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640. EXCITEMENT

Sarah Lynne McKenna waited until her huge black Snowflake-mare folded her legs, bellied down on the grassy slope, before dismounting: the Frisian was truly a huge horse, bigger than most men cared to ride, and to be honest, riding her shining black mare was like straddling the dining room table -- but Sarah had a sudden, intense love for this remarkable mount, and her feelings were very much reciprocated:  she had no need of reins nor bit, and the Frisian followed Sarah like a devoted dog.

Sarah walked toward the small gravestone, stopped, considered: beside it was a broader stone, her Papa's stone, and his wife Esther: there were several plots beside, reserved for family, she knew, and her eye traveled down the row to the last surveyed plot.

That, she knew, would be hers -- but not for a very long time.

She did not know quite how she knew, only that she did: she accepted this preternatural knowledge as she accepted that the Sheriff's wife Esther was a Wise Woman, and knew things that she couldn't possibly know.

Sarah had been beside her Mama as the ladies were quilting tea, when Esther soared to her feet, her head back, agony on her features and a strangled scream barely able to escape her throat, and she fell unconcious and dead pale: Sarah glanced at the big Regulator clock and silently noted the time, and found later in the day, this was the exact moment her Uncle Papa, the pale eyed Sheriff, was thrown from a horse and broke two ribs.

Sarah's eyes shifted left, toward the packed-stone roadway that ran under the tall cast-iron arch.

Hoofbeats.

Sarah stood, waiting, a pretty young woman with her hands very properly folded in her apron, as a young man on an Appaloosa stallion came over the rise, trotting briskly toward her: the lad was bare headed, he wore a flannel shirt but no vest, and he looked at her with an expression of recognition and of delight.

"Marneee!" he exclaimed, fairly leaping from the saddle:  he ran to her, slowed, stopped:  his expression went from delight to confusion:  "Marnie?" he asked, suddenly uncertain.

Sarah tilted her head a little, smiled:  "I'm sorry," she said, "I don't believe we've been introduced."

She extended a gloved hand.  "Sarah Lynne McKenna, and this is Snowflake."

"I know Snowflake, that's Gammaw's mare -- but -- you -- Marnie --"

Sarah laughed a little.  "Slow down," she smiled, "and let's know who you are, and who is this Marnie you apparently love so well!"

"Marnie's my big sis. She's Sheriff in Firelands on Mars an' my name is Joseph an' that's Pa's Apple-horse --"

"Stop, stop, stop, you're making me dizzy," Sarah said patiently, raising a gloved palm.  "Now what's this about Firelands-on-Mars, and what might your last name be?"

Joseph stopped, puffed out his chest proudly and declared, "Keller, Joseph L., son of Linn and Shelly Keller and Marnie is Sheriff of the Second Martian Colony that called themselves Firelands 'cause there's an extinct volcano behind 'em an' Marnie found some di'monts an' she's ..."

Joseph wound down and looked at Sarah with a confused expression.

"An' Marnie looks exactly like you!"

He turned suddenly:  "Hey, where's all the tombstones?"

"All ... the tombstones?"  It was Sarah's turn to be confused.

"Yeah, here's s'pos'ta be Jacob an' his wife an' their sons an' Old Pale Eyes -- hey, where's his picture, an' Miz Esther's" -- he thrust a bladed hand at the double stone -- he turned, ran down the row, ran clear to the end -- "This whole row is fam'ly, Sarah's here an' her stone's gone too!"

Sarah turned thrust her boot into the near stirrup:  Snowflake levered herself upright and they walked to the end of the row.

"Could you repeat that part," Sarah said carefully, "about this last missing tombstone?"

"That's one of my really great gammaws Sarah Lynne McKenna, she was killed in Germany an' Jacob's boy Joseph was kilt in the First World War an' Sarah taught him how to throw knives an' Gammaw an' Marnie look exactly alike an' they both look like --"

Joseph stopped, looked up at the pale eyed young woman on the tall black Frisian mare.

They spoke together, their voices unintentionally harmonizing as their lips framed the syllables at the same moment.

"Sarah.  Lynne.  McKenna."

Joseph frowned, reached up, scratched his head -- Sarah could not help but laugh, for her half-brother Jacob did exactly the same thing -- he frowned up at her, puzzled, then stepped forward, gripped her ankle, looked up, confused.

"I thought ghosts weren't solid!"

"Oh, so I'm a ghost, am I?" Sarah laughed.  "Maybe I'm real and you're a ghost from the future!"

Joseph slapped himself across the chest.  "Nope," he declared.  "I'm solid too."

"I see."

Each regarded the other for another moment; the young have a marvelous way of accepting the absurd, and Joseph shrugged.

"Joseph," Sarah said, "why did you come here today?"

"I wanned to tell Gammaw an' Old Pale Eyes Mama's gonna have twins!" he replied excitedly, looking up at her with that contagious little-boy grin of his. 

"Twins!"  Sarah's face shone with delight.  "That's wonderful!  How does she know?"

"She's big" -- Joseph held his hands out, as if encompassing a great belly -- "an' she found a rose in the crib with two ribbons on it, a blue and a pink!"

"I see."

Joseph looked around, suddenly uncomfortable.

"Maybe I oughta get back home."

Sarah nodded; Snowflake turned as Joseph curled his lip and whistled, as his Pa's Apple-horse came pacing up to them, shortened stirrups swinging.

"Is that your saddle?"  Sarah asked.

"Yeah," Joseph grinned, looking around:  he ran the few steps to a convenient mounting-block, jumped up on it:  Apple-horse sidled up to him and he got a well polished boot in the doghouse stirrup. "Pa had it made for me.  He said once I get longer legged, why, he'll unbuckle these stirrups an' buckle on a longer set he has ready an' waitin'!"

Sarah turned her Snowflake-mare a little more; the mare sidestepped up against the stallion, who laid his ears back and shook his head.

Sarah stuck out her hand.  "Joseph Keller," she said, "for a ghost, you're pretty solid!"

Joseph shook her black-gloved hand.  

"Sarah McKenna," he grinned, "I never met a ghost before!"

Sarah laughed.  "Don't be surprised if you see me again, and when you see your sister ... I'll leave it up to you whether you tell her about me or not."

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller smiled at the youthful voice of her little brother -- good Lord, he's getting tall! she thought -- and she blinked as the time-delayed image of young Joseph Keller looked at his camera with wide and excited eyes.

"Marnie, I saw Sarah McKenna!" he blurted by way of greeting:  "she rode Gammaw's big black Snowflake-horse and she looks just like you!  I went up to the graveyard to tell Gammaw an' Old Pale Eyes that Mom is havin' twins an' it's a boy and a girl an' I grabbed her ankle and she was solid an' ghosts ain't supposed to be solid an' she said maybe I was a ghost from the future an' I was pretty solid too" -- his words were all run together, the excited voice of a delighted little boy.

Dr. John Greenlees listened from across the room:  he'd been reading to their son, the boy on his lap, the doctor leaned back in his easy chair, and Marnie looked up at her husband and her son, the former almost asleep, the latter sound asleep, his head laid against his Pa's chest.

"Marnie, you look like Gammaw an' Sarah looks like you, if you have a little girl will she look like you too?"

It took just over fifteen minutes for Marnie to make her reply, for her message to streak through space, twist through relay buoys, to arrive at the family's computer:  husband, wife and son saw Marnie look a little to the side and smile, the quiet and knowing smile of a contented wife, then she looked back at the camera and said "Joseph, if I do have another little girl, she will very likely look exactly like me."

Joseph leaned back, satisfied: he looked to his right, at his Mama, looked to his left, at his Pa.

He nodded, once, firmly, as if something important were decided, and Linn laughed silently as their son pronounced judgement:

"Good!"

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641. NEVER DOES

Sheriff Linn Keller looked over at his son.

Jacob rode silently, as he usually did; his pale eyes were busy: occasionally he would stop, turn his stallion, study their back trail, just like his Pa: they took turns, ensuring both would know what their return path would look like, and to make sure they weren't being followed.

At the moment they were riding along a brushy hillside, following a path well older than either of them, very likely a path that existed when the first white man set foot on the Eastern Seaboard.

Linn considered his son, regarded his pale eyed progeny's height, realizing with a father's surprise (as all fathers do at one time or another) that his boy was getting to be man size tall.

It did not surprise Linn at all that his son assumed a man's role and did a man's work, in spite of his few years; Jacob came to him seasoned, tough, mature beyond his years, as if he'd been born a man grown, just in a young body.

Like his father, Jacob wore a black suit and a necktie; like his father, Jacob wore a pair of engraved Colt's revolvers under his unbuttoned coat; like his father, Jacob had a variety of other implements of ungentle persuasion elsewhere about his long tall carcass, and like his silent, watchful father, Jacob was just pretty damned good with each and every one of them.

Two days before, when riding fence on their back pasure, they'd dismounted, and they'd gotten to throwing knives: they would walk the fenceline, and when in throwing distance of the next fence post, they took turns in drawing back and throwing at the upcoming cedar upright.

Neither one of them missed.

Not once.

Twice, though, each of them misjudged the distance, and the knife slammed into the post side-on -- fortunately, the blade was vertically aligned, and so the knife fell point-down: each time, it stuck, point-deep in the hard dirt, and stood, and each time Linn quietly observed, "That stuck, that counts," to which Jacob expressed a quick flash of a grin, gone as fast as it appeared.

They were nearing home now, having ridden together on some business, and as usual, nothing went according to plan.

They'd run across a bounty hunter of their acquaintance, and spent probably an hour discussing matters; the man the bounty hunter pursued, the Sheriff had hanged not a week before, to the wolfer's disappointment: he'd shaken his head and laughed a little and allowed as that was his general fortune -- "My luck is never spectacularly good nor dismally bad," he'd said ruefully, "it just runs kind of consistently poor!" -- the bounty hunter promised to stop in and say howdy once he reached Firelands, but given this change in fortune, he said, he'd swing south and see if he couldn't find another of the outlaws he was after.

Linn sent him on his way with what he had, two sandwiches wrapped in a cloth, and some bacon; Jacob's face was impassive as the lawman gifted a man he'd known in better times, with the only meal he had: this was typical of the Grand Old Man, and Jacob knew his father somehow divined the bounty hunter hadn't eaten in better than two days, but was too proud to say so.

Jacob's Mama might be a Wise Woman, and a woman who could tell things just by lookin' at someone, but his pale eyed Pa had a knowin' way about him, without realizing it -- and giving this man the contents of his warbag, why, Jacob knew his Pa would tell him later the man hadn't eaten and he'd tell him how long it had been, and then he'd get a funny look on his face and he'd quit talkin', and Jacob knew this was because only then would his Pa realize --

There's no way he could have known that.

Jacob had seen it often enough he didn't question it; every time he'd seen it happen, he'd not remarked on it, and so it was that father and son resumed their ride back to Firelands.

It was a half hour before either spoke.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, Lightning was tellin' me there is some fancy kind of a machine that will relay telegraph information without a man havin' to listen to the traffic and write it down and then re-send it."

"Yes, Jacob, I reckon there is."

"He said they are working on a machine that will let a man read words once the telegraph comes off a paper tape."

Linn considered for a moment.  "I've heard of such."

"Sir, suppose every lawman's office had one. He could contact any other lawman's office and tell 'em to watch out for this fella or that lost child."

Linn considered this; their horses shifted, head-bobbing, pacing steadily, unhurriedly in the late morning sun.

"Could come in handy," Linn agreed.

Silence grew between them again.

Another half hour passed, then:

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, was I more foolish, I might think once we get rid of all the outlaws, we can relax and have no more work to do."

Jacob knew his Pa taken a long breath at that, for he'd heard his Pa express the idea, wishfully, in the past.

"Seems like we've run down and brought in quite a few of 'em."

"We have."

"Every lawman has locked up a considerable numbe of 'em."

"Yep."

"It don't seem like their numbers go down any."

"Nope," Linn agreed.

"Sir, do you reckon it'll ever ease up, that we'll get to the point that lawmen won't be needed?"

Linn leaned his head back, studied the sky.

Jacob looked over at his father's face and was surprised to see a deep sadness, something he usually kept well hidden.

"Never does end, Jacob," he finally said, bringing his eyes down to the trail ahead of them.  "Never does."

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642. IN THE DISTANCE, SORROW

 

If the Law was a mercator, a dividing line, then Lawmen rode on one side, and the Outlaw rode the other.

Like any line, it can be crossed: there were good men who went bad, there were bad men who became good, or at least less bad; there were those who crossed one way, then the other, as convenience dictated, and so it was that a particular bounty hunter, riding on the side of the Law, encountered a former partner in crime, who was riding on the other side of the line.

The two knew one another; the two came to trust one another, having shared certain ... adventures ... that are perhaps best chronicled elsewhere.

This pair rode together for a day, for two days; as such men will, they rode in watchful silence, speaking in quiet tones only when they drew up, only when they rested their mounts, only when they made camp for the night: such men are prone to an economy of speech, for lonely men in a lonely country come to love the loneliness, and besides, when a man is speaking, he is learning nothing -- and he is hearing nothing -- and a man who rides across the dividing line between the Law and the Lawless does not hear, and learn, is a man who can be amushed.

Conversation turned, as it always did, to places they'd been, to things they'd seen: water holes, natural tanks here there and yonder, for water was life, especially further south where the land was dry; higher up, in the mountain country, water was more plentiful, but the knowledge of which streams were sweetwater and which held the dreaded Beaver Fever was essential information:  no one wished to be debilitated by the miserable and crippling effects of bad water.

Talk turned to gambling-houses and drinking-houses and lawmen, to gamblers and women and horses, and the name that came up, here in the high mountains, was Old Pale Eyes.

One man knew him, one did not: the stranger to this high territory had heard tales, of course, and he listened when these tales were told, for information can mean a man's survival.

It was no surprise, therefore, when the stranger to these parts -- Roger, his name was -- when Roger asked the bounty hunter about a Sheriff he'd heard about, that Old Pale Eyes the other mentioned in passing.

"Tell me," Roger said quietly, hunkering by the small, smokeless fire, tin cup of strong coffee wrapped in his long, dirty fingers like it was something precious -- "tell me, does that pale eyed lawman talk polite?"

The bounty hunter blinked, surprised, and then smiled, just a little.

"Yes," he said.  "Yes he does."

"All the time?"

"Mostly," the bounty hunter nodded, "unless you get him irritated."

Coffee, hot, not quite scalding; the tin cup was unpleasantly warm against the lip, but the noisy slurp was satisfying:  a swallow, a frown.  "Damn."

The bounty hunter's eyebrows raised.  "Damn?"

His counterpart scowled over the rim of his steaming cup.  "Them polite ones is the ones that'll get you kilt."

"How's that?"

The stranger leaned his head back a little, frowning at the darkening sky.

"I heard one of them river boat gamblers talkin' about that."  He frowned into the depths of his mug. "He allowed as the deadliest men he knew had the most immaculate manners." 

He looked up, smiled a little as he did.

"Immaculate. Now ain't that just the fancy language."

"Yeah," the bounty hunter agreed. "I'm thinkin' the man's right."

"So that pale eyed lawman is a polite sort."

"Oh ya, he's polite an' he's good natured until he ain't, an' then Katie bar the door he's just plainly hell itself. He don't hesitate and he's fast, he's got the fastest hands ever did I see an' I don't just mean fast with a gun. I seen him step into a man an' take him by the throat an' have him fetched up off the floor an' pinned to the wall faster'n most men can sneeze an' good Lord his face got real pale an' tight stretched and 'twas fearful to watch!"  His voice lowered to a hoarse whisper as he spoke and his eyes were haunted with the memory. "I was standin' beside him when he did and I honestly did not see that hand of his move."

"Right hand or left hand?"

"Left."

"So he's a left handed man."

The bounty hunter snorted. "Think that and die," he said uncomfortably. "He's good left as right and just as fast right as left. I seen him drink beer with his left hand and with his right hand, I seen him reach down to catch a runnin' boy left handed an' I never seen him sign his name so I don't know what hand he writes with, an' in a fight, hell, flip a coin to see which hand he'll slap you with."

"Slap?" His head came up, his voice betrayed a discovery.

"Slap.  He does not punch. Hits harder'n a mule's hoof but he don't punch with his knuckles."

"Howinthehell's he hit them?"

The bounty hunter shrugged.  "Damfino," he admitted.  "He does an' he's fast an' he hits hard, but he likes to grab an' grapple an' he'd ruther fetch a man off his feet and slam him ag'in a wall and hold him there til the other fellow realizes he ain't goin' nowhere an' they come to some kind of an understandin'."

"Hmp."

"Unless he fetches out that knife of his."

"KNIFE?"
"You ain't heard? That man's pure pizen with a blade. I seen him cut a man hell west and crooked, so close in neither one could draw a gun an' damn if he didn't have that other fella sliced up to doll rags before he run that skinny sticker elbow deep up into his guts!"

"Naw, now, yo're pullin' my leg!"

"Well, maybe not clear up to his elbow by by God! when he pulled that knife out 'twas blood up over the hilt and well up his hand!"

"He likes gittin' in close."

"He does. Seems like he doesn't give a good damn whether he's kilt or not."

"Is the man married?"

"Oh hell yeah. That wife of his is a looker, too!"  The bounty hunter winked.  "Sharp woman, that, a lady clear through, but she's just as deadly as he is.  She likes swords."

"SWORDS!" The stranger's jaw sagged a little and he leaned back on his boot heels, nearly dropping back onto his backside.

"Ya, her an' that son of his -- the boy's tall as the old man and just as fast --"

"There's two of 'em?" the stranger asked faintly.

"Oh ya. Both of 'em is just as fast as t'other. His boy is man high and tough as twisted rawhide an' he's polite but he's reeeeeal quiet."

The stranger looked away, shivered: the bounty hunter fancied his compadre just lost some color from his face.

"That boy," he said cautiously.  "That boy o' his, he likes his Ma's swords?"

"Yep. They'll square off with blades in th' corral near by an' they'll jist plainly whip a web around one another swingin' them blades. I don't see how each one ain't cut t'other all up but neither of 'em comes out with a mark. I'd not want to face either of 'em with one them damned swords!"

"I don't think," the stranger whispered, "I'd be too healthy thereabouts."

"Hell, try Carbon Hill, it ain't too close an' their town Marshal died here not too long ago."

"Lead pizen?"

"Nah, the gallopin' crud of some kind, I dunno. Doc said he'd been sick for some long time an' nobody knowed it."

"They got a new marshal?"

"Yeah, but he ain't no great shakes.  Nothin' like Old Pale Eyes nor his boy."

"I heard Cripple ain't too bad."

"Lots of gold miners. Payday ain't bad, a man can make a decent livin' at cyards.  You still got them blue spectacles?"

"I got 'em."

"You might make a poke full on payday. I have."

The bounty hunter swirled the last skift of coffee, slung it and the grounds off to the side.

"That bedroll is callin' my name," he sighed.  

"Yeah.  Mine too."

They scattered the little fire, careful to kill it absolutely dead: both knew well the consequences of uncontrolled fire, and neither wished to cause one.

Two men stretched out under the stars, their horses drowsing nearby, and bright-hard stars seared holes in the heavens above them as a lonesome coyote sorrowed in the distance.

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643. THE SHERIFF FOLDS

Sheriff Marnie Keller smiled as she watched a rerun of a news broadcast.

The rerun was from several years before; she saw herself in the background, in her cheerleader's uniform, she saw her Gammaw, laughing, her head tilted a little the way she did when she was about to pull one off, and she saw the reporter from one of the Denver stations, switching from a hand held microphone to a body mic.

Willamina opened the blue plastic box and nodded her approval.

"Colt Woodsman, bull barrel," she smiled. "I like your taste!"

She picked up a magazine, pressed the button against the edge of the table and pushed the follower down: shining brass rounds whispered down the stamped steel, stacking neatly:  Willamina ran a solvent patch, a dry patch through the bore:  "Probably not necessary, but in my day the bore was oiled or maybe even greased."

She placed the stainless steel Colt .22 back in its case, nodded to Marnie, who skipped forward with a deck of cards.

Marnie stapled two of them to the target back, clipped five to the top of the rack, edge-on, ran back -- to the warm, masculine physician cuddled up against his wife, watching the rerun, it seemed his Marnie, cheerleader and high school girl, did not so much run, as she flowed: but then, he thought as his arm tightened around his wife's waist, he was kind of partial to her, and Marnie laid her warm hand over her husband's long, cool fingers.

They watched the screen as Sheriff Willamina ran the magazine into the stainless Colt's handle, ran her hand over the slide, cycled it and smiled:  "Let's see where she's looking."

Sheriff Willamina Keller extended her arm in the traditional, one-handed, tea-drinking stance.

Five measured, precisely spaced shots: she nodded, shifted her feet, moving a little to her right, no more than a couple of inches.

"Watch this," Marnie murmured, and Dr. John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, felt his wife's silent giggle.

Willamina fired five more times, the same cadence; the shoulder-mounted camera was behind her, following her as she moved: on replay, each edge-on card shivered, and then slowly -- slowly -- each card bent, and folded over.

They walked up to the target frame; the camera panned thre edge-on cards, folded over, hanging barely by a few fibers: it zoomed in on one as  the Sheriff's finger came into frame, as her voice narrated:

"These cards are a little bent. If I'd been shooting a bigger bullet, they would have each cut in two, but as it is, they cut along the belly and -- see here, this little web? The bullet wasn't wide enough to cut them clear in two, but it cut them mostly in two, and..."

As she spoke, the nearly transected card surrendered to the inevitable and slowly, slowly, bent and doubled over.

The camera zoomed out as Willamina turned and smiled, tapping the wooden target frame with a bent foreknuckle.

"I guess you could say," she smiled, "the Sheriff folds."

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Posted (edited)

644. A GOOD CHRISTIAN MAN

"Uncle Will?"

Chief Will Keller looked up, smiled a little with half his face: Marnie knew this meant he was relaxed, contented, doing something her enjoyed, and in the company of someone he enjoyed.

Will was hunched over a little.

He wore heavy leather welding gloves and a face hood, he wore old jeans and a flannel shirt and stained, worn brogans, and he carefully placed the six hole bullet mold against the spout of his bottom pour furnace and lifted the handle.

Uncle Will's moves were practiced, economical: Marnie quietly fed ingots into the pot, stirred and fluxed and skimmed as she always did when helping her Uncle Will mold bullets; the ventilation was good, there was adequate light -- they worked in a little shed out back, with fiberglass courrugated roofing that let in plenty of light, but diffused it pleasantly, if it's possible to have pleasant lighting in a ratty old backyard shed -- and Marnie waited until a good moment to speak her uncle's name.

Uncle Will cut off the hardened sprue, peeled it free and lowered the long scrap piece into the pot: he turned, lowered the bullet mold close to the five gallon bucket nearly full of water, dropped the hot bullets into their coldwater bath, where they fell to the folded towel at the bottom: he turned, closed the mold, slid the cutoff plate back into battery and started the cycle again.

"What is it, darlin'?" he asked, his voice hollow and funny sounding behind the clear plastic face shield.

"Uncle Will, how come you carry a revolver?"

"Instead of a fifty shot Wonderware?" Will grunted, dispensing lead and a wry grin: Marnie laughed silently, for her Uncle was given to rotten humor, and this backhanded reference to her Gammaw's choice of sidearms always tickled her.

"Marnie, I'm old," Will said, his hands busy: "I am an obsolete old geezer --" another half-dozen shining-silver bullets sizzeled into their tempering bath -- "and I like what works."  The mold tapped against the spout, gloved fingers lifted the handle:  "I can hit with my revolver, and when I hit, I hit hard."

Marnie nodded thoughtfully.  "Can't deny that," she agreed quietly.

"Do you recall our forensic analysis of the FBI's Miami shootout?"

Will's attention was on his work, otherwise he would have seen a look of intense interest cross his niece's face:  Marnie did indeed recall that study, held at the local police academy: it was the last time her Grampa Rich taught, right before he went home and died in his sleep:  Uncle Rich had been FBI, and he'd retired, and he never really talked much about what he did, which Uncle Will said meant he'd done quite a bit and he didn't like to talk about it -- or was not allowed to, which was a distinct possibility.

"I remember that seminar," she said, leaning forward, elbows on her knees: she'd like to have been sitting a little closer, the better to hear her soft-spoken Uncle, but she'd foolishly worn a skirt, and once -- once only -- she'd seen a lead explosion when her Uncle was casting: he'd not noticed an ingot had condensed water on it from sitting outside, an ingot that gathered morning dew, an ingot that caused a sudden silver-spray of searing-hot lead.

She'd been far enough back she hadn't gotten splattered, but Uncle Will's balding dome bore a thumbnail sized scar to this day from the moment: Marnie had no wish for her boot tops to act like  funnels in the event of another unexpected eruption.

"One agent carried a 9mm self loader," Will said.  "He carried the same brand and type ammunition I carried and I had full faith and confidence in it."  Another cascade of shining-silver bullets hissed into the water bath.  "The agent made what should have been a killin' shot.  The round went through the bad guy's arm and into his chest and it would have been a good shot" -- he stopped, looked very directly at Marnie -- "but it stopped one half inch short of what would have been a killin' shot."  

He shook his head, slid the mold back under the furnace.  "One half inch."

"So you carry a six shot revolver."

"I carry what works."  He looked into the pot, frowned.  "Good thing I've been scrounging, a six gang mold eats a lot of lead!"

"So does a Minnie-ball mold," Marnie agreed, reaching up to add two more ingots: she'd cast them herself, pouring molten, fluxed, skimmed lead into the candle-smoked, concave bottoms of a row of inverted beer cans.  "How are you set for lead, Uncle Will?"

"I was lucky enough to scrounge some wheel weights," he grunted.

"Lead wheel weights or those awful zinc things?"

Will chuckled, leaned back, cut the sprue and added it back into the pot.  

"Good Christian wheelweights," he declared stoutly, and Marnie laughed again.

"You sound like Fitz!" -- she smiled, she clapped her hands silently together, and Will chuckled, looked at her with one peaked eyebrow emphasizing his expression.

"Where do you think I stole it?"

 

Later, once his back had enough of sitting hunched over (and he had a gratifying supply of bullets molded up) -- after he and Marnie gathered their shining harvest and spread them carefully to dry on another thick, folded towel, careful not to beat them together, letting the sun evaporate their bathwater -- Will and Marnie went into the house and washed their hands:  Will changed out of his dedicated duds and took a quick shower (he wanted to be presentable for his niece, who always managed to look tidy -- he was of the opinion the girl could crawl down a manhole, through a mile long  culvert and come out looking like she'd just stepped out of a band box!) -- he emerged in a fresh shirt and clean jeans, polished boots and a delighted expression, for he walked right into a fragrant cloud of Coffee and Cinnamon Rolls, and he was reminded yet again why Marnie was an especially welcome guest under his roof.

Will shook his head:  "Dammit Marnie," he complained, "it's a shame you're young, I'm old and we're related! You'd make a man the very best wife!"

Marnie skipped around the table, came up on her toes and kissed her Uncle quickly on the cheek, patted his chest and gave him those big lovely eyes of hers and said softly, "Uncle Will, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me!"

They sat down and Will frowned at his plate.

Marnie waited, knowing full well what his next words would be.

Uncle Will said, clearly and distinctly, head bowed and hands in his lap: "Hello, plate!"

Marnie smiled:  it was an old joke between them, for Uncle Will once made reference to a man who spoke to his plate before he'd eat, and ever since -- at least when it was just the two of them -- he'd say "Hello, plate!" and then he and Marnie would share a look and a laugh, and they'd eat.

Will picked up his coffee, took a slurp:  it was black, hot and stout, just the way he liked it, and he sighed with honest pleasure.

"Good?" Marnie asked, biting down on a hot, fragrant cinnamon roll.

Will grunted again, swallowed.  "Good Christian coffee!" he declared, and Marnie nodded, trying hard to laugh, as she considered it bad luck to choke to death on half chewed cinnamon roll.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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645. I MUST BE GETTIN' OLD

Sheriff Linn Keller never moved.

He didn't have to.

The two ranch hands shifted uncomfortably, unable to meet the Sheriff's pale eyed glare.

"It's the truth," one of the pair mumbled, which told the Sheriff it was anything but.

"You two," he said quietly, "thought it would be funny to turn my big stallion in Shorty's lot with that little bitty trick pony."

"Hell, they're the same color," one mumbled, looking away, wishing he were anywhere else.

"And you said that cute little trick rider tried witchin' you."

"Yeah, Sheriff, she said somethin' an' I couldn't move an' she set three coins around ma boot heel an' I was afraid she's goin' t' magic me or somethin' --"

"And you couldn't move."

"Naw, Sheriff, ya gotta believe me, she's --"

The Sheriff's good left hand shot out like a striking viper, as did his right: he seized both young men by their shirt fronts, what little could be seized above their tight buttoned vests: the pale eyed lawman's hands tightened, twisted, and two troublemaking rowdies found themselves a foot off the ground or better, drawn in close to those eyes, those God help us pale eyes that burned freezing holes in a man's soul --

"Was that stallion to mount that little bitty mare it'd hurt her," the Sheriff said quietly -- he didn't raise his voice, he didn't have to, but he was not happy and they knew it, for his voice came from about twenty feet underground and sounded like it was grindin' boulders together to get up out of a deep resonant well to do it -- "an' was that big stallion to sire on that tiny little trick pony, carryin' the foal would bust her open from the inside."

"We didn't mean no harm, honest," one whined, and "We was just funnin'," the other, at least until the Sheriff hoist them up, pressed them to arm's length overhead:  he hauled them up to full extension, locked his elbows, and it was honestly a toss-up whether his cold-eyed glare held them there, or main strength in those lean and rangy arms.

The pair was honestly afraid he was going to bang their heads together -- he'd done that, they'd seen him do it -- or whether he was going to drown one, then the other, in a horse trough, they'd seen him do that -- or hell, he might beat 'em like rag dolls against the nearest fence post, they'd heard of him doin' that -- but the Sheriff just held them, and finally he spoke.

"You two," he said, "have over stayed your welcome.  You do not set foot in my town, ever again, or I'll let her witch you both to death.  Last time she did, them coins she set around a man's boot heel turned into a shackle an' a chain and he got drug down through the mountain into Hell itself and he's still screamin', I can hear him on a quiet night."  The Sheriff lowered them until they were eye level with him, their toes barely clearing the dirt, still off the ground.

"Or maybe she won't witch you.  Maybe she'll bend you over a fence rail and switch you both and I'll let her.  Now get the hell out of my town."

He never raised his voice.

He didn't commit any acts of violence or deadly persuasion upon them.

He did terrify them to the core of their living souls.

Two ranch hands galloped away from Firelands, and for the rest of their lives, neither set foot in town again.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna's legs were straight out in front of her: her toes were pointed, she wore tights and black slippers, and she was halfway up a twenty foot rope.

Back straight, legs straight, toes pointed, jaw locked, she looked up, her expression grim, determined:  she climbed steadily, using only the strength of her arms, her shoulders:  she gained the rafters, slapped the chafff-dusty beam, then descended the rope, deliberately, careful not to slip -- she knew if she did, it would burn the flesh from her palms: she'd helped treat men with rope burned hands before, and she knew from their profane testimonies that the condition was beyond painful.

Sarah stopped exactly her own height from the ground.

Her fingers ached, her forearms burned, her shoulders were calling her unkind names, her belly was sore from maintaining her extended legs' horizontal alignment, but she'd done it, she'd done it! -- she lowered her legs, touched the big round barn's sawdust covered floor, stood.

Daciana laughed with delight, clapping her hands:  she hugged Sarah, quickly, impulsively, kissed her on both cheeks: the trick rider's eyes were shining with pride and she was bouncing on her toes like an excited little girl:  the two had their hands on each other's shoulders, and they both began jumping up and down, laughing.

Ever since Sarah saw Daciana climb her thick hemp exercise-rope and slap the rafter overhead, Sarah determined to do the same: Daciana wore a circus leotard and Sarah saw how the trick rider's muscles were taut, flat, developed, but not bulged like men's muscles get: no, Daciana still looked feminine, she still looked diminutive and dainty, but she also had an unmistakable confidence and a smooth, athletic coordination Sarah wished to present.

Daciana saw that Sarah had much of it already.

Daciana came to Firelands two years before, a trick rider in a traveling circus that imploded thanks to the outrages of its greedy, crooked and obscene manager: the strong man and one of the clowns honestly beat the man to death, which he more than deserved, and the body was disposed of in the darkness -- Daciana departed with them, and there were rumors of witch-magic in getting rid of the corpse -- as none had been paid in some time, they tore apart the manager's van, found the monies he'd withheld, split the funds fairly: most left with the circus train and moved on, determined to join with another they'd heard of, adding their animals and their skills to an established troupe:  Daciana rode down the main street of Firelands in her gaudiest leotard, disporting herself most impressively on the shining, silver-mounted trick rider's saddle:  she did handstands, somersaults, she posed, the poised, she pirouetted, all while her diminutive Buttercup-horse galloped steadily, smoothly, beneath her, down the main street and back:  she usually did this to advertise the circus was in town, but today, today she celebrated being away from the monster that killed her parents and wished to despoil her.

Daciana chose to stay in this frontier town, this mountain village, not knowing exactly why, only that she must, and it was not until a fine carriage came up the street, with a beautiful and well dressed woman driving, not until the young woman beside her stood, and lifted her chin, and opened her eyes wide, did Daciana know why she had to remain.

The young woman -- as fashionably dressed as her Mama -- had the same eyes as Daciana's grandmere.

The two met in front of the Mercantile: Daciana dismounted by virtue of rolling off Buttercup's backside like a living rubber ball, landing as gracefully as any circus acrobat and striking a dramatic pose:  Sarah Lynne McKenna clapped her gloved hands with delight, leaped from the boardwalk to the street below: the two extended their hands and Sarah said "My name is Sarah Lynne McKenna, and you are a magnificent rider!" -- to which Daciana replied, "I am -- call me Daciana, my name is long and hard to pronounce," and the two giggled like schoolgirls.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned against a post holding up the roof over the boardwalk in front of the Sheriff's office.

Jacob Keller leaned against the other side:  both wore black suits and polished boots, black Stetsons and carefully neutral expressions.

"Y'see that trick rider that come through yesterday?"

"I did, sir."

"Pretty little pony she's ridin'."

"It is, sir."

"Pretty girl."

"If you say so, sir."

Silence for a time, then:

"Jacob, do you recall seein' that fella come through here wearin' spectacles?"

"Drummer, sir, two weeks ago."

"That's the one."

"I recall him, sir."

"He had an eye for the ladies."

"Yes, sir?"

"Oh, ya."  The Sheriff's expression was solemn, but his eyes were tightening at the corners, the way they did when he was ready to pull someone's leg.  "He told me that was his second pair of spectacles that year.  Said he got so busy watchin' the girls in San Frisco, why, he wore a pair plumb out from lookin' through 'em so much."

"I reckon a man could, sir."

Neither set of pale eyed faces betrayed the quiet, shared amusement they both felt, but both pair of pale eyes tightened some at the corners.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, I recall that pair of trouble makers turned your stallion into Shorty's corral with that little trick pony."

"Yes, Jacob, they did."

"Heard tell you had a talk with 'em."

The Sheriff nodded slowly, replied slowly.  "Yes, Jacob, that's so."

"I believe, sir," Jacob said just as slowly, "you were ... effective."

Sheriff Linn Keller smiled, ever so slightly, and shook his head.

"Time was, Jacob, I'd have banged their heads together and dunked 'em both in the nearest horse trough."

"Yes, sir?"

The Sheriff took a long breath, sighed it out.

"I told 'em I was disappointed in them both and invited them to leave and to not return."

"That was all, sir?"

"Yes, Jacob.  That was all."

Silence again, for nearly a full minute, then the Sheriff shook his head.

"All I did was talk to 'em.  I must be gettin' old."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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646. NEVER AGAIN

Sheriff Linn Keller molded himself against his wife's backside, ran his arms around her and bent down to nibble the side of her neck.

Shelly hummed and laid a hand on his, overlapped above her growing belly.

"Watch it, fella," she purred, "that's how I got this way in the first place!"

"Just wanted you to know you're the most beautiful woman in the world," he mumbled into the side of her neck.

He felt her silent giggle: she twisted in his arms, turned, ran her arms around his neck, rubbed his nose with hers.

"Mister Keller?"

"Yes, Mrs. Keller?"

"You are full of second hand horse feed."

"The Pope is Catholic, what else is news?"

Her reply was stifled by her husband's lips on hers:  eyes closed, she savored the moment, then laid her chin over his shoulder as he held her, there in the warmth and comfort of their spotless, tidy kitchen.

"I heard you had a bad one today."

"If you mean I had to recruit from the Unorganized Militia to lift the patient cot --"

"You know what I mean."

Shelly drew back, gave him a knowing look.

"I know what you mean."

"Are you okay?"

Shelly looked away, frowned: she pulled free of her husband, went over to the counter, seized a cinnamon roll from a plate of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, stuffed a good percentage of it in her mouth.

"Shtarvin'," she mumbled as Linn poured them both a mug of coffee.

"I'd reckon so," Linn said quietly.  "Angela must be a healthy child, you're not gaining much weight."

Shelly took the offered coffee, took a noisy slurp, swallowed, swallowed again.  "Well thank you, Mr. Diplomat!"

Linn shrugged.  "Facts if facts, darlin', you're still a fine figure of a woman and we know you don't have tapeworms."

"You want I should knock you into the middle of next week?"

"Wednesday or Thursday?"

Shelly sighed:  Linn drew out a chair, his wife sat, sagged.

Linn picked up the cinnamon rolls, set them on the table:  Shelly pushed them away, shaking her head.

"There's Colby cheese in the fridge," she said. "Sliced.  Right hand drawer."

Linn got into the shining white enamel appliance, opened the drawer, dug around a little and came up with the bagged yellow snack.

He sat down, reached for a cinnamon roll as his wife folded a round slice of Colby and took a ravished bite.

"We just had supper," she complained, "and I'm still hungry!"

"That'll pass," Linn murmured.  "It always does."

Shelly frowned, laid the cheese down, took another pull from her coffee mug.  "One bite's all I want."

Linn planted his elbows on the table, wrapped one hand over the other fist, rested his chin on his knuckles.

"Now what about that squad run?"
Shelly blinked, frowned, looked at her husband, sitting patiently as he always did, waiting for her reply, in her own good time.

He's never once hurried me, she thought, remembering other women complaining about their husbands' pushing them into a statement or a conclusion.

He'll nudge me, one time, and then let it go.

"Do you know why I became a paramedic?" Shelly asked, her head tilted a little.

"You didn't want to become a nurse like your Mama wanted you to, you were a rebellious young woman who wanted to do something and shove it in your Mama's face."

"Besides that."

"No idea."

Shelly sighed, stared into her half empty mug.

"I was visiting someone in Cambridge," she said slowly.  "North Eighth street near the cemetery. I'd bought a .22 pistol from someone, it was on Tell and Sell" -- she smiled -- "tells you how long ago that's been!"

Linn had absolutely no idea what Tell and Sell was, but he waited, knowing his wife would eventually get to her point.

"I had the pistol in a paper sack. I didn't want to conceal it, I didn't have a gun case for it and that kept it out of the panicky public's eye. I was walking back toward my friend's apartment and I saw a little girl playing with a ball in her front yard.  It bounced away from her and she ran after it."

Linn's stomach tightened up and fell a foot as his imagination ran ahead of his wife's quiet words.

"She ran right out in front of a big Mama Buick.  The Europeans call 'em an American barge.  Little old bluehair driving."

Shelly raised her mug, took another sip.

"I watched it hit her.  Nothing I could do.  I was too far away.  The woman saw the ball and nailed the brakes and it was too late."

"Oh, no," Linn murmured:  he, too, had hard memories, and this one sounded way too familiar.

"I watched that little girl run over," she said, her voice faint, her eyes distant as she stared into the viewscreen of her coffee's shimmering surface.  "The old woman's reflexes were good, her brakes were good, she tried to stop and ..."
She swallowed, looked up at her husband.

"I have never felt so helpless in all my life," she whispered hoarsely, as if her throat was suddenly dry.

"That's why I became a paramedic, Linn.  That's why.  I felt utterly helpless.  I didn't even have a First Aid card.  I had nothing!

Her voice was harsh, self-accusing.

"When I got home, I made some calls and the next day I signed up for paramedic training."

She raised her coffee, took a slow swallow, her eyes staring at something several miles past the far wall she wasn't seeing.

"Never again, Linn.  I will never be that helpless." 

Her voice hardened, as did her expression.

"Never again!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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647. THE LADIES' APPEARANCES

Successsive generations of pale eyed men were utterly convinced that their women were remarkable, perhaps even magical, creatures.

Successive generations of men who were chosen by pale eyed women (in spite of what the men thought, it was never the other way around!) were, in like wise, utterly convinced that their pale eyed women were truly remarkable, and quite probably magical.

None of the women, pale eyed or otherwise, did anything at all to dissuade this notion.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna visited the theatre as often as she could: as a child, with the help of foundations and cosmetics, she modeled her mother's fashionable creations for the Denver buyers, for buyers who came in from the Coast, for the women who wished to be first with Parisian fashions: those exemplars of style were in the form of china dolls, dressed in said styles, shipped across the Atlantic, then by specially commissioned express trains to Denver: it was the green-eyed Esther Keller, a giantess of business and commerce who started with a bankrupt short line and turned it into a profitable freight-ore-and-passenger hauler, who arranged the necessary passage for these precious pieces; it was Bonnie McKenna, rancher's wife and then forced harlot, then once again respectable, thanks to a short-tempered, pale-eyed Sheriff -- it was Bonnie McKenna who took the Sheriff's gift of a newly-built structure, newly-arrived Singer sewing machines, newly-hired women whose skills with fabric were already known -- to scale up those china-doll exemplars.

Bonnie's use of her daughter as her chief model was, at first, an economy move:  Sarah was a child, and in spite of foundations and powders and face paint and fashion, Sarah was still child sized, and it took less material for those dresses she modeled, those dresses for which the buyers clamored, than it would take for the full-sized examples, on a grown woman: the difference in the amount of cloth used, was not great, but it was an indicator to the Sheriff, her chief investor, that he'd chosen wisely, and so it was that Bonnie McKenna, too, became a scion of business, of profit, of commerce: the Sheriff saw his investment in this remarkable woman grow, and become profitable for him, until such time as he turned over full ownership to her, as he turned over full ownership of the renamed Z&W Railroad to his own beautiful bride.

Sarah Lynne McKenna grew as children always do: with every trip to Denver, and more trips she made on her own, she gained the confidence of the theatre folk, of those thespians who trod the boards, who sang, who danced, who entertained: only a very few were well regarded by polite society, the rest being regarded as fan-dancers, or perhaps folk of easy virtue, and not respected by "good people."

Sarah, on the other hand, saw the good in them, and proved a quick study: she learned from them, learned the art of the quick-change -- which was most beneficial when modeling her Mama's fashions -- she learned the use of makeup, far better than her mother's efforts, she learned how to change her appearance: when a wizened old woman wandered off the train onto the Firelands depot, an old woman with wrinkled skin and thin, grey hair, none suspected a girl of but twelve years hid beneath the worn dress and wrinkles; when a young jockey, all riding-silks and high boots and tight-fitted cap, won at the county fair, none suspected the young jockey wore a riding corset, and left the fair with a pocketful of winnings, in a fashionable McKenna gown, and when their beloved schoolteacher, Miss Sarah, in a severe grey dress with her hair pulled up in a walnut on top of her head, relieved a schoolboy of a set of castanets he'd purloined from who-knows-where, it was with honest surprise that the entire little one-room school stopped their lessons and stared openly as Miss Sarah raised one hand dramatically overhead, the other behind her back, and proceeded to dance a brief but flawless, heel-hammering Mexican seduction.

Fads and fashion can sweep a community small or large: there was a sudden demand for castanets, dance lessons were held, wives and lovers did their best to secuce husbands (and others) with their skill ... not excepting the green-eyed Miz Esther, wife of the pale eyed Sheriff, and the aforenamed Bonnie McKenna, whose skill at the art grew and was truly remarkable.

 

"I know that look," Dr. John Greenlees murmured as he eased his lean, bony backside into the spun-plastic chair in their quarters.

Sheriff Marnie Keller frowned at her computer screen, one finger across her upper lip like a pink mustache:  she made notes with a stylus on her electronic pad, scrolled through information, read:  Dr. John waited patiently for his wife to come up for air -- which she did, abruptly, as she always did --

"I'm sorry, dearest, what was your question again?"

Dr. John laughed quietly.  "I was afraid I'd have to strap a two-by-four across your backside to keep you from falling in!"

Marnie leaned back, rubbed her eyes, sighed, stretched.

"You've been at that for some hours now."

"I know."  She looked at the lower corner of her computer screen, frowned at the time.

"I'd better get some sleep."

"It would be a good idea."

"How's the baby?"
"Fed and changed, sound asleep, vitals are good, skin tone and pulse ox nominal, bowel and bladder function --"

Marnie lowered her head a little, raised an eyebrow, mock-glared at him:  he grinned like the schoolboy she'd fallen in love with.

Marnie's faked pique melted like dry ice in the hot sun:  she tilted her head and smiled.

"John," she admitted, "I'd like to seduce you."

"Marnie," John replied, "I'd like that."

"Can I make an appointment?  I'm kinda tired right now."

"We'll make it happen, never fear, dear heart."

"I do have a surprise for you."

"Oh?"

Marnie rose, paced over to her husband, silent on sock feet:  she took his hand, they withdrew to their bed.

"I got a box today."

"I saw there'd been a delivery."

"A set of genuine Mexican castanuelas."

"Really!"  John's voice was little more than a whisper as he slid under the soft flannel sheets.

"Now I'll have to go shoe shopping," Marnie sighed.  "If I'm going to seduce my husband by dancing with castanets ... I have the proper lobstertail gown, but I'd look silly dancing a fandango in red cowboy boots!"

Dr. John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, ran an arm under his wife, an arm over his wife, pulled her over on top of him:  he held her, feeling her warmth, her life:  he whispered, "Dearest, you could wear a potato sack and you would look just fine!"

 

 

 

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648. CATFIGHT!

Marnie roared up out of bed, left hand driving up to seize the overhanging windpipe: her other hand, hard-gripped around a wire-wound knife's handle, drove up, hard, with full intent to start between the soft ribs and come out just behind the collarbone.

Marnie's hand closed about the throat under that face, that damned face! --

Marnie's convulsed leap took her over the foot of her bed and most of the covers with her -- she came to full wakefulness in mid-air, landed on all fours, then came up on the balls of her feet --

turning --

snarling, hands bladed, fingers curved a little, circling, looking for that hated enemy --

Dr. John Greenlees mumbled something, rolled up on his side, curled up a little.

Marnie took a quick breath, blew it out:  she seized the blanket, still settling to the floor:  a snap, a spin, the flannel sheet and then the quilt settled down on her somnolent husband.

Marnie went to the baby's crib, reached in, felt drowsy warmth and peaceful life: satisfied her child was safe, that the electronic guardians at the foot of the bed were awake and functioning -- in the event of a decompression, a force field would snap into existence around the baby's bed, automated measures would tend the child for however long was necessary --

Marnie turned, quickly, a dancer's turn, on the balls of her feet:  she was still ready to rip someone's throat out, and someone provoked her --

She stopped, pale eyes busy.

It was night.

She was in her own bedroom, she was still on Mars, she was still Sheriff, there were no alarms, there were no enemies present ...

What the hell just happened?

She went to the sink, splashed cold, fresh-tasting, one-hundred-percent recycled water on her face, breathed one-hundred-percent recycled air: thanks to technologies gifted them by the Confederacy, their water was chemically indistinguishable from the healthy, mineralized springwater she remembered from home, the air smelled as it did in the high mountains:  nothing was different, nothing was changed --

Then it came from within, she thought.

Within me.

Marnie raised her dripping face, glared at the reflection in the unbreakable mirror, then dried herself and paced silently back to bed.

"Marnie," her Daddy told her when she was a little girl, "your dreams belong to you."

Marnie looked at her Daddy with all the innocent faith of the little girl she'd been.

"Your nightmares like to laugh at you."

Marnie's eyes dropped and she drew her legs up, hugged her arms around her shins, under her white flannel nightgown.

"Nightmares are mean," Linn continued quietly.  "You have to grab them and shake them hard and tell them it's your dream, you are in charge, and they WILL obey YOU!"

Marnie looked up at her pale eyed Daddy, uncertainty in her expression.

Linn leaned down, just a little, brushed the back of his Daddy-finger along her warm pink cheek.

"Marnie," he said, "a nightmare tried to scare me last night."

Marnie blinked, her eyes opening a little wider:  she nodded, just a little, as if she was afraid of what he might say next.

"Marnie, that mean ol' nightmare tried to scare me and make me believe I'd done something very bad."

Marnie blinked, rapidly, hugged her shin bones harder.

Linn winked, looked left, looked right, leaned closer and whispered, "Do y'know what I did?"

Marnie shook her head, tried to hide her face behind her flannel covered knees.

"I put ears on that nightmare."

Marnie blinked rapidly again, this time with surprise, and Linn nodded.

"Yep.  Ears.  Long floppy donkey ears that didn't match. One had red pokey dots and one had green and purple stripes and then I grabbed a mirror and held it up so the nightmare could see how silly it looked."

Marnie lifted her face a little, regarded her Daddy with big and hopeful eyes.

"And then I laughed at it, and it turned around and stomped off 'cause it couldn't scare me no more," Linn whispered, managing to sound like a little child himself.  "Every time a nightmare comes around, I laugh at it and I make it look silly, and anymore my dreams are written by a commodion."

Marnie tilted her head a little this time, the way she did when she was thinking, and Linn saw her brows pull together a little.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, are you so full of it you need flushed?"

It was Sheriff Linn Keller's turn to blink.

Then his ears turned a little red, and then his face turned kind of red, and Marnie shrank back a little, because she'd seen men get red faced and bad things happened, and she squeezed her eyes shut and pushed her face down into her knees, shivering, waiting for the slap, the voice, the words--

She felt her bed shake a little and she heard kind of a funny snorting sound and she lifted her head just a little and opened one eye, and then she lifted her head and looked at her Daddy with honest surprise, right before he fell backwards across her bed, laughing -- a good, honest, from the bottom of his soul big healthy Daddy-laugh, and when he ran down a little, he hauled in a breath, looked at Marnie and wheezed "Commodion," and then he was off laughing again, and that was the night Marnie first put spotty and stripey ears on her nightmares and laughed at them and made them go sulk somewhere else 'cause she run 'em off like her Daddy told her to do, hmph!

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller lay back down in her own bed, closed her eyes, relaxed: her disciplined mind went back to where she'd been when the face came over her, when she drove a knife up and seized a living throat --

Wait a minute.

The throat was real.

The knife was real.

I felt it --

She sat up again, and she was in the Firelands cemetery.

The back-home-in-Colorado Firelands cemetery, not the one with the first of their dead buried in Martian dust Firelands cemetery.

Marnie stood -- she wore her red cowboy boots and blue denim skirt, a flannel shirt --

Her hand closed around the checkered walnut handle of her .357 --

"You have a question," a familiar voice said.

Marnie turned, looked at what might have been a reflection of herself, had she been wearing a fine McKenna gown with a matching little hat and parasol.

"I have a question," she confirmed.

"You want to know something."

"I want to know why I didn't cry when my children were killed."

"You grieved."

"Damned right I did."

"But you shed no tears."

"Not one."

"And you think I can tell you why."

"Yes."

Sarah Lynne McKenna sighed, shook her head:  she furled her parasol, collapsed it between gloved palms until it was the size of a bottlecap, dropped it in a cleverly disguised pocket.  "I didn't cry either."

"You lost your husband."

"And my son, and my nephew, I lost my father --"  she looked sharply at Marnie -- "not that miserable beast that married Mama and tried to sell us," she snarled.  

"The Sheriff, or the Rosenthal?"

"Levi Rosenthal.  An honorable man."  She looked down the row of tombstones.  "He loved Mama and he loved my sisters and I, and I grieved his death, but no.  I shed no tears either."

"Did my Gammaw?"

"Why don't you ask her?"

Marnie turned.

Willamina stood beside her red Cannonball-mare, an engraved Winchester rifle balanced in her gloved hand.

"I shed mine a long time ago," Willamina said.  

"But you grieved."

"I grieved."

"Just not --"

"Not with womanly tears, no."

Marnie looked from one ancestress to the other, her mouth open, her palms up as she frowned, trying to make some sense of all this.

"What's wrong with us?" she asked.  "Our children -- people I knew, people I --"

"Loved," Sarah and Willamina chorused.  "You honestly loved every one of the colonists that were killed."

Marnie nodded.

Willamina turned, thrust her '73 rifle into its carved, background-dyed scabbard, turned:  she paced slowly toward Marnie, took her granddaughter's hands in her own, and Marnie felt Sarah's gloved hands on her shoulders as she, too, came near.

"There's nothing wrong with any of us," Willamina whispered.  "We've all been through hell itself.  Our tears are long since shed.  Grief enough and yes, we can weep, but for better or for worse, we're ..."

Marnie saw her Gammaw bite her bottom lip, frown, consider for several moments.

"Maybe we're too strong for our own good."

Sarah came around from behind her:  now Marnie's hands were held by her Gammaw's, and her more ancient ancestress, both.

"I was the face you saw in your sleep, Marnie.  You went to bed wondering why you couldn't cry when you lost your children. You knew I had the answer, and it wasn't coming out, so you saw me as the enemy."

Sarah smiled gently, tilting her head the way Marnie remembered her Gammaw doing in a tender moment.

"By the way, sister, you're hell with a knife and I don't want to make you mad!"

Three pale eyed women giggled, and Dr. John Greenlees, physician, surgeon, and husband to the pale eyed Sheriff Marnie Keller, woke up just enough to realize his wife was laughing in her sleep:  Marnie felt her husband's warm, reassuring arm come across her belly, and she laid her hand on his, and then she relaxed and went back to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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649. NO TEACHING YOUR SISTER!

It took quite a bit to surprise Sheriff Linn Keller.

The woman who managed the feat felt no triumph when she did.

Linn looked down from the saddle and Anna Mae looked up at him, and each one responded according to their true nature.

Anna Mae lifted her chin a little and swallowed hard, and Linn dismounted, removed his Stetson.

"Anna Mae."

"Linn."

Apple-horse regarded this newcomer hopefully; when no attempt was made to produce a peppermint, he swished his tail, hung his head and managed to look terribly bored.

"May I buy you lunch?"

Anna Mae smiled sadly.  "Ever the gentleman," she murmured, then she closed her eyes, as if against a memory.

She opened her eyes, looked up.

"Yes," she said.  "Yes, Linn, you may buy me lunch."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller had a troubled expression about him when he came home that night.

Shelly was smiling as she turned thick, hand pressed burgers in the frying pan; the kitchen smelled pleasantly of onion and peppers and frying meat, of fresh bread and coffee and home.

Linn hung his Stetson on its peg, set his warbag down, paced slowly, deliberately across the kitchen floor:  he pressed himself against his wife's backside, ran his arms around her middle, laid his cheek against the side of her head.

"Smells good," he whispered.

Shelly patted his hands.  "Specially for you," she whispered back, then grunted:  Linn's hands spread out across her maternal belly.  "Dearest?"

"Take over," Shelly gasped:  Linn drew back, spun a chair around, slid it against the backs of his wife's knees.

Linn turned off the fire, pressed the burgers one last time, shoveled them out on the platter, with the others:  Keller young were assembling around the kitchen table, big-eyed and solemn, for it was not a usual thing for their Mama to sit down on the job.

"Emil, GD," Linn said quietly, his voice urgent, "get your Mama's warbag. It's beside the door. Take it out, put it in the back of the Jeep."

"Yes, sir," the boys chorused: they did not run, but when they turned, the walked very quickly.

"Shelly?" Linn whispered, and his wife shook her head.

"Not yet," she whispered back.

"You're sure."

Shelly bit her bottom lip and nodded.

Linn's hand was warm and gentle around hers, he reached up and swept a wisp of hair from her forehead, the way he did when they were courting, and Shelly looked at him with big and luminous eyes.

"How's Anna Mae?" she asked quietly.

"She's a widow now," Linn said.  "She came out to bury her Mama."

"Poor thing," Shelly whispered, closing her eyes and bending forward a little.

Linn ran an arm under his wife's knees, around her back, tucked his backside:  Shelly shook her head.

"No," she said firmly.  "Supper is ready.  Please take the taters out of the oven."

"You're sure."

Shelly's glare was answer enough.

 

Anna Mae sat across from her old boyfriend, the first living soul she ever had a hard and romantic crush on:  she was surprised she actually had an appetite, and she smiled at the memory of sitting at this very table, in this very corner, when she and Linn ate here in the same Silver Jewel, when they were both much younger.

"I'd heard you'd married," Linn said quietly.

Anna Mae nodded.  "He was a good man."

"Did he treat you like a queen?"

Anna Mae looked very directly at Linn, her expression unreadable.

"No," she said finally, "but maybe like a Princess."

"Were you happy?"

She shrugged.  "I was," she said.  

"Until you told me, I'd no idea you were widowed."

"Did you know I'd married?"

"I'd heard you had, but nobody said much and I didn't want to pry."

"I was stupid," she said, and Linn heard a shade of bitterness in her voice.  "How could you forgive me?"

Linn's eyes were a light blue as he looked steadily at her.

"Anna Mae," he said, his voice quiet, gentle, "you were my first ... you were the first woman I could've ripped the beating heart out of my chest and laid it at your feet."

"You're not making this easier."

"I'm good at confusing the issue."

She shook her head, leaned back, her appetite gone.  "No.  No, Linn, you didn't do anything wrong."

Unusual for a woman to be so honest, Linn thought, his mental walls slamming up: unless she's trying to manipulate.

"Linn, I was a damned fool.  I got mad at nothing, I ran away, I ended up marrying --"

She stopped, looked down at her cooling meal.

"He was good to me," she whispered, and Linn saw a tear run down one cheek.

"Then you are fortunate indeed," Linn said, his voice deep and reassuring.

 

The twins came back inside, The Bear Killer with them:  the big black canine trotted across the gleaming kitchen floor, toenails loud as he tik-tik-tikked over to Shelly.

He snuffed loudly at her belly, laid his head on her lap, gave a wobbly little half-whine, half-groan, and Shelly laid a hand on his head, clenched her jaw.

"Not now," she whispered fiercely.  "Not now!"

"I think yes now," Linn said firmly.  "Boys, wrap the burgers and taters in a bowl and wrap that, get 'em in the fridge."

"Yes, sir," two little boys chorused: they moved quickly, carefully, sealing plastic wrap over the platter of hot, steaming burgers, over the bowl of hot tater tots, set them in the gleaming-white refrigerator well older than they were, turned, faced their pale eyed Pa as he picked up their Mama.

"Get the door," Linn said quietly.

Behind them, on the table, plates and glasses and tableware lay neatly placed, as they always were, for a meal.

At the head of the table, Linn's coffee mug, empty; at Shelly's, her teacup on its saucer, and at the boys' places, glasses waited patiently for cold milk to splash and gurgle into their tall, transparent throats.

One more thing lay on the table, something that wasn't there an hour ago, something nobody noticed.

A single, fresh cut, billiant scarlet rose, speckled with morning dew, lay on the plate at Shelly's end of the table.

 

The ER doc looked long at a portrait on the wall in the hallway outside their emergency department.

The brass plaque under it said DR. JOHN GREENLEES, MD: another, beside it, a much younger man, with a remarkable resemblance, but a young man in an astronaut's pressure suit, visor up, grinning:  DR. JOHN GREENLEES JR, MD he read.

He'd taken the position here at Firelands with the full knowledge that he'd have some pretty damned big shoes to fill.

Firelands had a long and rich history, and he was the first non-Greenlees physician to head their emergency department.

A door opened:  "Doctor?"

He turned.

One of the OB nurses, all green scrubs and efficiency, hustled down the hallway toward him.

"We've an active labor inbound, sir."

"ETA?"
"I'm not sure, sir, but she's coming."

Dr. Finnegan frowned.  "Didn't the squad call in?"

"It wasn't a squad call, Doctor."  She held a fresh cut rose betwen thumb and forefinger.

He frowned.  "If she's on her way, let's get ready. Unless she's delivering when she comes through the door, we'll run her straight up to OB."

"Yes, Doctor."

 

"Where are you staying?"  Linn asked as they rose.

"I'm leaving tonight."

He nodded.

"I'm not sure whether to shake your hand or what."

Anna Mae stepped up to him, grabbed his head with both hands, kissed him once, delicately, on the lips.

"You were my first love," she whispered.  "I wish I'd stayed."

She turned, walked quickly away, and Sheriff Linn Keller stood there, staring, as the very first woman he ever loved, walked out of his life for the second time.

He considered, then he picked up the check, slid a bill under his empty coffee cup, stopped.

A fresh cut red rose lay beside his plate.

It hadn't been there a moment before.

Once, long ago, he'd heard a bugler play the US Navy's General Quarters alarm, and he heard that again, in his imagination, as he looked at a scarlet, fresh cut, dew speckled rose, laying beside his plate.

Linn threaded the rose through a buttonhole, raised his chin, strode toward the cash register.

 

Three pale eyed Keller men sat silent and unmoving in the waiting room.

They rose, as one, as a nurse, all efficiency and green scrubs, came into the waiting room.

Linn tucked his Stetson very correctly under his arm, lifted his chin, waited.

The nurse looked at twin boys, flanking their long tall father, lean and healthy looking lads in pressed jeans and polished boots and flannel shirts, two boys with pale eyes and a distinct resemblance to the uniformed Sheriff standing almost at attention, two boys with their Stetsons correctly tucked under their off arm, just like their Pa.

Two pale eyed boys and their pale eyed father, awaiting her report.

Shelly looked up at her husband, at her boys, her expression near exhaustion, but glowing with the peaceful, loving look of a mother holding her newborn.

A little girl, wrapped, capped, warm and secure against her Mama's bosom, skin to skin contact a benefit to both mother and child:  Shelly looked up at her husband, raised her hand:  Linn gripped her hand between both his, and Linn leaned down, kissed his wife's forehead.

"You," he whispered, "are beautiful."

"You," Shelly whispered back, "are full of it!"

"Have you chosen a name?" a nurse asked -- they thought her a nurse, anonymous in sterile cap and scrubs, mask and clipboard, and father and mother smiled a little as they looked at her.

"Dana," they said with one voice.  "Dana Lynne Keller."

Emil and Gottleib looked at one another, delight in their expressions:  "Dana!" they whispered to one another.  "We gotta teach her --"

Linn turned, fixed them with a stern look.

"No teaching your sister how to blow up the outhouse," he said firmly, to the nurse's confusion and the new mother's understanding smile.

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Posted (edited)

650. HEY, GRAMPAW!

Captain Crane glared at the Chief.

Crane was methodically buffing off the squad's hood -- he'd been meticulously waxing the rig, one small section at a time, carefully, precisely bringing out a high shine by dint of good honest labor -- he was down to the easiest part, the broad, stubby hood, when Fitz came up, whistled his admiration at the gleaming ambulance, then gave his squad captain a knowing look.

"I understand congratulations are in order," he said, then added, "Grampaw!"

The Captain's rag stopped.

Fitz saw the man's jaw slide out a little, saw the man frown, saw the man resume his work, very carefully, very deliberately, not directing his glare at his Chief.

"I ain't Grampaw," he muttered fiercely, rubbing the shining hood with a fierce determination.  "Was my wife still alive, she could be Grandmaw, but I ain't gonna be Grampaw!"

Of course this led to several of the shift addressing him as Grampa, or greeting him with "Hey, Grampaw!" to which he would snap, snarl or shout, "I AIN'T GRAMPAW!" -- guaranteeing the continued, good-natured torment.

He knew his reaction would guarantee its repeat; he knew he should not have responded to the Chief's jibe as he did, but it was too late: the feline was out of the burlap, so to speak.

It wasn't until his daughter Shelly showed up for shift, not until she and the Sheriff came in, not until they arrived with a little girl, all pigtails and big pale eyes and freckles, not until four year old Marnie Keller strutted up to him and looked waaaay up at the man in the blue shirt and declared, "Hi, I'm Marnie, I'm 'dopted, you my Grampaw?" -- not until the astonished Captain hunkered down and looked at this fearless child, not until she seized him in a hug much bigger than her young arms could possibly manage -- not until the Chief saw the man sitting with the little girl on his lap, pointing to the squad and then to his blueshirt Mama, not until the crew saw their squad captain put his own stethoscope in little Marnie Keller's ears and had her listen to her own heart --

Fitz came up and laid a hand on the man's shoulder.

Crane looked up at the Chief, looked down again, saw the wonder on a little child's face as she heard her own heart laboring behind her breastbone.

"All right, Chief," he said.  "All right.  You can call me Grampaw now."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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651. A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE

 

I noticed Jacob was unusually quiet.

He usually made all the noise of a passing cloud.

Even when he was ... well hell, he was older'n I realized when Agent Sopris sent him my way, but that was a double handful of years ago, and Jacob is long since a man grown, with a wife and sons and him a successful man to boot.

I'm wanderin' off track ag'in, sorry about that.

I was talkin' about Jacob as a younker.

He never spoke unless 'twas to ask a question, and his questions were generally well thought out.

He was never one to waste breath with loose talk.

Today, though ... might be it wasn't what he was sayin', for he was not utterin' word one, maybe it was ...

Hell, I don't know.  I might have felt his quiet more'n realized I was hearin' his quiet.

I was workin' on an ax bit with a file.

Here at home I'd file the edge, afield I carried me a round stone, and often it was I touched up the edge, and I was thinkin' on that and Jacob looked over at me and allowed as I'd be wise to swaller a gob of Standard Oil Mica Grease so it'd grease up them gears between my ears, as they was makin' just an awful clatter, and I grinned -- when 'twas just the two of us, why, neither of us was solemn as the old Judge, that was in public and right now we warn't.

I nodded and tapped the cuttin's out of that-there file and set it aside.

I looked at one bit and then t'other and said "Jacob, there's wiser men than me."

Jacob leaned his head just a shade to the side and nodded, once, obviously listening, obviously interested.

"I was at a timberin' camp two years ago or so. There was a young fella just hired on.  They paired him off with an old timer and they went off to cut some timber.

"That young feller, he thought he was God's gift to tree cuttin. He laid into them trees like he was Paul Bunyan himself, he was knockin' chips big as your hand and that old timer, he didn't get in any kind of a hurry a'tall, he'd cut a while and he'd set down and file on his ax and he'd cut some more and he'd set down some more and touch that ax bit with his file.

"That young feller, he was just hammer and tongs on them trees but the harder he hit the duller his ax got and he didn't realize it, and he was havin' to put so much more steam into every stroke an' that old timer, wasn't.

"By day's end the old man cut more timber than that young upstart with all them muscles, an' he warn't wore out a-doin' it."

Jacob's eyes tightened a little at the corners and he nodded: I knew that was his smile, and that was his enjoyin' the tale, for the both of us had seen young fellers get their comeuppance and more times than one.

We taken turns with stovewood, we'd each grab and end of the two man saw and hee-haw through wood green and wood seasoned, we run the saw through the saw set -- I'd set the tooth where I wantted it an' said "Hit," and Jacob rapped it one with the hammer -- didn't take much file work but the set is needful, and we kept the saw clean and greased up and I can't say we made short work of the morning's labor but two men made it easier.

Now Jacob, he was still real quiet, and 'twas not so much he wasn't saying anything -- he was not given to loose talk nor the long wind -- but there was a studyin' quiet about him, I'd describe it as.

"Sir," he finally asked as he set a saw-chunk up to be split, "how does a man go about settin' his conscience easy?"

I swung the ax and I swung it hard.

Shining Ames steel clove that straight grain chunk and drove into the stump beneath.

I considered, waited until Jacob set one of those split halves up: I drove it a good one and stepped back to let him set up the other half.

"It's easiest," I grunted, spinning that shining ax-head in a silver circle -- chunk! -- "if a man is circumspect in word and in deed."

Jacob set me up a fresh splittin' chunk, stepped back.

"Freemasonry" -- chunk! -- "teaches the virtues of Silence, and Circumspection."

Jacob considered this, frowning a little, then nodding, once.

"Kind of like" -- chunk! -- "Sean teachin' them school children that preventin' a fire is way less work than puttin' one out."

I saw Jacob's blink, his nod: he was listening with more than his ears.

"Sometimes" -- chunk! -- "a man can't prevent a word or a deed and he has it to fix, or live with."

Another swing, another split.

"Spell me off?"

We traded places:  Jacob sat down, picked up the file, worked with sure, steady strokes to bring the shining edge back to sharpness.  Didn't take much and he didn't over do it.

"Is there somethin' troublin' ye?" I asked, and I set up another saw chunk.

Jacob set the ax bit on the chunk, swung, split, and made it look easy: he's a long lean man, he's not given to the big bulk of muscle like Sean and most of the Irish Brigade, but Jacob's strength is undeniable -- and surprising -- which men have learned, to their genuine regret.

"Sir, I have a fear." Chunk!

That surprised me.

I turned the remaining half a saw chunk, stepped back.

Jacob split that one, set the ax head down, leaned on the handle and looked very directly at me.

"Sir, I know what it is to be hurt."

I nodded.

"I've seen the hurt that words bring."

I nodded again, wondering where this was headed.

Jacob picked up the ax, split the piece I'd set up.

"Sir, I recall Sean sayin' it's many a man's tongue has got his own nose broke."

I allowed myself a little bit of a laugh at that one. Sean said as much to me, one afternoon after we broke up a disagreement and introduced both parties both to the horse trough, and to the attention of His Honor the Judge, who fined them but not excessively, and once Sean and I got back to the Jewel, why, we each bought the other a beer and he laid that sayin' on me, and I allowed as 'twas true.

Coming from my son, it was every bit as true as when that big red headed Irishman said it.

"Have you spoken offensively?" I asked, knowing plain language was the right approach, and Jacob shook his head, just a slight little shake as he sized up the next splittin' piece -- "No, sir," -- the split wood fell to either side -- "but I'm satisfied that it'll not matter how circumspect my language, it'll happen."

I considered for a long moment and realized I had to agree with him.

"There's some things," I said slowly, "no matter how careful you plan 'em nor how careful you execute the plan, it'll come to grief on ye."

"Yes, sir."

"I have offended with my words."

"Yes, sir."

"Sometimes there is no help for it. As a commanding officer you have to speak in plain language, you have to correct where correction is needed and sometimes you have to raise hell."

"Yes, sir."

"Correctin' is needful, Jacob. A mistake uncorrected is a mistake that will be repeated. No maybe, no might be, no could be, it will happen."

"You've seen that, sir."  It was a statement, not a question.

"I have."

"Much as possible I've corrected kindly, but sometimes there's no time to be kindly."

"No, sir."

"Now men, hell, was I to speak harshly to a man an he didn't like it, we could settle it with knuckles and when we're done we buy one another a beer and it's over with."

"Yes, sir."

"Women, now" -- I watched closely for Jacob's reaction to my feeler -- "if it's women we've offended, that's some different."

"I've not done that, sir," Jacob said carefully, "which I believe proves the Lord's mercy!"

He looked at me, raised an eyebrow.

"Sir, was I to offend my wife, how would I go about patchin' that up?"

"Have you offended her?"

"No, sir."

I considered carefully before answering.

"Jacob, can you set down and have a good talk with your wife?"

"Yes, sir."

"You might speak to her of this. You might be wise to tell her as you've told me, that you are afraid you might offend somehow and how would you go about fixin' that should it happen."

Jacob nodded slowly.

"I can do that, sir."

I rubbed my palms together, slowly, thoughtfully.

"I've not offended Esther that I know of," I said slowly, "and I honestly don't know how I would fix it, was I to hurt her."

Of a sudden, considerin' that I might hurt my beautiful bride without meanin' to, I felt just terribly lost.

 

 

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652. SKULLSPLITTER

There is an axiom among men who've known battle.

It's been said in different ways, but it boils down to, "No plan of battle ever survives first contact."

It's held true in every conflict since the first sunrise; it's quite possible this truism will be proven until the final sunset.

It was certainly true when Captain Keller was unhorsed, in battle: men with maps and fine uniforms and titles plan engagements, imagine set-piece soldiers on tabletop battlefields, direct their cannon to stage at particular locations, to engage fire in particular directions; these plans are fine, and well crafted, but it's the men afield, those who have to slog through mug, cross streams, creeks and young rivers, or to fight their way through briar thickets, who actually engage the enemy: commanders in the rear picture brave soldiers standing and firing in ranks, without the firsthand knowledge that when their volleys are discharged, men close on one another with bayonets, their muskets hot and empty, their weapons reduced to spears and clubs.

So it was when the pale eyed Captain hit the ground and rolled, he rolled again to keep from being speared to the ground by an enemy bayonet: pistol in one hand, saber in the other, he laid about with the desperation of a man alone:  a lucky musket-ball struck his saber two fingers from the handguard -- whether a flaw in the metal, a lucky hit from the side, an unseen crack -- the blade snapped:  the Captain thrust his empty pistol back into its holster and snatched up the only weapon in reach.

The actions of a screaming, pale eyed, absolutely insane warrior, a Berserker if ever there was one, entered into legend that day: a man who laid about shining circles, silver, then red, a man with a broadax in his callused hands and insanity in his smoking heart, a man who laid about like a giant, who clove men's heads from their bodies and their muskets from their hands, a man who harvested death and reaped bloody flesh, until he stood alone, spattered with gore, his hands rage-welded to hand-smoothed ash, a man who turned, glaring, seeking who next he might slay.

Not even his own men dared approach him, not until after the battle was ended, not until troops dragged away their wounded, abandoned their dead, not until a blazing sun seared its way into the earth on the far western horizon:  only then did the pale-eyed Captain stagger to the creek, only then did he find a shallow, where the creek's sand was banked up and easy to get to, only then did he squat in the cool waters and scour another man's ax, cleaning wood and metal as he desperately tried to scrub the stains of men's lives from his very soul.

A man at war develops instincts: the hunter has these instincts, as have the hunted; these deeper senses served the Captain well, both during That Damned War, and afterward, when he wore a lawman's star, and the lawless wished him harm: the War was never far below his serene appearing surface, his instincts were still awake, restless, watching: lawmen usually sit with their backs to a wall, or even a corner, so that none may approach but from the front: the Captain, later the Sheriff, had no need to learn this lesson.

He'd learned this a very long time ago.

Other men, other lessons:  one, locked in a prison cell, kept his sanity with thoughts of revenge, revenge against everyone who put him there, revenge for every day he did not breathe free air, revenge for taking from him the monies he'd stolen, his money, his money! -- 

The prisoner's blanket was hate, the prisoner's best friend was hate, the prisoner's wife was hate.

The prisoner was released, at the end of his sentence, given a Bible and two dollars and the Warden extended his hand and offered his well wishes:  the man shoved the Bible in the man's extended grip, turned and shoved a guard as he stormed out the door, and out the gate, and into the world.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller half-jumped, twisted, rolled when he hit: one moment he was a quiet eyed lawman, hesitating near the mouth of an alley:  the next, he was rolling in the dirt, every sense alive, every warning screaming that the enemy was upon us --

Voices, echoing from the past, filling his skull --

Bugler!  Blow assembly, damn you! --

An ax sliced through the air, driving into the dirt where the Sheriff's hip had been a moment before.

Sheriff Linn Keller came off the ground at the top of his lungs -- he drove the heel of his hand into his attacker's nose, shoving back, hard, intending to knock the head from the shoulders --

Linn seized the ax from shocked-numb hands --

Shining steel spun a silver arc in the sunshine --

Sheriff Linn Keller stepped back, staggering a little, fell against the side of the building, eyes wide:  he heard men's shouts, musketry rattling behind and beside him, he smelled copper and sulfur and he heard horses screaming and cannon firing and he felt the concussions in his chest as field-guns blasted cannister into close-packed ranks --

A hand seized his upper arm --

Linn's fist drove toward the attacker --

Jacob knew the punch was coming, blocked:  "SIR!  SIR, IT'S OVER! SIR, CAN YOU HEAR ME!"

Sheriff Linn Keller's eyes were very wide and very pale, his mouth was open, he was breathing heavily:  Jacob felt his father freeze, saw sanity wash back into his eyes like a flood will wash across a plain from a broken dam.

Linn's hand opened, he gripped Jacob's shoulder, leaned heavily on his son, dropped his head.

Jacob felt his father's knees start to give.

He took the Sheriff under the arms, shoved him hard against the building, held him upright.

"Bear up, man," he said, his voice low, urgent.  "Don't you collapse on me, sir, I won't countenace it!"

Linn shivered, swallowed:  his legs decided they would work after all, and he straightened them.

He looked at Jacob, closed his eyes, nodded.

Jacob released his grip, looked closely at the old lawman's suddenly lined face.

"Sir," Jacob said, "do you know this man?"

Linn turned, looked at the unmoving, bloody carcass with the cloven skull, the incarnidined ax laying between them.

Linn shook his head.

Running feet, loud on the boardwalk:  Jacob turned, his coat flaring open, interposing himself between the oncoming unknown, and his recovering father.

"Sheriff, Sheriff!" a boy's voice called, and a barefoot lad pelted around the corner, waving a telegraph flimsy.

He skidded to a stop, a mongrel dog almost falling as it, too, came to a fast stop.

The boy gawped at the dead man in the alley, at the obviously unwell Sheriff, at the hard-faced deputy.

The boy shoved the  flimsy at Jacob, turned and ran as soon as it was accepted.

Jacob unfolded the flimsy, drifted closer to his father, until their shoulders touched.

"Territorial Prison," he read. "They're warning about a prisoner released yesterday. Something about him wanting to find you."

Linn's breathing was almost normal now.

Jacob handed him the flimsy.

Linn read it, read it again, handed it back, then turned and regarded the dead man with a big gap between the halves of his head.

"Yep, that's him," he said quietly.  "He swore he'd get me when he got out."

Linn looked at Jacob.  "That's the trouble with bein' a lawman, Jacob. People don't like it when you catch 'em and they blame you for their crime."

Deputy Sheriff Jacob Keller nodded slowly.  "Reckon so, sir.  I'll go get Digger and the dead wagon."

 

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653. LIES, DAMNED LIES AND DAMNED YANKEE LIES

A lean man with gartered sleeves glared over his round lens spectacles at the Prince Albert tin wedged in behind his telegraph sounder.

Years and war and old age robbed him steadily of what had been very good hearing, until he had to resort to the old telegrapher's trick of the homemade amplifier -- the tobacco tin with a calibrated depth of dry sand, until the sounder's clattering arm, amplified by the empty tin, was of a pitch he could hear it.

Not hear it well, but hear it as best he could.

His son had much better ears; his son grew up running a key, learning the wire-talk, his son even went so far as to teach Colonel Morse's code of clicks and clatters to men who'd been injured, robbed of speech by apoplexy or warfare, men whose thoughts could finally find release.

Young Lightning was a regular visitor at a sanitarium not far away, where he worked with injured men and some few women, teaching the clicks and clatters, practicing with them, which helped him listening to his own wire-talk -- everyone who ran a key had their own particular cadence, their own rhythm, their own unique "fist" ... some were quite good, like he and his father; some were ... well, poor would be a charitable term: the Z&W Railroad hired young Lightning to work with these poor telegraphers, and those unwilling to be helped, were dismissed:  the lovely Miz Esther was not going to gamble her railroad's safety to incompetent communication.

Young Lightning, working with these injured, these new students of the art, improved his "ear," his comprehension for a suboptimal transmission.

Newspapers came and went, and when they arrived, they were eagerly devoured, discussed, quoted, passed from hand to hand: old Lightning seemed the only soul in the county not interested.

Jacob Keller's sons, bright-eyed lads with health glowing in their cheeks and curiosity fairly prickling from their pores, were fascinated by Lightning's skill at turning those metallic clicks and clatters into something a body could understand; the impatience of youth governed them yet, and so they never remained long enough to be taught, but they never stayed long enough to be a nuisance -- indeed, when they arrived, it was invariably with a scuttle of coal, or an armload of kindling-wood, or a bucket of fresh pumped water ... unless a care package was dispatched from the Silver Jewel, for if Lightning's wire traffic was busy, he remained at his post to handle that traffic, rather than back away from his desk to eat.

In these moments, the arrival of a pale eyed lad with a tray of fresh, eat-with-one-hand provender, was welcome indeed.

One afternoon, when the wire was quiet, when Lightning was caught up, when he'd swept the floor and straightened his immaculate desk, when he turned at the shadow that fell through the doorway, a curious lad pointed to a sheet of newsprint in a frame and asked, "Mister Lightning, what's Harper's Weekly?"

Lightning looked at the framed page, yellowing behind clear glass.

"That," he said tiredly, "is a reminder."

Young legs crossed, folded, a young backside parked itself on the clean floor, a young, attentive face lifted itself toward the lined, mustachioed visage of the Z&W's oldest and most skilled telegrapher.

"You see," Lightning said, "your Granddad and I were in the War together."

"Yes, sir?"  Innocent eyes blinked at the older man, who turned his swivel chair to face the lad squarely: an older man likes few things better than the undivided attention of the young, and Lightning planted his elastic sided townie shoes flat on the floor, hunched forward and laid his forearms across his bony knees, took off his shining-bill cap and nodded.

"Yes, son, we were in the War together," he said, his speech intentionally slow as he tried to remember the boy's name -- it was one of Jacob's get, but the deputy was like his pale eyed Pa and trying to sire a regiment on his poor longsuffering wife -- "and Harper's Weekly was the weekly broadsheet that got printed up and passed around."

"Yes, sir?"

Lightning nodded.

"Your Granddad fought with the Yankees, and I ... didn't."  

Lightning rubbed his palms slowly together, meditatively, thoughtfully, his amused expression evident behind the round lens spectacles.

"We both read that Harper's Weekly, though. Every time a new one came around, we'd both read it."

A tilt of the head betrayed the lad's curiosity.

"Y'see, son, Harper's Weekly was not just a newspaper. It was a damned Yankee newspaper, and the damned Yankees read it like it was Gospel."

"Grampa was a damned Yankee?" the lad asked, his eyes wide, innocent.

Lightning nodded. "He was," he said, "but it's like that English Irishman.  He's Irish but he's from England, and God will forgive 'em both."

Jacob's pale eyed son blinked uncertainly.

"Y'see, the Yankees knew it was lies and damned lies, but it was their damned lies.  We read it and glad to read it, for men in the field are starved for readin'."

"But if you were Confederates -- and it was damned Yankee lies --"

Lightning raised a wrinkled finger.

"It was lies, all right, son, and yes 'twas damned Yankee lies, but we knew it was damned Yankee lies."

Lightning winked, gave one deep nod, as if imparting a confidence.

"That hangs there t' remind me that most of what's put in newspapers is there to sell newspapers. Not a whole lot of truth in it.  When them fellas come around with the latest newspaper, why, they get all lathered up about this or about that an' not a thing they can do about it, but it's in th' newspaper" -- 

Lightning frowned, shook his head.

"I don't trust newspapers, son, not a'tall.  They'll tell you as much as they want y' t' know, an' they'll try an' stampede ye into this or into that, just on their say-so."

Lightning hooked his thumb over his shoulder.

"Even attair telegraph."

Young and pale eyes swung to the silent sounder.

"If it ain't a fist I know and it ain't railroad business, I don't pay it much mind, not unless it's a message for someone. Some them fellers git on attair waahr an' talk up a storm an' it don't amount to a bucket full of fog."

A man's measured pace on the depot platform was felt through the lad's backside before it was heard; he was on his feet and backed up a step, facing the doorway, when his Pa stuck his head in and grinned.

"Howdy Lightning," he said quietly, looking over at the restless boy, looking with anticipation at his pale eyed Grampa.  "Is m' grandson as full of hot wind as I am?"

"Hell, Sheriff," Lightning complained, "he listens better'n most men!"

Linn nodded.  "I never learned much with my mouth a-runnin'," he admitted, then looked at his pale eyed relative.

"Feel like supper?" he asked.  "I reckon your Ma will have it crowdin' the table by the time we get there."

"Yes, sir!" came the enthusiastic answer, and Linn and Lightning exchanged a knowing look:  Lightning waited until old Granddad and his grandson were gone, waited until they'd gone down the steps at the end of the platform.

"Boys," he said softly.  "At his age I was a walkin' appetite on two hollow legs."

He looked at the front sheet of an ancient Harper's Weekly hanging on the wall, shook his head.

"Lies and damned lies," he muttered, "damned Yankee lies at that!"

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654. REMEMBER

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned back against the shining mahogany bar, one elbow behind him on the bar's top, beer in hand: he was relaxed, he had a beer mug in his good right hand, and his pale eyes were busy, as they generally were.

The big Irish fire chief slouched beside him in the selfsame manner.

Each man raised his mug, slowly, took a thoughtful swallow, lowered his mug.

"Nice parade today."

"Aye, 'twas."

Both men smiled, ever so slightly: it was not an era where men showed weakness, and a smile was often taken as such: none who made that mistake with either the big Irish fire chief, or the pale eyed Sheriff, repeated the mistake -- still, both men were circumspect with the face they presented in public.

"Brass band sounded pretty good."

"Aye."

Each man hooked his heel over the shining brass foot rail, affecting an air of relaxed casualness.

None who made the mistake of believing either man was relaxed and inattentive in such a moment, repeated that mistake either.

"Does a town good to have a parade."

"Aye."

Beer mugs raised in unison, two men drank.

"Sean?"

"Hm?"  Sean wiped foam from his curled, black mustache -- word had it, the man used black mustache wax, as the hair of his head, his eyebrows and his arms were all a good Irish red -- if the man was vain, this was perhaps his only vanity, and he could be forgiven this one thing.

"Do I recall this-yere Memorial Day started in the South?"

Sean nodded slowly, ponderously.  "Aye, so I've heard."

Pasteboards, poker chips, men's conversation, a surprisingly well tuned piano, all contributed to the general background noise:  behind them, two plates clattered to the mahogany and a woman's sharp voice scolded, "Men!  Standin' around an' drinkin' an' lettin' a guid meal go cold! A woman works her fingers to th' bone an' wha' thanks does she get?"

"Daisy m'dear," Sean declared, turning, "ye are as soft spoken as ye are beautiful!"

Daisy screeched with anger, seized a sweet roll and mashed it between her husband's teeth:  "Ye'll keep a civil tongue in yer head!" she snapped, thrust an accusing finger at the Sheriff -- "an' YOU keep out o' this!"

Daisy snatched up the empty tray, h'isted her nose in the air with a feminine hmpf! and stomped off from behind the bar, returning to her fragrant, stove-warmed demense.

Linn looked long after the sharp tongued Irish woman, turned and regarded his old and dear friend with wide and innocent eyes.

Linn raised his mug.

"Here's to the only man in the territory I can't whip," he said, "and to the only woman in the territory who can whip him!"

Sean swallowed the remnants of the sweet roll, regarded his mug's paltry payload, drained it:  he turned just as Mr. Baxter set a fresh mug in easy reach and swept away his discarded empty.

Sean raised his mug and boomed, "I'll drink t' that!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stood at the end of the uniformed rank.

She wore her usual tailored suit dress and heels, with her VFW cap: she raised her saber in front of her, saluting:

"FIRING SQUAD, PRESENT!"
Rifles came to shoulder, men in pin-studded garrison caps froze --

"FIRE!"

Blank rounds, cycled bolts, empty brass spinning to the ground.

"FIRE!"

Metallic actions, ringing brass.

"FIRE!  PRE-SENT HAHMS!"

 

Marnie hung back as her little brother scavenged brass; she waited until her Gammaw was alone, then she came shyly up to her, took her hand, looked up.

"Gammaw," she said, then looked down the row of tombstones, "Old Pale Eyes was in That Damned War."

"Yes he was, Sweets."

She turned, thrust her chin:  "His grandson Joseph was in a war."

"He had his Damned War, yes.  First World War."

"Uncle Pete was ... he was in Korea?"

"He survived the Inchon Peninsula."

Marnie's eyes widened; she'd made a study of the so-called Korean Conflict, and she'd read multiple accounts of the Inchon campaign.

"Wow," she almost whispered, then blinked:  "Your Daddy was in d'Nam?"

"Yes, he was, Sweets."

"Did he call it That Damned War, too?"

Willamina laughed.  "He called it worse than that, but yes, he had his Damned War."

"You were in a war too, Gammaw."

Willamina drew her granddaughter in close to her side: she'd already handed her sabre off to a Sheriff's deputy, who'd secured it in its case:  it would be returned to Willamina's office, to sleep until the next funeral, or the next official function that demanded its presence.

"Yes I was, Sweets, and yes, it was that damned war to me too."

Marnie stumbled, recovered, her Gammaw's arm steadying her quickly.

"I'm glad you're here, Gammaw."

Willamina looked around the cemetery, at too many American flags in their bronze holders, staked in front of too many tombstones.

"So am I, Sweets," she admitted.  "So am I."

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller stepped up to the podium.

The general meeting hall doubled as cafeteria; meals were considerably more palatable thanks to trade with their Confederate allies -- growing their own crops was not impossible, in fact it was much easier since they found native topsoil at the bottom of ancient gullies, since they rejuvenated the topsoil with compost and recycled waste -- light enough to grow them was the problem, at least until enough solar reflectors could be deployed to focus the weak sunlight and reflect it back to the planet.

"You'll be pleased to learn my presentation will be brief," Marnie began, and an appreciative ripple of laughter murmured through the colonists:  the Sheriff took pains to have something worthwhile when she spoke, and invariably started it with a laugh, if at all possible.

"First of all, thank you for your patience. It's difficult to read the names of our honored dead, and twice during the reading I had to stop and swallow kind of hard."

Several in the crowd knew exactly what she was talking about; muted sorrowing could be heard during the reading of the names.

"Our job is to carry on and to prosper. We're doing far better than anyone predicted when the first launch was made.  It is well that we remember those who've gone on before, and it is well that we should celebrate our success here together."

A small light flashed on the podium before her, a tiny LED only she could see, and she smiled.

"This concludes my lengthy and long winded speech.  I don't know about you, but the smells from the kitchen are just pretty darn good, I'm starved, let's eat!"

 

Dr. John Greenlees looked around, searching for his pale eyed wife:  he carried his tray to the table, his wife's above it, thanks to clever locally produced spacers that let a man carry two loaded trays at once:  he turned, turned again, then sat, placed his tray before him, released Marnie's and set it across from him.

His son looked at him with big, innocent and pale eyes, and Dr. John Greenlees, physician, surgeon and husband to that pale eyed Sheriff, smiled:  he pulled out his pocket comm, tapped a few times, swiped a couple more, found his wife.

He'd accessed the outdoor cameras.

Sheriff Marnie Keller was outside the pressure dome.

He watched on his pocket screen as she stopped before the graves she visited on such occasions, graves with rounded stones of smoothed native rock, with names and dates and a six point star sandblasted on each one.

He watched as she set up a wire tripod, with a wreath, a gift for the occasion from the Ambassador, and he watched as she stepped back, as she raised her shotgun, as she fired -- once, twice, three times -- the reports silent, the muzzle flare almost nonexistent in the thin atmosphere.

She dropped back a step, raised the shotgun in a correct present-arms salute.

Dr. John Greenlees turned off his pocket screen, slid it back into his jacket:  he reached into another pocket, pulled out a warmed bottle of formula, pulled the cap off the nipple.

Tiny pink hands waved in happy anticipation of a meal, and not long after, Sheriff Marnie Keller slid into her seat across from her husband, who hadn't touched his meal:  it was a moment she kept, a mental snapshot, of her husband with a big idiot grin, feeding their infant son while his meal got cold.

 

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655. NO PARTICULAR REASON

It started out innocently enough.

A casual comment, an idle idea, spoken aloud: it was heard, and overheard; more joined the conversation, there was laughter and agreement, and so was born the conspiracy.

It was necessary to recruit the Distaff in order to advance the plot: wives and daughters, maids and maidens and most of Fireland's ladies responded with patient tolerance, with grudging acceptance, with approving delight, and some few with a degree of resentment, for just as a women getting an idea costs men work, men getting an idea cost women work: in spite of these, at the appointed time, and in the appointed place, men set up barrels and saw-horses and planks, right next to their tidy little Church, next to the roses growing alongside: women threw tablecloths over these, those within opened the windows a bit, and the smell of good cookin' came into their little whitewashed church.

Parson Belden led the congregation in their usual hymn, the passing of the plate and the prayer, he spoke such news as was proper to present from the pulpit -- a birth, a death, a relative distant from here was succeeding in business, another's health in a distant place was failing, and the conspirators watched closely as the Parson's eyes drifted toward that side of the Church from whence the good smells silently invaded the partly open windows.

Parson Belden smiled from behind the pulpit and declared, "As considerable effort has been made to provide the repast without," he said, "today's sermon shall be on the joy of charity, and we will live that sermon by adjourning for the remainder of the service.  Before we go" -- his upraised hands and inflected voice stopped those eager souls who began to rise -- "let us return grace, elsewise if the repast without tastes as good as the smells within, I might stuff my mouth and be unable to speak!"

He smiled gently; there were a few chuckles, heads bowed.

"O Lord," the Parson intoned, "bless us and the food of which we are about to partake, and spare use the curse of the long winded preacher, AMEN!"

 

The ladies, wives, daughters, maids and maidens of the Congregation did themselves proud that day; it was a feast for no particular reason, it was a celebration for the sake of celebrating: the community came together and partook of each other's good cookin', women exchanged recipes, men ate with a good appetite and lied outrageously to each other as they did, a stray dog skulked on the outskirts, hoping to scavenge something (and was rewarded with tossed chunks, courtesy little boys who delight in such things), and the Parson listened, and ate, and considered that his experiment was a success: he'd planted the idea, half a week earlier, that perhaps the community could shorten up that long winded preacher by having a feed after the service.

A hand on his shoulder, a familiar voice:  "I'd have to say this is one of your better sermons, Parson!"

Parson Belden, his mouth full, could but nod in agreement.

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656. WHAT DID SHE MEAN BY THAT?

Of a sudden I felt old.

Marnie ran her arm around my middle and pulled herself into me, her hip hard against mine: she tilted her head a little so it leaned against my arm, and I felt her take a long breath.

"Papa," she murmured, "tell me about them."

I closed my eyes.

We stood before the family row in the Garden of Stone, stood before polished quartz with names incised, carved, sandblasted, laser etched: I came here sometimes, I'd come here and stand, or set if the ground wasn't wet, and I'd stare at the three markers, and remember.

I didn't set today.

It rained not long before and I'd no wish to muddy up my backside.

I stood there with my little girl holding me, her head leaned into my arm, her arm across my tenderloins, and I shifted a little.

I looked down into my little girl's pale eyes and I saw a sorrow, a deeper sorrow than I realized, and I kicked myself for that: of course she knows grief, she lost her birth-Mama and everyone she'd known back East, and she'd come out here with her dying Mama, and she did her best to look happy here, and --

I bit my bottom lip, chewed on it some, and Marnie waited.

"Darlin'," I said slowly, "you're ... what ... ten now?"

Marnie nodded, blinking.

"What time's it gettin' to be?"

"It's nearly noon, Daddy."

My ear twitched a little.

She'd called me Papa before, and she never called me Papa, and I hadn't realized it until now.

I filed that in my mind the way a lawman will when he's interrogatin' someone and they slip up and let something out they hadn't intended to.

"Dear heart," said I, "if I recall right, the Silver Jewel has bacon cheeseburgers that ain't never been et yet."

"Daddy?"

Marnie blinked innocently and I squatted down, held her little hands in my big ones, nodded a go-ahead.

"Daddy, if you insist on sounding like a poor dumb hillbilly, someone might think you are."

Now this took me absolutely by surprise, and I laughed a little, and that helped.

I nodded.

"Another tool in my toolbox," I admitted.  "If I sound that-a-way, someone will think I am and they'll be incautious.  They'll think me thick as clay and they'll be more likely to slip up."

"I don't think you're thick, Daddy."  

Marnie tilted her head a little to the side, the way I'd seen Shelly do when she was sizing up whether I was shoveling her with a load of malarkey.

"Daddy, you could use a good square meal. Mr. Baxter said if you turned sideways in the noonday sun, you wouldn't throw a decent shadow."

I chuckled a little, nodded.

"I reckon so, darlin'.  Saddle up and I'll tell you about Connie and the twins over a meal."

 

Father and daughter, lawman and child, rode at a brisk walk from Cemetery Hill down into Firelands.

It was an era of modern transportation, of paved roads, instant communication, and yet the sound of hooves, loud and rhythmic and echoing off buildings facing the paved street, seemed not at all out of place here.

The Silver Jewel, tavern, saloon, hotel and restaurant, sought to keep the flavor of its earlier days; it still had the stamped-tin ceilings, the original, heavy, burnished-mahogany bar; the hotel counter, in like wise, was age-dark, immaculately maintained, staffed by an attractive young woman with both hairdo and attire of the mid-1800s, and behind the bar, a jolly fellow with pomaded hair combed and slick, parted down the middle: his mustache was genuine, its color was not, nor was a waxed handlebar curl its natural posture: here, though, behind the ancient bar, in the company of old, framed drawings of some original residents, backed by a large, heavy-glass mirror, the man in the long white apron would have been at home when the prevailing transportation was the then-ubiquitous, one-horsepower, Oatsmobile.

Outside this carefully-maintained, immaculately-painted, carefully-trimmed fixture of the town, a tall, lean waisted lawman rode up, dismounted, threw his Palomino's reins carelessly over the hitch-rail: he patted the stallion's flank, kept his hand on warm, living fur as he walked behind: he had no fear of being kicked, for he and his stallion had an arrangement:  as long as horse knew rider was back there, horse was fine with the idea, but woe betide the careless soul who came up unannounced!

The lawman with pale eyes and a curled mustache, reached up with both hands, and his little girl laughed and leaned into him, trusting her weight into his hands, and Linn swung Marnie down from her gelding's back, and together they walked around the hitch-rail and up the hand-made, solid-built steps, onto the boardwalk:  Linn seized the shining brass door handle and hauled open the ornate, frosted-glass-decorated door for his pale-eyed daughter.

It seems like everyone knows everyone else in a small town, and so it was here:  the Sheriff's eyes were busy, as they always were; he satisfied himself there were no threats before he and his daughter came on in, and when they entered, it was with a smile, with greetings -- he said hello to Tilly behind the bar, to Mr. Baxter, whose companionable grin and a nod told of no known threats this day; men rose, hands extended, and the Sheriff shook their hands and spoke their names and asked after their wives, after a new baby, after their son, who'd scored the winning goal at Homecoming, who'd made the Honor Roll, who'd just joined the Service: it took some little time to make their way back to the Lawman's Corner, and by the time they got there, so had the gum-popping hash slinger, who smiled at Marnie and gave the Sheriff a look through her curled lashes that she reserved for very few men.

"Coffee" -- the waitress didn't ask it as a question, she declared it as a statement -- "and Coke?"

"Milk, please," Marnie said innocently as menus half-spun to the tabletop.

Linn frowned at his, looked up at the waitress.

"Have you those real good bacon cheeseburgers?" he asked hopefully, and the waitress laid a hand on his shoulder and hipshot dramatically:  "Why of course, handsome!"

"Are those the ones they make out of dead cows?" Linn continued, giving her his very best Innocent Expression, at which point she swatted him on the shoulder with her note pad:  "Fries, cole slaw, cottage cheese, floor sweepin's?"

"Cottage cheese, darlin', and make that two platters."

The waitress looked at Marnie, who looked back with absolute, wide-eyed innocence and nodded.

Linn waited until the waitress was departed before leaning forward a little.

"I don't think she liked what I said about dead cows."

Marnie giggled and they leaned back:  coffee arrived, as did a tall, sweating-cold glass of milk, and fresh rolls and butter.

They were halfway through their platters when Marnie spoke up.

"Daddy, is something wrong with the salt?"

Linn blinked, surprised.  "No, darlin', not a thing, why?"

"You peppered your cottage cheese."

Linn grinned.  "I did, darlin'."

Marnie gave him that Innocent Expression and Linn grinned back.

"Darlin', I found out salt releases calcium into the kidneys."

Marnie frowned, not understanding.

"Calcium turns into kidney stones, and I don't need any more of those damned things!"

"Oh," Marnie said, comprehension flooding her face: she'd seen men with kidney stones before, she'd read up on the phenomenon, she'd spoken with nurses at the Firelands hospital who confided that they'd had both kidney stones and children, and of the two, kidney stones hurt worse.

Linn spooned up another bite of cottage cheese, took a noisy slurp of coffee, dashed the excess off his mustache with a bent foreknuckle.

"You wanted to know about Connie and the twins."

Cheeseburgers arrived right about then; Linn spooned up the last of his cottage cheese, leaned back to allow the empty dish and spoon's removal.

Linn picked up his burger, turned it upside down -- "things don't fall out this way," he explained, and Marnie nodded, picked her own sandwich up, carefully inverted it like her Daddy just did.

"Connie was my first wife," Linn said slowly, taking another sip of coffee -- silently this time -- "and Emil and Gottleib were our boys.  They were twins."

"What happened to 'em?"
Linn's eyes veiled themselves and Marnie felt him withdraw -- the man did not move, but it felt like he'd pulled back three feet and pulled a curtain across in front of him, or maybe that's just how his eyes looked, like he pulled a curtain across behind them.

"They were killed by a drunk driver," Linn said slowly.

Marnie took a bite, chewed carefully, listened.

"I was first on scene," Linn said, his voice quieter; he looked a little to the side, pale eyes seeing through the polished, spotless tabletop.  "Not one damn thing I could do but watch ... I tried, Marnie."

He looked at her, his expression haunted.

"I ran up with that two-and-a-half pound extinguisher and I might as well have spit on that fire. Didn't matter, they were killed instantly -- or so the coroner said, no soot in their lungs, they were dead before the car caught fire."

Marnie's eyes dropped, as if she, too, were looking through the tabletop, looking at her Daddy's burn-scarred legs.

"Is that why you walked through fire to get Mommy out of her wreck?"

Linn lowered his cheeseburger, his appetite gone: he set it back on its saucer, misery in his eyes.

"I was not going to lose my wife again," he said quietly, then he looked at Marnie.

"I will not lose my wife again, and I will not lose another child."

Something told ten year old Marnie Keller that her Daddy meant exactly what he said, and he meant it to the core of his living soul.

 

That night, after she'd gotten ready for bed, Marnie uncharacteristically came flowing down the broad, stout-built staircase, a barefoot ghost in a white flannel nightgown: she knew this was her Mommy and Daddy's time, but she felt this was something she had to do.

Linn looked up as his little girl approached:  he leaned forward and she seized him in a youthful hug, then she pulled back, went and hugged her Mama.

Linn heard something whispered, a return whisper, then Marnie turned and flowed back upstairs, as barefoot silent as when she'd descended.

Linn and Shelly looked at one another, surprised:  Linn raised a curious eyebrow and his wife smiled, leaned toward him, and Linn leaned toward her.

"She said I am very safe," Shelly said, puzzled.  "What do you suppose she meant by that?"

 

 

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657. A CLASSIC MANEUVER

Deputy Linn Keller shifted in the passenger side seat, blinking.

"Paul," he said, "did you see ...?"

"Those two boys in Gillicuddy's field?"  

Deputy Sheriff Paul Barrents, son of the newly-retired JW Barrents and long-time boon companion, best friend and fellow shooter Linn Keller, gave "One of Those Looks" as one of his two replies.

His other reply was an immediate and judicious application of throttle.

"You know what they're going to do."

"I know."

Linn looked down and to the side, seeing two boys with 2x4s not much longer than themselves, swaggering into the fenced pasture, boards over their shoulders -- young warriors going to pick a fight.

A fight they could not possibly win.

Linn shook his head.

"I," he said slowly, "have done some stupid things in my young life."  He pulled out his pen, clicked it, opened his field notebook.  "But never anything like that!"

Paul eased the wheel over, eased back, dodging what was less a pothole and more a crater: Linn noted the location in his half a steno book, adding to the miscellaneous information he would transfer to the other half of the steno book:  both had FIELD NOTEBOOK in black marker on the narrow cover, the original steno book had been sheared down its middle on an industrial paper shear: one half was for raw notes, punch lines to dirty jokes, recipes, unflattering cartoons, in addition to field contact information, notes taken at a crime scene -- the useful, law enforcement related information would be transferred to the only field notebook he would admit to, the one that could be subpoenaed into court during a major case.

It would not do to explain, under oath and on the stand, why a dirty limerick about seafaring ladies of loose morals, appeared between pages dedicated to investigation of crime scenes.

The location of the pothole would be both transferred to the "official field notebook," in addition to this intelligence being passed on to the county's highway department.

Linn looked in the mirror again; he shook his head, clicked the pen and slid it into his uniform blouse pocket.

"Do you reckon," he said thoughtfully, "that will be the only stupid thing we'll see today?"

Barrents laughed, black eyes shining:  "Buddy Joe," he declared, "there is no way in two hells that's the only stupid thing we'll see today!"  He gave Linn a quick and knowing glance and added, "Never tempt Fate, my friend, she lo-o-oves a challenge!"

They turned off the county road onto another paved county road, climbed Basset Ridge road, slowed as they came past a tidy row of new cottages.

"Uh-oh," Linn said, and Barrents hit the brakes, slowing them significantly.

They both looked to the right, they studied the scene, the looked at one another:  Barrents looked ahead, hit the throttle, and the Suburban's big block engine responded with a will:  the shining, waxed, polished, slightly dusty Suburban shot ahead, rapidly putting distance from what was going to be a very unpleasant situation.

"I," Linn said as they crested the ridge and came out on the level, "do NOT want to be anywhere near when it hits!"

"Buddy Joe," Paul Barrents agreed, "that makes two of us!"

Linn made some quick notes, enough to refresh his memory: they were keeping an unofficial record of Truly Stupid Things They See In a Day's Time, and this was the second one of the day; as it would turn out, it was perhaps not stupid, but certainly the most distressing.

As far as stupid, they both agreed, over fresh, hot coffee back at the Sheriff's office at end of shift, two boys going into Gilicuddy's field had to be absolutely, positively the utterly, absolutely, most brainless thing they'd seen, not just all shift, but all week.

They knew the boys.

They knew what they intended to do with four foot lengths of 2x4.

Gillicuddy had a bull, and the boys had a game:  they'd done this before, just never here: one would whack a bull, hard as he could, across the backside.

Never mind the bull would be relaxed, never mind the bull was inoffensively, peacefully grazing, intent only on filling his belly:  when the first lad whacked him across the backside, the bull's head would come up in surprise, his indiginant bellow cut short by the second two-by-four coming hard down between his horns, hard as young arms could swing it: the boys would scream, drop their war clubs and run hard as they could, for the fence.

Until today, they made it.

Next day, after taking a beat-up drunk in to ER, Linn and Barrents learned from the ER staff that they treated a little boy the evening before.

The dirty, chastened lad had a sprained wrist and several scrapes and bruises -- including an impressive bruise on the back of one thigh, where a bovine horn helped boost the fleeing fellow over the fence.

Airmail, you might say.

But the most distressing moment of the day's shift, they agreed, after finishing their end of shift reports, as Linn transcribed in neat block print the scribbled notes he'd taken in the moving vehicle ... the worst was when they passed that row of new cottages.

They'd been built on slabs.

A new owner wanted a basement.

The contractor was excavating judiciously from under the cottage, the contractor was neatly placing the excavated, muddy, wet, mostly-clay material in a mound in the front yard, a tidy pile he could easily load into a truck and haul off before landscaping the yard afterward.

What Linn and his partner saw, when they decided the climate was healthier elsewhere, was the sight of a little girl.

A pretty little girl, judging from the frilly, lacy, girly nature of the pinafore she wore, the pure-white, ruffly petticoat peeking from under her hemline, the ruffly top anklets and shining patent-leather slippers, the ribbon in her curly hair.

At least that's what they could see from her backside.

You see, this pretty little girl was belly crawling up the pile of still-wet clay and mud.

Two passing deputies could only imagine what the pretty little girl's front side looked like, and just before Barrents's boot came down on the go pedal, they saw a mother come out of the front door, dressed for a wedding or some other significant event, and in that shivered sliver of a second, they saw the mother's eyes widen and her mouth drop open, and two brave men of the Firelands County Sheriff's Office committed that ancient, honorable and classic military maneuver knowin as Getting the Hell Out of There!

 

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658. AND THE SHERIFF TURNED RED

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller's eyes were pale as she listened to the ER nurse's quiet voiced report.

They stood together, two women, their heads inclined to one another, speaking in the confidential manner one woman will to another: they were not Sheriff and nurse, they were two old friends, and when Willamina gripped Susan's hand, quickly, delicately, it was the feminine gesture of one friend to another.

Willamina's Marine-short hair did not conceal the fact that her ears were considerably redder than her noticeably-pink face.

As a matter of fact, Sheriff Willamina Keller's ears were an absolutely, flaming, blazing shade of scarlet.

One of her deputies, Paul Barrents, son of her long-time segundo JW Barrents, waited impassively against one wall, his uniform Stetson correctly under one arm, standing at an easy, informal parade-rest: as the Sheriff turned and came toward him, he lifted his chin, came to correct military attention.

"Ma'am."

Sheriff Willamina Keller patted Paul on the chest, her expression gentle.

"Paul," she said in a motherly voice, "tell me what happened."

Barrents was a little uncertain.

He was used to seeing the Sheriff during debrief.

He was acccustomed to seeing a cold-faced, white-eyed professional, speaking in clipped, efficient, precise terms, interested in nothing but facts.

"Ma'am, we ... ummm ..."

Willamina gave him a wide eyed, innocent look.

This didn't help.

"Ma'am, we ... ahhh ..."

Paul shut his eyes, took a long breath, swallowed.

"Ma'am, we got called on a domestic, and it was. As soon as we got there we could hear hell being raised in the house."

"Hell being raised."

"Yes, ma'am.  We heard the sound of dishes or ceramicware being broken."

"Ceramicware."

"Yes, ma'am, and a woman's voice."

"It sounded like ...?" she prompted.

"Whoever it was, ma'am, she was quite unhappy."

"Unhappy."

"Yes, ma'am, she was screaming at someone."

"Screaming."

"Yes, ma'am. Most of it I could not make out."

"And your actions ...?"

"Ma'am, as soon as we heard broken dishes, we each grabbed a riot shield and went in."

"A riot shield."

"Yes, ma'am."  Barrents nodded.  "You recall those brand new riot shields we've never used?"

Willamia nodded.

"Ma'am, I am pleased to report they will stop a hard thrown coffee cup, two cans of soup and a jar of honey."

"A jar of honey."

"Yes, ma'am, that's why we're here."

Willamina's eyebrow raised.

"Oh?"
"Ma'am, once Linn got up --"

"Got up?"

"Yes, ma'am, honey is slick and he went down."

"And?"

"He got up and we rushed the woman, we got her pinned in the corner.  I held her and Linn parked his shield and got his cuffs out, we grabbed her and put her on the floor and the fight was on."

"That explains this."  Willamina's fingers were gentle as they stroked beside an angry looking scratch across Barrents' left jawline.

He raised a hand to his face.  "Yes, ma'am, I ... she got through my guard."

"You got her on the floor."

"Yes, ma'am, and it was like ridin' a wildcat."

"You finally got her in irons."

"We did, ma'am, but it was just all the two of us wanted.  I don't know what she was on, but she genuinely threw us north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to oil!"

"Go on."

"I grabbed that greasy-slick riot shield and shoved it down on her and Linn and I dog piled on top of it and once we got her pinned, why, we just laid there and got our breath, we let her kick and scream but she was pinned down and she was not going anywhere."
"I see."
  Willamina regarded Barrents' shirt front.

"Yes, ma'am, that's some of the honey she broke that jar on us with."

"That should wash out with no problem.  Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"No, ma'am, but Linn got cut."

"I know they're sewing him up, but I need to know how it happened."

"Well, ma'am, he come down on broken glass when he slipped on that honey, and he ... umm, he's ..."

Barrents hesitated, considered.

"Ma'am, I've got to go soak the cruiser's seat in salt water."

"Paullll ...."  Willamina said in a motherly tone, and Deputy Paul Barrents shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

"Ma'am, he got cut and they're sewin' on him right now."

Willamina's hand was firm on his shoulder and she was looking him very directly in the eye, and he took a little bit of comfort in the fact that her eyes were not that hard shade of glacial ice that meant she was ready to rip throats.

"Paul," she said softly, "check yourself very carefully for injuries.  Sometimes we don't realize we're hurt."  She pattted his shirt front again.  "We only have one of you and I for one want to keep you around for a while!"

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina considered.

"I think I'll slip back and see what progress they're making."

"Yes, ma'am."

Paul Barrents watched as his Sheriff tapped briskly across the room, shoving through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE as if she owned the place.

The waiting room was silent; those few present, eyed the worse-for-wear deputy warily.

Paul heard the doors open again, saw the Sheriff come out, saw her walking at her usual brisk, high-heeled pace, straight toward him.

This time she did not lay a motherly hand on his chest.

This time she put both hands on his shoulders, she leaned her forehead against his chest, her shoulders working:  Paul's heart fell about two miles, until it hit his boot tops, he placed uncertain hands on the Sheriff's shoulders:  "Ma'am?" he asked softly, and Willamina raised her face --

Paul Barrents' heart shrank a few sizes as he saw her face was wet --

Then he realized ...

She's laughing, he thought, and his surprised expression shattered what little reserve Sheriff Willamina Keller had left.

Willamina pulled a kerchief from her sleeve, wiped her face, turned away and blew her nose with a most unladylike honk! -- wiped her eyes again -- looked back at Paul, then stood beside him, leaned her head back against the wall, smiled, sighed.

"Paul?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"They've sewed up the glass cuts."

"Good."

"There were three of them and there was a little glass in the wounds, they got that all out."

"Yes, ma'am."

She turned her head, looked at him, smiled gently.

"He's laying there on his belly with his backside draped, all but where they're stitching" -- her face reddened again -- "his arms were crosssed under his chin and he looked up at me and said" -- 

Sheriff Willamina Keller chewed on her knuckle, closed her eyes:  she snorted, she choked, she slapped her hands hard against the front of her thighs, took a deep breath, looked at Paul and whispered:

"He looked at me like a sad little boy and said 'Maw, I broke my butt!' "

Sheriff and Deputy can be forgiven a moment's lack of protocol if they embraced one another and shared a laugh together, right there in front of God and everybody, and perhaps this is not a bad thing, for laughter is a rare visitor to an emergency department's waiting room.

 

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659. WE WILL NEVER KNOW

The concussion was enough to shiver most of the windows for a three block radius into a blast of silica knives.

Editor Jones was on one knee in the doorway of The Firelands Gazette, her camera focused on the lone lawman standing in the middle of the street, a double barrel shotgun in his white-knuckled grip: she'd just pressed the shutter, heard the camera's mechanism searing electronic images into its memory chip, when the concussion hit her like she'd been slapped by an angry giant.

She felt the side of her knee scrape something sharp and thought Dammit, the one day I wear nylons! -- and then she realized she was looking straight up, at the underside of the roof's overhang, considering that whoever painted it last did a fine job.

 

"Firelands P6, Firelands."

A familiar voice, rich, warm, confident, flowed smoothly from the dispatcher's speaker.  "P6, go."

"Firelands P6, have a report of a man with a bomb. Current location West Main, Sierra 4 and 5 enroute, your location?"

"The All-Night." Chief of Police Will Keller took a fast gulp of coffee, dropped the rest in the trash can, flipped a single at the girl behind the register as he strode out, talkie in hand.

"P6, Sierra Four and Five, come in from your end and we'll come in from opposite."

"Roger."

Four hundred sixty rompin' stompin' cubic inches of four-barrel Ford go-power woke up with a quiet, confident rumble of exhaust:  Chief of Police Will Keller pulled the shifter gently into gear, looked around, eased out of the All-Night.

He waited until he was out of the lot before he came down on the go pedal.

 

I was in my Mama's office when the call came in.

I reached up and grabbed the ancient double gun that hung above her padded office chair, I seized the bandolier of brass hull, swan shot from the gunrack, slung it across me:  I didn't have to look to know the shotgun was loaded.

Mama was elsewhere, I wasn't sure where and it didn't matter.

I strode across the marble floor, looked at Sharon, who was just hanging up the phone.

"Phone tree," she said, "Mercantile just locked its doors, they're calling everyone on their side of the street, I'm calling the Jewel now."

"Bless you," I threw over my shoulder as I shoved through the first set of heavy glass doors.

I saw the figure in the middle of the street, turning, wild-eyed, a backpack clutched to his chest.

I wiped both  hammers back to full stand, brought the double gun my many times great Granddad used as a lawman, firmly to shoulder.

I advanced, deliberately, one step at a time.

"Set it down," I called, my voice loud, commanding, echoing off the fronts of the buildings.

It was morning yet.

I saw with my peripheral people were coming out, looking, pointing.

"GET INSIDE!" I  honestly roared.  "INSIDE AND LOCK THE DOORS!"

 

I have to kill them I have to kill them I have to kill them --

Panic ran a human heart faster and harder than it was ever supposed to run -- panic, and something else.

One thought, and one thought alone, filled the brain:  one focus, one screaming drive, like an insane tornado --

I have to kill them I have to kill them I have to kill them --

 

Will came in from the other side, behind this Jack Doe with wild eyes and a blue nylon backpack clutched to his chest like something precious.

I saw him brake hard, turn the passenger side of his restored Crown Vic toward us, back up a little, blocking the street.

Will got out, carbine in hand:  he raised a hand, waved, I lifted my chin in acknowledgement.

The report that came in to Sharon, our dispatcher, was something about a bomb, about some John Doe talking to himself and pleading that he had to kill them, all of them, but he wouldn't say who "them" was.

I walked steadily closer.

I didn't know who "them" was, but I knew if he had a bomb, he could kill many people, fast.

If he tried to run, I was going to drop him, I figured to give him both barrels without hesitation.

I advanced while he looked around, whispering something -- I saw his lips move -- then he looked at me and let out just a God awful scream of nothing short of sheer, undadulterated terror.

"ALL OF YOU, GET AWAY FROM ME!" -- his voice was little short of a woman's scream, high, shrill, the sound of someone in utter torment, in agony beyond description -- "GET BACK OR I'LL KILL YOU!  ALL OF YOU!"

"It's just you and me, friend," I called back, pitching my voice to carry, to carry clearly but not with overt threat:  "we're alone here, suppose you set that down so we can talk."

 

A pale eyed schoolteacher stood in the street, a '76 Winchester in hand: she cycled the action, fed the long, shining brass cartridge into the breech.

Beside her, another woman with pale eyes: she wore the brief tunic of a Grecian warrior-maiden, her curly black hair was held out of the way atop her head with a golden band, one shoulder was bare, her sandals wrapped to her knees:  she smiled, ever so slightly, as she held a nocked arrow with just a slight tension on her bowstring.

Beside her, a pale eyed woman in a white skinsuit, with a blued steel .357, the gold inlaid Thunder Bird adding a touch of barbaric splendor to her chosen warmaker.

Other women, other weapons:  a woman in a long dress, drawing the flint-jawed striker of a Brown Bess musket back to full stand; another yet, with an engraved model of 1873 One of One Thousand, inlaid with a six point star on the port side of the breech.

Pale-eyed Death filled the street, full width, and pale-eyed Death advanced on silent feet, following the pale eyed lawman with the ancient, Damascus barrel, double gun.

 

"I'LL KILL YOU ALL!"

His voice was panicked, insane, and I knew he was not far from some stupid action.

I saw him grip a handle -- it looked like a lawn mower's pull handle -- he seized it like he was going to pull it --

No more time, take him out!

The front bead was already just below his chin, he was maybe thirty feet from me, I slapped the front trigger --

 

Chief of Police Will Keller saw the man's right shoudler drop, saw the empty street behind his nephew, knew Linn would have a precise aim with his shotgun, knew the shot swarm would not spread beyond the subject's body --

The shoulder dropped --

Will's finger tightened on the carbine's smooth, curved trigger --

 

Panicked eyes, panicked voice, a last shivering scream of loss and despair as he saw all those pale eyed warrior women lean forward into a flat-out charge --

 

I came to laying flat on my back, looking up at my Uncle, feeling his fingers pressing down beside my Adam's apple.

I swallowed, or tried to.

I did manage to blink.

Will leaned back on his haunches, looked up at the approaching squad, looked back down at me.

It sounded like the squad was responding from the other end of the county, I could barely hear it for the red ringing in my ears, and it felt like I'd been slapped in the face, clear down to my kneecaps.

I reached up and grabbed Will's hand.

I saw his lips move, I knew he said something but damned if I could hear a thing: I wasn't sure I could move much of anything else, but I did, I turned my head enough to see Bruce Jones's daughter lowering her camera, and damned if she didn't put my picture on the front page, a-layin' there in the middle of the street, Uncle Will down on one knee beside me, and us grippin' hands the way men will when they just dodged the noon freight.

Uncle Will called in the State boys to help with the investigation, since he'd put lead into the back of that fella's head -- Will cussed about that when we debriefed, after I'd got some hearing back, he allowed as he should have shot two seconds sooner, maybe he'd have kept it from going boom.

I do know they played hell scraping up enough blown-apart tissue to analyze.

The coroner told me later they wanted to know what that fella took that drove him to blow himself up, that drove him wild eyed insane and mumblin' to himself and then screamin' for "Them" to get back, whoever "Them" was.

"We analyzed what we could," the coroner told us,"but what he took to drive him insane?"

He shook his head.

"There are several compounds that will do it, but realistically?"  He shrugged.  "We will never know."

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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670. MAMA, CAN I KICK HIM NOW?

 

Women are mysterious creatures that I've studied all my life, and if you took everything I know for a fact about the female of the species, you could tamp it down into a sewing thimble and have room enough to pour in a quart of whiskey on top.

I recall I was in conversation with the State Police and the coroner, we were discussing sending tissue samples for further testing and I felt Shelly grab my arm, and of a sudden this-here tin folding chair run up and drove itself into my backside.

Hard.

I'm settin' there with two or three sets of hands on my shoulders and I'll swear I was the only thing keeping all them people from falling over.

I was doing fine, they were wobbling and wobbling bad, so I reached down and grabbed the slant legs on that-there folding tin chair and held on tight, for the whole damned floor felt like it was assuming a distinct list to starboard.

I say that women are marvelous and mysterious creatures, for one moment 'twas three State Troops, the coroner and myself, and then I felt my wife's grip and heard her voice, and I got laid back and picked up, chair and all, and I had me a death grip on that chair and I had to close my eyes to stop that room from pitching down at the bow and rolling up like we were head-on into a heavy sea.

I recall someone said somethin' about bein' blue and they set me down, it was a little cooler so likely we were out in the lobby, it was always cooler out there than 'twas in the squad room, I felt Shelly's fingers dance down my front and my God she's undressing me right here in public! -- I got leaned forward and Shelly's murmur in my ear to let go of the chair and I let go and it felt like I was going to float up ag'in the ceiling.

I recall the sound of velcro ripping free and 'twas not until they shed my vest off me that I realized --

-- that 's my armor they were stripping off --

I heard the clatter of hard wheels, wheels on the polished quartz floor, I was picked up and laid out on a narrow bed and Shelly's face kind of floated up in front of me and I could see she was talkin' and damned if I could hear a thing and then my arms got yanked up above my head, I felt cold places on my chest and then I flinched and something sharp cut into me and I had not enough get up and go in me to say ouch.

 

"Chest tube is in."

"Nice insertion. Secure it, hang the drainage bag."

"Got that IV?"

"Tubing's bled and ready."

"I'm in, plug me in, turn me on."

Practiced fingers opened the valve, practiced eyes gauged the flow through the drip chamber.

"Tape."

A sting, a burn: why are they needling my arm? 

Nothing wrong with me, I got work to do.

Something green and cold and funny smelling on my face.

Why are they running oxygen on me?

Sunlight, blasting my retinas: I tried to squeeze my eyes shut and barely got them mostly closed.

Floating, floating, darkness, blessed shadow:  it was cooler now, cooler ...

I can relax now.

 

Shelly seized the bottom bar of the ambulance cot, looked across at Big John, dropped her backside.
"On three, my count," she said, her voice low, musical, as it always was when she was ready to hoist the cot:  "One, two, three."

Lawmen tried to reach in to help hoist, but it was awkward for them: the two medics took up the best hoist room, the squad's broad back doors prevented getting any closer, and the Coroner knew if he seized the foot of the cot and helped lift, it would tilt the head down and prevent the ambulance cot's wheels from rolling onto the linoleum deck.

The cot rolled foward, Big John slammed the spring-loaded cot hook open with the heel of his hand, Shelly steered it into engagement.

She dropped back on one foot, launched herself into the back, Big John right behind her:  the Captain was behind the wheel in the next moment.

Just before the back doors swung to and latched, the Coroner looked at the drainage bag swinging from the side of the cot ... the drainage bag and the looped tubing, bright with the contained blood draining from the deputy's collapsed left lung.

 

Violette Lingle was Marnie's classmate Twinkle's big sister.

Violette Lingle favored the Big Hair of a generation ago, out of honest rebellion: she did not identify with her peer group, she set herself apart from her peers by dressing in fashions of the 70s, and she drove much too fast every chance she got.

Marnie looked up from the steaming pot of hand cut noodles, noodles she'd rolled out, sliced into ribbons with a very sharp knife, noodles she'd introduced to the boiling broth, noodles she intended to serve for supper.

Her ear pulled a little, as if tugged by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger, and she smiled as she plied the ancient wooden spoon in the fragrant, carefully spiced pot:  she recognized the car's swift approach, she heard it power around two curves, then she heard tires protest on pavement, she heard gravel as the speeder whipped off the paved roadway and into their driveway -- 

She's coming too fast, Marnie thought:  is that even Violette?

Marnie twisted the knob, shut off the fire:  she wiped her hands quickly on her apron, opened a tall, narrow cupboard door and pulled out a Winchester rifle:  she skipped for the front door, opened it.

Violette almost fell out of the car.

She scrambled toward the porch, her mouth open, not making a sound until she leaped from the ground over the steps, grabbed Marnie's shoulders, pinned her against the door.

Startled, Marnie shoved the rifle's action into her attacker's belly.

Hard.

Violette released the younger teen's shoulders.

"It's your Dad," she blurted. "They just took him by squad."

Marnie's face went pale and her eyes went dead white.

"Noodles on the stove," Marnie said, her voice tight. "Stay with the kids.  Give the noodles two more minutes, no heat."

Marnie twisted around Violette, leaped from the porch, sprinted for the barn:  Violette's hands were across her belly as she reminded herself to breathe.

She was going to offer to drive Marnie and her younger siblings to the hospital, and bring them back, but as she recovered her composure, as she took slower, deeper breaths, as she turned to reach for the doorknob, she heard the sound of hooves, their cadence fast, desperate, from behind the barn.

It was not the first time a woman rode thusly.

It was not the first time a woman rode with a long gun across her saddlebow, with war in her heart, with her hair floating in the slipstream.

It was not the first time a woman rode with a single minded determination, rode on behalf of a pale eyed lawman who'd been hurt.

The path she took was not the one ridden by the famous green-eyed Carolina Belle, Esther Keller, when it was her Linn Keller who lay with blood coming from his chest.

No, this was a pale eyed woman, she was considerably younger than her honored ancestress, and she rode a copper colored stallion instead of a paint mare.

Marnie Keller stood up in the stirrups, her hands welded to the Winchester, screaming defiance into the wind, and the stallion laid his ears back and thrust his head forward and punched a hole in the air with his nose.

 

Marnie came into the hospital from behind, came into the ambulance bay.

The stallion dropped his haunches, slowed fast, turned:  Marnie kicked free, thrust her off palm hard against the saddlehorn, turned in mid-air: she came down on the balls of her feet, turned.

The sliding glass doors were open as the ambulance crew came back out, solemn-faced:  Marnie snarled as she powered into a sprint, turning the momentum of her jump into a determined run.

Lawmen were being politely shooed out of the ER by the charge nurse; Marnie stopped in the doorway, blocking their path.

One man, taller than the rest, had rank on his shoulder, his uniform cover under his arm.

Marnie fixed him with a pale eyed glare, walked up to him, looked up at him.

"Captain," she said, "hold this."

She shoved the Winchester into his hands.

"What do you plan to do, Miss?" he asked.

Marnie looked past him, at the several lawmen, an X-ray tech and other scrub-suited staff, all staring at her.

She looked back up at the State Police Captain.

"Sir, have you ever gone hand-to-hand with my father?"

"Your father?"

"I'm the Sheriff's daughter."  She took a long breath, looked back up at the Captain.

"I need you to hold that because it'll take both hands to kick my father's BACKSIDE up between his SHOULDER BLADES!"

Marnie twisted around the man, stomped up the row of ER alcoves: she slipped in behind a woman carrying a tray of blood tubes, behind Dr. Greenlees, reached in , gripped her father's hand.

Shelly Keller, wife of the pale eyed deputy and mother to the surprising young woman who had the sand to give orders to to a State Police Captain, slipped between lawmen she knew and lawmen she didn't, following her daughter.

"Linn Keller," she heard her daughter declare, "do NOT die on me, I will NOT COUNTENANCE it!"

Linn opened his eyes a little, looked at the intense face of a pale eyed girl standing beside his ER cart, a young woman, all flannel shirt and big pale eyes and braids.

Shelly nudged Dr. Greenlees, who removed his stethoscope's eartips from his ears and backed up a step to let the woman in.

"Linn Keller," Shelly said firmly, "I would listen to her if I were you!"

Linn reached up, his left hand shivering a little as he pulled the mask from his face a fraction of an inch.

Marnie heard oxygen hissing in the mask, she heard her father's voice, weak and hollow-sounding under the molded, green-plastic rebreather.

Linn gathered what little strength he still had, and just before his left arm gave out and dropped the mask and fell limp across his chest, he managed to reply to the most important ladies in his life.

It took all the strength he had left, but he managed to mumble "Yes ma'am," and then Dr. Greenlees shooed mother, daughter, lawmen and medics out so the injured deputy could be wheeled down to Radiology for a CT scan.

 

Marnie and Shelly stood, their arms around each other's waist, watching husband and father disappear behind the steel-sheathed hardwood doors.

"Mama?" Marnie asked quietly.

"Yes?"

"Can I kick him in the shins?"

Shelly bit her bottom lip: she raised a shaking hand, wiped the wet from her cheekbones.

"Not yet," she whispered.

It was not until the next day, not until he was well enough to receive  visitors, that his little girl rode to the hospital, ground-reined her Daddy's red stallion out back, walked in like she owned the place:  Shelly was already in the patient's room, holding his hand.

Linn looked up as Marnie came in, silent in her trademark red boots and uncharacteristically in blue jeans.

Marnie went around to the other side of the bed, took her Daddy's other hand in both of hers.

Linn looked from one to the other, squeezed their hands, just a little.

"Ladies," he whispered.

"You had us worried," Shelly said softly.

"My apologies," Linn said, his voice weak.  "Find my clothes, I've got to get back to work!"

Two ladies' hands rested flat on the injured lawman's upper chest:  mother and daughter said with one voice, "No."

"But I wanna," Linn whined in a petulant little-boy voice, and then laughed, just a little.

Marnie looked at her Mama, shook her head.

"Mama, can I kick him now?"

 

 


 

 

 

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671. THE SHERIFF'S GRANDDAUGHTER

Chief of Police Will Keller looked up at the shadow on the other side of his frosted glass window, stood.

"IN!" he barked, placing his pen very precisely along the right margin of his report sheet.

His visitor did not insert a tentative, fearful head.

No, the door swung well open, revealing a tall man with broad shoulders and a well tailored uniform.

"Chief," he said, "you should see this."

Will rose, extended his hand:  his visitor stepped in, drew the door shut, held out a spiral bound notebook.

Will sat, placed it on his desk, opened the front cover: he frowned, riffled quickly through the pages, from back to front.

"Consecutively numbered," he murmured, "handwriting is precise for the numbering ... consistent, clear, no sign of fatigue."

He read the last pages, then scanned through it.

His visitor waited, standing at an easy parade rest.

"Captain," Will murmured, "you know you can sit down."

He sat, offering no comment.

He looked up, removed his half-glasses.  "Your people have already analyzed this."

"They have."

"Your conclusion?"

"Increasing paranoia, but by distinct leaps. We think this corresponds with increased drug use."

"That would be my conclusion. Does it say" -- he tapped the handwritten page with a neatly-trimmed fingernail -- "where he got the explosive?"

"It lists multiple possible sources, but in the last pages he's very particular as to type, source, amount, detonator and intended targets, with primary strike, secondary and tertiary, with suicide detonation as a last resort if caught."

The Captain paused, then:  

"Sheriff, how is Deptuy Keller?"

The Chief looked up, his pale eyes hard, cold.

He ignored the Captain's slip and growled, "He's healing."

The Captain nodded.

"The device was very simple, very powerful."

Will nodded, turned a page, turned another.

"Lone wolf attacker, no known associates.  He intended to hit multiple targets himself.  Straightforward ripcord detonator. If your nephew hadn't stopped him, from what we've learned from surveillance video, he would've bolted."

"Does your intel show where he would have gone?"

"Page sixty-two."

Will turned to the indicated page.

The Captain saw him not just freeze, but petrify: after the space of several breaths, he saw the Chief's good right hand close, slowly, tightly, until his knuckles were blanched, his fist trembling slightly.

The Captain heard one, then another of Will's knuckles pop with the strength of his clench.

Chief Will Keller closed his eyes, took a slow, deep breath, let it out, looked up.

"His daughter," she said slowly, "indicated she was going to kick my nephew's backside up between his shoulder blades."

"I seem to remember," the Captain said slowly, "hearing something about that."

"From what you're telling me ... he doesn't need a boot print on his hip pockets."

"No."

"Do we know what drugs the sub was taking?"

"We do now."

Will raised an eyebrow.

"Is it what we thought?"

"It is.  Continued use causes increasing paranoia.  From what we're reading in that" -- he thrust his chin toward the spiral-bound, open on her green desk blotter -- "it was having that exact effect."

"Why a mass casualty event?" he whispered, shaking his head.  "Even in paranoia ... I can see him coming after an oppressor ... but why ...?"

"Why a group of innocents?"  The Captain shook his head.  "We scoured his notes. Nothing pertaining to victimology was found, not here in this notebook, nowhere else. There were no other notes, no journals, nothing.  He had no personal library, his computer showed little but porn. I was expecting to find some confused reference to taking a multitude of souls with him so they could serve as personal slaves in the Afterlife, but  ..."

The Captain shook his head, slowly.

"We didn't find anything.  Zip, nothing."

"I'll need a copy of this."

"We'll have one in your hands in six hours."

"Appreciate that.  Anything else for me?"

"No."  He rose.  "Actually, yes there is."

Chief of Police Keller rose with him.

"The deputy's daughter."

"My niece.  Keller, Marnie L, thirteen years old.  Pale eyes, red cowboy boots."

"And a Winchester rifle."

"I gave it to her."

The Captain leaned forward, rested his knuckles on the edge of the desk.  

"I'm not used to being ordered around by a little girl."

"Get used to it," Will growled.  "She is her grandmother's granddaughter, and she is no respecter of persons."

The Captain straightened, tried not to smile.

"Willamina's granddaughter," the Captain said softly.  "I should have known."

Two ranking officers looked at one another, solemnity falling from their faces as they shared a quiet laugh together.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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672. AND THE SHERIFF SLEPT

Sheriff Marnie Keller very carefully, very precisely, changed her infant son's diaper, wondering aloud for the ten millionth time how soon she could housebreak this squealing, wiggling little ordure factory.

The soiled diaper went in the recyclo, a fresh one dispensed: life was far easier with the Confederate recyclers, for waste could be ripped apart at the subatomic level and reassembled into any compound desired, any element or combination of elements.

She'd listened to her pale eyed Gammaw talk about washing dirty cotton diapers and how much handier disposables were, and part of her wished her Gammaw could see how much more convenient the recyclers were ... but she was well beyond exhausted, and muscle memory alone got her little boy-child clean and powdered and diapered up, wrapped in a blanket and held across her as she leaned back and closed her eyes.

Dr. John Greenlees came in less than a half hour later, saw his wife, holding their child, her face lined with stress, dark under the eyes from a lack of sleep, sound asleep from good honest fatigue: he carefully draped a hand stitched quilt (a gift from Confederate ladies, family of those she'd saved when the Confederate transport took a meteor strike and the Sheriff kept some of the crew alive) -- he draped his wife and child, and then he stretched out beside them, laid his arm over them, and honestly passed out.

It had been a really bad day.

Decompression, and structural collapse both: their disaster procedures kept the colony from utter destruction, their training saved lives, their engineering and technology automatically sealed sections, preserving atmosphere from catastrophic escape, but there'd been casualties.

Marnie was out on an investigation when it happened: as usual, she wore her skinsuit; when the atmosphere first dropped, her faceplace automatically deployed and sealed, and when the first alarm went off, she shoved two people aside to get to the nearest comm-station, punched in her Sheriff's override code, looked with hard and pale eyes at the sections affected.

Dr. John Greenlees honestly hadn't had many patients.

Catastrophic decompression is a fast way to die, and those who died, died fast -- some from the loss of atmosphere, others crushed: it was a freak, a fluke, a cascade of structural failures in the strata overhead: the jury was still out as to whether it was a heavy meteor strike that caused the initial collapse.

Dr. John Greenlees did not know, and he honestly did not care.

All he knew was, he'd been up just shy of 20 hours, and his wife had been up for 26, and from what he'd seen, every waking moment she'd been on task -- assembling rescue teams, directing excavations, treating the injured.

She'd fallen back on her experience of many years ago, when her pale eyed Daddy was too close to an explosion: two of the first casualties to be carried into the surgical bay bore tags on their chest, in his wife's handwriting, and both said the same thing:

SHOCK LUNG NEEDLE THOR LEFT.

Sure enough, Dr. John Greenlees found each to have the finger of a rubber glove tied over the base of an IV needle, the needle punched between the ribs somewhere below the armpit; the end of the cut-off glove was barely snipped, and acted as a one-way valve, allowing extraneous air from around a collapsing lung to escape, and not re-enter:  the lungs were pumping themselves back up, because of her quick action, and the lean, long-fingered physician and surgeon knew this was not something he'd taught her.

It was not the first time, he knew, her lifetime in Firelands taught her lessons she brought with her, to the benefit of their Martian colony.

 

Shelly sat hunched over beside her husband, elbows on her knees, staring at the screen.

Dr. Greenlees was describing Marnie's actions during their catastrophe: he referred to official reports, news bulletins and other intel that may or may not be released to the general public.

Linn and Shelly knew that politics rule all things, especially something as Ungodly expensive as the space program; Martian news had been carefully edited -- ("read censored," he'd cynically commented to his nodding-in-agreement wife) to present the best face to the taxpaying public.

Their son-in-law's report came over a secure channel, courtesy the Confederacy, via a method of communication which which Earth was unfamiliar: not only was it clearer than traditional channels, it was also real-time, avoiding the twelve to fourteen minute delay getting a signal from here to there, or vice versa.

John carried the little camera over to where Marnie and their child lay sleeping: he walked quietly, not wanting to wake his wife, but wanting his parents-in-law to see their daughter, alive, well, sleeping, getting some rest.

Marnie opened her eyes, smiled drowsily.

"Is that Mom and Dad?" she asked quietly, and Dr. Greenlees nodded.

"Mama," she said to the hand-held sphere with the little round glass eye, "I used what you taught me and it worked."  She closed her eyes and smiled gently, then opened her light-blue eyes once more.

"Daddy, I still need to kick your backside for scaring me like that!"

Dr. Greenlees turned the volume down quickly, and a good thing.

Linn's laughter at that shared memory was most heartfelt.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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673. SKULKERS, AND LITTLE BOYS

Sheriff Linn Keller knew he was watched.

He knew every time he appeared in public, eyes were on him: he knew his words were heard, weighed, judged; he knew his very appearance inspired confidence -- which was one reason his professional attire was a black suit and a necktie -- he knew his voice set the tone for any conversation, he knew the attention he paid to a speaker was a message, a comment on whoever was speaking: he knew also that, even when he was not in public and performing in his official capacity, that he was probably going to be watched.

He knew, for instance, that his grandsons' eyes were more often than not, on him as he labored: when this was obvious, he would call the young watcher to him, and immediately involve the young in whatever he was doing -- whether it was brushing his hat, whetting a knife blade, splitting wood, mending fence, or checking his horse's hooves.

He knew he was watched when he went to practice with his pistols.

He counted on this.

He'd taken boards unfit for much else -- boards weathered, warped, unwanted and unloved, and set them side by side, lashed them to a rude frame; the center board was missing -- he then added two short boards, so he had a rude, scrap-plank rectangle, with a hole in the middle, a hole, little bigger than a number two tin can.

He knew that eyes were upon him as he took whitewash and anointed the warpy boards, as he turned it from weathered grey to pristine white:  it took multiple coats, for whitewash tends to be kind of thin, but the boards were thirsty and the sun was strong, and after several applications of the fuzzy, wore-out brush, he had a white rectangle that he knew would fade and turn greyish in less than a week -- more, if it rained.

Another string, a few moments of labor, and a number two tin can hung in the hole in the middle.

He poked it experimentally with a stiff forefinger, swung it back and forth; he nodded his satisfaction, dusted his hands briskly together, turned around, paced away from the planks.

He casually removed a deck of cards from his coat pocket, sifted them from one hand to another, stuck the deck back in his pocket:  he turned suddenly, his coat flaring, and his left-hand Colt drove forward and spoke.

The tin can swung briskly on its corded tether.

Sheriff Linn Keller nodded as the smoke cloud drifted off to his left:  he flipped open the loading gate, staring at the swinging can, his fingers busy:  an empty hull hit bare dirt at his boot toe, he lowered the muzzle and dunked in a fresh round, clicked the cylinder around a few times, shut the gate and lowered the hammer.

The engraved Colt's revolver disappeared under his coat.

A few more steps, a turn:  this time he turned to his right, his right hand Colt drove forward and spat death and fire and the can swung again, another hole ripping through its tinned side:  again, the Sheriff turned, casually looking around instead of at the target; the quiet, metallic click-click-click of his labors plainly heard both by those who would gauge a lawman's skill, and by those who watched with bright and admiring young eyes.

Linn turned, turned again; he walked at his usual pace across in front of the target, at some random moment, drawing the revolver nearest, sending another hole whistling through space and into the metal; a casual reload, a turn, walk the other way -- again, crossing in front of the target -- BANG and the can, by now seriously the worse for his attentions, flinched and wobbled on its fraying tether.

Linn reached into the coat pocket, wordlessly withdrew a playing card:  he walked over to this planks, selected a likely crack, stuck the card in it, edge-on to him.

A whispered voice:  "He ain't!" -- then, "He cain't!" -- Linn paced back, straight back from the target:  he drew his left hand Colt, eared the hammer back --

BANG! --

two halves of a playing card fluttered to the ground --

Three cards replaced the one, each spaced a foot or so apart:  admiring little boys and increasingly uncomfortable outlaws watched as the pale eyed lawman with iron grey mustache raised his engraved Colt revolvers, left, then right, and two of the three flew, cut neatly at the belt line.

The third card had a little bow to it:  it didn't fly in two, but it did bend over:  the bullet caught it across the small of the back, so to speak, leaving only two thin webs of pasteboard:  the card bent slowly at its waist, dramatically surrendering to the effects of a .44 caliber pistol bullet cutting through most of its mass.

Linn knew he was watched, both by the lawful, and by the lawless:  he took another can, one he'd scrounged from the dump, he'd filled it with water, laid its lid back over and dribbled wax enough on it to seal:  he gripped it in his good right hand, dipped his knees as he swung his arm back, then pitched it hard, under handed, straight up.

The can wobbled into the clear Colorado sky, at least until it detonated in an impressive spray, the waxed-on lid blowing clear off and sailing off to who-knows-where.

Linn only got a little bit wet on that one, for he'd tossed it near to straight up as he could.

Two grinning little boys waited until he was gone, then they ran forward and picked up the cards he'd shot in two, the cards he carefully "forgot" to pick up when he picked up after himself.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller held the can of chicken soup in his left hand, the blued-steel Smith in his right:  he swung the can and the revolver both back, slung the can hard up, raised the pistol in a matching arc: the full-house, hard-cast .357 turned a spinning can of soup into a most impressive geyser, and Will was grateful he'd worn his cover:  he opened the cylinder, replaced the one fired round, holstered, then removed his eight point milkman hat and laughed.

He flipped a wet noodle off the cover with a flick of his finger.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled as she read the hand written letter.

The sender was from far to their west; the name was one she knew, from her research of the several ancestries associated with Firelands.

It described an old man, with his very little girl on his lap, showing her precious artifacts of their family, and describing how his Daddy was a little boy when a pale eyed Sheriff shot cans full of water and blew great sprays of canned water over most of the sky with one shot, how the man shot playing cards edgewise, how his Daddy -- as a big-eyed, admiring little boy -- gathered the several halves of the bisected pasteboards, and kept them as precious artifacts of his childhood, and how these managed to be handed down through the family.

Willamina opened the smaller envelope that came in the big one, and she smiled as she poured four fragments of old-fashioned playing cards into her hand:  she laid them on her desk, arranged them so the cut edges were together, matched them up, leaving a .44-caliber gap between the lead-tinted, slightly-ragged edges, then she leaned back and looked at a row of framed portraits hung on the wall beside her rolltop desk.

Her granddaughter Marnie, in her cheerleader's uniform and her issue Sheriff's gunbelt and holster, holding her Uncle's spare .357, and two halves of a playing card, and the halves in the framed, matted picture -- testimony to her accuracy.

Her son Linn, in flannel shirt and blue jeans, holding a single action .44, and two halves of the Four of Diamonds, and in the frame with the pictures, the two halves.

Willamina, in her suit dress and heels, holding a stainless Government .45 and two halves of the Ace of Diamonds.

Her twin brother Will, holding two halves of the Ace of Spades ... with those two halves in the picture frame with the portrait.

Willamina looked at the portrait of Old Pale Eyes, re-framed and carefully matted.

She looked at the bisected cards, looked at her ancestor's pale eyed portrait, and decided that there was room at the corners of the matting for the four fragments of the cards, those carefully harvested treasures, courtesy an admiring little boy.

"That," Willamina said aloud, smiling just a little, "will be proper!"

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674. A WOMAN'S TEARS

 

Linn's left arm shot out and around the child's waist, snapping her over his forearm, folding her like a pair of jeans with the speed and strength of his seizure.

His right arm ran around the child's mother's tenderloins as his chest drove into the mother's front, her arm clamping the screaming infant to her: he hit her hard, he powered her ten feet, straightened: the urgency of the moment gave him strength he didn't know he had, he stood, pale eyes hard and focused, and he took a mental snapshot of the departing license plate -- back straight, arms tight, mother's feet three feet off the ground and the little girl's sneakers a like distance as well.

He bent quickly at the knees -- he stopped a moment, waited until the ladies got their feet under them -- he released mother and child, stood, gripped the mother's shoulders:  "Deep breath, ma'am" -- he plucked the shoulder mic from his epaulet, spoke quietly, his voice tight.

There was no mistaking the subject vehicle's plate.

Adrenaline sharpens the vision.

He could have drawn a diagram of that plate, with every gravel chip and mud splatter clearly and accurately indicated.

Linn gripped the blanket-wrapped infant, turned, laid it on the hood of the car: he unwrapped the unhappy little fellow, all wiggle and scream and fists clenched and waving: he was satisfied he hadn't crushed the child between himself and the mother, but he wanted to look and be sure.

After a quick examination, after working the child's kicking legs and carefully assessing chest, breathing, symmetry and degree of expansion, he nodded, wrapped the child again.

The mother was trying to be strong; she was pale, she was trembling, her little girl was holding her Mama's hand and looking uncertainly at the tall deputy with the mustache going to grey.

Linn winked at the child, smiled at the mother, handed over the protesting infant.

"Just stand there and get your wind back," he said gently, then turned, looked toward the roadway, and casually sauntered back around to where he'd just gotten the last lug nut loose on her driver's front tire.

It was the work of a very few minutes to change the young mother's tire: he'd kept the daughter from being clipped, at best, and from being outright killed, at worst: the mother was moving toward her child, probably to draw her back from the roadway, when the idiot driver nearly sideswiped the cruiser, cut in tight and Linn was prepared to swear he thought the back bumper's edge almost caught the decorative stripe down his trouser leg.

He snugged up the last lug nut, straightened, twisted a little, settling his vertebrae back in place: like his pale eyed predecessor with the iron grey mustache, he'd been born with a sway back, and sometimes he had to assume what he called "Undignified Positions," to get a displaced disc back where it belonged.

Linn knew from his radioed report that every uniform in the county would be looking for that particular vehicle that nearly caused death and injury.

The little girl, bright-eyed and curious, tilted her head and pointed:  "What's dat?" she asked, then giggled, one pink finger going to the corner of her mouth.

Puzzled, Linn looked down, his fingers finding the source of her curiosity.

The heavy stripe down his trouser leg was torn loose along the side of his left thigh.

It was frayed some, and dirty.

The corner of that back bumper did catch him after all, but only just.

Linn blinked, swallowed.

He hadn't even noticed, so focused was he on getting mother and child the HELL out of the WAY!

"That," he replied to a curious eight-year-old's question, "is a repair job."

His head came up: a vehicle came over the rise behind them.

 

Linn raised a commanding palm, stepping out into the roadway: the beat-up old Chevy pickup slowed quickly, the passenger rolled down the window, shoved a grinning head out:  "Howdy, Linn, what'd we do this time?" 

"Go to hell and eat a doughnut," Linn called back, laughing: it was an old joke between them, involving a box of fresh pastries and his old friend's first day on the job.  "I need your tail gate, pull over."

The pickup pulled over, backed up; driver and passenger bailed out, ran around, dropped the tailgate, just in time for Linn to spread a blanket from the back of his cruiser, relieve the trembling young mother of her infant, snatch up the diaper bag and drop it to the tailgate beside the red-faced, crying child.

The recent arrivals looked at one another with an expression of distaste as Linn pulled on a pair of exam gloves, pulled the child's diaper tape free; he excavated the diaper bag, brought out what he'd need, laid it out in a neat row, and with quick, practiced hands, proceeded to change the diaper of a crying, wiggling, pink, less than happy infant, who was busy telling the world at large, and the mustached deputy in particular, of his loud-voiced, absolute and distinct displeasure!

His old friends watched solemnly, offering no comment until the infant was clean, powdered, diapered, wrapped, handed back:  only then did Mortimer turn to his brother and deadpan, "I was one of those?"

 

Emmett Maxwell's eyes were quiet as he considered the mother and daughter who crossed his threshold.

She was nervous -- he could tell something must have happened, but she had a lid on things, women are like that -- she was hesitant, indecisive, but finally thrust a folded paper at him and said "A Sheriff told me to give you this."

Emmett smiled a little as she did, as he gently took it from between her slightly trembling fingers.

"Tall fellow, pale eyes, curled mustache?"

"Yeah," the eight-year-old declared happily, bouncing on her toes, "an' he's got a repair job!"

Emmett smiled, laughed quietly.  "I know him," he nodded.  "Make yourselves to home."

The note was tri-folded, half a sheet of note paper; it was sealed with red wax, a stamp he recognized.

"Ma'am," he said, "what did the Sheriff say to do?"

"He said if I came up the road another half mile and looked right, I would see the big old fashioned gas pumps out front, and I should stop and give you this."

He nodded, smiled a little.

"Why'nt you two have a set. I've got coffee made an' he'p yourself, ladies' room is yonder" -- he turned, pointed with a bladed hand -- "an' it's clean, m' wife gives me hell if it ain't!"

She smiled at his chuckle; mother and daughter disappeared into the indicated refuge.

Emmett smiled, opened the register, slipped the folded note under the cash drawer, looked over at a teen-age boy, all big hands and long legs, waiting in a shadowed corner.

"Let's see what she needs," Emmett said quietly.

 

"Sharon," Linn said into his cell phone as he settled back behind the cruiser's wheel, "is the Ladies' Tea Society meeting today?"

"Yes they are," Sharon smiled -- he could hear it in her voice -- "I saw them coming up the sidewalk across the street."

"Could you do me a large flavor," Linn drawled, "and call over there."

"O-kaaaay," Sharon said, drawling the word out suspiciously.  "And tell them ...?"

"Angelicus."

There was a long silence, and Linn could hear Sharon pull the phone away from her ear and look at it like it suddenly turned into a fuzzy puppy in her hand.

"Angelicus?  Just that?"

"Yep."

He heard her patient sigh.  "Linn, I don't know why I put up with you!"

The lean waisted deputy laughed.  "It's because you're younger, smarter and better lookin' than me," he declared, "not necessarily in that order!"

"I still don't know why I put up with you," Sharon teased.

"It's because I'm bringing doughnuts!" Linn crowed, laughing, looking in his side mirror before planting a well polished Wellington on the brake and pulling the shifter into gear.  

 

A young mother stood in a new-smellng apartment's kitchen, with her infant child drowsing against her chest.

Her face was wet; she sat very still and watched through the doorway as her daughter strutted happily across the room, patted the newly made bed, looked up with an expression of delight.

"Mine?"
"Yours," the pretty lady in the old fashioned dress nodded.

An eight year old pair of legs ran the rest of her across the room, hugged her wordless thanks as the laughing woman in the big hat and burgundy gown dipped her knees quickly to receive the juvenile charge.

Another of the several women in long dresses steered the young mother to a chair.

Tea appeared, hot and steaming; ladies settled around the table, elegant and quiet-voiced, the infant was passed from one gloved pair of hands to another:  there were ooh's and aah's, experienced and motherly hands held, bounced, cuddled and caressed the smiling, drowsy litttle boy-child:  a spit-rag was quickly draped, the child was laid over a shoulder, patted, face-wiped to get rid of the spit-up.

 

Linn eased the cruiser to a stop, got out, walked into Emmett's station, poured himself a coffee.

He drizzled a little milk from a sweat-beaded carton, took a noisy slurp, looked up at his uncle.

"Yes, they were here," he said without being asked.

Linn nodded:  he slurped again, set the cup down and knuckled tan droplies from his lip broom, reached for a hip pocket.

"Four tires, a tank of gas, oil change and grease job. Didn't give it too long a study but all the lights work.  Friend of yours?"

Emmett turned the slip to show the total; Linn counted out a stack of bills, smiled, shook his head.

"My favorite credit system," he murmured, "one hundred percent down and no monthly payments.  No, Uncle, never saw 'em before."

 

A young mother had gotten as far as she could before her tire gave out.

She'd been nearly out of gas.

She was out of money, at the end of her rope, lost.

Ill fortune and disasters stripped her of what little savings she'd had; her husband's death took her anchor, her protector, her provider: she was alone in the world, not even family, and no friends to speak of.

Now she sat on a chair in a kitchen, her child asleep against her bosom; part of her listened as one of the ladies listed the child-care supplies in the young mother's bedroom, as another ran over a list of what was in the filled refrigerator.

Her eyes turned to the doorway and she remembered the look of absolute delight on her daughter's face when she patted the hand-stitched quilt on the newly-made bed and asked, with the wide eyes and innocent voice of a little child, "Mine?"

The absolute last straw was where she looked at her gas gauge and realized she didn't have gas enough to make the next down, and then her tire blew.

She'd gotten the car to the shoulder, she'd laid her forehead against the back of her wheel-gripping hand, she closed her eyes and wished most powerfully that she could change things.

Out of gas, out of money, out of hope, blown tire, not just lost, but lost in the middle of nowhere --

She'd jumped a little at a quiet little rat-tat on her sideglass.

She'd opened her eyes, turned her head:  the window hummed down -- at least that still works! -- she saw a uniform and thought, "Oh, great, really bad just got worse."

A quiet, confident voice said, "Ma'am, if you'll pop your trunk release, I'll get that tire changed."

Now she had four new tires, a full tank of gas, an oil change and grease job; she had a place to stay, she had food in her refrigerator, her daughter had her own bed and her own bedroom, and a gloved hand gripped her hand, gowned ladies sat on either side of her and told her they'd be back tomorrow after she got settled in, and they would go clothes shopping for her and her daughter.

That's when everything caught up with her.

It's been said tears are the prayers we offer when we have no words.

In that moment, when tears ran freely down her face, when warm hands rested on her shoulders, on the backs of her knuckles, when womanly touch spoke the words she needed to hear, the words she herself could not speak, were clearly understood.

"Thank You."


 

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675. HEARING AID

Sheriff Willamina Keller stood with her legs crossed, one wrist-bend hand on her waist, the other raised to her face, tapping a finger thoughtfully against her cheekbone.

She was a good looking woman -- she dressed "Office Professional" as a matter of habit, reflecting her status as an administrator, as an executive; she wore a tailored suit dress and heels, she stood with elegance and confidence, her legs were sculpted and athletic, her smile gentle, and her eyes ...

Sheriff Willamina Keller's eyes were fading from amused blue to icy pale, and that was not a very good sign.

Sheriff Willamina Keller did not quail, shrink or whimper at the sight of a gun muzzle shoved at her.

She knew the stupid soul holding the gun was already scared, nervous at this breach of civil conduct.

He'd been screaming defiance, he'd been shouting threats to shoot everyone, and when the police outside drew back, and the door opened, and a women in a dress and heels walked in -- instead of the armed and armored warriors he was expecting -- he really was not entirely sure what to think.

Willamina came close, came closer, walking through the layers of threats he screamed into the fear-hushed atmosphere:  she stopped just out of arm's reach of the gunmuzzle, crossed her legs, intentionally striking a pose.

"I can't hear you," she said pleasantly.  "You're shouting too loud."

The unshaven, shaking holdup screamed "WHAT?" and suddenly the pleasantly smiling woman with the ice pale eyes wasn't there.

All of a sudden he was blind with pain as the gun twisted out of his hand, as his finger broke, as something seized his greasy and unwashed hair and introduced his face to the counter at a respectable velocity: the floor twisted and leaped up at him, and something like a dump truck slammed down on his back.

Shocked, wind knocked out, his nerves blasted with the pain of a shattered nose, a broken finger, a sprained wrist and two feminine knees driving his kidneys against his front ribs, he could but gasp.

Stainless steel snarled, the door slammed open, there was the sound of running feet, and hard hands seized the cuffed prisoner, hauled him upright, frogmarched him outside, leaving a trail of blood drops from a nose that now covered a surprising acreage of his face.

Willamina shook her hands as if to shake off something unclean.

"Mind if I wash up?" she asked casually to the staring soda jerk behind what used to be an immaculately-clean counter.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller, in a tailored suit dress and heels, skipped on the balls of her feet -- light, like a dancer, more floating with a feminine grace than advancing on the wanted felon -- she'd borrowed an old-fashioned, three-cell, heavy-aluminum flashlight from the Chief's cruiser, and as she flowed, all high heels and hemline and sculpted, stockinged legs: the watchers expected her to bash the three cell war club over the miscreant's head and put an end to the threats he uttered -- and his grip on a screaming, struggling woman's throat -- with a simple application of force.

She didn't.

She stopped, she dipped her knees:  her hand disappeared between his legs -- she turned the flashlight sideways, she hoisted, she brought him off his feet.

Startled, he let go of his victim's throat -- his feet, freed from their friction grip on the floor, flew straight back -- as the floor came up to meet him at a startling speed.

He, too, was reduced to pained possession, but not before the two of them rather vigorously rearranged the furniture and put runs in both the Sheriff's stockings.

Rumors to the effect that she used his head to open the door on her exit, are to be discounted as exaggeration.

She actually swung him up and body slammed him into the door to open it.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller curled her lip and whistled -- sudden, sharp, commanding.

A man with a knife turned, startled, his expression gone from snarling anger -- he was in control! -- to utter, unmitigated surprise, as the quiet click, click of a double hammer twelve spoke a quiet, distinct, metallic message, backed by the sight of twin Damascus barrels looking at his soul with wide and hungry eyes.

The Sheriff's voice was pleasant, musical: there was no need to shout, for the shocked silence was most profound.

"Drop the knife," the Sheriff said, "or I drop you."

The knife hit the floor.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller pressed a button on her control; the classroom's lights came up and the screen hummed quietly back into its home in the ceiling.

"Each of these instances, obviously, were captured by surveillance," she said to the blinking sea of lawmen's faces: recruits, trainees, men and women who'd chosen to put their lives behind a lawman's badge.  "Some were captured by multiple cameras. This is not an evidentiary video, but an educational video: it's obvious there were shots from different angles, there has been enhancement for educational clarity."

Her voice was clear, it carried well; she was dressed as she was in each of the videos -- her trademark tailored suit dress and heels, her hair Marine-short but feminine: she was a daughter of the mountains, her complexion clear, flawless; if she had a vanity, perhaps her only vanity was a refusal to wear makeup.

She didn't need it, anyway.

The pale eyed Sheriff raised a teaching finger.

"My father was a wise man," she declared.  "He taught me at a very young age, 'When in doubt, cheat.' "  She smiled; there were more puzzled looks in return than there were smiles.

"I'm not talking about doing that which is illegal, immoral or fattening, not necessarily in that order."

She shifted her weight; she stood erect, she had the air of someone who was absolutely in charge, and knew it, and yet she was every inch a woman, and an attractive woman at that -- and those with actual street experience felt a little uncomfortable to see it, for this told them she was far more dangerous than she looked.

"Cheating, in our context, means taking every last legal advantage. Whether it's mental judo, whether it's misdirection, whether it's using a flashlight to rudely hoist a suspect off his feet" -- she stopped, she smiled, she saw a few men cringe, a look of enlightenment on most of the women's faces -- "a baton to the side of the knee, or a shotgun slamming into battery to get their attention, you want to take every advantage.  Especially" -- she smiled, and the smile was warm and undertanding -- "especially the shotgun.  Whether it's the quiet click, click of that hammer twelve coming to full cock, or the slam-bang of a pump gun running into battery, using a hearing aid is a good way to encourage their compliance."

She stopped, turned slowly, meeting every eye, then finished the class with their understanding chuckle as she concluded, "Personally, I am very fond of hearing aids!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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676. AN ILL TEMPER

A pale eyed lawman looked around the dirty little saloon, silence cascading off him like powdery snow cascading off a steep slope.

He wore an irritated expression and a black suit, his stillness was soul-deep and contagious: he'd come in the door, he'd taken a fast step to the side to get a wall to his back, he stood, relaxed as a panther and just as dangerous, his ice-pale eyes the only things moving.

He waited until he was satisfied, then he paced slowly forward, bootheels muffled by the thick layer of sawdust on the floor.

The barkeep shifted the matchstick between yellowed teeth, lifted his chin.

"What'll ya have?"

The Sheriff slid a coin across the bar.  "Beer," he said quietly, his eyes running down the brief menu chalked on a plank: "Where's good to eat?"

"Got a hash house down the street.  Good place, too," the barkeep said helpfully -- perhaps too helpfully, the Sheriff knew; a lawman was not generally a welcome guest, unless he was needed.

He was after a man.

This was apparently known.

The noise level in the place was dropped significantly; no one looked at him, save only sidelong:  Linn had the feeling this was not a healthy place to be, and he'd learned long ago to listen to his gut, and part of him was not at all surprised when he turned his back to the bar and leaned back, casually, that a poker player looked at him with sudden surprise.

Linn's hand released the mug and spun, shooting out and up, caught the descending wrist, which was good.

The wrist was attached to a hand, and the hand held a bung starter, and the bung starter was coming down at a respectable velocity:  the Sheriff's move kept his head from being driven so far down between his shoulders he'd have had to unbutton his shirt to blow his nose, which would be inconvenient, not to mention fatal: the wrist came down hard on the bar and the Sheriff's free hand seized the barkeep's greasy throat: dragging a man across a bar by the windpipe and the wrist is generally not a good thing, especially since the bar was little more than planks over barrels.

Once the pale eyed lawman with the iron grey mustache started moving, he didn't stop: barkeep, planks, barrels and beer, all cascaded over, fell in a clattering splash:  a boot heel in the gut discouraged the would be murderer from further hostilities, the coat tails were thrust back, and Old Pale Eyes looked around, clearly irritated.

He looked down, studied the barkeep's mottled face:  purple splotches stood out against an increasingly pallid background as the realization that he was looking up at Death itself sank into his soul.

Linn reached down, seized the man by his shirt front:  his hand was big, hard callused, used to hard work, and when he grabbed a good handful of filthy linen shirt front and twisted, he had more than enough purchase to haul the man off the floor, one handed.

He brought him off the deck with apparent ease, held him up so the man's feet were off the floor.

Linn knew that if you fetch a man's feet off the floor, you're sending a very understandable message.

"Mister," he said, quietly, his voice rumbling like great stones grinding against one another at the bottom of a deep, hand dug well, "your bar just fell apart."

He considered throwing the man back across what used to be his bar, then decided to just open his hand and let him drop.

Linn stepped over him, his icy glare clearing a path as effectively as a team of skullbreakers with war clubs: he opened the door, looked left, looked right, nodded at the constable running up, nightstick swinging:  when the hireling looked up at the pale-eyed Sheriff, he froze, mouth open.

Linn stepped down from the boardwalk, stepped up to the out-of-breath constable.

"Jaysus, Sheriff, I came soon as I heard you were here," he blurted.  "Wha' ha'e ye done?"

"Education," Linn grunted.  "Barkeep tried to belt me with a bung starter."

The constable wilted visibly.  "I'll call f'r th' dead wagon."

Linn turned, regarded the saloon's still swinging batwings with distaste.

"Didn't even get t' taste m' beer."

 

A widow woman opened a combination boarding house and restaurant; she'd had success enough she divided the business, put her daughter in charge of the restaurant, and the two of them didn't exactly prosper, but they improved their businesses steadily, making enough to get by, setting back a little.

They both saw a tall man in a black suit, a man on a shining-gold Palomino that walked with a fast, clattering gait, a man that dismounted and walked over to the wash pan.

They saw through the wavy glass window as the man swirled the wash pan, slung its contents, pumped clean water, swirled and tossed again: he washed his hands carefully, dried them on the sun-bleached towel, removed his cover as he crossed the threshold.

The widow recognized the kind: watchful, silent, either a hired killer or a lawman, the kind that would not cause trouble unless it was given him, and then Katy bar the door, if it happened, she might have a serious loss, for she'd seen a place utterly destroyed when such a quiet man let his badger loose.

The widow and her daughter exchanged a look; the younger woman glided across the floor, and the lawman, only just seated, rose at her approach.

Over her approaching shoulder, he saw a look of approval from what appeared to be a mother, or maybe an aunt.

"What'll you have?" she asked cheerfully.

"What's good today?" he replied in a deep and gentle voice, the kind of a voice she remembered from her own dear Papa, dead and gone these ten years now.

"We've good beef and beans, sourdough and cheese, and coffee."

"Ma'am," he replied with almost a sad expression, "that sounds like just what I'm lookin' for."

Linn watched as she departed, lowered a hand to the back of his chair; he stopped as the older woman came over, steering directly for him:  he tucked his cover correctly under his arm, lifted his chin.

"Ma'am," he greeted her.

"You've the cut of a military man," the widow-woman said briskly.  "My husband was Cavalry."

"You have the right of it, ma'am," Linn replied gently.

"Will you be staying?"

She was surprised to see the soft spoken stranger smile, just a little ... kind of sadly, she thought.

"No ma'am.  Not long."

"I run the boarding house, in back and upstairs."

"Yes, ma'am."

She stopped, feeling suddenly awkward:  her face reddened and she started to turn.

"Ma'am?"

She froze, turned slowly back.

"That would be your ... daughter?"

"She is."

"She does favor you."

The widow tilted her head a little.  "Do I know you?"

"No ma'am," he said, and again she was struck by the feeling of sadness from this pale eyed stranger with the iron grey mustache.  "I don't believe so."

The Sheriff rose from his seat yet again, after the widow's departure, at the younger woman's approach: it was obviously an old and easy habit with him, not the forced affectation of someone trying to impress.

He ate with a good appetite; he ate steadily, savoring his meal: when pie arrived, he received the unexpected treat with a relaxed and genuine smile, and she found a couple bills under the plate after he'd squared up his bill.

She'd taken this unexpected bounty to her mother, for the amount he left was ten times the cost of the meal:  the widow nodded, sighed, and said softly she'd wished he'd stayed, and this was the only time her daughter ever heard her Mama admit that she'd taken a fancy to a man since the death of her dear husband.

 

A day and a night later, Linn came back into Firelands, alone.

Town Marshal Jackson Cooper was an impressive man, even at a distance, and Linn could not help but grin when he saw the man from a mile away:  Linn was not short by any means -- two fingers over six foot, remarkably tall for the day, but a full head shorter than his old and dear friend the town Marshal -- Linn was counted a strong man, but Jackson Cooper could put him to shame any day of the week and make it look easy, and Linn laughed aloud to remember the times he'd done just that.

He rode into town at an easy pace, drew up, regarded the Marshal, who regarded him back.

"Any luck, Sheriff?"

Linn shook his head.  "Good and bad, same as always."

"How's that?"  Jackson Cooper squinted one eye, turned his head a little, curious.

"Well, I had pretty good luck stayin' alive," Linn said, "and found me a boardin' house with pretty good cookin'.  'Gainst I'm out that way again, I'll take pains to eat there.  As far as findin' the fellow I'm after, no, didn't find him a'tall."

Jackson Cooper nodded.  "Sounds like good luck all around.  What's the bad?"

"Well, I just plainly ruined a saloon keeper's bar."

Jackson Cooper frowned.  "You ain't settin' right.  What else is a-goin' on?"

Linn shifted uncomfortably in his saddle.  "I got to go see Doc."

Jackson Cooper's face darkened and he frowned a little:  he was a strong man, he was a lawman, but he was a man of deep feelings, and Linn kept him alive back East:  their friendship was deep and strong, and it troubled the man that something might be serious.

"I got to be careful how I sit," Linn said ruefully; Jackson's face showed alarm, for last time he'd heard a man say that, a man died a year later of a cancer that plainly et him up from the inside.

Linn's face started to redden before he made that admission, and grew even more distinctly scarlet as he continued, "If you hear some hollerin' from Doc's place, pay it no mind."

The big man in the fringed shirt looked puzzled:  "Why's that?"

Linn leaned over and admitted, red-faced and low-voiced:  "Got me a boil."  He straightened, considered.  "Might be that's why I was in such an ill temper."

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677. "I TOLD MY BROTHER ON YOU!"

Angela Keller was a pretty little girl.

Angela Keller had finger-curls that framed her apple-cheeked face, her teeth were white and even, her Mama dressed her in properly modest, frilly, little-girl dresses as befit her age; she wore high topped shoes and black stockings and she almost always wore an expression of either interest, or of delight: her eyes shone, her complexion glowed, she was the image of clean-scrubbed, well-fed childhood.

Angela Keller was also Daddy's Little Girl, and Daddy was in the middle of the street with a singletree in one hand, a knife in the other, and he was laying about like Samson among the Philistines, only Samson only used one hand with the jaw bone of a jack mule, while her Daddy was using both hands, and he had a singletree and a knife.

Angela didn't bother to consider this.

Angela was too busy hooking her ankles under Daddy's stirrup-straps, gripping a double handful of shining copper mane, yelling "GO, HORSIE!" -- and when Daddy's little girl wanted something, Daddy's little girl generally got what she wanted, and what she wanted was AWAY FROM THERE!

Her Daddy had seized her about the waist, swung her into his big slick Daddy-saddle and said quietly, with an edge to his voice that told Angela her Daddy was going to be very cross, very soon, "Angela, get back to the livery!" -- and Angela slapped her hands flat on the mare's neck and said urgently, "Go, horsie!" -- at which point, the pale eyed Sheriff began to address some very ill mannered men in a very understandable manner.

One grabbed at the mare's bitless bridle:  Cannonball reared, Angela rearing with her, and this made Angela very angry:  her face darkened with a little girl's juvenile temper and she shouted, in that high-pitched, little-girl's voice -- "Horsie, beat 'im!"

The Sheriff was a man who planned ahead.

The Sheriff was a man who considered possibilities.

The Sheriff knew that, just like armored knights of an earlier era, a man's horse was his fighting-platform:  a horse was speed and power and a horse was a weapon, and a good one, especially when properly trained.

The Sheriff trained his saddle-stock accordingly.

Angela trained with her Daddy, because it was fun! -- and she got to do things her pretty and ladylike Mommy would never let her -- her Mommy didn't want her jumping fences, for instance, but jumping fences was fun! -- and she and her Daddy would sail over fences and gullies like their horsies had wings!

Angela Keller, the lovely little blue-eyed girl beloved of the pale-eyed Sheriff, did not need reins or bit to guide her Daddy's mare:  each was very used to the other, and the little girl's wishes were efficiently and silently communicated to the little girl's mount.

Except for her high-voiced shout, "YOU MEAN OLD MAN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE! HORSIE, GIT 'IM!" -- and a trained war-horse, with a very young warrior-maiden astride, drove a steel-shod hoof into the middle of the attacker's chest, spun and kicked at another, barely missing his left ear and persuading the second assailant that his course of action was perhaps less than wise.

Cannonball danced to the side and Angela glared with all the fierceness of a pretty little girl in finger-curls and a frock, and she shook her Mommy-finger at them and shouted "I'LL TELL MY  BROTHER ON YOU!" -- the mare reared a little, bunched her hind quarters, came down hard enough on paving-stones to throw sparks from steel-shod hooves, and ran!

A pretty little girl on a shining copper mare pounded down the Denver street at a wide-open gallop, something that was simply never done! -- men in suits, ladies with parasols, boys in knee pants and flat caps stopped and stared at the approach of galloping hoofbeats, and then a shining, healthy, copper-red mare running flat-out, her neck stuck out, her ears laid back, and on her back, laid down over the mare's neck and clinging like a tick on a hound dog, a pretty little girl, all curls and petticoats and healthy pink cheeks and a big, delighted grin!

 

Sheriff Linn Keller seized the first weapons he came to.

He was no stranger to street brawls, few seasoned lawmen are; the quarters were close, the need was great, and so when his hand closed about the steel-banded end of a singletree, he whipped this familiar working-tool through the air and broke the arm driving at him, an arm that held a genuine Arkansas toothpick.

The moment seasoned white oak drove into the descending arm, time slowed to a molasses crawl: he heard the bone break, he clearly saw the precise weave of the garment sleeving the assaulting arm; he saw the shocked-open hand as it slowly surrendered the knife, releasing it to the air, and the Sheriff's off hand seared through the air, seized the wrapped handle: it has been said that when a warrior grasped the right blade, his soul flowed into the blade and honed steel became part of him, and he did not have to look to know exactly where stone-kissed edge and tapered point were, in three-dimensional space:  we will set aside any metaphysical speculation and say simply that the Sheriff well knew how to use a knife, and this was a well-balanced knife that fit his hand very, very nicely.

Desperate fights tend to be very brief, very violent.

The Sheriff had been set upon by the footpads and skulkers that infest every city in every age; a well-dressed man, holding his little girl's hand, a man who looked down at his angelic child with obvious affection, was seen as an easy mark, and so three converged with intent to part the man from his proud-ofs, while three more watched, ready to join in.

Later years would characterize their action as a poor victim selection process.

The man and his daughter were just come to the man's horse; the attack was swift, silent: the man kicked one in the gut, caught another's fist coming in, seized the arm by the wrist, drove the heel of his hand into the offender's elbow, bending it the wrong way -- the sound of its splintering fracture was lost in the man's pained scream -- the man with the iron grey mustache seized his little girl about the waist, swung her into the saddle and jerked the reins free:  he tossed them over the mare's head and shouted, "LIVERY, GO!" and turned as his daughter spun the mare and launched down the street like a ball from a field-gun!

 

Jacob Keller's head came up and he raised a palm to the Denver patrolman, cutting off their laughing conversation.

The surprised patrolman stopped talking; he heard the sound of a galloping horse, raised his chin -- this was an offense, horses were never to be taken at more than a walk within the City --

"JAAAACOOOOBBBB!"

Jacob seized his Apple-horse's reins, jerked them free: to the patrolman, it was as if the black-suited deputy crouched ever so slightly, seized the saddlehorn and soared off the ground and into the saddle, and then he too was gone: brother and sister converged at speed, both mounts skidded on the pavers as they came to a fast stop:  Jacob twisted, reached, pulled a double twelve-bore from under his right leg, brought the muzzles up and set the hand checkered, steel skeleton butt end against his right thigh.

Angela's cheeks were pink and she was between delighted and angry.

"Bad mens jumped Daddy an' he's ver-ry angry," Angela blurted, and she saw her Big Strong Brother's pale eyes go dead glacier-white: she felt her Daddy's Cannonball-mare gather herself again:  Angela screamed with delight as the copper mare spun, as she launched after Jacob and Apple-horse, as they streamed in a bright, living waterfall of shining-coated horseflesh and blued, gunbarrel steel, as the hard hand of the Law rode swiftly to one of its own.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stood in the middle of the street, turning slowly: teeth bared, skin pale and tight-stretched over high cheekbones:  his hat was missing, he was breathing deeply, steadily, blanched knuckles mutely testifying to the strength of his grip around steel-banded white oak, and the wrapped handle of a hand forged fighting knife.

He circled slowly, snarling a little, every vestige of civilization fallen from him: he was a warrior, pure and simple:  he had laid about the Philistines who sought his goods and perhaps his very life, considering they'd approached with weapons in hand:  two lay on the ground, bloodied and unmoving; a third was trying to crawl away.

"ANYBODY ELSE?"

Three others considered what they'd just seen, faded back, disappearing into shadow, into an alleyway, completly unwilling to engage a man who'd just put down three of their best skull-splitters.

His full-voiced roar echoed off the buildings, shivered down the artificial canyon of the city street.

"ANYBODY ELSE?"

His pale face purpled a little, the cords of his neck standing out with the strength of his rage:  there was no doubt at all to any who saw this man, this warrior, all bared teeth and bent knees and circling to meet any attack, that here was a man who'd just stopped three armed attackers: his coat opened enough to show he wore a revolver, two revolvers, neither of which he'd drawn.

Two horses slowed, quickly, rearing:  Jacob was out of the saddle and running:  he came up beside his father, shotgun in hand, hammers cocked:  the two faced opposite directions, father and son, pale eyes hard and unforgiving.

Angela walked her Daddy's shining copper mare over to where two of the men sat, bloodied, unable to rise, where a third lay groaning, able to crawl no further.

Angela shook her Mommy finger at them and declared loudly, "You mean old man! I told my brother on you!"

 

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678.  A QUIET VOICE

Sheriff Linn Keller eased his long, tall carcass down onto the Deacon's bench in front of the Sheriff's office.

Why it was called a Deacon's bench was beyond him: he wasn't sure the Deacon ever set there -- ever -- and the Deacon generally set with his wife, in the pews, during church: no, he reckoned it was just called that, and that was good enough.

Linn set down on clean, smooth, sanded and varnished wood; he wiped it down every morning, before parking his backside, because the smooth surface tended to gather dust, and he had no wish to have white dust marks across his back and across his hinder.

Behind and above him, two wanted dodgers, neither for any great amount of money; the descriptions were vague enough, the reward small enough, the engravings that printed the wanted man's face, were of such poor quality he doubted they would ever be matched up against the actual criminal.

Linn pulled out a Barlow knife and a whet stone.

It was not out of the ordinary for men to whittle and spit here, to tell outrageous lies with carefully straight faces; Linn could whittle with the best of them, but try as he might, he just could not make a working set of pliers out of a single piece of wood:  he'd probably reduced half a cord of wood to shavings, over the years, for he was a hard headed man, contrary enough to keep trying until it worked, but try as he might, the trick escaped him.

He spit on the stone and began to work on the Barlow's edge.

A man Linn knew was coming up the board walk, a man who walked as if he was worn out, done up, ready to quit: he walked as if each step was approaching his very limit, and yet he kept on coming, steadily, one slow pace after another.

Linn never looked up from his sharpening.

"Might as well have a set," he suggested quietly.  "You look done up, friend."

The man stopped, sagged:  he turned, set down on the other end of the bench, leaned his head back against the logs, heedless of accumulated dust:  in truth, his hat was in such sad shape, a coat of dust might have improved it.

His rough, shoulder-frayed coat was not much better, nor were his scraped, scuffed, heel-worn boots.

Two men sat in companionable silence.

Linn tried the Barlow's edge on the back of his arm:  he raised the blade, puffed his breath over it, and arm hairs, freshly shaved from the back of the lawman's left wrist, floated out into the still air.

"Damn."  The man shook his head.  "I cain't put an edge on a knife to save me."

Linn folded the Barlow, stuck it back in his pocket.  "Let's have it," he said.  "I'll edge it for you."

A clasp knife was handed over, nearly new; Linn tried the edge, nodded.

"I could ride this one from here to Buffalo and not get cut."

The man nodded, his hat falling to the side:  he ignored it rather than go to the effort of picking it up.

Linn looked over at him.

"You look like you been drug backwards over some bad road."

The man stared sadly across the street, his gaze apparently looking at something several miles past the opposite structures.

Steel whispered secrets to shaped stone; silence grew, then:

"You et?"

"Naw."

"I ain't neither."  The Sheriff did not usually sound quite so unlettered; he tended to tailor his speech for his audience.  "Reckon the Silver Jewel's got somethin' ain't been et yet."

The man closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the logs again.

"When's the last time you got a good night's sleep?"

"Don't recall."

Linn pulled out another stone, a coarser one; it was going to take some work to set an edge on this old slay, he knew, and the best start was with his harsher sharpening stone.

"Say, Sheriff?"

Linn looked sidelong over at him, looked back to his work.

"How's a man get his name off a wanted dodger?"

Linn considered the knife's edge, set down the coarse stone:  it hadn't taken as much effort as he'd expected.

"A man could go back to wherever sent out them dodgers in the first place and either square up what's wrong, or tell 'em they got the wrong man."

A grunt.  "Fat lot of good that'll do."

"How do the particulars stack up?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, a man could ride the territory and tear down every dodger for that pa'tickelar outlaw, but that's a lot of ridin'."

Another grunt.

"A man could take a close look at the pa'tickelars and see what don't fit."

Linn could feel the unspoken surprise -- illiteracy was not at all uncommon, and it was possible this fellow was unable to read, and either determined for himself he was the one on the wanted dodger, or someone was lying to him about it.

Linn stood, turned.  "Take that one rattair," he said.  "That's a poor likeness to start with. I'd sure as hell not arrest on that man's picture.  That engravin' looks like it was cyarved in a copper plate with a dull crick gravel and then printed."

The other fellow stood, his breath hissing from between yellowed, clenched teeth.

"This'un says sometin' about a scar on one wrist and a pa'tickelar finger, and one at the belt line left side where he'd healed up from an infection."  Linn tested the edge, nodded, handed the blade back.  "Try that one, an' don't let me catch you scrapin' rust off anvils with that!"

"Damn, Sheriff," the fellow said admiringly, "I could shave with this!"

"I've shaved with mine," Linn nodded, "but it's not so uncomfortable with soap and hot water and some shavin' cream spun up."

The man reached out, knocked one of the dodgers with his knuckles.

"You don't reckon this one is talkin' about me?"

Linn looked at the dodger, looked at his guest.

"You got them same scars?"

The man bared his wrists -- like most men thereabouts, he was tanned where his hide stuck out of his shirt sleeves, but the shadowed flesh was pale, if unwashed.

"I don't see none."

"How 'bout that finger?"

The digit was presented:  "Nope."

"Then you ain't him."

The Sheriff's voice was pitched for reassurance: he was no stranger to troubled men coming to him for advice.

"You ever been mistaken for someone else, Sheriff?"

Linn laughed -- a good easy laugh, a flash of even white teeth -- "Last I was in Denver, some fellow come up and just wrung my hand and Judge this and Your Honor that, come to find out he was a new lawyer in town and I patted him on the shoulder and said I looked forward to hearin' his presentation in court and he went just a-struttin' down the street like he'd met the King himself."

Linn thrust his chin toward the Silver Jewel.

"Right now I'm hungry and I hate to eat alone. 'Twould be a blessin' on me if you'd join me, I'm buyin'."  He clapped a hand on the man's shoulder, ignoring the minor cloud of dust that rose with the effort.  "Then there's the time I went back East and got mistaken for a Presbyterian preacher.  Damn near performed a weddin' on a riverbank, until the real sky pilot showed up and rescued me!"

Two men laughed and went inside, one intent on assuaging his hunger, the other's soul considerably less troubled, thanks to the words of a pale eyed man with a quiet voice.

 

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