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502. HISTORY, AND A FUTURE

Sheriff Linn Keller sized up the Confederate officer who stood before him.

"Ambassador," Linn said.

"Yes, sir.  First Ambassador for the Confederacy."

"Forgive me, sir, but I am a bit confused here."

"Not confused, sir," Ambassador Neil said, "just ... wellsir, I don't read minds and I don't expect anyone else to, either."

"You've never met my mother," Linn said ruefully, and the Ambassador's eyes narrowed a little at the  corners and he laughed with the Sheriff.

"This will take some explaining," Ambassador Neil said.

"I believe there is pie," Linn said.  "What say we head for the kitchen."

Not many minutes later, two Sheriffs, a Confederate officer, a curious, pale eyed son all sat around the kitchen table:  the Sheriff took a pie, sliced it crossways, turned it, sliced it once more; each now had a fourth of a pie, a fork, and a mug of fresh coffee.

The Ambassador sampled the pie, delighted in its taste: he said his wife used to make such pies, and Linn saw a shadow pass over his face, and he knew from this -- and the smoothness about the base of his left ring finger, where a wedding band apparently had lived until very recently -- that the Ambassador was a recent widower.

"There were two interstellar civilizations," the Ambassador explained, and Jacob placed his fork carefully, soundlessly, on his plate:  he took a short sip of coffee and did his best to turn invisible, for when he did this, sitting among adults as he often did, he learned more than the adults generally believed.

"These two civilizations were very evenly matched, and as always happens, they ended up at war," Ambassador Neil said slowly.  "They fought each other to a bloody draw and for two centuries they were so evenly matched that neither could get an advantage over the other."  He smiled with half his mouth.  "Then one or the other of them decided they would try a new tactic.

"Instead of new and advanced, they said, 'Why not recruit primitives? Primitive weapons, primitive tactics, something against which they have no defense."  He snorted.  "They abducted Suthrons from what we knew as Lincoln's War.  They took soldiers at first -- they told us we were the fiercest, most dedicated soldiers on the planet -- and then they took whole families.  We believe they wished to establish a breeding population."

"What happened?" Linn asked, leaning forward, clearly interested.

The Ambassador smiled, and his smile was not pleasant.

"They did not realize how adaptable the human mind really is, sir.  They used a device to inject information directly into the brain.  Our ancestors absorbed much more than they realized -- so much so that on the first night, we were able to overcome their security protocols and gain control of the base, then the planet."

Linn's right eyebrow raised.  "That," he said carefully, "is some achievement."

"We had to fight their whole damned civilization, but we did it.  We used their own teaching device to learn about their weapons, their capabilities ... we turned their own weapons on them."  The Ambassador stared into his shimmering mug of coffee.  "We had to wipe out an entire civilization.  Planet by planet, system by system, and then the civilization they wanted us to attack ... apparently they reasoned that if we could defeat their enemies so easily, we might go after them."  He leaned back, staring at something a few miles past the opposite kitchen wall.  "We had to take them on as well ... but by then we'd learned how to infiltrate their systems."  

He looked very directly at Linn.

"We had weapons at our fingertips that would detonate whole planets, weapons that could crush a star into an infinitesimal point of gravity, or blow it into interstellar gas.  We could perform surgery from orbit or blast cities into a glass plain, and God help us, we used nearly every weapon available."

He looked over at Marnie.

"We kept track of Earth.  It was home.  Some wanted to return, but we ... all of us had used their brain injectors and we had knowledge that Earth did not, so we ... just watched."

"You're not the Grays," Linn said with a quirk-up of his left eyebrow.

The Ambassador laughed.  "No.  No, we are not, in spite of --"  he stuck out his arm -- "the shade of our uniform."

"I see you carry what appears to be a Navy Colt."

"I do, sir."

"One such was found in my mother's effects."

The Ambassador was suddenly very still, very attentive:  he looked at Marnie, nodded.

Marnie lifted a cloth wrapped bundle from the satchel on the floor beside her chair.

She unwrapped the bundle.

It was a Smith & Wesson .44, in a carved leather holster, with a matching floral carved belt wrapped around the holster.

She withdrew the pistol, slid it over to her father.

"Let me call your attention to the engraving around the muzzle."

Linn picked up the Smith & Wesson -- it appeared to be nearly new -- yes, loaded -- he frowned at the engraving circling the gun muzzle, his bottom jaw sliding out as he did.

He closed the action, slid it over to Jacob.

Jacob frowned at the vine-and-rose circling the muzzle, ran his eye down the blued steel barrel, to the very lifelike rose hand-chased on the side of the frame, with the initials SLM worked into the exquisitely rendered blossom.

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," Jacob said, handing the pistol to his white-suited sister.

"Jacob."  Linn nodded and Jacob rose.

"Mister Ambassador," Linn said, "I believe you want to see this."

Jacob returned to the table, placed a Navy Colt in front of the Ambassador, and with it, the full flap holster and belt.

The Ambassador laid the belt out flat, studied it:  he rose, released his own belt, laid it down beside this one.

He withdrew one Navy Colt, then the other:  he examined them, side by side, nodded, sat back down.

"We have a very strong sense of history," Ambassador Neil said slowly.  "Our ... appearance ... is historic:  I carry the rank of Colonel" -- Marnie saw something in her father's eyes -- "and the sleeve device is that of a Colonel of the Confederacy."

"And a spacefaring people with faster than light capability still carry the Navy Colt?"  Linn asked quietly.

The Ambassador laughed.

"I believe your Swiss Guard still carry halberds," he said, "but they are every bit as deadly as when men settled wars with sharpened steel.  Yes, Sheriff, we still wear the Navy Colt, and our ceremonial troops carry the Enfield musket, but our bayonets are sharpened at the tip, the rifles are loaded, we carry reloads and caps on our belt, and we are practiced and effective with even these ceremonial weapons."

"Old," Linn nodded, "does not mean ineffective."

The Ambassador replaced his gunbelt about his middle, returned the revolver to its holster.

"One of my ancestors," he said, "traded his -- this -- gunbelt and revolving pistol to what he described as a remarkable young woman astride a truly huge black horse, in exchange for the one she wore."

"This one."  Linn thrust his chin at the Smith & Wesson.

"Yes, sir.  That one."

"Trade you back."

The Ambassador smiled.  "This," he admitted, "is too great an opportunity not to say yes.  I had no hope at all that my ancestor's pistol still existed, let alone its holster and belt."

"I feel the same," Linn replied.  "Mister Ambassador, may I show you something?"

"Roses," Marnie whispered in Jacob's ear.  "Roses, on the Z&W's engine."

"Our family has ever used the rose as an insignia."  He turned, opened his laptop:  it lit up and its first image, even before its login, was a profile shot of a steam engine.

"This," he said, "is The Lady Esther. She was named for an ancestor's wife."

"The young woman whose pistol this was," the Ambassador said, turning to look at the artifact, "would be the Esther of whom you speak?"

"No," Linn chuckled.  "No, the pale eyed soul on the big black horse was the get of my several times great grandfather.  Her name was Sarah Lynne McKenna, known also as The Black Agent, for when she was a detective for the Firelands District Court, she wore all black."

The Ambassador nodded slowly.  

"Something tells me," he said, "yours is a rich and well researched history."

It was Marnie's turn to laugh.

"Friend," she said, "you don't know the half of it!"

 

Linn and Jacob watched as something like a bolt of lightning fired up from the back field.

"I understand," Linn said softly, "the Ambassador's ship landed where his ancestor's ship landed, back in Sarah's day."

Jacob nodded.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"I notice the Ambassador wore the Masonic square-and-compasses."

"I saw that."

"That means his visit is one of those secrets of a Master Mason you were talking about."

Linn nodded, his bottom jaw sliding out again.

"You could say that."

"It was good to see Marnie again, sir."

"Yes, it was."  Linn looked at Jacob.  "She told me a few things when it was just she and I."

Jacob's face was serious, his eyes steady on his father's.

"Her children are dead."

Jacob's eyes widened a little and Linn saw his son's nostrils flare a little as he took a long, steadying breath.

"What happened, sir?"

"A doomsday machine and a suicide squad."

"From where?"

"The very last one left when they wiped out one or the other of those alien civilizations."

Jacob's head bowed for a long moment.

When he looked back at his father, his young eyes were very pale, the flesh of his face drawn tight over his cheek bones.

"Are they dead, sir?" he asked quietly.

"They are dead, Jacob."

"She never let on."

"I know."

Jacob's eyes stared into the distance.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"They were family."

"Yes, Jacob, they were."

"How do we mourn them?"

"We will mourn them in our own way, Jacob.  Their names will be engraved in the family plot, and we will not forget them."

Jacob shook his head, looked away, looked back.

"Sir, I am ... "

Jacob stopped, closed his eyes, took a long breath, fisted his hands:  he allowed himself to feel rage, then he cast it from him.

"I must master my passions," he said quietly, "lest they master me."

Linn waited.

"I would like very much to kill that suicide squad myself."

"As would I, Jacob, but you can't kill the dead."

"Damned shame."  Jacob shook his head and laughed.  "I reckon I could pull a Judge Roy Bean and hang their dead carcasses by the neck and then shoot 'em a few times."

Linn nodded; he'd had to take a moment himself to take his own raging passion in hand.

"Sir, was that a Martian craft?"

"No, Jacob, that was a Confederate cruiser."

"Cruiser.  Small, light, fast, armed."

"I believe that's right."

"Will she be back?"

"I reckon she will."

"Sir, do you reckon there are any more suicide squads out there?"

Linn considered for a long moment:  he ran a hand in his trouser pocket, came up with a lock back knife, snapped it open and began cleaning his nails.

"Jacob," he admitted, "my crystal ball run out of batteries and it takes a bastard size they don't carry at the Mercantile. I don't reckon we'll know if there are any more until they show up."

Jacob nodded.

"The Ambassador said that was the last of their kind and he did not expect any more to show up. I don't know if that's the case or not but I reckon he knows better than I do."

"Sir, what can we do to be ready?"

"Jacob, if someone was to kick in my front door, what is the procedure?"

"I belly down at the top of the stairs with the carbine and punch 'em full of holes."

"If you're downstairs?"

"The pump gun in the kitchen cupboard."

"If you're in the saddle and the Huns are in the wire?"

"Rifle, sir, fire until they are down or I am out of ammunition."

"You have a knife and no other weapon."

"Advance, sir, and attack as I have been trained."

"You are bare handed."

"Then whatever is at hand, sir.  Pitchfork, rock, club, battlefield pickup.  I am the weapon.  Everything else exists for my use."

Linn nodded.

"Jacob," he said, gripping his son's shoulder, "if such a suicide squad ever arrived, I hope they run into you first, because then the National Guard would have nothing to do but drink coffee and flirt with the girls!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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503. SORTIN'

It was Shelly's day off.

Her children and her pale eyed husband all conspired to keep the house clean when she worked, and they did a fine job of it, but Shelly was the Woman of the House, and she had particular preferences as to how the drain rack should be placed, kettles, dishes and silverware arranged in cupboards and in drawers: there was, in truth, little she had to tear into when she had a day off, and for this she was grateful.

Her husband, too, had a day off -- it was rare that they had the day off together -- and as Linn sighed and folded his long tall carcass into a kitchen chair, Shelly held her coffee mug in both hands and looked out the window over the sink.

"Jacob's riding," she said, and Linn's ear twitched a little, almost as if pulled rearward by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger.

Shelly turned and looked at her husband.

"You sound worried, darlin'."

"You two have been talking."

Linn raised his coffee mug, regarded his beautiful bride over the rim of steaming ceramic.

"What were you talking about?"

Linn frowned slightly, took a speculative, noisy slurp of his coffee, leaned back in his chair.

"Jacob," he said with a sigh, "is suffering."

Shelly's look was half-frown and half-puzzle.  "How so?"

"His automatic pilot is taking over."

"Oh," Shelly nodded, lifting her chin and looking wide-eyed at the far wall.

"He's like me, darlin'.  New hormones, new feelin's, new passion -- he's experiencing the Rage and he doesn't know how to handle it, so he's asking my advice."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him how I handled it, how it felt when all of a sudden I had more intense everything and how I had to rein in hard to keep from making an absolute donkey of myself."  He smiled ruefully, with only half his mouth.  "Or worse."

 

Jacob rode his horses bitless, like his father, like his Gammaw, like the legendary ancestor, Old Pale Eyes himself.

Jacob felt his Paso stretch out into her Largo pace, deceptive in its ease -- she covered ground rapidly and Jacob saw no need to go for a gallop -- he delighted in his Paso's butter smooth ride.

Like his Pa told him, if it ain't broke, no sense to fix it.

Jacob was troubled with the recent discoveries, the recent developments: keeping quiet about his sister, about the thirteen star system Confederacy, about a tin can shaped ship that jumped from the earth like a bass-ackwards lightning bolt -- keeping quiet about all these things was not a problem.

Knowing he could not ever sit down at his Gammaw's table and talk it over with her ... well, that  ... that was a problem.

It was a frustration he could not dismiss; try as he might, when he grabbed it to stuff it down in the iron kettle where he kept his other boiling emotions, it twisted and writhed and slipped from his grip, to run to the dark corners of his mind, hiding, waiting for the right time to run out and scream at him, and this bothered him.

His Paso circled around back of Firelands, taking paths few knew of; he came up behind Cemetery Hill, climbed the back side via an ancient, zigzag path, came out on top and floated like a ghost in fog through the field of stone, until he came to his family's section.

This was the oldest part of the cemetery -- and, he'd long thought, the most beautiful.

Jacob crossed his forearms over the saddlehorn, leaned forward a little in the saddle, looking slowly around, listening.

 

Cemeteries have long been a favorite place for clandestine meetings, for message drops, for people who did not wish to be disturbed, or discovered, and so it was today.

Jacob Keller was not the only visitor; others, with less purposeful and more alcoholic goals, watched the pale eyed young man dismount.

Cold cans were tilted up, carbonation swilled down teen-aged throats as other eyes watched a tall young man remove his Stetson, look at one gravestone, look at another.

Graveyards are reputed to be haunted -- or so some would say -- others maintain that it's a field interrupted with carved rocks, inhabited by little more than visitors' memories, and the visitors themselves.

Few would argue that sometimes cemeteries contain surprises.

A pale eyed lawman, in this very cemetery, was surprised when a Halloween cat leaped onto a midnight tombstone just as the full moon shoved aside a curtain of clouds -- the cat arched, sizzled and yowled, which honestly startled the badge packer:  he was shoulder to shoulder with another pale eyed lawman, and a pair of blued-steel revolvers whispered from holster leather, came to bear on the sinner's-heart-black feline:  fingers were tense on narrow, grooved triggers, at least until the two lawmen relaxed, and chuckled, and holstered:  on that particular Halloween night, a graveyard cat came close to inheriting the ill effects of a pair of .357 Magnum freight trains, and two lawmen kidded each other about the experience for some years after.

Others will tell of shades, ghosts, mists or shadows, vague feelings of being watched, or perhaps the sensation that misty fingers were caressing the backs of their necks.

Jacob Keller felt none of these things -- perhaps because he was here in midmorning's clear light, perhaps because he had youth's absolute conviction of being in the RIGHT, and knowing it.

However it was, he looked at a tombstone with an oval portrait, a portrait of an honestly beautiful young woman in a Victorian gown, a woman with pale eyes and a pleasant expression:  the name on the tomb stone, SARAH LYNNE LLEWELLYN:  as he always did, Jacob considered how much she looked like his Gammaw, and moved on.

Each stone held a name, each name, a story:  Jacob remembered them all as he walked slowly down the row, until he came to the stone with his own name on it.

JACOB KELLER, he read, and the dates:  he considered the six point star hand carved into polished quartz, and beneath, in smaller letters, SHERIFF, FIRELANDS COUNTY.

Jacob knew that in time he, too, would in all likelihood wear that six point star his own father wore, a star handed him by his Gammaw, a star inherited when another name followed the word "Sheriff."

Jacob turned back, to the stone he'd deliberately walked past.

He removed his Stetson, threw it viciously to the ground, planted his well polished boots in graveyard sod and fisted his hands, bringing them up to elbow height, allowing his newly discovered rage to seethe and thunder in his young soul.

He felt his face grow hot and he glared at the oval portrait on the stone, at the six point star, at the SHERIFF, FIRELANDS COUNTY, at the WILLAMINA KELLER, BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER, and he looked at the oval portrait of his pale eyed Gammaw.

Fury roared in his ears and rage locked his throat and forbade its voice.

Jacob Keller, maturing as the young always do, felt one knuckle pop from the tightness of his fists: another knuckle in the other shivering fist popped, and as if to vent off his critical pressures, in the distance the steam whistle screamed into the cold air, shattering off granite mountains.

 

"What's he doin'?"

"He's just standin' there."

A long drink of beer.

"Think he knows we're here?"

"Nah."

"Think we can sneak up on him?"

A  woman's pleasant voice said "I wouldn't."

Startled, they turned to see a pale eyed woman in a shimmering-blue Victorian gown, standing within arm's reach of them.

"If you value your lives," she said, smiling gently and holding a rose in a delicate grip, "you may wish to leave before he finds you here.  Otherwise" -- she raised the rose, closed her eyes and took a long, appreciative smell of its fragrance -- "he may become unpleasant, and you don't want that."

One of them swore and threw his can of Coors at her.

The can tumbled as it flew, amber liquid slung out, and both liquid beverage and solid, stamped-aluminum can passed harmlessly through the woman.

Jacob turned, taking two fast sidesteps, dropped beside a tombstone, his hand on ancient stone and ready to thrust behind: his other hand was welded around his revolver's walnut handle.

Movement, he thought, his thumb laying over the serrated hammer spur.

Threat?

In range.

Approaching --

he watched with curious eyes as two figures ran, panicked, toward him their eyes were fear-widened and they didn't seem to know he was there they ran -- as far as the road -- they skidded a little as they turned, ran in what appeared to be an absolute blind terrified panic down the road and out of the graveyard, eyes wide, mouths open, silent, dead pale, the very image of utter, absolute, unadulterated, terror.

Jacob looked at his Paso, who looked back at him, her ears swinging slowly, apparently unconcerned.

Jacob rose from his crouch, threat-checked 360 (just like his Pa taught him) and he walked up to where the pair had come from.

He frowned at the scattered, empty beer cans; he stacked them back in the torn open cardboard carton, packed them back to the roadway, dropped them in a near-empty trash barrel.

He went back to where they'd been, looked around, studying the ground, wishing mightily he had the tracking skills of the legendary Macneil he'd read about.

Jacob stopped -- he turned his head slightly, then looked around --

I am not alone --

"Hello?" he called quietly, then raised an eyebrow, just a little.

I smell roses.

Jacob's eyes widened, he felt his heart pick up, like a horse will pick up its pace when a wind-eddy catches the smell of home --

"Gammaw?" he called softly.

He looked back at his Gammaw's tomb stone.

Jacob went from dead stop to flat-out sprint in a tenth of a second or less.

He skidded to a stop in the gravel roadway, almost fell; he recovered his balance, walked across a very few feet of graveyard sod and laid his hands gently on his Gammaw's tombstone.

A fresh-cut rose, beaded with dew:  he picked it up, took a long, eyes-closed sniff, then threaded it through a buttonhole in his fleece lined denim vest.

His every vest had just such a buttonhole, but none of his vests had any matching button: this was something his Pa did, something his Pa counseled him to do, and now he knew why.

"Gammaw," Jacob said to the stone, "I miss you and I really miss the talks we had.  Uncle Will lives in your place now and I'm glad he does but it's not the same without you."

His hands fisted up again, relaxed.

"Gammaw, you're closer to God now than I am.  I'd be much obliged if you'd ask a favor."

Jacob swallowed hard, remembering his Gammaw's laugh, her hands, the way she felt when she held him, the way she smelled --

"Gammaw, ask Him to watch for Sis for me.  I can't be there and she's lost her children and I don't know what all happened there but I can't help her more than askin' this favor."

Jacob threw his head back and took a deep breath, hissed it out between clenched teeth.

"I don't like feeling helpless," he whispered hoarsely, then he knelt and looked at the oval portrait in the polished stone:  he leaned his forehead against the memorial and sighed out the deep breath he'd almost held.

"Reckon," he said softly, "I'll just have to sort that out myself."

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504. MAY I NEVER BE SO WEALTHY

"Mama?"  Linn asked.

Willamina was driving; he saw the ghost of a smile and she replied "Yes?"

"Mama, I recall ..."

Linn hesitated, frowned, pushed ahead.

"Mama, I recall Uncle Pete said it was hard returning to The World."

He saw something in his Mama's eyes, a change, several changes: he saw her swallow, he saw her hesitate before she replied.

"He did say that, yes," she affirmed.

"Is it always hard, Mama?  Coming back from war?"

Willamina's answer was several long moments coming.

"It is, Linn.  It's always hard."

Silence filled his Mama's Jeep the rest of their way home.

 

"Sir?"  Jacob asked.

I looked at my black-suited son, regarding his Pa with deceptively quiet, veiled eyes.

I never told Jacob as much, but my son has the same eyelashes as Sarah -- long, lovely, more at home on a beautiful woman than on a lean waisted lawman with the youthful beginnings of a rich, full mustache.

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, was it difficult coming back from that damned War?"

I blinked, considered:  I'd chosen, long ago, never to lie to my son, and I was not about to lie now.

 

I was Captain Linn Keller, late of the Union Army -- now Colonel, thanks to a brevet, the government's way of rewarding a man without paying him money, just before my discharge from the Union Army -- my Sam-horse and I drew up in front of a tidy farmhouse.

I was also riding away from the only home I'd made for myself.

I was riding away from a fresh grave, the churchyard that held my wife and our little girl.

I'd just sold the entire farm to a family of German immigrants, all but my Sam-horse, my saddle, a few clothes and my Bible.

And the revolver I wore.

I rode with a grim purpose: I'd made a promise to a bosom friend, a fellow soldier with whom I'd ridden, beside whom I'd fought:  we'd shared our rations, our blankets, we'd shared stories and song and he died in my arms, begging me to take a last letter to his sweetheart.

I was doing just that.

The land over which I rode was flat; the soil, I knew, was rich, deep; I came to a farm I knew of, the home of my fellow's sweetheart, and my eyes approved of what I saw.

The well-tended garden grew healthy looking crops, cattle grazing nearby were shiny-coated with good health, chickens scratched and gossiped around the farmhouse, and a woman came out the door, sweeping something back outside.

She stopped, shaded her eyes.

I saw a look of dread cross her face.

She came down the steps, hesitantly, almost fearfully, the broom forgotten in her hand.

I removed my stained, battered cover, tucked it correctly under my off arm.

"Mrs. Anderson?" I asked, my voice gentle; she nodded, swallowing as I reached into a coat pocket, drew out an envelope.

"Would your daughter Andrea be about, ma'am?"

"Why?" the woman asked harshly.

"Ma'am, my name is Captain --"

"I didn't ask your name! Why do you want to see Andrea?"

A tall girl -- big dark eyes, the natural beauty that grows only far from cities -- came to the door, slipped silently down the stairs:  her approach was stealthy, so much so that I figured she did not want her Mama to know she was nearby.

"Ma'am, I have a letter for Andrea Anderson's hand."

"I'll take it," the mother demanded, thrusting out her hand, palm up:  I drew the letter back and to the side and the girl snatched it, as I intended.

The mother turned, tried to grab the missive.  "You give that here!" she screeched, "I'm a-gonna burn it!"

Andrea skipped back, looked at the handwriting:  she shoved it in her bodice, looked at me with uncertain eyes.

"What news, sir?" she asked breathlessly, and I caught the broom as Mrs. Anderson swung its smoothed handle at me: it was an old reflex, I'd caught enemy rifle barrels with as much ease, and stripping the broom from her grip, then smacking her across the side of the head with its brush end, was as much a reflex as batting at a swamp musquitter.

I stood over the woman, looking around, considering that my pistol fired but one ball at a time, but an incensed son or father coming to the door with a shotgun would have the advantage.

At the moment, I honestly did not care.

"I regret to inform of the death of John Steele," I said, looking at the girl, and I saw her face harden:  she seemed to collapse in on herself as her mother found her feet, stood.

"You gimme my broom back!" she demanded.  "John Steele is dead and I am glad for it, that no-good --"

I shoved the broom into her belly, hard -- that is to say, I gut punched her lightly, with the broom crossways in my fist, then stepped in.

I grabbed her by the throat, my voice hard, and I felt the skin tighten across my cheek bones.

"Madam," I said, his voice low, intense, "if you raise a hand to me again I shall surely cause you harm. Do not ever, EVER, strike a soldier, unless you wish to join my wife in the graveyard!"

I pushed her, hard:  she fell again, scrambled to her feet, ran inside, bent over, broom dragging behind me.

"John" --  the girl's voice was controlled -- "how did he die?"

I picked up my dropped cover, knocked the dirt off it.

"He died saving my life," I said, "just as I'd saved his only moments before."

The girl closed her eyes, nodded.

"ANDREA, YOU GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW!" her mother screamed from the doorway.

Andrea turned slowly, glared at her mother.

"No."

She turned to me.

"Do you know where he is buried?"

"I do, ma'am.  His exact location is in the letter you now possess."

The woman came boiling out with a shotgun.

I'd figured she might.

She came out the door and she didn't figure I'd charge, but charge her I did:  her eyes widened with panic and she brought the gun up a little.

I twisted to the side and the shot swarmed past me but not by much, I seized the gun and stripped it from her hands and I caught her behind the knees with the barrels, bringing her feet higher than her head.

She went down on her back and I drove the butt end into her gut, hard.

I pulled the percussion cap off the other barrel and I laid the gun down, and I knelt beside her -- with my knee on her forearm to pin her down.

"Don't ever try that again," I said.  "You are not cut out for killin'.  You are a hateful old witch and you deserve to have a belt taken to you.  I reckon someone as evil hearted as you will burn herself out from the inside."

I rose.

"I came to fulfill a promise and I have done that.  Good day."

I looked at Andrea and touched my hat brim.  "Ma'am."

The old woman fought to get some wind back in her.

"Damn you," she wheezed, coming up on all fours and glaring venom at her daughter.  "You are no daughter of mine!"

I strode over to her and seized her by the hair pulled up atop her head, I hauled her to her feet, I shoved my face in hers and I hissed, "I just buried my little girl atop her Mama's box.  You must be pretty damned wealthy."  I picked her up -- I had a good grip and I was mad clear through and I brought her toes just off the ground and then I hauled off and gut punched her hard enough to double her up and leave her gasping on the ground.

"May I never be so wealthy as to throw away a daughter."

 

My son asked me a question.

I was not about to lie to him.

"Yes, Jacob," I finally said.  "It is difficult coming home from a war."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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505. AN OLD PIANO

 

Willamina never made any claims as to skill on the piano.

She had a fine voice when she sang in church, but she never sought to stand out; hers was not the wish to sing in the choir, nor to solo.

In like manner she never spoke of any skill on any instrument, so it took Linn by surprise when Willamina glided up to the newly tuned saloon piano in the Silver Jewel, and sat, lifted her hands, smiled quietly ... and played a flawless "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."

Linn sat down at a nearby table, letting his natural watchfulness relax, just a little -- then he tightened back up -- You're covering her back, quit relaxing! he admonished himself, just as Willamina's tempo picked up a little:  she moved up a third, added a trilling flourish with the right-hand keys, up another third.

Linn remembered reading in one of Old Pale Eyes' journals how he used to go visit Harry Macfarland -- or, rather, Harrie Macfarland, the correct spelling was mentioned in the same Journal, which prompted Linn's horseback pilgrimage to the Carbon Hill cemetery.

Linn cantered over the trail he usually used; it was more direct, it was most unsuitable for motor vehicle traffic, unless a man was riding a trailbike, which Linn detested:  he'd tried one of those two wheel motor sickle things once, and once only, and it threw him down and "wallered him in the mud," as he described it later -- no, his taste was definitely for full time four wheel drive, preferably one horsepower, thank you very much.

Linn rode into Carbon Hill, looking around:  he looked at the old saloon, looked approvingly at new paint and new lumber, at the rebuild of the old beer joint, faithful in appearance to its original condition ... just not as run-down and dirty.

Apparently Firelands had proven successful enough at attracting tourist dollars, that Carbon wanted in on the bounty as well:  the Z&W ran to it, and his pale eyed Mama already made it known that she would aid and abet any restoration Carbon wanted to try.

So far there seemed to be successes, and the saloon was one such.

It was noontime; the carpenters were at lunch -- a little diner managed to open across the street, and up a little, and so Linn went in, looking around, nostrils flaring at the pleasant smell of fresh sawdust.

He looked at a piano.

He'd heard they'd taken an ancient upright and disassembled it, installed all new guts and replaced the old wood:  it retained the yellowed keys, two with chips out of them, it retained the dark, time-crazed finish, but it was in perfect tune.

Linn looked at the piano, smiled a little, walked up to the ivory 88, spread his hands.

He too  made no claims at all of musical expertise, but he could play the radio with the best of 'em -- like his Uncle Will, he was pretty good at playing a record player, though this modern generation would likely reply to the phrase "Record Player" with a confused "Huh?" -- and one thing he'd worked on, but never told his Mama about, was his determination to play one tune, and one tune only, on the piano.

He'd read in Old Pale Eyes' Journal that Law and Order Harrie Macfarland could play only one tune, but he played it well, and that was "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."

Linn played it now.

In his imagination, the saloon was populated with miners and timber cutters, men with a thirst and men with shirt sleeves bulging with muscled arms: he wondered what Law and Order Harrie Macfarland looked like, for he'd never seen a portrait of the man.

He, too, played the piano well -- at least this one song -- he went up a third, a third again, he added the same treble flourish as his Mama.

He smiled a little as he played, for there is a magic to drawing music from an instrument.

When he was done, he rose, turned, went outside; he threw a leg over his Paso mare, rode down the street, studied the several tomb stones:  he went through the graveyard twice, then once more.

He rode back to Firelands, not asking much of his mare:  her paso corto suited him, and he determined to find the particular Journal where Old Pale Eyes conducted a Masonic funeral, for that's where it should say where Harrie was planted.

Linn rode to the Sheriff's office -- it was his day off but he wanted to check in with his pale eyed Mama -- he stepped through the door and Sharon's daughter was just hanging up the dispatcher's phone.

"You weren't just over in Carbon Hill by any chance?" she asked.

Linn nodded.  "I was," he replied.  "What happened?"

"I just got a call about a haunted piano."

"Now that's different," Linn said thoughtfully.  "Where?"

"They're doing some saloon work.  The carpenters came back from lunch and a fellow in a beat up brown coat and a broad brimmed hat was playing "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" on that rebuilt piano."

Jacob frowned.  "That was me," he said.

"I don't think so," she said.  "They said the man stood and he was old and lean and wrinkled like a dried apple.  He told them 'I am buried in West Virginia' and then he faded like fog in the morning sun."

Linn stared at her for several long moments.

 

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506. HERO, SLIGHTLY SCORCHED

I'd ridden my Paso mare to work.

School kids loved it when I rode her, for I'd go past the school and I think half a hundred young hands at least would pet the pretty horsie and they'd beg me for a ride, and I knew if I started there'd be no end to it -- that would delay their getting into school on time, and I get in enough trouble the way it is -- anyway Jacob rode his as well but he come in behind the schoolhouse in that little field where I still paid stall rent.

We'd rebuilt the little barn and I'd dug out ditches and graveled 'em full with coarse stone, runnin' down hill to conduct water away from the stable -- I've seen too many stables that got all wet and muddy and stayed that way -- well, this had enough grade I was able to ditch away from it and this stable never stayed muddy.

Locals came and took the well rotted out horse manure, we had three piles and folks knew enough to take the oldest pile, the one with the fire burnt out of it: they'd work it into their gardens and swear that it was magic in its power, for they claimed wonderful crop  yields, and I never hesitated to accept fresh garden truck when 'twas offered.

Anyway I saw a curious lad giving me the long eye so I walked my Paso up to him and he squinted up at me and said "Mom said you're a hero!" and I considered for a moment before asking, "Did she say why?"

"Cause you love your wife enough to walk through fire to get her out an' she said my Daddy wouldn't walk across the street for her!" and I knew the couple in question, and that didn't really fit with my knowin' of 'em, so likely there was more fancy and less fact to the statement.

"Well," said I, "I got kind of scorched," and his eyes got big and he said "You really did?" and I nodded.

"Like to busted a gut gettin' that car off my wife, too," I said.  

"Did it hurt?" he asked in almost a scared-little-boy voice ... he was a wee lad, and his fear sounded close to tears.
The young have a natural empathy about such matters.

I nodded slowly.  "Yep.  Scarred me up some, too."

"Can I see?" he asked with the innocent eagerness of the very young and I laughed.

"No," said I, "I don't reckon so, but thank you for askin'."  I backed my Goldie-mare, touched my hat brim to the lad, and not until we backed up some did I realize a few of those women schoolteachers were drifted in and listenin' close.

I didn't realize how close until two days later when Shelly got to teasin' me about how high up on a pedestal them schoolteachers had me.

That was two days later, like I said, but before them two days later I got myself into it some more.

Didn't set out to, no sir, there I was just ridin' my Paso to work like I did sometimes, when I saw two kids runnin' towards the schoolhouse and they were payin' attention to a whole lot of nothin' at all and neither was an oncoming motorist.

One of the kids looked left and stopped, fast.

The other didn't.

There are times when a man can reflect on the course of action.

There are other times when Thought, that swiftrunner, sears through a train of reasoning like lightning through a summer sky.

Then there's times like Goldie and I had, when I thrust forward in the saddle and locked my heels in her barrel and she took out like a streak and we went just a-poundin' down the schoolhouse road towards the main drag and I leaned down and seized that schoolboy by the collar of his Carhartt and let me tell you, when my hand slammed down on his collar my hand locked shut like a bank vault!

I swung him up in the air, Goldie and the two of us got the hell out of the street -- I recall hearin' tires screech and someone laid on the car's horn and I turned my arm over and fetched that little fellow up until we were nose to nose -- I recall his eyes were somewhere between big and scared, and thrilled at an unexpected adventure -- and I opened my mouth and something really intelligent fell out.

I think I said "Hi there!" and I could have kicked myself, for that sounded just flat forevermore stupid.

I got my other hand on him and fetched him up and straddled him down in front of me and he laughed and we rode him up to the schoolhouse and them schoolteacher women, they were just awful happy when I handed the grinning lad down to 'em, they made over him and I backed Goldie-horse up and got the hell out of Dodge -- or at least made my escape to the Sheriff's office where I felt safe.

As I recall, that was the day I talked a suicidal fellow off the trestle -- I think I convinced him I was the laziest sod ever to stand in boot leather and I didn't want to climb down that God awful canyon to get to his splattered carcass and besides he looked considerably more handsome the way he was, had he ever seen a corpse busted open from such a fall and you don't want that to be someone's last memory of him -- that was the day I handled a call from a distraught young woman who'd just been abandoned by a no-good of a husband, she was suddenly alone in the world with an infant child and she was right next to blind panic and I was on the phone with her for just over a half hour, Sharon told me later that recorded phone call is now used as a training aid for emergency dispatchers, as they could go through and replay one section and describe active listening, another section and they could use it to illustrate echoing, and there's three or four more fancy terms, and hell all I did was listen, and ask questions now and ag'in, and when we finished up, why, I'd had the Parson on conference call with us and he brought in people he could call on, and when we were done, why, I had me some coffee and went out to where some idiot allowed as they'd blow up a township road grader and damned if they didn't have a battery, a wrist watch and three sticks of dynamite all rigged up and stuck in behind the injector's fuel lines on the side of the grader's engine block.

I pulled the cap out of the stick, I give it a looking over to make sure there was nothing to indicate a collapsing circuit, I borrowed the mechanic's side cuts and cut the dangling dynamite cap free and then I pulled the three sticks out, took the square little 9 volt battery, the crystal-drilled wrist watch and the dynamite, and I set 'em down on the ground and I stayed until I was relieved by the fellows we were obliged to call in because this involved explosives.

They give me hell for handling the device and they give me hell for cutting the dynamite cap free and they give me hell for dismounting it from the grader and I told them I did what looked right and if they want to issue me a crystal ball I'd take it, otherwise they could take their toys and go to blistering hell.

They must be used to such talk for we all ate at the Silver Jewel that evening and they admitted they were much happier than if they'd had to process a scene where the grader's engine block was reduced to scrap.

I considered the township trustees were happy their grader wasn't blown up.

Turns out later whoever set that tidy little Dinamit Boom, had the wrong township, but we didn't figure that out for just shy of a month, and it's since been taken care of.

One way or another, that little snatch of conversation I had with that little boy, when he asked me about my burn scars and I said no, why, that got filtered through the women schoolteachers and they figured it was so romantic to wade through a raging torrent of the Inferno itself to get to my lady love, and I'm surprised they didn't call up the Vatican and petition His Holiness himself to promote me to sainthood -- at least that's how it sounded when the tale got run around the barn and back through my beautiful bride, who was absolutely preening when she told me, I reckon it's because she's the one I got the hell out of that car before it lit up any worse.

Kind of like when we stopped at the drive-thru window at the All-Night to grab a fast sandwich and coffee when we were going somewhere, and the girl hung out the window head and shoulders, she spoke across me to Shelly and declared, "You have the most polite husband!"

Shelly preened over that one, too.

Anyway, two nights after, like I'd said, we crawled in the bunk and I was wore plumb out, but Shelly rolled over and laid a hand on my chest and murmured "You are a hero, you realize that," and I recall I said something really intelligent like "Yeah, slightly scorched."

Hell of a note.

Even in my own bunk, under my own roof, I can still drive my hind  hoof between my pearly whites.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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507. MAULED!

Shelly looked up as Jacob grinned his way into the house.

She watched as he carefully hooked off his boots and set them in the rubber boot tray, as he flipped his Stetson toward the hall tree (perfect landing, as usual), as he shucked out of his coat and hung it on the tree.

He took two steps toward the stairs, looked over at his Mama looking at him, stopped.

"I see a grin," Shelly said.  "Is it a girl?"

Jacob laughed and Shelly saw his sire's good humor in this, his pale eyed son:  he stopped, took a couple steps toward his Mama, hooked his thumbs in his belt, grinning as broad as two Texas townships.

"Mama," he said, "yes I have, and she has dark eyes that shine like polished gems!"

Shelly turned her head a little, raising both eyebrows.

"Jacoooooob," she said slowly, "do I have anything to worry about?"

Jacob laughed.

"Mom," he said, shaking his head, "you ain't gonna believe this!"

"That sounds like 'Hold my beer and watch this,' she replied, "sling it right on me!"

Jacob threw his hands wide, palms innocently toward his mother:  "Well, ya see, it's like this," and his nasal drawl was so much like his father's that Shelly laughed to hear it.

 

Jacob had gone to a neighboring ranch to help put up hay.

He'd labored as young men do, laboring like young giants under the high mountain sun, slinging bales of hay and laughing, matching their green strength against square bales of string-tied hay: noontime saw them sitting at a kitchen table and eating incredible amounts, as is entirely appropriate for strong, laughing young men:  mothers are pleased when their young eat well, and she told Shelly later that -- when she offered dessert -- Jacob smacked one thigh, then the other, happily declared "One's still empty!" 

Jacob continued, "Mama, I laid down on their living room floor and took me a nap."

"O-kaaay," Shelly said, turning her head a little, wondering where this was leading.

"Well, y'see, their Mama Pitt had a half dozen pitty puppies, and Mama jumped out of their card board box and went to check out the feed dish."

Shelly blinked, her eyes big, suspecting she was about to have her leg pulled without mercy.

"Wellum, the little Pitties didn't want their meal ticket to leave, so they dumped the box over and all of a sudden, why, here comes this pack of wild fierce froshus man eaten Pitt Bull puppies, looking around at a big wide world, and here they come right torst me!"

Dear God, he even sounds like his father! Shelly thought, nodding him to go ahead.

"I'm layin' there sound asleep and all of a sudden, why, there I am fiercely set upon by a whole ravenin' pack of Pit Bulls!  Why, Mama, they like to tickled me plumb to death!  I got snuffed, nibbled, they tasted tested my fingers and my ear lobes, I'm layin' there gigglin'!" -- he raised an orator's dramatic finger -- "and one adventurous little fellow climbs to the absolute crest and summit of Mighty Mount Gutsby, he gives this big yawn, curled up and went to sleep!"

Jacob's eyes were bright with merriment, the color was up in his cheeks, and Shelly delighted in the mental image of her son laying on his friend's floor with a half dozen happy puppies cuddled up against him.

"You realize," she smiled, "it's not everyone that gets mauled by a whole pack of Pitts!"  She turned, gestured toward a freshly iced cake.  "How about some reward for the tamer of these wild pups?"

 

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508. TO KILL A DEAD MAN

Mr. Baxter knew the man was trouble.

He'd tended bar at the Silver Jewel long enough to judge his customers, and he judged this one, and his judgement was both harsh and unfavorable.

He looked over at his swamper -- a ten year old boy, attentive and anxious to please -- he raised an eyebrow, tilted his head slightly, then shifted his eyes right, toward the dusty, ragged looking soul nursing a beer and a grudge on the other side of the polished mahogany bar.

The boy didn't have to be told twice.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller's tread was that of a passing ghost.

He laid a hand on Tom Landers' shoulder and murmured, "If it comes to it, head shoot him, but let me try and talk him down some first."

Linn's hand squeezed, quickly, reassuringly; Tom nodded, lowering the muzzle on the short coupled .38-40 carbine he favored for saloon duty.

Linn cat footed off the stage -- the curtains were pulled back and fast with a single strap, waiting for the next dancing girls to be hired: welcome though they were, they never lasted long -- Tom was behind the curtains, watching through a gap they'd engineered for this purpose.

Linn slipped out the concealed stage door into the back hallway:  Daisy's kitchen was to his right, and the back door that opened on the field this side of the livery: to the left, the Saloon proper.

Linn could see the fellow that concerned Mr. Baxter, the man for whom the swamper came running.

Linn wanted to take a look at the situation, he wanted to take a look at the man, and for this, stealth was indicated.

His pale eyes tightened a little at the corners.

He knew what to do.

 

"GOD BLESS JEFFERSON DAVIS!"

The words were shouted:  loud, shocking, bringing cards, chips, the chuckling wheel, even the piano player to a silent standstill.

The man raised his mostly empty beer mug in salute, glaring defiantly -- until he defiance turned to surprise as a voice declared, "Make that Father Lee and I'll buy you another!"

He turned, startled, looked into a set of pale eyes -- a very hard set of pale eyes, set in a face with lines engraved in the face, eyes that had seen too much.

The mug fell, hit the floor, bounced -- for a miracle the heavy glass didn't bust -- beer spilled, gleaming, running in an irregular puddle on the freshly mopped floor.

The man with pale eyes was still, silent:  silence rolled from him like cold air off a winter mountain, and the man in the ragged coat did not doubt that he was looking at his own death.

He did not care.

Not anymore.

"You!" he whispered hoarsely.

"If it ain't," the Sheriff said mildly, "I'll be surprised!"

The Sheriff stood, relaxed, ready: men moved quickly from the bar, getting out of the line of fire -- they were confident in the Sheriff's marksmanship, but they were also cautious when it came to gunplay in a saloon.

Linn's coat was open and he stood relaxed, unblinking, pale eyes fixed on the man.

"You came here for a reason."

"I came to kill you."

"You et yet?"

The man blinked.

"Why no," he admitted.  "No.  I've not."

"Mr. Baxter."  Linn never raised his voice.  "This man needs a good square meal, and a beer.  What's today's special?"

"Beef and beans, Daisy mashed some taters and there's gravy."

The man swallowed again; as if on cue, an eddy brought the smell of Daisy's kitchen up the hall and wrapped itself around his empty belly.

"A man can get killed anytime," the Sheriff said mildly.  "Be a hell of a note to take off on the dead man's stage on an empty belly."  There was the ghost of a smile in the man's eyes as he added, "I don't know about you, but I hate gettin' killed when I'm hungry."

The man in the ragged coat nodded slowly.

"I could eat."

The Saloon watched, silent, as two men leaned against the bar, shoulder to shoulder:  they ate good back strap beef, tender and of good flavor, they ate good woman-fixed mashed taters, something the stranger admitted he hadn't had since he'd left his Ma's table to go fight them invadin' Yankees -- they ate green beans, not the common beans he'd gotten used to and sick of and ate anyway -- and when two men finished two plates apiece, they each sipped on a beer and allowed as that was a right good meal.

The man in the dusty coat looked at the Sheriff and asked, "Now who's gonna pay for this?"

Linn looked at him with half lidded eyes.

"You've come a fair piece to kill a man," he said conversationally.  "Least I can do is stake you to a meal."

"Now that's right hospitable of ye," came the sneering reply.

Linn shrugged.  "My Mama," he said quietly, "worked hard to beat some manners into me.  I mean she worked hard to teach me good manners."  He looked at the man.  "What now?"

The fellow hesitated, considered.

"If you're goin' to kill me, why not do it outside.  I hate to make Mr. Baxter clean up a mess."

"All right."  He nodded, pushed away from the bar.  "Outside it is."

Men drew back to let them pass; nobody spoke, every ear was inclined to hear their conversation: they'd seen Old Pale Eyes talk men down before, and they'd seen Old Pale Eyes kill men before, and as the pair passed out the door, talk commenced -- quick, urgent words, money was laid, bets were made, and men crowded the windows, stood in the open doorway to watch a man die.

They walked down the warped, dusty steps together, shoulder to shoulder, walked out into the street.

Linn looked up, squinted.

"I rode through some mountain territory back East," he said, "chasin' John Hunt Morgan.  I don't mind admittin' the man made me look like a damned fool."

The stranger nodded.  "I heard he was good."

"He was damned good," Linn agreed.  "Like chasin' a handful of fog on a spring breeze!"

"You know I'm a-gonna kill ye."

Linn stood relaxed, his boots planted.

"Whenever you're ready."

A door slammed at the Mercantile -- Linn knew it was the Mercantile from the ding-a-ling of the spring mounted bell -- his coat was open, and he was ready.

At this distance -- he was not more than fifteen feet from the man -- he knew he had his choice of the left eye, or the right eye, or maybe the third button on the man's vest:  Linn was well practiced and he was deadly accurate, and he knew he was very likely fast enough to stop the man.

Whether he was fast enough to stop him before being shot himself, well, that was another question: a gunhawk can hide in a dusty stranger's coat as easily as a rank amateur.

"You see the sky today?"  Linn asked, lifting his chin.

They both looked up.

"I recall a sky that color.  I was in Tennessee.  Third Ohio Volunteer Cavalry.  Gorgeous day, not too warm, sky was just like that."  

They lowered their eyes, looked at one another.

"Dead men don't see the sky any more."

"You're chicken!"

"Dead men don't eat meals like we just et.  Recall how it was in the field?  Berries when we could pick 'em, chickens if we could catch 'em, horses when that's all there was?  Recall that charge that stopped because Bluebellies and Butternuts both saw they were wadin' through berry vines and the vines were ripe?  Both sides stopped and started eatin' berries, for both sides were near to starved out."

"I recall that," he said softly.

"That damned War was better'n a quarter of a century ago.  I let that hell go so it wouldn't eat me alive.  Be pleased if you'd do the same."

Blued steel whispered from carved leather and Linn's left hand Colt was looking unblinkingly at the man's nose.

"At this distance," Linn said, "I can split a playin' card edgewise.  I do it every Sunday, right down the street in the corral.  You got family you'd like to see in Paradise?"

Silence hung on the street, until the stranger nodded, slowly.

"Yeah.  I got family."

"You pull that pistol you'll be commitin' suicide.  You want to risk not seein' family for all eternity?"

Linn lowered his Colt's hammer, holstered.

"You come a long way to die, friend.  Why not come a long way to live?"

"I come to kill you."

"That would displease my wife."  Linn grinned.  "She's red headed with a hell of a temper and right now she's got a double gun looking at your back.  She ain't like me.  She'll fill your back with buck shot and sleep well tonight."

The man turned -- he turned back, just in time to catch a fist in the gut:  a hook, a push, he was on his back with a pale eyed set of bared teeth on top of him and a knife at his throat.

"You got a choice, friend," Linn whispered.  "You can take a withie basket of Daisy's good cookin' with you and I'll buy you a train ticket to wherever you'd like to go, or I can cut your throat right here and right now.  Take the basket.  Daisy is a damned good cook."

Linn's knee was on the man's gun hand, but the crushing pressure on the man's forearm isn't what concerned the stranger.

It was those ice-pale, unblinking, polished- quartz eyes boring into his very soul.

 

He chose the basket.

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509. TRANSPORTATION

"How's the backside, sir?"

Jacob's voice was quiet as he leaned against the porch post in front of the Sheriff's office.

His pale eyed father was already leaning against the other side of the post -- "I'm rememberin' Harrie Macfarland," he explained, "old Law-and-Order had a smooth spot wore in the post in front of his Marshal's office.  Can't help but wonder how long it took him to wear the shoulder out of his coat workin' on that task."

Jacob nodded, assuming the same slouch as his pale eyed father.

They looked out over the street -- one looking mostly forward and right, the other looking mostly forward and left -- silence grew long between them, then:

"You don't see me settin' down."

Jacob knew it was not at all unusual for his father to wait a bit before answering.

He wasn't as bad as Doc Greenlees.

Some days you couldn't get that skinny sawbones to rub two words together before noon.

Most generally he'd listen to someone's questions and comments and he'd think about it for a while and maybe most of an hour later he'd reply -- in the fewest words possible, but his answer would be complete and comprehensive, and absolutely, precisely, correct.

His lean waisted Pa was like that sometimes.

Jacob knew his Pa had something on his mind, and it wasn't that boil he'd had cut out of his backside, though that had to be grievin' him some.

"Noticed you were holdin' the porch post up."

"You heard about Phoebe."

"I heard, sir."

"Hell of a way to die."

"It is, sir."

"She was makin' liniment with turpentine."  His voice was rough edged, the voice of a man reliving a memory he really didn't want to look at.  "She left it too long on the stove and 'twas a-boil. Her daughter was watchin' from the next room. Phoebe picked up a rag and wrapped it around the pot's handle and when she just started to move the pot, why, her daughter said she heard that boilin' turpentine sizzle loud and she caught fire and just plainly exploded."

Jacob was a man given to quiet; his father's softly spoken words chilled him to his soul, for he'd known too many women burnt to death from one cause or another.

"She died that night."

Jacob nodded.

"You were out there, sir?"

"I was."

"Anythin' we can help with?"

"Her daughter is twelve or so, she's woman of the house.  I'd understood her Pa was thinkin' of marryin' her off come next year but I don't reckon that'll happen, not until her Pa finds another woman."

"Likely so, sir."

Silence grew again; they listened to the piano in the Silver Jewel, muted and distant; there were no dancing girls yet, elsewise the piano tune would be bouncy and vigorous while the ladies disported themselves on the little stage.

"You asked about my setter."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm lettin' it heal some."

"Yes, sir."

"Doc said he pulled seven cores out of that miserable thing."

"Quite a boil, sir."

"Doc called it a Car Bunkle."

"I've heard of such things, sir."

"You recall I had a boil under my belt on the left side last year."

"I helped you cut it out, yes, sir."

"This one put that to shame."

"Yes, sir."

"I was settin' inside and up come a good healthy sneeze and I never give it a thought, I just cut loose with a good HUT CHOO and dear God, Jacob, I never hurt like that in my LIFE!"

Jacob listened, his eyes busy:  he tilted his hips a few degrees, changing the strain on his lower back.

"When that sneeze hit, why, it felt like it focused like sun light in a burnin' glass and like to blew the seat out of my drawers for the pain of that pressure a-hittin' it!  I come out of that chair like I'd been Clap Boarded across the backside and I hopped around that office grittin' my teeth and wishin' I had a row of fence posts so I could rip 'em out of the ground!"

Jacob practiced a poker face, he disciplined himself severely for moments such as this, for the mental image of the Grand Old Man, howling at the ceiling, clawing at his bottom and half-hopping, half-hobbling in circles inside the Sheriff's Office, was genuinely funny.

He might laugh about it later, he might even discuss it with his Apple-horse once he was safely out of ear shot of everyone else, but for now he extended his father a sympathetic silence.

It was perhaps another ten minutes before either man spoke again.

"Country's goin' to hell, Jacob."

"Yes, sir?"

"Them Washington politicians are at it ag'in, I've got a notion."

"Likely so, sir."

"They're plannin' on women runnin' the country."

"Sir?"

"Oh, ya."  Linn's pale eyes searched the roofline opposite, as if looking for enemy snipers.  "They're even plottin' to do it slow so's nobody will notice."

"How's that, sir?"

"They're startin' with them Suffragettes."

"What are they doin' now, sir?"

Linn thrust away from the porch post, stood on his own two feet, thumbs hooked in his gunbelt.

"Them wimmen folk are wearin' pants, Jacob."

Jacob nodded, considered.

"Sarah wears pants."

"Sarah doesn't try to be a man!" Linn snarled.

"No, sir, but she makes a damned good Black Agent."

"I will allow Sarah to wear pants," Linn said, a dangerous edge to his voice, "but damned if I'll put up with them damned Eastern trouble makers comin' out here in drawers and tellin' me how to run my life!"

"Yes, sir."

"They're takin' men's names, too."

"Sir?"  Linn's ear tugged back a little:  he heard a note of genuine surprise in Jacob's voice.

"Linn is a man's name."

"It is, sir."

"It's commonly given to the firstborn son."

"Yes, sir."

"Least it was when I was back in Perry County.  I knew several men named Linn. I one time stopped and studied on a tomb stone up in Lorain County, fellow named Linn and a good family he'd sired!"

"Yes, sir?"

Linn chuckled.  "It's kind of a funny feelin', seein' your name on a tomb stone."

"Yes, sir."

"Them Suffragettes, hell, they're throwin' pizen into women's minds!"

"Sir?"

"I've heard of three women named Linn.  Oh, they'll spell it a little different but them women -- it's like two more, one's down in Rabbitville, her name's Billie!"

Jacob debated whether to mention that Bonnie McKenna's middle name was Lynne, and had been her entire life, and Sarah's middle name as well, but he decided perhaps this was the time to listen and offer no comment.

Linn shook his head.  "Hell in a handbasket, Jacob.  Before that damned War, men never shot one another.  Women could shoot men.  Women are the weaker vessel."

"Yes, sir."

"Men never shot one another until we ranked 'em up, North and South, give 'em muskets and showed 'em that men can shoot one another and we've had nothin' but grief ever since."

"Yes, sir."

"Before then it was fists and feet and a rock like Cain used."

Jacob frowned a little.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Do you always get this cranky when you go see Doc?"

Linn was silent for several long moments, then he chuckled, the evil spell of his ill temper, broken.

"No, Jacob, not always.  Only when he whittles on my butt."

 

Two pale eyed, lean waisted men stood in front of the Keller ranch house, an old structure that stood where the Macneil cabin originally stood.

Linn leaned against the front porch post, his son Jacob leaning against the other side of the same post.

"Jacob?"

"Yes, sir?"

"You ever read Old Pale Eyes' journals?"

It was a rhetorical question:  every one of his children studied those Journals like a priest studies Scripture, and could quote them with almost the same expertise.

"Yes, sir."

"I was a-readin' where Old Pale Eyes went on just plainly a stereoptical rant about the country goin' to hell in a handbasket."

"Yes, sir."

"Country's still goin' to hell in a handbasket."

"Yes, sir."  Jacob paused.  "Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, you were talkin' about retirement and worryin' about havin' enough rockin' chair money."

Linn nodded slowly.  "I was that," he admitted.

"Sir, if a man was to open a handbasket franchise, he might make his fortune.  If enough people are goin' to hell and that's their preferred transportation, why not be smart enough to sell 'em the means."

If it's possible to hear a man grin, Jacob did.

"Jacob?"

"Yes, sir?"

"You just might have something there."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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510. THE FACE IN THE MIRROR

 

The Denver theater had ever been a refuge.

She'd come here many times as a girl -- a pretty young girl, modeling her Mama's fashions on the Denver stage, parading the McKenna line of Paris fashions for buyers from the Western fashion houses.

Women of every age wish to look good, to be fashionable, and as prosperity increased, so increased the demand for haute couture, and if a demand exists, the intelligent retailer will provide a product.

Bonnie McKenna and her House of McKenna Dress Works did exactly that.

Her daughter Sarah was the ideal model -- she was a quick-change artist, she could slip into and out of her Mama's tailored fashions quickly enough to keep a steady parade of fashionable attire in front of the buyers:  she learned to walk, turn, preen, pose -- and in between being displayed on stage, Sarah slipped away to the theater, where she proved a most attentive audience of one for the performers.

An actor lives for the adulation of their audience; a performer, for the applause: the rapt attention of a pretty young girl opened wide the doors of thespian instruction, and Sarah learned from them the art of makeup, the art of communication with word, with voice, with a well-struck pose, a dramatic move.

Sarah Lynne McKenna began these unofficial lessons at age ten, and her skills at makeup and pose, at an affected and excessive femininity, enhanced her performance when modeling her Mama's creations: even her violet-eyed mother noticed how much better her goods were accepted when Sarah modeled them, and their trips to Denver increased as a result -- as did the profits of the growing House of McKenna Dress Works.

Sarah Lynne McKenna knew she was physically smaller than the men who had done terrible things to her when she was a very young child.

She knew from observation that women influenced men, she studied the methods by which women influenced and manipulated men -- she polished and refined her own skills -- she was a few days short of her eleventh birthday when she was first proposed to, and only the timely intervention of her beloved uncle prevented a most serious misunderstanding with an honestly unaware suitor.

Sarah stared into the theater mirror:  she was in a dressing room, a haven, hidden from the world while she transformed herself.

Her corset was snug, her stockings without wrinkle, she wore higher heels than her Mama would approve of: her makeup was immaculate and tasteful, her lips rich and red and inviting, her hair carefully styled:  she wore a gown that was ... almost ... modest.

Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled seductive at the reflection, lowered her lashes, turned: suddenly she was a sultry temptress:  another turn, a change of expression, and she was an attractive, but modestly chaste, women about town.

Such simple creatures these men are, she thought, and stood.

She stepped out of the dressing room, closed the door, carefully, quietly: she slipped out onto the stage, walking on the balls of her feet, passing like a ghost among the forgotten shades of a hundred performers, feeling the presence of everyone who'd trod the boards before her.

Sarah turned, a dancer's move, turned again, her gown flaring as she did:  she danced well in heels, and wore them often, especially when she was an actress, assuming the likeness of someone she wasn't.

A street urchin met her as she emerged from the stage door, into the alley behind the theater.

"Is he in there?" she asked, and the urchin touched his dirty cap and said "He is," and she pressed a coin into his palm.

"See that no one is nearby," she whispered, "for he is likely to cause me harm, and I do not wish you shot when he does!"

The urchin's eyes widened momentarily, then he smiled:  his eyes shifted, he lifted his chin.

Three brothers of the streets appeared from the shadows there in the alley, all barefoot, all in knee pants and flat caps, all walking with the swagger of overconfident youth.

Sarah sighed, shook her head.

"I warned you," she murmured.

"Yeah," the urchin grinned, and the four faded back into shadow.

 

The woman's gloved hand opened:  her gloves were dark green, matching her modest gown:  her expression was anything but modest as she said, "Is this what you wanted?"

The man reached greedily for the stones -- the woman's hand closed, she snatched her hand back -- "Let's see the color of your money," she said, her voice low, musical, but hard-edged.

"Witch," he hissed, "give me the stones!"  He drew back a fist, froze as the woman's other hand appeared from behind a fold of her skirt -- it was not her hand that gave him pause, but the blocky, bulldog revolver she held, a pistol seemingly oversized for her feminine frame.

"The deal was gold coin," she said quietly.  "Show me."

She saw his eyes lift and she heard a tin can spang off the back of a building.

Sarah's off hand tightened, her finger rolled the smooth, curved trigger back:  her first shot caught him just below the belt line, her second, just below his wish bone:  she turned, fired twice more:  she aimed for faces and she did not miss -- though it would have been difficult, in all honesty, as the nearest face was three feet away when she fired: the one behind him fired, his pistol ball going into his dead accomplice's back, right before a .44-caliber freight train broke through the bony web between his eyes and sent his soul to Hell through the half inch hole in his head.

Sarah Lynne McKenna stood frozen for a moment, then she slipped her right hand into a hidden pocket, dropped the stones safely into their cloth carrier:  she opened her revolver, casually exchanged fired hulls for fresh rounds, looked around.

An urchin waved his cap at her, thrust a hand toward the intersecting alley, cupped his hand against his breast:  Copper, the move said, and Sarah nodded, drew back a few steps, clapped her hands to her cheeks, and screamed.

The policeman rounded the corner at a dead run, his turned-hickory nightstick swinging, looking wildly about -- movement caught his eye -- he saw a woman fall backwards on a set of steps --

Two dead here -- 

He froze, looked to his right --

A man, dying, coughing blood --

The woman pointed down the alley, panic in her voice, her eyes wide with fear --

"He ran that way! He ran that way!"

The policeman brought his shining, London-style whistle to his lips, blew a loud, harsh, discordant note, charging down the alley:  another Denver policeman came pounding around the corner, yelling, saw his partner in pursuit, chased after.

A grinning street urchin in a dusty flat cap emerged from the shadow beside the steps:  the woman sat up, draped her bent wrist casually over a drawn-up knee, extended her hand.

"Bonus," she said, and dropped another two coins into his palm.  

He grinned, pocketed the loot, and watched as the woman searched the dying man's pockets, came up with a small poke of gold coin, a dagger, a pistol, and a second poke of coin.

She watched as he took his last breath, as his eyes rolled away from her:  she smiled, raised a summoning hand:  as the woman in the green gown disappeared back into the theater, the urchins jingled new coin in their pockets, then scattered, knowing the cops would be back, and soon, and very likely would question everyone closely -- including and especially any stray boys that might be in the area.

A pretty young woman went back into a dressing-room and sat down, looked in the mirror, and smiled, then she scrubbed off her cosmetics, unpinned the wig she wore, changed into a very plain gown:  she sat again, and a very different young woman looked back at her, someone younger, someone plainer, someone more innocent looking.

An hour later, a messenger delivered a paper wrapped, string tied package to a jeweler.

He opened the package and found his missing gems, a poke of gold coin, and a note written in a feminine hand.

I regret the thief remains at large, he read, but the buyer who contracted your robbery is no more.

It was signed with an ornate, capital A.

The jeweler counted the stones, examined the stones:  satisfied, he returned them to the safe behind the counter, weighed the poke in his hand, then spilled a thousand dollars' worth of gold coin onto his desk.

He raised an eyebrow: this was well more than what he'd paid to have an agent track down the robber.

Not bad, he thought:  I get robbed, I hire a detective agent, I get the missing stones back, and I still turn a profit!

The bell rang as someone came in the front door:  he spread a kerchief over the gold, rose, stepped out of his little office.

The customer was someone he'd never seen before in his emporium -- a young, plain looking woman, hardly the kind to afford a major purchase -- but enough smaller purchases, he knew, would keep a business afloat, and so he greeted her with a smile and asked if he might be of service.

The young woman placed a small stack of gold coin on the glass countertop.

"I have a hundred dollars," she said.  "I wish to purchase a brooch for my mother."

 

 

 

 

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511. NO WAY I'D LOOK THAT GOOD!

"Sir?"

Linn set the tines of his fork on the floor, looked at his long tall son.

Damnation, he thought, he's nearly tall as I am!

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, why did you name me Jacob?"

Linn leaned on the fork, frowned, bent his lower back out to take off the strain.

Jacob handed his father a saddle blanket, picked up another:  two long tall lean waisted Keller men folded in two and parked their skinny backsides on the blanket-padded square bales.

"You had an ancestor," Linn said, "who was a tool dresser on an oil rig."

Jacob's eyebrow raised a little, lowered.

"Your hardware store sledge is what, about twelve pound?"

"Thereabouts, sir."

"An oifield sledge is sixteen pound."

"Yes, sir."

"A tooldresser will saw the handle off at the halfway mark and swing that sledge hammer one handed."

Jacob whistled, grinned.

"You were named for an ancestor whose shirt sleeve was plumb full of arm."

Jacob chuckled a little.  "I'd not want to make that man unhappy!"

Linn laughed quietly.  "He was Uncle Pete's father."

"Really!"  Jacob's expression was one of unadulterated delight -- Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary were dead before he was born, but he delighted in hearing tales of the man, of learning the history of their spread, acreage and square miles that used to be the Macneil ranch.

"Uncle Pete told me most boys figure at one time or another they can take the Old Man."  Linn's voice was soft, thoughtful, and he looked very directly at his son.  "Uncle Pete said that day never came with him.  To the day old Jake died, Pete never once figured he could take the man!"

Jacob nodded, rubbing his palms slowly together, young but hard calluses whispering to each other as he did:  it was an unconscious habit, something he did when he was thoughtful.

It was something his pale eyed Pa did also.

"I never figured I wanted to take my Pa either," Linn admitted.  "I went to Quantico with him and ran the hand-to-hand drills they taught.  I didn't do bad -- had your Gammaw not taught me pretty damned well, I'd have got my backside handed to me! -- but I saw how well Pa did against about everyone they paired him up with and I allowed right there I'd not want to tangle with the man!"

"He was FBI, wasn't he, Pa?"

"He was."

"I'd like to have known him better."

Linn leaned over, laid a warm hand on his son's shoulder, looked with a surprisingly sorrowful expression at his progeny.

"Me too, Jacob," he whispered, then he harrumphed, looked away, swallowed, leaned back and stared into the distance.

"You know how ... oh, say, Roger Hinkle went all rebellious on his old man?"

"You mean the street racing, the drinking, Kendra behind the bleachers?"

"You heard about that."

"I saw 'em but I got away before anyone saw that I'd seen."

Linn nodded.  "Nothing wrong with making yourself scarce."

"Yes, sir."

"I never allowed as I would get rebellious like that."

"Did you get rebellious, sir?"

Linn got a funny look on his face, nodded.

"I did, Jacob."  He looked at the floor.  "Once.  It scared the hell out of me and I never tried it again."

"What did you do, sir?"

Linn considered for a long moment:  Jacob could almost hear the gears turning between the Old Man's ears.

Linn stood.

"Come with me."

 

Linn pressed a hidden release; he pressed on a combination of drawers in his rolltop desk, turned a decorative looking knob, reached around behind, pressed a panel.

Jacob heard a click, saw a tall, narrow panel flip open.

Linn reached in with thumb and forefinger.

"Jacob, you might recognize this."

He handed a laminated, enlarged, newspaper article to his son.

Jacob took the laminated image, laid it down on his Pa's desk, turned on the green-glass-shaded banker's lamp.

He frowned at the image of a woman in a white nursing dress, a woman wearing white stockings and white high heels, a woman with a crying child clinging to her -- a little girl, straddling her hip -- the woman wore a nurse's cap and an expression that betrayed either great, intense, boiling anger, or an utter, murderous hatred.

The child was facing the camera, crying; the nurse with the scared child on her hip, held her tight with her free arm.

The nurse's other arm was extended.

Her hand was fisted.

In the fist was a revolver, and the revolver's hammer was back.

Jacob blinked, studied the newspaper article, looked up.

"Gammaw?"

Linn nodded.

Jacob read quickly, looked at the picture, at the absolutely unforgiving expression on her face.

"She didn't shoot him."

"No."

Jacob looked up as Linn laid a glossy photograph beside the laminated newspaper clipping.

This was in color; it was a nurse, dressed like his Gammaw in the newspaper photo:  this nurse was the same height, had the same look of deep and intense anger, and this nurse had a cocked revolver in her extended arm.

There were differences.

This nurse had violet eyes, and stood in front of a clapboard residence instead of a brick hospital.

"Do they look alike, Jacob?"

Jacob nodded.

"That's me."

Jacob looked at Linn, shocked.

"Sir?"

"Yep."  Linn nodded.  "The one and only time I ever rebelled against the Grand Old Man."

"I don't understand, sir."

"Your Gammaw just got off shift.  She was auxiliary police with Nelsonville and she'd been working a case ... she recognized the perp and she knew what he generally did to children he kidnapped.

"She'd just gotten off shift, she tried on a pair of heels she planned to wear dancing that night -- she was in her car in the parking lot when she saw him -- she pulled the revolver out from under the seat, she called the child over to her and picked her up, and she invited the man to so much as breathe hard so she could splatter his brains all over the side of the hospital.

"She received a key to the city, an official commendation from her department, and she was fired from the hospital, because it didn't put forth the image they wanted."

Jacob's jaw slid out and he considered that perhaps this was a good time to say a whole lot of nothing.

"And you, sir?"

Linn laughed.

"My Pa did not think I should go out for Halloween.  I think he was considering trick or treat.  I had a party in mind, and Mama helped me:  she loaned me the dress of her back.  Or out of her closet, I think that's the same dress in both photos.  I wore her heels and her cap and" -- he grinned a little crookedly -- "frankly I looked good!"

"Yes, sir," Jacob said uncertainly.

"When we got to the party, Mama saw this fellow's twin.  Not twin twin, but a man of similar taste and the same criminal background."

"Yes, sir?"

"I'd put in violet contacts to disguise my pale eyes.  Otherwise you couldn't tell who I was, I looked that different."

"Yes, sir."

"Mama handed me her revolver and said to go around to the side, to keep the single action hid in my skirt unless I needed it.

"When the little girl screamed and twisted out of his grip, I squatted, opened my arm and the child looked at me and if you'd put Coxy's Army between the two of us I'm satisfied that two-year-old would've run right over top of 'em.  She slammed into me and I grabbed her, I stood and hipped her and when I stood, that fellow came at me and I raised that .44 and eared the hammer back.

"So there, Jacob, is where I stood, fourteen years old and in a dress and high heels, with a cocked revolver and a scared little girl, just like my Mama.  At least until Mama came around the corner with a shotgun and invited him to so much as twitch so she could blow his brains all over the street."

"Did he twitch, sir?"

"He did not."

"How did you make your escape, sir?"

"In the squad, Jacob.  I rode to the hospital with the little girl on my lap.  I went inside and handed off Mama's revolver to the first responding officer, and then I excused myself in a weak and whispery voice, something about going to the ladies' room.

"I slipped out the side door and Barrents pulled up and flagged me in.

"He took me to the Sheriff's office and Mama finished booking the fellow in, and I sat in her office and shook like a weed stem in a windstorm.  Then we went home."

"How'd you get this picture, sir?"

"The newspaper was out that night, taking pictures of trick-or-treaters.  It was just random luck he was there, and when we showed him the photo of Mama -- on the front page of the Nelsonville Tribune those many years before -- well, we swore him to secrecy, and somehow that mysterious violet eyed nurse's identity was never made known."

"That was your act of rebellion, sir?"

"The one and only, Jacob."

Jacob stared at the picture of his long tall Pa, with violet eyes, a wig, really good legs and an immaculate nurse's uniform.

He turned a little and looked very frankly at his Pa.

"Sir," he said, "you have my respect.  There is no way in two hells I'd have the guts to look that good!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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512. I GOT ME INTO IT, I GET ME OUT OF IT!

Jacob tilted his head a little.

I knew that tilt.

Marnie used to do that when she found something interesting.

She'd tilt her head like that when she was a little girl, squatting in the driveway, watching an interesting bug; she tilted her head like that when she found part of a finger, the first time she helped me process a major crime scene; now I saw that same interested tilt in my son's head, and I couldn't help but smile just a little.

Curiosity is like a spirited horse:  it has to be properly harnessed, reined, trained -- otherwise it can pull the rider in unwanted directions, fast!

"Sir?"  Jacob asked.

I turned.

He was looking at my duty belt.

One of the belt keepers was unsnapped.

He had it bent down and was looking at its inside:  it was custom made to hide a handcuff key.

I couldn't help it, I laughed at the memory, and Jacob looked at me half-interested, half-offended, like maybe I'd hurt his young feelings.

"Jacob," said I, "take a look at the inside of the belt -- here -- do you see this kind of rectangular stain?"

"Yes, sir."

"That used to be a patch of duct tape."

"Sir?"

"I kept a handcuff key taped to the inside of my belt."

"Sir?"

"In case the bad guys took me hostage and put me in my own cuffs," I explained, "I had a cuff key taped to the inside of my duty belt with a patch of duct tape.  Marnie saw that -- just like you saw this one" -- I reached down, twanged the unsnapped belt keeper -- "and damned if she didn't try it."

Jacob puzzled over this.

"I found her in the barn, Jacob.  She'd handcuffed herself behind her back around a post and she was settin' there with an irritated look on her face and she was working at something.

"I looked at her and I went around and saw what she'd done and I reached in my pocket" -- I reached in mine -- "I pulled out my keyring" -- my keys jingled as I did, my fingers automatically closing on the long cuff key -- "and she shook her head and glared at me and said just stubborn as hell, 'I got me into it, I get me out of it!' "

"She hadn't figured on how difficult it would be to get her fingers behind a cinched up belt to work that tape loose."

"Did she, sir?"

"It took her a good while, Jacob, and she finally came stompin' back in the house and never said a word to me, she stomped up to me and handed me my cuffs."

Jacob considered for several long moments.

"How old was she, sir?"

"Eleven or twelve.  Your age."

"I see, sir."

"She didn't say a word about it and neither did I, but when she cinched up a duty belt for the first time, I gave her one of these."

I reached down and twanged that hidden cuff key belt keeper.

"She looked at me and nodded.  Never said a word, just that one nod.  I think it's still on her belt in the closet."

" 'I got me into it, I get me out of it,' " Jacob repeated thoughtfully, then he looked at me and he tried to grin, but all he managed was to look kind of sad.  "That sounds like her, sir."

I nodded, sat down with a sigh.

"Yep," I agreed.  "That's my little girl, contrary as hell!"

Jacob ran his finger over the stain on the inside of my duty belt.

"That's why you don't use a taped key now, sir?"

"That's exactly the reason, Jacob.  If I need to make an escape, I don't need to fight my own belt to do it."  I grinned.  "Who knows, a daughter's contrariness might have saved her old man's life some day!"

In the years that followed, it never did, but I passed the tale on in training sessions, both in our department and elsewhere as I was asked to present to classes of trainees, and twice -- twice! -- my little girl's story allowed a captured lawman to make an escape.

One was killed for his efforts, another killed his captors, but those are someone else's tales, and I'm not going to steal their thunder ... I'd rather talk about my little girl.

I'm a greying old granddad and I miss her.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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513. A WOMAN'S HAND

The bugler raised his instrument, took a fast, deep breath, blew.

Troopers' heads snapped up, horses' heads raised:  it was the command they'd been awaiting, some with dread, some with deadly anticipation.

Captain Keller's boot thrust into the stirrup and he swung easily into saddle leather, one hand caressing the chestnut mare's neck.

His men formed up behind him:  he did not have to look to know they were in ranks and ready.

Bugles sang across the field, commands for other companies, for other units:  infantry began to move, commanded by brazen notes shimmering above the hayfield.

Esther felt her husband shiver, ever so slightly, and rolled up on her left side.

The slight movement exposed her to his body heat -- good Lord, he's like a furnace! -- she laid her hand on his breast, felt the sweat-damp nightshirt, felt his body shaking --

Another battle, another field, another day:  Boots and Saddles galvanized troopers from their meal:  coffee was hastily gulped, mess kits dropped, abandoned:  they could be policed up later.

If they survived.

Horses danced as men's weight came into saddle leather, as hands seized reins, as men turned their mounts, waited for orders -- whether from the leather lungs of their Sergeant, or the bright bugle's notes --

Esther closed her eyes, willed her husband to stillness, trying with all her woman's magic, all her wife's passion, to take the conflict, the memory, the horrors that plagued her husband's sleep.

She pressed her hand flat on her husband's breastbone.

"You're safe," she whispered.

He remembered looking at what had been a campfire companion, or what was left of him.

He remembered the smell as he walked the battlefield, the smell of men ripped open by shot and shell --

-- men begging him for water, men whimpering and shivering as their life ran from them, leaving them cold and shaking and still alive in more misery than any man should ever be in --

He felt the curved cavalry sabre whisper deadly promises as he drew it, shining and sharp, from its scabbard, laid it back over his shoulder, no longer a civilized man, but a man at war, a man anxious to bring to the enemy he faced the same destruction they'd brought to his men, his friends, boon companions --

He felt his throat bulge and vibrate --

"WALK!"

His chestnut mare stepped out, head up, nostrils flared, ears perked, and part of his mind wished he were standing to the side, perhaps as a little boy, admiring the fine sight of horses in ranks stepping forward, chestnut waves of swift destruction, sharpened steel shining in midmorning sunlight --

Linn's hand seared from under the bedclothes, just as Esther knew it would.

His hand laid down hard on hers, pressing her hand into his breast.

She felt his strong, callused, man's hand shaking as it pressed hers down into him, as if to press her into his beating heart.

He never pressed hard enough to cause her harm -- he'd never hurt her -- but she knew he pressed firmly enough that, unless he relaxed, she would be unable to remove her hand from the fleshly vice in which it was now held.

"It's all right, dearest," she whispered into the bedroom dark, into her husband's sweat-beaded ear.

"You're safe, Linn.  You're home.  You are under your own roof.  You are safe."

Captain Keller lowered his sabre, leaned forward in the saddle, pointed the blade, a shining steel finger of deathly accusation.

"CHAAARGE!"

His mare did not need to be told twice.

She thrust her nose straight toward enemy's flank, pounding against the earth as if the sod beneath steelshod hooves was an enemy she wished to trample.

They'd flanked the enemy and were now in a full-on charge:  they rolled into the end of the enemy formation like a living avalanche, laying about with sabre and with the horses themselves:  Captain Keller had practiced and practiced and practiced again, swinging his sabre against improvised targets -- bundles of hay, or of sticks, again and again and again until his wrists were like iron.

He laid about the enemy with the joy of a man berserk, bringing death to those who'd first brought death to him.

Esther felt her husband relax, felt him calm, felt his hidden war subside:  he grew still, his hand relaxed its desperate pressure on hers, and she ran her arm across him, rolling up against him, pressing her face into his shoulder, not caring that womanly tears were dampening his nightshirt.

Esther Keller, wife of the pale eyed Sheriff Linn Keller, for the thousandth time, silently damned that war, she damned the men who sent good men and true against one another, she damned the politicians who presumed their will was supreme and sought to prove it by force of arms.

Somewhere in the Colorado darkness, a woman wept scalding tears as she held her husband, giving silent vent to the tears her husband was not able to shed.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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514. THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES

Three well dressed ladies rounded the corner of the Depot platform, walking the narrow space between railroad ballast and the soundly-built freight platform.

Dress material whispered as they walked -- one with a stately grace, two with the happy, quick steps of children.

Twins, actually:  one of remarkable beauty, with the violet eyes of her grandmother; her twin, with the shining black eyes and epicanthic folds of her Oriental mother: they were obviously not identical twins, but fraternal, and yet they shared the twins' remarkable resemblance, differing only in hair and eyes.

Polly and Opal were of the same height, the same build, they shared the same quick smile, they wore frocks intentionally tailored to be absolutely identical, and they shared a love of music, reading, the ladies' arts, The Bear Killer and almost anything else -- they were, after all, children, with the spontaneous and mercurial shift in mood that is part and parcel of their short, youthful attention spans.

Their older sister's gown was very much like their short girls' frocks:  this lovely young woman was showing the bloom of womanhood, but only just: slender of waist, she had yet to expand as women do, into shapely, womanly curves, but the beginnings were there -- and yet she, too, had the happy spontaneity of childhood alive and well in her young heart.

Polly and Opal were the twin daughters of Bonnie Lynne McKenna -- they were not her natural children, but Bonnie loved them as her own, as she did Sarah -- they were the get of Bonnie's late brother and his Chinese bride, both now dead.

The children adapted quickly to their new home, as children generally do, a home with laughter and love and organization and direction; they were often found in conference with their older sister, consulting on important matters known only to young ladies, and today their exploratory mission brought them to town, brought them to the main street of Firelands, brought them back to the Depot.

The Lady Esther stood on steel rails, radiating heat and power, breathing like a great, powerful, patient beast, a cast iron creature with fire in her heart and steam in her throat, grace and beauty balanced on cast-iron wheels:  two little girls stopped midway down her boiler's length and looked up, awestruck, for up close, a steam locomotive is an impressive creature indeed.

Polly tilted her head a litttle, turned to regard the diamond stack:  she studied the near-invisible exhaust, the way steam curled from hissing valves:  when the pop off opened and steam blasted skyward in a tight, loud-hissing finger, she frowned a little, looking very intently up at it, as if to engrave it on her memory.

A man was sitting at the end of the platform, working industriously at what they recognized as an artist's easel:  Opal dipped her knees, opened her gloved hand, dropped two coins into the upturned hat on the ground beside him.

The man stopped, rested his brush across the rag he held in his opposite hand.

"Milady, thank you," he said gravely.

Polly and Opal regarded his canvas.

The bare sketch of a locomotive could be seen through the thin, tan wash toning his canvas.

"I have trouble," Polly said gravely, "sewing smoke."

The painter frowned, considered, looked at the canvas.

"Smoke," he said thoughtfully.

"It always comes out flat and it doesn't look real."

He nodded, smiling a little:  the taller of the three dipped her knees, opened her gloved hand:  more coins rattled into his upended Homburg, and on the hand's withdrawal, he felt something thrust into his coat pocket.

"If I were to render smoke," the man said thoughtfully, "first I would look at smoke."

He worked several colors from wrinkled tubes onto his stained wooden pallette, drew a few of them together with a funny little knife that almost looked like a miniature trowel.

"Smoke is kind of round," he said, "unless it's stacked like plates," and as he spoke -- it was as if he were thinking out loud -- "and it's not just one color."

Polly tilted her head a little:  behind her, the pale eyed young lady tilted her head in the identical manner.

The painter's brush twirled, steadied, swiped delicately across what he'd just mixed on his pallette.

"Now if we lay in a base color, like this," he said softly -- his strokes were at once swift, sure, and surprisingly gentle -- "like that ... now let's bring this out a little here, because the wind is blowing -- let's mix in another color" -- again that little trowel, again the swift mix of paints -- "you see this is a little lighter, because smoke is never all the same color.  It's lighter where the sun hits it and darker beneath, just like a bush."

He glanced over at Polly's serious young face:  her eyes were unblinking, her jaw set, the very image of a juvenile study:  she nodded, slowly, not wanting to miss a moment of what was happening.

He continued his soft-voiced explanation, his brush coaxed smoke from the barely-seen, charcoal-sketched locomotive's diamond stack:  when he was done, though the shape of an engine could barely be seen, the smoke was alive, remarkably realistic, gleaming in the shade of the overhanging depot roof.

Polly had not moved in the two hours of patient work, save only to nod slowly when he brought out a point of illustration:  the ladies thanked him politely for his kindness, and as they trooped down the alley beside the Depot, he felt almost disappointed, for they were a most considerate audience, attentive without being demanding, most charming and without interruption of his work.

He reached into his pocket, remembering that something had been introduced to his coat when he was early in the construction.

There was a note, in a feminine hand, a quarter-sheet, folded in two:

House McKenna requests your presence for dinner this date.

Come as you are.

He frowned a little, folded the note, slipped it into his pocket.

He heard hooves, the rattle of a carriage behind him, turned.

The ladies he'd so recently entertained, were looking at him with bright and interesting eyes:  the oldest called "Ho, Butter," and the elderly grey stopped, waited patiently as the pale eyed young woman dismounted.

She marched up to the artist and smiled a little.

"I am Sarah Lynne McKenna, of the House McKenna," she said, "and we request the pleasure of your company."

The artist rose, wiping his brush in the paint-stained cloth he'd draped over his off forearm.

He bowed gravely: "My Lady," he said, "it would be my honor."

 

The life of a stage performer is often brief bursts of prosperity, with extended periods between engagements; the life of a painter is too often similar, if one concentrates on the art and not the practical matters that put coin in the pocket, such as painting signs, or advertisements: the opportunity for a meal, and possibly a bed (hopefully clean!) could not be refused.

As it was, the artist was able to trade his tutelage that day for a meal, his efforts at portraiture for a month's stay:  when finally he departed, it was with coin in his pocket, a new suit, a traveling-basket to provision him for the journey, a train ticket to Denver, and letters of introduction to certain persons of influence.

Painter of portraits he might be, but fool he was not:  he accepted the kindness extended him, and as a result, earned a patronage in Denver, and went on to make a name for himself in the field, and to this day, portraits hang that were painted by this selfsame soul.

Patronage is generally financial, but on occasion, a gift arrives, and one he cherished for the rest of his life came in a flat package, as if someone had carefully boxed a wooden picture frame.

It was not a picture, and the frame was solely to protect the contents.

It was an embroidery.

A talented young girl had taken a great deal of time, and an immense effort, to embroider The Lady Esther in rich, gleaming, absolutely full color.

The artist nodded a little as he studied the work.

He recognized the artistic expertise in what he saw; his mind drew the convergence lines, and they were true for the boiler's perspective, for the tracks; the drivers were true, straight, the diamond stack was correctly proportioned, but what caught his eye -- what brought a smile of appreciation -- was the smoke from her stack.

A girl with violet eyes had used the same technique with her embroidery as he'd shown her with his paints, and she'd achieved both the colors, and the shading, and she'd even captured the texture.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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515. A GOOD APPLICATION OF BOOT SOLE

 

Sharon's eyes widened and the Sheriff saw her flinch: the receiver came away from her ear.

A single, sustained, shivering scream could be heard as Sharon's eyes squinted, as she consulted her panel, as she wrote down the address, as she drove stiff-curved fingers down on the rectangular grey key on her desk mike.

"Firelands Two, your location."

"Firelands Two, Fay Iver Ridge at 155."

"Have an unknown emergency, David White residence, single sustained scream, no other information."

"Enroute."

Linn's boot eased down on the throttle.

He was less than a mile from White's place.

He knew the location; he'd been there before, something to do with disputed ownership of four tires and rims.

Barrents was impassive as ever, all but his eyes:  he looked up at the carbine in its ceiling mount, then to the shotgun in its upright mount.

The Suburban drew a dusty cloud behind it as Linn eased into a turn, performing a flawless four wheel drift on the dirt-and-gravel road.

Linn lifted his chin as the small ranch came into view:  he hadn't bothered to light up, and he saw no need to do so now; siren on an empty road would have been a damned aggravation, and he was aggravated enough, not knowing what he was coming into.

"Firelands, Firelands Two, on scene, out of vehicle," Barrents said, his voice as calm as his face was expressionless.

Two lawmen's eyes surveyed the scene as they approached; Linn hit the release on the shotgun as he shoved the door open, seized the 870 and hauled it free.

He advanced toward the corner of the house, viciously cycling the action as a scream from within raised the hairs on his neck.

He and Barrents ran for the nearest door.

Linn stopped on the near side, Barrents, with the carbine, on the far: Linn tried the door -- locked -- looked at Paul, raised a hand:
You high, his fingers said, me low, buttonhook, one, two, THREE!

Linn swung around, drew back a leg, drove his boot flat and hard just inside the door handle.

He had to hit it twice -- door frame splintered under his impact, he swung in, shotgun ready, down on a one-knee squat, swinging to the left, Barrrents swinging in, standing height, swinging to the right --

They shoved inside, sidestepped to get the wall to their backs.

Linn catfooted ahead, shotgun tucked under his arm, eyes busy: weight on the balls of his feet, mouth dry, one step, two --

At the woman's whimpering sob, he took a half dozen fast steps, shotgun in the lead, turned --

Froze --

He looked in the bedroom, a fast left-right, glanced at Barrents.

"Get the warbag," he said softly.  "Now."

Barrents nodded, turned, ran out to the cruiser.

As he secured the rifle and seized the medical bag, he heard Linn's voice over the radio.

"Firelands, Firelands Two. Roll squad this location, woman in labor."

Barrents grinned, slammed the door, stopped as Linn keyed up again.

"Advise tower the stork is on final, gear down, three green, brakes checked."

"Boss," Paul muttered, "you better have your catcher's mitt!"

 

Every Irishman's head came up at the *pop* hummm that preceded the howler.

Shelly was on her feet and moving before the 110-volt buzzer blared its alarm, she was in the passenger seat and biting the cap of her erasable marker, jerking it free and spinning it into writing position when the dispatcher's words came over the speakers.

"Firelands Emergency Squad, woman in labor, Fay Iver Ridge, David White ranch, are you familiar?"

The Captain twisted the explosion-proof switch -- two clicks -- Shelly keyed the mike, spoke across its grille.

"Affirm, Firelands."

"Deputies on site and advise the stork is about to land."

"Copy."

The bay door chuckled open as the Ford Diesel shivered into life between them.

The Captain eased the shifter into gear, eased the squad out onto the apron.

Father and daughter brought their seat belts across, thrust them in shining chromed buckles, looked at each other, and spoke with one voice.

"Showtime!"

Firelands Squad One lit up, turned onto the main street, accelerated.

 

Linn seized the covers at the foot of the bed, yanked them up towards the head: he didn't want to strip them clear off, but he needed to get them out of his way.

"The baby," Cathy White gasped.  "He's coming!"

"Is it a boy then!"  Linn declared, stooping to lay the shotgun on the floor.  "Has your water broken?"

He seized her ankles, hauled her around so she was crosswise in the big double bed:  Barrents watched, warbag over his shoulder, as the Waters of Life shot forth and caught Linn right in the belt buckle.

Cathy looked up, distressed, almost in tears:  "Oh I'm so sorry!" she wailed, then she threw her arms wide, clawed her fingers into the bedclothes:  teeth bared, her head snapped back.

Linn looked down at his soaking wet belly and trousers and, as he admitted later, "laughed like a damned fool." 

He looked at Barrents, still laughing:  "Fetch out the OB kit if you would please."

Barrents set the canvas bag on the foot of the bed, unzipped it, looked inside, looked up, confused.

"What in the hell is an OB kit?"

"White cardboard box, it'll say OB kit in red letters hel-LO!"

He looked up at Cathy, moved in close:  Barrents saw his shoulder drop as he reached in.

"Cathy, how many children have you had already?"

"Three," she gasped.

"Is that good?"  Barrents asked, digging in the canvas shoulder bag, looking up, a lost expression on his browned face.

"The more she's had, the faster they come.  Do you hear the squad yet?"

Cathy collapsed -- if a woman on her back can collapse, she did -- Linn looked at her, hands on her knees.  "Darlin', you're really close now.  Deep breath, deep breath again -- that's it, look at me, I've done this before and the squad's on its way --"

"My husband," she quavered, just before the next contraction began.

Linn reached in again.

"We have crowning," he said in a conversational voice, as if remarking on the color of a roadside flower:  Barrents saw the woman's hands clench a good handful of bed linen, saw her eyes squeeze shut, saw the cords stand out in her neck as she gave a sustained, agonized groan --

Barrents turned, saw movement through a window --

Something Omaha orange and white and very shiny --

He heard doors slam --

"Mother you're doing fine," Linn said calmly, "ease off now, deep breath, deep breath --" he looked up at Barrents -- "Is that them?"

Paul nodded, once.

"Bird dog them in, I'm okay here."

Barrents dropped the canvas bag, strode for the front door.

Shelly and her father lowered the cot, carried it across the threshold, raised it again:  they followed the Navajo deputy deeper into the tidy ranch house --

"BEAR DOWN, MOTHER, NOW'S THE TIME, PUSH PUSH PUSH PUSH PUSH --"

Shelly saw her husband's shoulders lower -- he was standing between a woman's bare, drawn-up legs -- the woman's hair was damp, her face sweat-beaded, her hands clenched --

Linn lowered a little, raised a little, looked over at his wife.

"OB kit, please," he said, just as calm as anything.

Cathy looked up, gasping, crying -- "My baby," she pleaded, "I don't hear my baby!"

Linn turned the slippery, ugly, bluish creature over, his Vulcan salute hand straddling the child's nose and mouth:  he rubbed the child's back, felt it struggle, felt it move, felt it fighting to get air into its young lungs --

Shelly ripped the plastic from the OB kit, tearing the cardboard lid free in her adrenalized haste to get it open --

Cathy's eyes spilled joy from their corners as she heard something gave a little squeak, as Linn took a look, as Linn looked up and said "Mother, you have a fine baby" -- he took another look -- "girl!"

 

"Pass me that trash sack, would you, Paul?"

Barrents handed his partner an unopened garbage bag.

Linn spread it out on the driver's seat.

His shirt cuffs were still turned back from where he'd rolled his sleeves up, prior to delivering the child: he'd taken the liberty of washing his hands and forearms while he had the chance.

He started the Suburban, reached for the shifter, hesitated.

He reached for the microphone, twisted it free.

"Firelands, this is Stork One, it's a girl!"

 

There are sequelae to actions, and to inactions; Linn arranged for the Daine boys to repair the shattered doorframe the afternoon of Cathy's delivery, and on his activity log, he made mention of damage to the door frame "from a good application of boot sole."

It wasn't the first time he'd made an interesting entry, and it wouldn't be the last.

A week later, with the Irish Brigade in their class A's, with the Sheriff's deputies in their Class A's, with a young mother and a proud father and their infant daughter in attendance, Sheriff Willamina Keller pinned a pink stork on her son's shirt pocket, and when Linn next looked at his Suburban cruiser, he saw a reflective stork had been applied just ahead of the driver's door, a stork carrying a pink bag with a little baby's foot sticking out.

For some odd reason, nobody ever challenged the reason for this long tall manly lawman's pink pin, and it's one he wore every day, until his own retirement, many years after.

It wasn't the first time a Sheriff's deputy made a good application of boot sole, and it wouldn't be the last.

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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516. TRY AGAIN

The target turned sideways, advanced.

The target was a human torso with a shirt over it; it was mounted on a low, tracked platform, and it came at a little more than walking speed, at least until a pair of .357s took it just below the wish bone -- then it folded over, stopped.

Marnie straightened, holstered, hit the reset button:  the tracked platform backed away, the torso unfolded, came at her again.

Marnie's reflexes were slowed not one bit by time, by location, or by the fact that she hadn't much live fire practice here of late -- or at all, since they left Earth:  she'd brought back her beloved sidearm on one of the surreptitious, high-speed runs back to Earth -- she took a scanner with her, and once returned to Mars, thanks to the replicators, they were able to manufacture loaded rounds.

She'd found the .357 more than adequate against their most recent, invading enemy -- the Ambassador explained this was because their Brownsuits were designed to absorb energy weapons' output, but were entirely ineffective against a sharpened blade, or a bullet.

The target started toward Marnie and the blued-steel Smith cleared leather, drove two cast-lead, semi wadcutter payloads through the bottom of its molded breastbone:  once more, the tracks stopped, the torso folded over.

Marnie opened the cylinder, kicked out the empties, reloaded, holstered.

She turned, smiled at her husband.

"Have fun?" he asked, grinning, and she laughed and took his arm, steered him toward the latrine.  

"Yes I did!" she declared.  "Let me wash my hands and we'll scare up some supper!"

Dr. John Greenlees gave his wife a long, thoughtful look; he nodded, but said nothing.

Marnie came out of the latrine, her white skingloves immaculate:  as she always did, she wore her white Olympic skinsuit, at once her protection against sudden, catastrophic depressurization, and her unmistakable uniform:  no one else in the Firelands colony wore a white skinsuit, though at least a dozen wore other colors, while everyone else had gone to cloth coveralls, and a few holdouts, avowedly paranoid after their recent wartime damage, still wore the original bulky but effective atmosphere suits.

Marnie took her husband's arm.  "Supper, handsome?"

"That's what I have in mind," he said gently.

"You're buying?"

"Don't I always?"

They laughed; it was a standing joke between them.

They strolled down the stone-walled corridor, melted from the native strata with alien cutters, mounted on Earth-designed tracks:  Marnie likened it to a track mounted riding mower with an end loader bucket holding a small sun out in front of it:  they bored tunnels in an orderly fashion, they swept away rock according to careful and conservative plans, retaining the strength of the native stone, fusing just short of a meter of the native material into an artificially-latticed, unbelievably strong, hexagonal tunnel walls.

They came to the airlock, keyed through it, through the next, then into the mess hall.

Marnie's eyes went to the far end, where another, taller tunnel reminded her momentarily of the dead who'd been taken down this corridor, her own children's bodies included: by universal agreement, their dead went into Recycle, where matter was ripped apart at the subatomic level and then reassembled into whatever they needed:  the dead fed the living, clothed the living:  it could be said the dead were forever with them.

Dr. John felt his wife shiver:  he disengaged his arm, ran it around her, drew her close.

"All right, dear?" he murmured, and Marnie drew away, sat, stared hollow-eyed at the far wall, to the left of the gleaming, stainless-steel tray rack at the end of the chow line.

"I never told them about Dump," she said faintly.  "Or Sack."

Dr. John sat beside her, his arm still around her:  he was strong, warm, reassuring.

"Dump was Uncle Will's dog," Marnie explained.  "He wasn't named for what he did in the house, someone dumped the poor fellow out along the road and that's why he named him."

"Sounds fitting," Doc murmured.  "You said Sack?"

Marnie laughed, nodded, turned a little to look at her husband.

"We were coming back from Denver one night," she said, leaning her head against John's ribs.

"My little brother has a bladder the size of a walnut.  We stopped at one of those trash pile pull offs -- you know the kind, a wide place in the road where people stop and throw trash.

"He was getting rid of some second hand coffee when he heard something, and a paper bag started to move.

"He was curious so he turned the bag away from him and opened it, and a kitten wobbled out, looked around at him and miaowed."  She hiccuped, sighed, continued.

"He called him Sack because that's where we found him, in a sack.

"Maine coon cat.  Slept draped over the fork of a tree.  He was a mitten cat -- all four feet had the extra toe -- he was really furry and a real cuddle buddy.  Thought every lap was invented for him."

"Did he shed?"

Marnie laughed.  "Dear God, John, I threatened to have the Daine boys build me a spinning wheel so I could make yard out of his shed fur! I brushed that cat every day and he STILL shed!"

John hugged her a little closer, laid his cheek down on top of her head.

"I can see why you'd want to have told them."
Marnie nodded.

"John?"

"Hm?"
"Has anyone else said anything about not wanting more children?"

John considered for a long moment before answering.

"I'm being asked to help women conceive."

Marnie was quiet for several more moments, then she released her husband and stood.

"I'm hungry.  Let's eat!"

 

That night, John woke to find himself alone in bed.

He rose, silent on bare feet, went into the next room.

His wife was asleep in her office chair.

Her computer was on.

He looked at the screen.

It was a video loop.

He, Marnie, their son, their daughter ... he remembered the moment, the plastic picnic basket, their excursion on their locally manufactured steam train, the picnic lunch eaten in a pressure-dome on the surface, laying back and marveling at the stars through the transparisteel they used now instead of the plastics.

John watched the loop, watched as they all boarded the railcar, watched as they were on the platform again, watched as they all boarded the car again.

He reached over, touched a key; the screen faded, went dark, and he bent and ran an arm under his wife's knees, the other behind her shoulder blades.

Dr. John Greenlees carried his sleeping wife to bed the same way he'd carried their sleeping children to bed; he lay her down, carefully, worked her bare feet under the covers, drew the blankets up:  he went around to the other side of the bed, crawled in, rolled up on his side as his wife cuddled back against him.

 

A pale eyed lawman with an iron grey mustache ran an arm around his wife as she cuddled back into him; he felt her contented sigh as, warm under their blankets, she relaxed back into slumber.

They'd stayed up late, talking about Marnie, about the grandchildren, now dead -- they'd both watched the video loop of Marnie and her family, getting on the underground steam train, bound for a picnic on the sandy, rocky, red surface, under a geometric pressure dome -- they'd watched, they held hands, and Linn quietly handed Marnie his bedsheet handkerchief without looking, for the husband knew the wife, and he knew her eyes were about to start leaking, and he was right.

He knew this because his were starting to leak as well.

"Linn?" Shelly murmured.

"Hmm?"

"Do you think they'll try again?"

 

"John?"

"Hm?"

"Do you think we should try again?"

Dr. John Greenlees hugged his wife to him, buried his face into her rich, auburn hair.

She felt him nod, heard his muffled "Mm-hmm," and in their bedroom's darkness, Marnie smiled.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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517. I WILL NOT ABIDE SUCH

Men stared in shock as the Sheriff drove his Smith knife hilt deep in the man's belly.

Men's mouths went dry as they saw the Sheriff's deadly blow hit hard enough to bring the man's boot soles a foot off the floor.

They felt more than heard the man's pistol fire, saw material shred and blacken on the side of the Sheriff's leg.

Mr. Baxter froze in mid-polish as the Sheriff's fist drove into the dying man's throat, punching him back as he yanked the blade out, as the collapsing bank robber fell back, fell back into his startled partner as the second man pulled his revolver, fell back just in time to inherit a .44 slug in the kidneys: the Sheriff's blade was a living thing -- it spun, silver and red, drops of what used to be life itself, slinging off and spattering the tin ceiling above, just before it chopped down on a man's hand, as the Sheriff's boot rose and drove into the second man's gut, as he seized the man's coat with his off hand and the blade spun like a pretty pinwheel between the cold-eyed lawman's fingers and then drove vertical down through the top of the second man's Stetson, pinning it firmly to his suddenly lifeless skull.

Time itself froze, breathless, at least until the Sheriff, berserk with fury and blind with rage, seized the second man by the front of his coat -- the old lawman was not screaming, it was more of an animal roar, a sound few had heard, and those who likened what they'd heard in that shocking, paralyzing, utterly terrifying moment, likened it to the enraged bellow of a gut shot grizzly.

The Sheriff's roar seemed the driving force as he hauled the dead bank robber off his feet, as he threw him into the air, as he SLAMMED the lifeless carcass to the shining, mopped floor.

Strong men, hard men with calluses on both their hands and on their souls, men who'd looked death itself in the face and dared it to do its worst, shrank back a little as a parchment faced skull with bared teeth swept them with eyes that shot arctic cold into every man's belly:  the Sheriff turned, snarling deep in his chest, before he threw his head back and raged at the tin ceiling, fists upraised, the image of fury and war itself.

No man dared move.

None would have dared touch this iron bomb with its fuse just sputtering out of sight in its cast iron casing.

Not one man there was brave enough to do more than barely breathe.

The Sheriff spun, his good right hand up and bladed, as a wooden spoon shook itself in his face and a sharp-edged Irish voice issued from beneath green eyes and red hair:  "SURE AND YE'RE BLEEDIN' ALL O'ER A GUID MAN'S FLOOR!"

Her voice was edged, loud, abrasive, accusing, her Irish-green eyes snapping with anger, the stew-wet spoon vibrating as she scolded the glaring lawman.

  MEN!   YE'RE ALL FIGHT AND BLOOD AND NOW YE'RE MAKIN' A MESS OF IT!  JUST LOOK AT YOU, MAKIN' MORE WORK F'R YER PUIR WIFE! YE'VE GONE AN' GOT SHOT AND SHE'LL HAVE TO MEND YER TROUSERS AND GOD ALONE KNOWS HOW MUCH TROUBLE IT'LL BE T' MEND YER LEG!"

Daisy turned, seized an abandoned mug of beer from the bar, dashed it in the Sheriff's face.

"NOW GET YE BACK HERE OUTTA THE PUBLIC AN' DROP YER DRAWERS, LET'S HA'E A LOOK A' THA' LEG!"

 

Lightning lifted his chin just a fraction, as he unconsciously did, when the telegraph sounder began to clatter.

Information rattled from the brass sounder into his ears, funneled out the knife-whittled pencil, flowed in regular strokes against the paper:  he reached up, tapped the acknowledgement, reached for the bell on his desk.

Just as Lightning unconsciously raised his chin when he began to copy, the boy slipped up to the desk before Lightning's hand could tap the bell (he'd relieved it from a Kansas City hotel when it was repurposed into a high priced bordello, and as Lightning recalled, the charms he found there were most pleasant indeed ... but that's back when he was a young man, and single.)

The boy took the slip and was off at a dead run, as boys generally do:  a moment later, the Sheriff unfolded the slip, read Lightning's clear, regular print, read it again, nodded.

He gave the lad a coin, then gripped his shoulder.

"Son," he said, handing him another coin, "you'd usually go to the Jewel and have some pie."

"Yes, sir."

"I want you to go to the Jewel for that pie, but when you go in, walk past the bar and down the hallway to Daisy's kitchen.  When you go past the bar, you're looking for men who look like they've rode in hard and fast, men uncomfortable, men drinking nervously and looking around like they're expecting trouble."

"Yes, sir."

"Go past Daisy's kitchen and out the back door and report back to me."

"Yes, sir!"

Linn knew there might be a lookout; he knew if he mounted and rode across the street to the Jewel, the absence of his horse would be very quickly, very easily noted.

Linn smiled, just a little, picked up his double gun.

He liked the two pipe shoot gun.

Esther called it his attorney, for she said it spoke most persuasively, and in a language every man could understand.

The Sheriff looked out his window's spy-hole, studied the Silver Jewel:  a man was out front, watching; the stranger was nervous, his sun-faded hat stained with fresh sweat.

As the Sheriff watched, the lookout turned as if summoned, went back inside.

Linn slipped out the front door, shotgun held down beside his left leg:  he walked, in no particular hurry, across the street, looking at the horses.

Two of them were steaming, breathing hard, the way a horse will when it's wind broke or near to it.

Rode hard, he thought, frowning:  rode too hard.

Damn a man for abusing a horse like that, this high up!

He approached the hitch rail, stopped, his bottom jaw sliding out some.

He recognized the brand -- it used to be a rocking G, but a running iron made it a Bar-rocking-G, and he'd seen that done before, by a man who'd sworn he'd never go back to prison.

The Sheriff looked up, at the half-curtained windows, at the neatly-painted, precisely-trimmed, ornate door with its faceted, heavy-glass panels.

Nobody watching.

The Sheriff slipped quickly down the alley beside the Jewel, met the boy as the swift-footed lad came running around the building.

"Sheriff," the lad grinned, flushed with triumph and the prospect of spending new wealth, "two of 'em and they're both nervous as a whore in church! Lookin' around and their coats are open, they're both havin' a beer and givin' Mr. Baxter hell for not gettin' their meal faster!"

The Sheriff nodded, laid a fatherly hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Things are going to get unpleasant," he said.  "Find Jacob and tell him to get over here five minutes ago, then go tell Digger he'll be needed."

"Yes, sir!"

"Once you're done with that," Linn said quietly, a smile hiding at the corners of his eyes, "I believe Daisy might just have that frash baked pie for  ye."

"Yes, sir!" the boy grinned, and then launched into a run, peeling off down the street with the native's knowledge of where anyone in town is that he might want to talk to.

The Sheriff slipped in the back door -- quickly, drawing the door silently shut behind him.

Nobody at the bar was watching; it was cloudy enough there was no sudden searing burst of light to draw their attention, and the Sheriff took a quick sidestep into Daisy's kitchen.

She turned, glared at the lawman with the double gun in hand.

"Don't be causin' me any damage, now," she said quietly, "an' f'r Heaven's sakes, don't be makin' yer wife a widow! She'll ne'er speak to ye again!"

"God loves you too, Daisy," Linn winked, then took another look around the corner, down the hall toward the bar.

"Looks crowded today."

"Aye, it is that," Daisy agreed.  "Full house an' men two deep a' th' bar."

Linn considered, recalled the contents of the telegram.

Daisy saw the lean waisted lawman park his shotgun inside her door and she rapped her wooden spoon on the rim of the kettle she'd just been stirring.

"Ye're not," she murmured.

The Sheriff reached under his coat, pulled out a Smith-forged Bowie, and Daisy saw the man change: his normally pale eyes went ice-white, the skin blanched and stretched across his face, and did she not know the man better, she'd be willing to swear he should be wearing a hooded black robe and carrying a scythe instead of a tailored black suit and a Stetson.

Daisy watched as the man spun the blade like a shining windmill between his fingers, snapped it up beside his sleeve -- she'd heard it called an icepick grip, and she'd seen the man hide a blade in plain sight by laying it up against his sleeve before -- 

Daisy Finnegan, wife of the red-headed Irish fire chief, crossed herself and whispered a fast prayer for the man's safety, for she'd seen those eyes go ice-pale before, and she knew someone was about to die.

 

Jacob Keller surged through the doors, shotgun in hand, just in time to see Daisy shaking her scepter in his father's face, just as her Irish-sharp voice declared, "NOW GET YE BACK HERE OUTTA THE PUBLIC AN' DROP YER DRAWERS, LET'S HA'E A LOOK A' THA' LEG!"

Jacob took a step, intentionally making himself heard: Linn spun, Colt in hand and cocked:  the barrel was still down and at an angle, and he eased the hammer down, holstered.

Jacob looked around, met every eye, the double gun across his chest:  "Anythin' else need taken care of?" he called in a mild voice.

It was rare for the Silver Jewel to be utterly, absolutely, totally silent.

In this moment, it was.

"Sir," Jacob said, "let's not divest your drawers right here in front of God and everybody."

He looked down at two dead men, at the knife impaling a dusty, sweat-soaked-through hat to a man's skull, at the pistol in this dead man's hand ... and at a dead man and the dead man's blood, and a thumb a little distant from the hand relaxed and no longer clutching the pistol it once held.

Jacob handed his twelve-bore to Mr. Baxter and asked in a polite voice, "Could you hold onto this for me, please?" -- and with his son supporting on one side and Daisy scolding quietly on the other, a pale eyed lawman with an iron grey mustache hobbled back to the kitchen, snarling about ruining another pair of trousers and he'd have to buy interest in a salt mine to get the blood soaked out, and damn them to hell for raising his temper, they'd killed a friend of his, they'd killed a bank guard and wounded two people besides, and damned if he would abide such folk coming into his county!

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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518. THE SECRET TO SUCCESSFUL ADMINISTRATION

 

The coffee cup slipped from Linn's tired fingers and hit the polished quartz floor.

The cup was not of a particularly good alloy; it was glazed ceramic, it was good for hot contents, but a four foot drop onto polished stone was beyond its survival potential:  ceramic splinters and hot coffee sprayed a surprising distance, anointing two pair of well polished boots, four trouser legs and a percentage of wall, in addition to a couple square feet of floor.

Linn's jaw slid out and he glared without much anger at the offending and now shattered implement of what he'd intended for some badly needed relief.

He'd been up just over thirty hours, he'd seen the sun come up twice, he was tired enough his hip pockets would be sandpapered off his backside, from said backside dragging with fatigue, and now he had his own mess to clean up.

Barrents raised obsidian black eyes and looked at his old friend and partner, and Linn raised pale eyes and looked at his Navajo partner, and Sharon looked over at the two of them, for the hollow sound of exploding ceramic in the morning's quiet of the Sheriff's office is a startling thing.

Linn shook his head.

"I'll get it," he said tiredly, fatigue slurring his words:  "I got me into it, I get me out of it."  He looked over at The Bear Killer, who was tilting his head curiously.

"Bear Killer," Linn said, thrusting a bladed hand at his mess, "growl at it."

The Bear Killer, energetic as ever, yawned truly wide, gave a puppylike little yowl as he did, laid down and dropped his black furry muzzle on black furry forepaws and was almost immediately asleep.

 

Fate alone, rotten luck, perverse fortune, a random fluke of the universe:  whatever the cause, the car Linn was following, blew a rear tire and began to fishtail.

This is an exciting moment for a driver at normal speeds.

As they were accelerating through 80 miles an hour, as Linn's cruiser was lit up, all red and blue and a swinging spotlight searing across the fleeing vehicle's rearview mirror, as the siren was screaming vile imprecations in its own electronic language, the driver of the suspect vehicle decided speed was preferable to submission, at least until he started to fishtail, and he felt the sudden hammering of a tire tearing itself apart.

Linn twitched the wheel, then jerked it hard, skimming the edge of the pavement on the wrong side of the road:  he managed to miss the biggest chunks of rubber slung off the disintegrating driver's rear Goodyear -- a piece big as his hand thumped loudly off the passenger windshield, no damage -- the suspect vehicle swung like a pendulum, ended up screaming sideways down the pavement and finally stopped, its stern mostly in the ditch, as Linn eased to a stop and Barrents marked them on scene, pursuit ended, send wrecker.

The Bear Killer flowed out behind Linn, a black shadow in the predawn murk: Linn advanced with his favorite hearing aid in hand -- a 12 gauge pump gun -- the driver declined to roll down the window, so Linn drove the butt of the brand-new Ithaca into window glass and reduced it to bright sparkling shards, he reversed the gun and cycled the action, its metallic statement loud and harsh and absolutely unmistakable.

"Step out," Linn said quietly, "and keep your hands in plain view.  I ain't killed a man in a week and I'm overdue."

The passenger said something -- Linn couldn't hear what -- the passenger window exploded as Barrents hit it with something, Linn didn't know what, and there was a scream as The Bear Killer's jaws closed hard on a wrist:  a gunshot, the driver clapped his hands to his ears and screamed, and Linn reached in, seized the driver by the shirt and hauled him out through where the window used to be, one-handed.

"YOU OKAY?" he yelled

"Yeah," Barrents called back, "but this guy's arm's broke."

"He take the shot?"

"Yeah."

"Break his other arm."

Linn's weight was on the driver's spine, he snapped a cuff around the driver's left wrist, wound it up behind his back before turning and sitting his backside down across the driver's shoulders.

"Gimme your other hand," he said.

For some odd reason, the driver thought it wise to comply.

Funny thing about the law enforcement community.

If you pick up the mike and say "Send backup, shots fired," you hear a whole lot of *woo woo woo* "WHERE YOU AT FELLA!" *woo woo woo* and generally from multiple agencies:  when the scene is crowded with all kind of two-color vehicles with all sorts of lights Weenkeeng and Bleenkeeng, there's little to be kept quiet:  after the offending (stolen) pistol was bagged and tagged, after the (stolen) vehicle was hooked out of the ditch and hauled off to impound, after its search yielded another pistol (stolen) and two purses (stolen), after four kilos of something that tested positive were secured into evidence, after prisoners were processed, a guard mounted at the hospital, the prosecutor rolled out of a warm bunk and filled in as to the goings-on that morning, including The Bear Killer seizing the arm that was swinging a gun toward a law enforcement officer -- after the dust settled, after Linn and Paul Barrents returned to the Sheriff's office, Linn rubbed his eyes tiredly and muttered that he needed coffee.

The Bear Killer sat, looking around like royalty surveying his demesne, as Linn picked up his coffee cup, with its resultant tumbling cascade to destruction.

The Bear Killer saw Linn close his eyes and sigh, saw him look at Barrents, saw him look across the room, heard his quiet, "Bear Killer, growl at it."

The Bear Killer expressed his opinion on the whole operation with a huge, gape-jawed, tongue-curled yawn.

Linn sighed and shook his head, turned to get the mop and the shop vac.

"Why'd you tell him to growl at it?"  Barrents asked, a smile hiding in those gleaming obsidian eyes, and Linn grinned, quick, boyish, as he replied, "The Secret to Successful Administration," he declared, "is Delegation!  I'm too tired to growl at it!"

He, Barrents and the dispatcher all laughed quietly, and The Bear Killer raised his tail a little, swung it twice, then lowered his great, blocky head and closed his eyes, and was asleep in six seconds or less.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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519. HORN, IN F

Shelly patted her husband's hand:  she had his arm, as she usually did when they went somewhere; this was an Occasion, a rare night when they both had the same night off together:  he was in his black suit, his boots burnished to a fine polish; she was in a dress, their young were cleaned up and shining, young Jacob solemn in his own black suit and boots, a mirror of his father, pale eyed and unsmiling -- until he looked up at his long tall Daddy, and Linn winked at his son, and Jacob grinned.

Both Keller men had their Stetsons in hand, Linn's was laid back along his left forearm, the one his wife's hand wrapped around -- she'd learned very early in their association that she never, EVER! compromised his gun arm -- Jacob had his Stetson under his arm, as his father did when Jacob's Mama was not with them.

Jacob was a half step behind his Pa, and on his right: Jacob held his counsel as his father stopped, and shook hands, greeted people, asked questions -- how's the wife since she had that new baby, is the child growing, are you feedin' it high nitrogen fertilizer and T-bone steaks -- and not for the first time, young Jacob Keller wondered in all sincerity if his Pa knew every last living soul in the county.

Sure seemed like it.

They'd come to the high school, along with most of the county, or so it seemed:  it was the annual Christmas concert, his Pa attended these kind of things whenever it was possible, and tonight he'd brought his family -- including Jacob's little sister, tagging faithfully along beside her Mama, and The Bear Killer, directly behind his little sis.

For some odd reason, no one in authority objected to the presence of a huge, curly-black mountain Mastiff.

It may have been the six point star hanging from his collar, or perhaps it's because he was in the company of a lean waisted lawman with pale eyes: whatever the reason, The Bear Killer followed the pretty little girl in the frilly dress and shiny slippers, looking around happily, tongue hanging out in a doggy grin, tail sweeping slowly:  The Bear Killer's appearance was deceptive, and a few incautious souls had mistaken his apparent good humor for a lack of alertness, and regretted their foolishness:  one such, less than a month before, made a snatch at the little girl at the grocery store, and found himself on his back with a set of ivory fangs two inches from his throat, and a mother's pistol muzzle three feet from his nose.

That's another story altogether.

Tonight it was the Christmas concert, and a night out together, and Linn looked up as a laughing little girl scampered around the corner of the hallway to his right, a laughing little girl in a denim skirt --- and red cowboy boots --

"Stay here," Linn said, his voice tight:  "BEAR KILLER!"

Linn sprinted ahead, around a half dozen startled folk, turned down the hallway at a wide open gallop --

He heard a child's laugh, a door close --

"Find," he said, clapping his Stetson on his head:  reaching into his coat, he came out with a pistol and a flashlight:  he swung left, swung right, heard The Bear Killer's urgent, low-voice "whuff!" and the sound of claws on a wooden door.

Linn strode ahead, came to the door --

Band room, he thought.

Light came from under the door.

Linn swung around, looked behind -- 

Nothing but brick walls --

He shut off the hand light, slid it back into its sheath --

The Bear Killer's tail was wagging, broad, powerful strokes, invisible in the shadows of the dead end hallway.

Linn gripped the doorknob --

Light flooded out to meet him, pale eyes swept the empty band room --

Linn felt The Bear Killer slip past him, run into the band room, around the corner --

A girl's voice, a squeak, sobbing --

Linn advanced, slicing the pie, clearing left and right, holstered.

A girl, early teens, dressed for performance, sat alone, hugging The Bear Killer, her face buried in his fur, sobbing like her heart had not just broken, but been pulverized.

Linn looked around.

Nowhere else for anyone to hide.

No little girl in red cowboy boots.

Linn went down on one knee, laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

She raised her red face, streaked with tears and misery:  a father's gentle hand wiped her wet cheeks with a bedsheet handkerchief.

"Here," he said softly, pinching her nose ever so slightly.  "Blow."

She squeezed her eyes shut, blew:  between the two of them, she made a most unladylike honk.

Linn wiped her nose -- delicately, carefully -- she sniffed, took the kerchief, wiped her eyes.

"How can I help?" Linn asked, taking her hands in his, patting them a little.

"I can't," she whispered.

"Can't ... what?"

"I can't ... play ..."

Linn tilted his head a little, just a little.  "Go on."

She took a deep breath.

"I'm first chair French horn," she quavered.  "I have a solo in the Days of Christmas -- it's only four bars, but I'm afraid --"

Linn nodded, squeezing her hands just a little.

"All those people?"

She nodded, dropping her eyes.

"Looking at YYOOUUU?"

She opened her eyes, wide, startled, frightened, nodded.

Linn smiled and nodded his understanding.

"The biggest fear in this country today -- border to border, ocean to ocean, all ages, races, sexes -- the one thing people fear more than a root canal, an IRS audit, or a used car salesman -- is public speaking."  He squeezed her hands, ever so gently, released.

"Can you play the part alone, in an empty room?"

She nodded.

"With no problem?"
"No problem."

"How about if there's an audience of one?"

He saw fear creep back into her eyes.

"I think," he said, looking down at The Bear Killer, "we can arrange a most sympathetic audience."

And so it was that a scared girl in her early teens, red-faced from playing the small mouthpiece of the Horn in F,  flawlessly managed the four bars of her solo:  she did it with a certain large, black-furred canine leaning warm and reassuring against her left thigh, looking up at her with black and adoring eyes.

Linn found his wife and family, seated among the audience in their folding tin chairs; he sat, Stetson on his lap, and held his wife's hand.

He felt Jacob's curiosity prickling off the lad; Jacob squirmed a little, and Linn stifled a grin, for he knew this preceded a question, and he was right.

Jacob looked at his Pa and asked quietly -- in almost a whisper -- "What's The Bear Killer doin' there?"

Linn looked at Jacob and winked.

"Story at eleven," he murmured.

He felt Shelly shift beside him, saw her lift her chin toward the first chair French horn.

"Is that a rose in her tubing?" she whispered.

Linn looked, surprised:  sure enough, a fresh cut rose was thrust between the curled brass tubes of the valve-works, its color bright, dew drops shining on fragrant, bright crimson petals.

 

It wasn't often that Shelly saw her husband surprised.

She saw him answer the phone, saw his broad and genuine grin:  "Hi, Mom," he said, and her ear pulled a little to hear it.

"Hi, Mom."

Not "Yes, Sheriff."

Linn's eyebrow raised, then his face showed concern.

"Whoa," he said.  "Run that past me in low gear."

He listened carefully, his eyes tracking slowly along the baseboard trim.

"I think we need to talk," he said.  "Coffee in the morning?"

Shelly saw her husband nod.  "Okay.  Thanks, Mom, that answers a question.  Story at eleven."

He pressed a button, slid the cell back in his pocket, looked at his wife with thoughtful eyes.

"Is Jacob awake?"

"I think so," Shelly said.  

"Fetch him.  I'll make hot chocolate."

Five minutes later, the family was assembled around the kitchen table, steaming mugs of hot chocolate with big marshmallows floating to death on the steaming, fragrant surfaces.

"First order of business," Linn said, taking a noisy slurp from his mug -- and coming up with a white stain across his mustache -- "Jacob, you asked me a question."

"Yes, sir?"

"I told you story at eleven."

"Yes, sir."

"It's close enough to eleven, here goes." Linn wiped the sticky off his lip broom, curled the ends of his handlebar.  "Jacob, do you recall how The Bear Killer goes to school with me?"

"Yes, sir."

"There was a really shy third grader who wouldn't hardly rub two words together, but when The Bear Killer sat down with him -- just the two of them -- he could read a story to The Bear Killer, and come to find out he was terrified of an audience.  As long as it was just one -- as long as The Bear Killer was the only one he was reading to -- he did fine."

"Yes, sir?"

"There was a young lady tonight who was terrified of the audience.  The Bear Killer sat beside her and she played for him.  He was leaned up against her so she could feel him, she didn't have to look away from music or conductor to know he was there."

"I see, sir."

"Now.  Shelly.  You know I took out like I'd been Clap Boarded across the backside."

"I wondered what was wrong."

Linn took a long breath.

"That was Mom on the phone.  She said some thing told her she should let me know something Marnie told her on that last message from Mars she sent."

"Oh?"  Shelly sipped delicately at her cocoa, licked the melted marshmallow from her lip.

"Mama said when Marnie ... committed ... her daughter's body ... she said she went into Eternity wearing red cowboy boots."

Linn bit his bottom lip, looked down:  Shelly knew it was taking a serious effort for her husband to contain his grief.

"When I looked up, a little girl in a denim skirt like Marnie used to wear -- she had pigtails and red cowboy boots -- I saw her and she was running so I took out after her."

Shelly set her mug down on the table, looking very intently at her pale eyed husband.

"Did you find her?"

"I found the French horn player terrified and in tears.  I talked to her and got her to join the rest of the concert band.  She was terrified of being in front of an audience, but she said she could play alone, or for an audience of one."

"The Bear Killer," Jacob said, looking over at the drowsing canine in front of the living room stove.

"Exactly."  Linn slurped again at his chocolate, inhaling the marshmallow and chewing it down.

"Pa," Jacob asked cautiously, "was that a ghost?"

"Jacob," Linn said frankly, "I think it was, and I'll tell you why."  He looked at his wife, who wrapped her fingers around the reassuring warmth of her mug.

"When she pulled her horn out of its case to take it into the auditorium, it was just a horn," Linn said.  "I had a clear look at it.  When she began to play --"

"The rose," Shelly breathed.

Linn nodded solemnly.  

"Yep."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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520. "GAMMAW, WAS OLD PALE EYES A MARINE?"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller looked with hard eyes at the fork in the trail ahead.

He'd been a soldier and he'd been Sheriff long enough he'd learned some things, and it struck him that a particular boulder ahead would make a fine ambush position.

He closed his eyes, took a long breath:  he shivered -- no longer in saddle leather, he was in his wooden office chair, in his log fortress of a Sheriff's office, pen in hand, an open bottle of good India ink at his right, the open journal before him, his words gleaming and fresh.

The words he wrote were on good rag paper, and the words he wrote remained clear and legible on good rag paper for well more than a century:  several generations of pale eyes read the words the old lawman wrote, and one of them considered them very carefully, for he'd been listening to another pale eyed Sheriff discussing a particular tactic that struck him as particularly sensible.

Jacob read Old Pale Eyes' account of the ambush -- how he'd not frozen, flinched or fled, but rather how he'd drawn his Cavalry saber and charged, how he'd attacked the attacker, how he'd killed the killer, how he'd swung the blade and parted head from shoulders, how he leaped from his golden stallion, seized the head by its hair, how he'd danced about in a circle, spinning like a Dervish, screaming like a madman, slinging blood and gore from the head's severed stump while slashing at the air with his bloodied blade -- then he turned, dead still, blade leveled at the ambusher's white-faced partner... and laughed, the insane, cackling laugh of one who'd taken complete leave of his senses.

"The man," Linn had then written, "believed the climate to be healthier elsewhere, and sought to get there as quickly as he possibly could."

Jacob smiled as he read the last words -- it sounded so very much like his own Pa talking.

He'd been reading the old Journal in the Sheriff's office conference room, his chair drawn back against the wall, half hidden by an easel and a huge artist's pad: so engrossed was he, that he neither moved, nor paid attention, when the room began filling with uniformed deputies and a training session began, at which point he came up for air and listened.

Jacob considered his Gammaw's discussion of tactics -- he'd cultivated the ability to be invisible, or at least less noticeable -- and Sheriff Willamina Keller made mention of the Marine Corps principle of charging an ambush.

"The ambushers don't expect it," she said, "it breaks their train of intent, and it carries the fight to them, instead of them holding the Marines at a distance, to be chewed up and spit out."

Jacob considered this, and he recalled the words he'd just read in the Journal.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller and her granddaughter went shoe shopping, then shopping for her first prom gown: as Marnie turned and paraded and modeled one gown after another, after she regarded her feminine figure in a variety of mirrors, she gave her Gammaw a distressed look:  this was Willamina's cue to call a halt to shopping, at least for the moment, and go into a feminine conference, for she recognized Marnie's look of distress and uncertainty.

Such conferences are best held over something like a chocolate hot fudge sundae, which suited both ladies' taste:  after the initial anxiety was assuaged with cold ice cream and hot fudge sauce, Marnie looked at Willamina and said, "I don't want to expose that much of me."

Willamina's eyebrow rose -- she was genuinely surprised -- and Marnie stared into her melting confection.

"Gammaw, I don't want to ... I'm not meat for sale."

She looked at her Gammaw, her jaw firm.

"Those gowns are lovely but not for me.  I don't want to show skin by the square yard."

"What style would be ... a better choice?"  Willamina asked carefully.

Marnie's expression went from firm to uncertain to pleading.

"Gammaw," she confessed, "I feel the most like a lady when I'm wearing one of your McKenna gowns."

Willamina smiled a little, looked down, dabbed at her sundae.

"What about shoes?"

"Something period," Marnie answered without hesitation.  "Something I can wear afterward.  You told me you and Aunt Mary reworked your prom gown for your wedding."

"I did," Willamina admitted.  "Aunt Mary was too ... "

"I know.  She supervised."

"I made sure she could.  I carried that sewing machine into her bedroom and I sewed and she watched, and she talked me through some problems I had with the material, and when I tried it on she looked so very happy."  

Marnie nodded.

She knew her Aunt Mary died of cancer, and she knew her Gammaw took care of her, almost a live-in nurse, there at the last, and Uncle Pete died not long after: Marnie also knew her Aunt Mary's high button shoes were exactly the ones she wanted to wear -- but they were too small.

"Under the gown," Willamina said speculatively.

"A corset," Marnie said without hesitation.

"Good. The gown will fit better with a proper corset."  She smiled.  "I happen to know a good corset maker."

Two fashionable ladies rose, left the Denver ice cream shop: half a block down the street, they were accosted at the intersection of an alley by two grinning street rats, one of whom lifted his shirt to reveal the taped handle of a small frame revolver.

Willamina felt her granddaughter turn to face down the alley, two women's voices, loud and commanding on the Denver street:  "SHOW ME YOUR HANDS, DO IT NOW!"

Somehow the sight of two women, each mad as hell, each with eyes stolen from a Vatican marble statue, was unnerving enough, but when the two women each had a handful of pistol, aimed unerringly at the robbers' faces, and facing not only the primary ambush but also the ambush from the alley ... well, it wasn't quite what the robbers expected, and as Willamina later said to the investigating officer, "They showed us a clean pair of heels."

"Sherlock Holmes," Marnie murmured, and the detective grinned, for he too was a reader of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

It wasn't until after the ladies returned from their raid on the big city, not until Marnie carefully placed a new pair of high-button shoes with sharp little heels under her bed, not until young Jacob had a chance to recognize the moment when he might inquire of his Gammaw, that he tilted his head and regarded the pale eyed Sheriff.

Willamina was leisurely sipping coffee and relaxing with her family, grateful for the respite from work and from shopping.

"Gammaw," he finally asked, "was Old Pale Eyes a Marine?"

Willamina laughed, lowered her coffee mug, tilted her head and considered.

"I believe," she said carefully, "he was either Second or Third Ohio Volunteer Cavalry ... but I think he would have made a fine Marine, Jacob.  He would have made a fine Marine."

 

 

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521. SHOW-OFF!

 

Gracie closed her eyes as her rosined bow spun magic from her curlyback fiddle.

Gracie sat very near the center of the left bank of chairs, arranged in sectioned semicircles around the conductor:  most of the college orchestra came to Firelands with her, a surprising percentage of the distance behind a Baldwin 4-4-0, a diamond stacker with a spray of roses painted on the side of her emerald-green cab: they rode in a restored passenger car, guests of the Z&W Railroad: they were happy, laughing, chattering, marveling at the Rocky Mountains, delighting in the engine's barking chant:  they discussed the Baldwin's voice, her cadence, her tonal qualities in professional musicians' terms -- all but Gracie, who closed her eyes and remembered what it was to sit with granite on three sides of her, a sheer wall behind, her fiddle tucked under her chin as she played to the passing steam engine's rhythm, its breathy chant focused on her as she sat in the natural parabola.

The entire college orchestra swarmed the Silver Jewel, swinging, carrying or lugging their cased instruments: a good meal, a good night's rest -- at least that's what was planned -- in reality, as rapidly as they swarmed into the Silver Jewel, the swarmed back out, exploring, marveling: Firelands found itself guesting a lively new population.

Gracie knew their arrival was anticipated; she knew the round barn was at their disposal, she knew word was already out that the orchestra would be performing.

She hadn't realized just how much of the county's population turned out for the event.

Chairs for the orchestra were not lacking, and the big round barn, built in under the overhang of the granite mountain, lacked not for space:  it was a little chilly, but not excessively so:  performing warms the soul, and the soul warms the body, and Gracie found herself perfectly comfortable in her usual work boots and denim skirt, in a flannel shirt and a shawl well older than she was.

 

Old Pale Eyes nodded approvingly as Fiddler Daine started.

He and his kinfolk usually played a few airs before the square dance, and the Sheriff always enjoyed their playing:  they were master carpenters, and their skill with fiddle and five-string banjo, with the deep-voiced, double-strung Mexican guitar and the other common guitar, was equally as masterful.

What he hadn't counted on was an interruption.

There were shouts of approval, whistles, cheers as the tall doors hauled open, as a bucking Appaloosa thrashed his way inside, the rider raking fore and aft with spurless boots, swatting with his stained Stetson: it was a lively contest of horse-and-rider, and as they came into the barn and rode into the music, either the musicians altered their tempo to the horse's, or the horse adjusted his buck-kick-and-jump to suit the music:  when finally the music hit its climax, the horse did too. Jacob's Appaloosa stallion dropped his head between his forehooves, his rider kicked free of stirrups, tucked, tumbled twice, landed flat footed in a deep squat, both arms out in front of him, Stetson crushed in one hand:  he held for a moment, then Jacob's twelve year old son Joseph rose, elaborately saluted with his Stetson across his body and bowed deeply ... just as the Appaloosa came over and nosed him hard in the backside, knocking him in a most undignified sprawl into straw, sawdust and rolling laughter:  the Appaloosa stepped over the laughing young man, seized the Stetson between long, yellow teeth, nodding, waving at the crowd with his broad-brimmed felt prize.

 

Marnie was a mountain fiddler, and she'd made that clear to her instructor, her classmates, her instructors:  she'd locked horns with more than one of the instructors, but none could deny that she had a gift for spinning magic from tiger stripe maple:  she needed to hear music but once to have it memorized, she could sight-read the most complex score, and the most skeptical grudgingly admitted that she was equally at home in a concert hall, or at a square dance.

The conductor raised his baton, the crowd's anticipatory buzz hushed; silence, for a moment, then baton's descent and the lively Hoedown from Rodeo united every mind, every soul, every heart in the orchestra.

It's been said there is no surround sound like standing in the middle of a hundred voice chorus.

The same can be said for sitting in the middle of an orchestra, especially when your voice is one of the hundred -- or, rather, when it's your fiddle's voice.

Unseen hands enthusiastically hauled open the tall double doors, and an Appaloosa stallion came bucking in, a young man astride, spurless boots raking fore and aft: he stuck to the saddle like a cockle burr on a coon dog's nape, he swatted his Stetson over the horse's head and across the flank, and whether the orchestra altered their tempo to fit the horse, or the Appaloosa had an ear for music, Firelands was delighted that the bucking horse was perfectly timed with the music.

A pale eyed lawman regarded the sight with sleepy-eyed calm, seemingly untroubled that the young lad was astride a horse that seemed intent on slinging its rider into the next county:  as the orchestra hit its crescendo, the Appaloosa dropped his head between firmly planted forelegs, kicking hard against the surly earth with both hind legs:  his back side soared into the air, the horse very nearly doing a handstand, as the long, lean lad kicked free of doghouse stirrups:  he tucked and tumbled twice, landed flat footed, arms extended: unlike his ancestor, though, when this modern-day Apple-horse came up behind with intent to tumble him, he launched with the tumble, did a perfect somersault, came up on his feet, facing his mount:  he clapped Stetson to short hair, cocked a fist and declared loudly, "TWO OUT OF THREE!"

Conductor, orchestra an audience were shocked into an amazed and delighted silence ... at least until a certain mountain fiddler stood, thrust her bow toward the pair and declared loudly, "SHOW-OFF!"

Orchestra, mountain fiddler, Sheriff, grandson and audience both, laughed, and applauded.

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522. HOSPITALITY

 

When Marnie's fellow musicians saw a pale eyed woman sweep into the Silver Jewel's spacious back room, all grace and feminine beauty and McKenna gown and matching little hat, they smiled tolerantly; they were after all, Academia, they were Educated Elite, and -- for better, or for worse, but with the youthful conviction that they knew it all -- they were, collectively, full of the stuff they'd been fed at University: a costumed presenter, no doubt, who would tell them just how charming and genteel the howling wilderness of the frontier was ... then, to their surprise, the room saw a stream of ladies, row after row of women in attire that would be at home in 1885: the meeting room in back was soon crowded, standing room only, and the mental shift among the musicians was evident when the pale eyed woman in front glared at young men still in their seats and said, clearly, not raising her voice, "Gentlemen will offer their seats to the ladies," and -- startled -- they did, muttering apologies and shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another as they found somewhere to stand.

Gracie's attempt at attire was what her ancestors actually wore in period; her skirt was very plain, floor length, her hat was broad brimmed, felt, stained, shapeless, the hat she'd worn on nearly a daily basis for years; she wore the same flannel shirt and work boots, that had been her and her  ancestresses' common attire, while the fashionable ladies of Firelands wore McKenna and Worth and high-button shoes with sharp little heels and tidy little hats that carefully matched their gowns.

Willamina raised her chin and smiled gently:  "A frontier town is a rough town," she said, "and Firelands in the 1880s was no exception."

Her smile was inclusive, welcoming: the musicians, all college students, were accustomed to lecture halls, though they were a little off-balance at the lack of a writing surface, at being unable to open a laptop and drive their notes into a hard drive by virtue of pattering their fingers on a keyboard.

Phones were raised; many pictures taken; one particularly attentive student, Oriental by her facial structure, listened very closely, leaning forward a little to hear this pale-eyed woman's words.

"A town that works hard is a town that plays hard.  Humor was often rough-edged. If a horse started bucking in the middle of the street, men would come running out of the saloon and yell encouragement, they would lay bets as to the outcome, they would raise beer mugs in salute and swear and elbow one another when the horse went through a particularly elaborate convulsion, or when the rider stayed on during a vigorous buck-and-twist:  if the rider sailed through the air and landed hard, his misfortune was met with derisive laughter, with catcalls and insults, but at the same time, the hands that belonged to the voices would come and bring the poor fellow to his feet, swat the dust from him and drag him inside for a beer to show their appreciation for the entertainment.

"Entertainment was a rare thing and it was well attended.  Last night's presentation demonstrated something of the frontier attitude that remains: I think most of the county turned out, for we had a packed house, though" -- she smiled again --"fortunately it was not too packed!"

Gracie smiled a little at this, for when the double doors swung open the night before, her Japanese friend -- whose part in the music was marked with a lengthy stretch of rests, in which her job was to sit and remain silent -- raised her phone and began filming, and Gracie knew that the Sheriff's grandson now featured in a video that was searing through the Internet, the image of a grinning, athletic young man on a wild, ears-laid-back, wall-eyed, nostril-flared, steel-shod, genuine Wild West Appaloosa Stallion -- and his launch, his landing, his somersault, his turn and his cocked-fist challenge (and her own spontaneous shout of "Show-off!") were becoming part of the worldwide electronic record.

"We're not going to discuss styles, fashion or attire. If our marvelously talented guests are research minded, there are references dedicated to the tailoring of Frederick Worth and the House of McKenna.  My presentation is on the frontier mindset.

"Strong people have strong passions, and only the strong remained on the frontier.  Men who labored from kin-see to cain't-see -- from barely enough light to navigate, until it's too dark to work safely -- are men who build up the stresses of hard and honest labor, and seek to discharge this stress, and attending visiting entertainment was one way of doing this.

"Opera houses were not at all uncommon.  Stage productions were the rule and not the exception. You may have noticed that our own Silver Jewel Saloon here has its small stage.  We've had dancing girls, musicians, we've had Shakespearean actors:  then and now they were well received.

"We have a saloon piano for entertainment.  Unlike most of its breed, this one is kept in perfect tune. The so-called 'saloon piano sound' is generally because they were out of tune, and ours isn't -- though we take pains to recruit piano players who can play music of the period, after the style and fashion of the period.  Dances were held:  waltzes were danced under the Silver Jewel's roof, men in their finest suits and ladies in their best gowns; square dances were held in the round barn where you performed last night.  Your classmate Grace Maxwell is descended from those mountain fiddlers and master carpenters.  This building stands today because of their skill."

Willamina dipped her knees, reached down.

"Entertainment was also lubricated by something locally known as Liquid Sledgehammer."  She hoisted a heavy stone jug from its concealment behind the table, set it beside her podium.  "The family Daine were originally from Kentucky, good people, honest as the day is long, running from a false accusation -- their name was eventually cleared -- but they were also moonshiners, and this" -- she patted the stone jug gently -- "contains some of their product.  It is very well aged, it goes down like Mama's milk and" -- she looked over the dainty, narrow, rectangular, wire-rimmed spectacles she'd put on for the presentation -- it'll blow the ankles right out of your pantyhose!"

There was polite laughter from the Ladies of the Tea Society, a few chuckles and several smiles among the guests:  they were relaxed now, listening to the Sheriff describe further the entertainment of the period, and how itinerant musicians, or organized orchestras, were not only well received on the frontier, but were a vital part of entertainment, of the necessary relaxation of the soul that comes of listening to music.

She spoke of cowhands that would ride for an entire day just to sit and watch a sodbuster's pretty daughter, sitting on her porch, blushing furiously and pretending not to notice as he soaked in the sight of a young woman, sewing, or knitting, or mending: she spoke of the games of chance, she spoke of Sunday sermons, delivered with passion and with power, entertainment in and of itself, and how, after church, when Old Pale Eyes and his sons and grandsons would go to the corral downtown and put on their weekly shooting exhibitions -- "the place became a used car lot," Willamina apologized, "and if I were to go showing off my shooting skills in the middle of beautiful downtown Firelands, it would tend to cause misunderstandings!" -- her words were so gentle, her expression so innocent, that it brought a laughing understanding from membership and guests alike.

Willamina did not speak terribly long: she well knew the principle that, "The mind will absorb only until the backside grows numb," and its incisive corollary, "The longer the speaker's wind, the harder those chairs become," and so she belabored neither the collective backsides, nor their collective sensibilities:  when they adjourned, college students had a greater appreciation of the differences of the frontier mindset, and a greater appreciation of the necessity of music -- made so clear for days gone by, and they saw the immediate connection with its value in mitigating the stresses of their modern day world.

 

 

 

 

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523. AIN'T NO HIGH LONESOME THERE

"Cripple Creek, you say?"

"Yep. Crooked games, easy women, miners with payday to spend."

"What's nearby?"

"Oh, you don't want that."

"Like hell!"

"Trust me."  One looked at the other with a knowing expression.  

"I know that look.  Rough town?"

"Nope.  Peaceful."

"Crooked games?"

"Nope.  Straight as a die."

"Hell, that's no good!  How 'bout the wimmen?"

An experienced head shook slowly, almost sadly.

"You're makin' me feel bad!  They've got a cathouse!"

"Nope."

"Whattaya mean nope?  EVERY town's got a cathouse!  Ain't that -- oh, hell, Dirty Sam --"

"Not for a lot of years now.  He got bought out."

"Bought out!  I know that money hungry sheep herder! He ain't gonna turn loose of no --"

"New Sheriff.  The cook give old Sam a face full of fryin' pan an' laid him out cold. Attair new badge packer drug him out to the horse trough and give him a bath, like to drowned him.  Hauled him off to the hoosegow, locked him up for a few days and then went back with a table, two knives and a poke of silver.  Told him he could sell or they could cross steel."

"Damn.  Sam wouldn't like that."

"He's dead."

"The hell you say!"

"Yep, him and that crooked banker got sent to prison an' killed."

Silence: the fire was low, of dry wood, nearly without smoke: two men considered for a while, communing with blue granite cups of black, bitter coffee, looking at their horses, looking at each other.

"How's the town now?"

"Quiet."

Silence grew long between the two.

"That lawman ... he still there?"

"Oh, yeah.  Old Pale Eyes likely ain't goin' nowhere."

Startled eyes looked up:  "Old Pale Eyes!" he exclaimed.  "Good God, man, why didn't you say so!"

He shook his head slowly, almost sadly.

"Old Pale Eyes," he muttered.  "Nobody gets away with nothin' there!"

"It gets worse," his companion said gloomily.  "No crooked games."

"That's bad enough but it ain't that bad."

"You drink when you play."

"Yeah, who don't?"

"Them fellers have their own home made whiskey."

A raised eyebrow, a hard look from under shaggy, dusty eyebrows.  

"Indian whiskey?  Plug tobacco and rattlesnake heads?"

"Worse."  An unwashed, scar-streaked hand tossed a stick on the small fire.  "It's the best I ever drank."

"Now how's that worse?"

"Ain't no High Lonesome."

"The hell you say!"

"Oh dear God ... I got more drunk than I ever been in my life.  My liver hurt."

His companion made a face.  "That's bad!"

"Next day ... you know how a man usually has a bad belly and a headache?"

Laughter.

"Oh, yeah, I know that one!"

"You don't git it there."

"The hell you say!"

"Oh, yeah."  He looked off into the distance, his expression haunted.  "I don't know how they make that stuff but good God, it goes down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off m' feet, an' next day all I was ... I was kind of thirsty and ..."

He shook his head.

"That," he said, "is way the hell too easy to drink!"

"Where they gittin' that stuff?  St. Louis?"

"Nah, they make it there."

"Damn, I gotta try that!"

"You walk soft when you try it. That woman with the fryin' pan still works there an' so does Old Pale Eyes."

A frown, a twist of the back, a thoughtful expression.

"You know ... it's been a while since I tried a straight game."  He looked at his traveling companion.  "No women, y'say?"

"They got a couple hash slingers that bring yer plate and that's about it."

"Damn."

"A man might as well ride around that place and just go on into Cripple."

"Least a man can enjoy hisself there!"

"Yep.  Head ache and all!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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524. ALL I WANTED WAS MY MORNING COFFEE

Chief of Police Will Keller was tired.

He was short handed -- one of those times when more than one officer called in, sick -- the Chief had been a lawman all of his life and it troubled him not to be on the street instead of behind his desk, but he'd pulled his second double shift, he'd had about six hours' sleep between the doubles, he was looking forward to going home and getting some sack time, but before he did, he wished to indulge one of the only indulgences he allowed himself.

Chief of Police Will Keller thanked the girl behind the counter, paid her for the large coffee he'd just drawn, his pale eyes swept the inside of the All-Night as he turned; this early in the morning -- the sun was just chinning itself up over the icy teeth of the far horizon -- he was one of only two customers inside.

Will walked slowly toward the front door ... slowly, as was his habit.

Will was tall and Will was lean; his military-short mustache was iron grey and going to white: he moved with the controlled grace of a natural athlete, and more men than one had learned, the hard way, just how bad an idea it is, to try to jump what looked like a slow-moving old man.

Will paused just before the threshold, his hand on the door's push bar:  he looked outside, frowned, then pushed hard against stainless steel, strode briskly for his just-filled Crown Vic, pale eyes on an incoming vehicle, a vehicle traveling far faster than it should.

Will extended his arm, set his coffee atop the gas pump as what looked like an average family sedan suddenly locked its brakes, the squall of tortured rubber shocking in the morning's hush:  the vehicle shuddered, turned, whipped into the All-Night, barely controlled, and nearly rammed the nose of his cruiser.

The driver jumped out, screaming something -- Will read blind panic on the young man's face -- a lawman learns early in his career to develop selective hearing, and he completely blocked the driver's panicked shouts.

A young mother, still in her nightgown, shouldered the door open, stood, her face blotchy red and wet with tears, and Will's world choked down to the sight of a terrified, crying mother, clutching a blanket-wrapped infant, and her words slammed back and forth between his ears as he bent and snatched the microphone free of the stamped-steel clip screwed to the crowded radio station between the front seats.

 

Sharon had only just set down her warbag and her coffee when she heard the hum of the radio's sidetone, where someone keyed up and activated the repeater, but that's not what seized her attention, that's not what dropped her generous backside into her chair, that's not what launched her hand to hit the fire department transmitter.

Chief Crane and his daughter had just set themselves down at the big firehouse table when their eyes snapped up toward the speaker at the sound of the repeater's *pop* hummm.

Police chief, squad chief, Sheriff's dispatcher and anyone with a scanner heard the woman's hysterical scream, her nearly-unintelligible words, followed by the Chief's calm, "Dispatch, Firelands PD actual, roll squad to the All-Night, infant not breathing."

Will didn't wait for the roger.

He threw the mike back into the Crown Vic, slammed his door and powered into a full-on sprint.

 

Shelly spun her chair back and away, ran around the end of the table, planting her palm flat on the tablecloth as a pivot point: her father's actions exactly mirrored her own: they ran for the squad, Shelly seizing the door handle and yanking hard, not remembering whether she used the running board or not, and not caring.

The overhead door began to chuckle and rattle as it rolled up out of the way, and the Diesel between them woke up and shivered and began to growl.

 

Will reached for the child, cupping its head in his left hand, throwing back the pastel green flannel blanket and laying the child along his forearm, its legs straddling and hanging down:  he brought the baby's mouth up to his ear, his head sideways and laid over, listening.

The mother clutched her white-knuckled, finger-laced hands to her mouth, pressing her thumbs against her lips, watching this stranger, this old man, lower his head, saw his cheeks puff as he sealed over the child's mouth-and-nose ... she moaned, she turned and seized her husband as he came around the back of his car, hugging his wife uncertainly, watching as this long tall lawman took two stiff fingers and pinched the inside of the child's arm, lips moving as he counted, then took the same two stiff fingers, placed them against the child's chest, began to press, quickly, counting as he did.

The mother buried her face in her husband's chest and clung to him like a drowning man clings to a float:  her knees buckled, her young husband held her up, whispering something to her, something -- anything -- he had no idea what to say and he never remembered what he said, but he knew that saying nothing would be the worst thing he could ever tell his wife.

Especially now.

One two three four five, one two three four five, one two three four five, puff puff, he thought -- 

 

The clerk at the All-Night looked at her only other customer, the fellow who ran the town's sewage treatment plant, a regular at this early hour:  they'd seen the car lock its brakes and scream to a near-stop, turn, almost ram the cruiser, they saw the Chief sprint the short distance toward the car, and now they saw him lower his head and for a mad moment they wondered if he was going to take a bite out of the baby he held.

 

The Captain's boot was heavy on the throttle:  he threw the siren switch over to YELP -- nobody else was on the road, but if a drowsy driver came out of a side street, he wanted some advance warning thrown out in front of him -- and he knew well the reassurance of hearing The Cavalry Is On Their Way: once, and once only in his entire life, had he ever had to call for the squad, and he'd experienced that first moment's relief when he heard the Electronic Yodel Dog singing in his direction.

The Captain pulled up on the other side of the pump from the Crown Vic.

It was the best place to stop, knowing he was going to start out again in short order.

Shelly bailed out, saw the Chief performing CPR, grabbed his upper arm

"Get in," she said, "you're drafted!" -- she turned, thrust a bladed hand toward what were obviously parents --"Father and mother?  With me, NOW!" -- she kept her hand hard on Will's arm, brought him to the back of the squad.

Will had practiced this maneuver many, many times.

He'd had to perform infant CPR and in practice, he would walk -- he walked in cluttered rooms, he walked around buildings, down through a ditch and back out, all while performing CPR on an infant mannikin.

Today it was paying off.

He walked with careful steps to the back of the squad, raised his head to take a quick look, set his polished boot on the back step bumper and powered up into the rig.

Shelly steered him onto the squad bench.

"Stay there," she said, turned -- "Mother, with me, father, passenger seat front!"

 

Chief Fitzgerald stood, listening, as did every member of the Irish Brigade:  "Squad one enroute, CPR in progress, calling ER now."

"Roger Squad One."

"PD One Actual on board."

"Roger that."

 

It was not far to the hospital.

This was a situation where the Chief was doing the work, it was what was needed, and the best choice was to leg it for ER and let them take over.

The Chief walked into ER, flanked by a serious faced paramedic and followed by two anxious parents:  Dr. Greenlees strode into the room as Will placed the child on the ER cart, raised his head, stepped back, his face wet.

One of the nurses took his arm, steered him out into the hall, as the rest of the staff clustered around a tiny, week-old infant, looking all the smaller for lying in the middle of the treatment cart.

Will reached blindly over the nurse's station counter, reaching for the box of tissues they kept there: he snatched several free of their fanfold box, wiped viciously at his face, breathing quickly, breathing deeply.

"Do you have him?" he heard the nurse ask, and he heard Shelly's "I got him," and he felt her hand on his shoulder.

"Will, you did a wonderful job," Shelly said.  "I'm proud of you."

Will looked at her and Shelly was shocked.

In all her life she'd never seen grief so plainly carved on a man's face.

"All I could think of," Will gasped hoarsely, "was ... was my own child, and how we found her dead in her crib, and not one damned thing I could do to change that."

He crumpled the damp tissue in his hand, closed his hand into a shaking fist, looked away.

His whisper was hoarse, vicious, raw-edged.

"I was NOT going to let another one DIE!"

Shelly ran her arm around behind the shivering lawman's chest, leaned her head over into his shoulder, looked up at him.

"Uncle Will," she said softly, "you're so much like Linn it scares me.  You'll likely get a commendation for this one."

Will looked at her, a lost expression replacing the grieving fury of a moment ago, and his voice was distant, hollow.

"All I wanted was my morning coffee."

 

 

 

 

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525. A CHRISTMAS GIFT

"Mama?"

Shelly looked over at Joseph, tilting her head a little, the way she did when she was actually listening.

"Mama, will Marnie celebrate Christmas where she is?"

Where she is, Marnie thought.

Not, "on Mars."

Significance?

She set the question aside for later study; she blinked, looked at her husband, who gave her his very best Innocent Expression, which meant he knew something and hadn't told her.

Shelly lowered her head a little, raised an eyebrow, and Jacob said quietly, "Sir, you're in trouble, she's giving you The Look," and Shelly said "Yeah, Sir, you're in trouble, now spill it, mister!"

Linn blinked a few times, leaned back, contemplating his now empty plate.

"Good supper, Sweet Pea," he said in a gentle voice, which did not lessen the Schoolmarm Glare (which Shelly had down to perfection, by the way!) -- then he said, "Actually ... yes, Jacob, she will."

"And we know this how?" Shelly asked icily, with the why-didn't-you-tell-me-she'd-returned unsaid.

Linn spread his hands:  "Well, ya see, it's like this," he intoned in a nasal drawl:  Shelly dropped her head, sighed out a great and patient breath, looked at Jacob and complained, "You see what I have to put up with!"

Jacob, for his part, remembered his father's discussion of a phrase -- "Silence and Circumspection" -- and decided that perhaps this was the time for both, and so wisely made no reply to his Mama's complaint.

 

Air was something nobody took for granted, but it was also something very unremarkable.

It wasn't until the smell of popcorn and apples, pine trees and fresh baked cookies, not until excited children tore open colorful wrapping paper and excavated unexpected treasures from tissue paper, that the increasinglly frontier-minded residents of the Second Martian Colony (Firelands) realized just how many smells they'd been missing.

Their replicators had been kept busy, with many secret missions; engineers became partners in crime, conspiracies were spun and executed:  the holographic image of Marnie as a little girl, in a denim skirt and her red cowboy boots, her giggling head thrust under a tree, looking up through the branches at colorful ornaments, was re-created in several of the residential quarters, with the surviving children re-creating the moment, delighting at the sight of a Christmas tree from underneath, with lights and tinsel and garlands and popcorn strings and shining colored bulbs.

 

"Marnie brought something with her on that last trip."

"Oh?"

Linn nodded, smiling ever so slightly.

"Instead of sneaking supplies onto a ship and getting it offworld without being spotted," he explained, "it's easier to scan it and then replicate it on-site."

"And they scanned ..."  Shelly's eyes shifted to their living room, to the tree shining in its corner, all lights and tinsel and pine scent and bucket of wet sand.

Linn saw anger in his wife's eyes and she gripped his wrist, hard.

"She was here and you didn't tell me?" she hissed, and Linn reached over with his other hand to pat hers gently.

"No, darlin', she was here without my knowin' it, but she called me from the house phone and said she only had a minute and she loved us both and she'd fill us in with some wonderful news."

Shelly released her husband's wrist like it was hot.

She just lost both children.

What could be wonderful while she's still grieving --

Shelly's eyes widened and she clapped her hands, flat-fingered, to her mouth, gave a little squeak, then launched from her chair, seized Linn in a delighted embrace, bore them both over backwards:  they hit the floor, Linn's boot kicked the table, hard, and Jacob, startled, rose, then dropped to a squat, looking under the table at his parents -- their noses an inch apart -- he saw his Mama's lips move, he saw his Pa nod, and Shelly squeaked again, hugging her husband with a fierce and very obvious delight, and Jacob rose, slowly, sat back down, looked at the table and quietly wondered if he was ever going to get pie for dessert.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller laughed as Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., whispered, "You're out of uniform!"

"I am allowed out of uniform," she whispered back, "if I am properly attired for the sport in which I am engaged!"

"I have something for you."

Dr. Greenlees reached over to the spun-plastic, delicate-looking, one hundred percent recycled table, picked up a small box, opened it.

He slipped the delicate necklace chain around his wife's throat, fastened the simple catch.

"Genuine gold," he said, "locally sourced."

Marnie turned, stared in the mirror, placed delicate fingertips to her throat, beside the stone:  it was a double stone, fused, something found locally, polished ... it looked like a delicate pink pearl, and fused into it, a rich, Colorado-sky-blue pearl of the same size: she nodded, smiled softly, turned and looked shyly at her husband.

"It's beautiful," she whispered.

"You look good wearing a necklace," he whispered back, and the look she gave him in return was little short of openly lascivious.

"I have something for you too," she whispered, "though it might not be a surprise."

"Oh?"

Marnie reached down, pulled a small box out from under the bed.

"Open it."

The paper was red and silver, tied with a ribbon; he drew the tag end, carefully removed the encircling ribbon, set it aside:  carefully, precisely, he unfolded the paper, to Marnie's increased impatience -- she muttered "Oh for Chrissakes just rip it open!" -- he didn't, he laid the paper aside, considered the recycled, recyclable, white-plastic box:  featureless, it was a white cube in his hand:  he hefted it, frowned, shook it, puzzled, while Marnie drummed impatient fists on her naked knees.

Dr. John Greenlees gripped the bottom of the box, the top of the box, wiggled it a little, pulled the party of the first part from the party of the second part, set the lid carefully aside.

He unfolded the tissue paper, looked inside.

It was not easy to surprise her husband -- Marnie learned that early in their association -- but she'd achieved it this time.

Dr. John Greenlees, husband to the pale eyed Sheriff, man of medicine, reached into the box and pulled out a tiny pair of red cowboy boots.

His jaw dropped open and he looked at his wife, utterly astonished.

"How," he began -- he closed his mouth, opened it, closed it -- he looked at the tiny little red boots with the ornately stitched tops -- "but your last ... we only just ..."

Marnie smiled knowingly, laid a maternal hand on her flat belly.

"A woman knows, John," she murmured, and the little red boots were set aside as husband and wife embraced with delight, and then with a greater passion: let us draw a discreet curtain across this marital scene, and observe only that their Christmas celebration held a greater joy this year than they'd known for some time.

 

Linn smiled a little as Shelly stifled a shreik from the next room.

He'd set down to read -- he knew Shelly would replay the latest letter from Marnie -- he read, smiling quietly, waiting with the patience of the hunter:  he pretended not to watch his wife cross the room, sit down in front of the computer, touch the keys:  he looked up from his book as her eyes welded to the screen, as her hands clapped to her mouth, he grinned broadly as her eyes widened, as she turned to him, as she turned the screen.

"Linn," she called, and Linn lifted his chin, looked at the screen.

A pair of hands, holding a tiny pair of red cowboy boots, and beneath, the words "Merry Christmas!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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526. PLENTY OF HELP

 

I began to realize just how much work old Paw went to, just to be patient.

Cuttin' a tree is not a great or difficult task.

Esther told me what shape tree she wanted and how tall she wanted it, and she showed me where in the parlor she wished it to stand.

Of course we had several sets of shining young eyes all anxious and watchful, studying our every move, pink, clean-scrubbed ears hanging on our every word, for this was a Christmas Event and we were going to Decorate the Tree: willing hands strung popcorn on heavy thread, stacked boxes of baubles on the indicated tabletops, stepped back when told to do so, waited with a child's typical impatience: when I reached for my workin' coat and my hat, our youngest allowed as "Daddee Iwannago too!" and of course when a cute little blue eyed girl-child already has ol' Paw wound around her little finger, why, nothing would do but that Esther bundle her up so she could come along.

Jacob rode with us, more to ride herd on the young flock of progeny that allowed as they'd want to come and help.

You have to realize that children who want desperately to help, are generally more in the way than they are in assistance, but they have to learn how to do things and in the way or not, they were going to learn how to cut down and fetch in the Christmas tree.

Esther took a look at the situation and allowed as she would come along as well and I figured why not, she had a good eye when it come to measure, and she'd fancy it up once I had it set in that bucket of wet sand and we might as well cut one that suits her sensibilities.

We went across the back field, a young army, or so it seemed:  sons, daughters, a wife, three horses,  a variety of saws, axes, hatchets and a cloth covered withie basket the maid put together and handed me as everybody got settled down on the sled.

Snow was deep enough to sled but not so deep as to aggravate the horses, the air was cold enough to remind us winter was fact and not just the date on the calendar: afternoon's sun was weak through transluscent clouds, and we had daylight enough to get there and cut a tree, secure it and get safely home.

Of course the youngest children were the openly happiest, giggling and laughing and falling off from time to time, luck alone rolling them off into deeper drifts: Jacob would run a coat sleeved arm deep into the drift and fetch out an arm, a foot, whatever he could get hold of, and when he hauled out whatever he found, the rest of the snorting, laughing, white-eyebrowed, snow-covered child came out with it:  he'd dust 'em off, he'd set 'em back on the sled and Esther would sweep down and wrap 'em in a blanket -- I reckon she thought ahead better'n me, I hadn't even seen she'd thrown a stack of blankets on board for this very purpose.

We went up the mountain -- there was a trail broad enough for the sled -- we went into some pines and Esther started lookin'.

We had daylight enough she could take her pick whilst she had good daylight.

I have cut a Christmas tree by star light but I don't recommend it, Angela was just a wee child at the time and nothin' would do but the two of us go cut us a tree, and we did, and it was a pretty good tree -- we turned it so the side with no branches was ag'in the wall, and that actually worked out better, if you ignore me havin' to tie it off with string to keep it from fallin' over.

That was several years ago, Angela was nearly grown, hell she was thirteen or fourteen when we taken out on that sled, and she was gatherin' the younger ones around her like a hen gathers her chicks, but you have to understand I write these words as an old man lookin' back at a memory, and memories often glow with pleasure, or an old man's wish that he could go back there and live it ag'in.

Esther drew her mare to a stop and she sat there, looking around -- now me, I'm goin' to cut down a tree, so I'm wearin' my work pants and my work coat and my old beat up hat, and Esther is looking like a fine woman of fashion with one of them cute little hats that just matches her outfit, and she's warm enough and what she's wearin' is loose enough in the sleeve she can work and move and ride with no trouble a'tall, and I reckon that's a gift all women share, and she passed it on to her daughters, and there I go a-wander again, followin' them memories where they stray.

Sorry about that.

Anyhow, Esther stopped and studied on a tree, she'd smiled in a motherly way when a child would say look at this one or look at that one, and they'd take a look at it and them children they'd discuss it and allow as it was too skinny or too tall or it didn't have enough branches and Esther, she'd give each suggestion a good studyin', but she didn't say a word.

The one she settled on was quite a bit too tall, but she was not lookin' at the full height of it, she saw the top third was just right and she knowed the rest of the trunk we'd use for stovewood -- nothing went to waste, and Jacob and I taken a look at how the tree grew, we tasted the wind and looked at the slope and allowed as if we kerfed here, then put in the kill cut here, the tree ought to drop right there -- 

Now I've known men of such skill with ax and saw, that they could drive a stake in the ground and drop the tree right atop the stake.

I am not that good.

Jacob is better than me and the two of us give it a careful lookin' at and we allowed as if we was right, why, we'd drop the tree and we could cut off the excess and boom it all down on the sled and fetch sled, children, tree and all home.

Now you recall I said how children are all good intentions and they generally end up underfoot, and that was surely the case here: we used a small saw to notch it (small compared to that big two man crosscut I've used) -- we showed the boys what we were doin' and explained why, and we had 'em stand behind the tree on the opposite side from the kerf and we're intendin' the tree should fall that-a-way, and take a look at the treetops for we want to read the wind, and young hands wrapped around the saw's handles and Jacob and I helped them start the kill cut in back.

It tickles boys to have a hand in the work, and it tickled the boys to hee-haw back and forth on that grease-blade saw until the tree started to crackle.

Jacob and I cautioned them back in case the cut end split and kicked -- they drew way back and watched in awe and a little fear as the tree leaned, and groaned, and the cut end snapped and crackled and down she went in a great snowy arc, dusting us all with snow shivered from its branches.

Jacob and I walked up the trunk and give it a good eyeball, we made a nice square cut and had the boys lift a little under where we were cuttin' so it wouldn't bind, we rolled the cut trunk up on the sled and tied it down along one edge kind of like a low fence.

We-all taken a look at that tree top and Esther was most pleased: she clapped her gloved hands together with delight, we rolled the treetop onto the sled and got it tied down:  there was room enough for the several young, warmed from excitement, and I put Adam standing up at the front and handed him the dun gelding's reins.

"Take 'er home, Adam," said I, "and give 'em a nice easy ride," and Adam looked at me with all the seriousness of a nine-year-old who'd just been handed a man's job with full faith and confidence he could do the work and do it right.

Once we got the tree and the rest of us back to the hacienda, why, the young were inside happily throwin' decorations at the tree -- well, they didn't really, but 'twas more fun to pretty up the tree Jacob and I packed in and set in a wet sand bucket, than it was to come on out and help us buck up the cut off stub end, all but Adam:  he come out and we set him to splittin' kindling, we'd cut off a slab and stack it over where he could get it.

With two of us on a newly set and sharpened saw and a nine year old settin' a splittin' wedge, we kept at that sawed off green wood trunk until 'twas reduced to kindling: we stacked it on bark so it wouldn't rot settin' ag'in the ground, and we laid bark over it to keep the snow off, and then we washed up and went back inside.

The maid, bless her, worked woman's magic in the kitchen and she had us a good meal, and once we'd et, why, the impatient herd of Keller young, with much plucking at my shirt sleeves, with pleading voices and anxious eyes, coaxed and entreated me into the parlor so we could behold their handiwork.

The tree was gorgeous, and Esther spoke approvingly of the several young hands who aided and abetted the decoration, and young Adam labored like a growing giant, splitting wood without complaint, joyfully pitting his juvenile energies against the weight and swing of the splitting maul.

We set the tree up on Christmas Eve, and every last one of us was in on the task.

You'll have to pardon me.

An old man has long memories, and this is one of mine. 

 

 

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527. OLD SHINBANGER

Jacob Keller came downstairs, dressed, silent in sock feet, as was his habit.

The younger swarm of Keller young had come downstairs with all the stealth of a raiding band of Cherokee warriors -- although they had Grand Opening the night before, with a happy rending of wrapping paper and delighted exclamations, with their pale eyed father egging them on with happy cries of "Loot!  Loot!" -- they knew Santa was going to leave them "Stuff," and Santa's "Stuff" was eagerly anticipated ... but Linn solemnly enjoined them before they retired the evening before that "Due to the population explosion, poor old Santa is overworked and won't get here until way early in the morning, so if you come chargin' out of the bunk too early, he might not be here yet!"

Linn lay awake, smiling -- he woke early, as was his habit -- to whispers of "You 'wake?" 

"Yeah, you 'wake?" 

"Santa come yet?"

"You look!"
"Nah, you look!"

Linn grinned in the darkness -- he refrained from a deep-voiced, fatherly admonition for them to go to sleep -- Shelly rolled over and laid a hand on his chest, and he reached up and caressed the back of her hand, for he was shaking a little with stifled laughter, and finally he grabbed his pillow and yanked it from under his head, held it firmly over his face and gave vent to as quiet a laughter as he could manage.

Shelly smiled, cuddled up against her warm, furry husband -- "Sleeping with Linn is like sleeping with a warm brick," she'd confided to Willamina, and Willamina nodded and sighed, "He gets it honest," and admitted that bedding with her late husband was like sleeping with a minor furnace -- and pressed her face into his shoulder, and it was his turn to feel her quiet laughter.

Linn followed his breathless, big eyed young down the stairs, grinning:  the night before, when everyone was happily ripping into their wrapped bounty, he sat back with a big grin on his face, just taking it all in; he came down with that same expression, stopped at the foot of the stairs.

Jacob was standing just off the last step, watching his younger siblings, his hand on the big round knob atop the bottom post:  he turned and considered the turned-wood sphere, and Linn felt him nod, just a little.

"Remembering?" he asked softly.

Jacob nodded again, then:  "Yes, sir."

Jacob turned and looked at his father while the raiding party sorted through name tags, seized their newly acquired loot.

"I remember," Jacob said slowly, "the last Christmas Marnie was with us."

Linn's hand rubbed his son's shoulder a little as he, too, remembered.

Every year, Marnie would grab the top post, throw her legs a-straddle of the bannister and slide down with a delighted, childlike "Wheeeeee!" -- her feet were crossed behind her, and she stopped when her feet hit that bottom sphere -- all but the very last year -- her legs were longer and she'd crosssed her lower legs, and it was her shin bone that hit that hard stop at the bottom.

"I remember," Jacob said slowly.

"When she hit here" -- his hand patted the turned-hardwood knob -- "I recall she come rollin' off the bannister and she glared at that knob" -- he patted the offending structure -- "and called it Old Shinbanger!"

Linn laughed, sat down on the bottom stairs, and his long legged son sat down beside him.

Linn ran his arm around his son's shoulders and said quietly, "God have mercy, Jacob, but I do love this!" -- and the delighted cries of young children on Christmas morning mingled with the smell of bacon and eggs.

Jacob Keller leaned into his father's side, and the moment engraved itself on his memory, and in the fullness of time he, too, became husband and father, and on Christmas Eve, when his young were gathered with happy anticipation, he told them about  his pale eyed big sister, and how Old Shinbanger put an end to her express descents on Christmas Day.

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528. OLD HIRAM

The heavy octagon Sharps barrel made a surprisingly loud sound as the old mountain man leaned it into the corner of the confessional booth.

His sole concession to being in Confession was to take off his round crowned, broad brimmed hat with the feather in the dead center, laid over like a wind vane.

The divider slid open and he saw someone on the other side of the lattice work wood grille.

"Hello, Hiram," the voice said, and "Hello yourself," the mountain man replied.

"Have you come to confess yourself of your sins?"

"Hell no," Hiram declared stoutly.  "Me an' God already worked that out.  I come to brag on the good that I did!"

"You et?"

"Hell no I ain't et! My belly is wrapped twicet around my back bone and it's been sand paperin' itself together for bein' so empty!"

The divider slid back across behind the lattice work and two doors opened.

Abbot William grinned and shoved out his hand and the old mountain man gripped it firmly.

"Hello, Hiram," William declared.  "Let's go eat!"

"Now that's the first intelligent thing you've said all day!"  the old mountain man laughed.

They ate with the other Brothers, in the common room:  there was meat, and there was plenty, for they had guests this day, and their Order received all who came, as if receiving Christ Himself: they made sure guests ate their fill, though a time or two it meant they went without -- something to which the Brethren were not strangers.

After mountain beef -- Hiram recognized elk backstrap -- after taters and gravy, which Hiram ate slowly, savoring this unanticipated bounty, for potatoes were a thing to be wished for in the high country -- after canned fruit and steaming, still-hot bread with lumps of churned butter waiting to be whittled and laid on with a trowel -- after steaming-hot, sinner's-heart-black coffee -- old Hiram leaned back and looked at the Abbot speculatively.

His Sharps rifle was leaned against the wall behind him; none gave it a second look, for it was as much  a part of the weathered old man as the hat hung on the peg above, or the beard, bushy and white and sun bleached on his face.

"I done some good," Hiram said softly.

William took a final sip of the locally fermented wine, set down his wineglass, gave old Hiram both eyes and his full attention.

"I'm listening."

So, too, were the Brethren: when Hiram came, conversation was often coarse, sometimes harsh, often profane, but it was always interesting.

"You recall here not many years ago they had trouble in Firelands?"

"The Reavers?"

"The same."

"I remember."

"I laid off a little ways and knowed they was a-comin', them hell raisers that allowed t' lay waste and ruin an' steal the wimmen."  Hiram took another noisy slurp of coffee.  "I coulda gone in town an' joined the ambuscade, but they'd hemmed it with wagons an' bobwarr an' I don't like bein' inside such as that, so I laid off outside."

William nodded, once, his eyes deceptively sleepy:  in his mind's eye, he saw Firelands as it had been -- a trap, well laid, waiting for the raiders to ride in.

"I fetched me up attair back sight an' I knowed the distance, so I cranked that peep up the vernier 'til she was just right.  Evenin' time, no wind to speak of, just enough to carry off the gun smoke."

William nodded again.

"I had me a straight shot right down their main street."

Again the slow, planned, tonsured nod.

"Now they was ready, they was, and I seen them two in the church steeple --"

William looked sharply at the old mountain man, for he too knew the pair in the steeple -- he knew what happened to the Sheriff's son, who was using the steeple as a reinforced firing position, along with their Parson --

"Well when I seen that young feller flinch back and disappear I knowed he'd been hit an' I seen which of 'em fired that shot and I cleaned him out of the saddle."

"Good," William said quietly: his blood was beginning to stir, for he'd been in what Old Pale Eyes called That Damned War, and he well knew the taste of combat and the screaming bloodlust that overtakes a man's good senses.

"There was another fella workin' from the dark.  Bigfoot, they called him, good man, too."  Hiram leaned back as a sizable slab of fresh apple pie lowered in front of him and his empty plate was extrated.  "Thank'ee kindly.  I taken me two more shots an' I seen they had things well in hand, they'd likely have work tearin' down their ambush after 'twas over and hangin' any survivors, so oncet I seen they had things well in hand, why, I went on my way and tended my own business."

William nodded, smiling just a little.

"Have you done anything else on a kindly note?" he asked, his voice gentle, and Old Hiram considered, then nodded:  he sampled his pie, and Brother William picked up his wineglass and waited for his guest to proceed.

"I have," Hiram finally said.  "Good pie."

William nodded, once, gravely.

"Yep, I done some good," Hiram finally said, "and that's between me and God too.  Like attair fellow that told the Indian that the Great Spirit knows of my victories, and that is enough, why, my good and my ill is between the Almighty and me, and that suits me fine."

"If that suits you fine," Brother William pressed, "why did you speak of it here?"

Hiram grinned, set down his fork.

"You were in on that fracas too, my friend," he said, his voice low: "you said you suspected I was somewhere, thinnin' out them raiders' numbers, and I figured 'twas time to let you know you were right!"

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529. HELLO, COUSIN

Linn and Marnie sat with Shelly and her father -- and the rest of the Irish Brigade -- breakfast was laid out on the big firehouse table: they were only just returned from a service run -- there'd been a bad wreck out on the highway and the pumper was detailed to blast oil, grease and antifreeze off the pavement -- it was far enough above freezing that there was no fear of manufacturing a slick where their intent was to remove a slick.

The squad returned, scrubbed out and disinfected -- everyone at the table knew it had been a bad one, all but one knew just how bad, and that's only because Marnie was on her way to the firehouse for breakfast: once, and once only, she'd walked her mount into the firehouse and declared that her Goldy-horse wanted breakfast too, for which she was liberally pelted with hand-thrown soft rolls, which Goldie scarfed up off the floor, slashing her tail with delight -- but that was once and once only, and immediately entered into firehouse legend, and occasional good natured kidding of the Sheriff's long-legged, slim-waisted, good-natured daughter.

Marnie's plan was to breakfast with her parents and then return home, to ride herd on her siblings; until her return, her Gammaw was tending that detail, and no doubt when she got back, the kitchen would smell wonderfully of bacon and eggs, toast and fresh baked bread, and Marnie knew if she moved to just the right spot in the kitchen, she would catch a delicate little whiff of the lilac scent her Gammaw allowed herself now that she was retired -- she never once wore any scent while she was a working badge packer -- she'd told Marnie, "I am pretty sneaky, and if I want to sneaky up on the bad guy, I don't want him to smell me coming!" -- a lesson Marnie never once forgot.

The Sheriff's phone rang:  Linn slurped his coffee to clear his mouth, swallowed, answered.

"Sheriff Keller."

Marnie saw her Daddy frown a little, his bottom jaw slid out just a little, the way he did when he was thinking.

"Stranger you say," he replied.  "Where?"

His eyebrow raised a little.  "You're sending her here?"

At the word "her," Marnie saw her Mommy look at her Daddy, her face carefully neutral, but Marnie had the distinct impression of a cat flexing and then sheathing its claws.

"Thank you, Sharon."  He hung up -- Marnie knew Sharon was retired, and her daughter was dispatcher now, but just as the man behind the bar in the Silver Jewel was "Mr. Baxter" no matter what his given Christan name was, no matter who was wearing the green eyeshade, sleeve garters and elastic-sided shoes, if the man was working the telegraph key in their depot, his name was "Lightning" -- and so the Sheriff's dispatcher, whose name was actually Rhonda, became "Sharon."

Marnie looked at her Daddy, watched as he turned to her Mommy, his expression serious.

"Stranger in town," Linn said, and Marnie immediately thought of Firelands with hitch-rails and horses, with a pale eyed old lawman with an iron grey mustache, of freight-wagons and women in long gowns and the sound of the blacksmith's hammer not far away.

"She's coming here," Linn continued, and Marnie saw just a shade of uncertainty cross his face, then he looked at her, looked at Shelly, blinked twice, frowned.

"She is asking if anyone in town has pale eyes."

"Oh?" Shelly replied, her voice carefully neutral.  "And what eyes has this mystery woman who is asking for my husband?"

Linn looked very seriously at his wife.

"Green eyes," he said.  "Brilliant Irish-green eyes with milk-fair skin and red hair."

The man door beside the squad bay's overhead door opened:  it was bright out, and the figure in silhouette was visible as a black, featureless form, at least until the door closed and the harsh backlight was shut off.

A woman's voice challenged into the expectant firehouse's sudden hush.

"I'm looking for a pale eyed Sheriff!"

 

Bob Holland was a big man.

Bob Holland was a jollly man.

Bob Holland was perpetually patient and good natured; he ran the beauty saloon -- it was so painted on the plank outside his emporium, and the ladies of Firelands made good business for the professional hairdresser -- and Bob Holland smiled as he styled this newcomer's hair.

"My hair is coarse," Patty cautioned:  "I went over to the JVS and had their cosmetology students try to style it.  My hair is so hard to work with the girl was almost in tears and the instructor had to come over and try it."
"You have absolutely lovely hair," Mr. Robert (as the ladies affectionately called him) assured her: his hands were sure, experienced, and wove their magic, bringing her heavy, shining hair into the style he intended.

Pale eyes watched his work, marveling as he took heavy, rich-red-auburn hair and turned it into a shining crown, a style he'd gotten very good at producing: the woman was a stranger to him, but you'd never know it from his easy patter, from the way he put her immediately at ease and coaxed a laugh from her -- an uncertain laugh at first, for she was clearly uncomfortable, but the more he worked, the more she relaxed, and finally he turned her chair and let her see the result of his labors.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller held up a portrait, borrowed from the Silver Jewel, a portrait drawn in pencil, of two people in attire of an earlier age, a portrait of a man and wife:  he, with an iron grey mustache and piercing, near-white eyes; she, with an elaborate coiffure and a gown of the period, an elaborate hairstyle far more at home in the mid-1880s than in this modern day.

This stranger, who expected to find one, maybe two people at most with pale eyes, found herself in the company of several -- and their eyes were more distinctly white than she'd expected -- she saw the shades they expressed, how in one moment they were a light, delicate blue, especially the youngest, a pretty girl nearing womanhood, a girl whose laugh was genuine and whose smile was welcoming:  the older woman, the Sheriff beside her, clearly closely related -- introductions had been made, but stress washed the particulars from Patricia's mind the way stress always did, and she realized she'd come out to learn more about her ancestors, and all of a sudden, these ancestors had a two-hand grip on her and were very much in control.

Figuratively, at least.

The pale eyed Sheriff was very much a gentleman:  soft spoken, he'd taken her hand, but raised it to kiss her knuckles: the older woman beside him had shaken her hand -- the woman had a remarkably direct gaze, Patty realized, as she felt the woman's pale eyes drive a searing path clear to the core of her eternal soul -- the girl, with the same eyes, gripped her hand, almost bouncing on the balls of her feet -- "Hello, I'm Marnie!" -- Patty realized she could remember Marnie at least.

Patty was whisked to what she was told, was one of the oldest residences in town, the Sheriff's original house:  the woman -- she finally remembered her name, Willamina -- towed her inside like a seagoing tug pulling an ocean liner, and she did it without laying a hand on the visitor -- Patty found herself in a comfortable, woody, book-lined study -- an office and library in one, and as she sat in the indicated easy chair, Willamina turnred her computer's monitor so they could both see it, she pulled a half-dozen volumes from the shelf, she plugged in two memory sticks and turned on her machine.

"How did you find us?" she asked, and the woman spoke of ancestry research: Willamina frowned, raised a finger, pulled out a folder, sorted through a dozen pages of hand-written notes and diagrams:  she stopped at a ladder diagram, ran her finger down the page, frowning.

"Let's start with you," she said.  "Patricia Grace."

Patty nodded.

"Okay.  Before we proceed -- come with me --"

The pair went up the broad, solid stairs; Linn, Marnie and Shelly stayed below.

They looked at one another uncertainly, at least until Marnie started for the kitchen:  the smell of coffee greeted the two ladies as they descended the stairs:  one, with pale eyes, in boots and blue jeans -- the other in a McKenna gown that fit her as if tailor made.

Husband, wife and daughter stopped, and stared, and breathed the one word with one voice:

"Esther!"

 

Patricia found herself in a sudden whirlwind of introductions, of both people, and of places:  she rememered a truly huge, very black creature she honestly thought to be a young bear, until Marnie squatted quickly and hugged it and called it a good boy, and the bear-thing raised his head and gave a happy, quiet, almost puppy-like yow-wow-wow, and Patty realized this was not a bear, but the biggest -- the most absolutely HUUUGE dog -- she'd ever seen, or even knew existed!

Patty felt a little out of place in the long gown -- even if it did make her look really, really good! -- Willamina changed into a similar garment and they sat down together and began going over the charts and notes Patty brought, comparing them with Willamina's ancestral research:  two women, talking quietly, intently: Marnie watched, listened, her head tilted a little to the side, the way her Mama did when she was listening closely, and Marnie smiled at the quiet-voiced "Aha!" -- spoken by both the red-headed visitor, and her now-greying Gammaw.

"There she is!"  Willamina declared triuphantly, looking at Patty:  Patty's face shone with delight as she looked up and breathed, "You don't know how long I've looked for that connection!"

"What connection?" Marnie asked, and the two women turned to her, each extending their arm, inviting her into their circle.

Willamina ran her finger down a chart; Marnie read the familiar names, nodding as Willamina explained that the Sheriff's wife Esther had brilliant, Irish-green eyes, that Willamina had looked for that green-eyed trait when she made pilgrimage to the Wales plantation in the Carolinas:  Patty started writing, for as Willamina spoke, she mentioned things missing from Patty's research.

"I never saw any green eyes back East," Willamina admitted, "but I did find the family cemetery on what's still plantation grounds" -- she wrote something, probably a location, handed it to her red-headed guest -- "but if we look at this chart -- here -- Old Pale Eyes had children, they had children, I've tracked most of them, but green eyes are not mentioned until" -- she turned Patty's chart, ran eyes down the neatly drawn diagram -- "here, your grandmother?"

"My grandmother," Patty confirmed.

"Your mother?"

"No.  Hers were brown."

"Okay," Willamina nodded.  "This cousin -- I don't have anything ... this cousin would have to have ..."

Her voice trailed off as she turned to the computer.

Marnie looked up at the color portrait on the wall, one she'd long admired.

Husband and wife, on their wedding day:  Willamina had the original black-and-white enlarged and colorized, filling in what she knew:  Old Pale Eyes had, of course, those ice-pale eyes; he would have had a healthy complexion, his black suit was draped and highlighted very realistically: Esther, his bride, had rich-red hair, almost fiery red, from all accounts; her eyes were Irish green, as was her wedding gown; her brooch, from Jacob's written accounts, was a cameo, with emeralds at the corners, rubies at its midpoints.

"This cousin married back into Old Pale Eyes' line ... that must be where the green-eyed trait came in ... two recessive genes ..."  Willamina's bent forefinger rested across her chin the way she did when she was mentally pursuing a very interesting trail.

Patty actually found herself drafted; Willamina made a phone call, and after coffee and sweet rolls, Sheriff, retired Sheriff, violet-eyed wife, pale-eyed grandmother and granddaughter and their correctly-gowned visitor, adjourned to the photographer's studio, where a formal portrait was taken.

Willamina brought the colorized portrait from the wall above her desk; they duplicated the original, glass-plate shot as accurately as they could, and when Patty went back East a week later, it was with the memory of touching the hand-painted spray of roses on the side of a locomotive's cab -- and riding in the cab, laughing with delight at the powerful, four-count chant of a Baldwin steam locomotive at labor -- with the memory of riding with a genuine Western Sheriff and his pale eyed mother and daughter, all of them astride matching golden mares with incredibly smooth gaits -- she was introduced to the Sheriff's Appaloosa stallion, an aging fellow who delicately rubber-lipped a chewing-tobacco bribe off her palm, and she took with her many pages of notes and the memory of an absoutely immense, very black dog, sitting down beside a crying infant in its carrier in the general store (an honest-to-God general store, with a cat sleeping on crackers in the wooden-stave barrel!), and how this immense canine snuffed loudly at the fussy baby, and then howled, every so quietly and ever so gently, bringing the child's wailing protests to a surprised stop, and how a creature with jaws that could crush the bumper of a tractor-trailer was gentle enough to soothe an unhappy child:  she took home two portraits, both of them very nearly identical ... and once home, guests at her own home admitted a great difficulty in telling the two apart.

 

 

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530. THE STAIRWAY

Jacob settled his bony backside onto the shining-clean stair tread, occupying every bit of space between his pale eyed sister's hip, and the opposite wall.

They were in a hidden staircase in the Silver Jewel, a passage known to few -- not even the entire staff knew of it -- it had long been a secret meeting place for the pair, and so it was today.

Jacob was his father's deputy; Sarah, an agent of the Court:  it was between Christmas, and New Year's, and Sarah was between investigations, and glad for it.

She squeezed her brother's hand, quickly, reassuringly, then released, for it is not polite to hold a lawman's gun hand, and Sarah was immaculately polite:  she rested her gloved fingertips delicately on the back of his hand, at least until Jacob turned his palm over and gripped his sister's fingers, carefully.

He'd been told once by their local physician that it was a mark of respect to shake a doctor's hand with a very careful grip -- a recognition of the delicacy, the precision of the surgeon's art:  Jacob never forgot that, and indeed he regarded Sarah as a surgeon of sorts, though if he were to discuss it further, he might admit she was better at disassembly than the reassembly that is the actual gift of the medico:  still, a woman's fingers are skilled fingers, for few men ply an embroiderer's needle.

"You're the only one I can really talk to," Sarah whispered.

Jacob raised an eyebrow, favored her with a very direct look.

"No.  Really."  She shifted a little -- there was not enough room to actually turn toward her brother, but she managed to swing her knees his way, at least a little, and turn her torso -- "Jacob, when you listen, you really listen."  Sarah smiled, gently, the way she used to as a little girl, and Jacob smiled in the same way as he nodded, once.

Sarah sighed, dropped her eyes, and Jacob realized just how beautiful his Little Sis was becoming, and for a mad moment he wondered if his own future wife, whoever she might be, would be as lovely.

"I gathered the information the Judge needed," Sarah said quietly, changing the subject with her usual abruptness:  "I gathered the loose ends of the investigation and wove them into" -- she half-sighed, half-laughed -- "well, not a tapestry.  More like coarse burlap, but it hung together, and the Judge was able to issue a warrant on the strength of what I discovered."

"The warrant went out two days ago," Jacob nodded.  "I understand the several guilty are awaiting transport to His Honor's court."

"I know," Sarah murmured.  "His Honor is most pleased that I can become someone else."

"I rather like that scandalous dancing girl costume you wore," Jacob grinned.

"I thought you might.  I saw you in that Denver saloon when I was on stage.  I'll pick out someone in the audience and I'll dance for that one individual."  She leaned over, whispered in his ear, her lips close enough he felt her breath.  "I danced for you, Jacob.  I wanted to seduce you."

Jacob looked at his sister, looked through eyelashes that would have been at home on a beautiful girl.

"Little Sis," he confided, "it almost worked!"

"I know," Sarah blushed.  "That's when I realized just ... I realized if I could seduce my own brother, I could seduce anyone."

"For shame, Little Sis," Jacob teased.  "Mankind at large is no longer safe, no man's virtue can withstand your charms!"

"Men are fools," Sarah whispered.  "Charm them and flutter my eyelashes at them and blush behind a fan, just peeping over its edge, and they will spend any sum, they will stake any bet, just to get me to come near, to listen to them, to smile and lower my eyes ... do you know, Jacob, I sat on a Senator's lap two days ago!"

"Really!" Jacob grinned.  "And what did you weasel out of him?"

"I didn't."  Sarah's expression was triumphant.  "While I was busy caressing his ear and telling him how handsome his mustache made him look, I planted an envelope in his inside coat's pocket."

"An envelope," Jacob echoed, interested:  a Senator was pretty big fish for a little girl from Colorado to be playing.

"The Senator is playing a deep game and I needed to get certain information to him.  He is watched -- I could not simply speak with him on the street, nor could I knock at his door and expect to be admitted, nor could we be alone -- and so when he went slumming, and a saloon girl flirted outrageously with him, when the saloon girl picked up his whiskey and downed it like it was water, when the saloon girl stretched her stockinged legs most lasciviously as she disported herself across his lap -- why, the was acceptable to his watchers, and when she stroked the curve of his ear and tilted her head and made eyes at him, the watchers all chuckled and went back to their cigars and cards."

"Did the Senator read your note?"

"He did," Sarah smiled, "and his life was spared as a result."<