient military truck with a half dozen grinning men in the back ground past, as a squad and a rescue truck eased around it and went on around the street, as two riders drew up in front of the Silver Jewel, as she realized the blanket wrapped bundle in the horseman's arms was about the size of a little boy.

Her hands clapped to her mouth as the rider in the screaming-yellow vest dismounted, as he carried the blanket bundle up the three steps, as he drew back the blanket to reveal a delighted young face.

"I believe," he said gently, "this young fellow is kind of hungry."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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482. GHOULIES AND GHOSTIES AND LONG LEGGED BEASTIES

Jacob Keller was a statue in saddle leather, an unmoving figure silhouetted against the fiery clouds of a spectacular mountain sunset.

He stared at a tombstone: he sat as a horseman, erect but relaxed, listening to the wind, smelling its secrets, contemplating the hand-chased rose skillfully engraved into polished quartz:  the last long finger of sunlight shot from the horizon and caressed his mother's stone, the engraved name -- KELLER -- across the top standing out hard, bold, the "Esther, beloved wife and mother" standing out in smaller letters beneath, on the one side, with the engraved rose.

Jacob swallowed, forbidding himself to feel the sorrow rising in his heart.

Esther had been mother after his own mother's murder.

Esther had listened, had hugged, held, Esther had been his mother in fact, and as deeply as he loved his pale eyed father, he loved his mother just that much more.

Jacob sat still, unmoving, here on this ancient night, this night when the veil between the worlds was thinnest, a night when shades crossed to the Land of the Living: Sean's family, he knew, was celebrating a Dumb Supper, where they set out plates for their honored dead, when Daisy wore a cross with a circle on it -- a Celitc Cross, she explained, and she'd planted her hands on her hips and gave Jacob a saucy look and said they were having a Celide that night, and the Wee Folk would have the shakings-out from their tablecloth afterward.

Jacob didn't know about all that, but he did know he missed his mother, and he knew he was not about to admit this: he was a man grown, he was Sheriff now that his father was dead and buried, and he was too responsible to admit to any foolishness like a feeling of sorrow for missing his dead mother.

Everyone had someone they missed.

He was not alone.

He was not unique.

Jacob frowned, took a long breath, blew it out.

"Why am I even here?" he muttered:  he started to knee his Apple-horse into movement, until he felt a hand on his shoulder, until he smelled roses, until he saw a rose where no rose had been a heartbeat before.

He knew the hand.

His father would rest his hand on Jacob's shoulder, and it was always a reassuring touch, and that's what he felt now -- there, and gone:  there was the odor of roses, his Mama's scent, and a rose was on their tombstone --

Jacob blinked, nodded.

"Thank you, Mama," he whispered, and not many minutes later, Daisy looked up, surprised, at an unexpected knock at their door.

Sean rose, frowning at the interruption:  Daisy heard his slow, ponderous pace down the wood-paneled hallway, she felt the air move as the cooler outside air swept in and rolled down the hall, and in a moment, Sean came pacing slowly back down the hall, cradling something in his big, callused hand, cradling something like it was a tiny little infant.

He looked at his wife, and she saw a strong man with an uncertain expression, and then she saw him lift the something from his cradling hand and give to her.

Daisy accepted the rose -- fresh-cut, fragrant, sparkling with dew:  Sean bent and kissed the top of his wife's head, and then resumed his seat.

 

Marnie Keller had a pretty pair of dancing slippers and a fine, fitted dress for the occasion.

Marnie Keller knew how to fix her hair and fix her makeup and how to spray a fine mist of perfume into the still air of her bedroom, and then pass her gown through it, scenting herself delicately rather than squirting herself with an obnoxious cloud of Eau de Knockemstiff or whatever it was.

Marnie Keller looked at herself in the mirror and nodded her approval.

She was wearing a flannel shirt and denim jacket, she had a gunbelt around her sixteen year old middle and the Smith & Wesson .357 her Uncle gave her holstered on the right: jeans and boots and a wild rag to keep her neck warm.

She picked up rifle and Stetson and cat footed down the stairs.

Her stealth was not necessary; it was, rather, a matter of habit: not long after, with her little brother mounted behind her, Marnie rode for town, a scaly green dragon monster straddling her Daddy's black Outlaw-horse behind her.

Marnie let her little brother off with a group of friends, chaperoned by three young mothers; happy, laughing, bouncing with excitement, they set out to trick-or-treat their sacks full, and with her little brother in good hands, Marnie set off for a special mission.

Outlaw's pace was swift, steady, a black horse coasting easily through shadows and increasing dusk: the sight of a pretty young woman astride a fine looking horse gained several appreciative looks, a fact to which she seemed to be utterly ignorant.

Marnie chose her course carefully, avoiding the roving bands of children; her Outlaw-horse seemed to buy into the need for stealth, for he trod cautiously, silently down ancient alleys, ghosted across street in shadows cast for their concealing convenience:  once she gained the lower end of town, once she was across the main street, she encouraged black Outlaw to an easy trot.

They approached Graveyard Hill and Outlaw picked up speed, Marnie leaning forward and standing in her stirrups:  her hands were flat on his neck, high near his mane, and she said "Go, boy," and Outlaw did not have to be told twice.

A black horse in a shadowed hollow gathered himself and shot like a black arrow down the little grade, sailed across the twisting watercourse that curled around the base of the hill:  his blood was up and he assaulted the stone-packed roadway like a personal enemy, Marnie on his back like a tick on a coon dog, grinning wickedly at the magical sensation of flight, at the feel of hard muscles beneath her making easy work of charging upgrade and through the cast iron arch and among the ancient tombstones.

Marnie leaned back and Outlaw slowed, shaking his head, not wanting to slow:  had it been her father riding, they would have had a contest of wills, but Outlaw seemed to acceded to Marnie's wishes far more easily than he ever did her pale eyed father.

"Good boy," Marnie whispered:  it was not yet dark, the horizon to the west was absolutely on fire, still visible this high up:  below her, the town was shadowed, increasingly secreted beneath nighttime's concealing shadow-blanket:  here, though, here among the oldest markers in the cemetery, Marnie saw a long red ray reach beneath the scarlet clouds and caress the back of her hand, bringing out life itself into startling, rich color -- a shade she'd long sought to capture in oils, in watercolors, in gouache -- she turned her hand, marveling yet again at the symmetry, the beauty, the color of her living flesh.

She looked up.

The same red ray was profiling a tombstone, an ancient, double stone she knew well, a stone with her name of KELLER across the top.

Marnie smiled and eased Outlaw-horse forward.

She'd made so bold -- back in warm weather, when the stone was warmed clear through -- as to paint the incised rose.

She'd made it look incredibly lifelike: she hadn't told anyone she'd done it, but she noticed in the weeks that followed, several people made the pilgrimage to this part of the cemetery, and she'd smiled quietly as she overheard her Uncle Will express his approval of the work.

Marnie knew there was much more to life than she realized -- and she knew there was an entire universe beyond this life that she could only speculate on.

All this went through her mind as she sat in saddle leather, contemplating the remarkably lifelike rose incised and limned and as realistic as the fresh cut rose lying atop the stone.

Marnie considered this for a long moment.

"The Veil is thin," she whispered.  "Grandma Esther, is that you?"

Marnie felt a hand grip her shoulder -- a man's hand, warm and reassuring, and she smelled man-sweat and horse-sweat, leather and whiskey, and she smelled roses and felt more than heard the rustle of petticoats.

She felt a woman's approval and she nodded.

"Thank you, Grandma Esther," she whispered.

Chief of Police Will Keller saw the pretty young woman pick the rose up off the tombstone, bring it to her nose, take a long, appreciative smell, her eyes closed, and the pale eyed lawman smiled a little, for he remembered a night some years ago when he did the very same thing, at the very same tombstone.

Marnie opened her eyes, waved at her Uncle the way she'd seen him wave -- she thrust her arm toward him, palm down, then made kind of a paddling motion, a come-here with her entire hand: she'd only seen her Uncle Will use that gesture and she'd never asked where he got it, but she was satisfied there was a story behind it.

Will punched his headlights down to parking lights, eased the Crown Vic ahead, rolled down his window.

"You should have been with me here last year," Will grinned.

Marnie raised an eyebrow, stood hipshot, holding the rose in both hands:  "How's that?" she asked, smiling, lifting the rose for another smell.

"I was looking for Halloweeners causing trouble in the graveyard," he explained, "so I dismounted and started to catfoot through the tombstones."

Marnie blinked to show she was listening, but made no other move.

"Full moon, spooky clouds, full dark.  I'm moving like a ghost and all of a sudden -- just as the clouds draw back from the moon and the place is suddenly lit up -- this cat jumps up on a tombstone and goes RRRAAAOOOWWW all furred up and fangs" -- Will laughed, shook his head-- "I executed a flawless draw, I had target lock and that cat never realized how close it came to inheriting a .357 headache!"

Marnie threw her head back and laughed, reached through the window, laid a gentle hand on his.
"Uncle Will," she smiled, "I would have paid admission to have seen that!"

"Everything quiet up here?"  Will asked.

Marnie nodded, looked back at the old, double tombstone.

"Yes.  Yes it is, Uncle Will."

"Good."  He winked at her.  "In that case I'll go cause trouble somewhere else."

Marnie kissed at Outlaw-horse, extended her hand, summoning the black gelding from its concealing shadows.

"And I," she smiled, "am going to a dance."

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483. CHIEF LLEWELLYN'S COUNSEL

Fire Chief Daffyd Llewellyn looked up.

One of his engineers had a troubled expression; Daffyd lifted his chin, turned his head slightly:  Come with me, let's have coffee.

Daffyd Llewellyn came to Cincinnati as a lad; he'd risen through the ranks, he'd been crowned with the white hat the year before, and he'd proven a capable fire chief, navigating the politics involved with less diplomacy and more honesty than his predecessors -- which did not earn him as many friends as his predecessors, but which saw the City fewer times in court as a result.

When a fire inspection was conducted, for instance, it was done honestly; those crooked inspectors who liked to pocket bribes, were warned once -- on three occasions, the Chief ended up in a bare-knuckle brawl with his unhappy subordinates, for graft was an ancient and honored sport, and when they decided to bluster and threaten, Daffyd let them understand with a haymaker that threats were not tolerated: a second threat, and Daffyd picked the offender up and slammed him to the deck, and when one particularly stupid individual insisted his was the right, Daffyd honestly knocked the dog stuffing out of him and heaved him through a second story window, without benefit of opening the window first -- and he docked the man's pay to have the window replaced.

After this, few disputed the Chief's authority.

The Chief was not unapproachable: for all that he had boundaries, and enforced them, he was quick to listen, and he'd gone head-to-head with a recalcitrant City Council when it came to getting money necessary to maintain their apparatus -- he'd gone so far as to bring the press into the discussion, revealing dirty deals in City Hall, which came perilously close to getting him fired.

He'd taken City Hall to court, and demonstrated their retaliation in the face of his truthfulness, which was even more embarrassing for the politicos: here, too, he enforced his boundaries, and few in City Hall would try him now, for word got out -- Llewellyn doesn't play fair, Llewellyn cheats -- he uses the truth!

Today, when he and the engineer drew scalding-hot coffee and sat down, the Chief's expression was that of a man who knew this was not a job related matter.

"Ye look troubled," he said quietly.  "Out with it, lad, before it eats y'apart inside."

"It's me son," the engineer said, frowning:  he drizzled a little cold milk into his coffee, added a little more, sipped, grunted his approval.

"As I recall, he's a healthy and robust lad," the Chief said neutrally.  

"Oh, aye, he is that, and he's not above mischief."

"No lad worth a damn is above mischief," the Chief said, his voice lowered a little, and the engineer saw a quiet approval on the man's mustachioed face:  the Chief still wore a curled handlebar mustache, which was long out of fashion, but the Chief was from out West, and fashions die hard in the more remote parts of the country.

"So tell me now, what did this lad tha' has ye preoccupied?"

The engineer reached into a pants pocket, brought out a wooden spool -- a common spool that once held sewing thread -- it was crudely notched along one rim, likely by a Barlow knife.

The engineer wound string around it, dropped a nail through the central hole, looked around:  he held it against an adjacent wooden chair-back, pulled the string.

The notched edge made a surprisingly loud RRRRRAAACCKKK against the varnished hardwood.

"Me son used this on a neighbor's window," he said.

"A window."

"Didn't break the window, Chief, but against window glass -- good Lord, it sounds like a monster's claws rattlin' on a man's bones!"

"I take it he scared a housewife into droppin' her flat iron."

"He didn't say, only that he yanked the string and took off a-runnin', he heard a screech behind him and he didn't look back until he was home and under his covers."

"Was there pursuit, did a howlin' mob come after him with pitchforks and torches?"

The engineer looked up, his expression haunted.

"That's just it, Chief."

The engineer frowned, looked at the tabletop, looked up.

"He told me which house it was.

"I knew the house, Chief," the engineer said, then he leaned over the tabletop and said intently, "I knew the house, Chief, but it burnt down a year ago! Nothin' there now but an empty lot an' some foundation stones!"

"Maybe he confused the address."

"No.  No, I had him describe the place and the woman he saw through the window right before he rickracked it."

The Chief raised an eyebrow.

"Ye do know what day this is."

The engineer frowned, looked up, surprised.

"Halloween."

The Chief leaned back, smiled, just a little, took a noisy slurp of coffee:  he dashed the dregs off his mustache with a bent foreknuckle, looked at his engineer.

"All Saints Day.  Samhain.  The veil is thin today, and these things happen."  He drained his coffee, set his mug down, rose.

"Trust me on this.  My Mama, rest her soul, had the Second Sight, and so did my red-headed grandmother.  Things like this happen on Halloween."  He winked.  "Anythin' else settin' a weight on your soul?"

"No," the engineer said, rising.  "No, Chief, that was ... it."

Chief Daffyd Llewellyn stuck out his hand.  "Ye've a fine son.  His conscience troubled him enough to speak of the event to ye and that's a good thing.  He'll come to his father for counsel, and that is as it should be."

They shook.

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484. RELAXATION

 

Marnie pumped the gasoline furnace a few more strokes, frowning at the blue flames until they satisfied her, then she carefully, almost delicately, added several more wheelweights to the pot.

Most high school girls would be listening to music, practicing their makeup, gossiping: the closest thing Marnie had to makeup was a flush to her cheeks from proximity to a lead pot and her Daddy's gasoline furnace. She'd spent her own money for unleaded gas to fuel it; she kept the fuel carefully away from the furnace, and downhill from it:  her Mama taught her that gasoline fumes are heavier than air, that they crawl along the ground looking for an ignition source, and Marnie had no wish for anything to go boom.

It's not that she was superstitious, you understand, she just considered it very bad luck to have a sudden gasoline fire, especially if she were involved.

One of her classmates had scars from gasoline burns, a classmate that quietly told her there were other scars she wouldn't show anyone -- Marnie heard about her being burned, and she knew she'd spent time in the burn unit, and she knew she wore long pants and long sleeves even in the hottest weather.

Marnie was set up in the corner of a windbreak, two head-high plankwalls set at right angles to block the prevailing wind: it was intentionally made with finger-wide gaps in the boards -- the purpose for which became evident when Marnie dropped in a chunk of old scrap candle and fluxed her pot, scooping out dross and wheelweight clips.
Once she had everything up to working temperature, after she'd smoked her mold, she set a steady rhythm, casting two at a time, dropping her sprue back in the pot before opening the mold and dropping the singing-hot bullets in a five gallon bucket of water, set off to the side.  She dropped them in at low altitude to prevent splash ... once, and once only, had she experienced a steam explosion when casting, and only the face shield she wore prevented her serious damage, although she ruefully admitted later it did her shirt no good at all.

Marnie was most of the morning casting:  she worked steadily, not in any great hurry -- she'd admitted to her Uncle Will that her Daddy tried to teach her at a tender age that "Hurry up is brother to mess it up," and she'd proven him right any number of times -- and when the clock was crowding mealtime, Marnie shut off the furnace, picked up the heavy iron lead pot, poured the remaining lead into the bottoms of inverted pop cans to form round disc shaped slugs: into each, she placed a rejected bullet, while the lead was still hot, laying the wrinkled or misshapen reject on its side in the cooling lead.

She'd learned that trick from her Daddy, and it marked the slugs as to what their hardness was, as to their purpose.

Marnie depressurized the furnace, poured water from the bucket, carefully poured the castings onto a thick-folded burlap sack and let them repent of their sins in the noonday sun.

She came back out after lunch, after the furnace was cooled off, put it away in its shed, a little ways away from the barn: the lead pot and ingots stacked in the shed as well, and the folded burlap was folded further, rolled and stuffed in an ancient steel coffeecan to protect it from nesting rodents.

Linn came down the basement stairs, smiled a little as he heard the lubrisizer's quiet rhythm: he came around the foot of the stairs, saw sized, lubed bullets standing rigidly in formal rows, gleaming in the fluorescent light overhead.
Marnie leaned back, smiled at her pale eyed Daddy as he laid gentle hands on her shoulders.

"You realize, darlin'," he said, his voice gentle, affectionate, "that I can get a discount on as many rounds of these as you'd like."

"I know that, Daddy," she said, laying her hand on his, her arm across her bodice as she placed her maidenly hand on his shoulder-gripping, manly knuckles:  "I've shot enough of 'em already!"

Linn laughed, bent down, kissed the top of her head.

"You've run through an unholy number of .38 target wadcutters," he admitted.

"They're not as hard on the machinery as a full house load," Marnie smiled, "and they do just fine to cut playing cards in two."

"I heard you won a case of beer yesterday."

Marnie shrugged.  "You know how guys are, Daddy.  When they see a girl wearing a revolver, they want to take it away and show her how good they are.  Besides, it was their first qualification shoot, so I bet 'em and they lost."

Linn laughed, squeezed her shoulders together, just a little, the way he did Shelly's in a private moment.

"Now what in the world did you do with a case of beer?" he teased.

"I donated it back to the class, Daddy," she laughed.  "I didn't want any bruised feelings after I outshot them!"

"You outshot the instructor as well."

"I know."

"You might have him when you go through Basic."

"I'll outshoot him then too."

"He might be running a self shucker."

"So?"  Marnie's laugh was light, contagious.  "Have you seen me shoot the Woodsman?"

Linn laughed, nodded.  "I know we received a case of rimfires I didn't order, but they were paid for so I didn't complain!"

"Wasn't that Woodsman one of Uncle Pete's favorites?"

"It was," Linn nodded.  "He never talked much about it.  I only know it held a place of honor in his gun case."

"Ask Gammaw," Marnie suggested, turning back to the lubrisizer:  she ran the last three through it, placed them in their ranks, stood.

"I'm ready for a break and I made cinnamon rolls with Mom's extra pie dough."

Linn stuck out his arm and Marnie took it.

Linn looked at the bullets ranked on the bench, at rows of gleaming brass cartridges lined up behind.

"I can buy all the ammunition I want," Linn said thoughtfully, "and I still prefer to load my own."

Marnie looked up at her Daddy, mischief in her eyes as she waited for his thought to spin the rest of the way out of his mind.

He looked at her.

"It helps me order a disordered universe."

"I know," Marnie agreed.  "It relaxes me too."

"Cinnamon rolls?"

"Cinnamon rolls."

Father and daughter laughed a little and climbed the wide basement stairs together.

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485. RESPONSIBILITY

John Greenlees rapped tentatively at Linn and Shelly's front door.

Linn opened the door -- "John!  Come on in!" -- he stepped aside, but John did not miss the fact that Linn's body was bladed, his right side away from the door, his body language that of a man ready to execute a draw if need be.

John knew such preparedness had kept the lean waisted lawman alive on two occasions, and did not take it amiss, reasoning that it was simply his habit.

Linn started to turn, to call upstairs, and John interrupted him:

"No," he said, "I wish to ... I need something cleared up."

Linn turned, frowning a little -- a frown of puzzlement, young John knew.

"Is there somewhere we might talk?"

Linn considered for a moment, nodded:  they went through the living room and into Linn's study, which had been his Uncle Pete's library and ranch office:  it was old, it was paneled and trimmed with dark wood, and prized rifles hung from the walls, ready to be picked up and used.

"Have a set," Linn invited.  "What's on your mind?"

"Your daughter," John said frankly.

Linn raised an eyebrow, almost amused.

"You asked what's on my mind.  Marnie is on my mind. When we were out last ..."

He rolled his top lip between his teeth, frowned as he chewed on its inner lining, looked up at the pale eyed lawman.

"I kissed her," he said bluntly.

Linn nodded slowly, rubbing his palms slowly together, considering.

"That kind of thing ... tends to happen," he admitted.

"I brought her home early," John said, his expression grave.

"I noticed, but Marnie didn't grab a broad ax and go hell-a-tearin' after you, so I figured things were still good."

"Oh, they're much more than good," John blurted, "and that's what I'm afraid of."

Linn raised an eyebrow.  "Oh?"

John leaned forward, left elbow on his left knee, his right hand palm-up, as if offering an idea in tangible form.

"I ... wanted ... to be improper," he admitted, turning his head with a guilty expression.

Linn nodded slowly.  "That happens as well," he admitted, his words slow, careful, neutral.

"I didn't do anything improper but God Almighty I wanted to!"  His hands closed into fists.  "I've never ... I never felt like that --"

"Why aren't you asking your father about this?"

John looked up, shocked.

"Because I trust you," he said, then blinked as if he'd just opened his mouth and something he didn't want to reveal, fell out.

"You don't trust your father?"

"Yes -- no -- yes I trust him, but --"

John stopped, brought a hand to his mouth, frowned.

"Deep breath," Linn coached, "let the words sort themselves out.  It'll come."

John lowered his hand, shifted uneasily in his seat.

"I felt so damned inadequate," he admitted, "I was scared and I did not know what to do, but I knew if I stayed -- if I held -- if I held her any longer I would kiss her again and ..."

Misery weighted his expression as he confessed, "I don't want her to think I'm a scoundrel!"

"Are you?"

John blinked, leaned back, considered.

"A scoundrel," he said slowly, "would have taken advantage of the moment."

"Did you?"

"No."

"Do you wish you had?"

"Part of me does," John admitted.  "Part of me wanted to kiss her again, and how, and the rest of me got scared."

"What scared you?"
"I did not want to betray her, and I did not want to disappoint you," he said firmly, then he blinked and leaned back a little and said softly, "I was scared of not being in control."

"In control of Marnie?"

"No."  He shook his head.  "No.  I was scared of not being in control of me."

"I see."  Linn frowned, considered.

"If you don't want me to see her again I'll understand --"

Linn raised a forestalling palm, still frowning and staring at a far corner's baseboard trim.

He looked back at John.

"Every father," he said, "worries about their young. I worry about Marnie's automatic pilot taking over. She is a good level headed girl but she has yet to experience a womanly passion, and that can override good sense.  Every father worries about who her daughter is seeing."

He considered for several long moments.

"What did you do when you realized you were close to losing control of yourself?"

"I came up for air," he blurted, then grimaced:  of all he could have confessed, that was one thing he didn't want to admit to.

Linn gave the young man a sympathetic look.

"You are steering your course toward a career in medicine."

"I'm halfway through premed."

"Have you covered addiction?"

"Not yet."

"Let me give you a nutshell. Nothing is as potent, as passionate, as that first kiss, that first drink, that first hit or toot or injection. The very first time is magical! 

The stars sing in the heavens, the air is perfumed and the sons of God sang for joy on the first day of Creation.  That, my friend, is what your first passionate kiss is like, the one that wakes the ancient fires in your belly."

"Yes it was," John agreed faintly.

"You had a choice."

"I did."

"You could have allowed the fires of unbridled passion to immolate you both, or you could call it to a stop."

John hung his head.  "I was so afraid I would upset Marnie."

"She wasn't upset so much as surprised."

John's head came up, startled.  "You knew?"

Linn laughed quietly.  "I'm a father, I make it my business to know these things.  Besides, she and I had this same talk that night."

"Oh."  John appeared to deflate a little, sitting on Linn's couch.

"John."  Linn looked very directly at the young man.  "You had a choice and you chose the path of a gentleman.  You brought her home before your passions immolated you both. You were a gentleman and you probably kicked yourself all the way home, but you did the right thing!"

"Yes, I kicked myself," John admitted.

"Centuries ago, Martin Luther observed you cannot bring fire and straw together and forbid smoke. So it is with male and female. We are hard wired to be attracted to one another, and our inclination is to impassion each other.  It's the way we are wired, John."  He looked solemnly at the soon to be early-graduated sophomore.  "You did nothing wrong, you caused her no disappointment, and you have made me pretty damned proud of you."

"Thank you."

"You're driving, I believe."

"I am."

"I won't offer you a brandy, then, but if you weren't driving, it is customary to recognize an achievement of maturity with a good tilt of distilled sunshine."

"I can drive him home, Daddy," Marnie offered from the doorway.

John looked guiltily at the silhouette of the lovely young woman, standing hipshot and feminine in a skirt and heels:  Linn looked at John, raised an eyebrow.

"She can drive my car to get me home," John said, "but how will she get home?"

Marnie smiled.  "I'll walk to the firehouse.  Mom will be finishing shift in an hour."

Linn rose, set out two glasses, poured two fingers of distilled wine into each.

"Peach brandy," he said, handing John one:  "a favorite of Old Pale Eyes, and of mine."

He raised his glass in salute.

"Here's to your good level head, and here's to the young man who did the right thing."

They drank.

 

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006-7/8

The man sidled up to the attractive woman at the bar and murmured,

"Bond.  James Bond."

She never looked up from her drink as she replied,

"Lost.  Get lost."

 

APOLOGY, EXPLANATION AND INTERMISSION

Or, No, the Amazons Didn't Kidnap Me!

Friends, kindred and brethren, good folk of the Saloon, followers of that pale eyed woman with the short temper and all of her several relatives, in-laws and out-laws:

The world did not open up and swallow me, my wife hasn't died, my apologies for a prolonged absence: you know how the dryer quitting will cause the refrigerator to go on sympathy strike and burn itself out as well, always at the worst possible time?

That's kind of what happened here in my hacienda.

Not long before my bride's medical situation (from which she continues to heal, many thanks for many bent knees on her behalf!), the laptop on which I did most of my writing, correspondence, bill paying, exploration and research, had to have its keyboard replaced.

About four days after the keyboard's successful replacement, the touch screen cracked, rending the machine useless until I managed to disable the touch screen function (never used it anyway) ... my intent was to continue using the machine until Hell froze over the the devil learned to figure skate.

Yeah, right.

One day before the medical issues you already know about, that laptop died: it would not power up.

Two is one, one is none: the laptop dedicated to my ham radio shack was brought upstairs, its icons, screen images and bookmarks were identical with Old Faithful: I figured to replace it in due time, which is fine (remember what the road to hell is paved with) ... three or four days ago it died, would not power on.

Long story short.

Two brand new laptops are having memories transferred from the deceased confusers into the new ones:  I'm told 24 hours to transfer memory, 24 hours to strip the junkware and get them set up for use, I should get a call Saturday telling me to come and get the new ones and the old carcasses (which I told them I do want back)

During this unintended and unwanted radio silence, I was minding my own business, giving the back yard a haircut,  when a pale eyed young woman on a shining black gelding cantered up to me -- she stopped, she never said a word, she gave me a disapproving, very cold-eyed glare, then she lifted her chin, spun her Daddy's Outlaw-horse and galloped off, and I had the distinct feeling someone managed to earn her genuine displeasure, and glad I was that it wasn't me!

As soon as the new machines are under roof, I'll resume the telling of tales -- not that I'll have much choice -- when certain pale eyed folk seize me by the shirt collar and jerk me up short, burn their cold glare into my soul and hiss "Write!" -- well, my Mama worked hard to beat some manners into me --

hak-kaff!  Har-rumph!

I mean my Mama worked hard to teach me good manners!

-- well, the only right answer is to tip my cover and say "Yes ma'am!"

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486. MOTHERS. TREAT THEM KINDLY.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was a wife and mother in addition to Chief Law Enforcement Officer for her county: she was a woman who cultivated certain reflexes in response to particular stimuli, and so when her arm was grabbed as she was loading groceries into her Jeep, she did not hesitate.

Before her sack of groceries hit the ground, she'd driven the heel of here hand into her attacker's nose.

Just as her sack hit the ground, shattered eggs spilling out of the sack, she turned a little more and drove her knee hard into the intended target, and she'd seized the shotgun her attacker had tried to bring to bear on her ribs.

Before the attacker could bend more than twenty degrees in response to a sunball of utter agony detonating somewhere south of his beltline, the Sheriff drew the shotgun back and drove its butt into his head hard enough to break the plastic buttplate.

Willamina was moving and her blood was up, her eyes were ice-pale and the skin taut across her cheekbones:  she saw a shocked co-conspirator jump back into his vehicle, and she was moving.

Before he got his door slammed, Willamina was soaring over the trunk, she turned as she fell, slid down the windshield:  she seized the back of the hood to stop herself, laid the gunmuzzle against the windshield and screamed "SHUT IT OFF NOW!"

Willamina's grip was white-knuckled around the shotgun's impressed checkering, her finger curled around the trigger, and when the driver seized the shifter and yanked it into gear, Willamina yanked the trigger and then she rolled off, hitting the ground awkwardly, balling up and rolling away to keep from ending up under the smoking, screaming tires.

She rose, jacked the action, brought the shotgun to shoulder:  she stopped, not knowing whether she was loaded with shot or slug, or what size shot: point-blank against the windshield, the twelve gauge blasted a ragged hole through laminated glass, and Willamina knew she'd hit the driver somewhere, and very likely he was either very badly wounded, or dead -- he might not have stopped bleeding, or breathing, but at that distance, his mortality was almost certain.

A shot at the driver's retreating vehicle would not be viewed kindly by the courts.

Willamina came up on her feet, rising slowly, then turned and paced back to the attacker, rolling on the ground, clutching himself, retching and snorting bloody foam.

Willamina debated whether to raise the gun and drive the butt into his kidneys, decided against it -- as badly as she wanted to, as justified as she might feel, she knew there were cameras in the store lot, she knew she had to answer for all she did, or did not.

There was the sound of a collision.

The fleeing vehicle jumped the curb, dropped its nose into the ditch, stopped:  the engine was still screaming but it was high centered, the tires spinning impotently, hanging low with the weight off the axles.

Willamina hunkered beside her attacker, grounded the shotgun's butt, tilted her head and regarded his agonies as if he were an insect, pinned to a cork board.

"Hello," she said gently.  "Let me introduce myself.  I'm the Sheriff and you're under arrest."

Her attacker squinted his eyes shut, turned his head away, coughed, blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth.

 

Willamina turned and handed a rose to a young woman of her acquaintance.

There were a few who saw this, and saw the look the Sheriff gave one of her first Valkyries: those who saw this, also saw the pretty young woman's eyes widen.

Willamina lifted her chin and smiled, just a little; she'd been no-billed in court -- any time there is a deadly-force incident, it has to be examined, and when this also involves the death of a proven criminal, it is discussed, debated, tried in a court of law, following the investigation.

Willamina gave her testimony as she always did -- the plain, unvarnished truth, simple facts, in chronological order, backed by video from the store's cameras, from her own discreetly-worn body camera ... plus a courtroom demonstration, with the assistance of a deputy wearing a padded red striking-dummy suit:  her physical response was demonstrated slowly, at first, with her verbalizing each move, each strike -- and then, after a moment, at speed -- this in the grocery store's parking lot, with the jury assembled and watching:  Willamina charged over the trunk of an auto, selected from the local used-car lot to duplicate the wrecked vehicle: video testimony had to suffice, as the court was reluctant to repair to the Sheriff's range for a life-fire demonstration of the Sheriff's action which was, as she explained, designed to keep her from being thrown off at high speed and thus killed.

Her Valkyrie held back, waiting until the Sheriff was crossing the street, heading back for the Sheriff's office, before running to catch up.

She came up beside Willamina, the rose still held delicately between thumb and forefinger:  she opened her mouth, her eyes wide, and Willamina smiled quietly at her.

"Come in," she said, "we need to talk."

The Valkyrie -- Anna Mae Hill -- followed her into the office, into the conference room.

Willamina drew two mugs of coffee, added milk to both, pushed the door open with her hip.

Anna Mae waited until Willamina was ready to be seated before she, too, sat.

She looked at the rose, looked at the Sheriff.

"How did you know?" she asked wonderingly.  "I only just found out!"

Willamina placed her mug on the table, took both Anna Mae's hands in her own.

"I have my ways," she smiled.  "Besides, what else could explain a newlywed's complexion? You're carrying a daughter!"

Anna Mae's eyes widened, she leaped to her feet, Willamina with her:  they seized each other's forearms, they both bounced happily, squealing like a couple schoolgirls, two women sharing the joy of new life.

"Now," Willamina soothed as Anna Mae calmed down enough to sit down again, "we can't let your training slack off.  Exercise is good for a mother -- it was good for me! -- and you have to keep in practice."

Anna Mae grew serious.  "You showed us that," she said.

Willamina nodded.  "The Valkyries have shown themselves effective. We have to maintain that effectiveness."  She laughed.  "Besides, nine months is a long time to wait for someone to put in pretty frilly dresses and sunbonnets, you might as well put the time to use practicing how to keep the young men chased away from your front door!"

In the fullness of time, Anna Mae did have occasion to practice the skills taught her by the Sheriff, and she used those skills to keep both herself and her little girl safe, but that was some years after their conference room meeting:  suffice it to say that habits, well formed, kept a mother and daughter safe, but that too is another tale for another time.

 

 

 

 

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487. McKENNA'S DRILL

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller laughed and patted Principal Landers' hand -- this was the young Principal Landers, whose father was high school Principal when Willamina first took office many years before. She'd stopped to say hello, as she did on occasion, and also to pick up what information might come her way: thus far this year, she'd interdicted two drug shipments, prevented three overdose deaths herself thanks to her nursing experience and the Narcan in her pockets: she was a welcome sight at the high school, mostly because she never came on official business.

Willamina knew they were approaching the end of the school day:  her heels were loud, sharp, businesslike against the gleaming stone tiles as she marched purposefully for the side door:  she descended four concrete steps, stopped as the cement apron ended in neatly-trimmed grass, and she felt the skin tighten on her face and her blood cooled several degrees.

Willamina knew the football team would be running scrimmages and practice, and she was not surprised that the cheerleading squads would be practicing as well.

She was, however, quite surprised to find the football team was formed in a loose semicircle as the cheerleaders ran down the middle of the field, spaced about twenty feet apart, single file -- athletic young women, their hair drawn back in ponytails or braids, running free and unimpeded in pleated skirts and sneakers -- as a Texas longhorn trotted slowly toward them, head down, as if to receive their charge.

One, then another, a third, and finally the entire squad, charged this bearer of Texas sized powder horns, charged this living mountain of meat and muscle and death on cloven hooves, seized the horns in near the boss and vaulted his mossy back, tucking and tumbling and landing on their feet.

Willamina realized she was staring and that her mouth was dry.

Principal Landers' hand closed gently on her shoulder.

"We had a visiting football coach yesterday," he said, "who watched this and he just stood there with his mouth open."

Willamina winched her swinging jaw back into place, cleared her throat, turned to look uncertainly at the principal.

"I told him the guys had already taken their two laps around, each one vaulting twice, and the girls got jealous and wanted to try it.  I think he believes our football team is considerably more impressive than he'd realized."

Willamina considered a long moment, waited until the last Valkyrie rolled through the air and landed flat footed behind the big beef.

"I take it this is something you taught them," Landers suggested.

Willamina shook her head slowly.  

"No," she admitted.  "I've taught them several things, but this ... I didn't teach them this."

"I understand the young ladies call this a McKenna drill."

Somehow Willamina was not surprised.

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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488. JUST AN OLD HORSE

"What do you know about her?"

The cemetery sexton scratched his nose, regarded the elderly mare snuffing along a gravestone, looking for something edible.

"Not much," he admitted.  "She just showed up.  I tried to run her off, but where's she going to go?"

"Hm."  The zone cop lifted his eight-point uniform cap, scratched his thick red-haired scalp meditatively, looked beyond the mare at the Ohio, broad and impressive beyond the graveyard.

"What's that on her hip?"

"Damned if I know," the sexton admitted.  "One of the boys said 'twas a brand."

"A brand?"  The cop frowned, squinted.  "I've never seen a horse with a brand."

"I've never seen a horse in a graveyard."

"Hey Murph!" a voice called from behind the two, and the cop turned at the sound of a Diesel engine and air brakes.  "What's with the horse?"

Murph turned, grinned at the pale-eyed fireman weaving between the ancient gravestones toward him.

"Digger here said this horse just kind of showed up," Murph called good-naturedly as the sexton grimaced:  "Don't call me that," he muttered, and Murph patted his shoulder sympathetically.

"Hell, they called me Torch Head for years, Torch for short," Murph chuckled.  "You'll get used to it."

"Yeah, thanks, Torch.  Now what about that horse?  I don't want to have to run around with a wagon and a shovel cleaning up horse manure!"

"What, you never heard of organic fertilizer?"  Murph grinned, to which the sexton raised trembling fingers in an exaggerated plea to the heavens:  "Two million comedians out of work and you've got to come along!"

"Whattaya think, Lew?"  Murph asked, and the fireman rubbed his chin, considered.

"We used to pull our steam apparatus with a matched trio of white mares," he said meditatively.  "I remember when I was a boy, my Dad let me ride in the box with him in a parade.  He said the Matched White Mares came from someplace in Colorado -- his Daddy knew where, he was from back there -- "  the fireman stopped, frowned, laid the back of his hand gently on Murph's flat belly:  

"Excuse me a minute."

He walked slowly toward the mare, staring, then looked at the gravestone where the mare stood.

He'd turned a little, enough so Murph could see the surprise on the fireman's face.

He reached up, caressed the mare's neck, murmured to her:  he ran his hand along her back, walked back to the hip, traced the brand with his other hand's questing fingers, then stopped, reached for the microphone curly-corded to his right epaulet.

He looked up at Murph, his arm running around the mare's neck.

"Hey Murph!" he yelled.  "There's a cow loose downtown!"

"A what?" Murph blurted.

The fireman threw a booted foot up, stepped on top of the gravestone, swung awkwardly onto the mare's back:  "C'mon, Murph! Let's get us some hamburger on the hoof!"

Murph and the sexton stared, mouths open, as a laughing Cincinnati fireman rode an elderly white mare through the graveyard, as he ducked to get through the ancient, ornate, cast-iron gate:  never dismounting, he seized the shining latch of an equipment door, reached in, hauled out a coiled length of good hemp line, slammed the door and secured the latch, then the mare turned and they rode up beside the open driver's window.

"Lew, what the hell?" the driver demanded.

"You heard Dispatch, we're needed to block traffic while they get that cow caught!"  

Lew laughed, pale eyes bright, his grin absolutely boyish:  "Come on, girl!"

The mare whinnied, whirled:  Lew waited on the dancing, impatient mare while the big red Sutphen pumper got turned around, while the zone cop got into his cruiser, then the mare and her bareback rider, a laughing, pale eyed fireman named Llewellyn, led their little parade the short distance to Cincinnati's downtown.

 

Chief Charles Fitzgerald, better known either as Fitz, or as Chief, shook hands with his pale eyed visitor.

"Now butter my butt and call me a biscuit," he grinned, "what brings you clear the hell and gone from back East?"

Llewellyn accepted the steaming mug of coffee, nodded as milk was offered:  a careful drizzle until he lifted his chin, a plate of steaming, fresh cinnamon rolls shouldered its way into a space that was almost big enough on the Chief's cluttered desk top:  Fitz looked at the pretty young medic and said "Where's my coffee?" 

"Get it yourself and be damned," Shelly snapped, "I'm not your handmaid!"
"Why, I'd oughta throw you over my lap and fan your little biscuits!"  Fitz declared loudly, his face reddening.

Shelly laughed:  "Catch me first!" and Fitz laughed with her:  he looked at his Cincinnati visitor and said, "She's the best medic we've got!"

"She talks to you like that?"

Fitz waved his hand.  "She's like everyone's little sis.  Her Daddy is Squad Captain and he's like a brother."  He grinned, leaned forward, forearms pressing into the edge of his desk.  "We're small enough we're family."

Lew leaned back, blinking thoughtfully:  he raised his mug, took an experimental, noisy slurp, nodded.

"I remember those days," he said softly.  

"You were askin' about the horses."

Lew nodded, waited until Shelly brought the Chief's coffee -- she looked at Lew and winked -- both men reached for a still-warm cinnamon roll at the same time.

Conversation was suspended while they partook of fresh baked firehouse rolls, and Lew considered that there was a common element with every department he'd ever visited: their people worked hard, their people played hard, and their people ate well.

Not necessarily in that order.

Fitz pulled a paper towel from a drawer, dampened it by dunking a corner in his coffee, wiped the sticky off his fingers:  he rose, still chewing the last of his sizable cinnamon roll, walked over to a bookshelf, ran his finger across the familiar, leather bound, gold leaf embossed volumes.

"We ran steam, back when," he said thoughtfully, "and the Chief back when, raised white firehorses and trained them here in the mountains.  Their blood was thick and rich because of the thin air this high up" -- he looked at the visitor, whose pale eyes were fixed on the Chief, obviously listening carefully, intently -- "if you start getting a headache or getting sick to your stomach, let us know.  Altitude sickness is miserable and we can get you some relief, fast."

Lew nodded.

Fitz pulled down a volume, paged through it, nodded, clapped it shut.

"Come with me."

Lew rose and they pair walked out into the bay.

Lew was used to a big municipal department in the heart of a busy major city:  the Firelands firehouse seemed so tiny, its apparatus so few, but his experienced eye told him this was a well practiced, professional grade department:  he knew what to look for, and he liked what he saw.

"Pumper-tanker," Fitz tossed a gesture casually at one gleaming, hand-buffed red Kenworth: "we don't fight fire like you fellas do with city hydrants on every corner."

"You have hydrants."

"To the corp limits.  After that" -- Fitz shrugged, stopped, turned.  "This high up, wood dries out fast. Fire moves fast in dry wood and we have to carry our own water.  We'll set up drop tanks, draft from wells or cisterns, we use the Asbestos method."  He grinned.  "We'll do 'er just as-best-as we can!"

Lew nodded, frowned as Fitz stopped, as he looked up at a row of framed portraits lining the entire wall of the bay, from the powered, spotless-white overhead door in front, to the hand-laid brick arch that merged into the kitchen area in back.

"Here are our honorable ancestors -- that's Sean, our Old Sheriff stuck his hand into his own pocket and came up with gold enough to buy our first steam pumper.  He said he bought enough firemen to run it and to staff a station -- he didn't buy 'em, of course, he hired 'em and he paid their wages himself, until the town could -- that's Sean Finnegan, our first Chief."

He looked at his visitor, considered for a moment.

"Here's the first team he put together.  Matched white mares.  He called 'em his Ladies."

Lew stepped closer, studying the portrait, the grinning, broad shouldered Irishman in the red bib-front shirt, standing in the Ahrens steam pumper's driver's box, coiled whip in one hand, reins in the other.

"We found a white mare back home," Lew said slowly.  "She was grazing at my Granddad's grave."

Fitz looked very directly at the man, for he heard something in his voice that said here was something worth listening to.

"We got the radio call to block traffic.  Dispatch knew if you pull something as long and flashy across a couple lanes of traffic, with all those lights Weenkeeng and Bleenkeeng" -- his nasal, bug-eyed exaggeration brought a laugh from both men -- "I have no idea why, but I threw my leg up and stepped on my Granddady's gravestone so I could get on this white mare with a brand on her hip."

"A brand," Fitz echoed, and Lew nodded, thrust his chin at the portrait before him, the one hung just above head height.

"Just like those."

Fitz grinned.

"So you barebacked a white mare.  Sounds like you're a horseman."

"No."  Lew shook his head.  "I'd never been on a horse in my life, but it's like I'd ridden all my life."

"What'd ya do?"

Lew laughed.

"I rode past my buddy the cop and the cemetery operator, I got a coil of line from the pumper and led the way downtown.  It wasn't far.  There was a cow in the middle of the street and the cops were just deploying with rifles to take it down, at least until I rode right up to the beef and got a loop around her horns."

"You didn't!"

"I knew if she tried to run she'd jerk me right off that horse, so I ran the mare around a light pole.  It was one of those new ones.  Spun aluminum, real light weight, and about that time some idiot laid on the siren and that cow allowed as she was going to run."

"What about your mare?"

"She didn't like it," Lew admitted, "but I rubbed her neck and called her a good girl and she steadied down.  I had two turns around that pole and I backed the mare to pull my tag end snug and then the cow hit the end of that line, hard, and whipped the light pole like a fishing rod!"

Fitz laughed, nodded.

"Animal Control didn't know what the hell to do, so when the cow backed up a little I pulled slack and she finally worked up close to the pole, and her and that white horse snuffed at one another and allowed as they'd like to stick together, and they finally got someone there with a stock trailer and got her loaded up."

"What about your white horse?"

"Once the cow was trailered I was still on her back, I was coiling up the line and there were some kids coming up to pet the horsie.   She liked that" -- he grinned, quickly, boyishly, clearly enjoying the memory -- "one little girl twisted away from her Mommy and ran up and grabbed that mare around the leg and hugged the hell out of her and said "Bear!" just as clear as a bell, and I'm sittin' there laughin', and her Mommy came up with big tears rollin' down her face and once she got her little girl pried off that mare's leg, she picked her up and looked at me and said her daughter had never spoken before, and the little girl reached out and petted the horse's face and damned if that white horse didn't just plainly purr.  I don't know what it's called.   Horses make noises and she sounded happy."

Fitz nodded; he was familiar with such, for he'd driven their own team of matched white mares, the team that pastured and stabled out at the Sheriff's place, the team that drew their own restored Ahrens steam engine.

"What happened to the horse?"  Fitz prompted.

Lew looked a little funny.

"Once that Mommy and her little girl went their way, why, that wire mare took off like a shot and I hung on -- I grabbed her around the neck and yelled at her to whoa, and she didn't -- she run through traffic and it's a wonder we didn't get killed, I don't think anyone had a collision but it is not what I had in mind -- anyway, she went for that graveyard again and she sailed across the fence like it was nothing -- one of those old fashioned iron fences, about belt high" -- his hand flat-palmed the height, and Fitz nodded --

"She landed and so did I, but she kept on going and I hit the ground and it knocked the wind out of me, and I finally got up and went kind of hobblin' deeper into the graveyard to see if I couldn't find her.

"That's an old graveyard and it's big and I realized I was close to my Great-Granddad's grave, where the horse had been in the first place, and then I saw her."

Lew looked up at one of the portraits, swallowed.

"That fellow there.  Who is he?"

Fitz looked up at the portrait:  there were three men, each holding a white mare's bridle:  all three wore the pressed leather helmets, the red bib front shirts, the knee high cavalry boots, the curled handlebar mustaches of a previous generation.

"Which one?"

"That fellow.  The one in the middle."

Lew looked at the Chief with serious, pale eyes.

"The one with eyes like mine."

"That," he said, "is Daffyd Llewellyn.  He was one of the original Cincinnati firemen who came out here, and stayed.  He married Sarah Lynne McKenna, they had a son -- Daffyd -- who ran away when he was maybe thirteen or fourteen."  Fitz waited a few moments, then added, "Why would you be askin'?"

Lew swallowed hard, stared at the portrait.

"What ... his son's name was ... Daffyd?  D-A-F-F-Y-D?"

Fitz nodded.  "That's correct."

Lew put a hand out, planted his palm on the brick wall to steady himself.

"When I got to Great-Granddad's grave," he whispered hoarsely, "that man" -- he thrust his chin at the portrait -- "was standing there.  Dressed just like that.  He was talking quietly to the horse, then he threw a leg over her and said "Come on, my Lady, let's go home," and he -- they -- turned and rode straight, directly away from me, and they disappeared as they rode."

Fitz laid an understanding hand on the man's shoulder, steered him back to his office, sat him down.

"This" -- he spread his hands -- "used to be the stable.  You can tell this is a horse house -- this section is tall and narrow" -- he pointed up -- "you can see where the harness hung, ready to drop down on the mares when an alarm came in."

Lew looked up, nodded:  Fitz saw a quiet smile, he saw an active imagination behind those pale eyes.

"The man you saw in that portrait.  Your Great-Granddad?"

Lew nodded.

"And Lew.  That's short for Llewellyn?"

Lew nodded again.

"Ever see a working steam fire engine?"

Lew nodded.  "We have two back home."

"Do you have the horses to draw them?"

Lew shook his head.

"Ever fight fire with them?"

Lew laughed a little, shook his head.  "No."

"We have the horses. We were headed for a parade when we came across a house fire.  We harnessed the mares, off loaded the engine, we threw water and we stopped that fire." 

Fitz's voice was quiet, serious.

"We don't have as many runs as you're used to, we don't have as many people as you're used to. We have occasional ghosts, but you've already seen a ghost."  He considered, frowned.

"Let me make a phone call.  I know someone who can tell you a lot more about your Great-Granddad."

"Oh?"

Fitz nodded.  "Our County Sheriff.  She has eyes like yours."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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489. STAR ON A BLANKET

 

Marnie Keller's eyes were very pale and very hard.

Blood trickled down her cheek and she did not feel it.

Steel slivers stuck out of her chest and shoulder and she did not care.

Blood-red lips peeled back from shining white teeth and a snarl started somewhere south of her belt line and gathered strength as it shivered up a stone shaft to the surface, echoing in the hand dug well of her throat and emerging as a defiant roar, almost unheard in the echoes of the smoking explosion.

A pale eyed sixteen year old girl pulled on a pair of leather gloves and strode unsteadily into the smoking ruin of what used to be a building.

 

"ALL HANDS ON DECK! JAYSUS CHRIST WE'RE IN FOR IT NOW!' Chief Fitzgerald yelled, and the Irish Brigade felt a cold ladle of water run down their collective spines.

Fitz was normally steady, he was usually a rock, he normally profaned the Irish after the ancient custom of their Department, and when he didn't, everyone knew that it just hit the fan, and not in any small amount.

Men seized helmets, coats, thrust into bunker boots, hauled up Nomex pants: gloved hands seized shining grab rails, surged into the shining crimson pumpers' cabs, slammed themselves into the rear-facing seats and shrugged into the walkaway harness of their self contained breathing apparatus, hung the masks over their heads, replaced their helmets, willed themselves to stillness as the Diesel woke underfoot, as the cast iron Kenworth woke and cleared its throat and began to rumble menacingly, gathering its strength, readying itself for the desperate charge to the scene of whatever just happened.

Shelly hit the squad's passenger seat, half landing, half skidding, as her Daddy slid in under the wheel: their moves were quick, economical, efficient: belts across and buckled, Shelly seized the aluminum clipboard, slammed it down across her lap, bit hard on the cap of the erasable marker, pulled.

"Dispatch, ready."

Sharon reached for the red desk mike's key.

When all she heard was "Dispatch, ready," she knew they were rolling everything in the house: every pumper, rescue, squad, every bit of rolling stock was manned and waiting for the launch command.

"Firelands Fire Department, respond to building explosion with fire and entrapment,  Hermey's Garage, are you familiar."

She knew good and well they were more than familiar, but it was a required question, as every transmission was recorded, and she may be required to testify in court that she did indeed send the correct location.

"Roger, enroute," came the clipped reply, and as the heavy glass doors opened, she heard the liquid, rising whistle of the electronic siren, followed by the twisting, agonized howl of the pumpers' mechanical siren.

Sharon looked up into the Sheriff's pale eyes.

"Hermey's Garage just blew up."

She saw Linn's lips peel back from his teeth as he turned, powered toward the doors.

 

Marnie grabbed a big dry-chem extinguisher that was half blown out of its glass-door holder:  she seized it, ripped it savagely from what used to be a steel retainer, jerked the safety pin, slung the pin: something fell, nearly hitting her, and she glared upward, then took three fast steps forward as the ceiling fell in behind her.

She stopped in a doorway, surveyed the destruction before her, pulled the hose free from the red-painted extinguisher, gripped the handle.

A tanker truck was afire in the middle of the bay.

Marnie looked around, searching for bodies: she swung her gaze left, saw a clear path around the front bumper:  she gauged the liquid fueled fire amidships, strode quickly, boldly, made it around to the passenger door, stopped --

Don't run into wires, she thought, they might be hot --

The wires were swinging gently; one touched the truck, there was a quick sizzle, and the only light still burning -- that hadn't been shattered when the explosion occurred -- went out.

Marnie twisted, slipped around the dangling wires, looked under the truck.

She squatted, aimed the nozzle, squeezed:  she felt the pin pierce the diaphragm, felt pressurized nitrogen picking up the yellowish powder, blasted a cloud under the truck, smothering the fire before it got any bigger:  she went to her knees, bent lower, gave another long shot of suffocating dust, rose.

She took two more steps, stopped, blinked.

That's a work boot, she thought, and it took her a moment to realize it was still on a leg -- but the leg was devoid of trouser material -- another moment and she realized she was looking at what used to be a man.

Marnie squatted again -- no sign of fire, she'd killed the burning fuel -- she tossed the extinguisher, pulled off a glove and reached for the man's neck.

The skin was burnt, all of it, its smell rolled her stomach over and she seized her feelings and shoved them deep into a cast iron kettle, screwed the lid down tight -- 

Where did I read that? part of her mind wondered, then swatted the stray thought aside and laid gentle fingers on the man's Adam's apple, dropped to the side.

Find the carotid groove, she heard her Mama's voice say in her teaching voice.  

Find the Adam's apple and drop into the carotid groove.

If there is any cardiac activity at all, you will feel it there.

Marnie closed her eyes and counted out loud, hearing the building crack and settle, hearing broken concrete clatter gently as something else collapsed not far from her.

Dirty second one, dirty second two, dirty second three, dirty second four, dirty second five, she counted, her lips moving, soundless: at the count of ten, she rose, looked around, saw another, saw him move.

Marnie knelt again -- she saw his jaw open a little, he coughed blood, grimaced.

She seized his wrist, pulled, reset and pulled again, getting her shoulder into his gut:  she rocked back on her heels, took three quick breaths, clamped her jaw and groaned as she stood, one arm around behind the bloodied man's knees, the other locked on his wrist:  she staggered toward what used to be the bay door, turned sideways to get out the triangular hole where it was half blown off its tracks.

 

Captain Crane cranked the wheel hard right, nailed the brakes, shoved the shifter into reverse, backed up about six feet:  Shelly was out and running, she hauled open the squad's rear doors, seized the cot, hit the release.

Father and daughter seized the cot, yanked it out, they didn't drop it but they didn't slow its descent much:  Marnie staggered toward them, she felt several hands relieving her of the burden.

"Another inside," she gasped, then turned and strode back the way she'd come.

"MARNIE WAIT!" the Captain shouted, then swore and drew trauma shears from a leg pocket:  work clothes became cleaning rags with several strokes of the shining stainless shears as two medics laid the man naked so his injuries could be assessed.

Shelly's head came up at Marnie's voice, sharp and echoing from inside the ruin:  "GET IN HERE, I NEED A HAND!"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stopped well back from the scene.

A working scene needed room to work; he had no wish to block apparatus with his cruiser, even if he had jurisdiction, authority and blue lights on his cruiser.

He did not run, but a man of his height has long legs, and a tall man's stride covers ground quickly:  he looked up as part of the brickwork started to lean outward, he heard something collapse inside.

He looked up as someone came out of the blown-out bay door, a man over the shoulder:  firemen seized the casualty, ran from the building, ran behind the squad as bricks and cement hit the ground and shattered, busting the squad's radiator and windshield, denting the hood, spalling kiln-baked shrapnel for a surprising distance.

Linn looked up, studied the building, looked back toward the squad.

He saw the cot being rolled toward the rescue truck -- there were six men on the cot, they were moving at a run, two more had a folding canvas cot, surplus from a past war, and a blanket covered casualty on this one -- he blinked, saw his daughter death-gripped onto one end of the wooden-handled folder.

Marnie muscled the cot up level as the other end was rested momentarily on the rescue's floor; she waited until two more sets of hands had the cot, then -- "Up on three, my count, one two THREE!" -- and Linn saw her bloodied face redden as she pushed the cot's handles up, then in, and the casualty disappeared into the rescue.

Linn looked over at his black Outlaw-horse, kissed at it.

Outlaw looked at Marnie, looked at the Sheriff, came head-bobbing over to the pale eyed lawman and the shaved molasses twist tobacker bribe he held out.

Linn turned to his segundo.

"Take my cruiser back to the office," he said as the rescue backed up and turned around.  "I'll be riding to the hospital."

"Yes, sir."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller rode back to the office, punched the unlock code on the back door, disappeared within.

He came back out with a saddleblanket.

A moment, and Outlaw was divested of his black, unadorned saddle; another, the saddle blanket he wore, was draped over the side of the little stable behind the Sheriff's office.

Outlaw stood still for the new blanket to be spun over his back, the wrinkles twitched and smoothed, the saddle swung up and screwed down, and he waited until the lawman was aboard and they'd made the main street before he ruckled and danced sideways.

Linn laid a hand on his neck.

"Not now, fella," he said.  "Pavement's too slick, I don't want you hurt."

Outlaw threw his head up, down, he danced a little more, then turned at the Sheriff's knee-pressure and set out at a brisk trot for the nearby hospital.

 

Marnie seized the handles of the folding cot, helped bring it out:  she helped pack the second casualty into the hospital, waited until transfer to a sterile-sheeted burn table was accomplished, then she took the empty cot under her arm and turned toward the back door.

She almost ran into a red wall and realized it was the red shirt of one of the firemen.

She looked up and saw a curled black mustache and a look of approval, and of concern.

"You've metal stickin' out of ye," she heard: she froze, dropped the cot, ran into the ladies' room.

Red-shirted firemen looked at one another, hesitated:  it was several minutes before Marnie came out, her face wet, still dripping where she'd washed off blood, where she'd pulled metal from vest, from shirt, from her living flesh:  she came out of the ladies' room, stopped at the sight of a half dozen red shirted firemen standing, waiting.

Every fireman there gripped her shoulder, or spoke to her, or nodded:  she picked up the canvas stretcher, got it outside, folded it, turned it upside down, frowned and then realized -- this is the rescue truck, this isn't the squad, there's no dedicated cubby for this.

Marnie leaned the folded cot against the open door, felt her strength running out like someone pulled a cork out of her boot heel and let it run out on the ground.

She sat down on the back bumper, dropped her head into her hands, propped her elbows on her knees as the shakes started.

Someone warm sat down on her left, then someone on her right:  an arm draped across her shoulders, another from the other side, and she reached blindly, not knowing who was there and not caring.

"You just had a CPR save," she heard her Grampa say, his voice gentle.  "In twenty five years I've had one -- one! -- and that wasn't until twelve years in."

Marnie nodded, her face still in her hands.

"I'm shaking," she quavered. "I need a tetanus shot."

"That's normal," Shelly said.  "When it hits the fan, we handle it, but once the pressure is off" -- she laughed -- "when the pressure's off, I shake like a streetwalker at a tent revival!"

Marnie laughed a little, raised her head.

Her pale eyed Daddy was standing in front of her.

"Stand up," he said.

Marnie stood.

"I understand you packed out two casualties."

Marnie blinked, surprised.

"You got a man's heart started again."

Marnie considered, nodded.

Linn reached into a vest pocket, pulled out a black leather square, opened it.

It contained a silver, six point star:  simple, unadorned, it had the hand-chased engraving in an arc, FIRELANDS and beneath, DEPUTY.

"Raise your right hand."

Marnie lifted her chin, drew herself up, raised her right hand.

"Do you?"
"Can I?"

"You just did."

"I'm only sixteen, I'm too young."

Marnie saw something in her Papa's pale eyes -- she wasn't sure if it was approval, or anger, or something else.

"My county, my rules," he said firmly. "I'm not wasting a resource."

He turned, kissed at Outlaw-horse.

Outlaw came head-bobbing up, turned sideways as the Sheriff extended a hand, and Marnie saw the saddle blanket was replaced.

Instead of the grey blanket with burgundy stripes she'd had on him earlier, this was an all grey blanket, with a six point star.

"You even get a custom saddle blanket."

Marnie nodded slowly, her bottom jaw thrusting out, then:

"Saddle blanket hell," she said, accepting the badge, "I want a raise!"

 

"Did you see what that girl did?" Fitz said softly after they reviewed the video.

Somehow, and nobody really knew how, one camera survived the explosion.

They watched as the welder struck an arc on the truck's back bumper, they watched the gout of flame blast out of the open, quick-dump valve on the oil truck's tank, they watched the explosion and men being blown back and down.

They saw a girl with pale eyes stride into ruin and death like she owned the place, they saw her squat and extinguish the fire that could have turned a blast zone into a pyre, they saw her take a man well bigger than she and pack him out over her shoulder, and they watched her come back in and start cardiac compressions on another -- then, when the structure began to cave in around her, they saw her roll this man as well over her shoulder and pack him out at little less than a run.

Fire Chief Charles Fitzgerald, Chief of Police Will Keller, Squad Captain Crane and Sheriff Linn Keller sat silent, having just watched the action, watched it again, and then in slow motion.

"You gave her a saddle blanket and a badge," Fitz said slowly.

"Yep."

"I'd say you got off cheap, Sheriff.  You've got a good one there."

Linn looked over at the Captain, at the woman seated beside her red-shirted Daddy, and he grinned, and saw the smile in Shelly's eyes as he replied, "She takes after her good lookin' Mama."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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490. TEA, AND NO DOUBTS

Marnie was less comfortable sitting at her Gammaw's kitchen table than she'd been when her father's stern voice told her to stand up, when she was sitting on the back bumper of the rescue, wondering if she had strength enough to keep from collapsing as she sat.

Willamina poured the tea, steaming amber chuckling fragrantly into the tall, heavy mugs: she loved her tea, but she regarded it like her coffee -- something to be consumed in volume, and dainty little tea cups were not to be found under her roof.

Marnie waited, willing herself to stillness: her mind wanted to run screaming through fields of speculation, but she held it back, throttling down her racing thoughts like she'd throttle down a John Deer two-banger by pulling back on the cast iron handle on the steering column.

Willamina sat, picked up her tea, looked at Marnie through the rising plume of scented steam.

"Tell me what happened," she said quietly, her eyes veiled.

Marnie never touched her mug: her fingertips were on the tabletop as she frowned at her pale eyed Gammaw.

"I was riding past the garage when it blew," she said bluntly.  "Outlaw fell back and kept his feet.  I jumped off and yelled "Hold!" and he froze right there."

Willamina nodded, slowly, remembering how long and how patiently her pale eyed son trained the shining black gelding.

"I didn't know I'd been hurt," Marnie admitted, fingertips rising to almost touch her healing cheekbone.  "I saw the garage door -- the overhead door -- was blown out on one side.

"I ran in the front and through the reception, or what used to be reception, I guess" -- she frowned -- "part of the ceiling fell and almost hit me, I looked up and saw more of it was coming so I legged it for the doorway."

"Did you go through?"

"No."  Marnie was surprised at her quiet voiced answer; she looked at the memory, nodded.

"No, Gammaw, I stopped in the doorway.  I remembered reading about earthquakes and how people are told to shelter in a doorway because it's stronger."

Willamina blinked slowly, sleepily, like a cat.

"What happened then?"

"I went on into the bay."

"What did you see?"

Marnie looked at her Gammaw and Willamina saw memories filling her eyes.

"I saw ruin, Gammaw," she whispered, her hands coming together, cupping around the reassuring warmth of the heavy ceramic mug.  "I saw ... a bomb went off and there was a fuel fire under the truck's saddle tank.  I looked around.  I was looking for bodies.  I expected to see carcasses or body parts and I saw the extinguisher."

"How did you feel?"

"Contained."

"Contained?"

"I was containing myself.  It was like ... it felt like I reached down into myself and grabbed my feelings and squeezed them hard and held them down so I could think and so I could handle what needed without getting emotional."

"Go on."

"I saw a twenty-pounder -- an extinguisher, it was half hanging out of one of those extinguisher cubbies built into the wall.  I grabbed it and I figured to either tear it in two or rip it out of the wall."

"Did you?"

"I guess."  Marnie smiled thinly.  "It came out."

"What then?"

"I'm looking around again and I saw I could get around the front of the truck.  I guess it was in on repair, it was a commercial rig, I think they use ... I think it was a crude oil hauler, a forty-barrel."

"Short coupled."

"Yeah." Marnie looked down at her tea, surprised at how steady its surface was.

"I went around the truck --"

"You didn't hit the fire?"

"No.  I was moving.  I wanted to get around the truck and see what was there."

"Should you have hit the fire first?"

"Too late for that, Gammaw.  I decided and I moved."

"What did you see?"
"Wires."

"Wires?"

"I think they were from a ceiling light that got blown loose and fell.  One was still hanging, barely, I ducked the wires but they hit the truck and arced and the only light still up there went out.  Probably blew the breaker."

"What did you then?"

"I had a better attack on the fire from underneath, so I squatted and shot."

"Did it work?"

"Yep."

"What else?"

"I saw a work boot."

"A work boot."

"With a leg in it."

Willamina's eyebrow twitched up a little.

"I looked at where the fire had been and I must have figured if I have a casualty I'd better make damned sure that fire is dead so I hit it with a long blast and let go of the extinguisher.  I peeled out of a glove and checked for a pulse."

"Was he intact?"

Marnie looked at her Gammaw, her expression haunted.

"He was in one piece, Gammaw, but his hide was burnt.  All of it.  I mind hearing people talk about how burnt flesh smells.  Now I know."

Willamina nodded, slowly:  she, too, knew that smell.

"I looked up and saw another man and he was moving a little."

"You didn't start CPR."

"No.  One without a pulse but one moving and bleeding.  CPR is a maybe but this was a definite so I got him up on my shoulder and outside and I'll tell you" -- she laughed a little, a nervous little laugh Willamina remembered from her own years as a rookie cop -- "Grampa backing that squad around broadside to me looked like Jesus Christ leading the Rough Riders across the Sea of Galilee!"

"I understand the squad was damaged."

"Damaged hell," Marnie exclaimed,  "the hood was crushed, the block is cracked, radiator's busted, the cab is half caved in, I think something pierced the patient mod -- I know the roof's got a hole in it -- how nobody got hurt ..."

Marnie took a  noisy slurp of her tea, blinking rapidly.

"They got the cot out and the patient on the cot and BANG we got hit, they ran for the rescue truck and I ran back into the building."

"Why?  That one was dead.  You already pronounced that one."

Marnie's eyes hardened and Willamina's eyes showed approval to see it, for she knew what her granddaughter's next words would be.

"I wasn't going to leave a man behind."

"Did you?"

"No."

"You started CPR."

"I did."

"Why did you stop?"

"The building started to collapse in on me."

"You could have left the dead body and gotten your living self out."

Marnie shook her head, set her tea down.

"So.  You made decisions under pressure."

Marnie considered for a long moment, nodded.

"Have you been reviewing those decisions?"

"No."

Again that eyebrow, Marnie thought as Willamina nodded slowly.

"You are able to articulate your actions."

"Yes."

"You are able to articulate a train of reasoning for your actions."

"Yes."

"You'll have need of that skill."

"Why?  What's going on?"

Willamina looked very directly at her granddaughter.

"You and John Greenlees are graduated early.  Your Daddy swore you in under battlefield conditions. You have yet to go through Police Basic.  Thus far you've proven capable of action under stress, you've been able to articulate after the fact.  That's good."

"I'm glad you approve."

"Your defenses are up," Willamina smiled as she lifted her near-empty mug.  "That's good, too.  More tea?"

Marnie shook her head.

"I am pleased with your performance under stress."
"Look in the mirror."

This time Willamina's eyebrow indicated puzzlement, at least until Marnie relaxed and laughed.

"Gammaw, I learned that from watching you!"

 

 

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491. A VOICE ON THE WIND

David Mehler hurt too much to move.

He didn't know where he was.

He blinked, wrinkled his nose like a boy will do -- yep, his glasses were still on his face -- he tried to move and realized ...

My head hurts.

My neck hurts.

I don't feel anything below my neck.

David Mehler looked up at the clear blue Colorado sky and blinked, wondering what just happened.

In the distance -- far away, by the sound of it -- a long, drawn-out howl, the sorrowing grief of a canine throat, mourning into the mountain wind.

 

"Sheriff?"

Linn looked up, smiled gently as he often did:  his visitor had been a classmate, her daughter was one of his Mama's Valkyries, and she'd married a good friend of his.

"Hi, Mary Jo.  How's that good lookin' husband of yours?"

"Worried," she blurted, looking at her cell phone as if she'd forgotten it was in her hand.   "David isn't back yet."

Linn nodded.

He knew her tow headed little boy, a child with a quick grin, a thousand questions and a restless sense of adventure:  Linn went up on the water tower one time and sat with the lad, their legs hanging over a hundred feet of sheer drop, while Mary Jo, her husband and two dozen spectators watched:  the Sheriff and the little boy looked out over the countryside, marveling at how far they could see, each pointing out significant landmarks:  Linn wanted to build the lad's trust, and besides, he liked to survey his county from high vantage points like this.

He pulled a laser range finder out of his fanny pack and handed to the lad, and David happily shot distance measurements for about ten minutes, until Linn traded the rangefinder for a set of compact binoculars:  while David laughed and marveled at his view through the optics, Linn quietly made his feet again, then knelt:  he gently suggested David hand him back the binoculars, he slid them in their case, hung the case around David's neck.

"I don't know about you," Linn said quietly, "but I'm gettin' hungry."

"Yeah," David admitted.  "Me too."

"Not much to eat up here."

David looked to the empty catwalk on his left, leaned over the railing a little to look past the Sheriff.

"Not much," he agreed.

"Tell you what."  Linn pulled out his phone, pressed a button.  "I'll have my wife pick up something at the Silver Jewel and you and your folks can have supper with me, how's that sound?"

David looked troubled.

"My mom's gonna kill me," he said slowly, his bottom lip hanging out a surprising distance.

"That's why she's having supper with us," Linn laughed.  "If she's under my roof, she's not killing anyone.  Besides, Shelly will appreciate having company when she doesn't have to cook!"

"Will there be pie?"  David asked hopefully, and Linn laughed and nodded.

"There'll be pie," he said, then turned the phone a little.  "Shelly?  Darlin', I need a large flavor ..."

Not many minutes later, Sheriff and a tow headed little boy climbed down the ladder, the lawman on the bottom, little boy between uniform and steel ladder:  their safety belts' fall-stopper whispered down the shaft as they descended, and when Linn's feet hit the cement pad beneath, he reached around David, unbuckled his belt, unfast his own:  he picked the lad up under the arms, turned to the boy's parents and said "You all are having supper with my wife and I tonight.  She's picking up at the Jewel and I'm hungry."

David remembered this as he lay at the foot of a cliff, looking up at the rough and rocky dropoff, wondering why he wasn't hungry.

 

It was a familiar game.

The Bear Killer shoved his nose into a pile of clothes, sniffed, sniffed again: he raised his head and sneezed, shook his head, shoved his black and shining nose into the jeans and shirts and took another loud snuff.

"Find," Linn said quietly, stepping over to his Apple-horse.

Marnie was already aboard her Daddy's black Outlaw-horse, watching with quiet, pale eyes as the big mountain Mastiff scented the wind, scented the ground.

They followed the big hound from a little distance, watching him retrace the happy meander of a little boy's travels.

 

Supper had been somewhat strained -- it was not a usual thing to be summoned to the County Sheriff's kitchen, especially when the Sheriff had pale eyes and a reputation as a man not to be trifled with.

The Sheriff was relaxed, cheerful, quick to laugh and quick to listen; his wife was gracious and attentive, apparently intent on filling her guests to capacity:  she'd gotten some truly excellent roast beef from the Silver Jewel, there was gravy, hot and steaming, mashed potatoes whipped with butter, creamy and spiced with something they couldn't quite identify, but whatever it was, it was just flat forevermore good!

David had no qualms about eating with a good appetite, even the green beans -- which he normally wouldn't touch -- apparently diced bacon turned the trick, or so his mother reasoned, filing this away in her Book of Mother's Useful Tricks.

And, of course, there was pie.

Conversation turned, in due time, to the adventure on the water tower.

David expressed his delight at using the Sheriff's rangefinder, and the Sheriff laughed.

"One of my ancestors," he said, looking at David's father, "was a mapmaker.  If he wanted the distance to something, he had to use a compass and a transit, he had to stretch out measuring chain to get the distance.  Me, I'm just naturally lazy" -- he grinned, and David grinned with him -- "if I can look through a dingus and press a button, why, that's work I don't have to do!"

"Sheriff," his mother protested gently, "don't encourage him!"

"That's not encouraging, Mary Jo," Linn replied quietly.  "That's being honest.  How many men do you know who are honest enough to admit their native laziness?" -- he placed a dramatic hand to his breast, threw his head back with the other hand's teaching finger upraised to the ceiling, hamming it up so fiercely his old classmate could not help but laugh.

"Here's the point."  Linn brought his arms down, forearms on the edge of the table, his pale eyes first on the guesting parents, then on her adventurous son.

"I won't lie to you, and I won't let you lie to me."

The mood changed instantly -- as if a very cold blanket gently settled over the entire table.

"David," Linn said quietly, "do you recall those No Trespassing signs on that tower?"

David swallowed, all appetite for his half eaten peach pie, gone.

"Yes, sir," he said in a small voice.

"You looked at those signs before you started to climb."

"I wanted to see what was up there!" he protested.

Linn raised an eyebrow, lowered his head a fraction, and David looked down at his half eaten pie.

"Yes, sir," he said uncertainly.

"Okay.  There's a charge of criminal trespass.  You didn't have a safety belt when you went up."

"No, sir."

"There's an OSHA violation.  That's Federal.  There's EPA violations for tampering with the public water supply."

David looked up, distressed.  "But I didn't tamper with nothin'!" he protested, his little-boy voice full of distress.

Linn looked at him with pale and fatherly eyes and David dropped his head again.

"Yes, sir," he said uncertainly.

"Now I'm the County Sheriff," Linn continued, "and I have a good bit of leeway on these things.  Court's in session and the defendant has confessed his crimes and is therefore found guilty."

Linn looked at the lad's father and winked.

"You are hereby sentenced to sit on a cold steel catwalk out in the wind for twenty minutes to a half hour, and you are further sentenced to keep the company of a certain long winded Sheriff for an undetermined time thereafter."  

David looked at him, surprised, his eyes big, hopeful.

"If any or all of these conditions have been met, the record will be expunged and you will be free to continue your daily life.  Providing" -- Linn raised his teaching finger again -- "you don't do that again!"

"Okay!"  David exclaimed, delighted, then he looked at his Mama, his face falling as he realized ...

... his folks had yet to lower the boom.

"Now."  Linn considered his own half eaten slice of pie.   "I don't know about you, but peach is my favorite pie.  Aunt Jessie used to make these and they were genuinely good."

He looked across to Mary Jo and her husband.

"Officaldom has satisfied itself," he said quietly.  "I leave further instruction to your good care."

 

The Bear Killer cast left, cast right, air scenting.

Marnie pushed through the brush, saw The Bear Killer's head up, his nose working.

He must be close, she thought:  he was nose to the ground earlier.

She waited patiently, knowing her Papa was not far behind, knowing he knew The Bear Killer's methods, knowing he and The Bear Killer had tracked criminals, lost souls and injured hikers before.

The Bear Killer looked at her, chopped his jaws:  he threw his head back, dropped his square bottom on the cold ground, and Marnie saw his neck working, saw his chest starting to heave, and it felt like the Reaper ran a cold and bony finger down her back bone as the shining black mountain Mastiff shoved his nose to the zenith and let out a long, mournful, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard howl.

 

David Mehler blinked, realized he must have slept.

He could feel his body now and he wished he couldn't.

He hurt, he was cold, he was afraid to move.

Something moved in the blue sky above, something distant -- eagle, he thought, hawk ...

... buzzard?

Nah.

Not buzzard.

Buzzards only come after dead people.

David grimaced, managed to wiggle a little.

I don't think I'm dead.

I hurt too much to be dead.

He blinked and said in a plaintive little boy's voice, "I'm hungry."

 

Linn looked back.

Mary Jo was laboring determinedly through the brush behind him, lips pressed together, frowning: he drew up, waited until she managed to catch up with him.

He kicked his left boot free of the stirrup, extended his hand.

"Climb aboard, you need to rest a little."

Mary Jo glared at him, then shoved her foot into his doghouse stirrup, seized his extended hand.

He hauled her up -- she was surprised at the strength of his grip, the ease with which he brought her off the ground.

"Run your arms around my middle," Linn said, "and no I'm not flirtin' with you. Your husband coming?"

"He doesn't know I left the rally point."

"Yup, boy," Linn said softly as Mary Jo's arms tightened around his lean middle.

Apple-horse worked through the brush, thorns and branches raking at their denim covered legs.

 

The Bear Killer looked back at Marnie, jaws open:  she saw him chop his jaws, heard his powerful whuff! -- then he cast back and forth, growling, and she came through the last of the brush and saw he was sniffing at a tree at the cliff's edge.

She saw little boy sized footprints in the dirt, she saw a broken limb, its end splintered, fresh, very white.

Edge of the cliff, she thought, and she felt her blood cool several degrees.

The Bear Killer turned, ran along the rim, turned:  she saw his tail whipping in a circle as he went down the slope to her left.

She kneed Outlaw and followed.

 

David heard rocks clatter, heard something -- a sneeze? -- and then something big and very black shoved into his view, and something pink and warm and kind of wet began to launder his jaw and his cheek and he saw a huge blocky black head throw itself upward and The Bear Killer let out a long yowl of triumph, and David felt the warm comfort of a truly huge canine body settling down against and partly on his own, and he managed to get his hand to work and he reached up and worked his fingers into curly black fur, warm black fur, and then another big wet nose loomed above him and he heard a girl's voice say "Fancy meeting you in a place like this!"

David felt a gentle touch, a mother's touch, caress his cheek, he saw someone he knew, someone with a Stetson hat and pale eyes, someone with something square in her hand, talking into it --

"Daddy, we found him, he's alive!"

 

David opened his eyes, blinked.

His Mama was looking at him -- she looked worried -- he blinked and said "I'm sorry, Mom," and she bit her bottom lip and gripped his hand -- carefully, as if afraid he'd break.

There was a knock at the door, the sound of canine toenails tik-tik-tikking across the shining hospital tiles.

Marnie and the Sheriff came in, Dr. Greenlees between them.

Mary Jo rose, a worried look on her face.

David felt quite intimidated -- he felt very small, lying in a hospital bed, adults surrounding him, looking at him -- then The Bear Killer soared over the footboard, came up on his right side and fell over on him with a contented groan, a warm and reassuring weight against his pelvis and his side.

"We weren't sure if you'd walk again," Dr. Greenlees said frankly.  "You hit the ground just right to shock your system.  It looks like you should be fine, but we'd like to keep you another day to make sure."  He lifted the bedcovers, ran a thumbnail up the bottom of the boy's bare feet, drawing a giggle, a flinch and an enthusiastic toe-wiggle from the lad.

Dr. Greenlees raised an eyebrow.  

"You felt that."

David giggled.  "Yeah."

Another exploratory stimulus to the other foot, another giggle:  Dr. Greenlees nodded, replaced the covers.

"Why don't we let this young man get some rest," Dr. Greenlees said, "and we'll talk about this in my office."

The Bear Killer laid his chin across David's chest and sighed contentedly as the boy's hand worked into the fur of the mountain Mastiff's shoulder.

 

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492. SCHWARZE STEIFEL

Jacob Keller swung the ax in a swift, tight arc.

Seasoned, straight grain pine fell with a woody clatter: he picked up a cloven chunk, set this on the splittin' stump, rested the ax's bit on the wood momentarily, then swung the ax again.

I watched him from a little distance.

Jacob is my son.

Marnie is some years older than he, and his little brother Joseph is growing fast as well: Joseph stood back a respectful distance, not wanting to get hit by flying wood nor the hard-swung ax.

I watched this too.

Jacob reduced the seasoned, sawed pine to kindling -- steadily, not in a great hurry, but as he was consistent, the task was done with surprising speed.

He stepped back, chunked the ax in a waiting slab, waited until his little brother picked up the freshly split kindling, then set another splittin' chunk on the stump.

The kindling can was filled; Jacob hung the ax back up in the shed, he came out frowning and rubbing his hand and frowning, and I knew he'd taken an oily rag and wiped off the ax head before he hung it up, and I knew he'd not be happy until he'd washed the oil off his palm.

Joseph picked up the five gallon bucket full of freshly split kindling wood:  he had the bail in both hands, he grimaced manfully, hauling the heavy can six inches off the ground and strutting with abbreviated steps toward the house.

He had to set it down and shake his hands a few times before he got it to the steps, and Jacob didn't help him a bit as the little fellow planted his boots on a step, gritted his teeth, hauled the bucket up on to the step: he ascended one step, hauled the bucket up one step, and by dint of his own mighty labors, got the metal five gallon can of fragrant, fresh split wood into the screened-in back porch.

Once, and once only, had Jacob offered to pack the can for him:  Joseph seized the handles possessively, yanked it away:  "NO!  I DO IT MYSELF!" -- and Jacob raised his palms and backed up, letting him have it.

Shelly was standing with me when this happened, and she laid a hand on my shoulder, whispered "I've seen you do that!" and she felt my silent laughter, for I'd made that very gesture myself -- palm out, step back, she's all yours, fella.

I haven't said much about my boys because Marnie is like a skyrocket across the night sky -- fast moving and spectacular, memorable, bringing delight to any who see her.

I haven't said much about my boys and that's my fault.  I reckon it's because Marnie is a girl and Daddies love their little girls differently than their boys, probably because girls are hard for me to figure out.

I've been married to Shelly for donkey's years and I still don't have her figured out.  From conversations with old married men, that seems normal, and I had to give up and accept that I will likely never get her figured out.

I went on around behind the barn, kissed at my Apple-horse, and of course the others came drifting over, begging attention:  I saddled Apple and the two Pasos, and when the boys came out from stacking the wood box full, they grinned with delight, for little pleases a boy more than when dear old Dad includes them with something.

I had my boys in the saddle before they could walk: they grew up with horses and dogs, they grew up with The Bear Killer riding herd on them, and I reckon little Joseph will kick me once he's grown when I tell about The Bear Killer grabbing him by the seat of the pants and dragging him back from the edge of a waterfall -- Joseph did not like it one bit, he's like any boy, he wanted to look over the edge where the water was falling into space and shattering into liquid diamonds on the way down.

Fortunately The Bear Killer had other ideas.

I'm wandering.  Sorry about that.  Old men do that when they're remembering.

Anyway the boys saddled up and they didn't ask where we were going, it didn't matter to them, they were going somewhere horseback and that meant fun, especially when I turned around and grinned at them.

Shelly told me later it looked like three horse colored arrows shooting across the back field.

The boys were like me, they loved it when their horses ran, and they stood up in their stirrups and leaned out over their necks with their hands flat on the horses' necks -- they didn't grab a handful of mane, they kept their hands flat -- we streaked across cold ground and through mountain grass, we swung around behind Firelands and swung around in a big circle, we coasted down, I sat back in my saddle and Apple-horse slowed, the Pasos slowing with him, falling into their characteristic rapid, butter-smooth gait:  we went on up Cemetery Hill considerable slower, letting the horses blow, walked up through the field of stone.

Seems like every time I went up there, one particular gravestone drew my attention, and Uncle Elmer's did.

I was almost surprised that there was no dewy-fresh rose on it to catch my eye.

Jacob and Joseph watched curiously as I dismounted, as I went up to Uncle Elmer's stone, as I laid a hand on it:  I took a long breath and remembered, and then I rose:  I lifted my head like a hound dog hearing a distant whistle as The Lady Esther whistled into the cold air.

I turned and looked at two half-curious, half-solemn little boys:  their eyes had shifted and I knew they were looking at the white plume of steam trailing up and back from the shining, restored engine with the spray of roses painted on the side of the cab.

"Pa?"  Joseph asked.

I looked at him, lifted my chin a fraction.

"Was Lady Esther really a Lady?"

I laughed -- I remembered the portraits of Esther Keller, wife of Old Pale Eyes, a green-eyed, red-headed woman, remarkable for her business sense, for her kindness, for her skill with a blade.

"Yes, Joseph," I said, "she was really a lady.  Matter of fact" -- I considered for a moment -- "she was a Lady with a capital L."

"She was pretty, too," Jacob offered.

I nodded slowly.  "Yes she was, and your blood carries her blood."

Joseph frowned:  he looked to his older brother, then to me.

"Wouldn't Marnie carry Lady Esther's blood?  She's a girl!"

I laughed.

"She carries it too," I affirmed.

"Is Marnie a Lady?"

"Mama's a Lady!"

"Ya gotta be oooold to be a Lady!"

"What about Gammaw?"

"She's a Sheriff, she's not a Lady."

"Oh, I think you can be Sheriff and a Lady both," I grinned.

My boys looked at me, surprised.

"You're not a Lady!"

I threw my head back and laughed.  "Ya got me there!"

I shoved my boot into the doghouse stirrup, bounced once, swung my leg over saddle leather, at least until the saddle came up to meet me and the fight was on.

My boys drew back as Apple-horse dropped back to all fours, shaking his head, giving me barely time enough to find the starboard stirrup:  I wanted both boots in leather before he came unglued -- Terra Firma is considerably more firma than I wanted to land on, and if he threw me into a tomb stone, why, it wouldn't be the stone coming out in second place -- Apple didn't jolt my spine too bad, but I was kind of busy for a few minutes before he stopped, shook his head again and paced off nice and easy like nothing happened.

My boys rode, one on either side of me, and we set a nice easy pace down the ancient roadway and through the big cast iron arch.

"Pa?"

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Marnie likes red boots."

"Yes, she does."

Joseph was frowning, considering something, and I let him sort his thoughts out.

"Pa, are red boots a girl thing?"

"Nope.  Boots is boots."

"I like mine black."

"I polished mine last night," Jacob offered.

"You did a fine job, too," I said, and Jacob's grin fit to split his face in two.

Joseph frowned, pulled a boot from stirrup, looked at it, disappointment on his face.

"It's okay," Jacob said.  "I'll show you how."

We walked our horses down the hill and I looked at the creek, remembering an earlier Jacob, one of our honored ancestors, who'd taken Digger and threw him into the deepest pool -- now filled in, choked with sand and rocks -- Old Pale Eyes' son held the funeral director underwater, brought him out, shook him until the offending embalmer's teeth rattled, shoved him back under and brought him out, far less than gently.

As I recall, old Digger tried breaking up a white-bronze grave marker that offended him, likely because he didn't get the usual bounty he got from fine Eastern gravestones.

"Pa?"
I looked over at my Jacob, imagined him in a black suit with his hands around a man's throat, holding him underwater.

He's got pale eyes, I thought.  

Likely he'll be so inclined, in due time.

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Pa, whose grave was that?"

"The one I just laid hands on?"

"Yes, sir."

"That was your Uncle Elmer."

Jacob and Joseph both frowned.

We drew up; three horses, not having bits in their mouths, began foraging for graze.

"Uncle Elmer was in the Second War."

Two sets of young eyes regarded me solemnly, listening closely.

"The lines were static in a river bend in France."

"What's static?"

"Nobody was advancing. Both sides were dug in and not moving.  Rather than coming at each other, every morning a German would step up and rip out a burst from a Schmeisser."

"What's a Schmeisser?"

"It's a 9mm submachine gun.  Fires really fast.  Uncle Elmer said it sounded like tearing a piece of heavy canvas.  They'd fire a burst and an American Lieutenant would stand up with a Thompson submachine gun and fire a burst back, and that was all the fightin' until evening, when they blew Taps.  The Germans would WAAAAP and the Americans would WAAAAP and that was it for the night.

"The Americans were dug in.  They'd tore up a railroad track and laid railroad ties" -- my hands described the act, can't talk without my hands -- "one layer this way, the other layer crossways, over their fox holes.  Elmer said they had three or four layers over their fox hole.

"The Germans had 88's -- really accurate artillery -- and they'd already zeroed where the Americans were, so when the fightin' started again, why, everyone dove for their groundhog holes and them shells came in like whistlin' hell.

"Uncle Elmer said one hit his position and BANG blew off one layer of ties, and BANG BANG BANG they blew off all but one.

"Him and his foxhole buddy shook hands and said "Well, I'll see you somewhere," and BANG the lights went out.

"Elmer woke up and he could not move.

"He smelled clean linen and then he heard a tractor start up and he knew he was in trouble.

"They used a cable blade Allis Chalmers tractor to bulldoze out a trench and they'd laid the casualties on folding cots, they'd sheeted over them and they'd lay them side by side in a trench and then bulldoze it full and Elmer knew he had to let 'em know he was alive or he'd get buried.

"He didn't know it but part of his skull was blown away.  He could not move.

"Somehow -- and he told me he had no idea how -- he worked one hand free and his arm dropped.

"Someone saw it.

"The shout went up -- "One of 'em's alive!" -- two men jumped in ahead of that bull dozer and grabbed his cot and got him the hell out of there.

"Uncle Elmer ended up with a silver plate in his head, and for the rest of his days, he walked a little faster than normal.  Said it helped him keep his balance."

Two little boys regarded their Pa with solemn expressions.

"Is that why we went to the memorial service, Pa?"

"Uncle Elmer is one reason, yes," Linn nodded.  

"Is that why Gammaw wore her Marine uniform?"

"No, Joseph, she wore it for the men she served with overseas ... men that'll never draw breath again."

Jacob and Joseph looked at one another, turned their shining gold Pasos, headed back into the cemetery.

I followed.

By the time I caught up with them, they were both at Uncle Elmer's grave.

Both my boys stood their with their Stetsons tucked under their arms, staring at his stone, and both boys laid their hands on his stone like I'd done.

Jacob looked at me, his expression unreadable.

"I wish I'd known him, Pa."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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