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39. A MAN'S HANDS

 

"Paul?"

Chief Deputy Barrents, full blood Navajo and Marine veteran, did the equivalent of a startled cat yowling and springing a startled somersault in the air:  his hand twitched ever so slightly, sending a ripple across his freshly drawn coffee, black, no sugar.

He placed the cup carefully on the table, turned, black eyes unreadable.

"Sheriff."

"Walk with me."

"Yes ma'am."

Willamina paced across the room and toward the front door:  Barrents executed a flawless left face, paced off on the left, followed.

Willamina came to the door and took a step to the side, stopped, placed her hand on his chest.

"You're being formal," she said carefully.

"You're having a problem."

"Is it that evident?"

He hauled open the inside door and they went into the foyer, then he pushed open the outer and they emerged into bright sunshine:  they both looked around, Barrents to the right, the Sheriff, to the left, each swinging their gaze out of habit, near to far, looking for points of ambush, for trouble in its many forms.

They started down the sidewalk.

Willamina's heels were loud on the concrete, Barrents' black-rubber heels, silent:  Willamina crossed her arms, frowned a little.

"You know," Barrents said at length, "it felt like Gunny kicking open his door and yelling "BARRENTS! GET IN HERE!" before he sets down with me and we hash out a problem he's been working on without solution."

Willamina laughed quietly.  "I really am transparent, aren't I?"

"Not really."

"Liar."

Barrents made no reply; she hadn't expected him to:  in this, he too was predictable.

"I said goodbye to Uncle Pete today."

Barrents stopped:  a pace later, so did the Sheriff.

"Excuse me?"

Willamina turned, looked up at her chief deputy and he saw her eyes were glistening and ready to overflow.

"You know he has cancer."

"Agent Orange."

She nodded.

"He shook my hand and said goodbye."

She looked down at his immaculately-shined boots, bit her bottom lip, looked up.

"He asked me if I wanted Keller Mountain upon his demise and of course I said yes, and ..."
Willamina closed her eyes, hard:  he saw her shiver, or try not to, and chief deputy or not, subordinate officer or not, he took a half step forward and ran strong, muscled arms around her:  she leaned into him and he felt her shivering like a scared little rabbit, and he pretended not to notice as she shoved her face into his shirt front to muffle the sounds of her grief.

Right here on the street, he thought.  Right out in front of God and everybody.

Willamina rubbed her face against his shirt to wipe off her tears, drew back:  he released her embrace and she turned, fell in beside him, her hand on his arm:  "Coffee," she managed, and they resumed their walk down the street, toward the fifties-themed drugstore, all mirrors and chrome and soda-fountain kitsch.

They sat at one of the tables in back, in a corner, each of them with a wall to their back, each knowing which areas could be viewed with the mirrored surfaces available:  Willamina pulled out her field notebook.

Barrents hid a small smile as it hit the table.

It used to be a steno book, before she'd had it sheared in two, longways; the field notebook is the one you made your raw notes in, wrote down dirty jokes and recipes and uncomplimentary cartoons of whoever irritated you, but the other half of the notebook was the one into which you transferred your actual field notes.

That way, after an arrest, when defense issued its subpoena duces tecum, you would turn in the "clean copy" – free of coffee stains, mashed insects, dirty jokes and the like.

You didn't want an attorney getting his hands on obscene doggerel about the judge.

"I remember when I first came to Firelands."  She looked up, almost smiling, but not quite. 

"Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary took me in and it was like I'd lived there all my life."

"I remember."

"He said I probably wouldn't see him again."

Barrents nodded, remembering his own father telling him the same thing, only with out the probably.

"I remember his hand," she whispered, swallowing and drawing back a little as coffee descended to the table, a shining chromed pot with a percolator lid – it was strictly for show, she knew, but it looked good – Barrents waited patiently as the Sheriff allowed the white-aproned waiter to retreat before continuing.

"Over in the Sandpile," she said, her eyes distant as she touched the warm, smooth sides of the low, wide coffee cup, "I remember ..."

She bit her bottom lip again, frowned, took a sip, frowned.

"Good stuff.  Now I remember why I keep coming back."

Barrents grunted, picked his up, sampled it:  she was right, it was particularly good today.

"I remember ... there was this one, the kid was from Brooklyn, he was a cynical smartmouth but when he ..."

"The gut shot?"
She nodded.

"You stayed with him."

"Damned right I did.  Doc did what he could and we got the dustoff in and I stayed with him until they loaded and flew him out, and I don't remember his face ..."

Her expression was distant, staring into the past, seeing something through the eyes of a combat Marine, a look Barrents had seen too many times, on too many faces – "I don't remember his face, but I can still feel his hand."

Barrents nodded slowly, and Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled with half her mouth.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller cuddled against her husband.

The bed was almost comfortable.

It was made of woven strapping, spun from the recyclo, strapping that made beds and chair seats and with a slight adjustment of texture, made atmosphere suits and shoes and whatever else they needed to fabricate:  nothing, absolutely nothing, was wasted; it all went into the Recyclo, where it was disassembled at the subatomic level, and reassembled into whatever they needed.

Marnie heard it was alien technology, she'd heard it was technology invented at the infamous Skunk Works, she'd heard it was invented by a mad genius who also made a two hundred miles per gallon carburetor and was subsequently murdered by Big Oil so they wouldn't lose money.

She did not know, and she did not care:  all she knew, or cared about, was that it worked, and worked well.

At the moment she was not considering the Recyclo, or mad geniuses, or anything but this man with whom she was entwined.

It had been one of those days.

Sheriff Marnie Keller was first on scene:  a warehouse accident, crushing and penetrating injuries, and she'd called for rescue and medical, and then she'd done what she could until the blueshirts arrived, and – as usual – she'd ended up working beside her husband as he treated the injuries, as he set bones and stitched flesh and she marveled yet again at her husband's hands, moving surely, swiftly, skillfully, as if they had eyes and a will of their own.

She'd watched him help laboring mothers birth their young into their now-underground world, she'd watched him carefully dab tears from a frightened child's cheek, she'd watched him grip a man's shoulder in grinning congratulations and she'd seen him grip a man's shoulder in the understanding of a man who knew grief too well himself, and now, now as she lay warm and naked with her sleeping husband, she looked at his hand, warm and relaxed on the blanket that covered them, she laid hers gently on his, and marveled again at her husband's hands.

When they were apart, it wasn't his face she remembered, it was his hands, and that was a comfort to her.

On one planet, a pale eyed Sheriff gripped the hand of an old man, and whispered a final goodbye as he took his last breath; on another planet, another pale eyed Sheriff gripped the hand of the man she loved, and listened to him breathe as he slept.

 

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40.  IDAWANNA!

 

It was no surprise that the Sheriff's son Linn became Sheriff in the fullness of time.

It is even less a surprise that he grew a mustache and waxed it into a handlebar, though he did fret that his mustache was so thin he had to wax it stiff, instead of the thick, luxurious lip broom of his late Uncle Pete.

When Linn was a child, his Mama read from the many Journals, and told her son of the Old Sheriff, Old Pale Eyes, told him tales as if she knew him personally:  she told of his daughter Sarah, a beautiful young woman with an incredible skill for disguise, and she told him of the Old Sheriff's son Jacob.

Of all of them, Linn was taken by the notion of Jacob:  he too was the son of a pale eyed Sheriff; he too was more at home in the saddle than he was walking, in his youngest years:  he, too, knew what it was to soar like a wing-spread vulture, at least for a moment, when his saddlehorse leaped the narrow gully behind his house, and Willamina was torn between a motherly gasp of dismay, and chest-busting pride as she watched her little boy, grinning and yelling encouragement, leaned over the neck of her prize mare, running a wide-open slalom between the ancient apple trees out back.

The Sheriff had a daughter, as well; she married well, she had children, and Willamina's grandchildren grew tall and strong and apple cheeked, reveling in good health and green strength:  her granddaughters as well as her grandsons cut hay and threw hay bales, mucked out stalls and split wood; her granddaughters were perfect ladies, and their prom dresses bore a most marked resemblance to the McKenna gowns on display in the stone-walled Firelands museum.

Of course, when they went to Prom, they wore gloves, not only because they were proper young ladies, but because they wished to hide their unladylike calluses.

One of her granddaughters, Marnie, was especially close to the Sheriff.

She insisted – when she stayed the summer with her Gramma – that she wear a tailored blue suit dress like her Gramma, and she wanted to wear heels as well, but her pale eyed Gramma picked her up and rubbed Eskimo-noses with her and laughed that five was too young for such a thing, and would she like to ride to work on Gramma's horsie, and Marnie giggled and put a bashful little-girl finger to the corner of her mouth and nodded, her pale eyes shining, bright, a memory Willamina carried for the rest of her life.

Marnie, like Willamina's children, and her other grandchildren, loved to sit on her Gramma's lap and listen to her read, and in her young imagination she saw the characters her Gramma read about, the big tall Sheriff, his pale eyed son, the smiling, ladylike Sarah – Marnie had a little difficulty with her speech, as the very young sometimes will, and it came out "Sawwah" – then she would frown, and stop, and very carefully she would exaggerate, "Sarrrrrah," and nod once, firmly, as if to say "There!"

Retired Chief Deputy Barrents hid his smile behind the knuckle he chewed to keep from laughing, the first time he saw this.

Of all the grandchildren, Marnie was most interested in the several descendants of Old Pale Eyes.

Willamina described Sarah's gift for disguise, and how she came out of a trunk, borne by what looked like ruffians and miscreants – a chest in which she was supposed to be tied and helpless, and instead she came out, all in black, with a short, double-barrel shotgun and a brace of .44 revolvers, with which she laid waste to a crime boss's headquarters, and to the crime boss himself.

Marnie heard the descriptions of Sarah, wounded and hiding under a building, of Sarah in a three-to-one street fight, settling things decisively with cold steel, of Sarah, nonchalantly drawing the sputtering fuse from a bundle of blasting powder and dropping both casually in a nearby rain barrel, while grown men shrank and shivered, expecting she (and them) to be blown to hell and breakfast ... and Marnie laughed at her Gramma's smiling description of the moments after, when the second fuse, unseen, detonated the powder, blowing barrel-staves across the street, water geysering into the air, and spinning one curved wooden stave to strike Sarah across the backside, as if to chastise her for such carelessness as to not look for the second fuse!

Willamina drew a wisp of cornsilk-fine hair from her granddaughter's forehead.

"You could be like Sarah, sweets," she said softly,

"Idawanna," Marnie declared stoutly, shaking her head, then, giggling, shook it again, delighting in the unexpected dizziness it caused.

Willamina laughed and hugged her little granddaughter to her.  "Who do you want to be like, then?" she asked, kissing the top of her granddaughter's head.  "Angela?"

Marnie pulled away, looked up at her gently-smiling Gramma.  "Marnie!"

Willamina threw her head back and laughed and hugged her granddaughter again, and then rubbed her back, feeling the little girl-child giggling again.

"Then Marnie it is!" she declared.  "Would you like to help me back some cookies?"
"Yis!"  Marnie declared happily, sliding off her Gramma's lap and scampering across the floor.

Richard's eyes followed the happy little girl's scampering charge across the living room floor toward the kitchen, then he looked at his wife and raised an eyebrow.

"Cookies?" he smiled.  "I knew I liked it when the grandbabies visit!"

"Gwampa I'm not a baby!" came the protesting shout from the kitchen, and Willamina stood, laughing.

"Just like her Mama," she sighed.  "Come along, Bear Killer.  I'll probably need help with cleanup!"

 

Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., chief medical officer of the Second Martian District colony, loafed indolently against the door frame, arms crossed, grinning at his wife.

"You're thinking of your Grandma," he said gently.

Sheriff Marnie Keller looked up and laughed.  "You know me so well!"

Dr. Greenlees shook his head, chuckled.  "Don't give me too much credit," he admitted.  "You are far deeper than most folks believe!"

"Deeper?"  she laughed.  "I'll leave it to you to pile it high and deep!"

"Now who knows who?" he grinned.

Marnie pushed the computer screen back, sighed.  "You're right.  I was remembering."

"Good memories?"
"The very best memories!"

She came around from behind her desk, sashaying toward her husband, every joint in motion, hips a-swing, one foot very precisely in front of the other, her Olympic skinsuit leaving little to the imagination:  she ran her arms around her husband's neck, raised her face and whispered, "Kiss me, you fool!"

There was the sound of scampering feet behind the good Doctor and the pair separated as a laughing child, Mars-tall and apple-cheeked, ran up and grabbed her Daddy around the waist from behind.

Husband and wife sighed, and with a whispered "Later, my love," released their embrace and squatted, sandwiching the giggling little Willamina between them.

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41. RETURN

 

Richard stood on the front porch and looked around, savoring the mild, pleasant day.

He took a long breath and Willamina looked at him knowingly, hearing in her mind the next words he'd say.

"It smells good today," he murmured, and his wife's lips followed his words:  she ducked her head, smiling as well:  it was good to see him back under his own roof, it was good to have him back in their bed, it was good to be able to follow his words almost before he said them.

Willamina sidled up to him, laid a hand between his shoulder blades.

"I'm glad you're back."

He ran his arm around her, drew her close.

"Me too, Willa," he whispered, and bent a little to kiss the top of her head.  "Me too."

"She's coming home, you know."

"I know."

Richard leaned on the porch rail and Willamina leaned her head against his arm.  "I missed you."

"I missed you too, darlin'."

Willamina opened her mouth to say more, but closed it:  there was no sense saying anything that would increase his guilt.  The man already felt terrible that he'd been away.  No sense adding to that.

"Willa?"

"Hm?"

"Do you remember, one time, you told me about seeing a ghost?"

Willamina had carefully schooled herself for years in maintaining a poker face.

She'd studied body language and disciplined herself to not betray her feelings with a change in posture or muscle tone.

She did not stiffen, shift, turn, look away; her eyes did not involuntarily swing to the left, or to the right, neither up, nor down:  she considered for a long moment, then nodded.

"I ... remember."

"You said it was the shade of that pale eyed hell raiser Sarah Lynne McKenna."

Again the slow, single nod.

He turned, leaned his elbow on the rail, faced his wife.

"What if I told you she'd come to see me?"

Willamina considered her husband's gaunt, pale, slightly yellowed face.

"I'd say it was a distinct possibility."

He chuckled – it was that same rich, throaty Richard-chuckle that caught her ear those many years before, at Quantico, where she'd gone for training as a green law enforcement officer – then coughed, and he turned, leaning over the rail, squinting against the discomfort:  his throat was raw from coughing and he was tired, so very tired, and he did not want to spend any more of his strength trying to evict the dry tickle from his throat.

"I'm not drinking enough whiskey," he finally wheezed, and Willamina's eyes tightened a little at the corners, for her husband drank one beer a night, never more, and nothing else, ever.

Or used to, before ...

Willa laid a hand on his, her hand warm, almost hot:  his knuckles were pale, cool, and she felt him flinch.

"I remember," he said slowly, "in one of Old Pale Eyes' journals, he wrote of an old mountain witch who told him 'You have hot hands, a Healer's hands,' and" – he turned his head a little, smiled tiredly – "so do you."

Willamina turned to face her husband squarely, laid a hand on his right ribcage, her face serious.

"Would that I did," she whispered fiercely.  "Would that I did, Richard!"

She steered her husband inside, where he could sit down, where his shivering legs could rest a little.

 

A young woman tapped tentatively on the door not an hour later, a young woman with a grinning, red-headed young man, carrying a little girl-baby, all pink cheeks and big yawn and ruffled bonnet and fuzzy blanket:  Willamina put her finger to her lips, motioned them in, pointed to Richard, drawn and gaunt, asleep in the recliner.

They cat footed to the kitchen, The Bear Killer snuffing at new legs, following with his great brush of a tail swinging slowly as he stalked after them.

"Mama," the pretty young woman said uncertainly, "I ... regret ... our words."
She did not have to elaborate.

Their last words were harsh, accusatory:  each knew how to get under the other's hide, and did:  each, too prideful to admit wrong, making the situation worse:  finally, late at night, Willamina lay awake as she heard her daughter leave, heard her get into someone's car, heard the car retreat.

She did not have to look to know she'd left a note, coldly worded, to the effect that she was leaving.

Willamina did not often fail, but she considered this a failure: her daughter, her second-born, this soon after her firstborn's death, carved a canyon across her mother's heart:  she did her best not to let it show, and when asked, would say only that her daughter told her she'd found greener pastures, and left.

Willamina knew she'd married the red-headed Marc Fitzgerald, son of the fire chief: she knew him to be an intelligent young man, she knew him to be as honest and full of fun as the rest of the Fitzgerald clan, but she also knew he'd had it out with his own father multiple times:  a father, at least to a degree, expects his firstborn to follow in his path, but Marc wanted nothing to do with firefighting:  he'd told Willamina it was nothing but hot, hard manual labor, he'd done it too many times, and he was meant to wear a shirt and tie and sit behind a desk.

In the years that followed, he'd become a banker, and a good one:  he'd provided his pale eyed wife a good life, and they were now blessed with a child, a smiling infant they named Marnie, a child that squealed happily when handed for the very first time to her pale eyed Grandma.

 

Not many generations before, and not far from the solid, log-built house, a pale eyed woman spoke in anger with her red-headed son:  he was twelve, stiff-necked and prideful, and he had a way of getting under his Mama's hide, and she would get under his in retaliation, until finally with words that seared the air like a hard-swung blacksnake whip, he took his grip and his hat and left for the firehouse, left for his late father's fellows, spent money he'd saved to ride the steam train back to Cincinnati, where his father had come from:  it took some time but he'd finally arrived at a particular firehouse, and he walked in bold as brass and strode right up to the Captain and said "My father was Daffyd Llewellyn and I am his son Daffyd, and I'm here."
Unlike Willamina's daughter, though, his return to Firelands was not until after his mother's death; the young man, regretting his harsh words, and wearing his Captain's uniform, came to make amends, only to find a tombstone in the graveyard bearing his mother's name.

He wore the rose in his lapel that day, the rose he found on her stone, a fresh cut rose that did not shrivel until three days after his return to Cincinnati, and it was a matter of local legend that, at the grave of Chief Daffyd Llewellyn, a woman all in black, in an old-fashioned gown, heavily veiled, would pace slowly through the river's night-fog, and grieve quietly, kneeling on his grave, a kerosene barn lamp set beside her, and if she was interrupted, she might raise her veil, and her eyes were pale, and glowing like glacier's ice, but alive, alive.

Now the daughter of Sheriff Willamina Keller came home, at her mother's summons:  she brought her husband, and she brought her daughter, and they sat in the kitchen and spoke quietly, so as not to disturb the man in the recliner.

 

Linn Keller laughed at the Paso colt, clattering industriously after his Mama, marveling at the staccato rhythm his little hoofies beat on the hard ground.

"I'd like to trotsky you down a boardwalk," he laughed aloud.  "You'd play a fine tune!"

The mare waited patiently as her get nosed her hard:  children are demanding when hungry, and this colt was no exception:  Linn walked up, slowly, caressed the mare, unwrapped a peppermint:  the mare's ears came up at the sound of cellophane crinkling, and he held out the spiral red-and-white disc, and the mare lipped it off, crunching happily at the favored treat.

"Horse crack," Linn laughed, rubbing her ears.

Horse and human both raised their heads just a shade, then Linn turned, whistled:  the big black Frisian stallion, too, raised his head, dancing a little:  at Linn's summoning whistle, the big horse, bred for war and for carrying knights in armor, almost danced over to him:  Linn got a boot in the stirrup, thrust hard against the ground, swung into the saddle, and he heard it again.

"Midnight, GO!" he yelled, and Midnight did not need to be told twice.

Horse and rider aimed like a black arrow toward the distant, log-built house.

Someone fired a .44 and bounced the pistol ball off the cast iron bell, and that was the signal that things had gone to hell, general quarters, this is no drill, BATTLE STATIONS!

Linn leaned down, pulled his Winchester from the scabbard, leaned over Midnights' neck, his hand gripping the gleaming mane, and as he chanted to the horse, the stallion laid his ears back and stuck his nose straight into the wind, pounding in a deceptively slow cadence against the Colorado dirt, long, hard-muscled legs splitting the wind and leaving a gauzy, distressed guardian angel yelling and trying without much luck to keep up.

 

Sarah came back into the kitchen, her Mama's pistol in hand:  she laid it on the counter, took little Marnie, bounced her a little as the apple-cheeked baby made a happy little sound and cuddled against her Mama's shoulder.

Willamina knelt beside Richard, gripping his hand:  "I'm here," she said, her voice low, urgent.

Richard opened his eyes a little, smiled.

She felt for his wrist pulse, looked at Sarah, raised an eyebrow.

Sarah fumbled her cell phone from a pocket and Willamina shook her head.

Sarah bit her bottom lip, gave her Mama a long look, slid the phone back into its pocket.

"Where's Linn?"  Sarah asked, and Richard twitched, opened his eyes, smiled again, just as the back door banged open and the sound of boot heels at an urgent cadence preceded the tall, pale eyed young man with the Winchester rifle at ready port.

He swept the room, lowered the hammer to half cock, came over beside his mother and laid the '94 on the floor.

Sarah, too, came around, knelt with her Mama and her brother, just as Richard opened his eyes again.

"Is that Marnie?" he asked slowly, and Sarah nodded.

"May I?"

Marnie squealed happily, waving chubby pink fists as Sarah placed her carefully in Richard's lap.

He managed to hold her, he looked down at her, he looked at his daughter and whispered, "She's beautiful, like all my Keller women."

Linn laid a hand gently on his Mama's shoulder:  she looked at her son, shook her head, saw his eyes harden.

Linn rose, went to a hidden, narrow cupboard; there was a click, and he withdrew a long, hand-rubbed wooden case:  he knelt, laid it on the floor: another click and the lid swung open.

Marc Fitzgerald saw the tall, slender young man rise, a slender, straight-bladed sword in each hand:  "See here!"

Linn turned slowly, reminding the prosperous young banker of a battleship's gun-turret coming to bear, and he gave him the full benefit of a pair of blazing, pale, ice-blue eyes.

"Stand back," he said, his voice edged with authority.

He stepped over to the open laptop, tapped a few keys, turned back to the grim tableau.

Willamina reached up, pressed two fingers into her husband's left carotid groove.

She waited, counting silently; Sarah held her breath, Linn's finger hovering over a key.

Willamina bowed her head, rested her forehead on her dead husband's knee, and Linn saw her shoulders heave with silent grief.

He pressed the key.

Willamina rose, teeth bared, and Linn tossed her a sword:  she caught it easily, and as a selected Cossack tune filled the room, Willamina and her son spun, blades spinning, orbiting the recliner and its grim occupant:  Sarah and her baby withdrew, shrinking up against her red-headed husband, as widow and orphan danced a slow circle around the dead man's chair, weaving a shining silver web of honed steel:  the dance was ancient, choreographed, deadly:  it ended with the swords crossing, kissing above the chair, then each knelt, grounding the tip of the blade.

Sarah turned to her husband.

"He had pancreatic cancer," she whispered through a tight throat.  "They brought him home to die."

Marc had no idea what to say, or really  what to do, so he did what wise men do in such moments of uncertainty.

He held his wife and his little girl.

 

The Bear Killer yawned, fighting ivories impressive in the waning light.

Linn cribbed rocks carefully into place.

His father had been here with him, and listened carefully as his son told him of the history of the High Lonesome.

Linn knew there were bones of past Bear Killers in the rearmost recesses of this shallow but deep cave.

He knew the remains of past, pale eyed lawmen rested there as well, hidden, secreted from the world.

He'd crawled back into the darkness, bearing the tin can of his father's ashes:  he'd worked it as far back as he could reach, this tin with a tomb stone painted on all four sides, with his father's name, dates of birth and death:  he'd added "Beloved husband and father and damned good FBI!" and smiled when he did.

Should his father's ashes ever be discovered in some future age, the finder would know that here was a man beloved, and esteemed.

Linn dusted off his front, sat with his back to the rock wall, gazed into the distance.

"I'm glad Sarah came back out," he said softly, and The Bear Killer laid his big head on Linn's thigh.

"She decided to stay back East."

The Bear Killer offered no comment, closing his eyes in pleasure as Linn rubbed his neck and shoulders.

"She and Mama patched things up some.  I reckon she'll be bringing Marnie out now and again."

The Bear Killer rose, twisted, flopped down against Linn's leg, begging a belly rub:  Linn laughed and massaged the great wardog's underside, working curled fingers through curly fur.

"I wish Pa had lived long enough to see me graduate from the Academy," Linn said softly.  "I wish he could've lived to see Mama pin that old six point star on my vest."

Beside him, a pale eyed young woman in a long blue gown tilted her head, smiling a little, regarding the grieving young man with an understanding expression.

"He will," she whispered, and when he turned his head to look, all he saw was a pair of dainty foot prints, as if a woman stood there a moment ago.

It may or may not have been a coincidence, but at church that Sunday, the Reverend Burnett spoke of the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded, and he suggested the Celtic Christians may well be right, and this great cloud is made of our honored ancestors.

Linn remembered this a year later, the day his Mama pinned his badge on him, the six point star that said DEPUTY SHERIFF, and when she did, he remembered the Parson's words.

He remembered, for he smelled his father's cologne, and felt the man's hand on his shoulder.

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Posted (edited)

42.  LET ME DO THIS

 

Patricia Keller smiled a little, just a little as her husband came across the packed dirt floor.

His good left hand was opening and closing and this quiet man, this gentle and soft spoken man, this man who'd not raised his voice in public in all of recorded history, strode across the floor with war written plain upon his brow.

It was not many years since the Ohio territory was opened up; there was a barn dance, and people came to dances, for life was hard, lives were short, and when there was celebration to be had, people celebrated.

One celebrant made it plain he wished the attentions of the brown-eyed woman with coarse, curly auburn hair, and she made it plain his attentions were not welcome:  she said a word, she gave a glare, but made no other move, at least not until he reached for her wrist.

That's when her tall, slender, soft spoken husband moved:  he crossed the floor in long strides, and the individual who decided he wished the attention of another man's wife, changed his mind in very much of a hurry.

Patricia remembered his hand sweeping her behind him, and she remembered his good left hand, no longer opening and closing.

It was closed into a work-hardened fist.

Patricia released the grip on her hand-forged knife, the Damascus-blade dagger with the checkered, curly-maple handles: she slipped it back into its hidden sheath, and she was content not to have to tell her husband to let her do it.

One, and only one, set of eyes saw the shine of steel, knew that this woman, this wife, this mother, was more than willing to drive a length of honed steel between a man's ribs:  my eyes, the pale eyes of their son, scarce belt high on a grown man.

I watched in silence, and in stillness.

My name is William Linn, and in the fullness of time I would wear a lawman's star.

 

Three men stood on a plank.

The plank stood on two sawed chunks, thick as a man's leg and just as long.

Each man stood very still:  the three stood with wrists crossed and bound behind, with a noose around each of their necks.

I was a Union cavalry captain.

To my shame – and I admit it to this day – I found myself assigned to that war criminal Sherman's command, and I did my level best to prevent the outrages he ordered.

I glared at the three, then turned glacial eyes to sweep the scene:  every man available was assembled to witness this, this execution, this murder of three men under color of my authority.

"These men," I announced loudly, "brutalized a girl.  I ordered that no woman, no girl, should be troubled" – my voice was hard edged, pitched to carry to the furthest rank – "and I will countenance that none such should stand among us!"

I turned, raised a leg, and a girl seized my boot, pulled hard.

Startled, I almost fell:  a quick hop-step, I turned, regarded the red-eyed girl with honest surprise.

"Let me do this," she said.  "They killed my mother and they filthied me.  I claim this as mine!"

I opened my mouth, closed it, then nodded.

The girl looked up at the three, and I watched her face as her glare went from pleading, to angry, to utter, deep hatred:  I watched as her lips peeled back and she took a running step toward the plank, I watched as she pushed the plank far enough for the cylindrical, saw-cut chunks to fall, and I watched as she drew back a step, a second, a third.

She stood and stared as their faces enpurpled, as they jerked, kicked in the grotesque Hanged Man's Dance:  the drop was no more than a foot, not far enough to break the neck:  hanging after this fashion was not fast, and she stood and watched, until three bodies stilled, until their sock feet dripped with their water, until the three bodies swayed gently and twisted, until I dismissed the assembled.

I waited, and finally the girl turned and faced me squarely.

"I am filthied," she said, loathing plain on her tongue:  "I am used goods and no decent man will have me." 

I removed my cover and considered for a long moment.

"I would like to thinkI said finally, "that you will be held in very high esteem."

"After what they did to me?"  She turned, looked at the ghastly trio, still hanging:  she spat toward them, then looked at me like a lost little girl.

"They murdered my parents.  They burned our farm.  We didn't have much.  We never had slaves.  Why did they do this to us?"

She looked back at the three.

"I had to do this," she said thoughtfully, then she turned to face the dead men.

"I'M GLAD I DID THIS TO YOU!"  she shouted, bending at the waist, her face reddening, her young hands tightened into fists:  "I'M GLAD I DID THIS, YOU – YOU – DAMNED YANKEES!"

She snatched up her skirts and turned, turned back.

"Where will I go now?" she asked.  "I have no family.  Everyone is dead."

I felt well beyond utterly lost, but she did not wait for an answer.

She lifted her skirts and lifted her chin and marched resolutely down the road and through the ranks that opened for her, as if for royalty, and as she passed, men removed their hats deferentially.

It might not have been the military thing to do, but it was the decent thing to do.

 

I smiled ever so slightly as I stood on the riverboat's upper deck.

"You, sir," I said, "have yourself confused with someone important."

Esther Keller withdrew half a step, giving me room to work, and in the process, getting herself between myself and a spectator she did not entirely trust, someone I hadn't noticed ... but she had.

"You dare insult me, sir!"

"Reckon I did," I said quietly.

Esther knew me and she knew me well and she knew when I stood loose and relaxed like this, that I was ready to cause a great deal of harm in a very short time, and she was right.

The red-faced man in the oddly-tailored suit drew back his arm.

I intercepted it, expertly turning it from a roundhouse, backhand slap, to a most painful elbow lock, bringing the man quickly to his knees with his arm up behind him at a painful and most awkward angle.

"Seems like you've got an inflated sense of your worth," I said casually, and Esther withdrew a few inches of slender, honed steel from her forearm sheath:  Esther told me later that her right ear twitched as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger, for she'd heard the distinct, but somewhat muffled, triple-click of a Colt's revolver coming to full stand.

"Y'all might want to put that away," a Texan drawled from behind the man Esther marked as less than trustworthy, and she saw this fellow – who wore a similarly, oddly-tailored coat as the man her husband had down on his knees on the deck – slid a pepperbox back into an inside pocket.

"My dear, allow me," Esther said in a loud voice, and I released the man's wrist, stepped back.

"You fool, he's a Count!" the untrustworthy man protested, at least until the Texan's gun-muzzle introduced itself again to his back ribs, and the Texan's free hand seized the offender's collar and pulled back, hard.

Esther waited until the absolutely florid man wallowed to his feet, then she smiled gently at me and said firmly, "Let me do this."

I nodded, once.

Esther Keller tilted her head just a little, turning her right shoulder toward the Count, then she unwound a spinning, backhanded slap that bloodied the blustering man's lips and bent his nose suddenly and painfully to the side – it did not break, but it began to leak, fat, slow red drops.

"You, sirrah," Esther declared firmly, "are a rascal, a scoundrel and not worthy of a good man's attention.  You wished to challenge my husband for calling you what you are – I take offense, and I challenge you to a duel of honor!"

"You cannot do this!" the untrustworthy man blurted, to which the Texan said quietly, "Fella, either I can push this gunbarrel clear through to your front or I can toss you over the side, whichever you'd like.  Or you can just shut up."

"I HAFF NEFFER LOST A DUEL!" the Count roared, his face darkening with rage.

"Then you may enjoy the new experience.  I choose blades, I choose here, and I choose now, how say you?"

"You haff not a decent set of blades," he sneered.

Esther's backhanded slap was like a cobra's strike:  swift, startling, completely unexpected.

"Now you insult me," she said quietly, "and I will not let that pass.  I have a matched set of Schlager blades.  Good Solingen steel.  They are in my cabin.  If you are not an utter coward, you will stand fast until they are fetched, and if you are so cowardly as to move, this boat is small and I shall find you and hunt you down like the wretch you are!"

I raised a hand, and the Captain, watching from the wheelhouse, nodded once, slowly, firmly:  this was his boat, and it would be his authority to forbid this:  on the other hand, he was a brother Mason, and he knew Esther and I were newly married, and on our honeymoon, and he knew this Count to be a braggart and an annoyance.

A porter scrambled down the stairs with Esther's sword-case clutched desperately in his long, artist's fingers:  he was trembling a little as he laid it on the deck at her feet.

Esther's smile was bright, charming, disarming:  she divested herself of her short-waisted coat and stood boldly in skirt and high-necked blouse, the ruby brooch gleaming brightly at her throat, framed as it was by four emeralds.  It was the kind of thing European royalty might wear, but here in America, if a woman wished to wear such, she was perfectly free to do so – providing, of course, she could keep street Apaches or footpads from plucking it from her throat.

There were two such who were missing either fingers or half a hand from the attempt, and both times, it was Esther who drew blood.

Me, I just shot the third, but that's another story.

Esther dipped her knees, opened the case, threw back the velvet cover, exposing the blades:  she withdrew them both, held them forth.

"Choose," she said, and the Count seized the wire-wound handle to his right:  he stepped back, swung the blade experimentally, nodded his satisfaction.

Esther took her blade by its handle, ran her hand through the sword-knot, snugged it to her satisfaction about her dainty wrist:  she waited until she was satisfied the Count was not going to do the same, then she raised her blade in salute.

He did not return her salute – another insult – Esther slashed her tip down, then began to circle a little to one side.

I remember how easily Esther moved, how the blade spun shining circles and arcs:  I am not a swordsman, though Esther taught me things about knife fighting I never knew.

Nor even suspected.

Was I to try and describe her performance, it would be kind of poor, because like I said I'm not a swordsman ... I do recall the Count tried to beat her down with raw strength, and that might work if a man just stood there and took it, but Esther was a dancer, and when he came swinging that blade down like he was bringing a riding-crop down on a recalcitrant servant, a time or two he roared with rage, because Esther was not there ... not only was she not there, she danced in and flicked the tip of her blade against his cheek.

The first time she drew a bloody line across his cheekbone, he stopped, raised his hand unbelievingly to his cheek.

Esther smiled and said "Shall it be to first blood, then?" – which was like laying a horsewhip across an angry bull.

He came after her and I have never seen better ... she tagged him in the upper arm, in the thigh, she slapped him across the backside with the flat of her blade, she just plainly played him for a fool, and she made it obvious, and she made sure he knew it.

Finally when she made her move she smacked the back of his hand with the flat of her blade, then brought it up firmly under his chin, under his neck, where life throbs and surges close to the surface, and she lifted her blade and obliged him to raise his chin with it.

"Drop your sword," she said quietly.

"Never," he snarled, and she twisted the blade to bring the edge against his neck, then drew back a bare fraction of an inch.

His sword clattered to the deck.

"On your knees," she said, her voice low and full of menace, and he went slowly, haltingly, to his knees.

"Now."  Esther dipped her knees, slowly, carefully, picked up the other blade, brought it around and gripped it:  she lowered her blade from his neck, took one step back, and then wove a double-butterfly in shining silver in front of her, stopping with both tips resting against his collarbones.

"You, sirrah," she announced, her voice loud and ringing, "are pompous, ignorant, offensive, you are loud and uncouth and your manners are utterly lacking, and you have absolutely no concept of the value of a bath."  Her smile was sinister, her lashes long and lovely, her green-eyed glare pinning him to the deck like an insect on a cork board.

"You are not fit to share the same boat, but I shall be gracious.  You may remain aboard until our next regular stop, but understand, you ugly sack of second hand horse feed, should you choose to utter one syllable against either my husband or myself, I will not hesitate to divest you of your wagon load of guts and use them to feed the fishes in this river!"

There was kind of a thump from behind me and I turned to see the Texan holstering his revolver.

That Count's ill mannered assistant was in the process of collapsing to the deck, kind of slow, the way a man will when he's been buffaloed with a Colt.

We had attair Texan to our table that night, and come to find out he was one of those expert horsemen who'd made an utter monkey out of me when I wore Union blue, and we had a good laugh over that and shook hands over the memory.

 

I set on my big golden stallion and considered the whitewashed board fence.

I knew Angela had been practicing jumping – she wasn't supposed to, but she'd learned not only did she have a strong affinity for good horse flesh, she'd shown herself as much a horsewoman as her green-eyed mother, and that's saying something:  Sarah and Esther were neck and neck for saddle skills and I honestly don't know which I'd put up ag'in the other.

They often rode together, laughing, delighting as the wind stripped their cares and stresses from them, and they were a woman and a horse and in love with the moment, and Angela right with them.

Esther strictly forbade Angela from jumping.

I knew Angela had been.

Now Angela rode beside me on Godenrod, one of my stallion's get:  Goldenrod was a gelding, steady, but with a love of running, and a love of jumping, and I think the first time Angela jumped was more accident than intent – it was kind of like Goldenrod saw something he could jump, and Angela screamed with delight when he did, and from there on little could stop them.

Today we rode side by side, and I knew the fence ahead of me was one she'd jumped a number of times.

Ancient custom holds that an angel rides one shoulder, a devil the other, and each will whisper counsel in a man's ears, and I'm not at all sure I listened to the right one on that moment.

"Angela," said I, "your Mama doesn't want you jumping horses."
"Yes, Daddy," Angela said, and I know she was getting some height to her and if I let myself see it I could have seen she was developing ... well, she was ...

Oh hell.

I didn't want to admit it but my little girl was getting womanly, and damned good looking in the process, but God as my witness, she is STILL MY LITTLE GIRL! – and I looked at my little girl and a young woman looked back at me, all blue eyes and innocent expression and I said, "Angela, think you can jump that fence?"

Her big blue eyes widened a little more and I honestly pity the poor fellow she turns those eyes on, she had me wrapped so tight around her little finger likely I'll have to go see a Back Cracker to get the kinks out, but she looked at the fence and looked at me and said "Daddy, are you going to jump it?"

I grinned and lifted my stallion's reins and Angela threw her head back and laughed and Goldenrod started to dance for he knew what was coming and I'll carry that moment in my heart clear into the Valley when I die, for she threw her head back and laughed "Let me do this!" and the race was on!

Sunrunner had the longer stride but Goldenrod had a two jump head start – he surged and muscled up underneath me and my hat fell back on its storm strap and we come to that fence at the same moment, and Angela screamed with delight as we sailed over, and for a moment we two were flying, just as sure as if we'd had wings.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna kissed the Count's dying lips and whispered, "Let me do this," and he grimaced, one hand on his bloodied belly:  the invader shot the old man, but not before the old man shot the invader, and now Sarah was alone in the schloss to defend against the crowd outside, the mob that always forms before a war.

Sarah Lynne McKenna wore her Agent's black, and she wore her bulldog .44s:  she'd slung a Winchester shotgun across her back, she had her knives, both sets, on her, and she skipped for the door, picked up her '73 rifle, stepped out on the landing just as the big double doors splintered open.

Sarah Lynne McKenna stood with the rifle propped up on her thigh – a woman alone, all in black – her eyes swung to the panel that hid the secret door, the door she'd sent her maid through, carrying a small grip, a pouch of gold, and her infant daughter, with instructions to get her down the tunnel and to the river, to the waiting boat, and get her back to Colorado.

Sarah Lynne McKenna faced a few guns, mostly blades, pitchforks, bludgeons:  she knew she was being watched by the ancestors, painted on great portraits on the walls, she knew ghosts of Teutonic knights were judging her, would judge what she did here.

She looked at the mob, pouring in from sheer momentum, and her lips peeled back from her teeth like The Bear Killer's might have peeled back from his fighting fangs.

Only two lived to crawl away; one died before getting outside, the other lived long enough to gasp out a story of horror, how one black Valkyrie, a mere woman, advanced down the stairs, spitting fire and lead, screaming defiance as she waded fearlessly into ten times her number:  how she laid about them with a rifle, how she blasted lanes and avenues through them with a machine cannon she carried, a hell-bore that must have carried a ten-pound ball, she laid about her with blades that seared the air with silver fire, and only the sheer numbers of those still pouring in finally overbalanced her and only thus was she killed.

By then the schloss was afire, thanks to the raiders; somehow, the Count's body was retrieved, God only knows how, but the body of this Valkyrie, this warrior-goddess sent to avenge the Count's death ... her body was lost to the flames.

The dying man giving this testimony shivered, for he spoke a little English, and he repeated her war-cry, screamed in defiance as she went down, bloodied blades still slashing as she fell:

"Let me do this!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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43.  FRUSTRATION

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller's head came up a little as she read.

Her jaw eased out and her jaw muscles bulged, and if one were there and looking closely, one would see her eyes grow hard and cold and very pale as they tracked left to right, left to right, reading the hand written words of a man dead well more than a century.

"Damn you," she hissed.  "Damn you for doing this to me!"

A curse she may have laid, but she never stopped reading, for the story drew her in, and she became part of the story as she read it, as she saw it, as she lived it through another set of pale eyes.

 

I sat with the family that day, for death came with the sun's dawning, I sat with them as neighbors knocked together the rough box, as friends dug the hole, as the Parson came out to say the words that a sky pilot always says.

I don't reckon they heard a single word the man said, but I know they never, ever forgot that he cared enough to come out and say them.

Me, I didn't say much at all.

Saw horses were brought into the parlor and a sheet laid over, and then the box was brought in:  these folks didn't have much at all, but what they had was clean and tidy and in good repair.

I could smell death when they brought in the box and the women lit candles and set them at the head and at the foot and that helped, whether it was the smell of bees wax or the flames ate the smell seeping out of the box, I don't know.

Someone picked a bunch of flowers and tied them with a ribbon, and laid them on top of the flat plank lid and that was a proper thing, for their daughter was within, twelve years old and a pretty little thing, but I'll never remember her like that again.

Fire was ever a danger in those days and she'd got her long skirt too close to the open fire place and she caught fire and I was outside and heard her scream but I was too far away to get there in time and when she come to the door she was aflame all up her front and started up her back and she must have inhaled fire for she choked off some and made a ghastly little noise and I recall she tried to cough and blood and soot come out and she fell down and I recall we dashed water on her from the water barrel and it was too late, it was long too late.

A pretty young girl with brown hair and bright eyes was now burnt and horrible and I throwed my coat over what used to be her face and her bosom and I knelt beside her Pa as he collapsed to his knees and shivered as with the ague, and then her Mama came up and knelt as well and I never saw grief so harsh on a woman's face as I saw that day.

We buried her at sunset, we lowered that pretty little girl child into the ground as the sun lowered itself over the rim of the world; we set that girl to her eternal sleep as the sun itself went to sleep:  I stood with my hat in my hand and listened to the Parson talking about the sure and certain knowledge of a glorious resurrection and all I could think of was looking at that awful burnt face and it's a sight that haunts my nights.

There are times in a man's life when things happen and not one damned thing he can do to help and this felt like one:  I am the chief law enforcement officer for my county and my very word is the Law.

I hold the power of death and of life and it is mine by right of Law and I do my very best to uphold that Law and I can blacksmith and make hinges and I can do many things, but restoring life is beyond me.

I rode home in the dark and I rode with the bitter taste of defeat on my tongue, and I stopped in the Silver Jewel and asked Mr. Baxter for one shot of Uncle Will's Finest.

Now Uncle Will's Finest is good stuff.

It is smooth and it is pleasing to the tongue and it goes down like Mama's milk and generally blows the socks right off a man's feet.

It tasted like dust.

I learned a long time ago to take my feelin's and stuff them down in an iron kettle and screw the lid down tight and I reckon that's what I did that night.

Esther knew I was powerful unhappy and she give me that knowing look a woman will but she said nothing, bless her, and I picked up each of my children and held them and most of them giggled and begged me to hoist them up so they could touch the ceiling – it was a favorite game with them – but when I picked up Angela, I hoist her only a little, for she was near to grown, and I held her at eye level and I looked long into her Kentucky-blue eyes, and then I set down, and I took her hand, I walked over to my chair and set down like I was old and tired and I took both her lovely young hands in both of mine and I said "Angela, I would ask you to promise me something."

She gave me an uncertain look and Esther drifted nearer, for I reckon she suspected she was about to find out the cause of my unhappiness, that or she figured I'd learned Angela was dealing poker at the Silver Jewel and got caught cheating.

"Angela," said I, "I want you to be very careful when you are near fire."
She blinked, surprised, and I was surprised as well, for I'd not realized how long and lovely her lashes had become.

I rubbed the back of her hands gently with my thumbs.

"Angela," said I, "I just helped a family bury their daughter."

"Yes, Daddy?"  she asked in a small little voice.

"She was about your age, darlin', and she got too close to the fireplace and her dress caught."

I heard Esther's breath catch in her throat and I could see from my side-eye that her hand rose to the base of her throat.

"She ... burnt to death between the fireplace and the front door."  I swallowed hard and I could smell burnt flesh again and I lowered my head and bit my bottom lip and bless Angela, she did not pull from my grip.

I looked up again.

"Promise me," I whispered, and she nodded:  "I promise, Daddy," she whispered back, and I drew her in to me and I held her and the twins clambered up on one side of the chair and the other children piled on and it's a good thing I'd had the Daine boys make that chair for it was stout, and it held the weight of the humanity that crowded in to comfort their old Pa that night.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back, set the book down, blinked.

She, too, still smelled burnt flesh, and she smelled gasoline, and she still heard the screams of what used to be a pretty girl.

She'd gotten there just as one of the girls tried splashing gasoline on a trash fire and the flame roared up the careful little stream, it detonated in the can and fired out like a flamethrower and Willamina stomped the brake pedal hard, slammed the Jeep into park and reached back for the extinguisher.

"All my training," she whispered into the silence, "and all my experience ... I was a paramedic and I was a nurse and there is not one damned thing I could do to keep her alive!"

She looked at the hand written Journal, still open to Old Pale Eyes' last words on the subject.

"I had almost put it out of my mind," she said aloud, as if addressing the man in person, "and you brought it all back."

She closed the book, opened the drawer, placed the Journal carefully in its place, quietly, precisely, slid the drawer closed, her movements very controlled, very exact.

She looked up at the print of the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache.

It had been five years since she'd heard that twelve year old girl screaming to death as flame roared up and she sucked in a big breath of living fire and her voice squeezed down to a squeak and she coughed blood and died.

Five years, and she hadn't had that nightmare for a year now, but somehow she knew she would, now.

"Damn you for bringing it back!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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44.  A CERTAIN MAN

 

"I do beg your pardon," the voice said, and the voice was soft and gently phrased.

Sarah Lynne McKenna turned, smiling as the man brought his Stetson off his head and held it before him, almost like a bashful schoolboy.

"Forgive my being forward," he continued with a troubled expression, "I realize we have not been properly introdyuuu ..."

His voice ground to a halt and his eyes widened as he realized this woman had pale eyes.

Sarah blinked innocently and then reached a gloved hand out, delicately placed the pads of her fingers under the man's chin, lifted.

"Close it," she smiled, "you'll catch flies."

She tilted her head, studying the surprised soul.

"There is a question in your eyes, sir, please, ask what you will."

He swallowed, blinked twice, quickly, apparently trying to marshal his thoughts.

"I knew ... a man ... with those eyes," he said faintly.  "I am looking for him."

Sarah turned, looked deeper into the Silver Jewel:  she and the polite stranger were standing in front of Tilly's desk, and Tilly was watching the exchange with amusement:  she saw Sarah turn, raise a summoning arm, then turn to smile at the stranger once more.

"I think I can help."
Again the nervous swallow, a nod, then a "Thank you, ma'am," and Tilly turned her head and smiled as Jacob Keller strode toward them, grinning.

He thrust out a hand.  "Howdy," he greeted the man with the even more startled expression.

"This gentleman," Sarah said by way of introduction, "believes he may know a ... man with pale eyes."

She gave Jacob a knowing look, let her gaze slide from her lean-waisted half-brother to this newcomer who was openly gawping at the man whose hand gripped his.

"Dear God," came the dry whisper, "either you are living right or I address your ghost!"

Jacob laughed, pumped the fellow's hand, gripped his shoulder with the other:  "You must mean my father, the Sheriff.  I'm his firstborn."

"His son.  Yes, his son.  Quite right, that, yes, quite right ..."

Somehow he still looked surprised, in addition to somewhat lost.

"Have you eaten, stranger?  I've got an appetite and Daisy's kitchen is open for business!"

 

Now if the Witch of Endor was still around I doubt me not she might cause trouble for honest men like me.

I wondered for a moment if that's what happened here.

Y'see, when I went to set my boot up on the first step to ascend to the board walk in front of the Silver Jewel, somethin' came rollin' out of the barely open door, something round and brown and rollin' skinny tail over tincup and I reached down and caught it.

It's a good thing I was wearin' a good pair of leather gloves, for whatever this little brown furry thing was came rollin' out like a swatted ball commenced to snarl and try and chew my hand off up to the elbow.

I cupped it in both hands and kept my fingers tight together so it couldn't get a good bitin' purchase on me and then I got it by the nape of the neck and held it out away from me and damned if it wasn't a skinny, short-furred, mean little rat of a dog with a set of sharp little teeth bared and invitin' me to come within a mile of it so it could rip me to absolute shreds.

I looked at this swinging, thrashing, clawing creature and wondered if maybe that Witch of Endor had come around and shrunk a saw blade and then spun it away from its sawmill and added a sprinkle of fur and a dash of ill temper just for the fun of it.

I held it up to face level and said "Little fellow, you're just full of fire, ain't you?" and that skinny little short furred brown dog snarled at me and then yapped and I figured if I didn't do somethin' why it might turn back into a saw blade and then I'd be in trouble so I brought it in close against the front of my coat and held it with both hands, but not tight:  it was shiverin' and I rubbed it just a little and soothed at it, and then I climbed the three steps up and The Bear Killer shoved the door open some and looked at me and he didn't look none too pleased.

"You two met?"  I asked, and that little short furred saw blade looked down over the edge of my hand and commenced to give The Bear Killer just all kind of hell and that struck me as funny, this little thing was about as long as my two fists set end to end and The Bear Killer was belt buckle tall on me at the shoulder and he was nowhere near done growin'.

Matter of fact it struck me as really funny and I commenced to laugh and damned if that little thing didn't look up at me and make a happy yow-yow-yow with that tiny little voice and I set it down and damned if it didn't strut right up to The Bear Killer and snarl and give out one yap and The Bear Killer moved faster'n I'd ever seen.

Now The Bear Killer is a mountain Mastiff, or so Charlie Macneil figured, and these were Tibetan dogs bred so one dog could defend an entire village:  dog he might be but he was quick as a cat and damned if he didn't swing attair big black forepaw and catch that snarling little rat dog like a cat and bat it right out the open door.

I reckon that's why it come rollin' out like a furry ball in the first place.

I shook my head and looked at Tilly, smilin' at me from behind her counter the way she always did when I came across the threshold.

I can see why Attorney Moulton jumped the broom with that sweet girl, she had the nicest disposition.

She'd improved an awful lot since I persuaded Dirty Sam that a bag of silver was better than a knife between the ribs, when I bought the Silver Jewel through means far from fair.

Tilly had been one of the working girls upstairs.

Not by choice.

I'd arranged it so the working girls all had a fresh start, however they damn pleased.

Some went over to Carbon Hill, or to Cripple, continued their trade in horizontal refreshment, others – most, actually – threw their lot in with Bonnie.

I set Bonnie up with her own shop and she outgrew it in short order, so Esther and I consulted and Esther allowed as she believed it wise to invest in Bonnie, so her brick works provided building material, our profits from the railroad and from the Silver Jewel went to equip Bonnie's new House of McKenna, and damned if she didn't start to supply fine fashion to the West Coast and beyond.

Esther always did have a good head for business and it is not the first time I benefitted from listening to my beautiful bride.

I looked up from Tillie and my moment's reverie, and Sarah was giving me a wise look, and I saw Jacob was lowering his hand – he'd apparently just shaken a man's hand in greeting, his off hand was still on the fellow's shoulder – and they all turned and looked at me.

"Now as I live and breathe," said I, "there's a familiar face!"

 

I listened with sympathy as my old friend told his tale.

There, I knew, but for the grace of God ... might be me.

"You were right," he admitted ruefully, and I gave him an understanding look, or at least tried to.

"I tried to tell you," I said quietly, "it was no life for you."

"I should have listened."

Jacob had the grace not to look uncomfortable: when a complete stranger whips the cover off his soul and admits he was wrong, why, I've known men to shift and look away and maybe drift off to another table, for every man can see himself in someone else's confession.

Sarah, now, looked just as composed and ladylike as she ever did (when she chose to be ladylike, I'd have to add!) – anyway, Ernie told us of chasing after wanted men, of finding them five minutes after they'd been caught, of being outrun, outmaneuvered and outsmarted, and the last of 'em all was the day before.

"You recall that Barrows fellow."

"I've known several of that tribe.  Which one?"

"He has a scar on the inside of his left forearm from a knife fight."

I nodded.  "I know the man.  I put that scar on his arm."

Ernie's mouth opened a little and he looked distinctly uncomfortable, but then he nodded, pressed his lips together hard enough they pooched out some.

"Well ... you know me, Captain.  I never was the kind to jump in and get mean with a man."

I nodded:  Ernie had ever been an easy going and soft spoken sort, and when he'd told me the year before he was going to try his hand at bounty hunting, why, I had my doubts and I'd said as much.

"I caught up with him when he'd just lit off his fire and I set there and watched him strike flint and steel."

"He let you ride in and watch him?"

Ernie laughed.  "Linn, I have had the devil's own luck with flint and steel.  I can't strike a fire with anythin' but a Lucifer match."  He shook his head.  "Now this Barrows fellow, he struck his steel three times and raised his char to a mouse nest and then blew on it nice and gentle and he had a fire as fast as I could with a Lucifer."

I nodded.  "I've known those with that gift."

Jacob looked at me and he and I both kept a poker face, for we'd raced one another many times in startin' a fire, and we'd proved any number of times that yes a man can strike a fire with a steel that fast.

Not every time, and it's got to be just right, but it can be done.

"He got his fire to going and I offered him some coffee and bacon and we shared the night and finally he asked me what brought me so far away from towns and civilization and I said I was looking for a man that looked much like him.

"He got kind of cool about then but all he said was "That so?" and I nodded and said "The man I'm looking for has a knife scar inside his left forearm."

"Well then I'm not him," said he, and he undid his shirt sleeve and rolled it up and he had a knife scar inside his right forearm.

"I stared at that scar and felt right foolish so I pulled out my wanted dodger and we read it together.

"I told him as he bore a resemblance to the wanted man, may be he'd want to keep that dodger about him for it described the scar on his other arm, and he thanked me kindly for that.

"We finished the meal and I was troubled to have bothered him so I took his leave and gave him the rest of my coffee and it wasn't until I talked to Macfarland over in Carbon on my way in that I learned Barrows has the same knife scar on the inside of both forearms."

I nodded but said nothing more.

Ernie gave a long sigh.  "A hundred dollars I could have gotten," he said sadly.  "I could have used it, too."

Ernie and I had served together back in that damned War – that's why he called me Captain, I reckon – and I staked him to a good night's rest in a clean bed, a good meal in the morning, and he and his horse went back East on the steam train.

He told me when we shook hands on the depot, just before he got on the train, that he was certain he was not suited for a bounty hunter's life, so he was giving it up for a bad job, and I allowed as he was a wise man to realize this before he took a knife in the guts, or worse.

I never did see him again, nor did I ever see Barrows, but Jacob ran into him and before the dust settled, Barrows lost a thumb and a good bit of blood, and his carcass ended up planted in our potters field, but that's a tale I'll let Jacob tell sometime.

'Twas his fight, not mine.

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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45.  FOOLS AND CHILDREN

 

When a man intends to kill, he is fast, brutal, without mercy and out to win, and anything is fair.

We were too close to drag iron and I caught his wrist before he could gut me:  I got my elbow into his jaw and got some distance and my knife come out point down and I taken me a punch at his face.

He saw my fist coming in and ducked to the side but my blade was stuck straight out and I cut his cheek to the bone on the way past:  he sliced me across the kidney as I passed and we turned and he whipped an overhand slice at me and I spun my blade around his the way Mother and I spun blades when we engaged, fencing:  I knew where my edge was and when I give my blade a twist, his knife hit the ground and his thumb with it and I kicked him beside the knee and he went down with a scream and he came up with a hideout pistol in his off hand and I recall it bloomed a fireball the size of a peck basket as I came down on it and I taken a cut down the length of his arm and peeled off a hell of a chunk of meat and he lost that hideout gun and started losin' his life's blood and I stepped back and I let him bleed.

We hadn't exchanged word one.

I'd come up on him by surprise, and him a hard man to slip up on, but by God! I'd Injuned up to near arm's reach of him before he smelt me comin' and now he lay dead and I smelt his blood and I stood there and waited.

It did not take him long to die, not bleedin' like that.

I looked around and noted the location, I taken his proud-ofs and stuffed them in his saddle bag, I tied his still-saddled horse behint mine and marked the location.

Digger would be able to get the dead wagon here without difficulty, I knew; I'd already taken what Digger might wish to take – he wasn't any more honest than he absolutely had to be, you understand – then I rode on towards a bend in the railroad about two mile away, it was on the way home or mostly so, and I knew the water that ran there.

I wished to clean my blade and wash myself.

Now there's where I realized yet again that the Lord looks out after fools and children.

Parson Belden allowed as we are children of God.

He said as much at that last funeral he preached, and he said in part, "Children learn by asking questions and making mistakes, and this child of God wishes he'd asked more questions," which generally a sky pilot don't try to make things funny at a funeral but I don't reckon the dead man would have minded, for he was of the same mind his own self:  I knew him and knew he'd appreciate the chuckle.

Anyway I watered the horses and I set them a-picket to graze and I commenced to clean off my fightin' knife and I heard the train comin'.

I slung the water off my steel and wiped it dry, I slid it back into the sheep skin lined sheath – I always did favor lining my knife scabbard with sheep skin, wool in – it cleaned the blade every trip in and out and the lanolin in the wool oiled the steel – I looked around before I got up and both horses was lookin' to the side.

Not towards the oncoming train – I had a concern whether the dead man's horse would spook when The Lady Esther came chanting by – no, they were looking off a little ways more torst the cliff face and then I saw her.

It's not unusual to see mountain folk in the mountains, it's not out of the ordinary to see the Daine family here there or yonder, but it was a little out of the ordinary to see Gracie Daine looking around at that curved cliff face, then counting her paces as she marched straight toward the tracks, and then she stopped and she set her bow to her fiddle and started to play.

The tracks took a big bow right about there and the Sheriff he explained to me that as the train run around that curve, it was going up hill, it was pullin' hard, and she was in just the right place to hear The Lady Esther labor for the longest time, and when she started to saw attair curly back fiddle, why, I found out why she'd picked her spot.

The Lady Esther had her speed set, she had her ears pinned back and she was barkin' sweet, there is a particular sound to a steam engine when she's at labor and The Lady Esther had that sound:  she was neither speedin' up nor slowin' down, and I walked over with them horses in tow and we stood there and listened to this little Kentucky mountaineer play attair fiddle and she used Mama's locomotive to make her music with.

I needed that.

She played with a quiet little smile on her face, she swayed just a little as she did, she had an angel's contented look about her, and I needed that.

It is no light thing to kill a man, especially a man who is bent on killin' you, and I needed this reminder that there is somethin' good yet in the world other'n bad men who want to run a knife between your ribs.

The Sheriff he said once or twice he was just an old softy and I reckon I inherited that from him, for that blue eyed Kentucky hillrunner's fiddle sang like the purest choir that ever tuned up in a church, and I felt just awful soft and sentimental as I stood there and listened.

Finally, when she started to fade her music down a little, why, me and the horses we cat footed off and she still had her eyes shut, playin' softer as the train drew its clatter into the distance, and we went on for a little ways before I mounted up and we rode on into town and I sent Digger after the carcass, and reported to the Sheriff.

I went on over to the church and I stepped across the threshold and taken off my Stetson.

I walked slow and deliberate up the aisle and I recall how my boot heels just plainly BOOMED in the echoing silence.

I was there on business and when I am on business my pace is deliberate.

I stopped before the Altar and I looked up at attair cross on the wall and I remembered a little blue eyed Kentucky girl playin' a curly back fiddle with her back against the cyarved out cliff face, spinning music from wood and strings and a steam locomotive, and I reckon I smiled a little as I spoke my business.

Seems like my words hung for a long time in the church's shadowed inside, like they still echoed a little as I turned, and departed, and settled my skypiece on my head as my shadow darkened the doorstep on the way out.

Seems like I could still hear my quiet voiced "Thank You" as I went down the white washed church steps.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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46.  DARLIN' DAUGHTER

 

I know there's camp fire talk about Old Pale Eyes.

I know that pale eyed lawman is supposed to be able to look right through a man and take a good close look at his spine and tell whether there's a stripe runnin' down its back side, and whether it's white like a skunk or yellow like a coward.

I know camp fire talk amongst men who ride the Owl Hoot Trail has it the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache beats lightning to the draw, picks up misbehavin' horses and heaves 'em over the comb of the nearest barn, pulls up mountains by their roots and slings 'em through approachin' thunder storms to knock the rain out of 'em before they can cause a flood.

That's all well and good but when it comes to women folk I am not nearly as good as all them camp fire stories would have you believe.

Now I count myself a fortunate man that I hooked up with Esther, and that I'm on right good terms with Bonnie – I have to guard myself carefully, for was she so inclined and was she to catch me in a weak moment I might fall and fall hard and that would be disastrous – and most of the women folk in town think well enough of me, all but a few, but there's waspish old biddies that wouldn't like Saint Peter was he to walk up to 'em with a big pile of posies in his arm and a smile on his face.

No, what I reckon I'm tryin' to say is that thanks to Esther and Bonnie and the other ladies, why, I hear more than I otherwise would, and something I heard troubled me greatly, and so I knew where to go when I heard it.

I went to see another one of the ladies.

My daughter, Sarah.

I don't generally make it known but I've never gone out of my way to hide it, but Sarah is the get of my loins and may God forgive my having sired a child on another man's wife.  I'll make no excuses, though I could and good ones they would be, but 'twas a sin and I have flogged my soul all the years since, for it was not right.

I made excuses to myself time and again especially when I didn't know yet that Sarah even drew breath, but even then the excuses were pitiful thin, but I reckon the Lord makes use even of a sinful man and He has surely used Sarah on the side of good.

When a woman came to me pale and shaking and described through white and trembling lips a figure all in black who stood over her, in her own bed, with a knife to her throat and a whispered invitation to so much as twitch, who whispered a soft warning that she was to keep her poisoned tongue far from my good name – well, there is only one soul I knew of capable of stealth to get into someone's sleeping household, and to get out, only one soul I knew of capable of such ruthless speech with a sharpened blade to a woman's throat.

I went out to the McKenna ranch and figured to have me a powwow and a palaver and a council of war with a certain pale eyed girl-child of my acquaintance.

Now Sarah is truly a remarkable individual.

Sarah Lynne McKenna never did take the Rosenthal name, save only when it was convenient for her – she used it from time to time as her nom de guerre when operating as the Black Agent, the silent, deadly arm of the Firelands District Court – she never gave any thought to taking my name, nor should she, for Bonnie was her mother in fact and in truth, though they two had no blood connection.

I rode out and Sarah was setting on her front porch in a rocking chair, looking all pretty and proper and ladylike, reading from a small book:  she helped Miz Emma teach school, and she'd taught that day, all severe in her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress, her hair pulled up in a walnut with a whittled pencil stuck side-on through it and her round spectacles slid half way down her nose – well, she was all pretty in a shimmery blue gown of some kind and looking like the Queen herself, all girly and proper and she never looked up as I rode in.

I swung down off my Paso stallion, dropped his reins over the hitch, came up on the porch.

Sarah never looked up nor did she give any let-on that I was in the same county.

I fetched off my skypiece and sat down beside her, for the rocking chairs were side by side, and I eased my weight down slow and let my back relax a little, and that straight back rocker always did feel good to my poor old spine – matter of fact I let out a little sigh and Sarah murmured, "Comfortable?" and I nodded and give an assenting grunt.

"There is something on your mind," Sarah said – a statement, not a question.

"Yes there is," I agreed quietly.

"You have a report."

It did not surprise me that she said these things; I have a pretty good poker face when it comes to dealing with men, but with women I am about as stealthy as a pane of good float window glass.

"I have a report," I agreed.

Sarah closed her book, turned her head a little, regarded me frankly.

"I'm listening."

I leaned back, listened to the four-count chant of the steam locomotive in the distance; somewhere, likely floatin' in from town, I could hear a blacksmith's hammer punishing something on his anvil.

Off in the distance I could see a stray dog, or maybe a 'yote, before it moved away from me and down into a depression.

"I don't have the whole story," I said slowly.  "Wonder if you could fill in some gaps for me."

Sarah turned a little more toward me, lowered her head as if she were looking over the spectacles she wasn't wearing, and smiled that secretive little smile of hers.

"I'll see if I can borrow Daciana's crystal ball," she whispered with a lift of her eyebrows, and that told me she probably knew as much as I did and maybe more.

"It seems," said I, "that a certain dried up old gossip – you might know her – old, wrinkled, disapproving expression –"

Sarah smiled again, just a little.  "That does sound familiar.  Forked tongue, perhaps?"
"Something like that," I sighed.  "She was kind of shook up when she came to see me."

"And what was her report?"

Sarah managed to sound both professional, efficient and interested.

"She said that someone got into her house last night."

"Go on."

"She said this someone was all in black, that this someone put a knife to her throat, that this someone told her to keep her poisoned tongue off my good name."

Sarah nodded, began rock, slowly, thoughtfully.

I knew that could be the sign of someone who didn't want to be there – just like if a woman's legs are crossed and her foot is working, it means she'd rather be walking away – but this was a slow, thoughtful rhythm, and not what I would expect from a guilty conscience.

"This wouldn't be the same old wasp that was excoriating you for having sired not one but two children out of wedlock."

She said it as a statement of fact, and not an interrogative.

I felt my right ear twitch, kind of like someone took it gently between thumb and forefinger and gave a little tug.  This was new information ... I like to know if someone is talkin' poorly about me, that not uncommonly precedes an attack, whether personal or political.

"I ... hadn't heard anything of the kind," I admitted.

"Do you remember when the blizzard hit, and you rode out to make sure the schoolchildren made it home."

I remembered that ride:  the blizzard came up on us fast, it was deep, the snow was heavy and wet, the kind that soaks through a man's duds and chills his hide fast.

"I recall."

"You will remember you personally shepherded a half dozen of them to one ranch house, you found two others and got them to another spread and finally you and The Bear Killer found one lad who'd separated from his brothers."

I nodded.  That was a hard one to forget.  He'd laid across my lap like a dead calf and he was near to soaky wet when I found him and me and Rey del Sol got him to his cabin, and I helped his crying Mama strip him down and she didn't have hot water enough so I got him in his bunk and talked her into crawlin' in with him and I loaded all the blankets they had in the hacienda atop of 'em and I got the stove goin', I fetched in wood and heated water and once there was water enough I got the tub poured a little more than ankle deep on me and we brought the shiverin' lad out and dunked him in that little more than lukey warm water, but 'twas enough to start him a-thaw.  I'd set up with them and I'd mixed watered whiskey with tea and black molasses and got it down him and by the time the tub water was coolin' off he was startin' to warm so I hauled him out and we wrapped him up good and I packed him back to his bunk and then I finished fixin' the stew the mother started earlier and I got some stew into both of 'em, and when I got home I was soaked through and shiverin' but I tended to Rey del Sol and me and The Bear Killer walked the last ten miles from my barn to my house, and I remember Esther holdin' up a lamp and peerin' out into the snow-blowin' dark as we approached.

I can heave a rock on my front porch and come close to hittin' our barn but it felt like ten mile and Esther, bless her, already had water heated for me.

"I recall that blizzard," I said slowly.

"You remember any number of times when you've set a broken leg and splinted it with boards or branches, when you've sewn up a man's cut with horse hair from your own stallion, when you've taken off your own coat and put it on someone who'd just lost everything in a house fire."

I looked long into my own memory and nodded again, for I had done all of those things.

"Now," Sarah said, and there was an edge to her voice, "suppose you'd done all these things but they're not talked about.  Suppose the only thing that's spoken of again and again and again is your sinful nature, taking advantage of lonely weak women, that you sired children on them and rode off to leave them the burden of a gravid mother."
Sarah's voice was still just as quiet, but it was hard edged, and had she not veiled her pale eyes with those lovely womanly lashes of hers, I'm satisfied her eyes would have looked just awful cold and awful hard.

"Now."

Her voice was little more than a whisper.

"Let us suppose, let us just suppose" – she raised a schoolteacher's finger as she spoke – "that there existed one who objected to such ... slander ... one who could most effectively put a stop to it."

I waited.

"Now let us suppose this individual gave the slanderer a message in a clear and unmistakable way."
I frowned, leaned back a little.

Sarah lowered her head a little and looked very directly at me.

"Now I ask you, Sheriff," she whispered, "do you have a suspect?"

I looked into my daughter's pale eyes and I considered for some time before making reply.

"I am gathering information," I said levelly.  "Nothing more."

I considered in silence for several heartbeats, then rose, settled the Stetson on my head, looked down at my darlin' daughter and smiled a little.

"She said the intruder was all in black," I said.  "She also said it was dead of night, there was neither lamp nor candle, and last night was the dark of the moon."

"So there is no way she could identify who it was."

I shook my head.

"The ... intruder ... spoke in a whisper."

"A whisper," Sarah smiled.  "Was there any particular ... accent, inflection, cadencing, some unique pronunciation of a word?"

I shook my head.  "No.  Nothing."

Sarah sighed, looked away.

"I will listen," she said, "and I might be able to make certain ... inquiries."

I nodded.

"I told her I would investigate."

"And your investigation ...?"  She let the sentence dangle.

I laughed.  "It's kind of like ... well, it's called fishing, not catching."

Sarah smiled that quiet little smile of hers, leaned back in her rocker, started to open her book.

"Sarah?"

She looked up at me with wide and utterly guileless eyes.

"Well done."  I winked, then I turned and clattered down the steps.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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47.  LOOK WHAT THE DOG PACKED IN

 

The woman's fingernails were broken, bloodied, the flesh abraded off her fingertips.

She tried to bring her weight up on her elbows, but the pain was too great, and she collapsed again, her face lowering slowly into the sandy dirt.

She breathed, or tried to, as best her crushed ribs would let her, reaching weakly toward what looked like a crumpled blanket.

A little pink hand stuck out, its chubby fingers opening and closing, then withdrew.

Her horse was dead, killed by the fall, and she knew she was not far from dying, but she tried, she still tried to reach her child, her baby.

Her head lowered for the last time and her spirit left her body with the last sighing breath.

Something with yellow eyes watched from the brush, something attracted by the smell of blood, the sounds of pain.

A stealthy pad, another, silent on the sand:  feral blood sang in feral veins, a black nose twitched, lips drew back from polished white fangs.

Strong jaws opened, closed, once.

Once was all that was necessary.

 

Jacob Keller straightened, feeling the green strength of youth singing in his veins, warming his muscles:  he'd been laboring steadily, not hurrying, knowing a steady pace – if slower – got more work done.

The barn was nearly cleaned to his satisfaction – almost, but not quite:  he regarded the smooth floor with a critical eye, parked the flat bottom shovel, dipped his knees and gripped the wheelbarrow, dollied the Irish buggy full of floor scrapin's out to the manure pile.

He stopped halfway there, set the barrow down on its hind legs, straightened, shaded his eyes and frowned.

The Bear Killer was trotting across the pasture toward him.

Now The Bear Killer had a number of gaits, and a number of postures, and Jacob knew The Bear Killer's moods and his gaits and his postures, and Jacob knew The Bear Killer was approaching with the distinct and unmistakable air of pleasure, of pride, as if he'd just Done a Very Good Thing and he knew it.

"Now what," Jacob murmured to his shading palm, "do you have?"

Jacob waited as The Bear Killer steered a course string-straight and unerring as an arrow, as The Bear Killer trotted, head and tail high, as The Bear Killer packed something that looked like a swinging bundle of blanket material.

Jacob began walking toward the approaching mountain Mastiff, at least for the first few steps, then his stride lengthened, and then he leaned forward into a flat-out run.

The Bear Killer set his burden down and looked up, giving Jacob an open-jaw grin that was known to quail the heart of the timid, his great brush of a tail swinging happily.

Jacob opened the blanket and picked up the laughing little baby, his mouth opening a little, then he rubbed The Bear Killer's head and murmured, "Now where did you find this one?"

The Bear Killer wiggled like an excited puppy at the praising caress.

 

I looked up as Jacob came into the house, The Bear Killer at his heels.

I rose, for the bundle in his arms could be but a child – nothing else is wrapped in that manner, nothing else is carried in that wise, and Jacob looked at me, half-grinning and half-worried.

"Sir," said he, "look what the dog packed in."

Jacob drew back the corner of the blanket and a smiling little child – chubby cheeked, healthy looking, obviously well cared for – I tilted my head a little and stepped closer and Jacob offered her to me.

I felt the air move beside me and I smelled Esther's bath salts and her maternal hands slipped in between mine and the blanket, and the child gave a happy little baby sound as it was drawn near to the familiar warmth of a maternal bosom.

"Sir," Jacob said, "The Bear Killer came across the back pasture.  I reckon we can start there."

"We can that."  I reached for my gunbelt, slung it around my middle, snugged it up.

"You'll need your warbag," Esther murmured, turning as the maid came bustling down the hallway, fretting as she always did:  "Jeannette" – she pronounced it with such a gentle sound, after the French custom, "we'll need traveling rations for two men."

"Oui, madame," Jeannette dipped her knees, whirling and heading for the kitchen at something more than a walk but not quite a run, skipping along on the balls of her feet.

"Jacob," Esther said in her gentle voice, the voice she preferred, "Daisy spoke of one of the ladies who'd just lost a child, but she was with milk, and this morning it was."

"I'll get her," I said.  "Jacob, you take The Bear Killer and start the back trail.  I'll be along."

 

Jacob twitched the saddle blanket to get the diagonal wrinkle out:  he was fussy about his horses, he took care of his saddle stock, he took pains to cause his mounts the least grief.

He'd whistled up his Apple-horse – an older horse, to be sure, the get of the original Apple-horse:  this was one of Charlie Macneil's crosses, tough as rawhide leather, not the smoothest gait, but born and bred in the mountains and no give-up to him:  Jacob patted his stallion's barrel, and the horse relaxed, allowing a good cinch.

Jacob only had to knuckle him once to keep him from swelling his barrel, once and never since, but he had to pat his ribs flat-handed to remind him.  So far the arrangement worked, and for this, he was grateful.

He'd been slickered by a horse once, that-a-way, and once only:  the saddle ended up at bottom dead center, or what the railroad surveyor called the "Invert Elevation," and Jacob, flat on his back on the ground, glared up at the gelding he'd decided to ride that day.

The gelding, for his part, managed to look innocent.

Jacob swung easily into the saddle, looked down at The Bear Killer, sitting and watching him closely.

"Bear Killer," he said, "find!"

The Bear Killer gave a low WHUFF, and with a snap of his jaws and a spin, he took off running the way he'd come.

Apple-horse didn't need any encouragement to follow.

Jacob leaned his weight into the stirrups, grinning, tilting his hat down a little to ensure the passing wind didn't strip it off his head and back onto the storm strap.

Mountain Mastiff and Appaloosa and a tall, slender, grinning young man streaked across the meadow and into the broken country beyond.

 

It took me a little to catch up with them, but find them I did, and I knew when I saw Jacob with his hat in his hand that it was not good.

I drew up and read the situation from a distance, maybe a quarter of a mile.

The buggy looked to have gone off the rim above.

The horse had to've been killed when it hit the ground and the buggy drove into the horse and ground and just plainly exploded.

I walked my Paso stallion up to the sad scene, read where Jacob rode wide around it:  he did the same as me, he rode a wide circle, studying the situation, not messing up the story wrote on the ground with his hoof prints.

He waited until I dismounted before he took the first step toward what was obviously the dead woman.

I picked up her hand, looked at clawed finger marks in the sandy ground, read the blood traces, bowed my head.

I laid my hand gently on the back of her cold hand and whispered, "Your child is safe, Mother," and I have no idea if she – or her shade – could even hear me, but I felt the better for the saying of it.

"I can fashion a travois, sir," Jacob said quietly.

"Might be the best," I agreed.  "No way Digger can get the dead wagon down here."

"No, sir.  I believe I can get a travois out that-a-way."

I nodded.  "Have you a hatchet?"
Jacob almost grinned – almost, but not quite.

"I have, sir."

"Set to it, then."
"Yes, sir."

 

"She's perfect."

"I know, Millie."

"She's ... beautiful."

Millicent bit her lower lip, shivered, trying hard not to cry.

Daisy whipped the dishtowel off her shoulder, spun it once, seized Millicent's hand and pressed the clean, dry, freshly-ironed blue-bordered cloth into her palm.

"G'wan ahead an' cry," she whispered.  "I'm goin' to."

 

We left the busted open trunk for the next day, and the other travelin' trifles a woman takes when she's striking out to start a new life, but there was nothing to give us a name, no indication of where she'd come from.

We buried her in the Firelands graveyard, and once the ground settled, Digger set her a cyarved marble that said "Beloved Mother," and the year, and Esther laid a rose on the stone once it was set, and a young mother stood beside her, holding a pink-cheeked little girl-child with smiling eyes and a rosy bow of a mouth.

She grew up to marry one of the Daine boys, but that wasn't for several years yet, and I don't want to get ahead of myself, even if she did take an ax handle and beat a bank robber to the ground and break both his arms in the process.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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48.  NO REST

 

Mr. Baxter looked up from his perpetual polishing of the waxed mahogany bar and raised an eyebrow, just a little bit.

When the Sheriff came in and he meant business, his boot heels were slow, loud, measured, his eyes were pale and hard, and he moved with all the tightly controlled grace of a mountain cat lining up for a claws-and-teeth pounce.

When the man came in like he was now ... with rifle in hand, with trouble on his brow, and ghosting along like a cloud floating over the mountain ... well, that meant something worse than here-on-business.

The Sheriff paced slowly, silently –

No.

He didn't pace.

It was more like he ...

Flowed.

That would be the more accurate, yes, he flowed, kind of like a ghost flowing through what used to be an arched doorway in a long ruined castle.

The Sheriff settled into his usual seat back in the Lawman's Corner, his Stetson hung on the peg overhead, his engraved '73 rifle in the corner beside him, his elbows on the table and his fists under his chin, frowning.

Mr. Baxter reached over on the shelf, picked up one of the few tall water glasses he kept there; he poured it nearly full of liquid sledgehammer, that distilled Kentucky thunder the Daine boys made up on the mountain, that stuff that went down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off a man's feet.

He carried this liquid payload back to the silent, scowling man with the iron grey mustache, set it down, backed up a pace as Daisy's girl swung her hips and threw her skirts and said "What'll it be, handsome?"

The Sheriff took a long breath, leaned back, rested his fingertips on the edge of the table, then turned to look at the girl's skirt, raised his eyes until they met hers.

"Dear heart," he said gently, "thank you so much for bringin' your smile with you today!"

Mr. Baxter's gut shrank another half inch, for he knew when the man came in with both shoulders loaded down with trouble and he still spoke gently and kindly, that he was burdened indeed.

"Why, Sheriff," the cute little hash slinger simpered, "you are just too kind!"

"I reckon I'd best eat somethin'," the Sheriff sighed.  "Don't want my ribs clatterin' together."

"I think you could use some of Daisy's good backstrap beef."  She winked at the solemn lawman.  "I'll be right back, handsome!"

Mr. Baxter hesitated a moment longer, then finally spoke.

"Can I help?" he asked in a low voice, so only the two of the could hear.

The Sheriff smiled tightly.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller was a careful man.

He invested his funds carefully, as wisely as he could:  he kept cash on hand, he kept cash in the Firelands bank, but he also kept assets in Carbon Hill, Cripple and two others – he'd known too many people bankrupted when all their savings were lost when a bank was robbed.

He'd gone over to Carbon with a poke of nuggets, with intent to divide them among three accounts.

That's what he'd intended to do.

Unfortunately, when he rode into Carbon, he tasted copper and his arm hairs stood up and he shucked his Winchester by reflex from the scabbard under his leg and drew up, pale eyes working.

He saw the lookout in front of the Carbon Hill bank, and he saw the lookout freeze and then turn his head and yell something.

There was a shot from within, another:  the Sheriff pressed his heels into his stallion's barrel and the golden Palomino Paso grunted and drove ahead, joyfully, powerfully.

Across the street, Law and Order Harry Macfarland raised a rifle, swore:  the Sheriff imagined, with a calm, observer's part of his mind, that the town marshal either could not get a clear shot, or had innocents behind his intended target: sometimes the bad guy was the backstop, but when men are moving, when they're running, climbing into the saddle, whirling to gallop off, the hit becomes less certain.

Three rode away from the lawman, two toward him; one shot at Harry, but took too long to try and aim, and inherited a .44-caliber freight train right through his wishbone for his trouble:  this left one to turn and gallop up the street, away from his fleeing fellows, straight toward the Sheriff.

Linn stood up in the stirrups, raised his rifle, not to shoulder, more thrust out in front:  he'd practiced this, and Oro threw his head to the side as the rifle blasted a hole in the air, then swung his nose back to the fore and aimed like a shining, steel-shod arrow.

The Sheriff sat, leaned back a little, or intended to:  however it was, Oro knew this meant to slow down, and slow he did, and he and the Sheriff coasted up to where Macfarland was shouting instructions and yelling for his horse.

He looked up at the lawman, slung his arm in an arc – "GO!" – and Linn's jaw hardened as he leaned forward a little and Oro took out again, pounding after the fleeing pair.

The chase did not last long, and it went poorly for the holdups; Harry saw the Sheriff come trotting back to town, two horses in two, a body across each.

The bank lost no assets; their mercantile inherited two bullet holes; their graveyard gained two more mounds, and now the Sheriff sat and considered the glass of shimmering go-to-hell, and the steaming, fragrant plate of beef and gravy and fluffy whipped up potatoes speckled with little green things and chopped onions.

He decided on the plate.

Daisy's girl held up her coffee pot and the Sheriff nodded; a mug descended, was filled, a minute later the little ceramic cream-pitcher appeared beside it, and the Sheriff did full justice to the man sized plate full of good cookin' from Daisy's kitchen.

Mr. Baxter would not find out until the morning's gossip what happened in Carbon that day; only then would he realize the Sheriff's disquiet, and not until the Sheriff stopped in for his usual afternoon beer – "it keeps my liver from hurtin'," he'd said once, "so that's for medicinal purposes" – not until then did Mr. Baxter get to talk things over with the man.

The Sheriff favored him with a crooked grin, the way he will when he wryly discussed the inclemencies and vicissitudes of the universe in general, and he'd said, "Mr. Baxter, when I was a boy I'd been swingin' the scythe all day and I was wore out and I was hot and once I swum the sweat off me I set down in the shade and threw a fishin' line in the water."
He took another pull on his cool beer and Mr. Baxter saw the memory in the man's pale eyes as he continued, "I was so tired I just threw in a bare hook.  Didn't want to catch a fish, I just wanted to relax in the shade, and damned if a fish didn't swim up and take that bare hook."
He chuckled.

"I took the fish off and tossed it back and then I took the hook off and run the float down to the end of the line and tossed in the bare float."

He set his beer down, looked at the neatly-barbered barkeep, chuckled.
"Don't you know, this bull frog swum out and tried to eat that genuine cork float!"

The Sheriff chuckled and shook his head.

"All I wanted to do was go make a deposit, and I ended up settlin' a bank robbery."

He shook his head again and sighed, looked at Mr. Baxter with that crooked and knowing smile of his.

"It used to be no rest for the wicked" – the smile broadened just a little – "but now it happens to all of us!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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49.  MONSTERS

 

When Sarah McKenna was a little girl, long before she became the Black Agent, or even the Ragdoll, she was ... well, she was a pretty little girl:  she was a little shy, and she tended to shrink back against her Mama's skirts, and she tended to do her best to turn invisible, the way a badly hurt child will do.

Bonnie knew nightmares stalked the child's sleep, that unseen torments drove her from the dark lake of slumber like a cork released at a great depth:  she'd seen Sarah convulse and sit upright, eyes wide, terrified, mouth open to give vent to the screams locked in her throat, and in such moments, Bonnie was quick to gather her into her arms, and hold her, and rock her, and she felt Sarah shiver like a scared rabbit, terrified at those dark memories or their spawn ... the same ones that shredded Bonnie's good rest, at least for a while.
Sarah was like a shadow sewn to Bonnie's gown, whenever they left the house, and so when Bonnie turned and saw Sarah was not with her, she felt fear clutch at her stomach:  she turned, looking quickly, and her mouth opened in surprise as Sarah stood, across the street and in front of the Sheriff, there at the Deacon's Bench, and the Sheriff was down on one knee, apparently listening carefully to what the child had to say.

Bonnie watched from across the street, biting her knuckle, reaching for the turned post that held the roof overhanging the boardwalk:  she watched as the Sheriff frowned a little, then nodded, and said something:  he stopped and turned his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear, and it was obvious that the two of them were having a serious conversation – a conversation the Sheriff took very seriously, and gave the same attention he would give an adult.

Bonnie waited, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet as a freight wagon, then another, rumbled in between them, anxious for the rolling obstruction to be gone, so she might divine what she could from what she could see.

Her mother's instinct told her not to interfere.

Sarah obviously had some important matter, and it was important enough for the Sheriff to regard her carefully, and to give her a studied and well thought out reply – though conversation, subject and response, Bonnie could not imagine.

She saw Sarah finally nod – once, emphatically, setting her shining curls a-bounce – and she impulsively jumped into the Sheriff, hugging him around the neck, and the Sheriff ran his arms around the delighted little girl:  his other knee came down, so he was standing up on his prayer bones, which put him at just the right height, for Sarah was but a wee child at the time, and the two of them held each other for several long moments.

Bonnie breathed, surprised to realize she'd been holding her breath, and bit her bottom lip as Sarah released her encircling arms:  she stepped back and gave a ladylike curtsy, to which the Sheriff nodded with mature gravity, and then Sarah was a little girl again, turning, whirling, leaping from the boardwalk and scampering across the street, making one long-jump gazelle onto the boardwalk with her Mama, seizing her Mama's gloved hand and looking up at her with utterly innocent eyes.

That evening, just after supper, the Sheriff knocked at her door:  he removed his hat as Bonnie murmured to the maid that she would receive him, and she blinked in surprise as the Sheriff handed her a surprisingly heavy package – a wrapped, string-tied bundle about the size of his two hands together, brown butcher's paper and red twine.

"Have Sarah open this," he said, "when she is alone" – his ears reddened, the way they always did when he addressed her, and she realized he was looking at her the way a bashful schoolboy would look at a pretty young schoolteacher, knowing he could never work up the courage to say more than hello.

Sarah took the package and ran scampering for her bedroom, for it was near to bedtime, and it was not until the next day that Bonnie discovered what was in the mysterious delivery.

She looked in Sarah's bottom drawer, under her smallclothes, and found it:  the string was untied, but neatly coiled and in the corner of the drawer:  within folded butcher's paper, a clean, never used horseshoe, and a short, very sharp knife, in a sheepskin lined sheath.

Two nights more passed:  Bonnie, wakened from her nocturnal torments, peeked in on Sarah, peacefully sleeping, and Bonnie smiled and began to withdraw, then she stopped and blinked and looked again.

Sarah was on her side, which was not at all unusual, but her near hand was under the pillow.

She frowned, puzzling her brows together, wondering if this was significant, then – as Sarah's breathing was easy, and peaceful, her young body relaxed, Bonnie withdrew, closed the door, returned to her own bed, still damp with the sweats of her night terrors.

 

Old Pale Eyes looked up at the delicate tap-tap of feminine knuckles on his door:  he rose as the heavy timber door swung open, and he felt his ears begin to heat as Bonnie McKenna came hesitantly across his threshold.

"Sheriff," she greeted him.

"Miz Bonnie."

His voice was steady, or almost so:  her quick ear caught the barest of shivers as he spoke her name:  he came around his desk, turned a chair around for her:  "What brings you into my little kingdom?"

Bonnie smiled, and the Sheriff's ears reddened a little more:  he sat on the corner of his desk, but not until after she was herself seated.

"You don't have to stand for me, Sheriff," she said, almost embarrassed – she was still getting used to being a fine lady instead of an ill-thought-of whore – and the Sheriff chuckled a little and ducked his head.

"My Mama," he said with that quiet grin of his, "worked hard to beat some manners into mmm – I mean she worked hard to teach me good manners," and he lifted his head and looked around with wide eyes, whistling like a schoolboy trying to look innocent, and Bonnie could not help but laugh with him.

"There is a question in your eyes," he said at length.  "Please speak freely."

"It's Sarah," Bonnie blurted, and that wasn't what she wanted to say, but it was out and no calling it back.

"Sarah."

"She's had these terrible nightmares, Sheriff, she'll wake up and her mouth is open and her throat is working but she can't make a sound and she's just, she's just terrified and she's soaking wet for fear and –"

"And you're having the same nightmares."

Bonnie's mouth opened, but this time she was silent, her lips in an O of astonishment:  she closed her mouth, embarrassed, blinked a few times to compose herself.

"How did you know?"

"Sarah told me.  I have the same nightmares."

"I – you?"

He nodded.
"Or I used to."

Bonnie shook her head.  "Wait – now – Sheriff – I'm sorry – you?"

He nodded, slowly.

"I have known terrible things, Bonnie," he said slowly.  "Terrible things.  You have known as bad and worse, and so has Sarah."

Bonnie accepted the charity of his careful speech:  this was no time for one-upmanship, and she knew he could very likely trot out horrors from The War that would curl the hair on a bald man's head.

"I gave her something that will help."  He considered for a moment, then turned, walked behind his desk, drew open the top right hand drawer.

He laid a new, unused horseshoe on the desk, and a small handled knife in a sheath, the twin of the one Bonnie found in Sarah's drawer.

The Sheriff frowned as he considered these two unrelated objects.

"Since time immemorial," he said thoughtfully, "base metal has repelled spirits, haints, boogers and things not of this world."

He picked up the knife, withdrew it from its sheath, pulled his sleeve back and shaved a bare patch on his arm:  raising the knife to his lips, he puffed his breath across it, sending the severed hairs spinning through the still air.

"The superstitious folk of the American South carry a straight razor.  It's a fair antipersonnel weapon but its main purpose is against spirits, haints, boogers and things not of this world."

He considered the honed edge, slid the knife back in its sheath.

"Ghosts can be cut with a blade.  I've done it."
Bonnie shivered a little to hear his quiet words, and somehow she had no doubt whatsoever that he had done exactly that.

She was equally certain she really did not want to hear the particulars.

"I told Sarah that when we dream, our body paralyzes, so we don't dream we're walking or running and we run right up the wall and across the ceiling and then wake up and fall to the floor and get hurt."

Bonnie giggled, for the Sheriff couldn't talk without his hands, and between hands, expression and following a running figure in his imagination up the wall and down to the floor, struck her as funny.

"So now we've got a horse shoe."  The Sheriff held up an imaginary horseshoe, which must have been small, as he had a delicate grip on something invisible held between thumb and forefinger.  "Base metal to repel the creatures of spirit.  And we have a blade."  He held up a nonexistent knife between the other thumb and forefinger.

"The horseshoe keeps her sleeping body safe from haints and boogers and monsters."

Bonnie smiled a little, and nodded her understanding.

Linn spun his fingers, a magician's move, and had a small-bladed knife in his hand – the twin for the one Sarah had been given.

"You own your own dreams," Linn said quietly, his voice lowering a little, his pale eyes boring into Bonnie's big violet eyes.  "Listen to me, Bonnie, you can only hear my voice.  I am always right, and I always tell you the truth, and you always believe everything I tell you."

His voice was compelling, confidential, and she found her soul following that voice, yearning after that voice, and she whispered, "Yes," a faint susurrant, almost inaudible, the twitch of her lips the only indication that she'd actually made any reply at all.

"Bonnie, your dreams are your own, and you command your dreams."

The Sheriff's voice was rich, full, confident, quiet, a lover's voice, caressing her innermost self, his words were hands and she twisted a little, the way she did when her husband's hands caressed her nakedness, and her eyelids were half closed, her breath coming more quickly.

"Your dreams are your own, and you command your dreams," Linn repeated.  "Within your dreams you are the Queen and you command your realm.  Nothing can hurt you without your consent, nothing can cause you fear unless you wish to fear."

She felt more than saw him slide forward in his chair, her lips parted a little as his hands, warm and strong, cupped under hers, supporting them, but not holding them.

"Bonnie, you will always remember this, just under the thoughts you can see," he said in that seductive, lover's-caress voice:  "fear is a choice.  We do not fear unless we choose to fear, and nothing requires us to choose to be fearful.  Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.  We choose how we respond, and from this day forward, you will consider how you wish to feel before you feel it."

"Yesss," she sighed, her tongue running slowly across her bottom lip.

"Bonnie, the knife is to kill any danger that might present while you dream, for there are spirits which wish to cause us harm.  They can be cut by a blade and you are both fast and deadly with sharpened steel.  You know this as a fact, Bonnie, as sure as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West."

"Yesss," she whispered, her eyes nearly closed now, and he felt her hands tremble a little as they turned over, and her palms flattened against his.

The Sheriff swallowed.

He'd wanted this woman since the first time he saw her, he'd wanted to take her and that starved little wait of a girl-child with her and take care of them, for he could see at a glance they were both hard used and had seen hard times:  ever the protector, ever the rescuer, he'd wanted to make this beautiful, desirable woman part of his life.

It hadn't happened.

Bonnie McKenna was dear and intimate friends with his own bride, and he doubted not that his Esther had somehow divined, at some time, that he'd burned a candle for Bonnie – but he'd ever taken pains to hold that unrequited passion at arm's length.

He knew he had to plant this seed where it could grow, but to let it go no further – she had to understand her nights were her own, her dreams were her own, and she commanded her dreams, not the other way around.

"Bonnie," he said gently, his lips caressing her name, "you will go to sleep tonight with a clean conscience.  You will fear for nothing and you will be anxious for nothing."

"Yesss," she whispered.

"You will rule your dreams and your dreams will obey you."

"Yesss."

"You will lean back in your chair now, Bonnie."

She leaned back, drawing her hands into her lap; the Sheriff leaned back as well, then rose, silent, picked up his chair, drew it back, placed it carefully, precisely, behind his desk in its usual place.

"Bonnie," he said in that seductively gentle voice, "I will count backwards from five to one.  When I say one, you will wake, and you will be completely refreshed and relaxed.  We've had a conversation about Sarah and your mind is now at ease, and you will thank me and go on your way, do you understand?"

"Yesss," Bonnie said in that quiet, almost drowsy voice.

"Five."

Bonnie's hands twitched a little in her lap, but only once, as if remembering a lover's touch.

"Four."

Bonnie breathed, easily, in, then out, as if she were asleep, and relaxed, though her seated posture was perfect, and ladylike.

"Three."

Linn's ear twitched a little at the sound of a footstep on the boardwalk outside.

"Two."

Linn looked at Bonnie's face, relaxed, no longer anxious ... beautiful ... the face before which he'd been ready to lay his beating heart.

"One."

Linn was seated on the corner of his desk, a half-smile on his face.

Bonnie blinked a few times, smiled, rose.

"Thank you, Sheriff," she said, extending a gloved hand:  "I'm sure Sarah will be all right, but thank you so very much for letting me talk."

"It was my good pleasure."  Linn rose as she did, then turned and reached for his Stetson.

Bonnie frowned a little.  "Does Sarah understand the significance of her package?"

"She does," Linn nodded, smiling a little as he recalled the conversation he'd had with the anxious, plain-spoken little girl who came strutting across the street to the Deacon's bench, all a-purpose to have conversation with this pale eyed old lawman who could make monsters go away.

 

That night Bonnie McKenna slept peacefully, as did Sarah, and were one to regard their somnolent faces in the moonlight, one would see a quiet smile on each.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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50.  WILD KITTY

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller knew her new hire was less than comfortable.

They were at one of the highest lookouts in the county – not the highest point, that was not accessible by any but a good riding mule, or on foot, the latter preferred – but it was high enough to give them a vantage into New Mexico, to their south, and for an incredible distance to the east, the north and to the west.

"From here," Willamina said, "you actually have a cell signal, and your radio should hit every repeater in line-of-sight like a ball bat."

"Yes, ma'am."  The deputy's voice was quiet in the Jeep's engine-off hush.

"Step outside.  I want to show you something."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina's dome lights were automatically disabled; engine and headlights off, and the sun an hour below the horizon:  the night was cloudless and a little chilly, and Sheriff Willamina Keller was grateful for her blanket lined denim jacket.

They came to the front of her Jeep.

"Have a seat," she said, lowering herself onto the front bumper; a moment later, carefully, hesitantly, her young deputy did the same.

Willamina tilted her head back, looked at the stars.

"I never get tired of this," she said softly.  "When we were over in Afghanistan and I had sentry duty, sometimes I would steal a moment, just a moment, and look up at these same stars."

The deputy looked around, his eyes sweeping the darkness, then he, too, looked up, and Willamina felt more than saw his smile – quick, boylike, the same smile she'd seen any number of times ... the same smile she'd seen on her husband's face, the very first time she showed him these same stars from this same spot, the same smile she'd seen on her son's face when he was home from college and grateful to get the peaks and crags around him again.

They sat in the dark, their breath steaming as they exhaled, and Willamina looked over at the lean young man in the pressed, tailored uniform.

"I saw a question in your eyes earlier."

It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes, ma'am."

"You may ask it if you wish."

He cleared his throat nervously, shifted his weight, hesitated.

"Ma'am," he said, "I remember – I was at the square dance, and you were telling a group of children about how it was back East."

"Refresh my memory."

"It had to do with a cat, along the riverbank."

Willamina smiled again.

"I remember that."

"Ma'am, I was obliged to leave, and I never did hear about ... I never got to hear what happened."

 

Captain Willamina Keller, Chauncey Marshal's Office, picked up the phone.

"Yeah, Joe," she said, knowing this would be followed by a long, uncomfortable silence.

The town marshal never could get used to her knowing it was him calling – this years before caller ID – but he harrumphed a little and said "Bring your shotgun and get over here."

"On my way."

She was in uniform and behind the wheel in three minutes or less, an ancient but reliable Model 10 Remington beside her:  it had once been a riot gun for the Cambridge Police Department, but was traded in, and she'd had Brother Beymer snag it for her, install a Williams shorty ramp front and receiver peep on the back, and custom-fit the Bishop stock to her exact length of pull:  it had as much choke as a culvert and that suited her just fine, because it was minute-of-tea-sauce with deer slugs at fifty yards, and she could do very unkind things to a silhouette target with military OO buck at the ranges she intended to use it.

 

"It's crowded back East," Willamina said softly, "porch lights and street lights all over hell and breakfast, and clouds and smoke to hide the stars.  Nothing like this."

"No, ma'am," her deputy breathed softly.

"The air is heavy, damp, especially in Chauncey village. Sunday Creek and the Hocking River converge right near there.  It's forever humid.  It's easy breathing, damp like that.  You grew up here."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You'd feel supercharged if you went back there. You'd have greater endurance and greater strength than the locals, at least until you acclimatized to the increased air pressure.  I'd been out here for a few years, and God forgive my stupidity for going back, but I did, at least until I got fed up with all the petty politics and came back out here where I belonged."

"Yes, ma'am."

"At least I stayed long enough here to get my lungs back before I went into the Corps."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I went hell-a-tearin' for the Marshal's office, looking for the cruiser – I was expecting a full-on bar fight, a street brawl, maybe he'd gone in after a wanted felon, but the cruiser was still at the village hall."

Her gaze was distant, or would have been, was there light enough to see her stare into the distance, staring into a humid riverbottom with two scared boys clutching fishing poles and shifting their weight from one muddy-booted leg to another.

 

"We was pluggin' on the river and we was goin' to set up under the trussle," the older of the two almost stammered, "and we heard somethin' hissin' at us."

"Yeah, I turned my light torst it and it was a cat," the other one volunteered, the brass carbide light in his hand trembling.  "A big cat!"

"Wildcat," the Marshal said.  "You ready?"

Willamina nodded, once.

"You boys go on home. You've had enough excitement for one night. We'll take care of it."

The two boys looked both disappointed and relieved:  they turned and trooped dejectedly out of the brick Village Hall.

"Wildcat," Willamina said thoughtfully.  "They'll come out of West Virginia and run a loop north and into Pennsylvania, and bears will come out of Pennsylvania up north and loop down and over into West Virginia."

The marshal nodded.

"They like to den over in Wildcat Hollow.  Cliff faces, rotted sandstone, plenty of places to hole up where nothing can get their kits."

"Yeah."

Boots crunched on gravel as they walked down the drive to the village sewer plant:  less than five minutes later, they were descending the only decent path to take them down to the clay banks of the mighty Hockhocking River.

They advanced silently, cautiously, working the darkness, the Marshal's light slashing at the weedy murk, slapping shadows aside with all the blazing power of a half dozen dry cells:  Willamina carried her Remington at ready port, left handed, her eyes searching, ears drawn back tight against her scalp, the way they did when she was going into harm's way.

They saw the boys' tracks in the raw clay, saw where they'd gone from a regular, short, cautious stride, to sudden scrambling panic:  Joe shone the light on the tracks and Willamina closed her right eye so as not to lose her night vision in her shooting eye – but she could still see where one stumbled twice, driving the handle of his fishing pole into the soft, wet clay.

They searched up under the railroad trestle, her gun muzzle following the light, and they saw a whole lot of nothing at all.

Finally the Marshal said, "You know, I think their own imagination spooked 'em!"

"I wouldn't be so sure."

"Why's that?"  His voice tightened and his hand lowered to the handle of his holstered model 19.

"Look there."

The Marshal turned his light to the clay, beside Willamina's boot, and in the light that splashed back off the damp ground, Willamina could see the color diminish significantly in his cheeks.

She squatted and spread her fingers and only just covered the fresh cat track in the wet riverbank clay.

 

"That," she said in the starry Colorado darkness, "must have been one sizable kitty."

"Wildcat," her deputy said thoughtfully.  "Ma'am, do they have wildcat back East?"

Willamina smiled a little, nodded.  "Bobcat, yes, but this was too big for a bob kitty.  No, this was a painter, and they're supposed to have been extinct for a century."  He heard her chuckle.  "My grandfather saw one, behind the Hemlock schoolhouse, and I saw one behind our house.  His was black as night and he said it looked like shining ink as it ran, and the one I saw was tawny.  It jumped out of the woods into our back yard and turned and looked right at me and I remember those gorgeous yellow eyes."

She looked at the ground in front of her polished Wellington boots, nodded.

"Then it ran across and into the woods on the other side, and a minute later, a pack of dogs chasing, but they were tired and ready to quit."

"Wild kitty," her deputy breathed.

"Wild kitty," she agreed, the stood, turned to face her newest lawman.

"I don't know about you, but my backside doesn't get along well with an unpadded front bumper.  Let's go find us some coffee."

She heard the grin in his voice as he said "Yes, ma'am," and the two of them climbed back into her Jeep, and they turned their noses back toward town.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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51.  LOST MY CRYSTAL

 

It was not a secret that the Sheriff and her husband were very much in love.

Nor was it any secret at all that they were best friends as well, and when they ran as a team in three-gun competition, they worked together as if they were joined by some psychic link.

The ladies in town quietly approved of the Sheriff and her husband as a proper couple, who even held hands in church, and the only time they'd ever seen the Sheriff's husband, Richard, anywhere near unpleasant in public, was at a barn dance, when an individual was becoming less than gentlemanly with the Sheriff, and before she could remove the offender's arm from its socket, the dancers stopped, and drew back, for Richard was striding across the sawdust covered floor, his good right hand opening and closing and his jaw quite obviously set.

Willamina confided later – in the secrecy of the Ladies' Tea Society meeting, which meant the women in town all knew it and the men in town, didn't – that in that moment she felt very much a woman, when her big strong husband came to wage war on her behalf.

Not a punch was thrown, but that didn't matter; not a hostile word was spoken, and this was quite beside the point.

The Sheriff, in this moment, was a Lady, with a Knight who came boldly to her rescue.

The town politely ignored the fact that Willamina was more than capable of ripping the offender's arm from its socket and inserting it in whichever of his orifices she'd wish.

Given all of this, nobody thought it in the least improper that the Sheriff was holding hands in public with another man.

It was more than justified.

Richard stood beside the other man, his hand on Chief Will Keller's shoulder, and Willamina held her twin brother's hand as the Reverend Burnett intoned the solemn words that are spoken when someone is interred.

Willamina knew Crystal divorced her brother, and not the other way around; she knew that Crystal was suddenly unwell, afterward, and she didn't find for a year that Crystal spent some time in a mental institution – at first it was believed she'd been using some illicit compounds, but a too-long-delayed medical exam revealed an anomaly in her brain, and by the time it was found, and a course of treatment agreed on, it was too late.

Willamina wore a black dress and her Jackie Kennedy hat and veil she wore for such occasions; there were funerals where she wore a McKenna gown, but this was not one:  nor was this an occasion for her to appear in uniform.

No, Will was her brother, he was family, and they were burying his wife, insane though she'd been, and Willamina gripped her twin's hand as the final words were spoken, and the Reverend came down the line of close relatives, shaking hands and murmuring his condolences,  and Will stood and stared at the polished wood box, resting on the custom apparatus that would lower it under power into the neatly excavated hole in the ground.

Willamina looked through the veil's black nylon mesh at her brother, aching at the lost look on his face:  he'd aged ten years in the past three days, ever since the night she'd gotten the call just short of midnight, one of those calls that never comes at a good time.

"Willa," he'd said, his voice hoarse, almost cracking, "I lost my Crystal," and Willamina reached over, shoved her sleeping husband's shoulder, hard, and said in the crisp businesslike syllables of the Sheriff, "Will, are you home?  Stay there, I'm on my way" – and she and her husband were in the saddle in less than four minutes, trying not to hear The Bear Killer, out behind the barn, his blunt black muzzle pointed to the waning moon overhead, the ancient notes of grief shivering its way between the stars.

The Bear Killer waited until the Jeep was down the driveway and tuned onto the highway, then he turned, muttered something:  a shadow moved behind him, and another, and three shadows flowed across the pasture, and under the rail fence, and toward town.

Now Willamina stood shoulder to shoulder with her twin brother, this tall, lean man that looked so much like their father, this Chief of Police with an iron grey mustache, curled in a trim handlebar, tight, controlled, much like the man himself: Willamina wondered at times at the difference between her bother's lip broom, and that of her son, which was thicker, broader, styled either by genes or by intent to be much like that of the pale eyed old Sheriff that looked at her from the glass-plate prints on her office wall:  the thought was irrelevant, and she swatted it aside as she would an annoying mosquito.

The townspeople said words he didn't hear, carefully crafted words prepared and edited for the occasion; he would never, ever remember a single one of those carefully crafted and edited words, but he never, ever forgot each and every soul who cared enough to say those words:  the grip of his fellow man, whether a clasp of hands or a hand resting on his shoulder, spoke more volumes than hours of oratory could have accomplished.

They were finally alone, the funeral director discreetly waiting for the last of the family to leave before lowering the box into its waiting vault; Willamina released her twin brother's hand, took him by the arm, looked up at him.

"There's a dinner at the Silver Jewel," she said, and Will nodded, numbly.

"Come on.  You need to eat."

Will let her steer him toward her Jeep.

"I did love her, you know," Will finally said.

"I know."

"She left me."

"Yes, she did."

"She was insane, Willa.  I should have seen it.  Why didn't I see it?"

"Because you were too close, Will.  She was only just affected by her condition.  You'd have had to run her through an MRI to find it, that early, and even then it might not have shown up.  Maybe with a PET scan, but you don't carry one of those in your pocket."

"I've got one in my hall closet."

Willamina tried, but couldn't muster a smile at his attempt at humor.

"You did well by her, Will.  She didn't demand alimony, she didn't demand you split your assets, and there at the last you saw that she got the best of medical care."

"It wasn't enough."

"No.  No, it wasn't."

Willamina stopped, turned her brother so he faced her.

"Will, I heard it said that sometimes ... even if we do nothing wrong, it still doesn't work.  That is not a failure, that is life.  I forget where I heard it.  TV, maybe, but it's stuck with me."

Will nodded.

"Come on.  Let's not let supper get cold."

 

Will was the gracious host, afterward:  he had a good selection of pies, two cakes, several loaves of homemade bread, two of them still warm and fragrant:  they drank coffee and ate thick slices of well-buttered bread, Willamina silently blessing the thoughtful soul that brought a pound of butter – and as they were about to leave, there was a commanding WOOOOF and heavy scratching at his back door.

Willamina saw a little pleasure – not a smile, maybe just a lessening of the crushing grief of the moment – in her brother's eyes, and she motioned Richard to remain seated as Will went to the back door, opened it.

The Bear Killer was there, one paw up, but that's not what caught their attention.

A fat, round, furry ball of something clumsy and black waddled across the threshold, snuffed curiously at Will's well polished Wellington boot, then looked up, ran out a surprisingly pink tongue, and raised a forepaw.

Chief of Police Will Keller, widower, went to his knees, rested his hand on The Bear Killer's neck, then picked up the fat, furry black pup, held it close, and smiled a little as that quick pink tongue flicked out and kissed him on the wet streak running down his left cheek bone.

Will was a hard man when he had to be; he was a strong man, and had always been, but Will knew the truth of the old Sheriff's favorite Scripture, and he sat down, cross legged, and drew The Bear Killer into him, and buried his face in the mountain Mastiff's fur, for it was time for a man to grieve.

He had every right to mourn.

He'd lost his Crystal.

Willamina's hand tightened in Richard's as they watched, silent, waiting; finally Willamina rose, put her finger to her lips, began to clear the table.

Will could not bring himself to sleep in the bed he'd shared with Crystal, shared in the wonderful, glorious days and years when she was in her right mind, when she was the laughing, sprightly wife he'd known for so very long; he stretched out in his recliner, and drew a quilt over him, and a black ball of wiggle and grunt lay contentedly in the bend of his elbow, chin resting on his ribs, and the last thing he remembered before surrendering to a night's rest was the sight of two little black eyes, blinking sleepily, and then a big doggy yawn several sizes too big for such a little fellow.

The Bear Killer made it home before Willamina and Richard, and somehow they were not surprised.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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52. TO DRAW FIRE FROM STEEL

 

The Blaze Boys were not brothers, though they looked enough alike to be twins.

Cousins, some said; woods colts, others: however it was, they didn't much care, all they knew was, each could tell what the other was into, or thinking, or doing, and they were most content when they were in arm's reach of each other – and most often, when this happened, they were up to some orneriment.

They squatted by the rail, a lump of rock in one hand:  there was a dark-grey, smooth corner that threw sparks if they raked it longways on the rail – "Flint!" one exclaimed happily, and like young boys anywhere, they busied themselves throwing sparks, at least until they grew tired of the novelty.

Both boys dropped their rocks and turned, lost their balance, sat down on the railroad ballast and crossties as a shadow thrust over them:  startled, they crabbed backwards a few feet, squinting up at the shadowed silhouette:  the silhouette squatted, gracefully, and Miz Sarah the schoolmarm looked from one to the other and said "That looks like fun.  May I?"

"Yes ma'am," the Blaze Boys chorused, confused:  normally when adults interrupted their fun, they ended up with a boot print to their backsides, or threats, or a voice raised in anger ... but if Miz Sarah wanted to share in their drawing fire from striking the steel rail, why, they'd welcome the help!

Miz Sarah held up one of the rocks, turned it, smiling a little.

"See here," she said, thumbing the rock apart along a fracture line apparently caused by the recent concussion – "this shape?  That was an ancient little sea creature that died and got buried in the oceanbottom mud.  Seashells are mostly calcium and that's what made limestone, yards and tons of dead seashell that got crushed in the mud."

The boys studied the shape in the stone:  "That was a fish?" Blaze Left asked – his white blaze was on the left-hand side of his head, souvenir of a lightning strike they both survived – and Miz Sarah smiled that gentle, understanding schoolmarm smile of hers.

"Not a fish, exactly," she replied gently, "but yes, it was alive, millions of years ago."

She turned the halves over, handed the fossil to Left Blaze and smiled as she ran her thumb over smooth, grey, exposed rock."This is flint," she said.  "That's why it throws a spark."  She leaned back on her heels, made a quick rake across the rail, threw sparks – "and I have something to show you."

She slipped thumb and forefinger into the pocket of her mousy-grey schoolmarm skirt, drew out a lump of what looked like gold:  at its emergence into the sun, both boys' eyes widened, and Miz Sarah gave them a knowing look.

"I'll swear you to secrecy," she whispered – "you can never, ever let anyone know where I got this."

Two heads nodded vigorously.

"What happens if you bite a gold nugget?"

"You leave tooth marks," one hazarded.

"Exactly!"  Miz Sarah winked at him.  "So if you hit it with a hammer, what would happen?"
"It would flatten out like lead?" the other blurted.

Miz Sarah snapped her fingers, pointed to him, and in her best carnival barker's voice declared nasally, "Give da man a seegah!"

She and both boys laughed and Miz Sarah's smile told them the lesson was not yet over.

"So if we have gold, and gold is soft, what happens if we rub it across, say, a steel rail?"

Two sets of eyes turned toward each other, four youthful shoulders shrugged, and Miz Sarah said happily, "Let's find out!"

She struck the biggest of the lumps hard against the rail, raking it longways, like the boys had done with flint nodules imbedded in railroad ballast.

It threw sparks like it was drawing lightning from the rail's very soul.

Young eyes widened, young lips opened into delighted O's:  Miz Sarah handed each of the boys a lump:  "Here, one for you both.  Don't get run over," and she rose, gathered her skirts a little and stepped daintily over the rail, turning as she did.

The Blaze Boys were happily throwing pyrite fire from the rail, too preoccupied to watch the pretty young schoolmarm in the mousy-grey schoolmarm dress as she departed in the same manner in which she'd appeared.

Unnoticed.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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53. TELL ME A STORY

Sarah Lynne McKenna looked quietly pleased with herself.

She rode her absolutely huge, utterly midnight-jet-polished bituminous-black Frisian mare, Snowflake, as if she were the Queen herself, riding a golden throne:  Snowflake, her hooves polished and flashing like ebony mirrors as she paced, didn't so much ... pace ...

To be honest, this muscled mountain of equine transportation absolutely ... strutted.

Sarah wore a very proper, very ladylike, very fashionable riding dress with a matching hat; her hair was immaculately styled; she held a dainty parasol in a dainty grip with her dainty gloved fingers seeming to barely grip its mahogany shaft; her eyes were properly, discreetly veiled, but she did not fail to acknowledge every man's salute to her, whether it was a lift of the skypiece, or the touching of a hat brim: to a man, and without exception, when she passed, every last man there saluted her passing.

Sarah knew her single traveling-case would be brought to her house; she'd arranged this before leaving Firelands, and upon her return, she had every confidence her only item of luggage would arrive at the McKenna ranch – now the Rosenthal ranch – within bare minutes of her own arrival.

The Sheriff was cantering up the street on his big gold Paso stallion, its hooves cadencing the hard packed ground in that rapid clatter that both ate ground effortlessly, and provided the absolutely smoothest, most comfortable ride, better even than a singlefoot or the now-lost, Medieval European amble – she could see the pale eyed lawman's eyes tighten a little, even as they rode, and they both drew to a stop in the middle of the street.

"Miz Sarah," the Sheriff said, touching his hat brim deferentially.

"Sheriff," Sarah replied.

"I'm glad you're back."

"Thank you."  She inclined her head slightly, eyes downcast, then looked back up at him:  father and daughter, pale eyes and pale eyes, and the Sheriff knew without beginning the conversation that she'd been Up To Something, and this was generally when she told him whether he would have some mess to clean up, or trouble that might try to follow her.

"I have been causing trouble again," she said in a low voice.

The almost-smile did not diminish as the lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache replied, "I rather thought so."

Sarah raised her free hand – like the Sheriff, she rode her Snowflake-mare without a bit, without reins – and displayed a shining golden nugget, held between thumb and forefinger and raised into the sun, where it shone with all the pure color of the sun itself.

"I gave one of these to a sky pilot."

Sarah saw the slightest of movement at the corners of the Sheriff's mustache:  he was trying hard not to smile.

"I understand the man used it in his Sunday sermon."

The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.

"I did my best thereby," she said primly, with a lift of her chin and an innocent batting of her long, feminine lashes, "to prevent a poor landowner from being run off their spread."

The Sheriff turned his head slightly, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"Do we need to do more?" he asked in a low voice.

"No, Sheriff."  Sarah smiled, tossed the nugget up in the air and caught it, then opened her hand to show it wasn't there, a magician's move – "no, I think they're more than able to keep their own peace."

The Sheriff nodded, thoughtfully.

"Just as well.  I've enough to keep track of without traipsing out of county."

The Sheriff saw Sarah's eyes raise, he turned to see the source of the clatter behind him that claimed her attention:  he turned Goldy sideways, backed him a few steps, turned him with a press of his polished boot heel until the stallion stood beside the Frisian, looking distinctly smaller beside the big war-horse:  Bonnie Lynne McKenna was driving their fine carriage up the street toward them, the picture of propriety:  back straight, shoulders back, chin up, she could have been the living model stepped forth from a Currier & Ives painting: as it was, Sarah's sisters, in the back seat, were constrained by no need of ladylike propriety:  they both leaped to their feet, waving happily and calling her name.

Dignified though she tried to appear, Bonnie could not help but smile, just a little.

"I believe," the Sheriff said, "you have a reception committee."  He touched his hat-brim to his pale-eyed daughter, turned his stallion, saluted the well dressed woman in the well appointed carriage in like wise, and then turned and resumed his journey up the street.

 

That night Bonnie helped Sarah unlace from her corset and strip for her bath.

Usually the hired girl did this, but Bonnie made a practice of tending this duty when Sarah had been gone a few days.

Sarah tended not to tell her of things like bullet holes, knife slices, bruised or broken ribs and the like:  as did her pale eyed sire, she tended to live by his teeth-gritted philosophy, "I got me into it, I get me out of it" – and Bonnie was quietly relieved to see that her daughter had no new holes in her hide.

Sarah was slid into the oversized slipper tub, allowing herself to finally relax, and Bonnie settled onto the three legged stool beside.

"What was your adventure?" she asked softly, as if hoping her daughter would give her a fanciful story instead of the bald admission that she'd blown up a cabin, slaughtered outlaws, beaten a bully to the sawdust floor in a saloon or otherwise committed ungentle acts of urban renewal.

Sarah's eyes were closed with pleasure as the welcome heat soaked into her young bones.

She giggled, almost like a little girl, then she looked up at her Mama and said innocently, "I've been handing out magic fire stones, Mama!"

"Magic fire stones," Bonnie said skeptically.

"Oh yes, Mama.  I gave one to The Blaze Boys and they were having so much fun I took one to Stone Creek!"

"Stone Creek."  Bonnie's expression was skeptical and so was her voice.

Sarah, on the other hand, cultivated the expression of an innocent little girl, and used the little-girl voice as well, and surprisingly well.  "Fool's Gold will spark far better than flint.  It was used in wheel lock guns for that reason."

Bonnie considered this for a long moment.

"Sarah," she said gently, "is there anything I need to worry about?"

Sarah hesitated, and Bonnie felt a tingle of fear in her hands and on her tongue.

"Mama," Sarah finally said, "I met a man, and he is full of sorrow.  I did no more than to hand him a wallet and a pyrite and I told him he would need them, and then I was gone.  I did not introduce myself to him and I've never seen him before" – she looked very directly at her Mama – "but I knew he was needful of those things."

Bonnie closed her eyes and nodded, then she opened them.

"This man ... do you know him?"

"No, Mama.  I've never seen him before."

"And you didn't ... know ... him?"

Sarah could have chosen to take offense, or she could have chosen to giggle and deflect the question, but she looked very directly at her Mama – very directly, but not unkindly.

"No, Mama.  I never saw him before and I do not believe I will ever see him again."

Bonnie did not understand, not entirely, but she'd learned it was best to trust Sarah in such matters, and so she did.

Sarah waited, closing her eyes again, knowing her mother would have another question, and she was right.

"Will you be going back?" she asked, her voice low and musical and very ... womanly.

Sarah slipped under the water's surface, blowing bubbles as she did:  she came back up out of the water, blew the water off her lips, shook her head like a little girl.

"No, Mama," she said.  "No, I will not be going back."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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54.  MRS. BARBARA HETTICHS

"Stand up, you cur."

The woman was worn, tired, dusty: she'd just ridden in on the stage, she'd disembarked with a single carpet bag and the clothes that she wore, and she'd gone straight for the saloon.

She was a woman with a mission and she was a woman who would not be denied.

Her name was Mrs. Barbara Hettichs, widow of Charles Hettichs, late of Congo, Perry County, Ohio:  as her husband was dead, she was no longer Mrs. Charles Hettichs, but she was not surrendering the name of that good an honorable man who'd been run off his land, swindled, tricked, and then killed through a wild and fantastic accident not of his own making.

"I said stand up!" she hissed – her voice did not raise, she did not need to raise it, for it hissed from her throat like steel from a scabbard.

The dandy sneered at her, slid his low topper forward until it rested on his brow ridge, contemplated her over the rim of a glass of surprisingly good whiskey.  "Now why would I do that, darlin'?" he asked in an oiled voice.

"Because, you filthy dog," she replied, "I am going to shoot you dead, right here, and right now!"

The other men at the poker table froze, looked at one another, then very carefully drew back.

They well knew a determined woman was not to be trifled with; it was the end of the era when only a coward of a man shot another man – before the War, a man who shot another was a coward and a sneak and not fit for association:  men killed one another, yes, but they used fists, feet, knives, clubs, but not guns.  It was not until the wholesale, industrial scale, massed murderous slaughter of the battlefield that men learned that yes, men do shoot men – but the mindset lingered that it wasn't right.

Women could shoot men, yes, but women were the weaker vessel, and so it was permitted – provided, of course, the man needed killin'.

The dandy looked left, looked right, looked at the cleared lane between himself and the sun-bleached, weather-wrinkled, worn, tired soul standing before him, her face stiff, her eyes ... her eyes looking so very ...

Tired.

That was the word.

"Now darlin'," the dandy said carefully, pitching his voice for all the gentleness and all the soothing he could butter into it, "just why would you want to do that?"

"I'm not your darlin'," she said quietly, "and keep your filthy tongue off my name.  You cheated us out of our land and you killed my husband and I am going to make sure you never cheat anyone out of their home and their husband ever again!"

He reached into his coat and she raised her hand from the folds of her dress.

He managed to fire one shot.

His .41 Lightning punched a round through the smoky air and through the far wall.

Her Navy Colt punched a hole just under the bridge of his nose and he collapsed like a sack of ground meat.

The saloon had fallen silent when the men drew back from the table; the saloon was listening closely as Mrs. Barbara Hettich spoke her hard words of condemnation; the saloon was shocked into immobility by the twin gunshots, sounding as one:  and as the woman with the grim face and the bleached-out dress lowered her hand, not a soul dare move, not a throat durst voice a protest.

Mrs. Barbara Hettich could have reached forth and scooped the pot into her carpet bag, claiming it as her rightful property, as the dandy took their land and now she took compensation, but she did not:  she lowered the octagon barrel Navy to her side, and turned, and walked out of the saloon, revolver in one hand, carpet bag in the other.

She walked with her chin up, but without having a goal, a destination: all she owned was in the carpet bag, what little there was, and she had not enough coin to purchase a room for the night:  she walked across the street, sat down on a bench, opened her carpet bag and slipped the revolver in on top of her only other dress.

She sat there, shoulders hunched, staring at the ground, empty.

She'd lost her child, when hunger pinched her belly and her body could no longer keep itself and the unborn, alive: she'd lost her husband, when that boulder fell from the cliff face, killing him as they walked: all she had was the burning determination to catch up with the prevaricating dandy, that lying son of Perdition that rode boldly into their property and claimed it was his, and showed what looked like a legitimate deed.

It was not until a week had passed that they found out he'd done that to another ranch, but on his third try the rancher met him with a double barrel shotgun and called him a liar, and drove a cloud of shot through the displayed document, and invited the prevaricating plunderer to make himself scarce before he put a hole through his middle a man could drive a wagon through:  it was the night after that Mr. and Mrs. Hettich sat at his table, and thanked him for his charity, and ate a good meal before going on their way ... and to her husband's death.

Mrs. Barbara Hettich sat with her head bowed, feeling beyond empty, feeling more lost than she'd felt when her own Mama died, when she heard the rustle of dress material and a voice asked, "May I join you?"

She nodded, not caring who it was, or why:  she was beyond caring.

Another widow, she thought:  unrelieved black dress and gloves and not a ring ... good quality gloves, a woman of means, no jewelry, she has to be in mourning.

"Do you have family?" the woman asked, and Mrs. Barbara Hettichs shook her head slowly.

"Can you sew?"

Barbara nodded, slowly, numbly.

"Have you ever used one of the new treadle machines?"

She nodded again.

"Come with me and bring your valise."  A gloved hand gripped her upper arm, drew upward:  numbly, woodenly, she followed.

"The stage is gone for the evening," the woman said, "but we'll get you a meal and a bath, a good night's rest and you'll take the train tomorrow."

"Where am I going?" Mrs. Barbara Hettich asked in a dry-throated voice.  "Won't the Marshal come and get me?  I just killed a man."

"You killed him before I could," the widow murmured, and there was amusement in her voice:  "but I won't hold that against you.  He needed killing long before you came along.  I've already made it right with the Marshal."  They walked into a boarding house, where a plump, motherly sort greeted her and clucked sympathetically as the black-garbed woman introduced them:  "Mrs. Hanson here will see to your bath and what-else you will need, and when you're clean and changed, she'll feed you" – the widow-woman's voice smiled as she spoke, though her face was hidden behind her veil – "and I guarantee a clean bed and a quiet room."

"This way, dearie," Mrs. Hanson steered Mrs. Barbara Hettich toward a back room, and the steamy smell of bath water and scented soap greeted her as she came into the bath room.

Mrs. Barbara Hettich had no idea who the widow woman was; she never saw her again, nor did Mrs. Hanson speak her black-gowned benefactress's name:  she pressed a ticket into her hand and said, "Now, dearie, you'll take the train to this stop, and you'll go to the Silver Jewel Saloon, and you'll ask for a man named Jacob.  He'll be expecting you, and he'll take you to where you're needed."

"Needed?"  Her brows puzzled together a little, and Mrs. Hanson's round red cheeks drew up as her lips curled into a bow of a smile.

"Of course, dearie. You can use one of those treadle machines, and the McKenna Dress Works needs a woman who knows her way around a sewing machine!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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55.  A SOLEMN EXPRESSION

Several sets of eyes regarded the arena with the same single-minded, focused intensity.

Young muscles tensed, released:  projectiles were discharged, trajectories plotted and executed, the laws of physics prevailed:  an object in motion will tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, and if the interaction involves a collision, energies are transferred from a moving object to a stationary object.

Beyond this, the effects tended to be less ... predictable.

Sheriff Linn Keller frowned as he set his knuckle in the dirt, thumb cocked behind his shining, cats-eye shooter:  a flick, the marble streaked across the dirt circle, knocked a marble out, almost a second.

The lean-waited lawman rose, graceful as a cat, stalked around behind two boys kneeling in the dirt, studied the arena, picked up his shooter and the prize marble he'd knocked out of the finger-drawn ring: another knuckle-down, another shot, another marble dropped in his poke.

The boys didn't mind playing marbles with the Sheriff:  for all that he looked stern and strong and for all that he frowned when he played, they came out winners as often as he, and when he came out winners, he divvied his marble sack between the players, enriching the holdings of all who participated.

The mercantile had a standing order for marbles, in the Sheriff's name.

 

Daffyd Llewellyn, the Welsh Irishman, smoothed the elm bow-stave, seeing it as much with his fingers as with his eyes.

He'd split the stave himself – a stave is properly split, not cut; it has sapwood on its face, to stretch and spring back, it has heartwood toward the bowman, to resist the draw – he'd shaped it and coaxed it and sanded it and now, now it drew to his satisfaction, and he stepped through the bow to string it.

He'd twisted and tied and end-whipped the loops himself; they slipped over the ends of the bow, came tight:  he twanged the waxed string experimentally, then slapped it with the flat of his hand, nodding.

"Now," he breathed, "let's see if there's muscle in ye," and he picked up a cloth-yard shaft:  it too was made with his own hands, his own skill; he'd split feathers for fletching, he'd made his own glue, he'd fashioned his own nock from horn – actually he'd made several shafts, split several flight primaries for fletching, he'd fashioned a handful of nocks – and he'd made the long, narrow, bladed arrowheads on an anvil made of a six inch length of mine rail.

He raised the nocked arrow to the corner of his chin and pushed the bow from him, he sighted at the bull, his fingers released without a conscious command from behind his Welsh-blue eyes:  the bow sang a deep, woody note, the arrow flew true, smacked into the absolute, precise, dead-on center of the circular bull.

Daffyd nodded, satisfied.

He'd studied under a Welsh bowyer, who pronounced American Elm a fine wood for bowstaves, and Daffyd had used elm ever since, to good effect:  he stepped through the bow again, released the bowstring's top loop, eased the strain off bent wood.

Now, he thought, to fashion more arrows.

A strong and warm hand descended on his shoulder, gripped it lightly.

"I've never seen better," Sean, the big, red-headed Irish fire chief, said approvingly.

Daffyd could not help but grin.

Sean was not known for false praise.

 

Jacob's teeth clicked together as the shock of landing rammed upward through his spine.

The hurricane deck managed to simultaneously roll, pitch and yaw:  he was not sure if he was spinning, rolling over on one side or the other, but his heels were locked in the Appaloosa's barrel, his hat was in his right hand, whipping up and down, and he had a grin on his face as broad as two Texas townships.

A leap, soaring into the clear Colorado air:  his Apple-horse came down on his forehooves, light, delicate; his rearhooves came to earth in like wise, the spotty stallion shook himself like a dog, then set out at a steady trot, as if nothing at all had happened.

 

The Lady Esther's exhaust barked against the cold air, echoing off granite and timber as she shouldered against her load:  she'd gotten a good run for the grade, drivers thrashing against gravity and steel rails, and she surged industriously up the tracks, losing speed but not stopping.

The engineer was one of the best in the Z&W's employ: he was known simply as Bill, and he was very good at his job: his fireman, as well, was a man of experience, and both men knew their engine like a man knows his lover's every curve, her every response to his touch.

Coal sang off Ames steel as he shoveled into the fiery furnace: right-front, right-rear, left-front, left-rear; he peered into the hot depths, looking for clinkers, for buildup, for cold spots:  seeing none, he checked the water, adjusted a valve, ran his shovel into black New Straitsville bituminous, imported for the Z&W at the insistence of the green-eyed owner, the red-headed Miz Esther, for whom the engine itself was named.

 

More than a century later, this same engine, restored, rebuilt, returned from South America where a broken-hearted widower had consigned it after the death of his beloved bride, The Lady Esther once again labored up the same grade, her exhaust barking happily, but instead of hauling ore cars and freight, she pulled a light load:  three passenger cars mostly full of tourists, a boxcar nearly full of freight, and a caboose: in the caboose, the owner, in a shimmering green gown, her hair elaborately styled, spectacles halfway down her nose as she reviewed the short list of a freight manifest:  this owner had pale eyes, instead of green, though her last name was the same, descended from the pale eyed Sheriff to whom Miz Esther had been married over a hundred years before.

The pale eyed woman rose, removed the ladylike glove from her right hand, turned her palm down and regarded her two foreknuckles with a solemn expression.

The brakeman saw her expression.

"Trouble, Sheriff?" he asked.

"No," she admitted, stepping over to the small sink and pumping a little water into the basin, then removing her other glove and laying it with its companion:  "I was playing marbles with some schoolboys before we left Firelands."

"Did you win?" the brakeman half-grinned, and Willamina laughed, a light, delicate, very ladylike laugh, so different from her throatier chuckle when she was functioning as Sheriff.

"No," she admitted.  "The boys like it when they win all my marbles!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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56. LADY, WHAT'S YOUR NAME?

 

Clarence Bourne was dying.

He'd been hit twice and hit hard, he'd taken a knife that bloodied his side but didn't penetrate between his ribs, and he'd taken hard hits before he'd picked up a rock and driven a Cain-lick that near to drove the murderer into the ground like a fence post.

Cain may have felt guilt at murdering with a rock, but Clarence felt none:  he felt no triumph, just a grim satisfaction that the murdering sorts that killed his father and burned out his family were dead now.

The cost was high, though, higher than he'd ever wanted.

His brother lay dead, a mile back, shot through the head, but Clarence smiled grimly and thought When he stands before the Throne, it'll be as he wanted:  an empty pistol in one hand, a bloodied knife in the other and his boot on the neck of an enemy.

He coughed again and heard the squishy blucker of blood from one of his chest wounds.

He looked, saw Ernest:  Ernest was more than a friend, Ernest was a boon companion from earliest boyhood.

Clarence looked to his left, rolled a little, the agony in his leg long since exhausted from its screaming: the bone was shattered, he knew, and it hurt so bad for so long he almost couldn't feel it anymore.

He twisted far enough to hook the strap of his canteen and dragged it over to him.

He shook it.

Barely a mouthful.

Ernest looked at him, looked at him with the tired expression of a man who'd give up, a man about to die.

Clarence rolled back, dug in his elbows, grunted:  it took him four tries and several minutes but he got there, he got to Ernest, he twisted the galvanized cap off the canteen and tilted it over and Ernest drank.

He saw Ernest's eyes thank him, and then the man shivered, and he was gone.

A shadow moved.

Clarence lowered the now-empty canteen, holding it carefully, as if it still held contents.

"You could have drunk that yourself," a woman's voice said.

Clarence closed his eyes hard, opened them, squinted.

"No," he husked, coughed again, tasted copper, spat blood.

"You wanted him to have it."

Clarence could barely nod:  it was hard to breathe now, and he felt light headed, and he reckoned he was dying, and it kind of surprised him.

He'd never give much thought to dyin' but by the Sachem that's what was happenin' to him now.

"I've been waiting for you," the woman said, and squatted:  Clarence's head dropped and he lacked strength to raise it.

He barely felt her hand close around his wrist.

"You were the hand of Justice when there was no justice to be had," the woman said quietly, her voice almost musical – easy, pleasant on the ear – and he wished he had strength enough to nod.

"Stand up."

If he'd been able, he would have laughed – part of him, some small distant part of him, realized he was never going to rise from where he lay bleeding, shot, leg broke, beat to hell, killed by the men he'd killed himself.

Then he felt her pull hard and he rose – suddenly, easily, light!

His mouth fell open and he stood – he was tall again, and uninjured, and he didn't hurt –

He looked down –

He blinked at the bloodied man at his feet, a man with hard work callused up on his hands, with weather graven into his face, with dirty-brown froth dried on his lips:  not far away, an empty rifle, its action open; in the man's scuffed, bullet-scarred holster, an empty revolver, where it had been thrust out of habit when he'd fired his last round.

That poor fellow needs a good square meal, he thought, then he realized with some surprise –

That's me!

The woman released her firm grip on his wrist, and he looked at his arm.

His shirt was new, the inside of his wrist clean – it wasn't dirt-lined like he remembered it – and his roping cuffs were smooth and new-looking as well.

The woman squatted gracefully, took Ernest's wrist, rose.

Ernest rose with her – or an Ernest – the other lay there, dead.

The woman released his wrist.

"I already took your brother," she smiled.  I've been hoping you three would come with me."

"Where we goin'?" Ernest asked, staring at his own carcass, then Clarence's dirty, bloodied corpse, then at the clean Clarence, and finally at this strange woman who'd just fetched them out of their own bodies.

"I collect souls," she said.  "My name is Valkyrie, and I fly over battlefields and bring the souls of warriors to their reward."  She smiled, and her smile was gentle, and she twisted a little, and instead of wearing a fine, carefully-tailored gown of shimmering blue, she wore a bronze breastplate with the figure or a rearing horse center front, she wore a shining, conical, bronze helm with white wings on either side, and she wore an armored skirt with bronzed greaves over knee-high, flat-heeled cavalry boots.

She took each man by the wrist, curled her lip, whistled.

They heard hooves, coming at them:  Clarence's horse, the one that had taken two rifle balls through the chest and died screaming and thrashing two miles back, paced with Ernest's tough little grulla, the one that went over the edge of the cliff a mile before.

Between the two was a truly huge, absolutely black, shining-in-the-sun mare, a mare that paced up to the woman, laid her head over the woman's shoulder, grunting.

"Mount up, gentlemen," she said.  "We have a journey to make."

Ernest stared at his grulla, jaw hanging, then looked at the outlandishly-dressed woman who tickled the huge black mare behind the foreleg, prompting the horse to belly-down in the sand:  she swung a leg over, settled into the saddle, kissed at the mare, who rose easily, not in the least inconvenienced by this inconsequential weight in the well-fitted black saddle.

"Lady," Ernest blurted, "who are you?"

"My name," the pale-eyed woman said, "is Valkyrie, and supper is waiting on us.  Shall we?"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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57. HANNAH SUNSHINE

 

The wagon rattled as they drove.

The worn-looking woman looked as if she'd lost her best friend, and indeed she had:  she'd received her husband death-notice that very morning, and she had need to give this fell news to family, but family lay on the other side of The Lines, and that meant crossing the frontier between North and South.

She'd heard of women, searched – "orders, ma'am" – in a most ungentlemanly way, and other women who'd been falsely accused of smuggling, stripped, brutalized, imprisoned – but she had to convey the news, and she was the only one who could take the news, and so she put Hannah in a clean frock and she put on a clean apron and harnessed up their patient old mule and pointed their noses to the north.

They'd been admitted without difficulty; they had a single grip with them with a change of necessaries, and they'd guested with family, and now they were returning.

The woman drew up as the Yankee pickets raised their hands to halt her; one gripped her mule's bridle, another came back and looked into their bare wagon as if expecting to find two cannon and a regiment secreted under a quilt.

Her little girl looked at the man with the blue coat and a big mustache and a long rifle with a pointy thing on it and giggled, and when the stern-looking fellow (who smelled of tobacco and whiskey and man-sweat) gave her a stern look and then winked, she ducked her head a little, as if to hide behind the china-head doll she carried.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stood, her hands folded very properly in the front of her McKenna gown, and smiled: it was one of the regular meetings of the Ladies' Tea Society, and as Mrs. Ferguson introduced her as the next speaker, she smiled a little at the polite patter of applause, and touched a control on her remote.

The screen behind her lit up, showing their own village park, the one beside the little one room schoolhouse.

"You've all seen the monument," she began, and she did not have to say which monument:  there was only one, on which the names of the Firelands dead were inscribed: wars from two centuries were graven here, written in men's lives and neat ranks of names.

"Israel Buker is buried in New Concord, Ohio: his name is here, he's family and he was an adjutant to George Washington.  We have family – we, Firelands – from every war we've been in, and everyone we've been able to find, is named here.

"The first names were carved with a hammer and chisel:  later on, they were sandblasted into good mountain quartz, and now they're burned in with an industrial laser. I don't know what they'll use in years to come – a Klingon disruptor, maybe" – there was that quick smile, there-and-gone, and the ladies smiled a little as well, for a surprising number either were, or had been, enthusiastic followers of that science fiction genre.

"There are names that aren't here that perhaps should be."

She picked up a faded china-head doll, a doll with age-crazed cheeks giving its formerly rose-tinted cheeks the look of a very old dinner plate; the material was sun-bleached and threadbare, and she handled it very carefully:  it was propped up so it could be seen, and beside it, a length of equally worn, red silk ribbon.

"One name that you won't find there is a little girl's name.  Her name is Hannah, and when Hannah grew up, she came West with her Mama and they lived not far from here – they had an undistinguished little house just this side of the firehouse, and as near as I can tell, neither mother nor daughter did anything to get their names entered into the local newspaper, popular imagination or legend."
She picked up the ribbon and smiled.

"The little girl was a smuggler."

 

Hannah knew from a very young age that men could be manipulated, and manipulate them she did, and she found being a Good Little Girl and acting bashful and especially giving them those big lovely eyes could bend them to her will, and so it was this day.

Her Mama was asked to step out of the wagon, and led to a nearby tent:  Hannah watched, big-eyed and curious, as the men went through their grip, holding up frillies and making comments they thought the child couldn't hear, or maybe didn't care if she did:  satisfied they weren't trying to sneak a regiment of Marines back into Southern territory, one carefully re-packed the grip and placed it back under the wagon's seat.

"Are you carryin' anythin', little lady?" one asked, and Hannah turned her big, liquid eyes towards a man with a fine, curved mustache that ran all the way down his cheeks and back up and he wore a big hat and he rode a big horse and she blinked innocently and motioned the questioner closer.

"I'm not supposed to tell," she whispered breathily, coming up on her tip-toes to deliver her secret to the leaned-over soldier, then she came back down flat footed and nodded solemnly.

"I see," he said, and the officer dismounted at the soldier's look.

"Sir, she said she has something she's not supposed to tell."

"I'll handle this, Corporal."

"Yes, sir."

The man with goldie stuff on his shoulders frowned at the little girl, then he squatted and considered her carefully.

"Just what is this secret you're not supposed to tell?" he asked in a gentle voice.

Hannah giggled and ducked her face behind her doll again, and then smiled at the man and said "It's Mama's med-cine."

"Her medicine," the man repeated.  "Can I see it?"

Hannah blinked and looked a little distressed.

"I'm not supposed to tell!" she whispered, and the man smiled, took off his big white gloves.

"Don't tell me, then," he said.  "Just show me."

"Don't look," Hannah said, then turned and pulled up her skirt, turned and handed the man a flat glass flask. 

"And what's this?" the man with the big hat asked, working the cork out and sniffing curiously at the amber liquid.

"Mama says it's her med-cine," Hannah said solemnly, nodding like a little girl will when she is absolutely convinced of something, "but it tastes like whiskey."

The man took an experimental sip, raised an eyebrow.

"She said it helps her sleep."

He took another tilt, raised both eyebrows, worked the cork back into the bottle.

"Young lady," he said finally, "what is your name?"

"Han-nah," she replied, giggling from behind her china doll, twisting left, then right, flaring out her skirt the way a giggly little girl will do.

He handed the flask back to her.  "Hannah," he said, "my name is Lieutenant Plant, and why don't you put your Mama's medicine back.  I won't tell her so you don't have to either."

Hannah giggled and turned away, then looked back, half-scared. 

"Don't look," she said pleadingly, and as the officer turned his head away, Hannah lifted her skirt again and slid the flask in her thigh pocket.

The officer considered a moment, then said "Wait here," and rose:  he took a few steps back, opened the flap on a saddlebag, withdrew a red silk ribbon.

 

"Hannah's Mama came back from the tent, where Yankee women searched her for contraband – documents, medicines, weapons, field artillery, armored gunboats or anything else a woman might hide under her skirts – and she saw a Union officer pick up her daughter and place her back into the wagon box.  It's said he handed the child a piece of red silk ribbon and then he looked at the woman, and it's said he had the soft look of a man who wasn't a soldier for a moment, a man who was remembering something from his own past.

"He said, 'With your permission, ma'am, I have given your daughter a ribbon for her hair."  He looked at the child the way a man will when his heart is heavy with a memory, and he spoke to little Hannah and added, "I have a little girl back home in Pennsylvania, and she looks much like you."

Willamina picked up the china doll, lifted its ancient skirts.

"This head is hollow.  It was filled with medicine for a Southern doctor, and little Hannah had more medicine inside her corset, sewn into flat silk pockets that pressed against her belly and the small of her back.  This was not the only trip she made, and she was never caught, and thanks to one brave little girl, several Southern lives were saved."

She touched another button on her remote; walked through several images.

"This is a soldier's diary in a museum back East.  In it, a particular officer describes a Southern woman and her daughter who made multiple trips through his checkpoint.  He describes how the little girl was obviously smuggling her mother's whiskey, but he said if that was her only sin, he had to forgive her, because her smile was like the sunshine itself – and he writes that his own mother partook of a touch to help her sleep at night.

"He speaks of giving her a ribbon for her hair, because she reminded him so powerfully of his youngest daughter."  She held up the red ribbon, smiled.  "The china doll and the ribbon are from those smuggling trips.  They were given me by a young woman who still lives in the tidy little house beside our firehouse." 

Sheriff Willamina Keller raised a gloved hand, waved.  "Hannah, thank you for these artifacts: they will be displayed in our museum."

A worn-looking woman in a period gown smiled and waved, and her giggly little girl ducked her face behind the new-looking china-head doll she carried, and as she shifted in her seat, there was a distinct, glassy clink! – and at Willamina's pale-eyed look, little Miss Hannah gave her an absolutely innocent look with the big, liquid eyes that helped her twist her big strong Daddy around her little finger, on a rather regular basis.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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58. ARRIVAL

 

Pete Keller loafed comfortably against his front porch post.

Coffee in his off hand, the other thumb hooked in his belt, he looked around with the weather wrinkled and knowing eyes of a man with an intimate knowledge of the land from his boots to the horizon.

The road was some distance away; the sun was sliding downhill, supper was smelling good.

Family is all grown up and gone, he thought, and Martha still fixes enough for company.

He took a slow, savoring sip of coffee, part of his mind remembering hobo coffee boiled with creek water in a blue-granite pot, part of his mind remembering the Italian mountains when he boiled water in his steelpot helmet because he was damned if he went one more day without coffee.

His eyes shifted a little to the left as his ears picked up the sound of the distant Greyhound slowing, then the air brakes choo-chooing the big people hauler to a stop.

His eyes walked down his long driveway, mentally continuing around the bend to the intersection with the paved route.

He waited.

It was unusual ... very unusual ... for the bus to stop somewhere near his driveway.

His was the only ranch on this stretch of road.

The bus stopped there once, and only once, before.

It stopped and let out a tall, lean young man with pale eyes, a young man who knew what it was to wear a baggy green uniform and pack his duffel over his shoulder.

Pete waited.

Pete knew what it was to be patient.

He felt his wife come to the screen door – felt her, he hadn't heard her:  too many years of gunfire, then Diesel engines, had taken their toll on his hearing.

"Pete?"  he heard her ask, and he knew she was wiping her hands on a towel that lived draped over her off shoulder.

He shifted his weight, drew back from the porch post, backed up a half step toward the door.

"Pete, was that the bus?"

Pete nodded, his pale eyes looking into the distance.

Behind him, Martha reached for the shelf, drew down a pair of binoculars, pushed the door open.

Pete shifted his coffee mug to his other hand, reached without looking, knowing Martha would be handing him his long eyes:  his hand closed around the familiar, pebbled barrel, he raised the binoculars to his eyes, took a long look down the gravel drive.

Martha came out onto the front porch, flipped the towel over her left shoulder, tilted her head curiously:  the lowering sun shot red highlights into the silver streaking her curly hair, bringing out the color in her cheeks:  Pete turned the center knob, reached up and twisted the eyepiece just a little, and Martha saw the man's lower jaw extend just a little, and then his mouth started to widen.

He lowered the glasses, handed them to his wife.

Martha closed one eye, peered through the other, looking through one eyepiece only, the way she always did.

Pete heard her take in a breath, then she handed the glasses back.

"I'll set another plate."

"Here."  Pete handed her the field glasses without looking, felt her take them.

Pete felt her take the coffee mug from his other hand.

There was not much left anyway.

It's been a long time since family came for a visit, he thought, and he felt his face tighten as it hadn't for some time, and it felt a little odd.

It took him a moment to recognize the sensation.

He was starting to smile again.

 

A young woman labored up his gravel drive.

She was not dressed for a walk.

She was young ... young, yes, but even at this distance he could tell there was a strength, a toughness, not often seen in females of her age.

It was too far to distinguish, but he didn't need to look, to know this slender young woman, this stranger in a blue suit dress and high heels, had pale eyes.

Pale eyes, like his, like his father's before him, like his late nephew Ted, killed by an escaping convict back in Ohio not many years before.

He watched, and he made his observations:  he noticed she carried her grip in her left hand.

She's either left handed, he thought, or she's got a pistol under that jacket, and she's keeping her gun hand free.

She's too young to be prior military, keeping the right hand free to return a salute.

She walked with purpose, with determination; she walked with a confidence he didn't often see in one of her few years.

It was hard for Pete to really gauge a woman's age; he'd been fooled by twelve year old girls, gussied up like their college age sisters, he'd been fooled by women near to thirty, dressed and acting like giggly little teen-agers:  this young woman was somewhere between ...

She wears heels like she's used to 'em, he thought:  Pete had an eye for the ladies, he liked the sight of women, he grew up in an era when women wore nylons and their pearls to do their marketing, and the great Mini Skirt Era had come and gone, and women were wearing pants more and more often ...

Pete closed his eyes for a long moment, opened them, watched as the young woman with the determined pace and the confident step approached the ranch house.

He noticed something else.

She never stopped looking around.

She didn't make it obvious, but he knew what it was to be watchful.

There's more to her, he thought, than a body would realize.

He watched as she came through the gate, latched it carefully behind her, turned.

Paces off on the left, he thought.  Too young to be military.  Where'd she learn that?

The pale eyed young woman in the blue suit dress and three inch heels walked purposefully up to the porch, up the two steps, walked up to Pete, set her grip down and stood up straight.

"Uncle Pete," she said, lifting her chin, "I'm young niece Willamina, and I need your help."

Pete nodded, bent, picked up her grip.

"Supper's ready," he said.  "Come on in."

 

Sheriff Bill Landers – Old Bill, they called him, but never to his face – removed his Stetson as Pete introduced his pale eyed niece.

"Good Lord," Bill said in that deep, gravelly voice that was ever his trademark, "you do favor your father!"

"Thank you, sir," Willamina said.  "I'll take that as a complement."

Old Bill shook his head.  "Dear God, you even talk like he does!"

"You were at his funeral."  It was a statement, not a question. 

Old Bill's jaw slid out a little, and he nodded, frowning a little.  "I always thought he'd come back home.  Hoped so, anyway."

"Home?"  Willamina asked, curious, turning her head as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Old Bill blinked and looked away quickly, for that was a move Ted used to do when he heard something that caught his attention.

"Pete," Bill said without preamble, "I need your opinion."

Pete nodded slowly, reminding Willamina of an old bear. 

"Who do you think would make a good Sheriff?"

Pete frowned a little, favored his old and dear friend with a very direct look.

"Last I looked," he said slowly, "that's you."

Bill nodded, and Willamina felt the air cool a few degrees.

Martha stood and started picking up supper dishes.

"Willamina, dear," she asked gently, "could you help me in the kitchen, please?"

Willamina rose, looked very directly at the Sheriff, hesitated.

"Your star," she said.  "That's an old pattern.  My father always admired it.  Is that the original badge?"

Old Bill blinked, surprised, then grinned:  the surest way to any man's heart is the kind attention of an attractive younger woman.

"No ma'am, it's not," he admitted.  "I would absolutely love to find the original, but nobody knows what happened to it.  After Old Pale Eyes died and then his son, it kind of disappeared."

"You've come asking Uncle Pete's opinion. If I may, I'd like to ask yours."

"Of course."

"But not now."  Willamina smiled, and it was the confident smile of a young woman with a plan, something she'd been working on for a while.

Pete and Old Bill both rose when Willamina left the room, then looked at one another.

"Pete," Old Bill said, "there's someone to be reckoned with!"

"She is her father's daughter," Pete sighed.  "Now what about you, you old horse thief.  What's this about who'd make a good Sheriff?"

 

Later that evening, Willamina sat on the broad couch – "your father used to sleep on this," Pete said, "until he got too tall" – she was in the middle, with her Uncle on one side, her buxom and motherly aunt on the other – and they paged through the picture book together.

"I'm going to show you something," Pete said, "and you have to promise never to tell anyone!"

Willamina looked at her Uncle – half curious, half serious, as if she was remembering her own secrets.

"I'm showing you this because you know how to keep a secret."

Willamina smiled.

When she'd taken off her suit jacket, she'd taken off her gunbelt, hung it on the coat rack as casually as if she were hanging up her hat:  the gunbelt, then the jacket over it, and she knew Uncle Pete watched as she did.

"It was Papa's," Willamina said simply, and Pete frowned, looked away, troubled.

Now they sat on the couch together, paging through the book, pointing to this relative, that place, sharing memories, laughing a little.

"Now here's the secret I don't want you to tell anyone," Pete said, turning the page, and Willamina saw a nurse with really good legs – it must have been an older picture, for nurses were mostly wearing pantsuits or even scrubs now, and this one wore the white stockings and dress and the winged cap that was the signature of the earlier generation.

"Do you recognize her?"

"Nice legs," Willamina murmured, frowning, and then as realization dawned, she breathed "Nooooo!"

Pete chuckled a little, and Martha smiled, hugging Willamina around the shoulders:  Willamina laid her head over against her aunt and Pete felt her giggle a little.

"That was your Dad on Halloween."

Willamina felt her ears turn red and she raised her hand to her mouth as if to stifle the laughter bubbling up inside her.

"Looks different than that young fellow in uniform, doesn't it?"

Willamina looked up at her Uncle and he grinned down at her, ran his arm around her shoulders.

"He walked well in heels," he rumbled.  "He wore white heels with that uniform dress but took them off before we took this shot."  He blinked, swallowed.  "You walked just like him coming up the driveway."

Willamina laughed – it was a careful, delicate laugh – "I reckon I come by it honest!"

"It was the only time he ever tried it," Pete sighed.  "He said he'd heard women say for years how intimidating it is just to walk down the street.  He said he lasted all of three blocks as a woman."

He tilted his head back, remembering.

"He said in that short walk he was poked, patted, prodded, pinched, propositioned, proposed to, gripped, groped and a street evangelist tried to save his corroded soul!"

Willamina nodded; young though she was, she could attest to the veracity of the observation.

"Uncle Pete," she said, "what did the Sheriff mean, who would make a good Sheriff?"

Pete hesitated, frowned a little.

"Willa," he said, "you're family, and there are things we keep in the family."

Willamina tapped her father's Halloween portrait with a neatly trimmed forefingernail.

"Like that," Pete nodded.  "Old Bill and I served together."

Willamina regarded her uncle with pale eyes.

"He has cancer."
Willamina close her eyes, lowered her head, slowly, nodded:  Martha saw the young woman bite her bottom lip, and she felt that old familiar ache, for she'd seen that before, too.

Willamina raised her head suddenly.

"I'll take it."

"You'll ... take what?"

"Sheriff.  I'll take the office of Sheriff."

Pete quirked an eyebrow.

"Not right now, of course."  Willamina smiled.  "I'll need some help."  She closed the picture book.  "Council of war, we need to plan."

"You're kind of direct, aren't you?

"That's why I came here, Uncle Pete.  You're pretty direct yourself."

"How can I ... help?"

"Well, first of all, do you need some clothes?"  Aunt Martha asked gently.

Willamina sighed, lowered her head, nodded.

"We'll take care of that," Martha said in a patient and motherly voice.

Pete rose.  "If there's a council of war, we'll need ice cream.  I hope you like chocolate."

"My favorite!"

 

Whipped cream, crushed nuts, a few cherries, a drizzle of chocolate syrup:  niece and uncle shared more than eye color, it seemed.

"Uncle Pete, I'm not going to oblige you to help me, but here's what I plan."

Pete nodded, lowering his spoon.

"First I need to finish school, then the Marines."

Pete raised an eyebrow, then smiled a little.

"Now you do sound like your father!"

"He had cancer too."

Pete felt something cold trickle down his spine, and Willamina saw her aunt's face pale a little.

"Agent Orange.  Of course his claims were denied."

Pete's callused hand closed slowly into a fist.

"You saw I wore his gunbelt."

"That was his?"
"It was. That's the pistol he shot the approaching vehicle with."  Her expression was bleak.  "Didn't help."

"I tried to talk him into getting a .357," Pete muttered, shaking his head.

"He was saving for it.  When he died, his ... wife," Willamina curled her lip as if the word was distasteful, "took the money and got drunk.  Again."  She thrust her chin toward the grip setting under the coat tree.  "She threw out his flag, too.  I got them out of the trash."

Pete's hand fisted again.

He'd served in the Second Disagreement and he'd buried too many fellow soldiers.

"She threw out his flag."

Willamina nodded.

"How can we help you get to where you need to go?"

 

Aunt Martha smiled as she sat alone on the couch, years later, and paged slowly through the picture book, remembering.

There were more pictures now, pictures of a family once again.

A smiling, pale eyed young woman in graduation robes, holding a diploma: another page, and the same young woman, in jeans and flannel shirt and scuffed but polished boots, laughing with her Uncle Pete, both of them bent over and elbow deep in the engine compartment of his ancient, faded Dodge pickup:  Willamina had a streak of grease along one cheekbone and her hands were filthy, and she had the look of someone who was absolutely delighted with what she was doing.

Martha raised her head, remembering with a smile how she and Willamina would talk and laugh as they sewed and fitted the dresses they sewed, the shirts they fabricated: Pete would read, and he didn't realize how much he'd missed this, until he realized he was far happier than he'd been in a very long time.

They'd sit together for hours in Pete's reloading room, they'd set on overturned five gallon buckets in an open shed – "genuine bucket seats," Pete joked – and cast pistol bullets in a gang mold:  Pete taught her how to hand load, and Willamina proved an apt student: they cranked out an unholy volume of pistol rounds, and Pete patiently taught his niece the secrets he'd taught her father:  Willamina applied herself to his lessons with the same single minded concentration as she applied to her studies, as she applied to her sewing, as she applied to conditioning her young body:  she'd taken to running with the football team, hardening herself over the years, increasing her endurance and her lungs, preparing for the day when she found herself on Parris Island, being torn apart and rebuilt into a Marine.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat in the middle of the big couch, her twin brother Will on her right, her daughter on her left, the photo album on her lap.

"This is Uncle Pete," she said, tapping a picture, "and that's me."

"Howcummit whyzat you gotsit da stuff on your face?" her daughter stammered in her usual preschooler's machine-gun delivery, which brought a quick smile to Will's face:  his own young spoke in the same manner, and as his pale eyed sister reached her arm around her daughter's shoulders, he ran his own arm around his twin sister's shoulders.

"We were working on his truck," she explained, "and I had grease on my knuckle, and my face itched."

"Like when you're baking," Will chuckled, remembering when his twin sis had a white streak instead of a black one, and not a week ago.

"And that's me after I got out of the Corps," Willamina said.  "I'd been wounded overseas so I came home and became a nurse."

"Ooohhh, Mama," her daughter breathed, "you were pretty!"  She looked up at Willamina, puzzled.  "Mama, howcummit whyzit you nottada nurse no more?"

Willamina sighed, tuned the page.

"This is why," she said.

The previous page had Willamina's graduation portrait, in a proper, white uniform dress and stockings, white, thick-soled shoes, a white winged cap, the very image of an earlier generation's stereotype:  the next page had her in the same attire, but she had an obviously terrified child on her left hip, clinging desperately to her, and her Mama's right arm was extended:  her legs were apart, braced, her face was hard and determined, and in her extended hand, a cocked revolving-pistol, obviously competent in its use and very, very ready to make use of it.

"That picture," she said, "was on the front page of our local newspaper.  It got me a commendation from the local Chamber of Commerce, accolades from the community, and it got me fired from the hospital."  She sighed.  "I guess they didn't want their Angels of Mercy saving children from kidnappers."

"They caught hell for that, too," Will murmured, and Willamina's little girl looked up at her with wide and sincere and remarkably pale eyes.

"I glad you Shewwif," Will heard and he felt the child lean suddenly and very happily into her Mama's side as she gave his twin sis an enthusiastic hug.

"You might like this," Willamina suggested, and her daughter released, leaned back, tilted her head curiously as the next page turned.

"This was taken at Uncle Pete's funeral."  She tapped the picture and Will felt her swallow, and she paused a moment longer than perhaps she normally would have.

"This is the Honor Guard.  The photographer took the shot just as they fired their volley over his grave.  Notice the muzzle flashes."

Curious eyes regarded the photograph, a little pink finger touched the plastic oversheet tentatively

"Mama," she asked in a child's innocent voice, "what's dat doggie?"

Willamina looked at the little pink finger planted on a pure-white canine, sitting shoulder to shoulder with a huge, curly-furred, sinners-heart-black canine, and she remembered.

The Bear Killer paced, as dignified as if he'd been conducing the service himself, ahead of her Uncle Pete's coffin as it was borne to the grave: he'd planted his broad, square bottom as the solemn words were spoken, he'd stood as the volley was fired.

Willamina had no idea when it happened, but as she stood at attention, in her Marine Corps uniform, with service and battle ribbons correctly arrayed on her coat, she saw something move, and took a quick glance, and the breath caught in her throat.

Beside The Bear Killer, settling down beside him, a pure-white, yellow-eyed, lean-muzzled ...

... wolf ...

"That," Will said, "is our family totem."

A curious young body bent forward so curious young eyes could regard her gentle-voiced uncle.

"The White Wolf is our spirit animal, or so Deputy Flint tells us.  The White Wolf appears at important moments in our family's history.  If you see The White Wolf, it is important that you let us know."

A little girl nodded, big-eyed and solemn, and leaned back, and smiled a quiet, secret, little-girl's smile.

She'd seen The White Wolf, and not an hour ago, and she hid the secret inside her, for it was her secret alone, and it was a delicious little secret, just like that pale eyed woman in the long dress who showed her things, like the big black helly-chopter and space rockets and stuff, and how she and her Mama and even the little girl were all Pale Eyed Women, and very special, for there was vew-wy, vew-wy important work to be done, and only they could do that work.

Willamina continued turning the pages, murmuring quietly, and her daughter was a warm, welcome weight against her side, and somewhere – somewhere, after a belly full of supper, and sitting on the old, welcoming, comfortable couch, after cuddling with her Mama and hearing the familiar, soothing voices, a little girl's eyelids grew heavy, and a Mama's arm was warm and reassuring, and strong arms picked up the little child and held her against a strong, manly chest and out into the night's cool air, and after hearing the seat belt whizz out of its spring-loaded roll-up and the steel buckle click into place, after the door was carefully closed, after the sound of her Mama's key chuckling into the ignition and the Jeep starting, perhaps a little girl's eyes might open, slowly, drowsily, and a little girl's face smiled, for looking at her from outside, hidden behind a tree, unseen from the house but plainly seen by pale young eyes ...

... a white wolf, with yellow eyes, sitting beside the big black curly-furred Bear Killer.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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59. THE WAR, AT NIGHT

Sheriff Willamina Keller rubbed her eyes, then her temples.

Hands, strong, gentle hands, closed on her shoulders, began to work the strain out of her lean muscles:  she hummed with pleasure as her husband worked his magic, worked his way to the base of her neck, caressed and rubbed and melted the tensions he felt there.

"You're re-living again," he murmured.

"No," she groaned, that half-whisper she made when she was somewhere between the pain of massage and the exquisite relief of pain leaving her muscles:  "I was reading about his nightmares."

Richard's blunt, strong fingers continued their work, exploring, massaging:  he didn't have to ask who this "he" was ... his wife was immersed in the Old Sheriff's journals, and that pale eyed old lawman, that perpetual ghost in their lives, was the only man who'd ever competed for his wife's attentions.

"Tell me what happened," he murmured, leaned down, nibbled at the rim of her ear.

Willamina groaned throatily, reached up, lay delicate fingers on his.

"I'll give you a week to stop that," she whispered, and his hands slipped down her arms, and to her elbows:  she rose as he gripped her elbows and lifted, and she turned, and wrapped her arms around her husband's neck:  hungry, her mouth met his, and she melted her lean, whipcord body into his, lighting a young man's fire in his middle aged carcass.

Sheriff Willamina Keller was the chief law enforcement officer of Firelands County, Colorado; statute and reputation gave her near-ultimate authority in her demesne, she brooked neither nonsense, pressure, bribery nor foolishness, but she offered absolutely no objection when her husband bent a little, and ran an arm behind her knees, the other around her back, and he picked her up, and carried her up the broad staircase.

Perhaps he wondered, with part of his mind, whether a certain pale eyed ghost might be watching, remembering the times when he'd carried his own green-eyed, red-headed bride up these very stairs.

If Richard had eyes for other than his wife's, he might have seen just such a ghost, standing at the foot of the stairs, with the soft expression of a man remembering a tender moment:  in fact, he might have seen a spectral hand close about another spectral hand, but Richard would have had to turn around, and take a direct look, to see that one ghost stood beside another.

As Richard was otherwise occupied, he didn't.

 

"Richard?"

"Hmm?"  Her husband's voice was drowsy, his arm thick, heavy, warm, comforting:  they were rolled up on their sides, facing one another, the sheet and the comforter over them.

"Richard, do I have nightmares?"

Richard angled his head back, eased it forward, kissed his wife delicately, carefully, the way he generally did:  once, and once only, had he kissed her passionately, and that was in their early years, before they were married:  he was shocked to see blood on her teeth, and he swore he would never, ever hurt this beautiful woman who'd captured his heart, and he kept that promise, even in their most intimate moments.

"Yes," he whispered.

He felt her change:  she did not stiffen, she did not move, but a husband knows his wife, and perhaps he felt ... perhaps he felt her electrical field, or her Kirlian field, or her soul change:  he could not define what he felt, he knew only that he felt something, and he knew he suddenly had her utter and undivided attention.

Even if those lovely pale eyes were almost completely closed, regarding him through long and curled eyelashes.

"Tell me how I react," she whispered, cuddling into him again, and he thrust one arm under her neck, below her jaw, the other he laid over her low ribs, his hand spreading out and caressing the small of her back:  he smiled as she giggled, for she was ticklish there, and he rubbed it a little more firmly to take away the tickle.

"When you have them," Richard began, and hesitated.

"Mmm-hmmm?"  Willamina prompted, tracing circles in the fur on his chest with a delicate forefinger.

He pretended to bite at her finger, prompting a girlish giggle.

"You're trying to distract me," she whispered.  "It won't work, now spill it, handsome!"

Richard sighed.

"You usually sleep on your back."

"Unless I'm on my side."

"Or your belly," he admitted.  "You're a restless sleeper and sometimes it's like you're fighting monsters in your sleep, and you steal blankets like Willie Sutton steals money from banks."

"Flatterer!"

"Those aren't nightmares."

Willamina looked at him with those lovely pale eyes, those eyes that captured his heart back at Quantico, those eyes that could get him to do absolutely anything, and they both knew it:  he reached around her and drew her close, and she purred a little as she molded herself to him again.

"It's when you sleep on your back, and you don't move at all," he whispered.  "It's when you are absolutely still."

"How can you tell?"

"I can tell."

"What happens?"

"I lay my hand on your chest."
Richard felt his wife's silent laugh, and he knew why:  she'd told him of the one and only time someone tried to grab her chest – she'd been the new girl in the Firelands high school, and one of the football jocks wanted to conquer this fresh meat, and he ended up on the floor, crying in pain, his thumb dislocated:  he hadn't counted on this quiet, mousy new girl being the daughter of a police officer who knew some dirty tricks about pain-compliance holds, and how to throw a bad guy and make him regret the error of his ways, and he knew that telling her he laid his hand on her chest spoke to the trust she had in him, even in a nightmare's grip.

"I'll lay my hand on your chest and yours will SNAP up from under the covers and SLAP down on top of mine and I'll see you grimace, just a little ..."
His voice was a whisper, for his lips were but inches from her ear.

"And then you'll relax and it's gone."

She drew back a little and kissed her husband as delicately as he'd kissed her.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"What do you ... what are your nightmares?"

Willamina smiled a little, cuddled in again.

"Damned if I know," she admitted, and he felt her laugh again.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned over the neck of his cavalry mare, his ribs caved in, his lungs on fire, hungry for air, trying desperately to breathe.

He was riding through the mountains – no, it was a valley in Virginia – no, he was galloping from the depot toward his home in the Ohio plains, up near Lake Erie –

He raised his head, barely enough strength to look, he saw his wife, his beloved Connie, holding their child –

His mare melted under him and he fell to earth, twisting, and he looked up at a man he recognized, a man with a dirty face and whisker-stubble and a blue bummer's cap and his hand shot up and seized the soldier's tunic and he grated "Sound assembly, damn you, the enemy is up on us!" – and a little girl thrust a cake of soap between his teeth, shoved it in deep, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe –

An angel, all bright and shimmering, an angel with green eyes and red hair floated through the weed-growing garden, the garden he and Connie kept so immaculately hoed and tended, an angel that laid a hand on his chest, and suddenly, suddenly he had strength enough, he slapped a hand on this blessed messenger, pressing her purity and her light into his chest and he could breathe, he could breathe, and the scene fell away and he was at home in his own bed under his own roof and it was all right all right all right –

Sheriff Willamina Keller ran through the dark, ran with an enemy AK in her grip, ran with the memory of slamming the butt of her rifle into an enemy's face so hard it broke her M4's stock: she was more than satisfied she'd killed him with the viciousness of her attack – she had to be vicious, she was out of ammo, and the M4 did not mount a bayonet – she dogrobbed the filthy, bearded fighter, took his spare magazine, ran.

She fired sparingly, from concealment, then while running, running back toward where she thought her Marines were, back toward her own people:  the firefight turned into a confused, running battle, but even in the dark she thought she recognized the salient landmarks.

Empty.

She hit the mag release on the AK, shoved in the fresh, locked, pulled, yanked the bolt, two aimed shots, two enemy down.

Run.

An explosion, like being hit by a truck, she hit, rolled, landed flat on her back, the wind knocked out of her.

Rifle gone.

Her hand went down for the pistol still in her holster.

One round left.

One round of Nine Parabellum hardball.

She blinked her eyes clear, raised the Beretta, fired at the pair coming to the rim of the shell crater she'd landed in:  one fell, parts of his head spraying out of his shemagh.

Willamina tossed the pistol aside, its slide locked back, empty:  she seized the Ka-Bar from her belt, tried to get up, snarling, lips drawn back, as the second one grinned at her and raised his rifle.

"COME AND GET ME, DAMN YOU!" she shouted defiantly, just as her husband's hand rested on her chest and she slapped her free hand to it, pulling herself from What-Had-Been, returning to her own bed, her own house, under her own roof.

A century and more before, in this very bedroom, a pale eyed old lawman's lips moved, though no sound came out:  his several times great granddaughter, the pale eyed Sheriff now, framed the same soundless words as she, too, returned to the safety of the real world.

"Damn that war."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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60. HOMECOMING

The Marine was lean, tanned, and very quiet.

She placed her cap on the bar, one foot up on the rail, looked at the paunchy, red-faced man behind the stained bar and said "Beer."

He reached into the cooler, pulled out a longneck, twisted off the cap, set it in front of her:  she slid a bill across the bar, picked up the bottle, drank.

The beer was cool and she could feel her thirsty throat soak it up all the way down; part of her mind wondered if even half the payload hit bottom.

She knew she was being watched; she knew she was being ogled, and she knew she would probably be addressed, if nothing else, to ask her outfit, or where she was stationed, or if she was single.

She might even be propositioned.

She lowered the bottle to the bar's top, set it down carefully, studied the mirror and the men in it.

She was the only woman in the VFW: members only, under normal circumstances, but when a Marine in class As comes to the door, the door is opened, and without hesitation:  conversation stopped when she came in, silent in her ugly but exquisitely comfortable issue shoes, and even the pinball stopped its annoying ding-ding-crack as its player chose to study something less electronic.

She finished the beer, thanked the barkeep, picked up her cover: she turned, swept the room with pale eyes, then walked out the door, knowing the comments would come after the door was closed, after she could not hear them.

She didn't care.

She was in town to say hello to her father.

 

Pete Keller sighed as he put the ratchet back in his toolbox.

His back ached and he was thirsty, and he was restless besides, the way he felt when a thunderstorm muttered and threatened but hadn't yet let loose with inundations and lightning.

"Something's wrong, Tip," he said to his border Collie, then he frowned.

Tip was missing.

Now that's odd, he thought:  Tip's usually right here.

A shadow moved, barely out of arm's reach, and a voice said, "Hello, Uncle Pete."

Pete froze, and for a moment he tasted copper, the way he did back during the War, when life went from stultifying boredom to sheer panic in a tenth of a second or less, and he was at once delighted, and very afraid.

"Willa," he said.

"We need to settle this."

Pete turned to face his niece.

He'd last seen her with blood trickling from the corner of her mouth and her fair skin darkening where he'd just backhanded her, hit her hard enough to bring her off her feet.

Pale eyes met pale eyes:  Pete was struck by how hard hers had become, how utterly ... cold ...

Like the frozen heart of a mountain glacier, a voice whispered in his mind, and he realized yes, that's exactly how they looked ... exactly how she was looking at him!

"You remember when I left, Uncle Pete."

Pete remembered.

His knuckles stung where he'd backhanded his niece, hard:  a neighbor girl, her hair bloodied, crying that Willamina hit her with a rock, and not until Pete reacted, not until he'd knocked Willamina back into a corner, not until she slid to the floor, did he find out the whole story:  how three girls ganged his Willa, how one pulled a knife, how Willa seized the incoming wrist, picked up a rock, hit her attacker:  he remembered how Willamina rose, slowly, knees crouched, hands open, her eyes hard and cold as she glared at him, how he realized – he'd just hurt her, she was in a corner, she was now a cornered, wounded animal, how he suddenly was the focus of her entire attention – he remembered he'd stepped to the side, how she'd straightened, how he could not meet her eyes:  he remembered she'd left the room, he remembered the sound of the front door closing, and he remembered his wife looking at him with her gentle expression ... gentle, but very, very disappointed.

He remembered how empty the house felt, without Willamina in it:  how his wife said she'd left with a small bag and no word.

He spoke with his friend, the Sheriff, he'd heard the girls were investigated, arrested, but charges dropped, because Willamina was not available for trial:  as a matter of fact, until the news clippings arrived, neither he nor his wife knew where she'd gone.

Well, he knew now.

She was just out of arm's reach of him, and she was looking at him like he was a side of beef, and she, a butcher.

"Your house, your rules, Uncle Pete," Willamina said quietly.  "You can run your house however you damn well please, but we're going to finish this."

Pete nodded.

"You didn't listen to me before you hit me."

Pete nodded, guilt weighting his belly.

"No."

"You didn't stop to think that maybe I was in the right."

Pete remembered the crying girl with blood running down her blond hair, closed his eyes.

"No."

"You wound up your good left arm and smacked a little girl hard enough to bring her off her feet, and across the back porch and into the corner, and she slid to the floor in absolute terror."

He opened his eyes, looked at his pale eyed niece, lean and dangerous in that good looking, well tailored uniform.

"Yes," he admitted finally.  "Yes, I did."

Willamina's voice was quiet – loud enough his noise-damaged ears could hear her, but not more – "I've not forgotten that, Uncle Pete.  I've thought about it ever since I left."

I should say something, he thought.  I should tell her I was wrong

"I stopped back East before flying out here," Willamina said, "and I said hello to Daddy.  That was one of the three things I needed to do before going overseas."

Overseas.

Pete's stomach sank a little at the thought of his Willa going over there.

He'd been following the unpleasantness in the Sandpile and he knew it was not somewhere he'd want any of his to be.

"I wanted to put a flower on Daddy's grave, and I did that."
Pete nodded.

"I'll say hello to Aunt Martha and that will be the third thing."

Pete frowned a little and nodded.

"And now for you."

Pete felt like someone just pulled the pin on a grenade and let the spoon loose, he could almost see it, spinning through the air in that bright moment before the detonation.

"I'm going to hurt you far worse than you hurt me."

Willamina moved.

Pete could not have gotten out of her way had he wanted to.

Willamina's hands seized his face and she shoved her nose against his, her forehead against his:  he remembered how she smelled, how warm her hands were, and how strong, and how her voice hissed in his ringing ears:

"Uncle Pete," she said, her voice low, firm:  "I, forgive, you!"

She shoved him away from her.

"If you ever hit me again," she finished, "kill me with your first lick because you won't get a second!"

 

Pete wiped his hands on a rag, listening to his wife's delighted exclamation as Willamina went in the house.

He looked at Tip-dog, come in from some unknown adventure, delight in the Border's shining eyes as she looked up at him.

"Well," Pete said finally, "I deserved that."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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61. FIRST KILL

 

I was no stranger to violence.

It was not something I sought out, it was not a thing I liked, but it happened and I was ready when the need arose.

I was just shy of fourteen years old.

My father was a gunsmith, and a good one, and he'd repaired a man's fowler.

I'd saddled up Jenny-mule and taken it to Corning, to the north, wading Sunday Creek in two places – it was shallow below Hatfield's Mill and not a difficult crossing, and the second crossing had a good gravel bed – I knew something was not right when I went north – Jenny didn't like it, hear ears swung around like cattail leaves in a circling wind and she muttered some under me and I knew I was watched and I knew who was watchin'.

There were trouble makers hereabouts and generally the Spears boys had some hand in it, whether it was stealin' pigs or chickens, sometimes they even run off a head or two of cattle but we could never catch 'em.

They had other appetites, appetites that turned a body's stomach to hear their victims describe what happened, and I allowed as they'd have to kill me before they turned me to their purpose.

They liked tall boys, and they liked doing things to tall boys, and I was long and tall and had yet to grow chin whiskers and I was prime for their black intentions.

I rode up town with Tom Gaitten's fowler and my own flint rifle, and I rode back with coin and my flint rifle, and when I did, why, Danny Spears stepped out in front of me and allowed as he was glad to see me, and Jenny-mule stiffened so I give her slack in her reins and dug in my heels and she backed up and went HAAAWWW and lashed out with her hind legs and I heard her hit somethin' and a rope dropped over my left arm so I give her a slap and a yell and I fetched up my flint rifle and stood up in the stirrups and drove Danny just below the wish bone with a .36 rifle ball and then Jenny-mule she run full-on into him and trompled  him some as she run right through him and we headed on home at a good spanking gait and I loaded attair flint rifle whilst we was on the move and I got a patched ball down and the pan primed and the battery piece back and ready and we come up near to a-gallop to the house and Pa he knew there was somethin' in the wind, he was waitin' behint the wood stack with his double gun and Ma she was in the doorway with Pa's short musket and Jenny and me we come around and Jenny's ears was back and she was dancin' and she was talkin' to us and makin' that death-rattle sound that meant she was ready to bite someone's hand off plumb up to the elbow and Pa and me we waited but nobody followed and Pa and me we held us a palaver and a powwow and we allowed as we'd go back and when we did we taken the wagon and I rode beside the mare and she plodded along like she always did, her head half down and her gait steady and measured, I don't think she'd get excited was a tornado to come up beside her and make faces.

Danny he was dead and laid out on his back and his eyes was wide and one hand was on that little bloody hole in his belly and his brother he was dead too, Jenny-mule's hoof caught him square between the eyes with the front edge of her steel shoe and caved in his gourd and he was a-layin' there with a capture line and two loops tied in it like he intended to wrist tie me bent over a log like he'd done t'others and right glad I was he was dead.

Was he not I was willin' to put my rifle to his face and send his soul to hell on another .36 ball instead of ridin' a mule shoe like he done.

We loaded up the carcasses and taken them up town and found the Marshal in the tavern where he usually kept himself and he come out and allowed as we'd saved him the trouble and expense of hangin' the two of 'em and we could dump the carcasses in Potter's Field or someplace else long as they didn't stink up the town and that's where we dumped 'em, in the hole in Potter's Field halfway up West Hill, I think they had a Catholic cemetery there years later only the potter's part was off to the side, I don't reckon they wanted to consecrate ground that held such sinners as was planted there.

That was my first killin'.

It was not my last, and I lost no sleep a'tall over it.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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62. CHEERLEADER WITH A GUN

 

She wore the pleated skirt of a Firelands High School cheerleader, the white turtleneck sweater with the green megaphone on the front, and in gold, the letters FHS on the megaphone:  her name was sewn down along the waist, along the sweater's broad elastic waistband, but it couldn't be seen for the dark brown, basket stamped gunbelt cinched snugly about her trim, girlish waist, and as her immaculate saddle shoes trod the thin grass in the Firelands cemetery, her hand closed around the handle of a large-frame, blue-worn, three-screw, flattop revolver.

She stopped at the foot of a grave.

She glared with pale eyes at the tomb stone, then said quietly, "You were wrong, Uncle Ross," and she drew the revolver.

Blued steel chuckled deep in its mechanical belly as her thumb hauled the hammer back, then the cool mountain air was shattered for a moment at the sound of a full-house .44 driving a cast-lead slug into the sod a foot from the base of the tomb stone.

The cheerleader reloaded the spent round, set the hammer down on an empty chamber, holstered.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled and then laughed, throwing her arms wide, and with them, the green-and-white pom-pom shakers cheerleaders use:  she was in her old cheerleading skirt and sweater, knee socks and saddle shoes that she'd worn when she was briefly a high school cheerleader there in Firelands, back before she'd left for the Marines.

Her laugh – she'd thrown her head back, her teeth white and even, her expression that of a happy schoolgirl – brought smiles from her fellow lawmen and from spectators alike, for it was a regular event, this competition, this shooting match, and for today's match, Sheriff Willamina Keller wore the revolver she'd worn in her days in high school – though admittedly, she never wore it to school, or in school! – she wore a .44 Magnum in a basket-stamped Jordan holster, a holster that, like the revolver, was very well taken care of, but that showed definite signs of having been worn.

The local paper covered their competitions like they covered high school sports, and the Sheriff made sure the stages were interesting, both for the shooters, and for the audience:  she made extensive use of knockdowns, of steel plates, of surprise targets that released a helium balloon, or a rolling clay pigeon, for she knew targets that did something have a far greater shooter and spectator appeal, and when her chief deputy stepped up to the line and proceeded to sledgehammer three knockdowns to the ground with the issue shotgun, when the third one hit the ground and Barrents set the shotgun down on the upturned wire spool table and started to power to the next shooting-point, there was a loud BOOOM and a cloud of blue chalk-dust gouted up from what looked like an old coffee can, and audience and spectators alike cheered, for only that morning, the man's wife told him she was expecting, and the Sheriff arranged for this very public reveal (and for blue bubblegum cigars to be handed out liberally afterward!)

Chief Deputy Barrents found out later his wife had known for some time but she wanted to wait until she knew the sex before she told him, and the black-eyed, hard-muscled Navajo laughed and picked his wife up and rubbed noses with her like a delighted Esquimaux – but that's a private moment, let us not intrude further.

After the match, after prizes were handed out, Willamina – who competed right with them, who ran the assault course with an issue rifle, an issue shotgun, with the issue gunbelt and sidearm snugged about her lean waist – after she'd taken off the duty belt and belted on her dear old .44 in its old faithful gunbelt and holster – with cheeks reddened by the chill air and exertion, announced to the crowd, and for chief editor, broom pusher, photographer and editor Bruce Jones' benefit – "When I was a cheerleader, I told my Uncle Ross I was getting a .44 and I planned to handload for it."  She smiled, turned, one hand on the plow handle of her experienced three-screw flattop.  "He sneered that a .44 would knock me on my pretty little backside."

She looked downrange, where Barrents was standing with his legs apart, one boot on either side of a log butt:  he swung a double bit ax, drove it into the log, then bent and tapped a nail in one side, then the other, and finally set a clay pigeon on each nail and against the blade, then trotted, grinning, up to the Sheriff.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, smiling and wearing her high school cheerleader's skirt and sweater and saddle shoes, thanked Barrents, then she drew her .44 revolver – smoothly, confidently, with pale eyes and a smile that was no longer that of a sweet schoolgirl, but more that of a wolf about to tear into something she really, really wanted to destroy –

The .44 bucked, the report of a full-house .44 sharp and harsh in the high mountain air, and both clay pigeons exploded as the cast bullet split itself on the ax blade and blew both clay birds to dust.

Crowd and lawmen alike cheered, and the sports page had a close-up of the moment they were powdered, and with it, Chief Editor, Broom Pusher, Photographer and Reporter Bruce Jones ran a photo of the Firelands Cheerleading Squad in their brief uniforms and thick-soled sneakers, all smiling, all standing with one knee bent and quartering toward the camera, and in their middle, a somewhat older cheerleader with much shorter hair, and in a vintage cheerleader outfit and saddle shoes.

Oh, did I mention ...

The caption read, "Firelands Ladies' Pistol Team," and under it, "Cheerleader with a Gun."

All but one of the pretty young ladies held high-grade .22 target pistols, every one of them smiling prettily and every one of them exercising proper trigger discipline.

All but one held high-grade .22 target pistols, for in addition to physically disciplining themselves, they found the discipline of punching very precise holes in the very center of their targets to be useful in disciplining the rest of their selves.

They all held high grade .22 target pistols, all but the one in the middle, the only one in a skirted cheerleader's outfit.

She held a .44 revolver, and wore a brown basket-stamped gunbelt and a brown-basket Jordan holster with her uniform, and she looked perfectly natural wearing it.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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63. FOR JOY

Sheriff Willamina Keller's tears were silent.

She sat erect, facing forward, unmoving, not raising a gloved hand to press her tight-gripped kerchief to her wet cheek.

Her son sat beside her, on one side; her husband, on the other: all were in suits, it was evident they were attired for the occasion, and it was equally evident the Sheriff's emotion ran deep.

Very deep.

At one point she drew in her bottom lip; even white teeth could be momentarily seen as she bit, not too hard, just hard enough to try – without success – to distract herself from her own tears.

Son and husband sat, stolid, impassive, each burning with the drive to protect this woman they loved, with the manly imperative to relieve her of whatever distressed her, but each respecting her right to feel as she damn well pleased, and they accepted that it pleased her to give this silent expression to something deep within her, something deep, and powerful enough to crowd water from her pale eyes.

It was not until they were in the Jeep and headed home, not until they'd left the performance behind, not until they'd returned home and sat down around the kitchen table the way they did when they knew something had to be said, that any uttered the first word.

Not a syllable had been uttered:  they'd risen, and exited, in silence: father and son settled their Stetsons on their heads:  flanking this pale eyed woman in the tailored suit dress and heels, it was evident that any who sought to trouble her would meet with the wrath of two man-sized guardians, and so none sought to interrupt their walk:  Willamina's eyes were wide, staring through the windshield, seeing something sensible only to her, and her men allowed her that privacy.

Coffee gurgled into heavy ceramic mugs, milk drizzled into each in turn, bread was sliced and stacked on a plate and placed on the table, and not until Richard took a slice and buttered it, not until he broke it in two and handed his wife half, did she speak.

"The Ninja," she started, and her voice caught, and she harrumphed and swallowed and tried again, "the Ninja were the most feared warriors of their time."

Linn reached for a slice of bread, buttered it slowly, carefully, his eyes on his mother, at least until he anointed the back of his left thumb with gut grease:  he scraped it off with the butter knife, wiped the remainder with the back of the bread, looked again at Willamina.

"They were fast and they were deadly," she continued, "but each was an artist – a painter, or a musician, a singer or a sculptor, and the most common art the Ninja practiced was flower arrangement."

She picked up the ceramic mug, took a tentative sip.

"When I was overseas I managed a side trip to Israel."

Father and son listened in silence, attentive to her every word.

"There was ... I remember a choir."

She raised her head, stared through the far wall, smiled a little.

"Tonight's performance was the "Miserie Mei, Deus," she whispered, "and thank you both for going with me."

"It's rare that you ask us to go with you," Linn said quietly.  "You can bet your bottom dollar we'd say yes!"

"Thank you," she whispered.  "The last time I heard that ..."
She raised her head, fresh tear tracks streaking brightly down her cheekbones.

Father and son waited patiently.

"It is a good memory," she finished in a husky voice, nodding a little, and then she took another sip of coffee, and smiled.

"Do you know" – she looked down at the table top – "do you know, at twelve noon, everything stops, and people pour into the street and there are a hundred, a thousand spontaneous circle dances."

She laughed a little.

"I have to admire a people who beat their plowshares into swords and drew a line in their desert said and said "Thus far, but no farther," and made it stick... and they still dance."

"I'm glad we went," Richard said.  "A little culture never hurt anyone."  He reached over, squeezed his wife's hand gently.  "I heard it first in the Washington Cathedral.  I think tonight's performance was better."

Willamina smiled, set her mug down, looked over at Linn.

"I understand there will be Irish dancers next month," she said.  "There will be selections from the Riverdance, and they'll be performing something special."

Linn's left eyebrow quirked up a little, then tented:  his father had the same habit, Willamina thought as she looked at her tall, pale-eyed progeny.

"They'll Irish hard-shoe to the Dubliners' Lord of the Dance."

Linn laughed.  "Now that'll be a treat!" he declared.  "You can take Old Susanna and give it to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and it'll come out like a hymn, but give the Old Rugged Cross to the Dubliners and you could square dance to it!"

"I thought you'd like it," she said quietly.

"Mama ..."  Linn's voice was quiet, insistent, and his mother looked at him the way she always did, and he knew she was listening with both ears.

"Mama, why the tears?"

She smiled sadly.

"The Ninja," she replied, as if that answered everything.

"I don't follow."

"The Ninja," Richard explained, cupping the warmth of his mug in both hands like something precious, "could weep at the sight of a beautiful maiden, or a glorious sunrise, or a flawless porcelain cup.  They wept for joy at seeing true beauty, and your mother has deep feelings for beauty of many kinds."

Linn saw his Mama draw in her bottom lip again, and he saw her nod, once, slowly.

"Some feelings run very deep," Richard said in his deep, soothing voice, and Willamina nodded again, and that was the last of the explanation either one offered.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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64. THE ROTTEN STRAWBERRY

 

Bonnie Lynne McKenna looked at her daughter with fear and with alarm.

Sarah's face had surpassed red: it was passing beyond dark scarlet and was verging on a shade of purple, and where Bonnie's eyes were wide with alarm, Sarah's eyes were narrowing, with tears starting at the corners: where Bonnie's hands went to her high stomach, the way a woman will when she sees one of her own in distress -- Sarah's hands were shaking as with a palsy.

Sarah looked at her Mama, then seized the woman's sleeve, half-stumbled, half-fell through the door and into the private back room where private dinners were held, where business deals were made, where the Ladies' Tea Society met -- Sarah fell back against the door, bent over, arms crossed over her belly, shaking with the ague, and most frightening of all ... she was absolutely, utterly, silent.

Bonnie went to her knees, took her daughter's wet face between glove hands:  "Sarah, sweets," she whispered, for she had no voice above a whisper, "what's wrong?"

Sarah looked up at her Mama, her teeth tight against her bottom lip, and then she pitched forward, collapsing to her own knees, clutching Bonnie with the desperation of a drowning man and a life-ring, and Bonnie felt the convulsions shaking the pretty young woman apart from the inside.

It took a stern self discipline but Sarah managed to release her Mama, to rock back on her heels, to look up and take a breath and place her palms on her thighs, and then she began to laugh -- she laughed, she snorted, she giggled, she gave up, seized a good handful of her skirt and balled it up against her face and surrendered all pretense of dignity, and howled her uncontrolled mirth and merriment as she rolled up into a fetal ball and fell over on her side, utterly, absolutely, completely consumed with utterly hysterical and completely uncontrolled, laughter.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller's pale eyes were half-lidded and sleepy-looking as he cracked the wax seal, unfolded the missive, read:  he smiled a little as he did; he re-read the note, and smiled a little more, and on his third reading of the regular, flowing script, he nodded, and Jacob raised one eyebrow to see it.

"I know that look, sir," he said.  "Something has pleased you."

"Yes something has," Linn said firmly, his normal reserve gone, here in the privacy of their little log fortress:  "a man I served with in the War is coming to visit" -- he turned, looked at the Regulator clock on the wall overhead -- "as a matter of fact, he should be just arriving by train."

"Shall we met him at the depot, sir?" Jacob asked, rising, and the Sheriff rose as well:  two men settled their Stetsons in place and the pale eyed old lawman considered for a long moment.

"No, Jacob," he said, "he wrote that he would meet us at the Silver Jewel."

"Yes, sir."

"Interesting fellow," the Sheriff said thoughtfully as the two men mounted, walked their horses across the street, dismounted.  "He was the nicest sort you'd ever want to meet, until the fight started, then Katy bar the door he became an absolute madman!"

Jacob considered this, remembering moments when his own father, in the heat of combat, certainly appeared less than sane and rational.

"Is he insane, sir?" Jacob asked bluntly.

His father laughed, rested his hand companionably on his tall, lean son's shoulder.  "Hardly, Jacob!" he declared happily.  "As a matter of fact he's a preacher now!"

The echoing whistle of The Lady Esther announced her approach to the depot, and both men looked toward the sound:  father and son turned, strode boldly up the steps to the board walk, and into the welcoming confines of their favorite saloon.

The Silver Jewel was both meeting-house, watering-hole, restaurant, hotel, and landmark, not necessarily in that order:  if it was to be known, it could be found out here; if it was to be sold, a buyer could be found here; if someone was to be met, why, this was the logical meeting-place, and Sheriff and Chief Deputy loafed comfortable against Mr. Baxter's burnished bar as Bonnie and Sarah swept in, all femininity and beauty and mischief, not necessarily in that order, either.

Both men greeted the ladies with a grave courtesy that was their trademark, and Bonnie would not have been surprised if they'd moved as one, to sweep up a feminine hand and kiss ladylike knuckles:  they'd done as much before, and sure enough, they did so again, and not half a minute later, with pleasantries barely begun between them, the door opened and a pleasant-looking man came in, hesitated at the hotel desk, and asked a question of Tillie, watching with a smile at the unfolding tableau:  she nodded to the Sheriff and his son, and Bonnie and Sarah took their leave of the men, and it was not long after that Sarah had an attack of the vapors, and was obliged to drag her astonished and alarmed Mama into the back room to keep from making a spectacle of herself.

The men were seated and happily conversing, on one side of the closed door, and on the other side, mother and daughter, muffling their shared merriment, for they'd remained long enough for the Sheriff and the new arrival to declare their delight in seeing one another again.

Sarah wiped her eyes, her face darkening again at the memory.

"But Mama, it's what he said," she giggled, dabbing at her nose with a dainty, lace-trimmed kerchief:  she looked at Bonnie, chewed her knuckle for a moment to try and gain a little decorum, then gave it up for a bad job.

"Mama, it was when that man greeted the Sheriff and said, 'Captain, this is the first time I've ever seen you in clothes!"

Bonnie's eyes widened with alarm, until she remembered the Sheriff' service during the War, and deduced that the visitor must have been a fellow soldier, and neither had seen the other in aught but uniform.

Like anything else, putting it in so many words makes it suddenly different, and Sarah repeated, "It's the first time I've seen you in clothes!" and she rolled over on her side again, making the approximate noises of a chicken laying a paving-brick, and Bonnie McKenna made a mental note to use the line on the Sheriff at some opportune time in the future, just to watch his ears turn scarlet.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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65.  "NICE SET OF POWDER HORNS ON THAT BEEF!"

 

Jacob Keller leaned against the rail fence, watching his newly purchased Texas longhorn bull.

Jacob's son Joseph stood beside his Pa, watching between the whitewashed rails.

The bull apparently did not have a very favorable opinion of Jacob.

Jacob, on the other hand, maintained a healthy respect for the longhorn.

He'd heard his own pale eyed father describe arena contests, out in California, a longhorn bull and a grizzly bear, and it was a toss-up as to which would come out the winner: most often, they both lost, though one generally lost more slowly than the other.

Jacob, on the other hand, was a curious man -- curious enough to purchase a genuine longhorn bull and have it freighted to his Colorado ranch, to see if he could raise a hardier variety of beef.

Longhorns were wild, longhorns were feral, longhorns were survivors; longhorns coped with Texas winters, and Jacob reasoned that if a beef could survive the blue northers that plagued the Texas plains, it could very likely handle a Colorado winter, and so he determined to find out.

Once, and only once, did Jacob try going into the pasture with the bull, and the bull rammed the fence post Jacob half-vaulted, half-climbed to get away from the oncoming beef and its two yards of sharp, pointed powder horns:  the bull backed away from good cedar, solid and well-set, shook his head a little -- which was almost comical, given a six foot spread of horn, it was more like he wagged his head -- and then trotted away.

Jacob spoke to his son and he and young Joseph walked back toward the house -- or at least Jacob walked back toward the house, and it wasn't until he kicked the dust off his boots and stepped up onto the neatly fitted, newly painted porch boards, that he realized ...

Joseph wasn't with him.

Jacob turned, puzzled, about the time his front door opened, and Annette smiled a little, then looked beyond her husband.

Jacob's heart fell to about boot top level when he saw his wife's eyes widen.

He turned, starting into a sprint before he even saw what was happening.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled at the Easterner.

He was a polite enough sort, a reporter by trade, traveling to San Francisco on some business or another: he'd stopped at the Silver Jewel for a drink, stayed for a meal, and found himself in a most pleasant conversation with a remarkably pretty, pale eyed young woman in a fashionable gown -- something he certainly did not expect, not here in the mountains, not in this great desert between the islands of known civilization!

The attention of an attractive, younger woman is a pleasant thing for any man: the attention of an attractive, younger woman who paid very close attention to one's words, without fawning or offering unladylike attention, is likewise a pleasing thing, and so this Easterner found himself describe his work, how he established a "beat" with the local big-city departments, how he gained the confidence of key officers, of detectives, of attorneys and judges and men of influence, all to get his stories, all to keep his readers informed (and the newspaper selling well!)

He looked around the comfortable, masculine interior of the tin-ceilinged saloon, looked at the little stage, with its heavy red velvet curtains drawn back and tied with tassel-ended, braided gold cords:  he turned to the mahogany bar and the neatly-mustachioed man polishing its gleaming surface, and looked at the elk antlers above, an impressively magnificent spread of fighting hardware.

"That is not the first set," the young woman explained in a pleasantly modulated voice:  "that was taken by my brother Jacob, and the first set hangs over his mantel."

"I see," the reporter said.  

"There is another set of antlers," the young woman continued, thumb under her chin, gloved finger tapping her cheekbone thoughtfully:  "I doubt if you've looked at the locomotive, but there is a set of elk antlers mounted just under the headlamp."

The reporter blinked, turned his head a little, frowning as he did:  he looked back, surprised.

"Why ... yes I did," he admitted.  "I remember reading The Lady Esther on the side of the cab, in gold leaf, and ... I remember seeing the spray of roses, tied with a ribbon, and then I looked more closely at the train and saw the roses on each car."

"You see more than most men," the pretty young woman said, lowering her long lashes and thanking the serving-girl who placed the tea in front of her.

"There was ... yes, there was a set of antlers on the engine."

"The engineer was told not to blow his whistle if a bull elk was on the tracks."

"Not to ... but why not?"  the reporter asked, honestly surprised.

"With the approach of the locomotive, the bull would move ... but the whistle was ..."

She smiled quietly, looking down at her tea again.

"Have you ever heard an elk bugling, sir?"

"No," he admitted.  "No, I ... I never have."

"Would you like to?"

 

Joseph laughed as he reached through the planks, little pink fingers stretching out toward the bull.

The bull, curious, sniffed at the little wiggling fingers; the longhorn watched, ears swinging, as a little boy happily scaled the fence, reached over, then half-jumped, half-fell.

Jacob's heart contracted palpably, almost painfully, in his chest, he leaned forward into a run, his hand reaching for the walnut handle of his left hand Colt.

 

Of all things to discover, the reporter was very definitely not expecting to find himself astride a placid old mare, following a pretty young woman in an attractively-tailored riding dress and astride an absolutely huge, utterly black mare with a ribbon-tied mane and feather-furred feet:  they climbed a twisting path, ascending steadily, climbing a ridge, climbing a long slope, finally climbing to a meadow.

The woman drew up; the reporter's mare stopped, head hanging patiently, and the great black mare knelt, allowing the young woman to dismount easily.

The reporter swung awkwardly down, hopped a little on one foot as he twisted his townie shoe out of the stirrup:  he didn't know what to do with the reins, but the mare didn't seem to be going anywhere, so he just dropped the reins.

The young woman turned, put a gloved finger to her lips, picked up her skirts, skipped ahead.

The reporter scrambled to follow, until the woman stopped, raised her palm parallel to the ground, motioned him down.

They squatted, duck walked for several yards, then to his surprise the fashionably dressed young woman proned out, worked her way forward on elbows and belly.

She looked back, smiled a little, withdrew a gutta-percha tube from somewhere around her waist.

He'd never heard an elk bugle, he'd never seen nor heard an elk call used before, and he had certainly never seen a bull elk in the wild, and when he slithered up beside the pretty young woman who was busy coaxing choppy, whistling, throat-pulsing noises from the tube, her absolutely positively did not expect to see Wapiti charge out of the brush on the opposite side of the mile-wide field, neck bulging and head swinging, looking for a rival, an answering choppy, whistling, throat-pulsing challenge shivering the air as he did.

The reporter felt every last hair on the back of his neck stand straight up.

Sarah Lynne McKenna looked over at the townie, this stranger, frozen and mouth-open astonished as he watched the lowering sun shoot its long, red rays through the steam from the bull elk's open mouth.

She reached over, laid a hand on his, returned her elk call to its hidden pocket in her midsection:  they lay and watched as the sun touched the high peaks beyond, and as the prancing, circling, bugling elk strutted and challenged and finally turned and stalked away, the two rose and dusted themselves off.

They rode back in silence, at least until they were within sight of Firelands again.

"I spoke of the train whistle," Sarah said without preamble as she rode beside the reporter.

He looked over at her, curious.

"If you blow the steam whistle, the elk thinks it's a challenge and he'll charge the locomotive."

"I see."

They rode for a little distance, and finally the reporter asked, "I take it ... in the collision ... it was not the engine that came out in second place?"

Sarah smiled.

"No, sir," she agreed.  "It was not the engine."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller put a booted foot up on the bottom rail, considered the Texas longhorn pacing across Jacob's pasture.

"Last week," Jacob explained, "Joseph decided he wanted to pet the bull."

The pale eyed Sheriff looked at his son, raised an eyebrow.

"Next thing I knew, he'd climbed the fence and he was inside with that Texas man killer."

The Sheriff nodded slowly, looked back out the pasture at the laughing little boy happily astride the wild longhorn's neck.

"He'll let Joseph do anything with him.  He'll climb all over him, walk under him, he'll pick up a hoof like he's checking for horseshoes and Old Bull lets him."

The Sheriff nodded slowly, watched as little Joseph laughed and pointed toward his Grampa and his Pa, watched as the big bull came pacing over toward them.

Joseph laughed, slid off the bull's shoulder, landed flat footed, patted the bull happily and chirped, "Bye, Boocaffie!" and the bull lowered his nose, snuffed loudly at the giggling little boy's belly.

"Boocaffie?"  Linn asked, and Joseph laughed quietly.

"He's too young to frame his words aright," he explained.  "He's trying to say bull calf."

"Ah."

The Sheriff reached through the fence, rubbed the longhorn's nose thoughtfully.

"Nice set of powder horns," was his only other comment.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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66. AND THERE ARE CHILDREN

 

Sheriff Linn Keller, Firelands County, Colorado, leaned against the post holding the roof over the board walk in front of the Sheriff's office.

Coffee rippled and steamed in the tin cup he held; his gaze was across the street -- a little to the right, the Silver Jewel, and a faint trickle of piano music as the doors opened, then shut: his gaze drifted down hill, past the Municipal Building and then the schoolhouse, and an observer might have seen his eyes tighten a little at the corners at the sight of children, outside, at play.

There was just such a watcher, a physician, leaning against the same boardwalk post as the Sheriff:  where the lawman's shoulder occupied the eastern exposure, the healer's shoulder resided against its western face:  he, too, held a steaming tin cup of coffee, and he turn his own gaze from his old and pale eyed friend's visage, to the laughing, shouting, squealing children at their energetic play.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller, Second Martian District -- renamed by its inhabitants, Firelands, ostensibly for the nearby and very extinct volcano, but actually because they considered themselves pioneers -- smiled as she too held a steaming mug of something hot and black, something they called coffee, unless they were inclined to use uncomplimentary or even profane adjectives with which to malign the vile brew.

The Sheriff watched the surprisingly tall children at play: Mars' lighter gravity allowed a greater height at a younger age, and all were markedly taller than their Earther norm.

Marnie leaned against the recycled-plastic, 3-D-printed door frame:  it was identical to every other doorframe in the Colony, and every door would interchange with every other door, and every last one of them rubbed high up in the same spot, and every one of them had been either soaped or oiled to keep it from an annoying chatter.

She felt more than heard a familiar warmth behind her: she knew hands would descend upon her shoulders, and they did, and Dr. John Greenlees Jr. began to rub, and then knead, the pale eyed Sheriff's shoulders.

"Mmmm," she purred, "I'll give you a week to stop that!"

 

"Vile stuff," Sheriff Linn Keller complained, tossing the contents of his tin cup into the dirt street:  never one to buck a winning hand, Dr. John Greenlees toss the contents of his own cup into the dirt.

Each man turned, set his empty on a shelf on the outside wall of the Sheriff's office.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller dumped the contents of her recycled-plastic, 3-D-printed mug into the nearest recyclo, dropped the cup in after it, frowned a little as she did.

Dr. John Greenlees Jr, her husband, very carefully did not laugh at his wife's expression.

He knew why she looked disappointed.

She'd told him the recyclos should make some kind of a sound when they digested something -- a blurp, a grint, a hiccup even -- but liquid, solid, metal, plastic, whatever went in, was accepted in a shocking, absolute silence, and for some reason, he knew, that spooked his pale-eyed wife.

Sheriff Marnie Keller smiled as the younger children charged her; she squatted to receive their charge, dispensing hugs quickly, vigorously, laughing as she did:  she wanted to make sure their children regarded the Law as a real person, as someone they knew, hopefully someone they liked and didn't want to disappoint:  she sat, cross legged, and the children plopped to the floor, cross legged as well, fanned out in front of her, bright-eyed at the prospect of having the Sheriff tell them a story.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller reached in a coat pocket and almost smiled.

Dr. Greenlees smiled, just a little.

"Marbles?"

"Yep."

"You're going to lose again."

"Nope."  Linn looked at his old and dear friend, mischief in his pale eyes.  "They're going to win."

"And they'll win all your marbles."

"Not all of 'em."  He withdrew his hand from the pocket.  "I'm not due over there until noon.  How about some decent coffee?"

"Thought you'd never ask."

 

It took stern address to the Earthside bureaucracy to get their recyclos reprogrammed to where they would make decent coffee.

Earthside promised action, Earthside pledged, placated, promised, stalled and delayed ... as usual.

It was, as a matter of fact, a young radiographer who figured out how to bypass the safeties and change a few critical parameters in the program:  his first try resulted in the recyclo swallowing its own guts -- which, he admitted later, scared the blue Hell out of him, because it was theoretically possible to program one to swallow itself and keep swallowing, which could theoretically cause a black hole, which was the entire reason the tamper proof safeties were built in.

The radiographer's second try was far more successful that his first:  he was able to manufacture another recyclo to replace the one he'd inadvertently destroyed (something that was theoretically not possible, but like he'd told the Sheriff, he wasn't interested in the impossible) -- and then he made the very first decent mug of coffee that was ever brewed on Mars.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller rubbed his chin as he studied the finger-drawn circle.

"Knuckle down!" came the youthful challenge, and the Sheriff nodded thoughtfully, reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a prized, polished-agate shooter, held it up between thumb and forefinger.

"This one," he said, "feels lucky."

He tossed it up in the air, caught it, cocked it behind a bent thumb, set his knuckles down in the dirt.

A flick of the weather tanned thumb, the sharp click of glass colliding with glass.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller raised her eyebrows and looked around.

"What story would you like to hear?" she asked innocently.

The doorway she'd occupied earlier was crowded with three or four more souls, all watching, for their children were the pride of the entire colony:  each child might have two parents, but they had many, many aunts and uncles, and every last one of them took a fierce joy in beholding "Their Martians" growing and learning, and they especially delighted in the Sheriff sitting among them, telling them a story, or reading from their own, locally printed books -- real books, not glowing screens.

"Snowflake!" a dozen young throats cried, and Sheriff Willamina Keller nodded.

"Snowflake it is!" she declared, then brought her hands up to just shy of shoulder high, opened her fingers quickly, dramatically.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller knew he was watched by more than just his young competitors, and he did not care.

He was enjoying himself, shooting marbles with schoolboys like he was a schoolboy again himself.

He did not intentionally throw the game; no, he was outmatched when he started, and he knew it, but it pleased him to compete against these schoolboys, knowing full well they would very likely beat him:  they shouted, they laughed, and the Sheriff relaxed, and smiled with them.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller said, "Snowflake was big and Snowflake was black and shining, and Snowflake had what kind of feet?"

"Fuzzy feet!" the children shouted in chorus.

"Right you are!"  the Sheriff declared, emphasizing her words with a poke of her finger.  "And what magic did Snowflake have?"

"Snowflake could fly!" they shouted, and a mountain fiddler punched her husband in the shoulder:  Marnie's ear drew a little, pulling back as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger, knowing the fist belonged to a dear friend and distant relative of hers, knowing the shoulder she'd just slugged belonged to her husband, a blond haired, blue eyed Teutonic fighter pilot recruited for this Mars project, a man with a rearing black mare embossed into his flight suit.

A mare with fuzzy feet.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller sauntered into the Silver Jewel, his coat pocket considerably lighter than when he'd begun.

Mr. Baxter looked up from his perpetual burnishing of his beloved bar, raised an eyebrow.

"Well?  How'd it go?" he challenged, and the Sheriff laughed and propped a playground-dusted boot up on the polished brass foot rail.

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "they skinned me out of most of my marbles, but I can't say I lost today!"

Mr. Baxter nodded knowingly, remembering when his own son was young, remembering when he taught his son to whistle and to whittle and how to catch fish in a swift stream.

"No," the Sheriff repeated thoughtfully, accepting the beer Mr. Baxter slid across the mahogany to him, "I can't say I lost a'tall."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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67.  HOW DO I GET MYSELF INTO THESE THINGS?

 

I set my backside on the hard, varnished bench in the police station lobby.

I had business and the fellow behind the desk was about as friendly as a sun warmed hornet.

I presented myself and asked for a particular detective, I told him I was there on business and he flipped a thumb toward a bench and snarled, "Have a seat," and so I did.

I've dealt with men like that before -- small minded men with a small amount of authority, mad at the world and ready and very, very willing to stomp what little authority they have, all over anyone they possibly can.

Now I've r'ared up and put such small minded folk in their place, but I did not really feel like cloudin' up and rainin' all over him, so I set myself down and waited, my Stetson on my lap, my coat unbuttoned and draped to hide the hardware.

If this fellow behind the desk was of a mind to disregard my telling him I was a brother lawman, he'd likely object to my Colts as well, so no sense in upsettin' the poor fellow.

A young woman came in, distress on her face and stress in her carriage:  she glided uncertainly over to the desk and was received in just as warm and kind a manner as I myself was:  she came over, I was still on my feet, and I motioned to the bench, waiting until she was seated before returning my backside to the worn, slick-varnished wood.

The young woman wrung her hands, thrust her interlaced fingers together, yanked them apart, her hands made fists, snapped open:  she wiped at the corners of her eyes with her gloved fingers, and I could see her hands held a tremor:  perhaps, thought I, she is keeping them moving to hide their shaking.

Hiding it from me? I thought.  Or hiding it from herself?

She was clearly uncomfortable: she looked over at me, just a glance, and asked quickly, "Are you here to be arrested?" -- and then she looked distressed and "I'm sorry, that wasn't proper" fell from her near-bloodless lips.

"No ma'am," I said gently.  "I'm here to see a detective."

"So am I," she said huskily, as if her throat was suddenly tight:  she dropped her forehead into her forked thumb-and-forefinger, shook her head a little, raised her head and took a sudden breath, like a swimmer coming up for air.

"I suppose you will think me a weak and silly woman," she whispered, and I considered my reply carefully.

"Ma'am," said I, "I've known many women in my lifetime, and've known women being silly, and you most certainly are not.  As far as weak" -- I had to smile a little -- "my baby sister beats up on me with regularity."

I was hoping to throw enough of a surprise at her to startle her into a smile.

If I can do that, it generally yanks a troubled soul out of the hard grip of their distress, at least for a moment, and it worked:  she looked at me with surprise, probably wondering what kind of an Amazon my baby sister was, to beat up on a grown man of six feet and well broad across the shoulders.

"You're here to see a detective," I prompted.  "It must be a serious matter."

She nodded, swallowed.

"My fiancee has disappeared," she said softly, "and so has my jewelry."

I nodded.  "That is a serious matter."

"I thought he loved me."  She swallowed.  "I thought ..."
She fumbled for a kerchief, pulled a lacy, powder blue hankie from her sleeve, pressed it to her eyes, one, then the other.

"I take it your father was military."

She nodded, then looked up, surprised.

"Your kerchief," I smiled.  "Only the child of a military man habitually carries a kerchief in her sleeve."

A door opened, a step approached:  I rose, stuck out my hand.  "Mr. Blake," I greeted the grinning detective.  "This young woman is in need of your help."

"Jacob Keller," Blake boomed, "you should have told me you were here!"

I looked pointedly at the suddenly-uncomfortable satrap behind the counter, and Blake and I exchanged a knowing look:  I would not want to be the desk-sergeant in the next half hour.

"Ma'am," said I, turning a little, "your case is urgent and worthy of immediate attention.  Mr. Blake, I commend this young woman to your care, and with your permission, I'll return later to discuss my own business."

"Of course," Blake said, his face suddenly serious.  "Madam, I am very much at your service."

The young woman placed a gloved hand on my forearm.  "I do beg your pardon," she said, almost sadly:  "I don't normally burden a complete stranger with my little problems!"

I turned back my lapel to show the six point star.

"Ma'am," said I, "my father is Sheriff, and he taught me early that when a woman speaks, a man should listen.  Men and women both have confided matters that I will carry to my grave."  I reached down and laid a gentle hand on her fingers. "I do hope you find your fiancee."  I looked at Blake and added, "Peacefully, or otherwise."

I winked at my old friend, gave a half-bow to the lady, the way I'd seen my pale eyed father do any number of times, I turned and left; I was most of the way down the stairs when I heard a feminine wail of distress, and so I waited, and sure enough, she and Blake came down the stairs:  he had his arm firmly around her, and she was less walking beside him, as being numbly steered:  we hailed a cab for her, and Blake rode home with her, and I found out later the man was killed by a fellow thief, but in sight of a plainclothes officer, who killed the killer:  the woman's jewelry was all recovered, I was told, and I reported this to my father, over a good meal.

Pa listened patiently to my recounting of my little adventure.

It was of interest to him, for the man who was killed, absconding with his fiancee's jewels, was a man for whom I'd been searching, a man who'd swindled in our county: his career of preying upon the vulnerable was ended, and this was something the Sheriff had need to know -- if nothing else, so we would waste neither time, effort nor thought upon said skulking scoundrel.

Silence followed my report, and his declaration that I'd done good work, square work, such as he had orders to receive, and I smiled to hear the words, for they were ancient and familiar: after we'd done full justice to pie, and coffee afterwards, I happened to wonder aloud, which brought a sympathetic chuckle from the Grand Old Man:

"How do I get myself into these things?"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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68.  THE LADY ESTHER, REMEMBERED

 

The little girl had a bashful, little-girl's voice, but she had the expression of a curious child, and when her coffee-colored hand shot into the air, Sheriff Marnie Keller pointed to her and said "Yes, Deborah!"

Deborah came to her feet like a cork popping out of deep water:  "Shewiff," she said, and Marnie's heart smiled to hear it, for her own little girl's voice sounded much the same, "could you tell us again about The Lady Esther?"

Sheriff Marnie Keller looked down, chewed on her bottom lip, looked up:  she raised her left hand, palm up, and the teacher placed a remote in her palm.

"I think," she said, "that can be arranged."

 

Gracie Maxwell looked at the steam locomotive, breathing like a great, powerful beast, hissing and steaming and shining in the sun.

Gracie Maxwell was more than a child but not yet a woman, but she was  Maxwell of the Clan Maxwell, and she knew she was meant for more than the mountains.

She just didn't know quite what, not just yet.

Her longing, her yearning, her restlessness, more than her arm, lifted her bow as she tucked her curly back fiddle under her chin.

The engineer leaned out the starboard side of The Lady Esther's cab, grinning:  he knew Gracie's talent, and he knew she was going to sing to his engine, and he knew she was in for a treat.

Gracie drew a train whistle from her fiddle strings, and the engineer's hand rose to the polished brass whistle pull, then hesitated, not even closing his hand.

Let her sing, he thought.

My Lady sings to me every day.

 

The classroom shifted, twisted:  schoolchildren giggled, squealed, grabbed at the floor:  they were no longer in a classroom, they were suddenly in the Colorado mountains:  they stood, leaped to their feet, turned, expressions of delight on their young faces:  they were not strangers to the holographic projections, but their lives were lived within the confines of wall-sealed caverns, or rectangular, plastic, mechanically-produced rooms, of airlocks and atmosphere doors and no windows.

It was a delight to find themselves suddenly in the open air, with mountains in the distance, snow shining on their granite peaks, and in front of them, big and solid and gleaming, steaming and breathing like a great and powerful beast, a Baldwin steam locomotive, her brightwork polished and bright, a spray of roses painted on the side of her cab and tied with a red ribbon, and beneath this, in gilt, black-shadowed letters, the familiar legend, The Lady Esther.

They felt the heat radiating from her, they saw sparks fall from the firebox, they jumped and squealed as the engineer grinned out his port side window at them and reached for the polished brass whistle pull:  they held their ears and jumped up and down and squealed again as he gave the burnished whistle a quick pull, shooting a finger of steam into the chill air, shivering their very souls with the strength of her brass-throated voice.

 

The engineer knew his Lady as intimately as he knew his own wife:  he knew her voice, her moods, he knew how she moved, and as he leaned out the window and listened, he heard his beloved Lady singing through the curly backed fiddle played by the skinny, awkward mountain girl who was too shy to put two words together in front of a stranger.

He heard his Lady's whistle scream against granite cliffs, he heard her drivers thrusting powerfully against cast iron wheels, he heard her breathe and bark and labor against a grade, he heard her skipping on her tiptoes as she ran along a flat, momentum carrying her and her cars across the level under a neutral throttle.

 

The entire class fit into the steam locomotive's cab -- not in reality, but certainly in perception:  every schoolchild smelled the fire, felt heat from the boiler, saw water in the sight glass bob up and down:  they stepped to the side as the fireman opened the fire door, as he turned, thrust his flat bottom shovel into the coal behind them, in the open-front tender, as he turned and very precisely, very deliberately, placed his shovelful -- each child listened carefully as he explained, shutting the door as carefully as if it was his grandmother's parlor door -- that he placed his coal left-front, right-front, left-rear, right-rear, dead center -- and how he was constantly looking for cold spots, lumps, clinkers:  he reached past the observing child (again, to each child, it's as if they were the only one in the cab), opened his seat and showed a slab of meat, shining with grease.

"Bacon," he explained.  "A big slab of bacon.  If we neat a really hot fire, really fast, I toss that into the firebox and Katy bar the door!"

The engineer reached up, tugged the whistle-pull twice, opened the sanders, leaned his weight against the Johnson bar.

They felt The Lady Esther come to life under their feet.

She was alive, and she was starting to move.

 

The engineer considered for several long moments, then he swung down out of his cab, approached the skinny, shy, awkward mountain girl.

He took off his hickory stripe cap and said "Would you like to hear what she sounds like from inside?"

Gracie's eyes widened, her breath caught:  she'd wanted this for a very long time, but she'd honestly been too scared to ask.

She managed a hesitant nod.

"Come on in, then."

 

Each child felt as if he, or she, was the only other one in the cab with engineer and fireman:  one young face, every young face, stuck out the side of the cab, saw big cast iron drivers thrashing, saw ties starting to blur as she picked up speed:  they each felt her alive under their hands, under their feet, they felt the wind in their face, saw smoke blasting out of the diamond stack, heard the rhythm that only a steam locomotive can set.

 

Gracie Maxwell's head lifted and she smiled a little, for her quarters were near the classroom, and in spite of the dampening fields, she could feel the familiar rhythm of a steam locomotive on an easy run.

She stood, placed delicate fingertips against the plastic wall, smiled a secret smile, then she turned and opened her fiddle case and withdrew her curlyback fiddle.

Gracie Maxwell, one of the best helo pilots that ever drove a Super Stallion into salt spray off a carrier deck, tucked her fiddle under her chin.

Memory, more than her arm, lifted her bow to the strings.

Gracie Maxwell did not need a holoprojector to step into the cab of The Lady Esther, and as her fiddle sang a steam whistle's echo off sheer granite cliffs, she felt a Colorado locomotive, alive and powerful, waking up and moving under her feet.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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69.  LIAR

 

"Sir?"

The Sheriff looked at Jacob with that wise, quiet expression of his and raised an eyebrow.

Jacob thrust his jaw out thoughtfully, frowning a little as he considered his question one last time.

He'd discussed the matter with Parson Belden -- the man was their sky pilot, and Jacob remembered the Devil is the father of lies, and blooded warrior though he was, he wished to keep his scarred soul as free of stain as he could.

"Sir ... I am troubled that I've lied."

Linn leaned back in his chair a little:  it was his turn to consider his words before uttering them, for words are like a thrown knife:  once flung, they cannot be recalled, and they can do considerable damage when they arrive.

"Sometimes, Jacob," Linn said slowly, "we have to."

Jacob considered this, puzzling his eyebrows together as he stared at the floor and turned his hat in his hand.

"Have a set, Jacob.  Tell me what happened."

Jacob took a long breath, then looked squarely at his pale eyed father.

"Sir, you recall I helped get those boys to help when they rode over a bluff."

The Sheriff nodded slowly.  "I recall."

"Their horses were ruined, I shot 'em both, and a mercy it was."

Linn nodded again, slowly, considering the damage he'd seen: the shot would have been a mercy, after a fall of that distance, after the broken bones he'd observed.

"Sir, I told ..."

Jacob swallowed, tried again.

"Sir, I told him ... the boys' father ... I told him they were ..."

Linn waited patiently, knowing this was something Jacob had hidden from the general knowledge, perhaps even from himself.

"Sir, I told their father they ... gritted their teeth and ... I told him they were in considerable pain but they didn't whimper a single time."

Linn nodded again, for he knew the man Jacob spoke to; he knew this was a hard man, an exacting man who expected his boys to be hard as nails, in spite of their tender years.

"I reckon it's only because they were busted up pretty bad that he didn't beat 'em to death for killin' two good horses."

"That," Linn admitted, "is a good possibility."

"I lied, sir."

"I know."

Jacob looked up, surprised.

"The one boy was screaming like a girl and the other was weeping and calling for his Mama."

Jacob blinked, his mouth open:  he closed it and nodded, a quick jerk of his head.  "Yes, sir, exactly so."

"And you told the man they were stoic as Spartans."

"I did, sir."

"You did right."  Linn smiled with half his mouth.  "You kept him from beating them to death, and you gave him time to consider how hard he'd been on them."  Linn snorted.  "Hell, Jacob, I"ve lied more times than I can count.  I've told wives their husband was killed instantly and so fast he didn't have time to feel surprise, let alone the rock that fell on him from the cliff above, I've told mothers their son hit his head when he dove into deep water and it cold cocked him which is why he drowned and that he would not have been hurt or afraid when he went."

"I recall that one, sir."

"I know you do.  You swam out in that cold snowmelt and dove deep to get him."

"I had to, sir.  I know what it is to be a scared kid, and he was ... scared ... and I recall how his voice ... echoed ..."

Linn nodded.  "I still hear his voice too, Jacob.  Every time I go up there and I listen to water coming over that rock falls, I think I can hear him yet."

"Yes, sir."

Linn leaned forward, his forearms pressing against the edge of the desk.

"Jacob, we take care of our people, and if that means we lie to a mother so her mind is eased a little when tragedy comes across her threshold, when we tell a father his son was braver than any grown man could possibly be, we are giving them as much comfort as we can."  His lips pressed together and it was the lean older man with the iron grey mustache who frowned and nodded.

"God forgives us those lies, Jacob.  He has to."

 

Willamina stood, arms folded, frowning at the raw earth covering the grave.

She'd stayed after the box was lowered into the hole, she'd stayed after the last words were said, the last hands shaken, after the burial crew loaded up and drove away.

She stood with her arms crossed and her feet apart, staring at the mounded dirt, remembering.

The mother came to her and gripped her hands and whispered -- whispered, because grief would not let her voice out of her throat -- "Sheriff, you were there when my little girl died."
Willamina tilted her head a little, looked very directly into the grieving woman's tear-brimming eyes.

"Sheriff, what really happened?"

 

Willamina hit the brakes, hard, her Jeep skidding a little sideways as she locked up the Michelins.

Her hand snatched the grey GE microphone and she chanted into the grille, a crisp, brief summons:  there was no answering voice through the speaker mounted under the dash, and she tried again, then seized the red microphone, tried again.

Her eyes snapped up, to the car over on its top, two wheels still turning slowly -- she'd apparently arrived right after the accident -- she pulled out her cell phone, pale eyes glaring at the uncooperative screen.

"Damn," she whispered fiercely:  she stabbed the seat belt release, jumped out, ran up on the wreck, eyes busy, reading the signs -- the skid started here, left the road there, ran up the steep bank and rolled over, and final rest here --

Willamina dropped like she was doing push-ups, looked under --

Dammit, a convertible! she thought, then crab-walked closer.

A figure hung from the seat belt, upside down, head at an awkward angle --

Broken neck, Willamina thought, then she thrust a hand into a coat pocket, pulled out a small, powerful light, shot a beam under --

It was a girl, it was a girl Willamina knew --

Willamina saw her blink --

"Christie, can you hear me?"  Willamina shouted, and Christie managed a weak, "I can't ... I can't feel my body."

"We're going to get you out of there," Willamina said firmly.  "Don't go anywhere!"

She powered to her feet, ran back to her Jeep, praying she could raise someone on the radio in spite of her initial failure -- gasoline was pooling under the car and she knew how quickly, how easily gasoline vapors could detonate --

She seized the handle of her Jeep when it lit up.

Willamina's crossed arms squeezed tighter as she remembered, as she closed her eyes, as she heard the sound of a girl she knew, someone who'd been her paper girl, a child she watched grow up -- she remembered flipping the release on her dry-chem extinguisher, how she'd run back to do battle with the conflagration, how a two-and-a-half pounder was of as much use as a bladder full of second half coffee would have been.

Willamina remebered how the girl's mother turned away from the white-enamel coffin with pink trim, how she'd taken the Sheriff's hands, how she'd asked, "What really happened?" and the Sheriff replied, "She hit her head when the car went over and it knocked her unconscious.  She came to briefly" -- she squeezed the mother's hands -- "and her last words were of you."

Willamina released the grieving mother's hands and embraced her, staring at the coffin, remembering how the girl screamed "MOMMY MOMMY IT HURTS MOMMY MAKE IT STOP MOMMEEE --"

-- and then the screaming girl took a breath, and inhaled a river of living fire, and her screaming stopped.

Willamina stood at the grave, staring at the mounded earth, whispered, "I'm sorry."

She turned and walked slowly down the empty road, walking slowly on the packed gravel, until she came to her own family's section, and she stared at the ancient, double stone carved with roses, with the name of Old Pale Eyes on one side and his red headed wife's name on the other.

Willamina took a long breath and spoke to the carved stone.

"You told Jacob that God forgives us our lies," she said aloud.

She waited, listened, then snorted.

"What am I expecting?  A reply?" she said aloud, her voice puffing out in clouds of vapor on the cold air.

She turned and continued walking, unlocked her Jeep, climbed in:  she drew the seat belt across her, started the engine, reached for the shifter, froze.

A fresh-cut rose, petals soft and fragrant and spotted with dew, lay on the console just forward of her shift lever.

Willamina stared at it for a long moment, then looked through the windshield at her pale eyed ancestor's distant double stone.

"Thank you," she whispered, then picked up the grey GE microphone and keyed up.

"Firelands County S.O., this is Unit One, any traffic?"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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Posted (edited)

70.  DAMNED IF I CAN FIGURE THEM OUT!

 

Judge Donald Hostetler contemplated his freshly lighted cigar.

"You served with the Sheriff," Jacob said quietly.

The Judge nodded.  "Yes.  Yes, I did."  He took the stogie between yellowed teeth, puffed experimentally.

"Sir ..."  Jacob frowned, considered, and His Honor raised an eyebrow, peering through the fragrant blue cloud he'd just exhaled.

You hesitate just like your father, he thought.

"Sir, you were his superior officer."

His Honor took another drag on his rolled Cuban.

"I was."

"Sir ... did you ever ... hesitate?"

"Hesitate?"  The Judge's expression was carefully neutral, but Jacob could still see amusement in the dignified, white-haired jurist's eyes.  "No, Jacob ... no, I never hesitated."

Jacob nodded slowly.

"It is a maxim, Jacob, that a leader can be wrong, but he can never be in doubt, and I knew that."

"You made mistakes, sir?"

The Judge snorted, coughed, spat a fleck of tobacco from the tip of his tongue.

"You're damned right I made mistakes," he said harshly.  "I made mistakes that cost men's lives."  His voice was a little ragged, a little tight.  

"Yes, sir."

The Judge hesitated, then added in a quieter voice, "Except once ..." and his voice trailed off.

Jacob saw the man's expression go distant, as if he were looking far into the distance, and he knew if he kept quiet, the Judge's thoughts would carry him somewhere interesting, and his voice would likely narrate the voyage.

Jacob was right.

 

"Captain!" Major Hostetler called.

"Sir!"

The pale eyed Captain Keller drew up, his chestnut dancing as she always did, and the Major almost smiled, for the man made a fine figure astride this spirited mount.

"Captain, take your men over that ridge.  I have conflicting reports on enemy strength."

"Yes, sir!"  The Captain saluted, turned the mare, rode toward the command tent, addressed the bugler.

The Major knew he did not need to over-control his Captain: he'd proven himself an officer of uncommon skill and good sense, a man of utter fearlessness in battle: should the enemy be but lightly populated, the Major doubted not the Captain would handle the situation: if he were overmatched, he would not risk his men in a hopeless battle unless it was absolutely essential.

The Major watched the bugler's arm come up, heard the first sweet notes singing out on the morning air, and he heard a woman's voice.

"Your Honor?"

Surprised, the Major looked over, looked down.

A pretty young woman looked up at him, a young woman in a fine gown, her hair absolutely immaculate -- a treat for the eyes, he realized, but utterly, absolutely out of place here, in the middle of their encampment.

"Your Honor, you need to recall the Sheriff" -- she nodded to the Captain, then looked up at Major Hostetler -- "and you need to do it now!"

Surprised, the Major looked toward the Captain, then back to the pretty young woman at his stirrup, blinked.

She wasn't there.

Something seized him around the heart, something he hadn't felt for a very long time --

It was as if that pale eyed young woman reached up with a feminine hand and seized her cool, pale hand around his heart and squeezed --

The Major put two fingers to his lips, whistled, high and shrill, then spurred toward the Captain.

"CAPTAIN!  HOLD HARD, MAN!  STAND FAST!"

 

Jacob listened to the man's quiet words, saw the thoughtful, almost amused look he gave the tall, lean deputy.

"Sir," Jacob said, "who was that young woman?"

His Honor sat, slowly, leaned back in his chair, listened to it squeak a little as it always did.

"I'd never seen her before, Jacob," he said slowly, turning the cigar in yellow-stained fingers.  "I did see her, years later, and wearing the very same dress she wore that day."

Jacob raised an eyebrow, leaned forward, turned his head a little as if bringing a good ear to bear.  "Yes, sir?"

"It was the same pale eyed young woman," the Judge said, nodding, then he looked very directly at the pale eyed Jacob Keller.   "It was your sister, Sarah."

It was Jacob's turn to sit:  he lowered his skinny backside into the hard wooden chair, across the desk from the cigar-smoking Judge.

"Sir?"

"Oh, yes," the Judge nodded.  "Women are strange and wonderful creatures, Jacob, and I cannot explain them, and damned if I can understand them."

He leaned forward, reached down, flicked the white and fluffy ash into the polished brass spittoon.

"I tried to tell myself it was her mother, or a relative, or my imagination."  He puffed again, blew out a stream of smoke, watching it curl and stream across the room.

"No, Jacob.  It was our beloved Miss Sarah Lynne McKenna.  And I am sawed off and damned if I know how she appeared to me on a Tennessee battlefield well before she was born, and just in time to keep her father from being killed, for I was about to send him into an overwhelming force from which escape would have been impossible."

 

Richard was retired FBI, and Richard was the husband of the pale eyed Willamina Keller, and Richard was sitting on a bale of hay with their firstborn son, a lean young man who'd just started in his law enforcement training.

"We were going in on a raid," Richard said softly, "and I was getting ready to send a team to hit the door when a woman's voice spoke up.

"There wasn't supposed to be anyone there but us chickens" -- he chuckled -- "imagine a raid team, we're in vests and raid jackets and every man Jack of us with a shorty AR, and here's a woman in a tailored blue suit dress and heels, looking like she'd just stepped out of a fashion plate, telling me not to hit that door."

Linn turned his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Richard smiled, for his beloved Willamina did the same thing in such moments.

"Was it Mama, sir?" Linn asked softly, and Richard took a long breath, rubbed his face, leaned forward and planted his elbows on his knees.

"This was years before I met her," he said quietly.  "I was green as spring grass and that was my first raid and God only knows why they put me in charge, and if we'd hit that door ... it was trapped ... the whole house would have gone up."

"Drug house?"  Linn asked, and Richard shook his head.

"Trafficking.  They had a dozen girls in the basement.  If we'd have hit the door, there wouldn't have been enough of them left to scrape up with a putty knife."

"Nor the team?"
"Especially not the team," he snorted.  "They had charges under the walk and under the porch floorboards.  We'd have gone into low Earth orbit and burned up on re-entry."

"If you hadn't met her yet, sir ..."  Linn said slowly, frowning, rubbing his palms together slowly, "how ...?"

"I don't know," Richard admitted frankly.  "I do know your mother can see thing.  She knows ... things ... "

"Like the night you came home at four in the morning and she was sitting up with fresh coffee, and she said she knew you were coming?"

"That," Richard nodded.  "That, exactly.  And the other times it happened."

"Women," Linn said thoughtfully, "are strange and wonderful creatures, and I am sawed off and damned if I can figure them out."

Richard laughed and laid a companionable hand on his son's shoulder.

"Linn," he said heartily, "welcome to manhood, for nobody has women figured out!"

 

Gracie Maxwell came out of bed like a scalded cat.

Gracie Maxwell was a mountain fiddler, and Gracie Maxwell was a pilot and a good one, recruited from the US Navy for the Mars project, and Gracie Maxwell was the lawful wedded wife of another Mars pilot, a man who'd flown fighter with the Luftwaffe:  when husband and wife are pilots, with fighter pilot's reflexes, when one launches out of bed, the other does too.

Gracie took one long step toward the wall, hit the red panic button, then seized her flight suit:  husband and wife thrust into their custom fitted skinsuits, shrugged the heavy packs into position, ran two fingers up the front, sealing the suit from crotch to chin, then dropped visors into position:  the visors locked automatically, sealed, there was the quick hiss as internals activated, and they were breathing their own air.

The alarm sounded loud and harsh through the pod:  the colonists drilled for these moments, and their responses were automatic:  first get into the suits, then activate their shielding:  thick plates, sintered of powdery Martian soil, were hoist overhead, hydraulic arms whining with the effort, then wall panels were erected, locked into place:  one, and only one, reason for the panic alarm, existed, and that was an inbound meteor strike, either a single projectile, or a swarm, and close enough to put the colony's exposed buildings in jeopardy.

Secondary alarms howled as atmosphere screamed through ragged holes and into the near vacuum of the Martian environment:  damage control teams sprinted for the breaches, slid adhesive patches into place:  thanks to the alarm, a minimum of their precious air, and not one single life, was lost.

In the debrief, Sheriff Marnie Keller consulted her computer records and reports from damage control and engineering, from life sciences; she had no need to confer with her husband, for there was neither trauma, nor were there any instances of decompression sickness, thanks to the early alarm and swift application of airlock isolation and damage control's swift, effective repairs.

The last souls to be interviewed were the occupants of the sleeping quarters where the first alarm was initiated.

The Sheriff found husband and wife, still in their flight suits, but with the visors lifted, sitting in the mess, each of them silent, holding large mugs of steaming hot, locally synthesized coffee.

Marnie drew a large for herself and sat down with them, and none of them spoke for several minutes.

Marnie was content to wait:  she'd learned patience as a child, hunting with her pale eyed grandmother Willamina, back in the Colorado mountains, and she'd watched her pale eyed grandmother, the retired Sheriff, still a commissioned law enforcement officer, interrogating a subject:  Marnie watched, and learned, and saw that the patience of the hunter could be used to her advantage in extracting information, and so she tried to never be in a hurry when attempting to elicit information.

"Sheriff," Gracie said at length, "I'm the one that hit the alarm."

Marnie sipped her coffee, grateful that they'd fine tuned the taste:  the first attempts at synthesizing the essential brew had been ... well, to put it politely, less than successful:  the current version was quite good, and better than some she'd had in her only return trip back to Earth.

"Sheriff," Gracie said frankly, "you may want to consider my psych eval."

"How's that?"

"I saw your grandmother."

"Dream of the dead, hear from the living."

"No."  Marnie set her mug down, placed her hands flat on the printed-plastic tabletop, stared at something several hundred meters on the other side of the far wall.

"No, Sheriff, this was no dream."

"Go on."

"It was your grandmother.  It was Aunt Willamina."  Gracie swallowed hard, took a long breath, muttered "God, I hope this doesn't screw my pilot's certification!"

"Considering you just saved this part of the colony, I think you're pretty safe," Marnie said reassuringly.  "You can't argue with success."

"Yeah."  Gracie cleared her throat.  "Aunt Willamina woke me up and I could hear bugles and" -- she turned her head, looked beseechingly at the Sheriff --  "Marnie, it was the World War II bugle."

"Which one?"

"General Quarters.  I played it for you when we were watching old movies."

"I remember that one.  I played Boots and Saddles and To Arms."  Marnie and Gracie both laughed a little, for they both remembered discussing incorporating bugle calls into the colony's emergency-alert system, and decided against it.

"You heard General Quarters.  What happened then?"

"Aunt Willamina woke me.  She ... wasn't ... she was a Marine, Sheriff.  She was in camo BDUs and the Fritz helmet and she grabbed my arm and she was SCREAMING something about incoming artillery and I made for the alarm and she wan't there ..."

"Don't forget what you yelled," her husband said quietly, Nordic-blue eyes half-lidded, crew-cut blond hair bristling in an immaculate flattop:  "you fired out of bed at the top of your lungs."  He lowered his mug and smiled gently at the Sheriff.  "It is unusual to have your wife screaming "THIS IS NO DRILL!" as she hits the alarm with one hand and seizes her suit with the other."

Marnie laughed, nodded.

"My Grandmother, you say."

Gracie nodded, looking half sick.

"It was not a dream, Sheriff.  She was there."

Marnie reached over, gripped her cousin's hand.

"She saved my sorry butt.  Outside.  A miner was going to lance me with a shaped charge and Grandma was there."

Gracie's head snapped around like a gun turret and she regarded the Sheriff with a piercing look.

"She was just the way I remembered her.  Flannel shirt and vest, blue jeans and boots, that Stetson of hers with the turquoise band I couldn't bring with me -- weight restrictions, you understand -- anyway, she upped with a shotgun and drove both barrels into the miner's underarm.  Two charges of double-ought buck, cleaned his heart, both lungs and the great vessels."  Marnie's hand tightened reassuringly.  "She grabbed your arm.  She shot my attacker.  John buried the autopsy report and I conveniently deleted the evidence photos ... but I still have her fired shotgun shells."

"How ... how could that happen?"

Hans reached over, laid a warm, strong hand on his wife's.

"You women," he said gently in that deep, warm, accented voice she loved to hear, "you women are strange and wonderful creatures that no man can ever understand."

"He's right," Marnie laughed, then slugged back her coffee.  

She winked, rose, gripped Gracie's shoulder, smiled.

"Bottom line, we take care of our own."  

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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71.  A MEMORY, FROM THE WAR

 

His Honor the Judge chuckled a little, leaning back in his chair again, his amused gaze wandering across the ceiling.

"You're remembering again," Sarah said, smiling, and His Honor nodded, his expression softening into an almost-smile.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, a lovely young woman, wore a gown he'd seen before, not just here in Firelands, but years before she was born, in a moment the man could not explain:  he did not try to, he merely accepted the fact, and that made life easier.

Sometimes it's easier to ignore something, or to just accept it, than to try and figure it out, and this was one of those times.

"I'm remembering your father," he said quietly, and Sarah blinked, for she never knew if the man was referring to the Sheriff, whose pale eyes looked out both his firstborn son's skull, and her own, or whether he was referring to the honorable Rosenthal, brother to the scoundrel Rosenthal.

Sarah knew that, should she just remain patient, the man would generally indicate which one.

She was right.

As usual.

The Judge's teeth claimed the soggy end of his smoked-down stogie:  he removed it from his mouth, frowned at its end, then sighed and dropped its smoking carcass into the spitoon, where it died with a quiet sizzle.

"I don't know if my chaw caught fire," he lamented softly, "or my cigar was drowned out."

Sarah managed to give him an innocent expression:  she sat very properly, her back straight, hands in her lap, feet flat on the floor, giving the man those big lovely eyes of hers, a trick that had gotten hard and evasive men to talk on a number of occasions -- a very handy talent for an Agent of the Court, recruited by the white bearded jurist as an investigator, without knowing he was also getting an avenging angel, a sharp-edged weapon of Good and Light, and a deadly accurate, absolutely remorseless murderess in the bargain.

A murderess, he considered idly, for whom he was most grateful, and even more grateful that she labored on the side of the aforementioned Good and Light.

"I was remembering the War," he explained, "and how your father" -- he harrumphed, hawked, spat, wiped his mouth on a stained kerchief -- "your father was always an excellent horseman."

Sarah nodded, a little, blinked, listening closely.

"We were camped and a teamster came rolling in, a dusty man with a big laugh and a jug of blackstrap molasses he gave to the camp cook.  He handed a sergeant a flask with a wink -- "This'll keep the ice off yer tops'ls," said he, and damned if he didn't have the accent of a Glosterman."

"Glosterman?" Sarah echoed.

His Honor nodded.  "Massachusets.  Some of the most daring seamen God ever set out on salt water.  Had the proper rolling gait, too, like he was used to the deck of a ship."

Sarah's head turned a fraction, her eyes on the Judge, obviously listening intently, hanging onto the man's every word.

"He sat down with your father and I and we got to talking -- he was passing through, he head a delivery for another encampment up the road -- we discussed routes and bridges and good gravel bottom fords, we talked of home the way men will when they're nowhere near home, and somehow he steered the conversation onto that Kentucky ghost we'd been chasing."

"Ghost?"  Sarah echoed again, leaning forward a little, raising a hand under her chin, resting her jaw on a curled, gloved forefinger, the very image of rapt attention.

"Morgan.  General John Hunt Morgan.  Oh, he wasn't a general yet, but he rose to the rank, God bless the man."  He chuckled, considered the humidor, decided against another Cuban so soon after the first.  

"Your father was a Captain, and this teamster kept looking at him like he knew him, and he asked about the man's horse, and whether the McClellan saddle was as bloody uncomfortable as he'd heard, and that got a laugh and they got to talking, the two of them, and your father got around to complaining that the saddle wouldn't be nearly so unkind to his backside if he could but catch a ghost.  This fellow prompted him a couple of times and the Captain -- your Sheriff, now -- spoke of riding in pursuit of some of the best horsemen the world had ever seen, horsemen that British observers and Hungarian cavalry alike had described as the finest mounted men alive."  He smiled a little, the way a man will in reminisce.  "Men from Kentucky.  Men from the land where children learn to ride before they can walk, the land of John Hunt Morgan's birth, the land that gifted him with horseflesh and men to match, a leader and a cadre that rode like ghosts, like foxes, solid one moment and gone like a breath of smoke on a spring breeze the next."

"I see," Sarah murmured, her eyes wide, unblinking, her expression rapt, fascinated with the man's quiet words.

"Your father described chasing this Kentucky fox, he laughed and admitted he felt like a bumbling clubfoot in a burlap sack trying to catch the man, and this teamster, this Glosterman, gripped his shoulder in sympathy and wished us all a swift end to this damned war, and a swifter return to our homes."

His Honor took a long breath.

"The next day, just after twelve noon, there was a shout from one of the sentries.

"It seems a wrapped package was hung at eye level, right where the sentry walked his post, a package that was not there three minutes earlier, and it had the Captain's name on it.

"It was a bundle of cigars and a hand written note, thanking the Captain for his hospitality, and it was signed "your Kentucky ghost."

Sarah clapped her hands in delight and laughed delicately, her cheeks coloring with pleasure, her eyes darkening a little to a distinct light blue, and the Judge nodded.

"We'd entertained John Hunt Morgan ourselves, we'd shared our coffee and a meal with him, we'd laughed and relaxed a little ..."

The Judge shook his head, chucking ruefully.

"I understand he was in the habit of going into a Yankee camp like that, in some disguise or another ... he was truly masterful ... he could sound like anyone, walk like anyone, appear to be anything, and I doubt me not we were not the only ones to tell him things he wanted to know, and without realizing it!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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72.  MORNING ON THE STREET

 

Jacob Keller leaned against the porch post in front of the Silver Jewel Saloon, mug of beer in hand, charitably propping up the post so it would not fall over.

He'd walked down the board walk not long before, boot heels measured and slow, pale eyes half slitted under the Stetson brim, seeing everything, missing nothing, and managing to look as if he was utterly, absolutely disinterested with the world and all things therein.

He'd gone inside and had Mr. Baxter draw him a beer, and he'd gone outside with it, watching the street, the people: Firelands was not a large settlement, it was not heavily populated, but for this hour of the morning, it was awake and it was stretching and workin' men were already at labor.

A freight wagon rumbled by, steel-rimmed wheels grinding dust from the chill, packed dirt street.

Jacob's eyes rested momentarily on the cheerful harness-bells, three on each horse-collar, as the big-boned draft horses plodded industriously down the street:  he could, with but little use of his imagination, feel each separate steel-shod hoofbeat through his well-polished boots.

The teamsters apparently loaded the freight wagon not long before: men normally wore, at the very least, a vest over their shirt -- to appear in public wearing only a shirt would be tantamount to striding boldly down a 20th-century street in one's BVDs -- and Jacob could see, in the shirt material above their vest and below their nonexistent collars, the shirts were dark with man-sweat.

He smelled leather and axle grease and horse sweat, he smelled cigars and the beer he was savoring, he felt the morning's chill, he shifted his weight ever so slightly and felt the warp of one board under his right boot.

Two schoolboys had sprinted ahead of the freight wagon, on their way to their one room schoolhouse:  laughing, shouting, apparently for no more reason than to hear their youthful voices echo off the painted store fronts, they'd sailed past, laughing, and disappeared, and Jacob smiled.

He remembered moments, those few moments, when he too cast propriety to the Western winds, and ran as a child.

Jacob knew Mr. Baxter did not object to his taking one of the beer mugs out onto the board walk, and stand there, and have a cool one:  Jacob's father, the pale eyed Sheriff, owned the Silver Jewel -- all but Mr. Baxter's bar and the kitchen, and besides, Jacob was chief deputy, and good friends with Mr. Baxter to boot ... and when Jacob stood out front with a cold beer, why, there was generally a small increase in business, for a thirsty man will wish for surcease from his dry throat when he sees another partaking of such amber refreshment.

Jacob Keller listened when men talked, and he'd listened to Mick, who'd fought beside his father in that damned war, and like too many men, rose not a bit in rank afterward: he was still a Cavalry sergeant, and a good one, though his visits to Firelands were fewer these days:  still, Jacob remembered the man's wise counsel:

"Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lay down.  Eat when there's food, drink when there's beer and sleep when there's a chance."

Jacob considered the wisdom of the man's words, tilted his mug up and drained the last of his beer:  one final, comprehensive, lazy, disinterested look around, and he turned and walked back into the Silver Jewel.

Time to start the work day.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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73.  ANNA MAE, I NEED TO TALK

 

Linn Keller stretched and twisted a little, feeling the two pops in his lower back that always snapped with that sudden "OUCH that feels good!" -- something he'd inherited from his retired-FBI father, something he'd inherited from his pale eyed mother's side of the bloodline, or so he gathered from reading the Sheriff's journals his mother carefully preserved and had reprinted.

Linn lowered his arms, boot heels set shoulder width apart, his back to the depot wall:  it was a habit he'd acquired early in life, something spoken of by every last lawman he'd ever known, and he'd known many: he looked around, thumbs in his waistband, looking almost sleepy, looking as drowsy as a slow-blinking cat on a sunny windowsill.

Linn was seventeen, the Sheriff's firstborn, but not an only child: he had sisters, he had a younger brother, he generally had to ride herd on his younger siblings, for his mother expected him to keep them out of trouble, especially his sister.

This generally did not work out well.

His little sis was as hard headed, as contrary, as billy-be-damned independent as her mother, and it took a while for Willamina to realize her daughter was generally the cause of the situations for which she chastised her tall, lean-waisted son:  it was a sore on Linn's soul that his mother never once acknowledged that it was his sis at fault, and not he -- especially when he'd had to stand the gaff for things that went wrong.

They'd had words that morning.

Linn was as patient and as longsuffering as his father, but every man has his limits, and it is to his credit that -- at seventeen -- he did not let slip the reins on his surging temper at his mother's harsh and accusing words.

He'd instead turned to face her squarely, he'd stabbed the pitchfork's tines hard into the seasoned wood of the barn's clean-scraped deck, and he'd said firmly and in a tight voice, "Mother, I will stand to be corrected but I will not be chewed on" -- Willamina blinked in surprise, opened her mouth to utter an angry rebuttal, and he cut her off.

"I will stand good for my own mistakes but I am done being blamed for my Sis.  From now on she's on her own, I take no responsibility for her.  I am not riding herd on her, I will not let you or anyone else hold me responsible for her."

He wanted badly to raise his voice, but he did not:  his words were quietly uttered, but he did not blink, not once, as he spoke them.

Willamina took note of his body language.

He did not move, he did not shift into a boxer's stance, he did not move a single muscle: the pitchfork was tines-down, his white-knuckled grip was at the very end of its handle, affording him no leverage:  his face, though, his face was pale, all but the red spots on his cheeks stood out like ripe apples on a wax-work mask, and Willamina realized that she'd done something she swore she would never, ever do.

Her own mother used to do something similar, used to accuse Willamina, used to speak harsh words, assign harsh tasks, out of petty jealousy and drunken ill-temper:  Willamina was not one to drink, and she'd cultivated a professional reputation for absolute, unfailing fairness, but she realized as she saw her firstborn son's silent, umoving anger in his pale eyed glare, that she'd not been as fair with her own blood, as she'd been with the general public.

She realized she'd just done the very same thing to him, that her drunk of a mother had done to her.

Linn did something he'd never done before.

He spoke his mind, knowing full well he was standing up to his mother, to the Sheriff, to one of the two ultimate authorities in his life.

"Mother," he said quietly, "Scripture tells us to honor thy father and thy mother, and I have done that."

Willamina's eyes never left him; she, too stood very still -- though she was, out of habit, in a boxer's stance, one foot forward, feet shoulder width apart.

"It says in the next verse, 'Parents, provoke not thy children to anger.'"

Linn took a long breath.

"Remember it's your children that will pick your nursing home," he added, "and never raise your hands to your child, it leaves your groin exposed."

Linn's face was grave, stern, at least for five long seconds, then his expression cracked, his eyes tightened at the corners; his good nature could not be contained by youthful pride, and he grinned, and then he laughed.

Now he stood on the depot platform, considering his next move.

He knew parents and their young disagreed, he'd observed his peers in youthful pique storm off from an argument, he'd seen them burn several hundred miles' worth of rubber off their tires making an angry departure, he'd considered their actions, he'd listened to men discussing their young in such moments, and he knew that this was one of those choice moments in his life -- a moment when he had to choose his reaction, choose his response, choose how he would handle the raging anger in his soul.

It did not help that he knew part of what he felt, was due to the hormones dumped into his bloodstream by youthful man-glands:  he disliked being controlled by chemicals, especially chemicals his own body generated, chemicals over which he had no control.

I may not be able to control my glands, he thought, but I can control how I respond to them.

He smiled crookedly, for he knew good and well how seductive anger was, he knew how natural, how easy it was to flow with the rage that wanted to sweep him downstream in its dark flow.

He considered how he might get a better handle on what he was feeling, then he reached into his pocket, flipped open a cell phone, punched in a number.

A girl's voice answered.

"Anna Mae," he said, "I need to talk. How's for lunch?"

He looked over at his saddled Appaloosa gelding, smiled a little.

"I can be there in seven minutes."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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