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607. READ TO ME, JOHN

 

Sheriff Linn Keller sat at the head of the table, as was his habit: the circular, freshly-blacked, cast iron stove had the room pleasantly warm, his family was seated as well: he looked to the far end of the table, where his red headed bride sat, smiling at him, his children -- pink cheeks and hands scrubbed clean, still in their Sunday go to meetin's -- looked expectantly at him.

Sheriff Linn Keller looked around, bowed his head.

Every head at the table bowed.

In a voice full of confidence, the quiet voice of a man who seldom had need to raise it, the Sheriff took a long breath --

Hungry children regarded steam rising from mashed potatoes, from steaming-hot gravy, young bellies complained that they were not partaking of the bounty before them --

Sheriff Linn Keller said, in a clear and confident voice, "Hello, plate."

He raised his head.

Shocked expressions greeted his wide and innocent eyes.

"My Pappy told me one time," he said by way of explanation, "about a man who talked to his plate before he ate, and I thought it wise to emulate his fine example."

Esther Keller, the green-eyed, red-headed bride of Old Pale Eyes -- Esther Keller, wife, mother, business icon, owner of the Z&W Railroad, equestrienne of considerable skill --

Esther Keller the patient, the understanding, the longsuffering --

Esther Keller picked up a sweet roll and slung it the length of the table, bounced it off her her husband's forehead.

Linn gave her his very best Look of Wounded Pride and Absolute Innocence -- which of course did not work -- and exclaimed, "Well, he did!" -- to which Esther shook her Mommy-finger at him and snarled, "Linn Keller, you say a proper blessing or so help me --"

Linn raised a forestalling palm.

"My sons," he said, looking around, "behold your mother. She has not raised her voice, and she has committed any action that less than absolutely ladylike, and she has very clearly made her feelings known."  He paused.  "My daughters, behold your mother:  she has sway over the most powerful man in the county, and without raising her voice, nor has she uttered any threat."  

He smiled a little, looked very directly at his wife.

"I would not have her any other way."

Esther's face reddened a little; her eyes dropped uncertainly, and Linn raised his eyes to the ceiling.

"Lord, forgive me my tomfoolery," Linn said, "but laughter is sometimes hard to come by, and I wished to show a lesson when it presented itself."  

He looked down, looked around.

"Now, Lord, about this meal."

 

Linn Keller sat at the head of his table, looked around: Shelly saw the smile hiding behind her husband's pale eyes.

"Darlin'," he said gently, looking very directly at his wife, "thank you."

"Thank all of you," Shelly sighed.  "Everyone helped me get things ready yesterday."

Linn laughed a little.  "This tells us how useful Marnie made herself," he said softly.  "It took one of her to do all this, and now that she's there instead of here, it takes all of us!"

Jacob and Joseph looked a little surprised -- they looked at one another, then at their Mama, and back to their Pa.

"Lord," Linn said, "we thank You for this meal, and I miss Marnie. Take care of her, and bless these several hands that prepared this meal."

He stopped, bit his bottom lip:  Jacob saw his Pa's ears turn red, and somehow he knew that even if the man had more to say, he could likely not get it past the rock that shoved sudden-like up into his throat.

 

Marnie tilted her head a little, looked at her husband.

Dr. John Greenlees was forever reading; his medical texts were on computer -- he had an incredible library, well backed up, he received new material from Earth on a regular basis -- but one he consulted without fail -- after supper, every night, a gift from the Confederate ambassador -- was a black, soft covered, book -- a genuine, turn-the-pages book, bound in black leather

"My father used to read that book," Marnie said softly as she rocked the youngest, pale eyed Keller baby.  "He used to read it out loud, every night, after supper's dishes were done."

 

Linn Keller took his turn drying dishes and setting them away in the cupboard: this, too, was part of their family ritual, so far as was possible: the table would be cleared, leftovers refrigerated, dishes washed, dried, put away:  after this, as a matter of habit, they would go in the living room.

Linn would sit down in his easy chair, reach up behind him and turn on his reading light: he would pick up a book on his sidetable, a book with a soft black cover -- it used to be far less soft, but many years of regular use softened it up considerably.

Shelly sat in her chair, on his right; their youngest, freshly changed, fed and droiwsy, on her lap, their young sitting cross legged on the floor in a semicircle, facing their seated parents.

 

Old Pale Eyes sat in his easy chair, a child on each lap, his arms around both:  it was difficult, but he managed two children and a book, a book he read aloud each night after supper:  bound in black leather, it was soft from long years of use.

His voice was gentle as he read, a voice pitched to be kind, to be reassuring, a voice his children loved to hear, as did his wife, who had young on her own lap as well.

 

"John," Marnie said, "read to me."

He looked up, surprised.

"My Daddy used to read aloud after supper," Marnie admitted, "and ... I miss it."  Her expression was almost childlike, almost pleading.

"Read it, John. Please."

 

Men's hands held their copy of the Geneva Bible, men's eyes rested on the regular black print: it was something that became their collective ritual, to read aloud from the Book, with their families, every night after supper, if it was at all possible.

 

"To all things there is an appointed time, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

John hesitated, looked up at his wife.

"This has been of great comfort," he admitted.  "It's ... I was warned that being doctor for people I know was the most difficult."  He looked at Marnie, and the physician's wife saw a depth of grief in the man's eyes he usually managed to keep hidden.  "Everyone we've lost ..."

Dr. John Greenlees paused, swallowed, blinked.

"I knew every last one of 'em, and ... prounouncing our children ..."

"I know," Marnie whispered, and her husband saw a set of shutters slam shut behind her eyes as she mercilessly hid her own feelings.

"This, and the book of Job."

Marnie nodded, looked at the apple cheeked infant relaxed against her bosom, sound asleep.

"Read to me, John."

Esther Keller closed her eyes and relaxed, hearing her husband's gentle voice framing the familiar words.

Shelly Keller closed her eyes and relaxed, hearing her husband's gentle voice framing the familiar words.

Marnie Keller closed her eyes and relaxed, hearing her husvand's gentle voice framing the familiar words.

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608. MOTHER MARNIE

 

Marnie Keller stirred sizzling sausage and diced onions.

She wore a housedress instead of her usual flannel shirt and denim skirt, she wore anklets and saddle shoes instead of her usual red, fancy-stitched cowboy boots, she wore her hair in a ribbon-tied ponytail: her cheeks were pink, she wore a little smile, and when the ingredients were browned to her satisfaction, she picked up a bowl and poured the freshly-spun-and-frothy eggs-milk-and-soy-sauce mixture into the sizzling skillet.

Marnie had her timing down perfect.

She turned, nodded approvingly at the kitchen table -- plates were set, forks, silverware; she had juice at every plate, she had coffee cups set and ready, a half gallon of milk sweating on a saucer: she'd just buttered the freshly-popped-up final four slices of toast, stacked them on their fellows in the middle of the table, she knew she had time enough on the eggs, so she skipped over to the stairs, pulled a duck call from her apron pocket, raised it to her lips ...

WAAAAKKK ...

Marnie sneered up the corner of her lip, and in a genuinely awful Jimmy Cagney imitation, she called, "AWRIGHT YOUSE GUYS! ROCKY SEZ BREAKAST IS READY, NYAAA, NYAAA!  MUGGSY, YOU GET DOWN HEAH AN' YOUSE BRING DAT PARTNER OF YOURS, AN' NO FUNNY BUSINESS, SEE, NYAA!

 

Later that day, after she shooed her brothers out (they had their chores and she didn't want them underfoot while she tended hers), Marnie ran the dust mop, dusted windowsills and lampshades, made beds, cleaned the bathroom -- she made a mental note to thank her brothers for their consideration, for they'd toweled the floor of any post-shower puddles, they'd wiped down the mirror, they'd shown their respect for their Mama by keeping their latrine clean -- Marnie stopped at midmorning, looked around, regarded the kitchen and the living room with a critical eye, nodded her satisfaction.

 

Jacob Keller took the old work rags, tossed them in a bucket.

Uncle Will had the barn set up as a workshop; there was a heavy I-beam overhead, a trolley mounted chain hoist, he had a South Bend lathe purchased from a mining company that went out of business -- Jacob wished he'd known Uncle Will, for a man who could mount an electric motor, belt it through an MG transmision and calculate the sheave size for the driving belt to get the RPMs he wanted, was a man he'd love to have known better! -- like his pale eyed Pa, Jacob took pains to keep the workshop swept and clean, wiped down and in order.

Chisels were ranked in a row, in ascending order for size, left to right: a row of screwdrivers on the peg board also ranked to size, straight-blade on top, Phillips beneath, with the hex-pointed specialty driver bits in a drawer in the shining red toolbox.

Machine work meant oil, meant grease, meant parts had to be cleaned; cleaning meant cleaning rags, oily rags were a spontaneous-combustion hazard, and Jacob -- like his long tall Pa -- packed out what few rags there were, carried them to the burning pile, set them afire.

Jacob knew the day was still; there was no wind, and likely to be none, or very little; the area surrounding the burn pile was barren for twenty five yards, and he left the burn to continue his tending of necessary details.

Joseph, on the other hand, regarded the small pile and the small fire with a considering eye.

My Pa is a big man, he thought.

My big brother is a big man.

A big man deserves a bigger fire.

I can help!

Joseph turned, ran silently into the barn -- boys of his few years generally had two speeds, wide open and dead stop, and Joseph was one such -- he searched, saw a beer bottle in the trash barrel.

I need that.

Joseph carefully extracted the brown glass longneck, looked to see if Jacob was anywhere near.

He walked silently over to the five gallon gas can.

Carefully, delicately, he screwed the flexible steel snout on the big metal can, tilted it, coaxing the trickle of flammable into the beer bottle; as careful as he was, a little splashed, cold on the backs of his fingers.

Joseph unscrewed the snout, hung it back on its two nails tapped into an upright:  he screwed the time-dented cap back on the metal can, carried the brown longneck half full of Devil's Breath to the fire.

This stuff burns really fast, he thought.

I'll stand waaaay up on tiptoe so I don't get burnt.

Joseph hoist himself just as tall as he could, tilted the bottle, two-handed --

The world flared into a burning column in front of him --

Joseph let go of the bottle, turned, ran!

 

Linn and Shelly sat in separate auditoriums.

Sheriff Linn Keller was enduring yet another looong booorrring presentation better suited for a prosecutor or  a defense attorney; he forced himself to pay attention, knowing there would be some nuggets of information, if he could stay awake to winnow these kernels from the pile of second hand horse feed that enclosed them.

Linn smiled a little as he leaned back, crossed his arms, regarded the speaker with a skeptical expression, and he considered his Mama was right when -- at a similarly uninteresting presentation -- Willamina leaned over to him and murmured, "The mind absorbs only until the backside grows numb."

Linn smiled a little at the memory.

He shifted in his seat and realized his hip pockets were about asleep.

Shelly, in another building on campus, was leaned forward with rapt interest: the presentation was by a trauma surgeon of her acquaintance, a man who knew how to make his presentation interesting:  a half hour after the doctor began, someone in the third row went into convulsions and fell down between the seats, and instantly, three rows of paramedics emptied out of their seats and dogpiled on the sufferer, while the doctor roared, "GET BACK IN YOUR SEATS! IT'S ONLY ONE PATIENT, HE GETS ONE PARAMEDIC, EVERYONE ELSE SIT, DOWN!"

Shelly rubbed one palm absently over the backs of the other hands' fingers, tilted her head, listened closely as the surgeon discussed extrication of a patient, impaled on a fence post when the out of control vehicle ran into a fallen-over locust post that drove through windshield, patient and the back of the car's seat.

 

Marnie looked around, frowning, feeling like she'd forgotten something.

She considered the table -- she'd changed the tablecloth the night before, this one was unmarked, unstained (she checked the boys' places to make sure!) -- she'd dust mopped the floor, dishes were done and put away, she'd wiped out the frying pan, set it back on the back burner to await its next use --

I need to wipe down the stove, she thought.

I was frying sausage and I might have splattered some grease out.

Marnie smiled as she lifted the enameled spiders off the burners, wiped down the stovetop, replaced the parts.

There.

 

Joseph ran.

All he knew was he HURT, he was on FIRE, in that moment he was no longer a child of civilization and reason, he was a hurt animal and he knew only to try and outrun the PAIN!!!

Fire trailed from his upraised, spread fingers:  he looked with terror at his hands and ran all the faster.

Part of his brain still worked.

His eyes saw he was running toward the spring out back; he ran for the coolwater spring, dove hands-first into the cold mountain springwater, drove his hands more than wrist deep into its sandy bottom:  he was elbow deep in cold water and he knelt there, shivering, silent, almost in shock -- not from the pain of the burn, but from the sudden, coldwater RELIEF!

 

Jacob backed the 8N Ford up to the blade.

The driveway needed graded some; gravel tended to hump up in the middle and throw out to the sides.

His Pa paid good money for that gravel, and unless it was in the tracks, it wasn't doing him a bit of good.

Jacob dismounted, gripped cold metal, thrust red-painted steel into grey-painted ears, drove the pin through, smacked it home with the heel of his fist: he thrust the hairpin viciously through the end, shook it -- unnecessary, just shook it on general principles -- stepped back and nodded.

The redbottom Ford chuckled patiently through its silver painted muffler.

Jacob picked up the faded cushion -- where it came from, he had no idea, only that it was well older than he -- he tossed it on the red painted, shining tractor seat, dropped his backside on it, stomped the clutch.

 

Marnie frowned, lifted her head.

Wiping her hands on her apron, she hung the dishtowel on the oven door handle, walked on the balls of her feet to the back door.

Joseph heard running feet, heard the screen door slam open.

He looked up into a young woman's pale eyes.

Marnie saw her little brother's expression and she knew instantly he was scared and he was hurt: her hands were on his shoulders as she turned him to face her squarely.

"How bad?" she asked, almost whispered.

Joseph raised trembling, bluish hands.

"I got burnt," he admitted.

Marnie did what she did best.

She thought on her feet.

"Keep your fingers spread," she said: she seized Joseph under the arms, picked him up, ran for the barn: she stood him against the wall, said "Don't move," she seized saddle blanket and saddle and curled her lip, whistled.

Her Daddy's Apple-horse came trotting over, blowing and slashing his tail.

A fourteen year old girl in a ponytail and saddle shoes streaked across the pasture on her Daddy's stallion, her little brother clutched in her arms, his arms around her and his fingers splayed in the cold wind of their passing:  stallion, sister and little brother sailed through the chilly air, soaring over the whitewashed fence.

Marnie stood in the stirrups, her knees bent a little, one arm locked around Joseph's middle: her expression was grim, her throat tight as the stallion punched his nose into the wind, laid his ears back flat against his head and ran!

Jacob, for his part, lowered the shining blade and carefully, precisely, graded gravel back into the tire tracks: he was slow, he was methodical, he was entirely unaware of anything but a pleasant morning, with sun on his face and the satisfaction of doing something useful for his Pa.

His folks would be home that evening, and his Pa would approve of his efforts.

 

Shelly saw Linn's eyes smile a little as they turned off the roadway, started up the drive.

"Looks like we got a load of gravel," he said, then as they got to the halfway mark, his smile spread to the rest of his face.  

"Jacob graded it," he said softly, and Shelly heard approval in her husband's voice.

They pulled up to the house, turned around, backed in closer to the front porch -- "not that I'm lazy or anything," Linn admitted, "but I'm lazy. The less distance I have to pack things, the better!"

Shelly gave her husband a patient look and said nothing.

Jacob emerged from the barn, wiping his hands and grinning.

Shelly and Linn came into their house to the smell of fresh brewed coffee and fresh baked bread and the smell of supper almost ready.

Shelly saw the table was set, her kitchen was immaculate, as were the floors; Jacob helped them pack in their luggage -- Linn could have managed, he and Shelly traveled light, but it was a mark of honor that Jacob made the offer -- Linn looked around and asked, "Where's Joseph?"

Marnie took her Mama and her pale eyed Daddy by the arm, steered them into the kitchen.

Jacob stood back.

He'd been shocked when he found Joseph got burnt, he'd felt instantly guilty: he was the Older Brother, he was responsible, they'd trusted him, and he'd failed.

He'd gone back to the scene of the crime, saw the beer bottle, smoke fouled and broken, likely from the heat -- he went to the gas can, smelled gasoline but saw nothing out of place --

"Joseph is afraid you will be mad at him," Marnie said quietly.  "He did not burn the place down, he did not blow up the outhouse, but he did burn his fingers."

Linn's eyes were suddenly serious; it was evident he was listening closely, he was leaving the medical end to his wife.

"How bad?" Shelly asked, her voice tightening.

Marnie held out her own hands, fingers splayed, palms down: "Here," she said, tracing a finger across the backs of her fingers, just behind the fingernails, "and here" -- the same, on the other hand.

"He was gasoline burned. I'll let him tell you how. He ran to the spring and drove his burns into the water. I don't know how long he was there, only that his hands were cold and blue. I ran him in to ER and Doc Greenlees said he'll be fine, leave them open to air and keep them dry. I don't know why they didn't blister, it wasn't deep enough for third degree but Doc said they would scar."

"Where is he now?"

"I'm here," they heard a little voice say, and they turned.

Joseph shifted his weight uncertainly from one foot to another; his bottom lip was down to about his belly button, his eyes downcast.

"Supper is almost ready," Marnie said quietly.  "Chicken and dressing, sourdough bread and I fed the starter, green beans and there is a cake."  She went to one knee beside her little brother, ran a protective arm around him.  "And Joseph" -- she looked very directly at her parents --"will be just fine."

 

 

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607. FOR YOU, MA'AM, ANYTHING!

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled a little.

She'd met all the goals Physical Therapy set for her; she'd exercised with the therapist holding elastic bands around an ankle, holding resistance; she'd walked toe-heel forward, then toe-heel backward; she'd stood on one leg, the other leg, she'd performed the tasks assigned to her, and as she left the hospital's side door -- the one marked PHYSICAL THERAPY -- it was with her cane snapped up under her arm like a swagger stick.

She was not up to running with her beloved Warriors, though that was certainly in her plans; she'd been cautioned against trying too much, too fast, to which Willamina -- with an utterly innocent expression -- blinked and said, "Who, me?" -- at which point both she and the physical therapist laughed, for they'd known one another for many years.

She'd been secretly working her legs, mercilessly stretching herself -- years of uncompromising calesthentics, ranch work, tackling fleeing felons, the occasional knock-down drag-out barfight, loading, stacking, and when possible, throwing bales of hay, riding horses that sometimes did not want ridden -- all had kept the pale eyed Willamina in phenomenally good shape, and she'd chafed at wearing the walking boot; it was necessary, she knew, for she'd sustained multiple microtears in both Achilles tendons: the right healed in fine shape, but the left decided to inflame, to calcify and to even grow a bone spur -- "damned inconsiderate," Willamina snarled in a private moment -- and she was determined to regain her strength and stamina, lost during the enforced idleness of wearing what she politely called Das Boot.

She'd also used her cane to her advantage.

Not only did it make a fine pointer, she'd used it for takedowns and comealongs, using it like the baton with which she was very well practiced; she most recently used it like a Vaudeville dancer, high-stepping and spinning her cripple stick like a majorette's baton:  she'd used it as a pointer, a comealong, winding a prisoner's arm up behind his back when he was less than cooperative when arrested, and she'd even used it as an improvised steady rest when taking a long distance shot with her carry Glock.

(It was off duty, the quarry was a discarded beer can in the distance, and she can be forgiven for taking three shots to spang the can in the air, for the distance was just over two hundred yards)

Willamina parked her Jeep in front of the Sheriff's Office: she pulled the cane out as she stepped out, but instead of leaning on it, she snapped it under her arm like a swagger stick and fairly strutted into the Sheriff's Office.

Willamina rolled the cane from under her arm, raised it in front of her face in salute as a voice called "Tayinn-HUT!" -- Willamina held the saluted cane before her for a moment, then snapped it down and under her arm, letting it stick up behind her:  "As you were!" she called, then grinned.

"Did they kick you loose, boss?"

"Pity the fool who EVER kicks the Sheriff!"
"You're just in time, Boss, fresh doughnuts!"

"I know," Willamina laughed.  "I ordered 'em!"

Willamina genuinely swaggered across the floor, unable to contain her grin.

"Did they kick you loose, Boss?"

"They would not DARE kick her!" 

"Anyone hear anything about Physical Therapy launching through the roof into low Earth orbit?"

"Fellas, fellas," Willamina laughed, waving them down, "you're making me sound like Mabel the Monster!"

The Sheriff's door opened and something big and black and curly furred came bouncing between the deputies, ran a tight orbit around Willamina, snuffing her loudly and then sitting down, polishing the floor with that great black brush of a tail and looking immensely pleased with himself.

Linn grinned at his Mama, stepped out of the Sheriff's inner sanctum, closed the door.

"Bear Killer, I though you wanted to go out!"

The Bear Killer raised his muzzle and woo-woo-woo'd, then laid his big head against Willamina's thigh, grinning a pink-tongued doggy grin as Willamina rubbed his ears.

"Guess not."  Linn grinned at his Mama.  "Is all well, ma'am?"

Wllamina raised her cripple stick in salute, swung it back up under her arm, carefully avoiding the big black Mountain Mastiff leaning warm and companionably against her denim covered leg.

"All is well, Sheriff," she replied briskly.

"In that case, I'm hungry, how's the state of your appetite?"

Willamina laughed as The Bear Killer looked hopefully at her and chopped his jaws, pink tongue flipping up over his nose in anticipation:  his vocabulary of human words very definitely included anything food related, and he very obviously recognized the subject under discussion.

"I need to work this leg a little," Willamina admitted.  "It's been in the boot for a while and I need to bring it back to working order.  Mind if we walk?"

Almost everyone in the Sheriff's office laughed, for the Silver Jewel was diagonally across the street, less than a block away: had they both ridden one horsepower horses into town, they would have ridden across the street, strictly as a matter of form, but as today's horsepower happened to be under a Jeep's hood, ambulation -- especially therapeutic ambulation -- was the order of the day.

"For you, ma'am," Linn said, coming up beside his Mama and offering his arm, "anything!"

 

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Posted (edited)

608. "THAT'S FOR MY DADDY!"

 

A sheriff's deputy watched through binoculars as a woman emerged from a yellow Jeep.

She was a good looking woman, an older lady, short hair and she walked like her leg was hurt: she walked carefully, slowly, purposefully, a determined look on her face and a dark blue gym bag in her hand.

The deputy had stopped to eat his sack lunch; idle curiosity prompted him to lift his binoculars and glass this visitor to Maplewood Cemetery.

The woman did not look at him -- she probably did not know he was anywhere near, though he took no pains to conceal his freshly waxed, black Suburban with the big yellow five point star on the door.

She cast back and forth -- getting her bearings, he thought -- then she lifted her chin a fraction and described a straight course toward a familiar tombstone.

The deputy had visited the grave she stopped at.

Interested, he watched as she unzipped the gym bag, pulled out a big towel, folded it in fourths, laid it on the ground:  she knelt, her back to him.

She reached into the gym bag, pulled out a shining silver core sampler.

The deputy lowered his glasses, pulled the idling Chevy into gear.

He pulled up behind her yellow Jeep, called in that he was out with this plate at Maplewood Cemetery, stepped out.

He got to the grave as the woman placed a dirt-and-sod core into a short, fat, amber plastic, pill botttle.

He squatted -- he could have touched her, he was that close, there is no way she couldn't know he was there -- and then something cold ran willy worms down his spine.

She held up a bullet, between thumb and forefinger.

A single, plain lead, round nosed bullet.

She held it up, raised it so it was directly between her ice pale eyes and his dark hazel eyes:  she paused for a moment, guaranteeing that he did indeed see, and recognize, what she held, and then she dropped 146 grains of lead into the hole she'd just cored out.

She picked up a second pill bottle, smacked it against her palm to extract a second core:  this went into the hole, atop the bullet.

He watched, silent, as she capped the pill bottle with the freshly extracted core, as she placed it in the gym bag, as she brought out an empty hand, as she raised the hand to her lapel and turned it over.

The pale eyed woman in the tailored blue suit dress turned over her lapel to show the six point star.

"Sheriff Willamina Keller, Firelands, Colorado," she said.  

She thrust a chin at the tomb stone.

"That is my Daddy."

"Willamina?" he asked, a slow grin spreading over most of his face.  "Lord help me, I haven't seen you since you were --"

She sat very straight, knees pressed into the folded towel, backside on the heels of her ugly but supremely comfortable Marine Corps issue shoes:  she tilted her head a little, looked at his name tag, nodded, looked at him and smiled a little, but only just a little.

"You've improved," she nodded.  "I remember you as dreadfully skinny."

He laughed.  "Yes, that was me, all right," he sighed, "back when dirt was young and so was I!"

He looked at the gym bag, curiosity plain to see on his face.

"I'm taking that back home," she explained, "and it'll go in a hole in what will be my grave.  That" -- she thrust her chin at the plug she'd just replaced on her Daddy's grave -- "is from my grave.  I didn't want him to sleep alone."

"What happened to his wife?"

"My mother?"  Willamina's tone was noticeably colder.  "She came out to Colorao so her daughter could take care of her in her last days.  She's buried face down in Potter's Field so she can see where she's going."

"I recall she was ... less than pleasant."

Willamina nodded, looked back to the grave.

"Daddy only got one shot off," she said.  "I dropped in one bullet in memory of his making an accurate shot under the worst stress of his life."

The deputy looked over at the tomb stone.

"You've already seen those."

Willamina nodded.

"There are eight of them," she said.  "Each one was left by a lawman in memory of that one last shot."

"Yes ma'am."

"Yours is among them."

"No."
Willamina's eyebrow rose a little.

The Athens County deputy slipped thumb and forefinger into his uniform blouse pocket, fished a little, came out with a single bullet.

"But it will be."

Willamina nodded again.  

"Daddy would be pleased that you remembered."

She waited until the deputy rose from his squat, placed his single bullet on the rough, flat top of the lawman's stone, waited until he saluted, stepped back.

"Vincent," she said, "could you help a poor decrepit old woman up?"

Vince laughed, bent down, took both her hands in his and lifted, steadily, carefully.

"I'm still healing up," Willamina admitted, "I've been out of the walking boot three weeks now but I've some muscle building to recover!"  She bent, snatched up the towel, rolled it, placed it with the sod topped core in the gym bag.  "And now if you will excuse me, I have a plane to catch."

 

Linn saw the Lear streak across the sky, circle once, line up with what was sometimes called Firelands International Airport, and sometimes the Firelands Memorial Crash Patch: each term was generally used with tongue firmly in cheek.

Linn smiled a little.

His mother was nothing if not prompt.

He waited, waited beside shining steel mine rails placed on the range, waited beside the wheel-mounted, motor-driven wooden windshield frame, with a head sized quarter-inch steel plate on the simulated driver's side.

Linn loafed against the side of his cruiser, cleaning his nails with his pocket knife, and directly his mother came driving up, pulled up beside him, climbed out.

Linn could tell from the look on his Mama's face she was ready to reach down someone's throat, grab them by the seat of the pants and yank them inside out, and then proceed to get mean with them.

Willamina stood between the mine rails, pressed a button.

The contraption came toward Willamina.

Fast.

It stopped as the plate was slammed back by the impact of a full-house .357.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller, in her tailored suit dress and ugly Marine Corps women's uniform shoes, stood with a double handful of blued steel Smith and Wesson persuasion.

The impact plate reset as the contraption withdrew on the tracks, and Linn, his ears protected by a set of electronic muffs, hear his mother's warrior-voiced shout:

"THAT'S FOR MY DADDY!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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609. "HEY, SOAPY!"

Word travels fast in a small town.

Word travels faster in a small frontier town.

Word travels especially fast if the Sheriff's pretty little girl scratches a Lucifer match and touches flame to the fuse of a stick of blasting powder and blows her Daddy's outhouse to splinters and a mucky mess.

Word travels really fast, and the pale eyed Sheriff knew he would be asked about it: sure enough, one of the loafers about town hailed him cheefully:  "Hey, Soapy," he called, "I hear your daughter has gone into the outhouse business!"

Linn stopped, looked very directly at his tormentor, the hint of a smile peeking out from around the perpetual chill in his gaze:  he laid a companionable hand on the man's shoulder, patted it gently.

"You know," he said, "my wife has an excellent business head on her shoulders, and I reckon my little girl allowed as she might start up a business."

"Do tell!  By blowin' up outhouses?"

"By rebuilding damaged structures," the Sheriff corrected.  "Only she didn't have any damaged structures to practice on, she she decided to start at home."

The loafer frowned, not quite sure how to respond: his attempt at chaffing the pale eyed Sheriff had been effectively derailed with quiet voiced humor, and Linn went on up the board walk, ready to deflect the questions that would undoubtedly follow.

In the course of the morning, he'd explained that his daughter discovered the presence of a ravening monster that only hid in outhouses, and she acted to protect herself and her family: he cited the example of the infamous Hatchet Hound, which devours hatchet-handles, and the Hidebehind, which is a creature that spies on the unwary, but has such phenomenally quick reflexes that it hides behind any cover or concealment to keep from being seen.

In the course of the morning, before he greeted the Parson inside the Mercantile, by his own count he'd told no less than fifteen absolute whopper sized lies, and he felt the need to ask the good Parson Belden's opinion on the state of his corroded soul, having stained said side of himself with said sheer slanders:  the Parson frowned gravely as WJ Garrrison unobtrusively inclined an ear to what was to follow, for it was the general store's owner and proprietor's experience that when this pair got together, things generally got deep, and were more often than not, entertaining.

He was not disappointed.

In the course of conversation and confession, Linn related how he'd described his little girl as fiercely protective, as having a youthful bent to business, how she'd contracted with Black Diamond Powder to test their product in a difficult environment, and by the time he recounted the other several absolute fabrications and outright lies, the good Parson was having a hard time maintaining a straight face: his face was red, the corners of his eyes were crinkled up, and WJ Garrison was having no trouble at all -- at least, not after he'd bunched up his apron, pressed it to his face and stepped around the corner before giving muffled vent to his mirth and merriment generated by a certain pale eyed Sheriff, confessing his several sins to the black suited Parson.

WJ Garrison came back around the corner, his own face flushed; he wiped tears from his eyes, he controlled his breathing with an effort: it was, indeed, for naught:  Parson Belden gave the Sheriff a patient look and said, "Sheriff, if you were struck by lightning in this very moment, I doubt me that your soul would ride the Hell Bound Train.  Saint Peter would have to have an account of your recent ... answers ... and I'm afraid the Gatekeeper himself would be leaned back in his chair, roaring with laughter!"

The Sheriff nodded.

"I've been told," he said slowly, "that I'm as full of it as a sack full of politicians" -- here the shopkeeper turned away, returning the muffling face full of crumpled apron to his visage -- "but if a man of your considered experience tells me my eternal soul is not quite in the jeopardy I'd imagined, why, that puts my mind considerably at ease!"

The two men shook hands.

The Sheriff turned to the red-faced Mercantile proprietor, placed his hands on the edge of the heavy-glass-topped counter, eased the bend out of his lower back.

"Mr. Garrison," he said gently, "if you could do a lawman a kindness?"

"Certainly, Sheriff," WJ Garrison nodded, his cheeks red, shining like a couple polished apples: his ears were flaming scarlet with his recent spell of suppressed sniggers -- even his balding scalp shone a healthy pink -- "Mr. Garrison, if my little girl Angela should come in and ask to buy some blasting powder, please don't sell it to her."
Mr. W. J. Garrison didn't bother with the apron this time; he ended up sinking into his chair, his chin pointed to the far corner up by the ceiling, giving full voiced relief to the mirthful torments given by this straight faced, pale eyed, iron grey mustached old lawman.

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610.  "NO, THAT WAS GOOD HONEST REVENGE!"

"Sir?"

Linn looked up.

They were both seated at the kitchen table, which served as meal service, confenence chamber, homework platform, the occasional mechanical rebuild -- which tended to cause misunderstandings, when something was in a state of disassembly and it was mealtime, and generally engendered mild feminine exasperation -- "Shouldn't you be doing that on a workbench somewhere?" 

Today it was a combination of homework and relaxed reading.

The meal was completed, chores were done, dishes washed and put away; the television was silent, computers were off, and Jacob leaned back from the borrowed library book, rubbed his forehead, frowned.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

Linn looked up from his copy of McGivern's Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting, slipped a bookmark between the pages, closed the volume.

"Sir, there seems to be a strong sense of history in the area."

Linn blinked slowly, like a sleepy cat, nodded.  "I'd say so, yes."

"You were named after a particular ancestor."

Linn nodded again, slowly.

"I believe I was also."

"Me too!"  young Joseph piped up with a quick and eager grin, for he wished to be included in the conversation.

"Jacob, yes you were, but you, Joseph" -- the Sheriff turned his head, regarded his younger son with a solemn expression -- "you, young man, were named out of a sense of good honest revenge."

Joseph wasn't sure whether to look startled, crestallen or button-bustin' proud, and so he replied with all the considered intelligence of his few years:

"Huh?"

Linn leaned his elbows on the table, steepled his fingers:  Shelly gave him an assessing look -- Linn felt her gaze, met her eyes, nodded once, and Shelly turned to the cupboard and proceeded to set out several bowls.

"This," Linn said, "takes some explaining.  Joseph, you remember going to the cemetery with us."

Shelly opened the freezer, withdrew a half gallon of chocolate marbled ice cream, set it on the counter.

"Yes, sir?"

"Joseph, do you remember in the old section -- the double stone, with my name on it."

Joseph frowned, confused.  "The big one?"

Linn nodded.  "You asked me about the oval portrait we had laser engraved in it. You couldn't figure out why my portrait was on that old stone, and a pretty woman's beside it that wasn't your Mama."

"You said it was you when you were older," little Joseph said, his voice that of a little boy who didn't completely grasp the situation.

"That's the stone.  Now close your eyes and stand in front of the stone."

Little Joseph Keller's swinging legs stilled as he flattened both pink-scrubbed hands on the kitchen table, his head upright, eyes closed: mentally he stood before the ancient grave marker.

"Now. You are standing in front of the tomb stone. Look to the right."

Joseph's mental camera panned right.

"Do you see the small stone just to the right of the double stone?"

"The one with the lamb on top?"

"That's the one."

"I see it."

"Look under the lamb.  What name do you see?"

Young Joseph's eyes snapped open, startled, just as his Mama was lowering a bowl of ice cream to the place mat in front of him.

"What is the name on that lamb marker?"

"Joseph," he whispered, his eyes suddenly wide.

Linn nodded.

"Joseph, do you know what happened to that Joseph?"

"He died," Joseph whispered.

Linn nodded.  "Yes, he did.  Do you know how?"

Young Joseph shook his head, the chilled treat before him forgotten.

Shelly reached around him, shook crushed nuts over the confection with one hand, drizzled chocolate sauce from the warmed bottle with the other:  she handed off nuts and bottle to Jacob, then picked up the can of whipped cream, shook it.

"Can I do it, Mama?"

Shelly handed the can to Joseph, who proceeded to coil a young mountain of whipped cream to a dangerous height:  Shelly carefully dropped one shining-red cherry and a drizzle of cherry juice over the white prominence, went on around the table, and by the time she got to Linn, the can of whipped cream was depleted enough he got about a tablespoon of the white stuff on his ice cream before the can sighed and went empty.

"Joseph," Linn said, "your namesake, died a crib death. You were named Joseph out of a sense of revenge. I was damned if outrageous fate and fickle fortune would keep us from a fine young man bearing an honorable name."

"How come there's no Angela?" Joseph demanded.

"You remember your history," Linn nodded -- Jacob did not miss that Linn and his Mama shared a glance -- and Linn said slowly, "Joseph, there's a good reason for that."

Linn drizzled chocolate sauce over his ice cream, shook on some nuts thanked his wife quietly as she dropped a cherry on her husband's portion.

"Y'see, Joseph, Angela Keller was a pretty little girl.  She wasn't Old Pale Eyes' only daughter, but she was his ... well, actually, she was his second daughter, and she was flat forevermore beautiful."

"Is Marnie beautiful?" Jacob asked, big-eyed and innocent, and Linn looked up as Marnie skipped down the stairs in her sock feet, her hair bouncing behind her: she'd finished her homework in her room and came down at the sputtering blucker of whipped cream, which meant ice cream, which meant she'd better get downstairs before it was all gone.

"Yours is on the counter," Shelly murmured:  Marnie picked up her bowl -- it was already anointed and garnished -- and settled at her place at the table.

Linn looked at his daughter: Shelly laid a hand on her husband's shoulder, and Linn reached up, patted his wife's hand.

"Yes, Joseph," he said honestly.  "Marnie is beautiful."

Joseph looked at his sister, frowned, looked back at his long tall Pa.

"She looks like Marnie," he complained.

"Yes," Linn agreed, and his smile was relaxed and genuine as he looked at his pale eyed daughter.

"Yes, Joseph, she does."

"How come we don't have a sister named Angela?"

"Marnie came to us already named, and I don't like changing a girl's name," Linn explained:  he thrust his spoon into the ice cream, left it to stand upright as he planted his elbows and steepled his fingers -- "it's very bad luck to rename a boat, or to rename a girl.  Besides" -- he smiled again to see the color rising in Marnie's cheeks -- "if I'd named her Angela, she'd probably blow up the outhouse."

Joseph, Jacob and Marnie all three stopped, lowered their spoons and quite honestly stared at their pale eyed Pa.

Three children's voices chorused the same interrogative.

"Sir?"

Linn laughed quietly, leaned his head back, looked up at his wife, then he spread his hands and said in a truly awful, very nasal, New York accent -- "Well, youse guys, it was like this."

 

Angela Keller frowned.

Angela Keller wanted to use the outhouse, but she didn't want to go in.

Angela's big brother Jacob told her the Slimy Monster from the Sulfur Crick lived under the outhouse and it liked to reach up and grab children and pull 'em down in the muck and mire.

Angela's eyes had grown huge and she turned and ran, ran to escape the monster, ran to escape the mental picture, ran to escape her brother's words.

Angela ran, ducked behind a shed, leaned heavily against the back of the shed, breathing heavily, her mind screaming, spinning, scrambling for an answer!

Daddy wouldn't let no mean old monster live under there!

Daddy wouldn't let no mean old monster grab his little girl!

Daddy would've shot it -- guns must not do any good -- what else would kill that slimy old monster from the Sulfur Crick?

Angela's breathing was still labored, but it steadied as the answer came to her.

She peeked quickly around the shed.

Jacob was nowhere to be seen.

Angela knew her Daddy got some blasting powder and he said he hadn't used all those waxy paper sticks of the stuff and he'd said it was out in the shed and she lifted the latch and opened the door and she saw the open crate and Angela reached in and grabbed a stick of blasting powder and looked at it.

It already had a fuse in it.

You mean old monster! she thought, then, my Daddy will be proud of me!

Angela Keller looked around, smiled.

She reached up, took down a glass jar, loosed the lid -- she reached in, pulled out two Lucifer matches, capped the jar and set it back.

A stick of blasting powder in one hand, two Lucifer matches in the other, Angela ran back toward the outhouse.

She peeked around the corner of the house.

Her big brother Jacob was just going into the house.

Good.

Angela took a deep breath, regarded the outhouse as if it were a personal enemy -- her expression was about three-fourths fearful, one-fourth determined.

Angela Keller went running to the outhouse.

She seized the turn-peg, turned it to release the door --

She yanked open the door, stepped boldly inside --

Angela Keller slapped the stick of blasting powder down on the seat, she stuck her face over the hole and yelled, "YOU MEAN OLD MONT-STER, I'M GONNA GET YOU!" -- she scraped one Lucifer match against another, held the two flaring heads together, under the end of the fuse --

Jacob heard his little sister's angry yell, came back out on the back porch, saw Angela lift a stick of blasting powder, its fuse sputtering in the shadowed outhouse --

Jacob vaulted over the back porch railing as Angela's little arm drove that stick of blasting powder, throwing it into the depths of their outhouse as hard as she could --

"YOU MEAN OLD MONST-STER, TAKE THAT!" --

Jacob seized his little sister from behind --

Startled, Angela screamed, felt as if she'd just been snatched by a witch brooming by at some phenomenal speed --

Jacob clutched his little sis to him, ran backward out of the outhouse, turning to sprint toward the house --

Jacob stumbled --

Can't recover --

Don't crush Angela --

Keep her safe --

Jacob twisted, landed on his back, hard, Angela atop him, just as the powder went off with its characteristic, deep-toned, low-frequency BOOOOM --

Jacob Keller, the wind knocked out of him, rolled over and covered Angela with his body as the splintered outhouse was sundered by the blast, blown up off its foundation; the boards did not splinter, they just sort of separated, and what had been a solid and well built outhouse, descended to earth as a loose collection of somewhat worse for wear, mostly split apart, planks.

Jacob was half-curled, Angela under him: he heard things hitting the ground around him --

Nothing hit him --

Linn came running out onto the back porch, vaulted the rail, landed on all fours:  one leap and he was spider-standing protectively overtop his children --

He stood, slowly, and Jacob rolled over.

Angela sat up and discovered she was sitting on Jacob's belly.

She stood up too.

Linn reached down, Jacob reached up, father and son grasped forearms and Jacob came to his feet as well.

Linn looked at the expanding, drifting blue cloud and the pile of ruin.

"What just happened?" he asked, and Jacob opened his mouth to reply, but Angela cut him off.

"Jacob told me the Slimy Mont-ster from the Sulfur Crick was gonna reach up an' grab me an' drag me down the hole an' I don't 'low no mont-ster to do that!" -- she hoisted her little nose in the air with a distinct hmpf! -- she seized her short skirts, hoisted then like she'd seen her Mama do, and she marched off toward the steps, up onto the back porch and into the house, her chin in the air and her spine stiff with disapproval.

Linn looked at Jacob and Jacob looked at his father, and they both looked at what used to be an outhouse.

Linn's arm went companionably around his son's shoulders.

"Jacob," he said softly, "never underestimate the power of a woman!"

 

Linn reached down, loosened the spoon in his ice cream.

"You see," he said, "just as I will not countenance Joseph's death, I will not countenance having my outhouse blown up.  Having a son named Joseph, slapping Fate in the face with that historic affront, is risk enough."  

Linn savored his first bite of ice cream.

"Joseph, if I were to have a little girl named Angela, who knows what she'd blow to hell!"

Shelly squeezed Linn's shoulders and Marnie saw a funny look on her Mama's face.

"Um, honey," Shelly said hesitantly, "there's something I need to tell you."

Shelly stepped back, laid a maternal hand on her belly, gave her husband a knowing look.

Three children stopped and stared as their pale eyed Pa powered out of his seat, seized their Mama under the arms, hoisted her off the floor and spun her around: her head was back and she was laughing like a little girl, and their expressions were of absolute delight.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
Grammar. Were, not was.
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611. DADDY'S GIRL

Dana Keller was the Sheriff's little girl.

Oh, there were others; her big sister Angela was to be married off very soon now, and Dana was hiding around the corner as her Daddy talked in his gentle Daddy-voice, as he told Angela that even though she was about to become a wife, and in time she would become a mother and a matron and the Woman of her Household, as long as he drew breath, she would always, always! be Daddy's Little Girl.

Girls are generally smarter than menfolk would give them credit; Angela was smart enough to realize her Daddy -- her big strong Daddy, her rough and tough Daddy, her Daddy-the-Sheriff, her Daddy-the-Man-Who-Keeps-Things-Peaceful, her Daddy she'd watched pick up a man and slam him down into a horse trough, and hold him underwater for a while until he decided to quit fighting, her Daddy who laughed that big strong Daddy-laugh and gathered his young to him of an evening and one time strode into a burning house to seize two scared kids around their middles and haul them out, then go back in to pack out as much as he could (to the detriment of his coat, his hat and some scarring he carried for the rest of his life!) -- her Daddy, a giant in a land of giants, had a heart bigger than he was, and Angela knew with this preternatural knowledge that there was room enough in that man sized chest of his for every daughter he'd ever sired, plus his wife, several horses and a particular curly furred Bear Killer of a mountain Mastiff.

Dana Keller did not resent Angela, especially on this, her wedding day: the younger, fair-haired Dana patiently endured Bonnie McKenna's ministrations and the fussing attentions of several of the ladies who worked at the House of McKenna: when they were done, Dana knew she and her several sisters were beautiful, but she also knew the Ladies McKenna were artists in the finest sense of the word, and lovely as she and her sisters were become, the bride was the showpiece, and not one of the daughters Keller was more beautiful than her big sister Angela.

At least this is what Dana told herself.

She smiled, she nodded, she played the set-piece that was her lot that day; there were celebrants from wide and from far, filling their little whitewashed church and admiring the well dressed and solemn-faced young men and the beautiful Daughters of the Sheriff on their arm, marching in slow pace down the aisle as mountain fiddles spun magic in the hushed atmosphere: afterward, the Silver Jewel was well tenanted with the wedding reception, and Dana took advantage of the milling post-wedding confusion to slip down the back hallway, past the fragrant, steaming and overly warm kitchen, to slip out the back door, to snatch up her skirts, and to run down the packed dirt alleyway to the livery.

There was music within the Jewel, there was laughter, the Silver Jewel Saloon rang to happy shouts and toasts and Gaelic oaths, to prayers in three languages and happiness enough to roll out every door like a flood, and none within heard the quick tattoo of a tough-mouthed, short-coupled little mare galloping away from the celebration, none within noted the beautiful girl in a bridesmaid's gown, riding shamelessly astride, with her gown immodestly pulled up to accommodate.

There were, however, those who watched, those who saw ... there were those, who followed.

Dana drew up behind her house: she tethered the rented mare to a handy hitch, ran inside: her sharp little heels were loud as she ran down the hallway, pounded up the stairs: somehow she managed to free herself from the gown which had been carefully, immaculately, precisely tailored to fit her slender, girlish figure -- she silently cursed the clever seamstress that sewed it shut at strategic points, rather than rely on more conventional fasteners -- Dana honestly threw her feminine attire from her as if it were unclean: when she came downstairs, it was with a Marlin rifle in hand, a Stetson on her head, it was in a flannel shirt and a riding skirt and a leather vest and her old comfortable riding boots:  as rapidly as she'd run northward in the downstairs hallway, she ran just as swiftly to the south:  for a miracle, the back door did not lose its window-glass as it banged open, nor did she shiver the well-made door from its hinges as she slammed it shut, though the rented mare was startled by both her abrupt emergence, and by her running down the back porch stairs.

Dana untied the mare, led it to their horse lot, tied it off again: two fingers to her lips and she whistled, a high, pure note, somehow sweeter for singing from feminine lips than a man's whistle might be:  she heard the quick pace of an unusually tall Appaloosa mare -- Dana had her choice of any in her Daddy's herd, and normally she would have chosen one of the soft-gaited Pasos, but she wanted something tough, something with endurance, and Dancer was the pick of the herd for both speed, endurance, and sheer, hard-headed toughness.

Dancer was also patient, which factored into Dana's choice as well.

Directly after, a pretty girl with a rifle under her leg, a revolver on her belt and a rented mare being towed behind, set a quick pace for Firelands, for she had to return the rented nag before she departed.

Field glasses followed the beautiful daughter of the pale eyed Sheriff as she left the livery; one, then another, set out to follow, but not too closely, and riders who followed took pains to not let themselves be seen by the lovely young quarry they pursued.

Dana rode eastward, out of town, until she came across the trail she sought:  this was an old Indian trail and it curled up the mountain, doubled back, doubled back again: while it would have been most improper back East for a daughter of society to ride horses, to explore the high and wild country, to disappear into the mountains with a rifle and a knife and little else, Dana reveled in this freedom she learned very young, learned from her pale-eyed Papa, from his closest friends, from her several brothers: high and higher yet she climbed, until she came to a hanging meadow she knew of, until she came to two boulders near a line shack, a remote, isolated structure that once served as a wedding night bower for her older sister Sarah.

The two boulders were each taller than two men, probably a single massive rock at one time; they appeared to have been cloven by a giant's ax, parted like a man will split a saw-chunk for kindling: it was wide enough for her to ride, if she rode carefully, between them: the cleft was lined up perfectly, so that on Midsummer's Day, the rising sun shone into the gap, and her pale eyed big sister Sarah told her once that a descendant of theirs would give birth in this cleft, just as the sun rose, and the first long red rays shot into the gap between these towering, stony sentinels.

Dana rode through the gap at a walk; the Appaloosa mare turned, walked back, stopped.

Dana regarded what had been Sarah's wedding bower.

It was long since stripped of curtains and comforts, it was returned to its status as a line shack -- though it was now proof against any intruding wind, the stove was replaced with a better example, wood stood stacked and ready, and there was water nearby.

Dana had drunk that water, and found it good.

she walked the Appaloosa over to the spring, picked up the tin cup that lived upside-down on a stake beside it: she and Dancer drank gratefully, drank with honest pleasure, for both were dry from their ride.

Dana slung the last drops from the tin cup, returned it to its stake,upside-down to keep from collecting wind-blown dirt or weed-chaff:  she returned to the line shack, stood and studied it, Dancer following, stopping just beside and behind her a little.

Dana stood, remembering, as she studied the simple, weathered structure: she knew there was a bunk within, a table and two chairs, maybe some canned goods, if any had been brought up since winter's freeze retreated northward.

Dana swung down, withdrew the compact Marlin rifle, watched her mare's ears.

The Appaloosa was relaxed, more interested in graze than much else.

A few hundred yards distant, two sets of eyes regarded the pretty, blue-eyed daughter of that long tall Sheriff:  the watchers held their position, content -- at least for now -- content merely to watch.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller was a noted dancer, and a favorite among the ladies: he'd long maintained that women were creatures of grace and beauty, and that women were naturally good dancers: just as a man of mediocre skill could appear to be a marvelously good dancer when paired with his late daughter, Sarah, or with his late wife Esther, so could a woman of less than stellar skill suddenly become light and graceful and admirably talented when paired with the Sheriff.

The music ended, there was applause, the Sheriff raised a rancher's wife's knuckles to his lips, kissed her hand in a most gentlemanly manner: as the woman blushed and dropped both her eyes and a perfect curtsy, a young man stepped up beside the Sheriff, murmured something in his ear:  the pale eyed Sheriff looked at the messenger, his expression serious, and nodded, once.

Emma Cooper, the stout, matronly wife of the town marshal, bustled up to the Sheriff, her expression hopeful:  the music started again, the Sheriff took her hand, ran his other hand around her waist, and whirled her quickly into an absolutely flawless waltz.

 

Dana leaned against one of the sentinel boulders, one boot up behind her against the rock; her eyes were busy, she was listening with more than her ears, and she was watching her mare.

The Appaloosa was closer to a wild creature than most horses; if any intruded, especially if any men came near, Dana would know it.

The rifle she had propped up on her thigh was engraved around the muzzle, just like her Daddy's '73 rifle, though hers was a shorter, lighter rifle, with a much more slender, round barrel:  still, it had the double band, inlaid with gold, with vine-work between the bands, and near the receiver, engraved vines slithered up the breech and under the rear sight, vines with roses hand chased into blued steel: gold, the engraving was, golden vines, with the roses inlaid with a distinctly reddish gold: Dana was never happy with the dark-gold roses, and often threatened to use a fine tipped brush, or perhaps a darning needle to insinuate crimson paint into the roses' engraving: she theatened, but never did, as the engravure was most skilled, and she did not wish to detract from the excellent work of the metalsmith that carved an otherwise realistic likeness into Marlin steel.

It was quiet, here on the mountain, which suited her.

No doubt, had she remained down below, she would be entreated to dance, and she would have to endure the torments of having her toes trod by celebrating men who meant her no ill will, but who danced with no great skill:  no, far better she absent herself from such a crowded and noisy proceeding.

Part of her wondered what it would be like, to have men look at her while she was so well dressed, but the rest of her was content with solitude and flannel.

This, she knew, would change, but not now.

Not yet.

Not while she remained maidenly, not before womanliness forced itself upon her.

Now, this moment, she was content to let her thoughts sort themselves out, while she leaned against this prophesied boulder.

It was not until the sun was well near the horizon that Dana leaned away from the boulder's solid, sun-warmed comfort, that she thrust rifle into scabbard, boot into stirrup, not until the evening was beginning to chill, just a little, that she turned her mare's nose back down the mountain.

Dana rode the Appaloosa mare through a passage known to very few, a passage known only to her family, so far as she knew -- searching eyes saw her disappear, others caught her sight as she emerged above what had been the Llewellyn household, a haunted stone construction that now stood empty: the watchers advanced cautiously, maintaining their surveillance, ready to ride forward and strike if the need should arise, but otherwise, content to remain unseen.

Later that night, after Dana carefully draped the discarded gown over the foot of her bed, neatly laid as if she'd placed it there deliberately instead of having heaved it into the corner -- after Dana came downstairs, attired as an important man's daughter ought to be -- after Dana smiled and laughed and agreed with her sisters that it was a most pleasant day withal, after she carefully deflected their questions -- the blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, apple-cheeked Dana Keller presented herself for the evening meal.

The Sheriff looked at his little girl, a smile in his eyes, and a look of satisfaction, for the young men he'd recruited had kept a faithful watch on his little girl:  men of the frontier, men he trusted, men who stayed out of sight, and yet maintained an armed watch, seeing to it that a brother lawman's daughter would remain untroubled, unmolested, in a time when her pale eyed Daddy figured she might have need of some time to herself.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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612. ANOTHER DADDY, ANOTHER GIRL

Four skulls bleached in the dry Colorado air.

Four skulls were impaled on sharpened stakes, belt high on a tall man: the four showed the ill effects of weathering: one was missing its lower jaw, the wayward mandible having fallen, or been pulled off by some scavening animal; another had the characteristic wedge shaped opening that told the viewing eye, that an ax had cloven fatally deep into the skull.

A third skull, a little coal-black hair clinging to one side, had a hole where the ear would have been; the other side of the skull was mostly gone.

The fourth, if you cared to bend over a little and stare into the haunting, dark, vacant socket, had a slit in the back, the legacy of a knife blade driven through the eye and deep into the brain.

Four eyeless skulls rotted in the thin Colorado mountain air; insects landed, laid their eggs; larvae, bacteria and weather served to strip flesh from bone.

The location was obviously carefully chosen.

The skulls were exposed to sunlight, from sunup on the Eastern horizon, to sundown on the Western; exposed bone was bleaching out already, eyeless sockets staring into eternity.

 

John Greenlees Jr was an honor student.

John Greenlees Jr was taking advanced placement classes.

John Greenlees Jr was pinned against the brick wall of the Firelands High School hallway by a swarthy hand gripping his throat.

John's thought process had been absolutely shattered: one moment he was mentally reviewing what he would need to present in the next class, the next -- the next, something hit his windpipe, he was slammed against the brick wall hard enough to see stars, it was hard to breathe --

Students stood back, shocked: here and there, a phone was raised, pictures hastily taken -- one phone was snatched by one of the attacker's lieutenants, two other cameras captured this seizure -- as well as the look of surprise on the attacker's face as one of his lieutenants suddenly went over backwards.

John's vision cleared as his captor looked away: he reached up, quickly, not thinking, reacting as he'd been taught:  he seized both the attacker's thumbs and twisted out and back, fast, hard, with all the sudden strength he could muster.

John Greenlees Jr was the son of a respected physician in town.

John Greenlees spent his time in the advanced studies he would need for medical school.

John Greenlees practiced suturing, he frowned as he listened through a better quality stethoscope than most used in their local hospital, listened to simulated lung sounds: his attention was into a microscope, considering the pathology of slides provided by like minded folk in said hospital.

In short, John Greenlees Jr was not a fighter:  his intent was to become a healer and not a reaver, but when lawless hands are about one's throat, one has little choice but to respond.

He did.

Marnie Keller kicked a knee from behind, seized one of the attacker's lieutenants by the throat and introduced the back of his head to the floor tiles, hard: her hand still on his throat, she spun, almost like a Cossack dancer, drove the edge of her boot high up on the back of another's calf:  this one, too, went down, across the first one:  multiple screams shivered the hallway, one because of a pair of dislocated thumbs, another due to a dislocated knee: a knife snapped from a dirty-knuckled fist, drove forward into the Algebra text Marnie was carrying: she powered into her block, stopped the blade and drove the heel of her hand up and under the knifer's nose, grabbed his wrist, spun.

Bone splintered, cartilage surrendered to sudden overwhelming stress with the sound of a twisted stalk of celery, and the fight was over.

 

The conference between the principal and the Sheriff was tense. 

As Landers felt it necessary to have legal representation present for their talk, the Sheriff brought the county prosecutor: Dr. John Greenlees was present as well, with his attorney, and Principal Landers found himself wishing most sincerely he'd called in the Superintendent as well.

Outside, Shelly stood on Marnie's left, a uniformed deputy on her right: two more deputies stood at correct, military parade-rest outside the open office door: many of the students knew them by name, greeted them cautiously; the deputies nodded courteously, gravely, but did not move from their station.

Word traveled fast -- as did the threats.

The Sheriff consulted with the county prosecutor; it was evident, Linn said, that John Greenlees' life was in imminent peril, it was evident from video that the three backing the attacker were all armed, and from testimony of other students -- who hadn't been comfortable coming forward, not until they were sure they would not be assaulted by these four, who'd done it before, and not a few times -- with this additional witness testimony, charges were brought against all four.

There remained the question of charges against the Sheriff's daughter.

The Sheriff conducted a number of interviews, but did not speak of the matter with Marnie, nor would he: her interrogation would be by another agency.

The school's attorney insisted that they would interrogate Marnie and would prefer charges of expulsion for fighting; a quiet conversation with the county prosecutor  persuaded him otherwise, perhaps having something to do with the school's consistent failure to prevent known trouble makers from violence.

 

Marnie took a page from her father's book, the same page she found in her Uncle Will's book:  she had street sources, she cultivated informants, she placed herself in the middle of a web, feeling for vibrations at its periphery, knowing that she was a target, she was marked, she had shamed a gang and they would be out for bloody revenge, and the fact that she was a girl, would be of no help when they made their move.

The Sheriff had his sources; he heard the same threats; it was a matter of personal discomfiture that, when the offending parties were released from hospital into the care of the authorities, after trial and sentencing, that no move was made against his daughter.

Principal Landers had additional surveillance cameras mounted in the student parking area; John Greenlees chose to be driven to school, and picked up after school, rather than risk leaving his personal vehicle to be damaged or destroyed: his car, and his parents' vehicles, were kept in a locked garage, with additional measures to safeguard home, hearth and vehicles: there were false reports of threats being made by Marnie or John, allegations easily disproven: in fact, it was possible to track two of the threats to two of the aforementioned gangsta lieutenants, who -- when  brought in for questioning, having been sentenced to probation rather than prison, denied everything and promptly disappeared.

An attempt at shooting the Sheriff's horses was made, at least until Jacob reared up on the passenger side of the vehicle, drove the muzzle of his shotgun through the rolled up glass and shucked the riot gun's pump action before the fully-automatic AK could be triggered: this time there would be no probation, at least not for this pair of strangers.

The Sheriff went to pick up the other three for questioning.

They, too, disappeared, and their families did not seem terribly concerned with their having left without warning.

The Firelands County Sheriff's Office put out a BOLO on the missing gang members.

They never turned up.

 

Many years later, the pale eyed Sheriff was handed an envelope by a courier, a trusted young woman with GUNFIGHTER stenciled across the front of her flight helmet.

The Sheriff read the outside of the envelope, frowned: he reached in, pulled out the first sheet.

It was a hand drawn map.

He frowned as he studied the map.

The location was very remote; it was high up, he knew the area, and he knew nobody lived within several miles of the place.

He laid the map aside, sat down, pulled out several sheets in his daughter's handwriting.

 

Daddy, you deserve to know what happened.

The map will show where I poled their skulls.

Their bodies are long since burned, ground and scattered.

You may remember when we thought a gang was going to sneak up and murder John and I.

I was not going to let anything happen to the man I intended to marry.

When they threatened to cut his eyes out, cut off his fingers and become otherwise offensive, I knew it was up to me to keep him safe, and there was only one way I could do that.

 

Marnie swung the ax.

She'd split wood since earliest childhood, to her Mama's protests:  it was not ladylike, she declared, for a girl to have muscles, for a girl to have calluses.

Out of respect for her Mama's wishes, Marnie wore gloves to spit wood, to stack wood, but it did not stop her strict, demanding regimen of sit-ups, push-ups, chin-ups and swinging kettlebells, throwing bales of hay and bench pressing an impressive amount of cast iron stacked on the barbell's shaft.

Marnie called a number, pitched her voice a little lower than her normal register:  her singing was first rate, she'd taken vocal training, and though she never displayed it in public, she could successfully pitch her voice to sound quite, different, and did, when it suited her.

She placed a phone call.

When the accented voice spoke, she said that Greenlees kid was talking smack and wanted to meet you, and she named a place, and then she disconnected and disassembled her burner phone.

She pressed a button on a little black box.

Immediately a signal was sent: this triggered a second signal, which activated multiple devices surrounding the recipient of her phone call, absoutely scrambling any cell phone signals.

Marnie picked up her ax, waited.

She knew the troublemaker would not come alone; she planned for that:  when he came into the abandoned shack, coming from full daylight into mostly shadowed dark with no windows behind, something moved in front of him, and the last thing to pass through his mind was the sharpened bit of an ax.

Marnie was all in black and invisible to his daylight-bleached retinas.

She stepped quickly to the side, picked up a Winchester rifle, thumbed back the hammer: the second one came in.

Part of Marnie's mind was amazed at the concussion; another part was delighted that her electronic earplugs worked as well as they did.

 

John Greenlees stepped back, his face grim.

"Nice sutures," Marnie murmured.

John nodded.

The beeves were infected and had to be put down: he and Marnie gutted them, hauled the offal some distance and left them, a treat for the scavengers: the two bodies were crudely cut up, all but their heads; the parts were stuffed into the dead beeves' cavities, sewn in place.

The local vet had a mobile crematory; that would take care of these two.

The first two skulls were poled, on a lonesome promontory, while young John Greenlees placed a call on another burner phone.

 

Linn looked up from his daughter's account, his expression guarded.

He blinked, considered: a slice of pie was slid in front of him, two big scoops of ice cream placed atop the broad wedge.

Linn slipped the page behind its fellows, bringing more of the story to view.

I met the third one coming in, he read.

I held the knife like a punch dagger and drove it as deep as I could, through his left eye.

He fell, convulsing.

The fourth ran until my lariat dropped over his neck.

I hauled back hard, brought him off his feet.

I dallied my line around the saddlehorn and kicked Lightfoot into a run and I drag hanged the last of them.

He suffered.

I wanted him to suffer before he died, and he did.

I cut off their heads and I poled their skulls and I burnt their bodies and I ground their bones.

I never told anyone what I did.

John knew, and said nothing.

I was officially asked if I knew anything about their disappearance.

Daddy, I make no apology for having looked you in the eye and lied.

I told you and anyone else who asked, if I knew what happened to them.

I knew The System would not keep me safe.

I kept me safe, Daddy.

I would do the same thing again.

You deserve to know the truth, so here it is.

I will trust you to give this account back to our trusted messenger and say nothing of it.

Sheriff Linn Keller considered what he'd just read.

He carefully, precisely, stacked the pages, tapped them into alignment, slid them back into the envelope.

The Gunfighter was happily seated beside him, working on her apple pie and marble fudge ice cream.

Linn thought for a moment, then withdrew the sheaf of papers: he considered the last page, clicked the ballpoint pen out into working position, wrote a few lines, his firm, regular script distinctly different from his daughter's more feminine hand.

He contained this superscripted bundle back into its envelope, handed it off to Gunfighter, picked up his fork.

"How's the pie?" he asked.

"Oh Gawd this is good," she mumbled happily through a mouthful.

Linn nodded.  "I was afraid if it was bad, I might have to eat it all so nobody else would get sick."

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller withdrew the bundle from the envelope, placed it face down on her desk, turned over the last page.

Dr. John Greenlees saw his wife read the page, saw her finger go to her lips, saw her even, white teeth bite down on her finger as she re-read the words:  she closed her eyes, whispered, "Thank you, Daddy."

Beneath her account, her father's regular, masculine handwriting:

Your fictional account of an event which never occurred, is both interesting and good reading.

You'll make a fine author.  Keep it up!

PS, the skulls are still there, and you beat me to them.

I was arranging to do something very similar.

You acted to protect your own.

Your Old Pale Eyed Daddy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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613. A LITTLE CHILD

A pair of wide, wondering eyes regarded the brightly painted, five point star on the front of the engine's boiler.

The Lady Esther breathed as she waited, fire in her belly, steam in her heart, memories laying thick about her like a cloak about a noblewoman: Joseph Keller considered the letters, relief cast in a circle around the star -- he knew it said something about Baldwin, but he was not that good at reading yet.

Joseph strutted across the hand-laid, gravel-bedded railroad tie, stepped over the shining steel rail, turned, looked up again:  he climbed back up on the heavy gravel ballast, until he was nearly touching the brightly-painted, hand-polished engine: he looked up at her diamond stack, black and powerful against the blue sky above:  Joseph felt the heat radiating from her riveted belly, looked down, considered how tall the cast iron wheels were -- it's not that the spoked, pinstriped wheels were that tall, it's that the lad ... wasn't.

Joseph Keller had yet to start school, but that did not prevent his education: every night he would cuddle on his Daddy's lap, content to feel the Grand Old Man's chest rumble, warm and solid behind him, knowing nowhere in the entire world was safer than his Daddy's lap.

Sometimes his Daddy would work with him with his letters, showing him how they appear at intervals on a newspaper headline, for instance; he would have Joseph point out all the E's or all the A's or all the L's in a headline -- in time, he would be teaching his son fractions, with the assistance of a set of combination wrenches, a tape measure and other hands-on, practical applications of everyday learning.

For today, though, Joseph was learning by observation: the engine's sand pipes were polished, brass, gracefully curved; his sister Marnie one time drew the engine, and Joseph remembered how beautifully she'd curved those sander lines, how she'd flawlessly reproduced the squat teakettle shape of the sand dome, how patient she'd been as she explained this was a steam dome, this was a sand dome -- Joseph looked waaay up and grinned, for he knew which was which!

Sheriff Linn Keller was watching his son, perhaps remembering what it was to be a wee child, marveling at the world and seeing it with new eyes, and perhaps he too had some distant memory of marveling, childlike, at the steam engine that carried its namesake's portrait on the side of its brightly-painted cab.

The pale eyed Sheriff wondered how many young had gazed with that look of wondering marvel he saw in his son's expression.

 

A pretty young woman in an immaculately fitted gown paced slowly down the depot platform.

She wore a fashionable little hat, she had a matching, lacy parasol over her shoulder; she had a patient, kindly expression, and she smiled a little at the sight of two little boys standing in the middle of the tracks, gazing with rapt wonder at the five pointed star on the nose of The Lady Esther's boiler.

One lad was a townie, by his clothes; the other Sarah recognized as one of Sean's several young: his boys were mostly red headed and blue eyed, with the milk-fair skin and freckles that bespoke the dermatological legacy of father and mother both: though the boys had different backgrounds, they were united in a sense of rapt wonder, for to their young sensibilities, this cast iron Baldwin engine was alive -- alive! -- they could hear her breathe, they felt the animal warmth radiating from her metallic hide -- they knew she labored, patiently, powerfully, like the dumb oxen that hauled freight wagons and the occasional covered wagon that passed infrequently through Firelands.

Two little boys drifted down beside the engine, studying her with the rapt attention of the young who'd found something truly fascinating.

 

It was not a rare thing to see the ladies of the Tea Society, dressed in the fashion of a century agone: if they had a tour group, the Ladies would often act as guides, as docents, and so the pale eyed Linn Keller did not take it at all amiss to see a young woman in a lovely gown, mostly silhouetted in the depot's shadowed overhang.

She did look somewhat familiar, yes, but he was Sheriff, and at one time or another he'd laid eyes on every living soul in his county.

She stood in shadow; the sun was bright on the side of the building behind her, and so he could not see the quiet smile as she looked knowingly -- approvingly -- at him.

He looked down, allowed himself the slightest of smiles as his Joseph turned toward him with a little-boy grin of absolute delight, then turned and ran for his Da --

Linn squatted to meet the youthful charge, and just before little Joseph ran happily into his Daddy's embrace, Linn looked up and felt a little pang of disappointment, for the woman he'd seen in silhouette, was gone -- and then Joseph, all grin and giggle and happy little boy, filled the lean waisted lawman's arms, and all thought of the feminine shadow disappeared.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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614. WHY THE BUM, CHUM?

 

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller tilted her head, regarded the young man in green medical scrubs with an interested expression.

"Mind if I join you?" she asked: he looked up, smiled faintly.

"Help yourself," he sighed, then turned his downcast eyes back to his untouched and nearly cold burger and fries.

"I know that expression," Willamina murmured.  "How bad?"  She raised a summoning finger, picked up McKay's platter, handed it to the waitress:  "Could you warm this up, please, and bring one for me too?"

She looked back at the fellow across the table from her.

It wasn't common to see someone in surgical scrubs in the Silver Jewel; it wasn't entirely unknown, but it did look ... unusual.

The Silver Jewel was, after all, a saloon: the Silver Jewel deliberately kept the Old West decor, the appearance, the feel: back during Prohibition, it became a restaurant, which was nothing new -- the Silver Jewel had long had a well deserved reputation for excellent meals -- during the lean years of the Volstead Act, a soda fountain was installed behind the polished, heavy mahogany bar: as soon as it was revoked, the ice cream freezers and the soda fountain apparatus were dismounted, sold to the pharmacy down the street, and business as originally intended, resumed.

Including the excellent restaurant.

And so it was that a nurse sat at one of the window booths, staring sightlessly through his stone cold burger, at least until the pale eyed Willamina came up and laid an understanding hand on his shoulder and asked, "Why the bum, chum?" -- so deep was he sunk in his personal misery that he honestly did not hear her.

The companionable hand on his shoulder, her shift to come fully into his periphery, roused him from his gloom: Willamina waited until two platters came to rest on the table and her coffee poured, then she asked him again.

"If your face was any longer," she said, "you'd have to strap a roller skate on your chin.  What happened?"

McKay picked up his burger, took a savage bite:  Willamina did not miss the anger in that sudden gnash of even, white teeth through the steaming bun, through the burger.

"At least you didn't bite your cheek," she murmured, picking up a fry and dabbing it delicately in the little paper cup of ketchup.

McKay reduced his savage bite to manageable sized components, swallowed: he placed the burger carefully on his plate, picked up a fry, stabbed it viciously in his own ketchup.

Willamia waited.

Finally he looked at her and opened his mouth to say something, then closed it.

Willamina raised sympathetic eyebrows, took a sip of coffee:  she considered a moment, then, "I don't think you lost someone. That's an entirely different kind of cloud hanging over your head. If I had to guess, I'd say a personnel issue."

McKay looked up, nodded: he stuck another fry in the ketchup, released it:  it fell over, and Willamina saw his shoulders sag a little.

"Nursing supervisor," he muttered.

Willamina raised an eyebrow.  "How bad?"

"Sexual harassment."

"Fill me in."

McKay threw his head back, took a deep breath.

"Shirley called me into her office," he said, his voice tight.  "He said one of the aides told her I'd ... she very explicitly said I'd propositioned her."

"Go on."

"I'm floored.  I mean, I get called into the nursing supervisor's office, she hits me with a sexual harassment claim and I'm like a deer in the headlights. I just ... went blank."

Willamina nodded slowly, her face carefully neutral.

"It took me ... oh, hell, I don't know."  McKay shook his head.  "Once I got two neurons firing together I said wait a minute, she ... I didn't say those things to her, she said them to me -- and then I got a few more brain cells working and I said "She said it at the east nursing station," and I named the nurses who were there, and the other two aides, they were there when she said those ... when she said --"

He blinked, shook his head disbelievingly.

"The nursing supervisor said 'I know, I already investigated it, but I needed to hear you say it.'"

I just sat there and looked at her.  She knew ... I didn't say anything of the kind ... she knew it was the aide who propositioned me, in front of witnesses, and she still did that to me?"

Willamina picked up her burger, took a bite, frowning:  she chewed thoughtfully, nodded.

"You know I'm still a nurse."

McKay gave her a crooked grin.  "Why do you think I told you?"

"One nurse understands another, eh?"

"Yeah." 

Willamina reached across the table, laid her hand firmly over his knuckles.  "Nursing is the worst job I ever had. I loved taking care of my patients, I could not STAND the bottom polishing seven carbon sons of Satan in administration" -- her voice took on an edge, and McKay saw something in the retired Sheriff's pale eyes he did not often see.

He saw anger.

"I loved the work, but I absolutely hated getting knifed in the back."

McKay nodded, his expression almost miserable.

"I know what it is to work with a partner," Willamina pressed, her hand tightening a little on his.  "I know what it is to stand back to back with my partner, both of us with a double handful of blued steel .357 at a 2 AM traffic stop as we're surrounded by a carload of hostile carnies.  I know what it is to wade into a burning house with a squirtgun under my arm and I'm hard up against the back of my partner's turnout coat as we fight the back pressure of a fire nozzle.  I know what it is to tear tape for my partner's IV, to spike the bag and bleed the tubing and have it ready once he gets the cath is in the vein.  You'll tell your partner things you'd never ever tell your lawful wedded spouse!"

She smiled, and her smile was tight, cynical.

"As a nurse ..."

She shook her head.

"As a lawman, as a medic, as a firefighter, you watch your partner's back and your partner watches yours.  That's the only reason I draw breath right now:  at the right time, my partner watched my back, and I watched my partner's." 

Willamina took a long breath, leaned back, shook her head.

"As a nurse ... the only reason one nurse looks at another's back is to find a soft place to run in the knife."

"Tell me about it," McKay agreed hoarsely.

"I was never screwed, blued, tattooed, reamed, steamed, dry cleaned, throat cut, back stabbed, done dirty or trompled underfoot any faster, any more viciously, or any more efficiently" -- she spat the word -- "than I was by my fellow nurses."

"And it started clear back in nursing school."

"Yes it did."  Willamina tilted her head a little.  "So what'll it be?  Are you going to quit?"

"Can't afford to.  I'm making more now than I ever have."

"It's your choice," Willamina said, trying hard to keep her voice neutral, "but you'd make a hell of a medic.  Your orders are different.  Go to the situation and handle it.  Improvise, overcome and adapt are a way of life.  Think on your feet and you are on scene, you make the decisions.  You operate under a protocol instead of taking your hat in your hand and saying 'Mother May I' to a doctor every time you want to give an aspirin or a Band-Aid."

McKay's eyes drifted to the curtained window:  Willamina saw his eyes tracking something invisible, saw him blink slowly, thoughtfully.

"I'd like that," he murmured.

"If you can survive financially," Willamina said quietly, "it's worth it to do something you genuinely enjoy for a change."

McKay nodded.

"Ever consider law enforcement?"

He laughed, and Willamina heard something let go inside him:  his laugh was still quiet, genuine, but she knew some obstruction had just been swept aside.

"Sheriff," he chuckled, "my first job after nursing school was in a nursing home.  A family came in when an old resident passed away.  Mind you now, none of 'em had so much as stopped in to say hello in the years he'd been there, but now that he was dead, they got into a knock down drag out fight over who was going to get an old man's broken black and white TV and what few clothes he had hung up in the closet."  He looked at her and she saw his shoulders were more relaxed now.

"One of our nurses -- buddy of mine, we were the only two guys in our nursing class -- he waded into the mess.  He kicked one guy in the gut and doubled him over, he grabbed two women, ripped 'em apart, he threw one into the bed and ran the other's face into the wall, and when the guy came at him, he just honestly decked him.

"The charge nurse came screaming into the room and my buddy took her by the throat and slammed her against the wall, then he pulled out his wallet and shoved it in her face.

"He said he was a police officer and she could shut her mouth and get the hell out of his way or he would personally drag her nasty backside out in irons and charge her with interfering with a law enforcement officer.  She tried to have him fired, at least until she was served."   He chuckled a little.  "I never knew he was a cop.  Neither did she until he badged her."

"He charged her?"

"He charged her."

"Did it stick?"

"She was ... encouraged ... to find employment elsewhere, and he left one day later, just to make a point: that he outlasted her."

"I've seen you working ER. You're good under pressure. You might be happier under the lights-and-siren."

He nodded.  "I might."

"Tell you what.  I'll arrange a ride along with both PD and the squad.  Give it a try and see if the hat fits."

"I appreciate that."

"When you turn in your notice, you could make mention of the nursing supervisor's accusation after she'd already found it baseless."

He nodded, slowly, his eyes tracking back and forth across his now empty plate.

"You know," he said softly, "I do not recall taking one bite."

"I've done that very thing."

 

 

 

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615. A FAIR FIGHT

Two men rode a lonesome trail.

One man, the law on his chest, ice in his glare: the other, little in his soul but greed and opportunism, with some cowardaince to make it all work.

The pair rode in silence most of the day, their horses at little more than a walk: there was no hurry, really, and this high up in the mountains, the air was thin and horses had to be ridden judiciously.

The lawman's horse was from the high country, and had the thick blood and big lungs that come with being born and raised, high up: the other horse was from way further downhill, and tired easily, and so they paced themselves according to the Lowland horse.

The sun was crowding the downhill horizon when finally one man spoke.

"How come you didn't kill me back there?"

Sheriff Linn Keller looked over at the other fellow, his face grim.

"I've had killin' enough," he growled, and his tone of voice did not invite further comment.

The other fellow, the outlaw, did not take the hint.

"You were in the War, weren't you?"

He saw the Sheriff's jaw ease out some, saw the man's eyes narrow, saw something cross the lawman's face that cooled the outlaw's blood several degrees:  when he turned and looked at him again, those eyes, those damned pale eyes, looked like they'd been polished out of shining marble ice.

The Sheriff's reply was after several long moments of a cold glare, the last word he would utter until the sun was below the horizon:

"Yep."

 

Dr. John Greenlees finished wrapping the freshly plastered arm.

His patient was relaxed with whatever was in that vile drink Doc plied him with; the pain was way less, and the strain of riding that distance with his arm splinted with a plank broke off a shed and some piggin string, was catching up with him.

"How come he didn't just club me to death when he had me down?" he slurred.

Dr. John Greenlees dipped his hand in the pan of warm water, smoothed the plaster cast.

"Likely the same reason you didn't beat him to death when his horse threw him," Doc commented.  "It wouldn't be a fair fight."

The outlaw coughed, grimaced.

"Your ribs?"

A nod, a frown:  he was breathing carefully, so as not to stretch his bruised up ribs.

"Sheriff said you put up a pretty good fight."

"I tried."

"How'd you do?"

One eyelid was a little lower than the other, a sleepy smile tugged at the outlaw's face.

"Poorly," he slurred, then added, "How was I t'know that damned old lawman had a freight train wrapped around his fist?"

Doc Greenlees nodded, frowned.  

"Hmm."

He and Nurse Susan managed to walk the prisoner -- wrapped in a blanket, naked to the waist and deprived of most of his proud-ofs -- across the street and up the board walk to the Sheriff's office.

Doc was satisfied the opium compound he'd administered his patient, was sufficient to guarantee the prisoner would make no attempt at escape.

He was right.

As a matter of fact, by the time they got to the jail, the prisoner was barely able to walk, and it took Doc and Jacob to get the bruised up fellow back to his jail cell.

Sheriff Linn Keller sat at his desk, the bottle out on the desk top, the cork pulled:  three glasses were set out, and as Nurse Susan followed the men inside, he reached into the still-open drawer and withdrew a fourthglass.

Uncharacteristically, he did not rise as a lady entered the room, something neither Doc, Jacob nor Nurse Susan missed.

Linn poured each with two fingers' worth of water clear, not over thirty days old:  liquid sledgehammer, he called it, and it genuinely had that effect, if a man was foolish enough to slug down too much of the stuff.

Linn preferred his mixed half and half with good California brandy, or with some of Brother William's wine, the latter guaranteed to hit him faster than anything -- he had no idea why, he only knew it was so:  when Doc came back down the hallway, after Linn heard Jacob turn the key in the heavy lock, after they'd come back into his office, Linn gestured to the chairs he'd set out.

Doc knew the man was hurting: he hadn't risen when Nurse Susan crossed the threshold, he'd stood while none was there to see it, he'd arranged chairs, glasses and bottle while none could witness his pain response:  Doc knew he'd come off his horse, Doc knew he hit rocky ground:  hopefully, after he got a belt of Two Hit John behind his belt buckle, that contrary, hard headed old grey-mustached lawman would let Doc take a look.

Until then, Doc knew, it was best he just let Old Pale Eyes contrary his way through the situation.

Doc noticed Linn stood with his feet apart, braced, and was pressing the back of his thigh against the corner of the desk.

Silently, courteously, he handed Doc, Jacob and Nurse Susan a heavy, faceted-bottom glass, each with a potent payload.

Left handed, Doc thought, noting how Linn's right arm was clamped down against his ribs.

Linn raised his glass, his voice tight: Doc's ear pulled a little as he recognized the pain in his old friend's voice.

Linn's voice was steady, strong, confident, but ... in pain.

"Here's to you and here's to me and may we never disagree,

"But if we do, to hell with you and here's to me!"

Jacob saw the slight smile at the corners of Doc's eyes, and the look of uncertainty in Nurse Susan's expression:  Jacob and Doc sipped cautiously, while Nurse Susan knocked hers back, swallowed, frowned a little, nodded:  Jacob's eyebrow raised and he realized here was a woman he would not want to go drinkin' with!

Doc set his glass down, walked up to Linn, waited until the lawman set his down:  Doc unbuttoned the lawman's vest -- Jacob and Nurse Susan looked at one another -- Jacob was the man's son, and he would never presume to walk up to the Sheriff and start to unbutton him!

Doc loosened Linn's necktie, unfast his shirt, drew it open a little, then ran down the buttons on his Union suit.

Doc frowned, went around behind the man, removed his coat, draped it across the desk.

He carefully pulled Linn's vest free, brought it back:  Linn's arms moved back to accommodate its removal.

Doc worked Linn's shirt loose, and it too joined the other garments on the desk.

Doc pulled the top of Linn's Union suit loose around the shoulders, worked it back.

Jacob saw sweat beads popping out on his father's forehead, saw the muscles clench along his jaw.

Doc swung over to Linn's right, placed one hand flat on the man's back, the other at the top of his breast bone:  Jacob saw Doc close his eyes and tilt his head a little to the side, as if listening with his fingertips.

Nurse Susan knew what Doc was doing:  she'd done the same herself, and from where she stood, she could see what the physician's long, cold fingers were divining:  they hesitated over a shadow, the shadow cast by a lump beside the breastbone, just below the nipple line.

"Jacob," Doc said quietly, never opening his eyes, "fetch me a blanket from yon cot."

Jacob turned, strode to the end of the room, to the cot on the far side of the pot belly stove:  he seized the folded blanket at its foot, brought it back.

"Spread it out on the floor here."

Jacob unfolded the blanket, found the corners, let it fall free:  a snap, a float, the blanket settled to the smooth, well fitted plank floor.

"Now lay down," Doc said.

Linn turned around, took a breath:  Jacob saw his father's hands fist up, as if in anger:  Doc helped the lawman into a squat, into a set, then eased him back:  Linn's jaw was clenched, the color was draining from his face, even when he was laid down with his knees drawn up.

Nurse Susan came over on Linn's right, Doc was on his left now.

"Jacob, you'll want to see this," Doc commented:  Jacob came over, went to one knee.

"See here."  Doc's fingers hovered above the lump.  "If we palpate the right lateral spine at this latitude, we'll find a rib is displaced anteriorly, very likely from falling from his horse. If he hit even a fist sized rock, just right, it can dislocate a rib.  We know that's what's happened because there is a cavity in back and this" -- his fingers spread over the lump -- "in front.  That's where his rib should be joined with the breastbone."

"Now watch."  

Doc put the heel of his hand over the lump, the other hand atop the first, thrust down, sudden, hard.

There was a muffled sound, almost a pop:  Linn grunted with pain and the last of the color left his face.

"There. That should do it.  You'll be sore for a week, but it's back where it belongs."

Linn's eyes were screwed shut, his teeth clenched beneath his immaculately curled, precisely barbered, iron-grey, handlebar mustache: his hands were fisted, his face damp:  Doc knelt beside him, took one of the lawman's hard-clenched, white-knuckled fists in both his hands.

Linn's breathing was fast and shallow, the way a man will when he's hurt: he opened one eye, squeezed it shut again.

Doc gave him the moments he needed; Jacob shoved his hat back on his head, took Nurse Susan's glass, and Nurse Susan elaborately pretended not to see the Sheriff at all.

Something big, black and curly furred separated itself from shadow, near the pot belly stove: Jacob's ear tugged a little at the sound of canine claws on the clean floor.

The Bear Killer came over, snuffed at the Sheriff's chest, laid down beside the lawman, rolling his black and furry side up against the Sheriff's ribs.

Jacob saw a single bright drop of what his Pa was feelin', trickle out of the corner of the man's eye and dribble wetly down the cheek bone and into his ear, and Jacob knew this was not from pain alone.

It was a hard man's gratitude that The Bear Killer came over to lend what comfort he could in his moment of need.

 

 

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616. BREAKFAST

The Bear Killer was well known in the community.

The Bear Killer wore an identifying vest when on duty: black it was, Kevlar and bulky, with the six point star on either side: he rode in the passenger front, most times, except for the time Linn found a lost little kid, and The Bear Killer rode in the back seat with the exhausted lad: a man carries images in his heart, and the sight of a tired little boy, seat belted in, with a great, black, curly furred canine's head across the boy's lap, and the sleeping lad's hand resting on The Bear Killer's shoulders, is a picture he cherished for the rest of his life, and kicked himself for not capturing the rear view mirror's image with his cell phone.

The Bear Killer merited his own biography in the form of a slim volume, written by Linn's pale eyed Mama: there were no long-ago photographs of the famous canine, so she had to make do: Linn posed in his severe black suit, with a '73 rifle in hand and a serious expression on his face, standing with his Appaloosa stallion in a place little changed since the days when Old Pale Eyes strode the land with a lawman's boots: beside and a little in front of him, The Bear Killer, looking off into the distance as if watching something:  this illustration sufficed for her description of the original mountain Mastiff, and her own granddaughter, in a pinafore and with a great ribbon bow atop her head, substituted for the legendary Sarah Lynne McKenna in another photo.

Both illustrating photographs were reproduced in sepia tones in her book: here, The Bear Killer was in a copper tub, presumably filled with water, though it was hard to tell -- the tub was full to overflowing with soap-suds, The Bear Killer was sitting in the tub looking very pleased with himself, and the laughing stand-in for a youthful Sarah McKenna was busy piling a sparkling, shimmering crown of said suds atop The Bear Killer's head -- after which was a photo of the little girl toweling the sinner's-heart-black Bear Killer, and finally tying a red ribbon about his blunt, stout neck, while the dog sat patiently, eyes slitted, looking absolutely contented, very wise, and very patient.

There were other, more modern illustrations, as well: one had a uniformed deputy astride a flat-out-galloping Appaloosa, ears laid back and nose thrust straight out ahead, and beside, the black streak of a charging Mastiff, looking like the black arrow of doom streaking along beside the feminine harbinger of Justice itself: the photo was breathtaking, with Marnie and her Daddy's stallion silhouetted against an absolutely incendiary sunset, a carefully timed row of strobes illuminating what would have been featureless silhouettes.

There were accounts of The Bear Killer's adventures, back in the mid-1800s, including how he earned his name, how he grew and naturally fell into the duties he and his descendants had shared in the years following: a modern-day newspaper photograph was included, with appropriate citation to Bruce Jones, who got the shot, as The Bear Killer hauled a child out of the river, carrying the lad by the back of his waistband: another, more fearsome picture, The Bear Killer was captured by a lucky snap of the shutter in mid-leap, a shot taken with a cell phone during a bank robbery, a shot that captured The Bear Killer going to war: the light was just right, the detail was exquisite: The Bear Killer's ears were laid back, fangs bared, mouth open, and if you look closely at the picture, The Bear Killer's eyes are red in the photograph: not just red, but bright-burning like Hell's coals: this momentary sliver of time, reprinted on one page, mentioned Deputy Marnie Keller's having been shot in the vest during the robbery -- how she and the holdup fired at the same moment, just before a black-furred freight train slammed into him, how the holdup tried unsuccessfully to scream with his throat crushed in a war-dog's jaws, at least until his heart realized it was shattered from the general effect of a full-house .357.

Willamina published the book, and it enjoyed a brisk sale locally, for The Bear Killer was well known in the community.

There were other stories of earlier Bear Killers, of course: there would have to be, with the photos she'd staged.

One story she included, involved breakfast.

 

Before he was the full-grown Mountain Mastiff, The Bear Killer was ... Twain Dawg, so named by the pretty little girl who adored the fuzzy ball of canine happiness.

The maid looked down at the clumsy little ball of black fur and big button-bright eyes.

Hopefully shining eyes looked back at the maid: Twain Dawg raised a paw, a little pink tongue slid out, and the maid frowned -- or tried to -- and then bent to offer the cute little fellow a strip of roast that she was preparing for the noon meal.

Sarah Lynne McKenna tried to be a proper young lady, tried to behave with the decorum taught by her very proper Mama, but Sarah was a little girl, and little girls get excited, and she wasn't supposed to run in the house, but she did:  she pattered downstairs in her shiny black slippers, scampered the length of the hall, ran into the kitchen:  little Twain Dawg looked up at her, grunted a few times, started casting about with his nose to the floor.

"Oh no you don't," Sarah admonished, seizing the back door's shining, faceted knob:  she twisted, pulled, and she and Twain Dawg ran out on the back porch and down the steps -- or, rather, Sarah ran down the steps, Twain Dawg made it halfway on his own four feet and then rolled the rest of the way -- he hit the ground, wallowed to his feet, turned, bristling:  he snarled and yapped, once, at the offending stairs, then remembered why he was there.

Twain Dawg ran several feet and stopped and tended the necessaries that come upon a pup of his young vintage, this soon after eating.

Sarah's skirts were short enough to allow her to run after the galloping puppy; she was, after all, still a young girl, and so she wore the short skirts of youth: Twain Dawg, a gift from Charlie Macneil to a heartbroken little girl when he and his Dawg left for the Big City, was Sarah's near constant companion.

They ran around the house -- clear around the house, Sarah giggling a little, Twain Dawg galumphed awkwardly up the back stairs and back up on the back porch, Sarah close behind -- they came back into the kitchen to an aromatic cloud of fresh baked bread and bacon.

"We'll ha'e breakfast very soon," the maid murmured as Sarah -- her cheeks pink with exertion, breathing heavily but happily -- leaned back against the just-closed door:  Sarah was a pretty girl, and her complexion showed the good effects of clean living.

Sarah heard her Mama coming down the stairs, and she knew she would be descending with all the dignity of royalty -- her Mama was like that -- Sarah controlled her breathing, looked back at the maid.

"G'wan," the maid whispered, "I'll ha'e breakfast to ye in a moment" -- and of course, once breakfast arrived at the table, after thanks were returned, Twain Dawg sat and watched Sarah with bright-black eyes, happily bolting down scraps of bread rubbed in bacon grease or egg yolk, or pieces of bacon, surreptitously slipped from her plate and offered to the delighted pup.

Bonnie, of course, knew what was going on; Bonnie smiled a little, pretended not to notice:  Bonnie had been a little girl herself, and she knew the delightfully childish feeling of thinking she was getting away with feeding a favorite dog at the table.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller was fixing breakfast.

He had a stack off pancakes on the table, steaming-hot, he had the butter and syrup set out, and a jar of honey; he'd diced thin-sliced ham, fried it to almost-crispy, added eggs, chopped walnuts, diced green peppers, spices, stirred:  he was frying in butter, he flipped the frying mass once, added shredded cheese, smiled a little as he heard young feet pattering down the stairs.

"Did you worsh worsh and brush?" he asked:  Joseph ran up beside him, displayed still-damp hands, turned his face one way, then the other, pulled back his lips to show shining white teeth:  Marnie left such juvenile demonstrations to her sibling, and instead went directly to her place, gulped down her orange juice, salivated at the pancakes.

Linn looked down at The Bear Killer, who licked his chops in anticipation.

Linn held up a thick pinch of diced ham.

The Bear Killer raised one paw.

Linn lowered the treat.

The Bear Killer took it carefully, delicately, closed his eyes with pleasure as he chewed.

"You know I don't allow you to eat in the kitchen," Linn admonished quietly as he handed down another thick pinch.

The Bear Killer took it: those who know dogs, know the look of delight when they are bestowed this particular favor, and in this unguarded moment, he had it.

Linn shut off the heat, cut the filled skillet's payload into fourths: he came around the table, dispensed his favorite creation:  Shelly came downstairs, her scuffy slippers whispering on the stair treads:  "Mmm, that smells good!"

Linn looked up as he slid her quadrant out of the big cast iron skillet and onto her plate.

"Help yourself, Sweet Pea," he grinned, "and if we run out I can make more!"

Shelly looked over at the stove and laughed.  "At least you don't make the mess my father does!"

Linn set the frying pan on a cold burner, drew his chair out:  The Bear Killer sat beside him, looked up at him, clearly hopeful.

They bowed their heads, thanks were given: Linn looked up and said "Why don't we blow a Cavalry bugle right about now?" and Marnie's eyes lit up:  "Maybe not," he added hastily.

Shelly's look was enough; Linn knew she did not have to say a word, her expression said "Don't you dare!" as plainly as the spoken word.

The Bear Killer waited, knowing there would be offerings, and he was right: he took the bite of Linn's specialty eggs, moved on to the next chair, where he got another bite: on to the next, and Joseph slipped and dropped his -- which did not deter The Bear Killer in the least -- and lastly, The Bear Killer stopped beside Shelly, who tried to give him a stern look -- and, as The Bear Killer raised a paw to say please, her attempt failed entirely and she, too, thrust a bite of ham and eggs between his polished ivory teeth.

Somewhere through the meal, once eggs were consumed and pancakes occupied the plates, Shelly looked gratefully across the table at her husband.

"Thank you," she said softly.  "I needed my rest."

Linn grinned. "After the day you had yesterday," he said frankly, "there's no way in two hells I was going to roll you out of the bunk and say 'Woman! Rattle them pots and pans!'"

He looked at Marnie and winked.

"Why, your Mama would have taken attair fryin' pan an' drove me through the floor like a fence post, an' she'd have me beat the dent out of the fryin' pan and fix the floor to boot!"

"You spoil me, you know that," Shelly murmured.

"You're worth spoilin', Sweet Pea."

Marnie did not miss their tones of voice, nor did she miss the look each gave the other, and doubtless she filed this away in her own Book of Useful Knowledge: done right, a father will show his daughter what kind of a husband to look for, by being that kind of a husband:  years later, Shelly would draw young Dr. John Greenlees aside and tell him in a quiet voice that her husband set a very high standard for Marnie to search for, and that he, John, had well more than surpassed that standard:  it meant the world to her new son in law to be told this, but that day had not yet come.

No, today, The Bear Killer was busy accepting offerings from friendly hands as he slowly orbited the breakfast table.

 

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617. JOHNNY WENT A-COURTIN'

Dr. John Greenlees stepped off the train, looked around.

His trip had been as he expected: uncomfortable, noisy, smelly, dirty: he wished for nothing more than a bath, a clean suit, a meal of something other than tough beef and half-cooked beans.

He was a man alone in the world, a man with a large carpet bag and a worn, leather, physician's bag, the clothes that he wore, and memories that laid thick about his soul like a cloak made of sheet lead.

Dr. John Greenlees considered the several souls he saw: rough miners profaning their way onto, of off of, the platform; he was surprised to see few he would call cowboys -- somehow, back East, he'd imagined everyone west of that wet divider of Civilization from the Great Howling Wilderness to be engaged in rustling cattle, holding up banks or hunting bank robbers -- his hard and skeptical gaze told him these were honest working folk, most of them lean, callused, weathered, and just plain ... people.

He turned and nearly ran into something wearing a black suit and a curled, iron-grey mustache.

A hand shot out like a striking viper, gripped his elbow:  "Steady, man," a familiar voice murmured, then the broad, black hat-brim raised as the wearer's head tilted back, as a pair of pale eyes appeared, not a foot from his own.

All thoughts of reserve, all intent of propriety, fell to the depot platform with his carpet bag and his physician's satchel.

Two men seized each other in a sudden, absolutely crushing embrace:  two men wordlessly greeted each other with all the strength gained from surviving a common hell:  two men rejoiced in silence, each wordlessly thanking the Eternal that at least one other living soul had survived That Damned War, and the years that followed.

"Damn you, Doc," Sheriff Linn Keller whispered into the physician's dust-and-soot-fouled coat's shoulder, "you're like salt pork, ain't nothin' can kill you!"

"You long tall pale eyed hell raiser," Doctor John Greenlees grated into the soap-and-sunshine-smelling shoulder of his old and dear friend, "you're just too mean to die!"

The two descended the wide set of warped wooden steps at the end of the platform:  "I'd like to've gotten Eastern locust," the Sheriff admitted, "but the best we could do was white oak. Had it shipped green and still played hell drillin' for pegs."  Linn's eyes were busy as they stepped down to dirt: Dr. Greenlees recognized the hypervigilance of a war veteran who'd seen considerable action, but held his counsel.

"This way."

They started down the alley.

Something hit Doc's arm from behind: startled, it loosened his grip on his physician's bag, something impacted the back of his hand, his brown-leather satchel was stripped from his grip: Doc felt his companion vibrate momentarily, then:

"JACOB!"

A skinny boy came around the corner with a double handful of shotgun: Doc Greenlees recalled seeing Linn's arm coming up, he heard his companion's shout, saw a tall, lean boy in a Derby hat and a black suit, spin the shotgun and drive the checkered-walnut butt into the fleeing thief's forehead, stopping him as if he'd just run into a hickory timber.

The pair walked up on the expressionless lad, standing with the weight of his young body on the unconscious thief's wrist, the shotgun cocked and pointed at the thief's face.

"Well done, Jacob," Linn said quietly.

The boy raised his head, looked at Linn -- Doc saw something in the lad's pale eyes, but it didn't register for some time, because the boy had the same ice-pale eyes as the ex-Cavalry officer at his side:  it was more than evident here was the issue of this old veteran warrior's loins.

"Give him some water," Linn said:  Jacob raised the twin gunmuzzles, eased the hammers to half cock, one at a time, handed off the shotgun to his father:  Doc Greenlees watched without comment as this stripling seized the cold-cocked thief by the front of his coat and his belt, heaved him off the ground, hauled him a few feet to the water barrel and dumped him in headfirst.

Almost immediately there was a thrashing, a kicking:  Jacob stepped back, turned to his father.

"Shall I let him drink for a week or so, sir?" he asked, his face absolutely without expression, and this caused an imp to dip a broad paintbrush in very cold water and wipe it down Doc's spine.

He'd seen that same face before.

He'd seen it on Linn's face, during and after a particularly desperate, very bloody battle.

"Let's haul him out."

One took one leg, one took the other: the thief was brought out of the rain barrel, carried upside down, knuckles dragging in the dirt behind: it wasn't until they were crossing the boardwalk into the Sheriff's office that the prisoner rallied enough to protest: Doc waited outside, considering that he'd been surprised neither by the stripling's strength, his choice of punishment, his absolutely unemotional demeanor: he'd seen these things in the man he knew as Captain Keller, years before, when they both wore Union blue.

Father and son emerged, just as a shining carriage pulled up: a woman and a little girl, both of them looking worn, thin, hard-used, for all that they were both well dressed, and the carriage, of the very best quality.

Doc's brows drew together ever so slightly and he took another look at the woman: he stepped forward.

"You are in pain," he said, "may I be of service?"

Bonnie Lynne McKenna's face betrayed a swift, fluid flow of feelings:  surprise, then a hard-eyed suspicion, at least until Doc felt Linn's step on the boardwalk underfoot:  "Bonnie McKenna, may I introduce the only man I really trusted in all of that damned War.  This is Dr. John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, he kept me alive and he's damned good at what he does."

The little girl's expression was almost fearful: something small, round and black stirred on her lap, a pair of bright-black eyes turned to regard him, and something at what must have been the furry ball's backside began vibrating happily.

At least the pup likes me, Doc thought sadly.

"Have you offices already, Doctor?" Bonnie asked, shifting uncomfortably:  Linn stepped up, laid a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"He has," Linn said firmly. "He is beginning his practice upstairs in the Silver Jewel.  I've just had the entire second floor ripped out and rebuilt.  Esther's office is only just installed."

"Sarah," Bonnie said quietly, "I'll need you to stay with your Aunt Esther in her new office."

"Can't I watch?" Sarah asked in a pleading voice.

"No," Bonnie almost whispered, gently stroking the tip of Sarah's nose with her gloved finger, and Sarah giggled:  the black ball of happiness on her lap reached up and licked her chin, obviously not wanting to be left out.

"C'mon, Doc.  Let's get you settled in.  We'll discuss matters as they come up.  How's your appetite?"

"I could eat a horse," Doc admitted.

Linn, Bonnie and Sarah looked at one another, Jacob grinned:  he knew what was coming, and watched silently for Doc's reaction as Sheriff, mother, and daughter, all looked at one another with wide-eyed innocence and declared, "Moooooo!"

 

John Greenlees sat on the edge of the old ranch house's front porch.

A pretty girl sat beside him.

The evening was cool, but not yet chilly: they sat side by side, their hips just touching, at least until Marnie scooted a little closer.

John laid his forearm down on his thigh, palm up:  Marnie recognized the invitation, laid her hand gently on his.

Both of them felt a little shiver at this expression of trust, of this first shared intimacy:  small though it was, they recognized it for what it was.

Silence grew long between them, until John took a long breath and said softly, "Marnie, I'm scared."

Marnie Keller turned her head, looked with honest surprise at her boyfriend.

She pulled her hand loose, turned:  her arm went around his shoulders, her other hand grasped his, still palm-up on his leg:  she leaned her head into his, and he turned his head to meet hers, a little surprised to see they were so close that both her eyes merged into one pale orb.

"John," she whispered, "I watched you crawl into a wrecked car and use the clip of a ballpoint pen to clamp off an arterial bleed.  I've seen you face up to a half-drunk troublemaker and hold his attention until my brother could come up behind him and bring him to the deck.  You've been pressed into service in ER when it absolutely hit the fan and you were a second set of your father's hands."  

She hugged her arm tighter around his shoulders.

"Now what's this baloney about you being scared?"

John bit his bottom lip, his face reddening:  Marnie drew back a little, removed her encircling arm, brushed the hair back from his hot, incarnidined ear.

"Marnie, I have feelings for you," he whispered hoarsely, harrumphed:  he looked into the distance, frowned, looked down at the ground ahead of their dangling feet, looked back at her, his expression serioius.

"Marnie, you are the dearest thing I know.  I look into your eyes and I see gentleness and I see trust and I don't ever want to screw that up!"

Marnie ran her hand around the back of John's head, pulled his face into hers, kissed him, suddenly, soundly, and felt him shiver as this new sensation roared through his soul, firing a desire he never knew existed:  he'd heard his father refer to the moment when the automatic pilot lights up and takes over, and he realized ... he was experiencing that moment.

"John."  Marnie's voice was a whisper.  "You have never been improper.  You are decent and honorable enough I am satisfied that won't happen.  If it does, I'll stop us because I'll be honest" -- her fingers traced the curve of his ear, then gentle around the back of his neck -- "I can feel quite improper myself."

John nodded, swallowed.

Marnie turned his hand over, patted the back of his hand, gave him a wise and knowing look. 

"John, there've been many in my family who've borne out of wedlock.  I don't intend to. Neither do I intend to trick you into marriage. If it's meant to be, it'll happen and I will rejoice. If it's not meant to happen, it won't."

John looked long into those pale eyes, those unbelievably deep eyes, eyes he could swim in --

He blinked, shook his head.

"I have it planned," he said slowly.  "I will be going to med school.  I will establish a practice, after I gain the experience, and I will have you as my wife -- but not until I'm able to provide for you."

"Aren't you afraid some rich scoundrel will come along and snatch me up?" Marnie asked coyly.

John Greenlees shook his head.

"I've seen people try to snatch you, Marnie.  I've seen you put them on the ground, and them in a great deal of pain.  Right now you have the reputation of an Ice Queen, beautiful and so cold as to be absolutely unapproachable."

"It prevents complications," she admitted.

"What about me?"

"You," she said, lowering her head a little and looking at him through long blond lashes, "are the dearest complication I've ever known."

John lowered his forehead until it touched hers.

"Is this where I'm supposed to kiss you?"

Marnie lifted her face a little, closed her eyes and whispered, "Yes."

 

Dr. John Greenlees set up his practice over the Silver Jewel.

He saw a steady clientele; his work was first-rate, though like any physician, he could not cure everyone, couldn't repair all the injuries, but he did his best: he could have gone on to Cripple Creek, could have set up as one more physician in an established mining town: something told him he would be better off in Firelands, and so when the Sheriff offered to invest certain silver mining holdings in a hospital, Dr. John Greenlees decided he'd found a place he could stay, especially after he met Susan.

Susan came clear up to the middle of Doc's breastbone:  as lean as Doc was, Susan was equally stout: Susan was also a veteran nurse, and a good one, apple cheeks, a merry disposition and an absolute lack of fear:  he'd seen her go up against a loud and threatening drunk, bump her belly into his, shove her finger in his face and give him an absolute, red-faced, look-over-her-spectacles what-for; he'd seen her seize a man's bleeding forerarm on the street, clamping down hard to stanch life's blood from fleeing through a laceration from broken glass:  he'd seen her soothe a colicky baby, calm a panicked child, backhand a hysterical woman, she'd seen her scolding that pale-eyed Sheriff!

She stood beside Doc, all starched and pristine-white and gleaming round spectacles, her cheeks pink with delight as they watched the Italian stonemasons placing quartz ashlars on a good stone foundation: her hand found his and she bounced a little on the balls of her feet:  Doc looked at her in surprise, saw the absolute delight on her face.

He turned to her, took both her hands.

"Nurse Susan."

"Yes, Doctor."

"There is a matter I would discuss with you."

"Yes, Doctor."

"When our hospital is built, I will have need of additional staff."

"Yes, Doctor."

"Dr. George Flint is entering my practice.  He is well recommended and is a graduate of the Harvard School of Medicine."

"Yes, Doctor."

"He is also a full-blooded Navajo."

"Yes he is, Doctor."

Dr. Greenlees frowned a little.  "You know him?"

"I've worked with him, Doctor.  We worked together back East, at a coal mine explosion, and at a trestle collapse."  She blinked, smiled gently.  "You've made a good choice.  He's very good at what he does."

"Good," Doc nodded, then cleared his throat.

"I will have need of additional staff. Hospitals tend to grow.  We will need more nurses, we'll need orderlies, janitors --"

Nurse Susan lifted her chin a little, effectively cutting him off.

"And what else is on your mind, Doctor?"

Dr. John Greenlees blinked, surprised, as he realized Nurse Susan had divined the true purpose of his speech.

"I should have gotten a ring already," he muttered.

"All things in their good time."

Dr. John Greenlees went to one knee, still holding both Nurse Susan's hands.

"You've worked with me for six months," he said.  "I can't imagine not having you beside me.  Susan, will you marry me?"

Nurse Susan blinked, cupped her hand over her mouth, gave a little squeak: she laid her hand on Doc's shoulder as she shook her head and spoke true words from her very heart:

"John, John ... what took you so long?"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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618. AN UNCLE'S APPROVAL

 

Chief of Police Will Keller eased his spotless, gleaming, freshly waxed Crown Vic onto the packed gravel of their pistol range.

He shut off the engine, climbed out, settled the muffs on his ears, turned the switch until he could hear normally:  he walked up toward the line, where a single shooter, a young woman in a ballistic vest and flannel shirt, jeans and red cowboy boots, was holding a strip of cardboard in front of her face.

Will's curiosity was spurred by a control in the hand that held the cardboard, by the odd way she held the cardboard -- with her elbow chicken winged out -- and then he looked downrange.

He saw multiple target turners, at different distances, and he saw something he didn't expect.

He saw a tennis ball launcher.

The cardboard wobbled a little as Marnie hit the thumb switch.

Will's eyes widened a little as the tennis ball hit Marnie in the vest -- hard -- she dropped cardboard and thumb switch, she stepped quickly to the side as the targets turned --

Three targets turned.

Will Keller watched a pretty girl -- girl hell! he thought viciously, for in that moment, he saw her as everything from the scared waif she'd been when her dying mother first brought her out, everything from terrified little girl to a big-eyed child, clinging to her Daddy's uniform trouser leg as she tried to hide behind him, everything from a laughing little girl in grade school to a laughing girl riding her Daddy's stallion like they were one magical creature, soaring over mere fences with a great set of invisible wings, everything from a gorgeous young woman in a prom dress dancing with the smooth assurance he'd see in his pale eyed twin sis ...

And he saw the green-as-spring-grass deputy, staggering back against the wall just as he came through the doors with a double handful of shotgun, a deputy who slid to the floor, landed on her bottom and reloaded, numbly, out of nothing short of sheer muscle memory: Will went up to The Bear Killer, SLAMMED a hard hand down on the black Mastiff's neck and roared, "OFF!" -- and it wasn't until autopsy that he'd learned that it was Marnie's single shot, and not The Bear Killer's defending attack, that killed the holdup artist that tried to kill Marnie.

He saw all these things in the bright sliver of a shattered second, between the tennis ball launcher's cough and the targets' turning, and Marnie's drop-the-cardboard-and-fire.

Will's pale eyes were impassive as he saw how fluid, how expert, Marnie's address was:  she'd been hit center chest by that tennis ball -- apparently her signal to engage -- she'd thrust to the side while drawing, she engaged two of the three targets.

The third was a no-shoot, an unarmed civilian with a shocked expression, apparently an enlarged photograph.

Will watched while Marnie reloaded; she went ahead, studied her targets, pasted them:  she turned, walked back to her pale eyed Uncle.

"Hello, handsome," she smiled, patting his chest and smiling a little:  "like my little setup?"

"It's ... not what I expected," he admitted.

"Getting shot was like being punched. Hard, or maybe being hit by a medium baseball pitch," she said frankly.  "We shot at the same moment. I broke the shot just before his arrived."  She ran her arms around her Uncle, laid the side of her head against his chest, and he put his arms around her the way an uncle will when he knows a girl needs strong and protective arms around her.

"I didn't tell Daddy," she admitted, "but when I realized I'd been shot, it ... it just went all through me and I got ... I'm sorry, Uncle Will, just knowing I'd been shot and I lost all strength and I went down!"

"I've known that to happen," he soothed, tightening his arms around her:  "I've known it to happen more times than one."

Will's voice was deep, quiet, reassuring.

His eyes were not:  they were the haunted eyes of a man who walked into the twin concussions of a Mexican standoff, to the sight of a badge packer sliding to the floor with a face the color of a wax candle.

"So tell me what you've done here," he murmured, and Marnie smiled to hear his voice, deep, resonant, indistinct in that great manly chest of his.

She looked up, smiled:  he looked down and laughed, for her expression in that moment was the little girl he remembered.

"Come on," she said, pulling free and seizing his hand, the way she did when she was a laughing little child, grabbing his hand to show him a treasure, a new foal, a shiny rock: this time she showed him lines she'd traced on the ground with flour:  "If I stand here, the ball shoots down this line. That's why I'm wearing my vest.  I wait until I've been hit and then I shoot the turners, and there is always at least one no-shoot target."

Uncle Will nodded.

"I hold the switch -- so -- with cardboard in front of my eyes -- so -- and when I hit the thumb switch, there's a random delay like on a shot timer, only instead of BEEP, I get hit!"

"And when you get hit, that's your start signal."

Marnie nodded.

"I've also arranged with the local Community College to use their Academy's shoot house. It's got video simulators and I'm the only one that uses the laser revolver."

"Not many of us use wheel guns anymore."

"I can hit more reliably with Mr. Smith," Marnie said, her voice suddenly serious, "and hits count."

"Sure as hell counted there in the bank," Uncle Will agreed.

"I wanted to make sure I could return effective fire and make shoot-no-shoot decisions after being hit. I ran it with baseballs in the launcher and that felt more like being shot."

"That looks like brand new armor."

"It is."  Marnie sat down on a handy bench, her Uncle Will easing his arthritic old bones down beside her.  "Daddy said he's sending mine back to the factory.  Something about all the luck was blown out of it and they have to reinject it with good fortune, and in the meantime here's a replacement."

"Kind of like a brain bucket," Will chuckled.  "One motor sickle wreck and you replace the helmet!"

Marnie nodded.

"My old Smith working out for you?"

"Like a charm," Marnie said.  "I got its twin a few weeks ago. Mr. Smith is impounded until all the courtroom activity is finished and in the meantime I still have one."  She eased the subject under discussion out of her holster, held it out:  Will saw she'd had some engraving done, and he grinned in approval.

"Same engraving on Mr. Smith?" he asked.

"Identical."

Will studied the hand chased vine work around the muzzle, the vine winding its way from breech toward the muzzle, stopping a third of the way down polished, blued steel.

"Now that's some gorgeous work," he murmured.

"I had roses engraved.  Kind of a family thing, y'know? -- and here -- take a look at this."

Will turned the revolver, tilting it one way, tilting it the other.

"On both sides, engraved and inlaid with gold," Marnie said quietly.  "The Thunder Bird."
"You put this on Mr. Smith also?" Will asked, and Marnie looked at him, bright-eyed, and nodded.

Will drew his own sidearm, handed it to her.

Marnie holstered her blued-steel, gold-inlaid revolver, took her Uncle's studied its port side, then its starboard.

"You, too," she smiled, handed it back.

"Yep," Will agreed.  "Joseph Keller went to war with the Thunder Bird on his Colts.  I figured if I have to go to war, I'll do the same thing!"

Marnie leaned against her Uncle, laid her hand, light and gentle, on his.

"I'm glad you're here," she said quietly.

Uncle Will slipped his hand from beneath hers, ran his arm around her shoulders, pulled her into him.

"Me too, Princess," he rumbled, his voice deep and powerful, like a giant's pronouncement from a deep stone-laid well.  "Me too."

 

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619. A GHOST STORY

Marnie's little brother Joseph was restless.

Willamina knew the signs; she was, after all, his grandmother, and he was much like his father had been, at his young age.

Willamina tilted her head a little, considered the growing boy with the frank interest of someone who knew him well:  "Joseph," she said, "what do you know of magic?"

Joseph's eyes widened and he was suddenly still, focused on his pretty, pale eyed Gammaw.

"Not much," he admitted.

"Do you know how magic works?" Willamina asked, sitting down cross legged on the front porch:  Joseph shook his head, sat with her.

Willamina looked at Marnie, who blinked and hazarded a guess:  "Isn't that where you dress like an old gypsy woman and hide in a silk tent with a crystal ball?"

Willamina raised a finger, nodded:  "You're setting the stage," she said.  "That's part of it, but the biggest part is belief. Just like Voodoo in the Caribbean, it's driven by belief."

"Gammaw, you gonna dress like an old Gypsy lady?" Joseph asked innocently, and Willamina laughed a little, then raised her head.

"Excuse me," she said, rising:  she walked quickly to the barn's side door, disappeared.

"Marnie, does Gammaw have a crazy old lady costume?"

Marnie wasn't sure whether to frown, scold or laugh; she settled on simply shaking her head.

Joseph and Marnie both raised their heads: the wind picked up and they smelled rain, there was a telltale pure-white flicker and then they heard thunder, distant, but distinct, and just as lightning seared across the suddenly-cloudy heavens and thunder crackled in its wake, they heard hurried footsteps and a pale-eyed figure in an electric-blue gown and a matching little hat, with white gloves and a parasol in hand, came skipping around the corner and into the barn.

Less than two seconds later, rain, at first the fat, cold drops that precede a good soaking toad strangler, then a steady rain, loud on the barn's split-shake roof.

"I'm glad we're in here," Marnie said, and "Gammaw, I thought you were gonna be a crazy old gypsy lady!"

"Oh, my, no," their pale eyed arrival laughed:  "now what's this about a ghost story?"

"You were gonna tell us a ghost story, Gammaw!"

"Gammaw?" she smiled, raising an eyebrow.  "Well, I've been called worse.  Now how do you suppose magic works?"

She leaned forward and looked intently into the lad's pale eyes and whispered, "Belief!"

"Huh?"

She leaned back, nodded, planted the furled parasol's tip between her immaculate, high-button shoes.

"Let's say ... oh, I know!  Have you ever heard of the wompyr?"

She pronounced it "vompire," after the German fashion, and Joseph and Marnie looked at one another.

"Vampire?"

"You've heard if it!"

Two children nodded, started to make a reply, 

"Now how do you suppose they do all those spooky things?"

Brother and sister looked at one another and shrugged:  "Magic?"

"Right-o," came the cheerful reply, with a wave of a gloved hand:  "and magic runs on belief, and because you had an entire continent of poor superstitious folk believing in them, they became real!"

Marnie and Jacob looked at one another uncertainly.

"Now what do you suppose happened when an Eastern European vampire from the shadowed mountains stepped through a time-portal and arrived here?"

 

A young bride wiped out the cast iron frying pan.

She thought she felt the air move, perhaps she felt a cold breath of air: surprised, she looked up, into the black-glass mirror of the window over her kitchen sink.

Nothing.

She was a new mother; her child was in the next room, fed, changed, warm, asleep: she saw nothing in the window's reflection, but something, something was not right.

Her hand tightened on the cast iron handle.

She turned,

Penetrating red eyes, a hungry smile, fangs ... she had the flash image of a man half a hand taller than she, and very well dressed: those eyes, those hypnotic eyes reached out and caressed her soul, tried to draw her in as he'd drawn in who knows how many hundreds of European girls, over the centuries of his bloody life ...

Trouble was, he wasn't in Europe.

He wasn't dealing with a victim who had a lifetime of indoctrination of obedience to the Crown.

He was dealing with an American.

He was dealing with a suddenly-enraged young American wife with a good grip on a cast iron frying pan, and as red lips pulled back from shining white canines, the hard swung skillet caught him full in the face with all the strength this enraged young mother could generate.

The vampire's belief was that he was more than her match; his belief had always been supplemented, fueled, reinforced with the belief of an entire society that believed in him, believed in his power, his invincibility.

Suddenly -- thrust into a land without this belief, a land and a population that instead believed in the power of a well swung frying pan -- his hypnotic ability to immobilize a simple peasant girl was no more, replaced by the bone busting agony of a face full of cast iron and anger.

She hit him and she hit him hard: she twisted her slim young body and put every ounce of power into her swing -- she felt the ringing impact -- she let go of the frying pan, powered off to the side and jumped like she did when she was on the girls' basketball team, launched from the floor, arm stretched desperately --

Her fingers seized the blued barrels of the shotgun her husband hung over the kitchen door --

She twisted as she came down, brought the stubby barrels around, shoved viciously at the safety --

The intruder, snarling, raised his head, his handsome features ruined, hatred and death in blood-red eyes --

She brought the double gun up, an armed and angry mother in a community, a society of American wives and mothers, a young woman who'd seen what a charge of buckshot did to a block of ice, an antifreeze jug of water --

The front bead came up, shining gold in the muted glare of the kitchen's ceiling fixture --

She remembered what the shot swarm did to the antifreeze jug --

Her finger slapped the front trigger --

My baby my baby my baby, she thought, then take this, damn you --

The tan rubber recoil pad shoved hard into her shoulder, and she never felt it.

 

"She killed the vampire?" Joseph breathed, and his well-dressed, pale-eyed storyteller nodded, smiling.

"I thought it had to be a wooden stake!"

"That's what everyone believed, back in the vampire's native land, but when he stepped through an opening into America, more people believed in frying pans and buckshot than believed in wooden stakes."

"When was this?" Marnie asked, wavering between skeptical and fascinated.

"That was while your Gammaw was still with the Village of Chauncey Marshal's Office."

Joseph blinked -- as if he'd only just realized --

"You're not Gammaw --"

The pretty, pale eyed woman stood, smoothed her skirt, smiled.

"Of course not.  You wanted a ghost story.  Or what that ... a ghost's story?"

She laughed, she spun, spread her arms, her skirt flaring: Joseph and Marnie looked to the open side door, saw their Gammaw step inside --

They looked back --

She's gone, Joseph thought, disappointment pulling at his belly.

"Sorry about that," Willamina said.  "I had to change out of my wet clothes and then I got a phone call.  So -- how about the Chauncey Vampire?"

"Heard it," her grandchildren chorused, and then they all stopped, surprised, sniffed the rain-damp air.

Marnie spoke first, puzzled.

"Roses?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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620. TWO MEN AND A DRINK

There was a knock at the door.

Irritated, Dr. John Greenlees Sr. looked up.

One hand held a pen, poised over one of the perpetual, detailed, prying, unnecessary, bureaucratic forms that was the bane of his life: this was one of the few his staff was unable to fill out -- they could have, truth be told, but under law, it had to be under his hand and his alone, and so he held a pen instead of the scalpel he'd prefer to be holding.

The Sheriff stepped in, looked behind, closed the door carefully: he came up to the desk, reached into a coat pocket, withdrew two shot glasses, set them on the desk.

He withdrew a silver flask from an inner pocket.

Doc removed his forehead from where it had been leaning heavily on his support hand; his support elbow came off the desk, he lay the pen across the form, he straightened.

Linn poured something water clear and Doc suspected it was not only potent, but also less than 30 days old: two glasses poured he, and Doc watched as the flask was fast up and slid back into its inner pocket.

Linn set a glass in front of his old friend, picked up the other: he raised the glass silently to Doc.

Doc picked up his own, returned the silent salute.

They drank.

As Doc suspected, the libation lived up to the appelation he'd heard Linn use before: this was indeed Liquid Sledgehammer, for it went down like Mama's milk and like to blowed the socks off his feet: he closed his eyes savored the aftertaste of ... apples? ... and something he couldn't quite identify, some fruit or another, somewhere behind that sheet of heat that stripped his tongue of anything but taste buds.

Linn sat, regarded the blinking physician with a quietly amused expression, something Doc rarely saw on that pale-eyed, professionally-impassive face.

Linn spoke first:  "Good for what ails ye."

Dr. John Greenlees took a careful breath, took another, raised an eyebrow, cleared his throat.

"Now that my tonsils are sterilized," he said slowly, "to what do I owe the pleasure of a moment's respite from these infernal forms?"

"Bottom polishing bureaucrats plague you, too," Linn replied, smiling ever so slightly: "Doc, I came to say thank you."

Dr. John Greenlees raised an eyebrow.  "Oh?"
"It's your son."

Now Doc frowned: he lowered his head a fraction, leaned forward ever so slightly, long surgeon's fingers laid over one another on the forgotten form.  

"My son."

Linn nodded.

"Doc, this might take some explainin', but you're to credit and I wanted you to know."

Dr. John Greenlees picked up the sheets in front of him, set them aside: he capped his pen, opened his desk drawer, dropped it in, closed the drawer: placing both hands flat on the green desk blotter, he looked very directly at the Sheriff and said, "Speak."

Linn laughed a little.  "Woof!"

Doc raised imploring hands to the ceiling:  "Two million comedians out of work and he's got to come along!"

Linn grinned, then sobered.

Doc," Linn said, "you know Marnie lived through hell itself back East."

"I remember your telling me she'd seen her mother beaten and ... hurt," Doc replied carefully.

"She saw worse than that, and she hid when her Mama ran and abandoned her. She saw the murderers swarm through the apartment and tear it apart and she heard them calling her name and then saying to one another how they were going to kill her."

Dr. John Greenlees nodded slowly: in addition to physician and surgeon, he had, of necessity, been a counselor for those who'd had a shattering, a truly traumatic experience: he knew what it was to listen to fearful whispers from somone revisited by the awful memories of an early psychic devastation.

"She has what professionals would call trust issues."

"I would imagine she does," Doc replied carefully.

"She trusted your son today."

Doc's left eyebrow raised to an impressive height.

"Oh?"

Linn leaned back, steepled his fingers, considered the stamped-tin ceiling, remembered how difficult it had been to find original ceiling tin: he blinked, looked down, considered.

"A man wants to keep his family safe," he said slowly, "but that's kind of like I read about sentry duty ... if you have a skilled infiltrator, a sentry safeguards only as much ground as his boot soles cover."

Doc nodded; he'd read that same quote: "Robert Louis Stevenson?" he guessed.

"Sounds right," Linn shrugged.  "I honestly forget. I can't be there every moment, Doc, and I've known men to commit suicide after something terrible happened to their wife or daughters when they were away."

Doc nodded, slowly, eyes closed.

"Young John," Linn began, and Doc opened his eyes.

Linn leaned forward, elbows on his knees: Doc saw his bottom jaw slide out, saw the mandibular muscles, suddenly distinct:  Linn looked away, looked back.

"Doc, your son is a gentleman. He had the chance to be improper with Marnie, and he didn't."

Doc's eyebrow had only just settled back down to level: it twitched up again, then sagged.

Linn stood.

"Doc, thank you. There's only one place he could have learned to be decent and honorable."

Linn stood, tapped the flask in his inner pocket, and Doc rose as well.

"Thank you is only words.  A snort of Old Crud Cutter says it better."

The two men shook hands; Doc watched as Linn left, watched the door close quietly behind him.

Dr. John Greenlees rested his fingertips delicately on the green desk blotter: he blinked a few times, spoke into the silence filling his office.

He looked down at the framed photograph on his desk, a shot taken of father and son not many years before: both of them were grinning, each of them in chest high waders, each with a fly rod.

He looked up at the empty chair in front of his desk, his voice quiet and thoughtful.

"Well I'll be damned."

 

 

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621. GO AROUND, COME AROUND

 

Chief of Police Will Keller lifted his chin.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller raised an eyebrow.

Will tilted his head to the right, turned: Willamina reached down, lifted her skirts a little, followed her twin brother into the chrome-and-polished-mirrors drugstore and malt shop.

There were a few tourists, looking out of place as they always do -- which struck the soda jerk as somewhat amusing: here was their Chief of Police, looking like the uniformed constabulary have for the past half century or so, even to the extent of wearing a revolver instead of one of the plastic, dishwasher-safe self loading pistols that were de rigeur worldwide:  Willmina, on the other hand, looked very much like a fashionable lady from the late 1880s: a properly fitted, rather ornate gown, a matching parasol, furled, carried with all the ease and grace of a majorette's baton: she swept regally past her twin brother as he held the door for her, and she led the way to their favorite table, against the opposite wall, where neither had a back to the door, where both could use accidentally strategic mirrors to view any approaches.

Willamina leaned her parasol against the wall, cornering it between table and chair rail, regarded her counterpart with amusement.

"You," Will began, "will not believe this."

Willamina batted her eyes innocently, leaned forward, planted her elbows on the tabletop and bridged her fingers delicately together: she lowered her chin until it just touched the backs of her gloved fingers, and she gave Will the full benefit of her very best, pale eyed, Innocent Expression.

"You recall Old Man Mactavish?"

"I do," she said softly.  "His wife died a year ago, sepsis after a fall. Two children, a girl one year behind Marnie, one boy, just starting grade school."

"He's the one."

"What happened, Will?  I haven't seen that look on your face since you won the VFW turkey shoot two years ago."

Will looked up as the soda jerk came over to take their order: he ordered for both of them, Willamina smiling quietly as cell phones turned their way -- not an unusual occurrence when she wore a McKenna gown, and went about in the public's eye: her image, she'd been told, had been transmitted worldwide, she'd received correspondence asking about her attire from multiple countries, most recently from the ladies of a cowboy fast-draw group in Japan.

"Mactavish flagged me down this morning."

Willamina nodded, leaned back as a cup and saucer was placed carefully in front of her:  she smelled freshly brewed oolong, with the citrus smell of burgamo promising a flavorful, warming drink that chill morning.

Will leaned back as his steaming mug of coffee was set in front of him, with a little bowl of individual creamers: he tore two of them open, dumped them in his coffee with an utter lack of ceremony, all while talking.

"Mactavish said he needed to say thank you but how do you thank a dead man."

Willamina's teacup stopped its slow rise from the saucer: she lowered the teacup, placed it very precisely on its saucer, gave her twin brother her absolutely undivided attention.

"Willa, did his daughter attend one of the Ladies' Tea Society meetings?"

"Several. I helped sew her gown."

"You read from one of the Journals."

"I've read from the Journals nearly every meeting."

"Do you recall mentioning Jacob's son falling through a rotted out wood deck over a hand dug well?"

Willamina's eyes changed -- her expression did not -- Will noticed the change, knew he'd hit pay dirt.

"I do recall," she said slowly.  "Fill me in."

Will took a long breath, picked up his coffee, took a slow sip, considered, took another.

"Mactavish said his daughter was telling him about ... what you'd read."

"Go on."

"Him and his boy went out ... they've got a couple old buildings they've pretty much let fall in."

"I know the place."

"They've got an old well."

Willamina turned her head ever so slightly, her expression serious.  "An old well."

"His boy ran for the well."

Willamina's eyebrow raised.

"Mactavish said he remembered what his little girl said about Jacob's boy jumping on the rotty old boards and falling through."

Willamina's eyes lightened in color: no trace of blue remained, and Will saw the color starting to stand out on her cheek bones as the rest of her face started to blanch.

He raised a forestalling palm.

"Mactavish said he jumped forward and caught his boy under the arms -- the boy jumped up to land on those boards -- he caught his boy, swung him off to the side."

"And?"

"He raised one leg and stomped on that well cover."

Willamina took a long breath, waited.

"He said that whole damned cover just fell apart."

Willamina shivered a little, nodded.

"He said if Jacob hadn't written that down, or Old Pale Eyes, or whoever did, that his boy might have drowned, and he wanted to say thank you."  Will's eyes smiled as he reached across the table, gripped her gloved hands.  "Thought you'd like to know."

Willamina nodded, looked down at her steaming amber, forgotten during the narrative: she blinked, picked it up, two handed, took a careful sip, found it very much to her liking.

Somehow Will was not surprised when he saw Willamina -- still in her fine gown and the matching hat -- driving her restored carriage up Graveyard Hill.

She's going to Old Pale Eyes' grave to thank for writing that down, he thought.

Wonder what he'd think of his words, bearing fruit this many years after.

Something fell through his field of vision: the human eye is geared to catch movement, and he followed this something with his eyes, and then he bent down and picked up this something that dropped right in front of him.

Chief of Police Will Keller picked up a fresh-cut rose, red and healthy and in full bloom: he blinked, surprised, sniffed it and smiled, looked up: no windows were open, no one hung grinning over the cornice of a building.

He turned, looked toward the old cemetery, nodded, threaded the rose through a shirt button.

"I reckon," he said aloud, "I just got my answer."

 

 

 

 

 

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622. TESTED

 

Jacob Keller crossed his palms on his saddle horn, pushed down: he took the weight off his spine the way he'd seen his pale eyed Pa do any number of times, and for the very first time, he felt a bright burst of very relieving pain.

Surprise must've crossed his face: the man riding toward him sneered and asked, "Wassamatter, Depitty?  Saddle sores?"

Jacob did not recall seeing this rider before, but he knew the type: drifter, troublemaker, the kind that would bully anyone he could: he felt his face tighten a little, reached well deep into himself, gripped his rising temper, hard: unlike most young men, he well knew what a runaway temper could do, and he knew his temper was too easily provoked.

Jacob made no reply.

"You look wet behint the ears, Depitty."

The sneering voice rolled off Jacob like water off an oilskin: he knew the man was trying to provoke him.

"Why, yore Mama's milk is wet on your lips!"

Jacob's pale eyes shifted to the right -- he lifted his chin slightly, looked back --

Suspicious, the stranger back-reined his gelding, hard, turned, looking for the Deputy's partner, looking for the ambush -- just in time to inherit the full-on collision of a fast-moving Appaloosa stallion.

Jacob was out of the saddle, but unlike his opponent, his descent was controlled, planned: he landed on the stranger, stomping one wrist into the rocky ground, hard: his other boot came up, came down, hard, and he felt his boot heel bust two ribs.

Jacob jumped off, took two steps: the stranger was tough, as most men were, out West: Jacob moved in fast, swung his fighting blade in a fast, shining arc: he'd turned it backwards, caught the stranger's wrist with the back edge of Black Smith's handmade blade: he swung the blade hard enough to paralyze the hand and maybe break the bone, he wasn't sure -- but he wasn't done.

Jacob knew that if you decided to beat a man, the only way to do it was to beat him so badly the other guy would cross the street rather than come anywhere close, ever again: Jacob's knee drew up, his boot drove out, two more ribs broke: Jacob felt for his belt, behind his off holster, eased the blade back into its sheepskin lined sheath.

The stranger doubled over, his arm clamped over his broken ribs, the other across his belly: Jacob's right hand splayed, the web of his hand driving into the stranger's Adam's apple, his right leg swinging behind the man's knees: he hit hard, hard enough to paralyze the voice box and bear him over backwards: the stranger hit the ground, hard, barely able to breathe, making the high pitched squeal of a man desperately trying to pull air in through a shocked-shut larynx.

He was several minutes before his vision cleared, before he could try to roll over.

He didn't make it.

Jacob waited until the face-grimaced stranger started to set up, then stomped him once, hard, in the guts.

He waited until the stranger was able to breathe again, then he reached down, seized him by the front of his coat, twisted: he hauled the gasping, agonized stranger off the ground, left handed, hauled him up to eye level.

"Mister," he said quietly, his voice calm, "I did not get mad at you. Please remember that. Not once did I lose my temper. Keep that in mind before you run your mouth ever again, and if I see you with a weapon, any time, any where, I will kill you where you stand."

He eased the stranger down, until his boots just touched the ground, released.

"If your hands still work enough to hold your reins, ride east a couple hours and you'll come to Firelands. Got a good doc there. Get yourself repaired and get a meal under your belt and get the hell out of my county."  Jacob looked at the rifle's butt sticking out of the stranger's scabbard, and he smiled, ever so slightly.

"I'll let Doc fix you up and I'll allow you a good meal.  After that, remember what I said. Can you get in the saddle?"

 

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned against the post holding up the overhang in front of the Sheriff's office.

Deputy Jacob Keller leaned against the opposite side of the same post.

Both men were tall, both men were lean, both men wore black suits and black Stetsons, both men had pale, quiet eyes and impassive, carefully neutral expressions.

Neither spoke for a little more than a half hour.

"Train comin' soon."

"Yes, sir."

"Reckon I'll go see who's comin' to town."

"Yes, sir."

"I understand you run into a stranger a few days ago."

"No, sir. My horse did."

The Sheriff's expression never changed.

"He must've made your horse mad."

"Reckon so, sir."

"What happened?"

"Well, sir, my horse is awful hard to aggravate," Jacob deadpanned.  "I've got to get along good with my stallion, and if I didn't take his part, why, he might get unhappy with me."

"It don't pay to get your stallion unhappy," Linn agreed quietly.

"If he's goin' to tell a grown horse he's wet behint the ears when it's not rained for two weeks, an' then he says a grown horse still has Mama's milk wet on his lips, why, he'd no manners a'tall and he'd ought to be taught the error of his way."

Linn nodded slowly.

"You realize," he said thoughtfully, "if 'twas just two men disagreein' like that, he might have a complaint."

"Yes, sir."

"He took it upon himself to try the Law."

"He did, sir."

"Had you not put a hard nasty stop to it, he'd have kept pushin'.   Likely he'd have pushed you until you had to kill him."

"Yes, sir."

"Had you not stopped him, he'd have tried the next lawman down the line an the next one until someone finally up and killed him."

"Likely so, sir."

"Men like that understand one thing, Jacob, and one thing only."

"Yes, sir?"

"Every lawman is tried. Every new lawman will be tried several times until it's clear what he is or what he ain't. Unless a lawman speaks the language the sinner understands, he'll keep sinnin'."

"Yes, sir."

"I'd say you were tried, Jacob, and you were not found wanting."

 

 

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623. FOOT ADZ

 

Jacob Keller set the file on the stump, closed one eye and considered the log before him.

He tilted his head, regarded it with both eyes, frowned, then straddled the log and carefully, precisely, began to cut a flat the length of the log.

His cuts were precise, even; his tool looked like an ungainly, heavy hoe, perhaps like an ax with its bit turned sideways: the handle was curved a little, and smooth from much use; a discerning eye might even tell that some metal had been removed, over its lifetime, from regular filing or stoning to keep its edge sharp.

Joseph came running up, stopped two arm's lengths from his Pa's working-tool:  the lad solemnly regarded his Pa's labors, then he pointed to the sharp edged shaper and demanded -- the way an impatient schoolboy will, in that high and urgent voice -- "What's dat?"

Jacob smiled a little, stopped cutting: he set the adz, head-down, on the flat he'd just cut and said, "Joseph, that-there is a food adge."

"Foot adj?" Joseph echoed.

Jacob laughed, stepped his left leg over the log, hunkered, picked up a stick.

"Here," he said, scratching letters in the dirt -- A  D  Z  -- "it's spelled Adz, but your Grampa always called it a foot adge and so does the whole darn Maxwell clan, so that's what I called it too."

"Well howcome it's not spelled how it's said?"

Jacob looked up at his son, at the urgent, puzzled expression on his son's face:  he reached around the lad's waist, drew him in close, brought his knee up under the little boy's backside.

"Joseph," he said, "there's lots of words that are not spelled like they sound. That's why you're goin' to school, so you'll know what they are."

Joseph looked solemnly at his Pa, at the woodworking tool, at the letters precisely graved into the dirt:  he looked back and said seriously, "Pa, Miz Sarah wouldn't like that."

"Wouldn't like what?"

"It's spelled 'Adzzzzz," Joseph replied, drawing the unfamiliar syllable out, frowning as he did -- "but it's not said how ..."

Joseph looked up: a pair of pale, amused, and very feminine eyes looked down at his from an incredible height, and Jacob turned too, laughing quietly as he realized yet again just how impossibly quiet Sarah's unshod Frisian mare could be.

"Oh, a food adj!" she declared, delight in her voice.  "Do you know, my Mama found one and thought it was a garden hoe.  She said it was terribly heavy and asked the hired man to trade it for a lighter one!"

Jacob rose, squinted at his pale-eyed half-sister, smiling at him from waaaay up in her saddle.

"Little Sis," he declared, caressing Snowflake's nuzzling muzzle, "them clouds overhead are positively noisy compared to this-yere horse-critter!"

"Jacob Keller," Sarah scolded gently, smiling as she did, "your son imitates every syllable you speak, and if you insist on being an ungrammatical clod, I shall have to turn you over my knee and fan your little biscuits!"

Joseph looked, wide-eyed, from father to aunt and back, his young imagination picturing his long tall Pa bent over Miz Sarah's skirted lap: Sarah turned her head slightly to look very directly at the child and whispered, "Joseph, I'm kidding!"

Joseph nodded, feeling as if he'd just been made privy to some great secret known only to adults.

He couldn't make head nor tail of whatever that secret might be, but that's certainly what it felt like.

"Jacob, did you know you've been elevated to sainthood?" Sarah asked, tilting her head the way a woman will, and Jacob frowned a little, puzzled, and shook his head.

"Yesterday you helped a poor fellow up on Spencer's Ridge notch logs for his cabin."

Jacob blinked, nodded.

"I understand the poor man was ready to give up and stack all that timber up and burn it. Men have talents, but his talents do not include notching logs.  He said you made it look so damned easy he felt like the north end of a south bound horse, but he was most pleased to have your help."

"They were easy logs to notch," Jacob admitted.  "I figured to go up and cut flats on 'em so they would fit better."  He rested a hand on the adz.  "I wanted to cut on a log here to make sure I still knew how!"

This was not the first time young Joseph stayed carefully silent, listening with more than his ears, watching closely what his Pa did: boys learn more by observation than by didactic instruction, and Sarah had already remarked on young Joseph's imitation of his father's speech patterns: in his short life, Joseph would put to use nearly every lesson his Pa ever taught him, intentionally, or without realizing it, but if we were to list those lessons, the tale would be long indeed, and as this was about the time Annette came out the front door, put two fingers to her lips and cut loose with a most unladylike whistle and declared loudly that dinner was on the table, they could come and get it or the dogs would eat well, why, this might be a good place to finish up for today.

I rather like the mental image of Sarah's smile at Annette's whistle, at the thought of Jacob snatching his son under the arms and swinging him up behind Sarah (a stretch it was -- Jacob was counted a tall man, but Snowflake was inarguably a tall horse!) -- and Sarah walked her mare toward the house while Jacob set the adz back in its shed, wiped its head with an oily rag, then headed for the wash-up to get the dirt off his hands before he went inside to eat... smiling as he did, for a father delights to remember the happy laugh of his child, as the child is hoisted a-horseback in Pa's strong, safe hands.

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624. "HOW DO I PUT THIS IN A REPORT?"

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller smiled, just a little.

She picked up their infant child, freshly fed and changed, warm and powdered and wrapped after a bath, blinking and drowsy and chewing on his pink little fist: she smiled at the computer's camera and said "No, Daddy, I'm still on Mars where I belong. Why ever would you ask?"

Fourteen minutes later, Sheriff Linn Keller turned impatiently, sat down hard, frowned at the screen, glared at the image of his daughter and her infant son:  his hard-clasped hands pressed against his lips and he felt the color drain from his face, leaving the flesh taut over his cheekbones as he realized that something just happened, and he didn't have a handle on quite what.

"You look like Storm Cloud Number Nine," Shelly said as she came dragging through the front door: she was dark under the eyes, her shoulders sagged, her hair drooped: Joseph took one look at his Mama, pulled out a kitchen chair and strode around the table, seized a mug, poured steaming-hot coffee, set it down in front of his exhausted mother.

"Bless you, Joseph," she sighed as he set the genuine antiquie custom heirloom plastic jug of milk down beside it: Shelly dribbled a little into her coffee, sipped, sipped again, and then mother and son looked at the frowning Sheriff, silent, unnmoving, trouble furrowing his brow.

 

No lawman wants to handle a hostage situation.

Drugs make it worse; when the hostage taker is screaming and violent, when the hostage taker is armed, almost running from one window to another, seizing the phone and screaming threats to anyone who dared come near, even a seasoned negotiator will realize this might not be a situation that can be salvaged.

A little girl clung to her Mama, trembling; the young son carefully pressed his white handkerchief against his Mama's lacerated, bruised, puffy cheekbone: a terrified mother swallowed her fear and forced herself to calm, for her children's sake, thinking quickly, eyes busy, desperate to keep her babies alive.

Linn reached up and pressed a key; his computer's camera lit up, and his image -- and his serious voice -- addressed electronics and families alike.

 

"I WANT TEN MILLION DOLLARS! YOU HEAR ME, TEN MILLION IN SMALL BILLS!"

"Easy," Sharon soothed, "I can't understand you when you're shouting!"

"AND A HELICOPTER! I WANT A HELCOPTER AND NO LICENSE PLATES!"

"Okay, a copter with no plates, gotcha. I'm just the dispatcher but I'll tell --"

"YOU GET 'EM OR THEY'RE DEAD! Y'HEAR ME? DEAD!" -- and the line went dead.

 

"We listened to the caller. He wouldn't pick up when we called him, and the only calls out he made were to my office. Sharon offered to let him speak to me and then he'd go off on some wild tangent, something about not having license plates on the helicopter. I don't know what that was about, he was on something. We finally hacked into the only camera he hadn't found in the house."

Linn frowned, chewed his bottom lip:  he twisted his mustache, one side, then the other:  Marnie waited, watching closely, for it was rare for her to ever see her rock of a pale eyed Papa so obviously troubled.

"It's easier to show you what we saw," he said, tapped a few keys.  "I'm splicing in what we picked up from their camera, with sound. Here it is."

 

A pale eyed woman, all in black, put her black-gloved fingertip to her lips: she looked at the hostages, motioned for them to stay low, stay still: her knee high cavalry boots were silent on the carpeted floor, she took a pace closer, another.

She hooked two fingers over both triggers of her double barrel shotgun, rolled the hammers back to full stand, released the triggers:  one step, another, and she thrust the double gun forward.

Mother and children clapped their hands over their ears, squinted --

Thunder detonated in the living room --

A cement filled ram hit the front door, shattering it at the lock, armed men swarmed in, gunmuzzles first, looking alien and terrifying in riot helmets and gas masks --

A moment's slow-motion, showing the hostage taker suddenly bent as if kicked in the back, just before the spray of blood and what used to be center mass tissues blasting out of what used to be a breastbone, followed by the rolling cloud of blue sulfur smoke --

A pale eyed woman, all in black, turned and glared at the only working camera in the house: as she broke open the double gun, right before the front door exploded inward, Marnie felt cold fingers walk down her spine at the sound of a voice remarkably like her own:

"Payment in full," she heard.  "Two ounces of lead."

 

"Marnie, I have no idea what happened here."

Sheriff Linn Keller frowned, looked a little to the side.

"Actually I know exactly what happened, and damned if I know how I'm going to put this in a report."

He reached for something a little to his side, picked it up, held it in both hands, staring at it as if it were something foreign.

"When the entry team came hellin' through the door, they stopped when they saw the perp was dead and the hostages alive and safe. They were lookin' around and this fell from somewhere, fell straight down and landed on the carcass."

Linn held up a fresh-cut rose, turned it slowly.

"Now how," he said, "do I put this in a report?"

 

 

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625. "DADDY! HE HAS MUS-CLES!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked over at her husband of one week, who'd been looking at her and smiling.

He'd been looking at her because his new bride had a faraway look in her eyes, and then she laughed quietly, shook her head, and then looked at her husband.

"Must be a good one," Richard said.

Willamina laughed, nodded.

"Just remembering," she sighed.

"Anything you can tell me?  Or is it one of those classified memories we both have?"

Willamina gave her husband a warm look, raised an eyebrow, debated on whether she should say something wickedly lascivious, and decided against it: that would come later, she knew, for they were still newlyweds.

"It was a promotion," she began, "one of those formal affairs that's scripted and structured and something still goes wrong."

Richard nodded, slowly.

"It was stateside and a fine young man was getting a set of railroad tracks.  I was there as a guest, and so was his wife and daughter."

Richard nodded again.

"The wife was about his age, the daughter was ... three, maybe four, just old enough to get in trouble fast, young enough that her holdback mechanism wasn't developed."

Richard chuckled.  "That's a good way to put it," he agreed.

"The Old Man pinned the Captain's bars on him and the little girl streaked away from her Mommy -- I mean she was off like a shot, all ponytails and petticoats and legs and a big grin -- she ran up between the two and looked up and everyone froze, even the Old Man himself.

"His little girl looked up at her Daddy and took a big breath and I remember how absolutely shocked-silent everyone was -- the mother looked like a deer in the headlights, it was too late to try running after her -- and I will never forget that little girl's voice."

Willamina picked up her tea, took a sip, smiled as she looked into its amber depths, seeing the scene all over again.

"She ... her voice ... she had big blue eyes and that high innocent voice of a pretty little girl and she took a big deep breath and ran her words all together.  It translated as, 'Daddy you just got promoted an' you gets a salute but I'm just a little girl an' I can't salute so can I have a hug instead?'
"I'm standing there and I can feel my face getting red, I'm trying hard not to laugh and her Mama looked like she wanted to die or maybe sink into the blacktop or something.

"I remember this brand new Captain and his commanding officer were both turning red and they were both trying hard not to laugh and finally the Old Man said 'You heard the lady, give her a hug!"

"The Captain squatted down and picked up his little girl and she hugged him and then twisted in his arms and pointed to the Old Man and said "He's very big. He knows how to salute" -- and then she looked at the Old Man and asked, 'Mits-ter, do you have mus-cles?'

"Damned if the Old Man didn't step forward and wind his arm up so she could feel his mus-cles."

Willamina laughed, raised her head, and Richard took a mental snapshot -- his pale eyed wife, the chief law enforcement officer of the county, normally with a carefully neutral expression, guarded and watchful -- but now, her defenses down, her eyes shining with a favorite memory, she gave him a moment he seized and cherished for the rest of his entire life.

"I remember she squeezed his arm and her eyes got really big -- her mouth opened in a little O and then she declared, "Daddy! He's got mus-cles!"

Willamina smiled, sipped her steaming tea, nodded.

"Now that is not how we intended that the promotion ceremony could go, but I honestly don't think it could have pleased the Old Man any more ... a little girl said he was ver-ry, ver-ry big, and he had mus-cles!"

 

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626. NOT-MARE

A strong man rolled over in bed, suddenly, violently: his face buried itself into his wife's pillow, his arm across her sleeping form: he held her, shivering, and she felt the heat, the damp from his body, she felt the war going on inside her husband, and there in the dark, she raised her hand, reached around his hard-muscled torso, slapped her hand on his shoulder blade and held him until he quit shivering, until he relaxed, until he rolled back.

It was the same dream, the same damned dream.

Linn strode across a league and a mile of open plain, his Tarquin's boots making seven-league strides: his wife was trapped in a crushed, crumpled, twisted car, and he and he alone had to get her out!

He smelled gasoline, he strode boldly through a broad and trickling stream, he pulled on leather gloves -- You have such pretty hands, his wife told him when they were courting, and he did not wish to disappoint his wife by damaging them on torn sheet metal -- he squatted, seized the car, tucked his backside, hoist --

Pale eyed men fell in beside him, there in his tortured dream: they, too, squatted, gripped, heaved, a row of like-minded lawmen: somehow he did not wonder that two of them wore the same archaic black sits he himself wore on occasion, nor that one, one with a well-curled handlebar mustache and pale eyes, wore a white skinsuit: no, his focus was on his wife, his wife, his wife, and getting the car rolled over so he could get her out, get her out, get her out --

The trickle whispered, puffed, flared into living fire and he felt the agonies blaze up his legs: pain surged through his muscles, adding strength to his effort, four lawmen threw their heads back, teeth bared, the cords sticking out on their necks, four throats groaned hoarsely as the car lifted with groans of its own, as it came back over on its wheels:  Linn planted both palms on the car's crushed top, vaulted over the mangled vehicle, twisted and landed facing the passenger door:  he seized the distorted portal, planted a smoking boot against the wrinkled sheetmetal beside, hauled.

Tortured metal groaned, there was a dull snap and the door reluctantly surrendered:  Linn shoved it viciously with shoulder and hip and reached in -- he stripped his hand from its glove, ran a hand in his pocket, came out with a lock back -- 

-- he rememered the distinct, sharp snap of the lock engaging --

-- honed steel parted black-nylon seatbelt --

-- his wife looked at him, her eyes were calm, as if to say I knew you would come --

The knife snapped shut, dropped into his pocket, he ran his arms under his wife, pulled back as the car filled with heat and with smoke --

Shelly felt her sleeping husband convulse, heard his gasp: she tightened her grip on him, squeezed her eyes shut tight as he whispered hoarsely, "Shelly, are you hurt?"

For the thousandth time, or perhaps the ten thousandth time, Shelly damned that drunk that hit her and ran her off the road, rolling her car and condemning her husband to burn scars he carried for the rest of his life:  she twisted a little, got her other arm around him, squeezed hard:  "I'm safe, we're safe, it's all right," and she felt him relax:  husband and wife held each other for a long time, until they finally relaxed, and dared sleep again.

In a room not far from theirs, a little girl, growing fast in the high country -- a little girl who wasn't so little anymore -- shivered in her sleep, reliving terrors thrust upon her at far too young an age.

Although she slept alone, she was not entirely alone.

Pale eyes watched her, gentle hands reached down, laid themselves over hers.

The pretty, pale-eyed woman in the fashionable gown looked up as she saw what the child was seeing.

Outside, the perpetually wakeful sounds of an Eastern city intruded on their nighttime peace, then the peace was shattered as the door was shattered and shouting, violent men ran in and began beating her Mommy, throwing her Mommy against the wall, dragging her into another room.

Marnie dropped to the floor, slithered quickly to an old fashioned, cast-iron register: she pulled it loose, swapped ends, thrust in, feet first:  she wiggled deeper into the hide, pushing aside packages of something that smelled funny, pulled the register in place behind her.

Terrified though she was, she remembered to pull down on the thing her Mommy taught her.

Marnie was too young to know this was a sheet metal elbow that would lead to a dead end: if searchers dismounted the register's grille, they would find only an empty duct going nowhere.

Marnie whimpered in her sleep, until gentle hands slid under her, lifted her living essence from her growing girl's body, drew her into a woman's form: suddenly she saw with eyes that were not her own, and she felt a strength she'd never known, she felt the responses of a well-toned and athletic body that sang for joy with what it was about to do.

Marnie looked out from someone else's eyes and marveled, she was a passenger in an amazing, powerful body, she not only watched, she lived the sensation of coming through a solid wall and bringing war to the monsters who were doing terrible things to her Mommy.

Marnie felt herself dancing.

She came up on the balls of her feet, then she spun, one leg driving out, catching a man in the jaw: Marnie remembered the feel of the fracture through the sharp little heel of her high-button shoe, she whipped around again and seized an arm, pulled and twisted and disjointed its shoulder: Marnie felt the bright agony of the recipient, the triumph of the giver of pain, she felt her leg double up and drive down and she saw men go down, she seized a gunbarrel and hauled it around backwards and pulled and Marnie felt a trigger finger break and then rip from its hand, she felt cheekbone crush as the arm she occupied swung the seized sidearm, hard, and did her level best to drive the stolen firearm through the bad man's face.

Death laughed with delight in that dirty tenement bedroom as a dying woman lay on the bed, hurt, bleeding, terrified, watching a beautiful woman in a gown that belonged in a museum, lay absolute ruin to her attackers.

When the last one was on the floor, broken and groaning, the pale-eyed woman stopped and looked very directly at Marnie's mommy and said, "You are dying. Go home. Get Marnie to your family," and then she looked around and said, 'I'd say you have twenty minutes before the police arrive. You have that long to get away from here."

Marnie felt herself slip out off the Pretty Lady's body, felt herself being laid gently back in her own juvenile form, safe in warm flannel, safe in her own bed.

Marnie opened her eyes.

She blinked as a truly huge, black, horse's head looked over The Pretty Lady's shoulder at her.

Marnie giggled, pointed, her quick mind remembering seeing the big black horsie before.

"Is that a Night Mare?" she whispered, and The Pretty Lady laughed gently, shook her head.

"No, sweets," she whispered, gripping Marnie's hand between her gloved palms.  "Snowflake takes me away from those terrible memories. You might say she's my not-mare."

Marnie yawned -- one of those truly huge, stretching yawns to which the very young are prone -- and The Pretty Lady caressed the hair from the little girl's face.

"Rest, Sweets," she whispered.  

Not far away, a father and a mother, almost asleep again themselves, heard a little girl giggle in her sleep: father and mother both smiled, just a little, and relaxed again, then they, too, slept.

 

 

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627. THE PROFANE

Jacob Keller liked his Uncle Will's little Farmall Cub.

For one thing, it was all shiny and red and very clean: he'd replaced axle seals himself, he'd replaced the engine gaskets, he'd taken pains to compound them well, to torque them very precisely, very carefully, very uniformly: the little tractor was  ... well, just that.

Little.

It was, however, ideal for running the mower.

Jacob could swing the rear mounted mower with an incredible precision; Marnie watched him at work, watched him maneuvering near the old farmhouse's stone foundation, around the well in back, around trees and along the driveway, and she'd told him with honest admiration he could almost perform surgery with that shiny little red machine.

Jacob laughed: he knew he was not that good.

He'd watched the fellows that worked for the Village, running a backhoe.

Now those fellows, he thought, could perform surgery!

And so it was that this fine Monday, his day to cut grass, Jacob ran the tractor mounted mower -- he'd run the string trimmer before he started, the trimming was all done, Jacob was a tall fellow and Jacob had a six foot swing on that string trimmer, and Jacob could -- and did -- buzzsaw a wide margin around anything he'd have to mow around ... thus making his close work with the tractor, look far easier than it really was.

Jacob had plans for the rest of the day.

Jacob wanted to get his self-scheduled tasks done and out of the way.

Jacob grabbed the air hose, blew off mower deck and tractor, wiped them down with quick, efficient swipes of the rags he kept for the task: the tractor was put away, the string trimmer hung up, he dusted off his boots and strode for his radio shack.

Jacob frowned as he emerged: he had the wire antenna he wanted, he had the ground stake, the braid, the clamp he'd need to ground against any offending lightning-bolts:  he picked up the battery drill, frowned, sorted through the bits.

No Phillips bit.

He reached up, selected a Phillips screwdriver -- I'll just wind it in like God intended, he thought -- he opened the little plastic organizer drawer to sort through the screws and somehow, somehow he managed to knock an open box of wood screws off the workbench.

He glanced down just in time to see the box hit the floor, and just plainly explode.

Jacob did not move for several moments.

His pale eyed Pa saw his long tall son's hands close into fists -- he'd carefully, precisely, set down drill and the antenna's matching transformer and the red-handled screwdriver, he'd carefully, precisely, rested the edges of his hands on the workbench, and then he wound both hands into fists:  Linn saw his son hold this position of silent anger for several long moments, and then he saw Jacob's shoulders rise, as he took a long breath, and it would not have surprised the pale-eyed lawman one little bit if Jacob had thrown back his head and roared a most powerful oath, if he'd have verbally blasted the offending elements, if he'd not condemned these illegitimate refugees from a Bessemer blast furnace to the ninth ring of Neffelheim, and worse.

Jacob did none of these things.

Jacob lifted his right foot, very carefully, stepped to the side, raked screws out of the way with the side of his bootsole before putting his foot flat on the cement floor: another step, bringing his left boot back, a scrape, a step, and he was able to reach up for the fishing magnet neither of them had used in all of their lives.

Jacob dragged the magnet slowly across the floor, then bent at the waist, went to one knee, reached deep under the bench; he lifted toolboxes out of the way, retreived screws from places it was impossible for them to have gotten, and when he was done, once he'd parted them from the powerful fishing magnet and returned them to their split box, once he'd repaired the box with carefully-torn strips of duct tape, he set the box back on the bench, turned, and looked at his father.

Father and son considered one another for several long moments.

It was Jacob who spoke first.

"Sir," he said, "Gammaw would have been hanged for a witch in a previous century."

"Yes, Jacob," Linn agreed, "she would have."

"She might be called a mountain witch."

"She might," Linn agreed truthfully.

"Sir, Gammaw might have something to say about omens and portents."

Linn considered this, nodded slowly.  "Yes, Jacob.  She might well."

"Sir, I believe I will scrap my plans for the rest of the day."

Linn raised an eyebrow.  "Oh?"

"Sir, I gave the yard a haircut and it went well.  I'm pleased with the job.  Everything I've touched since then has just plainly fell apart."

"I saw the screws hit the floor."

Jacob's face was tight; his expression was not particularly pleasant, but that was something that could be understood.

"I must commend you, Jacob."

"Sir?"

"That was a very thorough cleanup."

"Thank you, sir."

Jacob saw amusement in Linn's eyes, a smile that spread rapidly from his eyes to the rest of his face.

"Jacob," Linn admitted, "that was absolutely the most profane silence I've ever heard!"

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628. TAKE ME HOME, PAPA

At least there is water.

Part of her realized she needed water to live.

It took all of her strength to stagger, crawl, and finally wallow her way the few feet to the spring.

She looked at an unfamiliar face in the water, the face of a pretty young woman with bloodied features and pale eyes, a young woman who blinked -- her eyes felt gritty and she hurt, she hurt! -- then she shoved her face in the shallow pool and drank greedily.

She drank until her belly was full, then she lifted her head and felt her matted, sticky hair, flinched at the raw flesh beneath:  she waved her hands at the flies that were coming in, attracted by blood.

A shadow cast across her, strong hands closed on her shoulders, pulled:  she let herself be drawn from the pool, she looked up into a man's face and her eyes rolled back in her head as the world fell away from her again.

A bald headed man pulled her from the spring, pulled until she was lying flat on her back.

He knelt, fingers and eyes busy, exploring the bullet gouge in the top of her head, frowning at the deep groove -- it even cut a notch in the bone -- he'd already read the story in the bodies, the tracks; he'd been drawn by the sound of gunfire, men's screams, shouts:  it had been a running gunfight, by all accounts, and men's bodies marked the path they'd taken, men's blood spattered the trail they'd ridden.

The woman's horse was nearby, a line back dun with a patched and worn out saddle: it had gotten her near the spring -- apparently she intended to make a stand here -- and in spite of having been shot, she'd killed the last of her attackers, fighting like a tigress, snarling, making swift and bloody account of herself with a knife the man recognized.

He had one just like it, a Smith knife, forged in Denver by a freed slave they knew as Black Smith, one of the most skilled metalworkers he'd ever known.

He blinked, lifted her eyelid, hoping to see the pupil shrink as he did.

What he saw caused him to pull back in surprise.

Her left eye -- and her right -- were both a very pale blue, very pale -- nearly white.

Brother William knelt in the sandy dirt, looked down the length of the woman's worn, very plain, bleached-out and threadbare dress: he considered for a long moment, then he carefully, thoroughly, regarded the dress material, tugging here and there, looking for holes -- looking for signs of underlying injury -- he was not about to undress her, not unless he believed an injury might require tending.

 

Cold.

My face is cold.

... wet? ...

... Mama? Mama, are you wiping my face?

She was a little girl again, a little girl shivering in her Mama's lap, as her Mama wiped the dirt off her skinned cheek where she'd fallen ...

She heard the wind, and birds, and she smelled man-sweat, and she felt strong arms around him, and ... movement, something moving under her, and she felt warmth and muscles and fur and she knew she was astride, she knew she was riding in front of someone with his arm around her belly, and she leaned her head back against him and her hand came up and laid over a man's hand and she knew she was safe, something deep in her soul said she was safe ...

 

Jacob looked at his father, then at the door.

Linn lifted his chin, rose, his hand automatically rising to the Stetson on its peg.

Lightning shoved the door open.

Linn's eyebrow rose and he felt his face tighten.

Lightning was out of breath; a moment before, he'd been running -- Linn and Jacob both heard his galloping pace on the boardwalk, the urgent tattoo beat with a hasty fist on their portal -- and this did not bode well at all.

Lightning, their telegrapher, would not have personally run from the telegraph office unless the news was dire indeed.

Moments later, two lawmen swung into their saddles:  one rode for the depot, the other, out of town:  the former, at a trot, the latter, at a gallop.

 

She was floating.

She smelled sunshine and soap and wind-dried bed linens, she was lying on something soft.

She'd lain still, so still, as gentle hands washed her hair, she heard women's quiet voices, she tried to smile as she heard familiar voices in three languages:  warm water, soothing, then the bright pain as her wound was cleansed; she did not flinch as skilled hands explored what felt like a canyon parting her hair right down the middle, she felt the searing fire and smelled its cause:  carbolic, on a rag, whispered apologies to the unmoving woman, a gentle hand with a soft cloth blotted the tears that leaked from the corners of her eyes.

 

Linn and Jacob led their stallions up the ramp and into the stock car: both men were silent, their faces taut; logic and reason told them it would be faster to take the steam train to Rabbitville, it would be more efficient to bring Sarah back in the private car, with women to tend her, and both men wanted little more than to make a full-bore galloping ride from here to there.

Logic and reason overcame passionate desire: Linn left Jacob to finish settling the horses, he jumped down and strode the few feet to the private car.

Bonnie Lynne McKenna and Esther Keller both looked up as they felt the quick impact of an ascending man's boot on the cast iron step.

They looked up, saw the familiar silhouette through the door's wavy glass:  they rose as the Sheriff came into the private car.

Linn stopped, removed his Stetson, looked at a woman he'd loved since the first day he'd seen her, thin and worn and tired, looking at him with suspicion and mistrust: he blinked, and saw her as she was -- a woman in a fine gown, no longer worn and thin, but a woman pale and worried, and beside her, his wife, her best friend.

The two women stood in the private car, their hands properly folded in front:  behind them, the bed was folded out, freshly made, the maid was hanging gowns in the little closet, a trunk stood open.

Linn walked up to Bonnie, took her hands, looked into those deep eyes, those violet eyes ...

I could swim in those eyes ...

"Dr. Greenlees?" he asked quietly, and Bonnie looked to her left, out the windows.

Linn saw the physician drive up in his swift little surrey.

"Brother William said only that she'd been hurt and we should come get her," he said, surprised at how tight his throat felt.

Bonnie nodded, her hands tightening on his, then her arms went around him and he hugged her into him, hard:  he looked up, at his wife, Esther, standing patiently a few feet away:  she saw misery in her husband's pale features, and her husband saw concern and quiet strength in his wife's expression.

Linn released Bonnie:  "Stay with her," he whispered unnecessarily to his wife, squeezed her hands momentarily, stepped to the door and drew it open as the physician climbed to the private car's platform.

The two men exchanged a look, a nod: the atmosphere in the private car cooled a few degrees, and Linn turned and strode the length of the private car, back out the back door:  he turned, jumped backward down the steps, hands sliding on the black-painted, wrought-iron handrails: he turned just in time to see something black, curly furred and the size of a young bear, pace easily up the stock ramp.

The Sheriff followed The Bear Killer up the ramp.

 

The attack was sudden, unexpected.

A gunshot tugged at the shoulder of her dress, a garment purchased for the mission: she'd been in town, apparently a woman getting supplies: she'd spoken to few, but she'd been recognized, and the man who recognized her told another man, and when she came out of the Mercantile, they hesitated, for she looked like any hard scrabble ranch wife with a basket of purchases on her arm.

She'd looked up at them and smiled politely, dropped her eyes and turned to step down from the boardwalk, step down to the street level so she could set the basket in the wagon, so she could climb aboard, apparently waiting for a husband, for a saddled horse was tied to the back of the wagon.

She'd gone behind the dun, patting its hinder and talking to it as she walked behind: the basket was set into the wagon, she looked up as one of the men raised a rifle --

She'd come up with a double barrel shotgun and driven a charge of swan shot into the first man who tried to kill her: the concussion of a double twelve-bore is a marvelous thing, the gelding between the traces bolted, the woman yanked the dun's reins free, swung aboard: she was behind the wagon, using it as mobile cover, she fired the second barrel at the second man, who fell back, startled but not hurt: the gelding tried to run,  but the wagon's brake was set: it was not well set, and he could get a little speed, not much, and as the woman galloped up the road, the gelding tired of pulling the dragging wagon and stopped, dropping its head and waiting patiently, as it always did.

The woman drew up, pulled behind a brush screen, waited: there was no pursuit, and so she continued, cautiously, heading into the wild country with an empty shotgun and what she'd hidden on her person.

She headed for a sweetwater spring she knew of.

One of the men -- the one she'd killed, the one who tried to kill her -- she recognized.

She'd intended to bring him in, but he'd recognized her -- how, she did not know, she'd tried to operate in disguise when functioning as the Black Agent, but he'd made her -- the other man ...

She shivered.

She knew the other man would not give up until one of them was dead.

He'd caught up with her as she made the spring, but she'd seen birds flare, startled, as he approached: she waited, silent, her tired, sun-bleached dress blending well with the background: he'd seen her, and she felt something like a club smack her head, shattering all sense and releasing a screaming demon from within her soul.

She remembered going at him with her Smith knife, her bulldog .44 forgotten: the fight was brief, desperate, she remembered another close-in concussion, the pressure wave of a .44-40 at very close range, a shot that missed -- her blade did not -- and then the world spun around her, and she'd fallen, face first, into the sandy dirt, unable to move.

 

Two pale eyed lawmen flanked the rented carriage through the narrow streets of Rabbitville; a dignified doctor in a suit and tie drove the carriage, two women in McKenna gowns and carefully-impassive expressions rode in its back seat: :  Mexican-dark eyes followed them suspiciously, a few watched hopefully; the gates off the Monastery stood open, waiting.

Physician, lawmen and ladies were shown to the sickroom, a high-ceilinged, airy room with several windows: a young woman with raven's-wing dark hair lay, pale and still, on a pallet, the white-veiled Sisters watching silently as the visitors approached.

Dr. John Greenlees frowned as he always did: he turned back the side of the blanket, just enough to expose an arm, a hand:  he lay his hand over hers for a moment, gauging skin tone and temperature, then his fingers curled and gripped her wrist lightly, assessing the pulse with a professional touch.

"Cold," the young woman whispered, and Dr. Greenlees saw the shadow of a smile tug at the corners of her mouth.

He looked up at the nearest of the Sisters.

"Where are her wounds?" he asked gently.

"Solo la cabeza," came the quiet words from the veiled Sister:  Sarah smiled a little and whispered, "Only my head, Doctor.  All else is well."

She opened her eyes.

Strong hands helped her to sit up, and she looked around at the most important people in her universe.

She looked less like the Black Agent, and more like a hurt little girl, about to cry.

She looked at the pale eyed Sheriff, lifted her hand, swallowed.

It took all Jacob had to keep an expressionless face at his sister's hoarse whisper.

"Take me home, Papa."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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629. OUTSIDE, IN THE RAIN

William Linn was the son of Dr. John Greenlees and the pale eyed Sheriff Marnie Keller.

He grew as did all the children in the Mars colonies: disgustingly healthy, remarkably tall, with a strong sense of loyalty to the Colony, to their own people, and the sense that they left Earth for a reason.

There was, of course, the curiosity of what was Earth like, did water really just fall from the sky (how wasteful!), did they really have smokestacks and trash dumps and pipes discharging directly into rivers (the idea of a running stream was entirely foreign to the Martian children; water came from a tap and disappeared down a drain, and enough water to form a running stream was a very foreign idea!)

-- and Earth suffered a crushing gravity and thick, heavy air, except for the higher elevations: when Marnie broached the subject of a visit to Earth, when she had her son fitted with a Confederate-made compensation suit, when they stepped through a folding gate and emerged in what William Linn learned later was called a "barn," the Sheriff's son proceeded to broaden the rather limited horizons of his knowledge of the universe.

Marnie smiled, touched the side of her helmet, and her son's: their visors rose and Marnie took a long breath, appreciating fresh straw, second hand horse feed and tractor exhaust:  she nearly laughed at the puzzled look on her son's face as he, too, smelled these things ... but he smelled them for the very first time.

Power suits were developed for the military, but also for those stricken with diseases that weakened the muscles: some suits could be worn by the paralyzed, and with a combination of remote muscle stimulation and the suit's external motion, some limited walking ability was achieved, though balance was a significant difficulty: as good as Earth science was, there was honestly no way to externally stimulate the musculature with the completeness and control of the natural enervation.

Still, it was a start.

Mother and son walked out into the sunshine.

William Linn turned, squinted, looked with surprise at his Mama.

It was the first time in his life he'd felt sun on his face.

Marnie laughed, waited: her son turned, closed his eyes and tilted his head back, smiling gently -- that's John's smile, Marnie thought, remembering an early morning when she and John were up on the mountain at sunrise, and John stopped and closed his eyes and smiled as morning's sun reached out and caressed his face.

Marnie heard a familiar sound, smiled: she turned and saw two round balls of something black and curly-furred, all white fangs and snarl and suddenly sounding like they were going to rip each other into bloody gobbets: the two growing pups slashed and snarled and fell off the porch, rolled, came up, shook themselves and the looked at Marnie and her son.

Right away they stopped, they bristled, they growled:  Marnie put out a protective hand and William Linn reached up and dropped his visor into place: he put one foot back and raised his arms defensively, automatically falling into the fighting stance he'd been taught and had practiced often.

The front door swung open and something with big blue eyes and long blond pigtails, a bright delighted grin and a red-and-white gingham dress shot out the door, jumped off the porch --

"Marneeeee!"

Marnie went to one knee and opened her arms.

Angela hit Marnie full-tilt, wrapping her first-grader's arms around the pale-eyed Martian Sheriff:  Marnie laughed and Angela giggled, and Wiliam Linn lowered his arms cautiously, watching with a guarded expression as another black and curly beast came out the door, and down the steps, and toward them with what he recognized as a stiff and possibly arthritic gait: this was no pup, this was ... 

... big!

The great, sinner's-heart-black canine was grey-muzzled, but still moved with a strength, a dignity, a purpose: he came pacing over to Marnie, laid a muzzle over Angela's hugging arm and groaned happily, the great brush of a tail swinging powerfully.

William Linn turned a little as the front door opened again, and a man and a woman came out.

He grinned behind his visor, for he recognized them both: as spontaneous as the delighted little girl was, he was equally reserved, and so it was not until Linn and Shelly came grinning up to their firstborn and her son that William Linn reached up and touched the side of his helmet, raising his visor again.

He stepped around The Bear Killer's enthusiastic backside and stuck out his power-suited hand.

"Sir, my name is William Linn," he said.  "I am your grandson."

Linn shook the boy's hand gravely, ran an arm behind his wife, turned to look at her, looked back.

"Young man," he said, "this is your grandmother."

"Hi," Shelly said, almost shyly:  young William Linn grinned, quick, suddenly, and abandoned all formality.

He skipped forward a step-and-a-half and hugged his Gammaw.

 

There was much good talk, there was much good food:  Angela was naturally curious about her cousin, wondering why he wore that space suit (it's a power suit, Angela.  He grew up on Mars and they don't have the gravity we have here on Earth.  His muscles aren't as strong as ours and neither are his bones.  His suit compensates for the difference -- kind of like the power suits you see working construction -- and inside the suit he doesn't feel full Earth gravity) -- which of course raised another few hundred questions from the bright and curious little girl.

Marnie excused herself, went upstairs to her room:  she emerged, no longer in her uniform skinsuit, but instead in a flannel shirt and denim skirt and her trademark red cowboy boots:  she came clattering downstairs, laughing:  "I almost feel like a girl again!"

Linn was rubbing The Bear Killer's shoulders, gently, the tired old dog leaning warm and companionable against  his shin bones:  young William Linn was pressed up against the sink, looking outside at the sky, fascinated.

Linn raised an eyebrow, looked at Marnie:  Marnie looked at her son, at her father, nodded.

Linn rose.

"Young man," he said, "come on with me," and the two went out the back door together:  a tall, lean waisted lawman, and a surprisingly tall grade school aged boy in what looked like a slim grey spacesuit.

Shelly watched as Linn picked up two empty buckets from the back porch, carried them out into the yard:  the sun was apparently hidden behind thickening clouds, and Marnie looked out and smiled at grandfather and grandson, sitting side by side on the overturned five gallon pails.

"Genuine bucket seats," she murmured, and Angela looked at her with the frank and spontaneous interest of a bright young child.

Angela went skipping out the back door, but found their conversation boring:  she went inside, where she was more comfortable, where she could lay down on the floor with the young Bear Killers and play with them, and Angela lost track of time until her Mommy called her to help set the table.

Angela looked around, smelled rain:  she backed up a step, a stack of plates held carefully in both hands, and looked up and out the window over the kitchen sink.

The sky had gone to heavy overcast; rain speckled the window glass:  in the distance, she saw the grey curtain of an advancing wall of rain, and Angela shivered just a little, grateful she was inside, where it was dry.

Linn waited while his grandson divested himself of the power suit.

They were in the back yard, on a soft, thick thatch of fine bladed grass, rain coming down heavier: young William Linn felt the sudden, demanding pull of Earth-normal gravity, he breathed deep of air that was thin enough to breathe easily, like the air back home on Mars.

Angela looked around and asked "Where's Cousin Will?"

Marnie looked out the back door at her little boy, soaking wet, buck naked, arms spread wide, his head tilted back, soaking in the full experience of this unique experience, this most unusual condition he'd never known before, his grey-mustached Granddad getting soaked right beside him, waiting patiently the way an understanding older man will.

"Your Cousin Will," she said slowly, "is outside in the rain."

 

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630. "SEND IN THE WOMEN!"

Two men glared at one another.

Each was gauging the other carefully.

Both men were known to be acccomplished brawlers, both were known as Bad Men -- that is, bad men to tangle with -- neither particularly wanted to bring his point across with the use of closed fists, but neither was willing to concede to having offended the other: violence balanced on a knife's edge, at least until the heavy door of the Sheriff's office pushed open and a little girl's happy "Daddeeee!" -- followed by the quick patter of her shiny black slippers across the smooth plank floor -- absolutely shattered the tense moment.

Linn half-squatted, half-bent, snatched up his little girl, swung her way up in the air and brought her down:  red-faced, giggling, Angela looked at her Daddy -- a little girl's face is expressive and without guile, and her innocent delight and absolute trust was plain to see -- and the she thrust a chubby, pink, clean-scrubbed hand toward the Sheriff's visitor and asked "Who dat?"

Linn laughed a little, turned: Duffy was trying hard to look stern and ended up looking confused, but he replied with a loud and rough voice, "I'M THE MAN WHO'S TRYIN' HARD TO BE AGGRAVATED AT YER PA AND IT AIN'T WORKIN'! YOU DONE RUINT MY MAD!"

Angela blinked, surprised:  her hand came to her mouth, her finger curled over her lips: uncertain, she looked at her Daddy, and then at the visitor, and in a small little voice said "I sowwy," and her bottom lip pooched out, and the frowning fellow took one step toward her and said in a considerably softer voice, "Little lady, any time you want to knock my mad on its backside, you go right on ahead," and he give that pale eyed Sheriff a long look and shook his head and finally allowed as, "I cain't be mad at a man with --"

He shook his head, turned, walked slowly to the door:  he stood well back as Esther came in, smiling:  "Mr. Duffy," she smiled, and "Ma'am," he replied, and then he was gone.

Esther paced across the plank floor, tilted her head a little at the sight of a pretty little girl, safe and content in her big strong Daddy's arms.

"I take it," she said gently, "that my dastardly plot worked."

Linn looked at Angela, looked at his wife, laughed quietly.

"My dear," he sighed, "if I live as long as Methuselah, I will never figure out the depth and complexity off the female mind!"

"But it was not complex at all, my dear," Esther murmured, giving her husband the full benefit of those big lovely green eyes:  "if you want a swift and devastating strike, you send in Cavalry. If you want to deliver mighty blows at a distance, you employ the Artillery, and if you wish to take and hold ground, you send in the Infantry."

Esther smiled, stroked Angela's shining pink cheek with the back of a gloved finger, tilted her head again as she looked at her husband with a knowing expression.

"And if you want to utterly devastate the enemy forces," she said quietly, "you send in the women!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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631. ANOTHER MAN'S SON

Jacob Keller ran his finger through the jug's ring, hoist it and lay it over his elbow: he tilted it up, took a swig, lowered the jug as he let the flavors and the fires sear the corruption from his tongue, strip his throat clean, and light the fire in a blacksmith's forge somewhere in his belly.

Jacob spun the jug, handed it back to the lean Kentucky mountaineer, nodded.

"Many thanks," he said quietly.

"Figgered yew'd lahk it," the old man nodded.  "Yer Pa favored that'un."

Jacob nodded.

It was a year since his Pa went to join his ancestors, a year to the day, and several souls had come up to Jacob just to say howdy, and some to pass some inconsequntial greeting, or share an unimportant pleasantry -- at least they seemed inconsequential on the surface, but Jacob recognized each and every one for what it was.

More often than not he would give them the full benefit of his pale eyed gaze, and then he would nod once: at times, a man's hand was offered, and was shaken:  then there was Miz Bonnie, who seized Jacob and wept silently into his shoulder, while her solemn-eyed daughters hug back a little, uncertain quite what this unaccustomed public display of an unexpected vulnerability meant.

Jacob tended the necessaries of his office, quietly, efficiently: he'd become quieter with the death of his sister, of his son, of his father: he was always lean, but somehow he seemed ... well, seasoned might be the word, seasoned like a timber:  tough, dependable, strong.

Yes, seasoned may well be the word to use here.

He drifted into the Silver Jewel, nodded to the barkeep -- Mr. Baxter, too, had departed this earth, and the carefully selected replacements were all called Mr. Baxter, in memory of the original Keeper of the Bar (though ownership of the saloon portion of the Silver Jewel reverted back to the Sheriff, and now to Jacob, as the original Mr. Baxter had neither heirs nor assigns) -- and so Jacob murmured an unsmiling but polite "Thank you, Mr. Baxter" as a beer was slid across the gleaming mahogany toward him.

Jacob leaned back, an elbow on the bar behind him, boot heel hooked on the polished brass foot rail, eyes busy: his eyes met Bill Dunlap's, and each man nodded, no more than a quarter of an inch: Mr. Dunlap was prior law enforcement, as had been his predecessor; Dunlap kept the peace in the Silver Jewel, and his quick eye was perpetually watchful for card sharpers, cheats, scoundrels, bunco-steering and other forms of gambling impropriety.

A young man sidled up to Jacob, laid a coin on the bar, turned to lean his back against the mahogany, hooked his heel on the brass rail -- not quite mirroring the tall lawman's posture, but close.

"Pa told me about Old Pale Eyes," he said.

Jacob took a sip of his beer and made no reply.

"He said he was settin' at the boardinghouse table one night and your Pa was there."

Jacob's eyes were busy; he was listening, but he was watchful, the way a man becomes when too many people have tried to cause him harm.

"They was a family there an' they was a little boy eatin' on a rabbit backbone."

Jacob's beer stopped its slow rise: he lowered it, remembering the story his pale eyed Pa told at their own supper table that night.

"Your Pa was settin' on the widow's right an' of a sudden he come out of that cheer like he'd ben clap boarded acrost the backside."

Jacob's jaw slid out a fraction.

"He come just a-boilin' around attair table an' he grabbed attair little boy by the cross straps of his overalls an' hauled him up outta that seat."

The teller's hands followed the words, seizing an invisible form, hauling it upward, another hand coming up and grabbing an unseen something.

"He taken attair boy by the ankle and swung him upside down, he hauled back and sa-MACKED 'im between the shoulder blades" -- movement followed the words -- "an' damned if attair little fella didn't just plainly shoot out a rabbit's back bone.  He'd been chawin' on it an' he inhaled the damn thing an' yer Pa knocked it out of his wind pipe."

"I recall," Jacob said softly, and he raised his beer once more, took a thoughtful sip.

"Yer Pa was like that," the young man said, and Jacob heard a sadness in his voice.

"Yes," Jacob agreed.  "He was."

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller looked with pale and expressionless eyes at the new, bigger, solid stone, Sheriff's office.

The building was new, from foundation to roof:  it was wider, deeper, taller, longer: Jacob was able to get the gunrack out of the old structure, his Pa's desk, the cast iron stove -- as much as he was able, he crated and sheathed and hid in the dry works that honeycombed under the town, his Pa's revolvers and rifles and his shotguns, hidden away and safe and secret, to be known only to the firstborn son from that day forward, kept a family secret should any but their line become Sheriff, to be revealed only when their name and their blood stood again behind the badge.

Jacob walked into the new building, still regarding it as foreign, as new.

He would have to make it uniquely his, and he knew he would do this.

Sheriff Jacob Keller paced slowly across the floor, boot heels loud on polished quartz flooring: he opened the door of his private office, stepped inside, closed the door.

Jacob looked long at the desk.

It was big, it was solid, it was hand made by those long tall Kentucky carpenters, and masterfully done: he went around behind the desk, glared suspicously at the wheeled office chair, sat carefully, not entirely trusting it to hold him -- his Pa tended to lean back in his chair, and many's the time he leaned back too far and ended up flat on his back, boot heels pointed toward the ceiling.

Jacob, so far, hadn't had that unpleasant experience.

He sat, rested his hands on the desk top, and considered for several moments, then he opened the center drawer and pulled out a bound book, a pen, an ink pot.

His script was deliberate, precise, very legible:  he wrote, not for himself, but for the sons yet to come, and so he wrote in such a way as to be easily understood.

It is one year to the day that my father left this earth, he wrote.

He is remembered for many things.

He is remembered chiefly for his kindnesses.

I recall a kindness he did another man's son, and it kept the lad alive.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller remembered the first time she read those words.

She looked up from the reprinted Journal, blinking.

Her husband Richard looked at her and smiled, just a little.

"You're thinking of this afternoon."

Willamina nodded.

"That was fast work, Willa."

She nodded again, then rose, carried the Journal over to her husband.

"I'd just read this," she said.  "Here.  Second line."

Richard bookmarked his reference, set it aside, took the Journal, read, frowned, read again.

He looked up at his wife.

"I'd read that," Willamina said quietly, "just before we left for supper at the Silver Jewel.  It was fresh on my mind when you saw me come out of my seat and run across the floor to Heimlich that kid."

Richard looked back down at the reproduced handwriting, a new respect in his expression.

"Old Pale Eyes was dead a year when this was written," he said slowly, "and this was written a century ago."

Willamina nodded.  "Never underestimate the good that you do, Richard," she said quietly.  "The good you do today just might surface again a hundred years from now."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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632. YEAH, BUT WHAT A WAY TO GO!

Cathy Fitzgerald crossed her arms and started tapping her foot.

Chuck Fitzgerald grinned unabashedly at his wife, laughed as she pulled her spectacles down her nose and absolutely glared at the fire chief overtop her wire rims.

Chuck Fitzgerald laughed and spread his arms and seized his wife in a great, crushing embrace, which brought a squeak and a muffled shriek and a struggle:  "Ya great Irish oaf, ye're wet an' ye're cold!"

"Aye, lass," Chuck roared happily, "an' now ye are too!"

Cathy struggled, tried to snarl and ended up giggling:  Chuck released her, swept her up in his arms, quickly, unexpectedly, bringing another surprised squeak from his wife:  "I'm chilled an' I'm wet an' I need a hot shower!" he declared, "an' ye're joinin' me!"

 

Jacob Keller's fingers pattered rapidly over the keyboard.

His report was professional: brief, concise, with pictures downloaded from the digital, documenting the rescue, personnel involved, cause of the accident: he sat absolutely still, his hands the only moving parts: when he was done, he saved to the multiple files, sent a copy to the State as was required, he opened his hands and placed them carefully on either side of the keyboard, considering that there was a certain satisfaction to be gained by picking up a pen and throwing it across the room after filling out reports, a satisfaction that he would not get -- the keyboard was tethered to the computer by a length of cord, and besides, keyboards cost more than pens.

Jacob leaned back, rubbed his face, remembered.

He'd raised his binoculars and watched from the high bank on the other side of the swift-running stream.

A car left the road -- he'd followed the tire tracks that scarred their way down the bank -- the car was up to its firewall in water, the passenger compartment mostly immersed -- he watched as the Irish Brigade boiled out of their rig, as they seized a ladder, ropes, a backboard, charged and skidded down the bank, making as much progress on their collective backsides as they did on their bootsoles:  one pair extended the ladder, guaranteeing egress from the scene, Fitz and Cap waded out into the water with a yelp and an oath -- Jacob grimaced in sympathy, he knew from personal experience that water was cold! -- the driver's door was jammed, Cap slapped both hands on the car's roof, jumped, rolled over the roof and came down on his feet on the passenger side.

His door opened.

Jacob watched as the Cap's head came up -- he was facing Fitz, his back to the Sheriff -- Jacob's eyes tightened at the corners at his shouted "My door's open!"

"Yah, ya dozy Welshman," Fitz roared in reply, "ye're left handed too!"

"We can't all be perfect!" -- Cap ducked, shoved his head inside, came out with an older woman, wet to her armpits, but apparently unhurt:  he hoisted her out of the cold water, handed her off to the two who'd hoist the ladder, reached back inside, came out with a water-streaming purse, bulging as he picked it up, a stream of liquid crystal squirting out of its bottom as he slogged around the back of the car, following the purse's owner.

Fitz hauled on the door twice more: there was a sharp *crack!* as it gave way, and Jacob couldn't help but laugh as Fitz went over backwards in the shocking-cold water: he came up, shook his head, slinging water into the sun with a whoop and a snort, and then he bent, thrust back into the car and came out with the driver -- a "Seasoned Citizen," as his pale eyed Mama would have termed it -- Fitz turned and waded out of the cold water, labored up the sandy bank to the ladder: one team was already topside, so Fitz planted his water filled boot on the bottom rung and made his steady progress up the ladder with his shivering burden.

Jacob blinked and saw his glowing screen again.

He reviewed what he'd written, in spite of having just sent it: he nodded a little as he read his entry about a steering failure, corroborated by skidmarks before the vehicle left the roadway -- the driver's front tire slammed sideways, yanking the car and slowing it before going down the bank -- air bags did their good work, the pair was belted in, as as Fitz told the pair before the squad took them to the hospital, "Don't be worryin' about that car now. You're not hurt.  Besides" -- his grin was quick and contagious, for all that his fingers were starting to turn blue and he was shivering visibly -- "ye've paid good money to your insurance, it's time you got some back!"

 

Cathy Finnegan threw a thick, fluffy towel at her husband as he emerged, pink and steaming, from the shower.

"Ye're goin' to catch your death of the live-forevers if ye keep swimmin' in snow melt!" she scolded.

Fitz rubbed his face briskly, then his thick thatch, grinning at his wife.

"Aye, lass," he laughed, "but what a way to go!"

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633. AND THE PANTHER SMILED

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat slowly, gracefully, crossed her stockinged legs, leaned back in her office chair.

JW Barrents, her chief deputy, regarded her with dark and unreadable eyes.

"Permission to speak freely," he said quietly.

Willamina lowered her head a fraction, her voice low, musical, feminine.  "Granted."

"Sheriff, are you always this complex, or is this something new for you?"

Willamina raised one eyebrow, then the other, her eyes widening innocently.

"Why, suh," she replied in gentle tones, fluttering her eyelashed, "whatevah do you mean?"

Barrents raised thick, stubby fingers to the ceiling, shook his hands in frustration at the tin tiles overhead:  he looked at his boss, shook his head, laughed a little.

"You face up to and face down one of the meanest fighters in the county, you backhand his second in command and disarm a third, you leave a half dozen of 'em on the ground hurt and bleedin' and you didn't even" -- he stopped, blinked:  Willamina unfast her ankle strap, slipped out of her shoe, removed a filmy mass and dropped it in her trash can.

"Actually," she said with an elaborate casualness, "not only did I get a run in my stocking, I ruined it in the knee."  She drew open a drawer, smiled.  "Fortunately, I have extras."

 

The Spring Inn was one of those cube shaped, concrete block construction, low grade beer joints where men go to drink and get drunk, where they go to play pool and swear and tell outrageous lies, where voices are raised, sometimes in anger, and any window big enough to fit a human body generally had a short life, as drunken fighters tend to toss one another through them at intervals.

Willamina opened the Spring Inn's door, walked up to an unusually tall, rough looking character with neck tats.

"I'm the Sheriff," she said quietly.  "Get out of my county."

His response was surprise, then laughter, then he swung his beer mug at where her head had been a moment before.

He froze as something pressed up against a rather valuable part of his anatomic real estate.

He looked down to see a shining foot of Damascus steel pressing against his precious parts, the Sheriff's eyes pale and hard as she came back to a standing position.

She raised the blade to her eye level, then covered the honed edge with her hand, leaving one inch sticking out between her thumb and forefinger.

"That's all I need for you," she said quietly.

He looked around, swallowed, spun to seize her wrist.

Something seared across the back of his arm, something hit the back of his knee:  he went down with a roar, grabbed his bleeding arm, rolled just in time to see Willamina backhand the next man in line -- he remembered seeing blood fly and thought Good God, that woman can hit! -- the knife disappeared and what had been a good looking woman in high heels and a tailored blue suit dress, turned into a fast moving tornado with white eyes and a mummy's bloodless, tight-stretched face.

He watched her spin, strike, seize, he heard men's screams as joints were dislocated or broken, as her three inch spike heel drove into denim or just under leather belts, as she snatched pool cues swung at her and turned them into lances and bludgeons, as she lay about her with fast and absolutely unforgiving devastation -- 

He'd come in with his posse, a half dozen hardened hell raisers, and now he, and they, were on the deck, bleeding, groaning, and out of the fight.

Willamina turned to the man with the neck tats.

"You're what, six seven?" she asked quietly.  "You're impressive but you're no match for the law. Get out of my county and take your boys with you."  She looked around, pale eyes hard, cold, unyielding.

"And if any of you decide to say one word on your way out -- if even one of you threatens to come back, or to do anything in retaliation" -- she swept back her tailored suit jacket to expose a brace of stainless steel pistols -- "I will shoot you on the spot, and the law will hold me blameless."

 

"Sheriff," Barrents said, "do you know that's the bunch that --"

"I know what they've done," she interrupted, looking very directly at her chief deputy.

"And you know you went in alone, with no backup."

"Yes," she agreed.  "I did."

"Ma'am, that was a stupid move."  

Barrents knew he may well be destroying his career, or at least his position with the Firelands County Sheriff's Office, but he said it anyway, and then waited to see what would happen.

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled with half her mouth.

"JW," she said, "one reason I hired you is because you are unfailingly honest."

Her smile straightened as the other half of her mouth came up.

"It was stupid," she agreed, leaning forward, "but if I hadn't, they wouldn't have respected me." 

She planted her elbows on the green desk blotter, then placed her palms flat on the desk and looked very directly at her segundo.

Barrents looked just as directly back at her -- he was one of the only men in the county who could-- he waited, knowing Willamina was spinning a thought, and he had too much respect for the woman to interrupt.

"I walked right into their middle.  They'd made their brags they were going to come into my county."  Barrents heard the edge to her words as she repeated, "MY COUNTY! --  "and take over.

They were not afraid of the law and they were sure as hell not afraid of any mere woman who thought she was good enough to be Sheriff.

"I recognized them and especially the biggest one there, so I walked up to him and told him to get the hell out of my county, and the fight was on."

"Sheriff," Barrents interjected gently, "there were six of them."

"Seven," she corrected.  "When I walked right up to the biggest meanest member of the bunch and put a knife to his parts and invited him to make himself scarce, it got their attention." 

Her smile was quiet, the smile of a panther as it flexed its claws in the sunlight.

"All of a sudden a mere woman wasn't quite so mere."

Barrents blinked, nodded.  "No," he said slowly, "mere is something you're not!"

"Anyway," Willamina leaned back suddenly, offhandedly, "after I got their attention, I invited them to leave the county and not come back, and I had to convince about half a dozen of them that they really should listen to me."

Barrents rubbed his callused hands together, slowly, sounding like he was gently sandpapering something in the quiet of the inner office.

"From what I understand," Barrents hazarded, "your invitation was a little less than ... politically correct."

Willamina nodded, lifted her hands, ticked off her points one by one on her spread fingers.

"I took them by surprise.  I took on their boss.  I went right into their middle when they were neither expecting it nor were they ready for it, I hit them pretty much from ambush and before they could organize even a little bit."

Willamina smiled, looking less like a sunning panther and more like a sunning panther that had just dined on a half dozen, rather large, canaries.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, JW, my invitation was very ... politically incorrect."

She smiled quietly, looked very directly at the dark-eyed Navajo.

"You see, I have some little skill with languages."  

Her smile was unchanged.

"Sometimes you have to speak the language they understand."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103