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74.  HIGH LONESOME

 

"He's up there?"

Willamina lowered her binoculars, nodded.  "I see his horse."

"Do you see him?"
"No."

"Let me try."

Willamina didn't take her eyes off the mountainside as she handed the high priced lenses to her husband.

Richard, however, did look away from the mountain, and he was surprised to see his wife's face was streaked with wet.

 

Linn sat on the granite ledge, on the folded towel he'd brought for the purpose.

A rebellious thought wormed through his mind -- If she wants to complain about my dirtying a towel, I'll do the laundry myself! -- but he dismissed it, for he knew that allowing such thoughts to fester would lead to no good outcome.

Linn sat, and leaned back against the rock, remembering.

He'd been younger -- thirteen, fourteen, somewhere in there -- when he buried The Bear Killer, when he laid his boon companion and trusted friend deep in the rocky cleft:  he'd wormed back in the darkness and laid his best friend on a blanket, and rested a hand on the still form, and whispered "Goodbye," and then he wormed out of the hole and cribbed it up to keep scavengers out.

The cribbing didn't last, of course, it never does, and the proof was sitting by his leg, looking at him with bright and curious eyes.

"I've got ham and I've got dead pig," Linn said, unwrapping his sandwich.  "Which would you like?"

His voice was soft, gentle; his movements were slow, careful, and he could see the moist nose wrinkling, snuffing:  a pink tongue flicked out, anticipating, and Linn carefully tore his sandwich in half, slowly extended it to the coyote pup.

Sharp little teeth seized the delicacy, and Linn released; the unexpected weight bore the furry little head down a little, and then Linn leaned back, raising the other half of his repast for a bite.

He looked over and saw a furry, sharp muzzle, saw black eyes regarding him, and he extended the other half of the sandwich:  the mama 'yote didn't leave the safety of what was now her den, so Linn leaned down, carefully, laid the other half of the sandwich as close to her as he could manage, withdrew his hand.

Junior was happily working on his half and paid no attention to this development.

The mother coyote skulked out of the den, belly to the ground, ears back, clearly mistrustful:  she eased forward, a step, another, seized the other half of the sandwich, pulled back as if jerked with a string.

I wasn't really hungry anyway, Linn thought, leaning back against the granite again, looking out over the distance.

He smiled a little as the coyote cub turned and pressed his flank against Linn's thigh.

He knew better than to reach down and caress the feral fur.

 

"He gave a presentation in the young adults class," Willamina said, her voice steady.

Richard lowered the glasses, looked at his wife:  Willamina's pale eyes were still on the distant mountainside.

"I watched the video."  She bit her bottom lip, folded her arms, lowered her eyes, clearly troubled.

"He ... stands like you, Richard."  She looked at her husband -- almost fiercely, he thought -- and he almost smiled, for that was the expression she wore when she was proud of him.

"He ... presented ... that there are no instruction books for becoming a parent."

Richard nodded, listening.

"He said we raise our young as we ourselves were raised, and then he quoted some of the classes he's attended -- continuing ed, both nursing and with my department" -- she swallowed, hard, looked at her husband.

"He quoted the child abuse class and credited the quote, he said an abusive parent never, ever remembers abusing their child, but the abused child never, ever forgets the abuse."

She wet dry lips and whispered, "He's right."

She looked at him, clearly troubled.

"Richard, my mother -- damn her, I'd like to --"

Willamina stopped, her jaw thrusting out a little, and Richard saw the anger his wife tried to hide, and almost succeeded.

"She told me the day before I left ... to come out here ... she said she'd never hit me when I didn't deserve it."

Richard saw his wife's hands close, slowly, tightly, until her knuckles stood out and her fisted forearms shook a little.

"Linn presented in class that parents make their first, their most frequent and their absolute worst mistakes with the firstborn, simply because it's their first and they have no experience.  He said" -- here she paused, and he saw her face soften a little -- ""he said children learn primarily by asking questions and by making mistakes, and frankly he wished he'd asked more questions, and that got him a laugh ... and he said we have to understand our parents' feet are made of the same clay as we their children's, and they are just as human, and if we do anything, we have to let go of the hurt and the anger those mistakes caused, and learn from them so we don't make the same mistakes with our own young."

Richard nodded, slowly, as Willamina wiped fiercely at the damp cooling her cheeks.

"I was wrong, Richard," she whispered huskily.  "I ... he can't ... His sister isn't ..."
Richard turned and laid his arm across his wife's shoulders:  she turned and pressed her face into his chest, wrapping her lean arms around the warm and solid reassurance that was her big, strong husband.

"Sarah screwed up and she wasn't there for you to address, and Linn was, and you laid into him for not keeping his sister out of trouble."

Willamina nodded.

"And he didn't try to correct you."

He felt her shake her head, then she turned her head a little more slowly and he knew she was drying her leaking eyes on his flannel shirt front.

"And you said things to him you wish you hadn't."

He felt her nod and then she pulled her face back and looked up at him.

"And I said them in public," she whispered, and Richard looked down at his wife's face, and he saw sorrow engraving its harsh lines:  he leaned down, kissed her forehead, then laid his cheek across the top of her head.

 

The coyote pup didn't quite growl as it tore the sandwich apart and ate with obvious pleasure, but it did kind of grunt and almost snarl, and when it was done, it snuffed its little moist nose in circles on the rocky shelf and then looked up at Linn, mouth open, almost a grin.

Linn smiled a little and then leaned his head back and gave a quiet "Oooooooo," and the coyote pup happily threw its head back and gave kind of a squealing yodel:  surprised, it fell over, scrambled to its feet, looked around, looked up at its gustatory benefactor.

"I'm glad you're here," Linn said softly.  "It's easier with a friend."

The coyote pup tilted its head a little, curious, then lifted its muzzle and gave another squealing, whimpery cry.

Linn saw Mama's muzzle stick out from the hole in the cribbing.

He was careful to hold very still:  his left hand had a hard grip on his revolver, his thumb was laid over the hammer spur:  he had no wish to make this little fellow an orphan, but he would not let a mama 'Yote chew on his shin bone, nor any other part of his anatomy.

He waited for several heartbeats, then leaned his head back and gave another "Ooooooooo," and the little 'yote threw its head back vigorously and gave a high-pitched, puppy-sized howl, happily joining its voice to the chorus, and Mama 'Yote came out with two or three bright, furry little cubs:  she, too, raised her muzzle, and wild song harmonized from the rocky shelf, singing out over the chasm below, carrying on the cool evening air.

Little 'Yote looked with surprise at Mama 'Yote, and then up at Linn, and Linn howled again, gently, as he had the first few times, and again the family sang with him.

Willamina heard the wildsong and she shivered as the ancient music touched an atavistic chord in her soul, and she remembered sitting alone, her heart full of grief, sitting on the granite shelf of High Lonesome, that legendary place that appeared on no maps, that could not be found by any who were not of their blood, this place where her pale eyed ancestor went to meditate, or to grieve, where Sarah Lynne McKenna sat and communed with the gods and with the equally legendary White Wolf, the place where she knew her son had sorrowfully borne their beloved Bear Killer, and then returned alone, this place where her pale eyed son went when he needed to sort things out, as young men do.

Richard raised the glasses, studied the distant mountain, leaned against a porch post to steady the image.

"I see his horse," he said. 

"Saddled?"

"No.  No saddle and I don't think he's tethered."

"That's just like him," Willamina muttered.  "One of these days he'll --"

She stopped, looked at Richard helplessly.

"I just did it again, didn't I?"

Richard placed his fingertips very gently on his wife's upper arms.

"We make mistakes, it's human," he said quietly.  "We make mistakes because we actually give a damn."

 

That night, after Linn brushed down his Apple-horse, after he'd hung his saddle blanket and strode back to the house, after he wiped his boots and came inside, hung his hat on the peg and slid out of his boots, after he'd placed his well polished Wellingtons in the boot tray, he froze as his mother's voice called from the kitchen.

"Linn?  Could you come in here, please?"

Linn stiffened, then he replied "Yes, ma'am," in his usual gentlemanly voice.

He unbuckled his gunbelt, hung it in the closet as he always did, walked in sock feet to the kitchen.

He smelled fresh baked bread and fresh coffee was gurling through the coffeemaker and he knew his mother was troubled: she baked bread when she was troubled, and her expression confirmed this.

He stood, easy, relaxed, wary.

Willamina turned and faced her firstborn.

"Linn, I need your advice."

She could amost see the wall coming up between them and she knew that Linn was swinging his mental shields into place.

"Yes, ma'am?" he replied courteously -- guardedly, carefully, suspiciously, and she did not blame him.

"Sit."

"I prefer to stand, ma'am," he said formally, and she nodded:  she knew she had to accept this youthful rebellion, this statement of independence.

She leaned back against the counter, wondered how to begin.

She began by pouring coffee for them both, setting steaming mugs on the table, she began by taking the loaf of bread out of the oven, placing it on the cooling rack, by laying out plates and butter and the bread knife and a butter knife.

Linn considered this, and decided a gesture of cooperation might ease the situation, so he walked around the table to the refrigerator and pulled out the plastic gallon jug of milk, and saw the understanding glance his mother gave him as he set it gently on the table.

Mother and son gripped the backs of their chairs, drew them out together, sat.

Linn waited until his mother poured milk in her coffee, Willamina waited until her son did the same, then mother and son, sitting directly across from one another, looked very directly at each other, and Willamina repeated, "I need your advice, Linn."

Linn's spine was very straight, his forearms pressed into the edge of the table.

"I was wrong to accuse you.  I was wrong to accuse you publicly.  I was wrong to ground you."

She took a long breath, looked away.

Linn remained charitably silent:  harsh words came to mind and he swatted them back down, knowing his mother was making herself vulnerable, knowing that harsh words were fire-and-forget missiles:  once launched, they could not be recalled.

"I need to know whether I should apologize in public."

Linn's mouth went suddenly dry.

"I want to know whether I should assemble everyone who was there when I spoke as I did, and make my apology in just as loud a voice in front of the same people."

Linn frowned, leaned forward:  he planted his elbows on the tale, clapped his palms together suddenly, loudly, interlaced his fingers:  he leaned his chin on outthrust thumbs and steepled his forefingers up against the tip of his nose, frowning, blinking, considering.

"Mother," he said, drawing his hands away and placing them flat on the tabletop, "I do not believe a public apology as you described is appropriate."

His voice was measured, careful, his words quiet, firm:  he spoke formally, as he had since coming in the house, and Willamina recognized her husband's habits in her son's words.

"You are Sheriff and you have to be in charge. As far as anyone else knows, what you did was right and we'll keep it that way. I think any parent will know that you're being a mother. Anyone who doesn't like it or doesn't ... well, this is family so it's none of their business."

Willamina nodded.

Linn reached over, slid the cooling rack closer, picked up the still-warm loaf of homemade sourdouth, placed it on the folded towel.

"What about Sis?"

Willamina's mouth went dry.

"We had words."

Linn raised an eyebrow, then he picked up the bread knife, sawed industriously through the loaf once, twice:  he kept the heel for himself, slid the other slice on its saucer over to his mother, offered her the butter, waited.

"She said things to me --"

Willamina hesitated, pressed her lips together, shook her head.

"Where is she now?"

"She left."

Willamina didn't need to look to know he'd raised his eyebrow again.

"Left," he echoed.

She nodded.  "She said things that --"

Linn felt more than heard his father come into the room, disciplined himself not to flinch as his father's hand laid itself, warm and strong, on his shoulder.

"Walk with me," he rumbled, and Linn rose, turned.

Father and son paced silently through the house:  father and son slid into boot leather and stepped outside, into the cool night air.

"I have to give you credit," Richard said finally.  "You are more of a gentleman than most."

"I have a good teacher, sir."

"I'm not that patient."

"With respect, sir, yes you are."  Linn stopped and faced his father squarely.  "There is only one place I could have learned that.  Look in the mirror next chance you get and take a good long look at the best teacher I've ever had."

They turned their heads toward the granite mountain as a faint, nearly inaudible howl wavered tentatively in the darkness, and father and son both smiled a little to hear it:  behind them, somewhere in the back pasture, the substantial, deeper tones of The Bear Killer joined his feral relatives in their shared song to the ancient gods.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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75. A GOOD FRIEND, THAT SNORES

 

The Bear Killer was a Tibetan Mastiff, or had a good percentage of the breed in him.

Over the years other breeds, including wolf, had come into the bloodline, but none adulterated the core values, so to speak:  The Bear Killer was spoken of from the earliest written history of Firelands; throughout this history, The Bear Killer was always big, black, curly furred, good natured for the most part.

For the most part, with ... exceptions.

At the moment, though, The Bear Killer sat on the spotlighted stage, looking insufferably pleased with himself, as if he knew he was guest of honor, distinguished guest and unvarnished hero, not necessarily in that order: the Firelands High School auditorium was where such public meetings were commonly held, and The Bear Killer was not a stranger to this particular stage.

Actually, it was The Bear Killer's sire that was no stranger to treading these boards; The Bear Killer that grew up with Linn was grown grey muzzled, and eventually breathed his last; The Bear Killer sitting on the stage was nearly indistinguishable from his honored sire -- and in the public mind, was very likely the same creature.

The sky had always been blue, the dirt always brown, and The Bear Killer was always solid, blocky, big, and impressive, not necessarily in that order.

Multiple people had spoken already, fortunately, none for terribly long:  a woman came to the podium, a little nervous, but resolute:  she cleared her throat, then looked into the white glare of the spotlights, confident that there were people on the other side of the painfully bright wall of illumination:  she took a breath, gripping the sides of the podium as if afraid it might run off and leave her alone.

"The Bear Killer," she began, and at hearing his name, The Bear Killer turned his head and looked almost hopefully at her; seeing no treat being handled, he looked back, blinking sleepily, pink tongue running out a little as he basked in what must've been praise, judging by the tone of the woman's voice.

"The Bear Killer found my Jimmy when he wandered off," she almost blurted.  "I'm not a bad mother, I was watching him, he just ... he got away from me, and ..."

She closed her eyes, shivered a little, then continued:  "And The Bear Killer found him and brought him back."

Her smile was a little lopsided, for she remembered, first, her angst at hearing that a great black bear killing attack dog that worked for the Sheriff's office was going after her little boy, and she was afraid her adventurous four year old might be a little less than a snack for such a huge beast, and then she hiccuped and put her fingers against her lips, as if to stifle the sound.

"He ... The Bear Killer carried him ..."

She shivered again, remembering how fear seized her guts when she heard her child's wailing; she ran out the back door, screaming his name, stopped and stared as The Bear Killer came trotting happily into her back yard, carrying her little boy by the back of the belt, and her little four year old Jimmy swinging arms and legs and red faced with juvenile humiliation at being so unceremoniously hauled back to civilization.

His was one of three rescues that day:  another involved an adventurous child who wandered too close to a swift, cold river, and was towed back by The Bear Killer, who dragged the coughing, protesting and thoroughly chilled-and-soaked little girl up on to the riverbank, waited until anxious family converged, and only then shook himself dry, giving everyone present the benefit of a cold bath; the third rescue was an individual who fled arrest, running into the same river, at least until an unexpected pool and swift current taught him the folly of flight:  again, it was The Bear Killer who hauled a coughing, choking soul from the cold, swift waters, a Bear Killer  who seized the subject's pants leg when he tried to run again, at least until he was kicked once.

One kick was all it took; The Bear Killer released the trouser leg, took one running jump, landed big forepaws on the felon's shoulders and bore him hard to the ground, bared fangs snarling less than an inch from his face, inviting him to move even so slightly.

As luck would have it -- as had been played on the big screen that was rolled down in front of the stage, before the presentations and speeches -- the local news crew was on hand, and got both the water rescue, and the kicks, and the takedown, on video, making The Bear Killer famous to a much wider audience than just Firelands County.

The mother spoke her gratitude, turned and spoke her thanks directly to The Bear Killer, who rose, knowing he was being addressed; she placed a broad, colorful ribbon about his neck, with a medal dependent therefrom, a medal that looked much like the one he already wore -- one for each of the rescues he'd done that day.

Photographs were taken; the local newspaper had a little girl in a frilly dress on one side of the massive Mastiff, a little boy in a suit and bow tie on the other, and The Bear Killer's doggy grin was unmistakable:  that, though, was not the picture that made the front page of the Firelands Gazette:  no, it was the picture of two children hugging the Mastiff, two gold medals gleaming against curly black chest fur, two children giving their canine rescuer a kiss and a hug, and the genuine ham of a big black dog just eating it up.

That night, as father, son, mother and big black Bear Killing Dawg sat in their living room, unwinding from the evening's stresses, Linn caressed the huge black head; the big black brush of a tail swung slowly, happily; Linn was on one end of the couch, The Bear Killer took up the entire rest of the sofa, chin laid on Linn's thigh.

The Bear Killer relaxed, eyes drooping, and Linn's head leaned back against the padded upright behind him; he looked at his parents and smiled, then looked down at The Bear Killer.

"You're a hero, you know that," he said quietly, and The Bear Killer's ears barely twitched as he relaxed into slumber.

Richard laughed silently and added -- as the sound rumbled from the somnolent creature's chest -- "He's a hero, all right, but he snores!"

Linn nodded, smiling drowsily, slid his hand back to The Bear Killer's shoulder.

"Go bed, go sleep, take nap?" he said, and The Bear Killer's eyes snapped open:  he wallowed to the floor, stood, shook, looked with anticipation to the back door:  after a quick trip out, after a happy, scampering charge up the broad staircase, after leaping happily and with amazing precision onto Linn's bunk, he waited until both were stretched out before laying his head down again and giving that great contented sigh.

"My bud," Linn whispered, rubbing the muscled canine shoulders:  "you are a good friend, that snores!"

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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76.  "OH NO YOU DON'T!"

 

Bill was an engineer for the Z&W, and he was a good one.

No.

He wasn't a good engineer.

He was a damned good engineer, and The Lady Esther was his lover.

He also had a good ear and a liking for the Daine boys' distilled sledgehammer (water clear and not over thirty days old!) -- and he could pick out any song in the world in his beloved locomotive's four-beat chant as she labored on steel rails, pulling humanity, freight and ore from the mines.

He also -- probably associated with his skill on a five string banjo -- had an excellent sense of rhythm, and so it was natural that his quick ear that could read the clicks and clatters of the telegraph as easily as a man might read a column of newsprint.

The Lady Esther was firing for the day's work.

Her checks had been made, he'd been all over her, making sure his beloved Lady was in absolutely top form, he'd burnished her brightwork and taken a clean rag to wipe off her trademark spray of roses on the side of the cab (he'd been known to take a coal shovel to careless souls who'd spit tobacco juice from his cab, for fear of disfiguring this floral insignia of Miz Esther herself!), and as he tilted his ear to listen to the sounder, the fireman saw Bill's face go grave and serious.

The roundhouse telegrapher reached for a whittled pencil, began printing quickly, firmly, but Bill had no need of it:  at message end, he jerked his head to his fireman and strode for the shining, brightly-painted cab, clearly a man on a mission.

"Ross!"  he yelled to the roundhouse foreman, "Give me Number Four!"

"Four?"  Ross yelled back, surprised.  "You sure?"

"DAMN YOUR BOOTSTRAPS AND GALLUSES YES I'M SURE!"  Bill screamed, his face purpling a little, and Ross began bawling orders:  The Lady Esther and her tender were on the turntable and they rotated to Position Four, which was never, ever used.

They locked her in position; Bill backed under the chute that was used only in the most dire situation, and the fireman scrambled up the monkey-way, yanked the curved, smooth iron handle, sliding the gravity gate open.

Eastern anthracite coal, freighted out at horrendous expense, rumbled into the tender:  The Lady Esther fired with wood, or with black bituminous, very rarely with Western brown coal, and only in times of absolute, urgent need, did she fire with the hot Pennsylvania hard coal.

Bill's fireman was the only man alive he trusted to fire his beloved Lady with the hard anthracite.

Bill remembered when Daisy threw anthracite in her cookstove, there in the Silver Jewel, and the sudden high heat busted the cast iron stove, ruined it:  he had no wish to do the same to his Lady, and so he trusted one man, and one man only, with this high calorie diet.

Their water was already topped off:  Bill eased The Lady Esther and her tender back onto the turntable.

"Give me the main line!"  Bill yelled, and Ross nodded:  the turntable swung easily around on greased bearings, stopped:  The Lady Esther backed onto the main line, and with a wave, with a quick twitch of the whistle-pull, The Lady Esther started backing her way up the spur and toward the main tracks.

Bill paused to switch into a spur and attach a single flatcar:  he flagged two brakemen, who saw the couplers well engaged, who connected the rubber Westinghouse connections: the Z&W bankrupted itself at its inception because Miz Esther insisted on those newfangled air brakes, disdained by the main lines, because Miz Esther insisted on the safety couplers, those automatic knuckle couplers:  again, this innovative woman was years ahead of the main lines, but her forethought meant brittle iron rails did not work loose, thrust up like a vengeful snakehead, gut passenger cars as they ran over this derail; nor did brakemen lose fingers as they had with the link-and-pin couplers: she still maintained brakemen on staff, for there was still work for them to do, and Bill knew he'd need these two, these good men and true, these veterans of the rail.

Another saw-out, another switch thrown, and The Lady Esther, pushing her tender and a flatcar, picked up speed as they headed toward Firelands.

 

Lightning passed the yellow paper flimsy to the boy, who took out at a run:  Lightning sighed, remembering when he was young, when he too had one speed, and that was a dead-out sprint:  he turned back to his pad, looked at his print, pressed through with carbon paper, knowing the Sheriff needed to know the word that flashed up the line, warning all trains on the connecting track of the news:

COUPLER BROKE X PASSENGER CAR RUNAWAY X DOWNGRADE FIRELANDS SIDE END

Lightning took a long breath, felt a shiver start up his spine, lowered his head onto his scarred knuckles and talked to God about it.

He wasn't the only one.

MIchael J. Hall was an Easterner.

He was moderately well off; he'd made a business selling carriages and horses, he'd built it and sold it and built another and sold it, and how he was headed West, not with any particular destination, but with the general feeling he'd better do something with his life other than sit in town and worry about spending money.

He'd paid for a good seat in a good high grade passenger car, and he wasn't terribly disappointed; a young woman sat next to him, anxious about returning home to Firelands: back East, she would have been rather forward to start a conversation with a strange man, but there was a remarkable self-assurance about this remarkable young woman.

"My name's Coleen Fitzgerald," she said, thrusting out a gloved hand:  startled, he'd taken it, surprised by her enthusiasm as much as her grip:  he introduced himself and Colleen regarded him with Irish-blue eyes and said, "How far are ye goin', Mr. Hall?"

He opened his mouth and as he said later, "something stupid fell out," and he admitted, "I don't really know, how about you?"

She tilted her head a little and he saw her brows puzzle together just a bit and then she nodded, as if she'd come to some conclusion, and she declared firmly, "Ye're comin' to Firelands and ye'll eat a' th' Silver Jewel!" and he saw the conductor look at them and smile a little, and Colleen looked up and then leaped to her feet, charged the blue-uniformed man with the neatly trimmed mustache and round-lens spectacles and laughed, "Morgan Walters, how in the world have you been?"

The conductor laughed and embraced the delighted young woman, then held her at arm's length and regarded her as fondly as an uncle:  "Colleen, you're as lovely as your mother, and I would've married her had she not been taken!"

Colleen swatted at him and laughed again, and her laugh was like a mountain stream chuckling its way downhill in spring sunshine:  "Morgan, I'll bet ye say that t' all th' girls!"

There was a muted SNAP and the groan of tortured metal, and then their car slowed.

The conductor seized the backs of two seats, set his feet apart, looked to the rear of the car, his expression serious.

"Morgannnnnnn?"  Colleen asked uncomfortably, backing up a little, until the backs of her legs hit Mr. Hall's legs and she sat, suddenly and unexpectedly, landing in his lap: he automatically seized her to keep her from falling further, and they both saw the conductor's face grow pale as the car began rolling the opposite direction.

They'd been most of the way up a long grade.

Now they were going downhill, and they were picking up speed.

 

Bill laid on the whistle coming into Firelands, laid her out long and loud, and came roaring through town at about three-quarter throttle.

Bill knew his track, he knew where he could push the light flatcar and not risk a derail, knew where he had to slow to keep flanged wheels on steel rails; normally The Lady Esther came through town at a lower velocity:  when she laid on plenty of whistle and she came through, backwards, running as if the Devil himself were after her, people knew things were very much out of the ordinary.

Lightning already had the signal set -- he gave her the white roundel at the top of the arc, the High Ball -- and The Lady Esther was taking this signal very seriously.

 

Jacob came off his stallion before the horse was stopped: he landed at a dead run, charged up onto the stoop, seized the bell-pull, hauled it three times, hard.

It took Dr. John Greenlees less than five minutes to follow the deputy's urgent summons.

Dr. Greenlees had a fine Morgan gelding, and his Morgan was a trotter, and Doc knew if he gave his nag his head, he'd set into that trot and cover more ground for a longer time than another horse could cover at a wide open gallop.

He had to get to where he was needed, however far away that might be, and that was the trouble with a runaway railcar.

You never knew where she'd dump over.

 

Colleen sat very close to Mike Hall, her gloved hands clasping his good right hand.

If curcumstances were different, Colleen might have taken off her lace gloves and held the young man's hands with her bare palms, not as a romantic gesture, but rather as a diagnostic move, divining whether this was a man with calluses, a man who knew hard work.

She only half listened as the conductor declared to the passengers that the engine would have known their departure, that they carried a portable telegraph, that they would signal down the line for their rescue, that things were well in hand.

The man was a poor liar, but his words held at least a little reassurance.

Colleen looked at Mike, biting her lower lip, her milk-fair complexion a little more pale, her eyes very big, very blue.

"I think we're in trouble," she said in a tiny voice, and Michael J. Hall, man of commerce and modest means, nodded gravely.

"I've known cars to derail, running away down the mountain," Colleen said, swallowing hard.

"I would regret that very much," Michael said seriously, realizing that this was what he'd been missing, what he'd been looking for.

"Mr. Hall, I would like very much to have dinner with you at the Silver Jewel tonight," Colleen said, and Michael J. Hall squeezed he hands gently and said, "I would like that very much."  He swallowed.  "I know this is very sudden, but I believe I would enjoy sitting across the supper table from you every evening for the rest of my life."

Colleen's eyes were haunted as they looked past him, at the speed with which stone cliffs and pines streaked past, and she looked very seriously at the young man she'd known for all of fifteen minutes.

"I would like that very much as well."

 

Bill knew his railroad and Bill knew his engine, and Bill knew he had to get at least halfway up the grade to meet the onrushing car.

He gave the whistle two short pulls; the brakemen scrambled over the tender, down into the cab.

"Once we couple," Bill shouted, "you'll have to climb onto the car and set its brakes!"

The pair nodded gravely, then grinned, for they were young and full of fire, and they'd done as much -- leaping from one car to another -- for sport, for the sheer joy of the jump.

Bill backed off the throttle.  "We'll have to match her speed but we'll start on a down grade!"

The Lady Esther slowed, came to a stop.

The fireman opened the fire door, reached in, raked at the hell breathing inside her belly, checking for cold spots, for clinkers:  satisfied, he nodded, turned, just as the engineer yelled, "Open the sanders, boys, here we go!"

The coal shovel scraped against steel decking and the engineer sent coal into the firebox:  Bill checked the water, gave her some throttle, sending cast iron back down the hill they'd just come up.

"COME ON, MY LADY!" he yelled.  "DANCE WITH ME TODAY!"

Cast iron wheels slipped on steel rails, sparks threw bright in the sunlight, and The Lady Esther, like a dancer, light on the balls of her feet, began skipping down grade, away from the runaway passenger car that was going to be bearing down on them very soon.

 

Linn leaned out over his Cannonball-mare's neck, hands pressed flat against her neck, standing up in the stirrups.

Cannonball was running flat out, ears pinned back, nose thrust straight out:  she grunted with every hard thrust, and with every grunt, the Sheriff grunted "Run -- run -- run -- run!"

Behind them, a war-hound's bay echoed off granite cliffs:  The Bear Killer's challenge echoed off raw granite, warning any who would harm his pale eyed family, that black death with ivory fangs followed close behind, and Jacob's grin was as fierce a fang-bearing grin as the mountain Mastiff's:  his Appaloosa stallion, mountain born, mountain bred, tough as raw hide leather and mean as a sunburnt snake, surged hard after the Sheriff's shining mare.

 

"Would ye pray wi' me then," Colleen breathed, her native Irish accent coming to the fore, and Michael J. Hall nodded:  she fished two fingers into her little purse, came out with a green-glass Rosary.

Michael reached up, slipped the immaculate Derby off pomaded, neatly combed hair:  the conductor removed his own cover:  more than this young businessman, and this young Irishwoman, talked to God about it.

 

The brakeman whistled:  "There she is!"

Bill turned and looked, then stared, his jaw sagging.

"Dear God," he breathed, then turned and rammed the throttle wide open, gave the water injector a little more:  he looked at the pressure gauge and leaned out the window, looked forward, looked back, then forward again:  squinting against the passing wind, he yelled, "COME ON, MY LADY!  DANCE FOR ME!"

 

Colleen rose, staring, as they approached the retreating locomotive, the slender flatcar pointing toward them like an accusing finger, at the two men casually walking its gently rocking deck with the assurance of a couple blue-water sailors:  each had a stick in his hand -- a brakeman's club, Colleen knew, for like any children of Firelands, she knew the railroaders personally -- her hand rose to her lips, even white teeth bit down on her gloved knuckle --

Michael's hands, warm, strong, reassuring, gripped her shoulders --

Colleen leaned back into him, seeking his strength, seeking his manly reassurance, remembering how her own red haired, blue eyed mother would lean back against her red headed Celtic giant of a father, her eyes closed, purring with contentment --

Two brakemen waited until the car coasted closer, closer yet, until there was ten feet, six feet, four, three, two --

One man leaped, caught the iron ladder easily, climbed quickly to the roof:  the other man followed, swung onto the passenger car's platform, reached for the wheel, thrust his club into its spokes for leverage, pulled, just as the couplers rammed into one another.

 

Bill eased the air valve open, sending hard shoes against hard wheels; throttle back, scream of steel on steel, look ahead, gauge the distance to the fatal curve, a little more air --

Brakeman's club in the wheel, both hands gripping good hickory, feet set, cords standing out in his neck, the wheel began to turn, then turned some more --

Chain, link by link, over the sprocket --

 

Jacob leaned back quickly and his Apple-horse slowed, dancing, blowing:  his father was drawing up as well, and they heard The Lady Esther, and she was coming toward them, but coming fast, faster than she should --

Lace-gloved fingers tightened on green-glass beads, as a man's hands gripped her shoulders, as he molded his body into hers, for he too wished for reassurance --

More air, a little more air, Bill thought, then threw caution out the back of the cab and locked up the flatcar's brakes, opened the sanders again, threw the valve into reverse --

Steel wheels thrashing against steel rails --

Noise, smoke, steam, confusion --

Colleen turned, arms up in front of her, pressed herself into Michael's front, his arms closed protectively around her, turned to put himself between the collision and the maiden --

 

The Sheriff waited until the train was completely stopped before he rode up toward the cab.

The Lady Esther breathed easily, like a great, iron beast, content to sun herself after a good run:  Linn looked up, regarded the engineer as the man scratched his thatch and replaced his hickory striped hat.

"Morn', Bill," Linn called.  "Anythin' big new or excitin' goin' on?"

Bill leaned out the cab window, pulled off his cap, regarded its interior, looked up.

"Nah," he said at length.  "Not one damned thing."

 

The brakemen rigged chain from the engine's toolbox to connect the link-and-pin coupler passenger car, with the safety-knuckle-coupler flatcar:  as the flatcar was from another rail line, it had neither the more modern couplers, nor had it air brakes:  they made it into Firelands, where passengers were switched to a Z&W passenger car for the remainder of their journey -- what few were continuing on -- a good percentage decided they'd like to overnight in Firelands, including a young couple who walked from the depot to the Silver Jewel, a young couple who had supper together that night.

For some odd reason, a certain Eastern businessman saw it as a sound and reasonable business decision to settle there in town, and a certain fair skinned, blue eyed Irish lass agreed most wholeheartedly with his decision.

That, of course, is a separate story altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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77.  "HE WASN'T THERE"

 

It had been a bad one.

It was the Reverend John Burnett's first response as the Fire Department's chaplain, and it was very nearly his last.

The Parson's first day in Firelands saw him moving his few belongings into the Parsonage:  Mrs. Burnett would be along in a day or two, and with her, what little else they had; the Reverend made the beds, set up the coffee maker, made sure the flusher flushed, and then -- with no particular destination in mind -- he set out on foot to look the town over.

He naturally gravitated to the fire department.

He opened the old wooden door beside the shiny-new, overhead bay doors, looked in, saw the blocky, solid, shining red Kenworth pumper, and grinned like a little boy, the same way he'd grinned when his department back home got a brand new Seagrave pumper (second hand, but refurbished) and he saw it for the first time.

He stepped inside and called, "Hello?" -- half expecting his voice to echo like calling into a cavern.

It didn't, of course:  a broad-shouldered, red-headed, half-shaven man lurched around the corner, hooking his red suspenders over one shoulder, then the other:  Reverend Burnett knew the man was half shaven, because half his face was covered with lather, the other had lather streaks, and he had a lather-dripping safety razor in his free hand.

"Ye'll be th' new Parson," the big, red-headed man declared, switching the razor to the other hand before thrusting out a callused mitt that just plainly engulfed the Reverend's paw: "Fitzgerald's th' name, I'm th' Chief, an' th' rest o' th' crew are gettin' breakfast on th' table, an' ye'll j'ine us."

His grin was welcoming, his words were quite obviously not a question, and the Reverend found himself seated at the firehouse table, and treated to fried eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh baked bread, coffee -- plenty of coffee -- as the Chief said with a knowing wink, "Th' Navy runs on coffee, an' so do I!"

The Reverend had to agree with the Chief:  he'd sailed blue saltwater on big grey boats himself, and his own coffee pot was prominent in the spartan kitchen back in his own quarters.

"So tell us about yersel'," the Chief boomed, seizing another two strips of bacon, and Reverend Burnett didn't miss how the rest of the crew pretended to pay no attention at all, while listening very closely.

The Reverend considered, then took a long breath, smiled a little.

"You'll find out anyway, so I might as well tell you," he admitted.  "I fought fire too."

"Ye do declare!  Whither away?"  Fitzgerald grinned, seizing a slice of still-warm sourdough, accepting the butter dish as it was slid his way by an anonymous flick of equally anonymous fingers.

"Wolf Plains, back East, just south of Sedalia.  Little place."

"Wha' engine had ye?"

"Seagrave.  I think she was FD Columbus before she was refurbed and sold to us."

Sean's fist hit the table like a blacksmith's hammer hits hot iron, his grin broad and genuine.  "See there, lads!  Th' Lord has sent us a righteous man!  Muldoon, do ye get his helmet!"

"I, um, what?"  Reverend Burnett almost stammered, and he caught his fork before it fell completely from suddenly-nerveless hands.

"Y'see, Padre," Sean said seriously, "we've no respect f'r th' man who's no' been in th' fire wi' us.  Our Chaplain died, rest his soul, an' we've no a good candidate until ye sat down wi' us here t'day."  

"A Chaplain has to know what we go through before we can trust him to look after our corroded souls," Muldoon added as he strode into the dining area, pulling a brand-shiny-new green helmet from its protective plastic.  "Your bunker gear is hung up with the rest of ours, what size boots do you wear?"

"I, um, elevens --"

"Well try it on, lad, let's see how ye look in't!"

Reverend Burnett leaned back, took the helmet, peered in:  he nodded, set it down on his head, twisted it a little, pulled it free, adjusted the headband, tried again.

"There," he said, satisfaction in his voice.  "That's better."

"Ye've got green t' mark ye th' Chaplain," Sean explained.  "We'll no' ha'e a blue helmet among us.  We've red an' we've white, an' ye're th' green."  He frowned.  "Though we'll ha'e t' ha'e yer name on yer coat!"

"Why?"  Reverend -- now Chaplain Burnett -- asked, trying his best to assume that Innocent Expression.  "Everyone will know I'm the Chaplain, and the Chaplain is used to being called anything but late for supper!"

The howler went off, followed by the dispatcher's metallic, speaker-filtered voice:  men erupted from the table, abandoning breakfast and coffee and companionship, sprinting for the equipment bay:  the Reverend ran with them, old reflexes warming his belly, and he found himself shucking out of his suit coat and thrusting into new boots, jerking up brand-new, never-worn bunker pants -- his hands knew the work, he made fast without looking, hooked the suspenders over his shoulders, seized the brand-new yellow coat (with green reflective trim instead of the white reflective on everyone else's coats) and he pulled his helmet free, yanked the Nomex hood over his head, then clapped the helmet back into place, made fast the chin strap as he turned and strode for the now-awake Kenworth, as the bay door chuckled open, as lights began their dizzying dance against the retreating aluminum portal.

The Reverend shoved himself into a rear-facing seat, seized the seat belt, thrust tongue into buckle like he intended to bust it, yanked the tag end, leaned back into the walkaway as the engine began to move under him, and his chest tightened a little, the way it always did, the way he remembered, every last time he started out of the bay on a big red noisy machine that flashed like a spotlighted stripper and screamed like a damned soul.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller set her booted feet grimly apart, flat on the floorboards of the department's Blazer:  Barrents was driving, and of all her deputies, she trusted his driving more than anyone else's:  he knew just how hard to push the long wheelbase Chevy on each individual curve, and he was running right up to the bare edge of control.

The fire was at the far south end of their county and it was a bad one:  a house fire with children trapped in the upstairs.

Barrents knew the Sheriff was worried by the nature and duration of her conversation ... that is to say, she uttered not one single word, and that told the man she was more than just worried.

 

Sean reached back over the doghouse, slapped the Parson on the shoulder:  the man turned his head, leaned it back, and Sean shouted, "WE'RE BACKIN' UP TH' DEPARTMENT DOWN THERE!"

Reverend Belden nodded grimly, feeling his jaw muscles tighten.

"IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE A BAD ONE, PARSON.  WE'LL NEED YE SURE AS YE'RE BORN!"

The Reverend nodded again, raised a split-leather, Nomex-lined glove, gave a thumbs-up:  the chromed, mirror-polished Federal Q screamed from its recess in the chromed, mirror-polished the front bumper, making any return conversation impossible.

The Reverend closed his eyes, remembering other runs, other trucks, but always the same, the same:  the smell of a house fire, that smoldering-wet-trash-fire smell always clung to his nostrils, overriding the odors of turnout coats and rubber tires, of Diesel exhaust and sweat, and he bowed his head and had a conversation with the Almighty, for he doubted not he would be working as a firefighter as well as their Chaplain.

He flexed his hands inside the new Firecraft gloves and almost smiled.

He'd never in his life worn so much brand new turnout gear.

 

Reverend Burnett's hands were hard on the heavy wooden fire ladder:  he was on the foot end, the leading end, he ran with the others, charging the fire structure, charging like Medieval sappers preparing to bust down a secured gate with a steel-shod ram:  they drove the ladder's foot hard against the ground, slammed the insides of their fireboots against the legs as strong arms thrust it up, up, until it slammed against the siding, under the smoke-pouring second-story window:  the youngest of their number charged the ladder, driving his way up its rungs before it passed the vertical, running up the ladder as fast as most men can run on level ground:  he dove into the window headfirst --

Reverend Burnett craned his head back, peering through the clean, new, unstained visor --

A scream, faint but unmistakable, the scream of a man still wearing his air mask --

The young firefighter at the window, something limp in his arms, ripped-free mask dangling from its neck strap --

"CAP I FOUND ONE AND SHE'S ALIVE!"

Another firefighter, most of the way up the ladder before he emerged, seized the child:  kicking his boots off the rung, he slammed the inside of his dirty, scarred fireboots against the sides of the ladder (which was strictly against policy) and slid down, a fast toboggan that was done only in the direst emergency (also against policy).

He landed flat footed, screaming "DAAAWWWWWWKKKKKK!"

Two medics ran up, but before they could shove their way though the turnout that surrounded the casualty, an older man who wore his authority the way he wore his dark blue suit, said "Hold on a minute," and Reverend Burnett remembered that, as the ragdoll of a little girl in a soot stained flannel nightgown was handed off at the top of the ladder, there was a trace of vapor escaping her mouth:  now, as the coroner tried to peel back her eyelid, the Reverend saw the eyelid split.

This was the first time the Reverend John Burnett ever saw something that threatened to eject his last meal:  he turned away, swallowed hard, turned back, looked again at the horror that seized his stomach with a cold and bony hand.

One medic stood with the demand valve oxygen in hand, the other blueshirt was just setting down the drug box, the monitor-defibrillator slung over his shoulder, across his back:  the coroner shook his head and said "Boys, don't even try."

Reverend Burnett's mouth went desert dry as the finality of the coroner's words gut punched him.

He saw the medics' faces, saw the utterly lost expression of young men, a moment before riding the Adrenaline Stallion, now feeling the weight of failure bear down on their shoulders.

The Reverend stood ladder duty while they went back up, with a hose line, back inside the bedroom window, brought out three more, all dead:  they'd tried to hide from the fire, the way children will, the first one was in the middle of the hall under plaster that fell from the ceiling, the others were under beds and in a closet.

The Parson helped the medics sheet the four small, unmoving forms, he removed his new green helmet, with its first speckles of wet ash, as the other firemen removed theirs as well, and formed a circle around the still young bodies.

Sheriff Willamina watched as they stood for a long moment, stood while their new Chaplain said the words that are always said over the dead at times like this, then they raised their heads, and the Sheriff saw a deep and abiding anger on every man's face.

They turned and faced the house, they cinched down their helmets like warriors going into battle, they attacked the house fire like a personal enemy, assaulted it from the inside, they killed the beast that murdered four innocent children ...

... the futile assault of men who know they are too late, too late.

 

Chaplain Burnett sat slowly, heavily, still wearing his necktie, his shirt sweat-plastered to his chest, his back.

His bunker pants, still remarkably clean, were now shoved down over fireboots, bunker coat hung up with the other turnout gear, his wiped-clean green helmet in its place on the second shelf:  he sat in his shirtsleeves, frowning a little at the firehouse table, then drew out a spiral notebook and began writing.

He heard the man door open, shut; a measured tread approached, a figure came up beside him.

"May I join you, Padre?" a woman's voice asked, and the Chaplain automatically rose, trying to smile a little.

The pale eyed woman shoved out a hand.  "I'm Sheriff Willamina Keller.  You're Reverend Burnett.  I'd buy you a drink but all they have here is coffee."

"Coffee will do."

"Sit."

The new Chaplain sat.

"You're a firefighter."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I could tell."  She gave him a long, assessing look.  "Any law enforcement experience?"

He shook his head.  "No."

She nodded slowly.  "I like the way you handle a situation."

The Parson raised an eyebrow.

"The mother and husband got out.  Their youngest baby was sleeping on her chest when they woke and realized the house was afire."

Parson Belden nodded, remembering the grieving mother's words.

"The furnace was under the stairs.  By the time they woke, the stairs were burned out and they couldn't get upstairs."
Parson Belden nodded numbly, his mouth dry again: he remembered the grieving father's words, the sorrow in the man's soul seeping out of his voice.

"A stairway is a chimney. They didn't have a chance."

"Yeah."  His voice was tight, his throat tasted like ash.

"You okay?"

"Not really."

She laid a firm hand on his shoulder.  "I wasn't either, my first fatal. With children ... never with children."

The Sheriff smiled, just a little.

"You're honest.  That's not easy."

"No," he admitted.  "Often it's not."

"I'm glad you're here."  She looked up, smiled as she was handed a steaming mug of coffee, waited until the Chaplain accepted his.  "Milk?"

"Thank you."

"You're wearing the new Chaplain's gear. The municipality didn't want to spend all that money on a Chaplain's turnout.  They said it would never be used, that it would be money wasted."

Chaplain Burnett drizzled milk into his coffee.  "I wish they were right."

"How would you be called?"

Reverend Burnett frowned a little puzzled.  "How do you mean?"
Sheriff Willamina laughed, and the Parson smiled to hear it.

"Would you rather be called Reverend, His Majesty, King of Norway, Preacher, Parson, Chaplain, Hey You ...?"

"You called me Padre."

"Habit."

"The Chief called me Padre."

The Sheriff nodded.

"If I was a cut-up, I could be His Irreverence."

"You could."  She smiled, sipped her coffee.

"I suppose I'll be Reverend," he said slowly, "but Padre will do.  I doubt if this bunch would call me Chaplain unless it was an awards banquet and they wanted me to say the blessing."

One of the medics stopped, favored the pair with a puzzled expression.

"Padre?"  he asked.  "You're Catholic?"

"No," Parson Belden smiled.  "Do you remember back at the scene, two people called you Doc?"

The young medic nodded.

"Do you know why?"

He shook his head.

Parson Belden looked at the Sheriff, who shrugged, "He hasn't worn Uncle Sam's baggy green."

Parson Belden nodded gravely.  "I might suggest you ask for clarification from your Chief," he said carefully.

"Yeah ... yeah, I'll do that," the medic replied uncertainly:  he turned and drifted off.

"You're prior military."

"Anchor clanker.  You?"
"Jarhead."  She smiled.  "Don't be surprised if you're addressed as Parson.  It's an old town and an old title, and from my very great granddad's journals, our sky pilot has always been Parson."

"Sky pilot?"

"An old term."

"Ah."

"Kind of like that young paramedic.  He didn't know about Doc and Padre.  He didn't know because he wasn't there."

They sat for several more minutes, two scarred veterans, sipping coffee, their memories swirling slowly about them like cloaks, stirring in a night wind, until the Sheriff rose, gripped the man's shoulder again, and she repeated, "I'm glad you're here," then she looked up.

"Chief?  I have that receipt."

"Ah, thank ye, m'darlin', I'll need it f'r th' books."

"Rub it in their face."  Chaplain Burnett could hear a wicked smile in her words, a confidence passed between two friends -- for friends they would have to be, if the Chief referred to the Sheriff as "darlin'."

Chaplain Burnett stood, tore a page from his notebook.  "You'll need my phone number," he said, handing the slip to the red headed, broad shouldered Fitzgerald:  the man accepted it, added it to the yellow receipt sheet in his off hand.

Chaplain Burnett saw the man's eyes follow where the Sheriff had been, then he looked back and nodded as if coming to a decision.

"Th' town didn't buy yer turnout gear, Chaplain," he said quietly, his voice very unlike his usual, hard-of-hearing boom:  "th' Sheriff did.  She said ye'd be needin' it an' she was right."

Chaplain Burnett blinked, surprised, and he honestly could not think of a reply.

"Ye'll be issued an alert monitor.  Ha'e ye a scanner?  No?  I'll arrange f'r Dispatch t' call wi' situations, then."  The Irishman grinned.  "Ye've a good bunch here, Parson, an' ye are one o' us now."


 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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78.  MAMA'S EXIT

 

It was Sheriff Willamina Keller's retirement.

Her son Linn was the new Sheriff-elect; the county was, in general, sorry to see Willamina leave office -- but if their pale eyed Sheriff had to hand over the badge and take up the rockin' chair, why, they were more than happy that her pale eyed firstborn was her replacement.

Mayor and Council, notables and residents, all gathered in the Sheriff's office:  everyone was in their class As, every pair of trousers had a crease sharp enough to cut, every pair of boots were burnished to a high gloss:  the new Sheriff raised his right hand and swore, the Sheriff smiled ever so slightly as her son said "I relieve you, ma'am," and she replied, "I stand relieved."

Each unpinned their badge, removed it from their pressed uniform shirt:  each carefully, simultaneously badged the other:  the Sheriff pinned her ancient, hand engraved, six point star on her son's uniform shirt, and Linn slid the pin from his deputy sheriff's six point star into his mother's badge grommets.

A crisp, military salute might have been expected, but when mother and son embraced, when the mother whispered "I'm proud of you," and her son whispered back "I love you, Mama," the heavy glass doors pulled open and heads turned at the shout:  "THERE'S SOME GUY OUT HERE TRYIN' TO KILL ME!"

Now it's not particularly bright to bring a fight into a hornet's nest, especially when the nest is full of hornets; the doors were pushed out and lawmen fanned out, forming a V, focused on the individual advancing with a revolver in his hand, thunder on his brow, screaming something incoherent.

Willamina reached across, swatted her forearm across her son's belly:  "I've got this," she said quietly, and then she leaned forward and charged.

Blued steel whispered from holsters and at least a dozen gunbarrels leveled out, every deputy's jaw tightened as fingers curled around triggers, making the last assessment before sending a deadly payload downrange, holding only because their pale eyed Sheriff, or rather the past Sheriff, was almost in arm's reach and not slowing down a bit.

There was a single gunshot -- that's all he had time for -- a security camera later recorded the bullet-strike on the Sheriff's uniform shirt, right under her badge:  Willamina's hands were up and open and at the bullet's impact, she seized the offending revolver in both hands, twisted, drove her shoulder into the screaming man's gut.

A madman's angry roar soared up the scale into the soprano, the sound of a man in profound pain:  Willamina's grip was unbreakable, her two-hand twist well practiced, the trigger guard's narrow edge cut into flesh, broke bone; as she dropped, rolled, the revolver came with her, as did a spray of blood and a torn-free finger.

Linn walked up on the bent-over, screaming assailant:  the man looked up just in time to inherit a fast moving boot right under the chin:  his head snapped back and he came up until a second boot's heel drove into his gut, doubling him over.

Linn turned to his mother, who was grimacing and fingering the hole under her star:  Linn allowed his brother officers to seize the prisoner and subject him to their tender mercies.

Right now his only thought was for his mother.

Linn reached down, took Willamina's upper arm, helped her up.

She shook the avulsed finger from the pistol, handed the revolver to her son.

Rubbing her chest, she looked at her son and smiled wryly:  "Ow," she admitted.  "Good thing I wore Ironsides."

"Your vest?"  Linn asked, pale eyes wide and worried, and Willamina reached up, patted her son's chest and nodded.

Linn allowed himself to relax, just a little.

"Mama," he said quietly, shaking his head, "you do know how to make an exit!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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79.  A RIVER'S HUNGER

 

I've never known the Sheriff to show yella.

Not once.

Not ever.

He's walked away from fights before, or tried to.

Trouble was ... the fellows he walked away from, weren't willin' to let a peaceable man be peaceable, and the Sheriff had to knock the Dog Stuffing out of 'em, and once he was done educatin' the sinners with his version of the Jaw Bone of a Jack Mule -- I think he used a singletree in one case, he used his boots in another, just plainly stomped the fellow's hands and ribs until he was curled up and all the fight in him was soaked into the dirt and gone -- well, they l'arned that it holds no profit to trouble a peaceful man who just wants to be left the hell alone.

Like I said, I never once knew the Sheriff to show yella, and when he said, "Jacob, we are not ridin' a foot further," and he taken up his hat and his grip and so did I, and we clumb off attair train and collected our horses and our saddle bags and we got off attair train and they barely got the ramps pulled free when the train whistled and started chuffin' and we stroked our horses' necks and spoke soft to 'em and the Sheriff he looked genuinely troubled.

I will admit I felt an awful lot less than comfortable, for the Sheriff, he taken off his Sky Piece and bowed his head and so did I, for when Pa allowed as 'twas the right time to talk to God, he did.

He was talkin' to God now and he was implorin' the Almighty to have mercy upon the souls He was about to receive, and at my Pa's quiet words, at those simple words spoken by a man with an utter and complete conviction that he was right ... well, I recalled how Mother can see things that mortal men can't, how Sarah and Miz Bonnie and hell even Angela know things there's no way they could and Angela not even blood relation -- well, when Pa he taken off his Stetson I did too and we both bowed our heads, and we both said Amen and then we both stepped into saddle leather and the Sheriff he was still troubled.

I saw him look at the telegrapher's office there at the depot and that meant he was thinkin' to send ahead that we'd not be on the train to pick up that pa'tickelar prisoner, and about then the door swung open and attair fella in sleeve garters and that flat top black brim cap came out and looked at us kind of surprised and said "Sheriff?  I thought you were on the train!"

Pa he said not a word, he stuck out his hand and this fella put a paper in it and Pa he read the paper and his jaw run out and he considered and then looked at me and said "Jacob, we are for the livery.  We will grain our horses and have them curried, we will get a meal and a good night's rest and then we will take the special home."

"Yes, sir," said I, kind of puzzled, for things just were not goin' accordin' to how I understood it to be.

Y'see, we'd meant to cross the Big Muddy on attair steam train and pick up a prisoner we'd been wantin' to bring back so we could give him a fair trial and call him for the lyin' cheatin' woman abusin' thievin' son of Perdition he was, and then hang him, and the whole community heard we was goin' after him and some of the fellas they allowed as they'd hold themselves a competition to see who could tie the purtiest noose of thirteen turns, and the Sheriff he allowed as if they were goin' to they'd best give him their best work right now for we was fixin' to head East and the train pulled out in a half hour, and the Sheriff he picked a winner and they all went to the Silver Jewel to drink to their success and we boarded the train to go bring an evil man back to face what was comin' to him.

We taken our mounts to the livery and talked to the hostler, the Sheriff he was about the easiest to talk to man I've ever known and attair hostler he allowed as he knowed all there was to be knowed about whatever 'twas they was discussin' so the Sheriff he set down on a crate and the hostler he parked his pitch fork and pocketed his coin and he recht behint some hay and pulled out a bottle and the two of them held a powwow and a palaver and a council of war.

Now directly the Sheriff he recht in his coat pocket and pulled out attair paper the Lightning Man give him and I read:

PRISONER ON EASTBOUND PASSENGER TRAIN 

UNDER GUARD

MEET AT YOUR STATION

I considered this and wondered if that's why the Sheriff ... no, I puzzled, he didn't have this information before he stood up and said we were gettin' off.

Might be, I considered, he had the Sight, and then I recalled that things like blowin' fahr and stoppin' blood with the Word and the Sight were all gifts given only to woman.

I finally allowed as I had no idea so I waited until attair horse handler run down like a clock run out of main spring and the Sheriff and me we went over to the hotel and signed for a room and set ourselves down for supper and about the time mashed potatoes and gravy set down in front of us, about the time we'd split open them hot rolls and laid a good paste of gut grease on 'em why the holler went up that the bridge went down and the train was lost.

I looked up and raised an eyebrow and the Sheriff he looked at me and never made a move other'n to keep eatin' so I didn't neither.

Directly, why, the town marshal come in and he looked kind of flustered and the Sheriff he turned and throwed up his hand and the fellow came hustlin' over lookin' all sweaty and greasy and he couldn't decide whether to whip off his uniform cap or slap it back on his head and he finally give up and hung it on a peg and set down, rubbin' his face and his mouth was workin' like he had too many words to say and they were gettin' in one another's road and finally the Sheriff said, "Tell me in plain language, son," and the Marshal blurted, "The damned bridge went down and took both trains with it!"

The Sheriff give me a long look and I give him a long look back and I realized why the man got off the train.

To this day I have no idea how he knew, but know, he did.

'Twas not until we were breakin' over the last crest and startin' into that long down grade into Firelands that he spoke of it.

"The river is hungry, Jacob," he said.  "It wanted your mother and I stole its prize so it ate a prisoner instead but that wasn't the last of it."

"Yes, sir," I replied, for I knew the story -- how three men wanted to relieve Mother of that emerald mounted cameo I'd given her, how she laid one's arm open, the Sheriff shot a second and then Mother went over the rail backwards, and pushed away so she'd hit the water instead of hittin' a lower deck on the way down, how the Sheriff stood up in the bow of ther skiff while four Boston Whalers rowed like giants, how the Sheriff made the one and only cast of a lariat that went where he wanted it, the absolute only time in his entire life he'd ever done that, and how he hauled Mother out of that muddy river and bent her over with his forearm across her belly -- "I broke her like a shotgun," he explained it, and she'd throwed up about ten gallon of river water and coughed and took off breathin' ag'in.

He said they held a drumhead court on the foredeck the next mornin' and the Captain was the judge, for on a riverboat, the Captain is the Law, and the prisoner he tried to escape and the river drowned him.

The Sheriff's eyes were distant as he taken a long breath, as he taken another drank of coffee, as he considered his now empty plate, and his voice was quiet as he said, "The river is still hungry, Jacob, and I did not wish to feed it my firstborn son."

 

 

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80.  BLEW IT UP FOR THE GIRLS

 

May was a wee slip of a thing, older now than she was when Al married her, a little more fidgety, a little more restless, but still his little May.

She dried her hands, wringing them quickly, almost spastically in the flour sack towel:  "Al, what did I hear?" she asked in a reedy, old-woman's voice, the voice she used when she was worried, and Al turned tired eyes toward his curly-headed wife.

Al hung the bolt action .410 back on the gun rack, shoulders rounded with fatigue, with a lifetime of hard work.

"Twas nothin', Ma," he said slowly, fatigue edging his voice.  "I blowed off the rock overhang up-hollow."
"Oh, Al, the girls love playin' under that rock!"

"It could have fallen on 'em, Ma.  I blew it up for the girls."
He turned, gripped the back of his chair, drew it away from the table and sat tiredly, like a man much older than his several years:  outside, their daughters played, their chores done, at least for the moment.

The weight on the pressure cooker hissed and danced and May's good cooking lent its smells to the kitchen, but Al couldn't smell it.

All he could smell was blood.

 

Al was a moonshiner and a moonrunner, and a man skilled at both:  he was known as the Old Devil, for he drove as if the Devil himself was after him:  he and his brother had matching black Pontiacs, one a chase car, one a cargo carrier:  Al drove one or the other, depending on who the Sheriff had working on any particular night.

Al was ready to move his still when a stranger came walking just bold as brass into his location -- he normally had his still well away from the house, but the water was good here, clean, plentiful, it was handy to haul the makin's up-hollow ... until this fellow came in and looked around and said "You know, mister, it's a shame."
Al straightened, frowned:  he was getting ready to set a batch of mash to ferment and he did not care to be interrupted:  he also knew strangers were generally trouble, and this one was sizing up to be exactly that.

"I could save you an awful lot of grief," the stranger said nonchalantly.  "A hundred dollars would guarantee nobody found out about your still here."

Al considered for a long moment, at least until the stranger said, "Be a right shame if you got hauled away and they took your little girls away from you for you bein' a prisoner and all."

Al nodded, looked past the stranger.

"I keep my money under that rock yonder," he said, thrusting his chin out:  the stranger smirked, turned to look in the indicated direction, and looked back in time to catch a charge of shot in the high belly.

Al didn't have much in this lifetime.

He didn't have but the one shotgun but it had put meat on the table in some mighty lean times, and that good old gun spoke now, that gun drove a column of shot into a man's belly and clear into his spine.

Al opened the bolt, kicked out the empty, dropped in a fresh shell, closed the bolt, pulled back the cocking knob and walked up on the man, looking around, looking for an accomplice:  satisfied, he squatted, just far enough away he could bring the gunbarrel to bear if the stranger reached for a hideout gun.

He did.

Al thrust the shotgun's slender barrel under the man's wrist, flipped up:  a flat, blued-steel .32 automatic flew from the dying hand, hit the ground.

Al went through the dead man's pockets, took his watch, his wallet -- that is, he took the money in the wallet, times were hard and dead men don't need money -- he had a Barlow knife and a few coins and little else,and Al considered a long moment, then he dragged the dead man deep back in the rock overhang.

He'd set to work early of the mornin' and the sun wasn't much above the horizon when all this happened:  he knowed his girls would be busy until after noontime and that did not leave him much time to work.

Al was a past master at moving a moon shine still on short notice, and move this one he did:  he hauled it down-hollow, to an abandoned mine opening:  he'd stashed parts there before, and his girls saw him moving the still into the depths of this drift again, and thought nothing of it:  he made several trips, and when he was done, he begun driving a star drill, boring holes in the sandstone overhang.

He planned his shot carefully.

He'd been mining coal and when the mine declared closure, when all the miners were suddenly throwed out of work, why, they commenced to carry off anythin' they could, and the mine operators did too:  they were all betrayed by the big New York concerns that owned the Appalachian mineral rights, and when the coal mines were declared to be insufficiently profitable -- not unprofitable, just not sufficiently profitable -- why, the New York money men sent the mine operators a telegram:  "Lock the doors and go home, you're out of business."

The entire region depended on coal.

If you were a horse handler, you handled mine ponies and bank mules, for the mines.

If you were a timber cutter, you cut bank posts, for the mine.

If you sold shoes or flannel shirts or flour or sugar or whiskey or beer, your goods were paid for with money earned at the mine.

When the Appalachian coal mines were shut down, it caused a Great Depression level event that devastated the local economy:  six months later, the Great Depression hit nationwide, and this double whammy left the hill country 50 to 75 years behind the rest of the continent socioeconomically for the biggest part of the next century.

When Al left the mine, he took as much blasting powder as he could pack in two gunny sacks, and by noontime he had holes drilled right where he wanted them, and he set his charges and laid his fuse, and he buried a dead man under more tons of busted up sandstone than a good Christian man could clear in two months of hard work.

When finally he come dragging in at the end of the day, when he hung his bolt action .410 on the rack and set down like a man bone tired and wore plumb out, May gave him a worried look, and then she set a steaming mug of coffee in front of him and said, "Al, supper's ready if you'd like to wash your hands."
Al looked up at his wife and smiled, just a little, the smile of a tired man.

"The girls are safe now," he said, "that rock overhang won't fall on 'em now."

He looked at the black, fragrant cup in front of him, nodded.

"I blew it up for the girls."

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81.  TO FAIL, AND TO BEGIN

 

His name was Chipalinski, and he was sagging slowly to his knees.

Chip was easier for these Americans to say, and so Chip the coal miner he was to them:  back in the Old Country, he'd been a hard rock miner like his father before him, but when the Americans came and promised good wages and golden streets, Chipalinski loaded his young wife and his trunk and they went to the seaport and onto the steamship, and they endured crowded conditions and bad food - or at least food much worse than his beautiful bride fixed, back in their peasant's hut.

Back in the Old Country.

Chip stared, mouth open, shocked, horrified:  his wife told him that morning the moon was full, the omens were bad, he should stay home, but he told his wife if he did not work he would not make a wage and they would not have the means to provide for their child, and he kissed his bride, passionately, the way he did the night he planted a good seed and planted it deep, the seed that swelled her young belly:  his callused hand spread out, caressed her motherly swell, and he felt her respond, press herself into him, the way she always did.

She reached up, ran her hand around the back of his head, pulled his face into hers, opened those startling-blue eyes and looked from one eye to the other and whispered, "Papa, our child needs a father," and he hugged his wife to him -- he smelled her fear, he felt her tremble, but he was a miner and he worked at the Millfield mine, and he had to earn a wage.

Zsofia Chipalinski watched her husband bouncing down the road the way he always did, and she crossed her arms over her hard breasts, the way she always did, and she bit her foreknuckle the way she did when she was worried, and she was worried now.

 

Chip knew the mine owners and high mucky mucks were converging; he'd heard the talk -- miners wanting to strike, strike against bad conditions, strike against lack of safety, strike against the damp and the dust and the things he'd heard -- they'd managed to get the ear of the newspapers, and the mine owners in their fine suits and fine high hats came and declared they were going to conduct and inspection, and they would never go down into this, the biggest mine in the area, if it was not perfectly safe.

Chipalinski saw them get on the low cars, saw them disappear into the drift, he heard the foreman bawling at him to get to work and he remembered his wife's words, and he picked up a pick and a shovel and instead of trudging toward the other miners, loading onto the horse drawn man cars, he went over to the bank ponies, caressed them the way he always did, running his hand over their velvety noses.

He had this awful feeling, this truly awful feeling, and he whispered to them, "I'm sorry," and then he turned away and strode uphill, above the drift, to where a pile of something waited, something he could work on without going below ground.

Chipalinski worked and worked up a sweat, Mick came up with an Irish buggy and they shoveled dirt and rocks into the wheelbarrow and then they stopped.

Chipalinski dropped the shovel from paralyzed fingers.

They felt it, more than heard it.

They felt the earth shiver underfoot, and then they heard the mine ponies scream -- faintly, unmistakably, the scream of animals in terror, he felt their hooves pounding against the coal and the slack and the mine floor as they tried to outrun the boiling hell roaring up the mineshaft toward them --

Chip and Mick were thrown back by the force of the blast:  fire, smoke, dirt, rocks, timbers, men's bodies, half a mine car blew out the drift opening.

 

"Mrs. Chipalinski," Marshal Keller said in his gentle voice, taking off his hat, the way he always did:  Mrs. Chipalinski smiled, for he was one of the few in this new and strange country who addressed her by her correct name, with the slight, subtle inflection he'd taken pains to learn.

She smiled a little and turned, one hand on the small of her back, one hand on her belly.

"Mrs. Chipalinski," the Marshal said, and she saw sadness in the pale eyed man's eyes, "I am looking for a friend of mine."

"Mister Cooper?" she asked -- his eyes tightened a little at the corners, for she almost trilled the R, something he'd always liked -- and he nodded.

"Yes.  He's .. I believe he is falsely accused."

"I ... heardt he killedt ..."

The pale eyed Sedalia marshal did not miss how she looked away, how she looked uncomfortable, how she glanced toward, then away from, the nearby barn.

He's there, he thought, and then the ground shivered under his boot leather:  his walnut-hued Morgan stallion shied away, dancing, ears laid back, shaking his head.

Marshal Keller's head snapped up, pale eyes hard, looking south -- south, toward the big Millfield coal mine -- and Mrs. Chipalinski's hand went to her mouth.

"No," she whispered, and a few seconds later the ground-shiver they felt was followed by a deep, monstrous, drawn out HHOOOOOOOOOMMMMM, like an immense field gun firing a charge of loose powder with no ball and no packing.

The Marshal turned, seized his saddle horn, thrust a boot into the stirrup, swung into the saddle:  he was one of the very few men she knew who rode a horse:  back in the Old Country, only nobility or military rode, but this man was more at home in the saddle than in boot leather, and it showed:  his chestnut Morgan danced a little, eyes walling, moist nose flaring:  the stallion screamed, shook his head, reared, and Mrs. Chipalinski's mind remembered that moment, that bright moment, burned into her memory with the terror she felt, the sight of a natural horseman on a rearing mount, the moment before he yelled "STAY HERE, I'LL FIND HIM!" and then horse and rider shot like a burnished walnut arrow, straight for the mine, cross country, not leaping fences and ditches as much as soaring over them.

Zsofia Chipalinski seized a double handful of apron, crumpled it into a large, soft, sunshine-and-clean-air-smelling wad, buried her face in it, screamed.

Within her, their child stirred, kicked, as if crying out its own unborn distress.

 

The Marshal rode back, slowly, defeat rounding his shoulders.

The Millfield mine ... "the mine," as it was simply called, for there was only one huge modern Millfield mine -- had blown up.

The very day the mine owners and money men came to show the newspapers how absolutely safe it was, how wrong the miners were for falsely claiming the potential for disaster, on this very day, the mine blew itself to hell.

The Marshal worked with the miners, the Marshal sent telegrams, the Marshal arranged as best he could, sending for coffins, sending for railcars to haul the dead, helped make lists of names for notification of next of kin.

He rode most of the day, going from house to cabin to shack, he spoke quiet and gentle words, his heart twisted in his breast as he saw women's faces twist, sons' faces go shocked or angry or empty, he held grieving family members as they screamed, or as they collapsed in tears, or as they beat helplessly on his shirt front with impotent fists, he finally circled back to the Chipalinski household.

Zsofia watched him ride up, her hand cupped over her mouth, one hand on her belly, eyes wide with fear, with terror, afraid of the news, afraid, afraid --

The Marshal dismounted, sagged, his face graven with the grief he'd experienced that day: she watched him take a breath, square his shoulders, and her heart fell to her shoe tops, tears spilling over her eyes:  she choked into her cupped hands as he turned toward her.

She swallowed, extended a trembling hand:  he took her hand, looked at her gently, kindly, the way a father will look at his daughter when he has news in hard times.

Zsofia's breath choked in her throat at his words.

"He's alive, Mrs. Chipalinski," he said, "and he is not hurt."

Zsofia Chipalinski's eyes rolled back in her head and she turned the color of wheat paste.

The Marshal caught her as she fell.

 

It was full dark and nearly midnight when Chip and Mick came out with a half dozen other miners.

They'd had to repair mine rails before they could get cars down far enough to begin excavation and body removals.

Chip came out and saw that pale eyed town Marshal again, a man with a basket and a basket-covered stone jug.

"You need to eat," he said.  "Park your backside, the both of you, that's an order."

They did.

The Marshal poured them tin cups of still-warm coffee:  both men ate, drank, neither man had any appetite until they took their first bite.

The Marshal arranged food for as many as he could:  his last basket he saved for Chip and the Irishman.

"Chip," he said without preamble as the Eastern European hard rock miner took another bite of his good beef sandwich, "it's your wife."

Chip stopped chewing, looked with big and alarmed eyes at the lawman.

Linn pulled out a flask, pulled the cork.

"Chip, my friend, you have a son."

Chip chewed twice more, swallowed, washed down the suddenly dry bite with the rest of his coffee, accepted the flask.

"A son," he whispered.

"He's fine and your wife is fine, and she said come home as you are able."

Chipalinski blinked, handed the flask to Mick:  the Irishman tilted it up and took a long, gurgling drink, handed it back, thumped his boon companion heartily on the back.

"A son!"  he declared.  "'Tis a fine thing ye've done!"

The Marshal stood, stuck out his hand.  

"Chip, I"m leavin'.  I tried to help a friend and I failed. There's nothin' left for me here."
Chip looked up at him with tired eyes.

"I'm headed West. There's work there for a hard rock man."  He almost smiled.  "And for lawmen."

"I thought ye might be headin' West," Mick declared.  "My uncle is out there."
The Marshal grinned, quick and bright, then sobered, nodded.  "Your uncle and I rode together, back during the War."

"So he said."

The Marshal looked around, looked at moving lights, lanterns, torches, wagons of long boxes, women in black veils and grief, heard voices, shouts, swearing, tears:  a train chuffed slowly backwards up a siding, another pulled out on another spur.

"I failed Jackson Cooper," he said, his throat dry.  "I'm going to where I can do some good."

 

Zsofsky Chipalinski smiled as her husband came through the door.

He'd come with full intent to tell his wife they were leaving, that he was done mining coal, that they would find their fortune out West where a hard rock miner could mine for yellow gold.

He'd intended to tell her they'd fine the money somehow and he'd intended to tell her to pack up, and he came through the door to find their little shack pretty well stripped, the trunk in the middle of the floor, his wife sitting on the trunk, smiling at him, an infant at her breast, a letter in her hand.

"You must read this," she said.  "I cannot read English."

He stepped in, took the letter, tilted it so he could catch the lantern light across it:  he read it, read it again, looked at the leather poke on the table.

He dropped the letter, seized the poke, turned it over.

Silver coins cascaded to the tabletop, more money than he'd seen since ... well, more money than he'd ever seen.

The letter, forgotten, lay on the floor.

A day later, a pale eyed man, town marshal no longer, stepped into the empty mine shack, picked up the letter, read it again.

He'd written it, he knew what it said, but he re-read it anyway.

You need a fresh start, and so do I.

This should help.

You have been a good friend and I thank you for that.

Make a good life for your wife and for your son.

Linn

 

 

 

 

 

 

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82. YOU ASKED

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled quietly in the darkness.

Her chief deputy, JW Barrents, glanced over at her, turned his attention back to driving.

Silence grew long in the cruiser, the well behaved, big block Chevy muttering dark secrets to the night air as they accelerated away from the Spring Inn.

 

Willamina had gone into Jelly's beer joint the same way she'd gone in, her very first time there.

She was in a dress and heels and she had a shotgun in both hands.

She kicked the door wide open and at the abrupt SLAM of the door hitting the spring stop, heads turned, voices stilled, watching this pale eyed woman step into the foggy atmosphere, looking slowly around, glaring hard at every individual there.

She turned her head like a battleship's gun turret.

"JELLY!"

The barkeep set his heavy glass mug down, lifted his chin:  the Sheriff tossed her stubby street sweeper to the swarthy barkeep, took three steps into the bar, looking around, obviously looking for someone, pointed.

"PATRICK!"

Pat Church, surprised, rose, one hand on the pool table.

"YOU!"

Her finger thrust out, an accusing dagger:  Patrick, wide eyed, lifted a thumb toward his chest:  "Me?"
Sheriff Willamina Keller shoved herself up against him, eyes pale, hard:  someone reached over, pulled the plug on the jukebox:  the cooler's compressor hummed in the silence, but men's voices were stilled and heads leaned toward the pair, straining to hear their pale Sheriff's next words.

"You've been talking about me," she said, her voice pitched to carry, her nose an inch from his: "you wanted to know why I am too good to play pool with the likes of YOU!"

Her stiff finger punched into his chest and he flinched.

Not many men earned the ire of the pale eyed Sheriff and came out on top.

"JELLY!"

The Sheriff extended a hand without looking:  a pool cue slapped into her palm, for all the world like a testy surgeon demanding a scalpel.

"Pick up your stick, fella," Sheriff Willamina Keller said quietly.  "We're going to settle this.  How much per ball?"

Whispers, like a summer breeze caressing a riverbank willow, hissed through the beer joint:  new arrivals were taken aside, shushed quickly, added to the concentric rings of spectators:  they were far enough back from the only pool table to allow the players room to work, close enough to see and hear everything said, everything done.

Jelly racked the balls, quickly, nervously; the Sheriff's shotgun was safely in the big, browned hands of her chief deputy, who'd come in while his superior officer was driving her finger vigorously and somewhat painfully into her subject's shirt button.

Patrick chalked his cue, set the cue ball, the Sheriff chalked her cue as he broke.

It was a good break.

One ball dropped into a leather-lattice pocket.

Patrick looked up and said, "One dollar a ball."
The Sheriff slapped a tbuck on the table.

The game did not last long, nor did the second, and the third was as brief as the first two.

Sheriff Willamina Keller slapped bill after bill onto green felt; when she addressed the ball, the balls went anywhere except the pocket: when Patrick slung his cue, balls shot like magnets to the welcoming leather receptacles.

In three games, the Sheriff made maybe two dollars, while Patrick's shirt pocket  bulged with the Sheriff's lagniappe.

"JELLY!"

The Sheriff extended the cue without looking, knowing Jelly would be there to receive it.

She stepped around the table, gripped Patrick by the shoulder.

"You asked why I was too good to play pool with the likes of you," she declared in a loud voice, then she looked around, and her smile was sudden, unexpected, bright.

"Patrick, I won't play pool with you or anyone else because I SUCK AT IT!"

She threw her head back and laughed, took Patrick by the waist and one hand, spun him around in a quick dance step:  she raised up, kissed him on his cheek, skipped toward the front door, laughing like a mischievous cheerleader:  she accepted the abbreviated Remington from her chief deputy, dropped a curtsy as the black-eyed segundo opened the door for her, swept out into the welcoming darkness.

 

They drove together in silence, the Sheriff and her chief deputy.

They were just inside the Firelands corporation limits when Willamina spoke.

"You're wondering why I just dropped a pile of bills."

"I was wondering," came the quiet reply.

"They know how competent I am," Willamina said quietly.  "They need to know I am human."

"Is that such a good idea?"

"What, letting them know my feet are made of the same clay as their own?"

Barrents was quiet for several long moments.

"It did show 'em you have a rotten sense of humor."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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83.  THE BEST SERMON I'VE EVER SEEN

 

Reverend John Burnett looked at his congregation, honestly surprised at how well populated the little church was.

He was used to pastoring back East, where a church on Sunday consisted mostly of empty pews.

Not here.

There were a few who wore shirts without a necktie, but not many: there were a few women in jeans, but even fewer of these:  male and female alike, for the most part, wore suits.

Even the children were dressed for church.

They'd sung the introductory hymn, he'd read the announcements, they'd passed the plate and sung the second hymn, and now it was time for his sermon.

His very first sermon in Firelands.

He looked at faces curious, faces expectant, young and bored faces, some with heads impiously bowed over cell phones:  he chose to ignore these, and instead looked down at his notes, carefully arranged on a small stack of file cards.

He considered, and he smiled, and he picked up the file cards and slid them in his coat pocket.

"I had a sermon all ready," he said, "but then I realized that life happens when we make plans."

Faces that had been disinterested now looked up, curious; he saw the retired Sheriff smile knowingly, and he saw her give him a slow, shallow nod, as if she knew what he was going to say, and not only approved of what she'd not heard yet, but encouraged him to speak his mind.

"Folks, let's go back a few days.  Today's Sunday.  I got into town Friday and my wife followed Saturday, and we've neither settled nor completely unpacked, and at this rate we might be a while getting the suitcases emptied."

The fire chief grinned and crossed his arms; he sat with his wife and family, and ahead of him, behind him, the rest of the Firelands Fire Department -- those off duty, in suits and ties; those on duty, in their class A uniforms, their Bell caps in their laps, and every last one of them either smiling, or grinning, or winking at him.

"Friday I came into town and I got drafted," Reverend Burnett declared.  "I suppose that's what happens when you've been a firefighter someplace else.  I ended up at a fire scene wearing brand new turnout gear and a brand new title."  He gave a little laugh and he felt his ears turn red as he admitted, "If I'd known I was going to tell you this, I would have brought my brand new fire helmet to show you.  It says CHAPLAIN in reflective lettering."  He spread his hands helplessly.  "What can I tell you, I got drafted!"

This got a laugh from his congregation, for there wasn't a single one of them that did not know what it was to be drafted at some unexpected moment.

"You might remember Friday last, when we had a situation involving a rain gutter, a ladder and some decorating that didn't go quite the way a certain young man intended."

 

Reverend John Burnett left the firehouse with a distinct sense of satisfaction.

He allowed himself that moment's satisfaction, because he knew if he didn't, the horror and the grief from finding and helping sheet and shroud those children killed in the house fire would overwhelm him, and he didn't want to let that wave crash over him.

Not yet.  Not until he'd had some time to talk to God about it.

He left the firehouse, intending to steer a course for the Parsonage, but something turned him left, and he thought Why not, see a little more of town, and he hadn't gotten two blocks when he saw a boy too little to be up an extension ladder, reaching too far to hang a string of plugged-in, orange, Halloween lights, and his chest tightened a little as he leaned forward.

He'd taught someone -- years ago -- the secret to running downhill is to lean forward until you start to fall, then run hard enough to keep it from happening, and that's just what he did here.

Reverend John Burnett, a man just into his middle years, leaned forward and powered into a sprint as a boy too young seized the rain gutter to keep from falling, as his convulsive over-balance kicked the aluminum extension ladder to the side, as the orange string of Halloween lights fell, forgotten, as Reverend John charged through a lake of cold clear honey in a desperate attempt to get there before the gutter broke, before he fell --

The ladder made a loud metallic clatter as it hit the ground, as a woman came running up with an armful of something she threw in the Reverend's face --

Men's voices, the sound of running feet, a little boy's "HANG ON JIMMY I'LL GET MOM!" and the slam of a door --

Pale eyes, hard eyes, a woman's commanding voice:  "SPREAD THIS OUT, ROLL THE EDGES AND DRAW IT TIGHT!" -- 

Reverend John Burnett, just come from a multiple-fatal house fire, blinked, assessed, shook out the quilt, rolled the edge, gripped the rolled, hand sewn cloth with a desperate intensity --

Someone dove under the quilt, slammed into the house siding, popped up like a cork between clapboard and quilt, rolled up material and looked from sky pilot to retired Sheriff.

"BAKER!  GET UP HERE!  GRAB THIS EDGE!"

Jimmy squinted his eyes shut, then opened them wide, feeling aluminum shear and fail, felt the gutter sag a little, then a little more --

"JIMMY!" the pale eyed woman called, her voice carrying a natural authority.  "JIMMY, IT'S SHERIFF WILLAMINA! WE'VE GOT THE NET READY! LET GO ON THREE!"

More people, more hands gripped the quilt; Reverend Burnett found himself shoulder to shoulder with two strangers, jostling against him as they got their footing, as they too rolled up neatly-hemmed quilt and drove strong fingers deep into the material.

"JIMMY!  ONE!"

Reverend Burnett looked up, gauging a falling child's trajectory, satisfied the child would fall straight down, provided he let go before the gutter tore and possibly threw him to one side or the other.

"JIMMY!  TWO!"

Jimmy quavered "Maawm!" and Reverend Burnett had to seize his feelings and shove them down into an iron kettle and screw the lid down tight:  he had to maintain his grip, he had to hold the quilt tight, he had to be ready in case --

"JIMMY!  LET GO!"

 

Reverend Burnett gripped the sides of the pulpit, took a long breath.

"It was as perfect a fall as I'd ever seen," he said:  "Jimmy fell like a circus acrobat, legs straight out and toes pointed, he landed on the quilt and he almost bounced."

Reverend John Burnett turned and smiled as his wife came through the door, emerging from the short hallway that connected the Parsonage with the Church sanctuary.

Mrs. Burnett had a folded quilt over her arm.

"Sheriff Keller, are you here?"  Reverend Burnett asked -- it was more a rhetorical question, for he'd already spotted the pale eyed widow sitting with her tall, lean waisted son:  the retired Sheriff Keller, in her trademark tailored blue suit dress, stood and slid out of the pew, paced confidently forward.

"I just finished it," Mrs. Burnett said softly.  "It tore along the seams so it wasn't too hard to put back together."

"I had intended a fine sermon that wouldn't have touched on a single thing that happened here in the past week," Reverend John Burnett said, "and I can't help but think the Sheriff is right."
Sheriff Willamina Keller tilted her head a little and smiled quietly, regarding the Parson as he paused for effect.

"When those several willing hands gripped the edges of this quilt to break the boy's fall," Reverend Burnett explained, "the Sheriff introduced herself afterward and she said something about drafting from the Unorganized Militia as necessary.  I have to believe her sermon was better than mine." 

He inclined his head to the pale eyed woman.

"Sheriff, thank you for the best sermon I've ever seen."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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84.  I LIKE YOUR WANTED POSTER

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was wet, she was cold, she was muddy, she was saddle sore and she wanted dry clothes, a hot shower and hot coffee, not necessarily in that order.

No.

No, exactly in that order.

Instead, she said "Ho" and her Cannonball mare ho'd.

A little boy had a handful of posters, a roll of silver tape and a worried expression, and he looked up at the Sheriff, tape dangling in the cold breeze.

"What's the poster?" she asked, and the boy dropped the roll of tape, suddenly nervous:  he peeled one free, held it up.

It showed a black-and-white dog and the words, "HAVE YOU SEEN THIS DOG?" and underneath, a phone number.

"Nice picture," she murmured.  "I like your wanted poster."

The uncomfortable lad shifted impatiently from one foot to the other and the Sheriff worked something around inside her coat.

The boy looked up and his eyes widened, his mouth fell open and the stack of wanted dodgers hit the ground beside the tape.

A fuzzy little black and white dog wiggled with delight as the Sheriff leaned down and handed off the tail-swinging pup.

 

Willamina had been well up on the mountain, Cannonball climbing steadily in the afternoon sun, when she heard the distressed howl of a very unhappy, small sounding dog.

"Ho," she murmured, and Cannonball ho'd, her ears swinging:  Willamina wet her lips, whistled, a single, high, liquid note:  at her whistle, the dog again.

That sounds almost hopeful, she thought.

Sounds like a little dog.

"Yotes will make a snack of you," she muttered, then whistled again.

It took her about ten minutes:  she dismounted, looked over the rim of what started out as a gentle slope -- with scrape marks, like a small dog might've scrambled and fallen -- she looked over the edge, leaning out as far as she dared.

A furry, black-and-white dog about the size of three fists, sat shivering on a ledge, looking up at her with the expression of a scared child.

"Stand fast," Willamina said, as if addressing a nervous recruit:  she drew back, seized her lariat, shook it out, looped it over her saddle horn.

"Cannonball," she said, "stand."

Willamina worked her way down the steep slope, boot heels digging into the sandy dirt, until she set her left boot heel on the narrow, crumbling ledge, a hands-breadth to the left of the shivering, tail-wagging curly-fur; her right boot heel pressed into the fragile structure and Willamina gripped the doubled line firmly in her left hand, reached down with her right, slowly, carefully, slipping under the dog, picking it up:  she brought it up into her, worked it inside her coat, at least until her right boot heel crushed through the fragile ledge.

Rope seared through her gloved grip and she realized she was going over.

She tasted copper and she felt her stomach float free, the way it did when she stepped out of a perfectly good aircraft.

Go under control, she thought, sliding down the steep grade on boot heels and her shoulders, until her heels hit something hard and she flipped forward:  she saw water below and she knew it was shallow, she pitched herself forward, timing her tumble, straightening to slow her rotation --

Willamina hit the water flat on her back:  it was deep enough to break her fall, shallow enough she hit bottom almost instantly, cold enough that she came to her feet with a quick, inhaled gasp:  she stood, arms crossed in front, holding her coat and the precious cargo, and she slogged out of the cold water, teeth locked against the indignant shriek that wanted to shiver its way out her throat.

She found a much easier way back up, and mounted her Cannonball mare, she pointed her nose back to town, back to her house, back toward warmth and dry clothes, at least until she ran across a little boy with a handful of posters and a roll of silver tape.

Boy and dog reunited, delight on a child's face the reward for her efforts:  Willamina dismounted, gathered up the dropped dodgers and the peeled-out tape, and she swung back into saddle leather, turned her red mare toward her waiting hacienda.

Years later, when asked about the lost dog poster in her archives, she would smile quietly and consider for a moment, her head tilted a little as she remembered, but all she would ever say was, "I like that wanted poster."

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85.  "I HAD A HOT ONE WITH THE SHERIFF!"

 

Mrs. Pastor was sitting up, smiling gently as she always did, as her husband came through the door.

He unwound the grey, hand knit scarf from around his neck, hung it on the ancient coat tree, parked his fedora and his overcoat, hooked his polished oxfords loose without untying them and left them in the rubber shoe tray.

"I thought you might have eaten," she said gently as the sky pilot eased himself into his chair:  he took a long breath, inhaling the smell of her good homemade beef stew, and he smiled a little, removing his steam-blanked bifocals.

"I have an appetite once again," he intoned solemnly, and they both laughed.

Mrs. Pastor set the stew kettle on a square pad, carefully if inexpertly woven by a child's hands many years ago and given to the Pastor one Sunday:  he'd kept it these many years, and he'd used it as an illustration for a sermon he favored, one he'd given in four churches so far:  how, if a child gives you a pebble, you should accept it, for it's all the child has to give you, and they think enough of you to give it.

He'd helped prep ingredients for the stew, the night before.

His wife's hands were showing the first signs of her hereditary arthritis, and he knew the cold gave her considerable pain:  he'd quietly taken over kneading ground beef to make meatloaf, and he'd cut up the stew beef the night before, to his wife's unspoken but visible relief.

They bowed their heads and Reverend Burnett "talked to his plate," as an old timer once told him, and then he picked up his bread and tore it into small pieces, adding it to the stew:  he took the first bite, he closed his eyes, and Mrs. Burnett -- more often than not called "Mrs. Pastor," which sounded less awkward than "Mrs. Reverend" -- smiled at her husband's quiet delight.

He was several spoonsful into the stew when he looked at his wife and admitted, "Dearest, I am not the wisest man in the world, but I am certainly smarter than I look: your beef stew is better than anything Mama made, and I never, EVER told her that, not even once!"

Mrs. Reverend John Burnett laughed a little as she buttered her bread.

"How was your day, dear?" she asked in her patient voice, for she hadn't seen her husband all day, and she knew that was the nature of his work: he was about the Lord's work in the community, and she never knew from one day to the next whether he'd come home and describe helping patch a kindergartener's skinned knee, or an adolescent's skinned heart, whether he'd come between angry men with skinned knuckles (which he did only once, and came home with a fat lip and a black eye for his troubles, but that was many years ago, when he was very young in the ministry!) -- and tonight, tonight she awaited his report, waited to see their community through her husband's eyes.

Reverend John Burnett frowned at his coffee, added a little milk, picked it up, then he set it back down and smiled.

"My dear," he admitted, "I have this night been seen with another woman!"

Mrs. Burnett gave him an amused look, for she knew her husband well, and she well knew his habit of pulling her leg: the expression on his face told her he intended to verbally take her by the ankle and give it a good tug, and she was right.
"I expect she was younger and prettier," she teased back, and the sky pilot laughed a little.

"It was the Sheriff," he admitted.

"I see."  She batted her eyes and gave as good as she got:  "And I suppose you're not only carousing, but playing politics with the local power players as well!"

"Of course."  He shrugged.  "I have to know my people and who better to learn from than someone who sees the sinners on a daily basis!"  He picked up a slice of still-warm sourdough, tilted his head, looked curiously at his wife.  "Did you bake?"

"No ... no, that came to my door with a giggling little girl who said her Mama wanted to come over but her little brother knocked over the goldfish bowl and painted the walls with nail polish and her Mama said to take the fresh baked bread over but not to tell her about the goldfish and repainting the wall before her husband got home from work!"

Reverend Burnett laughed, took a bite of good home baked sourdough.

"The butter is fresh churned also. I've never had better!"

The Reverend raised an eyebrow, nodded.

"Now you were saying about playing politics with a pretty younger woman."

"I didn't say I was doing that," Reverend Burnett rumbled, trying to look stern and failing miserably.  "I said I had a hot one with the Sheriff!"

"Oh, my, dig yourself deeper," his wife murmured innocently.  "Hot stuff, is she?"

Reverend Burnett lowered his spoon, laughing:  he didn't want to risk choking on his wife's good stew, and he wanted even less to spray it across the table with an ill-timed laugh.

"We went over to the Silver Jewel and had coffee," he said finally, after a couple harrumphs and a cough.  "If we'd had a drink we'd have had a cold one, but we had coffee, so we had a hot one."

"You realize, Mr. Reverend, sir, you have a matchless ability to put your foot in your mouth," Mrs. Reverend Sir said innocently, giving her husband a knowing look over the rim of her own ceramic mug.

"The Sheriff had me laughing."

"I would imagine you had her laughing."

"Oh, that I did, Mrs. Pastor, that I did!"

"What did she tell you?"  Mrs. Burnett slid her bowl away from her a little, leaned an elbow on the table, rested her chin on the back of her knuckles, looking very directly at her husband, the look a woman will give a man when she absolutely adores him and is listening very closely to everything he has to say.

"She told me about skidding down the face of a cliff, ending up catching a lost dog on the way down, falling into water too cold to freeze, riding back soaking wet and handing the dog to the little boy who got lost" -- he winked at her -- "it seems the dog knew where he was, but the boy was kind of lost!"

Mrs. Pastor nodded, remembering her little brother, wandering up and down rows of ripe corn back East, calling for his grandfather, who was somewhere in the cornfield also:  "Grampa, you're lost!"

"Anyway, after several visits, after finding out the hospital intends to draft me as their Chaplain just as the Fire Department drafted me, after coffee with the Sheriff, I find that we seem to be accepted in the community."

 

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86. AND THEN I WAS FIRED

 

"Isn't it a little confusing?"

"Confusing?"  Willamina's bread knife sawed industriously through the still-warm sourdough; steam rose as the first slice fell away, bringing more of that fragrance into her kitchen.

"People call you Sheriff."

"I was sheriff for a lot of years, Reverend," Willamina smiled.  "I'm still a commissioned law enforcement officer.  In the minds of many, anyone with a six point star is a Sheriff, whether their title is Deputy or something else."

"I see."

"Kind of like in a hospital."  Meat loaf fell in regular slabs, mashed potatoes landed moistly on plates, gravy was passed around:  conversation lagged a little as the meal was sampled and found to be quite good, and everyone present ate with a good appetite.

It wasn't until everyone's plate was clean, not until after seconds, not until after coffee was refilled and pie was placed in generous slices on dessert plates and distributed, that the Reverend frowned a little and looked up.

Willamina's smile was gentle, knowing:  "Out with it, Parson," she said, her quiet amusement taking any sting from the words:  "there's a question behind your eyes, I can see the gears turning!"

Reverend John Burnett laughed a little.  "You've got me," he admitted.  "You'd said something about hospitals earlier and that reminded me of a picture Editor Jones has in his archives."

"I'll bet it's the one with me in my nursing uniform."

"The very one!"

"That picture got me fired," Willamina said candidly.  "It wasn't the only thing, but" -- she shrugged -- "sometimes it's easier to fire someone and make it look like you've Done Something than it is to address the problem."

"What kind of problems?"  the Reverend asked.

"I know what you're about to say," Willamina said quietly.  "You're about to remind me that this is covered by the seal of the confessional, and I'll counter with the statutory mandate of confidentiality that covers fire, police, nursing and emergency medical, all of which I've been, or still am."

"She's still a nurse, by the way," Linn offered helpfully, managing to look utterly innocent as his mother turned pale but amused eyes his way.

"Really!  I hadn't expected --"  Reverend Burnett caught himself.  "I mean I didn't ..."
"No worries, Parson."  Willamina cut through the flaky crust with her fork, thrust the tines neatly under the bite.  "You're wondering why a woman is in high heels and a nursing uniform with a winged nursing cap, a scared little girl in one arm, the other extended with a handful of .44 Magnum revolver cocked and ready to go, got her picture in the paper and got fired for it."  She slid her chair back.  "Be right back."

Reverend Burnett looked at the current, in-office Sheriff:  "Did I ... have I trespassed?" he asked carefully.

"Good heavens no, Sheriff," Linn laughed.  "It takes an awful lot to get on her wrong side!  Mama is one of the most patient and longsuffering folks I've ever known, and you're nowhere near her aggravation levels!"

Willamina came back into the room, a carved leather gunbelt and holster snug about her still-narrow waist, custom made to fit the womanly flare of her hips:  she drew a blued-steel revolver and the Reverend's quick ear heard the double-click of the half-cock, the sharp snick as the loading gate was snapped open:  Willamina turned the muzzle skyward, rotated the cylinder, caught the five shining brass rounds as they fell into her waiting palm, closed the gate, lowered the hammer and handed the revolving pistol to the preacher.

"That's the one from the picture," she said.  "I'd gotten it the day before, I'd had it out to the range that afternoon, and the next day I kept a little girl from being snatched."

 

Willamina Keller, LPN, finished her charting, closed the patient's chart, looked around.

It had been a long day, but a good one; she'd taken particular delight that day in passing along a kindness she'd experienced on this very medical-surgical floor.

As a nursing student, her admittedly shaken self esteem was greatly bolstered when the duty nurse looked over her charting, examined the patient, then wrote "Agree with student evaluation" as her only comment:  Willamina had done that very thing for a nursing student, that very morning, and it felt good to pass along a kindness.

Willamina's nursing uniform dress had been altered to her specification:  she carried a thin, flat wallet, and in the wallet, her deputy marshal's badge and ID: it was one thing she'd promised herself, that she would go into law enforcement, a vow she made the night her father was murdered in his course of duty as deputy town marshal: her father's badge was somewhere, she knew, and she had an appointment to see the current Trimble marshal to try and retrieve it:  she'd saved her father's gunbelt and revolver and the folded flag from his funeral -- saved them from the trash can where her drunk of a mother had tossed them -- and she intended that, someday, her father's Smith & Wesson Victory Model and his badge would occupy a display box in her office.

Willamina was finished with her shift: she'd given report, passing along her allotted block of patients' information to the oncoming shift; she intended to go out for dinner, and she intended to look good when she did:  she smiled a little as she walked to her car.

She looked at the shoebox on her passenger front seat.

Why not, she thought. 

I need to get used to these again.

She pulled off her white Reeboks, dumped them in the passenger footwell, worked her stockinged feet into the white high heels:  she took a breath, smiled:  heels weren't what she normally wore with a nursing uniform, but she was going straight home --

She looked up, froze.

A familiar figure -- someone she'd arrested, a stalker, an individual who'd threatened to kidnap a particular schoolchild -- was walking toward a mother and her daughter, just emerging from the emergency room entrance.

Willamina heard the words as surely as if old Hoss whispered them in her ear again:  when she'd told this old and trusted friend she intended to go into law enforcement, when he stood beside her at her father's funeral, with his arm around her shoulders as the bugler blew the final notes of the Soldier's Farewell, as this kindly older man looked at Willamina very seriously and said, "When in doubt, follow your gut" -- it had been the best advice any badge packer ever gave her --

Willamina's gut told her she was needed, and needed now --

She ran her hand into her black-nylon range bag, found the single action revolver's plow handle, brought it out.

Willamina opened her car door, stood; she'd never taken her eyes off what her gut said was trouble, and as she powered into a run, she saw the man slug the mother, drive his fist into her face, knocking her back, cold cocking her with one punch, then bend to try to snatch the child around the waist.

Willamina twisted, drawing her leg up, drove her left foot into the man's ribs:  she hit with the ball of her foot, knocking him back:  she landed, got her feet under her, turned:  she scooped the frozen child around the waist, hoist her up onto a hip, extended the blued-steel .44 and eared the hammer back.

"If you move," she said quietly, "I will blow you back to the hell that spawned you," and on that moment, an unseen newspaper reporter's shutter snapped, capturing the next day's front-page picture of a nurse, in a starched-white uniform cap and immaculate dress, in white high heels and with an obviously terrified child clinging to her, a pale eyed woman with a lean, chiseled face, her cheekbones standing out and her eyes very hard and very pale and a blued-steel revolver held cocked and ready to deal death to a monster who richly deserved it.

The fact that she was a commissioned law enforcement officer, that fact that she'd apprehended a criminal and prevented an abduction, the fact that she was instantly a hero in the community, kept her from legal unpleasantness.

It did not keep her from the wrath of the Administration, who took serious exception to the thought that one of their nurses -- their nurses! -- would actually have a gun in her car, on property, that one of their nurses was something as objectionable as a (gasp!) law enforcement officer, that one of their nurses would resort to violence under any condition -- 

It did not surprise Willamina to find, the next day, that her employment with the hospital was terminated.

 

"It was just as well," Willamina shrugged as she speared the last piece of her pie, lifted it from the dessert plate.  "The place was haunted."

"Haunted?"  Mrs. Burnett prompted.  "Oh, please, I must hear this!"

Willamina laughed, looked up and thanked her son in a quiet voice as he slipped behind her, lifting away her empty plates.

"Oh, yes, the place was haunted."  Willamina's eyes sparkled as she picked up her coffee, took a sip.  

"It used to be a Catholic hospital, and the nuns marched every night."

"They marched?"

"For real.  The OB floor was under ours. Every night, every door on second floor had to be shut, and the nuns would march the hall.  I've no idea what they did.

"When the hospital was sold and the nuns all died of old age or left, second floor became long term care, and the nuns would march before a death." Willamina smiled.  "Or their shades did."

"Their shades!"  Mrs. Burnett leaned forward, fascinated, her coffee forgotten.

"One grew the loveliest roses."  Willamina looked at her son and Reverend and Mrs. Burnett saw something pass between the two, as if there was some secret attached to the term "roses."

"She was a wee slip of a nun, and she grew absolutely beautiful, thick, gorgeous roses, mostly out front, on either side of the main door.  It became something of a trademark.  She was the sweetest soul, and she was so well loved by the community that when she died, they packed her cell with roses."
Willamina smiled, almost sadly.

"Her cell became the doctors' dictation room, and I've gone in there and suddenly smelled roses."
"Really!"

Willamina nodded.

"There was a nun who loved jokes, loved to laugh ..."
She smiled, remembering.

 

The scream echoed down the hallway.

Willamina's head came up and the phone rang.

Mercedes snatched the handset -- "Yes?" -- then turned her widened eyes to Willamina.

"Intruder, third floor East," she said, her voice low, urgent.

Willamina was on her foot and moving, and she was moving fast.

Third East was overflow for the long term care, and third floor was supposed to be empty.

Nurse Willamina Keller, LPN, knew that a nurse aide had been sent for the once-a-shift check on the rooms, making sure they were ready for any new admits.

Willamina slammed open the stairway door, took the stairs two at a time, charging upstairs, twisted and hit the crash bar with her hip, rolled through the opening and raced down the hall, toward the darkened, supposed-to-be-empty, east wing.

The nurse aide was backing away from a doorway, terror engraved on her face:  one hand cupped over her mouth, the other hand extended, pointing, trembling:  Willamina swung in, fist cocked, ready to deal Oriental death in a most vigorous manner to any intruder --

The room was empty.

She spun, hands up, bladed, eyes wide, nostrils flared:  she checked the closet, under the bed, she came back out:  "Nothing there," she said quietly, and returned to her nurse's station to report to the med-surg supervisor.

They both saw the intruder's shoes -- or the toes of the intruder's shoes -- at the same moment.

Willamina never broke stride, she started moving on the balls of her feet, she homed in on the brick elevator shaft, she spun around the corner, fist cocked, ready to attack --

The nursing supervisor saw Nurse Willamina Keller, LPN, back up, lower her cocked fist.

Nurse Keller turned hard and cold eyes toward the supervisor and said, "Nothing there."

 

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled as her tall, lean-waisted son refilled their guests' coffee cups.

"There are also roses here," she said quietly, "that appear when things are about to happen, or have happened."

"Really!"  Mrs. Burnett breathed, fascinated.

"Why don't you come to the Ladies' Tea Society," Willamina invited.  "We meet in the Silver Jewel, and we'll be talking about the history of roses in Firelands."  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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87.  MAMA CRIED

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stared at the computer screen, his jaw thrust out: he slouched half sideways in his chair, his Mama's chair, the high backed, armless chair behind the Sheriff's desk: he took a long breath, thinking hard, wondering what to say.

He looked up -- he looked at a Smith & Wesson in a glass front display box, with a popsicle stick glued side-on beneath the revolver's barrel, and a half dozen round nosed rounds stacked on the little shelf:  there was an oval portrait of a grinning young lawman with big ears and a crew cut, and a badge that said MARSHAL in an arc across the top, and beneath the colored state seal in the middle, another two arcs:  TRIMBLE and VILLAGE, and beneath that, at the bottom, the number 1.

Linn knew that revolver well.

He'd shot its twin for years, reloading the stubby, underpowered .38 S&W cartridges on his Mama's press in the basement, scrounging lead, casting and sizing his own bullets: he was not yet of driving age when his Mama had him in competition, and he'd won bets, hitting hand tossed packs of cigarettes, or balls of colored chalk, and one time a can of corn (which convinced the bettor that corn was better eaten than worn!)

He remembered punching in the code at the back door, slipping into the jail on the sly, taking that very revolver from that very display and going outside, outside where an assassin machine-gunned his Mama:  he remembered the gut punch of realizing his Mama was down, not moving, the murderer was fumbling a magazine change and Linn spun out and put three rounds through the man's left eye before he started to fall.

He'd written a letter to the manufacturer of her body armor and he'd sent them a picture of the blouse she'd worn, and maybe they didn't realize a twelve year old boy penned the impassioned missive:  they wrote back, addressing their letter to "Deputy Linn Keller" and asking him to send them the vest, for their analysis, and offering to replace it, free.

His Mama, the pale eyed Sheriff, smiled at him from her hospital bed -- though nothing penetrated the vest, she still sustained blunt trauma and some myocardial bruising from the jackhammer impacts of a full stick of 9mm ball -- she whispered, "I think the title suits you," and he swallowed, and very carefully hugged his Mama, whispering "I don't want to hurt you, Mama, but I was so very scared!"

Linn blinked, dismissed the memory:  he looked further to the right, to the official portrait of his Mama, in her trademark tailored blue suit dress and heels, one of the only times she wore her hand-chased six point star on the outside of her lapel: she usually wore it on the under side, unless it was needed, then she merely flipped the lapel over to display the star.

I miss you, Mama, he thought, and then his pale eyes turned to the blank computer screen again.

He reached over, pressed a key.

His image appeared on the screen and he almost smiled.

"Hi, Marnie," he said, then grinned:  "I suppose I should say something formal, like 'To Sheriff Marnie Keller, Second Martian District Firelands, from Sheriff Linn Keller, Firelands County, Colorado,' and he chuckled.  "I ... can't do that."  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, rubbing his palms together.  "You asked about Mama, and you've heard me tell you how good a horsewoman she was, and how good a shot she was, how she faced up to and faced down large and angry people bearing a variety of weapons.  You've got plenty of stories about Sheriff Willamina Keller, the Pale Eyed Hell Raising Keeper of Law, Order and the General Good."  He leaned back, considered.

"Let me tell you about the woman, the wife."

He blinked, took a long breath, blew it out, looked away, looked back.

"I suppose you could call this one 'Sometimes Angels Wear Work Boots.'"

 

Richard doubled over on the couch, arms across his belly.

Richard was prior FBI, retired now, long married to the pale eyed Sheriff:  he was a vigorous man, in spite of his years, and could pitch bales of hay with the best of them: Willamina knew the man in laughter and in grief, she knew the man in injury and pain, she'd been with him when he'd been diagnosed with twin kidney stones, one the diameter of a .32 caliber pistol ball, the other, about a .38: she knew he had a high pain tolerance, and she rose, alarmed, as he looked up at her with a face the shade of wheat paste.

"I think it's my appendix," he grated, then turned his head as misery claimed his thoughts.

Willamina got him into the Jeep and she'd reached for the switch panel to turn on the red-and-blue lights.

"It's only pain," Richard wheezed.  "Pain won't kill me.  Go slow."

Willamina dropped her hand, bit her bottom lip, nodded.

She hadn't gone slow, but neither had she set the land speed record:  she'd called ahead to ER, they had a cart waiting at the ambulance entrance; she parked the Jeep, she made herself walk from the car into the hospital -- as badly as she wanted to power into a flat-out sprint, she walked -- or, rather, she marched, the deliberate, measured tread of a veteran Marine -- and she listened without comment after the CT scan, after the physician's examination, after he gave orders in a quiet voice and the efficient little girl in pink scrubs said "Yes, Doctor," in a brisk and businesslike voice and Willamina wondered how someone so young could ever become a nurse.

She held Richard's hand as Dr. Greenlees explained that Richard's bowel was blocked, that emergency surgery was required, that he was not comfortable performing the work here, that he wanted Richard transferred by ambulance, right away, to a hospital better suited for this particular work.

"You're worn out, Willa," Richard said faintly as he gripped his wife's hand:  "stay here and get a good night's rest. I won't be fit company anyway."

"You sound just like my Uncle Pete," Willamina teased, leaning her forehead against his:  she kissed her husband, stepped back as the medics rolled into the room with the new ambulance cot -- is that the new hydraulic lift model? Willamiana wondered, remembering all the times she'd had to hoist the back breaking Ferno Model 30 that was responsible for so many back injuries among veteran EMTs.

 

"Sheriff Willamina Keller was my Mama, so please forgive me if that's what I call her," Linn said to his image in the computer screen.  "She was the strongest and most capable woman I've ever known.  She was far deeper than most people realize, and she had her limits."  He paused, a thoughtful expression to his face.

"When her husband ... when Pa had to go in for emergency surgery, she was beyond worn out already."

 

It had been a long and trying day for her, she'd been better than 24 hours without a night's rest,  she turned the Jeep's key and the yellow fuel light came on almost right away.

It was very unlike Willamina to allow her gas tank to drop below the half way mark; it was a sign of how she'd been run ragged over the past week that the tank was near empty.

She watched the ambulance pull away, saw the lights start to spit alarm at the night.

She wiped viciously at something wet on her cheek.

"Enough," she snarled, pulling the stick into gear.  "Let's get some gas."

 

"Stress will work on anyone."  

Sheriff Linn Keller frowned a little.  

"Stress and fatigue will make it worse." 

He frowned, considering.

"When Mama watched the ambulance pull away, she just fell hear heart fall to about her boot tops, because Doc Greenlees pulled her aside and told her this could be very serious, which is doctor talk for he could die.  She already knew this from her nursing experience but having the man say it in so many words hit her like the noon freight.

"She did fine getting to the gas station."

 

Willamina leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, forbidding herself to cry.

She was well beyond exhaustion and she knew it, and she knew when she was beyond exhausted, her feelings were much closer to the surface, and she did not want her feelings close to the surface.

She was Sheriff, after all, and she had to present a proper front for the world to see.

She raised her head, looked at the pump, sighed.

"Pre--pay," she muttered.  "Wonderful."

Sheriff Willamina Keller, in blue jeans and a denim jacket, in boots and an exhausted expression, almost staggered into the all night gas station.

The woman behind the counter -- one of those hard and experienced souls with sergeant's stripes tattooed on her shoulders -- regarded the exhausted woman skeptically as she stumbled at the threshold.

Willamina held up a credit card.  "I need to fill up," she said tiredly.

"Insert the chip, honey."
Willamina looked at the chip reader like it was a shoebox, shook her head.

"Which pump are you on, honey?"

Willamina closed her eyes, rubbed her forehead.  "I don't ... I don't know," she admitted, swiped her card through the reader slot.

"No, honey, plug in the chip."

Willamina was far more exhausted than she realized.

She tried to shove the card into the chip reader, dropped the card, picked it up, tried again.

Two hard bitten truckers regarded her with hard and knowing eyes.

"Lady, you okay?" one asked, and Willamina placed the card on the counter, planted her hands on the countertop, dropped her chin into her chest.

"No," she quavered, and she felt a tear running down her nose, saw it fall.

"No, I just saw my husband loaded in an ambulance and he's going for emergency surgery and I don't know if he's going to live and I can't even run a credit card!"

"Here."  The woman behind the counter plugged the card into the reader. "Can you pump her gas?"

 

Linn looked at his image on the screen.

"Mama was well beyond exhausted and she was too stressed for anyone's good and she was scared enough that her defenses were just plainly gone," Linn said to his reflection, recording another story that would be digitized and sent off-planet, knowing Marnie and eventually her children would see them, would inherit these family stories.

"Mama was the one strongest and most capable woman I have ever known in my entire life, but this night ..."
Linn bit his bottom lip and looked away, his own eyes stinging.

He looked back.

"She told me later not all angels have wings, some have work boots, and the men who pumped her gas fit that description, for that's the night Mama cried."

 

 

 

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88.  THE UNSEEN

 

Charlie Macneil reached into his coat pocket.

Sarah Lynne McKenna looked up at him, her young face wet, sorrow darkening her pale eyes; she blinked as Dawg licked the salt water from her cheek and rumbled canine encouragement from his deep, blocky chest.

Sarah's eyes widened as something round and furry emerged from the voluminous receptacle:  her hands came up and her eyes widened with delight, her mouth opening into a little girl's O of astonishment and pleasure as a black ball of wiggle and grunt regarded her with button-black eyes, as a little pink tongue flicked out and caressed her nose.

Sarah's sorrow at losing her beloved Dawg's companionship was surprised to the side as she realized this little black furball was hers.

She thrust forward and grabbed her beloved Uncle Charlie around the legs and she heard his deep, reassuring voice, felt his hand on her back, and then he had to leave and she watched through fresh tears as Uncle Charlie and Miz Fannie got on the steam train, and she watched as Dawg stood on the back platform, paws up on the railing, pink tongue trailing:  she could not see it, but she knew his black stub of a tail was happily vibrating, and she stood on the depot platform and held the warm, cuddling little get of the big black Dawg.

Sarah turned obediently as her Mama spoke quietly to her and they walked to the end of the platform, and down to the  waiting carriage.

Sarah held the furry black pup up close under her jaw -- she liked the feel fo his fur, he smelled clean, like Miz Fannie dunked him in a dishpan and gave him a baffie in her scented baffie salts -- and she lowered the pup a little, surprised, as it suddenly snarled and twisted in her grip.

Sarah turned and saw a local stray, an ugly cur dog with an ill temper, glaring and snarling at the pup from under the depot platform:  the pup, not in the least little bit intimidated, twisted powerfully in the little girl's hands, until she was obliged to set the twisting, clawing, fighting little ball of rebellion on the hard-packed ground.

The little black furball was almost comical to see:  small enough to fit in a man's coat pocket, big enough to snarl and bristle, little white teeth bared and a snarl coming from its juvenile throat that was at once a little frightening and kind of comical -- imagine, something not more than a pup, challenging a scarred street veteran!

Bonnie McKenna's hand slid into the pocket in her dress, gripped the handle of the Sheriff's Navy Colt:  she knew at this distance she could drive a .36 ball down through the ugly stray's shoulders, but she looked a little to the left, then back to the stray, its snarling muzzle just visible under the depot's overhanging timber deck.

The stray dropped its lips back over its teeth and withdrew, and rather quickly:  Sarah, frozen, having never seen canine conflict before, stood rooted and unmoving as her little black guardian stood faithfully between her and this ragged, grey-and-brown menace.

Only Bonnie saw the whole picture .. Bonnie, and the Sheriff, a few paces behind.

A white wolf stood behind the pup, behind Sarah, just out of sight of everyone else, hidden from all but Bonnie's violet eyes, and the Sheriff's pale eyed gaze:  the white wolf's gangs were bared, its gums a shocking, rich, vibrant pink, its ears back, and its head lowered, which only made the fur between its shoudlers seem to bristle even higher.

Sarah did not know this.

Neither did the little snarling pup standing between her and the threat.

The stray retreated, pulling back, deep beneath the depot, retreating to safety in the face of this unexpected opposition.

The little black furball snarled again, turned and kicked dirt at the retreating opponent, its little hind legs scratching dirt in utter contempt:  it looked up at Sarah as if to say, "See what I did!" and Sarah picked it up again and cuddled it and called it a good puppy and buried her face in its curly fur, and Bonnie McKenna raised her free hand to her mouth and bit her foreknuckle to keep from laughing.

She turned and the Sheriff's pale eyes were a little darker than they had been, they way they got when he was amused, and they looked at the white wolf that appeared so serendipitously to back up the authority of Dawg's get, and then they looked at one another.

It was the first time they'd seen a twist of fog where a wolf had been, almost an ethereal corkscrew that disappeared into the ground as they watched.

It would not be the last time they would see such a thing, but it was the first, and so Sarah Lynne McKenna and her little black dog marched purposefully for the carriage and she giggled as the Sheriff picked her up and swung her aboard and the little black pup sat happily on her lap, looking around with bright and interested eyes.

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89.  NOTHING FOUND

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sighed and closed the book, carefully, quietly; she aligned its edge very precisely with the edge of her green desk blotter, opened the center drawer of her desk, and very carefully, very precisely, placed her freshly sharpened pencil in its tray.

Her husband slouched one shoulder against the wall, arms folded.

"Anybody else," he said quietly, "would have screamed and thrown that book across the room."

The Sheriff slid the drawer closed, as carefully, as precisely as she'd aligned the book.

She rose, considering, then looked at her husband.

"I'm hungry," she said matter-of-factly, "and you're buying."

"Yes, ma'am."

The Sheriff plucked her blue suit jacket on its hanger from its perch on the coat rack, returned the empty wooden hanger and spun her suit coat around her shoulders, concealing the Jackass rig and its holstered, angular pistol; she settled the coat into place, her right forearm unconsciously protecting the belted pistol, twin for the one in the shoulder rig, now hidden under the same jacket.

Richard sauntered casually after the Sheriff:  where her stride was businesslike, brisk, punctuated by her three-inch heels, his was a saunter, the casual gait of a professional loafer:  somehow -- in spite of wearing a suit and tie -- he managed to look almost slovenly.

They crossed the street to the Silver Jewel Saloon, climbed the steps:  as soon as they crossed the threshold, Richard squared his shoulders, gave a little shake, and the slovenly appearance dropped away -- it was as if he'd even shed the wrinkles that corrugated his suit thirty seconds before.

They wove their way back to the Lawman's Corner, seated themselves, each one shifting and twisting a little until they were comfortable -- until they were seated in the angle of the wall, such that they both had a wall to their back -- and such that each could execute a clean draw if they had to.

Richard's skills as a carpenter were a little lacking, but he'd still managed to cobble up a corner; they'd picked up a secondhand table of the same dimensions as those in the Silver Jewel -- and the two of them practiced reacting to a threat from their seated position.

Richard watched the waitress sashay towards the kitchen after taking their order:  "Is it my imagination," he said quietly, "or do waitresses get younger every year?"

"Waitresses, State Troopers and doctors," Willamina sighed, then smiled and looked at her husband.

"I had a conversation with a handsome young State Trooper yesterday."

"Oh?"

"He pulled me over for speeding."

"Really!"  Richard leaned forward a little, planting an elbow on the tabletop and resting his chin on his knuckles, and Willamina saw the man's hand close slowly into a fist.

Willamina laughed.  "I waited until he stepped out of his cruiser before lighting up."

Richard's eyebrow rose and she saw a smile start to crinkle the corners of his eyes.

"Apparently he was not expecting to see my backup lights flashing red-white-and-blue at him."

"What did he have to say?"

"Before or after I turned over my lapel, or after I finished dressing him down?"
Richard's eyes widened.   "You didn't!"

"Oh yes I did!"  Willamina said quietly, an edge to her voice.  "I chewed on him like a drill sergeant and then I came out of the Jeep and took him by the arm, I spun him around and pointed at his cruiser and told him exactly what he'd done wrong in vehicle positioning!"  Her face darkened a little, but her eyes were pale, and Richard knew she was remembering the moment with a little too much clarity for comfort.

"I told him I'd been Sheriff more years than he'd been shaving, and I intended that he should live a long and healthy life, because he was a fine young man who deserved to sire fine tall sons, and if he was this careless with a fleeing felon when he positioned his cruiser, he would find himself in a long box and his wife would be collecting widow's benefits and by God! I would not let that happen if I could help it!"

"I would have paid admission to have seen that," Richard murmured.

"I'll guarantee the next traffic stop he makes, he'll be thinking cover and concealment instead of stopping a pretty lady," Willamina muttered.

"I wondered what was eating you."

"Eating me?"

"Back in the office.  I saw how you closed that journal."
"Oh, that,"  Willamina fluttered her hand, then lowered her forehead against the heel of her hand.  "I need coffee."
As if on cue, the too-young-looking waitress lowered two coffee cups on saucers, poured each nearly full, laid down a woven trivet and set the pot down between them.

"Do you know me or what," Willamina sighed tiredly.  "Katy, you're an angel!"

"Especially for you, Sheriff!"  the waitress laughed.  "Now what can I get you two?"

"He's buying," Willamina nodded her head toward her husband.  "I would like your shrimp basket, please.  I'm in the mood ... no, not the shrimp basket ... do you still have those steamed shrimp?"

"Fresh batch just this morning!" Katie chirped cheerfully.  "The supper or the platter?"

"Which is bigger?"

"The supper."

"Give me the platter.  Fries and cole slaw and melted butter!"

"The same, please," Richard said in a gentle voice.

"You two are easy!"  Katie laughed and Richard looked at Willamina, then at the waitress.

"If I make any reply at all," he said speculatively, "my hind hoof is going right between the pearly whites!"

Katie planted a palm on her hip and declared, "You're not supposed to imitate my bad examples!" and then turned, almost skipping back toward the kitchen.

"You flirt," Willamina chided approvingly.  "Now where were we?"

"Your fit of pique at a damned shavetail!"

"Oh, that," Willamina laughed.  "No, no, that's not why."

"My beautiful bride," Richard said solemnly, "I know your many moods and yet you have so many more.  You are too deep for me to fathom, too mysterious for me to understand.  I am but a poor lowly husband:  pray, my dear, enlighten me!"

Willamina raised a finger, changed her mind, picked up her coffee, took a long sip, closed her eyes as the fragrant brew trickled down her throat.

"I caught a man injecting himself today."

 

Phillip contemplated his belly, selected an area that hadn't been pierced lately, quickly and expertly darted the insulin needle into his lean flesh, pressed the piston.

"I know that doesn't hurt," a voice said, "but you could at least roll your eyes and sigh with pleasure!"

Phillip looked up at the Sheriff and laughed.  "Insulin doesn't give me much of a kick, Sheriff."

"I know, I'm tormenting you."  Willamina smiled, tilting her head a little.  "How are the town's utilities?"

"Oh, good and bad, same as always.  We've gotten rid of chlorine at the sewer plant."

"So I heard.  U-V disinfection?"

"Yes ma'am and I am delighted!"

"So am I.  We encountered chlorine bombs over there."

Philip nodded.  He didn't have to ask where 'over there' was.

"You wanted to see me."

"I, um ... well, it's not all that pressing ..."

"In other words I wanted to get away from the office and you were a good excuse.  Whattaya got?"

"I ran across something I think you might be interested in."

 

Willamina dipped her shrimp in the melted butter.

"He showed me a print from a microfiche of an Arizona newspaper."

"Oh?"

"It said something about an orphanage."

"An orphanage."

"That's not what caught my eye.  It detailed a conversation ... something to do with a Reverend Linn Keller."

Richard's shrimp stopped halfway from butter to lip, then sank back to the butter.

"I know in Germany, the name Keller is as common as Smith is here, and the first born son was not uncommonly named Linn, at least before the damned War."

Richard placed his shrimp on his saucer, wiped his fingers, took a sip of coffee.

"Richard, I know those Journals like I know my own Social Security card.  I've gone through them hell west and crooked and I can't find a single thing where Old Pale Eyes served with someone of the same name.  I'm sure he'd have made note of that!"

"What would be important enough for him to make such a mention?"

"This Reverend Orphanage Honcho was a subordinate in the War. You'd think he'd have said something!"

"Give it a rest, Willa.  You've had a long day.  Tear into it tomorrow, when you're fresh."

Willamina nodded.

 

Phillip looked up.  "Afternoon, Sheriff."

Willamina came in, dropped heavily into a chair.

"I have made diligent search," she said tiredly, then looked at the town's water and sewer plants' operator.

"I'm sorry, Phillip.  Nothing found."

 

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90 RESPECT

 

I know he was usually called Gil, but this was an official visit, so I used his right name.

"Guillermo," said I, "can I offer you coffee?"

Guillermo smiled sadly, shook his head, then frowned and thought better of it.

I had risen when he came into my office, I'd come around from behind my desk and shook the man's hand:  he'd just lost his father, a man my mother respected, a man she referred to in quiet voice as "the Godfather," a man she treated with respect, and in turn he accorded my mother, the Sheriff, the same respect.

The old man was dead now:  my mother and I both attended his funeral, and my mother was a pallbearer, dignified in a black suit and heels, a black veiled pillbox hat and gloves; the other pallbearers made her look like the Tooth Fairy -- they were all broad shouldered, burly, towering over her by at least a head and generally more -- but they, too, treated my mother with the greatest respect.

Guillermo and I retired to the conference room.

I pretended not to notice the rectangular case Guillermo carried, the case he set down beside him.

 I drew coffee for us both, I set out creamer in the little ceramic pitcher we kept for state occasions, and the sugarbowl my mother insisted on keeping:  it was milk glass, but hand-cut, and Guillermo smiled as he saw it, and he carefully, gently, lifted off its lid and used the sugar spoon to trickle a light charge of sparkling flakes into his coffee.

I waited until we'd both taken the first few sips, until the quiet of the conference room grew to the length of ten heartbeats.

"Your father was a good man," I said quietly.  "I respected him."

Guillermo smiled -- it was the unguarded, quiet smile of a man whose defenses were down -- he was a man vulnetable and I knew it.

I also knew what was in the case.

Guillermo closed his eyes, took a long breath, then reached down and lifted the case to the table.

I've got a pretty good poker face and I wore it now, for I knew what was probably coming, and I was right.

Guillermo was the son of the old Godfather, a man retired, living out his days as a barber here in town, a laughing, good natured man with a hardness deep in his eyes that spoke of a backbone made of stainless steel.

My mother knew he had things the government really doesn't want people to have, and she didn't care: she might have been Sheriff, but she knew her people, and the Godfather was one of her people:  he was respected in the community, he caused no trouble -- as a matter of fact, he was most helpful in some situations, and he was not afraid to step up and speak his mind, and he'd done this in defense of my mother when she was outnumbered and outgunned, and that quiet old man who ran the barbershop proved the decisive voice in arguing loudly and most convincingly that my mother should be left alone.

Guillermo raised the lid on the rectangular black case and exposed the Beretta model 12 his father used on that very occasion:  it was a stubby but surprisingly graceful submachine gun, it was not registered, it was absolutely illegal, as was the disassembled, too-short, double barrel shotgun in the case as well.

I looked long at the hardware in the fitted case.

"Your father," I said softly, "had a fondness for the lupara." 

I could not help myself; I reached out, caressed the Circassican walnut stock with my fingertips.

"It was his attorney," I said quietly, "and it argued most convincingly on his behalf."

"It was his wish," Guillermo said softly, "that your mother should have these."

I blinked, surprised: I'd half expected this, but it still took me off guard.

"She would be honored," I replied.

"I leave today."
Now that did take me by surprise.

"My father ..."

Guillermo took a long breath.

"The ... business ... he did not want me to follow in his footsteps."  His Mediterranean-black eyes were serious; this man's mind was made up.  "And I shall honor my father's wishes."  

He swallowed.

"Papa and I will return to Sicily. We have familia there.  I am ... I will inherit the family business."  His smile was quick, bright, the boy I remembered shining through the mask of the man he'd become.  "I will be selling olives and olive oil on the world market."
We shook hands, then we embraced, and I took him by both shoulders and looked the man straight in the eye.

"You are welcome in my home any time," I said, and my voice was a little husky, and my words meant something to him:  he swallowed, nodded, then looked at the blued-steel stutter gun and nodded.

"My father," he said, then cleared his throat and tried again.

"My father had respect" -- he trilled the R and raised his hand in emphasis -- "for your mother."  He rested a hand on my shoulder.  "And I have respect for you."

He left the conference room, and he left the Sheriff's office, and he left Firelands:  he accompanied his father's body back to Sicily, and he became a respected businessman in a legitimate business.

Mother was surprised and most pleased to inherit Tony's hardware, and we sat at the kitchen table and looked long at the buzz gun and the abbreviated, double barrel twelve-bore.

I laid a hand on my mother's knuckles and said, "Mama, Guillermo made a point of telling me he had" -- I raised my hands in emphasis and as best I could, trilled the R -- respect! -- for you!"

Mama nodded and smiled sadly.

"I know why he brought these to you," she said, so quietly I almost couldn't hear her.

I leaned forward a little, looking very directly at my mother, and she looked at me and sniffed, then pulled up her apron and wiped her eyes.

"He knew I would cry."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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91. WITNESS IN THE CROW'S NEST

 

Sheriff Linn Keller closed the hunter case on his watch, considering his son's question.

He'd warned people, time and again, that he had a bad habit:  "If you ask me a question," he would say quietly, "I will give you the honest answer, even if it's not what you want to hear."

He considered his firstborn son's question, and he nodded, slowly.

A century and more later, Deputy Linn Keller asked of the Sheriff, his pale eyed mother, the same question, and in the same words:  like her ancestor said, more than ten decades agone, and very nearly in exactly the same spot, Sheriff Willamina Keller closed the hunter case on her watch, and considered, and then nodded slowly.

The same question was put to Sheriff Willamina Keller that evening, at the meeting of the Ladies' Tea Society, in the back room of the Silver Jewel, when the ladies assembled in gowns of an earlier era, with their hair styled after the fashion of their ancestresses, where possible; a few had wigs manufactured to accomplish this; some few affected bonnets or hats, but all faithfully portrayed the ladies' styles that would have been perfectly at home in the 1880s, in that very room, in that very saloon, in that very town, in that very county.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller turned over his son's words in his mind, and then nodded, and he answered.

"Sir," his son had asked him, "do you believe in ghosts?"

Sheriff Linn Keller, a steady and reliable man, not given to flights of fancy, considered his reply carefully, and then spoke.

"Yes, Jacob, I do," he said, "for I have seen them."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller frankly admitted to the same words, which of course elicited an immediate request for enlightenment: there was, in the Victorian era, a great interest in communicating with the dead, and nearly everyone in the room had, at one time or another, tried her hand at an Ouija board, or perhaps Tarot cards, or even gone to a fortuneteller: one of the ladies, in the gaudy, gauzy garb of a Romanov gypsy, placed something on the table before her, something covered with a red silk scarf:  she made a few mystic passes, then snatched off the scarf, to reveal an ancient crystal ball.

Willamina knew its history -- indeed, the artifact was hers -- and she'd arranged to have her fellow Tea Society member portray a woman known as Daciana, a woman of herbs and healing, a woman who'd been a trick rider in the circus, a woman who'd taught Old Pale Eyes' daughter Angela how to perform a few simple tricks on horseback.

"Let me tell you about some ghosts I've known," Willamina said, and looked over at the crystal ball, and saw its glistening surface shine in the light of rebuilt gas mantle lamps, saw the twist of fog in its crystal depths, saw timber and water and the white of bone, and she smiled a little and looked at the ladies assembled.

"Her bones are buried in our cemetery," she began, "but when her soul was required of her, it was not given wings, it was given a horse, and the horse had wings."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller waited until Jacob left the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office.

He opened the desk drawer and withdrew a hand folded envelope, with its fractured red-wax seal, a seal that bore the impress of a rose.

He re-read the handwriting on its face, he unfolded the page, he read it again for the tenth, or perhaps the twentieth, or maybe the fiftieth time.

Dearest Papa, he read, I write this in my last moments standing on American soil.

In but a very few minutes I will cross a gangplank and turn my back on home, and on all I know, and face the destiny I must fulfill.

Home will ever live in my heart, though my heart will grow still in a strange land.

I know not why I must go, only that I am needed, just as women of my line have been needed through history, for a purpose hidden from we mere mortals.

I will confide a curious occurrence just this morning.

I knew I was followed by a footpad, no doubt with intent to cosh me over the head and relieve me of my brooch: I turned at the right moment, with my pistol in hand, and the footpad was backed against a building, eyes wide with fear, pale and shocked still at the sight of a white wolf standing between he and I, a wolf of purest white, save for its burning yellow eyes and black nose: its fur a-bristle, it looked nearly as big as The Bear Killer.

I am summoned: I close, dearest Papa, and know that I love you as I have loved no other!

Your daughter, 

Sarah Lynne

 

Sheriff Linn Keller folded the letter and nodded, biting his lower lip.

His chest felt tight and he felt an ancient grief, a sorrow he'd not felt since he'd said his final goodbye to his beloved Esther.

He sat slowly, like an old man, he opened the drawer and placed the folded missive in his personal Journal, and slid it deep into the drawer, and then he lowered his face into his palms, a man more alone than he'd been in a very long time, there in the silence of the little log fortress that was his Sheriff's office.

 

It was years later that an older Sheriff Linn Keller leaned against the mahogany bar, gripping the shivering man's shoulders.

A sailor he was, a man of blue water and salt spray, a man whose callused, horn-palmed hands were perpetually curled, as if gripping good Morgan hemp to hoist canvas against the freshening wind: "Bear up, man," the Sheriff said quietly, shifting his grip to keep the jelly-legged stranger from sinking to the hard-varnished floor.

A chair was seized, spun under the stranger: Mr. Baxter offered a short glass of something water clear and not over thirty days old, and the Sheriff offered it to the stranger, who took it with a palsied hand:  he drank as if he drank water, he handed back the glass, he stared through the Sheriff at a horror only he could see, and then he looked up and spoke through a tight throat:

"Dear God, man, a thousand miles from the coast and I can't escape her!"

"Escape who?"  The Sheriff seized the back of another chair, spun it around, sat facing the strange.

"The widow. The widow with pale eyes."

The Sheriff turned his head as if bringing a good ear to bear.  "Pale eyes, you say?" he prompted.  "A woman in widow's black?"

The weather-faced sailor nodded, shivering as if someone trod upon his grave, then his face twisted and he gasped, "The witch!"

 

"Her name was Sarah Lynne McKenna, and she was the Old Sheriff's woods colt," Sheriff Willamina Keller explained, pressing a button on her remote control:  the projected image behind her was that of a pale eyed woman who bore more than a remarkable resemblance to the speaker:  indeed, they could have been twins, or perhaps the same soul as stood before them with the square control in lace-gloved hands.  

One of the daughters, a child of perhaps nine years, raised a hand and piped, "What's a woods colt?" and her mother shushed her as others tittered behind gloved hands.

"She was born out of wedlock.  Illegitimate."
"Oh."  The child shrugged.  "Like me. Only I can read."

"That's illiterate, Susie," her mother almost whispered, to which the child flared "I can too read!" and the Sheriff picked up the reins again, to get the story back in its intended line of march.

"Sarah Lynne McKenna boarded a sailing ship in New York Harbor, bound for Europe.  She intended to make landfall in France and then upriver into Germany, but her journey was supposedly not a smooth one."  Willamina picked up a black-bound book.  "This is one of the Old Sheriff's journals.  Unfortunately, if Sarah had such a journal, it was burned when the German schloss in which she died was set afire.  Her body was apparently buried when the schloss fell in; her bones were recovered, and with the help of DNA analysis, identified as" -- she smiled -- "as my hell raising, pale eyed, Agent of the Court ancestress."

The little girl raised her hand again.  "What's a German slosh?" she asked innocently, and this time there was laughter instead of embarrassed titters.

"It sounds kind of like iced beer, doesn't it?"  Willamina laughed, and the little girl nodded hesitantly.

"A schloss is almost a castle -- it's kind of a fortified residence that a nobleman will live in."

"Oh," her juvenile respondent blurted.

"Think of a big fancy house, but without the curtain walls and turrets and towers surrounding it."

"Gotcha," Susie affirmed, nodding decisively.

"In this particular Journal, Old Pale Eyes took the trouble to very carefully record what an old sailor told him, here in the Silver Jewel Saloon.  It took the man three days to speak the tale, and for three days the man was his guest, and he listed the price in dollars and cents that this hospitality cost him, but he very carefully recorded the story, and a ghost story it is!"

 

The ship was not intended to haul passengers, but there was a guest cabin: Sarah was its sole occupant, a widow-woman, traveling alone: she spoke to no one, she took her meals alone, knowing sailors to be a superstitious lot: she did not want to stand on the deck, for sea-demons to behold and to covet, for women aboard ship were reputed to be bad luck, and she'd sent more than one Chinaman fleeing in chittering, screeching fear at the sight of her pale eyes.

Sarah traveled in full mourning, knowing it would prevent at least some encounters from romantically minded men; unfortunately, it was not proof against all, and she knew the ship's second in command cast covetous eyes toward her:  he never spoke to her, he never approached, at least not until dark of night, when Sarah was on deck, alone, the only other living soul, the ship's carpenter, standing his watch in the crow's-nest above.

The captain was a Godly man, and watchful, and when his first mate pulled on silent, felt-soled boots and crept quietly onto the deck, the way a man will when he is about something and wishes not to be caught, the Captain followed, in felt soled boots of his own:  his jaw hardened as he saw the widow-woman, near enough one of the deck lanterns to be seen, and his mate approaching.

The moon pulled aside her veiling clouds and glared with a silvery and disapproving gaze at the little tableau being played out on the ship's holystoned deck.

He watched the mate come up behind this woman, this lonely, diminutive figure, he saw the man's arm move to encircle her head, to clamp a callused, muffling hand over her mouth:  his other hand pulled a lead shot filled sap from a pocket, drew it back, but before his grasping hand could complete its silencing orbit, before the sap could reduce this delectable morsel to submission, the woman spun and drove a yard of honed steel into his gut, thrust in just to the side of his spine, and out the mate's back, piercing his blue pea-coat.

He dropped the cosh and grasped the blade, desperately, losing fingers in the process:  blood rolled dark across the deck and the dead man's scream shivered the still air:  men responded without thought, seizing hat or cudgel or any weapon he might, ran barefoot up gangways and out onto the deck.

The captain, seeing his first mate murdered, drew his steel handled Scottish pistol and pointed.

The widow shoved the mate to the side, drawing bloodied, honed steel easily from his pierced guts:  he free hand came up, made a gesture, and the steel-handled Doune pistol pulled free from the Captains' grasp, as if seized by an invisible hand, the shot discharging harmlessly into the air.

A hard-thrown knife whistled through the intervening darkness:  the woman never looked away from the Captain, but her hand had eyes:  she seized the handle as it reached her, stopped the blade a quarter of an inch from piercing her veil:  she merely released it and it spun back to the thrower, and the man fell to the deck, his own knife hilt deep in his left eye socket, the blade barely piercing the back of his balding skull.

 

The sailor's voice was monotonous, as if spoken by a man in shock, soul-wounded by the horror he'd seen.

"I watched her reach into a bag that wasn't there," he said in that dull and lifeless voice, "I saw her sprinkle a silver dust that glowed like balefire as it glittered through the air ... she made a few passes and her hands left silver symbols in the air as she did, and she spoke the witch-words and the dead man came off the deck and stood before her.

"She bade him cleanse the deck of his contaminating blood, and he did, and the Captain stood frozen, unable to move, and the witch-woman took that Scottish pistol as some unseen demon handed it to her, and she passed her hand over its barrel and 'twas loaded again."

He shivered, closed his eyes, his half-closed hands suddenly clenching.

"All this I saw as I leaned o'er the crow's-nest, and 'twas dead silent, as if we were becalmed."  He swallowed.  "The sea was like glass.  Not even the slap of wavelets against the hull!"

Sheriff Linn Keller nodded, slowly, encouragingly.

"Then what happened?"

The man shivered again, stubbled whiskers standing out black and stark against memory-pallid skin.

"She cast that faerie-dust and it enslaved the crew, and they were as dead men on their feet.

"From that moment on, not a word was said aboard ship, not one single word.  Men went about their work as if directed, even the mate who sought to take her, but the dead mate was  still dead, his life's blood spilled out and gone, his clothes black with the blood he'd lost, and his eyes rolled back and white, and the Captain no better.

"We were but two days out when all this happened, and then the sea-witch ensorcelled the very air, and we flew across the waves at an unholy speed, and the sails all slack as if becalmed.

"We arrived in port and the ship was tied at the dock, and men bore the witch-widow's trunk in silence to the carriage that waited.

"The dead man and the Captain and the dead man wi' his knife through his head got in as well, and I did too, and my legs working without my say: for she'd ensorcelled me as well and I could no more speak than fly, nor move without it be her pleasure."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller pressed another button; the image of a great, stone French cathedral appeared.

"I understand that three men went into a confession booth, and three men spoke of their sins to the priest on the other side of the screen.

"The three were absolved of their sins, and as the priest drew the wooden curtain across the lattice screen, a man screamed, and the sound was one of utter agony, as if his living soul were being seized by demonic claws.

"Priests ran and snatched the confessional door open.

"Two men were dead within, and a third, a ship's-captain by his appearance, was wide-eyed and screaming, backed against the wall, staring at two bloodied corpses.

"He was carried, still screaming, to an asylum, where he spent the rest of his days, completely, utterly, violently, insane."

She pressed the power button with her thumb; the screen went dark.

"Only one of the entire crew retained his sanity, and this man returned to America, where he went inland as far from the sea as he could get, and still he encountered those eyes, the pale eyes he saw look at him when the witch-widow raised her black veil to look at him."

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled.

"Of course, the Old Sheriff could have been writing a well-told story, and all this might never have happened at all."

"Or" -- the screen lit up, and a woman in widow's black who could have been Sheriff Willamina Keller's twin raised her black veil and looked at the Ladies' Tea Society with pale eyes -- "maybe it did happen after all!" -- and the screen went dark again.

 

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92.  THINK ZEBRAS, NOT HORSES

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Daddy, can I have a zebwa?"

I laid down my pen and turned, swiveling my office chair to look at my little girl.

She was standing there looking all ruffly and girly and big-eyed innocent, and I knew why she asked me about a zebwa.

I mean zebra.

I know Old Pale Eyes had his little girl on a horse as soon as he adopted her.

I know my namesake had his Angela in saddle leather just as soon as he possibly could, and his green-eyed wife Esther, not wanting the Old Man's bad habits to kill their newly-adopted daughter, immediately took over training the pretty little girl how to ride.

I know Angela would jump her horse (which was quite against her Mama's red-headed wishes) over fences, gulches and anything she possibly could, including a schoolmate, which led to what we'll politely call a misunderstanding, but that's discussed in one of the Sheriff's journals and I don't want to plow that ground a second time.

Let's just say that my beautiful bride allowed as our little girl should learn to ride, and I agreed, and Dixie didn't want to ride a horsie, she wanted a zebwa.

I mean a zebra.

I looked at my girly little girl, looking all sweet and little-girlish with a big ribbon bow in her hair, in a knee length frock with rufflies along the hem, with her shiny patent leather slippers and ruffly top anklets, and I could almost hear my spine going snap, crackle, pop as I got wound tighter and tighter around her little finger, and I reached out and took both her little hands in both my big Daddy-hands and I said "Let's look for a saddle-mount for you tonight, shall we?"

Her eyes were naturally big and liquid -- she got that from her Mama, my beautiful bride has deep eyes, dark eyes, eyes that sparkle, eyes I could swim in ... I blinked, smiled, stood.

"I know a man that has some horses."

Dixie bounced a little on her toes, then she blinked and said "I need to change clothes," and she turned and scampered up the broad stairs.

I took a long breath, looked at Mama's framed portrait hanging over my roll top desk.

"Mama," said I, "you'll have to help me with this one," and my wife molded herself to my backside, hugging me from behind:  I felt her lay her cheek bone against my back bone and I heard her sigh, "She will, you know," and The Bear Killer raised his head and rumbled approval.

I had no more than got to the front door, got my gunbelt slung back around my middle and shrugged into my Carhartt, than Dixie came thundering down the stairs, as noisy as any little boy:  she ran a hand around the end post and swung hard about, not losing her footing but coming close, and I went to one knee, fast, and caught her as she ran full-bore into me, laughing.

I picked her up and kissed her on the side of the neck and said "I'll need your help on this," and she nodded solemnly, and I reached up with my free hand and lifted her little Stetson off its peg.

Her hat hung beside mine.

Where my Stetson was plain black felt, with a plain, black-leather band, hers was a light tan, but it had a silver mounted turquoise hat band made of real silver and real turquoise, and most folks would swallow their dentures to know how much that hat band cost.

I know nobody ever tried to steal it, probably because her Daddy is Sheriff, and because the only soul to lay a hand on my little girl found himself on the ground with a pretty bad headache:  when a stranger seizes my daughter by the arm and hauls her toward a pickup truck with the door open, my first inclination is to drive a hard cast .44 through his left ear.

As it was, I taken three long strides, seized HIS arm and drove him hard over top the head with my revolver's barrel.

He'd claimed later he thought she was his daughter, run off and seeing a boy he didn't approve of, which held no water, for my little Dixie had yet to see her tenth birthday, and His Honor sentenced him to ... well, when the Judge found the man didn't have a daughter, and the court appointed headshrinker said he was sane, His Honor had neither sympathy nor mercy, and he won't breathe free air for another decade, if he survives.

His kind don't last long in a prison's general population.

Anyway Dixie settled her Stetson on her braided hair and she set it just so, for girls are like that, me, I just mashed my skypiece down on my gourd and we walked down to the barn.

Dixie changed out of her girly frilly frock and slippers and now she was in jeans and boots and a flannel shirt, she was in a Carhartt that was getting tight on her -- I looked down and realized her jeans were getting short on her, too -- good Lord, how fast is this child growing? -- anyway I whistled up Big Red, and the Paso gelding came pacing up and rubbed his head ag'in my front until I bribed him with a pepper mint, then he leaned down and muttered to Dixie and she rubbed his jaw and called him a good puppy, and I laughed, for she'd never called him a horsie, he'd always been a good puppy, and I never saw fit to correct her.

How could I correct something so absolutely cute, something I knew I'd remember into my old age ... I learned that from my Pa, who cherished such moments from my childhood.

So did my Uncle Will.

Matter of fact Uncle Will still tormented me about tripping over the design in the linoleum and I wasn't but about five years old at the time.

Old men, I knew, had long memories, and I was developing those same long memories, and I looked down at Dixie, looking up at me and her face clean-scrubbed and shining in the lantern light and I reached for the saddle blanket.

Big Red danced a little and Dixie backed up.

She'd seen me cut loose with a yell and a hard punch when a horse stepped on my foot:  I was lucky, I had boots on and it didn't break anything, but it hurt like thunder and still aches when the weather changes.

I count it a good thing that my little girl learned from MY mistake, instead of making her own in that department.

Saddle blanket and saddle, bridle and I took Dixie around the waist and stood her up on a bale of hay: she waited until I was mounted, then she climbed the stall boards and half-swung, half-jumped a-straddle behind me, and off we went.

Big Red was a Paso Fino, and an unusually large example of the breed:  he'd come from the Border country, from what used to be the Vega y Vega ranch, before it became almost a war zone:  as bad as things had gotten here in Firelands County, things were much worse south of us:  Big Red stepped out smooth and swift and fell into his paso largo gait.

Dixie giggled and clung to my back like a burr on a curly dog, and Big Red laid his ears back and leaned into a gallop and tucked his forelegs and shoved off with his back and we sailed over the board fence and Dixie's happy squeal trailed in the air behind us.

We set a nice easy pace cross country and 'twas not far to the ranch I had in mind.

Back years ago it had been the Macneil ranch, and they'd bred good horses there -- tough, mountain-bred, enough mesteño and Appaloosa with some Arab thrown in, and his horses were prized for their endurance, their toughness, and when needed, their speed.

Dixie insisted she wanted a zebra and I had something in mind.

I turned my head:  "Princess," said I, "come up here in front of me."

"Okay, Daddy," she piped in that happy-little-girl voice of hers:  she stood, swung a leg around me, I took her around the waist and she ended up sitting on Big Red's neck, facing me.

"Now darlin'," said I, "you know zebras are found in Africa."

Dixie nodded, big-eyed and solemn.

"And you know zebras have fighting fangs and they are vicious and mean and they kick lions to death."

She nodded again.

"They don't make good saddle mounts, darlin'.  They've been saddled and ridden but they tend to chew their riders' legs off and do a Mexican hat dance on what's left of 'em."

Dixie giggled, gripped the front of my coat:  "Daddy," she chided, "zebwas don't wear Mexican hats!"

"They don't?"  I said, pretending to be surprised.

"No, Daddy, and Afwica isn't in Mexico. It's on the other side of West Virginia an' its a foreign country."

"Oh."

I could not refute such juvenile wisdom.

"Princess," said I, "I've been trying to find you a zebra, but this is not Africa."

Dixie frowned and considered the matter carefully, then looked up at me.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"If I don't have a zebwa, who's gonna help me if a lion comes after me?"

I stroked my chin and frowned, pretending to consider the far horizon as if it held a wise reply.

"Princess" said I, "you've got me there."

We rode on:  I had her swing back around behind me.

The Bear Killer paced us, flanking well out, a shadow in the gathering dark.

We drew up on a little rise, looking at lights not terribly far off.

The Bear Killer came trotting up to us, his muzzle dripping:  he'd stopped for a drink, by the look of it.

We held station for a little.

I let The Bear Killer and Big Red both catch their wind.

I'd not set a hard pace; Big Red had a nice easy gait, and he had a good bottom to his endurance, but I saw no need to test his reserves, and besides, I am getting old, and so is The Bear Killer.

Big Red found a little graze and took a drink from what Mama always called a "crick," she never called it a stream:  I backed him up a little, and we cleared the water without setting hoof in it:  Mama learned that from her Navajo segundo, who told her about respecting the spirits of the water, and I'd learned it from her, and even The Bear Killer jumped the water when we did.

I looked down and said "Bear Killer!"

The big black curly furred mountain Mastiff looked up at me and smiled, and the sight of those fighting ivories had turned more than one man's heart to water:  criminals who might've tried to knife a Shepherd or a Malinois turned pasty white when The Bear Killer strolled around the corner, all bristled up and looking like death on four black paws.

His predecessor had taken criminals in his jaws on my Mama's behalf, and he never, ever came out in second place:  this Bear Killer was his son, and though he was grey around the muzzle these days, he never lacked for speed nor strength.

I looked down at him and said "Bear Killer!" and he looked up at me and snapped his jaws with a quite "whuff!" and I said, "SING!"

The Bear Killer stopped and dropped his squared off backside on the ground, he taken himself in about twice as much air as his sizable frame could hold, and he pointed his grey lined black muzzle toward the cold, bright stars overhead, and he sang.

I have no idea how a dog's howl can contain so much.

He sang power and he sang authority, he sang sorrow and death and loss, he sang the joy of sharing our stove and the warlike charge into battle and he sang an ancient song of loyalty and companionship, and when he sang, he raised the hairs on my arms.

A lantern showed ahead, and we rode in.

"Howdy, Sheriff," a voice hailed me from the dark.  "Seen any zebras lately?"

"I have not seen a single one," I declared.  "How about yourself?"

"I found one."

I felt Dixie's grip tighten and she began to twist and wiggle behind me, so I reached around and managed to catch the back of her collar as she came a-bailin' off the saddle:  she hung in my grip, kicking and protesting "Dad-deee!" and I swung down and The Bear Killer came up and tilted his head curiously at the sight of Dixie, dangling in my gloved grip, swinging arms and legs and making the noises a little girl makes when she's being kept from a cherished discovery.

I hoist her up and taken her around the middle: she was backside on my beltline and facing away from me and I said "You found a zebra! Do tell!"

Now it was darkening enough I had to look close, but I could tell my friend had a grin on his face as broad as two Texas townships.

Dixie didn't quite go limp but she quit trying to fight her way free:  we walked, the lantern in the lead, then Bob, then Dixie and me, with Big Red and The Bear Killer flanking us:  we came to his corral, and I set Dixie down.

"Stand fast," I told her, and I might as well have addressed a fighter jet at the moment the catapult slings it off a carrier deck.

She shot through the opening corral gate and streaked across the enclosure and skidded to a stop and looked up and the pole light shone down on her pale face and her eyes were huge and her mouth was open and she blinked and then she ran ahead and seized the Appaloosa around the leg and yelled "ZEBWA!"

Now Dixie had no idea I'd already bought her Zebra-horse -- it was an Appaloosa, but a rare variant, striped instead of spotted, and damned if it didn't look like a little girl's idea of what a zebra should be -- well, if it was drawn with felt markers and the stripes were kind of wobbly and maybe a splotch here and there instead of uniform stripes, but that didn't matter none a'tall to a little ten year old girl who always wanted a zebra of her very own.

Her Mama and I conspired to buy the horse, and the right size saddle for her, and of course Dixie had no idea we'd done this.

All she knew was she had a Zebra-horse that rubberlipped pepper mint from her palm, a Zebra-horse that plodded placidly around the corral with its new burden on its back.

That night was another one of those Daddy-memories an old man cherishes, and I did, and I spoke of it on my next communication with kinfolk on Mars, when I listened to the pale eyed Sheriff of the Second Martian Colony dictate into her computer, and I dictated my reply, and I added the video of Dixie riding that mild zebra striped Appaloosa mare.

I did not tell her about Dixie pointing her Zebra-horse toward the whitewashed board fence, nor how Dixie screamed with delight as she went into low ballistic orbit for a glorious, stomach tickling moment, as her Mama turned her back and folded her arms and whistled Dixie the way she did when Dixie and I got in trouble together.

I did wonder, when Dixie locked her heels in Zebra's barrel and Zebra kicked in the afterburners, when I leaned forward and yelled encouragement and Big Red streaked across the earth in pursuit, as I saw the striped Appaloosa soar through the air and make it look easy, and my little girl's delighted scream hung in the cold and frost-sparkled air ... I wondered if Old Pale Eyes felt that same way with his Angela.

Somehow ... somehow I think he did.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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93.  WISE WOMAN

 

In an era of computers and space travel, the sight of a little girl and her Daddy riding to school on horseback was most definitely an anomaly:  indeed, it merited an article in the local paper, which thanks to the Internet, generated comment from around the world -- some applauding the charm of a slower, more measured transportation, some decrying this usurpation of an animal's freedom, others even less civilized and more attention-seeking:  none of this mattered to the Sheriff, nor to his daughter, who happily paced alongside her big strong Daddy on her Zebra-horse.

It was not a zebra, of course, and in daylight looked even less like the African creature of that name; it was an Appaloosa, with the white sclera around the colored part of its eyes, with the striped hooves, with a pattern that looked more striped in low light, and especially by lantern light:  in a girl-child's eyes, though, her Zebra-horse was beautiful, and if she insisted it looked like its African relative, none could really deny a resemblance.

Daddy and daughter talked, sometimes, especially coming home from school, where Dixie would ask her Daddy about puzzling things the school taught her, or things she'd heard and couldn't quite understand, and so it did not really take the Sheriff by surprise when his darlin' daughter asked, "Daddy, can we see ghosts?"

Linn laughed and looked at his apple-cheeked daughter, her Stetson carefully placed on her twin pigtailed hair, the silver-and-turquoise hatband shining in the sun.

"Princess," he said, "do you know what a Wise Woman is?"

Dixie blinked and looked at her Daddy, surprised:  if one could follow the swiftness of a child's thoughts, one might hear her thinking "Of course I know what a wise woman is, I know what wise is and so a wise woman must be really smart," and then one would hear a cautioning voice warning of too-simple questions.

"Is Mommy a Wise Woman, Daddy?" she asked, using a technique she'd learned from her Daddy when he was deflecting a question or probing for more information.

"You Mommy is wise, all right," Linn nodded, "but 'twas my Mama who was a Wise Woman."

He looked at Dixie and smiled a little.  "Your Grandma Willamina could see ghosts."

Dixie's eyes widened and a gust of winter wind puffed against her face, carrying light, dry little snowflakes with it.

"Daddy," she asked in a small voice, "do we have ghosties?"

Linn laughed again.  "No, Princess.  I've never seen a one.  Your Grandma did and one of our long-dead relatives -- Sarah Lynne McKenna -- she could see ghosts."

"But whatzit a wise woman seeit with ghosties," Dixie said all in a rush, and then stopped and corrected herself.  "Daddy ... do wise women see ghosts?"

"Some do, Princess.  I've never known anyone who saw a ghost, who was not a Wise Woman."

"You didn't seeit the ghosties, Daddy?"
Linn laughed.  "No, Princess.  I never have."

Dixie frowned.  "If Gwamma saw ghosties an' Gwamma is a ghostie now maybe canit we seeit Gramma?"

Linn was silent for several long moments, and Dixie looked up at her Daddy and was a little scared at his expression.

Her big strong Daddy, who wasn't afraid of nothin', looked very ...

... very sad.

Dixie looked ahead and then to her side, and saw that a big white Shepherd doggie was pacing along with them, a white Shepherd-doggie with yellow eyes, that more flowed than trotted.

Dixie did not regard this as unusual.

Her Daddy had The Bear Killer and there was Black Jack, a black Malinois, and there had been Tank but he died an' Mommy told her about a Beagle doggie they had named Daisy Mae and Dixie could almost remember Daisy Mae but not quite and she figured this white Shepherd-doggie with the yellow eyes was one of her Daddy's Sheriff-doggies.

Dixie giggled a little and looked at the white doggie and decided she liked the white doggie.

"Look ahead," Linn said, pointing:  "Let's hold up for a minute," and Dixie looked ahead, at the oncoming snow, at how it swirled thick and spun almost into a dust devil.

"I don't like the look of that," Linn muttered.  "Let's hole up here."

Father and daughter turned their mounts and trotted up a narrow arroyo, almost a split in the mountain:  a little trickle of ice-crusted water trickled down its middle, there was a little scrub brush clinging stubbornly to the rocky sides, but it was crossways to the prevailing wind and that's what Linn wanted.

He'd seen hard snowstorms before, driven before an unfriendly wind, and he wished not to have himself and his little girl lost this close to town.

They turned to face the way they'd come, they turned just as the swirling whiteout hit, and as snow spun into their sheltered crevice, Dixie saw the white doggie dissolve into the driving snow.

Again, she did not regard this as unusual:  a white doggie, white snow, blowing thick and hard:  she expected the doggie to follow them.

Linn swung down, led his red gelding deeper into the narrow hollow:  here there was an overhang, not enough to stop the cold, but enough to blunt most of the wind, to cause snow to eddy and drift slowly downward:  Dixie followed, still mounted, and Linn pointed to a sheltered cove, big enough for them and their horses.

"I've slept here before," he said quietly, pulling the strings on the blanket roll behind his saddle.  "This is sheltered enough we can have a bit of a fire and stay warm."

"Okay, Daddy," Angela said uncertainly, thinking of home and Mommy's kitchen and how good it smelled and her belly reminded her it was long and long again since she'd eaten last -- why, an hour at least! -- but she hid her discomfiture as her Daddy draped his blanket over a rock, motioned his little girl to sit, parked his backside beside her and wrapped the blanket around them both.

"I'll show you a trick," he said quietly, and Dixie heard the scrape of a lighter's flint, and her Daddy wrapped the blanket around the two of them and she looked down to see her Daddy had a fat candle stuck in the sandy dirt and the blanket around it and he said quietly, "That candle is enough to keep the two of us warm, as long as the wind doesn't get in!"

Dixie felt the blanket, loose on her left, shift, and a cold, wet nose pushed against her hand:  she reached down and rubbed doggy fur and smiled, and The Bear Killer laid his jaw across her thigh and whuffed quietly.

"Having a dog to cuddle up with also keeps you warm," Linn observed quietly.

Dixie shifted the blanket a little, peeped out, past their saddled horses, out the gap they'd ridden through.

Her eyes widened and she saw a white horsie and a white woman riding it and they turned and looked very directly at her and the woman had pale eyes and she looked just like the pictures of her Gramma that hung on the walls beside her Daddy's rolltop desk and then she dissolved into the snow and was gone, and Dixie felt her heart flutter just a little and she realized she must be a Wise Woman, for she'd seen her Gramma's ghostie.

Her Daddy ran his arm around his little girl's shoulders, drew her in against him; they listened to the wind, felt it tug a the blanket:  they were warm, sheltered beneath the big wool blanket, they had a little light, thanks to the beeswax candle, and her Daddy handed her a candy bar with a whispered, "Don't tell your Mommy I'm spoiling your supper," and Dixie giggled at their shared conspiracy.

They were about twenty minutes, sheltering from the sudden blow:  it took almost as long to shake out the blanket and get it rolled up and secured, and to get mounted up and headed out again:  as they came to the mouth of their sheltering hollow, a gust of wind blew up a swirl of snow, and Dixie saw the smiling woman with pale eyes, on a big snow-horsie, rear and paw at the cold, swirling flakes, and then dissolve into the snowy gust, and she smiled a little.

Dixie didn't really know what-all a Wise Woman was, but her Gramma had been one and now she knew she was one too, and The Bear Killer paced along beside her Daddy, and the big white doggie on her left, and then a gust of wind blew another curtain of snow over them and Dixie saw the white doggie blow away like it was made of snow and a twisty of fog hung for a moment and then screwed itself down into the frozen ground, and was gone.

 

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94.  HONEYSUCKLE TOWER

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller had pale eyes, hard eyes, she had eyes like the frozen heart of a mountain glacier.

Sheriff Willamina Keller was not a man and she knew it, and she never tried to appear otherwise.

Sheriff Willamina Keller wore a tailored suit dress and heels, she made sure her appearance was that of a professional administrator, and she treated her people as the professionals they were.

She learned this from her father.

When Willamina was fifteen, the day of her fifteenth birthday, she was laboring up an Ohio hillside with a beater in her gloved grip, surging easily up the steep grade beside her panting father:  he was town marshal, and a volunteer firefighter, and they were trying to get ahead of one of the perennial brush-and-grass fires that plagued the hill country.

Willamina was slender and wiry, she moved easily, but she took pains to pace and not outstrip her father:  partly out of respect, partly because part of her realized that if he fell dead of a heart attack, it would be most undignified to roll him downhill to get him to rescue -- and sliding him downhill, dragged by the shirt collar, would be less than dignified.

Her beater was a rectangle of conveyor belt material on the end of a five foot handle; it was used to smother a slow moving grass fire -- the backpacks were already handed out and in use, her father had a brush rake -- and they were moving uphill and a little to the side, trying to get ahead of one hungry finger that was steadily devouring the dry, yellow fox grass that covered the hillside.

Willamina stopped, surprised, as the fire reached a standing dead elm, covered with many years' worth of honeysuckle: perhaps a decade's worth of vines had grown up the dead tree, grown, matured, died and dried; the next year, a new vine growth, until these standing dead trees were at least three feet in diameter with dead, dried, flammable vines -- and now, now that the fire climbed uphill beside them, now that the hungry fire found something it liked, the fire turned these dead honeysuckle towers into fast, sizzling, hissing towers of flame.

"Wow," she breathed, pale eyes wide and wondering, and then she looked at the honeysuckle tower beside her, near enough to touch, and she spun her swatter end-for-end and advanced on the fire line.

Willamina had joined the fire department two nights before.

They had a Junior Fire Department, which sought to recruit young, vigorous, energetic youth and introduce them to the fire service, hopefully to acquire new recruits when they came of age: in the meanwhile, these new, eager, fresh-faced youth provided a source of free labor, or so went the theory.

Willamina's first response was that night, right after she'd been fitted with turnout gear small enough to work: she'd been handed a Junior Fire Department helmet, made of pressed something and without a visor -- when everyone started hot footing for the engine, she hung the old helmet back on the hook and grabbed one of the standard-issue red helmets with a visor, dunked it on her head, snugged the chin strap and climbed on the tailboard beside her father.

Willamina gripped the chromed handrail with her good right hand, reached up with her left to seize the crossbar with her left -- she could just reach it without stretching -- she felt the Jimmy V6 start up and she heard the wooden overhead door chuckling open, and then the driver eased out on the clutch and started out, smoothly, knowing full well he had living souls on his tailboard.

Willamina looked over at her father and laughed, for Town Marshal Ted Keller was grinning like a schoolboy, and Willamina realized her father loved what he was doing -- that he was happy, and she laughed as well.

The fire itself was unremarkable; Willamina helped drag hose, she fetched fresh bottles for the self-contained air packs, she moved smoothly, quickly, and with her red helmet and the visor down, she was unrecognizable as anything but one of the guys.

The house was unoccupied; it had been long empty, anything of value was long since removed, its only really remarkable feature was the asbestos shingles with which it was covered -- Willamina had heard her father describe fighting fires in such houses, remarking that heat would transfer through the nails, heat the asbestos shingles from beneath, and they would spall out a flying piece of shingle the size of the heated nailhead, and when two of these smacked her helmet's lowered visor, she blessed the moment she listened to her father, and tossed the visorless composite helmet in favor of what she wore.

 

Years later -- after her father's death, after she rescued the folded flag from his coffin from the trash, after she rescued his gunbelt and revolver and badge from the same receptacle, thanks to her drunken sot of a mother -- years later, when Sheriff Willamina Keller shared a morning mug of coffee with the red-headed, broad-shouldered Firelands fire chief and the new Parson, she stepped back as the howler went off, as her dispatcher Sharon's voice echoed from tinny speakers, as men set down the work from their hands and ran for their gear, as overhead doors chuckled open and men swarmed aboard shining red trucks and Diesel engines coughed and rumbled and chromed sirens waited until they were out on the street before screaming like a damned soul --

Sheriff Willamina Keller followed them with her eyes, her mug still cupped in her hands, as the insulated overhead doors chuckled back down their tracks, and set into place, as the firehouse became suddenly a very quiet place, and a woman in a tailored  blue suit dress stood, and remembered, and a tear trickled down her cheek, a tear shed from the girl within who still missed her big strong Papa, a girl who remembered her laughing Papa, on the tailboard of a GMC pumper, doing something he absolutely loved.

"God ride with those who run, and those for whom they run," she whispered, her breath puffing little clouds of steam from her still-hot coffee's surface, then she wiped savagely at the wet on her face with her coat sleeve.

When their Irish Brigade, the affectionate local term for their fire department, returned to station, they found the breakfast dishes done and put away, the table cleared and cleaned, and the coffee pot set up and ready to brew a fresh batch.

She learned that from her father, too.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

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95.  A MAN'S WEALTH

"Gottleib!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Gottleib, punch me a hole in attair coffee can!"

"Yes, sir!"

Gottleib Keller gripped the ancient Smith victory model and frowned just a little as his young finger drew back on the curved trigger, marveling as he did at the clockwork mechanism his imagination planted in the revolver's frame.

There was no flinch either before the revolver fired, nor after.

"Good.  Again."

Gottleib's frown relaxed just a little and his young finger tightened again:  his pale eye was unblinking as he kept the narrow thumbnail front sight centered in the rear notch, and he heard the can clank a fraction of a second after the pistol cracked.

"Again."

Three shots, three hits:  Sheriff Linn Keller nodded, reached, hand open:  his son Gottleib grinned, a delighted, little-boy grin -- he was twelve years old, but when the look of delight was on his face, he looked far younger, or so the Sheriff thought, but then he was an old softy, and he knew fathers and grandfathers often made the mistake of remembering their young the way they used to be, instead of the way they'd become.

"Emil."

"Yes, sir."

"Punch a hole in that can beside it."

"Yes, sir."

Gottleib stepped back, reached up, wiggled his ear plugs ever so slightly, then touched the earpieces of his shooting glasses as his twin brother lined up his great-grandfather's duty pistol and fired.

"Good.  Again."

Emil Keller, his eyes tightening a little at the corners, eased back on the trigger, feeling the mechanism sliding smoothly under his control; he lost concentration at the last of the pull, hit the generously sized target at its right margin.

"Hit. Again."

Emil knew when his father said "Hit," it was a marginal strike, and he intended to make the Grand Old Man proud of him: this time his concentration was on the front sight, and this time the flat nosed wad cutter punched the can dead in the very center.

"Good. Unload and make safe."

Emil pushed the release, swung the cylinder open, gripping it with thumb and middle finger, rolled the muzzle up and smacked the ejector rod briskly: he turned it muzzle down, showed the open cylinder to his father, who nodded, then handed the revolver to the pale eyed Sheriff.

"Gather brass," Linn said, unnecessarily:  both boys were squatted, snatching at the shining brass hulls, dumping them into the purple felt bag harvested from a box of such bags bought at a yard sale, and used for pickup brass.

"Fetch in the cans."

The boys dropped the purple cloth sack on the range bench, ran for the cans -- they were but twenty feet distant -- the Sheriff knew the value of immediate gratification when involving boys, he knew they were safe and consistent shooters, but he also knew that structure, consistent structure, was a comfort.

He picked up the gunbelt as the two came hustling back.

The Sheriff took one can, held it up against the sky, turned it a little:  he handed it back, took the other can held it up in like manner, then deadpanned, "They're dead, Jim," which the twins found amusing (they'd only just discovered the delights of old reruns of Star Trek, and had taken to solemn imitations of the curmudgeonly ship's surgeon whenever possible)

Linn handed the gunbelt to Emil.

"Belt on."

Emil grinned happily, slung the gunbelt around his lean waist:  Linn had the belt made for them, with the understanding that when they, and his girls, eventually outgrew the belt, it would be handed down to their progeny when the time came: once it was in place, and the Jordan holster positioned, Linn reloaded the revolver, closed the cylinder, handed it to his son.

"Holster,  a loaded weapon," he said, and again it was a rote phrase, part of the structure.

Emil holstered, fast down the strap, snapping it in place.

"Come with me."

The three trooped a little ways to the side, until they were in front of a rack of plates.

"Square off."

Emil squared off to the rack.

"Shooters, On the Line," Linn called, as if to an entire qualifying group:  "At the whistle, you will fire six rounds, one per plate, no time limit. Does the shooter understand the course of fire?"

Twelve year old Emil Keller felt his blood cool a few degrees.

He'd only heard his father use THAT TONE OF VOICE for genuine, honest-to-God qualification shoots:  his hands tingled a little, and he took a long breath, then nodded.

Linn held the timer close to his ear, pressed the button:  "Stand by."

BEEEEEEP.

Emil reached down, his mind running like lightning skating on greasy ice:  Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, wipe the strap up and it will unsnap and wipe out of the way, grip the handle and finger straight and bring the pistol up and see the front sight --

He was surprised that the pistol was rising in his grip and he felt his belly tighten and his blood sang in his ears and the pistol fired and the front sight swung to the right and it fired again and part of his mind wondered Who the hell is shooting my revolver? and it fired a third time and the first plate fell back and the front sight swung and his finger tightended and the gun cracked and he counted five and six and he drew the revolving pistol back to his chest and knocked out the empties, his hand going to the speed loader that should have been at his appendix and his hand closed on empty air and the last plate fell with a muted CLANK and the Sheriff looked at the timer and raised an eyebrow, but said not a word.

"Holster, an empty weapon," Linn called, the same cadence he'd called when Emil and Gottleib accompanied their father to Sheriff's office qualification shoots, and he closed the cylinder, carefully, like he was closing up an old friend, and then holstered -- his move was smooth, natural, the result of much practice under a father's watchful eye, and Linn felt the corners of his eyes tighten with approval as his son made fast the strap before unbuckling the gunbelt.

Gottleib accepted the gunbelt and followed his brother in the course of fire:  he, too, drew smoothly and presented confidently, he too fired six rounds, double action, and he too knocked down six plates.

Like his brother, his time was noted: like his brother, he saw a shallow nod of approval.

Gottleim and Emil piled in their father's Jeep, the range policed up, brass harvested, the range in better shape than when they arrived:  Linn knew they were watched, and he'd planned it that way:  when he was a green lawman back East, he'd let it be known when he would be using the local range, and he knew locals would watch from hiding, or openly:  he'd let himself be seen as being both fast, and very good, with a pistol, and as a result, very few people challenged him as a lawman -- strangers, mostly.

Linn knew that his sons were seen as the heirs to the Sheriff's star, and he knew they were seen as fast and accurate with a pistol, and he knew that word travels, and he knew that his practice session with his sons would lessen the likelihood of a local trespassing onto their property, or breaking into their home or outbuildings.

Linn also knew the value of spending time with his sons.

When his own father died, he'd spoken at the funeral:  "It's possible that when I die, I won't have two nickles to rub together," he'd said, "and that's fine, because I will still be the richest sod to fill a pair of boots."  He'd looked around, swallowed hard, and continued.

"My father spent time with me.  

"Money can be stolen, gold can be snatched or lost, but time spent with your young is time truly invested.  

"My father spent time with me.  He gave me memories -- good memories! -- memories no dollar can ever buy, and those memories make me the wealthiest man in this county."

He looked at the long box and looked back.

"His memories make me wealthy indeed, and his loss makes me the poorest begger ever to plead for alms."

He blinked, returned to the here-and-now, turned the ignition switch.

"Fellas," he said, "I have an appetite for a chocolate sundae.  How about you two?"

The twins did not hesitate, nor did they even blink: theirs was an immediate, chorused, "Yes, sir!"

"We'll warsh our dirty cotton pickers first," Linn said solemnly, closing one eye, and then the three of them laughed, for this, too, was a joke they shared.

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