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Marnie Keller slipped into the dressing room backstage, feeling the tremor in her upper arms, the way she got when she was excited, or scared ... 

... and she was both.

She'd just sung on stage.

She'd stood on the restored stage of the restored opera house, she'd worn a McKenna gown surreptitiously borrowed from the Firelands Museum, she wore a glitter mask she'd smuggled out and would have to smuggle back in, a mask last worn by an ancestress, one Sarah Lynne McKenna.

Marnie paused in front of one of the full length mirrors, turned a little, amazed at what she saw.

In her mind she was still a skinny fourteen year old in jeans and cowboy boots and a flannel shirt, her self image involved a saddle and a fast moving stallion and her hat falling back and bouncing on its storm strap as she galloped across the high mountain terrain.

She didn't see that in the mirror.

Marrnie closed her eyes, opened them, lifted off the glitter mask, set it carefully on the table, turned, amazed at the mature and womanly appearance in the mirror.

Marnie knew she wanted to look ... desirable ... for John Greenlees.

She'd known for some time now, she would be his wife, whether he knew it yet or not was immaterial, but she needed to let him know ... and somehow, somehow she expected him to read her mind, to see through the mask ...

She'd given him tickets and told him to attend and then she hadn't been there.

She'd stood on the stage, spotlighted, and she sang, blinded by the swivel mounted Klieg light, she'd poured her heart into her voice and she'd sung -- by her estimation -- better than she'd sung in her life, and when she sang, she offered her heart, invisible and beating with all the passion of young unrequited love, held out in the palm of her hand toward him, knowing he was in the audience ...

Marnie changed, quickly, folded the dress very carefully, placed it and the mask in a suitcase: in jeans and boots and flannel shirt, in a denim jacket and Stetson hat, she slipped out the stage door, weight on the balls of her feet, her trademark red cowboy boots silent on the ancient wooden steps going into the back alley.

Marnie habitually carried the suitcase in her left hand.

Her ID was in her wallet, her wallet was in her right breast pocket, her keys in her jeans pocket: she detested purses, and so her only encumbrance was the suitcase.

Eyes busy, she came down to alley level, took one step, turned.

A grinning street rat lifted the hem of his hoodie to display the tape-wrapped grip of a small frame revolver.

Marnie's hand swept up, her .357 spoke, once: the street rat collapsed, his spine shattered, and Marnie looked around, then holstered.

She set down the suitcase, rolled the body over: a quick collar-to-belt slash and his thin jacket was split; Marnie sliced into bulging flesh, pulled out a glove, worked her hand into it, reached into the wound.

She pulled out the expanded bullet.

Marnie looked around again, peeled the glove off her hand, the bullet clasped in her palm:  glove off, bullet packaged, she slipped it into her pocket, stood, gripped her suitcase and walked quickly through the shadows and into the night.


Sheriff Marnie Keller looked into her husband's eyes, her expression gentle: her arms were around him, his arms around her, and Dr. John Greenlees swept a wisp of hair back from his wife's forehead.

"I never knew, until tonight," he whispered.

"Never knew what?"

"That was you, back in Denver."

Marnie smiled.

"You sang for me that night, didn't you?"

Marnie nodded, swallowed.

"Yes," she whispered back.  "For you alone."

Husband and wife embraced, each one rejoicing in this stolen moment, each savoring the feel of the other, alive in their arms.


Marnie tapped the code into the alarm panel, unlocked the museum's front door, slipped inside: she turned, locked the door again, ran upstairs to the McKenna room.

She placed the suitcase on the bed, lifted out the mask, placed it back on the display stand; she removed the dress, shook it a little, then draped it back into place on the naked, armless manikin: she fast it up, then slid the detached arms up the sleeve, carefully re-socketed them, so the dress sleeves were now over its arms, and it looked the way it should.

Marnie took a long breath, turned, looked at the portrait of Sarah Lynne McKenna, smiled.

I have a dress just like that, she thought, and remembered the several times she'd met guests coming down the stairs, how she'd startled them, for she was the very image of Sarah -- she wore a correct wig, she wore a handmade gown that duplicated what her famous ancestress wore in the upstairs portrait, then she giggled like a little girl at the memory of a startled young visitor who blurted, "Are you a ghost?" and Sarah widened her eyes, clapped a startled hand to her mouth, then lowered her hand and gasped, "You mean you're not?"

She took a napkin from a pocket, dampened it, wiped the legs of the suitcase to get any dirt off: she replaced the suitcase in the closet, came down the stairs, silent on the balls of her feet, moving easily through the darkened museum, a living ghost among the invisible shades that populated what had been the Llewellyn House, before Sarah's husband was killed saving a baby from a house fire.

She unlocked the front door, slipped out, locked it, reset the alarm: minutes later, Linn looked up and smiled as he heard Sarah's Jeep come up the driveway.

Sarah ran up the steps:  "Daddy!" she exclaimed quietly -- it was late enough, everyone else would be asleep -- Linn seized his daughter, picked her up, hugged her to him:  "How was Denver?" he mumbled into her shoulder.

He set her down, Marnie placed her hands flat on his chest, eyes shining.

"Daddy, I sang again," she murmured.

Linn laughed, quietly, squeeze her hands:  "I thought you told your Mama you weren't going to sing!"

Marnie gave her Daddy a conspiratorial look.  "I don't want to sing where people now me."

Linn nodded.  "Understandable, but ... were you in public?"

"On stage and spotlighted."  Marnie skipped into the kitchen, opened the fridge, shoved her head in.  "I'm starved.  Want some meatloaf?"


Marnie brought out ingredients, set out plates, dealt slices of bread like a riverboat gambler deals cards:  Linn watched with admiration as Marnie assembled two thick meatloaf sandwiches, poured coffee for them both:  nighttime it might have been, but they were both so used to drinking coffee that its only effect on their slumber would be to guarantee their bladders woke them before sunrise.

"Daddy, I'm going to marry John Greenlees."

Linn's rising sandwich stopped.

He drew his head back a fraction, closed his mouth, placed the sandwich very carefully back on its plate.

Linn looked at his little girl, then toward the stairs, then back to Marnie.

"Dear heart," he said finally, "some things are best said without your mother present."

"I know."

"Now tell me."  Linn frowned, swallowed.  "Is this a womanly knowing?"

"It is, Daddy.  I know this as a fact."

Linn took a long breath, nodded.

"I believe you when you tell me this," he said finally.  "Do you know why?"

Marnie shook her head, sucked a smear of mustard off her finger.

"Back in the Journals and in some recovered correspondence, I read where ... it was a letter ... from Old Pale Eyes' wife Esther to her dear friend Bonnie McKenna, Sarah's mother."

Marnie nodded.

"Esther wrote that she knew -- the moment she laid eyes on Old Pale Eyes, she knew! -- as a fact -- that he would be her husband, whether he knew it yet or not."

Marnie nodded again.

"Mama -- your Gammaw -- had the Second Sight. She tried to hide it but sometimes she let it slip."

Marnie sipped her coffee.

"She ... told me after Pa died that she knew, she knew! -- the moment she laid eyes on him -- that he was going to be her husband, whether he knew it or not, and that's why her words from your mouth told me he will."

Linn planted his elbows on either side of his plate, laced his fingers, leaned his forehead down on his clasped hands, stared down at his undamaged sandwich.

"Now."  He looked up, and Marnie saw the hint of amusement in his pale blue eyes.  "You sang tonight."

She nodded.

"Was John there?"

Marnie blushed, suddenly, a rush of color to her cheeks Linn very rarely saw.

"Yes he was."

"And ...?"

Marnie swallowed, set her coffee cup down, stared through the opposite wall.

"I took Sarah McKenna's gown from the Museum, and her glitter mask. I wore them on the same stage she'd performed on, and I sang, Daddy.  I sang for the man I will marry, and I sang for him alone."  She looked at Linn, her expression uncertain.  "The house was nearly full, Daddy, and I couldn't see past that spotlight blinding me, but he was out there in the dark, and ..."
Marnie took a quick breath, took another, leaned back, dropped her head.

"I sang better than I've ever sung in my life, Daddy.  Ever."

Linn nodded, reached over, laid his big strong hand very gently over her knuckles.

"I'm proud of you," he whispered, "and John will make a fine son-in-law."

Marnie looked at him, startled.

"He doesn't know it yet."

"He doesn't have to.  He's gentleman enough, he'll come to me and ask your hand in marriage.  Doc is old-fashioned that way and I expect his son will be too."


Sheriff Marnie Keller looked up at her husband, remembering, her smile gentle, her eyes distant.



"I think I'd like a meatloaf sandwich."




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Posted (edited)


Linn Keller carefuly noted down the grocery needs on his pad.

The local hospital used a horrendous amount of paper; bureaucracy fluourishes in the medical field, and theirs was no different: they had an in-house print shop, and part of the print shop's production was note pads, gummed along one edge, sheared into uniform sizes, stacked up in the print shop with a hand lettered sign above:

"For Free Take!"

Linn had one such in his hand; in the other, a fountain pen: he was fond of fountain pens, he refilled his own ink cartridges -- not that he was cheap (he was), but he preferred to be able to reload a cartridge when he wanted to, rather than risk running out of replacements and having to head for the Mercantile and hope they weren't out of stock.

He noted down the half-dozen items they needed, then wiped the whiteboard clean.


Joanne Woods sprayed down the belt at her register, wiped it briskly with the rag she kept handy for that purpose: her register station was neat, orderly, reflecting her own life:  a place for everything, and everything in its place: the bills in her wallet were all head-up, ascending order, facing forward: when Linn wheeled his cart up, she greeted him cheerfully.

Joanne approved of the Sheriff's teenage son.

When he stacked items from the cart onto her belt, he stacked the goods in a straight line, from largest to smallest.



Joanne asked how his mother was, and how were his sisters, and it was such a shame about his father passing away suddenly, and Linn smiled and listened without interruption, at least until someone yelled in pain from deeper in the store.

Joanne froze, startled -- it was early in the morning, Linn was one of two customers there -- Linn swung around the cart, strode back toward the back and she heard his commanding shout, "WHERE ARE YOU! I'M COMING!"

Joanned heard something fall -- an empty pallet, maybe -- then, a little muffled --



Sharon reached over, hit the big red button, then two smaller ones.

"Firelands Squad One, unknown problem at the grocery."


Linn pulled a short, sharp knife, cut the neck strap from the butcher's apron: he pulled it free, folded it twice, wrapped the man's hand, clamped down tight.

"Just lay back," he said, his voice quiet, powerful, reassuring, the same voice he'd heard his Mama's chief deputy use in such moments: Linn slid his hand up the man's upper arm, turned it a little, then leaned the heel of his hand down against the big artery running on the inside of the upper arm.

A distant part of his thinking brain watched and approved as he did not try to use the strength of his fingers to pressure the artery:  he used his straight arm weight through the heel of his hand, knowing he could maintain this much longer than muscle strength: his grip was tight on the arterial bleed as he knelt, trying not to plant his knee in the man's blood.

He almost succeeded.


Linn's head came up at a shouted "WHERE ARE YOU?" and he yelled back, "IN BACK!"

The wooden doors burst open, swinging easily on oiled hinges, and the Captain was first through: he stopped at the shining sea of spattered red on the floor, at the lean young man down on one knee, at the white-faced meatcutter flat on his back, shivering, eyes wide, a sheen of sweat bright on his forehead.

The Captain squatted beside the pale eyed young man, laid a fatherly hand flat between Linn's shoulder blades, and Linn looked at him, his expression serious, his voice quiet.

"Arterial bleed. Direct pressure and pressure point. No other information."

The Captain nodded, looked over at his partner, who was opening the big orange tacklebox: two hands thrust in, a plastic-bagged IV set, and a bag of solution, came out.


"Large bore."

"Roger that."

"Linn, can you hold there?"

"Can do."

Linn held pressure until Cap and his partner were all set up and ready to take over: Linn drew back, quite content to let the professionals take over.

He walked over to the sink and washed his hands, casually, as if this was something he'd done all his life, this business of clamping down on a spouting fountain of life's blood to keep life itself from escaping the clean cut of a butcher's blade.

Linn dried his hands, looked down at his jeans, grimaced: he held station until the patient was packaged and ready to roll out to the squad, then he shoved open the heavy wooden doors, followed the team down the aisle, snagged a round blue box of salt on his way by.

He wasn't needed any longer, so he slowed his pace, set the box of salt on the register's belt.

Joanne looked at him, at the blood spattered on his face, his vest, his shirt, at the dark-soaked knee of his jeans.

Linn looked down and grimaced, pulled out his wallet:  "At least this is clean," he muttered.

Joanne scanned the blue cardboard container, totaled the order:  "Salt?"

"To soak out the blood," Linn explained:  he frowned, shook his head.

"How come James Bond can knock down a saloon brawl and never get a hair out of place?"

Joanne laughed a little as Linn sighed dramatically, looked dolefully at his jeans leg: he shook his head and muttered, "Guess I'll never be James Bond!"


Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
This replaces my previously mentioned keyboard catastrophe!
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Paul Barrents executed a flawless four-wheel-drift around the turn.

Linn's jaw was set, his face grim: the Blazer was never meant to be a pursuit vehicle, but it afforded greater cargo carrying capacity than a Crown Vic, it had better ground clearance, and in case of a head on fight, you could ram a vehicle with the Blazer and stand a better chance of still being mobile than a four door sedan.

The Blazer managed to hold the road, thanks to the skill of the obsidian-eyed driver.

The pursued vehicle, owing to the lesser skill of the fleeing felon behind the wheel, did not fare as well.

The microphone clip rang as Linn snatched the heavy microphone from the dash:  "Dispatch, Two, subject vehicle crashed, send squad and fire."

Behind his left shoulder, he heard the deep, menacing rumble that meant The Bear Killer was enjoying the pursuit.

Two lawmen and a black, curly-furred mountain Mastiff exploded out of the cruiser, ran for the battered, radiator-steaming compact.

Linn looked up at the sound of hooves approaching and approaching fast: he did not remember drawing his pistol as he advanced, as he shouted "DRIVER! SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!"

The driver screamed in frustration: the engine was barely running, but with a desperate application of throttle, generated enough RPMs to spin the wheels, to lurch the car forward a little.

Linn surged forward, took his pistol in a two-hand grip, one around the handle, the other over the slide: he drove the gunmuzzle into the passenger window.


The Bear Killer dove through the collapsing curtain of crazed safety glass.

Barrents didn't have to break anything: driver's and driver's rear windows were already gone: the driver yelled as canine teeth clamped down on something, the driver tried to swarm out the missing window, but a seat belt and a set of ivory teeth prevented his escape: something pure white, curly furred and very loud shoved in between Barrents and the car, yammering an ivory-fanged invitation to come out for dinner, preferably as the main course.

Barrents looked in the back seat, two lawmen yelled "OFF!" and two matching Mastiffs -- one the shade of a sinner's black heart, the other the general hue of a fresh snowdrift -- backed away, snarling, fur rippling down the length of their spines and across their shoulders.

Barrents' thumb flipped his lockback open: a slice and the seat belt parted: he seized the driver, hauled him out, hoisted him into the air and slammed him facefirst into Colorado dirt.

A big black head stuck out of the window so recently vacated by the fleeing felon, and if it's possible for a big black Bear Killer of a dog to look smugly pleased with himself ... well, this one did.

Marnie reached in as Barrents cuffed the driver, Linn went for the trunk: Marnie pulled the release.

The trunk was damaged: there was a click, it shifted a half inch.

Linn worked his fingers into the gap, pulled: he got his fingers under the lip, pulled again.

He reset his hands, set his heels, threw his head back, teeth bared: a groan of tortured sheet metal and the trunk swung open.

A pure-white Mastiff shoved hard against his leg, forepaws on the back bumper:  Snowdrift shoved her nose into the trunk, sniffed, and a tiny hand reached up, as if reaching for a friend.

Linn reached in and picked up a scared little girl with tears streaking her face: he held her, he went to his knees, and Snowdrift began washing the child's cheeks: the little girl let go of this strange man and went for something that was more familiar:  she seized Snowdrift around the neck, buried her face in curly white fur: when backup units, the squad, pumper and rescue truck arrived, they found a little girl was sitting on a Sheriff's-issue wool blanket, folded and laid out on the ground, one arm around a sitting, happily panting Snowdrift-dog, and her other arm around an equally-pleased-with-himself Bear Killer.


Linn and Paul sat in the conference room with the Sheriff.

"The Feds are on their way," Willamina said, "and they are very pleased at your capture."

The Bear Killer looked hopefully at the tray of doughnuts in the middle of the table; Linn tore his in two, offered half: The Bear Killer did not have to be invited twice.

"They have a warrant on him?"
"Interstate kidnap and some other things. They want to try him in a death penalty state."

Linn nodded slowly.  "Good."

"Your reports are clear and concise, I don't think I have any questions pertaining to those."  Willamina looked from her son to her son's best friend, son of her own newly-retired second in command.  "Now what's this I hear about big furry doggies?"

Linn looked at Barrents, and Barrents looked at Linn, and both deputies laughed quietly.

"Well, Sheriff," Linn said, "when I picked our kidnap victim up out of the trunk she allowed as she could either cozy up with a strange man or with a curly doggie, and I reckon my ego took a hit when she allowed as she'd rather take up with a reeeal dog."

Willamina gave her son a knowing look.  "I see," was her quiet comment.

"Matter of fact, Snowdrift is over at the hospital with her now, and  two of the Federal boys were impressed by the job our canine officer does in calming children who've been through a traumatic episode."

"Canine officer," Willamina echoed.

Linn shrugged.  "I didn't tell 'em any different."

The door opened and Marnie breezed in, smiling, apple-cheeked, looking like what she was: a happy child of the mountains, more at home in the saddle than in a shopping mall.

"You wanted to see me," she said with her usual cheerful innocence.

"You arrived at the scene as the driver was attempting to escape."

"We did."


"Why, Apple-horse, Snowdrift and myself!"

"And how did you know to respond to the scene?"

Marnie planted her hands on her lean waist, stood with her weight on her left foot, toe-touched her right with her knee thrust toward her pale-eyed Gammaw, looking like a little girl pretending to be a supermodel:  "A woman knows these things!" she said in a matter-of-fact voice.

Father, grandmother and family friend all laughed at this unexpected pronouncement:  Willamina raised her hand, then wiped her eyes and tried again.

"Where's Snowdrift?  Still the hospital?"

Marnie nodded.  "I think she'll be there until they take the girl home."

Willamina sighed.  "I suppose this means we'll have to have another swearing-in ceremony."

Linn tore a chunk off a fresh doughnut; The Bear Killer took it daintily.

"Swearing in ceremony," he grinned.  "For Marnie, or for Snowdrift?"




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Sheriff Linn Keller dismounted, walked the very few steps to the tombstone.

It was as were most stones, there in the family section: polished quartz, a name, dates, a short phrase.

The stone was set into undisturbed earth.

No coffin was interred beneath; no family slept here.

Linn hunkered before the stone, fingertips tracing the carved words: his face was carefully expressionless: were one to look closely, one might see his lips move, as if whispering some message, or perhaps the name on the stone:


He couldn't read the name well:  cataracts were stealing his vision: he could still see some, but as his vision faded from him, he was reminded his life, too, was fading: there were things he wished he'd said, especially to his grandson Joseph, killed overseas in a war the country was only just getting into.

He rose, turned, extended a hand.

A shining copper mare laid her chin in his extended palm; he turned, rubbed her long nose, her neck, called her a good girl, mounted.

"Sheriff" was a title these days; his son Jacob was Sheriff, he himself was retired, but to most of the county, his name was "Sheriff" -- when he wasn't "Old Pale Eyes."

Linn tightened his knees a little.

"Yup, girl," he said quietly.  "Let's go home."

Not for the first time, Linn was grateful Cannonball knew the way.


Sheriff Linn Keller raised a summoning hand as he approached his son.

His son Joseph had just pulled a hay bale onto the tailgate, was about to seize it, swing it down: he stopped, pulled off his leather gloves, tossed them on the bale.

Joseph saw something in his father's expression -- or maybe his walk -- that told him something was troubling the man, and for a moment he had the terrible feeling that he'd screwed up and was going to be Spoken To on a matter -- what that might be, he had no idea.

Linn stopped, just arm's length from his son: his expression was serious, his voice quiet.

"Joseph," he said, "I do not wish to make a terrible mistake."


Linn turned, hoisted his skinny backside up onto the tailgate.

His son did the same.

Linn's hands gripped the edge of the rolled steel tailgate, his arms stiff: he was frowning now, staring at the hay-scattered barn floor without seeing it.

"Joseph," he said, "I do not ever remember my father telling me I'd done something right until I was ... hell, I think I was 35 or so."

"Yes, sir?"

"Not once. It wasn't until I spoke at his aunt's funeral that he shook my hand and said 'I kinda proud of you.'."  Joseph saw his father's bottom jaw slide out a little as he continued, "Matter of fact, that's the only time I ever recall him telling me I'd done something right."

Joseph gripped the edge of the tailgate as did his father: he was nearly grown now, stiff-arming in the same slightly hunched posture as his father.

"Joseph, I've tried not to imitate his poor example." 

Linn looked at his younger son, and Joseph was shocked to see genuine sorrow in the man's expression.

"That's why I've taken pains to tell you when you've done well. That's why I've told you I'm proud of you."  Linn's gaze swung forward, toward the back wall. "An old friend ... his father was shop teacher, years ago, the man was truly superb at reaching troubled youth. The troublemakers got sent to his shop class. He could ... he was really good with any man's son ... except his own."

"Yes, sir?"

"His wife told him he'd never told his son that he loved him. He looked at her and he was genuinely surprised. He said 'He knows I love him!' and she said 'You have to say it.' "

Linn looked at Joseph again.

"I don't think he ever did. The only thing Bob ever heard was criticism. Not one positive comment, not one, ever."

"The two got along like oil and water, and I think that was why, and that was a damned shame."

Joseph nodded.

Linn laid a hand on his son's shoulder, squeezed lightly, released.

"Don't do that to your sons, Joseph.  A son needs to hear when he's done something right, and he needs to hear that he's loved."  

Linn's hand released and resumed its grip on the edge of the tailgate.

"Women are the same."  His voice was softer now, gentler, and Joseph saw his father smile a little: he looked up again, and somehow the word satisfied came to the younger Keller's mind.

"Girls like flowers," Linn said thoughtfully, "and sending your girl frowers at home is fine, but it's way better to send 'em where she's in a more public eye.  If she works, send 'em to her at work."

"Yes, sir?"

"When your Mama and I first were sweet on one another, she was working in a secretarial pool. I sent her flowers at work and the other women there hissed and snarled like a bunch of jealous cats. 'Eew! I hate you! My husband never sends me flowers! Eew!' "  

Linn's grin was quick, genuine, contagious as he continued, "Shelly just plainly preened when she got flowers where everyone could see and where everyone hissed at her like that."

Joseph nodded, that contagious grin spreading to his own face.  "Yes, sir."

"Once you've got the hay off and stacked, I've got a project for you."

Linn saw Joseph's walls come up suddenly, and he knew if he were in Joseph's place he'd be instantly suspicious:  I bust my butt to unload your hay, you butter me up with praise so you can work me like a rented mule!

"I picked up a .308 bolt at an estate sale. It's sporter weight, scoped, nice light rifle, but I don't know how she shoots. I want you to size it up, see how she shoots, give it a good lookin' at. I don't know if it will benefit from floating the barrel or bedding the action. You did really well with that sporterized Mauser you bought last year."

Joseph's grin was broad and genuine, any resentment he might've felt disappeared like a wisp of fog in a stiff wind.

"I'll take a look at it, sir."

"It's in the house. I laid it on your bed in a gun case."

"Yes, sir."

Linn slid forward, stood: he reached into a hip pocket, pulled out a pair of leather gloves.

"Let me help you with the rest of this load. Both of us and we should have it done in ten, fifteen minutes."

"Thank you, sir."



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Shelly came out of her seat like she'd been Clap Boarded across the backside: coffee went one way, the newspaper flew into the air, her eyes were saucer-wide and her heart was hammering in the base of her throat: she crouched a little as the alert buzzer shattered the firehouse calm, watched her newspaper settle to the ground as Sharon's voice came over speakers all over the firehouse:


Shelly snatched viciously at the newspapers, wanting to get them off the floor so no one would come through at a run and risk a slip-and-fall injury: she stuffed the weekly viciously into her seat, glared at the wet splashed on the far side of her chair, snatched up two sheets and laid over the spilled coffee.

Her mug -- in spite of having fallen to the waxed, tiled floor -- was intact.


Fitz swore, loudly, fervently, a sentiment echoed by at least two others: men ran for turnout gear, the bay doors started to chuckle open, sunlight and cold air flooding into the truck bays.

Shelly legged it for the passenger side of the squad, seized her door handle, pulled: her father hauled the driver's door open in the same moment:  they looked across the engine house at one another, gripped the grab handles and boosted themselves in.

Two doors slammed: Shelly seized her seatbelt, ran it across with one hand, grabbed the aluminum clipboard box with the other, pulled it down onto her lap.

Kenworth Diesels whined quietly as they powered up, as eager fingers, forked over the twin starter buttons, waited for glow plugs to heat:  Crane turned the ignition, paused, his window down the width of three fingers:  he didn't want to crank the starter until the others did, for fear of not hearing further traffic from Dispatch.

Starters slammed into geared flywheels, engines rolled over, coughed, rattled in idling life.

Pumper, rescue and squad idled out onto the apron, bay doors closed behind them:  the Irish Brigade idled on their concrete apron, waiting for the other shoe to drop -- or, rather, the other hard heeled boot.

Old Red was not called frivolously, or without some pretty damned good justification.


Angela Keller caressed her Goldie-horse's neck, more to reassure herself than to reassure her mount: her Daddy got her this pretty shiny horsie and they trained Goldie-horse together, and her Daddy showed her how to ride without using a bit (which was good, because the only time Angela tried riding a bitted horse, she tried to use her reins like she was riding a bicycle, which did not work well at all!)

Angela was very much at home in the saddle -- so much so that, when Goldie whipped around, shied, reared, Angela stuck to her back like a wood tick on a hound dog: it wasn't until she saw what Goldie shied at that she felt any distress at all.

It didn't help at all that Snowdrift bayed an angry challenge that slid almost immediately into a howl, something Angela had never, ever heard her do.

It's impressive when a big furry Bear Killer of a dog plants a square backside on the ground, raises a strong, blunt muzzle to the heavens and cuts loose with a primordial howl, begun with lupine ancestors centuries before and now channeled through a living throat.

That's bad enough.

When Angela looked up and she realized she wasn't breathing for surprise, she realized she was seeing what her pale eyed Daddy told her about.

Angela Keller, the pretty little daughter of that pale eyed Sheriff, fumbled in her coat, gripped her cell phone, pulled it out:  punching in her security code was more of a challenge than she remembered, but she got it, and she hit the icon that put her on speaker with Sharon.

"Firelands County 911, what is the nature of your emergency?"

"Sharon this is Angela I just saw Old Red an' they're movin' fast!" Angela blurted, all in one breath, and she watched as what looked like their Steam Machine, their gleaming, burnished, brass-polished, waxed, smoke-streaming Ahrens steam firefighting engine, charged toward her, sailed past her, disappeared over the rise -- three matched white mares thrusting hard against shining black collars, bells swinging, a big man with a red bib front shirt and a white fireman's hat standing up in the driver's box, reins in one hand, swinging a blacksnake whip with the other, joy on his face and a song on his lips --

-- running like Hell itself was at their heels --

-- absolutely, positively, silent.

Snowdrift stood, shook herself, trailed ahead, nose to the ground, as if searching for a scent;  she raised her head, tasted the wind:  disappointed, she circled back to Angela, who sat shivering in her saddle.

Angela's head snapped around as she heard the explosion.


Every man's head came up a little as the pressure wave shivered their vehicle.

They heard the repeater kick in with its slight hum, just before the dispatcher called, "EXPLOSION AT THE ALL-NIGHT!"

Fireboots came down heavy on throttle pedals, the squad surged forward: the Irish Brigade wheeled onto the street, all sound and fury, armored knights mounted and charging the enemy.


The Sheriff felt his cell phone vibrate, pulled it out, frowned as he looked at the screen.



Sheriff Linn Keller stopped in the absolute center of the Sheriff's office: he went from a long-legged stride to a dead stop, looked at Sharon, looked out the door just as the squad went screaming past, followed by big and shining-red trucks.

"Angela, where are you now?"

"I'm on Tatman's Crossing at the highway."

"Are you safe?"

"I think so, Daddy."

"Is Snowdrift with you?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Okay. Are you facing the road?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Honey, turn around and ride away from the highway. Go to the first breakover, where we watched that eagle two days ago and take the right hand fork."

"Okay, Daddy."

"That'll take you to the schoolhouse."

"Okay, Daddy."

"From there, come down the street and go behind the Mercantile and come into the Sheriff's office from behind. Ride up the alley, tie off in front and wait for me inside."

"Okay, Daddy."

Linn slid the phone back in his shirt pocket, walked over to Sharon's desk.

She was handling multiple calls, he watched as her quick, feminine script marched across her yellow legal pad:

Explosion and fire at the All-Night

Tanker on fire

Several hurt

Windows blown out

Sharon reached for the desk mike, hit two buttons, pressed the grey transmit bar:



Dr. John Greenlees tied the final suture knot when their operator's voice came over the hospital-wide speaker system: he looked at his younger assistant, his question unspoken.

"Go ahead, Doctor, I'll finish," the younger man said.

Dr. John Greenlees nodded, backed away: the operation was successful, very little remained to be done, and he would be needed in ER, if he was any judge.

When their operator called General Quarters, it was generally bad.


A little second-grade girl on a shining gold mare and a curly-furred, pure-white mountain Mastiff paused at the highest point on their path, looked over distance and through clear air at smoke and fire and a river of destruction still flowing downhill and into the stream.

Living fire ran for about a quarter of a mile.

Angela shivered, looked at the fire trucks and the am-boo-lance and she saw her Mommy and her Mommy was running and she had a big orange box in her hand and Angela wanted to run to her Mommy but her Daddy said to go to the Sheriff's office and Angela set her jaw and gave her Goldie-horse some knee.

The placid old mare turned, pointed her nose generally toward the schoolhouse, Snowdrift swift and silent alongside.


Sharon looked up as a familiar young figure pulled mightily at the outer door, grimaced, tried again.

Something the size of a young bear, only pure white, shoved through with her.

Angela frowned, grabbed the inner door's handle, pulled: this door wasn't as hard to open as the outer door, and Snowdrift slipped easily inside, toenails tik-tik-tikking on the burnished quartz floor.

Sharon ran down her checklist.

Everyone's notified, she thought: her left hand dropped, gripped a drawer's handle, pulled.

There was the rustle of dog biscuits in a cardboard box.

Snowdrift dropped her backside to the floor, raised a paw to say "Please."

Sharon laughed, held out the doggie cookie:  Snowdrift took it as delicately, as absolutely daintily, as her sinner's-heart-black counterpart did.

Sharon blinked at Angela's woebegone expression.

She glanced back at her board -- all well -- then back to Angela -- "Why, whatever is wrong, dearie?"

Angela's bottom lip quivered a little and she knuckled uncertainly at one eye.

"I think Daddy's mad at me 'cause I called about Old Red."

"Oh, now, sweetheart, you did the right thing!" Sharon declared gently, then turned:  "Firelands Fire Department second crew, report."

"Second crew on station and responsive."

"I roger your responsive, break, break. Firelands Fire One, second crew reports responsive."

"Have them hold at station," Fitz replied -- his voice was loud, edged a little with stress, and in the background Sharon could hear the whine of a fire pump.

He's on his talkie, Sharon thought approvingly, remembeing how the old Chief would sit in the pumper and try to micromanage from with the cab of a truck.

Not Fitz.

He'll be right in the middle of everything!


Angela watched as Snowdrift got up and walked a few steps, then turned her head a little and slitted her eyes, the way she did when she was being scratched by a particularly talented hand.

A man in a red-wool, bib-front shirt, wearing a pressed-leather helmet, down on one knee, rubbed Snowdrift's ears, her chest: he was on one knee, whispering to the pure-white mountain Mastiff that she was such a very good girl.

He looked up at the little girl who seemed to be watching him, but of course that wasn't possible: he was, after all, a ghost: he and the Brigade did their job, riding into town hell-for-leather, letting themselves be seen by someone who would raise the alarm, someone who did.

Old Red was the name the modern-day Irish Brigade had given the restored Steam Masheen, and that because nobody knew what she was really called.

It wasn't until a year later, when part of the framing was carefully disassembled for inspection, when they removed a long repair plate bolted on to reinforce a cracked frame, that they found the ornate, hand-painted name, given the Steam Machine when the Irish Brigade was still led by a big-chested, hard-muscled Irishman named Sean Finnegan, but until the name's discovery, their Brigade reasoned that every fire department has a Big Red ... well, theirs would be Old Red, and unique, and until this very old repair was removed and inspected, the name remained hidden, and secret.


Angela sat, swinging her legs, then looked up with a frightened expression as the doors opened, as her Daddy came in with the Fire Chief and a State Trooper.

Her Daddy came over to her and she dropped her head, her bottom lip pooching out the way it did when she'd been naughty and got caught.

Linn took his eight year old daughter under the arms, brought her into him:  "What's wrong, Princess?" he asked gently.

Angela looked at him with big and sorrowful eyes.

"Daddy, I saw Old Red."

Linn nodded, caressed her cheek with the back of a bent forefinger.

"I told Shawwon."

Linn nodded again as his little girl's face screwed up in misery.

"I sowwy, Daddy," he heard, just as she threw herself into his arms:  he hugged his little girl to himself, one arm around her backside:  he stood and looked with an honestly puzzled expression at the State Trooper, then at his dispatcher.

"Darlin', you did the right thing," Linn murmured:  Angela heard the door again, she felt her Mommy's hands, she smelled her Mommy's perfumies: the State Trooper was as tall as the pale eyed Sheriff, he was broad shouldered, he was a hard man to intimidate, but he found himself obliged to boost a paper hankie from Sharon's desk.

He wiped his eyes, looked at the dispatcher, then at the Sheriff and his wife and child, and he admitted quietly, "I would give all I have, to have that under my roof again."

"Why?  What happened?"

"I buried my little girl back in Ought-Nine."


A little girl rubbed a big white curly-furred dog's shoulders and looked at her big strong Daddy.

"I wish Daddy could see me," she said softly.

"His heart sees you," the red-shirted Irishman said in a gentle voice.

The little girl looked up, smiled: "Bye, puppy," she called.

Angela watched as Snowdrift's head came up, the way it did when someone left:  she frowned, looked around, then shrugged and laid her head over on her Daddy's shoulder.






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Marnie Keller tossed the clay bird up and away from her.

The shotgun came up easily, naturally: Marnie told her Daddy once that she didn't get beat up by a shotgun because she didn't have nearly as much meat to soak up its recoil: she said she moved with the recoil, like a willow in a stiff wind.

Truth be told, Marnie rejoiced from the first time she tried a twelve gauge: she gripped it tight, pulled it hard into her shoulder, absolutely decimated a coffee can with a tight swarm of sevens-and-a-half, and laughed with the delight of new discovery: her pale eyed Daddy, who'd shortened the stock for her, tilted his hat back and scratched his head in amazement.

She'd been about seven or eight at the time, and she was just bound and determined she'd run that shotgun, and so her Daddy fit the stock to her small frame and he coached her in how to hold it and how to sight it, and when her skinny little body whipped back and she took a catch-up step to keep from falling back into her Daddy's spread-and-ready hands, she'd thumbed the release, broke open the double gun, turned her head.

Linn held that image in his heart for the rest of his life, a laughing little girl in a Sunday dress and shiny slippers, a look of absolute delight and a child's happy voice: "That was fun, Daddy! Do it again!"

He handed her another round, she dunked the red-plastic shotshell in the left-hand barrel: she turned a little to face the second coffee can, she mounted the gun, BAM, and another swarm chewed a ragged hole through most of the can's frontal surface area.

Marnie opened the double gun, dropped the fired hulls to the ground, turned, keeping the twin gunmuzzles carefully downrange.

Her Daddy told her that was enough for one day; he wiped the gun down with a silicone rag, slid it in the gun case as Marnie pattered happily over to the fence, slid between the bars -- her Mama would give her hell for doin' that in a dress, Linn thought -- Marnie came back through, all white-stockinged legs and bright smile as she ran back to her Daddy, bearing two absolutely shredded Maxwell House tin cans like they were the grandest trophies on earth.

Marnie remembered that as she tossed the two claybirds up and away from her.

The double gun's report was more of a chunk! chunk! owing to Marnie wearing a sealed skinsuit, and owing to the unbelievably thin Martian atmosphere: the clay birds (at least that's what she called them) disappeared in twin white flashes: they were actually molded explosives, they consumed themselves completely when detonated, leaving no trace on the surface: Marnie did not want to leave crushed and broken clay pigeons to litterbug where she'd been, and so she'd consulted with people who knew explosives, and came up with these.

They also made very satisfying pistol targets.

Marnie was not the only one shooting shotgun that day.

Every one of the Valkyries was on the line, every one of them with a well-fitted double gun.

The Valkyries laughed and cheered one another, the way healthy young women will, and the few men who tried shooting against them, found very quickly that these attractive young women who flew the sleek, shining, deadly Starfighters, were equally expert when slinging a shot-swarm at an explosive clay bird.

Recreation was a serious pursuit in Firelands.

Unspoken was the constant realization that they were pioneers in a hostile land, that the very planet beneath their feet could kill them: a decompression, a meteor strike, a rock fall, equipment shorting out, misfortune of any kind could -- and had been -- utterly, absolutely and most unforgivingly, lethal.

Recreation was a necessary outlet for the solemn stresses of everyday survival.

The Valkyries delighted in their Ladies' Trap League, making wagers for staggering sums: fortunes were won and lost and won again, each betting outrageous and entirely unrealistic markers -- "I'll bet the African continent on this next shot!" -- "I'll bet the Anatolia copper mines!" -- the more outrageous, the more unrealistic the bet, the more they enjoyed it.

The Valkyries were firmly of the opinion that by shooting trap, shooting skeet, shooting the infinitely harder sporting clays, helped their performance when they wore their Starfighters like they would wear their stockings: they didn't just climb into the cockpit, they slid into it like they would slide into a conforming garment; when they flew, they became the ship, and the ship became the pilot, and flight control and weaponry deployment was as much intuition, instinct, reflex, as it was the result of a computer algorithm.

They'd had serious need of those skills, here of late.


Normal physical laws meant little to women who routinely slipped between realities and traveled impossible distances in the space of a heartbeat.

When one of them fired a spread of surveillance drones in order to take a better look at an unusual energy signature, the results were relayed, not only to the Valkyrie, but also to one of the Confederate bases, for analysis.

This was the third one discovered in as many days, and this was concerning.

The Valkyrie gathered her energies, disappeared here, reappeared there: she took a long look at the source of this energy release, the sudden cutoff, as if the radiation was suddenly swallowed: disappear, again, reappear and analyze the data, from a safe light-year away.

One needleship in the unbelivable vastness of space, was a very difficult thing to find, especially with a carefully selected screen of asteroids between them: she could, and did, make a careful and unhurried analysis of what her probes, and her ship, told her.

"You've found self replicating probes," the Confederate voice reported, and Valkyrie Two smiled to hear that gentle, polite Suth'n voice in her earphones.  "They were sent out in swarms with orders to mine asteroids and make more of themselves, to search forever and report back their findings."

"And when they find I popped in to say hello and popped out?"

"They will try to find you."

"If they do?"

"They will eat you and your ship and make more probes."

"Can they keep up with me?"

"No. They are slow. Enhanced ion propulsion, but reaction motors only. Nothing like what you have."

"If they find a planet, what do they do?"

"They don't have landing capability on a gravity world.  A low gravity moon, yes. We've seen them turn something the size of Earth's moon into a swarm of probes. If they find another ship, they'll eat it and turn it into probes. Asteroids the same."

"Can they do that to Mars?"

"No. They lack retro thrusters. They'll crash into the surface."

"How completely do they have to be destroyed?"

"They're robust and they have a marvelous self repair capability. Best if you can vaporize them, or shatter them, preferably both."

"I've got that Hellbore you tell me punches holes in reality. I don't want to use that one. I've got the kinetic missiles but I don't want to waste one."

There was a fast conference on the Confederate planet, then:

"If you can come in, we can fit twin needle guns and twin energy cannon that will let you turn it to vapor."

"Fire up the coffee pot, I'm on my way!"


"Mars base, Valkyrie Two."

Nancy finished fastening her baby's diaper tabs, turned, stepped on the transmit switch.

"Mars base, Valkyrie Two."

"Mars base, I've had a weapons refit and I'm going after a threat."

"Roger your refit and engage, sending backup."


Two more Valkyries slipped from between realities like two fashionable young women dropping black-velvet cloaks from their smooth, feminine shoulders.

Three Valkyries went into mind-link, the most efficient information transfer possible: Nancy's pupils dilated as she, too, connected with Valkyrie Two, Five and Six: she picked up her baby, leaned back in her contoured chair, held the drowsy little clean-fed-and-powdered bundle of warmth and yawn against her; she slipped between realities with the Valkyries, came out to face three of the probes closing on her in single file, at the best speed the ion-impulse engines could manage.

Nancy smiled as she brought her Starfighter to bear.

Two kinetic cannon coughed, firing swarms of hardened needles, each twice a man's length, big around as a muscled forearm, each traveling at about two thousand feet per second: the probes, intended to survive minor meteor strikes, were instantly shattered by the kinetic attack, reduced to three spreading cloud of debris.

Nancy smiled as she felt a gloved hand touch an icon on her screen, as twin Purgatories seared through space, turning metallic debris into incandescent gas.

Nancy laughed quietly as she heard the Valkyrie's quiet, "I always liked a double gun!" and she felt the unanimous agreement of her flight-mates.

"I think I want double guns on mine too."

"If you talk real nice, they might refit all of us."

"Mars Base, Valkyries Five and Six are going for weaons refit."

"Valkyrie Five and Valkyrie Six, I roger your weapons refit."


Gracie ran a caressing hand over the streamlined weapons array that widened her ship on either side.

Her Starfighter was still sleek, slim, beautiful, graceful, showing the streamlined lineage of atmospheric fighter jets: her new double guns were on either side of the central Hellbore, stacked one over the other:  she smiled as she considered that she now had both over-and-unders, and side-by-sides, and both the Sheriff and her trapshooting brother would approve.

She looked at the Ambassador, her expression one of absolute delight, the look of a girl with her first sleek, shining convertible.

"This can't be cheap," she said. 

"You're keeping us safe as well as yourselves."

Gracie tilted her head a little -- in spite of the spherical black helmet, it was a surprisingly feminine move.

"I don't expect this is simply charity."

"No," the Ambassador said slowly, taking a step closer: his pearl-grey Stetson was carefully tucked under his off arm, and he considered for a long moment.

"There is something you can do.'

Gracie smiled -- quick, bright, unaffected, genuine -- and the Amassador continued, "If you could play for us."

Gracie remembered, back on Earth, when she'd driven a hand-forged knife into a man's belly, her hand white-knuckled on the checkered-maple handle: she left two dead in an Ohio University brick alley, when the two wished to take her goods and her virtue: she remembered the contempt her professor had for a simple mountain fiddler, how his contempt deepened when she played a complex chamber music absolutely flawlessly, when none other in her class could, and she remembered how good it felt to backhand that particular professor in front of the class when he tried to seize her wrist when she refused his advances.

Gracie looked at the Ambassador and smiled gently.

"As a matter of fact, I have my fiddle with me.  Yes, Mister Ambassador, I think I can arrange that!"


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Posted (edited)


A pair of red cowboy boots strutted into the All-Night, flanked by a truly huge pair of curly furred canine guardians.

The ten year old girl occupying the boots marched purposefully for the sausage roller.

The All-Night had sausages on the rolling heaters, ready to eat and cheap, and Marnie liked the wrinkled, ugly, generally overdone sausages -- for whatever reason -- dainty little girls are usually finicky about their diet, quick to turn up their nose at something new, something green, something unattractive.

Marnie was as finicky as a garbage can, and for whatever reason, had a particular liking for these All-Night sausages.

A stranger -- an older man -- watched with amusement as she picked up the plastic tongs and a napkin, as she dropped two sausages in the cardboard hog-dog boat.

"Are you going to eat all that?" he asked, and Marnie dropped the tongs on the counter, turned quickly, one hand up in front of her, bladed, the other at her waist, as if gripping something.

The stranger was surprised to see the child's eyes were an absolutely frost-cold shade of white.

Marnie's nostrils were flared; she was breathing deeply, obviously controlling herself with an effort: she swung her eyes left, then right:  satisfied no other threats existed, she lifted her chin and said "No, sir, I'm practicing politics."

Marnie turned a little, laid her napkin on the counter: she laid a brown, wrinkled-looking sausage on the napkin: only then did the stranger see the hand she'd held at her hip, now held a knife, and the knife was apparently very, very sharp: a quick, effortless slice and the sausage was parted at its equator.

Marnie picked up another napkin -- a dainty, feminine grasp of thumb and forefinger -- she wiped her blade carefully, slowly, looking at the stranger with pale and unblinking eyes -- ten years old, fourth grade, and wiping a short, very sharp knife blade as if cleansing it of someone's life's blood.

Marnie turned: one hand flipped the napkin a bit -- movement draws the eye -- the napkin went in the trash, she turned back, her other hand was empty, the knife having gone who-knows-where.

Marnie picked up half a sausage in one thumb-and-forefinger, the other half a sausage in the other thumb-and-forefinger.

Two huge, curly furred mountain Mastiffs planted their muscled backsides on the floor and gave her their absolutely undivided attention.

Marnie fed half a sausage to each of The Bear Killers, wiped her fingers on another napkin, disposed of it as well, then dropped the other sausage in a bun, sprinkled on onions, a light streak of mustard, turned, regarded the stranger.

Marnie slid two singles across the counter, never taking her eyes off the stranger: she hoisted her nose and skipped for the front door, holding the sausage dog in front of her like a scepter, braids bouncing, two huge and furry mountain Mastiffs pacing along behind her.

Marnie skipped up to a white Crown Vic with a pale eyed man leaned against the back fender, one hand on the gas nozzle, his amused eyes on his niece.

Marnie held up the sausage dog.  "Here you go, Uncle Will," she said, her face shining and absolutely angelic.

Chief of Police Will Keller accepted the gift with a quiet smile:  "Darlin'," he said, "you are the image of your Grandma!'

Marnie planted her knuckles on her belt and nodded, once, emphatically:  "Good!"

Will laughed, thrust his chin at the All-Night.

"What were you doing in there?"

"I was practicing po-li-tics," she said, pronouncing the word very precisely, very deliberately.

"How's that?"  Will's eyes were wrinkled at the corners, the way they did when he was amused by something, or someone, special.

"I took a sausage and I cut it in half," Marnie explained, "and I fed half to Snowdrift and half to The Bear Killer."  She looked very innocently at her Uncle.  "They bribe as well as any politician."

At his nece's wide-eyed and sincere declaration, the pale eyed Chief of Police laughed quietly, shook his head:  he released the gas nozzle, went to one knee:  Marnie skipped forward, into her Uncle Will's arms, hugged him with all the delighted sincerity of a happy little girl.

"I'm pretty damned proud of you, Marnie," Will whispered, and he felt Marnie's giggle, just before she pulled back and regarded him with a surprised look:  "Why?"

Uncle Will slacked his arms, reached up, touched the tip of her nose with a careful, gentle forefinger:  "Just because you're you!" he said softly, the way a man will when the man knows what it is to bury a wife, to bury his child.

Marnie planted her knuckles on her belt.

"Uncle Will, you better eat before your samwitch gets cold!" she scolded, and Will laughed again: he stood, pulled the nozzle from the shining-waxed-white police cruiser, stopped and regarded Marnie with a warm look.

"Darlin'," he said honestly, "you even sound like your Grandma!"

"Good!"  Marnie's nod was emphatic:  she turned, skipped toward her waiting Goldie-horse:  "C'mon guys!" she called, and Will hung up the nozzle, turned and watched a happy little girl in red cowboy boots and bouncing braids skip fearlessly across the All-Night lot, watched her climb up on an overturned five gallon bucket, swing into the saddle, two huge, curly-furred Bear Killer dogs watching her with focused, almost worshipful, canine adoration.

"Practicin' politics," Will chuckled, shaking his head as he screwed the gas cap back into place.


Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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Posted (edited)


It's honestly surprising how many people can appear when things go south.

Jacob Keller was certain he'd thrown his leg over saddle leather.

He was positive the saddle was screwed down on horse flesh.

He was more than satisfied there'd been no sudden clap of sound, no detonating blast, but here he was, halfway between Heaven and Earth, looking down on a paint mare in mid-buck, wondering just how in the hell did this happen!

Sarah ran out, seized the mare's bridle, yelling: the mare's ears were laid back, she lashed out with a forehoof, just grazing Sarah's belly, then the other forehoof, almost missing her backside: Sarah's weight, death-gripped on the black bridle, was enough to slow the rearing, screaming horse, enough for two men to run in and grab Jacob and drag him back to the corral fence.

Jacob struggled to breathe -- he'd landed flat on his back -- his hat helped a little, keeping his gourd from banging on packed dirt any harder than it did -- he was still struggling to breathe, trying desperately to get some air into his shocked lungs.

He wasn't sure, but he figured some joker put four hooves on a wood dynamite crate, scratched the fuse and slickered him into trying to ride the damned thing!

Sarah let go of the bridle, dropped awkwardly to her feet -- the mare had her hauled off the ground several times now -- she staggered, fell, rolled back up, arms spread:  the Irish Brigade was pouring out of the firehouse, grinning, yelling, joining watchful humanity thronged up against the corral fence.

Jacob managed to get a little air, a little more:  he came up on an elbow, rolled over, picked up his filthy Stetson, beat it against his filthy trouser leg, mashed it unceremoniously down on his head.

Sarah was squarely in front of the mare, their eyes locked: she turned with the horse -- she wore a narrow riding skirt, a little flat-crowned hat, after the Spanish style: she circled with the mare, looking down at the mare's shadow, now underfoot: she looked up, smiling suddenly as she realized the cure, then looked over at Jacob.

Sarah was within arm's reach of the mare, her voice gentle, steady, monotonous: the mare's eyes walled and she backed, and Sarah moved with her, circling to her left:  the mare, not quite trusting, turned with her.

Jacob made his feet, wobbled, took a deep breath, staggered toward the pair, now standing still dead center of the town's corral.

"Jacob," Sarah said quietly, "do you remember Alexander the Great?"

Jacob stopped, blinked.

"I remember."

"Sun in her face, so she won't see her shadow."

Jacob advanced, carefully, his voice soothing, quiet:  Sarah was rubbed the mare's nose, murmuring softly to her:  Jacob got his boot in the stirrup, soared into the saddle, found the opposite stirrup, nodded.

Sarah caressed the mare a little more, then backed slowly, slowly from the horse and rider, her expression that of someone watching the sputtering fuse disappear into a bundle of powder sticks.

Jacob leaned forward a little, patted the mare's neck.

"Okay, girl," he said quietly.  "You want to try this again?"

The mare shivered her hide, laid her ears back, muttered some equine threat:  Sarah paced straight back, her eyes on the mare:  the mare was very clearly watching her.

Jacob lifted the mare's reins, eased his heels into her ribs.

"Yup, girl."

He felt her bunch her hind legs -- he set his teeth, clamped his legs around her barrel, determined not to soar halfway to the moon again -- the mare shook her head, muttered and started pacing around the corral just nice as you please.

Jacob Keller, Sheriff's deputy and pale eyed son of that pale eyed old Sheriff, cut a fine figure in the saddle, if you ignored his wrinkled-up Stetson and the absolutely filthy nature of his black suit: money changed hands, men swore or laughed, depending on whether they'd won or lost their wager: the crowd dissolved, a good percentage of them headed for the Silver Jewel and some post-entertainment refreshment.

Jacob rode the mare for several minutes, easing her ahead into a trot, then into a singlefoot, and finally he galloped her a little, circling her inside the big, whitewashed-plank corral, and finally he walked her around and ho'd her to a stop.

Sarah stood, her head tilted a little, smiling, her hands folded in front of her narrow, divided skirt: the sun was to her back, and she was close enough to the mare that the mare could not see Sarah's shadow, nor her own.

The mare's owner scratched his head, clapped his sweat-stained skypiece back down on his greasy hair.

"Here I was ready to sell her to slaughter," he muttered.  "How in the hell did you do that?"

Jacob patted the mare's neck, dismounted, walked her over to the fence.

"She's spooky," he said, rubbing the mare's jaw. "She was shied at her own shadow. My sister picked up on it, she got the sun in our face and no shadow to be seen. Sarah got close enough the mare couldn't see her shadow neither."

"Well I'd be damned."

Jacob climbed the fence as the mare's owner took her reins: he squinted up at the sun, down at the ground, gingerly climbed into the saddle, and then grinned with delight as he realized she wasn't going to dynamite him out of the saddle after all.

Jacob was moving a little stiff as he and Sarah walked over to the Sheriff's office.

"Little Sis," Jacob said quietly, "could I ask another favor?"

Sarah smiled, waved a gloved fist at him.  "What, Little Brother?"

"Could you take a broom to me?"

Sarah stopped dead, surprised, then laughed:  she regarded the genuinely filthy nature of Jacob's suit and said, "I'm afraid that suit is beyond a broom-off. You'd better change and I'll have the girl take care of it."

Jacob looked at her and raised one eyebrow, looked very pointedly at his sister's own dirty garmentage.

"Or I could beat you about the head and shoulders with the broom, and then ride it to get away!" Jacob grinned. "I reckon you're right, else we'd have to broom each other off right out here in front of God and everybody!"


Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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"You didn't have to come to court today."

An attractive young woman in a silky, draped, pastel gown sat across the table from a young man in a well fitted suit.

The table was formally laid; candles in crystal candleholders, wine in long stemmed glasses, quiet music and decorative waterfalls in the background: this was not an inexpensive restaurant, and this was not an inexpensive meal.

A young man looked very seriously at his dinner guest, his expression serious, and not for the first time, he marveled at how this beautiful soul was such an absolute, such a natural, chameleon.

Earlier in the day, in a deputy Sheriff's uniform, she testified as to the investigation, pursuit and capture of a wanted criminal: on the stand she was professional, reserved, calm: he remembered her a few months before, in a beautifully handmade red-and-white square dancing dress, laughing and whirling and so very alive as they danced in the huge round barn under the cliff's overhang.

Here, tonight, she wore a formal gown and heels, she wore modest little earrings and a truly ancient cameo necklace, a cameo he knew was well older than the two of them put together: it was framed with four emeralds, the inscription on the back dedicated it to a beloved wife.

He hadn't told anyone, but John Greenlees Jr. was home for the last visit before beginning his accelerated internship -- as if he hadn't already interned quite a bit under his father's watchful eye, back home in the Colorado mountains.

Marnie Keller picked up her wineglass, sipped delicately: there was wine, yes, and John Greenlees Jr. knew that she would take one, and only one, sip of wine: he knew she would leave no lipstick print on the glass, for in spite of the evening, in spite of the formal setting, her natural beauty was enough that she needed no cosmetics.

He considered himself fortunate that she had the good sense to recognize this, and to not adulterate true beauty with artifice.

Their order was placed, the atmosphere was discreetly hushed; John leaned forward a little, his face serious.

"I greatly admire your performance on the stand today," he said.

Marnie smiled quietly.  "I practiced," she admitted.

"You were most persuasive."

"I was honest."

"When you described looking down the gunbarrel of a field howitzer when the robber turned toward you," John continued uncomfortably, "I could see that in my mind's eye."

Marnie laughed quietly. "That is what I intended."

"Your disarm demonstration was persuasive as well."

Marnie blinked, blinked again, hesitated.

"I was too close to shoot," she admitted. "It was faster to knock his weapon out of line, and of course once I had my hand on it, I did not let go."  She looked up at John, her expression solemn, almost haunted. "I could have killed him, you know."

"I know."

Marnie picked up her wineglass of chilled lemon water, sipped delicately. 

"How do you feel about the Mars project?"

Marnie lowered the wineglass, smiled quietly.

"I'm ready to go now. You?"

"I'll need to intern first."

"You've more experience than most."

"I know," he smiled. "My father ... saw to that."

"You'd said something about an accelerated internship."  Marnie tilted her head a little, the way she did when she was relaxed but interested. "I'd think they would only send experienced physicians on the Mars mission."

"They seem to think ... they know about my unofficial internship here. They've reviewed every last case I worked on, every crush injury, every traumatic amputation, every explosion and burn and poisoning. They've interviewed everyone in that hospital to see how I performed and they swore every one of them to secrecy so they think they were the only one spoken to. It'll come out eventualy that they talked to everyone, but for the moment ..."

"I know," Marnie sighed.  "They did the same thing with me."

"I have something to show you."

John reached into an inside pocket, pulled out his phone: he pressed, swiped, swiped again, smiled.

He slid it across the table.

Marnie picked up the phone, turned it sideways, read the glowing screen, blinked.

She looked up at John, blinked again, looked back at the phone, her other hand going to her mouth.

Marnie lowered her hand, delight in her eyes:  "You're a Doctor now!"

John Greenlees saw Marnie's pupils dilate as she looked at the picture of his diploma,captured on the glowing screen of his phone: he'd rarely seen her pupils dilate like that, but when they did, it meant she was very pleased with something.

"There's something else," John said, rising.

He reached into another pocket, took out a small box.

"We'll sleep all the way to Mars, you know."  He swallowed nervously.  "I've asked that we sleep in adjacent pods for the trip."  He turned the box with nervous fingers.

"Funny," he said, his voice tight, "I can perform surgery with absolutely steady hands. I did yesterday, and now I'm ... I feel a little awkward."

Marnie rose, took a step toward him, her eyes big, her eyes the light blue that meant she was open, vulnerable, that she was greatly pleased.

"Doctor Greenlees," Marnie said, "tell me what's on your mind."

"Marnie Keller," Dr. John Greenlees, Jr., said, his voice steady now, "I will not sleep with a woman unless I am married to that woman, and if I am to sleep with you from here to Mars, I want to do it right." 

He opened the box, turned it so she could see the ring: he went to one knee, looked up at her and said, "Marnie, will you marry me?"

Marnie clapped her hands to her mouth and bounced on her toes, the way she did when she was an excited little girl:  Dr. John rose, grinning, as Marnie held out her hand, surprised that she, too, had a sudden -- barely-visible, but sudden -- tremor to her normally steady hands, just like him.



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Marnie gave her long tall Daddy a patient look, then she bent over, smacked the outside of his right thigh, then the outside of his left thigh.

She straightened, shook her Mommy-finger at him like she used to as a little girl.

"I thought as much," she snapped.  "One's empty!"

Sheriff Linn Keller laughed, as much at Jacob's startled expression as Marnie's serious-faced scolding -- well, most of her face was serious, but he could see the laughter peeking out through his daughter's eyes.

Linn made the mistake of saying something about the size of the platter she picked up and started packing inside -- or, rather, the young mountain of fresh, fragrant, really good looking burgers she'd fried up and stacked up for them.

Inside, the table was set, a bowl of salad in the middle of the table, three kinds of salad dressing; she had buns stacked on a plate, mustard, cheese sliced, onions adding their tang to the air, tomatoes sliced, salt and pepper shakers at the one-third and two-thirds points on the table (she knew her family's tastes!) -- Marnie put thumb and middle finger to her lips, whistled, short and sharp:  "Get down here," she called, "grab it and growl!"

She looked at her father, her expression unreadable.

"Not that you'll like it," she said, "it's made of dead beef!"

Jacob tried hard not to laugh, and almost succeeded:  he shook his head as he sat and chuckled, "Little Sis, it's as much fun listenin' to you as eatin' your cookin'!"

Marnie gave an exaggerated sigh, began dealing hamburger bun bottoms like a Kentucky gambler:  "I'm not tossing your tomatoes," she said, "you'll have to make do with the Boarding House Reach!"

Angela picked up a slice of onion, frowned as it fell apart under her delicate grip: she picked up the fallout, stacked them imprecisely on her bun and hid the vegetable asymmetry under a slice of tomato.

Linn cleared his throat.

Marnie was still standing, waiting to sail hamburger bun tops to their intended recipients: she folded her hands, bowed her head, as did the rest of the Keller young.

"O Lord," Linn intoned solemnly, "save us the curse of the long winded blessing, be with your Mama, she's pulling a double shift and than You for this meal, Amen!"

To Marnie's credit, she did not punctuate her father's "Amen" by bouncing half a hamburger bun off his forehead. 

She'd done that once, and by accident: the paternal look of disapproval was chastisement enough to guarantee her error was not repeated.


Sheriff Marnie Keller leaned back in her spun-plastic chair, her eyes closed, chewing slowly: Dr. Greenlees could see his wife was very much savoring the first bite she'd taken of freshly grilled beef.

Marnie swallowed, sighed with pleasure, took another bite:  Dr. John followed suit, admitting to himself that this most recent gift from the Amassador was particularly welcome.

"God, I miss this so much," Marnie mumbled through her mouthful.

"Me too," came the happily mumbled reply.

It wasn't until they were on their second freshly grilled, steaming hot burger that Dr. Greenlees even thought to mention the health benefits of eating real meat again.

He considered a comment, but his appetite was greater than his commentary.

"I used to fry up burgers by the pound," Marnie finally said. "It's amazing how much my brothers ate!"

"More than just a pound, if I remember correctly."

Marnie laughed, nodded.  "More than a pound!"

"You were quite the housewife in those days."

Dr. Greenlees saw a veil slide into place behind his wife's eyes and he knew he'd touched something she didn't want to consider.

"You could say that," she admitted.

"Do you miss it?"

Marnie lowered what was left of her burger, looked very directly at her husband.

"It is not inappropriate to remember the past," she said carefully, "and in the realm of memory and imagination, the past is sometimes remembered as better than it really was."

"True enouth," Dr. Greenlees admitted.

"My Gammaw told me she was sitting with her Marines in Afghanistan and one of the fellows started talking about missing home, he was talking about his car and his girl, and one fellow from New York said he really missed bagels and lox, and someone agreed with him.

Marnie looked at her husband and he saw the hint of a smile as she continued, "One fellow frowned and said "Ah know what a bagel is, Ah had one at home. What kahnd of a dawg is a lox?"

Dr. Greenlees nodded, chuckled, swallowed, coughed, coughed again -- Marnie rose quickly, alarmed, but Dr. Greenlees raised a forestalling palm, shook his head, coughed again, swallowed.

"Swallow, don't inhale," Marnie muttered, and Doc nodded, raised a forefinger.

"I'll try to remember that," he wheezed.

"I'll try not to tell jokes at mealtime," Marnie said slowly, never taking her eyes off her husband: she'd kept a younger brother from dying thanks to Dr. Heimlich's maneuver, and she'd come to her feet ready to do it to preserve her husband's airway -- which fortunately didn't require her intervention.



Joseph looked up from his homework.

Marnie looked up from hers and smiled patiently.

Joseph was swinging his legs impatiently, the way young boys will.  "How come you do it?"

"Do what?" Marnie sighed, laying down her pencil and giving her little brother her full attention.

"You know. All the cookin' and cleanin' you do, the mom stuff."

Marnie looked left, looked right, leaned forward over her calculus.

"Joseph," she said quietly -- she'd always called him Joseph, never Joe or Joey like they tried to call him in school -- "do you really want to eat Dad's cooking?"

"He makes good waffles!" Joseph protested.

"Yes he does," Marnie agreed, "and he burns the bacon and his steaks are either shoeleather or raw on the inside."

Joseph wrinkled his nose.  "Yeah," he agreed.

"And Dad doesn't fix any sides with the meal."


"And he can't bake a cake."

"Can too!"

"Joseeeph," Marnie said, a warning note in her voice.  "That last time he tried, he made a chocolate brick that not even The Bear Killer would touch."

"Yeah, guess so," Joseph muttered.

"I do it so you won't starve," Marnie said gently.  "Plus it's the right thing to do, it's the responsible thing to do, then there's duty ..."

Marnie leaned back, shook her head.

"You'll hear enough about all that when you get older."

"Do I hafta?"

Marnie smiled.  "No.  You don't hafta."


"Mars to Marnie."

Marnie blinked, looked at her husband.  "I'm sorry, what was the question again?"

"I thought you were going to fall in," he murmured.

Marnie rubbed her forehead.  "I'm sorry.  Just ... remembering."

Dr. John Greenlees came over, bent, hugged his wife, kissed the top of her head.

"You were smiling."

She laid a hand on his encirling arm.

"I have a lot to smile about, John."


Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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The truck sagged a inch or so as Linn eased his bony backside down on the laid-down tailgate.

His younger son Joseph was already there, sitting, looking fixedly at their solid old house.

Neither spoke for several minutes, then:


"Yes, Joseph?"

"Sir, I'm thinking of our house the way it was when it was the Macneil ranch."

Linn nodded, smiling a little: when he was Joseph's size, he too contemplated that very subject.

"Sir, I recall when you and Uncle Will were building on. You pointed out where timbers were drilled and pegged rather than nailed, and you showed me where later on square nails were used."

Linn nodded, smiling ever so slightly.  "I recall."

"Sir ..."  

Linn knew not to reply: Joseph was gathering his thoughts, arranging them to his satisfaction before he put them into words and trotted them out to be seen.

"Sir, there was no lumber yard to go buy boards and such."

Linn nodded thoughtfully.

"Did Charlie Macneil have to make his own?"

Linn smiled, rubbed his son's back:  Joseph arched his back and Linn began scratching, gently, bringing a happy groan from his younger son.

Few things are better than a good back scratchin', and Linn taught his young to perform the art, and returned the favor:  had Joseph been a cat, he would've purred.

"I reckon he made some of his own, yes," Linn said thoughtfully.  "The Daine boys up on the mountain did an awful lot of timber work. As I recall, the Macneil place was small to start with. Most were.  Small is easy to heat and doesn't take as much material."

"Yes, sir."

"Mama's place, you'll recall, was laid up from logs."

"Yes, sir."

"Logs are work enough, but to make planks in those days ..."

Joseph looked at his father, clearly interested.

"As I recall, the Daine boys had a water wheel that run a saw, and they planked off logs with that."

"Yes, sir?"

"It run slow, though.  Warn't fast like a jig saw."

"No, sir."

"They used cross cut saws quite a bit but it's hard to get a true cut and make a good plank with a crosscut."

"Yes, sir."

"Old Pale Eyes one time wrote about one of his little ones watchin' someone with a hand saw and called it a Hee Haw Saw."  Joseph saw his Pa's quick grin, felt the delight a son experiences when he's had some part in bringing a smile to dear old Dad's face. 

"Yes, sir."

"Was I to guess, Joseph, I'd guess Charlie Macneil likely bought planks off those Kentucky timber cutters."

"Yes, sir."

Silence grew between them as they contemplated their home.


"Yes, Joseph?"

"Sir, how would it have been roofed?"

Linn looked at his son, pleased at the lad's curiosity.

"Like as not, shake shingles."

"Wood shingles, sir?"


Joseph frowned.  "Wouldn't that be a fire hazard?"

Linn laughed, the way a father will when an adult phrase falls from a child's mouth.

"Yes, Joseph, it most certainly would. That's why she's tin roofed."

Joseph frowned.  "How long will a tin roof last?"

"A good long time, if it's made right. This one has some rust coming through here, there and yonder. Tin plating years ago didn't last as long as metal roofs last nowadays."

"Couldn't you paint it, sir?"

"It's been painted a few times already. Your Gammaw was up there paintin' it, back when this belonged to Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary."  Linn smiled a little.  "Mama said 'twas one of the only times she ever wore sneakers outside of gym class. She didn't figure boots would give as good a grip."

"Yes, sir."

"I reckon we'll re-roof sometime," Linn said thoughtfully, "but I'll hire it done."

Joseph looked at his Pa with honest surprise.  "Sir?"

Linn laughed: Joseph grew up with his long tall Pa doing their wiring, their plumbing, replacing windows and doors and about all the work that was to be done: to think of his wonderfully capable father hiring his work out was almost shocking!

"Something like this," Linn continued, "I am not ashamed to let someone younger, smarter and better lookin' than me handle the detail. Kind of like when Uncle Will's hot water tank sprung a leak. He called the right people, they came in and switched it out and made it look easy."

Joseph frowned a little.  "Yes, sir," he said uncomfortably.

"I'll tell you a secret," Linn said confidentially. "When someone has the experience and the tools and they make a job look easy, and you know it ain't easy, why, those folks know their stuff."

"Yes, sir."

"No, I'll let professionals peel off the old tin and put on new. Metal roofs nowadays last quite a bit longer. It'll last me the rest of my days."  

"Yes, sir."

"Next we're over at the Museum, we'll get into the files and pull up some pictures of the Daine boys' sawmill."

Joseph looked at his Pa, grinned.

"I'd like that, sir."


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"Daddy?" Angela asked, tilting her head a little as she looked at the framed picture beside the big glass box.

Linn stood behind and beside his daughter, his arm around her.

Angela was stopped before the glass case that had a World War 1 uniform on a clear-plastic mannikin, campaign hat tilted at a familiar angle on its head; in another glass case, a copper plated pair of engraved Colt's revolvers with yellowed ivory grips, and on the left hand Colt's grips, the Masonic square-and-compasses; on the right-hand Colt's, the Arc-and-Compasses, both scrimshawed and inlaid with absolutely black India ink.

The scrimshaw work was precise, the index-marks on the square, and on the arc, clear and uniform: the engraving, in like manner, was precise, tasteful, spare: inlaid in gold, on either side of the copper plated, tarnished-black frame, a Thunder Bird, just like every one of Angela's Daddy's guns had.

"Daddy, is that Gammaw, or is that Sarah?"

Sheriff Linn Keller's arms were gentle, strong, warm and reassuring as they encircled his little girl: hugged her into him: Angela leaned back into her Daddy's embrace, for there was nowhere in the world she'd rather be than safe in her big strong Daddy's arms.

"That," Linn said quietly, "is the only trip your Gammaw made to France in her life."

Angela's forehead puzzled a little as she considered the framed, formal portrait.

"Daddy, is that a rose on the tombstone?"

"It is, Princess."

Angela's knuckles brushed the curly fur of a just-arrived white mountain Mastiff: she raised her arm, rested her little hand on Snowdrift's shoulders.

"Why'd she go?"

Linn released his embrace, rested his hands gently on Angela's shoulders.

"Do you remember us talking about Joseph Keller going to war?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Do you remember us talking about his being killed over there?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Your Gammaw went to visit his grave."

"Oh."  Angela considered for a long moment, then:  "Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, is that Gammaw's dress, or Sarah's dress?"

Linn chuckled, squeezed gently; Angela raised spatulate, artist's fingertips up and laid them on her Daddy's knuckles.

"Darlin', your Gammaw scared the hell out of a Frenchwoman. That's the dress the Frenchwoman's mother made."


Sheriff Willamina Keller's eyes were busy.

The gendarme at the wheel was curious: his superiors instructed him to drive this Américaine

to a particular village, near a particular cemetery: another gendarme rode in the rear seat with her, and from their quiet-voiced conversation, there was some familiarity -- though the younger man of less rank spoke no English, the genial nature of their conversation indicated they had some mutual acquaintance, or perhaps a mutual interest.

At the Lieutenant's instruction, they drove first to the village: their car was unmarked and had neither lights nor insignia to indicate it was an official vehicle, but when two men in uniform and a well-dressed woman emerge and march purposefully toward a small shop, notice was taken and tongues began to wag, as they will in any village in any time.

Willamina's French was very limited; what very little she knew was swept away like a leaf in a flood, listening to these native francophones, but she was accomplished at reading body language, and equally fluent in translating the conversations of men who spoke with their hands as much as their tongues: Willamina caught the gestures indicating her, the word cimetière, the widening of the woman's eyes and the hands coming quickly over her mouth:  she turned, ran into the back of the shop shouting grand-mère and something Willamina absolutely could not follow:  the Lieutenant leaned closer and murmured, "She is shouting that the woman is here, the woman with the eyes."

Willamina looked at her companion, concerned, but not entirely surprised.

An old woman came out, a woman with hands and face that looked like she'd been carved from a dried apple:  her daughter was chattering, gesturing toward their visitors, and the grandmother nodded, hobbled forward on an equally ancient wooden cane:  she shuffled up to her visitors, looked up at the Lieutenant and smiled, reaching a palsied hand up to caress his face:  her words were almost whispered, and though Willamina did not understood the words themselves, she recognized the genuine affection of a grandmother.

The Lieutenant smiled and kissed the old woman on both cheeks, holding her hands carefully, gently, as if might break them if he held too tightly: he turned a little and formally presented le Shérif Américain, and the old woman looked up with an effort.

Her eyes widened as her eyes met Willamina's.

She looked back to the Lieutenant and whispered something, something urgent:  she turned to her daughter, her voice stronger, commanding:  the old woman took Willamina's arm, pulled.

Willamina followed, as did the Lieutenant.


"There was a local legend," Linn explained, "something to do with a particular grave."

Angela sat very properly, very ladylike, something she'd gotten from Marnie more than her Mama: Shelly lived in jeans or her uniform trousers, but Marnie preferred her skirts and dresses, unless she chose jeans or uniform trousers: Angela had a way of giving a man those big, lovely eyes and making him think she was just absolutely hanging on his every word -- something else she'd learned from her big sister.

"It seems the grave was haunted."

Angela frowned, just a little, turned her head ever so slightly, something Linn saw his Uncle Will do -- as if the man was bringing a good ear to bear.

"According to the village legend, once a year they would hear a wolf singing in the graveyard.

"It was always the same time of day, about ten in the morning.

"An old Gypsy woman told them this was a wild American wolf that sang at a soldier's burial, and the German military dog that accompanied the German troops that brought this American's body back to his lines for honorable burial, sang with it, and that's what they heard ... always on this same day, always at the same time."

Angela blinked, nodded.


"Yes, Princess?"

"Was there a rose on the tombstone?"


It was a little unusual for Willamina to allow herself to be undressed by two strangers who didn't even speak her language.

It was even more out of the ordinary when she was wrapped in a corset that fit her perfectly -- as a dress was brought out of a garment bag -- as a mourning-gown and its underlayments were fitted to her:  the old woman's eyes shone with delight, her daughter's held uncertainty, but their hands were anything but uncertain: they'd run a dress shop for many years, and this business of fitting a gown to a customer was the most natural thing in the world for them.

Especially when absolutely no adjustments had to be made to the gown.

A hat, gloves: when Willamina and her minor entourage emerged from the little shop's front door, the gendarme waiting beside the car came to attention: a significant percentage of the village was already gathered, more were on their way, and Willamina found herself on the arm of a uniformed gendarme, at the lead of a procession to the nearby cemetery.

Willamina walked with dignity, eyes forward, her chin lifted, except to steal a glance at the solemn-faced Lieutenant's wristwatch.

They arrived at the grave, very precisely, at ten o'clock.

Willamina released her grip on the Lieutenant's arm and paced forward to the neatly-tended grave with its gleaming white tombstone, with the hand carved engraving, melted slightly with time and acid rains.

She stopped before the tombstone, looked at the fresh-cut, dew-speckled rose on the stone.

She knelt.

The villagers watched, silent, as this woman in mourning black, laid a gloved hand delicately on the shoulders of a yellow-eyed, white-furrred wolf, as she crossed herself, as she laid her hands on the stone, gripped the corners, bowed her head.

They saw her shoulders shake a little, as if in grief: the black veil hid her face as she lifted her head, as she released the stone and caressed the great, wild creature at her side.

She rose, gracefully, folded her hands at her waist, turned her head, looked down at the wolf.

Not far away, another, distinctly wolflike, with brown eyes instead of feral yellow:  a German Shepherd trotted toward them, paced up beside Willamina.

The villagers whispered, watched, as she lifted the veil from her face, threw it back over her old-fashioned hat: they saw her lips move, as if framing a whispered command, and only the Lieutenant was near enough to hear her:

"Sing, boys."

Two large, wolflike canines, one beautiful, gleaming, chocolate-and-tan with brown eyes, one pure and flawless white, with feral yellow eyes, dropped their backsides to the graveyard sod and lifted their muzzles.

Together, in harmony, their sides working with the effort, a wild American wolf and a civilized German Shepherd, their sorrow, as a pale eyed woman slowly lifted her hands at the end of wide spread arms, offering their canine harmonies to the Heavens.

For the first and only time in her entire life, Sheriff Willamina Keller sang, and as she did, the pair sat, silent and unmoving, save only to come close to her skirts, as if telling the world she was protected here.

She sang with tears running down her cheeks, she sang for a growing boy who'd backsassed his Pa and run off to join the fight, she sang for the parents that waited for the rest of their lives for their child to come home to them, she sang for a tombstone over an empty grave back home, she sang for every time family looked at a picture and remembered the living soul.

Willamina sang with an absolutely pure, flawless, pitch-perfect voice, she sang with all the power of her pale eyed ancestressed who'd sung on stage, and as she sang the Ave Maria, with a great war-dog on either side of her, as she sang with her palms uplifted toward the heavens, hands grasped beaded rosaries and kerchiefs wiped damp eyes.

When her last note faded, Willamina lowered her veil over her face, she laid her hands on the stone again, she lifted her head, stood, turned.

The photographer was behind her; he'd framed the photograph in the viewfinder, he had this stranger in mourning black centered: the shutter tripped, and Willamina's image was engraved for posterity, a photograph she would take home with her, to be framed and matted and set beside a tall glass case in the Firelands museum, to join a uniform and a pair of engraved Colt revolvers.


Angela tilted her head and looked at the picture, considering her Daddy's quiet words.

"Daddy," she finally asked, "what happened to the White Wolf and the German Shepherd?"

Linn smiled.


Willamina knew the photographer was behind her.

She lowered her hands, lowered her veil, knelt: when she turned, she turned quickly, and as she turned, her skirt twisting and flaring around her, the White Wolf disappeared into a twist of fog that sank into the ground, and so did the German Shepherd.










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I sat alone at the kitchen table.

Today was Shelly's day off and I'd had a long day yesterday and I don't reckon it would be right to expect her to fix breakfast, I'd just load everyone up and head for the Silver Jewel, but until everyone was rolled out of the bunk and had their glad rags on, why, I'd just sit here and have my coffee.

Marnie was in college, Jacob was of course long since graduated and he was workin' today, this is my weekend and it felt pretty good to sit here and listen to the quiet.

I missed the sound of the very young, waking at dawn's first searing blaze along the horizon, or just before: there's no way I could ask Shelly to bear more young, and glad I am I realized that, for my own selfish wish is for a house plumb full of little ones.

There was a shirt tail relative down Stone Creek Marnie found -- long dead now, of course, Stone Creek isn't even a ghost town, just some foundation stones and memories on yellowed paper the next county from us ... but there I go wanderin' again, I do that when I'm holdin' a mug of comfortable and fragrant.

I sipped coffee Shellly made the night before, bless her.

Now me, I can drink a quart of the stuff and sleep like a rock, at least until I have to dispose of the second hand byproduct.

Shelly claims she can't sleep if she has coffee after about 4 in the afternoon.

Reckon that's because I've had so much of the stuff for so many years.

It felt good just to sit there, alone with my thoughts.

The Bear Killer was laid over on his side, asleep, and I reckon Snowdrift was asleep on Angela's bed.

Snowdrift was getting old now and havin' trouble launching up onto the bunk, so I built her a broad and generous shelf to help her up onto the bunk: I'd seen Angela, looking like an apple-cheeked angel, sound asleep, rolled up on her side with an arm over Snowdrift's shoulder, and every time I'd seen that, Snowdrift woke and looked at me:  I held out a hand, palm-down, and she relaxed at my gesture: had there been a situation, had I needed her, my palm-down would have turned into a palm-down come-here, a hook-gesture that got me an odd look from my contemporaries and a haunted look from older men who'd remembered that gesture from a swampy part of the world they were fortunate to have survived, one of 'em asked in a quiet voice that he'd known K9 officers to be trained in German, Dutch, Romanian, but did I train mine in Vietnamese? -- and I laughed and said not exactly, then described how I'd been spiking a new fence rail in place and hit my thumb instead of the spike nail, I'd come out with a fine collection of oaths I'd learned from my Mama, who learned them from her Uncle Pete, who'd survived the Southeast Asia War Games, and when I turned the air blue with a hybrid of Oriental and Occidental profanity, when I called it seven kinds of the illegitimate get of a dinky dao fishhead and spiraled downward into very loud, and genuinely rude, crude and socially unacceptable phonemes,why, Snowflake came over, whining, and licked my face as if to comfort me.

When I told him this, I give him my most sorrowful look, and I got him to laughing.

Funny the places a man's mind wanders over a quiet morning's coffee.

Now here directly Shelly would roll out, and Angela would roll out with her: Snowflake will come flowing down the stairs like a ... well, not an avalanche, but a happy, smiling, tongue-out cloud of happiness ... she's just as big as The Bear Killer, she's built just as blocky and she's just as strong and to be honest, she's just as fast and just as powerful, and she can take a man down equally as well as any K9 I've ever worked with, but she's honestly the sweetest hound dog I've ever known.

Now there.

Hound dog.

Folks out here still smile tolerantly when I come out with one of Mama's phrases.

She told me people asked her all of her life if she was from East Texas, West Tennesse or Hotlanta, Joeja, for to their ears she had a distinctly Suth'n accent. 

I know her accent was more pronounced when she was fatigued. 

She honestly couldn't hear her own accent but it was there, we talked about it and when we'd go back East to visit the land of her nativity, she'd not be among home folk fifteen minutes before she sounded just like them, and the voice of home would be with her for at least a week.

Reckon I've picked up on several of Mama's idioms.

She one time laughed and told an educated sophisticate, that she did not speak English, she spoke a mixture of dialect and colloquialisms, and of course she was on duty at the time in her tailored suit dress and heels, and she'd crossed her legs and tapped a forefinger thoughtfully against her cheekbone as she looked seductively at the fellow ... Mama was a manipulator, and a good one: she could imply a hell of a lot with a look, with a shift of her weight, a smile, the least hint of a frown.

I've seen Marnie do that exact thing, and Angela has the gift but to a lesser degree.

I heard something upstairs, and smiled, and something white and furry flowed down the stairs:  The Bear Killer rose, shook himself, and the two greeted one another with a touch of their shining black noses, then they both looked at me and snuffed -- kind of a sneezing whuff -- I set my coffee down and headed for the back door, with my loyal following close behind.

Two happy, bouncing mountain Mastiffs frolicked into the back yard, lifting their muzzles and scenting winter-frosted air; they'd be a little, I turned back into the kitchen and met a smiling pair of light blue eyes and the face of an angel, its wings spread -- and I hugged my little girl, who was taller than her Mama now, warm and smelling of soap and clean living and a white-flannel nightgown.

I held her for a long moment, remembering her as a little girl, then as a growing girl, long-legged and coltish, awakward and bashful, and that changed in the space of a heartbeat and she was suddenly a young woman, somewhere between the ages of twelve.

I have no idea how that happens, but it did, with Marnie and with Angela both, and I remembered that shirt tail relative in Stone Creek -- a contemporary of Old Pale Eyes -- and how he'd been a sky pilot who ran an orphanage and by all accounts, regarded every one of the orphaned young as family, and I wished powerfully I'd been in on that operation.

Given my druthers I'd have a whole house full of young, but I had Angela alive and warm in my arms, and I held her and I kissed the top of her head and I whispered, "Get your brother awake and get your glad rags on, Princess, we're for the Silver Jewel this morning," and Angela stood with her arms around my neck and she looked into my eyes and my God this child is beautiful, and she stood up on her toes and kissed the tip of my nose and giggled, she spun, she skipped back toward the stairs, silent on bare feet, lifting the hem of her long flannel nightie like her ancestresses likely lifted their long skirts:  Angela giggled her way up the stairs as Shelly plodded down the stairs:  my wife wore a long white flannel nightgown and a drowsy expression:  she stretched, she yawned, she shuffled over toward the coffee pot, looked at me, trickled a little cow into her coffee.

"Do I have to fix breakfast?" she whined -- her face was so doleful, her voice so exaggerated, I laughed and hugged the most beautiful woman in my universe to me.

"Get your glad rags on, darlin'," I whispered, "we are for the Silver Jewel this morning!"

"Can't I just go back to bed and you roll the bed into the Jewel with me in it?" she mumbled, setting her mug on the counter and cuddling into me.

I held her and rocked her a little, I took a lower grip and hoisted a little to take the weight off her back, then she turned her back to me and crossed her forearms, set her hands on her collar bones, I gripped her elbows and picked her up and held her, gave her a little twisting shake, and I felt her back bone give a rippling pop down its whole length, and a good thing I was holding onto her with a I-got-your-weight grip for she'd have collapsed for the relief of it.

She turned and almost collapsed into me.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"I can bring you back breakfast," I murmured into her hair, "but understand I'll be carousing with a beautiful younger woman to do it."

"You rake," she mumbled, lifting her face from my chest and smiling up at me.  "You always were a womanizer."

I kissed my wife, gently, grinned.

"I am a rake and a womanizing scoundrel," I chuckled, "and I have exceptionally good taste!"




Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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Captain Crane watched his daughter as she burnished the side of their squad with a single minded precision.

Married woman she might be, but a father knows when his daughter is troubled, and the Captain had absolutely no idea what troubled his darlin' daughter.

Shelly divided her side of the squad into a grid pattern, and worked on one square only, and she worked with a frown and a concentration the Captain had only seen when she was gut-troubled.

The Captain, on the other hand, used his height and length of arm to work a much larger surface area: instead of working on the driver's side, he started on the back of the squad: after its previous run, as was custom, it was sprayed down, wiped down, dried: it was a standing joke that the only reason their squad didn't have an inch of glass-clear, well-polished wax buildup on the Omaha orange and white exterior, was because it was burnished off at every application, and the only reason there was any paint left, was the wax kept it from being worn off by the frequent and vigorous application of a good high grade wax.

The Captain started on the driver's side and worked his way to the passenger side, where he finished to the corner, draped the rag over the back of a handy chair and looked at his daughter.

"Out with it," he said, his voice gentle.

"Out with what?" 

Crane did not miss the guarded tone of the reply, the stiff body language, the suspicious look.

"Something is wrong."

"Nothing's wrong."

Crane stepped around the corner, out of sight of the rest of the Irish Brigade:  that Shelly was working the starboard side, meant she was hiding something -- the squad was between herself and everyone in the firehouse -- Crane was not expert in reading body language, but he wasn't entirely unintelligent on the subject.

He looked at his daughter, reached for her shoulder:  she twisted away from his touch, then turned, snapped the rag in the air like she was snapping a miniature whip: her jaw was set, her eyes were bright, the way she got when she was angry, and Crane had all the confirmation he needed that something was indeed not right.


The phone on Linn's side of the bed was a cordless, because when the phone rang, he was out of bed like he'd been clap boarded across the backside: he would snatch up the phone with such vigor that a corded phone would be yanked off the nightstand, to bounce the length of its curly cord, generally hitting the floor and disconnecting:  Shelly, on the other hand, moved minimally, and so the corded phone was on her side of the bed.

When the phone rang, Linn was out of bed like a shot: he snatched up the receiver, thumbed the button: for the suddenness, for the near-violence of his move, his voice was invariably gentle, deep, reassuring, no matter the hour.

His bare feet were not solidly on the floor before the phone was to his ear and he gave his usual "hel-LO," and in the dim light, Shelly saw his look of surprise, saw him blink twice, saw him look at the doorway, watched him move like a pale, barefoot ghost out of their bedroom.

"Okay, slow down now," he said, his voice pitched to soothe, to reassure:  "tell me that again, slowly, I want to understand what you're saying."

This is not what he usually said when he got a call after dark.

Normally his voice would change to crisp and businesslike.

Shelly's womanly jealousy was a rare thing, but it manifested tonight: she sat up, lifted her handset carefully, knowing if she lifted straight up, it would connect without any betraying  *click* --

Shelly heard a woman's voice, a voice full of tears and fear and apprehensions, and she heard her husband's soothing, gentle voice, reassuring, calming, and Shelly heard her husband's kindness spoken to another woman!


Crane listened to his daughter's description of the nighttime phone call.

"Daddy," she said, her voice strained, "I didn't realize what it was until she said they were going to take her leg at mid-shin and what was she going to do and diabetes was going to cut her an inch at a time until nothing was left and she didn't want to lose her leg --"

She looked at her Daddy, misery in her eyes and sorrow in her voice.

"Daddy, I thought Linn was having an affair until I realized it was a wrong number, and he was being as kind to a wrong number as he would be to his own blood."


Linn came back into the bedroom, as silent and ghostlike as when he'd departed:  Shelly heard the cordless go back into its charger, felt the bed sag as Linn slid back into where he'd been a half hour ago.

Shelly waited until the conversation was over to hang up, and when she hung up, she was grateful it was dark -- but even then she was half convinced her face would be absolutely glowing for shame, like an apple lighted from within by the harsh bulb of self accusation.

"Who was it?" she'd asked quietly, and Linn lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling with wide and unseeing eyes:  his hand found his wife's and she heard him murmur, "Wrong number."


"It was a wrong number and it wasn't local," Shelly said hoarsely, her eyes staring a hole in the hand laid brick wall.  "Whoever she was, she said she was on the eleventh floor, but her room was so small it's like she was in the basement."  She blinked, looked at her Daddy, her expression and her voice like a lost little girl's:  "Eleventh floor.  Our hospital only has three floors."

Father and daughter regarded one another, then fatherly arms embraced his distressed little girl as she groaned, "Daddy, men can bring flowers and chocolate when they get the wrong idea, but what do I do?"

The Captain considered for a long moment.

"Your Mom accused me of having an affair."

Shelly blinked, startled:  "Daddy!" she exclaimed.  "Did you?"

Crane shook his head.  "No," he said quietly, and Shelly heard the truth in his single word of reply.

"Your Mama went on the warpath and she found out in really short order that it was all in her imagination.  She came home red-faced and real quiet.  I don't think we said two words that night, and I don't think she slept all night."

"What did you do?"

"I gave her room to think. She was really quiet for a week and she never did say a word about it.  I thought it wise not to say anything either.  I found out who she'd talked to and I found out how she learned the truth of the matter, several people told me how ashamed she'd been of herself, but she never said word one to me about it."  

Her daddy took a long breath, blew it out:  he picked up his polishing rag, folded it carefully, longways, then again, running it thoughtfully between thumb and fingers.

"I wanted to bring her flowers and chocolates, but if i did, I knew it would be like gasoline on the fires of jealousy.  She went to her grave not saying a thing about it to me."

"What did she accuse you of?"

The Captain's snort was derisive, his grin sardonic:  "She accused me of having two, three or four hot little affairs with two, three or four hot little doxies in my paramedic class. She was friends with one of the women in my class and asked her about it.

She found out that one of them made a pass at me and I'd been nothing but a gentleman, that I'd very politely told her I was married and that I could try to fix her up with one of the firemen if she'd like, and when your Mom found out she was absolutely in the wrong, it was like someone punched a hole in her and let all the air out.  She'd been so convinced and when she learned it was her imagination ..."  He shrugged, unfolded his rag, folded it again.

"Didn't that hurt?" Shelly asked. "What did you do?"

"It hurt," he admitted, "and I did nothing."

"Didn't she apologize?"


Shelly groaned, leaned back against the squad's slick side, dropped her face into her hands.

"I feel so stupid," she mumbled into her palms, then dropped her hands, looked beeseechingly at her patiently-listening Daddy.

"How can I tell him I'm sorry?"

"Plain language," was his blunt reply.  "How long was he on the phone with her?"

"About a half hour." 

Crane raised an eyebrow.

"All right, thirty-six minutes.  I watched the clock."

"He's on the phone for better than a half hour, and all he said ...?"

"Wrong number."

"That's all?"

"That's all."

Crane considered his reply very carefully.
"Does he know you're suspicious?"


"Have you accused him of anything?"

Shelly shook her head, closed her eyes against the uncertainty she felt.

"At least you were that smart," her Daddy muttered uncharitably.

"Dad-deee!" she whispered, desperate to keep anyone overhearing her.

"Daddy," Shelly finally asked, "would it have helped if Mom apologized?"

Crane half-slouched, half-dropped back against the side of the squad:  Shelly saw her Daddy's jaw slide out, and he nodded slowly.

"Yes," he said at length. "It would have helped."



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It was not unusual for the Parson to entertain guests.

It was not unusual for the Parson to be entertained as a guest.

When the Parson visited the Sheriff, he was generally greeted by youthful and joyful shouts of "Parson!" -- followed by a full-on juvenile charge, either by individual skirmishers, or sometimes the assault was in squad strength: more often than not, the Parson ended up on one knee, or on both knees, happily embracing several sources of absolutely unabashed, youthfully enthusic greeting.

If the Parson had a difficult time, and a sky pilot not infrequently helps his flock bear their griefs and losses, and it was at all possible, he availed himself of this joyful greeting.

Mrs. Parson delighted in coming along on such visits: she, too, was happily greeted, but the children were more reserved with her: the young would cluster about her and regard her with joyful, shining faces, but some youthful instinct prompted their greater care, as if she were fragile, and might break.

The Parson, on the other hand, threw his head back and laughed as several sets of young arms embraced him, as a multitude of confusion all spoke at once, and he wasn't sure whether he was being told one of them painted the dog, or painted a dog on the side of a horse, or if they'd ridden a fence that subsequently jumped a horse -- but the general effect was the same -- the sorrow and the grief he'd soaked up earlier in the day, ran from him like water off an oilskin and he was left on his knees, his head thrown back, laughing.

Mrs. Parson felt a shy tug on her skirt and looked down at a little girl with pale eyes, a beautiful, apple cheeked child in a frilly little frock, a child who looked at her with big and innocent eyes and held her arms up.

Mrs. Parson responded as grandmothers always do:  she dipped her knees, she embraced the child, whispered to her, she felt the arms of the very young around her neck, felt the warmth of a child's sigh of contentment, breathed out against her neck.

At the Sheriff's step, the children reluctantly slacked their embraces, hushed their chatter: this was not out of fear, this was out of respect, and the Sheriff extended a strong, callused hand: the men gripped, the Sheriff pulled, discreetly helping the man from his knees to his feet, for he knew the Parson's knees gave him grief these days.

Esther swept in, all smiles and graciousness:  Old Pale Eyes grinned at his visitor, his eyes going to his wife, and the Parson saw something he'd felt himself: he saw the admiring look of a man who genuinely loved his beautiful bride.

The adults drew into Linn's study: the Keller young discreetly withdrew, for just as a battleship has Admiral's Country, where the common sailor dare not tread, this was Adult's Country, and the young entered only by invitation, or sometimes by spontaneous need:  the ladies were seated, their chairs intimately angled, and Linn waved the Parson to his usual, comfortably upholstered chair.

The maid brought wine for the ladies, a sweet German wine, and delicate, tall, fluted glasses:  Linn set out two brandy balloons, picked up the cut-glass decanter and looked at the Parson:  he held out a closed fist, extended two fingers, then spread them in a wide V and said "Two fingers' worth?"

The Parson laughed and Linn did too: distilled sunshine splashed and rolled in the delicate blown glass, Linn eased the stopper back in the decanter, set it back, handed the Parson one and took the other himself.

The two sat, swirled their brandy, inhaled the vapors.

The Parson tried not to cough when the potent, alcohol-rich fumes hit the back of his throat:  Linn had no such reservation:  he coughed aloud, blinked, shook his head, looked at the Parson and said "I didn't even taste it yet!" -- and they laughed quietly as the ladies took their first tentative sip of their new vintage.

Heads leaned back, amber tongue oil sluiced through toothy gateways and down welcoming throats: the Parson savored the flavor, nodding his pleasure: he was not a drinking man, but he was certainly not above having a sociable libation:  he'd told the Sheriff once that, "Christ turned the water into wine, and He drank wine -- I don't drink it often, and if you distill wine into brandy, why, that makes up for lost time," and he and the Sheriff hoisted their brandies to one another in salute to this shirt-cuff wisdom.

"You looked like a troubled man when you drove up here," the Sheriff said quietly.  "What happened?"

The Parson considered:  he had the obligation of the Confessional, but he also trusted his old and dear friend more than he trusted himself, and so he'd confided in the Sheriff in the past, and found his confidences never betrayed, not even once.

"A couple was having ... difficulties."

Linn shifted in his seat; the Parson heard a muffled *pop* and thought to himself the Sheriff may wish to refill his brandy if he kept that up:  he knew the man's back gave him grief, and when he twisted like that, his spine was telling him unkind things:  no sooner had the thought occurrred, than Linn rose, picked up the decanter, poured his own snifter a generous refill, gave the Parson a ceremonial splash.

"One accused another, the other protested, neither aired their accusations in public -- God's grace in that!" -- his grimace was probably meant as a quick and reassuring smile, but failed entirely -- "it seems the accusation was unfounded."

"Was it?" Linn asked quietly.  

"I spoke with the ... individual with whom the young man was accused of involvement... a week ago, as she returned from a funeral back East.  She'd been gone for the entire month in which she was supposed to have seduced a young man. I did not have to offer this, as his wife found out her error through other channels."

"Were you able to patch the hole?"  Linn took a careful sip, worked his backside a little until the Parson saw relief on his face.

"I think so," he sighed.  "They are good people, Sheriff. I would like to think it a mistake that will heal and strengthen their marriage."

Linn nodded.  "Go on."

The Parson shrugged, swirled his brandy, considered the amber whirlpool he'd created.

"No, I believe that's about it."

"Then let me tell you something."  Linn leaned forward, feet flat on the floor, knees spread, elbows on his knees.  "I near to gave a mother a case of the vapors yesterday!"

The Parson blinked his surprise as he leaned forward, listening carefully.

"A young couple came in on the train with their child. Children usually start talking. Theirs didn't. She'd not said word one and no matter how they coaxed her, she'd not form words. Oh, she'd cried like all babies do, she'd made little sounds like the very young will do, but she'd got to her second birthday and not said word one that they knew of."


"Someone told them Doc Greenlees might be some help, and if he wasn't, there was a witch-woman that might."

Linn nodded, then
 smiled, looked down at the rug on the floor, looked up, his expression gentle.

"Parson, I was set down in Lightning's rocking chair and I was warm by that stove of his.  You know me, I'm like an old b'ar.  Get m' belly full and get warm, I set down and fall asleep!"

Esther looked over at her husband, and Mrs. Parson saw her warm look of afffection: the ladies were still talking, quietly, but women have a way of handling multiple conversations at once, and both were discretly aware of the men's discussion.

"Now I'm not quite sure how, but that little one come into Lightning's office and I felt a little one lookin' at me."  Linn's grin was quick, genuine, the look of a man remembering something particularly pleasant.  "I opened my eyes and there's this lovely little girl with great big blue eyes lookin' at me and she raises her arms up like this toward me" -- Linn set his brandy on the side table, held his arms out like a child wanting picked up -- "so Old Grandpa's Reflex, why, I picked her up and set her on my lap and she cuddled into me like she was my own.

"Her folks followed her in and they come at her, afraid she'd maybe make me mad or somethin'.

"That little girl cuddled into me and hugged me around the neck and just clear as day she said 'Gwampa' and I held her and rocked a little, and my eyes was closed and I was warm and relaxed and then I felt like somethin' was wrong so I opened my eyes and there's a young fellow lookin' at me and holdin' his wife and she's lookin' at me and chewin' on her knuckles and startin' to cry.

"Now I had no way of knowin' that little girl never spoke a word in her life until she set down in my lap and called me Gwampa and I stood up, slow and careful and give her to her Pa, and her Mama she hugged me and wet down my shirt front some and then she took her little girl and cried in her bonnet and that little girl she looked at me and didn't say a thing but by golly now she genuinely did have an angel's face."

The Sheriff coasted to a stop and took a thoughtful sip of brandy.

Parson Belden leaned back in his comfortably upholstered chair and smiled, just a little.

He sipped his brandy again, swallowed, nodded.

"Thank you, Sheriff.  I needed to hear that."

"I reckon I'm lucky," Linn said softly.  "You could have read about it in the newspaper.  'Sheriff Beaten to Death with Coal Stove.'"  The lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache chuckled, shook his head.  

"Trust me, Parson, I can get in trouble just settin' in my easy chair!"


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Mr. Baxter was industriously polishing a beer mug, smiling a little as he always did: he'd been fishing, he'd caught a few, he'd plucked a few nuggets while he was out: he fished in a difficult place to get to, a place only an active boy could get to, most times, and he knew someday somebody else would find it and find a nugget and the locusts would swarm in on his claim and strip it clean -- but until then, why, he fished a little, and he harvested out a few nuggets, and he was content.

Mr. Baxter's polishing towel wagged happily as he turned the mug, got it sparkling inside and out; he hung it by its handle overhead, with the others, a faceted-bottom, shining league of promise and prisms: he'd had a gas mantle light installed behind, carefully set so the light would be shattered by the several heavy glass facets and would spray out colors, like rainbows hung from heavy glass handles.

The stranger was working up his courage, likely weighing however much he had in his pocket, or did not have, the latter more likely:  Mr. Baxter was good at sizing a man up, and when the frosted-glass-swirled doors opened, admitting the sound of harness bells, hoofbeats and laughter, a wash of reflected sunlight from a window across the street shot in and drove into his collection of hanging beer mugs, then cut off, and in their place, a silent man in a black suit, his back to the wall beside the door.

Mr. Baxter smiled a little, watched the stranger, who suddenly thrust up against the polished mahogany bar:  nervous, glancing, looking-but-not-looking at the silent, unmoving figure with the iron grey mustache and the immaculate black suit.

The Sheriff paced slowly around the corner of the bar.

Mr. Baxter heard his quiet "Hello, Tillie," when he came in, then an equally quiet "Mr. Baxter," and now he regarded the figure hunched over, elbows on gleaming mahogany, trying to look very small and very inconspicuous.

"Rusty Smith."

The stranger flinched, drew back a little.

"How, who, that's not my name --"

"Mr. Baxter.  Give the man what he's having."

"What'll ye have, stranger?" Mr. Baxter asked, and the stranger looked hopefully at the tap and said "Beer."  He turned his head, looked back toward the kitchen.

"Mr. Baxter, send us back two specials of the day. Rusty, let's go to the back table."  

The pale eyed Sheriff gripped the man's shoulder.

Mr. Baxter saw the stranger almost deflate: his head dropped, his shoulders rounded, he could not have escaped this gentle laying on of the lawman's hand if he'd tried: the two went back to the Sheriff's table, sat.

Linn hung his Stetson on its usual peg.

"The cookin's good," he said quietly.  "How long since you et?"

"Two days."

"Don't eat too fast. Don't want you crampin' up."

Rusty nodded, took a nervous slurp of his beer, spilled some down his chin:  he smelled lavender, saw movement to his left, looked up, surprised:  a quick hand with a wiping rag spun over his face, picking up the spill, wiped the table, withdrew:  a plateful of something steaming set down in front of him, he snatched up the spoon before it fairly hit the tabletop.

Beans and bacon and a surprisingly tender cut of beef never tasted so good.

The hash slinger smiled, turned: it was a testament to Rusty Smith's state of starvation that he never turned his attention from the repast in front of him.

"Here, trade me plates."

Rusty looked up in surprise as this pale eyed man he'd heard about from reputation alone, pulled Rusty's now-empty plate away and set his own, untouched plate in front of the man.

Rusty ate more slowly this time, taking the time to savor his meal instead of gulp it down like a starved stray dog.

The Sheriff took a tilt of coffee, pale eyes never leaving his guest.

Rusty shifted uncomfortably.

Normally a right handed man who drank with his right hand, was not a gun man: normally, if Rusty was going to try anything, he'd wait until a man's gun hand was occupied.

He knew better than to try anything at all.

This pale eyed old lawman, he'd been told and by outlaws worthy of the name, was deadly with either hand, and he practiced the draw-and-fire under the table: this pale eyed old lawman's left hand was out of sight, and Rusty did not doubt one little bit something with a round, unblinking eye, was steadily regarding his own underfed middle.

The Sheriff waited until Rusty was about done with this second plate before he spoke.

"I take it you don't go by Rusty anymore."

Rusty looked up, surprised:  "No," he blurted, then clamped his lips together, damning himself for allowing the surprise, the startled admission.

"I remember you," Linn said quietly.  "I remember you as a coward and a bully and you tried to pick a fight with my little brother."

Rusty looked at what little remained on his plate, his appetite suddenly gone.

"You might recall it.  Beside the church, in Corning."

Rusty looked away, his ears flaming.

"Rusty, I heard a song not long ago. Good lookin' woman was singin' it.  'What Was Your Name in the States.' Men come out here for a lot of reasons. I've a good friend who came out because he'd been falsely accused and he knew he'd not get a fair trial back home. We had the Devil's own time of it but we got his name cleared. He's town Marshal now."

Rusty shifted uncomfortably: he jumped a little as a skirt swung to a stop beside him, he turned and saw it was wrapped around that good looking hash slinger, who took his empty plate and set a broad slice of apple pie down in front of him.

"Rusty, if you want to start your life over, long as you've not done anythin' bad out here, you can do it. Walk the straight and narrow and nobody will be the wiser. Try bein' a bully and a coward out here and you'll be dead, and nobody to cry over your grave, if anyone bothers to bury you."

Rusty looked at this grown man, broad shouldered and cold eyed, a man he last saw as a skinny young man watching silently as Rusty realized if he bullied the younger boy into a fight, this rangy older brother was likely to jump in and complicate things.

Now that he realized that rangy older brother had become Old Pale Eyes, he wanted even less to do with any disagreement.

"Your calluses tell me you were shovelin' coal back home."

Rusty blinked, surprised, nodded.

"Tell you what. They're lookin' for hard rock miners over in Cripple. Ask for a mine boss named McGillicuddy. Tell him you'd mined coal back East and he'll hire you on the spot. They need men who know their way around rock minin'."  The Sheriff's words were quiet, his eyes veiled.

"Pick a clean name, just don't use mine. Behave yourself and build an honest reputation and you'll do all right."

"Why are you doin' this?" Rusty managed to mumble.

Linn shrugged.  "I'll give any man one chance. You just had yours. Make the most of it. Meal's on me."  Linn rose, picked up his Stetson from its peg.

"Train leaves in an hour and a half.  You'll have a paid-up train ticket waiting at the telegraph window, it'll be under Smith."

Rusty heard the man's measured pace as he walked the length of the saloon, heard his quiet "Mr. Baxter.  Tillie," saw the light increase as the door opened, heard the door shut.

Rusty looked at where the Sheriff had been a moment ago, looked down at his forgotten pie, and realized that suddenly he had some appetite left after all.




Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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I looked at the framed portrait and smiled.

Bruce Jones was an old and trusted friend, he was editor, reporter, photographer, broom pusher and 50% of the staff of the Firelands Gazette.

He was also an ace photographer.

Bruce looked at me and shifted his weight impatiently:  "Well?" he finally blurted.

"Bruce," said I, "this is exactly what I'd hoped you'd capture!"

Bruce's chest puffed out and the man absolutely preened.

He'd taken the exact photograph of Marnie, riding my stallion:  he'd taken it at sunset, with her silhouetted against the skyline, against the blazing clouds of a gorgeous mountain sunset: he'd shot the picture at a slight upward angle, he had strobes set on electric-eye switches, they'd thrown just enough light to bring out Apple-horse's colors, enough to catch him mid-stride, mane flowing, he'd caught Marnie's hat a-bounce behind her, floating on its storm strap, and best of all, he'd caught the look on Marnie's face -- that look of sheer, unadulterated joy that comes from running a responsive horse, a horse that loves to run!

The picture I held was of Angela, on that same fire breathing stallion -- Angela, with the face of an angel and the soul of a skydiving, rapids-running, stallion-running, risk-taking daughter of her pioneering blood -- Angela, our little girl, perfectly at home in a flowing gown and heels, or in cowboy boots and a saddle  -- Angela, who'd given me that angelic smile with a dusting of flour on her cheeks as she iced a freshly-baked cake, the same smile she had with sweat beading her forehead and leather gloves on hands wrapped firmly around a manure rake, with eyes wide and knuckles blanched as we skidded my Jeep around a corner at too great a speed so she'd know how to come out of a skid.

My Angela, my little girl, a child no more.

I turned to the nearby wall, held Bruce's newly framed image up beside another he'd taken.

The two were so much alike, it would be easy to mistake the new one for the older one, save that he'd refined his lighting while preserving the blazing bands of sunset behind.

That evening, I took Angela and that portrait and we went, just the two of us, to the Firelands museum.

"There's a room I want to show you," I said, "it's not open to the public and your Gammaw was the only one with a key."

Angela looked curiously at me, the way she did when she was a little girl.

"Marnie had the key, until she left for Mars."

Angela frowned a little, looked forward again.

It wasn't uncommon for the older teachers in school to call her "Marnie" -- she'd gotten used to it from day one, and answered to it, at least in class ... I'd had to go have a talk with a new teacher who insisted that "Marnie" was a nickname, and she insisted on proper names, and when the new teacher found that both the principal and the superintendent were in agreement with this long tall lawman addressing the matter in a quiet but absolutely inflexible manner, she stopped insisting, and instead addressed Marnie as "Miss Keller" -- but that's a rabbit trail I wasn't willing to wander down today.

We went inside, we went upstairs:  I unlocked the door and we stepped inside.

Marnie looked around, silent, marveling.

"By rights," I said, "it should be one of the pale eyed Keller women investing you with this."

A shadow moved, behind the white NASA issue spacesuit, and Angela's breath caught: her eyes went wide, she gave a little squeak and Little Sis ran and seized her Big Sis in a crushing hug.

"Ladies," I said, "I will give this over to you" -- I handed Marnie the key, smiled, stepped back.

Marnie placed a white-gloved fingertip on Angela's rich, red lips:  "I haven't much time," she said quietly, "so listen!"

Angela nodded, her face suddenly serious.

Marnie steered her over to a gown in a tall glass case.

"This was worn by Sarah Lynne McKenna," she said, "and here is her portrait wearing the gown."  Marnie's upturned palm and delicately curved fingers indicated the topmost framed image.

"This one," she continued, "is your Gammaw.  Notice she has the correct hair."

Angela nodded, staring at the second framed portrait.

"This one," Marnie said, "is me."

"You're all identical," Angela whispered.

"Notice this frame is empty," Marnie smiled.  "Guess who goes there."

Angela's jaw hung open.


Marnie nodded, took her sister's shoulders, turned:  she picked up a very old hand mirror, held it up.

"Look at us," she whispered, her cheek against her sister's cheek.  "We could be twins."

Angela nodded.

"Now here."  Marnie set down the mirror, stepped to another vertical stack of portraits.

"This is Sarah McKenna on her Snowflake-horse.  This is your Gammaw, same clothing, same pose, same kind of horse, only your Gammaw couldn't find a jet-black Frisian and had to make do with a brown Frisian."

Angela nodded.

"This one is me. I could only come up with a white Frisian."  She smiled, thrust her chin at the empty frame beneath the first three.  "You'll have to come up with your own fuzzy foot horsie."

Angela looked to the right.

This one had Sarah Lynne McKenna on a shining-gold stallion, but standing still -- an impatient pose, as if wishing the photographer would put the silly little cap on his silly little lens so she could get on with a good run.

The portrait beneath was a side-by-side:  Willamina Keller, in an identical outfit, on her shining-copper Cannonball mare, the first portrait taken with horse and rider standing, stiff, almost formal in their pose:  beside it, the same woman on the same mare, but leaning forward in the saddle, the mare leaned out and with her ears laid back, her nose punched forward, driving a hole in the wind itself.

Beneath this, side by side, two young women, silhouetted against an absolutely blazing sunset: the photographer managed to use clever flash technology to illuminate each, otherwise she would have been a black silhouette.

Marnie, riding on the left; Angela, on the right: in each photograph, the pale eyed young Keller woman's face shone with the utter, matchless joy! of riding a responsive and capable mount, and in each of these last two images, the Appaloosa stallion's frozen image was that of a horse who loved more than anything, to run!

Marnie looked at her pale eyed Daddy, then at her awe-struck little sister.

"Is it time?" Linn asked in a gentle voice.

Marnie nodded.

Linn turned, opened the door, stepped outside.

As he crossed the threshold, he looked back.

The key Marnie held was on a lanyard.

She placed the lanyard around Angela's neck, tucked the key into her sister's bodice.

"Gammaw gave me this key, in this room," she said quietly, "and she told me what we Keller women must know."

Marnie looked at her Daddy, nodded once.

Linn nodded in return, stepped back, drew the door firmly shut, giving those remarkable, pale eyed women, the privacy necessary to hand down the hereditary secrets that only women of their line knew.




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Jacob Keller frowned a little as he carefully whittled another shaving off the box elder stem.

He turned it, examining it seriously, knowing a little boy's impatient eyes were upon him.

Jacob nodded, fitted the stem carefully into the baked-clay bowl of the hastily-harvested pipe.

A new clay bowl came in every poke of pipe tobacco, ready to be fitted with a stem; when used, they were simply tossed in the stove, where both dottle and stem would burn up, and generally when the ashes were shaken down, the pipe would crush.

Generally, but not always.

Jacob winked at the lad -- he'd carefully scraped out the scorched bowl, delicately tapped out any fragments, washed it out, then he'd taken a tin can someone cut down halfway for some unknown reason, shaved in a little soap and some water, stirred this and swirled this, and finally bent the can to form a spout.

He poured the pipe bowl half full of soapy water, handed it carefully to the grinning lad.

"Blow through that stem," he said quietly, "and you'll get a good swarm of bubbles" -- and the delighted lad ran down the street, tin can in one hand, the freshly whittled pipestem between young white teeth, and the unheeded beard of soapy foam dripping off the bowl and staining his shirt front.

Jacob looked at the knife he held, slid it back into its hidden sheath.

Part of his mind was not surprised at all that his hands were dead steady, whittling the box elder to fit the baked clay pipe bowl.

The rest of his mind was surprised the first part of his mind even considered it an issue.


A wise man once said, "All the knowledge in the world is contained in books."

Jacob considered that wise men gained the knowledge they could, for it might save his life someday.

He'd read the day before, something written by ... oh, hell, he forgot who ... but it amounted to, "It profiteth not to touch a gunfighter's back, lest ye name be carved on ye Tomb Stone."

Jacob's eyes tightened a little at the corners as he considered the phrase -- it was all the expresssion of amusement he allowed himself, for he was in Cripple, on Sheriff's business, when something stiff shoved into his back.

Jacob reacted: one arm up as he whipped around, sidestepping: his draw and fire were so fast as to be but a blur, and the extended arm with the stiff finger that pressed just between Jacob's spine and his shoulder blade, was smacked aside: had it been a gunbarrel, its shot would have blasted through the space where Jacob had been -- 

-- and the thick volume the man carried against his belly, stopped a .44 caliber freight train from tearing through his guts and right on outside.


Jacob discussed the matter with the presiding judge and the Chief of Police: both men were of the West, and well acquainted with its harsh rules, and the ruthless winnowing-out of foolish souls who did stupid things: when the stranger stammered out his account, and admitted reaching forward and pushing impatiently at a man's back with a stiff finger, wishing this laggard to surrender the right-of-way, both Judge and Chief agreed that said stranger was a fool, and a damned fool, that only Heaven's mercies bade him carry an unusually thick tome in front of his bulging belly, and that if he only had to pay for a book as the price for his utter and unmmitigated stupidity, he got off cheap, for he'd just touched the back of one of the fastest and deadliest gunfighters in the American West.

Jacob sat on the Deacon's bench, in front of the Sheriff's office, and recalled how the stranger in the checkerboard print suit -- a drummer, no doubt -- turned quite pale at the Judge's pronouncement.

Pale eyes squinted a little as he looked up the street, diagonally across at the Silver Jewel, diagonally to the left at their little whitewashed schoolhouse, and beside it, their church.


A man the Sheriff knew looked at the pale eyed old lawman.

They'd known one another for years now, though one walked the side of the Law, and the other kind of wandered across the fence some, but neither man went out of his way to cause the other grief, and so they remained friends, and between friends there is often frank conversation, and the question was put in very frank language:

"Who would you say is the fastest and most accurate with a sixgun?"

Linn's eyes tightened a little at the corners.

The two of them had a pact, forged long ago:  no matter the question, they'd give the honest answer, even if it wasn't what the other wanted to hear.

Mr. Baxter, behind the bar, was elaborately ignorning the pair:  he polished his way away from them, until he was at the far end, before Linn answered.

"I can outdraw and outshoot any man in this county," Linn said quietly, "including you."

His friend offered no protest at this; he'd seen Linn in a gunfight years ago, and from all he'd heard, that pale eyed old lawman with the iron grey mustache hadn't slowed down one little bit.

"I can out-draw any man in the county, and my son can out-draw me."

Two old friends raised their beer mugs to each other and drank.


Jacob flipped wood shavings off the boardwalk with the side of his boot sole.

"Me, the fastest and deadliest gunfighter," Jacob said softly, the corners of his mouth twisting upward, just a little, then he snorted.

"They ain't never seen my Pa gunfight!"


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Jacob Keller's fist was white-knuckle tight.

It was also wound up in a good handful of a man's shirt front.

Jacob Keller's eyes were dead white, his face was parchment pale, and the higher he one-hand pressed this Jack Doe off the ground, the more it looked like his skin was tightening over his cheek bones, until -- by the time he had the man at full arm's length overhead, his elbow locked and trembling just a little, his expression was that of a fleshless mummy intent on reaching into a man's chest and ripping the corroded soul from his living carcass.

"Let me know," Jacob said quietly, "when you get tired."

Another hell raiser moved -- he must've thought Jacob's attention would be entirely on the luckless soul he was pressing overhead -- Jacob's hand was faster than the punch, and the incoming knuckles drove into the muzzle of a black pistol's muzzle: the fist's owner made a strangled sound, dropped his punching hand, gripped his wrist with the other, backed up a staggering step, his own face losing a good percentage of its color.

Jacob turned quickly, translated the vertical velocity of the weight he suddenly released, into horizontal momentum, and bounced the offender off the brick front of the building: Jacob's lips were pulled back a little from his lips, he still had a good wound-up fist full of shirt front, and he wasn't letting go: he turned, drove the luckless hell-raiser toward the horse trough, stepped back as water and what used to be a thin sheet of ice, erupted, and the sinner was baptized in very cold water.

Jacob Keller glared at the others who thought it would be great fun to try and bully a stranger.

He holstered his pistol, looked slowly around, breathing slowly, deeply, giving the general impression of a contained explosion that was ready to blast them all flat.

"Now," Jacob said, his voice quiet, "would anyone else like to try something?"

He turned and ducked an incoming fist, drove a punch from the shoulder, ramming his work-hardened fist into the attacker's belly, with full intent to drive his fist clear through the man's guts and bust a hole in his spine out the back.

He was not successful in punching a hole through the oncoming abdomen, but he was extremely successful in knocking every bit of wind out of the lungs immediately above the punch.

Jacob spun, seized a club coming in, ripped it out of the attacker's hands with a practiced move, drove its end into the third man's ribs, took a two-hand grip and hooked the end behind the man's knee, yanked hard.

One man struggled out of the freezing horse trough, a second was on his knees, bent over, forehead almost on the boardwalk; the third was flat on his back, in too much pain to more than groan, and Jacob spun the club like a majorette's baton.

His snarl was very nearly inaudible, and this made him all the more frightening.

He stopped the spin, used the club as a pointer.

"You two," he said, "pick up your wet buddy, get him on his feet. You" -- he pointed at a rat-faced individual trying to hide behind another -- "get him up. I'll take this one. You are all under arrest. Resist or run and you die."

On the one hand, Jacob knew that lethal force must meet certain narrow parameters, and shooting a fleeing individual in the back was quite improper.

He knew that.

He also knew that he'd just reduced three by violent means and the other three by psychological means, and he knew that his sudden violence to pacify a situation, meant he just might be violent enough to kill them if they tried anything at all.

Sheriff Willamina Keller turned as the heavy glass double doors opened.

She, the dispatcher and two deputies, stared as a clutch of cowed-looking prisoners half-dragged, half-carried two of their own: one was soaking wet and shivering violently, the other with arms crossed over his ribs, an obviously crippled hand carefully held in mid-air.

Behind them, a pale eyed deputy, carrying another by the back of the prisoner's belt.

The Sheriff turned, raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry about this, Sheriff," Linn said mildly. "Didn't have enough cuffs for everyone so I just brought 'em in."

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Two police officers looked up, startled.

A smiling woman with an elaborate hairdo, a woman in a corset and face paint, hung out the broken window, waving, smiling:

"Boys!  Oh, boys!"

The two looked at one another, looked at the unmoving pile on the sidewalk.

"Could you be a dear and lock this wife beating scoundrel up for us, please?"

The Denver cop tilted the cap back on his head and planted his knuckles on his belt, his nightstick dangling from its thong:  "Now why would we want t' do that!" he demanded.

"Because I said so," the woman smiled -- both with her face, and with her voice -- "and because I outrank the both of you!"

"Outrank?" the younger one muttered, at least until the other groaned, strode up to the gasping, lung-shocked man on the sidewalk.

"Is yer legs broke then?" he demanded, seizing the recent departure from the second floor of a house of ill repute by the scruff of the neck and hauling him to his feet.  "Up wi' ye, then!"

They were less than half a block toward the station-house when a black figure slipped out of the alley before them, a figure known to them both:  it appeared to be an active boy or a slight man, all in black, with the broad brimmed hat hiding any facial features:  black gloved fingers turned over a black lapel to reveal a familiar, bronze shield.

"Faith," the older officer breathed, then:  "Wha' are ye doin' i' a place like that?"

The Black Agent paced silently up to the pair, trademark cut-down double-barrel shotgun swinging casually from one gloved hand:  "Side job," came the reply, and the younger of the two was surprised that it was a woman's voice.

Then she lifted her head, pushed her hat brim up with the blunt muzzles of her hand held howitzer, looked very directly, very frankly, at the younger of the two Denver street cops.

It was a woman's face, and a pretty one, but with a horrible scar running from the corner of one eye, diagonally across the face and down the neck.

That was his secondary memory of the moment.

What shocked him was the sight of her eyes.

Dead pale, glacial in nature, both their hue and their effect on his very blood.

"I'll be at station," she said with a smile, and both men shivered a little to see the smile, for there was no humor in it at all.


Willamina was very familiar with the section Marnie was reading.

"She took a side job in a whorehouse?"

"There were regular customers who liked to beat the girls," Willamina explained, "and the madam ran a high class joint. A hellraising customer might be inclined to go fists with a bouncer, but when a woman got the best of him, fast, hard and nasty, it tended to take the fight out of 'em in a hurry."

"Especially when she threw them through the window," Sarah murmured.

"The Judge was particularly fond of the Madam," Willamina smiled.  "The fine went to replace that window."

"Window glass was expensive back then."

"Very expensive."

"Did she describe exactly how she attacked?"

"Not in that account. She'd written elsewhere that she used those sharp little heels to climb a man's frame, though it was difficult to get a good climb with her ankles turned in enough to dig."

"I'll keep my boots," Marnie muttered.

"I liked my cheerleading shoes," Willamina said quietly, and Marnie looked at her, raised one eyebrow.

"I sorted through six pair of saddle shoes at the shoe store before I found a pair with a softer sole."

"High traction?"

"They were all good, but I wanted the best in the house. A football player was less than a gentleman with me, so I climbed him like a lineman gaffs his way up an electric pole.  He told me later it felt like I'd ripped all the hair out of his legs."

"He was speaking to you afterward?"

"In court.  I filed criminal charges and subpoenaed two coaches and most of the football team.  There's something about being formally served with a subpoena, in class, that takes any reluctance to testify right out of 'em."

"You don't play fair, do you, Gammaw?"

Willamina laughed.  "I never did," she admitted.  "Got me where I am today!"

"Once you climbed his frame," Marnie persisted, "how did you attack?"

"I cupped my hands and clapped his ears as hard as I could. He passed out from the pain and blew out an eardrum."  She lowered her head and smiled confidentially at her pale eyed granddaughter.

"My daddy taught me at a tender age, 'When in doubt, cheat.'  I've never forgotten that and it's never let me down!"



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"No," Sheriff Willamina Keller said, leaning back a little in her chair: she was seated behind her desk, maintaining a formal separation from the curious Easterner.


"I understand carjacking is a popular sport back East."  Her smile was humorless. "It's not as common out here."

"Why do you suppose that is?"

"Because I have a granddaughter," Willamina replied.  "Because you'll still see trucks with a gunrack in the rear window.  Because you'll get killed if you try that kind of thing in my county."

"I'm sorry ... you don't have carjackings because you have a granddaughter?"

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled, just a little.

"Would you like to see the video?"


Marnie Keller hit the ground flat footed.

Her right hand reached up, seized the Winchester rifle, stripped it out of its carved-leather scabbard.

Her mare turned and followed Marnie across the street.

Marnie held the rifle at high port, gaining speed as she ran out of the alley: a quick left-right, she raised the rifle, reversed it, crush-gripping it at wrist and fore-end, and drove it hard into a screaming man's kidneys.


"You can't hear it on this video," Willamina said quietly, "but this individual -- he's not from around here -- attacked one of her residents just as she got into her car.  He's screaming at the driver and beating her with his fists. She's fighting back, and here" -- she paused the video -- "is my granddaughter."


Marnie's rifle butt drove hard into the man's kidneys: she seized the back of his belt, pulled, skipped back a step, drove the rifle's butt into the back of his head, then kicked him behind the knee.


"Now at this point," Sheriff Willamina Keller said quietly, "you'll see this trained police horse assisting in immobilization of the guilty party."


A steelshod hoof planted itself in the middle of the supine attacker's chest, pinning him most effectively before his pain-hazed vision cleared:  a boot stepped hard on his wrist and the muzzle of a rifle swung down to take a good close-up look at his face.

"Hold very still," a pretty young girl said, "or I'll blow your brains all over the pavement and they'll give me a medal for doing it."

Her smile was as cold and as glacial as her pale eyes as she added conversationally, "I've done it before."


"I don't know what he'd taken," the Sheriff said, "but he was not inclined to follow instructions.  Our Chief of Police was on scene and had the Devil's own time getting this fellow in irons once my granddaughter had her mare lift her hoof.  As a matter of fact, my granddaughter was obliged to -- there -- you can see it on video."

The Eastern reporter watched as a pretty, obviously young woman, drove the butt of her rifle into the back of the attacker's head.

"After that, he was pretty well compliant."

"He looks dead."

"She cold cocked him."

"How ... old is she?"


"Fourteen?  My God, what's she doing with a gun?"

"The Chief of Police gave it to her."

"And this ... you're saying this is why you don't have carjackings?"

The Sheriff sighed.

"There's a college experiment," she said patiently.  "Rats in a cage. In a big cage, the rats are cordial and cooperative. Crowd them in a small cage and they become hostile, they show the same social deviance we see in your cities back East. Out here we're not crowded.  When an Eastern rat comes out here and tries to prey on one of us" -- she thrust a chin at the video monitor -- "we take care of it. That fellow was sentenced to prison. How do you think he'll fare in general population, when the drugs wear off and he's told he was bested by a skinny little schoolgirl?"

"Schoolgirl?" Willamina's nonplussed visitor blurted. "What do they teach out here?"

"You've heard of the I Ching?" Willamina smiled.

"The I Ching?  Yes, of course I've heard of it!"

"We don't use that."  She rose, indicating the interview was ended.  

We use the "I Cheat."





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The youngest Keller looked at her Daddy with big innocent and happily anticipatory eyes.

She was holding an inverted sauce pan in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other.

Linn dusted flour on the frying, crumbled sausage, stirred it to coat it well, he looked at his daughter and smiled.

"Are the biscuits done yet, honey?" the long tall Sheriff asked gently, and Opal swung her head around to the left and to the right and around to the left again, her braids swinging, then she swayed and giggled with the childish dizzies before finally leaning against the cupboard door to keep from falling over.

"I used to do that," Linn said softly, remembering a moment in his Mama's kitchen when he'd done the very thing, swinging his head back and forth until he was dizzy ... probably at the same very tender age as his little girl.

Opal giggled and staggered back toward the table, trying (with no luck) to see the timer.

"I don't hear-it the whis-tle," she said.  "Biscuits aren't weady."  She frowned, then repeated herself:  "Rrready," she said, with a single emphatic nod of her head:  satisfied, she looked at her Daddy with a big broad little-girl smile.

Linn winked at his little girl, added milk to the frying pan, stirred: Opal winked back, or tried to.

Instead of casually dropping one eyelid, she squinted up one side of her face and the other eye squinted shut out of sympathy.

"Well now, that's not bad," Linn said gently. "Two for the price of one!"

He turned off the heat, kept stirring:  when the gravy thickened to his liking, he set the pan on a back burner, just as the oven's timer went off.

"Now where'd I put my catcher's mitt?" he muttered, and Opal shook her wooden spoon at her Daddy and scolded, "Daddy, you're supposed to use an ubbin mitt!"

"I'll have to," Linn muttered.  "Can't find my baseball glove."


Linn thrust a hand into an oven mitt, opened the door; Opal stepped back as heat radiated out, as her Daddy reached in, pulled out a cookie sheet of biscuits.

He set them on top of the stove, bridging the left hand burners, closed the white-enamel oven door.

"That felt good," she said, and Linn nodded, grinning.

"Darlin' are you holdin' that sauce pan for some particular reason?"

Opal looked at the sauce pan, blinked, as if she'd forgotten it was in her grip:  she looked at her Daddy with an absolutely delighted grin and asked, "Now, Daddy?"

Linn nodded toward the stairs.


Opal squeaked happily, skipped over to the stairs, stopped and looked up the staircase, then beat the saucepan enthusiastically with the wooden spoon:  "COMMINGETTIT OR DADDY'S GONNA FEEDIT TO DA BEAR KILLERS!"

Feet young and younger, male and female, came charging down the stairs, complete with two sets of furry paws:  youthful humanity charged down the stairs, all but Joseph, who slung a leg over the bannister and slid down, catching himself expertly with near-prehensile feet on the end post, youthful muscles flexing to stop his rapid descent down the polished, varnished bannister that had so far seen uncounted rides by pale eyed young.

Their Mama was working tonight, their pale eyed Pa had the day off as well, and at the prospect of sausage gravy and biscuits, none thought to protest.

Their Pa wasn't as good a cook as their Mama, but at this one dish, he excelled.

Heads were bowed, their Pa spoke to his plate -- Linn looked down at the shining-clean ceramic and said "Hello, plate!" and every one of the Keller young chorused, "You can't do that!" -- Linn looked up, blinked innocently and said "I can't?" -- only then were thanks properly returned, serving bowls passed around: biscuits were thumb-split and laid open, plates passed back and forth, and as Linn received the steaming bowl of buttered peas, he sang -- to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" --

I eeeat my peeas with honey, 

I've done it all of my life!

It does make my peeeas taste funny,

But it sure makes them stick to my knife!

Little boys grinned, little girls rolled their eyes, all but Opal, who seized the squeeze bottle of honey and drizzled a quick back-and-forth over her round greenies.

If it was good enough for her Daddy, she reasoned, it was good enough for her.


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Fred Jerome looked over his half-glasses, papers almost forgotten in his hands: he'd been looking over the graded tests before handing them back.

He paced over to the pale eyed student standing beside his desk, chin up, shoulders back -- not a soldier at attention, just a strong young man, on his feet.

"Joseph, you don't have to stand when I address you," Mr. Jerome said in a fatherly voice.

Joseph gave his teacher a tired look.  "It shows due respect, sir."

It was a ritual they went through every single day: Mr. Jerome knew that Joseph had taken his share of raffing for his action, but it was flattering to think that one student, at least, chose to show respect in such a way.

Mr. Jerome looked closely at his young charge's face.

"You look tired," he said in a surprised voice, and Joseph's grin was quick and contagious.

"I am, sir," he admitted.  "I'm wore plumb out."

Mr. Jerome -- though he taught the English classes -- was not inclined to correct Joseph's grammar:  rather, he said quietly, "What happened?"

"It snowed last night, sir," Joseph said, "and on my way in, I saw an old man shoveling his driveway. I had plenty of time, so I stopped and pulled his other shovel out of his open garage and the two of us double-teamed half a foot of partly cloudy from his driveway."

"I see."

"Then he straightened and walked over to the next drive and started on that one.

"I know the Widow Balm lives there, so I went over with him, and we tore into that one."

Jerome blinked, frowned a little.

"I know the driveway," he said thoughtfully.  "It's wide and it's long."

"And on a grade, too, sir."

"That's why you're worn out?"

"It is, sir. I was tired enough when we finished the old man's drive, but when he tore into the next one" -- Joseph grinned again -- "I wasn't going to let an old retired man out-work me, and Old Whiskers wasn't going to let a young whipper snapper out-work him.  We cut the driveway into sections -- he said a squad is easier to defeat than a company, a company is easier to defeat than a regiment -- we cleared each section in its turn, and ... well, I reckon he'll be sore in the morning."

"And you?"

Joseph grinned with half his face.  "Likely I will be too, sir."  He straightened a little more.  "I pay the price of my foolishness."

Fred laid a hand on Joseph's shoulder, nodded.

"Proud of you, son," he whispered.

Joseph winked.  "Thank you, sir."

Fred walked back to his desk, turned.

"Old Whiskers?"

Joseph laughed quietly.  "Yes, sir, but I'm afraid to consider what he might've been calling me!"

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Jacob seized a saddle blanket, snapped it once, floated it down on a hay bale: he grabbed a second, flipped chaff, hair and anything else with a quick, vicious move: Marnie regarded him with calm eyes as the sudded *POP* startled the barn cat and threw debris into the still air.

"Sit," Jacob said, less an invitation than a command.

Marnie planted her knuckles on her hips and thrust her jaw out, the very image of contrariness:  "Woof," was her quiet-voiced rejoinder.

Brother and sister glared at one another in the barn's hush, until they both broke their statue-like contariness and planted their backsides on the bales.

"Out with it, Sis," Jacob said quietly. "What's workin' on you?"

"I had a talk with Uncle Will."

"Go on."

"I need a confidential ear, and I spoke in confidence."

"Uncle Will is a good choice," Jacob affirmed.

"I needed to talk about Daddy."

Jacob nodded, frowning a little.

"Uncle Will went to Daddy after I talked to him."

"You confided in Uncle Will."

"I did."  She lifted her chin rebelliously, inviting him to dare -- dare! -- to criticize her move.

"And he betrayed that confidence."


Jacob's eyebrow raised and Marnie laughed to see it:  she laid a hand on her brother's shoulder and leaned her head toward him conspiratorially, then she rose a little, pulled the edge of her saddle blanket over until it overlapped his, sat down so she was leaning against him, her arm around his shoulders.

Jacob ran his arm around her as she laid her head over on his shoulder.

"Jacob," she said quietly, "I confided in Uncle Will because I knew he would take what I said and go to Daddy with it."  She lifted her head and he felt her breath, gently puffing warm and soft against his ear.

"I was counting on Uncle Will doing just that!"


Chief of Police Will Keller looked up at the summoning knock on his office door.

"In!" he growled, and the faceted-glass doorknob turned, the door pushed open.

A steaming paper cup of coffee set itself down on the paper he was working on, the All-Night's logo on the overlaying don't-burn-your-fingers insulating sleeve telling him of its origin: the fragrant steam told him it was Suth'n Pecan, his favorite flavor, and the hand that set it down told him it was his favorite niece.

Will had more than one niece, and whichever one he was talking with at the moment, was his favorite.

He looked up and opened his mouth to say something, and Marnie thrust a chocolate chip cookie between his teeth.

Will blinked, bit, chewed, caught the cookie before it could fall and scatter chocolate-chip crumbs all over his desk blotter:  he considered the relative importance of his paperwork, weighed this against the prospect of a chocolate-chip kaffesklatsch with a favorite niece, and decided the latter was more to his liking than the former.

Will took a tilt of his favorite coffee flavor, cooled enough to be drinkable, sluiced the miscellaneous dry crumbs down his throat, set the cup down.

"Something's bothering you," he said sternly. "The only time you bribe me is when you need my ear."

Marnie spread her hands and in a nasal and truly terrible Bronx accent declared, "Does ya knows me or what!" -- which brought a quiet smile to her uncle's carefully-impassive face.

"Out with it," he said, taking another bite of cookie and chewing happily.

"It's Daddy."

"Mm-hmm," Will acknowledged, opting for more cookie:  Marnie leaned forward and set a white-paper sack on his desk and Will raised an eyebrow.

"Must be important," he mumbled, swallowing, "if you're going to bribe me with a whole sack full!"

"At least you're not as full of it as a sack full of politicians."

"No, that would be your Daddy."  He regarded the sack full of chocolate chip treasure and sighed.  "I suppose this is cheaper than bribing a politician."

Marnie spread her hands again, opened her mouth, closed it: "You've heard that line before."

"What about your Daddy, sweetheart?"  Will asked gently: he'd never had girl children, but he'd buried a son, and he was a man known to have a soft spot for stray kids and lost dogs

When his niece came in bearing edibles and confessing to a problem, she knew he would happily give her his undivided.

She was right.

"Uncle Will, Daddy set me up."

"Set you  up?"

Marnie nodded, looking off to the side, her bottom jaw sliding out:  she leaned forward, suddenly, turned her palm up:  "Uncle Will, do you realize how much trouble he's just caused me?"

"I don't have the least idea, darlin'."

"I decided I would allow myself to think about dating."

To his credit, Will refrained from blurting "Already?" -- an older man perpetually thinks of the female young of his tribe, as younger than they were: memory will do that, he knew, and he had to discipline himself to realize that Marnie was coming into early womanhood, like it or not.

"Uncle Will, Daddy treats Mama like a queen!"

"Yes, he does," Will said approvingly.

"We've never heard them disagree in front of us.  Not once.  Ever."

Will nodded, slowly:  he'd made that same observation himself.

"Daddy never once yelled at her, he's never corrected her, he's never demeaned her or run her down, he's treated her like absolute gold!"

"A man ought," Will agreed.  "I did."

Marnie dropped her chin on her fist, frowned.

"Uncle Will," she began again, paused, shook her head, tried again.  "I've been told children learn more by observation and imitation than by didactic instruction."

"I've heard that," Will said neutrally.

"Daddy has set an example I don't think I can find."

"I don't follow."

Marnie chewed on her bottom lip, rubbed her nose like a little girl, looked at her Uncle: he was struck by how much she looked like his pale eyed sister, in her younger years.

"He's set me the example of what to look for in a husband."

"I would certainly hope so."

"He's taught Jacob and the boys how to be men. He's been a man and he's been noble and honorable and strong and upright and he's shown them how a man ought to treat a woman."

Marnie shook her head again.

"No.  No, that's not right." 

She looked very directly at Will again.

"He didn't show them how to treat a woman, Uncle Will.  He's shown Jacob and the boys how to treat a wife."

Marnie shook her finger at her Uncle Will.

"Let me tell you something else he did!"

Will leaned forward, interested: he rested his forearms on his desk blotter, all thought of coffee or cookies forgotten.

"Uncle Will, I've watched that man since forever. He treats every female as a Lady! until she proves herself otherwise, but --"  she shook her head again -- "Uncle Will, I've never seen anyone but Daddy and Jacob do that.  When he treats them like a Lady, they behave like a Lady. It doesn't matter how much of a slattern she might be, it doesn't matter who it is or how disagreeable she usually is --"

Will nodded slowly.  "I've ... noticed that."

Marnie's expression was pleading.

"Uncle Will, he's shown me what to look for in a husband."

Will nodded again, slowly, carefully.

"I know I deserve the best, but where in the world will I ever find someone that measures up to Daddy's example?"

Will smiled, just a little -- Marnie shook her finger at her Uncle again -- "Don't you dare laugh, Uncle Will," she cautioned, which of course guaranteed that he did -- quietly, with a palm held up to forestall any protest.

He leaned back, considered, realized he still had coffee left:  he took a pull, took another, set the comfortably warm cup back down on the blotter.

"You do deserve the best," he agreed.  "I'd like to think the universe is not so miserly as to make only one man with those qualities."

"That pale eyed troublemaker," Marnie muttered, rising.  "He's set the bar so high I'll be an old maid before I find Mr. Right!"

Chief of Police Will Keller rose, came around his desk, took Marnie in his arms:  Marnie ran her arms around her Uncle, squeezed.

He felt her sigh, felt her nod, her head pressed against his shirt front.

"I suppose I just needed a sympathetic ear," she murmured, then looked up.  "Thank you, Uncle Will."

Will bent down a little, kissed the top of her head.  

"Darlin'," he rumbled quietly, "anytime you need my ear, just let me know!"


"Is that why you and Pa went for a walk after breakfast?"

Marnie nodded, looked at her brother, and Jacob was honestly surprised to see a tear running down her cheek.

"Jacob, I really didn't mean to make Daddy's eyes leak.  He thanked me for letting him know that he'd done at least one thing right in his wild and misspent lifetime!"




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Angela Keller swallowed hard, squeezed her eyes closed, took a deep breath.

She was halfway up the water tower ladder.

Usually there was a cagey gatey thing across the steps that went up to the ladder part but they were open and Angela looked way up and she realized she could get up there quicker than anyone could stop her and so she ran up the steps and through the open gates and past the padlock with the pinched ends that meant bolt cutter and she remembered the bolt cutter on the ground where it'd been dropped and drove end-on into the dirt and fell over and Daddy never treated his tools like that and she was glad she didn't treat someone's tools like that and Angela gripped the painted steel sides of the ladder and set one shiny slippered foot above the other and climbed.

Angela grimly considered the green painted rungs, the green painted steel sides of the welded-on ladder, she moved steadily upward -- it was a stretch, the rungs were sized to accommodate a grown man and she wasn't nearly that big, but she stretched and she labored and she got to the catwalk and she climbed up and set one foot, then the other, on green-painted diamond plate steel.

Angela placed her left hand flat on the side of the water tower, gripped the railing with the other hand:  she closed her eyes again, took a long breath, blew it out:  she set her jaw, opened her eyes and walked slowly, carefully, until she could see the girl standing against the railing.

"Hi," Angela said, and the girl jumped, startled:  she looked at Angela, her eyes wide, her mouth falling open.

"What are you doing here?" she blurted.

Angela shrugged.  "I dunno," she said, sounding very much like a little girl.

As a matter of fact, she looked very much like a little girl.

Angela's Mommy delighted in dressing her daughter like a girl.

Unlike her sister Marnie, Angela loved it when her Mommy dressed her up all pretty, and today she wore a blue-and-white checkered dress and little white anklets and shiny patent slippers, and she had a blue headband in her hair, and she looked very much like a pretty little girl from a Sears & Sawbuck or Monkey Wards catalog, circa late-1950s to early 1960s.

"You don't know why you're up here?"

"Nope," Angela replied, tilting her head, regarding the girl with interest.  "What you doin' up here?"

The girl looked over the railing, her face reflecting confusion, fear.

"I'm going to jump," she said quietly.

"Won't that hurt?" Angela asked innocently, and pale eyes, watching through a good high grade set of binoculars, saw the jumper's head snap suddenly around to regard her pretty young visitor with honest surprise.

I don't know what you said, he thought, but keep sayin' it, darlin'!


Jacob Keller looked at the ladder, looked at his Pa.

Linn lowered his binoculars, nodded.

Jacob took two long steps toward the stairs, ran up them on the balls of his feet, leaped onto the ladder:  lean young muscles and a jaw-set determination and he swarmed up the ladder considerably faster than his little sister had gone up it.

Jacob got about to the halfway point when a stray thought sailed in from left field and brought a moment's smile to the corners of his eyes.

If I don't get Little Sis down from there, he thought, Mama is gonna clobber me!


 Linn watched as Angela got a little closer, as she talked, probably in that soft little voice of hers: if she's speaking softly, that girl will have to concentrate to hear her.

If she's not that serious about jumping she'll listen more than thinking about jumping.

He raised his talkie.

"Firelands Chief One, Firelands actual."

"Chief One, go."

"Don't run your sirens, come in quiet, no lights."

"Chief One to all responding units. No lights and no sirens, acknowledge by the numbers!"

Linn listened as pumper, rescue and squad all three gave a roger to the Chief's command.

Will stepped up beside Linn.

"How we lookin'?"

Linn glanced down, his eyes tightening at the corners, the way they did when he approved of what he saw.

"Good of you to come in behind and park under the tower. She'll not see you from there."

"Saw that's what you did, so I did too."  He squinted, unwrapped the strap from around his own binoculars.  "Is that Angela up there?"


"Good God, man, what ever did you send her up there for?"

Linn raised his binoculars again.

"Wasn't my idea."


"My Mama made me this dress."  

Angela plucked delicately at the hem, held her skirt out to the sides.

"Mama likes to dress me like a Barbie doll."

The girl looked at Angela, sniffed, wiped at her nose with a soggy paper hankie.

"I don't think Barbie ever wore a dress like that."

"Oh."  Angela frowned.  "Say, how come you're clear up here?"

The girl leaned back against the side of the elevated obloid, slid down, stuck her legs straight out, until her feet stuck over the edge of the steel catwalk.

"I'm going to jump," she said faintly.

"Why?"  Angela asked innocently.

"You wouldn't understand."

"Try me!"  Angela challenged.


Angela blinked, then asked in a sad little voice, "Won't your Mama be sad?"

"My Mama said if I got pregnant she was going to throw me out!"

"It must be nice to have a Mama," Angela said in a sad-little-girl's voice:  she leaned back against the side of the obloid, slid down like the girl had, stuck her little legs straight out.  "My Mama's dead."

"How'd she die?"

Angela's native intelligence -- young though it was -- heard a moment's sympathy, a curiosity.

Whether it was lucky accident, whether it was because she'd grown up with a Sheriff for a father and a working paramedic for a mother, whether because her parents' peer group and their frank discussions were her peer group, or whether it was just lucky chance, Angela sensed a gap into which she could interject some leverage.

"Mama got beat up bad an' they did bad things to her an' we come back out here an' she was dyin' ub pan-kwee-at-tick cancer," Angela said, and she sounded very much like a sad little girl when she did:  she lowered her head, her bottom lip pooched out and she said softly, "I miss my Mommy."

She looked at the girl, blinked.

"My Mommy hid me so I wouldn't be killed like they wanted to kill her. If I fell off a tower an' got killdid my Mommy would be vewwy sad."


Linn raised his talkie.  "Firelands six, actual."

Jacob stopped his climb, reached up, keyed his shoulder mike.

"Six, actual, go."

"Hold there, we have movement coming toward you."

"Roger that."

Will raised his own binoculars, watched as two figures approached the ladder: one small, one larger.


"You bedder go down first 'cause I'm scareda heights."

The girl blinked, surprised, went down on her knees, hugged Angela.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.  "And you came all the way up here for me?"

Angela nodded, solemnly, regarding the teen-ager with big, sincere eyes.

The girl turned, started to back down the ladder without looking.

Jacob came down a step.

The girl was watching Angela as she backed, as her sneakered foot searched for the rung:  she found it, came over a little more, found the next one.

She doesn't know I'm here, Jacob thought.

I'm close enough for insurance but far enough she won't see me.

Angela turned around, reached waaay down with her little foot, keeping the girl's eyes on her.

"Just a little more, sweetie, down, there!"

Angela came down a little more, gripped the sides of the ladder and not the rungs: her Daddy told her he never grabbed the rungs 'cause they always got dirty and greasy and he held the sides where it was clean and that's what Angela did.

One rung at a time, three people came down the ladder, all stepping at the same time, Jacob and the girl hesitating until the one above them had a foot on the next rung down.

Below them, the Irish Brigade watched: grown men held their breath, at least until another step-down, breathe, then held their breath again.

Jacob got to the bottom.

He stepped back, looked to his left as a woman with her hands cupped over her mouth stepped up.

A mother seized her daughter -- a maternal voice squeaked "I was so scared!" -- Jacob reached up, took his little sis under the arms, picked her up and swung her into her own Mama's arms.


It took some time to debrief, but the full story was finally figured out: Angela looked up at a shaking, pale mother and said, "You gonna throw her out now?" and Linn raised a cautioning eyebrow as Shelly looked at him and started to move toward her little girl:  she gave her husband a questioning look and Linn shook his head, very slightly.

It wasn't until they'd cleared the scene, not until the Sheriff went back to the firehouse with the Irish Brigade, not until they all sat down at the firehouse table, that Shelly asked their daughter what in the world ever possessed her to climb that tower.

"I did worse than that," Angela declared.  "I lied to her."

"So ... you climbed the water tower and you lied to her," Linn echoed.

Angela nodded vigorously.  "An' I told a big whopper of a lie an' it worked!" she declared in a happy, satisfied voice, and Linn laughed, ignoring his wife's glare.

"Daddy, I didn't want her to jump an' nobody was there yet an' I knew I could get to her first an' if I lied to her just right she wouldn't jump an' it would make a mess an' her Mommy would be very sad an' I don't like messes," Angela said all in a rush, and Linn looked at Shelly and laughed again.

"Darlin'," he said, "you saved two lives today, and I count that a good thing!"

"Yeah, and you scared me out of a couple of my lives!" Shelly protested.  "Young lady, I don't want you climbing towers anymore!"

Angela dropped her head and ran her bottom lip way out and said in a contrite little-girl voice, "I sowwy, Mommy."

Linn leaned down, his elbows on his knees:  "Angela, what kind of a whopper did you tell her?"

Angela looked proudly at her Daddy, all trace of the contrite child gone:  "Daddy I told her about Marnie's Mama an' how Marnie was vewwy sad an' I made her think it was my Mama an' I lied to her an' it worked!"

Jacob grabbed a sweet roll out of the big dish in the middle of the table, tore it in two, dunked a corner in his coffee.

"The Supreme Court ruled that the police are under no obligation to tell a suspect the truth," he observed quietly.  "Sir, if she's going to do that, might be we need to deputize her!"

Shelly's cold glare was not enough to stifle Jacob's broad and boyish grin:  he looked at Angela and winked, and Angela giggled and winked back.


Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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Jacob rapped the stem of the saw set with the big ball peen hammer.

Linn moved the saw two teeth.


Jacob rapped the stem again, the sound sharp in the quiet of the workshop.

Hammer, saw set, vise and workbench were all older than either of them.

Linn couldn't help but think that his Uncle Pete had his Mama on the hammer in a similar exercise, back when his Mama was young.

She'd left her drunk of a mother and come west on the bus, she'd come marching up the driveway like she owned the place: she set her suitcase down on the front porch, walked right up to her Uncle Pete and said "Uncle Pete, I'm your nice Willamina, and I need your help."

Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary took her in like she was their own daughter.

Linn smiled a little as he moved the saw two more teeth:  "Hit."

If he recalled his Mama saying rightly, the years she spent here, with Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary, were the happiest of her life, at least until she became a wife and a mother.

Pete and Mary were long dead, but Pete's work around the ranch still bore fruit: the fence posts he'd set, he set with the phase of the moon, and they were solid as if set in concrete:  trees he planted with the signs, were healthy and bore fruit, even this many years after.

Linn moved the saw two teeth.  "Hit."

The ball peen rapped the stem again, rose.

Jacob saw his Pa's smile and he knew his Pa was remembering, the way he did when he used Pete's tools. 

There were folks who said his Pa was a hard man, and when need be, he surely was; on some matters, Jacob's pale eyed Pa could be as inflexible as seasoned white oak, but the son knew the father had a soft streak, and when it came to family, why, the man could occasionally be an old softy.

It was something Jacob took pains never, ever to exploit.


The ball peen rapped the stem.

Linn withdrew the crosscut, turned it:  he'd set every other tooth, now he turned the blade around and set the first of the un-set teeth into position.


The ball peen rapped the stem.


"Yes, Jacob?"

"Will there be a dance tonight?"


The ball peen rapped the stem.

"Yes, Jacob, there will.  Hit."


"Something on your mind?"

"No, sir."



Linn moved the saw two teeth, looked at his son, raised an eyebrow.  "Hit."


Jacob frowned, considered, then:  "Yes, sir, there is."



"What's on your mind?"  The saw moved two teeth.


"Sir, do you remember Marnie wanted to Irish dance?"



"I recall she did."

"Sir, you recall she quit."

"I recall she quit, yes.  Hit."


"Sir, do you recall why she quit?"

"Hit." Whap. "No, Jacob, I'm sorry, I don't know."

Linn frowned, withdrew the saw from the saw set, sighted down the row of teeth:  half were set one way, half were set the other:  he nodded, picked up the file, sat down on a recycled school bus seat.

Jacob opened the vise, removed the ancient saw set, replaced it in the wooden dynamite cap box that Uncle Pete used for its storage, replaced it under the bench where it had lived for better than half a century that he knew of.

Jacob turned the propane heater so it radiated more directly onto the school bus seat, then he turned and sat beside his pale eyed father, who was carefully, delicately touching the saw with the file.

Linn nodded his satisfaction, reached over and laid the saw on the work bench.

"Something's on your mind, Jacob."

"Yes, sir, there is."  Jacob frowned, considered that he wasn't usually so reticent:  he pushed through his hesitancy.

"Sir, I'm kind of sweet on a girl."

Linn examined the file as if it was suddenly the most interesting thing he'd seen in years.

"Is she cute?" he asked carefully.

Jacob's ears were already red; they steadily incarnidined, until they were an absolutely flaming scarlet.

"Yes, sir, she is."

"Good," Linn nodded.

"She'll be at the dance tonight."

Again Linn's slow, thoughtful nod.

"Sir, she started that Irish dancing when she was about three."

"She's how old now?"

"My age, sir."

"What's her name?"

Jacob wet his lips nervously.  "Susie Merckle."

Linn leaned his head back, contemplated the straw sticking from between boards overhead.

"Manfred's little girl."

"Yes, sir."

"Irish dance."

"Yes, sir."

"Does this have anything to do with Marnie quittin'?"

"It does, sir."

Jacob looked toward the door, lowered his voice slightly.

"Sir, I'd not hurt Mama's feelin's for the world."

Linn nodded again, thoughtfully, like he'd done before.  "Wise," he agreed.

"Sir, Marnie found out Mama was expectin' her to dance in a recital and she didn't want to perform in front of folks."

"I see."  

"She danced fine in front of strangers," Jacob continued.  "As I recall, she won a couple ribbons she never told Mama about."

"Go on."

"Susie will be Irish dancing tonight."

"Is she any good?"

Jacob's grin was quick, a sudden delight, half bashful and half boyish, shone from his face, then he took a breath and assumed his usual impassive expression.

"Yes, sir.  She's good."

Linn nodded, considered his son carefully.

"You're sweet on her."

"Yes, sir."

Linn took a long breath, clapped his hands together, then looked down at them:  he reached over, laid the file on the work bench, looked at his son, laughed kind of self-consciously.

"I think I'm supposed to give you some real good free advice about now," he said, "but damned if my mind didn't just go blank!"

Jacob considered the glowing red face of the propane heater, grateful for its warmth.

He looked at his Pa as Linn's hand rested, warm and firm on his shoulder.

"I recall when I was first sweet on your Ma," he said, his voice soft, his eyes distant as he remembered.

"Yes, sir?"

"She said I hypnotized her with my pale eyes, and she said she just plainly melted in her moccasins when I brought her hand up and kissed her knuckles."  Linn's hand tightened, very slightly, as his eyes scanned across the clean-swept concrete floor, seeing something that existed in his memory:  he shook his head, laughed a little, and continued.

"Jacob, I honestly couldn't think of word one to say, so I kissed her hand and I felt like an absolute dunce standin' there lookin' at her, and then the music started and I took her around the waist and we went a-steppin'."

Jacob grinned, nodded.

Linn's voice was soft with memory, and he had a gentle smile Jacob saw rarely, and only when his Pa was talking about his Ma.

"You get what you pay for, Jacob, and free advice is generally worth what you paid for it."

"Yes, sir."

"Was I to give you some, I'd say if you can't think of what to say, kiss her knuckles and run your arm around her when the music starts."

"I'll remember that, sir."















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A timid knuckle tapped gently on the doorframe, a timid voice called, "Sheriff?"

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up, smiled: she was in the back office, the researcher's room, in the county library: the shelves were not lined with material for check-out, but rather with reference material, dedicated almost exclusively to either Firelands County, family genaeology, or history of the region: there were sections dedicated to railroading in the region, mining and timbering and businesses: they were carefully catalogued, a separate card catalogue -- outdated, yes, but still worthwhile -- and of course the now-common computers.

In the center of the room, behind a broad desk, a pale eyed woman in a tailored blue suit dress.

Willamina looked up at the hesitant alarm at her door:  she smiled as the librarian came in, a coffee in each hand.

Willamina had yet to brew the first pot; this arrival was particularly welcome.

The timid, mousy little librarian came around behind Willamina's broad battleship of a desk, handed the retired Sheriff a steaming paper cup of fragrant coffee: two souls communed in silence, enjoying a moment of coffee flavored companionship.

It was a quiet morning; nobody else was in-house, elsewise the librarian would never have left her command post, overlooking the entire floor, and to be honest, Willamina welcomed the company.

She'd just unraveled a tangled knot of bloodline, thanks to persistence and the chance discovery of two newspaper articles from well more than a century ago.


Strong hands gripped the strongbox, hoist it onto a cart: other of the bank's assets were stacked atop it, obscuring the label, hiding its intended destination.

The bank, like many of its kind, went belly up during the Great Depression: like many banks, its assets were inventoried, calculated, distributed according to the honesty, or dishonesty, of the bank's managers, or boards, or directors.

Another bank received the goods from the first bank.

Furniture was auctioned, assets divided, and the strongbox ended up in another vault, behind a wall of files, records, materials, deeds and claims deemed worthy off salvage, and there it slept.

Having been initially delivered to the wrong bank for storage, having been set aside and forgotten, having been moved yet again, the strongbox finally surfaced when the new bank was built, when the deeds and papers and records were inventoried.

"Here, what's this?"

"It's locked, whatever it is."

"What's it say?"


"This ... was supposed to be delivered ... to another bank ..."

"Is there a date on it?"

The strongbox was pulled out, two men grimaced to pick it up, set it on a stout table, nearest one of the strong wooden legs.

"Turn on that light, there, thank you."

"What does it say?"

An envelope, gummed and somehow still attached to the flat lid of the old-fashioned strongbox, was carefully slit, the folded paper within extracted.

A man read it, read it again, looked up.

"Get the manager."


Willamina ran pale eyes over the shelves of books, caressing them with her mind as she had with her fingers: she could almost recite their order on the shelves, for she'd arranged them herself, and referred to them often.

"When the strongbox was delivered," Willamina said softly, "I remembered a key on a peg, and the words scratched into the wood above it."  She smiled, hands cupped around coffee's welcome warmth.  "Someone used a nail to scratch the word "STRONGBOX" above the peg. It was in a shadowed corner and God only knows how it stayed there all these years.

"The strongbox was delivered in an armored car, more out of ... oh, probably a sense of propriety than anything else. The guards wheeled it in here on a two wheel cart, for it was heavy! -- I signed for it, and one of them pointed out the note in the envelope, still gummed to the lid of the strongbox.

"I waited until they left before studying the old box.  I still have it, by the way.  It's upstairs, in what used to be Linn's bedroom."

The librarian blinked, nodded.

Willamina smiled, leaned back, sighed.

"Old Pale Eyes loaded that strongbox with gold double eagles and a couple of journals, some documents ... that's how I was able to reestablish the Z&W Railroad. He included deeds that showed original ownership and in-perpetuity rights-of-way, which I've since purchased from the landowners, so there's no longer any right-of-way worries."

The librarian nodded, listening carefully.

"There were some really rare double eagles ... Coronets, I think they were called.  Philadelphia mint."  She leaned toward the librarian, continued in a quiet and confidential voice:  "I made a bloody fortune off those Philadelphia mint coins!"  She leaned back, sighed.

"Firelands needed some help when I took over as Sheriff.  Old Pale Eyes hit gold and he bought a fire engine and the services of a handful of Cincinnati firemen to run it -- the origins of our Irish Brigade today."

The librarian listened silently, nodding a little: she was leaned forward in her chair, hanging on Willamina's every word.

"Old Pale Eyes addressed it to the Firelands County Sheriff's Office, with instructions that the contents be given to his family, fifty years hence.  Trouble was, between banks going under with the Great Depression, the strongbox going to the wrong bank for storage, after going who knows where, it finally made it back here a hundred fifty years after it left."

"Genaeology, local history, cash infusion ... and this."

Willamina laid a hand on the desktop: she withdrew it to reveal a Remington double derringer.

"That was in there as well. Old Pale Eyes carried that to the day he died. It had been a gift from Charlie Macneil. I've carried it every day myself, and I'll carry it to my own deathday."

"Oh, my," the librarian murmured.

Willamina laid a hand on the little two-shot pistol, slipped it back into its hidden holster.

I wish I could thank Macneil, she thought. 

His kindness safeguarded Old Pale Eyes and it kept me from harm more times than one!

Willamina smiled, looked at her handwritten notes, at data on two glowing computer screens.

"That's how I started into genaeology," she said thoughtfully, "and that's how I kept the Irish Brigade in business, and that's how I proved ownership of the Silver Jewel."  She swirled her coffee, drank the last of her All-Night eye-opener.  "It might have been a hundred and fifty years late getting here, but y'know, it got here right on time!"



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A pretty young woman sat behind a large desk in the back office of the county library.

Officially it was the "Willamina Room," named after a generous benefactor of years before; in common usage, it was simply "the back office," and it was frequently populated by those who wished to pursue a greater knowledge of their ancestry.

Not surprisingly, some of the most frequent occupants, had pale eyes.

A young woman with pale eyes worked magic on the computer's keyboard, looking from one screen to the other, tracking down an elusive ancestress: her carriage was very erect, her feet flat on the floor, a pair of frameless half-glasses halfway down her nose, her hair up in an elaborate hairstyle more at home in the 1880s than in this streamlined and modern era.

Angela Keller looked up and smiled as an uncomfortable schoolboy presented himself before the battleship of a dark-stained desk.

"Can I help you?" Angela smiled, removing her half-glasses and giving him the full benefit of her startling, pale-blue eyes.

He shifted his weight from one foot to another, fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable, then he looked up at her in an abrupt moment of decision and blurted, "I'm looking for an angel."

Angela blinked, tilted her head a little.  "The real thing, a reference, or a picture?"

"A ... I saw an angel when I was ..."

Angela waited patiently, nodded once to encourage him.

He turned away.  "You wouldn't understand," he mumbled.

"You were seven years old and in a car wreck," Angela said quietly, and he turned as if stung.

"How'd you know?"

Angela rose.

"I think I have that picture."


Stiff fingers drove hard into the twin starter buttons.

Two starters rammed their bendix into the geared flywheel, the big Diesel rolled over, coughed, clattered, snarled, then settled into a rattling, breathy rumble:  Fireland Fire Department's Pump One was awake, a great, shining, red-painted cat stretching and flexing its claws, snarling and gathering its strength to charge into battle with a hated enemy.

Armored nobility in contoured helmets and fireproof coats, in silvered bunker pants and steel-soled fireboots, fast up their armor and thrust hard and practiced hands into gauntlets: they seated themselves, mounted cavalry aboard a swift and deadly destrier.

The overhead door clattered open, flooding the bay with cold air and sunlight, a Kenworth fire truck rolled out onto the apron and hesitated, snarling, spitting red-and-white warnings like a great, feral cat, warning all in sight that she was ready for a fight.

A little girl in a handmade dress and shiny black slippers watched from inside the firehouse:  just as the air brakes released, she streaked out from under the closing bay door, running as hard as she could, she leaped, she seized the dangling strap, she turned and flattened herself against the back of the pumper, a little girl with pale blue eyes, riding the tailboard and thrilling to the feeling of raw power singing up through her feet.


The pretty young woman in the old-fashioned gown glided from behind the big wood desk, came around, stopped: she folded her hands very properly in her apron, tilted her head a little and gave her uncomfortable young visitor a warm, approving look.

"You're Benjamin."

He nodded, swallowed.

"You're looking for a picture of the angel you saw."

He nodded again.

"I know the angel, and we have her picture."


Angela stood with her feet apart and a little forward, pushing herself hard against the vertical wall of gold-trimmed, gilt-lettered, shining-enamel-red steel wall behind her.

One hand held the strap men used to hold when it was still legal for firemen to ride the tailboard; the other held the shining, chromed side rail men seized when they ran for the back of the truck.

She held very still, trying to be invisible, for she knew she wasn't supposed to be doing this.

Besides, her Mommy was very proper about these things, and she wouldn't approve of her twelve year old daughter riding the tailboard of a pumper, screaming through the cold air, enroute a car wreck.


"Tell me what happened that day," Angela said gently, seating herself beside the twelve year old boy, at a table where she'd placed the three books.

He looked at her, uncomfortable.  "You wouldn't believe me," he mumbled, dropping his head:  "nobody believes me when I tell 'em."

Angela paused, considered, laid a gentle hand flat on his near shoulder blade.

"You saw an angel," she said, "and the angel held your hand and told you it wasn't your time."

He nodded.

"What did your Mommy tell you about that day?"

She opened one of the books, paged through it, stopped.

He drove a stiff finger down on the page, his eyes wide with -- delight, alarm? -- he looked up at Angela.

"I think you would like a copy of this."

His finger was pressed hard enough into the image to blanch his nailbed from healthy pink to bleached-white:  he raised his hand, nodded.

The pretty young woman with pale blue eyes smiled.  "That," she said, "is Angela Keller. She lived in the 1880s. Was that the dress she wore?"

He shook his head.  "No," he said quietly.

Angela turned the page.  "Is that her?"

She ran her arm around her sixth-grade guest to keep him from falling over: she held him against her side until he quit shivering, until he had strength enough to sit upright on his own, until he looked at her and whispered, "That's her.  That's the angel I saw."

Angela looked at her own picture, taken the same day she'd been dressed like an earlier Angela Keller:  it was between the two near-identical pictures of a little girl in an old-fashioned dress and high-button shoes, and she wore a handmade dress and shiny black slippers.

"What did she do?"

"She held my hand and she told me I would be all right, then she picked me up and threw me."


Angela Keller waited until the pumper stopped, until the choo-choo brakes sneezed: she jumped down, turned, ran -- Angela ran with her hands open and bladed, the way Marnie ran -- Angela was bent forward at the waist and moving like a streak, pale eyes locked on the steaming wreck of a car.

She skiddded to a stop as men shouted, as heavy boots pounded across frozen ground toward her.

Shelly would later be told that Angela grabbed the door and dove through the broken-out window, but that's not what the Irish Brigade saw.

The saw Angela flow through the side of the car, like a ghost flows through a solid wall.


"She took my hand and pulled and I came out of my body," he said slowly, his eyes distant as memory shaped in his throat and flowed from his tongue.  "We stood back and watched as the firemen tore the car apart and got Mom out and they got me out."

"Do you remember what they were saying about your Mom?"

"I know they were ... worried ..."


The mother was laid with practiced care on the ambulance cot.

Gloved hands gripped aluminum framing, men routemarched quickly to the back of the squad.

Shelly thrust up inside, helped guide the cot into the hooks, her father drove the heel of his hand into the cot release to open it.

The cot swung into spring loaded steel jaws, locked in place, and the Captain vaulted into the back.

Father and daughter, both experienced medics, ran their secondary survey, speaking quietly in the abbreviated terms of veteran medical professionals: the squad started out, slowly, carefully, until they had all four wheels on pavement, then a stained fireboot came down hard on the throttle and Firelands Squad One laid her ears back and ran.

Shelly's first stick got a good blood return; her father plugged in the air-bled tubing, ran the saline solution wide open for a few seconds, then slowed it to a quick drip as his daughter secured the IV site.

Shelly plugged the stethoscope into her ears, listened:  lungs, left and right, high and low, then she turned the stethoscope from diaphragm to bell.

She bared the woman's abdomen, pressed the bell against her maternal belly, hand flat over the stethoscope, pressing firmly in hopes of hearing fetal heart tones.


"We watched as they got me out of the car," he said quietly.  

He looked up at the pretty young woman, her arm still around him.

"She held my hand and she told me it would be all right but I didn't believe her."

"Why didn't you believe?" Angela asked quietly.

They made an incongrous pair.

A twelve year old boy, in the pajama pants and clogs fashionable back East; a beautiful young woman in an old-fashioned gown; real books, instead of an electronic reader, or a computer screen.

"They brought me out of the car and said I was dead and they laid me on the cot and I looked at the angel and I told her I didn't want to die."

"What happened then?"

He smiled a little, he almost -- almost! -- laughed.

"I remember her hand was warm," he said softly, "and she looked at me and she had reeeal blue eyes.  Like her."  He thrust his chin at the picture, frowned.  "But she had real light eyes, too --"

He looked up at the pretty young woman, who smiled:  she scooted a little away from him, took her arm from around his back, took his hand in hers, and her hand was warm and very real.

"Hello, Benjamin," she said softly.  "My name is Angela."


Angela seized her young companion by the shirt collar and his belt.

She hauled him overhead, ran through the wreck of a car like it wasn't there, she ran up to the cot as they were about to draw the sheet over the still little form's face.

Angela keller SLAMMED a surprised little boy back into his body.

A dead child's eyes snapped open and he gasped, suddenly:  men froze, staring:  a hand reached for his throat, fingers extended to check the carotid pulse --

"Ow," he quavered.

Hard hands seized the cot, ran for the back of the rescue truck, which served as their second-out ambulance, and soon it, too, was running for the hospital with a heavy application of Diesel therapy.


Angela turned the page of the book, looked at Jimmy, smiled.

"This," she said softly, "is Angela Keller.  She lived here in the 1880s, and she was the daughter of the pale eyed Sheriff.

"This is me, the day my Mommy dressed me up like this Angela.

"And this" -- she touched another portrait, beside the first:  an identical little girl, in an identical dress, with an identical ribbon and big fancy bow on top of her head: the first and third girls were dressed absolutely identically, each held a rag doll locked in the bend of their elbow, each bore the same solemn expression.

All three portraits were colorized.

The only difference between the first portrait and the third -- thanks to Bruce Jones, who collected antique photographic equipment, who'd taken the picture of the modern day Angela Keller with the same camera used to take the earlier Angela's portrait -- the only difference was that the older photograph's subject had bright-blue, Kentucky-blue eyes, and both the modern-day little girl's portraits, had eyes of glacier's ice.

Angela's hand was warm as it held Jimmy's hand, as she handed him a print of the page in the book: she turned, picked up an envelope big enough to hold it, helped Jimmy slip the freshly printed photograph into heavy manila paper.

Jimmy stood, regarded the pretty young woman uncertainly.

"Are you an angel?" he asked hesitantly.

Angela knelt, took the envelope and placed it on the table beside them:  she gripped both his hands, looked very directly into his eyes.

"Yes, I am," she whispered.  "My name is Angela, and that means that yes, I am an angel."

The little boy's mother, and Benjamin's little brother, came through the door just as her son seized a kneeling woman in a desperate hug.

She wondered for years afterward at her son's words, spoken quietly as the woman rose, as she handed him an envelope he held as if it were something precious.

Jimmy looked at the pretty woman and said, "Thank you for throwing me!"


"Where'd she go?"

The remaining firemen looked around, searching for the stowaway little girl who'd ridden to scene on the tailboard.

It wasn't until they returned to station that they found Angela Keller, curled up on the couch in the day room, her rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow, sound asleep.



Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
Misspelling. "Wished," not "whished."
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Three vehicles crested the hill under the  cast iron arch.

Three vehicles proceeded down the main road into the cemetery, the one that went past the oldest graves.

Three vehicles stopped.

Just over a dozen pretty young women dismounted, formed a circle two deep around a particular grave.

Most of them wore cheerleader's uniforms.

All of them wore solemn expressions.

One stood directly behind the tombstone, the stone with a laser engraved, six point star that said, simply, SHERIFF, beside an oval portrait of a woman with pale eyes.

Two of this pale eyed woman's granddaughters were among the encircled.

A single voice, raised in question:

"What weapons have we?"

In chorus, the answer, at just short of a shout:


One of the cheerleaders stepped forward.

She still had a hospital band around one wrist, the inside of her forearms bore the marks of bruising and multiple IVs: a new scar was healing, at the bottom rear of her right jaw, a scar that she was making no attempt at disguising with cosmetics or bandaging either one.

"I was in the back seat," she said, "and so was my sister.

"I don't know what they intended to do to us ... not exactly, but the more they talked, the more I realized it was bad."

She took a long breath.

This was the first she'd really spoken of what happened to her: not even the Sheriff had her statement.

That would come later.

Right now, the Valkyries assembled with one of their own, at the grave of their founder and their instructor and their greatest cheerleader, the one that taught their hearts what their minds had long known: that when it hit the fan, they had the best chance of keeping themselves safe, in those first critical moments, and when she taught them that, she taught them how to do it.

"They zip tied our hands in front of us," she said hesitantly, "and they put duct tape over our mouths, just like in the movies."

Solemn eyes regarded the speaker; the speaker stared at the tombstone, at the lifelike portrait of the woman they'd followed, the woman they'd loved, the woman who'd taken them all in as if each and every one of them was one of her own.

"I drove my hands against his head and I had just enough reach to get my fingers in his eyes."

Young women -- pretty young women -- looked no less pretty as their jaws hardened to hear the words of one of their sisterhood.

"He was driving and he wasn't going to take us where they said they would and he wasn't going to do the things he and his buddy talked about."

She closed her eyes, shivered, opened her eyes, raised clawed hands, looked at them, seeing the moment again in her memory.

"I tore his eyeballs out and I did it fast and he screamed and clawed at my hands, he let go of the steering wheel and I knew he was blinded so I let go and fell back."

She raised her head, threw her head back like a swimmer coming out of too deep a dive, took a great gasping breath.

"I swung my leg up and I kicked his buddy in the side of the jaw when he came around to grab at me and that's when we crashed."

She dropped her head:  it was harder for her to breathe, remembering the moment when the world tumbled around her and she was shaken around the inside of the car like a beetle shaken in a tin can.

"I got my sister out a broken window. She was hurt and I was hurt and I didn't know if they were hurt or not and I didn't care."


Sheriff Linn Keller looked at the evidence photographs.

He sorted slowly through them, his eyes pale, hard:  he looked at two close-up photographs of girls' hands, zip tied together in front, of their faces, duct tape still in place, of the fresh laceration on one girl's jaw, bleeding like a stuck pig.

He set the photographs aside, picked up the coroner's report.


"We wouldn't be alive today if the Sheriff hadn't taught us," she said, her voice a little more steady.

"We would not breathe air if she hadn't shown us ... if she hadn't shown ME -- that I AM THE WEAPON, and IN A FIGHT THERE ARE NO RULES!"

She lifted her head and looked around.

"When's the next practice?"

"Tomorrow," came the anonymous reply.

She nodded, stepped forward, knelt in front of the gravestone, laid her hands on cold quartz, looked at the portrait.

"Thank you," she whispered, and a maiden's tears fell to the cold, snow-dusted sod.

She stood, a fresh-cut rose in her hand, dewdrops on its scarlet petals not yet frozen, despite the winter's cold.


Linn tossed the coroner's report on the pile, rubbed his eyes:  he pulled a notebook out of his uniform blouse pocket, consulted it, smiled a little.

"Angela has Valkyries tomorrow," he said softly, looked up as a shadow moved across the frosted glass opposite.

There was a light tap at his door.

Sheriff Linn Keller rose as a young woman in a cheerleader's uniform slipped in, closed the door behind her.

Linn noticed she had a blossoming rosebud pinned to her top.

Just like Mama wore as a cheerleader, he thought, motioning his visitor to a chair.

She remained standing, folded her hands in front of her.

"Sheriff," she said, lifting her chin a little, "I'm here to give my statement."  She closed her eyes, took a long breath, wet her lips.

In a soft voice she added, "I think I'm ready to talk about it now."

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Willamina was used to rolling out of the bunk before sunrise: she'd done it for so many years, she saw no sense in stopping now, her weekend off, or not.

She'd gotten up and slugged down warmed-over coffee, she'd belted on comfortably roomy jeans and thrust sock feet into worn, comfortable boots, she'd slung a rifle muzzle down from her off shoulder and looked around before emerging from her front door.

Years behind the badge taught her caution.

She looked around, her breath steaming in the cold air, pale eyes busy: The Bear Killer flowed out of the house behind her, a ponderous mountain of fur that looked clumsy and slow ... most deceptively so, Willamina thought, reaching down to caress the muscled shoulder.

A large canine head leaned companionably against her thigh, muttered something deep in his broad chest, and the two descended the two steps to the cold gravel in front of the old house that could tell so very many stories.

Heads, human and canine, turned toward the whitewashed fence.

Willamina gripped her slung-muzzle-down rifle's forearm, her eyes narrowed a little at the corners, and she leaned forward.

Sheriff Willamina Keller began to run, and The Bear Killer ran with her.

To the East, the sun was just reaching up to grip the rim of the world, fiery knuckles just visible, ready to chin itself over the tall granite peaks.


Deputy Linn Keller looked up at the same horizon, as did his partner.

Linn grew up in the law enforcement community, both literally and figuratively: he was in grade school when he began training with the deputies, with the officers of Fireland's Police Department: in his younger years, before his sisters were big enough, he was a favorite of their hand-to-hand instructors, as they theorized if they could teach a boy how to take down a grown man, they could teach female officers, with their slighter build and lesser stature: it was a fine theory, and it may actually have worked, at least to a degree:  Willamina personally supervised the female training, and brought in accomplished instructors (female instructors!) on her personal theory that men and women speak different languages, and that women learn better from women.

However correct, or however mistaken each instructor was, it was absolutely indisputable that both the ladies of law enforcement, and the Sheriff's pale eyed son, were all ...

... effective.

Linn was not considering any of this at the moment.

He sat with a brother officer on the sagging back steps of his fellow's rental, considering frost, fog and sunrise: each man wore a heavy coat, each had his fingers wrapped around a nearly-cold mug, and each had been talking in quiet voices throughout the night.

No, that's not quite right.

Linn did most of the listening, his troubled badge packing brother-in-arms did most of the talking, and they'd set on those selfsame back steps, on a folded saddle blanket Linn thought to bring along, for the biggest part of those hours of darkness.

Jeanette looked out her back door, saw two heads.